Thursday, July 20, 2006

"Slippin' Around": Miff Mole and the trombone in jazz

Did you know that today has been International Trombone Day? No, neither did I, until ran into a man in a pub (a french horn player with the CBSO) who told me about it: apparently 800 trombonists from all over the world today converged on Birmingham (UK) to perform the premier of a new work for "massed trombones, tabla and dhol by Rick Taylor".

All of which is simply an excuse for me to tell you about Miff Mole , and to reproduce a rather good (IMHO) piece of writing by Otis Ferguson. As both Mole and Ferguson are, these days, forgotten figures, it gives me great pleasure to draw your attention to them both. You'll have to ignore some 1920's/30's jazz references (a "Friar's Inn background", for instance), but I still think the piece is very descriptive and poweful.

First, Irving Milfred "Miff" Mole (1898-1961): the first jazz trombone soloist of any significance. In the 1920's he was a leading figure on the jazz scene and in the studios. But in the 1930's and 40's he retreated into studio work (becoming what would now be called a "session man") and gradually dropped off the jazz radar. By 1960 even his "session" work had dried up, and someone recognised him as he sold pretzels in a New York subway. When the New York jazz community heard about his plight, they started organising benefit gigs, but it was all too late: he died in April 1961, and was buried in a pauper's grave.

Otis Ferguson was one of the very first serious jazz critics (in the 1930's), and a contributor to the seminal book "Jazzmen", edited by Frederick Ramsay Jnr and Charles Edward Smith (published in 1939, and still worth reading). Like Ramsay and Smith, Ferguson was a leftist, but unlike them he had no time for the CP. He died on September14, 1943 when his ship, the Bushrod Washington, was hit by a radio-guided bomb: his friend, Malcolm Cowley commented: "The other seamen escaped before the vessel burned to the waterline, but the bomb had exploded in the messroom, to which Otis, as was his custom, had gone down alone for a cup of coffee". Anyway, here is Otis Ferguson on Miff Mole and the Trombone in Jazz:

"Milfred (Miff) Mole was born in Long Island, studied piano and violin through his school days, and then learned trombone from A to Z. He heard jazz and wanted to play it, but he patterned his instrument on the work of the trumpet. He was a slight and studious-looking youngster when he first bobbed up in the Manhatten studios in 1922, with a round face and round glasses (he looked as young as the others, though born in 1898). But he could do things on his jazz instrument no one else could do, and so all through the twenties, till the late arrival from Texas of Jack Teagarden-perhaps only until just before that, when Glenn Miller came in with the Pollack band-everybody who thought of organising a hot band thought of Miff Mole.

"He could raise the tension of any band with a four-bar break, he could swing into the pattern of a trumpet solo with a middle eight bars, he could take thirty-two by himself, and double that, and keep the line of interest clear and free. What is more, he was old reliable himself in studio work; he could play straight when he had to and when you wantedsomething else it was there.

"The word that has slipped into the talk about him is "technician", which is short of the fact and a little slighting. Mole is a fine technician of course, but much else besides. his harmonic sense is impeccable; his taste is clean. With everybody else muffing weaknesses with shakes, slurs, repeated phrases, and high notes, he sticks to a rounded phrase of notes struck dead center. His slide is as easy and noiseless as a trumpet valve without sacrificing that typical and exhilarating capacity of the instrument for rolling into a note; more, he knows, as few have discovered, how to use the full lower register to give a phrase an upward spring. He never tries something he can't pull off, and yet there seems to be little he can't pull off-and probably the "technician" stuff comes from the way he will blandly jump five positions or an octave and a third with nothing more of effort between each full note than the slight tonguing effect which cuts each out, with the clarity of good brass work.

"He played jazz when jazz was pretty crude; he played on the beat and on the chord, and he played with a certain easy bounding zest. He was so far ahead of Brunies and Pecora when he started that there is no telloing what a Friar's Inn background would have done for him. He is still so much more interesting in any stretch than all but Jimmy Harrison and Teagarden that I would not guarantee what might now be said of him if he had died ten years ago in rather horrible circumstances. But he is forty-one now, boys, and forty-one is no age for cutting the brash capers of youth. He has settled down to a peaceful and secure middle age in the studios. He might have been greater if he had been pushed around more by more of the right people at the right time and place; but he was one of the first jazz names I knew; he was a lasting influence on an instrument I admire most for its grand depth and brilliance; and I can still put a Miff Mole's Molers on the machine and feel a genuine living interest-which is not to be confused with the scholastic excitement of archeology. Regardless of influences, I don't imagine Mole ever had what Teagarden has inside him. For that matter, neither has any other trombonist in the world, for my money. But before you follow the crowd in letting him go as merely an expert in plumbing, go listen to ten or twenty good records out of nearly a thousand-perhaps just a couple of casuals he did with his own band, "You're the Cream in My Coffee" or "Moanin' Low"".


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