Jazz combos are sometimes praised for sounding like a bigger band—similar to ordering a particular dish because it tastes like something else. Among other roles, bandleader Clarence Williams was an arranger who relished the flavor of a small band. Airy textures, a blend of elegant New Orleans soul and New York intensity, and a core of confident sidemen marked everything from his washboard quartets to the occasional tentet. By the end of the twenties, several of his records (many recorded in pristine sound by Columbia) pointed to great possibilities for “little” bands.
“Log Cabin Blues” features tuba titan Cyrus St. Clair and Williams’s left hand at the piano booming out bass roots. It creates a real atmosphere before repeating at softer volume and providing a ground under guest clarinetist Buster Bailey.
“Red River Blues” on Columbia starts with a dark tuba answered by eerie brass swells and Albert Socarras’s clarinet squeaking like a door hinge on a stormy night. Later, the tuba once again punches out bass notes, now answered by King Oliver’s slightly sour lead over the front line.
With one player per part on instruments ranging from flute down to percussion, Williams also savored contrasts in registers. The Columbia recording of “Mountain City Blues” (taken much slower than the Okeh version) pits clarinet against trombone—like hundreds of big band sides to come. Yet instead of a clarinet soloist wailing over trombone choirs, Williams assigns an orchestrated lead for clarinets (plural) while his regular trombonist Ed Cuffee ad-libs alongside them. It’s a far subtler division between octaves and lead/accompaniment.
Williams also prefigures later periods’ exploitation of contrasting timbres, for example, Cuffee’s lollygagging melody over slumbering saxes on “Breeze” for Columbia.
Yet the crawling tempo is intriguingly chunky, a world away from the smooth ballads that would characterize jazz. Williams’s dependable cornetist Ed Allen is also more brilliant than wistful here.
Of its era, this music integrates soloists into the ensemble (rather than the latter serving as a backdrop for the former). These priorities don’t limit improvisation as much as channel it in interesting directions. Bailey and Arville Harris play the first chorus on Victor’s “In Our Cottage of Love” as a chase for alto and tenor, respectively.
Even many modern combos aren’t bold enough to skip playing the tune straight on the first chorus. Split choruses like this one also seem unfortunately uncommon nowadays. Bass lines on non-rhythm section instruments, like the oscillating sax riff throughout “Them Things Got Me,” are also rare.
At one point, it’s tenor sax alone maintains the riff. Plenty of twenties jazz records include what classical music refers to as a “bassetto,” literally “tiny bass.” All of these ideas had gone the way of soprano sax leads and drummer-free bands by the thirties.
Choosing “High Society” for a 1930 Columbia session with three brass, four reeds, and rhythm section must have seemed nostalgic. Yet Williams shows off his imagination and sense of irony when the well-known clarinet obbligato is played by clarinet section with his signature tuba lead.
Subsequently giving the obbligato to Socarras’s flute looks both backward to the march’s original instrumentation and ahead to flute as a recognized jazz horn.
By the early thirties, jazz was onto bigger bands and slicker arrangements. Williams’s approach may have been too personal to catch on, too stylistically passé to last, or just not loud enough. Williams never emulated larger bands or chased after innovation. He simply made music that reflected his personality and, apparently, never needed more than two trumpets to do it. The creative meets economical, with a beat.
Clarence Williams and his Orchestra (left to right): Albert Socarras, Prince Robinson, Cyrus St. Clair, Clarence Williams, Buddy Christian, Charlie Irvis, Sara Martin, Floyd Casey, Eva Taylor, Ed Allen. Photo courtesy of Confetta Ras.
Like Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five, for many listeners Sidney Bechet is the main—or sole—event with Clarence Williams’s Blue Five. Bechet remains one of the most important soloists in jazz’s early days. His technical brilliance, invention and sheer power made him a dominating presence with any ensemble. Close to a century later, Bechet still makes it easy to overlook the musicians around him. Yet he doesn’t always make it necessary.
“Wild Cat Blues” is the first and best-known of Bechet’s sides with the Blue Five, effectively an aria for his soprano saxophone. He likewise stalks over “Kansas City Man Blues” but there is also a cooperative element at work behind him when Tom Morris mutes his cornet:
Morris’s interjections were already tasteful and well-timed. With that soft, vocalistic muted tone, his spare comments now come across like talking drums. It creates a subtle but charming texture and shows an ensemble concept of the music, even if this is still Bechet’s show.
Morris gets more room on “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” actually playing lead and pulling out his specialty of contrasting an embellished melody on open horn with muted improvisation:
Morris’s entrance on mute is delightfully agitated, reveling in shades and growls. This man could play hot. The annals of jazz frequently describe Morris’s playing as “primitive, limited” and “old-fashioned.” It seems Morris was outmoded by the time he began to play on record, but close to a century later his simple but direct style and tense rhythmic concept are so retrograde they sound avant-garde. The music is “new-to-you” and won’t conk out (as long as it’s not loaded down with anachronistic hierarchies).
Even with Bechet back on lead for “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” Morris gets a passionate muted solo and trombonist Charlie Irvis also gets some spotlight:
Another New York jazz musician from before the southern musical invasion, Irvis was one of Duke Ellington’s earliest trombonists, a respected blues player and an originator of muted techniques with a major influence on Tricky Sam Nanton. Ellington praised Irvis’s “great, big, fat sound at the bottom of the trombone [that was] melodic, masculine [and] full of tremendous authority.” The rolling boogie-woogie underneath Irvis on “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” complements that sound and his long, arching phrases. Rather than melodic embellishment or harmonic deconstruction of the tune, Irvis reincarnates it using just timbre.
Irvis’s melody chorus on “Oh Daddy! Blues,” with its sardonic tone and exaggerated legato, add another layer of color as well as irony, in turn picked up by Bechet for his chirping verse:
Morris is earnest by contrast until his break, which seems to say “not so much” to all the sentimentalism.
A simple melodic lead could be just as personal as an improvised solo. Morris makes “Shreveport Blues” his own with relaxed, powerful vocalizing as well as easygoing, well-constructed dialog with Bechet:
“Old Fashioned Love” features a more pacific Irvis and Bechet dancing around him:
Mark Berresford notes that recording engineers were subduing Bechet’s considerable audio presence as these sessions progressed, which may have made Bechet take his own playing down a notch. Bechet actually reveals himself as an inventive and stirring accompanist, even if the loud, broad sound of his soprano sax and his force of personality never stay entirely in the background. Throughout these sessions, Buddy Christian’s banjo is the rock of the rhythm section, and Clarence Williams’s self-effacing piano sometimes peeks in for a brief effect.
Louis Armstrong would eventually replace Tom Morris. These are the most well-known of the Blue Five sessions due to the gladiatorial exchanges between Armstrong and Bechet on tunes like “Texas Moaner Blues” and multiple takes of “Cake Walking Babies.” Yet these earlier Blue Five sides reveal wonderful ensemble details behind their star soloist. This is jazz made by sidemen rather than soloists, maybe not “artists” but certainly proud craftsmen. Musicians like Tom Morris and Charlie Irvis may have known who was in charge but apparently they did not see their role as perfunctory. They were professionals, after all.
Plagiarism is all over the headlines this minute yet there’s only one potential piece of piracy we need to close the books on.
Compare “Tozo,” recorded on January 21, 1927 by Fletcher Henderson’s band and composed by Henderson with lyricist M. Cowdery:
and “Bozo,” an Edward Hite tune recorded in November 1928 by Clarence Williams and His Orchestra:
Sing or hum the ballad of the Hottentot sheikh along with Ed Cuffee’s slow, slack opening trombone on the second title: don’t these two tunes sound alike? Don’t the chord changes, at the very least, sound very similar? Did Hite pilfer Henderson (or whoever)’s work? Was he teasing at it by rhyming his composition with the title of the purloined stomp? Or did Clarence Williams just think it would complement a tune christened “Bimbo” at the same record session?
This uncertainty isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s get to the bottom of this, people.
“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:
It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.
He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC, the son of James A. and Tempie Jordan Whitted. According to one of Ben Whitted’s descendants (via ancestry.com), his father was a Baptist minister, so Whitted may have had first exposure to music in the church. Reverend Whitted was also an author and one of the first African-American mail carriers in the city. His mother was the founder of the missionary society at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Ben attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.
A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:
The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:
Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.
The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.
Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.
On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:
He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:
Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.
Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:
Gravier Street Blues
“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:
He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:
With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:
Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):
It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)
Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:
The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:
In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.
By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters Bernice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.
He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:
The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:
Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses. It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.
The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.
Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.
It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:
Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:
Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:
Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).
Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.
The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.
It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.
Some credits for “Keyboard Express” confuse its composer, a pianist and vocalist named Mike Jackson, with bass saxophonist and King Oliver sideman Reverend Charlie Jackson, who is in turn often confused with bluesman Papa Charlie Jackson. “Mike” is also short for “Michael,” so the King of Pop is also on hand to make a mess of web searches.
Othersourcesconfirm Mike Jackson as composer, but the tune’s title, its big introductory chords and winding central theme sound like the work of a pianist. In fact Clarence Williams Jazz Kings’ strip the tune down to just the leader’s piano and it exudes bright, plinking charm (listen here or below, and thanks to the owner of this website):
Williams was a composer in his own right but all business. Barring owing anyone a favor, Williams must have heard something he liked in “Keyboard Express,” thought Jackson’s tune would sell and decided to record it. Columbia marketed the record but the composition apparently never made a splash; Williams supplied its only recording (until the Southern Syncopators‘ 1993 album Happy Pal Stomp).
It’s impossible to glean if and how Lou Davis, John Fred Coots, Larry Spier and Sam Coslow ever heard “Keyboard Express.” Maybe some musical minds occasionally think eerily alike. Some just steal others’ work (Clarence Williams probably did). Either way, Jackson’s stepwise theme pops up in appended form on the foursome’s “Revolutionary Rhythm,” here given a medium tempo, hot foxtrot treatment by Fred Rich and His Orchestra on a record made a little over a year after the Jazz Kings’ side:
Introduced in the musical Illusion and sung by Buddy Rogers as dance feature for Lillian Roth, “Revolutionary Rhythm” fared slightly better than “Keyboard Express,” with recordings by Rich, Willie Creager and Bob Haring. An Internet search for the team of songwriters on “Revolutionary Rhythm” is also far more revealing than one for the lone composer of “Keyboard Express.”
Stacking both records side by side, we can compare Clarence Williams and Fred Rich, one’s Jazz Kings and the other’s Orchestra. Music historians might discuss jazz and popular music. Record collectors might subdivide hot and commercial, stomp and pep. In terms of performance, there is the distinction between arrangement and (some) improvisation. Compositionally, it’s a matter of a jazz tune and a Tin Pan Alley song. From a marketing perspective, one is a race record and the other (just) a record.
On one very specific level, we have a jazz composition by a now obscure Black composer that only received one recording in its time, recycled/plagiarized by a group of White composers and converted into a popular tune that gained far more attention. Ironically for some, the recording by a White band has far more improvisation than that of the Black band. Either way, the difference between these two old records is as complicated and current as Black and White.
Through both records and everything attached to them, there is that ascending phrase, more like a sequence or even an exercise, yet still typical of jazz. From its ragged beginnings to labyrinthine heads by Parker through Blanchard, jazz is often associated with instrumentally conceived melodies featuring lots of jagged turns, with piping, springy leads and songs that are hummable but not necessarily singable (unless you’re a Baroque diva, or Sarah Vaughn).
There is something telling about Jackson’s riff being used for an anthem to hip music. The bridge of “Revolutionary Rhythm” even ups the ante with modernistic harmonies and offbeat rhythmic emphases on the bridge. The riff itself is slightly mechanical but rises inexorably, like some efficient escalator headed to a wonderful destination. It’s not the trickiest jazz head but it is uplifting. It also unites several musical worlds, albeit in a very tricky, potentially disappointing way. It all depends on what you pay attention to.
In jazz, “front line” usually means trumpet, trombone and clarinet weaving collectively improvised lines through multiple strains or, in its modern parlance, at least two horns blazing through “the head” in tight unison. Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule, such as a half-dozen of Clarence Williams’s washboard sessions, waxed during the first six months of 1926, using just cornet, clarinet, found percussion and the leader’s piano to defy conventional roles for non-rhythm section players.
Ed Allen often sticks to the strong, spare lead expected from the cornet yet clarinetist Bennie Morten’s thirds under and inside that lead on “You For Me, Me For You” are a surprising touch:
There is no trombone to form the standard New Orleans triumvirate but the pair doesn’t just interact like a reduced New Orleans front line. Listen to Morten on “Wait ‘Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston”:
back-to-back with Buster Bailey on clarinet for “Yama Yama Blues” on a different Williams date:
and the difference becomes more a matter of style rather than predetermined function. Bailey played with King Oliver and knew what was expected of NOLA ensemble clarinetists: decorous, penetrating lines mostly in the upper register, dovetailing with the lead but staying out of its way. Bailey’s playing on “Yama Yama” would fit perfectly with a trombone as well as a cornet in the mix. Morten on the other hand is not just sparer but closer to Allen in terms of dynamics as well as register. He accompanies the lead more than he ornaments it.
Harmonizing on top of Allen’s lead for “My Own Blues” (a technique that historian David Sagertraces back to the Wolverines), Morten splits the difference between duetting with Allen and the type of upper register obbligato that Oliver and his Crescent City colleagues might have expected:
After the vocal, when Morten does launch into highflying descant lines, they act as rhythmic impetus as well as another texture. There’s none of the occasional monotony brought on by multiple choruses of strictly defined polyphony, even as Allen maintains that lead. This loose, airy blend may or may not have been worked out in advance and might sound effortless, even unremarkable, but it creates a unique sound and feel for the group. It is difficult to imagine Bailey or Jimmie Noone’s prodigious technique, Johnny Dodds’s earthy sound or Sidney Bechet’s sheer personality (at this stage in their careers, anyway) forging the tender, restrained “Senorita Mine,” especially its second chorus with Allen’s muted horn behind Morten’s alto sax lead:
“Boodle-Am” (here the better recorded fourth take) has a big sound and infectious rhythm that completely jettisons ideas about what “standard instrumentation” may have offered in place of two well-paired horns and rhythm:
Morten complements Allen’s powerful lead with sustained ascending high notes followed by busier fills; tension and release, accompaniment but not background, simple but very effective. On the verse right before the vocal, Morten sticks to a simpler part and leaves Allen room to stretch out.
These sessions using just(?) four players with washboard instead of the pricier full drum kit may have been an attempt by Williams to cut overhead. Yet even if he wanted to do the record cheap, he wanted to make it right. Williams consistently hired Allen for his record dates, obviously appreciating the cornetist’s ability to play as powerfully, sensitively, bluesy, or clean as needed and remain recognizable. Bennie Morten a.k.a. Morton only seems to have participated on these few sessions with Williams. This blogger can’t find any other sessions that include Morten or biographical information about him (his name being very close to that of trombonist Benny Morton doesn’t make research any easier). Whoever Morten was, he obviously had a great ear and gift for ensemble playing. Williams not only found him but also sat him next to Ed Allen in a studio. It’s not the Creole Jazz Band or Bird and Dizzy, it’s all theirs.
Aside from the actual music on Frog’s new release of Clarence Williams’ washboard bands, John Collinson’s liner notes illustrate why these reissues are so important. Collinson suggests “the use of the washboard may have been an attempt to connect with the unsophisticated coloured migrants from the south [sic] who may have felt happier on hearing certain sounds they could relate to.” He also notes “The usual reason offered however is as substitute for an expensive drum kit.” The possibility of artistic choice, rather than commercial or financial compromise, never enters the discussion.
My first experience with a washboard band was on a high school trip to Disneyland (or was it Disney World? Which one is really humid and looks like a five-year old child’s mind after they get into the medicine cabinet?). Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and banjo sang and strummed to the heavens over the clang of stain-removing percussion.
Yes, They Might Just Be Playing This Music By Choice
Most of my fellow tourists viewed the group as either a colorful attraction or an annoyance, not unlike Mickey, Donald and those two destructive chipmunks. Yet since that visit, I’ve continued to be impressed with the panoply of sounds a skilled washboard player can conjure from their washboard, including scrapes, taps, alternating downward and upward strokes, and through a variety of auxiliary percussion mounted with an engineer’s resourcefulness. During a trip to Prague two years ago, I was greeted and then dazzled by the miniature cymbals of a washboardist playing with a group of Dixieland-loving Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge.
Barring a large influx of Southern migrants (or time travellers from the pre-war era) crossing the bridge, these musicians were simply expressing themselves with an instrument they found inspiring. Hearing the instrument or style as “old-fashioned” or “primitive” is the listener’s issue, not theirs.
Yes, He Was Also The Grandfather and Guardian of Actor Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad
As for Clarence Williams’ decision to use a washboard, even if it was based on calculation rather than preference, the sound of Floyd Casey, Bruce Johnson and Jasper Taylor is all we need. Rather than hearing Frog’s latest release as a record of earlier, simpler (read, simplistic) music making, we can listen to it as a unique artistic experience. Not to disagree with Frog, but there will never be anything “vintage” about that.
As for the actual music on that CD, check out my review on All About Jazz.