Comments on WBIX shows #260 and #259

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

I just played through WBIX #260 a couple of times and it was better than I thought it might be given how early the recordings were made (1919 to 1923) and that only four of the 12 songs (the two by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, one by the California Ramblers and one by the Georgians) really qualify as jazz. Still, there are some interesting items here, including the opening "Nobody Knows" by the "St. Francis Trio," the sort of hotel-room band (the St. Francis was and is one of the most prestigious hotels in San Francisco) that routinely provided "sweet" dance music in the pre-jazz, pre-swing era. Maybe it's just an artefact of how wretchedly the piano was recorded on this early acoustic side, but I thought I heard a xylophone or marimba doubling the piano line -- and since it was quite common in those days for drummers who wanted to "double" on a melody instrument to take up xylophone because it, like a drum, is played by hitting it with sticks, I'd like to think that if there really is a xylophone or marimba on this record it was played by Art Hickman himself.

I think you gave Hickman a bit of short shrift in your comments. It's generally agreed in histories of the big-band era that it was Hickman, more than any other leader, who set the lineup for what would become the standard big band through the 1920's and 1930's: three, four or five brass (usually one more trumpet than trombone), three to four reeds (saxophones, though sometimes doubling on clarinet) and a rhythm section of piano, banjo or guitar, brass or string bass, and drums. Hickman's 1919 recording of "Rose Room," which he had composed two years earlier, was a major hit and is usually considered the first true big-band record. I was also amused to hear the name of Clyde Doerr as one of Hickman's saxophonists, since the only records I'd heard by him before were his solo sax records for Victor, who were obviously aiming him at the same market that was buying Rudy Wiedoeft's records (also for Victor). I don't think I'd ever heard Doerr on a record with another sax player before!

The California Ramblers' "Tell All the Folks in Kentucky (I'm Coming Home)," to give the full title of the song, is one of the best sides here. I hadn't expected a Ramblers side that pre-dated Red Nichols' and Adrian Rollini's tenures with the band to be this good! I also liked the Georgians' "Learn to Do the Strut," another quite good jazz side, though the Ramblers, the Georgians and the ODJB all sound dated by later jazz standards because they were ensemble bands and their members almost never took full-dress solos -- just a few bars of "break" here and there. Bennie Kreuger's "All By Myself" and ""School House Blues" were good dance sides, though given that this was before the days in which bands used vocalists, it's amazing to hear "All By Myself" not only as an instrumental but sped up so fast that the plaintive mood Berlin superbly created in his lyrics is totally lost. Kreuger doesn't seem to care what the song is actually about!

Ted Lewis's "Everybody Step" (one of the few songs here, along with "All By Myself" and "Say It with Music," I'd actually heard before) and "Home Again Blues" sounded jazzier the second time I heard them than the first. This was before Lewis started hiring ace jazz clarinetists, first Don Murray and then, after his death, Benny Goodman, to "ghost" for him on the hotter passages. Lewis himself was a credible musician in this early-jazz style, though hardly at Murray's or Goodman's level as an improviser, and these are fun sides. The Paul Whiteman "Homesick" and "Say It with Music" are typical examples of his early style, less jazzy than some of the other records he made in the early 1920's (there's nothing here comparable to the thrill of the wah-wah trumpet solo on his 1922 recording of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," Whiteman's first recording of a George Gershwin song) but well arranged by Ferde Grofé (you credited him only as pianist but his arranging style is unmistakable) and played with enviable precision.

The ODJB sides included the familiar "Home Again Blues" from one of the Victor sessions following the band's return from England (when the "suits" at Victor had insisted that the band be bolstered by Bennie Kreuger's sax, which doesn't add much but is buried so low in the mix it doesn't detract much either) and one of the 12-inch sides they recorded for British Columbia in London in 1920. Here and in earlier posts on the Forum, you've named "I've Lost My Heart in Dixieland" as your favorite ODJB side, and while I'd accord that honor to the June 25, 1918 Victor "Bluin' the Blues," I can hear the source of your comment that "I've Lost My Heart in Dixieland" is one record that shows Bix's debt to Nick LaRocca, especially in the portions where LaRocca plays lyrically and surprisingly behind the beat. I just wish you'd used a better transfer of this record instead of one where the surface noise level fluctuates and the overall volume goes down and then up again. But then the ODJB's London recordings seem to be the hardest of their works to come by: I believe Riverside Records reissued them "complete" on LP in the 1950's but I'm not aware of any CD containing them.

I also wanted to make some quick comments on WBIX #259, your feature on pianist, arranger and session band leader Lennie Hayton, since when you posted it I did some discographical comments (including offering the discographical information on the Bing Crosby sides from the Mosaic Records boxed set of Bix, Tram and Jack Teagarden) but didn't do a review. The big disappointment of this show is it didn't feature more of Hayton as solo pianist. He actually did four recording sessions alone, in 1927, 1928, 1932 and 1933, but apparently nothing from these dates was ever actually released -- a real pity, because his solo on the Red Nichols "Feelin' the Pain" is quite good, as is his work on his 1932 duet record with Bing on "Sweet Sue" which you mentioned on a later post but didn't include here. It's not all that clear what role Hayton played in some of these sides or why the small Frank Trumbauer combo with which Bing and Tram recorded "Love Me Tonight" and the awesome jazz side "Some of These Days" (which have been major favorites of mine since I first heard them on my stepfather's copy of the original Brunswick 78) needed Hayton (or Victor Young) as either "director" or "arranger." When "Love Me Tonight" had its first LP reissue on the 1977 Columbia LP "The Bing Crosby Collection, Volume 1," Michael Brooks wrote in his liner notes that Trumbauer's "C-melody sax weaves a discreet sensuality around the record, encasing the whole thing in the sheerest satin lingerie."

The other tracks on the Hayton WBIX can't possibly compete with the two classics from Bing, Tram and Lang, but I liked Hayton's piano solo on "Feelin' No Pain" and also the quite Bixian trumpet solo by either Bob or Bo Ashford on "Halleujah!" Still, I'd like to have heard more of Hayton's own superb piano playing on the show and fewer records on which he was just a bandleader or arranger, and if I had done the show I probably would have added two Bing Crosby sides: the superb Crosby-Hayton duet on "Sweet Sue" (a record a LOT of Forumites have named as a personal favorite) and the most awesome record the two ever did together, the September 27, 1933 "Home on the Range." I remember watching an Andrea Bocelli concert special on PBS in 2011 in which "Home on the Range" was sung by an opera star, baritone Bryn Terfel -- only Bing not only poured far more emotion into the song in 1933 than Terfel did in 2011, he outsang the opera star technically as well! I also found myself wishing Terfel had got to use Hayton's tasteful arrangement for Bing instead of the awful "symphonic" one he got stuck with.

Posted on Aug 27, 2017, 5:22 PM

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