Archive for Johnny Handle

Mabel’s Dream

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , on June 22, 2009 by telescoper

I could attempt to make a cheesy Radio 2 kind of link between my previous post and this one, along the lines of “From one dream to another..” but I don’t think I’ll bother.

Years ago my mum told me that she heard the tune Mabel’s Dream played on the piano by a friend of the family by the name of Johnny Handle. Best known as a folk musician (and founder member of a well-known band called The High Level Ranters) he is also a music teacher and musicologist with a wide range of interests in music.  I read somewhere that this lovely tune was originally written by Jelly Roll Morton and performed by him on solo piano, but I’ve never managed to locate a solo version. However, every time I try looking for it (which I did this evening) I seem to come across something really nice. Today was no exception.

By far the most famous recording of Mabel’s Dream was made by King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1923. This was the band that the young Louis Armstrong belonged to before going on to make the classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, one of which I posted a bit ago. It’s interesting how different the earlier band sounds:  with two cornets (King Oliver and Louis Armstrong), clarinet (Johnny Dodds), and trombone (Honore Dutrey) playing  together virtually all the time except for short improvised solo breaks. King Oliver usually played lead cornet, at least in their earlier recordings, with Louis Armstrong playing a decorative counterpoint around him rather like a clarinettist might. Later on, they swapped leads freely and completely intuitively producing a sound that was entirely unique.

The ensemble playing is intricate, but the band had no written music preferring to work exclusively from “head” arrangements. Their music is consistently delightful to listen to, even though the recordings are very low-fi, with a succession of marchy themes that makes it impossible not to want to tap your feet when you listen to them. You can find their version of Mabel’s Dream here.

Over time, this classic type of polyphonic Jazz- derived from its New Orleans roots – gradually morphed  into musical form dominated by much simpler arrangements and a succession of virtuoso solos. This change was also reflected in the differing fortunes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. The former went on to become an international celebrity, while the latter lost all his savings when his bank went bust during the Wall Street Crash. He ended his days working as a janitor, and died in poverty in a dingy rooming house in Savannah, Georgia in 1938.

When the traditional Jazz revival happened after the Second Wold War, many fans turned against the Hot Sevens because they weren’t genuine “Noo Awlins” meaning that they hankered after music that was made more collectively and had less emphasis on the soloists. Across Europe in particular, many bands tried to recreate the sound of the earlier era of American Jazz, with varying degrees of success. 

Looking around for a version of Mabel’s Dream, I came across the following clip from a French band called The High Society Jazz Band which I think is just gorgeous. The recording was made at a live performance in 1960, at the height of the “trad” revival. The lineup of the band is just like King Oliver’s many years earlier, complete with the front line of two cornets, clarinet and trombone as well as piano, drums, banjo and sousaphone. Mostly it’s a deliberate note-for-note copy of the King Oliver version, but at a slightly slower tempo. Normally I don’t really go for deliberate copies like this, even if they’re meant as a tribute, but any two cornettists willing and able to copy Louis Armstrong and King Oliver deserve the greatest respect! Hats off , then, to Pierre Merlin and Claude Rabanit (two names quite new to me) for doing such a great job. In fact, I also like Pierre Atlan’s take on Johnny Dodd’s clarinet breaks, and the trombonist (Mowgli Jospin) deserves a mention for his name alone!

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