A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

The 1920s were a rich period for clarinetists in jazz – not just of the New Orleans variety, but others who came out of ragtime, vaudeville, and even more indirect traditions as well. The instrument’s popularity could be attributed to the wide range of sounds and styles that it was capable of producing – from warm, dark, woody tones to a ripe tenor or alto voice to shrill piercing squeals, put to use in bluesy laments, with fluid aria-like lyricism, or squirrelling energetic agitation. Hundreds of recordings featuring the clarinet were released in the ‘20s, and the household names – Dodds, Roppolo, Bechet, Bigard, even Tio and Picou – get plenty of ink in the history books.

But beyond these legends, a battalion of lesser-knowns filled countless sessions with music that nearly a century later still sounds at least occasionally inspired, engaging, or simply curious, and their names haunt discographies like ghosts. Who talks about Bob Fuller, Ernest Elliott, or Jimmy Lytell today? When was the last time you ran across a mention of Percy Glascoe?

I was completely unaware of the existence of Percy Glascoe until recently, when, blissfully wandering through YouTube, I stumbled upon the only two tunes – duos for clarinet and piano – he recorded under his own name, for Columbia, in July 1925. Given my penchant for obscurity, I did a little more digging and found that Glascoe had been a successful bandleader in the Baltimore area, fronting groups (or possibly the same one) with handles the likes of the Plantation Orchestra, the Kit Kat Orchestra, the Fox and Glascoe Serenaders, the Imperial Orchestra, and the Invincible Jazzeolas. Apparently none of these ensembles saw the inside of a recording studio. But even more enticingly, The Duke Ellington Chronicle states Glascoe was a member of the orchestra’s reed section during the summer of 1926. He’s not listed among the Washingtonians for that June’s “Animal Crackers” / “Li’l Farina” session for Gennett, alas, thus missing his chance at immortality. Nevertheless, Glascoe had his best shot elsewhere, with a bit less fanfare. Throughout all of 1925 and one session into 1926, he was a member of the group his Columbia piano accompanist, one Lem Fowler, put together for recording purposes – Fowler’s Washboard Wonders, also waxing as Clarinet Joe and His Hot Footers, or the Jim-Dandies – a total of 14 sides.

More on Fowler in a bit. As for Glascoe, aside from his considerable technical abilities, there’s little to set him apart as an individual stylist coming out of the “gaspipe” tradition – a totally inadequate definition of which is to be found on Wikipedia, calling it “a musical style wherein the clarinet player uses the instrument to produce honks, growls, squeaks and effects that sound like animal noises, laughter and so on. It is designed to be humorous and was used in many musical comedy acts from the 1910s to the 1930s.” While there’s a core of truth in this, such a one-dimensional explanation is often used to discredit several of the important clarinetists who incorporated gaspipe effects into their playing, from Wilbur Sweatman to Boyd Senter, who were not merely looking for novelty effects, but, similar to the closely related klezmer-style of Jewish clarinetists, exploited these effects to extend the technical and expressive range of the instrument – a legacy that continues today, to various degrees and in different fashion and approach, in players like Don Byron and Ab Baars. (Given such disrespect, it’s not surprising there’s no mention of the gaspipe tradition or any of its practitioners in Michael Ullman’s chapter on “The Clarinet” in The Oxford Companion To Jazz, for example.) In comparison to many gaspipers, Percy Glascoe’s approach was a subtle one, using the extended techniques to create a momentary tension which he would release in the next series of phrases, or to color a line with a sharp tonal edge, and “popping” his notes to spur momentum and create contrasting phrasing. On the whole, he stands somewhere in the vast area between the simpler blues sensibility of Arnett Nelson and the wildly expressionistic Wilton Crawley.

One side of Glascoe’s single release, “Stomp ‘Em Down,” is a relatively restrained affair; the introductory theme is easy going and unremarkable, and the piano stays in the background, allowing the clarinet to ornament the melody with a vaudevillian double-time run and a flourish, followed by a fine chalumeau chorus and another with higher byplay. The flip, “Steaming Blues,” is altogether more complex. Credited to “James,” as we shall see it’s easily recognizable as the work of Lemuel James Fowler, who often listed compositions under pseudonyms like “James” and “Relphow” (notice the tricky anagram) to avoid copyright hang-ups (of which he had a serious history). “Steaming Blues” is a carefully structured performance. It begins with a four-bar introduction and an eight-bar melody, setting the stage for 12-bar variations on the theme. There are three of these to start, but they are full of unexpected details: stuttering off-the-beat rhythmic accents, highly syncopated piano phrases, stop time, and sustained clarinet notes while the piano romps freely. Then, out of the blue, come four eight-bar choruses of a completely contrasting nature, no improvisation, but new material carefully designed, followed by a final 12-bar return to where they started, and a two-bar tag to end.

The rhythmic trickery and unorthodox form of “Steaming Blues” prove to be Fowler’s frequent calling card in the 14 sides he recorded with Glascoe as featured soloist of the Washboard Wonders. (The washboard on these, by the way, is totally superfluous ... and often downright annoying. Nevertheless, all 14 sides, not including “Stomp ‘Em Down” and “Steaming Blues,” can be found on the valuable collection Chitterlin’ Struts & Washboard Stomps on the Frog label; the remaining majority of his 80 sessions are accompaniments to blues singers and solo piano rolls.) What these instrumentals suggest is that Fowler considered himself more of a composer than an improvising blues or stomp pianist; arranged episodes are everywhere apparent (on “Chitterlin’ Strut” even the washboard sounds notated), Glascoe’s clarinet effects are plotted for maximum contrast, the addition of trumpeters (alternately Clarence Wheeler, Seymour Irick, or Sidney De Paris) expert with the family of mutes and Glascoe’s doubling on C-melody saxophone allow the otherwise limited ensemble sound to blossom. Then there’s Fowler’s formal quirks.

Two examples should suffice. “Steppin’ Old Fool” alternates unpredictably between two themes, an exotic snake-charming line with vamp and an extended hot riff, and is primarily a sequence of eight-bar sections, although instrumental or melodic shifts sometimes occur in the middle instead of the end of a section, and every so often an extra two bars are tacked on for no obvious reason. (Wheeler, once he gets warmed up, has a nice squirting solo, while Glascoe, switching between clarinet and C-melody, breathes vivid hues through the melodic curves, with only a soupçon of gaspipe in the closing bars, for spice.)

“Rabbit Foot Blues,” sans trumpet, is rambunctious and even stranger. Ostensibly a 32-bar melodic form (although certainly not the typical AABA format), after a twisting two-bar intro comes a 24-bar melodic turn, but instead of a concluding eight bars there are four bars of stop time, then four bars of melody which should, numerically, be the end of the chorus, but rather lead into two alternating two-bar patterns repeated twice, with the fourth two bars actually serving as the beginning of the next chorus, distinguished by the clarinet now in chalumeau register, which concludes with 24 bars. Thus we lose two bars from the already extended first chorus which are added to the second chorus. Fine. But at the start of the next chorus, we have a six-bar slice of melody, followed by four bars of strange, dissonant, descending piano chords, succeeded by two full 32-bar choruses of Glascoe’s fireworks to the end.

So it would look something like this: (first chorus) 16 + 8 + 4 + 4 + 2 + 2 + 2 / (second chorus) 10 + 16 + 8 / (fragment) 6 + 4 / (third chorus) 16 + 8 + 8 / (fourth chorus) 16 + 8 + 8. The numbers just don’t add up, but it sounds less fractious than it reads; in fact the manner in which it all flows together seamlessly and excitingly is remarkable, and suggests that further study is warranted. There’s definitely more to the music of Lem Fowler than meets the ear.

*   *   *

Discoveries, of course, are wherever you find them. Laurie Pepper continues to release in-concert recordings by her late husband, the legendary alto saxophonist Art Pepper, as they are discovered, and the series, known as “Unreleased Art,” is now up to volume nine, Art Pepper & Warne Marsh at Donte’s, April 26, 1974 (Widow’s Taste). It’s a gem.

In his onstage band introduction that night, Pepper mentions that he last saw his sparring partner for the evening, tenor saxophonist Marsh, when they previously recorded together back in 1957 or thereabouts. To be precise, it was actually two separate studio sessions, in November and December of 1956 (the online Pepper discography at Jazzdisco.org mistakenly attributes both to the same November date), that resulted in two special recordings, Art Pepper With Warne Marsh (Contemporary) and Free Wheeling (Vanguard), the latter under the leadership of tenorist Ted Brown. The implication behind Pepper’s point was that after nearly 18 years of not seeing each other much less playing together, besides the absurdity of such a circumstance, the music to come would undoubtedly prove surprising for the players and listeners alike. Since Pepper and Marsh were both fully committed, in-the-moment, tightrope-walking improvisers, there would be no easy routines, no comfort zone, no coasting.

On this date, Marsh’s basic approach to soloing, based upon fluid phrasing that often disregarded barlines and sought spontaneous, continually fresh, unforeseen harmonic solutions, was remarkably unchanged over the years. But to fully appreciate the tectonic shift in Pepper’s playing, we must somehow ignore the fact that our listening perspective includes all we know of late-period (post-1975) Pepper, and listen with 1974 ears. At the time of this gig, he had not had a studio recording of his own since 1960 (!) and notwithstanding the quicksilver, chord-devouring fluency and biting wit of the younger Pepper, his playing here is a revelation. Always an intensely passionate soloist, in his early playing there was an audible tension created by the conflict between discipline and expression, proportion and freedom, but these performances replace that tension with a newfound fervency and abandon. The reason? In the interim, Pepper discovered John Coltrane.

In interviews then and later, and his autobiography Straight Life (Schirmer), Pepper willingly acknowledged the influence ‘60s Coltrane had on his playing, and although it wasn’t permanent, it nevertheless left a residual attitude. Whether the change enriched or disrupted Pepper’s creative aesthetic is open to debate. It happened, and this is the most revealing musical document we have of how penetrating the influence was at that time. Although he had switched to tenor saxophone briefly in the late ‘60s, and occasionally (and fascinatingly) picked up the clarinet, Pepper had at this point returned to the alto, with a single telling exception. Here, on “Walkin’,” under Trane’s sway, he plays soprano saxophone. Given his distinctive tone on alto, the sound is all wrong, the ideas are closer to Coltrane’s phrasing than his own, and there’s even a brief snake-charmer bit. It’s a curious experiment that he fortunately did not pursue. Elsewhere, less literally, Coltrane’s pull is felt in the characteristic double-time “sheets” of notes on “All the Things You Are,” in the textured trills the altoist uses to project his line into uncharted territory on “”Broadway,” the way he pushes the melody to extremes on “Over the Rainbow,” his wild distortion of tone and shrill flurries on “Lover Come Back to Me” and even more ruthlessly on “Good Bait.” There are moments throughout when Pepper reaches the critical launch stage on the verge of free jazz, but always comes back down to earth.

Of course, Coltrane’s influence only affected Pepper’s playing, it did not motivate it. That is, Pepper’s emotionalism and desire for a music of pure expression were his own, and in this setting had an interesting affect in turn on Warne Marsh. Marsh was accustomed to alto partners like Lee Konitz and Gary Foster – individualistic, but sharing many of Marsh’s premises – and Pepper’s sheer energy and exaggerations of phrasing and tone provoke Marsh to ratchet up his intensity a few levels as well. There are numerous examples here of unpredictable counterpoint (such as “What’s New?” and “Lover Come Back to Me”), and even an episode of traded eights in “Donna Lee” where Marsh’s oblique phrasing writhes and twists in a manner closer to Coltrane than one would expect. So thrilling is the interaction between the two saxophonists – Pepper bracing like a shot of ice-cold vodka, Marsh nuanced and warm-blooded like a mellow bourbon – that it’s a shame the pick-up rhythm section included a pianist; the extra harmonic freedom could have allowed them more room in which to maneuver. As it is, Marsh feels more hemmed-in than does Pepper, who simply ignores the constraints and wails.

“Cherokee” is a remarkable conclusion. For both, it is their native tongue, a tune so second nature they can transcend the chords and let their intuitive powers simply flow. Pepper recorded several amazing versions of this tune and its variants over the years, and his leaping intervals and frisky attack are stunning to follow; Marsh’s lines seem one step removed from the song’s harmonies, swirling through and stalking the melodic curves in order to discover new possibilities. 1956? 1974? 2017? Do dates matter? This is timeless art.

Art Lange©2017

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