Adrian Rollini


  Jazz Development in Britain

Some time ago, whilst on a shopping expedition with my wife, I noticed in the record department of a Wimbledon store an LP, on one of the cheaper labels, bearing the title "Venuti-Lang-Rollini-The Sound that Swung the Thirties". I bought it, stacked it in my record cupboard and promptly forgot it! Recently, however, I came across it, put it on the player and enjoyed some of the best jazz performances on record, and also some recollections that the music and sleeve notes conjured up for me.

Besides the three stars already named, there are many other well-known names among the various groups on the LP, including Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Dick McDonough, Arthur Schutt, Manny Klein and the Dorsey brothers. But this is not intended to be a record review so much as a general comment in recollection of personal experiences. A point in the sleeve-note inspires me to write first about Adrian Rollini and his various instruments, which included the bass saxophone, vibraharp, goofus and hot fountain pen. I also seem to remember his playing piano, but my recollection may be at fault there.

Francis Newton, in his book "The Jazz Scene", describes the bass saxophone as a "freak" instrument, but I would challenge this opinion. In the hands of Rollini, or any sympathetic saxophonist who chose to master its ample proportions, it is a warm-toned and beautiful instrument, ideally suited for the smaller jazz group, providing as it does both bass and frontline service. One might prefer any other saxophone voice or a stringed bass, but the bass saxophone cannot be dismissed as a freak.

Besides the great Rollini, there was also another well- known American player of the instrument, Min Leibrook, who often deputised for him, and in Britain there have been the excellent bass saxophone efforts of Jack Kerbel, Hugh Tripp, Reg Pink, Gil Port, Berg Larsen and Harry Gold. The latter still plays the instrument, producing a tone and style that would certainly not disgrace Rollini himself.

The sleeve notes describes the goofus as "a sort of saxophone with a double reed", but this is utterly inaccurate. It was, in fact, a brass tube, approximately two inches in diameter, blocked at one end and tapered at the other to form a thin mouthpiece of sorts through which air was blown. The tube was fitted with a series of plunger buttons or keys, such as one finds on a child's toy trumpet, but laid out in two rows piano- fashion- whole tones in front and semitones behind. I think the range was two- and- half octaves.

When the instrument was marketed by the Paris firm of Couesnon around 1928, they fitted the blocked end of the tube with a miniature "saxophone" bell, to make it commercially attractive. The tapered end was fitted with a length of rubber tubing, so that the instrument could be laid on the player's lap and fingered piano- wise. They called it the Couesnophone! But Rollini's instrument had no "bell" or rubber tube, as he played it flute- fashion, blowing air from the right side of his mouth into the mouthpiece, whilst fingering whole tones with his right hand and semitones with his left.

The sound produced was similar to that produced by the contemporary melodica, which is really the modern version of the goofus. The jazz style was all Rollini's, of course. A technical description of the hot fountain pen is perhaps more difficult to give. So far as I can recollect, it was a short ebonite tube, of about the dimensions of a tin- whistle, fitted with a small clarinet- type mouthpiece and reed. There were no keys, just holes, and the range was, I think, limited to one octave. But the jazz produced on it by Rollini was really something, and at the time led some record reviewers to think that it was being played on an E flat clarinet!

Rollini came to Britain in 1928 to work with Fred Elizalde's Band at the Savoy Hotel and on stage, and I have many recollections of the period that will have to wait for some other time. I then saw and heard him play the instruments I have described, and also the vibraharp, and recollect an occasion when he sat in with a group with which I was playing. However, there are, happily, still a number of others around who worked with him in the Elizalde Band and on sessions, who could tell more personal stories about him than I. Rollini met an untimely death at Homestead, Florida, in 1956, at the early age of 55- a tragic loss to music in general, and jazz in particular.

See also John Altman remembers Adrian Rollini