The Moaninest Moan: Rediscovering Loren McMurray

While fishing for excuses for being beyond my deadline, I told the publisher this was the most important jazz release we have ever covered. For historical value At the Minstrel Show, which included a double CD and a related book along with extensive album notes, probably has the story of Loren “Mac” McMurray beat, but for jazz value, I think this one takes the cake. It stands out from releases of classic recording sessions, even when beautifully restored and annotated, because in the end that music has been frequently made available, and those stories made familiar.

Product of Our Souls is a serious contender; it told the story of James Reese Europe and his compatriots, and was also released as a compliment to a full-length book. But Europe and the Clef Club is a story that will have no trouble getting told. Europe had an hour on NPR in early August. Another contender for most significant album might be The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us From Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business, but, objectively, I think this new release accomplishes more, while also being more enjoyable. It is no coincidence that all the above are from Archeophone Records, or that Colin Hancock co-authored the album notes on both The Missing Link and today’s focus, The Moaninest Moan of Them All: The Jazz Saxophone of Loren McMurray, 1920-1922.

Red Wood Coast

Loren McMurray will be known only to the fanatical fans of early jazz on record—the inveterate readers of Rust’s discographies, those prone to debate about whether that is really so-and-so on a session. McMurray’s hasn’t been a well known name in a century. In fact, Brian Rust had his name down incorrectly as Loring and his mistake was repeated for decades. He was also included in discographies on sessions as long as six years after his untimely death in 1922—something that does at least suggest how influential he was as a player.

At this late date, anyone claiming a place for an obscure musician alongside the giants of his instrument has a burden of proof. The people behind this album, including Meagan Hennessey, Mark Berresford, Colin Hancock, digital restorer Richard Martin, and Archeophone Records, have met that burden. This release is well-conceived, wonderfully researched, beautifully and effectively laid out, informative to the layperson, ear-opening, and immensely enjoyable to the listener. I want to create a rating scale just to give it a ten out of ten for what a historical album released in 2023 can be. If producing a CD is an art, The Moaninest Moan is a Michelangelo. It’s perfection. A balance of form and function.

The album makes a convincing case that, despite a recording career lasting a little over two years, Loren McMurray had an outsized impact on the role of the saxophone in jazz. Had sudden illness not struck him down at just 25, he might have grown into a major figure as the decade progressed. He squeezed hundreds of recordings into his short time allotted, with groups including Lanin’s Southern Serenaders, Bailey’s Lucky Seven, The Virginians, The Original Memphis Five, and the orchestras of Ben Selvin, Eddie Elkins, Harry Raderman, and Mike Markel. Sometimes recording 13 sessions in a week—and then running off to other labels for session work that still leave debates about his presence on a side.

Hot Jazz Jubile

That his talent was appreciated can be seen in the way leaders increasingly put him in the spotlight on these sessions. Those who played saxophone in 1922 and in the years to follow were listening closely to these records. Even the public was beginning to catch on, inspiring the release of a double-sided disc with two of his hits.

Loren McMurray was born in 1897 in McPherson, Kansas. The authors relate several generations of family history in that state, the most important element being Loren’s musically ambitious father Dallas, who led bands in the area, and created a family saxophone band in the style of Six Brown Brothers. As a teen, Loren already stood out on his instrument and was called “McPherson’s Prince of Music” in the local press. Something that struck me is that even though everything about the family history implies a comfortably middle-class lifestyle, in writing his mother from the road Mac is happy she finally has a phonograph to hear his records! This was 1922 and in an unusually musical family. Perhaps it was a case of “Why buy music when you can make it yourself.”

Young Loren left McPherson to pursue music in 1917, finding his way to Kansas City where he was immediately recognized as a uniquely-gifted saxophonist, at times playing with artists who would go on to fame, including Willard Robison (out in Oklahoma) and the fledgling Coon Sanders Novelty Orchestra.

He settled in with Eddie Kuhn’s Orchestra, which had a Kansas City sound the papers called “Wild West Jazz,” because of its rambunctiousness and an instrumentation that included an accordion. Their influence can be felt in Bennie Moten’s band, which also included an accordion. Moten’s band recorded their first sides just a year after McMurray’s death. This isn’t mentioned in the notes so if my ears deceive the trouble is mine, but let me recommend Moten’s “Elephant’s Wobble” from September 1923 as an illustration of a Kansas City sound that seems to have a direct McMurray influence.

It was with the Kuhn band that Mac traveled to New York for his first recordings in the summer of 1920, making records for Emerson and Pathé that sold well. Late in the year they returned in hopes of making more but were thwarted for reasons unknowable, and within months the band had fully split after several changes, and a brief period with McMurray as co-leader. Despite the possibility of leading a band in Kansas City, McMurray felt the call of New York and soon moved with his wife to pursue a career playing with Mike Markel’s Orchestra.


While remaining with Markel’s Orchestra he also found his way to sessions with Sam Lanin’s Southern Serenaders, Bailey’s Lucky Seven, and other excellent recording groups of the period. By 1922 he was becoming a star, and was being featured more prominently. He recorded sides with Ben Selvin and for Gus Haenschen. Many band leaders wanted him to join them, some of them making pitches from outside of New York.

He eventually settled with Eddie Elkins who had come from California, and had an unusually innovative dance band. They toured under the umbrella of Paul Whiteman’s large organization. McMurray was soon placed in Whitman’s jazz-oriented group, The Virginians, and is on nearly all of their records. He was also placed in a Whiteman saxophone group, something with which he was very familiar.

In the summer of 1922, he led his own group for Gennett Records, McMurray’s California Thumpers, producing the excellent side “Haunting Blues.” The authors describe it as “especially striking, His solo chorus was unlike anything previously recorded in jazz or on the saxophone, crooning out Henry Busse’s melody in a manner that hints at the cooler styles of future players like Frankie Trumbauer and Lester Young.”


In October 1922, things were looking brighter than ever. Eddie King of Victor Records was showing interest and McMurray was making an excellent salary. Then he was quickly taken down by an infection at just 25 years old. His absence was felt by his contemporaries in the music business as attested by a truly impressive funeral back in Kansas, but coming so early in the jazz age, and not present to advocate for his own legacy to the first wave of jazz historians, he became a footnote. Had he lived he would certainly be among the familiar names of early saxophonists, and at least would have had collections focused on his recordings released prior to this one.

The text is very fact-filled, engagingly written but not prone to flowery language or filler. The information gathered could easily be extended into a full book, but that does not seem necessary. The album notes, accompanied by the music itself, are the perfect way to convey the important points and to provide a reference source for key facts should anyone be looking. There are several pages of endnotes, one of which casually drops the tidbit of where McMurray met his wife, illustrating how focused they are on the music rather than the story.

This is a unique set, revealing white jazz during a period before many of the key moments of that history. Before the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Chicagoans. A period when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was still a big deal and more staid dance bands like Whiteman’s were catching the jazz bug by necessity. It is a peek into the recording industry of the time and the lives of working musicians who are not household names, both on the American frontier and in the heart of the New York recording industry.


Many of the white musicians, band leaders especially, were from Europe and had received their training there in band or classical music, others were but a generation removed from that. The stories of people like Sam Lanin, who built musical empires for themselves on the cusp of the Jazz Age are interesting even told in a paragraph or two. These were professional musicians who took on jazz as it came into style, adapted it, and grew it. Within their ranks were some of the best musicians of the day, finally freed to express themselves through improvisation, even from within the context of an arranged band.

After a biography of roughly 38 pages further sections explore “where Mac got his moan” and his influence on other musicians. These sections aren’t technical, they will be easily followed by anyone. The primary thesis is that he was approaching the saxophone’s part in the band the way Larry Shields and Alcide Nunez used the clarinet in their groups. Which was itself a somewhat different approach to melody and embellishment within an arrangement than had been common in dance bands prior. Both of those men were from New Orleans, as was Bernard “Doc” Berendsohn, who McMurray played with on some of the best sides on the album. The authors say their pairing inspired “an increased fluidity in phrasing and a better understanding of the blues” that pushed his later sides to the next level.


Harlan Leonard of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra seems influenced by McMurray, whose legacy in that city was strongly felt. The same can be said of Coleman Hawkins, who references McMurray on recordings with Mamie Smith. Kansas City reedmen for the Coon Sanders orchestra also continued his legacy. His already prominent contemporaries like Bennie Krueger were pushed to expand their reach by his innovations. The authors point to specific examples of his influence in many recordings of the following years.

After the exploration of the origins of his sound and his influence, there is a section with a paragraph or two about each of the bands featured on the album, those most important to McMurray’s career. The descriptions are presented in relation to McMurray, and roughly chronologically so that they can be read as a brief version of the biography, or as a refresher and introduction to the tracklist to follow.

Disc one features select recordings up to the Spring of 1922 when he first led a band. Disc two continues those recordings through his death in October. There are 25 tracks on each disc, with the 50th being a tribute recorded by friends while he was on his deathbed. They are presented in near-chronological order, and even covering the brief period between the summer of 1920 and the fall of 1922 they present a picture of jazz in a rapid state of development.

You probably wouldn’t care about any of this history if the music wasn’t good. Rest assured, while it doesn’t hit like listening to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, it does have all the elements of good jazz. McMurray’s playing stands out on these recordings, making them rise above typical white dance bands of the day into something more, and in some cases he is playing with truly hot groups. If you haven’t come to love the music of this early period, taking your time with this album may open up that door for you.

Popping the first CD in a few months ago I immediately marveled at how much sound restoration had improved just in the last decade, then I forgot about that altogether and enjoyed the music as it was meant to be heard. It is easy to forget these are acoustic-era recordings; a willingness to ignore the imperfections is no longer required to enjoy the music of 1920 on CD! Richard Martin is a miracle worker.

Listening to the album very intently while reading the two paragraphs provided about each track as it plays, and listening for the referenced highlights, really drew together how unique and creative McMurray was. The listening cues are unusually helpful. For example, in the notes for “High Brown Blues” they describe him “launching into a slap-tongue countermelody over half-time rhythm, which generates a chugging beat that would eventually become characteristic of the Markels Band.” In a recording of the same title with the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra, they point to a 16-bar section featuring a piano/drum/sax trio representative of a type of act more common in rural areas than on records.

Two cuts of “Georgia” with the same group are used to highlight the impact record label preferences could have on a performance. There are no less than three cuts of what became his signature, “Lonesome Mama Blues,” the cues for the Markel’s Band version includes the description, “Then Davis and Mac play one more blues chorus, but this time Mac plays his own figures and steps out of time. He then launches into the final chorus, yelping, running, and moaning with his horn over the scintillating band. With three final yelps and a descending figure, Mac signals the end of one of the most important early jazz recordings of the saxophone.” Three years later Moten’s band would work that solo into “18th Street Strut.”

Hearing back to back versions of the same title does make it more of an educational experience than something to leave playing for company, but education is the area in which this album excels. Whether you are a saxophone player or a non-musician like me, it encourages effective listening and the special enjoyment that comes with “getting it.” I would like to think this disc becomes required listening for saxophonists in university jazz programs, highlighting the development of their instrument through a critical time in its history. A man can dream.

A discography ends the booklet with more specifics on each recording including matrix numbers, has everything the most critical observer could want while creating an experience that anyone with an interest in early jazz can enjoy. The credits page is a Who’s Who of contributors, people, and institutions that would be familiar to many of our readers. Needless to say, I consider The Moaninest Moan a must own for the jazz collector. I also think it should be pushed to a larger audience.

The Moaninest Moan of Them All:
The Jazz Saxophone of Loren McMurray, 1920-1922
Archeophone Records ARCH 6012

Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of

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