Monday, September 29, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 36: Sonny Stitt - Gene Ammons

1950 seems to have been the year of Sonny and Jug, and no complaints here. We're fortunate to have so much from these two guys whose different styles melded so well. Ammons is taking his turn on the baritone in the first of these two sessions. On the second, it's two tenors on "Stringin' the Jug," parts 1 and 2, then Jug alone on the last two, "A Lover is Blue" and "When I Dream of You," both of them romantic ballads in the Earl Bostic mode of R&B-tinged pop, except a lot more musically original.

The session credited to Ammons is really an Ammons session. "Stringin' the Jug," with Stitt  and Junior Mance (his first professional gig was in Ammons's band, in 1947) providing magnificent support, is pure Jug -- Ammons proving you don't have to be from Texas to blow a Texas tenor.

The septet session, with Ammons taking his turn on the baritone, has four songs: "After You've Gone," "Our Very Own," "'S Wonderful" (not on Spotify) and "To Think You've Chosen Me." The last has a vocal by Larry Townsend, about whom I can find no information. Townsend, like so many of the vocalists chosen by beboppers in the late 40s (think Kenny "Pancho" Hagood on the Birth of the Cool sessions), was from the Billy Eckstine school, and that was style that was going to prove to fade from fashion very soon. The rich, mellifluous baritone gave way, as the voice of male sex appeal, to the soulful tenor, as epitomized by Sam Cooke. That's why you can find next to nothing (well, nothing, actually) about a middle-of-the-pack Mr. B like Larry Townsend, and relatively easy to find information on a middle-of-the-pack rhythm and blues singer like Larry Darnell.

But why reach out to singers like Townsend and Hagood? There were other vocalists around in the late 40s who were more attuned to the bebop idiom. Dave Lambert was one -- he was one of the pioneers in the development of a style of singing that used bebop chord changes and inversions. Sarah Vaughan was the quintessential bebop singer -- she had a contract with Columbia in 1950, and they were trying to turn her into a pop singer, so she probably wasn't available. Jackie and Roy were already starting to make a name for themselves in the late 40s. Jackie Paris had done some major work with Charlie Parker and others, and he continued to be committed to jazz, as opposed to pop singing, which is probably why he's now considered a cult figure rather than a major singer.

The Kenton singers -- June Christy, Chris Connor, and especially Anita O'Day -- were around. Blossom Dearie had not yet moved to Paris.Dinah Washington was singing both jazz and R&B in the 40s, and in 1954 she would make one of the greatest bebop vocal albums ever, "Dinah Jams," with a band led by Clifford Brown and Clark Terry.

King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson and Annie Ross were creating their own kind of bebop vocals, but they were all working musicians, and certainly would have stepped in to record with musicians like Stitt and Ammons if asked.

So why did beboppers choose the vocalists they chose? Or why did their producers choose them? Here's a theory -- because Mr. B, in addition to still being hugely popular, was the guy who became a kind of godfather of bebop with his mid-40s band featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, so although he was never really a bebop singer, he was still closely associated with the music.

A friend of mine who was there back in the day, told me why he stopped going to Amateur Night at the Apollo in the late 40's -- "All the girls were trying to sound like Sarah, and all the boys were trying to sound like Billy Eckstine."

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