The drummer Kaiser Marshall, who died more than sixty years ago, is not someone oten mentioned, although he was Fletcher Henderson’s drummer when Henderson’s band was the most innovative jazz orchestra. Ironically, Kaiser is most famous as an aesthetic scapegoat. Drummers are always asked to tone it down, and Kaiser is jazz history’s most notable example of Someone Who Played Too Loud.
But first, a picture of Kaiser, happy at his drum set, in a wagon advertising a 1947 concert in Times Square — one of photographer William P. Gottlieb’s many brilliant moments:
Kaiser’s colleagues are pianist Art Hodes, trombonist Sandy Williams, reedman Cecil Scott, and trumpeter Henry Goodwin. But I offer this picture simply to show Kaiser, a year before his death, having a fine time, beating out the rhythm on the wooden rim of his bass drum, something few drummers indulge in today.
But back to Kaiser Marshall as an intrusive player, someone who got in the way. One of Louis Armstrong’s most famous recordings, deservedly so, is the slow blues KNOCKIN’ A JUG. Recorded in 1929, it might be the first all-star session, although it wasn’t issued with any fanfare, and it features what they used to call a “mixed band”: Jack Teagarden on trombone, Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Sullivan on piano, Happy Cauldwell on tenor sax, Kaiser on drums, Louis on trumpet. The story is that these musicians had been hanging out and jamming uptown and made their way back to the OKeh studios for an early morning record date. Presumably Tommy Rockwell saw this gang — inebriated, hungover, elevated from stimulants and the stimulating experience of being up all night — and suggested that they record something.
They did two sides — the other, I’M GONNA STOMP MR. HENRY LEE, was rejected and no one has heard it. My guess is that it was riotously wonderful but too good and too undisciplined for the times.
KNOCKIN’ A JUG, though, was issued. Perhaps as a curiosity, or because Louis’s closing three choruses were as majestic a piece of soulful music as anyone can imagine. But the recording balance is imbalanced. Kaiser’s drums are louder than Joe Sullivan’s piano, and they take center stage. When you hear this recording for the first time, it’s hard to get used to the prominence of the drum set, and you might find yourself listening around Kaiser to hear the soloists. I have done this in the past, and I was vastly amused to read in Sally-Ann Worsfold’s notes to the JSP box set of early Louis that she compared he sound of Kaiser’s playing on this side to a pair of amplified knitting needles. A precise — if ungenerous — simile.
But yesterday I was driving into Manhattan with 1928-31 Louis discs in my CD player, and the chronology led me to KNOCKIN’ A JUG. Not for the first time, I thought, “Wow! Those drums are loud,” but then fell into a near-reverie, an attempt at a new way of thinking. I decided, for once, that I would listen to Kaiser’s playing as intently as I could. Rather than try to avoid it, I would accept it as it came out of the speakers.
Somewhere in his pioneering book Nature Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that everything, observed closely, becomes beautiful. Emerson never got to hear Kaiser Marshall play, but he might well have reveled in those sounds. After Lang’s arpeggiated introduction, Kaiser begins to play press rolls on the wooden rim of his snare drum, I assume, rolls broken up with phrase-ending accents and tap-dance patterns. It is wonderful support and counterpoint at the same time. Then he shifts to wire brushes to continue behind Teagarden — hardly according to formula, where a drummer might start off quietly on brushes and then go to sticks to build intensity and volume. Kaiser’s brush sweep is awe-inspiring for its rhythm, its pulse, its inexorability. “I can keep this up until the end of time,” his sweeping brushes tell us. And their sound is so hard to describe: part sweeping, padding, slapping — but his time is flexible yet urgent, his momentum invaluable. For Lang’s solo, Kaiser drops his volume ever so slightly, but continues to end phrases with double-time accents, emphasizing what he’s just heard, saying to Lang, “Yes, I agree with that!” When Happy Cauldwell takes his turn, Kaiser is the epitome of pulsing steadiness — no accents, just playing very simple yet very intense patterns. Behind Joe Sullivan, Kaiser is playful, antiphonal, answering, echoing, and shadowing Sullivan’s down-home filigrees.
These choruses are the portion of the record most troubling to literal-minded listeners. But if you can, for once, stop feeling sorry for poor overwhelmed Joe Sullivan, who was a tidal wave of a pianist, and just listen to the interplay, new worlds open up.
What a beautiful rocking motion Kaiser creates with those syncopated figures — my swing dancing friends could have a blissful time Lindy Hopping to this.
Then Louis enters and Kaiser goes back to the simple propulsive stick-pattern with which the record began, although it’s clear that the emotional temperature in the room has risen dramatically. He doesn’t seek to answer Louis, to accent his phrases, to be anything but deeply supportive. And, in his own way, his steady pattern is both dramatic and consoling. “Fly as high as you can, Louis: the band will play chords behind you and I’ll give you the strongest foundation I can!” The congregation, led by Brother Marshall, says AMEN to Louis in every bar. And I think that Louis could not have flown so high without Kaiser’s fervent, empathetic support.
That might be LOUD drumming, still. But it is beautiful jazz playing — earnest, subtle, powerful, and cohesive. Kaiser Marshall played this way because this WAS his way. He didn’t have a chameleon-like approach to the music: one style for this group, one style for another, a bagful of synethetic, “learned” poses. No, this was the way he sounded. And it was obviously satisfying to the other musicians, as it had been to his colleagues in the Henderson band and the other groups he elevated. He was himself. He knew his essential identity, and he didn’t attempt to change it.
That seems to me a very beautiful thing to say about anyone — jazz drummers or not — that we understand ourselves and stay true to the truths within us by embodying them.
Find a copy of KNOCKIN’ A JUG and play it again, sweeping your mind clean of preconceptions. It enters our ears as a great dramatic statement. A group of artists having a good time, showing their essential selves, merging blissfully in ecstatic harmony at the end. And Kaiser Marshall is someone I will carry in my mind these days whenever I feel pressured, quietly or otherwise, to become someone I am not. Pure Emerson, with press rolls as well.