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Jazz's Checkered Past

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Frank Trumbauer
Tram! Volume I: Frank Trumbauer's Legacy to American Jazz
(Old Masters)

While there's enough controversy to have generated a whole book on the question of what the first rock 'n' roll record was, facts on the earliest jazz disc are more clear-cut. The guys who made it, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, were five white musicians from New Orleans, brought up to Chicago by promoters. They began playing in and around the Loop in 1916, where Al Jolson became impressed enough with them to swing them a nightclub booking in New York early the following year. Within weeks they'd caused enough commotion to persuade major labels Columbia and Victor to record them, and the band's first release, "Livery Stable Blues"/"Dixieland Jass Band One-Step," ended up moving more than a million copies.

Of course, musicologists and historians in the decades since have determined what most of the musicians knew all along--that what we now call jazz emerged early this century out of musical traditions that had been carried over from Africa by slaves; most early first-rate jazz musicians were in fact blacks from New Orleans. Yet when Columbia sent talent scout Ralph Peer to the Crescent City to find another "authentic" jazz group to compete with the ODJB (Columbia had actually been first to record the Dixielanders but shelved the results, enabling Victor to step in and make them stars overnight), he came up empty-handed. According to H.O. Brunn's The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Louisiana State University Press, 1960), after scouring the town for three weeks, Peer wired back to the label: "No jazz bands in New Orleans." Then, on his way back to New York, he stopped off in Memphis and found a black minstrel-style band led by blues songwriter and cornetist W.C. Handy. Possibly in desperation, Peer brought Handy's group to New York to record, but the mediocre result was a commercial flop and has been roundly ignored by jazz writers ever since.

By the mid-1920s, great black players from New Orleans like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton were recording frequently. This was crucial to the further growth and development of jazz, for it allowed scores of younger musicians to closely study and build on the work of the genre's true originators. What's often overlooked now, possibly because it's politically unpleasant, is the considerable influence some early white players, including the ODJB, did exert on budding musicians. Saxophonist Frank Trumbauer was one of those influential men, although the perversely compiled Tram! Volume I: Frank Trumbauer's Legacy to American Jazz provides plenty of musical reasons for his relative obscurity today.

Trumbauer made some fairly well-known sides, many even under his own name, but his presence on them has been overshadowed by that of a fellow white musician. Widely celebrated and easy to find for almost as long as they've been around, these records are now known primarily for featuring some of the best solo work of legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

Throughout his short, booze-soaked life--he died at 28 in 1931--Beiderbecke maintained an unshakable affection for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, now dismissed by critics and historians as a vulgar novelty act that couldn't improvise to save its life. But those early records were Beiderbecke's introduction to jazz, motivating him to pick up the cornet as a teenager and serving as his primary music texts. His debut recording session consisted entirely of songs by or affiliated with the ODJB, and even during his prime years of recording he never passed up an opportunity to cover a song from the group's repertoire. One of these tributes, "Singin' the Blues," written by ODJB second pianist J. Russel Robinson and cut by the band as part of a medley in 1920, turned out to be Beiderbecke's own critical masterpiece. It featured a friend and colleague he'd worked with in dance bands: Frank Trumbauer.

"Singin' the Blues" is not a blues, but a standard Tin Pan Alley-style 32-bar pop song. In 1927, when Beiderbecke put it to wax, such a tune was typically rendered on record in a polite dance arrangement with a vocal chorus and maybe a brief solo or two toward the end. But Bix and Tram took the radical step of constructing their version almost completely from full-blown chorus-length jazz solos, saving the tune's actual melody statement (punctuated by Jimmy Dorsey's clarinet) for the end. In doing so, they pioneered the jazz ballad, a format that maximized space for creative exploration. This approach to standards would later be masterfully exploited by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane (think "My Favorite Things"), and it secured Beiderbecke and Trumbauer's reputations at or near the top of the field on their respective instruments.

On tenor saxophone, the man to beat in '27 was hard-charging Coleman Hawkins--one of whose showcase numbers with the Fletcher Henderson band was aptly titled "The Stampede." To the ear of 18-year-old Lester Young, though, Frank Trumbauer's lighter, more fluid tones and relaxed phrasing sounded better: "I had to make a decision between Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey--y'dig?" he told the Paris magazine Jazz Hot in 1959. "The only people that was tellin' stories that I liked to hear were them....Ever hear [Trumbauer] play 'Singin' the Blues'? That tricked me right there, that's where I went." After joining Count Basie's band, Young rose to prominence as the most influential jazz saxophonist to succeed Hawkins, whose prevailing influence he somehow avoided. Young would consequently make a major impact on altoist Charlie Parker, who would turn the whole jazz world on its head.

And Young wasn't the only black musician so moved by Trumbauer. In 1931 the Fletcher Henderson band, with Hawkins still in the lineup, covered Bix and Tram's "Singin' the Blues," duplicating both solos note for note. As Budd Johnson, another notable black tenor player of the era, recalled in Down Beat in 1968, "Everybody memorized that [sax] solo....At the time, Frankie Trumbauer was the baddest cat around."

Praise like that might lead you to expect a lot from Tram! Volume I. The first volume of three, it covers the period 1923-'29, when he was at the top of his game. But judging from the selections, it's hard to say whether Tram's game was even really jazz very much of the time. The disc leaves off all his great work with Beiderbecke--more than an album's worth--maybe because it's already scattered across numerous Bix compilations, one of the best and easiest to find being Columbia's Volume 1: Singin' the Blues.

What remains is a mixed bag of novelty and dance-band sides that profile Trumbauer not as an especially creative artist, but rather a solid, often inspired professional. Trumbauer, who died in 1956 at age 55, had a mother who played piano professionally and got him started on C-melody sax (an instrument with a range between an alto and tenor) before he reached his teens. So, unlike Beiderbecke, Trumbauer probably had training, experience, and professional ambitions before he was ever exposed to jazz. His ability to adapt to rapidly changing fashions in dance music shines through on a "hot" chorus halfway through Tram's opening selection, "I Never Miss the Sunshine (I'm So Used to the Rain)" by the Benson Orchestra of Chicago. Everyone else on this 1923 recording sounds stuck in the 19th century, while Trumbauer reveals he's got forward-looking ideas all his own.

On the chronologically programmed disc, as the recording quality improves and peppy tempos give way to a more moderate pace, Trumbauer's technique and gift for phrasing gradually come into focus. He's good when you can hear him--but that's usually for only seconds at a time on each three- to four-minute track. As an introduction to its subject, Tram! leaves a lot to be desired.

The disc works better as a sampling of the jazz-tinged pop music of the period, with lots of obligatory solo and group vocal choruses (some including a very young, barely discernible Bing Crosby). The most intriguing inclusion is a pair of previously unissued songs featuring vocals by Bee Palmer, a controversial jazz dancer who billed herself on vaudeville as "the Shimmy Queen." Between 1918 and 1929, Victor and Columbia sent Palmer into the studio a total of five times, but apparently nothing she cut ever got released. Admittedly her shaky voice is a little hard on the ear, but some of her ideas are fascinating. On a Bix-less 1929 remake of "Singin' the Blues," she sets new lyrics and scat syllables to various phrases taken from the instrumental solos on the 1927 version. Her approach distinctly anticipates the vocalese style developed three decades later by Eddie Jefferson, popularized by King Pleasure and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and revived by the Manhattan Transfer.

Still, some of the odd company Trumbauer keeps on the sides compiled here--frantic comb-and-waxed paper "blue blowers" and barbershop chorales--would lead a modern listener to scratch his head and wonder whether the saxophonist felt any genuine commitment to jazz. But we take a lot for granted today. When Fletcher Henderson hired Lester Young to take over for Hawkins, who left for England in 1934, Young elicited scorn from his new band mates for refusing to adopt the style of his predecessor. "I got bruised because I didn't play like Hawkins," he told Jazz Hot. "They rang the bell on me. So I really did a lot of teardrops there, you know?...

Fletcher Henderson's wife [would] take me down in the basement and play [Hawkins's records], and actually said, 'Lester, can't you play like this?'"

Under such circumstances, Young, who a few years earlier was cutting his teeth on the Trumbauer records he had to order by mail, might have killed for a collection like Tram! o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.

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