This is the second part of my attempt to document the under-heard tradition of astounding jazz trombone work. The first part of the series is here.
In Paris, 1937
This LP documents a record date that Dicky Wells lead in Paris while he was on a European tour with the Teddy Hill band. A year or two later Wells would join the Count Basie Orchestra and participate in some of the great canonical jazz records with Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Basie’s All-American rhythm section. Small group dates led by trombone players are incredibly rare in the 30’s, especially if the trombonist isn’t named Jack Teagarden. The entire record features jazz trombone playing of the absolute highest order.
My personal history with Dicky Wells goes back to high school, when I was first discovering jazz. Among the first three jazz recordings I got from the local public library was a Count Basie record that had a few Wells solos (the other two were a Louis Armstrong greatest hits record and a CD of great Fats Waller cuts). My local library also had a copy of Wells’ quasi-autobiography called “Night People” which he narrated to historian Stanley Dance. The ladies that ran the check out counter at Baraboo Public Library certainly got to know me very well over four years of nightly visits to pick up countless held jazz CDs. However, during my college years, I forgot about Wells and focused on more contemporary trombone styles.
Then in grad school, when I told my teacher Anthony Coleman about my frustrations over playing with incredible virtuosic saxophonists, he reminded me of the Herculean task that Dicky Wells faced every night on the bandstand with Count Basie. Night after night, after amazing Lester Young solos, he managed to stand up to play something on the trombone that wasn’t totally forgettable. Something that had integrity. Something that swung. Amazing! Lester Young may have changed the vocabulary of jazz improvisation, but Dicky Wells showed that there was always room for another unique voice to be heard.
This record features a relatively young Dicky Wells totally playing his butt off. I love the infectious enthusiasm of the two opening tracks “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (when someone shouts “Yeah!” during the shout chorus, I practically can’t contain myself) and “Bugle Call Rag” (during which Django Reinhardt really lights a fire under the Wells’ solo).
They real centerpiece of the record, though, is “Dicky Wells Blues”, which has to be one of the longest recorded trombone solos before ~1946 (when J.J. Johnson started recording small group sides for Savoy). It’s seven choruses of straight-ahead blues trombone playing, and the documentation of swing trombone style is totally priceless. I’m working on memorizing it right now – I’ve made it through the first chorus, and the rest is a work-in-progress. The experience of learning something off of an LP is particularly interesting – it makes you really respect the musicians that grew up in the LP era, who had to learn tunes off of their record player. Believe me, it’s harder than using mp3s!
This record is pretty tough to find. It’s usually up on Ebay, though if you go to your local record store, it might be under Django Reinhardt’s name (that’s where I found my copy, at Looney Tunes on Boylston Street in Boston). Some tracks may also be available online – “Dicky Wells’ Blues” is available from Amazon, but I would strongly recommend getting the whole LP. Like Ellington’s Unknown Sessions, this LP alone makes owning a record player worth the expense!
Oh yeah, you can also hear it here:
(though you still really should check out the LP)
Postscript: There is also a thing I hope every jazz trombonist is familiar with – Andre Hodeir’s assessment of Dicky Wells’ romantic imagination. I leave it up to the reader to investigate further, but I’d recommend starting by reading Hodeir’s Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, avaliable at your local library.