Tag Archives: pre war jazz

The Later Clarence Williams: As Big As He Wanted

Jazz combos are sometimes praised for sounding like a bigger band—similar to ordering a particular dish because it tastes like something else. Among other roles, bandleader Clarence Williams was an arranger who relished the flavor of a small band. Airy textures, a blend of elegant New Orleans soul and New York intensity, and a core of confident sidemen marked everything from his washboard quartets to the occasional tentet. By the end of the twenties, several of his records (many recorded in pristine sound by Columbia) pointed to great possibilities for “little” bands.

“Log Cabin Blues” features tuba titan Cyrus St. Clair and Williams’s left hand at the piano booming out bass roots. It creates a real atmosphere before repeating at softer volume and providing a ground under guest clarinetist Buster Bailey.

“Red River Blues” on Columbia starts with a dark tuba answered by eerie brass swells and Albert Socarras’s clarinet squeaking like a door hinge on a stormy night. Later, the tuba once again punches out bass notes, now answered by King Oliver’s slightly sour lead over the front line.

With one player per part on instruments ranging from flute down to percussion, Williams also savored contrasts in registers. The Columbia recording of “Mountain City Blues” (taken much slower than the Okeh version) pits clarinet against trombone—like hundreds of big band sides to come. Yet instead of a clarinet soloist wailing over trombone choirs, Williams assigns an orchestrated lead for clarinets (plural) while his regular trombonist Ed Cuffee ad-libs alongside them. It’s a far subtler division between octaves and lead/accompaniment.

Williams also prefigures later periods’ exploitation of contrasting timbres, for example, Cuffee’s lollygagging melody over slumbering saxes on “Breeze” for Columbia.

Yet the crawling tempo is intriguingly chunky, a world away from the smooth ballads that would characterize jazz. Williams’s dependable cornetist Ed Allen is also more brilliant than wistful here.

Of its era, this music integrates soloists into the ensemble (rather than the latter serving as a backdrop for the former). These priorities don’t limit improvisation as much as channel it in interesting directions. Bailey and Arville Harris play the first chorus on Victor’s “In Our Cottage of Love” as a chase for alto and tenor, respectively.

Even many modern combos aren’t bold enough to skip playing the tune straight on the first chorus. Split choruses like this one also seem unfortunately uncommon nowadays. Bass lines on non-rhythm section instruments, like the oscillating sax riff throughout “Them Things Got Me,” are also rare.

At one point, it’s tenor sax alone maintains the riff. Plenty of twenties jazz records include what classical music refers to as a “bassetto,” literally “tiny bass.” All of these ideas had gone the way of soprano sax leads and drummer-free bands by the thirties.

Choosing “High Society” for a 1930 Columbia session with three brass, four reeds, and rhythm section must have seemed nostalgic. Yet Williams shows off his imagination and sense of irony when the well-known clarinet obbligato is played by clarinet section with his signature tuba lead.

Subsequently giving the obbligato to Socarras’s flute looks both backward to the march’s original instrumentation and ahead to flute as a recognized jazz horn.

By the early thirties, jazz was onto bigger bands and slicker arrangements. Williams’s approach may have been too personal to catch on, too stylistically passé to last, or just not loud enough. Williams never emulated larger bands or chased after innovation. He simply made music that reflected his personality and, apparently, never needed more than two trumpets to do it. The creative meets economical, with a beat.

Clarence Williams and his Orchestra (left to right): Albert Socarras, Prince Robinson, Cyrus St. Clair, Clarence Williams, Buddy Christian, Charlie Irvis, Sara Martin, Floyd Casey, Eva Taylor, Ed Allen. Photo courtesy of Confetta Ras.

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8 From 1918

There are many “Best of 2018” lists out there yet most of the music I heard this year debuted closer to 1718 than 2018. My list is going to split the difference and only go back one century. Please enjoy it.

James P. Johnson, “Carolina Shout”

Jazz anthologies are more likely to include Johnson’s actual recording of this tune from 1921 than the piano roll heard here. Maybe it’s the sound of a live piano or clever edits to the roll after Johnson cut it, but this version has a grandeur as well as a Victorian lilt that makes it sound refreshingly dated.

Earl Fuller, “I’m Sorry I Made You Cry”

Earl Fuller’s band, featuring Ted Lewis’s nascent wail, is now often dismissed as—at best—a group of clueless imitators. Yet Lewis’s breaks on this track are melodic in a chant-like way, showing the influence of klezmer often pointed to by contemporary commentators). His smears contrast well with the record’s incessant staccato tunefulness. There is also a subversively comic aspect to the band having their way with this sentimental World War I number.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Ostrich Walk”

The ODJB effectively wrote the Dixieland book with their barreling song debuts yet their perfectly paced, cleverly arranged and simply riveting premier of “Ostrich Walk” remains my favorite recording of this warhorse. The introduction roars into a sense of suspense over Eddie Edwards’s glissandi before the chorus opens up into Larry Shields’s downright songlike breaks. Does anyone really still care whether they completely improvised this performance?

Wilbur Sweatman, “Ev’rybody’s Crazy ‘Bout Doggone Blues”

This is another example of music occasionally dismissed as mere imitation of the ODJB, but Sweatman’s forays into the ODJB style with his Original Jass (sic) Band for Columbia have always sounded distinct to me. The tuba and drums give it a high-stepping parade feel and Sweatman’s clarinet dominates for a unique take on New Orleans collective improvisation.

Original New Orleans Jazz Band, “Ja-Da”

Unsurprisingly, this one appears in a lot of jazz history anthologies. Besides being one of the first recorded examples of a racially mixed band, its warm, soft edges are balanced by an easy yet infectious rhythm and beautiful collective interplay.

Savoy Quartet, “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball”

One YouTuber described this group as “not jazz and yet not quite ragtime” and I thought it was a lovely compliment. Whatever this little group in England was doing, it was their own thing, and that has always counted for something in the jazz tradition even when it’s not jazz per se. I’ve also always been a sucker for Alec Wilder’s clicking, zipping and clanging percussion, laying down much more than a beat like some World War I Tony Williams. Twin drumming banjos add another layer of pop and color.

Eubie Blake, “Somebody’s Done Me Wrong”

More music from outside the strict parameters of jazz (whatever they are are at the moment). Blake’s piano has always seemed like neo-ragtime or proto-stride to my ears. Like Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel (who died today in 1788), Blake heard a lot of changes in the music around him and was too creative to sit on either side of tradition. Blake’s reharmonizations, three-over-two rhythms and stop/start on a dime tempos never obscure the tune but do make it more than a song.

Louisiana Five, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

This earnestly swinging ensemble is sometimes dismissed for a homogeneity of sound due to its seemingly simple format of clarinet lead with trombone counterpoint over the rhythm section. Close listening reveals a variety of textural and rhythmic variety, from the slight backbeat on “Church Street Sobbin’ Blue, shifting rhythmic stresses on “Rainy Day Blues,” a more even 4/4 shuffle for “Dixie Blues” and a near-Latin feel on the minor key verse of “Heart Sickness Blues.” This track shows the group’s unique approach to a pop song as well as clarinetist Alcide Nunez’s subtle approach to improvisation at around 2:30, doubling notes, adding slight ornaments and making the melody his own while never losing sight of that lead. The L5 is just begging for a high-quality, lovingly engineered reissue (and I’m looking at you, Doug Benson and David Sager).

Happy all the years!

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Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

Dance music of the twenties and thirties: dreary, colorless and filled with musicians diligently playing dull written parts, until an improvised break or solo allowed them to display their individuality and inject a brief moment of “jazz” amidst all that “commercial” music.

Except when it wasn’t.

Comparing Frank Trumbauer leading the sax section on C melody saxophone for “Baltimore”

with Chester Hazlett’s lead alto on “Lila”

the difference isn’t just about instrument or arrangement. These are two entirely different approaches to timbre, phrasing and section balance: Trumbauer’s dry tone sliding in and out of the theme from between his reed section colleagues, versus Hazlett’s buttery, vibrato-laden and slightly (deliciously) nasal sound providing a lush melody statement on top of the other saxophones.

Both players fashion entirely distinct and deeply personal approaches despite (perhaps even through!) written parts.  Neither tune was the cream of the compositional crop, and the chance to shine with multiple improvised choruses on Rhythm changes was a few years and at least one stylistic revolution away. Yet whatever the difference between “jazz” and “commercial” music, there’s clearly a difference between the music on paper and the music at work in these two recordings.

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