The Incredible (And Incredibly, Untold) Story Of Ben Whitted

Charlie Johnson band pic from Storyville 75

“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:

It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.

He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC, the son of James A. and Tempie Jordan Whitted. According to one of Ben Whitted’s descendants (via ancestry.com), his father was a Baptist minister, so Whitted may have had first exposure to music in the church. Reverend Whitted was also an author and one of the first African-American mail carriers in the city. His mother was the founder of the missionary society at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Ben attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.

A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:

The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:

IMG_3640Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.

The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.

Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.

On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:

He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:

Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.

Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:


Gravier Street Blues

“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:

He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:

With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:

Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):

It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)

Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:

The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:

In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.

By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters Bernice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.

He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:

The sax soli on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is also pretty slick, but the two clarinet spots on “St. Louis Blues” are easier to peg as belonging to Whitted:

The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:

Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses.  It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.

The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.

Charlie Johnson photo per 78recordsDOTwordpressDOTcom 2

Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.

It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:

Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:

Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:

Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).

Storyville magazine 12-01-1989 with photo of Ben Whitted in Danny Logan Orch mid 30s via Frank Driggs

The New York Age February 18, 1939

Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.

The New York Age July 31, 1943

By the time of his last recording session, this time with Noble Sissle’s big band on a 1943 Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast, Whitted had also witnessed drastic changes in the size, repertoire and public face of the big bands:

The New York Age September 5, 1942The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.

It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.

Storyville Index Vehemently Clarifying Whitted's name

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2 thoughts on “The Incredible (And Incredibly, Untold) Story Of Ben Whitted

  1. Hal Smith says:

    Once again, you have written an appropriate and much-needed epitaph for a jazzman who should be much better-known!

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