Tag Archives: Art Tatum

My Favorite “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists over one thousand recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pretty good for a song that Ted Gioia explains is ”not quite as important a part of the jazz repertoire nowadays as it once was.”

It is true that beboppers, post-boppers, free-jazzers, fusionites and other modernists never really cozied up to the Fats Waller standard. That still leaves a who’s-who of prewar and prewar-influenced jazz musicians to give it a shot. Yet even with Louis Armstrong’s magisterial interpretations, the composer’s own performances and pianists from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Dick Hyman and Jeff Barnhart to choose from, I keep coming back to the Charleston Chasers’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In fact the the Original Memphis Five working under an alias that Columbia records used for several bands, the Charleston Chasers waxed their version at the height of the song’s popularity. Waller had written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for the revue Hot Chocolates, where it soon became a feature for Louis Armstrong and eventually the most famous part of the show. The Chasers recorded the tune about a year later, and just a few weeks before Armstrong made his own recording (skip ahead to 0:48 in the following clip to hear the music):

This arrangement never entirely settles, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Chasers’ two-beat amble has its own magnetic energy, but their rhythm is a little overly delineated. Phil Napoleon’s trumpet is typically crisp yet slightly tense: his high notes during the introduction sound forced while the turnaround notes in the first chorus are hesitant. There’s a carefulness to the Chasers’ playing, the sound of a band feeling their way through a brand new composition.

NapoleonThey’re also figuring out what to “do” with this new song,  adding some highly original touches to make it their own. The Chasers feature a standard front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey lays low during the ensembles to let Napoleon and his frequent OM5 partner Miff Mole fashion brass duets. Napoleon and Mole were already seasoned jazz musicians, developing in tandem with the music from its earliest roots in ragtime. The pair displays a refreshingly harder-edged sound and play busier, punchier lines than most of their New Orleans colleagues. Napoleon and Mole even switch roles following the vocal, with muted trumpet decorating the trombone’s burry lead.  Eva Taylor’s vocal is charming but Arthur Schutt’s elegant accompaniment behind her is the real find.  His classical allusions also turn the minor chords of the bridge into miniature Rachmaninoff preludes. Joe Tarto’s bass keeps snapping throughout while Dorsey’s whinnies add a humorous symmetry to the whole thing.

This performance is a departure from the jamming and stride theatrics now typically associated with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s also far removed from the weight of history and sense of familiarity attached to even the most relaxed renditions of this song. This was only the fourth recording in the history of Waller’s iconic tune. If it shows its age, that age offers a completely unique experience.

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It Seems We’ve Heard This Song Before: David Hajdu and the Familiar Stan Kenton

Music critic, arts journalist and Columbia professor David Hajdu rightly inspires pause and even protest when it comes to celebration.  His rebuke of Stan Kenton, spurred by what would have been Kenton’s hundredth birthday and the ensuing centennial tributes to the bandleader and “progressive jazz” impresario, remind us that anniversaries and events are only as valuable as the person or cause behind them.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

Unfortunately Hajdu’s scathing critique of the man, his music and his ego (as well as the connection between the three shared by plenty of other musicians) is all too familiar.  Kenton’s bombastic big bands, seeming love of complexity for complexity’s sake and dominating personality made him a welcome whipping post for critics throughout his career (and beyond, apparently).

As Marc Myers points out, Leonard Feather nicknamed Kenton “Can’t Stand Him,” and the monumental accompanying text for Ken Burns’ Jazz miniseries includes an informative but ultimately troubling portrait of Kenton courtesy of Gerald Early’s essay White Noise and White Knights.  Kenton not only had the audacity to (try to) play bigger, louder and more intricately than everyone else, he had the sheer chutzpah to tirelessly promote work that he believed in.  In light of current events, his christening that work “jazz” while simultaneously questioning or denying jazz’s African-American roots adds a whole other layer of discussion (best left to other platforms).

Besides borrowing some boilerplate Kenton invective (“…ostentation, gimmickry, and bloat…pretentiousness”), Hajdu takes a page from Gunther Schuller when he criticizes Kenton for increasing his instrumentation and playing “overwrought emulations of the early postwar avant-garde.”  Kenton wasn’t the first musician to try different instruments or new pieces; surprisingly it’s a fairly common practice in music.  That Kenton’s experiments were deemed null by some critics while being praised by some musicians is another song heard before.

Yet Hajdu’s most familiar criticism comes when he mentions Kenton’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter.  Not every artist gets accused of incest, but there’s always enough criticism of creative work based upon personal attack to go around.  Reading this type of criticism can even feel comfortable, like a story we know so well or an old chair that we can’t help flopping down on, even though there’s a spring sticking out.

Richard Wagner, aka One "Behind the Music" You Can Put Off

The point of what this disgusting aspect of Stan Kenton the man has to do with the music of Stan Kenton is unclear, as most musicologists are still unable tell the difference between incestuous music and non-incestuous music.  For that matter, the elusive “arrogant, domineering braggart” school of music theory that informed the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum is still under review.  Scholars still hope that Wagner‘s controversial libretti can offer insight about which of his instrumental passages are anti-Semitic.

The effect of Hajdu’s criticism is less mysterious and all too familiar.  His article will no doubt save a lot of potential concertgoers the time, money and (most importantly) the thought of having to hear this music themselves at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Manhattan School of Music, the University of North Texas or anywhere else.

It’s probably for the better.  After all, what do they know?  They’re just playing music.

Speaking of music, here’s the Kenton band in all its stentorian glory with “Malaguena.”  Dig those mellophoniums, man…

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