A good friend recently shared this record with me, the listing for which in various discographies regularly sparked my curiosity:
This is one of my favorite songs/arrangements, with Fletcher Henderson’s version widely considered a crucial recorded example of developments in jazz arrangement and improvisation at the time, here interpreted by another band, in their own personal way, and demonstrating how other national cultures absorbed American popular music of the twenties. In other words, it is a goldmine.
José M. Melzak’s orchestra dba as Orchestra Merton plays with a crisp, metronomic beat and staccato phrasing that might seem like the antithesis of jazz or even the most classically-tinged ragtime. Yet dismissal is rarely as interesting as curiosity: what did this group of presumably mostly German and likely all European musicians, probably classically trained, whose exposure to jazz and American dance music was perhaps secondhand, see and hear in the score for “The Stampede?” What regional dances did they have in mind playing the chart? Musicians often have to play for an audience, so what were the audience expectations Melzak’s band was trying to satisfy? Instead of calculating what they missed, it’s ear-opening to consider what they might have done right.
At the very least, this band’s firm ensemble sections, transparent textures, and precise intonation are commendable; it’s like “The Stampede” filtered through the woodwinds and brass of a symphony orchestra. The airtight ensemble stop-time transition into the second chorus (at 0:31 in the above clip) sounds like one instrument. The minor key second strain (at 1:28) acquires a spooky musical theater vibe, with the trombone’s operatic vibrato and those tongue-in-cheek cymbal crashes. The soprano saxophone peeking out slightly on the penultimate chorus, halfway between an obbligato and a harmony part, is another subtle but novel touch.
Grammophon-platten.deexplains that “The Stampede” was recorded at Melzak’s penultimate recording session. Melzak had led a popular ensemble in Berlin for several years, playing various venues and events as well as recording frequently before having to leave Germany when the Nazis took power. After that, his musical activity was sporadic. The website also notes this record as Melzak’s “’hottest’ title.” Yet his discography also includes numbers such as “Everybody Stomp,” “Oh, Baby” and “Last Night On The Back Porch,” indicating that a little American hot music kept the band gigging. Judging by “The Stampede,” it also got this band thinking and reacting to new things. Now it’s the listener’s turn.
The Melzak band circa 1926. Photo from grammophon-platten.de
The Broadway Bellhops were far from the hottest act of the twenties. One of many recording bands in New York City, bandleader Sam Lanin gathered the leading jazz players of the time to diligently read arrangements of the latest popular songs. This music set out to deliver a tune rather than showcase musicians.
Those musicians, however, performed with assembly line efficiency and concert virtuoso polish. Improvisation and rhythmic intensity were cleverly stitched into a larger musical whole. The trombone chorus starting “I Don’t Believe You” sticks to the melody but is far from faceless: melodic, masculine, not “swinging” but still rhythmically sharp, it’s like an actor giving life to their lines:
[The music is hyperlinked above but please share a video if you have one!]
In the last chorus, a three-part, collectively improvised frontline opens a hot concerto grosso, the trombonist returns for the final bridge and sweet collides with hot as a clarinet pipes over the big theatrical finale.
Somehow, though, the piano accompaniment behind Charles Hart’s vocal is the most interesting part, due to its subtlety. The accompaniment is halfway between song-plugger style and rag-a-jazz, ever so slightly at odds with Hart’s approach. There’s a tension at work that even fans used to these juxtapositions would have noticed, though not balked over.
Time has not been kind to Hart, Irving Kaufman, Scrappy Lambert and others singing with the Bellhops. Their sound now inspires a wide variety of judgments. Depending on one’s opinion, the instrumental obbligatos behind their vocals are either novel contrasts or pure subterfuge. The clarinetist on “Away Down South In Heaven” pushes and pulls at Kaufman’s downbeat while still harmonizing with the lead and never distracting from the vocal. These were professionals. They may not have been making art but they never sounded sloppy or unconvincing.
Two takes of “Get Out And Get Under The Moon” show the thought behind these products, first trying a restrained piano behind Lambert and then well-timed, charming saxophone licks:
Ensemble effects such as the upper-register clarinet with muted trumpet on “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” recall the orchestrated Dixieland sound described by David Sager in his liner notes for Off The Record’s reissue of The Wolverines:
That voicing resembles Sager’s description of “the first available harmony line below the cornet lead, while the clarinet took the first available harmony above the lead.” This was a “standard voicing” of the time, so it was likely a well-known device for enhancing stock arrangements. Similar ideas pop up on “Mary Ann” under Lanin’s name or Lanin d.b.a. Billy Hays on “I’d Rather Cry Over You.”
This band-within-a-band sound and allusion to small group jazz in an arranged setting exemplify the style-splitting popular music of that time. That context is sometimes lost when fast-forwarding to the solos.
Solos like those of Tommy Gott on “Our Bungalow of Dreams,” Red Nichols on “Collette” or Bix, Tram and Don on the Bellhops’ most well-known session are worthy of attention. They defamiliarize the hot/sweet dichotomy and an extra eight bars would have been welcome:
Yet there is much to admire on these sides even without improvisation. Who else could pull off a soprano-sax led soli like the one on “There’s Everything Nice About You” not to mention the tight brass section of just three players sounding like six?
“She’s A Great, Great Girl” features brilliant lead playing by Larry Abbott on lead alto and Gott on first trumpet. Abbott does cover up the rest of the section, effectively making this his moment. He plays with an unabashedly syrupy tone and varied phrasing, digging in at times, creamy at others:
His lead is more transparent after the vocal, another contrast as well as an indication of deliberate design. The side ends with a half-chorus of piano and soft-shoeing cymbals, adding still more structural, dynamic and textural flavor. Details like these are why this music still resounds as flesh and blood performances, rather than disposable pop artifacts or nostalgia.
If you have your own favorite finds from the Broadway Bellhops, please share them in the comments!
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?
“Bugle Call Rag.” It’s right there in the title: military signals getting ragged or swung, something official getting a good destarching by popular culture, the irony of dancing to the sounds of battle. By the time Hal Denman and His Orchestra recorded “Bugle Call Rag,” nine years had passed since the New Orleans Rhythm Kings waxed their tune for the first time but it remained in band books the whole time. It was firmly a jazz number by the time Denman got around to it on record, giving a fresh layer of irony to his band’s para-military colors throughout their performance:
The famous opening break is delivered as a literal bugle call, at first almost seeming like a parody, until the clipped phrasing stays right through to the hot lick before the whole band, and especially the brass, picks it up. The saxophones smooth things out just slightly while the brass soli breaks are straight out of a marching band. So are the clarinet-led reed section and the drummer’s fills.
By comparison, Cab Calloway’s recording of the same arrangement is much looser in terms of rhythm and articulation:
Denman’s band steps while Calloway’s group swaggers. Lammar Wright’s lead trumpet is big and bright, owing more to Louis Armstrong than Herbert L. Clarke. The saxes really sell their phrases with a warmer blend and more pronounced embellishment. From a jazz perspective, the biggest difference may be Calloway’s ample room for soloists. The entire trumpet section has a say, starting with Wright’s lead through Edwin Swayzee’s muted “trickeration” to Reuben Reeves’s high notes. Denman’s trumpet soloist loosens up slightly but holds onto a slight buzz and click. Denman’s tenor saxophonist doesn’t display the same technical facility as Foots Thomas with Calloway, and Arville Harris’s clarinet obbligato with Calloway is far more extroverted than the brief one with Denman. Even Calloway’s spoken interjections add some interesting rhythmic and timbral contrast as well as entertainment.
It is now easy to degrade the Denman band as stiff, archaic, outdated even in its own time, simply ignorant of jazz phrasing or unable to absorb it. Taking the music on its own terms, without resorting to comparisons or hierarchization, Denman’s tight, precise sound makes for an interesting musical experiment. The syncopated lines combined with fairly even (as opposed to uneven, swung) eighth notes make it sound like jazz from a parallel dimension. Jazz and American popular music as a whole have famously drawn upon a number of idioms. At least a few New Orleans musicians would say that the jazz was already familiar with marching and brass bands. The Denman band may have simply had influences in mind other than the Crescent City second line brand of parade.
from THE JAZZ STATE OF INDIANA by Duncan Schiedt
The prevalence, bordering upon insistence, of arranged material over improvisation could have been born of necessity or just a different musical priority. Either way, it lets the Denman band show off a crisp unity of sound that must have spread like a Gatling gun on dance floors. The balances on this Gennett pressing also add transparency to the parts, so that the lead sometimes sound stacked in the middle of the harmonies rather than on top of them. The drummer pounding out percussion rudiments like an ad-libbing drum major is a subversive as well as creative act considering what jazz and dance band drummers were supposed to sound like at the time. This is not Cab Calloway’s “Bugle Call Rag,” nor that of the NORK, Duke Ellington or even Paul Whiteman.
Nearly ninety years later, Cab Calloway’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Hal Denman is, at best, a period curiosity, a dance band leader occasionally granted a footnote for trumpeter Jack Purvis’s tenure with his band (years before it even recorded). At first blush, hearing these two records may explain why. In fact, playing Denman and Calloway’s records back-to-back seems like the type of exercise a lecturer might fashion to explain the concept of “swing.” Yet the concept of swing may not explain a particular concept of music. Denman’s band was a popular midwestern territory band in its time, prompting fond recollections even decades later. Did all those Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Corn Huskers never hear the real thing, or were they simply open to several different real things?
Lester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.
Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.
Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.
The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.
Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.
Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guideentry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.
Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:
It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.
This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:
Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:
His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:
On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:
Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:
Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):
Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.
If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:
[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.
Harker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.
Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz. Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.
I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter. There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as dramatic arc and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.
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.
Mark Berresford has made countless hours of music possible for listeners across the globe. It’s not just his personal library of “syncopated music,” a century’s worth of ragtime, jazz and everything between, collected throughout his life and shared with the most respected providers of early jazz reissues. Berresford’s lifelong love/study of the music has also translated into pages upon pages of informative, insightful liner notes.
Even if you already own the complete Johnny Dodds’s Black Bottom Stompers, Retrieval’s Definitive Dodds album is worth purchasing just for Berresford’s commentary. If you’re downloading Timeless Historical’s From Ragtime To Jazzseries, you’re missing out on his meticulous yet breezy annotation; ditto for Frog’s Johnny Dunn disc and anything else with Berresford in the credits.
He began by collecting music as a teenager in his native England, also starting to write around that time. In addition to liner notes for several labels, for twenty-four years Berresford has written for Vintage Jazz & Blues Mart (which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2012, making it the oldest continually-published jazz magazine in the world). Berresford’s biodiscography of clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman received an Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award in 2011, and his liner notes to the Rivermont Records CD Dance-O-Mania: Harry Yerkes and The Dawn Of The Jazz Age, 1919-1923 were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009. Mark does all of this while also selling “records, gramophones and associated ephemera” from his store in Derbyshire.
Berresford has not only made rare music available to a wide audience, he’s made supposedly rarefied music make sense to all those listeners. The collector, historian and writer has helped me understand and enjoy this music since I first started listening to it, so I was thrilled to speak with him and find out more about his beginnings and hopes for the future.
Andrew Jon Sammut: What was your entryway into collecting early jazz?
Mark Berresford: I started collecting 78s when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I had been brought up with vintage music around me: my grandparents had a large radiogram full of music by Fats Waller, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller and many others.
AJS: What drew you to “that” music, as opposed to more contemporary forms of jazz or popular music, and how did you first start writing about it?
MB: I had grown up with “old” music and it seemed perfectly normal to me. As far back as eight or nine years old, I was taking records by Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra or Tommy Dorsey into school on Monday mornings, when we were encouraged to bring along our favorite records. This was the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five!
As for writing, I started writing on early jazz when I was about sixteen years old. My English teacher at school was a keen jazz fan and played bass, and he encouraged me in my scribbling. There was so little about pre-1923 jazz available, either on LP or in books. I had read Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz in the school library (can you imagine a book like that in a school library nowadays?), and I wanted to share what I was enjoying and discovering about this music.
AJS: And now we have whole companies devoted to reissuing this music, such as Retrieval, Frog and Jazz Oracle, and you have written extensive liner notes for these labels.
MB: Retrieval was born out of Fountain Records in the seventies and founded by Norman Stevens, Ron Jewson, Chris Ellis and John R.T. Davies, expressly to produce sensibly programmed reissues of the highest quality. Dave French started Frog in the early nineties with the same purpose, with Davies also doing the transfers. Jazz Oracle was founded in the mid-nineties by Canadians Colin Bray (an expatriate Englishman) and John Wilby, once again with Davies, to do the same sort of thing with longer, glossier liner notes.
AJS: How did you first get involved with these reissue labels?
MB: I first got involved with reissues around 1978 or 79, when I was asked by Norman Stevens to write the liner notes for an LP of Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers/Broadway Syncopators. I was twenty-one years old at the time. Apparently I already had a reputation as an early jazz champion, via my collecting taste as well as the articles I wrote in magazines such as The Gunn Report.
I really got involved in the reissue scene in the early nineties, when I became very friendly with John R.T. Davies and Chris Ellis at Retrieval. I had known both of them for years, but as my collection grew they realized that I was sitting on a lot of material they could use, either as whole projects or to fill in the gaps of their collections for a project. I used to go down to John’s place with a boxful of my 78s for him to make transfers for ongoing projects.
As many of the projects centered on material I knew and loved, I also became the choice to write the liner notes. I suppose that my years of writing magazine articles and editing VJM’s Jazz & Blues Mart (twenty-four years now) made me an obvious choice. Of course, I also got to suggest projects that interested me too, and am still doing so!
AJS: What criterion do you use when suggesting a project? Do you see an overarching mission for these reissues?
MB: I want to see a new audience exposed to unfamiliar or out of favor music. I also want to get established collectors and fans to go back and listen to material they had discounted, or perhaps never even bothered to listen to.
A good case in point is the four-volume set From Ragtime To Jazz on Timeless. I chose tracks that went back to 1896, and material recorded not only in New York City but also in Europe; many American collectors don’t realize the wealth of syncopated music recorded by American artists in Europe, many of whom never recorded in their homeland. An American music teacher told me that he uses these as a core part of his teaching on American popular music history.
I was also actively involved with Rainer Lotz and the German record company Bear Family’s astonishing Black Europe project. It reissued over two thousand sides made in Europe by Black performers, all recorded before 1926! For instance, Black American singer Pete Hampton was the most prolific African American singer until Bessie Smith, and he died in 1916 without ever making a record in the United States! I supplied many items from my collection. The final package was forty-four CDs, plus a three hundred page hardbound book that included photos of every record label and biographies of the artists involved. It was limited to five hundred numbered sets worldwide.
Another good example is the Harry Yerkes/Happy Six CD set on Rivermont: obscure material but an important developmental link. It was nominated in 2009 for a Grammy Award! That same determination to get recognition for overlooked performers also drove me to write my [ARSC award winning] bio-discography of clarinetist Wilbur C. Sweatman.
AJS: What do you think are some of the obstacles to getting this music heard?
MB: The biggest obstacles in the past were the companies themselves, who always tended to be conservative, and wanted tried-and-tested material that guaranteed sales. Timeless was brave when it issued From Ragtime To Jazz, but the set has sold well.
Of course Archeophone has totally moved the goalposts, reissuing the most obscure material with a “to hell with the sales figures, let’s get people listening to this material!” attitude, which of course chimes with me 100%. Needless to say Rich Martin and Meagan Hennessy are good friends now and we regularly work together. I am discussing an idea for a project with them as we speak.
So much of his music points to things-to-come musically. We can hear themes, ideas, and styles that will be picked up and carried and changed, and it is always better to know where one is coming from. People are surprised when they hear Gene Greene scat singing in 1910, or Black singer Ashley Roberts scatting in London in 1915.
Another obstacle is that often little or nothing is known about a particular artist. When I wrote the liner notes for the Frank Westphal Orchestra CD on Rivermont, there was virtually nothing in print about him (other than Sophie Tucker’s one-sided reminiscences). I had to go back to square one, but I think people will now know a little more about Frank.
AJS: So, what does “square one” look like (for us laymen)?
MB: Birth records, Census records, World War One and World War Two records, newspaper archives, photo libraries, searching eBay for photos or sheet music, etc. A lot of work goes into it, and a lot of burnt midnight oil!
AJS: Have you ever come to any total dead-ends, or is it just a matter of time, energy and patience until you find something out about the artist?
MB: Time will out! I’ve come to many apparent dead ends, but a hunch or pure luck will frequently come into play. It’s just a case of keep plugging away. I won’t admit defeat, simple as that! My website has been a boon: I upload photos of old bands and performers, and you would be amazed how many relatives find me this way!
AJS: Which performers would you like to see get more attention in jazz histories or reissues?
MB: To paraphrase Joe Venuti when he was asked what his favorite record was, whomever I’m working on right now! For example, I have recently been working with Bryan Wright from Rivermont on a Paul Specht Orchestra CD and my old friend sound restorer Nick Dellow was here doing transfers, so I’ve been immersing myself in the life of Mr. Specht!
AJS: Sort of a dance band with jazz as a seasoning rather than a main course?
MB: Correct, but careful sifting of his large output reveals some hidden gems, and again, not all made in the United States. And some surprises too. For instance, a number of the 1928 and 1929 sides have great scoring for clarinet and/or sax choruses, and when you factor in Don Redman’s little-noted quote that he enjoyed arranging for Paul Specht, one realizes that these are Don Redman arrangements! Also, don’t forget the remarkable Frank Guarente on trumpet, who swapped music lessons with King Oliver in the teens!
AJS: That brings us to tricky subject of labels. Do you describe most of this music as “early jazz, hot dance, popular music, etc.” and do you see any difference?
MB: I prefer the term “syncopated music” because it transcends the rather artificial boundaries that the other terms you mention imply. It can describe Edgar Cantrell and Richard Williams’s amazing London 1902 banjo/mandolin and vocal recordings, a crossover between minstrel, ragtime, folk and blues. It also includes material by James Europe’s Society Orchestra, George Fishberg’s stomping piano accompaniments to the Trix Sisters on their 1921 recordings and Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra equally well.
I think “difference” is a modern concept. At the time it was all the same, just as Paul Whiteman was the “King of Jazz” in the eyes of John Q. Public!
AJS: It seems many music historians use the concept of difference to demarcate what music is worth “saving” and what can go marching into obscurity. For you, what determines what should be preserved and what can be forgotten after a century?
MB: Difficult. I think that the music has to speak to people listening outside its time, or at least have the opportunity to speak to them. Straight dance music may have its enthusiasts, but it ultimately belongs in its time, with little or nothing to say to the present generation other than a feeling of nostalgia a la “Pennies From Heaven.” In that respect, acoustically recorded dance music fares even less well. That’s not to decry that music, but it doesn’t strike a chord for me.
That being said, I am also a keen fan of British music hall records, and recordings of original cast theater performers; they can shed amazing light on the time in which they were made. For instance, much of the revue material recorded in England during World War One took a very jaundiced view of the people running the war, quite contrary to the “keep the home fires burning” brigade that contemporary observers now associate with the period. So in that respect, that music is very valid now because it has a story to tell which is contrary to received wisdom.
AJS: As for the material labeled “jazz” or music that you feel influenced or was influenced by jazz, how would you characterize jazz from the period before Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or even before Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman?
MB: I think of “jazz” from this period as rhythmically driven, multifaceted, polyphonic, creative, joyous and sometimes a little scary. If there are a few solos to liven things up, even better!
MB: Yes, I thought you might like that! What I mean by “scary” is dark and brooding, but also the fact that these artists were writing new, previously unwritten rules as they went along. Is Sidney Bechet really going to get back into line with the rest of the band at the end of “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues?” Isn’t Louis Armstrong on a different planet from the rest of Erskine Tate’s band on “Stomp Off, Let’s Go?”
AJS: Do you think jazz has kept that “scariness?”
MB: No. I lose interest when posturing and self-importance become the norm.
AJS: Are you characterizing contemporary jazz that way?
MB: Yes, and a lot of non-jazz too. Can you really listen to “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” without the hairs on your arms standing up? I can’t.
AJS: If so much contemporary jazz lacks that hair-raising quality, why don’t more contemporary jazz listeners appreciate “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” or “Knockin’ A Jug?”
MB: I think unfamiliarity and un-coolness are important factors. Yet I also think that when more material is presented in an appropriately packaged way i.e. beautifully transferred, without over-processing (which is guaranteed to turn new listeners off), the neophyte listener is more likely to come back for more. For the past few years I’ve been widening the tastes of a younger guy who came to our music via forties Jump music. He is now collecting the State Street Ramblers, Fess, Lem Fowler and Clarence Williams!
What is quite interesting is that a younger generation is getting interested in early jazz that has never been swayed by the writings of some of the more entrenched critics and authors, and are thus coming at this music with open ears and minds.
AJS: So do you see your work as chipping away at the unfamiliar and uncool, or will this music always be an esoteric pursuit?
MB: Well it beats counting how many angels can sit on the point of a needle! Personally I’ve never worried about such stuff. I remember hearing Doc Cooke’s Dreamland Orchestra for the first time at age fifteen or sixteen, and being floored by the power of the band (particularly cornetist Freddie Keppard). I needed to share this, so I phoned a school friend who was very into Led Zeppelin, and played “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” for him over the phone: not to him, but at him.
“Now THIS is music,” I screamed! He must have thought I was insane, but who cares? The music is all that matters.
This is the next part of a continuing (not contiguous) series of posts about the once oft-employed, now rarely discussed saxophonist Larry Binyon. For parts one and two, please see here and here respectively.
Much to Ben Pollack’s short-term benefit, his band and Larry Binyon parted ways following their December 7, 1927 recording session. Variety’s issue of January 25, 1928 reported that the band had already started a residency at the Club Bagdad in Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. By February 25 it had closed at the Bagdad and was onto New York City. Binyon might have played with the Pollack band during its remaining time in Chicago, but apparently Pollack had another saxophonist in mind for its next move.
Bud Freeman explains that Pollack first heard him play at a late-night jam session in Chicago, and was so impressed by the saxophonist’s solos with McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans that he asked Freeman join the Pollack band in New York. These now-famous recordings are widely considered the birth of the “Chicago style.” Yet it’s hard to believe their loose format was a decisive factor in Pollack’s decision. Pollack was running a jazz-infused dance orchestra, not a jam-oriented jazz band. He needed musicians with the ability and discipline to read written arrangement as well as improvise solos. Freeman never hid his distaste for dance band work and didn’t like New York. Pollack fired Freeman after three months for clowning around on the bandstand and then rehired him for an Atlantic City engagement in July, only to have Freeman quit at the end of the month.
Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin
After some traveling gigs and a brief dry spell, the Pollack band began a long-term engagement at the prestigious Park Central Hotel on September 28. Pollack already had Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden (who had joined in June) to contribute hot solos. By this point he was probably willing to sacrifice some improvisational fire for a third saxophonist who could, and would, do the job. That included doubling the numerous other reed instruments that Pollack, apparently inspired by bands such as Roger Wolfe Kahn’s, wanted to show off.
Binyon probably continued to work with Beasley Smith’s band or one of several bands in Chicago while Pollack was in New York. It’s uncertain when Binyon got to New York, whether Pollack sent for him or if he just happened to be one of the many musicians starting to move to the musical epicenter, but by October 1, 1928 Binyon was back on record with the Pollack band in New York.
With three powerful soloists and the band’s tendency to rely on written arrangements, Binyon didn’t get many solos on record with Pollack. With Benny Goodman frequently doubling alto and baritone saxes, he wasn’t even the only saxophone soloist. Pollack instead capitalized on Binyon’s strength as an ensemble player.
A lush waltz like “Forever” or the muted trumpets, violins and (most likely Binyon’s) flute on “Let’s Sit And Talk About You” might not interest jazz listeners but the records work on strictly musical terms. Attention to dynamics, ensemble balance and lyricism are fairly consistent through even the Pollack’s band’s most commercial dates. Its sax section of Binyon, Goodman and lead alto Gil Rodin play with a bright, creamy blend, for example answering the full band on the Victor recording of “Futuristic Rhythm”:
or “From Now On,” on which they achieve an especially transparent sound, right down to Binyon’s purring tenor:
Talented musicians, a steady gig at a famous venue and sheer hustle helped the Pollack band grow incredibly popular, allowing them to move onto radio work, Broadway, various touring appearances and a few short films. The band is featured exclusively on a Vitaphone film shot on July 29, 1929. Binyon is seen in the middle of the sax section, soprano sax, clarinet and flute impressively displayed in front of him while he plays tenor throughout:
Pollack obviously liked Binyon; he appears on every title cut under Pollack’s name (save for one small group session by “Ben’s Bad Boys” in January 1929). Yet a dependable player from a well-known band who could read, double and improvise was bound to get additional offers. Based on his discography, Larry Binyon was more than happy to work on the side.
The next part of this Larry Binyon story will concentrate on his solo work with various Irving Mills pickup groups during the late twenties as well as sessions with Fats Waller and Red Nichols. It won’t be a complete solography, but it will make a very enjoyable Larry Binyon playlist.
The Capitol Palace in Harlem was a late-night, after-hours club that is now (in a delicious bit of municipal irony) the site of a playground. At least some of the music of its house band lives on through records.
Bandleading brothers Lloyd and Cecil Scott started out in their hometown of Springfield, Ohio, competing with the nascent McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and eventually making their way from the Buckeye State to the then-jazz capitol of the world. The band developed a significant fan base there by subbing for some of the best-known groups in the city. Those jobs were early enough in the evening for the band to make its regular gig at the Capitol.
Sides from the group’s first record session capture a late-night air of experimentation and inebriation that must have made the Capitol a very interesting place to play. “Symphonic Scronch,” for example, sounds like something Salvador Dali might have composed had he skipped art school and opted for a career in hot dance music:
Trumpeter and historian Randy Sandke points to the clarinets voiced in creaky major seconds in the introduction, as well as the sudden interpolation of 5/4 meter (in 1927!) during the succeeding chorus for banjo, piano and drums. Sandke also admits he can only “approximately transcribe” that passage, yet the whole chorus is barely even hummable. It just bumps along, refusing to tell a little story, before the brass transition into a sax chorus that feels like it’s going to topple or explode at any moment. Kenneth Roane’s muted trumpet sounds similarly disembodied. Sometimes he floats on the clockwork backbeat, other times he sardonically leans into his phrases. Dicky Wells, appearing on his first record session, reprises Charlie Green’s ominous vamp from “The Gouge of Armour Avenue.”
“Symphonic Scronch” might be a reference to the Scott brothers’ earliest band, the Symphonic Syncopators. Phil Schaap explains that a “scronch” is a type of dance step. Yet the title as well as all of those dissonances and jagged rhythms also suggest some uncanny mutation of Paul Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz.” Whatever the meaning, it’s fun to imagine perplexed Harlemites making sense of this arrangement on the dance floor.
“Harlem Shuffle” (with an arrangement by Roane) smoothens the rhythm yet includes quirky touches like the fluttering, slightly off-kilter brass introduction and some unexpected double-time tantrums:
Hubert Mann’s banjo and Lloyd Scott’s drums are a huge part of the band’s sound. Lloyd’s press rolls accent Don Frye’s piano solo, and Mann is both rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as well as a textural foil underneath Cecil Scott’s massive baritone sax. He’s also a reminder not just of the banjo’s ability to slice through a group without amplification, but of the unique flavor that the instrument can bring to an ensemble (when the audience isn’t distracted by straw hats or hokey music, that is). Cecil’s sound is refreshingly archaic: metallic, angular and visceral, like Pharoah Sanders thrown backwards in time. The baritone sax faded as a solo instrument during the swing era, only to come back much faster, lighter and higher during the bop era. Cecil’s baritone comes from an earlier approach to the instrument, one that stressed a thick, dark tone and percussive attack (also listen to Jack Washington in Bennie Moten’s band or Coleman Hawkins’ flirtation with bass sax in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra).
Chameleon-like, on “Happy Hour” Cecil contributes both his gutty baritone and his piercing clarinet. On the smaller horn, he winds out the band’s first chorus like a man who gets this chart’s title all too well:
The arrangement revolves around a repeating two bar vamp for the rhythm section, an eight bar blowing section and a four-bar, seven-chord descending theme. Don Frye’s arrangement mines a lot of variety from its three sections and ten players:
First, the vamp and theme mirror themselves around Scott’s clarinet, then the theme alternates with ensemble sections and solos. The offbeat accents during the brass chorus followed by the stop-time feel for Wells’ solo make for a clever touch of orchestral déjà vu.
The four-bar theme in turn captures that magic moment in the evening when it’s too late to catch the train, there’s no more liquor left to be poured and the last girl on the dance floor isn’t asking but telling people to dance. It’s a musical depiction of a scene that the Scott brothers had probably witnessed far too often on the job. The record closes with saxes chanting over the vamp. Two drum hits in Charleston rhythm cut things off but it feels as though the band could go on vamping into other, still stranger episodes.
This first session and these three charts (two with alternate takes) were the only recordings made under Lloyd’s name before he moved from drumming to managing the band. The band would continue as Cecil Scott and His Bright Boys, recording sporadically but continuing to play throughout New York and counting Wells, Frankie Newton (who can be heard on this session), Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges and other legends-to-be in its ranks. Yet aside from historical dates and famous alumni, this session yielded some of the most original, atmospheric music of its time or any other. Just another night at 575 Lenox Avenue.
Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon
Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use, and the technology wasn’t kind to what remained of the kit. King does manage to burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” and bang out some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:
Unfortunately, outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use the standard acoustically sanctioned percussion (like cymbals and blocks) as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way, it got him plenty of work! He must have been doing something worth hearing.
Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now often tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker. Yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could move a band with “just” drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:
Aside from a few cymbal crashes, the “exotic” blocks, and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drum. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and then steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s red hot alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.
King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drum heads while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus and percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:
King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed, and very effective:
Listening to King nearly 60 years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with definite praise. A crisp, precise, and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).
With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:
Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims or how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass to produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example, while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:
Audio wizard, historian, and trombonist David Sagerrecalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardiexplains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming, and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”
[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]
According to Richard Sudhalter, King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers, and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and “Davenport Blues”:
On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’s solo, which allows the guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):
King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tossing out fast snappy fills and bearing down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:
On “Here Comes Emily Brown”—again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass—King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:
King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:
Occasionally, King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):
or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:
Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. His preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, and his unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Goodman described King as “merely adequate.”
The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:
King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett (or for that matter Elvin Jones), but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement, and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.
In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded, and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death. When Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty. Fud Livingstonthought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter: King got the job done.
Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him. King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:
Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer, or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring and hearing.