Saturday, February 9, 2008

Snake Rag

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Gennett Recorded April 6, 1923
OKeh Recorded circa June 22, 1923
Track Time of Gennett 3:03
Track Time of OKeh 3:17
Written by Joe Oliver and Armand A.J. Piron
Gennett Recorded in Richmond, Indiana
OKeh Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Bill Johnson, banjo (on Gennett) Bud Scott, banjo (on OKeh); Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Gennett 5184-B and OKeh 4933-B 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

After spending so much time in the 1950s, it’s nice to go all the way back to 1923 for a change to discuss a classic King Oliver tune, “Snake Rag.” If you’ve found your way to this site, then I really shouldn’t have to go into great detail about the Armstrong-Oliver relationship. Oliver served as a mentor of sorts to Little Louis in New Orleans, with Armstrong eventually replacing his inspiration in Kid Ory’s band when Oliver decided to travel to California. By 1922, Oliver was leading a band at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens and he soon sent for the young Armstrong to make his way up to the Windy City to play second cornet with him. It was the biggest break of Armstrong’s life to that point and he never got tired of talking or writing about it (please check out Armstrong’s autobiography, My Life In New Orleans, if you’ve never read it or even if you haven’t read it in a long time).

The Oliver-Armstrong cornet tandem soon became the talk of Chicago, namely due to the marvelous two-cornet breaks that seemed to effortlessly flow from their horns. The breaks sounded completely spontaneous and no one could quite figure out how Armstrong would know what Oliver was going to play and how he would come up with a second part that would mesh with it perfectly. Of course, it wasn’t completely spontaneous as Oliver and Armstrong had a system where Oliver would either signal what he was about to play during his ensemble lead playing or he would look over and secretively finger the valves of the break he was about to make. Whatever the method, there’s no denying the thrill of hearing those breaks live at the Lincoln Gardens.

The Oliver band, with Armstrong, made 27 records in 1923, some of the most famous examples of New Orleans jazz ever captured on wax (and if you don’t have the new Archeophone/Off the Record two-disc set, then you’ve never truly heard them. People who heard the band live claim that these records didn’t do them justice, especially with Baby Dodds having to play woodblocks and the occasional tom or cymbal instead of his usual full, driving drum set. Regardless, there are many, many wonderful moments on these 1923 recordings, especially when Oliver and Armstrong dish out the breaks that drove the crowds wild 85 years ago. Fortunately, this blog will deal with one of the song’s that best showed off these two-cornet breaks, “Snake Rag.”

“Snake Rag” was composed by Oliver and, living up to its title (the rag, not the snake), featured three different strains, like most ragtime of the day. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band first tackled it at the end of their second session for Gennett records on April 6, 1923. This was a banner session, one of the high points of the entire Oliver series as it featured joyous versions of “Weather Bird Rag” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Froggie Moore,” as well as the landmark “Dipper Mouth Blues.” “Snake Rag” closed the proceedings that day. A few months later, around June 22, Oliver, now billed as “King Oliver’s Jazz band,” recorded four sides for OKeh in Chicago. Now, leading off the session was another version of “Snake Rag,” this one credited to Oliver and the New Orleans Creole bandleader and violist, A.J. Piron. Both records have remarkable similarities so instead of going through one and then the other, it’s probably best to tackle them at the same time. Trust me, I’ve already done the listening with the Gennett coming out of the computer and the OKeh coming out of the Ipod headphones, and these are two very, very similar recordings except for the breaks…ah, those wonderful breaks. For now, though, here are the Red Hot Jazz Archive’s links to both recordings:

Both records are wonderful, but the OKeh exists in better sound and sounds a little tighter, though the ensemble interplay on the Gennett is perhaps a shade more exciting. The band starts off both records with a bang, jumping right into the first strain ensemble (imagine hearing that live? Two taps to count off and THAT comes out?). The record introduces the two-cornet breaks almost immediately (four bars in), but it’s the same break, played three times on each record, so it must have been written or just viewed as a definitive part of the routine. The break is an exciting chromatic run from a high Eb to a low one, hitting every note on the way except the E natural, followed by a Honore Dutrey moan and a cute two-note wrap-up by the horns. This first strain has almost a march-like feel to it, not a swinging one…you almost can’t help but pat your foot on the first and third beats of each measure.

Both records feature an almost identical tempo so the Gennett arrives at the second strain at 28 seconds, while the OKeh hits it at 27. The second strain differs on both records with regards to the trumpet playing. Armstrong and Oliver usually weaved their lines together seamlessly and to my ears, it sounds like Oliver takes the lead in the first part of the second strain while Armstrong, after the short Dutrey break, takes over for the second half. However, the big difference is that by the time of the OKeh recording, the Oliver band realized they could squeeze a little more time out of the record, so they play this second strain twice (meaning one more extra go around on that chromatic break). This accounts for the 15 extra seconds of playing time on the later version.

Both versions return to the first strain for last run-through (and yes, one more chromatic break), with Armstrong all over the cracks of Oliver’s lead on the Gennett, before settling into the final blowing strain, which takes things to the end of the record. If you’re listening along, the Gennett reaches this point at the 46 second mark while the OKeh hits it at 1:04. This strain is a simple one, 32 bars in Ab with a break positioned directly in the middle. Clarinetist Johnny Dodds takes the first break, different ones on each record, starting off with a suspended first note on the Gennett while the OKeh features a hotter, more rhythmic descending motif. The ensembles differ on both records but there’s no sense in analyzing each difference. The Gennett is scrappier but I think I like it better, especially Oliver’s exciting charge into the next chorus. Listen for Dutrey’s double-time blasts and Dodds’s especially thrilling high blue note around the 2:04 to 2:08 mark on the Gennett. Armstrong is also much “friskier” on the Gennett as David Sager points out in his wonderful notes to the Archeophone release. Making four-horn ensembles sound so good and so joyous is an art form and all the jazz aficionados who are so impressed by a trumpet and a sax playing a bop head in unison should really give a listen to just how many things are happening during these “Snake Rag” ensembles, yet nobody steps on anybody’s part. It’s like one giant instrument, the Ensemble-phone or something to that effect. (Usual disclaimer: I’m not a die-hard moldy fig as I’ll listen to bop heads all day. But New Orleans ensembles are usually thought to be old-fashioned and kind of corny and I don’t think there’s a harder form of jazz to play and make it sound good.)

As much fun as these ensembles are, the main event of both records are the two-cornet breaks which differ greatly from record to record. The first break comes at 1:58 on the Gennett and 2:15 on the OKeh. The Gennett is trickier for the two cornets to execute rhythmically, but they nail it, while the OKeh is bluesier, a funky riff repeated three times. After the breaks, on the Gennett, they keep playing right into the next chorus, but on the OKeh, Bud Scott takes a vocal break, “Lawdy, sweet mama!” Perhaps Bill Johnson’s “Oh, play that thing” on “Dipper Mouth Blues” caught on and the Oliver band, like any band trying to please the public, wanted to include more vocal breaks on their records. Oliver plays similar ideas in his lead on the next chorus, mainly the happily skipping phrase in the ninth bar. But at 2:25 mark on the Gennett, Oliver seems to be signaling Armstrong about the next break, definitely in measure six and a little more in measure 11 (again, thanks to Sager for pointing this out). The second breaks are different, but they follow similar patterns. On the Gennett, the cornets play B and C over and over again before resolving it with an F to an Eb. The OKeh chooses two different notes, F and Ab, and a different rhythm, resolving this one on a preciously pounded blue third, B. Both breaks are great, but that B on the OKeh, gets me every time. Then again, even though I’ve heard these records a hundred times, I still smile and clap my hands when a break catches me off guard.

Both records then feature straight forward jamming for the last 30 seconds, repeating the last couple of bars a few times to exciting effect before stopping on a time at the finish. Dodds really blows on the Gennett. In fact, after listening so carefully, I think I prefer the Gennett because of its ragged, exciting quality. The sound quality is better on the OKeh, Armstrong is more behaved and the early breaks are executed better…but there’s just no substitution for pure excitement. But the OKeh does have that fun Bud Scott interlude and that killer final break. Oh really, how can you choose one great record over another? I’m just glad to have two versions to compare.

Well, actually there are three versions to compare. Let us flash forward to the fall of 1959 when Pops recorded “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” for the Audio Fidelity label. After his heart attack/pneumonia/cold spaghetti episode in Spoleto, Italy, Armstrong took a few weeks off but came back blowing like mad on his first Audio Fidelity dates with the Dukes of Dixieland at the beginning of August. Audio Fidelity’s next project was the have the All Stars in the studio to record a tribute to Armstrong’s mentor. George Avakian had wanted Armstrong to record King Oliver tunes for Columbia but that was before Joe Glaser hiked the price for recording Armstrong through the moon. Surely, Avakian would have made another classic album and with that regret in mind, it’s easy to see how “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” comes off as a bit of a disappointment.

But please, let me emphasize the word “bit.” There are some silly choices like “Old Kentucky Home” and the honky-tonk piano on “Frankie and Johnny” is pretty corny, but Armstrong overcomes it all and plays some of his finest horn of the period on numbers like “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “St. James Infirmary.” And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the four songs I just mentioned have nothing to do with King Oliver! As Pops explained, “Well, he might have played them.”

But the All Stars did tackle some Oliver songs, though Armstrong really had to lead his men because most of the All Stars had no idea about the original routines. On “Snake Rag,” they tried pretty hard, but unfortunately, Armstrong’s memory failed them (more in a moment). Thanks to the HipCast people, feel free to listen along!

The first half of the record isn’t one of my favorite moments in All Stars history. Louis Armstrong might have epitomized all that was New Orleans but the All Stars were not a New Orleans/Dixieland band and on “Snake Rag” it shows. First off, the tempo is slower than on the originals and it’s not really an improvement. Bassist Mort Herbert plunks away with roots and fifths in two-beat style while drummer Danny Barcelona maintains his steady swing pattern on the ride cymbal. Trummy Young was the ideal trombonist for the All Stars but he was not a tailgate man and he sounds like he just listened to his first Kid Ory record and was trying to his best to imitate it, playing the same simple patterns over and over. Peanuts Hucko proved to be a quick learner, executing the chromatic break cleanly with Pops, but in the ensemble, he offers none of Johnny Dodds’s weaving countermelodies, instead simply harmonizing the melody of the first strain with Armstrong.

After one time through the first strain, they head to the second strain, where Hucko practically starts playing ragtime clarinet. Trummy takes a short solo, sounding nothing like himself. The rhythm section doesn’t sound at ease either, with Kyle playing uncharacteristic oom-pah accompaniment to go along with Mort’s stiff walking and Barcelona’s ill-fitting ride cymbal. Then, for the third time, Pops and Hucko play the descending the break and we’re already at the 1:08 mark. Now, I know it sounds like I’m being pretty harsh on this track but to me, that first minute is pretty painful as it sounds like the All Stars are trying to sound like something they’re not. Fortunately, there’s good news around the corner: the final 1:50 of the record is fantastic, so good that this is actually one of my favorite performances on “Satchmo Plays King Oliver.”

There’s only one problem: Pops forgot the chords to the blowing strain! Here’s the original set-up:

Ab / / /

Ab / /Ab7 /Ab7

Eb7 / / Ab F7

Bb7 / /Eb (break) /

That’s the first 16 bars. The second 16 are the same, only it ends on Ab. But here’s what the All Stars play in 1959:

Ab / / /

Ab / / Eb /

Eb / / /

Eb / / Ab (break) /

Ab / / /

Ab7 / / Db /

Db / Ddim / Ab / F7

Bb / Eb / Ab /

It might not look familiar but it should sound familiar: it’s “Tiger Rag”! It’s funny that Pops remembered the routines and chords for the first two strains but when it came to the main one, he fell back on “Tiger Rag” changes, which are also in Ab. But if you can look past the small error, there’s some great moments, beginning with a very relaxed Hucko, even though the rhythm section still sounds ill ease. After Hucko’s solo, Danny Barcelona takes a break, leaving one minute left in the record with not much having happened.

But what a minute it is! The reason is simple: Pops, Pops, Pops. He enters with a great quote from Ravel’s “Bolero” and takes off from there, sounding incredibly strong. The rhythm section finally loosens up and becomes the All Stars. Pops’s lead playing is simply brilliant and that break, building up to that high C is the stuff that dreams are made of. And listen to some of the phrases he blows after the break. Sound familiar? If you know the “Autobiography’s” remake of “Hotter Than That,” based on “Tiger Rag,” you’ll hear some of the exact phrases Pops scatted on that, evidence number 702 of Pops’s vocals influencing his trumpet playing (and vice versa).

Another Barcelona break leads to a standard All Stars ending, Pops going way up for the ending. I can never listen to this version of “Snake Rag” without rewinding it and listening to the last minute again and again. This is a man who just had a heart attack? Pretty impressive!

And that ends this weekend extra, written in the time it took my wife to get her hair done! (Over two hours…it takes me 25 minutes to get a haircut!) She’s back and we’re going out for the night so I hope you got to enjoy this little weekend extra. I’ll be back in the early part of the week with more glories of Pops.

1 comment:

Layin' It Out There. said...

THANK YOU!!!!!!!

I love the All Stars recording, but when I arranged a lead sheet for my band, I was confused by the chord progression on the third strain.

All the fake book sheets have Oliver's chord progression, and it obviously not the same as Armstrong's recording.

I listened to the recording over and over, knowing the progression was familiar, but unable to put my finger on it until I found your blog!

Personally, I think the Tiger Rag progression works so much better, and is much more entertaining. IMHO,the clarinet solo was amazing, and Pops definitely knocked it out of the park at the end. Thanks again!