Friday, October 10, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 39: Miles Davis / Sonny Rollins

There's a reason why Ken Burns followed up his Civil War documentary with documentaries about baseball and jazz, even though he was an authority on neither subject, and he pissed off a lot of aficionados on both subjects because he made rookie mistakes, but there was a reason why he chose baseball and jazz to follow the Civil War, because his real subject was always race.

And even if your subject is purely music, as mine is, you can't talk for very long about jazz without talking about race. I put up a litle quiz on Facebook a few days ago, asking anyone interested to take a guess as to the Down Beat Readers Poll winners for 1950, the year we've just finished listening to.It was an interesting time for jazz. Bebop was solidly established, but there were still plenty of moldy figs who didn't dig it. A lot of the players we think of as titans of modern jazz were just starting to establish themselves -- or had yet to establish themselves. Anyway, the winners:

Big Band - Stan Kenton
Trumpet -- Maynard Ferguson
Alto - Charlie Parker
Tenor -- Stan Getz
Baritone-- Serge Chaloff
Trombone -- Bill Harris
Clarinet -- Buddy deFranco
Piano -- Oscar Peterson
Bass -- Eddie Safranski
Drums -- Shelley Manne
Vibes -- Terry Gibbs
Guitar -- Billy Bauer

One interesting thing about that list is how white it is. And this is not just by chance. According to the book Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip-Hop,by Guthrie P. Ramsay, Esquire Magazine created something of a firestorm in 1943, when it began its Critics' Poll, because it made the unusual move of including black critics on its panel. Their winners included Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and Cootie Williams. They had a fair selection of white winners too, but even so, they were attacked. One publication, Jazz Record, accused them of practicing reverse Jim Crow,and added that "the top men for small hot-jazz band work today are predominantly white men!" And Stan Kenton, of all people -- he who won far more polls than he probably deserved to -- complained that the 1956 Down Beat critics' poll had created "a new minority group, white jazz musicians."

The 1956 Readers' Poll was still heavily white, although Kenton was no longer winning. One example of the difference -- Critics' sax section Benny Carter, Lester Young, Harry Carney. Readers' section Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan. No argument at all with either set of selections, but one can't help but note the difference, At least it's not the Playboy jazz poll, where Doc Severinsen regularly beat out Miles and Dizzy.

Back to January of 1951. Last I looked at the New Yorker's jazz listings in their Goings On About Town section, They only listed Eddie Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's. Now they include Birdland, but none of the other modern jazz spots like the Royal Roost. They do include the Village Vanguard,but it was not an exclusively jazz spot in those days. Their feature that week was arty-folky tenor Richard Dyer-Bennett. Birdland was featuring a Dizzy Gillespie Sextet, a Lester Young quartet, and Dinah Washington, in what their commentator described as "what may be the death throes of bebop" It's hard to figure out exactly what he meant by that, but I'm guessing this was not a forward-looking jazz savant who had heard the Miles Davis Nonet and seen the future. More likely the wishful thinking of a moldy fig who would really rather have been in the company of Jimmy Ryan or Eddie Condon, who famously said, referring to one of bebop's more adventurous chordal variations, "We don't flat our fifths -- we drink 'em."

And in the Apex Studios in New York - not Prestige's home studio - two groups, mostly the same musicians, one with Miles Davis as leader and one with Sonny Rollins.

As bebop was bopping its last throes at Birdland, Miles Davis was in the studio, doing his bit to help
it along. Now, it is not my intention to draw a series of lines in the sand -- bebop here, hard bop here, cool school here. I couldn't if I wanted to, and I wouldn't want to anyway. My belief is that the great strength of the American Century in music lay in its blurred lines. The dialog was ongoing and insistent, the voices sometimes clashing, sometimes harmonizing, but always in the family. That's why Paul Williams was able to take Bird's "Now's the Time" riff and interpret it as the rhythm and blues classic "The Hucklebuck," why Ornette Coleman would learn his trade playing rhythm and blues, why the subtle drum master of the MJQ, Connie Kay, was able to propel the rock 'n roll sessions at Atlantic Records, why Charlie Parker could play with Machito, Danny Barker could play with everyone from Eubie Blake to Charlie Parker and Garvin Bushell from Fletcher Henderson to Eric Dolphy, In this session, Rollins is playing solidly within the bebop tradition -- and so are the others, even John Lewis, who had been with Miles for Birth of the Cool and was shortly to chart his own independent course. But Miles, particularly on "Morpheus," is going very much in the direction he had started to chart with the nonet.
And this doesn't make for a mismatch. All these musicians are on the same page, albeit with sometimes different calligraphy. That's the beauty of a small group framework with strong individual soloists -- each can add a different voice. And one would be remiss not to comment on the work of  yet another important hand on Morpheus -- Roy Haynes.

Even in jazz, where the melody gets left behind quickly for the uncharted roads of improvisation, a good melody matters a whole lot. "The Blue Room" is a 1926 composition by Rodgers and Hart, most notably recorded before this by the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman and Perry Como, is given a new look by Miles (no Rollins on these two cuts), and he makes it achingly beautiful on both takes. He goes back even farther in time for "Whispering," a 1920 composition by Vincent Rose (best known for "Avalon" and "Blueberry Hill"), and brings it beautifully into the modern era, too.

The last cut on the January 17th session (at Apex Studios rather than Prestige's home base, where Tom Dowd was an engineer, though it's not known if he did this session) featured Sonny Rollins as leader of a quartet with Heath and Haynes, and Miles Davis on piano. A side thought -- who else has recorded on both trumpet and piano? Mose Allison comes to mind...any others?

It seems to have just been tossed in, although it's a terrific recording. Prestige never released it as a single, but included it later on a 10-inch LP, PRLP 137, which is basically an entirely different session which we'll get to later.

The Davis tunes were released on two 78s,734 and 742; on an EP, PREP 1320, on a couple of 10-inch LPs, one a trumpet compilation and one called Miles Davis Blue Period. All of these cuts appeared later on 7000-series LPs, including "The Blue Room" on an LP called Miles Davis and John Coltrane Play Richard Rodgers.

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