Hear What They Heard When Jazz Was The American Past Time
"Ben Selvin was one of the great pioneers of American popular music. In 1919, just 21 years old, he led an orchestra that recorded one of the first million-sellers. This was the beginning of a recording career that lasted until 1963. He recorded for every major label and made more records than any artist before him--and more than likely--since.... " -An excerpt from liner notes (uncredited)
Music historians credit Selvin with between 9,000 to 13,000 recordings! As the original soundtrack to the roaring 20s, bandleader Ben Selvin provides excellent examples of early instrumental jazz, including the immortal "Charleston" and several of its variations.
1924 was the year many established band leaders started loosening up their arrangements, allowing for livelier, jazzier "hot solos." Sounds from the Roaring Twenties showcases many such solos by Earl Oliver on trumpet, reed player Larry Abbott, jazz trombonist Sammy Lewis, John Cali on banjo and others. The style is reminiscent of purer New Orleans and Chicago styles, akin to the sound Louis Armstrong was lending Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. This must have been an exciting time for section musicians who could jam. Selvin effectively coaxed interesting breaks and solos from this typical white "sweet" band. Some would say Ben Selvin’s Orchestras were the best of both worlds, strong ensemble themes with improvisational restatements. Archive photographs of these men round out the nostalgic experience.
Sounds from the Roaring Twenties is another superb offering from Netherlands-based Timeless Records, who have refined the jazz reissue process to an art form. In fact, another of their recent releases, Up and at 'Em: Early Victor Electric Hot Dance Bands 1925 - 1927 [CBC1072] makes a great companion volume, sharing a few arrangers (e.g. Chicago great Elmer Schloebel) and identical historical context.
According to the liner notes, the opening track, "Red Hot Mama" was only the band's second attempt at jazz. Their success is indisputable, even if it's a little slower than other versions of the same tune. Even that aspect was improved on their next attempt, "San", an up-tempo classic full of desperation. The swagger and "anything goes" mentality of the 1920s are preserved forever on songs like "Susquehanna Home," "Steppin’ In Society," "Loud Speakin’ Papa" and "Breezin’ Along." The technology of that era limited recordings to three minutes, thereby requiring great ingenuity from arrangers. Furious solos were exchanged at the speed of light. "Alabamy Bound" is a characteristic novelty train-song, complete with whistle, crossing signal, and rhythm of the rails. "I Can’t Realise" by DeSylva and Gershwin bears the composers’ trademark sassy lyricism.
"Suite 16," was and is a call-and-response standard. Another well-known hit is "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby," featuring a Billy Jones vocal, alto sax solo, and Selvin’s own unpredictable violin accompaniment. "Dinah" is another great jazzer with a familiar melody. Three of these tunes were re-recorded for competing record companies, so multiple versions are presented here with some compelling differences. Selvin knew when he had a hit, and knew how to make the most of it financially. The perception of jazz as dance music changed with the advent of bebop, but it’s fun to be reminded of our music’s various stages of evolution. Jazz of this era made you want to dance; it was art with physically transforming power. For better or worse, that emphasis is lacking in contemporary jazz.
Casual listeners might mistake this as Big Band music, but Ben Selvin's bands were actually comprised of only ten or eleven musicians. As you'll see in the detailed notes, many of them performed several instruments, even within the same song. The magnitude and diversity of Selvin's sound is a testimony to his expert arrangers and multi-task musicians. Keep in mind these recordings predate Birth of the Cool by almost 25 years. The Miles Davis/Gil Evans nonet clearly wanted to avoid the dated "hot dance music" stigma, but their style of instrumentation borrowed heavily nonetheless. As a band leader/arranger, Selvin helped permanently transition the bass part away from brass instruments (tuba, baritone, etc.) to reeds (bass saxophone). There are examples of both implementations here.
If you're a jazz purist who has always disdained Ben Selvin as patently commercial or "sweet," then this CD could really change your mind. To be so successful, Selvin had to play what the Charleston-era dancers wanted. But what's inherently wrong with that? Daring jazz with a hypnotic dance beat (swing), and blues-based improvisational solos played by virtuosos.... isn't that what we're always begging for?
Highly recommended listening for all jazz fans.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.