"I do not hear a cornetist who dominates, but a team player who is amazingly ....

by Albert Haim

.... even-handed with his sidemen."

Indeed, Brad! Generous is another way to put it. Red gave all his talented guys plenty of room to display their musicianship.

Nick and you have emphasized that Red was unfairly maligned. Indeed, mostly by the Chicago guys, but also by critics. Take a look at this statement by Panassie:

"It did not take long for him (Bix) to be compared to Red Nichols who was viewed, until then, as the best white cornetist. That comparison was a good joke. One might as well draw a parallel betweeen a versifier of first class and a genial poet. It is sufficient to hear a cornet phrase played by Bix for all Nichols' choruses to disappear. One produced "hot" naturally, the other made desperate efforts to achieve an illusion of "hot." Anyway, Nichols would soon enough copy Bix as much as he could, but without obtaining better results."

An outrageous -and unfair- evaluation of a first-class musician who was a great jazz innovator in the 1920s. {I agree with you, Brad; Red lost it after 1929]

More abuse:

"Richard Sudhalter provides a lot of evidence about the unfair treatment of Red Nichols by critics and musicians. Here are some examples transcribed from Lost Chords.

In the opinion of our group, said Bud Freeman, Nichols was a synthetic player. He was a clever musician and made a lot of records, but he was a very mechanical player.
The choice of words is revealing. Our group defines a demarcation line. Even so otherwise neural an adjective as clever is read here in its
pejorative sense, laden with connotations of trickiness and artifice.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky, kindred soul to the Chicagoans, toured with them under Nicholss leadership in 1929, Nichols loathed us and we returned the compliment was his summation. Mezz Mezzrow, whose opinions were seldom less than categorical, declared, We had always thought Nichols stunk, with or without his corny Dixieland Five Pennies. Eddie Condon, reminded by a friend that Red loved Bix Beiderbecke almost as much as he did, remarked that Nichols thought he played like Bix, but the similarity stopped the moment he opened his case."

Positive and Negative Comments About Red Nichols.
1. Hugues Panassie and Madeleine Gautier in "Guide to Jazz."
Nichols, Red. Trumpet. An imitator of Bix Beiderbecke who, although a rather corny musician, had a period of fame during the late twenties when he headed his band called "the Five Pennies."

2. Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe in "Really the Blues."
"That was a bunch of wild men Red Nichols got together; besides a couple of foreigners from California on trumpet and trombone, there was sax section of Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman and me; Dave Tough on drums, Eddie Condon on banjo, Joe Sullivan on piano and little Max Kaminsky on the cornet. We had always thought Nichols stunk, with or without his corny Dixieland Five Pennies, but the boys had got an overdose of being troubled with the shorts and they figured to clean up some money fast with this good old college try and have a good time."

3. Robert Goffin in "Jazz."
Nichols himself was a great instrumentalist but not a great improviser. This should not be held against him; neither are Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, nor is their glory the least dimmer for it. For a whole decade Red Nichols conducted a work which played an important role in the evolution of jazz. At his side constantly was Miff Mole, an extraordinary trombone whose solos can be heard time and time again without losing interest." [I strongly agree!! Miff was the greatest of 1920s trombone players. His solos were models of inventiveness and economy.]

4. Richard Sudhalter in "Lost Chords.
"He [Red Nichols] was a cornetist, an excellent one, and a strong and positive force in producing and disseminating a body of work whcih can still astonish with its subtlety, ingenuity, harmonic and technical brilliance."

Nat Shilkret about Red. From his autobiography.

[linked image]

Gunther Schuller neglected Red in "Early Jazz" but made up for it in "The Swing Era."

Unfortunately I neglected to mention the various Red Nichols groups in "Early Jazz," a fact of which I was rather pointedly apprised by countless admirers of traditional jazz. By way of some amends, (although the best work of the Five Pennies, Charleston Chasers, Arkansas Travelers et al. lies outside the time period covered in this volume), I have no hesitancy in suggesting that these groups at their best constituted one of the glories of late 1920s' jazz, and that their recordings - some two to three hundred of them - exerted a tremendous influence in their day, much as the Casa Loma Orchestra did a few years later in the orchestral realm, and aroused as much excitement, especially among musicians as the Goodman Trio and Quartet did in 1935 and the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955-6.

The importance of the Red Nichols group lay not so much in their soloistic capabilities as in their ensemble spirit. Their performances on records were very much a shared collective enterprise: chamber music in the truest sense. Although Nichols and trombonist Miff Mole could be quite outstanding as soloists, they did not make that an issue of their performances, as Louis Armstrong, Jabbo Smith and Coleman Hawkins, for example, did. In that sense, Nichols and Mole retained the true spirit of New Orleans collective jazz - at least until the various groups they led ceased to exist, or turned commercial, or converted into big bands (as in the case of Nichols, whose "Five Pennies" had grown to twelve and fifteen by 1929, at one point, with four strings added, even to nineteen). They also exemplified the notion, fast losing ground in the late 1920s, that the ideal jazz could be created only in a small-band context.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Nichols/Mole-led groups is (a) that, despite the free-wheeling spontaneity they espoused in their recordings, they perfected and maintained a level of ensemble-playing unheard of previously, and (b) that they managed to resist, for a couple of years at least, the pressures to commercialize their music through the intrusion of pop tunes and vocals, which were almost always imposed on jazz groups by profit-minded recording directors. Evidently, Nichols and company had an unusually free hand in their choice of repertory, as a result of which they recorded not only trifles like "The Harbor of My Heart" or "A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich and You," but jazz standards like "Davenport Blues," "Farewell Blues," "After You've Gone," "Darktown Strutters' Ball," "That's a Plenty," "Ja-Da," and some of the newer jazz instrumentals like "Imagination," "Delirium," "Feelin' No Pain," "Five Pennies," and Hoagy Carmichael's complex "Washboard Blues." As for the quality of their ensemble (i.e. chamber) playing, it is truly astonishing for its time. And although the worked-out (or arranged) ensembles are mostly quite sophisticated and technically tricky of execution, there is hardly a performance which is less than faultless.

Wonderful, too, is the variety that these groups packed into their performances - variety in many respects: instrumentational, formal, textural, harmonic, even dynamic. And though their recordings represent a specific and well-defined collective style, within that style there is to be found an amazing amount of personal liberty and diversity. This also occurred at the individual level: a player like percussionist Vic Berton, despite his relatively limited set of instruments, seems never to have been at a loss to create such diversity, even while providing a constantly energizing underlying beat.

As noted, the Nichols groups were not bands to which one listened only for their great solo contributions. Indeed, some of these players - Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, for example - were rather limited as soloists, especially in regard to rhythm and swing. Others, like Pee Wee Russell or Leo McConville, frequent guests of the group, were unpredictable and inconsistent, nonetheless occasionally turning out splendid work. The four mainstays, however - Nichols, Mole, pianist Arthur Schutt, and Berton - were not only astonishingly consistent, considering the staggering number of recordings they produced, but they matched each other in style, in skill levels, in attitude, in energy and inventiveness. A lot of that was sheer talent, fortuitously matched by happenstance for a few years in one ensemble; the rest was hard work and a love for what they were doing. This unanimity of style and skill endured both a coherent continuity of solos and a consistency of ensemble, hardly matched in any other small group of the time.

Red Nichols has not been treated kindly in jazz histories. Stigmatized by some as a mere Bix Beiderbecke imitator, and chastised for eventually going the easy-money route (even to the extent of conducting radio commercials for major corporations), his actual contribution to jazz in his heyday has been unjustly minimized and obscured. The profound influence of Beiderbecke on Nichols, is, of course, indisputable; but that is not to deny him the ability to forge his own musical personality. Nor should his amazing technical assurance be held against him. His ringing tone and springy, punchy rhythmic drive, both derived from Beiderbecke but then, individualized, provided the stylistic spark plug for his early bands. His Succinct, uncomplicated solo style, maintained with remarkable consistency, enhanced the majority of his 1926-28 recordings. He may not have had the soul of Armstrong or Beiderbecke; he may have tried to be too "clever" at times (and some of that was just a healthy sense of humor); he may not have plumbed the depths of music the way Berigan could. But he was a dazzling perfectionist in his way and believed intensely in the intrinsic beauty and validity of improvised jazz - "hot music," as they called it then.

Miff Mole was, if anything, an even more extraordinary musician. A pioneer trombonist who, beginning in 1921 and 1922, set standards of playing for years to come - indeed beyond the ability of many to equal or to accomplish - Mole possessed a technical brilliance and flexibility that remained uniquely his for at least a decade. His range was phenomenal, his slide work impeccably clean, his intonation flawless, his tonguing and rhythm lithe. He made everything sound easy, at a time when most trombonists could barely struggle to play some inane tailgate lick in tune and on time. And, again, the image of a robot-like technical wonder may be raised by such a description. And if he too - like his friend Nichols - lacked the depth of a Jack Teagarden, the soul of a Jimmy Harrison, or the breadth and warmth of a Lawrence Brown, he was nevertheless a complete master of his instrument whose work was marked by taste, a remarkable harmonic ear, and a clearly etched, unmistakable musical personality.

Both Schutt and Berton were eclectically gifted musicians with, again, enormous technical skills and sophistication. Other than the solo pianists like Morton, Johnson, Hines and Waller, Schutt was one of the very first band pianists to play extended solos in a full two-fisted romping style which managed to merge ragtime, stride, blues and classical techniques. Berton for his part was a master on all manner of percussion equipment (including the timpani, on which he was fond of playing entire melodies or bass lines). He brought to the Nichols ensembles a fertile imagination and an indefatigable rhythmic energy. There can also be little doubt that Berton's flashy talent allowed for a greater integration of "the drums" into ensemble jazz than had theretofore been possible.

One other musician must be singled out, whose contribution to many Nichols-Mole sessions has never been fully appreciated: Fud Livingston. He not only composed some of the most advanced numbers in the groups' repertoires (like "Humpty Dumpty," "Imagination," "Feelin' No Pain"), but was an astonishingly gifted arranger, an ideal creative partner to Nichols in both extending the ensembles' musical horizons and preserving their chamber-music integrity.

The Nichols and Mole groups, in all their various guises, personnels and pseudonyms, eventually succumbed to the commercial pressures of the marketplace. But for a few glorious years, they produced a happy, unwaveringly positive, often witty and humor-edged music that, as a coherent unified body of work comprising hundreds of performances, was undoubtedly unique in its time. They strove for and achieved a new kind of ensemble sophistication, developed out of a collective instinct rather than a single composer's imagination. In that respect they were conservatives, harking back to the rarified beauty of a pure New Orleans ensemble tradition. But in the most important way they were modern men of (or ahead of) their time: although they probably did not think of themselves as "artists," they had created a music that was clearly intended by them not for dancing and casual background entertaining, but for listening.

Let me finish by directing you to the wonderful version of Ida by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies: a jazz ballad in the tradition of Bix and Tram's "Singin' the Blues."


And let's not forget Jack Hylton's tribute to Red in his recording of "Grieving for You."



Posted on Sep 1, 2017, 3:19 PM

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