Extended comments on WBIX #262

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

The WBIX #262, containing 15 songs recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra (or Henderson-led small groups derived from it) that were also recorded by Bix Beiderbecke with various combinations (the Wolverines, Sioux City Six, Frank Trumbauer’s studio groups, Bix and His Gang, Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra and Adrian Rollini’s Club New Yorker band), was one of the most fascinating you’ve ever done. I was sufficiently interested in the “battle of the bands” aspect that I did my own CD containing 13 of the songs (all but “Copenhagen,” since I’d paired the Bix and Henderson recordings on my previous “Bix and Louis: The Ultimate Battle” CD, and “Singin’ the Blues”) on which I mixed the Bix and Henderson versions of each song. Some comparisons and evaluations follow:

“Somebody Stole My Gal”: Really awful! Fletcher Henderson made a few good records before Louis Armstrong joined his band in 1924 (like the small-group versions of “West Indies Blues” and “Do Doodle Oom” and the lovely Sidney Bechet-Tim Brymn composition “Ghost of the Blues,” which as far as I know Bechet never recorded himself), but this isn’t one of them. All those corny wah-wah effects and barnyard noises, reminiscent of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band at its tasteless worst, really let down the side. Bix’s version, made four years later with the second edition of Bix and His Gang and benefiting from the beautiful, luminous Okeh electrical sound quality, is worlds better.

“Copenhagen”: What a difference Louis made to the Henderson band! Not only does he kick off the proceedings with an explosive, impassioned solo, he gets the rest of the band to play with far more power, snap and drive. When I did the “Bix and Louis” comparison CD this was one of the tracks on which I rated Louis’ version superior to Bix’s, and I stand by that. It was Louis Armstrong who turned the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from a novelty dance group into a true jazz band.

“Carolina Stomp” a.k.a. “Flock O’Blues”: Made when Armstrong was just about to leave the Henderson band and return to Chicago, this is taken a bit faster than the Bix version with the Sioux City Six studio band. Armstrong is worked more effectively into the ensemble than he was in “Copenhagen,” and it’s clear from the overall sound of the record that the band has learned the lessons Louis brought them from the New Orleans wellspring.

“Clarinet Marmalade”: Henderson’s first of two recordings of this number, made December 6, 1926 (two months before the Bix-Tram version) but almost certainly based on the same Bill Challis arrangement, which would account for the brief strain, later incorporated by Bix and Challis into “In a Mist,” heard in both. (Henderson and Jean Goldkette swapped quite a few arrangements, which is how Don Redman’s “Stampede” ended up in the Goldkette book.) Best aspects of this record are Coleman Hawkins’ sax solo and the Bixian trumpet (my guess is Joe Smith).

“Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?”: Made two years before the Bix-Tram version and considerably faster, less lyrical and more raucous. Both the trumpeter (Ladnier?) and Hawkins sound caught up by the too-fast tempo, and Evelyn Thompson is not exactly one of the great female jazz voices of the 1920’s. Despite Tram’s foghorn vocal and the continued uncertainty over how much of the cornet soloing is Bix’s (I vote for Bix doing the muted stuff and Andy Secrest playing the open horn), his version far surpasses this one.

“I’m Coming, Virginia”: The Bix-Tram version is one of the acknowledged Bix masterpieces, with Challis’s lovely arrangement showcasing the work of Bix, Tram and Eddie Lang. Henderson’s, recorded just two days earlier (obviously this was a then-current song and the publisher and their song pluggers were trying to get as many records out on it as possible), comes closer to the Paul Whiteman version with Bing Crosby — faster, less lyrical, with a trumpet solo at the beginning that pretty much just states the melody and another trumpeter taking the lead on the next ensemble chorus. It doesn’t help that Henderson was still using a tuba in his rhythm section at a time when progressive bandleaders like Goldkette, Whiteman and Duke Ellington had already shifted to string bass. The Henderson “I’m Coming, Virginia” is a perfectly respectable 1927 jazz record but one that pales next to the Bix-Tram masterpiece.

“Fidgety Feet”: A tune originated by the ODJB that the Wolverines and Henderson both covered, though it’s unlikely Henderson learned it from the Wolverines’ version. Two of Henderson’s trumpeters play contrasting solos (my guess is it’s Joe Smith on the first and Ladnier on the second), and in between there’s a solo trombone (probably Jimmy Harrison) and some nice ensemble work.

“Sensation” (some versions call it “Sensation Rag” but the ODJB’s original record was just “Sensation”): Yet another Wolverines record on which Bix was largely channeling the ODJB (the group from which Bix first learned jazz, remember?) and a Henderson cover that was probably also drawn direct from the ODJB’s version rather than Bix’s. Once again the highlights are the trumpet solos (probably Joe Smith and Tommy Ladnier in that order again; I’m assuming Smith played the more lyrical, “Bixian” trumpet and Ladnier and his successors, Rex Stewart and Bobby Stark, played the faster, louder, more raucous ones) and a rare and awfully ragtimey solo by Henderson on piano.

“Goose Pimples”: One of the most controversial records in Bixiana largely due to Ralph Berton’s now pretty well debunked claim that Bix played deliberately corny high-register “Clarleston” licks since he’d earlier entered early in what was supposed to be Frank Signorelli’s piano solo and he thought the take would never be released. Nonetheless, it’s one of the greatest sides from the Bix and His Gang dates, with Bix showing his combination of laid-back relaxation and power. The Henderson version suffers from the fact that he was recording it under the “Dixie Stompers” pseudonym for the cheap Diva label, which was still using the outdated acoustic process because they didn’t want to pay Western Electric the licensing fee to record electrically. It also suffers from a too-fast tempo — I suspect the people at Diva wanted it that fast so it would sound more raucous and “jazzy” — and not even nice solos by Harrison and Hawkins can redeem this one. (There’s also more of Henderson’s own solo work: he was a competent ensemble pianist but his solos sound like someone spliced traditional ragtime into the middle of otherwise state-of-the-art 1920’s jazz records.)

“Baltimore”: Adrian Rollini’s Club New Yorker band was one of the great might-have-beens of jazz history. It only lasted three weeks and made just one record date (and that under Trumbauer’s name), but it was one of the greatest bands Bix ever played with and the three sides it recorded — the far-out originals “Humpty Dumpty” and “Krazy Kat” and this song, which showed the band was just as good at conventional dance material — are among Bix’s best. Bix and Eddie Lang (who sounds bluesier than usual, as if all those nights hanging around and jamming with Lonnie Johnson were teaching him something) play especially beautiful solos. Once again Henderson’s version suffers from the cheap Diva acoustic recording, though at least Coleman Hawkins’ tenor effectively cuts through the sonic murk and we get some more Bixisms from Joe Smith. If the Henderson version had been electrically recorded the comparison would be considerably closer.

“Sorry”: Once again, recorded under the pseudonym “Fletcher Henderson’s Collegians” and another cheap acoustic recording, with Andy Razaf’s vocal billed under four different pseudonyms depending on which imprint (Banner or Oriole) the record was released on. Still, it’s nice at long last to hear the words to this song, even though as a singer Razaf was a great lyric writer. At least it’s pretty much at the same tempo as the Bix and His Gang version, and like “Baltimore” it shows the Henderson band starting to lose the Whitemanesque affectations of its earlier arrangers in favor of the stripped-down call-and-response Henderson arrangements that would set the basic rules for swing.

“Raisin’ the Roof”: The fact that the Bix-Tram and Henderson versions were recorded within a month of each other would ordinarily indicate that this was a new song that was being heavily plugged at the time. In fact it was a two-year-old piece of material originally written by Jimmy McHugh for a 1927 Cotton Club revue as “Doin’ the Frog” and recorded under that title by Duke Ellington on December 29, 1927, over a year before either of these versions. Once again Fletcher Henderson was starting to use more straightforward arrangements, and his version this time swings at least as hard as the Bix-Tram one, both in the ensembles and the solos (particularly Hawkins’). Incidentally, the Henderson record was used in the soundtrack of the 2002 film “Chicago” and was the only piece of music actually recorded in the 1920’s that was heard in that 1920’s-set film.

“My Pretty Girl”: Made during a time when Fletcher Henderson was still recovering from the loss of his principal arranger, Don Redman, and was keeping his band going by reworking older jazz recordings as well as trading charts with other bands (“We used to play numbers that sounded just like the [white] Casa Loma band at the time, because we had gangs of their arrangements,” Coleman Hawkins recalled), the Henderson version is an infectious performance that holds its own with the Goldkette version, and once again it’s nice to hear the words even though Lois Deppe was a power singer who actually sounded better on acoustic recordings than he did on electricals. But at least by 1931 Henderson had finally made the switch from tuba to string bass in his rhythm section (ironically Goldkette’s record, made four years earlier, also benefited from the greater flexibility and propulsive power of the string bass), and this helps his record swing harder than many of his previous performances.

“Tiger Rag”: Once again, an ODJB original that both Bix’s Wolverines and Henderson’s band probably learned from the ODJB recording. Bix’s remains one of his most remarkable recordings, one that wasn’t released until 1936 largely because (I suspect) “Tiger Rag” was originally written as a feature for trombone and the Wolverines weren’t using a trombonist at the time. Both the Wolverines’ and Henderson’s versions are good, infectious performances of a piece that had long since become a jazz standard.

“Singin’ the Blues”: Albert rightly calls this the quintessential Bix performance in his commentary, and regardless of the recent controversy on the Forum over whether the Bix-Tram “Singin’ the Blues” should be considered the first jazz ballad recording, or even a ballad at all, in “Jazz Masters of the 1920’s” Richrd Hadlock argues that “‘Singin’ the Blues’ may not seem very slow by today’s ballad standards, but in 1927 it was about as slow as anyone dared without to be without strings and ‘sweet’ arrangements.” Apropos of the idea of the Henderson “Singin’ the Blues” recording as the first “repertory” jazz performance, it’s interesting to note that many of the songs here were already established parts of the jazz repertory before either Bix or Henderson went near them. At least four songs here — “Fidgety Feet,” “Sensation,” “Clarinet Marmalade” and “Tiger Rag” — were first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Indeed, Richard Hadlock argues that Bix’s records with the Gang were key elements in establishing what became the standard repertory for traditional jazz groups: “While other jazzmen of consequence in the 1920’s were moving away from the Dixieland idea, Bix, whose musical instincts placed him musically ahead of almost all of his contemporaries, chose to play in that outmoded idiom for his own record dates. By so doing, however, he established the basic principles for playing Dixieland in a new way that have endured to this day. Drawing upon standard ODJB-NORK repertory and popular songs of the day, adding sophisticated harmonies and the 4/4 rhythm of swing, featuring a relaxed, even whimsical cornet lead, and highlighting each member of the ensemble in solo passages, these Beiderbecke recordings served as prototypes for hundreds of Dixieland bands — some good and some not — to follow in the next 30 years.”

In short, by the time all these records were made a standard “jazz repertory” had already begun to emerge, rooted in the recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver’s Creole Band and Jelly Roll Morton. It might be more appropriate to call Henderson’s 1931 recordings of “Singin’ the Blues” the first jazz “tribute record,” though even here it’s entirely possible what they were playing from was Bill Challis’s old chart, probably written for the full Goldkette band and cut down for the Bix-Tram recording, with either Challis or Henderson himself harmonizing Tram’s original solo for a full sax section. (This idea would later be pursued in the 1970’s by groups like Supersax and Dave Pell’s Prez Conference, which harmonized recorded solos by Charlie Parker and Lester Young, respectively, for full sax sections.)

No doubt in my mind the April 10, 1931 recording is the finer of the two Henderson “Singin’ the Blues” sides: it’s taken at the original tempo of the Bix-Tram version (on the April 29 record Henderson sped it up noticeably) and Rex Stewart, reproducing the original Bix solo but with a fatter tone, thicker vibrato and more “Black” sound, seems to get into the spirit more than he did 19 days later. Ironically, Henderson’s band made a third record called “Singin’ the Blues” on October 15, 1931, but it was an entirely different song!

One quibble: for some reason Albert Haim pronounced Russell Procope’s name “Pro-cope-ee.” After Fletcher Henderson’s band broke up Procope joined Duke Ellington and, like so many of Duke’s sidemen, stayed there for decades. Duke left many live recordings in which he introduced Procope, and always pronounced his name “Pro-cope.” So I’m going with Duke on that one.

Posted on Oct 30, 2017, 10:44 PM

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