Tag Archives: Wolverine Blues

Black Music, White Records


One of the earliest, and still funniest, Saturday Night Live skits I ever saw features host and musical guest Ray Charles playing himself, alongside several members of the cast playing a popular young vocal group. As the “Young Caucasians, ” they give Charles’ soul hit “What’d I Say” a treatment more Branson, Missouri than Apollo Theater. Charles’ soulful voice is replaced with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irredeemably hokey chorus of teenagers, his gritty arrangement polished down to a cheery, utterly sexless sheen.

Charles’ manager tells him this is the pop version of the song. His further explanation that Charles’ recording will be played in the South and “Negro radio stations”, not to mention the Caucasians’ Brady Bunch-esque fashions and nasal honking, tell Charles as well as the audience that they just heard the white version of “What’d I Say.”

careofglennmillerorchestradotcomThe “white version” comes up as a joke, intentional or otherwise, throughout the history of American popular culture. Another personal favorite is a scene from the 2002 film Undercover Brother, where the titular character asks about Michael Bolton’s cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” There are many more to choose from out there.

Critics as well as comedians like to include white versions in their work. For critics, the white version is an analytical tool, a deviation falling short of some non-white normative case. Critics’ white versions are usually subtler as well as less amusing, and it’s harder to select a favorite, but they still keep coming up with them.

Whether employed as a punch line or a critical idea, white versions tend to be deemed stiff and uptight, lacking the artistic sincerity and raw expressiveness of earlier, more “authentic” versions. As those corny Young Caucasians demonstrate, white versions are also sanitized for popular i.e. majority (i.e. white) consumption. That digestibility also coincides with the idea that the white version are also the more commercially successful (and ergo, artistically compromised) version.

Prewar jazz, bound up in popular music and entertainment, seems especially rife with examples to spur comedians and critics. Listening to the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” I can practically hear comments from some Gunther Schuller-inspired Statler and Waldorf:

The Benson Orchestra’s crisp articulation and bright sound are very different from any other “Wolverine Blues.” For some listeners, this is probably the “white(st) version” of the tune. Personally I just hear a band more rooted in ragtime than jazz, approaching a now familiar composition on their terms.

At a time when music publishers reigned supreme, the same tune could receive dozens of recordings by different bands of all different shapes and sizes, all giving it different treatments. British bandleader Bert Firman put his own stamp on Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:

Saxophonist and author Paul Lindemeyer explains:

On Henderson’s recording, the studio has a “hard walls” ambience and everyone seems to be in the middle distance, so no voices predominate. What you hear is a performance, not so much an arrangement. With Firman you actually hear the arrangement and discern the parts. This is a published stock by the dean of stock arrangers, Frank Skinner, who squared a few corners away and added a couple of “hot-cha” and “vo-de-o-do” figures but otherwise let Henderson’s work stand proud.

While clearly digging into Henderson’s tune, the Firman band also pushes the beat slightly more than Henderson’s orchestra while relying less on improvisation. They still provide an energetic, unique touch to a tune heard in countless jazz history courses and boxed sets. Yet the juxtaposition of Firman’s tenser rhythm and written parts with Henderson’s laidback beat and soloists is probably more than enough to peg the Firman record as just another white version.

If they’re not dismissed as outright imitations or sterilized products, critics also reduce white versions to needlessly complicated attempts at copying the more “natural” original. This blurring of “experimental” and “pedantic” may as well be called “Red Nichols syndrome.” Nichols’ music, including his approach to material primarily associated with seminal Black jazz artists, reflects his own style, taste, and cultural/musical upbringing. His “Heebie Jeebies” features a string of harmonically ranging solos and a wittily arranged double-trumpet soli:

It doesn’t introduce scat singing, and Nichols’ flip, facile cornet is a long way from Louis Armstrong’s golden, swinging sound. Likewise, Nichols’ “Black Bottom Stomp” settles into a cool, metrical groove and transparency that may seem unusual compared to composer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording:

Nichols’ music doesn’t lack anything; it just has different musical priorities but remains distinct and very personal. Even without altering the course of jazz history, that has to count for something in jazz. Unfortunately without a healthy dose of the blues, a loose rhythm, vocal inflections and (perhaps most damning) a corresponding narrative about the artist’s poverty, recordings by Nichols and others like him, when mentioned at all, are often relegated to clever knockoffs.

Not being jazz is one thing, but many white versions are consigned to an ersatz, second-rate category that’s as condescending as it is subjective. Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz splices Chick Webb and Benny Goodman’s recordings of “Don’t Be That Way” side by side to illustrate those bands playing against one another at the Savoy ballroom. Yet it also saddles Webb’s drive next to Goodman’s relaxed bounce in a calculated manner that might have made Lorne Michaels smile:

It’s easy to hear which group has the faster tempo, more sedate feel, harder drive, wider range of dynamics, etc. on Edgar Sampson’s arrangement. It’s impossible to hear what went on at the Savoy ballroom on May 11, 1937. Burns’ point is to show the viewer which band is “best,” as dancer Frankie Manning puts it, but we might just be hearing two unique performances of the same chart:

Seventy-six years later and beyond the Lindy-hoppers’ concerns, can we detect diversity rather than victory, musical priorities rather than stylistic purity? Can we forgive Benny Goodman for making so much money?

As big as the jazz tent has become, jazz’s white album may never be more than a footnote. Ultimately the point isn’t whether Goodman, Nichols, Firman, the Benson Orchestra or for that matter Armstrong, Henderson, Morton or any band are playing the way we expect or if they’re even playing jazz; it’s whether the music has something to say on its own terms. If not, is the music there for productive historical and stylistic comparison, or narrow artistic teleology? I still laugh at the Ray Charles skit but I now know that there’s a grain of truth to it that just isn’t funny. The world isn’t a comedy skit. Things are much more complicated, even if they do often come down to black and white, and more than music.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

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The Avant-Garde Benson Orchestra

WNAJ - Edgar Benson OrchestraNine decades and a few stylistic light-years after it was recorded, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s “Wolverine Blues” may sound like (to paraphrase one online commenter) a lesson in how not to play Jelly Roll Morton’s composition:

The Benson Orchestra seems to lack the “plenty rhythm” that the composer deemed crucial for jazz. Instead, it has its own firm, broadly stepping two-beat rhythm, with clipped syncopations and a bright, violin-infused sound that looks back to ragtime (but not as far back then as now). The Benson Orchestra rags a bit, promenades more and to some ears might also do some marching. They don’t do much stomping, and definitely do not swing.

This seventh-ever recording of “Wolverine Blues” from September of 1923 is far removed from the medium to fast tempo jams that the Morton standard now typically inspires from early jazz ensembles. Yet it’s also very different from the looser, at times downright raucous inaugural recordings that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Albert E. Short’s Tivoli Syncopators gave “Wolverine Blues” back in March of the same year. The composer himself offered a swinging solo piano rendition in July. Gene Rodemich’s dance band sounds comparatively unhinged back in June, and Frank Westphal’s orchestra played a similar arrangement with a slightly agitated rhythm section and busy solos in late March.  (I still can’t find an online version of Harry Raderman’s May recording, but any help would be greatly appreciated!)

The Benson Orchestra is less visceral and more vertical than any of its recorded predecessors. Pianist/leader Don Bestor’s piano filigree and the trumpeter’s blue note counterpoint during the final chorus do have their own antique charm, but the Benson recording just doesn’t have the same energy and variety of the NORK’s improvised polyphony or Morton’s occasionally Latinized piano. Other musicians were obviously giving “Wolverine Blues” their own distinct treatment before the Benson’s record, treatments that jell much better with contemporary expectations of the tune. The Benson Orchestra’s approach is less a historical template than an example of one band’s style.

It is tempting to dismiss the Benson style as stiff and outdated (and to some, stereotypically “white,” even if both African American and European American musicians were already playing the tune in equally distinct, differently bombastic ways). Yet it is a style, one unlike any other on record at that time, or since: no modern band would ever think to play Morton’s warhorse like the Benson Orchestra does, except in outright imitation or parody.

The sound of the Benson Orchestra on “Wolverine Blues” remains so refreshingly archaic, so far removed from even a vestigial hint at what is “current” that it’s both very personal and oddly subversive.  In its contemporary context, the Benson Orchestra’s outdatedness might even seem ballsy. It may not suit everyone, but it’ll never be wrong. Assuming that Morton and his jazz brethren’s ultimate mission was to encourage individuality in music, then the Benson Orchestra fulfills that legacy in spirit, if not style or (far more slippery) taste.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

Picasso, Man With A Pipe (1915), Art Institute of Chicago.

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Stomp of the Unknown Sideman

It Turns Out Ignorance Can Be Bliss, and Quite Danceable

Amidst pages upon pages of postmodern masturbation, moaning from behind dense, obscurantist prose in The Intelligence of Evil, Jean Baudrillard comes dangerously close to making a point (which to a French theorist is like Superman mining for kryptonite).

Baudrillard frequently references “the real [italics mine] that forces the world to face us, expurgating it of any secret complicity, of any illusion.”  In his own circuitous way, Baudrillard points (!) out that modernity is gradually but ever more efficiently robbing the world of wonder.  The unchecked ambition for knowledge, the sheer volume of data/numbers/statistics circulating everywhere and the immediate, constant access afforded through media and technology threatens to make everything searchable, linkable and available.  The simple joy of mystery is becoming extinct, one click and one study at a time.

"I'm telling you, it's Don Redman's band on 'Birmingham Bertha'"

For devotees of the pop of yestercentury, mystery is a given.  A favorite artist with lost works, pieces by an unknown/misattributed composer, legendary performances that went unrecorded or missing personnel listings are all too common.  When the players are known but the music is gone (for example the great live gigs no one will ever get to hear, or all of the great musical moments from before the advent of recorded sound), acceptance tempers speculation.  When there’s an actual record, an actual soloist that sounds seductively like Bix Beiderbecke or a hell-raising ensemble heard nowhere else, it can inspire spirited, occasionally heated discussions.  Yet despite all of the seminar chats and Facebook lectures, in many cases the Truth will never be known.

Unfortunate? Perhaps.  Liberating?  Absolutely.

Listening to the unknown players of the Sunset Band on test pressings for example, it might be satisfying to confirm  that it is in fact Freddie Keppard on trumpet and Buster Bailey on clarinet, as many have speculated.  It might even shed some more light on these artists, or provide another precious example of their artistry.  It wouldn’t change the elemental drive of the band on “Wolverine Blues,” or their haunting ensemble chords on “Ivy.”

Like the Sunset Band, the Palledo Orchestra of St. Louis  also has a body of conjecture surrounding its members’ identities, which are now lost to the sands of time, or the dust of bookkeeping.  Research may one day tell who the musicians are, but for now Google queries and digital analyses will draw a (beautiful) blank.  On record the group has its own distinctly scrappy groove and gloriously busy soloists, with an unknown bass sax  briefly taking over on “What-Cha-Call-‘Em Blues.”  While musicologists and aficionados agree that it’s Adrian Rollini‘s bass sax on a session under George Posnak’s name, no one is sure who is providing the stream of solos on “Black Horse Stomp.”  Those solos still remain, and they remain personal, even if we don’t know the personalities behind them [check out the following clip at 3:06]:

Record collectors, scholars and fans will continue to debate and argue who’s responsible for the sounds that continue to captivate audiences after so many decades.  As long as the debates remain spirited, honest and friendly, we can all look forward to hearing more of them.  Still,  there’s something profoundly revealing about music that reveals nothing beyond the way it sounds.  It reminds us that it can be ( or simply is) all about the music, and that certainty is occasionally superfluous.

Unlike Baudrillard (or this writer), it even does all that in under three minutes!

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