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.
They’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.