Tag Archives: obbligato

A Birthday For Buster

I don’t usually celebrate jazz birthdays. Then again, Buster Bailey would have turned 114 today, and there is  “Log Cabin Blues,” featuring Bailey with Clarence Williams’s Washboard Five:

He’s witty in response to Ed Allen’s cornet, pensive in solo and tasteful in his obbligato around Allen’s lead in the last choruses. Throughout, he crafts in earthy scoops, baroque runs, brilliant execution and a sense of nervous animation: every note seems to spiral in place, every run pushes at the beat, not quite like Bailey is fighting the ground rhythm but more like he’s teasing it. Clarence Williams’s band, with Allen, tubaist Cyrus St. Clair, percussionist Floyd Casey and Williams’s piano and spare but smart arrangements, always makes for glorious jazz.

That’s all in a little over three minutes! I guess a little recognition is okay. Happy birthday to the late Buster Bailey.

Buster Bailey

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The Incredible (And Incredibly, Untold) Story Of Ben Whitted

Charlie Johnson band pic from Storyville 75

“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:

It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.

He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC, the son of James A. and Tempie Jordan Whitted. According to one of Ben Whitted’s descendants (via ancestry.com), his father was a Baptist minister, so Whitted may have had first exposure to music in the church. Reverend Whitted was also an author and one of the first African-American mail carriers in the city. His mother was the founder of the missionary society at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Ben attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.

A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:

The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:

IMG_3640Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.

The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.

Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.

On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:

He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:

Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.

Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:


Gravier Street Blues

“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:

He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:

With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:

Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):

It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)

Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:

The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:

In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.

By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters Bernice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.

He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:

The sax soli on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is also pretty slick, but the two clarinet spots on “St. Louis Blues” are easier to peg as belonging to Whitted:

The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:

Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses.  It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.

The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.

Charlie Johnson photo per 78recordsDOTwordpressDOTcom 2

Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.

It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:

Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:

Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:

Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).

Storyville magazine 12-01-1989 with photo of Ben Whitted in Danny Logan Orch mid 30s via Frank Driggs

The New York Age February 18, 1939

Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.

The New York Age July 31, 1943

By the time of his last recording session, this time with Noble Sissle’s big band on a 1943 Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast, Whitted had also witnessed drastic changes in the size, repertoire and public face of the big bands:

The New York Age September 5, 1942The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.

It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.

Storyville Index Vehemently Clarifying Whitted's name

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Cimarosa Rediscovered: Giving an Eighteenth Century Star His Groove Back

Though known for his humbleness, Domenico Cimarosa was probably proud to never accomplish the same feats as his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Cimarosa didn’t compose a variety of complex, emotionally probing works.  He wasn’t misunderstood or criticized for his music.  He didn’t even inspire passionate stories about dying sick, young and penniless.  Instead, Cimarosa’s comic operas made him immensely rich and popular, and were still well-known after he passed away ten years later and seventeen years older than Mozart.

Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto actually received the most famous encore in operatic history, when Leopold II requested the whole work be repeated directly after its premier.  Tuneful, catchy and a little bawdy (even without the risqué stage direction below), no wonder His Majesty couldn’t get enough:

In addition to a Holy Roman Emperor and the Austrian wunderkind himself, Cimarosa’s other fans included Haydn, who staged several of Cimarosa’s operas for his own patron, French realist writer Stendahl, who actually preferred Cimarosa’s music to that of you-know-who and Rossini, who apparently couldn’t stop whistling the Cimarosa arias he heard as a boy.  Yet aside from Il Matrimonio Segreto, most of Cimarosa’s works are rarely if ever performed.  At some point in history Cimarosa’s modest goals and immense success came to be classified as shortcomings.

While the current critical script is that even second-rate Mozart is preferable to the best efforts of a composer like Cimarosa, fresh listening is never a bad idea.  For starters, it’s helpful to hear Cimarosa as Cimarosa, rather than “not Mozart” or some other composer i.e. as a musician who enjoyed straightforward harmonies, rounded melodies and bright textures, with a lot of woodwinds thrown in for added color.  Atene Edificata doesn’t offer any intricacies in terms of music or story: the “characters” (really just allegorical mouthpieces for Cimarosa’s onetime employer Catherine the Great) praise god and country in lyrical phrases [just click “Play” below to listen]:

and runs that fall easily on the ear, with good momentum and without chromatic surprises [skip ahead to 2:40 in the following clip]:

Cimarosa was best known for his comedies, but tense drama and psychological insight were never really priorities in any of his works, nor were they as important to his contemporary listeners as they are for current operagoers.  Cimarosa’s opera seria graft his bright style onto the vocal acrobatics and highfalutin stories eighteenth century audiences craved.  “Superbo Di Me Stesso,” from Cimarosa’s setting of Metastasio‘s warhorse L’Olimpiade does provide a novel musical treatment for this well-worn text [starting at 0:39 in the following clip]:

The minor chords and wide intervals proclaiming “Superbo di me stesso, andrò portando in fronte” (“I’ll proudly go, bearing in front”) and the sweeter curlicues for “quel caro nome impresso, come mi sta nel cor” (“that beloved name, as it’s written in my heart”) convey how seriously this speaker takes the task of competing under a friend’s name to earn that friend a prize, and how dear that friend’s name is to the character.  The skipping variation on “quel caro nome impresso” just reinforces his sentiments.  Not a bad bit of character painting, especially for a libretto that had been set dozens of times previously and a composer now known for his “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” music.

On the other hand many of L’Olimpiade‘s arias are pure vocal exhibition.  “Mi sento, O Dio, Nel Core” (“I feel, oh gods, in this heart”) for soprano with obbligato oboe is a magnificent traffic jam of an aria [which starts at 1:38 in the clip below], with an overly long, tacked on introduction, an impossibly high tessitura (even for a pro like Patrizia Ciofi) and gratuitous (even for eighteenth century audiences) coloratura.  It also seems to go on forever, but makes for a hell of a show.  In Cimarosa’s time, even serious opera was rarely “drama,” and “high art” only well after the final curtain: it was was vocal showpiece, spectacle, an athletic event and even a competition, a night of ” can they make it?”

As for that “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” sound, YouTube user Thrax1982 (who posted the above videos and whose dedication to lesser known operas is invaluable) offers the best analysis of Cimarosa’s music as “often (not [always]) seem[ing] like it’s put together of Lego blocks.”  While that description might imply simplicity, sameness and a lack of emotion, it also suggests the use of familiar materials to create vivid, recognizable structures.  Cimarosa’s compositional process is pretty transparent; no advanced theories or formal curveballs lurking under all those glistening surfaces.  That might just be artistic choice on the composer’s part.  Besides, Legos are fun, and they can make some pretty impressive stuff.

Gli Orazi e I Curiazi, a tale of political duty, romantic love and familial loyalty set in ancient Rome, leaves lots of room for big choruses, lush eroticism and deadly serious situations.  Cimarosa flexes his theatrical chops at several key moments (including an unusually grim ending) and the second act’s oracle scene is as far removed from Cimarosa’s comedies as possible [Thrax’s commentary in the following clip is especially informative]:

Yet Cimarosa’s musical instincts for a sheerly beautiful effect enhance even stock scenes.  Three-part harmony between the heroine, her Roman brother and an enemy of Rome that she just happens to be in love with depicts a brief truce as a moment of peace and celebration between siblings, lovers and nations [skip ahead to 3:44 below]:

It’s not dramatic verisimilitude or advanced music theory, but it does make for some great music.  Shortly after, the brief duet between the couple, “Ti giura il labbro e il core amore e fedeltà” (“My lips and heart swear love and fidelity to you”), is so pure it brings the narrative to a halt:

Taken on its own terms, this simple, perhaps “superficial” writing works for Gli Orazi, due in part to Cimarosa’s knack for a distinct melodic hook.  The lovers’ quarrel that opens Act II features some particularly juicy strings in the accompanied recitative, expressing this scene’s intensity in a highly stylized but effective manner:

The violins behind the ensuing duet “Se Torni Vincitor” (If You Return Victorious,” starting four minutes into the above clip) are touching, memorable and in musical terms, just plain gorgeous.  Occasionally “beautiful” is enough, as is building with blocks rather than marble or watercolors.  Cimarosa, as well as other musicians stuck on the historical unemployment line, remind us that it might be time for some prepositional reversal to the old adage “good, but not Mozart.”

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Phil Napoleon: To Jazz Or…

Swing, blues and a completely fresh improvisation at every performance: three common (for some essential) descriptors of “jazz” that were only beginning to take root at the height of Phil Napoleon’s career. Sounds from New Orleans and the Midwest territories were not as widespread when Napoleon was blowing trumpet for the Original Memphis Five. Louis Armstrong’ rhythmic and solo innovations were still to come, and jazz remained a collective experience with strong influences from ragtime. Yet even beyond his musical and historical surroundings, Napoleon always had other priorities.

Those priorities included a brilliant yet inviting tone, given to clipped articulation and rhythmically tense phrasing. That tone usually supported a powerful, balanced lead, but could also supply spare, neatly organized “hot” patterns. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” features Napoleon’s direct ensemble lead as well as his witty muted obbligato behind Jimmy Lytell’s clarinet:

Richard M. Sudhalter explained, “The Memphis Five appear to have ‘routined’ their arrangements in advance and in detail…A routine on one number doesn’t change from take to take.” This stick-with-what-works ethic makes sense the more one hears (and feels) Napoleon’s overriding concern for balance and blend. If Napoleon knows exactly what he’s going to play next on “He May Be Your Man,” and if the rhythm is more sway than swing, he still conveys spontaneity alongside restraint. He even adds subtle sardonic color to Lem Fowler’s naughty little tune [just follow the arrow to listen]:

He May Be Your Man

The chamber intimacy of these recordings combined with Napoleon’s clean, resilient sound betrays his background as a classically trained player. Even at his most unbuttoned, for example on a later date with Miff Mole, his “Dixieland” sound is perfectly centered, and he executes a tortuous muted passage (in tight harmony with Mole’s trombone!) neatly and convincingly:

Throughout his career, Napoleon never completely absorbed the loose rhythms and bluesy rhetoric of Louis Armstrong, or the coaxing warmth and harmonic palette of Bix Beiderbecke. It’s probably one reason why Napoleon has had a modest presence in most “jazz” histories. Here he is leading a group of other Jazz Age stars, instantly recognizable and dependable as always. Napoleon remained his own man, something even Armstrong and Beiderbecke could have related to:

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