King Oliver’s Jazz Band
Recorded circa June 23, 1923
Track Time 3:01
Written by Richard M. Jones
Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Bud Scott, banjo; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 4975
Currently available on CD: The best version be heard on the recent Archeophone release, Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes, if in inferior sound to the above C.D. release
As promised, today’s entry will focus on King Oliver’s recording of “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” from late June 1923. It’s not one of my favorite Oliver recordings but it does have one of my very favorite Oliver solos, one that young Louis Armstrong obviously listened to intently (more on that later). But because I’m doing a rare entry on an early 1920s recording, this will allow us to have some fun with the indispensable website www.redhotjazz.com. (Unfortunately, I don't yet know how to post links directly in my blog but I will post the address. If you copy them and past them in a new browser, the music should play without a problem!) Ethel Waters was up first with her recording of the tune in May 1922 for Harry Smith’s Black Swan label, the first black-owned record company. You can listen to that recording by going here.
Two months later, Alberta Hunter recorded it for Paramount with Eubie Blake on piano. You can listen to it here.
On June 1, 1923, Jones himself recorded “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” as a piano solo for the Gennett label. This is a most interesting version because the Oliver record follows it very closely. Here’s Jones.
All right, got those versions in your head? Let’s turn to King Oliver. The odds are, that if you’ve found this website, you know the tale of Armstrong and Oliver but if you don’t, here’s a quick synopsis. Louis Armstrong grew up in New Orleans and learned how to play cornet as a delinquent member of the “Colored Waif’s Home.” When he got out, he continued to practice, looking up to Joe “King” Oliver, the king of New Orleans cornet players. Oliver was the only New Orleans cornet player to give little Louis tips on how to play the horn, tips that paid off when Armstrong replaced Oliver in the Kid Ory band in 1919. Oliver left the band to travel to Chicago, where, in 1921, he wired Armstrong to join him as the second cornet player in his band at the Lincoln Gardens. The two soon became the talk of Chicago as fellow musicians couldn’t get enough of their intricate, seemingly off-the-cuff (but actually somewhat prepared) two-cornet breaks. In 1923, the Oliver band began making records for Gennett in Indiana and Okeh in Chicago. Joined by the Dodds Brothers, Johnny on clarinet and Baby on drums, Armstrong’s future wife Lil Hardin on piano, the unique trombonist Honore Dutrey and a revolving banjo chair (filled by Bill Johnson, Bud Scott or Johnny St. Cyr), the Oliver band recorded some of the most famous examples of hot New Orleans jazz, though those who heard the band live swear that the records only hint at how great they sounded at the Lincoln Gardens.
Phew…there’s the one paragraph summary of something that should take a book to properly tell, but this is a blog, not a book, and as Armstrong would say, we gotta keep it rollin’, folks! So onto Oliver’s recording of “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” which can be heard here.
Right from the start, you can hear how Oliver’s record mirrors the Jones piano version. Oliver plays it a little faster (and in a higher key) but he must have been reading off a piece of sheet music as his opening muted phrases mimic Jones’s piano perfectly (as does Lil Hardin’s hillbilly-ish left hand pattern). The rest of the band eventually joins in for the first strain, but Oliver continues playing the melody pretty straight. Armstrong can barely be heard in the opening ensemble, but he peaks in around 28 seconds in. Because Oliver takes it faster, there’s time for him to go through the first strain two times (Jones only plays it once). Next comes the main strain, a catchy descending riff that Oliver plays vigorously. The ensemble acquits itself well, as usual, but after one minute and 45 seconds, all we’ve really heard is Oliver play Jones’s melody in a pretty straightforward fashion without adding anything new and frankly, it does get a bit repetitive. But when the band tries to change it up a bit at the 1:45 mark, everything almost falls apart. Dutrey takes center stage for a solo but the rhythm section isn’t clear if it’s going to fall into a stop-time pattern. Banjoist Bud Scott does just that at the beginning of the solo, hitting three chords, then pausing on the fourth beat…but nobody else does! At the same time, Dodds unwisely chooses some very low notes to back Dutrey with but instead, they clash badly with the trombone. However, Dutrey marches on as matters get back on track. I think it was Lawrence Gushee who once pointed out the straight swinging feeling of the Oliver band, without the heavy afterbeat emphasis utilized by many other New Orleans bands (including those of Armstrong). Bud Scott kept the tempo as smooth as a Freddie Green, even employing some nice substitutions on the Okeh remake of “Dippermouth Blues” from the same day “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” was recorded. Lil Hardin also liked to emphasize all four beats evenly and goodness knows Baby Dodds could swing (though it’s hard to power a band using just wood blocks, as he had to do on records—though there is some great Chinese tom!) so one can imagine what this rhythm section sounded like in person. I don’t think there was an oom-pah feeling, but rather the kind of forward-moving swing feeling usually associated with the later big bands.
But back to Dutrey’s solo. Again, Armstrong pops his head in with a neat little phrase at the 2:06 mark. This phrase would crop up a few more times in Armstrong’s 1920s recordings. First, Oliver used it to end “Camp Meeting Blues,” recorded later in 1923. Later, in 1927, it was again used to end the Hot Seven record of “Gully Low Blues.” The phrase eventually became one of Armstrong’s favorite licks (he makes it motif he returns to throughout his seminal duet with Earl Hines on “Weather Bird”).
So after two minutes and ten seconds, we’ve heard some nice Oliver lead, a near-breakdown in the rhythm section and a harmless trombone solo, but nothing to really make this a very memorable record…that is until Oliver picks up his cornet, muted, of course, and blows a chorus of blues that sticks with the listener long after the record ends. It begins very simply, repeating a passionate riff four times before taking it way down in the alley. Like most early New Orleans jazz solos, the other horns never stop playing but this is Oliver’s show and it’s one of my favorite solos of his. It also must have been one of Armstrong’s favorites, as he would use it himself on his 1928 recording of “Muggles,” where he begins the second chorus of his solo by playing exactly what Oliver played on “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” (both songs are in the key of Bb). You can listen to it here.
Flash forward to 1961 and Armstrong’s session with Duke Ellington. During the blowing section on “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a blues once again in Bb, Armstrong trots out Oliver’s solo in his second chorus. It was obviously planned as Armstrong also plays it in the same spot during an earlier, unissued take of “Black and Tan.” Thus, King Oliver’s influence can be heard in much of Armstrong’s playing but never more than when the younger man would play Oliver’s “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues” solo (even when the younger man was 60 and Oliver was long dead).
(Tangent time! I don’t know if “Muggles” will ever come up in a future blog entry but since I already mentioned Armstrong’s solo, I might as well talk a little more about the source of another part of that classic solo. Armstrong begins his “Muggles” outing with a simple riff, as the band goes into double time behind him. Armstrong soon discards the riff as he rhythmically works over one note, but I think he might have picked up that opening riff from an Arcadian Serenaders date with Wingy Manone on cornet. The song is “Who Can Your Regular Be Blues” and was recorded in November 1924. Again, thanks to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, you can listen to it here. Towards the end of the record, the band also double-times what was a slowish blues and Wingy leads the way with a riff that sounds exactly like the one Armstrong begins his “Muggles” solo with. Listen and tell me if I’m nuts!)
Back to “Jazzin’ Babies Blues.” The only confusion I have with the piece is who plays lead cornet in the last chorus. Oliver plays his solo muted and towards the last bar, stops playing. At that point, an open cornet can be heard playing a simple turnaround phrase: a high F to an F an octave lower to a G, setting up the final chorus of blues. Now it should be Oliver since he played lead the entire time and because he stops playing the muted solo before this phrase. However, to my educated ears it sounds exactly like young Armstrong. This cornet reprises the main riff in the final chorus but has a different tone than Oliver, who definitely played it earlier in the record. I don’t know if this has been decided, but I’m going to vote that Armstrong plays lead in the last chorus, setting it up for Oliver to take the final muted break.
That’s the end of the Oliver record but it’s not the end of “Jazzin’ Babies Blues.” While listening to it last week, I though to myself, “Gee, that sounds like it’s related to ‘Tin Roof Blues.’” Well, in preparing for this entry, I dug out the Sidney Bechet Mosaic Select box set which has a version of “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” from circa September 29, 1923. Bechet plays wonderfully, soloing over the opening “hillbilly” vamp as Oliver did but the main highlight of the record is a vocal by Eva Taylor. She sings the same lyrics as Waters and Hunter but when she gets to the main strain, there’s a difference: she now rephrases the lyrics to fit the melody of “Tin Roof Blues”! You see, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings recorded “Tin Roof Blues” on March 13-1923, which can be heard here. The record must have been a hit and musicians must have noticed that by taking the melody “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” and starting it an eight-note earlier, you’d get the “Tin Roof” melody. Perhaps the record wasn’t available when Oliver recorded it in June but it definitely hit by the time Taylor sang it in October. In the notes to the Mosaic, Bob Wilber writes that the melody more than hints at “Tin Roof Blues” but that’s an understatement: it is “Tin Roof Blues.” Unfortunately, this one is not available on the Red Hot Jazz Archive (crime!), so you’ll have to take my word on this one but what is on that site bears out this point even more. Four years later, on November 7, 1927, Richard M. Jones led a small combo on a session done for Victor. Jones chose to perform his own composition, “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” but now even he changed his own melody to turn it into “Tin Roof Blues.” Here's Jones's record from
I decided to do a Google search of “Jazzin’ Babies” and “Tin Roof” because I was sure there must have been something on the web about this melody transition. Instead, I found multiple sites that made specific mention as the two being the same song, such as “Tin Roof Blues (also known as ‘Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues).” But I think that by listening to the pre-NORK versions, as well as the Oliver, “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” was pretty close, but not the same as “Tin Roof Blues.” Anyway, to conclude from all this confusion, “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” gave King Oliver the opportunity to play one of his best solos, one that Louis Armstrong himself would use for decades to come. And as a side note, if you don’t have Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings, the new Off The Record/Archeophone release of the Oliver material, you’re missing out. Thanks to the incredible efforts of David Sager and Doug Benson, Oliver’s records have never sounded so good. The notes are incredibly informative, too. After Nat Hentoff wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal, sales went up to the point where it sold out and had to be reprinted! Mind you, this is music from 1923, music that the Columbia/Sony/Legacy/RCA people have never seen fit to release during the compact disc era (it is currently available again on Amazon). If you have any interest in early jazz history, please check out this release.
That’s all until next time—where it’s looking like “The Gypsy” is up next. Til then!