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.
Paul Whiteman is not a universally admired figure in jazz history.
That’s about as neutral a way to put it without rehashing arguments about the popular bandleader being called “the king of jazz” or the ratio of jazz content to symphonic or popular elements in his music. Suffice it to say that much of Whiteman’s extensive recorded work is not listed in discographies focusing on jazz.
Still, here’s an interesting record that does not appear to have made the cut:
The gliding full-chorus trombone and growling muted trumpet take up a good portion of the side. Yet even without the ample solo space that defines jazz for many listeners, as an experiment in the wonders of so-called “two-beat jazz,” tap a steady two-beat pulse along with this record. See if your finger, foot, head, etc., is hitting at the same time as the band’s feel. Try to stick to just two steady beats. There’s a lot more going on here rhythmically, even without improvisation.
The first 20 seconds of the record alone are a buffet of syncopation: the intro bouncing between the trombone’s jabbing lead and the band’s upswing; the verse hinting at a bouncing duple even as the sax section’s responses pull at the pulse, and then the chorus hammering the downbeat while the brass lifts the upbeat (and likely dancers’ feet). Even the winding oboe obbligato in the middle of the trombone solo has its own little lilt—not to mention creating an interesting texture.
Whiteman is now associated with texture and symphonic heft, but other than the dramatic interlude between the soloists, this side focuses on rhythm and melodic clarity. It was waxed in October of 1923, around the same time King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band were recording in the Gennett, Okeh, and Columbia studios.
What a fascinating coupling of bands this must have been to pick up at your local record vendor and appreciate back-to-back at home! Imagine contemporary jazz appreciation being as catholic as pre-war music consumption!
Freddie Keppard graced less than thirty recorded sides with his presence, all from within a five-year period that was supposedly way past his prime. Yet collectors, historians and especially musicians still lionize the cornetist to this day. What makes Keppard so special?
Give him fifty seconds:
“Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” starts with Keppard playing lead in an arranged front line. His sound is straight and balanced, neither covering the harmonies nor letting them stick out, serving the section and not himself. Then, a regal ascending figure introduces Keppard as soloist.
His four-note “doo, doo dah-DEE” entrance plays with super subtle variations of note length, pitch, and articulation that shift the tune’s theme across bar lines. His vibrato is a deeply personal touch that makes sustained notes into signatures. He pulls back as the musical line descends, setting up for a more even, three-note, short-short-long variation of the first phrase capped by a relaxed longer note and the descending phrase more assertive this time.
The third phrase is utter swagger, with slight delays and anticipations that defy notation. The final lick practically yells “come on, come on!” before doing a two-step.
That was just eight bars.
The second eight bars work off similar variation, including a brief on-the-beat phrase perhaps parodying players not as hip as Keppard. The bridge, on the other hand, starts with the side of Keppard lost amidst his more pugilistic outbursts on record and stories about his prodigious taste for alcohol: the well-rounded musician who could play soft and sensitively whether it was with blues or society bands.
Then, another held note and an opening of tone—not a crescendo of volume but of timbre—leading into a spiky, syncopated line pointing back to the “Spanish tinge” and the Charleston.
The last section of this first chorus begins with little more than a grace note into the longest note of the chorus and Keppard eliding the melody into sheer tone, letting the chomping rhythm section pop through. Unlike Bechet’s vibrato (and more like Bechet’s tone), Keppard’s vibrato cuts as it shakes. It throbs ahead of the beat as well as on top of the pitch. Keppard could make a whole note stomp.
From there, syncopated eighth and quarter notes keep the groove going into the bugling sound from the introduction, bridging into Keppard once again leading the band.
Less than a minute, no chordal extemporization but plenty of rhythmic nuance and color, with lots of space and even more attitude. This style of improvisation, which treats the melody as a road rather than a suggested destination, is sometimes referred to “melodic paraphrase.” Imagine telling Freddie Keppard that.
Each Harrison Records LP is indexed with just one letter. The Harrison catalog starts with Harrison A, including the famous Glen Gray band as well as the lesser-known Mack Rogers band, and runs through a Stu Pletcher compilation on Harrison X. That index typifies the charming modesty underneath this label’s wide range of hot music. I’m still searching for Y and Z.
Harrison records also sport endearingly simple graphics, an immediately recognizable and welcome sight in record stores bins and flea market crates. A Harrison logo means something interesting from slightly outside the twenties Top 40. It might be something unissued elsewhere. It’s often music that might not meet more doctrinaire definitions of “hot music, traditional jazz,” or whatever one might label the sounds on the vinyl.
It seems like Harrison’s producer cared more about rhythm, texture and open-eared history than categories. There is plenty of jazz, especially from obscure territory bands. Yet there are also opportunities to appreciate the color and craftsmanship of non-improvising dance bands and even some “sweet’ outfits. Harrison introduced me to the joys of Eubie Blake’s big band—treading greyer and greyer areas between jazz and show music—as well as Adrian Schubert’s elegantly hot dance music and Henny Hendrickson’s Louisville Serenaders in all their thumping glory:
The engineering delivers the music clearly and the information on the back covers is beautifully no-frills: dates, personnel, and an occasional note about the music, but no extended essays or personal reflections. There is plenty of white space for the listener to literally or figuratively write their own notes (many of my Harrisons are pockmarked with discographical shorthand). In a time before Google, this music had to speak for itself.
Tom Crowley’s “Doc’oligy” appears on Harrison C, Let’s Start With Jack Teagarden, which lists nothing other than unidentified personnel, a date in 1935 and “Atlanta.” A note mentions that Casa Loma trumpeter Grady Watts played with the Crowley band years earlier, but the bare context makes this track’s pumping wail that much more mysterious:
Unlike Frog or Jazz Oracle, Harrison came and went before the internet. When I first started finding Harrison records, its staff and mission were a mystery. The only thing I knew was that at some time (the seventies or eighties, from the look and wear of the records), someone took it upon themselves to bring over two dozen LPs of music from the twenties and thirties into the world. Then it ended up on my turntable to let me hear Hal Denman and the hotter side of Kay Kyser. On paper, that simply sounds like any record company. Through my speakers, it was a miracle.
The credits were as self-effacing as the packaging They listed collectors who contributed 78s, a sound engineer and occasionally a cover artist. The only clue to the genesis of these records was a label on each: “Produced and Distributed By Edward H. Reynolds,” with an address in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Wakefield is a fine town on Massachusetts’s North Shore yet (to the best of my knowledge) not famous for its music scene or record industry. What was going on in Wakefield?
It turns out Ed Reynolds was going on in Wakefield, and he was all that was needed to make Harrison happen.
A Google search revealed that Edward Harrison Reynolds passed away recently enough that I could have interviewed him had my curiosity struck sooner. In addition to a record producer, he was also a decorated veteran, a husband, and a father. His son Bill has played drums with nationally known local favorites The Back Bay Ramblers and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. I reached Bill through his website, and he was kind enough to share the following memories with me:
My father was a passionate record collector and hot jazz aficionado. He had about 4,000 78s in his collection and loved everything about traditional jazz, including hunting all over the Northeast for rare records.
During the 50s, he and three fellow record collectors would get together every Saturday night for a listening session. They would take turns hosting the session, with the host supplying the music (and the food). The music was arranged in setlists, much like a bandleader would do before a gig.
The host offered no information about the tracks. It was a “blindfold” game: each listener would be given a pencil and paper to write down information about each track while it was playing, like the name of the band, the label it was recorded on, the year of the recording, and any additional information about the musicians. They had a complicated point system that determined the winner of each session. Each guy owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would freely share music from their collections.
Dad just loved these listening sessions, especially sharing the music. He decided that more people needed to be exposed to the music that he loved, so he researched the process for having some of his favorite music from his own collection professionally copied, packaged, and pressed.
The newly pressed records would be sent to his home, and he would advertise in all of the traditional jazz magazines. He personally packed them and shipped the records. It was a one-man operation! He probably broke even financially but stuck to his original plan of doing 26 volumes, one for each letter of the alphabet.
The Harrison Records story did not stop there. Apparently not one to rest on his laurels or his record collection, Ed moved on to producing hot music by contemporary practitioners and knew just where to start. Bill explained further…
After finishing the first 26 volumes, Dad asked me what I thought about organizing a recording band made up of the best traditional musicians on the east coast and recording studio albums under the Harrison Records label. He would choose all of the songs and would market the records in the same manner as his previous releases. Other considerations were the musical arrangements, studio time, and paying the musicians.
We named the band “The Back Bay Ramblers.” It was my father’s dream band: trumpet, trombone, two reed players, piano, bass/tuba, banjo, and drums, and vocalists. The band members contributed arrangements in the style that my dad loved: tightly arranged ensembles featuring the horn sections with plenty of hot jazz solos and a driving rhythm section. Most of the songs were chosen by my dad. Bob Connors, the great trombone player and bandleader, was the principal arranger and musical director.
Photo courtesy of nejazz.com.
We recorded three albums for Harrison and another four CDs for Bob Erdos’s Stomp Off label. The band also performed concerts and at many jazz festivals on the East Coast. However, due to the size of the band, most available venues couldn’t financially support us. It got harder and harder to get bookings.
In his last few years, my dad would always suggest that I put the band back together. I was busy doing other gigs, teaching, and raising a family, and just didn’t have the time. I had retired from my teaching gig at about the same time that my dad got sick. After he passed away, I put the band back together for a series of tribute concerts honoring him.
That pretty much covers the whole story. It was a labor of love. It was Harrison Records.
It is a testament to Mr. Reynolds that it still is Harrison Records. It’s just a pity that the alphabet wasn’t longer.
Edward H. Reynolds. Photo courtesy of McDonald Funeral Homes of Wakefield, MA.
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?
One of the joys as well as frustrations of listening to early jazz is discovering styles or “schools” that were absorbed into others, or just closed down before enrollment got too high. “No one plays like that anymore…” may seem like a challenge waiting to be met, inviting some musicologist to illustrate the unacknowledged influence of an obscure player or a seasoned professional to shout that they’ve listened to that musician for decades…unless you’re referring to Bill Moore or Woody Walder. Some musical styles simply go the way of clothing styles.
The idea of jazz as a perennially forward-thinking, relentlessly hip music seems to go back to the music’s origins. Playing in an old-fashioned manner or even liking the wrong band was a real source of embarrassment, as demonstrated by a young Bud Freeman actually apologizing for playing like Jack Pettis. “Pardon me for playing collegiate, that Northwestern style,” he allegedly said to another musician, “but what can you do on a tenor sax?” Coleman Hawkins would soon answer Freeman, but how did those poor saxophonists fare until then?
Richard Sudhalter explains that the “Chicago school of tenor, Northwestern style” or “playing collegiate” was the light-toned style popularized by Jack Pettis. Pettis is now known primarily among record collectors and early jazz aficionados, but in his time he was a groundbreaking jazz musician. David Garrick provides extensive details about Pettis’s life and professional career on his website, yet the origins of Pettis’s style are still up for speculation. Squirrel Ashcraft said that Pettis taught himself to play saxophone between work in a government office. The rest is up for speculation. However Pettis did it, he earned himself a seat with the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His saxophone fits in well with the standard frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, often adding a middle register harmony for the trumpet or sailing into the upper register without crashing into Leon Roppolo’s clarinet.
Pettis would go on to become a star soloist with Ben Bernie’s popular dance orchestra, playing what many consider the first saxophone solo on film with Bernie as well as leading several of his own sessions.
Sudhalter describes the Pettis style as having a light sound and a loping beat, generating momentum through chains of eighth notes. It was far from the wail of Bud Freeman’s other early Chicago saxophone hero, Paul Biese. Pettis also took a vastly different approach from Chicago bandleader’s Isham Jones dark timbre and tendency to stick close to the melody with occasional embellishment. Judging by Bill Richards’s solos on “Choo Choo Blues, She’s A Mean Job” and other sides with Frank Westphal’s popular Chicago band, this plummy, huffing style seems to have been yet another approach to the instrument. Trumpeter Paul Mares described “Chicago style” as “composed of, conventionally, four pieces: piano, drums, banjo, and sax. The sax was played like Ted Lewis plays clarinet and the rhythm beat a tired, heavy, pounding that threatened to splinter the tavern floor. Boy, it was terrible…” So much for the consistency of labels!
As an older man, Freeman seems far more deferential to Pettis and his own Chicago style. His autobiography recalls Pettis as “the first swinging tenor player I ever heard” and the “first guy to become a professional success with that style” as well as “the king of that style.” Yet he needn’t have felt so embarrassed in the first place: Sudhalter points out that the Pettis school was the dominant style among white saxophonists of the early twenties. Several jazz records from that era bear that description out. George Johnson’s solo on “Copenhagen” with The Wolverines is perhaps the most well-known example:
Johnson’s solo would become part of this composition, eventually being transcribed into the sheet music, but other recordings of the tune include saxophonists clearly under Johnson’s spell and by extension the Northwestern style. These include an unnamed tenor soloist with Al Turk as well as Floyd Townes with Elmer Schoebel:
Interestingly enough, Johnson uses a lusher tone for the straight melody reading on “Susie” while swinging out, Northwestern style, towards the end of his solo on “I Need Some Pettin’” and the breaks on “Jazz Me Blues.”
As Sudhalter points out, the Northwestern players built on the arpeggiated figures and legato attack of the clarinet while adding the creamy tone and vibrato of the alto saxophone. The style was something of a hybrid. Clarinetist and historian Eric Seddon points out how saxophones “benefit from knotty phrases which snake and double back on themselves” while the clarinet’s larger range and timbre open up the possibilities of arpeggios. In other words, the two instruments are just that: different instruments lending themselves to distinct technical/expressive routes. Hawkins’s force of musical personality on saxophone as well as his sheer technical confidence would have impressed regardless of instrument. Yet it must have been a revelation for young saxophonists to hear such an idiomatic style for their instrument. Hawkins and other players explored how to play the saxophone without making it sound like a large brass clarinet, a more agile trumpet, a cello, etc.
At the same time, Pettis’s slippery, agitated style was still just plain hot. These solos still resound with their own unique nervous energy, an intensity that characterizes the best jazz of this period (and which would fade in favor of smoother, more laid-back styles coming out of the south).
The use of vibrato as well as the busy vertical lines delineate this style from the sound that Frank Trumbauer and Lester Young would eventually bestow upon the jazz world. Pettis and disciples such as Bostonian Perley Breed may have played lighter but were anything but “cool.” Even at slower tempos, the notes seem to jitter in mid-air.
Perhaps the style caught on at college campuses due to its manic energy, an appropriate sound for the roaring twenties. All of those twenty-somethings probably thought they were far more advanced than Biese and Jones. So much for feeling embarrassed!
Twenties modernist Fud Livingston sounds like he was influenced by Pettis, albeit adding his own slightly acerbic tone and jagged phrasing:
When Livingston left Pollack’s band, Larry Binyon played in a similar yet somehow less busy style. Binyon received much less solo space than Livingston (due, in part, to the ascendancy of Goodman and Teagarden as the primary soloists). Maybe on record he didn’t have as much room to stretch out, or simply lacked the desire to do so. Either way, Binyon sounds closer to Pettis on “Whoopee Stomp” with Irving Mills and on the final bridge to “Little Rose Covered Shack” with Pollack. At other times Binyon plays with a more mellifluous society band sound. This type of musical chameleoning seemed to be all in a day’s work for these musicians, and its ubiquity makes it all the more remarkable.
Sudhalter notes Pettis’s influence as primarily a product of the early twenties. By the middle of the decade, Coleman Hawkins was a firmly established presence within the jazz community, the premier soloist with one of the Fletcher Henderson’s popular and critically admired band. By the time young Max Kaminsky told one of his bandmates that he was a fan of Perley Breed, the trumpeter described being “puzzled and a little hurt when he smiled at my answer.” Nobody wants to be old-hat, and things move pretty quickly in American music.
Thankfully, a few musicians didn’t seem to get the memo. So we have Don Murray’s excellent solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette:
Almost a year later, Pettis himself receives an entire chorus to himself, starting out a dance record with an improvised solo on a pop tune recorded by the more commercially-oriented Bernie band. Pettis may have now been living in Hawkins’s world but he still had things to say on his own terms.
George Snurpus and Ralph Rudder, in their only recorded appearances, still sound like they are learning things from Pettis.
As late as 1944, Boomie Richman’s Lester Youngish bridge on Muggsy Spanier’s “Rosetta” has traces of the Pettis style:
So much for historical benchmarks!
Of course, parsing out influences and tracing styles isn’t a science (and who would want it to be that precise?) At the very least, the “Pettis style” is a helpful concept that opens up vestigial approaches to an instrument now virtually synonymous with “jazz” and a handful of definitive players. Before Hawkins, Young, Parker and Coltrane, there was Jack Pettis, and he played exciting music that influenced other musicians. What could be hipper than that?
Thanks to Sue Fischer for providing that Paul Mares quote!
Thanks to Ralph A. Miriello for inspiring me to write my own list!
Harold Peterson tossing off some Larry Shields-inspired descant over The Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band:
Gene Fosdick chirping an introductory verse for his Hoosiers:
My hero Buster Bailey, with the unenviable job of subbing for Sidney Bechet alongside Louis Armstrong, on a Clarence Williams Blue Five date and getting a whole paraphrase chorus to himself:
Sidney Bechet’s pupil and Duke Ellington star Johnny Hodges, spare and declaratory with a Perry Bradford group:
Someone’s crisp, bouncy soprano peeking out from the ubiquitous Ben Selvin orchestra:
Baltimore-born and New York-based Percy Glascoe switching between clarinet and soprano, while playing both in a similarly agitated style, with Lem Fowler’s Jim-Dandies:
If you like this sort of thing, I wrote a little more about this group here and here. Moving right along…
Stump Evans and then the redoubtable Omer Simeon, respectively wailing and bluesy with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators:
Boyd Atkins with Louis Armstrong and His Stompers:
Incidentally, Atkin’s soprano solo (as well as Joe Walker’s solo on baritone) always sounded just great alongside Armstrong and Earl Hines to me. Yet John Chilton’s description of it as merely “effective” left me slightly embarrassed by my own ears. So I finally felt vindicated by Mr. Miriello including Atkins between Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges on his list! There’s also…
Harlan Leonard putting down his lead alto with Bennie Moten’s band for some soprano boogie:
then some soprano hoedown:
The little-known but very talented Goof Moyer on his own record date and with just a rhythm section behind him, burning up Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:
I hope you enjoyed the music.
Addendum: Percussionist and eagle-eye/ear Hal Smith spotted that the above clip erroneously labeled a picture of Albert Nicholas as Omer Simeon. Here is a photograph of Mr. Simeon care of Michael Steinman’s outstanding blog:
Better researchers than me might find out what or who led to Ken Moyer receiving the nickname “Goof.” It’s safe to say that it didn’t help his legacy. Neither did Moyer leaving just a few years of recordings to that name, often as a sideman in big bands led by Joe Candullo, Sam Lanin and Fred Rich and many others.
Which is the why “The Stampede” is such an ear opener:
That’s Moyer on mellophone, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, making his own hot solo vehicle out of a Fletcher Henderson tune that already scorches in its usual big band settings. Moyer refashions the call and response introduction on mellophone, paring it down to a punchy, descending riff. He then elasticizes the main theme with syncopation and his wailing soprano sax. His bass clarinet won’t endanger Eric Dolphy’s status as a pioneer on the instrument but still adds it own distinct color and burbling energy.
Taken from the three sessions by Ken Moyer’s Novelty Trio, “The Stampede” is one of six sides featuring Moyer accompanied by just piano, drums and some very spare violin. Moyer plays all of the instruments on “Stampede” plus alto saxophone and clarinet throughout these sessions. There is a certain novelty to his playing so many instruments, and he does engage in some gaspipe clarinet and proto-Boots Randolph sax on other sides. Yet the doubling on “The Stampede” seems to be more a matter of creativity than gimmick: he plays all of these instruments well and creates exciting, interesting, not simply “goofy” music with them.
The format for each session seems to be one hot number coupled with a slightly more novelty-based one. “Mellophone Stomp,” written by Moyer and seemingly based on “Tiger Rag,” is the other jazz tune on the other two sessions and it also avoids musical shtick (if not reaching the same level of excitement):
Tracks for horn plus rhythm from this period are welcome opportunities to hear how soloists during the so-called rise of the jazz soloist handled improvisation outside of collective ensembles or not sandwiched between band sections. “The Stampede” may or may not be Moyer’s best solo on record (I’d say so but I’m no Moyeranic, or even Moyerphile). It is definitely one of his longest solos, highlighting a unique multi-instrumentalist at play in a looser jazz setting. It’s interesting to speculate on the results of further Trio sessions or ones with a better rhythm section (perhaps keeping Ray Bauduc on drums but with a livelier pianist than Moyer’s boss Fred Rich).
According to Lord’s jazz discography Moyer’s last recording was in December 1926, about a month after his last trio session. Pianist Charlie LaVerereports that by 1932 Moyer was leading a band around Oklahoma City. Subsequent newspaper clippings show that Moyer’s territory band kept busy for several years in Texas, with gigs in Kentucky, Arkansas, New Orleans and Kansas City. By that time, he was simply “Ken Moyer” and it’s a small wonder why. Would anyone want to be a goof forever?
“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:
It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.
He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC, the son of James A. and Tempie Jordan Whitted. According to one of Ben Whitted’s descendants (via ancestry.com), his father was a Baptist minister, so Whitted may have had first exposure to music in the church. Reverend Whitted was also an author and one of the first African-American mail carriers in the city. His mother was the founder of the missionary society at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. Ben attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.
A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:
The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:
Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.
The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.
Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.
On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:
He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:
Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.
Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:
Gravier Street Blues
“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:
He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:
With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:
Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):
It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)
Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:
The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:
In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.
By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters Bernice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.
He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:
The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:
Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses. It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.
The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.
Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.
It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:
Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:
Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:
Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).
Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.
The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.
It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.
Virtually all of Dillon Ober’s legacy as a jazz musician was recorded with just two bandleaders over a four and a half year period and without a single solo. It’s a modest discography, perhaps appropriate for such an unflashy drummer, but it illustrates an energetic, at times arresting spirit behind the kit.
How Ober began playing is unclear but he obviously started young. Born April 8, 1904 in West Virginia, by 1919 young Dillon was already listed as a “musician” in the Clarksburg town directory. He cut his first record in 1922 playing marimba with the Mason-Dixon Seven Orchestra. The band included future dance band star Ted Weems and his brother Art and was popular at West Virginia University. It also traveled as far as University of Michigan and the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania as well as New York City to cut one unissued take of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Columbia with the young marimba player. The Seven might have also worked in Philadelphia, or perhaps Ober was in town solely for his wedding to Alice “Nellie” Broadwater in 1922. The young couple lived with Ober’s (apparently very patient) parents through 1925 while he continued to work as a musician.
Ober no doubt continued to gig and gain experience, including on drum set. By December 1926, he was confident enough to return to New York City and record with saxophonist Jack Pettis and several of Pettis’s fellow sidemen from Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Bernie led an incredibly popular and well-respected band. Playing with its crack sidemen as well as jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in the music capital of the world must have excited the twenty-two year old pro from down South. He sticks to rhythmic background for most of “He’s The Last Word” but bears down harder behind the leader’s red-hot saxophone:
Ober’s drumming is more like great seasoning than a whole recipe: it flavors the performance and never overpowers the whole, occasionally jumping out before fading back into the mix. Ober is back on drums at Pettis’s next session and while it’s hard to hear Ober on “I Gotta’ Get Myself Somebody To Love,” it’s easy to feel his contribution to the side’s breezy momentum:
Ober sounds downright electrified on a Pettis date with guest clarinetist Don Murray. This was Ober’s sixth session in New York since his arrival, including one directed by Bernie’s arranger Kenn Sisson, and he must have been making a name for himself. Murray’s jittery arpeggios obviously contribute to the bright mood. The up-tempo “Hot Heels” lives up to its name:
Even at a medium tempo, “Dry Martini” picks up steam from Murray’s reedy phrases and Ober’s simple but spurring “1…1,2…” behind them:
Perhaps feeling more comfortable at his next record session (his first with the famous Victor label), Ober varies his technique more for “Bag O’Blues”:
He alternates cymbal backbeats and syncopations next to Nick Gerlach’s violin but sticks to a simpler beat behind trumpeter Bill Moore and Murray, allowing guitarist Eddie Lang to push the soloists and change up the rhythmic texture. Ober then switches to wood blocks behind Moore’s solo, while the “ting” and “swish” of his cymbals behind Lang’s solo add even more contrast. Far from just keeping time, Ober varies his beats, plays tasteful fills and inserts himself just enough to add color at key points. He chimes behind Bill Moore’s chatter on “Doin’ The New Low Down” and also taps an interesting paraphrase of Gerlach’s paraphrase, as Gerlach plays it, on woodblocks:
Ober would play drums on all of Pettis’s sessions as a leader. Pettis started out with no less than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings before becoming Ben Bernie’s star soloist. His light, swinging “Chicago style” sax enlivens every recording it’s on, he penned hot instrumentals such as “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Up And At ‘Em” and his Band, Orchestra, Pets and Lumberjacks produced some of the hottest jazz of the pre-swing era. Ober must have been doing something right if Pettis liked his drumming.
Pettis and possibly some of his sidemen must have spread the word: Ober took over the drum chair in Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. He’s off to a brilliant start on record with Bernie, waxing “Ten Little Miles From Town” and “When Polly Walks Through The Hollyhocks,” two sugary titles that really move (and include alternate takes without vocals) as well as Kenn Sisson’s novel arrangement of Joseph Northrup’s “Cannon Ball Rag”:
Highlights include Ober’s backbeat on the last chorus of “Ten Little Miles” and the way that he and pianist Al Goering gradually add more decoration to the end of each vocal phrase on “Polly.” Ober also really digs in behind the trumpet and trombone on “Cannon Ball.” The Bernie band was based out of the swank Hotel Roosevelt in midtown Manhattan. While not expressly a jazz band and even with tightly arranged charts, it played with energy as well as elegance and left room for dynamic ensembles and soloists. “Rhythm King” and “I Want To Be Bad” are models of crisp, buoyant and warm twenties dance grooves:
Playing with Bernie at the Hotel Roosevelt would have kept Ober occupied and financially stable but the drummer continued to record with Pettis’s side groups. He got to play with young jazz luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey through working with Pettis, and for one date worked under the direction of vocalist and impresario Irving Mills. Word of mouth went far in the Manhattan musical community of the time and work was plentiful, so it’s likely Ober picked up work outside of the studio. Ober’s drive as well as sense of balance on “At The Prom” is a fine sample of his portfolio:
Ober and the propulsive (still unidentified) string bassist take turns driving the band. The bass does the heavy lifting behind the vocal and the violin while Ober plays cymbals behind the sax, stopping after the break to avoid monotony, then alternates open and closed hits for the bridge of the trumpet solo. He’s clearly thinking about how to deliver rhythm as well as variety, something the well-connected, band-booking Mills must have heard. Back with Pettis’s Pets for “Bugle Call Blues,” Ober plays crisp press rolls behind the trombone and piano, indicating he probably listened to New Orleans expatriates or their Chicago disciples:
Ober’s doubling ability would have also made him a versatile hire. He had started on record playing marimba, and his xylophone obbligato behind Pettis’s first chorus bridge on the Victor pressing of “Freshman Hop” is a short but catchy hint of Ober’s inventive touch at the keys:
“I’m In Seventh Heaven” by the Bernie band has a catchy lilt, but Ober’s gliding xylophone obbligato, combined with Merill Klein’s slap bass and the low-register clarinet (perhaps played Manny Prager, Pettis’s sub?) steals the show:
On September 18, 1929, Ober, Ben Bernie and several members of the Bernie band arrived in England to play at London’s fashionable Kit Cat Club. Mark Berresford indicates that unfortunately the band was poorly received by the press. Ober and his colleagues returned to the States a month later. That same year, Bernie lost his longtime spot at the swanky Hotel Roosevelt and lost much of his savings in the stock market crash. He handed leadership of the band over to Jack Pettis in April 1930, moving onto less jazz-oriented groups for radio while Pettis led the band through the end of the year.
Ober made his last credited record, for Bernie and forever, in 1931 (Wikipedia claims that Ober also worked with Ace Brigode but neither Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography nor Brian Rust’s The American Dance Band Discographylist Ober playing with Brigode). Working with Bernie must have earned Ober something of a reputation so it’s likely he continued to work outside of record sessions. He lists his occupation as “hotel musician” on the 1930 census, and The Premier Drum Company thought enough of Ober to include a photo of him eyeing one of their products alongside several other noted musicians in its 1930 catalog.
The 1930 census shows Dillon and Nellie Ober living in Queens, but by 1934 he begins to appear in credits for movies made in California, starting with the comedy short “Old Maid’s Mistake,” followed by “Every Night At Eight” in 1935 and “The Country Doctor” and “The Crimes Of Dr. Forbes” in 1936. Ober wasn’t a complete stranger to acting, having already appeared in the 1928 Broadway musical Here’s Howe (with music by bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn and introducing the standard “Crazy Rhythm”). He didn’t seem to need much theatrical range for film, given roles such as “comedy singer, piano player” and “trick drummer.” More importantly, Ober had an entryway into the West Coast studios. By 1937, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Ober was “…on Walt Disney’s payroll out in Hollywood, tapping out sounds in animated talkies.” Ober’s un-credited work from this period might not have been glamorous but it was steady and he seemed to enjoy it.
Musician Don Ingle, who described Ober as “…one of the great drummers who disappeared into the movie studios in California and was rarely known outside of that arena in the years of large studio orchestra staffs” provides a very personal portrait of Ober during those years in California:
Dillon Ober was a very nice man, looking as I recall a lot like Robert Benchley. We used to go to visit at his place in the Valley not far from our home, as Dad [big band sideman “Red” Ingle] and he had become good friends in the thirties through their mutual friend Orm [Ormand] Downes, another of the unsung but superb drummers who had shared the stand with Dad for much of the thirties in the Ted Weems band. Dillon and Orm and Dad often gathered to socialize when not working, and Dillon’s home was often the site of poker parties, barbeques and a pleasant place to visit. I learned by listening to [Ober’s] descriptions of working with the great musical directors of Hollywood and how they scored the films, a very technical and critically timed process. They would also tell war stories from the big band days and talk about the players they’d come up with in the business.
Ober may have also played for the military after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942, as it’s unlikely the thirty-eight year old would have been placed into combat at the height of World War Two. He passed away just five years later, barely middle-aged and outlived by his father.
It’s clear that Ober didn’t record much and perhaps easy to suggest he didn’t “do” much behind the drum set, but he played exactly what was needed for his fellow musicians. Record after record reveals a no-frills, reliable, rhythmic drummer with his own subtle but instantly galvanizing personality. As for how much he recorded, in this case something is far better than nothing. Ober’s modest style and modest discography make for some very distinguished music.
For the completest Dillon Ober, check out Retrieval’s excellent Ben Bernie album and try to hunt down the now discontinued Jack Pettis double CD set from the King’s Crossing label. For a whole other look at Ober and a good laugh, please check out Michael Steinman’s notes here.