Tag Archives: Louis Armstrong

The Unbelievable Power Of Pops

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…

louis armstrong

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Bass Clarinet Buster

Walter C. Allen’s massive discography of the Fletcher Henderson band lists either Don Redman or Buster Bailey as the bass clarinet soloist on three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” Historian John Chilton is more precise in his award-winning The Song Of The Hawk, praising Bailey alone for the “admirable” bass clarinet of these records [starting at about 1:35 into takes one, two and three below]:
 

 

 

Bailey’s runs and arpeggios, confident octaves and solid tone on the B-flat soprano clarinet are much closer to these bass clarinet solos than the smears and whinnies that Redman brought to the standard clarinet (unless Redman was really keeping his skill under wraps). Bailey was probably the more serious student of the clarinet and definitely the happiest of the group to play it: several writers have documented that neither Redman nor third reed Coleman Hawkins enjoyed playing clarinet. It’s hard to imagine Redman applying an unexpectedly proficient approach to the larger, unwieldier version of an instrument he disliked. As for Hawkins, it’s definitely his C melody saxophone following the bass clarinet, practically stepping on it during take two.

Process of elimination notwithstanding, the bass clarinet on the three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” and the bonafide Bailey obbligato on two takes of Henderson’s “Copenhagen” all feature similar rapid-fire intervals and a distinct intensity:
 

 

There is also Bailey’s sound. Commenters have pointed to Bailey’s shrill top notes but his chalumeau was always rich, centered and as warm as his upper register was bright. The second half of the third take’s solo really drives the connection home. For further comparison, check out Bailey’s brief but rewarding dips into the lower register on a trio recording of “Papa De Da Da” from a few months later:

For further enjoyment, listen to Bailey’s bass clarinet decades later on his own composition “Big Daddy And Baby Sister”:

For that matter, check out back-to-back-to-back Bailey on all three “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” bass clarinet solos, excerpted from each take in sequential order:

The oaken sound of the instrument, Bailey leaning into blue notes and stretching the tune into jittery noodles is an effective bridge between Louis Armstrong’s searing licks and Hawkins’s hefty C melody sax. It’s no surprise that so much has been written about Armstrong and Hawkins from this period, but it’s interesting to focus on Bailey. Apparently the arranger (Redman?) thought so: the Henderson band had already recorded Isham Jones’s new tune a few days earlier but now added this chorus just for Bailey, in stop time for further effect.

Also interesting is the use of the bass clarinet itself. The instrument didn’t exactly have a renaissance during the twenties but pops up often enough to make an impression. Eric Dolphy and others bass clarinetists garner more attention in jazz histories than Bailey, Bobby Davis or Johnny O’Donnell. The assumption seems to be that a musician playing bass clarinet in a twenties dance band did it for the sake of commercial novelty while the postwar generation were sincere experimentalists. Thank goodness is it is easier to decode soloists than historical classifications!

Buster

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A Whole Other Jazz Birthday

Jazz birthdays can be a bit inundating: there are so many to cover, and All About Jazz and Confetta Ras do that so well already. Yet today is Louis Armstrong’s birthday (one of them anyway); the Internet can afford some more kudos…

Chances are that anyone reading this blog has a favorite Armstrong recording, performance or “good old good one.” This “Tiger Rag,” live from Copenhagen in 1932 wasn’t my first experience listening to Armstrong but it was the first time I really heard him:

“Solo” implies part of a larger performance, a section that the collective designates for the individual. In jazz, it usually implies a relation to the tune, an outgrowth of the source material via the designated soloist. Yet Armstrong’s phrases are so abstract yet absolutely melodic, so grand and deeply personal yet approachable all at once, that he might as well be crafting a sculpture in the middle of the stage. This may have been a memorized “set piece” and listeners may or may not recognize “Tiger Rag,” but his performance could well be called Fantasia In G or simply Untitled, not because it needs the prestige of classical terminology but because that performance is an independent work in its own right. “Solo” just never really captured what Armstrong accomplishes in this clip (for me anyway).

As for the rest of this “Tiger,” for many listeners its manic opening probably sounds like a textbook illustration of the relaxation, confidence and poise that Armstrong brought to jazz and American popular music as a whole. On the other hand it may just be another side of jazz, one that Armstrong was smart enough to learn from even as he continued to appreciate it. Armstrong is one alternative among many in jazz but he is one hell of an option. So why not stop converting copies of The New Yorker to toilet paper for a while and celebrate that alternative?

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Symposium On “Chimes Blues”

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:

Here is the whole recording:

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.)

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The Anxiety And Influence: Post-Armstrong Cadenzas

A little over two weeks from now musicians, musicologists, scholars, historians, collectors, aficionados and fans will mark the eighty-sixth anniversary of a revolution in jazz and a landmark occurrence in American music. Some of them may even discuss the remaining three minutes and ten seconds of “West End Blues,” the part after Louis Armstrong’s introductory cadenza:

Armstrong plays masterfully throughout the record but generations (rightfully) continue to focus on his cadenza. Blazing fast, encompassing the trumpet’s entire range, technically dazzling, artfully constructed and as easy on the senses as the curves of a Botticelli bathing beauty, Armstrong could have easily played just this brief free-tempo improvisation and more than satisfied most listeners.

As for his fellow trumpeters, Armstrong’s cadenza must have invited another Italian phrase, namely agita. It’s not a musical term but it is a fair description of what some players no doubt experienced after first hearing “West End Blues.” Musicians are as much working professionals with their ears open for competition as they are sensitive artists seeking inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Armstrong’s contemporaries hearing “West End Blues” as the work of a genius, a tough act to follow and even something to top. Thankfully, many of them tried, several on record.

Brian Harker describes Jabbo Smith as “the only trumpet player, according to many contemporaries, who posed a threat to Armstrong’s supremacy,” a threat that Rex Stewart described as truly “blowing.” Gunther Schuller points out that Smith “evidently worshipped Armstrong [and] imitated many of the latter’s most famous solos (particularly ‘West End Blues’).” Thomas Brothers cites Smith’s recording of “Take Me To The River” as “a response to Armstrong’s celebrated performance”:

Smith’s blistering edge and intense delivery are far removed from the melodicism Armstrong maintained even in his rapid-fire excursions. That’s a statement of musical priorities rather than an evaluation (though melody often keeps listeners coming back for more, which may explain Armstrong’s longevity). Smith’s Rhythm Aces were actually the Brunswick label’s attempt to compete with Armstrong’s Hot Fives on Okeh. Not one for understatement or easing into a task, Smith picked “Jazz Battle” as the first song at his first session as a leader and started it off with an ornamental call to arms:

Smith’s introduction is less of a cadenza and more an instrumental break before the tune or the band even starts up. Armstrong is majestic while Smith is defiant; Armstrong pulls the audience in but Smith dares them not to blink. Equally telling is how instead of easing into a relaxed air, Smith bursts into a racehorse display. He may have “worshipped” Armstrong but doesn’t sound like he’s ready to serve in heaven.

Reuben Reeves also admired Armstrong even as he sought to knock him down a few pegs. Reeves’s high note displays had impressed Chicago audiences, and bandleader/promoter/journalist Dave Peyton had advocated for Reeves as a classically schooled, more respectable alternative to Armstrong. By the time that Vocalion set up Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys a.k.a. the Hollywood Shufflers as another competitor to the Hot Fives, Armstrong and Reeves had faced off against one another at the Regal Theater a month earlier in late April, 1929.

That particular jazz battle did not end well for Reeves. Despite a showy piece arranged by Peyton to show off Reeves, Armstrong excelled in terms of musicality, stamina, technique and roaring crowds. Reeves’s defeat may explain the lack of overt references on his own dates to Armstrong’s by now well-known record. The closest thing to an Armstrongian cadenza is the mid-register, in-tempo introduction to “Blue Sweets,” which is as pastoral as Armstrong’s is urbane:

Reeves does seem to hint at and perhaps parody “West End Blues” with searing sustained high notes on “River Blues” that resemble Armstrong’s final chorus (and follow an Earl Hines-esque piano solo by Jimmy Prince):

Reeves’s upper register is steelier and more penetrating than Armstrong’s, and the answers from Omer Simeon’s clarinet are either the trumpeter’s attempt to avoid outright plagiarism or splitting his lip. Decades later it’s easy to dismiss Reeves with the knowledge that Armstrong was far more than a squeaker. Harker writes that Reeves seemed to absorb the letter but not the spirit of Armstrong’s style. That might imply a shortcoming, but “spirit” is as personal as it is important. Maybe Reeves, like Smith, was content to use Armstrong’s letters to express his own soul.

Louis Metcalf might seem to imitate Armstrong in his note-for-note rendition of “West End Blues” with the King Oliver band. Yet his departures from the original, whether deliberately subtle or entirely unintentional, make it a wholly individual statement:

The bluesy run connecting the third and fourth notes of the opening arpeggio, hesitations such as the split-second too long pause before the shaky high note or even potential clams like the slight stutters on the opening chorus all act like little signatures by Metcalf. It’s a sincere form of flattery as well as bravery: who else was willing to not just attempt this solo but to record it with none other than the inspiration for the source leading the band?

Red Allen, leading his New York Orchestra on Victor, falls between imitation and complete rejection of Armstrong’s lessons. Just a few years younger than Armstrong and a fellow New Orleanian, according to Ted Gioia Allen actually absorbed most of Armstrong’s playing through records. For his first session as a leader (and second-ever experience in a recording studio), he begins “It Should Be You” with a cadenza that does his hero proud without trying to clone him:

Speaking of this session in his solography of Allen, Jan Evensmo notes how Allen had “already found his [own] style, an open pure sound, a sparkling technique, a fantastic inventiveness, a unique sense of harmony and a rhythmic sureness…” At the same time Allen obviously loved Armstrong’s easygoing yet confident swing, declaratory phrasing and glissandi. Like Armstrong, he also seems to believe in not fixing what isn’t broke: that cadenza remains the same throughout all three takes of “It Should Be You.”

For trumpeters from the pre-Armstrong era or who were less obviously influenced by him, simply the idea of an introductory cadenza allowed them to channel their own gifts. Bill Moore’s chattering lines and tightly muted sound weave a slick, pithy epigram before the Ben Bernie band takes over on “I Want To Be Bad”:

James “King” Porter tacks a miniature cadenza onto to his lush introduction to “Between You And Me” with Curtis Mosby and His Dixieland Blue Blowers:

While on “Buffalo Rhythm” by Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians, Cicero Thomas rushes through his introduction like a trumpeter at a bullfight with a bus to catch:

Armstrong himself would of course return to the device on record and throughout his career. His introductory cadenza on “Blue Again” is a personal favorite of this blogger:

Its poise, its subtle mixture of drama and detachment and the casual, humorous way that Armstrong “muffs” the reference to his own cadenza from “West End Blues” show that even Armstrong could look to Armstrong as a springboard to something different.

Armstrong himself was initially inspired by the tradition of concert soloists in European music and American marches. He didn’t play the first cadenza at the start of a piece or a record but it likely seemed that way for many trumpeters. All of “West End Blues” is a marvel but its elevation of a single musical device within the jazz community is equally impressive.

With the exception of the Reeves sides (July and May of 1929) and “Blue Again” (1931) all of these records were made just seven or eight months after Armstrong cut “West End Blues.” Allowing for time between Armstrong recording and Okeh distributing it, “West End Blues” must have been fresh enough to convince trumpeters, and record executives, that they needed a flashy cadenza. Eleven seconds generated enough creative curiosity, professional jealousy and/or commercial trendiness to inspire several individual contrafacts, and of course there are more out there and to come. That really is an amazing introduction.

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Buster & Louis And Louis Vs. Buster

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.

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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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Mark Berresford And All That Syncopated Music

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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 Jazz series, 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.

CareOfJazzhoundDotNetAndrew 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.

CareOfRivermontRecordsDotComAnother 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!

PaulSpechtBandCareOfWikipedia

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!

AJS: “Scary?”

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.

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Black Music, White Records

http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2013/08/12-reasons-why-we-want-anna-kendrick-to-be-our-best-friend/

One of the earliest, and still funniest, Saturday Night Live skits I ever saw features host and musical guest Ray Charles playing himself, alongside several members of the cast playing a popular young vocal group. As the “Young Caucasians, ” they give Charles’ soul hit “What’d I Say” a treatment more Branson, Missouri than Apollo Theater. Charles’ soulful voice is replaced with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irredeemably hokey chorus of teenagers, his gritty arrangement polished down to a cheery, utterly sexless sheen.

Charles’ manager tells him this is the pop version of the song. His further explanation that Charles’ recording will be played in the South and “Negro radio stations”, not to mention the Caucasians’ Brady Bunch-esque fashions and nasal honking, tell Charles as well as the audience that they just heard the white version of “What’d I Say.”

careofglennmillerorchestradotcomThe “white version” comes up as a joke, intentional or otherwise, throughout the history of American popular culture. Another personal favorite is a scene from the 2002 film Undercover Brother, where the titular character asks about Michael Bolton’s cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” There are many more to choose from out there.

Critics as well as comedians like to include white versions in their work. For critics, the white version is an analytical tool, a deviation falling short of some non-white normative case. Critics’ white versions are usually subtler as well as less amusing, and it’s harder to select a favorite, but they still keep coming up with them.

Whether employed as a punch line or a critical idea, white versions tend to be deemed stiff and uptight, lacking the artistic sincerity and raw expressiveness of earlier, more “authentic” versions. As those corny Young Caucasians demonstrate, white versions are also sanitized for popular i.e. majority (i.e. white) consumption. That digestibility also coincides with the idea that the white version are also the more commercially successful (and ergo, artistically compromised) version.

Prewar jazz, bound up in popular music and entertainment, seems especially rife with examples to spur comedians and critics. Listening to the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” I can practically hear comments from some Gunther Schuller-inspired Statler and Waldorf:

The Benson Orchestra’s crisp articulation and bright sound are very different from any other “Wolverine Blues.” For some listeners, this is probably the “white(st) version” of the tune. Personally I just hear a band more rooted in ragtime than jazz, approaching a now familiar composition on their terms.

At a time when music publishers reigned supreme, the same tune could receive dozens of recordings by different bands of all different shapes and sizes, all giving it different treatments. British bandleader Bert Firman put his own stamp on Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:

Saxophonist and author Paul Lindemeyer explains:

On Henderson’s recording, the studio has a “hard walls” ambience and everyone seems to be in the middle distance, so no voices predominate. What you hear is a performance, not so much an arrangement. With Firman you actually hear the arrangement and discern the parts. This is a published stock by the dean of stock arrangers, Frank Skinner, who squared a few corners away and added a couple of “hot-cha” and “vo-de-o-do” figures but otherwise let Henderson’s work stand proud.

While clearly digging into Henderson’s tune, the Firman band also pushes the beat slightly more than Henderson’s orchestra while relying less on improvisation. They still provide an energetic, unique touch to a tune heard in countless jazz history courses and boxed sets. Yet the juxtaposition of Firman’s tenser rhythm and written parts with Henderson’s laidback beat and soloists is probably more than enough to peg the Firman record as just another white version.

If they’re not dismissed as outright imitations or sterilized products, critics also reduce white versions to needlessly complicated attempts at copying the more “natural” original. This blurring of “experimental” and “pedantic” may as well be called “Red Nichols syndrome.” Nichols’ music, including his approach to material primarily associated with seminal Black jazz artists, reflects his own style, taste, and cultural/musical upbringing. His “Heebie Jeebies” features a string of harmonically ranging solos and a wittily arranged double-trumpet soli:

It doesn’t introduce scat singing, and Nichols’ flip, facile cornet is a long way from Louis Armstrong’s golden, swinging sound. Likewise, Nichols’ “Black Bottom Stomp” settles into a cool, metrical groove and transparency that may seem unusual compared to composer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording:

Nichols’ music doesn’t lack anything; it just has different musical priorities but remains distinct and very personal. Even without altering the course of jazz history, that has to count for something in jazz. Unfortunately without a healthy dose of the blues, a loose rhythm, vocal inflections and (perhaps most damning) a corresponding narrative about the artist’s poverty, recordings by Nichols and others like him, when mentioned at all, are often relegated to clever knockoffs.

Not being jazz is one thing, but many white versions are consigned to an ersatz, second-rate category that’s as condescending as it is subjective. Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz splices Chick Webb and Benny Goodman’s recordings of “Don’t Be That Way” side by side to illustrate those bands playing against one another at the Savoy ballroom. Yet it also saddles Webb’s drive next to Goodman’s relaxed bounce in a calculated manner that might have made Lorne Michaels smile:

It’s easy to hear which group has the faster tempo, more sedate feel, harder drive, wider range of dynamics, etc. on Edgar Sampson’s arrangement. It’s impossible to hear what went on at the Savoy ballroom on May 11, 1937. Burns’ point is to show the viewer which band is “best,” as dancer Frankie Manning puts it, but we might just be hearing two unique performances of the same chart:

Seventy-six years later and beyond the Lindy-hoppers’ concerns, can we detect diversity rather than victory, musical priorities rather than stylistic purity? Can we forgive Benny Goodman for making so much money?

As big as the jazz tent has become, jazz’s white album may never be more than a footnote. Ultimately the point isn’t whether Goodman, Nichols, Firman, the Benson Orchestra or for that matter Armstrong, Henderson, Morton or any band are playing the way we expect or if they’re even playing jazz; it’s whether the music has something to say on its own terms. If not, is the music there for productive historical and stylistic comparison, or narrow artistic teleology? I still laugh at the Ray Charles skit but I now know that there’s a grain of truth to it that just isn’t funny. The world isn’t a comedy skit. Things are much more complicated, even if they do often come down to black and white, and more than music.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

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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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