One of Jazz’s Earliest Pioneers Finally Gets His Due

Scholar and cornetist Colin Hancock has just co-produced a remarkable two-CD package honoring the saxophonist Loren McMurray (1897-1922).

McPherson Museum and Arts Foundation via Archeophone Records
Loren McMurray. McPherson Museum and Arts Foundation via Archeophone Records

‘The Moaninest Moan of Them All: The Jazz Saxophone of Loren McMurray, 1920-1922’ (Archeophone Records) 

The late and legendary jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham famously spent roughly 70 years as an outstanding exponent of that instrument, but he could also play saxophone. In fact, he played soprano sax on his first ever recording session, behind blues legend Ma Rainey in 1924. I once asked him why he didn’t play the horn more often, and his answer was fascinating: “It seemed like nobody was thinking about the saxophone back then, that wasn’t until later.”

Indeed, the saxophone didn’t mature into a true jazz voice until well after trumpets, pianos, and trombones. Still, by the end of the 1920s, many of the greats had already emerged — Coleman Hawkins, Frank Trumbauer, Bud Freeman, Benny Carter — but who was playing jazz saxophone at the start of that decade? 

Scholar and cornetist Colin Hancock has just co-produced a remarkable two-CD package honoring Loren McMurray (1897-1922), who is a very strong contender for the title of the first important and widely recorded jazz saxophonist. Still, Mr. Hancock and his co-annotator, British historian Mark Berresford, are astute enough to avoid citing McMurray as the absolute first, which is almost inevitably a mistake in any kind of cultural history. 

Yet there’s plenty of evidence in these 50 tracks to establish that McMurray was playing genuine jazz sax as early as 1920. He was already thoroughly versed in all the essentials of the form — improvisation, blues, and a hot driving tempo — well before most of the subsequently well-known jazz pioneers, both Black and white, even had the opportunity to record.

In terms of both the music and the 80-page booklet, this is by far the most extensive document yet of McMurray’s short but brilliant career.  He was born in Kansas, the son of Dallas McMurray, a postmaster and amateur musician who was apparently already playing soprano sax as early as 1902. Saxophones had started to catch on as a novelty instrument around the time of World War I, and in his teens, McMurray began playing alto in his father’s saxophone ensemble.  After Dallas’s early death at 42 — a foreshadowing of his own — Loren gradually shifted to dance bands.

Working with an orchestra co-led by pianist Eddie Kuhn and violinist Emil Chaquette, McMurray quickly established himself as “The Finest Hot Man in Kansas City.” Soon, he traveled with the band to New York, then as always the mecca of the music trade. Upon arrival at Manhattan in the summer of 1920, he began recording prolifically, first with Kuhn and company, then gradually with many other groups.

Even in listening to the first tracks here, billed as “Eddie Kuhn’s Dance Specialists,” one is not struck by the primitiveness of either the music or the recording process. Although these are acoustically recorded, the tracks have been well restored by engineer Richard Martin. It doesn’t sound like we even think of a jazz performance, say, from 1929. We don’t even hear a piano, but rather these sessions are propelled by an accordion, played by Frank Papile, in the role of the keyboard that grounds the whole enterprise harmonically.  

The very first track, “Don’t Take Away Those Blues,” includes actual elements of the blues, and the second is “Rose of Bagdad.” Those twin themes, the earthiness of the blues and the exoticism of far away places, drives a lot of the songs here. A few tracks later, we get “Persia,” “Gypsy Rose,” and “Burning Sands.” 

McMurray is impossible to miss; he uses some of the vocabulary of earlier novelty-oriented saxophone forebears like Rudy Weidoft and the Six Brown Brothers, but he is playing in what is unmistakably a genuine jazz idiom. His playing is bubbly, he blows rings all around whatever melody is at the center, but he has that very strong drive that was already a part of jazz well before musicians discovered 4/4 swingtime. He is prominent on every track, whether leading the entire reed section (and sometimes the band itself) or improvising a solo.

The solos are mostly short, but they are there, and the music is relentlessly snappy-peppy. You’ll recognize a few of the tunes here, like the Al Jolson signature “April Showers” and “Right or Wrong,” which would be picked up by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys along with other country bands. Other tunes here would become dixieland warhorses, like “Chicago,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” Both George Gershwin and Irving Berlin make “cameo” appearances here, with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Homesick,” the latter featuring Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards scatting (or “eefin’,” as he called it) a chorus as a member of the studio ensemble Bailey’s Lucky Seven. 

McMurray is a commanding presence throughout. At the end of his life, he began leading his own bands, billed with the snazzy title of “McMurray’s California Thumpers,” and he had also connected with the pre-eminent bandleader of the era, Paul Whiteman. The Archeophone set includes several tracks with the Virginians, a smaller and jazzier offshoot of the full Whiteman Orchestra.  

On “Nobody Lied,” Whiteman’s star reed virtuoso, Ross Gorman, plays a chorus on bass clarinet, which McMurray follows with hot breaks on alto. Where Gorman’s playing belongs to the era, McMurray’s seems timeless. Doubtlessly he would have continued to work both with Whiteman and his own orchestras if he had not caught a nasal infection (difficult to cure in that pre-penicillin era) that developed into blood poisoning. He died on October 29, 1922, less than a month after he turned 25.

Messrs. Hancock and Berresford make the case that “Mac” influenced the entire development of the saxophonist’s art, from Frank Trumbauer and Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young and even later modernists like Sonny Rollins — as well as everyone that they, in turn, influenced. Loren McMurray’s moment in the big time and his recording career lasted little more than two years, but this essential set leaves no doubt that he was a contender. 

The New York Sun

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