19 June 2015


Tom Morris - band-leader, composer and cornet-player - was born in New York in 1897.
The earlier Tom Morris, born in 1897
He was a fine traditional jazz musician and even ran his own bands, the principal one being The Seven Hot Babies. They are known to have made 18 recordings in the 1920s. Other Tom Morris bands included The New Orleans Blue Five and The Thomas Morris Past Jazz Masters. He worked prolifically with some of the famous names of jazz, such as Clarence Williams, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet and Mamie Smith. In fact, it is believed that he appeared - often in minor 'backing' rôles - on about 150 recordings.

Tom's performances reveal what traditional jazz cornet playing was like just before Louis Armstrong dominated the scene; and it is possible that his improvisations - a single 12-bar chorus on Charleston Stampede and several 12-bar choruses on Lonesome Journey Blues (both tunes composed by Morris himself) influenced Armstrong.
As with many important musicians of the 1920s, he later faded into obscurity, but is known to have been towards the end of his relatively short life a porter at Grand Central Station and also a member of a strict, abstemious religious movement led by a curious and colourful character known as 'Father Divine'. Tom died at the age of 47.

I have seen Tom Morris's style of playing described as 'basic and primitive', but I think that is misleading. Listen to his recordings and you find he has a good technique and plays in a simple but accurate manner. He could cope with tempos fast and slow and he could 'bend' notes in a most bluesy fashion. The musical arrangements played by his bands are thoughtfully constructed.

Tom was clearly a well-taught, thorough musician and composed several of his band's tunes, including Original Charleston Strut, Beaucoup de Jazz, Lazy Drag and Ham Gravy. His compositions sometimes included two or three themes, often in 12-bars and 16 bars and based on the conventional chord sequences of the time. (Tom seems to have been very fond of the 12-bar blues format.) They allowed for two-bar 'breaks' and also sometimes involved a key change. The band's tempos were always nicely maintained and the emphasis was on good ensemble playing. Tom was no selfish exhibitionist but enjoyed giving plenty of opportunities to his pianist, trombonist and reed men. Among the musicians he used were Joe Nanton or Greechie Fields on trombone, Wellman Braud on bass, Happy Caldwell on reeds and Buddy Christian on banjo.

I'm pleased to note that the Tom Morris style of playing has become fashionable again in the last few years, when many of the fine young musicians (most of them developing their art in New Orleans) are trying to play their jazz in a manner very similar to his.

But enough! Why not try some Tom Morris for yourself. An appropriate tune to begin with is When The Jazz Band Starts To Play. Tom himself composed this merry number and it's hard to believe this was as long ago as 1923. In this one, he seems to have been joined by Charlie Irvis on trombone and Bubber Miley on cornet. There are plenty of breaks, and much use of stop chords and off-beats. In addition to a neat Introduction and Coda, the tune comprises a 16-bar theme in Bb on a familiar chord structure, with an Interlude provided by a 12-bar blues theme in Eb - so it's a typical Tom Morris construction. CLICK HERE to enjoy it.

And then CLICK HERE for Charleston Stampede (1926), composed by Tom, again with a clever up-tempo treatment of 12-bar and 16-bar themes. There are some Armstong-like cornet choruses. Don't miss the one that starts at 2 minutes 9 seconds.

CLICK HERE for the unusual combination of Tom's Band with Fats Waller playing a church organ. It was 1927 and the tune was Won't You Take Me Home? (composed by Tom and his pianist Phil Worde).

CLICK HERE  for Blues From the Everglades - a well-structured piece of music from 1926 (note the temporary doubling-up of tempo at 1 minute 57 seconds and again later).

So Tom Morris is primitive and basic? Well, I wish some of the bands playing in our English pubs and clubs today were at least half as good.

I agree with the commentator on YouTube who wrote:
Not sure I would refer to his playing as primitive. His playing was unadorned and just flat out playing from the heart.