Sunday, January 25, 2009

King Oliver Personnel and 1939 Carnegie Hall Review

Probably my favorite aspect about keeping this blog is the feedback I get from readers, both my old and loyal ones and the new readers who seem to be discovering this site at a rapid rate these days. Two of my entries last week resulted in e-mails that I would like to share. First off, the great Armstrong discographer, Jos Willems. When I did the "Canal Street Blues" blog on Friday, I used David Sager and Doug Benson's Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings as my primary source. In his notes, Sager writes about bassist Bill Johnson playing banjo on those earliest King Oliver sessions and that was good enough for me.

Of course, I should have consulted Willems's All of Me Armstrong discography to see if he had differing information. Willems lists Bud Scott as the banjo player on the date and added this note, which relies heavily on Irakli de Davrichewy's notes to the Masters of Jazz CD Louis Armstrong, Volume 1 1923::

Note: The dates of the first sessions are clearly confirmed by Gennett studio files, but, other than the name of the band, no further information is given. The personnel have thus had to be established from aural evidence, with the only real doubt revolving around the identity of the banjo player, generally listed as Bill Johnson. True, on certain band photographs Johnson can be seen holding a four-string banjo rather than a string-bass.

Yet interestingly, careful listening to the various recordings involved, especially Canal Street Blues, reveals the presence of a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar.

Certainly, the boomingly low notes of a double-bass or bass drum could not technically be absorbed by the recording equipment of the time. Johnson was supposedly on this tour, but he was unable to record.

Based on the evidence of photos and the audible absence of a double-bass, it seemed logical to attribute the banjo part to Bill Johnson. But despite scrupulously detailed examination of discographies, I have been unable to unearth no single recording on which Johnson plays either four or six-string banjo.

Moreover, Johnny St. Cyr, who was with Oliver and who later played with Johnson, has stated (Jazz Finder, December 1948) that he never saw Johnson play any other instrument than double-bass. Bud Scott is known to have arrived in the band early spring of 1923 (Record Changer interview, September 1947) and since there is a distinct similarity between the playing here and that of Scott on later recordings, I opt (always with very little hesitation) for Scott as banjo on the King's first recordings.

Also, today (January 27), trumpeter and New Orleans jazz expert Chis Tyle wrote in to say, "I was just reading down the page on your blog re: Bill Johnson on banjo w/Oliver. IMO, it's either St. Cyr or Scott, and it's a six-string banjo, definitely. I've always thought that Johnson holding a banjo in a photo is rather flimsy evidence to suggest he was playing it on the recording - that and the fact there's no evidence he actually played it! (Although it's possible, since his family had a string band in Mississippi...) But my vote is for Bud Scott, since he worked with Oliver later."

David Sager has been known to check out this site from time to time and if he's out there, I'd love to hear his information on Johnson as the banjo player. Jazz discographical discussions! Gotta love it!

Also last week, I posted an entry on "What Is This Thing Called Swing," one of my favorite Armstrong Decca big band tracks. In the posting, I included audio of Armstrong performing the tune live at Carnegie Hall in 1939. My good friend from Sweden HÃ¥kan Forsberg wrote in to share a review of the concert written by Dan Burley and collected in one of Franz Hoffman's collections of black newspaper articles on jazz and namely, Henry "Red" Allen. Before getting to the review, here are the Carnegie Hall tracks. Here's the "Sleepy Time" theme song followed by "Old Man Mose":

And once again "What Is This Thing Called Swing":

Now that you've got it in your heard, here's Burley's review. It's tedious at times--just one list after another--but it's fascinating to see how Armstrong killed, especially after he followed a tribute to minstrel songs (15 years later and reporters would have said Armstrong belonged in the minstrel part of the evening). And the ending is good, too, because it focuses on how the lack of then-present-day composers in the jazz field were pretty much given the shaft. Here's the review:

WRITERS LEFT OFF PROGRAM - Most of ASCAP Night Devoted to Serious Minstrel Music - by Dan Burley

The younger generations among the monster turnout at Carnegie Hall Monday night at the second concert in the festival of American music given under the aegis of American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) were provided with a liberal education in the contributions the Negro has made to American music. But because of the length of the program and attention given to oldtime writers, many of the present-day group of composer were plenty sore.

Not only the youngsters, but an appreciable lot of the oldsters of both races learned for the first time that many of the songs they have whistled, sung or heard since childhood were from the pens of colored writers whose genius has been neglected and all but forgotten over the course of the years.

From mighty symphonic works, spirituals, minstrel songs, blues, jazz and down to swing ran the program by W.C. Handy, and his staff of Joe Jordan, Charles L. Cooke and others, and while the presentation might well have been spread over three or four of the nights set aside by ASCAP to honor its members, it did serve the purpose of giving the public for the first time a mass introduction to the Negro composer.

A 70-piece symphony orchestra, three choirs, Louis Armstrong and Claude Hopkins and their swing bands, specialty singers, topped by Cab Calloway, dancers, guest composers and the composers themselves constituted the biggest massing of Negro musical production talent ever assembled. It was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning before the affair reached its climax.


The symphonic compositions were conducted by the writers James P. Johson, who flails a lot of boogie-woogie piano when in the mood, conducted the orchestra in his “From Harlem.” Dr. Cooke led the orchestra in his “Sketches of the Deep South” and world-famed William Grant Still conducted two movements from his “Afro-American Symphony” and “Summerland.” The Southernaires sang a medley of Will Marion Cook’s melodies, while Harry T. Burleigh was on hand to hear Jessie Zackery sing some of his spirituals, while the Abysinian Choir sang R. Nathaniel Dutt’s “Listen to the Lambs.” Juanita Hall Choir did an interesting interpretation of “Go Down Death” from “God’s Trombones” by the late James Weldon Johnson and a fine presentation of “De Little Black Train” arranged by Miss Hall with Robert Hall as soloist. Minto Cato effectively sang Alex Hill’s “How the First Song Was Born.’ These numbers composed part one of the program and dealt with the serious side of Negro musical composition.

Part two of the program, coming after the intermission, was an impromptu minstrel show with members of the Crescendo Club, all of whom are ASCAP composers, grouped in minstrel style. Laurenza Deas, Pinkney Hill, Chris Smith and Chappie Chappelle interpreted dance routines of the ’90’s and early 1900 period while James P. JOhnson, Clarence Williams, WIlliam Edmondson of the Southenaires, Tim Brym, Joe Jordan, Luckey Roberts, Donald Heywood, and Henry Troy did the conducting of the singing and of the orchestra. The Southernaires came back to feature on the numbers.


In the minstrel group, which drew much criticism, were such numbers as “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” and “Carve Dat Possum” by James Bland; “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (Sam Lucas); “Pas Mala,” (Ernest Hogan); “Baggage Coach Ahead,” (Gussie I. Davis); “All I Want Is My Chicken” (Laurence Deas); “Darktown Is Out Tonight” (Will Marion Cook); “Shine” (Mack, Brown & Dabney); “Maple Leaf Rag” (Scott Joplin); “Wish I Could Shimmy Like My SIster Kate” (Piron & Cl. WIliams); “Nobody” (Alex Rogers & Bert Williams); “Some Of These Days” (Shelton Brooks); “Under the Bamboo Tree” (Cole & Johnson); “Ballin’ the Jack” (Chris Smith & Jim Burris); “Please Go Away and Let Me SLeep” (Tim Brym & Cecil Mack); “Just One Word of Consolation” (Tom Lemonier & Frank Williams); “I’m Just Wild Abot Harry” (Sissle & Blake); “Lovey Joe” (Joe Jordan); “Baby Won’t Yo uPlease Come Home” (Cl. Williams & Cl. Warfield); “Oh Say Wouldn’t It Be a Dream” (Joe Jordan); “Junk Man Rag” (Luckey Roberts); “Dearest Memories” (Will Vodery); “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (Evertt, Robbins & Porter Grainger); “Mammy O’Mine” (Maceo Pinkard) played by Mr. Pinkard and sung by Mrs. Edna Pinkard; “Maori” (Will Tyler); “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” (Creamer & Layton); “I’m Coming Virginia” (WIll Marion Cook & Donald Heywood); and “Smile” (Heywood). The 40-voiced choir Mr. Heywood is rehearsing for his “Caribbean Cruise” sang the last two numbers.


The length of the program was apparent and sighs were beginning to come with alarming frequency when out popped His Majesty of Jazz and Swing, “Satchmo” of the trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louie came to Carnegie Hall red-hot and lowdown and when he got through leading his orchestra in “Ol’ Man Mose,” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing,” little was left but to go home. Armstrong provided the comic relief after the long and tiresome minstrel episode.

Cab Calloway came minus his orchestra, but sang “Jumpin’ Jive” accompanied by his pianist, Benny Payne.

The program closed with W.C Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”


Immediately after the houses emptied, squawks were heard from many of the modern composers listed on the program who didn’t get a play because of the time devoted to the symphonic, spiritual and minstrel days part of the show. Such writers as Perry Bradford, Jelly Roll Morton, J.C. Johnson, president and founder of the Crescendo Club, Andy Razaf, Edgar Sampson, Walter Bishop, Frede Norman, Joe Grey and Wilbur Sweatman, Reddie Blake and McPherson, Kaye Parker, Bennie Carter, Claude Hopkins, and Slim and Slam were left holding the bag when it was decided the program had run long enough and the curtain came down.

Said Andy Razaf: “More music of present-day colored songwriters would have climaxed a grand show. Someday we will realize that the present and future are just as important as the past. Only then will such efforts have balance and accuracy.”

If the program had not been designed to perpetuate the works of the older writers, it could not have done a better job in giving the breaks to men, many of whom are dead. Many in the audience came to hear songs they knew about and to applaud the men who wrote them. They didn’t hear them. They squawked.


Peter said...

Hi Ricky, Are the Carnegie Hall cuts available on any CD?

Ricky Riccardi said...

Hey Peter! As far as I know, only the Armstrong cuts have been released, on a sadly out-of-print disc on the Ambassador label, "Louis Armstrong Vol. 6, 1939-1940." You might still be able to find it used online but the only Armstrong tracks from the concert are the ones on my blog so you can always come back here to listen! Thanks,