Saturday, February 18, 2012

Endless Jam

Do I have a complete set of Jazz at the Philharmonic issues? I have know idea. I do know that Norman Granz was the first to come up with the concept of the "jazz reissue." Photo by Gems

Even the most indifferent jazz fan has heard of Jazz at the Philharmonic. And I daresay nearly every jazz fan has at least one JATP disc in their collection. It's hard not to – there are so damn many of them.

The story behind these "jam sessions" is an interesting one. Impresario Norman Granz began organizing casual jams on off nights in Hollywood jazz clubs in the early '40s, featuring musicians who were at liberty and were happy to have a place to play. One stipulation that Granz set was that audiences for his shows be integrated, a demand that was honored by the owners because the jams were so successful. Granz soon began to have bigger ideas.

Philharmonic Auditorium
In 1944, a group of Mexican kids were charged with a murder that occurred during the notorious Zoot Suit Riots. Many felt the case was a set-up, and Norman saw an opportunity to expand his battle against prejudice and aid the teens' defense fund while trying out a jam session on an elevated scale. He managed to secure the city's vaunted Philharmonic Auditorium, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, for a single Sunday in July. That afternoon he put on the first of what was promoted as a "real jazz jam session" with an array of stars from his club shows.

The audience went wild, of course, dancing in the aisles and cheering the proceedings vociferously. The auditorium's management was horrified, and Granz was barred from ever producing another show there, but history had been made. The Philharmonic date would be the first of a seemingly endless string of staged jazz jams, all bearing the original venue's name regardless of location.

Granz recorded that first concert and nearly every one thereafter. He issued them all in a confusing series of "volumes," first in multiple-disc 78 rpm sets, then on LP and ultimately on CD. The releases were on the Disc label at first, and then on Mercury, then Clef, Norgran, Verve and ultimately, Pablo. With each label change, the previous JATP volumes were reissued on the new label. The dutiful collector could own "Tea for Two" from Volume 7 on Mercury, Clef and Verve should he or she care to. To add to the confusion, each title in the early days came out on multiple discs. So "Tea for Two" was broken into parts I-IV in the seventh volume of the series of JATP performances. If you weren't tidy with your records, sides could get misplaced pretty easily. That's why there are so many early JATP sets with missing or incorrect records in their sleeves.

Now, all these recordings were owned by Norman Granz – with one exception. That first concert was released by Moses Asch on his Disc imprint. Granz had gone to him trying to interest him in some Ella Logan recordings he'd produced, but Asch demurred. When asked what else he had, Granz pulled out an acetate from the Philharmonic show and Moses had ears for it. So JATP Vol. 1 actually was part of the Asch/Disc/Stinson catalog for many decades. I can only think that this fact must have really rankled Norman, the epitome of the hard-nosed, shrewd businessman.

JATP Vol. 1 itself was reissued numerous times over the years. First on Disc and then on Stinson, it eventually came out on LP in the early '60s. I was working in a record store in the early '70s when I got my copy. It was the first record I'd ever seen on colored vinyl, and even though it had a paltry 12-15 minutes per side, it was one hard-swinging album. Its featured artists did not include Charlie Parker or Lester Young, as Bird was still in New York and unknown at the time and Lester was with Basie and about to begin his disastrous stint in the Army. But Illinois Jacquet is there doing his best "Flying Home" honking, and Willie Smith turns in a stunning performance. Howard McGhee was in California with Coleman Hawkins at the time, and here lays the bop groundwork for Diz and Bird who would arrive the following year. And there's a guitarist whom most jazz fans won't recognize but who has chops to spare. His name is Ulysses Livingston, and he'd been with Fletcher Henderson, the Spirits of Rhythm, the Hawk and Benny Carter. He sounds quite a bit like Charlie Christian and has a very modern sense of harmony.

One other thing. Included in the Stinson JATP record was a brief essay by Leonard Feather on the genesis of that first concert. What is curious about that is the fact that it is a carbon copy of a typed sheet on onion-skin paper. Did Stinson have some sort of antediluvian typewriter that hammered out originals and half-a-dozen carbons in a single pass, whereupon some assembly-line grunt stuffed a copy into each album jacket? Or was this LP meant for some jazz critic with a special note from Leonard tucked into it? We'll never know, and I've never seen this article anywhere else. But here it is for you to check out.

Another one more thing. If you're a stone Prez fan, you know about "Jammin' the Blues." But if you've never seen the Gjon Mili film, you're in for a treat. Norman Granz did the A&R work for it, picking the musicians and selecting the tunes. His inspiration, of course, came from those Hollywood club sessions and the JATP concert. The ironic thing is, even with the editing and blocking involved in the film, the music probably comes closer to the sound of a true jam session than anything that ever happened on a JATP stage. Here's the film in high-def, courtesy of uiramoreno and YouTube. Lester is the epitome of cool, and watch closely when Big Sid hands the drums off to Papa Joe. As Luca, my Swiss alto-playing friend says, "Keeling!"

As always, these music files were ripped from the original vinyl with only a mild cleaning of pops and clicks.

Norman Granz Presents Jazz at the Philharmonic, Vol. 1
Stinson SLP 23
Howard McGhee, Joe Guy, tp; Willie Smith, as; Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Ventura, ts; Garland Finney, p; Ulysses Livingston, g; Red Callendar, b; Gene Krupa (Chicago Flash), d.
Philharmonic Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA; February 12, 1945

1. How High the Moon
2. Lady Be Good 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Deconstructing Jazz

No, not the ghost of Jacob Marley. It's French jazz critic and author Andre Hodeir, a bit more advanced in years than when he had his portrait taken for the Savoy release below. From

They say that those who have talent play jazz, and those who have no talent write about jazz. (I don't know if they really say that, or if it's even true, but it seems like a nice smart-alecky way to start off this posting.)

When I was first getting into this music back in the '70s, a jazz pal introduced me to the work of Andre Hodeir. He had written a wonderful book immodestly titled "Jazz: It's Evolution and Essence" and I plowed through its chapters on Bird and the Cool players, thoroughly enjoying (though not always understanding) his analyses. He had a very hip, improvisatory lilt to his prose (courtesy of his translator David Noakes, perhaps) and I thought he read like jazz sounded. Not like Leonard Feather or the guys who wrote for Downbeat. Hodeir swung.

Many years later I was digging through the miscellaneous bin in a great used record store that used to be on Congress St. in downtown Portland, Maine. I came across a mint Savoy recording, one of those '50s records with a heavy boards and a color photo laminated in glossy plastic on the cover. This one featured some all-stars from the Savoy roster playing the music of – whad'ya know? – Andre Hodeir. I had no idea the guy wrote music, and here was a full LP of his compositions. Theory meets praxis.

The record seemed worth the three bucks they were asking, so I bought it and took it home for a listen. Since Hodeir's prose was so hip, I thought it was a cinch the guy's tunes would be tres cool. Wrong.

What we have here are nine very dense, occasionally unmanageable pieces that are consistent largely in the fact that not one of them swings. There are good solos, and some fine moments, but overall Hodeir's music falls flat. If you read his notes on the back cover, you see that he was at pains to meld concept with composition. But he seems to have left out the most salient element of all – the swing. To paraphrase Duke, these numbers don't mean a thing. On that level anyway.

So why offer this LP here? Well, for one reason, you'll never see it on i-Tunes, or anywhere else for that matter. And for another, any record with Hal McKusick and Annie Ross is of interest. But mostly I'm curious to hear what you think of Hodeir's tunes. Don't get me wrong – the music is well played and the compositions are thoughtful (perhaps overly thoughtful). I just think that if you know Hodeir's texts, you might want to check out his tunes.

As always, these files were ripped from the original vinyl with only a very minor cleaning of the sound.

American Jazzmen Play Andre Hodeir's "Essais"
Savoy 12104

Idrees Sulieman, Donald Byrd, tp; Frank Rehak, tbn; Hal McKusick, as, b cl;
Bobby Jaspar, ts, fl; Jay Cameron, bar; Eddie Costa, vbs; George Duvivier, b;
Bobby Donaldson, d; Annie Ross, v.
New York, NY; March 5, April 4*, 1957

1. On a Standard
2. On a Riff
3. Criss Cross
4. Paraphrase
5. On a Blues
6. The Alphabet*
7. Esquisse I
8. Paradoxe II*
9. Esquisse II*

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Getting Our Groove Back

OK, we're biting the bullet here at Gems and re-uploading our content, this time to Rapidshare*. You'll notice that several links are now active, and within a week or so we hope to have them all working again. We'll miss Megaupload, but after reading about its livin'-large CEOs in the news after the service's take-down, I gotta wonder what they were thinking. So, check back occasionally if something here interests you and soon you should be able to download it. Meanwhile, enjoy the sound links – at least they still work!

*Well, the curmudgeonly folks at Rapidshare kept threatening to remove my files because there wasn't enough activity on some of them, and I got tired of their endless warnings. So I've migrated (as they say in the IT department where I work) Gems' mp3s to the much more accommodating MediaFire. Rapidshare can go the Feds for all I care. More music to come, kids ... (Added on March 31, 2012.)