Thursday, April 02, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 20a: Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis

(Going back, from time to time, and finding sessions I had not been able to listen to before.)

If there's a missing link, this is it. This is bebop, and this is rhythm and blues, with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, a cat who could play both, and who didn't appear to see the need to make any distinction between the two. And I'm not sure anyone else much cared about the distinction, either. Bob Weinstock did make a few half-hearted attempts to establish a rhythm and blues label (half-hearted in the marketing: there was never anything half-hearted about the music). The thing was, in the 40s, everyone who played an instrument was influenced by Charlie Parker. You couldn't not be. He had changed music. And everyone who played the tenor sax was influenced by Lester Young. If you put a little more honk in the tenor and little more back in the beat, you called it rhythm and blues, and people got up to dance to it. If you took your solos a little farther off the beaten track, if as an improvisational soloist you were more than halfway to being a composer, you called it bebop and people sat and listened to it. Or maybe you didn't call it anything. You just showed up and played it, because it was your vocation and your life.

It was the intersection of some different musical lives on this session. Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis was 28 years old when he made these records. He had come to bebop as musicians of his generation did, through swing as it was played by African American bands on the chitlin circuit, the touring bands booked by TOBA, the Theater Owners' Booking Association, better known as Tough On Black Asses, best remembered by performers as low wages and flea-ridden dressing rooms, by lovers of American music as the breeding ground for some of the best. He'd played with Cootie Williams, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk. He would go on, in the 50s, to stints in both Louis Armstrong's and Count Basie's bands. But the first group he put together under his own name, in 1946, had a strong bebop tilt, with Fats Navarro, Gene Ramey, Al Haig and Denzil Best.

This 1950 group cut two sides with rhythm and blues shouter "Chicago" Carl Davis, not to be confused with another Chicagoan named Carl Davis, who became one of the great producers of the soul era. Davis was a rough, forceful singer, and on "If  the Motif is Right" he starts out with a mock gospel sermon on which he sounds like a cross between Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Lord Buckley.

But this group wasn't just gotten together to back up a singer. The two instrumental tracks are the strongest, with Lockjaw bringing his honker and bopper sides together, with a remarkable ensemble behind him. Covering a lot of jazz history.

Representing the future, 19-year-old Wynton Kelly. I'd wondered if this was Kelly's first session, but in fact he had recorded at 16, with tenor sax star Hal Singer, on Singer's chart-topping "Cornbread." So these were his formative years, the years of small-group jazz developing from the influences of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, branching into rhythm and blues and bebop, but cross-pollinating, with the mongrel strength and innovation and intensity that makes American music what it is.

Representing a previous generation, Al Casey. 35 years old when this record was made, he had started as young as Wynton Kelly, but his beginnings were with Fats Waller, and this session was a rare foray into bebop for him. He accompanied Billie Holiday and Chuck Berry, and played into his 80s with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band.

Drummer Lee Abrams was either 25 or 30 when he made this date, depending on which birth certificate you believe, so he fit somewhere along this timeline, and he made a lot of gigs, including some important ones later on with Wynton Kelly, after he had graduated -- and this came pretty quickly -- to leading his own groups.

These were released on 78 on the short-lived Birdland label -- the collaboration between Bob Weinstock and Mo Levy -- with the two vocals on one disc, the two instrumentals on the other. The instrumental cuts were also released, under their alternate titles, on a Prestige 78.

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