In the taxonomy of older jazz, we know where we stand, or at least where the classifiers tell us we should be standing. There are Hot Bands (usually African-American) and Sweet or Dance Bands (Caucasian). There are, of course, groups that snip the barbed wire to escape or to visit the other side — Claude Hopkins performing TREES in a very arboreal manner, then, several years later, Bunny Berigan setting the forest on fire with the same song. (The Louis – Gordon Jenkins version of that same song, fifteen years later, is beyond dispute, and I’ve started disputes when people looked askance at it.)
But it has been my experience that most jazz fans of a certain ideological bent prefer — mutely or vividly — their music Hot and either played by African-Americans or by Caucasians in the Hot style. Or in cases where a Sweet band offers a Hot solo, we can find the 78s that have that twenty-second interlude played to a fine powder, the rest of the record nearly pristine.
What do we do with this curious and wonderful artifact, however? It is at once a superb dance record; it swings easily and well; it is a wholly satisfying performance and presentation. I present it to JAZZ LIVES’ listeners in hopes that they can listen to this buff Bluebird 78 from 1933 with open and appreciative ears, enjoying the recording for what it is.
The group is the Joe Haymes Orchestra — Haymes had played piano and arranged for the Ted Weems band — but under the nominal leadership of Mike Doty, thus Roy Wager, Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Mike Doty, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocal; Toots Mondello or Dan D’Andrea, Paul Ricci, Bud Freeman, reeds; Paul Mitchell, piano; probably Mac Cheikes, banjo; Gene Traxler, string bass; Charlie Bush, drums; Joe Haymes, leader / arranger. New York, November 9, 1933.
And the song is PUDDIN’ HEAD JONES — recorded also by a Ben Selvin group, Don Redman, Hal Kemp, and perhaps a half-dozen other bands in 1933.
Here’s the performance:
From the start, this is an assured, swinging band. The melody statement — muted trumpets, possibly a baritone saxophone line, Gene Traxler’s strong string bass and Charlie Bush’s rocking drums — is easy and non-threatening for the dancers who simply wanted a fast fox trot, but the band is splendidly rehearsed without being at all stiff. And a gorgeous modulation follows — leisurely, with clarinet (I guess Paul Ricci) on top, while Bush shifts to either a low-boy or a hi-hat cymbal. Without overstating my praise, the Haymes band — under Doty’s name — is grooving at the first minute in such a lilting easy way that other bands never reached. In the first seconds of Doty’s vocal, he sounds more declamatory than the song requires — but that’s a 1933 style of singing when there wasn’t a microphone, and the singer needed to be emphatically clear so that the witty bits of the lyrics were heard and understood. Beneath him, the band swings and Ricci ornaments it all. (I’ll get to the lyrics in a bit.) Even though the lyrics are hilarious and verging on the naughty, the band doesn’t emphasize the punchlines: no rimshots or bass-drum hits. The listener must pay attention. After the vocal, the band subtly says, “WE can swing like mad, too!” with delicious interludes for clarinet and I think Dick Clark on tenor saxophone (it’s not Bud), supported beautifully by the wonderfully focused slap of Bush’s wire brushes.
(A one-bar digression: what is known about Charlie Bush? HE COULD PLAY.)
When well-executed, “glee club” choruses for the band are just marvelous — if you needed a musical definition of logical architecture or building momentum, you have it in the way the band voices rock wordless riffs behind Doty. And although his voice isn’t up to the challenge of shouting over the band at the end, he certainly delivers the message.
Those lyrics. One encounters this song, depending on one’s level of empathy, with some doubts. Will this be a narrative about how stupid an elementary-school student was — the equivalent of the polite dozens for middle-class Caucasians? You know, the sort of humor that builds on “You’re so dumb . . . ” But — the clever turn of the bridge, where the fictional character we have been invited to laugh at turns out to be the Teacher’s Teacher (a folk take in swingtime) with a real punchline in the last words of the bridge — something has turned around, and in some ways we are a little embarrassed at underestimating Puddin’ Head, who is much smarter than we thought and probably much smarter than we are. Are we meant to assume that Teacher has already spent time in interdisciplinary studies with Puddin’s older brother? I leave that to you. But our young dunce turns into an expert wooer, and as an adult a diligent citizen, frugal and energetic — so much so that in this 1933 Depression-era saga, he is presumably the only man in the neighborhood who is well-loved, securely affluent, perhaps even wealthy. An American success story: from dunce to happy successful man in three minutes and change.
“Underestimate people at your own risk” might be the moral of this tale.
I knew I had to write a blogpost about this record when I needed to hear it four or five times in a row — with great joy — from YouTube. (And I also purchasesd or re-purchased the three Haymes reissues that exist, and await their arrival.)
Of course, there might be grumbling in the imaginary cyber-audience, “Great record. But how much better it would be with, say Jimmy Rushing singing, and Ben Webster on tenor.” Perhaps. But I love what we have, and cherish it as a perfectly accomplished piece of hilarious swinging art that needs no improvements.
May your happiness increase!