23 September 2016

'Oh Baby' Confusion

You may not know what to expect when the leader announces that the band is going to play Oh Baby. This is because two tunes with that title appeared in the 1920s and they are both good numbers, well worth their place in the repertoire.

The first Oh Baby was composed in 1924 by Walter Donaldson, with Buddy G. Da Sylva providing the lyrics.
The second Oh Baby was written for the 1928 Broadway Musical 'Rain or Shine'. The principal composer of both the words and the music seems to have been Owen Murphy, though Jack Yellen and Milton Ager were also often credited (they were responsible for the music of the entire show and also seem to have run the company that published it).
Donaldson's Oh Baby has to be played briskly. It has a sprightly Verse of 16 bars which should not be omitted: it rattles along and lends itself to some good rhythmic effects. The Chorus that follows comprises 32 bars in an AABA structure. This Chorus has two distinctive features. First, all four of the eights begin with a chord sequence of I : VII7. I can think of no other tune in which all four eights do this. The second distinguishing feature is the use of bars in which the first melody 'note' is a silent crotchet; and this is followed by three sounded crotchets. This first-note-rest happens in no fewer than 14 of the 32 bars, giving syncopated and staccato effects. All this makes it an interesting instrumental number, very good to play. The vocal (with the words matching those rest-crotchet-crotchet-crotchet patterns) begins: Oh Baby! Oh Baby! Don't say 'No'. Say 'Maybe'.That's just as good as 'yes' to me...

The other Oh Baby (Owen Murphy's) quite probably never had a Verse. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.) But it catches the attention as it has a good bright melody and also lyrics that are worth singing: It's a funny little thing but I never knew I could ever feel the way I do.. . Although this tune is merry enough, I think it is best played slightly more slowly than Donaldson's Oh Baby, to give time for its lilting melody to be appreciated and also for the vocalist to fit in comfortably the many words of the lyrics. This Owen Murphy 32-bar tune, like Donaldson's, is structured AABA; and the Middle Eight (the B part) is harmonically fairly distinctive. The A sections use the I : II7 : V7 : I chord sequence, which is reassuringly familiar.

You can hear a recording of Murphy's  Oh Baby in a fine Ted Lewis version by clicking here, and Donaldson's Oh Baby, played by Bix Beiderbecke and The Wolverines, by clicking here.

I have made aide-mémoires (see below) of both songs for my mini-Filofax collection. Donaldson's tune is probably best in Eb and Owen Murphy's in F but I have written them out in the keys suited to my Bb trumpet. These are useful enough for me but I can't guarantee their accuracy.

By the way, making matters even more confusing, there have been yet more tunes composed since the 1920s with the title Oh Baby!

20 September 2016

'Buddy's Habit(s)'

'Buddy's Habits' (aka 'Buddy's Habit') was written in 1923, by Arnett Nelson and Charley Straight. Thanks to the generosity of the videomaker codenamed RagtimeDorianHenry, you can see the sheet music and hear the piece played on the piano by clicking here. And you can hear the original recording by Charley Straight's own Orchestra by clicking here.

The joint composer, Arnett 'King Mutt' Nelson, was a clarinet and saxophone player. He was born in Gulfport on 8th March, 1890 and died on 14th March, 1959. His first job was with the band of John Collins, Lee Collins' father, around 1907. Arnett moved to Chicago in 1914 and is not known to have returned. He was a member of Jimmy Wade's band in Chicago and New York, 1922-27, and was in pickup bands with Punch Miller in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He later worked with Chicago blues bands.

The other joint-composer, Charley Straight, was born in Chicago, Illinois in January 1891. He apparently had Bix Beiderbecke in his band for four months in 1925, but fired him! Charley Straight started his musical career in the early 1910s as a solo piano player and by circa 1917 led his first band. Charley's important contribution to the piano roll industry should also be noted. His early career was on the vaudeville circuit; during that period, from 1912 to 1914, while they worked in England, he issued with his partner Gene Greene several double-faced records. Shortly thereafter he became Musical Director of the Imperial Piano Roll Company (later to become QRS, the most prolific piano roll manufacturer in the world), where he made numerous rolls, collaborating with Roy Bargy on quite a few. According to The Music Trade Review, he left Imperial shortly before January 1922 and his piano roll activities appear to have ceased around 1926. Although his was basically a hotel dance band, Straight appreciated jazz and some of his recordings for Paramount are considered to be among the best jazz records made by a white band in the early 1920's. Straight didn't record after August 1928 but remained active as a bandleader until his death on September 2, 1940 when he was hit by a speeding car in Chicago.

The recording of 'Buddy's Habits' by Charley Straight's Orchestra was made in June 1923 and then - as 'Buddy's Habit' - it was recorded by King Oliver's Jazz Band (25 Oct 1923). Other early recordings were by The Midway Dance Orchestra (5 Dec 1923), The Bucktown Five [with Muggsy Spanier] (25 Feb 1925), Red Nichols & His Five Pennies (20 Dec 1926).

The 'Buddy' of the title was not Buddy Bolden. It was a tuba-player, Louis 'Buddy' Gross, whose habit was retiring to the toilet at the end of each set because of the vast quantity of beer he had consumed. Another 'habit' was that he got so drunk that he fell offstage backwards, with his tuba. It seems he was a member of Charley Straight's Orchestra.

When clarinetist Arnett Nelson (the other co-composer) played in Jimmy Wade's Orchestra at the Moulin Rouge Café (Wabash Ave, Chicago), the tuba/bass sax player was also Louis 'Buddy' Gross. He recorded with Wade's Moulin Rouge Orchestra in Dec 1923 and Feb 1924.

This leaves me guessing that Arnett Nelson and Louis 'Buddy' Gross played in both Jimmy Wade's Orchestra AND Charley Straight's Orchestra in 1923. This is surely probable. Clarification on this point would be welcome, if anyone knows.

There is also a party-piece for banjo players (you can find it on YouTube) called 'Take Your Pick', with the composer credited as Pete Mandell, the banjoist with the Savoy Orpheans in London, England. This was copyrighted in 1925. 'Take Your Pick' was recorded by the Savoy Havana Band, with Pete Mandell on banjo. 'Take Your Pick' - apparently considered something of a tour-de-force in the banjo-playing fraternity - seems to be a plagiarised 'Buddy's Habits'. If there was plagiarism, the dates suggest it was from west to east.

'Buddy's Habits', which has three themes, is interesting, 'catchy' and not too challenging to play, so it is hardly surprising it quickly went the rounds and is still very popular among the bands of today.

17 September 2016

Drumming - Don't Get Me Started!

I am in a bad mood today. Sorry, but if you read on, you will have to put up with an old crabstick getting something off his chest.

In 2016 I have heard so much traditional jazz being messed up by bad drumming that I can stay quiet no longer.

The rôle of the drums - or any kind of percussion - in traditional jazz is to inspire the rest of the band by providing a pulse that stirs and stimulates the musicians and audience alike.

Drummers need highly-developed skills, sensitivity and an understanding of the structure of the music. It has been said for many decades that good drumming should be 'felt and not heard'. I think that is exactly the effect percussionists should strive for in every performance.

Some of the finest drumming occurs when it provides a sparing, dainty colouring (for example, behind a clarinet solo). Therefore, drummers should treat their kits delicately, rather than as items to be thrashed.

They must also pick up immediately and correctly the tempo at which the Leader 'beats in' the tune; and they should learn to maintain it like clockwork.

Unfortunately these things do not always happen.

A drummer has power. He can use that power to spoil a performance in a number of ways. One of them is failing to maintain the tempo correctly. I have attended performances where the drummer 'dragged' the tempo, while the front line fought to keep the tune moving. This internal battle was horrible to witness and ruined any chance of making good music.

I saw a leader giving a signal for a quiet chorus and the whole band responded well - apart from the drummer, who continued thrashing everything in sight!

Several of the drummers I have watched in these last few months have been insensitive to what the melody instruments were doing. A typical example was the drummer who was constantly using heavy offbeat cymbal crashes, even when the clarinet was trying to play a delicate, pretty solo chorus.

Quite often I have heard drummers failing to stop during a clarinet's two-bar 'break', thereby horribly spoiling the intended effect.

I could give more examples. But I think I have made my point.

I have occasionally listened to a six-piece or seven-piece band and thought they would actually sound better if they got rid of the drummer, leaving the 'rhythm' to the banjo or guitar and the bass or sousaphone.

The trouble is that anyone can buy a drum kit and call himself a musician. He doesn't need to study music or learn to read it. He simply has to bash various bits of kit and all will be fine. That's how some see it.
You hear bad drummers complain that they are short of gigs. It's no surprise.

Drummers should study closely the work of the greatest percussionists. And fortunately there are plenty of these.

Observe that fine young drummer Justin Peake in this video - CLICK ON TO WATCH. You need watch only the first few minutes (they are playing Climax Rag) to get the point. Justin uses a full range of equipment but he does not thrash it. Note the economy of his wrist movements. Blending with John (banjo) and Tyler (string bass), he maintains a rock-steady four-four beat; and he listens carefully to the front line, stopping at the right moments, and using a cymbal gently but effectively to punctuate. He also shows how to support other players really quietly, for example during the banjo solo chorus and during the 'quiet' chorus that Marla signals.

And for another example of how important well-played percussion can be, listen to an extraordinary, historic recording BY CLICKING HERE.

And, although this final example is not exactly traditional jazz, try any recording by the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra of the 1920s (plenty are on YouTube) and listen to their drummer Carleton Coon. His playing is always discreet, never obtrusive; and yet it propels the band along. That's the way to do it - 'felt and not heard'!
Reader Carsten Pigott in England has written to recommend Bill Harty (you can hear him in Lew Stone 1933 recordings - on YouTube). Bill could play robustly and  energetically in a fast-paced piece but could adjust his style and technique when playing slower numbers, such as Al Bowlly ballads with Ray Noble's Orchestra of the same era.  Carsten says 'Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer since 1963, is on record as saying that Harty was the best percussionist Britain ever produced'.

Reader Barrie Marshall (Lancaster, England) wrote:
Hi Ivan,
An interesting piece about drummers, Just one thing to say about one particular drummer who was in a band I played with: the effect was opposite, an ex-dance band drummer, I sometimes think they fit in with New Orleans jazz bands better than those who think they know. Anyway, this particular drummer used his brushes all the time and played them gently, so gently sometimes I could not hear him at all, and don't get me started on piano players who tinkle away as musicians do a solo instead of giving them chords and rhythm!

Reader Bob Andersen of San Diego wrote:
Reminds me of Baby Dodds line, something like,'' the drummer should be like an idling engine"...

14 September 2016

The Balkan Brass Band Influence

My American friend and frequent correspondent Phil is very keen on a band called The California Feetwarmers.
He has kept me informed about their Summer 2016 tour in the U.K., Germany and Switzerland. You can hear this band of very proficient musicians by clicking here, where they play slick arrangements of Aunt Hagar's Blues, San and Bill Bailey.

Phil tells me some of the players previously played as a 'Balkan brass band' and there is still a great influence of the disciplines of Balkan brass band music in their playing.

This set me thinking, because Balkan Brass Band Music is something about which I knew virtually nothing. So I spent a couple of hours reading about it. I discovered it seems to have arisen from the folk music mainly of Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Much of the music supports vigorous dancing. It has repetitive insistent melodies and very strong rhythms.

Picture a village square. We see a group of colourfully-dressed dancers in a circle, hands linked, dancing in a manner that involves fast-paced complicated foot movements while the upper bodies remain statuesque. They are accompanied by a sousaphone heavily stamping the first and third beats of the bars, an accordion playing rapid sequences of notes, a violin, trumpets and other horns, as well as sundry busy percussion instruments. The band plays with technical precision. The harmonies sound simple – largely involving the three main chords (but perhaps this is deceptive, since it seems likely also that they using some uncommon scales); and the melodies, mostly rapid, contain some acrobatic twists and turns. In some tunes, there are compound time signatures, notably 9/8 and 7/8.
A 'Balkan Brass Band' in New Orleans!
I learned that there are various song forms of which the two commonest are the Kolo and the Čoček. The Kolo is often a group dance as described above and sometimes in 9/8 rhythmic form. The Čoček may also be in 9/8 time.

To get an immediate feel for what Balkan brass band music at its brassiest sounds like, click here.

The Balkan influence has spread among some of the very best traditional jazz musicians of today. Think of Jenavieve Cook. In her years of nomadic living, she picked up Balkan music at its source. In April 2016 she told me 'I'm a traditional Balkan music and dance freak!'

Years before she formed the famous Royal Street Winding Boys, Jenavieve founded in New Orleans a Balkan brass band called Backyard Belladonna.

And there's Ben Schenk (mainly playing clarinet), now in his 50s, who spent years evolving the kind of band that seemed just right for him. He ended up with The Panorama Jazz Band, which is quite capable of playing traditional jazz in familiar style, but also has in its programmes doses of influence from Balkan brass band music and Klezmer music, not to mention a considerable Caribbean element! Panorama has been a truly great band since Aurora Nealand (who, by the way, has toured in the Balkans) joined it. She - one of the world's greatest reed players - has a heart full of the joys of music of all cultures. She perfectly complements Ben's work. There are plenty of videos of the band on YouTube but I will mention this one, where you catch them in Big Band Mardi Gras format: CLICK HERE.

And think of Matt Schreiber. This fine accordion player and Balkan music specialist not only plays with Ben in the Panorama Jazz Band but also works in the specialist Mahala Trio (Balkan music in New Orleans). Try watching a video of him and his two colleagues by clicking here. It's not a brass band but it certainly gives novices such as myself a good insight into the nature of Balkan music.

And now we have The Wit's End Brass Band. They have produced a remarkable CD that you can find on Bandcamp.
The Wit's End Brass Band 2016.
It includes some familiar faces!

I discovered there are very many 'Balkan Bands' all over the world, even in such unlikely places as England, Australia and the Netherlands. In the USA there are dozens of them, and Balkan Band Summer Camps are held on both the East and West Coasts. For a terrific Balkan SuperBand playing in our beloved Royal Street, New Orleans: CLICK HERE.
Balkan Brass Bands:
Above and Below
In spirit, instrumentation and rhythmic excitement, it seems to me this Balkan music has a lot in common with Klezmer music, which has also had a permeating influence on New Orleans jazz in the 21st Century. Add to these influences that of Caribbean calypso music – much associated in recent years with The Panorama Jazz Band and with Madeleine Reidy and later with The Rhythm Wizards in New Orleans and Wow! We observe some very interesting developments in the music we love.