The Broadway Bellhops were far from the hottest act of the twenties. One of many recording bands in New York City, bandleader Sam Lanin gathered the leading jazz players of the time to diligently read arrangements of the latest popular songs. This music set out to deliver a tune rather than showcase musicians.
Those musicians, however, performed with assembly line efficiency and concert virtuoso polish. Improvisation and rhythmic intensity were cleverly stitched into a larger musical whole. The trombone chorus starting “I Don’t Believe You” sticks to the melody but is far from faceless: melodic, masculine, not “swinging” but still rhythmically sharp, it’s like an actor giving life to their lines:
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In the last chorus, a three-part, collectively improvised frontline opens a hot concerto grosso, the trombonist returns for the final bridge and sweet collides with hot as a clarinet pipes over the big theatrical finale.
Somehow, though, the piano accompaniment behind Charles Hart’s vocal is the most interesting part, due to its subtlety. The accompaniment is halfway between song-plugger style and rag-a-jazz, ever so slightly at odds with Hart’s approach. There’s a tension at work that even fans used to these juxtapositions would have noticed, though not balked over.
Time has not been kind to Hart, Irving Kaufman, Scrappy Lambert and others singing with the Bellhops. Their sound now inspires a wide variety of judgments. Depending on one’s opinion, the instrumental obbligatos behind their vocals are either novel contrasts or pure subterfuge. The clarinetist on “Away Down South In Heaven” pushes and pulls at Kaufman’s downbeat while still harmonizing with the lead and never distracting from the vocal. These were professionals. They may not have been making art but they never sounded sloppy or unconvincing.
Two takes of “Get Out And Get Under The Moon” show the thought behind these products, first trying a restrained piano behind Lambert and then well-timed, charming saxophone licks:
Ensemble effects such as the upper-register clarinet with muted trumpet on “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” and “I’d Rather Cry Over You” recall the orchestrated Dixieland sound described by David Sager in his liner notes for Off The Record’s reissue of The Wolverines:
That voicing resembles Sager’s description of “the first available harmony line below the cornet lead, while the clarinet took the first available harmony above the lead.” This was a “standard voicing” of the time, so it was likely a well-known device for enhancing stock arrangements. Similar ideas pop up on “Mary Ann” under Lanin’s name or Lanin d.b.a. Billy Hays on “I’d Rather Cry Over You.”
This band-within-a-band sound and allusion to small group jazz in an arranged setting exemplify the style-splitting popular music of that time. That context is sometimes lost when fast-forwarding to the solos.
Solos like those of Tommy Gott on “Our Bungalow of Dreams,” Red Nichols on “Collette” or Bix, Tram and Don on the Bellhops’ most well-known session are worthy of attention. They defamiliarize the hot/sweet dichotomy and an extra eight bars would have been welcome:
Yet there is much to admire on these sides even without improvisation. Who else could pull off a soprano-sax led soli like the one on “There’s Everything Nice About You” not to mention the tight brass section of just three players sounding like six?
“She’s A Great, Great Girl” features brilliant lead playing by Larry Abbott on lead alto and Gott on first trumpet. Abbott does cover up the rest of the section, effectively making this his moment. He plays with an unabashedly syrupy tone and varied phrasing, digging in at times, creamy at others:
His lead is more transparent after the vocal, another contrast as well as an indication of deliberate design. The side ends with a half-chorus of piano and soft-shoeing cymbals, adding still more structural, dynamic and textural flavor. Details like these are why this music still resounds as flesh and blood performances, rather than disposable pop artifacts or nostalgia.
If you have your own favorite finds from the Broadway Bellhops, please share them in the comments!