Re: Lil Armstrong, Gus Drobegg, Ezra Shelton, J. Russel Robinson, Edythe Baker
- Hello Mordechai (or Mr. Litzman if you prefer),
I just listened to "Sweet Lovin' Man" and heard the same solo to which you refer. This does not sound out of character for Ms. Hardin from this period, so I would say it's probably typical:
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band:- "Sweet Lovin' Man" (1923)
Uploaded by JoolyOTR on May 1, 2010
It's a nice solo (well, two-handed accompaniment to the clarinet), lots of her walking bass, etc. with the right hand carefully moving against the left hand. It kind of reminds me of two other Chicago pianists who were active at the time: Gus (Gustav) "Whity" Drobegg, and Ezra Howlett Shelton.
If you listen to the numerous piano rolls of the former, and the two or three known audio recordings of the latter (particularly "Flapper Stomp" and "Dearest Darling", reissued on Document Records, and nowhere else as far as I'm aware) you'll immediately hear what I'm talking about!
Gus Drobegg (a few examples of his many many piano rolls):
"You Know You Belong to Somebody Else" (1922)
(The link is for the Supertone reissue of the 88-note roll.
As an aside, the Columbia G-roll version of this was recorded in the 1950s, on an EXTREMELY out-of-tune Seeburg KT Special orchestrion,
at the Deansboro Musical Museum, on the Westminster LP
"Honky-Tonk in Hi-Fi". On this LP, the tune is mis-titled
"Georgia Cabin Door", another 1922 tune which was probably
also on the same roll):
I have no idea if Mr. Drobegg ever hung out in the black neighborhood in Chicago, or was familiar with Ms. Hardin or any other pianists from around there, but it's quite likely. It's also possible he originated some of this manner of playing and that Ms. Hardin and others were familiar with his piano rolls (made by the Columbia company in Chicago and fairly widely distributed at the time). He may have also appeared on the radio in the early 20's but I don't have radio listings right now so cannot look it up.
It is also possible that neither pianist knew of the other, but instead shared common influences. Without either of them being alive today to be interviewed, we may never know for sure, but it's fun to speculate!
As for Ezra Howlett Shelton, being female, African-American, and a jazz pianist on the South Side of Chicago in the early 20s, I would be EXTREMELY surprised if she did not know Ms. Hardin (or, for that matter, Lovie Austin). This also makes me wonder why I don't find mention of her in any of the standard jazz history books, but it's probably the same reason why James Blythe and other very good and (in their day) well-regarded musicians do not make it into these books
(or at least barely receive a single mention):
Their names are not already known to most jazz enthusiasts weaned on the revival from the 50s onward, and so it was presumably not considered necessary to mention them in the book, since the whole point of publishing the book was apparently to make money, and already-famous names seem to make more money than obscure ones!!!
[Our loss, since it is now impossible to personally interview most of these musicians, although if we're lucky some of their relatives may still be alive]
Ezra Howlett Shelton:
"Dearest Darling" (1923? Autograph label)
"Flapper Stomp" (later 20s)
(featuring vocals by Ms. Shelton, I believe)
J. Russel Robinson and Edythe Baker were two other pianists known at the time to the public (from their vaudeville appearances, major-label piano rolls, and audio recordings) who had a similar manner of playing, with, in the left hand, lots of walking bass with the bottom note being anticipatory, and the top note hitting on the downbeat. (Of course, this device was being used by tons of other pianists, but I'm mentioning them also because of the more specific right-hand patterns they used as well, which would take up a great deal of room trying to describe to this group, so please just listen to the recordings and rolls instead to get what I'm saying).
Both specialized in blues, although in my humble opinion, Mr. Robinson's blues playing was more authentic than Ms. Baker's (and no wonder, Robinson worked for W.C. Handy for years, and previously had toured all over the country, including the deep south, in a vaudeville act, where he got to hear all manner of early ragtime and blues pianists).
J. Russel Robinson:
(bite-sized samples of many of his piano rolls, courtesy of the Billingses in Nevada):
Full-length versions of several of Mr. Robinson's rolls can be heard in many places, including Youtube, Pianola.co.nz [Robert Perry's website], Warren Trachtman's roll scans page, pianorollscans.org
[Erik York's website], and here on Frank Himpsl's new site:
Here are a few of the Youtube gems:
QRS 1017 - You Can't Get Lovin' Where There Ain't Any Love - Fox Trot - Played by J. Russel Robinson
Uploaded by AAErikCO on Sep 13, 2009
Saint Louis Blues W.C.Handy
[Robinson's QRS roll version, originally issued in 1920, I think.
MAN, he really takes off on this one, and plays practically the entire Jogo Blues in the middle, with a real hard-rocking, hard-driving 8-to-the-bar feel... FANTASTIC!!!]
Uploaded by PianoWorldEnterprise on Mar 20, 2010
The Beal(e) Street Mama- A piano roll by J. Russel Robinson
Uploaded by Pianosyncrazy on Feb 23, 2012
Of course J. Russel Robinson also recorded prolifically, both as a pianist and vocalist (particularly with his vaudeville partner Al Bernard as the "Dixie Stars" who were kind of the aural blackface equivalent to Sissle and Blake's "Dixie Duo").
Here's one of the very best records he did as one-half of the "Dixie Stars", together with a studio band as well. Not only does Robinson sing and banter back and fourth with the lead singer Bernard, but he also takes an EXQUISITE swinging piano solo in the middle, with tasty right-hand fill-ins! Very nice!!!:
NEVER GETTIN' NO PLACE BLUES by The Dixie Stars 1924
Uploaded by cdbpdx on Dec 21, 2011
J. Russel Robinson's four solo piano records, recorded in the 1940s for the "Eagle" label (not the "Circle" label as I was incorrectly told several years ago) are so rare that NO ONE I've talked with has ever seen or heard of a single existing example of them, leading me to believe that no copies exist. (PLEASE prove me wrong!!!) They've never been reissued on LP or CD to the best of my knowledge, and the only place they're mentioned anywhere seems to be Tom Lord's jazz discography (which begs the question of how HE knows about them!!!)
However, Ms. Baker had a swingy charm all her own, which is also evident on her late-20s recordings made after she moved to the UK. (In my opinion, in terms of texture, embellishments, and overall swing, her style didn't change all that much from the earlier Aeolian rolls, although you can tell she kept up with the latest harmony trends. Obviously, also, of course the records are records, and rolls are rolls).
St. Louis Blues (Duo-Art roll originally issued in March, 1920):
Duo-Art - Saint Louis Blues - Baker
Uploaded by pianmn199 on Nov 19, 2011
Player Piano Roll - I've Got A Song For Sale
[another piano roll, from c. 1923]
Uploaded by Pianosyncrazy on Jan 19, 2012
Edythe Baker - Lucky Day & Where's that Rainbow
[audio recordings from 1927, very snappy!]
Published on Mar 8, 2012 by syncopeter
Edythe Baker - Birth of the blues
[another audio recording]
Uploaded by syncopeter on Feb 6, 2012
[nice double-time, and a few lightning-fast blues octave riffs!]
I would like to make one more remark: another trait all four of these pianists seem to share in common (plus of course Lil Armstrong) is a frequent use/addition of the syncopation which ties across the bar line (the "and" of beat 4, tying across to beat 1 of the next bar), which is a bit more sophisticated than was heard from most pianists in the ragtime period (and rarely found printed in any of the "pop" rags, although it is frequently found in the "classic" rags). This leads a nice forward motion and somewhat more "modern" swing (than previous styles) to the work of these pianists.
P.S. if anyone has any of the UBER-rare records made by Mr. Drobegg's orchestra ("Whity's Drobeg Orchestra" or "Drobegg's Frolic Orchestra" on either the "Olympic" or "Supertone" labels, recorded for a short time in Chicago circa 1924), please let me know!
I'd LOVE to hear ANY of these sides, they've never been reissued on CD, and the original records almost never turn up! After hearing his great (but often heavily over-arranged) piano rolls for years, I'd love to hear how he REALLY played!!!
P.P.S. Gus Drobegg also made my all-time favorite piano roll of "Limehouse Blues" (it swings like hell!), which (as were all Columbia and Capitol 88-note rolls) was also adapted for coin-op rolls and appears on "Messin' Around" Vol. 1, an LP of blues-oriented piano roll music, taken from A-rolls on the Capitol label and recorded by Ed Sprankle in the 1970s on his "Euphonic" label.
I'd LOVE to find an original 88-note version of this roll, but have no idea if any exist. It would have been issued/reissued on the Capitol, Supertone, Cecile, Sterling, or American roll labels. We are fortunate that a few different coin-op rolls with the adaptation/reduction of this roll still survive, such as the one on the LP.
Remind me, I may have a MIDI file of the A-roll, and if so, I'll upload it to the files section for your enjoyment!
--- In RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com, Mordechai Litzman <folke613@...> wrote:
> I am not sure that I understand all the terms you use to describe Lil Armstrong's piano playing but there is a long solo playing behind Johnny Dodds at appr. the 55 sec mark on King Oliver's 1923 recording Sweet Loving Man. Here you can hear Lil very clearly for about 35 seconds. Is this solo typical of her style?
> From: Andrew <rag1916@...>
> To: RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com
> Sent: Sunday, March 11, 2012 8:01 PM
> Subject: [RedHotJazz] Re: Lil Armstrong book - traditional jazz piano in general
> Mr. Taylor,
> I haven't read these books, but I've heard many of Ms. Armstrong's earlier (1920s) recordings, and she strikes me as both swinging hard enough, and contributing materially to the group. Whatever problems she must have initially had in getting the right feel for jazz, must have been in 1922 or earlier, before her first recordings with Oliver.
> Granted, in my opinion she isn't an extremely free-flowing improviser in her right hand, in terms of melodic invention, but very few pianists (or for that matter, horn players) were in the 1920s, white or black.
> That ability, to basically come up with another melody in place of the original melody, seemed to be had [at least before the 1930s when emerging pianists such as Teddy Wilson made it a national fad, and the appearance of numerous instruction books helped young pianists at least grasp the basic principles] only by people with absolute pitch, such as James P. Johnson or Bix Beiderbecke, or by people who were very fastidious and obsessive about perfecting their own playing and their own style (such as Jelly Roll Morton), or by musical geniuses with an innate sense of phrasing, and with a lot of highly melodic phrases in their "bag of tricks" (such as, of course, Louis Armstrong).
> I judge "swing" in piano players as a combination of:
> 1. the ratio of the eighth notes (for example the uneveness of them, between perfectly straight eighths and perfectly dotted eighths, which, neither of which, though sometimes "hot", could be considered "swinging" in the traditional sense)
> 2. The pianists' own sense of taste and proportion in balancing "straight" rhythms with syncopated ones (and in using and balancing different pianistic textures),
> 3. The pianists' ability to push and pull at the rhythm to make it more exciting, or at least more interesting. This is the hardest thing to put into words and even harder to put into notes (and hardest of all, to copy!!!). This is most easily described as a horn player (for example) soloing in front of a band, and playing rubato over the straight time laid down by the band. Some pianists had this ability, to play the one hand taking the lead (usually the right hand, but sometimes the left) in a free-flowing rubato, both anticipating (rushing) the beat, and also delaying (dragging) the beat... and all of this over the steady time laid down by the other hand!
> Good examples on records of jazz pianists with this ability to "push and pull" at the rhythm (or play simutaneously in rubato and in straight rhythm) include Earl Hines (of course), Jelly Roll Morton, Fred Elizalde, Alex Hill, Rube Bloom, Will Ezell, and many others, from all over the country.
> There were of course, many other pianists who preferred to keep their soloing hand respectful to the time laid down by the other hand. Such pianists were still able to play quite "hot" and even generate tremendous swing, simply through their choice of notes and rhythms (and of course the swing itself).
> Anyway, getting back to Lil Armstrong, I haven't transcribed or analyzed any of her solos or accompaniments, but to me, she is certainly one of the fine Chicago jazz pianists of the 1920s. Listening to her piano break before Louis Armstrong's solo on "Big Butter and Egg Man" with the Hot Five, it seems to start out fairly straight, but then she ends with a very loose, swinging phrase leading directly into the horn solo.
> Listening to a few other of her solos (and accompaniments that aren't just the straight 4/4 time) on the Hot Five recordings, for example, I hear a very loose, swinging pianist who has a very solid, metronomic left hand, juxtaposed against a right which lays way back in the beat, and pushes and pulls at it (at least rhythmically) very much in what you might call the New Orleans manner. I wonder if she started playing like that after coaching from Louis Armstrong? I wonder how she played before she met Armstrong?
> If more of the traditional jazz pianists (for example, in the innumerable amateur "dixieland" bands around today) tried hard to copy her, they would play better!
> The same goes for Clarence Williams, he was also very underrated as a pianist, yet he also had his own distinctive, carefully-cultivated style, which is quite simply excellent in, for example his recordings accompanying Sara Martin in 1922. I do believe Mr. Williams' piano style was more influential than has given credit. If you listen to many of the early pianists who were coming up in Chicago in the early 1920s, for example Clarence Johnson, James Blythe, and Lemuel Fowler, there is quite a bit of Williams' ideas in their playing. Granted, Williams was older (born in the 1890s) and came up from Louisiana, and so it seems natural that the younger cats would listen to him, in addition to the earlier "ragtime" pianists on the Chicago scene such as Glover Compton and Dave Peyton.
> I should also mention Clarence M. Jones in this, but, although he could certainly play plenty "hot" when he wanted to, I think he was more influential and important for the super-modern harmonic and rhythmic effects he introduced on his piano rolls (and doubtless, also live performances), such as those made for the Imperial company in the late 'teens. [this company was so protective of the brilliant ideas of their creative artists, such as Jones, Charley Straight, Roy Bargy, Roger Hillard, William Hartman, Gurnell Anderson, Burt Franklin, etc. etc. that they took the unusual step of notating and copyrighting their piano roll arrangements... something few other companies did]
> I think in order to get a true basis of comparison for Ms. Armstrong's style, we should listen to her CONTEMPORARIES (who recorded in Chicago in 1923-1927, let's say), not those who became famous later such as Earl Hines (I'm not counting his rare 1923 recordings with Lois Deppe here, great though they are).
> Why not listen to some other pianists from that time period such as Richard M. Jones, James Blythe, Lovie Austin, and Ezra Howlett Shelton (to mention just a few) to see how she sounds compared with them?
> I hear a similarity to J. Russel Robinson's early style (c. 1917-1923) on Ms. Armstrong's early recordings... since Ms. Armstrong hailed from Memphis, and Robinson spent time there working with W. C. Handy, I wonder if both of their styles (especially the walking bass in the left hand) derive from the way people were playing in Memphis at this time??? Are there any other pianists from Memphis TN who got to record in the 1920s or earlier???
> You can find some of Mr. Robinson's piano rolls from this period here (I still haven't been able to figure out what the "first recordings" were that he claimed to have made for Gennett in 1918; and his solo recordings on the Eagle Records label in the 1940s have never been reissued, and no collector seems to have them... they have disappeared into thin air despite being listed in Tom Lord's Jazz Discography) [search "Robinson" under "performer"]:
> [I also hear a similarity in her playing, particulary the solo on "My Heart" with the recordings of Blind Leroy Garnett... anyone know anything about him???]
> Finally, I challenge anyone who criticizes the playing of Lil Hardin Armstrong, or Richard M. Jones, or Clarence Williams (or anyone else, for that matter) to play EXACTLY LIKE THEM... I bet most of these critics can't even play the piano!!! It is one thing to sit there and say how much somebody sucks, it is quite another thing to transcribe the recording and try to play it and see how damn hard it is!!!
> Clarence Williams, Lil Hardin, and Richard M. Jones worked so well with their respective groups simply because they KEPT TIME, knew the right CHORDS to the tune, the right INVERSIONS (as was pointed out by Mezz Mezzrow in his book "Really the Blues"), and the right ACCOMPANYING STYLE to work with each texture, whether it be a soloist, vocalist, or ensemble.
> This is something many modern-day jazz pianists (not the world-famous ones, of course; I'm referring to some of the amateurs here who have egos and think they're "hot stuff") don't get.
> They don't learn the tune the right way the first time through (instead of getting the original sheet music, they learn it out of a third-generation fakebook with wrong melody and wrong chords)
> and then, to add insult to injury, many of them have never heard (or at least never listened critically to) the classic old recordings, and so even their STYLE is based on some third- or fourth-generation garbage they heard another modern-day amateur play.
> Let the record stand: as flattered as any of our finest current-day traditional jazz pianists would be for anyone to try to copy them... I'm sure not a single one of them would recommend this route for the newcomer. Instead, all would point to the old recordings and say to go listen to them... that's where the real magic, and the real instruction, is.
> This is why I've heard so many mediocre pianists on the Dixieland circuit (with some notable fine exceptions, I might add!)... many of them don't listen to the old recordings, or don't try to copy the old recordings, or simply don't cultivate the chops neccessary to play this music properly!!!
> People hear me play piano, both with bands and solo, and some people tell me that they think I'm great. While I appreciate their opinion (and the compliment!) I don't think I'm all that hot compared to the old-timers back in the 1920s, and I point to the recordings as proof. The recordings (and rolls) represent what I'd like to attain. I'm not there yet!!! I still have a long way to go!!!
> If you really want to learn this stuff, don't listen to me... go listen to Lil Hardin, Clarence Williams, and Jimmy Blythe!!!
> Andrew Barrett
> P.S. For me, a heartening trend is the many younger up-and-coming performers who are not part of any established jazz "scene", but who discovered the music naturally and have sought it out on their own. Many of these musicians typically heard the old recordings FIRST, before ever hearing any modern-day revival band (no matter how good) and thus the recordings are both their original inspiration and also a springboard for their own invention.
> While I am not a huge fan of copying old recordings note-for-note (although this can be fun when occasionally done for a really rare, unfamiliar recording), I have heard some of these performers do so on rare occasions, keeping the original excitement and proving that they have the chops to do this music justice.
> Of course, the most remarkable thing is how many of these younger musicians have been able to develop into good soloists and ensemble players (and bandleaders) in their own right, which is not an easy thing to do!
> P. P. S. there is a definite musical kinship between Arnold Wiley and Lil Hardin. Check out Ms. Hardin's solo on "Come Back, Sweet Papa":
> and compare with Mr. Wiley's (later) unusual recording "Windy City":
> INTERESTING, no???
- Well said, Luis!
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