Tag Archives: Dixieland

A Jazz Nebbish Figging Moldy

sheep-redorbitTed Gioia posted an article by a “Yale music professor” on the death of jazz. I avoid commenting on others’ views online because I don’t always have the training or subject matter expertise to do so. I also avoid commenting on this topic because it usually doesn’t interest me personally. In addition, a Google search leads me to believe that the author is a student rather than a member of the Yale faculty, someone now acquiring the knowledge and critical tools that might make them reevaluate their position or back it up with further examples and different reasoning.

On the other hand, this article encapsulated several ideas about a lot of music I enjoy, which made me think about why these views actually bothered me. Finally, I am very proud of the small but insightful and courteous correspondents who comment on this blog, so I thought it was worth sharing here. The original article is here. I ended up pasting it into a Word document just to get my thoughts on paper, and you can read my three cents in the comment bubbles below.

You might need to zoom in to read it. Alternatively, you can read original content elsewhere rather than my functioning as an intellectual tick. None of this music needs a defense.

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Chicago And Back Again: Larry Binyon’s Early Years

This is the second part of a discussion about reedman and discographical ubiquity Larry Binyon. For why, read here. For who, read on.

Lawrence “Larry” Fiffe Binyon was born in Illinois on September 16, 1908, the younger of Claude and Josephine Armstrong Binyon’s two children (their first child Hugh was born in 1905). Census records show the Binyon family renting one unit of a two-family home in Chicago’s twenty-seventh ward in 1910, with Claude Binyon listed as an unemployed funeral director and somehow still employing a live-in servant. By 1920 the family was renting a single home in the city of Urbana, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Claude now worked as a secretary for an oil company. Josephine was now also employed as a music teacher working out of the Binyon home, now servant-less.

Larry BinyonUrbana was a much less densely populated city, and census records show more white-collar jobs among the Binyons’ neighbors in Urbana than those in Chicago. Perhaps quality of life was a factor in their move. Maybe Urbana was simply where Claude could find another steady paycheck, albeit now supplemented with a second income. If there was financial hardship, it could have influenced Larry’s understanding of the value of a dollar. Claude’s death in 1924, when Larry was just sixteen years old, certainly would have put a financial strain on the family. Larry might have developed his later well-documented work ethic at an early age.

It’s unclear how early Larry Binyon started playing music, but safe to assume that his mother shared at least some of her musical knowledge. By age eighteen, Binyon was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, listed on E flat (soprano) flute in the school’s concert band as well as (standard) flute and piccolo in its first regimental band during the 1926-27 school year.

Binyon would only spend one year at college. By 1927 he was already playing professionally in Chicago as part of Beasley Smith’s band, which also included drummer Ray McKinley and clarinetist Matty Matlock. Drummer and future swing era star Gene Krupa was playing across the street from Beasley in Joe Kayser’s band, and Binyon would have encountered an even wider pool of talent in the jazz mecca. Flute may have been Binyon’s first instrument, or at least his primary one at school, but tenor sax would have by now become his main horn for dance bands.

Later on that year drummer, bandleader and talent incubator Ben Pollack came back to Chicago after an unsuccessful gig at the Venice Ballroom in California. His third saxophonist and arranger Fud Livingston had left the band earlier that year (to work with conductor Nat Shilkret in New York City). It’s unclear exactly when or how Binyon hooked up with Pollack, but he was with the Pollack band on December 12, 1927 when it returned to the Victor’s Chicago studio after a five-month hiatus. He even got to solo!

On the final bridge of “Waitin’ For Katie,” Binyon stays pretty close to the melody on the first take and loosens up slightly for the second one. Both takes find Binyon jumping in on a break and ripping into the upper register (here is the issued first take):

Like many jazz musicians from this period, Binyon “routines” his solo but still has something unique to offer. His reedy tone and declaratory, trumpet-like phrasing are very different from Coleman Hawkins’s metal and rapid-fire arpeggios. Binyon has been compared to Bud Freeman, but Freeman generally played in a more agitated style at this time. Binyon sounds more relaxed even at faster tempos. Stated bluntly, he just played fewer notes than those guys.

Apparently Pollack liked Binyon’s notes; his tenor saxophone gets another solo on the session’s other issued side, “Memphis Blues,” where Binyon once again varies things just slightly between two takes (the issued first take follows):

He sounds tentative playing counterpoint in the introduction, and his brief solo might not seem like a model of construction. Yet he doesn’t get much room to stretch out on the W.C. Handy standard. Fud Livingston’s arrangement inserts some snappy chord substitutions from the band into the middle of Binyon’s chorus, which Binyon leaps into with a beautiful, well-executed lick. His preceding improvisation/routine is closer to an earlier, pre-Armstrong tradition that emphasized variety over contiguity. It’s also the work of a nineteen-year old cutting his first record. Better things were still to come but this was an admirable start.

Pollack’s band was filled with young talent, including eighteen-year old Benny Goodman and twenty-year old Jimmy McPartland. They usually got more solos, and have certainly received more ink since this session, but Binyon got to play alongside them and make the Pollack band possible. He must have been doing something worth talking about.

The next installment of this Larry Binyon story, which might not be the next post, will talk about Binyon’s career during the late twenties and early thirties, highlighting some of his best recordings. Hope you (continue to) enjoy it!


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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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Jazz Compositions and Contrafacts

The jazz contrafact, i.e a new composition written on the chord changes of another tune, is usually associated with post-war jazz. Beboppers superimposed dense riffs and angular melodies over popular standards, often adding then “unusual” chord substitutions that would eventually become standard operating vocabulary for jazz as we know it.

In the same spirit, Adrian Rollini and his colleagues in British bandleader Fred Elizalde’s ensemble get to recomposing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” right from the start of their record, and several years before Tadd Dameron and Miles Davis put pen to stave:

The opening ensemble turns Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel’s melody (already all too familiar even by 1929) into a completely new theme constructed out of tight, cool gestures. The format of horns stating a “head” followed by round-robin solos would become formula for the boppers, but at a time when collective improvisation and cross-sectional writing were just as prominent, it has the air of one refreshing approach among many. The solos present a variety of instrumental personalities, starting with Chelsea Quealey abstracting the melody further and ending with Rollini’s bass saxophone muscular and lithe all at once.

The execution is slightly different, but the principle has always remained the same.  Contrafacts have been around at least since some band got sick of playing “Tiger Rag” the same way over and over again (but we’ll save that long list for another day).

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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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Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

Dance music of the twenties and thirties: dreary, colorless and filled with musicians diligently playing dull written parts, until an improvised break or solo allowed them to display their individuality and inject a brief moment of “jazz” amidst all that “commercial” music.

Except when it wasn’t.

Comparing Frank Trumbauer leading the sax section on C melody saxophone for “Baltimore”

with Chester Hazlett’s lead alto on “Lila”

the difference isn’t just about instrument or arrangement. These are two entirely different approaches to timbre, phrasing and section balance: Trumbauer’s dry tone sliding in and out of the theme from between his reed section colleagues, versus Hazlett’s buttery, vibrato-laden and slightly (deliciously) nasal sound providing a lush melody statement on top of the other saxophones.

Both players fashion entirely distinct and deeply personal approaches despite (perhaps even through!) written parts.  Neither tune was the cream of the compositional crop, and the chance to shine with multiple improvised choruses on Rhythm changes was a few years and at least one stylistic revolution away. Yet whatever the difference between “jazz” and “commercial” music, there’s clearly a difference between the music on paper and the music at work in these two recordings.

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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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Phil Napoleon: To Jazz Or…

Swing, blues and a completely fresh improvisation at every performance: three common (for some essential) descriptors of “jazz” that were only beginning to take root at the height of Phil Napoleon’s career. Sounds from New Orleans and the Midwest territories were not as widespread when Napoleon was blowing trumpet for the Original Memphis Five. Louis Armstrong’ rhythmic and solo innovations were still to come, and jazz remained a collective experience with strong influences from ragtime. Yet even beyond his musical and historical surroundings, Napoleon always had other priorities.

Those priorities included a brilliant yet inviting tone, given to clipped articulation and rhythmically tense phrasing. That tone usually supported a powerful, balanced lead, but could also supply spare, neatly organized “hot” patterns. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” features Napoleon’s direct ensemble lead as well as his witty muted obbligato behind Jimmy Lytell’s clarinet:

Richard M. Sudhalter explained, “The Memphis Five appear to have ‘routined’ their arrangements in advance and in detail…A routine on one number doesn’t change from take to take.” This stick-with-what-works ethic makes sense the more one hears (and feels) Napoleon’s overriding concern for balance and blend. If Napoleon knows exactly what he’s going to play next on “He May Be Your Man,” and if the rhythm is more sway than swing, he still conveys spontaneity alongside restraint. He even adds subtle sardonic color to Lem Fowler’s naughty little tune [just follow the arrow to listen]:

He May Be Your Man

The chamber intimacy of these recordings combined with Napoleon’s clean, resilient sound betrays his background as a classically trained player. Even at his most unbuttoned, for example on a later date with Miff Mole, his “Dixieland” sound is perfectly centered, and he executes a tortuous muted passage (in tight harmony with Mole’s trombone!) neatly and convincingly:

Throughout his career, Napoleon never completely absorbed the loose rhythms and bluesy rhetoric of Louis Armstrong, or the coaxing warmth and harmonic palette of Bix Beiderbecke. It’s probably one reason why Napoleon has had a modest presence in most “jazz” histories. Here he is leading a group of other Jazz Age stars, instantly recognizable and dependable as always. Napoleon remained his own man, something even Armstrong and Beiderbecke could have related to:

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