Happy Feet – Chick Webb

January 24, 2013

One of the finest jazz drummers of the big band era and also one of the most inspirational, Chick Webb overcame huge obstacles on his way to legendary fame.

Born in Baltimore in 1909, he was crippled by spinal tuberculosis, which left him with minimal use of his legs and a hunched back. Learning to play drums at an early age, perhaps as therapy for his condition, he was still a teenager when he landed a job in Philly’s Jazzola Orchestra. In 1925, guitarist John Truehart, fellow Jazzola sideman, decided to try his luck in New York City and Chick decided to go along for the ride. It was a fortuitous decision.

chick webb

In New York, the young drummer worked briefly with Edgar Dowell and played in sessions with up-coming jazz artists such as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Tony Hardwick, and Duke Ellington before forming his own five-piece group. This was in 1926, and he secured a five-month gig at the Black Bottom Club, followed at the start of 1927 by work at the Paddock Club. There, he led an eight-piece group, the Harlem Stompers, which he took into the Savoy for a brief engagement. During the rest of the 1920s, Chick and his men played various nightspots around the New York area, including Roseland, the Cotton Club, and the Strand Roof, a spell that saw his band gradually expanding to eleven pieces. In 1931, Chick Webb and his Stompers began the first of several long, regular seasons at Harlem’s hottest dance venue, hot chocolates revuethe already legendary Savoy, an arrangement that lasted until 1935. When not at the Savoy, Chick’s band toured, including an early 1930s spell with the Hot Chocolates revue.

 

 

Chick Webb’s early line-ups featured many top-flight musicians, among them John Kirby, Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Don Kirkpatrick, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Edgar Sampson, the latter two providing arrangements that were key factors in the band’s growing success.

ASV Living Era
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In 1932, the band played a series of theater dates with Louis Armstrong, and in 1934 was booked into a long engagement at New York’s Casino de Paris. The band’s sound and Chick’s showmanship quickly attracted a large following, and the Stompers became known a little more sedately as the Chick Webb Orchestra. But there was nothing sedate about the music played; not then, and not during the coming few years. In that later period, the band included Mario Bauza, known as the ‘Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz’, while long-standing sidemen included Bobby Stark and his old friend John Trueheart, who was a stalwart of an outstanding rhythm section rounded out by Tommy Fulford and Beverly Peer. Unlike many bands of the swing era, the personnel was notably stable, a factor that undoubtedly went far in creating its distinctive sound.

chick webb - folkways CD

Folkways
FJ 02818


Following the trend of swing era bands, Chick had a singer, Charlie Linton, but in 1935 he allowed himself to be pressured into hiring a younger, hipper singer. The band’s frontman was Bardu Ali, and he heard 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Harlem Opera and brought her to Chick for an audition. Although Chick and his men were not immediately convinced, before long the inexperienced but fast-learning young woman proved to be a star attraction. While Ella’s first recordings with the band, I’ll Chase The Blues Away and Love And Kisses, were inauspicious, a session in Oc­tober 1935 brought Rhythm And Romance and other popular songs of the moment that were much better. By the following year, Ella’s contributions had become a significant part of the band’s recording sessions and If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It (better known as Mr. Paganini), became very popular. Even more successful was A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a nonsense song for which the singer helped contribute the lyric. Motivation for this song was to bring some cheer to Chick Webb who was undergoing one of his many periods of hospital­ization. chick & ella Another hit for Ella and the band was early 1939’s Undecided , a better song than its forerunners and one that is superbly per­formed by the singer while the drummer boosts the band into a dynamic performance. By this time, Ella’s popularity was huge and almost every record the band made was a vocal (only In The Groove At The Grove from the band’s 1939 released output is an instrumental), and no one was in any doubt about Ella Fitzgerald’s vital role in the band’s success.

Sadly, the success of the band was not matched at a personal level. From 1938, Chick Webb’s health, never good, had begun to fail badly. He often had difficulty finishing performances and was hospitalized several times, but despite his physical frailty he continued to tour and record with his orchestra. He became even more seriously ill and entered a Baltimore hospital where, after undergoing a major operation he died on 16 June 1939.

After his death, Ella Fitzgerald took over Chick Webb’s orchestra and for a while kept it going (with Bill Beason doing a commendable job of playing drums in what was, after all, a drummer’s band). It couldn’t last, though, and after two years Ella gave up and turned solo. The group then disbanded.

chick webb - hep cd

Hep Records
CD 82


Although Chick Webb never learned to read music, he was a consummate musician and perfected the ability to  memorize s arrangements. He made full use of his drum kit, especially the high-hat cymbal of which he was a master, and during his short career he raised the standard for all drummers with his inventiveness and expertise. Chick’s musicianship inspired many other performers, including rival swing era drummer Gene Krupa and future Jazz Messenger Art Blakey.

 

Unmistakable, unsurpassable, and unforgettable, Chick Webb’s name echoes through generations into the present day. Although he was small in stature, in all other respects he was a giant of jazz.

Documentary film maker, Jeff Kaufman, has traced Chick Webb’s life and career in The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America. Produced in partnership with New York’s The New Heritage Theatre Group, this film draws on historical writing, reminiscences and reflections by dancers, singers, friends and above all musicians. Jeff Kaufman’s film was very well received when it premiered at the 38th Seattle International Film Festival in the summer of 2012 and was also screened, again to considerable acclaim, at the Walter Reade Theater as part of The 50th New York Film Festival in the fall of 2012.

Among other sites of interest are Sarah Carney’s Thrive, and Amazon, the place to go for albums by Chick Webb, the King of the Savoy.

 

Been here . . .
. . . and gone!


 

  

 

Imagination

February 15, 2018

An old friend, Dave Tuck, asked if I might offer a young undergraduate any useful suggestions for a thesis she was planning on aspects of rock ‘n’ roll. Now where r ‘n’ r is concerned my knowledge is only that of a casual listener; however, one of the facets being considered for the thesis was an exploration of how parents reacted to their offspring’s embracing of the new rebellious music of the 1950s. Through her own background, she knew how white adults and teenagers in the UK reacted to rock ‘n’ roll, but she was curious to know if black teenagers in the USA had similar experiences to hers. And did black adults also view this new musical fashion as controversial and sinful? I had no idea, so I raised these questions with two black American singers and their replies, while maybe not too helpful with the proposed university thesis, offered some insight into the making of a jazz singer.

One of these singers is Sandi Russell, who performs concerts and makes albums as a jazz singer (see my review in Jazz Journal in December 2007), Sandi-Russell-CD-150x150 and has also toured her one-woman show dealing with aspects of being a black woman in a white-dominated society. sr book2 In her reply to my query, Sandi commented that she was “somewhat interested in rock and roll, Bill Haley, etc.,” but “mostly listened to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, and my parents didn’t seem to mind or care. I don’t think the black community paid that much attention, and not many kids I knew liked Elvis at all!” Sandi’s father, though, did take marked exception to her playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire, which he promptly broke in half, saying that “this kind of music is not allowed in the house”. Sandi added that at the time she had “no idea what the song meant, except somebody was happy and excited!”

Sandi, who was born in New York but has lived in England for many years, published her début novel, Color, in 2013.sr book

I expect there are many who encountered related confrontations with parents. In my case there were parental objections to the double entendre lyrics of some of the blues records I played and yet, confusingly (to the teenage me), the blatantly single entendre lyrics of the musical hall ribaldry my parents loved were deemed acceptable.

The other singer is Sandy Graham, born and still based in California, who has been closely involved in the jazz world most of her life and has made several albums, one of which I reviewed in Jazz Journal in April 2004.sg1 In her reply to my inquiry, Sandy remarked that she could offer little insight into rock ‘n’ roll. “I was exposed to gospel music and jazz as a child. When I did listen to music other than gospel or jazz I listened to pop or classical music.” Sandy’s father “played saxophone and loved Johnny Hodges, so I was exposed to jazz all the time. The first record I ever bought was Charlie Parker’s All The Things You Are. I was eleven or twelve years old. The pop music I heard was by Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s et. al. I did like some R&B groups, such as the Clovers, the Temptations, the Impressions, but was exposed to very little of it when I was a child. I didn’t like Little Richard or James Brown and those folks. So as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned there was no rebellion in my home. My family was musical and when I lived in foster homes prior to living with my Dad, they were also listening to jazz, gospel and very little R&B.”

The years Sandy spent with her father were in Oregon and it was there, at the age of sixteen, that she won the opportunity to sing on television. “I sang Little Things Mean A Lot. It was a pop song recorded by Teresa Brewer. I was scared to death. But I did it beautifully, so they say . . . I hardly remember. Anyway, my father was very proud and used to wake me at two o’clock in the morning to sing Four Brothers for his friends who would come by the house after work. Ha ha! I loved bebop. Still do.”sg2

It was in Oregon that Sandy met Elise Bly and it was through her that when she was back in Los Angeles she met trumpeter Clora Bryant. Elise and Clora had played together in Oklahoma and these musical generation-spanning contacts of Sandy’s can be seen in Judy Chaikin’s award-winning film, The Girls In The Band. When she was in Los Angeles, Sandy was never far from music. “We lived off Central Avenue where jazz and blues played anytime of the day and night. I remember when people would come from all over Los Angeles to go to the clubs in the Central Avenue area.jc girls They would dress up in shiny dresses, pearls and furs. I always said when I get big I’m going to dress like that, smoke cigarettes out of a long cigarette holder and go to the clubs and listen to the beautiful music. Of course when I got old enough to go to Central Avenue all those jazz clubs were gone. Oh, but I’m rambling on because I still think about the places that I missed. I was born too late for those glorious, glamorous times. At least, it seemed glamorous to me. But it probably wasn’t really. My eyes were full of stars.”

Those images of Central Avenue are much more than half a world away from many. Speaking for myself, I was born and raised in a city in the North of England where there were no jazz clubs and only rarely did a jazz artist make a concert appearance at the stately and quite unsuitable City Hall. Gradually, as the years went by, jazz was heard; the trad jazz boom of the 1950s at last giving pub landlords something to do with those cavernous first-floor rooms that had lain empty and echoing for decades.Door with jazz and graffiti So different are these memories from Sandy Graham’s Central Avenue recollections and yet, somehow, I feel a surprisingly strong kinship with her and others who saw and heard those sights and sounds, be they in Los Angeles or Kansas City or on Chicago’s South Side or New York’s 52nd Street. If her eyes were full of stars, then the same might be said of my head. Hopefully, the make-believe will stay in my head among the images of reported but unrecorded moments of magic: Joe Turner singing behind the bar of the Reno Club; Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton playing a 30-minute duet on trumpet and drums in a Los Angeles nightspot; Dizzy Gillespie happily sitting in and playing fourth (!) trumpet in Bill Berry’s band at Carmelo’s in Hollywood; Chick Webb routing Benny Goodman in a battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. All these are real events but the aural and visual images they evoke are entirely imaginary, and yet are all so real to me.

This same imagination drew me by way of jazz to other aspects of American culture. Among the results of this is my stage play, The Colors Of Your Life, which centers upon the mistreatment of black women in the USA from slavery through to the present day.bc colors Also, three of my recent crime novels, Harlem Nocturne, Harlem Madness, and Harlem Blues, are set respectively in 1939, 1943 and 1963. Although fiction, these tales touch upon real issues of those times, including the rise of fascism, the Harlem riots, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I am immeasurably grateful that jazz and my (perhaps overly active) imagination led me into these other worlds.bc h blues No bad thing; because imagination is what someone in my trade needs. Just as it is needed in the much richer and more important work of the jazz giants we all admire. Perhaps, once in a while, imagination overflows a little beyond acceptable boundaries, but I certainly hope that such lapses can be forgiven, if only because in so doing I can sneakily forgive myself when I do it. And why not? After all, without imagination, the world can be a very dull place.

All books, CDs and DVDs are available from Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – early August 2017

August 5, 2017

The Mica Bethea Big Band Stage ’n Studio (indie release)

The origins of big band jazz can be traced back to the 1920s, through the 1930s and early 40s, when it was the pop music of the day (complete with superstars), into the much lower profile experimentation of the 1960s and 70s, and on to the present day where avant-garde improvised music rubs shoulders (usually if not always) congenially with elements that would be instantly recognized by past masters of big band jazz. Wholly compatible is the writing of Mica Bethea, an exceptionally gifted arranger who presents big band music that is very much of today, yet is filled with echoes of the best of the past. Mica’s second album, Stage ’n Studio, is a double showcase for his arranging skills, and four of the works heard here are his own compositions. The two discs each contain eight tracks and as the album title indicates, the music is performed in two settings, one in the studio, the other a live date, both at the University of North Florida. The musicians gathered for these sessions vary only slightly and among the soloists heard are trumpeters Dave Champagne, Ray Callender, Scott Dickinson, trombonists Lance Reed, Corey Wilcox, bass trombonist Gina Benalcazar, alto saxophonists Todd DelGiudice, Daniel Dickinson, tenor saxophonists Juan Carlos Rollan, Eric Riehm, Jose Fabio Rojas, baritone saxophonist Mike Emmert, pianist Joshua Bowlus, guitarists James Hogan (studio), Steve Gallatin (stage). In addition to piano and guitar, other rhythm section players heard on most tracks are bassist Dennis Marks (Stan Piper on some), and throughout by drummer John Lumpkin Jr, and percussionist Terry ‘Doc’ Handy. Other instrumentalists rounding out this exceptional big band are trumpeters Greg Baluts, Jay Forman, Jonathan Ward, Robert Vandivier; trombonists Ryan Bricknell, Michael Nunez, Wyatt Thomas; keyboardist Aaron Lehrian; vibraphonists Jonah Pierre, Ryan Slatko.mica

Mica’s original compositions are Jonesin’ For Thad, a tribute to Thad Jones, with a fluid solo by Todd; Frahm Out Of Nowhere, built on a musical quote by Joel Frahm, with inventive guitar and bass lines by James and Dennis, and scorching tenor saxophone from Juan Carlos; Coal, with more imaginative tenor saxophone, this time from Eric and Juan Carlos; and Birth Rite, with reflective piano from Joshua. These four titles appear on both CDs and also given two airings are Herbie Hancock’s Hang Up Your Hang Ups, with a fiery solo from Dave, and George and Ira Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay, on which the vocalist is Linda Cole. Also heard are Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s Stormy Weather, which also features Linda with an appropriately dramatic interpretation; John Klenner and Sam Lewis’s Just Friends, with solos by brothers Scott and Daniel; Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence’s Tenderly, which spotlights the trombones, notably in solos from Lance, Corey and Gina; Gary Willis’s Self Defense featuring Todd and a punchy solo from John; and Tom Schuman’s Wind Warriors, replete with solos by Todd, Ray, Joshua, and also by Doc and John, both of whom are powerfully supportive throughout. The duplicated titles provide an opportunity to hear differences in interpretation that are prompted in part by the setting. As Mica states: “This was a very interesting experiment. On the studio CD, I could control the environment and get exactly the sounds I wanted. There’s a very pleasing almost pristine quality to it. But on the live performance, you can hear that the musicians are more relaxed and stretch out more. The sound isn’t as clean, but that’s more than made up for by the vitality of the performance.” Mica’s thoughts on how a studio setting and a live performances affect the musicians and hence the music also echo the past, something we know from hearing in both settings many bands, such as those led by Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Don Ellis, and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.mica old

Although not directly relevant to the music heard on this and Mica’s first release, yet of immeasurable significance, are some personal facts about Mica. In 2005, when he was still a music student, he was involved in a major road traffic incident that left him a quadriplegic. No longer able to play any instrument he resumed his studies, now concentrating on arranging and composing. Even this is fraught with difficulties – because he cannot write by hand, he has to use a computer. That Mica Bethea has faced up to these challenges and overcome them is for very nearly all of us an unimaginable achievement; that the music he generates is so breathtaking, profound and joyous is an inspiration.

For more on Mica Bethea including booking contact Mouthpiece Music.

All albums are at Amazon.

Mica Bethea: “I use Finale, the music notation software, for my compositions and arrangements.”

Swing that music

October 12, 2016

Fans of Swing Era music believe it to be as alive today as it was when it first burst upon the popular music scene, and there are many musicians around who are happy to prove them right. That this style is still so popular is quite remarkable when set against the thought that 21 August 2016 was the 81st anniversary of Benny Goodman’s breakthrough dance date at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. However you look at it, eight decades is a long time.Benny Goodman - Copy Benny’s band that night was cheered by an unexpected and eager audience that had been growing in the Pacific time zone for months and in the course of the next couple of years their numbers doubled and redoubled first all across the country and eventually around the world.

Although only newly in the public’s consciousness, this new development in jazz that was labeled ‘swing’ had been heard before that night in 1935 because the style had been evolving since the late years of the previous decade. Bands leading the way included those of Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell, Fess Williams, Erskine Tate, and Chick Webb, with arrangers Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and Fletcher Henderson among those importantly involved. From the late 1930s onward, Goodman’s benchmark style was built upon the work of arrangers such as Henderson and Jimmy Mundy. Playing their charts were skilled sidemen, among them trombonist Red Ballard, saxophonists Hymie Schertzer and Art Rollini, pianist Jess Stacy, bassist Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother), and guitarist Allan Reuss. Soloists appeared who were important in building the band’s fan base, although Goodman himself was always firmly in the spotlight. close up detail of a woodwind clarinetAt the time of the Palomar date the band’s most exciting soloist was trumpeter Bunny Berigan, although he left the band a few weeks later. Changes brought in trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Harry James, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, and, of significant importance to the band’s style and popular appeal, drummer Gene Krupa. His predecessors, Stan King and Sammy Weiss, were skilful dance band drummers and on earlier recordings do everything right. But on later dates Krupa adds that indefinable something that inspired the rest of the band, which in turn electrified audiences and helped make the band the popular powerhouse it was to become.

On 16 January 1938 the band appeared at Carnegie Hall, an occasion recorded (on a single overhead microphone) but not released until the early 1950s, by which time LPs had arrived.bg-ch This album has never been out of circulation and as the years have passed reissues have benefited enormously from improvements to the sound quality. Not at all surprising is the fact that music from the Swing Era turns up often in films and on television, in dramas and documentaries. Of the music played on these occasions Benny Goodman’s is one of the most common; notably Sing, Sing, Sing the Louis Prima piece that became synonymous with Goodman and Krupa, thanks in large part to the climactic moments of the Carnegie Hall concert.bg-ch-jasmine Unfortunately, Benny did not care to share the spotlight with anyone else and Krupa’s personal popularity, which had grown steadily since the Palomar dance date, brought about his departure from the band a little over a year after the Carnegie Hall concert.

So has this music of a bygone age been forgotten? Not at all. Indeed, in some quarters it is just as alive now as it was then. The long ago departure of jazz from the dance floor and in to the concert hall has meant that one of the key qualities of swing style has been sometimes overlooked. This is the fact that most of the music was composed, arranged and played for dancing. It should not be at all surprising therefore that Goodman’s music has had a lasting appeal among dancers, an appeal that is still going strong today. Among the gatherings for fans of dance of this kind is Lindy Focus in Asheville, North Carolina, where musicians and dancers and teachers assemble for a lively festival. The musicians who have played at this venue include local resident and bandleader Michael Gamble, who leads The Rhythmic Serenaders, and Jonathan Stout, leader of the Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra.

Michael Gamble The Rhythmic Serenaders (Organic OR 16552)

On this highly entertaining album, Michael Gamble draws upon music linked to several key names from the Swing Era. For example, he presents Billie Holiday’s composition Fine And Mellow as well as other songs with which she is associated, including What A Night, What A Moon, What A Boy and Back In Your Own Back Yard. Then there are A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm, written by Mary Lou Williams for Andy Kirk’s Clouds Of Joy, Sweets, by Harry Edison for Count Basie’s band, a couple of songs played by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, Scottie and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, while Goodman is represented by way of songs recorded by his sextet and big band: I Never Knew, Seven Come Eleven and Pick-a-Rib.gamble The Rhythm Serenaders assembled by bass player Michael are clarinetists and saxophonists Keenan McKenzie and Paul Consentino, trumpeters Gordon Au and Noah Hocker, trombonists Lucian Cobb and David Wilken, pianists Craig Gildner and James Posedel, guitarists Jonathan Stout and Brooks Prumo, and drummers Josh Collazo and Russ Wilson (who sings on two tracks), while vocalist Laura Windley appears on four tracks.

Throughout, there are fine solos from both Keenan and Paul and also by other members of the collective. These other soloists include James, Jonathan and Noah on Slidin’ And Glidin’, Seven Come Eleven (a theme originating with Charlie Christian) and Sweets, while Craig and Gordon are heard on I Never Knew. Gordon also solos on Fine And Mellow, providing an effective bluesy accompaniment to Laura’s introspective vocal. Everyone with a liking for the swinging music that captivated audiences way back when – and especially those who like to dance – will enjoy this album. And neatly completing the circle that embraces these eight-decades of swing, this recording session took place in Asheville’s Isis Music Hall, which first opened in 1937.

For more on Michael Gamble, contact Holly Cooper at Mouthpiece Music.

This album is available at the usual outlets, including Amazon.

Elsewhere on this site there is more on Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa – just follow the links.

Over the years there have been several books on Benny Goodman, notably D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography, BG On The Record, and his sequel, Benny Goodman: Wrappin’ It Up, as well as Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier and Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman by Ross Firestone. There is also one in the Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series, Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Catherine Tackley. My own book on Goodman is very brief – it was part of a series of monographs on key jazz figures – and it is long out of print (although still around on the Internet for pennies). I mention it only because it is especially dear to me as it is the only book of mine to be translated into Japanese. (I confess I skipped the proofreading stage.)bg-japan

Drumming Delights

February 28, 2015

I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.

Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)

As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.women drummers

Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.

To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.

Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.

Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man

Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?

sonny greer

Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.Duke-at-Fargo-1-150x150

So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions.Blanton-Webster-150x150 Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.

Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.

Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.

For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.

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