Finding Lost Jazz History in Seattle
Guitarist Greg Ruby Celebrates the forgotten music of Frank D. Waldron.
When I contacted Seattle based guitarist Greg Ruby to let him know he’d be on our cover part of his reply was:
“Earlier this summer, when I was in New York and sat in with Vince Giordano, he asked me on stage, “ARE YOU IN THE SYNCOPATED TIMES?” I replied, “not yet…” He literally threw me a copy.”
Little did he know then that we already had him marked on our calendar. In addition to Giordano, Ruby’s guitar playing and projects have come to the attention of top musicians and jazz fans nationwide.
Over the past 20 years, Greg Ruby has become a gem of the Pacific Northwest Jazz scene as a guitarist, composer, band-leader and music historian. His most recent record, Syncopated Classic, unearthed the lost compositions of 1920’s Seattle jazz composer, Frank D. Waldron and in 2017 earned the “Northwest jazz recording of the year” award by Seattle’s Earshot jazz magazine.
Ruby began playing jazz guitar in his early 20’s after hearing a record of Django Reinhardt. Obsessed with Reinhardt’s sound and inimitable technique, Ruby spent endless hours learning Django’s music and soon caught the attention of pioneering jazz manouche ensemble, Pearl Django. At the time, the group was one of the few bands in the U.S. dedicated to playing Django’s music and Ruby was asked to join. During his tenure with the band (2002-2007), he played on several of their records, toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, performed at the venerable Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois-sur seine, France and authored the group’s repertoire tutorial, The Pearl Django Play-Along Book Vol. 1 (Djangobooks, 2005.) This book’s detailed transcriptions of Pearl Django originals, Django Reinhardt classics, swing standards and accompanying play-along CD set the stage for projects he would release a decade later.
In 2010, he released an album of original compositions to mark the 100th birthday of Django Reinhardt. Joined by violinist Evan Price, bassist Spencer Hoveskeland, guitarist Doug Martin and with guest appearance by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and accordionist David Lange, Ruby’s CD release, titled “Look Both Ways,” reached #1 on the Roots Music Review jazz chart. His compositions have appeared on radio and TV programs including NBC’s Parks and Recreation.
A chance encounter during a trip to New York City in 2012 lead to the creation of his next band. Striking up a conversation with the fiddle player in a Brazillian/Cajun/Appalachian dance band during a set break at a Brooklyn music club, the subject inevitably turned to vintage jazz. After learning that Ruby was from Seattle and played jazz guitar, the fiddle player asked, “by chance are you Greg Ruby? I was given your phone number on my way to the gig as “the person to call” for an upcoming tour to the West Coast with my jazz band.” The fiddle player in question was multi-instrumentalist Dennis Lichtman. While the details of that tour didn’t work, the two soon realized that they would both be in rural Virginia later that summer with Ruby needing a band for a recording session and Lichtman needing a guitar player for a private party in western Maryland. With Ruby on guitar and Lichtman on clarinet, they were joined by New York based Gordon Au (trumpet) and New Orleans based musicians Charlie Halloran (trombone) and Cassidy Holden (bass) – the Rhythm Runners were born. Ruby recalls, “The band worked so well together, we finished the recording session two hours early and with the extra time, tracked two original compositions of mine.” The resulting songs were released as a limited edition red vinyl 45 and sparked Ruby’s creative streak.
He returned to Seattle and began writing new compositions for the Rhythm Runners. In 2014, with the support of an artist grant from Seattle’s 4Culture, he brought the band to Seattle to debut the compositions for the Seattle Lindy Exchange at Seattle’s historic Washington Hall and to make a record of those tunes. With the historic nature of the hall (everyone from Count Basie to Billie Holiday played there back in the day and there is even a rumor that a young Jimi Hendrix’s made his first public performance at the venue,) Ruby thought it would be appropriate to add works from local jazz musicians from that era alongside his original works. Their 2015 album “Washington Hall Stomp” featured original compositions, standards and several recovered compositions from a nearly forgotten Seattle jazz educator who once taught both Quincy Jones and Buddy Catlett. This lead him to discover the music of Frank D. Waldron.
-The Frank D. Waldron Project-
Ruby’s background uniquely prepared him to revive the work of Frank D. Waldron, a Seattle jazz pioneer who led the local scene as an educator and leader from 1907 into the 1940’s. Waldron arrived in Seattle at age 17 shortly after his San Francisco neighborhood was destroyed in the Great Quake of 1906. He eventually settled into a boarding house that hosted traveling black musicians who weren’t allowed in local hotels. The area around the home on Jackson St. would eventually become the local equivalent of Kansas City’s 18th St., a gaming district full of music. As early as 1912 Waldron may have been playing proto-jazz with a local group called the Wang Doodle Orchestra. The mandolin band featured guitar harps and a buttoned-up appearance possibly inspired by James Reese Europe’s popular Clef Club on the east coast.
People don’t usually associate Seattle with the earliest jazz because few recordings were made in the area but it has a rich history. Itinerant musicians from New Orleans and Chicago found their way there, most notably Jelly Roll Morton, and nearby Vancouver had an early alcohol prohibition period (1917-21) that briefly made it a speakeasy hot spot full of opportunities for black musicians. A large military camp that became even larger during WWI also meant work for groups who could please young dancers. It was during the war that Waldron published his first composition, “The Kaiser’s Got The Blues (Since Uncle Sam Stepped In).”
Waldron never recorded but in 1924 he published Syncopated Classic, a workbook of compositions for aspiring Saxophonists including “Two Classic Solos, Seven Original Syncopated Novelty Solos, Fifty One Jazz Breaks and Endings, and instructions on how to Slap Tongue, Flutter Tongue, Laugh, Squeeze, Etc.”
Greg Ruby read about Waldron in Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, the definitive history of Seattle jazz published in 1993 by Seattle based jazz writer Paul de Barros. After discovering that a photocopy of Syncopated Classic was still in de Barros’ files he secured local funding from 4 Culture to reprint Waldron’s book, and to have the arrangements recorded for possibly the first time.
The Frank Waldron Project, released last year, includes a complete reprint of the book, a reprint of the 1918 sheet music for “The Kaiser’s got the Blues”, another sheet for the beautiful “Valse Queen Ann”, lead sheets for everything, and two album downloads. The first album is a full band treatment of Waldron’s material by Ruby’s group the Rhythm Runners. The Second is the original scores played as written by Jacob Zimmerman on alto saxophone and Dalton Ridenhour on piano. The Rhythm Runners album is also available as a CD or LP.
The music is true to the composer’s background in the aspiring black middle class, and the cusp period of string dominated groups making way for brass. People wanting to explore the earliest jazz on the technical level will be thrilled. In a 30 page introduction to the republished Syncopated Classic Ruby, and co-author Paul de Barros, document all that is known about the reclusive Waldron and give a detailed analysis of his compositions. As technical writing goes, it is very approachable. Current composers and arrangers of traditional jazz owe it to themselves to read it. You will also learn in a short sitting a lot about a jazz city you have probably never given much thought to.
-The Oscar Alemán Project-
Ruby is now set to release a second major project,The Oscar Alemán Play-Along Book. This book is a collection of transcriptions of guitarist Oscar Alemán’s melodies, arrangements, and solos and includes accompanying play-along audio tracks. It will also feature a biography of Alemán written by Django historian Michael Dregni. The book will be available for sale December 1st. It will be followed by an album inspired by Aleman featuring the Greg Ruby Six, made up of two guitars, violin, bass, reeds, and drums.Oscar Aleman was an Argentinian born guitarist who discovered American jazz while touring the world with Harry Fleming’s Revue in 1928. As part of a Hawai’ian guitar duo on the tour, Alemán would hang out after-hours with another musician on the tour, New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. It was here he learned first hand the language of jazz. When the tour ended, Alemán made his way to Paris during its golden age of jazz guitar.
He soon became the leader and guitarist for Josephine Baker’s backing band and regularly performed with American ex-patriot jazz musicians including Freddy Taylor and Bill Coleman as well as Parisian accordionist Gus Viseur. In 1932, Alemán was forced to decline an offer to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra as Josephine Baker wouldn’t release him from his contract exclaiming, “Where else in the world will I find another man who is able to sing in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian, who can dance and play guitar, who is black, and best of all, is a great companion?”
Louis Armstrong once joined Alemán on stage in Paris, improvising chorus after chorus on Alemán’s composition Hombre Mio. While Alemán and Django Reinhardt never recorded they were friends and Reinhardt would often invite Alemán back to his caravan where they would spend late hours jamming into the night. As the war approached, he returned to Argentina becoming a star as a swing guitarist and having a hit with a local translation of “Besame Mucho.” Many are baffled by the obscurity of Alemán in comparison to the ever-growing fame of Django Reinhardt. Ruby hopes that his project can help bring him the attention he deserves.
With a mind for reviving history, and a knack for exciting audiences to it, Greg Ruby has secured his place in the traditional jazz landscape.
Learn more about Greg Ruby’s past and current projects at gregrubymusic.com
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