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8 CD SET: THE 1936-1947 CLASSIC COUNT BASIE AND LESTER YOUNG SESSIONS. Mosaic #263. www.mosaicrecords.com
The learned jazz producer/writer George Avakian once said that Lester (Prez) Young is one of the few jazz musicians who could be claimed by traditionalists and modernists alike. Thankfully such divisions are no longer so acute but George’s observation attested to the timelessness of Lester’s playing.
This Mosaic set is both a companion to and an extension of Mosaic’s earlier offering of the complete Vocalion and Columbia sessions with Count Basie. This set presents all of the 1936-39 Decca sides then picks up again in 1941 after the Prez left the Count. The exquisite 1942 session with Nat Cole is here along with the great Signature date with Dicky Wells, all of the Aladdin sides and a number of the Norman Granz Mercury sessions which extend well into the bop era with the man still sounding contemporary enough to be the primary influence on such players as —his sound could be heard in Stan Getz, Wardell Grey, Paul (“Vice Prez”) Quinichette, Allen Eager, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims.
The set opens with Lester’s familiar recording debut in the Smith-Jones Inc. Vocalion date with alternate takes. The alternate of Shoe Shine Boy may be a bit less cohesive than the issued one but no less welcome. His first Decca session with Basie (actually offered out of order for contractual and logistical reasons) features a recently discovered alternate of Roseland Shuffle, which, like the other alternates, demonstrate the creative process of a brilliant soloist, honing and focusing ideas until they get as close to perfection as one can reach – the rapid fire phrases flowing as fast as fingers can manage without cliches or fillers. He’s in command from the beginning and doesn’t relinquish it.
The following Basie Decca sessions also show the evolution of the Basie band itself, from strong soloists bound together by hard riffs and “head arrangements” to a more polished sound that rode on the perfections of its rhythm session.
This band’s second session led-off by the standard Exactly Like You defines what Lester Young brought to the young Basie band. It’s a pleasant, if not remarkable, performance until Jimmy Rushing finishes his vocal. Young literally explodes for 16 bars before the band settles back into its routine.
The iconic One O’Clock Jump is an assemblage of riffs dating back to the early ‘30s (Cab Calloway’s 6 or 7 Times, for one reference) but it’s the first instance of Basie’s other tenor great Herschel Evans soloing on the same composition with Lester. The two apparently had a contentious relationship. Evan’s solo is brooding and Lester’s counters that with a slash and burn chorus exciting even after listening to it over many years.
Like every commercial swing outfit, Basie was obliged to record forgettable tin-pan alley offerings to capture the juke box nickels. They have their redeeming moments but the great instrumentals – Topsy, Blue & Sentimental, Doggin Around, Time Out show a great band in progress and widen the Harry Edison joined Buck Clayton in the trumpet section and made his mark with the famous “one-note” solo on Swinging the Blues.
As the band gathered a following, Commodore Records producer Milt Gabler brought Lester, Buck Clayton and the rhythm section for the exquisite Kansas City Six sessions of 1938 that gave us Them There Eyes, Countless Blues, Way Down Yonder In New Orleans and Paging the Devil. This session offers the first extended documenting of Lester’s soft-toned clarinet playing in what have become classics of chamber jazz. There have been volumes written about this session, including Loren Schoenberg’s notes to this set, so this reviewer will leave it to them to explain its virtues.
By 1939 Basie’s band had matured beyond the solos and riffs that had made its reputation and nowhere is this more evident that the two-part Cherokee. The Count’s rhythm section was getting most of the critical attention then and Basie used this composition to show it to best advantage. And it works: Jo Jones hi-hats and drums, Walter Page’s bass and Freddie Green’s guitar are a single unit here Lester provides the interlude between parts and there are short solos by Dicky Wells, trombone and Basie but it’s basically a full-band performance.
Basie left Decca and began recording for Vocalion (renamed OKeh in 1940) so the this set jumps to another Decca session Lester made shortly after he departed the band. (The Vocalion/Columbia sides are available on a previously-issued Mosaic set).
Sammy Price, a journeyman pianist based in Harlem, began a series of R&B type jump recordings generally based in frantic riffs and blues-type ballads. Lester’s relaxed blues playing on the old Mississippi Sheiks standard Things About Coming My Way offers a very uptown variation on this down-home chestnut. Just Jiving Around features the shrill frantic jump band riffs, then Lester shows how you can swing mightily without the shouts.
The famed 1942 session with Nat Cole is here, along with alternates in excellent sound . Lester was in Los Angeles working with his band when Norman Granz – later founder of Verve Records and creator of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series – put these two together along with bassist Red Callender to record four 12” sides that gave Lester his first recorded opportunity to really stretch out – a rarity in the 78 era. On Indiana, Tea for Two, I Can’t Get Started and Body And Soul, Lester makes the most of that opportunity, idea after idea flowing, fed by Cole’s almost mystical piano that still sounds fresh today.
The American Federation of Musicians went on strike against the major record companies in mid-1942. By the following year, a number of jazz-oriented smaller record labels filled the gap and put Lester back in the studios. His Keynote sessions with pianist John Guarnieri, the Signatures with Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman and the 1944 Basie reunion session are nearly to this standard.
Lester Young was drafted into the Army in 1944 and spent much of his military time in the detention barracks before being discharged the following year. Jazz critic John Hammond used to say that the experience so shattered him that he never achieved the emotional connections in his playing as he did before that experience. The author of the notes in this set agrees in part. However, it must be noted than in the brief time Lester was in the Army, jazz had undergone a radical shift from swing to bop.
Many of the players who joined his recordings (Joe Albany, Dodo Marmarosa, Argonne Thornton, Chuck Wayne etc) were boppers, so one can make the case that he was trying to change with the times which perhaps accounts for the unevenness of the Aladdin sessions. Accordingly, there more of the “old Lester” on the 1946 trio session where’s he’s reunited with Nat Cole along with drummer Buddy Rich.
While much of this material has been reissued before, Mosaic’s usual added value is in the meticulous production work, faultless transfers from sound engineers who understand the music, and, of course, the scholarly liner notes by Schoenberg.
By all means add this set to your shelf and start jumpin’ by the woodside.
CD: SHAKE IT DOWN. Recorded in New Orleans 1925-1928. FROG 84. www.frog-records.co.uk
This is a compilation of the bands (mostly white) whose limited output kept them out of other anthologies: New Orleans Rhythm Kings (OKeh session); Johnny Bayersdorffer, Russ Papalia, Joe Mannone (his four Columbia sides), Scranton Sirens, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, the Ellis Stratakos Orchestra Vocalion and several blues singers accompanied by members of these bands (probably).
The NORK OKehs are well known and for certain offer the best-recorded examples of this fine bands – and they are up to the challenge on all four sides. Frank Driggs introduced many collectors to the Johnny Bayersdorffer band in his New Orleans anthology done in that latter 1960s. For purely hot jazz, the band rivals the NORK leaving everyone to wish they’d sold enough discs to warrant a second session. Alas.
The Papalia, Scranton Sirens (from Pennsylvania, not New Orleans) and the Armand Piron sides show us dance orchestras at work in the Crescent City. Papalia mixes hot ensembles with saxes grinding out the melodies on the Cross-Word Mamma side, while the leader plays it straight on trombone until the band picks up some heat towards the end. The Scranton Sirens, mostly known for giving the Dorsey Brothers one of their first jobs, was a fairly straight outfit that OKeh caught on tour. At the time, the band had soon-to-be member of the Jean Goldkette band Fuzzy Farrar on trumpet and Tommy Dorsey on trombone.
Armand Piron had a society orchestra in New Orleans that mixed the dicty with the hot. He’d been summoned to New York by Clarence Williams where his band recorded a number of titles before returning home in 1925. Do Just As I Say still has the ragtime-influenced progressions which had been popular a decade earlier so it’s possible this tune had been in the band’s repertoire for some time before recording. Red Man Blues is a feature for Lorenzo Tio, the clarinetist who taught a number of New Orleans greats. Tio was a technician more than an improviser, though the alternate take here shows him and the band a bit looser.
The Joe Mannone sides are also well-known and the excellent transfers demonstrate even more dramatically that the band, good as it is, sorely needs a bass.
Lillian Glinn, the Texas singer, recorded with a number of pickup groups in her sessions. On This April 24, 1928 date, she may have been backed by members of the Halfway House Orchestra; Abbie Brunies (cornet); Sidney Arodin (clarinet) and Red Long (piano). She has a fine, rich voice but the meandering accompaniments show that there were probably no run-throughs before the recording light went on. Arodin possibly accompanies the Texas blues singer Will Day and again he wanders a bit until the very end where he gets his own 12 bars to make some beautiful noise.
The Alberta Brown session was long believed to by a Halfway House date but more lately it’s believed that Johnny Miller’s New Orleans Frolickers were backing her. Brown’s voice is rather weak and sentimental but the band supports her well enough to make a great record.
The Stratakos Vocalion with John Hyman/Wiggs on cornet and the leader on trombone is a major rarity with, perhaps, 10 copies known. A Precious Thing Called Love side features a nice baritone sax solo, an almost loose ensemble and a hot solo by Hyman/Wiggs while the flip, Weary River (mistitled Weary Blues in the notes) is a straight dance job.
The selling points of this set are the crisp, clear transfers by Nick Dellow, corrected speeds (OKeh’s were all over the place, especially on ‘field’ sessions) and the super clean copies that were used to get this great sound. For these reasons it’s well worth picking up.
BOOK: RACE RECORDS AND THE AMERICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY, 1919-1945. An Illustrated History. By Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 378pp Softbound, illustrated. ISBN. 978-0-9973333-0-5. $39 (post free in USA). www.mainspringpress.com
The pejorative term ‘race records’, coined in the early 1920s as a euphemism for records aimed primarily at African-American buyers, has somehow shaken off its blatantly racist connotations (unlike ‘coon songs’ and ‘nigger minstrels’) and has passed into the linguafranca of record collecting to the extent that it is now worn as some sort of badge of honour by black and white record collectors alike, with even Facebook groups carrying the name.
It is an area that has long fascinated jazz and blues writers alike, particularly the former, many of whom came to the subject with a pre-loaded agenda, so that their resulting books and articles tended to tell a one-sided version. This was especially true in the Civil Rights era, when to be seen to be ‘right on’ carried more weight that balance and substance. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times - hopefully - and Allan Sutton’s comprehensive study of this vital, game-changing, element of the history of the American recording industry is both balanced and substantial in nearly every respect.
Those of you familiar with Allan’s trilogy on the history of the American record industry - A Phonograph in Every Home, Recording the ‘Twenties and Recording the ‘Thirties (all previously reviewed in VJM) will already know that he writes with authority and clarity, deftly negotiating that difficult tightrope between the popular and the scholarly, so whilst his books are heavily footnoted, the narrative flows in a highly readable way.
The story starts, not with jazz and blues records, but with the incredibly rare classical recordings made in 1919-20 by Bostonian George Broome, the first African American to market records, albeit in infinitesimally small numbers by mail order, to culturally-discerning black buyers. Things take a turn to the familiar with the story of Mamie Smith, Perry Bradford, and the OKeh recording of Crazy Blues, which is generally considered to be the spark that lit the ‘Race Records’ craze in the early 1920s. Although the story is a familiar one, staring with Perry Bradford’s own heavily-biased version in his autobiography Born With The Blues, it is one that was subsequently puffed and embroidered by scores of writers, many of whom carried their own agenda. Sutton pours scorn on some of the outrageous claims about sales figures of Crazy Blues (in an era when sales of 250,000 was a major hit some writers claimed it sold over 2,000,000 copies!). He also points out that the buyers were not exclusively black, her records being promoted heavily alongside white performers in cities and towns great and small across the US.
The following chapter cover the first attempts by rival companies to rival OKeh’s unexpected coup - with varying degrees of success - Columbia aided in no small part by Bradford and Mamie Smith falling out and he taking her accompanying Jazz Hounds to Columbia along with new ‘find’ Edith Wilson.
The chapter on Harry Pace and Black Swan adds little to what already appeared in VJM’s own publication Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance (which the author apparently has not seen), beyond some useful contemporary published reports and some nice graphics. He makes clear the deception that Pace blatantly foisted upon black record buyers - that Black Swan records were “The Only Record Made By Colored People” when in fact after the initial releases the catalogue was stuffed with white artists from the defunct Olympic catalogue. The author at this point reveals his own personal musical tastes beyond mere documenting the historical perspective; he clearly does not like the bands that accompanied many of the early blues singers. In discussing the Black Swan recording of Katie Crippen’s Blind Man Blues he writes: “[Fletcher] Henderson was again present, making his conducting debut with an excruciatingly stiff house band”. Similar comments pepper the next few chapters until the arrival of Bessie Smith, Louis and Bechet and, whilst this might be true to an extent, it has to be borne in mind that the accompanists reflected the musical scene in Harlem at that time, and as such is as valid as the performer themselves, however stiff or distasteful to modern ears.
Other examples of the authors discrimination pop up throughout the book - he clearly doesn’t like Rosa Henderson, whereas there is a large following for her records - but one gets used to such sweeping dismissals after a time.
Given VJM’s current serialisation of Bob Hitchens’ study of the output of the Choo Choo Jazzers, the chapter on Ajax Records is indeed timely; not only that but is it very informative, and goes to show the folly of a Canadian company travelling to New York to record artists chosen for them by a notorious industry hustler - Joe Davis - and then selling them from a Chicago base where the singers were completely unknown. Such was the record industry in 1920s America!
With the arrival of the likes of Ma Rainey, Charlie Jackson and Blind Lemon Jefferson on the recording scene, after Paramount’s shift around 1924 from ‘vaudeville blues’ singers to earthier, more authentic performers, the author is on solid ground of his own liking, aided in no small part by his involvement in and publishing of several important books on the subject of Paramount and its activities. Likewise, the shift from fixed studio recording to ‘in the field’, as extensively undertaken by OKeh, Columbia, Brunswick-Vocalion and latterly Victor, completely changed the complexion of record company catalogues - not always successfully - and these chapters are jam-packed with well-written narrative, analysis and information, frequently drawing on contemporary sources, much of which will be new to readers.
The advent of the Great Depression brought a sea-change to the record industry as a whole, and a seismic one to blues records and performers. Long-established artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey fell be the wayside, as did companies such as Paramount that had pinned much of their hopes and money on the ‘race record’ market, whilst younger, grittier, artists such as Leroy Carr, Tampa Red, Peetie Wheatstraw and the Hokum Boys found new opportunities with newly-established companies such as Melotone, Decca, and Bluebird. As for Robert Johnson, Sutton affirms Elijah Wald’s comments in his book Escaping The Delta that Johnson had absolutely no impact on American musical culture until his ‘rediscovery’ and subsequent nigh-canonisation in the 1960s.
The final chapter covers the WW2 years, with yet another shift in popular taste and how it was served by like of industry veteran Joe Davis and new upstarts on the West Coast such as Gilt-Edge and Bronze.
As with most of Mainspring’s other books, production quality is faultless; clear, clean layout and typography, and lavishly-illustrated (including contemporary advertisements, many of which were new to me). My only gripe is one I have mentioned before about Allan Sutton’s books; he appears to revel in dismissing the work of previous discographers, in particular the work of one Brian Rust. Words like ‘problematical’ are used to describe Rust’s opus Jazz Records, 1897-1942, but both author and other critics have to remember that when Brian was writing there was no internet (in fact Brian never even used a computer, despite having one on a high shelf in its packing box, donated by a generous friend) and he was 3500 miles distant from the source material, much of which at that time was jealously guarded by record companies and librarians from the prying eyes of collectors and researchers. We all owe Brian and other - and let’s not forget most were non-Americans working at a disadvantage - pioneer discographers a huge debt, so a little more generosity of spirit might not go amiss.
This criticism aside, I have only the highest praise for this book - it is certainly the most balanced I have read on the subject and for that reason alone it must be considered a priority purchase.
Two-Record Vinyl LP Set: Every Day In The Week. Volume 2 : Rare African-American 78rpm recordings 1927-1925. Hidden Charms Records LP-002.
Email Hiddencharmsfirstname.lastname@example.org for availability.
A great pleasure to listen to (and to look at) this set is an eclectic collection of blues, jazz, sacred , string and jug band records which are not only rare but also always entertaining. The album has no particular focus - regional, generic or thematic: instead it presents us with a host of splendid records which incidentally reflect the wide (extraordinary) diversity of African-American music that found its way on to 78rpm records. Some of these sides are well known, canonical masterpieces such as Jabo William’s Pratt City Blues whilst others such as Bee Turner’s Rough Treating Daddy are little known delights. Almost all of them are rare and many demonstrate the social function of much of this music - they’re dance records like the splendid Ash Can Stomp where an obscure but skilled pianist James Johnson is surely paired with Lonnie Johnson’s fine guitar play.
Pratt City Blues is a superlative boogie instrumental where driving bass patterns and treble figures invite the dancers whilst Sylvester Palmer’s Do the Sloppy opens with an explicit exhortation to “Everyone to do this dance”. The wonderful ragtime piece Dustin’ the Keys is a well - known showcase (one piano, four hands!) for the talents of that short-lived genius Jimmy Blythe ( 1901-1931) and W.E. Burton. They also make up a half of the Dixie Four, a fine piano led group, whose exhilarating Kentucky StompSnitcher’s Blues is a highlight here. In contrast, Stump Johnson’s demonstrates the role of the piano as a “vocal echo”: the hollow sound (typical of many St. Louis pianists) allied with Henry Johnson’s violin part, in pointing the lyric – “When I had money, I had friends for miles around”.
The cluster of joyous string and jug band records presented in superlative sound not only offer an opportunity to dance as do the East Coast duo Wilson and Hinton on their splendid “stop time” duet Myrtle Street Stomp, but also to reflect on the distinctions that have been made between various categories of African –American music such as blues, jazz and spirituals and other American musical “vernaculars” like vaudeville, old time music and pop. Thus, James Cole’s sparkling Sweet Lizzie is an exhilarating, string band performance of the hot dance/jazz band favourite “Sweet Sue”. Similarly, Coley Jones’s Dallas String Band recording of
So Tired is a “race” version of a ragtime text by George A. Little and Arthur Sizemore, and The Two Poor Boys’ Take a Look at That Baby – an engaging syncopated guitar/mandolin duet - is a version of the popular 1927 hot dance hit What Do I Care What Somebody Said. In The Mornin’ is a moving performance by an obscure and fascinating trio of singer/ musicians probably led by “Blue Coat” Tom Nelson from Vicksburg. Like some other of their recordings (G. Burns Will Rise Again) this is a secular “parody” of a familiar religious song : in this case I suggest the Fisk Jubilee Singer’s 1911 recording of Po Mo’ner, Got A Home At Last, but unlike most parodies of this kind ( Jim Jackson’s I Heard the Voice of A Pork Chop Say comes to mind) the effect is not ironically comic; instead it summons up a more sombre image of life “way down in Mississippi”.
Close to the idioms of popular music is Long Time Man a fine vaudeville blues by the New Orleans entertainer Willie Jackson accompanied here by the excellent piano playing of J.C. Johnson and the expressive clarinet of Ernest Elliott. Sam Morgan’s 1927 New Orleans band classic Short Dress Gal featuring Morgan’s hoarse vocal and fine trumpet playing, comments on a contemporary fashion remarked upon both in blues and popular song.
Again, some jug bands like the Louisville based Jug, Tub, Washboard Band’s San offer a less sophisticated version of contemporary jazz band recordings whilst King David’s Jug Band featuring the stovepipe playing of Samuel Jones (Stovepipe No.1) suggests both rural roots and the novelty performances of the vaudeville stage. One of the fine “blues” records here makes the same point. Buddy Boy Hawkins’ Voice Throwing Blues is an instrumental and vocal tour-de-force. A syncopated version of the traditional Hesitation Blues - it’s both a country blues and “show stopper”. How exactly did he do the “second” voice? It sounds like some sort of ventriloquism, and might point to Hawkins having a tent show / vaudeville background, perhaps like that of Memphis- born Johnnie Woods who with his dummy Little Henry, performed blues songs as early as 1910.
Recent research published by Bob Eagle (Frog Jazz and Blues Annual 4) significantly updates Alex Van Der Tuuk’s liner notes and indicates that Mae Glover was a seasoned vaudeville performer by the time she recorded. Her stately vocal on the hokum Shake It Daddy - “Shake It Break but don’t let it fall”- is in marked contrast with Charlie Patton’s or Louise Johnson’s rowdy, barrel house/juke joint treatment of the same theme. Patton is heard “seconding” the sawing fiddle playing of Henry Sims whose Be True, Be True Blues is a very rural treatment of Careless Love.
The albums also showcases an engaging group of guitar accompanied blues some of which point to personal connections between performers, whilst others suggest broader “regional” styles of music. Some even do both, such as those by a gang of Atlanta musicians. The records made by Charlie Lincoln (Charlie Hicks) mostly lacked the brio of his brother Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) but his best, such as Country Breakdown are very fine, although easily eclipsed by the 12-string guitar playing of the obscure Atlanta musician Willie Baker: Rag Baby is a wonderful record. Also from Atlanta, and a friend of the Hicks Brothers, was Buddy Moss whose powerful Hard Time Blues is distinguished by his fine slide work.
Johnnie Temple’s The Evil Devil Blues “covers” but doesn’t copy Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman. With Charlie McCoy’playing second guitar, Temple ‘regularised’ James’ eerie, idiosyncratic masterpiece and, in the process, produced a memorable record - arguably his best. Another ”best” record is Teddy Darby’s Built Right On The Ground whose taut defining guitar figure recalls that of his St. Louis friends and contemporaries Henry Townsend and Henry Spaulding. Both Marshall Owens‘ very rare Try Me One More Time and Johnnie Head’s Fare Thee Well hark back to the songster traditions that offer us a glimpse of the period, around the turn of the 20th century, when the blues emerged as a distinct form alongside other black traditions including popular spirituals. Both the Jackson, Mississippi songster duo Duckett and Norwood and the Carolina pairing of Julius Daniels and Bubba Lee Torrance performed and recorded blues as well as guitar accompanied religious songs such as their gentle, slide piece I’m Goin’ To Tell God How You Doin’ or Duckett and Norwood’s I Want To Go Where Jesus Is - a version of Amazing Grace.
This is a beautifully presented brace of records. The sound is exceptional and the gate fold sleeve a fascinating collage of vintage photographs. Best of all, are Alex Van Der Tuuk’s liner notes, often the result of his own pioneering research, which gather together the latest information on the performers and records presented here. As I said at the outset: a pleasure to listen to and look at. There are 500 copies for sale - get one if this is your kind of music. You won’t regret it.
CD: EAST ST. LOUIS STOMP. Hot Jazz Recorded in St. Louis 1924-1932. Frog 83. www.frog-records.co.uk
Although much of the material in this collection has been reissued before, at least half of it is being reissued for the first time at its proper speed. Researchers checking a number of OKeh field recordings against the lead sheets filed with the Library of Congress found that some of the performances were recorded as fast as 83 or 84 rpm. The new speeds certainly make a difference with the Charlie Creath sides which had sounded a bit on the tired side. Now there’s new life in King Porter Stomp, Market Street Stomp, Grandpa’s Spells and Way Down in Lovers Lane. No amount of speed corrections would make Floyd Campbell’s vocals less awful but we 78 collectors have become immune to such affronts after enduring the likes of May Alix, Lillie Delk Christian and others too numerous to mention.
The next four sides are among the most obscure discs listed in Rust – Powells Jazz Monarchs and the Searcy Trio. I have a fondness for “preaching” trumpet solos and both of these feature excellent work in that vein (which is why I haven’t offered my copies of the 78s in VJM) by William Callaway on the former and Clifford King on the latter. This is rough and ready stuff heard in the tough bars of a tough river town where technique and musicianship was less important than making atmosphere for imbibing and dancing (the rub-a-dub dub kind).
Dewey Jackson’s riverboat ensemble are perhaps the hottest group of records in the collection and have been a staple of 78 collections ever since the mid-1940s when Milt Gabler included Capitol Blues in an album of river jazz. She’s Crying For Me, G’won To Town and Capitol Blues mark the recording debut of Pops Foster and Willie Humphrey who later would be a mainstay of the Preservation Hall ensemble in New Orleans. The closing ensemble on She’s Crying for Me is one of the most intense ever recorded, made even more so by the extra loud recording process. The other two titles are slow blues with the leaders preaching cornet and beautiful reed work by William Thornton Blue. The fourth side is dominated by the Floyd Campbell nemesis but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.
Trimp’s Ambassador Bell Hops Orchestra is a relatively new discovery, a white band based in the city which features trombonist Vernon Brown, later a fixture in Benny Goodman’s band and others. The CD notes play up a connection with Bix Beiderbecke who was playing in the city at the time but the trumpet player on What a Man, one Freddie Laufketter, while an adequate hot guy, doesn’t seem to have absorbed much from the young master.
Jesse Stone was a Kansas City bandleader who recorded in St. Louis. The took their music more seriously in that time and the professionalism of the band as the wild romp, Boot To Boot shows.
The collection closes with Eddie Johnson’s Crackerjacks who recorded for Victor in 1932. The Duck’s Yas Yas Yas was a St Louis anthem, first recorded by pianist Stump Johnson and soon afterwards by Oliver Cobb (not related to the Chicago Cobb Brothers) and another novelty Good Old Bosom Bread. Too bad Victor wasn’t in a mind to let these guys bring out their hot instrumentals but 1932 was not the year for that. Decca recorded the group four years later but by then their sound had changed entirely.
As noted earlier, the speed corrections and Nick Dellow’s excellent transfers and audio restoration make this set well worth getting.
CD: THE KIT-CAT BAND PLAY ‘HOT’ DANCE MUSIC 1925 - 1927. 24 tracks Retrieval RTR79080. www.challengerecords.com
This is a re-issue by Chris Ellis of an LP he produced in 1979, including the original sleeve notes by Brian Rust, who, as Chris remarks in an introductory note, wrote most sleeve notes for jazz and hot dance issues back then. Research has, however, moved on and some of Brian’s comments need updating, of which more later…
The original ‘Kit-Cat Club’ was a radical literary and political meeting-house for supporters of the Whig – later Liberal – Party and it almost certainly dates back to before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that brought William and Mary onto the English throne. The name, apparently, derives from the owner of the London tavern (near the Royal Courts of Justice) where the club first met: Christopher ‘Kit’ Cattling; the club later moved to another tavern on the Strand (now Simpson’s Restaurant), only a few minutes’ walk away from the Haymarket, where the ‘new’ Kit-Cat dance and dining club was opened in 1925. No doubt the owners hoped the name would ring certain bells with their prospective clientele: not political ones, perhaps, but those that reminded them of the original Kit-Cat’s reputation for its famous, even notorious, toasts to the most beautiful ladies of the day, with which its meetings were liberally peppered. The new club, however, merely peppered its menus, flyers and other publicity material with fine art-deco drawings of cats of many breeds and left the notoriety to its members – or so it hoped.
Certainly, for the man-on-the-Clapham-omnibus, the name would have meant little; nor would the club have been perhaps anything other than a place to gawp at on a day off from the picket lines of the General Strike…as one commentator at the time remarked, it was not for those with abbreviated bank accounts. Entry was by subscription, which was 7 guineas - £7.35 - a year: this doesn’t sound much, but in terms of earned income is the equivalent of £2268 ($2950) today! What you got for this, though, was high luxury: a lounge on the ground floor, a ballroom, restaurant, grill room, American bar and writing room (two floors below the street), plus a balcony where you could chat in ‘street’ rather than evening dress. It claimed to be the most luxurious club in Europe and was the only club in London that had been built specifically for dancing and dining. Within a matter of months of opening, it had more than 6000 members. Brian Rust says in his notes that the club was set up by one Martin Poulson, but Poulson seems to have been only a figure-head, the erstwhile Head Waiter at the Embassy Club and the Café de Paris, brought in to add a bit of ‘polish’ and isn’t listed as a member of the Kit-Cat’s management; nor was he one of those prosecuted and fined in what gave the club quite unwanted notoriety: a police raid and very public court proceedings in December, 1926, for serving drinks after hours. It’s not difficult, though, to see why there was the temptation to flout the law: the majority of patrons wouldn’t arrive till after the theatres closed and would want to drink into the early hours. The club’s alcohol sales in its first year amounted to £48000 (nearly £15 million at today’s prices) with champagne at 30 shillings (around £250) a bottle. Press reports suggested that bottles were hidden under the tables, to be drunk after the licence ran out. The club was shut down for 3 months and when it re-opened under new management, it was as a restaurant only.
Its floor shows were legendary and featured a roll-call of the best British, European and American stars of the day, from Barrie Oliver and Max Wall, through Gypsy Rhoumage to Sophie Tucker, Irving Berlin and Abe Lyman. And it was to Britain’s best-known bandleader, Jack Hylton, that the club’s management turned for their ‘house’ band, for which Hylton engaged Al Starita as director. The band’s music policy, to judge from the earlier records it made, seems to have been quite radical for its day: it included a more than liberal dose of hot tunes and hot jazz arrangements. Of course, it’s difficult to know how much of this was actually played at the club and how much was down to HMV’s A&R department using the Kit-Cat Band as its vehicle for the hotter end of the catalogue. These records are rare enough today (some, such as Piccadilly Strut are extremely so), which suggests they were at the lower end of the popularity ratings and may well have sold mainly to the club’s wealthy clientele; at 3 shillings a time (£8 at today’s prices), they would be beyond the pockets of many working people. The biggest selling dance record in the HMV catalogue at the time was the Savoy Orpheans’ very straight Valencia / The Student Prince, which, as a result, remained in the catalogue till 1935! The preponderance of mainly hot tunes suddenly runs out at the end of 1925 and numbers like Crazy Quilt only appear sporadically thereafter. Over the three years that the Kit-Cat Band recorded, its output grew steadily ‘straighter’, with occasional hot solos replacing the full-blooded jazz items, and plenty of run-of-the-mill tunes like In a Street of Chinese Lanterns and That Night in Araby.
The compilation opens with the only acoustic recording by the band, From Now On, a jaunty number played in typical mid-20s style with heavily accented syncopation, Charleston rhythm (the latest craze) and some good hot moments. It was recorded in June 1925, before the club officially opened (July 6th), presumably due to Jack Hylton’s ability to make flexible use of his contract with HMV and have the record ready for sale by opening night: the earlier records (and some later ones) are actually labelled “Jack Hylton’s Kit-Cat Band” and all those recorded for HMV from the end of December 1926 until the band signed for Columbia in late May 1927 were issued as by his “Hyltonians” This was no doubt due to the aforementioned court case, which temporarily closed the club and left its future in doubt.
Track 2, Can’t Your Friend Find a Friend for Me?, is a huge improvement on the first, not only because it’s electrically recorded but also because the musicians are allowed space to play a string of solos, with those by trumpeter Tom Smith and Ted Heath on trombone being especially good. Milenberg Joys follows, with more excellent solo work, though the Charleston rhythm in the second strain (after the bridge) is clearly aimed at the ‘flapper’ brigade and is rather annoying. Riverboat Shuffle is the first track, where the band settles into a less jerky and more relaxed rhythm: it’s played at quite moderate tempo – much slower than the Trumbauer version, for example. Tom Smith’s muted trumpet solo is noteworthy on this number. The original 78 is very hard to find, perhaps because it does indeed include so much more pure jazz. If You Hadn’t Gone Away is given very similar treatment, with an excellent Al Starita alto solo and some fine ensemble work. The reeds are notable for their supple section playing on Headin’ for Home, and the band handles the Charleston stop-rhythm much better on The Camel Walk, and doesn’t allow it to interfere with the flow of the music as much as in some of the early numbers. It’s interesting to note that Tom Smith is often heard using a mute, which may well be because playing open horn in the confines of the club would have been frowned on. It’s the case again on Piccadilly Strut, one of the rarest of the bands hot recordings for HMV. The tune was composed by Van Phillips and may well refer not just to the London thoroughfare, but also to the hotel of the same name, the basement of which was occupied by the Kit-Cat Club. It was recorded in December 1925, and little of musical note was put on wax over the next few months.
The next two tracks on the CD date from August, 1926: Breezin’ Along with the Breeze and I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do. The sound is fuller – the band is thirteen strong by this period – and although there are some good solos, the general impression is of a straight dance band letting loose from time to time. The first title has a good solo from Al Starita on alto and a short bass clarinet solo by George Smith (?), whilst the second sees a curious revival of Charleston rhythm in the first chorus, but is also notable for a fine, crisp muted trumpet duet and a half chorus by Len Fillis on guitar. The use of guitar instead of banjo also contributes to the smoother sound of the band. I Wonder What’s Become of Joe features the first of several vocals by Al Starita; Len Fillis contributes another excellent guitar solo, but otherwise this usually hot number is given a fairly routine treatment.
By the time this was recorded – October, 1926 – HMV were using the Small Queen’s Hall as a studio, which gave an airier but also sometimes a rather echoey sound to the band: good for solos but leading to muddy ensembles, particularly noticeable on Crazy Quilt, which is otherwise a good rendition of this characteristic hot tune of the time. Sunday, recorded at the beginning of December, 1926, is taken at a somewhat faster tempo that the classic Goldkette version, which really doesn’t suit the tune: the band seems to ‘snatch’ at the melody in places and it sounds stilted as a result. On the plus side, Al Starita’s vocal is an excellent demonstration of how to sing with good effect against and around the rhythm.
The band generally acquits itself much better on Brown Sugar, for which they’re back in the ‘deader’ sound of the Hayes, Middlesex studio and which is the first of the Jack Hylton’s Hyltonians issues on this CD. This recording must qualify as one of the best versions of this number. It swings convincingly and the bass clarinet and trombone both deliver good solos; Al Starita’s playing, though, is beginning to sound a little passé: overly tongued and bespattered with glissandi that were rapidly going out of fashion by this time. An interesting little note here: this tune was composed by Harry Barris, but the composer credit on my copy of the 78 has mangled this to “Dorris”!
Ain’t She Sweet? is a good enough rendition of a tune that always, for me, fails to deliver much of ‘hot’ interest (even the Jack Pettis version). The personnel listing doesn’t mention who might be playing the accordion introduction and finale on Sam, the Old Accordion Man, which is perhaps a good place to note also that the original personnels from the LP have been reproduced verbatim, perpetuating the suggestion that were two pianos (Fred Hartley and Sid Bright) on the earlier records: only one is ever audible and the latest edition of Rust omits mention of Hartley entirely. Uncanny Banjo is, as the title suggests, a feature recording for its composer Len Fillis: it’s a spirited and interesting side, followed by its session mate Sad ‘n’ Blue, which is equally spirited and includes a number of excellent short solos, with Ted Heath turning in some dexterous slide work on trombone. Number 10 is a fine hot number and swings nicely, with Sid Bright playing without doubt his best solo on this CD. Muddy Water, from the same session, is a much less successful recording overall, in spite of good (if short) bass clarinet and trombone solos: Starita’s vocal is an off-key disaster. The final HMV track – and indeed the last recorded for that company - is Lily, a rare offering of a number that deserved to be recorded much more. Len Fillis and Eric Siday do a ‘Venuti & Lang’ chorus, with trombone obbligato, which doesn’t always come off, but is by far the best thing on this record.
The final two tracks, Delirium and Magnolia are from the band’s period with Columbia, by which time the Kit-Cat Club had re-opened as a restaurant, with no membership obligations and, presumably, to judge from the titles recorded, an even more middle-of-the road music policy than with HMV. Both these titles were recorded in the Wigmore Hall, which has a more lively acoustic than the Small Queen’s Hall, though Columbia’s engineers coped with it rather better: these tracks are crystal-clear. Delirium is a well-played, swingy version, which avoids the temptation to play the section work too ‘clipped’. Magnolia, by comparison, is played rather straight, with only Ted Heath getting a few short solo spots.
The transfers - with the exception of Delirium - seem to have been made en bloc from the original LP issue. They’re crisp and sharp, but, compared with my 78’s, played ‘flat’ with no eq, they lack bass response and sound a bit thin. There’s also surface noise audible on several tracks, which more up-to-date transfer techniques could have removed without any deterioration in the sound of the originals. However, given the rarity of many of these tracks, especially the earlier ones, this is a CD that really ought to be on your shelves.
2-CD BLUES SETS. Howlin’ Wolf/Muddy Waters (1162), Bill Broonzy (1001), Lonnie Johnson 1207), John Lee Hooker (1208), BB King 1203). www.avidgroup.com
These sets are licensed reissues of classic blues albums from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and not “best-ofs” or compilations.
The Howlin Wolf disc is drawn from the first two LPs issued by Chess. These range from the rough and ready material recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis (How Many More Years is an absolute raw-boned killer) to the classic Chicago sessions which produced such signature songs at Smokestack Lightnin’ (a reworking of the Mississippi Sheiks’ Stop & Listen) and 44 Blues. Likewise, the Muddy Waters Chess material is heavy on the familiar (two versions of Got My Mojo working, the second from the Live at Newport album).
Lonnie Johnson’s recording career goes back to 1925, but this set is drown from the four albums he made for Prestige in the early 1960s, which also feature Victoria Spivey in one and veteran guitar-banjo bandleader Elmer Snowden on another. Johnson was getting back in the game after six or seven years in menial jobs but his facile guitar technique was still impressive, even if a bit repetitive at times. In his later years, Johnson had become a purveyor of pop tunes as well as blues, and some of these, complete with classic doo-wop chords are here, along with several duets with Snowden. Their fingers no longer fly with the speed of youth, but they do stomp then along pretty well.
John Lee Hooker had an iconic, dramatic approach to his electric guitar and spent much of the latter 1950s recording for Vee Jay, from where these 2 CDs are taken. Two of the albums feature Hooker only and include his classic Boogie Chillun, Crawlin’ King Snake and In the Mood. The other two albums feature a larger combo which never seemed to suit “The Hook” very well.
The Broonzy titles, again are from his later years, when he was pals with the noted Chicago writer Studs Turkel who authored the original liner notes for several of the albums presented here. The material is drawn from Vogue and Mercury with Big Bill going back to his acoustic guitar country blues roots. Unlike many early bluesmen, Broonzy did not have to disappear to be rediscovered – he transitioned into jump and R&B in the ‘40s then back to “folk blues” in the mid- ‘50s as young white kids began picking up on him. Consequently, his skill and voice remained intact.
BB King, of course, was probably the most commercially successful blue artist ever and perhaps the greatest influence on the music in the post 1950s era – essentially liberating it from the 12-bar form to a broader structure that still kept the feeling of the blues. These two CDs are drawn from the Modern/Kent/Crown catalogs were in turn mostly reissues of RPM 78s from the latter 1950s. On these, BB is transitioning from the traditional blues form to a more contemporary mode such as his hits You Upset Me, Baby and Heart Beats Like a Hammer. The original LPs issued on Crown and Kent were unbelievably low quality productions (sort of like the Grey Gull records of the LP era) so it is nice to hear the cleaned up versions of these classics.
The sets include the original liner notes to each album, which vary from the insightful (Studs Turkel and Nat Hentoff) to the inane (the BB King releases) and are reasonably well-transferred but beyond this, it’s a music-only purchase at a very attractive price.
BOOK: BLISTERED HEELS - JAZZ AND HOT DANCE MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA IN THE TWENTIES. By Jack Mitchell. 170 pages, softback, illustrated, self-published. Email the author: email@example.com
Within two years of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first record being issued, jazz had driven its syncopated beat into every corner of every continent of the world. It swept across the globe in pandemic fashion, despite being ridiculed in the press, derided from the pulpit and dismissed by musical traditionalists.
The fact that jazz spread out so far and so quickly from its American epicentre may seem surprising, but we should bear in mind that, as with ragtime before it, the ‘jazz music’ that the Old World had foisted upon it was sieved, sorted, processed and packaged through the mighty publishing houses of tin pan alley, which always had international markets in mind. As a result, jazz - or rather jazz-influenced popular music - could be readily assimilated by disparate cultures around the world through recordings, sheet music and pioneering expeditions by bands and musicians.
This is not to say that true jazz - played by real jazz musicians - didn’t percolate through the tin pan filters. Indeed, even before 1917 - that most pivotal of years for jazz - many pioneering jazz musicians had taken the music far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.
The geography of jazz has become an increasingly popular subject amongst jazz historians in recent years. As Mark Miller says in his excellent book Some Hustling This! - Taking Jazz To The World 1919-1929, “The theoretical implications of these encounters [with jazz] - in Canada, England, and France before 1920, and elsewhere in Europe, South America and the Far East during the 1920s - have been a popular subject for critical analysis.”
It is therefore surprising that it is only with the publication of this book that the history of jazz in Australia during the early years has been examined in any detail, and it’s especially surprising considering the country’s strong cultural ties with the USA and Europe. In Blistered Heels, author Jack Mitchell - a man who has devoted much of his life to the history of jazz in Australia - traces the footsteps of the visiting and indigenous jazz/dance bands that followed hot on the (blistered) heels of Australian dancers keen to test their terpsichorean efforts against the strains of the new syncopated music.
It seems that Perth probably hosted the first American jazz band to play in Australia, when, in the summer of 1919, a contingent of eight musicians of the San Francisco division of the Young America League played there as part of a world tour. The group was described by a local newspaper as a being a ‘genuine jazz band’. The question is - did these proselytisers of syncopation play genuine jazz? The answer is almost certainly “no”, though as it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the audience would have known what genuine jazz was, it hardly mattered!
Thanks to the author’s dedication to research, we learn by way of an advert in the June 1918 edition of the Sydney Sun that the delightfully named “Belle Sylvia and Her Jazz Band” was designated “Australia’s First Jazz Band”. In July 1918, a revised advert in the Sydney Sun more accurately named these primogenitors as “Fuller’s Original Jazz Band”, a quintet organised by Ben Fuller, a theatrical promoter, and led by American-born violinist Billy Romaine, who became an important bandleader in Australia during the 1920s.
The press notices that Fuller’s Original Jazz Band received were predictably similar in their pejorative tone to those afforded its more famous trailblazing namesake, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In fact, reading through the press cuttings that the author reproduces throughout his fascinating book, one finds oneself constantly thinking “I’ve read that line somewhere else”, and, indeed, similar descriptions of early jazz band performances are to be found in contemporary newspapers the world over. Criticism of jazz was as international in its condemnation as the music itself was popular.
As was the case elsewhere in the world, the growth of jazz in Australia is set against a backdrop of a boom in dancing and dance venues. The author notes that “1920 was the year when the scene really exploded….On the first day of January the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “Afternoon tea dances are going to be more popular than ever. No doubt, the ‘jazz mania’ has something do with this.” ‘Jazz mania’ was certainly taking hold in Australia: that same month the Gramophone Company released four titles by the ODJB and shortly afterwards the Columbia Company started distribution of the 12 inch 78s the band had recorded in London. This boom in dancing was spurred on by the return home from Europe of many Australian army troops, a number of whom, as Mitchell points out, travelled back “via London where no doubt many heard the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.”
The book unveils the names and personnel of antipodean dance bands of the 1920s who mean little today but who, in their day, satisfied the dancing needs of a large number of young Australians. One wonders what Jim Pasfield’s Original Jazz Band sounded like, or for that matter, the band led by one Violet Morell, described in an advert of the time as a “full jazzy orchestra”. The pages of Blistered Heels are replete with such bands, which the author contextualises and illuminates through press articles and advertisements.
Amongst the visitors who brought the message of jazz and syncopated dance music to Australia in the 1920s, the most outstanding must surely be saxophonist Bert Ralton, whose hugely successful tour of Australia (and New Zealand) in 1923-1925 emphasised Britain’s important role in disseminating jazz and syncopated dance music throughout its empire. Born in America, Ralton found fame in the UK as the leader of the Savoy Havana Band at the Savoy Hotel, but nothing could have prepared him for the adulation of the adoring crowds that greeted him and his “Havana Band” when they arrived in Australia in November 1923. Ralton was feted wherever he went. It therefore must have something of a rude awakening to discover, upon his return to London in 1925, that others had filled his shoes (see “Bert Ralton And His Havana Band”, VJM 166, 2013). A few years previously, the ODJB had found themselves in a similar position after their European sojourn ended, and in fact many long term jazz émigrés suffered a similar fate through being ‘left behind’.
By the end of the 1920s, visiting bands no longer held the novelty appeal they had done earlier in the decade. Moreover, the importation of foreign musicians was becoming a contentious issue in Australia, just as it was in the UK and other countries. In symbolic fashion, the General Secretary of the Australian Musicians Union stated in September 1929: “There are no orchestras of any foreign nationalities here now. The fight is over.” Black musicians had felt the effect of this pugilistic attitude many years before white musicians did, with the Australian government regularly preventing visiting black bands from obtaining work licences. The chapter on these black bands is notably slender, but given the prevailing attitudes of the time this is not entirely surprising. There are several examples of blatant racism, including the implementation of a poll tax of £100 on each black performer of a visiting revue, and a police raid on the apartment block where Sonny Clay and his Plantation Band were staying, leading to the headline “Australia wants not another coon”. Racism would continue to have implications for visiting bands for many years after this, though Australia was no worse than many other countries, and in comparison to the birthplace of jazz, considerably better!
The country’s protectionist attitude was not so rigorously applied to musicians from the UK, due to Australia’s status as a dominion of the British Empire. For the same reason, top Australian dance band musicians found employment in Britain a relatively hassle-free experience. Having absorbed much of the art of playing jazz from visiting bands and gramophone recordings, a number of Australian musicians became well established in their own right and travelled to Europe to ply their trade. Amongst these was Frank Coughlan, who played in Arthur Rosebery’s and Fred Elizalde’s bands in London during 1929, recording excellent hot trombone solos with these outfits (Jack Mitchell previously published a book on Coughlan: “Coggy - The Life and Career of Frank Coughlan”).
The amount of research work that has been undertaken by the author in assessing Australia’s role in the worldwide spread and assimilation of jazz is commendable. The lives of pioneering Australians and visiting jazz musicians spring from each page, illustrated by numerous rare photographs of the bands and the venues they played in.
BOOKS: AMERICAN RECORD COMPANY, HAWTHORNE & SHEBLE, INTERNATIONAL RECORD COMPANY. Histories and Discographies, 1904-1909. By William R. Bryant & Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 284pp, Softbound, illustrated.
LEEDS & CATLIN RECORDS. A History and Discography. By William R. Bryant & Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 296pp, Softbound, illustrated. ISBN. 978-0-9915279-9-1.
$45 inc. US postage, or $79 for the two, US postage paid.
We don’t make a habit of ‘joint reviews’ in VJM, but these two books fit so neatly into the same historical perspective and timeframe that seems sensible to do so.
The early years of the 20th century saw a spirit of entrepreneurship coupled with reckless company flotations and rash investments in the recording industry remarkably akin to the dot com bubble of exactly a century later, and several readers know to their cost where that led! The big difference was in the early 1900s the key patents to producing laterally-cut flat discs and their reproduction were owned by Victor and Columbia who, after years of slogging it out in court with a net result of depleted coffers and lining the pockets of lawyers, realised that the commonsense thing to do was to declare an uneasy truce and pool their patents, thus excluding this lucrative industry to would be competitors. However, they underestimated the guile, vigour and stamina of entrepreneurs wanting a slice of the action. Men such as Edward Leeds, Horace Sheble, John Prescott (note to British readers... no, not THAT John Prescott!) and Ellsworth A. Hawthorne.
These swashbuckling individuals (described by Victor’s Eldridge Johnson as “Like wolves surrounding a herd of buffalo on the plains”) were determined come what may to make money from the booming record business, and their products - American Records, Star Records, Leeds, Imperial, Sun and client labels such as Oxford, Nassau, Aretino, Busy Bee and dozens more, blatantly flouted the Big Boys’ patents for several years until ground down by litigation and Supreme Court judgments. However, for a brief few years, from about 1904 to 1909, the renegades and their wily lawyers ran rings around the two industry leaders, and their catalogues of now rare (and in some cases near-mythical) records provide a unique snapshot of American musical taste at a time when popular music and the industry that produced it was in transition.
The research into the histories of these companies was initially undertaken by William Bryant and other members of the Record Research team back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and after Bryant’s untimely death the research papers were passed to Mainspring Press’ Allan Sutton for additional research and preparation into publishable form. Allan has done his usual thorough, commendable job, presenting both detailed histories of these companies and their legal shenanigans, along with extensive discographical listings of their products, both on original issues and client-product reissues. This includes Hawthorne & Sheble’s Star records which, after a lawsuit instigated by Columbia had caused them to cease trading with their American Record Company, were supplied with masters for issue on Star by.... Columbia!
As with the majority of record companies great and small in early 20th century America, the artists rosters of these companies is frustratingly familiar and dull - Arthur Collins, Henry Burr, Frank C. Stanley, Steve Porter, Byron Harlan - the same old suspects grinding out the same old stuff day after day in recording studio after another in New York. There are brief moments of artistic light - some very nice orchestral ragtime, particularly on American Record, a clutch of Vess Ossman banjo solos (with this reviewer having some very fines examples on American, Oxford, Nassau and Imperial), not forgetting some very rare Bert Williams’ on Star ex-Columbia.
I realise that these books will have limited appeal to the majority of VJM readers, whose interests mainly start twenty years or so after the demise of these pioneer companies, but their story and their records are an integral part of the early history of the US recording industry, and as such are worthy additions to serious collectors’ bookshelves.
BOOK: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTH CAROLINA JAZZ & BLUES MUSICIANS. By Benjamin Franklin V. The University of South Carolina Press. Hardbound, xvi + 290pp, illustrated. ISBN 978-1-61117-621-6. $49.99. https://www.sc.edu/uscpress/southcarolina.html
Benjamin Franklin V, whose previous book Jazz and Blues Musicians of South Carolina: Interviews with Jabbo, Dizzy, Drink, and Others (2008) contained interviews with some of the important musicians from the area, has now attempted a complete encyclopedia of the region’s jazz and blues musicians. In the introduction he lays down his criteria for inclusion - basically birth in S. C. or residence there for at least five years - accepting that this means including some who left the state at a very young age and have no memory of their time there. I think he is right in this approach - better to apply the definition strictly and accept the anomalies that arise than to go in for arbitrary omission or inclusion. While it can reasonably be argued that there was a certain stylistic continuum among some of the blues singers from South Carolina I do not think the same can be said of the jazz artists who mostly made their marks outside the state and in varying styles at different times. Thus the fact that they have a connection with South Carolina is not very relevant to their musical achievement, but it is quite proper that the state should celebrate the success of those who have a connection with it.
There are about 500 entries though it should perhaps be noted that about a quarter of them cover wards of the Jenkins Orphanage about whom little is known and whose entries are brief and repetitive - of course the better known alumni of the orphanage like Jabbo Smith and the Benford brothers are dealt with fully. The author casts his net quite widely, including artists from the minstrelsy and vaudeville eras (though I think there is a lot more to be said in these areas), composers (Tom Delaney, Chris Smith), dancers (Peg Leg Bates and others), country musicians (Chris Bouchillon, Arthur Smith, Jimmie Tarleton), record label owners (Hiram Johnson, Juggy Murray, Bobby and Danny Robinson, John Richbourg), the night club proprietor Ed Smalls, and he is prepared to extend the blues envelope to embrace vocal group singers (Caleb Ginyard, Maurice Williams, King Odom) and soul artists (Brook Benton, Maxine Brown, Don Covay, Marvin Sease). Important jazz figures dealt with include Mose Allison, Cat Anderson, Hank Garland, Freddie Greene, Taft Jordan, Bubber Miley, Houston Person, Jimmy Shirley and Lucky Thompson.
The template each entry follows contains the following (or such as are appropriate for each artist):- Surname, Given Names (known as); Instruments; Date of birth (place) - date of death (place); S.C. residence (years); Biography; Compositions; Recordings as Leader; Leaders Recorded With; Films; Awards; Website; References. I am not convinced of the value of the “Recordings as Leader; Leaders Recorded With” sections; I suppose that they are appropriate enough in the entries for jazz musicians, but it seems faintly absurd to describe Blind Gussie Nesbit as “leader” on songs accompanied only by his own guitar or to refer to the various vocalists on whose records Leroy Kirkland played as “Leaders Recorded With.”
But the meat of the book lies in the biographical sections and in the References. The biographies are divided into two sections. In the first we get a career summary; inevitably when dealing with artists with long careers these can appear a little sketchy but most give a more than adequate account. That for El Morrow, however, is a somewhat desperate attempt to get over the fact that virtually nothing is known, ending with the quite inconsequential observation that his recording of “Beans” was played on the BBC in 2005. The entry for the South Carolina Jubilee Singers is by no means complete; there were at least half a dozen groups using that name between 1876 and 1912; I strongly suspect companies presenting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” gave the name to whatever group of singers the company had hired merely to imply their Southern authenticity; it would be interesting to know what the evidence is that a group of this name spent “two years in Europe during the mid-1880s;” I can find no evidence for their presence in Britain in The Era or other newspapers of the time. The second section attempts to establish, using public documents, the facts about the subjects’ lives and careers. This has been tackled with exemplary thoroughness and shows a) that public records very often provide conflicting information and b) that commonly accepted information is often wrong, simply being repeated from one writer to another. For example the birthdate of drummer Rufus Speedy Jones is regularly given as 27 May 1936 but, as Franklin points out, the Social Security Death Index gives it as 28 May 1931 and this is confirmed by the fact that in the 1940 census his age was given as eight.
Each entry ends with References, first Primary, containing interviews and other material directly from the subject, then Secondary, containing material about the subject. Again this has been compiled with remarkable punctiliousness and will be of great value to researchers. In the areas with which I am most familiar I have noticed very few omissions. On Gary Davis he has perhaps not realized that in 2010 Robert Tilling produced a revised version of his 1992 tribute book (which Franklin does include); both (confusingly) had the same title. On Brook Benton he omits Herwig Gradischnig’s Brook Benton - There Goes That Song Again: Versuch eines Portraits (2009); the English translation, which came out in 2015, was probably too late for inclusion. And on Lucky Thompson he does not mention Bob Weir’s Lucky Thompson Discography (2011).
There are just under a hundred illustrations, mostly photographs of the artists, and a couple of death certificates, which alleviate the rather austere content.
This not likely to be the first port of call for anyone wishing to find out about James Brown or Dizzy Gillespie but it will be an invaluable resource for information on less well known South Carolina artists and I highly recommend it.
Book: TUNES OF THE TWENTIES And All That Jazz: The Stories Behind the Songs. By Robert Rawlins, with an introduction by Vince Giordano. 294pp, Rookwood House Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9965949-0-5. Price $24.99. http://www.tunesofthetwenties.com/
This, as the preface explains, is a companion volume to Robert Rawlins’ 2010 publication, The Real Dixieland Book, which is a compilation of sheet music of some 250 jazz tunes. The more than 200 tunes featured in this collection are more of a mixture (I imagine, as I haven’t seen the first book), given that not a few are dance tunes, which didn’t always make it into the permanent jazz canon, whilst others, as the author freely admits, were written well before and after the 1920s. They have all, at one time or another, been recorded by significant jazz personalities and each tune description includes suggestions of recordings worth listening to – of which more anon.
The selection is very much a personal one and I guess any one of us could, and no doubt would, reject some titles (I don’t think I’d have included Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town or Red Sails in the Sunset, for example) and replace them with others (It Had to Be You, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine or, above all, The Man I Love – all of which are very much alive amongst today’s musicians). And indeed, Rawlins admits that the list isn’t exhaustive (how could it be?).
On the other hand, whatever you may think of the selection, the information on each title makes this book a riveting read: you can dip in here, there or anywhere, or read whole sections at a time…either way, you will come across facts, anecdotes and background information that will startle and amuse in equal measure. I didn’t know, for example (perhaps I should have done!), that St James Infirmary was a traditional folk tune, originally entitled The Unfortunate Rake, and the infirmary referred to was probably the St James Workhouse in 18th / 19th century London. The Joe Primrose, who’s credited with composing it, was, apparently, Irving Mills, who copyrighted the number in 1930! On other pages we learn that Alice, in Alice Blue Gown, was Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, who, whilst delighting the press and embarrassing the family with her smoking and gambling, also favoured a light blue for her dresses, which fashion swept the USA, hence the ‘blue gown’ tag. The origin of the name ‘Tin Pan Alley’ was around the turn of the 20th century, in a New York Herald article about the music publishers on West 28th St, where the cacophony of pianists writing and demonstrating songs through the open windows sounded to the journalist like the clanging of tin pans. And did you know that both George Gershwin and Jerome Kern started out as humble song-pluggers rather than song-writers?
And there is much more: why Frances Rose Shore changed her name to Dinah; and why there is some doubt about who wrote the song Dinah… was it in fact ‘lifted’ from an earlier unsuccessful tune called Chow Mein?; that Darktown Strutters’ Ball was named by ASCAP one of the top sixteen tunes in its history.
Rawlins makes some important points about the history of popular and jazz tunes, in particular that record sales were, before the late 20s, hardly a good indicator of a song’s popularity: sheet music sales were what counted and many well-known tunes sold ten or twenty times as many more in sheet form than on disc. He also explains – which we often forget – that it was singers, and non-jazz ones at that, that often launched a hit number and that the jazzmen only latched on to it later, sometimes years later. Even more interesting is the fact that, because the market for sheet music was overwhelmingly for amateur musicians in the home, this meant that the tunes written in the first quarter of the 20th century were mainly straightforward melodies in simple keys, so that the family could gather round the piano and sing the evening away. But when a hit tune began to depend on a professional singer or orchestra for its success, the song-writers could really go for the creative heights. In other words, Body and Soul (and why wasn’t this included either?!) would probably have sunk without trace if it had been written in 1915 rather than 1930. A good example quoted by Rawlins is the Irving Berlin tune All By Myself, which was a huge success in 1921, with over a million copies of sheet music and a million discs sold, as well as 160 thousand piano rolls. Thereafter, as records began to hold sway, sheet music declined.
Now, I must enter a caveat, and it concerns my constant complaint about the poor standard of editorial control in the publishing industry. It’s not – or shouldn’t be - a reviewer’s job to fact-check the text of a book and it’s not something I either set out to do or enjoy doing, as it takes up a lot of my time. But sometimes, errors just leap off the page: as in the entry on Bill Bailey, which is in itself an intriguing one, as I didn’t know that Bailey was a real person, who had a stormy and frequently mendacious marriage, which was the basis of the lyric. So I do feel that an author, who is a university professor as Rawlins is, should not make outrageous mistakes, like claiming that this tune “found a permanent place in the jazz repertoire when Kid Ory recorded it in 1921”. There is no such recording (if Rawlins has found one, then he is sitting on a gold-mine!), and Ory’s first record of it was in the 1940s. He refers to Johnny Dodds’ recording of Ballin’ the Jack, which he has presumably never heard, as this isn’t the pop tune he’s writing about, but a quite different melody, later recorded by both the State Street Ramblers and the Cellar Boys as Barrelhouse Stomp! Another phantom recording appears in the entry on Squeeze Me, as by Sidney Bechet in 1930: presumably he means 1940. Similar liberties are taken with the dates and notes on several Armstrong recordings: After You’ve Gone, 1932 (actually 1929); Memories of You “documents the first use of a vibraphone on a jazz recording” (Jelly-Roll Morton uses one on Someday Sweetheart in 1926) and in the entry on Mahogany Hall Stomp, he credits Lonnie Johnson with “possibly the first recorded jazz guitar solo”, when Johnson recorded such a solo with Duke Ellington six months earlier earlier on Hot and Bothered, and jazz solos of his own (Stompin’ ‘Em Along Slow, for example) in Memphis in early 1928.
This may all appear to be somewhat nerdy caviling, and none of this, of course, should overshadow the acres of fascinating information to be found in this book. I enjoyed reading Tunes of the Twenties, and I think you will too: it’s full of fun and excellent story-telling. Robert Rawlins’ recommendations for recordings of the tunes are almost always good and, in particular, he suggests some excellent ones made by present-day musicians, especially those from New Orleans. But if some elementary errors as mentioned above have crept in, which others are lurking there? Just be aware…