Composed by Erskine Hawkins; arranged by Sammy Lowe.
Recorded by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra on November 10, 1940 in New York.
Erskine Hawkins, trumpet, directing: Sammy Lowe, first trumpet; Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb, Marcellus Green, trumpets; Bob Range and Edward “Captain” Sims, trombones; William “Bill” Johnson, first alto saxophone; Jimmy Mitchelle, alto saxophone; Paul “Bad” Bascomb and Julian Dash, tenor saxophones; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone and solo clarinet; Avery Parrish, piano; William McLemore, guitar; Leemie Stanfield, bass; James Morrison, drums.
The Erskine Hawkins band on the bandstand of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The female vocalist is Dolores Brown. Behind her are Hawkins and bassist Lee Stanfield. The next row shows pianist Avery Parrish, Julian Dash, Bill Johnson, Jimmy Mitchelle, Paul Bascomb, Haywood Henry and Captain Sims. The guitarist is Willie McLemore.
The story: There was a five-month hiatus between the Hawkins band’s previous Bluebird recording session (June 10, 1940), and this one, which took place on November 6, 1940. At the June 10 session, Hawkins had recorded a solo feature for the band’s pianist, Avery Parrish, a blues called “After Hours.” This record was issued in July of 1940, and immediately became a big hit. So in the summer and fall of 1940, the Hawkins band had two hit records going for them, “Tuxedo Junction,” which was receiving mammoth promotion via Glenn Miller’s big hit recording of it, and “After Hours.” Sales of Hawkins’s recordings of “Tuxedo Junction” and “After Hours”, plus a lot of radio play of them, created demand for the Hawkins band in ballrooms across the nation. They toured throughout much of the summer and fall of 1940 to capitalize on their increasing popularity.
Indeed, insofar as their recordings for RCA/Bluebird were concerned, the period of 1940 and into 1941 represents the creative peak for the band. By mid-1941, the Hawkins band was so popular that it was often being featured in theaters, either for split-week or full week engagements. These gigs were extremely profitable. The unfortunate side-effect of all of this popularity was that many commercial pressures began to be applied to Hawkins and his band that resulted in them deviating somewhat from their chosen creative course, which had always been to present original compositions, usually by members of the Hawkins band, as the core of their repertoire. Many more mainstream current pop tunes entered the Hawkins band’s book of arrangements in 1941 than ever before. The balance then became weighted in favor of pop tunes. In the short-run, this provided the Hawkins band with growing popularity with increasingly mainstream (that is white) audiences. The cross-over process for the Hawkins band had begun. But all of this was still in the future when “Norfolk Ferry,” which is quintessential Hawkins material, was recorded.
The music: “Norfolk Ferry” is a simple blues composed by Erskine Hawkins and arranged by Sammy Lowe. It was one of the band’s best showcases for swinging jazz solos. Lowe’s arrangement starts with some vamping piano from Avery Parrish, which leads to riffing unison saxophones with syncopated open brass punctuations. The first jazz solo (two romping choruses) is played by tenor saxophonist Julian Dash. Dash very often played a tasty jazz tenor saxophone solos in the Hawkins band. His full, edgy, robust tone, good jazz ideas and strong swing were admired by many of his tenor sax peers during the swing era, as well as audiences everywhere, especially at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the home base for the Hawkins band. One last observation about Julian Dash’s playing – it was soulful. (Above left: L-R: Sammy Lowe, Julian Dash and Erskine Hawkins – 1941.) After Dash finishes, the unison trumpets play a marvelous high-register sequence that moves downward, gathering the trombones and reeds into the swirls of sound that provide a background for Haywood Henry’s high-flying clarinet.
The tart-toned open trumpet solo that is next is the work of Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb, the jazz trumpet soloist in the Hawkins band. (Dud Bascomb is shown at right.) Here he plays two spirited blues choruses against the riffing reeds. People often ask: why did Erskine Hawkins, who was a terrific trumpet soloist, let Dud Bascomb play so many jazz trumpet solos in his band? The answer is that Hawkins’s specialty was his high-note work. Although he was indeed an excellent first trumpeter, a fine melodic player, and flashy high-note artist, he was not a great jazz soloist. Most of his solos were worked out beforehand and notated.He rarely varied them.Bascomb improvised freely and effectively.
A bit of electric guitar by William McLemore follows. (The electric guitar was still something of a novelty in 1940.) The Hawkins musicians no doubt met and in all likelihood jammed with Charlie Christian who frequented the after-hour jazz joints in Harlem, and lived there. Christian’s influence on all guitarists in the early 1940s, and indeed for decades after, was enormous.
Arranger Sammy Lowe then creates an instrumental catapult which launches trombonist Bob Range into his brief solo. The catapult fires again vaulting tenor saxophonist Paul Bascomb into a romping two-part solo. His two choruses are separated by a brilliant sequence containing oscillating brass. (Paul Bascomb is shown at left.) Note how Bascomb’s tenor sax sound is so very different from Julian Dash’s. Whereas Dash had an edgy full sound and aggressive phrasing that evoked his idol, Coleman Hawkins, Bascomb had a hoarse sound and loose phrasing that was pretty much all his own. A lot has been written about the contrasting tenor saxophone soloist feature of the Count Basie band that started with Lester Young and Herschel Evans. There is no doubt that whenever Paul Bascomb was present in the Erskine Hawkins band (he came and went many times whereas Dash remained for several years), he and Dash would joust instrumentally, especially at the band’s home base, the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, to the delight of the Savoy’s dancers. Both men played good jazz and swung hard.
The building finale, as was so often the case, is taken by Hawkins. At first, he plays with a cup-mute in the bell of his trumpet against riffing reeds. Then the plunger-muted trombones join the background riff, and then the trumpets. The big ending comes when Hawkins blasts away on his open high-register trumpet in the finale.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Links: Here are links to more music and information about Erskine Hawkins:
The link below is to a film short the Hawkins band made. Although the You Tube post for this film indicates that it was made in 1938, and that may be correct, I am not certain as to when this film was made. Clearly visible in in, in addition to Hawkins, are Dud and Paul Bascomb, both of whom solo, (The trombonist who appears at Paul Bascomb’s left is Bob Range.) Marcellus Green in the trumpet section, Bill Johnson, who solos on alto saxophone, and Haywood Henry who has a brief solo on baritone saxophone. The fourth saxophonist is Jimmy Mitchelle, who also sang with the band. The tune they play is “Swinging in Harlem,” one of their first recordings, made for Vocalion on September 8, 1936.
What a terrific band, and a wonderful performance. The film short was produced in the summer of 1937. Here is the personnel as we see them on screen:
Erskine Hawkins and his Orchestra (Erskine
Hawkins, trumpet and leader; trumpets,
left-to-right: Sammy Lowe, Marcellus
Green, Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb; trombones,
left-to-right: Ed “Captain” Sims, Robert
Range; reeds, left-to-right: Haywood
“Onion” Henry, baritone sax; William “Bill”
Johnson, alto sax; Paul Bascomb, tenor
sax; Jimmy Mitchell, tenor sax; probably
Avery Parish, piano; William McLemore,
guitar; Leemie Stanfield, string bass;
James “Big Jack” Morrison, drums)
Thanks Mark for that valuable information. The Erskine Hawkins band made many good recordings over the years, but was always most effective musically when it was true to its own musical identity. Unfortunately, commercial success is a strong force that often pulled the band in other, less satisfying directions. That is hardly a story unique to the Hawkins band.