Passing Time With Paul Gason

Jazz history is often written as a sequence of decades described by each period’s instrumentation, rhythm, and harmonic derring-do. Combined with the human tendency to treat the present as preferable to the past, more recent styles that built and expanded on earlier ones tend to be positioned as the more complex and therefore “advanced” music. Jazz is hardly the only site of such temporal prejudice; just ask nine out of ten classical critics whether Vivaldi or Brahms was the better composer or a record store owner whether Elvis Presley wrote better love songs than The Beatles.

For many of the most passionate listeners in any genre, some sounds are just doomed. At best, stylistically outmoded music earns the label “of historical value,” the aesthetic equivalent of saying a neighborhood is nice because it’s near a train station.

That’s why a recording as Platonically outdated as Pail Gason’s “Steamboat Sal” is something of a miracle. It’s a compendium of pre-Armstrong, para-Ted Lewis techniques and textures. There’s a squawk trumpet that owes more to Earl Oliver than King Oliver, a wah-wah trombone closer to the barnyard than Basin Street, a deliciously reedy sax section, a tenor with neither the brawny finesse of Coleman Hawkins nor fleet introspection of Lester Young, and a proudly nasal soprano sax crying over the ensemble.

The feel is tense nearly to the point of discomforting; things race ahead over a two-beat rhythm that either impressed or scandalized contemporary brass bands. There isn’t a hint of the relaxation that would start to define jazz from less than ten years after this recording. Even at their most driving, Kansas City groups still seem to sail. Gason’s band moves like a kid splashing puddles. They shout with the happiness and pride of the present and none of the future’s judgments.

Paris-based alto saxophonist Gason and his band of French and Belgian musicians toured throughout Europe. They made just thirteen sides over five sessions in October 1924. The only known remaining copy of “Steamboat Sal” was discovered in 1999. That’s quite a discovery for record collectors. As a sonic artifact, the record is like jazz from a parallel universe.

It embeds itself so definitively in a time that it now seems like an overt rejection of jazz’s sleek textures, complex rhythms, and experimental dissonances. The past has become its own avant-garde. Imagine listening to this record as anything other than something that happened before musicians knew better? If the present wasn’t a higher peak and was just another hill, could anyone still call this style “outdated, corny” or other labels still accepted as historical or critical terms?

Paul Gason courtesy of Karl Koenig

Image courtesy of Dr. Karl Koenig’s website basinstreet.com.

For the record, in many cases, the present simply is preferable to the past. Try treating an infection with medieval medicine and you’re bound to be disappointed. Romanticized historical fiction falls apart if you consider it from the perspective of anyone who needed a law passed to ensure they don’t get fired or literally set on fire because of who they are. Yet creative products don’t have the same impact. Preferring Mitch Miller to Beethoven just won’t affect your life or liberty. As for the pursuit of happiness, it depends on which message boards you frequent.

7 thoughts on “Passing Time With Paul Gason

  1. jsl25 says:

    I’d like to point out that Gason’s recording of “Steamboat Sal” is a bit similar to Jan Garber & Milt Davis’s Orchestra recording of the same tune made on October 5 of 1923 in New York (https://archive.org/download/78_steamboat-sal-la-vendedora-del-mar_garber-davis-orchestra-jan-gerber-fisher-raski_gbia0004075a/Steamboat%20Sal%20%28La%20Vendedora%20del%20Mar%29%20-%20Garber-Davis%20Orchestra.mp3).
    Gason must have also done a superb contribution to the Austrian Jazz history, for his band also featured futured bandleader Lud Gluskin on drums (present of course on Gason’s recordings of “Steamboat Sal”, “Down Home Blues” & “My Sweetie Is Sweeter Than That”, alongside several sides by Gason cut in Austria during 1924 & Gason’s recording of “Could I? I Certainly Could” made for Odeon on 1926) & Leo Vauchant’s trombone. Vauchant would later work with the bands of Gluskin (before he was replaced by Emile Christian) & Jack Hylton, and he also arranged for Fred Waring when he went to the USA in the early 30s.

    • AJS says:

      Thank you for providing this information and the comparative listening. I find the earlier record interesting in terms of its less agressive feel. It also swaps an alto sax for the tenor. Small stylistic differences like these can make an interesting difference.

  2. andrewhomzy says:

    I love your critical thinking on early jazz. You said: “Jazz history is often written as a sequence of decades described by each period’s instrumentation, rhythm, and harmonic derring-do.” I agree, but there is another twist. Compare most any book on jazz history to most any book on classical music history. I’m interested in learning what you think are the major differences – and commonalities?

  3. AJS says:

    Thanks for reading and the kind words, Andrew. I’m not a trained scholar in either area of musical history. As a layman, I’d say many of the historical narratives in both areas position certain periods and stylistic markers as the points that the past was leading up to, and which the present cannot help but reference without losing touch with what define the tradition. They often single out recordings or works that have nascent ideas leading up to the music we’re familiar with. Roy Eldridge is valuable because he bridges swing and bop, Neapolitan opera composers are interesting insofar as they influenced Mozart, X begat Y, etc. It becomes a history of the avant-garde, where we listen in on each period’s most “progressive” voices. I’ve also lost track of how many times a critic or a historian has implied or outright stated that some music is forgotten for good reason, as though time is a natural and objective process for vetting art. In the process, a lot of actual music is left out of “music history.”

    That’s off the top of my head, but I’m curious to hear more from you.

  4. mcquaidjazz says:

    Great record, and great commentary! Thanks very much.

    (I also like the other side of this record very much, ‘Down Home Blues’.

  5. meisharose says:

    Thank you for writing such an informative blog and tracking down clips of so many otherwise-forgotten musicians. I’m writing a jazz biography and came across your discussion of Percy Glascoe and Lem Fowler. I have some further questions–would you be willing to email me? meisharose@gmail.com.
    Thanks again! -Meisha

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