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JUBILEE 5015; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Let’s say for the sake of argument – to just choose a random example here – that you were a veteran musician with a long history in jazz dating back nearly twenty years and though your name recognition might not be too high among the general populace you’d played alongside of some pretty big names over the years and so were seen as a bona fide jazz musician by those in the know.

Let’s also say, just for the fun of it, that in mid-1949, having started your own group at last that you were offered a record deal for a small but fairly noteworthy independent label whose successes to date had all been in the field of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now let’s say that at your one and only session they were giving you free reign to cut four songs of your own choosing, all originals mind you, which would be your opportunity to establish your sound for the public at large as well as anyone down the road who might be interested in hiring you… either for live gigs or for future recording opportunities.

Now which style of music do you think you’d want to align yourself with in order to start building your reputation? Would it be the somewhat bawdy low-rent charms of rock ‘n’ roll, a style which you’ve presumably never tried to play, but which was becoming ever more popular with younger audiences although it had no long term track record to ensure that you’d have plenty of prospects for steady employment? Or would you stick with the jazz that you were more comfortable with and which had a sterling reputation and though its prospects for scoring hit records were not what they once were that dwindling commercial potential was offset by a still thriving club scene?

Do you need a minute to decide? Take you time, we’ll be happy to wait for you to weigh both options carefully.

Have you come to a decision yet?

Well, if you were just such an artist in 1949 you probably wouldn’t need more than a few seconds to make up your mind to remain firmly rooted in jazz… which is why René Hall’s decision to jump headlong into rock ‘n’ roll had been so startling.

But no matter how committed his initial attempts at morphing into another type of artist was there was bound to be some lingering traces of his past existence that were apparent and it’s how those conflicts were resolved that would determine his chances for success in a world he was only now first experiencing.
 

 

Hopping Into Another Bed
You wonder if René Hall had discussed these options with his band leading up to their signing with Jubilee Records in late summer. Were they already playing gigs around town in a rock-leaning style and if so where exactly were those clubs in New York that catered to such audiences?

If they had been playing more jazz-rooted music as their backgrounds suggest, then what was their impetus for abruptly changing their approach once they got signed? Was it Jubilee who coaxed them into it, or Hall’s own surveying of the marketplace which told him that – as distasteful as it might be to schooled musicians – rock was indeed the more fruitful path to follow.

We’ll likely never know since no one bothered to ask him in the four decades after that decision was made, leaving it up to us to try and gauge what they may have been thinking without jumping to too many unfounded conclusions.

This task was far easier on the top side, Chitling Switch, a laid back groove which fit seamlessly into rock’s aesthetics without hinting much at their past allegiance to jazz. The ensuing success of the record – a top ten hit on the R&B Charts in many cities – validated their decision and showed how rock audiences were already seeking out songs, even from unknown national figures, that offered them slightly new stylistic mixes of the prevailing rock instrumental approach… in this case the prominent use of Hall’s own guitar to establish the melodic line.

But here on the flip side, Blue Creek Hop, Hall and company take a divergent road, on one hand choosing to highlight the more dominant trait of the majority of rock instrumentals to date, namely the focus on the tenor sax, but at the same time they decide to frame it in a setting that suggests their jazz tendencies might not have been fully quelled before entering the studio after all.
 

Up The Creek Without A…
As the record gets underway you do a double take to see if this was the same group that had performed on the other side. That it IS proves to be no consolation however because you find yourself seated uncomfortably in some jazzy nightclub where you’re sticking out like a sore thumb, too young, too casually dressed, too uncomfortable in these more posh surroundings to fit in.

Frantically you look for the exit, or perhaps the bathroom to wait this song out so you can time your exit from the club to coincide with the brief pause between this slightly dated showpiece for a full band with their peppy group horn charts playing over the drummer hyper-actively bashing the cymbals, and whatever similarly ill-chosen follow-up they’ll surely break out next to convince themselves and the patrons that although the 1940’s might be drawing to a close the music that defined much of that decade will live on awhile longer, even if just inside the doors to this kind of nightclub.

At this point of the record, really the first third of it, you figure there’s a simple explanation for this. Having deviated from jazz on Chitling Switch without knowing what the response to it would be, they hedged their bets and decided to stick to the safe predictable route, which is a flashy jazz number designed to reassure anyone who was remotely familiar with Hall’s background with various figures ranging from New Orleans jazz patriarch Papa Celestin in the late 1920’s to Ernie Fields prim and proper outfit in the 1930’s to visionary pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines in the mid-1940’s, that he hadn’t lost his marbles and wasn’t possessed by Satan for delving into rock ‘n’ roll.

We might not LIKE that explanation if what we’re seeking is more deviant musical pursuits, but we’d understand it from the position of self-preservation in a still uncertain evolving landscape. If Hall chose not to ruffle any feathers with a B-side like Blue Creek Hop, where even the title was tritely ambiguous enough to pass muster with any potentially disapproving older fans, that was fine with us provided he gave the rock sides his best to balance it out.

Since he’d done that with this release already we could do what we’ve done in the past on records with split loyalties and that is simply ignore this side altogether and hope the more appropriate effort we enjoyed on the flip wasn’t going to be an aberration in his catalog once he got some more cuts under his belt.

But a funny thing happened on the way to outright dismissal… Hall attempts to right the ship and bring this back into the rock channel they were navigating so effortlessly the last time around.
 

Oh, Here’s The Paddle!
Actually René Hall is not really a presence on this side at all, which sort of reiterates what we said yesterday about his magnanimous tendencies as a bandleader, as here he chooses to let tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate have the lead role while Hall himself largely – if not entirely – sits the record out.

Tate’s hardly an obscure name. If anything he was more well-known than Hall was at this time which is why it’s somewhat surprising that René Hall got the billing for the band, although I’m sure it was justified because Hall was unquestionably the leader. But jazz fans were certainly aware of Tate’s résumé as a well-respected member of the bands of Andy Kirk in the 1930’s and Count Basie throughout the 1940’s. But he left Basie in 1948 and although he remained active well into 1990’s – when he was in his eighties! – he never enjoyed the same level of exposure in high profile bands for any extended stretch after that as he had with the Count.

So knowing that Blue Creek Hop was not just a showcase FOR Tate, but a song he himself wrote, well, it’s easy to see why it might lean backwards towards jazz rather than looking forward towards rock.

But wait, didn’t we say that after that excessively brassy opening minute or so that things not only improved but in fact veered closer to the established rock territory, at least enough to get it included here?

Well, obviously yes, since it IS here that probably stands to reason it qualifies for musical reasons rather than gets added as a charity case. Sure enough Tate, no matter his more refined background, begins to cut loose in ways that might explain why he left Basie to begin with.

It’s a gradual progression though, so listening to it once, with your expectations out of the gate having already been squashed, you might reject it all out of hand as it takes some time for him to really get cooking. But the first indications he’s at least getting into the spirit of things comes along just before the minute mark where he squeals in the upper register and then starts to zigzag back and forth between highs and lows and when he sticks in the middle he’s at least playing with the requisite grit to convince you he wasn’t being forced to act up at knife-point.

The second minute finds him riding this more streamlined chassis with confidence, though he still isn’t really stomping the gas in ways that will draw comparisons to Big Jay McNeely or even some of the more inspired efforts by a Duke Ellington transplant, Hal Singer, who on last summer’s Cornbread far outdistanced Tate’s urgency shown here.

Yet don’t give up on Tate just yet because to kick off the third minute he breaks out the tried and true weaponry of the rock tenor sax brigade starting with a few obscenely low honks followed by some grinding refrains and really hits his stride. Then after a longer interlude by the other horns which at least keeps the energy up if nothing else, Tate tosses in a few repetitive riffs before they all quiet back down, letting the others ease this back into the garage before they get ticketed for reckless driving.
 


 

Different Perspectives
This is a record that can hit you in two ways depending on how closely you’re listening.

When sitting down to analyze it, deconstructing it like a lab experiment and putting each piece under the microscope, it won’t fare as well. The seams will start to show, the jazzier inclinations of the musicians stand out more – would it have killed Bobby Donaldson to ease off the cymbals just a little and maybe give the bass drum a beating instead? – and thus the transitions from one section to the next will seem less natural. Your skepticism about their true feelings towards this style of music will start to seep into your judgement in other words.

But when heard in the context of other rock records from the same time it actually – and somewhat surprisingly – sounds much better… more authentic. This is a rarity, usually it’s the other way around, as any dated elements in an arrangement will be more glaring when sitting alongside cuts that are firmly of their own time. But the reverse is true here, as Tate’s frantic playing fits in well with the accepted rock instrumental objectives and as a result the jazz attributes wind up getting overwhelmed by the increasingly aggressive approach they take as it goes along.

Blue Creek Hop works as well as it does because of the skill and professionalism of the musicians. Their playing on a technical level is strong and even the arrangement itself shows an understanding of how to properly build enthusiasm as you go along, something a lot of full-fledged rock horn players still had occasional trouble with. But while their intentions may be unassailable from a rock perspective, the components they use and the means with which they try and achieve those goals are still compromised to a degree when you really focus on them.

So which evaluation is accurate? The wary interpretation or the more forgiving one when you’re caught up in the spirit of the track?

Here on this project we try and take both accounts into consideration, though at the time it was probably the latter that most listeners concerned themselves with when they were out on the floor, buzzed and looking for action, where in the heat of the moment this type of thing would more than suffice. But later on at a distance when the show is over, the crowds have dispersed and your adrenaline levels have returned to normal levels when you’re no longer surrounded by other revelers, then it might seem as if you had been slightly duped by falling for it so convincingly.

In the final analysis of course both are true and neither are true – not entirely anyway – and so we split the difference and call it a day.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of René Hall for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)