Library #4: The First Recorded Drum Solo in Jazz History*

Notated on the page in black and white, it looks innocuous enough.  It consists of a very small unit of musical time – just one chorus of a thirty-two-bar tune (not a blues, despite the title) – and of those, it’s the content of just nine bars which are important to us. But vitally important they certainly are if, as the majority of critics and historians agree, the second chorus of ‘Land Of Cotton Blues’ recorded by Paul Specht’s band The Georgians in New York City on 6th September 1923 is the first ever chorus of jazz improvising by a drummer to be put down on record. The man to do it was 21-year-old Chauncey Morehouse, who had been with Specht’s more formal large orchestra and the (jazzier) Georgians offshoot unit since the previous year, and would shortly go on to star with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, the Dorsey brothers and many other famous musicians in the later years of the decade.

As well as containing the first recorded drum solo, ‘Land Of Cotton Blues’ is also of interest as the earliest definite record of a drummer playing with wire brushes. The solo chorus takes the form of a repeated eight-bar block: three one-bar ‘stop-time’ breaks (hits from the rest of the band on the first downbeat of each bar) followed by a one-bar unison figure, then four bars of blowing, under which Morehouse reverts to keeping time. This eight-bar block is repeated twice, after which the solo spotlight briefly moves to Russ Morgan’s trombone during the ‘middle eight’. The last eight-bar section follows the same format as the first. Throughout the whole chorus Chauncey concentrates exclusively on playing with brushes on snare drum (snare in itself being an extreme rarity on 1923 records) and his playing is punchy and crisp, and swings hard. It’s an interesting question where he got this vocabulary from, and one which I go into in more detail in ‘Heroes #9’, the Morehouse feature article.

Even at this early date and with no model to copy, Morehouse displays considerably hip phrasing and an underlying appreciation of the art of good improvising. He clearly grasps the fundamental principle of ‘telling a story’, beginning each eight-bar block with a simple phrase which is then developed and elaborated, setting up tensions within each section and across the chorus as a whole. Furthermore, he takes relatively straightforward rhythmic cells and manipulates them, even across barlines – a complex improvisation technique more commonly associated with bebop drumming. Examination of the last line on the transcription below reveals Chauncey taking a three-beat-long phrase: cell and repeating it – meaning that the triplet shifts forward by one beat each repetition, landing on beats 3, 2, 1 and 4 of successive bars. This use of  three-beat phrasing whilst in 4/4 time also echoes the New Orleans-inspired hemiola or ‘3-over-2’ rhythm which early jazz drummers inherited from ragtime. Clever stuff for any era, but for the time it was recorded it’s amazingly advanced.

So here it is, the ancestor of every drum solo in jazz history. Thirty-two bars. Nine of actual solo. All on snare with brushes. This is 1923. Nobody had ever done this before.Morehouse Land Of Cotton Blues 1923.png

*Scholarly opinion seems to be in agreement over this, so I was almost tempted not to add this caveat. But then perhaps we’ve all missed something. Does anybody know of an earlier one? If so, get in touch and let me know what it is, and who recorded it!