Various Artists: Now That’s Chicago

Various Artists
Now That's Chicago

A major weakness of this CD is its lack of any discernible serious principle of selection, save maybe as commercial follow-up to the recent movie — the “Chicago” of the title could hardly refer to anything else. Dates of recordings are given, personnels, but not recording location, or locations (plural) since a lot here wasn’t waxed in the Windy City.

What are “Joe Turner and his Memphis Men” doing here? Memphis? Forget the presence also of Missouri Jazz band and indeed the California Ramblers! A so-called review on one retailer’s website seems to think Joe Turner was an actual band boss whose piano chair Duke Ellington filled as a sideman before he became famous. Wrong! Iggerant Tosh, to be precise. The Turner name, out of Tennessee folklore, was here just a nom-de-plume Ellington’s Cotton Club New York band used when recording on the wrong side of an existing contract. A band formerly called the Missourians turns up on this CD too, under the name of their eponymous leader, Cab Calloway, also at the time based at that Cotton Club. The last of 20 tracks, Calloway’s “Farewell Blues” is cited within a supposed narrative outline or programme with which this CD has been provided, a sleevenote some will find offensive and with too much tawdry frisson p(r)ose as:

Came the Depression and the rancid bubble that was Chicago burst … The old wild Chicago of our story died in the early 1930s, expiring in a howl of defiance from the junkyard dog who starved to death … [“Farewell Blues” is supposedly a goodbye to] a city bursting with corruption and venality. If New York, with playboy mayor Jimmy Walker at the helm, was as sleek and immoral as a well-fed cat with the claws well-hidden, Chicago was as tough and feral as a junkyard dog …. high-rollers came in from all parts of the compass … [and] heard musicians, black and white, play the kind of jazz they couldn’t hear in their hometowns …

Why don’t we get to hear more Chicago music here, then, even if , and quite understandably, we don’t want to (as a separate blurb on the box says) “Experience all the glamour, sex and greed through the music of the roaring ’20s” but have more adult reasons for listening to a CD? (And only eight of the twenty titles are in fact from the 1920s!). For glamour, sex, and greed, read period charm! I don’t recommend anybody to read the collation of clichés printed in the insert.

The Chicago big band behind Frankie Jaxon on “Fifteen Cents” (1933) is terrifically good, just what the historians and musicians on the Chicago Jazz Archive website (has anybody asked them?) would like. I’m reminded of Earl Hines bands of the time. Staying in Chicago the little while justified by the contents of this CD, I was also pleased to hear one of the too few recorded piano solos of the sometime Kansas City Frank (Frank Melrose, a white pianist his brothers used to enhance black or then-called “race” ensembles his brothers put in the studio). Melrose was an echt-Chicagoan, along with Art Hodes and Joe Sullivan, his style somewhere between them and out of Jelly Roll Morton. I can’t resist the temptation to call the purported narrative programme to this CD “adolescent” when I read that Melrose represents “aging pianists” in “whorehouses”, since he was barely 30 when “Piano Breakdown” was recorded, and barely 40 when a mugger killed him on Labor Day 1941. In 1920s-30s Chicago, pianists significantly older than he was, not quite “aging”, generally played other music! Clarence Jones was a rare well-recorded example, hardly to be found here.

Another band that (as a “high-roller”) you could, we’re assured, hear in Chicago but not your hometown (though this wouldn’t be true if your hometown was New York) seems to have been [Fletcher] Henderson’s Roseland Orchestra. Unfortunately, and wonderful as is the playing, this track is acoustically lifeless, and a bad choice for this context. Does the amazed reviewer cited above know how good this CD ought to have and could have been? Well, it doesn’t plumb the doolally depths of one bargain CD self-advertised as (and I don’t quote its title) as good/comprehensive a selection of blues recordings as you’ll get — despite its including Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie en Rose”! — but this CD is also a mess.

Of three titles organised by the New Orleans/New York impresario Clarence Williams, one features the singer Sara Martin (twice misnamed “Sarah”! and below her best); another is not the best of several Williams’s recordings of “Papa De Da Da” but has Ward Pinkett’s unique trumpet; the third and wildest is “Chizzlin’ Sam” which pretty well laughs to scorn the already-deplored narrative programme’s statement that it features a “short, succinct and brutal” response to Sam the eponymous gigolo. It is High Hokum, Steve Lacy’s teacher Cecil Scott brilliant and growling on clarinet, Ike Robinson doing things on the banjo the brilliant Bucky Pizzarelli does nowadays on guitar, beside an ocean of piano provided by Willie “the Lion” Smith and Herman Chittison in duo (in 1933 they were pretty nearly the greatest living jazz pianists). Between the solos Eva Taylor parodies the betrayed and Clarence Todd turns in an almost ritual parody of the Harlem Cad and Bounder: magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Chicago!

The weirdest thing is Ukelele Ike’s falsetto scat choruses to his song. Beside Jaxon’s band the nicest surprise is Mannie Klein on trumpet with Rube Bloom, and Bennie Goodman doing even better the sort of thing he deserved to be famous for, on another (here rare) representation of Chicago. I like the jazzless Sophie Tucker as a straight exceptionally good singer, among others below their best (I can’t really judge Ruth Etting) are Ethel Waters, Lee Morse, and Annette Hanshaw. What about Ms. Hanshaw’s recordings with Venuti and Lang?! What about so many Chicagoan and better options not presumably considered? McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans, Jimmy Noone maybe with the young Louis Armstrong and Mae Alix singing? Charles Pierce’s Chicagoans? This CD was hardly aimed at a market of collectors who have the major and long ago reissued items, so why not some of the best things known only to too few? Why not one of the Doc Cook recordings reissued on vinyl in Europe in a series years ago which first brought “Chizzlin’ Sam” to my attention?

I mentioned Messrs. Smith and Chittison two paragraphs back, and it would have been wonderful had anybody recorded these two towering pianists alone together in their 1933 prime. Instead, the ghost of their playing haunts a session of classic hokum. This CD presents a mishmash, ragbag, dogsbreakfast assemblage of 1926-33 recordings by everybody from the great trombonist Benny Morton (with Don Redman in 1932) to the amazingly starchy white New York jazz of Marty Napoleon’s uncle; and even (with Fletcher Henderson) a banjo-player called Clarence Holiday whose daughter had the role of a maid in a gruesome film patronisation named New Orleans — a celebration of some chronic North American vices certainly continuing today. That’s not, surely, what the tag “Legacy” should mean!