“One of the great drummers of the early days of jazz” – Leonard Feather
With LUCILLE HEGAMIN, 1920-22
With FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA, 1923-29
With McKINNEY’S COTTON PICKERS, 1929
With LOUIS ARMSTRONG, 1929
A select number of individuals in jazz history were awarded honorific ‘noble’ nicknames by their peers; some of these tags seemed so suitable or were gained so early on that the names stuck permanently – we now recognise these musicians almost exclusively by nickname alone. Only one percussionist has ever been allowed entry to this exclusive club. Alongside King Oliver, Duke Ellington and Count Basie (but not Earl Hines!) we find a man whose moniker reveals the Great War-era origins of his professional drumming career – Joe Marshall, the Kaiser.
Marshall was born in Georgia but his family joined the Great Migration north whilst he was still very young, and he grew up in New England. Little is known about his early life and career; we can presume that he took lessons from one or more older musicians in the Boston area, and probably played with local bands in his teenage years. He turned pro in the late 1910s and moved to New York, where he struck up a friendship with young trumpet player Joe Smith, later recalling “In 1919, we played gigs together and later started working together at a dancing school on 48th Street near Broadway. We didn’t stay there long, as gigs were so much better than a steady job in those days.” Marshall quickly became part of the blossoming black music scene based in Harlem, and made his recording début in November of that year as a member of ‘Harris’s Blues and Jazz Seven’, accompanying the pop/blues singer Lucille Hegamin. ‘Jazz Me Blues’ / ‘Everybody’s Blues’ (Arto #9045) was the second-ever recording by a female blues artist, following Mamie Smith’s landmark release three months earlier.
In post-Great War New York, popular music appears to have been at something of a crossroads. The string-led hot ragtime style popularised before and during the war by black musicians such as James Reese Europe still dominated in Harlem, whilst the huge furore caused in the city in 1917 by five white musicians from New Orleans – the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – proposed a completely alternative destination for the music and had already spawned a number of imitators. On early blues records such as this and the two sides Marshall made with Ethel Waters the following year, the accompaniment still tends towards the Harlem ragtime style, complete with orchestrated arrangement, straight quavers, clean march-style syncopations and no real hint yet of what we’d recognise as swing feel. However, the band does incorporate brass and reed instruments rather than strings, and their lines demonstrate at least an intention to sound spontaneous, however pre-composed they might be. At this early date Marshall (presumably limited to ‘recording traps’) plays syncopated rhythms on woodblock, sounding more akin to a mid-10s ragtime drummer than he does to Tony Sbarbaro or his disciples. With Hegamin and Waters, Marshall went on to make a total of ten blues sides before 1922, all fairly similar and of limited interest from a drumming point of view. Two interesting notes however: 1) Even at this early point in his life he’s already officially listed as ‘Kaiser’ Marshall. 2) The tuba player on the Lucille Hegamin sessions was a Puerto Rican, one Rafael ‘Ralph’ Escudero. We will meet him again.
We don’t have any information on Marshall’s activities in 1923 aside from the educated presumption that he was a participant of a scene beautifully summed up by Gunther Schuller in his seminal work ‘Early Jazz’:
“These men were all in their earliest twenties, musicians who jobbed around Harlem in various nightspots, occasionally participating in recording dates. They took an integral part in the mounting excitement over jazz, or more accurately, the jazz-derived popular and novelty music that most people took for jazz in those days.”
Not that Marshall himself was without understanding of genuine jazz as it existed in 1923; he had already accompanied real blues singers on record (and presumably regularly did live) and must also have been aware of Armand J. Piron’s Orchestra, which performed and recorded in New York in 1922 and 1923 and boasted early New Orleans jazz masters such as cornettist Peter Bocage, clarinettist Lorenzo Tio Jr. and drummer Louis Cottrell. Kaiser’s reputation as a solid and sympathetic accompanist was obviously growing, however, and came to the attention of the recording manager of Harlem’s famous African-American record label, Black Swan. This was 26-year-old Fletcher ‘Smack’ Henderson, a Georgia boy like Marshall and former chemistry student, who had been in New York since 1920 working for Black Swan as accompanist, musical director and band booker, predominantly for recording dates by female blues singers. In an attempt to imitate the Paul Whiteman orchestra’s early successes, however, he had also taken the opportunity to make a series of records featuring his own put-together jazz orchestra, which in late 1921 had gone on a nationwide tour as backing band for Ethel Waters, Black Swan’s biggest recording star. Marshall did not feature on the early Henderson band records (there was no drummer) although he had already recorded with Waters and presumably was known to Henderson. Sadly the personnel of the ‘Black Swan Troubadours’ who toured with Waters and Henderson is unknown; the best we can do is to speculate the possibility that Kaiser Marshall might have been involved as there is no hard evidence (such as recording ledgers) to place him in New York during the months of the tour.
Henderson’s loose aggregation of recording musicians was beginning to firm up into a regular band and in August 1923, Marshall got the call to record with them for the first time. Henderson’s stable already teemed with talent: Kaiser took his place alongside the reedsman, arranger and musical polymath Don Redman, the young saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (seen sitting in front of Marshall in the photo above) and his old rhythm-section mate from the blues sessions, tuba player Ralph Escudero, “a devil of a fellow”. The first Henderson record to feature Marshall was ‘Dicty Blues’ backed with ‘Do Doodle Oom’, powered in part by Kaiser’s two-tone woodblock, Chinese tom-tom and fullblooded cymbal crashes.
Things really began to pick up for the Henderson organisation in late 1923 when, after some gentle prodding from his men, he applied for and won a coveted residency at the Club Alabam, a nightclub near Times Square. Suddenly the band was performing every night, and we can hear from their records (often billed as ‘Fletcher Henderson’s Club Alabam Orchestra’) that they were developing an identity, and doing so in leaps and bounds.
Henderson’s band was vastly prolific. During the twelve-month period between mid-1923 and mid-1924 alone they cut some seventy or so sides, an astonishing output by the standards of the time. Kaiser Marshall was present on most of these (on some early dates it’s impossible to be certain that there’s a specialist drummer playing; historians have speculated that record labels might have saved themselves Marshall’s fee and instructed another member of the band to play occasional cymbal crashes with a spare hand). However, in general we can hear Marshall’s neat cymbal playing throughout and additionally (consistent with the novelty character associated with jazz at the time) he makes forays into effect percussion. He is heard playing siren whistle and chimes on ‘After The Storm’, and takes solo breaks on temple blocks (the earliest recorded use of them in jazz, to my knowledge) on ‘Sud Bustin’ Blues’. On the band’s second recording of ‘Chicago Blues’ (they frequently re-recorded hit sides for different labels) he provides train whistle, then around the 1:40 mark plays a solo chorus on a washboard or scrape-board, hot on the heels of the washboard craze begun in late 1923 by Jasper Taylor. Marshall’s set around this time seems otherwise to have consisted of bass drum, snare drum, Chinese tom-tom, multiple woodblocks and judging from the records, one large Turkish-style and one Chinese cymbal. Marshall was comfortable and in his element in the Henderson band, surrounded by talented young musicians of similar age. He became extremely close with trombonist Jimmy Harrison: “I first met Jimmy at Small’s Fifth Avenue Club, in 1923 […] Jimmy came into our band. Jimmy and I had an apartment together, and many a morning we would sit up with [Coleman] Hawkins playing pinochle.” – Kaiser Marshall.
The Henderson band sported many fine soloists, albeit in their own slightly gimmicky, East Coast style. Yet the leader, with his keen ear for assembling bands, still felt he was still lacking star quality, and recalled the 1921 Black Swan Troubadours tour, during which he had heard a young man playing cornet in New Orleans. That young man had since impressed everyone with his recordings playing second cornet behind his mentor King Oliver in the Creole Jazz Band – Louis Armstrong was the only name on many jazz musicians’ lips in 1924. Henderson wrote to Armstrong and invited him to come to New York. Louis later recalled: “When I explained to the King that it was my one big chance to see New York, where people there really do things, he dug me. I knew he would, and he released me…”
Soon Armstrong had brought in his clarinettist friend Buster Bailey, and with Don Redman’s new arrangements allowing greater scope for the sensational improvising skills of the new recruits, from late 1924 onwards the orchestra begins to loosen up, their music slowly leaving behind the novelty effects and approaching what we would recognise as true jazz more closely. Soon they left the Club Alabam to begin a new residency at the famous Roseland ballroom.
On ‘Sugar Foot Stomp’ from 1925, we can hear that Kaiser has developed considerably as a drummer, now adept at using mere choke cymbal to supportively back a soloist of Armstrong’s power and quality. Many critics and historians over the decades have identified Redman’s imaginative arrangements for Henderson as a crucial early step in the evolution of big-band swing. Gunther Schuller notes that Marshall’s playing on this side is similarly prescient, foreshadowing a rhythmic feel which would become central to later styles of jazz: “Kaiser Marshall, the drummer, catches the terrific spirit and swing of Louis’ solo; and for a few measures his cymbal back-beats have a flow which anticipates […] the great Kansas City–style drummers”.
At this time the Henderson band began to seriously demand the attention of musicians and jazz enthusiasts worldwide. Another aspiring pianist/leader recently arrived in New York, Duke Ellington, was hugely impressed by the Henderson organisation: “Musicians mostly remember that band, during those years, as the greatest dance band anyone ever heard. They played some formidable music, and personally, the musicians themselves were a great gang.” Ellington’s drummer Sonny Greer meanwhile, was deeply inspired by “that great drummer, Kaiser Marshall”, and when quizzed on the identity of the originator of the jazz ride cymbal pattern, stated his belief that, “I think it was Kaiser Marshall when he was with Fletcher Henderson’s band.” The Henderson star was in the ascendant, but he was soon to lose his great soloist:
“Our engagement at the Roseland was great. Our road tour was the same. I stayed with ‘Smack’ until 1926. Lil, my wife at the time […] suggested that I come home […] So I cut out from those fine boys, who treated me just swell.” – Louis Armstrong.
As the decade wore on, Henderson’s astonishing recording output showed no signs of slowing, and it’s extremely fortunate (even overwhelming) that we have such a wealth of recordings as to hear a world-class jazz orchestra’s progress month-to-month. Marshall’s contribution too is fascinating as it allows us to chart the radical developments in dance band drumming and the various comings and goings of percussive fashions during the period. By 1926, he’s acquired a snappier, thinner cymbal and developed an excellent choke technique to go with it, as heard on ‘Clarinet Marmalade’, ‘Some Of These Days’, ‘Have It Ready’ and many other wonderful sides. By 1927, he has succumbed to the hand-cymbal craze, and using what sounds like a ‘Gladstone’ or ‘squash cymbal’, is rivalling Zutty Singleton or Tommy Benford with expertly-played solo breaks on tracks such as ‘Cornfed’, ‘I’m Coming, Virginia’ and ‘Whiteman Stomp’.
By the following year, Kaiser has abandoned the hand cymbal (like everybody else!) and now when he takes a solo break – such as on ‘Oh Baby’ from April 1928 – he does so on a dark, thick cymbal with a soft mallet. Later in the same year, however, Marshall can be heard with yet another string to his bow: following Vic Berton’s lead with Red Nichols and others, he has clearly been woodshedding his double-sticked ‘tricky cymbal’ technique. Schuller has singled out “Kaiser Marshall’s smart, inventive cymbal work, particularly on ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Come On, Baby’, and to my ears this is more than just an imitation – Marshall’s ‘tricky cymbal’ dexterity more than matches Berton’s, and (perhaps owing to playing louder music in a larger band) he uses a larger, heavier cymbal. On ‘Easy Money’ he even takes the technique a step further than Berton by making extensive use of the tip of the stick on the bell of the cymbal to get a different tone.
As the decade reached its end Henderson’s band began to decline, partly due to the leader’s ill-health following a car accident. As their recording work grew less frequent Marshall began to moonlight with other artists, making sides with Perry Bradford, Ma Rainey and Clarence Williams among others. Many of Marshall’s colleagues had deserted the sinking ship already, and when eventually an offer came in he decided to accept the end of an era and follow his old friend from 1919: “Joe [Smith] left again to go with Don Redman, who at that time had left Fletcher and was directing McKinney’s Cotton Pickers out in Detroit, and later on I was sent for to play with Don and Joe.” Marshall’s last recording with Henderson came on May 16, 1929 (‘Blazin’ / ‘Wang Wang Blues’). He was replaced in Henderson’s ailing organisation by Walter Johnson.
The Cotton Pickers, one of the bands affiliated to Jean Goldkette’s musical empire, had been recording hot sides for Victor records since the previous year and were already famous as one of the greatest black dance bands outside of New York. Marshall temporarily replaced drummer Cuba Austin (another excellent player, who will have his own DITT article in due course!). Recording technology had at last progressed to a point at which full drum kit could be recorded clearly without interference, and consequently (like most of our ‘twenties drumming Heroes), Kaiser’s mature style is much better-documented than his formative work. By the time he recorded his seven sides with McKinney’s he’s playing lovely press rolls, doubling on chimes and is a fully-rounded modern dance drummer on the order of a Paul Barbarin or a Sonny Greer, despite the groups with which he was recording being slightly behind Ellington’s or Russell’s in terms of up-to-the-minute style. On ‘I’d Love It’ (recorded, ironically, back in New York) we hear him tearing it up alongside fellow Henderson alumni Smith, Redman, Hawkins and ‘Fats’ Waller.
Soon, however, Marshall returned to freelancing. He recorded with ‘Fats’ Waller, where in conjunction with strong double bass player George ‘Pops’ Foster on numbers such as ‘Won’t You Get Off It, Please’, he proved his ability to produce a romping four-beat groove to rival Russell, Ben Pollack or any contemporary competitors. Kaiser ended the decade making a seminal – although rather atypical – record; his old bandmate Louis Armstrong, fresh from his recording successes with his Hot Five and Seven, was back in town to guest with Luis Russell’s band and had fixed a date with OKeh records:
“Louis got some of us together for a record date – Jack Teagarden on trombone, Happy Cauldwell on sax, Joe Sullivan on piano, Eddie Lang on guitar and myself on drums. We had been working the night before and the record date was for eight in the morning, so we didn’t bother about going to bed […] we took a gallon jug of whiskey with us. After we recorded the number the studio man came around […] he asked Louis what the tune was called, and Louis said ‘I don’t know!’ Then he looked around and saw the empty jug sitting in the middle of the floor and said ‘Man, we sure knocked that jug – you can call it ‘Knockin’ A Jug!’” – Kaiser Marshall.
‘Knockin’ A Jug’ is an odd and remarkable record for a number of reasons: its fully racially-integrated personnel, for one, and the colourful images which the story of its alcohol-lubricated creation conjure up of the musicians’ chaotic, bohemian lifestyle. Kaiser plays only snare drum throughout (first press rolls on the rim, then brushes), and thanks to OKeh’s producer Tommy Rockwell it’s perhaps the most clearly-recorded (even over-recorded?) snare drum of the whole decade. Perhaps due to his years of being stuck with limited ‘recording traps’ in the early Henderson years, Marshall is able to get a delightful array of colours from his one drum, varying his sound and rhythmic texture extremely creatively to match the different soloists. The band recorded another tune (‘I’m Gonna Stomp, Mr. Henry Lee’) on the same morning but it was not selected for release by OKeh – perhaps the sleepless night and the jug of whisky had taken their toll!
Once again I’ll close an article on a case of identity. In June of 1929 Marshall was hired to play for the soundtrack of ‘St. Louis Blues’, a two-reel dramatic film using the new sound process and featuring Bessie Smith singing the music of W.C. Handy. The music was pre-recorded and excerpts released on four sides later that year coinciding with the film’s release. In the movie itself, during a nightclub scene at 10:33, we see a close-up of a band with a drummer in the foreground playing some rapid strokes on a snappy Turkish cymbal, attempting to mimic Kaiser’s playing on the soundtrack. Only a few of the large band are credited – among them James P. Johnson and Joe Smith – and the drummer is seen only in profile. The action looks convincing enough; the man is a clearly a real drummer rather than just a movie extra, though we see him only in profile. Is this a glimpse of Kaiser Marshall we’re seeing, on moving film in 1929, miming along to his own recording? Compare it with the photo taken a few years earlier at the top of the page and decide for yourself. To my mind, it’s our man.