JJ 04/82: Oscar Alemán – swing guitarist /1

Forty years ago Tomás Mooney offered a well-informed assessment of the singular Argentinian guitarist, contemporary of, and often compared to Django Reinhardt. First published in Jazz Journal April 1982

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Oscar Alemán

“Alemán is so grand that if anyone ever mentions Django Reinhardt to me again I shall stare coldly.” This threat, made by ‘Rophone’ in The Melody Maker of 25/3/39, was perhaps the biggest critical splash made in Great Britain by guitarist (also dancer, vocalist, bassist, percussionist and composer) Oscar Alemán during his stay in Europe. Alemán, who died just over a year ago, is an unknown jazzman rather than the mythical ‘underrated’ one. To Europeans with long memories he is something of a legend, as well.

I saw Alemán perform several times in the seventies – a wiry little man who played his old chestnuts accompanied by a group way below his own level, for an audience of nostalgic over-fifties. Like late Armstrong, going through the motions, maybe, but like Armstrong never losing that swing, that stage presence, which made him much more than a parody of his former self. He was an entertainer like so many great jazzmen of his generation, and music was only part (the most important if you like) of his act. He joked with the public, had a lot of hokum tricks such as playing the guitar upside-down or on his back, and when he danced (just a few steps, years were heavy) he knocked them out.

My personal acquaintance with Alemán was very limited, a few intermission talks that left me with the impression of a lively, extroverted, emotional man. One moment he was crying, the next laughing — I have seen it. He had a strong personality on stage and off it, typical of the great swing-men, that makes them inimitable and irre­placeable. His great self-esteem made him hard for Buenos Aires’ provincial jazz world to swallow. Jazz fans, with their Hot Club and Bop Club, and their preference for the amateur who plays within the rules over the professional who plays for a living, never came fully to terms with this man who was neither into trad nor bop and who, to top it all, dropped a Brazilian tune or some antics when you least expected it, without paying any attention to the experts’ outcries. His fabulous tales about jam sessions with Hawkins, Armstrong, Bill Coleman, or about how he received an offer from Duke Ellington gave him the reputation of a braggart – a kind of South American Jelly Roll Morton. And, as was the case with the original, his tales were more often than not based on truth. In contrast to fans and critics, the general public (less interested in polemics than in dancing) accepted him to such a degree it can be said Alemán was a leading name in Argentinian show-biz of the forties and fifties, which is remarkable considering the strong competition from native music dur­ing one of its brightest periods.

Alemán was not one of the pace-setters of jazz guitar. He might have been, were it not for his long absence from the world’s jazz centres. Paradoxically, his being out­side the jazz mainstream during his forma­tive years had something to do with his originality. Oscar Marcelo Alemán was born February 20th, 1909 in Resistencia, Province of El Chaco, Argentina. His father, Jorge Alemán Moreira, a guitarist, led a folk troupe touring Argentina and Brazil, in which young Oscar was a dancer. The family soon broke up – Jorge Alemán committed suicide shortly after his wife’s death, and Oscar found himself alone in the streets of Santos (Brazil) at 10 years of age. In that largely black city, exposed to an Afro-American music rhythmically richer (though less developed harmoni­cally) than the jazz of the time, Alemán learned to play by ear – he could never read music. In 1922 he got his first instru­ment, a cavaquinho (four-stringed Brazilian ukelele) he always kept and played, which can be heard in OA 1926 (13). Soon after he left his bellhop job to form a duet, Les Loups, with Gaston Bueno Lobo. Both played several string in­struments, Spanish and Hawaiian guitars and cavaquinho, in all kinds of combina­tions. “I always liked Brazilian music”, he recalled, “but I think even then, more than 40 years ago, I liked American harmony better.” This experience is at the basis of Alemán’s style. The rhythmic looseness and kind of percussiveness in his jazz solos stems from Brazil. Not that he was a pre­decessor of today’s fusion players, but he used, perhaps unconsciously, elements in­trinsic in his musical background; his alphabet was Brazilian. Although he kept playing Latin music up to the end, he never jazzed it, but was always very careful to maintain each genre’s authenticity.

Josephine Baker: ‘Where on earth shall I find a man who can sing in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian, who dances, who’s black, who plays guitar, cavaquinho, tambourine, bass, drums, and who (to top it all) is a good guy?’

By 1927 Les Loups went to Buenos Aires where they played in many places, appeared on radio, and got a recording contract with Victor. That was an achieve­ment in itself; Victor’s standards were as demanding in Argentina as everywhere, and then (as now) it was not common for a big label to record guitar duets of limited commercial appeal. Between late 1927 and early 1929 they cut at least seven sessions (1) and a couple more with violinist Elvino Vardaro added, as Trio Victor. These clear-sounding old 78s (that should be reissued) show fine interplay, virtuosity, good taste, sense of rhythm – but no jazz, though a few fox-trots were recorded besides waltzes and tangos. But Alemán was assimilating new influences: “My idol in those days was Eddie Lang. I used to buy his records, on which he was accompanied by a pianist and later with Venuti and his group.

“I made an important step upwards in my development, with black tap-dancer Harry Flemming. He brought several coloured soloists who showed me the meaning of improvisation, of playing according to the feeling one has at the moment.” Harry Flemming from the Vir­gin Islands was an entrepreneur-dancer-ad­venturer-gigolo (and part-time boxer!) who went around a good part of the world lead­ing a revue which included a 15-piece band. At one time or another in his career, musicians such as trumpeter Tommy Ladnier and trombonists Herb Flemming (no relation) and Albert Wynn were with him, though turnover was quite high be­cause Mr Flemming was in the habit of “forgetting” to pay his personnel. Les Loups joined Flemming’s company, with which they sailed to Europe on February 1929 and worked in several countries (mainly Spain) for the next two years. They were billed as Hawaiian guitarists, and wore white clothes and flower garlands … “I had a number with Harry Flemming – just the two of us on stage, each one with a spotlight. I played Ramona on cavaquinho and he danced, kept the rhythm with his feet. Such a large man … about 1.85 meters tall, and it seemed as if he caressed the floor with those steel soles … it killed them! At a given moment he lifted me up, and at the end, we made as if we quarrelled and he chased me out.”

Early in 1931 Les Loups parted on good terms. Alemán gigged for some months in Spain, with several groups or as a solo act. Near the end of that year he joined Jose­phine Baker’s company, a job he kept on and off until 1939. When not on tour he lived in Paris, where he soon met many of the American musicians who had settled there, in jam sessions and gigs. This was crucial to his development as a jazzman. Exposure to men like Bill Coleman (who Alemán admitted was his main jazz influence) resulted in his definitive take-off as a jazz player. He always had high regard for Freddie Taylor’s orchestra, in which he had the guitar chair for some time: “They played my way, or perhaps I learned to play their way and it never wore off.” He was also featured on BBC broadcasts with Willie Lewis, and led his own bands at several Parisian venues, mainly the ‘Chantilly’. It was at this time that he met Duke Ellington, during the Duke’s his­torical 1933 tour, and was offered a place in the band – which Josephine Baker opposed. “Where on earth shall I find a man”, Alemán recalls she said, “who can sing in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian, who dances, who’s black, who plays guitar, cavaquinho, tambourine, bass, drums, and who (to top it all) is a good guy? And you want to steal him from me?” In this way she convinced both Alemán and Ellington to desist … As a souvenir of this episode Alemán kept a picture of the Ellington orchestra dedicated and autographed by all its members.

‘I knew Django Reinhardt well. He used to say jazz was gipsy – we often argued over that. I agree with many Americans I met in France who said he played very well but with too many gipsy tricks’

There was Django Reinhardt, of course. ‘Rophone’ was not the only one to compare them – it happens frequently (favourably or not) in the few references to Alemán in jazz literature. I think it is based more on a coincidence of time and space than on musical reasons. Anyone who listens with care to the records will notice there is only a superficial likeness between them and that it is not difficult to differentiate them. Alemán had a style less baroque than Django’s, more paused, with more silences – a kind of stateliness, as well as a marked preference for the low register, a very personal vibrato, a ‘hammered’ way of phrasing, alternating (often within the same solo) with elaborate traceries. Alemán’s solos seem to be more thought out than Django’s. They are full of surprises, but nonetheless they have an air of premeditation, unlike Django’s, which suggest something fully spontaneous. Django was also more expressive, he had a wider emotional range. “I knew Django Reinhardt well. He used to say jazz was gipsy – we often argued over that. I agree with many Americans I met in France who said he played very well but with too many gipsy tricks. He had very good technique for both hands, or rather one hand and pick, because he always played with a pick. Not me, I play with the fingers. There are things you can’t do with a pick – you can’t strike the treble with two fingers and play something else on the bass string.” (Alemán used a pick fastened to the thumb with a ring, playing either with it or with the fingers. He also favoured rather slack strings. In Europe he played a metal-bodied guitar, but after his return to Argentina a more conventional one, not unlike Django’s – amplified.) “But I admired him and he was my friend. He was my greatest friend in France. We played together many times, just for ourselves. I used to go to his wagon, where he lived. I’ve slept and eaten there – and also played! He had three or four guitars. Django never asked anyone to go to his wagon, but he made an exception with me. I appreciated him, and I believe the feeling was mutual.” When asked who was his favourite guitar player Alemán always mentioned without hesitation Charlie Christian, and in second place Oscar Moore who, he said, “played in my way, though we never met”.

With Josephine Baker, Alemán sang, danced, and played string and percussion instruments, often as a special feature. He also directed the orchestra, something remarkable for a non-reading musician. It is strange he did not regularly record with her, except for one 1934 session – just two titles I have failed to locate. At about the same time, also in Paris, he had a career for some months as a studio guitarist, recording with artists as dissimilar as Corsican tenor Tino Rossi, Lina D’Acosta, black comedian Zaydee Jackson, Rafael Medina and maybe others. Lacking further information about these sessions (all from 1934/35) of unlikely jazz value, I shall be very grateful to any reader who can send me additional data.

Between March 1935 and April 1939 Alemán cut several jazz dates both as a sideman and under his own name. Most are listed in Rust and have been reissued on LP – this period of his work is of easier access to Europeans. Jan Evensmo studies in detail each guitar solo from these sessions in one of his solographies (16), a highly commendable work, as his remarks are always pertinent and help one to a better appreciation of the music. Mr Evensmo is working on a new edition that will include a complete discography and comments on all recordings (even South American and unissued ones) as well as a detailed biography by Willy Olliver based on a number of interviews.

All these 78s are fine examples of Euro-American swing of the thirties – great stuff. Sometimes OA solos very little or not at all, as in Freddie Taylor’s March 1935 date (2) (no solos) or Eddie Brunner’s of 13/6/38 (4) with only one Alemán chorus on Montmartre Blues. Most rewarding are Bill Coleman’s 31/1/36 session (3) where Alemán solos on both recorded tunes (one of them Ellington’s Joe Louis Stomp, which he always kept in his book) and a Danny Polo date of 30/1/39 (6), produced by Leonard Feather, which prompted Rophone’s comment. There are also a few short solos by OA on the 12 1938 sides released as ‘Orchestre Musette Victor’ or ‘L’Accordeoniste Gus Viseur Et L’Orchestre Victor’ (1) by French Columbia (?), unlisted in Rust, on which drummer Tommy Benford and Swiss clarinettist Eddie Brunner were present. By the way, this was a working unit, not a pick-up group. That will give us an idea of the kind of jobs the expatriates had in Paris when they were not recording for M. Delaunay. I have not been able to confirm Alemán’s presence in an ‘Orchestre Jazz Victor’ date (1) (this time on French Pathe!) also from 1938, said to include trumpeter Aime Barelli and tenors Noel Chiboust and Alix Combelle. Again, I shall be pleased to hear from any reader who can throw light upon this elusive session. Alemán’s records as a sideman display two aspects of his musical personality rarely heard on the sessions made under his own leadership. Firstly, his ability to make a complete and meaningful solo statement in a few bars. Secondly, his interesting work as a rhythm guitarist – his full and precise chords make a great contribution to rhythm section swing, and his way of varying the accompaniment behind each soloist helps to colour the performances.

A 78 was released as ‘(Danish) Jam Session’ by a group of two Latin Americans (OA and excellent Brazilian drummer Bibi Miranda) and four Danes. Today from such a combination we would get an ECM album, but at that time it would give hotter results

There are two other European recordings on which Alemán can be heard at length in very distinctive solos. The first was cut in Copenhagen on 5/12/38 (5). A 78 was released as ‘(Danish) Jam Session’ by a group of two Latin Americans (OA and excellent Brazilian drummer Bibi Miranda) and four Danes. Today from such a combination we would get an ECM album, but at that time it would give hotter results, as is shown here. Both sides swing like mad. The two Danish soloists (violinist Sven Asmussen and reedman Henry Hagemann) play very well, but Alemán is the star. He can be heard continuously in solo, accompanying, or in the ensemble, and I think the arrangements are also his, they sound very much like his later groups. All of his solos are very good and typical of him, particularly the chorus on Sweet Sue, rhythmically loose (he plays hide-and-seek around the beat) and sporting his personal ‘crying’ vibrato. On the same date two unaccompanied guitar solos were cut. I suppose they are samples of the kind of features Alemán had with Josephine Baker. They belong in the same category as some guitar solos and duets by Eddie Lang and other artists of the twenties and thirties, though they are quite different in style. ‘Jazzy’ rather than jazz, they are showcases for OA’s finger-picking, with no improvisation but ornamentation around the melodic line. They also point back to Les Loups. Whispering has a clear Latin American tinge, its mood reminiscent of a Brazilian choro. Years later Alemán developed its beautiful intro into a tango called Al Gran Horacio Salgán (15). Both Whispering and its coupling Nobody’s Sweetheart are full of Latin American guitar licks such as false harmonics and tremolos, not usual at all in jazz. These four sides are worth this long comment because they condense the main aspects of Alemán’s art.

The other especially interesting date is the one by Oscar Alemán Trio of 5/4/39 (5, 7), his last one in Europe. Bassist Wilson Myers (who has also played and/or recorded with Bechet, Ellington and Benny Carter) almost steals the show here with his gruff and individual arco sound, as well as his groovy singing on three of the four recorded tunes. Rhythm guitarist John Mitchell rounds up the trio. Myers and the leader trade solos energetically, making for a high-spirited swinging session of pretty even quality. My favourites are Just A Little Swing, a nice OA original with great guitar solos in the ‘hammered’ style, and Jeepers Creepers.

To be continued, with references