Tag Archives: early big bands

Lots Of Variety Stomp

Aptly named to the point of near self-parody, ”Variety Stomp” combines dramatic overture, parade march, and dance number into a slick, multi-strained instrumental floorshow. According to Walter C. Allen’s Hendersonia, Variety magazine’s Abel Green claimed that Trent, Henderson, and Green wrote the song as a tribute to the entertainment magazine. If so, it spotlights a darker side of show business. A theatrical minor key first section features a descending line right out of Sousa commission from Darth Vader. That section alternates with a cheerier, more danceable second strain and a dark bridge. Unlike other hot dance tunes in a minor key such as Duke Ellington “Jubilee Stomp” or Fats Waller’s “Zonky,” “Variety Stomp” feels like a prelude for an operetta villain. The story isn’t entirely serious, nor is it wholly light.

Appropriately enough, showman extraordinaire Fess Williams premiered the tune on record, with a medium tempo imparting seediness on top of the ominous tone. Oddly enough for a song’s recording debut, the tune proper is slightly obscured by ample solo space for Williams’s (still shamefully overlooked) band. Otto Mikell’s staccato bass saxophone remains willfully narrow in range, calling out like a timpani from the depths. Williams’s novelty clarinet solo is a comedic monologue in the middle of a burlesque show:

Williams baldly spelling out a major triad in the middle of his routine comes across as hysterically naive, to the point of deadpan. He is now often written off as a joke but was, in fact, a trained musician educated at Tuskegee University, likely in on the joke and playing just as “badly” as he wanted.

One month later, Fletcher Henderson’s band cut the tune at their first session for Victor, and what a debut: the studio’s reverberant acoustic captures the piece in all its frightful glory in three (3!) different takes. Unsurprisingly, Henderson waxed the most virtuosic reading of the tune. Many sources indicate that this is Fats Waller’s arrangement, supposedly his payment for Henderson having settled Waller’s hefty tab at a hamburger stand. Allen quotes Henderson in a 1936 interview indicating that it was, in fact, his own chart. Either way, the level of craftsmanship remains impressive (especially if this was simply what a musician threw down to pay for burgers):
Take Two

Benny Morton attacks his trombone like a guffawing circus ringmaster. He positively relishes the tailgate effects that must have already seemed old-fashioned at the time, using them for further comic/sinister effect. The contrasting theme features golden-toned Joe Smith Tommy Ladnier and Buster Bailey playing alto sax like a clarinet (I have to politely disagree with Allen saying Don Redman plays alto). June Cole’s tuba is a monster: its rich, dark color colors and punchy, rounded beat are as strong an argument for brass bass as any. The reeds switching to soprano saxophone (rather than the customary clarinets) or the third take replacing Henderson’s stride piano with a sax soli are a few more subtle but powerful touches.
Take Three

A transcription of Henderson’s recording by composer Mike Henebry reveals that several parts of this chart are not even syncopated. That may sound the death knell in terms of jazz credentials (and I won’t even bother citing Gunther Schuller’s commentary), but these musicians may not have had the luxury–or wisdom–to be so doctrinaire. Henderson’s well-trained, professionally diversified, and in many cases classically trained players knew how to handle stage music and marches as ably as any hot number. It’s no surprise they dig into this chart with the utter precision of professionals. Henderson’s “Variety Stomp” excels in terms of setting a mood and sheer musicianship. The glory of this piece isn’t whether or not it is jazz, but the fact that this band imbued everything with spontaneity as well as polish.

For some reason, when the Henderson band returned to the tune one month later for Columbia’s Harmony label, things didn’t have the same snap. It’s not the unique sound of the Harmony imprint, which some commentators have described as “boxy,” and writer Mike Messenger more affectionately compared to an “antique patina.” This performance sounds like a slightly modified stock arrangement presenting the song in a slightly ornamented but still recognizable way, just as a song publisher would have preferred. Allen says this is an arrangement by Henderson’s star arranger Don Redman, and that a different “copyrighted orchestration” was by no less than Paul Whiteman’s sophisticated arranger Lennie Hayton. Gunther Schuller guesses that it’s a Mel Stitzel stock. Redman could have been performing minor musical surgery on an existing stock or simply drafting a more conservative chart. Regardless, the record by Henderson’s band DBA “The Dixie Stompers” doesn’t sound as rhythmically tense or dramatic:

Maybe the band was going for a less intense sound in order to avoid competing with their own Victor recording, or just to provide some contrast between the two. Maybe they were just tired. Either way, it only sounds tamer below the very high bar set by the Victor version(s).

Cass Hagen’s recording of the tune may well be that cipher of a stock arrangement:

The Hagen band’s bright sound, metronomic but by no mean inflexible beat (thanks in large part to Ed Brader’s bass) and strong attack give “Variety Stomp” a clean, straightforward drive even without much customization. The tune has a built-in energy that doesn’t require much heavy lifting on the band’s part.

Mario Elki’s band in Berlin also recorded “Variety Stomp” but Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography, Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands on Record and Film 1915-42, and The Online Discographical Project don’t list any others. It’s unclear exactly what the songwriting team had in mind for “Variety Stomp.” The Internet Broadway Database doesn’t list it as part of any shows. Supposedly, Abel Green wrote lyrics but no one on record bothered with them.

“Variety Stomp” might have simply been intended for quick consumption by a dance-hungry public. All three composers were established in the songwriting industry and this could have been just another day at the office. Jo Trent co-composed such hot tracks as “Muddy Water,” “Rhythm King,” “Goose Pimples,” “Georgia Bo-Bo” and “My Kinda’ Love.” Among other standards, Ray Henderson composed “Has Anybody Seen My Girl?” and “Button Up Your Overcoat,” while lyricist Bud Green worked on everything from “Alabamy Bound” to “Sentimental Journey.” Henderson also worked as an accompanist in vaudeville, and Trent had collaborated with Ellington on works that must have made their way into several floorshows. That account for the touch of mustache-twirling villainy on “Variety Stomp”.

Judging by the number of recordings around its first appearance on record, the tune may not have been a runaway hit. It is powerful, but not exactly catchy. The beat may have been a bit too vertical for even the most imaginative dancers. Generations later, contemporary musicians seem to appreciate “Variety Stomp”’s mock-drama and signature rhythm, whether it’s Tuba Skinny adding a wry street-smartness in adapting the tune for a three-person frontline over bass drum-driven rhythm:

The West End Jazz band, in a similar small group configuration, with a leaner tone and letting the steam build more naturally:

Or Les Red Hot Reedwarmers with a blistering array of textures (captured for posterity by the guardian angel of hot jazz, Michael Steinman):

There are few vestigial links to later styles in this tune. There are none of the signs of jazz to come found in other recordings and songs. Jazz became way too hip to absorb anything like marches and light classics. “Variety Stomp” remains a unique composition, a descendant of archaic musical traditions given a dose of late twenties modernism. Unlike anything to come and completely of its time, it seems so much more interesting than “timeless.”

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Making It Work: Larry Binyon With Pollack

This is the next part of a continuing (not contiguous) series of posts about the once oft-employed, now rarely discussed saxophonist Larry Binyon. For parts one and two, please see here and here respectively.

Much to Ben Pollack’s short-term benefit, his band and Larry Binyon parted ways following their December 7, 1927 recording session. Variety’s issue of January 25, 1928 reported that the band had already started a residency at the Club Bagdad in Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. By February 25 it had closed at the Bagdad and was onto New York City. Binyon might have played with the Pollack band during its remaining time in Chicago, but apparently Pollack had another saxophonist in mind for its next move.

Bud Freeman explains that Pollack first heard him play at a late-night jam session in Chicago, and was so impressed by the saxophonist’s solos with McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans that he asked Freeman join the Pollack band in New York. These now-famous recordings are widely considered the birth of the “Chicago style.” Yet it’s hard to believe their loose format was a decisive factor in Pollack’s decision. Pollack was running a jazz-infused dance orchestra, not a jam-oriented jazz band. He needed musicians with the ability and discipline to read written arrangement as well as improvise solos. Freeman never hid his distaste for dance band work and didn’t like New York. Pollack fired Freeman after three months for clowning around on the bandstand and then rehired him for an Atlantic City engagement in July, only to have Freeman quit at the end of the month.

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

After some traveling gigs and a brief dry spell, the Pollack band began a long-term engagement at the prestigious Park Central Hotel on September 28. Pollack already had Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden (who had joined in June) to contribute hot solos. By this point he was probably willing to sacrifice some improvisational fire for a third saxophonist who could, and would, do the job. That included doubling the numerous other reed instruments that Pollack, apparently inspired by bands such as Roger Wolfe Kahn’s, wanted to show off.

Binyon probably continued to work with Beasley Smith’s band or one of several bands in Chicago while Pollack was in New York. It’s uncertain when Binyon got to New York, whether Pollack sent for him or if he just happened to be one of the many musicians starting to move to the musical epicenter, but by October 1, 1928 Binyon was back on record with the Pollack band in New York.

With three powerful soloists and the band’s tendency to rely on written arrangements, Binyon didn’t get many solos on record with Pollack. With Benny Goodman frequently doubling alto and baritone saxes, he wasn’t even the only saxophone soloist.  Pollack instead capitalized on Binyon’s strength as an ensemble player.

A lush waltz like “Forever” or the muted trumpets, violins and (most likely Binyon’s) flute on “Let’s Sit And Talk About You” might not interest jazz listeners but the records work on strictly musical terms. Attention to dynamics, ensemble balance and lyricism are fairly consistent through even the Pollack’s band’s most commercial dates. Its sax section of Binyon, Goodman and lead alto Gil Rodin play with a bright, creamy blend, for example answering the full band on the Victor recording of “Futuristic Rhythm”:

or “From Now On,” on which they achieve an especially transparent sound, right down to Binyon’s purring tenor:

Talented musicians, a steady gig at a famous venue and sheer hustle helped the Pollack band grow incredibly popular, allowing them to move onto radio work, Broadway, various touring appearances and a few short films. The band is featured exclusively on a Vitaphone film shot on July 29, 1929.  Binyon is seen in the middle of the sax section, soprano sax, clarinet and flute impressively displayed in front of him while he plays tenor throughout:

Pollack obviously liked Binyon; he appears on every title cut under Pollack’s name (save for one small group session by “Ben’s Bad Boys” in January 1929). Yet a dependable player from a well-known band who could read, double and improvise was bound to get additional offers. Based on his discography, Larry Binyon was more than happy to work on the side.

The next part of this Larry Binyon story will concentrate on his solo work with various Irving Mills pickup groups during the late twenties as well as sessions with Fats Waller and Red Nichols. It won’t be a complete solography, but it will make a  very enjoyable Larry Binyon playlist.

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