Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE COMPLETE WOLVERINES, 1924–28
Wolverine O; Sioux City Six; Bix & His Rhythm Jugglers; The Original Wolverines
OFF THE RECORD 03 (75:58)
Veteran jazz collectors will take one look at the header for this CD and know that these are the first discs made by jazz legend Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903–31), the first records by semi-jazz legend Jimmy McPartland (1907–91) who took over for Bix in the Wolverines, and a few odds and ends from a few years later, also featuring McPartland (and, surprisingly, the short-lived Chicago clarinetist
But there’s a lot more to the personnel on these discs, which veteran collectors will know but others will not. First of all, the last two tracks by the Wolverines Orchestra,
When My Sugar Walks Down the Street
Prince of Wails
, though also made in 1924, feature McPartland and not Beiderbecke, and there are not one but two entirely different lineups for The Original Wolverines. The 1927 tracks only include McPartland, pianist Dick Voynow, and drummer Vic Moore from the
Original Wolverines, while on the May 1928 tracks (
Dear Old Southland
) the only identifiable musician is Teschemacher. Apparently, after 94 years, no one has been able to discover who the other musicians are (more on that later).
In addition, prospective purchasers should know that Off the Record has made an error in listing Vic Moore as the drummer for all of the Wolverines’ 1924 sides. In the recording session of June 20, which includes
I Need Some Pettin’, Royal Garden Blues
, the drummer is actually the band’s manager of the time, the legendary Vic Berton, largely known (if at all) today as the inventor of the “sock cymbal,” which later became the hi-hat, and the first man to play “hot timpani” on records. Berton plays no timps on these sides, just cymbals and woodblocks, and as was usual with acoustic records he is woefully underrecorded, so it probably doesn’t make much of an aural difference to the casual listener, but the point is that the booklet info is wrong. I received this information directly from Vic’s brother Ralph, whom it was my pleasure to know for 21 years and who was present at the recording session, and in fact Vic Berton is listed as the drummer of this session in both the Milestone two-LP issue of the 1970s and the 1992 CD reissue (Milestone 47019), which I used for comparison.
Generally speaking, Gennett Records—for all its legendary status in recording some of the best early jazz of the time—sounded like garbage. Its owner, the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, has an important place in record history as the company that broke the iron-fisted patent that Victor and Columbia thought they held on lateral-cut records. Up until the end of World War I, every American record company that was
Victor or Columbia was forced to use vertical-cut grooves, which meant that the needle rode up and down while playing a record rather than side-to-side, but except for Edison’s, all records made in this process had inferior sound—and didn’t sell as well, because most people could not afford to own two phonographs with the two different technologies. (Think of it as the VHS vs. Beta wars of the 1910s.) Starr’s victory was based on the fact that they used a different system from Victor of Columbia—a rather inferior, somewhat junky system, but different nonetheless. Pianist-composer Hoagy Carmichael, one of the many who made their first records for Gennett, said in later years that even when the performers themselves listened to the playback immediately after making the record it sounded “dead,” as if it were some relic from the 19th century rather than a vibrant sound picture of what had just taken place in the studio. That’s a fair assessment. Doug Benson, producer and owner of Off the Record, says in the liner notes that “some of the recordings are weak and tinny, while others are muffled and muddled. They are sonically inferior to the [King] Olivers, and require additional restoration.”
Milestone’s solution in 1992 was to employ the NoNoise method of sound restoration. They did an excellent job, removing almost all the noise from the records and brightening up the treble end considerably. All of the Beiderbecke Gennetts now had a uniform sound, but in the end that sound was somewhat glassy, lacking warmth and any sense of realism. Of course, considering where they started, what Milestone’s engineers did was practically a miracle for 1992. But Benson has done them one better. As he modestly puts it, “We started with first-rate copies of everything, used noise reduction very judiciously, and adjusted our equalizer to ‘shape’ the record noise and adjusted listening.” To my ears, he also added a judicious amount of reverb, not enough to be noticeable through speakers but immediately evident when listening through headphones. There is a little bit of juice in the sound now, more brightness as well as more warmth. I still think the Milestone pressing of
Jazz Me Blues
has a richer sound, but I’ll take Off the Record’s overall sound shaping any day. For the first time, one can actually hear the woodblocks used in place of a full drum kit in the background, and both the tuba and banjo sound much more realistic here.
One thing I was not aware of until this release was that five of the Wolverines’ records, including the very famous performances of
Copenhagen, Riverboat Shuffle
, were not issued on the Gennett label at all but on Claxtonola, a label owned by the Brenard Manufacturing Company of Iowa City. Nor was the band identified as the Wolverines on these labels, but as “The Jazz Harmonizers.” No wonder some collectors went crazy looking for these original records on Gennett!
As for the music, I hesitate to go so far as to say, as the notes claim, that the Wolverines were “the first modern jazz band” because they were the first to “consistently add smartly arranged passages using augmented and extended chords—such as added ninths and 13ths, and whole-tone scales.” But that was something in the air among white jazz musicians of that time, particularly with Beiderbecke, who was a sometime student of Debussy and Ravel. Bix was introduced further to this sound world by the Bertons: Vic’s brother Eugene was a light
who had introduced the songs of Les Six in Paris right after the war, and came back to the family’s Chicago apartment loaded down with recordings of music by these composers, Ravel, and Stravinsky. Nevertheless, the Wolverines did attempt, in their sometimes faltering way, to reharmonize the jazz band in a way that came just a shade closer to that type of classical music. The advanced harmonic thinking of Beiderbecke in his solos is always evident here, but also in Carmichael’s rather complex
, which starts with out-of-tonality notes. In later performances of this piece, even by Bix with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra three years later, the quirky out-of-tonality intro is straightened out and made more tonal.
Apart from his immersion in modern French and Russian classical music, partly on his own and partly via the Bertons, Beiderbecke’s strongest influence as a jazz player was the short-lived New Orleans cornetist Emmett Hardy (1903–25). A child prodigy, Hardy was the only horn player ever credited with outdueling Louis Armstrong in a cutting contest (1919). He came north to Chicago with the original New Orleans Rhythm Kings, where he played second cornet to Paul Mares, but like black cornetist Freddie Keppard he refused to record on the grounds that other musicians would steal his ideas. (Keppard eventually recorded c.1924, and many think it was too late.) Nevertheless, those who heard Hardy in person, Beiderbecke among them, were deeply impressed by the fecundity of his musical ideas. Drummer Monk Hazel (1903–68) once said that Bix on these Wolverine records sounds very much like Hardy, but I have an even more personal example to give. Back in the early 1980s, I was in touch via mail and phone calls with Vet Boswell (1911–88), the youngest of the famed Boswell Sisters, who had heard Hardy play in their home music sessions during the mid 1920s (Hardy left Chicago and returned home about three years before his death). Ironically, Vet had never heard Bix Beiderbecke, so I sent her a tape including
from the Wolverines sessions and a few of the better “Bix and his Gang” sides (
Royal Garden Blues, Sorry, Goose Pimples
). When I next talked to her and asked how she liked Bix, she said, “Oh, he’s wonderful! He sounded just like Emmett!”
Bob Gillette was a pretty good banjoist and both Min Leibrook on tuba and Vic Moore on drums kept pretty good time. Pianist Dick Voynow, one of the few gay men in jazz at the time, sometimes played behind the beat, which had a deleterious effect on the band. George Johnson was a competent sax player, no more than that, certainly no match for the brilliant Jack Pettis of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Jimmy Hartwell, on the other hand, was a pretty good clarinetist, just a shade less good than another white clarinetist of the period, Jimmy Lytell. In the alternate take of
, Beiderbecke fluffs the opening chorus pretty badly, which was probably the reason this take was not released, but when he reaches the cornet-clarinet duet in the second half of the record, listen to how much more inspired he is, and how well Hartwell responds to him. When I pointed this out to Ralph Berton, when this take was finally discovered and released in the 1970s, he remarked that it reminded him of certain good nights on the bandstand when Bix and Jimmy would inspire each other for chorus after chorus.
Flock O’ Blues
were recorded by a pickup band just before Beiderbecke went to Detroit to join Jean Goldkette’s large jazz band for the first time. C-melody saxist Frank Trumbauer, who became his friend and mentor during these years, promised Bix that the name of the band would make reference to his home state of Iowa. He kept his promise, but named the group after Sioux City instead of Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport. This was one of only two recording sessions (the other was the famous
Singin’ the Blues
session of 1927) on which Miff Mole, the most advanced jazz trombonist of his time, played with Bix.
I’ve always felt that the “Bix and his Rhythm Jugglers” session was vastly overrated due to the inebriated condition of the musicians, but
comes across better than
, which is pretty much a mess. From this point on, we leave Beiderbecke and focus on the playing of his replacement, Jimmy McPartland. A fine musician, if by no means a genius on Bix’s level, McPartland had a punchier, more rhythmic approach to cornet playing, borrowing certain ideas from Louis Armstrong, whom he admired as much as Bix. The last two Gennett Wolverines titles from December 1924 are famous records, but the electrical sides made for Brunswick-Vocalion in 1927 and 1928 are uncommon. In addition to McPartland, Voynow and Moore from the “real” Wolverines are on the first session. I am also impressed (considering the time period) with Mike Durso’s trombone solos, which are fairly good.
The second session has unknown this and unknown that for every instrument, except that some trad-jazz experts have now decided that the short-lived Frank Teschemacher is playing alto and baritone sax in addition to clarinet. I am neither convinced nor impressed by the baritone sax interjections during the verse of
, whether or not Tesch plays them, but it does sound like Tesch in the clarinet solo. In the notes, the trumpet is tentatively identified as “the little-known Dick Feige.” He certainly is little known—I’ve never heard of him—but whoever it is, he’s pretty fair. I’ll take their word for it. Except for typically spiky clarinet playing by Teschemacher here and there,
Dear Old Southland
is pretty bad.
In toto, however, this is a valuable and interesting release for Beiderbecke collectors. If you still have money in this economy to replace your Milestone pressing of the Bix Gennetts, this is the one to get.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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