John Hammond encountered a producer’s nightmare on his first professional recording date, courtesy of the contracted band and one of his favorite personal causes, the Fletcher Henderson orchestra:
The session was scheduled for ten a.m., and everyone had been warned that promptness was essential. At eleven thirty, there were exactly five men in the studio…It was not until twelve forty that John Kirby finally arrived with his bass and the date actually started. Miraculously, three of Henderson’s greatest sides were cut in the space of forty-five minutes: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “New King Porter Stomp” and “Underneath The Harlem Moon.”
Of those three Hammond-produced, Hammond-certified “greatest sides,” the two instrumentals, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “New King Porter Stomp,” seem to be of the greatest interest to jazz historians. Gunther Schuller reserves just one dismissive sentence for “Underneath The Harlem Moon” in The Swing Era, and Jeffrey Magee doesn’t even mention it in The Uncrowned King of Swing. Most discussions of this recording focus on the tune’s lyrics (and there’s an excellent discussion of them here). It’s easy to assume that this side was the commercial concession of the day. Given the repetitive pop song, offensive words and, for some, the mere presence of a vocal, how good could the music be?
Hammond wasn’t just commenting on the group’s tardiness. The fact that this session didn’t (couldn’t?) start without Kirby is telling. His bass is felt everywhere, and alongside drummer Walter Johnson, it makes a husky four-to-the bar. Johnson is unobtrusive but driving. His little cymbal sizzles in the double-time chorus are like illuminated letters on manuscript. Kirby eggs cornetist Rex Stewart on during his first chorus bridge, with Stewart providing either comic relief or an experiment in rhythm and timbre that would make Philip Glass jealous.
Schuller deigns to describe Coleman Hawkins’ “brazenly ornamented ‘high-Baroque’ form” at the start and close of this side. Yet Hawkins’ sheer sound justifies itself: intense, glisteningly metallic, every corner of his phrases articulated with precision and power. The solos are like beautiful Greek sculptures that once satirized some now unknown person or cause; with the context gone, the viewer can appreciate the form itself. Whatever the Henderson band wanted to satirize or whatever they thought of this tune, after a three hour delay these professionals were going to play the hell out of any music that was put in front of them.