Tag Archives: Spirits of Rhythm

ASKING THE MUSICAL QUESTION: “BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED?”

Some questions are too deep for simple answers. And for me, the complete absence of punctuation only adds to the plaintive nature of the inquiry.  Commas and question marks are for those easily distracted from the emotional depths.  This inquiry was recorded on June 27, 1933.

Here is another sound source to muse on.

This recording is a remarkable oddity — left out of the most current expansive online jazz discography.  It was recorded in three takes, the last one being the master, and it was the only side issued, everything else being rejected — they attempted SMOKE RINGS, ANGELINE, THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN with different vocalists including “Detroit Red,” Heywood and Eddie Jackson, unheard washboard by Sammy Page.  At a later session, December 21, 1933, a similar band attempted BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED? (the discography by Brian Rust adds the comma and question mark) and RED, WHITE, AND BLUES.  I know that Columbia Records (or the American Record Corporation) was nearly bankrupt, which may account for the typographical errors: the first session was, I believe, credited to “DICKEY WELLS’ SHIM SHAMMERS,” and the second to “DICKIE WELLS and KENNY’S KELLOWATTS.”

Dicky Wells (or Dickie Wells) was not the extravagantly creative trombonist, but a dancer who ran the Shim Sham Club in New York’s Harlem, where this group appeared. Pianist Kenny Watts led Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts; drummer Eddie Dougherty is not well-known but is marvelous (catch his work with Bennie Morton, James P. Johnson, and Mildred Bailey).  My late dear friend Mike Burgevin asked bassist Johnny Williams about Eddie and was told that he pronounced his name “Dockerty.”

The personnel provided to us by collector-scholar Steve Abrams (his YouTube channel, a cornucopia of marvels, is SMARBA100) is this: Heywood Jackson, Eddie Johnson, Milton Lane, kazoo; Fred Voorhees, guitar; Watts; Dougherty; Carroll Waldron, string bass.  What they do with the simplest melodic and lyric material is fascinating.

To me, it is a study in timbres: the textures of the singer, who may or may not be the avian whistler, the riffing kazoos, the guitarist’s tone (contrapuntally or in solo), the plunk of the string bass, and the quiet drumming.

The three kazoo virtuosi, who create an odd melancholy haunting reverie that makes me think of 1933 Ellington — the trombones? — and looks forward to Basie.  And the record ends with an engineer’s fade-out, not usual for 1933.  Yes, it runs parallel to the Mills Brothers, the Spirits of Rhythm, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, Red McKenzie’s groups, perhaps the Tramp Band and other skiffle combinations . . . but its very elusiveness makes it memorable.  If we had twenty-four sides, perhaps the magic would grow predictable, but this one three-minute tone poem is precious.  And strange, which increases the magic.  Thanks to Steve Abrams for bringing this one back into our consciousness.

However, an online search for any information turned up this excerpt from dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s unpublished memoir, in a book I immediately bought:

One of the most popular after-hours clubs was Dickey Wells’s Shim Sham Club, which also catered to white customers.  Today, in keeping with the parlance of the recording industry, the Shim-Sham would be called a crossover club.  The Shim-Sham or Shimmy was a dance invented by homosexuals from the chorus line of the 101 Ranch [which Johnson identifies as having a “bizarre transvestite and homosexual chorus line” in the preceding paragraph].  “Shim” was a contraction of the term she-him, and the “sham” was a word serving the dual purpose of denoting the female role as played by males, as well as the shambling nature of the steps, particularly the first eight bars.  The Shimmy combined a hip and shoulder wiggle that was part of the opening movements.  

Dickey Wells was a former Cotton Club dancer who later became a pimp and an entrepreneur.  He ran his club as economically as possible, employing a “jug” band called the Shim Shammers or Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts, instead of regular musicians.  Watts played the piano, Eddie Dougherty drums, Fletch Jahon, Eddie “Hawk” Johnson, Heywood Jackson, and Milton Lane played kazoos [another source mentions that the band had one or several baritone kazoos],  with Carol Walrond, the brother of Harlem Renaissance poet and author Eric Walrond, on bass.  The sound they created was somewhere between Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers and Duke Ellington, if you can imagine that.  Fletch and Sammy Page did vocals and whistled, and the group was fronted by an extraordinary “hoofer” whose percussive rhythms afforded an unusually inspirational jazz motif.  His name was Baby Lawrence, a master of  technique, rhythmic flow, and continuous improvisation.  Later, during the bebop phase, he was recognized as the preeminent jazz hoofer.  [Source:  Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It, edited by Herb Boyd.]

That is intensely revealing; it conjures up a scene, and it suggests to me that there is much more to the apparently simple question of the title than we might have naively assumed.  Satisfaction is nothing to take lightly.

May your happiness increase!

IMMENSELY RESTORATIVE, 1934

hot-water-and-lemon

This may be better than other restoratives, such as a brisk walk before breakfast.

The details?  Dick Powell and the Mills Brothers.  A song by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, from the 1934 film TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS.  And I read that Powell insisted on this being recorded and filmed “live” rather than have the five of them — notice, no studio orchestra (which would have been entirely unnecessary) — lip-syncing, as was the custom.

This performance, just over two minutes, is totally entrancing: clearly rehearsed, because there are a million places where collisions would be possible, it becomes a sweet vocal ballet with very uplifting visual touches.  Historically-minded listeners may hear parallels between this and what Bing had done even before he and the Brothers made a record in 1932 (and a film appearance in THE BIG BROADCAST) and I hear a good deal of what the Spirits of Rhythm were so memorably creating.

But right now, I plan to watch and listen to this clip several more times.  I encourage you to take as needed as well.  Thanks to Steven Potteiger of Facebook for pointing me to Ron Evry’s video — without them, I would have been unrestored.

May your happiness increase!

CRAZY RHYTHM and MORE: CASEY MacGILL’S BLUE 4 TRIO

Mike Daugherty, Matt Weiner, Casey MacGill

A band that calls itself “the Blue 4 Trio” has a touch of surrealism about it — reminiscent of the Magritte painting of a pipe that is subtitled “This is not a pipe.” But don’t let the quartet-that’s-really-a-trio disconcert you.

Casey MacGill and his colleagues make delicious music — in the best old-fashioned ways without being a “repertory orchestra” devoted to copying vintage 78s.

Casey, Matt, and Mike all sing — in that infectious way that recalls the Mills Brothers, the Spirits of Rhythm, the early King Cole Trio, Duke Ellington’s 1937 vocal trio, Slim and Slam, the Cats and the Fiddle, with touches of Fats, Louis, and Bing added to the mix.

Instrumentally, Casey is a fine pianist, ukulele player, and a heartfelt middle-register cornet serenader.  You’ve heard Mike Daughterty swing the First Thursday Jazz Band; here he gets many opportunities to show off his skill on the wirebrushes; bassist Matt Weiner who would make Milt Hinton proud.

I stress the inherent musicality of the B4T because many groups across the country market themselves as “swing bands” offer a rigid, by-the-numbers version of swing.   Sartorially, they are perfect: the hats, two-tone shoes, suits, but their music is rigid and limited.  Not this little band.

I listened to the Blue 4 Trio at length — two CDs worth — while driving back and forth to work.  I would testify under oath in Jazz Court that they swung, that every track lifted my spirits.

There’s no postmodern irony here, no “distance” from the material: their readings of I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY or I AIN’T LAZY, I’M JUST DREAMIN’ (memories of Jack Teagarden in 1934) are deep inside the song.  I now know the verse to CRAZY RHYTHM, which is no small boon.

Here’s a three-minute video portrait of these fellows and the band — created in Casey’s Seattle living room by filmmaker Keith Rivers:

Although the Trio’s repertoire is drawn from the Swing Era, they aren’t prisoners of 1936: their CDs and performances feature a few idiomatic originals and some more recent material: DAYDREAM (by John Sebastian) and the Leiber-Stoller THREE COOL CATS.

Visit here to hear music samples, keep up with the band’s gig schedule, and more.

And if you visit here and click at the top of the page, you can hear Casey and Orville Johnson play and sing ALOHA OE BLUES . . . a pleasure.

The two CDs I got so much pleasure from are THREE COOL CATS (which has guest appearances from guitarists Orville Johnson and Del Ray, as well as tenor sax and clarinet from Craig Flory).  The songs are GANGBUSTERS / THREE COOL CATS / I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY / LULU’S BACK IN TOWN / SUNNY AFTERNOON / UP JUMPED YOU WITH LOVE / THE SPELL OF THE BLUES / EVERYTHING BUT YOU / IT’S MY LAZY DAY / LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER / CHICKEN DINNER / DAYDREAM.

and the newest one, BARRELHOUSE (a MacGill original with clever lyrics), features the Trio plus Orville Johnson, Hans Teuber on tenor sax and piccolo, and New York’s own guitar master Matt Munisteri.  It begins with the title tune, and goes on to PALM SPRINGS JUMP / CHANGES / ME AND THE MOON / OUT OF NOWHERE / SMALL FRY / CRAZY RHYTHM / COW COW BOOGIE / I AIN’T LAZY, I’M JUST DREAMIN’ / I’VE GOT TO BE A RUG CUTTER / BLUE BECAUSE OF YOU / WARM IT UP TO ME.

They are the real thing.  Accept no substitutes!

KALLY PRICE IS POWERFULLY HERSELF

Kally Price is a fully realized singer, not for the timid, someone hard to ignore.  She doesn’t create background music.

Price has a controlled emotional power than is remarkable.  It’s not overacting or “dramatic.”  Rather, she has an impassioned definiteness that comes from within; it’s not something she learned how to do in acting school.  She doesn’t shout or rant, but it’s clear she is not going to let anything get in her way when she’s delivering the messages contained in a song.

I had not heard of her before our California trip, but many people told me about her.  They went out of their way to let me know she wasn’t formulaic or ordinary.

I knew IF I HAD A RIBBON BOW from Maxine Sullivan’s wistful 1937 version, and it had always struck me as poignantly girlish: if I had a ribbon bow, then Prince Charming would come and find me.  The singer of this folk song had not been able to learn much about assertiveness training, had never heard of Friedan or Steinem, so the song struck notes of wishing rather than action.  Kally Price’s rendering is powerful, and you imagine her both singing the song (she is faithful to it) and examining it at arm’s length: pity this poor girl in what I imagine is her best frock, waiting for someone to come and love her, much like one of Toni Morrison’s doomed little girls in THE BLUEST EYE.  Kally performs the song with fidelity but is also able to suggest her frustration at being confined to the constricting world of such narrow hopes and aspirations.

If my deconstructing of this text doesn’t appeal to you, sit back from your computer and witness a forceful performance by a musical actress with great skill and undeniable passion.  Her accompanists are Leon Oakley, cornet; Craig Ventresco, guitar; Rob Reich (at the piano instead of the accordion), and Ari Munkres on string bass.  This performance was recorded at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House in May 2010, just before Kally recorded her second CD as a leader:

She’s someone serious — not to be taken lightly!

The other performance from the Red Poppy is a fascinating merging of an a cappella I WANT TO LIVE and Price’s reimagining of RHYTHM — not the Gershwins’ classic but the 1933 Spirits of Rhythm perpetual-motion machine.  Again, whether she’s creating a ferocious soliloquy or she’s swinging deeply, Kally Price is someone to take notice of:

I’m making room on my shelves — between Bent Persson and Sammy Price — for Kally Price’s CD . . . coming soon to you from Porto Franco Records.

THE SPIRITS OF RHYTHM SIGN IN on eBay

I admire the Mills Brothers; I revere the Boswell Sisters. 

But I have a special place in my heart for a group that has received far less attention — the aptly-named Spirits of Rhythm, featuring Douglas Daniels and his brother Wilbur on tipple (a twelve-string instrument), Teddy Bunn on guitar, and Leo Watson on vocal, occasionally drums. 

Their recording career was brief: their records can fit on one compact disc (it’s worth searching for — on the Timeless / Retrieval label) and they flourished, intermittently, between the early Thirties and the mid-Forties.  Electrified, Bunn went on to record into the Fifties; Watson drifted into obscurity and died in 1950.  What happened to the Daniels brothers I do not know (although I just sent an email to Wilbur’s granddaughter, found on YouTube — the internet makes such deliciously odd things possible!). 

I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog the two clips of the Spirits — or variant combinations — on film, and they can be found on YouTube.  One is an exceedingly out-of-synch TOM TOM THE ELEVATOR BOY, from a 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS.  The other features Eddie Cantor impersonatory Jackie Greene in ALABAMY BOUND. 

But here’s some music.  First, I GOT RHYTHM from 1933:

And DR. WATSON AND MR. HOLMES (lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937):

What else would anyone need?

How about some calligraphic evidence?  Here’s a contract offered to the highest bidder on eBay: dating from 1942, it offers the signatures of Ramon La Rae (a singer?  a bassist?), Teddy Bunn, Leo Watson, and the Daniels brothers.  I never thought I’d see something like this:

Here’s a closeup:

My only question now is whether I want the image below on a sweatshirt or will content myself with the wall hanging. 

Design suggestions, anyone?

The bidding ended — someone offered over $325 for this rare piece of paper.

KEEP EVERYONE’S SPIRITS HIGH: CLICK HERE (ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS)

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TEDDY BUNN in FULL FLIGHT

REMEMBER!  ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW!

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The world would be a better place if more people knew about guitarist / singer Teddy Bunn. 

There!  I’ve said it again! 

Most people who know anything about Mr. Bunn associate him with the Spirits of Rhythm and with deep blues playing.  But he could also fly over that fretboard in a most swinging fashion!

Here are two examples: IT’S SWEET LIKE SO (1931, Victor) a duet between Bunn and pianist Spencer Williams.  Williams — more often known as a composer — is equally adroit, mixing Hines and stride, although he tends to get faster and faster as the already fast tempo continues.  The song (if you can call it that) is a rapid-fire vaudeville piece with the same chord changes as a dozen other slightly naughty ones:

And here is one of Bunn’s masterpieces — a solo rendering (1940, Blue Note) of KING PORTER STOMP, where his enthusiasm and invention seem boundless, as he keeps his only indetity while impersonating a thirteen-piece swing band:

Listen and admire — the bent notes, the overall sonority — even if you’re not a guitarist.  And if you know a guitarist, do all of us a favor by sending this post along.  I have kept up my Bunnian missionary zeal for years now: when I meet a student who brings his or her guitar to class, I say, “Your homework is to check out Teddy Bunn.”  And a few — the rare few — have come back and thanked me.  “Professor, Teddy Bunn is really cool.” 

That he is.

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.