Ear witnesses insist that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band had to be heard live to be believed, leaving the thirty-seven extant sides by the band doomed to fall short of historical imagination. Bill Johnson is bass-less, Baby Dodds (more than) makes do with a stripped-down kit and the ensemble balances can sometimes turn frustratingly lopsided. Still, if that’s “all we get,” it could be far worse; the group’s easygoing swing and earthy yet graceful polyphony continue to proselytize for New Orleans jazz. Next to Johnny Dodds’s high-flying clarinet cutting through all of that well-worn shellac, the twin cornets of Oliver and young Louis Armstrong are often the main attraction:
Aside from Oliver wanting the incredible talent of Armstrong in his band, a second cornet allows unison parts, harmonies, counterpoint, trading the lead, call and response, concerted breaks and a range of colors and textures, all within a uniform timbre that opens up subtle gradations of personal tone. Without taking anything away from today’s five-person trumpet sections, Oliver and Armstrong’s miniature brass section attained an ideal balance between arrangement and improvisation, preparation and spontaneity, a unique power and swing that made it famous in its day and beyond.
Creative as well as commercial impulses were bound to inspire others to take something as seemingly simple as two trumpets playing together and make it their own. Armstrong joined the KOCJB in the summer of 1922. By October of the same year, Frank Westphal’s trumpet team is showing off a stop-time duet on “She’s A Mean Job” (though there might be a trombone in the stack too):
Their syncopated break and subsequent variations on it momentarily take the record in a different direction. The rhythm gets more intense while the texture gets lighter, a sort of hot concerto grosso in the middle of Westphal’s big band.
It is possible that Westphal and his sidemen visited the Lincoln Gardens to check out Oliver’s band and crib a few ideas. Yet in “February of 1922, several months before Armstrong joined Oliver, Westphal’s band waxed “That Barkin’ Dog” and featuring its own hot trumpet routine:
It is unclear if trumpeters Charles Burns and Austyn Edward or the arranger were deliberately trying to imitate Oliver’s band. The slightly clipped articulation and shaking vibrato also show traces of Freddie Keppard. Whoever they were listening to, the concluding ride-out remains a hot and clever piece of arranging and performance. The title of this track portends animal onomatopoeia but it instead immediately settles into a medium-tempo, proudly two-beat, fancy and funky early twenties stomp that likely left dancers eager for more.
Hot trumpet duets may seem like the inevitable result of the typical size of bands at the time, with their configuration of two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones and rhythm section. As another commentator pointed out, the KOCJB was itself only two additional reeds short of being a typical twenties tentet. Hearing two trumpets play hot might not seem like a stylistic event, unless it happens to be a few years later, out in Texas, under Lloyd Finlay’s direction:
Hot trumpet sections spring up throughout all three sessions by this obscure territory band. It’s a musical monument to the incredible cross-pollination between local musical idioms, a time before national dissemination of music could be taken for granted and there were still distinct local traditions that could absorb others, like this group of European American musicians clearly learning from Southern expatriate African American musicians in Chicago. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is a telling example: things start out unpromising but pick up as soon as the trumpets join in. The parts aren’t in lockstep but closer to heterophony, with just enough slack between them to add depth and spontaneity. It also sounds like one of the brass players might be muted, adding yet another layer.
A year later in New York, Duke Ellington’s trumpets sound even closer to the King Oliver model:
The syncopation and vocalized inflection point back to the Oliver band while the alternation between open and closed bells has a distinctly Ellingtonian color: darker, more atmospheric than earthy and more incisive. Ellington was a musical sponge savvy enough to synthesize ideas from across several jazz communities and was bound to draw inspiration from hearing the Oliver band (live or on record). Gunther Schuller singled out this section as a deliberate and poor imitation of the KOCJB’s hot trumpet duets, but that description seems a little unfair to Ellington or trumpeters Harry Cooper and Leroy Rutledge. This writer is going to humbly disagree with Schuller’s analysis and suggest that the trumpets bursting in right after Sonny Greer’s comparatively understated vocal actually reignite the side, providing a semi-improvised variation on the tune proper and building tension before the full band comes back in.
Critics and historians have completely ignored Hoagy Carmichael’s trumpet section on “Friday Night,” cut one year later than the Ellington side and coming across like a sock time rendition of the KOCJB sound:
[Thanks to the commenter below for finding that clip!]
Carmichael played cornet on a few sessions in addition to his usual role as a pianist. Byron Smart was the sole cornet on several sides with Emil Seidel, meaning he would have been able to hold down the trumpet chair on this Carmichael session on his own. Yet Carmichael adds his horn alongside that of Smart for this date, indicating a specific sound that he wanted for the tune. This was not just a happenstance of instrumentation but a deliberate musical choice that opened up new possibilities.
As for the line between sincere tribute, outright imitation or shameful knockoff, descriptions like Schuller’s appear throughout jazz criticism, right back to accusations (by others and not by this writer) that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was playing a crude, commercialized caricature of “real” New Orleans jazz. Suffice it to say that there is little reason to expect every jazz band recorded during the twenties to sound like a handful of musicians from New Orleans at that time (or every musician playing now to sound like the Blue Note catalog circa 1961). If none of these groups had ever even heard of King Oliver, let alone focused on his cornet parts, their shared efforts would be all the more remarkable. In the right musical hands, two of the same instrument can make a world of difference!
It’s hard to argue with genius, not just because of its power but often because it has been granted that status postmortem. It’s harder to even question a (by all accounts) kindhearted and often humble genius like Louis Armstrong. Yet Armstrong’s description of his first experience in a recording studio is either too modest, or this blogger is that obtuse:
The Gennett [record company] people found that they had to put me twenty feet back of the other players [in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band] because my high-register notes were so strong they would not record clearly any closer.
The story of Armstrong’s cornet literally placing him far apart from his contemporaries from the very start of his recorded legacy is easy to believe and still awe-inspiring close to a century later. It symbolizes just another part of his vast toolkit: resplendent tone, melodic flow, technical facility, rhythmic inventiveness, improvisatory imagination, an array of vocal inflections and a sound that could blow off a roof to boot.
Don’t forget gifted second cornetist. Records and ear-witnesses demonstrate Armstrong’s ability to fashion just the right harmony, counterpoint and decoration under and around Oliver’s lead without usurping it. It’s what he was there to do with Oliver, what he had been doing night after night at Chicago’s Lincoln (originally Royal) Gardens. Armstrong was powerful in a number of ways, even when he wasn’t the center of attention.
Which is why the idea of his being unable to tone it down at a record session always left me incredulous. Even if the twenty-three year old Armstrong was simply that nervous before a big recording horn for the first time, he had already played in a variety of settings in his native New Orleans. In addition to parade bands and jazz ensembles, he must have supplied more sedate music for dancers, atmosphere for social events and accompaniment for more than a few singers. It’s also hard to imagine Armstrong standing twenty feet back from the band at their regular gig, or that club patrons would have forgiven his sticking to one loud dynamic.
Armstrong may have (famously) not known what “pp” meant on paper but he must have been familiar with, and capable of, playing softly. In this case, the real power of this genius seems to sabotages its own claims.
Thoughts? Contrary arguments? Brickbats? A patient smile? It always seemed to work for the man himself…
“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:
It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.
He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC, the son of James A. and Tempie Jordan Whitted. According to one of Ben Whitted’s descendants (via ancestry.com), his father was a Baptist minister, so Whitted may have had first exposure to music in the church. Reverend Whitted was also an author and one of the first African-American mail carriers in the city. His mother was the founder of the missionary society at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Ben attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.
A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:
The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:
Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.
The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.
Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.
On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:
He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:
Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.
Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:
Gravier Street Blues
“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:
He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:
With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:
Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):
It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)
Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:
The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:
In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.
By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters BerniceBenice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.
He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:
The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:
Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses. It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.
The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.
Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.
It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:
Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:
Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:
Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).
Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.
The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.
It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.
Here is Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1923:
Here is Gunther Schuller, describing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1968: [It] is a solo only in the sense that it takes place alone; it is not yet fully a solo in character and conception. It might easily have been one part of a collectively improvised chorus lifted from its background.
Here is Thomas Brothers, discussing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo and apparently expanding upon Schuller’s point, in 2014: “Where’s that lead?” Armstrong heard [mentor and boss King Oliver] say…and that admonition was still ringing in his ears when he soloed on “Chimes Blues”…
Here is Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, playing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1947:
Things really pick up after that Armstrong homage, with the whole performance taking on newfound energy and cohesion. In other words, Armstrong’s “twenty-four bars of magic” work well as a lead. Yet Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and the other musicians knew that, didn’t they? We are fortunate to have a variety of thinkers from a variety of perspectives, and eras, sharing their insights. Yet that band did beat those scholars to this musicological punch!
(Incidentally, “magic” is an inspired description: an incredible thing that can be analyzed and perhaps even demystified, or something that we can explain even as it continues to stupefy us. Keep listening, and for goodness sake keep talking about what you hear.)
Louis Armstrong’s entry into Fletcher Henderson’s big band is well established as a watershed moment in jazz history. Almost as well accepted is the fact that before he became the most influential artist in jazz history, Armstrong was a crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed sideman, but a sideman nonetheless. Apparently he was even susceptible to bandstand politics. Speaking of Armstrong’s reaction to reedman Buster Bailey joining the band shortly after his arrival, James L. Dickerson notes that “he was annoyed at the [actual] reason Henderson wanted Bailey, which was to add another solo instrument to the group.”
Bailey’s lightning fast technique has earned him the reputation of being more of a technician than a soulful jazz musician, yet the music itself evidences a talent that must have aroused that special blend of admiration and suspicion among artists. On a peppy “My Rose Marie,” the arrangement gives Armstrong a designated hot chorus all to himself and he fulfills his role magnificently. Bailey on the other hand takes his own limelight, jackknifing in with a dazzling obbligato behind the band during the last chorus:
The acoustic recording makes it a little difficult to hear Bailey, which just adds to the tension between ensemble and individual, written parts and improvised licks, lead and counterpoint. Yet Bailey is there, on his own terms, playing with the listener’s expectations.
By 1924, at age twenty-two, Bailey was already a seasoned musician, having joined WC Handy’s orchestra as a teenager before gigging with blues and jazz star Mamie Smith and then King Oliver, where he first met Armstrong. Playing in Oliver’s band, Bailey must have honed his skill at providing the fast upper-register lines around the lead crucial to the New Orleans ensemble concept. Compared with frequent Oliver clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other New Orleans ensemble clarinetists, there is a busier, more penetrating approach to Bailey’s lines, as much informed by Bailey’s classical studies as his own “wicked” sense of humor.
Bailey never derails the Henderson band but rarely sticks to mere decoration. Fast, straight-ahead jazz numbers such as “Copenhagen” find Bailey soloing within the ensemble, rather than between or on top of it like Armstrong:
The peaks of Bailey’s phrases are easy to hear, hooks to grab onto before the next dizzying plunge. Even as Armstrong began to bring a new sense of ease and cohesion to jazz, Bailey insists on a peculiar intensity that remains unique to jazz of this period/style. Just compare Bailey’s second solo and then Armstrong’s right after it on “Twelfth Street Blues”:
Even alongside Armstrong’s towering presence, repeated and open-eared listening to Bailey reveals another player integrating his own influences into a deeply personal style: facile but proud to sweat, unashamedly “vertical,” energetic and mesmerizing in its jittery poise.
Armstrong himself would later refer to Bailey as “the great clarinetist and alto saxophonist,” implying an appreciation for his talents as both a clarinet soloist and a section man. Dickerson also points out that Armstrong was still “happy to see another Midwesterner” join the Henderson band and that the two would eventually became good friends. We can now admire Armstrong’s magnanimity and even forgive his youthful competitiveness, but it’s no surprise that Armstrong, and not to mention fellow Hendersonian and future “father of jazz saxophone Coleman Hawkins, were eyeing the tall, smirking gentleman from Memphis coming up behind them.
Jazz loves hybrids, though some blends get more sunlight than others. A web search for “raga jazz” turns up pages of results showing the cross-pollination between jazz and Indian classical music. Yet a search for the union of ragtime and jazz known as “rag-a-jazz” just generates more results for raga jazz. Google won’t even ask if you meant rag-a-jazz.
So, what are web crawlers missing out on? One example is a watershed moment in American pop and a million seller for Paul Whiteman, his recording of “Wang Wang Blues”:
It keeps the syncopation and staccato attack of ragtime but has its own popping sense of tension and release, as well as a humor that is not just ragged but downright raucous; just listen to Buster Johnson’s trombone or how clarinetist Gus Mueller slices and slurs into each chorus. How do we describe this music, teasingly similar yet ultimately unlike ragtime or most of the jazz discussed in history books and played in swanky clubs? How would we find other examples of this sound?
Unsurprisingly, musicians, historians and open-eared listeners prove far more illuminating than search engines. Reed player and contemporary rag-a-jazz performer Dan Levinson defines rag-a-jazz as “a hybrid style of dance music that existed briefly from the mid teens through the early twenties, while ragtime was evolving into jazz” and which “still held onto many characteristics of ragtime in terms of syncopation, song forms and even the way eighth notes were played.”
Early jazz bandleader Vince Giordano describes the “baby steps of jazz,” with “elements of both jazz and ragtime” as well as “early syncopation but still a little bit of ragtime feel.” Giordano explains that rag-a-jazz surfaced around the time of Scott Joplin’s death and the end of the ragtime era, continuing through a period when “jazz was just taking shape and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go.” Levinson also mentions the “betwixt-and-between state of ragtime and jazz [that is] no longer quite ragtime.”
Rag-a-jazz conductor and multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino notes “ragtime still managed to hang on as a powerful musical force. Ragtime had a strong presence that more or less drove popular music in America from about 1895 to about 1917, so even though the general public had grown tired of it, they couldn’t escape it. The syncopation that ragtime had introduced was what America was used to listening to, and even though it wanted to say it was through with ragtime, such a night and day change in listening would be impossible.”
For rag-a-jazz drummer and bandleader Nick Ball, rag-a- jazz is “…the original ‘Rosetta Stone’ of music that is stylistically in the cracks, where one clearly defined idiom was merging into another or being strongly influenced by a parallel one from elsewhere in the world.” Ball also calls rag-a-jazz “the oldest of these transitional subgenres to have been documented on record in anything like enough detail for us to understand the process of its birth and its demise…a subgenre which lasted less than a decade, subsequently almost hidden in the long shadows cast by its parent, pure ragtime, and its child, pure jazz.”
More than a historical note, the music grouped under the term “rag-a-jazz” (or in search engine syntax, “‘rag-a-jazz’ -raga jazz”) is an example of fusion from decades before anyone plugged into an amplifier. It’s also an example of musical ideas that some would dismiss as wrong turns, many more would forget and others, thankfully, hear as another musical universe.
The Avant-Garde ODJB
Levinson points to what many consider the first jazz record as a prime example of rag-a-jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”:
Speaking about the “musical revolution” of the ODJB’s earliest records, collector and historian Mark Berresford explains “what the ODJB had done was to simplify and deformalize ragtime to its barest state and, once stripped of its hallmarks, rebuild it into a clearly defined polyphonic structure, placing greater emphasis on maintaining impetus and excitement.” Many history books draw attention to the ODJB’s frantic tempos, barnyard onomatopoeia and madcap spirit, which would have surprised (and possibly irritated) ragtime composers/performers. Yet even the ODJB’s later, more subdued sides display a distinct swagger a part from the lilt of ragtime:
Berresford also explains that “…as musicians’ ability to improvise grew, so their reliance on the structures of ragtime declined.” While ragtime players incorporated improvisation into their performances, it would obviously come to have a much larger role in jazz. Garvin Bushell, an ear-witness to these developments, summarizes his first attempts at playing jazz as “study[ing] rags on piano and omit[ting] the melodic pattern, just improvising on the harmonic pattern.”
Besides musical vocabulary and written notation, song forms themselves began to change. Early jazz maintained multi-strain structures until the swing era of the thirties, but Berresford notes how bands such as the ODJB would use a simpler configuration of fewer strains than formal ragtime. “What the ODJB’s performance lacks in form,” Berresford explains, “more than makes up for in dynamics, excitement and rhythmic drive, using devices such as solo breaks and the three-voice lead to signal its departure from the formality of ragtime.”
Skins And Cymbals
Berresford sums up rag-a-jazz’ musical characteristics as “a strong two-beat feel with predominantly ensemble playing, often heavy drum patterns and frequently fast tempos.” A two-beat feel in jazz is familiar to even occasional attendees at a Dixieland brunch, and contemporary jazz festivalgoers are no strangers to fast tempos. Yet rag-a-jazz’s constant collective interplay can sound strange to contemporary jazz lovers.
There is an unspoken, occasionally questioned but nonetheless powerful definition of jazz as ‘the’ idiom of an improvising soloist. In rag-a-jazz and in a pre-Louis Armstrong soundscape more generally, musicians don’t take turns soloing. Other than occasional short breaks, the emphasis is on ensemble interplay, balance and in some cases competition.
Rag-a-jazz represents a different concept of jazz, as ensemble music, a concept expressed in the unrecorded New Orleans parade bands of its earliest years, in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in groups led by Miles Davis during seventies and in those led by today’s jazz musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. The best bands simply know how to play as bands, regardless of era. There is no sense of musical or expressive limitation while listening to the Original Memphis Five’s parts lock and slide into one another, even though no one player get so much as a half-chorus to themselves:
Decades of smooth, swinging cymbals can also make the syncopated, staccato beats of snares, rims, woodblocks and cowbells sound strange. “March-like” is the description and death sentence often thrown around for this style of drumming. Rag-a-jazz drummers were often influenced by marching band techniques as well as the ragtime drumming inspired by those techniques. All influences apparently not being equal, many jazz writers imply that marches are an inferior inspiration next to Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop or other sources.
Drummer Hal Smith, on the other hand, talks about Tony Sbarbaro and other rag-a-jazz drummers as merely having their own distinct, often challenging approach a part from but just as valid as that of Zutty Singleton or Jo Jones (or for that matter, Elvin Jones or Terri Lyne Carrington). Nick Ball praises the prominent drums of Louis Mitchell, Anton Lada, Benny Peyton and others as “thrilling, riotous, imaginative, highly individualistic, incredibly technically proficient and, for the time, very well-recorded.”
For other listeners, this style may be vaguely familiar from some of the hippest names in jazz drumming. Jazz educator Mark Gridley explains:
The earliest jazz drummers often devised lines of activity bearing rhythmic and melodic contours that were distinctly different from the contours of lines being contributed by their fellow musicians. The practice of playing an independent line of activity was suppressed in swing [during the thirties]…It enjoyed a resurgence, however, in bop [during the forties]…This independent line of activity…provides a layer of boiling sounds that increases the excitement of the combo performance. The use of this activity continued through the fifties and sixties [and] has been an accepted practice for all modern drummers of the seventies and eighties…The rhythms used by the modern drummers were not those of ragtime, but the spirit in which they played is analogous to the conception shown by the earliest drummers.
Jazz scholar Dr. Lewis Porter debunks the myth of early jazz drummers as mere timekeepers while also drawing attention to their intricate fills and contrapuntal playing. Porter describes Sbarbaro “going crazy” in the best sense of the term. Whatever these drummers gained from ragtime or military music, it worked for them, their colleagues and anyone who wanted to listen.
Dance Music And Duple Feel
In some ways rag-a-jazz’s most radical difference from the ragtime that preceded it and the postwar jazz that is now lingua franca was that listening was a secondary activity. Rag-a-jazz, as well as most prewar styles of jazz, was above all intended for dancing. Ragtime had its own signature lilt but the new “jass” music really moved bodies.
Traditional jazz musician and writer Chris Tyle reminds that at the time, records were labeled “fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.” for a reason; “Original Dixieland One Step” was just that, a one-step. He also points to the symbiotic influence between music and dancing and the need to ask, “did music change because the dancing changed, or vice-versa?”
Rag-a-jazz musicians (and later on New Orleans via Chicago and big band swing players) had to serve a very practical purpose. Besides the need to get dancers out on the floor, Tyle also points to the material conditions that not only shaped the music but also made it so varied. The size of the venue or a record label’s budget determined band size and repertoire. In some ways this practical basis allows for far more variety than the wide-open plains of art music.
Ball explains that as a style, rag-a-jazz “was so brief that no kind of standardization had time to be established, virtually no two ensembles had the same or even similar instrumentation and every band seemed to have approached the music completely different to each other in terms of image, repertoire, performance practice; no individual’s singing or playing style became familiar enough to become cliché.” It’s why this era includes such fascinating combinations as the Louisiana Five, with Yellow Nunez playing lead on clarinet without a trumpet in sight:
or novel sounds such as the Whiteway Jazz Band’s arrangement of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” where the saxophone plays the melody and the trumpet plays obbligato around it, a touch of role reversal in a traditional jazz setting (listen here or below):
How Do You Like Your Eighth Notes?
While simultaneously departing from ragtime, part of this music’s unique excitement and sound has to do with the musicians phrasing in eight, a holdover from ragtime’s pianistic basis. Similar to fingers flying across the keyboard, the notes fly out of these groups in a jittery “rat-tat-tat-tat” that is agitatedly exciting and a world a part from jazz’s later, more vocally-conceived lines.
Vince Giordano mentions the ODJB and vaudeville artists of the early twenties as just a few examples of a bass part playing two-to-the-bar, just like in ragtime, while horns phrase in eight like the right hand of a ragtime pianist. Later on in the twenties, some jazz bands would keep the two-beat bass but without the ragtime “tinge” of the earlier bands.
Giordano raises phrasing in eight as a key part of rag-a-jazz, stressing the eight feel with his own sidemen when they perform this repertoire. As a few other examples of this feel, he cites The Virginians’ “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” in a Ferde Grofe arrangement:
Lillyn Brown’s early recording of the jazz warhorse “Jazz Me Blues,” especially its vocal and trumpet:
the instrumental asides of Mamie Smith’s “I Want A Jazzy Kiss,” especially its chattering wood blocks:
and Mamie Smith’s “Sax-O-Phoney Blues”:
On “Sax-O-Phoney Blues,” the staccato syncopations, chains of eighth notes and reedy arrangement sound very much like orchestral ragtime. The growling trumpet and Smith’s vocal speak to something broader, in terms of phrasing as well as spirit.
Levinson emphasizes that the eighth notes in rag-a-jazz “don’t ‘swing’ the way eighth notes do in most form of jazz,” and are instead “played ‘straight’ or ‘even,’ the way eighth notes are played in ragtime, classical music and every other style of music.” Those even eighth notes can make a huge impact on today’s jazz lovers. Decades of uneven eighth notes as well as post-Armstrong phrasing can make this music sound like it’s simply not jazz. Yet taken on its own terms and without comparison to other rhythmic concepts, it is just another approach to the tradition. Jazz has become a very big tent but its own backyard still has much to offer.
They Always Call It “Music”
The word “jazz” itself also seems to distinguish the new style from ragtime, not just musically but in terms of personal identity. In chronological and cultural terms, Giordano sums up this shift well:
You’re just getting out of World War I, which was such a horrific event, and I think young people just said, ‘We’re going to have a good time,’ and the music really reflects that.
What could be more personal, more joyful and more representative of jazz than a love song to the saxophone?
Transitional period, stylistic amalgam, generational signifier, offshoot of ragtime, jazz unlike any before or since and expression of peacetime ecstasy: labels are never airtight but “rag-a-jazz” has come to encompass all of these things. Most musicians and collectors agree that Leonard Kunstadt originated the term in its current usage. Depending on the source, Kunstadt either began using it in the pages of Record Researchmagazine, which he founded in 1955 and continued to edit and publish, in Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, published in 1962 and coauthored by Kunstadt and Samuel Charters, or at some later point in the seventies.
The phrase does appear much earlier in the name Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band. Yet this London-based band (by way of Nebraska) used it for catchy marketing rather than stylistic labeling. Obviously the musicians themselves were just playing music that came naturally to them. It’s hard to imagine that they understood what they were doing as an offshoot or development.
Garvin Bushell actually saw no distinction between ragtime and jazz. He proudly declares that, as a young pianist, “my knowledge of ragtime assured me I would not have any trouble [playing] jazz. Since there was very little difference between the two, I knew I could master it.” His comments about the repertoire and approach of his earliest bands are also revealing:
As I recall, we also had copies of “Maple Leaf Rag, Way Down Yonder In The Corn Field, ‘The Whistler And His Dog,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” Although poorly reproduced, these records contained the foundation of the jazz that was to come, particularly “Maple Leaf Rag.” I make this statement with no fear of contradiction. Ragtime, as it was called then, had the technical essence that was later required in jazz. While ragtime was always played in the moderate or fast ‘two’ tempo, jazz merely slowed it down to a fast or medium ‘four’ … We’d usually have eight or nine guys: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, banjo, tuba and drums. Maybe a violin or a bandolin (half banjo, half violin). Since there weren’t dance arrangements then for saxophones and trumpets, the pieces we rehearsed were mostly pit orchestrations. We’d pull out one clarinet part, one sax part, and on like that. The piano player had a part, as a rule, and the bass player faked. In fact, most everybody faked, since none of us could read that well. The style was very much what you hear on the early records-we called it “ragtime jazz.”
At the time and like any time before and since, musicians were simply drawing upon what was around them, what historian Richard Sudhalter called “the rich fermentation of American popular music between 1917 and 1923.” That doesn’t make latter-day commentary and analysis superfluous; in fact, hindsight lets us appreciate and understand the wide variety of music offered by history. iPods can store Phil Napoleon’s trumpet right alongside Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong’s horns.
Play “Ricky-Tick” For Me
Giordano explains that by 1923 or 1924, the rag-a-jazz style began to fade as musicians and audiences absorbed the New Orleans via Chicago “stomp” style and its quarter note feel. Berresford also notes that “the 1923 date is seen by many as the seminal date by which jazz had thrown off all the shackles of its ragtime antecedents and strode forth into the world in its own right – it is no coincidence that 1923 saw the first recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young second cornetist named Louis Armstrong), Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whilst Coleman Hawkins had made his first, faltering records with Mamie Smith the year before and Bix Beiderbecke was to appear on records just a year later.”
As one example of this change, Chris Tyle points out the difference between Kid Ory’s first recording of his “Ory’s Creole Trombone”:
and his later performance with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five:
Compared to Louis Armstrong’s “legato” phrasing and the rhythm section’s regular beat, the earlier record is “choppier.” Ory plays his breaks more clipped and cornetist Mutt Carey’s “punchier” attack is reminiscent of Freddie Keppard, one of the few New Orleans trumpets to came out of the older, ragtime based tradition.
“Choppy” may sound like a criticism while “smooth” is the preferred descriptor, but only from one perspective. The smoother attack and more swinging flow of these groups wasn’t a matter of inventing jazz as we know it, but a different set of influences and musical ideas. Exactly when, where, how and why those musical priorities changed remains a hotly debated topic, but it was clearly not a matter of some artistic teleology. As Nick Ball says, “jazz didn’t actually burst fully-formed from the mind of Louis Armstrong in 1923, as many books and films imply.”
The influence of these New Orleans bands and eventually King Oliver’s second trumpeter on young musicians cannot be overstated. By 1928, Boston-born trumpeter Max Kaminsky knew which musicians spoke to him:
The crush roll of the Chicago drummers [such as George Wettling] was unheard of back East, where they were still playing oom-pah and ricky-tick, breaking up the rhythm into choppy syncopations instead of keeping a steady beat you could play against…That nervous, ragged, ricky-tick beat of the white dance bands of the twenties was one of the factors that had been at the bottom of my confusion when I listened to my records back home in Boston, trying so desperately to unravel the puzzle of jazz. None of the white musicians I heard on them could keep time. None of the early white popular bands had really understood the beat yet…of playing the melody simply and purely without all the little flutings and corny licks that were regarded as “hot” in those days.
“Oom-pah, ricky-tick, choppy syncopations, nervous” and above all “ragged” are just loaded descriptions for the music that preceded the Oliver/Armstrong hegemony. For players like Kaminsky and later historians, Armstrong and the Chicago sound were not just another way to play jazz; they were the only way to play.
Way Off The Record
The tendency to dismiss so much pre-war and especially pre-Armstrong jazz hasn’t helped the historical record or modern outlets of this style. To some commentators, the term “pre-Armstrong jazz” itself is a contradiction.
Ideally, all source material would be treated equally. A fusion would be a fusion would be a fusion. Yet instead of another interesting example of cross-pollination, most major jazz trades treat rag-a-jazz, and several other styles of early jazz, with the knowing silence reserved for “old music.”
It could just be a matter of age: raga jazz, for example, surfaced during the sixties, while rag-a-jazz had its heyday in the late teens and early twenties (never mind that ragtime itself is a baby compared to the raga tradition). Gabor Szabo is much closer than Earl Fuller in terms of stylistic generations as well as human ones.
Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.
Maybe it’s the intangible but powerful factor of “coolness.” Ragtime is made in America, historically distant but geographically and culturally local. It doesn’t have the same connotation of open-mindedness associated with most brands of “world music.” Ragtime is also close enough to the classical conservatory, and therefore Europe, to make it seem old-fashioned and staid (never mind that, as Berresford, Tyle and others explain, ragtime itself is a rich and varied idiom that is not limited to what’s printed on sheet music). Small wonder that, as Sudhalter says, “standard jazz histories usually represent [American popular music between the years 1917 and 1923] as little more than organized disorder, the vaudeville clatter of the ‘nut jazz’ craze set in motion by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their legions of imitators…”
Once An Era But Still A Style
Like any musical era, these years included their share of “clatter” but they also featured musicians drawing upon a variety of influences, listening to and absorbing a range of styles and making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. It also continues to enthrall today’s musicians and audiences. Rag-a-jazz, and its distance from even the towering presence of Louis Armstrong as well as more modern styles of jazz, may even seem like a breath of fresh air.
Vince Giordano frequently arranges rag-a-jazz numbers such as “Wang Wang Blues” for his big band, the Nighthawks, to the delight of dancers at live gigs and viewers of the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. Chris Tyle enjoys playing the style with numerous groups, including his own Silver Leaf Jazz Band; their Freddie Keppard tribute album actually highlights the cornetist’s ragtime influences. Nick Ball declares that rag-a-jazz “just keeps pulling [me] more and more strongly. I love that it’s rude and it’s louche and it has pretensions of elegance, you can dance to it and you can sit and listen to it too.” Matt Tolentino and his Singapore Slingers look at rag-a-jazz “not [as] a forgotten artifact or a museum piece” but as “music that appeals to all generations, young and old alike.”
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist David Sager, two contemporary musicians who play rag-a-jazz as well as many other genres, both cite its unique challenges. Kellso says that “all that ensemble blowing, with little or no rest can be painful” but also explains, with a chuckle, that it “adds character.” Sager describes rag-a-jazz as “some of the most technically demanding stuff [he has] ever attempted.” So much for the assumption that jazz reached its technical zenith with bop.
Both Kellso and Sager play with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which Levinson founded in 1987 and has since released three albums of rag-a-jazz. Levinson’s context for the music applies equally well for 1920 or 2014:
Just imagine the liveliness of all these guys who were playing a kind of music nobody had ever heard before. We hear the music today, and might sometimes think it’s rather tame in comparison to some of what we’ve heard since. But think about what people were used to listening to at that time: here comes these guys from New Orleans by way of Chicago, and just blew the roof off.
Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.
“Blowing the roof off” will never be a historical concept, and people are obviously playing and listening to this music. Is it even fair to call “rag-a-jazz” a historical period when it continues to make these kinds of sounds?
From the writer: I would like to personally thank Nick Ball, Mark Berresford, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, Michael Steinman, Matt Tolentino and Chris Tyle for taking the time to share their insights about this topic with me. In the most literal sense of this often-used expression, the above piece would simply not have been possible without their help.
I also invite readers to please share their comments, insights, disagreements and suggestions for further reading about this topic. This piece is intended as an introduction to anyone who is interested in rag-a-jazz, so if you found it useful, I also ask that you please share this article and get the word out about this music and its advocates. Thank you!
Finally, and more importantly, here are a few more examples of this music:
“Pop Art” does refer to a very specific visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century, but I thought I’d abuse the term and apply Hamilton’s criterion to some of the music bandied about on this blog (just click to enlarge):
As far as the scores go, Vivaldi comes out as the most “pop” while Mozart gets the lowest score, which should satisfy most professional music historians. King Oliver and the California Ramblers tying is sure to irritate jazz purists; Oliver would probably just be happy, and surprised, to know that people are still listening to his music.
I’m happy to justify these scores and be proven wrong in the process. The scoreboard also includes a few blank columns so you can do your own critical introspection (or vivisection) at home!
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 Jazzseries, 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.
Andrew 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.
Another 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!
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!
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.
Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:
Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them. The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.
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Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory. Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody. Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.
Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:
Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo. Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due. Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.