Tag Archives: prewar jazz

Meet The Mellophone

I’m thrilled and grateful for the following guest post from prewar jazz aficionado Phil Melick. Among other interests, Phil has spent years giving a lesser-known but colorful instrument its due.

Courtesy of “Mellocast” on Flickr.

What’s the most important and now misattributed instrument on jazz and dance band records before 1935? Hands down, it’s the Eb mellophone, that instrument in many band photos that looks like a French horn with piston valves played with the right hand and its bell facing left. They’re usually seen on the floor because most players were doubling trombonists, cornetists, or occasionally even saxophonists.

For decades, dozens of mellophones on record have been misidentified as trombones, disregarding the musicians who played them well (or not). The instruments were often cheaply produced, notoriously hard to tune, and produced a puny, sour tone when a forced embouchure was substituted for the full airstream of solid brass playing. But when played well, mellophones added a piquant solo voice, and the best arrangers used them to complement both brass and woodwinds.

Musicians who mastered the mellophone were given more of their due in the twenties and thirties, when enthusiasts still had live bands in front of their eyes as well as their ears. By the time records became the only connection to the actual sound of the period, many of us “saw” the trombone, which has led to lots of discographapocrypha. I’ve kept a list for about fifteen years now, and it’s still growing.

Have even more fun with records by training your ear and digging in–these guys have been waiting for you! You can start with two sides recorded on September 10, 1927 by Don Voorhees on Columbia:

Can you spot the mellophone(s)? Let Andrew know in the comments, and tell him if you want to read and hear more!

Thanks to Phil for his introduction to this Cinderella of a horn! If readers are passing through Charleston, West Virginia, be sure to visit Phil at Elk City Records, his beautiful, family-owned and operated record store.

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Support Your Library, Joe Tarto Will Thank You

Jazz Gentry cover from jazzrecordcenterdotcomThe copy of Jazz Gentry: Aristocrats of the Music World on loan from the library of a prestigious music school doesn’t even have a crease across its spine. Every page is crisp, they all rest perfectly flat on top of one another and all of their corners are still sharpened into a prickly point. There’s also no evidence of fingers, or for that matter sunlight or lamplight, blemishing Bobby Hackett’s earnest face on the cover. The virgin stamp card at the back seems redundant; it’s immediately obvious that this book has never been picked up off the shelf, let alone left the building.

Apparently in the fourteen years since it was published, Warren Vaché’s collection of interviews and insights from dozens of prewar jazz musicians hasn’t sparked the interest of any of the students attending this renowned institution. To be fair, most of the musicians that Vaché interviewed weren’t associated with any styles taught in a classroom. They had already faded from jazz’s collective memory by the time he first wrote these pieces for various magazines in the seventies. Yet the musicians themselves were still around. Now esoteric pursuits with names like “Chauncey, Challis, Cork” and “Doc” were still people with brains to pick and memories to mine.

It would be easy to assume that Vaché’s subjects played too many melodies or too few amplifiers to attract contemporary music students. Yet that’s an assumption based on generalization and laziness. History is a hard sell for a lot of people, regardless of age, taste or how many Coltrane tunes they have memorized. Many of the current descriptions of prewar jazz, or lack thereof, haven’t helped matters.

So instead of lecturing on the importance of Bix Beiderbecke or opining on Vic Dickenson‘s singular sense of humor on the trombone, I’ll just offer that young musicians are missing out on stories like this one:

The [Vincent] Lopez orchestra went on tour, and when Joe [Tarto] learned they would play the Mosque Theater in his hometown Newark, he sent word to his mother so she could come see him perform-something she had never been able to do before…Joe had a featured spot on the program doing a slap bass chorus on “Milenberg Joys.” As a finale, and to add a little showmanship while in the spotlight, he got into the habit of kicking the bass into a spin. All the kicking had finally worn a hole into the back of the bass, and between shows at the Mosque a stray alley cat found the hole and crawled in. Nobody was more surprised than Joe during the next rendition of “Milenberg Joys” when the frightened cat began screaming and trying to claw his way out through the F holes of the fiddle. For a moment he thought a ghost had taken up residence in the old bass, but like a real trouper he kept on thumping away right up to the finale. But when he launched the customary kick, the hole in the bass opened up and released the cat, which took off for the pit musicians, knocking over music stands and winding up in the lap of the pianist. The audience howled, thinking it was all part of the act, but the SPCA didn’t think it was funny. Joe had a hard time convincing the humane society representative that the cat wasn’t part of the performance.

JoeTartoTartophoneFromNetwork54Tuba player, bassist, arranger and composer Joe Tarto was about seventy-one years old when he told this story to Vaché, and it is heartwarming to picture him as a young, green musician, excited by the chance to perform for his mother and encountering some harmless bas luck (and also to know that even back then, a diligent member of the SPCA was on hand to look out for that poor animal’s welfare).  The image of the Lopez band opening up a chart and letting a rhythm instrument solo is also telling. Bass solos are still relatively rare, so in 1925 this must have seemed postmodern. While a bass is now more likely to walk rather than slap, the bottom line remains musicians making music. Not “commercial music, “serious music,” “art” or “entertainment” but music they enjoy. Reading Vache’s book is less a matter of respecting one’s elders than simply conversing with a colleague. Don’t get hung up on labels like “dead” or “alive,” just get to a library!

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Jazz Bass Clarinet Before Dolphy

1024px-Bass_ClarinetThis month’s JazzTimes includes a fascinating article on the bass clarinet. From Eric Dolphy through Don Byron up to Todd Marcus, the piece provides a digestible but expansive survey of jazz bass clarinetists, as well as great insights from the musicians about the instrument’s development into a full-fledged solo horn.

It’s no surprise that this article is devoted to players from sixties and later. As James Carter notes, “Until Dolphy came along, the bass clarinet was used in ensemble shading but rarely as a solo instrument.” Still, it was hard to get the sound of the instrument with a Paul Specht small group on “Hot Lips” out of my mind while reading:

Clarinet obbligatos around and on top of the lead are a hallmark of early jazz. In this case the instrument’s bass kin doesn’t just play under the melody. Its shaded, oaky sound is halfway between ensemble coloring and solo. The bass clarinet peeks out ever so slightly because of its timbre, its burbling energy and even its deliberately campy sense of humor, which would be probably be fatally out of place in most modern settings.

The other bass clarinet anomaly that came to mind from outside of jazz’s post-postwar traditions was Buster Bailey on his own tune, “Big Daddy and Baby Sitter”:

[Click here to listen]

This one still has plenty of humor but it comes from a much darker place, both texturally as well as emotionally. Backed by just piano and drums (thank goodness Bailey liked trio settings), the bass clarinet is darker but also oilier. Bailey’s theme statement is also miles away from his usually agitated style. He’s not doing much from a technical perspective, but in terms of sound and phrasing, he dials up a sense of good-natured sleaze.

“Big Daddy and Baby Sister” was recorded in June 1962, less than a year after Dolphy’s deservedly famous unaccompanied recording of “God Bless The Child” live at the Five Spot Café in New York City (unavailable on YouTube but here‘s another great performance). Maybe Bailey had his ears to the ground, or just decided to record something he had been experimenting with for a while. Either way, his playing leaves an imprint on the listener. Isn’t that what a soloist should do? “Rarely” was a very good choice of words by James Carter.

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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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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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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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