Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 64: Joe Holiday

1952 seems to have been a slow year for Bob Weinstock, which is a little odd, given that Prestige was enjoying its biggest hit to date with King Pleasure's "Moody's Mood." He did Sonny Stitt the week after King Pleasure (and it's quite likely he was expecting more from the Stitt session than from King Pleasure), and then very little else for the first half of the year. The Jimmy Forrest/Miles Davis session, which may or may not have been in the spring of 1952, wasn't a New York production or a Weinstock production.

Sometime in April there was a session with rhythm and blues vocalist John Bennings. There's no information at all about who played on the session, which is very rare for Prestige. Four songs were recorded, two released on Prestige, two on Par Presentation. I don't think Weinstock produced the Par Presentation sessions, so I'm guessing he didn't involve himself much here. Par was run by a guy named Sam Green, which is much too common a name for me to track down.It lasted until 1953.

These recordings have catalog numbers, so they must have been released, but they aren't on Spotify or YouTube. I've found mention of Bennings recording for several of the best independent R&B labels, including Savoy and Apollo, but I can't find any of those recordings either, so I don't know what he sounds like. I did find a source that says he lived till 1995, so I hope he sang and was appreciated.

I know what Bennie Green sounds like, and I would love to hear more of what he sounded like with strings, but this recording is also not on Spotify or YouTube. I was able to find it on Slacker, but without a subscription I couldn't listen to more than one cut. Bennie sounded in fine form.

I'm really starting to feel a visceral sense of loss every time I hit a session I can't lsten to.

The Green session was in May, so no recording of jazz in March or April. And then nothing until the end of July, when Joe Holiday is back, and back with a vengeance. If  anything, this is even hotter than the first session. Mambo was the thing, and Holiday has some powerful percussionists here who dominate the session -- and in a good way.

I can't find anything on Ulysses Hampton beyond this session, but he's on fire here. There must have been so many talented percussionists around New York back then. This era, and this music, and the Cuban immigrant experience are brilliantly portrayed in Oscar Hijuelos' great novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The movie that was made from it isn't great, but the mambo sequences are.

This was three years before Sam Woodyard joined the Ellington orchestra, but he could play anything on the drums -- his background was R&B with Paul Gayten, traditional jazz with Roy Eldridge, and here the mambo bebop hybrid of Joe Holiday. There's some very nice solo work by Holiday, and some good organ-sax stuff, but it's the percussion that really drew me. All in all, makes me even more glad to have been introduced to Joe Holiday and his mambo jazz.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 63: Jimmy Forrest and Miles Davis

A few online reviews of this session tend to give it short shrift -- recording quality not all that great, playing competent but uninspired.

They couldn't be more wrong.

 Not every album is Kind of Blue, nor would you expect that. Actually, Kind of Blue couldn't have been made at Prestige, with its unrehearsed, jam session philosophy. But Prestige gave us real candid snapshots of the time, and this session, recorded live in a St. Louis nightclub, is the real thing. This is jazz in 1952, a piece of living history, jazz as it was, and played by working musicians in small clubs in the Midwest, music that came out of the legacy of the territorial bands of the 20s and 30s, the nighttime wail of America that John Clellon Holmes captured so vividly in The Horn, still the greatest jazz novel.

Jimmy Forrest had played with Ellington and would later play with Basie, but here he is on his home turf, in a little club called The Barrel in St. Louis, with home town musicians. And Miles Davis, but we'll get to that. Later that year he would write and record his one huge hit, to become an enduring rhythm and blues classic -- "Night Train," based on a riff by Duke
Ellington. Here he's playing bebop, and with essentially the same guys with whom he would record "Night Train" -- again, the worlds of bebop and rhythm and blues crossing in the American night.

Trying to figure out what Miles was doing here. Not so strange, considering that he was from St. Louis, but by February of 1952 his self-imposed exile in the Midwest was over, and he was back in New York. Maybe the date given for Miles sitting in with Jimmy Forest at The Barrel is off? Or perhaps Miles's full-time recommitment to New York was a gradual process.

Anyway, here they are, in a club in St. Louis, playing for the people. Playing easily, but intensely, Jimmy Forrest's gutbucket blues balanced by Miles's lyricism and originality, not unlike Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. And sometimes they switch over, Forrest getting lyrical and
Miles getting down. Bebop and ballads. A honking rhythm and blues break by Forrest in the middle of J. J. Johnson's supercharged bebop composition "Wee Dot."

They're playing in a club, for a club audience, not for a 78 RPM record for the jukeboxes, so they can trench out -- the songs run over five minutes, and up to ten minutes or so.

The first release of this session was on a 7800-series LP, which means a lot later, like around 1960, which means the date listed for the gig could be wrong.

Nothing on YouTube, but it's all on Spotify. Check it out. This is our music, from the heart of our America.

And check out this reminiscence of writing an arrangement for Jimmy Forrest, from the JazzWax blog.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 62: Sonny Stitt

The mambo craze finds Sonny Stitt, and it's a match made in cielo. This is a blazing hot session, and of it, my favorite is "Cool Mambo," composed by Bill Massey. Mambo meets bebop, and my only regret is that there isn't a video of a couple of great Latin dancers, or a whole dance floor, dancing to this. Bebop is often considered the anti-dance music, but you couldn't prove it by this session. It's cool, it's hot, it's frantic, and it doesn't let up. In fact, it doesn't let up for the whole session.

Stitt is still developing that bebop big band sound that he and Gene Ammons developed, but here with different musicians, except for Ammons' right hand man, and with a sound all his own.

Providing the Latin underpinning for this session is Humberto Morales, here on congas but better known on timbales. He recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and with his own mambo orchestra, and is the author of How to Play Latin Rhythm Instruments. His percussion counterpart is Shadow Wilson, who was equally at home with swing and bebop, so he knows about dancing, and he knows about setting a rhythm for a virtuoso soloist.

The addition of Basie great Joe Newman to the ensemble adds another note to the test which says that no one told Sonny Stitt that you can't dance to bebop.

Speaking of dancing, I once saw Dave Brubeck at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival once. His set was sandwiched between a couple of rhythm and blues acts, and the audience was there to dance. Brubeck was playing "Take Five" and other undanceable rhythms, but the kids in the audience didn't know they were undanceable, and they were boogieing up a storm. I was close enough to see Brubeck's face, He was loving it. He was having the time of his life.

These were all issued on 78, and on various LPs -- a 10-inch Stitt album and a 10-inch mambo compilation. And later, on a couple of 7000-series LPs. All can be heard on Spotify.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 61: King Pleasure

Early in 1952, Bob Weinstock seems to have been stirring the pot a little, not entirely sure of what he was looking for. He recorded some of his old favorites, like Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt. He did another Swedish session.

He tried some more blues and gospel. On January 3, he had Brownie McGhee back in the studio to record two songs, solo this time. "Heart in Sorrow" and "Operator Long Distance" became standards of McGhee's repertoire, and I'm not sure I can locate these particular versions, although they were released on Par Presentation. On January 23, he recorded 12 songs by two different gospel groups, and never released any of them.

So one has to wonder if he walked into his scheduled February 19 recording sessions with more of a desultory "What the hell, let's try this" approach. He hadn't recorded a lot of vocals. Looking back, I see The Cabineers, who weren't a huge success. Then nothing until the H-Bomb Ferguson/Ralph Willis/Brownie McGhee sessions of late 1951, and folk blues/rhythm and blues was not a direction he was much focused on.

So he put together a band of hard working studio musicians under hard working Teacho Wiltshire -- Leonard Gaskin and Cecil Payne the only ones to establish names for themselves in the jazz world -- and scheduled them to back up a couple of singers, doing two songs each.

One was Bobby Harris, about whom I can find nothing. There's a 1965 Atlantic Recording by a Bobby Harris on YouTube, but who knows if it's the same one? It's a common name. "Rub a ittle Boogie" is included on a compilation album called New York Blues 1945-1956, but a review in a blues magazine which goes into detail on all the other performers in the compilation, says nothing about Bobby Harris.

The other was King Pleasure.

And I wonder if Weinstock knew what he had, when he played back this one.

First off, it is one my favorite records of all time. The King Pleasure/Annie Ross LP was one of the first jazz records I ever bought, and I've never gotten tired of it.

Second, if he was looking for a jukebox hit, this was it. He'd had some chart success in 1951, with Gene Ammons's "Jug" making the rhythm and blues charts, but "Moody's Mood"was huge, making it to #2 on the R&B charts.

It remains one of the great jazz vocal recordings, and one of the most curiously underappreciated. Much of what's written about it tends to harp on the fact that King Pleasure didn't actually write it, although no one harps on the fact that Louis Armstrong didn't write "Sweethearts on Parade," and Frank Sinatra didn't write "I Could Write a Book." The melody is, of course, James Moody's improvised solo to "I'm In the Mood for Love," recorded in Sweden in 1949 -- actually Moody's solo and the brief solo by Swedish pianist Gosta Theselius, sung by Blossom Dearie in the 1952 recording -- and the lyrics were written to Moody's solo by Eddie Jefferson. Pleasure heard Eddie Jefferson sing it in a club, and asked if he could sing it as well. Then when Bob Weinstock signed up a couple of unknown singers for a quickie recording date with Teacho Wiltshire's band, this was one of the songs Pleasure brought with him. He must have also brought Blossom Dearie with him -- she was relatively new in New York, and had been working as a backup singer for Alvino Rey and Woody Herman.

Later in 1952, Dearie would move to Paris, where she would make her reputation. In her official bio -- another underappreciation, or perhaps it's just because she isn't credited on the record -- this recording is not mentioned.

And finally, this back of the hand from reviewer Alan Kurtz on the jazz.com website, "Singing with more gusto than skill, Pleasure put vocalese on the map and then, as online biographer Alex Henderson writes, '"faded into great obscurity.'" Kurtz has never heard "Parker's Mood"? "Don't Get Scared"? "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid"?

Eddie Jefferson created vocalese, and Pleasure, as Kurtz grudgingly admits, put it on the map. I think calling this form "vocalese" ultimately gave it a bad rap, because it came to have a reputation as a gimmick, when it was attempted by people who weren't as good as Eddie Jefferson, or King Pleasure, or Annie Ross or Dave Lambert. Or Job Hendricks, who has described the first time he heard King Pleasure's recording:

'It opened up a whole world for me...I was mesmerized. I'd been writing Rhythm and Blues songs, mostly for Louis Jordan. But I thought 'Moody's Mood For Love' was so hip. You didn't have to stop at 32 bars. You could keep going.'

There actually were a few recordings of singers reproducing an instrumental solo before Jefferson, and before anyone called them vocalese. Bee Palmer, better known as a dancer in the flapper age (called the "Shimmy Queen"), made a record of "Singin' the Blues" with Frankie Trumbauer, where she sang the Bix Beiderbecke trumpet part, and it's not very good, but it's not awful, either. Ethel Waters covered Louis Armstrong's classic "West End Blues," and she didn't exactly replicate Armstrong's trumpet part, but she did her own version of it, and it's very, very good.

Here's a note to my new friends in the Jazz Educators page of Facebook -- the vocalese version of
"Moody's Mood" -- and there are many covers, but I'd go with the Pleasure or Jefferson versions -- can, I think, be a great teaching tool to someone like me who loves music but is more knowledgeable about words. Jefferson's lyrics, which dance away from, and then back to, Jimmy McHugh's original lyrics, can be a wonderful lesson to a verbal person in how a jazzman improvises on a melody.

The other cut from this session is "Exclamation Blues," which is a not very good song, but a good rhythm and blues delivery by King Pleasure, and a terrific sax session break from Teacho Wiltshire's band. Hard not to wonder if Bob Weinstock wasn't thinking that "Exclamation Blues" might be his breakout jukebox hit. Or, for that matter, if it might be one of Bobby Harris's songs. In the music business, you never know.

Others on the session: Merrill Stepter, listed on a recording with Don Byas and Buck Clayton. Maybe also recorded with Big Bill Broonzy. Ray Abrams has a solid bio -- worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Andy Kirk,Don Redman, Slim Gaillard, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, and he is hot on this session.

Prestige issued "Moody's Mood" b/w "Exclamation Blues" on a 78, and later issued it again (as "I'm in the Mood for Love") b/w "Red Top" on a 45. "Moody's Mood" was included on the 7000-series King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings LP.

Both songs (neither of the Bobby Harris songs) are available on Spotify, but be careful. Pleasure re-recorded "Moody's Mood" some years later for United Artists, and while he still sounds great, the recording doesn't. The jazz group has been replaced by a string session, and Blossom Dearie has been replaced by a Blossom Dearie soundalike -- she actually sounds too much like Blossom to be Blossom, if that makes any sense. Too airy, too chirpy -- a Blossom Dearie imitator. And double-tracked, which is unnerving. Look for the version from King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings, not the version from Moody's Mood for Love.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 60: Wardell Gray

I've written about Wardell Gray here, here, and here, and I don't know that there's a lot I can add, so maybe I'll just dedicate this blog entry/appreciation to my recent Facebook friend, Anita Gray, Wardell's daughter. Listening to any Wardell Gray recording session is a special experience, whether he's playing swing or bop or blues or R&B, in a big band like Basie's, as part of Benny Goodman's experimental bebop group, backing up singers as diverse as Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine and Little Willie Littlefield, engaging in legendary tenor sax battles with Dexter Gordon, or leading his own group, as in this session for Prestige.

By 1952, Gray was beginning the decline that marked the last years of his life. He had settled on the West Coast, but West Coast gigs were few and far between. And it was probably about this time that this brilliant, educated man, role model for many younger musicians, great musician in his own right, began to slip into the heroin addiction that was so much the scourge of that era. He would only record sporadically after this, and he died in 1955, in Las Vegas, under circumstances that will never be fully known -- never, because Las Vegas was as racist as any town in Mississippi in those days, and the police were not going to be bothered investigating the death of a black man. I'm including here a photo of his headstone, designed by Anita Gray.

This is a wonderful session, his last for Prestige as a leader, although he did make one more for the label, in a group led by Teddy Charles. He is still at the top of his form here, swinging throughout, making every note the right one.

Also on this session is 23-year-old Art Farmer, making his recording debut. Farmer has said of Gray

Wardell was one of the nicest people I ever have known and he was like a big brother to me. He never hesitated to tell me what he felt I needed to know. I can't think of anything about this man as a man or as a musician to find fault with. It's just too bad that he didn't live long enough for the rest of the world to hear him.  
As a young jazz snob, when I went out to a club, I would snootily resent audience applause at the end of a solo, wanting to listen to how one soloist picked up on what the previous soloist had done. I've since learned that there can never be such a thing as too much applause, and a brilliant solo deserves it, but I still like listening to those moments, and I love, in this session, the passion and immediacy with which Farmer picks up Gray's ideas.

Farmer was contributing ideas of his own, too. "Farmers Market" is his composition (and unlike Miles Davis, Gray allows him full credit for it).

Also represented as composer is pianist Hampton Hawes. with "Jackie." Hawes was also 23, but
already a seasoned veteran, having played with major jazz artists (including Charlie Parker) since he was 19.  His playing on this session is a revelation. He's really unlike anyone else -- so percussive, so cutting, so inventive, and yet so melodic.

All of these were released on 78 -- I/m not sure about 45 -- and on LP.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 59: Wrapping up 1951

A productive year for Bob Weinstock and Prestige, as the label could now lay claim to being as important as any in jazz. Among Weinstock's chief accomplishments -- getting Miles Davis back to New York and into the studio, making a commitment to LP records so that recordings could last more than three minutes.

Fifty recording sessions, almost all of them in New York - and that's leaving out the Swedish groups. That's an average of pretty near one a week. Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons were the workhorses, with eight sessions -- three under Stitt's name, five under Ammons's. Sonny Rollins recorded two (one of them an afterthought to a Miles Davis session) -- these were his first recordings as leader. Miles Davis had two sessions -- the second, in October, being Prestige's first to take advantage of the new LP possibilities, And two sessions for Lee Konitz, both in the same week, one featuring Miles, the other a duet with Billy Bauer. Teddy Charles, Red Rodney, Bennie Green, Gerry Mulligan all one session each, It was also Mulligan's first session as a leader, so that makes two pretty impressive debuts.James Moody had five sessions, all on the same three days in January, all in Sweden.

Incredible records that took me by surprise -- Charlie Mariano, Joe Holiday. And nice to meet -- on Facebook -- Artie Schroeck, who played with Holiday,

Mildred Bailey, Jimmy Yancey and Big Sid Catlett died in 1951.

Some highlights of the year from All About Jazz:

  • The first American Jazz festival occurs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in the autumn. This festival precedes the first Newport Jazz Festival by almost three years. 
  • John Coltrane moves back to Philadelphia and enters the Granoff School of Music to study the saxophone and music theory with Dennis Sandole. 
  • Musicians such as trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan form the "Cool School" in California, of course. 
  • Sidney Bechet moves to Paris. Sidney becomes one of the first black American musicians to do this. Many more (Bud Powell, etc.) will follow due to less racial tension. 
  • Thelonious Monk records the classic of modern music Straight, No Chaser. 
  • Thelonious Monk is sentenced for drugs and is banned from playing the NYC clubs for six years. Narcotics which were probably not his were found in Monk's car. Monk will not inform. Although he could not play in clubs, he could record. 
  • Ornette Coleman is working as a day laborer in L.A. He gets gigs when he can, but they are few. People think that he doesn't know how to play. He'll spend nine tough years this way. 
  • Roy Eldridge makes the claim that he can tell the difference between a black player and a white player merely by listening. Leonard Feather gives Roy a blindfold test. Roy fails. 
Atlantic was establishing itself as one of the greatest rhythm and blues labels, but the Ertegun brothers' first love was jazz, and they recorded some jazz greats in 1951: Jimmy and Mama Yancey (perhaps Jimmy's last recording? He would die before the year was out), Billy Taylor, Mary Lou Williams, Don Byas, Mabel Mercer, Meade Lux Lewis. 

Dial, once noted as Charlie Parker's label was pretty much finished (1951 was their last year) but they did release two French sessions, one by Roy Eldridge (duets with Claude Bolling), one by Sidney Bechet. Savoy, the other Parker label, was mostly into rhythm and blues now, and their R&B releases were great. but they still made room for Dizzy Gillespie, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs and others.

Fantasy, which would eventually purchase Prestige,  had been started in 1949 when the owners of a San Francisco record pressing plant bought the masters of a Dave Brubeck trio session from a guy who'd wanted to start a record label but hadn't been able to pull it together, and decided that since they these recordings, they might as well start their own label. They were still tiny in 1951, but they did two sessions with Brubeck and Desmond, and two with Cal Tjader.

Capitol and Mercury were two major labels that I think of as having had a significant jazz presence in those days, but actually they were pretty light in 1951 Capitol had Stan Kenton, which was a very big deal at that time. Beyond that, not much. Although they did issue records by Art Tatum and Shorty Rogers. Mercury did better, with Dinah Washington, Roy Eldridge, Paul Quinichette, James Moody, Jay McShann, and Ben Webster.

Columbia was a giant then and now, and even though jazz was never their main interest, they still had plenty of it: a lot of Benny Goodman, plus Billie Holiday, Claude Thornhill, Jimmy Dorsey, Lee Wiley, Earl Hines, Errol Garner, George Wettling, Stan Freeman, Steve Allen.

Decca was still a major label, and they were well stocked. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, the Dorsey Brothers. RCA Victor I can't find.

 I think of Blue Note as running neck and neck with Prestige, but actually they only produced six sessions in 1951 -- about the same amount in jazz as Savoy, but Savoy was busy all year with R&B. Blue Note had Bud Powell, Sidney DeParis. Thelonious Monk, two by Wynton Kelly. and Sidney Bechet.

Verve was actually the other most prolific independent jazz label, recording Bud Powell, Lester Yung, Charlie Barnet, Slim Gaillard, Charlie Ventura, Flip Phillips, Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson, most of them multiple times. Most of these musicians had been part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tours.

So the big labels had the big names -- and more power to them. But Savoy, Blue Note, Verve and especially Prestige were keeping bebop alive, and presenting the new talent like Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.

Who could you see in the New Year with in New York? I continue to be frustrated that you can't get Down Beat's archives on line. So all I have is the New Yorker, and they still aren't covering modern jazz. Not that Eddie Condon and the other Dixielanders weren't great, but there was more than that going on. The Embers had Joe Bushkin, who was a trad kinda guy, backed up by some greats -- Jo Jones, Jonah Jones, and Milt Hinton. Birdland is still the only club hospitable to modern jazz that the New Yorker covers. Birdland's New Years Eve offering was Ella Fitzgerald, and the New Yorker once again uses her for a backhand swipe at bebop -- according to them, she "was singing bop before the amateurs got hold of it."

On to 1952.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 58: Charlie Mariano Boston All-Stars

Another undated December session, perhaps because they didn't keep detailed records in Boston -- but they did remember to get the names of the musicians and the tunes, which is what we really need. Charlie Mariano was a Boston native, and still primarily based in that city in 1951, In 1953 he would get out onto the national stage with the Kenton orchestra, and he'd remain a major for the next four decades, playing with, among others, Sheley Manne and Charles Mingus--and with Toshiko Akiyoshi, his wife from 1960-65. By the late 1960s -- back in Boston, teaching at the Berklee School of Music -- he had moved into jazz fusion, and by the early 1970s, he had moved to Europe, where he was to open up to a wide variety of musical experiments, including Asian music.

This, one of his earliest recording sessions, featured Boston musicians. some of who would also go on to larger stages. Trumpeter Joe Gordon played with Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver and others, before dying young in a house fire in 1963. Perhaps his most famous date was one that remained undiscovered until 1996 -- a radio broadcast from Boston, featuring Charlie Parker and a group either brought with him or picked up in Boston: Gordon, Dick Twardzik, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes,

Dick Twardzik's radio gig with Charlie Parker led a discovery that the two of them shared a passion for Bartok, and to an intense and legendary collaboration with Bird -- legendary because almost none of it was ever recorded. Twardzik unfortunately had, as mentors, two of the leading heroin addicts of that time. On a European tour with Chet Baker, he died of an overdose in 1955.

Sonny Truitt is mostly known as a Boston musician, but he did some impressive work with Miles Davis, among others,

Anyway, this is an impressive group of musicians, and a wonderful album. The arrangements carry the liveliness of big band swing and the freshness of bebop, and the ensemble parts provide an excellent springboard for the solos. Almost all of the solo space is Mariano, and that's a good thing. As good as the other musicians (particularly Gordon) are, it's Mariano who really shines. There is a beautiful piano solo (Twartdzik?) on "Autumn in New York."

Maybe not Twardzik. Another website devoted specifically to Charlie Mariano only lists Frazee on piano (and gives the drummer's name as Gene Glennon, which a little more research confirms as correct), but the onine Encyclopedia of  Jazz Musicians unequivocally states that Twardzik played on the date.

The original compositions are strong, particularly "Boston Uncommon," though it's "The Wizard"
(b/w "Autumn in New York") that was released as the single. Not at all a bad choice. But "Tzoris" is an irresistible number, beginning with an almost jarringly sprightly couple of choruses of a traditional song that traditionally has nothing to with tzoris -- suggesting, instead, that you pack it up in your old kit bag. And from there, Mariano takes off on an improv that would make anyone forget his or her tzoris.

One single off the album, released on both Prestige and New Jazz. A ten-inch LP covered the whole session, and then nothing till a much later reissue on Original Jazz Classics.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 57: Blues

Sometime in late 1951 (no exact dates are given)  Prestige recorded a few blues singers. Much, much later, in 1959, Bob Weinstock would launch a separate Bluesville imprint, but in this early postwar era there wasn't much of a blues scene in New York. The Great Migration, which started after World War I, brought many blues singers north, but mostly not to New York. Bluesmen from the Delta tended to go straight north, to Chicago and Detroit; from Texas and Oklahoma, they mostly gravitated toward the West Coast, most often to Los Angeles. Many New Orleans jazzmen, inspired by King Oliver, went to Chicago, and from there some -- most notably Louis Armstrong -- came to New York. But jazz was a different species. 
The postwar blues scene in Chicago coalesced around Chess Records, mostly. In California a lot of blues singers recorded for the Bihari brothers' Modern/RPM labels. In New York, in 1948, the Ertegun brothers and Jerry Wexler went to Washington, DC, to try to sign Ruth Brown to a new blues label they were starting. Brown was a jazz singer, whose repertoire was mostly standards. "Why me?" She is said to have asked. "I don't sing the blues. I hate the blues."
"Don't worry," they said. "We're going to be doing a whole new kind of blues."

And they did sign her, and they did create a new kind of blues, and she was as good as they thought she'd be, and Atlantic became known as "the House that Ruth built."
Wexler and the Erteguns and Cliffie Stone and the other folks who crafted the Atlantic sound had to create a new kind of blues, because they didn't have a native sound to build on, the way the Chess brothers did in Chicago, bringing the music of the streets and the small clubs into their studio. New York was a jazz town. It became a doowop town, as that style came up from the streets. But blues, not so much.
The blues singers who came to New York, like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, like Lead Belly, were mostly presented as folk singers, not blues singers, which meant that their main audiences were white leftists, and also that they were frequently recorded with white folk singers like Woody Guthrie. One of Sonny Terry's first gigs in New York was in the Broadway musical "Finian's Rainbow." When Leadbelly appeared at the Apollo, audiences didn't like him much. This made for an interesting dynamic. The blues is a music of hard realism -- its message is essentially that life is tough and it's going to stay that way. Urban white leftists tended to believe, and wanted their music to reflect it, that the world could be made a better place. The job of a professional musician is basically to give the public what it wants, so blues singers started writing songs --and they were great songs -- about Washington being a bourgeois town, and how we need to get together and break up the old Jim Crow.

So when Bob Weinstock ventured outside of the jazz realm he knew best to record blues and R&B, it was a little bit of a hit-or-miss proposition. In jazz he had the finest musicians in the world to choose from; in blues, things were a little less clear-cut. Which is not to say the choices weren't good ones, because they were very good.
H-Bomb Ferguson came out of a tradition that was essentially Midwestern, urban blues but not the Chicago urban blues of electric guitars and harmonicas. This was the jazz-based urban blues that was built on piano and horns, preeminently the tenor sax, and went back to Bessie Smith and the so-called classic blues singers. More specifically, it had its roots in the Kansas City of Big Joe Turner (who was soon to record for Atlantic) and Jimmy Rushing, and was carried on into the rhythm and blues era by performers like Wynonie Harris and Amos Miburn. 
Ferguson came to New York with Joe Liggins' Honeydrippers (West Coast R&B). He stayed for a while, was a protege of Nipsey Russell, then the MC at the Baby Grand, a legendary Harlem jazz club. He stayed long enough to make this one record for Prestige, and a few for Savoy, another jazz label that was dipping a toe into rhythm and blues, though Savoy would dip much more than a toe, becoming one of the important R&B labels. He didn't stay in New York, building most of his career in the Midwest. He never had the career of Harris or Milburn, but he made some good records, and this is one of them.
They generally didn't give a complete band list for blues and R&B records, and this one is no exception. The band was led by Jack "the Bear" Parker, a jazz drummer and R& bandleader, about whom I couldn't get much in the way of biographical info, although he was a solid player and got a lot of work.
They recorded ten tunes for Prestige that day, but only released two of them -- too bad, but I guess they'd decided they were t going to get behind Ferguson - and in fact in the same week that Prestige released its H-Bomb Ferguson single, Billboard's R&B page had another Ferguson release, on Atlas, as one of its picks.
The other Prestige blues sessions of December 1951 featured Brownie McGhee and Ralph Willis.
Eleven songs were recorded, of which four were released under McGhee's name, four under Willis's name, and three never released. Today on Spotify, all can be found by searching under Ralph Willis.
These are the folk blues of acoustic instruments--guitar and harmonica, like the Chess bluesmen, but we know, from the famous reception given to Bob Dylan at Newport, what East Coast folkies thought of electric amplification.

Brownie McGhee and Ralph Willis both were practitioners of what came to be known as Piedmont
blues, a style pioneered by Blind Boy Fuller. McGhee and Sonny Terry actually tried their hand at rhythm and blues when they first came to New York -- and McGhee's brother, Stick, made an R&B classic for Atlantic, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-de-o-dee"-- but the folk blues were where the market was. Later, in the 60s, when rural blues were rediscovered, it was the Delta blues of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House that drew the attention, and except for McGhee and Terry, who had attained legendary status, other Piedmont blues singers like Willis and Alec Seward (Stewart) saw their reputations eclipsed.

All four of the Willis sides were released on two 78s. McGhee cut seven altogether, three of which went unreleased. Of the others, "Cold Chills" and "Amen" came out on Prestige, "It's Too Late" and "I'll Never Love Again" on the short-lived Par Presentation label.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 56: Teacho Wiltshire sessions

Weinstock tossed in a lot of sessions in mid and late December, trying a bit of everything. On December 18, he cut two sides with Dr. Alvin A. Childs (preaching) and his congregation (singing). Can't find them anywhere, nor any indication that Dr. Childs ever recorded anything else, but he did found a church in Harlem: Childs' Memorial Temple. Also in December (no specific date given) two other gospel groups, Silver Trumpets and Rev. Felix Johnson,

On December 20, he seems to have scheduled a number of performers, with Teacho Wiltshire's band backing them up.

I wish I could tell you more about Teacho Witlshire. He seems to have been incredibly prolific as a studio arranger and bandleader, mostly for rhythm and blues sessions -- but also including King Pleasure's "Moody's Mood" session -- but I can't find any biographical material at all, which is a little strange, considering how ubiquitous he was on the New York music scene. The only soloist credited here is Lem Davis, who also recorded two songs that day under his own name, which were released on a Prestige 78, but I can't find them.

The Cabineers' two songs were released on 78 and 45, under Prestige's Rhythm and Blue Series, but
they aren't really rhythm and blues -- they're more descendants of the Mills Brothers and the jazz vocal quartets of the swing era; Marv Goldberg, who knows pretty much everything about every doo-wop group, regrets that he doesn't know more about the Cabineers. They were around for a while, with several personnel changes, and these are the last two songs that they recorded. They're very good, but they're a jazz producer's idea of doowop. The genre was still pretty new in 1951, but several groups -- the Orioles, the Clovers, the Ravens, the Dominoes -- had already established a template. They can't be found on Spotify, but they're well represented on YouTube.

Next up was John Bennings -- again, nothing, He made a few records for Savoy, and this one for Prestige, but I can't find any of them. Then the Dixieaires, cutting six gospel songs, only two of which were released. The Dixieaires were a prolific group -- their name says "gospel," but they cut a lot of R&B, too. You can find them on YouTube, but not their Prestige recordings.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 55: Sonny Rollins

The good thing about this Prestige blogging project is that I always have some new and exciting recording session to look forward to. The only bad thing is leaving a session behind when you really want to keep listening to it, whether it's a new discovery like Joe Holiday or a full fledged legend like Sonny Rollins, who I've been listening to for the last two days. But I have twenty years of music ahead of me, so best to keep going.

A last note on Joe Holiday, though -- from Artie Shroeck on the Be Bop Fans Facebook page: "I knew Jordin as Jordin Fordia, he was a wonderful jazz composer. I played with Joe Holiday at Sugar Hill in Newark NJ opposite Jordin. His band included Lou Donaldson."

Artie is a fine jazzman himself -- piano, vibes, vocals. Check him out on YouTube.

Bob Weinstock packed a lot of recording sessions into the month of December, 1951. This session was booked only four days after the Joe Holiday session, and it was 21-year-old Rollins's first real session as leader -- he had been the nominal leader for one song on the Miles Davis January 17 session, when Miles gave up,the leader role he'd had for the rest of the session, and sat in on piano for a Rollins quartet session.

For Rollins' real debut as leader, he chose Kenny Drew for piano -- a reunion of sorts: the two had
first played together in a high school band. Drew was just 23, and had made his recording debut two years earlier with Howard McGhee, but since then he had been in nearly constant demand. In 1950, he recorded with Sonny Stitt, Lester Young (multiple sessions), Charlie Parker. In 1951 Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis and Paul Quinichette, before the Rollins session. Art Blakey was already a veteran, and had become, along with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, one of the real drum innovators of the bebop movement-- and of the most prolific drummers of his time. This would be his 9th session for Prestige. Both Blakey and Percy Heath would, of course, become associated with two of the most legendary groups of this golden age of jazz -- Blakey's own Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Drew would leave the United States in 1961 and settle in Denmark, removing himself from the mainstream of the jazz world, but continuing to make great music.

It was a tough time for Rollins. After impressing the jazz  community, including Charlie Parker, with his musicianship, he fell into the trap that claimed too many admirers of Parker in those years: heroin addiction. In 1951, as he made his way back into the recording studios, he had just been released from serving 10 months of a three year prison sentence for armed robbery, to support his habit.

So, let's look at the session --  the first of many great recording sessions for Prestige and other labels. He opens with a ballad -- one of four standards on this session, and each one of them a beauty -- inventive and lyrical. "Time on My Hands" is the one tune on this session where Sonny stays out front the whole time, and we really get to hear him develop an idea fully. Then -- did the mambo craze come home to Prestige in time for Christmas? Sonny gives his own twist to the Latin rhythm, with some significant assistance from Kenny Drew, who would continue to figure prominently throughout the session. Here we have Sonny showing the instinct for drawing on unexpected rhythmic and melodic sources that would continue through the calypso masterpieces of his later career.

And he keeps it going with "Shadrack," which is kind of a corny pop tune pastiche of a gospel number, although it's been recorded by a number of jazz masters, including Louis Armstrong (and a number of gospel groups) and turns it into a virtual bebop anthem. It would be hard to pick a favorite cut from this album, but certainly this one could be it.

He finishes with two originals, "Scoops" and "Newk's Fadeaway," both of which feature short but powerful solos by Art Blakey. Blakey had the chops and the flamboyance to dominate any session he chose to, but here he doesn't hold back on flamboyance, but the solos flow organically out of each piece as a whole.

Note -- you'll see these two songs -- and others from this session -- often attributed to Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, but that's because they were part of a reissue called, misleadingly, Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, but actually packaging a few different Prestige sessions together, including the one with the MJQ.

"Newk's Fadeaway" takes it's title from the nickname given to Sonny because of his resemblance to the Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe -- they both had the same prominent nose. It's worth mentioning because while history reminds of what an incredible role Jackie Robinson played in baseball and American society as a whole, the players who came right after him -- Larry Dobyfor the Cleveland Indians, Newcombe and Roy Campanella and Dan Bankhead for the Dodgers -- were trailblazers too, and to be linked with Don Newcombe was no small thing. Robinson was hailed in song -- Count Basie recorded "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?", and Chuck Berry played tribute to the brown-eyed handsome man who won the game with a high fly into the stands. Newcombe gets a nod here, though an odd one -- Big Newk was famous for his high hard one, not his fadeaway, and Sonny scarcely fades away here.

"Mambo Bounce" and "Shadrack" both became the A sides of singles -- looks like just 78 RPM, I don't find them on 45. The session was released as a 10 inch LP and on a few different 7000-series reissues.