By the time I started listening seriously to jazz, King Oliver had been dead for almost thirty years, Bix nearly forty. And every year that I delved deeper into the music, more of the original players died. So recordings became the only way for me to encounter many players, singers, and bands.
I first heard King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band on microgroove vinyl reissues on the Milestone and Epic labels; the Wolverine sessions likewise. I had read about these records in books about jazz and the musicians had described them reverently (Louis speaking lovingly of his musical father to Richard Meryman and Larry L. King; Richard M. Sudhalter writing about Bix, and so on).
But the sounds that came through the phonograph speaker were disappointing. Peggy Lee had not yet sung IS THAT ALL THERE IS? but her words would be appropriate. I could distinguish cornets and clarinets, banjos and pianos, but it was like putting my head underwater. The sound could be made loud but it was impossible to make it clear. Some of my reaction, of course, was the result of my own training in listening to live music and records of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — clear, electrically recorded, bright.
Eventually I got better at extracting the music from acoustic recordings, better at “filling in” what I imagined the original bands sounded like in the studio. But the Creole Jazz Band and the Wolverines were always at a distance. It was rather like hearing someone describe transcendent spiritual experiences I hadn’t had.
I know I am coming late to this particular party, but five compact discs issued in the past few years have been astonishing musical experiences. The first set, KING OLIVER: OFF THE RECORD, presents all the 1923 recordings by the Creole Jazz Band — originally issued on Gennett, OKeh, and Paramount. 37 tracks on two CDs, with all the alternate takes, everything in chronological order, with a beautifully detailed / scholarly set of liner notes.
(A word about the liner notes for these CDs — writer, scholar, trombonist David Sager deserves a round of applause with a hug after for his candor. Most liner-note writers know that their job is to say every note is a masterpiece, but Sager praises the high points and also honestly notes when things are ever so slightly collapsing. Hooray for objective listening, even to hallowed masterpieces!) Beautiful rare photographs and newspaper clippings, too — pages to get lost in.
But all this wouldn’t mean much if the sound was murky or overly processed. (Some issues of the Oliver band had been made into “stereo,” shrill on the left and thumpy on the right, a bad idea for sure.)
The sound that comes out of the speaker from these CDs is bright without being fraudulent. One can hear the individual instruments in a way not previously possible. I can actually HEAR the interweaving of Papa Joe and Louis on cornets; I can get an idea of how the ensemble parts twined around each other. Without hyperbole, I hear the music — the band — for the first time.
The same is true for Off The Record’s CD devoted to the Wolverine Orchestra.
The Wolverine recordings, like the Olivers, were also seen and packaged, because of the star system in jazz, as showcases for one musician. True, Bix stands out, across the decades, as THE player in that band. But these new transfers allow us to hear him in the larger context — not simply as the loudest player in the group. It is possible to appreciate the particular rhythmic swagger that these young fellows brought to the studio — “sock time,” intense yet relaxed, that strikes us as both new and familiar. Sager makes a good case for the band being “modern,” which allows us a deeper understanding of what they were attempting and how they did (and didn’t) succeed.
Four tracks by post-Wolverine groups featuring Bix — the SIOUX CITY SIX and BIX AND HIS RHYTHM JUGGLERS — are here, as well as the two later Wolverine sides with Jimmy McPartland (1924) and four from 1927. But a great pleasure of this CD comes at its close with two recordings from May 24, 1928, billed as THE ORIGINAL WOLVERINES — LIMEHOUSE BLUES and DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, with a clarinetist / saxophonist who could only be Frank Teschemacher (Bud Freeman and Jess Stacy said they heard Tesch on these sides, and who would argue with that?)
The third set, although it initially doesn’t have the “star power” of the Oliver – Louis – Bix issues, is deliciously rewarding.
Most jazz fans of a certain age will have heard at least a few Creole Jazz Band or Wolverine tracks. But perhaps only diligent musical archaeologists will have heard the music on CABARET ECHOES.
Again, the recordings are wonderfully bright (and I don’t mean harsh with an overemphasis on the treble).
Much of what we call “New Orleans jazz” was inevitably at a distance. Musicians from that city recorded in Chicago and New York once they had migrated North; some returned home in the Forties and later. This collection, although it begins with Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, recorded in Santa Monica, California, offers twenty-four selections recorded in New Orleans by OKeh between March 1924 and January 1925. I had read about Johnny DeDroit, Fate Marable (with a young Zutty Singleton), the Original Crescent City Jazzers (Stirling Bose, likewise), Johnny Bayersdorffer, the Half-Way House Orchestra (with Leon Roppolo), Anthony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Billy and Mary Mack (with Punch Miller), Brownlee’s Orchestra, John Tobin’s Midnight Serenaders, and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra — but I’d heard perhaps three or four sides of this grouping.
It’s easy to hear — from the six sides by Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra — how powerfully energetic that band was in 1922. And even earlier, there are enthusiastic sides by a 1918-1920 jazz band featuring one Jimmy Durante on piano. A world of delights that most of us have never heard.
That would be enough for most listeners. But a surprise awaits, Between the discs themselves, this collection offers excerpts from oral histories, so that we can hear Kid Ory, his daughter Babette, Johnny DeDroit, Amos White, Yvonne Powers Gass (daughter of saxophonist Eddie Powers), Abbie Brunies, Joe Loyocano, Tony Parenti, Tony Sbarbaro, Billy Mack and Mary McBride, Norman Brownlee, “Baba” Ridgley, and Arnold Loyocano — an amazing set of first-hand narratives from the original sources . . . in their own voices.
Back to the Sound for a moment. As “new technologies” come into view, many individuals have tried to make the old recordings “listenable.” Some have seen their role as removing all extraneous noise — which, when done without subtlety, also removes much of the music. Doug Benson, with help from generous collectors, has done a magnificent job of preserving the sound without reshaping it to a set of arbitrary aesthetics of what it “should” sound like in 2012.
This was accomplished through simple intelligent methods: get the best available copy of the original disc; play it with the stylus that offered the most sound; make sure that the disc was playing at the right speed (so that the music was in a recognizable key); judiciously apply the most subtle digital restoration.
It’s taken me this long to write this review because I’ve been entranced by the sound — and the sounds — and have gone back to the old paradigm of playing one track at a time rather than making the CDs into hot background music. But each track is a powerful auditory experience. The veils are lifted.
Click CREOLE to read more about the Oliver CDs. Click BIX to read more about the Wolverines CD. And CABARET will tell you all about CABARET ECHOES. You can, when visiting these pages, click on a variety of links to hear brief audio samples, but hearing excerpts through earbuds or your computer’s speakers will give only a small fraction of the sonic pleasures that await.
I seriously suggest that any jazz fan who wants to hear — to know, to understand — what “those old records” really sounded like (and thus be transported) should consider these compact discs.
And — with equal seriousness — I suggest them as aids to a happy relationship: every partner who has ever walked through the room where the “old records” are being played and said, gently or scornfully, “How can you listen to those scratchy old records? How can you hear anything?” might pick up the Off the Record CDs as a gift — not only for the jazz-loving partner, but to actually HEAR what (s)he loves so deeply. (“Can these marriages be saved?” “Yeah, man!”)
May your happiness increase.