Wednesday, 28 August 2013

16. Jabbo Smith

Jabbo Smith, Red Hot Jazz Archive
Cladys “Jabbo” Smith was born in 1908 in Georgia, and learned to play trumpet while in an orphanage – a first parallel with Louis Armstrong. From the mid 20s he made some highly regarded recordings in New York. He was invited to join the Duke Ellington band, but although he is featured on the recording of Black and Tan Fantasy, he turned down a permanent spot in the band.

Armstrong’s replacement
 Jabbo pitched up in Chicago in the late 20s, playing at a speakeasy called the Bookstore, just as Louis Armstrong was preparing to leave the city. Milt Hinton – Tiny Parham’s bass player, who later worked with Cab Calloway and others - remembered that Armstrong’s club, presumably the Sunset Cafe, was looking for a replacement trumpet player when Hinton went there to play bass: “They were looking for a trumpet player to take Louis’ place and they got Jabbo Smith. Jabbo was as good as Louis then. He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful. [...] He could play soft and he could play fast but he never made it”. (Shapiro and Hentoff, pp135-136).

Armstrong’s biographer, Terry Teachout, describes Smith as “in some ways even more facile” than Armstrong (Pops, p144), but believes that he lacks Louis’ expressive ability in the higher register.

Here’s Jabbo with his Rhythm Aces, recorded by Brunswick in Chicago in 1929. Note the anachronistic tuba.

Ace of Rhythm

You can hear Jabbo’s debt to Armstrong in this 8 bar blues, including in the vocals:

Take Me to the River.

Foreshadowing the future of jazz trumpet

For Ted Goia’s money, though, Jabbo Smith’s “driving, energetic attack foreshadows the later evolution of jazz trumpet, as represented by Eldridge and Gillespie, more clearly than even Armstrong’s”. (Gioia, p67).

Certainly, Eldridge was known to have valued some of Jabbo’s records highly, and Smith’s playing is adventurous and exciting, perhaps more so when he reaches for ideas you’re not quite sure he’s going to be able to pull off.

Listen out here for the wonderful Ikey Robinson on banjo.

Michigander Blues

Brief flowering

Ironically Jabbo bloomed on the Chicago music scene, just as the scene there was itself fading. The Mob gangs were engaged in an increasingly destructive turf war over control of the clubs, and civil society and the public authorities were clamping down on the clubs due to disapproval of the racial integration being flaunted by musicians, and in many cases by club audiences.

 Louis Armstrong was obliged to leave Chicago on a tour of the country after he became embroiled in a feud between competing management claims over him, during which a “big, bad-ass hood” named Frankie Foster pulled revolver on Louis and forced him to make a phone call withdrawing from a series of engagements in Chicago and agreeing to begin another contract in New York. On seeing the gun, Armstrong is said to have replied: “Weeeellll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow”. Once he was away from the hood, he decided that giving both cities a wide berth for a while would be sensible. (See Teachout, pp162-164).

As the war escalated, venues were subject to firearms attacks and fire-bombings; the Plantation was firebombed while King Oliver’s band was on the bandstand. (Shipton, p119).

Later years

After his heyday in the late 1920s, Jabbo – still only in his mid 20s - disappeared from the music scene, apart from a brief resurgence with his innovative big band in the late 30s, until his “rediscovery” in the 1960s.

Jabbo on CD.

Morton and Cook recommend the Classics CD, Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces 1929 – 1938, that brings together his Rhythm Aces sides with 4 tracks by his 1938 band.

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