Jack Roth may have ended up with the most thankless job in jazz history.
Lord’s discography lists the drummer on nearly two-hundred record sessions, most of them with either the Original Memphis Five or members of that band. The OM5 left behind a mammoth discography that makes it difficult to cherry-pick Roth’s contributions, and the band is often neglected (or outright disparaged) in most academic jazz histories. Roth was also active on records at a time when technology could be difficult (or downright cruel) when recording percussion. Jack Roth’s drumming simply gets buried in it all.
Still, there he is on “Lonesome Mamma Blues,” immediately turning up the heat when his woodblocks enter the last chorus:
Drummers like Roth play punctuated the ensemble, weaving under as well as into the band. This interactive approach would fall out of favor during the swing era (and in some ways was reincarnated in the post-bop era) but in its heyday created both contrapuntal variety and visceral drive. In this case, Roth adds texture and syncopated accents. Drummers from this era have been accused of “break[ing] up the rhythm instead of laying it down” yet, if anything, Roth gives the band some well-placed shoves. The rhythm is just fine in his hands.
Rather than laying down a beat in the sense of a steady groove, Roth’s ricocheting blocks on “Chicago” keeps the ground pulse but acts as another line in the ensemble:
Roth’s playing and that of Anton Lada, Chauncey Morehouse, Tony Sbarbaro and other jazz drummers from the early twenties has elements of ragtime drumming and its derivation from marches. Variations on drum rudiments and the harder, tapping timbre of woodblocks, cowbells and rims could cut through a whole horn section. Roth’s “rat-a-tat-tat” works with the ensemble but doesn’t necessarily blend into it like the “chin-chank-a-ding” of later cymbal-based styles.
Close listening also reveals Roth achieving different colors by varying his kit, throwing in a tom-tom backbeat on “31st Street Blues” for the Emerson label or looking ahead to the swing era with riff-like backgrounds on the last chorus of “Big Boy” for the Plaza company. It’s no accident that Roth’s contributions are often stored up until the closing moments of the OM5’s three-minute musical smorgasbords. Perhaps the best example of the way the OM5 would deploy Roth’s drums at key points is “Gypsy Blues” on Arto, one of the OM5’s earliest sides.
Letting the percussion loose for the finale is at least as old as Rossini’s bass drum outbursts. Nonetheless, the difference is immediate upon Roth’s entry. Features for actually turn on multiple OM5 sides such as “Papa Blues, That Red Head Gal” and “Runnin’ Wild”:
A drummer getting solos on record during the twenties might perk up historians’ ears but, nearly a century after these records were produced, Roth might sound like he’s just playing a drum beat. Modern listeners are used to hearing drum beats (some of them even taking for granted the skill and feeling needed to play one well).
On its own terms, as music in the moment, the band frames Roth’s swishing cymbals as an event in itself, a pause in the phalanx of horns to highlight one of their own and build up tension before the ride-out. Count Basie knew the power of such simple pauses when his brass and saxes parted ways to let Walter Page’s walking bass get some spotlight. Many rhythm section players take pride in being felt rather than heard, but these brief rhythm section solos are like little peeks under the hood of the car: it’s refreshing to hear the engine purring underneath everything else. Buried underneath history, discography and the vagaries of shellac, it’s still possible to hear Jack Roth tapping, clacking, clicking and booming in true hot percussion style. Who needs a ride cymbal?
As for the man behind the drums, cursory internet research indicates Roth was born in 1898 and passed away in 1980. Between those dates, he played with and became close to Jimmy Durante, continuing to play drums for the singer/comedian and clowning around onstage with Durante long after he stopped drumming for the OM5. Roth even got to star in a motion picture, flexing his dramatic range in the part of a bandleader. It is likely Roth himself jumping up from the drums and yelling (with an accent that makes this writer homesick) behind Durante in this clip:
For more on the OM5, please check out Ralph Wondrasachek’s incredibly well-researched and extraordinarily detailed coverage for Vintage Jazz Mart magazine.