JJ 03/62: Nat Gonella – In My Opinion

Sixty years ago the trumpeter reacted to a selection including Armstrong, Hodges and Braff, and thought it all pretty good apart from Dick Charlesworth. First published in Jazz Journal March 1962

Nat Gonella

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. Nat was one of Britain’s first major jazz artisans, and was the featured hot soloist in the pre-war bands led by Billy Cotton, Roy Fox and Lew Stone. In the thirties he formed his Georgians, a band whose recordings started many a British jazz adherent on his way to broader fields. A faithful follower and friend of Louis Armstrong’s, Nat modelled his style of singing and trumpet playing on that of the master, and that is the way he plays today. Much of the old fire and swing is still evident in his playing, which today is to be heard bolstering the talents of many a trad session. – Sinclair Traill

“March Of The Bob Cats”. Pete Fountain All Stars. Storyville SLP 120
Well, that sounded very professional. The front line were particularly capable. I don’t think they really got that New Orleans feel, the genuine, feel that is, but it was good Dixie­land stuff. I don’t know if it was the recording, but in places they seemed to me to be over-blowing. Of course the trombone player (Abe Lincoln) was just outstanding. I’d like to have a copy of the record, just to listen to him. He really hits it – reminds me of the way Higginbotham used to thrash it out. Great! Don’t quite know why they drifted into the old Maryland theme there, but it fitted alright. But somehow there was something missing – difficult to put a finger on it, but it wasn’t quite right. The front line were excellent but the rhythm section, tho’ beaty enough, didn’t seem to be in sympathy with what the front line men were doing.

‘I have several records by Miles Davis, which I bought to listen to, but I daren’t play them at home. My missus calls it gas-oven music. One of the troubles of much of this modern jazz is that it goes on much too long, and the musicians haven’t all that to say’

“After You’ve Gone”. Juanita Hall (Sings Bessie Smith). Storyville SLP 113
Was that recently recorded, or an old one? How that girl does sing – and I mean sing! She’s really got a voice and knows how to use it – and she knows what jazz is all about. The trumpet introduction by Doc Cheatham was very taste­ful, but I wish they had kept the tempo slow all the way through. It’s a good old jazz trick to double up the tempo, which we have been doing over the years, but it was not necessary here, for at the slow tempo she sang beautifully. And look who were with her – Doc Cheatham, Coleman Hawkins, Claude Hopkins – well, can’t be bad can it?

“Nagasaki”. Lew Stone (London Jazz Scene – The 30s.) Ace of Hearts ACL 1103
Well, that brings back memories of the good old days. I must say though, the band, even today, do sound very cap­able, don’t they? Nice lift and good, well-rehearsed sound. Lew loved jazz of course and would give us every oppor­tunity to play a good swing arrangement. We always featured one on our broadcasts. Those Casa Loma tunes, Black Jazz and White Jazz, were very popular in those days. I think that the band can be compared quite favourably with any swing band of that period, and they don’t sound too dated even today.

“That’s A Plenty”. Louis Armstrong & The Dukes of Dixieland. Audio Fidelity AFSD 5924
Well, you can’t say much about that record, for if you do you merely say, Louis, Louis, Louis. Some of the stuff he plays there is fabulous, but the band just sound like a bunch of amateurs. Of course when Louis’ chops are working, as they were there, there is no one that can stay with him, and these boys I suppose did their best. Those breaks in that last chorus! The timing! The tone! Takes your breath away. I must buy that one, even if I do have to put up with the Dukes. Funny, Louis doesn’t change much and yet he’s always up with the times. When I first met him in 1932 he played just like that, and again in 1938 when I played with him in the States. I sat in with him over there quite a few times. After one session we did in the State Cinema on Broadway with the Count Basie band, I was offered $750.00 a week if I’d sign a contract. Well, I planned to take up the offer, but the war came along and I had to rush home. Last time I saw him was on that terrible revolving stage at the Empress Hall. I don’t think any other artist in the world could have got away with that awful presentation, except Louis. And he is still blowing wonderfully – I really must find out what he takes to keep his chops working like that.

“’S Wonderful”. Ruby Braff All Stars. Philips BBL 7130
First time I heard Braff was about three years ago, and his style interested me very much. No very definite pattern, but good all round musicianship. This is what I think of as the swing idiom, and I do think it is a kind of jazz that may well come back – and quite soon. There has got to be a move in trends, a move away from The Twist (which is only rock ’n’ roll after all), and away from this Trad stuff. The Trad has reached its peak I think, and is bound to go downhill sooner or later. There is not enough musical value in it, is there? You take Acker’s record of Stranger On The Shore, or that thing Monty Sunshine did, they’re not trad, just ballads – clarinet ballads. I think there may be a shift to things like this, on this record. First-class jazz or swing, call it what you like, played in a most musicianly way by a bunch of guys who know what they are doing and like it that way. Braff incident­ally has a tremendous technique – those fast runs in there, finely controlled, with all his notes hit bang on the nose. That’s good trumpet playing. Nice piano there, reminded me a little of Fats. Did I ever tell you of that time in Brighton when Fats was playing the Hippodrome and my band was at Sherrys? After the show Fats came on over, and was persuaded to sit in for one number. We played Honeysuckle Rose and it lasted over an hour! The management of the Hippodrome heard what was going on (I think everyone in Brighton heard about it) and they fined poor old Waller £50 for breaking his con­tract. If it hadn’t been for his manager he’d have packed his bags and left for America on the next boat.

“M.H.R.” Johnny Hodges (Not So Dukish). H.M.V. CSD 1395
That’s the best record you’ve played today. All my old favourites banging away in brilliant form. Wonderful Roy Eldridge; recognised him from the very first note … a distinctive tone and style of his own. I think he was one of those who led the way from the swing era into this modern age. Remember when he used to play all that technical stuff? That was the kind of trumpet playing that fired others to move on. People such as Dizzy were undoubtedly inspired by Roy. It all came from Louis of course, but it is interesting to trace those changes of style and Roy was a real innovator. The other trumpet on that record was fine too, Ray Nance. His playing always reminds me of Bill Coleman. He doesn’t blow a lot of notes, but he blows them so cleanly with plenty of feel and spirit. That is really the music; there is every­thing there. It doesn’t change, doesn’t need to, for it’s just right. Hodges himself is so perfectly professional, always in the right place at the right time. He always knows what he has to do, and so he does it the easy way – the right way.

‘Lucky they have bowler hats – the hats may help their music; on that showing nothing else can’

“Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”. Dick Charlesworth & The City Gents. H.M.V. CLP 1495
Well, I knew that was British even before I saw the sleeve. Awful! I reckon you must have picked the worse damn record you have in the house. I was surprised when I saw it was Dick Charlesworth, for I thought they were a little more professional than that, but it was just terrible! If that sells, well, I can’t see much hope for any of us. It is that kind of thing that drives people out of the business. That plodding rhythm like a ghost stalking round an empty house – plonk, plonk, plonk. Actually, I know he’s a good banjo player, but that was so uninspired. How can a band play like that today? Two years ago, one didn’t expect much, but the standard has improved in those two years and Charlesworth shouldn’t play as badly as that. The mistakes the trumpet player made – the record company shouldn’t have put the record out at all. And that awful vocal! She just sings the words without any semblance of phrasing or jazz styling at all. Lucky they have bowler hats – the hats may help their music; on that showing nothing else can.

“The Meetin'”. Oliver Nelson Sextet (Screamin’ The Blues). Esquire 32-148
That’s a refreshing modern sound after that trad stuff – the contrast was wonderful. It’s not too far out, being rather the equivalent of what I’d call modern-swing style. That far-out stuff has caused more people to put their heads in gas ovens than anything else I know. When trad becomes monotonous (and it does) one just gets bored, but when that modern gear gets monotonous it really tears the nerves apart. These modern­ists are technically first class, but playing so much in the minor, as they do, is apt to make them sound morbid and depressed. That kind of waltz tempo there was attractive – not original, Brubeck started it with his Take Five, but it is pleasing when not overdone. I have several records by Miles Davis, which I bought to listen to, but I daren’t play them at home. My missus calls it gas-oven music. One of the troubles of much of this modern jazz is that it goes on much too long, and the musicians haven’t all that to say. Keep it short and it can be attractive in small doses. I had the first modern band in the country, two years before anyone else, and I used to drive myself mad trying to blow that stuff. It was in the old bebop era, and I had Phil Seamen, Lennie Bush, Roy Plummer, Johnny Rodgers (alto), and Kenny Graham. I used to listen to those old bop records and we used to churn it out, but it wasn’t any use. I got so nervy I used to go to bed every night with a headache. Terrible, man – I cut it out.