Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

Here’s the second and final part of my discussion of Bennie Moten’s pre-1930 sax section…


The range of ensemble colors is directly proportional to the sum of instrumental voices, so that more players equal more instruments and therefore more orchestral possibilities.

At first glance it seems like simple musical mathematics, borne out by jazz history: big bands developed from Jazz Age tentets to the fifteen-piece plus ensembles that are now industry standard. The saxophone section alone started as a three-man operation. Now five players (two altos, two tenors and a baritone) is the norm. The math says that three horns can’t produce the same variety as five, and history paints these changes as a natural and inevitable evolution. Usually the underlying assumption here is that twenties bandleaders were either bad at orchestral arithmetic or good with a bottom line. The idea that musicians just chose the right sidemen and did a lot with what was only later deemed “a little” rarely enters the equation.

For example, Bennie Moten’s sax section does usually stick to the two altos plus tenor arrangement that was standard for most twenties bands. Yet whatever this section may lack in terms of variety as a concerted unit, it more than makes up for in solo permutations. Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington each play with distinct, contrasting styles. Factor in different approaches to different types of musical material as well as instrumental doubling, and you get a surprisingly broad musical palette.

Leonard plays both bright lead alto and bluesily rococo solos with a delightfully nasal edge. He tosses in fills between the ensemble on “When Life Seems So Blue,” while “Oh! Eddie” and “Mary Lee” include tantalizingly short but hot bridges:

Leonard’s soprano sax is a refreshing alternative to Sidney Bechet’s towering presence as well as the brass clarinet approach many of his contemporaries took to the instrument.  On “Boot It,” he plays with a with a joyous hoedown feel, recalling early jazz’s intersection with country and other folk art forms:

Clarinetist Woody Walder is often demonized for his novelty solos on the earliest Moten sides. Walder’s arsenal of whinnies, pops and barnyard onomatopoeia might be an acquired taste (personally I think he was just anticipating the Art Ensemble of Chicago) but his clarinet solos with the late Moten band deserve more attention. He plays some simple but direct blues in a sandy low register on “That Too Do,” with a few inflections thrown in as a type of musical signature:

Walder interpolates more passionate blues on the non-blues form of “New Vine Street Blues” and plays jittery, high-octane clarinet on faster numbers such as “Sweetheart of Yesterday” as well as shouting obbligatos to close numbers such as “Oh! Eddie.”

Doubling tenor, Walder seems hell-bent on sounding just as massive and brawny on the larger instrument as he is fleet and piercing on the smaller one. On “Everyday Blues” and the jerky, tongue-in-cheek “New Goofy Dust Rag”, he smears notes in a sweaty, agitated style. There are traces of Coleman Hawkins, but none of his harmonic sophistication. This is greasy saloon stuff without any hint of the conservatory:

Jack Washington is best known for anchoring Count Basie’s sax section, but as a younger man he played second alto with Moten and got much more solo space on baritone sax. He displays a burnished, gargantuan sound on baritone that’s closer to a bass saxophone, even pumping out effective bass lines for “That Too Do.” Washington’s unique tone is already put to effective use at this early stage, for example creating dark contrast behind the flashy trumpet on “Rit Dit Ray” and playing lead on baritone for a few tunes. This effect can be heard in other bands from the time, but Washington adds his own unique density:

Washington’s solos are all bottom and darkness, subterranean parties in a delightfully archaic vein. He takes slap tonguing to a whole new level, for example on “New Vine Street” but never forgets to swing; take his solo on “Mack’s Rhythm” or the way he dances all over “Mary Lee”:

“Mary Lee” also includes another Leonard bridge as well as Walder’s percussive clarinet and tenor honks.  Given its sheer range of colors, Moten’s sax section could have been its own band, a front line unto itself. It’s not a Gil Evans affair but neither is it just three players, or five instruments, or even eight if you include the fact that everyone doubled clarinet. It is simply incredible that this was just one section of a band. Then again, who’s counting?

direct proportion

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4 thoughts on “Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

  1. Any fool with a little bandstand music theory under their belt could figure out that sax (and brass) sections numbered three because of the notes in a triad. Harmonies like 6ths, dim7’s or b7’s had to be voiced by all six horns, or else in an open trio voicing.

    To conclude that 17 pieces is the Manifest Destiny of the big band is to fall victim to the myths of progress and “bigger is better.” If music scholars had any awareness at all of history outside music, you’d think they could avoid those fallacies. Instead, they’re enshrined, and back to our proper place in the woodshed we go.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Hey Paul, thanks for pointing out the musical/practical reasons for a three-man section. I think it’s safe to say these guys “made it work.” Teleology is an interesting theoretical construct, but it rarely seems to work when it comes to the history of thinking, breathing, living people making choices in the moment. I don’t know what music is “headed to,” but I know where it’s been and what it continues to do.

  2. jazzlives says:

    Here’s Ronald “Jack” Washington out in the open — March 1940, an end-of-session small group of Harry Edison, Jack, Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing — SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL. Jack loses his way (or so it seems) for a milisecond during his solo, but he still has that huge tone and a wondrous lightness . . . maybe hearing Lester night after night added to the airy possibilities. He turns up again on a 1957 BASIE REUNION date on Prestige-Swingville with Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Paul Quinichette, Nat Pierce, Eddie Jones, Freddie and Jo — not too bad!

    And as far as expanding “big” bands — they did get bigger and bigger, with five players in each horn section and a sheaf of strings . . . then they exploded and are no more. Sic transit gloria Jimmy Mundy.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      This is a beauty of recording that I’ve heard before and am always happy to hear again/anew. Thanks for getting it into the mix! Washington’s approach is obviously very different than on the Moten sides. As you pointed out, maybe Lester Young got into his bones.

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