Tag Archives: Benson Orchestra of Chicago

A Few Versions of “Doodle Doo Doo”

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 8.13.53 PM

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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black Music, White Records

http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2013/08/12-reasons-why-we-want-anna-kendrick-to-be-our-best-friend/

One of the earliest, and still funniest, Saturday Night Live skits I ever saw features host and musical guest Ray Charles playing himself, alongside several members of the cast playing a popular young vocal group. As the “Young Caucasians, ” they give Charles’ soul hit “What’d I Say” a treatment more Branson, Missouri than Apollo Theater. Charles’ soulful voice is replaced with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irredeemably hokey chorus of teenagers, his gritty arrangement polished down to a cheery, utterly sexless sheen.

Charles’ manager tells him this is the pop version of the song. His further explanation that Charles’ recording will be played in the South and “Negro radio stations”, not to mention the Caucasians’ Brady Bunch-esque fashions and nasal honking, tell Charles as well as the audience that they just heard the white version of “What’d I Say.”

careofglennmillerorchestradotcomThe “white version” comes up as a joke, intentional or otherwise, throughout the history of American popular culture. Another personal favorite is a scene from the 2002 film Undercover Brother, where the titular character asks about Michael Bolton’s cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” There are many more to choose from out there.

Critics as well as comedians like to include white versions in their work. For critics, the white version is an analytical tool, a deviation falling short of some non-white normative case. Critics’ white versions are usually subtler as well as less amusing, and it’s harder to select a favorite, but they still keep coming up with them.

Whether employed as a punch line or a critical idea, white versions tend to be deemed stiff and uptight, lacking the artistic sincerity and raw expressiveness of earlier, more “authentic” versions. As those corny Young Caucasians demonstrate, white versions are also sanitized for popular i.e. majority (i.e. white) consumption. That digestibility also coincides with the idea that the white version are also the more commercially successful (and ergo, artistically compromised) version.

Prewar jazz, bound up in popular music and entertainment, seems especially rife with examples to spur comedians and critics. Listening to the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” I can practically hear comments from some Gunther Schuller-inspired Statler and Waldorf:

The Benson Orchestra’s crisp articulation and bright sound are very different from any other “Wolverine Blues.” For some listeners, this is probably the “white(st) version” of the tune. Personally I just hear a band more rooted in ragtime than jazz, approaching a now familiar composition on their terms.

At a time when music publishers reigned supreme, the same tune could receive dozens of recordings by different bands of all different shapes and sizes, all giving it different treatments. British bandleader Bert Firman put his own stamp on Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:

Saxophonist and author Paul Lindemeyer explains:

On Henderson’s recording, the studio has a “hard walls” ambience and everyone seems to be in the middle distance, so no voices predominate. What you hear is a performance, not so much an arrangement. With Firman you actually hear the arrangement and discern the parts. This is a published stock by the dean of stock arrangers, Frank Skinner, who squared a few corners away and added a couple of “hot-cha” and “vo-de-o-do” figures but otherwise let Henderson’s work stand proud.

While clearly digging into Henderson’s tune, the Firman band also pushes the beat slightly more than Henderson’s orchestra while relying less on improvisation. They still provide an energetic, unique touch to a tune heard in countless jazz history courses and boxed sets. Yet the juxtaposition of Firman’s tenser rhythm and written parts with Henderson’s laidback beat and soloists is probably more than enough to peg the Firman record as just another white version.

If they’re not dismissed as outright imitations or sterilized products, critics also reduce white versions to needlessly complicated attempts at copying the more “natural” original. This blurring of “experimental” and “pedantic” may as well be called “Red Nichols syndrome.” Nichols’ music, including his approach to material primarily associated with seminal Black jazz artists, reflects his own style, taste, and cultural/musical upbringing. His “Heebie Jeebies” features a string of harmonically ranging solos and a wittily arranged double-trumpet soli:

It doesn’t introduce scat singing, and Nichols’ flip, facile cornet is a long way from Louis Armstrong’s golden, swinging sound. Likewise, Nichols’ “Black Bottom Stomp” settles into a cool, metrical groove and transparency that may seem unusual compared to composer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording:

Nichols’ music doesn’t lack anything; it just has different musical priorities but remains distinct and very personal. Even without altering the course of jazz history, that has to count for something in jazz. Unfortunately without a healthy dose of the blues, a loose rhythm, vocal inflections and (perhaps most damning) a corresponding narrative about the artist’s poverty, recordings by Nichols and others like him, when mentioned at all, are often relegated to clever knockoffs.

Not being jazz is one thing, but many white versions are consigned to an ersatz, second-rate category that’s as condescending as it is subjective. Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz splices Chick Webb and Benny Goodman’s recordings of “Don’t Be That Way” side by side to illustrate those bands playing against one another at the Savoy ballroom. Yet it also saddles Webb’s drive next to Goodman’s relaxed bounce in a calculated manner that might have made Lorne Michaels smile:

It’s easy to hear which group has the faster tempo, more sedate feel, harder drive, wider range of dynamics, etc. on Edgar Sampson’s arrangement. It’s impossible to hear what went on at the Savoy ballroom on May 11, 1937. Burns’ point is to show the viewer which band is “best,” as dancer Frankie Manning puts it, but we might just be hearing two unique performances of the same chart:

Seventy-six years later and beyond the Lindy-hoppers’ concerns, can we detect diversity rather than victory, musical priorities rather than stylistic purity? Can we forgive Benny Goodman for making so much money?

As big as the jazz tent has become, jazz’s white album may never be more than a footnote. Ultimately the point isn’t whether Goodman, Nichols, Firman, the Benson Orchestra or for that matter Armstrong, Henderson, Morton or any band are playing the way we expect or if they’re even playing jazz; it’s whether the music has something to say on its own terms. If not, is the music there for productive historical and stylistic comparison, or narrow artistic teleology? I still laugh at the Ray Charles skit but I now know that there’s a grain of truth to it that just isn’t funny. The world isn’t a comedy skit. Things are much more complicated, even if they do often come down to black and white, and more than music.

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Avant-Garde Benson Orchestra

WNAJ - Edgar Benson OrchestraNine decades and a few stylistic light-years after it was recorded, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s “Wolverine Blues” may sound like (to paraphrase one online commenter) a lesson in how not to play Jelly Roll Morton’s composition:

The Benson Orchestra seems to lack the “plenty rhythm” that the composer deemed crucial for jazz. Instead, it has its own firm, broadly stepping two-beat rhythm, with clipped syncopations and a bright, violin-infused sound that looks back to ragtime (but not as far back then as now). The Benson Orchestra rags a bit, promenades more and to some ears might also do some marching. They don’t do much stomping, and definitely do not swing.

This seventh-ever recording of “Wolverine Blues” from September of 1923 is far removed from the medium to fast tempo jams that the Morton standard now typically inspires from early jazz ensembles. Yet it’s also very different from the looser, at times downright raucous inaugural recordings that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Albert E. Short’s Tivoli Syncopators gave “Wolverine Blues” back in March of the same year. The composer himself offered a swinging solo piano rendition in July. Gene Rodemich’s dance band sounds comparatively unhinged back in June, and Frank Westphal’s orchestra played a similar arrangement with a slightly agitated rhythm section and busy solos in late March.  (I still can’t find an online version of Harry Raderman’s May recording, but any help would be greatly appreciated!)

The Benson Orchestra is less visceral and more vertical than any of its recorded predecessors. Pianist/leader Don Bestor’s piano filigree and the trumpeter’s blue note counterpoint during the final chorus do have their own antique charm, but the Benson recording just doesn’t have the same energy and variety of the NORK’s improvised polyphony or Morton’s occasionally Latinized piano. Other musicians were obviously giving “Wolverine Blues” their own distinct treatment before the Benson’s record, treatments that jell much better with contemporary expectations of the tune. The Benson Orchestra’s approach is less a historical template than an example of one band’s style.

It is tempting to dismiss the Benson style as stiff and outdated (and to some, stereotypically “white,” even if both African American and European American musicians were already playing the tune in equally distinct, differently bombastic ways). Yet it is a style, one unlike any other on record at that time, or since: no modern band would ever think to play Morton’s warhorse like the Benson Orchestra does, except in outright imitation or parody.

The sound of the Benson Orchestra on “Wolverine Blues” remains so refreshingly archaic, so far removed from even a vestigial hint at what is “current” that it’s both very personal and oddly subversive.  In its contemporary context, the Benson Orchestra’s outdatedness might even seem ballsy. It may not suit everyone, but it’ll never be wrong. Assuming that Morton and his jazz brethren’s ultimate mission was to encourage individuality in music, then the Benson Orchestra fulfills that legacy in spirit, if not style or (far more slippery) taste.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements