Jeff Barnhart: Hal, onto Part 2 of our exploration of the New Orleans Owls, a hot band that recorded some terrific sides over five sessions between Sept. 1925 and Oct, 1927. We’ll be looking at the final three dates this time, but first I wanted to share part of a note we received through our editor-in-chief, Andy Senior, this past month, from one David Federman, who wrote: “Please thank Jeff Barnhart and Hal Smith for the first part of their guided tour of the New Orleans Owls discography…I went to YouTube and listened to every record they talked about. I’m ready for Part Two.”
David, thank YOU for taking the time to write and obliquely remind our readers that listening to the records we are forensically (and gleefully) dissecting is the best way to enjoy our work and decide if you agree with us. We endeavor to choose only those sides that can be easily accessed online, either on YouTube or the Red Hot Jazz Archive.
The Owls were back in the studio on Nov. 8, 1926, for a session recorded in Atlanta, GA, rather than their native New Orleans, slightly over seven months after their previous session. The one personnel replacement was in the piano chair, with Sigfried Christensen replacing Mose Ferrer. The band’s first ride, “Blowin’ Off Steam,” lives up to it’s title!! The photo you shared in Part 1 of the band hamming it up (“They need the AIRS!”) shows this band knew how to have fun!
After a six-bar intro with brass and reeds lobbing the musical ball to and fro, Bill Padron plays a strong lead on the 16-bar verse, which gives way to the sax trio playing the pretty melody—one that perfectly scans the title (“Blowin’ Off Steam, you’ve got me Blown’ Off Steam” etc); I’m making that lyric up, but there must have been words to this tune, Hal! Padron solos on a half-chorus, staying quite close to the melody while combining hot phrasing with a laconic Bixian sound.
A two-bar piano break by Christensen takes us into an alto solo with phrasing that belongs in the mid-1920’s! Out-of-fashion within a couple of years, here the style is just scorching and cutting edge for the day. A four-bar brass interlude takes us from the key of Eb to C and the reedmen playing the melody in more snakey fashion with some slithering breaks! A final four-bar interlude returns us to Eb and everyone plays with sheer abandon—easily the most exciting outchorus from this (or any) band in 1926—interrupted by a surprisingly sedate two-bar banjo break. I listened to that final chorus a half-dozen times, grinning ear to ear!
“White Ghost Shivers” is a multi-strained piece that begins with a reference to Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb Minor (the “Funeral March”). The band is in C minor and gets right to the 16-bar chorus, playing a closely harmonized melody spiced with tailgating trombone interjections. We finally get to hear what Sigfried Christensen can do at the piano and it’s quite a lot! He plays a solo on the B section in Eb, taking us to a chorus broken into two-bar sections, reed trio breaks alternating with ensemble in-time.
When I heard the trio (going to the new key of Ab in the same tonal-relationship between the first two sections and the trio found in the Rags and Marches of the previous decade) my ears kept going to another song and I finally found it. Composer Will E. Dulmage heavily borrows from this chord sequence (and echoes parts of the melody) in his 1927 tune, “Dreaming the Hours Away.” This strain is played four times, first by the brass, then more elaborately by sax trio, followed by a jaunty muted-cornet solo, and finally trombone playing the melody very straight with hits from the cornet while the reeds play long tones; obviously bored with that subservient role, they dominate the final ensemble and, in the only weak part of this side, play a series of three-note phrases, each quieter than the previous, until they whisper out.
Hal, we’ve spoken about records shanghaied by arrangers’ whimsies in the past, but this ending has to be one of the most egregious!! For me, it almost ruins an otherwise perfect recording, but tastes do differ. Please add your observations and lead us into the next sides from this session!
Hal Smith: Jeff, let me second the “thank-you” to David Federman for those kind words! I love to hear from readers who make the effort to listen to the music we discuss.
“Blowin’ Off Steam” brings back fond memories of playing with the late Eddie Bayard’s New Orleans Classic Jazz Orchestra. I’ll bet I played this number every single time I worked with Eddie’s band. It’s easy to hear how the Owls’ record made such an impression on Eddie. For my money, this is one of their best records—with everyone playing their very best. The highlights for me are the “sock time” feel of the cornet and sax solos, the whole-tone breaks by piano and banjo and that ferocious outchorus, punctuated by my relative Earl Crumb’s perfectly-timed choke cymbal.
“White Ghost Shivers” was used for a band name by several of my friends in Austin. That was an amazing group, led by banjoist Wes Borghesi. It included, at various times, Jon Doyle, David Jellema, and several other outstanding Austin jazzers.
The Owls’ record of the song has a lot going on. I agree with you regarding Sigfried Christensen! Though I haven’t found any biographical information on him, it sounds like he was influenced by the recordings by Frank Signorelli and other “up-to-date” pianists. Notice that the break strain following the piano chorus is lifted directly from J. Russel Robinson’s “Eccentric.” Also, I hear banjoist Rene Gelpi accenting the afterbeats. It’s a real contrast to the hard-charging 4/4 he played on the sides we discussed previously. Bill Padron sounds more like King Oliver and Paul Mares than Bix on that “every tub” outchorus. As you say, the ending is an anticlimax after that rousing ensemble, much like the ending on Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of “Sugar Foot Stomp.”
“The Nightmare” was recorded by several groups in 1926, but it would be difficult to beat the Owls’ version. Once again, Bill Padron’s cornet playing is strongly redolent of King Oliver and Paul Mares, backed by Earl Crumb’s wonderful choke cymbal. Sigfried Christensen plays some nice Fats Waller-like piano fills on the second strain. How about that knocked-out clarinet solo?!? If you’ve ever heard Omer Simeon’s solo on the first take of “Reincarnation” from the 1935 Friars Society Orchestra session, this has the same kind of off-center feeling. It’s wonderful! The full ensemble returns for one more hot chorus, with the clarinet wailing over the top before an arranged ending.
“Brotherly Love” is a composition of Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel—better known for their collaboration on “Nobody’s Sweetheart.” This is a romping number, with a minor verse and serpentine breaks by the reeds, leading into a chorus which bears a slight melodic resemblance to “San.” Frank Netto’s half-chorus on trombone is reminiscent of Ory’s work with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators. The sax on the remainder of that chorus and Padron’s cornet are back in the sock-time mode, with Sigfried Christensen bubbling over the ensemble. There is a sizzling outchorus, led by Padron’s red-hot muted cornet. The Owls were definitely at the top of their game on this session.
Earlier, we heard the break strain from “Eccentric” as part of “White Ghost Shivers.” The band actually recorded “Eccentric” at the same session, and I’m glad that they did! This is a real tour-de-force for Pinky Vidacovich (I think) on clarinet. He is wailing away from the start and never stops! Bill Padron is back in Oliver-Mares territory and after making some strange, cat-like noises on the second strain, Frank Netto brings on the tailgate. Instead of a piano solo or a banjo solo, we hear a duet. (Knowing that other Owls sides include more than one string players in certain sections of the song, how many do you hear on this one?) The ensemble returns to the break strain, then repeats it with Charleston rhythm. The next chorus boils over into a terrific outchorus, with a quote from “Milneburg Joys” for good measure. Jeff, what catches your ear on the second half of the session?
JB: “The Nightmare” has a sinister, modal quality in the first strain. Padron still has that beautiful tone in his cornet playing, but he’s getting hotter and bending notes more than before. Interesting you hear Fats in Christensen’s piano fills…I hear that figure as coming from myriad recorded (and published) novelty piano pieces: they loved their harmonic fourths cascading down the keys! I’m only sorry they didn’t play the third strain more than once; it’s beautiful. Either Benjie White or Pinky Vidacovich perfectly capture the misterioso quality of the first strain with that clarinet solo. The heat from the final ensemble is largely provided by the clarinet playing over the brass and other reeds! Finally, it’s interesting to note that this side speeds up a bit (about 14 bpm, from 124 to 138) then settles back to around 134-6. I wonder if the band started this side a bit slower than they had intended?
I LOVE the intro to “Brotherly Love!” The reed trio arpeggiates a C minor chord, a cymbal splash brings the ensemble in, Crumb gives two offbeat choke cymbal hits and they’re OFF! The 16-bar verse is more rhythmically then melodically exciting, but after an ensuing four-bar interlude (using a suspenseful diminished chord) they go back to the intro, and then—surprise—on to a new strain! This chorus has a harmonic structure that allows for some free blowing and the band makes the most of it! I love Padron’s break in the middle of the outchorus and agree with you that this session was hitting on all cylinders!
As I was growing up, I heard contemporary bands (1950s-’80s) play “Eccentric” with two reeds executing the first strain in harmony, so it was great to hear a recording that adhered closely to Elmer Schoebel’s 1922 arrangement for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings while putting their own stamp on the performance. Before moving on, I wanted to mention that pianist J. Russell Robinson published this tune as “That Eccentric Rag” in 1912. It was a big enough hit to entice the NORK to record it 10 years later! Band recordings leave out the D section of the rag (yet another melody based on the by now—for this column—ubiquitous “Bucket’s Got a Hole in it” changes!) but it’s no loss: the first three strains are the winners!
On a lark, I compared the 1922 NORK version with the 1926 NOO ride. NORK’s is much more sedate at 190 bpm, while the NOO take is at 242 bpm! Although there is only about a ten second difference in length, the faster tempo of the latter version allows extra choruses—the primary structural deviation from Schoebel’s NORK arrangement.
The first half of both follows the roadmap you described above, Hal, with some real hot, and frankly more virtuosic, breaks from everyone in the NOO. In the trio, after the choruses featuring horn breaks, there’s room in their three-minute romp to include the terrific piano/banjo chorus you mentioned. THEN they go on their own path, with four outchoruses (compared to the NORK’s two), each building the excitement up to that great “Milneburg Joys” break (almost the famous horn break featured elsewhere in this tune in reverse!!). Whew! They HAD to call it a day after this one!
Hal, as this is one of your very favorite 1920’s groups, I defer to you to press on!
HS: By the way, when I wrote “Fats Waller-like fills” I was thinking of Fats playing novelty-style licks, as he did on Fletcher Henderson’s “Henderson Stomp”—recorded in 1926.
Moving on to Apr. 14, 1927…the band was back in New Orleans for this session. Their first number was the old standard “That’s a Plenty.” The band added three-beat stops in the verse. The verse, chorus, repeat of the verse and first trio strain are all ensemble, with very strong lead played by Padron. I like the whole-tone reed breaks on the “dogfight.” Though I would not have thought of putting breaks in the middle of the trio, it works with this band. The last two solos on the trio remind us that the New Orleans Owls descended from the Invincibles string band. We hear guitar and mandolin on a string chorus, then behind a low-register clarinet before the final rideout. One of the photos that accompanies this article was taken by Bill Kleppinger, one of the Invincibles band members. In the original caption, he listed Lester “Monk” Smith as playing clarinet, sax and guitar! I’m thinking Monk Smith may be the “mystery” string player we hear alongside Rene Gelpi on several of these sides.
JB: This band provides a plethora of highlights on every track, but “That’s a Plenty” is my favorite so far. Hal, this tune was again originally a piano rag, this time from 1914. Written by Lew Pollack, it was quickly adapted for jazz bands and is a real test to the cohesiveness of a band. The 3:05 time of the NOO rendition starts with over a minute of pure New Orleans ensemble leading up to the dogfight and ensuing solos. What a delightful surprise to have a string chorus (augmented by an almost “country” sounding clarinet on the second time around). It creates a natural build into the final chorus that leaves the listener begging for more!
HS: “Meat On The Table” is credited to Christensen and Vidacovich (both names misspelled on the label). Even without seeing a composer credit, you could tell that this number was written by a couple of New Orleans jazzmen! The sinister first strain leads into a chorus that is mostly based on the chords of “Tiger Rag.” A quick modulation leads into a strain with similar chords to “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night” or perhaps “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” There is another very brief modulation—this time with Charleston beats—and the band returns to the “Tiger Rag” strain. Trombonist Netto plays a rousing half-chorus, followed by low-register clarinet backed by guitar and mandolin. The full ensemble returns for an outchorus with a clever arranged ending. Again, I want to call attention to Earl Crumb’s marvelous choke cymbal afterbeats on that last go-’round!
JB: For me, “Meat on the Table” has so much going on…with that tuba melody, the verse sounds like a demonic reworking of “When I Grow to Old to Dream!” In the chorus, there is a terrific diminished chord on Bar 3 each time that elevates the tune above mere “Tiger Rag” changes. The final eight bars of the chorus melody are reminiscent of Charles N. Daniels’ 1899 waltz, “You Tell Me Your Dream, I’ll Tell You Mine!” Cornetist Padron sounds hotter on this November session than on any of the previous ones — just blistering! It’s a tricky enough arrangement it’s no wonder I’ve never heard it live excepting from the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble in Connecticut in the 1990’s.
HS: The band’s final recording session took place in New Orleans on Oct. 26, 1927. There were a couple of new faces, with Red Bowman added on cornet and Hilton “Nappy” Lamare replacing Rene Gelpi on banjo and guitar. The first tune, “The New Twister,” was recorded by the “Original Wolverines” (with Jimmy McPartland) several months after the Owls’ version, but never seems to have caught on with other bands from this era. It’s a pleasant enough song, with multiple parts and solo space for the wind instruments (including Red Bowman on one of the first cornet choruses), but it doesn’t inspire the band to the wild abandon we heard on “Eccentric.” However, there’s a very nice interpretation of a Louis Armstrong break at the end of the last cornet solo!
Jeff, what are your thoughts on the numbers from this session?
JB: The chorus of “The New Twister” sounds like some collegiate fight song, or the melody the audience always chanted at Eddie Cantor as he came onstage (“We want Cantor, We want Cantor!”). A harmless period piece with firm playing all around, but not inspired to my ears, excepting that HOT cornet solo you referenced!
“Goose Pimples” is such a great tune. The NOO recorded it on their October 26, 1927 session, a day after the New Orleans Lucky Seven waxed it in New York, and two days after Fletcher Henderson’s Dixie Stompers cut their side in New York! Co-composers Jo Trent and Fletcher Henderson deposited the tune for copyright on July 12, 1927, leaving plenty of time for the stock to be disseminated among hot groups nationwide. Inspired by this discovery, Hal, let’s tackle this tune and all three versions next month with our guest, the multi-instrumenalist/historian/scholar Andy Schumm, joining us!
The New Orleans Owls final recorded tune was “Throwin’ the Horns.” Taken at the most relaxed tempo of any tunes we’ve discussed for this month’s column, its strolling feel belies the complexity of the first 20 bars before we reach the chorus. The initial 10 bars are a series of off-center phrases and whole tone patterns that evolve into a 10-bar pseudo-verse before we land on a chorus that owes its chord sequence (and more than one melodic phrase) to “Ja-Da” from 1918. Beautiful tone and playing by everyone. A vocal duet (filled with minstrelsy) from Red Bowman and ?? reveals the meaning of the title, followed by a hot cornet chorus from Bowman and one ensemble out. Over to you, Hal!
HS: “Throwin’ The Horns” seems to take quite awhile to arrive at the main theme, which is very pretty. I’m sure the second (higher) voice we hear is “Nappy” Lamare. That’s just how he sang with Ben Pollack in the early 1930s and later with Bob Crosby and still later with his own Bauduc-Lamare Dixieland group. Don’t you think that’s Bill Padron on the cornet solo? There is a good amount of Oliver and Mares there! The final ensemble is really “every tub” and clearly was not written out— except for the ending. That must have been a phrase that was passed around from band to band in the Crescent City, as it turns up on other recordings by Armstrong, Paul Mares a.o. It’s a nice, relaxed finish to a collection of hot performances by a band that should be MUCH better known!
Moving on, I’m looking forward to discussing those recordings of “Goose Pimples” with our pal Andy Schumm!
JB: Right on, Hal! I’m getting them right now just thinking about it!