Tag Archives: pre-Armstrong

Irick, Seymour: 1899-1929

A post about Seymour Irick probably seems fairly obscure so another one may cause retinal detachment. There is so little on record and in the records about this rag-a-jazz trumpeter. Yet four sides, the last he left to posterity, show a distinct musical personality.

Garvin Bushell described Irick as “immaculate…kept himself clean [and] dressed well.” Not to psychoanalyze the dead or their music, but those phrases describe Irick’s work on “Charleston Geechie Dance” well:

Irick’s trumpet is neat and stylish, playful in a somewhat finicky way. His style comes out of a pre-Armstrong improvisatory idiom, emphasizing melodic embellishment, textural variety and tense syncopation (rather than harmonic exploration or rhythmic ease). Irick is like a cat batting away at a toy, never letting it out of his sight and certainly not trying to break it. It’s easy to hear why this style was “hot.” Its precise attack, combined with accents on the offbeat, builds up staccato intensity against the regular beat of the rhythm section.

Bushell also notes that Irick was a “Geechie,” a member of a rich and distinct African American culture in parts of South Carolina as well as Georgia. Seymour Izell Irick was born February 1899 in Summerville, South Carolina, Dorchester County, one of the South Carolina “low country” areas inhabited by Geechie communities. Tom Delaney (of “Jazz Me Blues” fame) is listed as the composer for “Charleston Geechie Dance,” perhaps an overt homage to his own Geechie birthplace in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was also home of The Jenkins Orphanage, an incubator for jazz talents such as Gus Aiken (trumpeter), Cat Anderson (another trumpeter) and Jabbo Smith (ditto). Irick never developed an eighth of the discography or reputation of those others, so any linkages are unknown at this point, but Irick did belong to this distinct group of expatriates living in New York City during the Jazz Age.

It is fun to imagine Irick getting a kick out of the title of the song. On record, he certainly seems to be enjoying himself, but that could just be the mark of a passionate professional. He’s just as energetic on “Shake That Thing” from the same session. Listening past the surface noise and a few stylistic revolutions, this record becomes a master class in subtle rag-a-jazz theme/variation:

Solos as well as unison and harmonized sections with Percy Glascoe’s reeds squeeze a lot of variety into a three-minute quartet side. Irick’s tight mute adds new color to the melody. He plays clipped, heavily syncopated allusions to the theme, at times like he’s playing the harmony part without the lead. Irick’s third solo varies each phrase ending ever so slightly, an attention to detail like the cuffs on a dress shirt. His banter with Glascoe is cute and clever without degenerating into hokum.

Garvin Bushell provides a musical description of Irick by way of Bunk Johnson. He notes that
“[Johnson] didn’t play the New Orleans style I expected to hear. He played the way they used to all up and down on the East Coast, in New York, or even in Springfield[, Ohio]–he sounded more like Jack Hatton or Seymour Irick. It was a ragtime style of trumpet.” Bushell’s comments point out the uniqueness of regional styles in jazz’s earliest days and indicate that New Orleans musicians themselves were not a monolith.

The “ragtime style of trumpet” or “old-time pit orchestra” sound is on display for the bulk of Irick’s recorded output. His earliest sides with the backing band for blues singer Lucille Hegamin are mostly show music, orchestrated in a lilting but somewhat faceless manner. Yet Irick’s lead crackles through “Mama Whip! Mama Spank!”:

Lord’s discography lists either Irick or Wesley Johnson on these sessions with Hegamin. Contemporaneous newspaper articles mention Irick as a member of the band at the Shuffle Inn of Harlem with Hegamin as the headliner. That doesn’t necessarily clinch his presence on these sides but does provide another link. Maybe Irick got the job done live and earned his spot in the recording studio.

Radio program guides from the time also show Irick in William West’s Colored Syncopators of New York, a 35-piece group playing dance music on WJZ out of Newark, New Jersey. Irick was likely a “reading musician” (like Johnson) who could be counted on for a solid lead. He doesn’t show up on record for a few years until a session with gas pipe clarinetist George McClennon. His presence is there also uncertain. If it is Irick, he is there to once again lay down a solid lead, allowing New Orleans trombonist John Lindsay and a completely unknown but highly extroverted alto saxophonist to dance over the simple ascending riff-like theme of “New Orleans Wiggle”:

KB Rau (whose extraordinarily annotated discographies and essays are an object of awe for this writer) notes that the “fine” trumpeter on this side is not as “stiff” and “ragtime derived” as Irick. Irick might have just been developing as a stylist. The slightly raspy but overall clean muted tone and clear articulation on “New Orleans Wiggle” (to my ears) point to Irick (no disrespect to Mr. Rau). On “Michigan Water Blues,” the muted wah-wah trumpet solo is more about the sound superimposed on the melody rather than rhapsodizing the tune, which also sounds like Irick. Less than a year later, he was in the studio confidently waxing “Shake That Thing” and “Charleston Geechie Dance.”

Four days later, he recorded with another Lem Fowler quartet, this time in pristine Columbia sound, making pellet-like variations and then joining Glascoe for some contrasting legato statements on “Florida Stomp”:


“Florida Stomp” and “Salty Dog” are both reminders of jazz’s role as dance music, rhythm machines not just keeping a beat but making bodies move on dance floors as well as in homes. These records probably made many people move the furniture and roll up the carpets.

From there, Irick’s musical trail stops. Lord’s lists either Irick or Bubber Miley accompanying blues singer Martha Copeland, but an extensive Miley discography compiled by Swedish researchers (no longer available online) says it is definitely Miley.

By February 1929, four years after his last recording and within weeks of his thirtieth birthday, Irick was living in a newly built home on Fish Avenue in the Bronx. He was renting from entertainer Johnny Hudgins and living with twenty-year-old Mary Schnepps, who he had met while she was hostessing at a dance hall. Records show he had married one Luella Clemons in 1923 but apparently that relationship had already dissolved one way or another. Schnepps would later describe Irick making good money as a musician, the two of them going out all night to various clubs in a fancy new car. Her description of Irick is at odds with Bushell’s recollection of him as a “pinchpenny.”

Bushell’s other term for Irick, “erratic,” must have taken on strange overtones in light of news of his being shot dead by Schnepps. She claimed self-defense during a struggle following an argument about her supposedly flirting with other men, and was later acquitted of manslaughter charges. Newspaper coverage concentrated on a white woman living with an African American man, not even getting Irick’s instrument correct.

Irick’s body was remanded to his father William back home. His military-issued tombstone proudly states his rank of “Mess Attendant” with the United States Navy, a reminder of his service aboard several ships during World War One. Even in death, Irick’s musical career didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Still, there are those four sides, less than fifteen minutes of music hinting at a larger musical presence and a complicated person. What is left to say?

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The Elmer Chambers Foundation

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t list any antonyms for “founder.” Merriam-Webster lists the closest terms as“disciple, follower, supporter” or even “student.” The opposite of an “originator” is, apparently, a “copycat” or “mimic.” There is no exact word for someone who takes over for the “inaugurator” of a role or institution.

So, what do we call Louis Armstrong? He didn’t just have a “predecessor” in Fletcher Henderson’s band, but effectively replaced one of the founding members of one of the most important bands in jazz history. Elmer Chambers wasn’t the first trumpeter to work for Fletcher Henderson, but he was the first trumpeter in Henderson’s band proper. Chambers was on Fletcher Henderson’s first recordings under Henderson’s name with a recognizable Henderson sound, a band that became incredibly popular before Armstrong’s arrival.

HendersonOrchestra per Old Time Blues website

Photo courtesy of oldtimeblues.net

The otherwise beneficent Armstrong berated Chambers’s “nanny-goat sound and ragtime beat” but Henderson knew how to spot talent. Chambers seemed above all to be a lead player, able to confidently read down first trumpet charts, and by virtue of that role, shape the sound of the band. Chambers’s focused, somewhat piercing tone and pinpoint phrasing was likely exactly what was needed to cut through ballrooms and shellac, reading the chart as-is to provide audiences a clean melody and firm beat, and give the band a foundation for its own flights, for example on “Just Hot”:

Chambers’s also gets a solo that is far from the bleating, stiff affair alluded to by Armstrong. On “Ride, Jockey, Ride” with Trixie Smith, Chambers cuts loose, syncopating the lead, inserting some growls and then riffing behind the singer:

The choice of Chambers in a loose small group setting, alongside bona fide jazz players such as Buster Bailey, indicates that his peers likely didn’t see him entirely as a straight player or old-hat. Keeping players such as Chambers in the footnotes of jazz history leads to a sort of perennial history of the avant-garde, a narrative that skips from innovator to innovator while leaving a lot of music out of music history. It’s hard to imagine even modern trumpeters being ashamed of turning out a performance like this one.

“I Don’t Know And I Don’t Care” opens with Chambers on lead with muted obbligato by Howard Scott, now mostly known (if at all) as the poor soul holding the trumpet soloist chair with Henderson immediately before Armstrong’s arrival. Neither player sounds stiff, uncertain or ineffective, demonstrating that “hot” could be a matter of degrees rather than extremes:

Both men were particularly influenced by New York compatriots Johnny Dunn and Tom Morris, incorporating incisive double-time runs and sly wah-wah vocalisms. They seem less extroverted in their playing, easily mistaken for a lack of confidence or swing but perhaps just deliberate restraint meant to fit into the larger big band picture. The placement of notes is crisp, eighth-notes are even (but decidedly not stiff) and tone quality is clear, if not brilliant.

Armstrong’s phrasing and tone would outmode all of these approaches, and his sheer technical prowess as a single improviser would even make these types of semi-improvised duets obsolete. Chambers and Scott became relics, even though neither man could have been that much older than Armstrong.

Armstrong didn’t literally replace Chambers or Scott, but he secured their place in the annals as part of the “pre-Armstrong” Henderson band. The post-Armstrong band became the one referenced in textbooks and lectures. In another one of those fascinating ironies of history, the successor became the legend while the founder marched off into obscurity. Yet Chambers remains the original trumpeter for Fletcher Henderson. It was an important, ultimately thankless job, but he did it quite well, in his own way, and as more than a mere historical curiosity.

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Trumpet(s) A La King

Ear witnesses insist that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band had to be heard live to be believed, leaving the thirty-seven extant sides by the band doomed to fall short of historical imagination. Bill Johnson is bass-less, Baby Dodds (more than) makes do with a stripped-down kit and the ensemble balances can sometimes turn frustratingly lopsided. Still, if that’s “all we get,” it could be far worse; the group’s easygoing swing and earthy yet graceful polyphony continue to proselytize for New Orleans jazz. Next to Johnny Dodds’s high-flying clarinet cutting through all of that well-worn shellac, the twin cornets of Oliver and young Louis Armstrong are often the main attraction:



Aside from Oliver wanting the incredible talent of Armstrong in his band, a second cornet allows unison parts, harmonies, counterpoint, trading the lead, call and response, concerted breaks and a range of colors and textures, all within a uniform timbre that opens up subtle gradations of personal tone. Without taking anything away from today’s five-person trumpet sections, Oliver and Armstrong’s miniature brass section attained an ideal balance between arrangement and improvisation, preparation and spontaneity, a unique power and swing that made it famous in its day and beyond.

Creative as well as commercial impulses were bound to inspire others to take something as seemingly simple as two trumpets playing together and make it their own. Armstrong joined the KOCJB in the summer of 1922. By October of the same year, Frank Westphal’s trumpet team is showing off a stop-time duet on “She’s A Mean Job” (though there might be a trombone in the stack too):

Their syncopated break and subsequent variations on it momentarily take the record in a different direction. The rhythm gets more intense while the texture gets lighter, a sort of hot concerto grosso in the middle of Westphal’s big band.

It is possible that Westphal and his sidemen visited the Lincoln Gardens to check out Oliver’s band and crib a few ideas. Yet in “February of 1922, several months before Armstrong joined Oliver, Westphal’s band waxed “That Barkin’ Dog” and featuring its own hot trumpet routine:

It is unclear if trumpeters Charles Burns and Austyn Edward or the arranger were deliberately trying to imitate Oliver’s band. The slightly clipped articulation and shaking vibrato also show traces of Freddie Keppard. Whoever they were listening to, the concluding ride-out remains a hot and clever piece of arranging and performance. The title of this track portends animal onomatopoeia but it instead immediately settles into a medium-tempo, proudly two-beat, fancy and funky early twenties stomp that likely left dancers eager for more.

Hot trumpet duets may seem like the inevitable result of the typical size of bands at the time, with their configuration of two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones and rhythm section. As another commentator pointed out, the KOCJB was itself only two additional reeds short of being a typical twenties tentet. Hearing two trumpets play hot might not seem like a stylistic event, unless it happens to be a few years later, out in Texas, under Lloyd Finlay’s direction:

Hot trumpet sections spring up throughout all three sessions by this obscure territory band. It’s a musical monument to the incredible cross-pollination between local musical idioms, a time before national dissemination of music could be taken for granted and there were still distinct local traditions that could absorb others, like this group of European American musicians clearly learning from Southern expatriate African American musicians in Chicago. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is a telling example: things start out unpromising but pick up as soon as the trumpets join in. The parts aren’t in lockstep but closer to heterophony, with just enough slack between them to add depth and spontaneity. It also sounds like one of the brass players might be muted, adding yet another layer.

A year later in New York, Duke Ellington’s trumpets sound even closer to the King Oliver model:

The syncopation and vocalized inflection point back to the Oliver band while the alternation between open and closed bells has a distinctly Ellingtonian color: darker, more atmospheric than earthy and more incisive. Ellington was a musical sponge savvy enough to synthesize ideas from across several jazz communities and was bound to draw inspiration from hearing the Oliver band (live or on record). Gunther Schuller singled out this section as a deliberate and poor imitation of the KOCJB’s hot trumpet duets, but that description seems a little unfair to Ellington or trumpeters Harry Cooper and Leroy Rutledge. This writer is going to humbly disagree with Schuller’s analysis and suggest that the trumpets bursting in right after Sonny Greer’s comparatively understated vocal actually reignite the side, providing a semi-improvised variation on the tune proper and building tension before the full band comes back in.

Critics and historians have completely ignored Hoagy Carmichael’s trumpet section on “Friday Night,” cut one year later than the Ellington side and coming across like a sock time rendition of the KOCJB sound:

[Thanks to the commenter below for finding that clip!]
Carmichael played cornet on a few sessions in addition to his usual role as a pianist. Byron Smart was the sole cornet on several sides with Emil Seidel, meaning he would have been able to hold down the trumpet chair on this Carmichael session on his own. Yet Carmichael adds his horn alongside that of Smart for this date, indicating a specific sound that he wanted for the tune. This was not just a happenstance of instrumentation but a deliberate musical choice that opened up new possibilities.

As for the line between sincere tribute, outright imitation or shameful knockoff, descriptions like Schuller’s appear throughout jazz criticism, right back to accusations (by others and not by this writer) that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was playing a crude, commercialized caricature of “real” New Orleans jazz. Suffice it to say that there is little reason to expect every jazz band recorded during the twenties to sound like a handful of musicians from New Orleans at that time (or every musician playing now to sound like the Blue Note catalog circa 1961). If none of these groups had ever even heard of King Oliver, let alone focused on his cornet parts, their shared efforts would be all the more remarkable. In the right musical hands, two of the same instrument can make a world of difference!

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The Anxiety And Influence: Post-Armstrong Cadenzas

A little over two weeks from now musicians, musicologists, scholars, historians, collectors, aficionados and fans will mark the eighty-sixth anniversary of a revolution in jazz and a landmark occurrence in American music. Some of them may even discuss the remaining three minutes and ten seconds of “West End Blues,” the part after Louis Armstrong’s introductory cadenza:

Armstrong plays masterfully throughout the record but generations (rightfully) continue to focus on his cadenza. Blazing fast, encompassing the trumpet’s entire range, technically dazzling, artfully constructed and as easy on the senses as the curves of a Botticelli bathing beauty, Armstrong could have easily played just this brief free-tempo improvisation and more than satisfied most listeners.

As for his fellow trumpeters, Armstrong’s cadenza must have invited another Italian phrase, namely agita. It’s not a musical term but it is a fair description of what some players no doubt experienced after first hearing “West End Blues.” Musicians are as much working professionals with their ears open for competition as they are sensitive artists seeking inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Armstrong’s contemporaries hearing “West End Blues” as the work of a genius, a tough act to follow and even something to top. Thankfully, many of them tried, several on record.

Brian Harker describes Jabbo Smith as “the only trumpet player, according to many contemporaries, who posed a threat to Armstrong’s supremacy,” a threat that Rex Stewart described as truly “blowing.” Gunther Schuller points out that Smith “evidently worshipped Armstrong [and] imitated many of the latter’s most famous solos (particularly ‘West End Blues’).” Thomas Brothers cites Smith’s recording of “Take Me To The River” as “a response to Armstrong’s celebrated performance”:

Smith’s blistering edge and intense delivery are far removed from the melodicism Armstrong maintained even in his rapid-fire excursions. That’s a statement of musical priorities rather than an evaluation (though melody often keeps listeners coming back for more, which may explain Armstrong’s longevity). Smith’s Rhythm Aces were actually the Brunswick label’s attempt to compete with Armstrong’s Hot Fives on Okeh. Not one for understatement or easing into a task, Smith picked “Jazz Battle” as the first song at his first session as a leader and started it off with an ornamental call to arms:

Smith’s introduction is less of a cadenza and more an instrumental break before the tune or the band even starts up. Armstrong is majestic while Smith is defiant; Armstrong pulls the audience in but Smith dares them not to blink. Equally telling is how instead of easing into a relaxed air, Smith bursts into a racehorse display. He may have “worshipped” Armstrong but doesn’t sound like he’s ready to serve in heaven.

Reuben Reeves also admired Armstrong even as he sought to knock him down a few pegs. Reeves’s high note displays had impressed Chicago audiences, and bandleader/promoter/journalist Dave Peyton had advocated for Reeves as a classically schooled, more respectable alternative to Armstrong. By the time that Vocalion set up Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys a.k.a. the Hollywood Shufflers as another competitor to the Hot Fives, Armstrong and Reeves had faced off against one another at the Regal Theater a month earlier in late April, 1929.

That particular jazz battle did not end well for Reeves. Despite a showy piece arranged by Peyton to show off Reeves, Armstrong excelled in terms of musicality, stamina, technique and roaring crowds. Reeves’s defeat may explain the lack of overt references on his own dates to Armstrong’s by now well-known record. The closest thing to an Armstrongian cadenza is the mid-register, in-tempo introduction to “Blue Sweets,” which is as pastoral as Armstrong’s is urbane:

Reeves does seem to hint at and perhaps parody “West End Blues” with searing sustained high notes on “River Blues” that resemble Armstrong’s final chorus (and follow an Earl Hines-esque piano solo by Jimmy Prince):

Reeves’s upper register is steelier and more penetrating than Armstrong’s, and the answers from Omer Simeon’s clarinet are either the trumpeter’s attempt to avoid outright plagiarism or splitting his lip. Decades later it’s easy to dismiss Reeves with the knowledge that Armstrong was far more than a squeaker. Harker writes that Reeves seemed to absorb the letter but not the spirit of Armstrong’s style. That might imply a shortcoming, but “spirit” is as personal as it is important. Maybe Reeves, like Smith, was content to use Armstrong’s letters to express his own soul.

Louis Metcalf might seem to imitate Armstrong in his note-for-note rendition of “West End Blues” with the King Oliver band. Yet his departures from the original, whether deliberately subtle or entirely unintentional, make it a wholly individual statement:

The bluesy run connecting the third and fourth notes of the opening arpeggio, hesitations such as the split-second too long pause before the shaky high note or even potential clams like the slight stutters on the opening chorus all act like little signatures by Metcalf. It’s a sincere form of flattery as well as bravery: who else was willing to not just attempt this solo but to record it with none other than the inspiration for the source leading the band?

Red Allen, leading his New York Orchestra on Victor, falls between imitation and complete rejection of Armstrong’s lessons. Just a few years younger than Armstrong and a fellow New Orleanian, according to Ted Gioia Allen actually absorbed most of Armstrong’s playing through records. For his first session as a leader (and second-ever experience in a recording studio), he begins “It Should Be You” with a cadenza that does his hero proud without trying to clone him:

Speaking of this session in his solography of Allen, Jan Evensmo notes how Allen had “already found his [own] style, an open pure sound, a sparkling technique, a fantastic inventiveness, a unique sense of harmony and a rhythmic sureness…” At the same time Allen obviously loved Armstrong’s easygoing yet confident swing, declaratory phrasing and glissandi. Like Armstrong, he also seems to believe in not fixing what isn’t broke: that cadenza remains the same throughout all three takes of “It Should Be You.”

For trumpeters from the pre-Armstrong era or who were less obviously influenced by him, simply the idea of an introductory cadenza allowed them to channel their own gifts. Bill Moore’s chattering lines and tightly muted sound weave a slick, pithy epigram before the Ben Bernie band takes over on “I Want To Be Bad”:

James “King” Porter tacks a miniature cadenza onto to his lush introduction to “Between You And Me” with Curtis Mosby and His Dixieland Blue Blowers:

While on “Buffalo Rhythm” by Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians, Cicero Thomas rushes through his introduction like a trumpeter at a bullfight with a bus to catch:

Armstrong himself would of course return to the device on record and throughout his career. His introductory cadenza on “Blue Again” is a personal favorite of this blogger:

Its poise, its subtle mixture of drama and detachment and the casual, humorous way that Armstrong “muffs” the reference to his own cadenza from “West End Blues” show that even Armstrong could look to Armstrong as a springboard to something different.

Armstrong himself was initially inspired by the tradition of concert soloists in European music and American marches. He didn’t play the first cadenza at the start of a piece or a record but it likely seemed that way for many trumpeters. All of “West End Blues” is a marvel but its elevation of a single musical device within the jazz community is equally impressive.

With the exception of the Reeves sides (July and May of 1929) and “Blue Again” (1931) all of these records were made just seven or eight months after Armstrong cut “West End Blues.” Allowing for time between Armstrong recording and Okeh distributing it, “West End Blues” must have been fresh enough to convince trumpeters, and record executives, that they needed a flashy cadenza. Eleven seconds generated enough creative curiosity, professional jealousy and/or commercial trendiness to inspire several individual contrafacts, and of course there are more out there and to come. That really is an amazing introduction.

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Buster & Louis And Louis Vs. Buster

Louis Armstrong’s entry into Fletcher Henderson’s big band is well established as a watershed moment in jazz history. Almost as well accepted is the fact that before he became the most influential artist in jazz history, Armstrong was a crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed sideman, but a sideman nonetheless. Apparently he was even susceptible to bandstand politics. Speaking of Armstrong’s reaction to reedman Buster Bailey joining the band shortly after his arrival, James L. Dickerson notes that “he was annoyed at the [actual] reason Henderson wanted Bailey, which was to add another solo instrument to the group.”

Bailey’s lightning fast technique has earned him the reputation of being more of a technician than a soulful jazz musician, yet the music itself evidences a talent that must have aroused that special blend of admiration and suspicion among artists. On a peppy “My Rose Marie,” the arrangement gives Armstrong a designated hot chorus all to himself and he fulfills his role magnificently. Bailey on the other hand takes his own limelight, jackknifing in with a dazzling obbligato behind the band during the last chorus:

The acoustic recording makes it a little difficult to hear Bailey, which just adds to the tension between ensemble and individual, written parts and improvised licks, lead and counterpoint. Yet Bailey is there, on his own terms, playing with the listener’s expectations.

By 1924, at age twenty-two, Bailey was already a seasoned musician, having joined WC Handy’s orchestra as a teenager before gigging with blues and jazz star Mamie Smith and then King Oliver, where he first met Armstrong. Playing in Oliver’s band, Bailey must have honed his skill at providing the fast upper-register lines around the lead crucial to the New Orleans ensemble concept. Compared with frequent Oliver clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other New Orleans ensemble clarinetists, there is a busier, more penetrating approach to Bailey’s lines, as much informed by Bailey’s classical studies as his own “wicked” sense of humor.

Bailey never derails the Henderson band but rarely sticks to mere decoration. Fast, straight-ahead jazz numbers such as “Copenhagen” find Bailey soloing within the ensemble, rather than between or on top of it like Armstrong:

The peaks of Bailey’s phrases are easy to hear, hooks to grab onto before the next dizzying plunge. Even as Armstrong began to bring a new sense of ease and cohesion to jazz, Bailey insists on a peculiar intensity that remains unique to jazz of this period/style. Just compare Bailey’s second solo and then Armstrong’s right after it on “Twelfth Street Blues”:

Even alongside Armstrong’s towering presence, repeated and open-eared listening to Bailey reveals another player integrating his own influences into a deeply personal style: facile but proud to sweat, unashamedly “vertical,” energetic and mesmerizing in its jittery poise.

Armstrong himself would later refer to Bailey as “the great clarinetist and alto saxophonist,” implying an appreciation for his talents as both a clarinet soloist and a section man. Dickerson also points out that Armstrong was still “happy to see another Midwesterner” join the Henderson band and that the two would eventually became good friends. We can now admire Armstrong’s magnanimity and even forgive his youthful competitiveness, but it’s no surprise that Armstrong, and not to mention fellow Hendersonian and future “father of jazz saxophone Coleman Hawkins, were eyeing the tall, smirking gentleman from Memphis coming up behind them.

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Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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In Search Of Rag-A-Jazz

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Another Corner Of The Hothouse

Jazz loves hybrids, though some blends get more sunlight than others. A web search for “raga jazz” turns up pages of results showing the cross-pollination between jazz and Indian classical music. Yet a search for the union of ragtime and jazz known as “rag-a-jazz” just generates more results for raga jazz. Google won’t even ask if you meant rag-a-jazz.

So, what are web crawlers missing out on? One example is a watershed moment in American pop and a million seller for Paul Whiteman, his recording of “Wang Wang Blues”:

It keeps the syncopation and staccato attack of ragtime but has its own popping sense of tension and release, as well as a humor that is not just ragged but downright raucous; just listen to Buster Johnson’s trombone or how clarinetist Gus Mueller slices and slurs into each chorus. How do we describe this music, teasingly similar yet ultimately unlike ragtime or most of the jazz discussed in history books and played in swanky clubs? How would we find other examples of this sound?

Unsurprisingly, musicians, historians and open-eared listeners prove far more illuminating than search engines. Reed player and contemporary rag-a-jazz performer Dan Levinson defines rag-a-jazz as “a hybrid style of dance music that existed briefly from the mid teens through the early twenties, while ragtime was evolving into jazz” and which “still held onto many characteristics of ragtime in terms of syncopation, song forms and even the way eighth notes were played.”

The OM5, Left to Right: Phil Napoleon on trumpet, Frank Signorelli on piano, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, Miff Mole on trombone (with Charles Panelli subbing in the above clips) and Jack Roth on drums.

Early jazz bandleader Vince Giordano describes the “baby steps of jazz,” with “elements of both jazz and ragtime” as well as “early syncopation but still a little bit of ragtime feel.” Giordano explains that rag-a-jazz surfaced around the time of Scott Joplin’s death and the end of the ragtime era, continuing through a period when “jazz was just taking shape and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go.” Levinson also mentions the “betwixt-and-between state of ragtime and jazz [that is] no longer quite ragtime.”

Rag-a-jazz conductor and multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino notes “ragtime still managed to hang on as a powerful musical force. Ragtime had a strong presence that more or less drove popular music in America from about 1895 to about 1917, so even though the general public had grown tired of it, they couldn’t escape it. The syncopation that ragtime had introduced was what America was used to listening to, and even though it wanted to say it was through with ragtime, such a night and day change in listening would be impossible.”

For rag-a-jazz drummer and bandleader Nick Ball, rag-a- jazz is “…the original ‘Rosetta Stone’ of music that is stylistically in the cracks, where one clearly defined idiom was merging into another or being strongly influenced by a parallel one from elsewhere in the world.” Ball also calls rag-a-jazz “the oldest of these transitional subgenres to have been documented on record in anything like enough detail for us to understand the process of its birth and its demise…a subgenre which lasted less than a decade, subsequently almost hidden in the long shadows cast by its parent, pure ragtime, and its child, pure jazz.”

More than a historical note, the music grouped under the term “rag-a-jazz” (or in search engine syntax, “‘rag-a-jazz’ -raga jazz”) is an example of fusion from decades before anyone plugged into an amplifier. It’s also an example of musical ideas that some would dismiss as wrong turns, many more would forget and others, thankfully, hear as another musical universe.

The Avant-Garde ODJB

Levinson points to what many consider the first jazz record as a prime example of rag-a-jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”:

Speaking about the “musical revolution” of the ODJB’s earliest records, collector and historian Mark Berresford explains “what the ODJB had done was to simplify and deformalize ragtime to its barest state and, once stripped of its hallmarks, rebuild it into a clearly defined polyphonic structure, placing greater emphasis on maintaining impetus and excitement.”  Many history books draw attention to the ODJB’s frantic tempos, barnyard onomatopoeia and madcap spirit, which would have surprised (and possibly irritated) ragtime composers/performers. Yet even the ODJB’s later, more subdued sides display a distinct swagger a part from the lilt of ragtime:

Berresford also explains that “…as musicians’ ability to improvise grew, so their reliance on the structures of ragtime declined.” While ragtime players incorporated improvisation into their performances, it would obviously come to have a much larger role in jazz. Garvin Bushell, an ear-witness to these developments, summarizes his first attempts at playing jazz as “study[ing] rags on piano and omit[ting] the melodic pattern, just improvising on the harmonic pattern.”

Besides musical vocabulary and written notation, song forms themselves began to change. Early jazz maintained multi-strain structures until the swing era of the thirties, but Berresford notes how bands such as the ODJB would use a simpler configuration of fewer strains than formal ragtime. “What the ODJB’s performance lacks in form,” Berresford explains, “more than makes up for in dynamics, excitement and rhythmic drive, using devices such as solo breaks and the three-voice lead to signal its departure from the formality of ragtime.”

Skins And Cymbals

Berresford sums up rag-a-jazz’ musical characteristics as “a strong two-beat feel with predominantly ensemble playing, often heavy drum patterns and frequently fast tempos.” A two-beat feel in jazz is familiar to even occasional attendees at a Dixieland brunch, and contemporary jazz festivalgoers are no strangers to fast tempos. Yet rag-a-jazz’s constant collective interplay can sound strange to contemporary jazz lovers.

There is an unspoken, occasionally questioned but nonetheless powerful definition of jazz as ‘the’ idiom of an improvising soloist. In rag-a-jazz and in a pre-Louis Armstrong soundscape more generally, musicians don’t take turns soloing. Other than occasional short breaks, the emphasis is on ensemble interplay, balance and in some cases competition.

Rag-a-jazz represents a different concept of jazz, as ensemble music, a concept expressed in the unrecorded New Orleans parade bands of its earliest years, in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in groups led by Miles Davis during seventies and in those led by today’s jazz musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. The best bands simply know how to play as bands, regardless of era. There is no sense of musical or expressive limitation while listening to the Original Memphis Five’s parts lock and slide into one another, even though no one player get so much as a half-chorus to themselves:

Decades of smooth, swinging cymbals can also make the syncopated, staccato beats of snares, rims, woodblocks and cowbells sound strange. “March-like” is the description and death sentence often thrown around for this style of drumming. Rag-a-jazz drummers were often influenced by marching band techniques as well as the ragtime drumming inspired by those techniques. All influences apparently not being equal, many jazz writers imply that marches are an inferior inspiration next to Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop or other sources.

Drummer Hal Smith, on the other hand, talks about Tony Sbarbaro and other rag-a-jazz drummers as merely having their own distinct, often challenging approach a part from but just as valid as that of Zutty Singleton or Jo Jones (or for that matter, Elvin Jones or Terri Lyne Carrington). Nick Ball praises the prominent drums of Louis Mitchell, Anton Lada, Benny Peyton and others as “thrilling, riotous, imaginative, highly individualistic, incredibly technically proficient and, for the time, very well-recorded.”

For other listeners, this style may be vaguely familiar from some of the hippest names in jazz drumming. Jazz educator Mark Gridley explains:

The earliest jazz drummers often devised lines of activity bearing rhythmic and melodic contours that were distinctly different from the contours of lines being contributed by their fellow musicians. The practice of playing an independent line of activity was suppressed in swing [during the thirties]…It enjoyed a resurgence, however, in bop [during the forties]…This independent line of activity…provides a layer of boiling sounds that increases the excitement of the combo performance. The use of this activity continued through the fifties and sixties [and] has been an accepted practice for all modern drummers of the seventies and eighties…The rhythms used by the modern drummers were not those of ragtime, but the spirit in which they played is analogous to the conception shown by the earliest drummers.

Jazz scholar Dr. Lewis Porter debunks the myth of early jazz drummers as mere timekeepers while also drawing attention to their intricate fills and contrapuntal playing. Porter describes Sbarbaro “going crazy” in the best sense of the term. Whatever these drummers gained from ragtime or military music, it worked for them, their colleagues and anyone who wanted to listen.

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Dance Music And Duple Feel

In some ways rag-a-jazz’s most radical difference from the ragtime that preceded it and the postwar jazz that is now lingua franca was that listening was a secondary activity. Rag-a-jazz, as well as most prewar styles of jazz, was above all intended for dancing. Ragtime had its own signature lilt but the new “jass” music really moved bodies.

Traditional jazz musician and writer Chris Tyle reminds that at the time, records were labeled “fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.” for a reason; “Original Dixieland One Step” was just that, a one-step. He also points to the symbiotic influence between music and dancing and the need to ask, “did music change because the dancing changed, or vice-versa?”

Rag-a-jazz musicians (and later on New Orleans via Chicago and big band swing players) had to serve a very practical purpose. Besides the need to get dancers out on the floor, Tyle also points to the material conditions that not only shaped the music but also made it so varied. The size of the venue or a record label’s budget determined band size and repertoire. In some ways this practical basis allows for far more variety than the wide-open plains of art music.

Ball explains that as a style, rag-a-jazz “was so brief that no kind of standardization had time to be established, virtually no two ensembles had the same or even similar instrumentation and every band seemed to have approached the music completely different to each other in terms of image, repertoire, performance practice; no individual’s singing or playing style became familiar enough to become cliché.” It’s why this era includes such fascinating combinations as the Louisiana Five, with Yellow Nunez playing lead on clarinet without a trumpet in sight:

or novel sounds such as the Whiteway Jazz Band’s arrangement of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” where the saxophone plays the melody and the trumpet plays obbligato around it, a touch of role reversal in a traditional jazz setting (listen here or below):

How Do You Like Your Eighth Notes?

While simultaneously departing from ragtime, part of this music’s unique excitement and sound has to do with the musicians phrasing in eight, a holdover from ragtime’s pianistic basis. Similar to fingers flying across the keyboard, the notes fly out of these groups in a jittery “rat-tat-tat-tat” that is agitatedly exciting and a world a part from jazz’s later, more vocally-conceived lines.

Vince Giordano mentions the ODJB and vaudeville artists of the early twenties as just a few examples of a bass part playing two-to-the-bar, just like in ragtime, while horns phrase in eight like the right hand of a ragtime pianist. Later on in the twenties, some jazz bands would keep the two-beat bass but without the ragtime “tinge” of the earlier bands.

Giordano raises phrasing in eight as a key part of rag-a-jazz, stressing the eight feel with his own sidemen when they perform this repertoire. As a few other examples of this feel, he cites The Virginians’ “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” in a Ferde Grofe arrangement:

Lillyn Brown’s early recording of the jazz warhorse “Jazz Me Blues,” especially its vocal and trumpet:

the instrumental asides of Mamie Smith’s “I Want A Jazzy Kiss,” especially its chattering wood blocks:

and Mamie Smith’s “Sax-O-Phoney Blues”:

On “Sax-O-Phoney Blues,” the staccato syncopations, chains of eighth notes and reedy arrangement sound very much like orchestral ragtime. The growling trumpet and Smith’s vocal speak to something broader, in terms of phrasing as well as spirit.

Levinson emphasizes that the eighth notes in rag-a-jazz “don’t ‘swing’ the way eighth notes do in most form of jazz,” and are instead “played ‘straight’ or ‘even,’ the way eighth notes are played in ragtime, classical music and every other style of music.” Those even eighth notes can make a huge impact on today’s jazz lovers. Decades of uneven eighth notes as well as post-Armstrong phrasing can make this music sound like it’s simply not jazz. Yet taken on its own terms and without comparison to other rhythmic concepts, it is just another approach to the tradition. Jazz has become a very big tent but its own backyard still has much to offer.

They Always Call It “Music”

The word “jazz” itself also seems to distinguish the new style from ragtime, not just musically but in terms of personal identity. In chronological and cultural terms, Giordano sums up this shift well:

You’re just getting out of World War I, which was such a horrific event, and I think young people just said, ‘We’re going to have a good time,’ and the music really reflects that.

What could be more personal, more joyful and more representative of jazz than a love song to the saxophone?

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Transitional period, stylistic amalgam, generational signifier, offshoot of ragtime, jazz unlike any before or since and expression of peacetime ecstasy: labels are never airtight but “rag-a-jazz” has come to encompass all of these things. Most musicians and collectors agree that Leonard Kunstadt originated the term in its current usage. Depending on the source, Kunstadt either began using it in the pages of Record Research magazine, which he founded in 1955 and continued to edit and publish, in Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, published in 1962 and coauthored by Kunstadt and Samuel Charters, or at some later point in the seventies.

The phrase does appear much earlier in the name Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band. Yet this London-based band (by way of Nebraska) used it for catchy marketing rather than stylistic labeling. Obviously the musicians themselves were just playing music that came naturally to them. It’s hard to imagine that they understood what they were doing as an offshoot or development.

Garvin Bushell actually saw no distinction between ragtime and jazz. He proudly declares that, as a young pianist, “my knowledge of ragtime assured me I would not have any trouble [playing] jazz. Since there was very little difference between the two, I knew I could master it.” His comments about the repertoire and approach of his earliest bands are also revealing:

As I recall, we also had copies of “Maple Leaf Rag,  Way Down Yonder In The Corn Field, ‘The Whistler And His Dog,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” Although poorly reproduced, these records contained the foundation of the jazz that was to come, particularly “Maple Leaf Rag.” I make this statement with no fear of contradiction. Ragtime, as it was called then, had the technical essence that was later required in jazz. While ragtime was always played in the moderate or fast ‘two’ tempo, jazz merely slowed it down to a fast or medium ‘four’ … We’d usually have eight or nine guys: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, banjo, tuba and drums. Maybe a violin or a bandolin (half banjo, half violin). Since there weren’t dance arrangements then for saxophones and trumpets, the pieces we rehearsed were mostly pit orchestrations. We’d pull out one clarinet part, one sax part, and on like that. The piano player had a part, as a rule, and the bass player faked. In fact, most everybody faked, since none of us could read that well. The style was very much what you hear on the early records-we called it “ragtime jazz.”

At the time and like any time before and since, musicians were simply drawing upon what was around them, what historian Richard Sudhalter called “the rich fermentation of American popular music between 1917 and 1923.” That doesn’t make latter-day commentary and analysis superfluous; in fact, hindsight lets us appreciate and understand the wide variety of music offered by history. iPods can store Phil Napoleon’s trumpet right alongside Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong’s horns.

Play “Ricky-Tick” For Me

Giordano explains that by 1923 or 1924, the rag-a-jazz style began to fade as musicians and audiences absorbed the New Orleans via Chicago “stomp” style and its quarter note feel. Berresford also notes that “the 1923 date is seen by many as the seminal date by which jazz had thrown off all the shackles of its ragtime antecedents and strode forth into the world in its own right – it is no coincidence that 1923 saw the first recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young second cornetist named Louis Armstrong), Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whilst Coleman Hawkins had made his first, faltering records with Mamie Smith the year before and Bix Beiderbecke was to appear on records just a year later.”

As one example of this change, Chris Tyle points out the difference between Kid Ory’s first recording of his “Ory’s Creole Trombone”:

and his later performance with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five:

Compared to Louis Armstrong’s “legato” phrasing and the rhythm section’s regular beat, the earlier record is “choppier.” Ory plays his breaks more clipped and cornetist Mutt Carey’s “punchier” attack is reminiscent of Freddie Keppard, one of the few New Orleans trumpets to came out of the older, ragtime based tradition.

louis armstrong“Choppy” may sound like a criticism while “smooth” is the preferred descriptor, but only from one  perspective. The smoother attack and more swinging flow of these groups wasn’t a matter of inventing jazz as we know it, but a different set of influences and musical ideas. Exactly when, where, how and why those musical priorities changed remains a hotly debated topic, but it was clearly not a matter of some artistic teleology. As Nick Ball says, “jazz didn’t actually burst fully-formed from the mind of Louis Armstrong in 1923, as many books and films imply.”

The influence of these New Orleans bands and eventually King Oliver’s second trumpeter on young musicians cannot be overstated. By 1928, Boston-born trumpeter Max Kaminsky knew which musicians spoke to him:

The crush roll of the Chicago drummers [such as George Wettling] was unheard of back East, where they were still playing oom-pah and ricky-tick, breaking up the rhythm into choppy syncopations instead of keeping a steady beat you could play against…That nervous, ragged, ricky-tick beat of the white dance bands of the twenties was one of the factors that had been at the bottom of my confusion when I listened to my records back home in Boston, trying so desperately to unravel the puzzle of jazz. None of the white musicians I heard on them could keep time. None of the early white popular bands had really understood the beat yet…of playing the melody simply and purely without all the little flutings and corny licks that were regarded as “hot” in those days.

“Oom-pah, ricky-tick, choppy syncopations, nervous” and above all “ragged” are just loaded descriptions for the music that preceded the Oliver/Armstrong hegemony. For players like Kaminsky and later historians, Armstrong and the Chicago sound were not just another way to play jazz; they were the only way to play.

Southern Rag-a-Jazz BandWay Off The Record

The tendency to dismiss so much pre-war and especially pre-Armstrong jazz hasn’t helped the historical record or modern outlets of this style. To some commentators, the term “pre-Armstrong jazz” itself is a contradiction.

Ideally, all source material would be treated equally. A fusion would be a fusion would be a fusion. Yet instead of another interesting example of cross-pollination, most major jazz trades treat rag-a-jazz, and several other styles of early jazz, with the knowing silence reserved for “old music.”

It could just be a matter of age: raga jazz, for example, surfaced during the sixties, while rag-a-jazz had its heyday in the late teens and early twenties (never mind that ragtime itself is a baby compared to the raga tradition). Gabor Szabo is much closer than Earl Fuller in terms of stylistic generations as well as human ones.

Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band , 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Maybe it’s the intangible but powerful factor of “coolness.” Ragtime is made in America, historically distant but geographically and culturally local. It doesn’t have the same connotation of open-mindedness associated with most brands of “world music.” Ragtime is also close enough to the classical conservatory, and therefore Europe, to make it seem old-fashioned and staid (never mind that, as Berresford, Tyle and others explain, ragtime itself is a rich and varied idiom that is not limited to what’s printed on sheet music). Small wonder that, as Sudhalter says, “standard jazz histories usually represent [American popular music between the years 1917 and 1923] as little more than organized disorder, the vaudeville clatter of the ‘nut jazz’ craze set in motion by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their legions of imitators…”

Once An Era But Still A Style

EchoesInTheWaxLike any musical era, these years included their share of “clatter” but they also featured musicians drawing upon a variety of influences, listening to and absorbing a range of styles and making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. It also continues to enthrall today’s musicians and audiences.  Rag-a-jazz, and its distance from even the towering presence of Louis Armstrong as well as more modern styles of jazz, may even seem like a breath of fresh air.

Vince Giordano frequently arranges rag-a-jazz numbers such as “Wang Wang Blues” for his big band, the Nighthawks, to the delight of dancers at live gigs and viewers of the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. Chris Tyle enjoys playing the style with numerous groups, including his own Silver Leaf Jazz Band; their Freddie Keppard tribute album actually highlights the cornetist’s ragtime influences.  Nick Ball declares that rag-a-jazz “just keeps pulling [me] more and more strongly. I love that it’s rude and it’s louche and it has pretensions of elegance, you can dance to it and you can sit and listen to it too.” Matt Tolentino and his Singapore Slingers look at rag-a-jazz “not [as] a forgotten artifact or a museum piece” but as “music that appeals to all generations, young and old alike.”

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist David Sager, two contemporary musicians who play rag-a-jazz as well as many other genres, both cite its unique challenges. Kellso says that “all that ensemble blowing, with little or no rest can be painful” but also explains, with a chuckle, that it “adds character.” Sager describes rag-a-jazz as “some of the most technically demanding stuff [he has] ever attempted.” So much for the assumption that jazz reached its technical zenith with bop.

nighthawks

Both Kellso and Sager play with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which Levinson founded in 1987 and has since released three albums of rag-a-jazz. Levinson’s context for the music applies equally well for 1920 or 2014:

Just imagine the liveliness of all these guys who were playing a kind of music nobody had ever heard before. We hear the music today, and might sometimes think it’s rather tame in comparison to some of what we’ve heard since. But think about what people were used to listening to at that time: here comes these guys from New Orleans by way of Chicago, and just blew the roof off.

 Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.


Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.

“Blowing the roof off” will never be a historical concept, and people are obviously playing and listening to this music. Is it even fair to call “rag-a-jazz” a historical period when it continues to make these kinds of sounds?

***

From the writer: I would like to personally thank Nick Ball, Mark Berresford, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, Michael Steinman, Matt Tolentino and Chris Tyle for taking the time to share their insights about this topic with me. In the most literal sense of this often-used expression, the above piece would simply not have been possible without their help.

I also invite readers to please share their comments, insights, disagreements and suggestions for further reading about this topic. This piece is intended as an introduction to anyone who is interested in rag-a-jazz, so if you found it useful, I also ask that you please share this article and get the word out about this music and its advocates. Thank you!

Finally, and more importantly, here are a few more examples of this music:

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