Jeff Barnhart: Hal, we’re both very fortunate to have busy performing/traveling schedules this month so we’ve pared down the number of tunes we’ll explore. As we’ll see, there’s an inverse relationship between the low quantity and high quality of these sides. We have four tunes recorded in a single day in Chicago, June 22, 1926, by a septet called Cookie’s Gingersnaps! Three immortals were on this session—Freddie Keppard on cornet; Jimmie Noone on clarinet; Johnny St. Cyr on banjo—with the remainder comprised of alto saxophonist Joe Poston, trombonist Fred Garland, Kenneth Anderson on piano and drummer Andrew Hilaire. Hal, when you suggest music from a group of which I know very little, I start digging into the history books!
I’d never associated the smooth, facile sound of Jimmie Noone’s clarinet with the raw sound of Freddie Keppard, but I discovered that they were recording together as early as January 1924, when they recorded six sides in a lone session for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, as part of the eleven-piece outfit Doc Cook and his Dreamland Orchestra. Doc Cook’s real name was Charles L. Cooke and he actually earned a Doctor of Music degree in 1926 from the Chicago Musical College. Of special interest is that his band must’ve had some good work, because the front line of Keppard, Noone, Poston, and Garland can be found on the January 21, 1924, date as well as the next date on which this ensemble would commit sound to wax, July 10, 1926, nearly two-and-a-half years later! This session would yield four sides that would be released on Columbia Records.
Now the plot thickens! Eighteen days earlier, a subset of the Dreamland Orchestra, cleverly named Cookie’s Gingersnaps, enters the studio to record four sides to be released on Okeh Records. Prof. Smith, my questions are: why the smaller group (was Okeh not able to pay for the entire band?), and why were two of the selections from June 22 the same titles as those waxed by the larger ensemble on July 10?
Hal Smith: Jeff, we should also mention that in 1914, a decade before he led that orchestra in Chicago, Charles L. Cooke composed one of our favorite rags: “Blame it on the Blues.” I still love to hear Paul Lingle’s Good Time Jazz record of it and I also remember hearing Pete Clute play it at Earthquake McGoon’s. What a great number!
Regarding the seven-piece “Gingersnaps” recording for Okeh…In my research, I have not been able to find any specific reasons for Cook taking a small band out of the larger orchestra to record. My best guess is that Okeh Artists and Repertoire director Richard M. Jones thought the combination would appeal to the same audience that purchased Okeh records by King Oliver, Bennie Moten, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. However the session came about, it provides a fantastic opportunity to hear Freddie Keppard with a small band. Of course his recordings with the larger Doc Cook Orchestra are terrific, but on these four sides Keppard really struts his stuff!
The first side the Gingersnaps recorded was “Messin’ Around,” co-composed by Doc Cook and Johnny St. Cyr. (How about those chord changes on the sixth, seventh and eighth bar of the chorus?!?) The record begins with a comedic exchange that is usually credited to Joe Poston and Jimmie Noone. Poston brings the alto up to playing position rather quickly, then plays the melody of the chorus fairly straight.
From the opening notes of the verse, it is clear why the cornetist once held the title of “King” Keppard! The sheer power he generates is astounding. And the “rag-a-jazz” phrasing on the seventh and eighth bars is just wonderful. Keppard charges ahead—soloing on the chorus. He stops only briefly for a banjo break by Johnny St. Cyr (jumping back in even before the break ends). There are two more breaks at the end of the chorus—both for cornet. The fiery second break may be the highlight of the whole record! The final chorus is plenty hot; made even hotter by Keppard’s relentless, driving lead. Once again he keeps the momentum going by playing over the second bar of Jimmie Noone’s break and with a heavily syncopated cornet break before the final four bars. What an auspicious start to the recording date!
JB: When I listened to “Messin Around,” the highlights for me largely revolve around Keppard, who dominates from the verse to the end of the tune. The effect of Keppard’s brash sound and unbridled heat is underscored by Joe Poston’s melodic chorus played simply with a lovely tone. My ears picked up an urgency in Keppard’s phrasing that makes this side even hotter; he’s almost always starting his phrases, whether referencing the melody or soloing, ahead of the beat: sometimes, as you pointed out, coming in a full bar early and stepping on others’ breaks. To the uninitiated (and that would be me this time around), every note is a surprise; Keppard NEVER goes where you’d think he was heading. His clarion high G pulls the band into the final ensemble. You used the two words that sum up his playing for me: “syncopation” and “momentum.”
On the topic of those harmonies in bars 6-8, they’re anomalous with anything before or since! I’ll try not to get too technical, but I defy anyone to find another example of going from a “bII” chord (here the “b” stands for “flat” as in Db; while “II” indicates the second note of the C scale, the key this tune is in: thus “bII” means the Db chord in the key of C) to a VI7 chord (in the key of C, this is an A7 chord). To start in the key of C and then briefly visit the key of Db is theoretically bizarre, but it works! I think that’s because the final melody note of the first eight bars, during the sounding of the Db chord, is a held “Bb” note (making that chord a Db6), and the same note starts the next phrase heard over the A7 chord. The Bb note then acts as a “b9” (flatted ninth of A7) that resolves down a half-step to the note “A”—the root of the A7 chord. If I’ve lost anyone on this, to sum: it’s the melody that makes this strange harmonic sequence of the first eight bars into the next eight (C-F7-C-Ab7-Db-A7) work and that’s all that matters. It’s brilliant composing and also shows the expert musicianship of this ensemble that they weren’t tripped up by it.
Hal, I heard your Night Owls do this tune at Bix and the band perfectly captured the spirit of the tune and the style of the originators without slavishly copying, AND didn’t get tripped up by the strange chord sequence either! Please introduce our second tune!
HS: Thank you for the kind words regarding the New Orleans Night Owls’ live version of “Messin’ Around.” We played in in a different key—Bb. That’s the key the South Frisco Jazz Band used in the late 1960s when Papa Ray Ronnei played cornet with the band.
Joe Sanders (of Coon-Sanders Orchestra fame) composed “High Fever.” This song was also recorded by Doc Cook’s Orchestra in July, 1926—a little less than a month after this side was made. Incidentally, the Coon-Sanders Orchestra recorded “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” before Cook! Unfortunately, that side was rejected. In contrast to “Messin’ Around,” the atmosphere on “High Fever” is much calmer, though it heats up considerably at the end. There are some nice solos at the beginning by Noone and Keppard and a novelty-ragtime chorus by pianist Kenneth Anderson with a reed duet on the bridge. After a key change, the reeds trade phrases that recall the last strain of “Deep Henderson” with the brass—preceding another key change. Keppard really takes charge of the proceedings and continues to turn up the heat all the way to the end. By the way, I really love Andrew Hilaire’s wonderful off-beats on the choke cymbal.
What do you like about this side, Jeff?
JB: I took the opportunity to compare Keppard’s playing on both the smaller and larger group releases of “High Fever” and it’s a great study in how versatile musicians adapt to different scenarios using the same material. Hal, in the future we should consider a retrospective of Cook(e)’s bands from 1924-28!
The Gingersnaps version of “High Fever” begins, after a four-bar piano intro over long-tones by the horns, with two somewhat reharmonized 12-bar blues choruses in Eb. Jimmie Noone deftly plays the melody on the first chorus, then Keppard leads the second chorus (with backing from trombonist Fred Garland) taking an exciting break on bars 7-8! Then we hear the second strain of the tune, thirty-two bars long in the AABA format, where the band lays out during the first 16 bars for a piano solo by Kenneth Anderson that is less about the melody than about some well-executed novelty piano licks. The bridge (new harmonies for bars 17-24) is taken up by Noone and Poston on two clarinets in close harmony, and we return to a final eight bars by piano. We move to a third, very raggy sixteen-bar strain in the key of Ab featuring some rhythmical riffs rather than a complex melody, allowing everyone to play really hot!! This section is played twice, with successive four bar alternations between brass and reed leads; notice how Keppard intensifies his lead the second time through! After a four-bar interlude, we hear the fourth and final strain: a blues in Db. The two melodic choruses feature a four-bar ascending quarter-note trombone melody followed by eight-bar ensemble. We’re then treated to a lovely period-style solo by Joe Poston and a final ensemble played with great abandon highlighted by Keppard’s primal cornet between bars 8 and 9. Keppard’s “wide-open,” powerful playing knocks me out!
Hal, the larger group is much bettered recorded on July 10, 1926, but the roadmap for “High Fever” is identical to the Gingersnaps version from eighteen days prior excepting slight changes to accommodate four additional musicians (with one more cornet, two more reeds and tuba added). Most likely the smaller group was working from Cook’s large band arrangement, adapting it for their smaller instrumentation. The effect is striking! Highlights from the Dreamland Orchestra version are a clearer sounding of trombonist Fred Garland’s march-like ascending melody in the final strain and another Keppard break once again leading the ensemble into the explosive ending!
Interestingly, “High Fever” enjoyed high exposure, being recorded in 1926 by such groups, besides the Coon-Sanders Orch for Victor, as Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orch. for Vocalion Records, the Broadway Broadcasters for Cameo Records, Sam Lanin and his Orch. and, released on the German version of Victor (Schallplatte Grammophon…say THAT five times fast!), a version by Dave Caplan’s Toronto Band (a group consisting of a combination of Canadians and Brits with a strange history that began in Toronto, Canada, in 1921, moved to London, England, in 1924, and finally ended up in Berlin, Germany, in 1926).
What’s next, my friend?
HS: I wonder if those oddball changes on “Messin’ Around” kept it from being recorded more during the 1920s? There are only a couple other recordings from that era. In any case, the next side is a classic: “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man.” As great as Keppard plays here, the performance is pretty laid back compared to the full orchestra version that was recorded in July. Also, the arrangement itself is quite a bit more complicated than what was used for the orchestra. Could Doc Cook have been experimenting with this chart, using the smaller “Gingersnaps?” In any case, that final chorus—Keppard threatening to blow the roof off—is absolutely glorious! (P.S. I love Andrew Hilaire shouting the excerpts from the lyrics, too).
Jeff, we should probably save a detailed discussion regarding the orchestra version of “Hot Tamale Man” for another time. Meanwhile…what are the highlights of this side for you?
JB: I love a tune that starts with a choke cymbal…it’s “wake up and listen” time! The intro references the chromatic harmonies we’ll hear in the chorus of the tune, and Anderson performs some nifty novelty piano breaks before we get to the meat of the side. The first chorus is Keppard with only piano and a few choke cymbal accents by Hilaire, it sounds like…in contrast to the other sides we’ve listened to thus far, Keppard is muted here, sounding quite a bit like King Oliver.
The verse is everyone in…nothing special here, but the next chorus with Fred Garland playing the melody grows in intensity throughout. Garland takes some terrific breaks during the bridge! There’s a terrific modulation into a new key and then Jimmie Noone struts his stuff! I noticed throughout this side that there’s a chord in the second half of the bridge that I’ve not heard contemporary ensembles performing this tune today use. Why?
Anyway, the final chorus finds Keppard doing his shepherding of the flock with an open horn lead that leaves no room for doubt: play hot or get run over! His break is a scorcher! In the final bars of the tune, and double ending, it’s amazing to hear the momentum Keppard achieves with just two alternating notes!
The final tune the Gingersnaps gave us is a bog-standard period pop tune, though the band sounds very much like the Halfway House Orchestra for much of this side. What I think saves it is the great playing between Noone and Poston on clarinets. When we get to the vocal, it appears Jimmie Noone is parodying this bland tune with his stentorian delivery of the lyrics (compare this to his vocals on “Four or Five Times” or “Let’s Sow A Wild Oat” from 1928). It falls again to Freddie Keppard, who seems bored until the final chorus, to redeem this flaccid folderol. He starts with staccato blasts, playing the first half of the tune muted, then goes full throttle in wild abandon with open horn for the final 16 bars!
Honestly, I think it’s OK that this tune has disappeared, but NO fault regarding the musicians onboard. They strove mightily with poor material. How did this song end up on this session I wonder? Did Cook(e) owe the composer money or was he his nephew? No, turns out Cook himself composed it with Clarence Williams. It’s no wonder he didn’t resurrect it to be recorded by the larger outfit in July…Hal, can you find anything here?
HS: Ha! I like “flaccid folderol!” Maybe Cook was trying this one out with the small band before writing a full-orchestra arrangement? We’ll never know, but at least we get to hear a little more of the individual musicians as well as a foreshadowing of the Apex Club recordings during the Poston-Noone duet. Regarding the vocal…many years ago I talked with Jimmie Noone’s son (Jimmie Jr.) and this song came up in our conversation. Junior shook his head and said, “Yeah. Dad shouldn’t have sung that one.” Still—I prefer this vocal to a LOT of singing on other records from this era! Musically, this number isn’t hot jazz like “Messin’ Around,” “Hot Tamale Man,” or the last couple choruses of “High Fever.” But it is one more opportunity to hear the seldom-recorded Freddie Keppard in great musical company!
Actually, Jeff, the main reason I suggested we discuss this particular recording session is because of Freddie Keppard. His cornet playing has always appealed to me as one of the most exciting and creative sounds in jazz. And I am not alone, based on recollections from his musical associates in New Orleans and Chicago. Johnny St. Cyr once said, “I have played with three geniuses: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Freddie Keppard.” Morton himself said, “I never heard a man who could beat Keppard—his reach was so exceptional, both high and low, with all degrees of power, great imagination, and more tone than anybody.” Fellow trumpeter Mutt Carey recalled: “Now, at one time, Freddie Keppard had New Orleans all sewed up. He was the king—yes, he wore the crown…Freddie had a lot of ideas and a big tone too. When he hit a note you knew it was hit. I mean he had a beautiful tone and played with so much feeling too. Yes, he had everything; he was ready in every respect…Freddie was a trumpet player any way you could grab him…He’d play sweet sometimes and then turn around and knock the socks off you with something hot.”
As far as I’m concerned, Mutt Carey’s reminiscence is a perfect description of Keppard’s cornet playing on the records by Cookie’s Gingersnaps. It’s glorious!
Now Jeff, it’s your turn to select our next topic. Who will we be listening to?
JB: Since you gave Mutt Carey the last word, let’s take up our previous exploration of the music of Kid Ory and look at the Orson Welles Broadcasts from 1944 that included Ory’s band under a different name and then delve into the commercially released material from that same year, all of which featured Carey on trumpet.
HS: That sounds like a plan! We will get to hear Mutt, the Kid, Jimmie Noone, Buster Wilson, Bud Scott, Ed Garland…and Zutty Singleton. Can’t wait!