Tag Archives: Lem Fowler

The Jim-Dandies Have More To Offer

After ninety years and a few musical revolutions, it might seem like The Jim-Dandies were just waiting for other musicians to arrive and teach them how to “really” swing:


History shows that other musicians did arrive, in this case from the south, the midwest and most prominently New Orleans, musicians who played with greater liberty and a more relaxed beat than the Dandies. “Shake That Thing” and “Charleston Geechie Dance” were recorded almost right in the middle of the twenties (on October 24, 1925).  Even a superficial comparison with recordings made the same month by Louis Armstrong with his fellow New Orleanian Clarence Williams or by the Palledo Orchestra of St. Louis give an idea of what was on the historical docket:


The Dandies are far removed from the airy polyphony of traditional New Orleans bands, the crisp, bluesy ragtime-infused sound of many southwestern bands or the bravura modernism that Armstrong was already unleashing upon New York. Trumpeter Seymour Irick, a South Carolinian transplant based in New York City, reed player Percy Glascoe, a Baltimore-born bandleader plus Manhattan sideman and pianist/leader Lemuel Fowler (who apparently spent most of his life and career in New York) might instead represent what Louis Metcalf meant by “eastern” style:

When I joined Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, about 1925, the men in the band were always fighting about which was the better style: eastern or western. When I say “western,” I mean everything that came out of New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and places like that. The western style was more open…open horns and running chords and running changes. With Ellington, it was the new men like myself [who played in St. Louis], Johnny Hodges and [New Orleans native Barney] Bigard against guys like Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton [both of whom grew up in New York City]. They were playing wah-wah music with plungers and things.

louismetcalfIt is unclear why Boston-born Hodges is included with the “western” contingent, but it could have to do with the saxophonist’s tutelage under New Orleans expatriate Sidney Bechet. King Oliver was praised for his mute technique going back to his days in the Crescent City, which Garvin Bushell cited as an influence on Miley, so the association between “eastern” style and mutes is also uncertain. Just how mutes were actually used probably marks the difference between Oliver, Miley and Metcalf’s former boss in St. Louis, Charlie Creath, more than regional demarcations.

Labels can lose as much as they catch.  Nonetheless, “Shake That Thing” does lack the open horns and chordal improvisation Metcalf describes as already overtaking New York. Irick and Glascoe rely almost entirely upon melodic paraphrase rather than improvisational reinvention, and Irick certainly isn’t too hip to “wah-wah.” Fowler’s piano and Richard Ward’s percussion are spurring but dutiful accompaniment. The whole feel is rhythmically tense rather relaxed, the band playing with the beat and bar lines rather than between them.

percyglascoebandviajazztourdatabasedotcom

The Jim-Dandies also play with absolute conviction.  The art of subtle but creative paraphrase generates its own type of excitement, as well as the impression that harmonic exploration is simply not a priority.  Rhythmic variation is a priority, just one based in a sense of intensity rather than relaxation.  Setting aside what we might now expect jazz to sound like, none of these players  needed any out-of-towners to show them how to play hot.  The musical DNA of New Orleans and Kansas City is now so deeply rooted in jazz that these records might just be a form of retroactive avant-garde!

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Phil Napoleon: To Jazz Or…

Swing, blues and a completely fresh improvisation at every performance: three common (for some essential) descriptors of “jazz” that were only beginning to take root at the height of Phil Napoleon’s career. Sounds from New Orleans and the Midwest territories were not as widespread when Napoleon was blowing trumpet for the Original Memphis Five. Louis Armstrong’ rhythmic and solo innovations were still to come, and jazz remained a collective experience with strong influences from ragtime. Yet even beyond his musical and historical surroundings, Napoleon always had other priorities.

Those priorities included a brilliant yet inviting tone, given to clipped articulation and rhythmically tense phrasing. That tone usually supported a powerful, balanced lead, but could also supply spare, neatly organized “hot” patterns. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” features Napoleon’s direct ensemble lead as well as his witty muted obbligato behind Jimmy Lytell’s clarinet:

Richard M. Sudhalter explained, “The Memphis Five appear to have ‘routined’ their arrangements in advance and in detail…A routine on one number doesn’t change from take to take.” This stick-with-what-works ethic makes sense the more one hears (and feels) Napoleon’s overriding concern for balance and blend. If Napoleon knows exactly what he’s going to play next on “He May Be Your Man,” and if the rhythm is more sway than swing, he still conveys spontaneity alongside restraint. He even adds subtle sardonic color to Lem Fowler’s naughty little tune [just follow the arrow to listen]:

He May Be Your Man

The chamber intimacy of these recordings combined with Napoleon’s clean, resilient sound betrays his background as a classically trained player. Even at his most unbuttoned, for example on a later date with Miff Mole, his “Dixieland” sound is perfectly centered, and he executes a tortuous muted passage (in tight harmony with Mole’s trombone!) neatly and convincingly:

Throughout his career, Napoleon never completely absorbed the loose rhythms and bluesy rhetoric of Louis Armstrong, or the coaxing warmth and harmonic palette of Bix Beiderbecke. It’s probably one reason why Napoleon has had a modest presence in most “jazz” histories. Here he is leading a group of other Jazz Age stars, instantly recognizable and dependable as always. Napoleon remained his own man, something even Armstrong and Beiderbecke could have related to:

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