Heroes #9: Chauncey Morehouse, 1902-1980

“The drummer[’s] success depends entirely on his own originality”
– Chauncey Morehouse

Chauncey Morehouse

With THE GEORGIANS, 1922-24

In jazz, as in many art forms, certain historical figures occasionally acquire a mythical status, as an accepted narrative is allowed to gradually coalesce over many decades from the confused details of an increasingly distant individual’s life. In some cases it can develop into something akin to a cult of personality, despite the personality itself being long-vanished and ultimately unknowable. The cornet player and composer Bix Beiderbecke is one such case: his unusual combination of seemingly-supernatural talent and apparent farmboy innocence, his meteoric rise and his tragic early demise have made him almost a Christ-like figure, a pattern set for Jimmy Blanton, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius and other jazz saints to follow in later years. In reality, of course, Bix was just one of a very gifted cadre of musicians to flourish in the mid-late 1920s. During his lifetime his wonderful playing received equal billing with that of his peer group: Frank Trumbauer (C-melody saxophone), Don Murray (clarinet), Bill Rank (trombone), Frank Signorelli (piano), Eddie Lang (guitar), Adrian Rollini (bass saxophone)… and Chauncey Morehouse, drums.

Morehouse is a fascinating subject from the point of view of early jazz drumming, and not only thanks to his association with Bix or the quality of his playing. He was unfortunate to have been let loose on record with a full drum kit only in the late twenties, although even with the percussion ‘traps he was allowed he still recorded superbly and very prolifically at an early date – earlier than almost all the other greats of hot jazz drumming – and continued right throughout the decade, allowing us to trace the progression if not of jazz drumming as a whole, then at least of one important and influential individual’s style.

Chauncey Morehouse was born in 1902 in Niagara Falls and grew up in Pennsylvania. His father, a ragtime pianist, encouraged his lefthanded son to study piano and percussion as a young child. Chauncey played in his high-school orchestra and a local municipal band, as well as performing duets with his father accompanying silent films in movie theatres. As a teenager he ran his own five-piece band which included one of his childhood friends, trumpet player Art Weems, whose brother Ted’s dance band was already building a sterling reputation in Pennsylvania society circles. Morehouse turned professional in the late 1910s and spent some time playing drums and banjo with the Weems outfit at various resort towns on the American East Coast, eventually ending up in Pittsburgh.

In 1922, his big break occurred. The violinist and successful Midwestern bandleader Paul Specht sent a telegram asking him to join a new lineup Specht was assembling for a residency at the Addison hotel in Detroit. Morehouse later recalled the terms of the gig:
“It was a big band of eight men. I had never played jazz with anything larger than four or five and this thought set me swooning, along with two other factors: the boys were my age [20] and the best to be found in the area – and the pay was to be $75 a week.”

Specht’s orchestra mostly played polite dance music for society functions and dinner-dances, but also contained a hot jazz combo – the Georgians – which alternated with the principal band and sometimes performed independent dates as an affiliated unit. The Georgians included several excellent young jazz players including hot trumpet man Frank Guarente and astonishing pianist Arthur Schutt. Morehouse’s recording début came in the summer of 1922; two jazz sides with the Georgians, recorded in New York City for Columbia.

On ‘Chicago’ – a rollicking recording of jazz drumming predating the earliest efforts by any of Singleton, Dodds, Berton, Pollack or Barbarin – Chauncey drives the band beautifully despite being limited solely to blocks and cymbals, and even interjects with a surprising solo break on a duck-call whistle at 1:20; in 1922, we must not forget, jazz was still being marketed very much as comic, novelty music. However, in the final chorus [2:06], the band gets really hot, and we can finally hear Morehouse in his element, romping away on block and cowbell. For a northerner his vocabulary already has an inflection traditionally associated with New Orleans drumming (particularly the distinctive hemiola rhythm often referred to as ‘three-over-two’/’the pendulum’ etc.) It’s interesting to consider where Morehouse might have heard and acquired this influence at such an early date, as it’s extremely unlikely to have been part of the musical vernacular of his small-town Pennsylvania upbringing. However, given how popular and influential the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s records are known to have been amongst youngsters of exactly Morehouse’s generation and background, it seems most likely to presume that he, like many other ‘twenties drummers, began his career as an acolyte, if not a direct imitator, of the great Tony Sbarbaro. It’s a shame that unlike Sbarbaro, Morehouse was prevented from recording with a full drum set, or we could hear exactly how much he had derived from the earlier drummer.

[A note about the music business at the time these early records were made: as mentioned in several previous articles, our understanding of how jazz drummers would have performed live actually takes a retrograde step from the late 1910s to the early 20s, as recording engineers, nervous that percussive vibrations might affect their equipment, restricted drum setups from a full kit to mere “recording ‘traps”. After Sbarbaro’s riotous 1917 barrage of snare and bass drum, for the next few years we’re mostly stuck with barely-audible block-tapping and the odd choked cymbal until we reach the later 20s. White bands such as the Georgians had things slightly easier, as record companies knew there was a ready-made market for their records – jazz-crazy youngsters with disposable incomes – and consequently employed them to make a large number of carefully-recorded sides. At this early date few black bands were selected to record and those that were (such as King Oliver’s Creole Band, who began recording in 1923, a year later than the Georgians) were initially recorded with far less diligence and marketed similarly poorly. The music industry conducted business on strictly segregated grounds – the idea that white consumers might want to listen to music recorded by black bands (and vice versa), or even that bands need not be segregated at all simply did not exist.]

The Specht band held residencies in various hotels and recorded a huge number of sides during the early-mid ‘twenties. They also toured widely, including a voyage to Great Britain (to which Specht was a frequent visitor) making Chauncey Morehouse the second Hero to visit Europe, after Sbarbaro. Specht’s band held a successful three-month residency at the Lyons Corner House on Coventry Street; Morehouse later fondly recalling, “In 1923 we had a great 12 weeks in London”. With his first few recording dates and a major foreign tour under his belt, the next milestone for Morehouse was a big one – and in fact, a landmark event for jazz drumming as an art form on two separate counts. In September 1923, a year after their first record date (and having made twelve more sides meanwhile) the Georgians returned to the Columbia studio and recorded two numbers. One of these, Fred Ahlert and Maurice Jerome’s ‘Land Of Cotton Blues’, features at 1:10 the first ever solo chorus performed on record by a jazz drummer, and simultaneously the first definitive recorded use of brushes. Chauncey Morehouse made drumming history twice over, in the space of a mere forty seconds of music.

For a transcription and more information about this remarkable record, see ‘Library #4: The First Recorded Drum Solo In Jazz History’. Once again, Morehouse confounds and surprises us with his playing – the vocabulary contained even in these few bars is both consistent with the band’s style and yet individualistic and cutting-edge for its day. It’s not known how the idea of recording a drum solo was even arrived at – it sounds far too well-constructed to be a first-ever attempt, so presumably it was something Chauncey did often during live performances. Perhaps the opportunity arose due to the Georgians’ freewheeling approach to recording; as Morehouse later recalled, “We had no arranger – just ‘head’ arrangements. Anything that struck at that moment, at rehearsal, was written down and played.” Furthermore, it’s intriguing that we can hear the snare drum being used very clearly, whereas elsewhere in 1923 and for many years afterward its use in recording studios nationwide was strictly prohibited. Perhaps Morehouse’s intention to use brushes was a mitigating factor? Or perhaps use of the snare drum was unusually permitted, on condition that he use brushes?

The year was now 1924.
 “I was supposed to be preparing to enter the Boston Conservatory of Music… my father’s idea. I was supposed to enter in September. I had my choice […] play jazz music or put off – study theory and harmony, and…” – Chauncey Morehouse

However, having eschewed the college education his father desired for him and committed to life as a jazzman, now twenty-two and newly married, Morehouse began to grow unhappy with Specht’s leadership – “He began replacing all the men as most of them wanted more money” – and resigned from the band in autumn 1924. He moved to Philadelphia to join Howard Lanin’s society dance orchestra, making a small number of sides in New York in 1925. At this point Morehouse was at something of a crossroads; the most exciting and cutting-edge jazz was happening in underground circles in Chicago, yet here he was, employed but musically adrift in the eastern society dance-band scene.

He was rescued by former Georgians trombonist Russ Morgan, now musical director of one of the busiest bands in the Midwest: that of Jean Goldkette, based in Detroit. The Belgian Goldkette had begun his career as a pianist in the 1910s but soon developed into a combination of bandleader, booker, venue owner and all-round impresario and rapidly built up a musical empire consisting of a large fleet of different bands, a string of ballrooms and clubs in several towns and a lucrative contract with Victor records. It was his flagship Victor Recording Orchestra which Morgan invited Morehouse to travel and hear in early 1925. The presence of the famous former drummer of the Georgians in the Midwest immediately caught the attention of one Charlie Horvath, whose dual role as Goldkette’s percussionist and band manager left him horribly overworked, apocryphally playing snare drum with his left hand whilst signing cheques on the drumhead with his right. On hearing his playing, Horvath invited Morehouse to join the band with immediate effect, and was forced to stand his ground when an official of the local Detroit musicians’ union attempted to block the Easterner’s appoinment. Fortunately for jazz drumming history, Horvath was a veteran of these sorts of squabbles and eventually prevailed in making the offical see sense.

The band had been recording for Victor since 1924, gaining a reputation for exceptional hot dance music with occasional jazz solos, and was steadily attracting away the cream of Chicago’s white jazz musicians to Detroit. Morehouse recalled that soon after he joined the Goldkette band, “Frank Trumbauer replaced Jimmy Dorsey and ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke was added to the brass. Russ Morgan left […] Joe Venuti then led.” To anyone with even a passing interest in jazz these are all heroic names, and would feature heavily in Morehouse’s personal and professional life right up until the end of the decade.

The Victor Recording Orchestra was soon in the studio living up to its billing. Morehouse’s first sides with them were made, ironically, back in New York (‘Idolizing’ backed with ‘Hush-A-Bye’), and he spent a hectic period of late 1926 and early 1927 touring around the country and recording regularly with the orchestra. Star saxophonist Frank Trumbauer already had a prior recording contract with OKeh and continued to make his own records outside the confines of the Victor Recording Orchestra, although frequently borrowing Goldkette sidemen for his sessions. Morehouse was one of those involved with Trumbauer’s sessions, which were made sporadically in New York throughout early 1927. These are generally more overtly ‘artistic’ than Goldkette’s Victor records, with ambitious, modernistic arrangements and frequent hot solos by the leader, Beiderbecke, Bill Rank and others. Morehouse’s playing on these sides is somewhat inconsistent; perhaps we are hearing him in the process of adapting his style to suit his new colleagues. On the earlier Trumbauer records his contributions (presumably intended to spur the soloists on) are sometimes overly elaborate or ill-timed, and ultimately hinder rather than enhance the rhythm. On others, however, he is simply magnificent.

On both Goldkette and Trumbauer recording sessions Morehouse’s kit was limited solely to “recording ‘traps”, and though the Sbarbaro-ish woodblocks of his Georgians days have gone, during this period we can trace his gradual mastery of another important facet of the ‘hot’ drummer’s art: syncopated cymbal playing. Morehouse now sports a Chinese-style cymbal amongst his equipment, and clearly knows how to use it, accentuating moments of high drama in the arrangement with exciting, exotic washes of sound. He’s also becoming a refined accompanist using his regular (Turkish-style) cymbal, delicately supporting the soloists (‘Tram’ and Bix). However it’s towards the end of ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’ that we really hear him come into his own, first playing orchestral bells (a reminder that he was a consummate all-round percussionist!) at 2:30, before providing his own – presumably improvised – syncopated solo coda, using both cymbals. These were hot records, for aficionados.

The sides made by Goldkette’s orchestra, in contrast, are generally pitched very neatly in order to appeal to a wide audience – tuneful and slick enough to please those with more conventional tastes, whilst containing enough jazz content to excite the younger generation. As time went on, however, the band became more and more impatient with the predictable formula of the ‘pop’ record, and their output gradually grew hotter, to point where they were close to the artistic concept of jazz that Trumbauer had been aspiring towards on his own sides.

This track is a perfect illustration of how a drummer, despite being limited to one or two sounds, can still enliven and invigorate a band and inspire soloists, through minimal but perfectly-timed accompaniment – provided he has the instrument, the ear and the technique! The first chorus is a case in point; whilst Beiderbecke’s cornet delivers a running commentary on the melody being played by the rest of the band, Morehouse punctuates Bix’s lines, providing a second level of counterpoint and simultaneously kicking everything else along. His interjection at 0:15 is perfect: just two strikes on a cymbal, each of different velocity and duration, but the effect is riveting! Also worth examination is the re-statement of the melody [1:16] during which he plays a more subtle and varied accompaniment – playing at a restrained volume behind band phrases, and more vigorously for his hot counterpoint strokes. In a DownBeat article Morehouse later compared jazz and dance band playing: “The Dixieland [i.e. jazz] drummer must ‘feel’ his part […] and he gets a great boot out of filling the holes […] The drummer could fake his own part and come in where he thinks he should. His success depends entirely on his own originality. But were the drummer to play that same part [in a dance band] it would more or less spoil the effect of the concerted style […] so the drummer in the [dance] band strives only for rhythm. The Dixieland drummer must have plenty of taste and feel for his type of playing.”
Feeling his part, filling the holes… How much musical tension and release can one musician striking one cymbal generate? A wealth, given the right musician. ‘Clementine’ is a masterclass.

It was, however, to be the last record Chauncey Morehouse made with the Goldkette band. Packed as it was with jazz soloists, the band sneered at the kind of crowd-pleasing novelties that brought in the punters, as Richard Sudhalter notes, ‘By mid-1927 things had reached a point where the Goldkette orchestra was attracting less and less high-paying work’. The office stopped paying their wages and soon after the ‘Clementine’ recording session, in September 1927, the Victor Recording Orchestra dissolved. Fortunately, the New York-based bass-saxophone player and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini, formerly of the California Ramblers, immediately stepped in and offered some of Goldkette’s leading lights a job with him at the Club New Yorker, where he had been contracted to put together a freewheeling hot jazz band.  As well as Morehouse, he signed up Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, Rank, Murray, Venuti and Lang, as well as former Ramblers Sylvester Ahola and Bobby Davis, and pianist Frank Signorelli. (A side note; Bix Beiderbecke was in fact returning to the building that was now called the Club New Yorker, since back in 1924 it had been the Cinderella Ballroom where he and the other Wolverines including drummer Vic Moore had held a brief residency.) All joined with alacrity – Rollini was a virtuoso, a real musician’s musician – and at last they could play all the hot solos they wanted without having to suffer the strait-jacket of dance-band arrangements – cake and eat it! However, the public seemed to disagree, and the residency ended only a month or so after it had begun. However, during its brief existence Rollini’s band managed a clutch of rather uneven records under the nominal leadership of Trumbauer, who was still under contract with the OKeh label. Morehouse later recalled these sessions: “The Trumbauer band made more ‘OKeh’ sides including […] two of my own compositions: ‘Cryin’ All Day’ and […] ‘Three Blind Mice’.”

During these dates, OKeh producer Tom Rockwell was impressed with Bix Beiderbecke’s playing in particular, and offered the cornettist his own recording session the following month. Bix wanted to use a small group, and chose Rollini, Murray, Rank, Signorelli and Morehouse to accompany him. The six records made with ‘Bix Beiderbecke And His Gang’ over two sessions in October 1927 are perhaps the apogee of Morehouse’s work during the decade, and simultaneously the high-water mark for ‘recording-trap’ drumming (a month or so following this date, engineers began to relax their rules and full drum kits emerge on records once again).

This was the second occasion that Bix had recorded under his own name (back in 1925, on his Rhythm Jugglers sides, Tommy Gargano had been the man playing drums). Unlike Trumbauer’s, Beiderbecke’s band records are earthy and direct rather than cerebral and futuristic. It has been suggested that a concatenation of factors might have influenced Bix’s repertoire and stylistic choices: his well-documented love of Nick LaRocca’s cornet playing on the ODJB records he had listened to in his youth, and the fact that 1927 marked a decade since those records’ release. Certainly, despite the limitations of ‘traps, Chauncey Morehouse delivers a few choice Sbarbaro-style hemiola cowbell fills at key moments (the sublime one at 2:30, for example) and generally seems to evoke something of the riotous ODJB spirit, whilst still providing a perfect modern accompaniment to the band. These records are all classics, highly-prized by musicians and fans alike, and whilst Morehouse is not afforded space to solo, his rhythmic contributions greatly add to the general heat and excitement of the music. Even the ever-partisan Ralph Berton, a constant cheerleader for his older brother Vic Berton above all other drummers (understandable perhaps, though unnecessary given Vic’s talent!) described the Gang records as “just about the best support Bix was ever lucky enough to gather around him […] Chauncey Morehouse’s drums sounded really good.”

Now settled in New York and established as one of the world’s preeminent jazz drummers, Morehouse saw the decade out playing and recording with a number of superb dance bands led by the likes of Irving Mills, Joe Venuti, Nat Shillkret and the Dorsey Brothers, and frequently alternating with Vic Berton with on record sessions with Red Nichols and Annette Hanshaw amongst others.

For once, we’re now going to venture ever so slightly beyond my usual self-imposed endpoint of December 31st, 1929. Rules are made to be broken, after all, and there’s a very good reason to do so: the chance to see as well as hear one of our ‘twenties Heroes in action, at the peak of their career, is far too rare a thing to pass up.  In the late 20s and early 30s, Chauncey recorded with Roger Wolfe Kahn, a millionaire’s son who ran his own excellent hot dance band which made a short film in 1932, showcasing a selection of their hit tunes and featuring a number of novelty acts. Nothing changes overnight, and at this point in the early 30s Morehouse was still playing in very much the same style as he had in the late 20s. He can be seen centre-stage seated behind his lefthanded kit, which includes a rack of temple blocks as well as several ‘hot snap’ type cymbals on L-shaped posts, which he makes use of as well as supplying some trademark smooth press rolls on ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’ in the first clip below. Behind (a very young) Artie Shaw’s clarinet solo he also delivers some hot fills using his blocks and cymbal [0:56]. There’s then an interlude involving three singing sailors (!) before we return to the band backing singer Gertrude Nissen, during which Chauncey again plays some prominent temple blocks and generally enjoys himself.

In the second part of the film, Morehouse powers the band through rip-roaring renditions of ‘Crazy Rhythm’ and ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ (spotting a theme here?) before another novelty feature for four singers portraying, ahem, ‘Crazy People’ – about which, no comment. What I will say is that both films provide an excellent look at a top-rank show band drummer at work at the turn of the decade, and perhaps allow us a glimpse of what made Chauncey Morehouse special – not only his decisive and compelling playing, but also his natural onstage charisma, waggling his head and grinning away with insouciant charm behind the drums.

Chauncey remained at the leading edge of jazz drumming for several decades to come, and continued to double on percussion – having already played chimes with Goldkette and vibes with Venuti, Arthur Rollini later recalled him playing timpani with Paul Whiteman in the early 30s. He lived a long and fruitful life and died in 1980 at the age of 78.

My thanks to Michael McQuaid and Josh Duffee for their
very valuable assistance with this article.