Turk & Lu Sound
Arranging for Big Band
Lu Watters and Turk Murphy were both accomplished, trained musicians who composed and arranged not only for their own ensembles, but also for name bands of the 1930s, such as Bing Crosby, Merle Howard, and Paul Lingle. Arranging and composing not only provided a creative outlet for Lu and Turk, it also made them more desirable as players, generated additional income, and helped them communicate their musical vision to others.
Lu had arranged for Bing Crosby when he was a young man, and for his first records; he was very much under the influence of Red Nichols, who was an ace cornetist of the '20s and could play anything.
Turk was quite a highly regarded arranger in his day. He wrote arrangements for a lot of the big bands he played with in the 1930s before he became interested in traditional jazz.
Lu and Turk composed wherever they found themselves: on boats and buses, in hotel rooms, and in clubs between sets.
Lu was one of these guys who could, without piano or anything, just write the parts. Didn't write a score, just would write the parts out. Out of his head. I mean, it is a special talent. His original parts, in his hand, were all written in ink. Not written in pencil. This means you don't make a mistake or anything, you know?
Despite their success as valued members of hotel and dance bands, Turk and Lu wanted something more than playing the same songs, the same way, night after night. Avid record collectors, they were inspired by the freedom of ‘hot jazz’ from the 1920s.
Turk had played with big bands. Bob Helm had played with big bands, Bob Scobey, all of them were veterans, but they were also record collectors, and interested in the earlier music. They just got tired of the swing era, the sameness of it. I think at some point Lu said, "Let's just do this the right way. We either play the old repertoire or don't bother."
The thing that distinguished Lu Watters and Turk Murphy and Bob Helm, three of the guys who really founded the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was their interest in African-American jazz, particularly of the 1920s.
At a time when the Musicians’ Union was still very much segregated and African-American cultural history was a very new idea, it was unexpected for Turk and Lu to be so passionate about the older style. Fearlessly, the young musicians embraced San Francisco’s long tradition of African-American jazz. They sought out legends of the Barbary Coast, like Jelly Roll Morton and Sid LeProtti, and Turk corresponded with emerging jazz historians, including Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress.
Watch the Barbary Coast Video
Record collectors in the 1930s and 1940s had their own magazines, newsletters and clubs. Music of the 1920s was no longer played on the radio and it was not published as sheet music, so records were the only way to learn the style.
If you're going to play this music, you listen to it a lot, and you're inspired by people who have gone before, and you're inspired by their recordings.
They would go to the African-American part of Oakland, and they would knock on old ladies' doors and see if they'd any old records they wanted to sell. That's how they built their collections. There was no notion of jazz history in the 1930s. Jazz music of the '20s had been the pop the music of the day. There wasn't an idea that anybody would ever want to play it again.
They'd get together and have record playing sessions, not play instruments, just play records, and that grew into, "Well, let's try playing together."
The Great Revival (Watch Video)
While Turk and Lu were developing their style and repertoire on the west coast, jazz historians were re-discovering and recording forgotten jazz players in New Orleans.
The first serious jazz history book, Jazzmen, was published in 1939, bringing these older musicians to national attention and setting the stage for The Great Revival.
The Great Revival was two branches of music, one based in New Orleans, and one based in San Francisco, two movements that happened just about the same time and overlapped, and the careers of older New Orleans musicians were resuscitated. The new music was being invented in San Francisco, and together, they got the older music and the newer music out to a wider public all around the world.
Before the Great Revival, audiences had limited choices when they listened to the radio, went out to dance, or purchased sheet music for popular songs of the day. Swing was king.
All the bands sort of sounded the same: they all had saxophone sections, they all had a brass section, they all played riffs. Each band had their own, distinct thing, but they basically were all playing the same swing music. When Lu came on, his band had this big brassy sound that was from an older era.
Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Helm and their co-conspirators went completely against the grain and provided a radically different experience for their listeners.
There's always a notion of keeping up-to-date in jazz music, and what they were doing was decidedly not keeping up-to-date, they were digging back into the past, and they were into this music that was considered to be kind of rough. So their attitudes were somewhat avant-garde. It was a very loud band. It was like rock 'n' roll; it was very striking in its presentation. Music for people to party to and dance to.
Drawing on their skills as composers and arrangers, Lu and Turk went beyond re-creating the repertoire of 1920s jazz and began expanding the genre.
These young musicians in San Francisco were researching the older music, listening to the records and playing it, but coming up with a totally different style than what was on the records.
Lu initially assembled a fairly conventional big band to play at venues like Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, California, but his next ensemble, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was pivotal in the history of San Francisco jazz. Turk Murphy played a key role in the YBJB, and by the 1940s Turk was receiving recognition in national jazz polls, like DownBeat.
Lu and Turk certainly worked well together in a band. They were very well matched because they were both very forceful and almost on the edge of loud players. And Lu played so simply that it gave Turk a platform to play against.
The Yerba Buena Jazz Band typically performed without sheet music, but Lu’s written arrangements were essential for players new to the band and the style, and Lu used sheet music in rehearsals when needed.
They would not always be able to get the A-team people. Players might have other jobs and they needed a basic starting point because of lot these tunes were not part of a musician's basic repertoire. In fact, they were quite decidedly not part of the regular musical repertoire.
Murphy and Helm also contributed compositions and arrangements, and the YBJB made many popular recordings of both new and old repertoire for Jazz Man and other record labels.
The Yerba Buena Jazz Band performed regularly between 1938 and 1947 at the Dawn Club, a downtown San Francisco nightclub. Substitute players kept the band alive during WWII while Lu, Turk, Bob Helm, and other regular players went to war. From 1947 until it closed and Lu retired from playing 1951, the YBJB performed at Hambone Kelly’s outside El Cerrito, California. Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey left the group in 1948-49.
The Lu Watters Sound
Like the Yerba Buena Jazz Band itself, Lu’s arrangements and compositions were loose and bold.
The Lu Watters arrangements are skeletal. They're basically roadmaps. There are things missing that a classically trained musician might expect in a part. They were designed to be memorized more or less, and followed as a roadmap, but the parts were merely suggestions. Lu wanted to deconstruct music to a certain degree because he wanted his band to be a freewheeling band, and that's why the arrangements are skeletal.
Wayne Jones, who is a great drummer with the Original Salty Dogs, described the sound of the Watters band. He said, "It sounds like one big man playing." That's what it sounds like. It's Lu's vision of the music. Everybody's able to have their individual voice, but he pointed the direction, and they all went the same direction.
Lu followed the tradition of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and used two trumpets in his instrumentation. Lu’s music and style required tremendous stamina in the lead trumpet player, and having two trumpets allowed players to trade off the lead part during the course of a set.
Lu took the basic idea of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and made it the basis of his style. The band pretty much played full bore all the time, and it's very taxing on the trumpet player, so they worked out ways to divide the labor. The second [trumpet] parts are often much easier to play than the lead parts. The trumpet parts are the most intricate in the Lu Watters' arrangements because they're closely orchestrated.
Lu was insistent on a driving, complex rhythm that set his band apart and helped make his sound recognizable on both radio and recordings.
There was a thing about the Lu Watters band that came across on their records. The rhythm section sound was a unique, special sound that you hadn't heard much at that time. I can remember the guys commenting on it — that it was so solid and so steady.
There is a heavy emphasis on two-four with the bass drum and the tuba. But on the top, the drums and banjo are playing four-four. And that's a very unique sound that you don't hear in very many of the classic recordings of the '20s, and that's something missing from a lot of the revival bands, that forceful rhythmic sound.
Lu led by example and literally dominated the sonic space. Unassuming as an emcee or promoter, he was completely in charge musically.
No other musician I'd ever seen dominated every aspect of a band the way Lu did. That band was really Lu's band. For example, he stood at the back. Normally the leader would be out in front of the band, but Lu stood in the back of the band, on a riser, with all the horns back there, and played over the heads of the rhythm section.
The Turk Murphy Sound
Turk also had strong ideas about how he wanted a band to sound, and although he did not enter into musical disagreement with Lu, after he left the YBJB, he created ensembles with different musical priorities and more control.
Turk appreciated what Lu did for the music, but he had a different idea. He wanted a smaller band, less heavy rhythm section, and a different repertoire, different selection of tunes, and more tightly arranged than what he was getting with Watters.
Lu hired the musicians to make the sound. Turk had a sound that he had the musicians fit.
Turk’s bands often omitted a drummer and used a single trumpet. Turk’s band played with a greater range of dynamics and a different rhythm sound.
Turk sorted out over the years that the best version of his band was a six piece band, and usually did not include drums. There were a few drummers who worked with the band, namely Wayne Jones, his favorite, but generally speaking, the band operated in a six piece formation.
There's a lot of two in the left hand of the piano. The tuba emphasizes the first and third beat, but generally Turk had the banjo players not play four-four. So they'd accent the second and fourth beat, because there are no drums. That was like a cymbal beat, and it's a totally different rhythm sound than Lu.
Turk Murphy’s arrangements are less skeletal than Lu’s, and compositions include detailed notation for the players. Although Turk’s musicians always improvised, ensemble playing was prioritized over long solos.
Lu's sound is a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes performance, and Turk was very highly structured in comparison. You can hear a tightly controlled sound with Turk's band, and less improvisation, mainly in the trumpet. When I've played with Turk, I only remember a couple of occasions where he loosened up one of his arrangements to allow extra solos, or solos by someone who might not have soloed otherwise.
Turk took great care writing out the sheet music used in his bands. He developed a system of notation using color to draw attention to key passages.
Turk’s manuscripts enabled substitutes or less experienced players to learn and perform his complex arrangements efficiently. In addition, Turk’s arrangements sometimes departed from standard practice.
Turk would often highlight things in red ink to make sure the visibility of the arrangements was as clear as possible. Whole sections would be highlighted, so musicians didn’t mess up or get lost. He also wrote in phrase marks, which you never see in Lu Watters' charts. The phrasing is a very important part of the Turk Murphy arranging style.
Turk was also very particular about the chord progressions and would alter or change the chord progressions from usual practice, sometimes to fit his orchestration ideas, and sometimes just to be weird. Turk’s songs are almost through-composed as he got older, particularly when he started writing stage shows.
Manuscripts in the Collection
Lu Watters shared his library of arrangements for the Yerba Buena Jazz Band somewhat freely after his retirement from music. The Turk Murphy library, by contrast, was rarely seen off the bandstand. For the first time, Turk’s manuscripts are available for research and study.
Researchers will care about the Watters manuscripts and the Murphy manuscripts. It's interesting to compare their differences in their writing styles, and to see how they envisioned a song being presented. You have the recordings, but there are some things they didn't record. But you can get an idea of how they intended it to sound just by looking at the music.
I felt from the beginning of my association with the foundation how important it was that we had a Turk Murphy's library of arrangements. I have always felt that is the most important item we have in the collection because it's the work that Turk enjoyed the most. The Murphy arrangements have never really been seen by the public. There was nothing like the Turk Murphy Jazz Band, and there is nothing like it now. It's a unique point.
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