Tag Archives: Prince Robinson

Prince Robinson In The Syncopated Times

It was a pleasure to research the life and music of Prince Robinson. Everyone from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington revered the clarinetist and tenor saxophonist! For more about this fascinating musician, please see my article in The Syncopated Times—which was kind enough to give me an opportunity to share his story.

Elmer Snowden’s Nest Club Orchestra in 1925. Photo from Jazz Information on August 9, 1940.
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Prince Robinson’s Eighth Notes

The best definitions of swing come down to musical demonstrations rather than notated examples. Yet, in many cases, even eighth notes (“one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”) seem to be kryptonite for it.

Somehow, the hot music of the twenties and early thirties, the jazz that many historians say was not yet Jazz, got it done. Take Prince Robinson’s tenor saxophone solo on “Worn Out Blues” with Clarence Williams’s Washboard Band:

It starts out smothering the listener in chains of choppy broken chords. Before a hip jazz historian might adjudge “old-fashioned,” Robinson responds to his own opening with looser phrasing in repeated note statements. He turns this little game of rhythmic contrast into a beautifully unified and utterly swinging solo. On a second take of the same tune from this session (403973-B), he doubles down on the tenser phraseology. For the out chorus in both takes, Robinson—ever the professional—matches trumpeter Charlie Gaines’s more “modern” lead. Robinson wasn’t old-fashioned; he was multi-fashioned.

He had been recording since the mid-twenties, and in all likelihood been playing for even longer. He would have heard many different styles, including the gradual loosening of the beat that came to be synonymous with jazz. Rather than viewing these changes as developments (as though jazz was moving from prototype phase to beta-testing), the man had heard plenty and knew how to use it all.

The technique of alternating swung and even eighths goes back at least to Coleman Hawkins’s seminal solo on “The Stampede” and its even eighth note break in 1926. Yet Robinson inserts these machine gun lines as an integral part of his playing in a post-Armstrong, pre-swing 1930 setting. That is a daring act of individualism.

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For No Other Reason…

…than it’s my blog and this recording is one of my favorites, here is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers on “I Found A New Baby“:

The arrangement goes straight into Spencer Williams‘s melody, sans introduction about a decade before Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” showing off the sax section with the first alto slightly inflecting the theme while maintaining a solid lead. The brass vary things more but remain thoroughly idiomatic: punchy and metallic with no clarinet-like noodles.  Prince Robinson plays the tenor sax like it’s twice as big and cast in copper.  He works in tone and winking little licks rather than rapid-fire arpeggiation a la Coleman Hawkins or Bud Freeman’s greasy barroom innuendo.

This band and its chief arranger/director Don Redman, beloved as they are by collectors and historians, have been criticized for an occasionally over-arranged sound.  Trumpeter John Nesbitt’s chart is economical in form and visceral in delivery.  Remove the the sections filling out the harmonies and you can almost hear a two-man front line of alto and trumpet playing the head and then taking a paraphrase solo before saxophonist George Thomas’s vocal.

It all takes place in a little over three minutes.  While there won’t be any dissertations written about it, there seems to be a craft as well as a spirit to the notes themselves beyond nostalgia or factual inventory.  More definitely, I like it.


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Don Redman’s Orchestrated Scat

It’s easy to imagine horns instead of voices on Don Redman’s arrangement of “Four Or Five Times” for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers: Claude Jones’s lead transposed to a baritone sax or even his own plunger-muted trombone, George Thomas’s tenor saxophone and Redman’s alto handling their “da-doobies” and “boot ‘n doots,” maybe a Harmon-muted trumpet ejecting banjoist Dave Wilborn’s falsetto notes:

By Prince Robinson’s hulking tenor and clarinet, the chart sounds like its just picking up where the trio left off. The vocals are “parts” in the truest sense of the word. All of Redman’s parts illustrate his gift for improvising on paper, soloing in multi-part harmony with the spontaneity and snap of a live performer. Ditto for parts with words or written origins, supposedly un-christenable as “scat” or “jazz”.

Some listeners may have preferred brass, reed, even string or percussion (!) instruments in place of the vocal ones. Ignoring or mocking singers, not to mention critiquing them because they’re not instrumentalists, has been around since “jazz” was simply known as “music.” Mike Zwerin’s description of one listener in Germany sums this approach up well:

When he became a serious jazz fan in 1938, teenager Otto Jung began to resent the vocals on records he collected. Singers took time away from the real thing…[so he] wrote the Elektrola [sic] company in Berlin asking for a list of strictly instrumental Benny Goodman records.

Even relying on foreign distribution, thousands of miles away from the music’s home, under a political regime that (to put it mildly) complicated jazz consumerism, this young fan was determined to throw out the vocals.

Of course people can select music according to whatever standards they choose. Yet a no-vocals policy would exclude Redman’s unique blend of song, scat, musical comedy and jazz. In its own way, his arrangement is a powerful (if unintentional) act of defiance. Assuming Don Redman knew what he was doing, vocals don’t seem so bad. They might even be “the real thing!”

 McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1928. left to right: Cuba Austin, Prince Robinson, George Thomas, Don Redman, Dave Wilborn, Todd Rhoades, Bob Escudero, seated: John Nesbitt, Claude Jones, Milton Senior, Langston Curl. Care of redhotjazz.com

McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1928. left to right: Cuba Austin, Prince Robinson, George Thomas, Don Redman, Dave Wilborn, Todd Rhoades, Bob Escudero, seated: John Nesbitt, Claude Jones, Milton Senior, Langston Curl. Care of redhotjazz.com

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