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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?

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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.

Something Else From Les Délices

I’m far from the first person to analogize Baroque music as the jazz of its day, but ideas sometimes become cliches simply because they’re factual. Both musical traditions prize instrumental virtuosity, improvisation, and rhetorical expression over an underlying—and perpetual—rhythmic/harmonic foundation. Call it a “continuo” or say it’s a rhythm section, describe either “licks” or passagi, but for years these creative affinities have been addictively intuitive to my ears.

Suffice it to say it was a pleasure to cover Les Délices’s melding of these experiences for Early Music America. For more, please see my review here.

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Mellophonia II

From @tjmullermusic via Webstat

Unsurprisingly, I received great feedback about Phil Melick’s guest post on the mellophone. Readers hypothesized about the music and expressed further curiosity about the instrument. So here is more from Phil about this little-known, often misunderstood, and thoroughly fascinating instrument…

Before listening to more records, some technical information about the mellophone may help you hear it.

Most brass instruments in American popular music are pitched in B flat: that’s the note emitted when a brass player’s relaxed embouchure is buzzed in the mouthpiece without pressing valves or extending a slide. Tube length determines frequency, so cornets, trumpets, and flugelhorns have the same pitch of B flat. The trombone is twice as long so its B flat is one octave lower. The B flat tuba, twice the length of the trombone, is another octave down from the trombone.

B flat instruments are often complemented with several others pitched in E flat that add body to the ensemble. Many E flat instruments, such as the mellophone, have a tangy or nasal tone compared to their B flat cousins. If the B flat instruments make the cake, then E flat ones provide the icing. Here are the wind instruments in a typical 1928 dance band, from highest to lowest:

The mellophone is a freak among other brass instruments. It sounds like it has a cold. Mellophonists often need sheet music transposed for alto or baritone saxophone. Reed sections often included someone who could play passable mellophone, but the soloists usually came from the brass section.
Pictures of Fletcher Henderson’s band include mellophones but records feature few recorded examples. The full-bodied solo after the vocal on “Sweet Thing” sounds like Joe Smith:

Cornetist Max Goldberg reportedly started on mellophone, which sounds just right given his clear tone and solid intonation on the instrument near the end of “Wake Up! Chillun’, Wake Up!” with Ray Starita:

“Goody Goody” by Johnny Johnson’s band includes a relatively late example of the mellophone, from 1936, by trombonist Al Jennings (and a nice fiddle bridge):

When listening to these records, bear in mind that dedicated mellophonists such as Dudley Fosdick were the exception. Trombonists doubling mellophone had to contend with a smaller mouthpiece that made higher notes especially difficult. Doubling cornetists sometimes overblew after failing to generate adequate airstream on the relatively larger horn. Given those challenges, musicians grabbing a second instrument to make good music on recordings left to posterity deserve more attention and respect.

Thanks, Phil, for helping to give those players that respect!

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Alias The Cotton Club Orchestra

The Missourians (courtesy of redhotjazz.com)

Prior to recording some of the big band era’s most swinging music, Cab Calloway’s band recorded some of the most stomping jazz as “The Missourians.” Yet even earlier, the group operated as “The Cotton Club Orchestra,” the first house band at the legendary venue. That earlier incarnation is often overshadowed by later versions.

Compared to the Calloway orchestra or The Missourians, and despite mostly static personnel, the CCO might sound restrained, perhaps indistinct. Yet instead of hearing just an earlier, milder version of a familiar group, experiencing its music as the work of the inaugural band for the swankiest club in New York City opens up both its style and excitement.

If the Calloway orchestra swung, and the Missourians stomped, the CCO strutted. It played music for rich patrons who wanted a lowdown good time uptown. The music was bluesily highfalutin, not too clean, not too dirty. On its first recording, the CCO sells “Down And Out Blues” with a blend of energetically straight, cleanly-declaimed section leads and cultivatedly-hot solos over a pounding bass:

Here, “sweet and hot” are more matters of degree than clearcut contrast. “Snag ‘Em Blues” starts off with a showy introduction right out of a Broadway revue before plunging into a downhome hot trumpet chorus, with some slap-tongue baritone sax adding more chug later on:

“Original Two-Time Man” and “Riverboat Shuffle” first come off as peppy but relatively straightforward dance records. On “Charleston Ball,” the CCO’s bright, transparent sax section playing against the brass makes it sound like Fletcher Henderson’s band. Yet the style is in the details:



The fancy trumpet parts on “Riverboat Shuffle” are technically impressive, while DePriest Wheeler’s trombone slurring and barking over Earl Prince’s piano takes the glitzy clientele lowdown. The Hendersonian “Charleston Ball” emphasizes a star trumpeter, in this case Sidney DeParis’s tense muted expositions rather than Louis Armstrong’s instrumental arias. The CCO understood the musical conventions of its time well enough to make those conventions their own yet still recognizable.

A band doesn’t need to be innovative to be original. “Everybody Stomp” makes the uniquely busy, sometimes “over-arranged” quality of twenties orchestration into a tour-de-force:

The second chorus keeps changing the lead in continuous two and four-bar increments; reversing the order for the bridge is another nice touch:

A Redmanesque clarinet trio is followed by a tightly-muted, staccato trumpet. A burbling bass clarinet is followed by a hot squawking trumpet. This side crams so many instrumental combinations into just under three minutes it’s like a hot Brandenburg concerto.

The group’s final recording as the CCO emphasizes soloists and a slightly more even rhythm. Instead of the ensemble introducing the melody on “I’ve Found A New Baby,” trumpet soloist Roger Dickerson gets the honor over a steady 4/4 rhythm. Later on, tenorist Andrew Brown gets a whole solo chorus without an alternating instrument for the bridge. These ideas point ahead to more sophisticated big band charts and the emergence of the soloist as the prime mover in jazz:

At the same time the sax section chorus, with its inner parts moving in contrary motion, points to the contrapuntal sound of the twenties. The soloists themselves are also their own men, confidently of their time. Brown plays a heavy, choppy tenor. Dickerson sounds proud of his instrument’s military origins, striking his notes cleanly, with a slight scoop adding tension. His work also has a touch society band-restraint, especially compared to his fiery outbursts with The Missourians two years later. Here, he comes across like a dicty Bubber Miley. The whole band plays with a refined intensity unique among records from this era.

Dickerson, Wheeler, Brown, Prince, banjoist Charlie Stamps, tubaist Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey all stayed in the band through the early thirties, when Calloway began replacing Missourians. That core membership goes back to violinist Wilson Robinson organizing Robinson’s Syncopators back in St. Louis. That’s four names in roughly a decade (five counting a record with nominal leader Andy Preer listed), each reflecting different musical priorities, ranging from Manhattan via Harlem chic through roaring blues to slick but sincere backing for one of popular music’s largest personalities. All bands have a history. This one has archaeology.

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Meet The Mellophone

I’m thrilled and grateful for the following guest post from prewar jazz aficionado Phil Melick. Among other interests, Phil has spent years giving a lesser-known but colorful instrument its due.

Courtesy of “Mellocast” on Flickr.

What’s the most important and now misattributed instrument on jazz and dance band records before 1935? Hands down, it’s the Eb mellophone, that instrument in many band photos that looks like a French horn with piston valves played with the right hand and its bell facing left. They’re usually seen on the floor because most players were doubling trombonists, cornetists, or occasionally even saxophonists.

For decades, dozens of mellophones on record have been misidentified as trombones, disregarding the musicians who played them well (or not). The instruments were often cheaply produced, notoriously hard to tune, and produced a puny, sour tone when a forced embouchure was substituted for the full airstream of solid brass playing. But when played well, mellophones added a piquant solo voice, and the best arrangers used them to complement both brass and woodwinds.

Musicians who mastered the mellophone were given more of their due in the twenties and thirties, when enthusiasts still had live bands in front of their eyes as well as their ears. By the time records became the only connection to the actual sound of the period, many of us “saw” the trombone, which has led to lots of discographapocrypha. I’ve kept a list for about fifteen years now, and it’s still growing.

Have even more fun with records by training your ear and digging in–these guys have been waiting for you! You can start with two sides recorded on September 10, 1927 by Don Voorhees on Columbia:

Can you spot the mellophone(s)? Let Andrew know in the comments, and tell him if you want to read and hear more!

Thanks to Phil for his introduction to this Cinderella of a horn! If readers are passing through Charleston, West Virginia, be sure to visit Phil at Elk City Records, his beautiful, family-owned and operated record store.

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The Rest Of The Blue Five

Like Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five, for many listeners Sidney Bechet is the main—or sole—event with Clarence Williams’s Blue Five. Bechet remains one of the most important soloists in jazz’s early days. His technical brilliance, invention and sheer power made him a dominating presence with any ensemble. Close to a century later, Bechet still makes it easy to overlook the musicians around him. Yet he doesn’t always make it necessary.

“Wild Cat Blues” is the first and best-known of Bechet’s sides with the Blue Five, effectively an aria for his soprano saxophone. He likewise stalks over “Kansas City Man Blues” but there is also a cooperative element at work behind him when Tom Morris mutes his cornet:

Morris’s interjections were already tasteful and well-timed. With that soft, vocalistic muted tone, his spare comments now come across like talking drums. It creates a subtle but charming texture and shows an ensemble concept of the music, even if this is still Bechet’s show.

Morris gets more room on “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” actually playing lead and pulling out his specialty of contrasting an embellished melody on open horn with muted improvisation:

Morris’s entrance on mute is delightfully agitated, reveling in shades and growls. This man could play hot. The annals of jazz frequently describe Morris’s playing as “primitive, limited” and “old-fashioned.” It seems Morris was outmoded by the time he began to play on record, but close to a century later his simple but direct style and tense rhythmic concept are so retrograde they sound avant-garde. The music is “new-to-you” and won’t conk out (as long as it’s not loaded down with anachronistic hierarchies).

Even with Bechet back on lead for “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” Morris gets a passionate muted solo and trombonist Charlie Irvis also gets some spotlight:

Another New York jazz musician from before the southern musical invasion, Irvis was one of Duke Ellington’s earliest trombonists, a respected blues player and an originator of muted techniques with a major influence on Tricky Sam Nanton. Ellington praised Irvis’s “great, big, fat sound at the bottom of the trombone [that was] melodic, masculine [and] full of tremendous authority.” The rolling boogie-woogie underneath Irvis on “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” complements that sound and his long, arching phrases. Rather than melodic embellishment or harmonic deconstruction of the tune, Irvis reincarnates it using just timbre.

Irvis’s melody chorus on “Oh Daddy! Blues,” with its sardonic tone and exaggerated legato, add another layer of color as well as irony, in turn picked up by Bechet for his chirping verse:

Morris is earnest by contrast until his break, which seems to say “not so much” to all the sentimentalism.

A simple melodic lead could be just as personal as an improvised solo. Morris makes “Shreveport Blues” his own with relaxed, powerful vocalizing as well as easygoing, well-constructed dialog with Bechet:

“Old Fashioned Love” features a more pacific Irvis and Bechet dancing around him:

Mark Berresford notes that recording engineers were subduing Bechet’s considerable audio presence as these sessions progressed, which may have made Bechet take his own playing down a notch. Bechet actually reveals himself as an inventive and stirring accompanist, even if the loud, broad sound of his soprano sax and his force of personality never stay entirely in the background. Throughout these sessions, Buddy Christian’s banjo is the rock of the rhythm section, and Clarence Williams’s self-effacing piano sometimes peeks in for a brief effect.

Louis Armstrong would eventually replace Tom Morris. These are the most well-known of the Blue Five sessions due to the gladiatorial exchanges between Armstrong and Bechet on tunes like “Texas Moaner Blues” and multiple takes of “Cake Walking Babies.” Yet these earlier Blue Five sides reveal wonderful ensemble details behind their star soloist. This is jazz made by sidemen rather than soloists, maybe not “artists” but certainly proud craftsmen. Musicians like Tom Morris and Charlie Irvis may have known who was in charge but apparently they did not see their role as perfunctory. They were professionals, after all.

Tom Morris (Photo Courtesy of All Music Guide)

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8 From 1918

There are many “Best of 2018” lists out there yet most of the music I heard this year debuted closer to 1718 than 2018. My list is going to split the difference and only go back one century. Please enjoy it.

James P. Johnson, “Carolina Shout”

Jazz anthologies are more likely to include Johnson’s actual recording of this tune from 1921 than the piano roll heard here. Maybe it’s the sound of a live piano or clever edits to the roll after Johnson cut it, but this version has a grandeur as well as a Victorian lilt that makes it sound refreshingly dated.

Earl Fuller, “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry”

Earl Fuller’s band, featuring Ted Lewis’s nascent wail, is now often dismissed as—at best—a group of clueless imitators. Yet Lewis’s breaks on this track are melodic in a chant-like way, showing the influence of klezmer often pointed to by contemporary commentators). His smears contrast well with the record’s incessant staccato tunefulness. There is also a subversively comic aspect to the band having their way with this sentimental World War I number.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Ostrich Walk”

The ODJB effectively wrote the Dixieland book with their barreling song debuts yet their perfectly paced, cleverly arranged and simply riveting premier of “Ostrich Walk” remains my favorite recording of this warhorse. The introduction roars into a sense of suspense over Eddie Edwards’s glissandi before the chorus opens up into Larry Shields’s downright songlike breaks. Does anyone really still care whether they completely improvised this performance?

Wilbur Sweatman, “Ev’rybody’s Crazy ‘Bout Doggone Blues”

This is another example of music occasionally dismissed as mere imitation of the ODJB, but Sweatman’s forays into the ODJB style with his Original Jass (sic) Band for Columbia have always sounded distinct to me. The tuba and drums give it a high-stepping parade feel and Sweatman’s clarinet dominates for a unique take on New Orleans collective improvisation.

Original New Orleans Jazz Band, “Ja-Da”

Unsurprisingly, this one appears in a lot of jazz history anthologies. Besides being one of the first recorded examples of a racially mixed band, its warm, soft edges are balanced by an easy yet infectious rhythm and beautiful collective interplay.

Savoy Quartet, “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball”

One YouTuber described this group as “not jazz and yet not quite ragtime” and I thought it was a lovely compliment. Whatever this little group in England was doing, it was their own thing, and that has always counted for something in the jazz tradition even when it’s not jazz per se. I’ve also always been a sucker for Alec Wilder’s clicking, zipping and clanging percussion, laying down much more than a beat like some World War I Tony Williams. Twin drumming banjos add another layer of pop and color.

Eubie Blake, “Somebody’s Done Me Wrong”

More music from outside the strict parameters of jazz (whatever they are are at the moment). Blake’s piano has always seemed like neo-ragtime or proto-stride to my ears. Like Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel (who died today in 1788), Blake heard a lot of changes in the music around him and was too creative to sit on either side of tradition. Blake’s reharmonizations, three-over-two rhythms and stop/start on a dime tempos never obscure the tune but do make it more than a song.

Louisiana Five, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

This earnestly swinging ensemble is sometimes dismissed for a homogeneity of sound due to its seemingly simple format of clarinet lead with trombone counterpoint over the rhythm section. Close listening reveals a variety of textural and rhythmic variety, from the slight backbeat on “Church Street Sobbin’ Blue, shifting rhythmic stresses on “Rainy Day Blues,” a more even 4/4 shuffle for “Dixie Blues” and a near-Latin feel on the minor key verse of “Heart Sickness Blues.” This track shows the group’s unique approach to a pop song as well as clarinetist Alcide Nunez’s subtle approach to improvisation at around 2:30, doubling notes, adding slight ornaments and making the melody his own while never losing sight of that lead. The L5 is just begging for a high-quality, lovingly engineered reissue (and I’m looking at you, Doug Benson and David Sager).

Happy all the years!

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