The Watters Arrangements

April 22, 2010

Lu Watters was a cornetist and bandleader in San Francisco from 1939 when he formed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band until 1956 when he retired from playing. During the interim, he led one of the best-known traditional jazz bands of the era and one of the primary influences, along with the Los Angeles-based Firehouse Five Plus Two, and his protegé Turk Murphy of the traditional jazz or ‘Dixieland’ revival of the late 1940s. He also gave many of San Francisco’s traditional jazz musicians such as Turk Murphy their starts. As reported by the JazzBeat magazine,

Meanwhile in California, a bunch of disaffected swing musicians began to work on some of the old jazz numbers of the twenties as a welcome relief from playing dance music from arrangements. The unofficial leader of this group was trumpeter Lu Watters.

Lu soon discovered that he wasn’t alone in being bored to tears with big band jazz. A handful of Bay Area jazzmen began meeting for after-hours sessions at the Big Bear Tavern, a roadhouse in the Berkeley hills. Gradually these sessions coalesced into a rehearsal band, which practiced atop the Mark Twain Hotel, but never actually played a job. He reorganized that band early in 1940 when he decided his band had to have two trumpets- his new band included himself and Byron Berry on trumpets, Bob Helm on clarinet, Turk Murphy on trombone, Forrest Browne, piano, Benny Johnson, banjo, Dick Lammi, bass and Gordon Edwards, drums. By that summer, Berry, Johnson and Edwards left, to be replaced by Bob Scobey, Clancy Hayes and Bill Dart.

Watters’ group, soon renamed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band,  was known as a highly arranged band. Although the majority of the pieces they played were tunes well-known to the traditional jazz fan, Watters also wrote a number of originals as well, such as Annie Street Rock, Big Bear Stomp and others. Some of his band members – notably Turk Murphy –  also wrote tunes for the band. The vast majority were arranged by Watters himself and have formed a subset of the standards in the genre.

However, although the Watters arrangements are very distinctive and have an instantly recognizable sound, they are not the easiest to play. The reason for this is due to the fact that they are mostly hand-written arrangements, which have been photocopied and mimeographed (bonus question: anyone remember mimeographs?) multiple times, rendering their legibility somewhat questionable. the second reason is that Watters’ roadmaps were not exactly what I would refer to as intuitive. The Watters charts tend to have multiple areas of ambiguity coupled with non-intuitive repeats and returns to earlier sections with little documentation. These  idiosyncracies make the Watters charts something of a challenge, especially on those numbers that are standards, such as Tiger Rag or Tin Roof Blues. Watters gave his own ideas to these charts and the results, which clearly recognizable to the listener, can drive musicians quite literally up a wall.

However, that being said, Watters had an excellent ear for arranging and his arrangements, when played as designed, are wonderful pieces. And the best part is that according to Bob Schulz, who was Turk Murphy‘s last trumpeter,

Lu Watters was fairly free with his music- he had piles of arrangements lying around his cottage and young bands would visit and he’d let go of an arrangement or two. Finally he made a deal with Dr Ed Lawless, one of his biggest fans, under which the arrangements were preserved and duplicated and now anyone in the world can buy Lu’s arrangements and start a band. As Bunk Johnson would have said, “they are hot as written.”

The Lu Watters arrangements are available today by contacting Jim Jones at Yestertunes.com although there appear to be copied or mimeographed copies floating around through other sources as well – most of the traditional bands in the San Francisco Bay Area have at least a part of the Watters library in their repertoire, thus keeping at least a part of the spirit of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band alive.


Trombonology

April 21, 2010

Back on April 1, I wrote a post on Turk Murphy’s famous showpiece The Trombone Rag. This got me to thinking about other famous jazz works for trombone  and so I thought I would write a series based on some of these famous showpieces. This week’s entry deals with one of the most demanding of them, Tommy Dorsey‘s Trombonology.

Tommy Dorsey is widely considered one of the greatest jazz trombonists of all time. Though he has been overshadowed by later artists such as J.J. Johnson, Dorsey remains the premier Swing Era trombonist. His jazz skills were perhaps not as sharp as those of Jack Teagarden but his technique and his range were unsurpassed. His phrasing in particular has been often-imitated, most famously by Frank Sinatra who admitted that Dorsey taught him to sing.

In 1947, Dorsey had just re-constituted his orchestra and Trombonology was written at this time. It premiered on the 1947 78-RPM record Vic 20-2419, as reported in the liner notes of the album Tommy Dorsey: The Post-War Era. Unlike the back-story to Turk Murphy’s Trombone Rag, there is very little information available about why Tommy wrote the piece leaving me to suspect that he simply wanted a challenge. Dorsey was a notorious perfectionist and the piece was admirably suited to show off both his amazing breath control and his astonishing range – the piece ends on a high F two octaves above the staff and is held for a full four measures.

Trombonology contains absolutely no improvisation at all – it is entirely written out. This is not surprising as Dorsey reportedly preferred to do written solos as opposed to improvisational solos, although he could and did improvise with great skill.  However, as  a demonstration of technique the piece is difficult to surpass. Trombonology is usually taken at a fairly fast pace, requiring the soloist to have a complete mastery of the instrument in order to successfully negotiate the many interval jumps. In addition, the piece is mostly legato, requiring an extraordinarily smooth slide technique. Needless to say, it is not a piece for beginners.

A recording of Dorsey performing his piece can be found on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1pv2M_I1B4

An arrangement for trombone and piano can be found at:

http://www.tenorposaune.com/sheetmusic.php under the Trombone Solos tab.

Hat tip for the link to www.tenorposaune.com to the Classic Brass blog.


Marge Champion Still Dancing

April 13, 2010

This may be slightly off-topic, but it is something I find interesting. I have long had a deep interest and liking for the classic Disney masterpieces – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia, etc. Essentially the Disney films from 1938, when Snow White premiered, to the end of World War II. Of these classic films, I have a slight preference for Snow White, both for the unique look and feel of the film and for its enduring charm – the film is as fresh and enjoyable on the thousandth viewing as it is on the first, unlike so many films (including most of Disney’s more recent efforts).

I had always been aware that just as Snow White’s voice was provided by the late Adriana Caselotti, her movements (and according to an article by David Johnson at AnimationArtist.com , much of her facial appearance as well) were performed by a young dancer named Marge Belcher (better known as Marge Champion). Miss Belcher was hired by the Disney studios in 1934, and for the next three years, she provided the young fairy-tale princess with a living body for the animators to use as their model. Dressed in a rough approximation of Snow White’s famous costume, she was filmed doing the many actions that the princess was to perform in the final film – drawing water from a well, praying by a little bed, running through an enchanted forest and of course biting into an apple.

I had thought that Ms. Champion had long since passed, so I was surprised to discover that she is still performing at the ripe age of ninety. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Ms Champion is currently working with David Saddler and will be the subject of an upcoming documentary called Keep Dancing. Besides being the live model for Snow White, she modeled for other famous Disney characters including the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio and remembers her time in the Disney studios fondly. Of her work on Snow White, the article says,

“He told me to call him Uncle Walt because I was too young to call him Walt,” Champion recalls. From the age of 14, Champion performed scenes as Snow White for the animators. “It was maybe one or two or three days a month,” she says. “They shot me on 16-millimeter film, and I could do enough in a day’s work to keep them busy for two weeks.”

She says the process of playing Snow White was simple. “When Snow White was running through the forest and scared to death, they had ropes hanging from a clothesline so I would be pushing them aside,” recalls Champion. “If there was a bed where Show White had to go pray, they had a cot there so I could kneel beside it. It was always very rudimentary and very hot lights, because they wanted as strong a contrast as possible.”

Every frame of her footage was rotoscoped — traced — by the animators. “They didn’t use every frame, but they couldn’t get the movement or my moves or my eyes without it.”

Ms Champion is to be congratulated on her continuing performing career and her contributions to one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements. Without Marge Champion’s contributions, it is unlikely that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could have been completed. Not only did Ms. Champion give the animators the ability to bring life to the main character’s movements, but she also contributed a fair amount of her own natural charm to the winsome heroine, as any perusal of the surviving film of her live-action performances will quickly show.


Upcoming Events

April 5, 2010

I will be leading the Turk Island Jazz Band at the Hayward Retired Teachers’ Association luncheon tomorrow. I will be performing on April 25 at the South Bay Jazz Society as a part of the great banjoist Pat Dutrow’s Jazz Meisters. So far those are the only performances set for the month of April, though there are some other things in the works. Once those are finalized, I will of course update this post.

I have been asked on a number of occasions if I intend to post my own personal schedule of upcoming performances here at Newcomb’s Notations. The answer is no, I already have an up-to-date schedule posted at my official homepage, and I have not yet been able to create a ‘sticky’ post here on WordPress that a constantly updated schedule would require. Should I mange to create such a post, I will of course post that information here on Newcomb’s Notations.

But for now, the best place to keep up to date on my performance schedule is to check my MySpace page – it contains both an up to date schedule and some samples of the kind of music I prefer to perform.


Happy Easter

April 5, 2010

Happy Easter to all my gentle readers! Easter is one of the traditionally busy seasons for musicians of all genres, and we traditional jazz musicians are no exception. Thus I spent a pleasurable couple of hours performing with the Barrelhouse Jazz Band for the Montclair Presbyterian Church on Sunday.

We performed a number of traditional jazz numbers that fit well in a religious environment, including such standards as Down By The Riverside and Shall We Gather At The River. We also performed a rousing prelude and postlude of tunes from our repertoire, including the classic Ory’s Creole Trombone. This proved to be an entertaining experience, as I had my small son with me and he enhanced the performance by weaving his toy planes through my slide as I performed the Ory showpiece. This made the piece somewhat more difficult than it might otherwise have been, but I successfully negotiated these challenges and finished the piece without any mishaps. Afterwards, I was told by a number of parishioners that they had found watching the performance one of the most entertaining things they had seen in some years! i am delighted that it proved to be enjoyable, but I would not recommend combining musical performances with watching one’s children!

A few words about playing in churches would be in order as well. Church services are unique in that the church choir director is usually responsible for starting and ending tunes. This can lead to some interesting experiences, especially if the band and the choir use different tempos in their renditions! Fortunately this did not occur yesterday, as the choir director had done her homework and had matched the choir to the band and vice versa.  The other thing about church services that stands out is the necessity of keeping one eye on the events taking place in the church itself. For example, if one is performing during a Communion or Offertory service, one must constantly be ready to end as soon as the event itself is actually complete, so as to avoid dragging things out unnecessarily.

In addition, church acoustics tend to be of a wide variety. Some churches are well-designed while others are not. So one must be constantly aware of one’s intonation, volume and balance, as it is easy to make mistakes. And it is especially important to watch one’s volume as most churches have a high degree of echo and reverberation built-in. Finally, one must be careful to listen to the choir when performing. Church choirs are largely made up of well-meaning and enthusiastic amateurs. Very few have any real experience singing with bands and often tend to get out of balance. At that point, it is the musician’s responsibility to correct the problem – the choir is unlikely to realize the problem. It is especially important not to get into a volume escalation.

Having said that, performing in churches is an entertaining and enjoyable experience. Choirs and choir directors are usually delighted to perform with instrumental musicians and a good choir director is a pleasure to work with. Yesterday was no exception. The choir and the choir director did very well and the congregation certainly seemed to enjoy the experience. As did we.


Newcomb’s Notations Grand Re-Opening

April 1, 2010

I regret that I have been somewhat busy for the past year-plus and have neglected to keep my blog up to date. This state of affairs is not to my preference and I intend to correct it. Therefore, I am announcing that from April 1, 2010, Newcomb’s Notations will once again be regularly updated with my thoughts on topics that catch my interest. As the name suggests, this is primarily a musical blog, but I may at times branch out to cover areas tht are only loosely connected to music.

I trust that my readers forgive the lapse and as always, I look forward to any reader feedback. Welcome back!

Update: I’m sticking this post to the front page for the next couple of weeks, until the news dribbles out.


Learning Piano – Part One

April 1, 2010

I am finally learning to play the piano. My mother was a piano teacher, and i took lessons from her for three years from the time I was six until i was nine. Unfortunately, I failed to learn very much from her. This is not at all her fault. I was a notoriously bad student, with little or no interest in learning piano.  Upon reaching adulthood, I regretted that I had not listened and learned more from her when I had the opportunity. She did help me out immensely with chords and basic musicality, but I never took full advantage of her talents as a teacher.

However, after my mother passed away, I found myself the owner of her baby Steinway grand piano. While this instrument has great personal meaning for me, I began to feel that it was a waste of a good instrument for it to be serving merely as furniture, so I determined to make another attempt to learn to at least play simple melodies on the instrument. To this end, I signed up for beginning class piano over at the local junior college, and beginning in September of 2008, I began attending classes two days a week.

I was fortunate my instructor is the bass trombonist for our local symphony orchestra, and he and I seem to get along fairly well. We use the Alfred’s Adult All-In-One course, which combines theory and technique. I will have more to say about this book later.

I have found that while the actual reading and theory portions of the course are extremely easy, my greatest difficulty comes from my lack of any real technique on the instrument. Thus, while I can easily understand how a particular exercise SHOULD sound, I find difficulty in making my fingers actually do what I tell them to. This is partially due to my damaged hands and partly due to my lack of skill! However, I have been quite gratified at my progress thus far. I find that I enjoy the course, and I have managed to begin to attain a small modicum of ability on this instrument. while I have a long way to go, I have begun to be able to make sounds that approximate music on the instrument, as opposed to gross caterwauling.