Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Remembering Sheldon Meyer – Jazz Editor [From The Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For all the reasons explained below, Sheldon Meyer was one of the most important persons in the Jazz World of the second half of the 20th Century. 

Indeed, had he not interceded on its behalf in his capacity as editor for Oxford University Press, much of the written history of Jazz might not be available as either a primary or a secondary source.

His contributions to Jazz documentation are inestimable, yet, very few Jazz fans know his name.

The re-posting of this feature is intended to help correct that deficiency. 

“Sheldon Meyer, a distinguished editor of nonfiction books who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Americanization of Oxford University Press in his more than 40 years there, died on Oct. 9 [2006] at his home in Manhattan. He was 80….

Mr. Meyer … made Oxford a major publisher of books about American popular culture — notably jazz and musical theater — and in so doing helped democratize scholarly publishing in the United States….

In Mr. Meyer’s early years with Oxford, he sometimes had trouble persuading dusty dons across the Atlantic that baseball and Basie were fit subjects for a European publishing concern founded in 1478.

‘Now they’re tremendously supportive,” Mr. Meyer told The New York Times in 1988. “They’re delighted because the books do well and they reflect well on American culture. The whole field now has an aura of respectability about it.’”
- Margalit Fox, The New York Times, October 18, 2006

"I had an advantage in staying at one place for forty years. I never could have done the jazz list if I was moving around to three or four publishers during that period. It is kind of an extreme irony that the greatest university press in the world, with these high standards, should become the major publisher of jazz, broadcasting, popular music, all these areas. But I was there at the right time and I had a group of people at the press who had enough flexibility and understanding to let it go forward. Now everybody is enormously proud of this whole thing. I couldn't ask for a better career."
- Sheldon Meyer as told to Gary Giddins

“I have a huge library of books on jazz and popular music. Probably half of them were published by Sheldon and Oxford. To contemplate the condition in which the documentation of jazz and American popular culture would be in had Sheldon Meyer never lived is a gloomy act indeed. …

It is in this light that the great body of Sheldon Meyer's work must be seen. And no one has ever more fully embodied the dictum that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man than Sheldon Meyer. What the world of jazz owes him is beyond estimate, and most of its denizens don't even know his name.”
Gene Lees, Jazz author

It is tremendously limiting and very unfair of me to refer to the late, Sheldon Meyer solely as a “Jazz Editor,” but I like to think of him that way, that is when I’m not thinking of him as “Sheldon Meyer – Baseball Editor” [another of my favorite subjects].

While doing some research for an upcoming book review of Alyn Shipton’s “Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway” [published by Oxford University Press in 2010 and now available in paperback], I came across the following piece about Mr. Meyer which the late, author Gene Lees issued in the March, 1998 edition of his Jazzletter.

I thought perhaps that readers of the blog might be interested in the following excerpts from Gene’s view of Mr. Meyer’s significance to Jazz publications during the second half of the 20th century.

Few have placed a larger footprint on the written documentation of and opinions about Jazz than Mr. Meyer.  Not surprisingly, it was he who suggested that Mr. Shipton write the biography of Cab Calloway for Oxford University Press.

If you stay with Gene’s essay to the end, not only will you have learned more about a great man – Mr. Sheldon Meyer – but you may also find yourself shedding a tear or two about the current and future state of Jazz research and documentation. 

© -  Gene Lees/Jazzletter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

A Lengthened Shadow

“Something catastrophic for jazz has happened in New York. I refer to the retirement at the age of seventy of Sheldon Meyer.

Sheldon Meyer, until recently senior vice president of Oxford University Press, is one of the most important men in jazz history, and if in fifty years various persons are researching this music in this time, they will be deeply in debt to him; and probably they will never have heard of him. He is a tall, indeed imposing, man with a round face, remarkably smooth and youthful skin, and equally youthful manner and bearing. He has a droll sense of humor, a quick laugh, and a remarkable lack of pretension for one whose career has been so creative and important.

Gary Giddins recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "'Midlist' is an industry euphemism for those writers who do not scale best-seller charts.

"Until the recent spate of articles about the woes of publishing, it never would have occurred to me that I was a midlist author. I write books about jazz, and from where I sit, midlist sounds like a promotion. Yet, along with several colleagues, I have never felt professionally marginalized in the publishing world, and for that we have one man to thank. On the occasion of his retiring from Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer merits, at the very least, a flourish of saxophones, a melody by Jerome Kern and a high-kicking chorus line salute. Over the past forty years, Meyer turned the world's oldest and most staid publishing house into the leading chronicler of jazz, Broadway musicals, popular-song writers, broadcasting, and black cultural history. And he and his masters made money at it."

A small number of editors have achieved great prominence, among them Harold Ross of the New Yorker and Maxwell Perkins, who brought to the world Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and others of that stature in the time when fiction still held sway as the major literary act. I think Sheldon's name, in the non-fiction area, belongs at that level.

Sheldon spent the first few years of his career at Funk and Wagnall's, joining Oxford in 1956. Funk and Wagnall's had published Marshall Stearns' pioneering The Story of Jazz. Through Stearns, Sheldon met Martin Williams, who was to become a friend and adviser, as well as writing a number of books published by Oxford. At Oxford Sheldon published Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz, which, as Gary Giddins points out, "remains the most important musicological statement on jazz's infancy."

I came to know Sheldon through James Lincoln Collier, whom I also did not know at the time. Writers about jazz are often notable for an ill-concealed jealousy and a sullen conviction that they alone know anything about the subject, that it is or should be their exclusive domain. Collier proved to be an outstanding exception. He had read some of the Jazzletters and told Sheldon about me, saying, "You should be publishing this guy." Then he wrote me a letter saying he thought Sheldon Meyer at Oxford University Press would be receptive to a collection of my essays. It was an act of generosity that would change my life.

I wrote to Sheldon Meyer, who had published several collections of the exquisite word portraits of Whitney Balliett. Quite timidly, I began by saying, "I am well aware that collections of essays don't sell." And I got back a letter saying, somewhat testily, "Mine do." He said he would very much like to consider a collection of my pieces. After reading a number of them, he told me on the telephone, "You have a reputation as a songwriter and as an expert on singing. I think our first collection — " and I nearly choked on that word first " — should be about songwriting and singers." It became Singers and the Song (a title he gave it) and it would win the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. So would another collection of my work that Sheldon would publish, Waiting for Dizzy. (I've won it three times. Gary Giddins has the record: he's won it five times.)

In addition, Sheldon published my Meet Me at Jim and Andy’sCats of Any Color, and Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman, and Singers and the Song II, due out in June — an expanded and altered version of the first book. He published Jim Collier's biographies of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. He published Ted Gioia's West Coast Jazz and, more recently, The History of Jazz, and two books by bassist Bill CrowJazz Anecdotes and From Birdland to Broadway, after reading some of Bill's delightful pieces is the Jazzletter.

Sheldon published Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe', King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin; Philip Furia's The Poets of Tin Pan Alley (the best book on lyrics and lyricists I've ever read) and Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist; Joseph P. Swain's The Broadway Musical; Mark Tucker's The Duke Ellington ReaderThe Jazz Scene by W. Royal Stokes; Arnold Shaw's The Jazz Age; Gene Santoro's Dancing in Your Head and Stir It UpThe Frank Sinatra Reader by Steven Petkov and Leonard Mustazz; Bebop by Thomas Owens; The Jazz Revolution by Kathy I. Ogren; Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, by James Lester; Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop; Leslie Course's Contemporary Women Instrumentalists, and many more, including a new encyclo­pedia of jazz, on which Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler were working when Leonard died. Ira is completing it.

And Sheldon commissioned and published American Popular Song by Alec Wilder and James Maher, one of the most important books in American musical history.

I have a huge library of books on jazz and popular music. Probably half of them were published by Sheldon and Oxford. To contemplate the condition in which the documentation of jazz and American popular culture would be in had Sheldon Meyer never lived is a gloomy act indeed. Most of those books would not have found an outlet without him.

And aside from the jazz books, Sheldon published Lawrence W. Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion, John Blassingame's Slave Community, Robert C. Toll's Blacking Up, Nathan Irvin Huggins' Harlem Renaissance, A. Leon Higginbotham' Jr.'s In the Matter of Color, Thomas Cripps' Slow Fade to Black, Richard C. Wade's Slavery in the Cities, and a two-volume biography of Booker T. Washing­ton by Louis R. Harlan's.

It is highly unlikely that the standard "commercial" publishing houses would have risked publishing such works, certainly the jazz books.

I once asked who actually headed Oxford, and was told that it was a group of anonymous dons at the university in England. I thought this was a joke; I learned that while the statement may have been hyperbolic, it was not exactly untrue. There is a certain amorphous quality about the upper level of Oxford University Press, but Sheldon Meyer lent to his division dignity, direction, and decision. When he started publishing books on jazz, his "masters," as Gary Giddins called them, questioned him. As Sheldon told Gary:

"I had some problems in the mid-60s. The head of the press in England said he had begun to notice some odd books appearing in the Oxford list, and I said, well, I'm responsible for them. Since he was a papyrologist — a guy working with old documents, old rolls of paper — he didn't have much connection with this world, to say the least. So I said to him, 'Well, look, as long as these books are authoritative and make money, it seems to me they're appropriate for the press to publish.' Fortunately for the future of my career, that turned out to be correct."

Read between the lines of that and you'll realize that Sheldon laid his career on the line to publish books about jazz. Thus it came to be that probably the oldest publishing house in England became the premiere publishing house on contemporary American culture.

As he told Gary Giddins, "I had an advantage in staying at one place for forty years. I never could have done the jazz list if I was moving around to three or four publishers during that period. It is kind of an extreme irony that the greatest university press in the world, with these high standards, should become the major publisher of jazz, broadcasting, popular music, all these areas. But I was there at the right time and I had a group of people at the press who had enough flexibility and understanding to let it go forward. Now everybody is enormously proud of this whole thing. I couldn't ask for a better career."

Sheldon Meyer has been an editor of brilliance, and if there is such a thing in editing, even of genius. I began to get a bad feeling a couple of years ago when his close friend and long-time professional associate, Leona Capeless, one of the finest copy editors I've ever known, retired from Oxford. And now that Sheldon too has retired, my unhappy capacity to reach conclusions I don't like tells me that much chronicling of American cultural history is never going to get done. The loss to America and to the world is inestimable.

In the past few years, I have been only too aware that primary sources of jazz history, and popular-music history, are being lost to us. The great masters, the men who were there, are slowly leaving us. I do not know who said, "Whenever anyone dies, a library burns." But it is true: almost anyone's experience is worth recording, even that of the most "ordinary" person. For the great unknown terrain of human history is not what the kings and famous men did — for much, though by no means all, of this was recorded, no matter how imperfectly — but how the "common" people lived.

When Leonard Feather first came to the United States from England in the late 1930s, he was able to know most of his musical heroes, including Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. By the end of the 1940s, Leonard knew everybody of significance in jazz from the founding figures to the young iconoclasts. And when I became actively involved in the jazz world in 1959, as editor of Down Beat, most of them were still there. I met most of them, and became friends with many, especially the young Turks more or less of my own age. I have lived to see them grow old (and sometimes not grow old), and die, their voices stilled forever. And so, in recent years, I have felt impelled to do what I can to get their memories down before they are lost, leading me to write what I think of as mini-biographies of these people. This has been the central task of the Jazzletter. And always underlying my efforts in the past ten years has been the quiet confidence that, thanks to Sheldon, these works would end up between hard covers on library shelves for the use of future music historians. That is no longer so.

When I wanted to know something about one aspect or another of music history in the 1960s, I could pick up the telephone and call these older mentors, such as Alec Wilder or my special friend Johnny Mercer, or Robert Offergeld, music editor of Stereo Review when I wrote for it and one of the greatest scholars I have ever known. If I wanted to know something about the history or the technique of film composition, I could telephone my dear, dear friend Hugo Friedhofer, who wrote his first film music in 1929. There was nothing worth knowing about film music that Hugo didn't know; and not much for that matter about the history of all music. I can't call Hugo any more. Or Dizzy. I can't call Glenn Gould either. Gerry Mulligan was ten months older than I. Shorty Rogers died while I was researching the Woody Herman biogra­phy; I was to interview him in a week or two.

Now, when my generation is gone, there will be no one much left who knew Duke Ellington and Woody Herman and Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. All future writers will be dependent not on primary sources, which all of these people were for me, but on secondary sources, which is to say documents. And earlier writings. And I have found much of the earlier writing on jazz, such as that of John Hammond and Ralph J. Gleason, to be unreliable — sloppy in research, gullible in comprehension, and too often driven by personal and even political agendas. Errors — and lies — reproduce themselves in future writings.

It is in this light that the great body of Sheldon Meyer's work must be seen. And no one has ever more fully embodied the dictum that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man than Sheldon Meyer. What the world of jazz owes him is beyond estimate, and most of its denizens don't even know his name.

Sheldon continues as a consultant to Oxford, completing projects he initiated. But no writer who has dealt with him thinks Oxford will continue developing these hugely significant projects. And therefore much of jazz and popular-music history is going to go unrecorded, lost forever. We are fortunate, however, that Sheldon Meyer managed to get as much of it preserved as he did.

Salud, Sheldon. We all owe you.”

Salud, Gene, We all owe you, too.

[Mr. Lees passed away on April 22, 2010]

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Henry "Red" Allen

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I met Henry “Red” Allen before I ever heard him play a note on trumpet. The venue was the luncheon buffet at The Viking Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. The date was July 4, 1957. The occasion was the birthday celebration being held that night for Louis Armstrong at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Many of the musicians performing that evening were at the buffet including “Pops” himself. I never heard so much “Hey Daddy,” “Hey Gate” and “Hey Pops” before or since. These were all terms of endearment that Louis Armstrong used for his best buddies; they were also substitute greetings that Pops and friends used to greet people whose names they’d forgotten or never knew in the first place.

It was all so heartwarmingly informal: the feelings of respect and genuine affection that all of these fabulous musicians felt toward one another just hung in the air of that fan-cooled hotel banquet room and the joyousness would continue well into the hot and humid night on the bandstand that was temporarily erected in Freebody Park.

I didn’t know who “Red” Allen was but as I was to observe about many “big guys” over the years, I was impressed by his gentleness and kindness. He seemed to go out-of-his-way to ask me questions about my nascent interest in the music. The usual questions about “favorites” came up and when he asked me who my favorite drummer was I mentioned Krupa, Papa Jo Jones [whom I’d met earlier that day on the hotel’s veranda] and Davy Tough.

“Where did you hear those guys,” he asked. “On Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Woody Herman records,” I replied. And when he asked about my favorite trumpet player and I answered “Harry James,” he just threw back his head, howled with delight and said to no one in particular: “This young man really knows his trumpet players.” Little did I know at the time that Harry James idolized both Pops and Red.

Later that evening, after hearing his performance at the festival, I added another trumpet player to my list of favorites - Henry “Red” Allen. I’ve been collecting his records ever since that first meeting.

Man could that guy bring it!

Henry “Red” Allen was born in 1907 New Orleans, LA. His flamboyant and exploratory trumpet style was among the leading alternatives to Louis Armstrong's in the early and mid-1930s. His continuity of line, rhythmic flexibility, and harmonic conception were ahead of their time. In fact, Red's restless ear led contemporaries to accuse him of playing wrong notes, many of which would in later years be considered appropriate. His influence on other trumpeters was limited by the fact that he played in the shadow of Armstrong for much of his career although Roy Eldridge who influenced Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis is said to have been an admirer of Red’s. In addition to his interpretive skills as a trumpeter, Allen also possessed an "engaging baritone voice" and was a competent jazz singer.

After studying various instruments, including violin and E-flat alto horn (a miniature tuba), Red took trumpet lessons from his father, Henry senior, leader of the renowned Brass Band of Algiers (a neighborhood in New Orleans). He also listened to several New Orleans trumpeters, including Bunk Johnson and King Oliver, rehearse in his living room. At ten years old, Red was marching in his father's band. He played his first steady job with saxophonist John Handy at age seventeen (1925). In 1927 King Oliver invited Red to New York to join his new band, which soon failed, so Red returned to New Orleans to work on riverboat bands with Fate Marable.

In 1929 Allen was again invited to New York as Victor Records' answer to Louis Armstrong, who was recording for Columbia. Red was hired by Luis Russell, the pianist who had taken over the King Oliver band, and recordings both for Russell and under his own name established Allen's reputation. "Biffly Blues" reveals that although Allen was obviously influenced strongly by Armstrong, he possessed a clearer, more polished sound and slower vibrato, as well as a personal sense of time. In contrast to his sensitive instrumental and vocal reinterpretation of the ballad "Roamin'," Allen displays the confident bravura of a Swing Era lead trumpeter on "Shakin' the African."

Fletcher Henderson enticed Allen to join his band in the summer of 1933, and Allen's agile, flowing solos with Henderson would influence trumpeter Harry James's work on the Henderson charts later commissioned by Benny Goodman. After he left Henderson's group in 1934, Allen's popularity peaked. From 1934 to 1937, while he was employed in the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, he also free-lanced extensively, recording over eighty sides in three years for the Vocalion label.

In 1936 Red performed in the Eddie Condon—Joe Marsala group, one of the first racially integrated bands on Fifty-second Street. In 1937 Allen joined the Luis Russell Orchestra, which was an organization built around the popularity of its featured soloist, Louis Armstrong. Allen had to serve as Armstrong's warm-up act, a somewhat demeaning role considering Allen's originality and technical mastery of the trumpet. Allen endured this role— while also freelancing around Fifty-second Street — until 1940, when the Russell Orchestra was fired by Armstrong's manager.

In 1940 Allen formed his own sextet and opened at Cafe Society. As a leader Allen proved to be good-natured, professional, and a good showman without compromising his music. The sextet featured a fellow Russell and Armstrong alumnus, trombonist J. C. Higginbotham. From the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Allen was forced to travel extensively as the appeal of bebop reduced his popularity in New York. Occasionally, he juxtaposed traditional New Orleans — influenced phrases and bebop-flavored figures ('The Crawl").

Following the breakup of his sextet, Allen became the house bandleader at the Metropole in New York (1954), which remained his musical headquarters until 1965. On a 1957 recording of "I Cover the Waterfront" with Coleman Hawkins, Allen displays a more deliberate, mature approach than is evident in his 1930s work, employing fewer notes and adroitly exploring his trumpet's extreme lower register. In 1965 modernist Don Ellis praised Allen's unflagging inventiveness and mastery of various moods and tonal effects: "[He] is the most creative and avant-garde player in New York . . . a true improviser." After a tour of Great Britain, Allen died of cancer in 1967.

Whitney Balliett, one of the preeminent writers on the subject of Jazz was a great fan of Henry “Red” Allen and visited him often at the Metropole Cafe’ while writing about him frequently for The New York Magazine.

You can read one of the shorter pieces that Whitney did on Red below and locate a lengthier profile on Allen in Whitney’s American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz [Oxford].

Cheers for Red Allen
Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz [Lippincott]

“THE PRE-EMINENCE of Louis Armstrong from 1925 to 1935 had one unfortunate effect: it tended to blot out the originality and skill of several contemporary trumpeters who, though they listened to Armstrong, had  pretty  much  gone their own  way by  1930. These included, among others, Bobby Stark, Joe Smith, Jabbo Smith  (no relation), Bill Coleman, and Henry (Red) Allen. Stark and Joe Smith are dead. Jabbo Smith, a scarifying musician, lives in Milwaukee and performs rarely. Coleman, in Europe, still displays much of his grace. But Allen, the most steadfast of the three, and a distinct influence on Roy Eldridge, who taught Dizzy Gillespie, who taught Miles Davis, and so forth, is playing (usually in New York) with more subtlety and warmth than at any other time in his career. This is abundantly evident in two fairly recent and rather odd releases, Red Allen Meets Kid Ory  and We've Got Rhythm: Kid Ory and Red Allen (Verve), in which Allen, lumped with second- and third-class musicians, plays with a beauty and a lets-get-this-on-the-road obstinacy that transform both records into superior material.

A tall, comfortably oval-shaped man of fifty-four, with a deceptively sad basset-hound face, Allen, born in Algiers, Louisiana, has had a spirited career, despite the shadows he has been forced to work in. He played briefly with King Oliver in 1927, and two years later he joined Luis Russell, another Oliver alumnus. Russell's band was possibly the neatest, hottest, and most imaginative group of its time. It was also, thanks to Russell's arrangements and rhythmic innovations and to Allen's already exploratory solos, a considerably advanced one.

In 1933, Allen joined Fletcher Henderson, with whom he continued his avant-garde ways, and after a period with the Blue Rhythm Band he came face to face in 1937 with Goliath himself when he had become a practically silent member of Louis Armstrong's you-go-your-way, ril-go-mine big band, a group kept afloat by Sid Catlett, J. C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes, and the leader. Since 1940, Allen has led a succession of often excellent small groups, which have included Higginbotham, Edmond Hall, Don Stovall (alto saxophone), and Alvin Burroughs.

Allen's recording activity has been prolific; he was particularly active during the thirties, when he set down fifty or sixty numbers with small groups, some of which were unabashed attempts to make money ("The Miller's Daughter Marianne," "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down," "When My Dream Boat Comes Home") and some of which were, and are, first-rate jazz records ("Why Don't You Practice What You Preach," "There's a House in Harlem for Sale," "Rug Cutter's Swing," "Body and Soul," and "Rosetta"). Lamentably, only two or three of these, along with two classic sides made in 1939 with Lionel Hampton, are now available.

Allen's style had just about set by the time he joined Russell. There were traces in it of Oliver and Armstrong, but more apparent were its careless tone, its agility, and a startling tendency to use unprecedentedly long legato phrases and strange notes and chords that jazz musicians hadn't, for the most part, had the technique or courage to use before. Allen's playing also revealed an emotion and a partiality to the blues that often seemed to convert everything he touched into the blues. But his adventurousness and technique weren't always in balance; he hit bad notes, he blared, and he was ostentatious. Once in a while he would start a solo commandingly and then, his mind presumably going blank, would suddenly falter, ending his statement in a totally different mood and tenor, as if he were attempting to glue parts of two unmatchable solos together.

By the mid-forties, Allen's work had, in fact, turned increasingly hard and showy — he fluttered his valves, used meaningless runs, and affected a stony tone — and this peculiar shrillness continued into the fifties. Then, six or so years ago, Allen made a pickup recording with Tony Parenti, the clarinetist, for Jazztone, and, not long after, one for Victor with Higginbotham, Coleman Hawkins, and Cozy Cole, and a remarkable new Allen broke into view. Perhaps sheer middle-aged physical wear—a reluctance to blow so hard, a reluctance to try and prove so much — was the reason. Or perhaps he had been listening to younger and milder trumpeters like Miles Davis and Art Farmer. For his tone has become softer and fuller, he shies away from the upper register (he spends a good deal of time inflating sumptuous balloons in the lowest register), his customarily long figures are even longer, his sensuous, mid-thirties affection for the blues has again become dominant, and he often employs harmonies that would please Thelonious Monk.

In short, he gives the impression not of hammering at his materials from the outside but, in the manner of Lester Young and Pee Wee Russell, of transforming them insistently if imperceptibly from the inside, like a mole working just under the grass. The results, particularly in slower tempos (the old shrillness sometimes recurs at faster speeds), can be unbelievably stirring. An Allen solo in a slow blues may go like this: He will start with a broad, quiet, shushing note, pause, repeat the note, and, using almost no vibrato, fasten two more notes onto it, one slightly higher and one slightly lower, pause again (Allen's frequent use of silences is another new aspect of his work, as is his more expert use of dynamics), repeat and enlarge the second phrase a little way down the scale, and, without a rest, get off a legato phrase, with big intervals, that may shatter into a rapid run and then be reformed into a dissonant blue note, which he will delightfully hold several beats longer than one expects; he then finishes this with a full vibrato and tumbles into a quick, low, almost under-the-breath flourish of half a dozen notes. Such a solo bears constant re-examination; it is restless, oblique, surprising, lyrical, and demanding. It seizes the listener's emotions, recharges them, and sends them fortified on their way.

The pairing of Allen with the venerable Kid Ory is curious, to say the least. Allen is a modernish swing musician, and Ory is one of the last representatives of genuine New Orleans style. His solos are gruff paraphrases of the melody, while Allen's are intricate temples of sound. Moreover, Allen's leisurely, independent melodic lines are far too spacious to fit within the limitations of the New Orleans ensemble. But perhaps all this is to the good. Ory's sandpaper tone and elementary patterns tend to set off Allen's housetop-to-housetop swoops, and since Allen can't, or won't, adapt himself to the ensemble, he simply solos throughout most of the recordings, which gives us twice as much of him. By and large, the first of the Verve records is the better. Of the seven numbers, all standards, three—

"Blues for Jimmy," "Ain't Misbehavin’ and "Tishomingo Blues"—present Allen at his peak. In fact, his single-chorus solo in the slow "Blues for Jimmy" is faultless. This is nearly true of his work on the Waller tune, which is full of blue notes and wind-borne figures. (Puzzlingly, neither of the two vocals is by Allen, who, in addition to his other merits, is one of the handful of true jazz singers. His voice is in between Armstrong’s and Jelly Roll Morton's, and because of its almost feline, back-of-the-beat phrasing it has long foretold his playing of today.) The second session contains seven more standards, which are notable for Allen's playing in "Some of These Days," in which he tries a few teetering but generally successful auld-lang-syne upper-register handstands; for, in "Christopher Columbus," his muted chorus, which is followed by an open-horn one that begins in his lowest, or trombone, register; and for his three remarkably sustained choruses in the medium-tempo "Lazy River." The rest of the band stands around and watches, so to speak, and only the drummer, Alton Redd, gets in the way.”

The following video feature Red with Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in a 1934 version of Fletcher’s original composition Wrappin’ It Up.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monty Alexander and The Jazz Critics

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been listening to pianist Monty Alexander for nearly half-a-century since I first caught him in performance at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Hollywood, CA as part of a quintet co-led by vibist Milt Jackson and tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards in August, 1969. The group was recorded in performance and the music was later released as an Impulse LP entitled That’s The Way It Is. Ray Brown was the bassist and Dick Berk was the drummer on that gig.

Monty was relatively new to the scene at that time and his playing just gassed everybody. The best description I ever read of Monty playing is that “ has an attitude that hovers between aggression and devil-may-care relaxation.” That description by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD 6th Ed. continues to be true of his style of playing to this day.

“Monty Alexander is one of the finest practitioners of the standard jazz piano trio performing today.

What sets Mony apart from most of his keyboard colleagues is the enormous range of his musical interests. He not only has paid his dues as a performer but, perhaps more importantly, as a listener as well.

He brings the joy of celebration to his work: a celebration of his life in music and the music of his life. Delightful surprises abound in both the selection of his material and the execution of same.”

Benny Green, the esteemed Jazz writer and critic, offered these comments about Monty in his liner notes to vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s Soul Fusion [Pablo S-2310 804]:

“… Alexander is a past master in the art of placing his accompanying chords, and knowing exactly which rhythm to use in defining them.

Some of the exchanges between he and Milt sound so tight as to be telepathic, so perfect is the balance between them. [This is particularly true of the tunes played at slower tempos].

The essence of a performance at this tempo are the silences, and the shapes into which the played notes mould those silences. Alexander is marvelous at this.

It is the sort of thing that no orchestrator could ever achieve, and which classical musicians have trouble comprehending.

It is an intuitive art, born of an alliance between inclination and experience, and is one of those aspects of Jazz which distinguish it from all other forms of making music."

Here’s more from Richard Cook and Brian Morton on Monty’s style:

“There have been many attempts to hybridize jazz and Afro-Cuban music, but relatively few to bring the rhythms of reggae, ska and mento into a jazz context. Jamaican-born Alexander remains the prime exponent, using steel pans in his Ivory and Steel group and exploiting Caribbean backbeats to a jazz idiom influenced by Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson.

“..., Alexander has never quite decided whether he is a Jamaican homeboy, an enthusiastic norteamericano, or indeed a European. He has fronted a style of jazz in which swing is recast in Caribbean rhythms, signalled by the steel pans, but also marked out by great formal control. Alexander now has an impressive back-catalogue of (mostly trio) recordings which reveal an exuberant sensibility schooled - sometimes a little too doctrinairely - in the School of Oscar Peterson. Typical of that tendency, he has a tone which is both percussive and lyrical, heavy on the triplets and arpeggiated chords, melodically inspired in the main (i.e. no long, chordal ramblings), maximal but controlled.

The trio is the ideal context for Alexander's playing.”

Whenever I want to experience what Duke Ellington so aptly described as “The Feeling of Jazz” at its best, I play a recording by Monty Alexander.

What a “swinga” this guy is.  

Derek Jewel of The London Sunday Times wrote of Monty that: “His work is in a sense, a history of Jazz piano … and yet, he distills all these influences into his own style.”

Monty comes out of everybody who has gone before him and I mean everybody: from Earl “Fatha” Hines to Teddy Wilson to Nat King Cole to Oscar Peterson; the man is a walking encyclopedia of Jazz piano.

Here are more insightful quotations about Monty’s work from other Jazz critics:

“Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander often gets compared to the great Oscar Peterson, but he brings his own bold, Caribbean-informed sensibility to everything he plays, and he is far more than just a Peterson clone.” 
- Steve Legget, allmusic

Monty Alexander belongs to the same piano tradition as Gene Harris and Junior Mance. All have a firm command of the blues that can effectively be translated into the ballad realm. Monty Alexander has been cultivating this style and approach for over forty years, with fresh evidence on his new live recording. Alexander's ..  is soulful orchestral piano playing, well conceived and thoughtfully executed. Long on intellect and emotion and short on cliché', Mr. Alexander perfectly distills his Caribbean roots into his interpretations of the American Standards.
- C. Michael Bailey all about jazz

“Audiences find Monty Alexander’s music instantly accessible, exciting and exhilarating, and they quickly warm to it and respond to it….”
- Mike Hennessey, Jazz writer/critic

“Monty plays – I mean plays – with Tatum’s grace, Peterson’s richness, Garner’s force, Nat Cole’s wit. And over all, the very real trio conception and brisk charts recall the tight structures of the early Ahmad Jamal trio.”
- Fred Bouchard, Downbeat

“The striking qualities of Alexander's playing are his intimate knowledge of the Jazz tradition, his reverence for the pre-bebop piano legacy, his prodigious technical facility, and his resilient connection to the cultural heritage of his native Jamaica.”
- Derk Richardson, columnist

“Monty continually creates very logical melodic lines and yet the constant surfacing of his improvisational surprises maintains interest no matter what musical context he presents to his listeners.”
- Jerry Dean, Jazz radio host

Monty’s records often as you will no doubt observe from the variety of cover art on display in the following video that features him performing bassist John Clayton’s composition 3,000 Miles [Steamin’ Concord Jazz CD 4636] with Ira Coleman on bass and Dion Parson on drums.

The same trio is in place for the rompin’ version of Pure Imagination [Steamin’ Concord Jazz CD 4636] that serves as the audio track to the following video featuring images from the movie Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Don Byas

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Don Byas was one of the few musicians of his era to strike a compromise between swing and bebop. In addition to the rhythmic feeling of modern jazz, he incorporated elements of Coleman Hawkins's harmonic advances and Lester Young's lyrical style. He often played with a relaxed subtone embroidered with gentle vibrato, reserving the boisterous "Texas tenor" sound for the climax of his solos. Lucky Thompson and Benny Golson claim him as an influence, and most modern tenor players are aware of his work as a bebop pioneer. The Byas influence of Golson’s phrasing is particularly strong.

Born to musical parents, Don studied violin and clarinet prior to the alto sax. In his teens, he worked in territorial bands based in Oklahoma City and then led his own band at Langston University (1931—32). After switching to tenor, Byas left Oklahoma in 1933 for California and spent four years in Los Angeles working for Lionel Hampton and Buck Clayton, among others.

In 1937 Byas traveled to New York City, where he worked as an accompanist for Ethel Waters. He next worked for Don Redman, Lucky Millinder, and Andy Kirk. Following tours with Benny Carter, Byas joined the Count Basie Orchestra (1941-43) as a replacement for Lester Young. On his most celebrated tune of this period, Harvard Blues, Byas proved that he could work in the twelve-bar form and that he shared the Basie sense of understatement (Blues by Basie, Columbia).

After jamming with the modernists at Minton's, Byas joined the innovative Dizzy Gillespie—Oscar Pettiford band in 1944. Over the next three years, he performed in many modern groups on Fifty-second Street. He was featured on numerous titles recorded for Savoy through the mid-1940s, but his best small-group work was done in the animated company of Gillespie (The Greatest Hits of Dizzy Gillespie, RCA Victor).

Another example of Byas's best playing occurred during a pair of impromptu duets on "Indiana" and "I Got Rhythm," recorded with bassist Slam Stewart, as the two waited for a 1945 Town Hall concert to begin. "I Got Rhythm" appears on The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (Smithsonian) and is a virtuoso performance that reveals both excitement and restraint. Byas explores every harmonic nook and cranny in his memorable eighth-note lines, which do not swing as easily as bebop, but at the same time do not ride as closely to the leading edge of the beat as Hawkins's aggressive phrases.

At his artistic peak in 1946, Byas left for France as a member of Don Redman's band. He later settled in Holland with his family, appearing regularly at European jazz festivals, and recording. Another Byas trademark, the patient, soothing ballad, is included in Jazz at the Philharmonic in Europe (Verve).

During the 1960s, Byas was intrigued by the innovations of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, although he did not alter his own style in response. In 1970 he returned to the United States for the Newport Jazz Festival, but he returned to Europe shortly afterward because he felt more I abroad than at home.

He died in Amsterdam in 1972 at the age of sixty [60]. Sadly, his passing garnered little attention in the Jazz press.

The following video tribute features Don Byas and bassist Slam Stewart on their classic treatment of I Got Rhythm.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"I Remember Bill" - Don Sebesky's Tribute to Bill Evans

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"...I wasn't striving to be an identifiable stylist — I was really only striving to make music and to put it together in some way of my own."   
- jazz pianist Bill Evans

Considering how beautiful all aspects of the late pianist Bill Evans music is, I’m surprised that there have not been more efforts to reconstitute it in other settings.

“Reconstitute” is the key word here in the sense of building something up from its parts; reconstruct in another setting might be another way of putting it.

Guitarist John McLaughlin had a go at is when he along with the members of the Aighetta guitar quartet recorded the Verve CD Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans which we posted about here.

But for the most part, orchestrators and arrangers have shied away from reconstituting Bill’s compositions and improvisations in other musical formats.

Perhaps, as was the case with the work of the late pianist, Michel Petrucciani, they seem to be near perfect as performed in Evans’ preferred setting of a piano-bass-drums trio. Perhaps, too, they feel unequal to the task of trying to match Bill’s brilliance.

When such attempts do come along, they seem to be “here today and gone tomorrow,” or at least that’s my impression of one such effort, Don Sebesky’s 1998 CD -  I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans [RCA BMG Classics 09026 68929-2].

Although Don’s arrangement of Waltz For Debby won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Arrangement, I doubt that many Jazz fans in general and Bill Evans fans in particular have ever heard of the recording. [It has been removed from distribution by the label and is only available from third-party sellers on Amazon. The site does not offer a digital download.]

In her insert notes to the recording, Stephanie Stein Crease, the author of the definitive Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music and whose writings about Jazz have appeared in The New York Times and Down Beat, offers these insights into Bill and his music and Don Sebesky efforts at reconstituting it on I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans.

"...I wasn't striving to be an identifiable stylist — I was really only striving to make music and to put it together in some way of my own,"   said the jazz pianist Bill Evans, in his talk that closes this tribute. Nonetheless, the Bill Evans sound has been a persistent force in modern jazz since word about Evans —   quiet and introspective, never a self-promoter — started humming through the New York jazz  scene during the mid-1950s.

Evans followed in the wake of Bud Powell, the pianist who'd forged a dazzling hornlike approach to bebop piano. The young Evans had an awesome grasp of the intricate language of bop and its harmonic possibilities. He had the ability to express, with dazzling clarity, a musical whole along with a range of subtleties. And he developed a sound on the piano — each note rounded from within, his playing fiery at times, uniquely understated at others — that was as full of warmth and individuality as that of Erroll Garner or Arthur Rubinstein.

The cumulative effect? An upturning of every musical idea or chord voicing or standard song into something never quite heard before. Evans' music flowed from his profound and analytic intelligence. His playing was often tinged with a deep melancholy, and was always illuminated with a rare beauty.

Evans, who died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one, started studying piano formally at the age of six, the violin at age seven, and the flute at thirteen. He was all of twelve when he started subbing for his older brother Harry in a no-name dance band in New Jersey, with its book of stock arrangements. It was in this setting, fooling around with standard dance tunes, that he experienced the first thrill of musical freedom: the insertion of a chord change, a melodic variation, or a short improvisation all started pointing Evans towards jazz. His first real jazz gigs were occasional summer jobs with the guitarist Mundell Lowe (another master of supple understatement), who Evans met in the late 1940s while attending Southeastern Louisiana University in New Orleans. After an army stint in Korea from 1951 to '54, the pianist settled in New York. By 1956, he had made his debut recordings as the leader of his own trio.

The following year, he performed one of his most brilliantly developed solos ever in George Russell's extended work All About Rosie, a virtuosic vehicle designed for Evans (who performed it in concert and recorded it). After a relentlessly creative eight months with Miles Davis in 1958 (which resulted in Kind of Blue), Evans steadfastly pursued his own muse, for the most part in a trio with bass and drums, making the piano trio a viable and vibrant setting for jazz.

Interplay/intuition was key, in Evans' relationships with bassists and drummers, in his duets with Jim Hall, in virtually all his musical collaborations and even with himself (as in his Conversations With Myself). This sensibility, as well as Evans' dedication to musical exploration, helped generate this tribute, a project that the acclaimed arranger Don Sebesky has brought to fruition after five years. Sebesky has artfully reconstructed Evans' elliptical compositions such as Peace Piece and Epilogue, and transformed Evans' subtle deliberations and piano voicings for jazz orchestra on such standards as So What and Autumn Leaves. Bill Evans was an arranger too: reharmonizations, rhythmic development, well-defined contrapuntal lines, and Evans' extraordinary voice-leading — his unique way of spelling out emotions —   were part and parcel of his work.”

And Don Sebesky added his own thoughts about Bill’s music and this recording in these excerpts from the insert notes to I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans.

I Remember Bill

“Rarely does a day go by without my feeling the influence of Bill Evans. Bill didn't just strive for perfection. He, like all true geniuses, was incapable of putting forth less than his very best: the best note, the truest chord, the richest voicing, creating a balance between head and heart which characterizes his music and makes it so fresh and interesting every time we listen. He set a standard of excellence to which we all aspire, and by which we all measure ourselves, and our work. In this album, I pay tribute to him in gratitude for his having enriched us all with his remarkable gift.

After much thought, I've selected a mix of tunes which Bill composed (Waltz for Debby, Very Early, T.T.T.T., Peace Piece, Epilogue, Blue in Green); standards which he liked to play (Autumn Leaves, All the Things You Are, I'm Getting Sentimental Over You); and a couple of pieces I've written and dedicated to him (I Remember Bill, Bill Not Gil).

The first time I ever heard Bill play was on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, arguably the most influential recording of the last fifty years. From that album, I've selected two tunes. Blue in Green has new lyrics by Gene McDaniels, which encompass not only the tune, but also Miles' and John Coltrane's solos. I've also included So What, in which I've doubled the original tempo and built the arrangement around an orchestration of Bill's solo.

I've inserted orchestrated versions of excerpts from Bill's improvisations into All the Things You Are, Autumn Leaves and I'm Getting Sentimental Over You as well — treating the ensemble as if it were a giant piano instead of limiting it to a traditional big band role. Being especially fond of Bill's solo playing, I arranged and orchestrated his elegant improvised adagio, Peace Piece. In this version, you'll hear echoes of Copland, Bartok, and probably a few other classical composers, though the actual notes are Bill's.

In the opening choruses of All the Things You Are and I'm Getting Sentimental Over You, I've treated the band in a way that I imagine Bill might have, had he been an arranger, creating contrapuntal interplay between lines and allowing the rhythmic aspect of the tunes to be carried by the horns only — no rhythm section.

We were fortunate to have been able to reach out all over the world to musicians who played and recorded with Bill over the years. Two of his rhythm sections, Eddie Gomez with Marty Morell and Marc Johnson with Joe LaBarbera provide the support for the brass and string ensembles which surround them. Alumni Lee Konitz, Bob Brookmeyer, Toots Thielemans, and Tom Harrell (who was on Evans' last recording) all demonstrate their own remarkable musicianship here, as do Larry Coryell, Joe Lovano, Eddie Daniels, Hubert Laws, Dave Samuels, John Pizzarelli, Jeanie Bryson and New York Voices. My heartfelt thanks to them all for contributing their artistry to this project.

-Don Sebesky”

My favorite reconstitution by Don of Bill’s work is his string arrangement of Quiet Now, an original by fellow-pianist Denny Zeitlin that Bill played often. It features clarinetist Eddie Daniels and vibraphonist Dave Samuels and you can check it out on the following video.