The New Orleans Rhythm Kings (nicknamed NORK) were one of the most influential jazz bands of the early to mid-1920s. The band was a combination of New Orleans and Chicago musicians who helped shape Chicago Jazz and influenced many younger jazz musicians.
The group recorded a series of records for Gennett Records in 1922 and 1923. On two of these sessions, they were joined by pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings in its earliest stages was the brainchild of drummer Mike "Ragbaby" Stevens, solely in that he sent the first telegram to Albert Brunies about going to Chicago to make a band and find better gigs than what New Orleans had to offer. Albert "Abbie" Brunies and his younger brother and trombonist George Brunies were initially hesitant but suggested the idea to friend, trumpet player Paul Mares, who immediately lunged for the opportunity.
"So I says Paul, I says, Abbie don't want to go to Chicago and I'm kind of leery, I'm afraid", George recalled. "Paul says, 'man, give me that wire. I'll go.' So Paul went up and introduced himself to Ragbaby Stevens and Ragbaby liked him… and Paul got the railroad fare from his father and sent me $60".
George Brunies picked up his trombone and set off to join Mares in Chicago, playing gigs and going to afterhours clubs with Paul Mares.
It was at one such club where the pair met some of their future band mates, drummer Frank Snyder, pianist Elmer Schoebel, and saxophonist Jack Pettis.
The name "New Orleans Rhythm Kings" in fact did not initially refer to this group, but rather to a group under the direction of a vaudeville performer by the name of Bee Palmer. Though Palmer's group didn't last, one of the musicians from the group, clarinetist Leon Roppolo, did. Within several months of Palmer's group breaking up, Roppolo found himself playing on riverboats in Chicago with Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, George Brunies, banjoist Louis Black and (possibly) Paul Mares.
Mares, ready to move on from riverboat life, found the group an engagement at a club called the Friars Inn, owned by Mike Fritzel. Bassist Arnold Loyocano joined forces with the growing band and thus began the group's engagement at the Friar's Inn that lasted 17 months beginning in 1921. During this time the group performed under the name "The Friar's Society Orchestra".
While at the Friar's Inn, the group attracted the interest not only of fans, but of other musicians. Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who had been sent to school in Chicago by his parents in the hopes of removing any jazz influences, regularly attended New Orleans Rhythm Kings shows. He was often allowed to perform with the band.
After their engagement at the Friar's Inn ended, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were largely scattered and disorganized. Though they would reform periodically, with significant member turnover (Roppolo and Mares were more or less the two ringleaders and constants of the group), to make recordings, the group never played all together again. They all went their separate ways: Paul Mares continued to play music, releasing a record in 1935 and ran the "P&M New Orleans Barbeque" with his wife in the late 1930s Leon Roppolo was (and always had been) mentally unstable and spent the last years of his life in and out of institutions until his early death in 1945, though he managed to keep playing music as best he could. Most of the other members of the NORK also kept successful musical careers after the group dissolved.
In 1922 the group released the first of several records for Gennett Records, which is located in Richmond, Indiana. Gennett Records was famously built next to a railroad track, which was cursed by many frustrated musicians whose recording sessions were disturbed by the rattling trains.
In the first session at Gennett, the Friars Society Orchestra (The name that they released the record under) recorded 8 songs: "Panama", "Tiger Rag", "Livery Stable Blues" representing the New Orleans Jazz "standbys" as well as some originals of the group, " Oriental", "Discontented Blues", and "Farewell Blues" as well as a never-released ODJB song called "Eccentric". Paul Mares scheduled another two-day recording session at Gennett later but the band had recently dissolved somewhat, deciding to all move in different directions following their stint at the Friars Inn. For the session Mares got Brunies, Roppolo, Stitzel, and Pollack together to release a record under the name New Orlean's Rhythm Kings, the first time the name was really used since the days that it had referred to Bee Palmer's travelling vaudeville act.
This proved to be a fantastic idea: the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were outstanding in that they played a more serious, crafted music than then-famous white jazz group the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). While the ODJB advertised their music as a novelty act, the NORK sought to distance themselves from the popular image of jazz as novelty and instead market it as a genuine musical genre.
The third recording session occurred after Mares and Roppolo had spent some time playing in a small band in New York. They returned to Chicago and scheduled another session with Gennett Records as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. This session is particularly notable because of the participation of famed jazz pianist and arranger Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton. Morton was a Creole from New Orleans, and though he identified strongly with the white "French" side of being Creole, he was generally viewed by society as black (though he was fairly light-skinned and could sometimes "pass" as Latin-American and therefore was subjected to many of the same social pressures as other blacks of the day. In 1923 the country was still largely racially segregated, which included the jazz bands. White bands were beginning to spring up attempting to imitate the "hot" jazz style that the black musicians played, but rarely did any racial mixing occur in a professional setting (In a non-professional setting, however it was becoming more and more common). Jelly Roll Morton's participation in recording with the all white New Orleans Rhythm Kings was history in the making: it is an early example of mixed race recordings. (The session with Morton has sometimes been incorrectly called the first mixed-race recording session; actually there were several earlier examples.)
Paul Mares and Leon Roppolo went on to do two more recording sessions in New Orleans under the name "New Orleans Rhythm Kings" in 1925 before the group dissolved altogether and went their separate ways.
A significant period of time after NORK seemed to have faded permanently into the archives of history, several recording studios decided to revive NORK records. The first revival was by Riverside Records, which reissued NORK's Gennett recordings. The second reissue was from Milestone records. Both of these Reissues were important in keeping the NORK from disappearing completely from the pages of history and reminding the world what an influential band they were. "In the 1990s Milestone released the band's Gennett sides on compact disc".
Compositions and arrangements by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings continue to be played by "Traditional Jazz" or "Dixieland" bands all over the world today. Some of their famous compositions and contributions to the jazz repertory include "Bugle Call Rag", "Milenburg Joys", "Farewell Blues", "Angry", "Baby", "Discontented Blues", "She's Crying For Me", "Oriental", "I Never Knew What a Girl Could Do", "Everybody Loves Somebody Blues", and "Tin Roof Blues".
"Make Love to Me", a 1954 pop song by Jo Stafford, using the New Orleans Rhythm King's music from the 1923 jazz standard "Tin Roof Blues", became a no.1 hit. Anne Murray and B. B. King also recorded "Make Love to Me". Jo Stafford's recording of "Make Love to Me" was no.1 for three weeks on the Billboard charts and no.2 on Cashbox.
Though the ODJB and the NORK seem to be the two leading white bands of the day, their musical styles were very different. As opposed to the short, choppy style of the ODJB, NORK played more legato pieces. Leon Roppolo's famous clarinet sound was described in one instance as being "Spectral" and otherworldly.
In the book "Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contributions to Jazz", Richard M. Sudhalter writes: "Three takes of 'Tin Roof Blues' exist, three opportunities to listen to Roppolo's mind at work, arranging and rearranging the pieces of his elegiac little statement. He begins all three on his high G (concert F), ends all three on the same two-bar resolution. But the differences in between, matters of tone, dynamics, and shading as much as specific notes, are spellbinding.
"This solo, in each of its three variants, contains many 'bent' notes, the exact pitches of which resist attempts at formal notation. In certain cases…. A sustained note will have both a "sharp" sign and a "flat" sign above it, indicating a progression from one pitch variation to the other, in the order given."
Earlier in the same chapter, Sudhalter gives a description of the full band's sound in their first Gennett recordings:
"The notion of tunefulness implies particular attention t the aesthetics of sound. The tutti passages on "Farewell Blues", with their echoes of railroad whistles, the carefully arranged interludes and fadeout ending on Schoebel's unusual "discontented blues", bespeak rehearsal and behind-the-scenes work aimed at achieving a polished and varied band sound. Nothing on any record by a black band of the early '20's is anywhere near as aesthetically venturesome.
At its roots, New Orleans style Jazz (which influenced Chicago Jazz) represented an assimilation of Southern black traditions carried over from their African heritage mixed with white European traditions. The instrumentation was European (trumpets, trombones, etc.) while the melodic ideas and unconventional (at least, in the context of classical music) rhythms and musical forms were born from the Ring Shouts and country blues styles of the black slaves. The very first jazz bands were mostly black and played for black audiences, though the genre progressively got picked up by white audiences too. Many of the musicians were unable to read music but instead relied heavily on head arrangements (learning the arrangement by ear and then committing it to memory) and an ability to improvise. In many other cases the musicians could read music, but white audiences were so captivated by the improvisational ability that they were convinced was inherent in black musicians that the musicians would memorize the arrangement beforehand and appear to improvise to cater to the expectations of white audiences.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings represents a contingent of white jazz bands that began to grow up from 1915 to the early 1920s. These bands, perhaps the best-known of which being the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, attempted to imitate the fast virtuosic style of their black counterparts. "The relatively small inner circles of acute jazz listeners in the 1920s recognized that black musicians played better, more mature, and more confident jazz".
Despite a significant bias that only black musicians could play "real" jazz, white bands such as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) emerged and found great success, especially in their recordings. The song Livery Stable Blues by the ODJB in 1917 personified the vaudevillian style that white audiences sought in Jazz: choppy, comedic, almost poking fun at itself. Livery Stable Blues features soloists playing in such a way as to make their instruments sound like barn animals.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, however, brought a new flavor to recorded jazz. Though NORK and ODJB were not by any stretch of the imagination the first white jazz bands (there were many others that played around Chicago and New Orleans), they were some of the first to make recordings and one of the first white jazz bands that made mixed race recordings (Jelly Roll Morton was creole).
The New Orleans contingent
"Chink" Martin Abraham, string bass, tuba
Leo Adde, drums
Lester Bouchon, saxophone
Steve Brown, string bass
George Brunies, trombone
Charlie Cordilla, clarinet, saxophone
Bill Eastwood, banjo
Emmett Hardy, cornet
Arthur "Monk" Hazel, drums
Glyn Lea "Red" Long, piano
Arnold "Deacon" Loyacano (Loiacono), string bass, piano
Oscar Marcour, violin
Paul Mares, trumpet, leader
Santo Pecora, trombone
Leon Roppolo, clarinet
The Chicago contingent
Louis 'Lou' Black, banjo
Voltaire de Faut, clarinet, saxophone
Bob Gillette, banjo
Husk O'Hare, promoter
Don Murray, clarinet, saxophone
Bee Palmer, vocalist
Jack Pettis, saxophone
Kyle Pierce, piano
Ben Pollack, drums
Elmer Schoebel, piano, arranger
Glen Scoville, saxophone
Frank Snyder, drums
Mel Stizel, piano
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