As my year of college drew to a close, Dave Van Ronk likewise declared himself done with me as a guitar student. We’d gone through all the more complicated pieces he taught, and he thought it was time for me to come up with my own stuff. Before conceding the point, I had one last request: that he teach me his arrangement for “Sweet Substitute.” He demurred, saying, “That’s not an arrangement; I just play the chords.”
“OK,” I said. “So what are the chords?”
So he showed me, and I swear it’s an arrangement — albeit one that flowed pretty naturally out of the chords, once he’d settled on the key of G and decided on which inversions to use. The opening of the chorus, in particular, has one of those small, brilliant moves that separate the great arrangers (Dave, for example) from the rest of us: a G chord on the third fret, with the E string left open to make it a G6, descending to an F# fingered exactly the same way, with the open E now providing the flat 7th.
The song was composed by Jelly Roll Morton at the very end of his career, with lyrics by Roy Carew, one of his later friends and supporters. As Dave used to explain, Morton was down on his luck at that point and, to make the situation more bitter, his “King Porter Stomp” was the theme song of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, one of the most popular bands in the world — but he’d sold all the rights, and wasn’t getting a nickel as it played on radio and jukeboxes across the country. So he decided, goddammit, he’d write a hit song in the modern swing style, and the result was “Sweet Substitute,” which he recorded at his final sessions, and which promptly vanished without a trace… until some West Coast dixieland bands picked it up in the mid 1950s, and Dave recorded it in 1961.
Dave loved and admired Morton, and by the time I met him that story had acquired personal resonance, because he was acutely aware that most younger players and fans on the folk scene didn’t understand what he had contributed, or the skills he had that they lacked. He wasn’t bitter, exactly, and he didn’t put himself in Morton’s class — he rated himself as “first rate second-rate,” where people like Morton, Armstrong, and Ellington were straight-up first-rate — but he did feel a sense of camaraderie with other fine musicians who hadn’t been given their due.
In which context it’s worth repeating a story from Billy Taylor, a fine pianist who came of age in the 1940s and recalled going with a couple of other young Turks to see Morton at his last venue, the Jungle Inn in Washington, D.C. They were modern jazzmen, fans of Art Tatum and Lester Young, familiar with Bartok and Hindemith, and to the extent they were aware of Morton at all, they regarded him as corny and passé. Taylor wrote about that night many years later:
Jelly came on. He looked shockingly sick and feeble – old and a little mad. But he wore his old, southern-gentleman’s suit with dignity, and when he smiled the diamond in his tooth still glittered hard. He played a new piece of his called Sweet Substitute, and then he looked straight over at our booth. His eyes had a very personal kind of pride which I had never seen before…
Then Jelly spoke only to us: “You punks can’t play this.”
I forget the tune. What I do remember is a big, full, two-handed piano player – a ragtimer modified and relaxed by way of New Orleans, and very swinging… and as I listened, suddenly I knew. “Golly, he’s right. I can’t play what he’s playing. Just purely technically I can’t play two hands together and separately the way he does.” I looked over at the other confident young men who had come with me: I saw that they knew they couldn’t either. Ours was a very quiet booth for the next three hours.