Monday, January 23, 2017

Sidney Bechet and the New Orleans Feetwarmers * 1932

Sweetie Dear (Jordan/Cook)
I Want You Tonight (Bechet/Maxey)
I've Found a New Baby (Williams/Palmer)
Lay Your Racket (Bechet/Maxey)
Maple Lead Rag (Joplin)
Shag (Bechet)

Sidney Bechet * clarinet, soprano saxophone
Tommy Ladnier * trumpet
Teddy Nixon * trombone
Hank Duncan * piano
Wilson Myers * bass, vocals on "I Want You Tonight" and "Shag"
Morris Morand * drums 
Billy Maxey * vocal on "Lay Your Racket"

In 1932, Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier declared fleeting independence from commercial music, broke free from Noble Sissle's orchestra, and on September 15, recorded six of the finest sides of their careers. The New Orleans reed man and Louisiana trumpet player had met, oddly enough, in Moscow in 1926 while touring through the Soviet Union, and had recorded with Sissle's group just prior to their own small combo formation. They named the group the New Orleans Feetwarmers, and though the vogue for small ensemble hot jazz was quickly fading, these sides shout like a cry of freedom, remaining among Bechet's crowning achievements.

The New Orleans Feetwarmers weren't just a studio organization, but a gigging band, playing around White Plains, NY, and in Jersey City while they built up repertoire. The night before these historic recordings were made, the sextet opened New York's Savoy Ballroom, billed as "Ladnier and Bechet's New Orleans Feetwarmers."  

Bechet gets composition credits on half the numbers. His clarinet soloing is unusual and aggressive on "Sweetie Dear"--a study in his shocking brilliance. He's soulfully bluesy on "I Want You Tonight", but nothing can prepare anyone for his soprano sax tour de force on "I've Found a New Baby." From his masterful use of delay, seemingly stepping in and out of time over the barlines, to his fast triplet figures, jazz just doesn't get better than this. He pivots from lyrical and dazzling within split seconds, diving and soaring at will. Anyone who believes New Orleans style jazz is somehow less advanced than more self-consciously intellectual and modernist styles needs to check this out. The Soprano Sax virtuosity continues on his own "Lay Your Racket" and, especially "Maple Leaf Rag", which is up there with "I've Found a New Baby" as an unsurpassably brilliant interpretation of the tune. Throughout these recordings, his use of trills on both clarinet and soprano sax is exciting and unique, worthy of study for all musicians hoping to expand their ideas.

For as brilliant as they sounded, the New Orleans Feetwarmers weren't long for this world. The tastes in New York had already shifted, and Hot Jazz was becoming increasingly unfashionable as the sweet music crooners began taking over the gigging scene. The great depression was taking it's toll and most nightclubs couldn't afford hiring a five or six piece band on a regular basis, opting instead for a pianist alone (Chilton 90). It would be another couple of years before Benny Goodman's band could bring back a hotter style, albeit primarily in the form of a big band.

If the Feetwarmers had overarching societal problems contributing to their demise, there were also internal problems. Bechet and Ladnier quarrelled over leadership and billing, and at one point after a gig, drummer Morris Morand  got into a fight with Bechet, even threatening to kill him (Chilton, 95). Bechet, as usual, moved on quickly to join Willie "The Lion" Smith at Pod's and Jerry's Club, and the Feetwarmers were no more. In the end, they left us one brilliant session, consisting of six tunes, among which are two or three that will never be topped. For that we can all be grateful.    

Recommended reading:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. OUP (New York). 1987

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