Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Listening to Prestige 235: Curtis Fuller

In an interview in later years (from an article published in 2010), Curtis Fuller describes John Coltrane's seminal Blue Train recording for Blue Note as his first recording. And Lord knows it was important. Trane has described it as his favorite album. And it's impossible to overstate the importance of John Coltrane to the young Fuller In the same interview, he says "meeting Trane was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was Miles Davis who took me to New York, and Coltrane was in the band, as well as Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones. Trane took me aside...he had confidence that I didn’t have; he saw something that I didn’t see. A great man."

But actually, Blue Train wasn't recorded until September of 1957-- well after the Paul Quinichette session, and after this session, a day later.

As important as Blue Train was in young Fuller's development, this early couple of days in May, a Fridays with Rudy session that spilled over into Saturday, with Fuller as sideman and then leader, should not be overlooked.

So, about Curtis Fuller...but it's so easy to get sidetracked, isn't it? Hank Jones is on this session, too, and he did a number of sessions for Prestige over the years, but wasn't really one of their regulars. Before this session, he had only been on board for two dates supporting vocalist Earl Coleman. And just listen to him on "Blue Lawson." His vamp leading into the head is enough to draw you in, and his solo coming out of it would melt the resistance of Doris Day on a blind date with Rock Hudson. Oh, heck, just keep on listening to "Blue Lawson," and you'll come right back to thinking about Curtis Fuller again, whose trombone solo has been studied by succeeding generations of trombone players. And Sonny Red. And Doug Watkins.
Transcription of Curtis Fuller's solo on "Blue Lawg.

Fuller is yet another musician to have had his initial training in the jazz cauldron of Detroit. His Jamaican-born parents died when he was very young, and he was raised in an orphanage, but went to school with Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd, and later, at Wayne State University, roomed with Joe Henderson. Everyone in Detroit in those days must have fallen under the jazz spell, because young Curtis had his life turned around when a nun at the orphanage took him to hear J. J. Johnson (in a theater--it's too much to ask, to imagine a nun at the Blue Bird). Fuller told interviewer Jon Solomon,
He was coming out the side of the theater. He stopped and squeezed my hand, and he gave me that look — the J.J. Johnson look. And throughout the years, he never forgot me. And as I got older and went to school, and then went to the service and came out, I saw him again with Kai Winding, and he remembered me. When I got to New York, he told Miles [Davis] about me and about my progress.
Fuller would study with both Johnson and Frank Rosolino, and many years later (1980), he would team up with Kai Winding in a reprise of the famous J. J. and Kai pairing. Now a jazz legend himself (and still with us), Fuller has some serious legends as mileposts in his career. Coltrane and Winding are two, but just as important was Lester Young. "I remember talking to Billie Holiday about being surprised that Lester wanted me," Fuller told Solomon. "She said, 'Well, he asked for you. He must've wanted you.'"

And then there was the legend that got away. He auditioned to replace Trummy Young in Louis Armstrong's All Stars, and he really wanted this gig -- for one thing, Young was getting $1500 a week, which was about three times what he had ever earned. But his sound was too modern for Armstrong.

Hank Jones was another Michigan native, but not so much a part of that Detroit scene. He played in territorial bands around Michigan and Ohio, and he left for New York in 1944, before the Blue Bird Inn had really become a bebop mecca.

Sonny Red was known by that name pretty much throughout his career, starting with Two Altos, released in 1959 but recorded in 1957, and his 1960 debut as leader on Blue Note, but on these early Prestige albums he's billed as Red Kyner, and although most of his composer credits are as Sonny Red, there's at least one tune credited to Sylvester Kyner. He was another Detroiter, whose early work in the Motor City included gigs with Barry Harris and Doug Watkins. He came to New York with Fuller, and they started out together, sharing digs and gigs. Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-60, by Lars Bjorn, includes a reminiscence about Sonny from a fellow musician*:
So me and my friends, we go down to the Craftsman's Club one night and there is Sonny Red playing alto and it floored me because I didn't know he had that kind of talent. I said "Wow!" because he sounded like Charlie Parker to me. And I went up to him and said, "Red, I didn't know that you could do this." He said, "Yeah, man." I said, "How long have you been playing? Tell me!" He said, "You just do it!" So he became a motivator to me. I said if he can do it, I can do it. You know, he was with Barry Harris, Doug Watkins on bass, Sid Roman on drums and Claire Roquemore on trumpet. Man, you can hardly believe what these guys were blowing. And the thing about it, no matter how much they played, we could still dance.
Swing-to-bop. Like Paul Quinichette. In New York, the virtuoso soloist became king because dancing was not allowed in the small clubs. In Detroit, a guy could be playing like Charlie Parker and they were still dancing.

Louis Hayes also came out of Detroit, where he was leading groups in  clubs before he was 16, and where he first played with Yusef Lateef.

Completing the all-Detroit tenor of this session, "Blue Lawson" is a tribute to Detroit piano man Hugh Lawson, who came to New York with Lateef and worked in his group.

When people talk about "if you could go back in time, where would you go?" The Globe Theater in Shakespeare's day? The Renaissance? Conservative political theorists want to go back to McKinley's presidency. Woody Allen, in Midnight in Paris, wanted to go back to Paris in the Twenties, and one of the characters in that movie thought the Twenties were boring, and wanted to go back to La Belle Epoque. I've always said I want to go back to New York in the 1940s, to 52nd Street and Minton's and Monroe's. Now I think I'd like to make a side trip in that time travel, and go to Detroit as well. I would have heard some bad cats I could never hear anywhere else. Who was Claire Roquemore? Again from Lars Bjorn's book (no Google references to Roquemore anywhere else):
Claire Roquemore was by many accounts a very promising young trumpeter who never fulfilled his promise. Frank Gant's assessment: "Claire had technical fluidity: I saw him wipe Miles out many a time. He seemed like he had that breath control where he can play forever.
All of the cuts from this session except "Alicia" were included on the album Curtis Fuller - New Trombone. "Alicia" was ultimately put into a Status budget album called Body and Soul.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

* This is taken from the excerpt in Google Books, and the name of the musician who provided this oral history is cut out. You can get a hardcover copy of Before Motown from Amazon for $350, but I also found a used paperback for ten bucks, including shipping, so I've ordered it and will be able to fill in this information later.

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