Back from the Dead
Monk? Like Thelonious, the pianist-leader Frank Melrose was a friend of Jelly Roll Morton, but he had an actual (presumably future) monk in his band: Brother Matthew, a mighty alto saxophonist who’d recorded (as Boyce Brown) only a few times. He also plays tenor here. Brown was on four tracks included for an album, literally—a book of sleeves holding 78rpm discs, one track each side, recorded by US Decca in 1939 to represent older Chicago jazz, as played by men who’d been there at the beginning. Interestingly, they were fairly young; even the men on the album representing New Orleans weren’t that old: Louis Armstrong was just 39 at the time. How far awareness of the history of jazz was distorted by curious false temporal perspectives is a big question.
By 1941, the post-1929 Depression—human misery its major result—was finally being cracked, not least because Britain needed armaments and more to fight Hitler. Frank Melrose got a day job in a factory just as an interest in older music grew, partly due to people finding, listening to, and liking what they heard on old second-hand records, which boded well for a resumption of the musical career he’d had in the late 1920s. More people had money to spend on live gigs, and as well as feeding his family, he could afford to record again, as he hadn’t been during the 1930s, when he did some interesting work. His brothers Walter and Lester were involved in recording, having been connected with Morton in the late 1920s (he also hardly recorded at all through the 1930s), and even with Muddy Waters’ first commercial studio date.
The Kansas City Frank nickname dates from Melrose’s 1920s career. As a formally trained musician once with prospects as a concert violinist, he had come to find jazz more interesting and went walkabout to, among other places, Kansas City, where he kept non-white and very musical company. This CD, identified as being from a date solo and with the band he’d been recording, but with some questions unanswered about the different personnel, demonstrates some things referred to in various online memoirs and discussions of Melrose. The music ranges in style from Morton to something like the jump music (as nobody has said) of Pete Brown, and from the things Melrose does on piano, it becomes clear he played like some folks did in the 1920s not because of any primitive inclinations. Jimmy McPartland, with whom Boyce Brown recorded in 1939, reminisced that when in Chicago in the 1920s he was introduced to Ravel, he’d met his musical idol. Stuff all that business about Moldy Figs, when the Scottish arranger Ken Mathieson lately let me hear samples by his band, sight-read 1950s music sounded well-rehearsed, off pat, but the Morton took a lot of work before it was in the fingers. This is complex, serious music not without fun.
Morton had nearly done more travelling and heard a greater variety of American music than Alan Lomax, and Frank Melrose, on shorter walkabout, but with a strong grasp of harmonic theory, found the Kansas City Frank name useful for recording. It would have been good to know more about what he heard in the city that gave him a non-colour-specific nom de disque: his combination of ability with having the right brothers secured him the modest succession of dates on ‘race’ labels he honored with his musicianship. Bob Koester lists them in his (as ever) exemplary liner note, mentioning also the name of the obscure Black Swan (a jest, since the name Black Swan’s now that of the reissue label which has the other Frank Melrose CD).
By 1940, still holding down his day job arming Britain, Frank was rehearsing the band with Brown, and the cornetist Pete Daily—there’s some amazingly modern swing cornet on the CD—and they went into a studio (Gamble Hinge by name!) to record demo discs and master recordings they hoped would be taken up and issued by one of the independents then starting. Bob Koester mentions the hope that some sides would be issued by the Signature label, founded in 1939 by Bob Thiele, then seventeen, who twenty years on supervised John Coltrane’s dates at Impulse!, and over fifty years on formed a studio band with Ravi Coltrane and Roy Hargrove. After Thiele was drafted into post-Pearl Harbor military service, Signature folded, though the label had issued records Frank played piano on. They were his last. It seems a vehicle had run over him, but Daily noted a fresh facial injury which couldn’t have been accounted for by an auto accident, as well as the out-of-his-way location where the corpse was found, Labor Day 1941. Were city police paid properly then?
Two of Frank’s early solo recordings reissued as part of the 1940 revival of earlier jazz were mis-identified by some hearers as Jelly Roll Morton under a pseudonym. It should seem far-fetched to fancy anybody could conjure so formed and distinctive a style all on his own and out of no tradition. Numerous people played somewhat like Morton—broadly it was an approach to syncopated playing worked up by many pairs of hands—and too few of them recorded, some of course influenced by Morton, and some of these even having begun to play that way independent of him.
On “If You’se a Viper”, Frank shows he could have been a jazz fiddler: playing a violin tuned as a violin, rather than the one here tuned as a viola for earthy effect. The solo piano “Body and Soul” reveals his harmonic sophistication, Ravel, impressionism, and Bix Beiderbecke, whose friend Jess Stacy also comes to mind in some of the playing on this disc and on Frank’s trio performance of “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”, a number Stacy recorded with bass and drums in 1935, for the British market (Depression economics).
Even in the rollicking band number “Sugarfoot Strut”, Melrose’s solo demonstrates an extended harmonic awareness. The socking left hand behind Brown’s individual alto and the flaring Daily on “You Took Advantage of Me” dissolves instantly into a rolling solo which itself heads off for uncommon chords. On “I Got Rhythm”, the alto sounds like Pete Brown, and Daily has surely heard Roy Eldridge. There’s then a tenor saxophone solo, and I do wonder who plays what and where.
The other reedman named is one LeRoy Smith, listed on the higher e-flat clarinet, and Bill Helgart plays tailgate trombone beside the others on “Original Stomp”, a somewhat Mortonian Frank Melrose composition. Is the clarinet always e-flat? Certainly, like the trombonist, Smith isn’t on every title. “The Boy in the Boat” is another extraordinary and fascinating piano solo, but since I don’t have the Melrose CD on the Black Swan label for comparison (a performance of the same is on its track list), I can only say that its surface noise and other sound quality suggests some connection with earlier informal recordings by Melrose on his own. The tune’s credited here to one George Hanna, a 1920s Chicago singer, but is apparently both traditional and very like the not-quite-so-old Fats Waller tune “Squeeze Me”. Jack Daily, who mostly plays acoustic guitar in a chordal style still espoused (2006) by Marty Grosz, plays banjo on “Bluesiana”, the one of the three titles on which June Davis sings which does suggest she has listened to Billie Holiday. Past accounts of her resemblance to Holiday may have exaggerated, although the Holiday in question was rather “Laughin’ at Life” than the later tragic individual.
“Bud’s Blues” is a Dirty Dozens variant with impressive plungered trumpet, a tenor solo, and clarinet. The press-roll drumming through the piano solo, which is obviously Melrose, suggests that Harold “Sleepy” Kaplan had been listening to Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, great New Orleans percussionists. “Rosetta” closes in swinging style, with tenor, a vigorous clarinet style, Daily, wonderful drumming, and a piano contribution very like Jess Stacy. I like this set a lot.