Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra. McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Reginald Foresythe and his New Music: They made some of the hottest jazz ever, right? You've never heard of them?
"People forget that this was popular music then," says trumpeter and arranger Brian Carpenter. "This was what brought people out to dance halls. This was Lady Gaga circa 1926."
Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra attempts to reinsert the stories of these little-known 1920s and 1930s ensembles into the wider jazz storybook. But their shows aren't period pieces. When the nine-piece ensemble plays Motorco twice this week, there will not only be a dance floor but also a free, no-shame swing dance lesson an hour before the show.
Think about how the story of jazz is told. Grandpappy Musicology puts you on his knee and explains that, in dim New Orleans and St. Louis dance halls, African syncopation corrupted European marches into ragtime. After migrating north and east, members of big bands smoothed this music into swing for white audiences. Bebop cats repurposed swing's structure as a platform for improvisational bravado.
Ol' grandpa's forgotten some of the story's best characters, says Carpenter. But for the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter crafts new arrangements of transitional, almost-lost jazz masterpieces. His vibrant chamber jazz fills the gaps between rag, swing and bop.
The Ghost Train Orchestra's first album, Hothouse Stomp, dusted off late Jazz Age dance hall music from Chicago and Harlem. Horns zip and blurt, prefiguring Bird and Dizzy, while the tuba bounces against the rest of the band with a rough, ragtime thump. The tunes are quick, as the 78 rpm records to which they were recorded could hold only about three minutes on each side.
So why didn't Charlie Johnson jump the radio waves and go mainstream? Why did we get the cleaned-up version with Benny Goodman?
"The Great Depression: It's as simple as that," Carpenter explains with a sigh. "You had Black Friday in 1929 and suddenly all the work dried up."
The stock market crash formed a perfect storm with Chicago's 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, wiping small dance halls off the map. Big bands like Goodman's and Duke Ellington's survived with standing gigs at places like the Cotton Club.
Connecting this Prohibition-era music to their current exhibition of Archibald Motley's paintings, Duke's Nasher Museum of Art has lent support to this Duke Performances presentation. Motley's expressionistic scenes of Jazz Age nightlife recall some of these short-lived bands, lending an atmospheric sense to the music.
On their new Book of Rhapsodies, the Ghost Train pulls forward in time. Although the composers' names might still be unfamiliar, some of this late-1930s music won't sound foreign. Raymond Scott's arrangements were a common backdrop to anvils falling on Wile E. Coyote's head and Bugs Bunny foiling Elmer Fudd in classic Looney Tunes.
"You hear something like that, and it sounds like New Music. It sounds like somebody composed it yesterday," Carpenter says, comparing it to the dense musical collage and quotation coming out of Brooklyn these days. Louis Singer's "Beethoven Riffs On" patches klezmer phrases into a symphonic quilt. Scott's constantly changing "Celebration on the Planet Mars" could bring Sun Ra back from the dead.
Carpenter's arrangements—or reimaginings, as he sometimes calls them—channel the original spirit of the work. His virtuosic band relishes playing modern arrangements of music otherwise lost to attics and archives.
"I'm the weakest player in the band, and that's by design," Carpenter jokes.
What he should say is: Eat a light dinner, and wear your dancing shoes, because this band can go, even if you can't spot the tune.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Late delivery"