Ah, the Twenties! Can there ever have been such a decade, so endlessly discussed, pored over and analysed? Even a passing reference to this vital ten year span in our history is enough to evoke a bewildering cornucopia of visual images and impressions. We see it as a period of unparalleled hedonism, quite unlike any other, with Bright Young Things seemingly engaged in a perpetual day-and-night party, fuelled by bathtub gin and dancing wantonly to the bright, snappy rhythms of jazz.
That generation of good-timers, or what remained of it, had emerged from the First World War - the 'war to end wars' - intent on banishing any remembrance of its untold horrors, of living for now, heedless of any further thought. Determined to overthrow the conventional mores of their day, they created new fashions styles -cloche hats, flapper dresses, plus-fours and those absurd floppy caps - and a new view of morality, too. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the era as the 'Jazz Age', publishing his novel 'The Great Gatsby' in 1926, a key text for the times, encapsulating the headlong but ultimately self-destructive mood of the moment, what one writer called 'the greatest, gaudiest spree in history'.
It's hindsight which tells us that the dancers, the drinkers, and the dinner-suited millionaires were fritting their time away, careless and carefree, oblivious to the darker forces gathering on the horizon. In October 1929, the US Stock Market crashed, bankers and highrollers lost their money, businesses closed and mass unemployment spread. The Great Depression had begun. European Fascism and the Spanish Civil War lay ahead, and the new Puritanism which had earlier led to the enacting of the Volstead Act prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor tightened its strangle-hold. All of a sudden, the party was well and truly over.
For now, this collection, impeccably restored to pristine clarity, is our very own time machine, a way of buying into those far-off times of glitzy pleasure, when sober reality was simply not on the agenda.
Birt Firman was Musical Director for the popular Zonophone label in London in the late Twenties. He went on to the United States to do radio work for NBC, later leading dance bands in London clubs and in Monte Carlo. His Kansas City Kitty is a jaunty piece, with cymbal crashes, singing saxophones and all the usual period touches. The rhythm is clipped and proper just the thing for the dance floor. Note the xylophone counterpoint and some neat trumpet. After You've Gone is by the black vaudevillian Harry Creamer (with music by Turner Layton) and has remained in the jazz repertoire since its first introduction. Red Nichols made his version with an all-star group and it's his cornet break which peps up the ensemble. Nichols was a prominent studio musician and the most prolifically recorded white jazz bandleader of the 1920's. Influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, he continued to lead small jazz groups, usually called the Five Pennies, until his death in 1965.
In 1919, the US saxophonist Bert Ralton left Art Hickman's band in New York to travel to Cuba where he formed a group. Two years later, he was in London to lead his New York Havana Band, first at the Coliseum, and then at Savoy Hotel when the name changed to the Savoy Havana Band. The first band to broadcast from the Savoy, it soon numbered future luminaries as crooner Rudy Vallee and pianist-composer Billy Mayerl among its personnel. The band's slightly jerky banjo rhythms made their numbers perfect for the Charleston, the hottest dance sensation of the Twenties. The Charleston Chasers was a non-de-disque for another of Red Nichols' myriad recording groups. The cornet lead is bell-like and clear, the writing neat yet intricate with clarinet from Jimmy Dorsey, later to become a celebrated bandleader himself. The tuba break is by Joe Tarto, a cheerful character who rasped away on his unwieldy instrument until the mid-1980s. Listen for Miff Mole, among the first to liberate the trombone from the clutches of the puff-and-grunt brigade. Timeless innovatory jazz.
It's your actual Charleston next, in a version by the Savoy Orpheans which is notable for some typically tricky saxophone choruses and the danceable tempo. The great Harlem stride pianist James P Johnson had composed The Charleston for the Broadway shown Runnin' Wild in 1923, creating 'the impact of a firestorm' as the resulting dance craze swept through America and Europe. The Orpheans, one of the premier London bands of the Twenties and represented here with three numbers, were founded by Debroy Somers in 1923 and, with the Havana Band, became the highest paid orchestra contracted to EMI Records, prospering under the direction of pianist Carroll Gibbons, who took them over in 1927.
Jack Hylton's fame was such that he broadcast direct to the USA and in the 1930's, briefly led a band in America. His orchestra has been compared to that of Paul Whiteman : each man occupying the identical top-rated position in their respective countries, both attracting the best sidemen and the finest arrangers. More to the point, Hylton was immensely popular with audiences, recording and touring widely right through the Twenties and Thirties. Here, his band plays There's One Little Girl, a typically cute piece, replete with vocal trio, the enduring standard, Button Up Your Overcoat and Sunshine. Miff Mole returns with the Spritely You Took Advantage of Me, leading his 'Molers' with Nichols alongside as usual, the rest of the group including a number of superior jazzmen, among them the clarinettist/saxophonist Frank Teschemacher and Tarto again with his brass bass.
The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra was the Gramophone Company's 'house' orchestra and like many of its contemporaries included American and British musicians in its personnel. Spread A Little Happiness is on the sweet, complete with its pretty theme statement played on the celeste. With Paul Whiteman we come to a true giant of American dance music in every sense, for not only was Whiteman a man of impressive physical bulk, he was also the 'King of Jazz', a slightly inappropriate tribute to his status as the top 'hot' dance bandleader of the pre-WW2 years. Whiteman secured the services of many top jazz musicians without always allowing them the creative freedom which they craved. Louisiana, from 1928 was arranged by Bill Challis and features a vocal by the young Bing Crosby. Duke Ellington's Cotton Club Stom moves us to a high jazz plane. At the time of this recording, Duke's orchestra was resident at the Cotton Club in New York and he was kept buy writing numbers like this for the club's exotic all-black musical shows.
After more from Hylton and Whiteman, we come to Ted Lewis, another American original and a bandleader who enjoyed great commercial success. It's the showmanly Lewis who sings so affecting (!) after some muted trombone by New Orleans man, George Brunies. Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, violin and guitar respectively, starred with the Whiteman orchestra but here they stretch out on Dinah, joined by Don Murray on baritone sax and pianist Rube Bloom. The curiously-titled Umchta, Umchta, Da, Da, Da, is by the Rhythmic Eight, a British studio group directed by John Firman. Maurice Elwin sings the timeless lyrics and the trumpeter is the American, Sylvester Ahola. Pianist Arthur Rosebery's Kit Kat Dance Band recorded Let's Do It, a song which is revived regularly, in 1929. The Bix-like trumpet is by Doug Bastin and the vocalists is Len Lee. The name Lloyd Keating existed only on the Harmony record label as a pseudonym for bandleaders 'moonlighting' from their contracts with other labels.
Louis Armstrong's That Rhythm Man opens with some grand trumpet from the leader, before he vocalises in typically husky fashion. Armstrong was already the most celebrated jazz musician of his day, his creativity, instrumental command and rhythmic daring setting the pace for a generation of musicians. Another who achieved enduring fame was the young cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, easily the most influential white jazz improviser of the Twenties, and a true victim of Jazz Age values, chronic alcoholism playing a major part in the breakdown of his health. Bix died in 1931 aged only 28. Singin' The Blues (recorded under Frankie Trumbauer's name) pairs him with alto-saxophonist Trumbauer, his companion in the Whiteman Orchestra, their poised solo work giving his piece an ethereal, almost unworldly feeling. Bert Ambrose was a fascinatingly complex man who led possibly the greatest British dance band of the inter-war years, playing the top London clubs and entertaining the Prince of Wales and his circle. The ballad trombone is by Ted Heath, another bandleader in the making. The obscure American leader Johnny Hamp recorded the Black Bottom in 1926, celebrating another rather louche dance style.
Danceable tempos, strong melodies, wacky lyrics, wailing saxophones, banjo and tuba rhythms, a sense of fun, no though in mind other than the creation of pleasure - is it any wonder that this excitingly varied music continues to exert such a fascination for audiences today?
Peter Vacher 6 August 1995