OGDEN, UTAH / RED AND MIFF VISIT THE 21st CENTURY

Yesterday the Beloved and I drove through Ogden, Utah.  That town is quite removed from our usual route, but we are here so that she can teach three classes in pressure cooking at the amiable Love to Cook / Kitchen Kneads (!) store in Logan . . . and then we can drink in the natural beauty that so characterizes the state — snow-topped mountains so astonishing that on first glance they look unreal, and the wondrous birds who casually inhabit the Wild Bird Refuge at Bear River. 

All right, what has any of this to do with jazz?

A good deal, by luck and serendipity.  Ogden, as some of you might know, is the birthplace of Loring “Red” Nichols, the cornetist and bandleader whose name, nearly forty-five years after his death — still has the power to stir up ideological controversy among jazz fans.  Some of his best “Five Pennies” recordings feature the revolutionary-for-his-time trombonist Miff Mole, who was born in Freeport, Long Island, a community not far from the one where I spent my childhood.  Red and Miff favored a kind of jazz that was “modern,” harmonically sophisticated, and complex . . . but their performances have always been mildly condescended to by those who prefer their jazz scalding Hot — those who listened to the Five Pennies recordings for the solos of Teagarden, Goodman, Lang, or Teschmacher, the rhythmic support of Sullivan, Krupa, Vic Berton, or Tough.  Next to the hot players of his generation, Nichols can — on occasion — sound a bit mannered, and one might hear the echoes of “Carnival of Venice,” which he played as a boy, coming through.  But he was a better-than-average player, he employed the best players he could find, and he gave them solo space.  And, unlike Ted Lewis, he didn’t sing or talk over anyone else’s solos.  I think the bad things said about Nichols have to do with the unconscious or conscious Marxism that hovers over jazz.  Nichols had the bad taste to be Caucasian, middle-class, prosperous — someone who made a living from jazz and lived a long comfortable life.  Had Nichols died of tuberculosis, or had he frozen to death on a Harlem doorstep, would he be held in higher esteem among the jazz purists? 

Miff Mole is somewhat of a different story.  The trombone requires so much from the person behind the mouthpiece, that there are very few trombonists who keep their initial style intact (I think of Morton, Teagarden, and Vic Dickenson as a celestial trio) — but Mole’s early solos are acrobatic and graceful.  It’s impossible to imagine that Teagarden, Jimmy Harrison, and Charlie Green didn’t notice what Miff was doing, quietly, in the early Twenties.

One of the wonderful things about this music is that younger players can look back to the past, honor it, and then give their homage its own individuality. 

While we were driving through Ogden, Utah, Jamaica Knauer was posting one of her delightful videos from the 2009 Bix Fest — Andy Schumm, Dave Bock, Kim Cusack, Paul Asaro, Leah Bezin, John Otto, and Josh Duffee, “Bix and his Chicago Gang,” here payting tribute to Miff’s recording (from 1928, I think) of ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND.  Initially, it sounds ragtime-and-brass band flavored, but the boys (then and now) take themselves to the land of jazz, in a lovely manner.

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3 responses to “OGDEN, UTAH / RED AND MIFF VISIT THE 21st CENTURY

  1. I too, have a soft spot for the music of Red Nichols, but I can’t go along with you that the negativity tat hangs over Nichols’ reputation is somehow to do with “Marxism” (and I write as a Marxist): I think it’s got more to do with tyhe fact that he was seriously overrated in the 1920’s and that there’s been a bit of an overreaction since. Condon’s assessment of Nichols as a martinet (in “We Called It Music”) may also have prejudiced some against Nichols, but it also confirms the view that – these days, at least – the assessment of Nichols’ music (whether positive or negative) is not racially based: I am one of those who enjoys Nichols’ late 20’s and early 30’s records because of tye contributions of people like Tesch, Goodman, Krupa and Teagarden. White guys, but the white guys who made no secret of their debt to the black pioneers. Now, Miff Mole: he was a whole different proposition; a soloist who could stand alongside Jimmy Harrison and Benny Morton (glad you mentioned him): as Otis Ferguson wrote: “He was so far ahead of of Brunies and Pecora when he started that’s there is no telling what a Friar’s Inn background would have done for him…”

  2. I agree, Jim, but what I am calling “Marxism,” perhaps loosely, is the Panassie and Co. belief of the Thirties that only African-American musicians mattered, and the later romanticism that valued musicians who suffered — the cult of jazz martyrdom — over musicians who were contentedly middle-class. But the music is what matters!

  3. I am in need of a band for November 14, 2009 that can play jazz music. I know this is such short notice and I really apologize. I am on the board for the Northern Utah Coalition for HIV/AIDS and we have a 1920s theme dinner and fundraiser at the Ogden Eccles Center at 6:30. The band that we had backed out on us and we are a week away. We would love to know what you charge and if you could donate some of your time as well which you could write off as a donation at tax time. We are on a tight budget but really need to get someone and are willing to pay more just to get someone there. Please let me know as soon as possible since we are all really worried our event will not be successful. Thank you.

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