The jazz of the 1930s that had been created by Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins and Chick Webb, morphed into a style of music called swing, and swing was essentially the province of white bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James and Glenn Miller. When they talk about the golden era when jazz was America's popular music, that's what they're talking about.
So did bebop really kill jazz's popularity? I'm not so sure. Black American music was restless in the 1940s. Black artists knew they couldn't compete in the marketplace with the white swing bands, and they were chafing at the limitations of a music they heard as growing increasingly formulaic. So they either made it gutsier and bluesier and blacker (Louis Jordan) or more inventive and more musically challenging (Bird and Diz). And maybe jazz, the music of African Americans, was still as popular as it had ever been, if you count both tines of that bifurcated style. Louis Jordan wasn't jazz? Joe Liggins and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson and Big Jay McNeely weren't jazz, and Tommy Dorsey and Harry James were? The Ravens and the Clovers weren't jazz, and the Pied Pipers and the Hi-Los were? Gimme a break.
So then we came up to the mid-fifties, and it was happening again. The music that black artists created had morphed again, gotten whiter again, and rhythm and blues had become America's popular music under the new name of rock 'n roll. And once again black music, the creative epicenter of American culture, was moving on, and once again bifurcating.
Bebop, modern jazz, that scary new sound of the 1940s, was still not selling as many records as Benny Goodman in his prime, perhaps, but it was selling its share, and it mostly wasn't scary any more. With artists like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but very much with white artists like Stan Kenton and Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck, it had entered the mainstream of American music. And a newer generation of black musicians, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, were finding sounds that were adventurous and challenging and once again a little scary. And the spiritual descendants of Jordan and Liggins and Jackson and McNeely were finding their way to a jazz that was funkier and bluesier and blacker.
No one person led that new sound, but it's pretty clear that Ray Charles was one of the most important figures. He pioneered a sound that embraced rhythm and blues and modern jazz, but most excitingly embraced the street and the church, blues and gospel. And that was the genesis of what became hard bop or soul jazz or jazz funk.
And if you're going to church for the new jazz sound you're going to bring into the streets, what could be more logical than wheeling an organ out the door?
That was the sound that Shirley Scott found.
Scott was born and raised in Philadephia, a hotbed of jazz rivaling Detroit in its experimentation and technical virtuosity. Her father ran a jazz club, and she grew up listening to players like Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones. She began to play piano because her brother had taken up the tenor sax and needed someone to accompany him, in much the same way that hockey Hall of Famer Tony Esposito became a goalie because his brother Phil needed someone to practice shooting at.
But Philadelphia was also home base for Jackie Davis, who was finding the jazz possibilities latent in the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument hitherto relegated to storefront churches and roller rinks. And Davis was to inspire another Philadelphian, Jimmy Smith. And, of course, young Shirley Scott.
Scott started recording with Eddie Davis in 1953, when Davis had heard what Smith and Jackie Davis were doing with the B-3, and was looking for an organist to form a group with. Fortunately, he was able to look beyond the jazz world's male chauvinism.
The two first recorded together in 1956 for King Records, in Cincinnati. King was an interesting label. It had begun as strictly country and western, then added rhythm and blues. It was never a jazz label, though a couple of jazz artists like Hot Lips Page are on their roster. And artists like Earl Bostic and Bill Doggett who played in both jazz and rhythm and blues formats. The Scott/Davis album on King was called Jazz with a Beat, which is not a bad definition of rhythm and blues.
Count Basie was also a presence on the rhythm and blues/race records charts of the era, and Scott/Davis were also featured on a Roulette album called Count Basie Presents Eddie Davis Trio + Joe Newman. Neither of these was released until 1958, so the Prestige album may have been Scott's first exposure.
For her first session, she chose very familiar tunes: "Brazil," "Cherokee," "Ebb Tide," "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." When you think about it, these are tunes you'd associate with a jazz popularizer/R&B bandleader like Earl Bostic. She also tackles a couple of Miles Davis originals, "Four" and the tune that Miles called "The Theme," but which becomes, in someone else's hands, "Miles' Theme." Each tune is compact, 45 RPM length, appropriate for an R&B audience, and in fact, Prestige released five 45s out of this session.
This is unquestionably jazz, and certainly jazz with a beat. It's also jazz with an organ, which was still relatively uncommon. In Down Beat's 1957 jazz poll, the organ does not rate a category of its own. There are four organists who got votes in the Miscellaneous Instruments category, and Scott was not one of them.
She announces her presence on the scene, and ensures that she won't be left out the next time, by using this session to show off her command of the instrument, pulling out all the stops -- literally, since it's an organ. She is helped by two sidemen who know what they're doing (listen to what they give her on "Cherokee"), and know the difference between jazz and rhythm and blues, or else know that there's no difference.
George Duvivier played on two previous Prestige sessions, both with Gil Mellé, whose work can be described in a number of ways, none of which have anything to do with rhythm and blues. He could, and did play pretty much everything, from R&B (Lucky Millinder) to swing (Jimmie Lunceford) to bop (Bud Powell) to pop (Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra) to avant garde (Eric Dolphy). He was the bassist on the Basie album that featured Davis and Scott.
Arthur Edgehill recorded for Prestige on a 1956 session with Mal Waldron. He specialized in funk and hard bop, and with Duvivier, had a long run with Scott and Davis.
Eight of these tunes were released right away on an LP titled Great Scott! More came out in 1961 (Shirley's Sounds) and 1964 (Workin'). It's harder to find release dates for 45s.
Order Listening to Prestige Vol 2
Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is here! You can order your signed copy or copies through the link above.
Tad Richards will strike a nerve with all of us who were privileged to have lived thru the beginnings of bebop, and with those who have since fallen under the spell of this American phenomenon…a one-of-a-kind reference book, that will surely take its place in the history of this music.
An important reference book of all the Prestige recordings during the time period. Furthermore, Each song chosen is a brilliant representation of the artist which leaves the listener free to explore further. The stories behind the making of each track are incredibly informative and give a glimpse deeper into the artists at work.