Tag Archives: cornet

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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Who Booked These Guys? Davison and Wilcox Play Carson

Political correctness advises that age should have nothing to do with how we evaluate the playing of eighty-year old “Wild Bill” Davison and eighty-three year old Newell “Spiegle” Wilcox. Apparently both musicians, as well as lifelong jazz aficionado, drummer and Tonight Show host Johnny Carson thought otherwise:

A few things stand out here.  Of course there’s the music, including a beautifully cohesive clarinet solo and an upbeat rhythm section. The walking bass and drum accents underneath the “Dixieland” front line point to musicians playing dynamically but sincerely, rather than faithfully recreating some earlier era or obsessively keeping up with the stylistic Joneses.  In other words, this is jazz, on The Tonight Show.

As for the headliners,  it’s remarkable to hear them for reasons besides their ability to receive a senior citizen’s discount at the cinema.  Wilcox was an important but under-recorded part of Jean Goldkette‘s seminal records, and only started to gain more attention (and a lot more solos) much later on in his life.  It may have been due to the trombonist’s longevity, or perhaps it was simply the right time to hear what he had to say.

Davison himself explains that he had been “Wild Bill” for several decades already, and while he seems to hold back slightly for The Tonight Show audience, his crackling tone and driving lead are still a force of nature.  He started his career in the twenties, and is perhaps best known for his work with various Eddie Condon and Commodore groups during the thirties and forties.  It’s easy to think of artists frozen in time at some supposed peak, but Davison was also a gigging musician who lived and played until 1989.  Based on the sound of that horn, he doesn’t seem like the type to rely upon social security for income.

Finally,  they’re on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, in their eighties (and yes, in the eighties), not only playing jazz but playing “jazz” as defined by two octogenarians, laughing it up with the host and at one point even discussing embouchures.  It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario on any current late night talk show.  That’s worse than a value judgment, that’s a simple observation.

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The Consequences of Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard’s entire discography fits on one compact disc. It’s an ironically modest recorded legacy, especially for someone who was known for everything but modesty in their lifetime.

By most accounts Keppard was proud to the point of arrogance. He came up through the ranks of New Orleans cornetists, drew crowds on the vaudeville circuit of both coasts and was more than willing to proclaim and demonstrate his musical prowess. A photograph of the cornetist, dressed smart but tough in double-breasted suit, wide brimmed Boss of the Plains Stetson and ornate lapel medal, looking out intently with a touch of haughtiness, provides a visual allegory of the musician that no less than Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet would praise years after his passing.

Keppard’s few recordings provide teasing glimpses of his huge sound and dominating style on cornet. In Keppard’s time jazz was still transitioning from collective ingredient to solo expression. The cornet was intended to provide a solid lead, with power and color supporting an ensemble. Extended solo outings, decorous lines and multi-chorus explorations wouldn’t come into play until one of Keppard’s younger New Orleans colleagues arrived on the scene.

In addition, most of Keppard’s recordings were cut with Doc Cooke‘s large dance orchestra, in which Keppard actually played the second horn part, not lead. Keppard’s role was to heat things up during an out chorus, or contribute intense but short breaks to Cooke’s written arrangements. Many of Keppard’s sides also suffer from the worst indignities of twenties audio technology. It’s a miracle anyone still cares about this loud-mouthed ensemble player.

True to reputation, Keppard demands attention. The Cooke band’s sides on Columbia Records’ certainly help: a pristine electric recording process and the diffuse acoustics of an empty hotel ballroom capture the Cooke band cutting loose on some of their hottest charts. Keppard’s brash interjection on the aptly named “High Fever” [at 0:23 in the following clip] doesn’t have anything to prove; though brief, its cocky stride tells the listener Keppard knows exactly “who he is”:

Following the piano solo, Keppard’s blasting riffs behind lead cornet Elwood Graham [at 1:07] might not provide the best instruction in providing accompaniment. Yet Keppard wasn’t there to teach or blend or simply be heard; his presence was meant to be felt. By the time the closing “dog fight” arrives [at 2:15], whatever name was written on the lead part becomes moot. This is Keppard’s tune, with driving phrases and an infectiously “funky” break [at 2:26] bringing it to a close.

Keppard isn’t doing much technically, but his impact on the Cooke band is immense. A few months later, he brings an equally gripping effect to the clean, almost concert band-like reading of the opening theme on “Sidewalk Blues,” an interpretation that he seems to self-parody and then detonate for the ride out [starting at 2:12 in this clip]:

Keppard’s hair-trigger change is the type of “sweet to hot” juxtaposition that twenties bandleaders loved to include in even their most straight-laced material. Yet Keppard’s changeover also reminds us of the brash, occasionally volatile personality he was known for. Perhaps his most powerful maneuver was turning down an offer from Victor Records to record in 1916. The reasons for Keppard’s refusal are now legend, ranging from a concern that listeners could “steal his stuff” to balking at having to record a test pressing without pay (standard operating procedure for record labels at the time).

Whatever his motivations, they point to a man who refused anything short of what he wanted. They also point towards the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s session of February 26, 1917, considered to be the first “jazz” recording ever made, courtesy of a group of “non-improvising White musicians” and an event still debated (and despised) on both musical and cultural grounds.

Whatever else might be said of Freddie Keppard’s music or his personality, even his smallest gestures had huge consequences.  He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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