Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don, John, and the Cotton Pickers

In the last few days, I've listened to all the recordings I have by McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the great band with the unfortunate name. Anyone with a taste for early jazz should check out this band, if you don't already know them. The Cotton Pickers were one of the great early big bands, and in their brief heyday could almost rival Fletcher Henderson's band. But jeez, that name!

William McKinney, a drummer, had a little Midwestern jazz band in the early 1920's called the Synco Jazz Band. It grew into a full-size big band for the time (11 pieces), based out of Detroit. There they were heard by Jean Goldkette, a (white) big band impessario of the the time. He signed a management contract with the band, changed the name (Dan Morgenstern has written, with some understatement, that the new name was "not well received by the band members"), and got them a recording contract with Victor records.

The records, made between 1928 and 1931, sound great today. The band swung hard for the late twenties and featured a four-piece saxophone section, as opposed to the then-standard trio of reeds. Don Redman, who had been writing most of Henderson's charts, was music director of the band and did about half of the arrangements, while John Nesbitt, almost forgotten today, wrote most of the rest. The work of both men sounds very modern for the time, with lots of tricky rhythmic displacement and full, imaginative harmonies. Redman knew how to rehearse a band, and the ensemble work was tight and impressive.

What the Cotton Pickers didn't have was a set of great soloists, although it could be argued that trombonist Claude Jones achieved greatness during his tenure with the band.* Jones, Redman (on alto sax and clarinet), Nesbitt (on trumpet), and Prince Robinson on tenor and clarinet were the main soloists; they were usually adequate rather than inspired. To counter this weakness, Redman arranged three days of recording in November, 1929 with some of the band replaced by the cream of the New York City's jazz talent: Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Joe Smith, Kaiser Marshall. Hawkins and Carter came up with some of their best early solos on record - hear Hawkins' frighteningly virtuosic playing on "Plain Dirt." Claude Jones was retained on trombone for this session, and was seemingly inspired - his solos had always been good, but here his playing is truly distinguished; in solo after solo he creates unusual, original, and very satisfying melodies.

When Redman left to form his own band in 1931, the band was never again the force it had been. Like I said, you've got to have a feel for early big-band jazz to appreciate the music. But in their prime, occasional silly vocals and all, this was one of the great big bands.

*By the way, the underrated Jones is one of my very favorite jazz trombonists; in my opinion he is the equal of better known players of the time like J.C. Higginbotham and Benny Morton.

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