Friday, May 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 107: Miles Davis in April

1956 was the big Miles Davis marathon, in which Miles finished up his obligation to Prestige in a blaze of glory, one session after another, so that he could move on to Columbia. But he was almost as busy in 1954. His March quartet session at Beltone was followed by two in April at the Van Gelder studios, and there'd be more before the end of the year.

Each of these sessions featured a different front line (well, the first one was just Miles, which may not exactly make a line), but mostly the same rhythm section. Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke had come together for the Art Farmer session. Miles had used Art Blakey for the March quartet session, but Clarke was on drums for these two.

The quintet for the April 3 session included Davey Schildkraut on alto. Schildkraut was a veteran at
29, having gotten his first major professional gig at 16, with Louis Prima. He had early on heard the siren song of bebop, and mastered it to the point that when Charles Mingus was given "I'll remember April" on a Leonard Feather blindfold test, he identified the alto player as Charlie Parker.

Actually, Parker and Schildkraut overlapped a few times in the early 50s. There's a live recording of Bird with Stan Kenton -- I had never known they played together -- from a couple of months before the Miles session, with a Kenton reed section that includes Schildkraut. And there's a session from 1953, released on the Roost Jazz label in 1990 as More Unissued, Vol 2. That is, more unissued Charlie Parker sessions. But the alto player on that date has since been authoritatively confirmed as Davey Schildkraut.

Bill Holman, who was Kenton's arranger while Schildkraut was with the band, sees no similarity between the two. In an interview with Schildkraut student Rob Derke, Holman said:
Dave had a completely introspective way of playing...and played according to how he felt at any particular time. A lot of guys take the easy way out and say ‘Oh, another bebop alto player so we’ll compare him to Bird.’ I never heard [Schildkraut] using Bird’s or anyone else’s licks, it was all completely original and I really enjoyed hearing his playing for that reason.
"Solar" is based on the chord changes for "How High the Moon," and as I've stated before, I never know quite what to make of "based on the chord changes." Pretty much every blues, country and rock and roll song is based on the same three chords. I looked up "How High the Moon chords" on Google, and the chords to the Les Paul version, which is the most familiar one, are a little different from the chords in another jazz standards fake book. Anyway, I don't always hear the melody in a bebop "based on the chords" version of a standard, but I can hear "How High the Moon" in "Solar." The same chord changes were used by Chuck Wayne in a composition called "Sonny," recorded in 1946 and unissued (and uncopyrighted). Wayne claimed that Miles had ripped off his melody, and maybe he did. The general consensus is yes. I don't know the difference between ripping off a melody and basing a melody on chord changes. Anyway, here's a bit of the Chuck Wayne tune on a scratchy acetate, if you're interested. "Solar" became a jazz standard, although Miles never recorded it again.

"Love Me or Leave Me," based on the chord changes to "Love Me or Leave Me," is so firmly ensconced in the public consciousness as a pop song, thanks to great pop renditions by Doris Day and Sammy Davis, Jr. (I'm too young to remember Ruth Etting), that I had never really thought of it as a jazz standard until I heard the Miles Davis version. After that, I spent a little time seeking it out, and found jazz vocal versions by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day and others; instrumental versions by Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan--and, in a more modern setting, Tuba Skinny. I've always loved the Sammy Davis, Jr., version, with its rapid-fire faux scatting, ending with the exhortation, "Blow, Sam!" I always thought he was cheering himself on, but recently it's occurred to me that it must be Sam Butera coming in with the sax solo.

But ever since I first heard the Miles recording, it's been the definitive version for me, and I was glad to spend some serious time listening to it and absorbing it in preparing this blog entry.

Miles is best known, for most of his career, for playing with a Harmon mute, but he experimented with different mutes before settling on the Harmon. On this session he used a cup mute, and it suits "Love Me or Leave Me" perfectly. The tune is taken at an uptempo bebop pace, and yet it still maintains a plaintive, bluesy tone. There are two ways of approaching "Love Me or Leave Me."
There's the torchy, moody Doris Day/Billie Holiday way, the lost lover who'd rather be lonely than happy with someone else, or the slap-happy Sammy way, you can love me, you can leave me, what do I care? I'm here for the rhythm and the chord changes and the chance to wail out, and "blow, Sam!" Miles manages to do both.

The sextet session came at the end of the month, with the same rhythm section and a new front line.It became immediately, and remains, one of the most potent sessions in the Davis canon. New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett called it "some of the best jazz improvisations set down in the past decade." Both cuts are amazing, but "Walkin'" will send nonstop chills up and down your spine.

Davis bolted Prestige for Columbia for a number of reasons. One of them was money. One was that Columbia had...well, more prestige than Prestige. But one was that Columbia wanted him to put together a regular group, while Bob Weinstock had wanted him to play with a variety of musicians:

So our basic idea was just to make records with different people, to record with the best people around. That's what we did until the end, when he had the quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. But everything up to that point developed from where we would sit down and talk about it. Miles would mention who was in town, who he would like to record with. I'd say who I'd like to hear him record with. We'd kick ideas around.
If I sound like a cheerleader for this entire era of music, and for everything that Bob Weinstock, Ira Gitler, Rudy Van Gelder and the Prestige record company did, I'm OK with that. These are a fan's notes, and this era, this label, stands as one of the great gifts to American culture and the American Century in music. So I'll say it. The Miles Davis quintets and sextets were inspired, and the source of great art.  But we are just as lucky to have these records with different people, with the best people around, with the ideas that were kicked around. One suspects, from what one knows about Miles, that after a while he didn't want to kick ideas around with anyone, except maybe Gil Evans.

But we have these records. This rhythm section, with Horace Silver really starting to come into his own. And different front lines for Miles to jam with--and jamming was what it was. Jamming was the Bob Weinstock philosophy,

J. J. Johnson was one of the true beboppers, there from the beginning.

I knew very little about Lucky Thompson. I have his Tricotism album, so I knew he was good. I knew that he'd played the expatriate game for a spell. has an excellent bio by Jason Ankeny, which I recommend.

I discovered that Thompson was called "Lucky" because "of a jersey, given him by his father, with the word "lucky" stitched across the chest," not because he ever had any luck in his life. His mother died when he was five, and from that early age, he became responsible for taking care of his younger siblings. He always loved music, and always wanted a saxophone, with such passion and dedication that he "carved imitation lines and keys into a broom handle, teaching himself to read music years before he ever played an actual sax. According to legend, Thompson finally received his own saxophone by accident -- a delivery company mistakenly dropped one off at his home along with some furniture."

Thompson was one of those guys who moved from swing to bop -- he played with Erskine Hawkins and Lionel Hampton before arriving on 52nd Street, where he was asked to fill in for Ben Webster at the Three Deuces, and "Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Art Tatum were all in attendance at Thompson's debut gig, and while he deemed the performance a disaster (a notorious perfectionist, he was rarely if ever pleased with his work), he nevertheless quickly earned the respect of his peers and became a club fixture."

Ankeny describes Thompson's sound as "never fit[ting] squarely within the movement's paradigm -- his playing boasted an elegance and formal power all his own, with an emotional depth rare among the tenor greats of his generation."

It was battles with the jazz establishment, particularly record label owners, more than racism that drove Thompson to Paris, and that would drive him in and out of the music business.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" was the flip side of "Old Devil Moon" on a 45, and "Walkin'," split in two, made both sides of a 45. These would be the first Prestige singles to come out on 45 and not 78. The sextet sessions were also released on 45 RPM EPs and a 10-inch LP. The quintet sessions also had a 10-inch, and the two sessions were combined on the 12-inch Walkin'.

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