“Bugle Call Rag.” It’s right there in the title: military signals getting ragged or swung, something official getting a good destarching by popular culture, the irony of dancing to the sounds of battle. By the time Hal Denman and His Orchestra recorded “Bugle Call Rag,” nine years had passed since the New Orleans Rhythm Kings waxed their tune for the first time but it remained in band books the whole time. It was firmly a jazz number by the time Denman got around to it on record, giving a fresh layer of irony to his band’s para-military colors throughout their performance:
The famous opening break is delivered as a literal bugle call, at first almost seeming like a parody, until the clipped phrasing stays right through to the hot lick before the whole band, and especially the brass, picks it up. The saxophones smooth things out just slightly while the brass soli breaks are straight out of a marching band. So are the clarinet-led reed section and the drummer’s fills.
By comparison, Cab Calloway’s recording of the same arrangement is much looser in terms of rhythm and articulation:
Denman’s band steps while Calloway’s group swaggers. Lammar Wright’s lead trumpet is big and bright, owing more to Louis Armstrong than Herbert L. Clarke. The saxes really sell their phrases with a warmer blend and more pronounced embellishment. From a jazz perspective, the biggest difference may be Calloway’s ample room for soloists. The entire trumpet section has a say, starting with Wright’s lead through Edwin Swayzee’s muted “trickeration” to Reuben Reeves’s high notes. Denman’s trumpet soloist loosens up slightly but holds onto a slight buzz and click. Denman’s tenor saxophonist doesn’t display the same technical facility as Foots Thomas with Calloway, and Arville Harris’s clarinet obbligato with Calloway is far more extroverted than the brief one with Denman. Even Calloway’s spoken interjections add some interesting rhythmic and timbral contrast as well as entertainment.
It is now easy to degrade the Denman band as stiff, archaic, outdated even in its own time, simply ignorant of jazz phrasing or unable to absorb it. Taking the music on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons or hierarchization, Denman’s tight, precise sound makes for an interesting musical experiment. The syncopated lines combined with fairly even (as opposed to uneven, swung) eighth notes make it sound like jazz from a parallel dimension. Jazz and American popular music as a whole have famously drawn upon a number of idioms. At least a few New Orleans musicians would say that the jazz was already familiar with marching and brass bands. The Denman band may have simply had influences in mind other than the Crescent City second line brand of parade.
The prevalence, bordering upon insistence, of arranged material over improvisation could have been born of necessity or just a different musical priority. Either way, it lets the Denman band show off a crisp unity of sound that must have spread like a Gatling gun on dance floors. The balances on this Gennett pressing also add transparency to the parts, so that the lead sometimes sound stacked in the middle of the harmonies rather than on top of them. The drummer pounding out percussion rudiments like an ad-libbing drum major is a subversive as well as creative act considering what jazz and dance band drummers were supposed to sound like at the time. This is not Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag,” nor that of the NORK, Duke Ellington or even Paul Whiteman.
Nearly ninety years later, Cab Calloway’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Hal Denman is, at best, a period curiosity, a dance band leader occasionally granted a footnote for trumpeter Jack Purvis’s tenure with his band (years before it even recorded). At first blush, hearing these two records may explain why. In fact, playing Denman and Calloway’s records back-to-back seems like the type of exercise a lecturer might fashion to explain the concept of “swing.” Yet the concept of swing may not explain a particular concept of music. Denman’s band was a popular midwestern territory band in its time, prompting fond recollections even decades later. Did all those Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Corn Huskers never hear the real thing, or were they simply open to several different real things?