One of the most remarkable bands of the late Swing Era was one lead by Ellington trumpet star, Cootie Williams. After leaving the Duke in 1940, and after precisely one year with Benny Goodman, Cootie formed his own Big Band. Their recordings made between 1942 and 1948, are a fascinating group of material for the variety of their aspects. They were recorded for a number of labels, feature a diverse personnel, and cover a number of stylistic bases. The wide array of material Williams’ covered paints a captivating aural snapshot of 1940s Jazz in transition.
The first batch of recordings, dating from April 1, 1942, began Williams’ recorded output from this period. They’re firmly in the Swing style (with one major exception), representing the various facets of the period: “Sleepy Valley,” a ballad, “Marcheta,” a medium tempo riff tune, with a vocal, and “When My Baby Left Me,” a vocal blues. It’s the fourth tune however that’s a curve ball; the first recording of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy!” Listed as “Fly Right,” it was brought to Williams from trumpeter, and Monk associate, Joe Guy. It’s arguably the earliest BeBop recording! “Fly Right” better known ever since as “Epistrophy” is admirably played by an ensemble still firmly entrenched in The Swing Era. Done for OKeh, this group of recordings was not commercially issued at the time. Williams would continue to dabble in the new language of Jazz in the coming years.
The infamous AFM recording ban of 1942-45, prevented Williams from entering the studio again, until 1944. On January fourth and sixth, the orchestra, as well as a smaller group, went into the studio for the independent record label Hit. Producing a dozen sides, they’re strikingly modern, as the band now includes tenorist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, and a teenaged Bud Powell as well as retaining its altoist Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, clearly already into Bird. The smaller group sides, waxed both days, feature exceptional solos from Williams, Vinson, Davis, and Powell; with “My Old Flame,” “Floogie Boo,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Do Some Work Baby,” most noteworthy. The full orchestra waxed four sides on the sixth, primarily vocals featuring Vinson (“Cherry Red Blues,” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”), and a young Pearl Bailey (“Now I Know,” “Tess’s Torch Song”). The arrangements are not BeBop, but splendidly voiced Swing, providing plenty of fodder for the soloists to work off.
The final session for Hit Records, August 22, 1944, is particularly noteworthy, for it produced the premier recording of “’Round Midnight!” It’s arranged in a straightforward Jazz ballad style, with Williams as the only soloist. It’s striking to hear one of Monk’s signature tunes played in such a manner, but it’s clearly within the context of its time; BeBop played in an orchestral setting. The arranger was Bill Doggett, later of great fame with his organ-sax combo and the number one record “Honky Tonk Part II”. Doggett stated that the arrangement called for a full chorus of solo piano for Bud Powell, but at the tempo “Round Midnight” was recorded at, the entire solo was taken out so the performance could fit on a 10” 78 RPM side. Cootie was so taken with “Round Midnight’, he made it the band’s Theme Song. By the way all the 1944 recordings by the Cootie Williams Orchestra were hits – Hit Records. Ya Dig!?
By the spring of 1945 Williams had a contract with Capitol, and the orchestra had undergone several personnel changes. Powell, mistreated by the authorities in Philadelphia, disappeared and Lockjaw Davis was long gone. Mr. Cleanhead was out for a time as he was drafted and inducted into the US Army at the tail end of World War II. Judging by their 1945 recordings, he band lost much of its modern “edge.” There were two sessions for Capitol, one on May 29th, and July 19th. On “Juice Head Baby,” “House Of Joy,” “Everything But You,” and “Jitterbug Serenade,” (among others) the band plays with plenty of spirit and rhythm, particularly Vinson, as vocalist and primary soloist after Williams, and overall it’s straight-ahead Jazz and Blues.
They had four more record sessions the following year, January 26th and 29th, July 5th, and September 11th. The recorded output continued much along the same lines; advanced swing-era arrangements with occasional solos, a fair amount of vocals (including Williams himself), and Blues. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Capitol recordings from this period is the number of unissued tracks and titles. Out of 17 total tracks, 9 went unissued! Granted some of these are alternate takes, but it’s interesting that more than half their songs were not released commercially at the time: including a two part “Jumping To Conclusions,” “Vibraphobia,” “Ain’t Got No Blues Today,” and (a bass feature) “Rhapsody in Bass.” Among issued tracks “Stingy Blues,” and “Wrong Neighborhood,” are worth mentioning. Nearly all the commercial issues were Blues and/or vocals, an indicator that Capitol wasn’t quite ready to release anything too modern.
The next group of recordings waxed by the Cootie Williams Orchestra for the Mercury label in late 1947. The band had been paired down by this point to essentially an octet, much smaller than a typical big band, but still large enough for harmonized ensemble passages. Producing four tracks, three are out-and-out Jazz instrumentals, “You Talk A Little Trash,” (a revamping of one of sextet sides for Hit in 1944), “Typhoon,” and “Smooth Sailing.” Williams improvises beautifully on these arrangements, as does tenor saxophonist Robert “Weasel” Parker. The one anomaly the session was the tune “I Love You, Yes I Do,” featuring the vocal group The Balladeers. It’s a slow ballad, and essentially a precursor to the Rhythm and Blues craze.
In 1948 Cootie Williams disbanded the orchestra, a sign of the changing economic status of Jazz. During its existence however, Williams saw fit to explore a variety of styles, and approaches: Swing, Blues, ballads, BeBop, and early Rhythm and Blues. Williams seems to have been content to try anything, so long as it was good music that had a danceable rhythm. Perhaps not groundbreaking, it’s thrilling none-the-less to hear – and who else was playing “Round Midnight” in 1944 and BeBop in general in 1942(!). The Cootie Williams Orchestra recordings allow the listener to chart the path of Jazz in transition during the 1940s.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]