TJ FOWLER

TJ

Savoy Jazz 1187 – T.J. Fowler, “and His Rockin’ Jump Band, featuring Calvin Frazier”

“Jump, little children, jump!” [1]

That seems to have been the order of the day in black popular music of the immediate post-war era (the late forties/early fifties). It was the so-called jump bands, each usually with a terrorist tenor man2 as the main focus that stood in high relief on the musical landscape of the time. That truism being stated, what was a “jump band’… how did it come to be and what did it look like when it was at home?

Most music writers would agree such groups were stripped-down big bands. Instead of full sections (trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and rhythm, there would be usually one (occasionally two) brass and two (or three) reeds much like the later hard bop units. The rhythm section remained the same (give or take a guitar) and there was at least one singer. Jump bands had their immediate antecedents in Lionel Hampton’s big band [and small groups] of the early forties, especially Illinois Jacquet and “Flying Home” (1942). That band was the true root for rhythm and blues and even rock & roll.

The repertoire of jump bands was very heavy on the twelve-bar blues at all tempi, as well as boogie-woogie; there were also a handful of novelty tunes and a smattering of slow ballads. Instead of the sectional interplay that took place in a big band, there could be, for example, call-and-response between individual musicians… minimalist arranging, but out of the blues-based riffing tradition exemplified by the bands of Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, or Lucky Millinder. The music produced was hard-driving stuff, geared to their Lindy-hopping audience, and the jump bands produced the style of blues music that sold best to a black audience after the war.

By the time World War II was over, the dance band industry was on hard times for a number of reasons. A combination of the A.F.M. strike against record companies, loss of, musicians to the services during the war, travel restrictions and gas rationing, a heavy amusement tax levied on dance halls near the end of the war, and a move in popular taste from the instrumental soloist and towards the singer (in part due to the AFM strikes) all had an impact on the music business. It was all economics, and the way most band leaders kept working (and that included Count Basie) was to take a smaller unit on the road, one that cost less to support away from home – with microphones, there wasn’t a volume problem in big halls.

The most popular of the jump bands, and the one that sold the most recordings in the late forties, was that led by altoist/singer Louis Jordan. He and his Tympani Five [sic] consistently stormed the black charts of the day and even crossed over occasionally to the white pop charts. Jordan constantly filled theatres and dance halls, sold records, appeared in films (including a Western… the inspiration for Blazing Saddles?), broadcast over national radio, and did all a band could do to attain and maintain high-level popularity. Louis Jordan’s brand of sparse jazz/blues with a sense of humor helped set the standard for his peers… his group may not have been the first such aggregation, but they were the most successful. The musical equivalent of an icebreaker!

Such small bands existed all over the nation in all urban locations – New York City had plenty of them, including that led by altoist Pete Brown3; Durham, NC had the cooperative Bull City Nighthawks, while Detroit had such groups as Todd Rhodes Rockets. Another such band, from the Motor City, was led by pianist T.J. Fowler, and that band is the subject of this album. Just as it had been with the big bands, there were nationally-known jump bands and there were regional and local ones. And they all riffed and rocked like crazy!

T.J. [full name!] Fowler is an artist who has fallen through the researcher cracks… to “uptown” for the down-home blues aficionados and not enough so for the jazz buffs. What little that is known about Mr. Fowler comes from the French scholar Jacques Demetre, who interviewed the pianist in 1959! Other Detroit musicians like Boogie Woogie Red and Eddie Burns have spoken of seeing him about town in more recent years, but none of “us” have managed to follow up any leads.

From M. Demetre comes the basic fact that “T.J. Fowler was born on the 10th of December, 1910 in Columbus County, GA.” He moved to Detroit six years later, settling there, it seems, permanently4. Eventually he grew up and went work at the Ford plant. Nothing is known about his family background or his musical education/upbringing – he was very likely one of many musical weekend warriors that existed and still exist in our urban centers… keep that day job! Fowler apparently got his first professional gig in 1943 with the band of trumpeter Clarence Dorsey, one that included Paul Williams5 on alto saxophone. He then played jobs backing a variety of blues singers, possibly in some of the tonier clubs on Hastings Street. It was in 1945 or ’46 that Fowler formed his first band – probably much like those heard on this album. During the forties and fifties he recorded for a number of labels. Two sides here were released by National and Savoy; they may have been initially released locally and then sold to those companies for national distribution, a very common practice then.

In 1959 when seen by M. Demetre, the T.J. Fowler band consisted of Dezie McCullers (trumpet, tenor sax), Ted Merryweather6 (trombone) Walter Cox (tenor sax), and Samuel “Babe” Borders (drums). Fowler himself was playing organ – probably with foot pedals, for no bass player is mentioned. The only other bit of information concerning Fowler that can be confirmed comes from Eddie Kirkland: it seems that T.J. Fowler died some time in 1986 or ’87. Too little, too late, once again7.

The sixteen cuts here by the Fowler sextet/septet of circa 1950 have a collection of Detroit-area musicians on them, a number listed in his ’59 band, and a couple from the earlier Dorsey group – nothing seems to be known about any of them. Where are the likes of alto/baritone man Lee Gross, trumpeter John Lawton, or tenorist Walter Cox now that we really need them!?? It’s only guitarist Calvin Frazier of whom we have any knowledge (he recorded some down-home blues elsewhere) – he is an important musician, with little available on record, so his sides and presence here are highly appreciated.

Calvin Frazier was born into an intensely musical family in Osceola, AK on February 16, 1915 [actually b. 16 Feb, 1913 in Ashport, TN – d. 23 Sep, 1972 in Detroit]. One notable influence on him outside his family was the legendary Robert Johnson, with whom he played in the thirties. Calvin moved to Detroit somewhere between 1936 and 19388; Alan Lomax recorded him (with Sampson Pittman) in that latter year for the Library of Congress’s folksong archive. He went back to Arkansas from time to time, even doing some broadcasting with a band over KCLN in Blytheville. Calvin seems to have settled in Detroit by the forties.

In that city he was associated with musicians such as Big Maceo Merriweather, Baby Boy Warren, and Washboard Willie as a side-man. He recorded minimally as a front man (for JVB, Fortune, Albin locally, and Checker picked up a couple of sides from one of them)

And always in Detroit. Calvin Frazier could play in many styles of blues guitar, from the Johnsonesque to the Walkerian. He was a major influence on developing guitarists in the Motor City, sort to Detroit what Robert Jr. Lockwood was to Chicago – the model that was pursued, but never captured. A superb guitarist and decent singer, Frazier died in Detroit in 1972 shortly after being interviewed [by George Paulus], but before he could record again. That makes these sides of greater import.

The music being made available on this album is all good, professional jump band music – please remember that these cuts were recorded to be released as singles, to be heard coming from the juke box, over the radio, or at home on the 78 phonograph. And they were made to be danced to. Even so, this album “works” as laid out… and its great if you want to party!

T.J. Boogie is a rocking number with a stormy solo from Fowler himself, plus some fervid honking from tenor man Walter Cox. -A

What’s the Matter Now lays down a shuffle boogie with solos from Lee Gross (on alto… shades of Hilton Jefferson) and a bridge from John Lawton. The Eckstine-ish vocal is by the bass player, Henry Ivory. Fowler lays back, feeding and tinkling. -A

Red Hot Blues has Ivory as a more interesting singer (i.e. – less affected) on a frantic blues raver. Once again, Walter Cox’s tenor roars and vaporizes all that gets in the way! On this cut, the leader is often buried, but his rolling chords are right there.   -A

Harmony Grits comes over like a medium Basie-ish shuffle, with statements from John Lawton, Lee Gross )on baritone this time), Lawton again and finally Walter Cox. Fowler strongly underpins with both hands. -A

Pleas For Love is a ballad with more Hank Ivory singing (more cloying this time), as well as lots of satin from Lee Gross on alto. T.J. plays “lounge” here. -A

Yes I Know has the band vocalizing on a typical novelty number of the time, one with a backbeat shuffle rhythm. We hear from Lee Gross (on alto) and Walter Cox (the ever-dependable), both saying something. Fowler walks hard underneath it all. -B

Oo-La-La is another group vocal novelty shuffle, with Walter Cox taking all the solo space. It’s rather like David Newman to Ray Charles on Atlantic. T.J. is felt more than heard until right at the end and in quick stop-time. -B

Night Crawler is a cross between Duke Ellington and Erskine Hawkins’ “After Hours”. Both Fowler and Walter Cox are heard to good effect. -B

Fowler’s Boogie is a medium-tempo riff-boogie with honking solos from Walter Cox and Lee Gross (on baritone). T.J. anchors the whole business with both hands -B

Back Biter brings Calvin Frazier into the band, and is a heavy blues shuffle. Good solos from Walter Cox, T.J. (solid throughout), Calvin (listen to his back-up chords), and Cox again. –C

Wine Cooler (not a new idea, folks!) is a tough riff-shuffle number with an intro by Calvin Frazier, then messages from Walter Cox, Lee Gross (baritone), Calvin, T.J.) listen for his left hand throughout, and Cox again. –C

Little Baby Child is a slow blues with a dirty intro from Calvin Frazier before his laid-back vocal, as well as strong work from Walter Cox over Calvin’s chords. Fowler rolls underneath… love those triplets! -C

Got Nobody To Tell My Troubles To stays in the slow blues groove, with Calvin Frazier singing and showing his Charlie Christian/T-Bone Walker side in his playing. (n.b. – this is the longest title on the record – did jump band instrumentals have to have two word titles?) T.J. trills the blues with his right hand on this baby. -C

Say Baby Say is a heretofore unknown cut, a nice shuffle blues with a vocal from Alberta Adams, and a sharp solo by Walter Cox. Adams, an unknown quantity {at this writing!] had a single on Chess the following year. Here Fowler pounds out some fine blues piano… also check out Calvin Frazier’s arpeggios and chords. –C

Gold Rush works out as a medium rocker with brushes that has the ever-lovely Walter Cox bracketing a hearty T.J. solo. –D

Hip Hop (Camel Walk) pre-dates the [first] terms present [musical] definition. Here is a slow blues with more fruity Walter Cox – he is throughout this collection. Fowler knuckles under it all, spicing up the slow-grind dish. –D

What you have here in your hands is a chronologically organized collection of all the sides recorded for two labels by an obscure Detroit jump band. In spite of such a dry and scholarly synopsis, what you also have is an album of music that jumps out of your speakers (pun intended), into your ears, and down to your feet! T.J. Fowler and his band truly get going, and need to make way for no group.

Jump little children, indeed!

 

PETER B. LOWRY (1989)                                                                                                       Department of Folklore/Folklife                                                                                             University of Pennsylvania

 

 

 

personnel and dates:

A: Detroit, late 1948 – T.J. Fowler (pno), John Lawton (tpt), Lee Gross (saxes), Walter Cox (ts), Henry Ivory (bs/vo), Clarence Stamps (dms).

B: Detroit, 28 March, 1952 – same personnel, plus Calvin Frazier (gtr).

C: Detroit, 16 January, 1953 – T.J. Fowler (pno), Elliot Escoe (tpt), Lee Gross (saxes), Walter Cox (ts), Calvin Frazier (gtr/vo), James Murphy (bs), Clarence Stamps (dms), Alberta Adams (vo).

D: Detroit, 16 January, 1953 – T.J. Fowler (pno), Dezie McCullers (tpt), Jeremiah Taylor (as), Walter Cox (ts), Calvin Frazier (gtr), Henry Ivory (bs), Clarence Stamps (dms).

[1] Leroy Dallas – SIW 522 (1949)

2 Honkers and Screamers – Savoy Jazz 2234

3 Many of Brown’s recordings issued on Savoy Records

4 Letter from M. Demetre to Bruce Bastin: early 1969

5 Most of Williams’ recordings issued on Savoy Records

6 [could this person be any relation to pianists Big Maceo (or Little Maceo) Merriweather?]

7 [Eagle & LeBlanc have come up with the following: b.Nances, GA 18 Sep, 1910 – d. Lincoln Park, Wayne County 22 May, 1982]

8[Possibly with Johnson, who was known to have been in Detroit around then and traveled in the North according to Johnny Shines]

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