By MARK BERRESFORD
The path of Jazz history is littered with glistening talents cut short in their youth - "You should have heard so-and-so, he was truly the greatest but he died so young" is a common element of all periods of jazz history. Anecdotes and memories abound of 'the greatest' musicians - from Buddy Bolden, mad and institutionalised at 39, to Emmett Hardy, unrecorded and dead from TB at 22. A common thread about these and many other 'greats' is that there is usually no tangible evidence in the form of recordings to support the stories of their musical prowess - or otherwise. However, there is one character from the early days of jazz history who was cut down in the flower of his youth and who, on the evidence of the recorded legacy he did leave, deserves greater credit than that heretofore afforded him - saxophonist Loren McMurray.
Little has been written about McMurray - in fact so little was known about him that all the jazz discographies that mention him show his forename as Loring. In these same discographies he also manages to appear on records for upto a year after his death! However, recent research has shown that he played an important and previously unacknowledged pioneering role in the development and popularisation of the saxophone in jazz and that, even at that early stage in jazz history, he was working out ideas for the future role of the instrument in jazz and playing creative and often quite advanced music. One of the first to realise McMurray's importance was writer and musician Richard Sudhalter. In his groundbreaking (but mercilessly savaged by the 'politically correct' brigade) book 'Lost Chords; White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945' (Oxford University Press, 1999), Sudhalter writes:-
"His (McMurray's) alto on 'Haunting Blues,' made for Gennett in 1922 and issued under the name of "McMurray's California Thumpers," displays a full, controlled tone and fluidity of execution. His conception seems far more developed than that of any other "hot" alto saxophonist, white or black, in 1922 and to an extent foreshadows the solo work of Frank Trumbauer during his late-'20s association with Bix Beiderbecke."
He goes on:-
"Even at this stage, McMurray seems to have achieved a coherent sense of line which, coupled with rhythmic smoothness and singing tone, makes him a singular figure."
Sudhalter also makes the suggestion that whilst there is no concrete evidence of Trumbauer being influenced by McMurray, musical contemporaries such as clarinettist and writer Jim Moynahan noted that McMurray was more widely known and highly regarded than subsequent jazz historians have hitherto given him credit for.
Veteran jazz writer Frank Driggs and University of Missouri sound archive director Chuck Haddix in their book 'Kansas City Jazz, From Ragtime to Bebop - A History' (Oxford University Press, 2005) shed some overdue light on McMurray's short life and career and also make comment on the creativity of his playing:-
"McMurray's elegant solo on "Haunting Blues," spiced with flatted thirds and bent notes, illustrates his advanced technique and ideas."
McMurray's recording career was all too brief - from the summer of 1920 to the late autumn of 1922 and with a considerable gap between September 1920 and the summer of 1921 - but on the evidence of the records he is known to be on, and the potential hundreds which we do not yet know about, he is deserving of greater recognition for his pioneering role in the development of the saxophone in jazz.
Loren Dallas McMurray was born in McPherson, Kansas, some 200 miles southwest of Kansas City, on September 19, 1897 to Leon Dallas McMurray (1873-1915) and his wife Mary, nee DeGroot (1875-1968). Their one other child was a girl, Bonnie Dee McMurray. Leon McMurray was not only McPherson's Postmaster but also led his own saxophone band, and it was with his father's band that Loren cut his musical teeth on a wide repertoire of musical styles. According to Loren’s cousin, Dr. Edward Funk, he was initially a reluctant pupil:-
"Uncle Dallas who had a saxophone band which of course was The Band of McPherson. There were many members of this band. I recall 8 or 10 all played saxophones E-flat, C-melody, baritone & bass - etc. I would often listen to this band rehearse in uncle Dallas’ home. Loren hated to take his lessons under his father - he wanted to stay outdoors and play. I of course would tag along as the younger cousin. Uncle Dallas was quite adamant about Loren being there in the home to take his saxophone lessons."
McMurray Saxophone Band, McPherson, Kansas, c. 1912. 2nd from left, Mary G. McMurray (Loren’s mother); 3rd from left, Leon Dallas McMurray (Loren’s father); 3rd from right, Loren Dallas McMurray; 2nd from right, Clarence Hapgood. Hapgood’s father, George, also led a band in McPherson and was at one time with Sousa’s Band. Clarence was a boyhood friend of Loren and a pallbearer at his funeral.
As early as 1914 young Loren was attracting favourable comments about his musical abilities and in 1917 he left McPherson and moved to Kansas City, spending a season with a concert band on the Redpath-Horner Chautauqua circuit. Founded in 1874 by businessman Lewis Miller and Methodist minister, later Bishop, John Heyl Vincent, Chautauqua's initial incarnation was in western New York state on Lake Chautauqua. The organisation first focused on training Sunday school teachers but quickly expanded its range and was the first to offer correspondence degrees in the United States. This summer camp for families that promised "education and uplift" was too popular not to be copied and in less than a decade independent Chautauquas, often called assemblies, sprang up across the country. The goal of the circuit Chautauquas was to offer challenging, informational, and inspirational stimulation to rural and small-town America. This included lectures from eminent speakers, such as former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and uplifting musical presentations. These often included concerts by African American Jubilee and Glee singers such as the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet and they often provided the only glimpse of black culture to small-town midwestern white audiences other than the racially stereotypical and demeaning minstrel show. Such was the Chautauqua’s universal popularity and appeal that Theodore Roosevelt, called them 'The most American thing in America.'
Following his Chautauqua season McMurray, now a hunky, square-jawed twenty year old - looking more like a footballer than a musician - found work in Kansas City with Emil Chaquette, a violinist and leader of a 'society orchestra.' Shortly after, Chaquette teamed up with pianist and fellow bandleader Eddie Kuhn to form the seven-piece Kuhn-Chaquette Orchestra, with McMurray as their star soloist. Dapper, good-looking and musically sophisticated, Kuhn had earlier written several rags including Cornshucks Rag (1908) and Pickled Beets Rag (1909) and had run a very successful music shop at 12th and Main Streets in Kansas City. The Kuhn-Chaquette Orchestra was an enormously popular band with mid-western dancers and managers alike and their fame spread to the capital of the American entertainment industry, New York. The spring and summer of 1920 were a busy time for Loren - in April he married Mary Opal Bayly, who worked in the record department of the famous J.W. Jenkins & Sons music store in Kansas City, and in the summer he and the Kuhn-Chaquette band left Kansas City on a whistle stop tour of ballrooms and dance halls, conventions and - a new fangled invention - motor shows. From contemporary press accounts it is obvious who the star of the band was:-
"In these days of jazz music no orchestra is complete without the ‘moan of the saxophone’ and when one has heard Loren McMurray, the general consensus of opinion is that his saxophone has the ‘moanin’est moan of them all. He discloses in his performance individual ideas which enables him to interpret all phases and styles of music. He has a wonderful personality, snap and dash, and brilliancy characterize Mr. McMurray’s playing among all lovers of music."
Is this an early attempt by a journalist to describe in words the art of improvisation?
The band’s tour ultimately landed them in New York where, as 'Eddie Kuhn's Dance Specialists,' they recorded a small number of titles for Pathe and Emerson. The best of these is Don't Take Away Those Blues (Emerson 10249), which features McMurray both as the lead (there is no trumpet) and as the 'hot' man, taking both a slap tongue verse and a number of sinuous breaks. The personnel of the band for the tour included McMurray, alto sax, Eddie Kuhn, piano, Emil Chaquette, violin, Frank Lott, trombone, Frank Papilla, piano-accordion, Tom Beckman, banjo, and Murray Fitzgerald, drums and xylophone.
Loren McMurray, Eddie Kuhn and Emil Chaquette, probably taken en route to New York, 1920
Despite the dominating presence of Frank Papilla’s over-recorded piano-accordion, one can already discern from the 1920 Eddie Kuhn recordings that McMurray had something that set him apart from other saxophonists of the time, notably a beautifully airy and controlled tone and an ability to create extemporised melodic phrases and exciting breaks. The name of Rudy Wiedoeft of course deserves mention at this point - although a master technician and also the possessor of an equally light and airy tone, Wiedoeft was no great improviser. McMurray looked upon the older and more experienced Wiedoeft as his major rival and in advertisements for the Kuhn band was noted as "...Loren McMurray, who beats Wiedoeft on the saxaphone (sic)," rather in the manner of boxers goading one another in pre-fight interviews!
By the autumn of 1920 McMurray and the Kuhn-Chaquette band had returned to Kansas City, but they returned to New York in late November or early December, with another recording session for Pathe and an unissued session for Emerson. According to Billboard, December 11, 1920, p.35, Brice Ellison and Bert Kamann were band members, presumably replacing trombonist Frank Lott and banjoist Tom Beckman, but who played what instrument is not noted.
Returning to Kansas City in early January 1921, McMurray realised that his career was being stifled in the mid-West and that he had to return to New York to really make headway in the music business, and in particular in the business of making records. Consequently in June 1921 Loren and his new wife Mary left Kansas City for the Big Apple, renting an apartment in Harlem at 518 West 145th Street. Initially McMurray found work with supper club bands such as those of Eddie Elkins and Mike Markel but soon found that far more lucrative supplementary work was to be had by becoming one of the rapidly growing numbers of musicians finding steady work as freelance recording session men. The recording industry was on a wave of success in 1921; 'jazz' and dance music in the cabarets and dance halls was fuelling an almost-inexhaustible demand for dance records but the number of musicians capable of meeting the rigorous demands of the recording studio were few and far between. Thus there was a great opportunity for sight-reading, self-disciplined, talented musicians to make some serious money, doing the rounds of the recording studios, often recording the same number two or three times a day for the myriad recording companies based in New York City, all of which were clamouring for versions of the latest dance hits. As all this activity took place in the day, it did not impinge on the more prestigious night club and cabaret work with the likes of Elkins and Markel. With such moneymaking opportunities there for the taking, it was obvious that the well-placed 'fixer' or band booker could make a mint, thus enters the story Sam Lanin.
Born in Russia on September 4th, 1891, Sam Lanin was the third of nine children, with fellow brothers Joe, Jimmy, Willie, Howard and Lester all pursuing careers in music, most as bandleaders in their own right. Having worked with the bands of both Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa and a spell in the US Navy, Lanin after World War One formed his own band and secured an engagement for them at the Roseland Ballroom in Philadelphia. The Roseland's owner, Louis Brecker, wanted to open another, more prestigious Roseland in New York and, in 1920, he did so, entrusting the musical direction to Sam Lanin. Once in New York Lanin quickly established himself as a band contractor, supplying musicians for not only engagements but also for recording purposes. For the record companies the likes of Lanin were a godsend - they didn't have to employ expensive studio musicians on their own roster and only paid the contractor when musicians were needed; he in turn paid the musicians as and when they worked - all very cosy and simple. By such sleight of hand as pseudonymous issues, a single 'pool' of bandsmen could appear to be twenty or thirty different orchestras - on record labels and in the minds of gullible record buyers (and even record collectors of today) at least...
McMurray, as far as is known, made his first records away from the Eddie Kuhn band in the summer of 1921 with a rather mysterious Lanin - assembled jazz band which recorded under the name of Lanin's Southern Serenaders. The story of this band and how it came in to being is long and complex but here, in a nutshell, is what is considered to be the gist of it. In the spring of 1921 the Original Memphis Five, with trumpeter Phil Napoleon and trombonist Miff Mole, were working the Orpheum vaudeville circuit on the West Coast, accompanying dancers Vi Quinn and Franklyn Farnum. For reasons never satisfactorily established, the band had a major falling out and split up. Mole rather liked California and instantly found work with bandleader Abe Lyman. Back in New York pianist Frank Signorelli was snapped up by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to replace disgruntled pianist J. Russell Robinson and, over the next few months, former OM5 musicians Napoleon, clarinettist Jimmy Lytell and drummer Jack Roth all found work with degrees of permanency with the ODJB, who were in the initial stages of meltdown caused by petty jealousies and infighting among the band. Meanwhile pianist Jimmy Durante was experiencing personnel problems of his own, with the departure of star clarinettist, the mixed race Creole Achille Baquet along with trombonist Jefferson 'Jeff' Loyacano. Baquet's replacement was Bernhard 'Doc' Berendsohn, a highly accomplished clarinettist and cornetist who, along with his trombone-playing brother, Sigmund, had been born in New Orleans. Loyacano was in turn replaced by both Moe Gappell and Dave Stryker, though the chronology is uncertain. It seems that the first recordings by Lanin's Southern Serenaders were in fact made by members of both the Durante and Memphis Five groups, with the addition on several sessions of saxophonist Loren McMurray. Their first outing, for the obscure Arto company, produced two exciting but rough-hewn outings for two W.C. Handy hits - Memphis Blues and Saint Louis Blues. McMurray is only heard on Memphis Blues and his contribution is in the manner of a ‘guest appearance’. He - if indeed it is McMurray (the playing is quite straight) makes no contribution whatsoever to the ensemble playing but merely plays a written solo that adheres closely to the melody.
Over the ensuing months of 1921 and early 1922 the Lanin Southern Serenaders group cut several sides both under this name and also as Ladd's Black Aces on the Gennett label (as well as a under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms for lesser companies, including 'Henderson's Novelty Orchestra' for the African American-owned Black Swan label, giving the illusion that black musicians under the direction of Fletcher Henderson were involved). Many of their recordings duplicate their hit titles Aunt Hagar's Children Blues and Shake It And Break It and do not feature McMurray. Other titles such as My Sunny Tennessee and Gypsy Blues feature McMurray again in the form of 'guest appearances,' playing pre-written saxophone solo passages and without any contribution on his part to the polyphonic ensemble passages. It is almost as though McMurray and the other musicians had not yet worked out how the saxophone could fit into the essentially New Orleans, ODJB-inspired trumpet, trombone and clarinet polyphonic front line. The ODJB themselves had the same problem when they were forced by Victor to add a saxophone to 'commercialise' their records in late 1920 and 1921. Good as Bennie Krueger was, his C-melody sax is constantly in the way of the others, in particular Nick LaRocca's trumpet; in fact on some sides, such as Palesteena, it is sometimes impossible to deduce what is LaRocca and what is Krueger!
By the autumn of 1921 McMurray and the other members of Lanin's Southern Serenaders were starting to iron out their individual roles and the resulting records are very satisfying indeed - in comparison the ODJB's Victors of the same period are still by and large a mess, the one notable exception being Jazz Me Blues, where Krueger and Larry Shields produce a beautifully harmonised clarinet-saxophone duet. McMurray's standout track on the Southern Serenaders has to be Eddie Leonard Blues, a 'tribute' song by comedians Val and Ernie Stanton to the eponymous minstrel star, which is nothing more than an excuse to rehash Leonard's hit Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider without paying royalties! McMurray takes the first chorus as a statement of the melody, broken by a nice wailing break. The next chorus is ensemble without McMurray, but he then comes back with a low register slap-tongue obbligato over the ensemble for 16 bars then joins in the final 16 bar rideout, producing beautifully weaved melodic lines which completely fit around the figures of the other front line men and which give the ensemble a real lift. Satanic Blues, made the same day features McMurray improvising a harmonic line behind the trombone solo but little else. Doo Dah Blues initially features a straight chorus from McMurray followed by a bridge featuring his stop time slap tongue sax. The final chorus opens with McMurray improvising a lithe and airy obbligato, including a beautifully sinuous break, over sustained chords from the band and ends with a cheeky slap tongue coda. McMurray’s playing on these slightly later Lanin’s Southern Serenaders is so much more inventive and cohesive with what the rest of the band are doing that one is almost tempted to speculate that in fact he was not the rather unadventurous saxophonist who takes straight melody choruses on the earlier, August-October 1921 sides. Certainly the playing on sides such as Eddie Leonard Blues and Doo Dah Blues is much more assertive, and brims with self-confidence.
Aside from his work with Lanin's Southern Serenaders, McMurray was also busy with studio work for Lanin under both his own name and as Bailey's Lucky Seven on Gennett, as well as work for bandleaders Eddie Elkins and Mike Markel and possibly with the Columbians Dance Orchestra. Elkins' Dapper Dan almost certainly features McMurray's stop-time alto solo in the last chorus. Some of his finest work is on the early Bailey's Lucky Seven sessions such as How Many Times and I've Got My Habits On, where he partners up very ably with clarinettist Doc Berendsohn for some very interesting clarinet/alto sax sparring. Several sides from 1921/2 by Mike Markel’s Orchestra heavily feature McMurray - Lonesome Mamma Blues is especially fine, with a blue note-filled solo and some wild phrases in the final ensemble chorus that almost bring Sidney Bechet to mind. McMurray even features on a Nathan Glantz OKeh that is notable for Glantz not being present (some would say that is a blessed relief…). McMurray dominates Goodbye Shanghai!, weaving sinuous and exciting countermelodies on what would otherwise be a dreary dance band record.
According to contemporary press reports, McMurray was briefly a member of Paul Whiteman's Orchestra - certainly by his own testimony, in the form of letters to his mother and sister, we now know that he recorded with The Virginians, a ‘jazz band’ drawn from the Whiteman personnel and directed by multi-instrumentalist Ross Gorman. Obviously more research has to be done on this element of McMurray's career. It has to be borne in mind that Whiteman at that date was operating a booking agency, Paul Whiteman Inc., that organised as many as forty bands, many of them well known to collectors (The Collegians, S.S. Leviathan Orchestra, Club Royal Orchestra, Zez Confrey’s Orchestra, Charles Dornberger’s Orchestra, The All Star Trio etc, etc.) and that no doubt men from his roster of bands were drafted into Virginians and even Whiteman Orchestra recording sessions as and when the need arose. The Eddie Elkins Orchestra was booked by Paul Whiteman Inc. from the agency’s inception in the late summer of 1921, this making McMurray, already a musical force to be reckoned with, available for other Whiteman ventures. What is known for certain that McMurray was a member of Paul Whiteman's Saxophone Sextette. Saxophone bands such as the Six Brown Brothers had been a great hit in the 'teens and it was logical for Whiteman, a man with fingers in many pies, to cash in on the success of the Browns and other such groups. His Saxophone Sextette was an all-star group; along with McMurray it featured alto saxophonist Bradford 'Batty' DeMarcus, All Star Trio saxophonist F. Wheeler Wadsworth, sometime bandleader Gene Fosdick and bass saxist Keith Pitman, formerly trombonist with Gorman's Novelty Syncopators and Art Hickman's New York London 5. McMurray's thorough musical grounding made him the perfect man for performing the varied repertoire such a group was expected to play, from marches to light classics via novelty numbers.
Paul Whiteman’s Saxophone Sextette, c. 1922. L-R: Keith Pitman (bass sax), Al Mitchell (baritone sax), Bradford (Batty) DeMarcus (alto sax), F. Wheeler Wadsworth (tenor or C-Melody sax), Gene Fosdick (alto sax), Loren McMurray (alto sax). Photo Mark Berresford
Eddie Elkins (b. February 15, 1897, San Francisco, California, d. October 6, 1984, New York) had originally worked as a bandleader on the West coast before he was ‘discovered’ by Al Jolson, who arranged for Elkins and his band to come to New York in 1921. On their arrival in New York they were snapped up by the Columbia Phonograph Company as exclusive artists - again Jolson (prime star of the Columbia catalogue) may have had a hand in this. Besides McMurray, the band was packed with talented musicians, many of whom had worked with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Drummer George Marsh and reedman Charles Strickfadden both had lengthy spells with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra whilst trombonist George Crozier had a successful career both as a dance band arranger and symphony orchestra trombonist. Elkins’ Orchestra usually performed at the swanky Knickerbocker Hotel Grill in Manhattan, but for the summer seasons of 1921 and 1922 it was booked by Whiteman into the Pavillon Royal, a smart road house cafe on the Merrick Road at Valley Stream, Long Island. This was an offshoot of the Palais Royal (formerly Rector’s), where Whiteman’s orchestra was holding forth. Whiteman’s orchestra was originally slated by Palais Royal owners Sam and Paul Salvin to play the summer of 1921 at the Pavillon Royal whilst the Palais Royal was decorated and a cooling system installed. As things turned out the Whiteman orchestra stayed at the Palais Royal for the whole of June, then took most of July as a vacation, Elkins’ orchestra playing the whole summer at the Pavillon Royal.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the enclosed world of the New York dance band scene, McMurray was fast becoming a musician of considerable stature, a fact not lost on the musical press and musical instrument manufacturers. The C.G. Conn company prominently featured him in their press advertisements, along with fellow saxophonists Paul Biese, Leslie Canfield and Billy Markwith and, in recognition of both his advertising potential and growing stature in the profession, presented him with five gold mounted saxophones.
The autumn of 1921 and the spring and summer of 1922 saw McMurray busy both with freelance studio work for Sam Lanin and Mike Markel and his regular job with the Eddie Elkins orchestra. In May 1922 he guested on the Original Memphis Five's first session made under their own name, taking not one but two finely crafted solos on Lonesome Mama Blues and displaying an inventive approach to keeping out of the other front line musicians' way in the final chorus. His playing is noticeably more relaxed than before and in the last chorus in particular is consistently behind the beat. In March 1922 the first recordings by The Virginians, a ‘jazz band’ drawn principally from the ranks of the Paul Whiteman orchestra and directed by multi-instrumentalist Ross Gorman, made their first records for Victor. It is uncertain whether McMurray, well known as a ‘hot’ saxophonist, was drafted in from the outset to make up for the non-jazz playing abilities of Whiteman’s other saxophonists Hale Byers and Don Clark (the inference from the following letter "There will be more records out on Victor..." is that he was), but he was definitely by June 1922 a member of The Virginians. Also in June he made his first records under his own name, McMurray's California Thumpers, for Gennett. In a letter to his mother and sister McMurray obliquely refers to his participation in The Virginians sessions (and explicitly in a later letter) and also provides the information that McMurray’s California Thumpers was comprised of men from the Eddie Elkins Orchestra, not the well known session men as shown in the obviously incorrect personnel in ‘Jazz Records’ (Phil Napoleon and Miff Mole are audibly not the trumpeter and trombonist):-
"July 4, 1922
Dearest Mother and Sis -
Just finished dinner and will write a little while Opal is washing dishes, we are going down town this afternoon and go to the show. I imagine we will have a big crowd at the Pavilion (sic) Royal tonight so will probably have to work hard and late.
The records went through on Gennett under the name of "McMurray's California Thumpers" - an odd name isnt (sic) it? I will explain the meaning of the word "Thumper." You see that is our favorite by word (sic) at the Pavilion Royal, whenever we get ready to play a number we say lets go thump one, and if we see another musician we say where are you thumping meaning where are you working so as my bunch consists of the Trombone, Cornet, Banjo, Piano and myself from Pavilion (sic), I called it the "Thumpers," besides the people will wonder what it means, we made "Haunting Blues" and "Just Because Your (sic) you" and I will send them to you as soon as they come out. I am glad you got a Victrola for now I can send you all the records I make and I will do so at least I will send all the good ones."
In the same letter, he responds to his mother’s remonstrations about not him writing often enough:-
"Mother I wish you would not get angry when I don't write for really Mother you don't realize how busy I am - I don't hardly get time to sleep I am so busy, on the go all the time but Opal writes every week and sometimes twice a week and I write as often as I can will try to write more tho, but it will probably be mostly cards as they won't be so hard to get time to write.
There will be more records out on Victor next month but I will send them to you so you won't have to buy them - Well Mother Dear and Sis Dear will close for now and will write again as soon as I can at least will drop postal cards quite often. Lots of love to all,
Your own Son & Brother,
The Conn Musical Truth magazine for October 1922 (bearing in mind that this was an instrument makers publicity magazine, not a trade newspaper, so the information therein is always some months out of date) confirms that the Elkins orchestra had appeared at the Pavillon Royal:-
"This young director (Elkins) and his band are the idols of the throngs that dine and dance at the Pavillion Royal (sic), Valley Stream, Long Island. So too, have they won their way at the Knickerbocker Grill and previously at the Alexandria Hotel." "... For the coming season they have been engaged as headliners on the famous Keith Vaudeville Circuit."
As both McMurray’s letter and the above information (by virtue of the confirmation of the Elkins orchestra being the resident band at the Pavillon Royal for the summer of 1922) show that McMurray's California Thumpers was made up of members of the Elkins band, then the personnel for the two Gennett sessions needs to be revised as follows:-
Joseph Colling, t; George Crozier, tb; Loren McMurray, as; Thomas Swift, p; Matt E. Grogan, bj.
Eddie Elkins and His Orchestra, outside the Pavillon Royal, Long Island, 1922. L-R: Loren McMurray, George Vaughn, Charles Strickfadden, W.E. ‘Jack’ Frost, Thomas Swift (piano and baritone horn), George Marsh, Eddie Elkins, Matt E. Grogan, Joseph Colling, George Crozier.
Such was the demand on Loren’s services, both as a freelance recording artist and for club and vaudeville work, that he was beginning to feel the strain of long days and long nights. It is evident from a letter to his mother and sister that although he was revelling in the work and the status and money it brought to him, he was also keen to get out of the business when he’d acquired enough to provide financial security.
Written on stationary letterhead from:
Merrick Road, Valley Stream
Long Island, N.Y.
"September 11, 1922
Dearest Mother & Sis -
Well don't faint when you see a letter from me - I am actually ashamed of myself for not writing you for so long but have been terribly busy with records and all....
... Have been waiting for them to send records out to me from Gennett where I ordered them a week ago but they haven't sent them yet so I will go down and see what trouble is and send you some real soon - I made another record there last week with my combination called "Oogie Oogie Wa Wa" and "Blue" they will be out later and will also send you some of them - I got a letter from Eddie King the big man at Victor and he wants me to call and see him about some business so maybe he wants to put my band in there I sure hope so for that would mean an awful lot. Well I am certainly glad to inform you that we are through with this job next Sunday night and believe me I am surely glad for this job has sure been a terrible bore all summer long to going and the coming from the job was terrible and I am glad its through - we are going in to Vaudeville in New York and I am going to sign a contract for $250.00 per week in New York and $300.00 a week around New York we are to be in New York 20 weeks then we leave for a few weeks so while I am in New York with band I will clean up with the records and salary. We are only going to work about an hour a day for all that money it sounds too good to be true, and (I am going to see it in black & white and 50 percent of salary in Bank in my name to cover it) before I believe it. This band is very bit as good as Paul Whiteman's and am sure will go just as good. We have the biggest Booking Agent in New York handling it so it can't be a failure and it will be much better than work 7 hours a night for less - we will go on for 20 minutes in afternoon - 20 min. at supper show and 20 min. at night making in all 80 min. for $250.00 per week pretty good isn't it? Am going to bank it all as fast as I can get out of this business as I have told you before.
Love to all your own Son & Brother
The above letter confirms the report in the Conn Musical Truth article of October 1922 that the Elkins orchestra were booked for a vaudeville tour on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, the biggest and best known in the US.
Two weeks later he wrote to his mother and sister again, outlining his hectic recording work schedule; if the week in question was a typical week’s recording schedule, then we need to seriously examine McMurray’s recorded output and with whom he was recording. We know from the letter of the sessions with Eddie Elkins and The Virginians and presumably he was still busy with sessions with the various orchestras recording under Sam Lanin’s control. Add to this the fact that he is known to have recorded with Mike Markel’s Orchestra then there is a considerable canon of material still to be examined and positively identified. McMurray’s light and airy, singing tone coupled with his dexterity and slap tongue technique are immediately identifiable, so collectors of dance band 78s from this period are urged to listen carefully.
September generally saw the theatres re-open after the summer season closure (this was the days before air-conditioning!) and the Eddie Elkins Orchestra commenced its tour of the Keith vaudeville circuit:-
Written on Letterhead stationary letterhead from:
Bond Hotel, Hartford Connecticut
"September 27 - 1922
Dearest Mother & Sis -
Well here we are playing our first week of Vaudeville and we are sure that this orchestra will be as big as Whiteman's some day. We will be in Hartford until tomorrow then we go to New Haven for three days then we will be in New York the rest of the time so we will still keep our place there and even if I do leave New York for a short period, I am still going to keep the furniture and apartment so still keep writing to us there. I have been wanting to tell you for some time that what you think is a bass Sax in "Nobody Lied" is a bass Clarinet and Ross Gorman plays it himself. (this is the Virginians version recorded June 2, 1922 and issued on Victor 18913 - MB). I play all the breaks in the records (I am playing Nobody Lied in the act on bass Clarinet) and it goes over very big. I bought one last week it cost me 95.00 but is a real good one, I am going to use it on my next date at Gennett so you can compare it with the record "Nobody Lied." Gee next week is sure going to be busy for me I have a record date every morning next week except Wed. I have four with Elkins at Columbia and one with Virginians at Victor (according to ‘Jazz Records, 1897-1942’ and ‘The American Dance Band Discography, 1917-1942’ both by Brian Rust, the Elkins band made three sessions the following week - on October 3rd (Tuesday), 6th (Friday) and 10th (the following Tuesday) and the Virginians recorded October 2nd (Monday) and 5th (Thursday). Please note however that the dates on the Columbia file cards at this period show the date on which the wax masters were shipped to Columbia’s processing and pressing plant at Bridgeport, CT and that generally this occurred usually a day, sometime two, after the recording date. The Victor recording dates on the other hand are accurate) - MB) that will be four $40.00 dates and one $30.00 which is $190.00 and I get $250.00 in Vaudeville so that will be $440.00. I will make next week and I am going to try to send you $200.00 of what I owe you. Gee! I have been trying to send that money for some time but seems like something comes up and I have to use it for something else. Mother I enjoyed the present very much and want to thank you very much for them and I hope I can spend my next birthday together. Gee! I am starting to get to be an old man don't seem possible I am 25 years old. By my next birthday if nothing happens I am going to have a least 10,000 dollars in the bank for I am saving as much as I can.
Lots of love & kisses to all,
Your Son & Brother"
October 1922 was as hectic as the previous months - the Elkins band was in the middle of their Keith circuit vaudeville tour, he was studying the clarinet and bass clarinet and further recording dates were lined up for his California Thumpers, not to mention the tantalising meeting with Victor’s Artist and Repertoire Manager Eddie King who it appears was wanting to discuss the possibility of McMurray’s ‘band within a band’ recording for the most prestigious record company in the USA. Alas the great promise already shown by the talented McMurray was not to blossom. In these post-penicillin days it seems almost incomprehensible that illnesses now considered minor, such as throat or nasal infections, were regular killers. Loren McMurray was one such victim - despite the best surgical expertise a minor infection turned to blood poisoning and he died on October 29th 1922, barely a month beyond his twenty-fifth birthday. Previously published reports of the cause of death have been conflicting; according to two accounts, he was struck down initially with tonsillitis but according to Loren’s cousin, Dr. Edward Funk, MD:-
"Loren died young in New York City from an infection in his nostril. He apparently was a nose picker and died from secondary complications via carotid arterial stenosis up to the brain."
This has now been confirmed by Loren McMurray's great-nephew, Josh Dean, who has provided most of the original source material for this article. He requested a copy of Loren's Death Certificate, which confirms that the cause of death was: "septicemia (general), caused by: abrasion of mucous membrane of nose. Duration of illness was 14 days". The physician who signed death certificate attended Loren for nine days, from October 20, 1922, until his death at 4:00 am October 29, 1922. Loren's address on the Death Certificate is given as 615 W 164th Street (at the intersection of 164 and Broadway), which is in Washington Heights, adjacent to and north of Harlem. Presumably this was another rented apartment, but the precise date of the McMurrays move from their previous residence at 518 West 145th Street in Harlem is unknown.
News of his death was greeted with shock and disbelief, in New York, in Kansas City and, in particular, in his hometown of McPherson. The McPherson Weekly Republican (November 10, 1922) published a moving tribute to the town's most famous son headed 'Greatest Of Them All.' Neither had he been forgotten by his friends in Kansas City - the train bearing his body back to McPherson stopped in Kansas City, where a 150-piece band played in tribute to a friend. Back in McPherson, where his funeral was held, a group of local musicians and friends of Loren played My Buddy at the graveside.
It would be both pointless and foolish to speculate the direction of McMurray's career had he not died so tragically young, but he was well placed to capitalise on the development of the dance band playing orchestrated arrangements dividing the band into sections. His undoubted technical prowess and highly tuned sense of timing would have positioned him at the forefront of musical developments in jazz and in particular the part played by the saxophone - a role taken by the likes of Frank Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey. Likewise, his intimate knowledge of the workings of the recording industry and his contact with such senior industry figures as Victor’s Eddie King and band contractors Paul Whiteman and Sam Lanin would have guaranteed him a place in the studio jazz groups that proliferated in the mid to late 1920s. Of course he could have chosen the route taken by Rudy Wiedoeft who, although the epitome of a ‘jazz’ saxophonist in the late ‘teens (and a major inspiration to young jazz saxophonists), was by the early to mid-1920s hopelessly outclassed as an improvising musician and devoted the rest of his career to the concert platform as a saxophone virtuoso. Somehow, I like to think that this would not have been McMurray’s choice - in all probability he would, as he stated to his mother and sister, got out of the business when he had made enough money to live comfortably, but not before he had made his mark on the jazz world.
As mentioned at the outset, McMurray has always been an unknown quantity to most record collectors; thus it is timely that a major reissue of his work with Lanin's Southern Serenaders and Bailey's Lucky Seven has been released on the Frog label (Frog DGF61). Hopefully it will go some way at least to putting McMurray's contribution to the development of the role of the saxophone in jazz into historical perspective and will also serve as an excellent reference of McMurray’s style for researchers to examine his recorded output in greater detail. To end on a tantalising note, the McMurray family have a trunk of records that Loren had sent to his mother which will provide important evidence of at least some of the records he did appear on. Although they are currently in storage they will be examined and annotated and I hope to follow up with a listing of those records in a future issue.
I am immensely grateful to Josh Dean, great nephew of Loren McMurray for his first suggesting this article and for supplying much of the information, letters from Loren McMurray and photographs. Without his contribution and his patience in answering the many questions and queries I had, none of this would have been possible.
Letter from Dr. Edward Funk to Loren D. McMurray (relation, not the saxophonist of our story), March 4, 1985.
Thanks also to Ralph Wondraschek.
'Kansas City Jazz From Ragtime to Bebop - A History'. By Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix. Oxford University Press, New York. 2005.
'Lost Chords. White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.' By Richard M. Sudhalter. Oxford University Press, New York. 1999
‘Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, Volume 1, 1890-1930.’ By Don Rayno.Scarecrow Press Inc., Lanham, Maryland and Oxford, 2003.
McPherson Weekly Republican, November 10, 1922
Conn Musical Truth magazine, October 1922
Much information and a vast photographic archive pertaining to the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit can be found at the University of Iowa's online collection at http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/traveling-culture/essay.htm
Copyright Mark Berresford 2017. No reproduction in any format, either in part or the whole without the copyright holder's permission.