Tag Archives: jazz cello

Is it Bix?

I’ll weigh in on the controversy: If it’s actually Andy Secrest as credited on the 1929 recording of Alabammy Snow, then Secrest was capable of an extraordinary Bix Beiderbecke imitation. That he was a good imitator is plausible — Secrest had after all been hired away from Jean Goldkette’s orchestra by Paul Whiteman precisely because of his ability to emulate Bix’s cornet playing. Bix’s health was failing and so Secrest was backing him up at both events and recording sessions. But was Secrest really *that* good an imitator? After weighing the evidence (af little) and using my ears (a lot), I’ve concluded it must be Bix.

You can begin a deep dive into Bixology here if you’re inclined. The debate about whose cornet can be heard on the 1929 side Alabammy Snow continues. See here for example.

I took a shallow dive into Bixology after listening to Alabammy Snow. All the musicians on the record are incredible: Trumbauer, Secrest (credited on cornet), even Quinn on guitar. The rhythm is locked in, the solos are full of character. The tune is short and sweet. It’s a real toe-tapper that feels very ‘Twenties’ to me.

To my ears, the cornet solos feature signature Bix elements: coy melodic ornamentation and glissandi, ‘in the pocket’ rhythmic feel, nuanced phrasing, articulation and dynamics, whole tone scale runs, and a a trademark Bix dom7 flat9 arpeggio that reaches up to the flat9 on the strong beat.

This cello tribute to Bix (or perhaps Secrest’s Bix?) features all the solos on Alabammy Snow. I tried to reproduce especially Bix’s glissandi, phrasing, dynamics and articulations as accurately as I could.

Transcription for cello available here: https://payhip.com/b/PsHJm

Minor Swing (Django/Grappelli)

Here’s a video playlist I made for the cellists in Knights of Jazz on learning the iconic gypsy jazz tune Minor Swing.

Trivia: Unsung heroes of the famous 1937 Paris recording of Minor Swing. Who played guitar? Who played bass?


Joseph Reinhardt (Django’s brother) and Eugene Vees both played rhythm guitar. Louis Vola played bass.

Journey toward jazz

I guess 38 is as good an age as any to become a jazz cat, and 2020 as good a year. Technically, this journey began last year. Or maybe it began in 2003 when Black Tie Elephant played our take on the Charlie Parker tune A Night In Tunisa; however, I’ve hit such a concentration of jazz-related milestones over the last two years that I decided to make a list. My goal: track progress over the last two years, stay positive, and stay motivated. In particular my most recent milestone, which I achieved last weekend thanks to #stayhome, has me really feeling like a real jazzer. This all said, the main musical takeaway of #stayhome, for me anyway, is the importance of being together in playing music. So, following the list of milestones I’ve listed a couple of goals. Top of that list: putting some real life, in-person jazz jams on the calendar at Soapbox.

20 Milestones:

  1. My brother recommending Duke Ellington when I mentioned being interested in finding some jazz with “great chords and voice-leading.”
  2. Listening to the Okeh Ellington (late twenties) collection non-stop for about three months.
  3. Discovering twenties NYC/Chicago jazz, and New Orleans trad jazz as separate and unique musical styles.
  4. Transcribing (well, starting to transcribe) my favorite two tunes on the Okeh collection.
  5. Transcribing a few solos from those tunes.
  6. Learning to play the solos on cello.
  7. Buying some Ellington piano books.
  8. Reading Ellington’s autobiography Music Is My Mistress.
  9. Jamming on cello on some blues at the open mic at Rosa’s with the remarkable Chicago blues pianist Ariyo.
  10. Arranging an early Ellington tune for my high school string group.
  11. Receiving impromptu jazz theory lessons from the high school jazz band teacher at the school where I teach.
  12. Learning from the jazz band teacher about the importance of the Dominant 7 flat 9 chord to early jazz.
  13. Going deep into diminished chords with Chromawheel and cello.
  14. Discovering Eddie Lang, the king of diminished passing chords.
  15. Discovering Joe Venuti, one of the OGs of jazz violin.
  16. Starting an all strings early jazz group, the Knights of Jazz String Band, and arranging a bunch of tunes for them.
  17. Performing Mack The Knife and Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing in a combo with the jazz band teacher on trumpet, a professional jazz guitarist, and some talented student players.
  18. Starting to actually hear the chord quality of ii-V-I progressions in tunes.
  19. Starting to actually hear diminished chord quality in tunes.
  20. Thanks to #stayhome, ‘shedding a tune for the first time. By this I mean playing It Don’t Mean A Thing in all 12 keys. And even focusing on the “dark side of the moon”: the keys of Db/C#, Gb/F#, and B/Cb.

Some future goals:

  1. Play with more jazz musicians as soon as this quarantine is lifted! Invite Jacob, Trumpet Tom et al to Soapbox jazz jam.
  2. Continue shedding tunes in all 12 keys.
  3. Continue getting comfortable with diminished chords.
  4. Transcribe some trad jazz clarinet ossia lines since some are just incredible. For example https://youtu.be/pwhQ918ZYFI?t=45m27s
  5. Do another arrangement for string jazz band.
  6. Write some Cello Blues.

The Ink Spots with Hoppy Jones on Cello

I was recently introduced to the vocal quartet The Ink Spots by a Chicago native whose father, as he told the story, had in turn been introduced to black music [sic] during his time living in the integrated barracks of the US Army during the Korean War. The Ink Spots were part of an early wave of popular vocal groups led by black men in the late 1930s, and in the group’s tight harmonies can be heard the components of the later doo-wop style.

There are several notable things about the group. First, they had a remarkable style change in the early forties. Their early style in the late thirties sounds a lot like the “hot” foxtrots played by dance bands. The guitar work in these uptempo tunes is reminiscent of Eddie Lang, and Django Reinhardt. The later style is more soulful and ballad-like — early doo-wop.

Second, Chicagoan Orville “Hoppy” Jones (b. 1905), apparently the glue that held the group together, played cello.

Hoppy Jones on cello http://inkspots.ca/HOPPY-JONES-bio.html

Here’s an example of their earlier uptempo style featuring Hoppy Jones laying down a sick bassline on pizzicato cello:

Third, it seems that Hoppy Jones may have invented the style apparently known as “high and low” or “talking bass”. I’ve always thought of that style as something that Boyz II Men first did in the early nineties. Guess I was wrong.

Here’s an example of the later Ink Spots sound, featuring Hoppy Jones on talking bass:

Finally, one oddity about The Ink Spots is that almost every song starts with the same four chord guitar turnaround. Kind of weird. Still gotta figure that one out.

Django, on the shoulders of giants…

Django Reinhardt discovers jazz:

“During the years after the [1928] fire, Reinhardt was rehabilitating and experimenting on the guitar that his brother had given him. After having played a broad spectrum of music, he was introduced to American jazz by an acquaintance, Émile Savitry, whose record collection included such musical luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang


The ups and downs of jazz violin

There is a long history to the jazz violin. Chris Haigh’s website does a great job of documenting this lineage. Moreover, there are excellent contemporary jazz violinists. More interesting than thinking about this history in terms of a continuing linear evolution is considering the breaks and ruptures, and the roads not taken. On this latter note, there was a noticeable shift after the 1920s in which it seems that the (sometimes prominently featured) string quartets and (frequently prominently featured) violinists of hot jazz bands all but disappeared. By the time of big bands and the swing era in the 1930s, strings were no longer commonplace in popular jazz.

I think there were perhaps multiple factors that played into this transformation, and there are no simple reasons for the change. For example, a pat explanation is that big bands were simply too loud for violins and cellos. While at first glance this makes sense, it overlooks the important story of Eddie Lang, often credited with being the first jazz electric guitarist. The story with Lang is that he experimented in the early 20s with some of the first valve-based amplifiers made by RCA, using pickups made from hacked phonograph cartridges and telephone receivers. Already as early as 1917, the Russian scientist and cellist Lev Theremin had designed an electric cello, built by the early 20s, and presumably jazz string players experimented with methods of amplification just like guitarists.

Here are some related pictures:

The violin has a long history in American folk music.

Buskers in the early 1930s

New Orleans band from early teens featuring acoustic guitar, violin, bass.

Jazz band from early 20s, violin left and rear

Early Creole jazz band from Ken Burns’ PBS jazz series

Proto Jazz

Library of Congress has a nice article on Ragtime that raises the fascinating topic of of polyrhythm as both African inspired but also found in the jigs and reels played by immigrants from the British Isles in the Appalachian regions of the US South. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035811

The wiki entry on Contradanze/Habanera is also a very interesting read, on the Afro-Cuban origins of proto-jazz styles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contradanza

Another interesting musical form of proto jazz is the “Cakewalk”. Need to read more about this!

Popular Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition — 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago

The Library of Congress has a great description of the music scene at the World’s Fair. Dvorak was there conducting, Sousa was there leading his band. Will Marion Cook (later Duke Ellington’s mentor), and Joseph Douglass (grandson of Frederick Douglass) performed. Scott Joplin, then living and working in Chicago likely played ragtime in one or more of the numerous saloons and cafes along the outskirts of the fair.

25 million visitors from hundreds of countries soaked it all in, and carried the new popular musical styles home across the US and abroad.

Stuff Smith — Have Violin, Will Swing

I’ve been listening to this great album from the late 50s by pioneer jazz violinist Stuff Smith. Smith began his career in the 20s in Texas, so he’s pretty old school in the jazz violin genealogy — maybe second generation as far as I can tell… Smith’s playing style, at least on this record, is very different from Venuti’s and Grapelli’s. Instead of the arpeggios and lightning-fast runs of Venuti, Smith’s phrasing is short and punchy, trumpet-like.

More Ellington for cello

Here’s an arrangement for cello trio of Jungle Jamboree, a song on the Okeh Ellington 1927 – 1930 collection. It’s actually an Andy Razaf/ Fats Waller tune, but it is performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. I think this song stands out to me because it seems to combine elements of the collective improv style of traditional New Orleans jazz with improvised solos that are rich enough to stand on their own.