Tag Archives: Jelly Roll Morton

Berklee Pierces The Membranophone

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Berklee College of Music celebrated April Fools’ Day today with a funny, well-produced video (which no one paid me to share or endorse) that made the spoon a little fuller for an instrument that already takes a fair amount of shit:

Maybe it’s the squawky timbre, the association with milk-mustached kindergarteners or how comically simple it is to use, but the kazoo makes for an effortless punch line.

Early jazz aficionados may not be laughing as hard. The kazoo was a hit among novelty-crazed listeners in the twenties and appears on many records from The Jazz Age. In hindsight it might be accused of gobbling up time on 78s that could have been put to better use by just about any one else playing just about any other instrument (when it comes to comb or tuba, it’s still a toss-up). It’s easy to imagine purists scratching their heads and pounding their fists at the travesty not just of George Brunies soloing on kazoo rather than trombone, but the fact that those twenty-five seconds of kazoo could have instead gifted us more time with Bix Beiderbecke’s seraphic cornet (fifty seconds if you count alternate takes!):

Most of the music’s original listeners were probably more interested in a good time rather than a profound emotional experience or instrumental exploration, so maybe we can forgive the kazoo, its practitioners and enablers. Judging from California Ramblers drummer Stan King’s energy and comic timing on the instrument, he either didn’t mind it or was simply that much of a professional. The double-kazoo (?)(!) chorus on “Tessie, Stop Teasing Me” is not only a funny little exchange but also another jittery foil to Bill Moore’s tightly muted trumpet:

There’s no way of knowing whether such musical considerations came into play as the Ramblers gave the public what it wanted and seemingly had a very good time earning a paycheck. It’s also unclear whether Jelly Roll Morton included the kazoo on several of his earliest recordings because he liked it or its potential to sell records. My own favorite example of Morton with kazoo (though admittedly that’s not a very competitive category) is “My Gal Sal”:

Buddy Burton hoots and blasts under and between Volly de Faut’s clarinet and Morton accompanies it all with a sensitivity that belies the comic nature of the recording. Come to think of it, no one is phoning it in on this performance. If this was meant as a joke, both de Faut and Morton went pretty far for the sake of a gag. Maybe de Faut and Morton were laughing at the kazoo, or maybe all the musicians on these sides were laughing with it.

Close to a century later, the kazoo is still fun to listen to and laughter is permissible in all but the direst contexts. Yet I can’t help but wonder how we might react to Alfred Bell’s slashing lead and haunting tone if we were hearing him on his customary trumpet rather than this particular member of the membranophone family (and thanks to Berklee for teaching me that term):


Would we be more impressed if the kazoo was harder to play, or if it was actually taught at a conservatory? The kazoo was marketed as the most “democratic” instrument, since anyone could play it, so are we laughing with the kazoo, or at participatory government? What if the instrument had its origins in folk music rather than novelty ephemera, in native traditions rather than the US Patent Office, in animal skins and woodcarving rather than plastic and the assembly line?

There is a lot more to be said about this funny little instrument. Someone should teach a class, or make it part of a curriculum! Oh, right

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The Avant-Garde Benson Orchestra

WNAJ - Edgar Benson OrchestraNine decades and a few stylistic light-years after it was recorded, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s “Wolverine Blues” may sound like (to paraphrase one online commenter) a lesson in how not to play Jelly Roll Morton’s composition:

The Benson Orchestra seems to lack the “plenty rhythm” that the composer deemed crucial for jazz. Instead, it has its own firm, broadly stepping two-beat rhythm, with clipped syncopations and a bright, violin-infused sound that looks back to ragtime (but not as far back then as now). The Benson Orchestra rags a bit, promenades more and to some ears might also do some marching. They don’t do much stomping, and definitely do not swing.

This seventh-ever recording of “Wolverine Blues” from September of 1923 is far removed from the medium to fast tempo jams that the Morton standard now typically inspires from early jazz ensembles. Yet it’s also very different from the looser, at times downright raucous inaugural recordings that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Albert E. Short’s Tivoli Syncopators gave “Wolverine Blues” back in March of the same year. The composer himself offered a swinging solo piano rendition in July. Gene Rodemich’s dance band sounds comparatively unhinged back in June, and Frank Westphal’s orchestra played a similar arrangement with a slightly agitated rhythm section and busy solos in late March.  (I still can’t find an online version of Harry Raderman’s May recording, but any help would be greatly appreciated!)

The Benson Orchestra is less visceral and more vertical than any of its recorded predecessors. Pianist/leader Don Bestor’s piano filigree and the trumpeter’s blue note counterpoint during the final chorus do have their own antique charm, but the Benson recording just doesn’t have the same energy and variety of the NORK’s improvised polyphony or Morton’s occasionally Latinized piano. Other musicians were obviously giving “Wolverine Blues” their own distinct treatment before the Benson’s record, treatments that jell much better with contemporary expectations of the tune. The Benson Orchestra’s approach is less a historical template than an example of one band’s style.

It is tempting to dismiss the Benson style as stiff and outdated (and to some, stereotypically “white,” even if both African American and European American musicians were already playing the tune in equally distinct, differently bombastic ways). Yet it is a style, one unlike any other on record at that time, or since: no modern band would ever think to play Morton’s warhorse like the Benson Orchestra does, except in outright imitation or parody.

The sound of the Benson Orchestra on “Wolverine Blues” remains so refreshingly archaic, so far removed from even a vestigial hint at what is “current” that it’s both very personal and oddly subversive.  In its contemporary context, the Benson Orchestra’s outdatedness might even seem ballsy. It may not suit everyone, but it’ll never be wrong. Assuming that Morton and his jazz brethren’s ultimate mission was to encourage individuality in music, then the Benson Orchestra fulfills that legacy in spirit, if not style or (far more slippery) taste.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

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My Favorite “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists over one thousand recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pretty good for a song that Ted Gioia explains is ”not quite as important a part of the jazz repertoire nowadays as it once was.”

It is true that beboppers, post-boppers, free-jazzers, fusionites and other modernists never really cozied up to the Fats Waller standard. That still leaves a who’s-who of prewar and prewar-influenced jazz musicians to give it a shot. Yet even with Louis Armstrong’s magisterial interpretations, the composer’s own performances and pianists from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Dick Hyman and Jeff Barnhart to choose from, I keep coming back to the Charleston Chasers’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In fact the the Original Memphis Five working under an alias that Columbia records used for several bands, the Charleston Chasers waxed their version at the height of the song’s popularity. Waller had written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for the revue Hot Chocolates, where it soon became a feature for Louis Armstrong and eventually the most famous part of the show. The Chasers recorded the tune about a year later, and just a few weeks before Armstrong made his own recording (skip ahead to 0:48 in the following clip to hear the music):

This arrangement never entirely settles, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Chasers’ two-beat amble has its own magnetic energy, but their rhythm is a little overly delineated. Phil Napoleon’s trumpet is typically crisp yet slightly tense: his high notes during the introduction sound forced while the turnaround notes in the first chorus are hesitant. There’s a carefulness to the Chasers’ playing, the sound of a band feeling their way through a brand new composition.

NapoleonThey’re also figuring out what to “do” with this new song,  adding some highly original touches to make it their own. The Chasers feature a standard front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey lays low during the ensembles to let Napoleon and his frequent OM5 partner Miff Mole fashion brass duets. Napoleon and Mole were already seasoned jazz musicians, developing in tandem with the music from its earliest roots in ragtime. The pair displays a refreshingly harder-edged sound and play busier, punchier lines than most of their New Orleans colleagues. Napoleon and Mole even switch roles following the vocal, with muted trumpet decorating the trombone’s burry lead.  Eva Taylor’s vocal is charming but Arthur Schutt’s elegant accompaniment behind her is the real find.  His classical allusions also turn the minor chords of the bridge into miniature Rachmaninoff preludes. Joe Tarto’s bass keeps snapping throughout while Dorsey’s whinnies add a humorous symmetry to the whole thing.

This performance is a departure from the jamming and stride theatrics now typically associated with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s also far removed from the weight of history and sense of familiarity attached to even the most relaxed renditions of this song. This was only the fourth recording in the history of Waller’s iconic tune. If it shows its age, that age offers a completely unique experience.

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Five Letters That Feel Like Four

Fire That Press Agent, Eddie

I’ve hated the word “Dixieland” since I first gathered a few friends from my high school band to play the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the Bobcats and other prewar jazz musicians. No matter how much I insisted that we were playing “traditional jazz,” the label “Dixieland” stuck with teachers, parents and other (unfortunate) listeners.

My distaste for that word had nothing to do with any cultural or chronological connotations.  Ironically, as a kid who had spent his whole life in Brooklyn with occasional travel as far as City Island, I had no idea that “Dixie” signified the South, especially some (ridiculous) vision of an idyllic antebellum South. If “Dixie” meant “archaic,” my teenaged reverse conformism just thought, “the older, the better!” No, I hated that five-letter word because it reminded me of an earlier childhood treat that had neither the longevity or nutritional value of jazz.

I had only heard “Dixie” in reference to the circular bricks of processed ice cream that elementary school teachers deposited on my desk as a sign of celebration (read, pacification), food that didn’t merit a spoon but just included a small, dull, wooden plank, a utensil that correctional officers might like because inmates couldn’t carve it into a shank. “Dixieland” reminded me of Dixie Cups, and that was an outrage.

“‘Cause Ice Cream Scoops Are Bourgey!”

Sure, the word “Dixie” could have seemed like a bite of nostalgia, almost the way it did for the lyricists of tunes such as “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” or “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland,” anthems to a kinder, simpler time (that was never kind or simple).  “Dixieland” bands did reference the early days of jazz through choice of repertoire, collectively improvised ensembles and their preference for blue thirds over flatted fifths. Some Dixielanders paid obvious (sometimes gratuitous) homage to the original artists.

Phil Napoleon Never Played Dixieland.

Yet those artists’ music had to deserve a better label than that of a tiny, soggy, syrupy sweet confection aimed at underdeveloped palettes. By extension, the thin horns and bloodless rhythm sections I heard from many so-called “Dixieland” groups was a far cry from Bix Beiderbecke’s popping ensembles, King Oliver’s dense, earthy polyphony or even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s almost frighteningly frantic attack. The music of the “Chicagoans and the best contemporary “trad” players listened back but resounded in the here and now. By contrast “Dixieland” seemed like sugarcoated revision rather than sincere reflection.

Of course the distinction between good music, bad music and bad labels gets clearer as I get older (while straw hats and red suspenders will always be just plain awful): like ice cream or a host of other delights, everyone knows what’s good or bad when they hear it.  “Dixie” remains something that’s tolerable in small doses but will eventually make me sick.

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Nothing But Sudie Reynaud

In case any producers were wondering, “The Complete Sudie Reynaud” would fit on one compact disc.

A whole CD devoted to an obscure Jazz Age bassist might require some snappy marketing, and many collectors already own this collection via reissues under Reynaud’s more well-known collaborators.  Sudie Reynaud will undoubtedly, and thankfully, remain unknown in every sense of the word.

“Maybe Brass Bass, or Bass Sax, On My Next Album…”

His discography lists him as playing both string bass and tuba, which evidences a basic, and therefore all the more impressive, skill needed to gig in Reynaud’s time.  “Bass” meant both “string” and “brass” varieties during this transitional period in jazz and American pop, so “bass player” meant someone who could double both instruments.   Steve Brown did so reluctantly, preferring his bull fiddle and the chance to unleash a signature slap technique.  Cyrus St. Clair on the other hand preferred to puff rather than pluck: he stuck to brass bass well into the forties, developing jazz tuba into an art decades before Howard Johnson or Bill Lowe.  John Kirby split the difference through clean, fast and clever bass lines on both instruments.  Chink Martin doubled without drawing too much attention to himself on either instrument, yet his foundation and lift can be heard on dozens of recordings.

Reynaud cut just sixteen sides in his life, recorded sporadically between 1926 and 1933 in Chicago.  Like Martin, he serves a functional but spurring role (except for two barely audible sessions on tuba with Fess Williams that can be heard here).  On “High Fever” with Doc Cook’s band, Reynaud catches all the ensemble hits and resonates under the band without overwhelming it, even through a stomping final chorus:

While Freddie Keppard‘s ranging cornet dominates this side as well as “Sidewalk Blues,” Reynaud’s part is simple and well-defined: provide ground rhythm and outline the harmonic skeleton (while doing so musically, as Tom Smith’s comment below explains).  That role doesn’t allow any insight into Reynaud’s influences, his style, or his personality.  All that’s left is pure music, which makes the strutting atmosphere on Jelly Roll Morton‘s tune possible:

If Reynaud were known for nothing other than contributing to “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” he’d have an enviable legacy.  It remains one of the most rhythmic, confident examples of “hot” artistry from this or any other era, and it’s hard to imagine without those roots and fifth punching away underneath:

Five years later Reynaud was back in the studio under the direction of trumpeter and would-be Louis Armstrong rival Reuben Reeves.  The antiphonal lines of reedman Franz Jackson‘s arrangements and the loose, declaratory, Armstrong-inspired language of the soloists illustrate the evolution from hot jazz to nascent big band swing, as do the four steady beats of Reynaud’s string bass, which never steals the show but does make it possible.

He’s felt rather than heard through the swirling darkness of “Zuddan.”  He nourishes the stream of solos on “Mazie” and “Screws, Nuts and Bolts” (which includes the simply dirtiest growl imaginable, courtesy of Reeves).  Only on “Yellow Five” does Reynaud peek out from the curtain, with thwacking strings and a strong four beat slap towards the end of the side:

[Click Here to Listen to “Yellow Five,” by Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys]

There’s no way now to understand him as an artist, no recorded innovations or theatrics to shed some light on him as a human being as well as a sideman (for this listener, his tone isn’t even as distinct as that of Country Washburne, Pete Briggs or John Lindsay).  There aren’t any memoirs, interviews or even biographical entries pertaining to Reynaud, either because no researchers have bothered to look or he died without leaving any to find.  Whoever Sudie Reynaud was, he did his job.  In other words, “Sudie Reynaud,” historical enigma, biographical cipher and musical everyman, is now pure music.  There are far worse fates.

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The Consequences of Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard’s entire discography fits on one compact disc. It’s an ironically modest recorded legacy, especially for someone who was known for everything but modesty in their lifetime.

By most accounts Keppard was proud to the point of arrogance. He came up through the ranks of New Orleans cornetists, drew crowds on the vaudeville circuit of both coasts and was more than willing to proclaim and demonstrate his musical prowess. A photograph of the cornetist, dressed smart but tough in double-breasted suit, wide brimmed Boss of the Plains Stetson and ornate lapel medal, looking out intently with a touch of haughtiness, provides a visual allegory of the musician that no less than Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet would praise years after his passing.

Keppard’s few recordings provide teasing glimpses of his huge sound and dominating style on cornet. In Keppard’s time jazz was still transitioning from collective ingredient to solo expression. The cornet was intended to provide a solid lead, with power and color supporting an ensemble. Extended solo outings, decorous lines and multi-chorus explorations wouldn’t come into play until one of Keppard’s younger New Orleans colleagues arrived on the scene.

In addition, most of Keppard’s recordings were cut with Doc Cooke‘s large dance orchestra, in which Keppard actually played the second horn part, not lead. Keppard’s role was to heat things up during an out chorus, or contribute intense but short breaks to Cooke’s written arrangements. Many of Keppard’s sides also suffer from the worst indignities of twenties audio technology. It’s a miracle anyone still cares about this loud-mouthed ensemble player.

True to reputation, Keppard demands attention. The Cooke band’s sides on Columbia Records’ certainly help: a pristine electric recording process and the diffuse acoustics of an empty hotel ballroom capture the Cooke band cutting loose on some of their hottest charts. Keppard’s brash interjection on the aptly named “High Fever” [at 0:23 in the following clip] doesn’t have anything to prove; though brief, its cocky stride tells the listener Keppard knows exactly “who he is”:

Following the piano solo, Keppard’s blasting riffs behind lead cornet Elwood Graham [at 1:07] might not provide the best instruction in providing accompaniment. Yet Keppard wasn’t there to teach or blend or simply be heard; his presence was meant to be felt. By the time the closing “dog fight” arrives [at 2:15], whatever name was written on the lead part becomes moot. This is Keppard’s tune, with driving phrases and an infectiously “funky” break [at 2:26] bringing it to a close.

Keppard isn’t doing much technically, but his impact on the Cooke band is immense. A few months later, he brings an equally gripping effect to the clean, almost concert band-like reading of the opening theme on “Sidewalk Blues,” an interpretation that he seems to self-parody and then detonate for the ride out [starting at 2:12 in this clip]:

Keppard’s hair-trigger change is the type of “sweet to hot” juxtaposition that twenties bandleaders loved to include in even their most straight-laced material. Yet Keppard’s changeover also reminds us of the brash, occasionally volatile personality he was known for. Perhaps his most powerful maneuver was turning down an offer from Victor Records to record in 1916. The reasons for Keppard’s refusal are now legend, ranging from a concern that listeners could “steal his stuff” to balking at having to record a test pressing without pay (standard operating procedure for record labels at the time).

Whatever his motivations, they point to a man who refused anything short of what he wanted. They also point towards the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s session of February 26, 1917, considered to be the first “jazz” recording ever made, courtesy of a group of “non-improvising White musicians” and an event still debated (and despised) on both musical and cultural grounds.

Whatever else might be said of Freddie Keppard’s music or his personality, even his smallest gestures had huge consequences.  He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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It Seems We’ve Heard This Song Before: David Hajdu and the Familiar Stan Kenton

Music critic, arts journalist and Columbia professor David Hajdu rightly inspires pause and even protest when it comes to celebration.  His rebuke of Stan Kenton, spurred by what would have been Kenton’s hundredth birthday and the ensuing centennial tributes to the bandleader and “progressive jazz” impresario, remind us that anniversaries and events are only as valuable as the person or cause behind them.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

Unfortunately Hajdu’s scathing critique of the man, his music and his ego (as well as the connection between the three shared by plenty of other musicians) is all too familiar.  Kenton’s bombastic big bands, seeming love of complexity for complexity’s sake and dominating personality made him a welcome whipping post for critics throughout his career (and beyond, apparently).

As Marc Myers points out, Leonard Feather nicknamed Kenton “Can’t Stand Him,” and the monumental accompanying text for Ken Burns’ Jazz miniseries includes an informative but ultimately troubling portrait of Kenton courtesy of Gerald Early’s essay White Noise and White Knights.  Kenton not only had the audacity to (try to) play bigger, louder and more intricately than everyone else, he had the sheer chutzpah to tirelessly promote work that he believed in.  In light of current events, his christening that work “jazz” while simultaneously questioning or denying jazz’s African-American roots adds a whole other layer of discussion (best left to other platforms).

Besides borrowing some boilerplate Kenton invective (“…ostentation, gimmickry, and bloat…pretentiousness”), Hajdu takes a page from Gunther Schuller when he criticizes Kenton for increasing his instrumentation and playing “overwrought emulations of the early postwar avant-garde.”  Kenton wasn’t the first musician to try different instruments or new pieces; surprisingly it’s a fairly common practice in music.  That Kenton’s experiments were deemed null by some critics while being praised by some musicians is another song heard before.

Yet Hajdu’s most familiar criticism comes when he mentions Kenton’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter.  Not every artist gets accused of incest, but there’s always enough criticism of creative work based upon personal attack to go around.  Reading this type of criticism can even feel comfortable, like a story we know so well or an old chair that we can’t help flopping down on, even though there’s a spring sticking out.

Richard Wagner, aka One "Behind the Music" You Can Put Off

The point of what this disgusting aspect of Stan Kenton the man has to do with the music of Stan Kenton is unclear, as most musicologists are still unable tell the difference between incestuous music and non-incestuous music.  For that matter, the elusive “arrogant, domineering braggart” school of music theory that informed the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum is still under review.  Scholars still hope that Wagner‘s controversial libretti can offer insight about which of his instrumental passages are anti-Semitic.

The effect of Hajdu’s criticism is less mysterious and all too familiar.  His article will no doubt save a lot of potential concertgoers the time, money and (most importantly) the thought of having to hear this music themselves at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Manhattan School of Music, the University of North Texas or anywhere else.

It’s probably for the better.  After all, what do they know?  They’re just playing music.

Speaking of music, here’s the Kenton band in all its stentorian glory with “Malaguena.”  Dig those mellophoniums, man…

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