Chasing Bix, the Introverted Enigma

Bix Beiderbecke Legend

“Bix was one of the weirdest guys I ever knew. It wasn’t just that he was absent-minded…I’ve known several absent-minded jazz musicians in my time. It was more like he wasn’t even there half the time. You could be talking to him, and he’d answer you, then suddenly he’d get this glazed look in his eyes and totally lose contact with you. A really strange dude.”

So said the late jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland to me in the fall of 1971 when I, a 20-year-old college student, went to see him perform at a dinner restaurant in New Jersey. I asked him if I could talk to him a while about Bix because I was interested in writing a biography of him, and what better place to start than with the musician who replaced him in the Wolverines Orchestra? Before the next year was out, however, I would meet Ralph Berton, who was putting the finishing touches on a memoir of his personal experiences with Bix as a young man, so I gave up my quest. In a way I was glad I did, not only because of Berton’s book but also because of the even more fact-filled tome compiled by Philip Evans and edited for publication by Richard Sudhalter, which came out a bit later.

Bix Beiderbecke was the first early jazz musician whose work I got to know well from records (young Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives came second). I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school when I bought a white-covered RCA Victor LP, The Bix Beiderbecke Legend (LPM-2323), which I played over and over again, unable to believe my ears. For here was dated ‘Twenties pop music, buried in which was a cornet genius who could make Chateaubriand out of White Castle hamburgers.

At the time I believed, naively, that all white jazz musicians of the 1920s faced this same challenge, and that Beiderbecke was simply more of a genius than the others. The genius part I got right, but it took me decades of listening to other ‘20s jazz discs before I realized that, partly by bad luck and partly by his lack of discernment, Beiderbecke got stuck in these miserable musical settings more often than his peers because he saw them as “classy” and therefore could possibly impress his upper-middle-class family with the wisdom of his career choice, which they detested.

Now, a half-century later and much the wiser, I see Bix for exactly what he was: a modernist playing in a world of dated jazz musicians who deeply impressed and influenced a slew of cornetists and trumpeters, yet who had only an intuitive grasp of what he was doing and otherwise no focus and no direction. Bix Beiderbecke in 1920s music was like moving Igor Stravinsky back to 1870 and having him compete against Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Chabrier. The big difference was that Stravinsky was completely aware of what he was doing with music; Bix was not. Indeed, he often heard his own contributions to performances as “wrong,” ill-conceived, and not fitting in, because they were so different that they had to be wrong. He begged classically-trained cornet players to show him professional fingering but after listening to him play, they refused to do so because what he was doing was so right for him. Bix interpreted this as a backhanded insult, as their saying that he could never play orthodox music because his conceptions were radically different, and therefore thought of himself as “a musical degenerate,” as he told Ralph Berton and Max Kaminsky. Towards the end of his life he wanted to study classical composition but couldn’t read music well enough to grasp what others were talking about. He also couldn’t stay clean and sober long enough to apply himself, not even to music which was the one and only driving force of his life. He died of lobar pneumonia at the age of 28 by contracting a serious chest cold, then lying in his steaming New York apartment in the dog days of August with a miserable fan blowing on him to cool down his fever. He didn’t even have the drive, or the common sense, to pick up the phone and call for help if he couldn’t get up and get to the hospital himself.

Bix plaque

The point is that no normal, halfway healthy young man dies at age 28 from alcoholism. Pee Wee Russell, a much smaller and slighter man than Bix, had several serious brushes with death—one of the worst in 1950—yet managed to pull through. Bix didn’t pull through in part because he didn’t want to and in part because although he could “handle” his booze, it impaired his already poor judgment so badly that he didn’t even have a firm grip on reality. Hoagy Carmichael remembered finding him hiding behind a curtain in the RCA recording studio on May 21, 1930, softly asking his cornet not to let him down. That’s how far out of touch with reality he was.

Divorced of his phenomenal musical genius, Beiderbecke was a helpless emotional cripple. He could no more take care of himself, let alone write great arrangements or compositions, than a kite blowing frantically in a stiff wind. He inspired others with greater musical skills and personal drive, like Red Nichols, Artie Shaw and Rex Stewart, to achieve things using the musical principles he blew through his horn without being able to do so himself. And whether one attributes his astoundingly brilliant solos, in the midst of the most miserable commercial settings, to genius or accident, what remains in the grooves of the old records is a fairly consistent march towards oblivion. Bix Beiderbecke never could appreciate Bix Beiderbecke because he couldn’t understand intellectually what he did or why others found it so fascinating when he found it strange and inadequate.

But Bix had one, and only one, lucky star, and that was his ability to attract the interest and genuine concern of others within the music business who could understand and appreciate what he did and help him codify it. The two most loyal and consistent were C-melody sax player Frank Trumbauer and pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis, but there were others such as Matty Malneck, Fud Livingston, Tom Satterfield and, to a lesser extent, Benny Goodman, all of whom contributed something important to his musical evolution.

At a remove of nearly a century from the start of Bix’s brilliant but sporadic career, I think it would behoove us to study what he did solely in the context of his greatest achievements, which means in many cases removing the klunky solos, stiff bands and sappy vocalists who all but ruined the effect he made. And these sappy vocalists include the very musical but God-awful strangulations of Trumbauer as well as the hoarse, tawny voice and corny rhythmic approach of young Bing Crosby. I know a great many collectors who prize Crosby’s contributions to the Paul Whiteman recordings with Beiderbecke, but I am not one of them. Crosby’s voice only “settled” and his jazz singing only became good from 1932 onwards, roughly two years after he left Whiteman. And I absolutely can’t stomach the Rhythm Boys.

Moreover, there’s a specific musical and cultural reason to remove the bad soloists, singers and arrangements from surrounding Beiderbecke, and that is that it diverts your attention from the pop aesthetic of the 1920s. There is always the danger that, in coming to appreciate what Bix did, listeners may actually come to like the mediocre and poor settings he played in. As a young teenager, even I was a victim of this. I came to think of George Olsen and his Music and Waring’s Pennsylvanians as “hot” bands from the 1920s. Of course, I was very young at the time and rather naïve, and eventually came around; but I know of several people who really LIKE the ephemera that surrounded Beiderbecke’s playing. You can see them every year at the “Bix Fest” in Davenport, Iowa, as well as in any number of Whiteman revival bands that play those God-awful arrangements (along with the five or six good ones). Many people actually think that Whiteman’s recordings of Mississippi Mud and There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears are great records just because Bix plays lead on them, but he just varies the tunes a little rhythmically and does not play solos on them. They’re just pop garbage on which Bix’s cornet is overlaid. Not worth the effort of listening.

The recordings discussed and detailed below may be found here for free streaming while you read.

  1. The Apprentice

The genesis of Beiderbecke’s style is somewhat shrouded in mystery. All that can be discerned by first-hand evidence is that he played the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band over and over again to play along with their cornetist, Nick LaRocca, but in 1921 he met two influential New Orleans musicians, cornetist Emmet Hardy and clarinetist Leon Roppolo, when they came to Davenport and played in a local band for three months. Roppolo’s easy elegance and harmonic audacity clearly made their way into Beiderbecke’s style, but since Hardy never recorded his influence is harder to prove. Nonetheless, Vet Boswell, the youngest and longest-lived of the famous Boswell Sisters, told me in the early 1980s that Bix sounded “just like Emmet.”

We start our journey with three of his earliest recordings, made with the only full-time band of which he was the musical and spiritual leader. This was the Wolverines Orchestra, a hot septet of jazz-inspired college students plus Bix, who never attended college. On the contrary he, like Red Nichols, was sent to a military academy to “straighten him out” when his family realized that he was serious about becoming a musician. Unfortunately for them the military academy at Lake Forest, IL, was in a close proximity to Chicago which was then a hotbed of jazz music. Of the other members of the Wolverines, clarinetist Jimmy Hartwell and pianist Dick Voynow were actually very fine musicians, and it’s a shame that neither had a big jazz career after the band broke up, but with Bix leading the way the band was greater than the sum of its parts. As one can hear in any of their recordings, the band had a loose, relaxed sound, quite different from the hotter, tighter ensemble of their model, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (a.k.a. the Friars’ Society Orchestra). More interestingly, one will note that Beiderbecke’s playing back then was considerably softer and mellower than it later became. He played with very little force, letting his mellow tone ride easily on the breath, and even used a light vibrato in sustained tones which he later dropped. Excursions into the upper range were rare, and he did not attack those notes with much power but rather touched them lightly.

What made his playing stand out, however, and exert such a strong influence on the band as a whole, was his acute sense of rhythmic timing. This was already quite subtle, so much so that to this day scores of his followers and imitators miss it completely. Listening carefully to the Wolverines’ recordings, one hears him riding over the beat with unerring rhythmic precision. He doesn’t “lay into” the beat yet is always squarely in the middle of each quaver while the rhythm section of banjo, piano, bass sax and drums hangs back on the beat ever-so-slightly. This creates a feeling of tension and relaxation at the same time.

In Riverboat Shuffle, we have a rarity for the Wolverines: the world premiere recording of a piece that would become a jazz classic. And even here, one will notice that the note-choices are different, even in the melody line, than those normally played by most “trad jazz” bands who tried to recreate it:

Riverboat Shuffle first line

In Bix’s solo, one of his greatest on record, he completely rewrites the tune using widely-spaced intervals and, unusually for him, downward chromatic slurs, including one note that just hangs suspended through two full bars. His innate sense of Riverboat Shuffleconstruction allowed him to do this while still retaining a sense of proportion; he literally develops his solo much as a classical composer would sit down and write music out. The result, an entirely new tune based on the chords of Riverboat Shuffle, could have been used as a theme for an independent recording of a different title without anyone who knew the original song being any the wiser. This was considerably different from most other jazz improvisers of his time, whose improvs, though indeed different from the original melody, were not new melodies in themselves but rather notes interlaced around the original tune. This probably doesn’t make much sense to a non-musician, but the more conversant you are with jazz the more you’ll understand what I mean. Bix had an innate sense of melodic construction on a par with some of the finest composers of his time, which is why, in the later phase of his career, he could please many non-jazz musicians who didn’t like jazz solos because they weren’t interesting or cohesive.

Throughout this performance you can hear how well clarinetist Hartwell complements not only Beiderbecke individually but the ensemble as a whole. He listened very carefully to what Bix was playing, even when it was just the lead, and responded with real counter-melodies that made perfect sense. Until late in his career, when he played and recorded with Benny Goodman, Bix never had a clarinetist who could do this as effectively.

Thus I have chosen the last chorus only of Susie, an innocuous pop tune of the time that the Wolverines recorded. The more famous take A is good, but the rejected take B, not issued until many decades later in the LP era, is even better. I have left the nice chromatic break in as well as the ensemble that follows it in order to show how well this band worked together, but it is that final chorus, with Beiderbecke playing lead and Hartwell weaving around him, that is sheer magic. Suddenly the whole ensemble gets up and starts swinging; Hartwell, hearing what Bix is doing in holding back slightly on the beat, holds back even more before responding to him. He even listens to the pauses, adding his own as needed. It doesn’t last very long, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

I Need Some Pettin’, a Ted Fiorito song that never became really popular, is the basis for one of the Wolverines’ finest arrangements. Beiderbecke was still a few months away from being introduced, in a full-scale manner, to the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, who were to influence him greatly in the latter phase of his career, but like most jazz musicians of his time he and the band were already being influenced by chromatics and whole tones, which find their way into both the ensemble and George Johnson’s tenor sax solo. Moreover, the whole arrangement of this tune is exceptionally well organized; one even wonders if Bix’s first suspended note, hanging in the air with the light vibrato he would soon dispense of, was originally improvised and then written into the score before recording it. Once again Hartwell is Beiderbecke’s best partner in the final chorus, and the rideout swings in a light, relaxed manner different from most early jazz.

In the fall of 1924 Beiderbecke accepted an offer to join Jean Goldkette’s all-star orchestra in Detroit. Goldkette (1893-1962) was a quixotic figure who claimed to be French and have gotten an American musicians’ union card at the age of 16, but in fact he was born in Patras, Greece, of parents who were not French at all. He also didn’t come to the U.S. until he was 17. He originally lived on a farm in Indiana, then worked in Chicago for a while before settling down i Detroit, where he bought the failing Greystone Ballroom, fixed it up, and made it a prestigious local dance hall. Initially he booked other bands in, but eventually started an orchestra of his own. From the very beginning he sought out the best white jazz talent of his day; by the time Bix joined the band they already had Frank Trumbauer, who would become his best and closest musical partner and friend. Trumbauer (1901-1956), of mixed white and Cherokee ancestry, was the son of a musical mother who directed saxophone and theater orchestras. For whatever reason, Trumbauer bypassed the more common and popular alto, soprano and tenor saxes, instead becoming a virtuoso on the little-used C-melody saxophone. After playing with the Benson Orchestra of Chicago, Ray Miller’s band and the popular Mound City Blue Blowers, he joined Goldkette. One of his first recruits was Beiderbecke, whose playing he admired very much, although on their lone recording date together in 1924 Trumbauer used the pseudonym “George Williams” because he was under contract to the Blue Blowers at the time.

Bix did his best to fit in, but being a weak score reader made it hard for him to cut the sometimes complicated arrangements. He recorded one solo with the band, a full chorus on a weak pop tune called I Didn’t Know, but when he cracked a high note in the last eight bars Victor Records’ A&R man, Eddie King, demanded that he be replaced for the next take. Goldkette responded by letting Bix go, with the caveat that he could return again once he had more professional experience.

  1. The Brilliant Genius Takes Charge

Beiderbecke then went worked in the band of Charlie Straight, then joined Trumbauer, who had left Goldkette voluntarily, in his orchestra in St. Louis. A year and a half later Goldkette begged Trumbauer to return because the band had very little discipline, offering him the position as musical director, but “Tram” would not accept unless Goldkette also re-hired Beiderbecke. Bix’s re-entry into the Goldkette band was a triumphant one. Surrounded by such fine musicians as trumpeter Fred “Fuzzy” Farrar, trombonist Bill Rank, clarinetist Don Murray and especially the New Orleans bassist Steve Brown, the first great bass player in jazz history, he was woven into the fabric of the Goldkette band by their young and innovative new arranger, Bill Challis. Challis wrote a great many hot arrangements for Bix and the orchestra in which he foreshadowed the Swing Era by a decade, including Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down, Clarinet Marmalade, Tiger Rag, I’ve Found a New Baby, The Blue Room, Riverboat Shuffle, Singin’ the Blues, Ostrich Walk and Clementine (From New Orleans), most of which were either never recorded in their day or made their way to records in reduced form, played by Frank Trumbauer’s small orchestra or the six-piece Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang.

The reason for this—once again—was Eddie Smith. A former marching band director, King was adamantly anti-jazz and thus drove most of Victor’s white jazz talent crazy by insisting on sweeter, more melodic arrangements, usually featuring vocalists who could sell the lyrics. He let Paul Whiteman record anything he wanted to because Whiteman was the biggest name and best-seller of his day, but others weren’t so lucky, particularly not an out-of-town group of white guys from Detroit. King wanted to sell records, not the Goldkette band, thus their only two really hot records, My Pretty Girl and Clementine, were made during recording sessions directed by the more jazz-friendly Nathaniel Shilkret.

Goldkette band

A rare photo of the Goldkette band in Detroit with Bix on cornet (third from left), Trumbauer seated in front with Howdy Quicksell, and Goldkette himself pretending to be the band’s pianist!

Of course, Challis managed to stick Bix into most of the records they made, usually playing solo over the ensemble during the ride-out or an occasional break, but the grind became demoralizing. What saved the day on occasion was a trick that Challis came up with: the hot brass trio. He would hear Bix play a solo during a performance of a tune on the bandstand, transcribe it, and then score it for cornet and two trumpets. This became the first hot brass ensemble in jazz history, and Challis continued to write similar scores for Beiderbecke once both of them moved to the Whiteman band.

But first, let’s listen to two samples of the hot portions of otherwise non-hot Goldkette records. First is the out-chorus of the popular tune In My Merry Oldsmobile, recorded and issued on a special non-commercial disc for Oldsmobile Company employees and stockholders. It’s amazing that Bix could maintain his fire playing in such a situation, but he did, and we can hear how the intervening couple of years had led him to revamp his style. No longer was he playing such a “soft” cornet with the light vibrato; he was blowing a tremendous amount of air through his horn, which made the tone considerably brighter without somehow incurring hardness. Jazz guitarist Eddie Condon, with whom he never recorded, once described it as being like “shooting bullets at a bell.” Moreover, we can also hear the greater assurance and harmonic audacity he was now using in his playing.

In Sunday, Challis had to write a conventional opening chorus and bridge which led to a nasal vocal by a rather pathetic vaudeville trio called The Keller Sisters and Lynch. Up through that point, the only interesting feature was a wonderful break by pioneer guitarist Eddie Lang. Neither Lang nor his childhood friend, jazz violinist Joe Venuti, were ever regular members of the Goldkette band—on the contrary, they were under contract to the wealthy, jazz-loving Roger Wolfe Kahn, son of millionaire Otto Kahn—but Kahn allowed his musicians free rein in recording other dates on the side, and they enjoyed playing for Goldkette. (They also made guest appearances in the bands of Don Voorhees and Whiteman himself, though the latter finally did hire the duo once the Kahn band broke up in late 1928.)

But happily there were the Bix and his Gang records and Trumbauer sides, all made for the rival OKeh company at a time when the musicians were otherwise under contract to Victor, and OKeh loved jazz musicians. The sad thing is that Beiderbecke’s own personal exposure through the label was so circumscribed: six sides with sidemen from the Goldkette band, then a year later six more with sidemen from the Whiteman band which were markedly inferior in terms of swing and musical invention (Bix, as usual, excepted). Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down is fascinating due to the fact that, although generally using a reduction of the Challis arrangement for the full Goldkette orchestra, the small band invented their own introduction in which they attack a note together and then slide chromatically upward through a group portamento into the first notes of the melody. Bix is simply crackling here, as he is on all of the 1927 Bix and his Gang sides, and in his brief solo he takes charge and raises the heat to a new level. Bass saxist Adrian Rollini, whose playing was almost as inventive as Bix’s, was also never a regular member of the Goldkette band, but he was well known in the New York area and was only too happy to play on these records with Beiderbecke.

Goose Pimples has a legendary back story, courtesy of Ralph Berton in his book Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age. According to Berton, Beiderbecke dropped by his apartment one afternoon with test pressings of some of the Gang sides under his arm and played them. As usual, he praised every note played by the others and turned up his nose at his own solos, but brought special attention to Goose Pimples. Berton was absolutely thrilled by the last chorus, in which Bix played, unusually, entirely in his high range, blasting out high notes like Louis Armstrong, but Beiderbecke wasn’t fazed. “You like that thing?” he asked when it was finished. “You’re as dumb as they are…they (the record company) liked it, too.” He then pointed out that he accidentally came in during Frank Signorelli’s piano solo (you can hear it on the record) and thus thought the take was ruined, so at another point he played a corny, two-note “Charleston lick.” But the engineer gave no sign of stopping the recording; rather, he encouraged him to go on; and so Bix, in a rare fit of pique, got angry and blasted out the last chorus through his horn as a protest. Whether you choose to believe the story or not, it is certainly one of Beiderbecke’s most exciting recordings.

On October 13, 1926, the Goldkette orchestra played in a “battle of the bands” at the Roseland Ballroom in New York opposite Fletcher Henderson’s highly-touted group. Filled with such sizzling soloists as trumpeters Joe Smith and Tommy Ladnier, clarinetist Buster Bailey and star tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, the Henderson band went first and trotted out their hottest arrangements. In response, the Goldkette musicians counted off a 6/8 beat and played the popular Spanish tune, Valencia, which made the Henderson musicians laugh. But they weren’t laughing that hard when the band then launched into My Pretty Girl, in which Bix rode the brasses down from start to finish and there were hot solos along the way by clarinetist Danny Polo, alto saxist Doc Ryker, and Steve Brown’s powerhouse bass stomping on down behind Bix and the trumpet section.

The Henderson band of the 1920s was a powerhouse organization that prided itself on being able to play in difficult keys, such as F-sharp and D-flat. Their soloists were all virtuosi; but the band didn’t swing so much as it stomped. The stomp rhythm was one inherited from New Orleans but filtered through the melisma of New York jazz during the Prohibition Era. It was more of a 2/4 than a 4/4 beat, and the various soloists all played fast, flashy, and virtuosic. Coleman Hawkins, in particular, was not the same tenor saxist who wowed audiences of the Swing Era with his moody, well-sculpted solos, but rather a virtuoso who loaded up his playing with rapid triplets and double-time runs. That being said, the band generated a great deal of heat.

I’ve tried to recreate the feeling of this band battle by choosing three hot tunes played by both orchestras—although recorded by the full Goldkette band in only one instance. Interestingly, one of the pieces in the Goldkette book—unrecorded, like so much of their best work—was The Stampede, a Henderson specialty. First up is Henderson’s 1926 recording of Clarinet Marmalade, one of their few performances of a Dixieland standard, updated here by the resourceful arranger Don Redman. At times, the Henderson band’s ensemble playing could be surprisingly sloppy, but in these tracks it is tight and crisp. Of the soloists presented, the most interesting by far is New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, whose playing is original and full of surprises.

But as cornetist Rex Stewart said years later, Bix just devastated all of them with his brilliance, his drive, and his swing. Although the full Goldkette band didn’t record Challis’ arrangement of Clarinet Marmalade, we turn to the Trumbauer recording, where Beiderbecke dominates from start to finish. Indeed, he is playing with so much ferocity and energy here that he undoubtedly overwhelmed the band in the recording studio…you can hear it. There’s also an interesting variation on the original tune played by Bix and a couple of reeds in the middle of the piece, a passage far more sophisticated than anything the Henderson band was doing at the time.

sorryThe Henderson recording of Sorry proves that it wasn’t just Goldkette who was sometimes saddled with sappy vocalists, although in this case the singer is Andy Razaf, one of Fats Waller’s regular lyricists. I couldn’t cut the vocal in this case because there is a surprise key chance at the end of it, typical of Henderson’s and Redman’s flashy style. As an overall performance it is more interesting and flashier than the Bix and his Gang version that follows it, but again, listen to Bix. In addition to his newfound power in playing lead, he now uses minute time fractioning in the beats, holding back or pressing ahead by a millisecond in order to propel the whole band. Bill Rank’s trombone solo almost sounds pathetic by comparison: he clearly can’t keep up with the cornetist, though he tries to be clever. This is pretty much Bix’s record from start to finish. I deleted Don Murray’s clarinet solo that opened it because it was choppy and unswinging, misleading the ear for what was to come.

Since the Henderson band didn’t seem to play or record My Pretty Girl until 1931, I led off here with the Goldkette performance. This is one of their great gems, with Bix lifting the rhythm and pounding down the brass trio from start to finish. The mostly very fine remake by the Nichols-Duffee International Jazz Orchestra from October 2012 lacks bite in the brass because, as I’ve said several times, no one ever played or plays cornet with the forceful attack or brilliant tone that Beiderbecke possessed. Venuti pops in here on violin for a few breaks, though he wasn’t a member of the band. Trumbauer’s little 8-bar solo towards the end fits in very nicely as well.

My Pretty GirlThe Henderson version is actually pretty good, but despite having five years to come up with a version it still can’t hold a candle to the Goldkette recording. Fine solos abound—by this time, Hawkins was starting to play more orderly and less flashy solos—and in this instance I was able to delete the pathetic-sounding vocal. Taken on its own merits it’s a very good performance, but it’s still not Bix, the brasses, and Steve Brown. Not even close.

Clementine (From New Orleans) was a popular song of the time that Challis arranged for the band, but by the time they recorded it it had been modified somewhat by Murray, Trumbauer and Howdy Quicksell. It’s one of Goldkette’s rare masterpieces, taken at a relaxed but swinging medium tempo with everyone pitching in. For once, Beiderbecke doesn’t dominate; his solo sounds natural, as if it has been written out for him. On this date Venuti was absent but Lang was in, playing some nice fills on guitar.

Another great Challis arrangement that wasn’t recorded by the full band was Three Blind Mice, subtitled “Rhythmic Theme in Advanced Harmony.” Somehow or other, the nine-piece band assembled for this recording date sounds like a full orchestra and does complete justice to the piece. From the catchy little intro to the finale, the richness of the scoring, filling in the lower harmonies with Rank’s trombone and Adrian Rollini’s bass sax, impresses one with its relaxed swing and continual inventiveness. This is almost as great a recording as Clementine, and once again Bix stars with a sterling solo yet falls back into the ensemble when he’s finished to give Lang a shot at a solo, yet it is Rollini who almost matches Beiderbecke’s brilliance. To show you how unfocused he was, however, he rerecorded this tune less than two months later with a small band of Goldkette men (and Lang) under the name of the Chicago Loopers, and the performance is loose, sloppy and unremarkable except for the solo contributions of Tram and Bix, the latter clearly not at his best. Clarinetist Don Murray, in particular, sounds squally and off-key.

Singing the BluesSingin’ the Blues, one of Challis’ finest scores, is given in reductio here by the Trumbauer septet (the Henderson orchestra recorded the full arrangement in 1931 with Rex Stewart playing Bix’s solo as a tribute to him). Everything in this perfect little gem works to perfection, with Beiderbecke’s solo—the one considered his greatest—crowning the whole like a golden tiara. By contrast, I’m Coming, Virginia is a limp noodle of a record. I’ve included Tram’s bridge as an indication of how sad and pathetic everyone sounds on this record…until Bix lights up the sky with his gem of a solo. Truly, a musical voice crying in the darkness.

When you listen to these recordings, you realize that Challis was rightly considered the jazz arranger who blurred the distinction between 2/4 Dixieland time and the 4/4 beat that became popular after 1932, but with no disrespect to Challis you wonder if it wasn’t a case of the cart (Beiderbecke) leading the horse (Challis), since he would clearly not have had some of these ideas were it not for Bix.

  1. The Impressionist

Fully conversant with the harmonic language if not the form of French classical music, Beiderbecke began noodling at the piano, his second instrument, which he played competently if not brilliantly, searching for melodic lines to suit what he heard in his mind. As usual, he didn’t think very highly of his efforts, but Challis and Trumbauer did and encouraged him. He made a couple of records in which he accompanied Tram at the keyboard (Wringin’ and Twistin’ and For No Reason at All in C), but shied away from recording any original pieces. Challis wove whole-tone scales and advanced harmonies into his Goldkette arrangement of Riverboat Shuffle, one of the few piece that Bix recorded twice that were brilliant in both incarnations. Sped up to a hot Charleston pace, the music sizzled and burned in Trumbauer’s recording of it, with Lang and Beiderebecke front and center in the harmonic development. Note, too, how Challis re-wrote the introduction to the piece to fit this new concept.

In a MistOn September 8, 1927, Trumbauer convinced the A&R man at OKeh records to let Bix improvise an entire piece at the keyboard. It was arranged that he would tap Beiderbecke on the shoulder when they had a half-minute to go on the recording so he could wrap things up. The result was In a Mist, surely one of the most unique and original pieces of music composed during the Jazz Age, although some writers have had the audacity to relegate it to the category of “novelty piano” like Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys. In a little under three minutes, Beiderbecke created whole cloth out of threads and scraps of ideas that he had floating around in his mind. After it was issued as a recording, the music publisher Robbins contacted Bix and asked to publish it. They also asked him to write three more such pieces to create a “suite.” Since Bix wasn’t a good reader, he had Challis transcribe the recording for him, but wasn’t happy with In a Mist the way it stood and wanted a contrasting theme in the middle. Unable to conjure one up, Jack Teagarden whistled the bridge, Challis wrote it down, and it became part of the piece.

In a Mist music

Of the three remaining piano pieces Beiderbecke composed, Candlelights was the most “complete” and interesting, but he never recorded it himself. Eight years after Beiderbecke’s death pianist Jess Stacy, who had heard Bix play the piece for him at his apartment once, recreated the composer’s own style in a remarkable recording for Commodore. I have included it here because it does indeed sound a great deal like Beiderbecke himself, with that slightly angular sense of rhythm and forward propulsion that 99% of pianists who play the piece miss entirely. In 1938 pianist-arranger Joe Lippman scored all four of Bix’s piano pieces for a small band led by trumpeter Roland “Bunny” Berigan. The recordings were remarkably good and artistically successful, one of the first such instances of a later jazz musician re-imagining the jazz-classical hybrids of a predecessor.

  1. Whiteman Days

In September of 1927 Jean Goldkette, no longer able to meet the payroll for his band of high-priced stars, was forced to disband. Many people, myself included, assumed that this was the last “Jean Goldkette and his Orchestra” before the late-‘50s revival, but this was not so. He managed to create a new orchestra of fine but lesser-known musicians in 1928, which he kept going for two years, while also managing the hot bands of William McKinney and a Canadian group called the Orange Blossoms. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, as his band was called, played loosely arranged hot jazz and was pretty much passé by 1930, but the Orange Blossoms continued to thrive, changed their name to the Casa Loma Orchestra, and named sacist Glen Gray Knoblaugh as their leader despite being one of the first co-op bands.

But the big-name Goldkette musicians were now on their own. A clutch of them received an almost immediate offer from Paul Whiteman, the self-dubbed “King of Jazz,” whose bloated, overblown dance and concert orchestra only dipped a toe in jazz occasionally. They turned him down, preferring to go into an orchestra being formed by their friend and jazz colleague, bass saxist Adrian Rollini. Rollini’s “New Yorkers” band was pretty much an all-star bunch that included five of Goldkette’s biggest names: Bix, Tram, Don Murray, Bill Rank and Chauncey Morehouse (with Challis as arranger). They landed a good gig at a prestigious New York restaurant and a brief recording contract with OKeh, where they mysteriously recorded under the name of “Benny Meroff and his Orchestra,” but in late October there was a serious fire in the restaurant and they had to close, leaving the band out of work. After scuffling around town for a week or two, Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, Steve Brown and Challis finally accepted a lucrative offer from Whiteman and the “jazz invasion” of the “dancing elephant band” was on.

I have broken my rule of omitting weak introductions and vocals from recordings in the case of Mary (What’re You Waitin’ For), a Walter Donaldson tune, because it illustrates more clearly than almost any other Whiteman band of the period what they were fitting into. After a harmonically angular but weak-sounding intro, the first soloist we hear is not Bix but Henry “Hot Lips” Busse, the German muted-trumpet player who was a big favorite of the Whiteman crowd. Following this, however, a Bix-led brass trio backed by Brown on bass comes storming into the picture, livening up the proceedings considerably; then a sappy violin transition, and we hear young Bing Crosby’s slightly hoarse high baritone and rather corny phrasing singing the lyrics. After this there is a Trumbauer-led reed trio playing a variant on the melody, Beiderbecke playing a seven-bar solo, then Busse returns before Bix, Brown and the brasses shout him down and ride out the record. A weird mixture of styles, indeed.

This was not, however, Beiderbecke’s first recording for Whiteman. That took place two days earlier in another Donaldson tune, Changes, which was dominated by Crosby and his “hot” vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys. Bix only appears in the last part of the record for a full-chorus solo, but what a solo! It is the first of his to be played entirely muted, something his fans weren’t used to hearing, but even with the mute in he is expelling so much air through the horn that the cornet tone burns itself into the brain. Repeated listening to this solo will pay dividends, showing you just how brilliantly Bix could compose entirely new tunes on the chords of a pop dud.

The band’s first full-scaled hot experiment was Challis’ new arrangement of a 1924 Whiteman hit, San. Here he applied the concept of the hot brass trio as he had worked it out with Goldkette, but instead of using Steve Brown on bass he chose to bring in Bix’s old bandmate from the Wolverines, Min Leibrook, on bass sax, evidently like the effect that Rollini’s bass sax had in the “Bix and his Gang” sides. But Leibrook couldn’t swing like either Rollini or Brown, drummer Hal McDonald kept hitting the cymbals on the wrong accent beats, and the resultant performances, though exciting for Beiderbecke, came out stiffly for the rest of the band. They struggled through eight takes on January 12, 1928, each one being stiffer than the last, and eventually chose to release take 6 in 1928 because Bix was at his freshest here, creating a truly interesting solo in the first chorus. A decade later, however, Victor chose to replace it with take 8 because in take 6 the brasses rushed the beat somewhat in the first bar, and also because, although Beiderbecke was not as inventive, what he played clearly “fit in” better with the original melody. This then became the preferred take of this tune forever more on 78 and LP. I have, however, chosen the earlier take because of its freshness of conception. Obviously, someone back in 1928 clearly felt this was the version to issue, and all in all I can’t complain.

From Monday OnWhiteman’s next really hot record was From Monday On, a song written by Crosby and his fellow Rhythm Boy Harry Barris. Here I included the five-and-a-half vocal intro to Bix’s incendiary solo as sung by the Rhythm Boys to indicate what he had to put up with, but have omitted Crosby’s solo. To hear Bix rip into the record, particularly on the early take from February 13, 1928, will hit your consciousness like an exploding bomb. Arranger Matty Malneck wrote a surprisingly hot chorus for three jazz violins, , following which a cornet trio of Bix, Charlie Margulis and Jimmy Dorsey stomp it on down for two full choruses with Steve Brown’s bass kicking butt in the background. It is certainly one of the most exciting jazz records that Whiteman ever made, but for some strange reason it was withheld from publication. More takes were made 15 days later, and this is the session from which the 1928 recording was issued, but by this time Brown had quit, Leibrook on bass sax. The take with Brown on bass wasn’t issued until 1938, a decade after it was recorded. when it became an instant classic.

One would think, in jumping from Mary to San and From Monday On, that Whiteman was taking a very “hot” approach to his new book, but you’d be wrong. Between those sessions were a slew of recordings that were anything but hot—Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, Ol’ Man River, Together, Ramona, O Ya Ya, Dolly Dimples, My Heart Stood Still, Back in Your Own Back Yard, Chloe, A Shady Tree and Sunshine—mixed in with a few good discs like Dardanella, Lonely Melody and There Ain’t No Sweet Man. This grind really got to Tommy Dorsey, who threw in the towel at the end of 1927, to be replaced by former Goldkette trombonist Bill Rank, in addition to Brown. Apparently the last straw for Brown was the February 14, 1928 session, which produced the deathless Grand Fantasia from Wagneriana, Parts 1 & 2. Brown was gone by the next day (February 15), on which tuba player Mike Trafficate briefly switched to string bass, with Leibrook coming in permanently soon after.

Since Whiteman’s orchestra played far more gigs and made many more recordings than Goldkette’s, the grind really started to get to Beiderbecke. Still drinking heavily, he was sometimes so confused that he didn’t know where he was or supposed to go. There’s a famous story of one gig for which he missed the band’s train, having slept in, so he chartered a private plane and arrived hours before the orchestra. He checked into his hotel room and, being early, laid down for a nap. You don’t have to guess the rest. Bix slept through the entire gig, waking up with a hangover around 2 in the morning.

By April 1928 Bix started playing muted more often because it saved him the energy of trying to play so forcefully all the time. Challis wrote a particularly nice arrangement of Louisiana for him, from which I have only removed Crosby’s vocal. A nice, Trumbauer-led reed trio plays a variant on the melody after the introduction, then came Crosby’s vocal and Bix’s wonderful full-chorus solo. I have spliced together both of his solos from the different takes to illustrate how inventive and original he could be, even a few minutes apart. It was said that the issued take strongly influenced tenor saxist Lester Young, who based his song Tickle Toe on it, but had he heard the alternate take, Tickle Toe might have turned out quite differently!

In the spring of 1928 Whiteman accepted a lucrative two-year deal to switch labels from Victor to Columbia. In addition to paying him more per side, Columbia also gave him his own special label, with a cartoon image of his head next to his name in large letters. These became known among musicians as the “Whiteman potato head” records. The sound was bright and clear but glassy, giving added brilliance to Beiderbecke’s cornet but robbing the orchestra of some of its warmth. Whiteman made a promotional film short celebrating his new contract, and in this film you can see Beiderbecke step into camera range with the trumpets, playing a muted trio on a corny pop tune called My Old Ohio Home. Even in black and white you can’t miss the fact that his eyes are badly bloodshot. He was clearly going further downhill in health. Whiteman purportedly tried to mitigate the damage by having Bix share train berths and hotel rooms with Crosby, but Bing was himself a heavy drinker in those years so it didn’t help a whole lot.

Felix the CatThere were some hot records made for Columbia, particularly China Boy and the last hot-brass-trio disc, Oh! You Have No Idea, but for the most part Whiteman was pursuing an even more commercial path during his time with the label. An interesting exception is Felix the Cat, a really burning arrangement by Tom Satterfield (another one of the band’s talented but hopeless alcoholics) marred by the emasculated vocal of one Austin “Skin” Young and some corny cat meows during Bix’s solo spots. Nonetheless, I’ve distilled the best of this side to indicate once again how the young cornetist from Davenport could transform a piece of schlock.

Bix wasn’t so lucky when Whiteman asked Challis to write an arrangement of Sweet Sue for his “concert band.” Challis should have seen what was coming but accepted anyway. The first half of the record is a dismal affair, with a bland oboe solo, meandering strings and continual slow-downs of the tempo; then, after an uptempo muted brass break, we finally hear Beiderbecke playing a full chorus into a derby. It is one of his greatest solos of all time, perhaps underrated because of all the ephemera surrounding it. I have included just the solo and the final (slowed down) chorus as an example.

In 1929, Challis scored his small-band arrangement of Singin’ the Blues for a fuller orchestra, using the Trumbauer-led reed chorus and writing out Bix’s solo for him to play, but when Beiderbecke tried it he said it was unplayable! Not wanting to waste the score, he and Trumbauer called on jazz-friendly vaudeville singer Bee Palmer to sing Bix’s chorus to the original lyrics, which she did. The record was made, and was supposed to be issued under the cumbersome credit of “Paul Whiteman Presents Frank Trumbauer and his Orchestra with Bee Palmer,” but Palmer’s shrill, nasal voice so disturbed the Columbia executives that they shelved the record and never released it. It has since turned up on YouTube for free streaming.

  1. The Bix-Tram chase choruses

Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were particularly noted among musicians for the astounding brilliance of their chase choruses, those moments where two musicians share two- or four-bar exchanges. Because Tram really listened carefully to Bix and vice-versa, they were always able to dovetail their ideas into one unbroken improvisation lasting an entire chorus. Trumbauer shared Beiderbecke’s love of whole tones and unusual harmonies, but his approach was always slightly different. He was the sly, whimsical commentator to Beiderbecke’s more audacious and sometimes more aggressive approach.

I have included the three best and most famous of their chase choruses, shorn of the pop ephemera that surrounded them. Just an Hour of Love, a sappy pop tune played by Rollini’s New Yorkers, had the chase chorus follow a bland vocal by Irving Kaufman. Again, it is astounding how completely Bix could rewrite a tune at the drop of a hat. This ability has led many scribes to attribute this to his “wearing blinders” and his “indomitable spirit,” but I don’t think it was either. He was always thinking ahead to what he could do to improve a tune, often by just a bar, before jumping in and doing so. Indeed, in certain songs that simply had uninteresting chord changes, like Dardanella and There Ain’t No Sweet Man, his playing was as unexceptional as the tune no matter how much time he had to come in, whereas songs with quick-moving chords piqued his interest.

BorneoI have included the whole of Borneo, except for Scrappy Lambert’s corny vocal (with its racist lyrics), in order to illustrate how well the duo could operate when they were running the show themselves. This recording is remarkable for the clear and brilliant high note that Bix hits at the end of the eight-bar intro as much as for the chase chorus, which in this case includes pregnant pauses and a moment where both soloists dovetail each other. On the Whiteman recording of Rodgers and Hart’s You Took Advantage of Me, despite the stiff performance and corny arrangement, Beiderbecke was clearly engaged mentally in the proceedings which allowed him and Trumbauer to produce a masterpiece.

Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home was recorded in April 1929, when Bix was clearly struggling with control and so continued to play solos into a derby. It’s not a chase chorus in the sense that the previous three recordings are, but rather a full chorus by Trumbauer followed by a full chorus by Beiderbecke, yet the musical telepathy these two shared was clearly still intact. Trumbauer’s strained-sounding vocal has been omitted.

Shortly after this session, Bix collapsed onstage during a performance with the Whiteman band. Paul sent him home with strict instructions to dry out and return “a new man.” When Bix arrived at the family homestead, he discovered to his shock and dismay that all of the recordings he had been sending home to his family to listen to, even the ones with the highly-prized Whiteman, were sitting on the top shelf of the hall closed, still in their stiff cardboard envelopes, unopened and unplayed. His family didn’t care about his career.

Bix did indeed dry out—it took nearly a year—and returned to New York, perhaps not in the pink of health but certainly better than when he left it. He kept telling jazz cronies like Eddie Condon, Trumbauer and others that he wanted to study music seriously and become a composer. Why he didn’t just do so remains yet one more unanswered question in a brief life filled with them. Surely he could have gone to Duke Ellington, if no one else, and ask for help. I’m sure Ellington would have been happy to direct him to Will Vodery, the man who taught him all he knew about classical form and composition. But Bix just fell back into his old life of boozing around and grabbing recording dates when he could, and in short order he was clearly in no shape to return to Whiteman.

  1. The prophet of Swing

It can, I think, be said that Beiderbecke was a harbinger of the Swing Era just as he was a harbinger of early bop and cool jazz. There weren’t many musicians, black or white, who could play with the rhythmic looseness and invention he displayed: Louis Armstrong, certainly; Jimmy Harrison, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and drummer Gene Krupa. Those were about it in 1930. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to fall into their orbit for some of his last great recordings.

Prior to this, however—in fact, prior to his breakdown—Beiderbecke played on a particularly good Matty Malneck arrangement of Jimmy McHugh’s popular song Futuristic Rhythm. Malneck, who also wrote the arrangement of From Monday On, doesn’t get much credit in many Beiderbecke biographies, but the wonderful rolling beat of this performance and the relaxed rhythm of the brasses mark it as an exceptional example of early swing. Critics note the one cracked top note in Bix’s solo without crediting his remarkable construction, and in the ride-out with Andy Secrest both cornetists play excellent lip trills in unison. I’ve removed Trumbauer’s vocal from this one, too.

As mentioned earlier, Beiderbecke was in poor shape for the May 21 recording session, the only one he ever made with an African-American musician…and not an insignificant one, either. James “Bubber” Miley was Duke Ellington’s first great grow trumpeter, and some think the best he ever had, but like Bix, Bubber was a chronic alcoholic and was fired by Ellington in early 1929 for missing gigs and being drunk on the job (Cootie Williams replaced him). Miley lived only one year longer than Bix, and in this recording of Rockin’ Chair there is a remarkable moment when Bubber opens up and takes charge with a hard, gritty solo and Bix falls in behind him, playing downward bluesy slurs. This moment only lasts a few seconds, but it is superb nonetheless. It also doesn’t hurt that both are kicked along by the persuasive drumming of Gene Krupa.

Krupa was also present on the Beiderbecke recording session of September 15, which produced two takes of a really bad song called Deep Down South with an equally bad vocal by one Wesley Vaughan. But Benny Goodman was also on that session, and the three of them—Bix, Benny and Gene—wake up and discover the Swing Era five years early in the final choruses. Likewise, the second tune recorded on May 21, Barnacle Bill the Sailor, somehow woke Beiderbecke out of his stupor and kicked him a decade into the future. The song itself is pretty silly, sung in 6/8 time by Hoagy Carmichael and Carson Robison, but Joe Venuti’s eventual refrain of “Barnacle Bill the shithead” seemed to loosen everyone up for the hot interludes. The first featured Beiderbecke and Krupa, the second Goodman, Bud Freeman and Krupa. I’ve spliced them together to give you 40 seconds of the hottest swing music you’ll ever hear in your life!

We end our survey of Bix Beiderbecke playing Strut, Miss Lizzie, again with Goodman and Krupa, this time adding a chorus by the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. Venuti is also on hand to contribute a hootchy-koochie violin break and make fart noises through his hands during the ride-out. A strange but somehow endearing record, which by rights should have been Bix’s last.

So where are we now in regards to Bix Beiderbecke? Have you come to see and hear him in a different light from how you thought of him before? Has this article enhanced your appreciation of him? I’d like to know. As much as I adored Bix during my teen years and into my early 30s, I pushed him aside for a long while in order to pursue and learn about other, more contemporary musicians whose music I also loved, but when you return to him and strip away all the ephemera around him, what you’re left with—the distillation of his musical essence—is still pretty amazing. What a shame he could never get it together.

Bix headstone

  1. Riverboat Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael-Dick Voynow)/The Wolverines Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke, ct; Jimmy Hartwell, cl; George Johnson, t-sax; Dick Voynow, pn; Bobby Gillette, bj; Min Leibrook, tuba; Vic Moore, dm. (May 6, 1924)
  2. Susie [take B] (Clayton Naset-Gus Kahn)/same as above.
  1. I Need Some Pettin’ (Gus Kahn-Ted Fiorito-Bob King)/same personnel (June 20, 1924)
  1. In My Merry Oldsmobile (Bryan-Edwards)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: Fred Farrar, Ray Lodwig, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Bill Rank, Newell “Spiegle” Willcox, tb; “Doc” Ryker, a-sax; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/bar-sax; Eddie Lang, gt; Joe Venuti, vln; Irving Riskin, pn; “Howdy” Quicksell, bj; Steve Brown, bs; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (May 23, 1927)
  1. Sunday (Benny Krueger-Ned Miller-Jules Styne-Chester Cohn)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same personnel as above (October 15, 1926)
  1. Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down (Ray Lodwig-Howdy Quicksell)/Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang: Beiderbecke, ct; Bill Rank, tb; Don Murray, cl; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Frank Signorelli, pn; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (October 25, 1927)
  1. Goose Pimples (Trent-Henderson)/same as above.
  1. Clarinet Marmalade (Larry Shields-Henry Ragas)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Tommy Ladnier, tpt; Joe Smith, ct; Benny Morton, tb; Buster Bailey, cl/s-sax/a-sax; Don Redman, cl/a-sax/arr; Coleman Hawkins, cl/t-sax/bar-sax; Fletcher Henderson, pn; Charlie Dixon, bj; June Cole, tuba; Kaiser Marshall, dm. (December 8, 1926)
  1. Clarinet Marmalade (Larry Shields-Henry Ragas)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Bill Rank, tb; Paul Mertz, pn; Quicksell, bj; Morehouse, dm. (February 4, 1927)
  1. Sorry (Raymond Klages-Howdy Quicksell)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, tpt; Joe Smith, ct; Bailey, cl/s-sax;a-sax; Jerome Pasquall, cl/a-sax; Hawkins, cl/t-sax/bar-sax; Frank Skinner, arr; Andy Razaf, voc; Henderson, pn; Dixon, bj; Cole, tuba; Marshall, dm. (November 26, 1927)
  1. Sorry (Raymond Klages-Howdy Quicksell)/Bix Beiderbecke & his Gang: same as Goose Pimples.
  1. My Pretty Girl (Charles Fulcher)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same as Merry Oldsmobile, but Danny Polo (cl) repl. Murray; Paul Mertz (pn) repl. Riskin; add Joe Venuti, Ed Sheasby, vln. (February 1, 1927)
  1. My Pretty Girl (Charles Fulcher)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Rex Stewart, ct; Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, tpt; Jimmy Harrison, Claude Jones, tb; Benny Carter, cl/a-sax; Harvey Boone, a-sax; Hawkins, cl/t-sax; Henderson, pn; Clarence Holiday, gt; John Kirby, tuba/bs; Walter Johnson, dm. (May 2, 1931)
  1. Clementine (From New Orleans) (Creamer-Warren)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same as Merry Oldsmobile, but add Joe Venuti (vln). (September 15, 1927)
  1. Three Blind Mice [Rhythmic Theme in Advanced Harmony] (Chauncey Morehouse, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/bar-sax; Rank, tb; Ryker, a-sax; Rollini, bs-sax; Riskin, pn; Lang, gt; Morehouse, dm. (August 25, 1927)
  1. Singin’ the Blues (J. Russel Robinson-Con Conrad)/Frankie Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Miff Mole, tbn; Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Paul Mertz, pn; Lang, gt; Morehouse, dm. (February 4, 1927)
  1. I’m Comin’, Virginia (Cook-Heywood, arr. Riskin)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: same personnel as Three Blind Mice (May 13, 1927)
  1. Riverboat Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael-Dick Voynow, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Rank, Trumbauer, Ryker, Murray, Raskin, Lang, Morehouse. (May 9, 1927)
  1. In a Mist (Bix Beiderbecke)/Bix Beiderbecke, pn (September 8, 1927)
  1. Candlelights (Bix Beiderbecke)/Jess Stacy, pn (January 18, 1939)
  1. (What’re You Waitin’ For) Mary (Walter Donaldson, arr. Matty Malneck)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Henry Busse, Charles Margulis, tpt; Bix Beiderbecke, ct; Tommy Dorsey, tb; Wilbur Hall, tb/bj; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, Harold McLean, Chester Hazlett, cl/a-sax; Charles Strickfaden, t-sax; Kurt Dieterle, Mischa Russell, Matty Malneck, Mario Perry, vln; Harry Perrella, pn; Steve Brown, bs; Mike Trafficante, tuba; Mike Pingitore, bj; Hal McDonald, dm; Bing Crosby, voc. (November 25, 1927)
  1. Changes (Walter Donaldson)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: as above, but add Nye Mayhew, bar-sax. (November 23, 1927)
  1. San (Lindsay McPhail-Walter Michaels, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Charlie Margulis, tpt; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/tpt; Bill Rank, tb; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Min Leibrook, bs-sax; Matty Malneck, vln; Bill Challis, pn; Carl Kress, gtr; Hal McDonald, dm. (January 12, 1928)
  1. From Monday On (Harry Barris-Bing Crosby, arr. Malneck)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Margulis, Jimmy Dorsey, ct; Bill Rank, tb; Hazlett, Strickfaden, Rube Crozier, Roy Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, vln; Harry Barris, pn; Brown, bs; Trafficante, tuba; Pingitore, bj; McDonald, dm; Rhythm Boys, voc. (February 13, 1928)
  1. Louisiana (Johnson-Schafer-Razaf, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Henry Busse, Margulis, Eddie Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Boyce Cullen, Hall, Rank, Jack Fulton, tb; Frank Trumbauer, Hazlett, Irving Friedman, Strickfaden, Crozier, Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, John Bouman, Charles Gaylord, vln; Roy Bargy, pn; Lennie Hayton, cel; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba/bs-sax; McDonald, dm. Composite of takes 1 & 3 (April 23, 1928)
  1. Felix the Cat (Kortlander-Wendling, arr. Satterfield)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Margulis, Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Boyce Cullen, Rank, Hall, tb; Hazlett, Maier, a-sax; Crozier, t-sax; Trumbauer, C-sax; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, vln; Roy Bargy, pn; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba; George Marsh, dm. (May 25, 1928)
  1. Sweet Sue (Harris-Young, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Margulis, Pinder, Harry Goldfield, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Cullen, Hall, Rank, Fulton, tb; Trumbauer, Hazlett, Friedman, Maier, Strickfaden, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, Gaylord, Bouman, vln; Bargy, pn; Lennie Hayton, cel; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba; Marsh, dm. (September 18, 1928)
  1. Just an Hour of Love (Trent-DeRose-Von Tilzer)/Benny Meroff & his Orchestra: Frank Cush, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Rank, tb; Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/t-sax; Bobby Davis, a-sax; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Signorelli, pn; Lang, bj; Joe Venuti, vln; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (September 30, 1927)
  1. Borneo (Walter Donaldosn, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beibderbecke, ct; Margulis, tpt; Rank, tb; Irving “Itzy” Friedman, cl/t-sax; Trumbauer, C-sax; Hazlett, a-sax; Malneck, vln; Hayotn, pn; Lang, gtr; Leibrook, bs-sax; McDonald, dm. (April 10, 1928)
  1. You Took Advantage of Me (Rodgers-Hart, arr. Satterfield)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Busse, Margulis, Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Cullen, Hall, Rank, Fulton, tb; Trumbauer, Hazlett, Friedman, Strickfaden, Crozier, Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, Bouman, Gaylord, vln; Bargy, Hayton, pn; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba/bs-sax; George Marsh, dm. (April 25, 1928)
  1. Baby Won’t You Please Come Home? (Warfield-Williams, arr. Malneck)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Andy Secrest, ct; Rank, tb; Trumbauer, C-sax; Friedman, cl/t-sax; Hazlett, a-sax; Malneck, vln; Bargy, pn; “Snoozer” Quinn, gt; Leibrook, bs-sax; Stan King, dm. (April 17, 1929)
  1. Futuristic Rhythm (Jimmy McHugh, arr. Malneck)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: as above, but Lennie Hayton repl. Barby, pn. (March 8, 1929)
  1. Rockin’ Chair (Hoagy Carmichael)/Hoagy Carmichael & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Bubber Miley, tpt; Tommy Dorsey, tb; Benny Goodman, cl; Arnold Brilhart, a-sax; Bud Freeman, Larry Binyon, t-sax; Irving Brodsky, pn; Venuti, vln; Lang, gtr; Harry Goodman, tuba; Gene Krupa, dm. (May 21, 1930)
  1. Deep Down South (Collins-Green)/Bix Beiderbecke & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Ray Lodwig, tpt; Boyce Cullen, tb; Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Bud Freeman, t-sax; Leibrook, bs-sax; Venuti, vln; Lang, gtr; Brodsky, pn; Krupa, dm. (September 8, 1930)
  1. Barnacle Bill the Sailor (Luther-Robison)/same as Rockin’ Chair.
  1. Strut Miss Lizzie (Creamer-Layton)/Irving Mills’ Hotsy-Totsy Gang: Beiderbecke, ct; Lodwig, tpt; Jack Teagarden, tb; Goodman, cl/a-sax; Binyon, t-sax; Venuti, 1 unknown, vln; Leibrook, bs-sax; Signorelli, pn; Lew Green, gt; Krupa, dm. (June 6, 1930)

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Cervini’s Turboprop “Revs” Up the Heat

Turboprop - REV - Cover Art

REV / FARRUGIA: The Libertine. CERVINI: Granada Bus. Rev. B. SMITH: No Rain. RADIOHEAD: The Daily Mail. JOHNSTON: Pennies From Heaven. LOOMIS: Ranthem. CARN: Arc of Instability / Tara Davidson, a-sax/s-sax; Joel Frahm, t-sax; William Carn, tb; Adrean Farrugia, pn; Dan Loomis, bs; Ernesto Cervini, dm / Anzic Records ANZ-0059

This CD, titled Rev, is the second by drummer Ernesto Cervini’s little band Turboprop, which will be released on October 27 of this year. Cervini makes it clear that “although I am the band-leader, Turboprop truly feels like a collective due to the passion, commitment and love everybody brings to each performance.”

Ernesto Cervini

Ernesto Cervini

The opening piece, Adrean Farrugia’s The Libertine, is a case in point. It’s a wonderful post-bop kind of piece, with a loosely-structured tune around which all ensembles and improvs are based, and I was struck by how rich the sound was from the combination of only three horns (alto sax, tenor sax and trombone). Farrugia is, appropriately, the first up in the solo department, feeding single-note lines from the right hand with intermittent chording from the left as Cervini ramps up the excitement behind him on drums. Despite the group feel that he encourages, there is no question that this is the drummer’s band, just as Gene Krupa’s and Buddy Rich’s were theirs. Without his participation and guidance, the band would lack a considerable amount of voltage. Frahm enters next, playing an excitable tenor solo with occasional squeals in the top range, pursuing a vibratoless sound à la Coltrane. An ensemble built around ling-held notes then ensues with Farrugia playing florid fills on the keyboard and Cervini keeping up the energy in the background.

Tara Davidson

Tara Davidson

The drummer’s own piece, Granada Bus, comes next. It is built around a sort of 6/8 beat played by the bass that is overlaid on the straight 4 of the rest of the band. I was struck by the unusual quality of the melodic line which, appropriately, sounds Latin. Davidson’s soprano sax solo is outstanding as she manages to tie her note-choices in to the written melody while still taking liberties that rewrite it. Farrugia is more adventurous, pushing the envelope while maintaining elements of the tune within his solo. There’s a marvelous passage later on where the soprano sax, piano, and bass all move together in unison rhythmic lines while Cervini happily bashes his drums in the background.

William Carn

William Carn

By contrast, Brad Smith’s No Rain is more relaxed and gentle in the opening chorus, though it, too, eventually becomes more excitable. The peculiarly loping rhythm brings out some fine playing from the soloists, particularly William Carn on trombone. His tone quality is exceptional; every note is hit dead-center with a richness of sound not normally heard from many jazz trombonists, even some of the most famous. Tara Davidson then takes off in a particularly wild and adventurous soprano solo.

The title tune, Rev, is a wild jazz fugue composed by Cervini that takes off like a rocket, propelling the band through some exciting changes. Cervini eventually enters the fray, taking over with a powerful drum solo. Sadly, this one is over way too soon!

The Daily Mail is a piece by the British rock band Radiohead. I wish I could say that I know the music and/or the band, but as my readers know, rock is not my thing. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the fact that the sextet kept the volume level low and did not emphasize a heavy rock beat, two things I really appreciate. Dan Loomis’ bass dominates the introduction, followed by Frahm’s tenor supported by Farrugia’s piano. A quick change of key and both the volume and voltage are ramped up a bit, with Carn playing some nice growl trombone behind the two saxists. Each of the three horns pursue their own lines for a chorus, almost simulating the old jazz style polyphony in a modern context.

The old standard Pennies From Heaven is given an almost tongue-in-cheek beat by Loomis’ bass in the intro, with Frahm playing the lead while Davidson and Carn fill in with some chording. This is followed by a particularly ingenious ensemble chorus for the three horns, a group improv written out that I felt was absolutely brilliant. When Frahm returns for his improvisation, mostly at double tempo, the rhythm section loosens up considerably, and I was delighted to hear Cervini tone down his normal enthusiasm and play some nicely swinging drums behind the band. Carn’s trombone solo shows some Jimmy Knepper influence here. Cervini’s hip cymbal work backs up Loomis’ solo, which features a great many triplets in rhythm. Yet another inventive ensemble, this one closer to the original melody, acts as the ride-out.

Loomis contributed Ranthem, which begins quietly despite the busy and complex melody line, which comes and goes surprisingly quickly. Much of the opening section of this track is occupied by piano, bass and drums, followed by another quick ensemble passage and a Carn solo with the time now shifting to a more uptempo, streamlined 4. Farrugia’s solo here is more occupied with rhythmic than harmonic changes, breaking down and rearranging the beats within measures to suit his lights.

We close out with Carn’s own Arc of Instability, a medium-tempo, thoughtful piece that creates a unique mood. The uniquely churning rhythm, set up by bass and drums, acts as an underpinning to the cycle of soloists, who do their best to flesh out this somewhat bare-bones tune. Special mention goes to Frahm’s tenor solo, which turns up the temperature for a while, but everyone has something interesting to say here. A surprisingly exciting ride-out wraps things up.

Rev is an absolutely terrific album. I can’t say enough about it, whether of individual tracks, solos, or the overall vibe of the disc. Just get it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The UK Jazz Ensemble Burns Its Way on Tour

front

ON THE ROAD / WEINER: When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!* TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan.* HOLMAN: Film at Eleven.* Any Dude’ll Do.+ FERRANTE: Goin’ Home.* MICHAEL DAVIS: Trombone Institute of Technology.* ROWLES: The Peacocks (arr. Holman).* HIRSCH: Metroliner.* Catch Me if You Can! + CATINGUB: Blues and the Abscessed Tooth.* FOSTER: Blues in Hoss’ Flat.* GOODWIN: The Phat Pack.+ DAILEY: Stalking the Dread Moray Eel.+ MENZA: Time Check+ / University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble: *Band 1 (2017): Steve Siegel, Zachary Robinson, Zac Byrd, Will Lovan, Taylor Gustad, tpt; Brad Myers, Denver Pascua, Noah Tolson, tbn; Ryon Bean, Laura Hawboldt, bs-tbn; Ian Cruz, Derek Wilson, Jonathan Barrett, Angie Ortega, Jared Sells, sxs; Coty Taylor, pn; Joel Murtaugh, bs; Nick Bolcholz, dm; Angie Ortega, voc. +Band 2 (2011): Andrew McGrannahan, Ryan Bickett, Eric Millard, Patrick Van Arsdale, Ray Lui, tpt; Josh Dargavell, Chase Fleming, Sam Fields, Austin Brailey, Alexandre Magno S. Ferreira, tbn; Will Stafford, Carla Thomas, Dieter Rice, Jonathon Holmes, Nathan Treadway, Ian Cruz, sxs; Don Steins, pn; Rob Barnes, bs; Brandon Wood, dm. On Stalking the Dreaded Moray Eel, replace Raleigh Dailey, pn; Danny Cecil, bs; Paul Deatherage, dm / Mark Records 52987-MCD

Hot on the heels of reviewing the 1959 Johnny Dankworth big band, I sampled a few other new releases in the Naxos jazz library until my ears got stuck on this disc. I had the privilege of reviewing one of Miles Osland’s previous releases (Mega Mega Saxes) for Fanfare magazine several years ago, some tracks of which made it into my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. This one leans less on classical structure per se but is one interesting and powerful disc.

The album combines tracks made by two different University of Kentucky jazz bands, one from 2011 that played the Montreux/North Sea Festival and one from this year (2017) that played the Elmhurst Jazz Festival. Both bands really burn with an intensity that just won’t quit. I was a bit sorry to see that both Miles Osland and his talented wife Lisa no longer play saxes with the band but simply direct the proceedings. This is not a criticism of the talent they have weaned here, just that I think so highly of Miles and Lisa that I miss them.

But you won’t miss them for long when listening to this CD, because it really cooks, as jazz cats are wont to say. From the first notes of Andy Weiner’s When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!, you’ll hear a band as tight, as well-packed with excellent soloists and with as much esprit de corps as any in the world today. If you haven’t made the acquaintance of Osland’s extremely talented jazz students, this is your opportunity to do so, and they’ll reward your listening time and time again. None of these young musicians play predictable, formulaic jazz; they all know what they’re doing, they kick it into gear, and they take charge of both the ensemble playing and solo space like consummate pros. My lone caveat was Angie Ortega’s vocal on Caravan. She has a nice style, but her voice is thin and wispy and at times she is below pitch. Nonetheless, it’s a nice arrangement, one that Ellington wrote for Ella Fitzgerald. (Sidelight: I think Duke wrote more different arrangements of Caravan than any other piece in his band’s repertoire. Most people haven’t even heard the original, which was made by a small band from the Ellington orchestra in 1937, and is my all-time favorite, but rather are used to the full-blown version he recorded in 1946, the one he played on the 1962 Afro-Bossa album, or possibly the one he wrote for himself and the Boston Pops orchestra in the late ‘60s.)

The band then tackles a wonderful Bill Holman chart called Film at Eleven. This is a medium-tempo swinger with nice alto sax solos by Ian Cruz. Quoth annotator Rich Hirsch: “Every college big band should be required to play Bill Holman…Melodic themes reappear in different shapes and sizes, keeping things interesting.” Goin’ Home has nothing to do with Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony but is a Yellowjackets tune arranged for big band by Ian Cruz, who recreated the original EWI intro (pronounced EE-wee for those of you who don’t know—I didn’t) while the rest of the band falls into a nice funky groove behind him.

Michael Davis’ Trombone Institute of Technology is a fascinating and challenging (if brief) piece built around a modified rondo, played a cappella. But it’s not all trombones; the trumpets and saxes also peek in a couple of times to add to the festivities. But the real gem of the album, a true masterpiece, is Bill Holman’s arrangement of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks, which features Jonathan Barrett on bassoon. The whole piece has a haunting, wistful quality about it, made more interesting by the sparse yet unusual scoring. I could have lived without the tape-delay loop used in the overlong cadenza, however. Rick Hirsch’s Metroliner, said to represent “a high-speed train in its heyday,” is a modern descendant of Duke Ellington’s Daybreak Express and Charlie Barnet’s Skyliner, except that its Latin beat makes it sound as if the train is doing a mambo on the tracks. A nice solo trombone (uncredited) comes and goes, and there’s a good tenor solo at the midway point by Barrett, but most of this is an ensemble piece which builds up and releases tension nicely.

This is followed by Matt Catingub’s slightly tongue-in-cheek (or tooth-in-cheek) piece, Blues and the Abscessed Tooth, which swings in a hot and heavy manner, with a simply outstanding sax section and brass that really bites. A plunger-muted trombone solo by Brad Myers adds a nice touch, as does Coty Taylor’s piano, but this is mostly a hard-driving ensemble piece. Sax legend Frank Foster’s Blues in Hoss’ Flat features only one soloist, Denver Pascua, first on plunger-muted trombone and then on open horn, but it’s such a wonderful solo and so dominates the music that it almost becomes the piece.

In the last five tracks we switch to the UK jazz band that played the 2011 Montreux Jazz Festival, a mostly different line-up but still containing Ian Cruz on saxes. Their first piece, Catch Me if You Can!, is a “chase” piece with the other saxes going after the tenor, but also including some wonderful and exciting counterpoint which would not shame a classical composition pupil’s work. Nor would the close-harmony trombones or the overall shape and contour of the piece. There are two separate rhythms going on, a sort of Latin-ish backbeat played against the straightahead swing of the saxes, once they get going. Dieter Rice is the tenor here and Will Stafford the alto soloist, with Rice going somewhat “outside” in his extended and excitable solo. The last minute is a wonder of overlaid cacophony that somehow works and straightens itself out.

The Phat Pack is one of Gordon Goodwin’s pieces. For those who aren’t aware, Goodwin is a Hollywood movie-score guy who loves jazz and so created a group called “The Big Phat Band” that eventually left the recording studios and went public in performances. The UK Jazz Ensemble played a medley of some of his most interesting pieces on the Mega Mega Sax album previously mentioned, including his tongue-in-cheek Hunting Wabbits. Here they stick to just one tune, and it’s a slow groove kind of piece that suits the band perfectly. Rice returns on tenor and Cruz plays baritone. Any Dude’ll Do is another Holman score, this one built around a mere five-note theme with a wonderful canon that turns into a round. Cruz plays the gutsy baritone solo here and Stafford returns on alto.

Stalking the Dread Moray Eel is a fascinating piece by UK’s Professor Raleigh Dailey, who subs in the band on piano here, joined by two other faculty members on bass and drums. We start with the drums playing a sort of marching-band rhythm, followed by low saxes and trombone playing a repeated 4-note lick that substitutes for a melody, in turn followed by another theme by low brass. Here’s one of those wonderful jazz-classical hybrids of which I praised in my book; score this for a classical orchestra, force them to try to swing, and you’d get a similar result—similar but probably not as good, because the UK band really gets into the weirdness of the piece, particularly Cruz on soprano sax. Is there any instrument this guy can’t play? Slithering chromatic ensembles are heard later on in the tune, simulating the eel’s journey through the reed section. We get a bit more slithering through atonal passages near the end.

The CD wraps up with Don Menza’s Time Check, another one of those high-powered swingers which suits the UK jazz band to a T. Cruz is on tenor here and the late Brandon Wood contributes a nice drum solo.

What a pleasure to hear a modern-day big band that plays jazz and ONLY jazz: no fusion, no rock garbage, no touchy-feely “sensitive” jazz (what I call neo-classical BS)! Three cheers for Miles Osland and his double-whammy bands of future all-stars!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Johnny Dankworth’s ‘50s Band Cooks in New Reissue

Dankworth front

ENGLAND’S AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ / HAWDON: Tribute to Chauncey. Kool Kate. LINDUP: Slo Twain. New Forest. DANKWORTH: Sunflower. Honey-Dew Melon. International. Specs Yellow. Desperate Dan. DANKWORTH-LINDUP: Dauphine Blues. T. RUSSELL: Joe and Lol / Dickie Hawdon, Derek Abbott, Stan Palmer, Colin Wright, Bob Carson, tpt; Laurie Monk, Tony Russell, Danny Elwood, Garry Brown, tbn; Ron Snyder, tbn/tuba; Johnny Dankworth, a-sax/cl; Danny Moss, t-sax/bs-cl; Alex Leslie, bar-sax/cl/fl; Dave Lee, pn; Eric Dawson, bs; Kenny Clare, dm / Avid Entertainment 191018904326

This is a reissue of a once-famous, classic album by the Johnny Dankworth band, made shortly before they packed up their instruments and headed to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival where they created a sensation. Many websites give the year of recording as 1958, and one says 1960, but I got this into from http://henrybebop.co.uk/dankwort.htm and the info there is so complete and thorough that I accept the recording dates given there as May 12, 13 & 19, 1959. The album was originally issued in the UK on Columbia 33SX1280 and in America on Roulette R 52040 (an American label run by the Mafia, FYI) in their “Birdland” series. It sold very well in both countries. To the best of my knowledge, this is its first appearance on CD.

Dankworth and saxist Ronnie Scott were the harbingers of progressive swing and bop in England, which during the 1950s and ‘60s was still pretty much in thrall with Dixieland. The really popular bands in the U.K. during those years were those of Chris Barber (still alive as of this writing), Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, etc., although Dankworth’s famed jazz septet of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, nicknamed “The Seven,” was also very popular. When he formed his first big band in 1953, The Seven was the central part of the orchestra, a blended section of trumpet, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax and tuba. By the time of this album and his Newport gig he had revamped his lineup somewhat. Dickie Hawdon, an outstanding soloist, became the lead trumpeter, much to the dismay of Dankworth fans who felt that he didn’t have a strong enough tone to play lead. Nonetheless, the music herein is truly sensational in every way.

Dankworth backThe music here is molded to some extent on the cool jazz charts that Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers and other Americans had written for the bands of Claude Thornhill, Elliott Lawrence, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. The sound is rooted in low saxes and, more often than not, trumpets playing in a lower, more mellow range. And there is no question that the band could swing; just listen to the outstanding performance here of David Lindup’s Slo Twain for an example of what I mean. Muted trumpets split the melody with low saxes and trombones, and the occasional, deft use of counterpoint completes the arrangement in a satisfying way, despite the lack (here) of a great solo turn. Moreover, the various writers for this album—Lindup, Hawdon, Tony Russell and Dankworth himself—maintain a certain integrity of style that is both pleasing and engaging for the mind. Dave Lee’s relaxed, slightly meandering single-note solo in Sunflower, followed in turn by Hawdon and Danny Moss, is a good indication of how well each member of this band was attuned to each other and to the ensemble as a whole. “Relaxed brilliance” is a perfect description of this entire program.

Dankworth himself doesn’t really assert himself until the dramatic, drum-laden introduction to Dauphine Blues, continuing after the brass interjection with a solo quite evidently influenced by Lee Konitz, but with a tone slightly sweeter. This is also a much more aggressive tune than the first three on the album, as is the succeeding Honey-Dew Melon with a great tenor spot by Moss and an even better one by Hawdon. Tony Russell’s Joe and Lol is a more relaxed, laid-back piece in a nice medium tempo, featuring a splendid trombone solo (unfortunately unidentified) and a nice flute solo with strong bass underpinning by Alex Leslie.

Indeed, as the album progresses you begin to understand why this band was so good. Everyone “felt” each other’s playing to the extent that they listened carefully to what player X was doing before they embarked on their own solos, and in turn the soloists were listening to the ensemble and what it was doing. These performances, then, have a kind of completeness about them that a great many jazz big bands. past and present, simply do not achieve…and this despite the fact that Lee’s instrument has a thin, almost klunky sound, as if it were a piano in the back room of a bar (who knows? Maybe it was!). And it’s not a case of “follow the leader,” good as Dankworth was, because Johnny doesn’t dominate the solo space. In Kool Kate he drops in for a chorus or two in the middle, then splits. In other numbers he doesn’t play at all. And the band almost sounds as if were “dancing in place” in their seats.

New Forest has a slightly dark sound to it despite the use of clarinet and muted trumpet playing the simple theme in the beginning. I wonder if this piece was in some way a tribute to Reginald Foresythe, who had died the year before, and whose Deep Forest was such an popular and influential tune back in the 1930s. On Specs Yellow Dankworth is the dominant soloist in the first half, but then turns things over to a trombonist, and the trombone section as a whole shines in the last few choruses, aided by nice blasts from the trumpet section. The finale, Desperate Dan, is a medium-slow number based on Louis Armstrong’s theme song, When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, but so transformed that it sounds like a completely original piece. Danny Moss’ warm, Ben Webster-ish tenor sax is the dominant solo voice here.

In later years, of course, both Dankworth and his orchestra became better known to Americans as accompaniment to his wife, the great jazz singer Cleo Laine, at which time he pretty much gave up playing instrumentals like these, but to his credit he didn’t mind. He felt he had had his turn in the spotlight, and now it was her turn, but in exchange for her powerful voice and stage presence we lost this superb band with its unique sound. This is an album to treasure.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Wild Ride With Wild Bill Davison on Commodore

Davison Commodore front

WILD BILL DAVISON: THE COMMODORE MASTER TAKES / L. POLLACK: That’s A-Plenty. TYERS: Panama. CARMICHAEL: Riverboat Shuffle. ORY-GILBERT: Muskrat Ramble. SHIELDS-LaROCCA-RAGAS-SBARBARO: Clarinet Marmalade. LaROCCA: Original Dixieland One-Step. LaROCCA-SHIELDS-SBARBARO-EDWARDS: At the Jazz Band Ball. C. WILLIAMS-WARFIELD: Baby Won’t You Please Come Home / Wild Bill Davison, tpt; George Brunies, tbn; Pee Wee Russell (first 4 tracks), Edmond Hall (remaining tracks), cl; Gene Schroeder, pn; Eddie Condon, gtr; Bob Casey, bs; George Wetting, dm / YOUNG-WASHINGTON-CROSBY: A Ghost of a Chance. DELANEY: Jazz Me Blues. HYDE-HENRY: Little Girl. WALLER-WILLIAMS: Squeeze Me / Davison, Russell, Condon, Casey; Lou McGarity, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm; George Zack, pn (first 2 sides); Dick Cary, pn (last 2 sides) / HINES: A Monday Date. NEYBURG-DAUGHERTY-REYNOLDS: I’m Confessin’. ARMSTRONG-VENABLE: Big Butter and Egg Man. PIRON: I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate / Davison, Hall, Condon, Schroeder, Casey; Vernon Brown, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm / LaROCCA: Sensation Rag. SNYDER-KALMAR-RUBY: Who’s Sorry Now? JONES-KAHN-LYONS: On the Alamo. B. & J. SPIKES: Someday, Sweetheart / Davison, Condon, Wettling; Joe Marsala, cl; Bill Miles, bar-sax; George Lugg, tbn; Joe Sullivan, pn; Jack Lesberg, bs / PIRON-C. WILLIAMS: High Society. KOEHLER-MOLL-BARRIS: Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. COOK-HEYWOOD: I’m Comin’, Virginia. RINGLE-MEINKEN: Wabash Blues / Davison, Brunies, Schroeder, Condon, Lesberg; Albert Nicholas, cl; Dave Tough, dm / Commodore CMD-405

Having fully explored Bill Davison’s Danish recordings of the 1970s along with a disc of live material from Condon’s in 1952, I decided to go back in time to investigate his first recordings. Despite having been born in 1906 and playing professionally by age 20, these 1943-45 discs were his first. Many people have puzzled over this, but you have to remember that the field was pretty crowded in the ‘20s, that Davison was sort of a one-off, and his blasting trumpet or cornet tone with its growls, buzzes and lip vibrato was difficult to record. Commodore’s owner, Milt Gabler, was used to arranging jazz musicians for record sessions, however, and thus was somehow able to minimize the microphone damage when Davison cut loose.

Davison LP coverFamous in their day only among “Dixieland” aficionados, the Davison Commodores have since become iconic recordings. It’s not difficult to understand, at least for the first 16 of them. The sheer energy level of these recordings is so powerful that listening to them sounds like a passing freight train barreling down the track at 120 MPH, with no intention of applying the brakes. It would be easy to say that this is just how Davison played all the time, throughout his entire career, which is true, but it wasn’t always that the rest of the band was swept along with such dynamism, and indeed when we switch clarinetists from Pee Wee Russell or Edmond Hall to Joe Marsala or Albert Nicholas, a certain amount of wattage is missing. The same is true once bassist Bob Casey is replaced by Jack Lesberg. It’s not necessarily that Marsala and Lesberg are poor musicians—they were not—so much as that Russell, Hall and Casey were on fire while the others simply played a gig.

In a way, it’s a shame that Davison never got involved with one of the prestigious white swing bands, as his compatriots Max Kaminsky and Bobby Hackett did. Jazz fans have particularly decried Hackett’s involvement with the extraordinarily popular big band of Glenn Miller, but his contributions to the charts he played on were almost always top-notch in quality and at times superb—and not just the big hits like A String of Pearls or Serenade in Blue but also in the band’s arrangements of From One Love to Another and Stardust. Miller adored Hackett’s special art and set him off like the crown jewel that he was. Had Davison signed on with Tommy Dorsey in the early ‘40s, he could easily have become the new Bunny Berigan.

I'm ConfessinIt’s never been entirely clear where Davison stood re: swing music since he was always open-minded to new ideas and in later life played a good number of swing-era tunes. Even in the context of this set, he does not stick strictly to the old tunes from the Teens and Twenties, but adds later songs like I’m Confessin’, A Ghost of a Chance and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, none of which would be considered prime Dixieland fodder. But there is no question that the majority of his bandmates preferred small-group jazz (clarinetist Edmond Hall made a famous series of recordings for Blue Note under the title of the Celeste Quartet with Charlie Christian playing acoustic guitar and boogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis on celeste) and, not being part of some swing band’s “small jazz wing” (the Clambake Seven, Gramercy Five, Bob Cats, Kansas City Seven or the various Ellington small bands), they stuck with Chicago-styled Dixieland, which finally experienced a revival around 1942-43. This was also the same era in which San Francisco cornetist Lu Watters came up with his Yerba Buena Jazz Band, playing old ODJB and King Oliver tunes in arrangements fairly close to the originals.

There were several original ‘20s musicians involved in this project: in addition to Davison, Condon and Russell, there was also trombonist George Brunies (he changed his name to Brunis in 1947 on the advice of a numerologist, since “George Brunies” had 13 letters in it) who had been a key member of the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings/Friar’s Society Orchestra. Known as the King of the Tailgate Players, Brunies was actually a trombone virtuoso whose playing was far in advance of such “sludge pump” players as Kid Ory or Eddie Edwards, and these recordings show him at his very best. Moreover, if you listen closely, you’ll note that the band eschews the traditional 2/4 “Dixieland” beat in favor of a more streamlined 4/4. This was clearly the influence of advancements in jazz since 1929, including swing.

Perhaps the least interesting soloists in these recordings are the pianists. They play decently but are surprisingly unimaginative, certainly not on the level of Arthur Schutt or Jelly Roll Morton. But then again, the various bands led by Eddie Condon rarely had pianists who played adventurously, and Gene Schroeder was one of Davison’s drinking buddies. Some online critics have unkindly said that Davison was a powerful player but an uninteresting soloist. I disagree. Within the style he played, he was surprisingly original. Not one of his solos proceed the way you “think” they should go. He took chances, veering off the melody and sometimes the harmony, though of course he was never as deep into the chord changes as his friend Hackett. But then again, Louis Armstrong himself was not really a “harmonic” improviser, either.

girard-marsala

Toots Thielemans, Adele Girard & Joe Marsala on 52nd Street, c. 1947

As for the replacement soloists in the later recordings, Joe Marsala deserves special mention. Chicago-born and trained, Marsala played a hybrid style of jazz that combined elements of swing and Dixieland on 52nd Street in New York. He had a beautiful tone and could really swing, but as these recordings show, he was no match for the incendiary brilliance of Russell or Hall, not to mention Goodman or Artie Shaw. His greatest claims to fame were two: he was among the first to integrate jazz in New York, and kept mixed bands through most of his career, and he took a girl harpist under his wing when the band she was playing with skipped town and left her in the lurch. That “girl harpist” was Adele Girard, who later became Mrs. Marsala. Joe taught her how to play jazz and how to improvise, and she quickly became one of the greatest jazz harpists who ever lived. The Marsala Quartet with Girard quickly became the talk of New York; even Armstrong dropped in to hear them and was bowled over by her swing and inventiveness. In later years, Joe became quite ill and incapacitated. Adele took care of him until he died, and made some late recordings on the harp that showed she still had it. He was one of the sweetest and most honest people in the jazz community, everyone admired him, but strictly as a jazz improviser he had too much competition to be remembered for his playing alone.

Albert Nicholas, New Orleans-born, was one of those many “Albert system” clarinetists (Omer Simeon, Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard and Irving Fazola were others) who made their mark on ‘30s and ‘40s jazz. The Albert system clarinets were differently constructed and used alternate fingering based on the early 19th century 13-key system developed by Iwan Müller. They had a richer, more mellow tone than the standard clarinets. To the best of my knowledge, they were never used by classical musicians in the 20th century because you could play much faster and brighter on standard clarinets, but they are used by clarinetists who play Belarussian, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish folk music. Nicholas was a pleasant musician but, to my ears, never a great one. I wonder why they couldn’t get Simeon to fill in; perhaps he wasn’t in New York at the time.

Some people have been excited by the fact that Dave Tough is the drummer on the last session, but although it’s true that Tough was also a Chicago-jazz original from the late ‘20s, he had modernized his style considerably by 1945, having played in Tommy Dorsey’s big band and then, at the time of these recordings, exploring a much more modern style in the progressive swing outfit of Woody Herman. If you listen carefully to these recordings, you’ll hear Tough playing a hybrid style of drumming halfway between Dixieland and swing.

All in all, the Davison Commodores were important recordings because, even more so than the Yerba Buena sides, they established Chicago Dixieland as a viable jazz style during the late Swing Era and helped keep it popular in later years when bebop was taking over the modern jazz world. It’s ironic that bop and Dixieland were then seen not only as contrasting but as “warring” styles. Except for the greater harmonic daring and often faster digital dexterity of the boppers, their essentially small-band brand of jazz had much more in common with the Dixielanders than with the heavier, sometimes rhythmically leaden big bands that emerged after World War II. But such was the nature of club life at the time that they were often vying for full-time gigs, and none of the small jazz clubs of the late 1940s had both a bop group and a Dixie group playing in the same venue. Eventually the Dixielanders made their home in two clubs, Eddie Condon’s and Nick’s in Greenwich Village, leaving 52nd Street to be taken over by the boppers and such advanced swing musicians as Art Tatum. For their time and place, the sound quality is surprisingly good. As I mentioned earlier, Gabler was a pro at setting up microphones and managed to capture a certain amount of hall resonance on the original recordings. The Wild Bill Commodores are thus both an important slice of jazz history and extraordinarily vital and exciting recordings in their own right.

Here are links to some of the best recordings as a taste of the set:

That’s A-Plenty
Panama
Riverboat Shuffle
Muskrat Ramble
Clarinet Marmalade
Original Dixieland One-Step
At the Jazz Band Ball
Jazz Me Blues

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Nimrod Borenstein

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BORENSTEIN: Violin Concerto, Op. 60.* The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe. If You Will It, It Is No Dream / *Irmina Trynkos, violinist; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5209

Nimrod Borenstein (1969 – ) is a violinist-composer who won the Cziffra Foundation award at the age of 15 for his original cadenza to the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. He attended the Royal College of Music, first as a violinist, but later won the Leverhulme Fellowship for composition. Neither he nor his work are particularly well known, but pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has been championing his works for some time, so here they are on CD at last.

Borenstein, like so many modern composers, is essentially tonal yet one who spices up his scores with counterpoint, surprising chordal shifts and local folk music. There is a strong thread of Jewish folk music running all through his Violin Concerto, despite the biting brass and pounding tympani. The first movement, in particular, is dynamic and driving, using the violin in an integral fashion, much as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy did for the viola. What impressed me the most was that his themes, although tonal, never sound sappy or mundane. Moreover, he knows how to knit them together seamlessly to tell a story, leading the ear from section to section like a master storyteller. His orchestration is colorful, a bit showoffy but never splashy for the sake of cheap effects; rather, he seems to know how to use different sections of the orchestra in a most effective way, never letting one section dominate over the others. At several moments, you’d be hard-pressed to think of his orchestra as containing strings, though when they do return you say to yourself, “Oh yes, he’s got a full string section here.” More often than not, however, he allows the brass and/or winds to dominate, even in the second movement where he has the violas and cellos play pizzicato almost throughout. When the violin section does enter, it is to play a long-note, rhapsodic theme, over which Borenstein overlays more brass.

The third movement has a particularly interesting, long-lined melody, in the course of which Borenstein constantly colors the music with soft percussion (chimes, vibraphone, cymbals) despite its elegiac quality. By such methods, in addition to his keen ear for harmonic resonance and dissonance, Borenstein keeps his music from becoming overly sentimental, something I fully appreciate. At 3:40 into the movement the soloist embarks on a particulary attractive theme, which is then developed using Jewish folk music harmonies. In the fourth and last movement, Borenstein returns to his pounding ways, using edgy, driving rhythms and themes that hold your interest. Here, too, the composer “smears” his harmony in such a way that at times it is tonally ambiguous.

The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe begins quietly, almost pensively, with soft vibes playing before the strings and piccolo enter. A canon is set up in the string section, which becomes quite lively, rhythmic and energetic. This is a big bang with a bit of a swagger! Flutes and clarinets then take up their own canon, backed by chimes, followed in turn by pizzicato strings. Borenstein uses and re-uses the triad of A-C-E as a motif in the first movement as well. A surprisingly lyrical theme then take up in the winds (oboe, clarinets and flutes) against the pizzicato strings. In the second movement, the canons are replaced by a full-blown fugue which goes on for a bit before the texture is reduced to a few cellos playing against the vibes before the upper strings return to play against them. Eventually the counterpoint drifts away, leaving a soft bass drone beneath the vibes soloist with flutes and piccolos up top. The third and last movement is taken at a moderate pace, using many of the same techniques from the first two movements in a lighter and more syncopated manner, sounding almost jazzy as the movement progresses.

If You Will It, It Is No Dream follows in the footsteps of The Big Bang, By now, I came to recognize that although Borenstein has a lot of technical tricks at his disposal, he tends to use them in much the same way in piece after piece. This gives his music a feeling of sameness about it, not necessarily bad but showing that the composer still needs to develop alternate modes of expression. I’ve run across this many times—almost too many times—in the music of many modern composers. They don’t seem to understand how to vary their means of expression. Once they’ve locked themselves into a particular way of writing, they stick with it come heel or high water. What I mean by this is not that their music is bad, ir necessarily repetitive, but too strong a resemblance from piece to piece can be wearing on the listener. (I should also point out that both Mozart and Chopin suffered from this weakness, too, which is why not all of their music is as wonderful as their admirers like to pretend.)

In Borenstein’s case, the repeated tricks are counterpoint and canons, pounding rhythm and syncopated figures with Jewish or Yiddish-style harmonies. No, this third piece doesn’t sound exactly like the preceding work, but it’s a bit too close for comfort. He needs to develop a few different “voices” to make his music sound fresher.

All in all, however, this is a fine introduction to a composer whose music needs to be heard more often. In doing so, he might recognize the repetition and find a means to expand his palette.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Little and Gardner’s Exciting Szymanowski & Karłowicz

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. KARŁOWICZ: Violin Concerto, Op. 8 / Tasmin Little, violinist; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5185

Those who have followed my music blog regularly know that I’ve become extremely interested in, and fond of, the music of Karol Szymanowski over the past 10-11 years, and of course this includes his violin concertos. I have both of them played by an excellent fiddler, Ilya Kaler, with the Warsaw Philharmonic directed by Antoni Wit, but what I didn’t have, or had even heard before, was the violin concerto of one Mieczysław Karłowicz, who only lived 32 years (1876-1909). In comparing these new performances to the ones by Kaler and Wit, what struck me was how different the approaches of the conductors were while the approaches of the violinists were not too dissimilar.

Both Kaler and Little have phenomenal control of their instruments and, more importantly, the feeling or “soul” to play this music. The startling difference comes in the quicker, more emotionally direct and outgoing approach of Gardner in the orchestral portion of these scores. It’s like listening to Rodziński conduct the music (see my review of his performance of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Henryk Szeryng here), giving it more backbone and less wistfulness. Yes, it works, and I liked it very much, but I also like the greater mysticism of the Kaler-Wit performances. Hearing this recording is like listening to Toscanini conduct the Schubert Second Symphony. Gardner’s approach brings out an exciting, almost overheated feeling in the music, like listening to one of Scriabin’s symphonies, and of course Scriabin was one of Szymanowski’s principal influences. I was also greatly impressed by Gardner’s ability to bring out more clarity of detail in the first concerto than Wit, which made me sit up and take notice. I also liked the broadness and emotional directness of the theme in the midst of the last movement, played with uncommon passion.

The second concerto follows much the same pattern as the first: after an appropriately mysterious opening, Gardner, the orchestra, and soloist Little tear into the music as if their lives depended on it. There’s certainly something to be said for this approach, however, as it brings out the music’s structure with exceptional clarity. Little is especially fine playing the first-movement cadenza, which she approaches as if it were a complete violin fantasia. Gardner slams into the staccato chord introducing the second movement as if it were the hammer blow of fate. As I said, terribly exciting performances! Her spiccato in the last movement skitters with the elegance of a cat, and her timbre in the upper range never thins out or becomes wiry, no matter how high or sustained the tone.

The Karłowicz concerto, according to the liner notes, was written before his major tone poems and symphony and is a more lyrical and genial work. Like Szymanowski, three years his junior, he was passionately devoted to modern classical music and probably also a Strauss fan. Certainly, the concerto says as much. Not quite as innovative as Szymanowski, his concerto is nonetheless a fine piece of music, although it seems to lean on popular-sounding tunes to make its points. Once again Gardner and Little do their utmost to make the music sound exciting and bring out its structure, and in this case I think they succeed handsomely. Certainly, I could well imagine this score making little impression were it taken more slowly or played with less feeling. As the first movement progresses, you begin to appreciate Karłowicz’ aesthetic a little more, with notable and sometimes powerful new themes making their way into one’s ears, but by and large this score put me in mind of Hollywood movie music from the 1930s and ‘40s.

As for the cover of this CD, I absolutely loved Tasmin Little’s perky, friendly smile, so disingenuous and open, but could not figure out why Edward Gardner looked as if someone pushed him into the camera frame at the last second. Geez, Ed, couldn’t you at least have given us a little smile? At least like the Mona Lisa? Would it have killed you? Otherwise, this is a sterling release with an entirely new “take” on the Szymanowski works and a surprising window into the Karłowicz concerto.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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