An amazing event, this appearance of a recording of a legendary trumpeter revered since boyhood by the great Clark Terry, who was an important element in Terry’s trumpet heritage, and had also employed a very young Miles Davis as a sideman. The recording was possible only because in 1952, as an undergraduate student in St. Louis, Bob Koester, subsequent founder of Delmark records, had been working at his university’s radio station and could borrow a high-grade tape recorder and mike.
And Jackson was there only because the magnificent New Orleans trumpeter Lee Collins had to drop out of the band, presumably with the lung problems (due to a lack of orthodox technical training) which ended his playing career within a couple more years. Jackson took the job presumably because the money was good enough, and he could stay on in his day job as hotel commissionaire. Don Ewell was the leader, and when the band got a bigger gig, Jackson dropped out rather than resign his safe day job.
An outstanding pianist, Ewell had perhaps the most public later career of anybody on this gig. His early love and mastery of Jelly Roll Morton’s music, and then command of the Harlem ‘stride’ style—between which he sometimes alternated, at other times combining them variously with real imagination—makes his name worth knowing by anybody looking for good studio recordings of such music. Buy a Ewell CD! Here, aged 36, he has interesting harmonic ideas, as well as an immense drive. The rhythm section was simply Ewell and the veteran drummer Booker T. Washington, no need of bass or anybody else.
In his notes, Bob Koester recalls something of the careers of the rest of the band: two white youngsters, then in their middle twenties. Sid Dawson, on trombone, had been a more modernist player before he got the job. The clarinetist, Frank Chace, continued to work in traditional jazz, sometimes in fast company. He had a sourish broad tone, far from schooled classical playing, like the venerable Darnell Howard, or St. Louis’s Gene Sedric, Pee Wee Russell, or Norman Mason. Mason later complained that although there was a distinctive St. Louis clarinet style, he’d been forced into a stock, for-tourists approach in bands meeting stock public expectations of so-called “Dixieland”. Listening on record to the metronomic delivery of a 1950s working band he was in, I’m sorry for all of us. Controlled and coarse, it has nothing of this Ewell band’s spontaneity. This is bar-room music, with life and substance.
“That’s a Plenty” is a classic opener, straight in, not with the commonplace trumpet lead, but rather a two-man lead, and Jackson playing really a second part to Chace’s forward clarinet. Ewell plays in Mortonesque manner, combining well with the steady Washington’s drums. Washington can keep things moving forward when Ewell wants to express harmonic breadth, and the pianist can reciprocate by chording behind the drummer’s inspired soloing. They’re a team, but for all the abandon of the playing, the whole band’s a team. There’s a beautiful band build-up to a standard climax, and then a note-perfect surprise ending which elicits audible astonishment from the audience.
On “Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”, Jackson’s solo begins quiet with mute and a little off-mike. Like some softer-voiced old opera singers, and like his New Orleans contemporary Mutt Carey, Jackson the riverboat veteran sometimes achieves heat and bite by pitching slightly off the centre of the note (as the clarinetist here does too). Ewell, on no Steinway, maintains his high standard in solo and support, and Clark Terry would admire the penultimate chorus’s metamorphosing of the tune into “Aloha, Boy”. Lester Bowie might have been impressed, but clearly Jackson’s developed trumpet style wasn’t in line with mainstream developments of the 1930s.
There’s also a two-part trumpet-clarinet lead on “Bugle Call Rag”, a performance whose recording does seem to have lost its end. The surprise is how quietly Jackson plays the first chorus of his solo, before turning the heat up. Ewell leads into a quiet ensemble chorus before Chace delivers a low register clarinet solo informed by listening to Johnny Dodd’s records (though, as has been said, he’s more like the other veteran Darnell Howard, who’s featured on outstanding Ewell trio studio recordings of a bit later).
On “St. James Infirmary”, Jackson widens his tone to sound… actually, like what Louis Armstrong was just beginning to sound like, also filling-out at times to growly-edged, like the also very great Henry ‘Red’ Allen. Jackson quotes a few phrases and flares of Armstrong’s, but the resemblance is on account of only one of several things Jackson did, with overall a very different conception of the instrument. On the other hand, Dawson’s two metres wide trombone is on the model of what Kid Ory had been doing since he was extracted from chicken-farming and featured famously on an Orson Welles radio show ten years before. Ewell’s model for the band might well have been Ory. “Tiger Rag” has, among other things, an accelerando trombone solo with the same broad tone, which Dawson might even have cultivated as a modernist. There were a few experiments in that direction before J.J. Johnson became the man.
On “Tishamingo (sic) Blues”, Jackson does some amazing things with mute, and makes some amazing growls in ensemble, before fitting all manner of sometimes very delicate things into his solo, and in the extended ensemble counterpoint at the end, he demonstrates a St. Louis-style of blues playing preserved in some notable 1920s accompaniments.
Chace is again to the fore in the opening ensemble of “High Society”, and delivers the traditional clarinet choruses in remarkably flowing style, separated by fiery but under-recorded band work. Ewell takes a solo, and then it’s the ensemble again, with Jackson delivering much of the filigree clarinet part on trumpet, before a seriously shaggy ending. With only Washington’s drums, until the horns come in to conclude, Ewell then delivers “Maple Leaf Rag” as his feature. The liveliness of pace can easily be indicated: there are other recordings labelled “Maple Leaf Rag” and of identical duration, in which the succession of themes is played only once.
“The Saints” was already, in 1952, the ultimate chestnut in the repertoire of musicians trying to play in a traditional, New Orleans or Ory sort of style. Ewell and the trombonist made an effort to avoid the hackneyed, with a nice excursion into the minor key, harmonic surprises, and a piano solo with reminiscences of Fats Waller. After a vocal (who?) with band harmonisations and responses, no subtlety attempted, Washington’s drum solo is full of inspired business of a sort normally associated with New Orleans. Jackson doesn’t so much deliver a solo or lead on the overworn theme as string together quotations from all manner of tunes.
It’s unfortunate that “Royal Garden Blues” is somewhat interfered with by chatter, especially given the quality of Jackson’s solo, going high, fizzing with intensity. Ewell plays wonderfully too. While it was really Ewell’s date, Jackson was important enough a musician to deserve a statue. Fortunately, Bob Koester could go one better. Please note the unlikely combination of circumstances, including one unhappy one, without which this musician’s playing would be even more sheerly legendary. All of a sudden, there’s three times more of him to hear.