29 August 2016

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: The Gennett Recordings

Some of the most important recordings in the history of our music were made in 1923. I am referring to the 14 tunes King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band recorded in April and October that year for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana.

You can enjoy all of the tunes on YouTube and I hope you will have great pleasure discovering them - or exploring them again - for yourselves. You could start by clicking here.

The Gennett Company had been set up only six years earlier and was still using fairly primitive pre-electric recording methods.

The tunes were:
Alligator Hop
Canal Street Blues
Dippermouth Blues (King Oliver was nick-named 'Dippermouth' because he used to keep on the bandstand a bucket of water with a dipper in it)
Chimes Blues
Just Gone
Snake Rag
Sugarfoot Stomp
Working Man Blues
Zulu's Ball
(all the above were composed or co-written by Oliver himself)
AND
Froggie More
I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind
Krooked Blues
Mandy Lee Blues
Weatherbird Rag.

We have only to read that list to appreciate what a contribution Oliver made to the history and repertoire of traditional jazz. (It is often forgotten that he also wrote Doctor Jazz. I have sometimes heard band-leaders, announcing this tune, wrongly say that it was composed by Jelly Roll Morton. We must also remember that it was Oliver who later composed those classics Snag It and West End Blues.)

But these Gennett recordings are also important because they are regarded as the first to document well an authentic black traditional New Orleans jazz band. (In fact, Kid Ory's band had made half a dozen recordings just  a few months earlier - for the Nordskog company.)

So who was Oliver?

Cornet player Joe Nathan 'King' Oliver was born on 11 May 1885. Unfortunately, he lost the sight of one eye in his childhood. But by 1908 he was playing in several bands in New Orleans, including the famous marching bands. He worked with Kid Ory and the two of them moved to Chicago in 1918. They joined Bill Johnson's Original Creole Jazz Band. Bill Johnson at the time was 47 years old. He played bass and banjo and was an elder statesman and entrepreneur in the music business. He had toured and made New Orleans jazz known outside the South. His band currently played at The Dreamland Ballroom in West Van Buren Street, close to the centre of the City of Chicago. (The building has long since disappeared.)

We have to remember that, in those days, the movies and radio were in their infancy; television and computers were things of the future. Most people went out for entertainment. So this was a boom time for dancing, for dance bands and for jazz bands. In Chicago there were plenty of cafés, bars, ballrooms and clubs where you could hear such bands.

As well as The Dreamland Ballroom, think of The Royal Gardens BallroomThe De Luxe CaféThe Sunset Café, Kelly's Stables, The Nest (later The Apex Club - of 'Apex Blues' fame), The Plantation and Friar's Inn. The Royal Gardens Ballroom (which regularly accommodated 1000 people) burned down and was replaced by The Lincoln Gardens; and that is where Oliver's Creole Jazz Band had its residency.
This was some way south from The Dreamland Ballroom - at 459 East 31st Street. As far as I can tell, the Lincoln Gardens Ballroom was bulldozed years ago and - with the help of Mr. Google - I find a glass office block on the site today. 
It seems that Bill Johnson was quite happy to hand on his own band to the younger man - King Oliver - to develop in his own way and then to evolve it into King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

Who played in Oliver's Creole Jazz Band?

Everyone thinks first of Louis Armstrong, because he went on to become a big star in the entertainment world and in the movies. He was to develop a phenomenal technique, a great tone, and virtuoso skill in improvising solo choruses. But in 1923, he was a junior member of Oliver's band - and we should not forget that. However, there's a clear and very enjoyable hint of future glories in the famous solo that Armstrong takes in Chimes Blues. Oliver had invited him to move to Chicago from New Orleans and this was the launching pad for Armstrong's stellar career. When you think of the energy and stamina needed for the band's performances (playing for dances long into the night), it is easy to understand why Oliver invited Armstrong to join and help him: it must have been a huge strain on Oliver's lip to sustain such long, hard gigs, with few breaks from playing.

But more important than Armstrong at the time, in my opinion, was the clarinet player Johnny Dodds (1892 - 1940). He had also worked with Kid Ory in New Orleans from 1912. Dodds made a huge contribution to the ensemble style and sound of Oliver's band: his fluency and his soulful, bluesy playing and tone have been an inspiration to generations of clarinet players. In a tune such as Canal Street Blues, his decorative runs around the melody and his memorable solo are outstanding. But listen for him even on lesser-known numbers such as Just Gone and Mandy Lee Blues and you will be impressed. I suppose it was Johnny's good fortune that the clarinet could be heard so clearly, despite the primitive recording process of the time.

Then there was Bill Johnson himself (1872 - 1972), the bass player and former leader who had achieved much even before King Oliver (at Johnson's invitation) became established in Chicago. It is said that he had to switch to banjo in the Gennett studio because the bass would record badly and spoil the sound.

Of enormous importance (and much under-rated by jazz history in my opinion) was the band's pianist Lil Hardin. She had been born in Memphis on 3 Feb 1898 and had worked for some time on the Chicago music scene: she had studied music at Fisk University, obtaining a diploma there, and had played with various bands, including one of her own, even before her partnership with Oliver.
Lil Hardin's Band playing at The Dreamland Ballroom
I think hers must have been one of the principal 'brains' shaping the band's music-making. Lil was also the co-composer (with Oliver) of Alligator HopJust Gone and Working Man Blues. My guess is that she had a big say in the arrangements of the band's tunes and possibly even in organizing the many two-bar breaks that occur in several of them and which listeners have often thought to be magically spontaneous (such as the famous breaks involving Joe and Louis together in Snake Rag). Lil's playing throughout these recordings is a model for all later pianists in New Orleans-style bands - solidly providing the chords on the beat and yet capable of a pretty solo chorus if required, as in I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind. And how moving it is to hear those piano chimes of hers coming to us across more than nine decades in Chimes Blues!

Within the next three years, after marrying Louis Armstrong, Lil composed (originally for Louis' Hot Five) such core tunes in our repertoire as Knee Drops, I'm Not Rough, Lonesome Blues, Skid-Dat-De-Dat, Two Deuces, Hotter Than That, Jazz Lips, Droppin' Shucks and Struttin' With Some Barbecue. Her other compositions include Perdido Street Blues, Papa DipTears, and Gatemouth. What an achievement!

Lil died on 27 August 1971.

The trombonist in Oliver's band was Honoré Dutrey (1894 - 1935). He had played in bands in New Orleans. He joined the Navy in 1917 and had an accident that damaged his lungs and eventually caused his premature death. Dutrey strikes me as just right for this band - keeping things simple but always accurate. A good clear illustration of his style is to be heard on Working Man Blues.

Warren 'Baby' Dodds, 24-years-old at the time of the recordings, is one of the all-time best drummers. He too had started in New Orleans and had played with Ory there, before working on the riverboats. He was of course the younger brother of Johnny Dodds. In these Gennett recordings, you do not hear the full range of his kit but his presence is strongly felt throughout. Enjoy his breaks on the wood blocks in Weather Bird Rag.

Other occasional band members (only on the October Gennett recordings) were Johnny St. Cyr (banjo) and the less-known Paul Anderson 'Stump' Evans (C melody sax).

The recordings were made without the benefit of electricity or microphones. The sound had to be picked up through a large megaphone-funnel. Certain musical instruments had to be omitted or restricted in use because their effect would spoil or unbalance the recording (Baby Dodds could use only part of his drum kit, and Johnson could not use his string bass). The players had to be positioned at various distances from the funnel, to achieve some kind of balance. This photo of a Gennett recording studio (alas, not of King Oliver's Band) gives some idea of the conditions. Note the funnel picking up the sounds.

Clearly, what we hear on the records is not exactly how the band normally sounded at Lincoln Gardens. But the wonderful polyphony and energy are captured really well.

The tunes are all multi-part, with tricky head arrangements, including introductions and codas. There's none of the simple repetition of one 32-bar theme, such as we are offered these days in most performances by traditional jazz bands. 

Oliver was proud and professional in his attitude to work and expected the  highest standards from his musicians. He was strongly self-disciplined. He drove his band hard. Baby Dodds in an interview years later  stated how strenuously all the band members worked at gigs: they would really exhaust themselves. Sure enough, all members of the band sound constantly so busy. Listen again to Dippermouth Blues and judge for yourself.

Oliver's personal interest in tone (he produced a throaty vocal sound on his cornet) and the use of mutes have had a massive influence on brass players ever since. You can sample his tone and his mutes throughout but of course they are specially conspicuous in Dippermouth Blues.

On top of all this, also in 1923, calling his band simply King Oliver's Jazz Band (drawn from a pool of players that included Barney Birgard, Paul Barbarin, Kid Ory, Luis Russell and others as well as those of the Creole Jazz Band), Oliver also recorded in Chicago for the Okeh, Paramount and Columbia labels a total of 23 numbers, such as Riverside Blues, Mabel's DreamSouthern Stomps, Tears, Buddy's Habit, Sweet Lovin' Man, High Society, Sobbin' Blues, and Camp Meeting Blues  - and others.

But Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of 1923 was short-lived. It disintegrated the following year. Oliver went on to play in various combinations and bands (sometimes run by himself). His struggles and decline have been well documented. And it is sad to think he died in poverty on 10 April 1938.

Listening to all these Gennett recordings again has made me realise what an example to us all King Oliver's band of 1923 was. That's the way to do it. Many others have set out to emulate  his music. But there's nothing quite like the originals.

25 August 2016

Picture Puzzle: The Answers

Below are the answers to the recent photo puzzle. Congratulations to the many readers who sent in correct answers to all five questions, and to others who got most of them right. Well done especially to Marinus-Jan van Langevelde in Holland who was the first to get all five.

You were invited to name these four cyclists.

No 1.

Answer: Erika Lewis

No. 2.
Answer: Aurora Nealand

No. 3.
Answer: Barnabus Jones.

No. 4.
Answer: Marla Dixon.

Q. 5: Name of the dog?

Answer: Tupelo

Anders Winnberg from Sweden sent me an additional news item:
Dear Ivan,
The cyclists are in order: Erika Lewis, Aurora Nealand, Barnabus Jones, Marla Dixon. The dog of course is Tupelo - Tuba Skinny's pet!
I take this opportunity to inform you that from Friday to Sunday next weekend The Gothenburg Classic Jazz Festival 2016 will happen. As usual I will join it on Friday together with my old buddy Jan-Erik L. who lives in Gothenburg. Check out this video from the 2014 festival: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCAovrkn1pk

Unfortunately I cannot find a home page of this year's festival in English. But here is the Swedish version: http://www.jazzfest.se/ and here is the English version from the home page of the city of Gothenburg: http://www.goteborg.com/en/classic-jazz-festival/

20 August 2016

Judging the Band

How do you judge the quality of the bands you watch and listen to?

All assessments are subjective. Different people are impressed by different qualities. I remember a lady who used to judge bands almost entirely on the nattiness of their waistcoats! And correspondent Barrie Marshall told me he once deputised in a band who wore stripey blazers and boaters; a lady told him during the break that you could tell they were a 'proper' jazz band from the way they were dressed. 

However, I thought it might be interesting - and a bit of fun - to produce a check-list with a view to awarding marks for various aspects of a performance.

What do you think of it? You may care to use this check-list in assessing some of the performances you attend. Keep the results to yourself, however. We don't want to offend anybody.

QUALITY
OF THE MUSIC
(60 marks)
PROFESSIONALISM:
AND RAPPORT
WITH AUDIENCE
(20 marks)
GOOD OVERALL
VALUE?
(20 marks)
TOTAL

NAME
OF THE
BAND
Skill
of the
musicians
(20 max.)
Teamwork


(20 max.)
Interpretation
and
Arrangements
(20 max.)
Appearance and
On-Stage
Behaviour
(Max. 10)
Presentation
and
Communication
(Max. 10)
The performance
as a whole
(Max. 20)
Maximum possible

100
























I tried applying it as honestly and ruthlessly as I could to ten bands I know well. I have put them in the eventual order of merit. I am not naming the bands as that would be invidious.

QUALITY
OF THE MUSIC
(60 marks)
PROFESSIONALISM;
AND RAPPORT
WITH AUDIENCE
(20 marks)
GOOD VALUE?
(20 marks)
TOTAL

NAME
OF THE
BAND
Skill
of the
musicians
(20)
Teamwork


(20)
Interpretation
and
Arrangements
(20)
Appearance and
On-Stage
Behaviour
(10)
Presentation
and
Communication
(10)
The performance
as a whole
(20)
Maximum possible

100
Band 1
17
16
16
7
7
15
78
Band 2
17
14
14
8
6
15
74
Band 3
17
14
13
8
7
15
74
Band 4
16
14
14
6
6
15
71
Band 5
15
14
15
6
7
14
71
Band 6
15
14
14
6
7
14
70
Band 7
13
12
12
7
5
13
62
Band 8
11
11
12
7
6
12
59
Band 9
10
9
9
8
7
11
54
Band 10
7
7
8
8
7
13
50
A friend noted an interesting correlation: a band that is weak in one area tends also to be weak in others.

Although any of us can carry out such 'assessments', just for our own amusement, I think it would be a good idea for bands to conduct similar assessments of their own performances. It would indicate some of the areas they could work on in order to improve.

By the way, do you think there is any band capable of scoring the Maximum 100 points? I would nominate The Shotgun Jazz Band, based in New Orleans.
=============
Postscript:

A reader has immediately nominated The Bratislava Hot Serenaders.

17 August 2016

'Viper Mad'


Trying out 'Viper Mad' at Foxton Locks.
My friends and I added Viper Mad (sometimes called Pleasure Mad) to the tunes we regularly play. I believe it was written by Sidney Bechet and Rousseau Simmons as long ago as 1924.

It is great fun to play and improvise upon, especially if taken at a pretty fast speed.

It has a 12-bar introduction, followed by a 32-bar chorus (16 + 16 pattern, rather than with a middle eight). Here's our version.
In my view, the A7ths followed by the D minor in the Chorus are what give the tune its special flavour.

The original words are politically incorrect and are usually changed when sung these days. But they are full of youthful exuberance (I'm twenty-one, I've just begun, I'm far from doneand I like that aspect. It's a happy song that is both fun and effective to play.

If you wish to listen to this tune on YouTube, it is easy enough to find it played by Sidney Bechet himself. But if you would like an easy-paced more recent version (by The California Feetwarmers - with Chloe Feoranzo no less on clarinet) CLICK HERE.