• You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Slap-Tonguing

    February 24, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter."

    Shall We Laugh, Slap, or Triple?

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    The Saxophone in Early Jazz: What is "Slap-Tonguing"?

    In the first of his series on saxophone history, Dr. Porter reveals some techniques favored by early sax virtuosi like Stump Evans and Rudy Weidoeft. Read on!

    Everyone who reads about use of the saxophone in early jazz will notice references to “slap-tonguing.” You might even read that Coleman Hawkins, one of the first tenor saxophone soloists, was so embarrassed by his early slap-tongue recordings that he jokingly would say something like, “That wasn't me, that was my father.”

    The Artist As A Young Man
    The Artist As A Young Man

    At another time I'll give more background on the history of the saxophone generally — back to Rudy Wiedoeft and before — but for today let's focus on the question, "What is slap-tonguing?" After all, the phrase is used constantly in the era, but it is a mystery not only to non-musicians and to non-saxophonists, but even to most saxophonists today.

    Dan Levinson is a terrific saxophonist and clarinetist who specializes in early jazz saxophone styles. He explains it as follows:

    "I learned how to do it during a phone call (believe it or not!) with my mentor, the late, great James "Rosy" McHargue, sometime in the late '80s. Rosy spent an hour or so on the phone with me. He told me I had to lie my tongue flat on the reed (that is, under the reed) and create suction, so that when I released it, it would create a 'slapping' sound."

    As one example, Dan has provided us with this recording of "Virginia Blues" (complete with a quote from "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"), played by Lanin's Southern Serenaders and featuring saxophonist Loren McMurray (also known, wrongly, as “Loring”—see here.

    McMurray died young, just a few months after this recording was made, in 1922. The slap-tongued notes make a pretty strange sound, yes?

    We already mentioned Rudy Wiedoeft, who was a huge influence and inspiration in the history of the saxophone in the 1920s. His composition "Sax-O-Phun” is subtitled “A Study in Laugh and Slap Tongue.”

    The sheet music to "Sax-O-Phun” shows which notes are to be played with slap-tongue technique, and your ears will be able to pick them out in this, his last recording of it and the one with the best audio quality. Here is Rudy Wiedoeft with pianist Oscar Levant in 1925:

    You can also see a modern saxophonist performing “Sax-O-Phun” here.

    If you google "slap tongue" you'll find other resources, such as this page.

    And you'll find this video (demonstrating slap-tongue on a bass clarinet):

    My favorite slap-tongue artist is Stump Evans, who lived only from 1904 to 1928. He was amazing--check him out on tenor sax (not alto, as usually stated) on the alternate take of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Hyena Stomp” (June 1927) — if you can get past the “hyena” laughter at the beginning!

    Now let's listen more closely to the Evans' wild break, which starts at 2:06:

    How about that??! Here he is triple tonguing (very fast repeated notes—saxophonists today are familiar with that method) *and* slap-tonguing at once!

    The most amazing slap-tonguing (and just overall good saxplaying) by Stump Evans on alto sax can be found on another track from this same Morton session in June if 1927, the alternate take of "Wild Man Blues."

    Evans plays great stuff throughout, mostly in short breaks, especially from 2:00 onward, where he takes turns with the clarinetist.

    And again, Evans takes a wild break at 3:00 where he triple-tongues and slap-tongues at the same time. Dan Levinson and I agree that we’ve never heard anybody else do both at once.

    So take 3-plus minutes and check this out from beginning to end, please:

    One last thought: Both of the above Morton tracks are alternate takes, that is, they were not issued on the original 78-rpm recordings, but were only discovered in the vaults years later in the LP era.

    I wonder if the original producer held them back because he felt that Evans’s breaks were just too weird?! Stump plays differently on the takes that were released commercialy as 78s.

    Thanks and join us next time for more jazz discoveries!


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