Five Birmingham Babies
Recorded in 1924
“Copenhagen” was a big hit for the Wolverines: although they didn’t originate the number, they made it a hit, and every band played it because the Wolverines had been so successful with it. Here we have a version by a small group of musicians from the famous California Ramblers. We’ve heard the Five Birmingham Babies once before, playing “Deep Sea Blues,” which is the flip side of this record.
Bix Beiderbecke, the Wolverines’ star player, was already becoming a sensation among jazz musicians. On this record, the cornet player duplicates Bix’s recorded solo note for note—the earliest recorded Bix imitation I know of.
Aside from the cornet solo, though, this record could hardly be more different from the Wolverines’ version. That’s largely because of the unique and instantly recognizable bounce that Adrian Rollini gives to the rhythm section. A few other bands used the bass sax in place of a tuba or string bass, but no one else could make that leviathan of the reed family dance the way Adrian Rollini could.
This is one of those cheap reddish-brown “Perfect” records, whose surface tended not to hold up as well as the more expensive records from other labels. But the recorded sound itself is very good, about as good as acoustical recording can ever be. I’ve preferred to leave in more of the surface noise rather than lose too much of the original sound.
California Brass Marimba Orchestra
Do You Ever Think of Me?
Recorded in 1921
Brass bands and marimba bands were both very popular around 1920, so why not combine the two? I think it might have worked very well if there had been more musicians, but here there are neither enough brasses nor enough marimbas to make a really impressive effect. I especially miss the bass: I would have traded the saxophone for a sousaphone or something. The drummer belatedly tries to throw a little jazz feeling in with his woodblocks near the end, but it’s too little and too late.
Still, it’s interesting to hear a tune that would become a jazz standard. Here it is at the beginning of its life, played straight, with the verse as well as the chorus. And, of course, there are marimbas, and how often do you get to hear this tune played on marimbas these days?
Fly Away Taxi
This record was made in Lebanon, so now once you’ve heard it you know as much as I do about it.
“Leila Stevens” doesn’t sound like a very Arabic name, but her singing sounds Middle Eastern enough to pass for the real thing to my Western ears. The style is much less traditional and more Beirut-nightclub than the Sammy Shahen record we heard here a while ago, and we can imagine that Leila might have been very popular in the hottest Lebanese venues in the 1950s or so. The song itself (sung in Arabic, in spite of the English title) is irresistibly catchy, and you may have trouble getting it out of your head.
Jack Chapman and His Drake Hotel Orchestra
Recorded in 1923
Jack Chapman’s orchestra was a Chicago band that (according to the picture above) seems to have been part of Edgar Benson‘s musical empire. I really don’t know anything else about the band, although the Red Hot Jazz site has what seems to be a complete discography. The band on the record is slightly largar than the one in the photograph: there are two violins audible in the bridge of the last chorus, but only one in the picture. The instrumentation is unusual: the photograph shows no brasses—only reeds, strings, and rhythm—and the same is true on the record.
As for this record, there’s nothing special about it, except that it’s delightfully understated. “Hawaiian” music was one of the big fads of the 1920s, and like most of the musical fads of the time, it was susceptible to abuse. Here the arrangement is simple and straightforward, with no tricky breaks or modulations, and just enough ukulele behind the vocal to give us the proper Hawaiian atmosphere. It’s the musical equivalent of relaxing on a tropical beach with nothing to do all afternoon, or at least for the next two minutes and fifty-two seconds.
Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
He’s the Hottest Man in Town
Recorded in 1924
Coleman Hawkins was terribly embarrassed whenever he heard one of his old records from the beginning of his career. Sometimes he would flat-out deny that he had played that solo. Other times he would sheepishly declare, “Oh, that was my grandfather.”
This particularly good performance by Fletcher Henderson’s band gives Hawkins a full chorus to demonstrate to us whether he really had anything to be embarrassed about. I think what embarrassed him was that his style changed radically over the years, and a musician is apt to regard his stylistic changes as a course of continuous improvement and discovery. We might hear his early style as something legitimately good in its own right, but to the musician it seems like what he played when he didn’t know any better.
In late 1924, Coleman Hawkins was just coming out of his “chicken tenor” phase and heading toward his “staccato” phase. In this solo, we still hear a bit of poultry-like squawking on the bridge, but the rest of the chorus seems to be headed for something more sophisticated.
I mentioned earlier that I thought Adrian Rollini might have been the world’s best jazz saxophone player in 1924. The obvious competition is Coleman Hawkins, and here’s Hawkins doing some of his very best work. I still stand by my opinion. Hawkins would go on to be the greatest jazz saxophonist of all time; he just wasn’t quite there yet. Rollini, on the other hand, was already in peak form by 1924.
There are other notable musicians on this record, too. The first-rate banjoist Charlie Dixon gets a quarter-chorus solo, and Charlie Green gets a quarter chorus to show us why he might just have been the best jazz trombonist alive in 1924. Louis Armstrong is in this band as well, although he doesn’t get a solo. The arrangement is probably by Don Redman.
New York Philharmonic, Conducted by Josef Stransky
Ippolitow-Iwanow: Cortège du Sardar
Recorded in 1919
Poor old Josef Stransky. All his hard work earned him nothing more than a reputation as a mediocre conductor unworthy of his appointment to the New York Philharmonic. But really, who can follow an act like Gustav Mahler?
“The financial backers of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra will be interested to learn that the German artistic world is filled with astonishment over the engagement of Josef Stransky of Berlin as the successor to the late Gustav Mahler,” wrote the New York Times.
“After much upheaval, search and negotiation, the New York Philharmonic Society…has engaged Josef Stransky… Without disrespect to Mr. Stransky, there are reasons which cause this circumstance to remind one of Aesop’s fable of the mountain in labor which finally brought forth a mouse,” wrote Musical America.
“Succeeding one of the greatest figures in modern music, the late Gustav Mahler, Stransky maintained himself for so long, not so much by his musical abilities as by his social charm and personal cleverness,” wrote D. W. Sinclair.
Practically his whole Wikipedia entry is a catalogue of such slights and outright insults. There were better conductors out there, but was Stransky all that bad? Or did he simply suffer from Not-Mahler syndrome? A pretty good conductor is bound to be a disappointment if he replaces one of the greatest figures in the history of music. Eventually Stransky gave up the conducting business to be an art dealer, so perhaps he wasn’t cut out for music after all. Or perhaps he just wanted to go somewhere where people didn’t spit on him.
At any rate, this recording of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar,” the most famous piece from his Caucasian Sketches, is good in its own right, as well as an interesting opportunity to hear a great orchestra under a reviled conductor. For what it’s worth, this recording of what many conductors might dismiss as an inconsequential pops-concert staple is a pretty good one, comparing favorably with the same orchestra’s much later recording under Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps Stransky was best suited for inconsequential pops-concert staples. It’s also interesting to hear an acoustical recording of a piece that normally depends on extremes of volume for its effect, from nearly inaudible to conduct-it-with-your-fists loud. The limited range of acoustical recording forces us to concentrate on the music, in which we may discover some virtues that we missed when we were holding our ears.
Because of a chip in the edge of the record, the first two measures are missing from this transcription. In this acoustical recording, they were nearly inaudible, as indeed they are even in a live performance.
The National Orchestra of Belgium
(L’Orchestre nationale de Belgique; Het Nationaal Orkest van Belgie)
Under the Direction of Edouard van Remoortel
When we last heard from Jacques Stehman, I quoted some anonymous music critic from the French and Flemish liner notes of his Symphonie de poche: “The music of Jacques Stehman is clear and simple in style. It is a happy music.”
Well, this one isn’t a happy music. This is the sound of utter despair. Composers often take the opportunity of a requiem or a funeral march to reach for some hope that will carry us through present grief to acceptance and ultimate joy. Not Stehman. There is no hope in his funeral march: there is only grief. This is the flip side of being “clear and simple in style.”
This recording was an unadvertised filler on the same 10-inch LP that carried the Symphonie de poche. You don’t even know it exists until you take the record out of the sleeve and see that there’s an extra track on side 2. So it’s very interesting to compare the two pieces: Stehman has used almost the same melodic elements to construct a joyous fanfare at the beginning of the Symphonie de poche and a cry of despair at the climax of his Marche funebre. What does it mean? I have no idea. But I advise listening to this piece when you’re feeling pretty good about the world. If you’re feeling down, believe me, it won’t help.
Enric Madriguera and His Hotel Waylin Orchestra
Blow, Gabriel, Blow
Recorded in 1934
A nearly perfect version of one of Cole Porter’s best songs.
Enric Madriguera was born in Barcelona, but he spent his musical career in the United States. He took advantage of the Latin-band craze of the late 1930s and 1940s, but in the early 1930s he had a respectable hotel band that tended to sound like a lot of other respectable hotel bands.If you want to know more about him, I’m afraid he doesn’t have a Wikipedia article in English yet. But he does have one in Catalan, which tells us that he employed Carmen Cavallero as a pianist for a while, and very briefly the wonderful Helen Ward as a singer.
The vocalist is Tony Sacco, whose voice sounds a bit like Chick Bullock’s on this record. We can hear Madriguera’s accordion throughout, which actually blends very well with the brasses.
Bob Haring’s Velvetone Orchestra
Recorded in 1923
Bob Haring had a lot to do with the sound of popular music in the 1920s. You’ve probably never heard of him, but back then he was perhaps the most respected peddler of stock arrangements. (The top bands could afford their own specialty arrangements, but the thousands of ordinary dance bands across the country made do with store-bought arrangements, which they might alter here and there to fit their own particular talents.)
Haring was also a prolific recording director, but no one knows just how prolific, because most of his work was done under pseudonyms. He did, however, record a few sides under his own name, and the ones for Cameo (a bargain label for five-and-ten stores) used the interesting gimmick of adding flutes to the reed section, giving the band its velvet tone as advertised.
The gimmick works: it gives the band a distinctive sound without lapsing into bad taste. Haring was an arranger who knew how to sell a song, which is how he made his reputation, and this is unusually classy dance music. The sound of the acoustical Cameo record is pretty good, too, comparing favorably with the big labels. Listen especially to the second chorus, the one after the verse: Haring pulls all the orchestral colors out of his crayon box, but in a subtle enough way that the dancers never notice how hard he’s working.
Philip Spitalny and His Orchestra
Someone Is Losin’ Susan
Recorded in 1926
Phil Spitalny is best remembered for his Hour of Charm Orchestra, an all-girl band featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin. (Phil ended up marrying Evelyn, and the Magic Violin passed the rest of its days in boozy depression before finally succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.)
But this was before that, when he had a hot band that could compete with the best dance orchestras of the middle 1920s. This was that short but miraculous time when every popular band was actually trying to play good jazz, and many of them were succeeding. Listen to the last chorus and ask yourself whether popular dance music ever got any better.
Phil Spitalny was born in Ukraine, which was disguised as Russia back then, but he grew up in Cleveland. His brother Maurice was well known to a generation of Pittsburghers as leader of house bands on several radio stations, and later on television, but perhaps most visibly as the director of the pit band at the Stanley Theater downtown. His fans remember how the band used to strike up the newsreel theme, then sink out of sight (the whole orchestra pit was on an elevator) and fade away as the projectionist turned up the sound on the film, so that it was impossible to tell when the band stopped and the soundtrack began. They don’t teach that skill at the conservatories.