Tag Archives: Jazz Oracle

Mark Berresford And All That Syncopated Music

CareOfUniversityPressOfMississippi

Mark Berresford has made countless hours of music possible for listeners across the globe. It’s not just his personal library of “syncopated music,” a century’s worth of ragtime, jazz and everything between, collected throughout his life and shared with the most respected providers of early jazz reissues. Berresford’s lifelong love/study of the music has also translated into pages upon pages of informative, insightful liner notes.

Even if you already own the complete Johnny Dodds’s Black Bottom Stompers, Retrieval’s Definitive Dodds album is worth purchasing just for Berresford’s commentary. If you’re downloading Timeless Historical’s From Ragtime To Jazz series, you’re missing out on his meticulous yet breezy annotation; ditto for Frog’s Johnny Dunn disc and anything else with Berresford in the credits.

He began by collecting music as a teenager in his native England, also starting to write around that time. In addition to liner notes for several labels, for twenty-four years Berresford has written for Vintage Jazz & Blues Mart (which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2012, making it the oldest continually-published jazz magazine in the world). Berresford’s biodiscography of clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman received an Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award in 2011, and his liner notes to the Rivermont Records CD Dance-O-Mania: Harry Yerkes and The Dawn Of The Jazz Age, 1919-1923 were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009. Mark does all of this while also selling “records, gramophones and associated ephemera” from his store in Derbyshire.

Berresford has not only made rare music available to a wide audience, he’s made supposedly rarefied music make sense to all those listeners. The collector, historian and writer has helped me understand and enjoy this music since I first started listening to it, so I was thrilled to speak with him and find out more about his beginnings and hopes for the future.

CareOfJazzhoundDotNetAndrew Jon Sammut: What was your entryway into collecting early jazz?

Mark Berresford: I started collecting 78s when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I had been brought up with vintage music around me: my grandparents had a large radiogram full of music by Fats Waller, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller and many others.

AJS: What drew you to “that” music, as opposed to more contemporary forms of jazz or popular music, and how did you first start writing about it?

MB: I had grown up with “old” music and it seemed perfectly normal to me. As far back as eight or nine years old, I was taking records by Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra or Tommy Dorsey into school on Monday mornings, when we were encouraged to bring along our favorite records. This was the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five!

As for writing, I started writing on early jazz when I was about sixteen years old. My English teacher at school was a keen jazz fan and played bass, and he encouraged me in my scribbling. There was so little about pre-1923 jazz available, either on LP or in books. I had read Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz in the school library (can you imagine a book like that in a school library nowadays?), and I wanted to share what I was enjoying and discovering about this music.

AJS: And now we have whole companies devoted to reissuing this music, such as Retrieval, Frog and Jazz Oracle, and you have written extensive liner notes for these labels.

MB: Retrieval was born out of Fountain Records in the seventies and founded by Norman Stevens, Ron Jewson, Chris Ellis and John R.T. Davies, expressly to produce sensibly programmed reissues of the highest quality. Dave French started Frog in the early nineties with the same purpose, with Davies also doing the transfers. Jazz Oracle was founded in the mid-nineties by Canadians Colin Bray (an expatriate Englishman) and John Wilby, once again with Davies, to do the same sort of thing with longer, glossier liner notes.

AJS: How did you first get involved with these reissue labels?

MB: I first got involved with reissues around 1978 or 79, when I was asked by Norman Stevens to write the liner notes for an LP of Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers/Broadway Syncopators. I was twenty-one years old at the time. Apparently I already had a reputation as an early jazz champion, via my collecting taste as well as the articles I wrote in magazines such as The Gunn Report.

I really got involved in the reissue scene in the early nineties, when I became very friendly with John R.T. Davies and Chris Ellis at Retrieval. I had known both of them for years, but as my collection grew they realized that I was sitting on a lot of material they could use, either as whole projects or to fill in the gaps of their collections for a project. I used to go down to John’s place with a boxful of my 78s for him to make transfers for ongoing projects.

As many of the projects centered on material I knew and loved, I also became the choice to write the liner notes. I suppose that my years of writing magazine articles and editing VJM’s Jazz & Blues Mart (twenty-four years now) made me an obvious choice. Of course, I also got to suggest projects that interested me too, and am still doing so!

AJS: What criterion do you use when suggesting a project? Do you see an overarching mission for these reissues?

MB: I want to see a new audience exposed to unfamiliar or out of favor music. I also want to get established collectors and fans to go back and listen to material they had discounted, or perhaps never even bothered to listen to.

A good case in point is the four-volume set From Ragtime To Jazz on Timeless. I chose tracks that went back to 1896, and material recorded not only in New York City but also in Europe; many American collectors don’t realize the wealth of syncopated music recorded by American artists in Europe, many of whom never recorded in their homeland. An American music teacher told me that he uses these as a core part of his teaching on American popular music history.

I was also actively involved with Rainer Lotz and the German record company Bear Family’s astonishing Black Europe project. It reissued over two thousand sides made in Europe by Black performers, all recorded before 1926! For instance, Black American singer Pete Hampton was the most prolific African American singer until Bessie Smith, and he died in 1916 without ever making a record in the United States! I supplied many items from my collection. The final package was forty-four CDs, plus a three hundred page hardbound book that included photos of every record label and biographies of the artists involved. It was limited to five hundred numbered sets worldwide.

CareOfRivermontRecordsDotComAnother good example is the Harry Yerkes/Happy Six CD set on Rivermont: obscure material but an important developmental link. It was nominated in 2009 for a Grammy Award! That same determination to get recognition for overlooked performers also drove me to write my [ARSC award winning] bio-discography of clarinetist Wilbur C. Sweatman.

AJS: What do you think are some of the obstacles to getting this music heard?

MB: The biggest obstacles in the past were the companies themselves, who always tended to be conservative, and wanted tried-and-tested material that guaranteed sales. Timeless was brave when it issued From Ragtime To Jazz, but the set has sold well.

Of course Archeophone has totally moved the goalposts, reissuing the most obscure material with a “to hell with the sales figures, let’s get people listening to this material!” attitude, which of course chimes with me 100%. Needless to say Rich Martin and Meagan Hennessy are good friends now and we regularly work together. I am discussing an idea for a project with them as we speak.

So much of his music points to things-to-come musically. We can hear themes, ideas, and styles that will be picked up and carried and changed, and it is always better to know where one is coming from. People are surprised when they hear Gene Greene scat singing in 1910, or Black singer Ashley Roberts scatting in London in 1915.

Another obstacle is that often little or nothing is known about a particular artist. When I wrote the liner notes for the Frank Westphal Orchestra CD on Rivermont, there was virtually nothing in print about him (other than Sophie Tucker’s one-sided reminiscences). I had to go back to square one, but I think people will now know a little more about Frank.

AJS: So, what does “square one” look like (for us laymen)?

MB: Birth records, Census records, World War One and World War Two records, newspaper archives, photo libraries, searching eBay for photos or sheet music, etc. A lot of work goes into it, and a lot of burnt midnight oil!

AJS: Have you ever come to any total dead-ends, or is it just a matter of time, energy and patience until you find something out about the artist?

MB: Time will out! I’ve come to many apparent dead ends, but a hunch or pure luck will frequently come into play. It’s just a case of keep plugging away. I won’t admit defeat, simple as that! My website has been a boon: I upload photos of old bands and performers, and you would be amazed how many relatives find me this way!

AJS: Which performers would you like to see get more attention in jazz histories or reissues?

MB: To paraphrase Joe Venuti when he was asked what his favorite record was, whomever I’m working on right now! For example, I have recently been working with Bryan Wright from Rivermont on a Paul Specht Orchestra CD and my old friend sound restorer Nick Dellow was here doing transfers, so I’ve been immersing myself in the life of Mr. Specht!

AJS: Sort of a dance band with jazz as a seasoning rather than a main course?

MB: Correct, but careful sifting of his large output reveals some hidden gems, and again, not all made in the United States. And some surprises too. For instance, a number of the 1928 and 1929 sides have great scoring for clarinet and/or sax choruses, and when you factor in Don Redman’s little-noted quote that he enjoyed arranging for Paul Specht, one realizes that these are Don Redman arrangements! Also, don’t forget the remarkable Frank Guarente on trumpet, who swapped music lessons with King Oliver in the teens!

PaulSpechtBandCareOfWikipedia

AJS: That brings us to tricky subject of labels. Do you describe most of this music as “early jazz, hot dance, popular music, etc.” and do you see any difference?

MB: I prefer the term “syncopated music” because it transcends the rather artificial boundaries that the other terms you mention imply. It can describe Edgar Cantrell and Richard Williams’s amazing London 1902 banjo/mandolin and vocal recordings, a crossover between minstrel, ragtime, folk and blues. It also includes material by James Europe’s Society Orchestra, George Fishberg’s stomping piano accompaniments to the Trix Sisters on their 1921 recordings and Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra equally well.

I think “difference” is a modern concept. At the time it was all the same, just as Paul Whiteman was the “King of Jazz” in the eyes of John Q. Public!

AJS: It seems many music historians use the concept of difference to demarcate what music is worth “saving” and what can go marching into obscurity. For you, what determines what should be preserved and what can be forgotten after a century?

MB: Difficult. I think that the music has to speak to people listening outside its time, or at least have the opportunity to speak to them. Straight dance music may have its enthusiasts, but it ultimately belongs in its time, with little or nothing to say to the present generation other than a feeling of nostalgia a la “Pennies From Heaven.” In that respect, acoustically recorded dance music fares even less well. That’s not to decry that music, but it doesn’t strike a chord for me.

That being said, I am also a keen fan of British music hall records, and recordings of original cast theater performers; they can shed amazing light on the time in which they were made. For instance, much of the revue material recorded in England during World War One took a very jaundiced view of the people running the war, quite contrary to the “keep the home fires burning” brigade that contemporary observers now associate with the period. So in that respect, that music is very valid now because it has a story to tell which is contrary to received wisdom.

AJS: As for the material labeled “jazz” or music that you feel influenced or was influenced by jazz, how would you characterize jazz from the period before Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or even before Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman?

MB: I think of “jazz” from this period as rhythmically driven, multifaceted, polyphonic, creative, joyous and sometimes a little scary. If there are a few solos to liven things up, even better!

AJS: “Scary?”

MB: Yes, I thought you might like that! What I mean by “scary” is dark and brooding, but also the fact that these artists were writing new, previously unwritten rules as they went along. Is Sidney Bechet really going to get back into line with the rest of the band at the end of “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues?” Isn’t Louis Armstrong on a different planet from the rest of Erskine Tate’s band on “Stomp Off, Let’s Go?”

AJS: Do you think jazz has kept that “scariness?”

MB: No. I lose interest when posturing and self-importance become the norm.

AJS: Are you characterizing contemporary jazz that way?

MB: Yes, and a lot of non-jazz too. Can you really listen to “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” without the hairs on your arms standing up? I can’t.

AJS: If so much contemporary jazz lacks that hair-raising quality, why don’t more contemporary jazz listeners appreciate “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” or “Knockin’ A Jug?”

MB: I think unfamiliarity and un-coolness are important factors. Yet I also think that when more material is presented in an appropriately packaged way i.e. beautifully transferred, without over-processing (which is guaranteed to turn new listeners off), the neophyte listener is more likely to come back for more. For the past few years I’ve been widening the tastes of a younger guy who came to our music via forties Jump music. He is now collecting the State Street Ramblers, Fess, Lem Fowler and Clarence Williams!

What is quite interesting is that a younger generation is getting interested in early jazz that has never been swayed by the writings of some of the more entrenched critics and authors, and are thus coming at this music with open ears and minds.

AJS: So do you see your work as chipping away at the unfamiliar and uncool, or will this music always be an esoteric pursuit?

MB: Well it beats counting how many angels can sit on the point of a needle! Personally I’ve never worried about such stuff. I remember hearing Doc Cooke’s Dreamland Orchestra for the first time at age fifteen or sixteen, and being floored by the power of the band (particularly cornetist Freddie Keppard). I needed to share this, so I phoned a school friend who was very into Led Zeppelin, and played “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” for him over the phone: not to him, but at him.

“Now THIS is music,” I screamed! He must have thought I was insane, but who cares? The music is all that matters.

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A Heavy Gig Bag And A Thick Phone Book: Larry Binyon In The Thirties

This post is another installment of my continuing series on the music and life of Larry Binyon. Feel free to read previous posts about why I’m covering Binyon, how he started out, his first records with Ben Pollack or the greater solo space he received away from Pollack, or just read on…

U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)

Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two year old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville and Al Duffy.

He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden as well as drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.

“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.

Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:

Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.

The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:

or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:

Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:

The combination of the Binyon’ flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”

Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:

In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside member of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band.  At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:

and “Old Man Harlem”:

It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).

Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).

Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:

At this stage Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.

1940 US Census per AncestryDotCom

I have hyperlinked to all sources but also wanted to personally thank the Red Nichols historian, Mr. Stephen Hester. His generosity of knowledge and time filled in many blanks when it came to Binyon’s work with Nichols. The next Larry Binyon post will focus on Binyon’s move to a behind-the-scenes role in music as well as his final years and legacy.

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Jimmy Lytell Gets Some Spotlight

Clarinetist Jimmy Lytell is best known for his recordings with the Original Memphis Five, followed by a lengthy career as a studio staff musician. Canadian company Jazz Oracle now collects all twenty-five recordings that Lytell made with just piano and guitar/banjo for the Pathe label between 1926 and 1928. This format was popular throughout the twenties, with clarinetists such as Buster Bailey, Benny Goodman, Johnny Dodds and Boyd Senter (!) getting the opportunity to put their sound and style front and center. Since Lytell’s legacy is predominantly ensemble-based, this disc sheds some welcome light on his abilities as a soloist.

Speaking about these recordings in his landmark Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter described Lytell’s playing as “curiously inert rhythmically.” He added that Lytell’s “phrasing is quite foursquare, [with] tidy patterns that always conform to the two and four-bar phrases of the songs and invariably land on the downbeat of a bar…There are moments when the ear longs for a subordinate clause, alternation of phrase lengths, anything asymmetrical.” Lytell may have had a limited rhythmic comfort zone, but his playing within those boundaries is assured and consistently joyful. He displays a bright, distinct tone that occasionally resembles a reedy alto saxophone, as for example on “Old Folks.” There are also plenty of the trademarks smears recognizable from the OM5 sides. He also frequently punches out repeated notes, resulting in a declaratory sound unusual for the instrument at this time, while numbers such as “Davenport Blues” and “Pardon The Glove” include several well-executed saw tooth patterns and finger-busting runs.

bdw8069This release is also a veritable twenties dance band songbook, including numbers such as “Messin’ Around,” “Stockholm Stomp” and “Missouri Squabble.” It’s illuminating to hear these tunes outside of more intricate big band charts of the time, and they pick up plenty of heat without the extra instrumentation (especially both takes of “Zulu Wail”). Jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang appears on several tracks, along with the energetic Dick McDonough, OM5 pianist Frank Signorelli and composer Rube Bloom.

Jazz Oracle’s engineering is typically beautiful, and this disc is worth purchasing for Phil Melick’s liner notes alone: they’re a model of how to blend history, discography and biography into a narrative rather than a list. Lytell may or may not make it into the pantheon of “great” jazz clarinetists yet this release reveals a musician who had taste as well as technique.

Unfortunately I can’t find any YouTube clips from this disc, but here’s Lytell backing the sweet-toned Annette Hanshaw:

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Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after.  It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties.  Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols.  Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.

For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors.  Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills.  Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, .  During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy.  A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but  Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:

Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start.  Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead  (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups).  The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary.  When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier.  Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.

The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet.  Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured.  Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord.  The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible.  Many critics hear careful reserve.  Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.

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Phat Washboard

 

Let’s Jam.

Aside from the actual music on Frog’s new release of Clarence Williams’ washboard bands, John Collinson’s liner notes illustrate why these reissues are so important.  Collinson suggests  “the use of the washboard may have been an attempt to connect with the unsophisticated coloured migrants from the south [sic] who may have felt happier on hearing certain sounds they could relate to.” He also notes “The usual reason offered however is as substitute for an expensive drum kit.”  The possibility of artistic choice, rather than commercial or financial compromise, never enters the discussion.

My first experience with a washboard band was on a high school trip to Disneyland (or was it Disney World?  Which one is really humid and looks like a five-year old child’s mind after they get into the medicine cabinet?).  Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and banjo sang and strummed to the heavens over the clang of stain-removing percussion.

Yes, They Might Just Be Playing This Music By Choice

Most of my fellow tourists viewed the group as either a colorful attraction or an annoyance, not unlike Mickey, Donald and those two destructive chipmunks.  Yet since that visit, I’ve continued to be impressed with the panoply of sounds a skilled washboard player can conjure from their washboard, including scrapes, taps, alternating downward and upward strokes, and through a variety of auxiliary percussion mounted with an engineer’s resourcefulness. During a trip to Prague two years ago, I was greeted and then dazzled by the miniature cymbals of a washboardist playing with a group of Dixieland-loving Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge.

Barring a large influx of Southern migrants (or time travellers from the pre-war era) crossing the bridge, these musicians were simply expressing themselves with an instrument they found inspiring. Hearing the instrument or style as “old-fashioned” or “primitive” is the listener’s issue, not theirs.

Yes, He Was Also The Grandfather and Guardian of Actor Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad

As for Clarence Williams’ decision to use a washboard, even if it was based on calculation rather than preference, the sound of Floyd Casey, Bruce Johnson and Jasper Taylor is all we need. Rather than hearing Frog’s latest release as a record of earlier, simpler (read, simplistic) music making, we can listen to it as a unique artistic experience.  Not to disagree with Frog, but there will never be anything “vintage” about that.

As for the actual music on that CD, check out my review on All About Jazz.

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