5 March 2013


The New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922

Despite their name, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings (nicknamed NORK) were not a New Orleans-based band. They were a mixture of musicians who came from the Chicago region, as well as from New Orleans. They started out in Chicago, where they were seeking better-paid gigs than those available in New Orleans. In 1921, they secured seventeen months of employment at The Friar's Inn, East Van Buren Street in Chicago, so they called themselves The Friar's Society Orchestra. They started making records in 1922 - with Jelly Roll Morton as guest on some of them. They played classic standards (such as Panama, Clarinet Marmalade, Milenberg Joys, Maple Leaf Rag and Tiger Rag) as well as some of their own compositions (such as Farewell Blues and Oriental).

Although the band fragmented after the Friar's Inn residency, the driving forces - Leon Roppollo (clarinet) and Paul Mares (cornet) - still occasionally assembled musicians to record under the name of The New Orleans Rhythm Kings. This was a good and popular move. Their well-crafted music proved that jazz was to be taken seriously.

They appear to have made about 34 recordings in the 1920s, though only seven of these were actually recorded in New Orleans (over a three-day period in 1925). The others were recorded in Richmond, Indiana. There were usually eight musicians in the band, but almost thirty different players appeared over the years. Important (and left to right in the photo at the top of this article) were Leon Roppollo, Jack Pettis, Elmer Schoebel, Arnold Loyacano, Paul Mares, Frank Snyder and George Brunies.

Among the others, some of the most noteworthy were Santo Pecora (trombone), Bill Eastwood (banjo), Chink Martin (bass), and Mel Stitzel (piano). Several of the musicians also played in The Halfway House Orchestra during the 1920s. (You can read my article about The Halfway House Orchestra BY CLICKING HERE.)

So The New Orleans Rhythm Kings were a short-lived band. They dissolved completely in 1925. (Actually there were feeble attempts at revival: in 1934 and 1935, another thirteen recordings were made under the band's name in New York, but only one member - George Brunies - of the 1920s band took part.)

The Band had a big influence on later traditional jazz, however. Some of their compositions have entered the standard repertoire. And their careful arrangement and interpretation of tunes have made a big impression and been directly imitated. The band contained some significant composers, notably Paul Mares, Santo Pecora, George Brunies, and especially their pianist Elmer Schoebel, who probably was responsible for much of the arranging. We can tell they were a band who took a lot of trouble with getting things right. We must infer that they had regular serious rehearsals. Their playing was polished and varied. Leon Roppolo - the band's best improviser - showed how creative and 'bluesy' a clarinet could be.

If you are new to this band and would like to sample its music, may I make two recommendations?

(1) I Never Knew What a Girl Could Do  composed by their pianist Elmer Schoebel and recorded (with eight musicians) in New Orleans in 1925. CLICK HERE to play it. This is a merry tune much copied and still in the repertoire of many of our bands today. You will note how well crafted it is, with a four-bar Introduction, 16-bar Verse and 32-bar Chorus. Admire the teamwork. Enjoy the simple, clear lead and solo chorus provided by Paul Mares on cornet. Note the clever arranged 'turn around' at 54 seconds and again at 1 minute 31 seconds (after which the Verse - too good to waste - is played for a second time). Enjoy Roppolo's solo chorus starting at 1 minute 54 seconds. The final ensemble chorus offers collective improvisation as good as it comes. Throughout the whole, the rhythm section keeps the pulse going at a tempo that feels exactly right.

(2) She's Crying For Me recorded three days later in New Orleans, with Santo Pecora (the tune's composer) on trombone. Listen to it BY CLICKING HERE. It's a quite complex piece. We have a tricky 16-bar minor-key Introduction; then (at 33 seconds) a 24-bar Main Theme (making good and repeated use of flattened thirds). At the end of this, we have an intriguing key change as the instruments 'climb the ladder' note by note (starting at 1 minute 6 seconds) to the new key. (This is evidence - if any were needed - of how much trouble they took over their arrangements and how they had obviously rehearsed.) Next comes a 12-bar strain, played through twice by the clarinet and - as that ends - the whole band comes in with some well-rehearsed transitional chords (at 1 minute 46 seconds) that take us back to the original key. And so we return to the Main Theme, with clarinet and cornet alternating the lead. So much for us to study, learn from and be inspired by.