Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 32: Leo Parker

On July 20, 1950, baritone saxophonist Leo Parker went into the Prestige studios with an all-star rhythm section of Al Haig, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. He recorded six tunes, and came away with almost nothing. The first, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," was never released. "Mona Lisa," "Who's Mad" and "Darn That Dream" only saw the light of day in the 1970s, as part of the Fantasy/Prestige 24000 series, which was theoretically all reissues, even though in this case the initial issue never happened. We aren't counting 24000-series releases in this history, but these were originally recorded for Prestige, so they'd count. "I'll Cross My Fingers" and "Mad Lad Returns" were released as a 78 RPM single, so they would definitely count, but for one small detail. None of them are available on Spotify or YouTube, or any of the other video sites, so I wasn't able to listen to them.
Leo Parker made his first recording in 1944, at age 18, with Coleman Hawkins, on alto. After that, it was baritone all the way. Some say he abandoned the alto when he joined the legendary Billy Eckstine big band, so as not to be confused with the better-known alto player named Parker in the same organization. More likely, Eckstine needed a baritone player, handed the instrument to Leo, and said "You're it."

If that was the way it was, Eckstine made a wise decision, but Parker was not able to build the career his talent merited. The heroin scourge of the Fifties claimed him. He did make a comeback in 1961, making two albums for Blue Note -- one of which, one again, went unissued until 1986. Parker died of a heart attack in 1963, at the age of 38.

Searching Spotify for the Prestige sides, I entered "Leo Parker Darn That Dream," and came up with something that deserves a side excursion, which I was more than willing to make: a road trip to the intersection of Bebop and Rhythm and Blues Avenues, one of the neighborhoods that interest me most.
Bill Jennings made a whole series of recordings for King Records in Cincinnati in the 1950s. King was one of the great indie labels of the Fifties, recording rhythm and blues (James Brown, Wynonie Harris), country (Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas), and rock and roll (The 5 Keys, the "5" Royales, even the Platters' first records). Very little jazz.

And not all that many people share my enthusiasm for this first fusion music, so Bill Jennings has languished in obscurity, but you have got to listen to this stuff. It's been collected in a 2-CD set called Bill Jennings - Architect of Soul Jazz 1951-57. His band includes Leo Parker, Bill Doggett and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson.
You can also find "Mad Lad Returns" on Spotify and YouTube, but it's from the 1961 Blue Note, not 1950 Prestige session. It's worth a listen to--talk about rhythm and blues meets bebop...and beyond. Wow.

Here's Leo Parker with Bill Jennings:

 And here's the 1961 version of "Mad Lad Returns":

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 31: Sonny Stitt -Gene Ammons

Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, three-piece rhythm section...a quartet? Is this one of those odd numerical quirks, like the great R&B/Doowop group the "5" Royales, who rarely had five guys in their lineup? No, as it turns out, the June 28 session was a quartet, though not always the same quartet -- Jug on two cuts, Sonny on the rest.

Stitt's tunes: "Count Every Star," "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "There Will Never Be Another You," and "Blazin'." Ammons had two: "I Wanna Be Loved" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," but only the latter is included on Spotify.

Why? Lost to history. Maybe they couldn't both show up at the same time. Maybe they weren't talking to each other that day. Maybe Weinstock was only paying for four musicians at a time. Maybe each of them wanted the full length solo space. Not unlikely, listening to the tunes. Each of them solos all the way through. Stitt barely gives Duke Jordan a vamp at the beginning -- no vamp at all on "Count Every Star."

And he's quite sufficient to satisfy. Generally the bebop paradigm is play the melody for one or two choruses, then take off on improvisatory flights. As Ronny Graham says in his comedy routine about a commencement address to a school for progressive jazz musicians, "When you cats came here, all you could play was the melody. Now you wouldn't know a melody if it hit you in the mouthpiece." But Stitt stays around the melody in his improv, especially on "Count Every Star

I would have thought of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as more of a 1920s vo-de-o-do kind of song, more suited for a raccoon coat and ukulele (or for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to sing to a leopard) than a gutbucket, blues-based bebopper like Gene Ammons. In fact, it was written in 1928, by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, for their Broadway hit musical Blackbirds of 1928. McHugh and Fields had already made their major contribution to Prestige Records history -- they wrote the original "I'm in the Mood for Love." At any rate, Ammons takes it over and does what he wants with it -- jaunty and rakish, but in the style of 52nd Street, not Broadway.
They gathered the septet again a week later for another session -- Bill Massey again on trumpet, this time Matthew Gee on trombone.

It's hard to find much about Bill Massey, who anchored all of these septet recordings. "Bill Massey Jazz" on Google mostly brings up references to the classic Jazz at Massey Hall album, but adding to the confusion, there's another jazz musician named Bill Massey,who gets the Google hits because he's more contemporary and has a website. 

Replacing Duke Jordan on piano is Charlie Bateman. There's not much on him, either, but a 2004 obituary from the Orlando Sentinel tells us that he played with Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall in 1947, moved to Orlando to play bridge, and moved there permanently after the World Trade Center bombing. More on Charlie here. He does get some solo space with the septet, and the cat can play.

Stitt is listed on baritone again for this session, but we're told that both Stitt and Ammons would double on baritone in larger ensemble settings, while the other was soloing, and I think that may be happening here.

There's another vocal -- on "Sweet Jennie Lou." On this one, there's a lead vocalist, uncredited, and I can only guess as to who it is, so I'll guess Gene Ammons. The rest of them sound not so much like drunken Irishmen as like drunken Irishmen trying to imitate the Modernaires. Actually, they sound a little like Dooley Wilson's band doing the call-and-response with him in "Knock on Wood" at Rick's Cafe Americain.

Their "Seven-Eleven" is not the same as Buddy Lucas' R&B classic "7-11," with the Gone All-Stars, but it rocks. Charlie Bateman is hot on this one, as is drummer Wes Landers (another two-generation drum family -- his son was jazz/soul drummer Wally "Gator" Watson).

They did "La Vie en Rose" on this session, and I'd love to hear it, but I can't find it on Spotify. A Google search for "Gene Ammons la Vie en Rose" says that it is on Spotify, but clicking through leads to a dead end.

Songs from all these Stitt/Ammons sessions were mixed and matched on various 78s, and on several different 10-inch LPs, Surprisingly, no 45s, though you'd have thought many of these cuts would have been naturals.

There's really no such thing as a representative track from these sessions, so I'll use "Count Every Star," because I love it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 3o: Zoot Sims

Zoot Sims continued his European swing with a recording session in Paris, this one kicked ahead by the drumming of Kenny Clarke, house drummer at Minton's during the original bebop days, and a longtime Paris expat, although in 1950 he was not yet a full-time resident -- he would be back in New York in 1952 to become the original drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet. And here's something I didn't know -- he and Annie Ross had a child, Kenny Clarke, Jr., himself now a drummer.

Anyway, Zoot Sims in Paris -- a notable session, but one that's only tangentially related to Prestige. Certainly Bob Weinstock had close relationship between Vogue Records in Paris and Metronome Records in Stockholm (I've leapfrogged over a couple of all-Swedish sessions to get to Zoot), but he
seems for some unaccountable reason to have given this session short shrift. Nine songs were cut that day -- "Night and Day," "The Big Shot," "Slinging Hash," "I Understand," "Tenorly," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," "Crystal's," "Zoot and Zoot," and "Toots Suite." Of those, none were released on 78, 45 single, 45 EP, or 10-inch LP. Only "Night and Day"(two takes), "Slingin' Hash" (two takes), "I Understand," "Tenorly" and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" made it to a Prestige 7000-series reissue.

But...on a couple of occasions, Edgar Villchur, the genius behind the contemporary loudspeaker, reminded me of why he did what he did, and why he didn't spend a lot of time talking about it: "I'm not a technology lover...I'm a music lover." And in this blog, I'm using a historically accurate timeline (as far as I can) as a structure for listening to a lot of good music, which is the main goal, after all. And making up the rules as I go along. I didn't include the Charlie Parker 1949 session because that was only put out on the Prestige 24000 series, long after Prestige had been sold to Fantasy and had become purely a reissue label. The Zoot Sims Paris sessions are 7000-series, which is still the real Prestige.

It's not clear what Gerald Wiggins (Gerry Wiggins on this session) was doing in Paris in 1950. A graduate of New York's Music and Art High School with classical training, he was Los Angeles-based -- he is probably the only serious jazz musician to have worked with both Stepin Fetchit and Marilyn Monroe. He wasn't touring Europe with Sims -- this is their only recording together. Best guess -- he was there with Lena Horne. He was her accompanist in 1950-51, and she made a number of European tours.

Zoot Sims was probably the second most famous of the Four Brothers. He didn't achieve the superstardom of Stan Getz, and there's no signature song that's associated with him, but he had an outstanding career over four decades, recording swing, bebop, cool jazz, backing up singers (and Jack Kerouac!), playing with virtually everybody, recording prolifically as leader and co-leader with Al Cohn, and if he ever made a bad record, I haven't heard it.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, part 29: Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons Septet

Stitt and Ammons are back in the studio with a septet, with only a few changes. Bennie Green replaces Eph Greenlea (about whom I can find no information and no more discography), and Jo Jones is replaced by the younger and more boppish Art Blakey, who makes his presence felt immediately. The biggest change, though, is Sonny Stitt switching from tenor to baritone (he'd already, in his career, switched from alto to tenor).

I've mentioned that Gerry Mulligan, in 1950, was still better known as an arranger than an instrumentalist, and he had not yet established himself as the voice on the baritone sax. You don't hear anything in Stitt's playing to suggest he'd spent much time listening to Mulligan -- rather, that he wanted to show that he could play bebop on any saxophone. The baritone also adds a richness to the ensemble parts, and according to this jazzophile:
 He had small ensemble w/ Gene Ammons during this period where they switched on baritone-- Stitt would play bari in the section when Gene played and vice-versa.

This is an odd session. The songs are "Chabootie," "Who put the sleeping pills in Rip Van Winkle's Coffee?", "Gravy (Walkin')," and "Easy Glide." The first two are the odd ones -- the long ensemble intro in "Chabootie," longer than it probably needs to be, and the vocal, if you can call it that, on "Sleeping Pills," where it sounds as though the whole band is singing along, and they're making no attempts at harmonizing or jazz styling -- they sound like a bunch of Irishmen in a pub.

If this sounds negative, it is and it isn't. My guess is that these were aimed at jukeboxes -- the Basie-style ensemble piece and the novelty vocal. Prestige probably needed some jukebox play -- I doubt that they'd had a hit since "Moody's Mood," although they'd put out some great music.

George Benson, when he was criticized by jazz purists for his pop records, maintained he was still playing jazz -- he said that if he put strong, poppish hooks at the beginning and end, he could play anything he wanted in the middle. And that's true of both of these songs.

After the ensemble choruses on "Chabootle," Stitt enters with one of Charlie Parker's signature riffs, given a new timbre on the baritone sax, and they're off from there, with some absolutely lovely solo work, and some pepper from Blakey. The same is true on "Sleeping Pills" -- the solos on that number are definitely not the work of drunken Irishmen.

What was it with beboppers and Mrs. Murphy and her overalls? Harry "the Hipster" Gibson had a huge hit (and got himself in a lot of trouble) with "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?"

OK, if these were meant for the jukebox crowd, and I'm betting they were, there was some serious bet-hedging on Bob Weinstock's part. "Chabootie" was put out on 78 and 45 on the flip side of Gene Ammons playing "Blue and Sentimental," "Sleeping Pills" on 78, on the flip side of "La Vie en Rose."

I can't find any of these cuts on YouTube or any of the other video sites, but you can get them all on Spotify.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, part 28: Wardell Gray

Benny Goodman was right about Wardell Gray. He was wonderful. He gets better every time I listen to him, and this session, recorded in Detroit, is a treasure -- because of the music, and because of the story behind it. There is much to say about Wardell Gray, and I'll say more as he comes up again in the Prestige story, but the story is Detroit, and the rhythm section that backed Wardell on this session, and the Bluebird Inn, where they were the house band.

J. R. Monterose was born in Detroit. So was Pepper Adams, who said of those heady days when bebop was young,
In Detroit, the standards were so high that to compete for local gigs you had to really play awful goddamn good! If you were good enough to be competitive in Detroit, you were ahead of what the rest of the world’s standards were.
And there were more. Here's Wikipedia's list of jazz musicians from Detroit (perhaps incomplete -- I know that J. R. had been omitted, so I added him:  Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Thad Jones, Howard McGhee, Tommy Flanagan, Lucky Thompson, Louis Hayes, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, Marcus Belgrave, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Julius Watkins, Hugh Lawson, Frank Foster, J. R. Monterose, Doug Watkins, Sir Roland Hanna, Donald Byrd, Kenn Cox, George "Sax" Benson, Sonny Stitt, Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Roy Brooks, Phil Ranelin, Faruq Z. Bey, Jaribu Shahid, Hakim Jami, Pepper Adams, Tani Tabal, Charles McPherson, Frank Gant, Billy Mitchell, Kirk Lightsey, Lonnie Hillyer, James Carter, Geri Allen, Ralph Armstrong, Ali Jackson Jr., Rick Margitza, Kenny Garrett, Betty Carter, Sippie Wallace, Robert Hurst, Geri Allen, Rodney Whitaker, Clarence Penn, Karriem Riggins, Harold McKinney, Ray McKinney, and Carlos McKinney.

Jazz at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit "started in 1948 when the Blue Bird hired pianist Phil Hill and told him to assemble a house band specializing in the newest thing from New York City - bebop." Here's the full story, from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert.

Here's a photo of the Blue Bird from 2010, with a history of the building, and a sad story at the end of it:
Use in 2010:  Vacant building ready for sale
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed

The songs on this session are "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," "Blue-Gray," "Grayhound," and "Treadin' with Treadwell." "Treadin'" is Wardell's tribute to jazz DJ and historian Oscar Treadwell, also celebrated by Charlie Parker in "An Oscar for Treadwell" and Thelonious Monk in "Oska T."

Phil Hill is a jazz legend who seems to have almost never recorded. I can only find two listings -- this album. and a live session with Wardell Gray the previous year, which may never have been released. The bassist on the Prestige session is listed as John Richardson. On the unreleased live recording, it's James "Beans" Richardson, who has to be the Jimmy Richardson of the Blue Bird poster (subsequent house bands at the Blue Bird included Elvin Jones, Frank Foster and Yusef Lateef). I can't tell whether the John and Beans are the same person, but it seems likely -- a mistake on the Prestige session notes. In any event, here's a nice tribute to Beans by his niece. Art Mardigan played with Woody Herman, Pete Rugolo and Stan Getz after his Blue Bird days, ultimately returning to Detroit and the Detroit music scene.

Here's a nice tribute to the Blue Bird:

And here's Wardell Gray with his Detroit trio:

And this beautiful ballad:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, part 27: Zoot Sims

A few days off from Prestige blogging, mostly because no quiet solo driving time with my Jambox and my latest Prestige session. Just as well, in a way, because it gave me a little break between Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, two of the Five Brothers, and with brotherly similarities, although Getz is definitely moving farther away from the brother days.

And...back to Sweden. If it was at one time widely known that Sweden was a hotbed for bebop, that seems to have mostly faded into oblivion, but more than a couple of American musicians it became a home for several years, or even a permanent home. (And it's still happening -- my friend Billy Troianni is now a full time resident of Norway, with a Norwegian blues band.) And Prestige, through an association with the Swedish Metronome Records, reaped the benefits.

Zoot Sims made it over to Sweden in April of 1950, and did two sessions in two days, with two different groups. Spotify has four cuts from those sessions, and the Swedes and expats do a solid job of backing up Zoot.

Toots Thielemans is actually Belgian, and he was to become an important part of the American jazz scene. He didn't move to the States until 1952, but by then he had already established himself as an outstanding jazzman. His early Paris sessions included one with Charlie Parker, which means he gets added to the "Played with Bird" log that Peter Jones and I put together of still-living musicians who played with Parker. Toots is still very much with us. He announced his retirement earlier this year at age 91, but then came out of retirement again last month.

He joins Sims here for one cut, "All the Things You Are," and contributes some very neat stuff, both in playing together on the opening chorus, and later in a solo. Harmonica and tenor sax maybe shouldn't mesh, but here they do -- oddly, but they do.

 Sims also pays his homage to the master, Lester Young, with Young's composition "Tickle Toe." I went back and listened to the song by Lester and the Basie Band, and Zoot definitely takes it and makes it his own, putting it into a quartet session, and bringing it into the bebop era.

In my early days of jazz addiction, in the late Fifties, one of my first experiences of live jazz was Al Cohn and Zoot Sims with a quintet the Half Note, with my fellow Bard student Leonard Rosen, then my main man, and now back on my horizon after being AWOL for about forty years -- you'll remember this night, Lenny. Mose Allison was playing piano for Al and Zoot then, and the two of us had just fallen under the spell of Mose's first release, Back Country Suite.

Zoot knew how to play. He'd cut his teeth with the Woody Herman band, played on Stan Getz's Five Brothers session, and on Chubby Jackson's outstanding big band sessions, and this was his first outing as a leader. He had a long and impressive career ahead of him. He could swing, he could experiment, he could make you feel good about jazz.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, part 26: Stan Getz

You know how when you hear a word you've never heard before, suddenly everyone seems to be using it -- seems like everyone else except you knew it all the time? Jimmy Hatlo even devoted one of his "They'll Do It Every Time" cartoons to this theme, so thanx and a tip of the Hatlo hat, Jimmy, and it's happening to me with musicians instead of words. No sooner do I mention never having heard of Tony Aless than he shows up again, this time as part of a Stan Getz Quartet.

Perhaps  there's something to be said for the theory that a jazz recording session is quite likely to involve a group made up of whoever's around. Tony Aless and Don Lamond had both played on the Chubby Jackson session a month earlier and so were quite likely still kicking around 52nd Street. And Getz would have known them because they were both -- as were so many early Prestige artists -- Woody Herman veterans.

Percy Heath has a credit that I'd venture to guess no other jazzman has: he was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American military aviators of World War II. He has impressive jazz credits, too, including being a member, with his brothers, of one of the first families of jazz.

One of the joys that the great balladeers like Stan Getz bring to jazz is their way with classic songs from what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook. These are vivid and memorable melodies, with chord changes and melodic structures that lend themselves to jazz interpretation and improvisation.

But they're more than that. They're songs, with the emotional and thematic power that only a song can deliver. Lester Young said that he always heard the words to a song in his head as he played it. The fictional Dale Turner, played by Dexter Gordon in the movie "Round Midnight," has a moment when he realizes he's losing his ability to produce the music he wants to, and says, "I forgot the words." I don't know if Stan Getz played the words in his head when he recorded a ballad, but he captures the feeling of each of these.

Of course, music is abstract. If you didn't know the story of Peter and the Wolf, you wouldn't just be able to conjure up ducks and wolves and hunters from the music itself. But if you know the songs, Getz brings something palpable to them.

In "You Stepped Out of a Dream," that rapt wonder that only the person you've suddenly, unreservedly fallen in love with can evoke. Written by Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn, it was  originally sung by Tony Martin for the 1941 musical Ziegfeld Girl, to the visual of Lana Turner descending a staircase. Brown isn't quite on the Olympus of American songwriters, but he was good enough to dream, and good enough to write some melodies that are remembered.

"My Old Flame" is a song that was brilliantly subverted and destroyed by Spike Jones. It was written by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow, who also saw their other hit, "Cocktails for Two," similarly demolished by Spike Jones. So Getz is not going her for the A-list of American composers, but he's finding some fine melodies, and in this case, restoring the feeling that Johnston and Coslow must have meant it to have: sweet nostalgia, regret.

I didn't know "The Lady in Red," so I listened to the Mark Murphy version and the Louis Prima version. I missed the Bugs Bunny version, "The Rabbit in Red," so I guess this was an eminently wreckable song too -- and again by a good, but B-list composer, Allie Wrubel. And this one bright, vivacious, sparkling. All these not-quite-great songwriters taken over the top, into immortality, by a true great, Stan Getz.

"Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," by songwriters I really hadn't heard of -  Harry Barris, Ted Koehler, Billy Moll. Getz captures the dreamy optimism that comes out sadness. You wouldn't have to wrap your troubles in dreams and dream your troubles away if you didn't have troubles.

All these songs are about loss, and about an at best evanescent reality. Losses that you have to dream away, but you never really can. The fading memory of an old flame. The girl who steps out of a dream -- she's Lana Turner, and you'll never have her. She'll never really detach from that dream. Even the vivacious, snazzy lady in red -- you'll never have her either.

Stan Getz was a poet of loss, right up to that girl walking across the beach, looking straight ahead, not at you.

Released on Prestige and New Jazz 78s and 10-inchers, Prestige EP, even a 45 (My Old Flame/The Lady in Red), and later on a 7000-series reissue, a 24000-series double LP, even on an New Jazz LP when that line was briefly restarted.