Monday, 13 October 2014

21. Bennie Moten and Kansas City

We’ve noted before that jazz had been seeded throughout the United States by early in the 20th century, as first New Orleans performers and then others from Chicago and New York toured with their music.

We mentioned “Territory Bands” when we discussed Tiny Parham, and for Alyn Shipton, this “loose-knit collection of travelling orchestras, most of them African Americans” has been overlooked by many jazz historians, who have tended to focus on the centres of New Orleans, Chicago and New York.

“In terms of the geographical spread of jazz, and of launching the careers of many provincial musicians who subsequently became famous, these bands were equally significant”. (Shipton, p158).

Away from those well-documented centres, important contributions to jazz were being made. One such contribution was from Bennie Moten.

Bennie Moten
Moten was born in Kansas City, Missouri on 13th November, 1894. A pianist and composer, he led one of the most influential bands of the 20s and early 30s outside of the New Orleans, Chicago, New York triangle.

Not only was his band a launch pad for the careers of stars such as Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham and Ben Webster, but the Moten band’s style made a huge contribution to developments in jazz.

Moten’s earliest band was just a three-piece, the B. B. & D. Trio (standing for Bennie, Bailey and Dude, although they were known as the Big, Black and Dirty Trio), but by 1923 he was recording for OKEH as a six-piece, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, such as in this recording from October of that year backing Ada Brown.

Evil Mama Blues, Bennie Moten and his Kansas City Orchestra with Ada Brown:

That early sound owed a lot to Chicago, but jazz in Kansas City soon developed a flavour of its own; more bluesy, more pared-down, loose in structure, and riff-based. Ted Goia believes this drew on different sources: “the blues tradition of the Southwest; the big band sounds of the Northeast; the informal jam sessions of the Southwest”. (p160) But don’t let “pared-down” or “loose” make you think it’s sedate; they could drive along at an amazing pace when they wanted.

Listen to the Moten band play “Toby” in 1932:

It’s fast, at over 300 bpm, and the bass is playing on all four beats of the bar, instead of the more usual 2nd and 4th. 4/4 time is one of the defining characteristics of KC jazz of the era, and although no one player can be credited with originating it, when Walter Page gave up leading his own band to join Moten on bass, it allowed Jo Jones, Moten’s drummer, to open up his sound and provide a more even pulse, and concentrate on his defining hi hat work. The brass and saxophones are trading riffs, and Ben Webster provides a typically muscular tenor saxophone solo at around 1 minute in.

By the time of that recording, Count Basie had joined the band as arranger and had edged his way in on piano, too, despite the fact that Moten was a pianist himself. But the driving sound that Basie honed was laid on Moten’s own foundations.  

Moten's influence in Kansas City apparently went beyond musical style, too.  According to Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Moten had a lot of useful contacts, including being a friend of "Boss Tom" Pendergast, the political boss whose corruption was finally undone when he was convicted of income tax evasion.

Hot Lips Page says "Through contacts of this kind, [Bennie] was able to control all the good jobs and choice locations in and around Kansas City. [...]However, he was also a very good musician.  A real old-timer, he was an excellent ragtime pianist and he could play along with the best of them". (Shapiro & Hentoff, 1955, p297).

Many of Moten’s compositions became jazz standards, and Basie continued to play many of them after Moten’s tragic death in 1935 as a result of a botched tonsillectomy.

Here’s his signature tune, Moten Swing:

 And here is the wonderful Prince of Wails:


Morton and Cook recommend Band Box Shuffle 1929-1932, a 2 CD offering from Hep Records’ 1000 series. It has an extensive biography booklet with notes by Frank Driggs.


Friday, 4 October 2013

20. Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson and the piano jazz lineage

So far we’ve concentrated on ensemble jazz. But it’s easy to forget that before phonograph records and then radios, the most common music-making machine in American households was the piano. The ragtime craze had spread through sheet music. In some ways therefore it was to jazz’s disadvantage that improvisation was such an integral part of jazz, but thanks to Jelly Roll Morton and others, jazz was beginning to be written down.

Pianos everywhere

At the beginning of the 20th Century, pianos were mass-produced, and most people would have had access to a piano if they wanted, if not necessarily at home, then there would be a piano at a neighbour’s, or at church, in neighbourhood bars and community halls, though perhaps of variable quality.

James P. Johnson (whom we have met in passing already) said “In the years before World War One, there was a piano in almost every home, colored or white. [...]Most people who had pianos couldn’t play them, so a piano player was important socially”. (quoted in Shipton, A, p124).

Eubie Blake

This was precisely the environment Eubie Blake came up through; he initially had no piano at home, but his parents were so proud of his performances on neighbourhood pianos, that they eventually made the sacrifices necessary to buy one in instalments.

Born in 1883 in Baltimore, Maryland, Blake was an essential link between ragtime and stride. Alyn Shipton writes: “When I met him and heard him perform in 1976, he was still an impressive pianist, with a genuine sense of jazz timing in his solo breaks and right-hand figures, but who never quite seemed to have loosened his left hand from the stiff beat of 1880s ragtime”. (Shipton, p125).

Initially called Sounds of Africa when written in 1899, this tune was renamed Charleston Rag in 1919 to cash in on the popularity of the dance.

Boogie Woogie

Listen to the descending figure in the bass of the first theme. It’s a boogie-woogie-like device, although the theme is not a 12-bar blues, but one of a number of raggy themes that make up the piece. There are frequent changes of key, and in the other themes the left hand returns to a bass-note and chord style accompaniment.

James Lincoln Collier points out that Eubie Blake and the proto-jazz pianists from the Northeast were not steeped in the blues, as the New Orleans horn players were: “[...] though they had some contact with the black folk tradition through their churches and the working people who were emigrating from the South, they had little experience with the rural music on which the blues was built”. (JLC, 1978, p194).

Atlantic City

Indeed, that early proto-jazz piano style flourished in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was experiencing a boom as a popular playground in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and Blake and others flocked there for employment.

Amongst those finding work there in the years before World War I were James P Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith. Alyn Shipton quotes both these players as saying they learned boogie-woogie walking bass in Atlantic City from Southern pianists.

The Harlem style

 If, as Ted Gioia suggests, “the piano was to Harlem what brass bands had been to New Orleans” (Gioia, p95), then in some ways Atlantic City was the New Orleans of jazz piano: it was the early melting pot of music where the stride players honed their styles. And just as the New Orleans brass players had made their way to Chicago, so the stride players brought what they’d learned in Atlantic City back to Harlem.

James P. Johnson

James Price Johnson, born in New Brunwick, New Jersey in 1894, is traditionally cited as the “father of stride piano”. In his rag-inflected style you can hear the material - church music, dances, rags, blues, and reels - that brought him work. Johnson was, however, proud of his classical training, under Bruto Giannini, and it is this conflict between highbrow artistic merit and work that pays the bills that Ted Gioia draws attention to when he says that piano music in Harlem was a “battleground between these two visions of black artistic achievement” (p95).

Perhaps Johnson’s most famous composition is Carolina Shout, which became something of a test piece for Harlem Stride players:

Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson on CD.

For Blake, Morton and Cook recommend Memories of You on the Shout Factory label.

And for Johnson, they recommend Carolina Shout on the Biograph label.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

19. Chicago Era Sidemen

Zutty Singleton

Arthur “Zutty” Singleton was born in Bunkie, Louisiana in 1898. An influential drum stylist, he was the first to use brushes in jazz drumming, and has been credited as the originator of the extended drum solo (Carr et al).

Hi Hat Hate

 His percussive effects on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings extended the jazz drummer’s vocabulary, although he was never keen on hi hat. A charismatic, extroverted personality, with a renowned sense of humour, he led his own bands before Louis Armstrong did, and he embraced new jazz styles alongside “classic” jazz, and worked with Fats Waller, Roy Eldridge, Slim Gaillard, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, amongst others.

 He continued to work on and off with Chicago names such as Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky and Mezz Mezzrow, and toured extensively in Europe.

That's Like It Ought To Be, Face

 The recordings of the 1920s are not very good at highlighting drumming, so to hear his full range you’re better heading for later recordings such as the drum solo, “Drum Face” (he called everyone Face), or the 1940 recording of King Porter Stomp by the Zutty Singleton and his Orchestra, with Red Allen on trumpet and Lil Hardin on piano.

 But you can hear him as well as the technology of the day allows on this 1929 Jelly Roll Morton Trio recording of That’s Like It Ought To Be:

Warren “Baby” Dodds

Bad boy younger brother of Johnny Dodds, who was his senior by 12 years, Baby Dodds played professionally from the age of 16, and joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922. He was an original and virtuoso talent, and although born New Orleans in 1898, was a firm fixture in Chicago for more than 2 decades. He became highly sought-after again during the traditional jazz revival, and toured Europe with Mezz Mezzrow during that time.

 George Wettling said of Dodds that “the way he played drums behind the band was a solo in itself”. Dodds played something different for each chorus, and experimented with long rolls. Although this approach was not wanted in swing, modern and avant-garde drummers admired Dodds for it (Carr et al).

 A heavy drinker from an early age (he tells of downing a whole bottle of gin on his 14th birthday in order to build up the courage to ask his brother Johnny for a place in Johnny's band), Dodds suffered a series of strokes later in life, but continued to play and teach drums until his death in 1959.

 The book, The Baby Dodds Story, by Larry Gara, was based on a long interview Dodds gave to the writer.

 Here is Dodds with brother Johnny and Jelly Roll Morton in 1927 (the Dodds brothers come in eventually, and tear the tune up):

Pee Wee Russell

Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell was a highly original clarinet and saxophone player from Virginia with a hangdog expression, and a long, craggy face that was as recognisable as his sound. His early technique was fast and nimble, but as his heavy drinking took its toll, that soon gave way to a style based on cleverly chosen and often unexpected notes and an unusual harmonic sensibility. Charles Edward Smith says: “PeeWee is one of the five or so intelligent men on jazz clarinet and invented an alphabet and calligraphy for it peculiarly his own.” (Shapiro and Hentoff, eds, 1957, “The Jazz Makers”, p104, -my edition 1988). He is sometimes described as an early influence on free jazz.

 George Frazier wrote of the “bliss and the sadness and the compassion and the humility that are there in the notes that he plays”.

 He played with Red Nichols, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller and others, and was highly prized by Eddie Condon. Russell’s own sincerely held anti-commercial sensibility was in contrast with his marketability as a personality, and he came to be something of an unlikely poster boy for Chicago jazz. He disliked this attention, and believed it detracted from his seriousness as an artist.

 He continued to be interested in pushing the boundaries, and in later life played at Newport with Thelonious Monk, and recorded an album with Oliver Nelson.

 Here’s Pee Wee on clarinet with Red Nichols & His Five Pennies in 1927:

Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, and Pee Wee Russell on CD.

All three performers have already featured on this blog, and can be found playing on the records of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and in Pee Wee's case, with Red Nichols.  All of them go on to have recording careers in later decades, and we'll come across them later in the blog.  But for now, you could try the comprehensive 10-CD,  "Dixieland Jazz - This was the Jazz age" set from Membran Media.  It's a fantastic music selection - there's a smattering of low grade hokum thrown in, but there's more than enough good stuff to make up for it, although there are no session details at all.  No dates, no personnel information, just the bare title and band name.  But you get around 10 hours of early jazz for under £10.

Or the less comprehensive 2-CD "Jazz Age: Hot Sounds of the 20s and 30s" on the Past Perfect label.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

18. Red Nichols and Miff Mole

Born in Ogden, Utah in 1905, Red Nichols was the red-haired son of a music teacher and multi-instrumentalist, and as a youth Red played in the local brass band, as well as studying piano and violin. He went to a military academy on a music scholarship aged 14, but fell under the spell of jazz, to his father’s dismay, and he was soon home again and playing in bands around Ogden, as well as in the town’s theatre pit. He joined the first of several touring bands with which he criss-crossed the country, learning his trade, and hearing the early recordings of Bix Beiderbecke, who was to become a major influence on Red’s style (rather than Armstrong). Another of the influences on Red was his friend, Miff Mole.

Making Cents with Miff
 Carr et al believe Red met Miff Mole in Atlanta in 1923, but Alyn Shipton dates their meeting to 1925. Either way, from 1925 until the end of the decade the pair began a close musical association, recording a number of influential tunes in a variety of small bands mainly in New York, the band names often involving a play on Red’s surname, Nichols, such as the Five Pennies. The records became big sellers.

Miff Mole
Miff Mole, the elder of the two, was born in Long Island, New York in 1898, and played with bands led by Jimmy Durante and Gus Sharp, before joining Phil Napoleon’s Original Memphis Five. It was the recordings of this last band that were to influence Red Nichols, as Miff quickly gained prominence, lauded as the first great trombone soloist. Later, the great Basie trombonist Dickie Wells would call him “the JJ Johnson of the 1920s”, but Mole’s career was beset, even at the height of his repute, by ill-health. Ailing and with gigs drying up, by the winter of 1960 he had taken to selling pretzels in a subway. Working in the New York winter can’t have done him any favours, and by April he was dead. Miff’s death came just over a year after Danny Kaye portrayed Nichols – or a Hollywood version of him – in the film "The Five Pennies".

Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Boneyard Shuffle:

Eddie Lang is on guitar, and the clarinet/alto sax is Jimmy Dorsey.

Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Feeling No Pain:

Pee Wee Russell is on clarinet, and the bass part is carried by Adrian Rollini on the unusual bass sax. This time Dick McDonough is the guitarist.

Compare that with Red and Miff’s Stompers, on another track called Feeling No Pain:

 Their music is not bluesy, and it can’t really be said to swing, but it would be wrong to dismiss it (as it sometimes is) as “chamber jazz”; this is hot dance music, and could often be raucous.

Red and Miff on CD:
Morton and Cook recommend the Red Heads Complete 1925 – 1927, on Classics, and Miff Mole Slippin’ Around, on Frog Records.

Monday, 2 September 2013

17. Henry “Red” Allen

Flushed with early success
Born in New Orleans in 1908, by the early 1920s, Red Allen was playing with the Excelsior Brass Band as well as with Sam Morgan’s band and George Lewis’ band. He earned his nickname because of the colour that his cheeks took on when he played high notes.

Chicago to New York
 After a spell on the Mississippi river boats, he was recruited by Joe Oliver to join him in Chicago in 1927. His talents were noticed by former Joe Oliver pianist Luis Russell, who was then fronting one of the most successful bands in New York. Russell’s band used several former Joe Oliver sidemen, including the formidable, bellow-lunged trombone player, Jay C. Higginbotham. At first Red travelled to New York to guest on Luis Russell recordings, but soon he had joined the band full time.

 Here’s Red propelling the Luis Russell number, Dr Blues. But listen out for Jay C. Higginbotham’s trombone solo, not that you’ll miss it!

As well as having an inherent sense of swing, Red was from the start a player willing to take risks. Avant-garde trumpeter, Don Ellis, hailed Red as “the most creative and avant-garde trumpeter playing in New York”. This was in the mid-60s, only two years before Red’s death, at the height of the New Thing (famously described by Time magazine as that “curious and compelling cacophony”). Red wasn’t pandering to new tastes; it’s just that the new players could dig Red’s famous unpredictability. His playing had always been full of the unexpected: what Ian Carr et al describe as his “’modern style’, all slurs, atonal twists and growls”. (Jazz: the essential companion, P7).

 Here’s the Russell band’s Jersey Lightning:

Pops Foster solos on bass from around one minute in, but after that – from about 1:23 - we hear Red’s incredible solo, full of notes that aren’t even in the key being played, never mind the chord. The tune is full of chromaticism, but Red occasionally goes further than that, into pure atonality. His solo wouldn't sound out of place on a Charles Mingus album 30 years later.

 Red was to be a huge influence on later trumpet players, like Roy Eldridge. We’ll hear more of him in later decades, but we couldn’t leave the 20s without a mention for the man once called the last great New Orleans trumpet soloist.

 Here he is on a side recorded under his own name in 1929, Swing Out:

Red on CD:
 You can hear Red on Luis Russell records as well as under his own name in the late 20s. Morton and Cook recommend Luis Russell’s the Luis Russell Story, on Retrieval. It’s well worth getting. As well as Red and the wonderful Jay C. Higginbotham, you’ll hear old hands such as Kid Ory, Johnny St Cyr and Pops Foster, as well as Albert Nicholas on reeds.

Under Red’s name, Morton and Cook recommend Henry “Red” Allen and his Orchestra 1929 – 1933, on Classics.