Tag Archives: clarinet

Bix, Bernie And Hot Jazz In Davenport

Bernie Schultz and His Crescent Orchestra, 1926, WOC studio of Davenport, Iowa (left to right: Johnny Day, Vic Carlson, George Byron Webb, Eddie Anderson, Bernie Schultz, Al Waffle, Wayne Rohlf, Omar Hoagland, Art Wunder, Sandy Ross)

Bernie Schultz and His Crescent Orchestra, 1926, WOC studio of Davenport, Iowa (left to right: Johnny Day, Vic Carlson, George Byron Webb, Eddie Anderson, Bernie Schultz, Al Waffle, Wayne Rohlf, Omar Hoagland, Art Wunder, Sandy Ross)

Davenport, IA paid more than its debt to jazz by birthing one of its earliest and greatest artists, yet Bernie Schultz And His Crescent Orchestra shows there was more to Davenport than Bix Beiderbecke, more to “early jazz” than the geography covered in a jazz history seminar:

It’s hardly news that jazz was popping up all over the country during the twenties (right?) and the internet has cataloged so much of it that I’m unsure anyone will be surprised by this red-hot, thoroughly original music. Still, drummer Johnny Day getting to solo on “Sweet Violets” and “Sweetheart Of Sigma Chi (two sides, in 1927!), building up plenty of horizontal momentum while varying his sounds between drum heads and cymbals is worth at least one more hearing. Ditto for Harry LaRue’s dips into plump, coppery middle and lower registers, and clarinetist/alto saxophonist Eddie Anderson moving all over his horns like he just got a new toy.

Beyond the sheer joy of these sides or the novelty of hearing jazz in a city without urban sprawl, Schultz’s jazz demonstrates a lot of different musical influences at work, not all of which are likely to pop up in a Ken Burns documentary. LaRue’s playing, especially on “Hold Everything,” shows he was probably listening to that other cornetist from Davenport, if not absorbing his sense of construction and phrasing. The glee club vocals (a beautifully ironic foil to the solos), staccato tuba and ukulele-like banjo strums add a touch of “ra-ra, local college and/or sports team” pep with a harder edge. Bandleader and saxophonist Schultz led the band at Saint Ambrose University and wrote a few school songs, begging questions about the relationship between varsity bands and jazz in the Midwest (maybe we’ll get there after finding those pesky Bolden cylinders). The country fiddle and plucking banjo on “Hold Everything” just add to the stew.

DavenportThe Schultz band likely never made it (or possibly wanted to get to) New York City and its playing is refreshingly distant from New Orleans. The Crescent Orchestra did have a regular radio show with a local station and gigged a two-hundred-mile the territory around Davenport. According to former sideman Wayne Rohlf via Dick Raichelson’s liner notes to the LP A Bag of Sleepers – Volume 3 (Arcadia 2005), the band also traveled as far as Buffalo, NY and Erie, Canada, later reorganizing under Day’s leadership after Schultz’s departure. Rohlf explains that, after at least one abortive attempt at studying medicine in favor of music, Schultz ended up at George Washington University School of Medicine, practicing in Virginia and leaving just seven sides under his name ever issued on record. Saxophonist and historian Paul Lindemeyer notes that his band was actually one of a handful of Iowa-based units to record before World War II.

Based on the ferocious drive and reliance on improvisation heard on its records, the Schultz band must have been a revelation live. It also seemed to have been at least as curious and galvanized by jazz as any big city band. Schultz and his Crescent Orchestra may not have changed jazz history but it was plenty busy experiencing it, crafting the music towards its own ends and leaving something entirely individual in its modest wake.

Postscript: Bixographer Albert Haim looked into Bernie Schultz and his band’s history and shared his findings on his Bixography forum online.  What was it like to hear his group alongside the Fate Marble band?

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

Here’s the second and final part of my discussion of Bennie Moten’s pre-1930 sax section…

naturalsaxdotcom

The range of ensemble colors is directly proportional to the sum of instrumental voices, so that more players equal more instruments and therefore more orchestral possibilities.

At first glance it seems like simple musical mathematics, borne out by jazz history: big bands developed from Jazz Age tentets to the fifteen-piece plus ensembles that are now industry standard. The saxophone section alone started as a three-man operation. Now five players (two altos, two tenors and a baritone) is the norm. The math says that three horns can’t produce the same variety as five, and history paints these changes as a natural and inevitable evolution. Usually the underlying assumption here is that twenties bandleaders were either bad at orchestral arithmetic or good with a bottom line. The idea that musicians just chose the right sidemen and did a lot with what was only later deemed “a little” rarely enters the equation.

For example, Bennie Moten’s sax section does usually stick to the two altos plus tenor arrangement that was standard for most twenties bands. Yet whatever this section may lack in terms of variety as a concerted unit, it more than makes up for in solo permutations. Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington each play with distinct, contrasting styles. Factor in different approaches to different types of musical material as well as instrumental doubling, and you get a surprisingly broad musical palette.

Leonard plays both bright lead alto and bluesily rococo solos with a delightfully nasal edge. He tosses in fills between the ensemble on “When Life Seems So Blue,” while “Oh! Eddie” and “Mary Lee” include tantalizingly short but hot bridges:

Leonard’s soprano sax is a refreshing alternative to Sidney Bechet’s towering presence as well as the brass clarinet approach many of his contemporaries took to the instrument.  On “Boot It,” he plays with a with a joyous hoedown feel, recalling early jazz’s intersection with country and other folk art forms:

Clarinetist Woody Walder is often demonized for his novelty solos on the earliest Moten sides. Walder’s arsenal of whinnies, pops and barnyard onomatopoeia might be an acquired taste (personally I think he was just anticipating the Art Ensemble of Chicago) but his clarinet solos with the late Moten band deserve more attention. He plays some simple but direct blues in a sandy low register on “That Too Do,” with a few inflections thrown in as a type of musical signature:

Walder interpolates more passionate blues on the non-blues form of “New Vine Street Blues” and plays jittery, high-octane clarinet on faster numbers such as “Sweetheart of Yesterday” as well as shouting obbligatos to close numbers such as “Oh! Eddie.”

Doubling tenor, Walder seems hell-bent on sounding just as massive and brawny on the larger instrument as he is fleet and piercing on the smaller one. On “Everyday Blues” and the jerky, tongue-in-cheek “New Goofy Dust Rag”, he smears notes in a sweaty, agitated style. There are traces of Coleman Hawkins, but none of his harmonic sophistication. This is greasy saloon stuff without any hint of the conservatory:

Jack Washington is best known for anchoring Count Basie’s sax section, but as a younger man he played second alto with Moten and got much more solo space on baritone sax. He displays a burnished, gargantuan sound on baritone that’s closer to a bass saxophone, even pumping out effective bass lines for “That Too Do.” Washington’s unique tone is already put to effective use at this early stage, for example creating dark contrast behind the flashy trumpet on “Rit Dit Ray” and playing lead on baritone for a few tunes. This effect can be heard in other bands from the time, but Washington adds his own unique density:

Washington’s solos are all bottom and darkness, subterranean parties in a delightfully archaic vein. He takes slap tonguing to a whole new level, for example on “New Vine Street” but never forgets to swing; take his solo on “Mack’s Rhythm” or the way he dances all over “Mary Lee”:

“Mary Lee” also includes another Leonard bridge as well as Walder’s percussive clarinet and tenor honks.  Given its sheer range of colors, Moten’s sax section could have been its own band, a front line unto itself. It’s not a Gil Evans affair but neither is it just three players, or five instruments, or even eight if you include the fact that everyone doubled clarinet. It is simply incredible that this was just one section of a band. Then again, who’s counting?

direct proportion

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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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(Keep) Franz Jackson, Always Telling Stories

Courtesy of FranzJackson.com

Perennially hip, cynically postmodern ears may hear Franz Jackson’s music as outdated.  Others will listen and be grateful for an eighty-year career spent playing exactly the notes the clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist and arranger wanted (which is pretty much the definition of “hip”).

For Jackson artistic liberty was expressed through swing, a clear melody and the blues, not to mention such important musical fundamentals as a distinctly warm tone and a sense of humor. Jackson’s role as one of the last surviving voices of jazz’s pre-swing era only added to his musical toolkit, without miring that voice in nostalgia.  For example, “reed popping” was in some ways out of fashion by the late twenties, but Jackson uses it for some percolating counterpoint behind John Thomas’ trombone lead on “Mack the Knife” in 1961.  Jackson’s sandy, rhythmically liberated vocal and clarinet (with some delicious chalumeau trills) evidence a player who had been listening and absorbing but also remembering and reshaping ideas for decades:

That sense of knowing exactly what he wants to say (mixed with an underlying sense of joy at being alive to say it), similarly colors Jackson’s playing on the Jimmie Noone warhorse “Sweet Lorraine.”  Here it’s clothed in a subtle small group swing arrangement, with Jackson in turn using Coleman Hawkins-esque heft to clothe his own coy approach on tenor sax:

Jackson’s clarinet on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” pays uncanny tribute to George Lewis’ ensemble arpeggios (albeit with surer tone and intonation), while his loping solo grooves and arches even at double the tempo. Here and elsewhere Jackson surrounds himself with other clear, direct communicators:

All of the above videos are posted by Jackson’s daughter, Michelle Jackson Jewell, who also maintains a loving tribute to her father at an informative, comprehensive and tune-filled website. She’s also organizing a campaign to fund the release of Jackson’s 95th birthday celebration, his swinging, star-studded last concert in 2008, which she hopes to issue as a double disc set. You can find out more about her father, this project and how to donate here:

“Franz Jackson: Milestone” (A Historic CD Project)

As the clip on that page will show, Jackson could make a chorus of “Happy Birthday” a party unto itself!  He once said, “it’s no good tune if it don’t have a story,” and hopefully the right support can keep Jackson’s story going much longer.

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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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Clarinetist Lester Young

Responding to an earlier post about the loss of Joe Muranyi, a commenter recalled Muranyi trying out his own “metal Conn clarinet, a horn a more self-conscious player would recoil from.”  The open-minded Muranyi in turn “played the living heck out of it.”  Apparently for some musicians, the instrument is always a catalyst and never a compromise.  For Lester Young, a metal clarinet was a choice, maybe even a necessity.

Gunther Schuller notes that when Young put down his tenor, the influential jazz artist and part-time tragic hero “played a cheap metal clarinet that he picked up somewhere on his travels, but whose tone he loved dearly.”  Young kept the signature lightness of his sax on the smaller horn, and at fast tempos would use the same triplets and encircling, never inundating lines for the “little stories” he had to tell.  At slower tempos and in more reflective settings, he’d come up with a story like the one in “Blues with Helen,” from the 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert organized by impresario John Hammond [starting at 1:47 in the clip below]:

Hammond introduces Young as “switching over to clarinet,” but there is no sense of “switch” or adaptation here: Young is simply playing clarinet.  The tone could be called “thin,” but more like a leaf rather than paper, something likely to tear given the right force but able to support storms and sunlight on its own terms.  Sustained notes let the audience absorb that sound while always unfolding a narrative, never halting the action or merely displaying beauty for the sake of itself.  If anything is different, it’s that the clarinet’s brighter, at times childlike timbre brings out the fragility of the clarinetist.

Benny Goodman mentions purchasing a Selmer (wood) clarinet for Young while in Europe, an instrument fewer clarinetists might recoil from.  While it’s endearing to imagine Young gratefully accepting the gift and sticking to his cheap little instrument, the truth is that it doesn’t matter what kind of clarinet Lester Young played, only that he played clarinet.

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RIP Joe Muranyi

Joe Muranyi, courtesy of Henning Janos

Joe Muranyi passed away last Friday.  A bad Internet connection and a busy weekend kept the news from me until Monday, and uncertainty about what to say kept me from commenting until today.

Muranyi was best known as the last clarinetist to play with Louis Armstrong, as well as a good friend of Armstrong’s, a prodigious jazz writer and a fine musician in his own right.  Muranyi was a link to a seminal force in music.  He was also the person who taught me how to give Louis Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.

As a younger listener,  I was one of those Louis Armstrong fans who just assumed that the great trumpeter’s career as a jazz artist ended some time around 1928, when big bands, vocals and Tin Pan Alley made him into a (mere) “popular entertainer.”  Joe Muranyi’s liner notes for the 1989 BMG/Bluebird CD Laughing Louie taught me better.  Knowing the man and his music well, he pointed out that Armstrong wasn’t holding back, he was playing just the notes he needed for maximum impact.  He wasn’t selling out by leaving jazz tunes behind, he was flexing his imagination and chops by looking ahead to new material.  Most of all, he was reaching more listeners.  Armstrong was all about reaching people.

Muranyi’s commentary moved like great sports casting.  It was also optimistic, open-minded and above all insightful, treating these 1932 and 1933 studio sessions not as popular concessions or the product of opportunistic management, but as the sincere work of a pensive yet joyful artist.  In short, Muranyi heard music, and from then on so did I.

And that’s all I have to say about him.  I’ll leave the rest to some other writers who help me to hear more and understand better:

Goodbye, Josephus” from Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives.

In Loving Memory of Joe Muranyi” by Ricky Riccardi at The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.

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