JJ 12/60: In My Opinion – Francis “Muggsy” Spanier

Sixty years ago trumpeter Muggsy Spanier reacted to music from Ben Webster ('no real feeling for jazz'), Bobby Hackett ('can’t be missed'), Cecil Scott ('awful trombone'), Dizzy Gillespie ('beautiful'), Humphrey Lyttelton ('outstanding'), Chris Barber ('corny') and others. First published in Jazz Journal December 1960

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Muggsy Spanier at Nick's Tavern, New York around June 1946. Photo by William Gottlieb

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. This interview was taped on the occasion of Muggsy’s first visit to this country since he played cornet here with the Ted Lewis Band in 1930. The years have passed him by lightly, and we are assured by those who heard him play on the Continent that his fine open trumpet tone and use of the plunger mute are as exquisitely controlled as ever they were. His opinions on the jazz scene today are open and frankly spoken – he was a most welcome visitor. – Sinclair Traill

“Henry Hudson”, Bobby Hackett (Gotham Jazz Scene). Capitol T 857
That’s amusing, the name of the tune I mean: Henry Hud­son is a hotel at which Bobby Hackett worked for some time. Bobby’s playing can’t be missed, it’s so fresh and nice and clean-cut. Also there, as a stand out, is that wild bull of the Pampas, Ernie Caceres on baritone and clarinet. This is really very good Dixieland, very good. The rhythm section are real keen, with Milt Hinton’s bass being especially strong – just the right note at just the right time – he’s a splendid player in all kinds of company. I like that type of jazz very much, but I must admit I fancy it not quite so arranged – I prefer a little more free-wheeling. I like my bands to dope out things and then just go ahead and play, with the rest just backing them up. This was all written out, I can tell from the playing – no doubt Dick Carey’s arrange­ments. He’s a tremendous musician, plays wonderful piano; is here, I see, on E-flat horn, plays wonderful anything. A very good record of its type.

“Bud Johnson”. Ben Webster. HMV CLP 1336
Well, if that was supposed to be blues-riffing, why it’s a new kind of a blues to me. Roy Eldridge can play much better than he plays there, for all he does is just play a whole lot of scales which mean nothing. In fact the whole band is just showing-off, playing a lot of notes, just to see how many they can get in a bar. The noise is too far out, it doesn’t move me at all. They are a fine bunch of musicians, but they can all play so much better. There was no real feeling for jazz, not even from Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins. I guess something must have gone wrong when that particular tune was made. Only thing I can say that was good was the rhythm section, they kept time and they swing. This was probably one of those arranged things based on the blues that didn’t come off. That’s not the blues to me, and I know Louis Armstrong would agree with me in that. I didn’t like it a bit!

“‘X’ Marks The Spot”. Cecil Scott’s Washboard Band. Columbia 33SX 1232
I know Cecil Scott, but don’t think I realised he could play tenor like that – it was great, rather like Coleman Hawkins used to blow years ago. Very good, full of guts and go. The trumpet player has a nice feel for jazz and provides a good lead. The rhythm I thought were nothing much to rave about, and that trombone was just brutal! That’s an awful trom­bone! I never heard anything like it in my life. It’s bad playing – he’s trying to copy the way Kid Ory used to play fifty years ago, and that is stupid. Pity here that Cecil Scott and Ed Allen are wasted. They both play so well, but that rhythm doesn’t help. It looks as if someone decided to make a record and to make it sound as they used to sound fifty years ago – and who wants to play that way today?

“Constantinople”. Dizzy Gillespie (Mellow Sounds). HMV 7EG 8574
Well, like Bobby Hackett on that first record, you couldn’t miss who that was – Dizzy! I like that little band of his, they surround him like a frame. This is the kind of modern music I can understand. They never lose that melody and although they work around it, they always keep it going. Junior Mance is a fabulous piano player! Just the man for Dizzy, he’s very accurate and plays with beautiful timing and tone. I like Spann’s flute: he sounds warm and if you listen he must do some very quick switches to his other instrument … a wonderful young musician. This, of course, is just the blues and Dizzy gets with them. It’s a blues you can recognise – a good old blues like some of those old Joe “King” Oliver used to play. It’s full of those notes that Joe used to love, and I have no doubt Dizzy has listened to Joe like everyone else has. Make no mistake, Dizzy is a wonderful trumpet player – he can play mostly anything. At one time he went a little too far out – I guess he was reaching for something, but he never did get it, so he had to come back home. And this is the result – a fine record full of good jazz feeling.

Humphrey Lyttelton’s trumpet playing, like so many others – I nearly said every­one’s – sounds like Louis. But it is difficult for any trumpet player to get away from Louis – he’s the greatest, now and always.

“Basin Street Blues”. Humphrey Lyttelton (Blues In The Night). Columbia SCX 3316
I am sorry I haven’t caught this band in the flesh whilst I’m here. They were moving all the way there, and the trom­bone player was outstanding. I am not too fond of Basin Street Blues played at that tempo, but the arrangement was interesting. Of course I’ve picked up tunes that are usually played slow and have played them fast, so basically there is nothing wrong with it, but Basin Street should somehow just be Basin Street – slow and easy. Humphrey Lyttelton’s trumpet playing, like so many others – I nearly said every­one’s – sounds like Louis. But it is difficult for any trumpet player to get away from Louis – he’s the greatest, now and always. For Humphrey to sound like him is probably just what Humphrey wants anyway. He should be very proud of this band of his.

“Climax Rag”. Chris Barber. Columbia 33SX 1189
Well, this is the first record by Chris Barber I have ever heard. The tempo there races away terribly – it gets faster and faster. I am tempted to ask who won the race. You can’t increase the tempo like that and play jazz; you must keep time. The rhythm section is a little like a lead balloon, it is so heavy. There is no swing there, no lift. They sound not unlike the Papa Bue band I heard on the Continent recently, and I didn’t like them very much. Mind you, there are two people there who are real good: Pat Halcox is a fine trumpet player and Monty Sunshine is good too. But the band must learn to play in tune, that’s important! Eddie Smith has got a lot to learn; he just plonks on his banjo and bogs the whole rhythm down – it’s too ponderous. No light and shade. I think Chris Barber has listened to too many old records by Kid Ory. Now and again one hears some pretty notes, but he ain’t no George Brunies. It’s mainly the rhythm that is at fault. No piano, I see – wonder they didn’t get a tuba. I like a piano to help fill in, and I like a guitar, no banjo for me, however well they are played. It’s not really my kind of jazz, it’s too old-fashioned. But I know Barber is a big success and if one has to play corny to make a living, then by all means play corny. But I refuse to do so.

“Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me”. Joe Thomas (Mainstream). London SAH-K 6066
Well, I’ve known Joe Thomas for years and he always plays good. That muted chorus by Johnny Letman reminded me very strongly of how Harry James used to play years ago – same kind of muted tone, much the same way of phrasing. It was great. Harry James, by the way, is still playing won­derfully well. There was a time when, to keep that stable of race horses going, James went all commercial with a big band. But now he’s back with a small group in Las Vegas, playing just like he did when we were together with Ben Pollack in 1937. That was just before I was taken ill. This group, got together I see for this recording, are strong in every department. Unlike the last recording the rhythm here is very dependable, but they don’t come any better than Jimmie Crawford and Everett Barksdale. A final word of praise for the trombone of Dicky Wells – another musi­cian you can’t miss once you hear him. He’s quite individual. All-in-all a great record – I wish we had time to play it all though.

“Someone To Watch Over Me”. Benny Carter & Earl Hines. Vogue LAC 12225
That was a beauty! I’ve known Benny Carter for years and have much admired his trumpet playing, his saxophone playing and also of course his great ability as an arranger. He has done very well out on the Coast – heaps of scores for movies and stuff like that. This whole thing was in such perfect taste – as one would expect from two such old masters as Carter and that impeccable genius of the piano “Fatha’ Kingfish” Hines. It was all wonderfully relaxed and the sort of record to play to dispel the blues. I was a little surprised to see Shelly Manne in there, but think he fitted wonder­fully well – he is, of course, a great drummer. I worked with “Kingfish” (that’s what I always call him) for a time in San Francisco; it was in some ways a great Dixieland outfit, but that music is really not for Hines. I don’t think he likes playing that way. This is the real setting for him – a taste­ful partner like Benny and a solid rhythm. Carter would stimulate Hines’ musical brain and make him play real good, as he does here.