This week I had planned to go overboard for Benny Goodman's new band, but I've become so tired of writing in the superlative that I think I'll say something about riff tunes today.
A riff tune is a number usually played at a moderately fast tempo, and built around phrases that have been standard in jazz music for years. These tunes generally find their origin in the blues, where improvised melodies are often adaptable to orchestration. For instance, a little detective work will show you that In The Mood, a typical riff tune, is merely an arranged version of an old blues number called Tar Paper Stomp, recorded four or five years ago on Decca by Wingy Mannone. Some of our most popular novelty songs have been riff tunes, and have included Hold Tight, Well All Right, and Boog It.
A new recording of this type of arrangement can be an awful headache for a reviewer, simply because there isn't anything to say about it. It doesn't show much originality on the part of the composer, and seldom affords much inspiration to the band that plays it. On the other hand, it's difficult to put your finger on anything really bad about the record, except possibly the lack of originality. However, in my mind, an overdose of riff tunes will generally have a discouraging effect on jazz musicians. Any competent arranger can pick up a few old blues licks and build a tune around them, and a competent band will play it and the Andrews Sisters will sing it and high-school jitterbugs all over the country will dance to it, and two months later it will be forgotten. It's the casiest thing in the world for a good dance orchestra to get itself into a musical rut by doing just this thing. Tommy Dorsey is a good example of those who have fallen by the wayside because of riff tunes.
What with all the swell Cole Porter and Irving Berlin tunes lying around, I can't understand why arrangers don't use them more to create something that will have a lasting musical value, not only for the fine melody that's already there, but for the good jazz that should be. I guess the best answer to this lies in what Glenn Miller told me a couple of years ago.
"Glenn," I said (I call him Glenn), "what do you think of these awful riff tunes that guys like Tommy Dorsey and Larry Clinton play?"
"Well, Charlie," he said (he calls me Charlie), "Which would you rather hear, Tommy Dorsey or Shep Fields and his rippling rhythm?"
He had me there.
NEWS AND RELEASES. This Is Still a Democracy Department: At an FDR rally a few weeks ago, the Benny Goodman Sextet showed true sportsmanship in dedicating a number to Wendell Willkie. Tune was Gone With What Wind ... Record of the week: Woody Herman's Beat Me Daddy. Pianist Tommy Linehan and the rhythm section are outstanding, in addition to a swell low register clarinet chorus by Woody himself, with a barrelhouse guitar background (Decca) ... COLUMBIA has tried the interesting experiment of using a small jazz group to accompany a schmaltz singer, and surprisingly enough the experiment is a terrific success. Singer is Eddy Howard, and the band is led by Teddy Wilson. Coupling, Star Dust and Old Fashioned Love, features Benny Morton backing the vocals with some fine muted trombone. Also heard are Charlie Christians, Benny Goodman's electric guitar technician, and Edmond Hall, one of the most unappreciated clarinetists in the business. Record is ideal for both dancers and jazz fiends ... Lexa Egon May (a woman) tells us all about Duke Ellington in a letter to the current Down Beat ... "Ellington music is an unearthly melodiousness, full of poignancy and melancholy, wailing of unfulfilled longings, futile suspirations, fugitive ecstacies, insuperable barriers, self-conscious revolt and perilous triumphs, rising to a crescendo of delirious abandon, then diminishing to a wistful despondency, whispering of a quandary of hopes, fears, sadness, hurt, chargrin, unrequited love, and confusion." Solid, Jackson.
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