Tag Archives: Lost Chords

Northwestern Style Saxophone: No Apologies

One of the joys as well as frustrations of listening to early jazz is discovering styles or “schools” that were absorbed into others, or just closed down before enrollment got too high. “No one plays like that anymore…” may seem like a challenge waiting to be met, inviting some musicologist to illustrate the unacknowledged influence of an obscure player or a seasoned professional to shout that they’ve listened to that musician for decades…unless you’re referring to Bill Moore or Woody Walder. Some musical styles simply go the way of clothing styles.

The idea of jazz as a perennially forward-thinking, relentlessly hip music seems to go back to the music’s origins. Playing in an old-fashioned manner or even liking the wrong band was a real source of embarrassment, as demonstrated by a young Bud Freeman actually apologizing for playing like Jack Pettis. “Pardon me for playing collegiate, that Northwestern style,” he allegedly said to another musician, “but what can you do on a tenor sax?” Coleman Hawkins would soon answer Freeman, but how did those poor saxophonists fare until then?

Richard Sudhalter explains that the “Chicago school of tenor, Northwestern style” or “playing collegiate” was the light-toned style popularized by Jack Pettis. Pettis is now known primarily among record collectors and early jazz aficionados, but in his time he was a groundbreaking jazz musician. David Garrick provides extensive details about Pettis’s life and professional career on his website, yet the origins of Pettis’s style are still up for speculation. Squirrel Ashcraft said that Pettis taught himself to play saxophone between work in a government office. The rest is up for speculation. However Pettis did it, he earned himself a seat with the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His saxophone fits in well with the standard frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, often adding a middle register harmony for the trumpet or sailing into the upper register without crashing into Leon Roppolo’s clarinet.

Pettis would go on to become a star soloist with Ben Bernie’s popular dance orchestra, playing what many consider the first saxophone solo on film with Bernie as well as leading several of his own sessions.

Sudhalter describes the Pettis style as having a light sound and a loping beat, generating momentum through chains of eighth notes. It was far from the wail of Bud Freeman’s other early Chicago saxophone hero, Paul Biese. Pettis also took a vastly different approach from Chicago bandleader’s Isham Jones dark timbre and tendency to stick close to the melody with occasional embellishment. Judging by Bill Richards’s solos on “Choo Choo Blues, She’s A Mean Job” and other sides with Frank Westphal’s popular Chicago band, this plummy, huffing style seems to have been yet another approach to the instrument. Trumpeter Paul Mares described “Chicago style” as “composed of, conventionally, four pieces: piano, drums, banjo, and sax. The sax was played like Ted Lewis plays clarinet and the rhythm beat a tired, heavy, pounding that threatened to splinter the tavern floor. Boy, it was terrible…” So much for the consistency of labels!

As an older man, Freeman seems far more deferential to Pettis and his own Chicago style. His autobiography recalls Pettis as “the first swinging tenor player I ever heard” and the “first guy to become a professional success with that style” as well as “the king of that style.” Yet he needn’t have felt so embarrassed in the first place: Sudhalter points out that the Pettis school was the dominant style among white saxophonists of the early twenties. Several jazz records from that era bear that description out. George Johnson’s solo on “Copenhagen” with The Wolverines is perhaps the most well-known example:

Johnson’s solo would become part of this composition, eventually being transcribed into the sheet music, but other recordings of the tune include saxophonists clearly under Johnson’s spell and by extension the Northwestern style. These include an unnamed tenor soloist with Al Turk as well as Floyd Townes with Elmer Schoebel:

Interestingly enough, Johnson uses a lusher tone for the straight melody reading on “Susie” while swinging out, Northwestern style, towards the end of his solo on “I Need Some Pettin’” and the breaks on “Jazz Me Blues.”

As Sudhalter points out, the Northwestern players built on the arpeggiated figures and legato attack of the clarinet while adding the creamy tone and vibrato of the alto saxophone. The style was something of a hybrid. Clarinetist and historian Eric Seddon points out how saxophones “benefit from knotty phrases which snake and double back on themselves” while the clarinet’s larger range and timbre open up the possibilities of arpeggios. In other words, the two instruments are just that: different instruments lending themselves to distinct technical/expressive routes. Hawkins’s force of musical personality on saxophone as well as his sheer technical confidence would have impressed regardless of instrument. Yet it must have been a revelation for young saxophonists to hear such an idiomatic style for their instrument. Hawkins and other players explored how to play the saxophone without making it sound like a large brass clarinet, a more agile trumpet, a cello, etc.

At the same time, Pettis’s slippery, agitated style was still just plain hot. These solos still resound with their own unique nervous energy, an intensity that characterizes the best jazz of this period (and which would fade in favor of smoother, more laid-back styles coming out of the south).

The use of vibrato as well as the busy vertical lines delineate this style from the sound that Frank Trumbauer and Lester Young would eventually bestow upon the jazz world. Pettis and disciples such as Bostonian Perley Breed may have played lighter but were anything but “cool.” Even at slower tempos, the notes seem to jitter in mid-air.

Perhaps the style caught on at college campuses due to its manic energy, an appropriate sound for the roaring twenties. All of those twenty-somethings probably thought they were far more advanced than Biese and Jones. So much for feeling embarrassed!

Twenties modernist Fud Livingston sounds like he was influenced by Pettis, albeit adding his own slightly acerbic tone and jagged phrasing:

When Livingston left Pollack’s band, Larry Binyon played in a similar yet somehow less busy style. Binyon received much less solo space than Livingston (due, in part, to the ascendancy of Goodman and Teagarden as the primary soloists). Maybe on record he didn’t have as much room to stretch out, or simply lacked the desire to do so. Either way, Binyon sounds closer to Pettis on “Whoopee Stomp” with Irving Mills and on the final bridge to “Little Rose Covered Shack” with Pollack. At other times Binyon plays with a more mellifluous society band sound. This type of musical chameleoning seemed to be all in a day’s work for these musicians, and its ubiquity makes it all the more remarkable.

Sudhalter notes Pettis’s influence as primarily a product of the early twenties. By the middle of the decade, Coleman Hawkins was a firmly established presence within the jazz community, the premier soloist with one of the Fletcher Henderson’s popular and critically admired band. By the time young Max Kaminsky told one of his bandmates that he was a fan of Perley Breed, the trumpeter described being “puzzled and a little hurt when he smiled at my answer.” Nobody wants to be old-hat, and things move pretty quickly in American music.

Thankfully, a few musicians didn’t seem to get the memo. So we have Don Murray’s excellent solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette:

Almost a year later, Pettis himself receives an entire chorus to himself, starting out a dance record with an improvised solo on a pop tune recorded by the more commercially-oriented Bernie band. Pettis may have now been living in Hawkins’s world but he still had things to say on his own terms.

George Snurpus and Ralph Rudder, in their only recorded appearances, still sound like they are learning things from Pettis.

As late as 1944, Boomie Richman’s Lester Youngish bridge on Muggsy Spanier’s “Rosetta” has traces of the Pettis style:

So much for historical benchmarks!

Of course, parsing out influences and tracing styles isn’t a science (and who would want it to be that precise?) At the very least, the “Pettis style” is a helpful concept that opens up vestigial approaches to an instrument now virtually synonymous with “jazz” and a handful of definitive players. Before Hawkins, Young, Parker and Coltrane, there was Jack Pettis, and he played exciting music that influenced other musicians. What could be hipper than that?

Thanks to Sue Fischer for providing that Paul Mares quote!

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Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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A Stan King Playlist

Photo Care of @onlyapaprmoon

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon

Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use and weren’t kind to what remained. King does burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” to bang some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:

Unfortunately outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use standard acoustically sanctioned percussion like cymbals and blocks as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way it got him plenty of work. He must have been doing something worth hearing.

Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker, yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could really move a band with drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:

Aside from a few cymbal crashes and the faux-oriental blocks and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drums. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s (red hot) alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.

King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drumheads, while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus as well as percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:

King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed and very effective:

Listening to King nearly sixty years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with more than faint praise. A crisp, precise and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).

With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:

Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims, for how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass and produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:

Audio wizard, historian and trombonist David Sager recalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California years ago “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi explains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”

[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]

According to Richard Sudhalter King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and  “Davenport Blues”:

On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’ solo, which allows his guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):

King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tosses out fast, snappy fills and bears down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:

On “Here Comes Emily Brown,” again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass, King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:

King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:

Occasionally King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):

or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:

Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. While his preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, that same unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Surprisingly enough Benny Goodman, who King not only played with but frequently pushed on record, described King as “merely adequate.”

The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:

King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett or for that matter Elvin Jones, but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus, and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.

In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death (when Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty).  Fud Livingston thought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter; King got the job done.

Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him: King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:

Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring, and hearing.

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Jimmy Lytell Gets Some Spotlight

Clarinetist Jimmy Lytell is best known for his recordings with the Original Memphis Five, followed by a lengthy career as a studio staff musician. Canadian company Jazz Oracle now collects all twenty-five recordings that Lytell made with just piano and guitar/banjo for the Pathe label between 1926 and 1928. This format was popular throughout the twenties, with clarinetists such as Buster Bailey, Benny Goodman, Johnny Dodds and Boyd Senter (!) getting the opportunity to put their sound and style front and center. Since Lytell’s legacy is predominantly ensemble-based, this disc sheds some welcome light on his abilities as a soloist.

Speaking about these recordings in his landmark Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter described Lytell’s playing as “curiously inert rhythmically.” He added that Lytell’s “phrasing is quite foursquare, [with] tidy patterns that always conform to the two and four-bar phrases of the songs and invariably land on the downbeat of a bar…There are moments when the ear longs for a subordinate clause, alternation of phrase lengths, anything asymmetrical.” Lytell may have had a limited rhythmic comfort zone, but his playing within those boundaries is assured and consistently joyful. He displays a bright, distinct tone that occasionally resembles a reedy alto saxophone, as for example on “Old Folks.” There are also plenty of the trademarks smears recognizable from the OM5 sides. He also frequently punches out repeated notes, resulting in a declaratory sound unusual for the instrument at this time, while numbers such as “Davenport Blues” and “Pardon The Glove” include several well-executed saw tooth patterns and finger-busting runs.

bdw8069This release is also a veritable twenties dance band songbook, including numbers such as “Messin’ Around,” “Stockholm Stomp” and “Missouri Squabble.” It’s illuminating to hear these tunes outside of more intricate big band charts of the time, and they pick up plenty of heat without the extra instrumentation (especially both takes of “Zulu Wail”). Jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang appears on several tracks, along with the energetic Dick McDonough, OM5 pianist Frank Signorelli and composer Rube Bloom.

Jazz Oracle’s engineering is typically beautiful, and this disc is worth purchasing for Phil Melick’s liner notes alone: they’re a model of how to blend history, discography and biography into a narrative rather than a list. Lytell may or may not make it into the pantheon of “great” jazz clarinetists yet this release reveals a musician who had taste as well as technique.

Unfortunately I can’t find any YouTube clips from this disc, but here’s Lytell backing the sweet-toned Annette Hanshaw:

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Jimmy Dorsey Tells His Story

In Lost Chords (Oxford, 2001), Richard M. Sudhalter describes a backstage scene from a 1976 Paul Whiteman commemoration that treads the line between heartfelt veneration and chest-beating swagger:

[S]axophonists Al Gallodoro (a Whiteman alumnus), Johnny Mince (soloist with Tommy Dorsey’s 1930s orchestra), and Eddie Barefield (star of the Cab Calloway and Chick Webb bands) astonished fellow-bandsmen by reeling off [Jimmy Dorsey’s full chorus solo from Whiteman’s 1927 “Sensation Stomp”] from memory, in faultless unison. “Why, of course everybody picked up on that one,” was Barefield’s explanation…”

Judging from Dorsey’s original solo [at about 1:27 on the following clip] “everyone” also had a razor sharp ear, not to mention several hours to practice.  This one couldn’t have been easy to transcribe:

Sudhalter goes on to describe Dorsey’s solo as “a model of fleet, assured playing, full of swooping, hill-and-dale phrases, nimble ‘false fingering,’ and other tricks of the saxophonist’s trade.”  Between the manic starts and stops and relentless instrumental shifts that comprise “Sensation Stomp,” unbridling Dorsey’s technique over a steady, racing tempo also provides the perfect sense of balance on this chart. For contemporary listeners, Dorsey’s creamy alto may sound quaint next to the tangier timbres of post-Bird saxophonists, and his jittery arpeggios point to the influence of Rudy Wiedoeft and other classically trained sax virtuosos from outside of jazz.

Did Lester Young seem like the type to get caught up in labels?

On the other hand the false fingerings that Dorsey uses at 1:35 would become a mainstay of tenor saxophonist and bop forefather Lester Young when he began to record in the early thirties.  By playing the same note but using different fingerings, saxophonists can alter the pitch of the note ever so slightly, causing it to wax and wane in the listener’s ear. Dorsey’s false fingering builds up tension until the release of a somersaulting break (that manages to work in still more false fingerings).

Young penned the phrase “tell a story” to describe the best improvisers, and Dorsey’s mix of speed and structure makes for a gripping narrative.  Yet we know that Dorsey worked out this solo in advance, first playing it on Red Nichols’ recording of “That’s No Bargain” the year before.  Putting aside the fact that many musicians from this time (including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins) similarly “routined” their solos, can we still classify Dorsey’s “party-piece” solo a work of jazz?

Gallodoro, Mince, Barefield and their Dorsey-loving colleagues didn’t seem to care either way.  Improvised or not, they were impressed enough to recall the solo several decades later.  Legendary saxophonist and bona fide jazz soloist Benny Carter didn’t seem to care when he “borrowed” Dorsey’s solo, note for note, on his 1936 recording of “Tiger Rag” with his Swing Quartet.  Several weeks ago I was blessed and blown away by the sound of Vince Giordano’s reed section bending and vaulting in unison over Dorsey’s solo, with the Nighthawk’s crisp beat booting Dorsey’s legacy into the next millennium.  Critics and academics can debate improvisation as a benchmark for jazz.  Apparently, the musicians made up their minds several years ago.

I haven’t done the research to confirm whether Jimmy Dorsey improvised his clarinet work on “Buddy’s Habits” with Red Nichols.  I did spend several hours trying to get his tumbling runs under my fingers.  Either way, I’ve remained hooked since I first heard this side:

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