Tag Archives: Warren Vache

A Chauncey Morehouse Playlist

539260_10150949855755807_1433896026_nFull drum kits were rarely heard on records made before 1927. Only the most skilled (and confident) audio engineers were able to compensate so that a low frequency “boom” wouldn’t throw off the recording. Drummers were left to work with cymbals, blocks and anything else they were permitted to bring into the studio.

Adding in the already difficult sonics of many early records and the fact that drummers rarely soloed during the twenties, listening to jazz drums on recordings from this period may seem like an arduous, even fruitless exercise. It’s not quite like a needle in a haystack: instead, the needle has been chopped into several pieces, with only a few of the pieces actually getting mixed into the hay, while the haystack itself is kept in a very dark barn.

Smaller kits, smaller technological resources and smaller role notwithstanding, the best twenties jazz drummers produced imaginative sounds and perhaps most importantly in jazz, a lot of rhythm. As Dr. Lewis Porter points out, early jazz drummers were not just timekeepers. Mark C. Gridley notes that they actually had a very high level of interaction with the rest of the band, something usually associated with much later styles. Drummer, bandleader and percussion historian Josh Duffee describes traditional jazz drumming as “an art form that tests how musical a drummer can be with limited and very unique instruments.” It turns out that these needles were actually crafted by talented, imaginative needle makers, and it’s time to start digging.

For my own survey of this art form, I’m starting with Chauncey Morehouse. He’s the most familiar to me, and probably to even occasional early jazz listeners. Anyone who has taken a Jazz 101 course has heard Morehouse’s cymbal backbeat on Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer’s seminal “Singin’ the Blues.” His collaborations with “Bix” and “Tram” in the Jean Goldkette orchestra and on numerous studio dates with the famous duo make him one of the most frequently encountered drummers of the twenties. It’s a little trickier to hear his drums but feeling them is no problem, for example on Morehouse’s own composition “Three Blind Mice” with a Trumbauer-led group:

Morehouse doesn’t play all the way through (at least not audibly), yet when he does it’s simply but confidently. Cymbal syncopations such as those in the second chorus kick things forward like a riding crop. He also clearly enjoys supporting and interacting with Beiderbecke during the cornetist’s solo. His approach is different than the Jones/Webb/Krupa via Dodds and Singleton style that would influence the course of jazz. He punctuates and pushes the beat rather than rides it. John Petters chides Morehouse and his contemporary Vic Berton for their “cumbersome choked cymbal beats, which served only to break up the rhythm, instead of laying it down,” yet he judges these drummers according to a later standard, like criticizing the ancient Greek playwrights for not writing any novels. Morehouse is simply his own man rhythmically.

At the same time Morehouse plays with the creativity and sensitivity associated with the best drummers of any era. He varies his patterns, listens to his band mates, fills in between phrases, sets up ensemble hits and lays out when needed to allow instrumental balance as well as textural contrast. The six sides Morehouse made with Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang (a.k.a. the New Orleans Lucky Seven) highlight his taste as well as his resourcefulness with the limited instrumentation available to drummers at that time. In addition to his cymbals popping behind soloists, Morehouse orchestrates the beat using woodblocks and a brassy cowbell on “At The Jazz Band Ball”:

On “Goose Pimples,” Morehouse taps the melody under Beiderbecke’s lead, fashioning a harmony in rhythm and becoming as much of a partner in the collective improvisation as any of the horns:

His rapid-fire “click-clack” perfectly captures the tense, madcap energy of “Original Dixieland One-Step” with a Red Nichols group:

Morehouse’s earliest records with the Georgians may be the best illustration of his doing a lot with very little. The “band within a band” of the Paul Specht dance orchestra, their acoustically recorded performances and dense (but driving) polyphony make it difficult to hear the drums. Yet Morehouse is there for all forty-six sides, the sense of time that earned him lifelong praise palpably, if not always audibly, moving the ensemble. His wood and temple blocks cut through for an especially dynamic impact on “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Chicago” and “You’ve Got To See Mama Every Night,” and his playing is half underpinning, half counterpoint on “I’m Sitting Pretty In A Pretty Little City”:

Plenty of soggy Dixieland ensembles have made woodblocks, cowbells, drum rims, and washboards sound corny, yet for Morehouse and his contemporaries, these things were instruments rather than novelties. Morehouse knew how to add color as well as rhythm using equipment that most drummers would now classify under “auxiliary percussion.” “Margie,” once again with Nichols, contains a range of percussive timbres, from wire brush backbeat in the opening ensemble through cymbals behind the mellophone and woodblock “bombs” behind the clarinet, to the panoply of sounds heard during the final chorus:

Less lucid but just as effective, Morehouse’s percussion helps the unpromisingly titled “Add A Little Wiggle” with a Nat Shilkret’s All Star Orchestra pick up considerable heat. It is difficult to hear what he’s doing behind the full ensemble but it clearly works, and his cymbals step out to dialog with the soloists:

Shilkret’s “Chloe” stays pretty commercial and tame, until Miff Mole’s trombone solo and the ensuing hot small group burst out of the orchestra. Morehouse also bears down, this time on drum skins as well as cymbals:

By the time Morehouse recorded his composition “Harlem Twist” with Red Nichols and His Orchestra, there’s a lot more snare and bass drum in his playing. They add plenty “thwack” but without any sense of military-style heft. Morehouse continues to lift and converse with the rest of the band:

Morehouse’s skins on “Bessie Couldn’t Help It” with Hoagy Carmichael’s band are slightly louder and he uses more regularly recurring beats. That may be a sign of changing styles, or technology catching up with the way Morehouse had been playing on a full kit from the beginning. Either way he remains his same effective but subtle self:

Morehouse’s taste, as well as his time and punch, might have been one of the reasons he ended up performing what some consider the first recorded jazz drum solo while he was still a young man playing with The Georgians, on “Land of Cotton Blues”:

It’s not a Chicago-style explosion, and it’s even further removed from an Elvin Jones odyssey. Morehouse’s solo is short, sweet and spurring. Mel Lewis’ description of the “tap dances” that early jazz drummers spontaneously composed comes to mind. At a time when engineers were wary of drummers and audiences didn’t see them as soloists, Morehouse surprised everyone.

c/o impulsebrass.com

c/o impulsebrass.com

Lewis doesn’t mention Morehouse in a discussion of jazz drummers he delivered on radio several years ago. A part from his association with better-known musicians such as Beiderbecke, Morehouse’s name doesn’t come up very often in jazz histories. He was obviously well respected but is rarely listed as an actual influence on any players. Yet it’s that lack of influence that makes his work so unique. There are no stylistic links with later drummers to make his approach sound basic or cliché, no ideas he originated that have become so commonplace as to seem unremarkable. Morehouse played rhythm and did it in his own way, and he made the band sound better along the way. That has to count for something in jazz.

Jazz writer Warren Vaché describes Morehouse joining an impromptu jam session at a New Jersey Jazz Society picnic, drumming with just two spoons on a plastic beverage tray and bringing the house down. He also recalls Morehouse’s joyous playing with a reconstituted Jean Goldkette orchestra concert sponsored by the New York Jazz Repertory Company. Despite the loss of one leg, the drummer left an impression on Vaché over twenty years later. The man really could make rhythm any time and with anything!

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Support Your Library, Joe Tarto Will Thank You

Jazz Gentry cover from jazzrecordcenterdotcomThe copy of Jazz Gentry: Aristocrats of the Music World on loan from the library of a prestigious music school doesn’t even have a crease across its spine. Every page is crisp, they all rest perfectly flat on top of one another and all of their corners are still sharpened into a prickly point. There’s also no evidence of fingers, or for that matter sunlight or lamplight, blemishing Bobby Hackett’s earnest face on the cover. The virgin stamp card at the back seems redundant; it’s immediately obvious that this book has never been picked up off the shelf, let alone left the building.

Apparently in the fourteen years since it was published, Warren Vaché’s collection of interviews and insights from dozens of prewar jazz musicians hasn’t sparked the interest of any of the students attending this renowned institution. To be fair, most of the musicians that Vaché interviewed weren’t associated with any styles taught in a classroom. They had already faded from jazz’s collective memory by the time he first wrote these pieces for various magazines in the seventies. Yet the musicians themselves were still around. Now esoteric pursuits with names like “Chauncey, Challis, Cork” and “Doc” were still people with brains to pick and memories to mine.

It would be easy to assume that Vaché’s subjects played too many melodies or too few amplifiers to attract contemporary music students. Yet that’s an assumption based on generalization and laziness. History is a hard sell for a lot of people, regardless of age, taste or how many Coltrane tunes they have memorized. Many of the current descriptions of prewar jazz, or lack thereof, haven’t helped matters.

So instead of lecturing on the importance of Bix Beiderbecke or opining on Vic Dickenson‘s singular sense of humor on the trombone, I’ll just offer that young musicians are missing out on stories like this one:

The [Vincent] Lopez orchestra went on tour, and when Joe [Tarto] learned they would play the Mosque Theater in his hometown Newark, he sent word to his mother so she could come see him perform-something she had never been able to do before…Joe had a featured spot on the program doing a slap bass chorus on “Milenberg Joys.” As a finale, and to add a little showmanship while in the spotlight, he got into the habit of kicking the bass into a spin. All the kicking had finally worn a hole into the back of the bass, and between shows at the Mosque a stray alley cat found the hole and crawled in. Nobody was more surprised than Joe during the next rendition of “Milenberg Joys” when the frightened cat began screaming and trying to claw his way out through the F holes of the fiddle. For a moment he thought a ghost had taken up residence in the old bass, but like a real trouper he kept on thumping away right up to the finale. But when he launched the customary kick, the hole in the bass opened up and released the cat, which took off for the pit musicians, knocking over music stands and winding up in the lap of the pianist. The audience howled, thinking it was all part of the act, but the SPCA didn’t think it was funny. Joe had a hard time convincing the humane society representative that the cat wasn’t part of the performance.

JoeTartoTartophoneFromNetwork54Tuba player, bassist, arranger and composer Joe Tarto was about seventy-one years old when he told this story to Vaché, and it is heartwarming to picture him as a young, green musician, excited by the chance to perform for his mother and encountering some harmless bas luck (and also to know that even back then, a diligent member of the SPCA was on hand to look out for that poor animal’s welfare).  The image of the Lopez band opening up a chart and letting a rhythm instrument solo is also telling. Bass solos are still relatively rare, so in 1925 this must have seemed postmodern. While a bass is now more likely to walk rather than slap, the bottom line remains musicians making music. Not “commercial music, “serious music,” “art” or “entertainment” but music they enjoy. Reading Vache’s book is less a matter of respecting one’s elders than simply conversing with a colleague. Don’t get hung up on labels like “dead” or “alive,” just get to a library!

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