Mule Walk by James P. Johnson (1)

Our favourite four-year-old mule is now walking again and we can’t think of any better way to celebrate than a modest tribute to the song that gives title to this blog.

By the spring of 1913, James P. Johnson was playing at the Jungles Casino, a cellar on 62nd Street, in the neighbourhood called The Jungles, the Negro section of Hell’s Kitchen and one of the toughest places in NY. The Jungles Casino was officially a dancing school called “Drake’s Dancing Class”, since it was very hard for coloured people to get a dance-hall license. 

He described the venue as “a cellar, without fixings. The furnace, coal, and ashes were still there behind a partition. The coal bin was handy for guests to stash their liquor in case the cops dropped in. There were dancing classes alright, but there were no teachers. The “pupils” danced sets, two-steps, waltzes, schottisches, and “The Metropolitan Glide”, a new step”.

JPJ played for those dances but, instead of playing straight, he broke into a rag in certain places and the younger dancers – mostly from Charleston, South Carolina, and other places in the South – screamed when he “got good to them with a bit of rag in the dance music now and then”, “hollering and screaming until they were cooked”.

That’s how Mule Walk was composed, as breakdown music for such wild and comical dance sets, the more solid and groovy the better. JPJ assimilated those old-country dance tunes and translated them into his own pianistic language, which would result in the foundation of stride piano. In this sense, Mule Walk, Gut Stomp and Carolina Shout, all of them composed in the same period, must be considered a prototype of the stride piano style. However, it is safe to assume that he must have played Mule Walk differently then and in his three recordings from the late 30s and early 40s.

Copyrighted on February 1940 by Bregman, Vocco & Conn, Mule Walk is a three-section composition in B flat with an infectious rhythm that perfectly suits JPJ’s energetic piano playing. Some ragtime player stated a few years ago that Mule Walk is “one of the most prominent examples of stride writing using minimal melodic elements and lots of rhythm”. But a seasoned listener will come to the conclusion that this is not a “primitive” composition, neither are any of JPJ’s performances of the tune. His playing is always enhanced by a fine sense of dynamics and a crystal-clear touch that always draw a melodic quality from the piano, and yet his extraordinary technique and conception in no way inhibit feeling. 

Every stride piano player may have a different composition considered as “the most difficult one” but, unquestionably, Mule Walk is one of the toughest. But, in Mike Lipskin’s words, “the big challenge is probably not so much a particular piece, but how to work within the style, keeping it fresh, inventive and how to maintain a left hand smoothness and relaxation”. A stellar example would be JPJ's Blue Note recording of Mule Walk.

Regarding improvisation on Mule Walk and other stride chestnuts, Grant Simpson comments that “the vehicles I use to solo on are usually standards. When it comes to Carolina Shout or Mule Walk, I find it incredibly difficult to take that tune as only a "frame work" to work within. I can do it as an exercise, but would never want to perform it that way. It's not that I can't, but for some reason it doesn't "feel right" or "sound right" to me. Probably because, when improvising, we are left with two basic choices: harmonic or melodic. I think JPJ dealt with this if you listen to his versions of said Carolina Shout and then listen to If Dreams Come True. I believe the difference is that Carolina Shout, Mule Walk or Keep Off The Gras are primarily harmonically structured. Their ingredients are primarily chordal in structure - even the melodies. When you try to truly improvise on those, you are somewhat restricted to staying within that structure or the piece no longer stays in true stride tradition. When I began to bare down on stride as the fundamental foundation of my playing, I had to change the way I improvised on some tunes. Not standards in which I still keep stride components happening, but the right hand solos are basically clarinet type of lines.”


Tracking down the Lamb (3)

Baltimore Afro-American - November 9, 1946

"It was a triple celebration that brought so many friends to the home of the James Robinsons, 531 Bergen St., Newark, on Sunday. Among the guests were: Miss Carrie Smith, soloist; Donald Lambert, pianist and Wilfred Fletcher, saxophonist, who entertained (...)".


Tracking down The Lamb (2)

After having played at Kelly's Stable on 52nd Street, Lambert ventured into New York again in 1946 to play at Jock's Music Room on 7th Avenue at 138th Street, Maxine Sullivan being the headliner.
New York Sun - June 20, 1946
"Maxine Sullivan, a songstress with a way all her own, goes to Jock's Place in Harlem, joining a show that features Jimmie Daniels, who was a favourite in Paris before the war; the Al Casey Trio and Donald Lambert, who is billed as the hot genius of the ivories".
New York Evening Post - June 28, 1946

New York Evening Post - July 21, 1946



Tracking down The Lamb (1)

Born on February 12, 1904, in Princeton, New Jersey, Donald Lambert started his professional career at age ten in his home state, where he worked as a duo with Paul Seminole, half-Indian pianist who also played banjo and xylophone. 

In the early 30s, The Lamb moved to New York City and played in Harlem clubs but, after his wife died, he returned to New Jersey, where he decided to settle down, inexplicably, to play on out of tune pianos in small clubs and taverns until the end of his life (the Star Bar on Halsey Street in Newark, the Town House Restaurant in Montclair and Wallace’s Bar on Washington Street in West Orange, New Jersey).

From time to time he showed up in New York unexpectedly to challenge other ticklers in cutting contests. These piano battles are part of the stride piano legend and the source of a large stream of anecdotes, and will be the subject of a future series on this blog.

For the time being, let’s get back to the facts, the few notices, reviews and advertisements mentioning him on the papers during the timeframe starting in the early 20s – when he was barely twenty years old – and ending  in the 50s – before his appearance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival alongside Eubie Blake and Willie The Lion Smith –. 

Tracking down Donald Lambert comes out like an impossible task, due to his self-imposed obscurity. This  is part of the scarce results of a quite exhaustive research through the digital archives of both local and national newspapers.

New York Age - November 4, 1922

"Trenton, N.J. - (...) On October 25 there was a surprise party given by Miss Helen Dillon in honor of Miss Mary Dillon's 18th birthday at 71 West End avenue (...). Music was furnished by Donald Lambert".

New York Age - July 21, 1923

"Princeton, N.J. - Master Donald Lambert is filling a position as pianist in Asbury Park".

New York Age - May 31, 1930

"Newark, N.J. - One of the New Jersey's finest social and artistic feats was presented last Wednesday night by the Beaux Arts Club in their second anual presentation at the Y.M. and Y.W. Hebrew Hall, High and West Kenney streets. The auditorium was crowded with a capacity gathering from all parts of the State (...). During the intermission and for the dance music was played by Donald Lambert's Orchestra".


The California Ramblers - some 1921 concerts

On November 17, 1921, a nine-piece group was assembled in the Vocalion recording studio to wax two titles, The Sheik of Araby and Georgia Rose, which were issued as "Played by The California Ramblers".

The band was managed by Ed Kirkeby, former record promoter for Columbia and extremely well-connected in the New York music scene. He arranged several hundred recording sessions for them (as the California Ramblers or as the Golden Gate Orchestra) and their smaller units The Little Ramblers, The Goofus Five, The Five Birmingham Babies, The Vagabonds and the Varsity Eight.

During the first months of their existence, the Ramblers were led by banjoist Ray Kitchingham and their personnel changed constantly. By April 1922, it already included some outstanding musicians, above all, multiinstrumentalist Adrian Rollini, who was the core and nucleus of the band for several years.

The Ramblers were mostly a studio outfit and for almost ten years they recorded for practically every company, but Ed Kirkeby also booked them for long residencies, first at the Post Lodge in Westchester and later at the Pelham Inn, The Bronx, renamed the Ramblers' Inn because of the band's reputation.

By the time of their first recording, Ed Kirkeby got them a job as accompanists for Eva Shirley, a popular vaudeville artist in the 1910s and 1920s. 

Recently, Bix Beiderbecke specialist Albert Haim discovered an ad in the Jan 8, 1922 edition of the New York Times for their performance in the New Amsterdam Theatre and published it on  Facebook.

As a result of my research in the digital archives of old newspapers, several unearthed advertisements and reviews show that there were several gigs before that date:

December 2, 1921 – Variety (New Acts column)

“Eva Shirley, assisted by Al Roth and the California Ramblers, consisting of 10 pieces”

December 9, 1921 – Brooklyn Standard Union

December 16, 1921 – Variety

“(…) Now she presents the California Ramblers, and even in this jazz-jaded day the organization of nine is a sweet scent of superior syncopation. A banjo player, one of the few who uses a pick and gets true banjo music, was a revelation, though never permitted to do any individual work such as Paul Whiteman wisely slips to every member of his astutely managed outfit who can do anything more than vamp till ready. This banjoist is a find, and the whole band is solidly there. No effort is made by it to freak or get attention with anything but music, the more wonder (…)”

December 17, 1921 – Billboard

“It was Al Roth and The California Ramblers who were the outstanding hit of the Eva Shirley act, and rightfully so. Young Roth is an exceptional talented eccentric stepper, and the California Ramblers as fine a musical combination as one would want to listen to”

December 17, 1921 – New York Dramatic Mirror

“Eva Shirley and the California Ramblers with Al Roth followed intermission. The Ramblers are a nine-piece jazz orchestra that scored a hit”

December 2X, 1921 – Dobbs Ferry Register

“(…) The California Ramblers too have been unusually popular (…)”

December 24, 27 & 30, 1921 – Yorkers Statesman & News

December 29, 1921 – Yorkers Statesman News

“(…) The California Ramblers, too, have appeared everywhere in vaudeville (…)”

December 31, 1921 – New York Sun

“RIVERSIDE. Ella Retford, Eva Shirley and the California Ramblers and Leo Beers will be the collar on the draft here”


Benny Carter and the QHCF in Barcelona (29jan36, 31jan36 & 2feb36) - new info

The book Django Reinhardt. Un Gitano En París (Editorial Milenio, 2012) by Juan P. Jiménez and Emilie Durand provides additional information on the concerts by Benny Carter and the QHCF in January 1936 in Barcelona, and authoritatively clarifies some obscure points. Apart from Charles Delaunay's biography of Django Reinhardt (published by Ashley Marks Publishing Company, 1988) and contemporary periodicals (La Vanguardia, La Publicidad, L'Instant, Jazz Magazine Hot Club de Barcelona), their source is Hot Club of Barcelona senior member Alfredo Papo. He double-checked the facts and contributed with first-hand documents, such as the original contract intermediated by Audiffred & Maronani agency and signed on January 14 by Pierre Nourry, secretary of the Hot Club of France and QHCF agent, and Mr. Suris, treasurer of the Hot Club of Barcelona.

Now it is confirmed that there were three concerts, all of them in Barcelona: the first two were arranged by the Hot Club of Barcelona (January 29 at the Cinema Coliseum and January 31 at the Palau de la Música Catalana) whereas the additional extra concert at the Olympia theater on February 2 was promoted by an outsider of dubious reputation -and that's the reason why Grappelli refused to play and Jaume Vila had to sit in-.

As we have previously documented (see posts from 16Apr09, 18Apr09 and 16Feb10), except for the ultraconservative and nearly racist comments from La Veu de Catalunya, the first two concerts were a resounding success, even though pianist Garnet Clark, billed as guest star -and misspelled on advertisements as "Garney Clark"-, didn't show up in Barcelona. 

On the other hand, the Olympia theater concert was a box-office flop and, according to Jiménez & Durand, it was at this concert where the promoter ran away with the money, and not at the first two (Coliseum and Palau), as stated in previous biographies of Django Reinhardt, including Dregni's. The contract between Nourry of the Hot Club of France and Suris of the Hot Club of Barcelona stipulated that the QHCF would receive 3,000 francs before leaving Paris and the remaining 4,000 after the gigs. According to Papo, the musicians were paid and hence the paragraph "but now the balance of 4,000 francs plus their travel expenses were gone. Django, Carter, and the bandmates pooled the money in their pockets to afford train tickets home, with one lone Catalonian sausage to slice up between them to quell their stomachs on the long journey to Paris", which has been perpetuated through subsequent "copy-and-paste" biographies, is half legend, half whopper.

Thank God the plain truth has been revealed!