Tag Archives: Ed Cuffee

SWING FOR ROMANTICS (1931)

When the conversation turns to the great swinging bands before “the Swing Era,” the names that are mentioned are usually the Luis Russell Orchestra and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City aggregations, Henderson, Ellington, Goldkette, Calloway, and Kirk.  Each of these bands deserves recognition.  But who speaks of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers?  (Is it the name that so embarrasses us these days?)

mckinneyscottonpickers

The song and performance that so enthralls me is from their last record date in September 1931 — DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT? — composed by Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn. I am assuming that it was originally meant as a love ballad, given its title and world-view, but the band takes it at a romping tempo. (Was it played on one of their “coast to coast radio presentations”?  I hope so.) Several other marvelous features of this recording have not worn thin: the gorgeous melody statement by Doc Cheatham; the incredible hot chorus by Rex Stewart; the charming vocal by Quentin Jackson; the tenor saxophone solo by Prince Robinson, the arrangement by Benny Carter, and the wondrous sound of the band as a whole — swinging without a letup.

The personnel is listed as Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, arranger / leader: Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet;  Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931.  (The personnel offered by Tom Lord differs, but I think this one is more accurate.)

Here, thanks to our friend Atticus Jazz — real name available on request! — who creates one gratifying multi-media gift after another on YouTube — is one of the two takes of DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT?:

I love Doc Cheatham’s high, plaintive sound, somewhat in the style of his predecessor, Joe Smith — and how the first chorus builds architecturally: strong ensemble introduction, trumpet with rhythm only (let no one tell you that tuba / guitar doesn’t work as a pairing), then the Carter-led sax section — imagine a section with Carter, Hilton Jefferson, and Prince Robinson — merging with the brass.  By the end of the first chorus, you know this is A BAND. (I’m always amused by the ending of the chorus, which exactly mimics the end and tag of THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Nothing new under the sun.) And whose idea — Carter’s? — was it to so neatly use orchestra bells throughout this chart?  Lemon zest to the ear.

But then there’s Rex Stewart’s expert and hilarious solo — he wants to let you know he is here, immediately.  I always think of him as one of those bold trumpeters who, as the tempo speeded up, he played even more notes to the bar, rather than taking it easy and playing whole and half notes.  In this chorus, he seems like the most insistent fast-talker, who has so much to say and only thirty-two bars in which to say it.  Something else: at :56 there is a small exultant sound. It can’t be Rex taking a breath and congratulating himself (as he does in WILD MAN BLUES on THE SOUND OF JAZZ) so I believe it was one of his colleagues in the band saying without the words, “Yeah, man!”

Then a gloriously “old-fashioned” vocal from Quentin Jackson, but one that no one should deride.  He told Stanley Dance that he learned to sing before there were microphones, so that you had to open your mouth and sing — which he does so splendidly here.  He’s no Bing or Columbo, wooing the microphone: this is tenor singing in the grand tradition, projecting every word and note to the back of the room.

The final chorus balances brass shouts and the roiling, tumbling Prince Robinson, who cuts his own way amidst Hawkins and Cecil Scott and two dozen others: an ebullient, forceful style.  And by this chorus, I always find myself rocking along with the recording — yes, so “antiquated,” with tuba prominent, but what a gratifying ensemble.  Yes, I believe!

Here is what was to me the less familiar take one:

It is structurally the same, with the only substantial difference that Rex continues to play a rather forceful obbligato to Quentin’s vocal — almost competing for space, and I suspect that the recording director at Camden might have suggested (or insisted on) another take where the vocalist was not being interfered with.  How marvelous that two takes exist, and that they were recorded in Victor’s studios in Camden — a converted church with fine open acoustics.

There is a third version of this song, recorded in 1996 by Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton — sixty-five years later, but for me it is a descent from the heights.  You can find it on YouTube on your own.

Whether or not you believe in love at sight (that’s a philosophical / emotional / practical discussion too large for JAZZ LIVES) I encourage you to believe in the singular blending of hot and sweet, of solo and ensemble, that is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  One has to believe in something.

May your happiness increase!

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HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

A JAZZ VALENTINE, 1931

Yes, I know it’s about five weeks early.  But Emrah has provided us with a double delight — a great romantic ballad in swingtime, beautifully sung by Quentin Jackson, with solos by Doc Cheatham, Rex Stewart, and Benny Carter . . . as well as a Carter reed-section passage and rollicking piano accompaniment from Todd Rhodes.

The whole band — McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in their last sides for Victor, although the band went on for a few more years — is Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, director; Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, banjo, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Recorded in Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931:

The delights of this performance are many, and they grow with repeated listenings.  The supple, fluid sweetness of Doc Cheatham’s melody statement; the vigorous “I will play a note or two to every beat” solo chorus, so flavorful and personal, by Rex Stewart; the lusciously slippery Carter reeds; the dashing vocal chorus by Quentin Jackson (play this for everyone who insists that before Crosby, all male singers sounded insufficiently masculine), and the rocking motion of this ensemble, thanks to Wilborn, Taylor, and Austin, refuting another canard, that jazz musicians were waiting to get rid of banjo and brass bass so that Modernity could burst forth.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovers. Start your romantic engines early.  Work on becoming just as swoony and loving as the men and women portrayed on Emrah’s photographs and postcards.

May your happiness increase!