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Songs of the Pioneers



The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions (1924-36)


Frank Trumbauer is one of the odder jazz heroes. In the early 1920s, when most jazz saxophonists were still farting staccato on the beat, he brought a smooth and singing conception to the saxophone (C melody and alto), pointing the way for later soloists. Lester Young particularly admired Trumbauer's lack of clutter, which helped inspire his own sleek concept--although Young's booting, propulsive rhythm came more from Louis Armstrong. Like his chum and frequent sideman, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Tram was a white musician studied and emulated by musicians both black and white, helping shape the music in its formative years. Their "Singin' the Blues," from 1927, may be the first jazz ballad performance.

Tram had other firsts to his credit, as tallied by booster Richard Sudhalter in his notes to The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions (1924-36), a seven-CD set issued by the mail-order house Mosaic. They recorded the first new tune draped over old chord changes, and the first lyrics set to a familiar recorded solo--two staples of later jazz. (He passed up the first jazz repertory project: Bix covering tunes by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.) Even so, Tram was mostly hopeless as a leader. He and Bix both took lots of good short solos on bad records--78s that often had Tram's name on them.

In the 1920s jazz was still new, and barely recorded until mid-decade; it wasn't always easy for musicians and listeners to tell exactly what the music was. It was built on the already thoroughly intertwined strands of black and white American music: ragtime and marches, blues and spirituals, vaudeville and pop songs, rickety community bands and leviathan concert outfits like John Philip Sousa's, with their virtuoso cornet and saxophone soloists and contrasting sweet and hot stylists. There were more elements at play than any one musician could get to, and finding the right balance could be a matter of trial and error.

Looking back, we can see clearly enough where the music was going. Follow Louis Armstrong's career through the 20s and you'll learn a lot about how jazz ensembles, rhythm, improvisation, and instrumental technique evolved. Tram, by contrast, spent his career betting on the wrong horses. His pal Bix drank himself to death by 1931, at age 28, but Tram lived until 1956, the only early jazz innovator to survive so long who failed to keep up with the music one way or another. Saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with modern rhythm sections in the 50s; Armstrong had a number one hit in Beatles-invasion 1964 ("Hello, Dolly!" unfortunately); pianist Earl Hines (still) sounded amazingly modern in the 70s. And Jack Teagarden, the third-billed star of this box, had a modern sense of relaxation from the beginning.

Tram had started strong. On two numbers from 1924, he picks notes with care, avoiding the obvious resolutions as he makes his artful dips and bends, even if his tone is a mite syrupy. By then, Sudhalter writes, he displayed "a degree of sophistication equaled by no other saxophonist of his time," excepting maybe the obscure Loring McMurray. He exaggerates: by '24, Bechet had synthesized a soprano saxophone style from clarinet and cornet models, no less potent an idea; he anticipated myriad jazzers who'd graft techniques from one instrument onto another. Look at bebop: even the drummers played Charlie Parker licks. On "Texas Moaner Blues" from that year, Bechet displays a raspier tone and more biting attack than Trumbauer, and his precipitously descending phrases are more thrilling. You could hear Armstrong's crackle in them.

Still, on many sessions Tram made in 1927, when he and Bix began recording often, the sleek style Young admired is still paramount. The pair made some of their best sides that year, including "Singin' the Blues" and a couple wondrous trios with Eddie Lang on guitar. Bix spends much of one of those, "Wringin' an' Twistin'," on impressionistic, bluesy piano, where his uncommon color notes alter the fabric of the music more than when played as part of a cornet line. (Bix's gorgeous piano piece "In a Mist" comes from the same time.) The remastered, speed-corrected sound is miraculously good at times, clear and present without overcompensation.

Elsewhere, though, Tram reaches back to the saxophone traditions of concert bands and vaudeville--styles jazz was moving away from. On 1927's "Trumbology" he whips off rapid double- and triple-tongued passages like a Sousa star, every note articulated with the brilliance of an accordion. He did have enviable control: he could thicken a note on the way out of the bell, give a long note a slight curve just before landing--like Ellington's alto balladeer Johnny Hodges, except that Hodges preferred Bechet's big vibrato drama and Tram's rippling tone could simper.

Bix was celebrated for hitting every note like a bell, and his clarity of execution sings through--but behind the artful triplets and rips is an overall pattern of alternating weak and strong accents that can give his lines an air of marching in place. He'd often season a line with more colorful pitches than Armstrong chose, but Armstrong's phrasing makes him sound more modern in retrospect.

Those 1927 classics sold respectably, and musicians heeded them well, but by the end of the year the Okeh label had pressed Tram into recording more commercial stuff. Industry practices are forever: companies sign musicians on the strength of what they can do, then try to get them to do something else. Never mind that he and Bix had already signed on to play and record sweet commercial music with Paul Whiteman's giant son-of-Sousa brigade, where they were trotted out as spice boys now and then. Trumbauer seems to have OK'd the Okeh plan; over the next few years he'd record hours of forgettable pop that not even worthy arrangers could salvage--some of which he'd sing himself, in a hypnotized flat affect. The Deep River Quintet crooned a couple of them, heavy on the barbershop harmony and melodic motion, the atmosphere musty with raccoon coats. Tram also had a weakness for plantation numbers, pining for the good ol' days down south--Bing Crosby sang "Cabin in the Cotton" for him. But he wasn't alone in that sort of tastelessness; Duke had his jungle music and Satchmo had his "Shine."

In toto Trumbauer's music suggests he wasn't much of a jazz musician per se: like some later white improvisers, he loved the extemporizing but didn't feel the bluesy inflections that had permanently invaded jazz by then--1927 was also the year of Ellington's blues-and-Chopin "Black and Tan Fantasy." (Not even "Singin' the Blues" is all that bluesy.) He didn't keep up with fashion either. By then Duke and almost everyone had traded in their air basses for bull fiddle, but Trumbauer stuck with bass saxophone, even after the defection of Adrian Rollini, the one guy who could make that big horn jump. Years earlier, Armstrong and the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings (a Chicago band) had been edging jazz away from 2/4 oompah to the swing-friendly even accents of 4/4, but Tram stayed true to the old left-right cadence, the "businessman's bounce," fit for squares.

There was a better way, and Jack Teagarden had it. His music stands up now far better than Trumbauer's, and has had more far-reaching implications. Teagarden offered an early example of how nonblack musicians could reconcile their own roots with jazz's ascendant African-American strains. He was raised in Texas and Oklahoma, and his voice retained a regional drawl and a cowpoke's lazy lope--qualities that came in handy when he sang the blues. (There were a lot of black cowboys out west, as there had been back east; some 19th-century plantation documents refer to slave cattle handlers as "cow boys.") Tram put the ballad "Blue River" in ukulele-serenade territory; Teagarden pitched it more like Gene Autry, who'd been a bluesman before he began singing on horseback. But Teagarden's slurs also betray the influence of Armstrong's mumbled parentheticals. In 1936 he found a perfect vehicle in the cantering melody and witty lyric of Johnny Mercer's brand-new "I'm an Old Cowhand": "I'm a ridin' fool who is up to date / I know every trail in the Lone Star State / 'Cause I ride the range in a Ford V-8 / Yippie-yi-yo-ki-yay."

He's one of the best singers jazz produced, early or later. Teagarden had heard the blues coming up, and performances like 1930's "Beale Street Blues" confirm his easy feel for the material. As with other blues singers, humor and melancholy circle each other under the surface. His voice, like Armstrong's, packed plenty of personality, and he came off like someone you'd want to know. His likable persona was fleshed out by his laconic, legato trombone voice, which he'd pitch in the same light-baritone register. Tram too could pare down a line to the notes that really counted, but Teagarden's economy sounded less studied, and swung harder, as did his bands.

By 1934 Teagarden and Trumbauer were recording together; by now the trombonist had also become one of Whiteman's well-paid trophy soloists. Mostly they recorded under Tram's leadership, and those collaborations, filling the last disc here, let him exit this survey with dignity. The band's pulse has loosened up, even on three tracks with Casper Reardon's angelic harp in the rhythm section. By 1936 Tram's own solos were swinging a bit more, in the contemporary way, some ragtime throwbacks notwithstanding. Snappier drummers like Stan King help a lot, and Teagarden's presence sets everyone's wheels rolling. It's a tribute to his modern rhythmic conception that he'd play many of the tunes he recorded in these years for the rest of his life, into the early 60s--notably "Stars Fell on Alabama," with lyrics by Mitchell Parish that dip into moonlight-and-magnolia nostalgia without the tar-baby underpinnings of, say, "Ol' Pappy," which Teagarden sang in the persona of "a little pickaninny."

For once the odd touches and fussiness that mark Trumbauer's charts sound more pleasantly eccentric than plain out of it, but it was a last gasp of something. Jazz's quick progress rendered his slow one irrelevant; the hares had run rings round the tortoise. By the time of the last 1936 session here, Benny Goodman's big band was in its early glory--he waxed "Swingtime in the Rockies" the same day this box ends--and Count Basie's first date was five months away. The swing era was gaining speed, but Tram missed the tram. He drifted in and out of music in the 1940s before permanently trading it in for aeronautics. After years of slow surface travel, he spent World War II as a test pilot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Frank Driggs collection, Charles Peterson, courtesy Don Peterson, courtesy Joe Showler collection, Toronto.

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