The hardest part of writing the Gennett discography is the long hours of data entry. My hands are the conduits of transferring the data from a source into the database. My mind can take a holiday during this process, as the excitement and stimulation for it is in the collecting, not the compiling. The longest compiling took place in June, a full two weeks of almost eight hour days spent on one artist and their various incarnations and pseudonym releases.
Mention the name or discuss the history of Gennett Records and the conversation pretty much begins the same. It was the pre-World War Two label that was home to many of the pivotal and influential figures in jazz; in fact some first recorded for this Richmond, Indiana based label. The names will roll of the lips like some mantra recited a hundred times before: Louis Armstrong, Bix Biederbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Jellyroll Morton, Duke Ellington, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Fats Waller to name a few. But if you were to add up all the recordings made by these artists and multiplied that figure by two you still wouldn’t come close to matching Gennett’s most prolific recording artist, Bailey’s Lucky Seven and it’s various alter-ego’s and pseudonyms.
Bailey’s Lucky Seven was a group led by bandleader and music agent, Sam Lanin; no one named Bailey was ever a part of this group and sometimes there were more than seven members at a recording session, so the naming of the group is a mystery. Lanin organized sessions in the New York studio for Gennett and basically used the Original Memphis Five and added an additional cornetist to supplement the ensemble. While most of note was the coronet of Red Nichols, Lanin also used Earl Oliver, Jules Levy, Jr., Henry Gluck, Vic d’ Ippolito, and Hymie Farberman.
Bailey’s Lucky Seven’s sales must have certainly satisfied the executives in Richmond, Indiana, as the group recorded over a hundred sides for Gennett in five years (from October 1921 until late 1926). Yet the group is virtually forgotten or ignored by the annuls of jazz history – not even to dismiss them as irrelevant. Perhaps it is the fact that the group not only was never consistent in its membership and that it treaded a fine line between a pop dance band and a hot jazz band. The simple fact may be that the group never had a solid identity, even though it sold well, to be either hailed or eschewed. However, the material that is available displays a band both capable of hitting upon the pop sound and display various members’ virtuosity or innovative playing. One of the centerpieces of their repertoire was “Nobody Lied,” which was recorded on June 16, 1922. This third take is known to have featured Phil Napoleon on coronet and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards on kazoo. Edwards, though was on of the more in demand vocalists on both stage and record (he won an Oscar for his recording of “When You Wish upon a Star” as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio.”). This song has been beautifully remastered on a three CD boxset Gennett jazz retrospective released by the Starr Gennett Foundation (available at www.starrgennett.org).
The core members of Bailey’s Lucky Seven, The Original Memphis Five, who also recorded many sides for the Gennett label, consisted of Phil Napoleon on coronet, Irving Milfred ‘Miff’ Mole on trombone, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, Frank Signorelli on piano and Jack Roth on drums. The Original Memphis Five were neither from Memphis or even the south; in fact, most members were natives of major east coast urban areas. The name helped the white jazz band sell records to the ‘race’ or black music market. They also in another incarnation that recorded under the name of Ladd’s Black Aces to assist in their appeal and promotion in the race music market; again the name is misleading, as no one named Ladd was in the all-white ensemble. But despite the marketing ploy of their names, the recordings by the Original Memphis Five and Ladd’s Black Aces are among some of the best in the 1920’s era of ‘hot’ jazz.
Phil Napoleon and Frank Signorelli founded the Original Memphis Five after several years of playing in several east coast white dance bands. With the blessing of Nick La Rocca, the initial Napoleon and Signorelli collaborations were released as Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings (www.redhotjazz.com). The Original Dixie Land Jazz Band was the first jazz recording ever released and it was a hit, “Livery Stable Blues,” in 1917, selling over 250,000 recordings in the first year (approximately 5 times the amount the biggest recording star at the time, Enrico Caruso, ever sold!).
In late 1921, the Gennett studio began a series of recordings organized by popular New York bandleader and agent, Sam Lanin. Lanin hired Red Nichols to add an invigorating second coronet line that was becoming the popular sound at the time. Nichols quickly became the most in demand and recorded cornetist in dance music. He, like many of the members of Bailey’s Lucky Seven, was a studied musician. His father, a college music professor, trained Nichols. He was heavily influenced by the proficiency of his instrument and the freedom and vibrancy that jazz offered. He was a compatriot of fellow Gennett recording artist, Bix Biederbecke. While going on to a long and prolific career as both a sideman and leader, his place in jazz history, much like that of Bailey’s Lucky seven, has been long overlooked and dismissed.
Bailey’s other main cornetist was Phil Napoleon, who also was formerly trained. He, too like Nichols and Biederbecke, merged the studied nature of their upbringing and the open ended ness of the genre into a pioneering approach and sound. While his brilliance was probably best displayed in the recordings of the Original Memphis Five, his virtuosity was on full display on such Bailey’s Lucky Seven recordings as “Bee’s Knees” and “Homesick.” Both can be heard on the phenomenal website Red Hot Jazz at www.redhotjazz.com/lucky7.html.
Perhaps the true all-star of the Lucky Seven was trombonist Miff Mole, whose playing is best heard on Gennett’s poor acoustic recording equipment. Mole was a ground breaking and trend setting trombonist in the jazz world because of his ability to both interact with the other members of the ensemble within the composition. He was originally a studied violinist and thus, brought a learned and musical approach to the ensemble. If for no other reason, Mole’s presence on the Bailey’s recordings makes them worth a serious listen. He first recorded the Bailey’s in March of 1923 and appeared on “Wet Yo’ Thumb,” “Everything is KO in KY” and “Carolina Mammy.” He became the mainstay trombonist on almost very side recorded from December 1923 until Bailey’s final Gennett session in February 1926.
Bailey’s Lucky Seven is often dismissed as nothing more than pop society dance band of the early 1920’s. They are never acknowledged as a group of musical vibrancy like fellow Gennett artists King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or as a ensemble that recorded the most popular sides like Benny Goodman’s or Paul Whiteman’s outfits. However, upon further examination, Bailey’s Lucky Seven walks the line between the free-spirited or ‘hot’ sound and the more staid pop music and they simply made excellent records. No collection of their work exists on any compact disc that I know of, but their music as been lovingly compiled on the above mentioned Red Hot Jazz website from the collections of several collectors – so thanks to various copyright laws and questions of ownership, you can listen to them for free. Click this link and go discover a band that has been overlooked for far too long.
Also the Starr Gennett Foundation has been formed to preserve the recordings and history of this label. They have also released a multiple set of CD’s of some of Gennett’s historical jazz recordings.