Though here in the Twenty-First Century Joe Morris is hardly one of the more recognizable artists of rock’s early days he’s still got some measure of notoriety for those who have cast their eye backwards on music at the mid-century point.

Whether jazz fans faintly remembering he started out with Lionel Hampton and featured future sax star Johnny Griffin in his band, or rock fans who recall his string of consistent sellers in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he’s not totally obscure at any rate.

But even his biggest supporters would have to admit that a large part of his lingering familiarity is due to the record company most of his best records came out on. Few independent labels have been written about and studied as much much as Atlantic Records over the years and so, with Joe being their first real star, albeit in a much darker sky than what would emerge in a few years, it means Joe Morris, trumpet player, bandleader and occasional vocalist, has never disappeared off the radar entirely.

That would lead many to conclude that he was a solid company man, a lifer, an original artist who stuck with them through thick and thin as the company grew and became a force in rock ‘n’ roll within a few years. But in truth Joe Morris and Atlantic Records were often drifting apart only to be pulled back together by circumstance.


It’s Not The Size Of The Fish, But The Size Of The Pond
When this record came out Joe Morris was no longer an Atlantic Recording artist. He had moved on a few months back, or moved up as he probably saw it at the time, to one of the major labels, Decca, where he’d started out when he was playing with Hampton’s crew.

Hamp of course was the type of black artist the majors felt comfortable with, well respected jazz musicians with enough fame in white America to ensure their records would sell enough to make it a worthwhile investment.

But rock ‘n’ roll artists? No, Decca had little interest in them. Even the handful of rock records they DID put out, quite good ones too it should be said, were largely done by older artists who migrated to rock from other genres after they were already signed to the label and so there wasn’t much input from Decca as to what type of music they were pursuing.

But Joe Morris represented Decca’s first real attempt to cash in on rock when they signed him after his Atlantic contract was up in mid-1949. Their intent with him was clear: by bringing in someone they knew – someone they felt they could trust – they’d be able to persuade him to tone down the more overt rock touches in his records and let his growing popularity with rock fans work to their advantage. In other words Joe Morris was designed to be a Trojan Horse of sorts, a rock artist who they could get to peddle a milder form of the music to get their foot in the door of a rapidly growing genre they had no real love for.

Surely figuring that with his jazz background and their own stellar reputation as a company of high standards he’d be perfectly amenable to their requests, maybe even eager to tackle classier music again. But we know how these deals made with compromised intents usually turn out and when his first two Decca releases contained cover versions of other people’s songs and rather unadventurish originals that stirred little interest with rockers or more sophisticated listeners the “experiment” was already deemed a failure by the company.

But meanwhile the company he’d spurned, Atlantic, still had songs he’d done in their vault like Jax Boogie which were far more suited to the market Morris had been making his name in and so while not having anywhere near the promotional muscle or distribution power of mighty Decca, the smaller company released a Joe Morris record anyway and promoted it as if he were still in the fold, slyly letting Morris know that it was sometimes better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a vast ocean of indifference.

Boogie Like Before
Who knows how much of that was intent on Atlantic’s part and how much was just a matter of circumstance and good timing? I’m sure if asked down the road Ahmet Ertegun would’ve hinted it was their goal all along to entice Morris to return at some point, but their main concern at the time wasn’t making deals in the future it was selling records in the present. Since Morris’s records on Decca hadn’t exactly set the world on fire it certainly made sense for Atlantic to promote something of his they’d pulled from the vaults and act like he was still suiting up for their team.

Luckily they at least had a fairly good leftover track to do so with, as Jax Boogie, despite being cut way back in December 1948 had enough freshness to be moderately appealing even a year later.

The loping boogie riff on piano that opens things is soon joined by Bill McLemore’s warmly resonant baritone sax and makes this oddly reassuring to hear. It may not be anything too ambitious but maybe that’s what makes it so comforting. There’s a safe familiarity to the sound, reliable in its structure and thus presumably with a reliable response it generates from the listener.

The full horn section is featured here, establishing the group effort mentality which makes the first half of the record so enjoyable. The four horns – Morris on trumpet, Griffin on tenor, plus McLemore’s baritone and Matthew Gee on trombone – take the main riff in unison, their tones blending together well, maintaining a beefier sound as a result, each horn balancing out the mix so that nothing dominates the arrangement.

Well, that might not be true exactly. What dominates, in part because it’s not a horn and therefore sticks out more, is Elmo Hope’s piano which adds an emphatic percussive effect intermittently throughout it. In the first half it isn’t featured for a solo beyond that brief intro, though it does get a later stretch where it’s spotlighted and works well in that role even though it’s hardly providing anything more than a battering ram of an interlude, but at least it keep things on the right track for awhile longer.

Ahhh… that must mean there’s something awaiting us which is about to turn our collective satisfaction over what has been shaping up to be a fairly rousing instrumental into something of a collective letdown when they invariably hand the reins over to the wrong instrument. Right?


Well… kinda, sorta, maybe, but not exactly either.


The Horn Blows At Midnight
Yes, you know what’s coming, don’t you… Morris gets a trumpet solo! And yes, trumpet solos are – for the most part thus far in our journey – an anathema to the rough and chaotic spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

As we’ve spent far too much of the 1940’s stating, the trumpet is an instrument whose tone was so ingrained in jazz that it can’t help but seem like an alien invader to rock culture. When one appears – especially one getting a standalone spot like it does in Jax Boogie – the natural instinct is to run screaming from the room or curl into the fetal position with your hands over your ears singing ”la-la-la-la-la-la” to yourself like a petulant child so you can’t hear what you find so offensive.

It’s safe to say that anything that elicits such a Pavlovian response in listeners tends to be a drawback.

But not so here… at least not quite. Though it’s true enough that the appearance of Morris’s trumpet at the forefront of the song at the two-thirds mark is slightly jarring, he’s actually keeping it well within the established structure, just another texture to consider rather than a complete departure from the rest.

The rhythm behind him remains strong, steady and reasonably propulsive. Morris plays with a measured pace, graciously refraining from any showy high notes or ill-conceived extended trilling. There’s a punchiness to most of what he delivers, something which is emphasized by his arrangement that allows for him to be buttressed by the others so that perception hits home. Though the trumpet’s tone is an awkward fit that really can’t be helped, at the very least the record doesn’t suffer from his presence even if he doesn’t add much that could really be called captivating.

What it comes down to really is that Jax Boogie is designed as an ensemble piece and as such it means all of the instruments are going to get their moments and while each one will have its partisans – yes, even the trumpet I’m sure – the key is how they all fit together and in that regard this still works pretty well. The underpinnings of the rhythm – with a shout out to Philly Jo Jones on drums who is locked in right from the start – means that none of them are going to take it too far outside its comfort zone, to the benefit of us all.

Basically it serves its purpose, giving you a dance record you don’t really need to pay too close attention to, just as long as you keep moving the musicians will make sure you have something to keep moving TO. Economical and efficient if nothing else.


A Place To Call Home
What Morris and company tend to do best on their records is give you a multi-layered performance in which all of the sounds work in conjunction with one another, none of them taking an out-sized role, yet none of them reduced to carrying the others’ bags. That’s true of Jax Boogie as well, every instrument holding up their end, none standing out too much for good or for ill.

They’re all treated as equals in other words.

The corollary in that regard to their recent career move is striking. Whereas on Decca they were treated as a low-risk experiment at best, an irrelevancy at worst, when they were on Atlantic Joe Morris was treated as the equal of any of the other artists on the label, allowing them to feel as if they were as responsible as anyone for the company’s rapidly improving fortunes.

Is it any wonder that when Decca let them go as soon as their contractual commitment to them was finished that they soon made their way back to Atlantic?

Everybody wants to feel like they belong. Even those who play a jazz instrument in a rock world.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Morris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)