25 September 2017

Post 551: THE NEW ORLEANS OWLS 1922 - 1929

The best-known picture of The New Orleans Owls.

In addition to the bands of Sam Morgan and Armand Piron, and The Halfway House Orchestra, another band that made recordings in New Orleans during the 1920s was The New Orleans Owls.

Apparently a group called The Invincibles String Band had been formed in New Orleans in 1912 and it included seven musicians (Johnny Wiggs, Eblen Rau, Benjy White, Rene Gelpi, Monk Smith, Earl Crumb and Mose Ferrar) who went on to form The New Orleans Owls.

Their music was elaborately arranged and sweet rather than raw. But it was very dance-able and impeccable-sounding. Tampeekoe is a good example. You may sample it by clicking here.

The band made about twenty recordings between 1925 and 1927, 13 of them in New Orleans. Several of the tunes were original compositions by members of the band and – while usually having more than one theme – these tunes essentially use 16-bar and 32-bar harmonic structures that have become familiar in so many of the tunes from the 1920s that have always been loved by traditional jazz bands.

The New Orleans Owls flourished between 1922 and 1929, performing for dancers in the hotel ballrooms of New Orleans - notably the Hotel Roosevelt. Though they normally performed as a seven-piece, twenty-two different musicians were members of the band over those years. The most distinguished were perhaps Benjamin White (reeds and leader), Bill Padron (cornet), Frank Netto (trombone), Nappy Lamare (banjo), Dan LeBlanc (tuba), Pinky Vidacovitch (clarinet and sax) and Moses Farrar (piano).

You will find their style fairly sedate - even in such numbers as Blowing Off Steam and Dynamite. Everything is tidy and controlled, just right for elegant ballroom dancing.

Even in Meat on the Table (essentially a Bill Bailey variant), where there is a fair amount of room for improvisation, the emphasis is on charm and neatness rather than adventure. Click here to sample it.

Their music is energetic and lively within a tight, disciplined framework. The tunes are carefully structured, with introductions, modulations and breaks.

This is a band to divide opinions among traditional jazz fans. Some will say their music shows just how traditional jazz should sound; others will say it is not exactly gutsy: it lacks 'rawness' and risk-taking. But we have to remember The New Orleans Owls did not include the word 'Jazz' in their name. Their task was to accompany and please people who, in the 1920s, were elegantly dancing fox-trots. And they did that job supremely well.

22 September 2017


I have often made the point that some of the tunes played by our bands have been transformed since the original composer penned the piano manuscript many decades ago.

What often happened - especially with those tricky early rags - was that the bands distilled the melodies from the pieces and played them more simply. This was mainly because it is not possible on a cornet or trumpet to play the range of notes and the rapid leaping semi-quavers that a pianist's fingers could cover. Also, the rags often included three or four parts, sometimes with a change of key in the final part. But the jazz bands tended to drop at least one of these parts and might have no key change in their version.

The popular Dusty Rag is interesting to examine.

The first performance I heard of Dusty Rag was a recording made in a relaxed manner by Ken Colyer's Jazzmen in about 1959. It was an attractive jaunty piece of music.

I discovered much more recently that Ken had kept very close to the version recorded by Bunk Johnson in 1942. Bunk's band had a stellar line-up:
Bunk Johnson - trumpet
George Lewis - clarinet
Albert Warner - trombone
Lawrence Marrero - banjo
Chester Zardis - bass
Walter Decou - piano
Edgar Mosley - drums

You can listen to Bunk's version on YouTube BY CLICKING HERE.

As you can hear, they play the piece entirely in the key of Eb. After a four-bar Introduction, there is a 16-bar first theme played twice through, and then a second theme (also 16 bars) played several times, always as full ensemble. The entire piece takes about three minutes and ends without a Coda. Here are the chords, as supplied to me by a banjo-playing friend.
You can hear Tuba Skinny in 2014 playing the piece quite briskly and without the four-bar Introduction (or a Coda) if you CLICK HERE. They make the tune last four minutes, with much soloing on Part B. 

More recently, I have seen the original sheet music. It was entirely in the key of C. It too began with a four-bar Introduction, not dissimilar to what the jazz bands play. And it too had a first theme of 16 bars, with a pattern very like the band version, and even including the attractive and distinctive diminished chord arpeggio in Bars 13 and 14. Then comes the second theme of 16 bars, which is very closely followed by Bunk and his imitators. Finally there is another theme of 32 bars, much in the spirit of the earlier themes. No jazz band, as far as I know, plays this third theme. Ever since Bunk, bands have decided that the first two themes give them enough to work on.

Dusty Rag was composed in 1908 by May Aufderheide of Indianapolis. This remarkable lady was only twenty years old at the time. Her proud, wealthy father set up a small music publishing business to sell her sheet music. Dusty Rag became very popular and she went on to compose many more pieces. One of them was Thriller Rag, which is also still played by our bands.

May Aufderheide lived to a good old age. She died in 1972. So she experienced the entire early evolution of jazz from Buddy Bolden until long after the death of Charlie Parker. Amazing to think she was still alive to hear The Beatles'  recordings of A Hard Day's Night and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

She lived through nearly three decades of my own life. How I wish I had had the chance to meet her and talk about those early days, and what she thought of Bunk Johnson's and Ken Colyer's versions of her music.

Here's May Aufderheide's composition. It was orginally called just Dusty, as you can see.
May Aufderheide

19 September 2017


I suppose most of us play Stephen Foster songs from time to time. They are among the oldest tunes in our repertoire. Foster wrote over 200 songs - an amazing output, considering that he died at the age of only 37, and that he was largely self-taught in musical theory and instrument playing.

I am particularly fond of Beautiful Dreamer (1864) and Way Down Upon the Swanee River (1851; also known as Old Folks at Home) and I get to play them quite a lot. It is always a poignant thought that Stephen died only a few days after composing Beautiful Dreamer. He did not live to see it published and probably never heard it played by a professional musician.

Foster's tunes may seem somewhat basic, compared with the rags that were added to our repertoire fifty years later. But I believe they should not be under-estimated. He was absolutely brilliant at producing a good melody within everybody's vocal range and with enough repeated phrases to make it easy to learn. His tunes also used very simple chord progressions that made the tunes a doddle to play in those nineteenth-century homesteads, where families had to make their own entertainment and where everybody aspired to own a piano or harmonium or fiddle or accordion or banjo. Also he tended to write 32-bar tunes, using the a-a-b-a structure (four eight-bar blocks) which was to become the standard in popular songs for decades.

And all those features make his tunes very pleasant and straightforward for us to play. Have you noticed how effectively The Shotgun Jazz Band (with Tyler Thomson singing) has been playing My Old Kentucky Home in recent months?

Here's how the wonderful and generous Lasse Collin has made Beautiful Dreamer available to us on his website[ http://cjam.lassecollin.se/ ]:

You see what I mean about the simple lines of the melody and the exceptionally simple chord sequence? But it is a gem of a tune to play. And audiences still love it.

16 September 2017


Here are the answers to the puzzle set in Post 547.

When You Wore a Tulip
Egyptian Ella
You’re the Cream in My Coffee
Blue Turning Grey Over You
Give Me Your Telephone Number
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
Buddy Bolden’s Blues
I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

Congratulations to everyone who sent in the correct answers, especially the following, whose replies arrived almost instantly!

David Withers (Christchurch, New Zealand)

Chris Rule (Sheffield, England)

Henry Kiel (Hamburg, Germany)

Cleber Guimarães (Brazil)

Pat Patterson (Concord, California)

Susan Enefer (Vancouver, Canada)