Sweet And/Or Hot With The Broadway Bellhops

The Broadway Bellhops were far from the hottest act of the twenties. One of many recording bands in New York City, bandleader Sam Lanin gathered the leading jazz players of the time to diligently read arrangements of the latest popular songs. This music set out to deliver a tune rather than showcase musicians.

Those musicians, however, performed with assembly line efficiency and concert virtuoso polish. Improvisation and rhythmic intensity were cleverly stitched into a larger musical whole. The trombone chorus starting “I Don’t Believe You” sticks to the melody but is far from faceless: melodic, masculine, not “swinging” but still rhythmically sharp, it’s like an actor giving life to their lines:
[The music is hyperlinked above but please share a video if you have one!]
In the last chorus, a three-part, collectively improvised frontline opens a hot concerto grosso, the trombonist returns for the final bridge and sweet collides with hot as a clarinet pipes over the big theatrical finale.

Somehow, though, the piano accompaniment behind Charles Hart’s vocal is the most interesting part, due to its subtlety. The accompaniment is halfway between song-plugger style and rag-a-jazz, ever so slightly at odds with Hart’s approach. There’s a tension at work that even fans used to these juxtapositions would have noticed, though not balked over.

Time has not been kind to Hart, Irving Kaufman, Scrappy Lambert and others singing with the Bellhops. Their sound now inspires a wide variety of judgments. Depending on one’s opinion, the instrumental obbligatos behind their vocals are either novel contrasts or pure subterfuge. The clarinetist on “Away Down South In Heaven” pushes and pulls at Kaufman’s downbeat while still harmonizing with the lead and never distracting from the vocal. These were professionals. They may not have been making art but they never sounded sloppy or unconvincing.

Two takes of “Get Out And Get Under The Moon” show the thought behind these products, first trying a restrained piano behind Lambert and then well-timed, charming saxophone licks:

Ensemble effects such as the upper-register clarinet with muted trumpet on “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” recall the orchestrated Dixieland sound described by David Sager in his liner notes for Off The Record’s reissue of The Wolverines:

That voicing resembles Sager’s description of “the first available harmony line below the cornet lead, while the clarinet took the first available harmony above the lead.” This was a “standard voicing” of the time, so it was likely a well-known device for enhancing stock arrangements. Similar ideas pop up on “Mary Ann” under Lanin’s name or Lanin d.b.a. Billy Hays on “I’d Rather Cry Over You.”

This band-within-a-band sound and allusion to small group jazz in an arranged setting exemplify the style-splitting popular music of that time. That context is sometimes lost when fast-forwarding to the solos.

Solos like those of Tommy Gott on “Our Bungalow of Dreams,” Red Nichols on “Collette” or Bix, Tram and Don on the Bellhops’ most well-known session are worthy of attention. They defamiliarize the hot/sweet dichotomy and an extra eight bars would have been welcome:

Yet there is much to admire on these sides even without improvisation. Who else could pull off a soprano-sax led soli like the one on “There’s Everything Nice About You” not to mention the tight brass section of just three players sounding like six?

“She’s A Great, Great Girl” features brilliant lead playing by Larry Abbott on lead alto and Gott on first trumpet. Abbott does cover up the rest of the section, effectively making this his moment. He plays with an unabashedly syrupy tone and varied phrasing, digging in at times, creamy at others:

His lead is more transparent after the vocal, another contrast as well as an indication of deliberate design. The side ends with a half-chorus of piano and soft-shoeing cymbals, adding still more structural, dynamic and textural flavor. Details like these are why this music still resounds as flesh and blood performances, rather than disposable pop artifacts or nostalgia.

If you have your own favorite finds from the Broadway Bellhops, please share them in the comments!

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Irick, Seymour: 1899-1929

A post about Seymour Irick probably seems fairly obscure so another one may cause retinal detachment. There is so little on record and in the records about this rag-a-jazz trumpeter. Yet four sides, the last he left to posterity, show a distinct musical personality.

Garvin Bushell described Irick as “immaculate…kept himself clean [and] dressed well.” Not to psychoanalyze the dead or their music, but those phrases describe Irick’s work on “Charleston Geechie Dance” well:

Irick’s trumpet is neat and stylish, playful in a somewhat finicky way. His style comes out of a pre-Armstrong improvisatory idiom, emphasizing melodic embellishment, textural variety and tense syncopation (rather than harmonic exploration or rhythmic ease). Irick is like a cat batting away at a toy, never letting it out of his sight and certainly not trying to break it. It’s easy to hear why this style was “hot.” Its precise attack, combined with accents on the offbeat, builds up staccato intensity against the regular beat of the rhythm section.

Bushell also notes that Irick was a “Geechie,” a member of a rich and distinct African American culture in parts of South Carolina as well as Georgia. Seymour Izell Irick was born February 1899 in Summerville, South Carolina, Dorchester County, one of the South Carolina “low country” areas inhabited by Geechie communities. Tom Delaney (of “Jazz Me Blues” fame) is listed as the composer for “Charleston Geechie Dance,” perhaps an overt homage to his own Geechie birthplace in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was also home of The Jenkins Orphanage, an incubator for jazz talents such as Gus Aiken (trumpeter), Cat Anderson (another trumpeter) and Jabbo Smith (ditto). Irick never developed an eighth of the discography or reputation of those others, so any linkages are unknown at this point, but Irick did belong to this distinct group of expatriates living in New York City during the Jazz Age.

It is fun to imagine Irick getting a kick out of the title of the song. On record, he certainly seems to be enjoying himself, but that could just be the mark of a passionate professional. He’s just as energetic on “Shake That Thing” from the same session. Listening past the surface noise and a few stylistic revolutions, this record becomes a master class in subtle rag-a-jazz theme/variation:

Solos as well as unison and harmonized sections with Percy Glascoe’s reeds squeeze a lot of variety into a three-minute quartet side. Irick’s tight mute adds new color to the melody. He plays clipped, heavily syncopated allusions to the theme, at times like he’s playing the harmony part without the lead. Irick’s third solo varies each phrase ending ever so slightly, an attention to detail like the cuffs on a dress shirt. His banter with Glascoe is cute and clever without degenerating into hokum.

Garvin Bushell provides a musical description of Irick by way of Bunk Johnson. He notes that
“[Johnson] didn’t play the New Orleans style I expected to hear. He played the way they used to all up and down on the East Coast, in New York, or even in Springfield[, Ohio]–he sounded more like Jack Hatton or Seymour Irick. It was a ragtime style of trumpet.” Bushell’s comments point out the uniqueness of regional styles in jazz’s earliest days and indicate that New Orleans musicians themselves were not a monolith.

The “ragtime style of trumpet” or “old-time pit orchestra” sound is on display for the bulk of Irick’s recorded output. His earliest sides with the backing band for blues singer Lucille Hegamin are mostly show music, orchestrated in a lilting but somewhat faceless manner. Yet Irick’s lead crackles through “Mama Whip! Mama Spank!”:

Lord’s discography lists either Irick or Wesley Johnson on these sessions with Hegamin. Contemporaneous newspaper articles mention Irick as a member of the band at the Shuffle Inn of Harlem with Hegamin as the headliner. That doesn’t necessarily clinch his presence on these sides but does provide another link. Maybe Irick got the job done live and earned his spot in the recording studio.

Radio program guides from the time also show Irick in William West’s Colored Syncopators of New York, a 35-piece group playing dance music on WJZ out of Newark, New Jersey. Irick was likely a “reading musician” (like Johnson) who could be counted on for a solid lead. He doesn’t show up on record for a few years until a session with gas pipe clarinetist George McClennon. His presence is there also uncertain. If it is Irick, he is there to once again lay down a solid lead, allowing New Orleans trombonist John Lindsay and a completely unknown but highly extroverted alto saxophonist to dance over the simple ascending riff-like theme of “New Orleans Wiggle”:

KB Rau (whose extraordinarily annotated discographies and essays are an object of awe for this writer) notes that the “fine” trumpeter on this side is not as “stiff” and “ragtime derived” as Irick. Irick might have just been developing as a stylist. The slightly raspy but overall clean muted tone and clear articulation on “New Orleans Wiggle” (to my ears) point to Irick (no disrespect to Mr. Rau). On “Michigan Water Blues,” the muted wah-wah trumpet solo is more about the sound superimposed on the melody rather than rhapsodizing the tune, which also sounds like Irick. Less than a year later, he was in the studio confidently waxing “Shake That Thing” and “Charleston Geechie Dance.”

Four days later, he recorded with another Lem Fowler quartet, this time in pristine Columbia sound, making pellet-like variations and then joining Glascoe for some contrasting legato statements on “Florida Stomp”:

“Florida Stomp” and “Salty Dog” are both reminders of jazz’s role as dance music, rhythm machines not just keeping a beat but making bodies move on dance floors as well as in homes. These records probably made many people move the furniture and roll up the carpets.

From there, Irick’s musical trail stops. Lord’s lists either Irick or Bubber Miley accompanying blues singer Martha Copeland, but an extensive Miley discography compiled by Swedish researchers (no longer available online) says it is definitely Miley.

By February 1929, four years after his last recording and within weeks of his thirtieth birthday, Irick was living in a newly built home on Fish Avenue in the Bronx. He was renting from entertainer Johnny Hudgins and living with twenty-year-old Mary Schnepps, who he had met while she was hostessing at a dance hall. Records show he had married one Luella Clemons in 1923 but apparently that relationship had already dissolved one way or another. Schnepps would later describe Irick making good money as a musician, the two of them going out all night to various clubs in a fancy new car. Her description of Irick is at odds with Bushell’s recollection of him as a “pinchpenny.”

Bushell’s other term for Irick, “erratic,” must have taken on strange overtones in light of news of his being shot dead by Schnepps. She claimed self-defense during a struggle following an argument about her supposedly flirting with other men, and was later acquitted of manslaughter charges. Newspaper coverage concentrated on a white woman living with an African American man, not even getting Irick’s instrument correct.

Irick’s body was remanded to his father William back home. His military-issued tombstone proudly states his rank of “Mess Attendant” with the United States Navy, a reminder of his service aboard several ships during World War One. Even in death, Irick’s musical career didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Still, there are those four sides, less than fifteen minutes of music hinting at a larger musical presence and a complicated person. What is left to say?

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Finally, Bragging Rights

I was sharing unpopular opinions about jazz before it was cool
I’ll see your Keith Jarrett and raise you Ted Lewis, whose singing I absolutely and unironically enjoy very much. King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators is even more “dope” than his Creole Jazz Band. The clarinet never needed a comeback, because it never went away, but wait until bands go back to brass basses instead of string ones.


Welcome to the blog, your home for unpopularcrazy takes on jass music since 2010.

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LARRY BINYON! Also Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Adrian Rollini, Etc…

Many thanks to Loren Schoenberg for posting the following star-studded advertisement for Conn saxophones from the November 1936 issue of DownBeat magazine and further gratitude to my friend Michael Steinman for sharing it with me. 

This writer tries not to nerd out on nostalgia too often, but look at that shot of Larry Binyon!Compared with smiling Benny Carter, modest Adrian Rollini or downright beaming Eddie Miller, Binyon looks more like a man at work than a cat at a gig, and nothing like an artist probing the depths of their soul.

That look could be an autobiography: his career was a nonstop job, playing for the likes of Benny Goodman, Red Nichols, Ben Pollack and Fats Waller as well as many studio groups and pickup bands. He was a multi-instrumentalist, sideman with the stars and studio warhorse who kept some impressive company back in the day, enough to earn him a place alongside the legends-in-the-making shown here. Conn wasn’t just trying to pad their copy with endorsements;  Binyon was simply that well-respected (even if he never seems to have improvised a full chorus on record).

You can read more about Larry Binyon’s career here. While you’re at it, and on the subject of studio players, check out the above-pictured Hank Ross with one of the many recording bands lucky enough to have him on board:

Just another day at work for these guys…

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The Elmer Chambers Foundation

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t list any antonyms for “founder.” Merriam-Webster lists the closest terms as“disciple, follower, supporter” or even “student.” The opposite of an “originator” is, apparently, a “copycat” or “mimic.” There is no exact word for someone who takes over for the “inaugurator” of a role or institution.

So, what do we call Louis Armstrong? He didn’t just have a “predecessor” in Fletcher Henderson’s band, but effectively replaced one of the founding members of one of the most important bands in jazz history. Elmer Chambers wasn’t the first trumpeter to work for Fletcher Henderson, but he was the first trumpeter in Henderson’s band proper. Chambers was on Fletcher Henderson’s first recordings under Henderson’s name with a recognizable Henderson sound, a band that became incredibly popular before Armstrong’s arrival.

HendersonOrchestra per Old Time Blues website

Photo courtesy of oldtimeblues.net

The otherwise beneficent Armstrong berated Chambers’s “nanny-goat sound and ragtime beat” but Henderson knew how to spot talent. Chambers seemed above all to be a lead player, able to confidently read down first trumpet charts, and by virtue of that role, shape the sound of the band. Chambers’s focused, somewhat piercing tone and pinpoint phrasing was likely exactly what was needed to cut through ballrooms and shellac, reading the chart as-is to provide audiences a clean melody and firm beat, and give the band a foundation for its own flights, for example on “Just Hot”:

Chambers’s also gets a solo that is far from the bleating, stiff affair alluded to by Armstrong. On “Ride, Jockey, Ride” with Trixie Smith, Chambers cuts loose, syncopating the lead, inserting some growls and then riffing behind the singer:

The choice of Chambers in a loose small group setting, alongside bona fide jazz players such as Buster Bailey, indicates that his peers likely didn’t see him entirely as a straight player or old-hat. Keeping players such as Chambers in the footnotes of jazz history leads to a sort of perennial history of the avant-garde, a narrative that skips from innovator to innovator while leaving a lot of music out of music history. It’s hard to imagine even modern trumpeters being ashamed of turning out a performance like this one.

“I Don’t Know And I Don’t Care” opens with Chambers on lead with muted obbligato by Howard Scott, now mostly known (if at all) as the poor soul holding the trumpet soloist chair with Henderson immediately before Armstrong’s arrival. Neither player sounds stiff, uncertain or ineffective, demonstrating that “hot” could be a matter of degrees rather than extremes:

Both men were particularly influenced by New York compatriots Johnny Dunn and Tom Morris, incorporating incisive double-time runs and sly wah-wah vocalisms. They seem less extroverted in their playing, easily mistaken for a lack of confidence or swing but perhaps just deliberate restraint meant to fit into the larger big band picture. The placement of notes is crisp, eighth-notes are even (but decidedly not stiff) and tone quality is clear, if not brilliant.

Armstrong’s phrasing and tone would outmode all of these approaches, and his sheer technical prowess as a single improviser would even make these types of semi-improvised duets obsolete. Chambers and Scott became relics, even though neither man could have been that much older than Armstrong.

Armstrong didn’t literally replace Chambers or Scott, but he secured their place in the annals as part of the “pre-Armstrong” Henderson band. The post-Armstrong band became the one referenced in textbooks and lectures. In another one of those fascinating ironies of history, the successor became the legend while the founder marched off into obscurity. Yet Chambers remains the original trumpeter for Fletcher Henderson. It was an important, ultimately thankless job, but he did it quite well, in his own way, and as more than a mere historical curiosity.

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Deconstructing Hal Denman

“Bugle Call Rag.” It’s right there in the title: military signals getting ragged or swung, something official getting a good destarching by popular culture, the irony of dancing to the sounds of battle. By the time Hal Denman and His Orchestra recorded “Bugle Call Rag,” nine years had passed since the New Orleans Rhythm Kings waxed their tune for the first time but it remained in band books the whole time. It was firmly a jazz number by the time Denman got around to it on record, giving a fresh layer of irony to his band’s para-military colors throughout their performance:

The famous opening break is delivered as a literal bugle call, at first almost seeming like a parody, until the clipped phrasing stays right through to the hot lick before the whole band, and especially the brass, picks it up. The saxophones smooth things out just slightly while the brass soli breaks are straight out of a marching band. So are the clarinet-led reed section and the drummer’s fills.

By comparison, Cab Calloway’s recording of the same arrangement is much looser in terms of rhythm and articulation:

Denman’s band steps while Calloway’s group swaggers. Lammar Wright’s lead trumpet is big and bright, owing more to Louis Armstrong than Herbert L. Clarke. The saxes really sell their phrases with a warmer blend and more pronounced embellishment. From a jazz perspective, the biggest difference may be Calloway’s ample room for soloists. The entire trumpet section has a say, starting with Wright’s lead through Edwin Swayzee’s muted “trickeration” to Reuben Reeves’s high notes. Denman’s trumpet soloist loosens up slightly but holds onto a slight buzz and click. Denman’s tenor saxophonist doesn’t display the same technical facility as Foots Thomas with Calloway, and Arville Harris’s clarinet obbligato with Calloway is far more extroverted than the brief one with Denman. Even Calloway’s spoken interjections add some interesting rhythmic and timbral contrast as well as entertainment.

It is now easy to degrade the Denman band as stiff, archaic, outdated even in its own time, simply ignorant of jazz phrasing or unable to absorb it. Taking the music on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons or hierarchization, Denman’s tight, precise sound makes for an interesting musical experiment. The syncopated lines combined with fairly even (as opposed to uneven, swung) eighth notes make it sound like jazz from a parallel dimension. Jazz and American popular music as a whole have famously drawn upon a number of idioms. At least a few New Orleans musicians would say that the jazz was already familiar with marching and brass bands. The Denman band may have simply had influences in mind other than the Crescent City second line brand of parade.

from THE JAZZ STATE OF INDIANA by Duncan Schiedt

The prevalence, bordering upon insistence, of arranged material over improvisation could have been born of necessity or just a different musical priority. Either way, it lets the Denman band show off a crisp unity of sound that must have spread like a Gatling gun on dance floors. The balances on this Gennett pressing also add transparency to the parts, so that the lead sometimes sound stacked in the middle of the harmonies rather than on top of them. The drummer pounding out percussion rudiments like an ad-libbing drum major is a subversive as well as creative act considering what jazz and dance band drummers were supposed to sound like at the time. This is not Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag,” nor that of the NORK, Duke Ellington or even Paul Whiteman.

Nearly ninety years later, Cab Calloway’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Hal Denman is, at best, a period curiosity, a dance band leader occasionally granted a footnote for trumpeter Jack Purvis’s tenure with his band (years before it even recorded). At first blush, hearing these two records may explain why. In fact, playing Denman and Calloway’s records back-to-back seems like the type of exercise a lecturer might fashion to explain the concept of “swing.” Yet the concept of swing may not explain a particular concept of music. Denman’s band was a popular midwestern territory band in its time, prompting fond recollections even decades later. Did all those Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Corn Huskers never hear the real thing, or were they simply open to several different real things?

Kokomo Tribune, January 8, 1981

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Fred Rich Didn’t Need To Play Jazz

Jazz’s social cachet is powerful enough to reincarnate yestercentury’s pop ephemera as today’s history and art. King Oliver thought he was just making dance music but today’s cultural guardians know better. Dancing to “Harlem Air Shaft” is usually an afterthought when Ellington’s composition comes up in academic dissertations.

Purists assume that actual dance music, on the other hand, is meant for oblivion: produced rather than created, intended for undiscriminating mass audiences and containing little-to-no improvisation, they will dig through all that pop pap just to find the jazz, be it a whole record, an eight-bar hot solo or an intriguing chord substitution. For seekers of authenticity, Bunny Berigan’s solo with Fred Rich’s orchestra on a sugary love song must feel like Beef Wellington:

Berigan is, of course, brilliant on his own terms: warm, fulsome tone, phrasing that makes an event out of a Tin Pan Alley tune, just enough variation to make it Berigan’s own and rich, lyrical high notes that would be the envy of even the staunchest modernist. Rich’s band, locked into an arrangement and dainty rhythms, is merely the commercial backdrop one puts up with to get to Berigan’s jazz. Hip listeners know to skip past it.

It might be difficult to make a case for Rich’s orchestra for its jazz content, but a group of twenty or so players not just reading a chart but performing it with good intonation, tight blend and unified phrasing, all with perhaps minimum rehearsal (maybe even sight-reading it) is in itself spectacular. If that ability can be taken for granted, it is a monument to the musicians, not antiquated circumstance.

As for what Rich’s musicians are playing, their simple but beautiful harmonic cushion is what makes Berigan’s flights pop and sweep into grandeur. The tightly muted trumpets leading into Berigan’s vocal add a brief but effective “sweet” contrast to Berigan’s hot opening cadenza and closing solo/coda. Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone bottoming out the parts is a subtle but powerful touch. For a moment it sounds like someone is doubling bassoon. These are not the justly-celebrated rich, dark colors of an Ellington voicing but a lighter instrumental as well as emotional hue, another approach to musical texture, perhaps not thesis-worthy or even groundbreaking, but novel and imaginative on record. It is not improvised, perhaps not “jazz,” but analyses that stop there leave out a lot of musical content.

A Playlist Of Kaiser Marshall Playlists

KaiserMarshallFromSwingFMwebsiteI was all set to write about Kaiser Marshall as yet another ubiquitous presence on jazz recordings from the twenties, one more well-respected musician now left with surprisingly little discussion of his style amidst biographical and discographical minutia. Fletcher Henderson’s drummer, someone occupying such an important historical and musical role, consigned to the annals rather than lauded in the academy and on the web, etc.

It was a fine soapbox but it grew shorter the more I researched Marshall.

Marshall did start his career with Henderson during the dark ages of recorded percussion. Acoustically recorded drummers made due with what audio engineers allowed into the studio and don’t always have the literal recorded presence to generate the same amount of discourse as later, better-recorded percussion. Yet musicologist Jeffrey Magee references Marshall’s spare cymbal hits at length in his book The Uncrowned King Of Swing, not as creative compromises but concise, rhythmic and often witty accents crucial to the arrangement. He singles out “Jiminy Gee” and “Jealous” as two important early examples of Marshall’s contribution to the band:

Decades of scratching my head while reading standard jazz histories, many of which throw a lot of music from history out to forge music history, make books like Magee’s a blessing. It’s not just a case of a credentialed authority validating my own taste (nice as that is), but learning what makes the music distinct from a musical as well as a historical perspective. Whenever a critic, a historian, a scholar or another commentator dismisses a performance out-of-hand, they’re not only leaving something or someone out of the conversation, they’re foreclosing education. How much more is out there for our ears and minds?

Nicholas D. Ball wrote an incredibly detailed musical biography of Marshall in the “Heroes” section of his blog. Ball hears shades of rhythm and timbre that belie the supposedly monochromatic surfaces of 78s. Among several other choice cuts by Marshall with Henderson, Ball highlights “Dicty Blues” from the band’s acoustically recorded days:

He also points out the electrically recorded, ultra modernistic and tortuously orchestrated “Whiteman Stomp”:

“Whiteman Stomp” is usually written off as an over-arranged, pretentious noble failure, so it is vindicating to hear a smart, passionate musician mention it (even in passing) as a serious musical example.

Anyone in front of this lit screen is hereby gently harangued to check out Ball’s post (as well as the dozen or so others devoted to Ball’s other idols). The same goes for Magee’s book, which treats all of the Henderson band’s music and musicians as sincere creative experiences, rather than cherry-picking the recordings that led to the music now canonized as “Jazz” with that capitalized first initial.

Correcting the record, or at least giving it the benefit of the doubt, opens up a lot of new-to-you music as well as hitherto unexplored aspects of the canon. Jazz blogger Michael Steinman takes an example of Marshall playing a bit too loud on “Knockin’ A Jug” as an opportunity to appreciate the drummer behind a full kit:

Steinman singles out Marshall’s sense of time, the variety of his percussive timbres behind different soloists and, above all, the sheer lift and joy of his “simple yet very intense” approach. The reader should check out this post for its appreciation of this performance, well-known to jazz listeners but worth re-appreciating from behind Steinman’s lens. Ditto for his blog‘s loving tribute to hot jazz on record and live from the twenty-first century.

In that same post, and maybe most tellingly, jazz drummer Hal Smith leaves a comment with nothing but praise for Marshall. Mr. Smith, like Mr. Ball, is out there making this music happen, taking Marshall and many other musicians that academia and book publishers don’t have time for quite seriously. It is literally just about the music for its practitioners.

I’ll end this gratefully failed cry of outrage with two of my favorite Marshall sides. First, “St.Louis Shuffle”:

Marshall is a real ensemble drummer who doesn’t draw attention to himself but invites appreciation. His cymbals sound beautiful and pop at just right the moments between and behind the band. His hits are the pinstripes on a designer suit.

Quite literally, lastly there is “Kaiser’s Last Break,” eponymously named by Sidney Bechet after Marshall’s untimely passing:

As if the band knew that opportunities to savor Marshall’s playing were now at a premium, Marshall gets two four-bar solos, syncopated gunshots that proudly march as well as swing, perhaps a callback to Marshall’s formative years.

Thank goodness for Ball, Magee, Steinman and Smith, and so much for my soapbox. Kaiser Marshall sounds better up there anyway.

The above photograph of Kaiser Marshall was found online here.

Thoughts Over Coffee

“Charleston Crazy,” by the Fletcher Henderson band before Louis Armstrong entered its ranks, is the type of performance that would likely be described by later commentators as “choppy” or “cluttered:”

A bass saxophone roars a two-beat bass line under deliciously nasal trumpets, the steady pulse continuously interrupted by exclamations of the Charleston beat as though the band is obsessed or literally “crazy” with the syncopated rhythm. It’s a musical tug-of-war, an ensemble at odds with itself. Even the textures never seem to settle in, fluctuating between smooth saxes, wah-wah trumpet and so many brief breaks. Post-bop hearing aids tell us that the chart is so concerned with ensemble tricks that it never lets the rhythm settle into a steady groove. This music would be unsuited for the soloist, the sine qua non of jazz codified years after this record stopped being pressed, let alone listened to with any regularity.

The subjects and discourses that coalesced into the term “jazz history,” including this recording, are at most little over a century old. Jazz is a baby compared to other historical subjects. Jazz history, however, moves fast. For its purposes, I might as well be looking at cave drawings with The Guggenheim only a block away. According to most jazz histories, Henderson’s band of musically proficient, well-educated, confident, popularly acclaimed and musically well-respected young men were pretty much wasting their time until Armstrong entered the group, first to mocking skepticism, even classist derision, then to awe-filled embrace. There was simply no other way to play, leaving his section mates Howard Scott and Elmer Chambers out-of-date before jazz had even begun its proper history.

Jazz has, of course, changed considerably since this performance was put to shellac in 1923. In addition to introducing the improvising soloist as its centerpiece and in turn completely redefining the scope and possibilities of solo improvisation, jazz has expanded its rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary, created its own melodic language, pushed dissonance to startling boundaries, experimented with meter and form, incorporated myriad influences from a globe’s worth of musical genres and raised standards of musicianship to incredible heights. Henderson’s three-minute number suffers by comparison: its chord changes likely hopelessly bare for generations of musicians nursed on Bird heads, its rhythm clunky and static beside the polyrhythmic careening expected just to get into Berklee.

It is easy to fall into the trap of calling these changes “progress,” but that term implies a destination, an ideal, an eventual completion of some higher goal. A practitioner of music may have some ultimate goal in mind. Maybe they want it to break musical conventions or challenge artistic standards. Perhaps they want their work to change minds, hearts, policies or Billboard charts. Yet while the music may be directed towards goals that go beyond the sound of itself, the sounds themselves can never be made more complete or brought to some conclusion. Otherwise, every single artistic work would need to be experienced as an unanswered question, an endlessly incomplete experiment constantly missing something until the next step. If you’re writing a dissertation or a New York Times column, this may be fine, but imagine if the rest of us had to listen this way?

So I can’t help treating “Charleston Crazy” as an end in itself. Ditto for the pre-Armstrong Henderson band. I keep coming back to this by turns dicty and artfully dirty nonet, with its trumpeters clearly inspired by jazz coelacanth Johnny Dunn in all of their clipped, chattering, squawking and tensely syncopated glory. Ditto the young Coleman Hawkins and his ponderous, jerky arpeggiations. Jazz historians describe the Hawkins from this period as precocious yet in need of a catalyst to become a full-fledged soloist. These records would later on embarrass Hawkins himself, but I always thought that it was unfair of that older player to belittle the work of this young musician, even if they were the same person. Howard Scott has proven more interesting to me as a musical as well as aesthetic subject than Dizzy Gillespie (who would’ve turned 101 this year) and Dixieland chord progressions much more satisfying than most multi-tonal explorations tracing their inspiration back to John Coltrane (a spring chicken at 92). Of course, I try to appreciate everything. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I said I actually did not “like” a piece of music. It is just a matter of what I purchase for my record shelf.

Crypto moldy-figgism? The fig never asked not to be an apple, and none of us are safe from mold. Either way, I suppose I could just ignore all of the discourse, like what I like, pursue what I want, “the music is all that matters,” etc. Except it is hard not to wonder why no one is writing books about that music, why the most well-respected authorities barely go near the stuff, why the things you like seem to fly in the face of the very standards established to define the world they belong to. Am I crazy? Do I have odd or bad taste? Are they the same thing? Also, who wrote the book of taste, and what was in it for them? When the team you’re rooting for never makes the playoffs, even the best of us may start to yell at the referees.

Shaking Commentary

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Newspaper clipping images are excerpted from T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, a film by Robert Philipson.