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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.

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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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Ein Ansturm In Berlin

A good friend recently shared this record with me, the listing for which in various discographies regularly sparked my curiosity:

This is one of my favorite songs/arrangements, with Fletcher Henderson’s version widely considered a crucial recorded example of developments in jazz arrangement and improvisation at the time, here interpreted by another band, in their own personal way, and demonstrating how other national cultures absorbed American popular music of the twenties. In other words, it is a goldmine.

José M. Melzak’s orchestra dba as Orchestra Merton plays with a crisp, metronomic beat and staccato phrasing that might seem like the antithesis of jazz or even the most classically-tinged ragtime. Yet dismissal is rarely as interesting as curiosity: what did this group of presumably mostly German and likely all European musicians, probably classically trained, whose exposure to jazz and American dance music was perhaps secondhand, see and hear in the score for “The Stampede?” What regional dances did they have in mind playing the chart? Musicians often have to play for an audience, so what were the audience expectations Melzak’s band was trying to satisfy? Instead of calculating what they missed, it’s ear-opening to consider what they might have done right.

At the very least, this band’s firm ensemble sections, transparent textures, and precise intonation are commendable; it’s like “The Stampede” filtered through the woodwinds and brass of a symphony orchestra. The airtight ensemble stop-time transition into the second chorus (at 0:31 in the above clip) sounds like one instrument. The minor key second strain (at 1:28) acquires a spooky musical theater vibe, with the trombone’s operatic vibrato and those tongue-in-cheek cymbal crashes. The soprano saxophone peeking out slightly on the penultimate chorus, halfway between an obbligato and a harmony part, is another subtle but novel touch.

Grammophon-platten.de explains that “The Stampede” was recorded at Melzak’s penultimate recording session. Melzak had led a popular ensemble in Berlin for several years, playing various venues and events as well as recording frequently before having to leave Germany when the Nazis took power. After that, his musical activity was sporadic. The website also notes this record as Melzak’s “’hottest’ title.” Yet his discography also includes numbers such as “Everybody Stomp,” “Oh, Baby” and “Last Night On The Back Porch,” indicating that a little American hot music kept the band gigging. Judging by “The Stampede,” it also got this band thinking and reacting to new things. Now it’s the listener’s turn.

The Melzak band circa 1926. Photo from grammophon-platten.de

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Arnold Johnson Gets It Done

This writer knew Arnold Johnson as the pianist on Paul Biese’s hell-raising sides of the teens and for his band’s vivid ensemble lines on some records with Jack Purvis. Wikipedia explains that Arnold Johnson had a long career in popular music, from vaudeville accompanist through bandleader to radio professional.

“Sweet Lovin’ Mama” is, at best, a sentence in the book of Johnson’s life. Yet it’s still another ear-opening example of this hustling musical professional: arranged with ample variety, played with energy as well as confidence, and hotter than any metaphor I could insert to introduce it:

The novelty sounds in the introduction are swept away to make room for some straightforward collective ensemble stomping, with Nat Natoli’s lead trumpet and the rhythm section hitting hard. Natoli’s breaks and muted upper-register vocalizing also raise the temperature. A chorus for sentimental violin with piano ragging around it is followed by a similar effect, now with the saxophone section around the trombone melody, then gliding into a wailing out chorus. Johnson may not have performed all the parts, but his name on the record label once again delivers the goods.

He worked in the music business rather than Jazz per se, and “Sweet Lovin’ Mama” may have been just a “product” made to satisfy demand. It concerns itself with nothing other than rhythmic intensity, textural contrasts, melodic variation, and instrumental give and take. Once upon a time, it made dancers move in their homes. Now, it makes listeners dance in their minds. If there is such a thing as “absolute hot music,” this track would be a good candidate.

Arnold Johnson is seated at the piano alongside the Frisco Jazz Band in 1917. Photo from thevarnishedculture.com.

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A Story Of Jazz

I’ve enjoyed contributing to All About Jazz as a copy-editor and occasional writer for a few months now. I also used to submit features and reviews of hot jazz and historical reissues years back. The website recently featured my “jazz story”:
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I like to think that I don’t seek attention (and don’t we all like to think it), but this little bump-out brought a smile to my face; I’m now able to share it on this blog, which has introduced me knowledgeable, passionate, and friendly voices (and the three traits don’t always coincide) as a springboard for their own similar reflections.

So, reader, what is your jazz story?

Lots Of Variety Stomp

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):
Take Two

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.
Take Three

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.”

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More Possibilities From The Golden Age Of Jazz Onomatopoeia

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.

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Charlestoniana


“Charleston” created a national dance craze and an iconic cultural phenomenon of the twenties–one that is still referenced in homages, nostalgia and plain kitsch. Yet while Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands on Record and Film 1915-42 lists just eight recordings of James P. Johnson’s hit, and Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography website lists merely fifteen recordings of the song made during the twenties, cursory research shows about eighty song titles alone that simply start with the word “Charleston.” That number excludes tunes such as “Springtime In Charleston,” “Wait ‘Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston” and others (not to mention bands such as the Charleston Chasers, the Charleston Entertainers, etc.). A quick word search at The Online Discographical Project yields over 100 hits.

The music industry was probably eager to exploit the popularity of the dance and the name. Unlike the blues craze of the early twenties, when anything from a pop number to a novelty instrumental might get “blues” slapped onto its title, many Charleston knockoffs actually included the famous Charleston rhythm. The two-note phrase sung to “Charles-TON, Charles-TON!” in Johnson’s original may have seemed like a short, catchy callout that would be much easier to incorporate and expand upon than the vast rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary of the blues.

Image courtesy of mattwarnockguitar.com

The industry, in turn, brought an astounding variety to this combination of a long note starting on the downbeat followed by a short note on the upbeat (and this writer asks musicians to please excuse his oversimplification). Songwriters, arrangers, and musicians needed to put their spin on a well-known sound, which had a shelf life as long as the consumer’s famously short attention span. Commercial demand yielded a supply of well-crafted, energetic music.

Xylophone virtuoso George Hamilton Green‘s “Charleston Capers” grafts the rhythm onto a ragtime piece as a climactic phrase ending:

Zez Confrey’s “Charleston Chuckles” merely hints at the Charleston in the first strain but doesn’t let it rip until the end of that section. The rhythm remains instantly recognizable, remarkably catchy and immediately grooving:

On “Charleston, Charleston, Show Me The Way,” the Savoy Havana Band passes the phrase around, first in the brass’s response to the saxes on the introduction, then in a modified version of it played by the brass in the first chorus, and then in its basic form by the reeds:

Once “Charleston” took off, it must have seemed like a commercial goldmine with the added benefit of being quite musical. Unlike a craze such as “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” this musical sensation gave musicians a simple and very effective device, like answering the sustained chords on Max Terr’s “Charleston Bound,” making a kind of cameo appearance during an orchestral effect:

The Savoy Havana Band’s “Tonight’s My Night With Baby” contrasts the Charleston rhythm with a slightly different one for a sense of release then tension, further hinted at in breaks for the sax section. This one must have kept the dancers on their creative as well as literal toes:

The woodblocks and piano chords on Don Bestor’s “Charleston Baby Of Mine” add a Latin feel, alluding to the rhythm’s origins in the Cuban Habanera:

At the other end of rhythmic flexibility, German bandleader’s Efim Schachmeister “Oh, So Ein Charlston!” takes its title literally, seeming to stumble into a Charleston after a quaint old world frolic:

Listeners who think that pre-swing jazz musicians playing two-beat jazz were just doing “oom-pah” should check out this rhythm and hear just what the rag-a-jazzers were able to do with syncopation and inflection.

The line between jazz and dance music was wonderfully thin during the Charleston’s heyday, but the Charleston rhythm began to leave a special mark in more overtly jazz contexts. On “Charleston Clarinet Blues,” it functions as a ground rhythm for Bob Fuller’s wailing and chanting:

Bert Firman’s ”Charleston Charlie” uses the rhythm as a stop time ensemble shout towards the end of the record:

Tom Morris’s smartly-arranged “Original Charleston Strut” recasts the rhythm for a stomp chorus in the middle of the record, while Morris’s solo implies rather than states the rhythm:

Devices like these point ahead to use of the rhythm in countless solo licks, background riffs, comp figures and elsewhere in modern jazz. The Charleston is a basic rudiment of jazz today. Just hear how simply but magically it clicks in with the saxes playing it over the rhythm section’s steady four behind the flugelhorn soloist in Patrick Williams’s arrangement of “All Or Nothing At All”:

There is a certain humor to the Charleston, as a piece of pop ephemera, leaving its fingerprints on the hallowed halls of America’s classical music. There is also the majesty of jazz’s ability to synthesize popular fads into its expressive range. Yet that little rhythm literally continues to speak for itself.

The Charleston’s reach back in time is as remarkable as its resilience. Johnson composed “Charleston” for the show Runnin’ Wild, yet he was supposedly inspired by the music he heard from residents of Charleston, South Carolina while visiting the city. The origin of that local music probably predates recorded or even written music and is best left to the historical excavations of ethnomusicologists. More than an outdated fad or a period trope, “Charleston” is a folk artifact translated into a show tune, which spawned a national phenomenon that entered into the DNA of American vernacular music. All that, and you can dance to it.