Davenport, IA paid more than its debt to jazz by birthing one of its earliest and greatest artists, yet Bernie Schultz And His Crescent Orchestra shows there was more to Davenport than Bix Beiderbecke, more to “early jazz” than the geography covered in a jazz history seminar:
It’s hardly news that jazz was popping up all over the country during the twenties (right?) and the internet has cataloged so much of it that I’m unsure anyone will be surprised by this red-hot, thoroughly original music. Still, drummer Johnny Day getting to solo on “Sweet Violets” and “Sweetheart Of Sigma Chi (two sides, in 1927!), building up plenty of horizontal momentum while varying his sounds between drum heads and cymbals is worth at least one more hearing. Ditto for Harry LaRue’s dips into plump, coppery middle and lower registers, and clarinetist/alto saxophonist Eddie Anderson moving all over his horns like he just got a new toy.
Beyond the sheer joy of these sides or the novelty of hearing jazz in a city without urban sprawl, Schultz’s jazz demonstrates a lot of different musical influences at work, not all of which are likely to pop up in a Ken Burns documentary. LaRue’s playing, especially on “Hold Everything,” shows he was probably listening to that other cornetist from Davenport, if not absorbing his sense of construction and phrasing. The glee club vocals (a beautifully ironic foil to the solos), staccato tuba and ukulele-like banjo strums add a touch of “ra-ra, local college and/or sports team” pep with a harder edge. Bandleader and saxophonist Schultz led the band at Saint Ambrose University and wrote a few school songs, begging questions about the relationship between varsity bands and jazz in the Midwest (maybe we’ll get there after finding those pesky Bolden cylinders). The country fiddle and plucking banjo on “Hold Everything” just add to the stew.
The Schultz band likely never made it (or possibly wanted to get to) New York City and its playing is refreshingly distant from New Orleans. The Crescent Orchestra did have a regular radio show with a local station and gigged a two-hundred-mile the territory around Davenport. According to former sideman Wayne Rohlf via Dick Raichelson’s liner notes to the LP A Bag of Sleepers – Volume 3 (Arcadia 2005), the band also traveled as far as Buffalo, NY and Erie, Canada, later reorganizing under Day’s leadership after Schultz’s departure. Rohlf explains that, after at least one abortive attempt at studying medicine in favor of music, Schultz ended up at George Washington University School of Medicine, practicing in Virginia and leaving just seven sides under his name ever issued on record. Saxophonist and historian Paul Lindemeyer notes that his band was actually one of a handful of Iowa-based units to record before World War II.
Based on the ferocious drive and reliance on improvisation heard on its records, the Schultz band must have been a revelation live. It also seemed to have been at least as curious and galvanized by jazz as any big city band. Schultz and his Crescent Orchestra may not have changed jazz history but it was plenty busy experiencing it, crafting the music towards its own ends and leaving something entirely individual in its modest wake.
Postscript: Bixographer Albert Haim looked into Bernie Schultz and his band’s history and shared his findings on his Bixography forum online. What was it like to hear his group alongside the Fate Marble band?