Jazz combos are sometimes praised for sounding like a bigger band—similar to ordering a particular dish because it tastes like something else. Among other roles, bandleader Clarence Williams was an arranger who relished the flavor of a small band. Airy textures, a blend of elegant New Orleans soul and New York intensity, and a core of confident sidemen marked everything from his washboard quartets to the occasional tentet. By the end of the twenties, several of his records (many recorded in pristine sound by Columbia) pointed to great possibilities for “little” bands.
“Log Cabin Blues” features tuba titan Cyrus St. Clair and Williams’s left hand at the piano booming out bass roots. It creates a real atmosphere before repeating at softer volume and providing a ground under guest clarinetist Buster Bailey.
“Red River Blues” on Columbia starts with a dark tuba answered by eerie brass swells and Albert Socarras’s clarinet squeaking like a door hinge on a stormy night. Later, the tuba once again punches out bass notes, now answered by King Oliver’s slightly sour lead over the front line.
With one player per part on instruments ranging from flute down to percussion, Williams also savored contrasts in registers. The Columbia recording of “Mountain City Blues” (taken much slower than the Okeh version) pits clarinet against trombone—like hundreds of big band sides to come. Yet instead of a clarinet soloist wailing over trombone choirs, Williams assigns an orchestrated lead for clarinets (plural) while his regular trombonist Ed Cuffee ad-libs alongside them. It’s a far subtler division between octaves and lead/accompaniment.
Williams also prefigures later periods’ exploitation of contrasting timbres, for example, Cuffee’s lollygagging melody over slumbering saxes on “Breeze” for Columbia.
Yet the crawling tempo is intriguingly chunky, a world away from the smooth ballads that would characterize jazz. Williams’s dependable cornetist Ed Allen is also more brilliant than wistful here.
Of its era, this music integrates soloists into the ensemble (rather than the latter serving as a backdrop for the former). These priorities don’t limit improvisation as much as channel it in interesting directions. Bailey and Arville Harris play the first chorus on Victor’s “In Our Cottage of Love” as a chase for alto and tenor, respectively.
Even many modern combos aren’t bold enough to skip playing the tune straight on the first chorus. Split choruses like this one also seem unfortunately uncommon nowadays. Bass lines on non-rhythm section instruments, like the oscillating sax riff throughout “Them Things Got Me,” are also rare.
At one point, it’s tenor sax alone maintains the riff. Plenty of twenties jazz records include what classical music refers to as a “bassetto,” literally “tiny bass.” All of these ideas had gone the way of soprano sax leads and drummer-free bands by the thirties.
Choosing “High Society” for a 1930 Columbia session with three brass, four reeds, and rhythm section must have seemed nostalgic. Yet Williams shows off his imagination and sense of irony when the well-known clarinet obbligato is played by clarinet section with his signature tuba lead.
Subsequently giving the obbligato to Socarras’s flute looks both backward to the march’s original instrumentation and ahead to flute as a recognized jazz horn.
By the early thirties, jazz was onto bigger bands and slicker arrangements. Williams’s approach may have been too personal to catch on, too stylistically passé to last, or just not loud enough. Williams never emulated larger bands or chased after innovation. He simply made music that reflected his personality and, apparently, never needed more than two trumpets to do it. The creative meets economical, with a beat.
Clarence Williams and his Orchestra (left to right): Albert Socarras, Prince Robinson, Cyrus St. Clair, Clarence Williams, Buddy Christian, Charlie Irvis, Sara Martin, Floyd Casey, Eva Taylor, Ed Allen. Photo courtesy of Confetta Ras.
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.
Here is Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1923:
Here is Gunther Schuller, describing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1968: [It] is a solo only in the sense that it takes place alone; it is not yet fully a solo in character and conception. It might easily have been one part of a collectively improvised chorus lifted from its background.
Here is Thomas Brothers, discussing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo and apparently expanding upon Schuller’s point, in 2014: “Where’s that lead?” Armstrong heard [mentor and boss King Oliver] say…and that admonition was still ringing in his ears when he soloed on “Chimes Blues”…
Here is Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, playing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1947:
Things really pick up after that Armstrong homage, with the whole performance taking on newfound energy and cohesion. In other words, Armstrong’s “twenty-four bars of magic” work well as a lead. Yet Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and the other musicians knew that, didn’t they? We are fortunate to have a variety of thinkers from a variety of perspectives, and eras, sharing their insights. Yet that band did beat those scholars to this musicological punch!
(Incidentally, “magic” is an inspired description: an incredible thing that can be analyzed and perhaps even demystified, or something that we can explain even as it continues to stupefy us. Keep listening, and for goodness sake keep talking about what you hear.)
A little over two weeks from now musicians, musicologists, scholars, historians, collectors, aficionados and fans will mark the eighty-sixth anniversary of a revolution in jazz and a landmark occurrence in American music. Some of them may even discuss the remaining three minutes and ten seconds of “West End Blues,” the part after Louis Armstrong’s introductory cadenza:
Armstrong plays masterfully throughout the record but generations (rightfully) continue to focus on his cadenza. Blazing fast, encompassing the trumpet’s entire range, technically dazzling, artfully constructed and as easy on the senses as the curves of a Botticelli bathing beauty, Armstrong could have easily played just this brief free-tempo improvisation and more than satisfied most listeners.
As for his fellow trumpeters, Armstrong’s cadenza must have invited another Italian phrase, namely agita. It’s not a musical term but it is a fair description of what some players no doubt experienced after first hearing “West End Blues.” Musicians are as much working professionals with their ears open for competition as they are sensitive artists seeking inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Armstrong’s contemporaries hearing “West End Blues” as the work of a genius, a tough act to follow and even something to top. Thankfully, many of them tried, several on record.
Brian Harker describes Jabbo Smith as “the only trumpet player, according to many contemporaries, who posed a threat to Armstrong’s supremacy,” a threat that Rex Stewart described as truly “blowing.” Gunther Schuller points out that Smith “evidently worshipped Armstrong [and] imitated many of the latter’s most famous solos (particularly ‘West End Blues’).” Thomas Brothers cites Smith’s recording of “Take Me To The River” as “a response to Armstrong’s celebrated performance”:
Smith’s blistering edge and intense delivery are far removed from the melodicism Armstrong maintained even in his rapid-fire excursions. That’s a statement of musical priorities rather than an evaluation (though melody often keeps listeners coming back for more, which may explain Armstrong’s longevity). Smith’s Rhythm Aces were actually the Brunswick label’s attempt to compete with Armstrong’s Hot Fives on Okeh. Not one for understatement or easing into a task, Smith picked “Jazz Battle” as the first song at his first session as a leader and started it off with an ornamental call to arms:
Smith’s introduction is less of a cadenza and more an instrumental break before the tune or the band even starts up. Armstrong is majestic while Smith is defiant; Armstrong pulls the audience in but Smith dares them not to blink. Equally telling is how instead of easing into a relaxed air, Smith bursts into a racehorse display. He may have “worshipped” Armstrong but doesn’t sound like he’s ready to serve in heaven.
Reuben Reeves also admired Armstrong even as he sought to knock him down a few pegs. Reeves’s high note displays had impressed Chicago audiences, and bandleader/promoter/journalist Dave Peyton had advocated for Reeves as a classically schooled, more respectable alternative to Armstrong. By the time that Vocalion set up Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys a.k.a. the Hollywood Shufflers as another competitor to the Hot Fives, Armstrong and Reeves had faced off against one another at the Regal Theater a month earlier in late April, 1929.
That particular jazz battle did not end well for Reeves. Despite a showy piece arranged by Peyton to show off Reeves, Armstrong excelled in terms of musicality, stamina, technique and roaring crowds. Reeves’s defeat may explain the lack of overt references on his own dates to Armstrong’s by now well-known record. The closest thing to an Armstrongian cadenza is the mid-register, in-tempo introduction to “Blue Sweets,” which is as pastoral as Armstrong’s is urbane:
Reeves does seem to hint at and perhaps parody “West End Blues” with searing sustained high notes on “River Blues” that resemble Armstrong’s final chorus (and follow an Earl Hines-esque piano solo by Jimmy Prince):
Reeves’s upper register is steelier and more penetrating than Armstrong’s, and the answers from Omer Simeon’s clarinet are either the trumpeter’s attempt to avoid outright plagiarism or splitting his lip. Decades later it’s easy to dismiss Reeves with the knowledge that Armstrong was far more than a squeaker. Harker writes that Reeves seemed to absorb the letter but not the spirit of Armstrong’s style. That might imply a shortcoming, but “spirit” is as personal as it is important. Maybe Reeves, like Smith, was content to use Armstrong’s letters to express his own soul.
Louis Metcalf might seem to imitate Armstrong in his note-for-note rendition of “West End Blues” with the King Oliver band. Yet his departures from the original, whether deliberately subtle or entirely unintentional, make it a wholly individual statement:
The bluesy run connecting the third and fourth notes of the opening arpeggio, hesitations such as the split-second too long pause before the shaky high note or even potential clams like the slight stutters on the opening chorus all act like little signatures by Metcalf. It’s a sincere form of flattery as well as bravery: who else was willing to not just attempt this solo but to record it with none other than the inspiration for the source leading the band?
Red Allen, leading his New York Orchestra on Victor, falls between imitation and complete rejection of Armstrong’s lessons. Just a few years younger than Armstrong and a fellow New Orleanian, according to Ted Gioia Allen actually absorbed most of Armstrong’s playing through records. For his first session as a leader (and second-ever experience in a recording studio), he begins “It Should Be You” with a cadenza that does his hero proud without trying to clone him:
Speaking of this session in his solography of Allen, Jan Evensmo notes how Allen had “already found his [own] style, an open pure sound, a sparkling technique, a fantastic inventiveness, a unique sense of harmony and a rhythmic sureness…” At the same time Allen obviously loved Armstrong’s easygoing yet confident swing, declaratory phrasing and glissandi. Like Armstrong, he also seems to believe in not fixing what isn’t broke: that cadenza remains the same throughout all three takes of “It Should Be You.”
For trumpeters from the pre-Armstrong era or who were less obviously influenced by him, simply the idea of an introductory cadenza allowed them to channel their own gifts. Bill Moore’s chattering lines and tightly muted sound weave a slick, pithy epigram before the Ben Bernie band takes over on “I Want To Be Bad”:
James “King” Porter tacks a miniature cadenza onto to his lush introduction to “Between You And Me” with Curtis Mosby and His Dixieland Blue Blowers:
While on “Buffalo Rhythm” by Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians, Cicero Thomas rushes through his introduction like a trumpeter at a bullfight with a bus to catch:
Armstrong himself would of course return to the device on record and throughout his career. His introductory cadenza on “Blue Again” is a personal favorite of this blogger:
Its poise, its subtle mixture of drama and detachment and the casual, humorous way that Armstrong “muffs” the reference to his own cadenza from “West End Blues” show that even Armstrong could look to Armstrong as a springboard to something different.
Armstrong himself was initially inspired by the tradition of concert soloists in European music and American marches. He didn’t play the first cadenza at the start of a piece or a record but it likely seemed that way for many trumpeters. All of “West End Blues” is a marvel but its elevation of a single musical device within the jazz community is equally impressive.
With the exception of the Reeves sides (July and May of 1929) and “Blue Again” (1931) all of these records were made just seven or eight months after Armstrong cut “West End Blues.” Allowing for time between Armstrong recording and Okeh distributing it, “West End Blues” must have been fresh enough to convince trumpeters, and record executives, that they needed a flashy cadenza. Eleven seconds generated enough creative curiosity, professional jealousy and/or commercial trendiness to inspire several individual contrafacts, and of course there are more out there and to come. That really is an amazing introduction.
Last Tuesday the Jazz Journalists Association announced the winners of its 2014 Jazz Awards. The JJA presents these awards “as an assertion that informed, professional, independent coverage of jazz across genre is vital to the preservation and promotion of contemporary music.” As for non-contemporary music, the Columbia Legacy album Miles Live in Europe 1969 beat out ECM’s Jack DeJohnette Special Edition boxed set and Mosaic’s Complete Strata Recordings of Clifford Jordan for “Historical Record of the Year.” For some jazz lovers, these young players robbed the likes of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver. There is a segment of the jazz community who appreciate and enjoy contemporary artists drawing upon the rich traditions developed in the wake of bop, but whose main interest remains in jazz’s prewar idioms. The JJA Jazz Awards may not seem relevant to moldy figs, big band fanatics and ears that perk up for Bix Beiderbecke over Terence Blanchard. Looking back, postwar artists playing in modern styles take up the bulk of the awards. Yet the Awards have included at least one category for reissued material since the first ballot in 1997, adding the term “Historical” to the category in 2008. Voting starts with professional members submitting up to three nominees for each category. Finalists are then selected based on the number of votes, and a second round of votes determines the winner in each category. This blogger was not able to find finalists for every year, but past finalists have included Mosaic’s Jimmie Lunceford collection competing next to a winning Miles Davis set, and the same label’s Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions 1935-1946, which lost to Ella Fitzgerald’s Twelve Nights in Hollywood on Verve. This survey does not even account for the large pool of first-round nominees (which, based on the size of the JJA, would probably be an impressive and inundating list to post and sort through). Past JJA Jazz Award winners have included Columbia Legacy’s Hot Fives and Sevens set in 2001, the same label’s Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 sessions in 2002, its Charlie Christian CD in 2003, BMG Bluebird’s Coleman Hawkins Centennial in 2005 (right next to fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler in the boxed set version of this category) and Duke Ellington’s Complete 1932-40 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings, once again from Mosaic, in 2011. Also noteworthy is the 2010 competition between Armstrong’s Decca set and Mosaic’s Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird and Victor Sessions for Best Liner Notes. For the JJA, bebop and other languages are spoken here. “Early jazz” has a noticeable, if not overwhelming, presence in these well-known awards. Yet is that presence likely to stay there, and possibly even grow? Unsurprisingly that issue is about more than musical taste or academic debates between traditionalists and progressives. JJA President Howard Mandel very graciously shared some of his insights and thoughts on the matter via email. Andrew Jon Sammut: The JJA’s 2014 “Historical Record of the Year” award was “for CDs, vinyl or digital recordings recorded at least ten years ago (prior to 2003), issued during calendar year 2013.” What was the JJA’s philosophy behind using such a wide concept of “historical”? Howard Mandel: The JJA Jazz Awards essentially focus on the past twelve months of jazz activity, but jazz journalists have often (at least since the forties) or perhaps typically (since the seventies) been interested in reissues and music from earlier in history. It’s basically essential to understand the music’s past in order to understand the music’s present, and to listen to the past is often to come to love it, because a lot of the music endures across time, regardless of stylistic differences among the various eras. AJS: There is also a wide stylistic range within that category. Miles Davis reissues are frequently nominated and frequently win (including in 2014, 2012 and 1997 through 2000) but Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s earlier efforts have also been nominated and won. What is it that artists as diverse as Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Davis, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and others in this category share? HM: The artists you mention all have well-established reputations as being icons of the art of jazz. All of them were stars of their day, and with the exception of Christian (who gets extra credit for being the first prominent electric guitar player in jazz, and in almost, with exception maybe T-Bone Walker, any kind of American music) their careers were long. Most of these musicians’ works have remained in print or essentially available since they were first issued. They have been written about a lot, and with the possible exception of Coleman Hawkins or Christian their names are familiar to non-jazz audiences, including editors. So it is often possible to write about these artists for general or jazz publication, if there is something startlingly new about them to report (like an issue of newly discovered or “historic” music). AJS: So do you think there are other ways that the JJA Jazz Awards could honor historical artists within more specific eras or stylistic idioms? HM: I’ve been against breaking out the Awards into new categories for specific eras or stylistic idioms. Stylistic idioms: it’s impossible to adequately define and enforce such divisions. Eras: What is the value? Does one consider Vince Giordano‘s recordings with a contemporary band along with original source material from the same era? Who should receive the Awards: the producers of the albums, for making the music available, or heirs of the musicians who made the music? Also, it is my personal feeling that the history of jazz be the province of the historians, and not all jazz journalists are historically minded. In general the organization has the mindset that journalism is about the present not the (receding) past, and that we better mind jazz’s present if we want to ensure it has a future. AJS: I didn’t see this category listed in 2013. Was that due to lack of submissions, consensus or some other reason(s)? HM: I think that may have been an unintended error. AJS: It looks likes this category has undergone some changes over the years. In past years, the award was for “Boxed Set Reissue,” it featured separate categories for “Historical Record/Reissue” and “Historical Boxed Set” and early on it did not even mention the word “historical” for reissue or boxed set categories. What went into rethinking this award? HM: Each year we are rethinking each category and the overall structure of the Awards. We do not want to have more Awards. The ballot is long and complex enough. If anything, we want to limit the number of Awards. We also want the categories to reflect what’s being issued, and what kinds of excellence are emerging from jazz activities. “Boxed set” clearly pertained to big packages, rather than a single CD that might be of equal significance or pleasure, and so single-album releases were getting overlooked in favor of the big package that attracts more attention to begin with. We wanted to provide a more even playing field. I would think that reissues are conceptually synonymous with “historical.” This year the ballot committee discussed whether a recording was “historical” and fit in this category if the majority of the music was recorded as little as three years ago. It was determined that some artists record and then the record doesn’t come out for three or four years, but that doesn’t mean it is “historical.” AJS: Reviewing past nominees and winners, it seems like prewar jazz is almost entirely represented by reissues on the Mosaic and Columbia Legacy labels, with labels such as Frog, Jazz Oracle, Timeless Historical, Archeophone and others apparently not being mentioned. How would you explain those two labels’ apparent “lock” on early jazz and the absence of other labels with similar missions? HM: Marketing and promotion by Mosaic and Columbia is far superior to that of the other labels you mention. JJA members may or may not pursue recordings on their own, but they are surely most likely to pay attention to recordings that are sent to them for review, with all attendant press releases and also the (perhaps subconscious) impact of ads that show up in jazz publications they read has an effect, and it also makes a difference if they are pitching a review to an editor, or an editor is commissioning them. That happens far more frequently with Columbia and Mosaic packages than with the other labels mentioned. AJS: Have those labels with similar missions been represented in the selection process, before the nominees are announced? HM: Yes, often. The first stage of nominations is an open call: all professional JJA members are invited to submit anything issued in the previous year as a nominee. For the 2014 Awards between a quarter and a third of professional members submitted first round nominating ballots. There are many albums that receive single or perhaps three or four votes. Yet the three albums that have received THE MOST nominations are the ones that advance to being finalists. They are almost always albums that have been released, promoted and marketed by a decently financed and very business-and-media-savvy company. AJS: How does the JJA understand the role and impact of historical music in this process? HM: I’m writing from my personal point of view, because the JJA as an organization does not have any sort of official take on issues of this sort. Current jazz is based on earlier jazz. One of the very essences of jazz is to respect the music’s history, original creators and creations, without allowing that respect to deter development but rather to use it as an inspiring stimulant, a creative touchstone. In an era during which post-Modernism seems to be a dominant critical modality, all the history of an art form is as one for purposes of study and derivation of newly produced material. The neoconservative musical attitudes promoted by Wynton Marsalis have also contributed to this notion. Yet “free jazz” never went against “early jazz” (only maybe “square jazz”). As the Art Ensemble motto went, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,” except for most jazz journalists it doesn’t have to be “Black” music only; the internationalist embrace has become wider in the past 50 years, too. The digital revolution has also made an even larger amount of historic work much more widely available. And we simply find we like that music! So it’s with us now, not merely a historical relic. That acceptance of older music may furthermore be a result of the baby boomer generation getting old. Baby boomers are still the bulk of membership of the JJA. AJS: Do you think there is room for other, lesser-known historical artists to “compete” in this area (provided there is a reissue released during the nomination year)? Could you imagine Chu Berry, Red Nichols or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings winning this award? Is the “Historical Record” category intended to reflect contemporary appeal, continuing school of influence, both, or some other factor(s)? HM: Again, the JJA does not promote any particular view of what the “Historical Record” category is meant to reflect. It’s simply the preferences of the most of the voters opining about releases that fall into that very general category. Yes, I can imagine some of those artists you mention winning the Award, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. I would not expect it unless material was released that completely revised the oeuvre of those artists as we know it, and probably released by one of the more prominent labels (such as you’ve mentioned, Mosaic or Columbia Legacy). It would most probably happen if such a release were widely publicized, on the order of the discovery of the Monk/Coltrane tapes in the Library of Congress vaults (which doubled the little bit of Monk/Coltrane already available with a superb concert very well recorded and issued by Blue Note Records). I was always surprised that the “suitcase tapes” of Parker and Gillespie from a hotel room in 1942, issued I think by Stash, never made much of a splash. The challenge is greater for lesser-known artists, because not everybody agrees that something is great, and not everybody sees everything. Several years ago I was enthusiastic about Bluesiana, by pianist Frank Melrose and issued on Delmark, but few of my colleagues seemed intrigued by it, and it attracted few votes other than mine. AJS: What is the role of this category? Why does the JJA choose to honor artists whose work may have been created close to a century ago? As much as I’m concerned about the present and future, there are many pleasures to be had from jazz that’s one hundred years old. I read books that are at least that old and I like movies from the thirties and forties. I listen to music that has ancient roots and has not been technologically updated. I’m interested in anything that endures to have a lively presence now, whenever it was created. I would like my fellow critics (of every art form) to act on similar principles, because it seems to me what critics try to do is determine what works of art are worth our continued attention. There’s no reason to assume music made decades ago can’t please people today. People today are not so different than people were then. Hail Jelly Roll, Pops, the Dodds brothers, James P. Johnson, the Boswell Sister, Red Allen, Duke’s Jungle Band, Bessie Smith and the other classic blues singers, James Reese Europe, Bechet and all the originators. They had the right ideas, there at the founding of music that keeps generating new and exploratory manifestations.
In other words, keep looking for Armstrong and Ellington as well as Beiderbecke, Goodman, Oliver and Henderson, perhaps even Nichols and Wooding, on the JJA’s rosters. Yet be patient finding them. More importantly, keep reissuing them and get the word out!
Jazz loves hybrids, though some blends get more sunlight than others. A web search for “raga jazz” turns up pages of results showing the cross-pollination between jazz and Indian classical music. Yet a search for the union of ragtime and jazz known as “rag-a-jazz” just generates more results for raga jazz. Google won’t even ask if you meant rag-a-jazz.
So, what are web crawlers missing out on? One example is a watershed moment in American pop and a million seller for Paul Whiteman, his recording of “Wang Wang Blues”:
It keeps the syncopation and staccato attack of ragtime but has its own popping sense of tension and release, as well as a humor that is not just ragged but downright raucous; just listen to Buster Johnson’s trombone or how clarinetist Gus Mueller slices and slurs into each chorus. How do we describe this music, teasingly similar yet ultimately unlike ragtime or most of the jazz discussed in history books and played in swanky clubs? How would we find other examples of this sound?
Unsurprisingly, musicians, historians and open-eared listeners prove far more illuminating than search engines. Reed player and contemporary rag-a-jazz performer Dan Levinson defines rag-a-jazz as “a hybrid style of dance music that existed briefly from the mid teens through the early twenties, while ragtime was evolving into jazz” and which “still held onto many characteristics of ragtime in terms of syncopation, song forms and even the way eighth notes were played.”
Early jazz bandleader Vince Giordano describes the “baby steps of jazz,” with “elements of both jazz and ragtime” as well as “early syncopation but still a little bit of ragtime feel.” Giordano explains that rag-a-jazz surfaced around the time of Scott Joplin’s death and the end of the ragtime era, continuing through a period when “jazz was just taking shape and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go.” Levinson also mentions the “betwixt-and-between state of ragtime and jazz [that is] no longer quite ragtime.”
Rag-a-jazz conductor and multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino notes “ragtime still managed to hang on as a powerful musical force. Ragtime had a strong presence that more or less drove popular music in America from about 1895 to about 1917, so even though the general public had grown tired of it, they couldn’t escape it. The syncopation that ragtime had introduced was what America was used to listening to, and even though it wanted to say it was through with ragtime, such a night and day change in listening would be impossible.”
For rag-a-jazz drummer and bandleader Nick Ball, rag-a- jazz is “…the original ‘Rosetta Stone’ of music that is stylistically in the cracks, where one clearly defined idiom was merging into another or being strongly influenced by a parallel one from elsewhere in the world.” Ball also calls rag-a-jazz “the oldest of these transitional subgenres to have been documented on record in anything like enough detail for us to understand the process of its birth and its demise…a subgenre which lasted less than a decade, subsequently almost hidden in the long shadows cast by its parent, pure ragtime, and its child, pure jazz.”
More than a historical note, the music grouped under the term “rag-a-jazz” (or in search engine syntax, “‘rag-a-jazz’ -raga jazz”) is an example of fusion from decades before anyone plugged into an amplifier. It’s also an example of musical ideas that some would dismiss as wrong turns, many more would forget and others, thankfully, hear as another musical universe.
The Avant-Garde ODJB
Levinson points to what many consider the first jazz record as a prime example of rag-a-jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”:
Speaking about the “musical revolution” of the ODJB’s earliest records, collector and historian Mark Berresford explains “what the ODJB had done was to simplify and deformalize ragtime to its barest state and, once stripped of its hallmarks, rebuild it into a clearly defined polyphonic structure, placing greater emphasis on maintaining impetus and excitement.” Many history books draw attention to the ODJB’s frantic tempos, barnyard onomatopoeia and madcap spirit, which would have surprised (and possibly irritated) ragtime composers/performers. Yet even the ODJB’s later, more subdued sides display a distinct swagger a part from the lilt of ragtime:
Berresford also explains that “…as musicians’ ability to improvise grew, so their reliance on the structures of ragtime declined.” While ragtime players incorporated improvisation into their performances, it would obviously come to have a much larger role in jazz. Garvin Bushell, an ear-witness to these developments, summarizes his first attempts at playing jazz as “study[ing] rags on piano and omit[ting] the melodic pattern, just improvising on the harmonic pattern.”
Besides musical vocabulary and written notation, song forms themselves began to change. Early jazz maintained multi-strain structures until the swing era of the thirties, but Berresford notes how bands such as the ODJB would use a simpler configuration of fewer strains than formal ragtime. “What the ODJB’s performance lacks in form,” Berresford explains, “more than makes up for in dynamics, excitement and rhythmic drive, using devices such as solo breaks and the three-voice lead to signal its departure from the formality of ragtime.”
Skins And Cymbals
Berresford sums up rag-a-jazz’ musical characteristics as “a strong two-beat feel with predominantly ensemble playing, often heavy drum patterns and frequently fast tempos.” A two-beat feel in jazz is familiar to even occasional attendees at a Dixieland brunch, and contemporary jazz festivalgoers are no strangers to fast tempos. Yet rag-a-jazz’s constant collective interplay can sound strange to contemporary jazz lovers.
There is an unspoken, occasionally questioned but nonetheless powerful definition of jazz as ‘the’ idiom of an improvising soloist. In rag-a-jazz and in a pre-Louis Armstrong soundscape more generally, musicians don’t take turns soloing. Other than occasional short breaks, the emphasis is on ensemble interplay, balance and in some cases competition.
Rag-a-jazz represents a different concept of jazz, as ensemble music, a concept expressed in the unrecorded New Orleans parade bands of its earliest years, in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in groups led by Miles Davis during seventies and in those led by today’s jazz musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. The best bands simply know how to play as bands, regardless of era. There is no sense of musical or expressive limitation while listening to the Original Memphis Five’s parts lock and slide into one another, even though no one player get so much as a half-chorus to themselves:
Decades of smooth, swinging cymbals can also make the syncopated, staccato beats of snares, rims, woodblocks and cowbells sound strange. “March-like” is the description and death sentence often thrown around for this style of drumming. Rag-a-jazz drummers were often influenced by marching band techniques as well as the ragtime drumming inspired by those techniques. All influences apparently not being equal, many jazz writers imply that marches are an inferior inspiration next to Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop or other sources.
Drummer Hal Smith, on the other hand, talks about Tony Sbarbaro and other rag-a-jazz drummers as merely having their own distinct, often challenging approach a part from but just as valid as that of Zutty Singleton or Jo Jones (or for that matter, Elvin Jones or Terri Lyne Carrington). Nick Ball praises the prominent drums of Louis Mitchell, Anton Lada, Benny Peyton and others as “thrilling, riotous, imaginative, highly individualistic, incredibly technically proficient and, for the time, very well-recorded.”
For other listeners, this style may be vaguely familiar from some of the hippest names in jazz drumming. Jazz educator Mark Gridley explains:
The earliest jazz drummers often devised lines of activity bearing rhythmic and melodic contours that were distinctly different from the contours of lines being contributed by their fellow musicians. The practice of playing an independent line of activity was suppressed in swing [during the thirties]…It enjoyed a resurgence, however, in bop [during the forties]…This independent line of activity…provides a layer of boiling sounds that increases the excitement of the combo performance. The use of this activity continued through the fifties and sixties [and] has been an accepted practice for all modern drummers of the seventies and eighties…The rhythms used by the modern drummers were not those of ragtime, but the spirit in which they played is analogous to the conception shown by the earliest drummers.
Jazz scholar Dr. Lewis Porter debunks the myth of early jazz drummers as mere timekeepers while also drawing attention to their intricate fills and contrapuntal playing. Porter describes Sbarbaro “going crazy” in the best sense of the term. Whatever these drummers gained from ragtime or military music, it worked for them, their colleagues and anyone who wanted to listen.
Dance Music And Duple Feel
In some ways rag-a-jazz’s most radical difference from the ragtime that preceded it and the postwar jazz that is now lingua franca was that listening was a secondary activity. Rag-a-jazz, as well as most prewar styles of jazz, was above all intended for dancing. Ragtime had its own signature lilt but the new “jass” music really moved bodies.
Traditional jazz musician and writer Chris Tyle reminds that at the time, records were labeled “fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.” for a reason; “Original Dixieland One Step” was just that, a one-step. He also points to the symbiotic influence between music and dancing and the need to ask, “did music change because the dancing changed, or vice-versa?”
Rag-a-jazz musicians (and later on New Orleans via Chicago and big band swing players) had to serve a very practical purpose. Besides the need to get dancers out on the floor, Tyle also points to the material conditions that not only shaped the music but also made it so varied. The size of the venue or a record label’s budget determined band size and repertoire. In some ways this practical basis allows for far more variety than the wide-open plains of art music.
Ball explains that as a style, rag-a-jazz “was so brief that no kind of standardization had time to be established, virtually no two ensembles had the same or even similar instrumentation and every band seemed to have approached the music completely different to each other in terms of image, repertoire, performance practice; no individual’s singing or playing style became familiar enough to become cliché.” It’s why this era includes such fascinating combinations as the Louisiana Five, with Yellow Nunez playing lead on clarinet without a trumpet in sight:
or novel sounds such as the Whiteway Jazz Band’s arrangement of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” where the saxophone plays the melody and the trumpet plays obbligato around it, a touch of role reversal in a traditional jazz setting (listen here or below):
How Do You Like Your Eighth Notes?
While simultaneously departing from ragtime, part of this music’s unique excitement and sound has to do with the musicians phrasing in eight, a holdover from ragtime’s pianistic basis. Similar to fingers flying across the keyboard, the notes fly out of these groups in a jittery “rat-tat-tat-tat” that is agitatedly exciting and a world a part from jazz’s later, more vocally-conceived lines.
Vince Giordano mentions the ODJB and vaudeville artists of the early twenties as just a few examples of a bass part playing two-to-the-bar, just like in ragtime, while horns phrase in eight like the right hand of a ragtime pianist. Later on in the twenties, some jazz bands would keep the two-beat bass but without the ragtime “tinge” of the earlier bands.
Giordano raises phrasing in eight as a key part of rag-a-jazz, stressing the eight feel with his own sidemen when they perform this repertoire. As a few other examples of this feel, he cites The Virginians’ “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” in a Ferde Grofe arrangement:
Lillyn Brown’s early recording of the jazz warhorse “Jazz Me Blues,” especially its vocal and trumpet:
the instrumental asides of Mamie Smith’s “I Want A Jazzy Kiss,” especially its chattering wood blocks:
and Mamie Smith’s “Sax-O-Phoney Blues”:
On “Sax-O-Phoney Blues,” the staccato syncopations, chains of eighth notes and reedy arrangement sound very much like orchestral ragtime. The growling trumpet and Smith’s vocal speak to something broader, in terms of phrasing as well as spirit.
Levinson emphasizes that the eighth notes in rag-a-jazz “don’t ‘swing’ the way eighth notes do in most form of jazz,” and are instead “played ‘straight’ or ‘even,’ the way eighth notes are played in ragtime, classical music and every other style of music.” Those even eighth notes can make a huge impact on today’s jazz lovers. Decades of uneven eighth notes as well as post-Armstrong phrasing can make this music sound like it’s simply not jazz. Yet taken on its own terms and without comparison to other rhythmic concepts, it is just another approach to the tradition. Jazz has become a very big tent but its own backyard still has much to offer.
They Always Call It “Music”
The word “jazz” itself also seems to distinguish the new style from ragtime, not just musically but in terms of personal identity. In chronological and cultural terms, Giordano sums up this shift well:
You’re just getting out of World War I, which was such a horrific event, and I think young people just said, ‘We’re going to have a good time,’ and the music really reflects that.
What could be more personal, more joyful and more representative of jazz than a love song to the saxophone?
Transitional period, stylistic amalgam, generational signifier, offshoot of ragtime, jazz unlike any before or since and expression of peacetime ecstasy: labels are never airtight but “rag-a-jazz” has come to encompass all of these things. Most musicians and collectors agree that Leonard Kunstadt originated the term in its current usage. Depending on the source, Kunstadt either began using it in the pages of Record Researchmagazine, which he founded in 1955 and continued to edit and publish, in Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, published in 1962 and coauthored by Kunstadt and Samuel Charters, or at some later point in the seventies.
The phrase does appear much earlier in the name Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band. Yet this London-based band (by way of Nebraska) used it for catchy marketing rather than stylistic labeling. Obviously the musicians themselves were just playing music that came naturally to them. It’s hard to imagine that they understood what they were doing as an offshoot or development.
Garvin Bushell actually saw no distinction between ragtime and jazz. He proudly declares that, as a young pianist, “my knowledge of ragtime assured me I would not have any trouble [playing] jazz. Since there was very little difference between the two, I knew I could master it.” His comments about the repertoire and approach of his earliest bands are also revealing:
As I recall, we also had copies of “Maple Leaf Rag, Way Down Yonder In The Corn Field, ‘The Whistler And His Dog,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” Although poorly reproduced, these records contained the foundation of the jazz that was to come, particularly “Maple Leaf Rag.” I make this statement with no fear of contradiction. Ragtime, as it was called then, had the technical essence that was later required in jazz. While ragtime was always played in the moderate or fast ‘two’ tempo, jazz merely slowed it down to a fast or medium ‘four’ … We’d usually have eight or nine guys: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, banjo, tuba and drums. Maybe a violin or a bandolin (half banjo, half violin). Since there weren’t dance arrangements then for saxophones and trumpets, the pieces we rehearsed were mostly pit orchestrations. We’d pull out one clarinet part, one sax part, and on like that. The piano player had a part, as a rule, and the bass player faked. In fact, most everybody faked, since none of us could read that well. The style was very much what you hear on the early records-we called it “ragtime jazz.”
At the time and like any time before and since, musicians were simply drawing upon what was around them, what historian Richard Sudhalter called “the rich fermentation of American popular music between 1917 and 1923.” That doesn’t make latter-day commentary and analysis superfluous; in fact, hindsight lets us appreciate and understand the wide variety of music offered by history. iPods can store Phil Napoleon’s trumpet right alongside Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong’s horns.
Play “Ricky-Tick” For Me
Giordano explains that by 1923 or 1924, the rag-a-jazz style began to fade as musicians and audiences absorbed the New Orleans via Chicago “stomp” style and its quarter note feel. Berresford also notes that “the 1923 date is seen by many as the seminal date by which jazz had thrown off all the shackles of its ragtime antecedents and strode forth into the world in its own right – it is no coincidence that 1923 saw the first recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young second cornetist named Louis Armstrong), Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whilst Coleman Hawkins had made his first, faltering records with Mamie Smith the year before and Bix Beiderbecke was to appear on records just a year later.”
As one example of this change, Chris Tyle points out the difference between Kid Ory’s first recording of his “Ory’s Creole Trombone”:
and his later performance with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five:
Compared to Louis Armstrong’s “legato” phrasing and the rhythm section’s regular beat, the earlier record is “choppier.” Ory plays his breaks more clipped and cornetist Mutt Carey’s “punchier” attack is reminiscent of Freddie Keppard, one of the few New Orleans trumpets to came out of the older, ragtime based tradition.
“Choppy” may sound like a criticism while “smooth” is the preferred descriptor, but only from one perspective. The smoother attack and more swinging flow of these groups wasn’t a matter of inventing jazz as we know it, but a different set of influences and musical ideas. Exactly when, where, how and why those musical priorities changed remains a hotly debated topic, but it was clearly not a matter of some artistic teleology. As Nick Ball says, “jazz didn’t actually burst fully-formed from the mind of Louis Armstrong in 1923, as many books and films imply.”
The influence of these New Orleans bands and eventually King Oliver’s second trumpeter on young musicians cannot be overstated. By 1928, Boston-born trumpeter Max Kaminsky knew which musicians spoke to him:
The crush roll of the Chicago drummers [such as George Wettling] was unheard of back East, where they were still playing oom-pah and ricky-tick, breaking up the rhythm into choppy syncopations instead of keeping a steady beat you could play against…That nervous, ragged, ricky-tick beat of the white dance bands of the twenties was one of the factors that had been at the bottom of my confusion when I listened to my records back home in Boston, trying so desperately to unravel the puzzle of jazz. None of the white musicians I heard on them could keep time. None of the early white popular bands had really understood the beat yet…of playing the melody simply and purely without all the little flutings and corny licks that were regarded as “hot” in those days.
“Oom-pah, ricky-tick, choppy syncopations, nervous” and above all “ragged” are just loaded descriptions for the music that preceded the Oliver/Armstrong hegemony. For players like Kaminsky and later historians, Armstrong and the Chicago sound were not just another way to play jazz; they were the only way to play.
Way Off The Record
The tendency to dismiss so much pre-war and especially pre-Armstrong jazz hasn’t helped the historical record or modern outlets of this style. To some commentators, the term “pre-Armstrong jazz” itself is a contradiction.
Ideally, all source material would be treated equally. A fusion would be a fusion would be a fusion. Yet instead of another interesting example of cross-pollination, most major jazz trades treat rag-a-jazz, and several other styles of early jazz, with the knowing silence reserved for “old music.”
It could just be a matter of age: raga jazz, for example, surfaced during the sixties, while rag-a-jazz had its heyday in the late teens and early twenties (never mind that ragtime itself is a baby compared to the raga tradition). Gabor Szabo is much closer than Earl Fuller in terms of stylistic generations as well as human ones.
Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.
Maybe it’s the intangible but powerful factor of “coolness.” Ragtime is made in America, historically distant but geographically and culturally local. It doesn’t have the same connotation of open-mindedness associated with most brands of “world music.” Ragtime is also close enough to the classical conservatory, and therefore Europe, to make it seem old-fashioned and staid (never mind that, as Berresford, Tyle and others explain, ragtime itself is a rich and varied idiom that is not limited to what’s printed on sheet music). Small wonder that, as Sudhalter says, “standard jazz histories usually represent [American popular music between the years 1917 and 1923] as little more than organized disorder, the vaudeville clatter of the ‘nut jazz’ craze set in motion by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their legions of imitators…”
Once An Era But Still A Style
Like any musical era, these years included their share of “clatter” but they also featured musicians drawing upon a variety of influences, listening to and absorbing a range of styles and making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. It also continues to enthrall today’s musicians and audiences. Rag-a-jazz, and its distance from even the towering presence of Louis Armstrong as well as more modern styles of jazz, may even seem like a breath of fresh air.
Vince Giordano frequently arranges rag-a-jazz numbers such as “Wang Wang Blues” for his big band, the Nighthawks, to the delight of dancers at live gigs and viewers of the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. Chris Tyle enjoys playing the style with numerous groups, including his own Silver Leaf Jazz Band; their Freddie Keppard tribute album actually highlights the cornetist’s ragtime influences. Nick Ball declares that rag-a-jazz “just keeps pulling [me] more and more strongly. I love that it’s rude and it’s louche and it has pretensions of elegance, you can dance to it and you can sit and listen to it too.” Matt Tolentino and his Singapore Slingers look at rag-a-jazz “not [as] a forgotten artifact or a museum piece” but as “music that appeals to all generations, young and old alike.”
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist David Sager, two contemporary musicians who play rag-a-jazz as well as many other genres, both cite its unique challenges. Kellso says that “all that ensemble blowing, with little or no rest can be painful” but also explains, with a chuckle, that it “adds character.” Sager describes rag-a-jazz as “some of the most technically demanding stuff [he has] ever attempted.” So much for the assumption that jazz reached its technical zenith with bop.
Both Kellso and Sager play with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which Levinson founded in 1987 and has since released three albums of rag-a-jazz. Levinson’s context for the music applies equally well for 1920 or 2014:
Just imagine the liveliness of all these guys who were playing a kind of music nobody had ever heard before. We hear the music today, and might sometimes think it’s rather tame in comparison to some of what we’ve heard since. But think about what people were used to listening to at that time: here comes these guys from New Orleans by way of Chicago, and just blew the roof off.
Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.
“Blowing the roof off” will never be a historical concept, and people are obviously playing and listening to this music. Is it even fair to call “rag-a-jazz” a historical period when it continues to make these kinds of sounds?
From the writer: I would like to personally thank Nick Ball, Mark Berresford, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, Michael Steinman, Matt Tolentino and Chris Tyle for taking the time to share their insights about this topic with me. In the most literal sense of this often-used expression, the above piece would simply not have been possible without their help.
I also invite readers to please share their comments, insights, disagreements and suggestions for further reading about this topic. This piece is intended as an introduction to anyone who is interested in rag-a-jazz, so if you found it useful, I also ask that you please share this article and get the word out about this music and its advocates. Thank you!
Finally, and more importantly, here are a few more examples of this music:
The following post first appeared in multiple parts on this blog, and I was asked to consolidate it into one single entry (and more than happy to oblige). Larry Binyon has been a personal favorite since I first started listening to jazz. Hopefully, this post will shed some light on his life and work, and perhaps inspire someone with better resources to research that life, and more importantly Binyon’s music, further. Either way, please enjoy!
Reality television notwithstanding, ubiquity and fame are two very different accomplishments. Just ask Larry Binyon. More practically, Google him: he appears on dozens of record dates (150 jazz sessions alone according to Tom Lord), usually listed alongside some legendary names. Yet that’s all most historians and musicologists have to say about him. Larry Binyon is all over jazz history but not a well-known part of it.
He must have been an impressive musician to get work so consistently, especially with the likes of Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Red Nichols, the Boswell Sisters, the Dorsey Brothers, and other famous names. He also doubled several instruments, mostly playing tenor saxophone but contributing on flute when it was rarely heard in a jazz context. Binyon could also improvise in addition to read and double. Given the company he kept, he got to read and double far more often than he got to take a solo.
Years later and with very few solos on record, sidemen like Binyon can seem like historical packaging material. They surround the names we know best, provide musical as well as personnel background but otherwise end up padding the “real” artistic goods. After all, isn’t jazz “really” about improvisation? Weren’t there “better” improvisers around? Didn’t other musicians double? Couldn’t “anyone” have read the chart, as Binyon did?
Perhaps, but only from the luxury of listening decades later. To musicians, someone who could do all three (and maybe even show up on time and in uniform) would be a precious resource. There must have been a reason why Larry Binyon got to play so often. He also recorded quite a bit, even some of those improvised solos that jazz purists like to hunt down between all the written stuff, which Binyon also made possible. That sounds like far more than filler, and it definitely sounds like an important part of the music.
Chicago And Back Again: The Early Years
Lawrence “Larry” Fiffe Binyon was born in Illinois on September 16, 1908, the younger of Claude and Josephine Armstrong Binyon’s two children (their first child Hugh was born in 1905). Census records show the Binyon family renting one unit of a two-family home in Chicago’s twenty-seventh ward in 1910, with Claude Binyon listed as an unemployed funeral director and somehow still employing a live-in servant. By 1920 the family was renting a single home in the city of Urbana, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Claude now worked as a secretary for an oil company. Josephine was now also employed as a music teacher working out of the Binyon home, now servant-less.
Urbana was a much less densely populated city, and census records show more white-collar jobs among the Binyons’ neighbors in Urbana than those in Chicago. Perhaps the quality of life was a factor in their move. Maybe Urbana was simply where Claude could find another steady paycheck, albeit now supplemented with a second income. If there was financial hardship, it could have influenced Larry’s understanding of the value of a dollar. Claude’s death in 1924, when Larry was just sixteen years old, certainly would have put a financial strain on the family. Larry might have developed his later well-documented work ethic at an early age.
It’s unclear how early Larry Binyon started playing music, but safe to assume that his mother shared at least some of her musical knowledge. By age eighteen, Binyon was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, listed on E flat (soprano) flute in the school’s concert band as well as (standard) flute and piccolo in its first regimental band during the 1926-27 school year.
Binyon would only spend one year at college. By 1927 he was already playing professionally in Chicago as part of Beasley Smith’s band, which also included drummer Ray McKinley and clarinetist Matty Matlock. Drummer and future swing era star Gene Krupa was playing across the street from Beasley in Joe Kayser’s band, and Binyon would have encountered an even wider pool of talent in the jazz mecca. Flute may have been Binyon’s first instrument, or at least his primary one at school, but tenor sax would have by now become his main horn for dance bands.
Later on that year, drummer, bandleader, and talent incubator Ben Pollack came back to Chicago after an unsuccessful gig at the Venice Ballroom in California. His third saxophonist and arranger Fud Livingston had left the band earlier that year (to work with conductor Nat Shilkret in New York City). It’s unclear exactly when or how Binyon hooked up with Pollack, but he was with the Pollack band on December 12, 1927, when it returned to the Victor’s Chicago studio after a five-month hiatus. He even got to solo!
On the final bridge of “Waitin’ For Katie,” Binyon stays pretty close to the melody on the first take and loosens up slightly for the second one. Both takes find Binyon jumping in on a break and ripping into the upper register (here is the issued first take):
Like many jazz musicians from this period, Binyon “routines” his solo but still has something unique to offer. His reedy tone and declaratory, trumpet-like phrasing are very different from Coleman Hawkins’s metal and rapid-fire arpeggios. Binyon has been compared to Bud Freeman, but Freeman generally played in a more agitated style at this time. Binyon sounds more relaxed even at faster tempos. Stated bluntly, he just played fewer notes than those guys.
Apparently, Pollack liked Binyon’s notes; his tenor saxophone gets another solo on the session’s other issued side, “Memphis Blues,” where Binyon once again varies things just slightly between two takes (the issued first take follows):
He sounds tentative playing counterpoint in the introduction, and his brief solo might not seem like a model of construction. Yet he doesn’t get much room to stretch out on the W.C. Handy standard. Fud Livingston’s arrangement inserts some snappy chord substitutions from the band into the middle of Binyon’s chorus, which Binyon leaps into with a beautiful, well-executed lick. His preceding improvisation/routine is closer to an earlier, pre-Armstrong tradition that emphasized variety over contiguity. It’s also the work of a nineteen-year-old cutting his first record. Better things were still to come but this was an admirable start.
Pollack’s band was filled with young talent, including eighteen-year-old Benny Goodman and twenty-year-old Jimmy McPartland. They usually got more solos, and have certainly received more ink since this session, but Binyon got to play alongside them and make the Pollack band possible. He must have been doing something worth talking about.
Making It Work: The Pollack Years
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 Pollack apparently 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 to 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 arrangements 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
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 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.
A Sideman Soloing On The Side
Larry Binyon was talented (and fortunate enough) to have joined the Ben Pollack band just in time for its peak of popularity. He appeared on nearly every title cut under Pollack’s name, but side dates with studio pickup groups let the tenor saxophonist stretch out as more than a section player. He gets to join in with Pollack’s favored soloists on “Whoopee Stomp” under Irving Mills’s leadership, kicking off a string of solos featuring Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, and Jimmy McPartland:
It’s tempting to compare Binyon with these now-marquee names in terms of relaxed phrasing, catchy licks, and bluesy inflection, but Binyon’s style works on different priorities. It doesn’t display the same technical confidence but remains driving and tense. Binyon rarely stays in one place, wriggling up and down phrases, emphasizing variety over linear continuity. Binyon played hot solos: no frills, high on energy and contrast yet very personal. Binyon pushes the beat but without the agitation and gritty tone of fellow tenor player Bud Freeman or his cohorts Eddie Miller and Babe Russin. Binyon’s approach is also far removed from the dense arpeggios and metallic tone of the Coleman Hawkins school.
Binyon’s tone—husky, reedy, and distinct—could be an asset unto itself. On “Wont’cha” with Pollack, Binyon gets a paraphrase (one of his few solos of any kind with Pollack) after the vocal that shows off his warm, centered sound:
It’s not an improvised solo but it is an effective orchestral voice, probably appreciated in a dance band setting. Twenties bandleaders would occasionally use a light-toned baritone sax in a melodic role, but it sounds like Binyon’s tenor providing the broad, cello-like lead on the transition to the last chorus of “A Japanese Dream” with Mills:
“Blue Little You” includes a similar voicing in its introduction and right after the vocal. Contrasted with the standard alto lead that immediately follows, it makes an especially colorful effect on what might otherwise be dismissed as a straight dance chart:
Binyon also tosses out an improvised bridge before the ensemble conclusion. His jagged lines come across as flip commentary on the vocalist’s elongated, slightly nasal delivery. Brief solo spots like this one allow Binyon a concentrated burst to say just enough in a few measures. He snaps into the final bridge of “Little Rose Covered Shack,” once again on McPartland’s heels, this time with snaking, clarinet-like lines along with his usual rich tone and tendency to begin phrases in the upper register:
He really cuts loose on one of the few mixed dates of the Jazz Age, a freewheeling session with no less than Fats Waller. With Waller as well as Teagarden, Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Eddie Condon, and Gene Krupa on hand, it’s no surprise that Binyon sounds like he’s having fun. He wails and moans (showing he also listened to Hawkins) through both the introduction and one chorus of “Ridin’ But Walkin’”:
On “Won’t You Get Off It Please?” Binyon sticks to declaratory, at times trumpet-like exclamations, popping out high notes and plunging into the lower register for the release:
Binyon also seems to enjoy himself on “Shirt Tail Stomp,” one of the novelty tunes that “the Pollack band without Pollack” recorded to satisfy popular demand. His big tone stays intact through all of the mooing and whinnying:
Benny Goodman “created” this number after a recording engineer overheard his band mocking a cornball jazz act. Binyon has the perhaps dubious honor of appearing on three of its five versions on record. In addition to reading, doubling, and improvising, he was apparently also a capable musical clown.
Binyon could obviously fit into a variety of musical settings, from Pollack’s snappy dance band setting to looser blowing sessions and everything between; trumpeter and band organizer Red Nichols had even started hiring him on orchestral pop dates modeled after Paul Whiteman (though mostly doubling oboe and flute as well as tenor sax, with Babe Russin handling solos). He was nothing if not versatile, and a versatile musician was usually a busy one.
By the summer of 1929, Goodman and McPartland had left the Pollack band. They were more than capably replaced by Charlie Teagarden and Matty Matlock. Jack Teagarden would stay on for another three years. Yet Binyon may have seen Goodman and McPartland’s departure as a sign that the Pollack band had peaked. He might have been smarting under the same conditions that drove them out of the band; Pollack had fired two of his top soloists for showing up to work with scuffed shoes! A good reputation as a multitalented player in New York would have enabled Binyon to forego the life of a touring musician. It also would have provided more opportunities to perform in different settings.
Something convinced Binyon to leave his first regular employer and a still widely respected band. Binyon’s last session with Pollack was in January 1930. As usual, he didn’t get any solos. One of the two tunes recorded at that session, “I’m Following You” featured yet another one of the leader’s comically earnest vocals. Larry Binyon might have simply been ready for something different.
A Heavy Gig Bag And Phonebook: The Thirties
U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.
Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)
Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid-January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two-year-old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville, and Al Duffy.
He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe, and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden, and drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.
“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.
Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:
Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.
The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:
or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:
Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:
The combination of the Binyon’s flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”
Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:
In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey, and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside members of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band. At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:
and “Old Man Harlem”:
It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).
Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry at some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).
Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke, and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:
At this stage, Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.
Talent, Opportunity And Choice: Final Years and Legacy
The All Music Guidestates that Larry Binyon “needed someone to hold the door open for him when he arrived at a recording studio or radio broadcast date.” It’s an unsubstantiated anecdote but an accurate image. By the early thirties, Binyon was, in violinist Harry Hoffman’s words, one of New York’s “first-call” studio musicians who could “play anything.” With his move to full-time radio work in 1936, Binyon would have been playing his tenor sax, flute and oboe, probably clarinet (and possibly the “few fiddle credits” mentioned by AMG writer Eugene Chadbourne) in any number of musical settings.
While trombonist Larry Alpeter adds, “most of these [first-call] guys had fine jazz skills,” Binyon’s appearances on jazz records and already sparse solo spots dried up by the mid-forties. He is one of two tenors on Billie Holiday’s 1944 Decca sessions with Toots Camarata’s orchestra, but it’s unclear whether Binyon or Paul Ricci handle the few brief solos on these recordings. Binyon is strictly an ensemble player on his final jazz session, with Jess Stacy’s big band in June 1945.
After close to twenty years of having his hands literally and figuratively full in New York City, Binyon moved to Los Angeles in 1946. Binyon worked once again with Nichols in California, this time in Bobby Dolan’s orchestra on The Ford Show (starring Dinah Shore) from September 18, 1946, through June 11, 1947. Yet Binyon had also relocated to work as a recording contractor for the American Federation of Musicians.
If Binyon was looking to segue into a “behind-the-scenes” role, the paucity of documents from this period indicates that he got his wish. Drummer Johnny Blowers does recall a February 8, 1950 session with Phil Harris organized by Binyon, but Binyon’s activities as an organizer are otherwise largely unrecorded. A new home, warmer climate, and slower pace on the West Coast were probably a welcome change for him. It also would have allowed him more time with his son Claude (born in 1940 and named after Larry’s father). Blowers actually secured the Harris date when he ran into Binyon in New York, who was on a vacation of all things.
Blowers also notes that Binyon was still playing with West Coast bands, though it must have been less hectic than the New York scene. Binyon frequently worked with Phil Harris in Los Angeles, previously co-writing “Bump On The Head Brown” for the entertainer along with Chauncey Morehouse and Frank Signorelli (now that would have been a trio!).
Binyon worked the 1952 and 1953 seasons of the Phil Harris and Alice Faye radio show alongside Nichols in Walter Scharf and Skippy Martin’s bands, recorded five numbers with Harris on December 27, 1953, for RCA Victor, packed his gig bag(s) for a tour of Asia in the early fifties and booked sessions for fellow players: it all must have been a breeze for this seasoned musician.
He seems to have stopped playing completely by 1955. Based on Binyon’s track record, that must have been by choice rather than necessity. His story fades even further after that decision: marriage to a second wife in Nevada in 1962 and then a third wife in California in 1966, followed by a divorce two years later. Larry Binyon passed away on February 10, 1974 (followed by his brother Hugh in 1978 and then son Claude in 1999, both of whom died childless).
Other than personnel listings and occasional mention by his contemporaries, most of whom are now also gone, Larry Binyon has faded into the background behind more famous names. It’s easy to make a comparison between his legacy and his work, but that would dismiss the talent that earned Binyon such fast company in the first place. How else does one get to play with everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and Fats Waller?
Binyon’s versatility and sheer ubiquity may have actually helped force him into the background. Had he stuck to one or even two instruments, it might have been easier for bandleaders and listeners to remember him. Yet jumping between dozens of dance bands, jazz groups, studio ensembles, and radio orchestras while covering a multiplicity of parts as the schedule demanded and always being on hand to make every arranger’s whim seem like an easy task, it was easy to see that Binyon was capable of anything but probably harder to associate him with one thing.
There are enough accolades to show that he wasn’t just any sideman, yet not enough solos to determine what kind of a jazz musician he was (in a world where “jazz” is synonymous with “soloist,” anyway). Depending on how one hears his music, Binyon either lacked the ability or opportunity to inspire followers (though musician and writer Digby Fairweather detects Binyon’s influence in Georgie Auld’s earliest performances). In the end, it’s hard to depict him as a “jazz artist” and inaccurate to dismiss him as some studio drone.
Depending on how one reads his story, Larry Binyon is either a neglected musician or a person who made a life’s work doing something he was very good at and presumably enjoyed very much. Whatever the interpretation, his ability as well as his impact on jazz and/or/a.k.a. American popular music is undeniable. He was right there next to some of music’s greatest names, as much by his choice as theirs. Maybe Larry Binyon was simply exactly where he wanted to be.
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
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.
The Capitol Palace in Harlem was a late-night, after-hours club that is now (in a delicious bit of municipal irony) the site of a playground. At least some of the music of its house band lives on through records.
Bandleading brothers Lloyd and Cecil Scott started out in their hometown of Springfield, Ohio, competing with the nascent McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and eventually making their way from the Buckeye State to the then-jazz capitol of the world. The band developed a significant fan base there by subbing for some of the best-known groups in the city. Those jobs were early enough in the evening for the band to make its regular gig at the Capitol.
Sides from the group’s first record session capture a late-night air of experimentation and inebriation that must have made the Capitol a very interesting place to play. “Symphonic Scronch,” for example, sounds like something Salvador Dali might have composed had he skipped art school and opted for a career in hot dance music:
Trumpeter and historian Randy Sandke points to the clarinets voiced in creaky major seconds in the introduction, as well as the sudden interpolation of 5/4 meter (in 1927!) during the succeeding chorus for banjo, piano and drums. Sandke also admits he can only “approximately transcribe” that passage, yet the whole chorus is barely even hummable. It just bumps along, refusing to tell a little story, before the brass transition into a sax chorus that feels like it’s going to topple or explode at any moment. Kenneth Roane’s muted trumpet sounds similarly disembodied. Sometimes he floats on the clockwork backbeat, other times he sardonically leans into his phrases. Dicky Wells, appearing on his first record session, reprises Charlie Green’s ominous vamp from “The Gouge of Armour Avenue.”
“Symphonic Scronch” might be a reference to the Scott brothers’ earliest band, the Symphonic Syncopators. Phil Schaap explains that a “scronch” is a type of dance step. Yet the title as well as all of those dissonances and jagged rhythms also suggest some uncanny mutation of Paul Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz.” Whatever the meaning, it’s fun to imagine perplexed Harlemites making sense of this arrangement on the dance floor.
“Harlem Shuffle” (with an arrangement by Roane) smoothens the rhythm yet includes quirky touches like the fluttering, slightly off-kilter brass introduction and some unexpected double-time tantrums:
Hubert Mann’s banjo and Lloyd Scott’s drums are a huge part of the band’s sound. Lloyd’s press rolls accent Don Frye’s piano solo, and Mann is both rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as well as a textural foil underneath Cecil Scott’s massive baritone sax. He’s also a reminder not just of the banjo’s ability to slice through a group without amplification, but of the unique flavor that the instrument can bring to an ensemble (when the audience isn’t distracted by straw hats or hokey music, that is). Cecil’s sound is refreshingly archaic: metallic, angular and visceral, like Pharoah Sanders thrown backwards in time. The baritone sax faded as a solo instrument during the swing era, only to come back much faster, lighter and higher during the bop era. Cecil’s baritone comes from an earlier approach to the instrument, one that stressed a thick, dark tone and percussive attack (also listen to Jack Washington in Bennie Moten’s band or Coleman Hawkins’ flirtation with bass sax in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra).
Chameleon-like, on “Happy Hour” Cecil contributes both his gutty baritone and his piercing clarinet. On the smaller horn, he winds out the band’s first chorus like a man who gets this chart’s title all too well:
The arrangement revolves around a repeating two bar vamp for the rhythm section, an eight bar blowing section and a four-bar, seven-chord descending theme. Don Frye’s arrangement mines a lot of variety from its three sections and ten players:
First, the vamp and theme mirror themselves around Scott’s clarinet, then the theme alternates with ensemble sections and solos. The offbeat accents during the brass chorus followed by the stop-time feel for Wells’ solo make for a clever touch of orchestral déjà vu.
The four-bar theme in turn captures that magic moment in the evening when it’s too late to catch the train, there’s no more liquor left to be poured and the last girl on the dance floor isn’t asking but telling people to dance. It’s a musical depiction of a scene that the Scott brothers had probably witnessed far too often on the job. The record closes with saxes chanting over the vamp. Two drum hits in Charleston rhythm cut things off but it feels as though the band could go on vamping into other, still stranger episodes.
This first session and these three charts (two with alternate takes) were the only recordings made under Lloyd’s name before he moved from drumming to managing the band. The band would continue as Cecil Scott and His Bright Boys, recording sporadically but continuing to play throughout New York and counting Wells, Frankie Newton (who can be heard on this session), Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges and other legends-to-be in its ranks. Yet aside from historical dates and famous alumni, this session yielded some of the most original, atmospheric music of its time or any other. Just another night at 575 Lenox Avenue.
Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon
Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use, and the technology wasn’t kind to what remained of the kit. King does manage to burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” and bang out some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:
Unfortunately, outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use the standard acoustically sanctioned percussion (like cymbals and blocks) as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way, it got him plenty of work! He must have been doing something worth hearing.
Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now often tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker. Yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could move a band with “just” drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:
Aside from a few cymbal crashes, the “exotic” blocks, and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drum. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and then steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s red hot alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.
King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drum heads while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus and percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:
King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed, and very effective:
Listening to King nearly 60 years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with definite praise. A crisp, precise, and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).
With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:
Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims or how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass to produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example, while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:
Audio wizard, historian, and trombonist David Sagerrecalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardiexplains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming, and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”
[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]
According to Richard Sudhalter, King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers, and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and “Davenport Blues”:
On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’s solo, which allows the guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):
King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tossing out fast snappy fills and bearing down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:
On “Here Comes Emily Brown”—again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass—King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:
King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:
Occasionally, King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):
or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:
Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. His preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, and his unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Goodman described King as “merely adequate.”
The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:
King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett (or for that matter Elvin Jones), but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement, and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.
In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded, and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death. When Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty. Fud Livingstonthought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter: King got the job done.
Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him. King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:
Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer, or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring and hearing.