Bubber, Cab, and the Cotton Club

Menace as sexy energy.

James “Bubber” Miley and Duke Ellington, ca. 1926

Saxophonist Otto Hardwick described his band mate James Wesley “Bubber” Miley as “a happy-go-lucky, moon-faced, slim, brown boy with laughing eyes and a mouth full of gold teeth.” Born in Aiken, South Carolina in 1903, Miley moved with his family to New York when he was six. At 14, he could play a little trombone and cornet. By 1921, Miley was recording with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.

Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded for the Okeh label in August, 1920, was promoted as the first blues record by an African American singer and band. There was a ready market for such a race record: “Crazy Blues” reportedly sold 75,000 copies in the first two months.

Around this time, Miley developed a wah-wah sound by using the rubber end of a plumber’s plunger picked up in a ten cent store. He combined these effects with growling lip distortion, inventing an entirely new way of playing the trumpet. Young horn players, anxious to know his secret, besieged him. “I don’t know how I do it,” he told them. “I’m just crazy.” He did know, but told Hardwick he “wasn’t going to teach anybody how to take his job from him.”

This style was in place by 1924 when Miley recorded with reed organist Alvin Ray in the wonderfully-named Texas Blue Destroyers. Even in an uptempo blues like “Lenox Avenue Shuffle,” it’s plain that sinister was already part of Miley’s style. He had forged a new path for New York jazz; one that would finally allow it slip out of New Orleans’ shadow.

A young member of a group called The Washingtonians named Duke Ellington saw Miley around that time when he sat in, hearing his use of lip distortion, plunger mute, and general menace.

Rightly remembered as an icon of 20th century music, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington had many talents as a bandleader, orchestrator, and pianist, as well as possessing a fantastic ear for melodic hooks, many of which he appropriated from his soloists. “We were privileged to make suggestions,” remembered Hardwick of the early days in Ellington’s band. “If [Duke] liked it, or he didn’t, he’d go along with it anyway. Every man had freedom of expression. … We shared in everything, like some of those numbers we wrote where two or three contributed a part.”

When a dispute over money forced Snowden out, Ellington took over as leader of the Washingtonians. He modeled his sound — blacker than before — on Bubber Miley’s growling trumpet. The group, later known as Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra, performed for enthusiastic crowds in Manhattan. “Our band changed its character when Bubber came in,” Ellington recalled. “He used to growl all night long, playing gutbucket on his horn. That was when we decided to forget all about the sweet music.” Ellington is making a racial distinction here: “sweet” bands were usually white, and played polite dance music downtown, while “hot” bands were mostly back — at least back then — and came from Harlem. Until that time, Ellington played sweet.

With his fiery genius and black , Miley moved Ellington and The Washingtonians resolutely towards jazz. “This colored band is plenty torrid,” read a review from November, 1923, “and includes a trumpet player who never need doff his chapeau to any cornetist in the business. He exacts the eeriest sort of modulations and ‘singing’ notes heard.”

Miley was Ellington’s first muse and chief collaborator. They co-wrote a song that defined the early Ellington sound: “Black and Tan Fantasy.” You can hear which man contributed what: Miley brings the portentous, muted riff; Ellington answers with an exotic melody. Miley was inspired by a memory of hearing his mother hum a spiritual based on Stephen Adams’ “The Holy City,” changing the key from major to minor.

Because of its tempo, rhythm, and exuberance, Christian Schubart would have a hard time recognizing “Black and Tan Fantasy.” The song ends with a quote from Chopin’s “Funeral March” in B minor, a key Schubart described as “the key of patience, of the silent expectation of fate, and of the submission to the divine decree.” What he would have made of “Black and Tan Fantasy”’s burst of joyous perdition is anyone’s guess. Ellington’s band acts as a funeral cortegé, sending off Schubart and his European bias. The song also contains another disguised Ellingtonian racial statement: “Black and Tans” were the few clubs in New York — all in Harlem — that allowed desegregated audiences.

“Black and Tan Fantasy” caught the ear of music publisher Irving Mills, who signed Ellington to a management contract. Mills insisted Ellington concentrate on original compositions, and, with his help, the Ellington band began a residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1927. It was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, with the extraordinary career boost of a prestigious gig and a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club was an illustrious move. On the other, Ellington led a fairly unreliable group, especially with regard to his star trumpeter. Miley was an improvisational gunslinger; the increasingly regimented large band arrangements confined him.

“You could see it on the bandstand,” Greer remembered of the Cotton Club days. “Even if [Bubber] was sober, he looked like he was somewhere else. He’d play the notes all right, no mistakes. But it was like he was on automatic pilot. But when it was time to solo he was right there.”

In addition, Miley was in the grip of profound alcoholism. “Bubber was very temperamental, and liked his likker,” Ellington once wrote. “He used to get under the piano and go to sleep when he felt like it.”

“When we were at the Kentucky Club,” remembered Ellington alum Freddie Guy, “we lost out on a couple of jobs because Bubber didn’t show, or if he did, he was too drunk to play.”

The band moved uptown, to New York’s famous African American neighborhood. “Harlem was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual,” according to poet Langston Hughes, “pulling him from everywhere.” Music was central to the experience. Jazz, Hughes wrote, “is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul — the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

The Cotton Club, however, was whites-only. Ellington had to ask permission for black friends to attend his performances. Murals on the club’s walls depicted jungle scenes, while fake cotton trees were planted on the stage. All the entertainers were black; the dancing girls couldn’t be darker than a latte. This racial encounter, for upper-class whites “slumming” uptown, was, according to musicologist Nate Sloan, “policed, mediated and distorted by reductive views of black culture.” The Ellington “hot” sound, inspired by Miley, was now marketed as “jungle music.”

Few Ellington recordings from this time are as emblematic of the era as “The Mooche.” This recording, from October 1st, 1928 is iconic, featuring an eerie descending clarinet trio riff, Baby Cox’s growling scat vocal, and Miley’s authoritative solo. Listened to now, free from its contemporary racist matrix, “The Mooche” is joyous, dreadful, and undeniably alive.

Miley was fired in January, 1929. Ellington finally caved to the pressure to do so from Mills and the Cotton Club’s management. “I was in his dressing room one night when Duke told Mills straight out, ‘Bubber had been with us from the beginning,’” drummer Sonny Greer once said. “‘If it weren’t for him, we probably wouldn’t be here at all.’”

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The second wave of Harlem hot music appeared with an assist from New Orleans. Louis Armstrong, the great innovator and ambassador of jazz, recorded a version of “St. James Infirmary” in New York on December 12, 1928. This is generally agreed to be the first commercial jazz recording of a song which originated over a century before in England as “The Unfortunate Rake.” An entire book can be written on how the tune originated and how Armstrong came to know it; certainly, he is not known for playing in minor keys. If anyone from the jazz age represents major key ebullience, it’s him. Having said that, most anything the man did he did well, and it’s fairly obvious that Cab Calloway’s subsequent version owes more than a little to Armstrong’s, although his trumpet players growled like Bubber Miley.

Cecil “Cab” Calloway III was born in Rochester, New York on Christmas Day, 1907. He received private voice lessons as a teenager, and was taught to scat (singing nonsense syllables) by Armstrong himself, who had more or less invented scatting with his band The Hot Five in the mid-20s. In 1930, Calloway took over a group called The Missourians, rechristening the band Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. It was this unit that recorded a scorching version of “St. James Infirmary” that same year. Although this was one of more than eighteen versions of the song released by that time, Calloway’s distinguishes itself.

It starts uptempo. Punchy low brass quarter notes beat out a fast walk. Then a solitary trumpet figure, and we’re tossed into the stormy riff. In Armstrong’s version from two years before, you can hear a little of the New Orleans funeral second line. He sings the mournful lyric without smiling. In contrast, Calloway is positively gleeful. He stretches the melody like taffy over the insistent groove. His band is still comprised of marching instruments — the sousaphone, soon be replaced by the more elegant string bass, takes a two measure solo — but this isn’t street music. It’s not dance music either. It’s more of a manifesto.

Cutting from the same cloth, Calloway would record the archetypal “Minnie the Moocher” — a minor key call and response — the following year, and earn himself a lifetime career. We can be confident that he was inspired by Ellington’s Mooche.

A rotoscoped Calloway appears singing “St. James Infirmary” in a Betty Boop Cartoon from 1933. In this early version of motion capture, you can see how much his dancing style influenced those to come, from James Brown to Michael Jackson.

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Bubber Miley died of tuberculosis on Welfare Island, New York, in 1931. He was 29. “My wife and I went to his funeral,” wrote Miley’s friend, dancer Roger Pryor Dodge.

Bubber Miley stands virtually alone as one of the great trumpet players of the early jazz age who did copy Louis Armstrong. His horn described, if not joy, a kind of giddy mischief, a winking transgression. He helped extend an entire musical form through the use of brash improvisation, wah-wah effects, and distortion: elements of Harlem hot music carried forward some forty years later by rock ’n’ roll musicians like Jimi Hendrix.

Duke Ellington did perhaps more than any artist to elevate jazz to an art form. He took advantage of the opportunities provided by Mills and the Cotton Club. His 1940 band is considered one of the greatest units of all time; the perfect blend of black musical idiom, danceable rhythms, and harmonic complexity. Through it all, Ellington nurtured his players as much as his own career, remaining the soul of elegance. He died in 1974.

Bubber Miley may have originated a new type of jazz, but he was basically rock ’n’ roll. He lived hard, played hard, and flourished in a small group setting. When things got too structured, he checked out.

“In spite of his quietness,” Pryor Dodge wrote, “Bubber had a natty appearance and sported an Auburn convertible. One night when he was driving home after the Billy Rose show, his car stalled in Central Park. Bubber just got out, slammed the door and walked away.”

Miley didn’t seem precious about much of anything besides the music. “Bubber didn’t the blues on his horn,” drummer Sonny Greer told A.H. Lawrence in . “He sang them.”

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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