The Capitol Palace in Harlem was a late-night, after-hours club that is now (in a delicious bit of municipal irony) the site of a playground. At least some of the music of its house band lives on through records.
Bandleading brothers Lloyd and Cecil Scott started out in their hometown of Springfield, Ohio, competing with the nascent McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and eventually making their way from the Buckeye State to the then-jazz capitol of the world. The band developed a significant fan base there by subbing for some of the best-known groups in the city. Those jobs were early enough in the evening for the band to make its regular gig at the Capitol.
Sides from the group’s first record session capture a late-night air of experimentation and inebriation that must have made the Capitol a very interesting place to play. “Symphonic Scronch,” for example, sounds like something Salvador Dali might have composed had he skipped art school and opted for a career in hot dance music:
Trumpeter and historian Randy Sandke points to the clarinets voiced in creaky major seconds in the introduction, as well as the sudden interpolation of 5/4 meter (in 1927!) during the succeeding chorus for banjo, piano and drums. Sandke also admits he can only “approximately transcribe” that passage, yet the whole chorus is barely even hummable. It just bumps along, refusing to tell a little story, before the brass transition into a sax chorus that feels like it’s going to topple or explode at any moment. Kenneth Roane’s muted trumpet sounds similarly disembodied. Sometimes he floats on the clockwork backbeat, other times he sardonically leans into his phrases. Dicky Wells, appearing on his first record session, reprises Charlie Green’s ominous vamp from “The Gouge of Armour Avenue.”
“Symphonic Scronch” might be a reference to the Scott brothers’ earliest band, the Symphonic Syncopators. Phil Schaap explains that a “scronch” is a type of dance step. Yet the title as well as all of those dissonances and jagged rhythms also suggest some uncanny mutation of Paul Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz.” Whatever the meaning, it’s fun to imagine perplexed Harlemites making sense of this arrangement on the dance floor.
“Harlem Shuffle” (with an arrangement by Roane) smoothens the rhythm yet includes quirky touches like the fluttering, slightly off-kilter brass introduction and some unexpected double-time tantrums:
Hubert Mann’s banjo and Lloyd Scott’s drums are a huge part of the band’s sound. Lloyd’s press rolls accent Don Frye’s piano solo, and Mann is both rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as well as a textural foil underneath Cecil Scott’s massive baritone sax. He’s also a reminder not just of the banjo’s ability to slice through a group without amplification, but of the unique flavor that the instrument can bring to an ensemble (when the audience isn’t distracted by straw hats or hokey music, that is). Cecil’s sound is refreshingly archaic: metallic, angular and visceral, like Pharoah Sanders thrown backwards in time. The baritone sax faded as a solo instrument during the swing era, only to come back much faster, lighter and higher during the bop era. Cecil’s baritone comes from an earlier approach to the instrument, one that stressed a thick, dark tone and percussive attack (also listen to Jack Washington in Bennie Moten’s band or Coleman Hawkins’ flirtation with bass sax in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra).
Chameleon-like, on “Happy Hour” Cecil contributes both his gutty baritone and his piercing clarinet. On the smaller horn, he winds out the band’s first chorus like a man who gets this chart’s title all too well:
The arrangement revolves around a repeating two bar vamp for the rhythm section, an eight bar blowing section and a four-bar, seven-chord descending theme. Don Frye’s arrangement mines a lot of variety from its three sections and ten players:
First, the vamp and theme mirror themselves around Scott’s clarinet, then the theme alternates with ensemble sections and solos. The offbeat accents during the brass chorus followed by the stop-time feel for Wells’ solo make for a clever touch of orchestral déjà vu.
The four-bar theme in turn captures that magic moment in the evening when it’s too late to catch the train, there’s no more liquor left to be poured and the last girl on the dance floor isn’t asking but telling people to dance. It’s a musical depiction of a scene that the Scott brothers had probably witnessed far too often on the job. The record closes with saxes chanting over the vamp. Two drum hits in Charleston rhythm cut things off but it feels as though the band could go on vamping into other, still stranger episodes.
This first session and these three charts (two with alternate takes) were the only recordings made under Lloyd’s name before he moved from drumming to managing the band. The band would continue as Cecil Scott and His Bright Boys, recording sporadically but continuing to play throughout New York and counting Wells, Frankie Newton (who can be heard on this session), Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges and other legends-to-be in its ranks. Yet aside from historical dates and famous alumni, this session yielded some of the most original, atmospheric music of its time or any other. Just another night at 575 Lenox Avenue.