Tag Archives: Vince Giordano

In Search Of Rag-A-Jazz

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Another Corner Of The Hothouse

Jazz loves hybrids, though some blends get more sunlight than others. A web search for “raga jazz” turns up pages of results showing the cross-pollination between jazz and Indian classical music. Yet a search for the union of ragtime and jazz known as “rag-a-jazz” just generates more results for raga jazz. Google won’t even ask if you meant rag-a-jazz.

So, what are web crawlers missing out on? One example is a watershed moment in American pop and a million seller for Paul Whiteman, his recording of “Wang Wang Blues”:

It keeps the syncopation and staccato attack of ragtime but has its own popping sense of tension and release, as well as a humor that is not just ragged but downright raucous; just listen to Buster Johnson’s trombone or how clarinetist Gus Mueller slices and slurs into each chorus. How do we describe this music, teasingly similar yet ultimately unlike ragtime or most of the jazz discussed in history books and played in swanky clubs? How would we find other examples of this sound?

Unsurprisingly, musicians, historians and open-eared listeners prove far more illuminating than search engines. Reed player and contemporary rag-a-jazz performer Dan Levinson defines rag-a-jazz as “a hybrid style of dance music that existed briefly from the mid teens through the early twenties, while ragtime was evolving into jazz” and which “still held onto many characteristics of ragtime in terms of syncopation, song forms and even the way eighth notes were played.”

The OM5, Left to Right: Phil Napoleon on trumpet, Frank Signorelli on piano, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, Miff Mole on trombone (with Charles Panelli subbing in the above clips) and Jack Roth on drums.

Early jazz bandleader Vince Giordano describes the “baby steps of jazz,” with “elements of both jazz and ragtime” as well as “early syncopation but still a little bit of ragtime feel.” Giordano explains that rag-a-jazz surfaced around the time of Scott Joplin’s death and the end of the ragtime era, continuing through a period when “jazz was just taking shape and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go.” Levinson also mentions the “betwixt-and-between state of ragtime and jazz [that is] no longer quite ragtime.”

Rag-a-jazz conductor and multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino notes “ragtime still managed to hang on as a powerful musical force. Ragtime had a strong presence that more or less drove popular music in America from about 1895 to about 1917, so even though the general public had grown tired of it, they couldn’t escape it. The syncopation that ragtime had introduced was what America was used to listening to, and even though it wanted to say it was through with ragtime, such a night and day change in listening would be impossible.”

For rag-a-jazz drummer and bandleader Nick Ball, rag-a- jazz is “…the original ‘Rosetta Stone’ of music that is stylistically in the cracks, where one clearly defined idiom was merging into another or being strongly influenced by a parallel one from elsewhere in the world.” Ball also calls rag-a-jazz “the oldest of these transitional subgenres to have been documented on record in anything like enough detail for us to understand the process of its birth and its demise…a subgenre which lasted less than a decade, subsequently almost hidden in the long shadows cast by its parent, pure ragtime, and its child, pure jazz.”

More than a historical note, the music grouped under the term “rag-a-jazz” (or in search engine syntax, “‘rag-a-jazz’ -raga jazz”) is an example of fusion from decades before anyone plugged into an amplifier. It’s also an example of musical ideas that some would dismiss as wrong turns, many more would forget and others, thankfully, hear as another musical universe.

The Avant-Garde ODJB

Levinson points to what many consider the first jazz record as a prime example of rag-a-jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”:

Speaking about the “musical revolution” of the ODJB’s earliest records, collector and historian Mark Berresford explains “what the ODJB had done was to simplify and deformalize ragtime to its barest state and, once stripped of its hallmarks, rebuild it into a clearly defined polyphonic structure, placing greater emphasis on maintaining impetus and excitement.”  Many history books draw attention to the ODJB’s frantic tempos, barnyard onomatopoeia and madcap spirit, which would have surprised (and possibly irritated) ragtime composers/performers. Yet even the ODJB’s later, more subdued sides display a distinct swagger a part from the lilt of ragtime:

Berresford also explains that “…as musicians’ ability to improvise grew, so their reliance on the structures of ragtime declined.” While ragtime players incorporated improvisation into their performances, it would obviously come to have a much larger role in jazz. Garvin Bushell, an ear-witness to these developments, summarizes his first attempts at playing jazz as “study[ing] rags on piano and omit[ting] the melodic pattern, just improvising on the harmonic pattern.”

Besides musical vocabulary and written notation, song forms themselves began to change. Early jazz maintained multi-strain structures until the swing era of the thirties, but Berresford notes how bands such as the ODJB would use a simpler configuration of fewer strains than formal ragtime. “What the ODJB’s performance lacks in form,” Berresford explains, “more than makes up for in dynamics, excitement and rhythmic drive, using devices such as solo breaks and the three-voice lead to signal its departure from the formality of ragtime.”

Skins And Cymbals

Berresford sums up rag-a-jazz’ musical characteristics as “a strong two-beat feel with predominantly ensemble playing, often heavy drum patterns and frequently fast tempos.” A two-beat feel in jazz is familiar to even occasional attendees at a Dixieland brunch, and contemporary jazz festivalgoers are no strangers to fast tempos. Yet rag-a-jazz’s constant collective interplay can sound strange to contemporary jazz lovers.

There is an unspoken, occasionally questioned but nonetheless powerful definition of jazz as ‘the’ idiom of an improvising soloist. In rag-a-jazz and in a pre-Louis Armstrong soundscape more generally, musicians don’t take turns soloing. Other than occasional short breaks, the emphasis is on ensemble interplay, balance and in some cases competition.

Rag-a-jazz represents a different concept of jazz, as ensemble music, a concept expressed in the unrecorded New Orleans parade bands of its earliest years, in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in groups led by Miles Davis during seventies and in those led by today’s jazz musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. The best bands simply know how to play as bands, regardless of era. There is no sense of musical or expressive limitation while listening to the Original Memphis Five’s parts lock and slide into one another, even though no one player get so much as a half-chorus to themselves:

Decades of smooth, swinging cymbals can also make the syncopated, staccato beats of snares, rims, woodblocks and cowbells sound strange. “March-like” is the description and death sentence often thrown around for this style of drumming. Rag-a-jazz drummers were often influenced by marching band techniques as well as the ragtime drumming inspired by those techniques. All influences apparently not being equal, many jazz writers imply that marches are an inferior inspiration next to Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop or other sources.

Drummer Hal Smith, on the other hand, talks about Tony Sbarbaro and other rag-a-jazz drummers as merely having their own distinct, often challenging approach a part from but just as valid as that of Zutty Singleton or Jo Jones (or for that matter, Elvin Jones or Terri Lyne Carrington). Nick Ball praises the prominent drums of Louis Mitchell, Anton Lada, Benny Peyton and others as “thrilling, riotous, imaginative, highly individualistic, incredibly technically proficient and, for the time, very well-recorded.”

For other listeners, this style may be vaguely familiar from some of the hippest names in jazz drumming. Jazz educator Mark Gridley explains:

The earliest jazz drummers often devised lines of activity bearing rhythmic and melodic contours that were distinctly different from the contours of lines being contributed by their fellow musicians. The practice of playing an independent line of activity was suppressed in swing [during the thirties]…It enjoyed a resurgence, however, in bop [during the forties]…This independent line of activity…provides a layer of boiling sounds that increases the excitement of the combo performance. The use of this activity continued through the fifties and sixties [and] has been an accepted practice for all modern drummers of the seventies and eighties…The rhythms used by the modern drummers were not those of ragtime, but the spirit in which they played is analogous to the conception shown by the earliest drummers.

Jazz scholar Dr. Lewis Porter debunks the myth of early jazz drummers as mere timekeepers while also drawing attention to their intricate fills and contrapuntal playing. Porter describes Sbarbaro “going crazy” in the best sense of the term. Whatever these drummers gained from ragtime or military music, it worked for them, their colleagues and anyone who wanted to listen.

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Dance Music And Duple Feel

In some ways rag-a-jazz’s most radical difference from the ragtime that preceded it and the postwar jazz that is now lingua franca was that listening was a secondary activity. Rag-a-jazz, as well as most prewar styles of jazz, was above all intended for dancing. Ragtime had its own signature lilt but the new “jass” music really moved bodies.

Traditional jazz musician and writer Chris Tyle reminds that at the time, records were labeled “fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.” for a reason; “Original Dixieland One Step” was just that, a one-step. He also points to the symbiotic influence between music and dancing and the need to ask, “did music change because the dancing changed, or vice-versa?”

Rag-a-jazz musicians (and later on New Orleans via Chicago and big band swing players) had to serve a very practical purpose. Besides the need to get dancers out on the floor, Tyle also points to the material conditions that not only shaped the music but also made it so varied. The size of the venue or a record label’s budget determined band size and repertoire. In some ways this practical basis allows for far more variety than the wide-open plains of art music.

Ball explains that as a style, rag-a-jazz “was so brief that no kind of standardization had time to be established, virtually no two ensembles had the same or even similar instrumentation and every band seemed to have approached the music completely different to each other in terms of image, repertoire, performance practice; no individual’s singing or playing style became familiar enough to become cliché.” It’s why this era includes such fascinating combinations as the Louisiana Five, with Yellow Nunez playing lead on clarinet without a trumpet in sight:

or novel sounds such as the Whiteway Jazz Band’s arrangement of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” where the saxophone plays the melody and the trumpet plays obbligato around it, a touch of role reversal in a traditional jazz setting (listen here or below):

How Do You Like Your Eighth Notes?

While simultaneously departing from ragtime, part of this music’s unique excitement and sound has to do with the musicians phrasing in eight, a holdover from ragtime’s pianistic basis. Similar to fingers flying across the keyboard, the notes fly out of these groups in a jittery “rat-tat-tat-tat” that is agitatedly exciting and a world a part from jazz’s later, more vocally-conceived lines.

Vince Giordano mentions the ODJB and vaudeville artists of the early twenties as just a few examples of a bass part playing two-to-the-bar, just like in ragtime, while horns phrase in eight like the right hand of a ragtime pianist. Later on in the twenties, some jazz bands would keep the two-beat bass but without the ragtime “tinge” of the earlier bands.

Giordano raises phrasing in eight as a key part of rag-a-jazz, stressing the eight feel with his own sidemen when they perform this repertoire. As a few other examples of this feel, he cites The Virginians’ “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” in a Ferde Grofe arrangement:

Lillyn Brown’s early recording of the jazz warhorse “Jazz Me Blues,” especially its vocal and trumpet:

the instrumental asides of Mamie Smith’s “I Want A Jazzy Kiss,” especially its chattering wood blocks:

and Mamie Smith’s “Sax-O-Phoney Blues”:

On “Sax-O-Phoney Blues,” the staccato syncopations, chains of eighth notes and reedy arrangement sound very much like orchestral ragtime. The growling trumpet and Smith’s vocal speak to something broader, in terms of phrasing as well as spirit.

Levinson emphasizes that the eighth notes in rag-a-jazz “don’t ‘swing’ the way eighth notes do in most form of jazz,” and are instead “played ‘straight’ or ‘even,’ the way eighth notes are played in ragtime, classical music and every other style of music.” Those even eighth notes can make a huge impact on today’s jazz lovers. Decades of uneven eighth notes as well as post-Armstrong phrasing can make this music sound like it’s simply not jazz. Yet taken on its own terms and without comparison to other rhythmic concepts, it is just another approach to the tradition. Jazz has become a very big tent but its own backyard still has much to offer.

They Always Call It “Music”

The word “jazz” itself also seems to distinguish the new style from ragtime, not just musically but in terms of personal identity. In chronological and cultural terms, Giordano sums up this shift well:

You’re just getting out of World War I, which was such a horrific event, and I think young people just said, ‘We’re going to have a good time,’ and the music really reflects that.

What could be more personal, more joyful and more representative of jazz than a love song to the saxophone?

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Transitional period, stylistic amalgam, generational signifier, offshoot of ragtime, jazz unlike any before or since and expression of peacetime ecstasy: labels are never airtight but “rag-a-jazz” has come to encompass all of these things. Most musicians and collectors agree that Leonard Kunstadt originated the term in its current usage. Depending on the source, Kunstadt either began using it in the pages of Record Research magazine, which he founded in 1955 and continued to edit and publish, in Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, published in 1962 and coauthored by Kunstadt and Samuel Charters, or at some later point in the seventies.

The phrase does appear much earlier in the name Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band. Yet this London-based band (by way of Nebraska) used it for catchy marketing rather than stylistic labeling. Obviously the musicians themselves were just playing music that came naturally to them. It’s hard to imagine that they understood what they were doing as an offshoot or development.

Garvin Bushell actually saw no distinction between ragtime and jazz. He proudly declares that, as a young pianist, “my knowledge of ragtime assured me I would not have any trouble [playing] jazz. Since there was very little difference between the two, I knew I could master it.” His comments about the repertoire and approach of his earliest bands are also revealing:

As I recall, we also had copies of “Maple Leaf Rag,  Way Down Yonder In The Corn Field, ‘The Whistler And His Dog,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” Although poorly reproduced, these records contained the foundation of the jazz that was to come, particularly “Maple Leaf Rag.” I make this statement with no fear of contradiction. Ragtime, as it was called then, had the technical essence that was later required in jazz. While ragtime was always played in the moderate or fast ‘two’ tempo, jazz merely slowed it down to a fast or medium ‘four’ … We’d usually have eight or nine guys: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, banjo, tuba and drums. Maybe a violin or a bandolin (half banjo, half violin). Since there weren’t dance arrangements then for saxophones and trumpets, the pieces we rehearsed were mostly pit orchestrations. We’d pull out one clarinet part, one sax part, and on like that. The piano player had a part, as a rule, and the bass player faked. In fact, most everybody faked, since none of us could read that well. The style was very much what you hear on the early records-we called it “ragtime jazz.”

At the time and like any time before and since, musicians were simply drawing upon what was around them, what historian Richard Sudhalter called “the rich fermentation of American popular music between 1917 and 1923.” That doesn’t make latter-day commentary and analysis superfluous; in fact, hindsight lets us appreciate and understand the wide variety of music offered by history. iPods can store Phil Napoleon’s trumpet right alongside Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong’s horns.

Play “Ricky-Tick” For Me

Giordano explains that by 1923 or 1924, the rag-a-jazz style began to fade as musicians and audiences absorbed the New Orleans via Chicago “stomp” style and its quarter note feel. Berresford also notes that “the 1923 date is seen by many as the seminal date by which jazz had thrown off all the shackles of its ragtime antecedents and strode forth into the world in its own right – it is no coincidence that 1923 saw the first recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young second cornetist named Louis Armstrong), Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whilst Coleman Hawkins had made his first, faltering records with Mamie Smith the year before and Bix Beiderbecke was to appear on records just a year later.”

As one example of this change, Chris Tyle points out the difference between Kid Ory’s first recording of his “Ory’s Creole Trombone”:

and his later performance with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five:

Compared to Louis Armstrong’s “legato” phrasing and the rhythm section’s regular beat, the earlier record is “choppier.” Ory plays his breaks more clipped and cornetist Mutt Carey’s “punchier” attack is reminiscent of Freddie Keppard, one of the few New Orleans trumpets to came out of the older, ragtime based tradition.

louis armstrong“Choppy” may sound like a criticism while “smooth” is the preferred descriptor, but only from one  perspective. The smoother attack and more swinging flow of these groups wasn’t a matter of inventing jazz as we know it, but a different set of influences and musical ideas. Exactly when, where, how and why those musical priorities changed remains a hotly debated topic, but it was clearly not a matter of some artistic teleology. As Nick Ball says, “jazz didn’t actually burst fully-formed from the mind of Louis Armstrong in 1923, as many books and films imply.”

The influence of these New Orleans bands and eventually King Oliver’s second trumpeter on young musicians cannot be overstated. By 1928, Boston-born trumpeter Max Kaminsky knew which musicians spoke to him:

The crush roll of the Chicago drummers [such as George Wettling] was unheard of back East, where they were still playing oom-pah and ricky-tick, breaking up the rhythm into choppy syncopations instead of keeping a steady beat you could play against…That nervous, ragged, ricky-tick beat of the white dance bands of the twenties was one of the factors that had been at the bottom of my confusion when I listened to my records back home in Boston, trying so desperately to unravel the puzzle of jazz. None of the white musicians I heard on them could keep time. None of the early white popular bands had really understood the beat yet…of playing the melody simply and purely without all the little flutings and corny licks that were regarded as “hot” in those days.

“Oom-pah, ricky-tick, choppy syncopations, nervous” and above all “ragged” are just loaded descriptions for the music that preceded the Oliver/Armstrong hegemony. For players like Kaminsky and later historians, Armstrong and the Chicago sound were not just another way to play jazz; they were the only way to play.

Southern Rag-a-Jazz BandWay Off The Record

The tendency to dismiss so much pre-war and especially pre-Armstrong jazz hasn’t helped the historical record or modern outlets of this style. To some commentators, the term “pre-Armstrong jazz” itself is a contradiction.

Ideally, all source material would be treated equally. A fusion would be a fusion would be a fusion. Yet instead of another interesting example of cross-pollination, most major jazz trades treat rag-a-jazz, and several other styles of early jazz, with the knowing silence reserved for “old music.”

It could just be a matter of age: raga jazz, for example, surfaced during the sixties, while rag-a-jazz had its heyday in the late teens and early twenties (never mind that ragtime itself is a baby compared to the raga tradition). Gabor Szabo is much closer than Earl Fuller in terms of stylistic generations as well as human ones.

Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band , 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Maybe it’s the intangible but powerful factor of “coolness.” Ragtime is made in America, historically distant but geographically and culturally local. It doesn’t have the same connotation of open-mindedness associated with most brands of “world music.” Ragtime is also close enough to the classical conservatory, and therefore Europe, to make it seem old-fashioned and staid (never mind that, as Berresford, Tyle and others explain, ragtime itself is a rich and varied idiom that is not limited to what’s printed on sheet music). Small wonder that, as Sudhalter says, “standard jazz histories usually represent [American popular music between the years 1917 and 1923] as little more than organized disorder, the vaudeville clatter of the ‘nut jazz’ craze set in motion by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their legions of imitators…”

Once An Era But Still A Style

EchoesInTheWaxLike any musical era, these years included their share of “clatter” but they also featured musicians drawing upon a variety of influences, listening to and absorbing a range of styles and making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. It also continues to enthrall today’s musicians and audiences.  Rag-a-jazz, and its distance from even the towering presence of Louis Armstrong as well as more modern styles of jazz, may even seem like a breath of fresh air.

Vince Giordano frequently arranges rag-a-jazz numbers such as “Wang Wang Blues” for his big band, the Nighthawks, to the delight of dancers at live gigs and viewers of the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. Chris Tyle enjoys playing the style with numerous groups, including his own Silver Leaf Jazz Band; their Freddie Keppard tribute album actually highlights the cornetist’s ragtime influences.  Nick Ball declares that rag-a-jazz “just keeps pulling [me] more and more strongly. I love that it’s rude and it’s louche and it has pretensions of elegance, you can dance to it and you can sit and listen to it too.” Matt Tolentino and his Singapore Slingers look at rag-a-jazz “not [as] a forgotten artifact or a museum piece” but as “music that appeals to all generations, young and old alike.”

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist David Sager, two contemporary musicians who play rag-a-jazz as well as many other genres, both cite its unique challenges. Kellso says that “all that ensemble blowing, with little or no rest can be painful” but also explains, with a chuckle, that it “adds character.” Sager describes rag-a-jazz as “some of the most technically demanding stuff [he has] ever attempted.” So much for the assumption that jazz reached its technical zenith with bop.

nighthawks

Both Kellso and Sager play with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which Levinson founded in 1987 and has since released three albums of rag-a-jazz. Levinson’s context for the music applies equally well for 1920 or 2014:

Just imagine the liveliness of all these guys who were playing a kind of music nobody had ever heard before. We hear the music today, and might sometimes think it’s rather tame in comparison to some of what we’ve heard since. But think about what people were used to listening to at that time: here comes these guys from New Orleans by way of Chicago, and just blew the roof off.

 Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.


Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.

“Blowing the roof off” will never be a historical concept, and people are obviously playing and listening to this music. Is it even fair to call “rag-a-jazz” a historical period when it continues to make these kinds of sounds?

***

From the writer: I would like to personally thank Nick Ball, Mark Berresford, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, Michael Steinman, Matt Tolentino and Chris Tyle for taking the time to share their insights about this topic with me. In the most literal sense of this often-used expression, the above piece would simply not have been possible without their help.

I also invite readers to please share their comments, insights, disagreements and suggestions for further reading about this topic. This piece is intended as an introduction to anyone who is interested in rag-a-jazz, so if you found it useful, I also ask that you please share this article and get the word out about this music and its advocates. Thank you!

Finally, and more importantly, here are a few more examples of this music:

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Modern Music “Whoops And Hollers” Once More

postercareofabbevilledotcomPaul Whiteman’s “An Experiment In Modern Music” at Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 is well known for the premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Yet it also placed an American popular music ensemble in a concert setting, at a venue typically associated with classical artists, to perform several original works that challenged preconceptions of both jazz and classical (fourteen years before Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert and several decades before “crossover” entered the lexicon).

Critics have weighed in on the merits of the rest of the program as well as Whiteman’s supposed aim to refine jazz. Now there’s an opportunity to hear all of the music live and judge for oneself.

To celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of this event in American music, Vince Giordano And The Nighthawks will perform the entire program, with conductor Maurice Peress directing the band on his meticulously researched transcription of Rhapsody In Blue, featuring pianist Ted Rosenthal.

Peress’s transcription draws upon several original sources as well as insights from members of the Whiteman orchestra. He notes that “…during the [Whiteman band’s] road tour, which immediately preceded the recording sessions, some of the jazz embellishments added by the players or Gershwin became ‘frozen,’ such as the little bundles of turning notes that flavor a phrase and klezmer-like whoops and hollers that clarinetist Ross Gorman introduced here and there, not only into the familiar opening.” On February 12, 2014 at New York City’s Town Hall, concertgoers can experience a performance of Gershwin’s work “chock-a-block with details never written down in the score or parts.”

The audience also gets to enjoy Whiteman’s own dance music performed with the Nighthawks’ distinct blend of energy and understanding, as well as pianist Jeb Patton playing Zez Confrey’s whirlwind piano pieces.  If you are in or around New York City on February 12 (and let’s face it, anywhere on Earth might as well be around New York City), don’t miss this music.

Tickets and more information are available online here.

careofvincegiordano

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Jazz In The Family

Working for my father’s home improvement business during high school taught me to appreciate the hard work supporting our household.  It also paid for the music in my earphones, which were usually on full blast as I swept floors and fetched coffee.  I listened to a lot of music working the family business, but one job still stands out because it introduced me to Eddie Durham.

I had just purchased the Count Basie collection playing on my Walkman as I stuffed insulation.  After a string of bright, up-tempo tunes including “One O’Clock Jump,” “John’s Idea,” “Out the Window” and “Swinging the Blues,” a moodier, minor key piece materialized.  It had the same loose Basie beat and spare but powerful ensemble figures.  Buck Clayton‘s tart-toned muted trumpet was also recognizable.  Yet the chromatic drawl I heard gave the band a more structured, darker persona.  All the dusty, scratched cassette case in my pocket told me was that the song was called “Topsy.”  A lot of curiosity and a little research told me that this was Eddie Durham:

I also realized that I already knew of Eddie Durham without knowing who Eddie Durham was.  He had arranged all those other numbers for the Basie band, and his name would keep coming up in the recordings of Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Jan Savitt.  Later on I would discover his electric guitar on the Kansas City Six sides he made with other Basie sidemen for the Commodore label.  Eventually I would have to stop counting the number of times I uttered, “Wow, that was Eddie Durham on trombone!”  My career responsibilities and knowledge of jazz have changed since first hearing “Topsy,” but more importantly I keep encountering Eddie Durham.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Durham doesn’t receive the same attention as contemporary arrangers like Don Redman, Sy Oliver or the legendary Duke Ellington.  His trombone playing never spurred any followers the way Jack Teagarden did, and Charlie Christian’s pioneering work has overshadowed Durham’s electric guitar as well as his influence on the young Christian.  Eddie Durham is easy to appreciate but not always easy to find.

Durham’s children, daughter Marsha “Topsy” Durham and son Eric, are helping to change that.  Their website honors their father with fastidious, loving care. From Durham’s beginnings as a musical director for a wild West shows to his post-retirement comeback, visitors can read about Durham’s life, peruse photos, find links to other sources and even enjoy a concise, informative documentary featuring Dan Morgenstern, Loren Schoenberg and Vince Giordano.  It’s an incredible resource and tribute to their father’s legacy.  In the meantime we’ll all look forward to hearing more of Eddie Durham.

Look, learn and best of all listen at DurhamJazz.com!

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The Printed Score and Jazz

Somehwere, An Elephant is Giving Him A Bad Review

During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.

Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?

Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement.  A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.

The Tyranny of the Written Score

For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses.  Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove.  This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.

In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.”  In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).

And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff.   There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere).  Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”

Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations.  In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote:


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A Song By Any Other Name: The Right Amount of “Deep Henderson”

“Deep Henderson” illustrates one pop tune that became just popular enough. Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists thirteen different bands recording Fred Rose’s composition in 1926, the same year it was published in Chicago, with four other groups cutting the tune the following year (in three different countries, no less). Most bands also used the publisher’s stock arrangement, adapting it to their needs and style rather than starting over fresh as they might with so many other jazz warhorses. Unlike “St. Louis Blues” or “Tiger Rag, ” “Deep Henderson” became a controlled study in the variety of bands and approaches at one small juncture in American popular music.

Bill Edwards describes “…one of the most sorrowful and wistful songs [he’s] encountered,” with “…long sustained high notes leading downwards to the end of each phrase help[ing to] punctuate [his feeling].” Apparently the secret to this song’s success was jettisoning its sad, I-wanna’-go-back-to-the-South lyrics and slow, bluesy feel (which can still be heard courtesy of Edwards here). By the time the Coon Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra hit the studio to give “Deep Henderson” its inaugural recording, the tune was gussied up to make it more flapper friendly:

The Nighthawks were an immensely popular group, and their creamy saxes, strutting brass and re-playable shellac introduced a wide audience to “Deep Henderson.” Co-leader and pianist Joe Sanders handles the written solo with enough downhome swagger to offer some reminder of Rose’s original vision. Yet the rhythm is overwhelmingly upbeat (almost coy), aided by Pop Estep’s bumping tuba walking four to the bar behind the trumpet solo. While their reliance on written music and novelty numbers may deny them entry into the hallowed chapters of “jazz” history, the Nighthawks gave many Americans a good idea of how loose and lowdown pop can get.  They sound downright raunchy compared to Mike Markel’s band (follow the arrow to the link):

Deep Henderson

Markel’s block chord introduction and racehorse tempo likely impressed dancers, with robust saxes and clipped brass choreographing their stomping feet. Yet the band’s jerkier rhythm doesn’t leave much space for legs flying off the dance floor. The horn man (Red Nichols? Earl Oliver? An unknown player?) soars to the occasion, as do the saxes behind the brass, recalling society band string sections. In light of sax riffs getting faster, trickier and uniformly high-flying in the years ahead, their sustained harmonies are a nice touch. Markel’s approach has a nostalgic charm, a reminder of when pop music was intense and tight (in feeling if not always execution). Yet the recording does make the “New Orleans effect” even more apparent when listening to King Oliver and some neighborhood colleagues:

Oliver’s cornet immediately presages a much earthier, more personal account of the tune. The Dixie Syncopators’ tempo isn’t much slower than the Nighthawks, but their easygoing inflection and subtle backbeat make it sound like they’re taking their time. The saxophone section parts way for Barney Bigard’s slap-tonguing tenor, perhaps dated but undeniably percussive (and as texturally original as prepared piano or distorted guitar). Even the soprano sax adds a howling, haunting dimension to the clarinet trio.

Drummer Paul Barbarin’s “Oh, play it Mr. Russell!” during Luis Russell’s solo plays up the informal air, yet such exclamations may or may not reveal the insidious, timeless hand of marketing. Improvisation and swing are the breaking news here: Oliver’s greasy responses over the saxes (especially heroic in light of his aging embouchure), and Kid Ory’s lurching, sly trombone over the closing chorus make this, the second recording of “Deep Henderson” pressed, a very distinct chapter of the tune’s short but hot history.

Of course Miff Mole adds his smoother, more rounded yet equally punchy trombone over the chirping clarinets that close Markel’s recording, and even the drummer gets in some solo syncopations. The way each group, section and soloist navigates this arrangement points to a difference of delivery with a shared intent. The “same old stock” can never be the same, not if you’re a musician with something to say or a record consumer with a paycheck. At a time when pop is reticent to market covers (even as the same tune in the same rendition gets beaten into the ground over air and internet), it’s also a reminder that the question of originality often begins with “how” as well as “what.”

Lord lists seventy-one recordings total of “Deep Henderson.” I must admit that in light of Oliver and others’ experiments, Bela Dajos’ rich, buttery society version comes across as either insularity, or the sincerest form of parody:

Last one, I promise: here’s British bandleader Bert Ambrose’s thoroughly modern swing account from 1937:

Well, we can’t end without hearing Vince Giordano do it!  Live, in 3D, with glorious sound and from outside of Lord’ discography:

Want more? Be sure to share your favorites in the comments, and hope you enjoyed the tour.

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Vince Giordano, Josh Duffee, Fletcher Henderson and Jean Goldkette At BixFest

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival honors the brilliant, short-lived cornetist with four days of music, memorabilia, lectures and more music in Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport, IA.  Fans have posted a lot of great footage from this year’s festival online, but clips from the “battle” between Vince Giordano and Josh Duffee’s bands capture something truly special from an already unique gathering.

This double bill was inspired by a legendary battle of the bands on October 13, 1926, between Fletcher Henderson’s “home team” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based orchestra.  Contemporary musicians knew this was a gladiatorial occurrence, with Goldkette’s group of “tight assed white boys” and “hicks from the sticks” soundly whooping the venerated Henderson orchestra.

At Bix Bash on August 6, 2011, Vince Giordano’s New York based Nighthawks were the guests in town to play the Henderson book, with Duffee’s group on home turf in the Midwest playing the Goldkette charts. Just hearing these arrangements live and liberated from the constraints of twenties recordings techniques is an event. While it shouldn’t matter how old the charts are, in the age of disposable pop stars and last year’s songs making it onto the oldies station, their age makes this performance all the more miraculous.

Aside from the geographic reversal and the more playful nature of this “battle,” as soon as the Nighthawks light into “St. Louis Shuffle,” it’s obvious that the Roseland throw down is a source of inspiration, rather than recreation:

Giordano is a powerhouse player and erudite musician who illuminates gaps on record with historical knowledge and attention to period detail that are second to none.  Yet the tone, imagination and drive of the Nighthawks are entirely sui generis.  The Nighthawks also forego their usual practice of playing solos from original recordings; the soloists here are creating in the moment.

Recording techniques in the twenties prevent us from knowing what Kaiser Marshall’s full drum kit sounded like. Arnie Kinsella’s rolling snares on “Shanghai Shuffle” are no doubt historically informed, but more importantly they just get this band moving:

Josh Duffee’s band spends more time with the original solos on record, yet none of his guys or gals (another important difference with the original battle)  sacrifice their voice.  Jazz, “Jazz,” or “jass” has always been about making even a single note all one’s own.  It can be as subtle as the saxophonist playing Frankie Trumbauer’s original lines a touch more staccato, or the band accenting sections that were just an afterthought on the original recording of “Proud of a Baby Like You”:

On “Tiger Rag,” there is no recorded legacy to admire or compare.  Goldkette’s arrangement was never recorded (or at least never survived the judgment of a conservative A&R man).  The notes on the page are just that, aching for interpretation.  Duffee and his band respond with a double-barreled reading, with the leader’s splashing cymbals prominent behind roaring trombone, (sadly inaudible) banjo, and a mirthful chase between cornet and saxophone:

Scroll ahead to 5:35 for Duffee’s “Tiger Rag”

Musicians from the twenties recorded “Tiger Rag” and scores of contrafacts based off of its chord changes.  Duffee and his sidemen could have easily resorted to reusing these solos (though they do interpolate Jimmy Hartwell’s jittery clarinet chorus from Beiderbecke’s recording with the Wolverines).  Without hearing every single cover of “Tiger Rag” from the period, the Duffee band simply sound like they’re improvising.  Even if they’re not, that sense of spontaneity and wild abandon is the whole point.

People don’t cross miles or decades for slavish imitation.  Just ask the generations of listeners in the audience or across the Internet, or Bixophile Flemming Thorbye, who travelled from his native Denmark to shoot this footage.  All four bands on stage, Henderson, Goldkette, Giordano and Duffee, own this music as a communal experience.  Things like time, distance or death don’t stop artists from talking.

Special thanks to Flemming Thorbye and “Jazzman Joe” for posting these clips and so much other wonderful jazz on their YouTube channels.

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Jimmy Dorsey Tells His Story

In Lost Chords (Oxford, 2001), Richard M. Sudhalter describes a backstage scene from a 1976 Paul Whiteman commemoration that treads the line between heartfelt veneration and chest-beating swagger:

[S]axophonists Al Gallodoro (a Whiteman alumnus), Johnny Mince (soloist with Tommy Dorsey’s 1930s orchestra), and Eddie Barefield (star of the Cab Calloway and Chick Webb bands) astonished fellow-bandsmen by reeling off [Jimmy Dorsey’s full chorus solo from Whiteman’s 1927 “Sensation Stomp”] from memory, in faultless unison. “Why, of course everybody picked up on that one,” was Barefield’s explanation…”

Judging from Dorsey’s original solo [at about 1:27 on the following clip] “everyone” also had a razor sharp ear, not to mention several hours to practice.  This one couldn’t have been easy to transcribe:

Sudhalter goes on to describe Dorsey’s solo as “a model of fleet, assured playing, full of swooping, hill-and-dale phrases, nimble ‘false fingering,’ and other tricks of the saxophonist’s trade.”  Between the manic starts and stops and relentless instrumental shifts that comprise “Sensation Stomp,” unbridling Dorsey’s technique over a steady, racing tempo also provides the perfect sense of balance on this chart. For contemporary listeners, Dorsey’s creamy alto may sound quaint next to the tangier timbres of post-Bird saxophonists, and his jittery arpeggios point to the influence of Rudy Wiedoeft and other classically trained sax virtuosos from outside of jazz.

Did Lester Young seem like the type to get caught up in labels?

On the other hand the false fingerings that Dorsey uses at 1:35 would become a mainstay of tenor saxophonist and bop forefather Lester Young when he began to record in the early thirties.  By playing the same note but using different fingerings, saxophonists can alter the pitch of the note ever so slightly, causing it to wax and wane in the listener’s ear. Dorsey’s false fingering builds up tension until the release of a somersaulting break (that manages to work in still more false fingerings).

Young penned the phrase “tell a story” to describe the best improvisers, and Dorsey’s mix of speed and structure makes for a gripping narrative.  Yet we know that Dorsey worked out this solo in advance, first playing it on Red Nichols’ recording of “That’s No Bargain” the year before.  Putting aside the fact that many musicians from this time (including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins) similarly “routined” their solos, can we still classify Dorsey’s “party-piece” solo a work of jazz?

Gallodoro, Mince, Barefield and their Dorsey-loving colleagues didn’t seem to care either way.  Improvised or not, they were impressed enough to recall the solo several decades later.  Legendary saxophonist and bona fide jazz soloist Benny Carter didn’t seem to care when he “borrowed” Dorsey’s solo, note for note, on his 1936 recording of “Tiger Rag” with his Swing Quartet.  Several weeks ago I was blessed and blown away by the sound of Vince Giordano’s reed section bending and vaulting in unison over Dorsey’s solo, with the Nighthawk’s crisp beat booting Dorsey’s legacy into the next millennium.  Critics and academics can debate improvisation as a benchmark for jazz.  Apparently, the musicians made up their minds several years ago.

I haven’t done the research to confirm whether Jimmy Dorsey improvised his clarinet work on “Buddy’s Habits” with Red Nichols.  I did spend several hours trying to get his tumbling runs under my fingers.  Either way, I’ve remained hooked since I first heard this side:

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