Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Enigma of Jabbo Smith

HIs talent and contribution were enormous. How did he get shoved to the side of the jazz trumpet-playing historical narrative?

Let's do a short comparison of stop-time choruses (rhythm section just plays accents) between Jabbo and Louis Armstrong. Here's Armstrong's famous Potato Head Blues (1927):

Now, here's Jabbo on Boston Scuffle (1929):

The technique in both cases is superb. Yes, Armstrong's tone is slightly more, call it more charismatic. However, I submit that here, as in many of his recordings, Jabbo actually shows a wider arsenal of trumpet techniques than Armstrong-and I am a BIG fan of Louis.

In the late 20's-early 30's, Jabbo was in great demand as a player. He kept his word to his mother when he said he wouldn't play for anything less than $100 a week and declined an offer to join Ellington for $65 a week. Yet, Jabbo's recordings didn't sell nearly as well as Armstrong's (which meant he recorded much less). This has me flummoxed. Why didn't his recordings go over with the great unwashed? 

Did Armstrong have a great vocal advantage? Here's Armstrong:

Now Jabbo (and dig his out-chorus):

So, Jabbo's voice is very similar to Armstrong's. Certainly there's not much separating them; at least to my ears.

May it please the court, here's a final piece of evidence, "Jazz Battle:"

So, is it just extra-musical factors that account for the disparity in the careers of these two masters?

Armstrong deserves all the adulation he gets, but it doesn't add up to me that the Armstrong mythology has sucked up all the available historical space. Of the trumpet players from that era, Bix still has a high profile because he represented a different direction in trumpet playing, but there were so many others (of the "hot" persuasion)-pre-eminently Jabbo-who played at the highest level.

In any given era, are there not enough rooms in the jazz mansion to accomodate more than one genius? Have jazz people feebly capitulated to that rusty saw the "great man theory"?

Could this tendency eventually lead to a situation where listeners encounter disembodied tracks, knowing only the name of the lead performer (probably a singer), with no information about the other musicians on the date? Nah, that could never happen.


Andrew said...

The "Reader's Digest" approach to jazz history leaves a lot of great music out of the mix but its convenience makes it an attractive model for many listeners. For example, if you want to experience twenties jazz, why not just go straight to "Armstrong," who history has selected as the cream of the crop?

We're definitely developing a canonical approach that turns the music from a rich, varied experience into a game of stylistic Darwinisn. Instead of asking what makes Jabbo Smith, Johnny Dunn, Ed Allen, Red Allen, Red Nichols, etc. unique, we ask how they fell short of the way one of their contemporaries played, and which was later became the standard.

In the meantime, we only hear the musicians whose influence made the music what it is today, never exploring the stylistic deadends which yielded some truly one-of-a-kind music.

Steve Provizer said...

Andrew-You put it succinctly and articulately, although I would take issue that there are clear pathways to the future and dead ends. It's a tissue, after all. Sometimes, in fact, it's a pretty overt influence and still doesn't make it through the filter. Look at Jabbo-Eldridge explicitly acknowledged his influence and while Roy is definitely widely known as a founding father, Jabbo ain't.

Andrew said...

I completely agree, and wish I'd have used scare quotes around "dead end." Musicians (most, anyway) don't develop their style in a vacuum, nor do they rely exclusively on one influence. Eldridge is a good example, who mentioned influences from Smith as well as Armstrong, Red Nichols and even Coleman Hawkins!

However, there is a tendency in some jazz writing to mention players like Smith merely as an evolutionary step, an influence that allowed a "great man" like Eldridge. So instead of listening to Smith as Smith, we pick out what fed Eldridge and declare Smith to merely be of "historical interest." For me, Smith's influence on Eldridge (or Dunn's influence on Miley and Miley's influence on Cootie, etc.) is an interesting aspect of what he played, which is the real point, and which you described here. Sort of a cart versus horse issue for me.

Ian Carey said...

My question is how people were playing & singing pre-Pops vs. after. I'm sure somebody's done the detective work on that but I don't know. If he really did cause everyone else to stop what they were doing and emulate his style, then the kudos are justifiably his, right? (This is more obvious with the singing than the playing, of course.)

Steve Provizer said...

Andrew-You have once more said a mouthful. It's not quite as Darwinian a situation as the history-chooses-the-winners meme, but as a species we are prone to the "story" of someone begetting someone else. Efforts to make the humans "be here now" seem to always come up short.

Ian-This is a long discussion, but I believe that if you listen with an open mind to Oliver, Keppard, Sam Morgan, Sharky Bonano, Louis Metcalf, Joe and Jabbo Smith, Red Allen, Rex Stewart and others who preceded and were contemporaneous with Armstrong, your perception of him as the overwhelming fountainhead might shift. It'll be a pleasant trip, in any case.

Ian Carey said...

I've checked out some but not all of those guys, and never in a row--good idea for a future listening party!

JLaMotte said...

The topic you brought up, the Jabbo ./. Louis theme is very interesting. There are a lot more comparisons: Why Miles, as great as he is, over Kenny? Or, why are they "all" diggin' Freddie over Woody?

Kenny & Woody are for me the more inventive, the more artful improvisors; both their lines, and their tonal, melodious, their rhythmic and harmonic concepts are more advanced in my opinion.

Is it fate, kismet, bad luck, or what else is it? Well, maybe there is just room for one leading fellow per generation? (As you may know: In jazz a "generation" may be only five years apart from another "generation").

Fact is: Kenny & Woody couldn't/ didn't/ (perhaps they didn't want to?) sell themselves like Miles and Freddie. They played for the music's sake, not for cash.

Boy, I heard those trumpet-slurs by Jabbo, borrowed from clarinetists perhaps, or from singers, those "klezmer"-like phrases: You won't find those in any of Louis' solos (at 00:37 in "Decator Street Tutti"). That's fantastic, really outstanding, very individual. Not even later buglers used them.

But there is at least one big difference:

Jabbo and Louis may have been equals, technically, but Louis was the "better" entertainer whose language was understood by anyone, and that worldwide. He was not only a talented trumpeter, he could also competently express himself universally; like Mozart & Beethoven (the latter to a lesser degree).

That's something you can't learn, copy, or train. Either you have it, or not.

Steve Provizer said...

Ian-If you're in Boston, let's do a serious wax session...

JLaMotte-You're referring to the "charisma" I mentioned in the post. That's a big part of it. Even in the meritocracy of jazz, there are a lot of other things that go into creating the hierarchy of taste that results in a jazz canon. There's so much to say about that; I'll do a full post on it.

rob chalfen said...

an illustration of influence may be a comparison of the work of Tommy Ladnier to Armstrong, a fellow New Orleanian - there exist examples of Ladnier's early style, like the 5 consecutive extant takes of "Play That Thing" with Ollie Powers' Harmony Syncopators, Chicago 9/'23, which show a more Keppardian, even Johnny Dunn like style - compared to his work in the immediate post-Pops Henderson band in '25-'26, in which you might be forgiven for thinking it's Armstrong, like Alabama Stomp & Variety Stomp