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!