Standing alongside Bennie Moten’s famous orchestra as one of the finest of the numerous distinguished jazz units active in Kansas City—though lacking the same enduring repute—is George E. Lee and his Novelty Singing (or “Singing Novelty”) Orchestra.
George Ewing Lee was born on April 28, 1896, in Boonville, Missouri, the son of George and Cathrine Lee, and the elder brother of Julia Lee, who would also go on to success as a singer and musician. Growing up in a musical family, he got his musical start in his father’s string band as a child. Prior to the first World War, he was employed as a porter, and served during the conflict in the United States Army, during which time he played in a band. Following his discharge, Lee sang professionally, and organized first iteration of his Novelty Singing Orchestra with his sister Julia in 1920. Often booked at Kansas City’s Lyric Hall, Lee’s orchestra soon came to rival Bennie Moten’s for the title of Kansas City’s favorite jazz band in “battle of the band” contests. The Singing Novelty Orchestra recorded for the first time in 1926 or ’27, making two titles for Winston Holmes’ Kansas City-based Merritt label: “Down Home Syncopated Blues” (a re-arrangement of the “Royal Garden Blues”) and “Merritt Stomp”. Their next, and final, session came in late in 1929, when the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company brought their equipment to Kansas City. For Brunswick, Lee’s orchestra cut four sides, and an additional two accompanying Julia Lee’s singing. Plagued by mediocre management and high member turnover, the Singing Novelty Orchestra disbanded a few years into the Great Depression, and was “raided” by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in 1933. Lee nonetheless continued to play with and sometimes lead ensembles of varying size—including one the featured a young Charlie Parker—until retiring from music in 1941. Relocating to Michigan, he managed a nightclub in Detroit in the 1940s before moving once again to California. George E. Lee died in San Diego on October 2, 1958. His sister Julia Lee, who had achieved considerable success with a series of rhythm and blues recordings for Capitol throughout the 1940s, survived him by only two months.
Brunswick 4684 was recorded around November 6, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Singing Novelty Orchestra consists of George E. Lee directing Sam Utterbach and Harold Knox on trumpets, Jimmy Jones on trombone, Herman Walder on clarinet and alto sax, Clarence Taylor on soprano sax, alto sax, and maybe bass sax, Albert “Bud” Johnson on tenor sax, Jesse Stone on piano, Charles Russo on banjo and guitar, Clint Weaver, on tuba, and Pete Woods on drums.
First, Lee his own self provides the vocals on an outstanding rendition of the timeless “St. James Infirmary”—perhaps one of the finest—capturing the melancholy air of the lyrics which many recordings seem to eschew in favor of hot playing.
On the flip, they put forth an exemplary performance of pianist Jesse Stone’s hot instrumental composition “Ruff Scufflin'”.