Tag Archives: Fletcher Henderson

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

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One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE RIVER THAT IS TIME: DAN BLOCK’S TRANSFORMATIONALISTS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 17, 2016)

I think of Dan Block as the main character in a Ray Bradbury story.  Friendly but mysterious, he comes to a small town in the Midwest and puts up a banner advertising his TRANSFORMATIONALISTS: “Time Is But The Stream We Go Fishing In / Come With Us!”  A middle-school trombonist hesitantly approaches the Magical Transormationalist, falls under the spell of the music, and when the band leaves town, she goes with them, entranced, on to glories yet undiscovered.

finshing-thoreau

When Dan has led his “Harlem in the Thirties Updated” group at Fat Cat and other venues, I’ve not counted the audience members to see if anyone went missing.  But we were certainly entranced and remain so.

A version of Dan’s magic troupe performed a brief set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party in September 2016: Dan, alto saxophone / arrangements; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums.  The repertoire came from famous bands (Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter) and was written by Mary Lou Williams, Carter, and others — but it sounded fresh, rather than being a distillation of famous records.

The opener, associated with Chick Webb, HARLEM CONGO:

Mary Lou Williams’ composition (I believe Puddin’ Head was trumpeter Edgar Battle):

another Mary Lou creation:

Something for and from Benny Carter:

And, finally, an early version of climate change from the 1934 Henderson band:

Inventive and wholly satisfying.  Another version of the Block Transformationalists will be playing at Smalls on West Tenth Street on February 3, 2017, with the group that performed this music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Mark your perpetual calendars, please.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW PAGES FROM ROBERT BIERMAN, formerly of IRVINGTON, NEW YORK

Another eBay prowl (taking a long respite from grading student essays) with glorious results.

The seller is offering an amazing collection of autographs, some dating back to 1938.  Since a few items were inscribed to “Bob” or “Robert” Bierman, it was easy to trace these precious artifacts back to the man of the same name, a Krupa aficionado, now deceased (I believe his dates are 1922-2009) who lived for some time on Staten Island.

The jazz percussion scholar Bruce Klauber tells me: Bob passed several years ago. He had things you wouldn’t believe and was kind enough to share several audios with me. Anything he was connected with was rare and authentic.

My friend David Weiner recalls Bierman as quiet, reticent, with wonderful photographs and autographs.

I never met Mr. Bierman in my brief collectors’ period, but in 1938 he must have been a very energetic sixteen-year old who went to hear hot jazz and big bands, asking the drummers and sidemen for their autographs.  The collection is notable for the signatures of people not otherwise documented — as you will see.

Incidentally, the seller has listed the items as “Buy It Now,” which means that indeed the race is to the swift.

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Three heroes from what I presume is Art Hodes’ Forties band that recorded for his own JAZZ RECORD label: Rod Cless, Georg[e] Bruni[e]s, Danny Alvin.

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Bunny and his Orchestra.

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Basieites, circa 1940: Walter Page, Joe Jones, Buck Clayton, Tab Smith, Freddie Greene, and James Rushing.  The story is that John Hammond convinced Jo and Freddie to change the spelling of their names . . . perhaps to be more distinctive and memorable to the public?  I don’t know if this is verifiable.

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Gene!  But where and when?

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Wettling, promoting Ludwig drums — when he was with Paul Whiteman.

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And some advice to the young drummer.

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Teddy Wilson.  It’s so reassuring to see that there was actually letterhead for the School for Pianists.

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Some wonderful players from the Bob Crosby band: Jess Stacy, Eddie Miller, Bob Haggart, Matty Matlock, Hank D’Amico, Nappy Lamare.

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Liz Tilton, Ray Bauduc.

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Gil Rodin from Ben Pollack and Crosby.

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Earle Warren of Basie fame.

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Al Donahue, and another Bunny signature.

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To me, a page with the signatures of Hank Wayland, and George Rose — plus a caricature — is worth many thousand letters with a secretary’s “Bing” or “Benny” at the bottom.

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You want famous?  Here’s famous: Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti.

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and Mary Lou Williams.

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Peggy Lee.

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Some fairly obscure Benny Goodman sidemen — Buff Estes, Toots Mondello, Arnold “Covey” — and the leader-turned-sideman Fletcher Henderson.

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Gentlemen from the reed section of Fats Waller’s big band: Jackie Fields and Bob Carroll.

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Fats’ “Honeybear,” Gene Sedric.

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A letter from Art Hodes!  (“Bob, there’s a letter for you!”)

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Finally, the Hawk. 1943.

It makes me think, “What will happen to our precious stuff [see George Carlin] when we are dead?  eBay certainly is better than the dumpster, although these pages remind me that everything is in flux, and we are not our possessions. Beautiful to see, though, and to know that such things exist.  You, too, can have a piece of paper that Rod Cless touched — no small thing.

May your happiness increase!

RHAPSODIES IN SWING, MARCH 8, 1934

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I have been listening ardently to the Mosaic Records Coleman Hawkins 1922-1947 set, which is like reading all the works of a great author in chronological order — a wondrous journey.  (It’s now no longer available: Mosaic is serious about “limited editions,” so the race is to the somewhat-swift.)

There are many points on the journey where I put down my coffee and listened to one track a half-dozen times, marveling, before moving on.  But here’s a glorious interlude: a brief visit to a studio in New York City on March 8, 1934, for a series of duets between Hawkins and the seriously underrated pianist Buck Washington (born Ford Lee) who had recorded with his partner John W. Bubbles as well as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

Together, they recorded IT SENDS ME (two versions), I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, OLD-FASHIONED LOVE (a piano solo), and ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (two versions).  The session was one of John Hammond’s ideas: the sides were released first in England, where the listening public was much more aware of African-American creative improvisers.

The alternate takes of SENDS and SUNNY are available only on the Mosaic set, but I can offer here YouTube transfers of the issued sides, slightly out of sequence.

I’ve been drawn back to this music by its beauty and assurance.  Hawkins seems so much in command of both his instrument and his imagination.  It’s not arrogance but mastery, the grace of a great artist sure of his powers, rather like a magnificent actor or athlete who is sure of what needs to be done, what can be done, and what is possible beyond the expected.

Hawkins displays his marvelous embracing tone — play this music in another room and you might think there is a small orchestra at work or a glorious wordless singer, caressing the melody, pausing to breathe, to reflect.  Nothing is rushed; all is both serene and deep.  And on the faster sections, he offers us a joyous playfulness.

About Hawkins as a “singer”: you can find his recording of LOVE CRIES (which I think is very dear) also on YouTube . . . but for me, the people traveling on the same path are not other instrumentalists but Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby. Listen and consider.

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Washington, never given his due, presents a relaxed but never lazy stride piano but we hear an elegant wildness in his embellishments (and a harmonic sophistication) that shows he, like others, had assimilated not only James P. Johnson but also Earl Hines and Art Tatum.  He’s a superb accompanist, but his sparkling playing demands our attention, and his solo passages do not disappoint.

The four sides are a venerable pop / jazz / vaudeville classic, almost a decade old; a newer pop song, a small homage both to James P. Johnson and the folk tradition, and a Hawkins ballad.  I gather that there was some rivalry between Hawkins and Louis, and I imagine that a Hawkins – Washington duet date was a way for Hawkins to say, “I’ve heard Louis and Buck on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, and I have my own statement to make to Louis and to anyone who thinks Louis is the sole monarch.”  So SUNNY SIDE, taken at that tempo, was a Louis specialty in 1933 — Taft Jordan recorded his own Louis-impersonation before Louis had made his own record of it.  It would have been impossible for Hawkins, a champion listener / absorber, to not know what Louis was doing in New York and elsewhere.

and

and the recording that, to me, is the gem:

and — in a jaunty, assured mood, here’s Buck:

Orchard Enterprises could find a copy of that track that doesn’t start with a hiccup, although I find such eccentricities nostalgic in small doses, having spent decades listening to dusty and scratched records.

And something about the history of listening, one’s personal history.  When I began to buy records in wallet-depleting seriousness in the very early Seventies, there were so many Coleman Hawkins recordings available — from his early work with Henderson up to the beautiful and touching late recordings (SIRIUS, on Pablo) that I glutted myself.  And predictably I burned out for a long time on Hawkins — hearing the swooping majesty of the Thirties and Forties get more powerful but occasionally almost mechanical in the Fifties and beyond (a similar thing happened, rhythmically, to Don Byas).  I turned with obsessive love to Lester Young and Ben Webster: one who never seemed predictable, one who wrapped me in the softest blanket of loving sounds.  So I confess I bought the Mosaic Hawkins box set on the principle of “You’re going to be sorry when this one goes away,” which is a valid notion . . . but I have been reminding myself of his genius, over and over, from the early work with Mamie Smith to the 1947 I LOVE YOU.  There are many good reasons to love Coleman Hawkins, and, not incidentally, Mosaic Records as well.

Listen, and be startled by beauty.  Or remember the beauty that is there, perhaps overlooked for a moment.

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May your happiness increase!

MAKING IT NEW: DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, PETE VAN NOSTRAND (Fat Cat, May 31, 2016)

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW.  In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness.  If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in.  But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that.  Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.

For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31.  I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular.  The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?

Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green?  What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on.  As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.

What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.

HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):

HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):

BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):

LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):

BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):

I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.

As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling.  If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better!  This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have  creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.

May your happiness increase!

YOU’LL BE INTRODUCED TO GLORY!

Fats Waller and Alex Hill wrote one of the most irresistibly encouraging songs I know, a sweet spiritual paean to optimism, KEEP A SONG IN YOUR SOUL.  I thought it would be fitting to let you hear as many versions of it as I could find.

SONG IN YOUR SOUL cover

Ellington, with a friendly vocal by Chick Bullock (1931):

Fletcher Henderson, arrangement by Benny Carter (1930):

Red Nichols with Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman:

Mamie Smith:

Lou Gold and His Orchestra:

SONG IN YOUR SOUL inside

Now, for some of my favorite intersections — living hot musicians playing beautiful swing classics:

Marty Grosz and his Optimists:

Jeff Barnhart and friends at the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party:

Michael Hashim with Claudio Roditi:

Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band with Viktoria Vizin:

Howard Alden and Warren Vache:

Rebecca Kilgore with Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers, featuring Marc Caparone, Bobby Gordon, Chris Dawson:

Another version from Jeff Barnhart and a British band with Nick Ward:

And an earlier version from Marty Grosz and his Philosophers:

SONG IN YOUR SOUL Brunswick Bill Robinson

There is a wonderful 1931 recording of Bill Robinson, singing and tapping.  Here is Bojangles as a marionette, invented and manipulated in the most extraordinary way by Bob Baker.  Initially it might seem perverse, but I came to marvel at it.  If you see this as demeaning, Robinson’s wife liked this and encouraged Baker to keep it in his show:

I was excited to see that so many versions are accessible to us, and perhaps I got carried away.  But I love this song, its message that music can make everything right, and I love the ways that the music itself blossoms in so many contexts.

May your happiness increase!

A SERENADE TO THE GODDESS OF GOOD FORTUNE: THOMAS WINTELER, MORTEN GUNNAR LARSEN, JACOB ULLBERGER, HENRY LEMAIRE at MIKE DURHAM’S WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 8, 2015)

MAMIE SMITH LADY LUCK BLUES

This song — new to me although almost a century old — made a powerful impression on me when Thomas Winteler, the great soprano saxophonist (and clarinetist) performed it at Mike Durham’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz  Party on November 8, 2015.  Accompanying him were Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Jacob Ullberger, guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass.  It’s a passionate performance:

Here’s the original 1923 recording, with Mamie Smith’s powerful penetrating voice matched by Bechet’s soaring soprano (and Buddy Christian, banjo):

And the first, even more convincing recording, that same year, by Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson:

And a 1935 instrumental version with Williams, Cecil Scott, Ed Allen, Jimmy McLin, Cyrus St. Clair, and Willie Williams:

I hope the Goddess smiles on your efforts.

May your happiness increase!