Tag Archives: The Missourians

Alias The Cotton Club Orchestra

The Missourians (courtesy of redhotjazz.com)

Prior to recording some of the big band era’s most swinging music, Cab Calloway’s band recorded some of the most stomping jazz as “The Missourians.” Yet even earlier, the group operated as “The Cotton Club Orchestra,” the first house band at the legendary venue. That earlier incarnation is often overshadowed by later versions.

Compared to the Calloway orchestra or The Missourians, and despite mostly static personnel, the CCO might sound restrained, perhaps indistinct. Yet instead of hearing just an earlier, milder version of a familiar group, experiencing its music as the work of the inaugural band for the swankiest club in New York City opens up both its style and excitement.

If the Calloway orchestra swung, and the Missourians stomped, the CCO strutted. It played music for rich patrons who wanted a lowdown good time uptown. The music was bluesily highfalutin, not too clean, not too dirty. On its first recording, the CCO sells “Down And Out Blues” with a blend of energetically straight, cleanly-declaimed section leads and cultivatedly-hot solos over a pounding bass:

Here, “sweet and hot” are more matters of degree than clearcut contrast. “Snag ‘Em Blues” starts off with a showy introduction right out of a Broadway revue before plunging into a downhome hot trumpet chorus, with some slap-tongue baritone sax adding more chug later on:

“Original Two-Time Man” and “Riverboat Shuffle” first come off as peppy but relatively straightforward dance records. On “Charleston Ball,” the CCO’s bright, transparent sax section playing against the brass makes it sound like Fletcher Henderson’s band. Yet the style is in the details:



The fancy trumpet parts on “Riverboat Shuffle” are technically impressive, while DePriest Wheeler’s trombone slurring and barking over Earl Prince’s piano takes the glitzy clientele lowdown. The Hendersonian “Charleston Ball” emphasizes a star trumpeter, in this case Sidney DeParis’s tense muted expositions rather than Louis Armstrong’s instrumental arias. The CCO understood the musical conventions of its time well enough to make those conventions their own yet still recognizable.

A band doesn’t need to be innovative to be original. “Everybody Stomp” makes the uniquely busy, sometimes “over-arranged” quality of twenties orchestration into a tour-de-force:

The second chorus keeps changing the lead in continuous two and four-bar increments; reversing the order for the bridge is another nice touch:

A Redmanesque clarinet trio is followed by a tightly-muted, staccato trumpet. A burbling bass clarinet is followed by a hot squawking trumpet. This side crams so many instrumental combinations into just under three minutes it’s like a hot Brandenburg concerto.

The group’s final recording as the CCO emphasizes soloists and a slightly more even rhythm. Instead of the ensemble introducing the melody on “I’ve Found A New Baby,” trumpet soloist Roger Dickerson gets the honor over a steady 4/4 rhythm. Later on, tenorist Andrew Brown gets a whole solo chorus without an alternating instrument for the bridge. These ideas point ahead to more sophisticated big band charts and the emergence of the soloist as the prime mover in jazz:

At the same time the sax section chorus, with its inner parts moving in contrary motion, points to the contrapuntal sound of the twenties. The soloists themselves are also their own men, confidently of their time. Brown plays a heavy, choppy tenor. Dickerson sounds proud of his instrument’s military origins, striking his notes cleanly, with a slight scoop adding tension. His work also has a touch society band-restraint, especially compared to his fiery outbursts with The Missourians two years later. Here, he comes across like a dicty Bubber Miley. The whole band plays with a refined intensity unique among records from this era.

Dickerson, Wheeler, Brown, Prince, banjoist Charlie Stamps, tubaist Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey all stayed in the band through the early thirties, when Calloway began replacing Missourians. That core membership goes back to violinist Wilson Robinson organizing Robinson’s Syncopators back in St. Louis. That’s four names in roughly a decade (five counting a record with nominal leader Andy Preer listed), each reflecting different musical priorities, ranging from Manhattan via Harlem chic through roaring blues to slick but sincere backing for one of popular music’s largest personalities. All bands have a history. This one has archaeology.

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Archaically Unique and Revealingly Outdated: The Joys of Musical Primitivism

This is a continuation of an earlier post, which I hope will encourage further discussion. Comments are welcome, greatly appreciated and humbly requested…

The earliest examples of any musical style, whether it’s hot jazz, Baroque or Bill Haley, live and die by history. The historically-minded listeners comprising classical and jazz audiences readily admit that “early music” got things to where they are now, just like the Model T made the Lamborghini possible. Yet most of them don’t like to drive anything that’s too old. Despite classic music being much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.

Unlike machines (or medicine, the law and late-night comedians), music doesn’t do anything better or worse over time; it just approaches melody, harmony, rhythm, form and other musical considerations differently. For example when it comes to instrumental interplay and tonal organization, Beethoven wrote more intricate chamber works than his predecessors, and Mozart more circumspect operatic works than his contemporaries. Them Austrian boys’ music is “better” for those seeking complexity or dramatic depth.

Boccherini and Paisiello, writing before Beethoven’s innovations and without the blessing or mutation that created Mozart, concern themselves with melody and directness.  Using just the meager notes they know, they still manage to make music:

Boccerhini: Sextet, Op. 23 No. 1 in E flat, 1. Allegro (Ensemble 415):

Paisiello: “Mi Palpita Il Cor” from ‘Il Mondo della Luna’ (Gloria Banditelli):

Similarly, Charlie Parker’s rhythm section handles their job in a very satisfying and very sophisticated, very specific manner:

Parker’s band epitomizes a concept of jazz rhythm that can be traced back to the revolution in swing started by Count Basie’s All-American rhythm section, was developed and deconstructed following the bop era and which has influenced jazz through to the present. The texture is spacious and airy, with accents that both support and pull at a smooth, even and relaxed beat. The musicians also interact with and respond to soloists, varying their patterns to add color.

Parker’s group does light and interactive really well, but what if the listener is looking for something else? They could check out The Missourians for some jazz that’s really different:

Pianist Earl Prince, banjoist Morris White, tuba player Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey, like so many pre-swing rhythm sections, take their name very literally: they lay out the chords, bass line and ground rhythm, sticking to a punchy background role. Their goal is to create a stage of rhythm for the ensemble and soloists to play over, rather than an accompaniment that’s interesting in and of itself. Musicians who continue to play and find inspiration in this approach explain that supporting the band is the interesting part; locking into a groove and keeping it going for their partners is how they express themselves. That particular groove is not the smooth swing normally associated with jazz. Instead, it’s intense and earthy, based on a very uneven beat, with a chunky feel that give the listener something to bob their head to (sort of like late twenties funk).

In other words, The Missourians have a unique approach to rhythm, just as unique as the Parker rhythm section, or the Basie rhythm section, or the rhythm sections backing Bix Beiderbecke, Albert Ayler or Vijay Iyer. The Missourians’ approach only seems simple, “outdated” or “corny” when judged against a later standard, the equivalent of driving a Model T and expecting a V12 to kick in.

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