“New York Sessions” is the second of a two-part broadcast series on Riverwalk Jazz exploring the evolution of studio bands in the first half of the 20th century. This broadcast takes a look at jazz bands that came together in Manhattan recording studios in the 1920s and early 30s.
By the mid-20s New York was a sprawling city and a magnet for jazz musicians who flocked to Manhattan to catch the scent of stardom. Duke Ellington once remarked, “Very little happens anywhere unless someone in New York presses a button.” Blues and jazz seemed to bubble up out of the ground everywhere in the country in the 1920s. Kansas City, Chicago, New Orleans and Dallas were hotspots breeding dance halls, tent shows, bars and nightclubs showcasing the new music. New York naturally became the capital of the infant recording industry in the 20s. Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley was the well-established center of a successful sheet music publishing industry, led by the firm T.B. Harms, the preeminent publisher of production music for Broadway’s musical theater. Sheet music publishing companies handed out jobs to jazz musicians as song-pluggers, and bought up tunes from songwriters almost as fast as composers could write them. The fledgling NBC radio network in New York provided the perfect vehicle for promoting the new music to a national audience. As ever, the new trend in music gravitated to where the money flowed.
One of the earliest musician-entrepreneurs in jazz to use New York as a base for recording was WC Handy. In 1917 Handy summoned his musicians to New York from Chicago and Memphis to make a recording of his “Ole' Miss“ for the Victor label. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band recalls WC Handy’s contribution with their rendition of his composition “Ole' Miss.”
In the late 1920s jazz in Chicago suffered a setback. Chicago police padlocked the doors of speakeasies and cabarets, which had provided work for hundreds of sidemen, and had helped build the reputations of New Orleans jazzmen King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong who had made Chicago their second home. New York continued to offer a thriving climate of opportunity with big city paychecks often luring musicians away from Chicago.
The advent of network radio and the popularity of the phonograph helped lend middleclass respectability to jazz. Jazz was growing up and becoming an industry. Dance orchestras began to grow larger in response the public’s taste for dancing to jazz rhythms.
In 1924 Louis Armstrong left King Oliver’s band in Chicago to join Fletcher Henderson’s popular orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Born and raised in Georgia, Henderson was already a potent force on the New York jazz scene as a bandleader, arranger and talent spotter. He had studied mathematics and chemistry at Atlanta University, but in New York Henderson discovered that as a black man, his prospects in music were for more positive than a career in chemistry. He took a job as a song-plugger for WC Handy and Harry Pace, and later became the Music Director for Pace’s Black Swan record label.
When Louis Armstrong first joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, he wasn’t at ease working within the constraints of such a structured ensemble. Musicians in the Henderson outfit didn’t hit it off with the young cornet player from Chicago either. Armstrong had been a well-respected player with celebrity status on Chicago’s South Side but his name did not mean much in New York. The release of his groundbreaking Hot Five recordings, a year after his New York debut, would change all that. Even New York jazzmen would sit up and take notice of the ‘country boy’ from New Orleans.
Despite his difficult first year in New York, Armstrong received invitations to play on several important sessions at the Okeh studio, working as a sideman with Clarence Williams and Sidney Bechet, and backing Bessie Smith’s vocals. “Of All the Wrongs You've Done to Me,“ heard on this broadcast, is a title Armstrong recorded in November 1924 with the Clarence Williams Blue Five. A few days after this ‘Blue Five’ session for Okeh, bandleader Clarence Williams, ever the entrepreneur, organized the same musicians to record the same tune for the Gennett label —only this time under the name Red Onion Jazz Babies with Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano.
The first small, hot unit to be broken out of a large, well-known orchestra for the purpose of making records was a group called The Virginians. They were a 1922 offshoot of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and had made it big in Atlantic City. The Virginians’ records sold extremely well for the Victor Company. In part, because they had a far more organized sound than other small groups of the time, plus The Virginians had two strong arrangers—pianist/composer Ferde Grofé and clarinetist Ross Gorman. (Gorman is famous for playing those iconic opening clarinet notes on Paul Whiteman’s recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”) In 1922 The Virginians recorded “Rose of the Rio Grande“ for the Victor label. Composed by Gorman and legendary tunesmith Harry Warren, “Rose” would become the first of Warren’s vast catalogue of hit songs.
Ernest Loring Nichols, an enterprising young cornet player from Ogden, Utah, was at the center of the New York jazz recording scene soon after arriving in the city in 1924. His friends called him “Red” for the obvious reason—he had flaming red hair. As a boy in Utah, Red Nichols played with his father’s brass band and in a vaudeville pit band. He was fascinated with the hot sound of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and with the lyrical, solo cornet style of Bix Beiderbecke.
Red became a master at putting together New York recording sessions with high-powered jazzmen like Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Joe Venuti. Red produced hundreds of recording sessions. He had a reputation for being smart at business and for having highly original musical ideas in the recording studio. In 1926 Red Nichols put together his first recording group with Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, guitarist Eddie Lang, Arthur Schutt on piano and drummer Vic Berton. They recorded two tunes for the Brunswick label—Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” and Red’s own “That's No Bargain.“ Both numbers are heard here in Cullum Band arrangements featuring bass saxophonist Vince Giordano.
After this debut session, Brunswick executive Jack Kapp asked Nichols what he wanted to call his recording group. He came up with, “Well, Red Nichols’ Orchestra, I guess.” The story goes that drummer Vic Berton had a better idea. “Why don’t you call it Red Nichols and His Five Pennies?” A few weeks later, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies got together to record for Brunswick again, but this time Red had a new man on trombone—Irving Milford Mole, known around town as “Miff.” Miff Mole would hold sway as the most innovative trombonist among white session players on New York’s jazz scene until Jack Teagarden came up from Texas. Born in 1898, Miff was a little older than the others, but with his slight build and studious air, he looked as much like a kid as the rest of them. Miff set new standards for jazz trombone, giving it a full melodic voice in the jazz ensemble. He said he patterned his trombone playing after the sound of the trumpet, leaping from note-to-note with an agility often envied and imitated, but never quite duplicated.
Working closely together from 1925-1930, Red Nichols and Miff Mole developed what some have called “New York-style jazz.” It was an introspective form of jazz that combined the simple appeal of 1920s Chicago-style jazz with precise arrangements and a disciplined, expert level of musicianship. They often experimented with little-used instruments like bells and tympani or bass saxophone. On this broadcast, there is a cross-fade from Red and Miff’s 1927 recording of “Honolulu Blues“ to our rendition live on stage with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band, featuring bass saxophonist Vince Giordano and hot violinist Andy Stein.
By the late 20s the collaboration between Red Nichols and Miff Mole was hot. Music legends including Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Gene Krupa, the Dorsey brothers, the Teagarden brothers— even Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman— spent time in the studio with Red and Miff’s various recording bands. Probably the most curious thing about these busy recording groups was the way the identity of the session bands changed each time they switched record labels. Red Nichols explained it this way: “The numerous names under which jazz groups recorded during that period were usually last-minute thoughts at the completion of a session. These name changes were often designed to preserve the anonymity of the musicians who frequently had conflicting commitments.” Small wonder jazz record collectors are still trying to unravel and identify the personnel in some of those bands.
Band names changed constantly. “The Five Pennies” on Brunswick became “Red and Miff’s Stompers” on Victor, and “The Red Heads” on Pathé. Columbia called them “The Charleston Chasers,” but Okeh preferred “Miff Mole’s Little Molers.” A single title might be recorded two or three times within a couple of weeks, and the musical arrangements would only be slightly changed for the different record labels.
“Dinah“ was a title popular with many recording units. The rendition here features two seven-piece bands on stage, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and Banu Gibson’s New Orleans Hot Jazz.
On July 30, 1930, Red Nichols pulled together another group of all-star musicians in a New York City studio. The talent lineup included Benny Goodman on clarinet with Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden on trombones. Once again they recorded under the name “Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.” The result was some of the finest jazz playing of the era. One of the titles, “Sheik of Araby,“ featured a patter introduction by Teagarden and is heard on this broadcast in a cross-fade from the original 1930 recording to The Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s live version at The Landing in San Antonio.
In the late 1920s jazz violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang were two of the most innovative and busiest musicians in New York. Their celebrated partnership produced some of the purest, most pleasing records of their time. If Lang and Venuti weren’t in the studio creating jazz masterpieces, they would hang out a “gone fishin’” sign and head for the Jersey Shore. Guitarist/singer Marty Grosz and hot violinist Andy Stein offer “Pardon Me, Pretty Baby,“ a tune from the playing of Venuti and Lang in the early 30s.
In the New York studio scene of the early 1930s musicians thrived on the freedom to play with whomever they wanted to, whenever they wanted to, regardless of label contracts and what managers and marketing people had in mind. As Red Nichols said, “We were all making lots of money playing with successful commercial dance orchestras, so when we got together for a recording session the principal aim was to turn out something that met with the approval of our fellow musicians right there in the studio.
Musicians created their own policies when it came to racial issues and ignored label executives who thought inter-racial records wouldn’t sell. Guitarist Eddie Lang struck up a musical friendship with black bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Beginning in 1928, they dodged the color barriers in the recording industry by producing a series of fine guitar duets for the Okeh label under the name “Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie Dunn.” Other pseudonyms they adopted were “The Late Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson” and “Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four.”
In September 1929 in New York, Fats Waller teamed up with a group of white musicians including Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa and Jack Teagarden to make records for the Victor Company under the name “Fats Waller and His Buddies.” On March 5, 1929, Teagarden and Louis Armstrong teamed up in a New York session that produced “Knockin' a Jug,“ heard on this broadcast in a cross-fade from their spectacular original recording to a live tribute performance by Jim Cullum and the Band.
By 1934, with the rising success of the big Swing bands, there were lots of recording opportunities for veteran studio musicians as sidemen, but the wide-open, freewheeling days of the Red Nichols sessions were over. Although most of the recording executives remained conservative in their tastes, not all record companies held musicians back from experimenting with their music.
In 1935 Columbia Records producer and jazz impresario John Hammond—who had discovered Count Basie and played a pivotal role in Benny Goodman’s success—brought together pianist Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday for a series of studio sessions. With a studio full of electrifying soloists, Teddy and Billie transcended the pop material they were handed and produced some of the most memorable recordings in jazz. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do“ was one of the first titles that Wilson and Holiday recorded together for Brunswick in 1935. Broadway’s Carol Woods joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to offer her singular interpretation of the classic “Moonlight.”
Photo credit for Home Page: Red Nichols.Photo courtesy of redhotjazz.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1998