Tag Archives: Bubber Miley

The Vindication of Woody Walder

Woody Walder Wails (and Then Some) on Clarinet

Woody Walder didn’t so much play the clarinet as deploy it.  His solos with Bennie Moten’s band are closer to sonic found art sculptures than the poems, speeches and epigrams of his Jazz Age colleagues.  Walder pieced together squeals, squeaks, whinnies, whines and cries, sometimes through the insertion of foreign objects into the bell of his instrument, other times with just his mouthpiece.  The effect (Walder seemed all about effect) could be humorous or disturbing, at times grating, but was always surprising.

Walder’s particular sound of surprise hasn’t served his legacy well. Most jazz historians locate Walder’s playing somewhere between a tolerable novelty of the times or a now dated commercial evil, perhaps higher than comb playing and barnyard theatrics, but far below the fine art of plunger-muted brass.

Courtesy of chaka85.wordpress.com

It’s a pity Walder missed out on noise music, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s experiments or the deliberately nasal, percussive and off-pitch curveballs of the World Saxophone Quartet.  The avant-garde as well as Walder and contemporaries such as Fess Williams (and even King Oliver at his onomatopoeic) all relished vocally inflected, “unmusical,” weird and occasionally cacophonous sounds.  Apparently Walder’s mistake was doing it for a willing and wide audience.

It’s best to listen to Walder on his own terms, neither as historical victim or stylistic precursor, but simply as a musician playing on a record.  Better yet, forget the man and just listen to the wholly unique, singularly “ugly” sounds twisting pitch and time on “Elephant’s Wobble,” “Thick Lip Stomp” and “Yazoo Blues.”  If you’re craving context, listen to how Walder’s solo on “Midnight Mama” at times resembles a hybrid of Rex Stewart’s half-valving and Bubber Miley’s gutbucketing, transplanted to Eric Dolphy’s honking, metallic reed.   It’s a hell of an act, or art, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Fat Girls, Brownies and Moldy Figs

The three of you that read this blog regularly (hi Mom!) might be surprised to hear that this writer also appreciates a new and wild style of jazz called “bebop, rebop, Chinese music” or simply “bop.”  It’s tempting to count decades, but the truth is that bop has remained perennially “modern” since it first emerged in the late forties.

For even the most casual listener, “jazz” is often defined by the sound of small groups featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane among other bop deities, and the recordings on Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic and other musician-friendly labels of the fifties and early sixties.  The brains, balls and imagination of these players and this style almost make you forget about other approaches to jazz.

Almost.

Listening to trumpeter Clifford Brown with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, his technique easily surpasses most players from the pre-WWII soundscape.  Brown tosses out long lines peppered with harmonic twists and rhythmic accents.  The tempos start at blistering and only go up from there. “Powell’s Prances,” “Kiss and Run” and the only modestly more laidback “Flossie Lou” all feature Brown breaking out of predictable two and four bar phrasing, leaping up to crackling high notes and apparently growing a third lung to pull off his flights.  Yet “Gertrude’s Bounce” impresses the most because Brown keeps its lighthearted sleigh bell swing even as he hangs fire. Brown is playing at a superhuman level of speed, power, precision and creativity while having a ball; this is just what he does naturally:

Perhaps even more astounding is how naturally Brown’s lithe yet warm tone comes through in everything he plays.  It can be hard to hear that tone at such high speeds and with so many notes, but it makes every other aspect of Brown’s technique that much more rewarding.  It’s also instantly recognizable, the same way Sidney Bechet or Bubber Miley’s tone could be picked out even before they spun a bluesy Rococo line, or growled out some gutbucket poetry.

Fats Navarro, Photo by Herman Leonard

The same goes for Brown’s inspiration, Fats Navarro, who relied less upon long, rapid-fire lines than his protégé (even if he demonstrated at dramatic points in his solos that he could pull them off too!).   Navarro’s pensive, angular improvisations with Tadd Dameron’s band are always built off a resplendent surface that could easily lead the brass section in a big band, or maybe a philharmonic.  Just like Bechet, Miley, Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison or other greats from jazz’s early days, for “Fat Girl” and “Brownie” it all started with tone.

“Fat Girl.” “Brownie.” “Bubber.” “Wild Bill.” Don’t forget “Mezz,” “Bird,” “Satch” or “Dizzy.” The nicknames highlight the continuity of spirit, if not style, between jazz pre and post-bop.  Alongside the clear sense of self in their tone, there’s a sense of humor in how their colleagues identified them.  Even bop’s conservatory-trained firebrands learned to play jazz in the club, the same place earlier generation learned to play, as well as drink, smoke, etc.

Even for a moldy fig like me, it’s easy to appreciate bop, not to mention simply enjoy the hell out of it. Aside from its sheer visceral and creative drive, the best bop has plenty in common with all the “ancient” jazz that preceded it, though it’s helpful to appreciate their differences.

I wonder how Navarro would have handled Bubber Miley’s part on “Black and Tan Fantasy…”

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