Another Corner Of The Hothouse
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.”
Ensembles and Drums Under The Sun
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 Pragmatism
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):
Of Eighth Notes and Expectations
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 Research magazine, 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.
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.
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 Always 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.
“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: