Nowadays, nobody realizes that the first Jazz Big Bands emerged in the 1920s, The Jazz Age, well before The Swing Era when Count Basie came up from Kansas City and Benny Goodman took Jazz to the stage of Carnegie Hall. If there is any recognition of the first Big Bands back 1920s, then it comes with the realization that the Duke Ellington Orchestra was up and operational in The Jazz Age and debuted at The Cotton Club on December 4, 1927. Serious Jazz aficionado may know about the Jazz Age Big Bands through their survey of the pioneer of Big Band Jazz, Fletcher Henderson and the attendant realization that “Smack’s” (Henderson’s nickname was “Smack”) Kingdom of Jazz began no later than 1924.
But during the period, another name would be any list of Jazz Kings, Charlie Johnson. In fact, until Ellington’s rise to prominence in the later 20s, Johnson, and his Paradise Orchestra, was better known, than Duke. If Johnson is recalled at all today, it’s as the band with which Benny Carter made his first recordings. There’s a bit more to the story than that though.
Charlie Johnson, 1891-1959, rose to fame as pianist and leader of the house orchestra at the famous Jazz Age nightclub Smalls’ Paradise, leading the band there from 1925-1931 and again for awhile a few years later. Smalls was a Harlem institution, very much like the Cotton Club, its main competition, providing dancing, and a lavish floor show, for the well-heeled. Unlike, The Cotton Club, Smalls’ Paradise was a “Black and Tan” operation – anybody could be a customer. Indeed, Smalls’ Paradise was Black owned and Ed Smalls, the owner, was the grandnephew of Robert Smalls, the Afro-American Naval hero of The Civil war and, also, a Congressman – the last African American from Reconstruction to serve.
Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra played a variety of material, production numbers, popular tunes, and alike, but excelled at hot Jazz. Johnson’s Paradise Orch. was a typical Jazz Age tentette, with arrangements and overall style in the prevailing Henderson-Redman model, and a number of most capable soloists, including Carter, trumpeters Sidney DeParis and Jabbo Smith, trombonist Jimmy Harrison, multi talented Edgar Sampson, tenor saxophonist Benny Waters, and drummer George Stafford. Most fortunately the band was well recorded, enabling all to hear this most astounding band.
Beginning with Victor recordings of February 1927, the band’s concept and quality is fully operational. Hot trumpeter Jabbo Smith and trombonist Charlie Irvis (formerly with Ellington), had joined the band, and are well heard on the quality Victor releases. February 25th produced five recordings, “Paradise Wobble,” “Birmingham Black Bottom,” (two takes), and “Don’t You Leave Me Here,” (two takes). Monette Moore’s adequate vocals aside, they’re quite hot, with plenty of fine solos from Smith, banjoist Bobby Johnson (not related to the leader but the brother of Howard “The Swan” Johnson), and Irvis.
In 1928 the band had two recording sessions, in January and September. The first featured newcomers Benny Carter, and Edgar Sampson, producing six recordings; two takes of three tunes “You Ain’t The One,” “Charleston Is The Best Dance After All,” and “Hot-Tempered Blues.” Carter was featured in both the reed section, as well as arranger for “You Ain’t,” and “Charleston.” Hot solos continue to abound, with other notable moments including Sampson’s hot violin obbligato behind Moore’s vocal on “You Ain’t,” and clarinet trio, Carter’s sax writing on “Charleston,” and a string of fine, bluesy solos, including Sampson, on violin, on “Hot-Tempered Blues.”
By the September ’28 session, Carter had left the band, but the arrival of Sidney DeParis and Jimmy Harrison results in a superior band. The session produced six tunes, “Getting’ Away From Me,” (which was rejected and never issued, two takes of “The Boy in The Boat,” and three (!) takes of “Walk That Thing.” All are notable. With its minor key, and moody feel, “The Boy in The Boat,” features solos from Harrison, and some outstanding growl work from DeParis, while with fine improvisation, and exceptional rhythm section work, the up-tempo “Walk That Thing” is the very definition of Hot Jazz. The band had one other session that month, recording hot versions of the two popular tunes “Take Your Tomorrow,” and “Dusky” Stevedore,” for Marathon Records.
Their final batch of recordings, from May 8, 1929 yielded five numbers, two takes of “Harlem Drag,” and “Hot Bones and Rice,” and one take of “Mo’lasses,” which unbelievably was thought lost, but a Test pressing surfaced last year (2012)! “Drag,” and “Bones,” are slow to medium tempo, Bluesy instrumentals, with consistently fine solos, and ensemble passages. The standout is the recently discovered “Mo’Lasses,” the final piece recorded that day, and a rather fitting end to Johnson’s recording history. It’s a really superb aural snapshot of the band at their hottest, with solos from Waters, on tenor, George Stevenson on trombone (who replaced Harrison), and Sidney DeParis, and lots of contrasting textural and harmonic passages, as well as chromatic parallel ninth chords, (the latest in 1920s modernism).
As great as Johnson’s Orchestra was, they are unremembered; certainly not in Harlem where Smalls’ Paradise still stands. They remained at Smalls through 1935, and Johnson led the band until 1938, freelancing thereafter, before retiring in the 1950s. He lacked the creative drive, and genius of Ellington, and the consistent innovations, and the best soloists of Henderson. For a few short years though, he was on top, possessing one of the hottest bands in the land, with a number of recordings capturing quintessential hot 1920s Jazz for the ages.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]