Singer Annette Hanshaw’s wholesome good looks and girlish sound are like catnip for lovers of twenties nostalgia. That shouldn’t obscure her strictly musical gifts.
Hanshaw’s voice was definitely of its time: earnest, bright and occasionally a little thin. It was also rhythmic, flexible and sexily sweet yet completely natural. She takes a merely pretty little ditty like “Who’ That Knocking On My Door” and turns it into something personal as well as musical:
Hanshaw’s interpretation clues the listener into why none other than Tommy Dorsey (no pussycat when it came to evaluating singers or sidemen) christened her a “musician’s singer.” Hanshaw’s sense of float and drive catalyzes a dream band of (White) twenties jazz musicians, with Adrian Rollini on bass sax, Joe Venuti on violin, Eddie Lang on guitar and Vic Berton’s barely heard but powerfully felt drums in turn providing a beautifully spacious feel.
They also squeeze a variety of different sounds from this small hodge-podge of instruments. The exchange between Lang, Rollini and Venuti, with Venuti double-stopping harmonies behind Lang’s tight plucking, Venuti strumming aggressively behind Venuti’s violin and Rollini tossing out short bridges between them, feels like a crossed ensemble signal that clicked into something “right.” Along with Rollini’s hot fountain pen (sounding like a clarinet with a steel wool reed) the instruments partner with rather than parody the lead. This isn’t a singer plus an accompaniment; it’s a group of musicians, including Hanshaw on vocals. Hip stuff, even if it’s also a lot of fun.
It Turns Out Ignorance Can Be Bliss, and Quite Danceable
Amidst pages upon pages of postmodern masturbation, moaning from behind dense, obscurantist prose in The Intelligence of Evil, Jean Baudrillard comes dangerously close to making a point (which to a French theorist is like Superman mining for kryptonite).
Baudrillard frequently references “the real [italics mine] that forces the world to face us, expurgating it of any secret complicity, of any illusion.” In his own circuitous way, Baudrillard points (!) out that modernity is gradually but ever more efficiently robbing the world of wonder. The unchecked ambition for knowledge, the sheer volume of data/numbers/statistics circulating everywhere and the immediate, constant access afforded through media and technology threatens to make everything searchable, linkable and available. The simple joy of mystery is becoming extinct, one click and one study at a time.
"I'm telling you, it's Don Redman's band on 'Birmingham Bertha'"
For devotees of the pop of yestercentury, mystery is a given. A favorite artist with lost works, pieces by an unknown/misattributed composer, legendary performances that went unrecorded or missing personnel listings are all too common. When the players are known but the music is gone (for example the great live gigs no one will ever get to hear, or all of the great musical moments from before the advent of recorded sound), acceptance tempers speculation. When there’s an actual record, an actual soloist that sounds seductively like Bix Beiderbecke or a hell-raising ensemble heard nowhere else, it can inspire spirited, occasionally heated discussions. Yet despite all of the seminar chats and Facebook lectures, in many cases the Truth will never be known.
Unfortunate? Perhaps. Liberating? Absolutely.
Listening to the unknown players of the Sunset Band on test pressings for example, it might be satisfying to confirm that it is in fact Freddie Keppard on trumpet and Buster Bailey on clarinet, as many have speculated. It might even shed some more light on these artists, or provide another precious example of their artistry. It wouldn’t change the elemental drive of the band on “Wolverine Blues,” or their haunting ensemble chords on “Ivy.”
Like the Sunset Band, the Palledo Orchestra of St. Louis also has a body of conjecture surrounding its members’ identities, which are now lost to the sands of time, or the dust of bookkeeping. Research may one day tell who the musicians are, but for now Google queries and digital analyses will draw a (beautiful) blank. On record the group has its own distinctly scrappy groove and gloriously busy soloists, with an unknown bass sax briefly taking over on “What-Cha-Call-‘Em Blues.” While musicologists and aficionados agree that it’s Adrian Rollini‘s bass sax on a session under George Posnak’s name, no one is sure who is providing the stream of solos on “Black Horse Stomp.” Those solos still remain, and they remain personal, even if we don’t know the personalities behind them [check out the following clip at 3:06]:
Record collectors, scholars and fans will continue to debate and argue who’s responsible for the sounds that continue to captivate audiences after so many decades. As long as the debates remain spirited, honest and friendly, we can all look forward to hearing more of them. Still, there’s something profoundly revealing about music that reveals nothing beyond the way it sounds. It reminds us that it can be ( or simply is) all about the music, and that certainty is occasionally superfluous.
Unlike Baudrillard (or this writer), it even does all that in under three minutes!
The music business is difficult, but music history can be murder. Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators. In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:
You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.
Sour grapes? Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence. Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.
Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues. If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.
Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The Blue Rhythm Band would cover Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations. What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.
The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.
“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together. The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics. Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:
“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes. Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:
Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway. Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball. Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:
The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down. Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four. There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section. Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted. Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.
Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing. Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles: