Tag Archives: Leroy Maxey

Alias The Cotton Club Orchestra

The Missourians (courtesy of redhotjazz.com)

Prior to recording some of the big band era’s most swinging music, Cab Calloway’s band recorded some of the most stomping jazz as “The Missourians.” Yet even earlier, the group operated as “The Cotton Club Orchestra,” the first house band at the legendary venue. That earlier incarnation is often overshadowed by later versions.

Compared to the Calloway orchestra or The Missourians, and despite mostly static personnel, the CCO might sound restrained, perhaps indistinct. Yet instead of hearing just an earlier, milder version of a familiar group, experiencing its music as the work of the inaugural band for the swankiest club in New York City opens up both its style and excitement.

If the Calloway orchestra swung, and the Missourians stomped, the CCO strutted. It played music for rich patrons who wanted a lowdown good time uptown. The music was bluesily highfalutin, not too clean, not too dirty. On its first recording, the CCO sells “Down And Out Blues” with a blend of energetically straight, cleanly-declaimed section leads and cultivatedly-hot solos over a pounding bass:

Here, “sweet and hot” are more matters of degree than clearcut contrast. “Snag ‘Em Blues” starts off with a showy introduction right out of a Broadway revue before plunging into a downhome hot trumpet chorus, with some slap-tongue baritone sax adding more chug later on:

“Original Two-Time Man” and “Riverboat Shuffle” first come off as peppy but relatively straightforward dance records. On “Charleston Ball,” the CCO’s bright, transparent sax section playing against the brass makes it sound like Fletcher Henderson’s band. Yet the style is in the details:



The fancy trumpet parts on “Riverboat Shuffle” are technically impressive, while DePriest Wheeler’s trombone slurring and barking over Earl Prince’s piano takes the glitzy clientele lowdown. The Hendersonian “Charleston Ball” emphasizes a star trumpeter, in this case Sidney DeParis’s tense muted expositions rather than Louis Armstrong’s instrumental arias. The CCO understood the musical conventions of its time well enough to make those conventions their own yet still recognizable.

A band doesn’t need to be innovative to be original. “Everybody Stomp” makes the uniquely busy, sometimes “over-arranged” quality of twenties orchestration into a tour-de-force:

The second chorus keeps changing the lead in continuous two and four-bar increments; reversing the order for the bridge is another nice touch:

A Redmanesque clarinet trio is followed by a tightly-muted, staccato trumpet. A burbling bass clarinet is followed by a hot squawking trumpet. This side crams so many instrumental combinations into just under three minutes it’s like a hot Brandenburg concerto.

The group’s final recording as the CCO emphasizes soloists and a slightly more even rhythm. Instead of the ensemble introducing the melody on “I’ve Found A New Baby,” trumpet soloist Roger Dickerson gets the honor over a steady 4/4 rhythm. Later on, tenorist Andrew Brown gets a whole solo chorus without an alternating instrument for the bridge. These ideas point ahead to more sophisticated big band charts and the emergence of the soloist as the prime mover in jazz:

At the same time the sax section chorus, with its inner parts moving in contrary motion, points to the contrapuntal sound of the twenties. The soloists themselves are also their own men, confidently of their time. Brown plays a heavy, choppy tenor. Dickerson sounds proud of his instrument’s military origins, striking his notes cleanly, with a slight scoop adding tension. His work also has a touch society band-restraint, especially compared to his fiery outbursts with The Missourians two years later. Here, he comes across like a dicty Bubber Miley. The whole band plays with a refined intensity unique among records from this era.

Dickerson, Wheeler, Brown, Prince, banjoist Charlie Stamps, tubaist Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey all stayed in the band through the early thirties, when Calloway began replacing Missourians. That core membership goes back to violinist Wilson Robinson organizing Robinson’s Syncopators back in St. Louis. That’s four names in roughly a decade (five counting a record with nominal leader Andy Preer listed), each reflecting different musical priorities, ranging from Manhattan via Harlem chic through roaring blues to slick but sincere backing for one of popular music’s largest personalities. All bands have a history. This one has archaeology.

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Archaically Unique and Revealingly Outdated: The Joys of Musical Primitivism

This is a continuation of an earlier post, which I hope will encourage further discussion. Comments are welcome, greatly appreciated and humbly requested…

The earliest examples of any musical style, whether it’s hot jazz, Baroque or Bill Haley, live and die by history. The historically-minded listeners comprising classical and jazz audiences readily admit that “early music” got things to where they are now, just like the Model T made the Lamborghini possible. Yet most of them don’t like to drive anything that’s too old. Despite classic music being much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.

Unlike machines (or medicine, the law and late-night comedians), music doesn’t do anything better or worse over time; it just approaches melody, harmony, rhythm, form and other musical considerations differently. For example when it comes to instrumental interplay and tonal organization, Beethoven wrote more intricate chamber works than his predecessors, and Mozart more circumspect operatic works than his contemporaries. Them Austrian boys’ music is “better” for those seeking complexity or dramatic depth.

Boccherini and Paisiello, writing before Beethoven’s innovations and without the blessing or mutation that created Mozart, concern themselves with melody and directness.  Using just the meager notes they know, they still manage to make music:

Boccerhini: Sextet, Op. 23 No. 1 in E flat, 1. Allegro (Ensemble 415):

Paisiello: “Mi Palpita Il Cor” from ‘Il Mondo della Luna’ (Gloria Banditelli):

Similarly, Charlie Parker’s rhythm section handles their job in a very satisfying and very sophisticated, very specific manner:

Parker’s band epitomizes a concept of jazz rhythm that can be traced back to the revolution in swing started by Count Basie’s All-American rhythm section, was developed and deconstructed following the bop era and which has influenced jazz through to the present. The texture is spacious and airy, with accents that both support and pull at a smooth, even and relaxed beat. The musicians also interact with and respond to soloists, varying their patterns to add color.

Parker’s group does light and interactive really well, but what if the listener is looking for something else? They could check out The Missourians for some jazz that’s really different:

Pianist Earl Prince, banjoist Morris White, tuba player Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey, like so many pre-swing rhythm sections, take their name very literally: they lay out the chords, bass line and ground rhythm, sticking to a punchy background role. Their goal is to create a stage of rhythm for the ensemble and soloists to play over, rather than an accompaniment that’s interesting in and of itself. Musicians who continue to play and find inspiration in this approach explain that supporting the band is the interesting part; locking into a groove and keeping it going for their partners is how they express themselves. That particular groove is not the smooth swing normally associated with jazz. Instead, it’s intense and earthy, based on a very uneven beat, with a chunky feel that give the listener something to bob their head to (sort of like late twenties funk).

In other words, The Missourians have a unique approach to rhythm, just as unique as the Parker rhythm section, or the Basie rhythm section, or the rhythm sections backing Bix Beiderbecke, Albert Ayler or Vijay Iyer. The Missourians’ approach only seems simple, “outdated” or “corny” when judged against a later standard, the equivalent of driving a Model T and expecting a V12 to kick in.

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Mills Blue Rhythm Band

http://newstalgia.crooksandliars.com/gordonskene/newstalgia-downbeat-lucky-millinder-anThe music business is difficult, but music history can be murder.  Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators.  In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:

You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.

Sour grapes?  Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence.  Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.

Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues.  If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.

Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.  The Blue Rhythm Band would cover  Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations.  What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.

The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.

“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together.  The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics.  Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:

“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between  Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes.  Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:

Dancing Dogs

Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway.  Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball.  Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:

The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down.  Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four.  There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section.  Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted.  Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.

Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing.  Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles:

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Favorite Fridays: Cab Calloway, “Jitterbug”

Cab Calloway was a musician who made “singer” and “bandleader” mean something.  That’s not always the case, as too often anyone who can warble some lyrics or wave their arms gets to claim those titles.  As “Jitterbug” from 1934 illustrates, Calloway had a superb command of his voice and an imaginative technique to go with it.  At the same time a musician (and businessman)’s ear for talent made sure his band was never just accompaniment.

The introductory sax soli makes it easy to imagine Cotton Club patrons dropping their jaws, putting down their drinks and mouthing “c’mon!” as they pulled their partners onto the dance floor.  It’s not just Al Morgan’s ground-shaking bass and Leroy Maxey’s powerhouse drums; the whole band swings with inviting intensity.  Slightly ragged saxes glow with the energy of four teammates, rather than the airtight, overly streamlined blend of many contemporary sax sections.  Biting yet warm brass declaim the opening chorus, and when Calloway enters, there’s no sense that this was just instrumental prelude before the vocal main event.

Calloway sings like an instrumentalist, sometimes a languorous sax (“grab a cup and start to toss…”), other times scatting like he’s back to his early days as a drummer (“BUTCH-ee, wutch-ee, time will tell…).” Louis Armstrong’s influence is prevalent in the relaxed delivery and elongated phrases, but the smooth timbre and sudden falsetto outbursts (“’git along!”) are sheer Calloway.

Signature humor also shapes each syllable into an event: a pattering, “His favorite jitter sauce is…” finishes with a drawn out, massaged “rye.” It’s the same use of contrasts that the best Rossini tenors capitalize on, and which made Calloway a dynamic stage presence at The Savoy, The Cotton Club and throughout a sixty-year career.

Like the best opera singers, surefire technique enhances Calloway’s theatrics: intonation and timekeeping never take a backseat to emotion.  That same technique also allows Calloway to lock in with a stream of exciting obbligati.  Full band, wry muted trumpet, swirling saxes, Harry White’s gutbucket trombone and Eddie Barefield’s winking alto all have their say alongside (never behind) Calloway as he shapes variation after variation on the same sixteen-bar theme.  What could have passed for a novelty paean to the joys of the bottle turns into a virtuosic jazz performance.

Calloway’s theatrical “All Bugs Out” makes musical sense when double-time sax figures segue into a call and response with the brass, followed by an agitated clarinet solo from Arville Harris.  By this point if you’re not dancing (on the floor or in your seat) you probably need your pulse checked. A syncopated brass break calls the final shout chorus to order, with some big-toned tenor exclamations by Walter “Foots” Thomas, until the rhythmic ante reaches its limit.

Just what the hell Calloway is saying as the record closes is a mystery to this writer, the best transcription being “how-some-dickie-in-som-mee-dips-a-mania.”  The singer and bandleader’s flair for onomatopoeic extemporization is fitting nonsense: words were just the beginning for Cab Calloway.

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