Tag Archives: Oro “Tut” Soper

“MANHANDLING,” or IMPROVISATIONS ON THE FAMILIAR (January 31, 1944)

Time matters. Pulse matters.  And in music, a tempo even slightly slower or slightly faster makes a substantial difference in how a familiar piece of music comes across to us. Through decades of performance, we are used to hearing Carmichael’s STAR DUST — or STARDUST, if you prefer — as a dreamy, haunting ballad, although it didn’t begin its recorded life that way in 1927. But improvisers take chances. . . .it is as if your favorite sixtyish uncle dyed his white hair bright blue just to see what it would look like, and it looked fine.

Two bold takers-of-chances were the Chicago pianist Oro “Tut” Soper and drummer Baby Dodds, who recorded several duets for the Steiner-Davis label (the creation of John Steiner, revered jazz scholar and collector, and Hugh Davis) in early 1944, at the home of pianist Jack Gardner.

A wonderfully detailed survey, by Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, and Tom Kelly, of that label and the stories behind the recordings can be found here, and the two photographs in this posting come from that site.  But most important is the musical evidence: Tut Soper showing his radical exuberance and playfulness, by taking this ballad — and ballad it was, by 1944 — and treating it much as Earl Hines did LOVE ME TONIGHT, a melody to be explored, a song to be swung:

Here’s some fascinating commentary on this side and its fellows, from the site noted above.  (Was violinist Elmer Fearn “Mr. Fearn” of OKeh Records?  It isn’t a common name.)

Pianist Tut Soper was born Oro M. Soper on April 9, 1910. In the early 1920s, Soper made a record on OKeh with a group of kids, all 13 and under, called The Five Baby Shieks. Besides Soper on piano, they included Art Elefson on drums, Howard Snyder on sax, and Elmer Fearn on violin. By the late 1920s he was a regular in Chicago clubs, despite being underaged, and performing with Bunny Berigan, Wingy Mannone, Boyd Brown, and Floyd Town. After years of playing in bands, in the late 1930s Soper went solo, introduced vocals to his repertoire, and played in such clubs as the legendary Three Deuces (222 North State).

By the war years, Soper could be found in the Randolph Street nightclub district. He was playing around the corner from Randolph Street at the Capitol Lounge on State when his S D recordings were made. Steiner and Davis teamed Soper up with Dodds in pianist Jack Gardner’s apartment for the session. Gardner owned a particularly fine piano, which is why the session was held in his place, at 102 East Bellevue, a basement apartment located in the same complex as John Steiner’s. Jazz fans tend to revel in improvisation, and Down Beat columnist George Hoefer loved the idea at how “impromptu” the recording was, as Soper and Dodds had never met before, and had to feel each other out in the recording process.

Down Beat reviewer John Lucas—who tended to give favorable reviews to his collector colleagues’ product—cited these releases as “some of the finest jazz piano waxed in many years.” He raved about each one of the songs, and concluded, “The rip-rattling drum accompaniment provided by the one and only Baby Dodds simply could not be touched by anyone else. If Soper is super, Dodds is at once devastating, dynamic, and droll!”

In a lengthy review published in the October 1944 issue of The Jazz Record, George Avakian gave effusive praise to S D 5000 and 5001. “Picture Earl Hines in the full flower of his wildest period, playing as though it were his last chance to explode through with vital ideas of earth-shaking consequence. This is Tut Soper; an exciting, intensely live pianist whose work doesn’t merely “send” you the way many agitated instrumentalists can—it reaches out, grabs you by the throat, and shakes and chokes hell out of you” (p. 3). Avakian contrasted Soper’s genuineness and avoidance of clichés with the mannerisms of “the present-day frantic clique,” into which he went so far as to lump “such hopeless musicians as Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and a whole string of trumpet players, electric guitar virtuosos, and Hazel Scotts” (p. 3). Out of the four, Avakian declared that “[t]he originals—Oronics and It’s a Ramble—are my pet sides, displaying Tut’s talents in two tempos and two moods, both nonetheless full of his overall excitement. The first is sheer panic, but good; the Ramble is reflective and rather interestingly developed from the melodic view. The others are Soper franticizations of Thou Swell and Star Dust, and the tunes improve under his manhandling.” (p. 3.) Of Dodds’ contributions, Avakian complained (p. 11) that the drummer “loses much of his subtlety” on Oronics, but praised him for his rapport with Soper elswhere on the session.

John Chilton described Soper as one of the leading pianists in Chicago, and credited him with working with Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Boyce Brown, Bud Jacobson, and Eddie Wiggins, among others. In the early 1950s, Soper worked in California with Muggsy Spanier and Marty Marsala. He toured with Eddie Condon in 1960.

Soper in his later years worked mostly as an insurance salesman for the Chicago Motor Club. He died in March 1987. His obit described him as a former jazz pianist, who had played for 50 years in “some of Chicago’s most famous jazz clubs and with the bands of Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman.”

Soper sources: M/Sgt. George Avakian, “Records—Old and New,” The Jazz Record, October 1944, pp. 3, 11; George Hoefer Jr., “The Hot Box,” Down Beat, 15 June 1944; [John Lucas] “Diggin’ The Discs,” Down Beat, 15 July 1944, p. 8; Catherine Jacobson, “Oro ‘Tut’ Soper,” Jazz Vol. 1, No. 10 (December 1943): 8-9; “Oro Soper” [Obit], Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1987; Tom Lord, The Jazz Discography, Volume 21 (West Vancouver, B.C.: Lord’s Music, 1999): S1057.

STAR DUST — shaken and stirred, manhandled and franticized — remains undamaged, and we are grateful to Tut and Baby for their emotional fervor and technique.

May your happiness increase!

THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE: A NEW BOOK BY DEREK COLLER and BERT WHYATT

Before you read another word: if you know the remarkable work of Derek Coller and the late Bert Whyatt, you can skip to the bottom for details on how to buy it: you won’t need me to convince you of its worth.

Full disclosure, for those who like FD: I corresponded with Bert and exchanged information and tapes for the Bobby Hackett book he and George Hulme did, and I am mentioned in this new book as a source pertaining to Frank Chace.

Now for larger matters: when I pick up a book purporting to be on jazz, I value clear presentation of information, at best first-hand narrative or close informed analysis, any ideological basis (if there must be one) aboveboard.  I should come away from any reading feeling that I know many new things or have been given new ways of perceiving what I know.

Here’s what repels me (details omitted to avoid legal action):

During the twentieth century, jazz was at the center of multiple debates about social life and American experience. Jazz music and its performers were framed in both positive and negative manners. The autobiographies of _____ musicians _____ and ______ provide insight into the general frames they used to frame jazz experience and agency sometimes at odds with dominant discourses. Through Michel Foucault’s notion of ethical substance, I analyze the way in which jazz is constructed in their autobiographies. Several themes are used by both autobiographers to frame their actions, which are constructed in a complex and ambivalent manner revealing both the ethics of jazz and its covert culture.

A long pause.  Happily, I can leave Foucault to his own devices, and enthusiastically recommend CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE, the opposite of the miasma in italics.  And, for the curious, the picture above is of Sig Meyer and his Druids, c. 1924 — including Volly De Faut, Arnold Loyacano, Marvin Saxbe, and Muggsy Spanier.  In itself, that photograph says everything you might need to know about the depth of research in this book.

Coller and Whyatt come from the old school of scholars — note I don’t write “critics” — who believe that the stories musicians tell about themselves and others are more worthy than what listeners believe they hear.  This is a collection of articles — essays, portraits, studies — by both authors, published in Storyville, The Mississippi Rag, the IAJRC Journal, Jazz Journal, and as liner notes — between 1983 and 2016.

For once, I will quote the publisher’s copy, because it is so apt:

When Derek Coller decided to pay tribute to his late friend – the author, biographer, discographer and researcher, Bert Whyatt – he looked for a common theme under which to group some of the articles they had written together over the years. He found it in Chicago where their research activities had gravitated towards the style of music created by the young white musicians from that city and its environs – particularly those who rallied around the figurehead of Eddie Condon – as they listened to and learned from the pioneer black stylists, many of them the greatest jazz players to emigrate from New Orleans, including King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny and Baby Dodds and Jimmy Noone. Two trips to the USA, made by the authors in 1979 and 1992, led to meetings and correspondence with some of the musicians in this compilation, and to learning about many others. There are connections between most of these articles, interviews and notes, with an over-lapping of jobs, leaders and clubs. Some of the stories are about pioneers: Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis and Frank Snyder, for example, were in the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. Trombonist George Brunis, chronicled here, was also a member of that band, though his long career – during which he played with Muggsy Spanier, as did Rod Cless and George Zack, in the Spanier Ragtime Band of ‘Great Sixteen’ fame – has been more widely documented. Floyd Bean and Tut Soper, here too, were also Spanier alumni. The articles originally appeared variously under a dual by-line, or by either Whyatt or Coller, but always with consultation and discussion prior to publication. Here they become a lively mix of the voices of the authors as well as the musicians and their families, building a story through biography, reviews and discography. The book is illustrated with evocative black and white photographs and images, and there is an Index of names and places to help the reader keep track of the musicians, composers, producers, promoters and writers who created this part of the history of jazz.

“A lively mix” is an understatement. First off, the book is full of wonderful anecdotage, primarily by the musicians themselves.  And it helps to explicate Chicago — which is often legendary but certainly under-documented — as its own world of jazz, where one could encounter Jimmy Yancey, Brownie McGhee, Bud Jacobson, Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes — see the 1949 photo facing the table of contents.

For me, the complete and absorbing charm of the book and the research under it is in the focus on those musicians whom I’ve known as names on record labels or in discographies.  Yes, there is coverage of Muggsy Spanier and George Brunis (the first already the subject of a fine biography by — no surprise — Bert), but the other portraits are welcome because the musicians depicted never got the attention during or after their lifetimes.  I will simply list them: Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, Elmer Schoebel, Rod Cless, George Snurpus, Maurice Bercov, Floyd O’Brien, Oro “Tut” Soper, Floyd Town, Johnny Lane, George Zack, Jack Gardner, Chet Roble, Floyd Bean, Bill Reinhardt and his club Jazz Ltd., Dan Lipscomb, Frank Chace, Jimmy Ille, Art Jenkins, Doc Cenardo, Freddy Greenleaf, and Paul Jordan.

And that is surely not all.  Photographs new to me, of course.  And when I open the book at random, gems leap out: on page 202, pianist Tut Soper describes Chicago as “the center of gravity as far as jazz is concerned.”  On page 63, we are in trombonist Floyd O’Brien’s datebook for 1928, describing gigs and who was in the band.  On page 227, jazz writer Larry Kart recalls hearing (and recording) clarinetist Frank Chace and pianist Bob Wright playing Coltrane’s LAZY BIRD and Tadd Dameron’s IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW.

I mentioned anecdotage earlier in this post, and will add a few excerpts from string bassist Harlow Atwood (201-2), talking of clarinetist / clubowner Bill Reinhardt and early rehearsals (Fall 1932) for Charlie Barnet’s first big band:

(. . . Charlie then was a 17 years-old pothead fugitive from Moses Brown Prep in Providence, R.I.) which boasted the legendary Jack Purvis on trumpet and Scoops Thompson (he sold drugs by the scoopful!) on guitar.  The two wildest dudes I ever met in the business.  That band, by the way, opened the brand-new Paramount Hotel, owned by Charlie’s family, on New Year’s Eve of ’32-’33 and lasted exactly one set.  Barnet’s mother, shocked to her socks by Purvis’ romping charts, fired Charlie herself.  I was sitting at Charlie’s table and heard the conversation.  

And, later, Atwood’s memories of valve-trombonist Frank Orchard (memorable for appearances on Commodore Records — I also saw him at Jimmy Ryan’s in the Seventies) who also acted as M.C., played piano, guitar, and sang — and who installed “a 2 1/2 times life-sized photo of himself at the club’s street entrance”:

The sets were pure Mack Sennett.  Frank would tinkle a piano intro, then switch to rhythm guitar for the opening chorus, grab his guitar and up to the mike to sing / play a chorus, then do the sock chorus on trombone lead and finally sprint back to the piano for the ending.  Plus, of course, introductory blather.

That’s purest jazz catnip to me, and I hope to you also.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would hold a book with a detailed portrait of the pianist Jack Gardner in it, or a reference to tenorist Joe Masek, I would have thought that impossible.  And I have taken so long to review this book because of its irresistible nature.  When I received it in the mail, I left it visible in my apartment, and when I passed by it, I would stop to read a few pages: its distracting force was just that powerful.  I apologize to Derek and to the shade of Bert for being so tardy, but if you are in the least curious about Chicago jazz — from the teens to the Seventies — you will find CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE fascinating, quotable, and invaluable. I wish there were a bookshelf of volumes of equal merit.

Buy a copy here or here .  Alas, the book doesn’t come with a I BRAKE FOR SIG MEYERS AND HIS DRUIDS bumper sticker or a multi-volume CD set of previously unheard live sessions recorded by John Steiner, but we will make do with this lovely collection.

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S NICE TO SEE YOU FOLKS HERE”: RAY SKJELBRED at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 26, 2016) PART ONE

Ray Skjelbred, poet and explorer, at the piano, musing, feeling, sharing colorful worlds of his own invention.

PINKY ROSE, a blues rumination:

NO COMPLAINTS, a lilting homage to Jess Stacy:

SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD, a blues by the Mississippi Sheiks:

IT’S A RAMBLE, by the mysterious Oro “Tut” Soper, a pianist who once kissed the young Anita O’Day passionately before remembering he wasn’t [because of religious beliefs] supposed to:

HEAH ME TALKIN’ TO YA, celebrating Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Don Redman:

Rambles and saunters in worlds known and unknown: elegant, rough, always alive.

More to come from the Esteemed Mr. Skjelbred.  And this aural bouquet is in honor of Aunt Ida Melrose Shoufler, who understands.

May your happiness increase!

RAY SKJELBRED AT THE PIANO: FOR THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 27, 2015)

I read once of how an eminent musician, in a hotel room with musician friends, would open a new bottle of Scotch, and before drinking, pour a little out on the rug and say, “That’s for the guys who have gone before,” or perhaps “That’s for the guys upstairs.”  A libation in honor of the Ancestors.

PIANO keyboard

When Ray Skjelbred plays, no liquids are spilled, but he honors the Ancestors in his own way, by evoking them in his own fashion.  Here are four brilliant evocations that he created at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 27, 2015.

SKJELBRED solo

Although Ray is a peerless band pianist (hear him with his own group, the Cubs, and many others, lighting the way from within the ensemble) he comes from the glorious tradition, the days when the pianist was the band.  Perhaps it’s a kind of Scandinavian thrift, a genetic offering from his personal Ancestors, who say, “You have these ten fingers; why only use two or three?”

For Tiny Parham, STOMPIN’ ON DOWN:

For Joe Sullivan, GIN MILL BLUES:

Also for Sullivan and his friends, OH, BABY! — and those delightful startling dissonant surprises at the start:

For Oro “Tut” Soper and the shade of Baby Dodds, IT’S A RAMBLE:

I look forward to seeing and hearing Ray (with Dawn Lambeth and Marc Caparone) at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Here’s a sample of what that wonderful combination did in 2015:

May your happiness increase!