Tag Archives: collective improvisation

Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers

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Paul Whiteman’s Saxophone Sext including Gene Fosdick, second from right. Image from http://www.jazzhound.net © Mark Berresford

Jazz from the twenties emphasized (but by no means exclusively relied upon) ensemble interplay and collective improvisation. The sound of a New Orleans frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet weaving in and out of one another is most commonly associated with this period/approach, but bands like Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers obviously had other ideas in mind. This group recorded just ten sides, but they are models of ensemble-based, rhythmically intense, pre-Armstrong, Midwestern via East Coast jazz that unfurl a variety of ensemble textures out of standard dance band instrumentation.

In his (characteristically excellent) liner notes to a reissue on Retrieval, Mark Berresford explains that the Hoosiers’ first session included the band’s usual personnel. Joe Rose’s cornet is confident, and may have received the usual ample space given to that instrument at live gigs, yet on this session the saxophone section gets most of the attention. The way that the Hoosiers spotlight particular saxophones in addition to the section as a whole is particularly interesting. Novel but not merely novelty touches include the soprano sax lead with tenor sax harmony and the alto sax break folding into the full sax section on “One Night In June”:

The tenor lead with sax section counterlines on “Lost A Wonderful Gift” is a great example of split-section orchestration:

The Retrieval LP lists a sax section of Gene Fosdick on alto and soprano with an unknown tenor player, while Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1917-34 lists an unknown alto and an unknown tenor alongside Fosdick. Back in 1959, Horst H. Lange, in his The Fabulous Fives, said the section consisted of Fosdick on soprano with John Costello on alto and Jimmy Lytell (!) on clarinet. Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography currently notes Fosdick as the lone (!) reedman playing soprano and clarinet.

Whoever they are, as a concerted section these saxophonists play with a rich, vibrato-laden sound. The lead alto is encircled rather than simply underscored by the inner voices, resulting in a blended timbre rather than simply the highest note dominating the line. It may have been a conscious effort, the natural result of individual tones coming together or just a byproduct of Vocalion’s acoustic, but it makes for a unique color next to the hundreds of sax sections and trumpet leads on record at the time.

The band’s name reflected Gene Fosdick’s Indiana home, and for the remaining sessions Phil Napoleon of the New York-based Original Memphis Five takes over on trumpet. While it’s hard to parse out regional styles here, this union of Corn Belt and Big Apple further expanded the band’s sonic arsenal. Napoleon’s strong tone (as though made to play on acoustic records, to paraphrase one commenter) and rhythmic placement earn the trumpet more room from the outset on “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night.” Yet the saxes are just as smooth and still get their say. The snap of Napoleon’s horn next to the saxes’ purr is another one of those possibly unintentional but effective touches. Passing the lead between solo tenor and solo alto, plus the soprano’s slap-tongue arpeggio tag ending, just add more colors to the reed prism:

Berresford singles out the remarkable “drive” established by musicians who had likely not played together before. The sax section verse, for example, has a sheen, cohesion and danceable phrasing worthy of admiration. The hard-driving rhythm section punches out a joyously vertical, decidedly un-New Orleanian beat that pushes and pulls at the cross-voicings on top. Napoleon’s OM5 colleague, the stalwart Frank Signorelli, is likely contributing to the groove. The banjoist also deserves praise.

The third of the four Hoosiers sessions features a more common trumpet/trombone/clarinet configuration, as interpreted by players from outside of the Crescent City. Every frontline is a welcome opportunity to hear singular voices interacting with one another, but experiments with reeds combinations such as the baritone sax lead with trumpet obbligato on “Peggy” present other possibilities for collective improvisation:
[No clips online, sorry!]
The tenor on “’Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” resembles a bassoon or cello fashioning counterpoint under the solo soprano lead. It shows more influence from Bach rather than the blues but is just as stirring, and reminds of the wide variety of influences that jazz musicians continue to draw upon:

“Apple Sauce,” with a soprano seeming to embellish the section from inside rather than on top of the harmonies, sounds like some of the heterophonic reed duos of Black bands such as those of Clarence Williams or Fletcher Henderson. Subterranean baritone rumbles answering Napoleon’s cornet create an exercise in timbral extremes:
[No  clips for this recording, but more music after this commercial message:]
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By the final session, with Napoleon’s frequent partner in the OM5 Miff Mole on trombone, the New Orleans-style via New York City frontline dominates, yet the tenor and clarinet duet on “Farewell Blues” is another cleanly executed, clever touch:

The sound of a single tenor sax (likely Dudley Fosdick according to the Retrieval LP) chugging over some red hot syncopated percussion on “Railroad Man” excites both for its verve as well as the sound of a single horn over rhythm section during this ensemble-dominated period:

Napoleon’s trumpet dominates (and who’s complaining?) The Hoosiers’ last recorded side, “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” further catalyzed by low-register clarinet, a moaning sax thickening the instrumental tapestry in the background and a stomping pendulum of swing:

Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers earned just four recording sessions that spanned a mere six months. In addition to discographical sightings, biographical information for him is also sparse, with far more attention paid to his brother, the mellophonist and frequent Red Nichols associate Dudley Fosdick (an unusual example of a mellophonist getting more attention than a saxophonist). Yet it’s doubtful that personal details could provide a clue into what made these sides click musically. Whoever Gene Fosdick was, he and/or his band knew how to squeeze a lot of interest out of supposedly conventional instrumentation. Their music, what little they left to posterity, was plenty hot and really smart.

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I’m not sure if this Fosdick is related to the above, but he still somehow remains worthy of mention:

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Five Letters That Feel Like Four

Fire That Press Agent, Eddie

I’ve hated the word “Dixieland” since I first gathered a few friends from my high school band to play the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the Bobcats and other prewar jazz musicians. No matter how much I insisted that we were playing “traditional jazz,” the label “Dixieland” stuck with teachers, parents and other (unfortunate) listeners.

My distaste for that word had nothing to do with any cultural or chronological connotations.  Ironically, as a kid who had spent his whole life in Brooklyn with occasional travel as far as City Island, I had no idea that “Dixie” signified the South, especially some (ridiculous) vision of an idyllic antebellum South. If “Dixie” meant “archaic,” my teenaged reverse conformism just thought, “the older, the better!” No, I hated that five-letter word because it reminded me of an earlier childhood treat that had neither the longevity or nutritional value of jazz.

I had only heard “Dixie” in reference to the circular bricks of processed ice cream that elementary school teachers deposited on my desk as a sign of celebration (read, pacification), food that didn’t merit a spoon but just included a small, dull, wooden plank, a utensil that correctional officers might like because inmates couldn’t carve it into a shank. “Dixieland” reminded me of Dixie Cups, and that was an outrage.

“‘Cause Ice Cream Scoops Are Bourgey!”

Sure, the word “Dixie” could have seemed like a bite of nostalgia, almost the way it did for the lyricists of tunes such as “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” or “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland,” anthems to a kinder, simpler time (that was never kind or simple).  “Dixieland” bands did reference the early days of jazz through choice of repertoire, collectively improvised ensembles and their preference for blue thirds over flatted fifths. Some Dixielanders paid obvious (sometimes gratuitous) homage to the original artists.

Phil Napoleon Never Played Dixieland.

Yet those artists’ music had to deserve a better label than that of a tiny, soggy, syrupy sweet confection aimed at underdeveloped palettes. By extension, the thin horns and bloodless rhythm sections I heard from many so-called “Dixieland” groups was a far cry from Bix Beiderbecke’s popping ensembles, King Oliver’s dense, earthy polyphony or even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s almost frighteningly frantic attack. The music of the “Chicagoans and the best contemporary “trad” players listened back but resounded in the here and now. By contrast “Dixieland” seemed like sugarcoated revision rather than sincere reflection.

Of course the distinction between good music, bad music and bad labels gets clearer as I get older (while straw hats and red suspenders will always be just plain awful): like ice cream or a host of other delights, everyone knows what’s good or bad when they hear it.  “Dixie” remains something that’s tolerable in small doses but will eventually make me sick.

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