© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“This was a beautiful period for the music and the players. There was little jealousy and no semblance of Jim Crow or Crow Jim in the sessions. Musicians were like fraternity brothers, despite their being aware of the distinction that was strongly maintained by white agents, bookers, and the public. The jazzmen were bound together by their love for the music — and what the rest of the world thought about fraternizing did not matter.”
- Rex Stewart, Jazz Masters of the 1930’s
I was around for Jam Sessions, but I must admit that Cutting Sessions were before my time.
I mean for a drummer, Jam Sessions could be bad enough as you might have to play time to All The Things You Are for an hour or more while everyone sitting in took their choruses.
But fiercely competitive cutting sessions could go on for days!!
The following is drawn from Jazz Masters of the 1930’s which was authored by Rex Stewart. Rex, who died in 1967, played trumpet and cornet with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, knew personally all the giants of jazz in the 1930s and thus his judgments on their achievements come with unique authority and understanding.
As a good friend, he never minimizes their foibles; yet he writes of them with affection and generosity. Chapters on Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Red Norvo, Art Tatum, Big Sid Catlett, Benny Carter, and Louis Armstrong mix personal anecdotes with critical comments that only a fellow jazz musician could relate. A section on Ellington and the Ellington orchestra profiles Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Tricky Sam Nanton, Barney Bigard, and Duke himself, with whom Rex Stewart was a barber, chef, poker opponent, and third trumpet.
Finally, he recounts the stories of legendary jam sessions between Jelly Roll Morton, Willie the Lion Smith, and James P. Johnson, all vying for the unofficial title of king of Harlem stride piano. It was the decade of swing and no one saw it, heard it, or wrote about it better than Rex Stewart.
Memories of a time gone by, never to come again.
“Today, fame can come swiftly on the heels of a Top Twenty record, but there was a time when a musician had to prove himself to other musicians in a cutting session. Whether a fellow hailed from New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, or wherever, he had to come to the center—New York— before he could get on the road to (relatively speaking) fame and fortune.
There, in the Apple, his skill was tested in competition with the established ones. If he couldn't cut the mustard, he became part of the anonymous mob; capable, perhaps, but not of star quality. However, if the critical, hard blowing jazzmen conceded him recognition, that acclaim would carry him on to bigger and better jobs.
This musical action on the New York battlefield was the cutting session, and the expression was an appropriate one. When a musician picked up his instrument, his intention was to outperform the other man. No quarter was given or expected, and the wound to a musician's ego and reputation could be as deep as a cut.
To a degree, all musicians, white or black, underwent the same test of strength. After arriving in the big town, a player first got squared away with a room. The next thing he'd do would be to ask where the musicians hung out. Downtown and in the evenings, this was usually a bar, say Charlie's Tavern. By day, it was much easier—most of the fellows could be found congregated on the street around the offices of the musicians union, Local 802. But uptown, night or day, Bert Hall's Rhythm Club at 132nd Street, just off Seventh Avenue in Harlem was the main testing ground, and there most of the jamming originated.
As I recall, the process of elimination usually went this way. Whenever a stranger popped into the Rhythm Club, somebody would greet him with a hearty "Hi there, where are you from?" followed by "What do you blow?" If the newcomer was carrying his saxophone, trombone, or trumpet case, he would be invited to blow some, or, as they said in the argot of the time, "to show out."
Some piano man — and there were always a few of them in the place — would amble over to the keyboard and start comping a tune like "Sweet Georgia Brown" or "Dinah." This was the cue for the stranger to pull out his instrument and show what he could do. Meanwhile, the word had gone out all over the neighborhood — "stand by!" — because if this cat was really good, it was the duty of every tub to drop whatever he was doing and rush to the club. And nobody ever did fall into New York City and cut the entire field — some brother always came to the rescue of New York's prestige.
These sessions, as every other aspect of life, had a pecking order. The giants seldom deigned to compete with the peasantry. Instead, they sat around getting their kicks, listening with amusement as the neophyte struggled to justify his claim to entry into the charmed circle of the (for want of a better word) establishment.
The blowing would start, and the pilgrim's status was soon established — he was either in or out. If he was in, he would be toasted at Big John's bar, and friendships were formed that assured his being invited to sit in a session with the big shots, who did their serious blowing at the Hoofer's Club, downstairs in the basement of the same building.
There, in the Hoofer's Club, the cream of the crop in New York could be found — Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Frankie Trumbauer, Buster Bailey, Sidney De Paris, Fats Waller, and just about every other great name in jazz. Almost every night, rain, snow, or what have you, there was a session — nothing prevented the cats from getting together.
I said that no individual ever came to town and carved everybody, but there was one exception — Louis Armstrong. He was so tough on his trumpet that nobody dared challenge him. Come to think of it, I don't remember ever seeing him at a session. He didn't come to us — we had to go to him. I shall never forget the scrambling to get to one tiny window backstage at Roseland Ballroom, just to catch Satchmo putting the "heat to the beat" with Fletcher Henderson.
Nor can I forget the memorable occasion when Jelly Roll Morton swaggered up to the piano in the Rhythm Club announcing that he, the king of the ivory ticklers, was ready for all turkeys (a not-so-flattering way of referring to any possible competition). Making such a proclamation was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Jelly's monologue was fascinating as he comped and talked about how great he was, but after a few minutes of this performance, the first of the local piano giants, Willie "The Tiger" Gant walked in. He immediately sensed that Morton outclassed him, and after listening a while to Jelly's Kansas City rolling bass, he phoned Willie "The Lion" Smith to come right down. I don't think Jelly Roll and Willie had ever met, but the air became charged with professional animosity when The Lion hit the scene and snarled, "Either play something or get up, you heathen. The Lion is in port, and it's my mood to roar!" Such an unfriendly put-down caused Jelly to tear into a fast rag, which brought the house down. Morton, hearing the applause, looked up from the piano, sweating and beaming. Evidently he felt that there would be no contest.
The Lion, unimpressed, just pushed Jelly off the piano stool and, without breaking the rhythm of Jelly's tour de force, played one of his own rags with equal skill and just as great an impact on the audience.
The duel had taken on the aspect of a standoff, so the call went out for Fats Waller, but Fats was nowhere to be found. Just then, the all-time boss of the Harlem stride piano players, James P. Johnson, arrived, having been advised of what was going on via the grapevine.
James P., who sometimes stuttered, said, "Jelly come on, 1-1-let's go down to the Hoofers. They have a better piano there, and I'll en-entertain you."
Jelly agreed, and everybody followed. As I recall, there were about sixty or seventy cats in the "second line" on that occasion. History was made as James P. wiped up the floor with Jelly Roll. Never before or since have I heard such piano playing!
At that time, New York was session-happy. Everybody blew at everybody. Guys were so eager not to miss an opportunity to sit in that many of them had two horns — one kept on the job and the other stashed away at the Rhythm Club or a nearby bar. Some sessions might be held in almost any corner bar, but they weren't the important ones.
One character, Jazz Curry, a bassist, was a familiar sight on Seventh Avenue, trudging up and down the street carrying both his brass and string basses, looking for another bass man to challenge. Bass contests were rare in the Rhythm Club or anywhere else.
A history-making session was the one between Thornton Blue, the Saint Louis clarinetist then with Cab Calloway, and Buster Bailey. That evening, a gang of clarinet players started noodling. I remember Blue, Russell Procope, Carmelito Jejo, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and many others being present (this was in the very early thirties before Benny had his band). After trying out various tunes, they agreed to play "Liza." One by one, everybody dropped out until only Bailey and Blue remained. Blue was swinging like mad, but Buster took the honors as he increased the tempo, chorus by chorus, until you could hardly pat your foot. In those days, the late Buster Bailey could cut every living tub on the clarinet.
This was a beautiful period for the music and the players. There was little jealousy and no semblance of Jim Crow or Crow Jim in the sessions. Musicians were like fraternity brothers, despite their being aware of the distinction that was strongly maintained by white agents, bookers, and the public. The jazzmen were bound together by their love for the music — and what the rest of the world thought about fraternizing did not matter.
Among my memories, I treasure the historic confrontation that took place between the trombone giants, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Harrison. They first met in 1927 at Roseland Ballroom in New York. That meeting remains etched firmly in my mind, since, on that night, the band was initiated into the sacred rites of what was then known as Texas Muggles. Now it is called by many other names—tea, Mary-Jane, or just plain marijuana. (I only mention this to pinpoint the occasion.) When Mr. Texas met Mr. New York, a mutual admiration society was formed at once. Jack thought that Jimmy was just about the greatest 'bone that had ever come down the pike, and Jimmy felt the same way about Jack, putting him above Miff Mole, who also was a tremendous trombone on that scene. I might also mention that Teagarden was one of the few musicians, except for a few greats like Fats Waller, who ever was permitted to sit in with the Fletcher Henderson Band.
Soon Jimmy and Jack started hanging out uptown, which caused quite a few uplifted eyebrows among those Harlemites who resented Teagarden's Texas brogue and appearance. But Jimmy would declare that Jack was more Indian than Caucasian, which made everything all right, so the two buddies began to be seen quite a bit, especially in the King Kong flats — so named because they featured corn whiskey reputed to be as strong as King Kong. All these flats specialized in down-home "vittles" — delicacies like hog maws, chitterlings, cornbread, and skillet biscuits — all of which Teagarden craved and could not find outside Harlem.
Sallie Mae's pad in the basement on 133rd Street was the setting for an event that was unusual because Jack and Jimmy had great respect for each other's abilities. However, under the influence of King Kong, fried chicken, and good fellowship, they squared away and blew, solo for solo, chorus for chorus, accompanied at first by Clarence Holiday's guitar and John Kirby's bass. When the news spread (as it always did), Sallie Mae's joint became crowded with tooters, and Cliff Jackson took over the comping on piano, along with George Stafford beating out rhythm on an old suitcase.
Actually, this confrontation was more of a friendly demonstration between, as we used to say, "the true bosses with the hot sauce," on how to extract the most swinging sounds out of the trombone than it was a real cutting session. Harrison gave new life to that old broad "Dinah," while Teagarden had the cats screaming their approval when he swung — and I mean swung — in waltz time, "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise!"
Sometimes the cutting sessions were less fraternal and more competitive. When Coleman Hawkins returned to his Harlem stomping grounds in 1939, after several years' absence in Europe, he was more than mildly concerned about whether the cats had caught up with him, as he put it. At that time, all the hippies hung out in former drummer Nightsie Johnson's joint, which I recall as on 131 st Street near Saint Nicholas Avenue. Sunrise usually found the place filled with the cream of the entertainment world: musicians, singers, comics, dancers — Billy Daniels, Artie Shaw, and just about anyone else you could think of, but chiefly Billie Holiday, who, by her presence there every night, actually gave the impression that she owned the after-hours spot.
This was the setting for another of the most memorable cutting sessions. Hawk fell in about 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. without his instrument and just sat and sipped, listening until the last toot was tooted. All the cats paraded their wares before him because he was the big man — Hawkins had become king of the tenor saxes when he recorded "One Hour" and "Hello, Lola" with the Mound City Blue Blowers in 1929. They vied for his attention just in case he planned to start a band or had a record date on the fire — that was the talk among the assorted horn players: trumpets, trombones, and alto saxes.
But the tenor saxophonists had other ideas; they wanted to gain prestige by outplaying the master. They reasoned that Coleman had been away from the source too long to know the hot licks that Harlem was putting down now. But what they'd forgotten was that Bean was a creative source within himself, an innovator rather than a copier. And I guess that most of the men were simply too young to realize how much of an old fox Coleman Hawkins was.
In any case, Hawk frequented the pad nightly for several weeks, and every time he was asked to play, he'd have another new excuse — he was resting from the constant grind of appearances in Europe, his horn was in pawn, he had a toothache, or he just couldn't bring himself to play in front of all these tenor giants. Fellows like Lester Young, Don Byas, Dick Wilson, Chu Berry, and many lesser talents were all itching to get a piece of the Hawk — especially Lester, whose staunchest fan was Billie Holiday.
One night Billie brought the personal element into focus by "signifying," which in Harlemese means making a series of pointed but oblique remarks apparently
addressed to no one in particular, but unmistakable in intention in such a close-knit circle.
When Hawk ignored her, she proceeded to bring her opinions out into the open, saying that her man (and I figured at that time that she meant "her man" in more than one sense*) was the only tenor saxophone in the world, the one and only Pres, Lester Young, and it really wasn't any use for any tired old man to try and blow against her President.
Hawk took Lady Day's caustic remarks as a big joke, but apparently he'd previously decided that this was the night to make his move. Up to the last minute, the old fox played it cool, waiting until Billie's juice told her it was time for her to sing some blues. Then, he slipped out, returning with his saxophone, and started to accompany Billie's blues, softly. Billie, hearing his sound, looked up, startled, and then motioned to Pres as if to say, "Take charge."
So Lester began blowing the blues, and to give credit where credit is due, he really played the blues that night, chorus after chorus, until finally Hawk burst in on the end of one of his choruses, cascading a harmonic interruption, not unlike Mount Vesuvius erupting, virtually overpowering Lester's more haunting approach. When Hawk finished off the blues, soaring, searing, and lifting the entire house with his guttural, positive sonority, every tub began cheering, with the exception of Lady Day, Lester, and her pet boxer, Mister. They, ..., folded their tents and stole away.”
[* According to several associates, and Lester Young himself, Rex — and others who figured the same — figured wrong.]
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