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I wanted to revisit the subject of Alec Wilder’s Octet music [1938-1942] for a couple of reasons.
The first is to put to rest a tall tale Alec told to Barry Ulanov which is quoted in the Alec Wilder - “Smart Alec” posting that’s contained in the May 1947 issue of Metronome magazine which forms the basis for the original feature.
And secondly, I wanted to post to these pages more about the origins of the octet and the nature of its music - a topic I obviously find fascinating, especially after learning about its connection to Reginald Forsythe and Red Norvo - drawn from my recent reading of Desmond Stone’s Alec Wilder in Spite of Himself: A Life of a Composer [Oxford, 1996]. Stone also quotes from a number of other reputable musical sources and allows me to put up additional coverage about this unique group to the blog from a number of different perspectives.
First, let me address the faux fable which Desmond Stone explains this way:
“There's no doubt ... that Wilder did indeed do a great deal of writing: stories, verses, biographical sketches, anything and everything. Wilder also used all that toil to invent one of the tall stories he loved to perpetrate. Every morning, he swore, he would strap himself to the chair he worked in, padlock the strap, and give the key to the man who slept there and left shortly after he arrived. The point of this was to force himself to stay there and write. He even added an extra touch. One day, he said, he forgot to bring his lunch, so he hunched his way down the tenement stairs with the chair attached to him, made his way to a stand-up food counter where he sat down and ordered a sandwich, much to the enjoyment and bewilderment of the onlookers. That story was published in Seventeen magazine and in several newspapers, apparently without question. Wilder was later to confess: "I made up that tale about my writing ritual and I told it as gospel for years. The story made lots of people laugh and did no one any harm."”
Now that’s been clarified, here’s what Desmond has to offer about the early origins, development and uniqueness of the Alec Wilder octets.
“Though his patience was often tried, [oboist Mitch] Miller remained a steadfast admirer of Wilder the composer and the man. Late in 1938 he began playing a pivotal role in the Wilder woodwind octets. "Subtract Mitch," says James T. Maher, "and you subtract the octets, and subtract those and much is lost from Alec's career." Wilder has said that it was not until he wrote some of those octets for the old Brunswick Recording Company that he started to move ahead at all. The venture began curiously. Miller had been playing baroque music with an accomplished harpsichordist with the unlikely name of Yella Pessl. He had often thought about combining harpsichord and woodwinds.
According to Wilder, Pessl had been asked by Paramount Pictures to make a short film. In addition to her regular repertoire of baroque works, they wanted her to play a "jazz" version of a concert piece. No doubt through Miller, Pessl knew Wilder was familiar with the jazz idiom, and she asked him to write something she could use in the film. Wilder was able to find a Couperin piece for harpsichord that suggested jazz rhythms, but before putting an arrangement on paper, he asked if he could try out Pessl's harpsichord. Miller took him to her apartment, and in the course of experimenting with the German-built instrument, Wilder fell in love with its sound.
The film venture went nowhere, but Miller prevailed on Joe Higgins, an official of the Brunswick Recording Company, to listen to some Wilder songs. On the morning of the audition, “... I presume in desperation, Joe ignored the songs and asked me if I could write instrumental pieces and what instruments would I use for recording.
Thus the day was saved for .. Wilder. Yes, he told Higgins, he did indeed write instrumental music. Then, could he write some pieces in the style of Raymond Scott, who not long before had written and recorded a number of successful instrumentals for Brunswick?
“ ... I managed somehow to speak convincingly of my ability to write as well as Scott. When asked what instruments I would use, naturally I thought first of the oboe, Mitchell's instrument. Then I added flute, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet—all woodwinds—and, suddenly, I recalled the marvelous sounds the harpsichord made. So I added that. Later, I added bass and drums for rhythm. Thus, haphazardly, I arrived at an Octet."
A strikingly new ensemble sound was far from the mind of Brunswick's Higgins, more businessman than musician. However, his generous instincts had provided the opening. "I managed to get out of the office and into a bar without collapsing," said Wilder. "Mitchell, my sponsor and friend, was far from pleased with my dreadful behavior. But he did see that such a combination of woodwinds, and harpsichord, might make an interesting musical sound." Wilder wrote a sample piece, Miller gathered together some first-class players from the staff at CBS, and a rehearsal was held for the "bigwigs." The two who showed up were, said Wilder, the musically ignorant president of the company and "a young man with a cheery air and a bright look about him. But for him, nothing further would have come of the audition." His name was Morty Palitz, "a great musician and later a great friend and collaborator."
When Wilder found himself committed to writing some instrumental pieces, it was not the sophisticated novelty jazz of the Raymond Scott quintet that he drew upon. Much more in his mind, he told James Maher, were the strikingly different earlier compositions by Reginald Forsythe and Red Norvo. The ground they broke became his own point of departure.
Forsythe, well known in the jazz world in both New York and London, where he had been born, was the son of a black West African barrister and a German woman. He was an excellent pianist. In a famous recording session at Columbia in the early 1930s, a rare group of good studio musicians (Benny Goodman was on bass clarinet) played four small original compositions by Forsythe: Dodging a Divorcee, Serenade to a Wealthy Widow, The Greener the Grass, and Melancholy Clown. Cutting across the musical grain of the day, these little pieces with a chamber music quality were played constantly on the radio in 1933 and 1934. Eminent jazz critic and composer Leonard Feather has noted that Forsythe pioneered the use of woodwinds in a jazz ensemble, as Wilder would do in the octets.
Red Norvo, Wilder's other important creative influence, had by the end of the 1920s established the xylophone as a fixture in jazz. He was always the innovator. About 1931, shortly before Forsythe started catching the fancy of radio listeners with his pseudo fugues, Norvo had composed a number of small, very different jazz "chamber music" pieces. He had a contract in 1933 with Brunswick Records and several of his lighter, more traditional numbers were recorded. However, he could never get a studio date for his more serious pieces. The then head of Brunswick believed they had no commercial potential at all, so the compositions languished.
Fortunately, Norvo had a believer in Brunswick producer Palitz, the young man who helped to get the Wilder octets recorded and who would later compose with him two important popular songs, While We're Young and Moon and Sand. Palitz, a fine musician with a fabulous ear, recognized the unusual merit of Norvo's more daring compositions, just as surely as he knew the studio frowned upon them. So he made special plans and ushered Norvo and several other players into the studio one evening (most official recording was done during the day) for a tryout of several numbers, notably Norvo's Dance of the Octopus.
It was an interesting linking of players — Benny Goodman, who had not then broken into fame, was there with a borrowed bass clarinet, Artie Bernstein played bass, and Dick McDonough was on guitar, its sound, at Norvo's suggestion, given a soft Debussy quality through a felt pick rather than a plastic one. Norvo presided over a five-octave marimba, wielding with flair the four hammers whose use he had mastered not long before in Chicago. It was a difficult orchestral combination and the players had had no rehearsal. Only a superb musician such as Palitz could have managed the acoustics of the recording successfully. "A shot in the dark" was how Palitz described the little conspiracy. The shot was not heard around the world but it did eventually find a mark in England.
But first repercussions were swift and unpleasant. Norvo says that when the test pressing came to the Brunswick boss, he called Norvo into his office, excoriated him for using his musicians and his valuable studio time to fool around with junk, and then and there tore up his contract and tossed it into the wastebasket. Norvo was so shattered by the experience that he destroyed about twenty more such compositions. They could never be reconstructed. Fortunately for music and for the octets, the story does not end there. The matrix (master mold) of the recording somehow arrived in London with other matrices sent to English Brunswick. The record was issued in London and became a critical hit, if not a popular one. The English jazz critics knew they were hearing something extraordinary. As a result, the recording had to be put out in the United States, where it became a milestone in jazz recordings. "When Alec heard such wildflower inventions as Dance of the Octopus," says Maher, "it absolutely turned him around." It was, then, the new music of Norvo and Forsythe that he heard when he sat down to write the octets. Wilder composed more than twenty pieces for the group gathered together by Miller. They were billed on the Brunswick label as The Alec Wilder Octet. At a time when no one used woodwinds in pop music and when only Artie Shaw used the harpsichord, the impact of these charming, literate, impossible-to-categorize pieces was sharp, on professional musicians particularly. The Wilder group did most of its work in front of the microphone and must have set a benchmark for good human chemistry.
Those inspired players were Jimmy Carroll, clarinet; Eddie Powell,
flute; Mitch Miller, oboe; Frank Carroll (Jimmy's brother), bass; Harold Goltzer, bassoon; Toots Mondello and later Reggie Merrill, bass clarinet; Walter Gross, harpsichord; and Gary Gillis, drums.
The impact of the pieces was heightened by the fanciful titles Wilder bestowed on them. With perhaps one exception, the titles were not descriptive; this was not program music. The names were intended to be only whimsical and entertaining: Sea Fugue Mama (a play upon the phrase "I want some seafood, Mama," from the song Hold Tight, recorded by the Andrews Sisters); Its Silk, Feel It (suggested by an old friend from Rochester days, Sam Richlin); Jack, This Is My Husband; The House Detective Registers; The Amorous Poltergeist; Neurotic Goldfish; A Debutante's Diary; Bull Fiddles in a China Shop; His First Long Pants; Her Old Man Was Suspicious; The Children Met the Train (suggested by singer-arranger and author Kay Thompson), and so on. All the octet compositions were recorded, but the pressings were small. Though they gave Wilder a permanent niche in jazz, they conferred no wide fame. As critic Gene Lees was later to point out, the octet tracks were so new, so unfashionable, that only a few musicians understood what Wilder was doing.
That was to be true in great measure of most of Wilder's music, for he stubbornly declined to popularize it, maintaining that those who turned to music in order to make money and achieve fame were as contemptible as "old ladies' purse snatchers and about as much a part of creation." Wilder in later years found another reason to dismiss the octets: they were too far back in the past. He got tired of hearing people talk about them and ignore all his later work. Wilder by then had amassed a considerable body of most diverse work: popular and concert songs, chamber musk, television scores, movie scores, musical comedies, short operas, and much else. Yet it was the happy, inventive, irreverent octets that first put Wilder on the music map. With their unique blend of jazz and popular and classical elements, they were daringly different enough to be historic.
When the octets first appeared with their curious mix of jazz rhythms and Bachlike melodies, the music world was both beguiled and puzzled. Wilder's highly personal idiom and his original approach kept the music fresh and free, and nearly all of it was notable for what was called a "sunny lack of banality." Indeed, so fruitfully inventive and unorthodox were their instrumentation and harmonization that it is hard to believe they were written as long ago as the late 1930s. Discerning musicians recognized their worth. Wilder himself said at one point that they had been well received by all manner of musicians from Dave Brubeck to Igor Stravinsky. Musicologist Charles W. Fox was to say later that the style of these little pieces "is so individual that they cannot be pigeon-holed. While they are based fundamentally upon jazz rhythms, they show many other features — traces of the impressionism of Debussy and Delius, melodies with the modal coloring of medieval music or folk song, irregular phrasing, contrapuntal devices such as fugato or ostinato."
In the broader spectrum of music, it was that same lack of a pigeonhole that condemned the octets to comparative obscurity. They were neither one tributary of music nor another. Like so much of Wilder's music, they fell between stools. As Wilder told Whitney Balliett, when the records came out they were gunned down by the jazz boys because they had a classical flavor, "and they were gunned down by the classical boys because they had a jazz flavor."
It was an undeserved passing over. Composer Warren Benson notes that many years after the octets, in the 1960s, the French vocal pop group known as the Swingle Singers achieved at least a measure of fame by doing much the same thing Wilder had done twenty-five years before. These were eight academically trained singers who, under the leadership of Ward Lemar Swingle and Christiane Legrande, developed a distinctive style with scat-singing arrangements of baroque and classical instrumental music. They toured both Europe and the United States and made several recordings. "They did what Alec had already done with the octets," says Benson, "No one ever said that. Nobody paid attention. Alec didn't play Bach, he played like Bach. These delightful non-pop tunes with pop idioms were also very much what LeRoy Anderson wrote, with Sleigh Ride, Typewriter Concerto, and so on."
Mitch Miller, excellent musician as well as stouthearted friend, has asserted that the octets are "the wellspring that all of the jazz chamber music came from."