Frank Newton: Eric Hobsbawm’s favourite jazz musician?

October 4, 2012 at 11:11 pm (black culture, Civil liberties, good people, history, intellectuals, jazz, Jim D, Marxism, music, politics, socialism, stalinism)

The late Eric Hobsbawm wrote about Jazz under the name ‘Francis Newton.’ The use of a pseudonym may have been because he wished to keep his academic work separate from his jazz criticism, and may also have been to do with the Communist Party’s hostility towards jazz in the 1940s and ’50s. But in any case, the choice of that particular name cannot have been a co-incidence: Frank (sometimes “Frankie”) Newton was a fine but neglected black US trumpet player of the 1930′s and 40′s, who was unusual amongst professional jazz musicians of that generation in being politically active. Newton was at the very least, a ‘fellow-traveller’ of the US Communist Party, and was probably a member. The occasion of Hobsbawm’s death seems an appropriate moment to remind (actually, to tell) the world about Frank Newton.

Frankie Newton, Sidney Bechet June8, 1939

Little has been written about Newton over the years (though Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives and Ben Greenberg at Hungry Blues have posted about him), so I’m re-publishing below, a slightly edited and amended version of the late Sally-Ann Worsfold‘s booklet-notes for the Jasmine double-CD set ‘Frank Newton – The Story Of A Forgotten Jazz Trumpeter’:

“Frank Newton had a special sound…he always believed in giving the people something different,” the trombonist Dicky Wells once observed. Jazz historian Al Rose described Newton as “… an exciting, inventive trumpet player.” Despite such acclaim, the career of  one of jazz trumpet’s most individualistic, dynamic stylists has been consigned largely to the footnotes and margins of the music’s history.

During his relatively short life (he died aged 48 in 1954) in a chequered career dogged by frequent bouts of ill health, Frank Newton still managed to record some 150 titles, fifty of which appear on the Jasmine double CD set. He often played in very disinguished company, something which makes his lack of proper recognition all the more puzzling. On various recordings he is to be heard performing alongside Sidney Bechet (see photo above), Pete Brown, Don Byas, Bud Freeman, J.C. Higginbotham, Dicky Wells, James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Teddy Wilson. He accompanied singers Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Maxine Sullivan.

The details of the trumpeter’s early life are very sparse, although it is known he was born in Emory, Virginia, in January 1906 and was christened William Frank Newton. Early professional musical experience included a spell with local band-leader Clarence Paige, then soon after leaving his home state, Newton joined an outfit lead by banjoist/guitarist Elmer Snowden. The trumpeter then joined the Cincinnati based Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys and, during the course of an engagement at New York’s presigious Savoy Ballroom in 1929, made his recording debut with them (‘Bright Boy Blues’).

Bill Coleman was the outfit’s principle trumpet soloist, but Newton held his own with what would become his trademarks: a burnished tone and an audacious bravado in the upper register, combined with a powerfully expressive, blues drenched approach. He could always create the maximum impact with just a few well chosen, judiciously placed notes.

The trombonist in the Scott band, Dicky Wells, another great jazz individualist who later came to prominence with the Count Basie Orchestra of the late 1930′s, remained a friend and occasional colleague of Newton’s over the years. After leaving Scott, they worked together in Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra at Small’s Paradise, a noted Harlem night-spot. From this point, the trumpeter’s career details are hazy, although it is known he had begun broadcasting regularly in in 1932 with the pianist Garland Wilson on the New York radio station WVED. He also participated on a Benny Carter recording session that year.

One year then elapsed before Newton returned to the recording studio in November 1933. The wealthy, influential jazz enterpreneur John Hammond, a great champion of the trumpeter’s work, selected him to play alongside the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, trombonist Jack Teagarden and clarinettist Benny Goodman, to accompany the great Bessie Smith on what proved to be her final recording session, producing ‘Gimme A Pigfoot’ and ‘Take Me For A Buggy Ride.’

Ill health put Newton’s career on hold for a couple of years at this point, but in March 1936 he returned to the studios as part of a fine band organized by clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow, recording material intended for the jukebox. Newton provides many of the high spots of the session, notably his contribution to ‘The Panic Is On’ where his playing is forward-looking and boppish.

The trumpeter was reunited with his old friend Dicky Wells when he joined the Teddy Hill Orchestra in the spring of 1936, playing some challenging charts with distinctly “modern” overtones. Newton’s work on the band’s records shows him to be a commanding big-band lead without sounding either superficial over over the top.

But fate, it seemed, had decreed Newton to be one of jazz’s ‘nearly’ men: once again incapacity stymied his career. On  leaving the Teddy Hill Orchestra, he was succeeded by Dizzy Gillespie for whom the Hill band was, of course, the springboard to fame and fortune. The band also toured Europe where many of its members made recordings (in Paris) that established them as household names amongst European fans: but that was after Newton had departed.

Newton also appeared with the Charlie Barnett Orchestra spasmodically between 1935 and 1937. His presence as an Afican-American in this otherwise white aggregation drew far less attention than Benny Goodman’s employment of pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and guitarist Charlie Christian in various permutations of his small groups. Nevertheless, A souvenir of the trumpeter’s tenure with Barnet is the dazzling record of ‘Emperor Jones.’

In 1937 Newton worked regularly with various small groups in Harlem, often recording with other advanced swing players like altoist Pete Brown, pianist Don Frye and clarinettist Edmond Hall. He also accompanied the vocalist Maxine Sullivan on her big hit ‘Loch Lamond.’ Maxine was married to bassist John Kirby and Newton was a founder member of his highly influential and increasingly popular sextet. But just as the John Kirby Sextet had begun to establish itself as a major 52nd Street attraction at the Onyx Club, a severe back injury forced Newton to quit. With its new trumpet player, Charlie Shavers, the Kirby outfit enjoyed widespread success. Newton’s bad luck had stuck again.

Newton was largely out of action for over a year, but he did manage to participate in a short-lived, racially integrated fifteen-piece band known as the Disciples of Swing, organised by Mezz Mezzrow. In addition to Newton, the brass section boasted fellow trumpeters Sidney de Paris and Max Kaminsky, and trombonists George Lugg and Vernon Brown. The new band was launched at the Harlem Uproar House, a prestigious 52nd Street venue but a racist attack on the premises (the joint was smashed up and daubed with swastikas), combined with bad management and legal wrangles, put paid to a promising and exciting band.

The French jazz writer Hughes Panassie arrived in New York in late 1938 to organise some recording sessions for Victor. For some reason he appointed the eccentric Mezz Mezzrow to round up the musicians. Having recorded some New Orleans-born musicians like Sidney Bechet and the trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, Panassie selected Newton to lead a pick-up group of swing style musicians. Apart from Mezzrow the others included Newton’s long-term associate, the altoist Pete Brown, pianist James P. Johnson and guitarist Al Casey.

The six titles, originally released on the Victor subsidiary Bluebird, combined jazz-friendly standards with originals. All the participants are captured on top form, most especially Newton. His performances on this session cover all facets of his style, from his fiery, trenchent open horn on the up-tempos to his sometimes almost introspective, always lyrical muted vein. Few have equalled his melodic eloquence and profoundly moving blues expression on ‘Blues My Baby Gave To Me’, with its brief nod to the ballad ‘Willow Weep For Me.‘ His exuberant, assertive presence on ‘Rompin’ inspires the others to even greater heights. Even Mezz, not always the sharpest jazz tool in the shed, picks up the momentum to produce one of his better solos.

Newton’s luck seemed to be changing when two exciting opportunities arose simultaneously in the spring of 1939, both of which promised to bring him the acclaim his talent deserved. In early April that year he first recorded for the fledgling Blue Note record company, newly established by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf as a ‘pure’ jazz operation and already showing every sign of becoming a highly prestigeous label . The other break was perhaps the most important of his career. A former show salesman, Barney Josephson, invited Newton to form a band to launch a new venue, Cafe Society. The club boasted a radical policy: it welcomed both white and African-American patrons. That the place was not tucked away in some obscure backwater but was out and proud in the heart of New York spoke volumes. The trumpeter readily agreed to come onboard and selected altoist Tab Smith, pianist Kenny Kersey and tenorist Kenneth Hollon for the band. Although officially called ‘Frank Newton and His Cafe Society Orchestra’, the club’s handbills described him as “Trumpet tootin’ Frankie Newton” and the name Frankie seemed to stick even though he always referred to himself as Frank. Again, the music (judging by the records) was hard-swinging and forward-looking, with Kenny Kersey using dissonant harmonies of the kind later to be associated with Thelonious Monk and Newton himself frequently using boppish phrasing.

Primarily devoted to presenting jazz artists, Cafe Society became a forum to promote left-wing ideals. The choice of Frank Newton to lead the house band was no accident: rare among jazz musicians of his generation, Newton took an active interest in politics and was a committed left winger and Civil Rights campaigner. An impassioned, eloquent spokesman for his beliefs, he loved to engage in debate. A philosopher with an interest in the arts generally, he was also, by all accounts, a talented painter. According to jazz historian Al Rose, Newton’s closest friends were the authors William Sarayon and Henry Miller, who were his near neighbours in Greenwich Village, New York’s ‘bohemian’ quarter.

The Newton band proved versatile in supporting various singers at Cafe Society. Billie Holiday was the first headline act, and contemporary recordings (principally for Milt Gabler’s Commodore label) illustrate how beautifully her voice was complemented by the Newton group. One of these sides, ‘Strange Fruit,’ proved to be a significant landmark in Lady Day’s career. Originally a poem written by Lewis Allen, then set to music, the song was brought to Billie’s attention at Cafe Society, conceivably by Frank Newton himself. An anti-lynching protest song, it was unlike anything Billie had recorded before. Initially wary of the contoversy it might cause, Billie then realised its sentiments should be widely heard.

On a darkened stage, with just her face bathed in a potlight, Billie began to perform ‘Strange Fruit’ as her closing number each night at Cafe Society – to have followed it up with a ballad or lightweight love song would have been incongruous. Billie wanted to record it but her label, American Columbia, refused. Columbia did, however, permit her to record it for the small Commodore label. The recording adheres to her stage presentation: Newton’s sombre, stark introduction gives way to the plaintively sparse piano chords from Sonny White, the singer’s regular accompanist. Billie then occupies centre stage to deliver her message without any further instrumental breaks or vocal reprise. The number remained in her repertoire for the rest of her life.

Newton’s associations with both Blue Note and Cafe Society were abruptly ended after just four months, probably because of his recurring health problems. By 1940, sufficiently recuperated, he formed a band with old friend Pete Brown at the New York club Kelly’s Stables. He also worked briefly with Sidney Bechet at Camp Unity in New York State, a holiday resort devoted to promoting racial harmony. Later, Newton moved to Boston where he worked in a band with another old sidekick, Ed Hall.

Five years after his last Blue Note recording, Newton returned to the studios – Savoy, this time – with an all-star band including Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo and Don Byas in 1944. Newton was, as usual on recordings, in excellent form, but the records did little to rescue him from obscurity.

There were to be just a handful more recordings added to Newton’s discography, including some with pianist Mary Lou Williams and a date featuring singer Albinia Jones on which he was teamed with Dizzy Gillespie. In addition to failing health, a fire at Newton’s home in 1948 claimed all his possessions, including his trumpet. Sick, disenchanted and dispirited, he made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950′s.

Frank Newton died aged 48 in November 1954. Despite prolonged ill health and many bad breaks, Frank Newton firmly secured his place in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters.

Sally-Ann Worsfold, August 2002 (adapted/edited by Jim Denham).

See also:

‘The Elusive Frank Newton’ – Jazz Lives: http://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/the-elusive-frank-newton/

‘Frankie Newton’ – Hungry Blues: http://minorjive.typepad.com/hungryblues/frankie_newton/

Jasmine Records double CD, ‘Frank Newton – The Story of A Forgotten Jazz Trumpeter’: http://www.jasmine-records.co.uk/acatalog/jascd-633.html

3 Comments

  1. Jim Denham said,

    Hobsbawm on his career as a jazz critic. Note the comments about how his jazz writing gave him “respite” from the “personal and political convulsions of 1956″:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n10/eric-hobsbawm/diary

  2. Burghardt said,

    Camp Unity was an upstate New York resort that did, in fact, cater to interracial sensibilities, making it one of the few resorts where African Americans from the area could experience relatively little racial discrimination. Some say it was actually the first interracial camp for adults in the history of the United States. It was also largely run and staffed by people in or close to the Communist Party. The camp was founded in 1927, billing itself as “the first proletarian summer colony.” In the late 30′s and early 40′ not a few camp workers were veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

    I’m not sure how brief Frankie Newton’s stint there was. My father and uncles were radical activists and semi-amateur musicians before they entered the postwar middle class. They also spent time at Unity and every so often recalled Newton as a guiding musical and political camp influence.
    During my early twenties I went with my parents to hear the band Sy Oliver put together in the 1970′s. When Oliver finished his set, my dad approached him and they had a twenty minute conversation that revolved mostly around Frankie Newton. Oliver, who as you may know was Jimmie Lunceford’s main arranger, praised Newton’s musicianship and implied that McCarthyism had helped to kill him. Perhaps some ambitious young historian who, like Hobsbawm, knows and loves the music will write a biography of this apparently wonderful and clearly talented man.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks for that, Burghardt. I may well be in touch for further information as I’m considering writing a piece about Newton for a British jazz magazine, though a biography is probably beyond me at the moment…

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