May We Never Know.

May We Never Know.

Decades of historical and discographical research have spoiled fans of classic jazz. It’s easy to find out who played third saxophone for Duke Ellington at any given time, or the true identity of “Blind Willie Dunn.” With a few exceptions, the details have been researched, debated and revealed by someone somewhere and piped into our shared electronic synapses.

Hot jazz lovers can now skip their heroes’ commercial recordings and head straight to the improvised solos. Wild moments from even tame acts like Ray Noble and Guy Lombardo have been cherry-picked and cataloged. Whole discs of jazz and jazz-oriented works from the prewar era are available, with complete personnel listings and informative liner notes but none of the waltzes and novelty numbers.

There’s also no longer any need to stop at just a song title, band name and company logo on a wax disc. There’s so much more “out there” on the web. Look hard enough and one can find out why Sonny Dunham sounds so defiant on the 1939 Metronome All Star Band session or Pee Wee Russell’s favorite cocktail. Harder to find is the imprint of eager fingerprints: the records are collectors’ items and it’s hard to hold an MP3 without “chemical assistance.” CDs are incredible vessels, often featuring crystalline sound and loads of information, but they’ve also helped eliminate the mystery and excitement of inconvenience.

So, when a good friend recently gifted me a turntable and a stack of 78s, I decided to skip Lord’s discography (another miracle of modern times) and head straight to the sound of the Broadway Bellhops’ “Barcelona.”

I knew that the Bellhops were a subgroup of Sam Lanin’s popular dance band, which featured talented jazz musicians but didn’t always play jazz. Their records ran the gamut from Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti making sweet, swinging hash out of “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” to the mechanical beat and merman vocals of “Collette.

So “Barcelona” wasn’t as exciting for who might be on it as what might be on it. Maybe some tasty Red Nichols lead trumpet or a hot eight-bar bridge from Miff Mole? Perhaps some other instrumentalist, new to me and neglected by historians? It could be a hot dance number, low on improvisation but with plenty of rhythm, or even a wide-open chart with plenty of room for solos, capped by a high-flying, collectively improvised ensemble!

Wrong on all counts: instead, just “the Broadway Bellhops,” whoever they might be:
 There was really no way to tell who comprised the group of musicians traipsing through the peppy faux-Spanish theme with lockstep stock arrangement efficiency, or if there were any “real jazz musicians” who might have been rolling their eyes as they stated and restated the melody. The only certainty was me, on the edge of my seat, waiting for something besides the sound of guys earning a paycheck. No liner notes advising “no jazz content” or a telling omission from Rust: just me, finding it all out on my own, and in 2013!

The tuba player’s beat, a flip cornet and the clarinet obbligato on the reverse side, “Someone Is Losin’ Susan,” were just as amazing to find (if much more enjoyable to hear):

As I suspected, none other than Joe Tarto on tuba and Nichols’ cornet. As for the clarinet, Lord’s says it’s either Dick Johnson, Lucien Smith or Chuck Muller, three reedmen who are all new to me. It’s good to be right, great to hear jazz and remarkable to explore something unknown these days.photo (3)

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2 thoughts on “78s

  1. John says:

    I used to collect 78’s but gave it up years ago as being a bit unpractical from a storage point of view. Anyway, another thing about 78’s is that I had no idea as to whether these songs were popular, did the average person know all these songs or were they obscurities? If you aren’t living when a given pop song is current I think you lose a certain context. Anyway, years later, say, hearing Sonny Rollins playing “Poor Butterfly” it was a surprise and I could say, hey, I KNOW that song!

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      That’s an interesting perspective for me, John, because I went in the reverse direction: from CDs to LPs and recently to 78s, with a stopover to MP3s along the way!

      As odd as it sounds, sometimes I like an absence of context in my listening experience. For example, not knowing whether a song is/was popular takes away any value judgments attached to popular music. I remember my shock and disappointment when as a teenager, I encountered the first books that panned some of the music I enjoyed the most! Listening “in the dark” is sometimes very rewarding (but I am glad the knowledge is there waiting for me when I want to turn the lights back on).

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