Johnny Maddox: Dixieland Blues

Robert R. Calder

Gutsy stuff, lively and swinging, men who did it 75 years ago did it again 25 years later, jazz of 1929 with novelty ragtime interludes.

Johnny Maddox

Dixieland Blues

Label: Crazy Otto Music
US Release Date: 2005-04-12
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Dixieland is a much misused word, generally misapplied to pre-modern jazz. It belongs to the sub-vocabulary of mass media but can crop up in such otherwise highly intelligent contexts as a letter I recall from the New York Review of Books, which made one of many sound complaints about the films called Jazz in which Ken Burns wasted time, money, and opportunity consulting inappropriate and ignorant persons (same fault as the Eastwood-Scorsese debacles on piano and blues). According to the wise letter-writer Albert Ammons played Dixieland. Not on record, mate! Dixieland becomes a quick option to slap on music for which there are other musically descriptive options of vocabulary. Dixieland means something else if it means anything at all: properly speaking something which emerged after 1930 and can be represented by the music of Bob Crosby's bands, a fundamentally European-American music employing counterpoint and not close to blues.

Fifty years ago, when the musical curiosity presently under review was produced, Dixieland was a shallow commodity name. There are references here to the music on this disc as not only Dixie but "turn of the century", a fearful piece of nonsense repeated to the echo 50 years later in the choice of Wynton Marsalis's Jelly Roll Morton music as soundtrack to the new Ken Burns film on Jack Johnson.

Turn of the 20th century music was very different; it was ragtime and probably not like what Johnny Maddox plays. It was liable to have been more European, with rather less oomph than the sort of stuff Maddox muddled together as a sort of pop pianist concerned more with public taste than Scott Joplin's dreams. Ragtime was an element in his music, late ragtime on the verge of being consigned to a ragbag mixture which people still liked in the jolly 1950s, when this sort of stuff killed some people's potential interest in ragtime pretty decisively.

The present set tells me almost nothing about Maddox's abilities as a ragtime pianist. He can swing and stomp in late ragtime manner -- witness a video clip available to watch here on computer. Otherwise his appearances are restricted to entries in choruses of written-out piano-playing, passages of pastiche ragtime or supercharged Zez Confrey sort such as burst out amid performances of 1920s neo-jazz bands. It might even have begun as imitation player-piano. I inherited an elderly 78rpm shellac Paul Whiteman disc from then which has just such an interlude, a recent historical pastiche. It's that sort of 1920s more or less jazz with bursts of quasi-ragtime which is presented here, and very good it is of its kind.

The blurb hype about a veritable who's who of jazz here can be forgotten; nobody gets stretched to any extent and great players would have been wasted. Nonetheless, Mannie Klein was a very good trumpeter and maybe the major recommendation of this set, for his big sound and drive. Neither he nor the very good clarinettist (and arranger of several items) Matty Matlock gets much more than a half-chorus solo time on anything. They did have rather longer solos even on three-minute shellac discs decades earlier. Klein's big hot sound comes pretty close to what was recorded by the best non-white New York trumpeter of the earlier 1920s, Johnny Dunn. Nappy Lamare on guitar and banjo also belongs to the born-before-1909 generation, and does well. Born only before 1920, the drummer Nick Fatool and the great bassist and occasional tuba virtuoso (who here plays tuba throughout) Red Callender (teacher of Charles Mingus, bassist on Art Tatum's final date, etc.) do limit claims that this music is strictly a recreation of 1920s music with inserted pastiches of an older music. No white band of the 1920s swung the way these guys swing this group, and for swing regardless of period these guys manage marvellously. If Callender had been born in 1907 rather than 1918 he could not of course have been a regular member of a 1920s white band.

The 1950s hype reprinted here talks about "blues" to no purpose whatever. Another commendation of this set is its serious repertoire, choice thanks to Mr. Maddox it seems. Most of the tunes called "...blues" are called blues because there was a fashion for calling tunes this or that blues whether they were any sort of blues or not. Another much misused term, brought to the public with all the imprecision American music-marketing has long been hooked or hacked on. You could regard as a sort of send-up the renaming here as "Friday Night Blues" of a tune earlier recorded by Maddox as "Friday Night Stomp" (and initially based on an original with the word "rag" in its title).

This is a straight transfer, the music's playing time isn't generous, but there is a video clip of Maddox, grey-haired and playing solo the rollick and rinkydink mom and pappy of middle America 1955 are warmed by. It's OK.

The arrangements by Matlock and Beasley Smith are good, and played about as well as possible. In the booklet and as pages accessible on computer along with the video clip there are efficient notes on the tunes recorded here and on their composers. Maddox has it seems a huge collection of sheet music, and presumably from that come the reproductions of front covers of sheet music whose comedy the passing years have enhanced. "Bow Wow Blues" does not, say the notes, have the dog barking noise of the original 1920s recording. Some things did get better. Nice key change for the solo bits from Klein and Matlock.

The music's not quite what it's said to be, but it's honest and cheering stuff, not without substance.


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