Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Skies of America

It was a bright, beautiful day in the late spring of 1983 when Ornette Coleman was also given the keys to Hartford, CT. Yes, that's right – Hartford. I don't know why they did it either, but Prime Time played and it was wonderful. Photo by Gems of Jazz 
Did you know that September 29 was Ornette Coleman Day? In Fort Worth it was, back in 1983 .

Fort Worth, Texas, is Ornette's home town, and on that day he was there to celebrate the opening of the Caravan of Dreams, a newly-renovated performing arts complex located downtown on Houston Street. The project of billionaire philanthropist/financier Ed Bass, the Caravan housed a theater, dance studios, a recording facility and a desert garden under a geodesic dome (the precursor of Bass' "Bioshpere" experiment). The center's focus was on "the creation of new forms of music, theater, dance, poetry and film," and Ornette fit the bill perfectly. His music was chosen to be performed at the Caravan's launch. And as a result, the city's mayor proclaimed the day be named in Coleman's honor. 

The former Caravan of Dreams, now a restaurant, B&B and shops. The rooftop garden can be seen on the left, the geodesic dome just visible on the right. Photo from 
The gala included a performance of Ornette's new string quartet (dedicated to Buckminster Fuller), a set by his electric band Prime Time and a full reading of his symphony, the epic "Skies of America." The latter was performed as a sort of dialogue between Prime Time and the Fort Worth Symphony, the way Ornette had originally intended (and not the way it was reconfigured for the Columbia Records album from 1972).

A jazz journalist friend of mine was in the audience for "Skies of America," and he managed to record the entire 85-minute performance. He shared that tape with me, and now I'm sharing it with you. The sound quality isn't the best, but it's as good as you'd expect from a lap-held stereo cassette recorder. The piece is extraordinarily dense, with rich textures and startling juxtapositions – and you even get to hear the guys in Prime Time take solos. If you're familiar with the Columbia LP release of "Skies of America," this is a very different animal. It uses the familiar "Theme from a Symphony" motif (from "Dancing in Your Head") but also relies heavily on the melody of "All My Life" (from "Science Fiction") which I don't recall hearing in the recorded version. As far as I know, this was only the second time "Skies" was performed live (the first was at Newport in New York back in 1972 or '73) and it was the only time it was played in full.

A seminal work, and one I believe is destined to achieve repertoire status with symphonies around the world (though that may take a few years). Also included, by the way, is a 1985 interview with Ornette where he endeavors to explain his harmelodic theory. Fun!

Skies of America, private recording

Ornette Coleman, as, vi, tp; Bern Nix, Charles Ellerbee, el g; Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Albert MacDowell, b; Sabir Kamal , d; Denardo Coleman, d, syn; Fort Worth Symphony orchestra.
Opening of the Caravan of Dreams performing arts center
Tarrant County Convention Center, Fort Worth, TX; September 29, 1983

1. Skies of America, pt. 1  46:21
2. Skies of America, pt. 2  40:21

Ornette Coleman, guest; Tim Page, host
Meet the Composer radio program, WNYC, New York, NY; May 22, 1985

3. Interview  17:58

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jazz West Coast

The Gerry Mulligan Quartet performing on stage at Stockton High School's auditorium in November 1954. Mulligan left New York in the early '50s and helped to define the sound of West Coast jazz. From left, Chico Hamilton, Red Mitchell, Mulligan and Jon Eardley. Photo by William Claxton
A friend of mine used to trash West Coast drummers. He thought the "cool" sound from California was pure white bread, regardless of the ethnicity of its players, and it was his firm belief that West Coast rhythm sections were the pantywaists of jazz. He was a former student of Lee Konitz, so I would get out of the way and let him talk.

But it's true that those mid-'50s rhythm players from San Francisco and Los Angeles had a lighter sound. Chico Hamilton especially. Of course, when you compare a drummer to Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and the rest of the boys back east, he can't help but sound wimpy.

So here's a sampler that offers a snapshot of West Coast playing in 1957, the year the east-west debate was at its most passionate – and silliest. It's the third in a series of LPs issued by Pacific Jazz on the very limited Jazz West Coast imprint. I'm including only Vol. III even though I have Vol. II because III is all previously unissued material (I unfortunately don't have Vol. I). I believe most of these tunes remain unissued to this day.

There is some excellent playing on this vintage disc – Gerry Mulligan's sinewy sextet for starters, and Art Pepper's pre-downward spiral altoing. Check out Jim Hall's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" with Carl Perkins, too. I think Jim's playing a Les Paul on it, if you can believe that.

My West Coast-disdaining pal would have ripped Bud Shank's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" – the one real lightweight on the record. And "Sweet Georgia Brown" comes close with Bob Cooper's annoying oboe. Those ex-Kenton boys picked up some bad habits working with Stanley.

The cover of this album is more classic kitsch. Frothy surf surging under a bright blue sky, an emerging diver in a wet suit with speargun and – a trumpet? Jamming with the fishes perhaps. Richard Bock, Pacific Jazz's bossman, was responsible for the concept. It's another Claxton pic, by the way.

As always, the music is ripped from the original vinyl with only a gentle cleaning of pops and clicks. 

Jazz West Coast III, Jazz West Coast JWC-507
(Full personnel listed on cover included with download)

Gerry Mulligan Sextet, featuring Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer
Stockton, CA; November 12, 1954 
1. There Will Never Be Another You  5:34

Chico Hamilton Quintet, featuring Carson Smith
Los Angeles, CA; October 26, 1956
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Town  2:57

Bud Shank Quartet
Los Angeles, CA; November 7, 1956
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams  3:35

Art Pepper Quartet, featuring Pete Jolly
Los Angeles, CA; July 28, 1956
4. Old Croix  4:24

Chet Baker Sextet, featuring Art Pepper
Los Angeles, CA; July 28, 1956
5. Little Girl  4:15

Russ Freeman-Chet Baker Quartet
Los Angeles, CA; 1956
6. Love Nest  4:53

Bud Shank-Bob Cooper Quintet, featuring Howard Roberts
Los Angeles, CA; November 29, 1956
7. Sweet Georgia Brown  4:40

Jim Hall Trio, featuring Carl Perkins
Los Angeles, CA; January 24, 1957
8. Things Ain't What They Used to Be (alt. take)  5:44

Phil Urso-Bob Burgess Quintet, featuring Bobby Timmons
Los Angeles, CA; October 18, 1956
9. Too Marvelous for Words  3:44

Russ Freeman-Bill Perkins Quintet, featuring Bud Shank
Los Angeles, CA; February 15, 1956
10. Brother Can You Spare a Dime  4:43

Find it here:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Inimitable Delineator of Blues

In one of the boxes were five 12-inch acetate discs carefully stored in custom-made brown paper sleeves. A ten-sided mystery: What was on these vintage transcription recordings? Photo by Gems of Jazz

Six or seven years ago, I got a call at the radio station where I work. The caller wanted to know if I'd be interested in a bunch of old records that a relative had left her. She said they were jazz records. "What kind of jazz records?" I asked. "The kind that break," she said. "The real old kind. I don't think you can play them anymore." I said I'd come take a look.

This sort of thing happens with some regularity. People know me as the jazz record guy at the station, and when they want to clean out those old records in the basement or attic, they call me. Occasionally I pick up some interesting sides, but usually it's a 35 pounds of mildewy Lester Lanin, Al Hirt, Martin Denny and Ping-Pong Percussion albums. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but I'm a jazz guy. So I usually make nice, offer many thanks and quietly donate their stuff to the local library book sale.

But not this time.

In this lady's basement were three big, dusty cardboard boxes. In the boxes were probably 300 78 rpm discs. That's usually a bad sign – think Vic Damone, Patti Page, Kay Kyser, Mario Lanza. But the first shellac platter I pulled out was a Sonny Stitt on Roost. The next one was by Gil Melle, a 12-inch Blue Note, and the one after that was by Cyril Haines on red-label Comet. Who the hell was Cyril Haines? My palms were starting to sweat.

It turned out that this lady's relative had been a disc jockey and entertainer in the '40s from somewhere out west. She wouldn't tell me much about him, but she said he was a jazz guy. I got the sense she didn't like him much and that's why she was getting rid of his stuff. A purge. And I was the beneficiary.

When I got the boxes home – carefully! – I spent half a day going through them, marveling at what they contained. Here was a stack of Charlie Barnets on obscure labels like Derby and Abbey. An ultra-rare Floyd Smith, one of the first electric guitarists out of Kansas City. A Coleman Hawkins with Hawaiian guitar accompaniment. Johnny Hodges on Norgran. Even a Duke Ellington/Bing Crosby match-up! Crazy!

But there was one set of discs that intrigued me. I saved them for last. They were five big, 12-inch acetate records, the kind that were used back in the '40s for making one-off recordings. These discs were cut on both sides and had no information on them other than a number label – 1 through 5. They had been carefully kept in brown-paper envelopes that had been handmade by the previous owner. The platters were unnaturally cool to the touch.

I put one on the turntable and dropped the needle. What came out of the speakers was the echo of a place and time gone sixty years. It was a radio broadcast – an aircheck.

It turns out that these five discs captured in real time a 40-minute remote from a nightclub in downtown Chattanooga. The host/emcee was a fellow named Eddie Taliaferro – the very same gent the lady mentioned as I loaded her boxes into my car. They had been his records and now that was his voice. Shivers!
Viola Wells (also known as Viola Underhill) worked as "Miss Rhapsody" for a decade from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s. Photo from "Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-50" 
But why had he carefully preserved this broadcast? Perhaps because it had been an early brush with fame. The featured performer for evening's floor show was blues singer Viola Wells – known professionally as "Miss Rhapsody." The date for the broadcast was probably spring or summer 1945, and Miss Rhapsody was a rising Savoy recording star. Her big number was "Hey, Lawdy Mama," and she was on a tour of the Southwest. Big-time New York talent had come to little old Chattanooga. Eddie dug her and wanted to save the moment.

So what you hear in this offering is a previously unknown live performance by Miss Rhapsody, doing all her hits. While she is obscure today, in her time she was a huge attraction at Harlem's Apollo Theater and one of the great female interpreters of jump blues working the TOBA circuit.

But there's more. What you will also hear is what it was like to play a one-nighter in a tank town with a pick-up band and an all-night drive to the next gig waiting once the show was over. The Brown Derby, the club hosting the broadcast, was a joint in a funky part of Chattanooga habituated by gamblers, prostitutes and hustlers. The house band – the "Brown Derby Orchestra," Eddie calls them – flubs its way through the book, dishing up clams, dropped notes and bleats while suffering severe intonation problems. But Rhapsody rises to the occasion, carrying the boys along, unfazed. She's seen it all before – a real pro. You can't help but admire her.

Also on the recording is a number by a member of the floor show – a "Miss Dodo." Not bad, and she could dance. And then there are the ads – including one for ladies' "lawn-jer-ee." Priceless artifacts of a bygone era.

So here is the complete 10-sided transcription, heard for the first time since it was originally broadcast some 65 years ago. The sound is scratchy in places, but I think you'll be able to overlook the imperfections ...
In 1944 Viola Wells – "Miss Rhapsody" – was a rising star in the world of black entertainment. Not long after this ad appeared in Billboard magazine, she was on the road performing across the Southwest, and appearing at the Brown Derby in Chattanooga. From Billboard magazine 
Miss Rhapsody at the Brown Derby Radio aircheck
Viola Wells ("Miss Rhapsody"), v; Brown Derby Orchestra (unknown tp, as, ts, p, b, d);
"Miss Dodo," v*; Eddie Taliaferro, emcee.
Brown Derby Lounge, Chattanooga, TN; Spring or summer 1945

1. Intro/Swamp Fire (inst.) 00:00
Leap Frog (inst.) 00:44
If It Ain’t Love* (part 1) 03:04

2. If It Ain’t Love* (part 2) 00:00
Chop Chop (inst.) 01:18
Commercial (partial) 03:25

3. Bye, Bye, Baby 00:18
Christopher Columbus (inst., part 1) 03:14
4. Christopher Columbus (inst., part 2) 00:00
Wham 01:51
Commercial (partial) 
5. My Lucky Day (partial) 00:25 
6. Swingin’ at the Brown Derby (inst., part 1) 00:00 
7. Swingin’ at the Brown Derby (inst., part 2) 00:00
Hey, Lawdy Mama 02:15
Commercial (part 1) 04:05 
8. Commercial (part 2) 00:00
C-Jam Blues (inst.) 00:28
Wham (partial) 03:23 
9. C-Jam Blues (inst., partial) 00:00
St. Louis Blues 00:55
Sentimental Journey (inst., partial) 02:50 
10. Evening (partial) 00:16 Evening (partial) 00:16

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Norman Granz Two-fer

In his characteristic short-crown fedora and sweater vest, Norman Granz is caught in rare repose by photographer and jazz writer Bill Gottlieb and his Speed Graphic. By the early '50s, when this photo was taken, Granz was the captain of jazz industry. Photo by William Gottlieb

I have two little EPs from the early days of the 45- and 33-rpm format and I was trying to come up with a way to post them here on Gems without forcing you, our esteemed visitor, to have to devote an entire CD to a paltry 15 minutes of music. Then an idea came to me – why not pair them under the unifying element of their producer, impresario Norman Granz? Works for me. Now you can download a more-efficient paltry 25 minutes of music.

But ... who was Norman Granz? Where to begin?

The originator of the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert concept, Granz was a Los Angeles native who pioneered integrated jazz shows in the forties, owned numerous successful record companies, managed top jazz talents, marketed national and international tours, and made the careers of jazz stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. A shrewd businessman in an industry rife with well-intentioned amateurs, Granz was to some a savior and prophet, to others a manipulative Machiavelli.

In the fifties, Norman would regularly buy spreads in multiple jazz publications touting his next JATP tour, or his star players' jazz poll victories, or his latest concept album ("The Jazz Scene" being the first in a series of high-priced "collector's items"). His name appended to a jazz concert usually guaranteed a capacity audience of hooting, whistling and "Go, man!"-screaming jazz maniacs. And he would frequently record the results and issue them in a never-ending series of albums (78 and 33 rpm) under the JATP rubric. With Norman, everybody made money.

The great Chicago jazz DJ, Dick Buckley, worked for a while for Granz in the mid-'50s. While he never really criticized his former boss on air, I heard Buckley more than once mention that Norman got rich while his stars wound up scuffling for nickels and dimes. I myself saw Norman as a commercializer, a guy more interested in making a buck than in making art. When Norman moved permanently to Switzerland in the early '60s, I remember thinking he probably wanted to be closer to his money.

All of which is beside the point. The guy did much to support the music and its artists, and these two EPs are evidence of the wonderful stuff that could be produced under his direction. I don't believe this music is currently available in digital form, though it was issued on several LPs back in the day.

Three of the four Basie tunes have the Count fronting a sextet featuring Joe Newman and Paul Quinichette. Quinichette is often dismissed as a Lester Young-wannabe, but to my ears he exhibits real individuality here. Lester never sounded like this. "Tippin'" is a big band performance with a nice solo from "Lockjaw" Davis, probably an Ernie Wilkins chart. This is Basie before the arrangers were brought in to make over the band, and they swing hard. That's the Redbank Kid with bassist Gene Ramey in the photo, by the way.

Bob Brookmeyer was a rising talent when this EP was issued. He'd been working with Stan Getz (another Granz property) at the time of this recording and had been in a number of top-level big bands including those of Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill. He's heard here with a West Coast rhythm section, playing perhaps a little too laid back by East Coast standards (these things mattered in the mid-'50s). Brookmeyer was unusual in that – unlike most trombonists of the day – he played a valve version of the horn. David Stone Martin thought otherwise – he shows Bob with a standard slide trombone on the cover. You can see Brookmeyer with the correct instrument in the picture.

As always, the files here were ripped directly from the originals with only a slight cleaning up of pops and clicks. Your choice as to whether the music gets filed under Basie or Brookmeyer. Or Granz, for that matter.


The Count Basie Sextet, Clef EP 186
Count Basie, org, p; Joe Newman, tp; Paul Quinichette, ts; Freddy Green, g; Gene Ramey, b; Buddy Rich, d.
New York, NY; December 13, 1952

*Count Basie, p; Renauld Jones, Paul Campbell, Joe Newman, Wendell Culley, tp; Henry Coker, Benny Powell, tbn; Marshall Royal, as, cl; Ernie Wilkins, as, ts; Eddie Davis, Paul Quinichette, ts; Charlie Fowlkes, bar; Freddy Green, g; Jimmy Lewis, b; Gus Johnson, d.
New York, NY; July 22, 1952

1. She’s Funny That Way  4:10
2. Tippin’ on the QT*  2:59
3. Count’s Organ Blues  3:09
4. As Long As I Live  3:09


Bob Brookmeyer Plays Bob Brookmeyer, Clef EP 322
Brookmeyer, v tbn; Jimmy Rowles, p; Buddy Clark, b; Mel Lewis, d.
Los Angeles, CA; December 26, 1954

5. There Will Never Be Another You  4:23
6. Bulldog Blues  8:01

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Where Scratchy Sounds Abound

Every attic has some – those heavy, highly-breakable records that used to spin at break-neck speed on record players that allowed you to stack half-a-dozen of them so the music would never stop. Now you can hear 'em again at the nation's library. Photo by Gems of Jazz
Maybe you've already read about this, and maybe not. If you haven't, and you're an old record junkie like me, you're in for a treat.

The Library of Congress has recently debuted an online audio service called the "National Jukebox." More of a massive archive than a jukebox, the site has thousands of vintage recordings from the golden era of acoustic sound recording, from its earliest days up to the mid-1920s. All of them can be sampled and/or downloaded for free – a deal that can't be beat!

All the music comes from the Victor archives (the licensing agreement must equal Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in complexity) and, while it doesn't include much of worth jazzwise (unless Paul Whiteman is your boy), there are lots of interesting gems. One such item is "Bluin' the Blues" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – a tune the LOC lists under blues though we all know it more correctly belongs in jazz category. The ODJB, above, headed by trumpeter Nick LaRocca, made what has been described as the first real jazz recording for Victor in 1917 (that would be "Livery Stable Blues"). Though they've largely been dismissed by historians and critics as more of a novelty act than a real jazz band what with their propensity for "hee-haw" sound effects, LaRocca claimed right up until his death in the late '50s that they were in fact the originators of the music that we love. While that assertion rivals Jelly Roll Morton's in its extravagance, LaRocca's syncopaters could play and do deserve some credit. To wit:

Though I can't compete with the LOC's collection, I'm no slouch when it comes to obscure sides. So here's my own offering, a rareity I picked up last week when a friend tipped me off to an old house that was being renovated and had on its porch some boxes filled with vintage 78 rpm discs. The hand-lettered sign above them said "Free – please take!"and I did just that. One dusty record was "John Henry Blues" by the New Orleans Blue Nine, an unknown group that Brian Rust lists as "probably a Negro band." The tune was recorded in New York in April of 1921 for the obscure Radiex label. The composition is by W.C. Handy, and the guys in the band are clearly schooled musicians, playing their ensemble parts with precision. Whether any of them had ever seen the Big Easy is questionable, and there are no real solos, but the overall effect is one of the music making the transition from the ragtime brass band style to the more familiar jazz orchestra configuration. Trumpeter Bob Shoffner was rumored to have played with the NO Blue Nine on later dates. The sound is funky, but definitely authentic. Here 'tis:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Melba Liston and Her 'Bones

Melba Liston quietly became one of the first women to contribute to modern jazz not only as a credible soloist but also as a first rate composer and arranger. Here she waits to go on stage with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Feastival. Unknown photograper

This one's a real rarity.

Many great trombonists have come from Kansas City, but only one was a pioneer in post-bop jazz while defying gender stereotypes. Melba Liston was that one. 

Liston grew up in Los Angeles after her family moved there in 1937, studying trombone and music theory from age eleven. After high school she landed a gig with Gerald Wilson's group and then went on to join Dizzy Gillespie's bebopping big band in 1949. At a time when young female musicians were expected to be singers or, at best, pianists, Liston proved herself as a fine soloist on an instrument that, until then, was a man's horn.

Promoters tried to set Melba up with all-girl groups, but she resisted. Although she had written arrangements for Dizzy and had even worked in Count Basie's orchestra for a period, she became discouraged with music and took a job as a clerk for the L.A. Board of Education. It was only in 1956 when Gillespie, on a suggestion from his young arranger Quincy Jones, asked Liston to join his new big band that Melba returned to performing full time.

Liston moved to New York in 1957 and formed a long-time partnership with pianist Randy Weston, writing superb arrangements for many of his classic compositions – "Babe's Blues," "Little Niles" and "Hi-Fly" chief among them. Weston's masterwork, "Uhuru Africa," created in 1960 and released on Roulette, was a joint project with Liston and was one of the first jazz suites to explore the music of that continent. The Liston/Weston musical partnership lasted right up until Melba's death in 1999.

I can't remember where I came across this treasure, but I know I must have been elated to be able to hear Melba Liston featured as soloist and arranger on a project of her own. This MetroJazz album was her only release as a leader, and it was done about a year after she'd left L.A. for New York City. MetroJazz was a short-lived label distributed by MGM that had been organized by critic and song-plugger Leonard Feather. Because it was number thirteen in the label's total output of fifteen records, "Melba Liston and Her 'Bones" was only briefly available before it vanished forever from record bins.

Only to appear as a download here on "Gems of Jazz" some 53 years later, that is.

As always, the music in this posting was ripped from the original vinyl with no enhancement other than a mild cleaning up of minor clicks and pops.

Melba Liston, tbn, arr; Benny Green, Al Grey, Benny Powell, tbn; Kenny Burrell, g; Jamil Nasser, b; Charlie Persip, d. 
New York, NY; December 22, 1958

1. The Trolley Song
2. Blue Melba (Liston)
3. You Don't Say (Liston)

Melba Liston, Slide Hampton, tbn, arr; Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak, tbn; Ray Bryant, p; George Tucker, b; Frankie Dunlop, d. 
New York, NY; December 24, 1958
MetroJazz E1013

4. Pow! (Feather)
5. Wonder Why
6. Christmas Eve (Hampton)
7. What's My Line Theme
8. Dark Before Dawn (Feather-Hampton)

Find it here: