Wild Cats and Weather Birds – Some Joys of Jazz Antiquity

“You like a lot of old Robert Crumb jazz, don’t you?”

A musician friend, Serge Lefevre, was seeking to refresh his palate. My mind started putting together a CD before he’d asked, a delectable salmagundi of classics and curios. “Of course, I’d love to, but just give me a day or two to trot out a couple of lines of background for each song…”

It grew.

Bits of history attached themselves to each other, until all 18 tracks carried some musical, social or biographical detail to add context, or at least amusement. And underpinning all of it, of course, was the extraordinary stylistic development that attended jazz recording as the 1920s progressed. Serge and I, and many others of our age, can surely be forgiven for drawing parallels with the 1960s and 70s, when music spread from comfort to confrontation and delivered creative firebrands and mobs of imitators in equal measure. Do enjoy sorting out the Real Things from the Plastic Bertrands, and good luck finding your own Mark E. Smith!

But now, music, beautiful music, everywhere! Your ears will thank you forever.

Doctor Jazz – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (16.12.1926)


Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers form an orderly queue for the charabanc

An absolute joy, part of the gallery of miniature masterpieces that Morton and his band bestowed upon the world in 1926/7. Doctor Jazz was composed and recorded by King Oliver, but Morton’s arrangement and orchestration make it pretty much his own; instrumental touches like Omer Simeon’s long clarinet notes and the whipcrack drum punctuation carry Morton’s imprimatur, and the jauntily relaxed rhythmic flow gives the impression of a happily crowded charabanc bouncing along a seaside road. Your life is already ten times better, and we’re only on track one!

Dippermouth Blues – King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (06.04.1923)

King Oliver New

King Oliver’s Jazz Band behaving in a manner sadly frowned upon by the modern jazz ensemble

Gennett Records was born of Starr Piano, a piano-making company in Richmond, Indiana that was seeking to keep up with the times by producing gramophones and, logically, records to play on them. The manager of their Chicago store, Fred Wiggins, could but notice that the boom town’s ever-growing black migrant population had enough disposable income to generate a whole entertainment industry, and that Gennett might do well to grab some of the action. Meanwhile the main recording companies, Columbia and Victor, were too slow both to notice the demographic shift and to pay attention to what the little label from out of town was up to. Consequently, Gennett issued early and even debut recordings by some of the legends of jazz and blues, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy, together with any number of upmarket dance orchestras, backwoods fiddlers and gospel shouters – the record industry would not get it quite so wrong again until a Decca executive claimed that guitar groups were on the way out!

King Oliver’s Creole Band were in Richmond for two hot April days in 1923, cutting the first series of jazz classics made by an all-black band. The previous year Oliver had summoned Louis Armstrong to come and play second cornet with his band in Chicago, and he took the northern train to join a band bejewelled with stars from his home town, among them Johnny and Baby Dodds and his future wife Lil Hardin. The sides they cut for Gennett are among the ancient scriptures of jazz, their commandments guiding the swing and big band eras and beyond – the cornet solos on this disc sound like the entirety of the British Trad boom condensed into one record! If modern ears struggle with the acoustic recording, primitive even for its day, they might enjoy simply cranking it up and marvelling at a band in their moment begetting one of the 20th century’s most significant musicians.

(Footnote, for anybody who might think Gennett sounds like a beacon of indie-label probity… The company’s facilities were available on a contract hire basis for anybody who wished to make records for personal, corporate or any other reasons – payment was upfront, so it made sound business sense. However, in the early 20s, Indiana had the highest Ku Klux Klan membership of all of the United States, some quarter of a million people directing their confused Protestant outrage at the post-war influx of Catholics, Jews and anybody else who wasn’t the same as they were. While the owners of Gennett disdained the organisation personally, they viewed making records for them as mere commercial pragmatism. Indeed, the studio engineer, Ezra Wickemeyer, was said to be a member, leaving us with the uneasy irony of some of the cornerstones of African-American music being recorded by a Klansman!)

Potato Head Blues – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (10.05.1927)


And here is Oliver’s second cornet a few short years later. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five was a studio group, convened at irregular intervals over two years or so and occasionally augmented to the Hot Seven. To listen to their sides is to hear a history of jazz, as their acoustically-recorded beginnings, steeped in the New Orleans tradition of collective cornet/clarinet/trombone interplay, evolve into a whole new language of soloistic panache. While Armstrong’s invention is granted unfettered expression, the records still had an easy-going, last-day-of-term feel about them, a sense that the band was off-duty. In your mind’s eye they are smiling as they casually knock out another in the long line of classics that would shape jazz as we know it!

Such as this one, which gives us all that is great about jazz in three minutes! Armstrong leads the ensemble through the first chorus before taking a sixteen bar break, followed by a fleet 32 from Johnny Dodds’ clarinet, itself worth the price of admission. But a few strums of a banjo precede a stop-time solo that could be used to define jazz to schoolchildren, a bravura display of virtuosity, brazen imagination, even insolence, everything you could ask for from a jazz record, and better dressed for its nakedness.

And to think the record – indeed, a whole swathe of musical history – might never have appeared had it not been for another irony of segregation. To appeal to (or to tap the commercial possibilities of) the booming African-American market, the recording companies launched “race” catalogues in which to place jazz and blues, fearing that too much excitement might disconcert their more sedate white audiences. While the very notion of “race records” might seem controversial, without them Armstrong’s beautiful, thrilling, genre-defining early records might never have seen the light of day, and we absolutely cannot countenance a musical world in which they hadn’t happened!

Weather Bird – Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five (05.12.1928)

weather bird

And just eighteen months later…

Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens period only lasted for an aggregate of three weeks, all of the recordings under that name taking place in 22 sessions scattered between November 1925 and July 1928, although this and other small group masterpieces appeared over the following year or so. Louis’ time during “the Hot Five days” was actually spent commuting between two or three club and theatre jobs, and it was at one of these that he met pianist Earl Hines. A year later, working at the Sunset Cafe in Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra, the two men were encouraged by the café’s owner, one of Chicago’s more persuasive businessmen, to form and record a smaller band under their own aegis. More masterpieces followed, as the two men pushed themselves and each other ever further beyond any connection to ragtime or to New Orleans classicism. Weather Bird sees jazz at what by then was its most advanced. Hines was revolutionising jazz piano with what became known as his “horn style,” letting his left hand accentuate off-beats, sudden halts, even silences, as well as adding it to his right hand in following the soloists, egging them on to be more adventurous. Here we find the two great men totally au naturel, the duo setting giving an unadorned and uncluttered picture of what they were capable of, stripping the composition down and restructuring it as Hines moves further away from its initial stride rhythm, their exchanges becoming shorter and shorter as though they’re winding each other up until they fall apart laughing. This is a performance of breathtaking modernity and invention, which over the intervening 90 years has been discussed and dissected with a fervour that shows no sign of abating. Genuine classical music!

Krazy Kat – Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra (28.09.1927)

The band was drawn from the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and featured Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. This, in its quiet way, was also pushing at the boundaries of jazz.

Bix’s premature death aroused claims that he was driven to alcoholism by the music he was playing in his later years, popular and symphonic work with the massive orchestra led by Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” who had employed Bix and other jazzmen to add heat to some of his numbers. Whatever one’s opinion of the output of this prototype James Last, his musicians were fabulously well-paid and looked after, Whiteman even keeping Bix’s chair (and pay packet) open for him for months on end while he attempted inconclusively to confront his demons. In truth, Bix relished the challenges presented by Whiteman’s tightly-scored arrangements, and still enjoyed the solo spots which gave latitude for his improvisational leanings.

This jazz-tinged “Tone Poem In Slow Rhythm” hails from Bix’s pre-Whiteman days, and shows that he was already keen to experiment in areas other than hot blowing and jamming. Compositionally it was miles away from “hot” music, but he clearly has no problem with playing both the solos and the tricky lead parts. Bix often felt held back by his limited ability to sight read, and it has been mooted that this contributed more to his drinking that any amount of Whiteman material. Had he not died so young, had he applied himself more to his reading, there would have been no saying where he might have gone with it all.

Original Tuxedo Rag – Original Tuxedo Jazz Band (23.01.1925)


The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, together with their guest list

Now we’ve heard the music at its most advanced, we might ask what it had advanced from. The sides recorded by Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band on an Okeh Records field trip in 1925, are among the few recordings of New Orleans music made in the town itself, and they are the closest we have to the real thing, to the relentless, rattling thrill, the breathless, clattering ensemble onslaught, the embroidered tumult of the city’s trademark tutti. Celestin led the band at the Tuxedo Dance Hall from 1910, but kept the Tuxedo Band name after it had closed. They remained one of the biggest draws in the Crescent City, and though his music had fallen out of broader fashion by 1926 and the Depression put them out of business altogether, Celestin convened an all-new Original Tuxedo Band after World War Two, proving more popular than ever and even playing the White House for President Eisenhower in 1953. No one was bothered back then about them not being the original Original band, not like nowadays…

Auburn Avenue Stomp – J. Neal Montgomery and His Orchestra (14.03.1929)

The idea of jazz being birthed in New Orleans is romantic, if approximate. True enough, the place enjoyed massive ethnic, cultural and social diversity, and a great need for music appropriate to its many and varied requirements. It’s also true that most of the early jazz masters came from the Big Easy, taking the music with them wherever they went. But the city had no monopoly on street bands, blues shouters, gospel choirs or brothel pianists, and outside of New Orleans, America was a ceaseless criss-cross of travelling dance outfits, territory bands whose role in cross-pollinating American vernacular music can barely be overestimated. Smaller than the major touring orchestras, they’d play for dancers, or perform in Vaudeville revues or generally pursue whatever opportunities the booking agencies could find for them. And their polite dance music and covers of the popular songs of the day would pick up (and drop off) other influences, especially if they were thought to have commercial potential. The list of jazz notables who started out in territory bands is massive – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, so many more – and the bands themselves continued to thrive into the 1950s, when a changing world called time on them. J. Neal Montgomery’s orchestra, from Atlanta, is a case in point, giving us a very tidy and buttoned-down dance record whose initial unison themes resolve about half way through into a series of twelve-bar solo spots. All of these are dispatched with varying degrees of jazzworthiness, some of the boys embracing their moment with a little more aplomb than others – the clarinet player was positively twitching with excitement, although the chap with the alto sax was clearly knackered after four bars. Terrific fun!

Come On And Stomp, Stomp, Stomp – Johnny Dodds And His Black Bottom Stompers (08.10.1927)

Johnny Dodds-New

Johnny Dodds taking a dim view of his kid brother’s shenanigans.

Jazz antiquity attaches itself with baffling regularity to some of the idioms of the day. Blues, stomps, rags, joys, only the most assiduous student may know in a “blind” test where one ended and another began. This one is definitely a stomp, though. Everything about it is stomping, from the name of the band onwards. By whose measure is “Auburn Avenue Stomp” a stomp after this? This is even more stomping than the Dave Clark Five! The drums are provided here by Warren “Baby” Dodds, Johnny’s versatile if prodigal younger brother who outlived his abstemious sibling by nineteen years, giving him the chance to make two albums of drum solos that showed just how incompletely his 1920s recordings actually served his talent.

Johnny Dodds himself played with impressive adaptability in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, although his reputation rests more on the entirety of his contribution than on individual recordings. He died of a stroke in 1940, aged 48, after recurring ill-health prevented him from recording much in the 1930s. So many of the classic jazz recordings of the age are graced with his clarinet, blues-drenched and rich with vibrato.

Beau Koo Jack – The Omer Simeon Trio (21.08.1929)

Omer Simeon

Omer Simeon studiously avoiding vibrato

In the New Orleans of the early 20th century, lower class blacks, the descendants of freed slaves, found themselves at liberty to pursue some degree of upward mobility. On the other hand, mixed-race “Creoles of colour,” once an elite enjoying privilege, property ownership and education, were sent spiralling downward as increasing numbers of whites were unwilling to accept a three-tiered society. The two groups met somewhere in the middle, or more likely near the bottom, given the attitudes of the time. This is something of a potted version of events, of course, to shed light upon a musical quirk, as the situation added two distinct flavours of jazz playing to New Orleans’ already scrumptious gumbo. The former, often self-taught and with some familiarity with blues and rural music, had no qualms about vibrato, ripped notes or whatever else might add emotional freight to their performance. The Creoles tended to betray classical musical training, every note perfectly formed and executed, nary an elision in earshot. Here we can hear the Creole Omer Simeon (a favourite of Jelly Roll Morton) piping his meticulous clarinet while chivvied along throughout by Earl Hines’ rollicking, ragtime-proof piano. Simeon would work with Hines’ orchestra throughout the 1930s to considerable effect, but the joyous, small-group clarity of this earlier recording presents the work of each man in wonderfully sharp relief. Delicious!

Wild Cat Blues – Clarence Williams’ Blue Five (Featured Soloist: Sidney Bechet) (30.07.1923)

Sidney Bechet

Sidnet Bechet embraces barometric intensity

“Listen, when we were making all that jazz history, Bechet wasn’t even there!” (Albert Nicholas).

It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, to think that the musicians in New Orleans were a big, cuddly, happy family, irrespective of racial or cultural background, and that they all migrated to Chicago at the same time on a train bursting with jollity. Just like Liverpool in the Merseybeat era, when all those contract-waving A & R men met a friendly bunch of loveable rogues and had a nice cup of tea and…oh, hang on…

The early jazz scene had as much rivalry and friendship, often at the same time, as any other cultural milieu. But it also bred its lone wolves. If we look at Jelly Roll Morton, for example, we see a man who by his teens was a highly-regarded pianist in New Orleans’ fabulously extravagant sporting houses and who wouldn’t touch the rougher cabaret bands with a big stick, let alone join them. He only settled in Chicago after years of peregrinations, and even then he didn’t join his erstwhile New Orleans compatriots, preferring to work with the Melrose music publishers and to record only with bands of musicians he’d chosen himself. Sidney Bechet also stood apart and bucked trends with a similar self-assurance. While other well-schooled Creole clarinet players took pride in classical precision, Bechet favoured a vibrato that made him one of the easiest musicians to identify blindfold. As others took root in Chicago, Bechet made only a fleeting and unsettled visit, and by 1919 he was touring Europe with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra. After chancing upon a soprano saxophone in a London pawn shop, he became the first jazzman to make it a primary instrument, impressed by its fluid fingering and its power to dominate an ensemble. In 1923, following an altercation with a prostitute, he was deported from Britain to New York, where he joined the nascent Duke Ellington band for a few months as well as cutting his first records, including this one with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five.

A Fats Waller composition, “Wild Cat Blues” was Bechet’s first record and he delivers it with the forthright aplomb that he would build upon throughout his career. He leads throughout, his fleet soprano negotiating the relentless four-to-the-bar while Thomas Morris’ cornet sits quietly in the passenger seat. This one performance alone was enough to secure his place as the first great saxophonist in jazz (Coleman Hawkins was playing in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at this point but his true solo style would be hampered for a while by the band’s material). In the 1930s Bechet would make records of barometric intensity with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, as well as many with various other musicians that showed a heart-rending understanding of the blues, in both form and feeling. It remains a tragedy, though, that he was too doggedly independent to develop the group empathy that would have brought about a consistent and invincible body of defining work.

The Stampede – Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (14.05.1926)

fletcher henderson

Fletcher Henderson at the peak of the meat product bartering boom

Meanwhile, up in New York, before the First World War, Vernon and Irene Castle had become stars of screen and stage, appearing on Broadway and in silent films and prompting a massive dance music craze. Such was their rise that the “dance hall,” once deemed a source of rather humble entertainment, became hugely fashionable, and as bigger and bigger dance halls began to spring up, the sizes of the dance orchestras ballooned to the point where the Castles’ musical director, James Reese Europe, staged a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1914 that featured a 125-piece band! Even the more humble outfits were three or four dozen strong – really, what did they all do?

The bands had to trim down somewhat, and as the banjo sections and what have you were given their cards, we were left with something approaching the standard dance-band model: brass and saxophones to give weight, embellished by a clarinet’s higher-pitched excitement. In the meantime, however, New York had seen an influx of migrant workers and musicians from the south, bringing with them a demand for the blues-soaked, rough and ready music they’d left at home. As this demand met the borderline hysteria that accompanied the arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1916, the dance bands split roughly into two camps – those who continued to play in the old-fashioned sweet and symphonic style, and those who sought one way or another to embrace the changes, employing hot players and incorporating improvised passages into their repertoire.

Fletcher Henderson had moved to New York from Atlanta University, ostensibly to embark upon a course of postgraduate research but instead being drawn into music publishing, where he built up an impressive list of contacts. Working with arranger Don Redman, he was looking to create a modern jazz orchestra, although the catalyst for this would not be found until 1924, when Louis Armstrong was coaxed to New York from Chicago, where he had recently left King Oliver. Even then, it was a while before his energy spread to the rest of the band. Some of the early records sound as though he’d been parachuted in as the obligatory jazz star, the effect being almost as incongruous as the Sex Pistols appearing as guests on the Mike Yarwood Show. It was a full year before the others caught up with him, his influence becoming more apparent after he’d left, but when they did…

“The Stampede,” another Fats Waller composition, sees a galvanised Henderson orchestra charging headlong with a distinct sense of purpose, finally beginning to wrest themselves free of their earlier stodginess. Rex Stewart shows his clear adulation of Armstrong by his fiery cornet breaks in the opening theme, fine trumpet work from Joe Smith keeps the engine stoked in the second half, but in between bursts forth a solo from Coleman Hawkins that shows how he would become the tenor player by which others would be measured for some years to come. He is clearly fizzing with an excitable energy, placing accents before and after beats and making every note sound positively bulbous with life. Henderson’s musicians were now among the finest of their time, and their ability to cram three minutes with excitement, detail and surprise was to be equalled only by the Ellington bands. While Jelly Roll Morton was crafting beautifully ornate small group masterpieces at the same time, his records sounded, to some extent, like miracles being wrought from history. The Henderson orchestra, on the other hand, was beginning to sound like the future, dance band and jazz traditions simply providing grist to the mill of the combined creativity of the individual musicians. Magnificent!

And to think that Fats Waller allegedly sold the tune to Henderson as part of a job lot of nine tunes, in exchange for a plate of hamburgers. At least it was a large plate…

The Chant – The Original Memphis Five (26.11.1926)


The Original Memphis Five conjuring up a musical hex that will eventually reduce pianist Frank Signorelli to the size of an amoeba

The OM5 was established in New York in 1917 by dance band stalwarts Frank Signorelli and Phil Napoleon. They made their first record under the name of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (see below), although reports vary as to whether this move was blessed or protested by the actual band. After that they spent the 1920s recording hundreds of sides under a bewildering variety of names, frequently acting as a studio splinter group for recordings supervised by leaders of bigger dance orchestras seeking to harness the energy of the jazz that the ODJB had brought to New York, and for whom some or all of them may have been working. Thus a band that had never been to Memphis recorded with equal geographical licence as The Tennessee Ten, The Savannah Six, Jazzbo’s Carolina Serenaders and Ladd’s Black Aces. No, they weren’t black and no, we don’t know who Ladd was, but at least they were ace! Phil Napoleon, by the way, was an influence on the young Bix Beiderbecke.

Singin’ The Blues – Bix Beiderbecke (04.02.1927)


Bix looking suave

“Singin’ The Blues” was credited to the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, an aggregation drawn from the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. The record shows perfectly how Bix’s relaxed but ingeniously subtle middle-register playing style suggested a new direction for some jazz players. He could play hot with the rest of them, for sure, but he wasn’t one to chase top C, and his gorgeous pastel solo here seems barely to step beyond the range of the conversational human voice – a ripped note in the middle of it comes as quite a shock. And Bix isn’t the only star of the show – Frank Trumbauer’s undulating sax offers a lovely contrast, and a short clarinet break from a squiffy Jimmy Dorsey ties things up nicely, but we must not overlook the priceless contribution of Eddie Lang, whose guitar manages both to propel the whole thing and embellish it with solo playing within the ensemble. There were other musicians present too, among them Chauncey Morehouse on drums and Miff Mole on trombone, but through luck or judgement they were placed near the back of the room, allowing the frontline to create an uncluttered classic that sounds like a picnic on a riverbank.

Bix died in 1931, aged 28, and legends sprung up swiftly around his premature demise, not all of them without foundation – yes, alcohol played a very large part. But then, as now, such speculation does no favours to a complex man and a discreetly brilliant musician.

The Pearls – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (10.06.1927)

the pearls

Even dogs were spellbound by Jelly Roll Morton

Morton led a picaresque life. By his teens he was a piano “professor” in Storyville’s most esteemed sporting houses, a respect far ahead of that enjoyed by other musicians. He left New Orleans shortly afterwards when his family discovered that he was not, as he had told them, working as a night watchman, and threw him out on to the street. He toured the southern states in a Vaudeville revue; elsewhere he made money as, variously, a gambler, a pimp, a pool shark, even as a musician. Somewhere in all of this he wrote and arranged music that would form the basis of his reputation, and on settling in Chicago in the 1920s he recorded his compositions on piano rolls and solo discs before signing to the Victor Talking Machine Company and preserving them in their pomp with a well-rehearsed band picked from the finest New Orleans musicians in the city. The sides cut by the Red Hot Peppers are among the high watermarks of jazz antiquity, indeed of any kind of musical endeavour. More than any other jazz musician of the day, Jelly viewed the three-minute recording window as an opportunity rather than a limitation, and his classic sides are self-contained masterpieces of exquisite detail, like little symphonic haikus. Even after years and years of listening they continue to yield surprises and subtleties in the arrangements, instrumental colorations and harmonic details, unnoticed elements of genius, and they will never die

“The Pearls” was a tribute to a lady of some standing within Jelly’s orbit, perhaps from one of the notoriety establishments where he was held in such esteem, who knows..?

Mojo Strut – Parham/Pickett Apollo Syncopators (December 1926)

Tiny Parham by Robert Crumb

The hilariously-named Tiny Parham, as depicted by Robert Crumb

You know how sometimes a record just doesn’t do it for you because you know that everything that’s going to happen in it has happened within the first thirty seconds? You know how ashamed you are to be so dismissive? You know how part of you wonders if this means you’re tiring of music itself? The Parham/Pickett Apollo Syncopators have felt your pain. They will sort you out.

Tiny Parham (piano) and Leroy Pickett (violin) led the pit orchestra in Chicago’s Apollo Theatre in 1926. As might be expected from a band that had to shift moods instantaneously and precipitously, their record is, well, full of stuff. A cheesy “look-out-behind-you” opening gives way to an eastern-promise ensemble section driven along by some rather determined tub-thumping, which takes us in turn to a jovial violin lead and a stop-time trumpet break. And in the second minute we have a fat-bloke trombone interlude and a solo on wooden blocks (or is somebody tapping his teeth with his fingernails?) before the reeds and the tubs take us to a final collective dash for the tape. Half a dozen records for the price of one, fabulous!

Parham cut forty-odd sides for Victor in the late 20s, a number of them being compared to the contemporaneous Duke Ellington records on account of their painstaking attention to detail and almost cinematic imagination. Some people, on the other hand, were rather less circumspect about the whole thing…

Crazy Quilt – Dixon’s Jazz Maniacs (January 1927)

Mastery of the clarinet is notoriously hard won. There is unavoidable pressure on the mouth, teeth and neck. The slightest wrong movement can cause squeaks and dropouts, and the correct pitching of notes in the outer reaches of its range can be positively treacherous.

None of this even remotely troubled Vance Dixon, however. His unfettered performance here, blowing his blackstick to kingdom come with an abandon that leaves the listener feeling winded, sounds almost like a distant precursor of free jazz. A couple of years later he surfaced with a new band, Vance Dixon and His Pencils, but the move from Maniac to Pencil carries a palpable sense of diminuendo – even a title as promising as “Meat Man Pete” failed to crawl out of the ordinary, despite a vocal by Papa Too Sweet.


Original Jelly Roll Blues – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (16.12.1926)

original jelly roll blues

The Spanish Tinge, earlier today

“if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.” (Jelly Roll Morton)

Cuban music had found popularity in the USA in the nineteenth century and beyond, the habanera and tangana cropping up in the work of formal composers like W.C. Handy. Jelly believed that “The Spanish Tinge” (his description of the rhythms of Afro-Spanish music) was integral to music that should be “sweet, soft, plenty rhythm;” indeed, he loosely organised his own compositions into Blues, Stomps and Spanish Tinge. This wasn’t the first Spanish Tinge that he’d written and recorded, but it was certainly the most explicit, even featuring castanets to banish the shadow of doubt, and it sashays fabulously into the Red Hot Peppers’ impeccably furnished ballroom. Would the Latin American influence have made such inroads into jazz without Morton’s encouragement? Well, probably. But would it have been as much fun..?

Dixie Jass Band One Step – The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (26.02.1917)


The ODJB and their teddy bear, as exciting in their day as The Clash were in theirs.

And where better to end than at the very beginning? Here we have one side of what is generally considered to be the first ever jazz record. (The other side, “Livery Stable Blues,” found the band imitating farm animals, a mercifully short-lived novelty). As with rock’n’roll, you could point to earlier musical hybrids, perhaps to the proto-jazz sides cut by James Reese Europe or to any number of ruggedly enthusiastic ragtime records, but this is our “Rocket 88.” The ODJB had formed in New Orleans, taking notes at the feet of King Oliver and others, and moved first to Chicago in 1916 then to New York in 1917. As it happened, they were following in the footsteps of Freddie Keppard’s Original Creole Band (honestly, early jazz had more originals than a vinyl fetishist’s record collection), who a year or two earlier had also proved a hit in both towns and would have been the first to record but for Keppard’s mistrust of the whole thing. But if Freddie was a success, the ODJB was a sensation, and their residency at Reisenweber’s restaurant in Columbus Circle caused near-mania throughout New York society and among many of the city’s more stolid dance orchestras. They could now do nothing wrong: the records they cut for Victor in February of that year were instant hits, the London Palladium booked them for a nine-month, fervour-spreading tour of Britain, and they returned to a hero’s welcome. They remained in good favour for a couple of years and their influence was massive, bands cut from similar cloth turning out untold quantities of equally dementing records in the “new” style (like this one) but in due course their material became more banal until 1925 when their leader, Nick LaRocca, put the band on indefinite hold following a nervous breakdown.

But they have remained loved, however history may have treated them. By the late 1930s, the “New Orleans Revival” led any number of enthusiasts to dig ever deeper into the roots of the music, and history was re-written. Or, more accurately, “written.” Earlier accounts had been blessed with far less information and a certain amount of assumption, leading to a widespread belief that jazz had been immaculately conceived in Victor’s recording studio. But now there was testimony from Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, among many others, all of whom waxed eloquently of the rough and ready jazz played many years earlier in New Orleans and beyond. It’s hard now to imagine a time when this wouldn’t have been common knowledge, but back then the news was ruinous to the trailblazing reputation that had been foisted upon the ODJB. The music won, thankfully, and while they were ultimately shown up as being perfectly decent and fortuitously placed (if not wholly original), their records became cornerstones of the New Orleans revival and formed some of the urtexts of the ensuing Trad boom. And why wouldn’t they? A hundred years later they still sound crazily energetic, crude, manic, almost grating but impossibly thrilling, rattling with the bone-shaking momentum of a cycle ride down a cobblestone hill with solid tyres and no brakes. You can almost hear your mother shouting at you from the bottom of the stairs to turn that bloody racket down! Jazz could only, possibly, be a force for good in the world after starting like this – ageless maybe, deathless undeniably

Next time – Swing and the 1930s.

5 thoughts on “Wild Cats and Weather Birds – Some Joys of Jazz Antiquity

  1. I randomly found this post while doing an internet search and I am so glad! This is a wonderful tour of jazz history. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Andrew, your kind words are warmly received! Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve had a dig around some of your pieces and followed your Pop Of Yestercentury blog , and was delighted to find that you too believe that a compilation of old jazz carries as much daring imagination and great entertainment value as a compilation of pop music from any decade post-Elvis. The classic recordings of, say, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers run together every bit as pleasingly as those of the Beatles, the Byrds, the Buzzcocks or whoever else obsessed me in my youth! “How (Not )To Listen To Jazz” was particularly rewarding, pointing out the frequent but frustrating connection that people make with the music and its trappings. Still, it gives us both something to write about in the stolen moments away from work!

      Thanks again, and best wishes,


      (P.S. I’m on holiday next week, where I shall give Jack Pettis and the Northwestern Sax School my full and undivided!)

      • Hey, Mike, thanks for reading my blog and for those kind words! I am discovering a lot of new music through your website. Exchanges like this one make me feel very happy to have a blog. Have a wonderful vacation and I’ll “see” you on WordPress! Best,

  2. ‘Lovemaking, if sincere, is one of the best ideas Satan put in the apple she gave to the serpent to give to Eve. The best idea in that apple, though, is making Jazz.’ Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Timequake’.

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