Tag Archives: Don Redman

For No Other Reason…

…than it’s my blog and this recording is one of my favorites, here is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers on “I Found A New Baby“:

The arrangement goes straight into Spencer Williams‘s melody, sans introduction about a decade before Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” showing off the sax section with the first alto slightly inflecting the theme while maintaining a solid lead. The brass vary things more but remain thoroughly idiomatic: punchy and metallic with no clarinet-like noodles.  Prince Robinson plays the tenor sax like it’s twice as big and cast in copper.  He works in tone and winking little licks rather than rapid-fire arpeggiation a la Coleman Hawkins or Bud Freeman’s greasy barroom innuendo.

This band and its chief arranger/director Don Redman, beloved as they are by collectors and historians, have been criticized for an occasionally over-arranged sound.  Trumpeter John Nesbitt’s chart is economical in form and visceral in delivery.  Remove the the sections filling out the harmonies and you can almost hear a two-man front line of alto and trumpet playing the head and then taking a paraphrase solo before saxophonist George Thomas’s vocal.

It all takes place in a little over three minutes.  While there won’t be any dissertations written about it, there seems to be a craft as well as a spirit to the notes themselves beyond nostalgia or factual inventory.  More definitely, I like it.


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Don Redman’s Orchestrated Scat

It’s easy to imagine horns instead of voices on Don Redman’s arrangement of “Four Or Five Times” for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers: Claude Jones’s lead transposed to a baritone sax or even his own plunger-muted trombone, George Thomas’s tenor saxophone and Redman’s alto handling their “da-doobies” and “boot ‘n doots,” maybe a Harmon-muted trumpet ejecting banjoist Dave Wilborn’s falsetto notes:

By Prince Robinson’s hulking tenor and clarinet, the chart sounds like its just picking up where the trio left off. The vocals are “parts” in the truest sense of the word. All of Redman’s parts illustrate his gift for improvising on paper, soloing in multi-part harmony with the spontaneity and snap of a live performer. Ditto for parts with words or written origins, supposedly un-christenable as “scat” or “jazz”.

Some listeners may have preferred brass, reed, even string or percussion (!) instruments in place of the vocal ones. Ignoring or mocking singers, not to mention critiquing them because they’re not instrumentalists, has been around since “jazz” was simply known as “music.” Mike Zwerin’s description of one listener in Germany sums this approach up well:

When he became a serious jazz fan in 1938, teenager Otto Jung began to resent the vocals on records he collected. Singers took time away from the real thing…[so he] wrote the Elektrola [sic] company in Berlin asking for a list of strictly instrumental Benny Goodman records.

Even relying on foreign distribution, thousands of miles away from the music’s home, under a political regime that (to put it mildly) complicated jazz consumerism, this young fan was determined to throw out the vocals.

Of course people can select music according to whatever standards they choose. Yet a no-vocals policy would exclude Redman’s unique blend of song, scat, musical comedy and jazz. In its own way, his arrangement is a powerful (if unintentional) act of defiance. Assuming Don Redman knew what he was doing, vocals don’t seem so bad. They might even be “the real thing!”

 McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1928. left to right: Cuba Austin, Prince Robinson, George Thomas, Don Redman, Dave Wilborn, Todd Rhoades, Bob Escudero, seated: John Nesbitt, Claude Jones, Milton Senior, Langston Curl. Care of redhotjazz.com

McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1928. left to right: Cuba Austin, Prince Robinson, George Thomas, Don Redman, Dave Wilborn, Todd Rhoades, Bob Escudero, seated: John Nesbitt, Claude Jones, Milton Senior, Langston Curl. Care of redhotjazz.com

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Jazz In The Family

Working for my father’s home improvement business during high school taught me to appreciate the hard work supporting our household.  It also paid for the music in my earphones, which were usually on full blast as I swept floors and fetched coffee.  I listened to a lot of music working the family business, but one job still stands out because it introduced me to Eddie Durham.

I had just purchased the Count Basie collection playing on my Walkman as I stuffed insulation.  After a string of bright, up-tempo tunes including “One O’Clock Jump,” “John’s Idea,” “Out the Window” and “Swinging the Blues,” a moodier, minor key piece materialized.  It had the same loose Basie beat and spare but powerful ensemble figures.  Buck Clayton‘s tart-toned muted trumpet was also recognizable.  Yet the chromatic drawl I heard gave the band a more structured, darker persona.  All the dusty, scratched cassette case in my pocket told me was that the song was called “Topsy.”  A lot of curiosity and a little research told me that this was Eddie Durham:

I also realized that I already knew of Eddie Durham without knowing who Eddie Durham was.  He had arranged all those other numbers for the Basie band, and his name would keep coming up in the recordings of Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Jan Savitt.  Later on I would discover his electric guitar on the Kansas City Six sides he made with other Basie sidemen for the Commodore label.  Eventually I would have to stop counting the number of times I uttered, “Wow, that was Eddie Durham on trombone!”  My career responsibilities and knowledge of jazz have changed since first hearing “Topsy,” but more importantly I keep encountering Eddie Durham.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Durham doesn’t receive the same attention as contemporary arrangers like Don Redman, Sy Oliver or the legendary Duke Ellington.  His trombone playing never spurred any followers the way Jack Teagarden did, and Charlie Christian’s pioneering work has overshadowed Durham’s electric guitar as well as his influence on the young Christian.  Eddie Durham is easy to appreciate but not always easy to find.

Durham’s children, daughter Marsha “Topsy” Durham and son Eric, are helping to change that.  Their website honors their father with fastidious, loving care. From Durham’s beginnings as a musical director for a wild West shows to his post-retirement comeback, visitors can read about Durham’s life, peruse photos, find links to other sources and even enjoy a concise, informative documentary featuring Dan Morgenstern, Loren Schoenberg and Vince Giordano.  It’s an incredible resource and tribute to their father’s legacy.  In the meantime we’ll all look forward to hearing more of Eddie Durham.

Look, learn and best of all listen at DurhamJazz.com!

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