Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Free Improvisation Series: Stuff Smith & Robert Crum (part two)

Part Two: Two Souls Touch - The Robert Crum / Stuff Smith Collaboration

In October 1944 Robert Crum began an innovative collaboration with the violinist Stuff Smith. Smith (Sept. 14, 1909 – Sept. 25, 1967) was a popular jazz musician and would become of the most influential violinists in jazz history. By the 1940's he was well-known and respected, and something of a music industry darling. He played Alphonso Trent's territory band on-and-off from late 1927 until 1931.16 He played with Jelly Roll Morton for a brief period in 1928. After marrying, he settled for a time in Buffalo, NY. In 1936, he had a hit recording with I'se a Muggin', and worked steadily at the Onyx Club in New York City. Smith played with Fats Waller's band and travelled to Hollywood, CA for several months in 1943. Smith returned to New York in August 1944 for a stint at the Onyx Club.17
Prior to his move to New York, Smith had played a steady gig at Chicago's Garrick Stage Bar. Smith and Crum met during this period, and the two are known to have played together at the Hamilton Hotel's Sunday afternoon jam sessions in the summer of 1943. In a Billboard article, Crum and Smith are given mention in a long list of other participants, including Muggsy Spanier and Baby Dodds.18 (There is a photograph from the Otto Flückiger collection which shows Smith and Crum sharing the bandstand.19)
Crum on-stage (left) with Smith (right) at Chicago's Garrick Stage Bar. Photograph from the Otto Flückiger collection; used by permission of Robert Campbell and the Red Saunders Research Foundation.

Smith and Crum made at least three visits to the apartment of Timme Rosenkrantz and Inez Cavanaugh in 1944: one on October 21st, and one each on December 16th and 18th.20 Like the recordings that became Erroll Garner's Overture to Dawn, the music that Smith and Crum played at these visits was experimental and very different from publicly-performed jazz of that period. In the words of Dr. Billy Taylor, it was “exciting, adventurous jazz, but very much ahead of its time.”21 Most of the pieces from the October session do not appear to follow any repeating or linear structure at all. They begin with brief melodic or harmonic sketches, then trail off into improvised counterpoint. Crum and Smith's level of invention and empathy is impressive and engaging. Portions of harmonic commonality and beautiful lyricism give way to moments of abstract association, where the musical fabric threatens to unravel completely. But fear is always abated, as the Smith and Crum skillfully connect to another segment of music with taste, inevitability, and often humor.

Harmonica player Pete Pedersen.
Crum had experimented with this type of freely-associative playing before. During his Chicago years, Crum played regularly with Pete Pedersen, who would later become famous as a member of Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, who remembered their collaborations fondly: “We would make up songs together. We were never booked to do this … but we'd say 'Give us a story' and we'd make a song to it … He would play piano, I would play harmonica and we'd just improvise.”22 (Interestingly, Pederson also knew Smith in Chicago, and remembers that “[Smith] would show me licks and things, and that's how I got started. That was the first person I ever heard that really put an influence on me.”)23

 The Crum/Smith collaboration would have been significant even if these Rosenkrantz apartment sessions were the end of the story. But as it happened, a major effort was undertaken to publicly present their musical innovations. In December 1944, Barry Ulanov organized the first of a series of concerts at New York's Times Hall, which were to present “The New Jazz”. This “First Series” featured headliners Pearl Bailey, Barney Bigard, Erroll Garner and Stuff Smith. Don Byas and Red Norvo were also featured. The concert was organized with assistance from Rosenkrantz, Cavanaugh, and Paul Rosen (about whom I know nothing).24
An advertisement for the December 20th 1944 Times Hall concert.

The concert was arranged under the auspices of View: the Modern Magazine, a quarterly periodical, specializing in modern art, film and literature.25 Ulanov, who was also the editor of Metronome magazine, contributed a column to each issue called “Jazz Of This Quarter”. (Ulanov would be a significant proponent of Lennie Tristano's career a few years later.) The impressive list of concert patrons and sponsors boasted many prominent artists and philanthropists, including millionaires Mary Cushing and Helena Rubenstein, ballet choreographer George de Cuevas, sculptor Alexander Calder, composer Aaron Copland, artist Marcel Duchamp, and many others.26 By all accounts, it was a major undertaking: certainly the highest profile concert to date that Robert Crum had participated in.

In the evening's concert notes, Ulanov provided the following description of the duo pieces to be played by Smith and Crum: “Should [these] improvisations be confined to jazz? In a series of deliberations, first canonic, then less rigorously formal, the violinist with the jazz background, the pianist with a classical, offer a provocative answer, as they extend the resources of the improviser to those of all music.”27 Rather than downplaying Smith and Crum's differing musical backgrounds, Ulanov drew attention to them, implying that “The New Jazz” may very well draw more explicitly from other styles of music.28 A radical departure from traditional jazz, in terms of instrumentation, style, form, and the definitions of composition/improvisation, a performance of this music at this kind of event constituted a major statement about the present (and future) state of American music.
Although Ulanov wrote a predictably glowing review of the concert in the March 1945 issue of View,29 most critics expressed skepticism, especially toward Crum. Leonard Feather wrote, that although “Stuff was superb, unpredictable, intensely rhythmic as ever … Crum, a frustrated classical pianist, seemed out of place.”30 Downbeat writer Frank Stacy called the improvisations “plain disconcerting”, mentioning Crum's “disturbing nervous [on stage] mannerisms”. Somewhat in contrast, the Modern Music quarterly wrote a largely negative review, but noted that “The bright spot in the [Smith & Crum] improvisation was a bitonal clash of personalities … Neither would yield, and so the piece ended in a most peculiar way.”31 Smith's widow Arlene Smith illuminates Stacy's comments, remembering that Crum was “dressed in formal wear with white tennis shoes which was pretty strange in those days”.32

The opinions of View magazine's staff and editors is perhaps evident in that for the May issue, Ulanov's column “Jazz of this Quarter” was taken over by Roger Pryor Dodge, another well-respected writer of jazz. The year's remaining two issues feature music articles, written by Lou Harrison (October 1945) and Wilfred Mellers (December 1945), but there is scarcely a mention of jazz in either. (Perhaps it's also worth noting that View printed an advertisement for Ulanov's biography of Duke Ellington in their December 1945 issue.)

Whether Ulanov's departure from View was amicable or not remains a matter of speculation. He is nearly silent about the concert in his future recollections, but years later, he would write that Crum's “curious combination of jazz and the classics never entirely convinced me.”33 Though his own thoughts on the performance are presently unknown, Crum's discouragement at such negative reviews is palpable. By April 1945 he was back in Chicago working at the Hotel Sherman. Billboard writer John Sippel wrote that Crum, now using three mirrors instead of just one, was playing “symphonic jazz interpretations [that are] too intricate for the average hearer. Crum plays half a chorus straight and then goes into a wild malange [sic] of introductions and arpeggios that don't mean much. Crum has affected weird mannerisms and grimaces to accompany his 88-pounding (and the word is used literally), but the old Crum who played at Elmer's two years ago without these new additions was far more preferable.”34 (The following month, Sippel would write that “Crum seems to have found himself and is doing a nice job of selling from the keyboard.”35
An advertisement for Soundies. Image from Doctor Macro.
Crum returned to New York in November 1945 to film two Soundies called Adventure in Boogie Woogie and Our Waltz. These were released in April and August the following year.36 But he continued to work in Chicago and around the midwest. In early 1946 he found some work at the Town House in Albany.37 In June 1946 he was working at Chicago's Hotel Continental, where he was reported as going “all out to give his individual impressions of everything, from the classics to boogie-woogie. His playing is average or better, but his salemanship is nil.”38 Later that summer he played for three weeks at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis39 and also found work at Circus Snack Bar in St. Louis.40 In mid-September 1946 he recorded six duets with the accomplished drummer Barrett Deems, which were released by the Chicago label Gold Seal.41 Crum appeared on WNEW radio in December 1946 in an organ/piano duo with fellow hotel circuit Bud Taylor (b. 1913, d. 1997)42.

In November 1947, Billboard reported that Crum was “in a hospital for observation”.43 No more details are offered, and no further information on Crum's life is known. To the best of current knowledge, Crum seems to have made no further attempts at a public music career, living a private life and passing away in Joliet, IL in May 1981.44
To date, Crum is scarcely even a footnote in jazz history. But while small, the legacy he has left behind is fascinating, and his influence was perhaps not negligible. In addition to the glowing description of their music as “ahead of its time”, Dr. Billy Taylor places Crum alongside Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, and Al Haig as being a notable pianist from the “Prebop and Bebop” style.45 Garner himself was reportedly very impressed by Crum's playing at the Times Hall concert, telling him “You know, I never knew what I wanted to do until I heard you play.”46

The recordings which were made of the Crum/Smith collaboration have entered the digital age thanks to Anthony Barnett's efforts, but Crum's Gold Seal recordings and some solo piano recordings from the Rosenkrantz apartment still remain largely inaccessible

Smith's career continued for twenty more years until his death in 1967. Today he is regarded as one of the most influential jazz violinists, working with some of the most progressive jazz musicians of the 40's, 50's and 60's, playing formally and informally with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry47, and Sun Ra. He was also a great influence on the contemporary improvising violinists Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang. From 1965 up to his death in 1967, he led a quartet which featured pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson. A concert in Denmark was held after his death, in which major violinists Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty paid tribute to Smith.48 

The recordings of Smith and Crum's duo improvisations offer glimpses into the private world of jazz, where the creative process was free from the concerns and interests of studios and clubs. The music frolics in and out of tonality, seamlessly transitions from slow and fast sections, and at every moment shows off the masterful creativity of Smith and Crum, as they push their own and each other's technical and musical boundaries.


16 Barnett 1995, 57
17 The Billboard, “Music Grapevine”. July 8th, 1944, p. 19
18 The Billboard, “Chi Jam Session Backer Hopes For Early Frost; Hot Jazz Finds Heat Tough Competish”. August 7th, 1943, p. 15
19 Red Saunders Discography. Accessed January 4th, 2013.
20 For more on Timme Rosenkrantz and his role in 1930's and 40's jazz, see my article about Erroll Garner.
21 Taylor, Billy. “Jazz Piano.” p. 189
22 Rodack, Jaine. “Be Of Good Cheer: Memories of Harmonica Legend Pete Pedersen.” Authorhouse: 2006. p. 56.
23 Ibid.
24 Barnett 1995, 123
25 “View: the Modern Magazine” published between 1940 and 1947. It was managed by Charles Henri Ford (editor) and Parker Tyler (assoc. editor). Each issue featured a different contemporary artist: Georgia O'Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp, and Rene Magritte to name a few.
26 Ford, Charles Henri. “View – Series IV 1944”. Klaus Reprint: New York. 1969. p. 107.
27 Quoted in Barnett 1995, 125-126
28 In doing so, he expresses a view which is prevalent in contemporary discourse of improvised music. For instance, an overview of the International Society for Improvised Music states that “today’s musical world is increasingly characterized by creative expressions that transcend conventional style categories.” Improvisation is, among other things, “spontaneous interaction between musicians from the most disparate backgrounds[.]”
29 “[The New Jazz] sounded rich and full and vital, serene and joyful, beyond my optimum optimism during the weeks of organizing the concert. This was the way they wanted a jazz concert to go, these jazzmen said … The Stuff Smith Trio, and individual artists, Erroll Garner, Pearl Bailey, Don Byas, Robert Crum, were at peak form.” Ulanov, in View, March 1945.
30  Quoted in Barnett 1998, 126
31 Mercure, in Modern Music, vol. 22 no. 2, Jan-Feb 1945, pp. 139-141
32 Barnett 1998, p. 29
33 Barnett 1995, p. 121
34 The Billboard, “Vaudeville Reviews”. April 28th, 1945, p. 30
35 The Billboard, “Night Club Reviews”. May 19th, 1945, p. 30
36 Barnett, 1998, p. 58. Soundies were short films of musical pieces, similar to modern music videos. Music and film were recorded separately, enabling choreography and cinematic techniques. They were shown in jukebox-type machines. The first ones were made in 1940. Soundies had seen a decline in popularity since 1941, and the company would cease production in late 1946. See MacGillivray and Okuna, 2007.
37 The Billboard, “Off the Cuff”. February 9th, 1946, p. 36
38 The Billboard, “Night Club Reviews”. July 6th, 1946, p. 44
39 The Billboard, “Music – As Written”. July 27th, 1946, p. 22
40 The Billboard, “In Short”. September 28th, 1946, p. 38
41 Campbell & Pruter. “Gold Seal” Available at Accessed on 15 July 2012.
42 The Billboard, “WNEW Has Flock Of New Shows To Start After January”. December 21st, 1946, p. 8
43 The Billboard, “Music – As Written”. November 8th, 1947, p. 22
44 Barnett, 2002
45 Taylor, p. 228
46 Rosenkrantz, 178
47 Barnett 1998, 22
48 Barnett 1995, 273-274

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