It’s easy to imagine horns instead of voices on Don Redman’s arrangement of “Four Or Five Times” for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers: Claude Jones’s lead transposed to a baritone sax or even his own plunger-muted trombone, George Thomas’s tenor saxophone and Redman’s alto handling their “da-doobies” and “boot ‘n doots,” maybe a Harmon-muted trumpet ejecting banjoist Dave Wilborn’s falsetto notes:
By Prince Robinson’s hulking tenor and clarinet, the chart sounds like its just picking up where the trio left off. The vocals are “parts” in the truest sense of the word. All of Redman’s parts illustrate his gift for improvising on paper, soloing in multi-part harmony with the spontaneity and snap of a live performer. Ditto for parts with words or written origins, supposedly un-christenable as “scat” or “jazz”.
Some listeners may have preferred brass, reed, even string or percussion (!) instruments in place of the vocal ones. Ignoring or mocking singers, not to mention critiquing them because they’re not instrumentalists, has been around since “jazz” was simply known as “music.” Mike Zwerin’s description of one listener in Germany sums this approach up well:
When he became a serious jazz fan in 1938, teenager Otto Jung began to resent the vocals on records he collected. Singers took time away from the real thing…[so he] wrote the Elektrola [sic] company in Berlin asking for a list of strictly instrumental Benny Goodman records.
Even relying on foreign distribution, thousands of miles away from the music’s home, under a political regime that (to put it mildly) complicated jazz consumerism, this young fan was determined to throw out the vocals.
Of course people can select music according to whatever standards they choose. Yet a no-vocals policy would exclude Redman’s unique blend of song, scat, musical comedy and jazz. In its own way, his arrangement is a powerful (if unintentional) act of defiance. Assuming Don Redman knew what he was doing, vocals don’t seem so bad. They might even be “the real thing!”
What a great song, there is something about this era that makes everything sound so real.