I hope you’re all healthy, happy, and having a nice Wednesday.
I hope you’re all healthy, happy, and having a nice Wednesday.
These are frightening and frustrating times. Many of us now likely feel uncertainty and powerlessness amidst an unending news cycle of mortal import. We’re forced to stock up, hunker down, and seal ourselves off. Yet technology allows us some connection. It used to seem like a convenience that cuts people off from one another; it’s quickly becoming a necessity just to stay in touch.
The virtual millimeter of technology before you doesn’t usually broach such somber topics. When I started this blog, it was a way to find likeminded listeners, share my thoughts with them, and learn from people who had been listening longer and deeper than me. At some point, “sharing my thoughts” began to seem more like a statement of vanity than a reflection of curiosity. I tried to be modest when offering my opinions as well as accurate when providing information. Still, at some point, just putting my thoughts out there began to feel self-indulgent. Combined with other responsibilities vying for my time, updating this blog fell away.
Choosing a global pandemic as the time to be this publicly self-focused might be an irony bordering on insensitivity. Yet this time also forces us to suspend our routines. Pauses often lead to perspective. In my case, this blog now seems like a wonderful opportunity to connect with people. I’ve been introduced to intelligent, thoughtful, and kind individuals from around the world I probably would have never otherwise encountered. I sometimes feel embarrassed that it was merely due to my own subjective two cents. The internet often feels like a bottomless swear jar that doesn’t need more spare change. Nowadays, my two cents seems like a small price to pay. Communication means life, life means possibility, and possibility is where everything has to start.
If you are reading this, it probably means you are healthy and safe enough to sit down with my words on a cold lit screen. That possibility comforts me, so I want to thank you and wish you continued health, security, and hope. The usual subject matter here is of interest to such a small percentage of the global population. That population is now facing even more than the standard colossal share. Yet if you are able to grab a few moments of interest or joy anywhere, even my little blog, it means you are one of the fortunate ones.
To expand on a friend’s favorite phrase, “may your happiness increase,” because it can be such a rare commodity.
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?
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.
These are deeply unnerving times. Anything that even briefly leaps out with pleasant unpredictability—as opposed to the unexpected worse news—provides a welcome release.
For example, the trombone I hear at the start of Bessie Smith’s “Young Woman’s Blues” always surprises me. A trombone rather than a trumpet taking the lead on a blues side from this period is interesting enough. Yet this particular horn is a real find. The tone is dark yet creamy. The articulation is clean and smooth. Phrases hover close to the same bottom tone, like it’s a hard-fought and now insistent truth.
Seconds later, I always realize (not just remember) that it’s actually a trumpet. Joe Smith fools me every time!
Aside from rhythm, tone is perhaps the most immediately gripping aspect of a musical performance. “Young Woman’s Blues” shows the beauty of Smith’s sound in the sadly neglected lower register of the trumpet. He soon climbs outs of it and gracefully slurs up to a clarion middle register phrase, ending the side’s introduction on a valedictory air.
He answers Bessie Smith’s statements with other firmly centered and gut-shaking descents, including a particularly solid one executed softly but firmly behind the words “settle down.” Joe seconds “I’m as good as any woman in your town” with a muttering declaration. It’s not predictably dirty. There’s no growl or gutbucket inflection. Instead, Smith is subtler and more artful in his carnal imagery. Following “I’m a deep killer of brown,” he tosses off a staccato bugle, proud and dangerous, as a warning to those around him. Smith’s broad final tone comes off like a soprano tuba.
At the time this side was made, Louis Armstrong was introducing higher and faster trumpeting that would become the standard in jazz circles. Smith, meanwhile, is often remembered as the straight(er) foil to young Louis Armstrong’s hot innovations. He could read a written part, provide a brilliant straight lead, and improvise a solo. That versatility, in fact, made him the preferred choice for bandleader Fletcher Henderson when he needed a jazz trumpet soloist. Yet Smith was plenty hot in his own right. He just simmered rather than boiled. Henderson eventually “settled” for Armstrong, and the rest was history.
Of course, trumpeters never stopped playing in the middle and lower registers; Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, and Terrell Stafford among others come to mind. Still, the term “jazz trumpet” doesn’t usually inspire mental echoes of pedal points. So, I’m glad to be repeatedly wrong for a few seconds. Maybe it is my recalcitrant ears, or perhaps my subconscious is letting me appreciate Joe Smith over and over again.
…the fascinating story of the self-destructively humorous virtuoso pop violinist Nat Brusiloff, with commentary by historian David Sager and a red hot sonata on “Happy Feet.”
Hello! I know it has been a while, and I hope you’re well. This blog has introduced me to some incredibly insightful and downright nice people who kindly express interest in this music and my thoughts on it.
If you’re interested, I’m honored and thrilled to say I’ll be a guest on my friend Phil Melick’s radio show PhonOmelet this Sunday, October 13 at 8am EST on WTSQ. Phil spins jazz, hot dance, blues, and more on original 78 RPM records. His taste and insights are always on point.
You can listen at 88.1 FM in Charleston, WV or by streaming live at wtsq.org! Stay tuned…
From Original Dixieland Jazz Band-style ensembles through hot dance music to smoother charts looking ahead to the big bands, bandleader Ben Selvin kept up with all the trends while regularly staffing his studio outfits with the cream of New York City’s musical crop.
By 1931, when Selvin gave “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” the treatment while it was still hot off publishing house presses, he was a twelve-year record industry veteran with a wealth of styles under his belt.
Fats Waller and Alex Hill’s tune serves as a retrospective of Selvin’s experience. Selvin was a consummate professional who always “sold” the song. He also recognized a quality tune when he heard one. Its skipping melody, choreographing the elation of newfound romance, and Hill’s schoolboy-excited lyrics remain clear.
Yet Selvin lets the tune try on several musical outfits, starting with a bright and broad Dixieland chorus (and gleaming lead by trumpeter
Tommy GottBob Effros). Then, young Benny Goodman’s solo bridge has the same feel that would grace hundreds of his own recordings as a leader throughout the Swing Era.
After the vocal, the minor key verse—which itself has a touch of the vaudeville pit band—carries the slightly harder edge of Harlem nightclubs. Here, Charles Magnante’s accordion adds a theatrical organ-like texture. A typical dance band tenor chorus by Hymie Wolfson follows: slightly booting, paraphrased just enough to add rhythmic interest while maintaining the tune, somewhere between a hot chorus and straight lead that links from the improvised sections into the final restatement of the tune. The bridge even has some Armstrong-inspired dips into the upper register.
Records like this one show jazz and American dance band music not so much at a crossroads but able to draw upon both the past and the cutting edge without embarrassment. Selvin knew what worked musically and didn’t have to bother worrying about what was hip.
Joe Herlihy’s orchestra may never supplant Fletcher Henderson in any dance band annals, but it was apparently an exciting enough outfit to replace his group at the Roseland Ballroom.
Copious liner notes by Joe Moore for Jazz Oracle CD BWV 8052, Edison Hot Dance Band Obscurities: Volume Three, explain that Herlihy’s Boston-based ensemble filled in while Henderson was on tour the week of February 14, 1927. Roseland was one of the hottest dance venues in New York City at the time; any band that made it through that audition must have been doing something right. The Edison label apparently thought so, because four months later “State And Madison” was being cut at the band’s first record session.
The Herlihy band recorded the only version of this Jelly Roll Morton tune before the composer himself performed it during his Library of Congress recollections a decade later. It practically dances in syncopation and cuts, making it a shame more bands didn’t touch it. Still, Herlihy’s track is far from a consolation prize.
The band doesn’t just lock into a groove but pops and pulls back as one. The saxes’ deconstruction is especially rhythmic and distinct. Compare this band with Doc Cook, Bennie Moten or Fess Williams, or Jimmy Lytell’s red hot clarinet-led trio on “Zulu Wail” or even the California Ramblers d/b/a the Goofus Five on Okeh with “Vo-Do-Do-De-O Blues” from that month. Herlihy’s band plays with a snap to its articulation combined with warm, soft band textures, like a plush teddy bear sporting glass claws.
Breaks and solos by trumpeter Irving Peskin and trombonist (and future Hollywood comedian) Jerry Colonna are proudly clipped in a way that was already becoming passé. Nearly a century later, the sound is subversively obsolete. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of famous film composer John Williams and a man with a life worth reading about) accents and colors the beat rather than lays it down. Ironically, it’s not until his stop-time solo that he puts down a pattern. Even there, it’s more about subtle and unpredictable accents rather than steady feel.
Later sessions under Herlihy’s name featured different personnel, including several members of the far-better known Jean Goldkette orchestra. Those are excellent sides that don’t sound like this combination, which included Herlihy’s original assembly of fellow New Englanders and broke up after work in New York City fell through. Two takes of this tune and the track “Cornfed” are all that remains of this singular soundscape.
A classical music critic once compared a performance of one of Wagner’s operas to a skeleton wearing its organs on the outside. He didn’t think the transparency of the orchestra suited a composer who worked with such dense textures. Hearing too much of the inner parts made everything sound lopsided. So, he came up with a disturbing metaphor for both ineffectiveness and sheer ugliness.
Still, that inside-out body would make studying anatomy much easier. Occasionally hearing all the notes in Wagner’s chords could also prove illuminating.
Moving onto the work of another great artist, Fletcher Henderson’s “Panama” demonstrates how his all-star sidemen might have handled their section parts:
Maybe it’s the acoustically recorded sound of the Harmony label’s studio. Perhaps the musicians were having an off day and lost their dynamic balance. It could just be my listening on headphones. Regardless, it’s as though the sections took turns letting the bottom voice stick out. Coleman Hawkins’s tenor sax and Charlie Green’s trombone nearly swamp the lead.
Most of the time, listeners are not supposed to hear the insides of music such as the second trumpet part, the alto in a vocal quartet or, in this case, the third brass or reed part. Yet this aural anomaly shows what two great musicians “do” in a section.
Green and Hawkins both had a big sound and big personalities. It’s no surprise that they embellish their respective parts. Their fills and ornaments create a sense of movement within the harmony. It’s possible that they’re simply playing the written arrangement, but things sound too spontaneous.
Either way, that inner motion marks some of the best orchestration. Even a lush, mellifluous string section isn’t playing lockstep whole notes. The effect is just more felt than heard. This record becomes a fascinating sonic x-ray. If you can see the joists framing a wall, it doesn’t make for an attractive living space, but sometimes it’s helpful to know what’s holding everything up.
He’s the first soloist on “Shake That Jelly Roll” and rarely stays on one note for too long. Instead, he runs divisions like he’s afraid his horn will break if he stops playing it.
Like many tenor saxophonists during the late twenties, Cobb’s burly sound and vigorous arpeggios are reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins. Yet even at fever pitch, Hawkins added slightly longer notes to connect his rapid-fire phrases. He became famous for bringing Louis Armstrong’s vocally-based phrasing and rhythmic innovations to the saxophone in a manner idiomatic to that instrument. Cobb, on the other hand, often sounds like he is playing a giant brass clarinet.
And what a clarinet! Cobb weaves waves of notes that fall in several directions: sometimes up, sometimes down, flashing up an octave, like in “Piggly Wiggly Blues,” or into a belly honk.
Hawkins’s lines have a relentless momentum as well as inevitability, while it’s never clear where or when Cobb will land. On the aptly named “Endurance Stomp,” he sustains an absurdly long note and later provides some slap-tongue bass lines in the last chorus:
Cobb’s tone is slightly drier and sports much less vibrato than Hawkins. Hawkins often roared but Cobb’s timbre hums like an engine in neutral and perennially poised to shift into a higher gear. At slower tempos, for example on “Smoke Shop Drag” Cobb eases up slightly to squeeze out his notes.
He becomes a blue honker on “Panama Blues,” briefly switching to some “mean” (as Tom Dorsey says on the record) soprano sax before quickly switching back to tenor, as though the smaller reed left a bad taste in his mouth.
The Keep (It) Swinging blog’s informative biography of Cobb describes a player whose talent took him from his birthplace in Arkansas to working with Johnny Dunn as a teenager, through stints with Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, and King Oliver in his lifetime home of Chicago, and a stopover living in Paris for a bit.
In other words, Cobb was not an also-ran or studio drone. He knew his stuff and played with passion and confidence. He was also no copycat. Listening to Cobb—not just hearing him—is less a matter of innovation than of style, the way someone wears a dark suit or signs their name. Many others may use the same cloth or letters but the delight is in the details.