Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Original Memphis Five

Since I've gotten back into 78s, I have "adopted" the Original Memphis Five. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon's early-1920's jazz band was not particularly original, and none of them were Southerners, but there were five of them. One out of three ain't bad.

Okay, I couldn't resist parsing their name, but I don't mean to be derogatory - I like the OM5 a lot. No, they weren't ground-breaking or original, but they were consistently good - more consistent, in my opinion, than some more talented bands of the time, like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. No, they never reached the heights of the NORK's best work, but they deserve to be remembered more than they have been.

From a 78 RPM record collector's standpoint, being an Original Memphis Five fan works out pretty well. They recorded a lot - way more the the Rhythm Kings or King Oliver's band. And their records are not in high demand by collectors, which means that I can get an excellent 78 by the OM5 for two or three bucks rather than the 50, 100, or more dollars a pristine original issue by Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or the NORK would set me back.

That wouldn't make any difference if the music wasn't worth tracking down, but the Original Memphis Five was a really good band. They started recording in 1922, a year before Oliver, and continued in more or less their original formation until 1925. Besides Napoleon, the band included Frank Signorelli on piano, drummer Jack Roth, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, and alternating trombonists Miff Mole and Charlie Panelli. The band carefully worked out their tunes and came to the studio prepared, but they swung harder than their obvious model, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and seem to have used more real improvisation than the ODJB. The OM5 concentrated on the pop tunes of the day, rather than jazz specialties, although they did record some originals. The emphasis on pop tunes was deliberate, according to Napoleon, and allowed them to reach a wide audience without sacrificing the quality of the music; they "jazzed" the pop tunes pretty hard. The Memphis Five's music was only weakened when vaudeville vocalists like Billy Jones were added to the band.

At least four members of the band were outstanding talents. Napoleon's trumpet lead was a little stiff on the 1922 recordings I've heard, but it had loosened up nicely by the middle of 1923. His first-choice trombonist, Miff Mole, was simply the first great trombone soloist of jazz. His real maturity came later in the decade, but he is excellent on the OM5 records, playing interesting, wide-ranging lines. Since he got busier and busier doing studio work as the decade wore on, he was often replaced by Panelli, who was not in the same league. Frank Signorelli's piano pretty much was the rhythm section, since most of whatever Jack Roth was doing didn't make onto the records. Signorelli's accompaniments are solid and full-sounding, and his solos are impressive. But the real surprise of the band, to me, anyway, was Jimmy Lytell. As I explored the band's work, I had the growing realization that Lytell is one of the unsung heroes of the early jazz clarinet. As early as 1922 or 1923 he had developed an original sound and style. I assume that he was somewhat influenced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Larry Shields, but he doesn't sound like anyone but himself. Well, he sounds a little like Larry's brother Harry Shields, who is one of my favorite New Orleans clarinetists. But the chances that Lytell was influenced by Harry Shields are pretty slim, since Harry hardly ever left New Orleans and didn't record until 1925. But sometimes, like during the 1924 "My Papa Doesn't Two Time No Time,"* Lytell starts a phrase with a hair-raising scoop up to a long high-register note in a way that Harry Shields favored. Anyway, Jimmy Lytell may not have been a near-genius clarinetist like Leon Rappolo, but he sure was good.

I've got over an hour's worth of OM5 78 RPM records on the Broadway, Banner, Pathe Actuelle, Vocalion, Perfect, Cameo, Regal, and Grey Gull labels. And luckily, they also recorded for Victor, who in my opinion, put out the best-sounding 78s. (I've got three of their Victors.) Since they tried to reach a "general" audience, as opposed to just jazz fans, some of their records are paired with more pedestrian dance bands on the flip side. (If any of you have been dying to hear "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Majestic Dance Orchestra, come by my house - I have it on the back of a Memphis Five record.) But they were hip enough to back up the African-American blues/vaudeville singer Lena Wilson - the label reads "Lena Wilson and Her Nubian Five"(!)

If you are intelligent and mentally stable enough not to collect 78s, there are a few CD reissues of the OM5 out there. The most readily available seem to be a collection on the Timeless label (which I haven't heard) and a set of all their Columbia recordings on Retrieval (which I have heard). There are too many vocals for comfort on the Columbia sides, but otherwise, the Retrieval CD is an excellent reissue.

These days many jazz fans are exploring the work of excellent, long-forgotten, second-tier talents of the fifties and sixties. I hope those with a taste for early jazz will similarly give an ear to the Original Memphis Five - one of those solid, professional, journeyman bands that jazz would be poorer without.

*This was recorded for the Emerson label, but also issued on a bewildering variety of labels. I have it on Grey Gull.

No comments: