A Sweetie By Jean Goldkette – A Sample From The Jazz Age

Today is the day we probe your tolerance for something really old.  In many ways, jazz from the 1920’s has fallen down a memory hole, at least as far as mainstream jazz listeners are concerned.  Which is too bad because there is some good listening there.  There is also a lot (and I mean a lot) of bad listening too, but it is your good fortune that I have slogged through the deep muck of mediocre music and come back with a gem for you to enjoy.  Besides, my daughter assures me that the ’20s are cool now.

First, let’s consider that by 1927 recorded jazz was only about a decade old.  The musical form that got started in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the century had grown up, or at least hit a kind of adolescence.  Jazz was the hot thing and the youth of America was lapping it up at college dances and on Victrolas everywhere.  Older musicians couldn’t stand it.  John Phillips Sousa (who was still writing and recording new marches in 1927) once said that most jazz was so bad it made you want to bite your grandmother.

I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now is not one of those.  At least to those who would not dismiss the entire genre as junk.  What makes it special?  It’s . . . just everything?

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First, who was Jean Goldkette?  A very good question that even many jazz fans might not be able to answer.  He was born in either France or Greece (depending on whom you want to believe) to an unmarried circus performer and proved to be a prodigy at the piano.  He came to the US at about age 18 and found himself in the middle of a growing jazz culture in the midwest.  By the early 1920s he had become the leader of what was probably the best white jazz band of that segregated era.

Goldkette himself is not the reason this band was remembered.  Instead it was the remarkable batch of young talent that he put on the payroll for the band that got the backing of Victor Records (yes, the one with “His Master’s Voice” on the label.”)  The roster of the Goldkette band was a veritable who’s who of players who were household names among young jazz fans.

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 A photo showing the core players.  Round Center: Jean Goldkette; Row 1: Stanley “Doc” Ryker (saxophone), Steve Brown (string bass & tuba); Row 2: Howard Quicksell (banjo), William “Bill” Rank (trombone); Row 3: Unknown, Leon “Bix” Beiderbeck (cornet), Frank Trumbauer (saxophone), Newell Wilcox (trombone); Row 4: Ray Ludwig (trumpet), Donald Murray (saxophone & clarinet), Fred Farrar (trumpet), Chauncey Moorehouse (drums)

Perhaps the biggest reason he is remembered was the saxophone and cornet duo of Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke (shown right under the leader in the photo above).  Trumbauer was regarded (then and now) as the best white saxophonest of his generation and a guy who was probably the biggest early influence on Lester Young, one of the very best of the generation that followed.  Beiderbecke was a musical prodigy who could barely read music but who could play absolutely anything after hearing it once.  His inimitable style on the cornet (a warmer, more mellow cousin to the trumpet) set the mold for a generation.

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One other note we should touch on is the recording technology of the day.  Early records were recorded acoustically – that is by musicians playing around a big metal horn that transmitted the sounds into the needle that cut the master disc.  By around 1925 the modern electrical recording process took over, one that vastly improved the quality and range of the sound that the master disc could capture.  If you spend any time listening to jazz from the ’20s you will be able to tell immediately how it was recorded.  Records like this, an electrical recording from one of the big two record labels (Columbia was the other), clean up amazingly well with modern technology.  Remember that Ford Motor Company was still selling Model Ts in 1927 and that Calvin Coolidge was President.

The tune itself is a forgettable throwaway from the peak of Tin Pan Alley.  It was recorded by innumerable groups but this is the only one I have ever actually heard.  Because it is a pure instrumental, we are spared the generally awful quality of vocals from that time.  The arrangement was written by Bill Challis, a top flight arranger of the era.

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First, this record shows youthful bluster and enthusiasm at its best, but unlike the typical  band of the day that had little besides that youthful enthusiasm going for it, these guys were a highly talented bunch.  This was the band that bested the great Fletcher Henderson in a battle of the bands in New York in late 1926 and this record helps us moderns to understand how a band of white boys (who had not long earlier been thought to be genetically unable to play jazz) could stand toe to toe with the best there was.

The second thing to understand is that this band was at the very beginning of trying to figure out the template of what a big jazz aggregation should look like.  For example, most bass work had been done by a tuba in the early days, mostly because it recorded better with the accoustic technology and because that’s how they had done it from the start.  Although this record begins and ends with a conventional tuba handling the bass part, the use of an upright string bass is unmistakable in the middle part of this record.  And, might I add, the bass playing of Steve Brown just sparkles.

Note also the percussion.  This era (and this band) did not rely on a heavy drum beat.  If there was a steady drumbeat it was well hidden below all of the other stuff going on.  What you notice is the cymbal – not the rhythmic continuity of the swing era but these little random bits of punctuation that fill empty space and somehow also manage to drive things along in their own mysterious way.  The banjo (another obsolete jazz instrument) does most of the work for keeping time.

Frank Trumbauer’s C-melody saxophone (another extinct instrument that plays higher than a tenor sax but lower than an alto) is featured in the first extended solo.  Bill Rank’s trombone takes the next one followed by Jimmy Dorsey on the baritone sax.  And then comes that violin.

I have written before about the early days of swing.  This record is evidence that well before the onset of “the swing era” musicians were capable of breaking into a swing beat for short stretches.  Just listen to Joe Venuti’s violin solo accented by Steve Brown’s string bass (interrupted by a bit of Newell Wilcox’s trombone) and tell me that those guys couldn’t swing.

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The thing moves on with Jimmy Dorsey taking a second tour, but this time on the clarinet and finishes out with a final chorus that has Dorsey’s clarinet playing around in the background and led by the crisp cornet of Beiderbecke.

Speaking of obsolete styles, one little flourish common in the ’20s is the unique way in which they transitioned between the choruses.  There are two of these, which involve a few measures of fast chord changes (and maybe a quick key change or two) that almost served to give the listener a deep breath before diving into the next sustained part of the song.  This is just so ’20s and I love it.

The Goldkette band, popular as it was, was a high-overhead outfit that ran into financial trouble not long after this 1927 recording.  Most of the top players were hired by Paul Whiteman, another big name in 1920s popular music.  Goldkette himself would later manage other bands like the great McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (another of the best black bands of the late ’20s) before finishing his career as an entertainment booking agent.  Frank Trumbauer would go on to a life as a session musician in Hollywood until his 1956 death.  Sadly, the greatest talent of them all, Bix Beiderbecke, died at just 28, a victim of his years of uncontrollable alcoholism.  Somehow Bix is not featured at all on this record, something which we may need to address here at some time in the future.

One truism of listening to jazz is that playing styles are in a constant state of flux.  One group of guys plays.  The next generation listens and incorporates that influence into their own, more modern styles.  This goes on and on through the decades and is a good thing where players continuously develop new and interesting ways to make the music.  But the flip side is that once the styles have moved on, it is almost impossible to recreate an obsolete style of playing, particularly in solos that are composed in the moment.  Some have done it, but it is hard work and the results are uneven.  Even the best modern musicians cannot unhear what they have been listening to their whole lives.  This is why I generally dislike “nostalgia bands” that go back and play jazz from an earlier era in an attempt to recreate the original feel.  It can’t really be done.

This is what I like about these really old records.  We get to step back into a time capsule and listen to the way pre-swing-era jazz was really played by pre-swing-era players.  These were just young kids who were as into their new form of popular music as Elvis Costello or Kurt Cobain were in their respective eras.  This music was once new and fresh and pumping with vitality.  It was the soundtrack of a generation who found their entertainment at the cinema (where the black and white movies were still silent) or at the neighborhood speakeasy.  And I am still a little amazed that a ninety year old  recording can make me tap my foot and sway a little bit in time with the music.  it may be impossible to catch lightning in a bottle but maybe it can be caught in wax and shellac.

8 thoughts on “A Sweetie By Jean Goldkette – A Sample From The Jazz Age

  1. I’ll give this a not bad. I just can’t shake the seeming cheesiness of the bouncy beat and that darn cymbal on the breaks.

    Although thinking that these were young guys playing cutting edge music gives me cause to reconsider….

    So the next question is were 1920’s vocals awful just because of the recording technology, or also because of the fashionable style of singing at the time? (Kind of like today’s fashion of oversinging everything, which sets my teeth on edge)

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    • I have wondered if I have gone back a decade too far for the more casual listener. There is so little from the 20s that carried on to the swing era and beyond. Still, I find an infectious enthusiasm here. You make a great point that cutting edge today will become cheesy at some point in the future.

      The vocal styles of that time are just grating to my ear. I think they were used to live singing without microphones and tended to belt out everything they sang. Also I think that any random 10 people who can carry a tune today could have eked out a living singing back then. Bing Crosby was just getting his start then as one of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys and his voice is just miles better than almost anyone else of the time. But the tempos were all so fast then that even he sounds strange.

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  2. I’ve listened to stacks and stacks of 78 RPM records stretching back to maybe even the 1910s. *So much crap* was recorded it’s astonishing. But I’ve listened to enough to know that this record is very good, especially for its time. It really does help that this was electrically recorded. You can totally hear it. Acoustic recordings of music this layered were typically muddy; the instruments were hard to distinguish.

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    • The economics were so different. There were really very few “name bands” and record companies paid a small but reasonable fee for a recording session. There were average bandleaders who played under literally hundreds of pseudonyms.

      The other issue of finding examples with decent quality is that so many record companies went under during the depression and many, many masters went to the dumps. We are lucky that the big companies like Victor and Columbia kept their masters during a time when they weren’t worth much. The other stuff has to come from the best 78s that have managed to survive, and the fidelity is terrible in comparison, even for electrical recordings.

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  3. I’ve come back to this several times this week, and I’m still not completely sure what I think.

    Overall I do like it. It is a pleasant, fun tune and the sound quality is excellent for the time, which definitely helps. On the other hand I can’t quite get in the right frame of mind to imagine it as a current pop song. Much of it sounds more like the soundtrack to a silent movie than anything else, especially the first minute or so. Interestingly the one part that kept jumping out at me as not quite so old fashioned is the Clarinet solo from 2:24-2:34. Is it something in the way Dorsey is playing, or is it just the lack of the other instruments at that point?

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    • Jazz from the 20s is almost like a dead end road. There is so little about it that came through to the mid 30s and beyond, and is almost like a musical version of a foreign language.

      I guess I have a thing for those eras where folks are stumbling their way towards something that will become the new normal, but laboring under the problem that the future new normal is not yet clear. This band and arrangement are starting in the direction of what every popular band would look like and sound like 10 years later. But they are not very far along yet.

      A good question on that clarinet solo, and one that had not occured to me. I will have to ponder that one.

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