Tag Archives: Swing Era

“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!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART ONE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

mobius_strip

Photograph by David Benbennick, c/o Wikipedia

The image above is of a Möbius strip: it has only one side and you keep traveling around it without beginning or end.  You could look it up, as Ring Lardner wrote. It is artifact, concept, and metaphor all in one.

How does this relate to music?  First, a sample: BUGS PARADE, composition and arrangement by Billy Moore, recorded by the 1940 Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra:

It’s 2017.  How would a group of living musicians deal with this work of art?  One approach would be to attempt to reproduce it exactly: transcribe the recording, rehearse it with a select group of musicians — the same number and instrumentation — so that one could hear it live.  Hard work with often beautiful results.  Another approach — at the other end of the spectrum — would be to shatter the original through mockery, to draw an unflattering caricature of the original.

Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities.  It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing.  Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.  Here are three glorious examples — which also stretch the boundaries of the 78 rpm disc above.

HARLEM CONGO, associated with Chick Webb:

Benny Carter’s lovely NIGHTFALL:

And, yes, the aforementioned BUGS PARADE:

You will notice I haven’t said anything about the players or the performances. This band is explosively energized and deeply lyrical, often at the same time.

A postscript: I hope no one feels compelled in the name of red-label Columbias and sunburst Deccas to write in, “I like the originals better.”  Consider that Dan’s reinventions are meant to honor the original lively and lyrical spirits of these Thirties recordings: otherwise why spend the time creating his own tributes? They are not desecrations in any way.

A more cheerful postscript, Dr. Eugenia Chang’s Möbius bagel and lox:

May your happiness increase!

IN THE RIVER THAT IS TIME: DAN BLOCK’S TRANSFORMATIONALISTS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 17, 2016)

I think of Dan Block as the main character in a Ray Bradbury story.  Friendly but mysterious, he comes to a small town in the Midwest and puts up a banner advertising his TRANSFORMATIONALISTS: “Time Is But The Stream We Go Fishing In / Come With Us!”  A middle-school trombonist hesitantly approaches the Magical Transormationalist, falls under the spell of the music, and when the band leaves town, she goes with them, entranced, on to glories yet undiscovered.

finshing-thoreau

When Dan has led his “Harlem in the Thirties Updated” group at Fat Cat and other venues, I’ve not counted the audience members to see if anyone went missing.  But we were certainly entranced and remain so.

A version of Dan’s magic troupe performed a brief set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party in September 2016: Dan, alto saxophone / arrangements; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums.  The repertoire came from famous bands (Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter) and was written by Mary Lou Williams, Carter, and others — but it sounded fresh, rather than being a distillation of famous records.

The opener, associated with Chick Webb, HARLEM CONGO:

Mary Lou Williams’ composition (I believe Puddin’ Head was trumpeter Edgar Battle):

another Mary Lou creation:

Something for and from Benny Carter:

And, finally, an early version of climate change from the 1934 Henderson band:

Inventive and wholly satisfying.  Another version of the Block Transformationalists will be playing at Smalls on West Tenth Street on February 3, 2017, with the group that performed this music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Mark your perpetual calendars, please.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING IT NEW: DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, PETE VAN NOSTRAND (Fat Cat, May 31, 2016)

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW.  In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness.  If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in.  But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that.  Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.

For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31.  I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular.  The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?

Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green?  What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on.  As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.

What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.

HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):

HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):

BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):

LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):

BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):

I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.

As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling.  If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better!  This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have  creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES P. JOHNSON MEETS LES BROWN (January 9, 1939)

On one of my record-hunting trips of 2014 I found a Les Brown 78 that would otherwise not have caught my eye.  That is not meant to demean the Brown band, just to say that I was never drawn to them.  But when I saw a Bluebird 78 of two lesser-known James P. Johnson songs (from the musical POLICY KINGS) I had to buy it to see what they sounded like.  The compositions were a love song called YOU, YOU, YOU — which I knew only through a much later recording by Dick Wellstood and Bob Wilber (instrumental) and one of the many songs celebrating a dance which possibly had a very short vogue if it had one at all, HARLEM WOOGIE.  (About a more famous recording of that song, more below).

The Brown band that recorded these two sides was John Martel, Melvin Hurwitz, Les Kritz (tp) Bob Fishel (tb) Les Brown (cl,as,arr) Steve Madrick (cl,as) Herb Muse (as,vcl) Wolfe Tayne, Carl Rand (ts) Billy Rowland (p) Allan Reuss (g) Bassie Deters (b) Eddie Julian (d):

YOU, YOU, YOU:

HARLEM WOOGIE:

Now, these are quite successful dance-band records, to my ears — although my ears are more accustomed to 1938 Basie, 1940 Ellington, 1939 Goodman, and so on.  And Herb Muse sings the two selections in a style, quite pleasant, that I associate with Pha Terrell and others.  But the records, judged as jazz opuses, are somewhat undramatic.

Here’s the HARLEM WOOGIE I remember, having first heard it around 1967 — featuring James P., Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Sidney Catlett, and Anna Robinson: searing!

Even though Herb Muse sang the lyrics more clearly, Anna Robinson clearly had great force and presence; Red Allen’s echoing the rhythm of her closing vocal phrase is priceless, as are Sidney’s accents behind James P.  And behind Sedric. But listeners can absorb this on their own.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is not a post setting up Bland White Swing Era music against Hot Black Authentic Jazz.  If you want to draw such conclusions, you are on your own, but I don’t encourage them, because the Brown and Johnson records have different purposes and intentions.

What does fascinate me is the brief moment-in-the-sun of two of James P. Johnson’s less intoxicating compositions.  Did he, or his publisher, offer them to as many “middle-of-the-road” Swing orchestras as possible, hoping for a hit, hoping for radio play?  Or was it the reverse (which I suspect): James P. was out of fashion in the late Thirties, attempting to be taken seriously as a classical composer — but — anyone who had been paying attention during the preceding decades knew that he wrote hits.  One of them was a love song, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU; another was a dance, CHARLESTON.  So it would be an odd bandleader who would ignore the songs from a James P. Johnson show.  It’s a pity the songs weren’t more memorable . . . or the recordings.  But it is, to me, a small but fascinating example of “crossover” before the term ceased to have any meaning.

May your happiness increase!

BENT PERSSON HONORS LUIS RUSSELL at WHITLEY BAY (Nov. 3, 2013)

Some of the hottest music of the late Twenties was created by Luis Russell and his Orchestra.  That band could “romp,” to use Pops Foster’s perfectly accurate verb, in ways that blended New Orleans polyphony and the awareness of how musicians in a big band could play effectively as sections.  Russell wrote wonderful arrangements and the band showed off a galaxy of soloists — Red Allen, Charlie Holmes, Albert Nicholas, J. C. Higginbotham, Teddy Hill, Greely Walton, Will Johnson, Pops Foster, Paul Barbarin (later editions of the band, captured on record, also included Dicky Wells, Rex Stewart, and a sweetly vocalizing Vic Dickenson).  The band also backed Louis Armstrong on memorable records — and it became the nucleus of Louis’ Decca band as well.

If someone asked me to define “swing,” it would be easy to do by playing the Russell PANAMA or JERSEY LIGHTNING — perpetual motion machines that amaze and delight.

Trumpeter / arranger / scholar Bent Persson has long loved the Russell band, not only for its soloists but for its ensemble beauty — and last year at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party he offered a full plate of joy, taking us in time and space to the Saratoga Club in 1929-1930.  He was aided in this journey by Jeff Barnhart, piano and vocal; Henri Lemaire, string bass; Richard Pite, drums; Jacob Ullberger, banjo and guitar; Andy Schumm, trumpet; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Jean-Francois Bonnel, Lars Frank, Stephane Gillot, reeds.

SARATOGA SHOUT:

DOCTOR BLUES:

NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (with its classic vocal: is it an invitation or a command?):

LOUISIANA SWING:

ON REVIVAL DAY (purification of the Spirit thanks to Reverends Jeff and Kris):

POOR LI’L ME, with an extraordinary vocal by Jeff:

SARATOGA DRAG:

HONEY, THAT REMINDS ME (which was Vic Dickenson’s first recorded vocal):

Oh, what a band! — both in the original and in the energetic evocation here.

All of this wonderfully uplifting jazz was performed (in 2013) at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party where many of these musicians will be performing in the 2014 version in a few days.

May your happiness increase!

CREATING BEAUTY: THE THRIFT SET ORCHESTRA

Festival promoters, swing dance bookers, people who love good music, beautifully played, take note!

(If John Hammond were alive, this band would already have a contract with English Parlophone, be playing at Smalls Paradise, and be broadcasting over WEVD . . . but it’s 2014, and we have to make such things happen for ourselves):

KRAZY KAPERS (take 1):

and another set of KAPERS:

Who are these Swing miracle-workers?  Why, they are the Thrift Set Orchestra, a band based in Austin, Texas.  At their site, you can read the biographies of the individual musicians and learn more about the group. I don’t see a place where one can request an autographed picture of the TSO, but soon that will be necessary, as jazz and swing dance fans coast-to-coast get the message.

If the Thrift Set Orchestra looks familiar to you, it might be because I posted two versions of their THE MOOCHE in honor of the band and of Ellington’s birthday here.

What makes them so special? I have to put them in context. There are many other youthful jazz bands out there devoted to the music of the Swing Era (and by that I do not mean formulaic versions of IN THE MOOD for dancers), and they all serve a useful function.  But few of them play as convincingly and with as much inventiveness as the TSO.

Some bands execute transcriptions of the original arrangements and recorded solos splendidly (no harm done there); other bands offer their own improvisations (likewise); some bands woo audiences with energy and vintage clothing or snappy uniforms and Art Deco stands (visually appealing for those who like spectacle).

But for me the deepest question is always: “What does the music sound like if I close my eyes?  Does it please my deepest self?”

I know it might seem odd, but for me, the test for a new CD is the car — my Old New Car with a decent sound system.  Driving somewhere with a previously unheard disc in the player, I can’t read the liner notes or check who’s soloing on track six.  I can only listen. And my response to the TSO disc was nearly ecstatic. I played it once, then again. And in the next few days I played it every time I drove, even for a five-minute errand. Driving on a main street in a suburban business district, I made sure to lower my windows so that everyone could hear the TSO put their own stamp on NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, BLUE DRAG, or HELLO BABE. No one came over at a stop light to ask the source of this joy, but I am convinced that I did some good, even subliminally, by offering this swinging beauty to innocent bystanders. Spreading joy to children who have never read a book about improvisation.  “Mama, that man had music coming from his car!” “Hush, child! We’re going home right now.”

Back to the sounds. The TSO is a compact, energetic, and accurate jazz-swing orchestra, with players who can read and improvise in an idiomatic yet loose manner, and who can swing convincingly on their own solos. Their ensemble playing is authentic but not stiff, the solos inventive and personal. The band echoes Ellington and Bennie Moten, but it has its own Western Swing spiciness too.  The CD offers a pleasing mix of classic songs and originals, as well as less familiar Thirties evocations (not copies) of Freddy Taylor, Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Jean Goldkette, informal sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s featuring Bill Priestley on cornet. Guitarist / vocalist Albanie Faletta sings deliciously on BLUE DRAG, and trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonsalez plays Roy Eldridge’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR marvelously as a feature for the lower-register horn, getting every note splendidly in place. David Jellema’s cornet shines throughout, nimbly evoking early Hackett, and he adds his clarinet to the ensemble when a trio is called for. The two-man sax section of Graulty and Doyle, switching horns, is absolutely a model — and their soloing is individual yet idiomatic in the best way.  Anchored by Hal Smith’s perfect drumming (you could listen to any of these tracks for the drumming alone and be refreshed), the rhythm section rocks — no pianists need apply.

The overall sound of the band is both light and intense, and there is no hint of pretension or stiffness. They don’t sound as if they can’t wait to get back to their post-Coltrane modal studies. The rhythm section is powerful but never obtrusive, and the horns glide from lyrical solos to speaking gutty truths through their horns (trombonist Mark could be our generation’s Snub Moseley, and we welcome him!).  The TSO, in addition, has the sound of a working band: people who are used to playing together and who enjoy each other’s musical company.

Had this CD had simply been expert recreations of recordings, I would have been far less enthusiastic.  Although eleven of the tracks here display some allegiance to recorded performances, each of them has small delicious surprises: brief horn solos where one wouldn’t expect them, a brief horns-only passage in SUNDAY; the welcome presence of a banjo on HELLO BABE; friendly adjustments, adaptations, and inventions: new touches that seem just right, something that Foots Thomas or Bill Challis would have liked just fine.  Witty musical ingenuity rather than idolatrous museum-quality reproduction is the result.

And in case you are someone with a record collection, muttering, “I’d rather hear the originals,” the TSO has some new originals to offer you, danceable melodies with memorable lines — most of them taking a single melodic phrase and moving it around in the best Waller style to create tunes that don’t leave your head.

The musicians are David Jellema, cornet, clarinet; Jonathan Doyle, soprano, alto, clarinet; Lyon Graulty, tenor, clarinet, vocal; Albanie Faletta, guitar, vocal; Westen Borghesi, banjo, vocal; Ryan Gould, string bass, vocal; Hal Smith, drums, performing NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW / SURE FINE / BLUE DRAG / SHAGTOWN JUBILEE / ROCKIN’ CHAIR / SNOWBOUND IN A CABIN / SUNDAY / SUGAR / HELLO BABE / SWEET IS THE NIGHT / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / KRAZY KAPERS / HANG ON EVERY WORD / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM / THE MOOCHE.  Good sound from sessions recorded July 2013.

You can purchase the CD here for $15 plus $3 shipping.

original

I predict a brilliant future for the TSO. I’m delighted they exist. We need them — a musical embodiment of Bach’s Rescue Remedy.

And as for its band name — the Thrift Set Orchestra, here’s what its creator Jonathan Doyle told me: “The name came from a thought around the idea of the economy of size of the orchestra, or maybe about an economy of musical style. It might have been about recycled culture too, finding clothes and records in thrift stores and putting all of the styles from the different eras together as one pleases, embracing beautiful and interesting things from the past that have lost value in contemporary society.”

The TSO embodies a beautiful philosophy in their music.

May your happiness increase!