Tag Archives: California Ramblers

Al Weber, All About All The Basses

CareOf_ISBConventionDOTcomAl Weber mostly stuck to tuba on the few recordings he left behind as a sideman with Cass Hagan, Bert Lown and a post-Adrian Rollini (and therefore below most commentators’ radar) edition of the California Ramblers. There’s no explanation for why Weber picked up the string bass on one lone date with the Ramblers, or why he put it away every other time he made a record:

Weber slapping away on the three solo bridges of “Me And The Man In The Moon” is the most prominently “jazzy” aspect of his sound on record (and each bridge spotlighting a different reed is some very smart arranger’s touch). Yet even his plucking behind the band gives the entire side a lift. Weber’s tone is solid, his time secure and his anticipatory attacks are from perfunctory oom-pahs. They’re not the scene-stealing cross accents of Steve Brown or percussive thwacks of Wellman Braud but they are admirable and ear-whetting work. The same goes for Weber’s syncopated pops and jogging accompaniment on the tune’s session mate, “You’re The Cream In The Coffee”:

The transition from tuba to string bass during this period has been widely discussed and debated in all its stages of grey. The only crystal clear development from this period is that several now-unsung sidemen were regularly doubling string, brass and even reed bass. Listening to Weber, Min Leibrook, Joe Tarto, Harry Goodman (yes, even him) and others who never got the historical clout of a Braud, Brown or Pops Foster, it’s also clear that they listened and learned from what was out there. That’s an impressive skillset, more so if it was just par for the course for this era’s bass players. It gives a new meaning to “all in a day’s work” and really defamiliarizes the term “sideman.”

Weber, by the way, was apparently no slouch on any of the instruments listed on his resume. In addition to playing for no less than Sousa himself, Weber’s round sound on tuba contributes to Hagan’s snappy arrangement of “Varsity Drag,” complete with Red Nichols slicing away in solo and ensemble:

and Weber gets a break all to himself on “My Ohio Home,” polishing off some subterranean notes with clarity and control:

Records like these keep me wondering what other sounds are out there, beyond the Smithsonian boxed sets and buried inside discographical footnotes…

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Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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More Music, That Pop

Thank George for sharing Richard Hamilton’s definition of “pop art”:


“Pop Art” does refer to a very specific visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century, but I thought I’d abuse the term and apply Hamilton’s criterion to some of the music bandied about on this blog (just click to enlarge):

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 11.36.19 AMAs far as the scores go, Vivaldi comes out as the most “pop” while Mozart gets the lowest score, which should satisfy most professional music historians. King Oliver and the California Ramblers tying is sure to irritate jazz purists; Oliver would probably just be happy, and surprised, to know that people are still listening to his music.

I’m happy to justify these scores and be proven wrong in the process.  The scoreboard also includes a few blank columns so you can do your own critical introspection (or vivisection) at home!

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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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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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Jazz Compositions and Contrafacts

The jazz contrafact, i.e a new composition written on the chord changes of another tune, is usually associated with post-war jazz. Beboppers superimposed dense riffs and angular melodies over popular standards, often adding then “unusual” chord substitutions that would eventually become standard operating vocabulary for jazz as we know it.

In the same spirit, Adrian Rollini and his colleagues in British bandleader Fred Elizalde’s ensemble get to recomposing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” right from the start of their record, and several years before Tadd Dameron and Miles Davis put pen to stave:

The opening ensemble turns Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel’s melody (already all too familiar even by 1929) into a completely new theme constructed out of tight, cool gestures. The format of horns stating a “head” followed by round-robin solos would become formula for the boppers, but at a time when collective improvisation and cross-sectional writing were just as prominent, it has the air of one refreshing approach among many. The solos present a variety of instrumental personalities, starting with Chelsea Quealey abstracting the melody further and ending with Rollini’s bass saxophone muscular and lithe all at once.

The execution is slightly different, but the principle has always remained the same.  Contrafacts have been around at least since some band got sick of playing “Tiger Rag” the same way over and over again (but we’ll save that long list for another day).

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