Gramophone Techniques


  Jazz Development in Britain

Those in Britain who recognise jazz as an important music form, but who have perhaps become enthusiasts in only the past twenty years or so, can hardly appreciate the influence that gramophone recording techniques had upon the British music scene during the two decades between approximately 1926 and 1946. Not unnaturally, as jazz music emanated from their country, the American jazz musicians were regarded for many years as the first authority upon the subject, and therefore anything we heard them do on a gramophone record became the accepted acme of style and, in consequence, was avidly copied.

The result was that the British frequenter of the ballroom or night- club usually heard something that was, at least to some extent, different to what his American counterpart heard— although what they both heard on the gramophone record was similar. If this sounds complicated I would offer the simple explanation that in the early years there were instruments that could be recorded either ineffectively or not at all, and although the audience at a "live" performance heard them the record enthusiast did not. To develop this thesis adequately or fully would take far more words than I now have at my disposal, but it can be very simply explained by reference to what happened as a result of advances in the recording of percussion.

Prior to 1929 recording companies were unable to record bass or snare drum, with the result that on our American jazz records we heard drummers of the day like Benny Pollack, Vic Berton, Dave Tough and Chauncey Moorehouse belting out their rhythm on a twelve or fourteen inch cymbal or on the wood block, both of which could, as it were, be cut into the wax A good example of the style is to be heard in the playing of Vic Berton in Miff Mole's Molers' 1927 version of "Honolulu Blues".

The wood block work never created much interest among British players but the cymbal technique certainly did. It consisted mainly of holding the left stick underneath the cymbal whilst rhythms were socked out with the right, a variety of sounds being produced by either tightening or relaxing the grip on the left stick. The technique was known as "hot" cymbal playing and, in Britain, one of its foremost exponents was the late Max Bacon, who was for so many years with the Ambrose Orchestra.

In now moving on to the period when snare and bass drums were first recorded, I am not overlooking the great pedal timpani work of Berton around 1927, but this did not have the same practical influence upon the work of British drummers for the simple economic reason that, with the country struggling through the depression, few could afford to buy these instruments. The same could be said of their American counterparts, but Berton was in a special position, being also a symphonic musician and a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

British drummers at this time had tended to neglect their snare drums and indulge themselves in "hot" cymbal work, but in America, although the drummers used this technique in the studios they continued to take advantage of the full kit when playing elsewhere. So when, in April 1929, the Americans recorded drums for about the first time, the effect in Britain was perhaps more revolutionary than in America. The group involved was again Miff Mole's Molers but the drummer was Stan King, whose snare drum style included a great deal of triplet playing in solos and bridge passages, whilst his brush work laid the foundation for the simple but effective "dotted quaver and semi- quaver on the after- beat" style which is still much in use.

Needless to say, British drummers adopted the "Stan King" style almost overnight, and perhaps for the first time, were playing for public performance in a style similar to that of their American counterparts. The numbers recorded were "That’s A Plenty" and "I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling".

The recordings to which I have so far referred can be heard conveniently on Philips' "Thesaurus of Classic Jazz", Volume 2. The next percussion change occurred less than a year later when, in February 1930, Red Nichols' Five Pennies (comprising twelve musicians on the session) recorded "After You've Gone", with Gene Krupa playing a sophisticated version of the style adopted by many of the original jazz drummers, basing his solo on a simple but effective eight- in- the- bar, during which he managed to wallop an assorted but adequate variety of drums and cowbells. Again, an almost overnight change occurred in the style adopted by British drummers. Stan King was deserted, as had been the "hot" cymbal players before him.

Although the so- called "hat" cymbal had been recorded fairly well, the hi- hat cymbals, for some reason or other, had not, and consequently they had, at least in Britain, fallen into disuse. In fact, in the early 'thirties they were regarded as being "old- fashioned". I was persuaded to re- introduce them into my kit by my good friend and colleague Charlie Botterill somewhere around the end of 1933.

He had been working as a ship's musician aboard the old Aquatania, between Britain and the States, and enthused to me about the great hi- hat playing of the American drummers. For a time, I think, Charlie and I were about the only two drummers in Britain using the. hi- hat pedal, and I recollect being subjected to cracks from colleagues about this "corny" piece of equipment. But with the arrival in Britain of the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, in 1933 and 1934 respectively, when the use of the pedal was fully demonstrated by Sonny Greer and Leroy Maxey, the idea soon caught on and the hi- hat was again in vogue.

Greer's arrival in Britain also afforded us a demonstration of the brush "feathering" technique for which he was famous but the development of neither this or the hi- hat pedal style of cymbal playing in Britain could be truly credited to the influence of recording, and I think the next important changes that could came later, towards the end of the 'thirties, when we first heard the "American Patrol" snare drum solo, based upon sixteen instead of eight to the bar, of Maurice Purtill, with the first Glenn Miller Orchestra, and when we also began to realise that a great deal of cymbal rhythm was being played upon the crash or loose cymbals, in the style with which we were to become very familiar.

One interesting non- percussive example of the kind of thing to which I have here referred is worth recounting. When the original Ellington 78 rpm record of "Old Man Blues" was first released on the Parlophone label around 1931, saxophone players, and indeed the rest of us, assumed that the series of important wailing glissandos that cut through the ensemble towards the end of the number were played on a Bb clarinet. So, in 1933, when we first saw the Ellington Orchestra in Britain, and the number was still in their repertoire we fully expected to see Barney Bigard reach for his clarinet at the appropriate point. So imagine our surprise when it was in fact Johnny Hodges who reached for his soprano to play the impeccable glissandos with which we had become familiar! Listening to the old 78 recording today, it is still hardly possible to detect that the clarinet was not in fact used, but I am sure that on a modern recording the difference would be easily detectable.