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By Bob Weinberg
The Buselli-Wallarab big band puts a new glimmer on treasure from the Gennett Records vault.
A utilitarian red brick building stands mutely in the wilds of Richmond, Indiana, a six-story tower T-boned by a long, rectangular structure that was once used for the manufacture of pianos. Squint at the image on the face of the tower and you can make out a faded logo — a two-toned parrot perched behind a 78 rpm disc with the words “Gennett Records” printed in ornate gothic lettering. Some of the most significant figures in jazz made history in a ramshackle studio on these grounds a century ago — King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Bix Biederbecke. Although the studio no longer stands, these artists, and many others, are memorialized by a recently refurbished “walk of fame,” their stylized likenesses and plaques with biographical information winding along an adjacent sidewalk.
“For me, over the years, it’s kind of been like hallowed ground,” says Brent Wallarab, educator, arranger and co-leader of the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. An associate professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Wallarab helms a new recording titled The Gennett Suite (Patois), a two-disc set that puts a contemporary spin on classic recordings from the Gennett catalogue. Through an intro and four sprawling movements, the big band revisits widely influential tunes by the N.O. Rhythm Kings, Oliver, Morton, Biederbecke and Hoagy Carmichael, with arrangements that conjure the excitement of the originals but hardly preserve them in amber.
“There’s no point in recreating [the music], because the original versions are perfect,” Wallarab contends. “They don’t need any help. The only help they need is getting them in front of more people.”
That was an intention of the educator when he conceived of the project. Wallarab realized that some of his students were dismissive of early jazz recordings, perhaps not being able to get past surface noise of primitive pressings or syncopations that might sound dated to their ears. He needed to help them understand where the music came from and its monumental import. “This possibly is the most modern jazz that ever existed,” he says. “There was nothing like it — nothing even close — that had been heard by the public. I imagine it would have made a lot of people question the very fabric of their lives the first time they heard some of this music.”
Wallarab’s message got through. Recruiting the excellent IU Student Jazz Ensemble to play his arrangements, he conducted a concert version of the suite in its nascent form, which was presented on a local PBS documentary in 2018. Wallarab continued to refine the work, tweaking parts, adding numbers and ultimately recording it with his longtime musical partner, trumpeter Mark Buselli, and the big band they co-lead.
Louis Armstrong was the same age (21) as some of Wallarab’s students when he traveled with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from their base in Chicago to the Gennett studio in April 1923. A hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity — Gennett even waxed Klan propaganda records — Richmond was not particularly welcoming to Black folks. Nonetheless, Henry Gennett, who ran the company — a division of the Starr Piano Company, which also made phonographs — entrusted Fred Wiggins, a manager of a Starr piano showroom in Chicago, to recruit the cream of the city’s jazz scene, Black and white, to make the five-hour train ride to Richmond.
As Laurence Bergreen points out in his indispensable Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Gennett wasn’t so much an enlightened soul on matters of race relations as he was a savvy businessman who wanted to lure customers with cheap records into making a more costly investment in a phonograph. The great irony remains: Black artists quite literally shaped the course of Western music with recordings they made in the heart of Klan territory.
Take, for example, “Dippermouth Blues.” Oliver’s composition gives a shout-out to his young protégé, who was affectionately called “Dippermouth” and whom Oliver had coaxed out of New Orleans. “The recording starts off with King and Louis playing a famous two-cornet harmonized break, and that has become iconic,” Wallarab explains. “And then King Oliver’s cornet solo was one of the first really famous jazz solos that jazz musicians started to imitate. Every jazz musician memorized it, and you can hear dozens and dozens of recordings from the ’20s into the ’40s that are quoting from that solo.”
Wallarab’s suite also starts there. A pair of trumpets engages in musical dialogue, with each other and the band, cribbing from Oliver’s solo. “It’s call and response in the literal sense,” the bandleader says. “But to me personally, this is King Oliver going to Chicago and calling Louis Armstrong to join him from New Orleans.”
Then there’s “Chimes Blues,” which features Armstrong’s first ever recorded solo. That solo was so captivating that it became more renowned than King’s composition. Indeed, Wallarab’s arrangement on TheGennett Suite is built around Armstrong’s solo rather than the song’s melody. “It’s really lyrical,” he says. “Louis may have composed it himself … I don’t know, maybe he did improvise it. But there’s so many similarities between the first and second chorus that it feels like it’s something that had been worked out. Even so, it’s a stronger melody than the tune itself. It’s just a standout.”
Among those individuals whose lives were inalterably changed by hearing jazz was Biederbecke, a white trumpet player from Davenport, Iowa, who devoted his too-short life to the music. Wallarab titled a section of The Gennett Suite “Blues Faux Bix,” punning on the fact that the compositions here are not actual blues, but attempts by music publishers to cash in on the blues craze of the day. “I think ‘Jazz Me Blues’ and ‘Davenport Blues’ are just magnificent representations of the classics that Bix did at Gennett,” Wallarab says. He also includes the Jelly Roll Morton tune “Wolverine Blues” under the Beiderbecke heading, as Bix idolized Morton, even naming his band The Wolverine Orchestra.
The suite also celebrates Morton and Carmichael, the latter with a quite modernized take on “Star Dust,” the grandaddy of standards first recorded in 1927, and the former with “King Porter Stomp” and “Grandpa’s Spells,” both of which Morton first recorded as solo piano sides for Gennett in 1923. “The Jelly Roll stuff brought out a humor and a playfulness in how I approached it,” Wallarab notes. “It’s not silly, it’s not goofy, but there’s humor in it. Working with Jelly Roll’s stuff is so much fun because you’re listening to it and you’re just imagining this bigger than life character playing this music full of personality and humor and playfulness. And of course it’s genius — the technique and the form and the structure is unbelievable.”
“But one of the things that’s always drawn me to this music,” Wallarab continues, “is that the humanity doesn’t get lost in the technique with these great, great musicians.”
Featured photo by Ed Stewart.