Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

Random Thoughts On The Sax Section

VincentLopezSaxSection1926VerticalIn trying to describe what makes Bennie Moten’s saxophone section so wonderfully different from any other in the continuum, I started to think about what jazz listeners have come to expect from the entity known as a “saxophone section.” The following began as an introduction for the Moten posts, went in its own direction and then turned into some random thoughts on this very important part of the jazz orchestra. The reader may be able to extract some larger point, or at the very least enjoy the music and photos.

jazz-consortium-bandleaderblogdotcomPaul Whiteman called the saxophone section the string section of a big band. There’s more to his comparison than plush harmonies and fast scales. Just as the string section of a classical orchestra identifies the group as another link in a particular musical tradition, while distinguishing the best orchestras as unique members of that particular musical community, so does the saxophone section of a jazz big band. That’s not to diminish the distinct sound of a particular brass or rhythm section. Yet what instrument signifies “classical” like the violin, or “jazz” like the saxophone?

http://archive.org/details/BenPollack-91-100Think of Benny Goodman’s well-drilled but warm foursome under Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead, or Earle Warren’s searing alto atop the twin tenors of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, with Jack Washington anchoring it all on baritone. Duke Ellington’s saxophone sections patched together various reeds in different combinations yet remained instantly recognizable despite, or because of, their versatility. Whiteman wasn’t just commenting on notes in a score or crafting good copy: how much does a single note from this instrumental part reveal about the musical whole?

Walter Thomas, Andrew Brown Arville Harris, Eddie Barefield in 1934The modern saxophone section lives and thrives by concerted blend and drive as well as the power of its soloists. Woody Herman’s “four brothers” section is best known for solos by Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, but their famous titular number shows how well they work(ed) together as well as individually. The best sax sections are their own band within a band. There’s enough differentiation of register and timbre between the two to three instruments that comprise the section to create a self-contained ensemble. At the same time, solid improvised solos splintering out of the unit are a given. Several “Meets the Sax Section” albums illustrate the idea, as well as how powerful that idea has remained for listeners.

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra c/o nj.comThe swing era may not have introduced the concept of a saxophone section (which was already de rigueur for dance bands by the twenties), but it did codify a certain conception of it. From the big, rich sound of Count Basie’s new testament saxes, through the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band grooving under Jerome Richardson’s greasy soprano, to the thick, ultra-precise reeds directed by Bob Mintzer and other contemporary players, there’s a clear expectation of what a saxophone section should “do,” which still allows individual texture and growth.

Mingus Big Band JazzTimesUnlike the classical string section, where individual tone is incidental to the “ideal tone” taught and striven for in conservatories, the ideal tone in a jazz band is the musician’s tone. Individual timbres may balance one another but never disappear into the mix. Every metaphor has its limits…

Thomas County Central High School Saxophone Section

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Charlie Johnson, Straight Out of the “Holy *$#%!” Files

Charlie Johnson led one of the most popular jazz ensembles in Harlem, right around the time some guy from DC was starting his own career as a bandleader.  The rest, as they say, is footnotes.

Most historians concentrate on the nascent big band language contained in Benny Waters and Benny Carter‘s arrangements, painting the Johnson band as just another stepping stone in some inevitable teleology of jazz.  Listening to the band as its own entirely unique animal, with one foot in Jazz Age stomp and another in Swing Era architecture, is far more rewarding (not to mention fairer to the musicians).

This writer used to experience great satisfaction and great disappointment that the band’s complete, teasingly scant recorded legacy was contained on one French EPM Jazz Archives CD he purchased as a teenager, with subpar sound and inaccurate personnel listings (still available for premium price!).  Yet it was all that was available and all he needed, until now.

Thanks to the miracle that is the internet, here’s the Johnson band in all of their steaming, unissued and unearthed glory:

Thanks to whoever posted this brand new side on SoundCloud, and to the erudite trumpeter and jazz historian Yves Francois for spreading the news.  Keep ’em coming!

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White Plays Black

Given Jazz Age assumptions about which bands were supposed to play what, and the frequency of jazz-tinged instrumentals in Joe Candullo‘s discography, it’s remarkable that  the violinist and bandleader was able to record quite a bit of music other bands were simply expected to play. The same ratio of hot to sweet music was the norm for Duke Ellington, Bennie Moten or Charlie Johnson.

Occasionally double standards come in handy. Had the Candullo band’s family trees or repertoire been different, they might just be another jazz band, or another (most likely forgotten) dance orchestra. Luckily, the “novelty” of these players’ backgrounds draws attention to real musical discoveries. The tight ensemble, instrumental variety and tense but energetic beat on “Black Bottom” reveal some distinct archaic pop:

Candullo added his own sound to several tunes that Moten, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver also recorded. Doc Cooke‘s band, featuring the pugilistic Freddie Keppard on cornet, gave “Brown Sugar” a raucous, red-hot treatment, while Candullo’s version simmers the themes and instrumental textures into a warmer feel [follow the link to listen]:

Joe Candullo & His Everglades Orchestra – Brown… by kspm0220s

Historian and collector Mark Berresford notes that “why and how Candullo and his men got to record such material is a mystery.” By the Swing era, the sounds of Harlem, New Orleans, Kansas City and other territories were well known in popular music. Yet saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet‘s unabashed admiration for Ellington, Henderson and Count Basie would earn him a reputation as a derivative stylist, a second-rate soloist and another pop musician getting rich off of others’ creativity.  Assuming that musicians can play great music without innovating, Barnet left behind plenty of upbeat, passionate music.  It’s fairly obvious (and not just from the titles) where performances such as “The Duke’s Idea”

and “The Count’s Idea”

come from, but the emulation is sincere, flattering and far from an exact duplicate of its source material. Barnet was clearly a student of Coleman Hawkins’ tenor and Johnny Hodges’ alto, but does that make his own sax any less swinging and assured? He was also one of the few big band leaders to frequently incorporate the soprano saxophone. It adds a shimmering lead and tongue-in-cheek blues statements to “Pompton Turnpike”:

Thank goodness audiences and critics have moved beyond evaluation by association: just ask Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Leontyne Price, Eminem, Karmin…

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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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Mills Blue Rhythm Band

http://newstalgia.crooksandliars.com/gordonskene/newstalgia-downbeat-lucky-millinder-anThe music business is difficult, but music history can be murder.  Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators.  In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:

You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.

Sour grapes?  Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence.  Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.

Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues.  If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.

Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.  The Blue Rhythm Band would cover  Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations.  What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.

The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.

“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together.  The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics.  Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:

“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between  Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes.  Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:

Dancing Dogs

Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway.  Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball.  Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:

The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down.  Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four.  There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section.  Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted.  Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.

Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing.  Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles:

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The Printed Score and Jazz

Somehwere, An Elephant is Giving Him A Bad Review

During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.

Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?

Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement.  A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.

The Tyranny of the Written Score

For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses.  Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove.  This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.

In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.”  In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).

And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff.   There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere).  Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”

Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations.  In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote:

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