During the short but extremely chequered history of jazz, most genuine artistic revolutionaries have received strong condemnation from critical circles. Some of the greatest jazzmen have been dismissed as esoteric cranks. The early work of all innovators is nearly always viewed, at the very least, with suspicion. Paradoxically, the speculative experimenter frequently receives immediate acclaim. The twentieth century will surely be listed in history books as the age of the gimmick and all too often we are readily blinded by any novel twist or device well-presented by good musicians. But the passage of time enables us, to some extent, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to assess the contributions made by men of a decade or so ago. However, there is not much to help us put contemporary stars in the correct perspective.
Nevertheless, as in other fields of endeavour, jazz history has a way of repeating itself. It is because of this that I believe a parallel can be drawn between such diverse saxophonists as Frankie Trumbauer and Paul Desmond.
Desmond, like Trumbauer, does not surround himself with musicians of much jazz standing and it speaks volumes for his talent that he makes anything at all of such tracks as Out of Nowhere, hampered as he is by Brubeck’s lugubrious piano
The first similarity is in colour, for both are white, and it is a fact that the number of white jazzmen of real merit is still very low. It is not my object to discuss why this is so, but there can be no more than ten major jazz figures who have not been Negroes. Certainly, even the best of white jazz men seem more inhibited than their coloured counterparts. As an illustration one has only to study the approach of men within “mixed” groups. On the Blind Willie Dunn Blue Blood Blues there is a superlative solo by Lonnie Johnson. It is relaxed and swinging and almost a model guitar solo of the period. At the end of this solo is a break by Eddie Lang. It displays his beautiful tone, but is stiff and non-swinging. Yet both the solo and the break are well played. This difference is to be found too often between the coloured and the white jazzmen. The recordings made by both Trumbauer and Desmond illustrate perfectly that they fit snugly into this idea of the white jazzman.
Yet, both are fine musicians, even though Trumbauer sounds terribly dated today. His famous solo on Singing the Blues is evidence of his considerable talent. Desmond, like Trumbauer, does not surround himself with musicians of much jazz standing and it speaks volumes for his talent that he makes anything at all of such tracks as Out of Nowhere, hampered as he is by Brubeck’s lugubrious piano. Tram at least had Bix Beiderbecke. Certain lapses in taste are also a feature of both men’s work. Trumbauer’s Trumbology is a masterpiece of vulgarity, although it is significant that it was thought rather clever at the time. Desmond has no recorded work that quite plumbs these depths, but his attempt at a statement and answer passage with Brubeck on Gone With The Wind from their Storyville album is almost as disastrous. Both manage to reach a non-swinging, all-time low.
Desmond’s weak tone, heard at its worst on On the Alamo, is more acceptable to record buyers than the emotional intensity of Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt. The reason for this incredible state of affairs is puzzling
Both Desmond and Trumbauer have thin tones. In Tram’s day it was most fashionable, and many jazz fans found the “purity” of a Red Nichols far more acceptable than the “coarse” tone of a Louis Armstrong. In a similar way, Tram was more pleasing to their ears than Johnny Hodges or Hilton Jefferson. His solo on I’m Coming Virginia is a fine example. It has a pleasant enough tone but lacks the urgent edge and warmth that makes for good jazz. Bix’s fine two choruses that follow also show it in its true creative light. Another good opportunity to examine Tram’s work is in his trio recordings with Bix (on piano) and guitarist Eddie Lang. Here the listener is not deterred by the pedestrian parodies of arranging that bog down the Trumbauer orchestra recordings. Bix was a gifted cornetist whose influence was not as completely bad as is often contended. But he was not a good jazz pianist, and it is Bix, not Trumbauer, who lowers the standard of For No Reason At All In C. Tram’s solo may not be wildly exciting, but it is well constructed and well played. It compares very favourably with Bix’s piano backing, which is stumbling and shapeless. Tram may not have been able to match Bix, the cornetist, but he could certainly carve Bix, the pianist. This trio did not really have jazz at heart and Bix admitted his desire to transcend the jazz boundary. This is obvious on the rather wistful Wringin’ and Twistin’, in spite of a thoughtful contribution from Tram. Because of Bix’s outlook these trio recordings sound self-conscious and pretentious. But, good jazz or not, this kind of lightweight product found many adherents among pre-war jazz fans. The conflict between the followers of this kind of jazz and the hot camp seems stupid today. Time alone has shown which side was really discerning.
A similar situation exists today, when Desmond’s weak tone, heard at its worst on On the Alamo, is more acceptable to record buyers than the emotional intensity of Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt. The reason for this incredible state of affairs is puzzling. It supports the idea that the diluted copy is more easily received than the red-blooded original. This is not to say that this is true of all jazz fans, but it is, unfortunately, true of the largest percentage. The Brubeck Quartet with Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello is smart and fashionable. It attracts the listener with a music that is polite but which lacks true depth and does not offend ears unwilling to enter the world of Parker, Bud Powell or the animated modernists. Desmond’s approach is purely one of reserve. Occasionally a daring turn of phrase, as in The Souk, gives a glimpse of hope, but then the return is quietly made to the usual delicate mode of improvisation. Desmond has received violent criticism in certain circles, but this is unfair. There is very little to criticise. He has a good, if thin tone; he is a capable, if unsensational, improviser; and he swings in a gentle sort of way. He is, in fact, a minor jazz figure. His worst enemy is the horde of fans who make claims about his stature.
Neither Trumbauer nor Desmond are poor musicians. Technically, they are very good. It is just that they play jazz that is basically polite. Great jazz is never this. Divested of emotion, jazz is no better than cocktail music
The most important limitation common to both Desmond and Trumbauer, however, is their failure within the blues framework. Tram is the most deficient in this direction and rarely even attempted blues numbers. Certainly, none of his solos have any blues overtones at all. Desmond is not quite so reticent, but the results are still unfortunate. Back Bay Blues, which is a 12-bar blues, is a failure. He never gets into his solo and Brubeck’s insensitive tinklings that follow it put this record almost in the comedy class. The same criticism applies to St. Louis Blues.
Neither Trumbauer nor Desmond are poor musicians. Technically, they are very good. It is just that they play jazz that is basically polite. Great jazz is never this. Divested of emotion, jazz is no better than cocktail music. It might be unfair to condemn them as harshly as this, but I cannot record their contribution to jazz as anything more than slight. Time has shown that Frankie Trumbauer was a man with limited jazz ability, and in ten years time Paul Desmond’s position today will be seen by all jazz followers as having been similar to that occupied by Trumbauer thirty years ago.