Jazz Professional               

John Altman remembers

Adrian Rollini

John Altman remembers Adrian Rollini
Harry Francis on Rollini
John Altman Big Band at the Jazz Bakery
Photo by Peter Erskine

A well–known jazz critic once wrote: “The tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins possessed great powers of improvisation which, had they been canalised into a different medium of expression, e.g. the clarinet, might well have secured him a permanent place in jazz.” The critic in question has, I know, long since repented that remark, and I only quote it because it serves not one but two useful purposes in the writing of this article.

Firstly, it’s very easy to turn that quote into a valid statement by altering certain key words. Substitute bass for tenor, remove the clarinet reference, and change the name from Coleman Hawkins to Adrian Rollini. Now we’re beginning to make sense. For Rollini, tragically killed in a car accident twenty years ago, is the great unsung jazz hero, both as a player and as a major stylistic influence. The irony of the neglect of his true greatness stems from the Record coveraccolades he won as a multi–instrumentalist and inventor of musical instruments. The records he made on vibes, piano, drums (and on hot fountain pen and goofus) have in some way tended to diminish his stature as a master saxophonist, while the choice (not initially his) of the rarely–heard bass sax seems to have confined his reputation to the novelty department of jazz history.

Perhaps it is the very unwieldiness of the bass sax that caused Rollini to evolve his unique approach to the instrument and to improvisation. At a time when most tenor and alto saxophonists were utilising tricky effects as their stock–in–trade (slap tonguing and triple tonguing, gimmicky, and ultimately empty, frilly runs) Rollini’s impeccable legato style, filled with emotion, cuts through the period corn in a way reminiscent of Armstrong on the early Fletcher Henderson sides.

Listen to any of the California Ramblers sides that feature Rollini—“Charleston”; “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune”, and especially ‘Stockholm Stomp”. In addition to his fluid, graceful Adrian Rollini
solos, one can’t help noticing the way he also functions as the bass voice in the ensemble and behind other soloists. The sensitivity of his accompaniments and total integration into the front–line makes me wonder why it took string bass players so many years to achieve this fluid interdependence between solo and ensemble playing.

Adrian Rollini was born in New York City on June 28, 1904, and by the time he joined the California Ramblers in 1922, at the age of eighteen, had achieved an impressive reputation as a pianist, in demand for recordings and accompaniments. ‘He was also a prolific maker of piano rolls. According to Ed Kirkeby, the Ramblers’ manager, it was he who spotted a bass sax in a music store, and suggested to Rollini that it might be a good gimmick for the band. Rollini agreed, Kirkeby bought the sax, and within a week Rollini was featuring it in the act.

Whether or not it seemed a novel gimmick at the time, Rollini’s five–year stay with the Ramblers, and recording career with Bix Beiderbecke and the various Joe Venuti groups in the year before he sailed for England to join Fred Elizalde amply demonstrates that he was, in fact, the least gimmick–conscious saxophonist of his time. If just one example of his moving, loquacious playing is required, I’d cite his work on Bix and Tram’s recording of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. If you want to hear him really cut loose, try Venuti’s version of the late Rube Bloom’s “Man From The South” where, after the composer’s vocal chorus, Rollini charges in with what must be one of the most fiery solos on wax. As a group accompanist, you could listen to any Annette Hanshaw track with the Venuti Blue Four, or Lee Morse singing “It Ain’t No Sin To Take Off Your Skin And Dance Around In Your Bones”.

Rollini’s influence on English jazz has always been acknowledged. I remember my uncle, Sid Phillips, telling me how impressed he was with both Rollinis, since Adrian brought younger brother Arthur (of Benny Goodman fame) along on tenor when he came to London to join Fred Elizalde’s band in 1928. The recording of “Nobody’s Sweetheart” that Rollini cut with Elizalde during his stay in London is a classic example of early British jazz—Rollini virtually erupts into a stunning bass sax chorus that overshadows all that has come before. However, his influence on the mainstream of American jazz has been underestimated.

Although there were never many bass saxists in jazz (the great Spencer Clark and Joe Rushton spring immediately to mind, then perhaps Boyd Raeburn, and that’s about it), the baritone sax was to become, through the medium of Harry Carney, the cornerstone of the large jazz band. And this is the great Harry Carney, talking about his magnificent baritone sound, “I actually tried to get a sound as big as Adrian Rollini, who was playing bass sax at that time . . . so I suppose whatever sound I get goes back to that.”

It’s fascinating, after that revelation, to sit down and listen to the early Ellington sides that feature the Carney baritone. There is an unmistakeable Rollini influence in the conception of the solos and in the timing, as well as the sound similarity. Would this have ever been noticed by anyone if Carney had not pointed the way himself? Rex Stewart tells a fascinating anecdote about Coleman Hawkins (we’re back with him and hit on the sound use for the opening quote). It seems that the great Hawk idolised Rollini’s playing (they can be heard together on some Jack Purvis sides) and at one point actually went out and bought a bass sax.

Flushed with pride he brought it to a Fletcher Henderson session, but only succeeded in producing some curious honks and squeaks and, to the accompaniment of hysterical laughter from his Henderson colleagues, Hawkins sadly consigned his career as a bass saxist to dreamland. Now, apart from showing how difficult an instrument the bass sax really is, this story throws an interesting light on Hawkins’ own tenor playing.

Listening to tracks like “Hello Lola”, with the Mound City Blue Blowers, or to any of his up–tempo excursions of the late ‘twenties and early ‘thirties, one can sense that he is, in effect, doing what Carney did—applying Rollini’s bass sax conceptions to the tenor. “Lola” in particular, if played on a lower sax would sound exactly like a Rollini solo of perhaps three years earlier. Conversely, even the earliest Rollini solos transposed to the tenor sax sound effortlessly modern.

When then did Rollini give up the bass sax in the mid–‘thirties to concentrate on vibes and piano, and on running his own club, Adrian’s Tap Room? Some have suggested that the new swing style was alien to the possibilities of the bass sax—that it had no place in the riffing, closely arranged jazz that had superceded the Dixieland style. However, a quick listen to some of the marvellous sides he made after his return from England is enough to disprove this argument. On the splendid recordings done under his own name with such luminaries as Benny Goodman, the Teagarden brothers, and Dick McDonough “Sugar”, “Davenport Blues”, “Somebody Loves Me”—Rollini easily settles in to the idea of a reed section, playing a baritone sax role, as well as soloing with his customary poise and assurance. And on sides like McDonough’s “Devil And The Deep Blue Sea”, with Bunny Berigan, his style has changed, mirroring the rhythmic innovations of Swing.

Anyway, whatever the reason, in 1935 Rollini gave up the bass sax, and with it his role in jazz. He still functioned as an admirable vibes player in the pop field (his widow Dixie still makes Red Norvo’s vibes mallets), and was later to start a new career in Florida as a hotel manager, but his massive (in all senses) contribution to the development of the saxophone in jazz remains on innumerable recordings of the ‘twenties for all to hear and appreciate. So hunt out all those Venuti–Lang, Frankie Trumbauer and California Ramblers records—you’re in for a refreshing surprise.

Copyright © 1976, John Altman. All Rights Reserved