Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 38: Gene Ammons / Sonny Stitt

Well, here's one reason why Prestige might have scheduled so many Ammons-Stitt sessions: They weren't standing still. They must have kept this septet together for a while, no easy feat in those days. 1950 was the year that both the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie big bands were to disband for financial reasons. The Jazz Tour Database website has them playing at Birdland on March 10, 1951.

And they kept developing the septet sound. There's no arranger listed for this date -- presumably it's either Ammons or Stitt, or both -- but the arrangements are the best I've heard, and I've been listening to a lot of this band. "Wow!" is almost all ensemble work. It is tight and adventurous."Jug" does amazing call-and-response work between the soloists and the ensemble, at that breakneck pace that only the top beboppers could handle -- and the pace is just as fast, the changes just as tricky, when the ensemble is playing. And don't forget these are Prestige sessions, so Weinstock was paying for no rehearsal time, and precious few retakes.

How do you sing bebop? Well, here's one answer, from the unnamed singer on "Around About One A.M." -- with no evidence one way or another, I'll guess it's Gene Ammons. You just sing the blues. "One A.M." is a basic 12-bar blues, sung more or less straight, but with a jazzman's edge. And it's great.

In Clint Eastwood's "Bird," Forrest Whittaker, as Charlie Parker, tells white trumpeter Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker) that when they play in the segregated South, he'll be billed as Albino Red, the World's Greatest Blues Singer. "But I don't know how to sing the blues," Rodney says. "Don't worry," Parker says with a laugh, "anyone can sing the blues."

Well, not quite. But Gene Ammons -- or whoever it is -- sings the hell out of the blues on this one, and he is most likely not a professional singer, or he'd be credited, as Larry Townsend was on the last session.

Off the subject, I don't know if Red Rodney could actually sing the blues, but to play alongside Bird he surely had to play the blues. Which brings up an interesting aside, on the place of race in jazz in the 1940s -- an era in which segregation was still very much the norm. Benny Goodman was able to break the color barrier because he had such clout in the entertainment industry at that time -but a good part of the reason why he had such clout is that he was white. White musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman played jazz because they loved it, but their commercial success went way beyond the success of equally talented blacks because of their race.

For that reason -- and because blacks were often forced to clown and play the "coon show darkie"-- young African American musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and others found themselves drawn to playing a music that was so difficult that whites couldn't play it, and so intellectually and aesthetically challenging that it could not be associated with clowning. That having been done, Bird and others were then remarkably welcoming to whites who loved the music and wanted to play it -- and could keep up. Musicians like Al Haig, Stan Levey, Teddy Kotick and Red Rodney all played with Parker, and all played bebop, at the same time that musicians like Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holliday were being integrated into Benny Goodman's swing band.

The American Century in music is one of the greatest cultural flowerings the world has ever known -- right up there with Elizabethan drama, Renaissance painting, the Victorian novel. And it is different from all of those in its mongrel nature. There's nothing pure about American music. The blues had a baby, Muddy Waters tells us, and they called it rock and roll. The blues had lots of babies, and lots of mistresses, and lots of fathers and sons and daughters, a wild orgy of miscegenation and crossbreeding like no other artistic renaissance has ever seen. And we were there. We were so fortunate.

This time, no hits on YouTube or Grooveshark, but you can get all these cuts on Spotify, and you  should.

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