© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I have long been a great fan of the efforts of Kenny Mathieson to chronicle stylistic developments in post World War II Jazz. He began his narrative with Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz 1945-1965 .
The following chapter is contained in the second work in the series: Cookin’ Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954 -1965 .
Both books are published in Edinburgh by Canongate Press Ltd and both are still available as affordable paperbacks from online retailers.
Mr. Mathieson’s overview of the work of Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell and Booker Little is a comprehensive remembrance of their music. And it will also provide those readers who are new to their work with a helpful retrospective of it.
© - Kenny Mathieson, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Donald Byrd won his biggest following long after the hard bop era, when he formed The Blackbyrds and capitalized on the jazz-funk fusion movement of the 1970s. Two decades before, however, he had emerged as one of the most prolific of the new young hard bop players emerging in the mid-1950s. He cut his first recording sessions as a leader in 1955, and already sounded like the finished article, although he would go on to find a more individual sound beyond his early Clifford Brown influence as the decade progressed. The ensuing two years brought him a plethora of sideman dates, and he appeared in that role on over fifty albums in that period.
The qualities which made him such an automatic first call are clear from the outset. He had a solid musical education, was a good reader, and had excellent technical command of his instrument. He had thoroughly assimilated the musical implications of the bop idiom, and while his playing was never really innovative or strikingly original, he was able to deliver consistently fluent, imaginative and well-rounded improvisations within that idiom. His reliability (and the not entirely coincidental fact that he was not a drug user) also counted in his favors, and he was unlikely to upstage the leader with too generous a flow of spectacular original ideas or virtuosity.
In short, he was the ideal sideman, especially for a pick-up style of session, and these qualities quickly brought him recognition, and regular visits to the studio. In the process, he forged an impeccable hard bop pedigree with most of the major leaders of the time, including Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, as well as the less readily classified Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.
Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II was born in Detroit on 9 December, 1932. His father, a Methodist minister and amateur musician, named him after Toussaint L'Ouverture, the freed slave who became a revolutionary leader in Haiti in the late 18th century (the same revolutionary period commemorated by Charles Mingus in his 'Haitian Fight Song'), and Byrd retained a passionate interest in the broader field of Afro-American history, anthropology and culture. He earned several academic honors, including a Bachelor in Music degree from Wayne State University in 1954, an MA from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Ph.D. from the Columbia University School of Education in 1971, and developed a deserved reputation as a scholar and teacher of Afro-American music.
Back in the autumn of 1955, though, he was a hot young trumpet star in the making, freshly arrived in New York from the jazz hot spot of Detroit. He made his mark immediately. He had already recorded a live date for Transition in August, 1955, alongside another young Detroit hopeful, Yusef Lateef, who comes across as the more advanced player (these sides were later acquired and reissued by Delmark). He made his studio debut as a leader for Savoy in September, with saxophonist Frank Foster, a session which has appeared under various titles, including Long Green and Byrd Lore.
He cut sides for Prestige in 1956, including the unusual Two Trumpets date with Art Farmer and one of his most regular collaborators of the period, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Byrd had worked with McLean in the trumpeter's first important gig in New York with pianist George Wallington's band in 1955, and he also appeared on the saxophonist's sessions like New Soil and Jackie's Bag for Blue Note.
Byrd also recorded for Savoy again in 1957 on Star Eyes, with the seldom recorded alto saxophonist John Jenkins, a Chicagoan who made a brief but positive contribution to hard bop before disappearing from the jazz scene (although Jenkins was seldom heard from after the mid-'60s, the vibes player Joe Locke told me that he was sure he had come across him busking in New York in the mid-'90s).
Byrd's principal associations of the late 1950s, though, came in two groups: the Jazz Lab Quintet he co-led with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, and the bands he shared with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. The Jazz Lab Quintet was formed in 1957 to explore a more structured approach to hard bop than was generally evident in the blowing session dates of the day. They made several albums, the best known of which are on the Riverside and Columbia labels, provided the trumpeter with one of his most productive settings. In order to avoid undue repetition, I have discussed their work together in the Gigi Gryce section of this book (see Chapter 15; their recordings are also listed there), and will concentrate here on the second of these associations, with Pepper Adams.
The baritone saxophonist was born in Highland Park, Michigan, on 8 October, 1930, and raised in Rochester, New York. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Detroit, where he broke into the local jazz scene in the late '40s, working with saxophonists Lucky Thomson and Wardell Gray, among others. Adams began playing clarinet and tenor saxophone before adopting the bigger horn, inspired by the example of Duke Ellington's great baritone specialist, Harry Carney. Adams was only twelve when he first met Carney, but said later that his adoption of the instrument several years later was more down to having an unexpected opportunity to acquire one cheaply.
A stint in the army took him away from the jazz scene from 1951-3 (Byrd was in another branch of the service at the same time), but he resumed his activities on his return. Inevitably, Byrd was one of the local musicians with whom he worked, and the two formed a close alliance. It was a natural step to get together in a band in New York, which they duly did when Adams returned to the city after a spell on the west coast in 1958, a residence which inevitably created mistaken expectations that he would sound like Gerry Mulligan, a perception encouraged by the release of his debut solo album with the distinctly west coast-sounding title of The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams on Savoy in 1957.
Byrd's crisp, richly brassy, increasingly lyrical trumpet work and the fleet, sinewy, driving approach which Adams had developed on baritone were combined with their notably complementary approach to phrasing and rhythmic placement to form a highly effective front line, either with the two horns or an additional alto or tenor saxophone. They gigged and recorded together under one or the other's nominal leadership as well as in tandem, and are heard on records like Adams's classic live date 10 to 4 at The Five Spot, recorded on 5 April, 1958 for Riverside; Motor City Scene (aka Stardust), an all-Detroit date for Bethlehem in 1960; and a 1961 date for Warwick Records, Out of This World, in which Herbie Hancock made his recording debut. The core of their collaboration, however, is contained in the series of recordings they made for Blue Note between 1958 and 1961, both live and in the studio (the latter were collected by Mosaic Records in The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Studio Sessions in 2000, which also includes a later date from 1967, belatedly issued in 1981 as The Creeper).
Their studio work in the earlier period yielded five albums. The first two, Off To The Races from 21 December, 1958 and Byrd In Hand, recorded on 31 May, 1959, both featured sextets (as did the 1967 date), with the trumpet-baritone combination augmented by Jackie McLean's searching alto and Charlie Rouse's tenor respectively. Bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor played on both albums, while Wynton Kelly was the pianist on the earlier date, and Walter Davis, Jr. filled that chair on Byrd In Hand (Byrd returned the favor in August on the pianist's excellent Davis Cup, a Blue Note album which was his only date as a leader until a flurry of activity in his last decade, starting in 1977).
Chant, recorded on 17 April, 1961, but not released until much later; The Cat Walk, laid down two weeks later, on 2 May, 1961; and Royal Flush, from 21 September, 1961, were all quintet dates, and gave early recording breaks to the respective pianists, Herbie Hancock on Chant (with bassist Doug Watkins, another old Detroit buddy of Byrd's, and drummer Terri Robinson) and Royal Flush, and Duke Pearson on The Cat Walk. While a good pianist, Pearson's real strength lay in composing and arranging, and he contributed several tunes to the band's repertoire (Byrd later played on one of the pianist's best albums as a leader, Wahoo, released on Blue Note in 1964).
While they were working very much within the constraints of the hard bop idiom rather than pushing the envelope, these remain consistently strong and engaging records, full of vibrant playing, clever but unobtrusive arranging touches, and well-chosen tunes, many written by Byrd himself. If Byrd In Hand and The Cat Walk are the pick of the bunch, there is excellent material to be found on all of them, and a dip into any of them will give a powerful impression of the group's music.
Some listeners may prefer the extra immediacy and atmosphere of the live club gig captured on At The Half Note Café, recorded on 11 November, 1960, and issued under Byrd's name (Blue Note issued the LPs in two separate volumes, but these were eventually combined on a double CD, with extra material). Both Byrd and Adams were in fine blowing form on that occasion, with a rhythm section of Duke Pearson, Lymon Jackson and Lex Humphries, and the music surges off the bandstand in sparkling fashion, although Humphries is a little four-square on drums - listen to the same group with Philly Joe Jones on The Cat Walk for an instructive illustration of just how much lift a really great drummer can add.
By the end of 1961, the leaders had broken up the band to pursue their own projects, and they reunited only for The Creeper date in 1967, with alto saxophonist Sonny Red, an old school mate of Byrd's from Detroit (his real name was Sylvester Kyner) who featured on several of the trumpeter's albums in the mid-'60s, and Chick Corea on piano. Adams went off to work with Lionel Hampton and then Thad Jones, while Byrd concentrated more fully on his own activities as a leader. He had already cut two sessions for Blue Note without his baritone partner: the rather lackluster Fuego, recorded in October, 1959, with Jackie McLean on board, and Byrd in Flight (a title that seemed inevitable at some point), made in two sessions in January and July, 1960, with either McLean on alto or Hank Mobley on tenor.
He always had a sharp ear for the commercial aspects of his music, one which would come to fruition in the 1970s, but his willingness to feed the public's appetite for funk and groove tunes is already apparent. Herbie Hancock has recalled the trumpeter advising him to fill half of his debut album with crowd-pleasing funk or pop tunes, and show off his chops on the rest (his response was to come up with one of the most successful of all soul jazz tunes, 'Watermelon Man').
Although most of his work was done for Blue Note in this period, Byrd also recorded occasionally for other labels. A two-volume live recording of a Paris concert in 1958, Byrd In Paris, with the Belgian flautist and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, is one such record, while another, recorded in January, 1962, and released as Groovin' With Nat on Black Lion, saw him form a two trumpet front line with Johnny Coles, who also played with Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, among others, but made relatively few records as a leader (he is heard to advantage on his sole Blue Note date from 1963, Little Johnny C.) Although not as well known as Byrd's many Blue Note issues, both of these records are worth hearing.
Byrd had developed steadily throughout the late 1950s, both as a player and as a composer. Royal Flush featured the Blue Note debut of Butch Warren and Billy Higgins, a rhythm team that became a staple of Alfred Lion's stable in the early '60s, and departures like the modal scales used on 'Jorgie's' and the mobile drum pulse on 'Shangri-La' gave hints of the more experimental approach which Byrd adopted on his next session for the label, Free Form, recorded on 11 December, 1961. The original LP opened in classic hard bop fashion with the gospel beat of 'Pentecostal Feelin", and worked through three more original compositions by the trumpeter, including the subtly inflected 'Nai Nai', and Hancock's exotic ballad, 'Night Flower' (the CD release added the pianist's 'Three Wishes').
The most intriguing departure from the conventions of hard bop came in Byrd's 'Free Form', in which they extended some of the harmonic and rhythmic directions explored on Royal Flush. The tune uses a scale (based on a serial tone row) and a free pulse as a flexible framework for experiment. Byrd described the process in the sleeve note in these terms: 'We move in and out of that basic framework.... The tune has no direct relation to the tempo. I mean that nobody played in the tempo Billy maintains, and we didn't even use it to bring in the melody. Billy's work is just there as a percussive factor, but it's not present as a mark of the time. There is no time in the usual sense, so far as the soloists are concerned.'
Even if the trumpeter occasionally sounds as if he is struggling to assimilate his style within the context of Wayne Shorter's oblique probings, Hancock's adventurous open chord voicings, and the flexibility of Warren and Higgins, Free Form remains one of his finest albums, although not everyone would agree, starting with the Penguin Guide. Perhaps with rather more justification, they do not think much of its successor, either, but A New Perspective broke fresh ground for Byrd in its combination of a vocal chorus of eight singers (directed by Coleridge Perkinson, who had arranged the choir on Max Roach's It's Time the previous year) and a septet which featured Hank Mobley and guitarist Kenny Burrell as well as Hancock, with arrangements by Duke Pearson.
The album was recorded on 12 January, 1963 (Byrd had spent much of the intervening time studying composition in Paris), and earned the trumpeter a minor hit with its best known track, 'Christo Redentor'. It drew on a long-standing strain of gospel-derived music in Byrd's work, but in a populist form which foreshadowed the crossover directions he would follow in an even more overtly commercial idiom in the 1970s. He repeated the experiment with less success on I'm Trying To Get Home in December, 1964 (he had made a rather nondescript album for Verve, Up With Donald Byrd, between these Blue Note dates), and recorded several more hard bop oriented sessions for Alfred Lion in the mid-'60s, released on albums like Mustang, Blackjack Slow Drag, and The Creeper (all featuring altoman Sonny Red).
The introduction of modal and even freer elements in his albums of the early- 1960s demonstrated his awareness of the new directions running through jazz, and that tension is equally evident in the music on these albums. By the time of the late-1960s sessions issued on Fancy Free, Kofi and Electric Byrd, he was moving in the direction of a more overt jazz-funk and rhythm and blues feel which would make him a star in the 1970s, a breakthrough which finally arrived with the formation of The Blackbyrds and the release of Black Byrd in 1972. It became Blue Note's biggest selling album, and took the trumpeter away from hard bop altogether, into an often forgettable fusion vein which took in smooth pop, disco, and an early entry into jazz-meets-hip hop with rapper Guru and saxophonist Courtney Pine in Jazzmatazz.
He did return to the bop idiom in the late 1980s, following a serious stroke, and recorded several albums for Orrin Keepnews's Landmark label. Getting Down To Business, recorded in 1989 with Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, and an excellent rhythm section, is the best of these, but that is mainly down to his collaborators. His own playing is disappointingly diffuse, and no match for the prime hard bop he laid down in his peak decade from 1955.
Jazzprofiles continues with the second part of this piece as drawn Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’ Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954 -1965 [Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd., 2002, pp. 200-219]. [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Blue Mitchell never made the breakthrough from well-respected professional to major artist, but his work as both leader and sideman - notably with the Horace Silver Quintet - in the peak years of hard bop have earned him a deserved place in the music's history. Mitchell went on to record in a variety of rock, rhythm and blues, fusion and pop crossover contexts in the late 1960s and 1970s, but for the purposes of this chapter, the focus of attention will be on his work for Riverside and Blue Note in the decade or so between his recording debut in 1958 and his last hard bop album for Alfred Lion in 1967.
In their publicity for the release of The Complete Blue Note Blue Mitchell Sessions (1963-67), Mosaic Records made the point that Mitchell suffered from being 'merely great at a time when the field was crowded with giants,' while Bob Blumenthal's session notes add the thought that Mitchell's relative neglect had its roots in 'his consummate professionalism. Most of the trumpeter's career was spent playing other people's music, and not always jazz in its most uncompromising form. His sense of what the circumstance called for was quite refined, which provides one explanation for why Mitchell was cherished as much by Earl Bostic and John Mayall as by Horace Silver, whose quintet featured Mitchell for nearly six years.'
Orrin Keepnews's notes for the trumpeter's debut recording for Riverside also makes strong claims for his originality, arguing that 'the individuality of Blue Mitchell's sound and approach is striking.' To contemporary ears, that sound is likely to seem less striking, but closer acquaintance with his work in the round will confirm his standing as a talented jazz craftsman, and he counted many top musicians among his admirers, including Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, who was responsible for introducing him to Riverside.
Like Adderley, Mitchell hailed from Florida. He was born Richard Allen Mitchell in Miami on 13 March, 1930, but did not take up the trumpet until the relatively late age (especially for a brass instrument) of seventeen, when he began to play the horn in high school, and also acquired his nickname. He made quick progress, serving a fast apprenticeship playing in local bands in the late 1940s, one of which included bass player Sam Jones. By 1952, he had arrived in New York via Detroit, and was touring with rhythm and blues artists like Paul Williams and Earl Bostic.
He recorded a couple of sides with Lou Donaldson for one of the saxophonist's early Blue Note albums in November, 1952, a session which - shades of things to come - included Horace Silver (he recorded several more albums with Donaldson in the late 1960s). He left Bostic in 1955 after two years in the saxophonist's band, and toured briefly with Sarah Vaughan. According to Keepnews, the routine of section playing began to pale after several years on the road, and he returned to Miami in 1955, where he continued to perform locally.
Mitchell had met the Adderley brothers in the late 1940s in Tallahassee, and it was Julian who suggested the trumpeter to Riverside. Orrin Keepnews heard him play in Miami, and agreed to take him on. Mitchell played as part of the group on Adderley's Riverside debut, Portrait of Cannonball and cut his own debut album for the label, Big Six, on the following two days, July 2 and 3, 1958 (Keepnews has said that the presence of Miles Davis as a spectator in the booth on the first day of recording so unnerved Mitchell that they had to do the whole thing again the next day).
It is notable for containing the first recorded version of a tune which became a hard bop anthem, Benny Golson's 'Blues March', although it is better known in Art Blakey's subsequent version. Mitchell had known Golson in the Bostic band, and the saxophonist's typically clever and effective arrangement for sextet provided fertile ground for the excellent band assembled for the date. The big six in question included Johnny Griffin on tenor, Curtis Fuller on trombone, and a rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
Mitchell more than holds his own in this fast company. The trumpeter paid tribute to his 'sponsor' in one of his two original compositions on the disc, the appropriately funky, hard-driving 'Brother I Ball', and impresses throughout with his rich, focused trumpet sound and coherent improvisations. He joined Horace Silver later that year, where his front-line partnership with tenor saxophonist Herman 'Junior' Cook, another strong journeyman on the bop scene, became a fundamental part of Silver's sound, and remained so until 1964.
Junior Cook, another Florida native (he was born in Pensacola on 22 July, 1934), also recorded with the trumpeter on his last album for Riverside, The Cup Bearers, and in a number of his later dates for Blue Note in 1964-69. Cook recorded very little as a leader in the period (one exception is a Jazzland album called Junior's Cookin' from April, 1961), but did make a number of recordings under his own name in the late 1970s and 1980s, the last of which, You Leave Me Breathless, was cut for Steeplechase only weeks before his death on 3 February, 1992.
While his work with Silver provided his most high profile musical outlet, Mitchell also picked up his share of significant sideman dates elsewhere, working with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Jackie McLean, Elmo Hope, Tina Brooks, Johnny Griffin and Stanley Turrentine, among others. He continued to record as a leader, cutting seven albums in all for Riverside in the period 1958-62, before switching to Blue Note in 1963.
Orrin Keepnews; consistently matched the trumpeter with some of the best hard bop musicians around on the Riverside sessions, a floating roster of names which included saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Wynton Kelly, and a fine selection of bassists (Sam Jones, Paul Chambers, Gene Taylor) and drummers (Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Tootie Heath, Charli Persip, Roy Brooks). The quality of his collaborators, allied to his own consistent level of performance, leaves little to choose between his discs for the label, although Big Six and the excellent Blue Soul are probably the pick of the bunch.
Blue Soul, his third disc for Riverside, was recorded in September, 1959, and followed Out of The Blue, another strong set laid down in January, 1959 (Mitchell also cut an obscure disc for Metrojazz that year, co-credited in a patriotic color spectrum with Red and Whitey Mitchell!). The earlier album featured Blakey on drums, adding his usual drive to proceedings, and included an unorthodox but effective outing on 'The Saints Go Marching In'. Blue Soul was split between a sextet playing arrangements by Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, and a quartet in which Mitchell blew on three cuts with the rhythm section of Kelly and the two Joneses, Sam and Philly Joe, a sure fire combination which delivers in energized, swinging style.
It provides several fine examples of Mitchell's lyricism and his melodic invention, always the strongest aspect of his playing, as well as his ripe, finely burnished trumpet sound, which remained strong through all the registers, but hit home most tellingly in the middle range. Heath and Fuller contribute resourceful, agile solos without cramping the leader's authority, and the arrangements add some lovely touches to the material, which included originals by Mitchell, Golson and Heath, a fine version of Horace Silver's 'Nica's Dream , and a couple of standards. This is
hard bop connoisseur territory, offering endless pleasure to anyone who dug the idiom, but with no real pretensions to the kind of mass appeal which the likes of
Miles Davis and Chet Baker had found.
Mitchell (or more likely Keepnews) rang the changes by recording a 'with strings' session, Smooth As The Wind, cut over a couple of dates in 1960-61, which came off tolerably well, and provided a vehicle for the trumpeter's most lyrical moods, although the orchestral contribution seems as supernumerary as usual in these situations. A Sure Thing, recorded in March, 1962, also featured a bigger group, a jazz nonet with Clark Terry on trumpet, Julius Watkins on French horn, a four man reed section of Jerome Richardson (alto and flute), Jimmy Heath (tenor), and both Pepper Adams and Pat Patrick (best known as a long-term member of the Sun Ra. Arkestra) on baritones. Kelly and Sam Jones were joined by Tootie Heath, while Jimmy Heath's deft arrangements put a fresh spin on familiar standards like 'I Can't Get Started' and 'Gone With The Wind', the latter arranged just for quintet.
It was a quintet which featured on his last Riverside date, The Cup Bearers, in April, 1963. The line-up is essentially the Horace Silver group - Mitchell, saxophonist Junior Cook, bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Roy Brooks - but with Cedar Walton on piano. As Joe Goldberg explains in the sleeve note, Mitchell chose to play new compositions solicited from two up and coming jazz composers of the day, trombonist Tom McIntosh (who supplied the title track and 'Capers') and saxophonist Charles Davis ('Dingbat Blues'), alongside Walton's elegant 'Turquoise' and Thad Jones's 'Tiger Lily', all written for the session, which also contained imaginative treatments of two standards. The music has a rather deliberate air at times, as opposed to a fluid blowing feel (the title track and Davis's tune are exceptions), but it made a fine sign-off to his Riverside period.
Having recorded so often for Alfred Lion with Horace Silver, it seemed a natural enough step to cut a disc for the label in his own right. The first session they recorded, on 13 August, 1963, featured saxophonists Joe Henderson and Leo Wright and pianist Herbie Hancock (Bob Blumenthal points out the conceptual parallels between this session and Johnny Coles's Little Johnny C in the Mosaic booklet), but it did not see the light of day until 1980, when it was released as Step Lightly. By the time he returned to the studio, he had more or less inherited the Silver group, which the pianist had disbanded in March, 1964, but he had already made changes, bringing in young pianist Chick Corea and drummer Al Foster, both at the outset of their studio careers, to join Cook and Taylor. That personnel appeared on two sessions, on 30 July, 1964, and 14 July, 1965, released as The Thing To Do and Down With It! respectively.
These are all characteristic Blue Note sessions of the day, mixing stabs at a hit tune - it wasn't only Lee Morgan who was looking for another 'Sidewinder' - through funky groovers like Joe Henderson's 'Mamacita' (on Step Lightly), Mitchell's infectious 'Funghi Mama' (on The Thing To Do), or the uninspired 'Hi Heel Sneakers' (on Down With M), with the usual concoction of bop and blues originals (notable contributors of material included Jimmy Heath, Sonny Red, Chick Corea, and Melba Liston), Latin tunes, standards and ballads. The performances are never less than enjoyable, with Mitchell again underlining the sheer consistency of his playing, while the youthful Corea is already full of good ideas. The trumpeter's warmth and overtly lyrical approach is emphasized on commanding ballad performances like 'Cry Me a River' from the Step Lightly session, Jimmy Heath's elegant 'Mona's Mood' on The Thing To Do, or 'Portrait of jenny' from his next date for Alfred Lion, Bring It Home To Me.
Recorded on 6 January, 1966, it featured two new faces, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Billy Higgins, and was his last straight-ahead quintet date for the label. The final two sessions he cut while Alfred Lion was still in charge at Blue Note, Boss Horn (from 17 November, 1966) and Heads Up! (from the same date, 17 November, but exactly one year later) both featured larger groups, with arrangements by Duke Pearson.
They reflect little of the social, political or musical ferment of the mid-1960s, although one or two tunes suggest a more ambitious reach, as in the compositional intricacies of Corea's 'Tones For Joan's Bones' on Boss Horn or Jimmy Heath's 'Togetherness' on Heads Up!, or imply a more serious extra-musical agenda, as in Mitchell's jauntily defiant 'March On Selma' from Down With R!, although it is reflected more in the designated subject than its musical treatment. Pushing the envelope was not Blue's bag, and for the most part, these are all strong but standard issue Blue Note recordings of the period, and none the worse for it.
By the time he recorded his last two crossover-oriented albums, Collision in Black in 1968 and Bantu Village in 1969, Lion had sold Blue Note to Liberty Records (they are not included in the Mosaic set), and Mitchell had felt the cold wind blowing for hard bop in those years. Much of his subsequent work was in more commercial forms as a studio sideman, and touring or recording with artists like Jimmy McGriff, Ray Charles, Mike Bloomfield, John Mayall, Big Joe Turner, Papa John Creach, Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. He settled in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and worked with Harold Land in a bop band, drummer Louie Bellson, and bassist Ray Brown, among others. His recordings of the 1970s, made for several labels, including Mainstream, Just jazz and Impulse!, were a mixed bag of acoustic and electric, hard bop, soul and pop, and never as satisfying as his classic Riverside-Blue Note period. He died from cancer on 21 May, 1979, aged only forty-nine.
Booker Little had led only four sessions under his own name prior to his untimely death from kidney failure in 1961, but he left a sharply-etched imprint on hard hop. His discography is considerably expanded by his work with drummer Max Roach (whose band had earlier featured the equally ill-fated Clifford Brown, a major influence on Little's playing), and with saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Like Donald Byrd, Little acquired a classical training which, allied with the relentless practice for which he was famous, gave him a brilliant technical foundation and a strong, lustrous sonority throughout the whole range of the horn.
While firmly rooted in hard bop, he was also a player who foreshadowed some of the directions which the jazz avant-garde would take in the 1960s, notably in his use of unusual or microtonal intervals (most conspicuously when working with the like-minded Eric Dolphy), and in his love of dissonance. In his remarkable book Thinking In Jazz, Paul Berliner notes that 'Booker Little mastered infinitesimal valve depressions for ornamenting pitches with refined microtonal scoops that added pathos and distinction to his language use', while Little himself expanded on the topic in an interview with Robert Levin for Metronome in 1961.
“I can't think in terms of wrong notes - in fact I don't hear any notes as being wrong. It's a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong I think you're thinking completely conventionally technically, and forgetting about emotion. And I don't think anyone would deny that more emotion can be reached and expressed outside of the conventional diatonic way of playing which consists of whole notes and half steps. There's more emotion that can be expressed by the notes that are played flat. . . . I'm interested in putting sounds against sounds and I'm interested in freedom also. But I have respect for form. .. . In my own work I'm particularly interested in the possibilities of dissonance. If it's a consonant sound it's going to sound smaller. The more dissonance, the bigger the sound. It sounds like more horns, in fact, you can't always tell how many more there are. And your shadings can be more varied. Dissonance is a tool to achieve these things.”
Booker Little, Jr, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 2 April, 1938. He played clarinet briefly before taking up trumpet at the age of twelve. As a teenager, he hung out on the Memphis jazz scene, sitting in with players like the Newborn brothers, pianist Phineas and guitarist Calvin, and saxophonist George Coleman. His obsessive practice routines started early, and his musical grounding was solidified when he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music (he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in music in 1958). He roomed with Sonny Rollins for a time in the Windy City, and played with saxophonist Johnny Griffin and drummer Walter Perkins in their group MJT + 3.
Max Roach hired the trumpeter in June, 1958, and Little spent some eight months in his band (see Giant Steps for more on Roach). It is sometimes said that he joined as a replacement for Clifford Brown, and that Roach hired him for their similarities in sound and approach, but he did not directly replace Brown - he took over the seat vacated by Kenny Dorham. He made his recording debut with the drummer on Max Roach Plus 4 On The Chicago Scene in June for EmArcy, and turned in a fine ballad outing on 'My Old Flame'. The band, which also featured George Coleman on tenor, Art Davis on bass, and the unusual coloration of Ray Draper's tuba, used as a melody rather than bass instrument, were recorded again at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, also for EmArcy, then went into the studio to cut the Riverside session which produced one of Roach's most powerful albums, Deeds, Not Words, on 4 September, 1958.
Little left the band in February, 1959, to work as a freelance in New York, but his association with Roach was renewed on several occasions, and he is heard making memorable contributions to several more of the drummer's albums, including The Many Sides of Max on Mercury (some of Roach's Mercury and EmArcy albums have long been hard to find, but Mosaic Records issued The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions at the end of 2000), and two indisputable classics, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite for Candid in August-September, 1960, and Percussion Bitter Suite for Impulse! a year later, in August, 1961.
These albums moved Roach's music beyond the stylistic and structural norms of bop, and reveal greater use of tonal clusters and dissonant harmonies, and also of time signatures other than the familiar 3/4 and 4/4. The overall sound had also shifted toward the more visceral sonorities of the free jazz era, although that was more overtly evident in the contributions of saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Eric Dolphy than in Little's ripe sonority and subtle inflections.
The trumpeter lived only two more months after that session, and his death - coming as it did in the wake of Clifford Brown's tragic passing - shook Roach badly, and left him with the feeling that he might be a jinx for trumpet players. Little's contributions to Roach's music are an essential part of the trumpeter's recorded legacy, as is his work with the multi-instrumental reed and flute player Eric Dolphy. He first teamed up with Dolphy on record for Far Cry, a Prestige session recorded on 21 December, 1960, with a great rhythm section of Jaki Byard on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.
They recorded again in a sextet session under Little's name in April, 1961, as we will shortly see, while a further meeting at The Five Spot a couple of months later produced a justly celebrated live album, recorded on 16 July, 1961, with a quintet which featured Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. This classic date was issued as Live! At The Five Spot, Volume I and 2, and Memorial Album, and should be regarded as essential listening (the recordings were also collected in a 3-LP box set as The Great Concert of Eric Dolphy, and incorporated in the comprehensive 9-CD box The Complete Prestige Recordings of Eric Dolphy). Dolphy will be the subject of a chapter in a subsequent book, and I do not intend to consider them in detail here, but as with the Roach recordings, they are essential to a full picture of Little's abbreviated career.
In the course of 1959-60, Little also recorded sessions with singer Bill Henderson, trombonist Slide Hampton, and a strong date with another Memphis musician, alto saxophonist Frank Strozier, on The Fantastic Frank Strozier Plus for Vee-jay, with Miles Davis's rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Little was also captured with vibes player Teddy Charles in concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on 25 August, 1960, originally released as Metronome Presents Jazz in the Garden on the Warwick label (and later as Sounds of the Inner City on Collectables, credited to Little and Booker Ervin), and in studio sessions with Teddy Charles and Donald Byrd, among others, issued as The Soul of Jazz Percussion, also on Warwick.
The trumpeter was also heard with Max Roach in a studio version of his own 'Cliff Walk' from November, 1960, as part of the Candid All-Stars' Newport Rebels album, inspired by the breakaway festival set up that year in protest at the booking policy of the Newport Jazz Festival. Little was reunited with Roach for several dates in 1961, and also recorded with Roach's then wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, but only after both he and Dolphy had participated in John Coltrane's Africa/Brass sessions, cut for Impulse! in May and June, 1961. The core of his work as a leader, however, is contained in only four albums: Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, 1958, later reissued on Blue Note); Booker Little (Time, 1960, later reissued as The Legendary Quartet Album on Island); Out Front (Candid, 1961); and Victory and Sorrow (Bethlehem, 1961, also known as Booker Little and Friend).
His debut as a leader was cut not long after the Deeds, Not Words session, in October, 1958. Booker Little 4 & Max Roach also featured George Coleman on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Art Davis on bass, and was originally issued by United Artists. The Blue Note CD issue in 1991 reprints the original sleeve note, in which Jon Hendricks appears to claim that Sonny Rollins introduced Little to Clifford Brown in 1957 (a year after his death), but also included two rather scrappy tracks from a blowing session with an all-Memphis band featuring Strozier, Coleman and both Newborns in 1958, in which Booker is heard alongside another trumpeter, Louis Smith, in versions of 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be' and 'Blue 'N' Boogie'. Smith recorded two solid albums for Blue Note in 1958, Here Comes Louis Smith - with Cannonball Adderley masquerading as 'Buckshot La Funke' for contractual reasons - and Smithville, and seemed set to make an impact on the hard bop scene, but turned to teaching instead, and did not record again until the late 1970s.
It was a strong (if rather indifferently recorded) debut, and Little is already identifiably an original voice in the making. The six tracks included three original tunes by the trumpeter, 'Rounder's Mood', 'Dungeon Waltz' and 'Jewel's Tempo', each allowing him and his colleagues to stretch out in exploratory fashion, always nudging outward at the boundaries of bop convention. Coleman is an excellent foil for his home town buddy, while Roach is majestic on drums.
The trumpeter's next session, though, cut for the Time label on 13 and 15 April, 1960, and issued as Booker Little, was even better. It presented him in the most unadorned setting of his brief career, a quartet with a rhythm section of either Wynton Kelly (from the 131h) or Tommy Flanagan (151h) on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, and bassist Scott La Faro, another great young musician who would also die prematurely in 1961 in a car accident.
The session provided the most concentrated example of Little's fluent, inventive, but always probing style as a soloist, and also a further showcase for his abilities as a, composer of original and engaging tunes (nor was he adverse to a spot of recycling - 'The Grand Valse' here is the same tune as 'Waltz of the Demons' on the Strozier album, and 'Booker's Waltz' on The Five Spot disc with Dolphy). His almost unaccompanied opening cadenza on 'Minor Sweet', with only Haynes's spectral drum fills shadowing the horn, is a perfect encapsulation of the rich sonority and precise articulation which was so characteristic of his playing, and the flowing solo which follows underlines the lyricism which was always intrinsic to his approach, as well as his imaginative and un-hackneyed phrasing.
Little once observed that Sonny Rollins inspired him 'to do things differently, but musically', and the trumpeter might well have adopted that comment as his own motto. Even in his most adventurous moments, there was an elegant grace and subtle logic to everything he played (in his sleeve note for Booker's next album, Nat Hentoff neatly described it as 'a rare and stimulating combination of sense and sensibility, clarity and daring'), and the relaxed-to-brisk rather than flat-out tempos and often bittersweet mood of this album provides an exemplary illustration of those qualities.
Booker's penultimate disc as a leader was cut almost a year later in two sessions for Candid, poised midway between his studio session with Eric Dolphy on Far Cry in December, 1960, and the Five Spot recordings in July, 1961. The music on Out Front, recorded on 17 March and 4 April with a sextet which featured Dolphy on reeds, trombonist Julian Priester, Don Friedman on piano, Art Davis (March) or Ron Carter (April) on bass, and Max Roach on drums, tympani and vibes, continues to push outward in the progressive fashion evident on the earlier date with Dolphy, but also reflects Little's contention that while he was interested in freedom, he was equally interested in form.
His compositions and arrangements manipulate structure and movement in inventive fashion, as in the subtle harmonic ebb and flow between the more complex ensemble sections and the simpler solo passages on 'We Speak', the sharp harmonic contrasts underpinning 'Strength and Sanity', the alternating tempo changes of 'Quiet, Please' (inspired by a child's rapidly changing moods), or the sequentially shifting time signatures (cycling through 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4) of 'Moods In Free Time' are all indicative of a thoughtful and experimental musical mind at work.
Whatever formal challenges his music took on, however, Little's primary focus remained firmly on passionate emotional expression. Hentoff's sleeve note quotes the trumpeter's belief that jazz needed 'much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all that you want', and his own music is eloquent testimony to that aim. Here and elsewhere, his own sound is always more centered than Dolphy’s caustic cry, but the combination is highly effective, and if Little's use of dissonance is more discreet and insidiously inflected than would be the case in the free jazz movement, he has clearly moved beyond the conventions of bop, and is equally clearly a precursor of many of the experiments to come.
The story reached its final chapter when the trumpeter cut his last album for Bethlehem in either August or September, 1961 (the precise date has not been determined). Victory and Sorrow retained Priester and Friedman from the Candid date, and added George Coleman on tenor, Reggie Workman on bass, and Pete La Roca on drums. Little again employs more complex chorus structures, ensemble lines and chord voicings; than were customary in the unison themes of hard bop, and his ruling ethic – exercising emotional freedom within a controlled structural framework dominates the music.
All but one of the tunes, the standard ballad 'If I Should Lose You', is by Little. They include a version of 'Cliff Walk', under the title 'Looking Ahead', with its sophisticated ensemble interplay for the three horns (to confuse matters further, a CD reissue of this album retitled that track 'Molotone Music'). The title track is among his strongest and most resourceful compositions, shifting tempo in subtle fashion to delineate its changing sections, while 'Booker's Blues' plays with blues form in imaginative fashion, shuttling between 8 and 12-bar forms.
Every-thing on the record points forward, but there was to be no more progress for the trumpeter. He died in New York on 5 October, 196 1, of kidney failure brought on by uraemia, a blood disease which had left him in constant pain for some time beforehand. He joined the tragically long list of jazz greats dead before their time, but even at the tender age of twenty-three, he had left a distinctive legacy of lasting value."