Defiant Jazz Sounds of Depression-Era Saint Louis
Saint Louis was and is located on the Mississippi River; a strategic midpoint between New Orleans and Chicago, and the gateway to the West. Early city builders were hindered by numerous dirt heaps that had to be cleared along the way. Sadly, the mounds were actually sacred Indian burial sites. Fast forward 150 years to the time of these recordings, and the obscure nickname "Mound City" was still around.
Mound City Blue Blowers 1935 - 1936 falls smack dab in the official "Jazz Era." It had been 13 years since Louis Armstrong migrated north to join King Oliver in Chicago. Miles Davis was only 9 years old, and hadn't yet started trumpet lessons. Gaslight Square, Saint Louis' last great jazz haven, was still 20 years in the future. In those crucial interim years, the Mound City Blue Blowers played an important role in local and international jazz history. The liner notes quote Dizzy Gillespie, "It's a good idea to bring back this music from the Middle Ages. There's plenty of surprise in there for today's musicians." Preach it, Diz!
The Mound City Blues Blowers are generally classified as a novelty band of lesser importance, but the band's ever-changing roster included many influential members such as Eddie Condon, Jimmy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Pee Wee Russell, Muggsy Spanier, Jack Teagarden, Dave Tough, and Frankie Trumbauer. The Mound City Blues Blowers began in 1923 as an informal group of friends working at the same soda shop. Word of their hot music spread fast, and they were taken to Chicago in 1924 for a recording session, signed with Brunswick, sold over a million records, and found themselves playing huge gigs in Saint Louis, Chicago, Atlantic City, New York City, and London. Leader Red McKenzie was swept up by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but he retained "his baby" as a long-term side-project.
To be perfectly honest, McKenzie had relocated to New York City by this time, but these 25 songs are undeniably rooted in his Midwestern musical style. A common sight on the NYC 52nd street club scene, McKenzie became equally successful as a jazz promoter and talent scout. Some historians insist he was the first to record inter-racial jazz ensembles. He set up Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Lang and Frankie Trumbauer for the legendary recording "Singing the Blues", as well as other high-profile "Chicagoan" jazz projects. Though Bix died tragically in 1931, the Mound City Blue Blowers shared much of Bix and Tram's musical heritage: same cities and venues, even some of the same musicians and songs.
Mound City Blue Blowers 1935 - 1936 documents the band's "second wave" at least ten years after the original band's success. In a sense, these sides were pure "roaring-20s" nostalgia from the beginning. In the throes of the Great Depression--widespread unemployment, poverty, famine, and New Deal political debate--Americans sought bittersweet escape through the song and dance of happier days. In the face of so much seriousness, the lyrics were intentionally silly and spirited. Jazz has always been a great case-study in cultural contrasts.
Essential tracks include the best-selling standards "Muskrat Ramble" and "High Society," as well as the eternal "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter." When you think about it, there's something for everyone in this music. Even if you consider the words corny, you can still dance to it, enjoy the clever small ensemble arrangements, pick out favorite soloists, and analyze the improvisations, and so on. If you believe jazz should be affirmative, consider that the Mound City Blue Blowers have been raising people's spirits for 80 years and counting.
As always, Timeless Records rounds out the reissue with educational liner notes, archive photography, and high-quality graphics. The audio quality is remarkably good, a testimony to the original engineers as well as the digital restorers. Once again, the Dutch have given us back our heritage.
Mound City Blue Blowers 1935 - 1936 is highly listenable, laughable, historically important hot-jazz. Recommended listening for all jazz fans.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.