Friday, August 13, 2021

Bix Biederbecke and Dick Sudhalter, Part 2

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The tragedy of Bix Beiderbecke, if his early death and lapsed potential can be viewed as tragedy, lies not in the allegedly corrupting influence of Whiteman land his associates, not fas Pee Wee Russell and others have contended) in the hard-drinking "friends" who wouldn't let Bix alone; not in any of the other putative villains invoked to explain Beiderbecke's steep descent and destruction.

More convincingly, the tragedy lies in Beiderbecke himself, in the Aristotelian notion of greatness undone by flaws within itself. By inner conflict, perhaps having little to do directly with music, which he simply lacked the strength of will or character to resolve.”

- Richard Sudhalter, Bix Beiderbecke and Some of His Friends in his Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915 - 1945 [1999] 

As noted in Part 1 of this feature, I first became aware of Dick Sudhalter's extensive research and commentary on Bix Beiderbecke 1903- 1931] when I acquired a copy of his Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915 - 1945 [1999].The section of the book entitled Individual Voices begins with the essay Bix Beiderbecke and Some of His Friends and it is a succinctly superb overview of Bix’s life and music.

But what really solidified the connection between Bix and Dick was my acquisition of the Mosaic Records set [MD7-211] The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions [1924-36] first issued in 2001.

Long out-of-print and with Richard Sudhalter’s passing in 2008, we wrote to Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic Records and he granted us permission to present the first two pages of the insert booklet for the set.

© Copyright ® Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.




Friday, February 4, 1927, dawns quiet and only moderately cold, under overcast skies. The temperature in New York City is expected to hover around the mid-40s, with some chance of rain later in the day. A front-page story in the morning's New York Times reports the Senate deadlocked over whether the United States can legally prevent radio transmitters in Canada and Mexico from broadcasting on wavelengths already claimed by U.S. stations. Another item announces George Bernard Shaw's intention to sue a press agent over publication of some private Shavian letters.

At Union Square, between 14th and 21st Streets and bounded east and west by Third and Sixth Avenues, in lower Manhattan, two men emerge from the entrance to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Transit (BMT) subway station. They've ridden downtown from their midtown hotel, perhaps on one of the brand-new three-part D-type trains being introduced that month on various stretches of the BMT lines.

Their eyes behold a Union Square very much in transition. Originally part of a farm, it has been, at one time or another, a showplace for New York's high society and part of the "Ladies' Mile," one of the most fashionable of shopping areas. After a few years of seediness around the turn of the century, the neighborhood has renewed itself as headquarters for the International Ladies' Garment Workers, the American Communist Party, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizational arms of the labor movement.

The Amalgamated Bank, founded in 1923 by the American Clothing Workers Union, dominates the Square's west side, facing a statue of George Washington on horseback, and it's in this direction that the two arrivals now turn, chatting lightly while walking toward the OKeh-Odeon building, farther down the block. Erected in 1870—71, it houses the downtown recording facilities of the OKeh Phonograph Corporation. Since its introduction in 1918, OKeh has become a sort of industry standard, a leader in capturing the new popular music styles known variously as ragtime and "hot jazz."

Artist scouts Ralph S. Peer and Tom Rockwell and a crack team of musical directors have stocked the mainstream and "race" catalogues with dynamic performances by singers and instrumentalists, among them Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Red Nichols, Sippie Wallace and dozens of others. Some have been recorded in Chicago, or even in locales as far-flung as Atlanta and New Orleans, using mobile equipment.

But despite artistic successes and an affordable 75cents-per-disc price, OKeh has been operating at a loss. No surprise, then, is founder Otto Heinemann's late-1926 decision to sell the whole operation to the far more prosperous Columbia Graphophone Company, staying on as President and General Manager at OKeh's 24 West 45th Street administrative offices. Though the new owners have made their comfortable Western Electric facilities at 55 Fifth Avenue and 1776 Broadway available to OKeh, as of early 1927, Heinemann's label is still using Union Square for much of its New York recording, usually under the watchful and expert eye of recording director Charles Hibbard.

This particular OKeh Friday morning belongs to a small instrumental unit out of Jean Goldkette's admired midwestern dance orchestra, currently wrapping up a two-week engagement at Roseland Ballroom, on the corner of Broadway and West 51st Street. They first appeared there last October, outplaying Fletcher Henderson's resident outfit in a widely publicized two-band "Battle of Music," and putting in two days' recording at Victor. Now the Victor Talking Machine Company is determined to record them even more extensively, scheduling four days of long sessions ending Thursday afternoon.

OKeh, eager for a piece of the action, has reserved its Friday session for Frank Trumbauer, fronting Goldkette's band for the Roseland engagement. Widely admired among dance band musicians, "Tram" (as Trumbauer was known) excels on both the E flat, alto saxophone and its popular near-neighbor, the C-melody. A native of Carbondale, Illinois, he'd starred with the bands of Gene Rodemich, Ray Miller and Don Bestor, before hooking up with Goldkette's Detroit-based organization. Along the way, he'd also recorded with William "Red" McKenzie, whose falsetto singing through comb-and-paper forms the basis of a successful novelty group he's been calling the Mound City Blue Blowers, after his St. Louis birthplace. That record sold nicely, and McKenzie, a hustler to his toes, lost no time touting Tram to OKeh executive Tom Rockwell.

Until this February Friday morning, Tram has never had his own record date, and he's determined that the debut be an auspicious one. Among his Union Square companions is his cornet-playing bandmate and friend Leon Beiderbecke, known to colleagues and hot music fans across the country as "Bix." They'd met in 1924, first recording together later that year, when Beiderbecke had just left the Wolverines, a band of young midwesterners which had first brought him to public attention.

(Two 1924 Arkansaw Travelers titles from session A — GEORGIA BLUES and LOST MY BABY BLUES — afford a glimpse of what must have impressed Beiderbecke the first time he heard Trumbauer: smooth tone and execution, slight angularity of rhythmic attack. Overall, a degree of sophistication equaled by no other saxophonist of the time, except perhaps Loring McMurray, who died young and suddenly in 1923 or '24.)

Bix and Tram have been working together regularly since 1925, their musical partnership the talk of the dance band business. Trumbauer's dryly elegant manner and humorous delivery seems an ideal counterweight to the silvery tone, heraldic attack and earnest approach characteristic of Beiderbecke's cornet. From Boston to Bakersfield, fellow musicians have been learning about them, faithfully copying their solos, flocking to hear them in person.

One by one, the others begin arriving at Union Square. Bill Rank, on trombone, is a Goldkette regular, as is pianist Paul Mertz. Restrictions in recording technique prevent drummer Chauncey Morehouse from bringing more than a couple of cymbals. Jimmy Dorsey, on clarinet and alto, has been subbing for an ailing Don Murray in Goldkette's reed section, alternating with talented Midwesterner Danny Polo. The only outsider in this septet of Goldkette men is guitarist Eddie Lang, and he qualifies immediately as an honorary member. His violin-playing pal Joe Venuti has just done all four Goldkette Victor sessions, and the pair — much in demand as New York freelancers — has been featured in a rousing guest spot during Tuesday's date.

At this point, at least one aspect of the historical narrative breaks down. Posterity knows that the records made that February day constitute a pivotal moment in the early growth of American jazz. 

Diligent inquiry, both during and since the lifetimes of the participating musicians, has established the lineage and nature of the music, and its effect on others working in the same field. 

But what of the exact circumstances surrounding this and other key recordings? What, exactly, did OKeh's Union Square studio look like? How did the company's engineers, working with electric techniques that were still brand new, solve the many problems inherent in achieving a balance between full band and soloists, horns and rhythm instruments? 

OKeh and its competitors divulged little about their methods. Even Talking Machine World and other trade journals of the 1920s are silent on such matters. An article in the December 1927 issue of The Phonograph Monthly Review, for example, offers a photograph of Hibbard and his assistant Peter Decker at work over a cutting machine, but carefully avoids discussion of the recording process itself.


Taken together, the three numbers scheduled for recording m t OKeh this day form a useful musical guide to the nascent Beiderbecke-Trumbauer partnership. TRUMBOLOGY, for example, is a saxophone display piece in the fleet-fingered manner of popular virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft. Heard widely on records and radio, Wiedoeft was among the most imitated instrumentalists of his time; even saxophonists with "hot" aspirations learned much from his tone, vibrato and attack, both in such balladic "salon" pieces as DANS L'ORIENT and such novelties as SAX-o-PHUN, SAXOPHOBIA and SAXARELLA. TRUMBOLOGY falls neatly within the latter category. The arrangement, little more than a sketch with background chords for the other horns and a jam ensemble at the end, appears to have been the work of pianist Mertz.

As surely as TRUMBOLOGY is designated to feature Trumbauer, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band stomp CLARINET MARMALADE bespeaks the prerogatives of Bix Beiderbecke. As a boy in Davenport, Iowa, he'd learned cornet by playing along with ODJB records, and salted the Wolverines' repertoire with such items as SENSATION, FIDGETY FEET, LAZY DADDY and the inevitable TIGER RAG. Based on a routine apparently worked out during a nine-month residency with Trumbauer at the Arcadia Ballroom in St. Louis, MARMALADE combines solos and jam passages with just enough organization to provide shape. Tram and Bix take 16 bars each, sharing a spirited cat-and-mouse break in the final ensemble.

Though a performance of great energy, it might have profited from inclusion of a bass instrument. Part of what sold the full Goldkette orchestra to its audiences was the driving beat laid down by New Orleans—born string bassist Steve Brown. Why, then, not bring him along to Union Square to slap and snap such numbers as CLARINET MARMALADE to maximum intensity?

Victor had worked out how to record Brown's bass in 1926, but smaller companies getting used to the new methods seem to have lagged behind: most technicians feared that too powerful a sound from a slapped bass or most parts of a standard drum kit would knock a cutting stylus out of its groove, ruining a recording. Only toward decade's end, in groups led by Eddie Lang, Luis Russel and others, did Hibbard and his New York OKeh staff finally solve such problems.

However good CLARINET MARMALADE may have been, it is the third title, another Dixieland Jazz Band creation, that inscribes this Friday in the hot music history books. Indiana-born J. Russell Robinson had joined the ODJB after the sudden death of its pianist, Henry Ragas, quickly emerging as a formidable songwriter. The band's 1920 record of his hit, MARGIE, also introduced SINGIN' THE BLUES (TILL MY DADDY COMES HOME). From a commercial point of view, at least, such repertoire choices now seem quaint: if TRUMBOLOGY stood a chance of popularity as a novelty, CLARINET MARMALADE harked back to post—Great War days, and SINGIN' THE BLUES had never been widely performed. Neither, certainly, seemed aimed at a record-buying market attuned to MY CUTEY'S DUE AT TWO TO TWO TODAY, WHEN THE RED RED ROBIN COME BOB-BOB-BOBBIN' ALONG and other ditties being played and sung in the first days of 1927.

Still, the coupling of SINGIN' THE BLUES and CLARINET MARMALADE did well enough to be cited in OKeh advertisements later that year as one of the firm's four best-selling records, alongside performances by Sophie Tucker, pianist-singer Seger Ellis and organist Sigmund Krumgold, rendering the Rudolf Friml operetta favorite INDIAN LOVE CALL.

As played by Tram and Bix, SINGIN’ THE BLUES consists of a four-bar introduction, two full-chorus solos and an ensemble, played at a relatively brisk medium (quarter note = 138) tempo. Both Trumbauer's and Beiderbecke's solos are melodic paraphrases, each widely scrutinized, adapted and quoted for many decades after its creation. Together, whatever the tempo, they can be said to have introduced the concept of the ballad solo into hot jazz.

It's perhaps hard to imagine something so integral as a jazz ballad as having had a discrete, identifiable beginning; but here's the evidence. Before SINGIN' THE BLUES, there was simply no such thing in hot jazz, at least on record, as an introspective solo on a popular song — blues solos are a phenomenon apart — played to lyrical effect. Between them, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer (and Lang, for a melodically alert combination of rhythmic and single-string accompaniment) share credit for having pioneered this approach.

Both choruses created great stir when SINGIN' THE BLUES was released; veteran jazzmen everywhere, among them Benny Carter, Lester Young and Rex Stewart, happily confirmed the extent to which it affected them. Arranger Bill Challis, close friend of both Bix and Tram, adapted the entire performance in an arrangement for the Goldkette and Paul

Whiteman orchestras. Fletcher Henderson's band recorded it twice, with Trumbauer's solo arranged for the reed section and Stewart playing an interpretation of Bix's chorus.

(Historians and discographers have always taken it for granted that Trumbauer's instrument on all these titles was the C-melody saxophone, then at the apex of its 1920s popularity. But critical listening by various latter-day scholars and by such musicians as saxophonist Dan Levinson, a popular performer on the G-melody instrument, has introduced the possibility that he may have used alto in some instances. Scott Robinson, who also uses C-melody frequently, hears that instrument on the February 4 session, but agrees — on the basis of the instrument's register "break," and of various passages between notes — that Trumbauer may be using alto elsewhere.)

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