Set forth below is the forty-sixth “Texas Shout” column. It first appeared in the December 1993 issue of The West Coast Rag, now known as The Syncopated Times. Because the text has not been updated, I would like to pass along at this point some information I received, shortly after its publication, from my friend and bandmate in The Rent Party Revellers, Jim Riley, an ace banjoist and expert on banjo lore.
He told me that the characteristic banjo sound mentioned in the column is the result of a preference among European banjoists for the use of a device called a “tone regulator,” a sort of flattened cylinder that clamps across the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece. If I understand Jim correctly, a tone regulator purifies the note being plucked by minimizing or eliminating its normal overtones, but at the cost of a diminution of resonance and a more incisive sound.
The Dixieland revival that began in the U.S. in the early forties spread to England fairly rapidly despite the obstacles of wartime. By 1943-44, British pianist George Webb was recording with a combo that certainly sounds as if someone therein had been listening to Lu Watters’ 78s.
Bunk Johnson’s recordings of that period also didn’t take long to get across the pond. By 1949-50, the Crane River Jazz Band was performing an uptown New Orleans-derived Dixieland style. Two of its members were cornetist Ken Colyer and clarinetist Monty Sunshine.
In order to get closer to the source of his musical interests, Colyer took a job as a seaman and jumped ship when he reached New Orleans in 1952. Before the authorities caught up with and deported him, he had spent as much time as he could learning jazz at the knees of George Lewis and other seminal uptowners.
Colyer returned in 1953 to something of a hero’s welcome from the British Dixieland community. He found a band waiting for him, a piano-less sextet with himself, Sunshine, and trombonist Chris Barber in the front line.
That version of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen was one of the all-time great British Dixieland units. While it did not stay together long (breaking up in 1954), it was highly influential on up-and-coming British Dixielanders.
Two first-rate bands emerged from the breakup, one led by Colyer and one by Barber (with Sunshine in the personnel). While both leaders perpetuated the basic sound they had created together, Colyer favored a somewhat looser, more uptown-leaning approach, while Barber tightened the routines and the instrumental voicings.
Of course, there have been lots of good bands over the years. However, the Colyer/Barber matchup and its two immediate successors inspired imitators among their countrymen.
It is the widespread attempt, over a sustained period, of disciples to play more or less like a specific model that creates a jazz style. A band may be the most original combo that ever took the field, but if no one follows its lead, the stylistic ripples it makes will never mature into tidal waves.
As units led by clarinetist Acker Bilk or trumpeter Kenny Ball became popular, even to the point of making the pop charts once in a while in the U.S., common characteristics thereof began to be noticed. Dixieland bands exhibiting those characteristics have come to be known as “British trad” bands.
British trad is the seventh, and so far the last, distinctive Dixieland style to have appeared on the scene. One can hear it today in the playing of, among others, the popular Climax Jazz Band from Toronto (perhaps the purest post-Barber team extant), the Phoenix Jazzers from the Pacific Northwest, Monty Sunshine’s Jazz Band and the Albion Jazz Band, a reunion septet formed to carry forward the Colyer approach to jazz. (Oddly enough, you are less likely to hear it from Barber himself, though he is still going strong. His crew is now called a Jazz & Blues Band, and is as likely to play New Orleans rhythm ‘n blues a la Professor Longhair as vintage 1950s British trad.)
Because Colyer and his colleagues were trying to emulate the uptown New Orleans style (which I discussed in the two previous “Texas Shout” columns), British trad has a lot in common with uptown. British trad players play very compatibly onstage with uptown artists and typically perform much of the usual uptown repertoire.
However, if the differences between those two styles are subtle, they are nevertheless real. While uptown New Orleans is almost a kind of “folk Dixieland,” as I discussed in my previous columns, British trad is more consciously an art music.
British trad pays more attention to “legitimate” intonation, to cleanly executed routines and to playing tunes designed primarily as jazz vehicles (rather than as popular songs). For example, Barber’s band recorded in its early days a number of tunes by Duke Ellington, a composer not played much by uptowners. Further, a British trad band may voice the front line instruments in harmony for certain passages, something the uptowners almost never do.
Another distinguishing, and controversial, feature of most British trad bands is the role given to the banjo in their rhythm sections. Colyer’s and Barber’s combos often did not have a piano, so their only chord instrument was the banjo.
Their rhythm was mounted on a metronomic four-four from the banjo, usually somewhat prominent in the mix, supported by bass and drums. Even when a piano is present, the listener frequently hears the banjo as the principal rhythm instrument.
For some reason, perhaps the humidity coming across the English Channel, the banjos on the early British trad recordings produced a somewhat tinny and unresonant sound. As the pioneering bands were imitated by their disciples, this particular banjo sound became de rigueur for the style.
Those who respond to British trad don’t give a second thought to the banjo timbre – it’s an integral and accepted part of the action, just as football has goal posts instead of a pitcher’s mound. However, there are quite a few critics who can’t get past it and who dismiss British trad units (and miss a lot of good jazz in the process) amid complaints of “clanging,” “scraping” and other epithets directed at the banjoist.
In the July 1990 “The Letter Drop” column of WCR, reader Francis Eaton requested that I explain the differences between the various Dixieland styles. Well, Francis, it has taken a while, but today’s column on British trad finishes the job.
For your reference, hot dance was covered in the February 1990 “Texas Shout,” Chicago in July-August and September 1991, white New Orleans in September-October 1992, West Coast revival in November-Holiday 1992, downtown New Orleans three issues ago and, as mentioned, uptown New Orleans in the two previous columns. I hope all of you are now prepared for the examination.
Seriously, though, before leaving the discussion of Dixieland styles, there are a few general thoughts that I think are worth leaving with you. These deal with the question of categorizing the music in the first place. Is this just an academic exercise, or is there some useful purpose in doing so?
I think that more widespread recognition of the seven Dixieland styles, and their various objectives and characteristics, is important. I see it as the best way not only to expand one’s own enjoyment of the music but also to dampen the infighting and factionalism that has, for as long as I’ve been interested in the music, crippled the Dixieland community from effectively marshaling whatever economic power it has.
Most Dixieland fans I’ve encountered tend to like only one or two styles. They are quick to lump together all of the other styles (the ones they don’t like), without recognizing any differences between them, as consisting of players who are doing the wrong thing.
I believe that the more you know about something, the more likely you are to enjoy it. If you prefer the powerful West Coast style, for example, you’re missing a lot if you – as so many Watters/Murphy devotees are prone to do – criticize Chicago musicians as a bunch of soloists who play the same tunes all the time and who value technique above musicality.
Why not try digging a good Chicago band, recognizing up front that, because Chicago is solo-oriented, you may well see some virtuoso players who have the ability (if you give them a chance and listen with an open mind) to show you new facets of tunes you think you’ve heard to the point of exhaustion? If you go in with that attitude, without a predisposition to immediately find fault with a band that doesn’t have a banjo or tuba and isn’t going to play “Elephant Wobble” or “Sud Buster’s Dream,” you might come away very pleasantly surprised at what you did hear from the musicians.
If you’re a fan of hot dance, with its intricately-voiced section passages and quick, precise changes in tonal colors, you may have been turned off by the uptown New Orleans musicians, with their sometimes home-grown techniques and distinctive tones. You may already have written them off as people who can’t play their instruments.
How’s about forgetting about those complaints for a few sets, and letting these artists do what they do best, communicate with you on an emotional level, giving yourself up to be swept away in the momentum of a full-throated uptown rideout or the fragility of a George Lewis-ish clarinet singing the blues? You might see musicians exposing their inner selves in a way that shows you depths of the music that few hot dance arrangements ever captured.
In short, if you say you like Dixieland, you should realize that all seven styles I’ve covered belong to that music you say you like. They all use the same musical vocabulary and conventions, i.e., those developed by jazzmen prior to the onset of swing in the thirties. Each style has chosen to do something a little different with that vocabulary and those conventions, something that is worth doing, something that is easily accessible to you if you already like any Dixieland at all and if you’ll just take time to understand what’s going on.
If you do, you will gain a new appreciation of the wonderful diversity within the Dixieland community and you will have broken down your own barriers supporting the factionalism that hurts our music. There are too few Dixielanders as it is without further fragmenting our numbers.
Yet, how many of you don’t go to your local Dixieland club when it presents a style that isn’t your favorite? And how many of you then complain when not enough members turn out (for the same reason) to see the band you really enjoy?
Within a few hours of my home, there are several clubs that present Dixieland on a more-or-less regular basis. One of them, an organization with well over a thousand members, heavily emphasizes one style in its presentations. As the overall Dixieland audience has decreased in the 1980s, this sizeable group has had difficulty getting much more than 100 people to attend its regular concerts (i.e., events that aren’t multi-band weekend spectaculars).
By contrast, another of these societies, less than half the size of the one just mentioned, regularly draws close to two hundred to its recurring concerts, and attendance is increasing. Why? This second society takes the trouble to present good bands that play all styles of Dixieland (and, on occasion, swing).
When Nancy and I go to its concerts, we always see essentially the same central core of happy faces. The members know that whatever the society presents will be worth hearing; that if the style presented today isn’t their favorite, a style they like will soon get its fair share on the bill; and that all the club members are ultimately on the same side of the fence. Specifically, if each member boycotts a style he doesn’t like, none of the concerts will be economical and in the long run the society will be in trouble.
In today’s precarious climate for Dixieland, I see this attitude as the only sane one to take. We have simply got to stop fighting with each other. If you agree and if you’re willing to go out and help support the styles your fellow club members and festivalgoers like, so that they will reciprocate, you might as well learn something about those styles so you’ll have a better time.
I’m not saying you have to go to everything that’s around or that you will like every band you hear. I’m certainly not saying that you should spend hours on end forcing yourself to listen to music you don’t understand.
I’d say you should take it a little at a time. Try one new band for one set at each festival you attend, or a new style a few times a year at your local jazz club, making sure that whatever style you’re sampling is represented by a combo that is regarded as a good one musically (not always the same as being popular with crowds).
When you go, don’t plan to force yourself to like the music right away. Instead, enter with the goal of understanding why other people think that this type of jazz is worthwhile.
If you do, I’ll bet that you’ll wind up appreciating aspects of Dixieland that you never thought much about previously. You’ll find some bands you’ve never heard before that you’ll want to hear again. And you’ll get even more fun out of your interest in Dixieland.
As a closing caution, I should point out that we are talking about Dixieland jazz, an element of popular culture, something which does not easily lend itself to drawing bright lines. Many bands operate around the common borders of the various Dixieland styles and can’t readily be pigeonholed into one style or another.
That’s as it should be. Each band should be trying to find its own distinctive voice, taking whichever bits and pieces of the music seem most appealing, and forging them into something fresh and new. Thus, many Dixieland bands won’t fit precisely into any one of the seven styles, and there’s no reason why they should.
For example, the Grand Dominion Jazz Band works within its own marvelous blend of British trad and uptown New Orleans. I hear all three New Orleans styles from time to time in the music of the Golden Eagle Jazz Band, with the emphasis sometimes flowing from one to another in mid-rendition. The Hot Frogs combine the force of West Coast revival with the outgoing mood of white New Orleans.
If these, or similarly cross-styled bands, should ever inspire hordes of conscious imitators, we might even wind up some day with a new eighth style of Dixieland. However, I don’t think that will happen. The Dixieland community is dwindling in size and no longer has the common channels of communication that it had in the sixties.
In that respect, the experience of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band is instructive. When it came on the scene in the 1970s, it quickly became the most influential Dixieland band of the last twenty years. Its sound, a core of uptown New Orleans balanced around the edges with British trad and downtown New Orleans, was new and valid in the field.
If it had appeared in the forties or fifties, we might have a “Boston trad” or “New England revival” style at festivals today. However, other bands did not decide to imitate the Eagles as a team. What happened was that other combos took elements of the NBEJB’s presentation and incorporated them selectively into already developed ensembles.
Thus, we hear many bands today (I’m a member of a few myself) playing tunes that were brought back to the repertoire by the Black Eagles. Quite a few combos have modified their approaches to rhythm to bring them closer to the Eagles’ gliding four-beat that shifts into two-beat virtually on a free-form basis. The Eagles’ understated approach to front-line polyphony is less evident elsewhere, but I still hear its influence from individual horns here and there.
The Eagles were our best shot for a new style and none developed. In fact, the Eagles themselves don’t sound today quite like they did in the 70s.
Moreover, I think it is significant that all seven Dixieland styles emerged in the forty years between the first jazz recording and the takeover of the pop charts by rock in the mid-fifties. No new style has emerged in the nearly forty years since.
However, seven styles are more than enough for each of us to enjoy lots of Dixieland in its delightfully unpredictable diversity. I find much to like in all of them and I hope you will come to feel the same way.
Want to read ahead? Buy the book!
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Note: All links, pictures, videos or graphics accompanying the Shouts were added at the discretion of the Syncopated Times editorial staff. They did not accompany the original columns and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Tex Wyndham.