Aptly named to the point of near self-parody, ”Variety Stomp” combines dramatic overture, parade march, and dance number into a slick, multi-strained instrumental floorshow. According to Walter C. Allen’s Hendersonia, Variety magazine’s Abel Green claimed that Trent, Henderson, and Green wrote the song as a tribute to the entertainment magazine. If so, it spotlights a darker side of show business. A theatrical minor key first section features a descending line right out of Sousa commission from Darth Vader. That section alternates with a cheerier, more danceable second strain and a dark bridge. Unlike other hot dance tunes in a minor key such as Duke Ellington “Jubilee Stomp” or Fats Waller’s “Zonky,” “Variety Stomp” feels like a prelude for an operetta villain. The story isn’t entirely serious, nor is it wholly light.
Appropriately enough, showman extraordinaire Fess Williams premiered the tune on record, with a medium tempo imparting seediness on top of the ominous tone. Oddly enough for a song’s recording debut, the tune proper is slightly obscured by ample solo space for Williams’s (still shamefully overlooked) band. Otto Mikell’s staccato bass saxophone remains willfully narrow in range, calling out like a timpani from the depths. Williams’s novelty clarinet solo is a comedic monologue in the middle of a burlesque show:
Williams baldly spelling out a major triad in the middle of his routine comes across as hysterically naive, to the point of deadpan. He is now often written off as a joke but was, in fact, a trained musician educated at Tuskegee University, likely in on the joke and playing just as “badly” as he wanted.
One month later, Fletcher Henderson’s band cut the tune at their first session for Victor, and what a debut: the studio’s reverberant acoustic captures the piece in all its frightful glory in three (3!) different takes. Unsurprisingly, Henderson waxed the most virtuosic reading of the tune. Many sources indicate that this is Fats Waller’s arrangement, supposedly his payment for Henderson having settled Waller’s hefty tab at a hamburger stand. Allen quotes Henderson in a 1936 interview indicating that it was, in fact, his own chart. Either way, the level of craftsmanship remains impressive (especially if this was simply what a musician threw down to pay for burgers):
Benny Morton attacks his trombone like a guffawing circus ringmaster. He positively relishes the tailgate effects that must have already seemed old-fashioned at the time, using them for further comic/sinister effect. The contrasting theme features golden-toned
Joe Smith Tommy Ladnier and Buster Bailey playing alto sax like a clarinet (I have to politely disagree with Allen saying Don Redman plays alto). June Cole’s tuba is a monster: its rich, dark color colors and punchy, rounded beat are as strong an argument for brass bass as any. The reeds switching to soprano saxophone (rather than the customary clarinets) or the third take replacing Henderson’s stride piano with a sax soli are a few more subtle but powerful touches.
A transcription of Henderson’s recording by composer Mike Henebry reveals that several parts of this chart are not even syncopated. That may sound the death knell in terms of jazz credentials (and I won’t even bother citing Gunther Schuller’s commentary), but these musicians may not have had the luxury–or wisdom–to be so doctrinaire. Henderson’s well-trained, professionally diversified, and in many cases classically trained players knew how to handle stage music and marches as ably as any hot number. It’s no surprise they dig into this chart with the utter precision of professionals. Henderson’s “Variety Stomp” excels in terms of setting a mood and sheer musicianship. The glory of this piece isn’t whether or not it is jazz, but the fact that this band imbued everything with spontaneity as well as polish.
For some reason, when the Henderson band returned to the tune one month later for Columbia’s Harmony label, things didn’t have the same snap. It’s not the unique sound of the Harmony imprint, which some commentators have described as “boxy,” and writer Mike Messenger more affectionately compared to an “antique patina.” This performance sounds like a slightly modified stock arrangement presenting the song in a slightly ornamented but still recognizable way, just as a song publisher would have preferred. Allen says this is an arrangement by Henderson’s star arranger Don Redman, and that a different “copyrighted orchestration” was by no less than Paul Whiteman’s sophisticated arranger Lennie Hayton. Gunther Schuller guesses that it’s a Mel Stitzel stock. Redman could have been performing minor musical surgery on an existing stock or simply drafting a more conservative chart. Regardless, the record by Henderson’s band DBA “The Dixie Stompers” doesn’t sound as rhythmically tense or dramatic:
Maybe the band was going for a less intense sound in order to avoid competing with their own Victor recording, or just to provide some contrast between the two. Maybe they were just tired. Either way, it only sounds tamer below the very high bar set by the Victor version(s).
Cass Hagen’s recording of the tune may well be that cipher of a stock arrangement:
The Hagen band’s bright sound, metronomic but by no mean inflexible beat (thanks in large part to Ed Brader’s bass) and strong attack give “Variety Stomp” a clean, straightforward drive even without much customization. The tune has a built-in energy that doesn’t require much heavy lifting on the band’s part.
Mario Elki’s band in Berlin also recorded “Variety Stomp” but Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography, Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands on Record and Film 1915-42, and The Online Discographical Project don’t list any others. It’s unclear exactly what the songwriting team had in mind for “Variety Stomp.” The Internet Broadway Database doesn’t list it as part of any shows. Supposedly, Abel Green wrote lyrics but no one on record bothered with them.
“Variety Stomp” might have simply been intended for quick consumption by a dance-hungry public. All three composers were established in the songwriting industry and this could have been just another day at the office. Jo Trent co-composed such hot tracks as “Muddy Water,” “Rhythm King,” “Goose Pimples,” “Georgia Bo-Bo” and “My Kinda’ Love.” Among other standards, Ray Henderson composed “Has Anybody Seen My Girl?” and “Button Up Your Overcoat,” while lyricist Bud Green worked on everything from “Alabamy Bound” to “Sentimental Journey.” Henderson also worked as an accompanist in vaudeville, and Trent had collaborated with Ellington on works that must have made their way into several floorshows. That account for the touch of mustache-twirling villainy on “Variety Stomp”.
Judging by the number of recordings around its first appearance on record, the tune may not have been a runaway hit. It is powerful, but not exactly catchy. The beat may have been a bit too vertical for even the most imaginative dancers. Generations later, contemporary musicians seem to appreciate “Variety Stomp”’s mock-drama and signature rhythm, whether it’s Tuba Skinny adding a wry street-smartness in adapting the tune for a three-person frontline over bass drum-driven rhythm:
The West End Jazz band, in a similar small group configuration, with a leaner tone and letting the steam build more naturally:
Or Les Red Hot Reedwarmers with a blistering array of textures (captured for posterity by the guardian angel of hot jazz, Michael Steinman):
There are few vestigial links to later styles in this tune. There are none of the signs of jazz to come found in other recordings and songs. Jazz became way too hip to absorb anything like marches and light classics. “Variety Stomp” remains a unique composition, a descendant of archaic musical traditions given a dose of late twenties modernism. Unlike anything to come and completely of its time, it seems so much more interesting than “timeless.”
Great article. I love that you brought it all the way up to the present day with the great Tuba Skinny band.
Hey, Roger! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Part of the fun of writing this entry was discovering contemporary renditions like those of Tuba Skinny.
Thank you again for your research, synthesis and perspective regarding the evolution of this wonderful piece.
It illustrates my thesis that while a recording will never change, the score will always change every time it is played.
Thanks, Andrew. I agree with you. It’s why these discussions of tunes are so enjoyable. You can tell a lot about a band by how they handle similar or even the same score.
your close listening & informed commentary is as always highly enlightening. Had a beat copy of the Diva (they all seem to be beat) since I was a kid, and tho I appreciate the others that remains my favorite – the hot Ladnier chorus is probably why
Thanks for the kind words, Rob. You also helped me spot a typo i.e. that it’s a Ladnier trumpet solo, not a Joe Smith solo. Walter C. Allen actually lists Joe Smith, so it was on my mind (or at least fingers) when I wrote this entry. Both were incredible trumpeters who did great work with “Smack.” Thanks for reading and for commenting.
And doesn’t the trombone soloist on the Henderson Victor, especially take 3, sound like Jimmy Harrison? (Walt Allen said “? Morton.”)
Yes, Allen does say that the audible trombone on “Variety Stomp” is Benny Morton. I am inclined to agree with Allen based on his authority and (to my ears) those trombone fills sounding like the ones on “The Stampede,” which most people agree are by Morton. However, you know me, my ears are always open and I’ll always defer to more experienced listeners…