Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records project - Part 8

Kenny Dorham and Max Roach must not have spent a lot of time in Paris, because here they are back in New York two weeks later, playing in a group put together by J. J. Johnson as J. J. Johnson's Boppers.

And what a group! Of the six of them, only bassist Leonard Gaskin did not go on to achieve legendary status, and he had a distinguished career, playing with all the major beboppers, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (he replaced Oscar Pettiford in Gillespie's band), then moving back to trad jazz in the 50s with the likes of Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff and Cootie Williams. Interesting to me -- he apparently spent at least some of the last part of his life in my home area. His Wikipedia bio says that in 2003 he worked with grade school kids at the Woodstock Elementary School in Woodstock, NY. He died in 2009.

Kenny Dorham died young, but not as young as I would have thought -- he died at 48, in 1972, of a kidney disease. His reputation is such an underground one (every serious jazz aficionado knows him, the casual listener maybe not. No albums with Dorham as leader make The New Yorker's list of 100 Essential Jazz Albums), that I had sort of assumed he'd died very young, maybe not long after his classic Round About Midnight at the Cafe Bohemia. As his Wikipedia entry puts it, "he never received the kind of attention or public recognition from the jazz establishment that many of his peers did. For this reason, writer Gary Giddins said that Dorham's name has become 'virtually synonymous with underrated.'" My old friend J. R. Monterose said that Dorham was the best leader he ever played with.

Max Roach, of course, along with Kenny Clarke (another expatriate), revolutionized the art of jazz drumming, creating the style that propelled bebop.

The other two players on this date: John Lewis on piano, Sonny Rollins on tenor.

J. J. Johnson was 25 when he led this all-star group, and he had already become not just the premiere jazz trombonist, but the guy who did what had been thought impossible -- made the slide trombone into a solo instrument in the lightning fast, rhythmically tricky form of bebop.

Johnson has been the subject of a book-length study, The Musical World of J. J. Johnson, by Joshua Barrett and Louis G. Bourgois III. I don't know if it sells too widely -- the hardcover is a hundred bucks, and even the Kindle edition is nearly fifty. But a review by Victor L. Schermer on the AllAboutJazz website notes that when Dizzy Gillespie first heard Johnson play, in 1946, he told him, "I've always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody'd catch on one of
these days. Man, you're elected."

This is pure bebop, played by some of its noblest practitioners. Roach cuts loose with some solos he kept in check on his Paris date. Dorham and Johnson challenge each other, and respond to the challenge. Rollins can beep and bop with the best of them, and he already has the tone that he will perfect under the Williamsburg Bridge and ride into the 21st century, becoming universally acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time.

John Lewis is in the bebop world, but not of it. He contributes greatly to this session, but you can also hear where he's going. And, in a sense, where he's been, which was (like Dorham and Roach) Paris. He contributes the composition "Elysee" to the session, and for the followup session on October 17, his classic-to-be, "Afternoon in Paris."

Dorham, Gaskin and Rollins are gone, replaced by Sonny Stitt on alto, Nelson Boyd on bass. Still bebop. and still wonderful. Of all the nonsense syllables that have come to define art movements, from dada to hip-hop, none of them, for me, have the romance of "bebop." This listening project is to revisit old friends, pick up on music I missed. These two J. J. Johnson albums fall into the latter category. For each blog entry, I download whatever I can find from Spotify onto a Prestige playlist on my phone, and play it over my Jambox Mini while driving. This has been a wonderful couple of days.

The May session numbers were released on 78 by both New Jazz and Prestige, and reissued in 1952 when Weinstock began his 10-inch LP line, as PRLP 109, along with a Kai Winding session, although the classic J.J. and Kai pairing would not come about till 1954. In 1953, Prestige started releasing 45 RPM EPs, which meant another way to buy J. J. Johnson's boppers.
And yet another way -- the short-lived 16 2/3 RPM record, suited to
play on Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi system (thanks to Bloggerhythms for this info), but not really so great for music. This time, Prestige tossed in Bennie Green and made it three
trombonists. The session with Sonny Stitt also came out in all three formats, the 100-series LP this time backed with a Bennie Green session. All later found their way to Prestige's great 7000 series.

All of these tracks can be found on Spotify.

Here's "Afternoon in Paris," from the October session, on YouTube. You have to dig a little for these -- I found this one by searching under "J. J. Johnson John Lewis."

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