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CALENDAR: CLASSIC BLUES ARTWORK FROM THE 1920s. Blues Images PO Box 1727 Grants Pass, OR 97528-0200, USA $25. Includes 20 - track CD. www.bluesimages.com
The 13th annual blues calendar from John Tefteller shows no let up from the lofty standards set by the previous dozen sets.
For those who have just begun collecting or have flown in from another solar system, the Blues Images calendar offers 1920s advertisements for (mainly) Paramount blues records for each month and high resolution 1930s studio photographs from record company archives that were retrieved in a nick-of-time dumpster dive. The accompanying CD has excellent transfers of the records being advertised plus some ultra-rarities that John and other collectors have unearthed.
The rarity of the year is a previously un-found JD Short Paramount (13091) of Tar Road Blues and Flaggin’ It to Georgia. Short was a great bluesman who recorded into the 1960s but this Paramount was lost until now. We can rejoice that it’s been found because it is a magnificent, intense blues performance on both sides – especially Tar Road. This alone is worth the price of admission.
Now for the months: January is Jim Jackson’s My Monday Blues (Vocalion version), one of his more popular discs. February features a newly-discovered poster of Blind Willie Johnson’s When the War Was On and Praise God I Am Satisfied for Columbia. It’s the photo used in the Columbia catalog but much better resolution. March belongs to Charlie Kyle, from a portrait found in that dumpster. No one knows much about Kyle. He is clearly an old-timer in the photo and the unissued Victor take of Walkin’ Blues (not related to the Robert Johnson title) bears that fact out. Another Columbia poster – this time Barbecue Bob – for April. His track, Atlanta Moan, is a cover of Tampa Red’s Chicago Moan. A portrait of Charlie McCoy is the May entry accompanied by a rare Vocalion recording of Boogie Woogie, a guitar cover of the Pine Top Smith classic.
For June, a rare Melotone Records flyer featuring large, fine resolution photos of Curley Weaver and Ruth Willis (Day) who were part of Weaver’s Atlanta blues circle. The accompanying song, Some Cold, Rainy Day was originally recorded by Chippie Hill, but became a blues standard thanks to Weaver’s better-known associate Blind Willie McTell who recorded it for Decca soon after this Melotone. The first Paramount advert (July) is for a Blind Blake classic, Wabash Rag while Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Lectric Chair Blues is the August entry. Interesting, while ‘Lectric Chair was the promoted side, the flip, See That My Grave is Kept Clean is the song that has become an all-time classic, covered by many groups, even into the Rock era. Jed Davenport’s Beale Street Jug Band is September’s entry, taken from a Vocalion poster while October’s entry is a larger, better resolution copy of a familiar picture of the songster Six Cylinder Smith and his record of Vampire Woman (a cover of Whistler Jug Band Vamps of ’28).
In 1924, Paramount was offering autographed photos of Ma Rainey in a promotion for one of her earlier recordings. One of these photos turned up a few years ago in an abandoned house in Harlem and it’s here along with her recording of Georgia Cake Walk. December is usually reserved for preachers ad this year’s entry in the Black Billy Sunday, a dramatic graphic produced for Paramount’s issue of the High Cost of Sin.
The new-this-year feature of this calendar is that the transfers were done employing a new process, combining older playback technology with digital reproduction. This was developed for the joint Public Broadcast/BBC documentary American Epic series that documents how record companies collected music – blues, country and ethnic - in the 1920s. The results are very crisp, clear transfers with excellent detail, especially in the guitar work. The process is less successful on the lone jazz side – the Ma Rainey which has a full band– which shows some light distortion in some of the louder instrumental passages.
If you are familiar with the Blues Image calendars, then you know the high standard that goes into their production. The idea now is to buy several to present to your music-loving friends as Christmas gifts.
CD: UNISSUED ON 78s - Vocals & Instrumentals 1927-1934. Retrieval RTR 79078 www.challenge.nl
Retrieval’s series of CDs devoted to material previously unissued on 78 (note the wording - several have appeared on LP and CD) continues apace, with the emphasis this time being on female vocalists, albeit not exclusively.
Stylistically, the music ranges from the earthiness of New Orleans blues to the delicate ‘chamber music jazz’ of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, via black West Coast jazz, vaudeville hokum from Mae West, sophisticated songstyling from Lee Wiley and white big band jazz from Jean Goldkette. The mixture is an odd one, but in many ways its disparate selection only adds to the enjoyment.
Edna Winston opens the proceedings with her majestic Ever After On. Not the most memorable or well known of singers, if she needed a lasting testament, this is surely it. Her interpretation of W.C. Handy’s lyrics about an alcoholic prostitute is poignant beyond words, and the hot but sensitive accompaniment from Thomas Morris, Charlie Irvis, Bob Fuller etc., is perfection in every way. No wonder it’s hard to get a clean copy of the original at a decent price!
The next three tracks are all alternate takes of the recordings from the 1927 New Orleans sessions by Genevieve Davis and Ann Cook, on which the accompaniment is provided by the Louis Dumaine band, or a section thereof. Somewhat surprisingly there is precious little difference between these and the issued takes, so one must assume they were very well-rehearsed. Still it’s not harm to have another take of Mama Cookie Blues!
By complete contrast we are taken to a world apart from the New Orleans of Ann Cook by Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang’s Doin’ Things from the unissued Victor take 1. I’m surprised that Victor didn’t use this first time round, as it is flawless.
By 1928 blues recording pioneer Mamie Smith’s star was in decline, with fewer and fewer recording opportunities being offered. OKeh, for whom she made millions of dollars in the early 1920s, did try her out again but, with the exception of one memorable four-title session that produced Jenny’s Ball and Golfing Papa, none saw issue at the time. I first heard There’s Been Some Changes Since You’ve Been Gone at Chris Ellis’ Amsterdam house about 15 years ago - Chris had a blank label copy and the OKeh files were not then completely available, so it was played to me as a ‘Who is it?’ record. With a shelf full of Mamie Smiths at home I instantly recognised her voice, and Nick Dellow generously acknowledges this in his informative liner notes. As for the performance, her voice is rounder and less strident than her earlier sides, and sings with a knowing wink the risque Andy Razaf lyrics.
The discovery of the unissued Jean Goldkette recording of I’m Refer’n Just To Her ‘N Me caused quite a stir on internet forums - it’s every bit as good as others by the 1928 band, with short solos from trumpeter Sterling Bose and underrated clarinettist Voltaire De Faut and, aside from a slowing of tempo, is pretty faultless.
Arthur Schutt and his Orchestra is of course merely a useful name to hang on to ‘the usual New York studio suspects’ - the Dorseys, Leo McConville, Schutt, Stan King etc., and they do what they do well - impeccably-played hot music to order. Crying For The Carolines features both the ever-dependable McConville and a hot muted trumpeter, to my ears - and Nick Dellow’s - Mannie Klein.
Leon Rene’s Orchestra I’m Mr. African first appeared on a Frog CD, and a very odd thing it is too. ‘Banjo Buck’s’ ‘hi-de-hi’ style vocal dominates the record, and the whole is a West Coast version of the Cab Calloway band, complete with growl trumpet solo which, like the rest of the personnel, is ‘unknown’ in Jazz Records.
The distinct vocal styling of Adelaide Hall is teamed up with Duke Ellington’s orchestra for a 1932 remake of I Must Have That Man and Baby, which she sang the creator performances of in the Blackbirds of 1928. The 1932 versions are looser than the rather stodgy 1928 recordings made with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Orchestra, and several unissued takes of both sides appear to survive - take A of both appear here.
Lee Wiley’s You’ve Got Me Crying Again is from the first (unissued) session made under her own name, and features tasteful accompaniment from The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Bunny Berigan provides a fine solo and complimentary obbligato to Lee’s final chorus.
Eva Taylor was never the greatest jazz singer, but she certainly could put a song over in a distinctive style, and I Want To Go Back In The Evening is a good example of her style. A bonus on this track is the excellent clarinet solo by Albert Nicholas, but unfortunately some distortion in the last chorus does rather detract. I’m sure I’ve had a copy of this take without the distortion!
Adelaide Hall appears again with two performances that can only be described as ‘fantastic.’ On Drop Me Off In Harlem and Reaching For the Cotton Moon she is accompanied by Mills’ Blue Rhythm Band but their presence is superfluous. She is the star and in the peak of form on Drop Me Off In Harlem, with that wonderful contrast between her beautifully-enunciated singing and a growly scatting.
Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra feature on two tracks - Break It Down and China Boy, both clearly pointing the way towards Swing, with tight - if bland - arrangements (even Jack Teagarden sounds awkward and constrained). It seems a long way from Singin’ The Blues...
Mae West needs no introduction, but on Memphis Blues she takes us back to her vaudeville beginnings as a ‘coon shouter’ in the mould of Sophie Tucker. My Old Flame is a much more intimate performance - both sings were featured in her film Belle of the Nineties and feature accompaniment from Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
An alternate take of Wingy Mannone’s 1934 No Calling Card follows - by this date he had hit on a successful formula and he was darned well going to stick to it. That being said there is some fine clarinet from Matty Matlock and drummer Ray Bauduc holds the whole thing together.
Gene Austin is best known for his many vocal records made for Victor throughout the 1920s, but here, with bassist Candy Candido, guitarist Leo Dunham and drummer Monk Hazel, he shows that he was no slouch as a jazz pianist - and not a vocal to be heard! The big surprise is that Hazel - who featured on drums on several classic New Orleans jazz recordings of the 1920s - was a mean cornetist too!
Audio restoration by Harry Coster is first class, and Nick Dellow’s short but enlightening notes help to make this an enjoyable, diverse, listening experience.
BOOK: BLUES FOR FRANCIS, The Life and Work of Francis-Wilford Smith. By Caroline Beecroft and Harold Rye. 398 pp., softbound, illus. Music Mentor Books, Upper Poppleton, York, YO26 6PZ. ISBN 13:978-0-9562679-5-5. Available on Amazon.co.uk from £12.99 and on Amazon.com from $32.63.
I recall a phone call one morning about 17-18 years ago from a gentleman asking about a Charlie Spand record he wondered if I had. It was 6am my time but he was ever so polite in introducing himself as Francis Wilford-Smith. We’d traded a few records and corresponded on occasion but never spoken. Francis got to talking and we ended up a two hour chat – he recounting his days in the Royal Navy and hunting 78s in the USA. At that point I was shocked he was that old – he sure didn’t sound like it even though he was in the early stages of the disease that eventually took his life.
Francis-Wilford Smith, who died in 2009 at 82, was a renowned cartoonist and illustrator who was also well-known for his 16 year association with the BBC in presenting blues and gospel music. And, of course he was known to several generations of 78 collectors as one of the foremost authorities on piano blues – from which he produced a multi-volume set for Magpie Records in the late 1970s.
The title of this book is a bit misleading, as there is but a relatively brief section about Francis’ life, interesting as it was, written by his wife, Pamela. Never the starving artist, FWS got his start as an illustrator with the plethora of magazines that flourished in Britain during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was also in demand from leading advertising agencies and helped pitch Guinness’ various brews, Boots’ pharmaceuticals and other brands. In the 1960s, he began a long association with Playboy magazine, contributing more than 350 cartoons over 35 years. His memoir section also contains excerpts of the quite amusing diaries he kept during his youthful wanderings during and immediately after WWII. For example, one entry compares the “nudie” revues in London with the Burlesque houses of New Jersey. Others recall visits to New York’s 52nd Street when it was still a teeming jazz hub, and visits to the Commodore music shop.
The second section offers a personal look at five blues pianists – Little Brother Montgomery, Roosevelt Sykes, Champion Jack Dupree, Otis Spann and Memphis Slim, who spent time on his country oasis, Trumpets Farm, playing and reminiscing. FWS recorded some of these sessions that will shortly be available on Frog Records. He gives us some interesting, and humorous insights into these men’s personalities and backstories on how these recordings were made.
The remainder – and the bulk—of the book includes the scripts and notes that FSW made for his BBC broadcasts; all 16 years worth.
There’s a wealth of information here. And while the emphasis is on piano blues, there are series of programs on gospels and guitar blues.
The first series, not surprisingly, was on the history of Boogie Woogie, and the first disc was Pine Top Smith’s landmark recording that named the music and (eventually) touched off a swing craze in the early 1940s. From there, his programs explored various aspects of the blues, from pre-blues all the way through then-contemporary musicians such as Memphis Slim. Later, he explored the work of folklorists like Harry Oster who documented traditional players still working in Louisiana during the 1950s, and various record labels. In reading the scripts, FWS offers valuable information and social context so listeners could understand what drove the songs and their makers but keeps the music as the main message. The authors annotate corrections and updates where needed.
The BBC series ended in 1995 as the disabling illness began closing in. But he kept going with other projects until shortly before his death in 2009.
The final section contains remembrances of FWS from collectors and professional colleagues.
This book is an excellent read on a number of levels – getting to know the man through his witty observations and the wealth of information offered in the broadcast scripts. By all means get and enjoy this book.
CD: JAZZNOCRACY. Alex Mendham and His Orchestra. Rivermont BSW-2235. www.alexmendham.com
Two-and-a-half years ago I waxed enthusiastic about a new British band’s first CD, Whistling In The Dark, released also through Rivermont, and how the clean, all but perfect rendition of a classic British “hotel orchestra” of the 1920s came tumbling out of the speakers. This is Alex Mendham’s second CD; and my problem here is that I now have the task of singing its praises loudly enough, without marring the pages of VJM by using expletives or splashy superlatives all over the place in the attempt to do so.
As Alex states in his notes, building his band to this point has been for him a voyage of discovery, not only to find good instrumentalists and rehearse to a point where public performance is possible, but also to piece together the myriad details it takes to front a top-of-the-mark band that has a sound like the bands that played in the 1920s. It was always a bone of contention with me as a young player in the 60s, that none of the bands everyone revered during the “trad fad” actually sounded authentically “period,” no matter how musically adept. It appears that Alex got past the folks who no doubt told him repeatedly (as they did me) to get a life, and he tells in his liner notes of the degree of detailed effort needed to get it right.
It wasn’t just a question of giving out band parts and deciding who plays what, or simply playing con brio; it was the careful retracing of styles and techniques, (retrolearning, if I may create a neologism,) to embrace all the factors we know and recognize as unique to the sound, verve and style of original recordings from the era. It wasn’t just different techniques, it was different attitudes and different context. So this is anything but a bunch of fellows out to have some fun playing the oldies. It’s the closest I’ve yet heard to a “Yes, that’s it!” moment. It’s been a long time coming, and thank heaven it finally came.
Marbles starts the album, and it’s not only previously unknown to me, but makes me want to own the original Herman Waldman recording from 1929. Though perhaps not. Actually, this version is bloody marvelous as a standalone. It rocks, and the only thing that gives Mendham’s rendering away as a contemporary recording is the lack of surface noise.
Freckle Face, You’re Beautiful is a Cliff Friend vehicle, with a totally accomplished, authentic-sounding vocal from the leader. It’s difficult for anyone to “do” a 1920s vocal ballad without sounding like a lampoon artist or an imitation of Kaufman or Scrappy Lambert, or for that matter, “Whispering” Paul McDowell. Alex sounds completely comfortable, lacking in hokum and “true” to the style i.e. serious and professional.
The same goes for the vocal on Got A Great Big Date (With A Little Bitta Girl); the more so since the original version of this arrangement came from Coon-Sanders, specialists in “pep” themselves, and what’s more, it’s a Charleston, which in itself invites excess.
He’s The Last Word features tight arrangements (transcribed by Matthew Kulbacki from the 1926 Pollack recording) but also the Dunlop Sisters, a golden-voicedsimulacrum of the Kellers and Lynch. Their sound is also totally believable, and their chorus is followed by an exquisite, restrained clarinet solo and delicate, almost baroque ensembles.
I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’ is a slow fox-trot from the pen of Freed and Brown, delightful to the ear, followed by the totally-familiar That’s My Weakness Now. If ever there was tune that lends itself to excess, this is it, and indeed, the vaudeville marks are here, with a full-length vocal-over-uke-with-eefing solo and lots of leaping instrumental solo work surrounding it… and yet… it’s delightful because we’re so vested in the sound of the 20s… Cliff Edwards, like him or not, is part of the sound of the 20s… and it’s right here before your very ears.
Coming down with a serious thump now, is New Orleans Bump, faithfully transcribed from Morton’s Victor. It’s eerie. Mendham captures the mood, the style, the execution. Yet, it’s not Morton, it’s Mendham. It’s not imitation, it’s re-creation.
Same goes for Washboard Wiggles, the Parham classic. I have treasured a version of this by the Barrelhouse Jazz Band of Frankfurt, cut in ’66 or so, which I have long thought to be the ultimate in terms of excellence of context and execution. But move over, Reimer von Essen; tut mir leid, I’m now touting a new favourite version after half a century.
Next, a complete change: the very Britishness of On The Air, a Carroll Gibbons composition, evokes that context that differentiated London recordings from all others in the late ‘twenties and early ‘thirties, with snatches of Nola and Happy Days Are Here Again to spice up the ditty. And you’ll swear you can hear Gibbons himself on piano, and someone like Lang or Len Fillis on guitar… but logic tells you they aren’t there! It’s out of the question… or is it?
A Lunceford look-alike leaps out next, with Jazznocracy in a stomping version, featuring a sizzling violin solo and a tight ensemble screaming along in a sound as close to 1934 as you can get. Paul Howard is next evoked, with Cuttin’ Up. Both tunes are wonderful to listen to, deceptively “period” and yet fresh and original. Come to think of it of course, so are the original versions, and that’s the charm; Mendham’s gets the context across, without slavish imitation.
Harry Revel’s She Reminds Me Of You is followed by the Helen Kane hit I Want To Be Bad. Happily, there’s no Boop-like chirping, just a charming vocal version by the Dunlops, emphasizing the risqué (for the time) double-entendres of the lyrics. Happy were the days when “hell” and “damn” were words deemed not fit to be used in public media. Swamp Fire brings us back to the mid-thirties and that brooding sound that was so popular in mid-Depression.
Then, for a complete change of mood and a return to the Coon-Sanders easy sound, comes next Yes Sir! That’s My Baby. A stellar two-clarinet riff is followed by a wonderful baritone sax solo, and the whole rides out on that jaunty note so typical of those mid-20s dance bands. And as the programme heads toward a close, there’s what for me is the star song of the late 20s: Stardust. Slow, sweet and yet incredibly complex and nuanced, this has to be the finest tune ever written by a lawyer. The execution is as subdued and gentle as the Collegians’ own version. Then to ride us out, as in any good dance programme, is a final Coon-Sanders “pep” tune; What A Girl! What A Night!
How is it that I have listened all the way through this CD sitting down, yet my feet are tired? I must have been dancing the whole time, in my head. And I’m a crap dancer, so no wonder I’m exhausted.
What a joy this CD is. I’ve waited for it so long. And I’m not one to keep good news to myself. Now, you have to hear it, too.
SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: African American Jazz in Los Angeles. By Peter Vacher. Hardbound. xv + 331 pp. Pub. by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8108-8832-6. £37.95 on amazon.co.uk or https://rowman.com/
Baldly described, this book contains sixteen oral histories collected from African American musicians whose careers took them to Los Angeles in the swing era. In his introduction the author is at pains to acknowledge that the selection is to a degree arbitrary. Some of those he would have liked to include died before he could interview them, others never found the time to be interviewed, and doubtless some had no intention of being interviewed. The Introduction lists some of the more annoying “misses” and also points out that there are some relevant inclusions in his earlier books. Some of the subjects told their stories in one go, others in multiple interviews sometimes conducted at long intervals as opportunity offered.
Despite this fragmentation, there is a story here, a story of West Coast Jazz, but not in the sense that the jazz establishment applies that term to musicians from the fifties of the ‘cool’ school, mostly not African Americans. As the author says of his subjects in his introduction, “much of their music making was confined to the black ghetto and went unreported.” Occasional mentions in the national music press (Down Beat and Metronome) are quoted when they have come to attention. Without actually counting, I have the impression these are concentrated in the early 1940s and especially the war years, after which the focus shifted away again from musicians whose performances were directed at the needs of the African American audience and did not follow the fashions of the wider music world.
Without exception the musicians interviewed here rejected involvement with bop and its derivatives. These are musicians who belong from inheritance and conviction to the swing tradition. Some are more caustic than others. “I like to play melodies for people that they know” says Floyd Turnham, Jr., echoing Louis Jordan’s oft-quoted remark about “playing for the people”. “I didn’t get with that bebop,” says Red Mack (McLure Morris), “I kinda got with Pops’s style.” “Bebop? It doesn’t say anything,” says Chuck Thomas. “The tenor players now, all they do is play a lot of notes to me. They’re seeing who can play the most notes. I used to be on Central Avenue all the time, playing swing not bebop… This music you should play it from the heart.” Bass player Bill Hadnott, probably the best-known and most recorded musician included, simply says, “I never did get involved with bebop.” As we can all hear!
This choice influenced the later careers of all these musicians. In the forties and into the fifties, most worked with blues and r & b bands, in which Hadnott was not alone in creating a substantial body of enduring work. Among the interviewees is the fascinating Isadore Leonidas ‘Monte’ Easter (‘Leon’ to his parents to judge from census enumerations), who worked with the Erwing Brothers and Bardu Ali before recording extensively as a blues-singing trumpeter in the years from 1945 to 1960. Interestingly he himself considers the non-vocal ‘Weekend Blues’ from 1960, essentially a feature for guitarist Jimmy Nolen, to be “the best record I ever had out”. Easter’s statements about his ancestry, reflected in his appearance, are further confirmation of how small a part genetics plays in cultural identities.
As a discographer, I must regret that Peter didn’t ask Monte Easter who the ‘unknown’ musicians on the 1960 session are, but these are not the kind of interviews in which musicians are encouraged to pretend to remember things they have forgotten. On the contrary they are allowed to say what they want to say, so that for the most part what we get here is the raw material of history with only the lightest of editorial intervention. As already noted, the text includes some relevant contemporary news reports, and there are also a few explanations and linking passages. A ‘Notes’ section provides background material on musicians mentioned in passing and most helpfully on some of the venues mentioned.
The downside of the approach, if such it is, is that the chronology is sometimes unfathomable. Of Red Mack the author says, “Red talked about his career in somewhat haphazard fashion… often losing the chronological thread.” Of Monte Easter he says that “much of the chronology was muddled and his memory often at odds with the facts.” These are also in the main elderly interviewees and in some cases their memories were clearly more focussed on their youth than their middle years, with the result that more is said about their lives in Chicago and the Mid-West than about anything that actually happened in Los Angeles, which is not necessarily to be interpreted as a defect. Gideon Honoré has much to say about his work in Chicago and Milwaukee, the latter described as “a difficult sequence of engagements to put in any kind of order,” and fascinating it is too. The reader learns a satisfying amount about the bands of Gene Coy and Jeter-Pillars for example, and the book can be particularly recommended to anyone interested in territory bands of this kind.
It soon becomes apparent that not only common themes but also common associations weave in and out of these life stories. Figures like King Porter and Paul Howard and the Erwing Brothers and Jay McShann and Maxwell Davis and Nellie Lutcher crop up again and again, and so, perhaps to some readers’ surprise, do the heroes of West Coast traditional jazz (‘Dixieland’ to all of the interviewees, in defiance of usual enthusiast terminology). Mutt Carey and Kid Ory and Jimmie Noone all played a part in the musical histories of many of these swing and r & b players, and it feels as though nearly all of them were members of Teddy Buckner’s band at Disneyland, and they are all glad of the association too. One is left with a profound feeling of the essential unity of all these various African American musical idioms.
For the record the complete list of interviewees is: Andrew ‘Andy’ Blakeney; Gideon Joseph ‘Gid’ Honoré, Jr.; George Robert Orendorff; Nathaniel Jack ‘Monk’ McFay; Fred Payne Turnham, Jr.; Betty Hall Jones; McLure ‘Red Mack’ Morris; Caughey Wesley Roberts II; Chester C. Lane; Isadore Leonidas ‘Monte’ Easter; William King ‘Billy’ Hadnott; Norman ‘Norm’ Leland Bowden; John Richard ‘Streamline’ Ewing; Charles L. ‘Chuck’ Thomas, Jr.; Jesse John Sailes; ‘Red’ Minor William Robinson.
Red Mack is the only one who ever came within striking distance of the big time as defined by the white music business and he has the usual tales of racism on the road from his time with Will Osborne’s dance band. Betty Hall Jones is the only female interviewee and is informative about her time with Roy Milton. Norm Bowden is the only one of the interviewees still living. He reached his century on 23 September 1915, but sadly lost his wife Levette in December. She was 104.
Obviously a review can only scratch the surface of the rewards offered by a work such as this. The single most surprising statement to me comes from Caughey Roberts, pronounced “c-o-chey”, he says. “I remember the first alto player that impressed me was Benny Carter on all those records he made overseas. They had reproduced them, and they were playing them a lot.” It is not entirely clear whom “they” is here. Roberts taught Roy Milton’s alto player Jackie Kelso, one of the great under-rateds.
The book has a substantial photo section, a comprehensive bibliography, and a decent index. What’s not to like?
CD: COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “Kurhaus Concert 1954.” 19 tracks of newly discovered recordings. Doctor Jazz DJ015. www.doctorjazz.nl
Let me firstly admit to a personal interest in this CD, in that I edited the English version of the liner notes, on which I will therefore pass no comment. However, as I had not heard the music until the CD was issued, I don’t believe there’s any conflict of interest there.
There have been countless (ha! – no pun intended) re-issues over the past few years of air shots and concert recordings (often illegal ones) that have come to light as radio and TV archives are scoured by eagle-eyed researchers – not to mention those that have lain unheard in private collections and are only found when their owner passes on or sells up. Such recordings are almost always one-offs and can shed fascinating light on this or that jazz star’s career away from the recording studio; sometimes, indeed, they may reveal facets of their playing that managers and promoters would prefer had remained unavailable to the wider public…the re-issue of a whole raft of recordings from Louis Armstrong’s concert appearances made plain how often, having created a great solo – on record, perhaps – he would learn it by heart and reproduce it over and over and over again. So much for improvisation, then…
All too often, though, however significant they might be in revealing hidden talent, unheard solo lines or an unwelcome commercial approach, these recordings are of such poor technical quality, that listening to them for any length of time is a painful exercise, even after the best efforts to clean them up. Not so in this collection! The audio restorer, Harry Coster, has painstakingly ironed out the technical and sound level differences between two sets of recordings of two consecutive concerts and I can find little to criticise in this respect: indeed, it’s a tribute to his hard work that it’s almost impossible tell which tracks are from which concert. The sound is crystal clear and the whole band is in balance throughout, with just the occasional hard-to-hear introductory bars. Moreover, the producers have avoided the temptation to re-issue incomplete tracks, of which there were apparently several, or those which are technically seriously deficient, such as where Basie’s piano isn’t audible because of over-recording of the rhythm section.
The recordings were made at two concerts on the same evening – March 27, 1954 - in the Kurhaus in the Dutch resort of Scheveningen (a suburb of the Hague), part of the Basie band’s first European tour. This was the second Basie big band, formed in 1952 and often known as the ‘New Testament’ band, which included musical director Marshal Royal on alto-sax, arranger and sax-man-cum-flautist Frank Wess, Frank Foster on tenor and a brass section that boasted seven men including Joe Newman and Joe Wilder on trumpet and Henry Coker on trombone. Old stalwart Freddie Greene is still there on guitar, with Gus Johnson on drums. It’s also the band, for which Neil Hefti had begun writing arrangements, several of which are to be heard here…a relationship that would culminate four years later in the ground-breaking Atomic Mr Basie album.
Frank Foster, in particular, plays some astounding solos at these concerts: his extended flight on Jumpin’ at the Woodside is quite remarkable, whilst Marshal Royal shines on How High the Moon and You’re Not the Kind. The eclectic nature of the band becomes clear, when you hear Joe Wilder’s amazing trumpet solo on Why Not, with its echoes of early Dizzy Gillespie, and the follow-up flute solo from Frank Wess; this is the first of the Hefti compositions / arrangements to be heard on this CD. Basie himself, as was his wont, solos relatively infrequently, but his fans will not be disappointed by his lengthy solo on Nails, and his backing for bassist Eddie Jones on the same number, which elicits howls of appreciation from the audience; a thrusting tenor sax solo from Frank Wess and stunning section work from the brass makes this one of the outstanding tracks on the CD. Basie also plays a fine solo spot on Basie Boogie, which merges seamlessly into another excellent tenor-sax solo from Frank Wess, Paradise Squat. Hefti produces a cracker in Two Franks, on which the two tenor players – Wess and Foster – battle it out, to the delight, once again, of the Kurhaus audience. Wess is the star soloist on Juan Tizol’s Perdido and I must also mention Charlie Fowlkes fine extended baritone-sax solo on Rockabye Basie – I’ve not heard a better version of this Basie standard.
The man responsible for these fine recordings was Gé Bakker, who was in fact the sound technician hired at the Kurhaus for both concerts. Bakker ran an outfit called the Bureau of Sound technology and made professional recordings for EMI and other labels in Holland. How fortunate, then, that he, and not some enthusiastic amateur, was on hand that evening, and that he had good quality recording gear! Even so, it seems he was only using a commercially-produced domestic tape recorder in order to check back on the sound balance and technical quality of the amplification system - which only goes to show what can be achieved when such equipment is in the hands of an expert. It’s hard to believe this music was recorded on an early reel-to-reel machine, there’s so little distortion and such quality bandwidth.
It seems, from contemporary accounts, that the critics weren’t expecting too much from the Basie band and the concerts weren’t sold out. They were especially down on the vocalist Bixie Crawford (only on one track here: Three Little Words), perhaps because she wasn’t up to the standard of greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday - but then, who was? With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that, though this may not have been Basie’s finest hour, it was nonetheless a terrific evening’s jazz and a tribute both to his choice of musicians for his new big band and to the arrangements he commissioned for it. Their drive and togetherness are in evidence throughout, especially on numbers like Peace Pipe.
This CD will not disappoint!
BOOK & CD: CRESCENT CITY CORNET. By Christopher Hillman, with Richard Rains. Chris Hillman Books, 2 The Halt, Whitchurch, Tavistock, Devon PL19 9SR or at www.chbooks.info. Softbound, 62 pp plus indexes/ references, £20.00 (see advert in this issue for ordering details).
New Orleans has been, since the colonial founding days of the American continent, one of its most picturesque, flamboyant and most visited cities. For those of us whose musical interest focuses on the latter years of the 19th century and the entirety of the 20th, its population is undoubtedly one of the most researched and yet, in many ways, still the most mysterious, since there are and have always been huge lacunae in the city’s documented musical history. From the time the interest in jazz as an art form arose at the end of the twenties, and the New Orleans Jazz Revival started in the late thirties and forties, this furious activity has brought forth a continuing deluge of information of all types and from myriad sources.
As a result, factual research has been mingled perforce with hearsay history, slanted narratives, self-interested accounts, political correctness and outright bull, such that after 75 years, there are still huge holes in the story, with questionable narratives still emerging from them, some of them backed by major media names, as documented from time to time in this magazine’s review segment and elsewhere.
Dan Vernhettes’ Jazz Puzzles, together with his new Jazz Puzzles 2 and this booklet, together with its companion Crescent City Reeds, are among the most recent works to appear; thankfully standing out for their serious and unagendised study of the music that got us all started, however many years ago. Here, the narrative concerns one instrument (or rather two, since Hillman and Rains are working here with people who may have learned to play cornet in early days, then switched to trumpet, as did Louis Armstrong, or others who played cornet at all times, or switched between the two depending on the musical setting) in the context of musicians raised in the New Orleans area. The story begins earlier chronologically than most if not all narratives to date, documenting the growth of formal brass ensembles from the mid-19th century forward, naming names (new to me and probably to most of us) and quoting venues. Differences of context are emphasized, between the “formal” and tightly-knit environment in which Creoles of Color learned and performed, and the all but arbitrary ways in which young black people found their way into the music scene to provide entertainment for black audiences, formed performing groups and found venues, often but not always on the seamier side of life in the city.
The evolution of early jazz and the elements in the mix come up for discussion, followed by the stories of early seminal orchestras such as Robichaux’s and Bolden’s, with particular discussion on the evolution of their improvisational brass style.
This leads in to evaluations of individual brass icons, like Manuel Perez and Peter Bocage, and their contribution to the spread of enthusiasm for the evolving music as it was carried into the heartland along existing avenues of communication and modes of travel, then the phonograph, as it in turn became a household item.
Player by player, there then follows a very intense stylistic analysis of individual performers, through the beginnings of jazz music as we know it, through the twenties, thirties, revival and rediscovery, all the way to contemporary players such as Nicholas Payton, a particular favourite of mine today.
Analysis breaks broadly into “the heard,” i.e. styles that can be defined based on tangible media such as recordings and scores; and the “unheard,” which is the evidence of contemporary anecdote, history and legend. Thus, a level of detail is achieved, which allows interpretation by the reader at a level comfortable to him or her, rather than the at times fanciful arguments based on level of enthusiasm offered in prior accounts, especially those of the 40s and 50s.
So, what makes yet another document covering the music of New Orleans so special? On the one hand, this volume is about Bb brass, which is a very specialized field (and one dear to me, since it’s about “my” instrument). On the other, an account of every exponent of merit you can think of is included here, from the 1860s to yesterday. It’s probably as complete as you can get. This makes for a very intense essay (about 60 pages to cover the whole field, which at most times means a paragraph or maybe two per performer) with photographs and label scans. Many of the photos are familiar to anyone who started indulging their interest by buying Grauer/Keepnews’ Pictorial History of Jazz in the 50s, but there is a generation or two who may well not have seen them. Label scans are largely from European and other reissues, which in turn is refreshing, since we of the mouldier persuasion in publishing tend to insist on original, often tatty-looking images.
The final pages of the booklet give examples of other written and recorded sources for further study, as well as a page of updates and corrections to other Cygnet/Hillman products. There is also an accompanying CD containing 24 tracks to illustrate the contents of the text. The CD jacket specifically states that it is not a commercial production; indeed the CD is hand-lettered and the cover photocopied; but is offered as an add-on “freebie” to aid the reader’s comprehension. Format of the booklet is folded-and-stapled A4, so it will fit on your shelf along with your complete set of “Storyville,” “Names and Numbers” and the many similar-sized discographies that have emerged over the years. So, for the New Orleans enthusiast, here, to steal from my erstwhile mentor and best friend, Laurie Wright, is another “piece of the jigsaw.”
CD: MADAME TUSSAUD’S DANCE ORCHESTRA, “Rockin’ in Rhythm” 1933 - 1934. 24 tracks, including 8 by the Savoy Orpheans, Spike Hughes and Jack Hylton. Retrieval RTR 79079. www.challenge.nl
The recordings made for Edison Bell Winner by Madame Tussaud’s Dance Orchestra are almost mythically rare - at least on that label; they seem to have sold rather better on a number of European cheap labels (like Silver Bell, Cameo, Astra, where they mostly appeared under the bland pseudonym ‘Dansorkest’ or the like), though these are hardly common either! It’s not too hard to work out why: Madame Tussaud’s set prices in the restaurant where the band played very high, according to a history of the company. Eating and dancing there was for the wealthy, not the man in the street and the music policy of the band’s leader, Stanley Barnett (or of the management?) was equally rarified: to present hot versions of popular tunes of the day on the one hand and pretty accurate ‘covers’ of Duke Ellington hits on the other – Ellington was playing in London at the time the first of these recordings were made. As Britain – and the rest of Europe – staggered through the depths of the Great Depression, even the best paid workers would be unlikely to spend their few available pennies on dining out at Tussaud’s or buying the band’s records: the latter was certainly only for the dedicated few.
All the Madame Tussaud’s tracks presented here were originally re-issued on a Retrieval LP 30 years ago (along with three others of no jazz interest) and the CD includes Sandy Forbes’ original sleeve notes (which, by the way, include several unfortunate misprints, whether from the original text or the transfer, I can’t tell), plus a general note from Chris Ellis on the music tracks and the non-Madame-Tussaud additions to make up the required playing time on the CD (of which more later). I’m sorry to say there’s very little explanation, though, about the how and why of these recordings: record research has come a long way since Sandy Forbes wrote his sleeve notes, and I’m surprised there’s been nothing of substance added about this band since then.
However, the music speaks for itself. The Ellington numbers are of a remarkable standard, particularly given that this band is made up largely of unknowns. Ellington’s recordings inspired several prominent British and European bandleaders to feature his material in their ‘book’, but few covered them with the verve and accuracy of the Madame Tussaud’s crew. The title track, Rockin’ in Rhythm, romps along at a cracking pace, with not a note out of place or time in the complex section work of the opening theme. Its session mate, Black-Eyed Susan Brown, is another excellent rendition, though Phyllis Robins’ vocal is nothing special – which sadly can be said of all the vocal work on these tracks. The band’s singers were clearly a musical afterthought! The second ‘cover’ is Jazz Cocktail, a contemporary piece of Ellingtonia (from 1932), which is given a more interpretative treatment, which – as quoted in the notes – got a mixed reception from the critic Edgar Jackson. Whilst praising the trumpet work of Billy Farrell, he compared the rhythm section unfavourably with Ellington’s. I suspect this was because they used a bouncier rhythm on this number than Ellington did – he had adopted the ‘flat four’ style that was in vogue with black bandleaders, in particular, at the time. Personally, I think this is nit-picking – overall, it’s a fine performance. And interestingly, on the next track, My Bluebird’s Singing the Blues, the band does adopt the flat four rhythm, to great effect.
Track five – Mood Indigo – is a bit of a mystery: it’s not listed in either Jazz Records or the Rust / Forbes’ British Dance Bands on Record (at least, not in my edition), so was it issued…and under what name was it recorded? There’s no enlightenment forthcoming in the liner notes and it seems very odd that it’s missing from both discographies! The matrix number is sandwiched between two sessions issued as Howard Flynn and his Orchestra but directed by Stanley Barnett. It’s one of several vocal versions of this tune - the others I recall are by Nat Gonella and Harry Roy - and in neither case do the words add anything to its enjoyment. They were written by Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, no doubt as a way of popularising the number beyond the jazz market: Phyllis Robins does rather better here than on Susan Brown, but, regrettably, she has little jazz feeling.
Stevedore Stomp is one of Ellington’s display numbers, always played very fast and the Madame Tussaud’s band acquit themselves very well. Apart from some excellent muted trumpet from Billy Farrell (I assume, though it might be Alf Bowes), Al Foreman’s slapped bass is exceptional. The saxes are fine, and whilst the clarinet playing doesn’t have Barney Bigard’s fluidity – who did? – whoever it was (Laurie Bookin??) is very good. Billy Farrell makes a brave attempt at producing a Cootie Williams-style powerful tight-muted solo on Lightning: The tone is excellent, but the effort seems to have made him play very slightly off key - you can almost see his eyes popping! There’s some lovely trombone from Abe Walters on You’re Still in My Heart, and an unknown trumpet player (as per the liner notes, though Forbes says it’s Alf Bowes), who replaces Farrell, takes an equally good solo on Gene Gifford’s Wild Goose Chase. Bookin’s place is taken by Dan Levy, who also delivers a first-class solo. But the star here is without doubt, once again, bassist Al Foreman, who plays a series of stunning breaks in the final chorus.
There are three more Ellington numbers from the band: Sophisticated Lady, Echoes of the Jungle and Old Man Blues. Whilst the first title is well played and a satisfying listen with a pleasant vocal (not identified), the second is, I think, their best: they capture the mood and timbre of the original perfectly, without it ever being a slavish copy, and the front line turn in a series of excellent original solos. The third title has a vocal by another un-named singer (he is actually the best of a mediocre bunch), but also gets the Ellington sound just right: the clarinettist here reproduces Bigard’s style in a startlingly authentic solo. The final three Tussaud’s tracks are pop numbers: We’ll All Go Riding on a Rainbow and You’re Gonna Lose Your Gal are routine arrangements, though well played; Who Walks In When I Walk Out? is a much more interesting number, with excellent section work and fine short solos.
These tracks, then, are an important addition to the history of British jazz on CD; the transfers are first-class with no sign of surface noise nor any loss of clarity.
The rest of the CD is given over to eight tracks by other British bands with an Ellingtonian slant, as comparators to the Madame Tussaud’s output. Five of these are by Jack Hylton and are included as an addition to Retrieval’s “Hot Hylton” CD; there are two Ellington numbers by Spike Hughes and the first Ellington tune to be published and recorded in Europe – Jig Walk – by the Savoy Orpheans. Ellington himself, though he wrote this number, never recorded it and the Orpheans’ version is one of the best. Stylistically, of course, this is something of a throw-back compared to the Tussaud’s tracks. Spike Hughes’ Misty Morning and High Life provide two contemporary but contrasting versions to the originals. The former is an excellent rendition of the Ellington sound but without in any way being a mere copy: the solo work is highly original throughout. High Life is one of the Duke’s several re-workings of the trio theme from Tiger Rag; Hughes makes no attempt to give it the same Ellington feel as Misty Morning and instead just uses it as a vehicle for a string of good solos. The same re-working of Tiger Rag (credited to Billy Ternent) appears in the Hylton selections under the title Hylton Stomp (with the addition of a first theme based on Ja-Da – or one of its many siblings!). Although there are some fine solos here, the rhythm section is somewhat wooden. St Louis Blues is a far better number and features some quite outstanding trumpet work from Philippe Brun as well as a remarkably authentic vocal by Pat O’Malley. Its session mate, Goodbye Blues, is boring, with a few bars of tenor-sax and one of O’Malley’s more plodding vocal efforts. Black and Blue Rhythm swings much more and is both written and well arranged, by Ternent again. The final track is Ellingtonia, a medley which includes Black and Tan Fantasy, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Mood Indigo and Bugle Call Rag (which isn’t mentioned in the music listing on the CD). Given the nature of the beast, all the band can do here is to give a pretty accurate rendering of one short excerpt each to prove they could copy Ellington and his sidemen’s various styles, which, to be fair, they do remarkably well.
Whilst I appreciate Retrieval’s desire to add to their library of hot Hylton items, I don’t think any of these give us much to compare with the Madame Tussaud’s band. A better comparison would perhaps have been with Billy Cotton’s Ellingtonian covers: Black and Tan Fantasy, Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo. And it would have been even more interesting to have included some of the sides by Stanley Barnett’s Rhythmic Orchestra, which date from immediately after his residency at Madame Tussaud’s and whose rarity is much the same: Open the Window and Let in the Sun is one such, which has a string of hot solos and certainly would merit a re-issue. All that said, as you’ll be lucky to find any of the Tussaud’s records on original pressings, this CD is very welcome.
BOOK: NEW YORK RECORDING LABORATORIES MATRIX SERIES: Volume One, The L Matrix Series (1929-1932) (Revised Second Edition) By Guido van Rijn and Alex van der Tuuk. Agram Blues Books, Prins Mauritslaan 95, 2051 KC Overveen, Netherlands. xxiv + 150 pp, hardbound. ISBN 978-90-814715-9-36. €30.00 plus postage. http://home.tiscali.nl/guido
I reviewed the first edition of this first volume of Agram’s five-part series four years ago, at a similar time of the year. My opinion at that time was that, building on the foundation of the 1995 78 Quarterly draft listing, which identified 39% of titles on matrices in the L-series, Guido and Alex had shown superhuman ability and industry in expanding this to 52% of L-series titles by the time the volume was issued. In this new edition, there are few revelations. Whereas the number of known matrices in the series at that time was 52%, it is now 53%.
So then, why bring out a new edition? One primary motivator is that the first edition is presumably sold out and that collectors are still buying copies. Now, a devoid-of-conscience publisher might well simply do a reprint and continue to rake in the shekels. Not so, however, in the case of Guido and Alex. Bravo, gentlemen, for doing the right thing! New data, however scant, needs to be brought into the open, and a new edition is the ideal opportunity to do so. The increase in the percentile appears to come from a couple of added matrices by Rev. Emmet Dickinson and modification of Jaydee Short’s session.
Another need addressed is that of corrections of errors in text and layout. The first edition was confusing because of the lack of page-numbering; a defect now remedied. Again, I say, well done! There is also an increase of documentation of dubbed reissues from the 40s and 50s.
But going through the pages of the new book, although the illustrations are substantially unchanged, I am amazed all over again at the breadth and rarity of the Paramount ephemera these two guys have been capable of laying hands on. Some of these amuse me the more by their demonstration of just how cockup-ridden the Paramount organization was capable of being, even in its public persona. As an example, the surviving test of Bud Spaight’s Anchors Aweigh shows the title written correctly; yet the issued label of Pm 1390 shows Anchors Away. Son House recorded My Black Mama “with guitar acc.” in August of 1930; well and good. However, in the publicity slick advertising the record, reprinted in the volume, there stands or rather, sits a caricature of Blind Lemon Jefferson, strumming away, surrounded by busty beauties. “Oops” is not only in order, but Jefferson had been dead for eight months when the tune is estimated to have been recorded.
There are instances of different titles being assigned to the same matrix, and as the last entry in the book (documenting Paramount’s farewell to the recording business), there hangs the puzzling footnote that one, but apparently only one, of the two issued takes of Dave Meehan and His Orchestra’s Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee, is a dub of an issue on HOW by Phil Spitalny. Really? The last gasp of your business is an act of plagiarism and copyright violation?
In the back of the book appear two pages of additions and corrections for each of the other four volumes in the NYRL Matrix series, and, as always, there is space for you to scan your holdings and send new data to the authors.
The price for the volume, you may notice, is unchanged at 30 Euros, although later volumes are priced at forty. All new orders will be fulfilled from this new edition.
To close, I would repeat the message I gave in my review from 2011. “Here appears resurrected, invaluable historical information, saved from oblivion by two dogged and dedicated scholars, in spite of NYRL’s crappy business methods, crappy record-keeping, crappy recording equipment, crappy product and crappy treatment of its artistes of all skin-tones. This reference has no equal. Don’t just buy and shelve it; scan your holdings and add your discoveries. But first and foremost; buy it.” The new edition just reinforces my opinion.
BOOK: THE PATHE-PERFECT DISCOGRAPHY. American issues, 1922-1930. Volume 1: Race, Popular Vocal, Star, Standard/Miscellaneous, and Classical/Operatic Series. Volume 2: Dance Series.
By Allan Sutton, William R. Bryant & The Record Research Associates. xxxii 278pp and xii + 366pp, soft bound, illustrated. Mainspring Press ISBN No. 978-0-9915279-4-6 (Vol 1), 978-0-9915279-6-0 (Vol 2). www.mainspringpress.com
Of all the record labels operating in the USA in the 1920s, none was more idiosyncratic than the Pathé Frères Phonograph Company. Edison could possibly come a close second, in that their Diamond Discs bucked the trend by sticking tenaciously to the vertical-cut technology until almost to the bitter end, but Pathé from the outset utilised an already obsolete recording process which involved recording onto an oversize wax cylinder and then dubbing disc masters from it pantographically. Although never owned by the pioneering French record company (they merely licensed the use of the Pathé name), for some reason they used the French company’s byzantine recording technology until the introduction of electrical recording in 1927. Pathé had originally introduced ‘le poisson’, a pantographic connection that allowed dubbing of multiple-size cylinders from the master cylinder as early as 1903, and from 1905 utilised the same system to dub onto a variety of disc sizes, whose size and volume was reflected in their price. The pantographic copying process induced dreadful mechanical noise into the dubbed discs, which can make the listening of Pathés on modern, sensitive equipment something of a daunting experience at the best of times.
From the outset Pathé attracted big name performers, both in the operatic and popular music fields, even introducing a ‘Race Series’ in 1926, although unlike most of their New York -based rivals, never ventured into the American heartland to record ‘in the field.’ To give them their due, Pathé virtually invented ‘Race Records’ in the 1917-19 period with their records of James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle and other black performers.
In 1920 Pathé introduced lateral-cut Actuelle records and in 1922 introduced a cut price label, Perfect, initially just 5 cents cheaper than Pathé’s 50 cent Actuelle discs, but in the face of stiff dime store label competition soon dropped the price to 39 cents, putting Pathé in the almost unique position of undercutting themselves with almost exactly identical issues!
It is astonishing to think that is over 60 years since the Pathé/Perfect discographical project was started by Perry Armagnac, Carl Kendziora, and other members of the Record Research team, then taken up after RR’s demise by Bill Bryant, whose untimely death in 1995 brought research effectively to a halt. Thankfully, Mainspring Press’ Allan Sutton resurrected the project using Bryant’s and the RR files, adding more information from contemporary researchers, the results being these two volumes.
Volume 1 opens with a concise history of the American concern upto its absorption into the American Record Corporation (a future volume will cover subsequent ARC Perfect issues), along with a ‘User Guide’ which explains the format, layout and a detailed examination of their arcane take status identification. There then follows a complete listing of vocal issues, as well as specialist series, the most important of which to VJM readers are the Pathé/Perfect Race Series. Perfect issues are given precedence throughout. The vocal and ‘Star Series’ will also have many issues of interest to the readers of this magazine, given this includes the likes of Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Cliff Edwards, Jay C. Flippen and blues singers such as Rosa Henderson, Ruth Coleman, Lavinia Turner and Hannah Sylvester.
Volume 2, dedicated to ‘Dance Records’ omits the company history but contains a similar User Guide as Volume 1, and will likely be the one most useful to the majority of VJM readers, although it would make sense to have both volumes, as they do compliment one another. Again, as in Volume 1, the numerical listing is based on Perfect issues, with cross-referencing to the equivalent Pathé issue. Things get a little complicated with the acquisition of the Cameo label, with a bewildering duplication of matrix number series, not to mention a plethora of new subsidiary issue labels (but this does not include non-USA issues).
Readers of previous Mainspring Press discographies will be well aware of their policy towards personnel identification, particularly on jazz records - no personnels are listed unless “...confirmed from labels or original files and logs.” “Speculative or undocumented personnel given in other discographies, which are particularly a problem with the race-series issues, have been disregarded.” Well, that would be fine if it was universally applied, but it is not. For example, Perfect 12203, Monette Moore’s Meat Man Pete from Ajax 17081, shows that Bob Fuller is present, based on aural evidence. Whose aural evidence? Conversely, Lavinia Tuner’s Watch Me Go (Perfect 12005) shows the accompaniment as an uncredited pianist, with the accompanying comment “James P. Johnson is credited in some discographies as the pianist... with no source cited.” Even the most cloth-eared listener will recognise Johnson’s unmistakable style. Likewise Hannah Sylvester’s Down South Blues has accompaniment by Fletcher Henderson and a youthful Coleman Hawkins, but neither are identified in the listing, even though Hawkins quotes phrases from Henderson orchestral records that he is positively identified on by The Hawk himself!
Sometimes this slavish rejection of jazz discographies leads to bizarre conclusions. Take for example a December 1926 session of three titles shown in Jazz Records as by Phil Napoleon & His Orchestra. Because the US issues are labelled ‘Bar Harbor Society Orchestra’ the authors chose to ascribe the session to Ben Selvin, who regularly - but not exclusively - used this pseudonym. However on English Pathé they are labelled as by Phil Napoleon & His Orchestra, which the authors claim is a mislabelling. Now, I have these sides and can state categorically that they sound nothing at all like the Ben Selvin band, but are aurally identical to the contemporary Phil Napoleon Orchestra sides made for Edison and Victor. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions...
The above criticisms, whilst niggling to this writer, are insignificant, given the sheer volume of useful discographical information they contain. These are books that most collectors of 1920s jazz and dance records will find immensely useful, not least for helping to unravel the minefield of post-1928 Pathé - Cameo pseudonyms, and I recommend them unreservedly.
A Free State is set in 1855 when the USA was divided between Free and Slave states and a new form of entertainment, mimicking “colored” songs and speech was developing - minstrelsy.
Henry Sims, a slave known as “Joseph” had escaped from a Virginia plantation with a few possessions tied in a sack cloth and a homemade banjo that he played well enough to make crowds take notice. The book opens with Sims wandering through Philadelphia where he’d begun busking out a living playing lively plantation tunes near the waterfront. That city was a key stop on the Underground Railway that carried runaways to Canada where they are free from laws that required the return of runaways. Even though he was subject to capture and return, Henry is so tied to his country that he declines passage to Canada and stays in the city. Before long he comes to the attention of James Douglass, the young leader of a struggling minstrel troupe called, coincidentally, the Original Virginia Harmonists.
James, a white lad who’d left his family farm, played a pretty good banjo himself and organized the Virginia Harmonists who offered sketches and songs depicting the frivolity of life of the Virginia slaves on the old plantation. While they were making merry about the plantation life, Henry’s owner, engages Tull, a ruthless slave hunter to bring the man back Alive, if possible. Tull makes it clear he’d prefer the alternative.
Soon, James engages Henry to perform with the minstrels, despite a local law forbidding negroes to perform onstage, and, Henry delivers with a repertoire literary straight from the plantation delivered with a force and anger of a man playing a lie about his existence. In this setting, each man learns a stark lesson about freedom.Henry becomes a hit and Henry and James are making good money from their lie until the appearance of Tull forces James to come to grips with the way things really are and to take a stand that puts his living and perhaps, his life, at risk.
The notion that all is well in American race relations persists to this day, of course, and Piazza has done a masterful job of telling a 160 year-old story while keeping it in our contemporary thoughts. Piazza is an authority on early blues and jazz, having worked with Martin Scorsese on his blues history series, and those who know early blues well will certainly recognize the antecedents of Frank Stokes, Papa Charlie Jackson, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson in Henry’s songs. By all means, add this to your reading list.
BOOK: ELI OBERSTEIN’S UNITED STATES RECORD CORPORATION. A History and Discography. By Alan Sutton and The Record Research Associates. Mainspring Press, 275pp softbound. ISBN: 978-0-9915279-3-9. PO Box 631277, Littleton, CO 81063-1277. www.mainspringpress.com
Elliott Everett Oberstein (something familiar about those given names?!) was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character: his career began ordinarily enough with first the Starr Piano Company and then OKeh, before he was head-hunted by Victor, with whom he worked variously to service that company’s Southern distributors, then supervise its production contract with Crown Records, before becoming, by 1936, A&R Director for Bluebird. He recruited some of that label’s biggest stars: Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Xavier Cugat, as well as developing its successful ethnic artists catalogue. He turned it from a repository of second-rate talent catering for low-budget buyers into a highly successful competitor to Decca, which had been overtaking RCA-Victor in market share.
He was, however, as this book succinctly relates, neither as well liked by the artists he recorded nor as ethical and honest as his career with Bluebird might suggest. He was roundly criticised by Artie Shaw, for example – “…a horror…a pain in the ass” – for his tendency to interfere with the music policy of the bands he supervised; and when he left RCA-Victor in 1939 to set up his own company, which became the United States Record Corporation, his predilection for doing business that was often enough unethical, and occasionally probably illegal, made him one of the more controversial figures in the business.
He’s best known to collectors today for his Varsity and Royale labels. These still turn up quite frequently, which obscures the fact that USRC was only in existence for about two years before it went bankrupt, though its records remained on sale well into 1942, which no doubt accounts for some of them not being much rarer than one might expect. The early releases on both labels were re-issues from the by then long defunct Crown catalogue that he’d managed for RCA-Victor, and from Gennett (on Varsity) and from the German company Ultraphone (on Royale). Just how he got hold of the former, and how he negotiated the rights to it and with whom, is unexplained and remains one of Oberstein’s many suspect activities. He was – probably rightly – distrusted by music publishers for selling Varsity records for use on juke-boxes rather than simply for home use (he wasn’t licensed to sell for public performance); he almost certainly flouted musicians’ union regulations during the recording ban, which eventually led to him being expelled by the American Federation of Musicians; and there was persistent criticism of the re-issue material from Crown and Gennett, disguised though most of it was under often ludicrous pseudonyms, for its poor musical quality. The irony in that, of course, is the rarity of much of the original blues material in particular, which makes these Varsity records much sought after today.
All this, and much more, about his strong-arm tactics (ultimately unsuccessful) to persuade people like Shaw and Cugat to leave RCA and record for USRC, while others such as Harry James and Jack Teagarden were lured to his new company, and about his post-Varsity activities (which included illicit recording sessions during the AFM ban), is covered in the excellent, though perhaps all too brief, introductory section of this book. The main body of the work is a detailed listing of the various Varsity and Royale releases, with notes on their provenance, further issues on other labels and pseudonyms, where used. Some of the Gennett and Paramount re-issues are obviously extremely rare today, probably almost as rare as the originals in a few cases. This is a very useful addition to our library of discographies.
BOOK: THE BOSWELL LEGACY. The Story of the Boswell Sisters of New Orleans and the New Music They Gave to the World. By Kyla Titus. 195 pp, softbound, illustrated. ISBN 978-1502350916. Available online at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
The author is the grand-daughter of Vet Boswell, who had unparalleled access to her grandmother Vet, and took up the reins from an earlier aspirant biographer. Her account is in the nature of a family history against which the sisters’ musical careers are set. It begins around 1850, and includes analysis of the character, actions and thoughts of the Boswell Sisters’ forebears, much of which is of course supposition. We’re on firmer ground with the family’s peregrinations prior to their arrival in New Orleans (which brings us up to page 32), and the origin and development of Connie’s disability. Early influences on the sisters included their older brother Clyde, who died in 1918, and trumpeter Emmett Hardy. The account of the latter’s death is incomplete, omitting reference to an operation for acute appendicitis, subsequent to his tuberculosis, which probably triggered the fatal attack of peritonitis. The sisters didn’t begin recording in earnest until 1930 (which is reached at page 97) after several years spent on the road, and their travels during that fallow period is traced by way of bookings and correspondence. In early 1929 the girls encountered Harry Leedy, who would prove to be a malign influence on their future relationships.
There’s much detail about their subsequent radio and film work, as well as their personal appearances, both home and overseas, but little to add to what’s already known of the recordings. Reference is made on page 141 to Jack Hylton, who is described as “a London Decca record executive”! No mention of his activities as bandleader and impresario, nor that he had arranged the visit by the Duke Ellington band which virtually coincided with that of the Boswell Sisters. Beginning in 1931 Connie also pursued a separate recording career, aided and abetted by the opportunistic Harry Leedy, by now her husband/manager. She continued working until 1956, but the trio itself disbanded in 1936 for a variety of reasons which Kyla has sought to clarify.
The book is a cardback, in a larger than normal format, i.e. 8.5 x 11 inches, which could have been used to accommodate enlarged photographs, or more text. Instead the text is double-spaced, except for quotations, which appear in bold and italic, giving a somewhat disjointed impression. There are a number of black and white photographs, but many of them are snapshot size. The book lacks a discography, and although there’s a list of tribute groups no mention is made of the many reissues available of the Boswell Sisters’ records. To sum up, the account is more likely to appeal to the sisters’ fan base rather than the dedicated collector.
BOOK: CALYPSO AND OTHER MUSIC OF TRINIDAD, 1912-1962. An Annotated Discography. By Craig Martin Gibbs. McFarland & Company. 384pp softbound. $75. ISBN No. 978-0-7864-7851-4. www.mcfarlandbooks.com
The music of Trinidad is historically rich and diverse, reflecting the cultural melting pot of its inhabitants’ ancestry - Spanish, French, British, African, Asian, etc., in much the same way that the music of New Orleans was equally influenced by similar cultural mixes, albeit with Italian, German and Jewish thrown in too. In particular many of the Trinidadian clarinettists who recorded in the 1920s and 1930s show remarkable affinity to New Orleans Creole players, and this is reason enough, if more were needed, to review this book in a magazine devoted to jazz music.
I’ve had a liking for much of this music since first hearing Trinidadian Sam Manning’s 1927 OKeh recording of Bongo, and being blown away by the lyrical, liquid clarinet of Walter Edwards. Then, a few years later, hearing the remarkable piano solos of Lionel Belasco, whose career spanned 60-plus years. Belasco features heavily in the book - he was the first major Trinidadian artist to record - commencing in 1914 - two years after Lovey’s String Band recorded in New York for Columbia (with the same Walter Edwards on clarinet).
Throughout the 1930s singers such as Wilmoth Houdini, The Lion, Lord Beginner and The Caresser extensively recorded in New York, popularising calypso through their numerous records for Decca, ARC-Brunswick and Bluebird, and many of their records have excellent jazz-flavoured accompaniments from the likes of clarinettist and saxophonist Felix Gregory, late of Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra, and New Orleans bassist Al Morgan.
After WW2, and the start of mass emigration to Britain, the emphasis of recording activity shifted to London, and record producer Dennis Preston became a key figure in promoting calypsoes and other Trinidadian music. Records by a new breed of singers such as Lord Kitchener and The Mighty Terror found a ready market among West Indian immigrants, and gave valuable work to many long-established Caribbean musicians, such as Freddy Grant, Bertie King and the venerable Cyril Blake, who first came to London in 1919 with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra.
The book is divided into effectively four sections - 78s, LPs, EPs and 45s and non-commercial field recordings, broadcasts and unissued items, and follows the slightly unusual format the author used in his book Black Recording Artists, 1877-1926.
Whilst not an essential purchase for most jazz collectors - and at $75 not a cheap one - for those with an interest in the music of the Caribbean this will be a very useful addition to their bookshelves.