Tag Archives: Fletcher Henderson

Lots Of Variety Stomp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Elmer Chambers Foundation

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t list any antonyms for “founder.” Merriam-Webster lists the closest terms as“disciple, follower, supporter” or even “student.” The opposite of an “originator” is, apparently, a “copycat” or “mimic.” There is no exact word for someone who takes over for the “inaugurator” of a role or institution.

So, what do we call Louis Armstrong? He didn’t just have a “predecessor” in Fletcher Henderson’s band, but effectively replaced one of the founding members of one of the most important bands in jazz history. Elmer Chambers wasn’t the first trumpeter to work for Fletcher Henderson, but he was the first trumpeter in Henderson’s band proper. Chambers was on Fletcher Henderson’s first recordings under Henderson’s name with a recognizable Henderson sound, a band that became incredibly popular before Armstrong’s arrival.

HendersonOrchestra per Old Time Blues website

Photo courtesy of oldtimeblues.net

The otherwise beneficent Armstrong berated Chambers’s “nanny-goat sound and ragtime beat” but Henderson knew how to spot talent. Chambers seemed above all to be a lead player, able to confidently read down first trumpet charts, and by virtue of that role, shape the sound of the band. Chambers’s focused, somewhat piercing tone and pinpoint phrasing was likely exactly what was needed to cut through ballrooms and shellac, reading the chart as-is to provide audiences a clean melody and firm beat, and give the band a foundation for its own flights, for example on “Just Hot”:

Chambers’s also gets a solo that is far from the bleating, stiff affair alluded to by Armstrong. On “Ride, Jockey, Ride” with Trixie Smith, Chambers cuts loose, syncopating the lead, inserting some growls and then riffing behind the singer:

The choice of Chambers in a loose small group setting, alongside bona fide jazz players such as Buster Bailey, indicates that his peers likely didn’t see him entirely as a straight player or old-hat. Keeping players such as Chambers in the footnotes of jazz history leads to a sort of perennial history of the avant-garde, a narrative that skips from innovator to innovator while leaving a lot of music out of music history. It’s hard to imagine even modern trumpeters being ashamed of turning out a performance like this one.

“I Don’t Know And I Don’t Care” opens with Chambers on lead with muted obbligato by Howard Scott, now mostly known (if at all) as the poor soul holding the trumpet soloist chair with Henderson immediately before Armstrong’s arrival. Neither player sounds stiff, uncertain or ineffective, demonstrating that “hot” could be a matter of degrees rather than extremes:

Both men were particularly influenced by New York compatriots Johnny Dunn and Tom Morris, incorporating incisive double-time runs and sly wah-wah vocalisms. They seem less extroverted in their playing, easily mistaken for a lack of confidence or swing but perhaps just deliberate restraint meant to fit into the larger big band picture. The placement of notes is crisp, eighth-notes are even (but decidedly not stiff) and tone quality is clear, if not brilliant.

Armstrong’s phrasing and tone would outmode all of these approaches, and his sheer technical prowess as a single improviser would even make these types of semi-improvised duets obsolete. Chambers and Scott became relics, even though neither man could have been that much older than Armstrong.

Armstrong didn’t literally replace Chambers or Scott, but he secured their place in the annals as part of the “pre-Armstrong” Henderson band. The post-Armstrong band became the one referenced in textbooks and lectures. In another one of those fascinating ironies of history, the successor became the legend while the founder marched off into obscurity. Yet Chambers remains the original trumpeter for Fletcher Henderson. It was an important, ultimately thankless job, but he did it quite well, in his own way, and as more than a mere historical curiosity.

Tagged , , , ,

Tozo And Bozo

Plagiarism is all over the headlines this minute yet there’s only one potential piece of piracy we need to close the books on.

Compare “Tozo,” recorded on January 21, 1927 by Fletcher Henderson’s band and composed by Henderson with lyricist M. Cowdery:

and “Bozo,” an Edward Hite tune recorded in November 1928 by Clarence Williams and His Orchestra:

Sing or hum the ballad of the Hottentot sheikh along with Ed Cuffee’s slow, slack opening trombone on the second title: don’t these two tunes sound alike? Don’t the chord changes, at the very least, sound very similar? Did Hite pilfer Henderson (or whoever)’s work? Was he teasing at it by rhyming his composition with the title of the purloined stomp? Or did Clarence Williams just think it would complement a tune christened “Bimbo” at the same record session?

This uncertainty isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s get to the bottom of this, people.

Tagged , , , ,

Bass Clarinet Buster

Walter C. Allen’s massive discography of the Fletcher Henderson band lists either Don Redman or Buster Bailey as the bass clarinet soloist on three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” Historian John Chilton is more precise in his award-winning The Song Of The Hawk, praising Bailey alone for the “admirable” bass clarinet of these records [starting at about 1:35 into takes one, two and three below]:
 

 

 

Bailey’s runs and arpeggios, confident octaves and solid tone on the B-flat soprano clarinet are much closer to these bass clarinet solos than the smears and whinnies that Redman brought to the standard clarinet (unless Redman was really keeping his skill under wraps). Bailey was probably the more serious student of the clarinet and definitely the happiest of the group to play it: several writers have documented that neither Redman nor third reed Coleman Hawkins enjoyed playing clarinet. It’s hard to imagine Redman applying an unexpectedly proficient approach to the larger, unwieldier version of an instrument he disliked. As for Hawkins, it’s definitely his C melody saxophone following the bass clarinet, practically stepping on it during take two.

Process of elimination notwithstanding, the bass clarinet on the three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” and the bonafide Bailey obbligato on two takes of Henderson’s “Copenhagen” all feature similar rapid-fire intervals and a distinct intensity:
 

 

There is also Bailey’s sound. Commenters have pointed to Bailey’s shrill top notes but his chalumeau was always rich, centered and as warm as his upper register was bright. The second half of the third take’s solo really drives the connection home. For further comparison, check out Bailey’s brief but rewarding dips into the lower register on a trio recording of “Papa De Da Da” from a few months later:

For further enjoyment, listen to Bailey’s bass clarinet decades later on his own composition “Big Daddy And Baby Sister”:

For that matter, check out back-to-back-to-back Bailey on all three “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” bass clarinet solos, excerpted from each take in sequential order:

The oaken sound of the instrument, Bailey leaning into blue notes and stretching the tune into jittery noodles is an effective bridge between Louis Armstrong’s searing licks and Hawkins’s hefty C melody sax. It’s no surprise that so much has been written about Armstrong and Hawkins from this period, but it’s interesting to focus on Bailey. Apparently the arranger (Redman?) thought so: the Henderson band had already recorded Isham Jones’s new tune a few days earlier but now added this chorus just for Bailey, in stop time for further effect.

Also interesting is the use of the bass clarinet itself. The instrument didn’t exactly have a renaissance during the twenties but pops up often enough to make an impression. Eric Dolphy and others bass clarinetists garner more attention in jazz histories than Bailey, Bobby Davis or Johnny O’Donnell. The assumption seems to be that a musician playing bass clarinet in a twenties dance band did it for the sake of commercial novelty while the postwar generation were sincere experimentalists. Thank goodness is it is easier to decode soloists than historical classifications!

Buster

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Buster & Louis And Louis Vs. Buster

Louis Armstrong’s entry into Fletcher Henderson’s big band is well established as a watershed moment in jazz history. Almost as well accepted is the fact that before he became the most influential artist in jazz history, Armstrong was a crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed sideman, but a sideman nonetheless. Apparently he was even susceptible to bandstand politics. Speaking of Armstrong’s reaction to reedman Buster Bailey joining the band shortly after his arrival, James L. Dickerson notes that “he was annoyed at the [actual] reason Henderson wanted Bailey, which was to add another solo instrument to the group.”

Bailey’s lightning fast technique has earned him the reputation of being more of a technician than a soulful jazz musician, yet the music itself evidences a talent that must have aroused that special blend of admiration and suspicion among artists. On a peppy “My Rose Marie,” the arrangement gives Armstrong a designated hot chorus all to himself and he fulfills his role magnificently. Bailey on the other hand takes his own limelight, jackknifing in with a dazzling obbligato behind the band during the last chorus:

The acoustic recording makes it a little difficult to hear Bailey, which just adds to the tension between ensemble and individual, written parts and improvised licks, lead and counterpoint. Yet Bailey is there, on his own terms, playing with the listener’s expectations.

By 1924, at age twenty-two, Bailey was already a seasoned musician, having joined WC Handy’s orchestra as a teenager before gigging with blues and jazz star Mamie Smith and then King Oliver, where he first met Armstrong. Playing in Oliver’s band, Bailey must have honed his skill at providing the fast upper-register lines around the lead crucial to the New Orleans ensemble concept. Compared with frequent Oliver clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other New Orleans ensemble clarinetists, there is a busier, more penetrating approach to Bailey’s lines, as much informed by Bailey’s classical studies as his own “wicked” sense of humor.

Bailey never derails the Henderson band but rarely sticks to mere decoration. Fast, straight-ahead jazz numbers such as “Copenhagen” find Bailey soloing within the ensemble, rather than between or on top of it like Armstrong:

The peaks of Bailey’s phrases are easy to hear, hooks to grab onto before the next dizzying plunge. Even as Armstrong began to bring a new sense of ease and cohesion to jazz, Bailey insists on a peculiar intensity that remains unique to jazz of this period/style. Just compare Bailey’s second solo and then Armstrong’s right after it on “Twelfth Street Blues”:

Even alongside Armstrong’s towering presence, repeated and open-eared listening to Bailey reveals another player integrating his own influences into a deeply personal style: facile but proud to sweat, unashamedly “vertical,” energetic and mesmerizing in its jittery poise.

Armstrong himself would later refer to Bailey as “the great clarinetist and alto saxophonist,” implying an appreciation for his talents as both a clarinet soloist and a section man. Dickerson also points out that Armstrong was still “happy to see another Midwesterner” join the Henderson band and that the two would eventually became good friends. We can now admire Armstrong’s magnanimity and even forgive his youthful competitiveness, but it’s no surprise that Armstrong, and not to mention fellow Hendersonian and future “father of jazz saxophone Coleman Hawkins, were eyeing the tall, smirking gentleman from Memphis coming up behind them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Very Brief History of Jazz via “Tiger Rag”

everynote.comThis list is more stylistic than chronological, and certainly less than comprehensive, but hopefully it still provides a fair overview of the music’s development.  At the very least it shows that good musicians never play “the same old tune.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 10.07.30 AM


Unfortunately, YouTube removed a great clip of Barry Ulanov’s All Stars, featuring Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Lennie Tristano playing “Tiger Rag.


Readers are encouraged to share examples  of “Tiger Fusion, Tiger Latin, Tiger Atonal, Tiger Hip Hop” or their own favorite exploration of this perennial favorite.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mills Blue Rhythm Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing Dogs

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nic in Fight: Jazz, “Jazz” and Nicholas Payton as the Savior of Archaic Pop

Nicholas Payton Hates the Word “Jazz” Applied to His Music, and So Did Paul Whiteman

Trumpeter/bandleader/composer Nicholas Payton lit a cyber bonfire recently when he judged “jazz” to be a narrow, outdated, and even racist term.  With so many artists, jazz journalists, “jazz” defenders, label haters and twit heads out there weighing in, I’m going to avoid discussing whether Payton is “Right” or “Wrong.”  He has inspired plenty of thoughts and feelings though, and that’s vastly more important than any value judgments that will come out of this debate.

Most of the discussion hinges upon one very specific word (but given Payton’s commentary on race in America, it’s become just part of the argument).  Payton insists that he is “…not dissing an art form.  [He is] dissing the name [emphasis mine], Jazz.”  Criticizing “jazz” (but not jazz) is a fascinating proposition since this blog spends so much time reconsidering a lot of music that is denied “jazz”/jazz’s street cred.  Many historians and critics don’t know what to call the music of the early Fletcher Henderson band, Red Nichols’ various ensembles, forgotten twenties dance orchestras and musicians such as Buster Bailey, Don Murray and Adrian Rollini.  Letting them all into the proud family tree of “jazz” has proven tricky.

Sorry Red, Hugues Panassie Says You Can’t Be Filed Under “Jazz”

Yet the people who enjoy and care about vintage jazz and early American pop have been eager to extend a branch to their heroes.  For many people (excluding Payton, of course) “jazz” denotes something perennially hip, music requiring flawless technique and a unique voice.  It has a rich history, yet it continuously evolves.  It’s also a proudly American invention, fed from the blues, rhythmic nuances and vocal inflections that could only have appeared in this country with its complex, often troubling cultural and ethnic history (I’ll leave it up to Payton and his interlocutors to discuss where those elements came from and how they define the music).

Adrian Rollini’s Bass Sax Has Found Equal Difficulty Getting Through Doorways and Jazz History Books

Best of all, “jazz” gets played in swank nightclubs, fancy concert halls and prestigious college campuses.  “Jazz” is a passionate, sincere and intelligent “art form,” a much more impressive name than “old pop,” “syncopated concert music” or other sobriquets given to piles of 78rpm explorations.  “Jazz” is respectable, and it’s cool.  It’s no wonder fans want their favorites to get on the tree, even on some obscure branch that never bore fruit.

Yet here’s Nicholas Payton, asserting that “jazz” itself is a rotten root!  According to him, “jazz” died in 1959, and it’s way too limited and self-conscious to be considered “cool” anymore.  Payton also describes the word as an external imposition on the actual music and its voices (who Payton has always expressed vast admiration for, in both words and discography).  Based on Payton’s description, “jazz” doesn’t even seem like it’s worth the fight.

Maybe giving up that fight is what all that old music needs.

Payton’s politics and occasionally confrontational tone aside, what if all us trad fans, moldy figs and hep cats of latter day swing took his suggestion to heart?  What if we simply stopped using the word “jazz?”

Aside from making it much harder to organize our record collections, it might excuse a lot of music we love from taking a stylistic blood test.  Couldn’t we do without yet another debate on whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman are “jazz?”  Wouldn’t Gunther Schuller’s verdicts about which bands are not “jazz” seem much less damning?  And whatever it is that Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and so many original New Orleans musicians were doing before they “learned how to swing” might even be respected on its own musical terms, not just some stepping stone to the title of “jazz” bestowed by critics and scholars.

If I’m hijacking Nicholas Payton’s ideas for other ends than he assumed, it demonstrates how powerful those ideas are, but also how simple they turn out to be.  Not to deflate the scope of Payton’s ideas, and the anger and attacks of his critics notwithstanding, all he is doing is criticizing a word; he’s protesting a label.  He’s not even the first artist to do so.  As he points out, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, not to mention Charlie Parker and Eddie Condon among many others, have expressed varying degrees of reticence about “jazz” and other labels.  Judging from Payton’s commentators, he won’t be the last to get the word out about putting “jazz” out to pasture.

Speaking of which, maybe the pop of yester-century can stay just as exciting and intelligent without having the title “jazz.”  Maybe “jazz” needs to be as open about its past as it does its future.  Or maybe “jazz” is simply as limited as Payton describes.  Words are as powerless or as powerful as we make them.  Nicholas Payton merely points out how powerful we have made one word.

And if he’s reading this he may or may not appreciate my posting a ten year old clip, but good music has no expiration date here.  Here’s Nicholas Payton scorching “Tiger Rag” with ample ‘postmodern’ swagger:

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Now, Give the Tuba Some!

Contrary to (my) previous comments, many do in fact believe that tubas “rule.” In fact Sam Quinones’ article in the LA Times describes a thriving tuba culture among Mexican-Americans in Southern California.

At least two musical communities are probably thrilled to see the brass bass getting some attention in a major newspaper, but they’re probably not surprised. The Norteno ensembles mentioned in this article, as well hot jazz groups influenced by tuba-toting bands of the twenties, have always ignored images of indigestion and fat kids with pimples (even if they kept their red suspenders). For many ensembles, the tuba was, and remains, simply another unique voice.

While most jazz histories treat the tuba as a technical compromise (simply used for projecting outdoors or in large halls), or a vestigial artifact on the way to the string bass’ ascendance as the one true jazz bass, the best tuba players exhibit the “deep warmth” and big rhythm that tubist Jesse Tucker describes in the article. June Cole exudes both qualities and gives the Fletcher Henderson band plenty of swagger on “Henderson Stomp”:

John Kirby would eventually make “the switch” to string bass, but started out with his own distinctly burnished, bumping sound on tuba, and nearly the same agility he would later exhibit on the bull fiddle. On “Wang Wang Blues,” he trades off between booting the band in firm two beat style, and walking four to the bar:

While he never played in the same jazz big leagues, tuba player Joseph “Country” Washburn’s rounded tone, firm beat and (judging from “Piccolo Pete”) sense of humor made him a favorite with dance bands such as those of Ted Weems:

Of course the tuba’s jazz pedigree extends back to the streets of New Orleans. One has to ask, even if those parade bands could have hired a mobile string bass, could they pull off what Nicholas Payton’s (unnamed) sousaphone player does on “Tiger Rag?”

Do these groups swing? Perhaps more like a pendulum than a ride cymbal. Do they sound like “jazz” in a post-Basie, post-Bird world? Maybe not. More importantly, do they make you want to move? Dance?

The story’s out: any instrument can be a powerhouse, if it’s played with imagination and style.  So rock out with your bell out, and repeat after me: “that tuba kicks ass.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Vince Giordano, Josh Duffee, Fletcher Henderson and Jean Goldkette At BixFest

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival honors the brilliant, short-lived cornetist with four days of music, memorabilia, lectures and more music in Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport, IA.  Fans have posted a lot of great footage from this year’s festival online, but clips from the “battle” between Vince Giordano and Josh Duffee’s bands capture something truly special from an already unique gathering.

This double bill was inspired by a legendary battle of the bands on October 13, 1926, between Fletcher Henderson’s “home team” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based orchestra.  Contemporary musicians knew this was a gladiatorial occurrence, with Goldkette’s group of “tight assed white boys” and “hicks from the sticks” soundly whooping the venerated Henderson orchestra.

At Bix Bash on August 6, 2011, Vince Giordano’s New York based Nighthawks were the guests in town to play the Henderson book, with Duffee’s group on home turf in the Midwest playing the Goldkette charts. Just hearing these arrangements live and liberated from the constraints of twenties recordings techniques is an event. While it shouldn’t matter how old the charts are, in the age of disposable pop stars and last year’s songs making it onto the oldies station, their age makes this performance all the more miraculous.

Aside from the geographic reversal and the more playful nature of this “battle,” as soon as the Nighthawks light into “St. Louis Shuffle,” it’s obvious that the Roseland throw down is a source of inspiration, rather than recreation:

Giordano is a powerhouse player and erudite musician who illuminates gaps on record with historical knowledge and attention to period detail that are second to none.  Yet the tone, imagination and drive of the Nighthawks are entirely sui generis.  The Nighthawks also forego their usual practice of playing solos from original recordings; the soloists here are creating in the moment.

Recording techniques in the twenties prevent us from knowing what Kaiser Marshall’s full drum kit sounded like. Arnie Kinsella’s rolling snares on “Shanghai Shuffle” are no doubt historically informed, but more importantly they just get this band moving:

Josh Duffee’s band spends more time with the original solos on record, yet none of his guys or gals (another important difference with the original battle)  sacrifice their voice.  Jazz, “Jazz,” or “jass” has always been about making even a single note all one’s own.  It can be as subtle as the saxophonist playing Frankie Trumbauer’s original lines a touch more staccato, or the band accenting sections that were just an afterthought on the original recording of “Proud of a Baby Like You”:

On “Tiger Rag,” there is no recorded legacy to admire or compare.  Goldkette’s arrangement was never recorded (or at least never survived the judgment of a conservative A&R man).  The notes on the page are just that, aching for interpretation.  Duffee and his band respond with a double-barreled reading, with the leader’s splashing cymbals prominent behind roaring trombone, (sadly inaudible) banjo, and a mirthful chase between cornet and saxophone:

Scroll ahead to 5:35 for Duffee’s “Tiger Rag”

Musicians from the twenties recorded “Tiger Rag” and scores of contrafacts based off of its chord changes.  Duffee and his sidemen could have easily resorted to reusing these solos (though they do interpolate Jimmy Hartwell’s jittery clarinet chorus from Beiderbecke’s recording with the Wolverines).  Without hearing every single cover of “Tiger Rag” from the period, the Duffee band simply sound like they’re improvising.  Even if they’re not, that sense of spontaneity and wild abandon is the whole point.

People don’t cross miles or decades for slavish imitation.  Just ask the generations of listeners in the audience or across the Internet, or Bixophile Flemming Thorbye, who travelled from his native Denmark to shoot this footage.  All four bands on stage, Henderson, Goldkette, Giordano and Duffee, own this music as a communal experience.  Things like time, distance or death don’t stop artists from talking.

Special thanks to Flemming Thorbye and “Jazzman Joe” for posting these clips and so much other wonderful jazz on their YouTube channels.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,