Tag Archives: Earl Oliver

More Possibilities From The Golden Age Of Jazz Onomatopoeia

Many thanks to a good friend whose conversation inspired this post!

This blog has covered the musical possibilities of “Doodle Doo Doo” and the power of “Charles-TON,” but the much-maligned “doo wacka doo” seemed like a real challenge. Part rhythmic inflection, part melodic motif, and now mostly period ambiance, this piece of musical onomatopoeia is often viewed either as twenties slang that was out-of-date before the last “doo” or synecdoche for ersatz jazz. “Doo wacka doo” may never be a well of musical invention but there are at least a few examples of it being put to novel–even insightful–use.

It’s hard to pin down a first recorded appearance, and tracing its origins would probably be like finding the first use of a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern. The 1924 tune of the same name and composed by Walter Donaldson might be a good candidate, but “doo wacka doo” first had a wide circulation that then warranted its own song. It was another example of distilling the rapid tension and release as well as the syncopation so essential to jazz into a simple formula. That is not necessarily a slight. Lots of musical ideas become stock licks. Effectiveness and ubiquity aren’t mutually exclusive.

Plenty of early twentieth-century American popular musicians caught the jazz bug and added “doo wacka doo” and several other phrases to their repertoire for a little heat. Earl Oliver’s entire style worked off of a sustained note followed by a “pop.” It wasn’t the most flexible style, but in the musical moment, it’s rhythmic and joyous in its own fashion. Underneath and around the willfully straight baritone sax lead on “Runnin’ Wild” by the Great White Way Orchestra, Oliver is a dervish:

Orchestrated doo wacka doo pops up as early as 1923 on Frank Westphal’s “Wolverine Blues.” Rather than just incorporating it into other phrases, the arrangement features a chorus of pure doo wacka dooing (sic?) and variations, likely a form of instrumental breakdown for dancers to do some of their own improvising:

Westphal’s band is plenty hot but definitely stomps on the downbeats, so the “doo wacka doo” chorus provides a little pull in the other direction. The phrase naturally seems to accent the upbeat: say it aloud and it’s likely to come out as “doo-WACK-a-DOO (rather than “DOO-wack-A-doo”). That may have been another reason for its popularity: it’s instant syncopation, “just add ‘doo wacka doo…”

Too much of anything can be bad, hence a lot of musical cliches, but musicians find a way. Ben Bernie doubles down on the nonsense syllables when he makes “doo wacka doo” into a thematic variation on his recording of the similarly silly title “Doodle-Doo-Doo.” The opening “doo wacka doo” trumpets provide busy counterpoint behind the saxes. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo wacka doo”-inspired solo with busy saxes behind him:

This smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect also shows the humor and invention of these musicians. Trumpeter Frankie Quartell with Isham Jones’s band plays with rhythmic accents in a subtle way on the song “Doo Wacka Doo.” For the first chorus, like any good first trumpet, he plays the lead confidently and straight, leaving any variations for after the theme proper. Quartell’s strong, ultra-precise phrasing on the first chorus sets up a cantus firmus for later instrumentalists:

First, smooth saxes loosen it up, then the pianist chops it up into rolling trills, and Quartell returns on muted trumpet to wah-wah the theme a la his predecessor in the Jones band, Louis Panico. Trombonist Carroll Martin then plays exaggerated wah-wah phrases as harmony under Quartell, before the theme opens wide up with some “dirty” playing by Quartell to end the side.

Frankie Quartell and many of the musicians on these records are considered far from the hottest or most creative players of the time. Yet these sides so show the level of technique, versatility, and knack for subtle variation that makes jazz from this period such an interesting and joyous experience. As popular musicians, they didn’t have the luxury of saying anything was beneath them. In the case of “doo wacka doo,” the music really says much more than the words.

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A Song By Any Other Name: The Right Amount of “Deep Henderson”

“Deep Henderson” illustrates one pop tune that became just popular enough. Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists thirteen different bands recording Fred Rose’s composition in 1926, the same year it was published in Chicago, with four other groups cutting the tune the following year (in three different countries, no less). Most bands also used the publisher’s stock arrangement, adapting it to their needs and style rather than starting over fresh as they might with so many other jazz warhorses. Unlike “St. Louis Blues” or “Tiger Rag, ” “Deep Henderson” became a controlled study in the variety of bands and approaches at one small juncture in American popular music.

Bill Edwards describes “…one of the most sorrowful and wistful songs [he’s] encountered,” with “…long sustained high notes leading downwards to the end of each phrase help[ing to] punctuate [his feeling].” Apparently the secret to this song’s success was jettisoning its sad, I-wanna’-go-back-to-the-South lyrics and slow, bluesy feel (which can still be heard courtesy of Edwards here). By the time the Coon Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra hit the studio to give “Deep Henderson” its inaugural recording, the tune was gussied up to make it more flapper friendly:

The Nighthawks were an immensely popular group, and their creamy saxes, strutting brass and re-playable shellac introduced a wide audience to “Deep Henderson.” Co-leader and pianist Joe Sanders handles the written solo with enough downhome swagger to offer some reminder of Rose’s original vision. Yet the rhythm is overwhelmingly upbeat (almost coy), aided by Pop Estep’s bumping tuba walking four to the bar behind the trumpet solo. While their reliance on written music and novelty numbers may deny them entry into the hallowed chapters of “jazz” history, the Nighthawks gave many Americans a good idea of how loose and lowdown pop can get.  They sound downright raunchy compared to Mike Markel’s band (follow the arrow to the link):

Deep Henderson

Markel’s block chord introduction and racehorse tempo likely impressed dancers, with robust saxes and clipped brass choreographing their stomping feet. Yet the band’s jerkier rhythm doesn’t leave much space for legs flying off the dance floor. The horn man (Red Nichols? Earl Oliver? An unknown player?) soars to the occasion, as do the saxes behind the brass, recalling society band string sections. In light of sax riffs getting faster, trickier and uniformly high-flying in the years ahead, their sustained harmonies are a nice touch. Markel’s approach has a nostalgic charm, a reminder of when pop music was intense and tight (in feeling if not always execution). Yet the recording does make the “New Orleans effect” even more apparent when listening to King Oliver and some neighborhood colleagues:

Oliver’s cornet immediately presages a much earthier, more personal account of the tune. The Dixie Syncopators’ tempo isn’t much slower than the Nighthawks, but their easygoing inflection and subtle backbeat make it sound like they’re taking their time. The saxophone section parts way for Barney Bigard’s slap-tonguing tenor, perhaps dated but undeniably percussive (and as texturally original as prepared piano or distorted guitar). Even the soprano sax adds a howling, haunting dimension to the clarinet trio.

Drummer Paul Barbarin’s “Oh, play it Mr. Russell!” during Luis Russell’s solo plays up the informal air, yet such exclamations may or may not reveal the insidious, timeless hand of marketing. Improvisation and swing are the breaking news here: Oliver’s greasy responses over the saxes (especially heroic in light of his aging embouchure), and Kid Ory’s lurching, sly trombone over the closing chorus make this, the second recording of “Deep Henderson” pressed, a very distinct chapter of the tune’s short but hot history.

Of course Miff Mole adds his smoother, more rounded yet equally punchy trombone over the chirping clarinets that close Markel’s recording, and even the drummer gets in some solo syncopations. The way each group, section and soloist navigates this arrangement points to a difference of delivery with a shared intent. The “same old stock” can never be the same, not if you’re a musician with something to say or a record consumer with a paycheck. At a time when pop is reticent to market covers (even as the same tune in the same rendition gets beaten into the ground over air and internet), it’s also a reminder that the question of originality often begins with “how” as well as “what.”

Lord lists seventy-one recordings total of “Deep Henderson.” I must admit that in light of Oliver and others’ experiments, Bela Dajos’ rich, buttery society version comes across as either insularity, or the sincerest form of parody:

Last one, I promise: here’s British bandleader Bert Ambrose’s thoroughly modern swing account from 1937:

Well, we can’t end without hearing Vince Giordano do it!  Live, in 3D, with glorious sound and from outside of Lord’ discography:

Want more? Be sure to share your favorites in the comments, and hope you enjoyed the tour.

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