Tag Archives: Cab Calloway

Deconstructing Hal Denman

“Bugle Call Rag.” It’s right there in the title: military signals getting ragged or swung, something official getting a good destarching by popular culture, the irony of dancing to the sounds of battle. By the time Hal Denman and His Orchestra recorded “Bugle Call Rag,” nine years had passed since the New Orleans Rhythm Kings waxed their tune for the first time but it remained in band books the whole time. It was firmly a jazz number by the time Denman got around to it on record, giving a fresh layer of irony to his band’s para-military colors throughout their performance:

The famous opening break is delivered as a literal bugle call, at first almost seeming like a parody, until the clipped phrasing stays right through to the hot lick before the whole band, and especially the brass, picks it up. The saxophones smooth things out just slightly while the brass soli breaks are straight out of a marching band. So are the clarinet-led reed section and the drummer’s fills.

By comparison, Cab Calloway’s recording of the same arrangement is much looser in terms of rhythm and articulation:

Denman’s band steps while Calloway’s group swaggers. Lammar Wright’s lead trumpet is big and bright, owing more to Louis Armstrong than Herbert L. Clarke. The saxes really sell their phrases with a warmer blend and more pronounced embellishment. From a jazz perspective, the biggest difference may be Calloway’s ample room for soloists. The entire trumpet section has a say, starting with Wright’s lead through Edwin Swayzee’s muted “trickeration” to Reuben Reeves’s high notes. Denman’s trumpet soloist loosens up slightly but holds onto a slight buzz and click. Denman’s tenor saxophonist doesn’t display the same technical facility as Foots Thomas with Calloway, and Arville Harris’s clarinet obbligato with Calloway is far more extroverted than the brief one with Denman. Even Calloway’s spoken interjections add some interesting rhythmic and timbral contrast as well as entertainment.

It is now easy to degrade the Denman band as stiff, archaic, outdated even in its own time, simply ignorant of jazz phrasing or unable to absorb it. Taking the music on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons or hierarchization, Denman’s tight, precise sound makes for an interesting musical experiment. The syncopated lines combined with fairly even (as opposed to uneven, swung) eighth notes make it sound like jazz from a parallel dimension. Jazz and American popular music as a whole have famously drawn upon a number of idioms. At least a few New Orleans musicians would say that the jazz was already familiar with marching and brass bands. The Denman band may have simply had influences in mind other than the Crescent City second line brand of parade.

from THE JAZZ STATE OF INDIANA by Duncan Schiedt

The prevalence, bordering upon insistence, of arranged material over improvisation could have been born of necessity or just a different musical priority. Either way, it lets the Denman band show off a crisp unity of sound that must have spread like a Gatling gun on dance floors. The balances on this Gennett pressing also add transparency to the parts, so that the lead sometimes sound stacked in the middle of the harmonies rather than on top of them. The drummer pounding out percussion rudiments like an ad-libbing drum major is a subversive as well as creative act considering what jazz and dance band drummers were supposed to sound like at the time. This is not Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag,” nor that of the NORK, Duke Ellington or even Paul Whiteman.

Nearly ninety years later, Cab Calloway’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Hal Denman is, at best, a period curiosity, a dance band leader occasionally granted a footnote for trumpeter Jack Purvis’s tenure with his band (years before it even recorded). At first blush, hearing these two records may explain why. In fact, playing Denman and Calloway’s records back-to-back seems like the type of exercise a lecturer might fashion to explain the concept of “swing.” Yet the concept of swing may not explain a particular concept of music. Denman’s band was a popular midwestern territory band in its time, prompting fond recollections even decades later. Did all those Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Corn Huskers never hear the real thing, or were they simply open to several different real things?

Kokomo Tribune, January 8, 1981

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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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Meet My New Favorite Music Critic!

And he loves Cab Calloway.  The man knows his stuff.

Ask him if he knows the date of the recording, or if there are any alternate takes.  Find out if he thinks the arrangement used any interesting techniques, or if the soloists were innovators.  Ask if he wishes the lyrics were more political, or if he remembers Calloway’s skin color.

Those are all important, often enlightening facts this person may not have access to at this time in his life.  Yet his suddenly open, instantly joyous eyes somehow seem far more important.

A good weekend and happy listening to all.

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Mills Blue Rhythm Band

http://newstalgia.crooksandliars.com/gordonskene/newstalgia-downbeat-lucky-millinder-anThe music business is difficult, but music history can be murder.  Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators.  In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:

You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.

Sour grapes?  Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence.  Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.

Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues.  If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.

Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.  The Blue Rhythm Band would cover  Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations.  What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.

The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.

“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together.  The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics.  Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:

“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between  Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes.  Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:

Dancing Dogs

Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway.  Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball.  Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:

The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down.  Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four.  There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section.  Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted.  Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.

Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing.  Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles:

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Jimmy Dorsey Tells His Story

In Lost Chords (Oxford, 2001), Richard M. Sudhalter describes a backstage scene from a 1976 Paul Whiteman commemoration that treads the line between heartfelt veneration and chest-beating swagger:

[S]axophonists Al Gallodoro (a Whiteman alumnus), Johnny Mince (soloist with Tommy Dorsey’s 1930s orchestra), and Eddie Barefield (star of the Cab Calloway and Chick Webb bands) astonished fellow-bandsmen by reeling off [Jimmy Dorsey’s full chorus solo from Whiteman’s 1927 “Sensation Stomp”] from memory, in faultless unison. “Why, of course everybody picked up on that one,” was Barefield’s explanation…”

Judging from Dorsey’s original solo [at about 1:27 on the following clip] “everyone” also had a razor sharp ear, not to mention several hours to practice.  This one couldn’t have been easy to transcribe:

Sudhalter goes on to describe Dorsey’s solo as “a model of fleet, assured playing, full of swooping, hill-and-dale phrases, nimble ‘false fingering,’ and other tricks of the saxophonist’s trade.”  Between the manic starts and stops and relentless instrumental shifts that comprise “Sensation Stomp,” unbridling Dorsey’s technique over a steady, racing tempo also provides the perfect sense of balance on this chart. For contemporary listeners, Dorsey’s creamy alto may sound quaint next to the tangier timbres of post-Bird saxophonists, and his jittery arpeggios point to the influence of Rudy Wiedoeft and other classically trained sax virtuosos from outside of jazz.

Did Lester Young seem like the type to get caught up in labels?

On the other hand the false fingerings that Dorsey uses at 1:35 would become a mainstay of tenor saxophonist and bop forefather Lester Young when he began to record in the early thirties.  By playing the same note but using different fingerings, saxophonists can alter the pitch of the note ever so slightly, causing it to wax and wane in the listener’s ear. Dorsey’s false fingering builds up tension until the release of a somersaulting break (that manages to work in still more false fingerings).

Young penned the phrase “tell a story” to describe the best improvisers, and Dorsey’s mix of speed and structure makes for a gripping narrative.  Yet we know that Dorsey worked out this solo in advance, first playing it on Red Nichols’ recording of “That’s No Bargain” the year before.  Putting aside the fact that many musicians from this time (including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins) similarly “routined” their solos, can we still classify Dorsey’s “party-piece” solo a work of jazz?

Gallodoro, Mince, Barefield and their Dorsey-loving colleagues didn’t seem to care either way.  Improvised or not, they were impressed enough to recall the solo several decades later.  Legendary saxophonist and bona fide jazz soloist Benny Carter didn’t seem to care when he “borrowed” Dorsey’s solo, note for note, on his 1936 recording of “Tiger Rag” with his Swing Quartet.  Several weeks ago I was blessed and blown away by the sound of Vince Giordano’s reed section bending and vaulting in unison over Dorsey’s solo, with the Nighthawk’s crisp beat booting Dorsey’s legacy into the next millennium.  Critics and academics can debate improvisation as a benchmark for jazz.  Apparently, the musicians made up their minds several years ago.

I haven’t done the research to confirm whether Jimmy Dorsey improvised his clarinet work on “Buddy’s Habits” with Red Nichols.  I did spend several hours trying to get his tumbling runs under my fingers.  Either way, I’ve remained hooked since I first heard this side:

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Favorite Fridays: Cab Calloway, “Jitterbug”

Cab Calloway was a musician who made “singer” and “bandleader” mean something.  That’s not always the case, as too often anyone who can warble some lyrics or wave their arms gets to claim those titles.  As “Jitterbug” from 1934 illustrates, Calloway had a superb command of his voice and an imaginative technique to go with it.  At the same time a musician (and businessman)’s ear for talent made sure his band was never just accompaniment.

The introductory sax soli makes it easy to imagine Cotton Club patrons dropping their jaws, putting down their drinks and mouthing “c’mon!” as they pulled their partners onto the dance floor.  It’s not just Al Morgan’s ground-shaking bass and Leroy Maxey’s powerhouse drums; the whole band swings with inviting intensity.  Slightly ragged saxes glow with the energy of four teammates, rather than the airtight, overly streamlined blend of many contemporary sax sections.  Biting yet warm brass declaim the opening chorus, and when Calloway enters, there’s no sense that this was just instrumental prelude before the vocal main event.

Calloway sings like an instrumentalist, sometimes a languorous sax (“grab a cup and start to toss…”), other times scatting like he’s back to his early days as a drummer (“BUTCH-ee, wutch-ee, time will tell…).” Louis Armstrong’s influence is prevalent in the relaxed delivery and elongated phrases, but the smooth timbre and sudden falsetto outbursts (“’git along!”) are sheer Calloway.

Signature humor also shapes each syllable into an event: a pattering, “His favorite jitter sauce is…” finishes with a drawn out, massaged “rye.” It’s the same use of contrasts that the best Rossini tenors capitalize on, and which made Calloway a dynamic stage presence at The Savoy, The Cotton Club and throughout a sixty-year career.

Like the best opera singers, surefire technique enhances Calloway’s theatrics: intonation and timekeeping never take a backseat to emotion.  That same technique also allows Calloway to lock in with a stream of exciting obbligati.  Full band, wry muted trumpet, swirling saxes, Harry White’s gutbucket trombone and Eddie Barefield’s winking alto all have their say alongside (never behind) Calloway as he shapes variation after variation on the same sixteen-bar theme.  What could have passed for a novelty paean to the joys of the bottle turns into a virtuosic jazz performance.

Calloway’s theatrical “All Bugs Out” makes musical sense when double-time sax figures segue into a call and response with the brass, followed by an agitated clarinet solo from Arville Harris.  By this point if you’re not dancing (on the floor or in your seat) you probably need your pulse checked. A syncopated brass break calls the final shout chorus to order, with some big-toned tenor exclamations by Walter “Foots” Thomas, until the rhythmic ante reaches its limit.

Just what the hell Calloway is saying as the record closes is a mystery to this writer, the best transcription being “how-some-dickie-in-som-mee-dips-a-mania.”  The singer and bandleader’s flair for onomatopoeic extemporization is fitting nonsense: words were just the beginning for Cab Calloway.

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