This bouncy performance from October 25, 1936, owes its existence to a few fortunate coincidences.
That new invention, the jukebox, meant that record labels in the Thirties saw a market for pop music recorded inexpensively for listeners eager for danceable novelties.
So Fats Waller and Henry “Red” Allen gave encouragement to Bob Howard, Tempo King, Putney Dandridge, Teddy Wilson, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, and the overlooked Lil Armstrong, whose last name and ebullience were enough to make Decca Records interested in her. (Also, a woman-pianist-singer-composer-personality was their idea of good value for one salary.)
Then, the Fletcher Henderson band was playing a long residency at the Grand Terrace in Chicago: Fletcher’s star sidemen Buster Bailey (clarinet), Chu Berry (tenor sax), Huey Long (guitar), and Joe Thomas (trumpet) were available and eager to make some easy money on their own. Teddy Cole took over the piano; John Frazier played bass. Roy Eldridge might have wanted to lead his own date; Sidney Catlett was off having fun.
And the idea of a “hi-de-ho” man leads back to the immense popularity of both Cab Calloway and his jive talk . . . all things combined to make this wonderful piece of music: meant to be ephemeral but still entertaining us more than seventy-five years later.
Now, settle in and enjoy the strong pulse of that drumless rhythm section (with Huey Long’s solo passage late in the record), Teddy Cole’s glistening piano — shades of Hines and Wilson — on top. Then, Joe Thomas — no one’s played like him yet! Careful yet soulful, taking his time, outlining the melody but offering his own embellishments. He loved upward arpeggios (shades of 1927 Louis) and repeated notes (all his own, as was that lovely tone). Thomas’s playing always combines delicacy and earnestness: he has something he wants to tell us, but it’s not going to be bold or overemphatic.
Then a key change to bring on the Star — jivey, enthusiastic, full of ginger and pep, singing lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense but we don’t care. (“I’m going to bump that ball . . . ?”) while the band gets more lively in back of her. Buster Bailey, who could sometimes sound mechanical, now bends a note or two in the hot fashion of Ed Hall — and Lil comes back for more, with Joe generating a good deal of heat behind her singing. (All this romping has been created in eighty seconds: the jazz masters of the Thirties certainly didn’t need a great deal of room to warm up the world.)
And then a sweet chorded interlude from Huey Long and John Frazier, coming through clearly even now, preparing us for the drama to follow, Chu Berry in flight, his phrases tumbling, his tone shifting and shading as he ascends and descends. Then tout ensemble, rollicking: Lil riding the rhythm wave of the band, the horns — with space and time enough for a four-bar string bass break — before the end: what Joe plays in the final fifteen selections of this disc is priceless. Yes, there’s some Eldridge-osmosis there (those phrases were the common tongue for trumpeters in 1936 and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went back to Mr. Strong) but Joe is floating on top of the beat just as he seems to be urging the band on to a joyous finale.
And these recordings aren’t well known and haven’t had much existence on compact disc. Yes, there’s a Classics compilation but it’s been out of print and costly for some time. I wouldn’t take anything from Billie or Fats, but their colleagues, swinging happily for other labels in these years, deserve our attention, too.
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