Tag Archives: Wolverine Blues

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It is tempting to dismiss the Benson style as stiff and outdated (and to some, stereotypically “white,” even if both African American and European American musicians were already playing the tune in equally distinct,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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