The accepted jazz narrative of the first two decades of the 20th century is now a well-worn path from New Orleans to Chicago and New York. But scratch the surface past the iconic recordings, venues, and innovators, and the curious jazz historian or fan will discover the music takes on a myriad of narrative variations across the US, especially in urban centers with active nightlife.
Such is the case for the city of Seattle, most known for another historic music trend, grunge, or guitar hero Jimi Hendrix. However, guitarist Greg Ruby, with the help of jazz historian and writer Paul de Barros, has crafted an immersive journey into early Seattle jazz through the work of one of the city’s first players, Frank D. Waldron.
Waldron was a trumpeter, alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader and music educator. In fact, bassist Buddy Catlett and Quincy Jones were both his students. In 1924, Waldron self-published (a little detail today’s DIY jazz community will find inspiring) a collection of pieces for alto and piano called Syncopated Classic, full of rhythms and articulation techniques to aid the uninitiated musician in the ways of “jazz” phrasing and feel. These études veer from the more familiar Dixieland trajectory (Louis Armstrong’s 1927 50 Hot Choruses for Cornet comes to mind as another book intended to get players learning that language) with its breaks, solos and the famous “gumbo ya-ya” polyphony. Yet embedded in the compositions of Waldron, and expressed in the detailed, thoughtful interpretations of Greg Ruby and the Rhythm Runners, is another equally fascinating story of the jazz language. A story of how, once out of its hometown, jazz did not spread as a clearly defined style, but mixed with other trends in popular music, specifically the dance repertoire of the time, synthesizing its articulation, phrasing and timbre with the structure and accented syncopations of America’s first dance craze, ragtime, and the lilting lyric bounce of the waltz.
Ruby has re-arranged Waldron’s compositions for his Rhythm Runners, a sextet in the tradition and spirit of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Across these 11 tracks, there is a clear reverence for the original material and a masterful blend of Dixieland, ragtime and classical techniques that capture the spirit of the era when these pieces were written.
The varied presentation of Waldron’s music in Ruby’s release is an indicator of his attention to detail and the clear admiration and pride for Seattle’s unique jazz story. This release is available on vinyl or CD, or, for the serious student of jazz history, as a book and music set which includes essays by Ruby and de Barros, a complete reprint of the Syncopated Classic pieces by Waldron and digital downloads of the music. For the musicologists and serious students among us, the combination of the étude lead sheets and Ruby’s interpretations on the album make for an enhanced listening adventure which reveals clever compositional devices by Waldron, and perhaps more satisfying, all the Rhythm Runners’ deviations from the scores, which bring the music alive with personal style.
Modern ears may lament the “sameness” of these pieces at first in terms of tempo, style, feel, mood, melodic structure, or rhythmic language, but a more nuanced listening uncovers significant variation in performance practice. It’s crucial to remember the historical context – this music’s primary function was for dancing, not listening. Ruby and company’s contemporary interpretations both honor and fluently capture that history, yet still find room to be creative within the language of American rags, turn-of-the-century classical waltz, and 1920s Dixieland… no small feat!
Most of the pieces owe their formal structure to ragtime (whose influence still held sway on dance floors across American in the early 1920s) with some type of AABBCC form as the core with perhaps an intro, interlude, extra A or coda. With all that repetition of sections, Ruby takes great care to never repeat a section the same way twice, and the subtle melodic recasting is usually just what each piece needs as a momentum booster.
For example, “Low Down” starts with the classic front-line sound—trumpet on melody, clarinet on counterpoint, trombone on low end fills outlining harmony. But in the second A section, trombonist Charlie Halloran takes the melody and adds grease, growling it and transforming it by flatting the third at times, or relaxing its flow with triplets. Only the backline (guitar, bass, drums) accompanies, which makes for a welcome change of density. The gradual build of the C section over three repeats serves to deconstruct the melody, as the ensemble gets deeper and deeper into theme-and-variation territory with each pass, dialing up the complexity and energy. A piece that is clearly indebted to ragtime style ends with a true Dixieland flourish.
The “Dixieland flourish” emerges as something of a theme emerges across the tracks on this album, in fact. It sounds like the band revels in the task of finding small bits of Waldron’s compositions that hint at a blues or dixieland sound (a minor third interval, chromatic approach tones, triplets, etc.) and exploding them out into more exciting, and more jazz-based, musical spaces. “Climb Them Walls,” one of many foxtrots in this collection, is the first real melodic nod towards the blues, with its reliance on a descending minor third, and the ensemble runs with it. Trumpeter Gordon Au’s interpretation of the melody is straight out of the early Louis Armstrong/Freddie Keppard tradition, but with such nuanced slides and growls, it could just as easily be a tribute to Bessie Smith’s or Son House’s vocals.
“Go Get It” has that Dixieland flourish, but it’s integrated into the form, so little two- or four-bar thematic variations emerge. Sometimes the theme is so subverted that it’s a straight-up swinging Dixieland break. Not only does Ruby play the B melody on the guitar, he quickly sets to deconstructing chunks of it with a swinging attitude and the feel of the Quintette du Hot Club in his fingertips. Add a bass break, crafty thematic variations and breaks by clarinetist Dennis Lichtman, and trumpeter Au on the C sections into the mix, and “Go Get It” ranges far from its proper foxtrot bounce as expressed at the start of the tune.
It is worth highlighting the three waltzes in this collection as standout examples of the intermingling of dance traditions and repertoire in the 1920s and the Rhythm Runners’ dutiful execution of these Waldron pieces. All three (“Hawthorne,” “Marguerite,” and “Queen Ann”) begin in classic Viennese tradition, with a rubato introduction to allow the dancers to get in place before the 3 / 4 pulse begins in earnest. These introductions serve as excellent miniature melodic showcases for various members of the band, especially guest Mike Marshall on mandolin, whose balance of flowing scale runs and tremolo picking give these pieces the appropriate lilt even before the box step begins.
It was professional practice, from the turn of the century through the 1920s, for a dance band to not only maintain a repertoire of foxtrots (rags and early jazz numbers) as well as waltzes, but to change instrumentation for said waltzes. It was quite common for brass players to double on violin, mandolin or upright bass (usually trumpet goes to violin and mandolin, tuba to bass). Other members might switch to banjo or add another mandolin and guitar, and suddenly a band like James Reese Europe’s could transform from a brass-heavy outfit ready to blast out a march or rag to a string ensemble capable of playing the most delicate yet effervescent waltz. Ruby gives “Valse Hawthorne” that string treatment, but keeps the trumpet in the mix to excellent effect as a countermelody line, played simple and clean by Au.
In a pleasant surprise, “Valse Marguerite” keeps the hot jazz instrumentation, perhaps because Waldron’s introduction has a bit of Jelly Roll Morton’s infamous “Spanish Tinge.” The playing that follows is light throughout, highlighted by a uniquely spare duo moment in the B section between clarinet and bassist Cassidy Holden, and an exposed trombone interpretation of the A melody with only the backline in support. “Valse Queen Ann” is the jewel of the three, a string quartet (two mandolins, guitar, and bass) that executes the ever-so-slight hang on beat three that provides the proper ebb and flow. The composition itself is the strongest of all three waltzes, with a compelling melody, complemented by the added counterpoint in Ruby’s arrangement, making it a fitting dénouement for the album.
Greg Ruby and the Rhythm Runners’ expertise and passion lies in playing hot jazz, and although none of Waldron’s compositions could be described as Dixieland, the ensemble does find plenty of opportunities to sit up and blow the roof off. The aptly titled “With Pep” is the brightest of all the pieces and Waldron’s use of eighth-note triplets is the primary rhythmic driver, separating this track from the others. Obviously, Ruby and the band take their cue from the striking rhythmic activity, and drummer Julian MacDonough adds a strong backbeat to this performance. The ensemble layers the density, culminating with a boisterous finish in the final C section providing the album’s first straight-up swinging hot jazz moments.
“That’s It” dials it up even more with true Dixieland solo breaks played in the spirit and language of those 1920s Jelly Roll Morton (think “Black Bottom Stomp”) and Freddie Keppard sides. At C, the bouncing foxtrot returns, almost comedic and lighthearted in this context, and that contrast works well. On the repeat, clarinetist Lichtman rips a la Sidney Bechet over the trombone melody, concluding with collective polyphony, the best gumbo ya-ya of the album, full of energy, density, and drama.
The last piece to highlight is not part of Waldron’s Syncopated Classic étude book, but an earlier composition he self-published in 1918, “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues.” This may be Waldron’s most unique and fully realized composition. It begins simple and clean with clarinet and Ruby on six-string banjo over a 16-bar strain with I, IV, and V chords hinting at a blues progression. The B utilizes the 12-bar form, but it’s not quite the blues changes. Where the IV chord should be in bar five, the dominant II is used. It is deceptive, and still today considered a modern substitution that not many use. After flirting with blues variations, the C section finally reveals the standard 12-bar blues form and changes. The interpretation of the melody features plenty of scooped half steps, rhythmic hemiolas, and triplets, all effective devices for a swinging blues of any century. This piece is in a ragtime form, AABBCDD, which is logical considering the year it was written. But what makes this a standout composition is the synthesis of the blues form into a rag structure. It’s a delicious curiosity for jazz historians, musicians and theory nerds to hear, but “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues” also appeals to Dixieland jazz aficionados and casual listeners alike because it contains the most ebullient moments of the album where the band opens up, gets playful and really digs into swinging the melody.
What is the appeal of a collection like this to contemporary jazz fans? For Seattle-based jazz fans, it’s an uncovered revelation; for Dixieland revivalists, it’s forgotten repertoire refreshed; for everyone else, a release like this is a reminder that early jazz history is not the single narrative so well documented on early recordings. Every city, no doubt, has their own version of a Frank Waldron. Does it change the arc of jazz history? No; Louis Armstrong is in no danger of having his position usurped. It does however, broaden the conversation, and illuminate the way jazz moved through American pop culture in the 1920s. In a way, Waldron’s music, given new life by Greg Ruby and The Rhythm Runners, was on the front line of the jazz revolution. He stands in for all the local musicians across the country who heard the great innovators as they passed through their city, absorbing those new sounds into their own styles. In doing so, they helped create a national audience for “hot jazz,” one that was hungry for new dance music for a new era.
Eric Hofbauer leads a quintet that interprets 20th century classical pieces with room for jazz improvisation on the Prehistoric Jazz series of albums; stream and purchase those on his Bandcamp page.
Photo of Frank Waldron courtesy of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State