Gus Aiken

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Although the big trophies in the jazz tournament always seem to be won by the great soloists and bandleaders, there are a number of players who don't lead bands and didn't seem to take many solos, either.…
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Although the big trophies in the jazz tournament always seem to be won by the great soloists and bandleaders, there are a number of players who don't lead bands and didn't seem to take many solos, either. Yet musicians such as Gus Aiken, an early jazz trumpeter from South Carolina, maintained long and distinguished careers simply by being good section players, combined with the ace timing that is needed to get in on the ground floor of major musical constructions. The trumpeter, whose younger brother Bud Aikin played trombone alongside him in some of the same outfits, began appearing on recordings of black music almost as soon as they were being cut in the early '20s. He was born Augustus Aiken, is sometimes identified as Rice Aiken, and suffers the frequent misspelling of his name as "Aitkin" in a variety of scholarly jazz documents, including one of the biographies of his longtime boss, Louis Armstrong. There are discographies that list Gus Aiken and Gus Aitkin side by side, as if one ran in the door of the recording studio while the other was outside having a smoke. He was one of a group of musicians who as young men came out of the band of the New York City Jenkins Orphanage, not all of whom were actually orphans. He was professionally cutting records and playing live dates by the time he was 17 years old. One of his first important connections was the songwriter and pianist Perry Bradford, who wisely predicted a market for African American music as far back as 1919, although for a long time he had very little luck convincing any record companies to back him. Finally, the good folks at OKeh became interested in Bradford's idea. Aiken was in on some of the very first test sessions, backing classic blues singer Mamie Smith, a star of the musical revue Maid of Harlem. After a few tries, Bradford and the label came up with a smash hit that wound up selling more than two million copies, prompting most other record companies to follow suit and resulting in mucho recording dates for the players such as Aiken who had been in on the idea from the start. With Smith, the trumpeter recorded such numbers as the overheated "Got to Cool My Doggies Now" and the profound "It's Right Here for You (If You Don't Get It Ain't No Fault o' Mine)." Of course, there were many blues numbers, most of which were identified with "blues" in the title, such as "Wish That I Could But I Can't Forgive You Blues" and "You Can Have Him, I Don't Want Him, Didn't Love Him Anyhow Blues." One song even had blues in the title twice, setting some kind of record for misery: "Sighin' Around With the Blues Blues." Through the mid-'20s, Aiken blew his horn on blues records by singers such as Mary Jackson, the festive Eliza Christmas Lee, the flowery Daisy Martin , Lavinia Turner, Louise Vant, Essie Whitman, Lena Wilson, the deep Ethel Waters, and of course more singers named Smith, such as Clara Smith and Cindy Smith. By the mid-'20s, songwriter and producer Bradford was cutting his own sides, tapping Aiken as one of the trumpeters at most of the sessions. The phrankly phony phenomenon of phonetically philling in phrases with "ph" was not phirst phiddled with by Phish: Aiken played in Perry Bradford's Jazz Phools way back in 1925, with Satchmo on the session. It was an early meeting for Aiken and the great New Orleans trumpeter and Armstrong turned out to be an important connection.

By 1935, Satchmo had to break up his own band thanks to the nasty folks at the New York City Musicians' Union up to their usual trick of playing "keepsies" with all-important union cards. As a result, Armstrong made the decision to join forces with Luis Russell, who had his own big band assembled and ready to go. The Russell group was already a well-respected New York big band and interestingly enough, several equally praised groups that were in action at the time featured Aiken in the horn section, usually in the first trumpet chair. One collaboration with Armstrong was an engagement at Connie's Inn, for which the group was held over for one and a half years. Armstrong also charged into his new Decca recording contract with this lineup, cutting about two dozen sides that have turned out to be at least the rib cage of his discographical skeleton. The Russell orchestra had started out in Chicago and then moved to New York, where it became noted as an innovative band, meaning nobody involved was making any money. When Aiken joined up in the late '20s, the outfit featured some of the best hot musicians from New Orleans, such as Barney Bigard Omer Simeon, and Pops Foster. The group first backed up Armstrong in 1929 on a recording and by the mid-'30s, the loveable Satchmo had taken over the Russell orchestra completely. Through 1941, it solely functioned as backup band for Armstrong, with the former leader acting in the capacity of musical director. Thus, Aiken won a place in the lineup on some great Armstrong recordings, as well as sides by Sidney Bechet, who also worked with this orchestra's backing. But there was a dark side to the teaming up of Armstrong and Russell, at least in the minds of the latter artist's die-hard fans. They lament the fact that their hero "sold out," supporting the entertaining, commercial Armstrong rather than pursuing his own musical dream. Perhaps Russell deserves a break, however, for making this decision at the height of the Depression, when so many great musicians were struggling, some of them completely giving up music.

This was not the only jazz outfit of interest that Aiken worked with, although the relationship with Armstrong certainly got him the most notoriety. He also played in the bands of Charlie Johnson, who held forth regularly at the famous Harlem venue Small's Paradise from the mid-'20s to mid-'30s, fronting various outfits including Charlie Johnson's Paradise Band, the Paradise 10, and the Original Paradise Band. Elmer Snowden and the Washingtonians was a smaller band that Aiken worked with from 1931 through 1933, alongside jazz giants such as drummer Big Sid Catlett, trumpeter Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, and trombonist Dicky Wells. The group's piano player wasn't bad either: a fellow by the name of Duke Ellington. Although Aiken lived in New York City until the early '70s, his music jobs became much more "general business"-orientated following the collapse of the jazz big band scene, and the public's growing interest in rock & roll. Society bands and for-hire musician's union groups were his main support and he rarely worked with high-profile recording artists again.