Friday, May 20, 2011

Miff Mole

“In 1927, Miff Mole’s playing was far in advance of any white recording trombonist. His command of the instrument was so supple as to make others sound fumbling. Hitherto, the trombone in Jazz had been employed chiefly for smears, swoops and chord bases. Few ,if any, Jazz trombonists ventured to explore the instrument’s possibilities for melodic improvisation. Mole proved once and for all that the trombone and flexibility were not irreconcilable.”
- Jay D. Smith and Len Guttridge, Jack Teagarden: The Story of a Jazz Maverick, p. 55.

[Miff Mole]… sounded like a guy who started out as a legit player and came to Jazz from there. A lot of trombone players at that time had different little tricks, ways they found of getting around things. Miff went at it straight, head on: that slide was always in motion, all those maneuvers of the positions. Sometimes, watching him, I thought the slide was going to come right off the trombone.”
- Jack Lesburg, Jazz bassist

“His solos on records of this time show how far his basic concept had evolved. Their balance and trumpet-like accuracy of attack prompted some trombonists of the period to suggest that Miff must actually be playing valve trombone; no slide work, they insisted, could be that clean.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945, p. 123.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights

What follows is one of the saddest Jazz stories I’ve ever read.

“It's hard now to remember who spotted him first. Just an old-looking guy in an old-looking overcoat, standing there beside his big, old-looking trombone case. No mistaking him, though: wire-rimmed glasses just a little askew on a leathery, seamed face. The look — still, so many years later — of a slightly quizzical owl.

Miff Mole. Mister perfection himself. He of a thousand hot-lick surprises, leaping off countless old records with a "Gee, ain't this easy?" insouciance.

He'd been invited, this hero from the past, to appear at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. If you knew enough to care, the very idea that Miff Mole, the genuine item, was going to be playing there was an event in itself.

In Newport Festival annals, 1960 is remembered as the year the roof fell in. The year things got so unruly that the City Fathers finally decided they'd had enough, didn't really need to have their old-money purlieu overrun every Fourth of July by gangs of beer-swilling college kids.

"They came to drink, raise hell, and release their inhibitions," said Festival historian Burt Goldblatt. "It was a substitute for panty raids and had replaced the Ft. Lauderdale beach scene in spring.” [Newport Jazz Festival: An Illustrated History, New York: Dial Press, 1977]

He was sixty- two and hadn't played regularly in ten years. Repeated operations on an infected hip had undercut his health and depleted what savings he had. The jazz world of the time, embroiled in its usual intramural squabbling, neither knew of him nor gave a damn. Yet some important people, John Hammond among them, had remembered enough to find him and get him practicing again.

There was also internal strife. Festival founder-organizer George Wein had angered some musicians by engaging pop, folk, and rhythm-and-blues performers. Bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach seceded altogether, announcing their own concert series at nearby Cliff Walk Manor.

The Festival began Thursday evening at Freebody Park, while revelers by the carload streamed into town. By Saturday their numbers had swollen to an estimated twelve thousand; that night order broke down entirely, as hordes of them stormed the park's perimeter fence.

From there it was only a step to full-scale riot, with state police, tear gas, cries of "Kill the cops! Get the bastards!" all but drowning out musicians' attempts to play. At two a.m. the National Guard arrived. Heads were broken, arrests made.

He was to appear on Sunday, the final evening. It would be recorded, with radio and TV attendance. It looked for all the world like comeback time at last for the man Tommy Dorsey had once called "the Babe Ruth of the trombone."

At 9:20 Sunday morning, the Newport City Council met in emergency session. After hours of shouting and accusation, they put it to a vote: the Jazz Festival was finished.

Workers at Freebody began dismantling stage, tent, lights, chairs, sound system. Journalists, standing around the press tent, wondered why, for jazz, it was always a matter of one step forward, two steps back.

And into the middle of all this, steadying himself with a cane as he lugged the big trombone case, shuffled the gray, stooped figure of Miff Mole.

"It was like seeing an apparition," said Dan Morgenstern, in those days a twenty-nine-year-old freelance jazz writer. "He hadn't been listening to the radio. Didn't know about any of it. He'd just gone to Port Authority Station [New York] and taken the bus up to Newport." [conversation with Richard Sudhalter, December 4, 1992]

Photographer-archivist Jack Bradley spotted him right off. "He sat down on one of those folding chairs, just sat," said Bradley. "People kept walking by. Nobody even stopped to talk to him. He seemed utterly lost."[conversation with Richard Sudhalter, December 6, 1992]

He asked for a cigarette. Asked to speak to Hammond. "I've been practicing for weeks for this thing," he said to no one in particular. "My lip is in good shape—whatever that means."

Morgenstern remembered it with terrible clarity. "What went through my head was 'My God, he doesn't know. He doesn't know what's happened here.' But he seemed so old: he was only sixty-two—I'm sixty-three now—but here he was, on this windy, kind of chilly July day, dressed like an older person, several layers of clothing. And clearly exhausted." …

His disappointment at the way things worked out that Newport Sunday, said Dan Morgenstern, was a thing so vivid, so palpable, you could almost touch it. He tried to find John Hammond, for explanation, for reassurance. Anything. But Hammond was off fighting for the life of the festival; he never even knew, until afterwards, of the small drama going on in the press tent. In the end they got Miff back to the bus station, and he returned to New York.

Some time later—days? weeks?—trombonist Eddie Bert, who had taken les­sons from Miff back in 1941, reported seeing him somewhere on upper Broad­way, selling apples in the street. The story has circulated in several forms: some accounts place him near the 59th Street Bridge, selling pretzels. In another version it's peanuts. Another, pencils.

Fans, colleagues, admirers rallied in support. Record Research magazine published a special Miff Mole issue, its centerpiece an exhaustively researched, intelligent, and sympathetically written biographical article by Richard DuPage on which this chapter has drawn. Jack Crystal, who ran regular jam sessions at the Central Plaza, scheduled a "Miff Mole Night" benefit concert for late February 1961, the pro­ceeds to help Miff move to Arizona, where he might find a new life, another chance, teaching in a healthier environment.

Crystal (father of the comedian Billy Crystal) asked Benny Goodman to take part, and the clarinetist readily agreed. When out-of-town engagements in­tervened, Crystal rescheduled the date for March, then for April, and finally for May 22.

It never happened. On April 29, 1961, Miff Mole suffered a cerebral hem­orrhage at his 250 West 88th Street apartment. He was dead by the time medical help arrived.”

The above account is drawn from the beginning and ending pages of Richard Sudhalter’s chapter entitled Miff Mole and the Original Memphis Five in his seminal work, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999].

The remainder of Dick’s thirty-page essay is devoted to a musical analysis of Miff Mole’s significance to Jazz trombone, his style of playing, and the overall importance of the Early Jazz musicians with whom Miff [which is short for “Milfred”] worked.

Sudhalter pays particular attention to Miff’s tenure with the Original Memphis Five, a group whose contributions to the development of Traditional Jazz ranks right up there with the Original Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

In his treatment of Miff who, “… before Jack Teagarden arrived in New York at the end of the 1920s, was the envy of just about every hot trombonist around,” Sudhalter, as he notes, makes particularly use of Richard DuPage’s Miff Mole, First Trailblazer of Modern Jazz Trombone,” Record Research, No. 34, April, 1961.

Fortunately for Jazz fans everywhere, DuPage and Sudhalter have preserved a treasure trove of information about “New York and Its Hot Chamber Music” in the 1920s, a period about which “with its principals long dead and little early documentation, it is hard to pinpoint dates and places with certainty.” [Sudhalter, note #15, p.766].

In this regard, we are also fortunate that Max Harrison employed his considerable writing skills to produce a comprehensive review of Miff Mole’s Okeh Records in his A Jazz Retrospect[London: David & Charles, 1977].

© -Max Harrison/Jazz Monthly magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Time passes so quickly that the so-called New York school of the late 1920s has now been out of fashion for several decades. The received unfavorable opinion on their considerable body of work has repeatedly been confirmed by application of inappropriate criteria, derived from other jazz which had different aims. Yet non-conformists who compare Gunther Schuller's dismissal of supposedly ''commercial performances geared to a thriving mass market requiring a consumers' product" (Early Jazz, NY:1956) with Red Nichols's comment that "the principal aim was to turn out something which met the approval of your fellow musicians right there in the recording studio" (Jazz Review, December, 1958) may wonder if the truth is not more complex. In fact, this was music for music's sake, and, to an extent then uncommon in jazz, was unequivocally intended for listening.

The best recordings of Nichols, Mole, Eddie Lang and their com­panions show us musicians working hard at sophistication, as some jazzmen always have, ever since the days of the ragtime composers. Essentially this meant the absorption from other traditions of tech­niques fresh to jazz, and was important for two reasons. First, jazz, with a relatively short continuous tradition behind it, needed further resources to enable growth—at least until the 19608, when Ornette Coleman led an attempted rejection of this music's steadily ac­cumulated European borrowings. Second, as the world effectively gets smaller its musics may fuse. As is remarked on an earlier page, that would entail many losses as well as gains, yet, while conservative refinement of existing materials can produce beguilingly polished results, more disturbing astringent and asymmetrical elements cannot be ignored, and in a shrinking world assimilation of the exotic may not only be unavoidable but actually a rule of life. Some of the transfor­mations of acquired materials and methods which have taken place in jazz might to that extent be prophetic.

Not surprisingly, the New York musicians, like the West Coast group of about thirty years later, sometimes got their pieces over­crowded with incident, as items such as Nichols's That's no bargain or Washboard blues (1926) show. And this was a perfectly honorable weakness, scarcely to be avoided in the development of a new style, as is confirmed by several early Duke Ellington records such as Georgia grind (1926). Such attempts at sophistication were further confused by the fact that all these musicians were still shaking off the notably tenacious influence of ragtime. This can be heard not only in the New Yorkers' recordings but on such diverse items as Charlie Creath's Market Street stomp (1925), Bennie Moten's Kansas City breakdown (1928) or in Ellington's piano work in Deacon jazz (1924). The increasing rhythmic flexibility of Mole's trombone parts throughout his 1927-30 sessions for the Okeh company (Reissued on British Parlophone PMC 7120 and 7126), though clearly forecast by his earlier playing with Ladd's Black Aces—e.g. Muscle shoals blues (1922)—further il­lustrates this, and points to a third factor, that leading performers were amplifying their instruments' jazz capabilities.

Mole was one of several trombonists who, in Burnett James's words, freed that instrument from its earlier "moronic and fatuous antics" (Burnett James, Essays on Jazz, London: 1961), although the detailed fluency of, say, his Honolulu blues solo was ap­proached by few of them during the 19205. A further example of his striking mobility is the Shimme-ska-wabble he recorded with Frank Teschemacher, although his dates yield many other surprises, like the balanced three-part counterpoint between Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey (on clarinet) and himself in Davenport blues, which is not the sort of thing at which the New Yorkers were supposed to be any good. Although this music no doubt was organised according to Mole's ideas, he never dominates unduly, and other voices were allowed their say, often appearing in a better light than elsewhere. On Davenport blues, for instance, Dorsey's alto saxophone solo, making thoughtful use of the main thematic phrase, is preferable to the my-next-trick-is-impossible jugglery in which his virtuosity often tempts him to indulge on other sessions, and this feeling is confirmed by his shapely improvisation on, of all things, A hot time in the old town tonight. Mole's recordings benefited from the explorations in which he participated under Nichols's leadership, but his own dates were more relaxed, less in­sistently probing.

It is hard to decide how justified Nichols was in saying (Ibid) that rather than copying Bix Beiderbecke, they both derived inspiration from the same sources, for this is not explicit enough. There are obvious links between Beiderbecke and the New Yorkers, such as the bass saxophone breaks in Mole's Feeling no pain, which recall the Bix and his Gang recordings, or the touch of klangfarbenmelodie in this piece's thematic recapitulation, duly echoed at the beginning of Beiderbecke's later Wa-da-da (and at the end of Louis Armstrong's Two deuces).

Far more significant, in terms of the growth of jazz as a musical language, is the advanced harmony common to both groups of players, not only in written ensembles but in the soloists' tendency to use the upper intervals of chords—ninths,-elevenths, even thirteenths—with a fair amount of chromatic alteration. Twenty years later people who had never attended properly to Beiderbecke, the New Yorkers, or to the more adventurous jazzmen of the swing period imagined this to be an innovation of bop. Relevant listening here includes Mole's Feeling no pain, Imagination plus Beiderbecke's Humpty Dumpty and Krazy kat, which, along with the carefully ordered rising intensity of Clarinet marmalade, give a fuller idea of his aims, of his search for overall formal coherence, than the admittedly intense poetic beauty of his I'm coming, Virginia or Riverboat shuffle solos.

Nimble and angular, Feeling no pain is most appealing, and this, like Humpty Dumpty and Imagination, was composed and scored by Fud Livingston, a musician whose striking contributions to 19205'jazz have never been properly studied. In the last-named piece, recurring thematic phrases and contrasting improvisations cohere in a pattern that is satisfying yet significantly new. Indeed, the New Yorkers' links with Beiderbecke must not be exaggerated, for the ensembles of Im­agination or Feeling no pain are considerably more original than those of the earlier Bix and his Gang titles. Beiderbecke may have felt that his sometimes rather conservative choice of repertoire offered the most secure basis for daring advances in other directions, but his version of, say, At the jazz band ball (1927) is still modeled on the Original Dix­ieland Jazz Band's recordings (1917-19), however much more im­agination it displays.

Mole's treatment of such material was different, as his rather sar­donic reading of Original Dixieland one-step shows. This is made to sound light and airy, emphasis being achieved by understatement, although, as on Hurricane, there is a taut sequence of solos, each so concentrated as to appear complete in itself yet leading irresistibly into the next. Pee Wee Russell and Mole are outstanding in Original Dixieland one-step, but it is the maligned Nichols, his trumpet solos dancing yet oblique, who fares best on Honolulu blues and My gal Sal. The influence of Jimmy Noone on Dorsey's clarinet playing is apparent in After you've gone and particularly Moaning low, notable also is the freedom of Phil Napoleon's thrusting trumpet accents on Navy blues, clearly taking advantage of Armstrong's contemporary innovations. Pleasing, too, is the dialogue between Lang's guitar and the ensemble in Some sweet day, and his combination of sensitivity and robustness on Hurricane. Mole's Crazy blues solo is an especially well-rounded statement, also, and there is an impressive degree of light and shade in his solo on I've got a feeling I'm falling, one of Fats Waller's best songs, which, like the one on Moaning low, is full of unexpected linear inflections. Further evidence of his extension of the trombone's powers in this music are the sober gaiety he achieves in Davenport blues and his pointed intricacy on Navy blues. Other fine sequences include Russell's clarinet solo in Feeling no pain, Leo McConville's sweeping trumpet contributions to That's a-plenty, and the telling use of Livingston's clarinet against the brass on You took advantage of me.

Inevitably these are paid for with less successful passages, such as the later ensemble intensifications of Moaning low, which are not so original as the opening clarinet and trombone solos. And it is true that when faced with something like A hot time in the old town tonight the Molers—to mention at last the preposterous name the trombonist gave his recor­ding bands—occasionally resorted to caricature. Note here, for exam­ple, the heavily sedate ensemble, blandly contrasting with the inane opening verbal dialogue, or the tuba's grotesque melody statement, recalling all too vividly a similar moment in King Oliver's Frankie and Johnny. Smith Ballew's epicene singing on Navy blues and Lucky little devil is a reminder that unisex was no invention of the 1960s, but the jaunty treatment accorded You made me love you, in direct contravention of the lyric's doleful reproaches, is less discouraging. In any case the lapses ought not to worry us unduly. Rather than a fully developed ensemble style, Mole offered a group of brilliant improvisers whose best music is quite undimmed by several decades' neglect.

Jazz Monthly, January 1973”