Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Listening to Prestige 505: Gene Ammons

LISTEN TO ONE: I Sold My Heart
to the Junkman

Gene Ammons played back to back sessions in October of 1961, with different lineups, for two different albums, although some tunes from each session would end up on each album.

Art Taylor and Ray Barretto supplied the percussion for both sessions, both of them familiar sounds to Prestige listeners, particularly Taylor, who had appeared on 65 earlier Prestige sessions. George Duvivier, who played on the October 18 session, was another regular, with 33 previous appearances.

Art Davis was the other bass player. He had first been heard on a Prestige recording just the week earlier,
appearing on Oliver Nelson's epic Afro-American Sketches. Ammons and  producer Esmond Edwards blended youth and experience on both dates, with Davis (age 24) paired with Walter Bishop Jr. (age 34) on piano, while the veteran Duvivier (age 41) was matched with Patti Bown (30).

Both Davis and Bown had classical as well as jazz backgrounds. Bown moved early into jazz and stayed there, but Davis, regarded by many as one of the finest musicians of his generation, continued to work, and excel, in both worlds.

And he paid for it. Although he played with major symphony orchestras, those positions were hard to come by for an African American, and in 1969 he filed a discrimination lawsuit against the New York Philharmonic, which up until that time, had employed exactly one Black musician. He lost the lawsuit, but his activism led to the practice of blind auditions, where the judges could not see the race or gender of the applicant who was playing. But activism often comes with a price, and for Davis the price was a blacklist. He found it hard to get employment as a musician in the 1970s, and this was a man who was known to be John Coltrane's favorite bassist, who had been described as a "forgotten genius" by Ahmad Jamal and "beyond category" by critic Nat Hentoff.

Davis, for a while, had to find another line of work, and he did. I've talked about jazz musicians who found other things to do--George Wallingford going into the family air conditioning business, Wendell Marshall starting his own insurance agency--but Davis did them one better. He went back to school and got a doctorate in clinical psychology, and as gigs started coming his way again--both jazz and classical--he worked them around seeing patients.

Ammons, always a versatile player, covers a wide range of material in these two sessions. 

There are three jazz standards, which allow Ammons and Co. to exercise their bebop chops. "The Masquerade is Over," composed by Allie Wrubel, was a hit for Jimmy Dorsey and others in 1939, then lay mostly dormant until until a doowop group, the Cleftones, picked it up in 1965, and the following year Cannonball Adderley became the first modern jazz musician to record it, after which it rapidly became a favorite of jazz, pop, and even rhythm and blues performers,  "I'm Beginning to See the Light" is from the Ellington songbook, co-composed by Duke, Johnny Hodges and Harry James, it has the subtle chord changes that beboppers love. Scores of jazz singers, and singers who'd like a little jazz tinge to their repertoire, have recorded it, and it's been a favorite of instrumentalists as well. In 1961 alone, it was recorded by Ben Webster, Billy Byers, Ruby Braff, and Al Casey. And Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In" has remained a great vehicle for tenor sax players ever since Young and Count Basie introduced it in 1939, although it took a while to become the ubiquitous standard that it is. The first jazz musician to record it after Lester was James Moody in 1949 (for Prestige, on the same Swedish session that produced "Moody's Mood for Love").  Oscar Peterson recorded it in 1956, then Cannonball Adderley with Gil Evans in 1958, and after that, the floodgates opened.

"Travelin'" by Kenny Burrell isn't so much of a standard, but it's a nice tune, and this may be the first recorded version of it. Burrell doesn't seem to have recorded it until two years later, a session with Jimmy Smith.

The recent pop song catalog was mined for "The Breeze and I," "Song of the Islands," "Soft Summer Breeze," "Moonglow" and "The Five O'Clock Whistle."  All of these except "Soft Summer Breeze" were older songs that had been resurrected during the 1950s.

One aspect of 1950s culture that's not often remembered was the rise of what would later come to be called "easy listening" music, but was in that era a rearguard action against rock and roll. 

The playing of recorded music had become one of the predominant features of the radio airwaves by the 1950s, as live broadcasts from the big bands disappeared, and comedy and drama shows, and their stars, were lost to television. The first record was played over the air in 1911, when both radio and records were in their infancy. But the format was not to catch on right away, because a lot of restrictions were put on the way recorded music could be presented, and a lot of records simply couldn't be played over the air, because many artists wouldn't allow it, and their records were stamped "Not licensed for radio broadcast."

A real milestone in the history of recorded music on radio came
in 1935 with a program called "Make Believe Ballroom," hosted by a radio personality named Martin Block, who came to be so identified with the format that columnist Walter Winchell began calling him a "disc jockey," which was a pretty clever coinage, when you think about it. "Make Believe Ballroom" was created to fill a need--the need to fill in time between reports on the most dominant news story of the day.  A carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann had gone on trial for the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. The trial lasted for over a month, and while it was going on, any regular radio programming would be broken into with bulletins. Since Block was standing by to fill in odd chunks of time, he couldn't very well have a real orchestra on hand, so make believe orchestras in a make believe ballroom were the next best thing.

Both Block and the show's title had a longer life than Bruno Hauptmann, who went to the electric chair on April 3, 1936. Recorded music on the air was growing in popularity, to the extent that musicians began to feel it was jeopardizing their livelihood, and the musicians' union called a strike against recording companies that lasted from 1942 to 1944. But recorded music on the air was a phenomenon that couldn't be stopped. 

Having their records played over the air was the life's blood of the new independent record labels which had grown up like mushrooms after World War II, labels that specialized in jazz, rhythm and blues or country (although country did have its live broadcast outlets like Grand Old Opry and Louisiana Hayride). And then in the 1950s, rhythm and blues morphed into rock and roll and became the new lingua franca of teenage America.

And the bĂȘte noire of another group, for whom rock and roll was the music of the devil or jungle or the terminally tone deaf, depending on which outraged voice you were listening to. For those people, recorded music on the radio followed the "Make Believe Ballroom" format, and, indeed, still included "Make Believe Ballroom" and Martin Block, who hosted the show on WNEW radio in New York until 1954. After Block finally decamped for another station, "Make Believe Ballroom" continued on WNEW with new host Jerry Marshall for three years, and then when he left, with William B. Williams, who became synonymous with the programming concept and the rearguard action against rock 'n roll through the 1980s.

So, to wind up this digression, what were the "Make Believe Ballroom" type stations playing in the 1950s? They couldn't go on being pretend ballrooms hosting make believe big bands, because those big bands mostly didn't exist any more, and the era of the big band had given way to the era of the singer--1940s era holdovers like Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford, new crooners like Eddie Fisher and Connie Francis. And where did these singers get their songs? Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other recorded LPs of standards, but the real action in the 1950s--radio, jukeboxes--was on the 45 RPM record. The singers got their material from new Broadway musicals like My Fair Lady and The Pajama Game and Kismet, or from movie soundtracks like Three Coins in the Fountain or A Summer Place. or new songs from Tin Pan Alley that were often not very good, or by digging out some less likely songs from the past.

Radio actually hedged a lot of bets in the 1950s. For every Make Believe Ballroom on the one hand, or Alan Freed's rock 'n roll party on the other hand, there were stations, and a format, that had it both ways. In New York, when Jerry Marshall left WNEW to go and host a similar show for competitor WMGM, that station was also adopting a new format for its afternoon, after school slot--a format that had recently been created by an Omaha, Nebraska radio station owner who noticed that the same songs kept being played over and over on the jukebox in a diner he frequented, and from that observation, Top 40 radio was born, and the top jukebox hits of any given week put Eddie Fisher and Perry Como cheek by jowl with Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. 

The jazz musicians of the 1950s and early 1960s did not go much to rock 'n roll for inspiration, although that would change later in the decade, but they could still go to Your Hits of the Week for songs to catch the ear of the something less than hard core jazz fan, and a populist like Gene Ammons would always have an ear open for that.

And so with the songs on this album. "The Breeze and I" was originally a classical piece written by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona in 1928, made into a hit with English lyrics by Jimmy Dorsey in 1940. and then returned to Your Hits of the Week in 1955 by the Italian singer Caterina Valente. "Song of the Islands" was written by Hawaiian politician/songwriter Charles E. King in 1916, and brought back to radio and jukeboxes in the late 1950s by Marty Robbins, Andy Williams, and Annette Funicello.  Both of these were representatives of an odd genre of faux-exotic music called "exotica," described by bandleader Martin Denny, who more or less invented the genre, as  "a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient...what a lot of people imagined the islands to be's pure fantasy though." Which meant they were sort of novelty songs, but catchy and melodic. "The Five O'Clock Whistle" wasn't exotica, but it was a novelty, and catchy. Written by film composer Joseph Myrow in 1940, it was popularized by the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller, then brought back to life in 1955 as a pop instrumental (they had them in those days) by organist Lenny Dee. "Moonglow," written in 1933 by Will Hudson, has always been a favorite of dance orchestras, but found its way into top 40 radio in 1956, as part of a medley with the theme from Picnic, a movie vehicle for William Holden and Kim Novak, performed by George Cates, who would become Lawrence Welk's musical director.

"Soft Summer Breeze" was a minor 1955 hit for jazz/lounge pianist Eddie Heywood, who would have a much bigger hit the following year with "Canadian Sunset." "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" was a 1948 hit for Dinah Washington, and did get a cover in the 1950s by the doowop group The Silhouettes, but that never went anywhere. It would become a career-making hit a few years later for Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, but it's probably here just because Ammons liked it.

Jazz versions of top 40 hits were never likely to make a dent on Top 40 radio, but they could get played by the Martin Block/Jerry Marshall/William B. Williams types, and find their way onto certain jukeboxes. "The Breeze and I," "Moonglow," and "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" all did get released on 45, as did "Don't Go to Strangers," which had been a jazz and Make Believe Ballroom hit, even making it onto the top 40 charts for Etta Jones (on Prestige). Two Ammons originals, "Up Tight!" and "Carbow" also made it onto 45. 

Both recording sessions were produced by Esmond Edwards. Up Tight! was released in 1961, Boss Soul! in 1963.

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