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Tuesday, May 24, 2011 / 8:55 AM

Two Myths of St. Louis Jazz

When you research the history of jazz, you uncover many myths and romantic notions about the music, about how it was spread and about the players themselves. Unfortunately, myths form a lot of our beliefs, because many historians do not go back to original source; they just regurgitate what was written before. One of the more egregious myths is that the belief at the time of Columbus' voyage of discovery was that the earth was flat. The fact that this is false was well-known at the time among the intelligentsia and seafaring people of Europe. This did not deter Washington Irving (author of The Headless Horseman and other works) from making up this myth, and adding it to his history of the United States because it "was a good story."  It was still in history textbooks in the early 1960s.

When I wrote City of Gabriels: The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973, based on oral histories of the musicians that actually were there at the time, I found a number of myths that have been rooted deeply in the St. Louis psyche.  I want to deal with two of them here.

The first myth is that the music on the riverboat excursions out of St. Louis during 1920s and 1930s was jazz. My belief system is fact-based, and so I present the facts as told by the musicians who played on the boats:

  • The bandleaders were the Streckfus brothers, who owned the boats.
  • The Streckfus brothers determined the repertoire, bought stock arrangements, and insisted music be played note-for note as written.
  • The music was the "hits" of the day
  • No solos were allowed.
  • Performances and rehearsals were timed to the second, and the musicians were fined for playing too fast or too slow.

This does not sound like jazz to me, but an early version of what we would call "cover bands."  Nevertheless, the musicians who went through these experiences on the boats came through as highly polished musicians who could read and interpret anything at sight. Several musicians dubbed the riverboats "floating conservatories."  Our "floating conservatories" are among the reasons that St. Louis has sent so many highly trained jazz musicians out into the world.

The second myth is that Dixieland jazz as practiced in St. Louis from the late 1940s up to today is traditional jazz, just like they played it in New Orleans during the period of jazz's birth. The standard lineup for these bands is a front line of trumpet, trombone, and clarinet with a rhythm section of piano, tuba or sousaphone, drums and sometimes banjo. The music has a "two beat" (two beats to the measure) feel. In the ensembles, the front line plays a kind of improvised (or arranged) counterpoint with the three instruments weaving lines around each other. Each instrument, including the banjo, plays improvised solos.

Those who listen to my radio show, "Jazz Unlimited" on St. Louis Public Radio, know that I play all styles of jazz with recordings that go back into the early 1920s up until today. Since I became enamored with jazz over 52 years ago, I have read and studied its history in both words and photographs. The photographs of the early New Orleans combos show the use of violins sometimes in place of clarinets.  Smaller ensembles (around three instruments) used two string instruments and a horn. No photo that I have seen of pre-1920s New Orleans small ensembles has a tuba. They used a string bass or omitted the bass altogether. Often, the banjo was the rhythm instrument, rather than string bass. Larger ensembles, once saxophones came into prominence, did use tubas in place of the string bass for recordings.  Some observers wrote that tubas were used outdoors in these large ensembles but not in ballrooms or cabarets.

Slower New Orleans music was mainly a "four beat" music (four beats to the measure), with the bass instrument playing on the first and third beats of the measure, giving the music a "two beat" feel to the music. This type of playing showed up again in jazz the 1950s in the Ahmad Jamal Trio and the first great Miles Davis Quintet. Much of the faster early New Orleans music is "two beat," giving it a ragtime feel.  In this same period, the counterpoint in the front line was developed, but with no solos by the horns.  That front line counterpoint was common in most small combo jazz through the late 1930s.

The first jazz recordings were made by the white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) in 1917. Their repertoire consisted of mainly original compositions that may have been in the common currency of New Orleans musicians, but never written down.  They also used pop tunes of the day. Wilbur Sweatman, a black New York ragtime clarinetist, recorded with ensembles he called "jass" bands that were made up of New York musicians in 1917 and 1918. These groups had a tuba, a baritone sax or a bass sax in the rhythm section.  The next group to record was the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings (or the Friar's Society Orchestra) that made extensive use of the ODJB repertory, but also had a pianist from East St. Louis, Elmer Schoebel, who was also a composer of tunes played by Dixieland groups of today.  This group never used a tuba, except on one large ensemble recording. The Wolverine Jazz Orchestra, out of Ohio, used a lot of the ODJB repertoire in the early 1920s and recorded with a tuba.

The first black New Orleans jazz musician to record was trombonist Kid Ory, who made some very rare records in California in 1922. These recordings had string bass. The black King Oliver Creole Jazz band, arguably the most influential early jazz band, used its own repertoire.  It is interesting that this repertoire is largely neglected and has been from the first recordings.  It also mainly played in four and used a banjo in the rhythm section.

With few exceptions, Jelly Roll Morton's recordings did not use a tuba except in large ensembles and sometimes omit the string bass entirely. The Louis Armstrong Hot Five used banjo, while his Hot Seven featured the lineup of modern dixieland bands with tuba and banjo in the rhythm section. The Armstrong and Morton recordings, made in 1925-1927, are eight to ten years after the ODJB made its debut.  Much of the Jelly Roll Morton and Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven repertoire is not as commonly used as that of the ODJB.

It is interesting to note that while the banjo played a prominent role in the rhythm sections of many early jazz ensembles, playing short breaks, full chorus banjo solos were rare in the 1920's.  Something interesting did happen on the first Hot Five recording date.  Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr plays a "walking" bass line on the introduction to "Gut Bucket Blues."  Multi chorus banjo solos occur regularly in today's dixieland bands.

Because of the primitive recording facilities during the early 1920s, we do not know much about the drumming when these ensembles played out in public. The trap drum set originated in the late 1890s, but the use of cymbals to keep the time did not happen until the 1930s.  The hi-hat or "sock cymbal" did not enter the drum kit until after 1926, while the first recording featuring a full kit was made in 1927 by Gene Krupa.  The only inkling we have about early New Orleans drumming is a series of records made by the New Orleans drummer Warren "Baby" Dodds called Talking and Drum Solos for Folkways in 1946. He only used the cymbal to punctuate the end of choruses, while generating all of his rhythms on the snare drum and bass drum.

In the late 1920s, jazz was moving toward the "swing" style using pop tunes and original works, but not much of the older repertoire.  Groups like those led by guitarist, sometime banjoist and raconteur Eddie Condon used some of the old tunes with string bass and guitar and rarely a banjo.  Their rhythm was a "four-on-the-floor" swing rhythm, but used the front line counterpoint in the ensembles.

By the late 1930s, jazz music was beginning to fracture into two factions--an avant-garde faction and a traditional faction.  The avant-garde faction led to the jazz style known as bebop. The white trumpeter Muggsy Spanier's Ragtimers recorded ODJB, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five repertoire in 1939 using a string bass. Earlier, the white Bob Crosby orchestra was beginning to use a "two beat" feel in their music and an offshoot of the band, the Bobcats, began recording ODJB tunes In 1937, to great acclaim.

In 1937, the Bob Scobey Yerba Buena Jazz Band in San Francisco was recorded using a mix of pop tunes and ODJB repertoire.  By 1940, they had started using a tuba. Photos show the rhythm section in front of the band. The explanation was that the rhythm section dragged so badly that they had to be "booted" by the horns. In 1940, the black New Orleans jazz pioneer, trumpeter Bunk Johnson, was fitted with a new set of teeth and sent out to bring the "true music" back to jazz. He performed with the Yerba Buena groups and his own groups throughout the country.  Although he was expected to, and did play, much of the older black jazz repertoire, he was by 1940 a swing player, not a ragtime player in the King Oliver sense. The idea of "purity" in the music was a false one, but these recordings and performances, highly romanticized as they were, became highly influential.  Interestingly enough, Bunk recorded almost exclusively with a tuba in the rhythm section when he was with white musicians; with black musicians, his discography of over a hundred tunes shows a tuba in the rhythm section on only two tunes.  All the other tunes used a string bass.

By 1947, according to James Lincoln Collier, a lot of pressure was brought on Eddie Condon to conform to this ethos. He subsequently let his swing oriented players go and began concentrating on "two beat" music and the repertoire of the ODJB, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Wolverine Jazz Orchestra.  According to Hank O'Neil in his liner notes to Bobby Hackett at the Roosevelt Grill, Vol. 3, "The music that Eddie and his pals made [for Blue note, Commodore and Decca] was damn good; it boiled for a few years and then got lost because it was easy to play…Much of the fault lay with the guys who played it; they kept playing the same forty tunes night after night, because the drunks or college kids who listened wanted to hear them." Condon's music became what trombonist Jimmy Haislip called, in an interview with me in 1986, "rah-rah music."  Much of Condon's work since that time fit that category, but he never gave in to having a tuba.

Modern Dixieland jazz had almost completely evolved from the Yerba Buena group, Bunk Johnson and the Eddie Condon groups with cornetist Wild Bill Davison by 1950. There was one more feature to be added-a newer drumming style. It turned out that the Dixielanders liked the drumming style of beboppers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, who made use of the ride and hi-hat cymbals to keep the time, a great departure from the drum playing of the New Orleans styles exemplified by Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and others.

So, is the Dixieland jazz played today traditional jazz?  I believe that the answer is no, but it is firmly in the jazz tradition of evolution into new styles.  Unfortunately, that branch of the jazz tree has not progressed further, becoming frozen in time by an audience that consists mostly of patrons nostalgic for the music their youth.  It is a happy music, and could begin to evolve with new forms and tunes if the audience would allow it.

Thanks to Paul DeMarinis, Director of Jazz Studies at Webster University, for discussions about the evidence presented in this post.

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