Tag Archives: “Foots” Thomas

Deconstructing Hal Denman

“Bugle Call Rag.” It’s right there in the title: military signals getting ragged or swung, something official getting a good destarching by popular culture, the irony of dancing to the sounds of battle. By the time Hal Denman and His Orchestra recorded “Bugle Call Rag,” nine years had passed since the New Orleans Rhythm Kings waxed their tune for the first time but it remained in band books the whole time. It was firmly a jazz number by the time Denman got around to it on record, giving a fresh layer of irony to his band’s para-military colors throughout their performance:

The famous opening break is delivered as a literal bugle call, at first almost seeming like a parody, until the clipped phrasing stays right through to the hot lick before the whole band, and especially the brass, picks it up. The saxophones smooth things out just slightly while the brass soli breaks are straight out of a marching band. So are the clarinet-led reed section and the drummer’s fills.

By comparison, Cab Calloway’s recording of the same arrangement is much looser in terms of rhythm and articulation:

Denman’s band steps while Calloway’s group swaggers. Lammar Wright’s lead trumpet is big and bright, owing more to Louis Armstrong than Herbert L. Clarke. The saxes really sell their phrases with a warmer blend and more pronounced embellishment. From a jazz perspective, the biggest difference may be Calloway’s ample room for soloists. The entire trumpet section has a say, starting with Wright’s lead through Edwin Swayzee’s muted “trickeration” to Reuben Reeves’s high notes. Denman’s trumpet soloist loosens up slightly but holds onto a slight buzz and click. Denman’s tenor saxophonist doesn’t display the same technical facility as Foots Thomas with Calloway, and Arville Harris’s clarinet obbligato with Calloway is far more extroverted than the brief one with Denman. Even Calloway’s spoken interjections add some interesting rhythmic and timbral contrast as well as entertainment.

It is now easy to degrade the Denman band as stiff, archaic, outdated even in its own time, simply ignorant of jazz phrasing or unable to absorb it. Taking the music on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons or hierarchization, Denman’s tight, precise sound makes for an interesting musical experiment. The syncopated lines combined with fairly even (as opposed to uneven, swung) eighth notes make it sound like jazz from a parallel dimension. Jazz and American popular music as a whole have famously drawn upon a number of idioms. At least a few New Orleans musicians would say that the jazz was already familiar with marching and brass bands. The Denman band may have simply had influences in mind other than the Crescent City second line brand of parade.

from THE JAZZ STATE OF INDIANA by Duncan Schiedt

The prevalence, bordering upon insistence, of arranged material over improvisation could have been born of necessity or just a different musical priority. Either way, it lets the Denman band show off a crisp unity of sound that must have spread like a Gatling gun on dance floors. The balances on this Gennett pressing also add transparency to the parts, so that the lead sometimes sound stacked in the middle of the harmonies rather than on top of them. The drummer pounding out percussion rudiments like an ad-libbing drum major is a subversive as well as creative act considering what jazz and dance band drummers were supposed to sound like at the time. This is not Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag,” nor that of the NORK, Duke Ellington or even Paul Whiteman.

Nearly ninety years later, Cab Calloway’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Hal Denman is, at best, a period curiosity, a dance band leader occasionally granted a footnote for trumpeter Jack Purvis’s tenure with his band (years before it even recorded). At first blush, hearing these two records may explain why. In fact, playing Denman and Calloway’s records back-to-back seems like the type of exercise a lecturer might fashion to explain the concept of “swing.” Yet the concept of swing may not explain a particular concept of music. Denman’s band was a popular midwestern territory band in its time, prompting fond recollections even decades later. Did all those Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Corn Huskers never hear the real thing, or were they simply open to several different real things?

Kokomo Tribune, January 8, 1981

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Favorite Fridays: Cab Calloway, “Jitterbug”

Cab Calloway was a musician who made “singer” and “bandleader” mean something.  That’s not always the case, as too often anyone who can warble some lyrics or wave their arms gets to claim those titles.  As “Jitterbug” from 1934 illustrates, Calloway had a superb command of his voice and an imaginative technique to go with it.  At the same time a musician (and businessman)’s ear for talent made sure his band was never just accompaniment.

The introductory sax soli makes it easy to imagine Cotton Club patrons dropping their jaws, putting down their drinks and mouthing “c’mon!” as they pulled their partners onto the dance floor.  It’s not just Al Morgan’s ground-shaking bass and Leroy Maxey’s powerhouse drums; the whole band swings with inviting intensity.  Slightly ragged saxes glow with the energy of four teammates, rather than the airtight, overly streamlined blend of many contemporary sax sections.  Biting yet warm brass declaim the opening chorus, and when Calloway enters, there’s no sense that this was just instrumental prelude before the vocal main event.

Calloway sings like an instrumentalist, sometimes a languorous sax (“grab a cup and start to toss…”), other times scatting like he’s back to his early days as a drummer (“BUTCH-ee, wutch-ee, time will tell…).” Louis Armstrong’s influence is prevalent in the relaxed delivery and elongated phrases, but the smooth timbre and sudden falsetto outbursts (“’git along!”) are sheer Calloway.

Signature humor also shapes each syllable into an event: a pattering, “His favorite jitter sauce is…” finishes with a drawn out, massaged “rye.” It’s the same use of contrasts that the best Rossini tenors capitalize on, and which made Calloway a dynamic stage presence at The Savoy, The Cotton Club and throughout a sixty-year career.

Like the best opera singers, surefire technique enhances Calloway’s theatrics: intonation and timekeeping never take a backseat to emotion.  That same technique also allows Calloway to lock in with a stream of exciting obbligati.  Full band, wry muted trumpet, swirling saxes, Harry White’s gutbucket trombone and Eddie Barefield’s winking alto all have their say alongside (never behind) Calloway as he shapes variation after variation on the same sixteen-bar theme.  What could have passed for a novelty paean to the joys of the bottle turns into a virtuosic jazz performance.

Calloway’s theatrical “All Bugs Out” makes musical sense when double-time sax figures segue into a call and response with the brass, followed by an agitated clarinet solo from Arville Harris.  By this point if you’re not dancing (on the floor or in your seat) you probably need your pulse checked. A syncopated brass break calls the final shout chorus to order, with some big-toned tenor exclamations by Walter “Foots” Thomas, until the rhythmic ante reaches its limit.

Just what the hell Calloway is saying as the record closes is a mystery to this writer, the best transcription being “how-some-dickie-in-som-mee-dips-a-mania.”  The singer and bandleader’s flair for onomatopoeic extemporization is fitting nonsense: words were just the beginning for Cab Calloway.

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