The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival honors the brilliant, short-lived cornetist with four days of music, memorabilia, lectures and more music in Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport, IA. Fans have posted a lot of great footage from this year’s festival online, but clips from the “battle” between Vince Giordano and Josh Duffee’s bands capture something truly special from an already unique gathering.
This double bill was inspired by a legendary battle of the bands on October 13, 1926, between Fletcher Henderson’s “home team” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based orchestra. Contemporary musicians knew this was a gladiatorial occurrence, with Goldkette’s group of “tight assed white boys” and “hicks from the sticks” soundly whooping the venerated Henderson orchestra.
At Bix Bash on August 6, 2011, Vince Giordano’s New York based Nighthawks were the guests in town to play the Henderson book, with Duffee’s group on home turf in the Midwest playing the Goldkette charts. Just hearing these arrangements live and liberated from the constraints of twenties recordings techniques is an event. While it shouldn’t matter how old the charts are, in the age of disposable pop stars and last year’s songs making it onto the oldies station, their age makes this performance all the more miraculous.
Aside from the geographic reversal and the more playful nature of this “battle,” as soon as the Nighthawks light into “St. Louis Shuffle,” it’s obvious that the Roseland throw down is a source of inspiration, rather than recreation:
Giordano is a powerhouse player and erudite musician who illuminates gaps on record with historical knowledge and attention to period detail that are second to none. Yet the tone, imagination and drive of the Nighthawks are entirely sui generis. The Nighthawks also forego their usual practice of playing solos from original recordings; the soloists here are creating in the moment.
Recording techniques in the twenties prevent us from knowing what Kaiser Marshall’s full drum kit sounded like. Arnie Kinsella’s rolling snares on “Shanghai Shuffle” are no doubt historically informed, but more importantly they just get this band moving:
Josh Duffee’s band spends more time with the original solos on record, yet none of his guys or gals (another important difference with the original battle) sacrifice their voice. Jazz, “Jazz,” or “jass” has always been about making even a single note all one’s own. It can be as subtle as the saxophonist playing Frankie Trumbauer’s original lines a touch more staccato, or the band accenting sections that were just an afterthought on the original recording of “Proud of a Baby Like You”:
On “Tiger Rag,” there is no recorded legacy to admire or compare. Goldkette’s arrangement was never recorded (or at least never survived the judgment of a conservative A&R man). The notes on the page are just that, aching for interpretation. Duffee and his band respond with a double-barreled reading, with the leader’s splashing cymbals prominent behind roaring trombone, (sadly inaudible) banjo, and a mirthful chase between cornet and saxophone:
Scroll ahead to 5:35 for Duffee’s “Tiger Rag”
Musicians from the twenties recorded “Tiger Rag” and scores of contrafacts based off of its chord changes. Duffee and his sidemen could have easily resorted to reusing these solos (though they do interpolate Jimmy Hartwell’s jittery clarinet chorus from Beiderbecke’s recording with the Wolverines). Without hearing every single cover of “Tiger Rag” from the period, the Duffee band simply sound like they’re improvising. Even if they’re not, that sense of spontaneity and wild abandon is the whole point.
People don’t cross miles or decades for slavish imitation. Just ask the generations of listeners in the audience or across the Internet, or Bixophile Flemming Thorbye, who travelled from his native Denmark to shoot this footage. All four bands on stage, Henderson, Goldkette, Giordano and Duffee, own this music as a communal experience. Things like time, distance or death don’t stop artists from talking.