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.