After Midnight: Ford Dabney and the Clef Club’s Lost Chapter

The story of the Clef Club and its impact on jazz has almost always been told through the lens of its most famous alum, James Reese Europe. After all, his revolutionary 1913 and 1914 Victor recordings introduced many people to the concept of hot African American instrumental dance music, and for many others they represent the beginnings of musical trends that eventually shifted ragtime to jazz. Indeed, his 369th U.S. Infantry “Harlem Hell Fighters” band was credited with bringing jazz to the European continent, and their Pathés are rightfully acknowledged as important examples of a jazz-infused military band music.

But Europe was not the only member of the Clef Club, and certainly not the only one who had an impact (and their music has been reissued many times, including the definitive reissue of the Victors by the very company we are discussing in this article!). One of the most important other members was Ford T. Dabney (1883-1958)–pianist, composer, bandleader, and champion of popular music. Dabney’s name may ring a bell for some due to its association with his most famous composition, “Shine,” written in 1910 and still a standard today. Others still may recognize his name from a few rare records made for the notorious washy-sounding vertically-cut Aeolian-Vocalion label, some of which are on YouTube or appear on a slim few reissues from the past 30 years or so that represent just a few crumbs of a much larger discographic cake.

Red Wood Coast

This has led to more questions than answers around Dabney, his bands, the musicians that comprised them, and his impact. Fortunately, the GRAMMY Award-winning team of Archeophone Records’ Rich Martin and Meagan Hennessey, and GRAMMY-winning historian Tim Brooks have remedied this with their fabulous new set, After Midnight: Ford Dabney’s Syncopated Orchestras. Indeed, the two CDs, comprised of 48 of the finest tracks by Dabney’s various ensembles, finally gives us a healthy serving of just what made Dabney’s music special and unique.

One of the most interesting things I learned about Dabney upon listening to the set is the variety of sounds and textures his band was able to generate. The first CD is largely comprised of the larger band which played the Midnight Frolic at the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. As a connoisseur of acoustic recordings, I was a little skeptical at first about the sound of the distant sound of Aeolian acoustic recording process. Despite ad-copy claiming to record instruments in their natural tone, the acoustics of the Aeolian Hall, where the records were cut, as well as the way the company balanced instruments were often less than perfect for making clear, definite records—and of course, they were never intended to be transferred and restored digitally a century and some change later. Thanks to Rich Martin’s meticulous work, however, the sound of these records has never been better and we finally can really hear what’s going on.

For instance, we can now definitively hear when two cornets are playing in unison versus when Crickett Smith steps out for a written solo in his beautifully quavering tone, more familiar to fans of Wilbur Sweatman or Louis Mitchell. We also can hear obbligato lines from the clarinet of Edgar Campbell and trombone of Nappy Lee, who heat up these recordings a great deal. And the percussive fullness of the drums is present throughout these sides, even on the vocal accompaniments, which is not an easy texture to capture acoustically. By the end of a close listen to all the Aeolians, it became clear the company did actually do a decent job of recording these, and that Archeophone has done a superb job of making them reach their full potential. And just when that seemed like enough to satisfy, the brilliant Paramount recordings from 1922 shine at the end of the second CD while still seamlessly transitioning from the earlier sides.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Tim Brooks once again provides phenomenal notes in the accompanying booklet, which if I know Archeophone, was probably laid out in all its glory by Meagan Hennessey along with Rich. The combination of fabulous pros and fabulous layout make it a really gorgeous product and a fun and engaging read. I particularly enjoyed the introductory essay which brought me into the Midnight Frolic and contextualized New York in the rag-a-jazz era. Brooks also sheds much light on the development and goings of Dabney himself, who was from Washington DC and spent time in the Caribbean before these records were made. It was also nice to see the musicians listed in the discography. I do hear multiple cornetists and trombonists, as well as a distinctive saxophonist present on many of the band’s sides, but the list provided is justified given that it came from Dabney himself!

But now the music. I have a few Dabney discs on my shelves, which I cherish for their historical value, but this set helped me appreciate their substance so much more. From the first notes of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” (the instrumental as opposed to the rendition the band cut with vocalist Arthur Fields), one immediately hears a sense of swing and sway that must have been especially potent to dancers at the Midnight Frolic. The emphasis is on the “feel” of the band, with thanks especially to brass bassist John Haywood, whose fat bass lines make one’s head bob almost instantly. Dennis Johnson’s drumming also deserves mention, crossing the line between Buddy Gilmore-style looseness and James Lent-esque precision.

Following this title is one of my all-time favorites by the band, “That’s It,” which was also recorded by the Frisco Jass Band with a young Rudy Wiedoeft for Edison in 1917. While the Frisco version is chic, it lacks that infectious swing that the Dabney band has. This is even more obvious in the next title, “The Jass—Lazy Blues,” which was written to cash in on the success of the “new” musical craze sweeping the nation when these records were first made in 1917. The Dabney rendition has “umph” and even a little sassiness at time, particularly in the clarinet work of Edgar Campbell during the “A” strain of the tune.

Following these first few tracks we enter another area of Dabney’s recorded legacy that pops up throughout the set: his group’s fine interpretations of tunes from Henry Filmore’s “The Trombone Family.” We begin with “Sally Trombone” but also have fine versions of “Slidin’ Sid,” “Miss Trombone,” and the most famous of them all (and my favorite of these by Dabney’s musicians) “Lassus Trombone.” (Props must be made to Nappy Lee and the other trombonist/s present on these records as well.) These tunes also fall in line well with marching pieces, and Dabney’s band could certainly play a mean and stirring march. Brooks points out how compelling the band’s military-grade material is in the notes, pointing to “Mr. Sousa’s Yankee Band” and “A Winning Fight” as some of the best in the set.

For more jazz-tinged fans, the “blue” numbers offer a whole lot, not just by way of incredible material (if you’re looking to spice up your Dixieland Jazz Band-style songbook with period material, look no further than the song list of this set), but also by way of that infectious swing at its most convincing. Dig “Just Blue” for instance. A piece usually associated with the All-Star Trio, while the Dabney rendition lacks the same level of improvisation as Wheeler Wadsworth’s saxophone, the whole thing is much “bluer” in Dabney’s hands (I also just love Dennis Johnson’s “stop-and-go”s on the cymbal during the “B” strain! Let the silence speak for itself!) “Missouri Blues,” Easy Pickin’s,” Slow Drag Blues,” Camp Meeting Blues,” “Squealing Pig Blues,” Indigo Blues,” and a host of other blue numbers make give the set (particularly disc 2) a wonderful edge.


If you were bummed by missing out on the Fields “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” fear not. Several sides in the set feature Fields with the band, one of the earliest examples of integrated performances in a jazz (or quasi-jazz) context. “There’s a Lot of Blue-Eyed Marys Down in Maryland” is a masterpiece, featuring pretty much everything great about the Dabney band, combined with Fields’ energetic and zesty delivery. And once again, the drums of Dennis Johnson provide a real shocker for those who believe acoustic records couldn’t include drums.

My favorite surprise of the CD is the section of the second disc with much smaller ensembles comprised of either saxophone, banjos, drums and piano, or just strings and piano. These remarkable recordings are very close to the original Clef Club sound and are exceedingly rare. I was blown away by the fact that “On the Streets of Cairo” was actually by a Dabney group, and delighted by the weaselly saxophone work over syncopatin’ banjos on “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None o’ This Jelly Roll.”

The final three selections on the album are by Dabney’s later band, which is much jazzier than the earlier material. One must remember that in the time between the previous sessions and these, groups like the Original Memphis Five, Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, the Virginians, and even Dabney’s Clef Club friend Tim Brymn’s Black Devils had recorded some really hot material, and jazz itself was changing. As such, Dabney revamped his orchestra to reflect these changes, bringing in Baltimore’s Clifton “Pike” Davis into the band. The recordings featuring Davis are a lot of fun, and I’d argue “Bugle Call Blues” is Davis’ magnum opus. “Sweet Man O’ Mine” and “Doo-Dah Blues” both have a wonderfully yearning quality, aided by moaning saxophones and good arrangements.


After Midnight is a must-have for anyone interested in jazz’s development, ragtime’s development, or popular dance’s development, or anyone just wanting to hear something that has been almost completely inaccessible for the past century. Jazz fans should take note that the music you will hear is more focused on danceability than may be expected, and as such can come across as a little repetitive if you’re expecting Cricket Smith to start playing the opening cadenza of “West End Blues.” But this is the very beginning of this stuff and the purpose of these records and the band’s music in the first place: getting people out on the dance floor, particularly in the 1910s when social dance crazes were all the rage in high society.

Understanding that context (which Brooks lays out very well in the notes) will improve your listening experience drastically and may help you open your ears to nuances that would otherwise be overlooked. And it’s important music—seriously. I suggest two ways of listening to it. First is an intentional and focused experience to really “hear the band,” but second is by putting the CD on in the car and just letting the band serenade you on your commute. Besides their beat livening up your routine, how many other people can say they’ve almost missed a stoplight because they were digging “The Dancing Deacon” a little too much?

After Midnight
Ford Dabney’s Syncopated Orchestras
Archeophone ARCH 6013


Colin Hancock led the Buddy Bolden Cylinder Project while still inhighschool, recruiting experts on the topic to assist him. In college, he founded The Original Cornell Syncopators taking the group as far as the San Diego Jazz Festival. He cuts cylinder records and acoustic 78s of himselfand other musicians, and creates remarkable overdubbed early jazz performances on which heplaysevery instrument.You may hear themat

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