Graded on a Curve:
Greg Ruby & the
Rhythm Runners,
Syncopated Classic

On Syncopated Classic, Seattle-based guitarist-composer Greg Ruby and his collaborators the Rhythm Runners uncover a fascinating, nearly forgotten chapter in early jazz history. Specifically, they play the lost work of 1920’s Seattle jazz musician Frank D. Waldron. But Ruby’s also coordinated a complete reprint of Waldron’s self-published music book of 1924; it includes lead sheets to the jazz pioneer’s original compositions, an enlightening biographical essay by Ruby and Paul de Barros, relevant photos, and even an additional download of the music in its original instrumentation. Both the book and the Rhythm Runners vinyl/CD is available now through gregrubymusic.com.

The scholarly approach: regularly wielded as a putdown or to deliver measured praise (I stand guilty as charged), the term also comes with its own anti-intellectual baggage, and is frequently employed by those who strive to blissfully absorb art while knowing next to nothing about it. Sure, the scholarly approach can sometimes be dry or weighed-down with interpretation (thanks, Susan), but it’s often the most effective way to delve into a subject; in the case of Frank D. Waldron, it’s the only way. As said, Waldron was a near forgotten figure in jazz’s development, a circumstance certainly exacerbated by the fact that he never recorded, and furthermore, Syncopated Classic, his instructional book of nine songs for saxophone and piano, can be assessed as essentially lost; Greg Ruby’s introduction to it came through a tattered photocopy.

He didn’t stumble upon it by accident. Ruby (who in the interest of full disclosure is married to an old friend of mine, though we’ve only met once) is a specialist in hot jazz and related styles, leading his own Quartet alongside playing with the Rhythm Runners and the Bric-a-brac Trio, as well as working as a music instructor. In addition to this expanded reprint of Syncopated Classic, he’s also published the Pearl Django Play-Along Book Vol. 1, which focuses on gypsy jazz; the release of a play-along CD/book devoted to the music of the Argentine swing-era guitarist Oscar Alemán is imminent.

This background makes clear that when it comes to hot jazz, Ruby is passionate. Occasionally, those with a deep love for a style strive to rescue from obscurity musicians whose charms are best suited for the ardent, but this is emphatically not the case with Waldron. Both Syncopated Classic’s reprint and Ruby & the Rhythm Runners’ recording of its contents make clear that had the situation been different, foremost if Waldron hadn’t been geographically distanced from the budding recording industry and the larger mainstream press centers, he could’ve easily had a higher profile in the music’s growth.

Born in San Francisco in 1890, shortly after that city’s earthquake of 1906, Frank Dordon Waldron moved up to Seattle where he flourished as a performer on sax and trumpet; from under the scourge of segregation, he was part of Seattle’s “talented tenth.” Savvy as well as ambitious, he not only self-published but copyrighted all of his tunes, and after the stock market crash of ’29 he was still able to buy a house with the money he’d saved. From his home, he instructed three generations of Seattle musicians, including Buddy Catlett and Quincy Jones.

This is just a taste of the info presented in Ruby and de Barros’ biographical essay, which is diligently researched yet approachable, even to early jazz novices. Along with Syncopated Classic, the reprint also includes the music and background regarding Waldron’s patriotic song of WWI “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues (Since Uncle Sam Stepped In),” which was copyrighted in 1918, and “Valse Queen Ann,” a waltz (discovered by Ruby while researching “Kaiser” at the Library of Congress) copyrighted in 1934.

Although we’ll never get to soak up the sound of Waldron’s playing, the download that accompanies the book, featuring saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman and pianist Dalton Ridenhour, drives home his skill as a composer. Keeping in mind that the nine pieces were written as exercises, with emphasis on special techniques such as slap-tonguing and flutter-tonguing, when handled by expert instrumentalists they still cohere into vibrant listening experience which swings a doorway wide open on the sound of an era long past.

The ambience is rich, jazzy with the tangible impact of ragtime palpable and heightened by Ridenhour’s piano, with the period flavor further deepened by Zimmerman’s command of those special techniques in “Climb Them Walls,” in the jaunty “Low Down,” and later in “It’s Easy,” which stands as perhaps Waldron’s strongest composition. It seems no accident that he placed it last in Syncopated Classic; the idea would be to play the tunes in succession and end on a high note. Zimmerman and Ridenhour do just that, and then dive into “Kaiser” and “Valse Queen Ann” as a chaser.

It’s a sweet listen on its own, but its value blooms as it contrasts with the Rhythm Runners’ interpretation for six-piece band, which along with Ruby on guitar and six-string banjo, includes Dennis Lightman on clarinet and mandolin, Charlie Halloran on trombone, Gordon Au on trumpet, Cassidy Holden on bass, and Julian McDonough on drums, with special guest Mike Marshall on mandolin making for an occasional seven.

Make no mistake, what they collectively achieve is interpretive, expanding the compositions while inhabiting the zone of a Prohibition-era dance band; that’s very much the specialty of the Rhythm Runners, and as the book’s bio essay relates, was also Waldron’s. If the Zimmerman/ Ridenhour duo emphasized connections to ragtime, the Rhythm Runners are a much firmer Hot Jazz experience, with de Barros drawing a connection between Ruby’s arrangements and the New Orleans bands of Jelly Roll Morton.

The influence of the Crescent City is tangible throughout, but especially in the latter portion of “It’s Easy,” which opens side two of the LP (fitting for pros, the compositions are shuffled up to the band’s suiting). There are other differences, such as the lack of special techniques for sax, though they are in a sense replaced by the smeary, growly tone of Halloran’s instrument, the ‘bone combining well with the clarinet and trumpet as they reinforce the early jazz feel.

Happily, Ruby’s use of banjo doesn’t embody any of the novelty-esque effects I’ve sometime heard from neo-Hot Jazz combos. The music here is fun, but never silly. The use of mandolins might strike some as unusual, but the bio essay clarifies that there was a fad for the instrument during the era; in fact, in the early ’20s, Waldron played on a cruise ship with the mandolin-augmented Wang Doodle Orchestra (actually a quintet). While interpreting, Ruby and band create music one can imagine being made with Waldron’s involvement, but with a spark that makes it something other than a museum piece.

Wisely, Syncopated Classic offers levels of engagement for more casual listeners, and for many the LP/CD, with the cover notes by de Barros providing succinct context, will suffice. Obviously, the book will be of interest to readers of music who want to play these tunes, but the info, photos and download are the icing on this unexpected and delightful cake, illuminating the life of Waldron, the growth of Seattle jazz, and the African-American experience roughly a century ago.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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