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Retrieval Records: Treasures Lost and Found

Nathan Holaway By

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"The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago."Louis Armstrong

"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 Davis—great though Davis is—perhaps 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 great—just 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

1926-1930

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

1925-1927

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.

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