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BOOK: VOCALION 1000 & BRUNSWICK 7000 SERIES compiled by Helge Thygesen and Russell Shor. AGRAM Blues Books, Overveen, Netherlands. ISBN 978-90-814715-6-5, 375pp, illustrated. 8 1/4” x 5 3/4”. Available at http://home.tiscali.nl/guido, 40 Euros.
Helge and Russ, the compilers of this beautifully-presented and comprehensive book are already well known to VJM readers as veterans in the jazz and blues writing field. Guido van Rijn, who runs AGRAM, is also becoming a byword in the discographical publishing business, with AGRAM’s New York Recording Laboratories Matrix Series publications, which are pushing back the frontiers of the known world in terms of recordings on Paramount, Broadway and associated labels. So, as happens when you have a combination of talents working closely together on a common purpose and plan, the result is exemplary.
Whereas the NYRL world is one of mystery, anecdote and often conjecture because of almost complete loss of original materials, the Brunswick and Vocalion worlds are infinitely more accessible. The two labels, originating separately within a couple of years of each other as offshoots of companies manufacturing what one might call “leisure furnishings,” (Brunswick still manufactures sports equipment in Lake Forest, Illinois today, and there is a website run by Mr. Rod Fudge, in Atlanta, who will do a total restoration on your Vocalion organ, if you ask him nicely) persisted in one form or another well into the vinyl era. Thus, through a half-dozen acquisitions and rebirths, paper records and archives remained all but totally intact. So this work is authoritative, empirical, and essentially done-and-dusted, once for all time.
Both labels started their ‘race series’ within a year of each other, though both had issued race material in their popular catalogues from 1923 onwards. The merger of the two companies in 1924 gave rise to a complex history of crossover issues of material recorded for one label and issued on the other, parallel issues on both labels, and cases where race series masters from the one were issued in the popular series of the same or the other label, and vice-versa. This maze is admirably documented.
The layout of the listings is similar to AGRAM’s format for its NYRL books; the right-hand page carries a numerical progression by catalogue number with side designation, title details and description where given; composer credit and full artist credit, all verbatim. Variants, where they occur, are noted. A “label type” designation also refers back to a preliminary section on formats and contents of labels used for issues, both domestic and foreign. Details of those and all other “non-race” domestic issues are also provided below the main listing.
The left-hand page uses an illustration of relevance to material shown on the right, such as contemporary advertising “slicks,” recording index cards or label illustrations. Two things stand out here: the advertising material has been restored and enhanced such that it looks as if it had been printed directly from the original litho plate (thanks to some VERY skilled CGI restoration work by Marc van Vuren) and the full-colour label scans jump off the page at the reader.
Artist and title indexes for each label complete the print content. The whole is printed on a top-quality, heavy, matte coated paper in a black buckram case-binding, foil-stamped with images of the two labels, giving the whole product a quality handle.
Any complaints? Not the tiniest one: just be sure and pick it up now, because it pretty much can’t be bettered and there will come a day when it’s not there.
COLLECTION: PARAMOUNT: THE RISE AND FALL Vol. 1. 1917-1927, Revenant-Third Man Recordings. A wooden case including two books, replica Paramount catalogs, 6 LPs, and USB drive containing 800 songs from Paramount and related labels. $400, £341 on amazon.co.uk http://thirdmanrecords.com/news/view/paramount-records-wonder-cabinet
If you’ve just returned from a year at sea, or on a NASA mission to Neptune, then you may not have read about this 11-kilo collection compiled by Revenant Records’ Dean Blackwood, rock singer Jack White and Paramount researcher Alex van du Tuuk, with the assistance of a number of collectors. First, the details: It’s a suitcase-sized oak cabinet containing a 78-style album holding 6 LPs., a 256-page large-format book about Paramount’s operations, with many, many illustrations of contemporary adverts (similar to those offered in Blues Images’ calendars), stationary, new release notices, photographs – just about anything pertaining to the company. A second 360-page book, called the “Field Manual” offers biographies of all of the artists. Deeper inside the cabinet, we can find replicas of the Paramount Book of the Blues (music and lyrics to some of Paramounts hit recordings of 1924-6) and a 1926 record catalog.
While the emphasis is on blues and jazz, the music covered in this first volume also includes a sampling of dance bands, pop vocalists, country music and obscure items such as unissued tests from Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Water, Alex Christensen, and a credible jazz performance from 1920 by the Whiteway Jazz Band. These are on the USB drive, that is disguised as a 1920s phonograph soundbox.
Most of the music on the LPs, starting in the Black Swan era (Paramount acquired the label in 1924) Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, then to Jimmy O’Bryant, Jimmy Blythe and, of course, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, Johnny Dodds and Frank Stokes, was been reissued before and is familiar to most VJM readers. Some of the highlights: Messin’ Around by both Jimmy Blythe’s Ragamuffins (Keppard and Dodds) and Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals; 216 Blues by Blanche Johnson (a way-underrated record with magnificent piano from Will Ezell); Mojo Strut by Parham-Pickett Serenaders, Papa Charlie Jackson Coffee Pot Blues; Coffin Blues by Ida Cox, and Gus Cannon’s Madison Street Rag. The compilers did take pains to find excellent copies of many tracks and transfer them using today’s technology (instead of the many derivatives from Riverside and Document that float around)
What will be new to most collectors is the extent of the research that went into the books. There is a great deal of new material on both the artists and the Paramount company. And to have it all on one place is a great benefit.
The idea behind this collection was to go beyond the music and surround buyers with the “Paramount experience” – putting into context, bringing the past to life and understanding how a company determined to produce things on the cheap managed to produce such excellent music.
The prototype for this type of set was the Worlds of Charley Patton set that Revenant produced about 10 years ago, which included CDs of all known Patton sides, all sides by his session mates an d material by those he influenced. It also included replicas of 78 labels (which a few unscrupulous collectors have pasted over worthless records and tried (unsuccessfully) to sell them, on Ebay as original Pattons) and reprints of books about the singer. That set sold very well—not just to the usual collectors—so it was apparent that there was a market for historic music packaged in an appealing way.
The unusually elaborate package was, of course, the key that drove the intense media coverage of its release last November. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Rolling Stone, and several newspapers in the UK wrote about it. And, with publicity comes controversy.
A copyright dispute soon erupted over who owned the music and the Paramount name. The George Buck Foundation of New Orleans purchased the name, along with Black Swan, from John Steiner, who’d purchased it from the owners in the latter 1940s. The Foundation also claimed that not all the material is public domain – the dispute is still unresolved, even as Revenant-Third Man is proceeding with a second volume to debut later this year.
The past five years have seen something of a Paramount cult develop in the public eye. One TV-producer even sent a diving team into a river that runs by the old factory to search for metal masters that might have been tossed in the water. They came up with a master later identified as being by Henry Burr. This has led to the currently popular perception that it was the only recording company recording this music in the 1920s, which we at VJM know not to be the case (see the first review of this section! - Ed).
Ralph Peer at Victor developed one of the greatest catalogs of American vernacular music – blues and country—as could be assembled, and after Paramount’s Mayo Williams moved to Vocalion (plug for my book!), he created a superb mix of juke joint, country blues, jazz and gospel. Frank Walker and Columbia and, later, OKeh, did the same. So, in the end, Paramount was one view of a number of views of 1920s blues and gospel recording, albeit an important one.
So, given the workmanship that went into this project, the $400 is excellent value, particularly given the access it provides to nearly 900 songs.
3 CD SET: SAM WOODING: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, 1922-31. JAZZ ORACLE BDW 8070. www.jazzoracle.com
Dr. Rainer Lotz, who provided the extensive and painstakingly researched notes in the sixty-page booklet that accompanies this latest excellent Jazz Oracle production, wrote in an equally impressive article ‘Four Decades in Europe, Louis Douglas, King of Dancers’ (Storyville 1996-7, pages 85-132) that “when Wooding left America in 1925 he was widely regarded as one of the most important band leaders of Afro-America; by the time he settled back in America in the 1930s he was almost forgotten and out of touch with developments in Black music”. The late Dick Sudhalter, under his pseudonym Art Napoleon, earlier had published a two-part article ‘A Pioneer Looks Back. Sam Wooding 1967’ (Storyville 9 and 10, February-March and April-May 1967) in which he wrote that “the most cursory consideration of what happened to jazz between 1924 and 1927 – and commensurate examination of the role played in it by the young Louis Armstrong – reveals the significance of Wooding’s miss).
This miss was that Wooding had wanted Armstrong for his first European tour but learned too late that Armstrong had contracted to join Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Gene Sedric suggested to Wooding that Bob Shoffner be approached but without reply from Shoffner. He then suggested Tommy Ladnier who was available and who accepted Wooding’s offer. Dame Fortune had dealt a hand in Wooding’s hope to hire Armstrong but a subsequent decision that altered the course of big band jazz was his rejection in 1927 (also by Charlie Johnson) of a Cotton Club engagement, letting in Duke Ellington. Wooding preferred to appear on Broadway rather than return to Harlem. Who knows what the fortunes of the two band leaders would have been had Wooding taken that Cotton Club engagement. Ellington flourished there from 1927 until 1931. I suspect in a battle of jazz Wooding would have been worsted by both Henderson and Ellington. Here there is an important point to be made. All three bands catered for different audiences, Wooding primarily in theatres and vaudeville, Henderson in ballrooms and Ellington in night clubs.
Wooding’s recordings are very much a clutch of curate’s eggs. This is not to denigrate his recordings of appealing and well-played popular music interspersed by surging instrumental passages and uplifting solos, but to keep his talents and output in perspective. It is undeniable that his highly talented and disciplined band could revert to playing hot jazz that most of his musicians must have itched to play rather than some of the maudlin offerings. Dr. Lotz reports that Hugues Panassié heard the Wooding band in Paris in October 1929 and said that, following an hour of nothing but rubbish, at his encouragement and prompting “the band began to play hot – terrifically hot”.
It is remarkable that from 1922 to 1931 the only recordings made by Wooding in America were in the first of these years. The Original Jazz Hounds (mistakenly identified on the Columbia labels as by Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds) Put and Take and Moanful Blues are unexciting all-ensemble sides but the Dunn-influenced Elmer Chambers, an old army buddy of Wooding, is readily identifiable by comparison with his numerous recordings not long thereafter with Fletcher Henderson. Much the same aggregation accompanies the sprightly Lucille Hegamin and the more knowing and convincing Alberta Hunter who gives some hint of what is to come from her in her later years. There are three takes of each of the former’s I’ve Got To Cool My Doggies Now and Send Back My Honeymoon and two of each of the latter’s You Can’t Have It All and Lonesome Monday Morning Blues. The alternatives are put at the end of the third CD.
It was June 1925, almost three years on, before the initial batch of four Berlin recordings was made with Ladnier, Garvin Bushell, Herb Flemming, Gene Sedric and the exemplary banjo and guitar player John Mitchell among the well-drilled personnel. Bushell’s solo identifications can be found in the second part of “On the road with the Chocolate Kiddies in Europe and South America” (Storyville 131 and 132, September and December 1987).
O Katharina, ingeniously arranged by Wooding to incorporate some popular German melodies to please his hosts, is a more attractive performance than one might expect. Hot it is not but Sedric’s tenor over Wooding’s tinkling piano and the fluent trumpet section backing Flemming’s trombone raise the temperature. Mitchell’s banjo and John Warren’s sturdy brass bass playing impress here as on other recordings. Shanghai Shuffle, by far the best performance of the four, reveals that the band is familiar with Armstrong’s electrifying tour de force with Henderson. Sedric’s bass sax is followed by a flamboyant Bobby Martin before Ladnier comes in with a composed and assertive solo that pays tribute to but does not attempt to copy Armstrong’s. Martin returns in raucous vein before Ladnier leads to a satisfying conclusion. Alabamy Bound commences with some whimsical railroad effects from drummer George Howe before solos from Ladnier, Sedric’s tenor, Mitchell and Flemming whose muffled sound suggests that he is playing with some sort of mute. The band returns to earth By The Waters Of Minnetonka. Bushell demonstrates his oboe technique, attributing his “gosh-awful sound” to a plastic reed (see his memoirs as told to Mark Tucker, Jazz From The Beginning [University of Michigan Press and Bayou Press Oxford, 1988 and excerpts from it in Storyville 131 and 132]). There are other soloists of whom Ladnier is not one. I like to think that he merely sat in stunned silence for three minutes and nine seconds! There are second versions of all four sides but differing little from those first recorded. It is not known whether these were recorded on the same or at a later date.
Wooding and his orchestra returned to recording studios in Berlin on two occasions some fifteen months later to make ten more sides, alas without Ladnier, who, after a spell with Benny Peyton had returned to America. The band might still be described as star-studded but Ladnier is sorely missed. I am loath to dwell on what a jazz band could make of such mundane songs as Dreaming Of Tomorrow, Dreaming Of A Castle In The Air, Behind The Clouds, Just A Cottage Small (By A Waterfall), Am I Wasting Time On You, Lonesome And Sorry and of another trip to the Waters Of Minnetonka. Over-arranged performances of Milenberg Joys and Tampekoe (sic) are the best of the sides in which the musicians must have been frustrated by the arrangements and by the almost total lack of freedom to improvise. Mercifully, Willie Lewis exercises his vocal chords on only three of the ten sides. Black Bottom suffers from doo-wacka-doo passages.
Wooding, following further engagements in Europe and in Argentina, went back to America in early August 1927. He remained in New York with an orchestra that at one time contained Louis Metcalf, returning to Berlin in June 1928 to a less well publicised reception than that accorded him in 1925. He made no more recordings until the band was in Barcelona in July 1929. Doc Cheatham was by this time in the band. He told me in October 1967, after the Top Brass concert in Croydon, that it was insufferably hot in the recording studio and that he had never heard these recordings made for Parlophon. He listened, with Benny Morton who was also present, to a tape of the ten issued sides with obvious delight. Testimony to the perceived beneficial effects of the ten months back in America is evidenced by these well recorded Barcelona sides. They are hard-driven and at times reach a level of excitement not heard on record thereafter. The overall impression is one of a happy band that enjoyed playing together, albeit with little or no opportunity to improvise, a conclusion that can be drawn from comparison with the eight alternative takes of the ten numbers issued by Parlophon. There are no outstanding solos but a vocal from drummer Ted Fields on I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. Bull Foot Stomp that follows is the hottest performance. Cheatham, while listening, at one point cried out “That’s Tommy”, forgetting that Ladnier had gone and not recognising his own playing. It is a stirring performance that gathers momentum as it reaches an exciting conclusion. Carrie has no solos but a vocal from Willie Lewis and others. The over-arranged Tiger Rag has solos and breaks from Albert Wynn, an exuberant Cheatham, Sedric and Mitchell and thunderous tuba from “King” Edwards. Sweet-Back (previously mis-named Sweet Black Blues) features Bobby Martin’s growling trumpet and some ludicrous “laughing” clarinet that reminds one that this a show band. Mitchell and Edwards again impress; the band would have had considerably less body and momentum without them. There are no solos but a Fields vocal on Indian Love Call. Ready For The River, a Baptist meeting pastiche, has comedy to the fore and a Jerry Blake vocal, but it redeemed by the contributions of Martin, Mitchell and be Sedric’s tenor.
The remaining numbers, Mammy’s Prayer, My Pal Called Sal and Krazy Kat, allow Willie Lewis to display again his vocal talents. They contain occasional flashes of orchestral inspiration, some soulful Cheatham trumpet and Sedric’s tenor on My Pal Called Sal. All of these Barcelona recordings are on the second CD and in chronological order.
Four months later the band was in Paris where four titles, with two takes of the last of them, Weary River, were recorded and with much warbling from the band. Harry Cooper had replaced Cheatham but he does not solo. Even the absence of the vocal trio would not have redeemed Smiling Irish Eyes. Hallelujah! has spirited solos from, I believe, Wynn and from Martin, but there is a vocal trio! Downcast Blues has some hotter moments, principally from Martin (who throws in his Black And Tan Fantasy quotation, as he did on Sweet-Back). This title and the two takes of Weary River that contain forceful Martin trumpet but another “laughing” clarinet outing that probably pleased more listeners in 1929 than it will in 2014, were arranged by the departed Cheatham.
Hearts may sink a little at sight of the list of remaining titles recorded in late 1929 that feature a proliferation of vocals from Fields and Lewis with contributions from other band members and those of June 1931. Deep Night is, after a Freddie Johnson introduction, all ensemble and with a vocal trio. There are two takes of She’s Funny That Wag (sic) with falsetto Lewis but Harry Cooper gets a chance to solo as do trombonist Billy Burns, Sedric and Mitchell. A voice says “goodbye” with apparent relief at the end of the second take after a final bit of vocal fluff. I Lift Up Your Finger And Say “Tweet Tweet” is the old English music hall number that had been penned and sung by Leslie Sarony of The Two Leslies. There is, alas, more painful Lewis falsetto but Sedric and Martin make amends. Button Up Your Overcoat features a Lewis and Martin comedy routine but a muted Harry Cooper makes the most of a solo opportunity. I believe the baritone solo is played by Lewis and the clarinet by Sedric but identifications are not easy. Wynn is the trombone soloist.
Le Pirate (Lover Come Back To Me), opening with Sedric’s bass clarinet and with an impassioned Lewis vocal, has Freddie Johnson at the organ and “King” Edwards strongly pumping his tuba. The Wedding Of The Painted Doll (what next?!) is enlivened by a jolly Fields vocal and unusual instrumentation. All I Have receives sober treatment but Breakaway has Wynn trombone, a scat vocal and a vocal trio; June Cole gives a few Tiger Rag - inspired tuba breaks. My Sin features aurally the same vocal trio but is redeemed by Wynn’s fluent trombone solo. How Am I To Know has forceful breaks from Sedric’s tenor and Wynn before an effervescent Fields vocal and closes with powerful muted trumpet from Cooper. More could have been made of Singing In The Rain, with no solos but another Lewis vocal. The same can be said of Can’t We Be Friends and I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling, both with Fields vocals. The former has some shouting trombone from Wynn and a hot Cooper solo. The latter has more from Wynn and from Sedric’s tenor.
Cooper had been replaced by Teddy Brock before the Brunswick session of June 1931. Love For Sale, I Surrender Dear, Even If You Love Me and J’ai Deux Amours (I Have Two Loves), a Josephine Baker staple, despite the continuing presence of both Fields and Lewis has no vocals except for a short scat passage on the second of these and there are few memorable solo opportunities. Mitchell plays a steel guitar on all but the third title. Bobby Martin is presumably the trumpeter who stands out from time to time and with a composed solo on J’ai Deux Amours that features Mitchell’s steel guitar. Sedric is sadly underemployed after having been the most consistent post-Ladnier soloist.
I echo Art Napoleon who wrote in 1967 that “It remains to this day a mystery that Sam Wooding and the men with him who blazed a trail across what was virgin territory for jazz forty years ago have never been accorded their full share of recognition.” This welcome issue - in gorgeous sound quality and with Jazz Oracle’s faultlessly high standard of production - reveals that they should not have been neglected for so long.
CD: “STATIC STRUT” PAUL SPECHT AND HIS ORCHESTRA Hot Dance Rarities. Rivermont BSW-1162. www.rivermontrecords.com
It’s all about choices. Leaders in all fields, from foremen running a paint crew to heads of nations, have to think in two sets of terms; what they need to get done today and how today’s accomplishments or otherwise will affect their ability to do what needs to be done tomorrow. Their approach to both priorities determines how a third, future premise will be perceived; their legacy.
Today, looking at it from the legacy side: what enters your mind in this, the 21st century, when on a pile of discs or an auction list, you see an offering from Paul Specht and His Orchestra? Might it be “ho-hum, deedle-dee… next!” by chance? So it is, for most collectors. Yet we are talking about one of the giants of his day and his field of endeavour; a national icon, a radio pioneer, a participant in sound film years before Al Jolson, the successful booking agent whose company secured the Cinderella Ballroom gig for the Wolverines; the one whose band played for the future King George VI and was a European presence throughout the 1920s, then played the inaugurals of two Presidents and the World’s Fair in the 1930s.
So, what are we missing here? The answer lies to a large extent in choices made by Specht, based on the needs of the moment, which affected subsequent options and hence, the way he is viewed and remembered, or rather not, today.
First, he seems to have had a singular gift for cheesing people off; both those people among his European hosts capable of giving him regular work, and later, the American political establishment, particularly the Democrats, of which he fervently declared himself to be a member and was all but ignored for his trouble. Additionally, suing people, one of the more reprehensible American pastimes, (particularly viewed through European glasses) was an unlovable predilection of his.
The selections under Specht’s name mentioned as “of jazz interest” in Jazz Records amount to a scant two pages; his total dance output over the years covered by ADBORAF, in that work’s much smaller type and compressed page format, covers twenty. He clearly, from early in his career, didn’t want to have the Specht name in the sights of such critics as Anne Shaw Faulkner of the American Federation of Women’s Clubs (God forbid, perhaps a distant relative) who decried “jazz music and its evil influence on the young people of today,” in 1921. So he created a “hot” unit, The Georgians; today widely admired and collected, but linked neither by punters of the time nor collectors and historians of today, with Specht’s body of work. This decision in its time kept his image pure and achieved the desired deflection of media calumny, but associated his top-flight “name” orchestra forever after with tame pop tunes, tangos, waltzes and schottisches.
The 26 very pleasant selections on this CD are drawn in some degree from the aforementioned material on those two pages in Jazz Records, plus pseudonymous material from elsewhere. All Muddled Up from 1922 starts us off, and if someone told me it was a missing Georgians title, I’d believe it. Arthur Schutt solos at length, and Frank Guarente and Donald Lindley on trumpets toss the ball joyfully back and forward, in this jaunty tune. Likewise, in fact even more so, When You And I Were Young Maggie Blues is sheer joy. Sounding much like a band competition piece because of its elaborate arrangement, it tumbles along with an extended brass duet, a complex arranged verse, then Guarente showing his incredible classical chops in a soaring upper-register muted solo of total beauty and control.
I’m Going South also confirms Guarente, with Johnny O’Donnell, as the backbone of the orchestra. Then unfortunately, after I’m All Broken Up Over You, both are gone. The latter tune features Guarente in very New-Orleanian syncopated style, playing a superb, sophisticated melody in ragged, novelty foxtrot rhythm. The whole is sublime; Specht unusually taking a four-string violin break, followed by a Guarente legato solo and Charlie Butterfield topping the cake on trombone.
Leo McConville makes a brief appearance with the band on Oh Peter! (You’re So Nice) but the star turn this time is Butterfield, with Arthur Schutt playing his own swansong piano solo with the band. Static Strut heralds an almost completely new and thenceforeward fairly stable lineup, with Ahola, Al Philburn and three reeds in the front line, and a personal favourite, Lou Calabrese, on banjo. The version (from Pathe) is spectacular (and it’s also different from the one on Timeless). Incidentally, this is another of my “don’t ever leave behind a copy of this number, by anyone” tunes. Issued on Perfect, however, the sound quality wakes me up to how beautifully the Columbias so far were recorded.
On to London we go, where the maestro defied (and upset) unions and government officials alike, by fielding a substantially Canadian band, to get past his contentions with immigration and work permit regulations, which had soured a prior tour. I’m Going Out If Lizzie Comes In is classic vo-de-o-do, and as rare as can be. The tour and the rancours caused thereby also threw a large spanner into relations between British and American musicians’ unions for the next three-plus decades. Close to home, in my case, it meant no Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis tour on British stages for us in the UK, in the 50s. For consolation, we had Sir Cliff, Marty Wilde and Wee Willie Harris. Well done, Paul.
Back in New York, the regular lineup plays So Is Your Old Mandarin, Roll ‘Em, Girls (I have the original sheet music, and the title page is hilarious, with a bunch of short-skirted girls in sailor-suit tops, rolling their stockings down to their calves) Show That Fellow The Door, I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover, Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella and The Grass Grows Greener. All are superb hot dance, with intricate arrangements and solo bursts, and vocals by Johnny Morris. And from here, we launch off into smaller-label dates.
Gennett recorded the band in 1928, playing In The Sweet Bye and Bye; and very nicely, too. The personnel notes have Calabrese playing only banjo here; but I’m hearing guitar behind the vocal, and a very nice one at that. Then a Perfect of Sweet Lorraine (first time I’ve heard a vocal chorus on that tune). “Henry Paul and His Orchestra” made Ten Little Miles From Town and If You Don’t Love Me for Brunswick, issued on Duophone only in the UK, so the sides are like hen’s teeth as you may imagine.
And sod the sound quality, there’s something unique about hot dance on Harmony that just grabs the ear; and Let’s Do It does it absolutely. A blistering-hot tenor solo from Bob Chester precedes a fine Johnny Morris vocal on a brilliant arrangement. It rocks! Glorianna, the session-mate has an almost-certain Guarente, duetting with another horn in a great arrangement, also. Guarente is positively there on When Polly Walks Through the Hollyhocks, since it’s issued under his name. Scored duet choruses mark this fine, stomping record. Staying with Harmony, we then have “The Carolina Club Orchestra” booting along with I’m Marching Home To You and Guess Who? There are schools of thought that these are Hal Kemps: an argument bolstered by the name, but there’s a strong case made here that it’s Specht; either way the titles are highly listenable.
Shoo-Shoo-Boogie-Boo is a sign of the times; it’s an October 1929 dime-store recording on Sunrise for Grey Gull. Not great sound, but great music, with a pair of excellent reed solos, the clarinet being outstanding. Then, since this is musical chairs: an OKeh, The Sparton Syncopators roar on Sweetheart, We Need Each Other. Next, Specht is back home on Columbia, with I’m Sailing On A Sunbeam. It’s classic Depression-fare jollity with nice solos and vocal from Morris.
The disc ends with My Mad Moment, also by the Sparton Syncopators, but it’s an enigma. Also, it’s from the Parlophone issue, which is different from the take on Timeless. Yes, Johnny Morris sings, but what’s Miff Mole doing here? And Babe Russin? That’s Stan King! The artist credit indicates clearly whose session it has to be, but… was this a hastily-arranged, quasi Molers pickup session of some sort? Who can say, ninety years on? The Depression made odd musical bedfellows, but… take a guess. Yours will be as good as any other hypothesis.
Beautifully done all round, is the verdict. Nick Dellow’s transfers are superb; in fact, as I intimated, listening for the first time to the first half-dozen tracks, I just had to revel in deep, rich Columbia sound, then go back and listen to the music, as opposed to the recording. I admit: I can’t get ‘em to play like that.
Mark Berresford’s liner notes constitute a deeply-researched, comprehensive treatise about the man and his work. It’s all there, in 37 pages of 6-point type.
As for artwork and pictorial content: ne plus ultra. His bands, his record labels, his sheet music, his venues; everything about this violinist/pugilist/litigator with a slightly larger head than would seem to become his stature, both figuratively and literally, is here. You need this.
BOOK: BLACKS IN BLACKFACE. A SOURCEBOOK ON EARLY BLACK MUSICAL SHOWS, SECOND EDITION. By Henry T. Sampson. Scarecrow Press, 1562pp in 2 volumes, hardbound, profusely illustrated. $214.27/£155 on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk www.rowman.com
When the first edition of Blacks in Blackface appeared in 1980 it was something of a groundbreaking book. It was the first in-depth study of pre-1940 African American entertainment, and it quickly sold out, becoming a minor collector’s item. Thirty-something years later, and greatly expanded, it now appears as a second edition. The additions and expansion of scope mean that now it appears in two huge volumes, with a wealth of photographs and illustrations.
The title refers to the fact that up until the 1940s it was almost de rigeur for black comedians to work in blackface - a throwback to white minstrelsy which permeated black theatre as a device to delineate the comedian, with his shabby clothes and shambling gait from the often fancifully overdressed ’straight man’ - both crude parodies of how black males were perceived in early 20th century America - the oaf or the pimp.
The author has broadened the scope of his book to include black revues, vaudeville shows, ‘tab’ shows, written quickly and produced for a week or so in early black-owned or managed theatres, burlesque shows, tent shows, circus sideshows, medicine shows, cabarets and other entertainment forms that featured or appealed to African Americans.
The first volume opens with a short historical overview of early black musical shows - an area covered in depth in Sampson’s book The Ghost Walks (Scarecrow Press, 1988). This is followed by a fascinating chapter on the early black showbusiness entrepreneurs, featuring such luminaries as Sherman H. Dudley, John T. Gibson, and Harry Pace, and chronicles their rise and subsequents struggles with and ultimate capitulation to the white-run Theatre Owners Booking Association. Black theatre producers such as Salem Tutt Whitney and J. Homer Tutt, Irvin Miller and the Whitman Sisters get a chapter, as do the nationally-famous black owned or controlled theatres such as the Pekin, the Regal and the Grand in Chicago, the Lafayette and the Lincoln in Harlem, the Standard and the Dunbar in Philadelphia and the Howard in Washington.
The lion’s share of Volume 1 is devoted to reviews and reports of black performers from contemporary press sources such as the Indianopolis Freeman, the Chicago Defender, Billboard and other sources. It is fascinating to read in these reports back in the early 1900s and 1910s of performers subsequently well known to record collectors for their work in the 1920s and 30s. A ‘Who’s Who’ of names tumble forth from pre-1914 vaudeville, tent show and circus sideshow reports - Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Rosa Henderson, Benjamin and John ‘Reb’ Spikes, Esther Bigeou, Virginia Liston, Bessie Brown, Perry Bradford, the ‘child wonder’ Little Valaida and many others. One striking omission is any reference the Blues prior to 1914; artists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Brown are described as ‘coon shouters’ and descriptions of their performances emphasise a repertoire based on popular ragtime hits of the day - by both black and white composers. As to the accuracy of the transcription of individual reviews by the author, I’m sure most are 100% correct, but my doubts were raised by one, purporting to emanate from Billboard of December 8, 1913, in which it claims that Rubin & Cherry’s ‘Lucky Boy Minstrels’ included a ‘Jazz Band.’ If that is so, it moves the timeframe of the conjunction of the words ‘jazz’ and ‘band’ back nearly two years from our earliest known usage in print. I may be being overly-cautious, and I haven’t had time to check this, but if anyone would like to check this and confirm, I’m sure that VJM readers would be very interested!
Volume 2 opens with an exhaustive listing of pre-1940 black Musical Comedy shows, including cast, synopses of plots and (where known) song titles featured. We can name all the big name shows - Shuffle Along, In Dahomey, Blackbirds, Hot Mikado etc., but there are hundreds here, many of them ‘tab’ or tabloid productions, which were a feature of the early black theatre scene of the 1900s and 1910. These were assembled on an almost weekly basis at theatres such as the Grand and the Pekin in Chicago, featuring what was almost a stock company of performers. Many luminaries such as Wilbur Sweatman, Joe Jordan, Dave Peyton, comedians Joe Sims and Miller & Lyles all got a leg-up in tab shows. This section also includes touring revues, which in the late 1910s and early 1920s were the staple of black productions across the US, and the training ground for a galaxy of stars, both singers and musicians, so the cast listings make for very interesting reading.
A considerable portion of Volume 2 is devoted to verbatim reports from the contemporary press of tented entertainment - by far the most extensive black theatrical enterprises of the period, albeit generally managed and run by whites. ‘Tent show’ covers all manner of productions - black minstrel shows, circus sideshows and annexes, medicine shows, carnivals and much more. The famous black touring shows such as the Florida Blossoms and the long-lived Silas Green From New Orleans shows were a breeding ground for nascent jazz and blues performers. Likewise, the circus sideshow annexes, usually black-controlled by men such as cornet virtuosi P.G.Lowery and W.C. Handy, saw many well known jazz men gain valuable training and employment in the early 20th century.
Finally, a shortish ‘Who’s Who’ seems like a bit of a makeweight, given that the ubiquity of Wikipedia and other websites makes this section redundant for all but the computer philistine - and yes, I know there are VJM readers who fall into that bracket!
I have to admit that this is not a cheap book, and even the amazon.com prices are likely to put off all but the most dedicated enthusiast or researcher, but for the price this is a heck of a lot of book; to be honest I still haven’t finished reading it - there is just so much to take on board. It is the sort of book to read in slices, or to dip into on an ad hoc basis, but the fact that it is all-encompassing makes it truly valuable and useful. If you think this will appeal (and most VJM readers will find much to interest them therein), I wouldn’t delay buying it, as I suspect that, like its predecessor, it won’t be around for long.
I’ve always thought that the story of Verve Records, and its creator, Norman Granz, would fill a book the width of a dictionary with a well-bred vocabulary. The author thought so too, because this is what we have.
The book is less of a history of the label, than an homage to the long gallery of jazz artists who recorded for it. Most of the major ones have their own sections (I won’t call them chapters) with brief biographies, lots of original album cover photos and pull out quotes providing insight into the artist and or his or her music.
So, first the man, Norman Granz. His basic tenet is that the meek may inherit the Earth, but they won’t produce great jazz albums, or get musicians the civil rights or payment that they deserve. From the time Granz produced his first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944 when he was 26. His idea was to bring jazz into the concert halls – selling hundreds or even thousands of tickets could make he and his artists a helluva lot more money than the run-down clubs in dodgy neighborhoods where jazz usually flourished. And—just as importantly for him—concert halls were less likely to be segregated than night clubs.
Granz defied the “jazz establishment”- the usual agents, record label executives and even some musicians who set themselves as arbiters of taste. The jazz establishment, “new” was the only thing that mattered. Great musicians like Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, and even Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins found it increasingly difficult to get recording dates. These guys were “the old.” Out with “the old.” So, along the way he recorded these musicians, producing some of their very best work. Along the way came Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lee Konitz and… when jazz was having its love affair with the avant garde, Granz was producing hits by Stan Getz in a Brazilian mode. And Oscar Peterson was his house pianist. What else need be said. So, looking at the Verve roster, there were very few “experimenters” as some critics like to call avant garde players. Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt recorded for him, after their innovations had entered the mainstream of the jazz lexicon. Mainstream. That was Verve.
And, Granz knew how to make money. That’s an elusive goal in jazz. He knew Ella Fitzgerald could be a sensation once again and worked five years to get her away from Decca where she’d languished with poor songs and unsuitable arrangements. This was the 1950s when singers floated on oceans of violins, oboes and soft brass, backed with cooing choruses for good measure. Few singers had Ella’s voice, so he defied them all – Ella with piano and rhythm – let her sound do the rest. Ella’s Mack The Knife knocked Elvis Presley off the charts and the classic songbooks (Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart) remain the definitive versions of these classics. And, they sure paid the rent.
Granz couldn’t accomplish what he did by being meek. He wasn’t very nice either. But the consistently high quality of the music recorded by him attests to his deep understand and love for it.
There has been (remains?) a tendency among critics and historians to take Verve for granted, in a “great stuff, but not edgy” kind of way. And Granz’ irascible personality won him few friends. But within the pages of this sumptuously-produced book are tales of some of the most swinging. Timeless jazz ever produced.
Essential to anyone who listens to jazz recorded after 1940..
BOOK: AJAX RECORDS. A HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY. By William R. Bryant with the Record Research Associates, Ed. Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 70pp, softbound, illustrated. $19.95, $29 Canada, $36 elsewhere. www.mainspringpress.com
If ever there was an enigmatic record label it was Ajax. The product of the son of Emile Berliner, the inventor of the flat disc, Ajax records were produced in Canada, using mainly black New York-based artists, recorded primarily in New York (and occasionally Montreal), marketed out of Chicago and allegedly appealing to African American record buyers nationwide. That their rarity varies from ‘quite rare’ to ‘impossible to find’ testifies to Herbert S. Berliner’s singular lack of success in persuading black record buyers to part with their hard-earned money, and helps justify the soubriquet ‘the forgotten Race Record label.’
The rarity of Ajax records, and their mere eighteen-month lifespan has meant that they have been sidelined to a great extent by researchers, but back in the early 1950s - when key figures in the Ajax story such as record producer/publisher Joe Davis (see the review of the new biography of Davis elsewhere in this issue), pianist Louis Hooper and banjoist Elmer Snowden were still very much alive - the Record Research team of Walter C. Allen, Len Kunstadt Perry Armagnac and others turned their attention to the label. Despite their combined efforts, huge gaps still needed to be filled, and it took another researcher, the late Bill Bryant, to bring the discography to anything like a presentable state. Thus, what Mainspring has produced, carefully brought together and annotated by Allan Sutton, is a comprehensive listing and history of this most interesting venture.
Being an ‘out of towner’, Herbert Berliner entrusted most of the talent management and choice of material to music publisher Joe Davis, and he, with an eye to the main chance, chose those artists with whom he already had working arrangements - Monette Moore, Rosa Henderson, Josie Miles, Viola McCoy, Helen Gross, Fletcher Henderson to name but a few. A minor coup was the signing of former OKeh top blues attraction Mamie Smith, but by 1924 her star was waning, and her Ajax discs are quite rare. Likewise, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was all but forgotten by 1924, so the coupling he recorded for Ajax is in the ‘mythically rare’ category.
By and large, Herbert Berliner’s ability as a recording engineer was above the standards of the day, and in fact he was ahead of the industry leaders in introducing electrical recording to the market in early 1925, using a system of his own design. This he used in tandem with the old acoustic recording equipment, and this has caused some confusion in the discography, where items shown as being electrically recorded (and showing a telltale ‘E’ after the matrix number), are demonstrably not so. In fact the situation is so confusing that adjoining matrices were sometimes made using the two different systems. A case in point is Ethel Ridley’s Get It Fixed/ Low Down Daddy Blues on Ajax 17126. Get It Fixed (matrix 31813) is acoustically recorded, whilst Low Down Daddy Blues (matrix 31814-E) is electrically recorded. The discography shows both as being electrically recorded. I have listed a few such entries later in this review.
The author(s) claim that “Berliner was careful to keep Ajax at arm’s-length from Compo [Berliner’s parent company]. The Ajax-Compo connection was never directly mentioned in press releases.” It may not have been mentioned in the press releases, but the earliest issues make no bones about the parentage; my copies of 17006-17009 clearly show the following manufacturing credit - “The Compo Co. Limited.. Lachine.. Que.. Canada.”
The discography takes the standard form of an issue-by-issue listing (although it is unfortunate that -|A and -B side designations are not shown), together with artist credits (not verbatim), composer credits, dates of first advertisement, corresponding issues on other labels, (mainly) estimated recording dates and the instrumentation of the accompaniments to singers. No attempt is made to ascribe names to the accompanists unless they were given to researchers by Messrs. Hooper and Snowden.
As with any work of this type there are bound to be errors and omissions; actual discography aside, I’m puzzled as to the identity of ‘Daisy Smith’ mentioned on p. 8, who Joe Davis agreed to pay 25% of mechanical rights to for her OKeh records. I’m guessing she is an amalgam of Daisy Martin and Mamie Smith, and that the former is the singer in question. As to the discography, I’ve included a few errors I’ve spotted (not all by any means but key ones) and I’m sure that readers will find their own, but that is not to decry the sterling work of the original researchers or the publisher in actually making this important work available at all. Virtually all discography is a ‘work in progress’ and this is no exception, but I feel that some of the errors and omissions could have been avoided had the publisher been aware that, at the time of his death, Laurie Wright was at an advanced state with exactly the same project. Many VJM readers, myself included, had contributed to Laurie’s project, and I believe that Laurie’s Ajax research is currently in safe hands. Hopefully, they can be shared with VJM readers within these pages at some point, so I’ll kick off with a few of my own...
Ajax 17009 mx 31012-2. Comp. credit should read (Williams-Dowell).
Ajax 17027 No c.c. shown in the discography. They are:-
Hula Blues (Grainger-Ricketts)
Don’t Know and Don’t Care Blues (Brooks)
Ajax 17053 c.c. of Hard Luck Blues should read (Thomas “Baby” Grice)
Ajax 17056 No c.c. for Papa Will Be Gone. It is:- (Miller)
Ajax 17060 c.c. for mx 31649 is (Spencer-Williams)
Ajax 17118 This is a bit of a mess. The correct c.c for Back Biter’s Blues is (Thomas) and my copy shows no mx number. Correct c.c. for Hot Jelly Blues is (Thomas). This side is listed as Compo mx 1739, but my copy clearly shows mx 1724. Aurally both sides were made at the same session, so the mx 1738 for Back Biter’s Blues may be suspect.
Ajax 17126 Get It Fixed is acoustically recorded from mx 31813, not 31813-E as shown in the discography.
Ajax 17127 Both sides are acoustically recorded and thus the mx numbers in the run-off do not show ‘-E’ suffix. c.c on Texas Special Blues should read (Monette Moore)
Ajax 17129 Both sides are acoustically recorded and thus the mx numbers in the run-off do not show ‘-E’ suffix.
To conclude, this book fills a yawning gap in the story of the ‘Race Records’ industry of the early 1920s, and as such is an essential addition to our bookshelves. Highly recommended.
CD: UNISSUED ON 78s. Rare and Obscure 1925 - 1932. 24 tracks; Retrieval RTR 79076. www.challenge.nl
The value of hearing unissued masters, in particular of jazz and blues recordings, should lie not in their rarity – though that usually determines their price, should they come up for sale! – but in the insight it gives us into the style, technique and creativity of the musicians involved. I have to say that, over the years, I’ve found a number of alternate takes of issued material can be very disappointing, though revelatory, in that they show just how well-rehearsed bands often were, even down to note-for-note versions of what should have been improvised solos. No doubt they originally were, but nightly repetition on the band-stand must have made it inevitable that a well-received solo would be learnt off by heart as a crowd-pleaser. Equally, the prospect of recording for a major company like Victor might have persuaded even the most accomplished improviser (and certainly his lesser brethren) that ‘off by heart’ would be better than ‘off the rails’. And so the alternate take may offer little in the way of musical excitement beyond that of possessing a rarity. With one exception, all the tracks on this CD are from the Victor vaults, and that company was legendary not only for its attention to technical, but also to musical, perfection…which sometimes meant that creativity was sacrificed to orthodoxy. This seems to have been especially the case with its popular as opposed to its ‘race’ catalogue (as witness the huge differences in musical style and content between takes of some of the Jelly-Roll Morton titles). Certainly, several of the alternate, unissued takes here are hardly distinguishable from the issued versions. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth having, as most of the material is quite rare – in some cases, extremely so, and if you don’t have the originals on your shelves or the originals you do have are in less than perfect condition, these excellent transfers from glossy tests are the best substitutes you’re likely to get. In the case of the never-issued titles, they’re gold dust.
Lloyd Finlay was the leader of a band of almost entirely unidentified musicians apart from himself, who played violin, and pianist Seger Ellis…who seems already to have been something of a local celebrity, as he gets a name-check on the labels of those sides where he’s a featured soloist. Finlay is the only other regular soloist and sounds as if he (and no doubt his second violinist) were using metal amplifier horns on their instruments, which have a typical tinny tone as a result. Several of these violin solos – and duets – also involve the clarinettist providing obbligato� trills around the violin line...all very carefully worked out. This is a spirited group with a clean, crisp delivery, and was obviously well drilled; most of their work is heavily arranged: there’s rarely much difference between the unissued takes and their issued counterparts. There are seven Finlay tracks in all: six unissued alternates and one that was never issued at all. All were recorded by Victor’s mobile unit in Houston, TX, in March 1925.
You’ll Want Me Back Someday has a piano solo from Seger Ellis, but almost identical to that on the issued take. However the stop-time chorus on the issued take is abandoned halfway through on the unissued one…and is rather better as a result.
Mysterious Blues is not a blues but a re-working of Jim Europe’s Castle House Rag; it is - apart from a few odd notes – indistinguishable from its issued version, except that, curiously (for a higher take), it sounds less well rehearsed, less ‘together’…the sound quality is also slightly different, rather warmer but also more ‘fuzzy’ at times.
Fido Blues (Fiddlin’ Blues) does feature some genuine blues choruses, mainly by Finlay and another unidentified violinist…and they’re both interesting and well-played…but the two takes are to all intents and purposes identical and were obviously either played from a score or (more likely) very well rehearsed.
Mamma (Won’t You Come and Ma-Ma Me) is – like Someday – a Seger Ellis composition with a quite complex arrangement; there are minor differences in the trombone and tenor (or maybe baritone?) sax choruses but the outstanding feature on this track is the cornet solo. There are two cornet players and between them they provide an intense, driving and vibrato-infused lead on all these tracks.
The jew’s-harp on Jew’s Harp Blues takes something of a back seat to the violins, who solo several times, punctuated, as before, by the clarinet: the jew’s-harp is less well-recorded here than on the issued version…which is maybe why it was rejected.
Ride ‘Em Cowboy is taken at a romping pace, complete with cowboy whoops and horse whinnies, but I can’t detect any real distinguishing points from the issued take, either musical or technical.
She’s a Good Gal but She’s a Thousand Miles from Home is the title that was rejected by Victor, perhaps because of the rather poor, nasal vocal? It is, then, a real bonus to have this issued now, as the vocal is noteworthy for Seger Ellis’ fine accompaniment, certainly the hottest stuff he played on any of these tracks, and almost Harlem-style in places; indeed, this title swings the best of them all and displays the most jazz feeling.
Fatty Martin’s band recorded only two titles – End o’ Main and Jimtown Blues - on the same day as the last three by Lloyd Finlay. We know much more about who played in this group, though their names are of no historical significance, except that they seem, at the outset, to have the capacity to play a lot more real jazz than Finlay’s men did. Certainly this band swings much more throughout than does Finlay’s, but on close listening, there’s again little to choose between the issued takes and these alternates…there are some minor differences in the clarinet work on Jimtown Blues, but it’s clear these were well-rehearsed numbers and main differences are technical, in the balance and the crispness of sound: the issued takes are ‘warmer’ but the alternates have more ‘separation’ between the instruments. The original disc is rare, so if you don’t have it in your collection, these unissued takes are an excellent substitute.
Two more Victor sides follow, recorded in this case in New Orleans by Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys – just a week later than the Houston sessions. The Parenti Victors are famously hard to find, so have always been welcome as re-releases. These alternates of 12th Street Blues and Creole Blues have, however, been available before on CD (Frog DGF4), though not for many years. Albert Brunies’ fierce, muted cornet solo is substantially different –and more interesting - on the alternate take of 12th Street Blues, though the reason it wasn’t issued is, I suspect, because the recording balance is less good and the overall sound rather thin. However, it’s less easy to understand why Victor didn’t use the alternate of Creole Blues (#-2, not #-3 as shown in the liner notes), as the solo work is less adventurous on the issued take and particularly as Brunies muffs the opening glissando of his cornet solo.
Seger Ellis recorded two unissued piano solos during the Lloyd Finlay sessions in Houston, but his first appearance as a pianist - and later as vocalist - dates from his move north later in 1925. Victor must have recognised his potential down in Texas, and their failure to issue his solos may have been for technical reasons. One of those titles, Prairie Blues, was among those they recorded in August 1925 and issued; but the majority remained as test pressings in the company vaults. Three of them now appear on this CD: Freight Yard Blues, Sleepy Blues and High-Value Mama, Papa’s Gonna Low-Rate You. Unlike all the tracks so far, these are high-quality electric recordings and compared to the issued titles, they also show a far higher-quality jazz feeling as well. The first two are, for a start, full-blooded 12-bar blues (of the issued titles Prairie Blues features only a couple of 12-bar choruses and Sentimental Blues none at all) and they’re played in an intense rhythmic style – Ellis’ left hand is at times reminiscent of Erroll Garner some 20 years later! High-Value Mama also has a fine, stomping double-tempo chorus. There are no technical flaws or musical fluffs that would suggest why these titles were rejected, so presumably they were just too ‘hot’ for Victor’s popular catalogue…or maybe just not danceable enough. Another factor may well have been that public expectation of piano solos at that period was for either high-speed fireworks or dainty novelties…these are neither of those.
There’s one more Seger Ellis gem on offer here: an untitled solo made for OKeh three years later, by which time he was one of the most popular vocalists in the US, with his own picture label. Again, there’s no obvious reason for this number – whatever it is…the liner notes suggest it may be Powerful Blues – having been rejected. It’s another fine medium slow performance, and - though it’s not a blues - the left hand is certainly powerful!
We now move forward to a recording made just as the Great depression kicked in, in November 1929: the delightfully double entendre Collegiate Fanny - even more vulgar in British English than in American…I assume the vulgarity to have been intentional and the connotation obviously didn’t pass un-noticed, which may be why my mid-30s copy of the original record spells it Fannie! This particular version is one of the very few hot records made by comedian Kay Kyser, and features some fine solo trumpet work – both muted and open horn – quite different on this unissued test from the issued version.
By the time of the next three tracks – in June 1931 - the Depression had forced even RCA-Victor (as it had then become) to introduce a series of cut-price labels; but Timely Tunes� was not a success, and like Sunrise and Electradisk was withdrawn in fairly short order, just a month after these titles were recorded. The entire catalogue ran to only 41 issues, and they are all very rare today, though strangely not as rare as the other two labels, which had longer runs. So it’s welcome to have these alternate takes of Swamp Ghosts, Some of these Days and The One-Man Band, as most of us are unlikely to have even worn copies of the originals. There is excellent solo work on the latter two titles, whilst Swamp Ghosts is a pleasant, atmospheric performance, with a lovely piano accompaniment behind the vocal. The arrangement on Some of these Days is largely copied from Cab Calloway’s of a year earlier; although the solo work is different from the issued version, it’s curious that this take wasn’t issued, as the alto-sax player completely loses his way on the former, whilst playing an entirely fluent line on the unissued test! The take of The One-Man Band used here is not as shown #-2 – which is the issued one – but #-1.
Roane’s Pennsylvanians recorded two sessions for Victor in January and June of 1932, with rather uneven results: several tracks were of jazz standards and well worth seeking out...others are pretty routine dance band performances, pleasant enough but in no way exciting, and not helped by having several choruses of often ‘hick’ vocals. Five alternate takes are issued for the first time here. Whoever the trumpet soloist was on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (there are three possible suspects!), he was not at his best on this number: exuberant but undisciplined and a little flat sums him up. His solos are different on the two takes, but I wouldn’t say he was markedly better on the issued one! Is I in Love? I Is is largely given over to vocals and this take is undistinguishable from its issued version. One wonders here at the criteria applied by Victor’s listening panel: the band audibly slows down in the final chorus of the issued take: this version is crisper. Why Don’t You Get Lost? is a comedy number of no interest whatsoever to the jazz or hot dance collector; on the other hand, Charlie Two-Step features a fine clarinet and tenor sax and is a good stomping rendition of this number. The CD closes with Cast Your Sins Away, on which the trumpeter (again, whoever he is) gets his act together for an punchy muted solo, with good contributions following from the tenor sax, clarinet and piano…an excellent hot ending and one of the Pennsylvanians’ best performances.
In sum,there are some tracks here, which are only for ‘completists’; but then, bear in mind the high quality of the transfers…and that it’s a must for the four Seger Ellis solos, which are unmissable gems – you would have to stump up at least ten times the price of this CD for just one of these tests (if you could find one).
Stanley Crouch is such a good writer that one reads this story of Charlie Parker wondering how it’s going to come out. We all know, of course, but Crouch’s work concentrates on Bird’s early years, bringing in tales of fascinating characters such as Clark Monroe, the club owner who presided over the birth of be-bop while fencing off stolen jewelry and supplying various pharmaceuticals to the musicians who came to jam there; the sweet, bashful Rebecca Ruffin, his first sweetheart and Jay McShann, who used music as a strategic weapon.
The object of most responsible biographies is to report facts, debunk legends and offer a clear-eyed portrait of its subject. Bunk, says Crouch. And not Johnson. He offers Bird’s story in the most legend-building way... a child obsessed with music even before he learned to play...a kind and considerate suitor to Rebecca... a hugely complex and contradictory boy/man and, later, a dragon-slaying soloist - McShann’s secret weapon in vanquishing every orchestra that crossed his path. You can’t help but be entertained-and enlightened - because he doesn’t make stuff up. He makes historical accuracy fun.
As the title suggests, the book is as much about Charlie Parker’s surroundings - the wild and woolly Kansas City scene of the 1920s and 30s, the musicians - Bennie Moten, Walter Page and the influences of everything from prize fighter Jack Johnson to the early 19th Century bandleader Frank Johnson.
The actual story of Charlie Parker has been told and retold many times - see the movie Bird for the details so we won’t recap it here.
This story ends in 1940, with Charlie, having kicked his first habit, seeking to reconcile with Rebecca, who he’d married a few years before. The drugs, the other women, meant nothing. He wanted her. And music. She told him no. No meant no. He went back to an earlier boss, Harlan Leonard, whose pianist an arranger, Tadd Dameron, helped ease him back into the “stuff.” This is where the others pick up the story.
BOOK: The Melody Man: Joe Davis and the New York Music Scene 1916-1978. By Bruce Bastin with Kip Lornell, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 332 pp, hardbound, illustrated. ISBN 978-1-61703-276-9. $55. www.upress.state.ms.us
Older VJM readers will remember I'm sure posting off to Bexhill in the 1970s/80s to order Flyright LPs, and it was while seeking clearance for records to include on the label in 1979 that Bruce Bastin came across the truly remarkable story of Joe Davis – songwriter, publisher, plugger, radio personality, occasional singer, A&R man and independent record label owner. For fans he's a bit like the Woody Allen character Zelig, a face in the crowd who keeps popping up at all the key moments. As Bastin says, Davis was not a “great” but very special in his field, and his field was the whole of American popular music (and some Latin) in the first half of the 20th century. You cannot read this book for more than a couple of pages without coming across some song, performer or development that added something to the main story.
Kip Lornell has “lightly edited” the first edition of the book (published by Storyville in 1990 with the title Never Sell a Copyright), adding some references to recent literature, touches of broader context and the occasional comparison (Irving Mills, Ralph Peer). But it remains Bastin's book and a labour of love. He regrets some big gaps in the files and scrapbooks he saw (which Davis's daughter was happy to grant him full access to – Davis died in 1978), and Lornell the lack of any interview while Davis was still living, but on neither count does the story seem to suffer. It is a densely fact-based chronicle of names and dates of the kind Storyville and the specialist magazines aimed narrowly at fans and collectors, but leavened throughout by Bastin's shrewd and sympathetic comment.
Flyright was a blues and r&b label and one reason for Bastin's obvious fellow-feeling was that Davis's favourite performers were black (predominantly so pre-war, exclusively after). It was easy of course in the teens, 20s and 30s for a white writer/publisher to handle black talent if he chose to (as opposed to just cashing in on the boom in black recording by pushing songs), because the music biz was under total white control, especially at the centre of things in NYC. But the choice was still unusual and it is clear that however hard-nosed Davis was in business (and he was very), he started out as a fan and remained one all his life, always pushing hard to break an act if he believed in it.
Blues names big and small (among them Daisy Martin, Lizzie Miles, Josie Miles, Lucille Hegamin, Mamie Smith, Rosa Henderson, Bessie Smith, Helen Humes, Butterbeans & Susie) crowd the early years, singers for whom Davis supplied songs or set up record dates or both. He published or recorded jazzmen Wilbur Sweatman, Bubber Miley, Jimmy Durante, Elmer Snowden, Fletcher Henderson and Luis Russell. Writers he published or befriended included Chris Smith, Al Bernard, W.C. Handy, Spencer Williams, Eddie Green and in particular Andy Razaf, who got his first break from Davis (in 1925), inspiring life-long loyalty. Fats Waller became the biggest star on the roster after Davis employed him first as a writer and demonstrator and then played a crucial role in making him a singer.
White friends and colleagues Rudy Vallee, Rudy Wiedoeft, Rube Bloom and Ferde Grofe, as well as “citybillies” Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart, round out the picture. Davis himself after 1926 performed on record and on radio (as The Melody Man) in the pre-Crosby crooning style – perhaps like star crooner Gene Austin giving black influence the credit for this style too, even if to modern ears blues and crooning are like chalk and cheese. His prolific radio work was in effect another way to plug or place the songs he published.
In 1935 the Bluebird beat revived the race market and Davis got into blues again, leading on to his recording work in the 1940s and 50s with jive vocals and r&b. It seems clear to me though that the pickings were slim (as too for his Dixieland efforts), Champion Jack Dupree and Gabriel Brown excepted, and that he might have been happier imitating his great contemporary Irving Berlin whose miraculous powers seemed to switch off like a light at the first signs of rock&roll (like Berlin he could have devoted his later years very profitably to his back catalogue). In retrospect the last really significant move Davis made was in 1942 when he set up an independent record label (Beacon), doing so just before the recording ban that triggered the start-up of so many like it and beginning a trend that changed musical history. It might have been very different though if he hadn't lost Otis Blackwell, who wrote massive hits for Elvis and others, in a contract dispute.
Mention is made of the hundreds of college courses in popular music history/culture taught today, so clearly there's hope that a revised edition of this valuable book will find new and very different readers. Well, good luck. It is still a key book for fans and collectors but it's true there could be no better way to understand Tin Pan Alley and the music business than total immersion in the Joe Davis story.
CD: THE BIG BROADCAST VOLUME 9. Rivermont BSW-1161. Order from www.rivermontrecords.com
I made the mistake, two issues ago, of referring to the appearance of Big Broadcast CDs from Rivermont as an annual event. Well, poo on you, Malc, with knobs on, as Pitt the Younger opines in Blackadder III, because here we are again with issue the ninth, bulging with fancy fare as they all do, only a half-year on.
Droll, bizarre and unusual renderings often start the ball rolling with Big Broadcast collections, and Felix Arndt’s Desecration Rag hews closely to the tradition. The stylistic “desecration” of Humoreske, Rustle of Spring and a gaggle of turn-of-the-century classical “pops,” brought about by playing them in ragtime in March of 1914, holds not even an infinitesimal candle to the coming desecration of the populations and territory of France, Britain, Belgium, Austria and Italy only six months away in the future, but the composition and execution are superb. If mention of the Great War in this context appears of small consequence, it bears remembering that Arndt was dead of the Spanish Flu a month before its end four years on, but lived long enough to influence strongly a young George Gershwin, probably the most popular American composer ever, in the war’s jazz-age aftermath.
This beautifully-recorded Victor, 100 years old yesterday as I write, keeps alive the memory of the composer of Nola if anything more vividly than his far-more-famous chef d’oeuvre, itself one of the most lampooned and desecrated piano solos in popular history (ever hear Richard Murdoch’s vocal version in the 50s?)
Henderson’s Do Doodle Oom from Vocalion, though I’ve had, played and loved the tune for fifty years, is also a whack on the side of the head, in the present Conaty context. The side is a watershed. Listening to successive chronological-order Hendersons on CD up to June of 1923, including the first two Vocalions, beats any pharmaceutical soporific. Then with this track in August, there begins a neck-snapping ride, replete with unique, fresh, tight, sparkling arrangements and snapping solos. What has changed? Of course, this is Coleman Hawkins’ debut, so Henderson is asking his dancers “how about the new kid?” But I think the answer lies in Chicago, 750 miles west, in the form of another new kid on record, Joe Oliver. Mid-1923 had seen Oliver’s first releases on a first-tier national label, OKeh; its A&R people feeding both a trade press and now in particular, a race press that was talking him up not just locally but countrywide. Nothing henceforward would do at the Club Alabam and thereafter Roseland, but a tight, driving ensemble with eruptive virtuoso breaks, like the audience was hearing on these and other recordings from OKeh’s popular dance series. The next step would be the pursuit and eventual capture of Joe’s star brassman.
The Monkey Doodle-Doo! is perhaps not one of Irving Berlin’s most memorable compositions, but as a pretty good effort from the most popular “executioner” of a genre now largely abhorred, gaspipe clarinet, this selection is very listenable. Boyd Senter jumps from alto sax, to trumpet, to (mercifully, for the main part) low-register clarinet. Adding to the charm is Charles Kaley’s rock-solid yet inventive banjo accompaniment.
Jan Garber, for the dance band enthusiast, is peerless; Harry Goldfield fronts a bouncing 1927 side, What Do I Care What Somebody Said, with a half-spoken hee-hee type vocal worthy of Eddie Cantor, riding out on a Gershwinesque coda.
Rich apologises in the notes for the quality of the sound on Irene Taylor’s I Must Have That Man; the appropriate response is “no apology needed.” This is a unique Victor test; unissued and until now thought to be nonexistent, but a Zulus Ball - type experience it certainly isn’t. There’s a hint of a blast or two in the loud spots, but it’s gorgeous (as indeed is the lady herself.)
Is It Gonna Be Long? was among the first ten-inch waxings of Whiteman’s Orchestra for Columbia, after he tore up his Victor contract on film; and Victor came back into the fray with Frankie Masters. The rendering is peppy and clearly meant to show that the Victor gap is more than adequately filled. However, Masters thereafter did little to interest VJM readers, as indeed also Whiteman’s proportion of hot-to-sweet recordings for Columbia grew progressively smaller.
Irving Aaronson’s first and unissued version of the ode to amnesia, Oh! You Sweet Old Whatcha May Call It appears here for the first time: not surprising since it’s also a single known test from the estate of the composer, Fred Ahlert. There’s no apparent reason for the rejection; the tune was rerecorded and issued a couple of weeks on; but for me this is the preferable version, with a thumping string bass and a Rhythm Boys-type vocal, together with some nice solo work.
Next there’s a classic Duophone issue; one of those Brunswicks that crossed the ocean without a US issue, to appear in Europe under a pseudonym, giving rise to the customary arm-wrestling as to who it is and who’s on it. Out Of The Dawn has Smith Ballew fronting a classic cluster of those familiar-sounding white guys. The tune is superb; the performance good enough to cause arguments of the Jimmy-or-Tesch, Dorsey-or-Tea type, ad infinitum. But don’t sweat the details. Just enjoy it, for the lovely thing it is.
Come West, Little Girl, Come West is a Kahn-Donaldson composition that’s new to me, from the stage version of Whoopee. Rudy Vallée does the warbling (a bit funny, since, in the film, Eddie Cantor’s character, when ordered at gunpoint to give his name, coyly responds “Rudy… Vallée.) It’s essentially a showpiece for pianist Cliff Burwell, and features nice playing in general, plus the stereotypical war-whoops and tom-toms Broadway audiences appear to have expected to hear constantly at any point west of Russell, Kansas. Also from Broadway comes My Lucky Star by Hal Kemp, originally from Follow Thru. I have a great love for Kemp’s music from alpha to omega; from college kid making records in London, to his death in 1940. This is sweet, gentle, restrained, skilful, and totally typical of a master.
Spike Hughes’ version of High Life is among his best. Inspired by but in no way imitative of the Ellington version, this performance is light, bouncing and spare, with a range of solos that demands that Hughes’ material form part of any collection. Then there’s a waltz! Beautiful Love from Arden and Ohman’s Orchestra recalls the song’s two film-accompaniment incarnations: in The Mummy and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Sweet Georgia Brown by Snooks’ Memphis Ramblers features an out-of-the-ordinary star: the violin player, Freddie Feldman, who leaps and swoops prominently for much of the performance. The tune, of course, lies somewhere between a standard and a chestnut, but the solo work is bright and Friedman’s “territory” sound very much to the fore. Another such is In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree from Howard Thomas, but again, this offering on 40000-series Champion boasts minimal deadweight in terms of arrangement, getting straight to great solo work from very competent musicians, all of them totally unknown to me. Thank heaven for JR and ADBORAF!
The two short Casa Loma sides here: Constantly and Casa Loma Stomp come from a 7” promotional picture disc put out for the Glen Island Casino. The first title appears nowhere else on record, and both tracks emanate from the playable sides of two rarísimo copies owned by separate collectors; the verso in both cases being utterly ruined!
“Can’t act… can’t sing… dances some…” History is written by the victor, and I wonder how much Fred Astaire must have smiled in later years at that first studio assessment of his cinematic potential. I’ve Got You On My Mind is an unissued test of a song from the play Gay Divorce, Astaire’s last New York stage vehicle, subsequently left out of The Gay Divorcee. To say that Astaire is relaxed and professional is to say that egg yolks are yellow and the sea blue. Do I like this guy? Are my cats named Fred and Ginger?
I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You is from Crown, which says straight up, it isn’t on too many junkpiles. Charlie Palloy with Jake LaMotta perform the song, followed by Jay Whidden, a name much more familiar to listeners on the other side of the Atlantic. The song is You’re Such A Comfort To Me; the vocalist Loyce Whiteman, a West-Coaster otherwise associated with Gus Arnheim. Loyce has no association with similarly-surnamed Paul Whiteman, but Ramona (Davies) of course does. She and her grand piano perform I’ll Be Hard To Handle (from Roberta, which brings us round to Fred and Ginger yet again.) As so often happens on the Big Broadcast, Rich has chosen to feature an artist I have largely ignored to date, and now find absolutely charming. It’s not just a pleasing voice and sassy execution; she balances her voice and piano just perfectly in a solo performance. I guess, as she says on another recording, this time with the Spud-Head, I’ll have to change my plan.
Mr. Conaty appears to have, as I do, a predilection for songs by Walter Donaldson, so here is No. 3; A Thousand Goodnights, by Raie Da Costa with the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. Nat Gonella and Freddy Gardner acquit themselves nicely, leading into another film vehicle, Try To See It My Way, from Dames, a Busby Berkeley vehicle, with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell. Smith Ballew “does” the Powell vocal unremarkably, but Mannie Weinstock contributes nice trumpet solo work.
Later Red Nichols work on Victor labels often goes ignored, but Rockin’ In Rhythm is a faithful rendition of the Ellington classic; punchy and virtuosic, with the leader keeping himself largely under wraps. And then Busby Berkeley is back in the picture, with I’m Goin’ Shopping With You, from Gold Diggers of 1935. Here the band is Russ Morgan’s, with Chick Bullock handling the vocal. The band has a small, almost-Walleresque feel, and Pee Wee Erwin solos nicely, as does Toots Mondello. The overall feel is small-venue Dixieland. This is intensified on Where’s My Sweetie Hiding? by Johnny Williams and His Swing Sextette, featuring solos for all and a breakneck execution, driven by the leader on drums. Familiar names are Charlie Spivak, Babe Russin and Claude Thornhill.
Previous issues in this series have usually ended with an airshot; here the format changes somewhat, because the last track is a scorching performance by Nina Mae McKinney on Vitaphone soundtrack disc. It was meant to be part of the film Hallelujah, but was omitted from the final product. It’s a torch song: If You Want My Love, You Gotta Do More Than That. You may have seen other clips from the film, like Do The Swanee Shuffle, but, as often happens in Hollywood, superb material ended up, in this case not on the cutting-room floor, but in the studio archive. Praise be, it was rescued by Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, and appears here for the first time.
It’s hard to keep a series going, while maintaining a top-level standard in production and material. The best in their respective field have the ability to take that very difficult task, and make it look easy. My hero of the moment in a very different medium is Julian Fellowes (who’s he? Try Google...) but from what I can ascertain, Rich Conaty has been doing it in this genre since he was 16. Strength to his arm, and all power also to Bryan Wright and Rivermont.
Composer/conductor/violinist Will Marion Cook’s place in American music history is assured with or without this book, but his relationship with African American popular music of the late 19th and early 20th century is problematical, contentious and ambivalent. A headstrong, fabulously self-confident, talented man, with a musical education that would be the envy of many contemporary young white musicians, he would be forever held back by his fearsome temper and ability to fall out with practically everyone around him. It was said of him that he didn’t need enemies - he was his own worst. All this meant that golden opportunities for Cook were frequently lost when the biting of his tongue would have smoothed the way for his ventures. As it was Cook has become in many respects a footnote in American popular music history - the Nearly Man of black music. His slightly younger contemporary James Reese Europe knew how to gladhand the wealthy and influential of New York Society, the consequence of which was that he became the pre-eminent African American musician of the period, up to his tragic murder in May 1919. It would have been unimaginable for Cook to work in the same manner, and it is clear from Marva Griffin Carter’s book that there was a degree of envy on Cook’s part at the success of, in his own eyes, a musician of inferior education and ability. That being said, Cook’s compositions, such as Swing Along, were regularly featured in Europe’s Clef Club concerts, and Cook himself took part in the 1912 Carnegie Hall concert, albeit (at his own insistence) in the violin section.
Some of Cook’s immense racial pride was to rub off on his best known ‘student’, Duke Ellington, who took to heart Cook’s advice, “Don’t be anyone but yourself.” However, Cook’s relationship with African American music could be ambivalent - many of his compositions are heavily influenced by mid-19th century European Romanticism, and for all his racial advancement he was not above writing songs with such racially demeaning titles as Who Dat Say Chicken In Dis Crowd and Hottest Coon In Dixie. On the other hand his lyrics for Donald Heywood’s I’m Coming Virginia reveal his sensitive side and eloquence with black dialect lyrics.
All this sounds as though Cook was a failure; far from it - he wrote the music for the first all-black cast show to appear on Broadway, Clorindy - The Origin of the Cakewalk in 1898 and Bert Williams and George Walker’s groundbreaking In Dahomey in 1903 as well as the much more musically adventurous Bandanna Land in 1908. Let it not be forgotten that his Southern Syncopated Orchestra, featuring Sidney Bechet, brought a new wave of black music to Britain and Europe in 1919, with many of the participating musicians, such as Arthur Briggs, Benny Peyton, Pierre De Caillaux and Frank Withers making Europe their home. However, and importantly, Cook’s career stalled in the early 1920s, just when black music entered the American mainstream, mainly because his music was considered ‘too old-fashioned’ and ‘too European.’
It has to be admitted that Cook, as a man, was deeply flawed, and some of his actions, had they taken place nowadays, would have landed him in prison. He was in a sexual relationship with singer Abbie Mitchell when she was 14 years old and married to her when she had just turned 16. His subsequent violence and ill-treatment of Mitchell is well-documented in this book. He appeared to take pleasure in belittling the less well-educated, such as comedian and songwriter Bob Cole, and one does get the impression from reading this book that he was a deeply unpleasant, overbearing, arrogant man. On the other hand, men such as Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington had nothing but kind things to say about him, so this side of him has also to be borne in mind - nowadays he would be diagnosed as bi-polar, with a dash of Intermittent Explosive Disorder.
I enjoyed reading about the ups and (frequent) downs of Cook’s rollercoaster life, and the author, despite being an academic, writes with an obvious passion for her subject, which she manages to convey to her reader. A book on Cook may not be an immediate and obvious choice for the average jazz fan, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to discover the role Cook played in the development of African American music in its formative years.
BOOK: THE VICTOR DISCOGRAPHY: SPECIAL LABELS, 1928-1941. By John Bolig. Mainspring Press, 368pp, softbound, illustrated. www.mainspringpress.com
The onset of the Great Depression, coinciding as it did with the inexorable rise in popularity of radio, left the record industry in a spin (I’ve been waiting ages to use that pun!). Industry leader RCA Victor felt the cold chill of the Depression as keenly, if not keener, than its smaller rivals. Dramatic cutbacks had to be made to survive - gone were the luxuries of 10, 12, 15 or even 17 attempts to get an acceptable version of a recording; unless you were a Red Seal leading light you got one take and that was it. Gone was high-rent concert venues for prestigious recordings - the grandest symphony orchestras were now slashed in size and crammed into the old Trinity Church studio. In came economy, pseudonymous issues (probably to avoid paying the poor unsuspecting artists) and increasingly desperate experimenting with formats to see if there was any way of making money out of records while people were queueing at soup kitchen doors.
Author John Bolig, whose life-quest has been to record on paper everything pertaining to Victor’s recorded output, has this time turned his attention to the company’s desperate attempts to diversify and attract buyers at the height of the Depression. Bluebird, of course, is the best known, but so great was both its catalogue and impact, that it will be dealt with in multiple volumes commencing later this year. Of the others, Montgomery Ward was also sufficiently large and successful that it will get its own volume, but the rest of Victor’s budget and client labels are dealt with in this volume.
Aurora was produced exclusively for sale in Canada and many of the issues were pseudonymous; undoubtedly to avoid paying royalties to the artists. Some of these noms des disques were hilarious - Hoagy Carmichael’s celebrated version of Barnacle Bill The Sailor appears on Aurora as ‘Salty McCoy’s Orchestra’!
Timely Tunes were apparently all released on the same day - July 1, 1931 and were sold exclusively by Montgomery Ward, both via mail order and through its retails outlets. Again pseudonyms predominate , as do country and old time music, but there are some jazz gems you will not find anywhere else, such as Blanche Calloway’s When I Can’t Be With You and Dave Nelson’s Rockin’ Chair. Despite the mail order exposure, Timely Tunes sold in pitifully small numbers and are now highly collectible. Even rarer are the 8-inch Electradisk records, made for sale in Woolworths and which are entirely the work of just two bands - Gene Kardos’ and Sid Peltyn’s. Overseeing both them and the later 10-inch issues was Eli Oberstein, Victor’s bete noire, who unlike his colleague Nat Shilkret, has never got the accolades he deserved, mostly on account of his ‘wheeler dealer’ reputation.
Another ‘clutching at straws’ label was Sunrise - again country music predominates, but there are jazz issues from the likes of Dave Nelson and the Washboard Rhythm Kings, as well as mythically rare reissues of Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band.
Picture discs were far from new in 1932, but Victor put an inordinate amount of effort to get people to buy them, producing children’s records alongside issues (and reissues) by ‘celebrity’ artists such as Enrico Caruso, Jimmie Rodgers, Noel coward and Paul Whiteman. None sold particularly well and all command premium prices when they do appear.
One idea that was ahead of its time, was the introduction in late 1931 of long playing records. This was a great and revolutionary idea, but the timing was completely wrong (who could afford the $250 for a machine to pay them on?) and the technology to press them in a durable but silent-surfaced material wasn’t commercially viable. Huge amounts of money and effort went into building an impressive catalogue - which included jazz performances by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others - but the whole thing fell by the wayside, victim of bad timing. Better technology and post-war confidence ensured success the second time around, although this time led by Victor’s great rival, Columbia.
Film and theatre records - used in intermissions and for sound/mood effects - were also experimented with, and even these series contained jazz gems, albeit dubbed from 10” masters. Duke Ellington, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Jelly Roll Morton and Bennie Moten are among the artists to be found on these discs - should you be lucky enough to find them!
By virtue of the fact that most of these records sold poorly, if at all, they tend not to feature heavily in many jazz record collections. That being said, a book documenting these series is both useful and interesting to the jazz, blues and country music fan. Production is to Mainspring’s usual high standard, with extensive indexing, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the music scene of the early to mid 1930s.
The Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995) was built by a local magnate, Jamsedji Tata, who was refused accommodation in a British-owned establishment. Tata wanted to build a great hotel that was worthy of the city which was an international crossroads. And so it became. The hotel’s orchestras featured musicians from all over the world, mixed with émigrés from Goa, a small Portuguese colony located several hundred miles south of Bombay and developed their own style of swing.
Bombay, where India met the rest of the world, saw American music early on. In the 1850s, a minstrel troupe, (all-white, imitating African Americans) played the city several times, followed by the (also-white) San Francisco Minstrels, led by a David Carson who became an entertainment fixture in that city for years afterward, and popular enough that a number of his songs became absorbed into the Indian musical culture. In 1890, the Fisk Jubilee Singers became the first African American group to entertain in Bombay, to excellent reviews.
The book is not in chronological order, opening with the arrival of the Leon Abbey orchestra in 1935. Abbey’s group included ODJB trombonist Emil Christian, tenor sax Castor McCord, Fletcher Allen and drummer Oliver Tines, who’d led his own groups that recorded under pseudonyms for Victor (Eddie Deas’ Boston Brownies) and Harmony (Georgia Cotton Pickers). Fernandes includes eye witness accounts of how the band’s swing style often “befuddled” the locals who found such rhythms difficult to dance to. Soon the band “toned down their hotting...” according to local press reports.
However, as the local “sophisticates” grew more accustomed to Abbey’s band, he brought in new faces: Bill Coleman on trumpet, Rudy Jackson and, Crickett Smith, then Teddy Weatherford. Abbey’s band, unfortunately, never recorded - little Western music was recorded in that country until 1939-but Crickett Smith, who took over the Taj group for the summer of 1936, recorded one song for a personal session - a commercial for the Taj Hotel featuring a solo from Weatherford, Roy Butler on sax and a plumber muted chorus by Smith.
From this opening, the author moves beyond the Taj Hotel to the music scene around Bombay, and Goa. Musicians from Goa, with their training in Western music, took to jazz very quickly and then spread their lessons to players from Bombay, including Chic Chocolate (“the Goan Louis Armstrong”), who first recorded for Indian Columbia in the early 1940s (Chic and his Music Makers) and the band of Anglo-Indian Ken Mac, that contained a number of excellent Goan musicians who could play hot choruses.
The coming of WWII and the influx of British and American troops coming through Bombay created a strong demand for more swing-oriented groups and records. It was during this period that local bands began recording in India, because imported records because difficult to get. Weatherford, Chic Chocolate, Ken Mac and others made dozens of records. While the majority of these records were pop tunes, they often contained interesting solos.
After the war came independence from Britain, and the author discusses the growth of modern jazz and later, rock elements influencing local musicians, as well as a chapter about the impact of from visits by American jazz greats - Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck etc - had on the local scene.
Very little of the information in this book, except for the material on Weatherford and Crickett Smith, has, been available before. The same with most of the photographs — indeed, there are hundreds, and even those which had been published before - mainly in Storyville or the IAJRC Journal - are presented here much larger with much higher resolution.
The book also comes with a CD containing six selections, beginning with the 1925 Jimmy Lequime personal recording and Crickett Smith’s 1936 Taj Mahal, several Weatherford solos, Ken Mac’s orchestra and a modern blues by Toni Pinto.
The book is a joy to read; it’s that simple.
CD: RAGTIME WIZARDRY. 18 enchanting piano rags commissioned by Danny Matson and played by the composers. Rivermont BSW-2228. Order from www.rivermontrecords.com
Don’t know that I’ve ever had or heard a “concept album” quite like this one before. Danny Matson is a seventy-something ragtime aficionado from Madison, Wisconsin, and he clearly has an active imagination and a sense of humour. Some years ago, at the Blind Boone Festival in Columbia, Missouri, (a celebratory gathering for enthusiasts of ragtime and early jazz music) he got what Midwesterners refer to as a wild hair, (properly phrased, it’s called getting a wild hair up his ass; but I would never say that, because there might be ladies reading this journal) to commission a series of new ragtime compositions from top-performing fellow-enthusiasts at the festival. His stated purpose for the exercise was that of eventually sharing the sheet-music among the group for fun, while playing the compositions for each other and broadening the repertoire with modern compositions, for ragtime lovers and ragtime players. The result was the 18 tracks on this very broad-based and entertaining album, played by some amazingly accomplished musicians.
At one end of the scale, forget brash, loud or fast… and at the other, dismiss the idea of Marvin Hamlisch reverently playing the music from ‘The Sting’. It’s nothing that simple or superficial. This is the product of 18 different and very agile minds, allowed to wander over a long period and a wide geography. Just getting the pieces recorded was, as Bryan Wright documents, a huge logistical hump. 18 people play 17 different pianos in 17 different venues across the US and Canada (and not necessarily all of them sound studios) to debut a breadth of unique ragtime compositions, developed and, shall we say, in some cases extrapolated from that Midwestern novelty art form that closed out the 19th century and opened the twentieth, transforming popular music in the western world.
Yes, there are renderings that sound very much like “classic” ragtime, with march-time progressions and minor strains. There are reveries, in the vein of Bethena, if that’s what you pine for. And there is at least one piece that sounds stylistically similar to the performance I heard last month by Andy Schumm, playing Eastwood Lane’s Adirondack Sketches. (Incidentally, thanks, Andy: the hour spent listening to you made a 1,200-mile-each-way winter drive worth every ounce of the effort.) Given the name and nature of the person commissioning the works, there’s even a ragtime variation on a theme of Londonderry Air. The tune, Transplant This! Rag by William McNally, celebrates the world-changingly unusual and spontaneous gift of a kidney from one ragtime lover, drummer Danny Coots, to the same Danny Matson (remember, the English-language version of the song starts “Oh, Danny boy…”) at the end of last year. Talk about meaningful gifts of friendship!
So, starting from the premise that all of us have tastes somewhat differing, I’m not going to go into my own likes and preferences here, but to opine that this is an unusual, diverse and very worthy effort; one that will reward the attention of any VJM reader with both a liking for the ragtime genre, and a spirit of adventure.