Tag Archives: Phil Napoleon

My Favorite “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists over one thousand recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pretty good for a song that Ted Gioia explains is ”not quite as important a part of the jazz repertoire nowadays as it once was.”

It is true that beboppers, post-boppers, free-jazzers, fusionites and other modernists never really cozied up to the Fats Waller standard. That still leaves a who’s-who of prewar and prewar-influenced jazz musicians to give it a shot. Yet even with Louis Armstrong’s magisterial interpretations, the composer’s own performances and pianists from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Dick Hyman and Jeff Barnhart to choose from, I keep coming back to the Charleston Chasers’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In fact the the Original Memphis Five working under an alias that Columbia records used for several bands, the Charleston Chasers waxed their version at the height of the song’s popularity. Waller had written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for the revue Hot Chocolates, where it soon became a feature for Louis Armstrong and eventually the most famous part of the show. The Chasers recorded the tune about a year later, and just a few weeks before Armstrong made his own recording (skip ahead to 0:48 in the following clip to hear the music):

This arrangement never entirely settles, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Chasers’ two-beat amble has its own magnetic energy, but their rhythm is a little overly delineated. Phil Napoleon’s trumpet is typically crisp yet slightly tense: his high notes during the introduction sound forced while the turnaround notes in the first chorus are hesitant. There’s a carefulness to the Chasers’ playing, the sound of a band feeling their way through a brand new composition.

NapoleonThey’re also figuring out what to “do” with this new song,  adding some highly original touches to make it their own. The Chasers feature a standard front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey lays low during the ensembles to let Napoleon and his frequent OM5 partner Miff Mole fashion brass duets. Napoleon and Mole were already seasoned jazz musicians, developing in tandem with the music from its earliest roots in ragtime. The pair displays a refreshingly harder-edged sound and play busier, punchier lines than most of their New Orleans colleagues. Napoleon and Mole even switch roles following the vocal, with muted trumpet decorating the trombone’s burry lead.  Eva Taylor’s vocal is charming but Arthur Schutt’s elegant accompaniment behind her is the real find.  His classical allusions also turn the minor chords of the bridge into miniature Rachmaninoff preludes. Joe Tarto’s bass keeps snapping throughout while Dorsey’s whinnies add a humorous symmetry to the whole thing.

This performance is a departure from the jamming and stride theatrics now typically associated with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s also far removed from the weight of history and sense of familiarity attached to even the most relaxed renditions of this song. This was only the fourth recording in the history of Waller’s iconic tune. If it shows its age, that age offers a completely unique experience.

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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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Five Letters That Feel Like Four

Fire That Press Agent, Eddie

I’ve hated the word “Dixieland” since I first gathered a few friends from my high school band to play the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the Bobcats and other prewar jazz musicians. No matter how much I insisted that we were playing “traditional jazz,” the label “Dixieland” stuck with teachers, parents and other (unfortunate) listeners.

My distaste for that word had nothing to do with any cultural or chronological connotations.  Ironically, as a kid who had spent his whole life in Brooklyn with occasional travel as far as City Island, I had no idea that “Dixie” signified the South, especially some (ridiculous) vision of an idyllic antebellum South. If “Dixie” meant “archaic,” my teenaged reverse conformism just thought, “the older, the better!” No, I hated that five-letter word because it reminded me of an earlier childhood treat that had neither the longevity or nutritional value of jazz.

I had only heard “Dixie” in reference to the circular bricks of processed ice cream that elementary school teachers deposited on my desk as a sign of celebration (read, pacification), food that didn’t merit a spoon but just included a small, dull, wooden plank, a utensil that correctional officers might like because inmates couldn’t carve it into a shank. “Dixieland” reminded me of Dixie Cups, and that was an outrage.

“‘Cause Ice Cream Scoops Are Bourgey!”

Sure, the word “Dixie” could have seemed like a bite of nostalgia, almost the way it did for the lyricists of tunes such as “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” or “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland,” anthems to a kinder, simpler time (that was never kind or simple).  “Dixieland” bands did reference the early days of jazz through choice of repertoire, collectively improvised ensembles and their preference for blue thirds over flatted fifths. Some Dixielanders paid obvious (sometimes gratuitous) homage to the original artists.

Phil Napoleon Never Played Dixieland.

Yet those artists’ music had to deserve a better label than that of a tiny, soggy, syrupy sweet confection aimed at underdeveloped palettes. By extension, the thin horns and bloodless rhythm sections I heard from many so-called “Dixieland” groups was a far cry from Bix Beiderbecke’s popping ensembles, King Oliver’s dense, earthy polyphony or even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s almost frighteningly frantic attack. The music of the “Chicagoans and the best contemporary “trad” players listened back but resounded in the here and now. By contrast “Dixieland” seemed like sugarcoated revision rather than sincere reflection.

Of course the distinction between good music, bad music and bad labels gets clearer as I get older (while straw hats and red suspenders will always be just plain awful): like ice cream or a host of other delights, everyone knows what’s good or bad when they hear it.  “Dixie” remains something that’s tolerable in small doses but will eventually make me sick.

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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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Favorite Fridays: Phil Napoleon Will Say “Anything”

According to pianist Marty Napoleon, when his uncle Phil asked the audience at a gig what he should play, they replied, “Play anything!”  Here is what “Anything” meant to Phil Napoleon:

For Napoleon, “Anything,” (either song title or aesthetic) signified beauty, warmth, and enough rhythm to keep things laidback but not directionless.  The tension and release between minor and major chords (at 0:01 and 0:06, respectively) also illustrates his ear for symmetry in “anything” he played.

Makes you wonder what Phil Napoleon could have come up with had listeners asked for “something special.”

Slack tempo and tender mood aside, this recording points to the power of musical paraphrase.  Napoleon’s glistening melody bears repeating, and his “Emperors” rely on recapitulation rather than deconstruction; variety and expression are as simple and infinite as the difference between two voices saying the same lines.

Trombonist Tommy Dorsey starts the side with his mellifluous air column, a preview of the smooth, legato style that would make his Swing Era ballads into the perfect soundtrack for necking.  Napoleon’s muted trumpet follows with a clear, unadorned statement of a second theme.  The contrast between Dorsey’s rhapsodizing in brass and Napoleon’s pinched “wah-wah” inflection actually offers the most interesting contrast.  The second theme just isn’t as memorable as the opening melody, and it’s only a few musical sighs short of smarmy.

Luckily, clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey takes us back to the original melody, with just the slightest variation in notes from his brother’s opening chorus.  A trombone and a clarinet naturally have very different sounds, but the difference between a trombone and a clarinet playing “Anything” is so much more than simple mechanics.  The repeated melody highlights those differences as distinct aural experiences.  Though he doesn’t depart very far from the melody, Dorsey’s reedy tone and liquid phrasing make what’s been said before into a whole new personal expression.

Eddie Lang says “Anything” with tight guitar plucks and a shade of the blues, before his musical twin Joe Venuti glides over the theme on his honeyed violin.  The theme we know so well by now moves from downhome to refined and then triumphant when Napoleon enters on open horn. We briefly expect a clarion, assertive cadence, but instead it’s right back to Dorsey’s clarinet, and a more reflective finale.

“Anything” turns out to be a perfectly descriptive title, and a reminder that jazz doesn’t always involve rifling through chord changes or improvising whole new compositions.  Jazz is originality and expression of self, no matter how many times a musician has played something (or an audience has heard it).  Along those lines, the musician truly can say “anything.”

Special thanks to “Atticus70” for this and all the other incredible music they share on YouTube, and for sharing with me Marty Napoleon’s terrific anecdote about his uncle came up with “Anything.”

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