By Martin Williams
Originally published in Down Beat, July 1, 1965, p. 55
When I first hear the Modern Jazz Quartet play John Lewis’ “Django” (good heavens, it was 10 years ago!), I was intrigued by a little traditional sounding bass riff that occurs a couple of times in that piece. It wasn’t so much that the figure sounded traditional as that I could not remember exactly where I’d heard one like it before.
Then I realized that a similar riff introduces King Oliver’s old blues, “Snag It”. And that it occurs also in the 1929 Bennie Moten blues the title to which it usually written “That, Too, Do” (but should be written “That To-Do”).
Lewis’ figure is slightly different, and in fact he says he is not aware of ever having heard the older pieces. For that matter, who knows where Oliver got the riff? It undoubtedly was there in some version of the blues tradition long before Oliver.
Clearly we are not talking about plagiarism or thievery in talking about the way that indigenous musical ideas get passed around in jazz and the way they get revised in the process. We are simply talking about the way things are bound to happen in a folk-derived musical tradition.
For me, the subject is fascinating. To hear and compare the way that traditional musical ideas influence one man — and from him, another man and then another — tells me a great deal about jazz and its musicians. And one of the most interesting examples I know of begins with a 1929 Ellington piece called “Doin’ The Voom Voom”.
“Doin’ The Voom Voom” is by Ellington and Bubber Miley, the trumpeter whose presence in the Ellington orchestra in the late 1920s probably gave the leader his most important early impetus as a jazzman.
One can well imagine “Voom Voom”’s beginnings as an orchestral background to a Cotton Club dance specialty. It is basically a collection of riffs and licks, very well put together into an AABA song form. The piece is certainly not the greatest Ellington-Miley collaboration, but it is a good one, using good durable ideas, which (again) were possibly there in some form in the tradition before Miley and Ellington used them this way. Ellington re-recorded the piece in 1939, but meanwhile, it had had quite an influence on others.
By 1931 it had clearly had its effect on a pair of Fletcher Henderson arrangements, by Fletcher and his brother Horace, called “Hot And Anxious” and “Comin’ And Goin’”. Parts of these pieces still used the AABA song form, but other parts had shifted to blues changes. And “Hot And Anxious” and “Comin’ And Goin’” had picked up some other riffs, not heard in “Voom Voom”, one of which was not really new but is much better known in Joe Garland’s 1939 version, called “In The Mood”.
I am pretty sure that it was through the same pair of Henderson arrangements that some of “Voom Voom” ideas passed to the Basie band, got changed some more, and, now fully on a blues outline, became “Swinging The Blues” in 1938. This piece seems to be a permanent resting place for the “Doin’ The Voom Voom” idea, since “Swinging The Blues” is pretty much a jazz standard, even today.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story of “Voom Voom”’s influence, for, meanwhile, still other versions of its ideas had shown up in the pair of 1934 arrangements that Will Hudson did for the Jimmie Lunceford band, called “White Heat” and “Jazznocracy”. And it seems pretty clear that Harry James couldn’t have written his arrangement for Benny Goodman called “Life Goes To A Party” in 1937 without having heard those Will Hudson scores. Incidentally, in the James pieces, what had been a background in “Voom Voom” (a sort of up-and-down run) has become, in an effectively revised version, one of the major themes.
As I say, I have not been writing about thievery or plagiarism. But I know of many cases that I do think are plagiarism. however, even in such instances, things can get a little tricky.
I dare say that the remarkable similarity between the 1940 Lionel Hampton-Benny Goodman piece “Till Tom Special” and the Glenn Miller specialty “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, recorded about 2 1/2 months apart in 1940 (but released, as I remember, at almost the same time) was a coincidence that might easily have happened. I also believe that the similarity between Milt Jackson’s “Ralph’s New Blues” and the background theme from a certain film of a couple of years ago was a quite unconscious borrowing on the part of the film composer.
As a matter of fact, I can vouch for this sort of thing from my own experiences. In 1942 I put together a ditty for an unproduced college musical. For a couple of years I hummed that ditty to myself from time to time, but I never, as far as I remember, hummed it, sang it, or showed it to anybody else. Then in late 1943, I suddenly heard approximately the same melody coming at me from a jukebox and titled “Straighten Up And Fly Right”.
And you know something? Three years after that, I suddenly recalled a 1938 record on which I had first heard the same basic lick.