In hindsight, it seems natural that trumpeter Louis Armstrong's arrival onto the New York jazz scene of the 1920s would put a lot of players out of work. Yet apparently not every New Yorker was waiting for some guy from New Orleans to show them how it's done.
As Mark Berresford's informative liner notes explain, Johnny Dunn was one of the most popular and respected pre-Armstrong trumpeters, performing with W.C. Handy as well as blues singer Mamie Smith, and influencing, among others, trumpeter Bubber Miley (and perhaps by extension the early Ellington band). As these 25 tracks demonstrate, Dunn channeled a small but effective repertoire of licks and telling use of repeated phrases through a penetrating yet rounded tone, illuminated on this release through Frog's typically excellent transfers. He provides a powerful lead over the thick ensemble on "Hallelujah Blues" as well as "Sergeant Dunn's Bugle Call Blues," while his solos on "Hawaiian Blues" and "Dixie Blues" alternate bluesy lyricism with slick double-time. "I Promised Not to Holler But Hey Hey!" preaches to the skies but "Dunn's Cornet Blues" exemplifies his overall controlled (at times borderline cautious) approach.
The bulk of this disc features Dunn dominating his own groups as well as two accompanied cornet features. Four sides with a London show band are more heavily arranged but maintain a peppy beat with room for Dunn's trumpet. He loosens up considerably for five tunes with Jelly Roll Morton, with some especially biting wah-wah work on "You Need Loving," alongside Morton's stately, swinging piano and a rich tuba pumping away underneath. James P. Johnson and Fats Waller appear simultaneously on two sides, yet most of the other names on this disc are even more obscure than Dunn. That's a pity since players like reedman Garvin Bushell and trombonist Herb Flemming provide rousing solo and ensemble work.
As for Dunn's obscurity, when jazz historians have paid Dunn any attention it's mostly focused on the tense rhythm and strong attack evidencing his military background. Those accustomed to looser, digitally recorded jazz may also need a track or two to adjust. Yet these are just stylistic aspects of some very unique and expressive improvisations. Dunn's jazz is still jazz, no matter how much work that kid Armstrong was getting.
Bugle Blues; Birmingham Blues; Hawaiian Blues; Four O'Clock Blues; Hallelujah Blues; Spanish Dreams; Dixie Blues; Sugar Blues; Sweet Lovin' Mama; Vamping Sal the Sheba of Georgia; Jazzin' Babies; I Promised Not to Holler But Hey Hey!; Dunn's Cornet Blues; You've Never Heard the Blues; Silver Rose; Arabella's Wedding Day; Smiling Joe; For Baby and Me; Sergeant Dunn's Bugle Call Blues [Take 1]; Sergeant Dunn's Bugle Call Blues [Take 2]; Ham and Eggs; Buffalo Blues; You Need Some Loving; What's the Use of Being Alone?; Original Bugle Blues.
Johnny Dunn: trumpet, cornet; Jelly Roll Morton: piano (19-23); James P. Johnson: piano (24-25); Fats Waller: piano (24-25).