Tag Archives: Buster Smith

SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.

George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered.  He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.  Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.

The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps.  But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.

They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable.  The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label.  And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith.   New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums.  The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.

SWEET MAMA  (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid.  But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie.  I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass.  (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it.  Too kind to make anyone cower.)

The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide.  Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register.  It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing.  I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries.  Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.

The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable.  Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression.  Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon.  His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching.  When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.

(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner.  ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing.  Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett.  But it’s no longer on YouTube.)

And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.

and the reverse:

I haven’t analyzed the contract.  Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it.  Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.

May your happiness increase!

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ONE AND ONE (1938)

One of John Hammond’s many good ideas was this two-part (1937/8) small group session under trumpeter Harry James’ leadership, using almost all members of the Count Basie band.  Harry was already a star, he had a deep rapport with the Basie band, and I think this session may have been part of a prelude to Harry leaving Benny Goodman and forming his own orchestra.  Or, more simply, making records equaled fun, money, perhaps fame.

This wonderful session has not received the attention it deserves because of the star system in jazz.  Lester Young is one of my most luminous stars in the musical night sky, but he is not the only one.  This session gives space to musicians less heralded: tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, who died so very young, and trombonist Vernon Brown.  On other sides, a young Helen Humes sings — beautifully.  I can hear her I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? in my mental jukebox: how touching she was!

But today our focus is the blues, swung.

ONE O'CLOCK JUMP

The Basie blues-plus-riffs, ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, had been a head arrangement by Eddie Durham and Buster Smith some years before, perhaps 1935.  I have read that the unofficial name for this JUMP was BLUE BALLS, something that was not suitable for the radio audience, although some male listeners would recognize the ailment.

Basie had officially recorded it for Decca in July 1937; Goodman began using it on broadcasts not long after, so it was a piece of common language quickly.

And here is ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, twice.

January 5, 1938, under the supervision of John Hammond.  Harry James And His Orchestra : Harry James, trumpet, arranger; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Vernon Brown, trombone; Earle Warren, alto saxophone; Herschel Evans, tenor saxophone; Jack Washington, alto and baritone saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

The 78 take:

The “microgroove” take:

I think the tempo is a hair quicker on the second version, although the general outlines of solos and the overall plan of this recording are similar.  But I delight in the intensity and ease of these two discs, and some details stand out immediately: Jo Jones’ accents behind Harry’s solo on each take, for one.  The breadth and passion of Herschel Evans’ sound.  The deep, rich, guttiness of Vernon Brown.  Jess Stacy, for goodness’ sake.

Thank heavens for the recording machine, and for the idea that you could preserve music, reproduce it, sell it, and have it for posterity.  Brunswick Records is as much a wonder to me as is moveable type.  I regret the three minute limit, but these fellows could write an memorable opus in twenty-four bars.

Incidentally, this blogpost is because YouTube gave me an opportunity to present both takes of this recording in sequence, something rarely encountered otherwise.

A postscript: I feel a Vernon Brown blog in gestation — both to celebrate him and to wonder about him.  Until that time, here he is with Goodman, Dave Tough, Harry, Bud Freeman, Dave Matthews, in 1938, live:

May your happiness increase!

SURPRISES FROM THE BURT GOLDBLATT COLLECTION: BILLIE, LESTER, JACK, KIRBY, LIPS and FRIENDS

The late Burt Goldblatt was multi-talented: graphic designer, artist, writer, photographer, and collector.  It is in the last two roles that I meet him most often on eBay, as his photographs are being auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Some of his photographs are familiar, because we have seen them on record jackets, in jazz books and magazines.  But surprises always await: here are several!

Billie, presumably in a theatre or concert hall, in front of a big band.  Where? When? With whom?

BURT GOLDBLATT Billie

Lester Young — a potpourri of photographs which seem to come from his 1957 Newport Jazz Festival appearance (with the Basie band) and a Verve record date with Roy Eldridge:

BURT GOLDBLATT PRES

Jack Teagarden with his reading glasses on:

BURT GOLDBLATT TEA

The John Kirby Sextet (possibly in the war years?) with Charlie Shavers, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey.  The altoist might be George Johnson rather than Russell Procope, but Gary Foster tells me that the drummer is O’Neil Spencer:

BURT GOLDBLATT KIRBY SEXTET

And the real surprise (for me and perhaps everyone else): a candid photograph, dated 1927, with Hot Lips Page, Buster Smith, and Ted Manning — Kansas City jazz incarnate, even though the photograph was taken in Ardmore, Oklahoma:

$_3

and the back — which makes it, I believe, a photograph from Burt’s collection as opposed to one he took himself:

$_14(1) $_3

May your happiness increase!

SHARP AS A TACK

Through the good offices of Swing Era scholar David Weiner, whom I’ve known since the mid-Seventies, and the indefatigable Will Friedwald, I’ve become a member of a Yahoo group, “Toast of New York,” or ToNY, whose members swap information, music, film clips, and questions about the period online.  The other day, saxophonist and Lester Young disciple Loren Schoenberg came up with this delectable photograph. thebluedevilssaxophonesection1932withlesteryounginthemiddle-390x488

It’s taken from the website SWING FASHIONISTA http://www.swingfashionista.com. — lovely and fascinating.   

The photo itself comes from a Ken Burns book on jazz (I will not embark on the expected Burning here) and it depicts the saxophone section (Theo Ross and Buster Smith) of the Blue Devils — led by the Blessed Walter Page — greeting the new member, Lester Willis Young, in 1932.  There are not that many pictures of Lester as a young man before the Count Basie band came East, so this one is a rare pleasure.  And it pleases me to imagine him as a young man who didn’t drink too much and was happy to play his horn, not the saddened Pres we read of, late in life, drowning his very real sorrows in cognac.   

But what pleases me at the same time is the beautiful linen suits these musicians are wearing.  In the Black argot of the time, a badly or poorly-dressed person might be “raggedy as a bowl of slaw”; someone stylish would be “sharp as a tack.”  Lester, even though he seems slightly diffident, a bit shy for the camera (without his horn to hold on to) is SHARP — those shoes, that three-piece suit, the pocket square.  And that pipe!  Who knew?

Of course, clothes alone don’t make the man — it matters more than anything that it is Lester Young in the center — but the combination of man and suit and pipe, captured a bit stiffly in a photographer’s studio,  is something to cherish.