Tag Archives: Josh Duffee

A Chauncey Morehouse Playlist

539260_10150949855755807_1433896026_nFull drum kits were rarely heard on records made before 1927. Only the most skilled (and confident) audio engineers were able to compensate so that a low frequency “boom” wouldn’t throw off the recording. Drummers were left to work with cymbals, blocks and anything else they were permitted to bring into the studio.

Adding in the already difficult sonics of many early records and the fact that drummers rarely soloed during the twenties, listening to jazz drums on recordings from this period may seem like an arduous, even fruitless exercise. It’s not quite like a needle in a haystack: instead, the needle has been chopped into several pieces, with only a few of the pieces actually getting mixed into the hay, while the haystack itself is kept in a very dark barn.

Smaller kits, smaller technological resources and smaller role notwithstanding, the best twenties jazz drummers produced imaginative sounds and perhaps most importantly in jazz, a lot of rhythm. As Dr. Lewis Porter points out, early jazz drummers were not just timekeepers. Mark C. Gridley notes that they actually had a very high level of interaction with the rest of the band, something usually associated with much later styles. Drummer, bandleader and percussion historian Josh Duffee describes traditional jazz drumming as “an art form that tests how musical a drummer can be with limited and very unique instruments.” It turns out that these needles were actually crafted by talented, imaginative needle makers, and it’s time to start digging.

For my own survey of this art form, I’m starting with Chauncey Morehouse. He’s the most familiar to me, and probably to even occasional early jazz listeners. Anyone who has taken a Jazz 101 course has heard Morehouse’s cymbal backbeat on Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer’s seminal “Singin’ the Blues.” His collaborations with “Bix” and “Tram” in the Jean Goldkette orchestra and on numerous studio dates with the famous duo make him one of the most frequently encountered drummers of the twenties. It’s a little trickier to hear his drums but feeling them is no problem, for example on Morehouse’s own composition “Three Blind Mice” with a Trumbauer-led group:

Morehouse doesn’t play all the way through (at least not audibly), yet when he does it’s simply but confidently. Cymbal syncopations such as those in the second chorus kick things forward like a riding crop. He also clearly enjoys supporting and interacting with Beiderbecke during the cornetist’s solo. His approach is different than the Jones/Webb/Krupa via Dodds and Singleton style that would influence the course of jazz. He punctuates and pushes the beat rather than rides it. John Petters chides Morehouse and his contemporary Vic Berton for their “cumbersome choked cymbal beats, which served only to break up the rhythm, instead of laying it down,” yet he judges these drummers according to a later standard, like criticizing the ancient Greek playwrights for not writing any novels. Morehouse is simply his own man rhythmically.

At the same time Morehouse plays with the creativity and sensitivity associated with the best drummers of any era. He varies his patterns, listens to his band mates, fills in between phrases, sets up ensemble hits and lays out when needed to allow instrumental balance as well as textural contrast. The six sides Morehouse made with Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang (a.k.a. the New Orleans Lucky Seven) highlight his taste as well as his resourcefulness with the limited instrumentation available to drummers at that time. In addition to his cymbals popping behind soloists, Morehouse orchestrates the beat using woodblocks and a brassy cowbell on “At The Jazz Band Ball”:

On “Goose Pimples,” Morehouse taps the melody under Beiderbecke’s lead, fashioning a harmony in rhythm and becoming as much of a partner in the collective improvisation as any of the horns:

His rapid-fire “click-clack” perfectly captures the tense, madcap energy of “Original Dixieland One-Step” with a Red Nichols group:

Morehouse’s earliest records with the Georgians may be the best illustration of his doing a lot with very little. The “band within a band” of the Paul Specht dance orchestra, their acoustically recorded performances and dense (but driving) polyphony make it difficult to hear the drums. Yet Morehouse is there for all forty-six sides, the sense of time that earned him lifelong praise palpably, if not always audibly, moving the ensemble. His wood and temple blocks cut through for an especially dynamic impact on “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Chicago” and “You’ve Got To See Mama Every Night,” and his playing is half underpinning, half counterpoint on “I’m Sitting Pretty In A Pretty Little City”:

Plenty of soggy Dixieland ensembles have made woodblocks, cowbells, drum rims, and washboards sound corny, yet for Morehouse and his contemporaries, these things were instruments rather than novelties. Morehouse knew how to add color as well as rhythm using equipment that most drummers would now classify under “auxiliary percussion.” “Margie,” once again with Nichols, contains a range of percussive timbres, from wire brush backbeat in the opening ensemble through cymbals behind the mellophone and woodblock “bombs” behind the clarinet, to the panoply of sounds heard during the final chorus:

Less lucid but just as effective, Morehouse’s percussion helps the unpromisingly titled “Add A Little Wiggle” with a Nat Shilkret’s All Star Orchestra pick up considerable heat. It is difficult to hear what he’s doing behind the full ensemble but it clearly works, and his cymbals step out to dialog with the soloists:

Shilkret’s “Chloe” stays pretty commercial and tame, until Miff Mole’s trombone solo and the ensuing hot small group burst out of the orchestra. Morehouse also bears down, this time on drum skins as well as cymbals:

By the time Morehouse recorded his composition “Harlem Twist” with Red Nichols and His Orchestra, there’s a lot more snare and bass drum in his playing. They add plenty “thwack” but without any sense of military-style heft. Morehouse continues to lift and converse with the rest of the band:

Morehouse’s skins on “Bessie Couldn’t Help It” with Hoagy Carmichael’s band are slightly louder and he uses more regularly recurring beats. That may be a sign of changing styles, or technology catching up with the way Morehouse had been playing on a full kit from the beginning. Either way he remains his same effective but subtle self:

Morehouse’s taste, as well as his time and punch, might have been one of the reasons he ended up performing what some consider the first recorded jazz drum solo while he was still a young man playing with The Georgians, on “Land of Cotton Blues”:

It’s not a Chicago-style explosion, and it’s even further removed from an Elvin Jones odyssey. Morehouse’s solo is short, sweet and spurring. Mel Lewis’ description of the “tap dances” that early jazz drummers spontaneously composed comes to mind. At a time when engineers were wary of drummers and audiences didn’t see them as soloists, Morehouse surprised everyone.

c/o impulsebrass.com

c/o impulsebrass.com

Lewis doesn’t mention Morehouse in a discussion of jazz drummers he delivered on radio several years ago. A part from his association with better-known musicians such as Beiderbecke, Morehouse’s name doesn’t come up very often in jazz histories. He was obviously well respected but is rarely listed as an actual influence on any players. Yet it’s that lack of influence that makes his work so unique. There are no stylistic links with later drummers to make his approach sound basic or cliché, no ideas he originated that have become so commonplace as to seem unremarkable. Morehouse played rhythm and did it in his own way, and he made the band sound better along the way. That has to count for something in jazz.

Jazz writer Warren Vaché describes Morehouse joining an impromptu jam session at a New Jersey Jazz Society picnic, drumming with just two spoons on a plastic beverage tray and bringing the house down. He also recalls Morehouse’s joyous playing with a reconstituted Jean Goldkette orchestra concert sponsored by the New York Jazz Repertory Company. Despite the loss of one leg, the drummer left an impression on Vaché over twenty years later. The man really could make rhythm any time and with anything!

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Vince Giordano, Josh Duffee, Fletcher Henderson and Jean Goldkette At BixFest

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival honors the brilliant, short-lived cornetist with four days of music, memorabilia, lectures and more music in Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport, IA.  Fans have posted a lot of great footage from this year’s festival online, but clips from the “battle” between Vince Giordano and Josh Duffee’s bands capture something truly special from an already unique gathering.

This double bill was inspired by a legendary battle of the bands on October 13, 1926, between Fletcher Henderson’s “home team” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based orchestra.  Contemporary musicians knew this was a gladiatorial occurrence, with Goldkette’s group of “tight assed white boys” and “hicks from the sticks” soundly whooping the venerated Henderson orchestra.

At Bix Bash on August 6, 2011, Vince Giordano’s New York based Nighthawks were the guests in town to play the Henderson book, with Duffee’s group on home turf in the Midwest playing the Goldkette charts. Just hearing these arrangements live and liberated from the constraints of twenties recordings techniques is an event. While it shouldn’t matter how old the charts are, in the age of disposable pop stars and last year’s songs making it onto the oldies station, their age makes this performance all the more miraculous.

Aside from the geographic reversal and the more playful nature of this “battle,” as soon as the Nighthawks light into “St. Louis Shuffle,” it’s obvious that the Roseland throw down is a source of inspiration, rather than recreation:

Giordano is a powerhouse player and erudite musician who illuminates gaps on record with historical knowledge and attention to period detail that are second to none.  Yet the tone, imagination and drive of the Nighthawks are entirely sui generis.  The Nighthawks also forego their usual practice of playing solos from original recordings; the soloists here are creating in the moment.

Recording techniques in the twenties prevent us from knowing what Kaiser Marshall’s full drum kit sounded like. Arnie Kinsella’s rolling snares on “Shanghai Shuffle” are no doubt historically informed, but more importantly they just get this band moving:

Josh Duffee’s band spends more time with the original solos on record, yet none of his guys or gals (another important difference with the original battle)  sacrifice their voice.  Jazz, “Jazz,” or “jass” has always been about making even a single note all one’s own.  It can be as subtle as the saxophonist playing Frankie Trumbauer’s original lines a touch more staccato, or the band accenting sections that were just an afterthought on the original recording of “Proud of a Baby Like You”:

On “Tiger Rag,” there is no recorded legacy to admire or compare.  Goldkette’s arrangement was never recorded (or at least never survived the judgment of a conservative A&R man).  The notes on the page are just that, aching for interpretation.  Duffee and his band respond with a double-barreled reading, with the leader’s splashing cymbals prominent behind roaring trombone, (sadly inaudible) banjo, and a mirthful chase between cornet and saxophone:

Scroll ahead to 5:35 for Duffee’s “Tiger Rag”

Musicians from the twenties recorded “Tiger Rag” and scores of contrafacts based off of its chord changes.  Duffee and his sidemen could have easily resorted to reusing these solos (though they do interpolate Jimmy Hartwell’s jittery clarinet chorus from Beiderbecke’s recording with the Wolverines).  Without hearing every single cover of “Tiger Rag” from the period, the Duffee band simply sound like they’re improvising.  Even if they’re not, that sense of spontaneity and wild abandon is the whole point.

People don’t cross miles or decades for slavish imitation.  Just ask the generations of listeners in the audience or across the Internet, or Bixophile Flemming Thorbye, who travelled from his native Denmark to shoot this footage.  All four bands on stage, Henderson, Goldkette, Giordano and Duffee, own this music as a communal experience.  Things like time, distance or death don’t stop artists from talking.

Special thanks to Flemming Thorbye and “Jazzman Joe” for posting these clips and so much other wonderful jazz on their YouTube channels.

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