Heroes #4: Jasper Taylor, 1894-1964

“Away down in Chicago / There is a name, that’s bound to gain fame /
He is a brown, known over town / He’s Jasper Taylor, Jasper Taylor”
– Julia Davis, ‘Jasper Taylor Blues’

Jasper Taylor.jpg


If you were to rank early jazz drummers purely by the historical importance of their musical associates, the relatively little-remembered Jasper Taylor comes out very highly placed indeed, having not only performed regularly but also recorded multiple sides with three of the truly legendary names in the creation years of jazz: W.C. Handy, Freddie Keppard and Jelly Roll Morton. These three geniuses could be said to have more or less invented jazz between them, though each was working independently. The facts which are certain concerning Taylor make for arresting reading – he had quite an exciting life.

Jasper Taylor was born in the Texas portion of the cross-border city of Texarkana, and was surrounded by music from a young age. He later remembered his mother playing hymns and popular songs on the piano when he was a small child, and overhearing Scott Joplin playing ragtime in the saloons on Laurell Street in 1903, when Taylor was nine; this is possible, since 35-year-old Joplin was indeed active in Texarkana at the time although we have no way of knowing whether he was playing ragtime at such an early date. Taylor remembered that he always felt a calling for the drums, beginning on pots and pans and graduating to snare drum in the parade band at school. Gaining confidence, he began to play ‘trap’ drums, accompanying pianists for local dances and playing in touring shows outside of school term times. In 1912, at the age of eighteen, he left Texarkana for the first time to go on the road, during which he ‘sang, danced, and played drums’ in the Young Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Whilst it may seem slightly surprising that a Wild West revue would have any use for an African-American ragtime drummer, Buffalo Bill’s show included a brass band which played ‘for parades and side shows’; in an era before amplification, a good brass band was one of the most successful methods of attracting attention. In October 1912 Jasper left the Buffalo Bill company to join the Dandy Dixie Minstrels, a group of touring blackface entertainers. This was a useful move for Taylor as it brought not only steady work but also improvement; the trumpet player, one ‘Mr. Wilson’ of Pennsylvania, was a schooled musician who taught the enthusiastic young drummer the rudiments of musical theory and tuned-percussion.

The Dandy Dixie Minstrels’ peripatetic schedule took them all over the southern states and even as far as Mexico. Whilst passing through Memphis, Tennessee, Taylor went along to hear the Eckford outfit, a local band, and was fated to save the day when a minor disaster struck. The Eckford drummer’s snare drum head split mid-show; Jasper, having his own with him, stepped in to lend it resulting in him then being invited to sit in with the band and leaving a doubly positive impression. His drumming and gentlemanly conduct went down so well that he was convinced to leave the road for good and settle for in Memphis, soon joining up with the kingpin of the local scene – cornettist, composer and so-called ‘Father Of The Blues’, W.C. Handy.  Handy by this time had already built a reputation as one of America’s foremost black musicians, composing a number of very popular blues songs including two (‘Mr Crump/Memphis Blues’ in 1909 and ‘St. Louis Blues’ in 1914) that would later become staple jazz standards.

“In 1909, W.C. Handy wrote ‘Memphis Blues’, with a syncopated break in the middle […] To my mind, ‘Memphis Blues’ was the first jazz to be put on paper.” – Jasper Taylor

Due to racial prejudice and the tremendous expense of making sound recordings, ‘on paper’ – in the form of published sheet music – was the only profitable outlet for ‘Memphis Blues’ and Handy’s other compositions in 1913. Taylor continued his career with two years at the Booker Washington Theatre in St. Louis before returning to Handy in 1916, now a fully-rounded pit percussionist as well as an accomplished drummer. The following year was a landmark for Handy, Taylor and jazz in general: Handy had moved operations to New York City, with Taylor in tow, just as the huge furore caused by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first records resulted in a huge craze for recorded jazz and a scramble by rival record companies to find new bands to compete with the ODJB. Columbia eventually persuaded Handy to overcome his misgivings about the new style and make ten sides. Taylor played drums on some (his crisp snare, woodblock and china cymbal clearly audible) and xylophone (excellently!) on others.

However, just as Jasper Taylor looked set to cement his position as one of the very first important jazz percussionists, fate intervened in the form of the Great War, which had already been raging in Europe for three years. In late 1917 Taylor was drafted into the 365th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit drawn from Chicago and nicknamed the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ (the army, just like all other aspects of American life, was strictly segregated). In addition to his infantry training, Taylor played drums in the 365th’s regimental band, keeping the soldiers’ spirits up with the kind of music they knew from home – ragtime and blues – as well as military marches. The great ragtime impresario James Reese Europe commanded a similar band in another black regiment, the 369th – the famous ‘Harlem Hellfighters’. Jasper Taylor’s regiment travelled to France in the summer of 1918 and was involved in combat during the last months of the war. During the run-up to the eventual Allied victory he returned dispatches from the Western Front to a Chicago newspaper: “Our band is in fine playing condition regardless to circumstances […] We manage to give the boys just what they want, plenty of Livery Stable Blues, love songs and a few standards.”

Thankfully he survived one of the most awful of conflicts in history without any major mishap.

By 1920 he was back in Chicago, where he played with a number of the nascent jazz artists arriving from New Orleans and elsewhere to make their fortunes in the North, including the great pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, with whom Taylor recorded two sides in 1923.

Whilst it was a feather in Taylor’s cap to record with Morton, this was not a classic period for the pianist; although the piano solos he recorded around this time are up to his usual excellent standards, these band sides are competent rather than transcendentally great. It seems Morton at this point was not able to attract quite the same stupendous calibre of musicians as he would in his golden period, a few years later. Taylor’s playing drives the band along nicely and he shows off some neat tricky backings behind the alto saxophone solo around the 1:20 mark. There is some debate over what instrument Taylor is playing on these sides. Some discographies have him playing ‘drums’, others ‘woodblock’. My personal opinion is that it is neither of these:

In the middle ‘twenties Taylor became indelibly associated with a novelty ‘instrument’ which he appears to have been the original pioneer of – the washboard. From this point on we rarely hear Taylor on record playing anything else – it seems to have become his principal calling-card, for better or worse. John Chilton in his ‘Who’s Who of Jazz’ claims that Taylor was originally inspired to try scraping a rhythm on the humble kitchen utensil with thimbles ‘after seeing a harmonica player accompany himself by strumming on bamboo strips’. Whatever the provenance of this story, I would contend that on ‘Big Fat Ham’ it’s his washboard that Taylor is playing – making it the first washboard jazz record.

Officially, Taylor only debuted his board a year later in a series of sides made with gaspipe clarinettist Jimmie O’Bryant and pianist Jimmy Blythe. These were hybrid dance/novelty records, heavily marketed around O’Bryant’s trick clarinet playing and Taylor’s washboard.

Compare Taylor’s playing on this side – particularly his solo breaks at 1:01 – to that on the Morton track. Same instrument? Sounds like it to me. Certainly compared to other washboard performers Taylor’s approach is functional rather than ostentatious, built around tapping the various resonant surfaces of the (wooden?) board rather than constant metallic scratching. He also makes no use of the ubiquitous toy cymbals, tin cans, rattles and other often intrusive ‘traps’ so beloved of later washboard players, preferring to propel the band along and stay out of the soloist’s way.

Throughout the later years of the ‘twenties Taylor and his washboard recorded with many of the great black jazz artists on Chicago’s South Side, including ‘Fess’ Williams, Reuben Reeves and legendary Freddie Keppard (holder of the title of New Orleans’ cornet ‘King’ preceded by Buddy Bolden and succeeded by Joe Oliver). With Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals Jasper made several sides, including his own composition ‘Stockyard Strut’ – so far the only Taylor original to be recorded. The highlight of Taylor’s ‘twenties work perhaps came when he made four sides under his own name (‘Jasper Taylor and his State Street Boys / Original Washboard Band With Jasper Taylor’), an extremely unusual honour for a drummer and perhaps a reflection of the sheer novelty value his playing of the washboard still retained. On the most famous of these sides, the red-hot ‘Stomp Time Blues’, Taylor is joined by three legendary names: Keppard on cornet, the great Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Tiny Parham on piano.

One side made by the Original Washboard Band in 1928, the ‘Jasper Taylor Blues’, takes the form of a blues ballad in five choruses, sung by Julia Davis and presumably intended to mythologise Taylor not only as a musician but as a larger-than-life folk character. It’s an amusing and surprisingly self-deprecating catalogue of stories detailing some of Jasper’s supposed romantic escapades – although we really have no way of knowing if any of it’s true. Jasper’s playing is very much in the background here and from a drumming point of view it’s of no great value but since no other Drummers of the ‘Twenties had a blues recorded all about their lives, it’s still well worth a listen in my book. And here, at the end of the decade, we’ll leave the colourful Jasper Taylor – wild west dancer, ragtime percussionist, pioneer jazz drummer, veteran of the trenches, folk hero, washboard king.