Tag Archives: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

A Day In The Studio With Dick McDonough

A-269804-1135084302Despite, or perhaps due to, being one of the most in-demand guitarists of the swing era, Dick McDonough rarely had the opportunity to lead his own record sessions. When he did get a chance to direct an ensemble in the mid thirties, he had the ears and connections to select some of the best jazz musicians in New York City. Record company ARC had the studio and cash, so they supplied the music and oversight.

After an impeccably played but soporific inaugural session of sweet music and waltzes on June 4, 1936, the company seemed to start hearing this group’s potential at their next session on June 23. Bunny Berigan’s melody statements on trumpet, Claude Thornhill’s piano solos and Artie Shaw’s clarinet obbligatos spice up Tin Pan Alley soft-serve like “Summer Holiday” and “I’m Grateful To You.” All three players are used in the same way, even at the same time in both arrangements, hinting at some A&R calculation of what a little musical individuality might do for sales. Things continue to loosen up on “Dear Old Southland” with a characteristically smart, swinging solo by Shaw and some brightly harmonized ensembles. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” swings even harder and leaves even more room for improvisation.

By August 4, 1936 and with slightly different personnel, those highly organized, jazz-flavored dance band arrangements have been replaced by open-ended jazz charts that are also very danceable. Dick McDonough and His Orchestra finally get a chance to stretch out on four tunes (“Dardanella, It Ain’t Right, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “In A Sentimental Mood“):

MI0002897039Berigan lives up to the accolades of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and generations of musicians and fans devastated by his early death. His tone is blistering yet relentlessly warm. He swaggers into “Dardanella” and “It Ain’t Right” and adds a plaintive element to Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Toots Mondello, best known for his section work with the big bands of Benny Goodman and others, is ( I believe) the confident, joyous clarinetist on these tracks, and (definitely) the rhapsodic alto sax voice on “In A Sentimental Mood.” Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone, freed from its role in the rhythm section of so many twenties bands, is now even wittier and more flexible.  His vibraphone also adds another color to the band. Drummer Cozy Cole is prominent throughout, adding a popping feel that’s part Jazz Age and part Swing Era to “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” (just listen to his splash cymbal at the end of the first chorus). Vocalist Buddy Clark clearly listened to Louis Armstrong and absorbed what he heard; Clark clips and elongates his phrases while never sounding like some commercial concession.

The once absurdly busy and now woefully forgotten tenor saxophonist Larry Binyon gets in some husky solos, with pianist Sammy Prager and bassist Paul Prince rounding out the ensemble. McDonough’s solos are spare both musically and literally. Maybe he wanted to give his colleagues extra room, making him a modest and/or smart leader as well as a tasteful guitarist.  Judging by the energy on these sides, all the players were happy just to breathe.

Too bad that the very next day, as though hung over from too much improvisation and swing, the label was back to serving sedate tempos and sugary, occasionally mind-numbing words (why would a songwriter think that “color scheme” is a suitable lyric for anything other than a paint shop jingle?). On this session and McDonough’s remaining ones, the beat bounces more than swings and most of the tunes are generically pleasant. They’re also much more tightly arranged. Even Clark slides back into the role of legato pop singer.

It would be hard for a band like this to make a “bad” record, even an uninspired one.  There are still beautiful, at times creative touches to find over the course of McDonough’s twelve sessions for ARC.  He would in turn never lead another record session on this or any other label.  It’s difficult to say whether McDonough was discouraged by his experience as a leader or simply too busy to care. He just did what he could, when he could.

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The Georgians

A contingent of the Paul Specht orchestra playing the lounge at the Hotel Alamac in New York, while the full band handled the ballroom, The Georgians were a “band within a band” years before the term first appeared. Record collectors and moldy figs have known and raved about them for decades, but the group remains a secret from even historically open-minded jazz listeners. That’s a shame; they’re missing out on some interesting music and a productive intersection between jazz and pop. Not that those distinctions meant much to the musicians.

The Georgians channeled a variety of influences, from the New Orleans jazz that the band’s leader, trumpeter and star soloist Frank Guarente absorbed as a youngster, to popular dance music and even the “hokum” sounds modern listeners love to hate. Depending on the date, the group was as large as nine players (not much smaller than the full Specht band), and the arrangements by pianist Arthur Schutt put every possible permutation of instruments alongside a range of exciting soloists. Improvisation and orchestration, solos and ensembles, jazz and pop: all raw material for the band.

Frank Guarente

I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” starts with a seedy minor key episode straight out of a nightclub production, before easing into collective improvisation. The unpromisingly titled “Barney Google” parodies its own wooden sax and squawking mouthpiece effects with a confident brass duet. “Snake Hips” and “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night” are fine examples of raucous, wide open twenties jazz, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings‘ “Farewell Blues” acquires an attractively bitter edge due in part to Russ Morgan’s trombone. Guarente delivers consistently powerful leads on all the Georgians’ sides. As a soloist, he offers everything from mellow, muted and Panico-esque paraphrase on “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” to the uncluttered blues of “Henpecked Blues.” Chauncey Morehouse‘s drums aren’t always clearly audible, but his feel is undeniable, and he pulls out a kicking stop-time chorus on “Land of Cotton Blues.”

Cherry-picking highlights from this group is as difficult as pinning them down musically. The Georgians were more than a splinter group from some “large/arranged/commercial outfit” jamming out on improvisations. They also didn’t approach jazz the same way their contemporaries King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson did.  Ironically, that combination of diversity and originality, supposedly hallmark virtues of jazz, are probably what’s kept them locked in stylistic limbo. Listen first and label after, if at all.

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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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