Vocalion 1188 – Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra – 1928

Here are a pair of top jazz sides by Jimmie Noone’s band, taking their name from the Apex Club, a speakeasy in Chicago, where the band played.  Noone’s band was a small group, only a quintet, but they were an exemplary one, and played in a sophisticated style.

Jimmie Noone, a Creole, was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, April 23, 1895 (I share a birthday with him, as a matter of fact), and made his way to New Orleans in 1910, where he played with some of the top jazz men, Keppard, Celestin, Ory, et al.  Later in the decade, like his contemporary, Joe Oliver, he migrated to Chicago, and played with the King after arriving there.  In 1926, he began leading a small band at Chicago’s Apex Club, on the second floor of 330 East 35th Street, and began recording with that band for Vocalion in 1928.  A young Benny Goodman was profoundly influenced by his work on the clarinet.  That arrangement lasted until the club was raided by federal agents in 1930.  Noone continued to perform and record with various star-studded bands of New Orleans jazz men, and became a driving force in the dixieland jazz revival in the early 1940s.  Noone continued performing right up until his death of a heart attack in 1944, at which time he was playing in a band on Orson Welles’ radio program.  In Noone’s honor, Kid Ory composed “Blues for Jimmie” as a tribute to the man, who was remembered as a cordial man and a professional performer.

Vocalion 1188 was recorded in Chicago, June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (misspelled “Noones'” on the label).  The small but outstanding band features the talent of Jimmie Noone on clarinet, Joe Poston on alto sax, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo and guitar, and Johnny Wells on drums.

The first tune is an instrumental, “Forevermore”, showcasing Noone’s distinctive style of clarinet and Hines’ always excellent piano work.

Forevermore

Forevermore, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “Ready for the River”, with a vocal duet by Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston.  Not the cheeriest song ever written, but Noone and his band make a lady out of it.  In the words of hobo and criminal-turned-author Jack Black in his 1926 book You Can’t Win, “ready for the river” describes a state of mind when one is at such a point when life gets so grim that one is inclined to jump in the water with weights tied to their feet and end it all.

Ready for the River

Ready for the River, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

Vocalion 1144 – Jim Jackson – 1927

On of the great blues songsters of yesteryear was Jim Jackson.  With a strong voice and a wide repertoire ranging from blues to popular songs to hokum, he one of the most prominent blues figures of his day.

Jim Jackson was born on a farm in Hernando, Mississippi, twenty miles south of Memphis, most likely in June of 1876, though 1884 and 1890 have also been ventured as possible years.  Sometime around 1905, Jackson began playing, singing, and dancing in medicine shows around the South.  He was later a member of the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and ran the Red Rose Minstrels himself.  By the 1910s, Jackson worked primarily on Memphis, Tenessee, like contemporary Frank Stokes.  His success on Beale Street was enough that he was reportedly residing in the luxurious Peabody Hotel by 1919.  In 1927, store owner and talent broker H.C. Speir secured a contract for Jackson with Vocalion records.  He made his recording debut on October 10, 1927, recording the first two parts of his “Kansas City Blues” series, which were issued as his first record.  In addition to recording for Vocalion, Jackson also worked as a talent scout for the company, notably “discovering” boogie woogie piano man Speckled Red (Rufus Perryman).  As one of Vocalions most popular race artists, the company released a “descriptive novelty” record titled “Jim Jackson’s Jamboree” featuring Tampa Red and Georgia Tom and Speckled Red, and “hosted” by Jackson. Jackson continued to record for Vocalion until 1930, and held several sessions for Victor in 1928.  He supposedly played a bit part in King Vidor’s 1929 film Hallelujah, though it’s unknown what role he played, and indeed if he appeared in the film at all.  Jackson’s last session was held in February of 1930, after which he returned to his home in Mississippi, where he continued to perform.  Jim Jackson died on December 18, 1933.

Vocalion 1144 was recorded in Chicago on October 10, 1927.  Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues” songs were among the most successful and influential blues records of their time, inspiring numerous covers by contemporaries like William Harris and Charley Patton, and latter day artists like Janis Joplin.  Some have cited it as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, though the musical style bears little resemblance.

First, Jackson sings the first of his four part series, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 1″.

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues–Part 1, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.

He concludes the disc with “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2″.  This is the second take of this side (“34” in the runoff), which may be more scarce than the more commonly heard first take.

Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues - Part 2

Jim Jackson’s Kansas City BluesPart 2, recorded October 10, 1927 by Jim Jackson.

Vocalion 03394 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

Look out friends, here’s Leon! Take it away, boys, take it away!

The last thing we heard from ol’ Bob Wills was his famous “New San Antonio Rose” of 1940.  Now, let’s get a little hotter with an early side by the King of Western Swing (and if you ask me, that Spade Cooley never deserved the title).

Following a pair of unissued recordings with his “Wills Fiddle Band” for Vocalion, and a stretch with the Light Crust Doughboys of Burrus Mill, Bob Wills first organized his Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas in 1933.  The next year, they relocated to Oklahoma, where they began a radio program broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.  In September of 1935, Will’s Texas Playboys recorded for the first time in a series of sessions held in Dallas that included “Osage Stomp”, I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as well as four sides with only Wills and guitarist Sleepy Jackon, highlighting his own merits as a fiddler.  They followed up the next September in Chicago, cutting such classics as “Trouble in Mind” and the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Wills built his band around such talents as steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and singer Tommy Duncan, all of whom he helped make famous with his “hollers,” announcing their solo and other quips.  Over the years, Wills developed his Texas Playboys from a fairly small string band into a full-fledged swing orchestra that drew larger crowds than Benny Goodman and both Dorsey brothers’ orchestras.  In the 1940s, the Texas Playboys toured across the states, and eventually settled in California.  Throughout that decade, they made a series of film appearances, and their popularity soared, to the point that they were a national sensation.  During the War, Wills made a number of patriotic records such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima”.  The popularity of the Texas Playboys continued through the postwar era, and into the early 1950s, when they recorded Wills’ famous “Faded Love”.  As 1950 turned to 1955 however, musical trends shifted, and their popularity began to wane.  Nonetheless, the Texas Playboys continued to perform until 1965.  Wills continued his solo career until a stroke in 1969.  Bob Wills and many of the former Texas Playboys were reunited in 1973 at a tribute concert with Merle Haggard.  After the first day of that concert Wills suffered a stroke that led to his death two years later, in 1975.

Vocalion 03394 was recorded in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday the 30 of 1936, just over a year after their first sessions in Dallas, and their first return to the studio since.  The Texas Playboys are made up of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson—who doubles on guitar—on fiddles, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet and saxophone, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto sax, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.  I don’t know why it is, but these “scroll” label Vocalions tend to be some of the most enticing records out there!  Lots o’ great stuff to be found on ’em.

Leon McAulliffe’s famous “Steel Guitar Rag” was derived from blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag” of the previous decade, which he recorded first in 1923, and again in 1927.  Wills’ Texas Playboys heat up on this side a helluva lot more than Weaver ever did, with a healthy dose of hot jazz injected in it.  Becoming one of the Texas Playboys’ best-sellers, the success of “Steel Guitar Rag” made “take it away, Leon” a household phrase in the Depression era South.  That saxophone solo at around a minute-and-a-half in is just sublime!

Steel Guitar Rag

Steel Guitar Rag, recorded September 29, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Next, cut the following day, the Texas Playboys get low-down with a vocal duet between Wills and Tommy Duncan on “Swing Blues No. 1” (yes, there was a “Swing Blues No. 2”, too).

Swing Blues No. 1

Swing Blues No. 1, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 03174 – J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five – 1935

Today’s selections highlights banjo picker J.H. Bragg, who was quite a prolific player in the Texas jazz scene of the 1920s and ’30s, but like many of his contemporaries, has fallen into near total obscurity in the present day.

John Henry Bragg was born in Fort Worth, Texas on August 10, 1898 into a family of musicians.  His father was a medicine show entertainer in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and later taught all of his family to play instruments.  John Bragg learned to play guitar and piano, but later switched to banjo because it could be better heard over a band.  Bragg’s first professional engagement was with the Sadie Smith Jazz Band in Fort Worth around 1918.  He was married to blues singer Ardell “Shelly” Bragg, who recorded several sides for Paramount Records in 1926 and ’27.  In 1927, he went to San Antonio to play in Troy Floyd’s orchestra at the Plaza Hotel (and the Shadowland speakeasy), with whom he remained until the band broke up in the early ’30s.  In his later years, he claimed to have been responsible for introducing Don Albert to Floyd.  In late 1928, Bragg, along with some other members of Floyd’s orchestra, accompanied blues singers Hattie Burleson, Ben Norsingle, Jewell Nelson, and Ollie Ross in a series of sessions held by Brunswick and Columbia in Dallas.  Like his former band mate Don Albert, Bragg formed his own band in the 1930s, his Rhythm Five, though it never found the same notoriety as Albert’s famous swing band.  The Rhythm Five recorded but one session for Vocalion in 1935, which yielded four sides, all of which were issued.  During World War II, Bragg was hired to play at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and he retired in 1968.  In 1980, he was interviewed by Sterlin Holmesly.  John Henry Bragg died on January 1, 1988, and was presumably buried next to his wife Ardell in San Antonio’s Eastview Cemetery, though no date was ever chiseled into his tombstone.

Vocalion 03174 was recorded on August 28, 1935 in San Antonio, Texas, the only session by Bragg’s Rhythm Five.  In the band are Joe Hathaway on alto sax, Al Freeman on piano, John Henry Bragg on banjo, and Walter Warden on string bass.  Israel Wicks sings the vocals.

First, one of more commonly reissued of the four sides waxed by Bragg’s Rhythm Five, “Frisky Honey” was featured on the CD compilation That Devilin’ Tune – A Jazz History (1895-1950).

Frisky Honey

Frisky Honey, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

In their last side cut at the session, they play an energetic rendition of Cow Cow Davenport’s “Mama Don’t Allow” as “Mama Don’t Like Music”, with their “mama don’t allow no [what have you] played in here” verses allowing for ample solos from each musician.  I can’t find that this side has ever been commercially reissued, though I can’t understand why, it’s a fine tune.

Mama Don't Like Music

Mama Don’t Like Music, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

Vocalion 14926 – Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra – 1924

I always say, “good jazz is the best medicine¹.”  Whenever I have an ache or pain, it always helps take the edge off, and when I’m feeling blue, a hot tune will really pep me up!  Few records can do it better than this one, one of the great masterpieces from Louis Armstrong’s period with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra.  With Armstrong in the mix, the band, also consisting of greats like Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and Don Redman, was just about unbeatable.

Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1925. Pictured left to right: Howard Scott, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Dixon, Fletcher Henderson, Kaiser Marshall, Buster Bailey, Elmer Chambers, Charlie Green, Ralph Escudero, and Don Redman. From Jazzmen, 1938, courtesy of Fletcher Henderson.

Vocalion 14926 was recorded October 30, 1924 in New York and pressed in that red shellac.  The always outstanding lineup of Henderson’s orchestra consists of Louis Armstrong, Elmer Chambers, and Howard Scott in the trumpet section, Charlie Green on trombone, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Don Redman on clarinet and alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on clarinet and tenor sax, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Charlie Dixon on banjo, Ralph Escudero on tuba, and Kaiser Marshall on drums.  All band members pictured above play on this record.

“Words” is a fine tune—I have no complaints—but it cannot begin to approach the masterpiece on the other side of the disc.  (I still would recommend listening to this one too, though!)

Words

Words, recorded October 30, 1924 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

Named not for the city in Denmark, but the tobacco in the States, “Copenhagen” is nothing if not a masterpiece.  Probably my all-time favorite Fletcher Henderson recording.  This is a take “B” of two existing takes, and they really get in the groove.  Is this the greatest jazz record of all time?  Maybe, maybe not, but it is up there.  (In fact, I may be crucified by some for it, but I like this one better than the Wolverines recording with Bix Beiderbecke.)

Copenhagen

Copenhagen, recorded October 30, 1924 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.


¹ I am not a medical doctor and therefore not qualified to dispense medical advice.