Saturday, March 25, 2017

Doug Ramsey on Gene Lees

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

Pavilion in the Rain

“On warm summer nights, in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, and over the lake-or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.

The sound of the saxophones, a sweet and often insipid yellow when only four of them were used, turned to a woody umber when, later, the baritone was added. The sound of three trombones in harmony had a regal grandeur. Four trumpets could sound like flame, yet in ballads could be damped by harmon mutes to a citric distant loneliness. Collectively, these elements made up the sound of a big band.

It is one that will not go away. The recordings made then are constantly reissued and purchased in great quantities. Time-Life re-creates in stereo the arrangements of that vanished era, while the Reader's Digest and the Book of the Month Club continue to reissue many of the originals. Throughout the United States and Canada, college and high school students gather themselves into that basic formation—now expanded to five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes doubling woodwinds, piano, bass, drums, and maybe guitar and French horns too-to make their own music in that style. By some estimates there are as many as 30,000 of these bands. The sound has gone around the world, and you will hear it on variety shows of Moscow television—a little clumsy, to be sure, but informed with earnest intention.

Why? Why does this sound haunt our culture?”
- Gene Lees

Although their primary purpose was to serve as the Foreword to the 1998 re-publication of Gene Lees’ Singers and the Song, Doug Ramsey’s introductory remarks also served another purpose, that of giving us considerable insight into Gene Lees himself and his significance to Jazz.

As the page header for this blog states, it is as much about Jazz writers as it is about Jazz and Jazz musicians and occasionally the editorial staff at JazzProfiles likes to turn its attention to essays about those scribes and critics whose descriptive and analytical skills do so much to enhance our appreciation of the music.

For fifty years [Gene died in 2010] as the editor of Downbeat, contributor to music magazines, writer of liner and insert notes author of many books about all aspects of Jazz and its makers and editor of the Jazzletter, no one has ever rated higher in the pantheon of Jazz authors than Gene Lees.

Singers and the Song explores an art that originated in a time when to say "good popular music" was not to utter an oxymoron. It is one of two books that are indispensable to a deep appreciation of the vocal music that America has contributed to the world's fund of lasting cultural achievements.

In American Popular Song, published in 1972, Alec Wilder used his formidable learning, analytical ability, wit, and strong opinions to treat his subject with a seriousness it had never before received. At once scholarly and entertaining, Wilder scrutinized the work of songwriters from Jerome Kern to Frank Loesser. He discussed more than 900 songs and provided annotated analyses of 384 of them. Erudite and acerbic, a wonderful songwriter himself, Wilder imposed a minimum level of acceptable quality. He explained his criteria with clarity and elegance, lashed the best writers for mediocrity, and praised brilliance in genius and journeymen alike. His book, it is safe to say, is on the shelf of every songwriter, singer, and critic who reveres the popular song tradition.

Next to it, or nearby, is almost certain to be Gene Lees' Singers and the Song, first published in 1987, now polished and expanded into an even more valuable volume. Wilder achieved insight through his composer's formal knowledge and craftsman's sense as one of the last great songwriters of the classic period that ended in the mid-1950s. Lees brings to his consideration of popular song a creator's involvement, a performing artist's knowledge of what works, and a journalist's clear-eyed powers of observation.

Gene Lees the singer has performed and recorded with some of the best jazz artists of our time. He has a compendious knowledge of singing and songwriting, among a staggering variety of other subjects. He is a perpetual student with an omnivorous need to know why and how people do what they do. He wrote an unorthodox rhyming dictionary patterned after not English but French rhyming dictionaries. An important lyricist, he fashioned English words for several of the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. This Happy Madness is one of the finest sets of lyrics to grace a Jobim song in any language. Lees' words to Corcovado are a part of the cultural atmosphere of the second half of the century. His work has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, and indeed just about every important singer of recent decades.

Most writing about jazz and popular music, as sophisticated readers recognize with a wince, is done by fans who have become writers. Most are cheerleaders, press agents without portfolio who leave in their printed wakes evaluations and pronouncements supported by raw opinion and nerve endings. Some go to the trouble of learning about the music beyond personalities and trends. The best of them transcend their star worship and their proclivities to promotion and advocacy.

A few gain critical skills and faculties that allow them to produce work helpful to listeners who want a better understanding of the music. The late Willis Conover, titan of the Voice of America, often described himself as a "professional fan" and was the best of that breed, but he transformed himself into a superb writer about jazz and a respected critic, although he would have shrunk in horror from that denomination.

Gene Lees brings to jazz writing the skills of a trained and experienced journalist. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up forty miles from there in St. Catharines on the Lake Ontario shore, near where Canada and the United States share Niagara Falls. He and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler were high school friends. His first job at a newspaper was on the Hamilton Spectator, covering city hall, school-board meetings, ribbon cuttings, political speeches, crime and fires and accidents. At the Toronto Telegram, he reported on the courts. He was beaten into the shape of a newspaperman by tough editors who demanded accuracy and clear storytelling. At the Montreal Star, he covered labor, then became an assistant city editor and a correspondent in Europe. The Louisville Times lured him to Kentucky and made him music and drama editor. He thought he should have a better understanding of what he was writing about, joined a drama group, and resumed the formal study of music, a pursuit he continues today. Awarded a John Ogden Reid Fellowship of $5000, a substantial windfall for a newspaperman in 1958, he returned to Europe and spent a year studying music, film, and drama festivals and arts funding.

Lees had long been captivated by jazz and insisted, in his writing for the Times, in treating it with the same respect that he applied to his writings about classical music. In his youth, the big bands were years away from foundering. He absorbed their music and was permanently affected by the bands, their musicians, and the culture that swirled around them.

Throughout Singers and the Song, he melds with his thoroughgoing research the sense of wonder and pleasure that grew in the boy listening to good bands that stopped near St. Catharines and played by the lake.

The beginning of the second piece in this book, the remarkable Pavilion in the Rain, is a masterpiece of writing that is evocative without succumbing to sentiment. The first two paragraphs capture a time and a thousand places that shared a cultural mood. Pavilion in the Rain goes on to defy the conventional thought about why an era passed. It makes a case so sound that the reader wonders why it took thirty years to emerge. It is Lees at the top of his game, which is illumination.

When in 1959 the opportunity came for Lees to become editor of Down Beat, he was mature in journalism and music. He brought to Down Beat a professionalism in coverage, editing, and style that elevated it significantly above its decades as a fan magazine. In his own writing, he honed his ability to find the center of a performance, a trend, a style, a person, as in his 1962 article about Brazilian musicians who found themselves culturally stranded and bewildered in New York during the first wave of the bossa nova phenomenon. It was one of the best things ever to appear in Down Beat, and Lees wonderfully expands its essence in Urn Abraco No Tom, his essay on Jobim.

Lees founded his Jazzletter in 1981. He has written, edited, and published it with the rigor of an old-fashioned managing editor who enforces high standards of accuracy, clarity, and fairness - he once threw out one of his own pieces at press time on grounds of lack of objectivity - and with the passion of an editorial page editor who cares about his community. Lees' community may seem to be that of jazz musicians, but the 1500 or so subscribers to the Jazzletter include a sophisticated mix of players, composers, arrangers, prominent writers about the arts, and a fair percentage of listeners who are physicians, lawyers, computer professionals, airline pilots, professors, and actors. Like all good editors, he knows his readers and the community they comprise. He knows that his community is part of the world, and he knows how the two interact.

When he devotes an issue to a topic that seems apart from music and subscribers complain, he refunds their money and sends them on their way. That happened when a few readers grumbled about his examination of U.S. health care reform and the Canadian health system. Lees thought that musicians and jazz listeners would be concerned about one of the most pressing economic and social issues of the 1990s. They were; his mail responding to the essay was heavy and largely positive. The letters he printed reflected a wide and intelligent range of thought about a troubling societal problem.

When writing about music and musicians, Lees is not reluctant to move out of the tight little categories on which so many jazz devotees insist. The pieces on Julius La Rosa and Edith Piaf may have seemed out of context to some Jazzletter readers, but they illuminate (there's that essential word again) the condition of the artist, indeed the human condition. I showed the La Rosa story to a friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist. He is from a close Italian family that gave him support and encouragement, a family quite unlike La Rosa's. Reading the piece, he recognized his life and his family, and the difference, and wept.

In the foreword to the first edition of Singers and the Song, Grover Sales wrote that only I.F. Stone's Weekly compared to Gene Lees' Jazzletter. Izzy Stone's meticulously researched hell-raising is gone. Lees comes from the tradition that produced Stone. He applies its values to a division of the arts that gets little of the loving, stern, journalistic attention it needs. The Jazzletter has been his demanding taskmaster for nearly two decades. From time to time he tells his readers that he is thinking about giving it up. Let us hope that they continue to dissuade him, because the Jazzletter is the source of books like Singers and the Song.”
— Doug Ramsey

Doug Ramsey has a distinguished history as a newspaper reporter in Seattle and television reporter and anchorman in San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York City. He has been writing about music for forty years. He is the author of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers and Take Five: The Public and Privates Lives of Paul Desmond.

You can visit him at his blog by going here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Jazz Impressions of Dave Brubeck

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

Dave Brubeck had an immensely successful career as a Jazz musician, but it was never a certain thing.

He was based in San Francisco so he wasn’t a part of the West Coast Cool and the LA studios scene. And while he respected what was going down on the East Coast with Bird and Diz, he couldn’t play that way even if we wanted to. It just wasn’t his thing.

There was no blueprint to follow, he just made it up as he went along, thanks mainly to he and his wife Iola’s persistence, the huge musical talent that Dave and his close colleague Paul Desmond would ultimately bring to bear on their musical endeavors and his insistence on playing his own style of music which would reach its ultimate expression in the huge amount of original music that Brubeck wrote over his lengthy career.

The Brubecks were raising a young family and they couldn’t afford to fail. Dave’s music was all they had to fall back on, and despite his success as the years went along, he never got over the insecurity of making it.

When the Brubecks journeyed from their home in Connecticut to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the Claremont Country Club in Oakland, CA, they did it as part of a scheduled trip to Japan. They had gigs lined up in all the big cities on Japan’s main island of Honshu! They were in their seventies!!”

In many ways, Dave Brubeck is really a living example of the fictional Horatio Alger character who makes his way in the world through pluck and luck [aka “The American Dream”].

Dave’s initial base in northern California was not particularly propitious. His quartet became a fixture at San Francisco’s Blackhawk, with an occasional gig at the hungry i and other North Beach and Bay area clubs, but the work paid scale and was regularly irregular, to say the least.

He did have a recording contract with Fantasy Records, a label along with the Weiss Brothers that Dave helped bring into existence, but the label had limited, local distribution which did not provide the group with national recognition.

Other than those based in the greater San Francisco Bay area, those Jazz critics who did hear the group were scathing in their reviews of its music.

Ultimately, the saving grace for Dave Brubeck and his music turned out to be a selecting the right venues to perform it in and by chosing interesting compositional themes to form the basis for many of his recordings.

Thematic venues, both at home and abroad, would hold the initial key to Dave’s success. Appearances at Colleges -Festivals -European Tours; this was the stuff that cemented the success of Dave’s quartet

Had it not been for Iola’s idea to book the group as a college concert attraction, one wonders what the fate of the DBQ might have been?

And Dave’s success on college campuses brought him to the attention of George Avakian who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records [Sony Music Group] which helped his quartet achieve both national and international acclaim.

Not surprisingly then, a theme that predominated many of Dave’s earliest recordings was in performance recordings at college and junior college venues such as Oberlin, OH, College of the Pacific, CA, Fullerton, CA JC and Long Beach,CA JC, respectively, Jazz Festivals including those at Newport, RI and Monterey, CA and Jazz clubs including Storyville in Boston, MA and Basin Street in New York City.

Once ensconced at Columbia,  George Avakian’s supportive patronage [and later, Teo Macero’s] allowed Dave’s imagination to run wild and new compositional themes now took the form of albums based on the music from Walt Disney’s animated films, a Composers series with standards by Cole Porter and Matt Dennis, music closely associated with the American South, the newly arrived bossa nova melodies, and the scores from notable Broadway shows such as “West Side Story.”

Dave had always been intrigued with unusual time signatures and while at Columbia this interest would be manifested in thematic recordings such as Time Out, Time Further Out, and Time Changes [which included “Elementals,” Dave’s extended orchestral composition, the first of many as these elaborate orchestral pieces which were to become another device in Dave’s lexicon of themes].

Because of Columbia’s extensive distribution abroad, Dave’s music now found considerable acceptance internationally and this resulted in what were to become many of my favorite recordings in the vast Brubeckian discography. Included here are the many “Jazz Impressions of” LP’s which included those drawn from the Brubeck Quartet’s trips to Europe, Eurasia and Japan [there is also a Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. and a Jazz Impressions of New York just to keep things geographically ecumenical].

In the following liner notes to The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia/Legacy CK 48531], Dave explains how this theme developed into an album of six original compositions:

“In early February 1958, the Quartet and I boarded a Pan American Clipper for London. Our tour, which began in England, took us through the countries of Northern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain into Poland, through the Middle East (Turkey, Iran and Iraq) and on into India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon. When we returned to New York in the middle of May, we had traveled thousands of miles, had performed over 80 concerts in 14 different countries, and had collected a traveler's treasure of curios (see cover) and impressions (hear record) of Europe and Asia.

These sketches of Eurasia have been developed from random musical phrases I jotted down in my notebook as we chugged across the fields of Europe, or skimmed across the deserts of Asia, or walked in the winding alleyways of on ancient bazaar. I did not approach the writing of this album with the exactness of a musicologist. Instead, as the title indicates, I tried to create an impression of a particular locale by using some of the elements of their folk music within the jazz idiom.

The heart of any musical work, jazz or classical, is not the theme itself, but the treatment and development of that theme. And the heart and developmental section of these jazz pieces are the improvised choruses. Therefore, the challenge in composing these sketches was not in the selection of a theme characteristic of a locale, but in writing a piece with chord progressions that would lead the improviser into an exploration of the musical idiom I was trying to capture. At the same time, the piece must fulfill the requirements of a good jazz tune—that is, the chord progressions must flow so naturally that the soloist is free to create. Many melodies, which could have been developed into compositions if our music were completely written, have been discarded, because in these jazz impressions of Eurasia the improvisations by the soloists are comparable to the developmental section of a composed work.

How does one go about writing such themes? One way is to listen to the voices of the people. The music of a people is often a reflection of their language. I experimented with the words "thank you" as spoken in several languages, since that was the one phrase that I used most as performer and traveler.

It is evident that once the pieces for Jazz Impressions of Eurasia were composed, that the creation of the album was as much the work of Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Joe Benjamin as it was mine. In these jazz impressions they have proved themselves to be not only great jazz musicians, but improvisers with unique imagination and adaptability.”

When Jazz Impressions of Eurasia came out as a CD in 1991, Jazz author, critic and Jazz Journalists Association President, Howard Mandel visited with Dave and the result was the following interview which Howie has graciously allowed us to reprint on these pages.

© -  Howard Mandel, copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.


“Dave Brubeck has some stories to tell about going where no other jazz artists had dared yet to tread.

At the beginning of 1958, Brubeck was the most popular progressive instrumentalist in America—so influential he'd established an oeuvre of meters far from the beaten 4/4 path, so confident he'd successfully challenged segregation by featuring his black bassist during an extensive tour of the American South. Brubeck was a hit on college campuses, drawing large crowds and substantial performance fees. Yet he leapt at the chance to take his wife, two children and quartet on a strenuous 120-day tour of "Eurasia" at the behest of the U.S. State Department, financed by the Eisenhower Fund.

From England to Copenhagen, into Germany and Poland, through Turkey into the remote Middle East, India and Pakistan, the then 38-year-old pianist led alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright on a mission officially meant to charm the Old World's cultures with thoroughly modern music. But the Brubeck Quartet's tour proved equally effective in bringing "foreign" influences into jazz—a music which, though a product of the American 20th century, will never be outdated and recognizes no geographic boundaries.

"The experiences were just fantastic—sometimes very frightening, but great," says Dave Brubeck, today on icon as eminent as the American Eagle — which he resembles in the glint of his piercing eyes, the deep cut of His strong features, and the full flow of his white crown. After decades of international travel and dozens of recording sessions, Brubeck's memory remains sharp — he recalls the exotic names and places, strange customs and arduous travails of the 1958 tour in detail.  "It is one of my favorite tours," he announces, "and this is the album that came out of it!"

Brubeck wrote the six tunes on Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia (plus "Blue Rondo A La Turk," an enduring theme unveiled on his subsequent Columbia album Time Out) while traveling, and recorded them almost immediately upon the band's return. The tour was repeatedly extended as the State Department continued to find odd spots for the Quartet to perform, but its end was necessitated by on iron-clad concert contract with Texas A&M and bassist Wright’s agreement to join Carmen McRae (so that Joe Benjamin replaced him in realizing Brubeck's musical journal of the road). By going into the studio so soon after the trip, Dave's impressions were captured in all their immediacy. And as is the desired case when vivid ideas are preserved by getting them down before their freshness fades, the spirit of the journey lives in the music — as though caught in amber — after 33 years time.

"'Nomad' was about the nomadic Turkish people," Brubeck recalls. "We were in Kabul, a city the dogs come into at night from the outlying districts, so you're not very safe on the streets. The dogs come in packs and they're out for whatever they can hunt or find. But the nomads ride through, and they string drums on either side of their camels as a signal of their arrival and to scare off the dogs. I heard them, and that's 'Nomad.'"

And here is the famous Dave Brubeck Quartet, on original, distinctive, interpretive ensemble. First there's Joe Morello's inspired tom-tom motif, sketching the scene in league with Joe Benjamin's nightshade bass. Then the glory of Paul Desmond's alto — a focused beam of moonlight glinting off the caravan's trappings. And finally, Brubeck's deft block chords forming a rhythmically assured accompaniment, framing the experience through a lens of delighted discovery.

"Brandenburg Gate" is somewhat more restrained in its exuberance, but partakes of similar enthusiasm for its sources: the baroqued legacy of Bach (in the clock-like regularity of its circle-of-fifths modulations through harmonic minors), the "imitative" antiphony of Brubeck's phrase; following Desmond's to suggest a fugue, the cantus firmus provided by Morello's subtle brush work and Benjamin's graceful walk — and the blue notes and gentle swing that color the air jazz.

The story behind "Brandenburg Gate" is too good to ignore. "This was before the Berlin Wall was built," Brubeck says. "The State Department thought the best way for us to go to Poland was through Eost Germany, but it was against the law for an American to go into East Germany. A German lady named Madame Gunderlock, a very ancient promoter everybody seemed to know, was one of the few people who could go into East Germany through the Brandenburg Gate. So they asked me to get into the trunk of her car.

"I refused," he laughs while retelling the tale. "Americans were going to jail for lesser things than that, and disappearing for six months to years. I said, I’ll get in the back seat. If they question me I'll tell them why I'm going, and hope I can explain it. I was going to meet somebody from Poland who had papers that would get me through East Germany to Poland. So Madame Gunderlock drove me to what looked like a police station: a huge room, cement floors, wooden benches, and nobody in there. I sat in there for hours, alone.

"After a long time a man came in, walked over and sat next to me, but didn't say a word. I thought, 'What does this mean?' Finally he said, 'Are you Mr. Koolu?' I said, 'No, my name is Brubeck.' He said, 'No, you Mr. Koolu.' I said 'No' and he got out a Polish newspaper. There's a picture of me, captioned 'Mizter Kulu' — Mr. Cool Jazz! Well, he had our papers. I had to return and get the band and two of my children and my wife on the west side back through Brandenburg Gate, with no one to help us in a country where everything was hard to do anyway, and I couldn't speak the language, and I remember almost getting on the wrong train track to the wrong place..."

But he wrote the right song. When Brubeck returned to West Berlin years later to play the first concert East Berliners were allowed to attend there and began "Brandenburg Gate," the entire audience in the 10,000 seat Sports Palace stood up. His work, like the Gate itself, had become a symbol of unity regarding The Wall.

Brubeck's relationship with his listeners throughout the Eurasian tour was mutually empathic. For one thing, he often based themes on one phrase that, when attempted in a native tongue, always endears travelers to their hosts: "Thank you." His theme for Turkey's Bosphorus Straits, "The Golden Horn," comes from the rhythm of "choktahsa-keraderam" and features Desmond's Sephardic wail after a piano introduction developed from a dissonant cluster against Morello's tattoo. The Turkish "thanks" is a tongue-twister, and Brubeck is not noted for a Bud Powell-like right hand, yet his fingers negotiate the close turns of the moral line with aplomb.

The Polish "Thank You," ("Dziekuje," pronounced something like "chenkuye") reflects the mixture of sorrow and hope with which Brubeck encountered the deterioration of one of his homelands (he claims German, Polish-Russian, English, and maybe Native American ancestry).

"When we got to Poland we traveled in a bus where the floorboards were out and you saw the road down through your feet — that's how beat up everything was, the country had been destroyed so thoroughly, terribly. We'd done 11 concerts in Poland when I visited the Chopin museum one day; we took a train to the next city to play that night. On the train I wrote 'Dziekuje.'

"I wanted to play it as a thanks to the great Polish audience. There was no time to rehearse it because we went right from the train to the concert hall. I just hummed it to the guys, and wrote out the basic chord changes, but we never actually sat down and rehearsed it. It was very Chopinesque, because I'd been so impressed seeing the cast of Chopin's hands and his piano in the museum. So I told the interpreter that I wanted to call it 'Dziekuje'. We performed it after the interpreter told the audience what it was. When we finished, there was an absolute, interminable silence in the hall, which was one of the most frightening moments of my life. And then suddenly, cheers from everybody — the place exploded with applause. For some reason it was like the concert had become a church or a tribute or something. I hadn't planned it that way."

"Marble Arch," near which free-style debaters gather in London's Hyde Park, brims with the insouciant curiosity of a tourist on a double-decker bus. Joe Benjamin's solo and Desmond's stop-time passages, Morello's dapper brush dance and Brubeck's concluding ascending chords summon the image of four such tourists trading anecdotes about their visits over ale at a pub.

"Calcutta Blues," perhaps this album's most deeply felt track, can't help but change a listener's mood. "Millions sleep in the street every night," Brubeck remembers. "There were three plagues going on in Calcutta, and the taxis were used for ambulances and hearses. You don't forget those kinds of things. Nothing can change you more than seeing the misery of this world, and the great good we could do." The only thing that comes close is attending to the expression of those who've witnessed such situations and relate the truth.

Dave Brubeck has many more travel stories — of recording an impromptu collaboration with Indian musicians while electric current fluctuated, resulting in tape distortion; of bejeweled, tropically-treated pianos being hoisted by 20 bearers through the streets for bis performance; of being shot at by shepherds while flying through the Khyber Pass; of being rich with useless zlotys upon leaving Poland; of leaving Baghdad hours before his hotel was attacked during a spasm of violence. Not did his adventures end in 1958. Eugene Wright returned to the group to perform in Moscow for Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev during the 1989 summit meeting. Brubeck had been detained because his papers were filled out too well. He'd been threatened with on-stage assassination

Yet the pianist prevails. He goes to Europe for five or six weeks every year. He's toured Australia nine times, Japan five times, "and on the way, you play places like Singapore, Hong Kong, maybe Jakarta."

"I think that's what keeps us going, the wonderful vitality that comes from performing. You get so much back from the audience," Dave Brubeck enthuses. "I've gone out there sick, and at the end of the concert come off feeling just great."

One needn't wonder how his audience felt. To know, simply listen to Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia.”                                     

-Howard Mandel

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Four Freshmen: A Vocal Quartet with Quarter Tones

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

In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider having ever taken The Four Freshmen for granted.

Yet for many years, that’s exactly what I did.

I mean, as a Jazz vocal group, they were still right up there with The Pied Pipers, The Hi-Lo’s, and Mel Torme’s Mel-tones, but I was spoiled back in the days when The Four Freshman made their first, recorded appearances in the early 1950s.

Good vocal Jazz was everywhere, so one had a tendency in those days to expect marvelous music from a newly arrived group on the scene.

But somehow, The Four Freshmen demanded a closer listening and I kept going back and back and doing just that – listening more closely to the point when it finally dawned on me that something very special was going on in their music.

But what?

Why were The Four Freshmen above-the-line; why did I eventually come to view them as virtually being in a class by themselves?

The reasons for their uniqueness is in The Four Freshmen’s use of quarter tones and the manner in which they “voice” their chords as explained in the following excerpt from the insert notes to The Complete Capitol Four Freshmen Fifties Session, a nine-disc set issued by Michael Cuscuna and his team at Mosaic Records [MD9-203].

At least I had enough of a discriminating sense to jump on a copy of this set when it first appeared. It was issued in a limited edition of 3,500 and my copy is numbered “0079.”

The Mosaic set notes were prepared by Ross Barbour, one of the Freshmen’s founding members. In them, Ross not only describes what gave the group its distinctive sound, but also how the group got its start with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, an association that would continue for almost three decades, and ultimately came to be recorded by Capitol Records.

Ross’s annotations and remembrances are followed with an article by William H. Smith that also touches on the roots of the group and the reasons why The Four Freshmen successfully carry on to this day.

© -  Ross Barbour/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Bob Flanigan and Don and Ross Barbour are cousins. Our mothers were sisters. My brother Don and I are from Columbus, Indiana. Bob Flanigan is from Greencastle, Indiana.

When we were just grade-schoolers, we would go to our mothers' family reunions and at noon the Fodreas would all stand and sing the Doxology before we ate. (Praise God from whom all blessings flow, etc.) In mother's family, there were 10 girls and two boys. They all sang in quartets, choirs and choruses. They sang harmony so right it made the rafters ring. It took our breath away.

The way they sang those notes made a different sound from playing those notes on a keyboard. I never understood why they were so different until I read an article in an old Barbershopper's newsletter. The harmonizer of September 1954, Paul Vandervoort of Hey wood, Illinois, wrote the article, and he got his information from The Outline of Knowledge Encyclopedia, and an article entitled "Sound Physics."

It seems that in about 1700, the musical scale was quite complicated. An octave had 20 or more notes in it. Between F and G, for instance, there was F sharp, G double flat and G flat. That was called the "perfect diatonic scale."

Johann Sebastian Bach came along and changed all this. He formed what is known as the "tempered scale" by choos­ing 12 of the 20-plus notes, and having his piano tuned that way. It was a lot simpler, but the beautiful quarter tones were left out. People's ears could still hear them and harmony singers knew how to use them to make what are called over­tones, but they were just not on a keyboard anymore.

Bob, Don and I were hearing those overtones or harmonics as kids, and we became addicted to them. We couldn't get enough. I sang in quartets in high school and in college, and I sang with the Four Freshmen for 29 years. I never got enough. I have been a Freshmen fan since I retired undefeated in 1977, and I still need to hear overtones.

In our early Four Freshmen days, we rehearsed without instruments. If a chord we sang couldn't stand up and say its name (I'm a D-ninth or I'm an F-seventh), we would change it until it did.

We used bass and guitar for our background, but they never played the exact notes we were singing. Our harmony could happen almost unfettered by the demand of a key­board — demand that would channel us back into Bach's 12 half-steps per octave.

If my note was a major seventh, I could sing it on top of the note — sing it sharp, you might say, so it and the tonic note became a little less than a half-step apart. That's what makes it buzz in your ear.

If we wanted a dominant seventh to ring, we'd sing it on the bottom of the pitch — especially if the voice leading was going down through that dominant seventh.

A major third should be sung brightly on top of the pitch, and a minor third should hang on the bottom.

We were singing those notes not because they were writ­ten and the piano said the pitch was "there." We sang them because they harmonized. They made overtones in our ears.

And we didn't discover some great breakthrough in har­mony. Good barbershop singers do it all the time; in fact singers have been doing it since at least the year 1700.

It may be that we were the first modern vocal group the world noticed who put the emphasis on harmony and over­tones, but we won't be the last. Other groups are bound to succeed in doing it because there is something in people's ears that needs harmony. That thing can make your hair stand up when a chord rings. It can make you shout right out loud!

That article about "Sound Physics" goes on to say that Handel, the great composer, "could not stand to hear music played in the tempered scale." He had an organ built that would play all the notes in the perfect diatonic scale. Boy! That would be a bear to play!

In 1947, Hal Kratzsch was 22, Bob 21, Don 20 and I was 18. We were all freshmen at Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis. We'd all sung in vocal groups before and singing harmony parts came naturally to us.

Bob had been a member of a Greencastle vocal group that had a radio show in Indianapolis for a while. He went into the service out of high school, and played trombone through his army time in Germany, except when the dance band needed a bass player. He learned to play bass on the job. After the service he enrolled in A.J.C. in 1947.

Don played guitar through high school and a couple of years in Arabia with the Air Force. I had graduated from high school in the spring of 1947. Don and I came to college together that fall.

Hal, who was from Warsaw, Indiana, played trumpet in high school and in the Navy in the South Pacific. He came from the service to Indiana University for a year before trans­fering to A.J.C.

Hal and I met in theory class. He had the idea of putting together a quartet. At that time, we thought a modern vocal group needed a girl to sing lead, so Hal, Don and I rehearsed with a girl named Marilyn for almost a month, before we found out that Marilyn's mom wouldn't let her go sing with three guys in late-night places.

When we got Bob in the group, our sound really started to take shape. Bob's lead voice has influenced generations... strong and clear.

Hal knew from instinct how to sing the bottom part, and he did it his way. He seldom sang the tonic, and often sang the ninth or passing tones through the chords. His pitch was so secure, we could stand our chords up on his note.

Don had such a wide range. We needed his upper regis­ter in his second part, and he came through with it so well and so strong. I was a natural baritone or third voice. It was more natural for me to sing harmonies than to sing melodies. It was up to us to fill in — to color — that large area between Bob and Hal.

With voices like these we could make rainbows of color chords, so we did. In the beginning we chose our own notes — made up our own individual parts, but we didn't do it straight through a song. On Poinciana, we would agree to sing "oh" in unison. Then "poin" was a chord to solve. After we had that one, then we went for "ci" and the notes had to flow from "poin" to "ci", then on to "ana." Okay, let's try it from the top. Are there any chords we can make stronger? Let's try making two chords out of "ci" — when I do this, you do that. Maybe a whole hour goes by and you haven't tried all the ideas. But you should keep trying because the next idea may just make all of you jump and shout.

We were trying to sound like Stan Kenton's vocal group, The Pastels. There were five of them and four of us, but that didn't stop us. Mel Torme had a five-part group with Artie Shaw's band called The Mel Tones. We tried to copy them, too. The way it turned out, we invented a sound by trying to get a five-part sound with four voices. (Other elements to our sound came about serendipitously. At a show in El Paso on December 8, 1951, Don broke a high E string on his guitar, and he didn't have a spare. Well, the show had go on, so Don replaced it with a third string and tuned it an octave lower. From that day on, Don's guitar didn't sound like other guitars. It was great for our sound. The lower string added a density to the range where we sang.)

We went on the road Sept. 20, 1948, working lounges (most of them dingy dives) around the Midwest for a year and a half, honing our music and our stage presentation.

In February 1950, we were working the Pla Bowl Lounge in Calumet City, Illinois. We'd work until 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. and then we would go to jam sessions. The 19th was a Sunday night — the end of our week. Mondays were off. We went to the High Note in Chicago for a session that began about 4:00 a.m. Monday. The place was full of the right people — Marian McPartland, Roy Kral and Jackie Cain, Jeri Southern, and one of our favorites, Mary Ann McCall. She was on stage singing with the Max Miller Trio. It was a song we knew so we got up there, too, and sang "dooooo" with her. It must have sounded pretty good because at the end of the song, Mary Ann said on the microphone, "Hey, Woody, we're ready to go." A guy at the bar stood up and said something back to her. We caught our breath. It was Woody Herman!

In the next few minutes, he and Mary Ann explained how Woody was going to put together a new band in a few months; he would call it "The Band That Plays the Music You Want to Dance To," or some such title. He wanted us four to play in the band, and sing as a quartet a half dozen tunes a night.

We loved the Herman Herds and the way Mary Ann sang. Oh! It seemed that life couldn't get any better. Just one month later, Stan Kenton had us reaching for the moon (our own record contract) and believing it was possible.

Stan heard us in the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday, March 21. He was on tour with the Innovations Orchestra and some disc jockey friends brought Stan to hear us after his show. He must have understood that we didn't usually tremble and sound short of breath when we sang. He knew we were overwhelmed by his presence. It could be that our worshipping his every move triggered some of his devotion to our quartet.

He could tell we didn't know what we were doing. I heard him say in an interview one time that we were doing things by ear that were way beyond our musical education, but we were making sounds he liked to hear.

That night he planned for us to go to New York and meet him and Pete Rugolo. He would see that we made some good audition tapes for Capitol's executives to hear. He would talk those executives into signing us to our own contract, and we would begin making records. Stan made it happen just that way.

He'd later say, "You guys have gotta succeed, you can't fail. You're part of my ego!" Let me pause here in the story to explain that Stan had his managers handle our career. They found us work, and helped us choose uniforms. We received mail at Stan's 941 N. LaCienega address for two or three years, and we couldn't get him to take a penny for it. He didn't even want us to give him Christmas presents. The prestige he added to this quartet by just saying, "Stan Kenton likes the Four Freshmen," was priceless. The help­ful care he gave us year after year kept good things coming our way. I have said it before and it always sounds like I am bragging, but Stan treated us like we were his own kids. We were part of his ego.

On April 10, we left Green Bay on the 7:10 train to Chicago. We caught the 2:40 p.m. train to New York and tried to sleep that night, but we were too keyed up. None of us slept. Our dreams were coming true before our very eyes.

My diary says: "Tried to sing in the dining caboose, almost got thrown in the caboose, Yippee Ky-0-Ky-A."

We arrived in New York at 10:30 a.m. on April 11, full of youthful steam. We slept for an hour and a half at the Dixie Hotel before we went to Pete Rugolo's dressing room at the Paramount Theater. He was conducting the orchestra for Billy Eckstine.

We waited in the dressing room while Pete did the show. We could hear the show from there. Does life get better than this? When Pete came back, we sang a couple of tunes for him. Pete was pleased but surprised we sang for him since that's what we were to do the next day in the studio. Later that night, we went to Bop City to hear Lionel Hampton and the George Shearing group with Denzil Best.

The next evening (Wednesday April 12), we ate at the Automat and went to Pete's dressing room again, where we met up with Stan Kenton and his manager, Bob Allison, who gave us $65. This was travel money and we thought, at the time, it was from Capitol records. Now we know that Capitol didn't pay groups to go to New York to record audition tapes. That money must have come from Stan himself, just to make sure that the cost of the trip didn't leave us broke.

We were in good hands, and we were on our way!”
© -  William H. Smith/The Wall Street Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Four Freshman: A Vocal Group at the Top of Its Class

August 20, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

“Widely known for basketball, the Indy 500, and a plethora of covered bridges, Indiana also proudly claims The Four Freshmen as its own. The legendary vocal/instrumental group will celebrate its 60th anniversary at a reunion, sponsored by The Four Freshmen Society, of band members past and present -- there have been 23 lineups to date -- at the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre, Aug. 21 to 23. Commemorative concerts continue to air across the country during PBS fund-raising drives, and a highlight of 2008 will be the Freshmen's Oct. 25 performance before Russian fans at the prestigious Great Hall of the Moscow Performing Arts Center.

Although not the first successful vocal group, The Four Freshmen was, without question, the most innovative. Inspired by Artie Shaw's Mel-Tones with Mel Torme, as well as by The Pastels, a five-voice group with Stan Kenton, the Freshmen soon developed their own unique style of harmony -- singing a five-part sound with four voices and playing instruments as well. Every vocal group that followed -- except for those that sang with no or minimal chord structure -- was influenced by the Freshmen, including The Lettermen, Manhattan Transfer, Take Six, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. (At The Four Freshmen's Jan. 14 performance at Palm Desert, Calif.'s McCallum Theatre, I sat in the audience next to the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson -- one of the Freshmen's most enthusiastic fans, who listened to their records as a teenager and wanted to emulate their unique sound in his arrangements.)

The close harmony of this unique quartet had its genesis at Butler University's Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis, when Hal Kratzch, along with Don Barbour and his brother Ross, formed "Hal's Harmonizers." In an interview at his home in Simi Valley, Calif., Ross Barbour recalled that "we tried a few lead singers, but it was only after our cousin Bob Flanigan, with his strong high voice, joined the group that we started getting that Freshmen sound." The four went on the road in 1948 as The Toppers, but the name was soon changed to The Four Freshmen. (Both Ross Barbour and Bob Flanigan, the only survivors of that quartet, received honorary doctorates at Butler this May.)

Stan Kenton heard the Freshmen in March 1950 at the Esquire Lounge in Dayton, Ohio, and gave them their first big break by introducing the group to his own recording label, Capitol Records. The Freshmen had developed their trademark sound by structuring chords much like the trombone section of Kenton's own band, and Mr. Barbour maintains that the success of one of their biggest-selling albums, "Four Freshmen and Five Trombones," can in a large way be attributed to Pete Rugolo, the arranger the quartet and Kenton shared.

The Four Freshmen's signature tune is "It's a Blue World Without You," released in 1952, a song that continues to send chills up and down the spines of audiences as soon as the first a capella chords resound. But the Freshmen gained their first national exposure when they appeared on CBS's "Steve Allen Show" on Christmas Day in 1950, and their popularity lasted not only through the decade that later gave birth to rock 'n' roll but into the mid-1960s -- the era of Bob Dylan and the Beatles -- and beyond. Despite this generational change, the Freshmen continued playing universities around the country and, according to Mr. Barbour, "the multitude of college kids remained loyal fans."

Over their 60 years of performing throughout the U.S. and abroad, the Freshmen have recorded some 45 albums and 70 singles, and have received numerous honors, including six Grammy Awards. Down Beat magazine awarded the quartet the Best Jazz Vocal group honor in 1953 and again, 57 years later, in 2000, an example of the quartet's timeless appeal. The present lineup placed No. 1 in this same category in the 2007 JazzTimes Readers Poll.

"The Four Freshmen have endured for the simple reason that they are top in their class," said Charles Osgood, anchor of "CBS Sunday Morning," when a profile of the group aired in August 1994. Steven Cornelius of the Toledo Blade put it this way in April 2005: "There is no Dorian Gray youth potion at work, just a healthy retirement system." When a member leaves, he is replaced with an equally talented musician.

The present lineup of this multifaceted, ultra-talented quartet of vocalists and instrumentalists now comprises Vince Johnson, baritone, playing bass and guitar; Bob Ferreira, bass voice, playing drums; Brian Eichenberger, lead voice, playing guitar and bass; and Curtis Calderon, singing second part, and playing trumpet and flugelhorn. Although the other three Freshmen joke about it, Mr. Johnson accompanies his bass with some of the best whistling since Bing Crosby.

Bob Flanigan -- introducing the current quartet on their recent DVD, "The Four Freshmen Live From Las Vegas" -- vows that "this group is the best Four Freshmen of all time." On the DVD, Mr. Flanigan, reflecting on his 44 years with the Freshmen, remembers all the "Bad roads . . . Bad food . . . Good and Bad Hotels . . . and millions of air-miles in DC3s to 747s."

Long live The Four Freshmen. May they never graduate!

Mr. Smith writes about jazz and the big-band era for the Journal

For tour dates and venues, go to”