Tag Archives: Bix Beiderbecke

Sweet And/Or Hot With The Broadway Bellhops

The Broadway Bellhops were far from the hottest act of the twenties. One of many recording bands in New York City, bandleader Sam Lanin gathered the leading jazz players of the time to diligently read arrangements of the latest popular songs. This music set out to deliver a tune rather than showcase musicians.

Those musicians, however, performed with assembly line efficiency and concert virtuoso polish. Improvisation and rhythmic intensity were cleverly stitched into a larger musical whole. The trombone chorus starting “I Don’t Believe You” sticks to the melody but is far from faceless: melodic, masculine, not “swinging” but still rhythmically sharp, it’s like an actor giving life to their lines:
[The music is hyperlinked above but please share a video if you have one!]
In the last chorus, a three-part, collectively improvised frontline opens a hot concerto grosso, the trombonist returns for the final bridge and sweet collides with hot as a clarinet pipes over the big theatrical finale.

Somehow, though, the piano accompaniment behind Charles Hart’s vocal is the most interesting part, due to its subtlety. The accompaniment is halfway between song-plugger style and rag-a-jazz, ever so slightly at odds with Hart’s approach. There’s a tension at work that even fans used to these juxtapositions would have noticed, though not balked over.

Time has not been kind to Hart, Irving Kaufman, Scrappy Lambert and others singing with the Bellhops. Their sound now inspires a wide variety of judgments. Depending on one’s opinion, the instrumental obbligatos behind their vocals are either novel contrasts or pure subterfuge. The clarinetist on “Away Down South In Heaven” pushes and pulls at Kaufman’s downbeat while still harmonizing with the lead and never distracting from the vocal. These were professionals. They may not have been making art but they never sounded sloppy or unconvincing.

Two takes of “Get Out And Get Under The Moon” show the thought behind these products, first trying a restrained piano behind Lambert and then well-timed, charming saxophone licks:

Ensemble effects such as the upper-register clarinet with muted trumpet on “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” recall the orchestrated Dixieland sound described by David Sager in his liner notes for Off The Record’s reissue of The Wolverines:


That voicing resembles Sager’s description of “the first available harmony line below the cornet lead, while the clarinet took the first available harmony above the lead.” This was a “standard voicing” of the time, so it was likely a well-known device for enhancing stock arrangements. Similar ideas pop up on “Mary Ann” under Lanin’s name or Lanin d.b.a. Billy Hays on “I’d Rather Cry Over You.”


This band-within-a-band sound and allusion to small group jazz in an arranged setting exemplify the style-splitting popular music of that time. That context is sometimes lost when fast-forwarding to the solos.

Solos like those of Tommy Gott on “Our Bungalow of Dreams,” Red Nichols on “Collette” or Bix, Tram and Don on the Bellhops’ most well-known session are worthy of attention. They defamiliarize the hot/sweet dichotomy and an extra eight bars would have been welcome:




Yet there is much to admire on these sides even without improvisation. Who else could pull off a soprano-sax led soli like the one on “There’s Everything Nice About You” not to mention the tight brass section of just three players sounding like six?

“She’s A Great, Great Girl” features brilliant lead playing by Larry Abbott on lead alto and Gott on first trumpet. Abbott does cover up the rest of the section, effectively making this his moment. He plays with an unabashedly syrupy tone and varied phrasing, digging in at times, creamy at others:

His lead is more transparent after the vocal, another contrast as well as an indication of deliberate design. The side ends with a half-chorus of piano and soft-shoeing cymbals, adding still more structural, dynamic and textural flavor. Details like these are why this music still resounds as flesh and blood performances, rather than disposable pop artifacts or nostalgia.

If you have your own favorite finds from the Broadway Bellhops, please share them in the comments!

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A Version of Jazz History

john-tenniel-alice-looking-through-the-looking-glass-1-of-2-this-sideThey’re not a proper account of the landmark moments in jazz history, but these records do make for fascinating comparison and enjoyable listening (especially if you’ve already taken one or two Jazz History courses)…

“Livery Stable Blues,” made famous by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as the first jazz record, played by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings:

The NORK’s “Tin Roof Blues,” best known for trombonist George Brunies and clarinetist Leon Roppolo’s solos, referenced by Miff Mole and Jimmy Lytell on the Original Memphis Five’s recording:

“Singin’ The Blues,” forever associated with Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, given rhythmic tribute by the Fletcher Henderson band:

“West End Blues,” synonymous with Louis Armstrong, in its restrained inaugural recording by composer and Armstrong mentor Joe “King” Oliver:

Duke Ellington, best known as a composer, with a simple but highly personal arrangement of the WC Handy standard “St. Louis Blues” for backing Bing Crosby:

Meanwhile, across the pond, British bandleader paying homage to Ellington’s music by getting people out on the dance floor:

Jelly Roll Morton revisiting Scott Joplin’s ragtime staple “Maple Leaf Rag” on his own pianistic terms:

Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” perhaps the most popular Morton tune when it comes to distinct approaches by bands, soloists and arrangers, becomes a swinging guitar partita in Teddy Bunn’s hands:

Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” for many the apotheosis of the riff-based, blues-soaked Kansas City sound, live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 with the Benny Goodman band expressing their admiration as well as their own unique sound:

Finally, Basie’s innovations in the scope and sound of the rhythm section, the prominence of the soloist in an ensemble setting and the very concept of “swing,” taken to turbo-charged abstraction on Gil Evan’s arrangement of the Basie staple “Lester Leaps In”:

These are just a few ways to mess with a jazz history syllabus. They might not be innovative recordings but they do show musicians listening and learning from one another while expressing themselves. That has to count for something in jazz, or music.

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A Stan King Playlist

Photo Care of @onlyapaprmoon

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon

Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use and weren’t kind to what remained. King does burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” to bang some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:

Unfortunately outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use standard acoustically sanctioned percussion like cymbals and blocks as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way it got him plenty of work. He must have been doing something worth hearing.

Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker, yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could really move a band with drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:

Aside from a few cymbal crashes and the faux-oriental blocks and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drums. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s (red hot) alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.

King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drumheads, while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus as well as percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:

King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed and very effective:

Listening to King nearly sixty years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with more than faint praise. A crisp, precise and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).

With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:

Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims, for how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass and produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:

Audio wizard, historian and trombonist David Sager recalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California years ago “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi explains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”

[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]

According to Richard Sudhalter King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and  “Davenport Blues”:

On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’ solo, which allows his guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):

King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tosses out fast, snappy fills and bears down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:

On “Here Comes Emily Brown,” again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass, King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:

King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:

Occasionally King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):

or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:

Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. While his preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, that same unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Surprisingly enough Benny Goodman, who King not only played with but frequently pushed on record, described King as “merely adequate.”

The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:

King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett or for that matter Elvin Jones, but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus, and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.

In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death (when Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty).  Fud Livingston thought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter; King got the job done.

Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him: King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:

Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring, and hearing.

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A Chauncey Morehouse Playlist

539260_10150949855755807_1433896026_nFull drum kits were rarely heard on records made before 1927. Only the most skilled (and confident) audio engineers were able to compensate so that a low frequency “boom” wouldn’t throw off the recording. Drummers were left to work with cymbals, blocks and anything else they were permitted to bring into the studio.

Adding in the already difficult sonics of many early records and the fact that drummers rarely soloed during the twenties, listening to jazz drums on recordings from this period may seem like an arduous, even fruitless exercise. It’s not quite like a needle in a haystack: instead, the needle has been chopped into several pieces, with only a few of the pieces actually getting mixed into the hay, while the haystack itself is kept in a very dark barn.

Smaller kits, smaller technological resources and smaller role notwithstanding, the best twenties jazz drummers produced imaginative sounds and perhaps most importantly in jazz, a lot of rhythm. As Dr. Lewis Porter points out, early jazz drummers were not just timekeepers. Mark C. Gridley notes that they actually had a very high level of interaction with the rest of the band, something usually associated with much later styles. Drummer, bandleader and percussion historian Josh Duffee describes traditional jazz drumming as “an art form that tests how musical a drummer can be with limited and very unique instruments.” It turns out that these needles were actually crafted by talented, imaginative needle makers, and it’s time to start digging.

For my own survey of this art form, I’m starting with Chauncey Morehouse. He’s the most familiar to me, and probably to even occasional early jazz listeners. Anyone who has taken a Jazz 101 course has heard Morehouse’s cymbal backbeat on Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer’s seminal “Singin’ the Blues.” His collaborations with “Bix” and “Tram” in the Jean Goldkette orchestra and on numerous studio dates with the famous duo make him one of the most frequently encountered drummers of the twenties. It’s a little trickier to hear his drums but feeling them is no problem, for example on Morehouse’s own composition “Three Blind Mice” with a Trumbauer-led group:

Morehouse doesn’t play all the way through (at least not audibly), yet when he does it’s simply but confidently. Cymbal syncopations such as those in the second chorus kick things forward like a riding crop. He also clearly enjoys supporting and interacting with Beiderbecke during the cornetist’s solo. His approach is different than the Jones/Webb/Krupa via Dodds and Singleton style that would influence the course of jazz. He punctuates and pushes the beat rather than rides it. John Petters chides Morehouse and his contemporary Vic Berton for their “cumbersome choked cymbal beats, which served only to break up the rhythm, instead of laying it down,” yet he judges these drummers according to a later standard, like criticizing the ancient Greek playwrights for not writing any novels. Morehouse is simply his own man rhythmically.

At the same time Morehouse plays with the creativity and sensitivity associated with the best drummers of any era. He varies his patterns, listens to his band mates, fills in between phrases, sets up ensemble hits and lays out when needed to allow instrumental balance as well as textural contrast. The six sides Morehouse made with Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang (a.k.a. the New Orleans Lucky Seven) highlight his taste as well as his resourcefulness with the limited instrumentation available to drummers at that time. In addition to his cymbals popping behind soloists, Morehouse orchestrates the beat using woodblocks and a brassy cowbell on “At The Jazz Band Ball”:

On “Goose Pimples,” Morehouse taps the melody under Beiderbecke’s lead, fashioning a harmony in rhythm and becoming as much of a partner in the collective improvisation as any of the horns:

His rapid-fire “click-clack” perfectly captures the tense, madcap energy of “Original Dixieland One-Step” with a Red Nichols group:

Morehouse’s earliest records with the Georgians may be the best illustration of his doing a lot with very little. The “band within a band” of the Paul Specht dance orchestra, their acoustically recorded performances and dense (but driving) polyphony make it difficult to hear the drums. Yet Morehouse is there for all forty-six sides, the sense of time that earned him lifelong praise palpably, if not always audibly, moving the ensemble. His wood and temple blocks cut through for an especially dynamic impact on “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Chicago” and “You’ve Got To See Mama Every Night,” and his playing is half underpinning, half counterpoint on “I’m Sitting Pretty In A Pretty Little City”:

Plenty of soggy Dixieland ensembles have made woodblocks, cowbells, drum rims, and washboards sound corny, yet for Morehouse and his contemporaries, these things were instruments rather than novelties. Morehouse knew how to add color as well as rhythm using equipment that most drummers would now classify under “auxiliary percussion.” “Margie,” once again with Nichols, contains a range of percussive timbres, from wire brush backbeat in the opening ensemble through cymbals behind the mellophone and woodblock “bombs” behind the clarinet, to the panoply of sounds heard during the final chorus:

Less lucid but just as effective, Morehouse’s percussion helps the unpromisingly titled “Add A Little Wiggle” with a Nat Shilkret’s All Star Orchestra pick up considerable heat. It is difficult to hear what he’s doing behind the full ensemble but it clearly works, and his cymbals step out to dialog with the soloists:

Shilkret’s “Chloe” stays pretty commercial and tame, until Miff Mole’s trombone solo and the ensuing hot small group burst out of the orchestra. Morehouse also bears down, this time on drum skins as well as cymbals:

By the time Morehouse recorded his composition “Harlem Twist” with Red Nichols and His Orchestra, there’s a lot more snare and bass drum in his playing. They add plenty “thwack” but without any sense of military-style heft. Morehouse continues to lift and converse with the rest of the band:

Morehouse’s skins on “Bessie Couldn’t Help It” with Hoagy Carmichael’s band are slightly louder and he uses more regularly recurring beats. That may be a sign of changing styles, or technology catching up with the way Morehouse had been playing on a full kit from the beginning. Either way he remains his same effective but subtle self:

Morehouse’s taste, as well as his time and punch, might have been one of the reasons he ended up performing what some consider the first recorded jazz drum solo while he was still a young man playing with The Georgians, on “Land of Cotton Blues”:

It’s not a Chicago-style explosion, and it’s even further removed from an Elvin Jones odyssey. Morehouse’s solo is short, sweet and spurring. Mel Lewis’ description of the “tap dances” that early jazz drummers spontaneously composed comes to mind. At a time when engineers were wary of drummers and audiences didn’t see them as soloists, Morehouse surprised everyone.

c/o impulsebrass.com

c/o impulsebrass.com

Lewis doesn’t mention Morehouse in a discussion of jazz drummers he delivered on radio several years ago. A part from his association with better-known musicians such as Beiderbecke, Morehouse’s name doesn’t come up very often in jazz histories. He was obviously well respected but is rarely listed as an actual influence on any players. Yet it’s that lack of influence that makes his work so unique. There are no stylistic links with later drummers to make his approach sound basic or cliché, no ideas he originated that have become so commonplace as to seem unremarkable. Morehouse played rhythm and did it in his own way, and he made the band sound better along the way. That has to count for something in jazz.

Jazz writer Warren Vaché describes Morehouse joining an impromptu jam session at a New Jersey Jazz Society picnic, drumming with just two spoons on a plastic beverage tray and bringing the house down. He also recalls Morehouse’s joyous playing with a reconstituted Jean Goldkette orchestra concert sponsored by the New York Jazz Repertory Company. Despite the loss of one leg, the drummer left an impression on Vaché over twenty years later. The man really could make rhythm any time and with anything!

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Support Your Library, Joe Tarto Will Thank You

Jazz Gentry cover from jazzrecordcenterdotcomThe copy of Jazz Gentry: Aristocrats of the Music World on loan from the library of a prestigious music school doesn’t even have a crease across its spine. Every page is crisp, they all rest perfectly flat on top of one another and all of their corners are still sharpened into a prickly point. There’s also no evidence of fingers, or for that matter sunlight or lamplight, blemishing Bobby Hackett’s earnest face on the cover. The virgin stamp card at the back seems redundant; it’s immediately obvious that this book has never been picked up off the shelf, let alone left the building.

Apparently in the fourteen years since it was published, Warren Vaché’s collection of interviews and insights from dozens of prewar jazz musicians hasn’t sparked the interest of any of the students attending this renowned institution. To be fair, most of the musicians that Vaché interviewed weren’t associated with any styles taught in a classroom. They had already faded from jazz’s collective memory by the time he first wrote these pieces for various magazines in the seventies. Yet the musicians themselves were still around. Now esoteric pursuits with names like “Chauncey, Challis, Cork” and “Doc” were still people with brains to pick and memories to mine.

It would be easy to assume that Vaché’s subjects played too many melodies or too few amplifiers to attract contemporary music students. Yet that’s an assumption based on generalization and laziness. History is a hard sell for a lot of people, regardless of age, taste or how many Coltrane tunes they have memorized. Many of the current descriptions of prewar jazz, or lack thereof, haven’t helped matters.

So instead of lecturing on the importance of Bix Beiderbecke or opining on Vic Dickenson‘s singular sense of humor on the trombone, I’ll just offer that young musicians are missing out on stories like this one:

The [Vincent] Lopez orchestra went on tour, and when Joe [Tarto] learned they would play the Mosque Theater in his hometown Newark, he sent word to his mother so she could come see him perform-something she had never been able to do before…Joe had a featured spot on the program doing a slap bass chorus on “Milenberg Joys.” As a finale, and to add a little showmanship while in the spotlight, he got into the habit of kicking the bass into a spin. All the kicking had finally worn a hole into the back of the bass, and between shows at the Mosque a stray alley cat found the hole and crawled in. Nobody was more surprised than Joe during the next rendition of “Milenberg Joys” when the frightened cat began screaming and trying to claw his way out through the F holes of the fiddle. For a moment he thought a ghost had taken up residence in the old bass, but like a real trouper he kept on thumping away right up to the finale. But when he launched the customary kick, the hole in the bass opened up and released the cat, which took off for the pit musicians, knocking over music stands and winding up in the lap of the pianist. The audience howled, thinking it was all part of the act, but the SPCA didn’t think it was funny. Joe had a hard time convincing the humane society representative that the cat wasn’t part of the performance.

JoeTartoTartophoneFromNetwork54Tuba player, bassist, arranger and composer Joe Tarto was about seventy-one years old when he told this story to Vaché, and it is heartwarming to picture him as a young, green musician, excited by the chance to perform for his mother and encountering some harmless bas luck (and also to know that even back then, a diligent member of the SPCA was on hand to look out for that poor animal’s welfare).  The image of the Lopez band opening up a chart and letting a rhythm instrument solo is also telling. Bass solos are still relatively rare, so in 1925 this must have seemed postmodern. While a bass is now more likely to walk rather than slap, the bottom line remains musicians making music. Not “commercial music, “serious music,” “art” or “entertainment” but music they enjoy. Reading Vache’s book is less a matter of respecting one’s elders than simply conversing with a colleague. Don’t get hung up on labels like “dead” or “alive,” just get to a library!

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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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Five Letters That Feel Like Four

Fire That Press Agent, Eddie

I’ve hated the word “Dixieland” since I first gathered a few friends from my high school band to play the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the Bobcats and other prewar jazz musicians. No matter how much I insisted that we were playing “traditional jazz,” the label “Dixieland” stuck with teachers, parents and other (unfortunate) listeners.

My distaste for that word had nothing to do with any cultural or chronological connotations.  Ironically, as a kid who had spent his whole life in Brooklyn with occasional travel as far as City Island, I had no idea that “Dixie” signified the South, especially some (ridiculous) vision of an idyllic antebellum South. If “Dixie” meant “archaic,” my teenaged reverse conformism just thought, “the older, the better!” No, I hated that five-letter word because it reminded me of an earlier childhood treat that had neither the longevity or nutritional value of jazz.

I had only heard “Dixie” in reference to the circular bricks of processed ice cream that elementary school teachers deposited on my desk as a sign of celebration (read, pacification), food that didn’t merit a spoon but just included a small, dull, wooden plank, a utensil that correctional officers might like because inmates couldn’t carve it into a shank. “Dixieland” reminded me of Dixie Cups, and that was an outrage.

“‘Cause Ice Cream Scoops Are Bourgey!”

Sure, the word “Dixie” could have seemed like a bite of nostalgia, almost the way it did for the lyricists of tunes such as “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” or “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland,” anthems to a kinder, simpler time (that was never kind or simple).  “Dixieland” bands did reference the early days of jazz through choice of repertoire, collectively improvised ensembles and their preference for blue thirds over flatted fifths. Some Dixielanders paid obvious (sometimes gratuitous) homage to the original artists.

Phil Napoleon Never Played Dixieland.

Yet those artists’ music had to deserve a better label than that of a tiny, soggy, syrupy sweet confection aimed at underdeveloped palettes. By extension, the thin horns and bloodless rhythm sections I heard from many so-called “Dixieland” groups was a far cry from Bix Beiderbecke’s popping ensembles, King Oliver’s dense, earthy polyphony or even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s almost frighteningly frantic attack. The music of the “Chicagoans and the best contemporary “trad” players listened back but resounded in the here and now. By contrast “Dixieland” seemed like sugarcoated revision rather than sincere reflection.

Of course the distinction between good music, bad music and bad labels gets clearer as I get older (while straw hats and red suspenders will always be just plain awful): like ice cream or a host of other delights, everyone knows what’s good or bad when they hear it.  “Dixie” remains something that’s tolerable in small doses but will eventually make me sick.

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Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

Dance music of the twenties and thirties: dreary, colorless and filled with musicians diligently playing dull written parts, until an improvised break or solo allowed them to display their individuality and inject a brief moment of “jazz” amidst all that “commercial” music.

Except when it wasn’t.

Comparing Frank Trumbauer leading the sax section on C melody saxophone for “Baltimore”

with Chester Hazlett’s lead alto on “Lila”

the difference isn’t just about instrument or arrangement. These are two entirely different approaches to timbre, phrasing and section balance: Trumbauer’s dry tone sliding in and out of the theme from between his reed section colleagues, versus Hazlett’s buttery, vibrato-laden and slightly (deliciously) nasal sound providing a lush melody statement on top of the other saxophones.

Both players fashion entirely distinct and deeply personal approaches despite (perhaps even through!) written parts.  Neither tune was the cream of the compositional crop, and the chance to shine with multiple improvised choruses on Rhythm changes was a few years and at least one stylistic revolution away. Yet whatever the difference between “jazz” and “commercial” music, there’s clearly a difference between the music on paper and the music at work in these two recordings.

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“Sincerely, Bill Rank”

Here’s part three of an insightful documentary on YouTube about Bill Rank and his performances in Holland. Rank is best known as a sideman with Bix Beiderbecke, but “Santopec” comments on a confident, unique trombonist who continued to grow long after Beiderbecke’s Goethe-esque early passing:

The incredible technique is still there after “all those years,” even more well integrated into a highly personal (though clearly indebted to Miff Mole) style based off of wide intervals and suspended harmonies.  The difference is a surer, more rounded sound and suppler sense of construction, which allows those leaps and notes to color Rank’s inventions rather than anchor them (as they occasionally do on earlier records). Hearing Rank’s music on its own terms, without any legendary colleagues surrounding it, is the real find.

As for the “modest and captivating” person playing these solos, he confesses to embarrassment at the privileged treatment by his Dutch fans, and he still pronounces the name of an admired colleague with a Midwestern clip (“Adrian Roll-IN-e“).  Not much to do with the music, but sometimes the brain and heart behind the notes matter.  Who’d have thought?

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Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after.  It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties.  Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols.  Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.

For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors.  Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills.  Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, .  During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy.  A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but  Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:

Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start.  Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead  (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups).  The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary.  When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier.  Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.

The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet.  Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured.  Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord.  The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible.  Many critics hear careful reserve.  Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.

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