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THE PACESETTERS IN NEW YORK JAZZ OF THE 1920S

sax instrument bass tenor

During the 1920s many unique musicians appeared on the jazz scene in New York, lending their highly individual voices to the music. The role of the cornet, and its successor the trumpet, in the 1920s was still the lead voice in ensembles and the horn usually most responsible for stating the melody. Louis Armstrong widened its range and potential, while Bix Beiderbecke offered an alternative voice. Joe Smith with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra had a mellow tone, one that Bessie Smith enjoyed hearing behind her on her recordings. In 1929 Henry “Red” Allen, Jabbo Smith, and Reuben “River” Reeves were all recorded by labels hoping that their hot style of trumpet playing could compete with Louis Armstrong. Allen would have a long career, while the other two soon faded away, although Jabbo Smith’s fiery and explosive playing with his Rhythm Aces had an influence on Roy Eldridge later in the 1930s. Cootie Williams succeeded Bubber Miley, a master at using mutes. The lyrical Arthur Whetsol and Freddie Jenkins added further color and variety to Duke Ellington’s trumpet section.

As a cornetist, Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols was technically skilled if emotionally a bit bland. In great demand for record dates from 1925 to 1932, Nichols also led many sessions of his own under other names, with his best known being Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. Nichols and his trombonist through 1928, Miff Mole, often employed unusual interval jumps, radical-sounding whole-tone runs, and a mixture of arranged and jammed ensembles.

During the 1920s the trombone evolved from a novelty instrument used for its effects, primarily in New York before New Orleans and Chicago, to playing percussive harmony and emerging as a solo instrument. Kid Ory’s rhythmic approach was influential in the early days, but as the decade progressed, other trombonists helped free the instrument from such a subsidiary role. Charlie Page 44  Green with Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith displayed a bluesy and swinging style. Tricky Sam Nanton with Duke Ellington became Bubber Miley’s equivalent on trumpet as an innovator with mutes. Miff Mole, particularly with Red Nichols, had plenty of technique and adventurous ideas, even if his phrasing was rhythmically awkward. Jimmy Harrison, featured with Fletcher Henderson, displayed a smooth legato style, but his early death kept him from having a bigger influence.

Jack Teagarden created a sensation among musicians in 1928 and 1929 after he arrived in New York. He played the trombone with the authority of a trumpeter, certainly had no difficulty with either blues or complex pieces, and displayed outstanding musicianship; he was also a superior blues singer. Teagarden liberated the trombone from its earlier role, no longer restricted to being merely a supportive instrument.

The clarinet had already been “freed” during the New Orleans years. In fact, the big three 1920s clarinetists were all from New Orleans: Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, and Jimmie Noone. Bechet was a child prodigy who played clarinet in public at age eight and as a teenager performed with all the top bands in New Orleans. By 1914 when he was seventeen, he was already traveling throughout the South with different shows, landing in Chicago by 1917. As a member of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Bechet traveled to Europe in 1918 where his virtuoso solos and wide vibrato made him very popular. While in London, he bought a soprano sax that eventually became his main horn. Bechet was a very passionate player, and he could be quite fiery as an individual, too, often getting in fights. Back in New York, in 1923 he made his first recordings and was showcased as jazz’s first major non-piano soloist on “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Man Blues” with Clarence Williams’ group. After two years of recordings, including matchups with Louis Armstrong, he spent most of the 1920s in Europe, limiting his influence on American players.

Although it seems like the saxophone was always associated with the music, it was rarely ever used in jazz before the early 1920s and was quite insignificant before 1925. There were six types of Page 45  saxes used in the 1920s: the soprano, alto, C-melody, tenor, baritone, and bass. Sidney Bechet started doubling on soprano in 1920 and carved out such a distinctive voice on the instrument that few others played it for decades. The C-melody sax, which is voiced between the tenor and the alto, was the vehicle for Frankie Trumbauer, best known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke and for his recordings with his own combos and with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. The bass sax, which was mastered by Adrian Rollini, was sometimes substituted for tuba or string bass in the rhythm section. Although Bechet, Trumbauer, and Rollini were three of the greatest saxophonists of the 1920s, the soprano would be a minor instrument until the 1960s, the C-melody never caught on beyond Trumbauer, and the bass sax became largely extinct by the 1930s except on rare occasions.

At first it looked like there was no role for the tenor sax in jazz either. Sometimes used as a poor substitute for a trombone, at other times utilized for comedy effects, the tenor did not appear in jazz until Coleman Hawkins joined Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1921. Hawkins joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1923, and although technically skilled, he employed slap-tonguing and odd tonal distortions in some of his early solos. After Louis Armstrong joined Henderson, Hawkins learned quickly, smoothed out his style, and became the first great tenor saxophonist. His 1926 recording with Henderson, “The Stampede,” has what is considered the first important tenor sax solo on records. Hawkins’ thick tone and mastery of chords made him the pacesetter in his field. Most other tenor saxophonists who arrived on the scene up to the mid-1930s sounded a great deal like Hawkins, including Chu Berry and Ben Webster. The only important exception was Bud Freeman whose tone was softer than Hawkins and choice of notes more angular. Otherwise Hawkins towered over the field on tenor.

The alto sax was used as an extra instrument on jazz recordings in the early 1920s, giving a sweeter sound to the ensembles. Although it worked well as a lead horn with larger ensembles, it did not attract any major soloists until Jimmy Dorsey emerged in 1926. He was soon joined by Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington’s band and Benny Carter. The baritone sax was only used in the 1920s as a Page 46  substitute for the bass sax, at least until Harry Carney became the first important jazz baritonist when he joined Duke Ellington in 1927.

Because the best stride pianists kept time with their powerful left hands, other rhythm instruments in the 1920s tended to be optional, particularly in small groups. The banjo was favored over the guitar during much of the era simply because it could be heard better. Most banjoists simply kept time, strumming their strings on every beat; the remarkable Harry Reser, who could play with the facility of a pianist, was one of the few exceptions.

After electrical recording developed, the more flexible guitar began to take over, and the banjo became a much rarer instrument in jazz. Eddie Lang was the leading guitarist from 1926 to 1933 because he could play both complex chords and single-note solos. He was in great demand for studio sessions with both jazz and commercial groups, often teamed with violinist Joe Venuti on some classic sessions. Only his premature death in 1933 stopped him from being a major force for many decades to come. A few other guitarists, most notably bluesman Lonnie Johnson, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, and Teddy Bunn, also proved to be fine soloists. Usually the guitar assumed the same role formerly held by banjoists, keeping the rhythm steady and being felt more than heard.

Many of the earliest jazz dates did not use a bass instrument because, with piano and banjo being employed, the tuba could get in the way or overwhelm the other instruments on the recording. With larger groups, the tuba was used more often than a bass because it could be better heard. Since tuba players had to breathe, they usually only played on every other beat, one and three, while drummers emphasized two and four. Solos were very rare and brief.

Even before the switch over to electrical recording, there were some string bassists who were being used on records. The first major players were the New Orleans pioneer Bill Johnson and Steve Brown, who added a real lift to the final choruses of Jean Goldkette’s records. The improvement in recording quality doomed the tuba because bassists could play four beats to a bar and really drive a band. During 1928 and 1929, Wellman Braud, with Duke Ellington, and Pops Foster became the leading bassists. All bassists during this period were restricted to providing accompaniment for bands, very rarely taking more than a two-bar break and never having a full-length solo.

Drummers faced a major dilemma between 1917 and 1927. They were forbidden to use their full drum set, especially the bass drum, on record dates because it was felt that they would destroy the recording balance and drown out the other instruments. Drummers had to become subtle percussionists, using woodblocks, cowbells, cymbals, and sometimes washboards. In 1927 recording techniques finally allowed full drum sets to be recorded, starting with a set by the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans that featured Gene Krupa. By the end of the decade Krupa, Dave Tough, and Chick Webb were the leading drummers in New York. As with bassists and guitarists, their primary role was to accompany the soloists because the real stars were the horns, singers, and pianists.

There were three very impressive jazz violin soloists who first made an impression in the 1920s. Eddie South and Stuff Smith recorded a few obscure titles and would find greater recognition during the swing era. Joe Venuti was the leader in his field during the classic jazz era. Venuti was a major soloist by 1925 at twenty-two, often teaming up with Eddie Lang on studio dates, jazz sessions, and for heated violin-guitar duets. His small group recordings from the era are a real joy. After Lang’s premature death, from a botched tonsillectomy in 1933, Venuti continued working, although his big band during the swing era was quite obscure and he maintained a low profile in the 1950s. Rediscovered in 1967, Venuti made a full comeback and played at his absolute prime during the decade before his death in 1978. Even if he had not been such an exciting jazz violinist, Joe Venuti might still be famous as a practical joker. In one of his many stunts he once called up a couple of dozen bassists, offering them a gig and telling them to meet him on a busy intersection; Venuti watched the ensuing chaos from a safe distance!

 

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