FEBRUARY 2, 1941
It started out as many such things start: kids helling around making music, and trying to make it pay off in pennies and nickels. That was many years ago, when they were in school together in St. Louis. But where it differs from many such things is that it has hung together as a unit ever since. A dozen or fifteen years ago they were Spirits of Rhythm, and they are the Spirits of Rhythm today. They started with ukuleles, because at the time of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” every kid going to school had about a dollar’s worth of ukulele under his arm, whack it every chance he got. They started innocent of music as any kind of exercise and even today, as Doug says, there isn’t a one of them could read a note as big as that table. But they have an active book of arrangements that can keep them going all night; and while it’s all in their and something they have got up through playing together, you couldn’t start out cold and get a book like that for less than a thousand dollars.
Their act is what the record labels call vocal with inst. accomp., the inst. at present being a guitar two tipples (a small-size guitar using only the first four strings) and a double-bass. But that gives you no idea. The truth is, with just four of them playing along they have more balance, depth and lift than any of the bands they are supposed to “relieve” on the stand. For one thing, they need not clutter a stand with a square yard of drum: the beat would be insistent even if they were not always stomping it into the floor. And guitar and piano purely as chorded and rhythm instruments they can dispense with too. You have a saving of three already, and more when you take into account that the usual background of saxophones, the louder interpolation of a brass section, are partly accounted for in their stout chords and several voices. But above everything else they have a developed unison which is like the miracle of a good string quartet, and more so in that it covers improvisation—not only the framework of a score mastered, but the tacit understanding that sustains and hold them together beyond the notes of any score written. The width and depth of this tonal effect is to be explained by one of the simple first laws of aural illusion, namely the principle of unison, the exactly scientific phenomenon of two and two becoming more than four when it is a case of strings in identical vibration, or rhythmic impulses of identical duration, or both. That is why twenty desks of violins in your local grade-school symphony may make more noise than the four instruments of the Budapest Quartet without getting the power in music, and that is why a half-acre of Goldman Band can take Nola at around 380 to the minute without getting the sense of motion of one good two-finger piano player doing Lazy. The Spirits do part of what they do with the talent God gave them individually, but they are more than just four people because of this almost inbred collectiveness of their playing and feeling and stomping together, this simple marvel of increase in unison that God gave music.
These are a lot of words to describe something that is going to elude description anyway, and I would not wish for a Spirit like Leo Watson to read them, as they cloud and nancify an issue; and Leo is not a man I care to have climbing over table to get at me with whatever he may have picked up on the way, such a section of the bar. Hear them or leave it alone is what I say, but hear them right, with your ears and with some appreciation of the ground they come from and the clear echo of a tradition, theirs and ours too.
They once had Vergil Scroggins to thump out the beat on suitcase; but two or three years ago Vergil sickened of music and is setting up to be an undertaker in Philadelphia, which does seem like starting in a profession at the very top. When they were first on air regularly, and playing at the old Onyx, they has a bass player whose name on IOU’s was Wilson Myers but whose expression in sickness and in health was such nobody ever called anything but Serious. Serious was only with them six months, though it seemed like longer; and he was a special bass player indeed, though he used to have to climb a little to finger the first position; and he was the most serious man I ever saw, though always clowning, and when they did their trucking-off number at the old Jack Dempsey’s he has to keep a sharp, melancholy eye out for match packets on the floor, because he had to jump clear of them.
They picked up Teddy Bunn in Washington. Teddy Bunn is the present guitar player. He is a perfectly terrible man, but has the mostest fun, and seem to be resigned to music, though there was a time when somehow or other he got hold of an electric guitar and he was playing electric all over the place, and those were not happy days. He is one of the most brilliant men in the business, and keep your pockets sewed up. (This of course is strictly in confidence, but teddy is one of my dearest friends in the sense of cost and we have a plan on foot for stealing the original hot stove.)
It started with Douglas Daniel and Leo Watson, who sand, played and messed around with their feet down any cab rank in St. Louis, to coax pennies ringing onto the sidewalk. As to what kind of music they thought was music, you only have to remember that St. Louis was one of the river-boat stops, and that in the teens and early twenties the boats were a great common carrier of jazz, New Orleans to Chicago, up and down. No matter what else, Doug says now, the kids would always have their nickel money to get on the boat every Monday night; and they remember Fate Marable, Charlie Kress, Louis Armstrong in his early days.
Then one day a banjo player by the name of Brook Johns saw Leo scuffling and told him, “Come here, you kid; you ever been on the stage?” And Leo said “Naws’” innocent as pie. And Johns said, “You be afraid to get up on a big stage, front of a thousand people?” And Leo said “Naws’.” So the man put the two of them on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, Leo in his short pants and crazy legs, half swallowed in a black sweater that has red on the cuffs and red on the collar, very sharp. They sang and Leo kicked out the Charleston, and it just about broke up the show. They weren’t much bigger than their ukuleles, but it was the beginning of their stage career.
For two years, in 1923-24, Leo and Douglas were with the Whitman Sisters, one of those big Negro roadshows with a chorus line, acts and specialties; and if the truant officer every got his hands on them again I haven’t heard of it. Meanwhile three other kids that used to play with them back home had got themselves jobs too. Doug’s older brother Wilbur, his cousin Vergil Scroggins and the guitar player Laurence Blurton were traveling with an outfit called Madam DeCossis’ Honeymooners, though in the end they traveled too far. The show went aground in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the kids had to write Doug in Chicago to get up the necessary. By this time the five of them felt they knew enough about show business to be their own show.
But it wasn’t until 1930 that they began to be heard of in a general way. That was the year Ben Bernie came across them and put them in his show as the Sepia Nephews, and brought them to New York, which they began to take to pieces. When discovered, Leo Watson was amusing himself by singing out “yowsah” at inconvenient intervals and this shows how a great idea can be born, though Leo tired of it long since, not being a man to whip one dog very long, even if it is his own. Anyway, Bernie book them as an act into Philadelphia and Washington and places and in Washington they replaced Blurton with Teddie Bunn, who has been making life dangerous for the Washboard Serenaders. The Spirits were ready to go.
In the early thirties the Spirits were on the air, in the Onyx Club, at Roseland, at Jack Dempsey’s, all over. They even made a record date, but it was with red McKenzie. When “At Home Abroad” opened out of town they opened with it, and moved with it into the Winter Garden for the winter, and later went on the road with it. And then as now, in those high days as well as in these days when the good jazz seems to be going back underground, they were just doing what they do. They were playing music, and together.
The Spirits’ high jinks are sure to mislead some, for it is true that while Doug and Wilbur are the essence of sobriety, the other two will happily wear any kind of funny hat, just so long as it doesn’t fit. Mr. Bunn (known to his friends as Horse) will antic because it pleases him and because people will see him and maybe set up a drink later. Leo Watson is a special lower case.
Leo is one of the few inspired crazy men alive. He works on some secret dynamo, which he lets carry him in everything, good or bad; and while at his bad he’s the worst and at his good he’s the best, there is a true spring of originality behind that furious ape approach, simple but everlasting. He sings scat, if you know what that is, plays the tipple, and generally menaces everything. But the main thing he is is spontaneous, because even under the terrific pressure of rhythm he keeps up, his mind is constantly scrambling its absurd but likely images. “Sly mongoose” they sing (“goosey-goosey gander”) and Leo makes half a chorus out of the words Bela Lugosi, Bela Lugosi. When henry Fonda came up to the bar during a number, he changed “I’m growing fonder of you” into a mounting gibberish of fonda and fonda and fonda and fonda. When he took the first chorus on Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread he took it: “Fools rush in. Turn around. Rush right out.”
And over across from him on the other winf, Teddy Bunn is collaborating in burlesquing all but the song out of music. They sing a few legitimate blues in a straight way (“She a big fat mama with the meat shaking on he rbones,” or “When you see me coming, heist your window high”); but most of the numbers they kid. My Wild Irish Rose (four roses, four roses, four roses). I’ll give you my love (love it?). I’ve got you under my skin (won’t you please let me in?).
There are the two wild men in the winds, Doug in the center picking his chords politely and as though dissociated from this (he is incidentally one of the truest singers in the business), and Wilbur standing over all at the back. You can see four very different men, but what comes from them is one thing. The Spirits live by the thing they started with, which was an American mode of playing and singing and lifting the whole place in defiance of all known laws of gravity. They can play anything they want to, and you may with a shallow enough eye see only the rep and jump that may be caught with the eye. They are now on their way to the Coast and maybe days will be fat for them again, but in general you will not be overimpressed by the surroundings they play in, for this is a white man’s world and Negro musicians are taught to know it by a process which is called kicking around. But if you will listen, if you will let the ear carry where the mind’s sense of the ludicrous cannot penetrate, you will find music as truly in the center as it was ever found, and the things music was made from, and the people through which and by which it lives.