Jazz the World Forgot
In the liner notes to his new album, Bug Music (Nonesuch), clarinetist Don Byron describes the revisionism that has relegated the music of Raymond Scott and John Kirby–to whom, along with Duke Ellington, the album pays tribute–to the margins of jazz history. Citing a Flintstones episode in which a Beatles-like band invades Bedrock and sends the residents into a tizzy by playing “bug music,” Byron observes that “The wind can blow one way or another with the public, yet another with critics. Both public and critical opinion may change over time, and never can they necessarily indicate the actual strength of a composition.” Byron accuses prominent critic Gunther Schuller of dismissing the music of bandleaders Scott and Kirby, despite its popularity during their time, because it drifted too far outside of what he considers parameters essential to jazz.
As critics sculpt jazz history into books, it’s not only people like Scott and Kirby–whose crimes included through-composed material and frequent classical references–who disappear. As a pair of new CDs entitled Jazz the World Forgot reminds us, dozens of obscure groups from various parts of the country who recorded erratically back in the 20s were lost in the shuffle before the deck was ever cut.
All art is polluted by mediocrity, and in the big picture some of the music found here fits that description. But while some of the groups presented remain unknown simply because they weren’t that good, others made fascinating music that was rarely heard beyond the cities they worked in. The official record of any given art form stratifies things for convenience as much as accuracy, and many talented artists, because they were square pegs or were simply under-recorded, get left out. And even some of the bands that failed to develop a distinctive sound or approach have a tune or two that sticks out for its bizarre effects, energy, ensemble interplay, or terrific solo.
The two volumes are called Jazz the World Forgot not only because many of the artists are obscure but also because traditional jazz has in many ways been forgotten. When most people think of Louis Armstrong, who got his start with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, they picture the charming, mugging, scat-singing entertainer with a horn tucked under his arm, not the revolutionary trumpeter heard here on two brilliant King Oliver sides from 1923.
There are also gems from well-known bands led by Bennie Moten, Clarence Williams, and Jelly Roll Morton, but in many ways it’s the oddities that–despite the fact that most pale considerably against King Oliver and that almost none had any real impact on jazz history–prove most delightful. For every quaint, nostalgic throwaway, such as “Four Four Rhythm” by Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats (1929), a bland white New York dance band taking a stab at jazz, there’s a mind-boggling nugget like “Florida Rhythm,” a side cut in 1927 by Ross De Luxe Syncopaters, a band from Miami that included future jazz legends Cootie Williams and Edmond Hall. The piece is marked by a truly whacked-out rhythmic scheme, rife with jarring syncopation and stop-time, gorgeous in-unison horns that hint at classical voicings, and a wild vocal.
The isolation of the pre-mass-communication era allowed interesting abnormalities to develop in a way that seems impossible today. “Arkansas Shout,” a 1926 recording by the New York band Sammie Lewis With His Bamville Syncopators, features the leader’s wonderfully melodramatic vocals touring the state via a series of geographically named dances–“Hot Springs Toddle,” “The Little Rock Slide,” and “Helena Glide.” Phil Baxter and His Orchestra looked like effete dandies dressed as cowboys, but their rollicking “Ain’t Got No Gal Now” from 1929 sounds like hot jazz gussied up by the presence of an accordion. More compelling is “Goofus,” a 1928 side recorded by the Memphis-based Slim Lamar’s Southerners that features furious slapped bass, crazed scat vocals, and a scorching, beautifully incongruous hillbilly violin solo.
These recordings also offer a few glimpses of the pop culture of the 20s. Recordings by George McClennon’s Jazz Devils and Dixon’s Jazz Maniacs (from 1924 and 1927 respectively) feature an acrobatic clarinet style that was popular in vaudeville. Likewise, “Mojo Strut,” a 1926 side from Chicago’s Pickett-Parham Apollo Syncopators, reveals the group’s roots as a pit band, surging with drama and tension.
Perhaps most important, Jazz the World Forgot disputes the simplistic idea that jazz originated in a handful of cities (groups from Los Angeles, Charlotte, Dallas, Knoxville, and Cumberland, Maryland, among other locales, are represented) with a handful of artists. A pair of sides by Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, though not recorded until 1927, represent jazz in its earliest, pre-Oliver mode. Propelled by relentless march rhythms, vibrato clarinet lines undulate wildly while Morgan’s piercing trumpet sashays throughout. According to Schuller’s book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford, 1968) Morgan was recorded “by a mere chance” in New Orleans. By the time it was recorded, his music was already sadly considered passe. Its inclusion here not only challenges popular consensus from 70 years ago, but in doing so challenges history.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.