The Elmer Chambers Foundation

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t list any antonyms for “founder.” Merriam-Webster lists the closest terms as“disciple, follower, supporter” or even “student.” The opposite of an “originator” is, apparently, a “copycat” or “mimic.” There is no exact word for someone who takes over for the “inaugurator” of a role or institution.

So, what do we call Louis Armstrong? He didn’t just have a “predecessor” in Fletcher Henderson’s band, but effectively replaced one of the founding members of one of the most important bands in jazz history. Elmer Chambers wasn’t the first trumpeter to work for Fletcher Henderson, but he was the first trumpeter in Henderson’s band proper. Chambers was on Fletcher Henderson’s first recordings under Henderson’s name with a recognizable Henderson sound, a band that became incredibly popular before Armstrong’s arrival.

HendersonOrchestra per Old Time Blues website

Photo courtesy of oldtimeblues.net

The otherwise beneficent Armstrong berated Chambers’s “nanny-goat sound and ragtime beat” but Henderson knew how to spot talent. Chambers seemed above all to be a lead player, able to confidently read down first trumpet charts, and by virtue of that role, shape the sound of the band. Chambers’s focused, somewhat piercing tone and pinpoint phrasing was likely exactly what was needed to cut through ballrooms and shellac, reading the chart as-is to provide audiences a clean melody and firm beat, and give the band a foundation for its own flights, for example on “Just Hot”:

Chambers’s also gets a solo that is far from the bleating, stiff affair alluded to by Armstrong. On “Ride, Jockey, Ride” with Trixie Smith, Chambers cuts loose, syncopating the lead, inserting some growls and then riffing behind the singer:

The choice of Chambers in a loose small group setting, alongside bona fide jazz players such as Buster Bailey, indicates that his peers likely didn’t see him entirely as a straight player or old-hat. Keeping players such as Chambers in the footnotes of jazz history leads to a sort of perennial history of the avant-garde, a narrative that skips from innovator to innovator while leaving a lot of music out of music history. It’s hard to imagine even modern trumpeters being ashamed of turning out a performance like this one.

“I Don’t Know And I Don’t Care” opens with Chambers on lead with muted obbligato by Howard Scott, now mostly known (if at all) as the poor soul holding the trumpet soloist chair with Henderson immediately before Armstrong’s arrival. Neither player sounds stiff, uncertain or ineffective, demonstrating that “hot” could be a matter of degrees rather than extremes:

Both men were particularly influenced by New York compatriots Johnny Dunn and Tom Morris, incorporating incisive double-time runs and sly wah-wah vocalisms. They seem less extroverted in their playing, easily mistaken for a lack of confidence or swing but perhaps just deliberate restraint meant to fit into the larger big band picture. The placement of notes is crisp, eighth-notes are even (but decidedly not stiff) and tone quality is clear, if not brilliant.

Armstrong’s phrasing and tone would outmode all of these approaches, and his sheer technical prowess as a single improviser would even make these types of semi-improvised duets obsolete. Chambers and Scott became relics, even though neither man could have been that much older than Armstrong.

Armstrong didn’t literally replace Chambers or Scott, but he secured their place in the annals as part of the “pre-Armstrong” Henderson band. The post-Armstrong band became the one referenced in textbooks and lectures. In another one of those fascinating ironies of history, the successor became the legend while the founder marched off into obscurity. Yet Chambers remains the original trumpeter for Fletcher Henderson. It was an important, ultimately thankless job, but he did it quite well, in his own way, and as more than a mere historical curiosity.

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2 thoughts on “The Elmer Chambers Foundation

  1. jsl25 says:

    Brilliant article always! I would like to mention that in addition to Johnny Dunn & Thomas Morris, Chambers & Howard Scott were indirectly influenced by white trumpeters Earl Oliver & Jules Levy Jr. in some aspects, at least in my own opinion.
    One recording I can use as an example of what I think is Fletcher Henderson’s (Club Alabam) Orchestra’s recording of “Mobile Blues” (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uFzFyW66G4o), on which Howard Scott’s wah-wah muted trumpet solo after the intro shows some characteristics of Jules Levy Jr.’s playing (compare it with Levy Jr.’s hot trumpet solos on “Not Yet, Suzette” by alto saxophonist Nathan Glantz’s Orchestra as the Merry Sparklers for Edison (2 takes avalaible: https://youtu.be/OrLQ2Vswrko & https://youtu.be/xCIvYBsB188) & Joseph Samuels’s Synco Jazz Band recordings of “House Of David Blues” & “Black Sheep Blues” for Pathé Actuelle (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C-WrhJVupQ), to mention a few sides that he did before he died of pleurisy June 18 of 1924 (information taken from Johnson & Shirley’s American Dance Bands On Record & Film now included on Discogs: https://www.discogs.com/artist/3045888-Jules-Levy-Jr)). After the band’s verse, Chambers’s straight muted trumpet takes the 2nd chorus with a superb hot solo that starts with an small dose of flutter tongue a la Earl Oliver, though Oliver uses the flutter tongue effect more frequently than Chambers (check out for example Earl Oliver’s red hot growling trumpet solo with straight mute towards the end of Arthur Lange’s recording of “A Girl Is Like Sunshine” for Cameo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvPkm7EgobU) and his 2 hot solos on Ben Selvin’s recording of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” for Vocalion (one with wah-wah mute & the other with straight mute, the latter towards the end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoixrjJGFe4), to mention a few of the thousands of sides that Oliver did with many bands).
    Of course, Chambers & Scott were had their own voice, to which Armstrong would add when he joined Henderson’s band on late September of 1924.

    • AJS says:

      Hello! It’s nice to hear from you. Thanks for reading the blog. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks especially for sharing those interesting musical connections (which are ear-opening for me)! I know Earl Oliver’s style somewhat but admit that Levy’s style is a bit subtle for my ears to readily detect on record, but this is all very helpful.

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