Passing Time With Paul Gason

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

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

That’s why a recording as Platonically outdated as Pail Gason’s “Steamboat Sal” is something of a miracle.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

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

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

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

Paul Gason courtesy of Karl Koenig

Image courtesy of Dr. Karl Koenig’s website

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

Joe Smith Proves Me Wrong

These are deeply unnerving times. Anything that even briefly leaps out with pleasant unpredictability—as opposed to the unexpected worse news—provides a welcome release.

For example, the trombone I hear at the start of Bessie Smith’s “Young Woman’s Blues” always surprises me. A trombone rather than a trumpet taking the lead on a blues side from this period is interesting enough. Yet this particular horn is a real find. The tone is dark yet creamy. The articulation is clean and smooth. Phrases hover close to the same bottom tone, like it’s a hard-fought and now insistent truth.

Seconds later, I always realize (not just remember) that it’s actually a trumpet. Joe Smith fools me every time!

Aside from rhythm, tone is perhaps the most immediately gripping aspect of a musical performance. “Young Woman’s Blues” shows the beauty of Smith’s sound in the sadly neglected lower register of the trumpet. He soon climbs outs of it and gracefully slurs up to a clarion middle register phrase, ending the side’s introduction on a valedictory air.

He answers Bessie Smith’s statements with other firmly centered and gut-shaking descents, including a particularly solid one executed softly but firmly behind the words “settle down.” Joe seconds “I’m as good as any woman in your town” with a muttering declaration. It’s not predictably dirty. There’s no growl or gutbucket inflection. Instead, Smith is subtler and more artful in his carnal imagery. Following “I’m a deep killer of brown,” he tosses off a staccato bugle, proud and dangerous, as a warning to those around him. Smith’s broad final tone comes off like a soprano tuba.

At the time this side was made, Louis Armstrong was introducing higher and faster trumpeting that would become the standard in jazz circles. Smith, meanwhile, is often remembered as the straight(er) foil to young Louis Armstrong’s hot innovations. He could read a written part, provide a brilliant straight lead, and improvise a solo. That versatility, in fact, made him the preferred choice for bandleader Fletcher Henderson when he needed a jazz trumpet soloist. Yet Smith was plenty hot in his own right. He just simmered rather than boiled. Henderson eventually “settled” for Armstrong, and the rest was history.

Joe Smith courtesy of discogs

Of course, trumpeters never stopped playing in the middle and lower registers; Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, and Terrell Stafford among others come to mind. Still, the term “jazz trumpet” doesn’t usually inspire mental echoes of pedal points. So, I’m glad to be repeatedly wrong for a few seconds. Maybe it is my recalcitrant ears, or perhaps my subconscious is letting me appreciate Joe Smith over and over again.

Worth Checking Out…

…the fascinating story of the self-destructively humorous virtuoso pop violinist Nat Brusiloff, with commentary by historian David Sager and a red hot sonata on “Happy Feet.”

For Regulars…

Hello! I know it has been a while, and I hope you’re well. This blog has introduced me to some incredibly insightful and downright nice people who kindly express interest in this music and my thoughts on it.

If you’re interested, I’m honored and thrilled to say I’ll be a guest on my friend Phil Melick’s radio show PhonOmelet this Sunday, October 13 at 8am EST on WTSQ. Phil spins jazz, hot dance, blues, and more on original 78 RPM records. His taste and insights are always on point.

You can listen at 88.1 FM in Charleston, WV or by streaming live at! Stay tuned…

Ben Selvin Playing Everything Cool

From Original Dixieland Jazz Band-style ensembles through hot dance music to smoother charts looking ahead to the big bands, bandleader Ben Selvin kept up with all the trends while regularly staffing his studio outfits with the cream of New York City’s musical crop.

By 1931, when Selvin gave “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” the treatment while it was still hot off publishing house presses, he was a twelve-year record industry veteran with a wealth of styles under his belt.

Fats Waller and Alex Hill’s tune serves as a retrospective of Selvin’s experience. Selvin was a consummate professional who always “sold” the song. He also recognized a quality tune when he heard one. Its skipping melody, choreographing the elation of newfound romance, and Hill’s schoolboy-excited lyrics remain clear.

Yet Selvin lets the tune try on several musical outfits, starting with a bright and broad Dixieland chorus (and gleaming lead by trumpeter Tommy GottBob Effros). Then, young Benny Goodman’s solo bridge has the same feel that would grace hundreds of his own recordings as a leader throughout the Swing Era.

After the vocal, the minor key verse—which itself has a touch of the vaudeville pit band—carries the slightly harder edge of Harlem nightclubs. Here, Charles Magnante’s accordion adds a theatrical organ-like texture. A typical dance band tenor chorus by Hymie Wolfson follows: slightly booting, paraphrased just enough to add rhythmic interest while maintaining the tune, somewhere between a hot chorus and straight lead that links from the improvised sections into the final restatement of the tune. The bridge even has some Armstrong-inspired dips into the upper register.

Records like this one show jazz and American dance band music not so much at a crossroads but able to draw upon both the past and the cutting edge without embarrassment. Selvin knew what worked musically and didn’t have to bother worrying about what was hip.

Hip enough to seem square. Image courtesy of PRR8157 via

The Ringers: Joe Herlihy And His Orchestra

Joe Herlihy’s orchestra may never supplant Fletcher Henderson in any dance band annals, but it was apparently an exciting enough outfit to replace his group at the Roseland Ballroom.

Copious liner notes by Joe Moore for Jazz Oracle CD BWV 8052, Edison Hot Dance Band Obscurities: Volume Three, explain that Herlihy’s Boston-based ensemble filled in while Henderson was on tour the week of February 14, 1927. Roseland was one of the hottest dance venues in New York City at the time; any band that made it through that audition must have been doing something right. The Edison label apparently thought so, because four months later “State And Madison” was being cut at the band’s first record session.

The Herlihy band recorded the only version of this Jelly Roll Morton tune before the composer himself performed it during his Library of Congress recollections a decade later. It practically dances in syncopation and cuts, making it a shame more bands didn’t touch it. Still, Herlihy’s track is far from a consolation prize.

The band doesn’t just lock into a groove but pops and pulls back as one. The saxes’ deconstruction is especially rhythmic and distinct. Compare this band with Doc Cook, Bennie Moten or Fess Williams, or Jimmy Lytell’s red hot clarinet-led trio on “Zulu Wail” or even the California Ramblers d/b/a the Goofus Five on Okeh with “Vo-Do-Do-De-O Blues” from that month. Herlihy’s band plays with a snap to its articulation combined with warm, soft band textures, like a plush teddy bear sporting glass claws.

Breaks and solos by trumpeter Irving Peskin and trombonist (and future Hollywood comedian) Jerry Colonna are proudly clipped in a way that was already becoming passé. Nearly a century later, the sound is subversively obsolete. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of famous film composer John Williams and a man with a life worth reading about) accents and colors the beat rather than lays it down. Ironically, it’s not until his stop-time solo that he puts down a pattern. Even there, it’s more about subtle and unpredictable accents rather than steady feel.

Later sessions under Herlihy’s name featured different personnel, including several members of the far-better known Jean Goldkette orchestra. Those are excellent sides that don’t sound like this combination, which included Herlihy’s original assembly of fellow New Englanders and broke up after work in New York City fell through. Two takes of this tune and the track “Cornfed” are all that remains of this singular soundscape.

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.

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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Prince Robinson’s 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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