Tag Archives: tuba

The Later Clarence Williams: As Big As He Wanted

Jazz combos are sometimes praised for sounding like a bigger band—similar to ordering a particular dish because it tastes like something else. Among other roles, bandleader Clarence Williams was an arranger who relished the flavor of a small band. Airy textures, a blend of elegant New Orleans soul and New York intensity, and a core of confident sidemen marked everything from his washboard quartets to the occasional tentet. By the end of the twenties, several of his records (many recorded in pristine sound by Columbia) pointed to great possibilities for “little” bands.

“Log Cabin Blues” features tuba titan Cyrus St. Clair and Williams’s left hand at the piano booming out bass roots. It creates a real atmosphere before repeating at softer volume and providing a ground under guest clarinetist Buster Bailey.

“Red River Blues” on Columbia starts with a dark tuba answered by eerie brass swells and Albert Socarras’s clarinet squeaking like a door hinge on a stormy night. Later, the tuba once again punches out bass notes, now answered by King Oliver’s slightly sour lead over the front line.

With one player per part on instruments ranging from flute down to percussion, Williams also savored contrasts in registers. The Columbia recording of “Mountain City Blues” (taken much slower than the Okeh version) pits clarinet against trombone—like hundreds of big band sides to come. Yet instead of a clarinet soloist wailing over trombone choirs, Williams assigns an orchestrated lead for clarinets (plural) while his regular trombonist Ed Cuffee ad-libs alongside them. It’s a far subtler division between octaves and lead/accompaniment.

Williams also prefigures later periods’ exploitation of contrasting timbres, for example, Cuffee’s lollygagging melody over slumbering saxes on “Breeze” for Columbia.

Yet the crawling tempo is intriguingly chunky, a world away from the smooth ballads that would characterize jazz. Williams’s dependable cornetist Ed Allen is also more brilliant than wistful here.

Of its era, this music integrates soloists into the ensemble (rather than the latter serving as a backdrop for the former). These priorities don’t limit improvisation as much as channel it in interesting directions. Bailey and Arville Harris play the first chorus on Victor’s “In Our Cottage of Love” as a chase for alto and tenor, respectively.

Even many modern combos aren’t bold enough to skip playing the tune straight on the first chorus. Split choruses like this one also seem unfortunately uncommon nowadays. Bass lines on non-rhythm section instruments, like the oscillating sax riff throughout “Them Things Got Me,” are also rare.

At one point, it’s tenor sax alone maintains the riff. Plenty of twenties jazz records include what classical music refers to as a “bassetto,” literally “tiny bass.” All of these ideas had gone the way of soprano sax leads and drummer-free bands by the thirties.

Choosing “High Society” for a 1930 Columbia session with three brass, four reeds, and rhythm section must have seemed nostalgic. Yet Williams shows off his imagination and sense of irony when the well-known clarinet obbligato is played by clarinet section with his signature tuba lead.

Subsequently giving the obbligato to Socarras’s flute looks both backward to the march’s original instrumentation and ahead to flute as a recognized jazz horn.

By the early thirties, jazz was onto bigger bands and slicker arrangements. Williams’s approach may have been too personal to catch on, too stylistically passé to last, or just not loud enough. Williams never emulated larger bands or chased after innovation. He simply made music that reflected his personality and, apparently, never needed more than two trumpets to do it. The creative meets economical, with a beat.

Clarence Williams and his Orchestra (left to right): Albert Socarras, Prince Robinson, Cyrus St. Clair, Clarence Williams, Buddy Christian, Charlie Irvis, Sara Martin, Floyd Casey, Eva Taylor, Ed Allen. Photo courtesy of Confetta Ras.

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Nothing But Sudie Reynaud

In case any producers were wondering, “The Complete Sudie Reynaud” would fit on one compact disc.

A whole CD devoted to an obscure Jazz Age bassist might require some snappy marketing, and many collectors already own this collection via reissues under Reynaud’s more well-known collaborators.  Sudie Reynaud will undoubtedly, and thankfully, remain unknown in every sense of the word.

“Maybe Brass Bass, or Bass Sax, On My Next Album…”

His discography lists him as playing both string bass and tuba, which evidences a basic, and therefore all the more impressive, skill needed to gig in Reynaud’s time.  “Bass” meant both “string” and “brass” varieties during this transitional period in jazz and American pop, so “bass player” meant someone who could double both instruments.   Steve Brown did so reluctantly, preferring his bull fiddle and the chance to unleash a signature slap technique.  Cyrus St. Clair on the other hand preferred to puff rather than pluck: he stuck to brass bass well into the forties, developing jazz tuba into an art decades before Howard Johnson or Bill Lowe.  John Kirby split the difference through clean, fast and clever bass lines on both instruments.  Chink Martin doubled without drawing too much attention to himself on either instrument, yet his foundation and lift can be heard on dozens of recordings.

Reynaud cut just sixteen sides in his life, recorded sporadically between 1926 and 1933 in Chicago.  Like Martin, he serves a functional but spurring role (except for two barely audible sessions on tuba with Fess Williams that can be heard here).  On “High Fever” with Doc Cook’s band, Reynaud catches all the ensemble hits and resonates under the band without overwhelming it, even through a stomping final chorus:

While Freddie Keppard‘s ranging cornet dominates this side as well as “Sidewalk Blues,” Reynaud’s part is simple and well-defined: provide ground rhythm and outline the harmonic skeleton (while doing so musically, as Tom Smith’s comment below explains).  That role doesn’t allow any insight into Reynaud’s influences, his style, or his personality.  All that’s left is pure music, which makes the strutting atmosphere on Jelly Roll Morton‘s tune possible:

If Reynaud were known for nothing other than contributing to “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” he’d have an enviable legacy.  It remains one of the most rhythmic, confident examples of “hot” artistry from this or any other era, and it’s hard to imagine without those roots and fifth punching away underneath:

Five years later Reynaud was back in the studio under the direction of trumpeter and would-be Louis Armstrong rival Reuben Reeves.  The antiphonal lines of reedman Franz Jackson‘s arrangements and the loose, declaratory, Armstrong-inspired language of the soloists illustrate the evolution from hot jazz to nascent big band swing, as do the four steady beats of Reynaud’s string bass, which never steals the show but does make it possible.

He’s felt rather than heard through the swirling darkness of “Zuddan.”  He nourishes the stream of solos on “Mazie” and “Screws, Nuts and Bolts” (which includes the simply dirtiest growl imaginable, courtesy of Reeves).  Only on “Yellow Five” does Reynaud peek out from the curtain, with thwacking strings and a strong four beat slap towards the end of the side:

[Click Here to Listen to “Yellow Five,” by Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys]

There’s no way now to understand him as an artist, no recorded innovations or theatrics to shed some light on him as a human being as well as a sideman (for this listener, his tone isn’t even as distinct as that of Country Washburne, Pete Briggs or John Lindsay).  There aren’t any memoirs, interviews or even biographical entries pertaining to Reynaud, either because no researchers have bothered to look or he died without leaving any to find.  Whoever Sudie Reynaud was, he did his job.  In other words, “Sudie Reynaud,” historical enigma, biographical cipher and musical everyman, is now pure music.  There are far worse fates.

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Now, Give the Tuba Some!

Contrary to (my) previous comments, many do in fact believe that tubas “rule.” In fact Sam Quinones’ article in the LA Times describes a thriving tuba culture among Mexican-Americans in Southern California.

At least two musical communities are probably thrilled to see the brass bass getting some attention in a major newspaper, but they’re probably not surprised. The Norteno ensembles mentioned in this article, as well hot jazz groups influenced by tuba-toting bands of the twenties, have always ignored images of indigestion and fat kids with pimples (even if they kept their red suspenders). For many ensembles, the tuba was, and remains, simply another unique voice.

While most jazz histories treat the tuba as a technical compromise (simply used for projecting outdoors or in large halls), or a vestigial artifact on the way to the string bass’ ascendance as the one true jazz bass, the best tuba players exhibit the “deep warmth” and big rhythm that tubist Jesse Tucker describes in the article. June Cole exudes both qualities and gives the Fletcher Henderson band plenty of swagger on “Henderson Stomp”:

John Kirby would eventually make “the switch” to string bass, but started out with his own distinctly burnished, bumping sound on tuba, and nearly the same agility he would later exhibit on the bull fiddle. On “Wang Wang Blues,” he trades off between booting the band in firm two beat style, and walking four to the bar:

While he never played in the same jazz big leagues, tuba player Joseph “Country” Washburn’s rounded tone, firm beat and (judging from “Piccolo Pete”) sense of humor made him a favorite with dance bands such as those of Ted Weems:

Of course the tuba’s jazz pedigree extends back to the streets of New Orleans. One has to ask, even if those parade bands could have hired a mobile string bass, could they pull off what Nicholas Payton’s (unnamed) sousaphone player does on “Tiger Rag?”

Do these groups swing? Perhaps more like a pendulum than a ride cymbal. Do they sound like “jazz” in a post-Basie, post-Bird world? Maybe not. More importantly, do they make you want to move? Dance?

The story’s out: any instrument can be a powerhouse, if it’s played with imagination and style.  So rock out with your bell out, and repeat after me: “that tuba kicks ass.”

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