Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige 212: George Wallington

Strange coincidence -- or are the gods trying to tell me something? The last three recording sessions I've listened to have featured musicians who left the jazz life behind for something more respectable and secure. By the early 1960s, Teddy Charles would hie himself to the Caribbean to become a charter boat skipper, where he took many vacationers on a three hour cruise, and never stranded any of them on a deserted island. Wendell Marshall would hold out a little longer, but by the end of the decade, he would be back in his home town of St. Louis, opening his own insurance agency.

George Wallington may already have had one foot out the door when he walked into the Van Gelders' living room to record these tracks. He was nearing the end of his time in smoky clubs (and exclusive prep schools--one of his final albums was Live at Hotchkiss). He would make two more albums altogether in 1957, the Hotchkiss album for Savoy and one for the tiny East-West label. Then he would adjourn to Florida, and take his place in his family's air conditioning business, where he would remain until making a comeback in the 1980s.

Wallington had paid his dues. He had been around since the early days of bebop, as had bassist Teddy Kotick. Wallington made his first records in 1949 (with a sextet that included Gerry Mulligan and Brew Moore), but he'd already been around for a while. He was with the first bebop group that Dizzy Gillespie brought to 52nd Street,. Max Roach was in that band, and he said of Wallington:
We needed a piano player to stay outta the way. The one that stayed outta the way best was the best for us. That's why George Wallington fitted in so well with us, because he stayed outta the way, and when he played a solo, he'd fill it up; sounded just like Bud.
 And he'd made a powerful impact as a composer. His "Godchild" was one of the tunes on the historic Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions (perhaps brought by Mulligan?).

Teddy Kotick, who played with Stan Getz and was one of Charlie Parker's favorite bassists, also knew how to stay outta the way--keep time, understand the subtleties and complexities of bebop, don't solo.

Whoever took the notes or transcribed the notes for this session had a bit of a communication problem. The first track is listed as "In Sarah," but that didn't seem right -- a little too risqué -- and besides, it seemed very familiar. It's probably been 30 years since I played the album I first heard it it on, but back when I first heard it -- good Lord, 50 years ago--I wore it out. The correct title is "In Salah," and the composer is a young piano player who was sort of a protege of Wallington's. Wallington used this tune on this album, and a few more on his next album. The young composer would shortly sign with Prestige, and release his own first album: Back Country Suite, by Mose Allison. Wallington, Byrd and Woods take it at a more boppish tempo than the bluesy, laid back Mose. But we'll be getting to him soon.

The confusion expands with the next tune, a Phil Woods original, or maybe Phil wrote it down and he had really bad handwriting. On the set list, it's "Up Children Reel." The correct title is "Up Tohickon Creek," and unless you were from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, having a hard time with that would be understandable.

"In Salah" is a piano piece for Allison, but Wallington gives Byrd and Woods plenty to do on it. He doesn't stay outta the way, though. He doesn't intrude on their solos, but he goes all out on his own. Different from Allison's, but I'll get to that when I get to Mose. "Up Tohickon Creek" is another uptempo piece, with a killer drum solo by Nick Stabulas.

"Graduation Day" was a current hit for the Four Freshmen, who were always billed as a jazz vocal group, and they sorta were (their Four Freshmen and Five Trombones is considered a classic), but not exactly in step with the bebop era, or the rock 'n roll era. On this version, Byrd and Woods stay outta the way, and Wallington does it as a trio piece. It's taken slowly and dreamily, and with a lot more depth of feeling than the pop version, but what do Freshmen know about graduation day?

"Indian Summer" is the Victor Herbert chestnut turned jazz standard that we've heard before from Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Teddy Kotick has not exactly stayed outta the way throughout this session, but here he steps forth with a full fledged solo. He should have done more.

The set winds up with compositions by Byrd and Woods. All good stuff.

The album is called George Wallington -- The New York Scene, and it was released on New Jazz. It also had a release as part of an album on the almost totally forgotten 16 2/3 RPM format, under the title George Wallington / Phil Woods / Donald Byrd / Red Garland -- Modern Jazz Survey -- New York Jazz.

The New York Scene.  A cool and catchy title that could have been given to nearly every album in the Prestige catalog. And it's interesting for another reason.

Genres of music get labeled, and sometimes the people who play that music hate those labels. Many jazz musicians hate the term "jazz" -- in Art Taylor's book of interviews, Notes and Tones, written in the 1970, he asks many musicians how they feel about the word, and most of them don't like it. But nothing better has come along. "Swing" wasn't always called "swing," and musical styles like the blues, ragtime and stride piano existed way before they had names. Rhythm and blues was once called "race music," and disc jockey Alan Freed called the contemporary rhythm and blues records that he played "moondog music" until he moved from Cleveland to New York and discovered that a blind street singer already used the name "Moondog," so he started calling the music he played rock 'n roll. In Art Taylor's book, the music that today we call "free jazz" had a slightly different name: Taylor asks his interviewees what they think of "freedom music" (opinions are mixed; he also asks them what they think of the Beatles and that's mostly negative). The music that began its life as "rap," and is still called "rap" by some, mostly goes now by "hip-hop," the name preferred by its practitioners.

So what about bebop? Some suggest it came from the nonsense syllables sung by scat singers (much like doowop). As such, it was also sometimes called "rebop." But before "bebop" caught on, was taken up in public print, and became the standard nomenclature, this music -- developed in Harlem and on 52nd Street, then exported to the world, was called "New York music." Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and, yes, George Wallington - the New York scene.

New York music. Why not? We have New Orleans jazz. Kinda too bad it didn't stick.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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