In the America of the 1920s, the absolute top band in the nation was that of Paul Whiteman, the prematurely balding former violist who somehow managed to leapfrog a bevy of name bands, including several that were superior to his (Isham Jones, Don Voorhees, Roger Wolfe Kahn) by virtue of his uncanny promotional skills. By convincing whitebread America that he had “made a lady out of jazz” by hiring classically trained musicians and dressing up his arrangements with echt-classical touches, Whiteman was simply the most powerful name in popular music during the Roaring Twenties and even into the early 1930s. What bothered a lot of people, myself included, was that he really did know what was good and bad in music yet deliberately chose to push the ersatz version over the real thing—even when he had legitimate jazz musician in his orchestra.
Thanks to the presence of those real jazz musicians, Whiteman made roughly three dozen pretty good to excellent records in the period 1927-1936, but the heavy balance of ephemera and pretentious junk have tarnished his name and reputation. No such stigma, however, applies to the dance/jazz orchestra led by the somewhat shadowy and elusive Jean Goldkette (1893-1962), a Jewish-German immigrant from an old circus family who passed himself off as a French classical pianist from Valenciennes. As researcher Anthony Baldwin discovered when delving deep into the Goldkette family history, their family name had originally been Hasloch, but since their circus act was called “Goldkette” or “The Golden Chain,” they eventually changed their surnames to that. Yet despite his German-Jewish ancestry, Jean spent most of his childhood in Greece and Russia where, as a child prodigy, he studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory. Since his family emigrated to the United States in 1911, six years before the Communist Revolution, I’m surprised that they didn’t just pass themselves off as Russian, but apparently a French background just seemed much more lofty in terms of culture.
After performing in a classical ensemble in Chicago from 1912 onward, Goldkette joined Edgar Benson’s dance orchestra and became hooked on American popular music. The chronology is sketchy as to when he arrived in Detroit and leased the Graystone Ballroom, but apparently he picked up the business end of the music industry quickly and deftly. He became co-director of the Detroit Athletic Club for more than 20 years, then became co-owner of the Graystone with Charlie Horvath, who played in his orchestra during its early years. Yet by 1924 this immigrant with the Heinz-57 background not only managed to direct a first-class band which already included such soon-to-be-famous names as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Chauncey Morehouse and (briefly at that time) young Bix Beiderbecke, but he also managed to wangle a Victor recording contract.
This was no small feat. Any number of dance orchestras who were not working in such large cities as New York, Philadelphia or Chicago would have sacrificed their lead trumpeter with a knife in order to get a Victor contract…yet here was this good musician but not a jazz musician (he never actually played with his bands or even directed them…he just owned them and occasionally posed for photos with them) suddenly being put on a par with Whiteman. But not really. No matter how big the Goldkette band’s reputation grew, they were always considered by Victor to be no more than a “useful” band that could help push the popular song hits of the day. On many of their records, they didn’t even appear on both sides of the disc. Their last and (by their own opinion) greatest record, Clementine (From New Orleans), was the B side of a record that featured the far inferior orchestra of one Jack Crawford.
But it wasn’t until January 1926 that the Goldkette band started to become a great jazz orchestra. That was the month that bassist Theodore “Steve” Brown, the younger brother of New Orleans trombonist-bandleader Tom Brown and a former member of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, recorded the first “slap bass” solo on records. This was on their recording of Dinah, an electrical recording that still featured the old acoustic “batwing” Victor label (the company didn’t switch over to the more familiar “scroll” label, with the designation “Orthophonic Recording,” until the spring of that year). Although Brown played a bowed, two-beat bass through most of the recording until he got his pizzicato solo, it was the first white dance band record to suggest that a new type of beat was on the way—a beat that would eventually become swing.
Goldkette’s Graystone orchestra moved from the promise of a new jazz style to delivering it to their dancers and listeners when Bix Beiderbecke and arrange Bill Challis joined them later that year (probably around April). We all know how great and innovative Beiderbecke was, so I need not say much more at this point, but Challis was, so far as the public was concerned, a mysterious and shadowy figure, though musicians certainly knew who he was. Dazzled by the playing of Brown, Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and clarinetist Don Murray, Challis created an entirely new “book” for the band which focused on their playing, but ironically Bix wasn’t allowed to solo at all or even lead the brasses on any of their recordings until October of that year.
The reason was Edward T. King, known in the trade simply as Eddie King, a former percussionist and marching band leader who had moved up the ranks since 1905 to become a well-known and respected recording supervisor. The problem was that King didn’t like jazz improvisation, which he considered “degenerate,” and Bix Beiderbecke was the particular bane of his existence. Unfortunately, the Goldkette band got stuck with King on the majority of their recordings and so were forced not only to dilute their own arrangements with trite dance band clichés but also to record a high number of stock arrangements of popular songs, among them Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?, Sunny Disposish’, I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover and In My Merry Oldsmobile, few of which showed how well the band could really play. In addition, King insisted that they record with a number of subpar, unswinging vocalists, such as the Keller Sisters (Taddy and Nan) who teamed up with a guy named Frank Lynch to form a trio, as well as such leaden singers as Irving Kaufman, Frank Bessinger, Billy Murray and Lewis James. From a commercial standpoint, King did the right thing; these records far outsold the few good ones the band made, mostly in those rare sessions when the jazz-loving Nathaniel Shilkret or Leonard Joy worked as recording director. Yet somehow, Eddie King usually got the last word on what was released, with the result that, as Goldkette band members complained in a Metronome magazine article around 1940, the Goldkette band was “the best in person but the worst on records.”
Aside from the campy vocal on Sunday, the band was fairly proud of that recording because Bix, Brown, and Murray dominated the final chorus which really swung, but the only other recordings they thought represented them well were My Pretty Girl, Slow River and their very last Victor disc from September 15, 1927, Clementine (From New Orleans), a collaborative arrangement that they felt was their best record ever. Yet even in some of those poor records there were moments where you could tell that there was a superior jazz band hidden beneath, such as the last chorus of Merry Oldsmobile where Bix and Brown really get going, or on Look at the World and Smile where it was Joe Venuti’s turn to interact with Brown. It helped greatly whenever Eddie Lang and/or Venuti participated because they, like Beiderbecke and Brown, already had an advanced concept of jazz swing. By 1926, the duo was contractually obligated to Roger Wolfe Kahn’s society orchestra, but were allowed to make records on the side, and for whatever reason, after their 1924 records made in Detroit, the Goldkette band only recorded in New York. On one of the records the band approved of, My Pretty Girl, they didn’t like the first take because it sounded too stiff, so they re-made it. On the second take, the band sounded much looser; Brown played four-to-the-bar instead of two-beat behind the band, and Don Murray’s clarinet solo was much less stiff and more relaxed. But in the final ride-out, Bix failed to attack a key note as strongly as he did in the first take, so that was the one chosen for release. Luckily, you don’t have to take my word for any of this. The Goldkette band’s complete 1924-29 recordings are available for free streaming on the Internet Archive by clicking HERE.
Small wonder that, when the Goldkette band played a rare “battle of the bands” with the highly touted black band led by Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, in late October 1926, the Henderson musicians were caught completely off guard. Cornetist Rex Stewart remembered it well. He and his bandmates played a set of their hottest tunes, supposing that these “white cornballs from the sticks” could never come close to their playing. As a little joke Trumbauer, who was the de facto leader of the band, kicked off the Goldkette set with the then-popular Spanish tune Valencia, played in 6/8 time. The Henderson musicians felt sure that they had them beat; but after Valencia the band swung into My Pretty Girl (yet to be recorded at that time) and wiped the smiles off all of the Henderson band’s faces.
Stewart never forgot the experience, particularly Beiderbecke who, as he put it, “blew us all away.” In a paper written on the Goldkette band by Russell B. Nye, Stewart is quoted as saying that “It was, without any question, the greatest in the world…the original predecessor to any large white dance orchestra that followed, up to Benny Goodman.”
Frustrated by what they viewed as Victor’s subversion of their true greatness, the Goldkette musicians, headed nominally by Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, recorded a few of their better arrangements in reductio, without Steve Brown and with reduced forces (sometimes with no trombone at all, and often with only two reed players) for the OKeh label. Under Trumbauer’s name they recorded Clarinet Marmalade, Riverboat Shuffle, Ostrich Walk, Singin’ the Blues and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. Under the name “Bix and his Gang” they recorded Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down, Goose Pimples and Sorry. The records swung at times because Bix drove them hard, but without Brown and the rest of the band there were just too many elements missing.
But like so many businessmen of his time, Goldkette’s over-spending and over-speculation led to great financial losses. By the time the band recorded Clementine, he had put them on notice; by the end of November 1927, they all got their release. Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and Brown were immediately offered jobs with Paul Whiteman, but they refused, preferring to play more jazz-oriented charts with bass saxist Adrian Rollini’s orchestra at the New Yorker Hotel. Unfortunately, a kitchen fire destroyed the band’s book and some of their instruments in November, so the trio of stars were indeed swallowed up by Whiteman.
Beiderbecke stayed, on and off, into 1929, but his alcoholism made him less and less dependable and eventually Paul had to send him back to Iowa to sober up. Trumbauer stayed with Whiteman into the mid-1930s, but Brown left after recording with Bix on Tom Satterfield’s terrific arrangement of From Monday On on February 28, 1928 because he could see that with Whiteman it wasn’t just a case of playing drippy arrangements on records but also in his live performances, night after night after night. Brown returned to Detroit where he gigged around, eventually forming his own band, but this band was never recorded.
Goldkette, meanwhile, built up another band, which started recording–ironically, also for Victor—in June 1928, continuing (with another change in personnel) until June 1929. There were some excellent jazz musicians in those last two Goldkette bands: trumpeter Sterling Bose, trombonists Pee Wee Hunt (later a star with the Casa Loma Orchestra) and Vernon Brown (who later played with Goodman), New Orleans clarinetist Volly de Faut, and yes, Steve Brown again on bass. Eddie King was still supervising the recording sessions, the songs became ever sappier and the parade of sub-par male vocalists continued. Yet it was during this time that Goldkette also began managing two other bands, an all-black outfit nominally headed by William McKinney and a group called the Orange Blossoms which by 1930 morphed into the Casa Loma Orchestra.
McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, as they were called, featured such superb jazz musicians as trumpeter John Nesbitt, trombonist Claude Jones (who later played with Louis Armstrong), and the band’s heart and head, alto saxist-arranger-sometimes singer Don Redman, who defected from the Fletcher Henderson band to join McKinney. Interestingly, this band was allowed to play “hot” for their Victor recordings. Why? Because they were a “Race” band that appealed to the African-American market. Goldkette kind of got even with Eddie King by combining musicians from both the Cotton Pickers and his current Graystone Ballroom band to make a few discs, but these instances were rare. The best of their combined efforts was My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now (November 23, 1928).
Goldkette gave up bandleading after the demand for the Cotton Pickers died down and the Orange Blossoms turned into the Casa Loma Orchestra, but continued investing in leasing and managing ballrooms, including the Mosque Theater in Newark, New Jersey in the late 1930s. He went bankrupt twice but managed to pay his debts and keep on rolling. In 1959, by which time Enoch Light’s Grand Award Records was producing a steady stream of super-high-fidelity recreations of “Roaring ‘20s” music in new arrangements, Victor beckoned Goldkette back to put his name on an RCA Camden LP titled Dance Hits of the ‘20s in Stereo (and of course, there was also a Dance Hits of the ‘20s in Hi-Fi for people who didn’t yet own a stereo system). This album contained two great tracks: an amplified version of Dinah which did not contain a slap-bass solo but which had some wonderful cross-voicing of the saxes over the trumpets and a fine trumpet solo over a brass “cushion,” and a new stereo version of My Pretty Girl, pretty much using the original arrangement though, again, with some excellent saxophone lines added to the ensemble. Unfortunately, the rest of the album consisted of eight prosaic and uninteresting arrangements of songs the Goldkette band of the ‘20s had never played or recorded, such as Charleston, Varsity Drag, Who?, Blue Skies and Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey, in surprisingly unimaginative arrangements by none other than Sy Oliver. But those 1959 recordings of My Pretty Girl and Dinah are gems, and one of the few examples we have of Chauncey Morehouse playing drums on stereo recordings.
Goldkette died in 1962 and so there the story seemed to end, but posterity hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Bill Challis to set the record straight. In 1974, Challis entered into an agreement with the small but respectable Monmouth-Evergreen label to record recreations of his great Goldkette scores, but the company strung him along for months before abandoning the project. The full story is told in Chapter XIII of my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, but the short version is that Challis, all excited, had contacted the surviving members of the original Goldkette band—pianist Paul Mertz, trombonists Bill Rank and Spiegle Willcox, drummer Chauncey Morehouse and violinist Venuti—and all had agreed to participate before the deal fell through.
In 1986 trad-jazz bass and tuba player Vince Giordano, whose Nighthawks were a fixture in retro jazz festivals, apparently stepped into the picture to help Challis make his dream a reality. They signed a contract with the equally small Circle Records company, assembled an all-star band which included trumpeters Spanky Davis and Peter Ecklund, famed Beiderbecke imitator Tom Pletcher on cornet, Herb Gardner and Spiegle Willcox, the only former Goldkette band member still alive at that time, on trombones, the redoubtable Bob Wilber on clarinet and alto sax and the great guitarist Frank Vignola, among others. Yet since a band of this magnitude and star power cost money to rehearse and record, and Circle didn’t have a huge budget to work with, the sessions were set over a couple of days to make the whole album. They were professional enough to do a good job on the charts, but not quite up to some of the blistering tempi that the original Goldkette band took, thus some of the performances (particularly Ostrich Walk, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Riverboat Shuffle) were played quite a bit slower than on the original recordings. In addition, Circle’s engineers recorded the band in an extremely dry, dead-sounding acoustic, which dulled the impact of both the brass and reeds and gave a lethargic sound to the whole project. Fortunately, all of the charts Challis had on hand, including My Pretty Girl in which he was one of three arrangers and Clementine in which he had no part, were recorded. Sadly, the full band arrangements of Sorry, Goose Pimples and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans seem to have disappeared.
But Challis was at least satisfied if not thrilled with the results (he is listed as co-conductor of the band with Giordano on the album credits) and, happily, modern audio editing technology makes it possible for us to hear these recordings in as close to the original Goldkette band sound as possible. I increased the tempo of those sluggish recordings to match what Trumbauer and Beiderbecke did with reduced forces in 1927, brightened the treble by 4 db, and added some reverb to restore a more lifelike sound. The only tracks on the album that I chose not to include were Clementine and My Pretty Girl, which to my ears did not sound as authentic in rhythm as the performances by the Bratislava Hot Serenaders in the first or the 1959 Goldkette remake of the second, as well as the second medley of I’d Rather Be the Girl in Your Arms-Idolizing-Sunday because I didn’t feel that it worked very well musically. But what I have fixed up sounds remarkably good, although—and I say this in full knowledge of how well Venuti, Lang, Bix and Brown could swing back in the day—the 1986 band as a whole swings somewhat looser than the original 1926-27 band. You can access the full program by clicking HERE.
This is, to my ears, the best representation in modern stereo sound of what the Jean Goldkette Orchestra must have sounded like on that October day in 1926 when they faced off against Fletcher Henderson’s hot jazz maniacs. No wonder Rex Stewart was impressed.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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