Tag Archives: Arnold Johnson

Three Minutes And Plenty Of Style

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

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

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

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

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

arnoldjohnson

Photo from Pinterest user Gus Ynzenga.

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Arnold Johnson Gets It Done

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

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

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

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

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

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Something To Say In Four Sides: Paul Biese And His Novelty Orchestra

Bandleader Paul Biese enjoyed critical as well as popular acclaim in Jazz Age Chicago and is now known to only the most diehard period aficionados. Such is life for many popular musicians. Yet Biese’s records provide an insightful, powerfully individual snapshot of the transition from popular music of the teens to jazz’s infiltration into the mainstream during the twenties.

The aptly-titled “Fast Asleep In Poppy Land” is heroin-speed instrumental ragtime, alluding to the cacophonous collective interplay of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, only without much improvisation and a hard-edged, urban take on the “nut jazz” no doubt all around Biese and his sidemen. Biese’s tenor saxophone moans on top of, through and all over the band, probably as much due to his vicinity to the recording horn as his tone and billing (he was the leader, after all):

Trumpeter Harry “Rags” Vrooman is especially interesting. He never plays a traditional “Dixieland” lead trumpet role, instead eliding the tune proper into a wailing, three-note ascending phrase alongside Biese, or playing double-time obbligato on “Bo-La-Bo” and decoration behind (!) Lloyd Barber’s trombone (!) for “Yellow Dog Blues”:


Vrooman’s sound, especially on “Dardanella,” hint at his possibly having heard the lift that New Orleans import Freddie Keppard gave bands with a couple of well-placed blasts:

Biese’s “Dardanella,” with Vrooman blasting out of the familiar ostinato and the leader booting like he’d be right at home in a rhythm and blues combo thirty years later, makes Ben Selvin’s peppy multi-million selling record of the tune seem unequivocally tame. Regional styles, bouncy but somewhat buttoned-up New York versus hardboiled Chicago, can already be detected at this point.

Like their Chicago counterparts in Isham Jones’s band, there’s a sense of experimentation with instrumental roles and small group textures in Biese’s group. The leader tries out different saxophone registers for varied effects. The rattle and clang of Lou Goldwasser’s rag-a-jazz drumming and Arnold Johnson’s rapid-fire piano add ferocious drive as well as color. Ralph Williams’s banjo, which jazz historian Mark Berresford has described as a typically Chicagoan blend of melody and rhythm, even adds some zither-like tremolos for a percussive effect on “Yellow Dog Blues.”

Contemporary music history taxonomy may have a hard time pigeonholing Biese’s music, and it’s easy to simply write it off “not jazz,” but its sheer energy, confidence and personality reveal more than just transitional commercial efforts. This was a band with its own voice, easy to dance to, fascinating to listen to and frustratingly absent from most reissues.Oakland Tribune on May 15, 1924

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