Friday, May 19, 2017

"Mechanic" - by Whitney Balliett

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“THAT JAZZ should be written about critically is doubtful. It is an elusive, subjective form, whose delights are immediate and often fleeting. It seizes the emotions and the heart—but rarely the head— and few people need written instructions on how to feel.


Moreover, jazz, unlike many musics, must be listened to and listened to before its secrets, which are many, become plain, and no amount of reading will do this for you. Nonetheless, the music is mercurial, and the curiosity about it is widespread.


As a result, perhaps an attempt should be made to pin down its sights and sounds on paper. I am also pretty well convinced that some sort of running commentary on the music's ceaseless change has value; after all, jazz is the liveliest and possibly most influential music in the world, and tomorrow it may be gone.


To be sure, no such commentary can be wholly accurate or wholly agreeable. Critics are biased, and so ate readers. (Indeed, a critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste.) But intelligent readers soon discover how to allow for the windage of their own and a critic's prejudices.”
- Whitney Balliett, Jazz author and critic


“In presenting this collection
of 64 of the greatest rifles by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra Columbia is paying an unprecedented and long overdue tribute to the least known of the jazz giants. Frank Driggs' extensive notes must necessarily concentrate on the musical aspects of Henderson's life, whereas I would like to tell enough about him as a person to justify the subtitle "A Study In Frustration."


My first experiences on the musical scene were in the year 1931. I had left Yale in my sophomore year after two attacks of jaundice, and it was my determination to make a career in the music business, preferably in recording. But it was the third year of the Great Depression, all but four of the record companies were dead, and there was no place for on enthusiastic and excitable kid in the studios of New York. As an alternative, I gathered unto myself a couple of knowledgeable partners, took over a theater in downtown New York, and embarked upon a stage show plus movie policy not unlike the ones in Harlem.


Being a jazz fan, I worshipped Fletcher Henderson, and was determined to have him on the first bill. At the time the band was being booked by Tom Rockwell of the Rockwell-O'Keefe office, and I called Rockwell to book the band for one week, with options for more. Instead of welcoming me with open arms, Tommy Rockwell suggested that I was out of my mind to want Henderson when another of his clients, Don Redman, was available for only a slightly higher fee. I persisted, however, and was warned that I was in for a lot of trouble.


Rockwell's prophecy was an understatement. The theater policy was four stage shows a day, storting at noon. On the first day, the opening show went on with five of the 13 Henderson sidemen in the pit, and during the remainder of the week there were over 50 instances of tardiness and other infractions of union rules, Needless to say Henderson's option was not picked up, but most of the band was retained under the sterner hand of Luis Russell.


My next professional contact with the Henderson band was a couple of months later, and this turned out to be my debut as a recording supervisor. Through Ben Selvin, musical director of the old Columbia Phonograph Company, I met the president, Herman Ward, and sold him on the idea of letting me produce a session with the greatest of bands, you guessed it, Fletcher Henderson. I made the fatal mistake of scheduling the session of ten in the morning, and the final musician (it was the late John Kirby) didn't stagger in until 12:30. Somehow or other we made three of the four sides in something under an hour, and they are among the finest Henderson ever cut,


Fletcher was casual to the point of irresponsibility after losing his steady |ob at Roseland in the late '20s. The fact that he was able to survive is due almost entirely to the tenacity of his wife, Leora Meux, who had formerly been married to Russell Smith, the first trumpeter of the Henderson band. In the '20s, she made Fletcher buy a beautiful house at 224 West 139th Street, one of a series on Strivers' Row which had been designed by Stanford White for the middle class German families who bad once inhabited Harlem. When times got tough, Miss tee took in roomers, and also became one of the finest musical copyists in the city.


Miss Lee was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and was proud of her Creole forebears. Both she and, to o lesser degree, her husband were caste and color conscious, on attitude not untypical of light-skinned, middle class Negroes of that time. She
was an ardent convert to Christian Science and was my great friend, because I had been brought up (and stayed) in that faith and had shared with her the same practitioner. Many was the night that Fletcher caroused and came home to find an apt quotation from the works of Mary Baker Eddy pinned to his pillow.


Among musicians Fletcher's nickname was Smack, (his brother Horace was Little Smock), names that were not popular with Miss Lee. As Fletcher spent more and more time on the road, and with the news of other "Mrs. Hendersons" in places like Chicago and Los Angeles filtering in, Miss Lee took refuge in eating and grew to a formidable size. She outlived Fletcher six years, an embittered though philosophical widow. A great lady, she had as many mourners as her more celebrated husband.
There are many theories as to why Fletcher became his own worst enemy as a business man. An early success as a band leader, unrivaled social acceptance os a college-trained son of teaching parents, and an unparalleled skill in assembling great musicians should have made him a fortune and given him stability. It is my belief that the color bar crippled his ambition and made him cynical of the intentions of oil white people. It was not until the '30s that big agencies like MCA, William Morris, and GAC would consider booking Negro bands, and until that time


Henderson was exploited by the small-timers.
The fact is that his easy going nature made for a loose and happily swinging group of top-flight instrumentalists who would not have tolerated the kind of discipline either Ellington or Lunceford would have imposed. Fletcher's musical standards were always of the highest, however, and his musicians had a way of looking down on their more prosperous brothers in other bands.


In the '20s, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was musically the most advanced in the land, but it was revered by a very limited public. He developed musicians who went on to much greater fame on their own, and devised the arranging formula that made Benny Goodman the "King of Swing" in the '30s and '40s. He made great recordings of his own compositions which sold a minimal number, only to have the same tunes and arrangements cut by Benny Goodman with astronomical sales.


No question about it; he was frustrated.”     
—John Hammond, 1961


While there are those among us that sing the praises of Ferde Grofe, Don Redman, Benny Carter, Bill Challis and Fletcher Henderson for establishing the framework for the modern big band and for creating the structure for big band arrangement, leave it to Whitney Balliett in the following essay to explain why it wasn’t worth the trouble because they really didn’t pull it off in the first place!


"THE MUNIFICENT RELEASE by Columbia of "The Fletcher Henderson Story: A Study in Frustration," which contains sixty-four numbers (on four L.P.s) recorded between 1923 and 1938, is somewhat like reissuing Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. Both Henderson's band and Johnson's work were seminal affairs, both were training schools, both were widely copied, both had serious faults, and both, despite their considerable period appeal, are outdated.


At the same time, the Henderson album unintentionally reaffirms the theory that the most lasting music of the big-band era, which began around 1925 and ended during the Second World War, was provided not by the big bands but by countless small swing groups. Though obscured by the bluster of the larger groups, these thrived in the thirties and early forties. A few were permanent or nearly permanent groups, others were drawn from the big bands for informal recording sessions. The full-time small bands were led by Red Norvo, Joe Marsala, Roy Eldridge, Bunny Berigan, Stuff Smith, John Kirby, Adrian Rollini, Frankie Newton, and Fats Waller. The best of the myriad recording groups were organized by Teddy Wilson, Mezz Mezzrow, Red Allen, Lionel Hampton, Sidney Bechet, and various Ellington sidemen, or appeared under names like the Kansas City Six, the Chocolate Dandies, and the Varsity Seven. The small Goodman and Artie Shaw combinations were both in-the-flesh and recording groups.


The recordings made by all these bands generally followed these patterns: arranged ensembles-solos-arranged ensembles, or solos-arranged ensembles, or solos-jammed ensembles, or unadorned solos. Some groups were miniature big bands, others were purely improvisatory. Most important, the recordings were relaxed and impromptu; they abound in clams, exhilaration, and sterling solos. (However, the Goodman, Ellington, Kirby, and Basic groups were as finished as anything jazz had produced.)


There are two everlasting exceptions to this small-swing-group theory—the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Both these bands resembled small groups, though in different ways. Ellington used massed instruments only to set the tone or melody of a piece, and tightly blended his instrumental sections, or parts of them, with his soloists. One was conscious not of size but of continually shifting play of melodies, textures, and colors, in which the soloists and ensembles had a kind of familial relationship. There was no military display, no bunched redcoats potting away at the soloists.


The Basie band achieved its lightness and seeming smallness through simple, often poignantly played ensemble riffs, which were handed around with a casualness and lack of emphasis that buoyed up the frequent solos. Moreover, the Ellington and Basic bands had unique, easily identifiable styles. Henderson's band, on the other hand, was big, noisy, imitable, and peculiarly flavorless. It was the sort of thick-waisted assemblage that invites weighing and measuring.


Indeed, Henderson, along with Don Redman and Benny Carter, who wrote his arrangements before he himself took over, invented the big band, and was more or less responsible for designing the pantheon later inhabited by—among countless others—Goodman, Shaw, Cab Calloway, Glen Gray, the Dorsey brothers, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton. But Henderson also invented a problem— successfully skirted by Ellington and Basie, and presently under consideration by Charlie Mingus— that neither he nor any of his imitators solved before the big-band era collapsed: how to squeeze ten to fifteen jazz musicians into a wasteless and flexible jazz unit.


A calm, tall, poised man with a pleasant, bland face, Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1898, of parents who were teachers, and died in New York in 1952. He attended Atlanta University, where he majored in chemistry, and in 1920 headed for Columbia and post-graduate work. (Many of the Negro bandleaders of the late twenties and early thirties came from similar backgrounds; fortunately for jazz, it wasn't as easy for even educated Negroes to find jobs as bus drivers and the like as it is now.)


Henderson, an easygoing follow-your-nose soul who had been taught piano by his mother, fell into music, and formed his first band in 1923. The rest of his career was equally rudderless. He was a fair-to-poor businessman, a spotty disciplinarian (his often great and ingeniously chosen sidemen eventually became a collection of prima donnas who were frequently tardy, heavy-drinking, and quarrelsome), and the kind of man who regards opportunities as insults.


Toward the end of the twenties, Henderson suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident, which apparently converted him from a relaxed man into a lazy one. As a result, he never quite reached the top, and after a fitful decade and a half as a bandleader, he went into semi-retirement. However, Henderson did succeed, in an ironic fashion. In 1935, he began writing arrangements for Goodman. It was an indenture that lasted well over a decade and that had much to do with Goodman's fame. For Goodman's band was largely a popularization of Henderson's, down to the very solos. It is hard, in fact, not to think of Goodman's band as the Benny Goodman-Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.


Henderson was more of a talented accidentalist than an originator. His first band had, like the large white dance bands that had preceded it, nine or ten men and an instrumentation of two trumpets, one trombone, two or three reeds, piano, banjo, tuba, and drums. It employed brief solos and arrangements that alternately sighed and bumped along on fashionable clarinet trios and two-beat now-you-hear-us, now-you-don't rhythm sections.


hen, in 1924, Louis Armstrong joined the band and Don Redman began to take hold. Redman's arrangements sidestepped New Orleans polyphony and served up smooth, melodic variations written for specific sections of the band and often set in call-and-response patterns. And Armstrong's imaginativeness completed the shift from an imitation white dance orchestra to a jazz band. Between 1925, when Armstrong departed, and 1930, the band began collecting superior soloists like Joe Smith, Rex Stewart, Benny Morton, Jimmy Harrison, Tommy Ladnier, and Bobby Stark.


It also collected Benny Carter, as an arranger, alto saxophonist, and clarinetist. Carter's arrangements were in many ways the most accomplished ones Henderson ever used. Carter wrote limber, seemingly improvised passages for the reeds and light, complementary brass figures, all of which were immeasurably helped by a steady four-four beat and the substitution of the guitar and string bass for the banjo and tuba. Henderson's own arrangements, which began coming off the presses in quantity after Carter left, were far more formal. The sections shouted stubbornly at one another or were mixed lumpishly in colorless voicings. They called for more instruments, and those instruments called for even more instruments. But Henderson's arrangements, along with those of his younger brother Horace, achieved considerable polish (though also predictability) and served as the latticework for the magnificent soloists who continued to file in and out of the band—Claude Jones, Cootie Williams, Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Dickie Wells, and (in the last years) Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Sid Catlett, Emmett Berry, and Ben Webster. Stark stayed on until 1933 and Coleman Hawkins until 1934, and Walter Johnson, who—Chick Webb excepted —was the first of the big-band drummers, was with Henderson almost continually from 1928 until the
end. The band reached two peaks—between 1932 and 1934, and briefly in 1936.


But even in these years something was missing. The foursquare arrangements, though adept, were dull and gray, and were often executed accordingly. Unlike those used by Ellington and Basie, they seemed unrelated to the soloists; they filled the ears and they filled space. The puzzle of what to do with the twelve and more instruments slowly accumulated through the years was met simply by pressing them into four regiments, which exchanged riffs and fragmentary melodic variations or marched stoutly together, parting here and there to let a soloist through. (This failure had a good deal to do with the revolution eventually known as bebop.)


Yet the soloists were the Henderson band, and it is Red Allen, Eldridge, Hawkins, Benny Morton, Claude Jones, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Joe Smith, J. C. Higginbotham, and Bobby Stark who provide the excitement in Henderson's recordings. To be sure, it has frequently been pointed out that Henderson's band almost never came through properly on records. And barring the solos, many of the numbers in the Columbia album do have a stale, time-clock air. Some are even pallid. But there are exceptions—a very fast "Chinatown" (1930); Carter's arrangement of "Sweet and Hot" (1931); Horace Henderson's "Hot and Anxious" (1931), in which some of the riffs that became "In the Mood," "Swingin" the Blues," and "One O'Clock Jump" are three-dimensionally on view (Henderson was a star-crossed man); Horace Henderson's "Comin' and Coin'" (1931), with exemplary Stark and Morton solos; the various "King Porter Stomp"s (1932, 1933), which are—some of the solos included—the Goodman band to come, and which reveal Hawkins entering his great middle period; Horace Henderson's arrangement of Hawkins's "Queer Notions" (1933), a fascinating, semi-atonal avant-garde piece, with solos to match by the composer and Red Allen; and the celebrated 1936 "Christopher Columbus," "Stealin" Apples," and "Blue Lou," all of them brilliantly dominated by Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry.


Most of the drawbacks in the Columbia set are unavoidable. The sound of the pre-i93o records is generally sandy and remote, though it is better than on the original y8s, and there is a complete blank between 1933 and 1956, and for a good reason: five celebrated sides, made under Horace Henderson's name for English Parlophone in 1933, were unavailable for the album, as were the sixteen or so superior numbers set down the following year for Decca and Victor. (Only one of these is now available.)


Accordingly, the accent in the album falls rather heavily on the early academically-interesting-only years. (However, none of the first-rate small-band efforts made in 1930 by the Chocolate Dandies, who were drawn from the band, are included. And perhaps wisely so; they would have blotted out everything around them.)


The set is rounded off with a sizable booklet, which has good photographs and an excellent account of Henderson's career by Frank Driggs. There is also a brief memoir by John Hammond, who, as Henderson's friend and as the head of Columbia's current reissue program, deserves high commendation for restoring the master machine that produced the machines that eventually ate it."







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