Tag Archives: Mills Blue Rhythm Band

IMPROV CLASSES (May 15, 1938)

“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out.  Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.

These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers.  These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question.  Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:

LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:

I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band.  I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.

And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:

These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.

May your happiness increase!

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THE MANY LIVES OF “DINAH LOU”

“DINAH LOU,” music by Rube Bloom and lyrics by Ted Koehler, from the 29th COTTON CLUB PARADE, perhaps would have gotten less attention and affection if it had not been the subject of several memorable recordings.

A footnote: the song was composed several years earlier, and recorded by Red Nichols (leading an expert but little-known post-Pennies Chicago band) at the end of 1932: I hope to share that disc in a future posting.

The first version I encountered was Red Allen’s, from July 19, 1935, with Henry “Red” Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Cecil Scott, Horace Henderson, Lawrence Lucie, Elmer James, Kaiser Marshall.  Notably, it was the first of four songs recorded at that session — a warm-up, perhaps, for the delightful Frolick that is ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON.  I think you can hear what captivated me years ago: a good song and lots of very satisfying, individualistic melodic improvisation: much art packed into a small package:

On August 1, Chuck Richards sang it with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band — Red was in the band, but sang on the Bloom-Koehler TRUCKIN’.  However, he takes a soaring solo — more in a Louis mode than his usual way — with marvelous interludes from Billy Kyle, J. C. Higginbotham, and Buster Bailey.  Richards was a competent balladeer, but to me the real star here is the band, with a very lovely reed section:

On January 20, 1936, Ivie Anderson sang it with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (three takes, of which two survive).  I don’t know which of these two was recorded first, but I’ve distinguished them by sound and length.  Talk about wonderful instrumental voices — in addition to Ivie, whom no one’s equalled.

2:25:

2:34:

And the most delightful surprise (August 25, 1955): a live performance by Humphrey Lyttelton, trumpet; Bruce Turner, clarinet, alto saxophone; Johnny Parker, piano; Freddy Legon, guitar; Jim Bray, string bass; Stan Greig, drums:

The motive behind this leisurely long satisfying performance may have been nothing more complex than “Let’s stretch out and keep taking solos,” but it works so splendidly: hearing this is like watching two marvelous tennis players volley for hours with the ball always in the air.  It feels very much like a magical return to a late-Thirties Basie aesthetic, with none of the usual patterns of an opening ensemble giving way, after the horn solos, to rhythm section solos.

Will anyone adopt DINAH LOU as a good tune to improvise on in this century?

May your happiness increase!

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

john-wriggle-cover

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!

MUSIC FOR THE PARTY (December 31, 2015)

Alex-Hill

I don’t make resolutions, but if I did perhaps one of them would be to pay attention to the late Alex Hill (pianist, composer, arranger, singer, bandleader) who died of tuberculosis at 30.  What better place to begin than his early-Thirties romp — part invitation to a wingding, part sermon, part exultation with hopes to send the Depression flying out of the window — LET’S HAVE A JUBILEE?

1 alex-hill-hollywood-sepians-joe-haymes-orch-on-uk-vocalion-s-70_1138482

First, by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, instrumentally, in what may be the first recorded version of the song:

Wardell Jones, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen (tp) George Washington (tb,arr) prob. Henry Hicks (tb) Gene Mikell (sop,as,bar,cl) Crawford Wethington (as,bar,cl) Joe Garland (ts,bar,cl,arr) Edgar Hayes (p) Benny James (g) or Lawrence “Larry” Lucie (g) Hayes Alvis (b) O’Neil Spencer (d) Chuck Richards (vcl) Alex Hill, Benny Carter (arr) Lucky Millinder (dir)

Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang, all satirically identified, in two takes:

Louis Prima (tp,vcl) George Brunies (tb) Sidney Arodin (cl) Claude Thornhill (p) George Van Eps (g) Benny Pottle (b) Stan King (d).  The routines are very similar, but in one version Prima refers to drummer King as “Stan Green,” the other by his correct surname.

alex-hill-hollywood-sepians-joe-haymes-orch-on-uk-vocalion-s-70_1138481

Alex himself “and his Hollywood Sepians”:

What a charming singer he was!  (I thought of the slightly cloudy voice of John W. Bubbles.)

Joe Thomas, Benny Carter (tp) Clyde Bernhardt, Claude Jones (tb) Albert Nicholas (cl) George James (as) Gene Sedric (ts) Garnet Clark (p) Alex Hill (voc, arr) Eddie Gibbs (g) Billy Taylor, Sr. (b) Harry Dial (d)

vocalion-2848-alex-hill-hollywood-sepians-let-s-have-a-jubilee-e_9617094

And the Ellington version (the first recording of the tune I ever heard) with the glorious Ivie Anderson:

Rex Stewart (cnt) Arthur Whetsol, Cootie Williams (tp) Lawrence Brown, Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol (tb) Barney Bigard (cl,ts) Johnny Hodges (as,sop) Otto Hardwick (cl,as,bassax) Harry Carney (bar,cl,b-cl) Duke Ellington (p) Fred Guy (g) Wellman Braud (b) Billy Taylor, Sr. (tu) Sonny Greer (d) Ivie Anderson (vcl)

It’s unfair to Harry Roy to play his recording after Duke’s, but it represents the way a listener might have encountered the song as a new pop hit in early 1935:

Bringing us almost in to this century, here’s the delicious 1999 version by Hal Smith and his Rhythmakers featuring Rebecca Kilgore:

Marc Caparone (cnt) Alan Adams (tb) Bobby Gordon (cl) John Otto (as,cl) Chris Dawson (p) Rebecca Kilgore (g,vcl) Clint Baker (b) Hal Smith (d)

(I just saw that a 2012 CD by the wonderful hot band KUSTBANDET has this song as its title . . . must search out that disc.)

If you’re not even mildly jubilant at this point, there isn’t much more JAZZ LIVES can offer.  I hope it works!

May your happiness increase!

“REJECTED TAKES,” DECEMBER 17, 1937

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Most jazz aficionados, if asked what pianist / bandleader Teddy Wilson was doing in the recording studio in 1937, would reply that he was a member of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — recording for Victor — and creating brilliant small-group sessions with Billie Holiday for Brunswick.  Some might check the discography and report that Teddy had also recorded, under John Hammond’s direction, with singers Helen Ward, Boots Castle, and Frances Hunt.

But few people know about one session, recorded on December 17, 1937, with an unusually rewarding personnel: Teddy; Hot Lips Page; Chu Berry; Pee Wee Russell; possibly Al Hall; Allan Reuss; Johnny Blowers.  The singer is the little-known Sally Gooding.  (All of this material has been released on Mosaic Records’ Chu Berry box set, and two sides appeared on a Columbia/Sony compilation devoted to Lips Page, JUMP FOR JOY, with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern.  My source is the French Masters of Jazz label, two Wilson CDs in their wonderful yet out-of-print series.)

Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Hot Lips Page (trumpet); Pee Wee Russell (clarinet); Chu Berry (tenor sax); Teddy Wilson (piano); Allen Reuss (guitar); possibly Al Hall (string bass); Johnny Blowers (drums); Sally Gooding (vocal on the first three sides only)
New York, December 17, 1937
B22192-2 MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU
B22193-1 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22193-2 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22194-2 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING
B22195-2 I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME

All of the instrumentalists on this session are well-known.  One can imagine Hammond selecting Chu from the Calloway band, Pee Wee and Blowers from Nick’s, Reuss from Goodman.  Lips and Al Hall were presumably free-lancing, although Lips may have been on the way to his own big band.

Sally Gooding is now obscure, although she was famous for a few years, making records with the Three Peppers and appearing at the 1939 World’s Fair. Here, thanks to www.vocalgroupharmony.com, you can see and hear more of Sally.  And this 1933 Vitaphone short allows us to see her with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band:

with-a-smile-and-a-song

WITH A SMILE AND A SONG (by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey) comes from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which had not even been released in theatres when this session was made:

with a smile and a song two

The singer whose voice you hear is Adriana Caselotti.  Nearly sixty years later, our own Rebecca Kilgore recorded the finest version of this song for an Arbors Records session led by Dan Barrett:

MOON SONG Becky Barrett

The obvious question for some readers is “Where’s Billie?” Although Miss Holiday recorded several sessions with Wilson in 1937, I presume she was on the road with Count Basie — which also explains the absence of Lester, Buck, Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  Hammond and Billie didn’t always get along, and he was trying out other singers when he could.  Someone else has hypothesized that Billie would have been opposed to recording a song associated with SNOW WHITE, but this seems less plausible.  When she and Wilson reunited in the recording studio in 1938, they did IMPRESSION, SMILING, and BELIEVE, which may add credence to the theory.

Here are “the rejected takes” — each one mislabeled on YouTube:

MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU (from another 1937 film, HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, also known as HAVING WONDERFUL TIME, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Ginger Rogers — and Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Red Skelton, early on):

This version — for those who know Billie’s — is taken at a jaunty tempo, which makes the melodic contours seem to bounce.

All I can say is that both Chu and Lips Page leap in — not at high volume or extremely quickly — with swing and conviction.  (I love Lips’ flourish at the end of the bridge.)  Sally Gooding’s singing is not easy to love for those who know Billie’s version by heart, but she is — in a tart Jerry Kruger mode — doing well, with quiet distractions from Pee Wee and the bassist.  Wilson is energized and surprising, as is Pee Wee, and there is a moment of uncertainty when one might imagine Chu and Lips wondering whether they should join in, as they do, yet the record ends with a solid ensemble and a tag.

The first take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG:

I love Chu’s introduction, and Teddy sounds typically luminous as the horns — almost inaudibly — hum harmonies behind him.  (When was the last time you heard a front line play so beautifully behind a piano solo?)  Then, Pee Wee at his most identifiable, lyrically sticking close to the bridge but with two of his familiar turns of phrase leading into a Lips Page interlude — sweetly restrained, as if modeling himself after Buck Clayton.  Sally Gooding, who may have seen the sheet music for the first time only a few minutes ago, sounds slightly off-pitch and seems to sing, “With a life and a song,” rather than the title.  But she gains confidence as she continues, and her bridge is positively impassioned (although her reading of the song is less optimistic than the lyrics).  No one should have to sing in front of a very on-form Pee Wee, whose obbligati are delightfully distracting.  When the band comes back for the closing sixteen bars, they are in third gear, ready to make the most of the seconds allotted them, although it is far from a triumphant ride-out (think of the closing seconds of WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO, in contrast). The rhythm section is quite restrained, but the bassist, Al Hall or not, adds a great deal.

The second take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG has, alas, eluded me on YouTube (thus I cannot post it here).  It is similar in its outline to the first take, although everyone seems more comfortable with the song.  I wonder if Gooding had had real trouble avoiding her singing “life” on the first take, so each time she sings — correctly — “smile” on this version, there is the slightest hesitation, as if she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t make the mistake again.  You’ll have to imagine it.

WHEN YOU’RE SMILING:

The conception of how one could play this simple tune had changed since Louis’ majestic 1929 performance, and with four star soloists wanting to have some space within a 78 rpm record, the tempo is much quicker and the band much looser (hear Lips growl early on).  The ambiance is of a well-behaved Commodore session or three minutes on Fifty-Second Street, the three horns tumbling good-naturedly over one another.  In fact, the first chorus of this record — lasting forty-five seconds — would stand quite happily as the heated rideout chorus of another performance.   Behind Wilson, the rhythm section is enthusiastically supporting him, Blowers’ brushes and Hall’s bass fervent. When Chu enters, rolling along, he has a simple riff from the other two horns as enthusiastic assent and congregational agreement; his full chorus balances a behind-the-beat relaxation characteristic of Thirties Louis as well as his characteristic bubbling phrases.  Behind Pee Wee, the guitar is happily more prominent (did someone think of the lovely support Eddie Condon gave?) and Lips’ phrases at the end are — without overstatement — priceless.

I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

Like SMILING, this 1930 song was already a classic. Wilson is sublimely confident, chiming and ascending, followed by a tender, perhaps tentative Lips (had Hammond asked him to play softly to emulate Buck?): the eight bar interludes by Chu and Lips that follow are small masterpieces of ornamented melody.  Wilson’s half-chorus has the rhythm section fully audible and propulsive beneath him.  Pee Wee, who had been inaudible to this point, emerges as sage, storyteller, and character actor, transforming the expected contours of the bridge into his own song, with hints of the opening phrase of GOOFUS, then Wilson returns.  (What a pity Milt Gabler didn’t record those two with bass and drums for Commodore.) Chu glides on, his rhythmic motion irresistible, then the guitarist (audibly and plausibly Reuss) takes a densely beautiful bridge before the too-short — twelve seconds? — rideout, where Blowers can be heard, guiding everyone home.

“Rejected” might mean a number of things when applied to these records.  Did Sally Gooding’s vocal error at the start of SONG convince Hammond or someone at  Brunswick (Bernie Hanighen?) that the session was not a success? Was Hammond so entranced by the combination of Billie and the Basie-ites that these records sounded drab by comparison?  Were there technical problems? I can’t say, and the participants have been gone for decades.  The single copies of these recordings are all that remain.  I am thankful they exist.  This band and this singer are musical blessings, music to be cherished, not discarded.

May your happiness increase!