How to Work the Mechanism
How to Work the Mechanism
Snake Rag, performed by Humphrey Lyttelton (Recorded March 29, 1950?), Encountered ca. 1954
Picture a boy of four or five standing by himself in a strange gift shop in a strange town in a strange country. It is a weekend morning before the store opens, and before anyone else has arisen. He stands in front of a lacquered wooden cabinet called a Victrola. Somehow he has figured out how to work the mechanism, and he turns a knob, and the big tubes glimpsed through a grille begin to glow, and the backlight behind the front display lights up, while a heavy piece of vinyl drops from a record changer spindle to a platter, and it begins to play.
That boy was me. This was my first theme song.
When I first heard Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, circa 1950, performing Snake Rag, I had no musical sophistication yet, no “ear.” I knew that this old 78 record had belonged to my recently gone-missing father, and I remembered he liked “hot jazz,” which he would listen to with gusto while puffing on a cigar. So I guess I could have told you the name of the genre, but I could not for the life of me have told you what that name meant. I certainly did not know that British white guys weren’t supposed to play jazz at all, certainly not with what I now recognize as dumbfounding virtuosity.
In short, I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good. I just knew I liked it a lot. I played it over and over (with a couple of other records of my dad’s also somehow still with my mother and me after the breakup, including Fats Waller singing Your Feet’s Too Big), and the next thing I knew I was trying to whistle along. I’d never whistled before, and I wasn’t very good at it, but I would have had to have been a virtuoso whistler to manage this very fast and very tricky song.
I don’t know what became of that old British-pressing Parlophone 78. But 55 years later, I stumbled across the .mp3 on iTunes, downloaded the song as much out of sheer curiosity as anything, and to my delight found it was as fresh and as clear as ever, just exactly as I remembered. And now I had the ear. And I can honestly report that, damn, it really was good!
You have to know something about that song to understand Lyttelton’s achievement. The song has a lineage. It was developed as one of the great milestones in the partnership between King Oliver and Louis Armstrong at the very birth of jazz. There is an excellent writeup by Ricky Riccardi comparing the two existing recordings of these towering talents playing Snake Rag, and I won’t try to begin to match his scholarship or intelligence. Suffice it to say that the song is in sections, and many of them are bound together by a break in which Oliver and Armstrong on cornets slide down about a chromatic octave in perfect synch, maintaining a third interval between them. They run down that octave as quickly and light-footedly as children scampering down stairs. At the bottom they are stopped by a trombone that does a three-note figure like an adult muttering a warning, and then the next section begins.
What distinguishes this song as Lyttelton and his mates played it from more run-of-the-mill hot jazz (or Dixieland if you prefer, though many use that term with a bit of a sneer for the same music when played by white musicians) — and also to a great degree from the Oliver/Armstrong originals — is that every solo, whether presented through the cornets, the clarinet, or the trombone, furthers the central melodic development. There’s no running in place, no mere showing off, with the solos.
To be fair, no matter who performs it, the song does contain a portion of the entire ensemble baying at the moon together, as it were, but not the solos, and especially not those two cornets sliding down the scale in dazzling, uncanny synch. In each of the two seminal recordings, however, those baying at the moon sections have a certain static quality, a huffing-and-puffing in place quality that contrasts with the solos, which are the place, the only place where the music moves ahead.
When Humphrey Lyttelton came to the song a quarter century later (downloadable from iTunes in the compilation pictured above), he’d spotted that flaw. So when his trumpet and that of some sideman I can’t identify hit the bottom of that glorious slide, the three-note trombone figure that Honoré Dutry just made a transition for Armstrong and Oliver turns into a slingshot in the hands of Keith Christie, propelling the music right back into the driving rhythm of the main segment. And there is no standing still, no puffing in place. The nearly narrative drive that Armstrong and Oliver were reaching for and fell a little bit short of is pretty much achieved.
What I heard in it then was perhaps a little more naive. I was stunned by the sonorities, the trombone butting in and guiding things whenever the music seemed to stop, the clarinet warbling, the trumpets blasting. I don’t think I could have identified which instruments I was listening to yet, but I understood they were not all the same, and that they did something magical by diving in and out of that structured cacophony like dolphins racing alongside a boat swimming partly above, partly below, the surface.
It wasn’t just a matter of feeling closer to my mysteriously missing dad (who fortunately would turn out to remain a strong presence in my life). It wasn’t just a matter of teaching myself to whistle (though that song was the very beginning of whistling, which I take to be a nearly vital tool for anyone who tries to understand and pick music apart). It was the jazz. I was hooked.
. All right, m4p. I know that iTunes doesn’t sell mp3s. But that is the dominant name for the format, like Scotch Tape and Kleenex, and that’s what I’m going to call it to begin with.
. The store was my step-grandmother Helen Gohn’s gift store, The Tudor Shop, on McEldowney Street in Chicago Heights, Illinois. It no longer stands. (Nor does that section of McEldowney Street, now a gigantic parking lot.) Below, however, is a picture of it as it was in those days.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album art