Thomas Valentine

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Musicians in the same genre with the same name are bound to get mixed up with each other, even if they play dissimilar instruments and one has acquired the hefty nickname of "Kid" to distinguish himself.…
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Musicians in the same genre with the same name are bound to get mixed up with each other, even if they play dissimilar instruments and one has acquired the hefty nickname of "Kid" to distinguish himself. In the case of a pair of Valentines from New Orleans, the off-key differences are era and instrument. Kid Thomas Valentine is the more famous of the pair, a second-generation player who made many of his most famous recordings in the '50s and '60s. Thomas Valentine was an older bowl of gumbo, part of the first crew of jazzmen from New Orleans who headed to California in the early '20s. The wild atmosphere of San Francisco's Barbary Coast included what were apparently quite frantic jazz dives and dance halls, which in the pre-disco era meant plenty of work for live musicians.

Valentine wound up in Los Angeles in an early band of pianist and bandleader Sonny Clay. The banjoist appears on this artist's first set of recordings done in 1923 for the Sunset label. Clay called this group the California Poppies, a name he later returned to on a 1928 Australian tour that Valentine was lucky to have missed -- read more about Sonny Clay to get the full story. The earlier version of the band also featured the legendary New Orleans trumpeter and cornet player Ernest Coycault, trombonist Leon White, clarinetist Leonard Davidson, alto saxophonist Bob Farrell, tenor saxophonist Johnny King, and drummer Willie McDaniel. Tracks such as the exuberant "What a Wonderful Time" and the nonchalant "Lou" cannot be considered simply New Orleans jazz -- this is an amalgam, in which improvised ensemble passages form a ragtime quilt a listener might easily imagine Scott Joplin snuggling in.

Not that it makes a whole lot of difference in terms of the banjo part. Most of the banjo playing in these genres is in an accompanying role, its purest aspect as a metronome largely rendered inaudible on these primitive '20s recordings. It represents the ultimate difference between Thomas Valentine and "Kid" Thomas Valentine in purely musical terms. The "Kid" was a trumpet player, thus he got the lead role in the New Orleans jazz ensemble. The part came with lots of solos; the early microphones never failed to capture the instrument's sound. In comparison, the banjo Valentine sounds something like an empty box of chocolates.

Other bands that the banjoist was associated with include Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, whose "New Kinda Blues" was something of an international jazz hit on record. This group recorded for Victor in 1929 and 1930, many of the tracks featuring the talents of a young Lionel Hampton on drums. The exotic "Burma Girl" and the confident "Quality Shout" are high points of the Howard band discography, which is also sparked by the luscious trombone solos of Lawrence Brown.