The Avant-Garde Benson Orchestra

WNAJ - Edgar Benson OrchestraNine decades and a few stylistic light-years after it was recorded, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s “Wolverine Blues” may sound like (to paraphrase one online commenter) a lesson in how not to play Jelly Roll Morton’s composition:

The Benson Orchestra seems to lack the “plenty rhythm” that the composer deemed crucial for jazz. Instead, it has its own firm, broadly stepping two-beat rhythm, with clipped syncopations and a bright, violin-infused sound that looks back to ragtime (but not as far back then as now). The Benson Orchestra rags a bit, promenades more and to some ears might also do some marching. They don’t do much stomping, and definitely do not swing.

This seventh-ever recording of “Wolverine Blues” from September of 1923 is far removed from the medium to fast tempo jams that the Morton standard now typically inspires from early jazz ensembles. Yet it’s also very different from the looser, at times downright raucous inaugural recordings that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Albert E. Short’s Tivoli Syncopators gave “Wolverine Blues” back in March of the same year. The composer himself offered a swinging solo piano rendition in July. Gene Rodemich’s dance band sounds comparatively unhinged back in June, and Frank Westphal’s orchestra played a similar arrangement with a slightly agitated rhythm section and busy solos in late March.  (I still can’t find an online version of Harry Raderman’s May recording, but any help would be greatly appreciated!)

The Benson Orchestra is less visceral and more vertical than any of its recorded predecessors. Pianist/leader Don Bestor’s piano filigree and the trumpeter’s blue note counterpoint during the final chorus do have their own antique charm, but the Benson recording just doesn’t have the same energy and variety of the NORK’s improvised polyphony or Morton’s occasionally Latinized piano. Other musicians were obviously giving “Wolverine Blues” their own distinct treatment before the Benson’s record, treatments that jell much better with contemporary expectations of the tune. The Benson Orchestra’s approach is less a historical template than an example of one band’s style.

It is tempting to dismiss the Benson style as stiff and outdated (and to some, stereotypically “white,” even if both African American and European American musicians were already playing the tune in equally distinct, differently bombastic ways). Yet it is a style, one unlike any other on record at that time, or since: no modern band would ever think to play Morton’s warhorse like the Benson Orchestra does, except in outright imitation or parody.

The sound of the Benson Orchestra on “Wolverine Blues” remains so refreshingly archaic, so far removed from even a vestigial hint at what is “current” that it’s both very personal and oddly subversive.  In its contemporary context, the Benson Orchestra’s outdatedness might even seem ballsy. It may not suit everyone, but it’ll never be wrong. Assuming that Morton and his jazz brethren’s ultimate mission was to encourage individuality in music, then the Benson Orchestra fulfills that legacy in spirit, if not style or (far more slippery) taste.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

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6 thoughts on “The Avant-Garde Benson Orchestra

  1. If it all weren’t so straight-laced, it might be camp. A kind of straight camp, with extra irony in place of the drama and some more irony in place of the gender bending. Sort of the polar opposite of that satirical Guy Fieri burger stuffed with cinnabons, and then more cinnabons, translated into music.

    I really need to stop drinking before 5 pm.

  2. Hal Smith says:

    I heard a private recording of Jess Stacy playing a solo version of “Wolverine Blues” in the 1950s. He played it at a slow tempo, with a bluesy feeling. I always wondered if that was how he remembered Bix and the Wolverines performing the song. Or maybe that was the kind of tempo that Tesch favored???

    • Very interesting, Hal. I am trying to imagine what that sounds like and already enjoying it!

      As you can tell, I’m fascinated by different interpretations of well-known material. My favorite alternate approach might be Buster Bailey’s slow tempo and multi-phased, concerto-like take on “Memphis Blues” from his album ALL ABOUT MEMPHIS.

  3. 45spin says:

    Great song with a jazzy flair that is kind of unique for the times.

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