American Influence on Recordings


  Jazz Development in Britain

A number of readers have expressed interest in an article in which I described how the 'twenties and 'thirties styles of playing in Britain were influenced by what was heard on American recordings, and have suggested that I should develop my theory a little further. It will be recalled that I previously emphasised the effect that improvements in American recording technique had upon British percussion playing, with the result that British players were using studio styles and techniques in other areas such as engagements in ballrooms, hotels and clubs for which they were not essential but often proved effective.

The influence of the recorded performances of American musicians of the period other than percussionists was of course equally great, and one has only to remember such figures as Red Nichols Miff Mole, the Dorsey brothers, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and the rest to support this claim although, unlike percussionists, they were not really applying a different technique or style to their recording work. Their influence in fact, sprang from their having the facility to demonstrate their normal performances in session circumstances where recording techniques were improving more rapidly than in any other country— particularly perhaps in the old Okeh studios, where they were in advance of the rest.

In those days there were no attractive sleeves containing notes and details of personnel, and record reviewers had to go to some trouble in order to glean information which was frequently inaccurate, whilst at other times, when no information. was forthcoming, they often made equally inaccurate guesses. This resulted in solos sometimes being attributed to the wrong soloists and even to the wrong instruments! One of the then most influential and accurate reviewers was the late Christopher Stone who, in his other capacity as one of the earliest of disc jockeys— a description that had not then been coined— introduced some of the greatest American jazz musicians to radio listeners. He was, for example, about the first to introduce the Ellington Orchestra, including their "Tiger Rag", recorded under the pseudonym of `The Jungle Band', and "Hot And Bothered'— another version of the same number under the pseudonym of` ‘The Harlem Footwarmers'.

Another reliable reviewer was Spike Hughes, himself a recording musician who organised orchestras in both Britain and the U. S. It was he I remember who introduced the original Four Mills Brothers, whose first double- sided record of "Tiger Rag" and "Nobody's Sweetheart" created something of a furore in jazz circles and among the vocal groups of the day, in which many disciples of the late John' Mills worked hard in their efforts to imitate his famous "stringed bass" effect. I remember Hughes telling radio listeners that he was searching for a musician who could play the bass as well as John Mills could "sing" it! Reference to the several versions of "Tiger Rag" reminds me of a less fortunate reviewer, in the person of the late Edgar Jackson who was more prone to drop the odd `clanger'.

When he reviewed the `Jungle Band' issue he failed to recognise the Ellington soloists and advised musicians that this was precisely how "Tiger Rag" should not be played! In fact, he slated the record most bitterly, yet some time later, when Ellington had officially switched to Brunswick and the same recording was re- issued under his own name, Jackson, 'under his reviewing nom .de plume of "Needlepoint", raved about it as being the greatest! Which it probably was. Jackson was also known on occasion to apply the wrong "voice" to a saxophone solo heard on a record and at one time confused the baritone of Don Murray, heard with Joe Venuti's Blue Four, with the bass of Adrian Rollini whilst Frankie Trumbauer, who played both alto and C melody, provided Jackson with frequent problems.

These errors were perhaps of little importance; there was, however, an occasion when one such error probably had the effect of stepping up technical standards among British trombone players of the period. Towards the end of 1928 we first heard a record of "Crazy Rhythm" by, so the label informed us, Sam Lenin's Players, which was immediately recognised by Jackson and everybody else as having been recorded by the group known as Miff Mole's Molers. It was a good jazz record, and Mole's trombone solo was something of a masterpiece but, apart from recognising Mole's trombone, the trumpet of Red Nichols and the piano playing of Arthur Schutt, we then had no means of being certain about the identities of the rest of the personnel. Jackson's error, however, was related to the four- bar introduction which, incidentally, was identical with the coda.

The first two bars of the four were straightforward ensemble led by Nichols but the next one- and- a- half bars consisted of a fairly technical phrase which he, Jackson, attributed to Mole. At the time this assumption went more or less unchallenged, for although there were those around who felt sure that the phrase had been played on a valve instrument— nobody had ever heard of Mole using anything but the slide. The result of all this was that for weeks afterwards many British trombone players nearly killed themselves in an effort to reproduce a phrase that had in fact been played on the mellophone of Dudley Fosdick!
Jackson had enthused about the phrase and the "perfect top C” upon which Mole, he believed had completed it— the fact that the timbre of the instrument was different to Mole's trombone being lost upon him I think it only fair to point out that what he and the rest of us heard on a 78rpm record in 1928 did not truly reproduce what had happened in the studio. Few of us had then heard of Fosdick, who became well- known a year or two later as a member of Red Nichols' Five Pennies, and unlike today, when no trumpeter's home is really complete without a flugelhorn we were really listening to the man who pioneered the mellophone or flugelhorn sound in jazz. Many years later, with the production of an album which included the "Crazy Rhythm" opus, it was established that the brass section, in addition to Nichols and Mole, included Leo MoConville on second trumpet and Fosdick on mellophone, although nothing further was ever published about the introduction and coda.

Recently, however, when I invited the opinion of no less an authority than George Chisholm, who had not previously heard the 1928 recording, he unhesitatingly confirmed my own opinion that Fosdick had been responsible for the phrase which long ago had had such far- reaching effects. In Britain at the time there were few trombonists of the stature of Ted Heath, Lew Davis and Tony Thorpe, whilst George Chisholm, Don Lusher, Harry Roche and the rest had not yet arrived on the scene. Competent trombonists there were who modelled their style upon that of Miff Mole for little if anything had then been heard of Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Jake Higginbotham, Dickie Wells and the rest of the great American players, some of whom also had not yet arrived.

So, although at the time, some disciples of Mole may have contemplated suicide out of frustration, or at least sustained hernias, in their efforts to reproduce the sound of Fosdick's mellophone, I think some recognition is due to Jackson— for his error of judgement must have served to loosen up local trombone technique no end!