Bubber Miley

It is twenty-five years now since James (Bubber) Miley died. A quarter of a century is a long time. One of the few younger jazzmen of the era not brought up in New Orleans, Bubber's whole career was confined to the 'twenties, that is if we stretch the decade a little over a year to include the Jelly Roll, Carmichael and Oliver dates, the period of his Mileage Makers and his final date with Reisman in June 1931. These few newcomers, who either showed extraordinary excellence or contributed something new to jazz, were Bix, Lang, Teschemacher and Miley. They were brought up on the "hearsay" of New Orleans; they learned from records and from local practitioners who themselves were once or twice removed from their own source, and only later did they come in direct contact with passing New Orleans men.

A player is conditioned early in his career by his first contact with jazz and only later absorbs whatever virtues and disciplines he can appreciate along the way. No 'revivalist' attitude of dedication to the past had arisen in those days. Merely the passing influence of the giants –Oliver, Dodds and Armstrong on a young player is not enough to mature him. Naturally such men will be admired and even worshipped, and they certainly exert great influence, but it is the actual milieu of a growing musician that truly conditions and forms him. If his surroundings are shot through with bad influences, his own creative apparatus will inevitably suffer from them, even though he himself feels no special admiration for either the prevailing style or its exponents.

For the Negro a good beginning in music is a mother who sings at her chores; but later the desire to sell himself in show-business leads to all kinds of professional expediencies. These may prove very harmful. The quick jump from blues singer to nightingale, like Florence Mills and the hundreds of lesser Florences, the off-colour songs burlesquing Negro traits (interesting in their way but not conducive to great jazz), the admiration for the blossoming arrangements, the playing up to tourist-trade with simulated jungle interpretations set to popular tunes, are all ruinous to art. These impurities only bring about a confusion of criteria to the detriment of both their own music and of their adaptations of borrowed material. This pattern of opportunism becomes so strongly established that the examples of the giants can only be followed at the risk of tenuous results, depending, of course, on the sensitivities of the listening musician. We must remember that what is admired and what is accepted as a guide can be two quite different things. Among the non-New Orleans men there was no attitude of prostrate emulation such as existed in the Chicago school, where in the beginning the white boys were so cut off from the sources of jazz that they were forced to sit down and absorb the best from records before exposing themselves to a milieu that might prove stronger than their will to musicianship. For Armstrong, only three years older than Bubber, to sit in with Oliver's band was a priceless advantage, something denied any player gigging around in Harlem.

The atmosphere of the late 'twenties in Harlem was probably one of the worst possible atmospheres for a young musician. What with semi-arranged jump bands, jungle bands and the emergence of the arranged big bands, a player had no decent background in which to grow. These vitiating influences were so powerful that the players received little initiative for individual choice of direction. The frantic playing that we have now at such places as the Metropole, the late Stuyvesant and Central Casinos, or wherever the older players congregate, was not in evidence then. Collective improvisation had given way to the arranger, and did not come back into vogue until much later—a little hectic then perhaps, but still and all collective. Bubber had none of this collective improvisation, at least on records or in his professional work. Although the Duke certainly featured him and together they gave a stamp to a pre-30s Ellingtonia, the Duke was not good for Bubber. I do not say that gigging around in Harlem or that playing in any other Harlem band of the time would have been better for him, but I am thinking of how Bubber's great talents would have blossomed in an atmosphere of less jungle pastiche. He and Tricky Sam helped the Duke play a kind of jazz which Orin Keepnews berates as an "emphasis of the Harlem clubs on a pseudo-savage motif in their floor shows and music... effective in its aim of drawing white audiences…”* But the spark of genius can always start a blaze in the murkiest surroundings. Bubber had that spark. Even so, the murk was never completely banished.

Bubber's own style was far removed from that of the popular music he was playing. It was packed with changes of timbre that included some of the most searing tones. But only when his melodic structure was in a category of music removed from the popular song did this searing intonation have real musical meaning. Otherwise he resorted to a series of cliches kept on tap for ordinary occasions. These cliches were a result of Bubber's mannerisms; he used them more and more to distort the melodic line of popular tunes. They consisted of sudden interjected barks or strident dissonances which come at us violently. He makes these interjections in order, it would seem, to break down the bland easiness of a popular tune. Built into his earlier compositions such as the Black and Tan they took their place with great musical meaning-fulness. But I must say that when arbitrarily strewn about a catchy tune they become extremely boring. The less strident style of other great jazzmen seemed more appropriate to popular tunes than did Bubber's. They either were frank in their off-straight or luxuriant renditions, or they melodically varied the original line. If they did not achieve true creativeness, at least they did not sink to horseplay.

Bubber's playing was rarely relaxed. His was a heated performance, constantly under great tension. His intensity hardly allowed for any natural flow of musical emotion. He would be so occupied with a white-heat performance that if he could not come through with an inspired improvisation he would resort to his overworked cliches. But Bubber usually had plenty of inspiration throughout his career – and not only in the manipulation of his rubber mute. For as inspired as I find Bubber's wa-wa and general delivery, I find his musical line equally great – a musical line that survives the wa-wa, as I believe any notation will show. To categorize Bubber merely as a growl man who brought the wa-wa to its greatest height does not do justice to Bubber Miley the musician. There is some excellent wa-wa playing by Cootie Williams and Sy Oliver, but who when their work is reduced to paper, without the benefit of the wa-wa, turn out to have little to say.

Though the growl and wa-wa method derived from Bubber's plunger mute may have been instrumental in creating his melodic line, still taken alone, they were at best crude contrivances towards the creation of real music.

In the minds of some of those who know Bubber's music, and for most of his critics, both favourable and otherwise, his performance is all growl and wa-wa. Although this style of playing must eventually be judged by those who did not grow up with it, what can we, who did, say these few decades after its popularity? As intonation in general goes through a great many changes of style, some of which disappear only to come back into favour at a later period, we may ask if there was anything in the extreme use of mutes by Miley et al that would warrant their being taken up again?

The wa-wa mute was certainly a strange phenomenon of early jazz. In some cases it was an effective screen for inventive paucity, while in others it was of no musical avail at all. But in the hands of real musicians like Bubber Miley, Joseph "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Jabbo Smith, to name a few, it fathered a most incredible melodic line. This line, because of the nature of the technique, is not always clear-cut, but when it can be put down on paper it sustains itself in a remarkable way, in spite of being deprived of the spontaneous quality inherent in a performance.

The wa-wa is least effective with popular songs. It can best be used on them if the improvisor transforms the tune so that it enters another category of music. That is, he must first alter its catchy easiness. Otherwise the intensity and the sharp explosions of dissonance coming from a Miley horn seem incongruous.

The trouble of using instrumental devices – in this case an array of jazz mutes – to produce emotional extremes is that they carry a charge which is actually unmusical. Their tones are not the natural tones of an instrument. They are highly charged with emotion and their impact is powerful. To many people they spell jazz; and although subconsciously any listener is affected by the design of melodic content, yet the admirers of instrumental devices would, if put to the test, choose muted sounds in a poor melodic design before the most excellent design less dramatically embellished. But however great the response to the poignancy of these devices, in the end they make for a mere orgy of emotion, a state soon effected by the psychological law of diminishing returns. In contrast to this inevitable let-down, the tranquil satisfaction evoked by a work whose formal design is supplemented by a rising emotional curve gives us complete and enduring pleasure.

It may seem paradoxical that the one type of playing regarded as not much above "musical noises" – namely wa-wa growling –  has contrary to general impression inspired certain musicians to create a melodic line superior to all but the greatest open-horn trumpeters. In line with this, let me say that I have always staunchly believed that it is the melodic line which is important in jazz, and not the delivery. "Progressive" critics speak of both contemporary jazz music and that of the past in melodic terms, whereas the older critics have incessantly stressed tone and playing ability above everything else. Of course the most apparent difference between jazz and classic music is in delivery although the ultimate worth of jazz resides solely in its melodic line. We must admit though, that when a really lusty band is playing, it is of little importance whether or not any specific instrumentalist's work can be isolated for attention. However, the critics, whether they praise or disparage Bubber for his wa-wa, still seem completely oblivious of the melodic line that threads itself through his apparent noises. A plunger mute constantly manipulated will qualify every tone that comes to our ears; but we need only listen to the average growl music to find that while it can be intensely piercing it may still say nothing because of lack of structure or inspiration in its melodic line. Whether one favours a growl style or not, the fact remains that in Bubber's work we find, throughout his growling and wa-wa, creative improvisations which are highly melodic.

Bubber was a very great musician. Although certain critics have praised him unreservedly, I'm sorry to say that the books on jazz have given him a raw deal. True enough, the most perceptive writing may not always be between the hard covers of a book, but unless the many scattered magazine articles are collected and bound, the casual reader will have no other source of information than the more easily accessible books. In some thirty-five books in English, only two or three writers are highly favourable to Bubber. In only a third of them is he mentioned at all. Ulanov clearly shows Miley to have been an important man in Duke Ellington's band†. It was the Duke himself who said: "Our band changed its character when Miley came in. That was when we decided to forget all about the sweetmusic.‡ It is only Panassie, who in saying: "I do not single him (Bubber) out (for wa-wa) . . . but because of the intelligent way in which he used these same effects.”º seems aware that we are contending with something more than wa-wa effects.

*Notes on the sleeve of Charlie Johnson Riverside LP.

Duke Ellington, Creative Age Press, New York, 1946.

Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, Shapiro and Hentoff, Peter Davies Ltd., London, 1956.

°HotJazz, M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1936.


Roger Pryor Dodge

Jazz Monthly, May 1958

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