Even if vaudeville was dying or dead when jazz musicians first started to record, their memories of performing with the popular travelling entertainment must have still been fresh. Aside from the spoken banter animating many early jazz sides, the music itself points back to the singers, actors, comedians and other acts these players backed as part of an honest day’s work out on the road.
For me, those connections to the circuit are best heard in the sweeping, pseudo-dramatic minor key sections coloring so many of these sides. Sherwin Dunner describes the “archaic melodramatic strain” that begins the Pickett/Parham Apollo Strutters’ “Mojo Strut” in just such a context. It could just as easily introduce the villain of some boardwalk musical as segue into the Strutters’ thumping:
Vaudeville was neither the Globe or La Scala: its characters and sentiments were broad but rarely deep. Dewey Jackson’s band turns the minor key introduction of “She’s Crying For Me” into just such a “theatrical” experience. When clarinets and a Latin-inspired tuba pick up on the theme later on in the chart, its connection to the lovelorn title or the band’s otherwise upbeat sound becomes even more of a mystery. In the spirit of vaudeville, it does offer plenty of variety:
Fletcher Henderson’s way with “Variety Stomp” says it all, with storming, comically sinister harmonies, the contrasting major key sections and Benny Morton’s circus tent glissandi on top of June Cole’s ominous tuba. It might not be the most cohesive arrangement but it does make for a hell of a show:
Extended improvisations in a brooding minor key occur frequently enough in jazz today, but this type of stage band whimsy and kitchen-sink approach to arrangement belong to a different aesthetic. As for vaudeville, it could be histrionic, relentlessly varied and at times garish. It makes you wonder what these bands could have pulled off had they lived to witness reality television.