LEON “CHU” BERRY
by Loren Schoenberg
“Chu was a big guy and he sometimes wore glasses that hung on the end of his nose. His suits never quite fit him right and he had a way of half-smiling and looking down his nose at you through those glasses. And when he got up on that bandstand and opened up on that horn. Lord.”
“He’s one of the fastest, most inventive and creative minds that has ever been in my band. He doesn’t set his choruses, he continually bobbing up with something he hasn’t done before.”
“What you must realize, John, is that he was so young when he died, we’ll never know just how great he might have become.”
Roy Eldridge (to John Chilton)
“Chu was a genius.”
Coleman Hawkins (to Dan Morgenstern)
Chu Berry died young, and he died before great attention was being paid to jazz musicians, so there is far less data about his early years than there is about the great majority of his contemporaries who lived longer lives. All we have are a handful of contemporary newspaper pieces and the various interviews with and articles written about the people he was associated with. Leon “Chu” Berry was a large man, a Southern man born into a world that offered diminished opportunities for African-Americans and yet here is a collection of his work being issued over six decades after his death early one morning on an Ohio highway. Why? Because Berry mastered an instrument and, through the tenor saxophone, speaks not only to us today but also takes us right back to the 1930s, a time of momentous change in the world and in jazz, which was evolving at an exponential rate. Young musicians had the opportunity to excel as improvisers, expand their technical and musical mastery, AND to be rewarded in a commercial context.
Leon Berry hailed from Wheeling, West Virginia where he was born on September 13, 1908, within a year of his peers Lester Young and Ben Webster. His parents, Brown Berry and Maggie Glasgow Berry, nurtured a musical environment at home; one of Leon’s half-sisters played the piano in a jazz trio, and this is said to have helped spur young Leon’s appetite for music. But it was hearing Coleman Hawkins (who came from a similarly comfortable middle-class background) with Fletcher Henderson’s band in the mid-‘20s, that was the decisive factor in heading Leon towards a career in music. He played alto saxophone in high school, and picked up the tenor saxophone during his years at West Virginia State College in Charleston. He was also a gifted athlete with potential as a professional football player, but music came first. There were tours with various bands (Perry Smith, Fleming Huff and Edward’s Collegians) in his native Ohio Valley area, which led to his first major professional break, a spot in Sammy Stewart’s band. Pianist Stewart had first come to fame in Columbus, Ohio and eventually made a tremendous hit in Chicago in the mid-‘20s. Their forte was sweet music, with an emphasis on semi-classics and an approach that resembled that of Paul Whiteman’s band. Louis Armstrong auditioned for Stewart when he left King Oliver, but thought he wasn’t “dicty” enough for them. Berry joined Stewart in 1929, around the same time as drummer Sidney Catlett which improved the band’s jazz quotient and they soon afterwards went to New York for engagements at the Savoy Ballroom, as well as the Arcadia.
It was at this point that Leon became Chu. As Stewart’s trumpeter Bill Stewart told Columbus jazz historian Arnett Howard, “I know the story how Chu got that name; there used to be an old Chinese musical called Chu-Chin-Chow. Sammy [Stewart], a lot of his success was attributed to his method of getting just virgin material, I mean, for arrangements and things. He’d go to these musicals and steal music. Not steal it, but just we’d get ideas. And this happened, that about four or five of us went down to see this musical. And this leading character, as I said, was Chu-Chin-Chow, and he had these chin whiskers. So then when we took this job, it was several months prior to going to New York. We worked out at the Black Cat Nightclub. We were breaking in this orchestra to go to New York. We’d gotten, in the meantime, gotten a contract to go the Savoy. And so we was looking for a tenor saxophone player. Zack White’s band come through Columbus one time and I was talking to one of the boys in his band, and he said, ‘Well, there’s a little boy down in Charleston. Well, he’s at the Institute, West Virginia. And he can blow, he can blow up a mess. Blow all kinda saxophone. And his name is Leon Berry.’ I immediately went home and wired my brother-in-law, Professor Dan Ferguson, to get me some information on Leon. And Leon was out of Wheeling, but he was attending Institute. He told me about Chu, you know? And so I arranged for Chu to come up and have a trial with us. Chu come up. He come up on the bus. We met him down at the bus station and he brought his baritone. All he had was a baritone saxophone. And when he come, he had been going through the process of initiation, and he had to wear a little old felt top of a hat, felt hat, with holes cut in it. And he had to let his whiskers grow. And something else they required him to do to get in this fraternity. And he had these chin whiskers, just like this old leading character in Chu-Chin-Chow. So immediately, I said, ‘Well, whaddaya say, Chu?’ It’s Chu-Chin-Chow!’ And gradually, the Chin-Chow got cut off, and the Chu stuck. At the Savoy, all the big named musicians would line the walls hoping to play with us. The tenor sax players would desperately try to shoot down Chu, but to no avail, because he'd blow them all away.”
Berry left when Local 802, the New York Musician’s Union, insisted that Stewart replace some of his men with local players. Stints with several bands followed, including Cecil Scott (whose flamboyant saxophone playing may very well have had an influence on Berry), Otto Hardwick, Kaiser Marshall, Walter Pichon, Earl Jackson, and most significantly, with Benny Carter. It was through his association with Carter that Berry made his first recordings, including a series of all-star dates in 1933 under the leadership of Englishman Spike Hughes where he was paired with none other than his idol, Coleman Hawkins.
We get a brief glimpse of the young Berry during his 1935 stint in Teddy Hill’s band and an invaluable picture of the world in which he lived in an excerpt from the prescient Otis Ferguson’s “Breakfast Dance in Harlem”, from The New Republic, February 12, 1936 (including some Chandler-like phoneticization):
The place is uptown, up the one and only Lenox Avenue, and you can dance from nine o'clock Saturday evening right through to eight o'clock Sunday morning. The breakfast dance, and swing it, men. On most nights, even most Saturday nights, there are two bands and the show is over at two or three. But tonight, one night out of every few weeks, breakfast is the limit, there are four bands in all and in short they will be able to serve it up as long as you can take it. If not longer.
It is a respectable place too. No barrelhouse, no basement creep-joint. A ballroom, in fact. Inside, up the wide flight of stairs after you have put up your seventy-five cents, the manager is nice enough and the people are nice enough, and there is no trouble. The long crowded bar at one end of the table space sells only beer (ten cents) and California wine (twenty cents a glass, out of gallon jugs). Some bring their own bottles of hard, but these can weave into the Gents, all in good time, and take care of whatever gets too much for them. There are two Gents, side by side. No trouble.
It is twelve o'clock and you can still get on the floor. The rain. The manager is very sad that people can still get on his floor. There should be more of a jam than on Ladies' Nights; but it drizzles badly and there is not more of a jam.
The hall must be seventy-five yards long by twenty-five wide, the ceiling and lights are low. In the few seconds between numbers, or in the minute when one band takes over from another, the place a rich babble, with "You saids" and "How come womans" and "Ain't that it thoughs." And when the band gets pretty well into it, the whole enclosure, with all its people, beats like a drum and rises in steady time, like a ground swell.
Impossible to see everything at once. The bands; the people drinking, or half-asleep at tables over their beer, or promoting their private bit of business slapstick, romance; the musicians off duty, making horseplay or eating part of their supper with a sort of genial and quiet boisterousness.
"Doggone," says the one they call Choo, sitting like a four-poster, one of the first artists in this country on the tenor saxophone, "doggone, ain't no meat here at all. What that man mean, dishing me out this for charmaine?" Choo says, shoveling it in. And the dance floor is a hopeless intricate mass of flying ankles, swirls, stomps—really beautiful dancing. As dancing, superb. Everybody immensely noisy, sweating, full of spirits. Here today and here tomorrow too.
It is a strange sort of atmosphere. You cannot see everything at once but you can feel everything at once, a sort of unifying outflow of energy, you can almost see it burn. Its focal point is around the stand of rough and well-splintered wood, where the lights are and the music stands, and the bass drum spiked to the floor and the stringbass fixed in a socket and the big pianos with the keyboards worn like flights of old wooden stairs. The single stand, for the two bands, is about sixty feet long, and narrow, down one side of the hall. It is the center of most of the light, but still dim enough. The wall behind it is painted into an extravagant blue background, and by means of trick spotlights thin clouds seem to be drawn across it perpetually, giving the effect of motion and smoke, and the bands play under that, dominating the hall and bearing down on it, inexorable, all steam and iron, like freight trains. On the floor and at the tables and along the bar there are all the people, hundreds of them (fifteen-sixteen hundred on a capacity night maybe); and off toward one corner there is a row of hostesses, two bits for three dances; and there are rose-colored lights let into the ceiling and things going on everywhere. But the real life of the hall is over here on the stand, where the boys are lined up in two rows, stomping away and sweating their brass horns till the floor shakes, where the great moon of the sousaphone bell shines down on the dancers and the beat of guitar-piano-string bass-drum nails all this lavish and terrific energy down to the simple restraints of a time signature. And when Teddy Hill's men begin swinging the last choruses of the specialty number "Christopher Colombo," with those driving brass figures and the reed section going down to give it body, the dancers forget dancing and flock around the stand ten deep, to register the time merely with their bones and muscles, standing there in one place with their heads back and letting it flow over them like water—invitation (and the waltz be damned) to blow the man down. The floor shakes and the place is a dynamo room, with the smoky air pushing up in steady waves, and swing it, men, get off, beat it out and in a word play that thing. It's a music deaf men could hear.
The spirit belongs as much to the place as to any particular music makers. Because this hall has something to it. Shadows maybe. The rafters have echoes of Fletcher Henderson's great swing band, and of Louis (the Reverend Satchelmouth) Armstrong, roaring through his fantastic horn, and of Mr. Ellington, the Duke, the Great Dusky, and of Cab Calloway, leading crazy man, who got his start here, of McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the Chocolate Dandies—and who not. Name a band, the manager says, you just go ahead name a band which I can tell you personally that band played here, including Paul Whiteman. There is something in the air here, a demand to be given something on the part of the people, that shapes matters, so that when a group needs to get really together and tightened up, this is where it books in.
But the spirit of all this is not just an urge to flash-bang-blare and shiver the windows. There are shrewdness and loving care going into this, and many subtleties. Not the usual fuss and gargle about art and the artist's line on warn'fascism. Just so many of the boys apparently playing a job, playing a date, making a record for Victor, a tune for the networks or the dancers—talking about it among themselves with a peculiar reserve and modest dignity. Some of them, the best of them, burn themselves up to keep it strong and unspoiled, finely marked with the obscure beauty of their invention. The best of them would not be Lombardos, Duchins, Vallees, Reismans, even if they had the showmanship, brute luck and gall to do it. Here somehow a good tenor man can make a tone pattern that will have a dancing strength and freshness, the only one of its kind because it is made directly from his own command of an instrument, his own exuberance and sadness. Anything outside of this stern, continually inventive tradition (also to be found, shall we say, in Bach) and above all anything without this drive peculiar to the form, may be effective, tricky, may pay well. But it will be fake. It will lack the element of creation, and be fake. "Some of these tenor men," Choo says, off the stand again, "I see they go copying off Hawkins and them. Shuck. A man never get playing it really good till he putten something into it, you think? A man don't watch out, all he putten in is spit. I don't know, shuck. I work really hard trying to blow it out clean, like I'can be proud of it, but a man playing around every night—shuck, I don't know . . ." Having expressed it without saying it, or anything really, Choo breaks off in embarrassment. "Doggone this man," he says, "about this here nogood charmaine. If I eaten any meat here tonight I'll—"
Berry was just about to join Fletcher Henderson’s band, and these subsequent years are covered in the session notes that follow. Luckily, Berry was interviewed in the September 1941 issue of Music and Rhythm. Although it sounds a tad edited, the content certainly rings true.
One night in late October, 1941, the Calloway band finished a one nighter in Youngstown, Ohio and was heading towards Canada. Berry had been riding with trumpeter Lamar Wright in his new car, and on this occasion they were joined by saxophonist Andy Brown. Their plan was to leave the car in Buffalo and rejoin the band at the border. They left right after the job. As Milt Hinton remembered in Bass Lines: “Our bus pulled out about half an hour later. I was sitting up front, right behind the driver, and we were eating sandwiches and drinking beer. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we slowed down very suddenly and the driver said, ‘Something’s going on out there – looks like an accident.’ We stopped.
I left my seat and went up to the front window. It was pitch black and very difficult to see. There were no street lights and no other cars in sight. A couple of seconds passed, and then a man who I thought looked like Lamar crossed in front of our headlight beams about thirty feet away. I threw open the front door and got out. I saw it was Lamar and he was really shook up. His new car was pointing up in the air on one side of the road. Then I heard Chu’s voice and I quickly found him about ten feet away. He was lying in the road with his skull opened up. I knew it was real bad. He was conscious and kept saying, ‘Find my change. I left my change around. Look for it.’ I actually started looking around for his money. I guess I was in shock too. I found his watch in the middle of the highway, even though the band was still on his wrist. I also came across five or six pieces of his pipe.
I don’t know how much time passed before Eddie Barefield [it’s possible Hinton’s memory failed here – Barefield was in New York at this time leading Ella Fitzgerald’s band – ed.] and I lifted him into the bus. We all drove to a hospital a couple of miles away. I remember waiting around there for hours. Then we finally left. Chu wanted to get up and go with us. He was so out of it that a couple of orderlies had to hold him down. Andy and Lamar had some minor cuts and bruises and a few broken teeth. But they left with us.
We spent most of the day driving to Buffalo and played the dance that night. When we finished Cab got us all together and announced that Chu had died a couple of hours earlier.”
It’s the recordings that bring us as close are we are ever likely to get to this huge talent. Through his music, Berry still lives and breathes.
(a) October 10, 1933
Seventy plus years after this recording session was made, it’s difficult to appreciate how fresh this music was as it flowed out of the musicians and their instruments that fall day in 1933. The rhythmic inflections, the melodies and the idiom itself was virtually being created as each quarter note went by. Think of outstanding recordings from just three years earlier, whether they be Ellington’s ring dem bells, Moten’s professor hot stuff, or Armstrong’s you’re driving me crazy, none had the overarching streamlined swing to be found here. Jazz was evolving at an exponential rate as the country edged towards the nadir of the Depression, and within just a few years what was so new on this Chocolate Dandies sessions became fodder for the next stage of the music’s evolution.
What Whitney Balliett once called “the sound of surprise” permeates the four titles recorded under Benny Carter’s leadership as each player confronts the musical challenge at hand. The stage was set by the leader, who was not only a nonpareil musician but also a man of the highest integrity. Musicians were always honored to be called by the man already known as “The King” because they knew they would be treated with respect and courtesy. That becomes obvious during the first tune they recorded, Carter’s blue interlude, where the first major solo goes to trumpeter Max Kaminsky, known for his wonderful ability to lead an ensemble and for perfect melodic paraphrases, which precisely what he gets to do here. Having decided to record a high-note trumpet feature for himself later in the session, Carter allayed any potential problems by this simple ordering of the tunes that day - if one can make generalizations abut instrumentalists, it’s fair to say that trumpeters are notoriously competitive. It also gave him a chance to warm up his own chops as he probably picked up his horn for some of the backgrounds. blue interlude is a prototypal Carter song with a suave melody supported by a seemingly traditional chord sequence that upon close examination reveals an entirely original way with the conventions of the time. Meticulous in his diction and deportment, Carter was similarly obsessed with the harmony. The moving parts highlighted in the bridge of this song reveal what a difference one note can make in changing something mundane in one context to something sublime in another. A shared attention to and appreciation of detail was undoubtedly one of the things that drew Carter to the young pianist Teddy Wilson, who arrived by train from Chicago the day before, and whose first featured recording session this is. There are a sprinkling of brief solos and introductions on a few tunes recorded with Louis Armstrong in Chicago in the beginning of the year, but these titles were the ones that introduced Wilson to the world. Berry’s first entrance, while not as dramatically staged as the quick dolly up to John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach six years later, similarly announces the arrival of a major, swaggering artist. It may seem to be a small thing but the simple matter of the note with which he starts his eight bar solo reveals an exquisite sensibility; it’s the melody note, the same note as the background and it creates a seamless whole. This is not a one-off coincidence, but a habit Berry had of listening, and being able to react with alacrity, as you’ll hear in subsequent sessions when he does it following the previous soloist at a rapid tempo.
Carter placed Berry in the lead-off position on i never knew and the young saxophonist reveals that he was already capable of making coherent statements and had his own style. Much has been made of the influence Coleman Hawkins had on Berry but even at this early stage it was already being used as fodder for Berry own take on things. There is a fine line when it comes to influence and Berry never crosses it by trying to actually sound like Hawkins; in addition the ebb and flow of Berry’s phrases are more regular. On both the issued take and the alternate Berry enters with a confident break and then charges into his solo (bridge by Kaminsky) in a manner that would become his trademark. Never has there been a more surefooted improviser; on all the solos in this collection he doesn’t falter once. Similarly assured is Teddy Wilson, whose playing is still in thrall to Earl Hines and not as mature as it would be a mere two years later, is already thinking contrapuntally. One of his trademarks, the tenths in his left hand, is already firmly in place. Wilson uses them brilliantly on both takes, but hits a home run on the issued take, when he extends them to march up to the key of the bridge.
Carter plays three bridges – two on the alto, and the last one on trumpet as he warms up for his trumpet feature. O’Brien gets his only solo of the session and spends it paraphrasing the melody. The riffed out chorus is pure Armstrong.
Carter’s once upon a time is not a major piece for Berry – he makes a musical cameo appearance with a slightly overripe bridge that is nonetheless charming for its passion. But it is a milestone for both pianist Wilson and its composer. The piano solo is a perfect melodic construction, and one can only imagine the feeling in the studio that day as the other musicians heard what was clearly the birth of a masterpiece. To make a cinematic analogy, here we have a jazz Henry Fonda. Would that there had been an African-American film star of the era to compare him with, but that throws the focus ever more clearly on what it was that men such as Wilson, Carter and the more acclaimed Duke Ellington represented at the time. They had a cool detachment atop their genius that managed to deflect the great majority of racism they encountered on a daily basis from poisoning their souls. Every note of Wilson’s solo reflects his self-definition, and the memory of it might very well have been a mitigating factor when, almost 39 years later, Carter said to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall that “there’s only one Teddy Wilson.” Then there’s Carter – as Morroe and Edward Berger wrote in Benny Carter, A Life in American Music, “(this) is one of the great Carter trumpet solos; indeed it is one of the greatest trumpet solos in jazz history. The ending shows a pronounced Armstrong influence, with soaring half-valve effects and a pronounced vibrato. The tune, written for this session, is a typical Carter composition: an attractive and deceptively simple melody with interesting chord changes. It is also typical of Carter in another sense: he never recorded it or played it again. It thus joins a long line of Carter melodies which, because they were never plugged, did not attain the popularity they deserved.”
krazy kapers shares its main phrase with the minor keyed montuna of Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm, teetering on the edge of modality, in that the A sections of the tune sit squarely atop a D minor chord; listen for the awkward moments when Teddy Wilson superimposes additional harmonies. What is most fascinating, however, about the piano solo is how much Earl Hines was still audible in Wilson’s playing; indeed, the 1933 Wilson we hear here is not that far away from the 1938 Jess Stacy who played the classic sing, sing, sing solo on Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert. Carter and Kaminsky are mirror images of each other; the alto solo is notable for its grace, harmonic elan and for the slight Trumbauer sound Carter achieves at the beginning of the bridge. It’s Wilson and Berry (given an additional bridge on the ultimate chorus) whose solos leap of the recording, the latter exhibiting the full tone married to a jumping rhythm that it irresistible.
(b) November 24, 1933
This is Bessie Smith’s last recording session and in many ways was an atypical one. There were more horn players and more solos than usual. Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman (not heard in solo on the tunes that feature Berry) had already recorded dozens of classic solos; Frankie Newton was establishing himself as a unique voice on the trumpet and is heard here for the first time after his debut in 1929 with Cecil Scott’s band. It would be more than two years until his reappearance on issued recordings. Berry is the least mature of the soloists in light of his ultimate development. As on the Carter session, he is still under the sway of Coleman Hawkins’s fruity style of the time, though Berry tends to hold notes longer. It’s the shape of Berry’s phrases more than the actual content that impress in solo on do your duty and in obbligato on down in the dumps . Teagarden’s blues-soaked phrasing, Newton’s audacious ideas and use of shakes, and Buck Washington’s piano (he was half of the legendary vaudeville team Buck and Bubbles) command most of our attention. On the latter tune note the reference to Andy Gump, which deserves explication. A main character in America’s first major comic strip, Sidney Smith’s The Gumps, which ran from 1917 to 1959, Andy was a precursor of Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker in his fecklessness, striving and ultimate reliance on his embattled wife, Min. As we listen to Smith sing, making not only that reference but many others, including one to her man’s fore-day creep (the early AM escape of the philanderer), it becomes clear how deep and wide her rhythmic undertow was – no wonder she didn’t need a drummer. During the closing chorus of dump, the horns create a wonderful counterpoint among themselves and to Smith, making a worthy farewell for her – those were her last moments on disc.
(c) February 26, 1935
For a short period in the mid-1930s, Teddy Hill (formerly a tenor saxophonist with Luis Russell) led one of the best Harlem-based bands largely due to the brilliance of his soloists. It was there that Berry and Roy Eldridge first cemented their relationship and earned their reputation as hornmen who relished taking on any and all challengers at the jam sessions which abounded in Harlem. The band didn’t record any “hot” jazz during their short time together in Hill’s band, but that couldn’t hold them back. Although Berry has a solo on (lookie, lookie, lookie) here comes cookie , the performance really belongs to Eldridge, who bursts in with a break after a brief band fanfare. These are his first notes on record (he appeared in a Vitaphone short in 1933), and it’s hard to think of a more brilliant debut on disc. He is given portions of the verse and chorus to play, and it is clear that we are in the presence of a major jazz voice; the long, harmonically searching lines, rapid technique, and deeply human sound are all there (as well as echoes of Armstrong). These were qualities he shared with Berry and are what fired their partnership. Berry’s chorus has a bridge by the outrageous stylist Dicky Wells; this format is repeated on when the robin sings his song again. Trombonist Wells, like Frankie Newton, came to New York with Cecil Scott and his brother Lloyd’s band. Both Berry solos have all the hallmarks of his mature style. By now, all of the rough edges that we heard in 1933 are gone; there seems to be nothing between his brain and his fingers, and his mouth as well, since it’s there that the articulations are made. We also get some of the chromatically glancing asides that will become one of his signature effects. The other solos are by trumpeter Bill Coleman and alto saxophonist Russell Procope.
(d) April 29, 1935
New Orleans’s Henry “Red” Allen, one of the most original and innovative trumpeters to emerge in Armstrong’s wake, presaged much of Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. This is one of his greatest sessions. We do not get its highlight, body and soul, however, due to a lack of Berry, but not to worry. The same brilliance that informed it is manifestly present on the remaining three performances.
rosetta’s opening salvo comes from Allen alone as he launches into a rhythmically elastic melody statement. Berry follows with a chorus that highlights how far he had come since 1933, indeed, even since the last sessions. He was growing in leaps and bounds as the final pieces of his technique came into place. What is most arresting is the compositional unity that he spins so effortlessly. Although he was far more outwardly passionate a player than Lester Young, who had left New York months earlier after a horrendous stint in Fletcher Henderson’s band, Berry shared with Young an almost Dionysian remove from the heat of battle. You can hear him think, but he never falters or seems to overreach, qualities that his mentor Coleman Hawkins (and for that matter, Roy Eldridge) managed to turn into an asset. Dicky Wells is present again, reunited with his former bandleader Cecil Scott, who plays the sometimes gritty clarinet solos; although Scott’s real voice was on the tenor saxophone, his clarinet sounds like no one else. The restrained but swinging drumming is by George Stafford, who had powered Charlie Johnson’s legendary Harlem band in the late 20’s, and who would make only two more sessions after this one. The rest of the rhythm section are all Fletcher Henderson alumni: fellow arranger/composer and brother Horace, guitarist Bernard Addison and bassist John Kirby, then with Chick Webb’s band.
Berry’s surging 32 bars on i’ll never say ‘never again’ again reveal his tubular tone. He played a Conn saxophone, indeed his vintage saxophone is still known to this day as a Chu Berry model, and it sounds less spread, less wide than the Selmer saxophones favored by Hawkins, Webster and most of the other major players of the era. get rhythm in your feet opens with a chorus that highlights the ensemble skills of these players and loosely creates a background behind Allen’s melody statement. These small group record dates were largely shotgun marriages in that they put together players from different bands with little time for rehearsal beyond a cursory rundown to make sure everyone knew the tune. That they bear repeated listening over 70 years later is a testament to the way these musicians listened to each other. That is the prerequisite for ensemble improvisation and is an attribute largely missing from contemporary jazz. Berry again gets the lead solo, which is distinguished by some rolling triplets and a characteristic bridging of the 8-bar segments of the tune. There is something in the chord structure and phrasing in the last 8 bars of his solo that will surface on the classic stealin’ apples with Fletcher Henderson recorded almost a year later.
(e) June 25, 1935
Here it is for the first time on disc: Berry and Eldridge in tandem, the only horns on the date, effortlessly gliding in and out of the performance as though they had been playing together for years. The leader is Putney Dandridge, who had been Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s accompanist, and who was recruited by Vocalion in the wake of Fats Waller’s great success as a pianist/singer/bandleader for Victor. This is a racially integrated date, something still quite rare but with John Hammond’s impetus becoming more common. Bassist Artie Bernstein was a lawyer who turned to a music career (it’s usually the other way around!), and guitarist Nappy Lamare came from New Orleans and stayed with the Ben Pollack band as it was turned over to Bob Crosby. Bill Beason had already recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, and went from Teddy Hill’s band to Don Redman’s, eventually being given the great honor of filling in for the ailing Chick Webb and after his death, taking his place in Ella Fitzgerald’s band. Here he makes the most of a pair of brushes, a snare drum and a cymbal.
chasing shadows is heard in two takes, the second one being the original 78 issue, and it’s just a hair slower and a tad more relaxed. There were precious few jazz musicians in 1935 with the technique and harmonic sophistication that we hear from Berry and Eldridge. But above all, it’s the compositional inevitability of their improvisations that make the music so compelling. You could orchestrate what they played for brass and reeds and you’d have a superlative arrangement. Harry Grey feeds Eldridge some whole notes on the bridge that add to the feeling of contrast with Berry’s opening statements. The muted trumpet obbligatos on both titles (hear the double-time on the first take of shadows) to Dandridge’s vocal are all gems. Dandridge plays piano on when i grow too old to dream and gets a nice, springy, stride-lite feeling going. The Eldridge solo that follows is a primer for melodic paraphrase, and once again shows the lessons he had learned from Armstrong. Berry’s contributions are equally masterly, especially his transitions from playing backgrounds to solo.
(f) October 25, 1935
Mildred Bailey had an innate sensitivity to jazz improvisers and could match their spontaneity and rhythmic sense when challenged. She was never better than when surrounded by first class musicians, and this session marked a distinct evolution in her career. Up until this point, she had been known for her appearances and recordings with Paul Whiteman (she was the first featured female band vocalist) and for a series of recordings with the leading studio/jazz (read white) musicians of the day. Bailey loved black musicians, and was undoubtedly thrilled when Benny Goodman brought her into the studio alongside Coleman Hawkins a year earlier. This date kicked off a series of studio confabs with young black musicians who responded with inspiration to her musicality. Teddy Wilson and Chris Griffin (just 19 at the time) were members of the John Hammond circle, and through him wound up working with Benny Goodman. Dick McDonough was a superlative guitarist who died just a couple of years later; his duets with Carl Kress are among the recorded highlights of the 1930’s. Bernstein is back on the bass. Eddie Dougherty plays very well for a 20 year old, and was unusual in that he drummed almost exclusively in small groups and never with a name band.
i’d love to take orders from you starts with a bit of the bugle call rag before Bailey enters with a call and response chorus with Wilson. Berry’s unleashes a torrent of ideas that never stop and yet cohere. We also hear his mastery of breathing that enabled him to play long seamless phrases; note the one that starts on the second half of his bridge and continues well into the last eight. It’s not that others couldn’t have done it, it’s just that it never occurred to them. It was factors like that, married to his great technique and never ending stream of ideas that made him such a towering figure and role model for young saxophonists, notably the young Charlies Parker and Ventura.
Griffin’s solo on i’d rather listen to your eyes reveals both his admiration for Rex Stewart (he would later record Stewart’s Ellington feature boy meets horn with Goodman) and a youthful attempt at “authenticity” that makes him sounds oddly archaic, leading in my opinion to Berry’s humorous editorial entrance. The rest of the solo is played sotto voce and slightly off-mike, something Berry would reprise on the January 1938 reunion with Bailey. Wilson had the rare ability to transmit from the piano a mood similar to that of the great horn players and we hear Bailey acknowledge this beautiful vibration with a “yeah” as she reprises the call and response that started the tune. It was less than three years before that Wilson had made his recording debut with Louis Armstrong, and you can hear Armstrong throughout the double-time passages at the end of the first eight bars. Bailey’s husband, xylophonist Red Norvo, plays the obbligato to the vocal chorus, leading to solos by Wilson, McDonough, Berry, who floats over the rhythm sections shift into a steady four, and Griffin, who happily sounds less studied here. The sterling transfers made for this collection let us hear the little fills that McDonough adds to Bailey’s second chorus, and also how lightly the band was playing, even at this sprightly tempo.
(g) October 25, 1935
The way that Wilson, Berry and Eldridge gobble up the chord changes throughout this session makes it hard to believe that it was only ten years earlier that Louis Armstrong recorded the first of the Hot Fives. Young musicians such as these had raised the ante exponentially in the ensuing decade resulting in off-hand masterpieces like twenty four hours a day. Berry gets to introduce the tune, with Eldridge taking the bridge. Like Bailey, Billie Holiday’s musicality earned her great respect from the best musicians of the day, and with Armstrong and Bessie Smith as her main influences, Holiday was never more than a stone’s throw from the root of jazz – the blues. Her rhythmic acuity enabled her to slice the beat in the same way that the men on this session did and that remains a rare quality for a jazz vocalist. There’s more Eldridge both muted behind Holiday and open in solo, and Berry takes the bridge of the ever-reliable trombonist Benny Morton’s chorus. It’s a joy to hear how each of the soloists makes the modulation to the submediant at the bridge work for them. Maria Callas once asked a conductor how to gesture with her hands during rehearsals of a Puccini opera. He replied that all she had to do was to listen to the orchestration and that would guide her. In the same way, these musicians let the inherent qualities of the tune (especially the melody) guide their improvisations, a lesson well learned by Monk, Mingus, Marsalis and one always worth revisiting. One of the more subtle qualities that distinguished Wilson’s record dates of the era (and Fats Waller’s for that matter) was his care in creating arrangements for the rhythm section to play, improving the frequently pedestrian chord changes given on the sheet music and lending the music an air of organization. This gives the soloists something specific to work with and it’s all done so naturally that it usually goes without being noticed. A fine arranger, Wilson more than likely put together the minimal but effective horn arrangements as well.
There’s a lot going on behind Holiday’s vocal on yankee doodle never went to town but it never gets in the way, due to the sophisticated balancing done by the engineers and the way that the musicians listen, never colliding with Holiday. Brief solos by Berry, Morton, Wilson and Eldridge follow, leading to another jam out and a catchy riff of Berry’s that a few months later will turn into a huge commercial success. eeney meeney miney mo (how’s that for a title?) seems to start in media res, with Berry’s whirling dervish figures flying around Eldridge’s melody and Morton’s tailgate lines. There’s more change-gobbling by Wilson, Eldridge and Berry as they handle the fast tempo like it was nothing. Listen for the brief but tantalizing moments early in his second eight and again early in the bridge where Berry works his way “outside” the harmonies. Eldridge always averred that both he and Berry experimented with all sorts of devices (frequently along with their preferred pianist Clyde Hart) that later became part and parcel of the avant-garde jazz of the 60’s. The stop on a dime ending comes off without a hitch. Although he stays in the background throughout the session, the guitarist Dave Barbour (later inspiration, husband and musical director for Peggy Lee) meshes smoothly with the rest of the rhythm section.
Wilson had already recorded the first Benny Goodman trio sides in July 1935, but he was not working steadily with Goodman at this time, and made an audition as a bandleader at New York’s French Casino with a group including Eldridge and Berry. The latter even left Teddy Hill’s band when it looked as though the job was coming through. It didn’t, and this eventually led both of them to chairs in Fletcher Henderson’s newly revitalized band. Others that joined were alumni John Kirby and Buster Bailey. Red Allen was also rumored to be coming back, but that didn’t happen. So you see that most of the musicians we are hearing on these dates were members of a musical elite; they all knew each other and the music sounds like it. In his indispensable bio/discography Hendersonia: The Music of Fletcher Henderson and his Musicians, Walter Allen wrote that there was a rumor that Duke Ellington was interested in hiring Berry at this time.
(h) February 29, 1936
To hear “the sound of surprise” you need go no further than this recording session held in Chicago on February 29 during the Leap Year 1936. Benny Goodman’s band was in the middle of a tremendously successful engagement at the Congress Hotel, and Goodman had helped Henderson land a plumb gig at the Grand Terrace, replacing Earl Hines, whose band was vacating its home base for a tour. There had been a wonderful opening night party, with the entire Goodman and Hines bands in attendance, along with actress Louise Beavers, English band leader Jack Hylton and Art Tatum. Berry’s little closing riff heard on yankee doodle never went to town had morphed into christopher columbus and was starting a groundswell of popularity for the Henderson band. Gene Krupa’s eye-catching showmanship and swinging style was making him a star sideman with the Goodman band, and during the winter of 1935-36 he began recording as a leader. The first session was done in November 1935 with a Dixielandish slant and featured Israel Crosby on bass, a 16 year old already gaining attention on an instrument which had very little if any presence in the minds of most music fans. This session was decidedly modern, and Krupa called in not only Crosby but Eldridge and Berry, now in town with Henderson. Both pianist Jess Stacy and guitarist Allan Reuss were in the Goodman band, and the latter’s work in tandem with Crosby is a revelation. Too many times the evolution of the jazz rhythm section is reduced to Basie to Blanton to bebop (if you’ll excuse the term). The high level of blend and spontaneity that the guitar and bass achieve on these sides is a landmark in jazz – they make it sound like one instrument is playing. The mastery of definition, length and choice of notes that Crosby brings to bear was unheard of in 1936. What sounds commonplace now was anything but. You can hear the musicians think all throughout this session, which only happens when the music is truly spontaneous. Small wonder that Berry told Duane Woodruff in the May 1941 issue of Music and Rhythm, “It’s the greatest record date on which I ever played. It was great too to perform with men like Krupa, Benny Goodman and Roy Eldridge.”
i hope gabriel likes my music is taken at a good clip, and it’s a treat to hear the soloists deal with its odd form, the last eight bars being extended to twelve. There is also a lovely thing effect during each bridge where we hear the soloist create patterns meant to contrast with what they have been doing during the preceding 16 bars, buoyed by the rhythm section. Then there is the headlong assault into the aforementioned extended last A section. Krupa’s restraint is pleasing as is his exciting switch back to the hi-hat cymbals for the last ensemble chorus. Goodman also was on his best behavior. Like Sidney Bechet, he was used to playing the lead and could make life hell for a trumpeter. Here he subjugates himself to Eldridge and the results are electric.
Berry starts mutiny in the parlor with a lovely four-bar intro, making way for Eldridge’s melody statement, and then falls into an easy repartee with Goodman, who also excelled at ensemble playing. Most composers would be hard put to come up with something as perfect as these three create during the opening chorus. The magic continues during the fifth measure of the bridge when Goodman and Berry wind up playing the same phrase in the same register, only to be followed a split second later by Eldridge’s echo – this must have brought huge grins and that rare feeling when an artist knows that the stars are perfectly aligned. They also glide right into a modulation for vocalist Helen Ward’s chorus. She was one of the most relaxed singers of the era and is right at home with the heavy jazz feeling of this session. As on the Holiday session, there is a lot going on behind the vocal (Stacy, Eldridge and Berry all playing) but somehow it doesn’t feel cramped. The Eldridge solo that follows is unique in his canon with its Rex Stewart-esque (an early favorite of his) half-valves and eccentric buzz mute sound. Equally thrilling is Berry’s ultra-relaxed bridge. He has come out the other end of the Hawkins influence and become truly his own man. Berry has now arrived as one of the best tenor men in the world and he can trumpet it with a whisper. The last eight bars is nailed perfectly by Krupa’s crashing after-beat cymbals and Goodman’s totally unexpected little fill, answered by a perfectly in tune low Db (a notoriously hard note to play in tune on the bass, especially back then) from Crosby.
Armstrong’s savoy blues provided the introduction to i’m gonna clap my hands, after all it was recorded in the same town only nine years earlier. It gets a jammed opening chorus before another sudden modulation to Ward’s key, backed this time only (!) by Stacy and Berry, though bassist Crosby also attracts attention with some wonderful pedal point during the bridge and some accented notes. Eldridge’s solo is delivered in the same vein as the previous tune, but this time there is a call and response with Berry and Goodman that really puts them on their mettle to match his phrases note for note; they make it through with only a few scrapes. It’s during the Goodman solo that follows that the beautiful work of Reuss and Crosby can be heard (again, credit to Krupa for not only staying out of the way, but changing to a cymbal to highlight the strings), replete with little special pops and strums that would be lost if the transfers were not so transparent. Eldridge picks up on Goodman’s last note and they’re off to the races with a closing ensemble that is as perfect as any jammed jazz has ever been
(i) March 27, 1936
Back in the 1960’s, John Hammond titled a Fletcher Henderson reissue A Study in Frustration and the story of christopher columbus provides a good example of what he must have meant. After years of struggling to keep his band together through the dog years of the Depression, Henderson’s work for Benny Goodman had brought him back to prominence. He put together a crack band, opened at the Grand Terrace, and had a hot tune that was attracting a lot of attention on the air. How had he been beaten to the punch in getting it on disc not just by Goodman, but also by Andy Kirk, Roy Eldridge (his first session as leader that was unissued at the time), Joe Haymes, and Bob Crosby, just to name a few? The story was told by Allen in Hendersonia: “Reportedly based on a bawdy song, cristofo colombo, in the instrumental form it had been built around a riff played by Chu Berry. Horace Henderson wrote a tune around it (Jimmie Lunceford later claimed that one of HIS men used to fool around with this riff, and as a result he sued the song’s publisher), and Claude Hopkins first played it in public. Horace gave his arrangement of it to Fletcher, who used it as a signature number when he was booked into the Grand Terrace; later, it was to become his official ‘theme song’. Publisher Joe Davis heard it over the air, and contacted Fletcher, who in turn assigned it to Horace to write a stock for public sale. Horace did just that, using the same arrangement as was used by his brother’s band, and put down his own and Chu Berry’s names as composers. Joe Davis published it, but added lyrics (credited to Andy Razaf), listed Chu Berry as the only composer, and listed Larry Clinton (!) as arranger! Chu got $300, Fletcher got $100, but poor Horace got NOTHING – not even a line of credit or recognition!” Due to these business shenanigans and his own lassitude, Henderson failed to exploit this opportunity and the band soon devolved back to where it had been – nowhere. But that was all in the future when these 1936 sessions were made, and christopher columbus remains one of the band’s most dynamic recordings for all its informality. This is the result of the brilliant solo work by both Eldridge (listen for the modal inferences) and Berry with shorter spots for clarinetist Buster Bailey and trombonist Ed Cuffee. The rhythm section is now in the hands of one of the music’s greatest drummers, Sid Catlett, who is way in the background but whose beat can still be felt. Berry’s solo is the first one to contain the roots of his “jump” style which used repeated notes and an urgent way of phrasing that was quite exciting. The last eight bars of his solo starts with a phrase that we have come to associate with Lester Young, who had yet to make his first recording. It sounds as though Eldridge is leading the brass section throughout and the out-choruses have many of the riffs and phrases we’ve heard from him on the previous recordings.
grand terrace swing later issued as big chief de sota was written by the band’s other trombonist, Fernando Arbello, as a slight riff piece with outstanding solos by Eldridge, Berry, a short one by Bailey (hear Fletcher’s odd signature open fifths in the bass) and 16 bars by the leader in what Ethel Waters used to call his “B.C. style”.
Both blue lou and stealin’ apples are bona fide masterpieces, again due to the indelible statements by Eldridge and Berry. Other solos are by Bailey, Cuffee and the leader. On the first, Catlett makes some cymbal splashes that are reminiscent of Henderson’s great drummer Walter Johnson, known for his ability to swing the band without ever breaking a sweat. The tempo goes up slightly, but it feels good and that’s what counts. The band breaks into what sounds like a different tune which Horace Henderson later used as a tag to his 1940 version of coquette. apples, written by Fats Waller, sounds just like one of his piano solos. Here it is presented as a jam in the key of D major with Eldridge and Berry contributing truly caloric improvisations that are masterpieces of logical construction. When they enter, the music moves to another dimension; it’s no longer an old dance band recording but a piece of enduring art.