Tag Archives: There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland

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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Spelunking: Bix, Red and The Broadway Bellhops

Song titles such “Oh You Lulu Belle,”  “I Found A Round About Way To Heaven” or “There’s A Cradle In Caroline” don’t exactly scream “excitement” from the back of Vintage Music Productions’ CD of the Broadway Bellhops  (a similarly vanilla sounding name).  Even the double entendres of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” or “Tonight’s My Night With Baby” evidence commercial dates, rather than spontaneous, artist-motivated jazz.  Yet after picking this disc up on a recent pilgrimage to J&R, I was still eager to fly home and discover what might pop out from underneath all this corn.   The cover’s promise of “Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Miff Mole and More” kept me on the edge of my seat, track listings aside.

Early jazz collectors accept the fact that their heroes were more likely to record popular fare, often with well-rehearsed dance bands, than to cut loose in the studio over “Tiger Rag,” “Royal Garden Blues” or other jazz warhorses.  We keep coming back for what those heroes accomplish with (or in spite of) the songs or bands.

For example, both the title and forgettable melody of “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” portend an innocuous listening experience.  Thank goodness for Joe Venuti’s violin making a hot, bluesy mockery of the tune!  His between the beat phrasing makes the jerky interlude and bellowing vocalist that follow almost bearable, until they completely fade from memory next to Beiderbecke’s lyrical solo.  He squeezes and spikes the tune with unique melodic and harmonic nuances, while never completely throwing the tune away.  By contrast, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer chooses abstraction rather than augmentation, paring the melody down to the bare essentials, making a ballet out of this square dance.

Venuti, Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and even journeyman trombonist Bill Rank put the arrangement and singer on “Dixieland” miles beside the point.  It’s similarly worth putting up with the  unimaginative score of “I Ain’t That Kind of Baby” to hear Red Nichols turns on the snark with some sarcastic scoops and bends, or sit through the plodding rhythm of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” to hear the horns emerge with a tight, witty passage (not unlike the concertino soloists emerging from the orchestra in a concerto grosso).

Red Nichols & His Orchestra, 1933

Of course recordings such as “Collette” are pure market fodder.  It’s a shame that such a pretty title receives a squeezebox melody and vertical arrangement (while apparently getting recorded underwater with a frog vocalist’s imitation of Mario Lanza); on the other hand, perhaps the musicians ate a good lunch with that session’s paycheck.

Early jazz lovers are also used to bumping into pure, dated banality.  Yet even just a few bars of Beiderbecke’s spirit overcoming the collective, or Joe Tarto’s tuba pushing the beat, makes those encounters worthwhile.  Diamonds aren’t valuable because they fall from the sky or get plucked out of flowerbeds; they’re mined, and coal often makes them seem more brilliant.

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