Don Murray Goes Commercial

Longtime readers of this blog (both of them) have probably noticed the wealth of fan nonfiction devoted to clarinetist Don Murray. Dead by the age of twenty-sixfour, often overshadowed by his friend and fellow young talent cut tragically short Bix Beiderbecke and with a modestly-sized discography to his name, Murray is both a personal favorite and nowhere near overexposure in the history books.

Murray’s legacy is also complicated by a lot of commercial sessions that probably paid his rent but often didn’t leave room for improvisation. Everyone (or at least the 0.5% of the planet who enjoy hot jazz) knows that it is Murray cascading out of the opening stop chord on “Sorry” under Bix Beiderbecke’s leadership. It takes some patience to find his solo on “What A Wonderful Wedding That Will Be”:

Of course, it’s worth digging if you just like Murray, but his music is worth the effort. The repetition of the first eight bars after the bridge means he was either bored with the tune or simply liked those phrases. Either way, Murray’s clarinet (as well as Red Nichols’s squeezing and pecking on trumpet) adds rhythmic and technical interest to this affair. Murray did not get to stretch out nearly as much on commercial sides but they provide some of his most elusive and rewarding work.

It’s a pity the obbligato saxophone behind the vocal isn’t better recorded; it also gets some things done musically and it might well be Murray. Murray’s tenor on “Marvelous” is much easier to hear and the title might as well refer to Murray:

The rhythmic intensity of this side immediately skyrockets upon his entrance, with Murray’s triplets and hill-and-dale phrases injecting some hot virtuosity into a peppy but otherwise straightforward performance. Murray’s gauzy tone on tenor (heard here as well as on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette) is similar to his light-toned baritone, while he kept a bright, open sound on both clarinet and alto saxophone.

It is likely Murray’s alto saxophone on the first chorus bridge of “Feelin’ Good” and possibly his clarinet on the eight-bar improvised bridge of the last chorus. The opening squeal is uncharacteristic but the tumbling arpeggios are pure Murray:

That alto’s rhythmic phrasing, especially of eighth notes, and tone are similar to the alto on “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky”:

Murray seems to have made a specialty out of these rhythmic paraphrases of non-refrain sections, such as the final bridge on “I’m Ridin’ To Glory” or his gorgeous texture and rhythmic recasting of the verse on baritone for ‘”Tain’t So, Honey, Tain’t So”:

The two records with Joe Venuti’s band are much jazzier charts that still don’t give Murray much spotlight. It’s easy to lament the infrequency or brevity of Murray’s solos (especially after, for example, you might have isolated the 240 or so records that Murray appears on and listened and re-listened to every solo, obbligato, ensemble descant and straight lead he ever waxed). Yet these records also demonstrate a musician working within constraints, responding to and enhancing a musical environment much different from out-and-out jazz settings. “Somebody Lied About Me” barely gives Murray ten seconds of audible space on clarinet and he still manages to make it his own:

“Commercial” is a dirty term in some jazz circles but it simply means the popular music of the time: melodic, danceable, often slickly executed, at times novel, other times trite and above all focused on different musical priorities than other genres, including jazz. So it’s impressive that Murray got away with the impromptu ornaments behind the band and awesome double-time decoration here. Maybe the business-savvy Sam Lanin was also a fan. Whatever the explanation, the sound of Murray’s clarinet piercing through Lanin’s spongy reeds is a very powerful example of musicianship and personality (even if it won’t gain admissions into any jazz anthologies).

“Maybe, Who Knows?” is practically a feature for Murray. He plays clarinet around the ensemble on the first chorus, switches to baritone for a swinging lead on the bridge, answers Ted Lewis’s vocals back on his clarinet and then improvises on the last bridge:

Not just any section man could pull it all off with the same tone, technique, style or those tasteful, spurring ornaments at end of the band’s phrases. I’m still hopeful that someone will unearth recordings of Don Murray playing in a trio a la Jimmy Lytell but, in the meantime, these records do very well on their own terms. There may not be much jazz in them, and some of it may not even be classified as “jazz,” but it is creative, confident and individual music.


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17 thoughts on “Don Murray Goes Commercial

  1. Andrew J. Sammut says:

    A brief note about discographical listings: Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography (Lord) lists Don Murray on all of the above performances, except for the following tunes:

    “Marvelous” is unlisted in Lord but Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands On Record And Film (ADB) lists Murray on clarinet and alto saxophone for this session. Based on aural evidence and the tricky nature of assigning reed doubles recorded close to a century ago, I’m suggesting it is Murray on tenor saxophone.

    On “Feelin’ Good” and “I’m Ridin’ To Glory,” Lord lists Jimmy Dorsey as one possible player per trumpeter Irving Peskin while ADB lists Murray on clarinet and alto saxophone. I’m inclined to say that the clarinetist is definitely Murray based on the vibrato and phrasing, and the alto here does remind me of the alto on “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky.”

    Lord indicates the personnel on “Somebody Lied About Me” as including Andy Sannella on clarinet and alto (as well as steel guitar, because Sannella seemed to learn instruments as easily as most people eat peanuts), “probably” Larry Abbott on clarinet and alto along with “probably” Norman Yorke on tenor. ADB lists “similar” personnel on this session as one immediately prior that included Murray on clarinet. I can’t find as many examples of Larry Abbott’s playing and am not as familiar with Sannella. Whoever it is, I’ll insist that these two ensemble outbursts, as well as the murmuring low register obbligato on clarinet, are amazing (which is really the point).

  2. tronepone says:

    I wanted to chime in right away, before (re)listening with your observations in mind.

    Your insights about Murray, as both soloist and working musician, are spot on. At any point in time, he compares favorably to his peers, especially other clarinetists.

    The parallels with Tesch, including an early death, aren’t reflected in their respective treatment in the literature. Perhaps this is because Tesch was the more overt and also was enshrined early on with the rest of the “Austin High Gang.” Murray’s presence on so many more records may also serve to diminish his “hot” credentials. But as you show and tell, each performance and its context must stand on its own.

    Nor are you a lone voice. At a collector gathering early this year, a young, professional musician commented on the superb Lanin band. There’s always more to be heard.

    Thanks yet again, Andrew, for refreshing and enhancing our appreciation of all these musicians.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Thank you for the very kind words! I never thought about the parallels with and (in my opinion) more romanticized coverage of Teschemacher. Lanin’s groups, out of studio bands led by Ben Selvin, Adrian Schubert, Nat Shilkret, Fred Rich and others, are some of my favorites. I enjoy all of them for different reasons but Lanin’s groups always seem to have more of a punch on up-tempo numbers.

  3. andrewhomzy says:

    It’s good to hear your voice again, Mr. Sammut. Murray may have repeated that phrase in “What a Wonderful Wedding” because it was written in the chart. Musicians would often sight-read music in the recording studio and arrangers would write something for the solo passage – usually the melody, but rarely, in those times, just a chord progression.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      It’s good to hear from you and thanks for providing some context on that record. I’m always curious to learn more about how those dance records were made, who wrote the arrangements, why certain musical choices were made, how much was written down versus ad-libbed, etc. Please feel free to share any other information or suggestions on where to read more about the craft of commercial records. Thanks again!

  4. Rob Chalfen says:

    interesting read; I’ve got Rose of Picardy, flip of Lewis’ Limehouse Blues Col. 1789-D, with 8 bars of Murray, if you need it, also audible on a Fred Rich My Ohio Home with Pee Wee in the section

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Wow, I did not know Fred Rich also cut “My Ohio Home,” let alone that Don Murray is on it with him. Thanks. Murray is on that tune with Cass Hagan as well as three (3) different recordings of it with Sam Lanin. I hope he liked the song…

  5. Rob Chalfen says:

    gak, I’m wrong, it was Cass Hagan, sorry! Presume you’re familiar with Lewis’ Hello Montreal, which is a big Murray showcase

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Ha, no worries, Rob. “Hello, Montreal!” is a favorite Murray side, Lewis number, jazz record, musical performance, etc. of mine. Murray has a few pseudo-features with Lewis, which always make me grateful they were recorded and impressed by Lewis’s ear, generosity as a leader and cleverness as a showman. Lewis had to have known that at least a few listeners would assume it was his clarinet tossing off those great solos. I can’t recall which record it is but following a phenomenal Benny Goodman solo Lewis yells, “‘Atta’ boy, Teddy!”

  6. andrewhomzy says:

    Speaking of “Hello, Montreal!”, here’s an arrangement I did for an Art Deco Conference in that very town –
    I should have had the band shout “‘Atta’ boy, Teddy!”

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Thank you for sharing this web page. It’s such a warm, humorous performance, and it’s interesting to hear this tune with all of the lyrics, arranged for a “string band.” It was also informative to hear all of the lyrics; tunes like this one and “Fifty-Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong” were, in their own way, the protest music of the time, with so much humor, poetry and subtlety.

      Good stuff! Thanks for all the comments, everyone, and keep them coming!

  7. Hans Eekhoff says:

    I had a record by the Bar Harbour Society Orchestra which has a Don Murray clarinet solo but I have forgotten which it is and where it went. I therefore perhaps should not have mentioned it but John R.T. Davies had it too and we both had discovered and agreed on Murray.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      I appreciate your mentioning it, and please let us know if you ever find or remember the record. Thank you for writing.

  8. Coscannon says:

    Perfect – except Don Murray died June 2,1929 when he was only 24.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      I had copied the wrong date onto my own files and was calculating based upon that incorrect date, so thank you for looking out and for commenting here!

  9. Malcolm Walton says:

    I have access to Irving Peskin’s 1928 diary. He lists a Cameo session under the leadership of Robison which included Don Murray. The date was 1st June 1928. I have Get out and get under the Moon from, I believe, that date and there is a sraight clarinet lead on the first chorus which could well be Murray.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      This is honestly why I like keeping this blog: to write about music I like as a means for others to share information and let me learn more about that music.

      Thanks for commenting here. I look forward to hearing more about Murray’s work alongside Peskin and others.

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