Snoozer Quinn, the “Sleeper” Jazz Guitarist

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SCHOEBEL-MEYERS-KAHN-ERDMAN: Nobody’s Sweetheart Now.* Medley: CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia on My Mind/KERN-HARBACH: You Took Advantage of Me. ROBINSON-CONRAD-LEWIS: Singin’ the Blues (2 tks).* RODGERS-HART: You Took Advantage of Me. QUINN: Snoozer’s Wanderings. Snoozer’s Telephone Blues. SHIELDS-RAGAS: Clarinet Marmalade.* GREEN-HEYMAN: Out of Nowhere. LAYTON-CREAMER: After You’ve Gone.* Medley: ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover Come Back to Me/JONES-KAHN: On the Alamo. BURNETT-NORTON: My Melancholy Baby.* / Edwin “Snoozer” Quinn, gtr; *add Johnny Wiggs, tpt. / WILLIAMS-PALMER: Everybody Loves My Baby. DI CAPUA-RUSSO: Oh Marie. BARBARIN: Bourbon Street Parade. NOONE-POSTON-HINES: Apex Blues. ROBINSON-CONRAD-LEWIS: Singin’ the Blues / Johnny Wiggs’ Big Five: Wiggs, tpt; Harry Shields, cl; Edmond Souchon, bjo/gtr/voc; Sherwood Mangiapane, bs; Paul Barbarin, dm / 504 Records CD 25, also available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

This is the story—what little we have of it, anyway—of a reclusive musical genius from the South who, like the legendary cornetist Lee Collins, made very few records, didn’t like playing Up North, and died virtually forgotten except by the musicians who heard him in the flesh.

Edward McIntosh Quinn, given the nickname “Snoozer” because of his perpetually relaxed, almost sleepy demeanor, was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1907 but raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Hid head was slightly deformed at birth and he was blind in one eye. As a youth, he could play guitar, mandolin and violin, and by his early teens he was performing in vaudeville. Among the bands he played with were Peck’s Bad Boys, led by Peck Kelley, the Louisiana Ramblers and St. Louis Rhythm Kings. He might have stayed there for the rest of his career, but somehow or other he was heard by Paul Whiteman, who went absolutely crazy over his playing and hired him for his band in late 1928.

But as I said, Snoozer, like so many New Orleans-based musicians, didn’t much like the fast pace, impersonal manners and rampant racism of the North, thus he only stayed in the band for four months. Although he did manage to make a couple of records with Frank Trumbauer’s small recording band, which included Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, he never really got any solos on recordings. And this was odd because, according to what I’ve read online, Whiteman purposely did not make him play with the band because he didn’t consider him a “chord” guitarist, but constantly featured him in solo spots, all by himself. According to New Orleans saxist and clarinetist Benjie White, Whiteman also kept Quinn up all night on several occasions to hear him play even more. A few months into 1929 he had enough, quit the band, and went back to New Orleans. His replacement was the much more famous Eddie Lang who, along with his musical partner Joe Venuti, happened to be available because Roger Wolfe Kahn dissolved his “million dollar orchestra” in which they had played for three years.

Yet it was Snoozer who had the faster fingers in his solo work. In fact, according to Les Paul, Quinn was among the very first white guitarists to play entirely with his fingers, never using a pick (what is now called “fingerstyle” guitar), and had such perfect coordination that he could produce fleet solos with either hand. Like so many New Orleans jazzmen, he also had a relaxed, “rolling” beat that was different from the clipped, staccato style of New York guitarists. (In addition to White and Paul, Snoozer was also admired by another New Orleans guitarist, Frank Federico, who played behind Louis Prima with Sam Butera and the Witnesses in Las Vegas.)

You Took AdvantageSnoozer's Telephone Blues

Snoozer recorded four solos for Victor in May 1928 (Snoozer’s Blues, Tiger Rag, That’ll Get It and Rambling Blues), but they were never issued. He played with Louis Armstrong (see photo below), the Dorsey Brothers, and Bing Crosby, but never recorded with them. Admired or not, we would have absolutely nothing of Quinn’s playing on records if it wasn’t for the enterprise of trumpeter Johnny Wiggs. Born John Wiggington Hyman in New Orleans in 1899, Wiggs was influenced by two cornet players with entirely different styles: Joseph “King” Oliver, who he always insisted did his best playing in New Orleans before moving to Chicago, and Bix Beiderbecke. In 1948, Wiggs somehow raised enough money to record and issue 78s by Snoozer, who at the time was suffering from tuberculosis (which eventually killed him) and living in a New Orleans charity hospital. Wiggs made recordings of Quinn playing solos and duets with him on cornet, which he managed to issue on privately-produced 78s. These are the source of the material on this CD. Since only 12 tracks were recorded with Snoozer, this CD is filled out with five other sides made by “Johnny Wiggs’ Big Five,” on which Quinn is replaced by the quite ordinary guitarist Edmond Souchon, but these recordings are valuable for preserving the playing of the legendary Paul Barbarin on drums as well as the clarinet playing of Harry Shields, the younger brother of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Larry Shields. Wiggs always insisted that Harry was a much more inventive jazz soloist than his more famous brother, and he does indeed acquit himself well on these five sides.

Louis and Snoozer, 1931

Louis Armstrong and Snoozer in 1931

But of course, the centerpiece of this collection is Quinn, who sounds to me as if he was alternating between a large hollow-body acoustic guitar like the kind that Eddie Lang played and an early version of an electric guitar. The latter is especially evident in his medley performance of Lover Come Back to Me/On the Alamo, where he plays on the reverb in a manner that recalls early Les Paul. But it’s primarily Quinn’s loose, relaxed beat, much more reminiscent of a black guitarist than a white one, that catches the ear. Originally, these recordings were reissued on LP by Johnson McRee’s Fat Cat label, with absolutely terrible sound: lots of hiss, crackle, and even distortion in some of the tracks. A trace of distortion remains on this CD release, particularly in the softer tracks where it was more difficult to clean up the sound, but none of them are as bad as they sounded on the Fat Cat LP.

Part of the problem in our appreciation of Quinn is that we have to “place” him in the era before Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian came along. They were the game-changers for jazz guitar; after their arrival, everyone who came before sounded somewhat less impressive, and Snoozer’s laid-back Southern style—did Whiteman really think this kind of playing was going to sell up North?—naturally sounds slightly underwhelming compared to Reinhardt’s and Christian’s high-voltage energy. Of course, it was the same way when Bunk Johnson’s recordings were released: they represented a style of jazz which had existed in the period before World War I, not the early-to-mid 1940s, when trumpeters like Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie were rapidly changing the landscape and raising the bar several notches even from such former masters as Armstrong and Berigan.

Although we must give Wiggs all the credit in the world for finally recording Snoozer, it must be admitted that his own playing sounds rather leaden in rhythm when heard alongside the guitarist. He clearly borrowed some harmonic ideas from Beiderbecke, but had none of Bix’s wonderful rhythmic “lift.” He even hits a few clams, which doesn’t help his case much. Unlike Bix, Wiggs also didn’t seem to know how to end his phrases. Often the final notes or phrases of certain passages just sound wrong or out of place. In short, he was a mediocre musician playing alongside a wonderful one.

But Snoozer is consistently excellent when given the chance to spread out. His technique reminded me of a cross between Blind Blake and Eddie Lang, but with a consistently underlying smoothness all his own. On many of the tracks, his playing is mesmerizing; one gets so wrapped up in the sheer sound of his playing that it is easy to overlook the fertile imagination he displays in his solos. Pieces like Snoozer’s Wanderings and Snoozer’s Telephone Blues were completely improvised pieces that didn’t exist before the wax recorded them; the only reason the latter was given a title with the word telephone in it is that, at one point, you can hear the sanitarium’s phone ringing softly in the background. He also had no problem with the somewhat sophisticated (for its time) chord changes of Johnny Green’s Out of Nowhere. If you pay close attention, in fact, you’ll notice that Quinn creates real compositions when he played. His improvisations have a beginning, a middle, and an end to them, each chorus following logically from the one before.

For what it’s worth, Wiggs sounds better and more comfortable in the “Big Five” recordings where he is emulating King Oliver and not Beiderbecke, but he is also helped quite a bit by the superior playing of Harry Shields and the excellent rhythm section of Mangiapane and Barbarin. They’re fun records to hear if not so exceptional that you wax ecstatic over them.

Because he withdrew from the jazz mainstream so early, it’s difficult to say how, if any, Quinn’s style might have morphed had he kept his ears open to the changes in jazz guitar of the late 1930s/early ‘40s. This is clearly one of those odd jazz time capsules that occasionally emerge which give us pause to reflect on some of the ways jazz guitar developed back in an era when the instrument was still frequently butting heads with the banjo for supremacy in jazz combos and big bands. Snoozer Quinn was clearly an advance on the Eddie Lang style as well as a departure from it in terms of his relaxed, rolling beat, and it’s a shame that we can’t hear him in context with some of his contemporaries from that early era. It certainly would have been interesting.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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