Tag Archives: college jazz

“THERE’S SOME KIND OF MAGIC GOING ON”: “COLLEGIATE,” by THE ORIGINAL CORNELL SYNCOPATORS (Rivermont Records, 2021)

Words later. First, this magical video:

I’ve admired Colin Hancock since 2017, when I heard the first disc by the Original Cornell Syncopators — a group of wonderfully gifted college students who were majoring in everything except music — who romped through Twenties tunes with enthusiasm, vigor, and feeling. They are my living answer to “Jazz is dead.” “Young people only want to play Charlie Parker solos.” “No one under seventy really knows how to play Hot,” and other widely-circulated falsehoods.

I knew that Colin and “the Syncs,” as those in the know, call them, had recorded a new CD for Rivermont Records, its repertoire focused on music composed, played, recorded by Twenties ensembles with connections to college life. From what I know of Colin and a number of his colleagues, I expected that the results would be well-researched and historically accurate, and that I would hear music new to me, played idiomatically. I knew that the results would also be fun, spirited, enthusiastic: playful rather than white-gloves dry reverence. I knew the band would be mostly Youngbloods (with the exception of guest pianist Ed Clute and banjo-guitar master Robbert VanRenesse) that they would be ethnically diverse, with women as well as men sharing the limelight as instrumentalists as well as singers.

Yesterday I had errands to do, so I brought the disc with me to play in my car — my mobile studio — and I was astonished by how compelling it was, how fine — well beyond my already high expectations. I know it’s an oxymoron, but the words “ferocious polish” kept coming to my mind as I listened, and if you’d seen me at a red light, you’d wonder why that driver was grinning and nodding his head in time. I hadn’t read the notes (a forty-page booklet, with contributions by Julio Schwarz-Andrade, Colin, Hannah Krall, Andy Senior, Bryan Wright) and had only a vague idea of the repertoire, so in some ways I was the ideal listener, ready to hear the music without the historical apparatus and the assumptions it would necessarily impose.

I will write here what another reviewer would save as the closing “pull quote”: if you take any pleasure in the music that was American pop — not just hot jazz — before the Second World War, you will delight in COLLEGIATE.

You can hear selections from the recording, purchase a CD or download the music here. There are tastes from COLLEGIATE, MAPLE LEAF RAG, CONGAINE, ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP, CATARACT RAG BLUES, SAN, PERUNA, EVERY EVENING, SICK O’LICKS, IF I’M WITHOUT YOU — songs whose names will conjure up Twenties joys, Earl Hines, Jimmie Noone, Scott Joplin, and the ODJB . . but other songs and performances have connections to Ted Weems, Hal Kemp, Curtis Hitch, the Princeton Triangle Club Jazz Band, Jimmie Lunceford, the Cornell Collegians, Zach Whyte’s Chocolate Beau Brummels, Charlie Davis, Stu Pletcher and Carl Webster’s Yale Collegians.

What’s so good about it? The selections are beautifully played — with joy and spirit — and expansively recorded. When the whole ensemble gets going (and do they ever!) I thought I was listening to what the Paul Whiteman Orchestra must have sounded like in its heroic orchestral glory: the band and the recording have expansive life. And the solos are lyrical as well as hot, fully “in the idiom.” A good deal of this music has its roots in the Middle West rather than the South . . . so even though it may strike people who revere Louis as I do as heresy, the disc is delightful living proof that other, convincing, kinds of hot improvised music were being played and sung that owed little to Armstrongiana except for ingenuity and rhythmic enthusiasm.

I think of it as a good-natured rebuke to another stereotype, that “collegiate jazz” of the Twenties was primarily groups of young men jamming on pop tunes and originals of the day — I think of Squirrel Ashcraft and his friends, and it’s true that this CD has a goodly share of small-band hot . . . but that oversimplification is rather like saying that the Twenties = flappers, flivvers, and raccoon coats. The research that Colin and others have done results in a presentation that is imaginative and expansive: the twenty performances here are a kind of aesthetic kaleidoscope, all of it coming from similar syncopated roots but with delightfully varied results. No cliches.

And maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but the music produced by college students and graduates a hundred years later has a kind of spiritual authenticity. There is a good deal of thin, fragile “authenticity” out there among people attempting to play “vintage” music: this recording is real, both grounded and soaring.

The ensembles are wonderfully cohesive: that the players aren’t full-time musicians is something amazing. And there are vocal trios. I want nothing more. Everyone here is magna cum laude. And there was, as trumpeter-vocalist Lior Kreindler says in the video, marveling, “magic going on.”

May your happiness increase!

WHEN THEY WERE ALL VERY YOUNG (Part One): MISS LEACOCK, MR. GIFFORD, AND THE FELLOWS

Barbara Lea and the Crimson Stompers, 1948:

LEA AND STOMPERS 1948 HARVARD

That’s Miss Leacock, Barbara Lea to you, singing as if her life depended on it, with the Harvard small hot jazz band, the Crimson Stompers, in 1948.  Bill “Hoagy” Dumham is at the piano; Walt Gifford is at the drums; Larry Eanet is on trombone; Ollie Taylor is one of the clarinetists . . . and the rest are not known to me, at the moment.  The photograph originally belonged to Gifford, then was passed on to the late Joe Boughton, and it now resides in the Barbara Lea Archives, tenderly maintained by Jeanie Gorman Wilson — and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  Here’s a story from the Harvard student newspaper, which explains everything:

Stompers Have Brought Basin Street to College

By EDWARD J. COUGHLIN,

October 11, 1950

Back in the days when the Crimson Stompers were getting organized, they held their practice jam sessions down on Coolidge Hill Road behind Stillman Infirmary at the home of Charles H. Taylor, professor of History. And they had a cornetist sitting in with the band whose playing Walter H. Gifford, Jr. ’52, drummer and manager of the group, describes as a “mean cornet a la Max Kaminsky.” The horn-player’s name was Sargent Kennedy ’28, Registrar of Harvard College.

During the summer of 1948, Gifford went to a musicians’ hangout in his home town of Washington, D. C., and met a heavy dark-haired young trombonist-pianist named Laurence J. Eanet ’52. It didn’t take long for them to discover two important facts about each other–that they were both starting at Harvard as freshmen that fall, and that they both loved Dixieland jazz.

It was quite natural that, when they came up to Cambridge in September, the two started shopping around for enough men to fill out a little “amusement only” jazz ensemble. Friends told them about a fine guitar player who was a junior at the time–David Sutherland ’50, who is now at the Law School. And then there were three.

“Through the College grapevine” they heard about a fine young clarinetist, Oliver S. Taylor ’53, Professor Taylor’s son, who was then attending the Belmont Hill School. They found that Taylor was not only enthusiastic about joining their group, but that he could also recommend a good trumpeter, a Milton Academy boy named Bruce Elwell. (Elwell, relatively young and inexperienced compared to the others, has since moved on to Rollins College in Florida).

The unit was rounded out by the addition of two classmates, bassist Herbert Levin ’52 and pianist Hoagie Dunham ’52.

Proving Ground

They used to go down to Taylor’s home evenings and shake the house with their practice sessions. “The Taylors’ was a proving ground for our band,” Gifford explains. “We really started to play well in ensemble there.” During this period Kennedy enjoyed going to the house at night to sit with the boys.

They started to make trips to the Savoy on Massachusetts Avenue to listen to trumpeter “Red” Allen and the Searsdale (New York) High School sensation, clarinetist Bob Wilber. After a time, when they became known at the Savoy, they would climb up on the stand and take over the nightclub.

One night Dunham showed up with a girl who could sing. He had met Barbara Leacock, Wellesley ’51, on a blind date. The good-looking brunette had a voice that pleased Dunham’s fellow musicians and she became a featured vocalist on the band’s College engagements during the following year. They put on two concerts in the Lowell House Junior Common Room and broadcast Monday nights.

Union Was Watching

The day before they played at the Freshman Smoker, the entire group trooped down to join the musicians’ union, because New Orleans clarinetist Edmond Hall was coming out from the Savoy to play with them “and the union was watching us like a hawk.” Shortly afterwards they played for the Radcliffe freshmen at Agassiz Hall, where they were paid off in rye smuggled in by an admiring Cliffe girl.

Last year the band started off at the Savoy with the trumpet played by 20-year-old. Tufts graduate Paul Gibson, whom Gifford calls “the best jazz trumpeter this side of New York.” Then they branched out. They went twice to Smith College (Gifford is carried away by the memory where 200 girls in sweat shirts and dungarees sat in a semicircle and shrieked for the real oldtimers like “Coal Cart Blues” (an Armstrong standby). And they found another faculty supporter in Roy Lamson, Jr. ’29 clarinet-playing professor of Sociology at Williams.

They played the college circuit from a house party at Dartmouth to a performance in a baseball cage at a Spring Country Fair at Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut. Sandwiched in between were a number of Monday night sessions at the Savoy with bands led by Hall, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and pianist Joe Sullivan.

I was too young to be in that group, but I have heard the Stompers (Frank Chace played with them, and there is a riotous long ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from the session with Ed Hall — alas, neither of these delicious combinations are available on CD for the masses thirsting for the Real Hot Stuff) and wish that such impudent explosions of joy, collective and singular, were happening on college campuses all over the world.  When I go back to teaching, I would give extra credit to any group of students who could play COAL CART BLUES.  That’s a promise.

And Bill Dunham, happily, is still with us, beating it out on Monday nights with the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street off Seventh Avenue in lower Manhattan.  Stop by and tell him you saw his back on JAZZ LIVES.

May your happiness increase!