Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Jazz Romance

Talk about hipsters – here's Toots Thielemans sharing a good word with a couple of jazz footnotes, aka Mr. and Mrs. Joe Marsala. Mrs. Marsala was, of course, better know as Adele Girard, a true jazz pioneer. Her ax was an unlikely one for the raucous, traditional Chicago-style jazz she and Joe played together. They're standing under the awning of one of 52nd Street's better-known venues, circa 1948. Is that Toots' guitar in the case – or maybe a huge harmonica? Photo by William Gottlieb

Yesterday I was poking around a Salvation Army up in Binghamton, NY, and I came across a curiosity. It was a Joe Marsala record on another of those budget, semi-legit here-and-gone labels. Now, normally I don't pay much attention to product of that sort, and Marsala's Dixie-oriented stuff never did much for me, but this record had two redeeming facets. One was the presence of ex-Ellington cornetist Rex Stewart. The other was harpist Adele Girard. Harp on a traditional jazz record? This I had to hear.

Rex Stewart
It occurred to me as I was standing in line waiting to purchase my find that Adele Girard might be in some way connected to Joe Marsala. I knew her name from somewhere, probably from a few obscure jazz sides in the stacks back home, but that was about all. After I made it back to my country pad, I found that Adele was indeed connected to Joe – via matrimony. And she and Mr. Marsala had made numerous records together over a long joint career. Gotta love the Internet! I even found a few more of their recordings in my collection.

The Marsala record that I bought appears in no discography that I can find. Bruyninckx has an entry for it on another label but no date or personnel. And the players listed on the LP are augmented by another trumpeter and a couple of reeds in places. But Rex is clearly there, and so is Adele. And because I knew you'd all be fascinated to hear this pioneer of jazz string harp, here's a cut from the record. It's "Mandy," with Rex on cornet, a mystery second trumpeter (brother Marty Marsala, perhaps?), Joe playing clarinet, pianist Dick Cary, Carmen Mastren on guitar, Pat Merola on bass, drummer Johnny Blowers, and Ms. Girard soloing on harp.

Here's a charming history of the Marsalas written by Adele herself (dictated only a few months before her death in 1993):

And here's a Soundie jukebox clip of Adele Girard, made around the time of the photo above, doing "Harp Boogie" with an unknown bassist and guitarist. As you can see, Adele was easy to look at and swings mightily. The dancer hasn't got very good rhythm, but I guess that wasn't what the boozy jukebox customers were interested in anyway.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Patch of Walt Dickerson

Walt Dickerson has been called the John Coltrane of the vibes. But it might be more fitting to call Coltrane the Walt Dickerson of the tenor sax – Walt was that good. Photo by Nils Winther

I've never been a big fan of the vibes. To my ears, the instrument has a metallic, impersonal sound, produced either by hammering away (Hampton) or by busy fistfuls of mallets (Burton). That's just me, but I never went out of my way to acquire vibraphone records – until one day in Boston back in 1975. 

Mister Music on Harvard Ave. – still there today!
I was working in a CBS record warehouse in Allston, driving a delivery van that serviced the company's half-dozen record stores in the Boston/Cambridge area. It was a miserable gig, entailing daily life-threatening battles with Bean Town's creative drivers while delivering skids of Captain and Tennille records. Boston in those days was a town on the make and it seemed like everybody was playing an angle, hustling up a buck. There was a guy down the block on Harvard Avenue who had a whatnot shop that purveyed new and used items, jewelry, gifts and assorted trinkets. He personified the town's "gimme" gestalt. His place was called "Mr. Music" because he had a few banged-up guitars in the window. I kind of liked him.

One day I discovered Mr. Music had added several rows of bins. The guy had bought up somebody's collection and had gone into the used record business. While looking through the albums, I came across several Prestige records by a musician I'd never heard of – a vibes player named Walt Dickerson. One of the LPs had Andrew Hill on it, and I knew his music well and liked it very much, so I took a chance and bought them all. They were a revelation!

I heard what the vibes could do for the first time. Dickerson had a unique, subtle sound that could be deep and bell-like one moment, light and woody like a marimba the next. He used short-handled mallets with hard rubber heads that he made himself. He created cascading clusters of sound when he soloed, and his pieces were sometimes long and intriguingly complex. His "To My Queen" was an absolute masterpiece. I decided it was one of the best jazz recordings I'd ever heard. I began looking for more Walt Dickerson records.

Eventually I found many more, mostly on Steeplechase, because Walt had begun recording again after about a decade away from the studio. On a trip to Philadelphia and a visit to Third St. Records, I found a fascinating vintage Dickerson LP – the one that is the subject of this post. It was on the unlikely jazz label MGM, had been recorded about fifteen years earlier and featured an unexpected sideman – one Herman "Sonny" Blount, aka the legendary Sun Ra. To add to the album's peculiarity, its selections were not Dickerson originals but a loose interpretation of Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack score for a now obscure 1965 Sidney Portier film called "A Patch of Blue."

Elizabeth Hartman and
Sidney Portier in "A Patch
of Blue."
The film concerns a blind white girl who develops a relationship with a black man and follows the touching and painful consequences of such a liason. Despite the obvious moral lesson of its plot device, "Patch" is a moving and effective example of '60s agitprop, and the stars shine. So does the music. 

But why did Walt Dickerson record an album of music from a Hollywood movie? With Sun Ra, no less? Because an adventurous African-American A&R man working for Verve named Tom Wilson found the movie struck a chord and he wanted to do something with it. Since the film was an MGM production, and MGM owned Verve, Wilson had easy access to the recording rights. He also had an interest in edgy, envelope-pushing music. He'd been Bob Dylan's producer on "Highway 61 Revisited," had been the first to record Cecil Taylor, and was about to produce the Velvet Underground's seminal "White Light, White Heat" and Frank Zappa's first album. Wilson wanted the idiosyncratic Dickerson for his "Patch of Blue" project.

Dickerson had always chosen excellent sidemen for his recording sessions, and now he convinced Sun Ra to play piano and harpsichord on the date. Dickerson knew Ra from Philadelphia, Walt's hometown and, beginning in 1968, Ra's home as well. For the session, Ra eschewed his usual electronic keyboards and stuck primarily to piano, distinguishing the date as one of the very few that allowed listeners to hear him in the conventional role of accompanist. 

Le Sony Ra shines on stage at the 1980 Chicago Jazz Festival. For his 1966 session with Walt Dickerson, Ra was plain old Sonny Blount, no intergalactic paraphernalia involved. Photo by Gems of Jazz

The results of the "Patch" session are excellent. The Goldsmith melodies remain, but this is entirely a Dickerson date, make no mistake. Ra is remarkable, at one moment evoking the stage show at the Club Delisa on Chicago's South Side, probing the Arkestra's spaceways the next. Both Cunningham and Blank, at one time members of Sun Ra's band, turn in yeoman performances. And, of course, Dickerson is magnificent. Ironically, this would be his last recording session for a decade. Only with "Serendipity" in 1976 would he emerge from retirement.

As always, these files were ripped from the original vinyl with only a slight cleaning of the sound (there is some surface noise). The record is unfortunately brief – only fifteen minutes per side – but I think you'll agree the music is well worth the download.

A Patch of Blue
Walt Dickerson Quartet
Walt Dickerson, vbs; Su Ra, p, hrpschd; Bob Cunningham, b; Roger Blank, d.
New York, NY; 1966; MGM SE-4358

1. A Patch of Blue, Pt. 1  1:25
2. A Patch of Blue, Pt. 2  4:30
3. Bacon and Eggs  5:25
4. High Hopes  5:10
5. Alone in the Park, Pt. 1  2:55
6. Alone in the Park, Pt. 2  6:30
7. Selina’s Fantasy  3:58
8. Thataway  4:15

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Purely Inspirational

Wardell Gray was a participant in his last years in numerous West Coast jam sessions, and not just those organized by Norman Granz. Here he solos with altoist Frank Morgan and trumpeter Ernie Royal somewhere in Los Angeles in 1951. Photo by William Claxton

While digging through the stacks the other day, I came across a 10-incher that I'd forgotten I had – which is not unusual these days. I'd bought it many years ago in a Chicago used record store that occasionally had some interesting sides. This one was an EP on the Tops Masterpiece label, another cheapo '50s reprint outfit that mostly issued pop music covers by faceless studio orchestras. But this disc was different.

Called "Junior Jazz at the Auditorium," it featured a quartet of tunes by the likes of Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson and Jack McVea and was obviously a jam session of the Jazz-at-the-Philharmonic variety. But "Junior Jazz"? That sophomoric title required a bit of looking into.

Pasadena's Civic Auditorium
My trusty friend, Walter Bruyninckx, whose invaluable jazz discography I was fortunate enough to purchase back in 1980, supplied the details. This Junior Jazz date was actually a jazz jam session and dance held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1946, several years after Norman Granz's first JATP show. It was modeled on Granz's concept and was recorded by pioneer A&R man and producer Ralph Bass for the Black & White record label. Bass started out in jazz, but soon moved on to the burgeoning R&B genre. His single greatest achievement was the signing of the then-unknown James Brown to Syd Nathan's King Records, a deed for which the short-sighted Nathan promptly fired Bass. 

Ralph Bass in 1960
Finding this EP again got me thinking about the other JATP-type shows that occurred in the wake Granz's success. Gene Norman and his "Just Jazz" releases also came to mind, and I decided I'd make this posting about the JATP-wannabes.

In the 1940s, Norman was a jazz DJ in Hollywood who aspired to greater things. He began producing concerts under the rubric "Just Jazz," and like Granz before him, recorded them for his own use. His shows included stars like Lionel Hampton, Dixielanders like Teddy Buckner, and young modernists like Max Roach and Clifford Brown. One thing led to another, and soon Norman was leasing his dubs for commercial release. He eventually formed his own record label, GNP Crescendo, and launched a four-decade career as a record producer. While quality and continuity were never GNP Crescendo's strong suit, there's a lot of good music on the label. 

Gene Norman
For this offering I've pulled selections from two separate Just Jazz concerts, one from 1947 and another from a bit later in the year (although Downbeat, in a contemporaneous review, said it was from 1948). They've been reissued several times over the decades, mostly on budget labels, but here they're from two Crown Records editions. In both cases, the Just Jazz selections were packaged with tunes from other dates and places, but those have been omitted. It's just Just Jazz.

The jazz greats featured on these sides include Wardell Gray, the aforementioned Howard McGhee, Stan Getz, Red Norvo, Dodo Marmarosa, the Nat Cole Trio and many others. The rarer Junior Jazz set showcases the superb Lucky Thompson and is worth grabbing for that reason alone. But there's another surprise on that disc – the alto player. I'd assumed it was Willie Smith – it sounded like Willie Smith – but the reference books (Bruyninckx) list the player as one Les Robinson. He turns out to be the guy who played lead alto on Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine." If the altoist is indeed Mr. Robinson, he was one heck of a player!

One other thing. As I was making the dubs for this posting, I noticed to my horror that the Junior Jazz disc had a fine crack running through half of it. It was quite audible, and that meant only one thing – Gems had to digitally remove each and every one of those pesky clicks by hand. Not to worry, though – the sound is now very clean throughout. Don't say I never did anything for you ...

So here's a concert of live jazz jams from the '40s showcasing a number of players who never made it to a Jazz at the Philharmonic show. All the material is rare, and I don't believe the Junior Jazz tunes have ever been reissued. For an added treat, Ralph Bass himself introduces those performances in a studio overdub. The cover's a hoot, too. I've given you just the album fronts as the backsides are simply listings of other schlocky LPs available on the respective labels.

As always, these tunes have been ripped from the original vinyl with, in this case, LOTS of cleaning up of the sound.

The Other JATPs
Junior Jazz at the Auditorium
Howard McGhee, tp: Jack McVea, Lucky Thompson, ts; Les Robinson, as; Jimmy Bunn, p; Irving Ashby, g; Red Callender, b; Jackie Mills, d.
Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Pasadena, CA; 1946
Tops Masterpiece L928 (originally Black & White)

1. Sunny Side of the Street
2. What Is This Thing Called Love? (Hot House)
3. Body and Soul
4. Lover Come Back to Me

Gene Norman Presents Just Jazz
Howard McGhee, tp; Sonny Criss, as; Wardell Grey, ts; Dodo Marmarosa, p; Red Callender, b; Jackie Mills, d.
Hollywood, CA; April 29, 1947
Crown CLP 5415

5. Groovin' High

Same date, personnel; omit Callender, add Charlie Drayton, b.
Crown CLP 5408

6. Hot House

Charlie Shavers, tp; Willie Smith, as; Stan Getz, ts; Red Norvo, vbs; Nat Cole, p; Oscar Moore, g; Johnny Miller, b; Louis Bellson, d.
Hollywood, CA; June 23, 1947
Crown CLP 5408

7. How High the Moon

Find it here: