Tag Archives: Tempo King

A TEA PARTY, 1936

Thanks to the ever-surprising Tim Gracyk, here is a new piece of history. (Tim, for those of you who don’t know, posts rare records, poetry, and philosophical commentary regularly on YouTube — in profusion.)

The “buff Bluebird” label is very appealing to the eye and nostalgic for me, so I paused while scrolling through Tim’s latest cornucopia.  Then I saw the band title, which was another inducement — because of its suggestion that hot jazz might be lurking behind that general monicker.

I started the video and listened very casually: nice band, good trumpet and clarinet, both familiar, but it wasn’t until the drummer hit an accent that I started to pay attention.  “That’s Stan King!  And it certainly sounds like Marty and Joe Marsala. . . . ”

The band was “Tempo King And His Kings Of Tempo” : Marty Marsala, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Queenie Ada Rubin, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; George Yorke, string bass; Stan King, drums; Tempo King, vocal, leader: another one of the swing combos, their roots in Fifty-Second Street, to emulate and ride alongside the Fats Waller phenomenon.

I couldn’t find out much about Frank Ryerson, except that he also was one of the composers of BLUE CHAMPAGNE, and what we used to call The World Wide Web (remember?) told me that he was a trumpeter in Glen Gray’s orchestra.

Why the alias?  Ordinarily bands recorded four sides in a three-hour session; this one was particularly fertile, and this band turned out seven usable sides.  So Bluebird 6690 had this recording on one side; on the other, a performance by Frank Tanner (leader of a Texas-based orchestra), SAILOR MAN RHYTHM.

The song isn’t memorable, but I find it intriguing.  For reasons that are somewhat amorphous eighty years later, there was a spurt of novelty songs with mock-historical themes: CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, QUEEN ISABELLA, THE MIDNIGHT RIDE OF PAUL REVERE, and others even less well known. Stuff Smith, not surprisingly, had the riposte with I DON’T WANT TO MAKE HISTORY (I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE.)

Before this session, Mal Hallet, Jimmy Dorsey, and perhaps other bands had taken this one on; after, on a 1937 radio transcription from Hilversum, the Ramblers with Coleman Hawkins performed it, then Max Rumpf in Berlin, and Seger Ellis and his Choirs of Brass.  Hallet may even have taken it as his theme song; there’s a 1944 V-Disc which is introduced by this song.  (Another V-Disc, which I’ve never heard, is called AFTER ALL THAT GIN, which is promising.)

It’s a good record, a lot of fun, and an otherwise hidden performance.  Thanks, Tim.

May your happiness increase!

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AT THE INTERSECTION OF ART AND COMMERCE: TAFT JORDAN AND THE MOB (February 21-22, 1935)

TAFT

A nice bio of trumpeter / vocalist Taft Jordan is available here, which is also the source for the photograph.

TAFT Night Wind Banner

In February 1935, “Taft Jordan And The Mob” — Taft, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Johnny Mince, clarinet; Elmer “Tone” Williams [not “Skippy” Williams as listed in Tom Lord — thanks to Mark Cantor], tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Bobby Johnson, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Eddie Dougherty, drums — recorded four memorable sides that have never gotten the attention they deserve.  (Incidentally, the beautiful record labels are illustrations only: the music can be found in the videos below.)  

TAFT MOB label

The idea was John Hammond’s, and one that we are grateful for.  The usual story is that Hammond worked hard to get the music he loved on record, to make opportunities for racially mixed bands.  He succeeded beautifully: most readers know this part of the story as preface to the 1933-42 Billie Holiday sides.

But other parts of the story deserve attention.  There is, for one thing, the success of the coin-operated phonograph (later, the “jukebox”) that could offer people recorded music in restaurants, bars, and elsewhere for what seems to us like a bargain: a nickel would get you three minutes of new music.  But a 1935 nickel was much more than the ninety-nine cents per song that iTunes charges.  (A contemporary advertisement shows Easter dresses for $1.95, and a skilled worker for the W.P.A. might earn $79 a month.)

And, at the time, commercially produced records were — as it says on the label — “not licensed for radio broadcast.”  I think that coin-operated phonographs served the audience’s desire for novelty (“Let’s hear that new record of ______ by Erin Morris and her Ponies!”) — songs from new movies, new songs popularized by much loved bands and singers . . . and for five cents, one could have a side played for a gathering of listeners and/or dancers.  The record labels pictured above are now called “dime-store,” because one could  buy these records inexpensively at, say, Woolworth’s.

Radio and recordings created a need for new material, so many songs, not all memorable, were published, with a clear financial relationship between composers / lyricists, publishing companies, artists, recording supervisors, and record companies.  (A small example: IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN was written by Bernard Hanighen, Billie Holiday’s friend, also a recording director at Brunswick Records.  He would have been happy — aesthetically and financially — to have his song recorded.)

Taft’s four sides run parallel to other small groups led by Fats Waller, Henry Red Allen, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, Stuff Smith, Adrian Rollini, Tempo King, Cleo Brown, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Frank Froeba, Bernard Addison, Louis “King”Garcia, Stew Pletcher, and others.  I’ve heard writers say these sessions were “cranked out for the jukebox trade,” but these records are lovely, imperishable.  That there were only four sides says more about an audience’s awareness of Taft as a star than about their quality.  Some listeners might have known him from the Savoy Ballroom and radio, but not many.  When the records were later reissued in the UK (the red-and-gold Vocalion issues) Teddy Wilson had become famous enough so that his name would sell discs.

The artists made little or nothing for these sessions: they were paid “scale,” although they were pleased to make the extra money.   The math is fascinating, a quiet recital of economic disparity, even at the remove of eight decades.  Let us say a band of eight musicians made four sides for $50 a musician.  The records were pressed, distributed, and ended up in the phonographs.  One could hear a side once — no limit on the number of hearers, theoretically — for a nickel. The machine could take in twenty nickels in an hour.  In 1935, the profit went to the record companies and the owners of the phonographs. Later (too late, perhaps) musicians and composers received royalties, but that is another story.

Yes, mechanical reproduction of art guarantees “exposure,” but one cannot eat exposure.  I am aware of this from both sides as an interloper with a video camera who can only recompense musicians in insubstantial ways.

I offer these notions, some of them quite sad or infuriating, as preface to wonderful music, and also to point out that an unstable, often exploitative relationship between the artists, “the marketplace,” technology, and lasting art is not a twenty-first century issue.

TAFT Vocalion Devil

What good songs these “disposable” pop tunes are — thanks to Rothberg, Coots, Alex Hill (yes!), and Hanighen.  And the players, professionals all, were used to sight-reading and creating instant arrangements — with split choruses, riffs, backgrounds.  To take one example, LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, still recognizable, is a series of thirty-two and sixteen bar solos with rhythm (and what a rhythm section!) with a jammed ensemble ending.  How fine it sounds now.  One could spend an afternoon listening to the glowing epigrams Wilson dispenses, the variety of timbres the horns offer, solo and in ensemble.

In my collecting history, these four sides were part of a Columbia Chick Webb lp compilation — glorious gap-fillers, but also logical because of Taft’s role in the band.  Mince and Silloway were with Tommy Dorsey; Skippy Williams, Bobby Johnson, and John Kirby with Webb also; Eddie Dougherty a busy free-lancer. Wilson had not yet joined the Goodman orchestra as a member of the Trio and Quartet, but had recorded with BG in ad-hoc studio groups.

What we have here — each side is less than three minutes long — is both superior dance music and small-band swing of the highest order, pleasing to all audiences.

In my time-travel fantasy, I would like to be a silent onlooker at one of these sessions, but I doubt the musicians romanticized such work.  It was another way to pay the rent, perhaps (for the lucky sideman) to get some recognition for future leader’s gigs . . . or perhaps, after creating four quiet masterpieces, the guys went out for a drink or some ribs, a nap before the night’s work.  If I’d asked Taft about these sides in 1972 /3 and later — I didn’t see him at close range — I wonder what would he have said.

LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE:

NIGHT WIND:

DEVIL IN THE MOON:

IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN:

All four of these songs were also recorded “with vocal chorus” by Taft, a charming Louis-influenced singer (consider his work with the Washboard Rhythm Kings and Webb) but none of the vocals was issued.  Mysterious.  I know there is an alternate take of NIGHT WIND issued on a Jerry Valburn collectors’ compilation, but it’s instrumental.

TAFT Vocalion Green

Does anyone know more about Eddie Dougherty than is published in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ?  I have learned that he recorded between 1933 and 1952 or a little later, that he lived in Brooklyn, and, according to Johnny Williams via Mike Burgevin, that he pronounced his last name as if spelled Dockerty.  But no more.

The music remains.  And I, for one, am truly grateful for that.

Taft as a member of the Ellington orchestra. Photograph by Charlie Mihn, courtesy of Chuck Slate.

Taft as a member of the Ellington orchestra. Photograph by Charlie Mihn, courtesy of Chuck Slate.

As a postscript, here are four contemporaneous versions of DEVIL IN THE MOON — in honor of the Blessed Alex Hill.  I think they are all beautiful, so this is not to make insidious comparisons.

Leo Reisman:

Mills Blue Rhythm Band (with an incendiary Buster Bailey interlude that the expert dancers must have loved):

Benny Goodman:

Art Tatum:

May your happiness increase!

“MY HI-DE-HO MAN” (1936)

This bouncy performance from October 25, 1936, owes its existence to a few fortunate coincidences. 

That new invention, the jukebox, meant that record labels in the Thirties saw a market for pop music recorded inexpensively for listeners eager for danceable novelties. 

So Fats Waller and Henry “Red” Allen gave encouragement to Bob Howard, Tempo King, Putney Dandridge, Teddy Wilson, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, and the overlooked Lil Armstrong, whose last name and ebullience were enough to make Decca Records interested in her.  (Also, a woman-pianist-singer-composer-personality was their idea of good value for one salary.) 

Then, the Fletcher Henderson band was playing a long residency at the Grand Terrace in Chicago: Fletcher’s star sidemen Buster Bailey (clarinet), Chu Berry (tenor sax), Huey Long (guitar), and Joe Thomas (trumpet) were available and eager to make some easy money on their own.  Teddy Cole took over the piano; John Frazier played bass.  Roy Eldridge might have wanted to lead his own date; Sidney Catlett was off having fun. 

And the idea of a “hi-de-ho” man leads back to the immense popularity of both Cab Calloway and his jive talk . . . all things combined to make this wonderful piece of music: meant to be ephemeral but still entertaining us more than seventy-five years later. 

Now, settle in and enjoy the strong pulse of that drumless rhythm section (with Huey Long’s solo passage late in the record), Teddy Cole’s glistening piano — shades of Hines and Wilson — on top.  Then, Joe Thomas — no one’s played like him yet!  Careful yet soulful, taking his time, outlining the melody but offering his own embellishments.  He loved upward arpeggios (shades of 1927 Louis) and repeated notes (all his own, as was that lovely tone).  Thomas’s playing always combines delicacy and earnestness: he has something he wants to tell us, but it’s not going to be bold or overemphatic. 

Then a key change to bring on the Star — jivey, enthusiastic, full of ginger and pep, singing lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense but we don’t care.  (“I’m going to bump that ball . . . ?”) while the band gets more lively in back of her.  Buster Bailey, who could sometimes sound mechanical, now bends a note or two in the hot fashion of Ed Hall —  and Lil comes back for more, with Joe generating a good deal of heat behind her singing.  (All this romping has been created in eighty seconds: the jazz masters of the Thirties certainly didn’t need a great deal of room to warm up the world.) 

And then a sweet chorded interlude from Huey Long  and John Frazier, coming through clearly even now, preparing us for the drama to follow, Chu Berry in flight, his phrases tumbling, his tone shifting and shading as he ascends and descends.  Then tout ensemble, rollicking: Lil riding the rhythm wave of the band, the horns — with space and time enough for a four-bar string bass break — before the end: what Joe plays in the final fifteen selections of this disc is priceless.   Yes, there’s some Eldridge-osmosis there (those phrases were the common tongue for trumpeters in 1936 and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went back to Mr. Strong) but Joe is floating on top of the beat just as he seems to be urging the band on to a joyous finale.

And these recordings aren’t well known and haven’t had much existence on compact disc.  Yes, there’s a Classics compilation but it’s been out of print and costly for some time.  I wouldn’t take anything from Billie or Fats, but their colleagues, swinging happily for other labels in these years, deserve our attention, too.

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“A BEAUTIFUL LADY IN BLUE”: JEFF BARNHART / DANNY COOTS 2010

There was a time — let’s say 1936 — where the pop hits of the day were getting recorded regularly in small-band jazz versions. 

The songs were often paper-thin and sounded as if they’d been written in half an hour in the pastoral fields of the Brill Building, but it didn’t matter. 

Who recorded them?  Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Tempo King, Red Allen, Red McKenzie, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, Bob Howard come to mind.  The records were made for the jukebox market and jazz collectors treasure them for their good-time atmosphere and the hot playing. 

I haven’t ever seen a jukebox stocked with new Vocalion and Decca 78s, and don’t expect to in this century.  But I did find this YouTube video of pianist-singer Jeff Barnhart and drummer Danny Coots performing A BEAUTIFUL LADY IN BLUE at the 2010 West Coast Ragtime Festival (it’s nicely recorded by my yet-unmet pal Tom Warner) and it absolutely made my day, suggesting Fats and Slick Jones and a whole era that I thought I’d only hear on records.  Good for stompin’, as Lips Page would say:

Did you get up this morning feeling gloomy?  Growly?  Overwhelmed by things to do?  Might I suggest a consult with Doctors Barnhart and Coots: this will cure many of those ills that affect modern men and women . . . or your co-pay will be refunded.  Cheerfully!