Tag Archives: Jack Pettis

Northwestern Style Saxophone: No Apologies

One of the joys as well as frustrations of listening to early jazz is discovering styles or “schools” that were absorbed into others, or just closed down before enrollment got too high. “No one plays like that anymore…” may seem like a challenge waiting to be met, inviting some musicologist to illustrate the unacknowledged influence of an obscure player or a seasoned professional to shout that they’ve listened to that musician for decades…unless you’re referring to Bill Moore or Woody Walder. Some musical styles simply go the way of clothing styles.

The idea of jazz as a perennially forward-thinking, relentlessly hip music seems to go back to the music’s origins. Playing in an old-fashioned manner or even liking the wrong band was a real source of embarrassment, as demonstrated by a young Bud Freeman actually apologizing for playing like Jack Pettis. “Pardon me for playing collegiate, that Northwestern style,” he allegedly said to another musician, “but what can you do on a tenor sax?” Coleman Hawkins would soon answer Freeman, but how did those poor saxophonists fare until then?

Richard Sudhalter explains that the “Chicago school of tenor, Northwestern style” or “playing collegiate” was the light-toned style popularized by Jack Pettis. Pettis is now known primarily among record collectors and early jazz aficionados, but in his time he was a groundbreaking jazz musician. David Garrick provides extensive details about Pettis’s life and professional career on his website, yet the origins of Pettis’s style are still up for speculation. Squirrel Ashcraft said that Pettis taught himself to play saxophone between work in a government office. The rest is up for speculation. However Pettis did it, he earned himself a seat with the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His saxophone fits in well with the standard frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, often adding a middle register harmony for the trumpet or sailing into the upper register without crashing into Leon Roppolo’s clarinet.

Pettis would go on to become a star soloist with Ben Bernie’s popular dance orchestra, playing what many consider the first saxophone solo on film with Bernie as well as leading several of his own sessions.

Sudhalter describes the Pettis style as having a light sound and a loping beat, generating momentum through chains of eighth notes. It was far from the wail of Bud Freeman’s other early Chicago saxophone hero, Paul Biese. Pettis also took a vastly different approach from Chicago bandleader’s Isham Jones dark timbre and tendency to stick close to the melody with occasional embellishment. Judging by Bill Richards’s solos on “Choo Choo Blues, She’s A Mean Job” and other sides with Frank Westphal’s popular Chicago band, this plummy, huffing style seems to have been yet another approach to the instrument. Trumpeter Paul Mares described “Chicago style” as “composed of, conventionally, four pieces: piano, drums, banjo, and sax. The sax was played like Ted Lewis plays clarinet and the rhythm beat a tired, heavy, pounding that threatened to splinter the tavern floor. Boy, it was terrible…” So much for the consistency of labels!

As an older man, Freeman seems far more deferential to Pettis and his own Chicago style. His autobiography recalls Pettis as “the first swinging tenor player I ever heard” and the “first guy to become a professional success with that style” as well as “the king of that style.” Yet he needn’t have felt so embarrassed in the first place: Sudhalter points out that the Pettis school was the dominant style among white saxophonists of the early twenties. Several jazz records from that era bear that description out. George Johnson’s solo on “Copenhagen” with The Wolverines is perhaps the most well-known example:

Johnson’s solo would become part of this composition, eventually being transcribed into the sheet music, but other recordings of the tune include saxophonists clearly under Johnson’s spell and by extension the Northwestern style. These include an unnamed tenor soloist with Al Turk as well as Floyd Townes with Elmer Schoebel:

Interestingly enough, Johnson uses a lusher tone for the straight melody reading on “Susie” while swinging out, Northwestern style, towards the end of his solo on “I Need Some Pettin’” and the breaks on “Jazz Me Blues.”


As Sudhalter points out, the Northwestern players built on the arpeggiated figures and legato attack of the clarinet while adding the creamy tone and vibrato of the alto saxophone. The style was something of a hybrid. Clarinetist and historian Eric Seddon points out how saxophones “benefit from knotty phrases which snake and double back on themselves” while the clarinet’s larger range and timbre open up the possibilities of arpeggios. In other words, the two instruments are just that: different instruments lending themselves to distinct technical/expressive routes. Hawkins’s force of musical personality on saxophone as well as his sheer technical confidence would have impressed regardless of instrument. Yet it must have been a revelation for young saxophonists to hear such an idiomatic style for their instrument. Hawkins and other players explored how to play the saxophone without making it sound like a large brass clarinet, a more agile trumpet, a cello, etc.

At the same time, Pettis’s slippery, agitated style was still just plain hot. These solos still resound with their own unique nervous energy, an intensity that characterizes the best jazz of this period (and which would fade in favor of smoother, more laid-back styles coming out of the south).


The use of vibrato as well as the busy vertical lines delineate this style from the sound that Frank Trumbauer and Lester Young would eventually bestow upon the jazz world. Pettis and disciples such as Bostonian Perley Breed may have played lighter but were anything but “cool.” Even at slower tempos, the notes seem to jitter in mid-air.

Perhaps the style caught on at college campuses due to its manic energy, an appropriate sound for the roaring twenties. All of those twenty-somethings probably thought they were far more advanced than Biese and Jones. So much for feeling embarrassed!

Twenties modernist Fud Livingston sounds like he was influenced by Pettis, albeit adding his own slightly acerbic tone and jagged phrasing:


When Livingston left Pollack’s band, Larry Binyon played in a similar yet somehow less busy style. Binyon received much less solo space than Livingston (due, in part, to the ascendancy of Goodman and Teagarden as the primary soloists). Maybe on record he didn’t have as much room to stretch out, or simply lacked the desire to do so. Either way, Binyon sounds closer to Pettis on “Whoopee Stomp” with Irving Mills and on the final bridge to “Little Rose Covered Shack” with Pollack. At other times Binyon plays with a more mellifluous society band sound. This type of musical chameleoning seemed to be all in a day’s work for these musicians, and its ubiquity makes it all the more remarkable.

Sudhalter notes Pettis’s influence as primarily a product of the early twenties. By the middle of the decade, Coleman Hawkins was a firmly established presence within the jazz community, the premier soloist with one of the Fletcher Henderson’s popular and critically admired band. By the time young Max Kaminsky told one of his bandmates that he was a fan of Perley Breed, the trumpeter described being “puzzled and a little hurt when he smiled at my answer.” Nobody wants to be old-hat, and things move pretty quickly in American music.

Thankfully, a few musicians didn’t seem to get the memo. So we have Don Murray’s excellent solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette:

Almost a year later, Pettis himself receives an entire chorus to himself, starting out a dance record with an improvised solo on a pop tune recorded by the more commercially-oriented Bernie band. Pettis may have now been living in Hawkins’s world but he still had things to say on his own terms.

George Snurpus and Ralph Rudder, in their only recorded appearances, still sound like they are learning things from Pettis.



As late as 1944, Boomie Richman’s Lester Youngish bridge on Muggsy Spanier’s “Rosetta” has traces of the Pettis style:

So much for historical benchmarks!

Of course, parsing out influences and tracing styles isn’t a science (and who would want it to be that precise?) At the very least, the “Pettis style” is a helpful concept that opens up vestigial approaches to an instrument now virtually synonymous with “jazz” and a handful of definitive players. Before Hawkins, Young, Parker and Coltrane, there was Jack Pettis, and he played exciting music that influenced other musicians. What could be hipper than that?

Thanks to Sue Fischer for providing that Paul Mares quote!

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A Dillon Ober Scrapbook

This post supplements an earlier one about Dillon Ober, based upon my access to further resources and desire to shed as much light as I can on this obscure, rewarding musician.  So the Dillon Ober story continues, and yes, so does this blog’s story.  Thank you for reading.

With just thirty record sessions spread out over less than five years under a handful of bandleaders and zero solos, Dillon Ober still earns respect from listeners who are fortunate enough to know his name. Best known as a drummer for Jack Pettis and Ben Bernie, he stays in the background on record yet lights up their bands, like a compact, white-hot lamp burning from behind stained glass.  Ober’s concise recorded legacy is easy enough to follow, twice as rewarding to listen for, but outside of the recording studio he was apparently much more than a sideman.

His skills as a percussionist, vocalist and stage cutup are spotlighted from the outset with the Mason Dixon Seven, his first “name band.”  The Mason Dixon Seven itself, which also included brothers Art and Ted Weems, was apparently very popular, gigging across Pennsylvania and earning local praise (even being remembered fondly in periodicals years later):

19211118 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19211118 The Oil City Derrick of Oil City, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19230511 Altoona Tribune of Altoona, PA on May 11, 1923

19230917 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Sep 17, 1923

19231130 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 30, 1923 About a year before his first recordings in New York City with Pettis, Ober fronted a band under the auspices of Bernie himself:
19250623 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on June 23, 1925 This article mentions an “attraction direct from Broadway” yet Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra was firmly installed at the posh Manhattan hotel.   Even more odd,  another article from the same paper mentions Ober right alongside “the Old Maestro” himself!
19250702 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on July 2, 1925 Typo? Name dropping? Either way, Bernie must have had some experience with Ober prior to his arrival in New York City, perhaps relying on Ober to direct bands contracted by Bernie for work around Pennsylvania.  Most revealing is that Ober had led at least one band and was in the spotlight before coming to New York City.  Showing a knack for good copy, Ober even describes his group as “the last word in fine dance music,” with further notices afterward:

19250728 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on July 28, 1925

19250801 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 1, 1925

19250804 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 4, 1925

19250812 The Morning News of Danville, PA on Aug 12, 1925

19251022 The Scranton Republican of PA on Oct 22, 1925

The “Dillon Ober Orchestra” (record collectors, be on the lookout for a potential Rust oversight!) even found time to make it to Brooklyn, NY:

19251003 Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society on Oct 3, 1925

By November of 1925, Ober aka “The Musical Sheik” is even being billed sans accompaniment:
19251104 The Bridgeport Telegram of CT on Sep 4, 1925

19260422 The Cedar Rapids Republican of Cedar Rapids, IA on April 22, 1926

By (at least) December 1926, Ober was in New York City at his first recording session with Pettis, going on to complete his recorded legacy periodically throughout the next four and a half years with Pettis, Irving Mills and eventually as a replacement for Sam Fink in the Brunswick studios with Bernie’s band.  By May 1928 he also begins to appear in acting credits, such the Here’s Howe, with music by Roger Wolfe Kahn:

19280502 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 2, 1928

He continues to play with Bernie through August 1931 while apparently functioning as “chief clown” for his band.  Ober’s appeal may have been more than strictly musical (but records show he could more than hold his own as a musician).

19300325 The Daily Notes of Canonsburg, PA on Mar 25, 1930

19300325 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on Mar 25, 1930

Apparently not tied down to Bernie, Ober pops up on a double xylophone bill alongside percussion pioneer Billy Gladstone:

19310111 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Jan 11, 1931

Ober moved to the West Coast some time in the mid-thirties, playing in studio orchestras and continuing to build his acting resume:

19361024 The Evening News of Harrisburg, PA on Oct 24, 1936

It’s hard to tell the context, but here is a rare (admittedly blurry) photo of Ober himself!

19380329 Warren Times Mirror of Warren, PA on Mar 29, 1938

Amidst a no doubt busy schedule, Ober apparently also found time to entertain his mother-in-law, visiting from their hometown of Clarksburg, WV:

19400422 Santa Ana Register of CA on Apr 22, 1940

Finally, here is notice of Ober finishing out his career with military service:

19420921 Santa Ana Register of CA on Sep 21, 1942His obituary outlines a long, varied and popular career (as well as an untimely death):

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 1

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 2

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 3

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 4Dillon Ober: entertainer, bandleader, family man and veteran, as well as multifaceted percussionist and discographical mystery man (hopefully less so now).

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A Dillon Ober Playlist

BenBernieCareOfPlanetBarberella

Virtually all of Dillon Ober’s legacy as a jazz musician was recorded with just two bandleaders over a four and a half year period and without a single solo. It’s a modest discography, perhaps appropriate for such an unflashy drummer, but it illustrates an energetic, at times arresting spirit behind the kit.

How Ober began playing is unclear but he obviously started young. Born April 8, 1904 in West Virginia, by 1919 young Dillon was already listed as a “musician” in the Clarksburg town directory. He cut his first record in 1922 playing marimba with the Mason-Dixon Seven Orchestra. The band included future dance band star Ted Weems and his brother Art and was popular at West Virginia University. It also traveled as far as University of Michigan and the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania as well as New York City to cut one unissued take of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Columbia with the young marimba player. The Seven might have also worked in Philadelphia, or perhaps Ober was in town solely for his wedding to Alice “Nellie” Broadwater in 1922. The young couple lived with Ober’s (apparently very patient) parents through 1925 while he continued to work as a musician.

Ober no doubt continued to gig and gain experience, including on drum set. By December 1926, he was confident enough to return to New York City and record with saxophonist Jack Pettis and several of Pettis’s fellow sidemen from Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Bernie led an incredibly popular and well-respected band. Playing with its crack sidemen as well as jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in the music capital of the world must have excited the twenty-two year old pro from down South. He sticks to rhythmic background for most of “He’s The Last Word” but bears down harder behind the leader’s red-hot saxophone:

Ober’s drumming is more like great seasoning than a whole recipe: it flavors the performance and never overpowers the whole, occasionally jumping out before fading back into the mix. Ober is back on drums at Pettis’s next session and while it’s hard to hear Ober on “I Gotta’ Get Myself Somebody To Love,” it’s easy to feel his contribution to the side’s breezy momentum:

Ober sounds downright electrified on a Pettis date with guest clarinetist Don Murray. This was Ober’s sixth session in New York since his arrival, including one directed by Bernie’s arranger Kenn Sisson, and he must have been making a name for himself. Murray’s jittery arpeggios obviously contribute to the bright mood. The up-tempo “Hot Heels” lives up to its name:

Even at a medium tempo, “Dry Martini” picks up steam from Murray’s reedy phrases and Ober’s simple but spurring “1…1,2…” behind them:

Perhaps feeling more comfortable at his next record session (his first with the famous Victor label), Ober varies his technique more for “Bag O’Blues”:

He alternates cymbal backbeats and syncopations next to Nick Gerlach’s violin but sticks to a simpler beat behind trumpeter Bill Moore and Murray, allowing guitarist Eddie Lang to push the soloists and change up the rhythmic texture. Ober then switches to wood blocks behind Moore’s solo, while the “ting” and “swish” of his cymbals behind Lang’s solo add even more contrast. Far from just keeping time, Ober varies his beats, plays tasteful fills and inserts himself just enough to add color at key points. He chimes behind Bill Moore’s chatter on “Doin’ The New Low Down” and also taps an interesting paraphrase of Gerlach’s paraphrase, as Gerlach plays it, on woodblocks:

Ober would play drums on all of Pettis’s sessions as a leader. Pettis started out with no less than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings before becoming Ben Bernie’s star soloist. His light, swinging “Chicago style” sax enlivens every recording it’s on, he penned hot instrumentals such as “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Up And At ‘Em” and his Band, Orchestra, Pets and Lumberjacks produced some of the hottest jazz of the pre-swing era. Ober must have been doing something right if Pettis liked his drumming.

Pettis and possibly some of his sidemen must have spread the word: Ober took over the drum chair in Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. He’s off to a brilliant start on record with Bernie, waxing “Ten Little Miles From Town” and “When Polly Walks Through The Hollyhocks,” two sugary titles that really move (and include alternate takes without vocals) as well as Kenn Sisson’s novel arrangement of Joseph Northrup’s “Cannon Ball Rag”:

Highlights include Ober’s backbeat on the last chorus of “Ten Little Miles” and the way that he and pianist Al Goering gradually add more decoration to the end of each vocal phrase on “Polly.” Ober also really digs in behind the trumpet and trombone on “Cannon Ball.” The Bernie band was based out of the swank Hotel Roosevelt in midtown Manhattan. While not expressly a jazz band and even with tightly arranged charts, it played with energy as well as elegance and left room for dynamic ensembles and soloists. “Rhythm King” and “I Want To Be Bad” are models of crisp, buoyant and warm twenties dance grooves:

Playing with Bernie at the Hotel Roosevelt would have kept Ober occupied and financially stable but the drummer continued to record with Pettis’s side groups. He got to play with young jazz luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey through working with Pettis, and for one date worked under the direction of vocalist and impresario Irving Mills. Word of mouth went far in the Manhattan musical community of the time and work was plentiful, so it’s likely Ober picked up work outside of the studio. Ober’s drive as well as sense of balance on “At The Prom” is a fine sample of his portfolio:

Ober and the propulsive (still unidentified) string bassist take turns driving the band. The bass does the heavy lifting behind the vocal and the violin while Ober plays cymbals behind the sax, stopping after the break to avoid monotony, then alternates open and closed hits for the bridge of the trumpet solo. He’s clearly thinking about how to deliver rhythm as well as variety, something the well-connected, band-booking Mills must have heard. Back with Pettis’s Pets for “Bugle Call Blues,” Ober plays crisp press rolls behind the trombone and piano, indicating he probably listened to New Orleans expatriates or their Chicago disciples:

Ober’s doubling ability would have also made him a versatile hire. He had started on record playing marimba, and his xylophone obbligato behind Pettis’s first chorus bridge on the Victor pressing of “Freshman Hop” is a short but catchy hint of Ober’s inventive touch at the keys:

“I’m In Seventh Heaven” by the Bernie band has a catchy lilt, but Ober’s gliding xylophone obbligato, combined with Merill Klein’s slap bass and the low-register clarinet (perhaps played Manny Prager, Pettis’s sub?) steals the show:

On September 18, 1929, Ober, Ben Bernie and several members of the Bernie band arrived in England to play at London’s fashionable Kit Cat Club. Mark Berresford indicates that unfortunately the band was poorly received by the press. Ober and his colleagues returned to the States a month later. That same year, Bernie lost his longtime spot at the swanky Hotel Roosevelt and lost much of his savings in the stock market crash. He handed leadership of the band over to Jack Pettis in April 1930, moving onto less jazz-oriented groups for radio while Pettis led the band through the end of the year.

Ober made his last credited record, for Bernie and forever, in 1931 (Wikipedia claims that Ober also worked with Ace Brigode but neither Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography nor Brian Rust’s The American Dance Band Discography list Ober playing with Brigode). Working with Bernie must have earned Ober something of a reputation so it’s likely he continued to work outside of record sessions. He lists his occupation as “hotel musician” on the 1930 census, and The Premier Drum Company thought enough of Ober to include a photo of him eyeing one of their products alongside several other noted musicians in its 1930 catalog.

Dillon Ober et al

The 1930 census shows Dillon and Nellie Ober living in Queens, but by 1934 he begins to appear in credits for movies made in California, starting with the comedy short “Old Maid’s Mistake,” followed by “Every Night At Eight” in 1935 and “The Country Doctor” and “The Crimes Of Dr. Forbes” in 1936. Ober wasn’t a complete stranger to acting, having already appeared in the 1928 Broadway musical Here’s Howe (with music by bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn and introducing the standard “Crazy Rhythm”). He didn’t seem to need much theatrical range for film, given roles such as “comedy singer, piano player” and “trick drummer.” More importantly, Ober had an entryway into the West Coast studios. By 1937, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Ober was “…on Walt Disney’s payroll out in Hollywood, tapping out sounds in animated talkies.” Ober’s un-credited work from this period might not have been glamorous but it was steady and he seemed to enjoy it.

Musician Don Ingle, who described Ober as “…one of the great drummers who disappeared into the movie studios in California and was rarely known outside of that arena in the years of large studio orchestra staffs” provides a very personal portrait of Ober during those years in California:

Dillon Ober was a very nice man, looking as I recall a lot like Robert Benchley. We used to go to visit at his place in the Valley not far from our home, as Dad [big band sideman “Red” Ingle] and he had become good friends in the thirties through their mutual friend Orm [Ormand] Downes, another of the unsung but superb drummers who had shared the stand with Dad for much of the thirties in the Ted Weems band. Dillon and Orm and Dad often gathered to socialize when not working, and Dillon’s home was often the site of poker parties, barbeques and a pleasant place to visit. I learned by listening to [Ober’s] descriptions of working with the great musical directors of Hollywood and how they scored the films, a very technical and critically timed process. They would also tell war stories from the big band days and talk about the players they’d come up with in the business.

Ober may have also played for the military after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942, as it’s unlikely the thirty-eight year old would have been placed into combat at the height of World War Two. He passed away just five years later, barely middle-aged and outlived by his father.

It’s clear that Ober didn’t record much and perhaps easy to suggest he didn’t “do” much behind the drum set, but he played exactly what was needed for his fellow musicians. Record after record reveals a no-frills, reliable, rhythmic drummer with his own subtle but instantly galvanizing personality. As for how much he recorded, in this case something is far better than nothing. Ober’s modest style and modest discography make for some very distinguished music.

JackPettisPosterCareOfBixographyDotCom

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For the completest Dillon Ober, check out Retrieval’s excellent Ben Bernie album and try to hunt down the now discontinued Jack Pettis double CD set from the King’s Crossing label.  For a whole other look at Ober and a good laugh, please check out Michael Steinman’s notes here.

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A Version of Jazz History

john-tenniel-alice-looking-through-the-looking-glass-1-of-2-this-sideThey’re not a proper account of the landmark moments in jazz history, but these records do make for fascinating comparison and enjoyable listening (especially if you’ve already taken one or two Jazz History courses)…

“Livery Stable Blues,” made famous by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as the first jazz record, played by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings:

The NORK’s “Tin Roof Blues,” best known for trombonist George Brunies and clarinetist Leon Roppolo’s solos, referenced by Miff Mole and Jimmy Lytell on the Original Memphis Five’s recording:

“Singin’ The Blues,” forever associated with Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, given rhythmic tribute by the Fletcher Henderson band:

“West End Blues,” synonymous with Louis Armstrong, in its restrained inaugural recording by composer and Armstrong mentor Joe “King” Oliver:

Duke Ellington, best known as a composer, with a simple but highly personal arrangement of the WC Handy standard “St. Louis Blues” for backing Bing Crosby:

Meanwhile, across the pond, British bandleader paying homage to Ellington’s music by getting people out on the dance floor:

Jelly Roll Morton revisiting Scott Joplin’s ragtime staple “Maple Leaf Rag” on his own pianistic terms:

Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” perhaps the most popular Morton tune when it comes to distinct approaches by bands, soloists and arrangers, becomes a swinging guitar partita in Teddy Bunn’s hands:

Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” for many the apotheosis of the riff-based, blues-soaked Kansas City sound, live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 with the Benny Goodman band expressing their admiration as well as their own unique sound:

Finally, Basie’s innovations in the scope and sound of the rhythm section, the prominence of the soloist in an ensemble setting and the very concept of “swing,” taken to turbo-charged abstraction on Gil Evan’s arrangement of the Basie staple “Lester Leaps In”:

These are just a few ways to mess with a jazz history syllabus. They might not be innovative recordings but they do show musicians listening and learning from one another while expressing themselves. That has to count for something in jazz, or music.

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Finding Bill Moore

Bill Moore. The name seems like a joke on itself, a homophone inviting literally “more” to be said about it, while resisting that urge through its own frequency. The number of birth certificates, census records, coroners’ reports and gravestones for “William Moore” or “Bill Moore” makes a daunting prospect when it comes to research. I’m interested in the trumpeter Bill Moore, but there are several players with that name, playing different instruments and kicking up more hay around my desired needle.

Irving Brodsky - Piano  Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

Irving Brodsky – Piano
Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

What I find says little and repeats it often: that Moore worked with the California Ramblers in all of their pseudonymous forms as well as with Ben Bernie, Jack Pettis and many other bandleaders. His unique position as a light-skinned African American “passing” in White bands also comes up frequently, without any insight into whether that fact mattered as much to the man himself as it does to history. Discographies confirm that he played with a variety of bands through the Swing Era, with a 1950 Billboard review praising his “Armstrong-inspired” trumpet. There’s not much more to learn about the man, even less when it comes to the musician. Bill Moore is very hard to find.

The sound of Moore’s trumpet during the twenties takes us past the realm of historical cyphers and gigging sidemen. At that time Moore was a distinctly pre-Armstrong player. His tone is far removed from the rich, brassy sound now virtually synonymous with “jazz trumpet.” It’s narrower and more piercing, like a needle rather than a sword, well suited to tying an ensemble together rather than cutting its own path.

Even through the haze of acoustic records, Moore’s trumpet has a buzzy edge to it, different than the cool quality of his contemporary Red Nichols, the broad, warm tone of Paul Mares or Johnny Dunn’s crisp flourishes.

Moore also frequent played with a mute. Brass players often point out how mutes can be used to hide intonation problems (with King Oliver a favorite example) but the possibility of expressive choice is worth considering in Moore’s case. Moore’s pinched sound was put to good use on a series of sessions throughout the late twenties.

Moore also chatters rather than blasts, maybe to hide an uneven tone, maybe to show off fast fingers. Either way, he lets this brash instrument; seemingly designed for sweeping bursts, speak in tight, concentrated patterns.

Armstrong experimented with what Brian Harker called a clarinet-like approach early on his career. Nichols used clever, clipped lines throughout his long career. Jabbo Smith and Roy Eldridge frequently employed double-time, with the boppers later adding their own phrasing and harmonic ideas.

Moore’s chattering is more disjointed, based in a pre-Armstrong aesthetic that emphasized contrast and variety over continuity and flow. It’s also more of an ornament, as Moore sticks closer to the melody than most modern jazz musicians would ever care to (Moore knows how to have fun with even the silliest tune, rather than simply throw it out). The emphasis on contrast, paraphrase and mutes indicates that Moore might have been listening to “novelty” trumpeter Louis Panico.

Listening to Moore reveals more than session dates and personnel listings. It points to influences, musical choices, textures and a vocabulary. In other words, a distinct musical voice at work. Neither a genius granted immortality nor a hack deserving complete neglect, after generations of brash, brassy trumpeters in the Armstrong mode, Moore’s style might seem like a wholly “new” experience (even if it originated decades before most readers were born).

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

Jazz purists might dismiss Moore based on his lack of swing, his limited improvisational skill or some other interesting but ultimately illogical bit of teleology. Given his post-ragtime, pre-Armstrong soundscape, criticizing Moore (and his contemporaries) for not sounding like later players is like chastising Renaissance paintings for having too many religious references: rather than admiring the work in its historical context, or a part from the critic’s context, everything is measured up against one stylistic endpoint, with all “great” works leading up to or issuing from it.

Not that many even take the time to dismiss Moore based on his playing.  As is often the case with the earliest chapters of music history, discussion beyond the session cards and matrix numbers and right to the sound of the music appears infrequently. Maybe reacting to the music itself seems too subjective. Maybe now that Moore and his colleagues are no longer around, maybe the only thing left to do is ensure an accurate record of the past. Hopefully when the record is complete we’ll remember why it was assembled in the first place.

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