Tag Archives: Varsity Eight

A Few Versions of “Doodle Doo Doo”

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 8.13.53 PM

Remember the American idea of popular music is totally different from the Continental. [In America] we take a popular song as the starting point and interpolate it to suit our own ideas.
-David Berend, “Tenor Banjo Questions” in Metronome, January 1929 (quoted by Lawrence Gushee for “Improvisation and Related Terms In Middle Period Jazz,” in Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society)

Some bands and artists [during the twenties] had devoted fans, but most customers were apparently still shopping for songs rather than specific performances: They would hear “Whispering” or “When Francis Dances with Me,” go to a music store, and ask for a record of it…if the [version they heard] were out of stock most people were happy to go home with an alternate version…
-Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

A music lover was passing a pet shop one afternoon when he heard something that sounded like a bird singing dixieland jazz. Unbelieving, he hurried inside and beheld a big, beautiful bird in a splendid cage, giving out a spirited rendition of “The Saints.” Our music lover asked the proprietor, “Is that bird for sale?”
The proprietor nodded: “One thousand dollars for both birds, and that’s a bargain.”
The music lover now noticed a second bird in the shadowy corner of the cage: scrawny, with disheveled feathers and in sore need of a bath. This small wreck of a bird stood uncertainly, swaying now and then, occasionally blinking a bloodshot eye, sometimes sipping from a container of amber liquid.
The music music lover said, “I want the big bird that sings! You can keep that other one.”
The owner quickly replied, “You’ll have to take both birds or none at all. The little bird is the big one’s arranger.”
-Earle M. Moss in The Jazz State of Indiana by Duncan Schiedt

White jazz of the twenties was far from monolithic, though sometimes a little confused by its own vague notions of just what jazz was and by its chronic failure to distinguish between the real thing and novelty effect.
-Allen Lowe, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950

Oo-pop-a-da,
be aba du la,
be bly bop…
-Babs Gonzalez, “Oo-Pop-A-Da” [verbal transcription care of Steve Provizer]

MelStitzelCareOfKinnearReactionsDotComA new song might receive dozens of different recordings during the twenties, with record companies scrambling musicians to ensure that their label offered the latest hit to customers rifling through record shelves. Companies just sought a profit while musicians just needed a paycheck and consumers just wanted a catchy melody and/or danceable beat.

So goes the common wisdom about this era in American music. A hit from 1924 indicates that at least a few people in that iron triangle wanted more.

“Doodle Doo Doo,” written by “Sobbin’ Blues” and “Tin Roof Blues” composer Mel Stitzel, probably looked promising to sight reading studio players and discriminating record buyers. On the other hand, Art Kassel’s lyrics were the type of novelty that would continue to spellbound audiences through “ooh, eee, ooh-aah-aah,ting, tang, wallawalla-bingbang” right up to “zig-a-zig-ah.” Jeffrey Magee lists them as another instance of the craze for tunes with the word “doodle” in them, and this example worked like a charm for Eddie Cantor. David A. Jasen describes “Doodle Doo Doo” as another hit for the singer/comedian, whose signature phrasing and chutzpah helped sell many tunes:

Cantor is backed by a jazzy small group (mostly sticking to the printed sheet music) but his performance is all about the silly lyrics.  Jasen also notes that “Doodle Doo Doo” became a dance hit for Ray Miller and Jack Linx, whose recordings (for Brunswick and Okeh, respectively) were cut within weeks of Cantor’s Columbia side. Perhaps they were given a boost by Cantor’s vocal rendition, or the record-buying public had enough of Kassel’s lyrics.

Miller’s Chicago big band features strong brass and creamy sax sections selling the melody, Miff Mole and Frank Trumbauer providing solo variations and not a single vocal:


No one was playing saxophone and trombone like Trumbauer and Mole. Miller was both business savvy and musically minded:  he provides a smooth, medium-tempo beat for dancers that also allows listeners to savor his soloists’ elegant work. Roy Johnston’s trumpet on the verse may be dismissed as “dated,” but next to such polished company its clip and growl adds variety as well as humor.

Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders probably offered ample variety for audiences accustomed to Cantor’s earnest but slick delivery. It’s unclear whether Okeh’s mobile recording unit predicted success with this or any other tune from the Birmingham-based group, or whether listeners appreciated its approach as more than hillbilly exotica [skip ahead to 2:50 into the clip below for “Doodle Doo Doo”]:

Whatever else they made of it, people heard a territory band jamming on a pop song to its own country beat, without any attempts by banjoist/singer Maurice Sigler at drawling “Ah lahk the rest, but what ah lahk best….” The record’s popularity evidences the wide open possibilities for both sales and music at this point in American popular music.

Even if audiences were just looking for something to dance to, many musicians stepped up with more than a metronomic beat. Adrian Rollini and the California Ramblers, d/b/a the Varsity Eight for the Cameo label in May, throw out the lyrics but keep the melody for their hot small group instrumental:

Ray Kitchingham’s banjo keeps things strutting before Bill Moore’s trumpet buzzes in and sparks things with a spare paraphrase over Stan King’s cymbal cuts. A chase between Bobby Davis’s alto and Rollini’s bass saxophones on the verse is followed by bass clarinet decorating the chorus.

The Georgians, recording “Doodle Doo Doo” two days later for Columbia, also mine plenty of textural and rhythmic variety from a supposed novelty song using different musical resources:

The Varsity Eight builds up from its leader’s bass saxophone in the rhythm section while the Georgians let leader Frank Guarente’s trumpet drive things from the top. Following sustained chords in the intro, he leads a jittery New York-style collective improvisation, followed by a very a la mode sax section with Arthur Schutt’s piano tickling around it. The verse is then used like a riff, building up steam before the succeeding chorus reconfigures Stitzel’s syncopations on the upbeat. Guarente then returns with some King Oliver-inspired muted trumpet.

Twenties jazz was all about variety, all the more remarkable when a band was making what may have been the second, fifth or tenth recording of the same tune that year (or month). Ben Bernie and His Orchestra got around to “Doodle Doo Doo” for Vocalion a few weeks later than Cantor but after several other instrumental versions. His take is one of those distinctly overstuffed twenties arrangements that may or may not have had listeners humming but which must have made an impression on them; the band spins a tapestry of kazoo, bluesy chalumeau clarinet, talking trombone, crying saxophones, band vocal, banjo pickin’ and a minor key “exotica” section for bass clarinet and muted trumpets:

Bernie offers plenty of instrumental shtick with some purely musical rewards, such as the opening “doo-wacka-doo” trumpets that work well as a busy counterpoint behind the saxes on the first chorus. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo-wacka-doo”inspired solo with busy saxes behind it for a smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect.

Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for the Edison label in October as the Broadway Dance Orchestra, after all of the above recordings. Rather than trying to outdo anyone in terms of novelty or variety, the Lopez outfit keeps things simple and very personal:

Bob Effros’s trumpet is powerful but unflashy. The band works up a sturdy, straightforward groove. Aside from the intriguing clarinet/banjo duet and trombonist Dave Boyd, there is very little improvisation or clever orchestral variation. The band’s sound is enough: hot in its rhythms, warm in its textures, always confident and tight without seeming uptight. It may sound naive, but sometimes just the combination of several different instruments played by ten individuals yields exciting and very distinct results.

Even straightlaced performances such as that of the Benson Orchestra of Chicago aren’t necessarily just a matter of musicians reading their parts:


Proud and peppy, “le plus ultra of society dance music” interpolates a lush, violin-like saxophone variation into its chart, a dicty touch arranged for a jazz horn. Jasen mentions that their Victor recording (waxed in April) was another big seller. The music business of the twenties apparently had enough room to accommodate many different musical styles.

JackLinxBandCareOfAngelFireDotComThe outdated, profit-driven system that allowed allowed Eddie Cantor and Jack Linx to share sales might inform modern hindsight. It’s tempting to hear the Benson recording as the buttoned-up, commercial version of a mediocre song, outshined by what jazzier groups such as the Georgians had to say with the tune, which is in turn eclipsed by that group’s recordings of jazz instrumentals such as “Farewell Blues” before that’s all rendered obsolete by the music found in jazz history syllabi and Smithsonian boxed sets. It’s worth reconsidering the Benson band in the same light that Jazz Age consumers encountered it, as one of many groups, all working on the same tune within months or even weeks of one another, huddled in studios that may have been only a few blocks apart, making sense of the newest musical trend while splicing the sound audiences expected with the sounds they had to offer those listeners.

The musicians and recordings begin to express different musical priorities rather than advances or missteps, options rather than right or wrong answers. Some alternatives are more influential or musically sophisticated than others, some more likely to be grabbed off the shelf by twenty-first century ears, yet each one remains valid on its own terms.

That perspective is not only fairer to a band like that of “D. Onivas” but gives the listener something new to hear (rather than laugh at):

Onivas recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for Perfect in May, opting to put some grit into its polished surfaces via Hymie Farberman’s growling trumpet “taking a Boston,” getting the band in on the jazz act on its own terms. What might have been a gimmick in 1924 musical gimmick can now be heard (enjoyed!) as the meeting of stylistic eras and musical ideas. It’s not Louis Armstrong trumpet, yet that doesn’t take anything away from the music.

DoodleDooDooCoverCareOfRareNonFictionDotComIt’s worth mentioning that recording industry politics and the racial environment surrounding them prevented Armstrong, his then-employer Fletcher Henderson, his (and Frank Guarente’s) teacher King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Doc Cook or any other Black musician from recording “Doodle Doo Doo” until well after World War II. That may seem like a dispensation, yet as working musicians those band probably would have appreciated a stab at such a popular song. More importantly, their absence closes off further musical possibilities from those musicians and this tune.

Years after its publication, Kassel would make “Doodle Doo Doo” his big band’s theme song, allowing younger generations to hear it throughout the thirties and forties. It was reincarnated as a campfire song and at least two more risque ones, also making a brief appearance in Elvis Presley’s 1969 film THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS. Even Broadway singer Mandy Patinkin saw fit to include it on one of his albums.

On the border between nostalgia and creativity, New Orleans pianist Armand Hug apparently remembered the tune fondly, recording a rolling, bluesy piano rendition in 1956 that grafted chord substitutions and contrapuntal bass lines onto Stitzel’s tune (with Phil Darois’s bass and Charlie Duke’s drums accompanying Hug with the finesse and understatement of a Baroque continuo):

Jazz blogger Michael Steinman recalls trombonist Vic Dickenson using “Doodle Doo Doo” as a key-changing exercise at gigs in the mid-seventies, modulating up one step with each chorus.  It hasn’t had much luck at jam sessions since, but who knows what the future may bring?  It may or may not be a “good song” but it is a song, and that is all a musician needs.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester 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 Guide entry 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.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’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 arch 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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,