Many thanks to a good friend whose conversation inspired this post!
This blog has covered the musical possibilities of “Doodle Doo Doo” and the power of “Charles-TON,” but the much-maligned “doo wacka doo” seemed like a real challenge. Part rhythmic inflection, part melodic motif, and now mostly period ambiance, this piece of musical onomatopoeia is often viewed either as twenties slang that was out-of-date before the last “doo” or synecdoche for ersatz jazz. “Doo wacka doo” may never be a well of musical invention but there are at least a few examples of it being put to novel–even insightful–use.
It’s hard to pin down a first recorded appearance, and tracing its origins would probably be like finding the first use of a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern. The 1924 tune of the same name and composed by Walter Donaldson might be a good candidate, but “doo wacka doo” first had a wide circulation that then warranted its own song. It was another example of distilling the rapid tension and release as well as the syncopation so essential to jazz into a simple formula. That is not necessarily a slight. Lots of musical ideas become stock licks. Effectiveness and ubiquity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Plenty of early twentieth-century American popular musicians caught the jazz bug and added “doo wacka doo” and several other phrases to their repertoire for a little heat. Earl Oliver’s entire style worked off of a sustained note followed by a “pop.” It wasn’t the most flexible style, but in the musical moment, it’s rhythmic and joyous in its own fashion. Underneath and around the willfully straight baritone sax lead on “Runnin’ Wild” by the Great White Way Orchestra, Oliver is a dervish:
Orchestrated doo wacka doo pops up as early as 1923 on Frank Westphal’s “Wolverine Blues.” Rather than just incorporating it into other phrases, the arrangement features a chorus of pure doo wacka dooing (sic?) and variations, likely a form of instrumental breakdown for dancers to do some of their own improvising:
Westphal’s band is plenty hot but definitely stomps on the downbeats, so the “doo wacka doo” chorus provides a little pull in the other direction. The phrase naturally seems to accent the upbeat: say it aloud and it’s likely to come out as “doo-WACK-a-DOO (rather than “DOO-wack-A-doo”). That may have been another reason for its popularity: it’s instant syncopation, “just add ‘doo wacka doo…”
Too much of anything can be bad, hence a lot of musical cliches, but musicians find a way. Ben Bernie doubles down on the nonsense syllables when he makes “doo wacka doo” into a thematic variation on his recording of the similarly silly title “Doodle-Doo-Doo.” The opening “doo wacka doo” trumpets provide busy counterpoint behind the saxes. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo wacka doo”-inspired solo with busy saxes behind him:
This smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect also shows the humor and invention of these musicians. Trumpeter Frankie Quartell with Isham Jones’s band plays with rhythmic accents in a subtle way on the song “Doo Wacka Doo.” For the first chorus, like any good first trumpet, he plays the lead confidently and straight, leaving any variations for after the theme proper. Quartell’s strong, ultra-precise phrasing on the first chorus sets up a cantus firmus for later instrumentalists:
First, smooth saxes loosen it up, then the pianist chops it up into rolling trills, and Quartell returns on muted trumpet to wah-wah the theme a la his predecessor in the Jones band, Louis Panico. Trombonist Carroll Martin then plays exaggerated wah-wah phrases as harmony under Quartell, before the theme opens wide up with some “dirty” playing by Quartell to end the side.
Frankie Quartell and many of the musicians on these records are considered far from the hottest or most creative players of the time. Yet these sides so show the level of technique, versatility, and knack for subtle variation that makes jazz from this period such an interesting and joyous experience. As popular musicians, they didn’t have the luxury of saying anything was beneath them. In the case of “doo wacka doo,” the music really says much more than the words.