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If you wanted to make a name for yourself in rock ‘n’ roll in the latter half of 1949 there was one surefire way to do so…

Play the saxophone and play it loud and lusty, add a few electric guitar accents to make sure it has some of the more recent flavors that have come along as of late, give the group an eye-catching name that’s sure to remembered and then top it off with a title for the song that suggests mayhem that is all but inevitable… an act of nature that can’t be avoided.

With that recipe for rock ‘n’ roll anarchy well established let’s welcome yet another horn player to the party. Make room though because he sure won’t be the last, though he may just the most colorful.

The Great Illusion
With all of these saxophonists crowding the stage it can be kind of difficult to keep straight just who’s who. After all they don’t have voices to use to help craft their identity, nor do their songs have words to implant a catchy chorus or snappy phrase in your mind. All they have is the same identical instrument as approximately 472 other rock ‘n’ roll madmen of the late 1940’s, all vying to win you over one honk, one squeal and one raunchy riff at a time.

James Von Streeter was one such figure who seemed more fiction than fact, an eccentric in many ways who managed to make a name for himself in this crowded field… and by that I mean literally make a name for himself, as he added the “Von” between his first and last names as a tribute to film director Erich von Stroheim.

Now keep in mind this was sometime in the early 1940’s, years after von Stroheim’s epic 1924 silent picture Greed was made. In fact he’d directed his final film in 1933 and had since turned to acting in supporting roles, his most famous at this time being 1937’s Le Grand Illusion, a brilliant foreign film, but hardly something that you’d expect would draw any notice in the sticks of Nebraska.

von Stroheim was still years away from his most familiar role, Max von Mayerling, a former acclaimed silent film director who married his star, Norma Desmond, then became her manservant after she divorced him in the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard.

For Streeter to be influenced so greatly by him was a signal that you weren’t dealing with your average artist here. His friends though were hardly phased by this type of behavior and called him “Von” for the rest of his life without any irony.

Maybe it’d help to mention that among those friends was another artist with a knack for cultural re-invention in Johnny Otis who was pulling off an even grander illusion than Streeter, as Johnny was a white drummer and bandleader who was black in every way but his own DNA. The two had met while in the territory bands of the plains in 1945 and when Otis got recommended for Harlen Leonard’s Rockets, the house band at Club Alabam, the hottest spot on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue, then took the leadership reins of the next band to be ensconced there one of the first men he called to form the backbone of this new group was Von Streeter.

As such it’d be with Otis that Von Streeter would make his mark, recording off and on with his friend for the next decade. But even as they shifted their musical focus from the swing jazz styles they’d grown up on to the newer tougher slimmed down sounds of rock ‘n’ roll both men retained an affinity for jazz, but it was plainly obvious that their future wouldn’t lay in that realm.

On July 27th 1949 Von Streeter and a group including legendary bop pianist Hampton Hawes cut a session for Savoy Records which included the standard I’ll Never Smile Again. It was very well done, a high class performance all around, but it was merely for posterity, proof that he could indeed play nice and pretty if he absolutely had to.

Four days later however they went into a New York studio for tiny Scoop Records and sounded not just like an entirely different set of musicians, but also an entirely different species on the unambiguously named Landslide.

It’s here that Von Streeter plants his flag firmly within the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll and then proceeds to play in a manner that is determined to shake that solid ground to rubble.

An Even Trade
For the next few years Von Streeter would seemingly alternate sessions behind Otis with Big Jay McNeely, whose own robust solo career meant he was essentially just sitting in with Otis’s crew in the studio when Von Streeter wasn’t around. Otis usually employed two tenor sax aces on his records, the other most frequently being Lorenzo Holden (who replaced Paul Quinchette sometime in the late 1940’s), but oddly Von and Jay never seemed to play together.

One listen to this and we know why. If they had joined forces on a session the recording studio would’ve been reduced to ashes.

Landslide starts off modestly enough, if rather noisily with horns riffing and drums crashing and a guitar slicing off accent notes like a machete. But though loud and boisterous it’s still reasonably controlled. You can easily comprehend the structure of the intro and connect it with any number of records which framed things in similar fashion.

But all of that gets obliterated as soon as Von Streeter begins to blow twenty seconds in. He comes off the line already in fifth gear, ripping off lines without any discretion whatsoever, clubbing you over the head with his horn and then bludgeoning your limp body with it some more until you’re a lifeless carcass to be stepped over as he goes looking for his next victim.

His sonic assault quickly has you doubled-over as one vicious blow follows another, he’s alternately hammering you with jabs and unleashing haymakers, all of which connect with unerring accuracy. The sheer pandemonium created by their playing doesn’t let up for so much as a single second yet Von Streeter is merely the ringleader, not the only violator of your senses. The others contribute their own mayhem by repeating that opening refrain in between their leader’s improvised solos.

In this context that noisy riff that started this off takes on an even more chaotic vibe, as the guitar seems particularly eager to sink its needle-sharp fangs into your veins and the drummer lays claim on your discarded bones so he can have replacements for his broken drumsticks.

Because of this Landslide is not so much a proper song per say as it is Exhibit A in their trial for assault and battery on the eardrums. Yet in spite of its total lack of decorum, its lack of regard for your heart condition or any sympathy for the engineers hired to capture this on record without having the console melt in front of them, the band shows why there was no other form of music – not jazz, blues, gospel, opera, folk, pop or country – that could possibly contain, or want to try to contain, the sheer aggressive nature of rock ‘n’ roll at its most unhinged.

Gunning For You
The saxophone’s reputation over the years shifted from something that was a little used novelty sound in early jazz to something which increasingly took the spotlight because of its ability to be both emphatic and melodic. Decades down the road it’d refine its image after years of excess to the point where it actually came to be seen as a rather wimpy addition to a song, designed merely to inoffensively lend a melodious interlude amidst more forceful accompaniment.

But the heyday of the sax was here and now, when people like McNeely, Hal Singer, Frank Culley, Red Prysock and James Von Streeter were using the horn as a weapon… not just any weapon either, but the most explosive and destructive one in the band’s arsenal.

It was the instrument, far more than the electric guitar, which defined rock’s image as a non-musical bombardment of noise. It was those who wielded it in studios and on stages with a swaggering image, looking to do away with their competition by playing louder, longer and more obscene than anyone else, who were rock’s poster boys for the music’s reputation as crude and obnoxious.

It was also these men who drew the masses to their shows and to the jukeboxes and record stores to hear even more outlandish playing the next time around. For close to a decade rock ‘n’ roll was the wild west and these were its gunslingers. No other instrument in rock’s seven decades had the kill or be killed reputation as the tenor sax and no matter how technically well you mastered the horn if you couldn’t withstand another player’s barrage and then respond with one equally powerful or even more over-the-top then you were sent on your way, snidely mocked as you left the stage in defeat.

The horn players themselves seemed to have a love/hate relationship with this mindset. For most who were serious trained musicians with an abiding love of jazz and a desire to be respected for the technical skill these high noon showdowns, whether on record or on a bandstand, were crass displays of wanton excess and certainly nothing to be proud of, let alone something with which to build your reputation on.

But the fact is if you wanted to build a reputation for yourself then winning these battles and leaving a string of battered opponents in your wake was the surest way to do so and the rewards for your gladiatorial skills were far greater than those who politely stuck to a song’s written arrangement and played each note with a caressing gentleness and purity of tone.

Von Streeter could do that as well if called upon but Landslide shows that what he did even better was strap on the gleaming horn and saunter into the middle of the street where he’d stare down anyone bold enough to take him on and then, in a blaze of glory, he’d wipe them out and calmly re-holster this dangerous firearm and move on to the next town to do the same.

Last Sax Standing
If that kind of thing doesn’t appeal to you, then can we recommend to you the comparatively safer world of jazz? There you’ll find sax players who had their own vaunted showdowns on stage, yet it was done in a way that showcased their dexterity of skills rather than the belligerent nature of their most unhinged playing. In that more respectable realm the vanquished didn’t lay bloodied on the stage after battle, or get dumped ignominiously into the ground and had dirt shoveled onto their corpse, they merely licked their wounds and came back the next night or in the next town to try again.

But in rock ‘n’ roll the winners of these wars knew enough not to relax, not to let up for so much as an instant, because those they disposed of in one cutting contest would be replaced by somebody else with an even more powerful horn, an axe to grind and a name to make by beating you. One by one all of them too would have to be faced down and defeated or else it’d be your lifeless body they carted off on the back of a wagon while the new conquering hero waited expectantly for the arrival of the one who’d soon lay waste to him as well.

Kill or be killed indeed and with Landslide James Von Streeter had come out of his first epic showdown with a target on his back for whomever wanted to take their shot at him tomorrow.


(Visit the Artist page of James Von Streeter for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)