Tag Archives: Columbia

So, Clarence Williams And Fred Rich Walk Into A Studio…

CareOfVitaphoneDotBlogspotDotComSome 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.

Other sources confirm 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.”

Pittsburgh Courier, 1928Sep09Stacking 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.

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My Favorite “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists over one thousand recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pretty good for a song that Ted Gioia explains is ”not quite as important a part of the jazz repertoire nowadays as it once was.”

It is true that beboppers, post-boppers, free-jazzers, fusionites and other modernists never really cozied up to the Fats Waller standard. That still leaves a who’s-who of prewar and prewar-influenced jazz musicians to give it a shot. Yet even with Louis Armstrong’s magisterial interpretations, the composer’s own performances and pianists from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Dick Hyman and Jeff Barnhart to choose from, I keep coming back to the Charleston Chasers’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In fact the the Original Memphis Five working under an alias that Columbia records used for several bands, the Charleston Chasers waxed their version at the height of the song’s popularity. Waller had written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for the revue Hot Chocolates, where it soon became a feature for Louis Armstrong and eventually the most famous part of the show. The Chasers recorded the tune about a year later, and just a few weeks before Armstrong made his own recording (skip ahead to 0:48 in the following clip to hear the music):

This arrangement never entirely settles, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Chasers’ two-beat amble has its own magnetic energy, but their rhythm is a little overly delineated. Phil Napoleon’s trumpet is typically crisp yet slightly tense: his high notes during the introduction sound forced while the turnaround notes in the first chorus are hesitant. There’s a carefulness to the Chasers’ playing, the sound of a band feeling their way through a brand new composition.

NapoleonThey’re also figuring out what to “do” with this new song,  adding some highly original touches to make it their own. The Chasers feature a standard front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey lays low during the ensembles to let Napoleon and his frequent OM5 partner Miff Mole fashion brass duets. Napoleon and Mole were already seasoned jazz musicians, developing in tandem with the music from its earliest roots in ragtime. The pair displays a refreshingly harder-edged sound and play busier, punchier lines than most of their New Orleans colleagues. Napoleon and Mole even switch roles following the vocal, with muted trumpet decorating the trombone’s burry lead.  Eva Taylor’s vocal is charming but Arthur Schutt’s elegant accompaniment behind her is the real find.  His classical allusions also turn the minor chords of the bridge into miniature Rachmaninoff preludes. Joe Tarto’s bass keeps snapping throughout while Dorsey’s whinnies add a humorous symmetry to the whole thing.

This performance is a departure from the jamming and stride theatrics now typically associated with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s also far removed from the weight of history and sense of familiarity attached to even the most relaxed renditions of this song. This was only the fourth recording in the history of Waller’s iconic tune. If it shows its age, that age offers a completely unique experience.

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Spelunking: Bix, Red and The Broadway Bellhops

Song titles such “Oh You Lulu Belle,”  “I Found A Round About Way To Heaven” or “There’s A Cradle In Caroline” don’t exactly scream “excitement” from the back of Vintage Music Productions’ CD of the Broadway Bellhops  (a similarly vanilla sounding name).  Even the double entendres of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” or “Tonight’s My Night With Baby” evidence commercial dates, rather than spontaneous, artist-motivated jazz.  Yet after picking this disc up on a recent pilgrimage to J&R, I was still eager to fly home and discover what might pop out from underneath all this corn.   The cover’s promise of “Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Miff Mole and More” kept me on the edge of my seat, track listings aside.

Early jazz collectors accept the fact that their heroes were more likely to record popular fare, often with well-rehearsed dance bands, than to cut loose in the studio over “Tiger Rag,” “Royal Garden Blues” or other jazz warhorses.  We keep coming back for what those heroes accomplish with (or in spite of) the songs or bands.

For example, both the title and forgettable melody of “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” portend an innocuous listening experience.  Thank goodness for Joe Venuti’s violin making a hot, bluesy mockery of the tune!  His between the beat phrasing makes the jerky interlude and bellowing vocalist that follow almost bearable, until they completely fade from memory next to Beiderbecke’s lyrical solo.  He squeezes and spikes the tune with unique melodic and harmonic nuances, while never completely throwing the tune away.  By contrast, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer chooses abstraction rather than augmentation, paring the melody down to the bare essentials, making a ballet out of this square dance.

Venuti, Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and even journeyman trombonist Bill Rank put the arrangement and singer on “Dixieland” miles beside the point.  It’s similarly worth putting up with the  unimaginative score of “I Ain’t That Kind of Baby” to hear Red Nichols turns on the snark with some sarcastic scoops and bends, or sit through the plodding rhythm of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” to hear the horns emerge with a tight, witty passage (not unlike the concertino soloists emerging from the orchestra in a concerto grosso).

Red Nichols & His Orchestra, 1933

Of course recordings such as “Collette” are pure market fodder.  It’s a shame that such a pretty title receives a squeezebox melody and vertical arrangement (while apparently getting recorded underwater with a frog vocalist’s imitation of Mario Lanza); on the other hand, perhaps the musicians ate a good lunch with that session’s paycheck.

Early jazz lovers are also used to bumping into pure, dated banality.  Yet even just a few bars of Beiderbecke’s spirit overcoming the collective, or Joe Tarto’s tuba pushing the beat, makes those encounters worthwhile.  Diamonds aren’t valuable because they fall from the sky or get plucked out of flowerbeds; they’re mined, and coal often makes them seem more brilliant.

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