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Liner Notes

From "Bubber Miley: Rare Recordings" (1924-1931)
Vintage Music Productions 0161 (CD)

Bubber didn't play the blues on his horn, he sang them. ~ Sonny Greer

When he put that horn in his mouth and played the blues, nobody,

I mean nobody could touch him. ~ Luis Russell

When Sonny Greer and Luis Russell spoke of Bubber Miley playing the blues, they did not mean the blues, as thought of, today. Rather, they were speaking of Bubber's peculiar manner of playing the trumpet, which combined the use of "blue notes" with the "jungle effect" of using a plunger mute, while growling into the horn. For many who first heard it, Bubber's sound was just "too weird." But for Duke Ellington and members of his band, Bubber's playing style was a revelation. In fact, without Bubber Miley's trumpet and the compositions he wrote*, it is arguable whether the jazz world would have ever regarded Duke Ellington's name with any significance, at all. As expressed by John Edward Hasse, "before Miley's arrival, the Washingtonians [Ellington's early band] had been something of a polite dance band. Miley took them irrevocably into the realm of jazz." [Hasse, Beyond Category] Even Ellington himself seemed to recognize his debt to Bubber, when he stated that, after hearing the trumpeter, "we decided to forget all about the sweet music." [Shapiro & Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya] And yet, despite his pivotal influence on perhaps the most important band in jazz history, Bubber Miley was one of the very few musicians that Ellington ever fired.

Bubber Miley was born James Wesley Miley, in Aiken, South Carolina, on April 3, 1903. In 1909, Bubber's family moved to New York City and settled on West 63rd Street, in the area once known as San Juan Hill. Sometime later, after being nabbed for truancy, Bubber was enrolled at P.S. 141, where he learned trombone, before switching to cornet. In 1918, at age 15, Bubber joined the Navy, where he served 18 months as a band boy. After his discharge, in 1919, he returned to New York and got his first professional job with a band called the Carolina Five, which played at local cabarets, including Purdy's and Dupre's. By early 1921, he was playing with Willie Gant's band. The band was probably playing at Lee's Cabaret, when he was heard by Mamie Smith. In the fall of 1921, she hired Bubber to replace Johnny Dunn. For the next year, Bubber toured and made recordings (Bubber's first) with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.

During the winter of 1922-23, Bubber played at O'Connor's Royal Café and made recordings with Thomas Morris and Bessie Smith (her first documented recordings). In 1923, Bubber also played with the house band at Reisenweber's, toured with the "Sunny South Revue," did another tour with Mamie Smith (probably June and July) and sat in with Willie "The Lion" Smith's band, at the Capitol Palace (NYC). This is where Bubber was first heard by members of the Washingtonians, including young Duke Ellington.

On September 1, 1923, Bubber Miley made his first appearance with the Washingtonians. At that time, the band was still under the leadership of Elmer Snowden and played at New York's Hollywood Club (soon to be known as the Kentucky Club). Bubber played regularly with the band, but he did not become a permanent member, until June 1926. During the interim, he made numerous recordings, especially in accompaniment to popular jazz vocalists, including Rosa Henderson, Sara Martin, Monette Moore, Julia Moody, Hazel Meyers and Alberta Hunter. In the same period, Bubber also recorded with Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford, the Six Black Diamonds, the Choo Choo Jazzers, the Kansas City Five, Charles Booker's Jazz Band and the Texas Blue Destroyers, a band comprised of Miley and Arthur Ray (reed organ). Of course, he also recorded with the Washingtonians, which made a couple of Victor tests, under the name of Snowden's Novelty Orchestra (Oct 1923), as well as the band's first recordings under Ellington's leadership (Nov 1924).

Because Bubber was in and out of the band, during this period, his presence on certain, specific dates, cannot be confirmed. It is known, however, that Bubber was with the Washingtonians, during the summer of 1924, when Sidney Bechet was with them. According to Ellington, Bechet and Miley had cutting contests, every night. And though they did not always get along, it was Bechet who put up bail, when Bubber was arrested and held at Toombs Prison (NYC), on paternity charges (May 1924).

During the summer of 1926, Bubber was present in Ellington's band, as they toured New England, and returned with them, in September, to complete their last eight months of residence, at the Kentucky Club. On December 4, 1927, Bubber, Ellington and the band made their landmark debut at the Cotton Club.

Except for two sessions on which he accompanied vocalist, Martha Copeland, all of Bubber's recordings, from June 1926 to January 1929, were with Ellington. However, during this period, Bubber was not present on all of Ellington's recordings. His drinking had become worse. As a result, he was becoming unreliable. More and more, Bubber missed performances or recording dates. Even when he did show up, he was frequently too drunk to play. The situation became increasingly frustrating to Ellington, who often had to scramble to find an adequate replacement. Finally, Ellington fired Bubber, soon after his last session with the band, on January 16, 1929.

After being fired, Irving Mills (Ellington's manager) promised to help Bubber form his own band. Mills was true to his promise, but it would take several months. Until then, Bubber found work with Noble Sissle's band, which traveled to Paris, for a brief engagement in February or March 1929. When he returned, Bubber was hired by bandleader, Leo Reisman, to perform in a Vitaphone short. Filmed in March 1929, the short was entitled 'Leo Reisman and His Hotel Brunswick Orchestra in "Rhythms"' (Vitaphone 770). The audio clearly features the trumpet of Bubber Miley. However, the picture seems to show a different, stouter trumpeter, performing in silhouette. According to earlier photos and descriptions, Bubber was thin. It is possible, however, that his chronic drinking had caused him to gain weight.

At about the same time that he did Reisman's Vitaphone short, Bubber joined the house band, at the Lafayette Theater, in New York. Later, in the same year, he joined a band led by Allie Ross, which played at Connie's Inn. He is also said to have performed, at about this time, with a band led by Zutty Singleton.

Beginning in January 1930, Bubber made several recordings with Leo Reisman's band. He also recorded with Carroll Dickerson (Jan 1930), Jelly Roll Morton (Mar 1930), Hoagy Carmichael (May 1930 -- a session which, also, included Bix Beiderbecke) and his own Mileage Makers, which did four sessions, from May to September 1930.

On November 6, 1930, Bubber debuted with Leo Reisman, at New York's Paramount Theater. To help circumvent objections to "race mixing," Reisman set up Bubber as an usher. In fact, Bubber did help seat the audience, prior to the show. Sometime during the performance, however, Bubber would begin playing his trumpet. Starting at the rear of the theater, apparently caught up in a moment of musical spontaneity, Bubber would work his way to the bandstand, while playing "St. Louis Blues." At other times, Bubber simply performed in silhouette, from behind a sheer curtain.

From January to May 1931, Bubber appeared at Chanin's Theater, accompanying Roger Pryor Dodge. In June 1931, Bubber made his final recordings with Leo Reisman. In fact, they were his final recordings, ever. Six months later, in January 1932, he and his band were in their opening week, as the feature of "Harlem Scandals," when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Bubber managed to complete the show's opening at the Lincoln Theater, in Philadelphia, but after one more week at the Harlem Opera House, he could no longer play. On April 18, Bubber checked into Metropolitan Hospital, on Welfare Island (NYC). Just over a month later, on May 20, 1932, Bubber Miley died. He was just 29 years old.

~ Jeff Hopkins
September 2005

* Bubber Miley's compositions included some of the earliest classics associated with Ellington's band. On some, he is credited as co-composer; on others, he is not credited, at all. By almost all scholarly accounts, however, Bubber Miley was the principal composer of such works as "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," "Creole Love Call" and "Black And Tan Fantasy."

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