Retrieval Records: Treasures Lost and Found
"You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones." Cab Calloway
Those two quotes resonate strongly with the subject matter of this article. Believe it or not, there are many jazz fans out there in the world who really do appreciate and love classic, traditional, "hot" jazz music. Even in the age of digital technology, there are hundreds of blogs out in cyberspace dedicated to early jazz music. So, why is it that when a seasoned jazz fan goes to a website dedicated to jazz music, it's often impossible to find much information on A.J. Piron, Adrian Rollini, Harry Reser, or Fess Williams? Is it simple oversight? Well, more than likely it boils down to a lack of interest by either the journalist or the heads of the site in question. Most would rather just turn a blind eye to this music and report at length about the 80th boxset reissue from trumpeter Miles Davisgreat though Davis isperhaps being re-issued for the 14th time.
This attitude is in contrast to the one prevailing at All About Jazz. The folks at here are truly living up to their name, and blazing forward not only with a new website design, but broader content. By encouraging coverage of this ignored area of the idiom, the site is truly giving a comprehensive view of the entire spectrum of jazz. So, let the record stand that AAJ is the only place in cyberspace where you can find articles on trumpeter Dave Douglas as well as the Georgians.
One of the finest examples of a record label offering some of the most comprehensive sides to artists of long ago is the Retrieval division of Challenge Records. Retrieval Records' disclaimer states that they took over the Fountain catalogue, founded in 1971 by Ron Jewson and Norman Stevens, later joined by John R.T. Davies. It was Davies who is responsible for all of the restorations you hear at Retrieval, even from the very beginning. The label respects the quality and the provenance of the recordings: the listener will find that nothing has been added or omitted. If you think it's difficult to convince websites to cover content on these artists, you can only imagine the difficulty associated with asking a record company to pour money into restoration / remastering projects of hundreds of 78s by artists who are virtually invisible on the musical landscape.
These classic artists are not close to the popularity of a Kanye West, Beyonce or even saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Bill Frisell or Radiohead. This does not mean that their effort and output isn't greatjust merely hidden. Sometimes a purse holder to these companies grew up with classic jazz being played in their house, and they feel a nostalgic need to help fight the good fight. Sometimes the person in charge is a musician and actually knows the degree of importance these artists hold to the entire scope of jazz. Either way, what Retrieval has in their catalog is truly a labor of love, and below is a general overview of just a few of the many wonderful titles that they offer, guaranteed to make you want to sport a fedora and sip on a gin fizz.
Piron's New Orleans Orchestra
Piron's New Orleans Orchestra featuring Lorenzo Tio Jr.
The recordings on this fine collection are from late 1923 to early 1925. A.J. Piron's Orchestra recorded some of the earliest material featuring trumpeter Peter Bocage and drummer Louis Cottrell, and also feature the clarinet of Lorenzo Tio Jr. At age 7, Piron had a hip injury, which left him relatively immobile. It was due to this that Piron attained his savvy organizational and business abilities. He and Clarence Williams even had a joint publishing company that lasted from 1915-1918. A. J. Piron would wind up taking over the Olympia Brass Band in 1912, due to trumpeter Freddie Keppard moving out west to join Bill Johnson. Piron was also a great judge of raw potential and ability. He replaced Keppard with a trumpeter named Joe Oliver, before he was lauded as Joseph "King" Oliver. In 1918, his group held residence at the St. Charles Hotel as well as Tranchina's Restaurant in New Orleans. In 1923, Piron's Orchestra was offered residency and recording contracts in New York City. This was for the OKeh Record Company through a connection with Clarence Williams. Peter Bocage has even commented on this time with Piron as saying he felt that this was the "prime" of his career. After their stint in New York, Piron and the band returned to Tranchina's in New Orleans until 1928. After 1928, Piron went on to lead bands on the S.S. Pelican and the S.S. Capitol. 1942 turned out to be a highlight in Piron's career. He was finally admitted membership to ASCAP on the strength of his best known composition, "Sister Kate," which is still a standard among traditional jazz groups.
Standout tracks: Ghost of the Blues; Bouncing Around; Bright Star Blues; West Indies Blues; New Orleans Wiggle; Mama's Gone Goodbye.
Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks
Harry Reser were a fantastic musical group for their day. They were also known to provide comedy in their numbers. Harry Reser had tremendous technique and solid rhythm on the banjo. Whatever his reasons were, he placed great musicality side by side with comedy, and that was something that the "average joe" could understand and enjoy, and thus sold him and his group a lot of records. Consider Harry Reser and his group the Flight of the Conchords for their day.
Growing up, Reser had perfect pitch and started playing professionally at the age of 16 on piano (so he could be compared with Justin Bieber as well). The 1910s saw the banjo take flight in popularity. A young Harry Reser took up the tenor banjo due to its similarities to violin tuning. He then met Gus Haenschen, who was the manager of the records department of the newly formed Brunswick label. It was through Haenschen that Reser found plenty of work in New York as a studio musician playing with everyone from Ted Lewis to Bessie Smith. This eventually landed Reser a job leading a radio band called the Clicquot Club Eskimos for Clicquot Club Ginger Ale. He maintained this job for 10 years, eventually going to NBC and Columbia. This group is important because the Six Jumping Jacks were actually various members of the Clicquot Club Eskimos.
One of the main featured soloists for the Jumping Jacks was Larry Abbott. Besides playing wonderful clarinet, alto saxophone, and "hot" kazoo solos, he apparently knew how to teleport from coast to coast (please save all "Hey Abbott" jokes until the end). Retrieval even suggests that if indeed there is only one Larry Abbott (and not just another reedman with the same name) then this guy needs to be seriously looked into. Abbott's work is documented to have started in the early 1920s when he was a member of Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Roof Orchestra in California. In May of 1928, Wiedoeft with a number of his band members (including Abbott) were driving from Klamath Falls to Medford, Oregon through vicious weather for a gig. Just outside of Pinehurst, the car swerved and wound up in a ditch. Abbott and Wiedoeft both had serious head injuries, with Wiedoeft also suffering broken ribs and a punctured lung. The circumstances were so bad that Wiedoeft caught pneumonia and died the following day. Four days later, Larry Abbott was named in the Brunswick files in New York as being one of the vocalists on Reser's "Etiquette Blues." This suggests that there are two different Abbotts, but no one knows for sure. Either way it is interesting.
Reser fell out of popularity during the Great Depression in America, only to return in the 1950s as part of the contemporary Dixieland Revival. After a short burst of popularity and work in the 1950s, Reser went to work for New York's Broadway pit orchestras in the 1960s, landing work with many shows including the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof.
Standout tracks: She's Got "It;" Etiquette Blues; I Wonder How I Look When I'm Asleep; She's Got Great Ideas.
The University Six
University Six was a group that featured Adrian Rollini on the Bb bass saxophone. This group was a who's who comprised of members from various other groups including the Little Ramblers and the California Ramblers. Rollini wanted to steer this group towards commercial and financial success and broad popularity. A good example of the light-hearted nature of the group is Bobby Davis (clarinet) doing a fine ukelele imitation on "Give Me a Ukelele." Rollini wanted to use the group also to display his talents on various novelty instruments, like the "goofus" which was a couesnophone (similar to a melodica) and a miniture clarinet that he called his "hot fountain pen." Despite all of the humor, the cold hard truth is that Rollini is one of the most underrated musicians in the entire jazz idiom. His musical brilliance gave influence to saxophonists Harry Carney, Don Redman, and Coleman Hawkins among many others, yet little is written about him.
There's one big reason why the University Six's sides did not achieve the vast commercial success Rollini planned. At the time these sides were cut (1925-1927), the recording industry was being flooded by some of the best new soloists of the time: Louis Armstrong with Clarence Williams, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and Jimmy Dorsey just to name a few.
The only musician in the University Six who could hang in this ultra-modern company would have been Adrian Rollini. In fact, the listener can hear how Rollini is the only one playing with this new sense of "relaxed modernism." This really sticks out like a sore thumb against the antique approach still being played by Roy Johnston (trumpet) and Bobby Davis, who were still immersed in the "hot" style of jazz: their delivery of eighth notes gives evidence to this. Listeners can hear Johnston play Bix Beiderbecke's solo note for note on "Tiger Rag." What's so amazing is that Beiderbecke's record of "Tiger Rag" had not been issued yet. Many musicians just knew how Beiderbecke played it night after night, which is quite a testimony to the sway Beiderbecke's style had over musicians at the time.
By late 1926, the University Six experienced two interesting developments. Rollini started to record on the xylophone, yet another instrument in his arsenal of expressions. Secondly, Chelsea Quealey came in for the trumpet chair. Quealey shared Rollini's enthusiasm for the new style of soloing, and the sides with him alongside Rollini are some of the most smooth and swinging on the entire disc. This vibe is infectious and spreads throughout the entire group as "Lazy Weather" shows Quealey and Davis' homage to Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.
These recordings are only a fraction of various "rambler" combinations. So, if you like what you hear with the University Six, be sure and check out the other groups: California Ramblers, Little Ramblers, the Varsity Eight, Goofus Five, the Vagabonds, or the Golden Gate Orchestra.
Standout tracks: The Camel Walk; In Your Green Hat; Tiger Rag; San; Give Me a Ukelele; She's Got "It;" Lazy Weather; Pastafazoola; Zulu Wail.
Johnny De Droit & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra / The Arcadian Serenaders
The Complete Sets: 1924-1925
This disc is divided into two sections: one part features Johnny De Droit & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (tracks 1-9) and the other is dedicated to the Arcadian Serenaders (tracks 10-23). Retrieval's liner notes for this disc start out with a bold statement saying that all jazz enthusiasts owe a debt of gratitude to the General Phonogragh Corporation (proprietors of the OKeh label) for sending teams of recording experts and talent scouts to remote areas of the United States, besides Chicago and New York. One of the places OKeh went and scored big was New Orleans, Louisiana.
While in New Orleans, the very first band that OKeh signed was that of Johnny De Droit. The reason the label signed De Droit was partly due to his unique muted trumpet stylings. The other draw was the fact that De Droit had an alto saxophone in the band, giving the lineup an overall warmer and richer sound. This led to an engagement in New York City, where it recorded "Eccentric" and "Lucky Kentucky" as well as the smash hit "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street." In fact, let the record state that De Droit either composed or arranged five of the nine tracks on this disc. After its New York stint, the band returned to New Orleans, but unfortunately never recorded again.
While the General Phonograph Corporation was down in New Orleans, another cornet player caught its ear. This was Stirling Bose, who played with the Original Crescent City Jazzers. During 1925-42, Bose and his men were musical nomads. These years saw them move from New Orleans to St. Louis, Kansas City to Chicago and then to New York City.
The group decided to change its name from the Original Crescent City Jazzers to the Arcadian Serenaders in honor of the ballroom they played at in St. Louis. Stirling Bose wound up playing with just about every big name from the swing era: Ben Pollack, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Noble, Bob Crosby, Glenn Miller and even with Benny Goodman while filming in Hollywood.
As far as the overall style of the band, it was a cross combination between the classic New Orleans style and the new sound of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauerthe latter so much, that Cliff Holman's delivery on the alto sax made jazz enthusiasts believe that Frankie Trumbauer himself had come to sit in with them! Bose's style was so similar to Bix Beiderbecke's (not only in sound but also in fluidity and modernity) that he was called to take Beiderbecke's chair in the Jean Goldkette Band after Beiderbecke had left. Interesting note to listeners: the first session under the Arcadian Serenaders' new name actually had Wingy Manone substituting for Bose.
Standout tracks: Eccentric; Lucky Kentucky; Brown Eyes; When My Sugar Walks Down the Street; Sensation Rag; Chrstine; Bobbed Haired Bobbie; You Gotta Know How; Just a Little Bit Bad.
The Georgians 1922-1923
Georgians came about as a result of an offshoot group from Frank Guarente's Orchestra. Guarente's Orchestra was booked at the Hotel Alamac in New York City. The Hotel Alamac had a nightclub labeled as the Congo Room. Guarente picked some of the best players from his orchestra to comprise what we now know as the Georgians. Incidentally, the Georgians produced some of the best jazz in the "pre-Bix" (Bix Beiderbecke) or "pre-Louis" (Louis Armstrong) era.
Arthur Schutt was the band's pianist and his style of piano playing is so different and modern that some jazz enthusiasts call Schutt's style a "pre-echo" of Thelonious Monk's approach. Guarente played trumpet and his style was closely linked to that of King Oliver and Freddie Keppard (who were the best of this respective era). Guarente actually came over to the United States on a boat from Italy and eventually settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While in New Orleans, he was exposed to some of the best jazz and blues around. In fact, Guarente found King Oliver and traded lessons with him. He taught Oliver certain trumpet techniques and how to sight-read, and Oliver taught him how to improvise and hear chords go by. So, as unbelievable as it may sound, if you want to hear the guy who taught King Oliver how to read music, you need to give a listen to the Georgians.
In 1921, Guarente joined Paul Specht's Orchestra. Specht owned a booking agency and placed Guarente in charge of booking European bands into British venues. This area of the agency grew to quite an extent, showing Guarente's promise. In 1922, the Georgians made their recording debut as Specht's Society Syncopators. By its next record, the Georgians were recording for Columbia Records. Unfortunately, one of the policies at Columbia Records was to have someone polish the masters of their catalog. Over time, this polishing rubbed away many of the recorded grooves on the records. Because of this, Retrieval has tried diligently to find the lowest stamper numbers in order to provide the clearest sound available for this disc.
As a group, the Georgians were polished in many areas (all puns intended). They were very effective on up-tempo tunes as well as slow blues and pop tunes for the day. Even the song "Old King Tut" was recorded in response to current eventsHoward Carter and Lord Caernarvon had opened King Tutankhamen's tomb the previous year, starting the entire King Tut craze (some things never change: see Steve Martin). One of the things the Georgians must be given credit for is that it was one of the first bands (black or white) to have well crafted arrangements documenting the spirit and rhythms of jazz. This is large part due to both Arthur Schutt's experimentation and growth and Guarente's technique and power on the trumpet as well as his time spent with King Oliver.
Standout tracks: Learn to Do the Strut; I'm Sitting Pretty in a Pretty Little City; Long Lost Mamma; Old King Tut; Snakes Hips; Chicago (That Toddling Town).
Fess Williams Pre-Victors, The Complete Set: 1925-1927
Stanley "Fess" Williams was not a great jazz clarinetist and saxophonist in his own right, he was smart enough to hire some of the best jazz players to play with him and support his personality on stage. He fell more in the "entertainer" category than the "virtuoso" category. Although his group remained virtually the same, Williams' career can be divided into three distinct periods: recording for Gennett and OKeh in 1925-26 with his small band, recording for Vocalion in 1927 with a slightly larger band, and recording for Victor Records in 1929-30.
Strangely enough, Williams received the nickname "Fess" from actually teaching music and athletics for 4 years. When he returned to the music business, he moved to Chicago for a job that never materialized. Looking for any work, he landed a few gigs playing "breakfast dances" (which typically lasted from 3am8am), working alongside players like Freddie Keppard and King Oliver.
In 1923, Williams was in Richmond, Indiana and witnessed King Oliver make his classic sides for the Gennett label. Williams also co-led a band with trumpet great Tommy Ladnier at the Radio Inn. The year 1925 saw Williams in Brooklyn accepting residence at the Rosemont Ballroom until February 1926. It was also in 1925 that Gennett asked Williams to record for the label. Williams' personality and enthusiasm is evident from his earliest records, and this was one of the reasons he was asked to play at the grand opening of the Savoy Ballroom. Staying at the Savoy for almost two years, Williams shared the bill with many great musicians including King Oliver, Chick Webb, and the Savoy Bearcats.
When Williams started recording for Vocalion, he sounded as if he had acquired a fuller tone and a rounder sound. This was partly due to Vocalion finally agreeing to pay Western Electric their fees. Western electric had a technical system superior to anyone other of the time. The result was a night and day difference in Williams' tone. He no longer had a dry, thin, distorted tone to his clarinet. He sounded as he should have all done along.
By 1927, Williams finally added a tuba for some lower bass foundation, along with another saxophone and another trumpet. This enhanced the fullness of the band, and the best track to hear this difference on is "White Ghost Shivers." By the time Williams records "Gambler's Blues" (aka St. James Infirmary), he had a trombone, four saxophones, piano and tuba. Yet by the time he recorded his next release, he had added enough musicians to start using some of Don Redman's arrangements. Although Williams may not have been a virtuoso, he was good enough to play Redman arrangements and learn enough from them to settle into his own style of arranging, giving the band their own personal sound. As 1929 came around, Williams returned to the Savoy Ballroom and started recording popular sides for Victor Records.
In 1930, Williams turned over all his booking management to NBC (National Broadcasting Company). While NBC found Williams some work, he was growing tired of empty promises and little notoriety. NBC had told him that it was working on having him star in a motion picture that featured radio stars Amos & Andy. For some reason, production of the film was held back, and Williams had had enough, claiming that NBC was using this as a stalling ploy. He demanded to be released, and NBC let him go. Two months later, Check and Double Check went into production with a young bandleader named Duke Ellington in Williams' place.
The remainder of the 1930s found Williams playing with James P. Johnson. During World War II, Williams decided to abandon full-time music and went into real estate. Later on, he would find himself working for the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 office in New York, doing so until he retired in 1964.
Standout tracks: Wimmin---Aah!, Messin Around; High Fever; White Ghost Shivers; Gambler's Blues; Alligator Crawl; Razor Edge.
Spike Hughes Spike Hughes and His Negro OrchestraThe Complete Set: 1933
Spike Hughes was a British composer and music critic with a classical music background who became extremely interested in jazz. In 1928, he started recording small sessions for the British Decca label. Hughes started writing original compositions, and his style demonstrated an extremely heavy Duke Ellington influence.
Hughes decided he wanted to spearhead an all-star group to record a few sides including some of his originals. This group would consist of some of the absolute best jazz musicians of the day: Benny Carter, Dicky Wells, Wilbur DeParis, Coleman Hawkins, Big Sid Catlett, Henry "Red" Allen, Luis Russell, Chu Berry, J.C. Higginbotham and Teddy Wilson.
All of the sides were recorded in 1933. On "Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn," Hughes decided to end the chart with a rather dissonant chord (something highly unusual for its day). Hughes' original "Pastorale" is based on the tones of the pentatonic scale. Some jazz enthusiasts say that Hughes was so enamored with Duke Ellington that his "Arabesque" sounds more like Duke Ellington than Ellington himself. This particular session ends with everyone jamming out on "Sweet SueJust You" in which we actually get to hear Hughes play bass. But this being the first time he played since arriving in the United States, he had to put plaster around his fingers to avoid them being cut to shreds. The other highlight of "Sweet Sue" is Wayman Carver's jazz flute solo. This was far, far away from normalcy in 1933 (you might say Ron Burgundy owes him a debt of gratitude). The recording of "Firebird" could possibly be the only recording of Benny Carter on the soprano saxophone. On "Love, You're Not the One For Me" and "Synthetic Love" the listener can actually hear Benny Carter on vocals. But what is really enticing here are the tracks "Lonesome Nights," "Symphony in Buffs" and "Blue Lou," because they display some of Benny Carter's early arranging skills for a saxophone section.
After the conclusion of these sessions, Spike Hughes retired from recording in the jazz field. Hughes claimed that he had reached his creative and artistic peak. Hughes quietly went back to being a classical music critic, leaving his history and output within the recorded grooves of carved wax for others to speculate upon and enjoy.
Standout tracks: Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn; Pastorale; Arabesque; Sweet SueJust You; Firebird; Swing It; Synthetic Love; Devil's Holiday; Blue Lou.
As a closing note, it's safe to say that if you're interested in accurate, great sounding classic jazz music, Retrieval Records has put a lot of hard work into their catalog, and it has paid off. The sound quality is fantastic and pure joy to listen to.