Jazz history as presented by people who should know better is compressed into telephone poles glimpsed through the window of a speeding train: “All aboard! MAPLE LEAF RAG . . . .WEST END BLUES . . . . LADY BE GOOD . . . . COTTON TAIL . . . . KO KO . . . . KIND OF BLUE . . . . A LOVE SUPREME. Last stop, ladies and gentlemen!”
At best, an inexplicable series of distortions, omissions.
One small example of this odd perspective on the music I’ve spent my life immersed in is the discussion of the “jazz ballad.” I take it to be players or singers improvising over a composition in slower tempo, its mood romantic or melancholy or both. Of course people wanted slower tempos to dance to: THE STAMPEDE was a marvel, but you couldn’t hold your darling close to you on the dance floor at that tempo. One of the “authorities” states that the first jazz ballad performance is the Trumbauer-Beiderbecke I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, followed by the Mound City Blue Blowers’ ONE HOUR, 1927 and 1929, respectively. But that leaves out, for one example, Jimmie Noone’s SWEET LORRAINE and many other recordings. And, of course, recordings are only a tiny sliver of what was being performed and appreciated.
But as far as jazz ballads are concerned, I think performances of songs titled I NEED YOU and NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU are certainly relevant. And they have not been considered worthy of notice by those who reduce an art form to easy-to-swallow historical capsules, useful for those who need to pass final examinations.
Also what runs parallel to this “ballad hypothesis,” a statement I’ve heard recently, is the contention that Caucasian audiences liked sweet music; Afro-Americans liked hot music. We’re told that recording supervisors embraced this hypothesis as well. The exceptions proliferate: tell that to Charles Linton, Pha Terrell, Harlan Lattimore, Eva Taylor, and more. But that’s another posting.
Enough grumbling about those who theorize from a very narrow awareness. Here are two very seductive examples of category-exploding that also fall sweetly on the ear. Neither performance has lyrics, but they would be easy to invent: to me they are very satisfying unacknowledged jazz ballads.
The first is Clarence Williams’ I NEED YOU, composers credited on the label as Jackson and Williams, from May 29, 1928, performed by Clarence Williams’ Jazz Kings : Ed Allen, King Oliver, cornet’ probably Ed Cuffee, trombone; probably Albert Socarras, clarinet, alto saxophone; Clarence Williams, piano; Cyrus St. Clair, tuba:
Then, a beautiful song by Tiny Parham from the last recording session he made for Victor, November 11, 1930, NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU:
That lovely record contains what is, to me, a delectable unsolved mystery. The listed personnel of Tiny Parham And His Musicians is: Roy Hobson, cornet; Ike Covington, trombone; Dalbert Bright, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone; Charlie Johnson, clarinet, alto; Tiny Parham, piano, leader; Big Mike McKendrick, banjo, guitar; Milt Hinton, brass bass; Jimmy McEndre, drums. The Victor label clearly indicates “Whistling chorus by Maurice Hendricks.” And a gorgeous twenty-four bars it is, in high style: the Red McKenzie of whistlers. A small sidelight: “Hendricks” whistles the first sixteen bars elegantly, and I find myself missing him through the bridge and elated when he returns for the final eight bars.
But who is or was Maurice Hendricks? If he is a real musician, why doesn’t his name appear in any discography? The theory that it might be young Milt Hinton (the initials are the only hint) is implausible because Milt is audibly playing brass bass — tuba, or sousaphone, what you will — throughout the record, not putting the horn down while the Whistler is so prettily doing his thing. Brian Rust and “Atticus Jazz” say that “Maurice Hendricks” is Big Mike McKendrick, and I would grant a certain aural similarity between the name and the pseudonym, but a) why would a pseudonym be needed on the label, and b) why are there apparently no other recorded examples of Big Mike whistling? Was “Maurice” a friend of the Parham band, welcomed into the studio to amaze us now, ninety years later?
My best answers for the moment are of course whimsical: “Maurice Hendricks” is really Lew Le Mar, who made the hyena and billy goat sounds for the 1927 Red Hot Peppers session, or, if you don’t think that Lew hung around Chicago for three years just to get back in the Victor studios, I propose that the Whistler is Cassino Simpson, who was capable of more than we can imagine, but that’s only because Jack Purvis was busy making many recordings in New York in November 1930.
Theorize as you will, though, the music rises above whatever we can say about it. Listen again. Thanks to Mike Karoub for his ears, to Matthew Rivera of the Hot Club of New York and especially to Charles Iselin for bringing the second recording to my attention.
May your happiness increase!