Don Murray didn’t live nearly long enough for me to tire of his playing—but who lives to a thousand? I’m always eager to hear more of his bright, spiraling clarinet and gorgeous sax work from the few years he recorded during his tragically short life. So, based on some leads from far more experienced listeners, I shook one discographical branch.
This open document collects my listening and uneducated guesses. Please feel free to add your own annotations and comments or just enjoy the music!
The Broadway Bellhops were far from the hottest act of the twenties. One of many recording bands in New York City, bandleader Sam Lanin gathered the leading jazz players of the time to diligently read arrangements of the latest popular songs. This music set out to deliver a tune rather than showcase musicians.
Those musicians, however, performed with assembly line efficiency and concert virtuoso polish. Improvisation and rhythmic intensity were cleverly stitched into a larger musical whole. The trombone chorus starting “I Don’t Believe You” sticks to the melody but is far from faceless: melodic, masculine, not “swinging” but still rhythmically sharp, it’s like an actor giving life to their lines:
[The music is hyperlinked above but please share a video if you have one!]
In the last chorus, a three-part, collectively improvised frontline opens a hot concerto grosso, the trombonist returns for the final bridge and sweet collides with hot as a clarinet pipes over the big theatrical finale.
Somehow, though, the piano accompaniment behind Charles Hart’s vocal is the most interesting part, due to its subtlety. The accompaniment is halfway between song-plugger style and rag-a-jazz, ever so slightly at odds with Hart’s approach. There’s a tension at work that even fans used to these juxtapositions would have noticed, though not balked over.
Time has not been kind to Hart, Irving Kaufman, Scrappy Lambert and others singing with the Bellhops. Their sound now inspires a wide variety of judgments. Depending on one’s opinion, the instrumental obbligatos behind their vocals are either novel contrasts or pure subterfuge. The clarinetist on “Away Down South In Heaven” pushes and pulls at Kaufman’s downbeat while still harmonizing with the lead and never distracting from the vocal. These were professionals. They may not have been making art but they never sounded sloppy or unconvincing.
Two takes of “Get Out And Get Under The Moon” show the thought behind these products, first trying a restrained piano behind Lambert and then well-timed, charming saxophone licks:
Ensemble effects such as the upper-register clarinet with muted trumpet on “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” recall the orchestrated Dixieland sound described by David Sager in his liner notes for Off The Record’s reissue of The Wolverines:
That voicing resembles Sager’s description of “the first available harmony line below the cornet lead, while the clarinet took the first available harmony above the lead.” This was a “standard voicing” of the time, so it was likely a well-known device for enhancing stock arrangements. Similar ideas pop up on “Mary Ann” under Lanin’s name or Lanin d.b.a. Billy Hays on “I’d Rather Cry Over You.”
This band-within-a-band sound and allusion to small group jazz in an arranged setting exemplify the style-splitting popular music of that time. That context is sometimes lost when fast-forwarding to the solos.
Solos like those of Tommy Gott on “Our Bungalow of Dreams,” Red Nichols on “Collette” or Bix, Tram and Don on the Bellhops’ most well-known session are worthy of attention. They defamiliarize the hot/sweet dichotomy and an extra eight bars would have been welcome:
Yet there is much to admire on these sides even without improvisation. Who else could pull off a soprano-sax led soli like the one on “There’s Everything Nice About You” not to mention the tight brass section of just three players sounding like six?
“She’s A Great, Great Girl” features brilliant lead playing by Larry Abbott on lead alto and Gott on first trumpet. Abbott does cover up the rest of the section, effectively making this his moment. He plays with an unabashedly syrupy tone and varied phrasing, digging in at times, creamy at others:
His lead is more transparent after the vocal, another contrast as well as an indication of deliberate design. The side ends with a half-chorus of piano and soft-shoeing cymbals, adding still more structural, dynamic and textural flavor. Details like these are why this music still resounds as flesh and blood performances, rather than disposable pop artifacts or nostalgia.
If you have your own favorite finds from the Broadway Bellhops, please share them in the comments!
The following grew from a pet project of taking occasional notes on and finding as much music as possible made by one of my favorite musicians, Don Murray. I had collected a lot of information from incredible resources such as Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography, Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands On Records And Film and Albert Haim’s Bixography web forum. Yet my ears can only take me so far, so I am sharing this discography to benefit from more experienced and/or sensitive ears than mine. It can be accessed online here.
I also want to emphasize that this is a personal project and therefore only reflects my own subjective i.e. imperfect tastes and reactions to these recordings. It has also been assembled over the years between instances of real life, so it’s admittedly not the most elegant or conventionally designed discography. Above all, I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies, misattributions or other purely unintentional mistakes and I look forward to correcting them.
So, if you know more about these recordings or (fingers crossed) know of other Don Murray recordings, “have at it.” Thanks!
Longtime readers of this blog (both of them) have probably noticed the wealth of fan nonfiction devoted to clarinetist Don Murray. Dead by the age of twenty-sixfour, often overshadowed by his friend and fellow young talent cut tragically short Bix Beiderbecke and with a modestly-sized discography to his name, Murray is both a personal favorite and nowhere near overexposure in the history books.
Murray’s legacy is also complicated by a lot of commercial sessions that probably paid his rent but often didn’t leave room for improvisation. Everyone (or at least the 0.5% of the planet who enjoy hot jazz) knows that it is Murray cascading out of the opening stop chord on “Sorry” under Bix Beiderbecke’s leadership. It takes some patience to find his solo on “What A Wonderful Wedding That Will Be”:
Of course, it’s worth digging if you just like Murray, but his music is worth the effort. The repetition of the first eight bars after the bridge means he was either bored with the tune or simply liked those phrases. Either way, Murray’s clarinet (as well as Red Nichols’s squeezing and pecking on trumpet) adds rhythmic and technical interest to this affair. Murray did not get to stretch out nearly as much on commercial sides but they provide some of his most elusive and rewarding work.
It’s a pity the obbligato saxophone behind the vocal isn’t better recorded; it also gets some things done musically and it might well be Murray. Murray’s tenor on “Marvelous” is much easier to hear and the title might as well refer to Murray:
The rhythmic intensity of this side immediately skyrockets upon his entrance, with Murray’s triplets and hill-and-dale phrases injecting some hot virtuosity into a peppy but otherwise straightforward performance. Murray’s gauzy tone on tenor (heard here as well as on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette) is similar to his light-toned baritone, while he kept a bright, open sound on both clarinet and alto saxophone.
It is likely Murray’s alto saxophone on the first chorus bridge of “Feelin’ Good” and possibly his clarinet on the eight-bar improvised bridge of the last chorus. The opening squeal is uncharacteristic but the tumbling arpeggios are pure Murray:
Murray seems to have made a specialty out of these rhythmic paraphrases of non-refrain sections, such as the final bridge on “I’m Ridin’ To Glory” or his gorgeous texture and rhythmic recasting of the verse on baritone for ‘”Tain’t So, Honey, Tain’t So”:
The two records with Joe Venuti’s band are much jazzier charts that still don’t give Murray much spotlight. It’s easy to lament the infrequency or brevity of Murray’s solos (especially after, for example, you might have isolated the 240 or so records that Murray appears on and listened and re-listened to every solo, obbligato, ensemble descant and straight lead he ever waxed). Yet these records also demonstrate a musician working within constraints, responding to and enhancing a musical environment much different from out-and-out jazz settings. “Somebody Lied About Me” barely gives Murray ten seconds of audible space on clarinet and he still manages to make it his own:
“Commercial” is a dirty term in some jazz circles but it simply means the popular music of the time: melodic, danceable, often slickly executed, at times novel, other times trite and above all focused on different musical priorities than other genres, including jazz. So it’s impressive that Murray got away with the impromptu ornaments behind the band and awesome double-time decoration here. Maybe the business-savvy Sam Lanin was also a fan. Whatever the explanation, the sound of Murray’s clarinet piercing through Lanin’s spongy reeds is a very powerful example of musicianship and personality (even if it won’t gain admissions into any jazz anthologies).
“Maybe, Who Knows?” is practically a feature for Murray. He plays clarinet around the ensemble on the first chorus, switches to baritone for a swinging lead on the bridge, answers Ted Lewis’s vocals back on his clarinet and then improvises on the last bridge:
Not just any section man could pull it all off with the same tone, technique, style or those tasteful, spurring ornaments at end of the band’s phrases. I’m still hopeful that someone will unearth recordings of Don Murray playing in a trio a la Jimmy Lytell but, in the meantime, these records do very well on their own terms. There may not be much jazz in them, and some of it may not even be classified as “jazz,” but it is creative, confident and individual music.
Don Murray’s solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette’s band came as a complete surprise. It wasn’t just being used to hearing him on baritone sax with Goldkette and on tenor with Ted Lewis, along with his clarinet in both settings. That would have just made my hearing a tenor sax spot for Murray with Goldkette a novelty.
The sound of this Murray tenor, so rich, so plummy, so far removed from the piping, reedy solos in the instrument’s upper-medium to high registers with Lewis was the real surprise. The first (through about fifth or sixth) time I heard it, it left me scratching my head.
Small wonder since Murray was not even playing tenor sax. Blame my car speakers or blame Murray’s light, transparent as cheesecloth tone on baritone (and thank Albert Haim for educating me):
So many baritone players of this stylistic era played the big horn with a big, burly tone, thick vibrato and percussive articulation. Compare Bobby Davis:
and the difference becomes clear to the point of world-altering.
Links with Murray’s frequent collaborator Frank Trumbauer are tempting. Yet the C melody saxist’s light timbre dovetails with a light, relaxed approach to improvisation. “Tram” often seems to ease into his lines, even at breakneck tempos. Murray’s approach was rarely easygoing. Even on “Blue River,” his wafer tone spirals into a rapid-fire kineticism. If Trumabuer looks ahead to the cooler sounds of Lester Young And Miles Davis, Murray is firmly, and in hindsight refreshingly, part of The Jazz Age’s nervous energy.
Murray doesn’t cut “Blue River” to ribbons, yet well past paraphrasing it, he turns Joseph Meyer & Alfred Bryan’s repeated note theme into a busy, bouncing ballet of arpeggios, intervals, runs and an ecstatic in-tempo break after the ensemble bridge. His solo is halfway between complete abstraction and the type of recomposition Bix Beiderbecke (here buried in the section) was known for.
Decades of hearing Trumbauer’s own recording of “Blue River,” with Murray in the background and Bix Beiderbecke forever in the foreground, have made it all too familiar to generations of jazz listeners. Murray’s variation resembles cutting lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into acts of Hamlet. Goldkette’s arrangement may or may not be as hip as Trumbauer’s but for twenty-four bars Murray makes the tune an event. As for my own naive guesses at Murray’s choice of instrument, I now know better but continue to learn more about this often overlooked player. That’s a jazz musician for you.
Joe Venuti led several numbers in the studio but Richard Sudhalter singled out the violinist’s Blue Four sessions of the late twenties as “masterpieces, high points of New York chamber jazz ….a testament of excellence hard even to challenge, let alone surpass.” For me they stand out as ideal opportunities to hear Don Murray.
Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini joined Venuti, his right-hand man Eddie Lang on guitar and a revolving roster of pianists during this period (Justin Ring or Paul Grasselli also played percussion but their presence was slight enough for even the record label to classify this group as a quartet). Murray easily has the smallest recorded legacy of the Blue Four’s guest reeds, a consequence of his also having the shortest life.
Combined with the fact that Murray was usually buried in larger bands for most of his discography, these Blue Four sides become not just a boon for Murray fans but a valuable document of an under-recorded, apparently multifaceted musician. From his debut with the Blue Four, playing baritone saxophone and clarinet on “Penn Beach Blues,” he acts as soloist, reed section, bassist, color and contrast:
Moody and atmospheric, “Penn Beach Blues” alternates a harmonically arresting ensemble and a laidback blowing chorus. Murray adds a distinct sound from the outset, bottoming out the ensemble chords and adding ascending chromatic lines to connect them. His bright clarinet tone is instantly recognizable. So are the stacked arpeggios and loping eighth notes that characterized his playing regardless of instrument. He provides bass lines and syncopated rumbles for most of the reverse side but also earns two solo spots amidst this feature for the leader’s violin:
Murray’s first solo on “Four String Joe,” starts off uneasily, with a descending line that gains confidence and races towards a hot break and roaring finale. His clarinet is unusually and refreshingly spare, adding an attractive popping effect when it locks in with the rhythm section’s backbeat. Murray comes back on baritone for some moaning dialog with Venuti before switching back to clarinet and a unison tag with him, closing the performance with yet another unique sound.
The Blue Four’s variety of texture, form and mood belies any sense of there being “just” four players. They rarely rely upon the soloist plus rhythm, take-your-turn-improvising format. Instead, violin lead with guitar comping, guitar lead with violin harmony, guitar bass lines supporting soloist or ensemble, a capella piano, various combinations of call and response and other instrumental changeups make the quartet sound larger in terms of size as well as possibility. Apparently Okeh agreed: Venuti kept making Blue Four sides, even as jazz and dance bands had already started to grow much larger.
Venuti’s next session as a leader was another Blue Four date, with Murray back in the reed chair and Rube Bloom (in place of pianist Frank Signorelli) introducing a medium tempo “Dinah”:
Geoffrey Wheeler describes Murray’s baritone sax sound as a “medium-full, vibratoless sound that would have fit in well with the bop groups and big bands of the 1940s.” “Dinah” is a short but very revealing exploration of that sound. Murray’s tender introduction and verse, first solo then pared with Venuti’s double-stops, and his ability to accompany a small group of soft instruments without overwhelming them displays his versatility as well as his expressiveness. Murray could play hot but could also play, period.
Even on the second tune of the day, a breakneck feature for Venuti appropriately titled “The Wild Dog,” Murray makes an elegant (dare we say “Bixian?”) statement in halftime, built off of arching phrases, a bluesy break and light articulation. The record also begins with Murray arpeggiating the tense harmonies of the introduction, an instant touch of atmosphere:
Given that Murray was playing the first recording of this tune, his repeated note solo might have been a paraphrase of a melody co-written by Lang and Venuti. It’s easy to imagine Lang plucking something similar on his guitar. Yet the unissued take features a different solo using similar ideas, and a later record with Pete Pumiglio taking Murray’s place has an entirely different chorus. Murray may have been crafting just the right solo, as so many jazz musicians of the time also did to great effect. Either way, it’s a lyrical, well-conceived moment amidst Venuti’s virtuoso displays.
After two sessions leading big bands (both including Murray) and close to three months later, Venuti once again recorded with a Blue Four and brought Murray back for what would be his last appearance with the group. On baritone again for a fiery “The Man From The South,” he gets in a whirlwind of a solo, driving and dense, like a Bach invention soaked in gin, yet it’s his ensemble playing that nearly steals the show:
Murray’s darting phrases behind and between Venuti/Lang’s lead throughout the recording indicate how closely he may have been listening to bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. Murray toys with the boundary between obbligato and bass lines in the same way that Rollini did when both played on the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang sessions. Murray makes the Blue Four sound fuller while adding momentum to it, splitting the difference between front line and rhythm section. The alternation between staccato and slurred phrases in the first chorus also shows Murray’s slick sense of detail.
Murray closes out his brilliant tenure with the Blue Four on “Pretty Trix” and two solos that resemble his work on “Four String Joe,” full of bright second and thirds and finger-twisting runs:
Don Murray. Photo courtesy of Storyville magazine.
His tone on the head’s ensemble counterpoint is light, nearly to the point of transparency, very different from the dark, cavernous sound of his baritone and bass sax-playing contemporaries. It lets Venuti’s passagework and Lang’s plucking peek through, allowing exactly the type of a “finely wrought musical miniatures, harmonically and texturally rich…yet [leaving] plenty of latitude for improvisation” praised by Sudhalter. New York had its share of excellent reed players, some at least as busy as Murray, but Venuti and Murray had known one another since their time in Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, if not earlier. Venuti was probably not one to mince words and no doubt knew what he wanted. Murray in turn must have found the time to join him.
Less than a month after his last session with the Blue Four, Murray had started as a regular player with Ted Lewis, a job that would keep him incredibly busy and take him on the road to California, where he suffered the fatal accident that would kill him less than a year later. It’s hard to hear Murray in the many reed sections he recorded with during his short but teasingly fruitful career and it never seems like he got enough solos. These Blue Four sessions, just six sides and one alternate take, are a small but incredibly revealing part of the Murray discography.
Virtually all of Dillon Ober’s legacy as a jazz musician was recorded with just two bandleaders over a four and a half year period and without a single solo. It’s a modest discography, perhaps appropriate for such an unflashy drummer, but it illustrates an energetic, at times arresting spirit behind the kit.
How Ober began playing is unclear but he obviously started young. Born April 8, 1904 in West Virginia, by 1919 young Dillon was already listed as a “musician” in the Clarksburg town directory. He cut his first record in 1922 playing marimba with the Mason-Dixon Seven Orchestra. The band included future dance band star Ted Weems and his brother Art and was popular at West Virginia University. It also traveled as far as University of Michigan and the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania as well as New York City to cut one unissued take of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Columbia with the young marimba player. The Seven might have also worked in Philadelphia, or perhaps Ober was in town solely for his wedding to Alice “Nellie” Broadwater in 1922. The young couple lived with Ober’s (apparently very patient) parents through 1925 while he continued to work as a musician.
Ober no doubt continued to gig and gain experience, including on drum set. By December 1926, he was confident enough to return to New York City and record with saxophonist Jack Pettis and several of Pettis’s fellow sidemen from Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Bernie led an incredibly popular and well-respected band. Playing with its crack sidemen as well as jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in the music capital of the world must have excited the twenty-two year old pro from down South. He sticks to rhythmic background for most of “He’s The Last Word” but bears down harder behind the leader’s red-hot saxophone:
Ober’s drumming is more like great seasoning than a whole recipe: it flavors the performance and never overpowers the whole, occasionally jumping out before fading back into the mix. Ober is back on drums at Pettis’s next session and while it’s hard to hear Ober on “I Gotta’ Get Myself Somebody To Love,” it’s easy to feel his contribution to the side’s breezy momentum:
Ober sounds downright electrified on a Pettis date with guest clarinetist Don Murray. This was Ober’s sixth session in New York since his arrival, including one directed by Bernie’s arranger Kenn Sisson, and he must have been making a name for himself. Murray’s jittery arpeggios obviously contribute to the bright mood. The up-tempo “Hot Heels” lives up to its name:
Even at a medium tempo, “Dry Martini” picks up steam from Murray’s reedy phrases and Ober’s simple but spurring “1…1,2…” behind them:
Perhaps feeling more comfortable at his next record session (his first with the famous Victor label), Ober varies his technique more for “Bag O’Blues”:
He alternates cymbal backbeats and syncopations next to Nick Gerlach’s violin but sticks to a simpler beat behind trumpeter Bill Moore and Murray, allowing guitarist Eddie Lang to push the soloists and change up the rhythmic texture. Ober then switches to wood blocks behind Moore’s solo, while the “ting” and “swish” of his cymbals behind Lang’s solo add even more contrast. Far from just keeping time, Ober varies his beats, plays tasteful fills and inserts himself just enough to add color at key points. He chimes behind Bill Moore’s chatter on “Doin’ The New Low Down” and also taps an interesting paraphrase of Gerlach’s paraphrase, as Gerlach plays it, on woodblocks:
Ober would play drums on all of Pettis’s sessions as a leader. Pettis started out with no less than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings before becoming Ben Bernie’s star soloist. His light, swinging “Chicago style” sax enlivens every recording it’s on, he penned hot instrumentals such as “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Up And At ‘Em” and his Band, Orchestra, Pets and Lumberjacks produced some of the hottest jazz of the pre-swing era. Ober must have been doing something right if Pettis liked his drumming.
Pettis and possibly some of his sidemen must have spread the word: Ober took over the drum chair in Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. He’s off to a brilliant start on record with Bernie, waxing “Ten Little Miles From Town” and “When Polly Walks Through The Hollyhocks,” two sugary titles that really move (and include alternate takes without vocals) as well as Kenn Sisson’s novel arrangement of Joseph Northrup’s “Cannon Ball Rag”:
Highlights include Ober’s backbeat on the last chorus of “Ten Little Miles” and the way that he and pianist Al Goering gradually add more decoration to the end of each vocal phrase on “Polly.” Ober also really digs in behind the trumpet and trombone on “Cannon Ball.” The Bernie band was based out of the swank Hotel Roosevelt in midtown Manhattan. While not expressly a jazz band and even with tightly arranged charts, it played with energy as well as elegance and left room for dynamic ensembles and soloists. “Rhythm King” and “I Want To Be Bad” are models of crisp, buoyant and warm twenties dance grooves:
Playing with Bernie at the Hotel Roosevelt would have kept Ober occupied and financially stable but the drummer continued to record with Pettis’s side groups. He got to play with young jazz luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey through working with Pettis, and for one date worked under the direction of vocalist and impresario Irving Mills. Word of mouth went far in the Manhattan musical community of the time and work was plentiful, so it’s likely Ober picked up work outside of the studio. Ober’s drive as well as sense of balance on “At The Prom” is a fine sample of his portfolio:
Ober and the propulsive (still unidentified) string bassist take turns driving the band. The bass does the heavy lifting behind the vocal and the violin while Ober plays cymbals behind the sax, stopping after the break to avoid monotony, then alternates open and closed hits for the bridge of the trumpet solo. He’s clearly thinking about how to deliver rhythm as well as variety, something the well-connected, band-booking Mills must have heard. Back with Pettis’s Pets for “Bugle Call Blues,” Ober plays crisp press rolls behind the trombone and piano, indicating he probably listened to New Orleans expatriates or their Chicago disciples:
Ober’s doubling ability would have also made him a versatile hire. He had started on record playing marimba, and his xylophone obbligato behind Pettis’s first chorus bridge on the Victor pressing of “Freshman Hop” is a short but catchy hint of Ober’s inventive touch at the keys:
“I’m In Seventh Heaven” by the Bernie band has a catchy lilt, but Ober’s gliding xylophone obbligato, combined with Merill Klein’s slap bass and the low-register clarinet (perhaps played Manny Prager, Pettis’s sub?) steals the show:
On September 18, 1929, Ober, Ben Bernie and several members of the Bernie band arrived in England to play at London’s fashionable Kit Cat Club. Mark Berresford indicates that unfortunately the band was poorly received by the press. Ober and his colleagues returned to the States a month later. That same year, Bernie lost his longtime spot at the swanky Hotel Roosevelt and lost much of his savings in the stock market crash. He handed leadership of the band over to Jack Pettis in April 1930, moving onto less jazz-oriented groups for radio while Pettis led the band through the end of the year.
Ober made his last credited record, for Bernie and forever, in 1931 (Wikipedia claims that Ober also worked with Ace Brigode but neither Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography nor Brian Rust’s The American Dance Band Discographylist Ober playing with Brigode). Working with Bernie must have earned Ober something of a reputation so it’s likely he continued to work outside of record sessions. He lists his occupation as “hotel musician” on the 1930 census, and The Premier Drum Company thought enough of Ober to include a photo of him eyeing one of their products alongside several other noted musicians in its 1930 catalog.
The 1930 census shows Dillon and Nellie Ober living in Queens, but by 1934 he begins to appear in credits for movies made in California, starting with the comedy short “Old Maid’s Mistake,” followed by “Every Night At Eight” in 1935 and “The Country Doctor” and “The Crimes Of Dr. Forbes” in 1936. Ober wasn’t a complete stranger to acting, having already appeared in the 1928 Broadway musical Here’s Howe (with music by bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn and introducing the standard “Crazy Rhythm”). He didn’t seem to need much theatrical range for film, given roles such as “comedy singer, piano player” and “trick drummer.” More importantly, Ober had an entryway into the West Coast studios. By 1937, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Ober was “…on Walt Disney’s payroll out in Hollywood, tapping out sounds in animated talkies.” Ober’s un-credited work from this period might not have been glamorous but it was steady and he seemed to enjoy it.
Musician Don Ingle, who described Ober as “…one of the great drummers who disappeared into the movie studios in California and was rarely known outside of that arena in the years of large studio orchestra staffs” provides a very personal portrait of Ober during those years in California:
Dillon Ober was a very nice man, looking as I recall a lot like Robert Benchley. We used to go to visit at his place in the Valley not far from our home, as Dad [big band sideman “Red” Ingle] and he had become good friends in the thirties through their mutual friend Orm [Ormand] Downes, another of the unsung but superb drummers who had shared the stand with Dad for much of the thirties in the Ted Weems band. Dillon and Orm and Dad often gathered to socialize when not working, and Dillon’s home was often the site of poker parties, barbeques and a pleasant place to visit. I learned by listening to [Ober’s] descriptions of working with the great musical directors of Hollywood and how they scored the films, a very technical and critically timed process. They would also tell war stories from the big band days and talk about the players they’d come up with in the business.
Ober may have also played for the military after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942, as it’s unlikely the thirty-eight year old would have been placed into combat at the height of World War Two. He passed away just five years later, barely middle-aged and outlived by his father.
It’s clear that Ober didn’t record much and perhaps easy to suggest he didn’t “do” much behind the drum set, but he played exactly what was needed for his fellow musicians. Record after record reveals a no-frills, reliable, rhythmic drummer with his own subtle but instantly galvanizing personality. As for how much he recorded, in this case something is far better than nothing. Ober’s modest style and modest discography make for some very distinguished music.
For the completest Dillon Ober, check out Retrieval’s excellent Ben Bernie album and try to hunt down the now discontinued Jack Pettis double CD set from the King’s Crossing label. For a whole other look at Ober and a good laugh, please check out Michael Steinman’s notes here.
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.
Regular readers of Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic know that Buster Bailey and Don Murray are two of its favorite subjects. Both were simply amazing clarinetists, gifted with a bright tone and a beautifully busy style, equally effective in solos, breaks and high-flying lines behind ensembles. Benny Goodman admired the two of them and even shared a teacher with Buster Bailey. Unfortunately Bailey and Murray remain amazingly underrated footnotes in jazz history.
Now, for some further critical vindication, here’s Ellington sax section anchor and baritone sax pioneer Harry Carney‘s thoughts on these musicians:
My first influences [on clarinet] were Buster Bailey with Fletcher Henderson, and Don Murray with Jean Goldkette. As a brash kid, I always wanted to play faster than anyone on clarinet, and both Buster and Don Murray were great technicians. Too bad I didn’t stick with them! Perhaps I’d be a clarinetist today. Buster has always sounded to me like a perfect man for the symphony, and on those up-tempo numbers with Fletcher Henderson he always showed what a well-schooled musician he was.
Apparently this blog keeps some sharp company in terms of taste! More importantly, Carney reminds all of us to stay positive and to not be bashful with sincere compliments. One never knows who, or when, someone is listening.
Here’s part three of an insightful documentary on YouTube about Bill Rank and his performances in Holland. Rank is best known as a sideman with Bix Beiderbecke, but “Santopec” comments on a confident, unique trombonist who continued to grow long after Beiderbecke’s Goethe-esque early passing:
The incredible technique is still there after “all those years,” even more well integrated into a highly personal (though clearly indebted to Miff Mole) style based off of wide intervals and suspended harmonies. The difference is a surer, more rounded sound and suppler sense of construction, which allows those leaps and notes to color Rank’s inventions rather than anchor them (as they occasionally do on earlier records). Hearing Rank’s music on its own terms, without any legendary colleagues surrounding it, is the real find.
As for the “modest and captivating” person playing these solos, he confesses to embarrassment at the privileged treatment by his Dutch fans, and he still pronounces the name of an admired colleague with a Midwestern clip (“Adrian Roll-IN-e“). Not much to do with the music, but sometimes the brain and heart behind the notes matter. Who’d have thought?