The following began when a friend joked about jotting down my favorite obscure players. Before I knew it, unsung section men, underappreciated doublers, under-recorded causes that I wish I could hear more of and people I wish had recorded together came to mind, and the list of players turned into a list of bands.
The particular sizes of these bands always seemed to me like the most flexible, transparent ones for arranged jazz. More of a large combination than a big band in the current sense of the term, sections are small enough to form their own miniature ensembles, or chamber groups, that allow each player’s voice to blend, contrast or color the whole even in the tightest blend. Jazz has always focused on individuality of tone, and a band of eight to ten musicians allows massed effects while never burying anyone’s timbre.
Why are there no banjoists or guitarists? I’m not good at picking them. This is an entirely personal, probably ignorant list, so take it with a grain of salt, ideally enjoy it and let me know if you’ve got your own dream band. Here goes…
trumpet 1: Phil Napoleon
trumpet 2: Tom Morris
trombone: Charlie Irvis
clarinet, soprano saxophone and alto sax: Buster Bailey
tenor and c-melody saxophones: Jack Pettis
piano: Arthur Schutt
tuba and string bass: Joe Tarto
drums: Chauncey Morehouse
Phil Napoleon’s clean, well-balanced sound and crisp placement of notes made him (as another friend put it) born to play on acoustic records. The thought of contemporary Tom Morris’s wa-wa mute commenting under and around Napoleon’s open lead or the two New Yorkers coming up with their own take on the Creole Jazz Band’s two-horn breaks is a perfect example of a collaboration that time and social politics now leave to the imagination. Buster Bailey and Jack Pettis are simply two of my favorite reed players, both intense in solos, stirring in collectively improvised ensembles and more than capable on written parts. The double-sax format in this band (heard on records by the early Fletcher Henderson band, Clarence Williams’s combos and more recently by the Fat Babies) was a great sound that unfortunately faded as bands got bigger.
Charlie Irvis is another straightforward, big-toned, pre-Teagarden and non-Mole trombonist from the acoustic era with a knack for adding slurs, fills and bass to ensembles. The rhythm section swung the Georgians hard through acoustically recorded surfaces, with Chauncey Morehouse especially gifted at using a variety of engineer-approved auxillary percussion to punctuate ensembles. This band would sound amazing on a Gennett 78 from around 1923.
trumpets: Bill Moore and Bobby Stark
trombone: Charlie Green
lead alto sax: Joe Poston
clarinet, alto 2 and baritone sax: Don Murray
tenor sax and clarinet: Woody Walder
piano: Frank Signorelli
string bass: Steve Brown
drums: Kaiser Marshall
This rhythm section of not-quite “unknown” nor “famous” players would have been a meeting of New Orleans (Brown) and New York (Signorelli and Marshall), as well as different idioms within those geo-musical associations. History’s loss again, since it’s easy and exciting to imagine Brown’s bass slaps and Marshall’s cymbal crashes kicking behind the ensemble. Signorelli may or may not have broke any historical ground but he laid plenty of musical foundation in some of the best jazz groups on record. He’d even get to solo here.
It’s just fun to think of lithe-toned, chattering Bill “The Hot Hawaiian” Moore trading fours with Bobby Stark, who plays with the fire and speed of a Jazz Age Roy Eldridge (and, in my humble opinion, a more vocal quality than fleet-fingered Jabbo Smith). Add in Charlie Green’s trombone bottoming out the brass parts and contributing gutty fills around the ensemble and you have a real exercise in contrasts. The same goes for Don Murray’s technical wizardry on clarinet and light-toned baritone paired with Woody Walder’s Southwestern, blues-soaked style on both clarinet and tenor sax; imagine the duets these two might play! Joe Poston’s bright, flexible alto would be an ideal voice to tie this or any other section together.
trumpet 1: Joe Smith
trumpet 2: R.Q. Dickerson
mellophone, clarinet, soprano and alto sax: Goof Moyer
lead alto: Gil Rodin
clarinet, alto 2 and baritone sax: Don Murray
tenor sax and clarinet: Prince Robinson
piano: Irving Brodsky
tuba: Cyrus St. Clair
drums: Dillon Ober
Joe Smith’s sweet tone and restrained style distinguished him from his more extroverted contemporaries, making him Fletcher Henderson’s first-call trumpeter. RQ Dickerson was a force of nature, blasting and moaning with the St. Louis-bred Missourians. These two might be the oddest couple on the list.
Its most under-appreciated musician (which is really saying something here) might be Gil Rodin. Rarely if ever getting to solo, Rodin diligently led Ben Pollack’s sax section band during the band’s glory years. His rich yet gauzy alto always seemed like a predecessor to Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead in fellow Pollack alumnus Benny Goodman’s swing big band. Maybe Goodman the sideman already had an idea of what Goodman the bandleader might want in a sax section? Filling out the section, Don Murray is back and Prince Robinson handles third sax. Robinson combined some of Coleman Hawkins’s influence into his own more declaratory, at times brass-like, approach to tenor sax.
The multitalented Ken “Goof Moyer” could not only add a unique color reading trombone parts on his mellophone, but punchy solos on that instrument as well as several others. The rhythm section is another assembly of players who were much more than dutiful, often spurring, never distracting and never together. This band would’ve been something to hear, perhaps on a Victor 78 from around 1928, or after hours following a battle of the bands.
trumpet 1: Leonard Davis
trumpet 2: Ed Allen
trombone: George Brunies
lead alto sax, clarinet and violin: Darnell Howard
clarinet, alto 2 and soprano sax: Buster Bailey
tenor sax and flute: Larry Binyon
clarinet, tenor and baritone saxes: Don Murray
piano: Bob Zurke
bass: Artie Shapiro
drums: George Stafford
This reed section alone could be a band in itself. Larry Binyon is another unsung studio player who could play any piece of music on nearly any instrument with some of the best bands on records who no one thought to interview. Darnell Howard’s roots go all the way back to playing violin with WC Handy, through saxophone with King Oliver and Earl Hines to some gritty clarinet quartets with Don Ewell. Bailey and Murray are there not just because they are my top two clarinetists but because of their respective doubling abilities. Bailey played soprano when Clarence Williams couldn’t get Sidney Bechet, but always seemed worth another turn on the instrument. My permutation is rusty, but this setup alone generates 54 combinations of instruments, 192 if you count duos, trios and solos.
Bob Zurke’s wild contrapuntal flurries supported by the sensitive yet swinging Artie Shapiro and woefully under-recorded George Stafford was way more likely at a jam session than a recording studio. It just goes to show how much is left off the record. Ditto for Stafford’s colleague in the Charlie Johnson band Leonard “Ham” Davis, who never got as much airtime as his incisive lead with Eddie’s Hot Shots earned him. Ed Allen received much more attention as a musician on Clarence Williams’s payroll, playing clean leads, driving ensemble ones, passionate blues, vocally-conceived muted solos, Armstrong-tinged licks and just about anything else the imaginative Williams asked for. I love the thought of George Brunies’s big, foggy New Orleans tailgate trombone trading choruses with these two St Louis trumpeters. Sometimes thought is all we’re left with!