Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Listening to Prestige 264: Mose Allison

I had sort of remembered Creek Bank as being the third Mose Allison album for Prestige, creating a sort of Back Country Trilogy of what would later be called concept albums, and would suddenly be thought of as a daring innovation in music when 60s rockers made them. But there were a couple of albums in between, and in fact there was a fourth concept album, The Transfigutration of Hiram Brown. But that was a little different in that Hiram Brown leaves the back country and comes to his city home. And it was on Columbia, which meant that the cover art was markedly different, so it felt different.

My first thought was that maybe Prestige didn't exactly know what to do with Allison. Why suddenly come out with an album of standards and sort-of-standards, with only one Allison original? But I think they did know what to do with him, and his Prestige years are an important part of his legacy. Young Man Mose shows off his roots as much as Back Country Suite does, but a different set of roots. This is the Mose Allison who came to his city home in New York, the serious jazz musician, influenced by Bud Powell and George Wallington, who played gigs with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, recorded with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

For all the different musical emphasis, Young Man Mose follows a pattern set out in his first two albums: a bunch of piano trio instrumentals, a couple of vocals, and one cut featuring him on trumpet. As his recording career went on, he would lose the trumpet, start featuring more vocals, and develop a reputation as one of the important songwriters of his era, combining witty, sophisticated lyrics with his rootsy piano and vocal style -- a sort of funky Dave Frishberg. He was already becoming known as a songwriter from his first two albums, but those songs--"Blues" and "Parchman Farm" were both blues, and didn't even really hint at the range he would develop.

So what about these songs? I started, in a recent entry on Gene Ammons, musing about the body of material that in literature is known as the canon, and in popular music has come to be called The Great American Songbook, and which was mostly being kept alive by jazz musicians during the 50s.. In the top forty radio era, otherwise known as the rock 'n roll era, certain artists and songs came to be pigeonholed as "one-hit wonders," and there was always a derogatory edge to this, though there shouldn't have been. If someone produces one memorable song, that's one more than most of us will ever do.

But there are one-hit wonders in the Great American Songbook, too. Those songs weren't all written by Gershwin and Kern and Porter. Allison touches on a few of them here.

"Somebody Else Is Taking My Place" was a trio effort: bandleader Russ Morgan, who contributed to one other notable song ("You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You"), and (Bob Ellsworth  and Richard Howard, who had none, unless you count Howard's "Shut the Door, They're Coming Through the Window."

Fred Hamm was a cornet player who took over the leadership of the Edgar Benson Orchestra, and neither Hamm nor Benson is much remembered today, though the Benson Orchestra did hire the young Frankie Trumbauer and Gene Krupa. Hamm and three bandmates wrote "Bye Bye Blues," which is remembered.

"I Told Ya I Loved Ya, Now Get Out" isn't exactly a standard, but it's had a few covers, and was written by three Jimmy Dorsey orchestramates, one of whom was Herb Ellis. "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" is by Ray Noble, probably mostly remembered as a radio bandleader, but his contribution to the GASB is not negligible: it also includes "Cherokee" and "The Very Thought of You."

Ellington, the Gershwins and Richard Whiting represent the Olympians. The GASB is circumscribed by time: the 20s, 30s and 40s. Ray Charles falls outside its purview, and not many progressive jazz musicians would have added him to the canon in 1958, but time has shown that he's second to none in importance. Good call by Mose to include him.

If I'm going to choose a favorite on this album, I guess it'll be Messrs. Morgan, Ellsworth and Howard. It's not the best song on the album, but I love what Mose does with it.

"Don't Get Around Much Any More" was issued as a single, on the flip side of the iconic "Parchman Farm," and it was also tapped for double duty on LP when Prestige put together a compilation album of Mose's vocals, titled, appropriately enough, Mose Allison Sings.

Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is very close to release. Order your advance copy from

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Listening to Prestige 263: John Coltrane

This became a chop shop Prestige session, dismantled and used for parts. The five tunes recorded on this date eventually found their way onto three different albums. Both John Coltrane and Donald Byrd would go on to stratospheric careers--Coltrane as avant-garde icon, frequently called the most important jazz artist of his generation, Byrd to record BlackByrds, one of the best selling jazz albums of all time. But even in 1958, they stood out as two of the best young talents around, so it's not clear why this would have happened. Maybe Prestige was simply, during these growth years, more than they could press, distribute and promote,
Maybe Weinstock knew that, like Miles, Trane possessed a reputation that would only grow, and he figured it couldn't hurt to have some product to release at a later time. Anyway, in the 21st century, it mox nix. Music is streamed now, and the whole concept of albums is becoming obsolete.

The session featured two pop standards (Arlen and Mercer, Rodgers and Hart), one jazz standard ("Lush Life," composed by Billy Strayhorn when he was 16!), and two originals, each with an interesting pedigree. The assembled talent represented an intertwining of two of the most prolific feeder streams to New York jazz. Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers and Louis Hayes were all from Detroit. John Coltrane had spent his formative years in Philadelphia, where he had worked with Texas-born Red Garland. When Coltrane came back to New York from his second Philadelphia sojourn, this one to kick his heroin habit, he brought some musicians with him, and, for this session, some composers. "Nakatini Serenade" was written by Philadelphian Cal Massey, whose talent was known within the jazz community, but whose militant political stances would lead him to be shunned, in later years, by some white-owned record labels.

"The Believer" is the work of a 20-year-old, as-yet-unknown Philadelphian named McCoy Tyner. Tyner was two years away from making his recording debut with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, and the beginning of his work with Coltrane which would include "A Love Supreme." But clearly Trane was already listening to him.

Tyner's title presages, in different ways, the directions that each of the principals were to take. "The Believer" could fit in with the mystical/spiritual direction of the Coltrane school, which produced such titles as Trane's "A Love Supreme" and Pharaoh Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Or it could belong with the funk-gospel jazz that Byrd and others were to make for Blue Note, like Horace Silver's "The Preacher" or Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon." It's neither, but it's a great, riff-based melody, and it gives both soloists, and the other members of the group, space to create.

"Lush Life" was the first track to see vinyl, in the 1961 album of the same name. It was also
released on 45, which must have taken considerable editing, since the original is 14 minutes long--especially when you consider it only took up one side. "I Love You" was the other. "The Believer, in its turn, became the tittle of an album, released in 1963 and also containing "Nakatini Serenade." These two releases coincided with the beginning of Coltrane's fruitful years with Impulse! Records. "The Believer" was also released on 45, b/w "Dakar.".

The Last Trane left the Prestige station in 1965, and included "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Lover" from this session.

Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is very close to release. Order your advance copy from

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 262: Gene Ammons

The question of jazz's popularity, or lack of it, comes up about as often in music discussions as the "death of poetry" does in literary discussions, which is to say, you can't get away from it, and no one really has anything new to add to it. Including me, but that doesn't stop me from going back to it. I finished up 1957 with a reference to an article in Billboard asking once again why jazz should be so popular abroad, and still fail to reach a mass audience at home. Billboard was always a cheerleader for the business of selling music, and their writers and editors had some very sharp insights. Music editor Paul Ackerman, one of the sharpest, suggested that people really liked jazz when they heard it, but they didn't hear it enough, and he suggested that people in the jazz world should work harder at educating America's
disk jockeys. People in other countries were hearing plenty of jazz because of the popularity of Voice of America disk jockey Willis Conover, but there was no one like Conover on the home front air waves. The Voice of America, of course, was manipulated by the CIA, and the CIA was selling its own brand of culture wars -- America was the home of abstract expressionist art and modern jazz. daring art forms that were anathema to the communists. This might have been a tougher sell at home, where artists were generally suspected of being communists.

But the idea that DJs should be educated about jazz was an interesting one. Looking at another Billboard issue, this one from 1954, radio jocks were asked about their favorite jazz artists, and they couldn't come up with many. Their lists ran to dance bands like Les Brown, pop acts like Les Paul and Mary Ford, novelty acts like Jerry Murad's Harmonicats. They didn't seem to know exactly what jazz was.

It should be pointed out that the Top Forty charts of the 1950s were reasonably hospitable to instrumental music, and all kinds of instrumental music. You had perky-poppy hits like Les Baxter's "Poor People of Paris," Latin hits like Perez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," lush big band swing like Jimmy Dorsey's "So Rare," TV themes like Ray Anthony's "Dragnet," syrupy hits like Percy Faith's "A Summer Place," gutsy rhythm and blues like Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," and novelty rock and roll like the Champs' "Tequila." There was even some near-jazz, like Cozy Cole's "Topsy," or Red Prysock bringing his Lester Young influence to "Hand Clappin'" and "Cloudburst," which was also given a jazz cover by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

So maybe the jazz labels should have listened to Ackerman a little more closely. If one goes back to those 1954 disc jockey lists of favorite jazz musicians and jazz albums, one can't help but notice that they are virtually all from major labels. The only independent who makes a dent is Norman Granz, so maybe he understood the game a little better than some of the other indie impresarios.

Radio was a lot different in 1954, and here's one of the big differences. From Billboard, again:
Who selects the records played on your show?
Myself                 492
Program manager    1
Music librarian        9
Assistant                 1
Today virtually no DJ does his or her own programming. But back then, they did. Country legend Loretta Lynn got her start by driving around to every little radio station in the South with a crate full of copies of her first 45, meeting the DJs, schmoozing them, giving them the record. Today, no one would let her in the door. When I wrote The New Country Music Encyclopedia, back in the early 90s, I asked a record company executive, "What if it's not a kid? What if it's a veteran like Charley Pride, with a new recording, but no major label support?" "They'd let him in, because he's Charley Pride. But they wouldn't play his record."

Back then, you didn't have to do it yourself with a dusty old station wagon and a crate full of 45s. Song pluggers were an important part of the industry, and they did it for you. And you could even pay a little under the table to get your record on the air.

When people found out that was happening, it became a major scandal. Disc jockeys were fired. Congress launched a much-publicized investigation of payola. As a young person passionately in love with music, payola never seemed much of a problem to me. The assertion that Alan Freed took money under the table for playing records didn't bother me in the slightest. I loved the records he played, and I was much more bothered by the fact of his being forced off the air.

But anyway, it was 1958, and here you were. There was the persuasive power of song pluggers, and Nelson George profiles a few of them and discusses their importance to black radio in his brilliant study, The Death of Rhythm and Blues. For a little more of an investment, there was the power of greased palms. How much of an investment? I don't know, but Alan Freed played records by some pretty small independent labels, so it had to have been somewhat negotiable.

All of which brings us back to the independent jazz labels, and their apparent invisibility to disc jockeys, be they the smooth pop purveyors like Jack Lacy and William B, Williams on WNEW, the rock and rollers like Alan Freeds on WINS, the black radio jocks like Jocko, your Ace from Outer Space, on WOV. What if the song pluggers, with a little extra scratch in their wallets, had been working for Prestige or Blue Note or Riverside, or the jazz division of Atlantic?

They could have done worse than to start with Gene Ammons, and an album like this one. It features five horns, for a full-throated big band sound. It has Ammons’s rootsy connection to the blues, and some solid rhythms. I can imagine a cut like “Ammon Joy,” with its echoes of both swing and rhythm and blues, finding a place in a number of radio formats. “Ammon Joy is 13 minutes long, so it would have to have been edited fairly severely, but that was a not uncommon practice by jazz labels when the issued a cut on 45. And, in my reimagined world of 50s music, how about that? Give the Top Forty or R&B or Make Believe Ballroom audience a taste of the swinging head, the beautiful Jerome Richardson solo, a bit of John Coltrane on alto, and your reimagined listeners put their nickel in the jukebox, like what they hear, plunk down 79 cents for a 45, listen to it a few times, get interested enough to shell out $3.98 for the LP, and wow! Didja hear this? There’s a whole lot more to this song that we got on the 45! And Paul Ackerman is right—if people are exposed to jazz, they’ll like it.

Or maybe Prestige decides to try and sell the radio jocks on a familiar tune from the Great American Songbook, like the Ammons take on Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” (quintet, with some playful work by Richardson) or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring” (again a quintet, this time with Coltrane).

Or maybe not. Much as we revere the Great American Songbook today, the 50s were not its finest decade. I don’t have any sources on this, but I’m fairly certain the term had not been coined them. The songs from the 30s and 40s were known as “standards,” and they weren’t the songs that song pluggers and payola providers were pushing. So during the decade when traditional pop songs and pop singers duked it out with the rock and rollers, the popsters were not going with their heavy artillery. They were leading the charge with songs like “Ricochet Romance” and “Cross Over the Bridge” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane” and “Chances Are.” Some of them were pretty good songs, some of them weren’t. Frank Sinatra recorded standards on his great Capitol albums with Nelson Riddle and Billy May, but his singles, his Top Forty releases, were newly minted songs like “High Hopes” and “Young at Heart.”

The standards were left to the jazz musicians, and, interestingly, the rock and rollers. Elvis recorded Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” doowoppers recorded the Kern/Fields “The Way You Look Tonight” (the Jaguars), Louis Prima’s “Sunday Kind of Love” (the Harptones), the Benny Goodman standard “Glory of Love” (the Five Keys) and many others.

It was left to jazz musician with a pop following, Ella Fitzgerald, to call new attention to the songs of the cream of American popular composers, with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, the first of several such albums, and quite probably the inspiration for whoever coined the phrase “Great American Songbook.”

So maybe a better choice for an Ammons release for the song pluggers and payola merchants would have been a pop song of the Fifties, “That’s All,” a 1953 hit for Nat “King” Cole.

In any event, none of that happened, and jazz floated along with its niche audience. One song from the session, “Blue Hymn” (quintet with Jerome Richardson) was released on 45, but much later. It’s hard to precisely pin down, It’s hard to precisely pin down the release dates of Prestige 45s, but it probably was in conjunction with the Bluesville compilation album, Soul Jazz, Vol. 2.

“Ammon Joy,” “Jug Handle” and “It Might As Well Be Spring” were all on a 1958 release of which the title tune was “Groove Blues.” “Blue Hymn,” “The Real McCoy” (Mal Waldron composition), “Cheek to Cheek” and “That’s All” made up a second album, The Big Sound, also released in 1958, so even if they didn’t get a Top Forty single, the folks at Prestige got their money’s worth out of this session.