Category Archives: Uncategorized

Inside The Henderson Band

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.

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Junie Cobb, Tenor Sax, And More

Courtesy of Red Hot Jazz website.


Junie Cobb played whatever instrument was needed for the gig. Discographies list him on clarinet, saxophone(s), banjo/guitar, piano, tuba, violin, cornet, and drums as well as a bandleader. He also sang on a few dates. Later in life, he even played oboe and English horn for Barney Kessel. Yet he played tenor sax like no one else.

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.

Courtesy of Chris Albertson’s Stomp Off blog.

The Later Clarence Williams: As Big As He Wanted

Jazz combos are sometimes praised for sounding like a bigger band—similar to ordering a particular dish because it tastes like something else. Among other roles, bandleader Clarence Williams was an arranger who relished the flavor of a small band. Airy textures, a blend of elegant New Orleans soul and New York intensity, and a core of confident sidemen marked everything from his washboard quartets to the occasional tentet. By the end of the twenties, several of his records (many recorded in pristine sound by Columbia) pointed to great possibilities for “little” bands.

“Log Cabin Blues” features tuba titan Cyrus St. Clair and Williams’s left hand at the piano booming out bass roots. It creates a real atmosphere before repeating at softer volume and providing a ground under guest clarinetist Buster Bailey.

“Red River Blues” on Columbia starts with a dark tuba answered by eerie brass swells and Albert Socarras’s clarinet squeaking like a door hinge on a stormy night. Later, the tuba once again punches out bass notes, now answered by King Oliver’s slightly sour lead over the front line.

With one player per part on instruments ranging from flute down to percussion, Williams also savored contrasts in registers. The Columbia recording of “Mountain City Blues” (taken much slower than the Okeh version) pits clarinet against trombone—like hundreds of big band sides to come. Yet instead of a clarinet soloist wailing over trombone choirs, Williams assigns an orchestrated lead for clarinets (plural) while his regular trombonist Ed Cuffee ad-libs alongside them. It’s a far subtler division between octaves and lead/accompaniment.

Williams also prefigures later periods’ exploitation of contrasting timbres, for example, Cuffee’s lollygagging melody over slumbering saxes on “Breeze” for Columbia.

Yet the crawling tempo is intriguingly chunky, a world away from the smooth ballads that would characterize jazz. Williams’s dependable cornetist Ed Allen is also more brilliant than wistful here.

Of its era, this music integrates soloists into the ensemble (rather than the latter serving as a backdrop for the former). These priorities don’t limit improvisation as much as channel it in interesting directions. Bailey and Arville Harris play the first chorus on Victor’s “In Our Cottage of Love” as a chase for alto and tenor, respectively.

Even many modern combos aren’t bold enough to skip playing the tune straight on the first chorus. Split choruses like this one also seem unfortunately uncommon nowadays. Bass lines on non-rhythm section instruments, like the oscillating sax riff throughout “Them Things Got Me,” are also rare.

At one point, it’s tenor sax alone maintains the riff. Plenty of twenties jazz records include what classical music refers to as a “bassetto,” literally “tiny bass.” All of these ideas had gone the way of soprano sax leads and drummer-free bands by the thirties.

Choosing “High Society” for a 1930 Columbia session with three brass, four reeds, and rhythm section must have seemed nostalgic. Yet Williams shows off his imagination and sense of irony when the well-known clarinet obbligato is played by clarinet section with his signature tuba lead.

Subsequently giving the obbligato to Socarras’s flute looks both backward to the march’s original instrumentation and ahead to flute as a recognized jazz horn.

By the early thirties, jazz was onto bigger bands and slicker arrangements. Williams’s approach may have been too personal to catch on, too stylistically passé to last, or just not loud enough. Williams never emulated larger bands or chased after innovation. He simply made music that reflected his personality and, apparently, never needed more than two trumpets to do it. The creative meets economical, with a beat.

Clarence Williams and his Orchestra (left to right): Albert Socarras, Prince Robinson, Cyrus St. Clair, Clarence Williams, Buddy Christian, Charlie Irvis, Sara Martin, Floyd Casey, Eva Taylor, Ed Allen. Photo courtesy of Confetta Ras.

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How Does Prince Robinson Like His Eighth Notes?


The best definitions of swing come down to musical demonstrations rather than notated examples. Yet, in many cases, even eighth notes (“one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”) seem to be kryptonite for it.

Somehow, the hot music of the twenties and early thirties, the jazz that many historians say was not yet Jazz, got it done. Take Prince Robinson’s tenor saxophone solo on “Worn Out Blues” with Clarence Williams’s Washboard Band:

It starts out smothering the listener in chains of choppy broken chords. Before a hip jazz historian might adjudge “old-fashioned,” Robinson responds to his own opening with looser phrasing in repeated note statements. He turns this little game of rhythmic contrast into a beautifully unified and utterly swinging solo. On a second take of the same tune from this session (403973-B), he doubles down on the tenser phraseology. For the out chorus in both takes, Robinson—ever the professional—matches trumpeter Charlie Gaines’s more “modern” lead. Robinson wasn’t old-fashioned; he was multi-fashioned.

He had been recording since the mid-twenties, and in all likelihood been playing for even longer. He would have heard many different styles, including the gradual loosening of the beat that came to be synonymous with jazz. Rather than viewing these changes as developments (as though jazz was moving from prototype phase to beta-testing), the man had heard plenty and knew how to use it all.

The technique of alternating swung and even eighths goes back at least to Coleman Hawkins’s seminal solo on “The Stampede” and its even eighth note break in 1926. Yet Robinson inserts these machine gun lines as an integral part of his playing in a post-Armstrong, pre-swing 1930 setting. That is a daring act of individualism.

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Who Is Ward Lay?

Ward Lay’s string bass boomed out on a new-to-me release last week, yet he was there all along on an old favorite!

Lay completes a rich, warm, lightly swinging string trio below Venuti’s viola-like violin lead and guitarist Lang strumming and arpeggiating a la mandolin–with extra points for pianist Frank Signorelli filling out the harmonies from within and for drummer Neil Marshall’s subtlety. Jack Teagarden’s slightly louder lead gets slightly more thump thanks to the bassist’s sensitivity to dynamics.

Benny Goodman then goes buck with an ornate solo but the rhythm section stays solid. They alternate a shuffle pattern—Lay playing four while Lang strums uneven double-time (“chug-a-CHUG-a”) and tremolos—with a hard-edged Chicago-style two-beat feel powered by the bass’s syncopated hits (“beh-BOOM…beh-BOOM”).

Lay keeps the ground pulse but never settles into predictable quarter notes. He’s much more interesting as well as strong but flexible and always well-balanced behind soloists. The soloists make this performance a cohesive arrangement that builds in intensity and contrasts textures and beats. This record is much more than a string of solos.

In the collective improvisation that closes this side, Lay is as much a jamming participant as he is the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. He really comments underneath the horns, similar to bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini’s approach but adapted to the string bass’s lower volume and wider timbral frame. This sort of responsive rhythm section playing seems to be often (and unfairly) associated with later developments in jazz but this side is a revelation. Fiddle with the equalizer, on the stereo or in the mind, and enjoy it.

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Chauncey Morehouse Only Got Better

Thank you to the meticulous and passionate members of the Bixography forum! I’ve known about the 1959 LP tribute to the Jean Goldkette orchestra, directed by the man himself, for years. Yet I was unaware some generous person uploaded the full album. Issues of stylistic fealty aside, Dance Hits Of The Twenties In Stereo bursts with smartly arranged charts (by no less than Sy Oliver), bright soloists and sheer joy.

The original Goldkette ensemble never recorded “Varsity Drag” but this edition’s version of the 1927 dance catalyst stands out—literally from the bottom up. Chauncey Morehouse was the only member of the first Goldkette group on this record. From the first downbeat, hearing him click in with bassist Ward Lay produces a micro master class in the grooving two-beat tension of a twenties-era rhythm section:

The skins of Morehouse’s snare and kick drum create groove as well as sonic fiber with the grain and slap of Lay’s bass, but his cymbals are crisp and light for the more modern solo outings. Airtight ensemble hits also show a thoroughly professional band drummer.

It’s all “in living stereo,” as heralded by the album cover. Yet aside from differences in the audio, jazz records from the twenties usually featured young musicians. This LP spotlights Morehouse in his late fifties, hardly an old man but with decades more experience as a musician. Lay was a dance band veteran who made switching between tuba and string bass sound as commonplace as a reed section double. Not all band reunions are up to these standards, but they keep me coming back for similar revelations.

The Bixography forum has posted typically copious information about this record here.

Photo courtesy of Steve H. via the Bixography forum.

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Very Little Time And Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard graced less than thirty recorded sides with his presence, all from within a five-year period that was supposedly way past his prime. Yet collectors, historians and especially musicians still lionize the cornetist to this day. What makes Keppard so special?

Give him fifty seconds:

“Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” starts with Keppard playing lead in an arranged front line. His sound is straight and balanced, neither covering the harmonies nor letting them stick out, serving the section and not himself. Then, a regal ascending figure introduces Keppard as soloist.

His four-note “doo, doo dah-DEE” entrance plays with super subtle variations of note length, pitch, and articulation that shift the tune’s theme across bar lines. His vibrato is a deeply personal touch that makes sustained notes into signatures. He pulls back as the musical line descends, setting up for a more even, three-note, short-short-long variation of the first phrase capped by a relaxed longer note and the descending phrase more assertive this time.

The third phrase is utter swagger, with slight delays and anticipations that defy notation. The final lick practically yells “come on, come on!” before doing a two-step.

That was just eight bars.

The second eight bars work off similar variation, including a brief on-the-beat phrase perhaps parodying players not as hip as Keppard. The bridge, on the other hand, starts with the side of Keppard lost amidst his more pugilistic outbursts on record and stories about his prodigious taste for alcohol: the well-rounded musician who could play soft and sensitively whether it was with blues or society bands.

Then, another held note and an opening of tone—not a crescendo of volume but of timbre—leading into a spiky, syncopated line pointing back to the “Spanish tinge” and the Charleston.

The last section of this first chorus begins with little more than a grace note into the longest note of the chorus and Keppard eliding the melody into sheer tone, letting the chomping rhythm section pop through. Unlike Bechet’s vibrato (and more like Bechet’s tone), Keppard’s vibrato cuts as it shakes. It throbs ahead of the beat as well as on top of the pitch. Keppard could make a whole note stomp.

From there, syncopated eighth and quarter notes keep the groove going into the bugling sound from the introduction, bridging into Keppard once again leading the band.

Less than a minute, no chordal extemporization but plenty of rhythmic nuance and color, with lots of space and even more attitude. This style of improvisation, which treats the melody as a road rather than a suggested destination, is sometimes referred to “melodic paraphrase.” Imagine telling Freddie Keppard that.

 

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A Jazz Nebbish Figging Moldy

sheep-redorbitTed Gioia posted an article by a “Yale music professor” on the death of jazz. I avoid commenting on others’ views online because I don’t always have the training or subject matter expertise to do so. I also avoid commenting on this topic because it usually doesn’t interest me personally. In addition, a Google search leads me to believe that the author is a student rather than a member of the Yale faculty, someone now acquiring the knowledge and critical tools that might make them reevaluate their position or back it up with further examples and different reasoning.

On the other hand, this article encapsulated several ideas about a lot of music I enjoy, which made me think about why these views actually bothered me. Finally, I am very proud of the small but insightful and courteous correspondents who comment on this blog, so I thought it was worth sharing here. The original article is here. I ended up pasting it into a Word document just to get my thoughts on paper, and you can read my three cents in the comment bubbles below.

You might need to zoom in to read it. Alternatively, you can read original content elsewhere rather than my functioning as an intellectual tick. None of this music needs a defense.
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Three Minutes And Plenty Of Style

Here is a fantastic arrangement from the twenties that is not the work of a Challis, an Ellington or a Redman, or even a Hill or Nesbitt:

Discographies show leader/vocalist Arnold Johnson and pianist (as well as legend of the American songbook) Harold Arlen as this band’s arrangers. Lord’s discography and Jazz Oracle list Johnson as the arranger for this particular track.

The chart is not just jam-packed with instrumental and vocal textures; it’s also a stylistic smorgasbord. The introduction spotlights Pete Pumiglio’s clarinet riffing over suspenseful guitar chords, combining hot jazz and modern harmonies for some brief chamber music. Then a lush dance band baritone sax intones the chorus with prominent syncopated brass hits and violin runs mocking society bands: sweet, hot and comic all at once, and barely halfway into the record.

Another modernistic verse and transition feature the unique touch of soprano sax lead, followed by an alto sax break turning into a sax section break in barely two bars. Then, it’s right into a sax soli that is both lyrical and rhythmic, the type of written part sounding like an improvising soloist that would become synonymous with jazz arrangement. Wildman Jack Purvis even gets the hot trumpet bridge.

It all happens before the record even gets to the vocal. That vocal might now be dismissed as “dated,” but that would just be temporal prejudice. Stylistic preferences aside, the choir harmonies move against the lead in some interesting ways and the words are always clear. “Move” is the key word here: thanks to the vocal arrangement and the lightly stepping, resonant guitar and tuba underneath, there is no slackening of momentum. A short shout chorus followed by a vocal coda closes out this odyssey through the sonic landscape of twenties popular music.

arnoldjohnson

Photo from Pinterest user Gus Ynzenga.

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The Harrison Records Story

Each Harrison Records LP is indexed with just one letter. The Harrison catalog starts with Harrison A, including the famous Glen Gray band as well as the lesser-known Mack Rogers band, and runs through a Stu Pletcher compilation on Harrison X. That index typifies the charming modesty underneath this label’s wide range of hot music. I’m still searching for Y and Z.

Harrison records also sport endearingly simple graphics, an immediately recognizable and welcome sight in record stores bins and flea market crates. A Harrison logo means something interesting from slightly outside the twenties Top 40. It might be something unissued elsewhere. It’s often music that might not meet more doctrinaire definitions of “hot music, traditional jazz,” or whatever one might label the sounds on the vinyl.

It seems like Harrison’s producer cared more about rhythm, texture and open-eared history than categories. There is plenty of jazz, especially from obscure territory bands. Yet there are also opportunities to appreciate the color and craftsmanship of non-improvising dance bands and even some “sweet’ outfits. Harrison introduced me to the joys of Eubie Blake’s big band—treading greyer and greyer areas between jazz and show music—as well as Adrian Schubert’s elegantly hot dance music and Henny Hendrickson’s Louisville Serenaders in all their thumping glory:

The engineering delivers the music clearly and the information on the back covers is beautifully no-frills: dates, personnel, and an occasional note about the music, but no extended essays or personal reflections. There is plenty of white space for the listener to literally or figuratively write their own notes (many of my Harrisons are pockmarked with discographical shorthand). In a time before Google, this music had to speak for itself.

Tom Crowley’s “Doc’oligy” appears on Harrison C, Let’s Start With Jack Teagarden, which lists nothing other than unidentified personnel, a date in 1935 and “Atlanta.” A note mentions that Casa Loma trumpeter Grady Watts played with the Crowley band years earlier, but the bare context makes this track’s pumping wail that much more mysterious:

Unlike Frog or Jazz Oracle, Harrison came and went before the internet. When I first started finding Harrison records, its staff and mission were a mystery. The only thing I knew was that at some time (the seventies or eighties, from the look and wear of the records), someone took it upon themselves to bring over two dozen LPs of music from the twenties and thirties into the world. Then it ended up on my turntable to let me hear Hal Denman and the hotter side of Kay Kyser. On paper, that simply sounds like any record company. Through my speakers, it was a miracle.

The credits were as self-effacing as the packaging They listed collectors who contributed 78s, a sound engineer and occasionally a cover artist. The only clue to the genesis of these records was a label on each: “Produced and Distributed By Edward H. Reynolds,” with an address in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Wakefield is a fine town on Massachusetts’s North Shore yet (to the best of my knowledge) not famous for its music scene or record industry. What was going on in Wakefield?

It turns out Ed Reynolds was going on in Wakefield, and he was all that was needed to make Harrison happen.

A Google search revealed that Edward Harrison Reynolds passed away recently enough that I could have interviewed him had my curiosity struck sooner. In addition to a record producer, he was also a decorated veteran, a husband, and a father. His son Bill has played drums with nationally known local favorites The Back Bay Ramblers and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. I reached Bill through his website, and he was kind enough to share the following memories with me:

My father was a passionate record collector and hot jazz aficionado. He had about 4,000 78s in his collection and loved everything about traditional jazz, including hunting all over the Northeast for rare records.

During the 50s, he and three fellow record collectors would get together every Saturday night for a listening session. They would take turns hosting the session, with the host supplying the music (and the food). The music was arranged in setlists, much like a bandleader would do before a gig.

The host offered no information about the tracks. It was a “blindfold” game: each listener would be given a pencil and paper to write down information about each track while it was playing, like the name of the band, the label it was recorded on, the year of the recording, and any additional information about the musicians. They had a complicated point system that determined the winner of each session. Each guy owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would freely share music from their collections.

Dad just loved these listening sessions, especially sharing the music. He decided that more people needed to be exposed to the music that he loved, so he researched the process for having some of his favorite music from his own collection professionally copied, packaged, and pressed.

The newly pressed records would be sent to his home, and he would advertise in all of the traditional jazz magazines. He personally packed them and shipped the records. It was a one-man operation! He probably broke even financially but stuck to his original plan of doing 26 volumes, one for each letter of the alphabet.

The Harrison Records story did not stop there. Apparently not one to rest on his laurels or his record collection, Ed moved on to producing hot music by contemporary practitioners and knew just where to start. Bill explained further…

After finishing the first 26 volumes, Dad asked me what I thought about organizing a recording band made up of the best traditional musicians on the east coast and recording studio albums under the Harrison Records label. He would choose all of the songs and would market the records in the same manner as his previous releases. Other considerations were the musical arrangements, studio time, and paying the musicians.

We named the band “The Back Bay Ramblers.” It was my father’s dream band: trumpet, trombone, two reed players, piano, bass/tuba, banjo, and drums, and vocalists. The band members contributed arrangements in the style that my dad loved: tightly arranged ensembles featuring the horn sections with plenty of hot jazz solos and a driving rhythm section. Most of the songs were chosen by my dad. Bob Connors, the great trombone player and bandleader, was the principal arranger and musical director.

Photo courtesy of nejazz.com.

We recorded three albums for Harrison and another four CDs for Bob Erdos’s Stomp Off label. The band also performed concerts and at many jazz festivals on the East Coast. However, due to the size of the band, most available venues couldn’t financially support us. It got harder and harder to get bookings.

In his last few years, my dad would always suggest that I put the band back together. I was busy doing other gigs, teaching, and raising a family, and just didn’t have the time. I had retired from my teaching gig at about the same time that my dad got sick. After he passed away, I put the band back together for a series of tribute concerts honoring him.

That pretty much covers the whole story. It was a labor of love. It was Harrison Records.

It is a testament to Mr. Reynolds that it still is Harrison Records. It’s just a pity that the alphabet wasn’t longer.

Edward H. Reynolds. Photo courtesy of McDonald Funeral Homes of Wakefield, MA.

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