Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Original Memphis Five and the Superior Jazz Band

Back in July of 2009, I posted about The Original Memphis Five, one of my favorite early jazz bands. I've continued to pick up and enjoy more of their 78s as I find them. Here are a couple of recent discoveries and some speculation.

First, here's a rare picture of the band, from a 1924 Vocalion Records catalog that I recently found. The picture is small and poorly reproduced in the catalog, but I've never seen it published elsewhere since its original appearance. It's from the "dance music" section of the catalog. This interesting catalog also has a "race music" section, but Vocalion had just started to record and issue black music at the time; the "race" section only has five records in it!

More importantly, I recently took a chance and spent five bucks on a 78 by the "Superior Jazz Band" on the early Bell label. According to the Rust discography, "Virginia Blues" and "Georgia" were recorded on April 18, 1922, but "Georgia" was rejected and remade on May 2. They were issued on three related labels, Arto, Bell (#P-144), and Globe. The instrumentation is the same as that of the Original Memphis Five, but Rust didn't know who the five musicians were. I figured the record was probably pretty corny until I put it on the turntable for the first time. As the first side played, my thoughts went like this:

1. "Wow - this is pretty good."
2. "That sounds like Phil Napoleon on trumpet."
3. "Is that Jimmy Lytell on clarinet?"
4. "Damn! I think this is the Original Memphis Five!"

So is it the Original Memphis Five? Nobody knows for sure, but after listening to the record repeatedly over the past week and comparing it to other OM5 recordings from 1922, I think it probably is - or at least most of the band. The more I listen, the more I'm convinced that Phil Napoleon is the trumpeter and Jimmy Lytell the clarinetist.

I emailed early jazz expert Mark Berresford; he's familiar with the record, but doesn't think it's the OM5. He calls the trumpeter "far coarser and 'hotter' than Napoleon" and describes the band as "very good and not as refined as the OM5." Everyone hears things differently, of course, but I don't agree. By the middle of the next year, Napoleon's style was more consistent, but other recordings I've heard by him during this period show him moving back and forth from a legato, swinging style to a more clipped, ragtimey attack, as the Superior Jazz Band trumpeter does.

And the band seems "refined" enough to by the OM5, to my ears. In fact, although "Georgia," (the Walter Donaldson song - Hoagy Carmichael's song had not yet been written) is excellent throughout, "Virginia Blues" bogs down when it turns into an over-arranged medley of "Southern" tunes. The side starts well, but becomes too "refined" to be totally successful.

Besides Napoleon and Lytell, what of the rest of the instruments on the Superior Jazz Band record? Well, it certainly could be Frank Signorelli on piano and Jack Roth on drums, but it's probably impossible to say - both instruments function almost entirely in an accompanying role. The trombonist, however....

I wanted the trombonist to be Miff Mole, but it's almost certainly not him. The Superior Jazz Band's trombonist doesn't display the range, fluency, imagination, or swing of Miff Mole, even at this early stage. In an online discussion, one listener stated that the trombonist was Moe Gappel, who recorded with Napoleon at times during this period. I don't know where he got his information, and I'm not familiar with Gappel's style, so I'll just have to say, "Could be."

Besides the musical evidence, there is some circumstantial evidence that the Superior Jazz Band was related to the Original Memphis Five. Rust noted that Ed Kirkeby directed the sessions. Kirkeby is best known as the manager of the California Ramblers and (later) Fats Waller, but also "managed first dates for the Original Memphis Five," according to John Chilton's Who's Who of Jazz. The first known record by the OM5 was Bell P-140, recorded some time in April, 1922; it was also issued under a pseudonym: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band!

So who, exactly, were the Superior Jazz Band? I'm interested in opinions and speculation from informed listeners. You can listen to the Superior Jazz Band sides here. Note that there is a needle dig that causes a skip on "Virginia Blues." I welcome your comments - what do you think?

Update; May 8, 2012:  Original Memphis Five collector Ralph Wondraschek has replied to this post in great detail, outlining why he doesn't think this band is the OM5.  Interested readers are urged to read his comments.  With his level of knowledge of the subject, he's probably right.  He's certainly right about the picture in the Vocalion catalog being the Original Dixieland Jazz Band rather than the OM5; I even found another picture of the ODJB from the same photo session.

I thought about deleting or heavily editing this post, but I think I'll leave it as is, with this update and Mr. Wondraschek's comments to set the record straight.