Tag Archives: washboard

The Later Clarence Williams: As Big As He Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Front Line You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

In jazz, “front line” usually means trumpet, trombone and clarinet weaving collectively improvised lines through multiple strains or, in its modern parlance, at least two horns blazing through “the head” in tight unison. Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule, such as a half-dozen of Clarence Williams’s washboard sessions, waxed during the first six months of 1926, using just cornet, clarinet, found percussion and the leader’s piano to defy conventional roles for non-rhythm section players.

Ed Allen often sticks to the strong, spare lead expected from the cornet yet clarinetist Bennie Morten’s thirds under and inside that lead on “You For Me, Me For You” are a surprising touch:

There is no trombone to form the standard New Orleans triumvirate but the pair doesn’t just interact like a reduced New Orleans front line. Listen to Morten on “Wait ‘Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston”:

back-to-back with Buster Bailey on clarinet for “Yama Yama Blues” on a different Williams date:

and the difference becomes more a matter of style rather than predetermined function. Bailey played with King Oliver and knew what was expected of NOLA ensemble clarinetists: decorous, penetrating lines mostly in the upper register, dovetailing with the lead but staying out of its way. Bailey’s playing on “Yama Yama” would fit perfectly with a trombone as well as a cornet in the mix. Morten on the other hand is not just sparer but closer to Allen in terms of dynamics as well as register.  He accompanies the lead more than he ornaments it.

Harmonizing on top of Allen’s lead for “My Own Blues” (a technique that historian David Sager traces back to the Wolverines), Morten splits the difference between duetting with Allen and the type of upper register obbligato that Oliver and his Crescent City colleagues might have expected:

After the vocal, when Morten does launch into highflying descant lines, they act as rhythmic impetus as well as another texture. There’s none of the occasional monotony brought on by multiple choruses of strictly defined polyphony, even as Allen maintains that lead.  This loose, airy blend may or may not have been worked out in advance and might sound effortless, even unremarkable, but it creates a unique sound and feel for the group. It is difficult to imagine Bailey or Jimmie Noone’s prodigious technique, Johnny Dodds’s earthy sound or Sidney Bechet’s sheer personality (at this stage in their careers, anyway) forging the tender, restrained “Senorita Mine,” especially its second chorus with Allen’s muted horn behind Morten’s alto sax lead:

Boodle-Am” (here the better recorded fourth take) has a big sound and infectious rhythm that completely jettisons ideas about what “standard instrumentation” may have offered in place of two well-paired horns and rhythm:

Morten complements Allen’s powerful lead with sustained ascending high notes followed by busier fills; tension and release, accompaniment but not background, simple but very effective. On the verse right before the vocal, Morten sticks to a simpler part and leaves Allen room to stretch out.

These sessions using just(?) four players with washboard instead of the pricier full drum kit may have been an attempt by Williams to cut overhead. Yet even if he wanted to do the record cheap, he wanted to make it right. Williams consistently hired Allen for his record dates, obviously appreciating the cornetist’s ability to play as powerfully, sensitively, bluesy, or clean as needed and remain recognizable. Bennie Morten a.k.a. Morton only seems to have participated on these few sessions with Williams. This blogger can’t find any other sessions that include Morten or biographical information about him (his name being very close to that of trombonist Benny Morton doesn’t make research any easier). Whoever Morten was, he obviously had a great ear and gift for ensemble playing. Williams not only found him but also sat him next to Ed Allen in a studio. It’s not the Creole Jazz Band or Bird and Dizzy, it’s all theirs.

Prince Robinson, Williams, Allen and Floyd Casey

Prince Robinson, Williams, Allen and Floyd Casey

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Phat Washboard

 

Let’s Jam.

Aside from the actual music on Frog’s new release of Clarence Williams’ washboard bands, John Collinson’s liner notes illustrate why these reissues are so important.  Collinson suggests  “the use of the washboard may have been an attempt to connect with the unsophisticated coloured migrants from the south [sic] who may have felt happier on hearing certain sounds they could relate to.” He also notes “The usual reason offered however is as substitute for an expensive drum kit.”  The possibility of artistic choice, rather than commercial or financial compromise, never enters the discussion.

My first experience with a washboard band was on a high school trip to Disneyland (or was it Disney World?  Which one is really humid and looks like a five-year old child’s mind after they get into the medicine cabinet?).  Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and banjo sang and strummed to the heavens over the clang of stain-removing percussion.

Yes, They Might Just Be Playing This Music By Choice

Most of my fellow tourists viewed the group as either a colorful attraction or an annoyance, not unlike Mickey, Donald and those two destructive chipmunks.  Yet since that visit, I’ve continued to be impressed with the panoply of sounds a skilled washboard player can conjure from their washboard, including scrapes, taps, alternating downward and upward strokes, and through a variety of auxiliary percussion mounted with an engineer’s resourcefulness. During a trip to Prague two years ago, I was greeted and then dazzled by the miniature cymbals of a washboardist playing with a group of Dixieland-loving Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge.

Barring a large influx of Southern migrants (or time travellers from the pre-war era) crossing the bridge, these musicians were simply expressing themselves with an instrument they found inspiring. Hearing the instrument or style as “old-fashioned” or “primitive” is the listener’s issue, not theirs.

Yes, He Was Also The Grandfather and Guardian of Actor Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad

As for Clarence Williams’ decision to use a washboard, even if it was based on calculation rather than preference, the sound of Floyd Casey, Bruce Johnson and Jasper Taylor is all we need. Rather than hearing Frog’s latest release as a record of earlier, simpler (read, simplistic) music making, we can listen to it as a unique artistic experience.  Not to disagree with Frog, but there will never be anything “vintage” about that.

As for the actual music on that CD, check out my review on All About Jazz.

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