Saturday, July 09, 2016
Listening to Prestige 193: Mal Waldron
In that decade, probably in every decade, the hip stance was to be quiet about it, because too many people weren't. Norman Mailer, in 1957, explained how to be hip in excruciating detail in his essay "The White Negro." Mailer's main point was something like this: to be hip you (you, of course, being white) had to act like a Negro, and the quickest way to think and act like a Negro was to listen to jazz.
Leaving out the colonialist racism of the essay, he was also probably wrong about the shortcut. As Nelson George points out in his classic book, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, the average African American was more likely to be listening to rhythm and blues. (I won't get into a discussion of the contemporary misappropriation of "hipster" and "R&B.")
Allen Ginsberg, in 1956, wrote of angelheaded hipsters who hung out in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats and contemplated jazz. Ginsberg used jazz more as a metaphor than anything else, and when the angelheaded hipsters gave way to acidheaded hippies he switched his allegiance to rock.
Herbert Gold, in a Playboy essay on the Beat Generation, advised me that if anyone were to come up to me at a party and say "Hey, man, you dig Bird? Zen? Proust?" the correct answer was an inscrutable "I'm hip." Alas, no one ever did, although years later, I was at a party where, I was told, I had just missed Neal Cassidy, who had split ten minutes earlier.
Someone else, or maybe it was Mailer or Gold again, wrote that if hip could be studied and learned, Robert Kennedy would study it and learn it. "But it can't."
Playboy, in those days, was setting itself up as the Bible for all those who thought that hip could be studied and learned...or learned without much studying, just by following Playboy's guide. "The magazine of sports cars and seduction," Mort Sahl labeled it. "The sports cars in front under 'science,' and the other...science fiction?"
Sports cars and Italian tailoring and...jazz. And this isn't a putdown of Playboy or its readers. They bought jazz records. And when Brubeck brought jazz to college, he opened up new audiences, and created new venues, even if those venues were't on the cutting edge of hip. When The Jazztet played SUNY New Paltz in 1965, my first year teaching there, I bought a ticket to the concert but was denied admission to it by the Greek organization that sponsored it, because I wasn't wearing a tie.
The Playboy reader knew about Miles Davis and Horace Silver and Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck, and the major label stalwarts like Stan Kenton and Errol Garner.
But he didn't know about Mal Waldron.
Mal Waldron, with the evocative, slightly sinister name, the New York vibes (born in NYC), the somewhat secretive personality (he switched from saxophone to piano because he didn't think he had the personality to be out front of a band), the attitude (the London Jazz Collector says that you won't find a Waldron album cover without a cigarette dangling from his lips (an exaggeration), and if that sounds uncool now, it didn't then).
You'd really have to have been hip, in 1956, to bea Mal Waldron fan. And by "you," I don't mean me. I didn't even start listening to jazz until 1957.
And you would have needed to be hip enough to recognize rhythm and blues as a first cousin to bop, which I might have done. I was already a serious rhythm and blues fan by 1956, although still a country kid, and with very little access to urban record stores.
Not that any amount of access would have helped very much. Rhythm and blues records were issued on 45 (or 78), without personnel listings. And in Waldron's case, they weren't necessarily issued at all. Jazzdisco.com (how do they research these things?) has Waldron doing two songs for Atlantic in 1949, which were never released. Then in 1952 he hooked up with a band that featured Ike Quebec on tenor, backing a singer named Frank Price for Hi-Lo records, cutting two songs that were not released. Hi-Lo did release a single by Emmitt Davis with the same band, and then an instrumental single led by Quebec. Then a couple of R&B sessions for Savoy, which was a bigger label, but those were mostly unreleased too, even though one of the dates featured Varetta Dillard.
Waldron came within range of the hip jazz fan's radar in 1954, when he recorded an album with Charles Mingus, also for Savoy. He spent a couple of years with Mingus, appearing on a live album from 1955, released on Mingus's own Debut Records, and one of Mingus's best-known albums, Pithecanthropus Erectus, for Atlantic, in 1956.
Mingus put him on the jazz musicians' radar, and through 1956 the serious fan would start seeing his name: on a Teddy Charles album for Atlantic, and perhaps on a recording with Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean for the tiny Ad Lib label. With Byrd and McLean he was knocking on the Prestige door -- or walking through the door, in a way, since the session was laid down at Rudy Van Gelder's studio. Prestige then signed him on for a Jackie McLean / Gene Ammons session in July. followed by two more with Jackie, and then in November this first session under his leadership.
The session features two Waldron originals, one of which, "Dee's Dilemma," had been his contribution to the August Jackie McLean date he had played on. Waldron would go on to become an important jazz composer.There's a Jerome Kern standard and a Benny Golson tune, "Stablemates," which had already been recorded by Paul Chambers and John Coltrane, then by Miles Davis, and was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular jazz standards of all time, with recordings by Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Tito Puente and others. Idrees Suleiman contributed a tune; and I was surprised to see that with a composer as formidable as Gigi Gryce on the session, they wouldn't have included anything by him, until I discovered that "Lee Sears," composer of "Transfiguration," was actually Gryce (Lee Sears was his wife's name).
Of particular interest to me, listening to this album, was the unfamiliar-to-Prestige rhythm section: no Paul Chambers, no Doug Watkins, no Art Taylor, no Philly Joe Jones. And I was interested to note what a difference it made.
Waldron was at the beginning of a long and distinguished career, though not one that would win him any Playboy jazz polls. Prestige titled this album Mal-1, signalling a longer commitment to this new artist, which they were to keep, through Mal-4.
Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.