Tag Archives: Minnie the Moocher

Mills Blue Rhythm Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing Dogs

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

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

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

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Favorite Fridays: Cab Calloway, “Jitterbug”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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