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Sam Wooding

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Biography

This early American jazz bandleader's choice of career objectives is the principal reason he is not the household word among jazz fans like some other bandleaders of his generation. There are many critics who feel that things would have been very different for Sam Wooding had he not become one of the first wave of American expatriate jazz musicians living in Europe. If he had instead stayed on in America and gotten in on the raging domestic big band scene, odds are likely he would be as well-known as his contemporaries Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Instead, Wooding's activity had a different sort of impact on jazz history, and arguably just as an important one. By focusing on the European continent, he became one of the most authentic purveyors of the new big band jazz sounds available to the European concert public, and indeed was creating music head and shoulders above the efforts of any of his competitors in this market. He furthermore pushed jazz into some completely new territory, where it picked up a fanatic following, as this exciting music is known to do. In 1926, Wooding was one of the first jazz artists to visit Russia, leading the orchestra that was part of the Chocolate Kiddies revue. This tour turned out to be historic for the history of not only jazz but live music performance in general in the communist regime. Having blown away Lenin and Stalin, Wooding went to Spain a few years later where his band actually cut some sides for the country's official Parlaphone label without managing to ruffle the feathers of the dictatorship. Self-taught for the most part, Wooding began playing piano professionally around 1912. His eventual assault on the clubs of New York City was interrupted by a more important offensive known as World War I. This was where Wooding got his first taste of European atmosphere, and was also where he met many other American players, members of brass bands who would go on to become blowing big band cats. One such acquaintance was trumpeter Elmer Chambers, who would join one of Wooding's first stateside outfits and stay for several years. Chambers took his first band to Europe in 1925 when it was chosen to provide the music for the Chocolate Kiddies show. This was built up around the vaudeville team of Rufus and Drayton, Wooding's 11-piece band, 30 chorus girls, and a bunch of dancers and comedians. The band's set included arrangements of some of Duke Ellington's earliest music, with Tommy Ladnier one of the main soloists. The popularity of this revue led to an extended residency in Berlin and tours throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. Before returning home, the Chocolate Kiddies nipped down to South America for a working visit. He was home only a few months before beginning another European tour in 1931. He made many of his recordings during these European sojourns, cutting sides for labels such as Vox, Polydor, and Pathe as well as the previously mentioned Spanish venture. Some of his most famous cuts as a leader include the titles "Krazy Kat," "Alabamy Bound," and "Bull Foot Stomp," which was recorded while the Spanish secret police sniffed around the studio. Record collectors go all misty eyed when the subject comes up of his live club recordings done in Paris for Pathe in the late '20s, which include tasty vocals by the likes of June Cole and Willie Lewis. Wooding seemed enamored with vocal music at that time, or perhaps was answering a commercial request. A vocal trio including clarinetist Gene Sedric making noise without a reed in his mouth is part of the action on the wonderful track "Breakaway." Wooding continued leading bands abroad and sometimes in the U.S. until the mid-'30s, when he shifted to studying music. He earned a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Into the early '40s, he was most active as a teacher, although he also directed a gospel choir and later formed a small vocal group. In the '50s and '60s, he worked both as a solo act and in partnership with singer Rae Harrison. Into old age, he was still busy as a teacher and even performed frequently. He was asked to perform at several events observing the American Bicentennial in 1976, including putting together his own ten-piece combo. Honored and respected by those particularly in the know, Wooding's timing always seems to have been slightly off in terms of establishing a bigger name for himself in jazz. By the time he was ready to focus on establishing a big band in the States, the popularity of this genre had largely died out and economics made the touring situation almost impossible. Wooding's greatest impact is most likely behind the scenes, as his outfits offered great working possibilities for many players. Tommy Ladnier, Freddy Johnson, Doc Cheatham, Frankie Newton, and Albert Nichols are all swing jazz era players who worked in his bands overseas as well as stateside. In 1935, he even had the great Sidney Bechet in his band for a stretch. His influence is also not confined to players from his own style of jazz. As a teacher, his pupils included the heavy duty bop trumpet blower Clifford Brown, while the projects organized in the twilight of his life offered experience opportunities for avant-garde players, such as trumpeter Malachi Thompson who performed in several Wooding outfits that were organized in New York City in the '70s. His career may have another type of impact in the long run in the area of jazz history and literature, as a large scale project has been underway for several years involving diaries he kept with religous regularity throughout his career. His late wife began typing up these epic journals a few years after he passed away, and the project was then taken over by writer Rae Harrison, who believes the material has the potential to be an important written jazz history. The amount of material he wrote down about the early days of jazz both in the U.S. and abroad is sure to result in some significant information, although Wooding's attention to detail is reportedly far from complete: trumpeter Cheatham has had to provide lists of the musicians involved in tracks by European Wooding bands that have been chosen for various historic compilations. Harrison and his associates on this project were among the many jazz fans vocally dissatisfied with the marathon Ken Burns' Jazz project, as the superficial research that went into compiling this jazz history once again resulted in the exclusion of more complex artists such as Wooding. ~ Eugene Chadbourne