I was all set to write about Kaiser Marshall as yet another ubiquitous presence on jazz recordings from the twenties, one more well-respected musician now left with surprisingly little discussion of his style amidst biographical and discographical minutia. Fletcher Henderson’s drummer, someone occupying such an important historical and musical role, consigned to the annals rather than lauded in the academy and on the web, etc.
It was a fine soapbox but it grew shorter the more I researched Marshall.
Marshall did start his career with Henderson during the dark ages of recorded percussion. Acoustically recorded drummers made due with what audio engineers allowed into the studio and don’t always have the literal recorded presence to generate the same amount of discourse as later, better-recorded percussion. Yet musicologist Jeffrey Magee references Marshall’s spare cymbal hits at length in his book The Uncrowned King Of Swing, not as creative compromises but concise, rhythmic and often witty accents crucial to the arrangement. He singles out “Jiminy Gee” and “Jealous” as two important early examples of Marshall’s contribution to the band:
Decades of scratching my head while reading standard jazz histories, many of which throw a lot of music from history out to forge music history, make books like Magee’s a blessing. It’s not just a case of a credentialed authority validating my own taste (nice as that is), but learning what makes the music distinct from a musical as well as a historical perspective. Whenever a critic, a historian, a scholar or another commentator dismisses a performance out-of-hand, they’re not only leaving something or someone out of the conversation, they’re foreclosing education. How much more is out there for our ears and minds?
Nicholas D. Ball wrote an incredibly detailed musical biography of Marshall in the “Heroes” section of his blog. Ball hears shades of rhythm and timbre that belie the supposedly monochromatic surfaces of 78s. Among several other choice cuts by Marshall with Henderson, Ball highlights “Dicty Blues” from the band’s acoustically recorded days:
He also points out the electrically recorded, ultra modernistic and tortuously orchestrated “Whiteman Stomp”:
“Whiteman Stomp” is usually written off as an over-arranged, pretentious noble failure, so it is vindicating to hear a smart, passionate musician mention it (even in passing) as a serious musical example.
Anyone in front of this lit screen is hereby gently harangued to check out Ball’s post (as well as the dozen or so others devoted to Ball’s other idols). The same goes for Magee’s book, which treats all of the Henderson band’s music and musicians as sincere creative experiences, rather than cherry-picking the recordings that led to the music now canonized as “Jazz” with that capitalized first initial.
Correcting the record, or at least giving it the benefit of the doubt, opens up a lot of new-to-you music as well as hitherto unexplored aspects of the canon. Jazz blogger Michael Steinman takes an example of Marshall playing a bit too loud on “Knockin’ A Jug” as an opportunity to appreciate the drummer behind a full kit:
Steinman singles out Marshall’s sense of time, the variety of his percussive timbres behind different soloists and, above all, the sheer lift and joy of his “simple yet very intense” approach. The reader should check out this post for its appreciation of this performance, well-known to jazz listeners but worth re-appreciating from behind Steinman’s lens. Ditto for his blog‘s loving tribute to hot jazz on record and live from the twenty-first century.
In that same post, and maybe most tellingly, jazz drummer Hal Smith leaves a comment with nothing but praise for Marshall. Mr. Smith, like Mr. Ball, is out there making this music happen, taking Marshall and many other musicians that academia and book publishers don’t have time for quite seriously. It is literally just about the music for its practitioners.
I’ll end this gratefully failed cry of outrage with two of my favorite Marshall sides. First, “St.Louis Shuffle”:
Marshall is a real ensemble drummer who doesn’t draw attention to himself but invites appreciation. His cymbals sound beautiful and pop at just right the moments between and behind the band. His hits are the pinstripes on a designer suit.
Quite literally, lastly there is “Kaiser’s Last Break,” eponymously named by Sidney Bechet after Marshall’s untimely passing:
As if the band knew that opportunities to savor Marshall’s playing were now at a premium, Marshall gets two four-bar solos, syncopated gunshots that proudly march as well as swing, perhaps a callback to Marshall’s formative years.
Thank goodness for Ball, Magee, Steinman and Smith, and so much for my soapbox. Kaiser Marshall sounds better up there anyway.