Tag Archives: Ben Bernie

More Possibilities From The Golden Age Of Jazz Onomatopoeia

Many thanks to a good friend whose conversation inspired this post!

This blog has covered the musical possibilities of “Doodle Doo Doo” and the power of “Charles-TON,” but the much-maligned “doo wacka doo” seemed like a real challenge. Part rhythmic inflection, part melodic motif, and now mostly period ambiance, this piece of musical onomatopoeia is often viewed either as twenties slang that was out-of-date before the last “doo” or synecdoche for ersatz jazz. “Doo wacka doo” may never be a well of musical invention but there are at least a few examples of it being put to novel–even insightful–use.

It’s hard to pin down a first recorded appearance, and tracing its origins would probably be like finding the first use of a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern. The 1924 tune of the same name and composed by Walter Donaldson might be a good candidate, but “doo wacka doo” first had a wide circulation that then warranted its own song. It was another example of distilling the rapid tension and release as well as the syncopation so essential to jazz into a simple formula. That is not necessarily a slight. Lots of musical ideas become stock licks. Effectiveness and ubiquity aren’t mutually exclusive.

Plenty of early twentieth-century American popular musicians caught the jazz bug and added “doo wacka doo” and several other phrases to their repertoire for a little heat. Earl Oliver’s entire style worked off of a sustained note followed by a “pop.” It wasn’t the most flexible style, but in the musical moment, it’s rhythmic and joyous in its own fashion. Underneath and around the willfully straight baritone sax lead on “Runnin’ Wild” by the Great White Way Orchestra, Oliver is a dervish:

Orchestrated doo wacka doo pops up as early as 1923 on Frank Westphal’s “Wolverine Blues.” Rather than just incorporating it into other phrases, the arrangement features a chorus of pure doo wacka dooing (sic?) and variations, likely a form of instrumental breakdown for dancers to do some of their own improvising:

Westphal’s band is plenty hot but definitely stomps on the downbeats, so the “doo wacka doo” chorus provides a little pull in the other direction. The phrase naturally seems to accent the upbeat: say it aloud and it’s likely to come out as “doo-WACK-a-DOO (rather than “DOO-wack-A-doo”). That may have been another reason for its popularity: it’s instant syncopation, “just add ‘doo wacka doo…”

Too much of anything can be bad, hence a lot of musical cliches, but musicians find a way. Ben Bernie doubles down on the nonsense syllables when he makes “doo wacka doo” into a thematic variation on his recording of the similarly silly title “Doodle-Doo-Doo.” The opening “doo wacka doo” trumpets provide busy counterpoint behind the saxes. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo wacka doo”-inspired solo with busy saxes behind him:

This smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect also shows the humor and invention of these musicians. Trumpeter Frankie Quartell with Isham Jones’s band plays with rhythmic accents in a subtle way on the song “Doo Wacka Doo.” For the first chorus, like any good first trumpet, he plays the lead confidently and straight, leaving any variations for after the theme proper. Quartell’s strong, ultra-precise phrasing on the first chorus sets up a cantus firmus for later instrumentalists:

First, smooth saxes loosen it up, then the pianist chops it up into rolling trills, and Quartell returns on muted trumpet to wah-wah the theme a la his predecessor in the Jones band, Louis Panico. Trombonist Carroll Martin then plays exaggerated wah-wah phrases as harmony under Quartell, before the theme opens wide up with some “dirty” playing by Quartell to end the side.

Frankie Quartell and many of the musicians on these records are considered far from the hottest or most creative players of the time. Yet these sides so show the level of technique, versatility, and knack for subtle variation that makes jazz from this period such an interesting and joyous experience. As popular musicians, they didn’t have the luxury of saying anything was beneath them. In the case of “doo wacka doo,” the music really says much more than the words.

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A Few Versions of “Doodle Doo Doo”

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Remember the American idea of popular music is totally different from the Continental. [In America] we take a popular song as the starting point and interpolate it to suit our own ideas.
-David Berend, “Tenor Banjo Questions” in Metronome, January 1929 (quoted by Lawrence Gushee for “Improvisation and Related Terms In Middle Period Jazz,” in Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society)

Some bands and artists [during the twenties] had devoted fans, but most customers were apparently still shopping for songs rather than specific performances: They would hear “Whispering” or “When Francis Dances with Me,” go to a music store, and ask for a record of it…if the [version they heard] were out of stock most people were happy to go home with an alternate version…
-Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

A music lover was passing a pet shop one afternoon when he heard something that sounded like a bird singing dixieland jazz. Unbelieving, he hurried inside and beheld a big, beautiful bird in a splendid cage, giving out a spirited rendition of “The Saints.” Our music lover asked the proprietor, “Is that bird for sale?”
The proprietor nodded: “One thousand dollars for both birds, and that’s a bargain.”
The music lover now noticed a second bird in the shadowy corner of the cage: scrawny, with disheveled feathers and in sore need of a bath. This small wreck of a bird stood uncertainly, swaying now and then, occasionally blinking a bloodshot eye, sometimes sipping from a container of amber liquid.
The music music lover said, “I want the big bird that sings! You can keep that other one.”
The owner quickly replied, “You’ll have to take both birds or none at all. The little bird is the big one’s arranger.”
-Earle M. Moss in The Jazz State of Indiana by Duncan Schiedt

White jazz of the twenties was far from monolithic, though sometimes a little confused by its own vague notions of just what jazz was and by its chronic failure to distinguish between the real thing and novelty effect.
-Allen Lowe, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950

Oo-pop-a-da,
be aba du la,
be bly bop…
-Babs Gonzalez, “Oo-Pop-A-Da” [verbal transcription care of Steve Provizer]

MelStitzelCareOfKinnearReactionsDotComA new song might receive dozens of different recordings during the twenties, with record companies scrambling musicians to ensure that their label offered the latest hit to customers rifling through record shelves. Companies just sought a profit while musicians just needed a paycheck and consumers just wanted a catchy melody and/or danceable beat.

So goes the common wisdom about this era in American music. A hit from 1924 indicates that at least a few people in that iron triangle wanted more.

“Doodle Doo Doo,” written by “Sobbin’ Blues” and “Tin Roof Blues” composer Mel Stitzel, probably looked promising to sight reading studio players and discriminating record buyers. On the other hand, Art Kassel’s lyrics were the type of novelty that would continue to spellbound audiences through “ooh, eee, ooh-aah-aah,ting, tang, wallawalla-bingbang” right up to “zig-a-zig-ah.” Jeffrey Magee lists them as another instance of the craze for tunes with the word “doodle” in them, and this example worked like a charm for Eddie Cantor. David A. Jasen describes “Doodle Doo Doo” as another hit for the singer/comedian, whose signature phrasing and chutzpah helped sell many tunes:

Cantor is backed by a jazzy small group (mostly sticking to the printed sheet music) but his performance is all about the silly lyrics.  Jasen also notes that “Doodle Doo Doo” became a dance hit for Ray Miller and Jack Linx, whose recordings (for Brunswick and Okeh, respectively) were cut within weeks of Cantor’s Columbia side. Perhaps they were given a boost by Cantor’s vocal rendition, or the record-buying public had enough of Kassel’s lyrics.

Miller’s Chicago big band features strong brass and creamy sax sections selling the melody, Miff Mole and Frank Trumbauer providing solo variations and not a single vocal:


No one was playing saxophone and trombone like Trumbauer and Mole. Miller was both business savvy and musically minded:  he provides a smooth, medium-tempo beat for dancers that also allows listeners to savor his soloists’ elegant work. Roy Johnston’s trumpet on the verse may be dismissed as “dated,” but next to such polished company its clip and growl adds variety as well as humor.

Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders probably offered ample variety for audiences accustomed to Cantor’s earnest but slick delivery. It’s unclear whether Okeh’s mobile recording unit predicted success with this or any other tune from the Birmingham-based group, or whether listeners appreciated its approach as more than hillbilly exotica [skip ahead to 2:50 into the clip below for “Doodle Doo Doo”]:

Whatever else they made of it, people heard a territory band jamming on a pop song to its own country beat, without any attempts by banjoist/singer Maurice Sigler at drawling “Ah lahk the rest, but what ah lahk best….” The record’s popularity evidences the wide open possibilities for both sales and music at this point in American popular music.

Even if audiences were just looking for something to dance to, many musicians stepped up with more than a metronomic beat. Adrian Rollini and the California Ramblers, d/b/a the Varsity Eight for the Cameo label in May, throw out the lyrics but keep the melody for their hot small group instrumental:

Ray Kitchingham’s banjo keeps things strutting before Bill Moore’s trumpet buzzes in and sparks things with a spare paraphrase over Stan King’s cymbal cuts. A chase between Bobby Davis’s alto and Rollini’s bass saxophones on the verse is followed by bass clarinet decorating the chorus.

The Georgians, recording “Doodle Doo Doo” two days later for Columbia, also mine plenty of textural and rhythmic variety from a supposed novelty song using different musical resources:

The Varsity Eight builds up from its leader’s bass saxophone in the rhythm section while the Georgians let leader Frank Guarente’s trumpet drive things from the top. Following sustained chords in the intro, he leads a jittery New York-style collective improvisation, followed by a very a la mode sax section with Arthur Schutt’s piano tickling around it. The verse is then used like a riff, building up steam before the succeeding chorus reconfigures Stitzel’s syncopations on the upbeat. Guarente then returns with some King Oliver-inspired muted trumpet.

Twenties jazz was all about variety, all the more remarkable when a band was making what may have been the second, fifth or tenth recording of the same tune that year (or month). Ben Bernie and His Orchestra got around to “Doodle Doo Doo” for Vocalion a few weeks later than Cantor but after several other instrumental versions. His take is one of those distinctly overstuffed twenties arrangements that may or may not have had listeners humming but which must have made an impression on them; the band spins a tapestry of kazoo, bluesy chalumeau clarinet, talking trombone, crying saxophones, band vocal, banjo pickin’ and a minor key “exotica” section for bass clarinet and muted trumpets:

Bernie offers plenty of instrumental shtick with some purely musical rewards, such as the opening “doo-wacka-doo” trumpets that work well as a busy counterpoint behind the saxes on the first chorus. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo-wacka-doo”inspired solo with busy saxes behind it for a smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect.

Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for the Edison label in October as the Broadway Dance Orchestra, after all of the above recordings. Rather than trying to outdo anyone in terms of novelty or variety, the Lopez outfit keeps things simple and very personal:

Bob Effros’s trumpet is powerful but unflashy. The band works up a sturdy, straightforward groove. Aside from the intriguing clarinet/banjo duet and trombonist Dave Boyd, there is very little improvisation or clever orchestral variation. The band’s sound is enough: hot in its rhythms, warm in its textures, always confident and tight without seeming uptight. It may sound naive, but sometimes just the combination of several different instruments played by ten individuals yields exciting and very distinct results.

Even straightlaced performances such as that of the Benson Orchestra of Chicago aren’t necessarily just a matter of musicians reading their parts:


Proud and peppy, “le plus ultra of society dance music” interpolates a lush, violin-like saxophone variation into its chart, a dicty touch arranged for a jazz horn. Jasen mentions that their Victor recording (waxed in April) was another big seller. The music business of the twenties apparently had enough room to accommodate many different musical styles.

JackLinxBandCareOfAngelFireDotComThe outdated, profit-driven system that allowed allowed Eddie Cantor and Jack Linx to share sales might inform modern hindsight. It’s tempting to hear the Benson recording as the buttoned-up, commercial version of a mediocre song, outshined by what jazzier groups such as the Georgians had to say with the tune, which is in turn eclipsed by that group’s recordings of jazz instrumentals such as “Farewell Blues” before that’s all rendered obsolete by the music found in jazz history syllabi and Smithsonian boxed sets. It’s worth reconsidering the Benson band in the same light that Jazz Age consumers encountered it, as one of many groups, all working on the same tune within months or even weeks of one another, huddled in studios that may have been only a few blocks apart, making sense of the newest musical trend while splicing the sound audiences expected with the sounds they had to offer those listeners.

The musicians and recordings begin to express different musical priorities rather than advances or missteps, options rather than right or wrong answers. Some alternatives are more influential or musically sophisticated than others, some more likely to be grabbed off the shelf by twenty-first century ears, yet each one remains valid on its own terms.

That perspective is not only fairer to a band like that of “D. Onivas” but gives the listener something new to hear (rather than laugh at):

Onivas recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for Perfect in May, opting to put some grit into its polished surfaces via Hymie Farberman’s growling trumpet “taking a Boston,” getting the band in on the jazz act on its own terms. What might have been a gimmick in 1924 musical gimmick can now be heard (enjoyed!) as the meeting of stylistic eras and musical ideas. It’s not Louis Armstrong trumpet, yet that doesn’t take anything away from the music.

DoodleDooDooCoverCareOfRareNonFictionDotComIt’s worth mentioning that recording industry politics and the racial environment surrounding them prevented Armstrong, his then-employer Fletcher Henderson, his (and Frank Guarente’s) teacher King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Doc Cook or any other Black musician from recording “Doodle Doo Doo” until well after World War II. That may seem like a dispensation, yet as working musicians those band probably would have appreciated a stab at such a popular song. More importantly, their absence closes off further musical possibilities from those musicians and this tune.

Years after its publication, Kassel would make “Doodle Doo Doo” his big band’s theme song, allowing younger generations to hear it throughout the thirties and forties. It was reincarnated as a campfire song and at least two more risque ones, also making a brief appearance in Elvis Presley’s 1969 film THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS. Even Broadway singer Mandy Patinkin saw fit to include it on one of his albums.

On the border between nostalgia and creativity, New Orleans pianist Armand Hug apparently remembered the tune fondly, recording a rolling, bluesy piano rendition in 1956 that grafted chord substitutions and contrapuntal bass lines onto Stitzel’s tune (with Phil Darois’s bass and Charlie Duke’s drums accompanying Hug with the finesse and understatement of a Baroque continuo):

Jazz blogger Michael Steinman recalls trombonist Vic Dickenson using “Doodle Doo Doo” as a key-changing exercise at gigs in the mid-seventies, modulating up one step with each chorus.  It hasn’t had much luck at jam sessions since, but who knows what the future may bring?  It may or may not be a “good song” but it is a song, and that is all a musician needs.

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A Dillon Ober Scrapbook

This post supplements an earlier one about Dillon Ober, based upon my access to further resources and desire to shed as much light as I can on this obscure, rewarding musician.  So the Dillon Ober story continues, and yes, so does this blog’s story.  Thank you for reading.

With just thirty record sessions spread out over less than five years under a handful of bandleaders and zero solos, Dillon Ober still earns respect from listeners who are fortunate enough to know his name. Best known as a drummer for Jack Pettis and Ben Bernie, he stays in the background on record yet lights up their bands, like a compact, white-hot lamp burning from behind stained glass.  Ober’s concise recorded legacy is easy enough to follow, twice as rewarding to listen for, but outside of the recording studio he was apparently much more than a sideman.

His skills as a percussionist, vocalist and stage cutup are spotlighted from the outset with the Mason Dixon Seven, his first “name band.”  The Mason Dixon Seven itself, which also included brothers Art and Ted Weems, was apparently very popular, gigging across Pennsylvania and earning local praise (even being remembered fondly in periodicals years later):

19211118 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19211118 The Oil City Derrick of Oil City, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19230511 Altoona Tribune of Altoona, PA on May 11, 1923

19230917 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Sep 17, 1923

19231130 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 30, 1923 About a year before his first recordings in New York City with Pettis, Ober fronted a band under the auspices of Bernie himself:
19250623 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on June 23, 1925 This article mentions an “attraction direct from Broadway” yet Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra was firmly installed at the posh Manhattan hotel.   Even more odd,  another article from the same paper mentions Ober right alongside “the Old Maestro” himself!
19250702 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on July 2, 1925 Typo? Name dropping? Either way, Bernie must have had some experience with Ober prior to his arrival in New York City, perhaps relying on Ober to direct bands contracted by Bernie for work around Pennsylvania.  Most revealing is that Ober had led at least one band and was in the spotlight before coming to New York City.  Showing a knack for good copy, Ober even describes his group as “the last word in fine dance music,” with further notices afterward:

19250728 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on July 28, 1925

19250801 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 1, 1925

19250804 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 4, 1925

19250812 The Morning News of Danville, PA on Aug 12, 1925

19251022 The Scranton Republican of PA on Oct 22, 1925

The “Dillon Ober Orchestra” (record collectors, be on the lookout for a potential Rust oversight!) even found time to make it to Brooklyn, NY:

19251003 Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society on Oct 3, 1925

By November of 1925, Ober aka “The Musical Sheik” is even being billed sans accompaniment:
19251104 The Bridgeport Telegram of CT on Sep 4, 1925

19260422 The Cedar Rapids Republican of Cedar Rapids, IA on April 22, 1926

By (at least) December 1926, Ober was in New York City at his first recording session with Pettis, going on to complete his recorded legacy periodically throughout the next four and a half years with Pettis, Irving Mills and eventually as a replacement for Sam Fink in the Brunswick studios with Bernie’s band.  By May 1928 he also begins to appear in acting credits, such the Here’s Howe, with music by Roger Wolfe Kahn:

19280502 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 2, 1928

He continues to play with Bernie through August 1931 while apparently functioning as “chief clown” for his band.  Ober’s appeal may have been more than strictly musical (but records show he could more than hold his own as a musician).

19300325 The Daily Notes of Canonsburg, PA on Mar 25, 1930

19300325 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on Mar 25, 1930

Apparently not tied down to Bernie, Ober pops up on a double xylophone bill alongside percussion pioneer Billy Gladstone:

19310111 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Jan 11, 1931

Ober moved to the West Coast some time in the mid-thirties, playing in studio orchestras and continuing to build his acting resume:

19361024 The Evening News of Harrisburg, PA on Oct 24, 1936

It’s hard to tell the context, but here is a rare (admittedly blurry) photo of Ober himself!

19380329 Warren Times Mirror of Warren, PA on Mar 29, 1938

Amidst a no doubt busy schedule, Ober apparently also found time to entertain his mother-in-law, visiting from their hometown of Clarksburg, WV:

19400422 Santa Ana Register of CA on Apr 22, 1940

Finally, here is notice of Ober finishing out his career with military service:

19420921 Santa Ana Register of CA on Sep 21, 1942His obituary outlines a long, varied and popular career (as well as an untimely death):

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 1

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 2

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 3

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 4Dillon Ober: entertainer, bandleader, family man and veteran, as well as multifaceted percussionist and discographical mystery man (hopefully less so now).

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A Dillon Ober Playlist

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Virtually all of Dillon Ober’s legacy as a jazz musician was recorded with just two bandleaders over a four and a half year period and without a single solo. It’s a modest discography, perhaps appropriate for such an unflashy drummer, but it illustrates an energetic, at times arresting spirit behind the kit.

How Ober began playing is unclear but he obviously started young. Born April 8, 1904 in West Virginia, by 1919 young Dillon was already listed as a “musician” in the Clarksburg town directory. He cut his first record in 1922 playing marimba with the Mason-Dixon Seven Orchestra. The band included future dance band star Ted Weems and his brother Art and was popular at West Virginia University. It also traveled as far as University of Michigan and the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania as well as New York City to cut one unissued take of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Columbia with the young marimba player. The Seven might have also worked in Philadelphia, or perhaps Ober was in town solely for his wedding to Alice “Nellie” Broadwater in 1922. The young couple lived with Ober’s (apparently very patient) parents through 1925 while he continued to work as a musician.

Ober no doubt continued to gig and gain experience, including on drum set. By December 1926, he was confident enough to return to New York City and record with saxophonist Jack Pettis and several of Pettis’s fellow sidemen from Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Bernie led an incredibly popular and well-respected band. Playing with its crack sidemen as well as jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in the music capital of the world must have excited the twenty-two year old pro from down South. He sticks to rhythmic background for most of “He’s The Last Word” but bears down harder behind the leader’s red-hot saxophone:

Ober’s drumming is more like great seasoning than a whole recipe: it flavors the performance and never overpowers the whole, occasionally jumping out before fading back into the mix. Ober is back on drums at Pettis’s next session and while it’s hard to hear Ober on “I Gotta’ Get Myself Somebody To Love,” it’s easy to feel his contribution to the side’s breezy momentum:

Ober sounds downright electrified on a Pettis date with guest clarinetist Don Murray. This was Ober’s sixth session in New York since his arrival, including one directed by Bernie’s arranger Kenn Sisson, and he must have been making a name for himself. Murray’s jittery arpeggios obviously contribute to the bright mood. The up-tempo “Hot Heels” lives up to its name:

Even at a medium tempo, “Dry Martini” picks up steam from Murray’s reedy phrases and Ober’s simple but spurring “1…1,2…” behind them:

Perhaps feeling more comfortable at his next record session (his first with the famous Victor label), Ober varies his technique more for “Bag O’Blues”:

He alternates cymbal backbeats and syncopations next to Nick Gerlach’s violin but sticks to a simpler beat behind trumpeter Bill Moore and Murray, allowing guitarist Eddie Lang to push the soloists and change up the rhythmic texture. Ober then switches to wood blocks behind Moore’s solo, while the “ting” and “swish” of his cymbals behind Lang’s solo add even more contrast. Far from just keeping time, Ober varies his beats, plays tasteful fills and inserts himself just enough to add color at key points. He chimes behind Bill Moore’s chatter on “Doin’ The New Low Down” and also taps an interesting paraphrase of Gerlach’s paraphrase, as Gerlach plays it, on woodblocks:

Ober would play drums on all of Pettis’s sessions as a leader. Pettis started out with no less than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings before becoming Ben Bernie’s star soloist. His light, swinging “Chicago style” sax enlivens every recording it’s on, he penned hot instrumentals such as “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Up And At ‘Em” and his Band, Orchestra, Pets and Lumberjacks produced some of the hottest jazz of the pre-swing era. Ober must have been doing something right if Pettis liked his drumming.

Pettis and possibly some of his sidemen must have spread the word: Ober took over the drum chair in Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. He’s off to a brilliant start on record with Bernie, waxing “Ten Little Miles From Town” and “When Polly Walks Through The Hollyhocks,” two sugary titles that really move (and include alternate takes without vocals) as well as Kenn Sisson’s novel arrangement of Joseph Northrup’s “Cannon Ball Rag”:

Highlights include Ober’s backbeat on the last chorus of “Ten Little Miles” and the way that he and pianist Al Goering gradually add more decoration to the end of each vocal phrase on “Polly.” Ober also really digs in behind the trumpet and trombone on “Cannon Ball.” The Bernie band was based out of the swank Hotel Roosevelt in midtown Manhattan. While not expressly a jazz band and even with tightly arranged charts, it played with energy as well as elegance and left room for dynamic ensembles and soloists. “Rhythm King” and “I Want To Be Bad” are models of crisp, buoyant and warm twenties dance grooves:

Playing with Bernie at the Hotel Roosevelt would have kept Ober occupied and financially stable but the drummer continued to record with Pettis’s side groups. He got to play with young jazz luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey through working with Pettis, and for one date worked under the direction of vocalist and impresario Irving Mills. Word of mouth went far in the Manhattan musical community of the time and work was plentiful, so it’s likely Ober picked up work outside of the studio. Ober’s drive as well as sense of balance on “At The Prom” is a fine sample of his portfolio:

Ober and the propulsive (still unidentified) string bassist take turns driving the band. The bass does the heavy lifting behind the vocal and the violin while Ober plays cymbals behind the sax, stopping after the break to avoid monotony, then alternates open and closed hits for the bridge of the trumpet solo. He’s clearly thinking about how to deliver rhythm as well as variety, something the well-connected, band-booking Mills must have heard. Back with Pettis’s Pets for “Bugle Call Blues,” Ober plays crisp press rolls behind the trombone and piano, indicating he probably listened to New Orleans expatriates or their Chicago disciples:

Ober’s doubling ability would have also made him a versatile hire. He had started on record playing marimba, and his xylophone obbligato behind Pettis’s first chorus bridge on the Victor pressing of “Freshman Hop” is a short but catchy hint of Ober’s inventive touch at the keys:

“I’m In Seventh Heaven” by the Bernie band has a catchy lilt, but Ober’s gliding xylophone obbligato, combined with Merill Klein’s slap bass and the low-register clarinet (perhaps played Manny Prager, Pettis’s sub?) steals the show:

On September 18, 1929, Ober, Ben Bernie and several members of the Bernie band arrived in England to play at London’s fashionable Kit Cat Club. Mark Berresford indicates that unfortunately the band was poorly received by the press. Ober and his colleagues returned to the States a month later. That same year, Bernie lost his longtime spot at the swanky Hotel Roosevelt and lost much of his savings in the stock market crash. He handed leadership of the band over to Jack Pettis in April 1930, moving onto less jazz-oriented groups for radio while Pettis led the band through the end of the year.

Ober made his last credited record, for Bernie and forever, in 1931 (Wikipedia claims that Ober also worked with Ace Brigode but neither Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography nor Brian Rust’s The American Dance Band Discography list Ober playing with Brigode). Working with Bernie must have earned Ober something of a reputation so it’s likely he continued to work outside of record sessions. He lists his occupation as “hotel musician” on the 1930 census, and The Premier Drum Company thought enough of Ober to include a photo of him eyeing one of their products alongside several other noted musicians in its 1930 catalog.

Dillon Ober et al

The 1930 census shows Dillon and Nellie Ober living in Queens, but by 1934 he begins to appear in credits for movies made in California, starting with the comedy short “Old Maid’s Mistake,” followed by “Every Night At Eight” in 1935 and “The Country Doctor” and “The Crimes Of Dr. Forbes” in 1936. Ober wasn’t a complete stranger to acting, having already appeared in the 1928 Broadway musical Here’s Howe (with music by bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn and introducing the standard “Crazy Rhythm”). He didn’t seem to need much theatrical range for film, given roles such as “comedy singer, piano player” and “trick drummer.” More importantly, Ober had an entryway into the West Coast studios. By 1937, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Ober was “…on Walt Disney’s payroll out in Hollywood, tapping out sounds in animated talkies.” Ober’s un-credited work from this period might not have been glamorous but it was steady and he seemed to enjoy it.

Musician Don Ingle, who described Ober as “…one of the great drummers who disappeared into the movie studios in California and was rarely known outside of that arena in the years of large studio orchestra staffs” provides a very personal portrait of Ober during those years in California:

Dillon Ober was a very nice man, looking as I recall a lot like Robert Benchley. We used to go to visit at his place in the Valley not far from our home, as Dad [big band sideman “Red” Ingle] and he had become good friends in the thirties through their mutual friend Orm [Ormand] Downes, another of the unsung but superb drummers who had shared the stand with Dad for much of the thirties in the Ted Weems band. Dillon and Orm and Dad often gathered to socialize when not working, and Dillon’s home was often the site of poker parties, barbeques and a pleasant place to visit. I learned by listening to [Ober’s] descriptions of working with the great musical directors of Hollywood and how they scored the films, a very technical and critically timed process. They would also tell war stories from the big band days and talk about the players they’d come up with in the business.

Ober may have also played for the military after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942, as it’s unlikely the thirty-eight year old would have been placed into combat at the height of World War Two. He passed away just five years later, barely middle-aged and outlived by his father.

It’s clear that Ober didn’t record much and perhaps easy to suggest he didn’t “do” much behind the drum set, but he played exactly what was needed for his fellow musicians. Record after record reveals a no-frills, reliable, rhythmic drummer with his own subtle but instantly galvanizing personality. As for how much he recorded, in this case something is far better than nothing. Ober’s modest style and modest discography make for some very distinguished music.

JackPettisPosterCareOfBixographyDotCom

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For the completest Dillon Ober, check out Retrieval’s excellent Ben Bernie album and try to hunt down the now discontinued Jack Pettis double CD set from the King’s Crossing label.  For a whole other look at Ober and a good laugh, please check out Michael Steinman’s notes here.

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Finding Bill Moore

Bill Moore. The name seems like a joke on itself, a homophone inviting literally “more” to be said about it, while resisting that urge through its own frequency. The number of birth certificates, census records, coroners’ reports and gravestones for “William Moore” or “Bill Moore” makes a daunting prospect when it comes to research. I’m interested in the trumpeter Bill Moore, but there are several players with that name, playing different instruments and kicking up more hay around my desired needle.

Irving Brodsky - Piano  Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

Irving Brodsky – Piano
Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

What I find says little and repeats it often: that Moore worked with the California Ramblers in all of their pseudonymous forms as well as with Ben Bernie, Jack Pettis and many other bandleaders. His unique position as a light-skinned African American “passing” in White bands also comes up frequently, without any insight into whether that fact mattered as much to the man himself as it does to history. Discographies confirm that he played with a variety of bands through the Swing Era, with a 1950 Billboard review praising his “Armstrong-inspired” trumpet. There’s not much more to learn about the man, even less when it comes to the musician. Bill Moore is very hard to find.

The sound of Moore’s trumpet during the twenties takes us past the realm of historical cyphers and gigging sidemen. At that time Moore was a distinctly pre-Armstrong player. His tone is far removed from the rich, brassy sound now virtually synonymous with “jazz trumpet.” It’s narrower and more piercing, like a needle rather than a sword, well suited to tying an ensemble together rather than cutting its own path.

Even through the haze of acoustic records, Moore’s trumpet has a buzzy edge to it, different than the cool quality of his contemporary Red Nichols, the broad, warm tone of Paul Mares or Johnny Dunn’s crisp flourishes.

Moore also frequent played with a mute. Brass players often point out how mutes can be used to hide intonation problems (with King Oliver a favorite example) but the possibility of expressive choice is worth considering in Moore’s case. Moore’s pinched sound was put to good use on a series of sessions throughout the late twenties.

Moore also chatters rather than blasts, maybe to hide an uneven tone, maybe to show off fast fingers. Either way, he lets this brash instrument; seemingly designed for sweeping bursts, speak in tight, concentrated patterns.

Armstrong experimented with what Brian Harker called a clarinet-like approach early on his career. Nichols used clever, clipped lines throughout his long career. Jabbo Smith and Roy Eldridge frequently employed double-time, with the boppers later adding their own phrasing and harmonic ideas.

Moore’s chattering is more disjointed, based in a pre-Armstrong aesthetic that emphasized contrast and variety over continuity and flow. It’s also more of an ornament, as Moore sticks closer to the melody than most modern jazz musicians would ever care to (Moore knows how to have fun with even the silliest tune, rather than simply throw it out). The emphasis on contrast, paraphrase and mutes indicates that Moore might have been listening to “novelty” trumpeter Louis Panico.

Listening to Moore reveals more than session dates and personnel listings. It points to influences, musical choices, textures and a vocabulary. In other words, a distinct musical voice at work. Neither a genius granted immortality nor a hack deserving complete neglect, after generations of brash, brassy trumpeters in the Armstrong mode, Moore’s style might seem like a wholly “new” experience (even if it originated decades before most readers were born).

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

Jazz purists might dismiss Moore based on his lack of swing, his limited improvisational skill or some other interesting but ultimately illogical bit of teleology. Given his post-ragtime, pre-Armstrong soundscape, criticizing Moore (and his contemporaries) for not sounding like later players is like chastising Renaissance paintings for having too many religious references: rather than admiring the work in its historical context, or a part from the critic’s context, everything is measured up against one stylistic endpoint, with all “great” works leading up to or issuing from it.

Not that many even take the time to dismiss Moore based on his playing.  As is often the case with the earliest chapters of music history, discussion beyond the session cards and matrix numbers and right to the sound of the music appears infrequently. Maybe reacting to the music itself seems too subjective. Maybe now that Moore and his colleagues are no longer around, maybe the only thing left to do is ensure an accurate record of the past. Hopefully when the record is complete we’ll remember why it was assembled in the first place.

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