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Re-Post from Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic

April 9, 2012

No, Really, Please “Hold That Tiger”

“If you can’t say something nice, put it on a blog” often seems like the new conventional wisdom.  This particular piece of web attempts to explain what’s great, rather than wallow in conjecture over what misses some imaginary mark.  Yet the rules of social media notwithstanding, occasionally it’s helpful to explore dislikes as well as “likes.”

The straw hat with red suspenders crowd may have relegated “Tiger Rag” to feline onomatopoeia and exaggerated hijinks, yet the Dixieland favorite was also the pre-war equivalent  of “Rhythm” changes: an easy, well-known blowing vehicle for jazz bands and soloists.  Tom Lord’s online discography lists 933 recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 hit, and Brian Rust‘s discography shows 113 “Tiger Rag” records through 1942 (not counting all the contrafacts spawned by its well-worn chord changes).  At the same time familiarity breeds contempt, and Fletcher Henderson’s single recording of this ubiquitous number illustrates one band that may have been sick of all that roaring.

Leading one of the most admired bands of his time and boasting topflight talent such as Coleman Hawkins, Bobby Stark, Benny Carter and John Kirby, the chance to hear Henderson’s orchestra cut loose over a standard could have been awe-inspiring. Instead, they start with cliche, lugubrious trombone glissandi over a workmanlike beat. The band trots out a variation of the familiar opening theme that merely stamps rather than stomps or swings. They sound cohesive, professional, and very tired. The short-lived Crown label’s boxy sound doesn’t help:

Henderson and company close the first chorus and pick up more steam playing Bix Beiderbecke’s “Tiger” variation [at 0:37], with Russell Smith’s lead trumpet prominent. Trombonist Claude Jones then answers the ensemble’s statements while maintaining his own internal narrative. A snappy, Armstrong-inspired brass section closes out the call and response chorus just as things start to heat up. The sax soli that follows points to a Benny Carter arrangement, but its predictable symmetry as well as the rest of the chart’s leaden feel belie his usually galvanizing work.

The chase chorus between trumpeter Bobby Stark and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, two of the most individual soloists of the time, should have been an event in itself. Instead, Stark’s sizzling opening break devolves into some showy figures that fail to pan out, and Hawkins sounds uninspired. He mostly relies on tepid arpeggios and displays little of the ferocious, vibrato-laden chop and chug of his early thirties style. Russell Procope’s clarinet solo maintains a static energy, followed by the band huffing and puffing out the final chorus. This type of call and response riff would inspire thousands of imitations throughout the swing era; here it sounds dutiful and generic, a pale copy of an effect yet to be popularized. Even Smith’s usually clear tone now sounds desiccated, at times piercing.

This “Tiger Rag” session was the Henderson band’s sixth recording date after a nineteen-month hiatus from the studios. Jazz historian Phil Schapp believes that, “The Great Depression dismantled a great band but it didn’t do so overnight.”  Three years earlier Henderson had been injured in an automobile accident that friends and family said forever diminished his attentiveness and drive, and by the time his band recorded “Tiger Rag” in March 1931, they were sharing their longtime gig at the fabled Roseland Ballroom with several competitors. Henderson and his men may have been exhausted by more than the music on their stands.

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