Monday, March 5, 2018

Frank D. Waldron and Seattle Syncopated Classics - The Greg Ruby Project

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

The problem with Jazz as an art form is that it hasn’t always been considered so. For most of its existence, the music has had a limited appeal.

This and the fact that the music is created in real time and, unless it is saved through recordings, it is almost impossible to savor it again because as soon as it is created it is gone into the Ether or wherever once-played sounds go as a final resting place.

When you consider these two “problems” from the vantage point of the Early Jazz years, they become compounded by the fact that the general public had a poor opinion of “Jass” [“Jungle music”] and, as such, there were very limited opportunities to save music from this period on recordings, especially if the Jazz musicians were regional and not nationally known.

From its origins in New Orleans, the music made its way north to Chicago and then jumped to New York because these entrepots were commercially dynamic enough to make it possible for its merchants to develop the leisure time and money to support Jazz and the musicians who made it as a form of entertainment.

[Of course, gangsters selling prohibited booze in speakeasies that featured Jazz was part of this mercantile “dynamic,” while at the same time, further underscoring the larger public’s dim view of the music.]

In its early years, Jazz planted some roots in Kansas City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but musicians from these areas soon set out for Chicago and New York where the opportunities to gain fame and fortune made them “the place to be.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was contacted by Chris Estey of and to gauge my interest in a vinyl recording of some Early Jazz made in SEATTLE!?

I have a very high regard for Chris and his public relations skills, but I have to say that although I lived in the Green Lake area of the city for a time and knew a bit about the modern Jazz scene in the Emerald City, the only connection I had with the city from a historical Jazz perspective was that I remembered reading somewhere that it was Quincy Jones’ hometown.

But trusting to Chris’s judgment, I said: “sure send it to me and I’ll check it out.”

I don’t make many, but this was one, smart move because in the door came Frank D. Waldron Seattle’s Syncopated Classic: Greg Ruby and The Rhythm Runners Play the Lost Work of 1920’s Seattle Jazz Musician.

But wait, it gets better because in addition to the vinyl recording the package also included the sheet music for each of the eleven Waldron compositions nicely tucked away in a folder plus a manuscript-sized bound booklet in which Greg in conjunction with the accomplished Jazz author, Paul de Barros provide a comprehensive history replete with many rare photographs of the background of Frank D. Waldron and the Seattle Jazz scene of the 1920’s. This booklet also includes copies of the sheet music for all of Waldron’s music on the recording.

So the Jazz fan can purchase the LP, and/or the sheet music and/or the historical overview of Waldron and the sheet music for the music on the LP!

Would that it were that the presentation of recorded Jazz was so well served all the time!

It have included links for order information for the LP and the book at the conclusion of this feature.

And in order to provide you with an accurate account of Syncopated Classic: The Previously Unrecorded Compositions of Frank D. Waldron, here are Paul de Barros’ liner notes to the recording.

“Frank D. Waldron is a name not even Seattle jazz aficionados will readily recognize, but these enchanting arrangements of his music by Seattle guitarist Greg Ruby should change that.

Waldron was the first published jazz composer in the Emerald City, one of the area’s first jazz players and the city’s go-to teacher for two generations of musicians, including Quincy Jones. Born in San Francisco in 1890 to a black father and a white mother who taught piano lessons,

Waldron learned to play saxophone and trumpet with such startling technical precision that his student Buddy Catlett speculated Waldron was “conservatory trained.” Wherever or however he learned to play, Waldron showed up in Seattle a year after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,
and 10 years later was working a regular dance gig at Tacoma’s Olympus Hotel.

From 1918 to 1921, Waldron played a run of cruises on Hood Canal with the Wang Doodle Orchestra, a quintet featuring mandolins made by Port Townsend luthier Chris Knutsen. In 1920, Waldron could also be found in Vancouver, B.C., where New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was with a band led by Oscar Holden, who would later move to Seattle.

This was heady company, but Waldron apparently preferred the settled life of teaching to the fast lane. In 1919, he hung out a shingle in front of Bessie Young’s Boarding House at 1242 South Jackson Street to announce the opening of the Waldron School of Saxophone and Trumpet. Seattle’s first jazz generation learned to play in that studio, including pianist Evelyn Bundy of the Garfield Ramblers, whose son, Charlie Taylor, also a Waldron student, recruited Garfield High School classmate Quincy Jones into his first band 20 years later.

In 1924, Waldron published a book of nine songs– etudes, really–titled “Syncopated Classic for C Melody and Alto Saxophone” that took students through various techniques like slap-tonguing and flutter-tonguing, as well as fundamental fingering challenges. The tunes in that book, along with Waldron’s “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues” and “Valse Queen Ann,” are rendered here with verve and élan by Ruby’s Prohibition Era dance band, The Rhythm Runners. The group features Ruby, a veteran of Seattle’s hot jazz scene; New York revivalists Dennis Lichtman (clarinet and mandolin) and Gordon Au (trumpet); and New Orleanians Charlie Halloran (trombone) and Cassidy Holden (bass). They are joined by Bellingham, Washington-based drummer Julian MacDonough.

For his arrangements, Ruby draws inspiration from Morton’s New Orleans style recordings, using trumpet lead, trombone answer-lines and filigree clarinet obbligatos driven by a rhythm section of drums, bass and guitar (or banjo). Waldron’s tunes usually include a dulcet “trio” component, which allows the arrangements extra opportunities for instrumental variety and contrast. On the opener, “Low Down,” for example, Au’s trumpet takes the A section, followed by Halloran’s looser trombone rendering, a B section on clarinet and a polyphonic return to the first melody. The trio is played first on trumpet, then on clarinet, then by the whole band for a rousing tutti. Ruby also opens up sections for solos, such as Au’s bluesy outing on “Climb Them Walls.”

Though Au often invokes the golden tone and gentle swagger of Bix Beiderbecke, his break on the fetching melody of “Go Get It” is pure Louis Armstrong. Ruby follows with a guitar break and a lively solo in the same spirit. On “It’s Easy,” the clarinet invokes a chirping bird with the repeated grace notes of the B section and Lichtman is also front and center on the lyrical “Valse Marguerite,” written by Waldron for his mother. “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues,” which features the collection’s only 12-bar blues segment, is formally an outlier, as is “Pretty Doll,” a 16-bar verse followed by 16-bar solo choruses, with Ruby’s guitar providing a witty obbligato under Lichtman’s clarinet. Doubling on mandolin, Lichtman weaves melodies with special guest and mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall brings an extra sparkle to the exquisite sigh of “Valse Hawthorne” and to the more dramatic “Valse Queen Ann.” One can easily imagine dancers gliding over the wooden deck of a Hood Canal cruise ship as the mandolin trills of the Wang Doodle Orchestra wafted through the air.

After the Jazz Age slipped into the Great Depression, Waldron continued to play around town, notably at the Nanking Café, with the Odean Jazz Orchestra, the first African-American group to play in downtown Seattle. Though Waldron was briefly married, he never had children and when he died in 1955, he left little evidence of a career that, in retrospect, played a
significant role in shaping Seattle jazz. This music is a delightful sample of his legacy.”

Paul de Barros
April 2017

Paul de Barros has written for Down Beat magazine and the Seattle Times since 1982 and is the author of Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle and Shall We Play That One Together:The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland

For order information for the CD/Digital go here

For order information regarding the book go here.

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