Thursday, January 05, 2017

Listening to Prestige 228: Barbara Lea

What's important about these growth years for Prestige? The first great Miles Davis quintet albums. The Modern Jazz Quartet forming and making the records, like Django, that they're still remembered for. The early John Coltrane, playing with Bobby Jaspar or Kenny Burrell or Jackie McLean,  or matched against two baritone saxes, finding and growing his genius.

Hell, yeah. But no. The answer is it's all important. Musicians coming into the record store of a 19-year-old kid who loved jazz and was inspired by a Thelonious Monk record played for him by Alfred Lion to start his own record company. Hey kids...we've got a barn...we've got all this talent...let's put on a show!

A girl from Detroit who grew up listening to the French light operas composed by her great-uncle, who sang with dance bands until she got a music scholarship to Wellesley, graduated, came to New York, made a 78 for a tiny label with some very good trad jazzmen -- Cutty Cutshall, Eddie Barefield, Peewee Erwin -- then found herself on two of the hottest modern jazz labels in New York, first Riverside, then Prestige, for whom she went out to Hackensack and Rudy Van Gelder's studio twice in 1956 (winning Down Beat's best new singer award), then four more times in 1957. Then a long hiatus, during which she worked as an actress and a teacher, until the late 1970s, when people started remembering that here was a singer who cared deeply about the best American popular songs, and could interpret a great lyric like no one else.

And, as always, every session is different, and the story of the leader on the date is only part of the story. Barbara Lea had recorded five days earlier with a trio. On April 24th and 26th she was back in the studio with a seven piece band. It included Dick Cary, who played on all of her sessions, and Prestige veteran Jimmy Raney.

It included some of the finest accompanists of jazz and popular singers. Jimmy Lyon was best known as Mabel Mercer's accompanist, but also worked with June Christy, Polly Bergen and Connie Haines. Beverly Peer began his career with Ella Fitzgerald in the Chick Webb orchestra, and also worked with Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand. Osie Johnson played on a session with Dinah Washington.

And it also included a musician with a truly remarkable career, one that began before some of the musicians on this session were born, and continued into the modern jazz, and even the free jazz era. Garvin Bushell recorded with some impressive female vocalists too: Mamie Smith, who recorded the first blues record ever made, and Ethel Waters. He was a member of the Louisiana Sugar Babies with Jabbo Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson. He worked
with Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Bunk Johnson. And, jumping ahead, he recorded with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. His autobiograpy, Jazz From the Beginning, is must reading for every jazz fan. And here's a video of an interview with him, talking about those early days.

Lea called upon the services of some of the greatest songwriters in that American Songbook. Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (for the obscure and wonderfully titled "Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-be") and others. She had the services of some wonderful musicians and some very interesting arrangements. And she delivered.

All of these were issued on the Lea in Love album. "Mountain Greenery" became a 45, along with "A Straw Hat Full of Lilace" from a subsequent session.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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