Bubber, Cab, and the Cotton Club

Tom Maxwell
9 min readSep 17, 2020

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…

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Tom Maxwell

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