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.


Ralph Wondraschek said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ralph Wondraschek said...

Dear Jeff,
thank you for your interesting, though necessarely speculative post.
Who am I to say so ?
An avid 78 rpm collector, who specializes in the period 1917 to 1922.
I am VERY familiar with the sound of the OM5 groups (I own over 300 of their original 78s, only missing the following 9 records:
Banner 1178 or Regal 9455
Bell P-216 or Globe 7216
Gennett 5125 or Starr 9385
Gennett 5142
Emerson 10725
Emerson 10741
Emerson 10783
Vocalion 15234
Pathé Act. 36413 or Perfect 14594
(anyone help???))
It was also me who first discovered that the OM5 also provided the accompaniment for IDA COX's "Blue Kentucky Blues" (mx 2003-2 on Paramount 12258).
I also own Bell P-144 by the "Superior Jazz Band", and just had an intense listening session, along with all the OM5 groups recordings of March to June 1922.
1.) The overall sound of Bell P-144 is UNLIKE the OM5 sound of this period. Less Swing, less musical purity.
2.) Trumpeter is definetively NOT Phil Napoleon. Napoleon is more musical, exhibits a tone which is always in tune, compared to the broader tone and less driving lead of the Bell P-144 trumpeter.
3.) Trombonist is definetively NOT Miff Mole. More pedestrian, lacking Mole's sweeping figures which helped to free the trombone from it's tailgate role, and a more crude, albeit more forceful tone.
4.) Clarinetist COULD be Doc Behrendson.
On aural grounds, I do think that Lytell joined the OM5 not until early June, 1922, and not already in early April, 1922, as reported in the standard discographies.
Thus, IMO, the following OM5 goups records still feature Berendson, and NOT (already) Lytell:
Arto 9140/Bell P-140(April 5, 1922)
Gennett 4689 (April 14,1922)
Cameo 218/Muse 218 (April 22,1922)
Paramount 20131,etc.(May 10, 1922)
Arto 9149/Bell P-149(May 11, 1922)
Cameo 232/Harmogr750(May 22, 1922)
Gennett 4886 (May 25, 1922)
4.) Further, I compared the "Superior Jazz Band"'s Bell P-144 to the following:
571-A Virginia Blues GG 1102
571-B Virginia Blues GG 1102
571-C Virginia Blues GG 1102
578-D On The 'Gin 'Gin GG 1102
'Ginny Shore (NOTE TAKE!)
(I own three copies of GG 1102)
First, the musicians on both sides (Knickerbocker N.F. / YERKES' N.F.)
are the same. These would be:
Hymie Farberman, t / Tom Brown, tb /Ross Gorman or Arnold Brilhardt, cl / p / d.
Second, the personnel on GG 1102 and Bell P-144 sounds identical, to my ears.
The possible exception is the clarinettist, which is more on a Ted Lewis kick on GG 1102; the clarinetist on Bell P-144 exhibits a purer tone, and avoids novelty effects.

May 7, 2012 4:18 PM

Ralph Wondraschek said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ralph Wondraschek said...

message continued:
Doo Dah Blues Arto 9137
I've Got The Wonder Where He Went And When He's Coming Back Blues Arto 9137
Recorded March 1922.
Instrumentation is 2t/tb/cl/Cm/p/bj/bb/d.
Loren McMurray is unmistakeable on C-Melody sax, t/tb/cl sound as if they were the same men as on Bell P-144 (NOT Napoleon, NOT Mole, PROBABLY Behrendson).
1-1450 Lonesome Mama Blues Federal 5203
To my ears:
t(NOT Napoleon)/Miff Mole-tb/Doc Behrendson-cl/Loren McMurray-as/p.
The trumpeter on this HOT recording could be the same man as on Bell P-144, but tb and cl sound different.
Victor 18881, Victor 18895, Victor 18913
IMO, all three frontmen are different to those of bell P-144.
1100-1 You Can Have Him, I Don't Want Him Blues Banner 1090
1101-2 Hot Lips Banner 1090
Again, all three frontmen sound different to those of the SUPERIOR JAZZ BAND.
I was especially careful comparing the Specht recording to the Superior J.B. recording in the light of the following:
In Record Research 25 (Nov./Dec.1959), eminent scholar CARL KENDZIORA had the following to say while reviewing the OM5 section of the first (1959) edition of HORST H. LANGE's "FABULOUS FIVES" (on page 7):
"The Superior Jazz Band coupling on Arto group labels listed on page 13 is not the OM5. This was a session booked by Ed Kirkeby for Arto on April 18, 1922 /the Georgia title was remade May 2nd). His notebooks show this only as "Jazz Band" and the only clue as to the identity of the group is the cryptic one word "Deppe" also listed in the book. There was a Russell Deppe playing in the Paul Specht and His Hotel Astor Orchestra and so this just might be a Specht group under Deppe's leadership."
Only problem is that there is no banjo (Deppe's instrument) on Bell P-144, Guarente is definetively NOT the trumpeter heard on Bell P-144, and tb and cl are, IMO, also played by different men.
Ralph Wondraschek
Plöck 89
69117 Heidelberg
E-Mail: rwondra@web.de

Ralph Wondraschek said...


as for the photo from the 1924 Vocalion catalog:

Vocalion made a glaring mistake here:
the musicians pictured are: Sbarbaro, Edwards, LaRocca, Shields and Ragas - the ODJB (1917 or 1918), indeed!!!

Anyone familiar with the two bands will notice this mix-up instantly!!



Jeff Crompton said...

Thank you for your detailed comments. With the level of knowledge you display about the OM5, you are probably right about the Superior Jazz Band record, and I have added an update to my post to reflect that.

I deleted some duplicate posts you made; otherwise your comments will remain an essential part of this post.

Ralph Wondraschek said...

Hi Jeff,

I'd like to add that I discussed the Superior Jazz Band record (Bell P-144) about 15 years ago with Mark Berresford, John R.T. Davies and Werner Benecke - all experts of early New York jazz - and the consensus (based on aural grounds) was: NO, NOT the OM5.
Also to be pointed out is the fact that Ed Kirkeby in his notebooks clearly remarked "Original Memphis Five" for all the Arto recordings of the Napoleon/Signorelli gang he organized in the studios (mostly the "New York Recording Laboratories'" studio, or the "Indipendent Recording Laboratories'" studio (which was mainly used by the Plaza group)).
But, as Kendziora pointed out, the remark for the Bell P-144 date is solely "Jazz Band (Deppe)".

By the way, when I visited John R.T. Davies for the last time in 2001 (along with some of my NORK 78s for the Retrieval CD project), I also brought along my OM5 Arto/Bell/Globe/Nordskog 78s.
In between JRT and myself, we were only missing Bell P-228 (the tape copy I had of Horst H. Lange's copy was substandard), and, though JRT did the transfers of all twelve 78s (including Bell P-97), the missing original Bell P-228 meant that the CD of the OM5's complete Arto sessions never saw the light of day (was planned for Jazz Oracle).
In the meantime, I've acquired an E- copy of Bell P-228, so a new attempt for such a CD could be made.

Best wishes,