Rediscovering Jimmie Noone

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JIMMIE NOONE: THE APEX OF JAZZ CLARINET / YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Know That You Know (2 tks).4 POWERS: Play That Thing.1 ROSE-HARRISON: Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man.2 GRAY-HELLMAN: Four or Five Times. McHUGH-FIELDS: Every Evening I Miss You. NOONE: Apex Blues (2 tks, the second as Bump It).4 HINES: A Monday Date. SWANSTROM-McCARRON-MORGAN: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me. DONALDSON: Oh, Sister, Ain’t That Hot? BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. SCOTT: King Joe. DORSEY-WHITTAKER: It’s Tight Like That. KANTNER: Chicago Rhythm. YOELL-SCHARLIN-JACOB: I Got a Misery. BARBOUR: My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll. McPHAIL-MICHAELS: San. HILL: Delta Bound. CREAMER-LAYTON: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.3 NOONE: The Blues Jumped a Rabbit.3 BERNIE-CASEY-PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown.3 KLENNER-BRYAN: Japansy.4 THOMAS: New Orleans Hop Scop Blues.4 SULLIVAN: Clambake in B Flat.5 STEELE: High Society6 / Jimmie Noone, cl w/Apex Club Orchestra; 1Ollie Powers & his Harmony Gingersnaps; 2Freddie Keppars & Cookie’s Gingersnaps; 3Noone’s New Orleans Band; 4Jimmie Noone & his Orchestra; 5Capitol Jazzmen; 6Kid Ory & his All-Star New Orleans Band / Retrospective Records RTR4379

Like most early New Orleans musicians whose names are not Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet or Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Jimmie Noone (1895-1944) is largely forgotten except by hardcore New Orleans trad jazz aficionados. Yet in his heyday, the early 1920s through about 1930, both he and Johnny Dodds were considered to be the best jazz clarinetists in America. (Bechet was, of course, also highly regarded, but a) he played the soprano saxophone as much if not more than the clarinet, and b) he spent the years 1925-1930 in France and so was out of the American scene during that period.) Whereas Dodds was highly prized for his strong, acerbic tone and his brilliant high range, Noone went the other way. He could play in the upper range, too, but his glory was his warm, rich sound, especially in the lower or chalumeau register of his instrument (the notes from the lowest E to the Bb above the open G). His tone in this range was the envy of all other clarinetists, even young Benny Goodman who tried hard to incorporate some of Noone’s lower-range sound into his playing. During the Swing Era, the only clarinetists who were noted for being able to play down there like Noone were Chicago-born Joe Marsala and New Orleans-born Irving Prestopnick, who went by the professional name of Fazola, and both acknowledged the older man’s debt.

As an improviser, Noone was typical of New Orleans musicians of his era. He improvised more on the melody and the rhythm than on the harmony. This was a style borrowed from classical music, particularly French classical music which is what informed most early New Orleans jazz along with the blues. Bechet and Louis Armstrong could turn this style into an art form, and they did, but Noone was a more laid-back personality than they were and so he was happy to play with his little band at the Apex Club in Chicago where, for roughly a year, his pianist was none other than the brilliant Earl Hines. It was while Hines was with the Apex Band that they were heard by French composer Maurice Ravel on his excursion to Chicago in 1928, and he was so impressed by him that he offered to write a piano concerto for Hines, which the pianist declined because he couldn’t read music. The liner notes also informed me of two things I did not know. First, that after his early lessons from Lorenzo Tio Sr., the New Orleans clarinet pedagogue, Noone also studied with Franz Schoepp, the generous classical clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who also taught Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey, and second, that Ravel claimed to have based his famous Bolero on one of Noone’s improvisations. So whether he is remembered or not, a little bit of his legacy lives on every time the Bolero is played.

I already owned all of the Apex Club recordings included here on other releases, so of course they were not a surprise to me. As you can see, because Noone had a rich, gentle clarinet sound, he chose not to compete with a trumpet in his own band. Instead, he used alto saxist Joe Poston, whose name is otherwise very obscure in jazz history, as the second lead voice in his band. The two of them worked out some really nice choruses in two-part harmony, out of which one or the other (or both) would break free for an improvised solo. The Apex Club recordings are a lot of fun to listen to, and they have a distinct sound quite different from that of any other early jazz band because of the instrumentation.

What interested me were the early and late recordings included here, most of which (to my knowledge) have not been available outside of the Chronological Classics series of CDs devoted to Noone. These present the clarinetist in earlier and later settings, some with famous trumpeters such as Freddie Keppard and Charlie Shavers. To me, Keppard has always been an enigma. He was supposedly the greatest trumpet star in New Orleans after Buddy Bolden went insane in 1907, yet his playing on his surviving records is stiff and corny, with no swing and uninteresting variants. In my view, he wasn’t even half as good as were King Oliver, king of the cup mute, Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Tommy Ladnier, or even George Mitchell, who played on several of Jelly Roll Morton’s early Red Hot Peppers recordings. Even Johnny Dunn, whose name is more obscure than Mitchell’s, played hotter trumpet than Keppard. But it’s interesting to hear Noone in earlier, different surroundings.  and his playing on these two pre-Apex Club tracks is excellent. Ladnier’s bluesy solo on Play That Thing is superb, which forces Noone to bring his “A” game to the table. Keppard’s corny, ragtime cornet on Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man is easily surpassed by Noone’s lovely, flowing style.

Needless to say, all of the Apex Club Band sides are classics, even My Daddy Rocks Me which features the rather acidic voice of vocalist May Alix (who all but ruined Louis Armstrong’s classic recording og Big Butter and Egg Man). You’ll also notice that by late 1928, Earl Hines was gone from the band; this was because he had saved up his pennies in order to start his own big band, an excellent one, that played at Chicago’s Grand Terrace ballroom. He was replaced by one Zinky Cohn, who basically just keeps time on the keyboard.

Although Noone’s 1936 recordings feature a true swing rhythm section and the excellent but little-known trumpeter Guy Kelly (as well as another but obscure musician, pianist Gideon Honore), he doesn’t sound bad at all when it’s his turn for a solo. Playing with the more modern Charlie Shavers in 1937, however, gave him a handful to deal with. At age 18, Shavers had already been playing in a band with the equally young Dizzy Gillespie, and the two of them were trading ideas and moving the role of the trumpet beyond what Roy Eldridge was doing. But on this session, Noone had New Orleans “homeboy” in Wellman Braud on bass, and on the remake of Apex Blues (here, for some strange reason, titled Bump It), Noone is laid back and relaxed, but he definitely sounds stiffer and less swinging on I Know That You Know except for the last chorus where he really cuts loose. Even so, Noone definitely sounds more relaxed overall in the lone 1940 track by “Jimmie Noone & his Orchestra,” a band full of New Orleans homeboys: trumpeter Natty Dominique, trombonist Preston Jackson, pianist Richard M. Jones, guitarist Lonnie Johnson and bassist Jon Lindsay.

Then we jump ahead three years to 1943 and an “all star” jam band in which Noone is partnered by Jack Teagarden, tenor saxist Dave Matthews, swing trumpeter extraordinaire Billy May and bassist Art Shapiro. He acquits himself well, but certainly sounds more comfortable playing in trombonist Kid Ory’s retro New Orleans band the following year. He had found a late-career home at last, was hugely enjoying playing with Ory and this band, but unfortunately died in April 1944, aged only 48. According to his son, he didn’t drink or smoke but “ate himself to death,” a plight that also befell one of his most celebrated successors, Irving Fazola, who died in 1949 at an even younger age, 36.

Ironically, the deaths of Noone and Fazola put an end to this style of rich, deep clarinet playing, but it had run its course anyway. The cool school clarinetists of the late 1940s and early ‘50s certainly owed something to them, but by 1958 the clarinet was being dropped by nearly all modern jazz groups. Still, it’s great fun to listen to a master like Noone and recognize the music’s past.

As in the case of other Retrospective jazz releases I’ve heard, the recordings are very cleanly remastered. They are not one of these labels who believe in including all of the original surface noise of the original 78s on their CDs, and I applaud them for that. But they do tend to roll back the treble end of their records a bit more than I like or consider necessary. Except for Play That Thing and High Society, which sounds perfect to my ears, I would recommend boosting the treble on most of the other tracks by 1.5 db, which produces a more realistic sound. (You can judge this by how well you can hear the snare drum and cymbals in the drum kit.)

Even so, this is a great introduction to Noone for the uninitiated.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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