Jazz Oracle: Portal to Antiquity
Standout tracks: The Reverend Is My Man, Just Like You Walked In You Can Walk Out, St. Louis Blues, You Keep Me Always Living in Sin, Shake It and Break It.
Showman, Composer & Clarinetist
Within the jazz idiom, Wilton Crawley is a "novelty act" in the truest sense. Besides playing wonderful jazz clarinet, he could contort his body into numerous shapes, all while playing the clarinet. At the time, this was not considered kitschy, but rather standard fare. King Oliver used to play a novelty number ("Eccentric") in his live acts, but it was never recorded. Freddie Keppard's novelty number was "So This is Venice," Bennie Moten's was "Yazoo Blues." Usually for clarinetists, the novelty consisted of various "gas-pipe" effects. Even a star such as Benny Goodman did his best Ted Lewis imitation on "Shirt Tail Stomp," as well as Jimmy Dorsey on "Tiger Rag" with the Whoopee Makers. There were plenty of black novelty clarinetists besides Crawley. These included Wilbur Sweatman, Ernest Elliott, Bob Fuller, Fess Williams, Jimmy O'Bryant and George McClennon.
Crawley is not as historically invisible as other instrumentalists of the era due to his later recordings with Jelly Roll Morton. After signing with OKeh Records, he hooked up his talents with Harrison Smith, who used to manage Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington (prior to Irving Mills). He worked consistently with pianist Eddie Heywood Sr. and guitarist Eddie Lang.
Allegedly, Crawley never recorded under anyone else's name besides his own. It was even speculated that he put Jelly Roll Morton in his place at a recording session. Although George "Pops" Foster recalls the session saying that Morton was supposed to play the session behind Crawley. Morton went out and recruited the best men he could find (which included Foster), only to find out that Crawley had been drunk the night before the session and had hired Luis Russell on piano and members of his band (which included Foster as well). When both bands showed up for the session, mass confusion broke out and everyone argued for two hours before the first note was played. The union wound up having to pay both of the bands (Foster actually got paid twice). Foster recalls Crawley contorting himself in knots and propelling himself across the floor on one of the tunes, all the while squawking. This made Morton laugh as well as Crawley, and the remainder of the session was finished with a sense of hilarity. Crawley left for England shortly after this session and eventually returned to the States to Maryland.
Crawley toured around Europe and New York, and in 1932 both his father and Eddie Lang passed away, which hit him on a personal level extremely hard. He found both of these losses to be very difficult to deal with and he slowly drifted out of the public eye, becoming more and more reclusive. Crawley died in November of 1967. No exact date is known, nor are any circumstances of death. His last address was listed as 21061 Glen Burnie, Anne Arundel, Maryland. His social security number was 378-16-1813, issued in Michigan. If any readers happen to know any information regarding the death of Wilton Crawley, please respond to Jazz Oracle at http://www.jazzoracle.com.
Standout tracks: Crawley Clarinet Moan, She's Forty With Me, Put a Flavor to Love, Futuristic Blues, Irony Daddy Blues.
Listening to these discs, it's apparent that this music of yesteryear is full of the same stuff people crave today: happiness, romance, heartache, sex, violence, idolatry, coolness, swagger, fashion, nonchalance, etc. Without these artists' contributions, the jazz giants of today would not be quite the same. Consider it a ripple effect. In order to fully comprehend the present or tread forward to the future, homage and respect must be given to the past.