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Minding the Score: The Music of Harry L. Alford

Alford / Paragon Ragtime Orchestra / Benjamin
Release Date: 12/10/2013 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80743   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Harry L. AlfordEarl FullerShelton BrooksCarrie Jacobs-Bond,   ... 
Performer:  Rick Benjamin
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



MINDING THE SCORE: THE MUSIC OF HARRY L. ALFORD Rick Benjamin (pn, cond); Paragon Ragtime O NEW WORLD 80743 (66:11)


ALFORD The Hustler. Roll ‘Em Up. Fiancée: The Bride to Be. Independent Moving Picture March. The Peacemaker. Jazz Elite. Spooks: A Midnight Chase. Call of the Elk. GOLD Jazorient. BROOKS Medley: Some of These Read more Days; My Ever Lovin’ Southern Gal. BOND Just A-Wearyin’ For You. A Perfect Day. WENRICH The Smiler. The Smiler Rag. HANDY Memphis Blues. FRIEDMAN Let Me Call You Sweetheart. VAN ALSTYNE Memories (2 vers., pn and O). SHAPIRO Medley: Oh! That Tankiana Rag; When I Dream in the Gloaming of You; I Want a Home, That’s All; Tittle, Tattle, Tattle, Tale; The Billikin Man; Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay; Whitewash Man Rag; Meet Me in Rose Time Rosie


This interesting disc chronicles the work of one of America’s pioneer arrangers of popular, show, and ragtime music, Harry A. Alford (1875–1939). At a time when orchestral arrangements of popular tunes were sporadic and often not as peppy as the music they clothed, Alford updated the entire process, not only coming up with original and novel orchestral textures (using strings for color but winds and brass for melodic purposes) but also being able to crank out hundreds, even thousands, of such arrangements on demand, sometimes in an hour. He did all of them himself at first, but as his workload grew so did his firm; at its height, he employed dozens of assistant arrangers, all schooled in his method, and copyists. Alford had a terrific ear, often able to hear an inner voice in a tune that someone wanted brought out, and then able to perfectly orchestrate the piece in time for that evening’s show.


Alford was undoubtedly a skilled and ingenious craftsman. He definitely set the groundwork for Broadway, vaudeville, and nightclub music heard in big cities throughout the 1910s and 20s. Among his “A” list of clients were such luminaries as Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, W. C. Handy, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Wilbur Sweatman, J. Russel Robinson, Isham Jones, Shelton Brooks, Fred Fischer, John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor, and Edwin Franko Goldman. Yet as one will note by scanning this list, only two of these musicians had any connection to the emerging style of jazz that eventually superceded Alford’s work in the 1920s: Sweatman, a black multi-reed player who led a pioneering jazz orchestra in the late teens and early 1920s, and Robinson, who assumed the duties of pianist-songwriter with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band when their original pianist, Henry Ragas, suddenly died.


One might also claim a jazz connection for W. C. Handy, but one must remember that Handy probably didn’t write a single blues tune that he published under his name. What he was adept at, as were several other well-educated African-American song publishers of the time, was hearing a blues tune sung in the street and being able to notate and copyright it under his own name. One of the more amusing tales that Jelly Roll Morton, a true jazz and blues composer and arranger, told to Alan Lomax during his Smithsonian recording sessions was that when he first met Handy, the latter told him that it was impossible to orchestrate a blues—something that Morton did regularly. And of course, Morton’s arrangements (alas, never published, only audible on his recordings) were far more ingenious, creative, and truly jazz-inflected than any of Alford’s. In addition we must also take into account the various anonymous arrangers who compiled the Red Back Book, New Orleans’s standard play book of popular ragtime pieces during the Storyville years, and concurrent with Alford’s work, the ingenious and creative writing and arranging done in New York by the oft-neglected African-American composer-bandleader James Reese Europe, who wrote nearly all of Vernon and Irene Castle’s most popular numbers for them (and gave ragtime band concerts at Carnegie Hall).


I bring all this up not to cast aspersions on Alford and the excellent work he did, but to illustrate that there were alternate streams of arranging and composing during his heyday that were just as influential, if not more so in the long run. The musician who most likely made the biggest advance over Alford’s style of arranging was white bandleader Art Hickman, who devised the style of saxophone sections against trumpets and trombones, underscored by a rhythm section, that was later developed into a high art by white arranger Ferde Grofé, black bandleader Fletcher Henderson, and a large number of African-Americans who followed in their path (among them Don Redman, John Nesbitt, Jimmy Mundy, and Eddie Durham). Moreover, even if one considers all the years that Alford was active, the leap forward initiated by Hickman in the late teens and brought to fruition by the others mentioned above happened so quickly and decisively that, by the end of the 1920s, Alford and his methods had become passé.


One of the more dated aspects of Alford’s work—a hallmark of virtually all orchestral arrangements of his time—is the glissando trombone. Nothing says “old time vaudeville” more decisively than the sound of a solo trombone slurring up and down the scale. Benjamin’s Paragon Orchestra minimizes the comic effect of the trombone glisses by making them less broad. His band also plays with tremendous precision, something that was not always the case in those old records where one struggles to hear all the voicings that Alford used. Some of these arrangements are indeed clever, and one can easily understand why, when Alford finally moved his base of operations from Chicago to New York, he was able to corner the market.


One aspect of Alford’s work missing from this album are his settings of vocal music, of which he did quite a bit—especially for Irving Berlin, whose best songs were always about words as well as music. If you’d like to hear some of these Alford arrangements in their original settings, dig up some of the old Edison cylinder recordings of Berlin’s once-huge hits When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’, The International Rag, or Alexander’s Ragtime Band (the first sung by Collins and Harlan, the second by Billy Murray, the third available in versions by both). Benjamin’s liner notes indicate that bandleader-songwriter Isham Jones was one of Alford’s most prestigious and long-lasting customers, but does not say whether Alford was still writing Jones’s arrangements into the Jazz Age. I am assuming, however, that he did; thus one of his later and most modern charts for Jones may have been the 1925 Brunswick version of The Original Charleston, which I still consider one of the finest arrangements of that overplayed tune ever made.


In two instances, Benjamin himself plays the original piano versions of tunes orchestrated by Alford to show how the process worked: Percy Wenrich’s The Smiler rag and Egbert van Alstyne’s well-known Memories. The latter is probably the more startling, as Alford turned the piano waltz into a peppy ragtime two-step.


A great deal of Alford’s musical aesthetic was based on the concert band style of the day. One of his greatest innovations—though, again, a dated one—was in fully exploiting the full color range of the “all purpose” band size used for most vaudeville shows (and theater shows as well, when bands and not pianists accompanied silent films). With a handful of strings and a modest assortment of reeds and brass, a 12-piece band could conceivably accompany any type of vaudeville act from classical singers to the sassiest comic or red-hot mama. As I say, all this became moot once the jazzier styles of Morton, Grofé, and Henderson became fully entrenched, but for students of orchestration this is a fascinating disc showing the bridge between the stodgier scores of the turn of the 20th century to the peppier ones of jazz. Probably the watershed Broadway show that turned Alford’s style on its ear was not the well-known Show Boat (1927), but George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930), with hot arrangements by none other than Glenn Miller played by a jazz-soaked pit band led by Red Nichols and featuring such luminaries as clarinetist Benny Goodman, hot violinist Joe Venuti, the Dorsey Brothers, and drummer Gene Krupa. That score, with its ingenious turnarounds and riff-built tune climaxes, pretty much dealt the death knell to Alford’s style and signaled an entirely new era in popular and Broadway show arranging.


The technical skills of the Paragon Orchestra are stunning and the high-tech digital sound allows you to hear everything that Alford put into his scores. Recommended for students of American popular music.


FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

1.
The Hustler by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
2.
Jazorient by Earl Fuller
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Notes: Themes by Lou Gold arranged Harry Alford. 
3.
Some of These Days by Shelton Brooks
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
4.
A Perfect Day by Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1910; USA 
5.
Roll ‘Em Up by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
6.
Just A-Wearyin’ For You by Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
7.
The Smiler by Percy Wenrich
Performer:  Rick Benjamin (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1907 
8.
The Smiler Rag by Percy Wenrich
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
9.
Fiancée: The Bride to Be by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
10.
Jazette by Harry Potter
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
11.
Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
12.
IMP: Independent Moving Picture March by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
13.
Let me call you Sweetheart by Leo Friedman
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
14.
The Peacemaker by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
15.
Jazz Elite Waltz by Harry Potter
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
16.
Spooks: A Midnight Chase by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
17.
A Perfect Day by Carrie Jacobs-Bond
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1910; USA 
18.
Memories by Egbert Anson Van Alstyne
Performer:  Rick Benjamin (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; USA 
Notes: Original piano version. 
19.
Memories by Egbert Anson Van Alstyne
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; USA 
Notes: Fox trot band version arranged by Harry Alford. 
20.
Shapiro’s Song Successes No. 4, medley overture by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
21.
Call of the Elk: the Official B.P.O.E. March by Harry L. Alford
Conductor:  Rick Benjamin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

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