Tag Archives: Walt Roesner and the Capitolians

TEARING IT UP! (Vic Berton and Friends, 1928)

Walt Roesner and his Capitolians — the large all-star all-purpose orchestra that appeared at the Capitol Theatre in New York City — made a Vitaphone short film in 1928.  Two-thirds of the film is given over to 1) an impassioned tenor singing O SOLE MIO, and 2) an impassioned tenor singing ANGELA MIA.  Although these specialties are beautifully performed, they lack a certain savor or liveliness. 

But the last number by the orchestra is Hot, truly so.  And members of the band get to show off their considerable (sometimes quirky) solo talents in brief outings — with some of the most famous names in jazz doing their bit: how about Jimmy Dorsey, Arthur Schutt, Rube Bloom, Miff Mole, Leo McConville, Bruce Yantis, Vic Berton, Nat Brusiloff, Jimmy Lytell . . . ?!

I would not have posted this for the famous names alone — but I saw the entire short film recently for the first time and found myself watching the last number several times in a row, delighting in the music and the smiles on the faces of the musicians while their fellow players went at it.  And I found myself insisting that the Beloved watch Rube Bloom and vic Berton in tandem — and that pleased her, too.  I found this segment posted on Dailymotion with very accurate identifications, thanks to  somename who goes by the alias “lordlister.” 

So here it is, with commentary:

 

The eye is at first struck by the sheer number of beautifully-dressed men on the bandstand: twenty-five, perhaps, all with white flowers in their buttonholes.  Two pianos, a plethora of violins, bowed string bass, bowed cello.  Drummer Vic Berton standing in the rear amongst a good deal of percussion, including tympani.  Roesner opens this number with the cheerful explanation that his musicians have had an appropriately “heated argument” about which one of them is the hottest man in the band.  Not a bad idea.  The bouncy tune that opens the proceedings is I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED by Fats Waller and Jo Trent (a song, which, like many famous hummable Waller tunes, repeats one catchy phrase often as a melody line) — recorded most memorably in this period by two fellows named Beiderbecke and Trumbauer, as “The Chicago Loopers.”  Berton is particularly marvelous to watch, keeping time on the tympani with one hand while accenting a choked cymbal, sometimes visiting the head of his huge wooden bass drum — his legs spread to allow him to reach both places, raher like a wooden soldier in those white trousers.  I would have been very happy for the band to explore this tune at this tempo for the rest of the film, but the premise moves into a solo features, which allow us to see these musicians on camera in their prime rather than as faces in the ensemble.  (Many of them look particularly dark around the eyes: whether this was cinematic makeup or lighting of the time or a lack of sleep, I am sure one of my readers knows.)  And the cameraman seems reasonably content with having one-half of an additional musician in the frame, and neatly lopping off the head or hairline of a soloist — but he seems to know what’s going on and to go in for a close-up before everything has concluded. 

Up first after a piano modulation, Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone offers one of his particularly virtuosic solo choruses (in a manner beloved of Frank Trumbauer and Rudy Wiedoeft) showing off his incredible technique instead of hot improvisation.  This kind of playing — here superimposed over TIGER RAG — was a JD specialty (hear OODLES OF NOODLES, for one example).  Violinist Nat Brusiloff, next to Dorsey, is enjoying the chorus immensely.  And JD must have been famous by this time; he is announced by name.

Then, showing that you don’t have to go fast to play Hot, we have a memorable twenty or so seconds of one of jazz’s most forgotten men, trombonist Miff Mole, offering a chorus of HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO? complete with breaks (Berton has switched to wire brushes, as we see).  From this distance, Miff no longer seems as radical, as dashing as, say, Jack Teagarden or Dicky Wells, but his solo is masterful: the variations in tone and the way he gets gracefully but precisely from note to note, vocalizing the melody beautifully — and adding that lovely coda.  It sounds very simple but it’s an example of how much he must have amazed all the musicians, Hot and legit, for a long time.   I call your attention to Miff’s easy command of the horn and especially his glistening upper register, not the usual realm for most Twenties trombonists.

Violinist Nat Brusiloff (famous in radio as a conductor and for his early work with Kate Smith — his grandson is trombonist David Sager) offers more variations on the same theme . . . on what sounds like an intensely scratchy violin, with no apparent bow.  I’m told he is playing a “single-hair” solo, which I assume is one hair taken from his bow, but the physics of the whole thing are beyond me, in a good way.  Tell me where the other end of the single-hair is, please?  And at the very end of the solo, Brusiloff permits himself the slightest glimmer of an impish grin, “Geez, I pulled that one off, didn’t I, now?”  More violin acrobatics will follow. 

Banjoist Lou (Luigi) Calabrese, who might have been noticeable from the start for the way he has stretched his legs out in front of him, then plays an incredibly fast and stunning chorus of IDA, romping in what seems like double double time over ensemble chords, his fingers flashing over the frets more quickly than anyone would expect them to — and not a note smudged or smeared.  Something pretty follows (it would have to):  clarinetist Jimmy Lytell, looking shlyly sideways, gently swaying his body, pensively ambling through the melody of his own A BLUES SERENADE (composed with pianist Frank Signorelli), the reed player to his right curiously impassive through it all.  (Lytell gets lovely backing from the bowed bass seen to his right and from Berton’s tympani.)

What happens next is a highlight.  Pianist-singer-composer (DON’T WORRY ‘BOUT ME) Rube Bloom gets up from the piano for his limber almost-comic turn on DINAH.  He isn’t a splendid singer, but he’s got a rocking rhythmic engine reminiscent of Harry Barris, and he’s clearly having a fine time.  The long shot allows us to notice Berton, shifting around his set with tympani mallets, but then, halfway through, our attention shifts to Berton, who is “tearing it up” in a way that goes beyond the hip cliche — he’s actually tearing strips off of something (a square piece of fabric?) with each tear a rhythmic accent like a tap dancer or a sand dancer.  And the cameraman is sufficiently entranced eventually to move in for a close-up of this hilarious and marvelous rhythmic feat, remembering at the end that Bloom is supposed to be the headliner, even though he has had the spotlight stolen away from him.  (Incidentally, the much more sedate second pianist to the right is Arthur Schutt.) 

But violinist Bruce Yantis (someone I know only from a few late-Twenties sides with Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and Gene Krupa) is ready to follow Berton and Bloom with his violin solo a la  Joe Venuti, his bow disassembled and strapped around his violin so that the hairs play all four strings at once — it looks like fun but it isn’t easy to do well.  Luigi Calabrese has clearly heard Eddie Lang, as he should have. 

Before the ensemble gets itself together (we never find out who the hottest man in the band is or was, although my vote is split between Miff and Vic Berton) trumpeter Leo McConville, usually hidden next to Red Nichols, gets off with a very brief Hot solo (a half-valve flourish at the end?)  on the closing I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED.

This short seems an ideal window into the best of the Hot late Twenties: that decade’s version of the 1938 Randall’s Island footage, but with sound and close-ups.  A ripping yarn!

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