Sunday, August 28, 2016

"How Rudy Van Gelder Shaped the Sound of Jazz As We Know It"

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




The Following by Nate Chinen is excerpted from the August 26, 2016 New York Times.


“When a musical hero of towering influence dies, the urge is to go straight to the tape: recordings, footage, a captured moment that stands in for the unwieldy fullness of a life.


This commemorative twitch — wearily familiar in our year of losses, from David Bowie to Prince to, just last week, the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson — is especially well suited to the memory of Rudy Van Gelder, whose legend was shaped within the confines of his recording studio. Mr. Van Gelder, who died on Thursday at 91, was the most revered recording engineer in jazz — the man behind the curtain on thousands of albums and the chief architect of the storied “Blue Note sound.” He shaped the way we hear the music and the way we want it to be heard.


So it’s natural, now, to look for some trace of Mr. Van Gelder in the brilliant recordings he made, either at his first home studio in Hackensack, N.J., or at his second, in nearby Englewood Cliffs. It’s natural, and it’s also maddening, because so much of what he did was intangible. You hear it, you feel it, but his signature was etched in invisible ink. What is it, exactly, that you’re listening for? Naturalism? Warmth? The sound of a room?


“Some musicians sounded more real on your recordings than they would in a club,” the pianist and writer Ben Sidran ventured in 1985 in a rare interview with Mr. Van Gelder, who seemed to agree. He replied, “A great photographer will really create his image, and not just capture a particular situation.””


And this quotation from the introduction to Ben Sidran’s December, 1985 interview with Rudy will be followed by the full interview that will appear as a blog posting later in the week.


“Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder never gives interviews. He agreed to talk with me only after I assured him that if he didn't like the way it went, he could keep the tape. Perhaps because he's spent his entire life on the other side of the microphone, he knows all too well the historical importance of pushing the record button.


Rudy is a legend in the recording world, not only because of the thousands of classic jazz sessions he's captured on tape, particularly the early Blue Note records, but also because he's a man who, many fans believe, helped invent the sound of contemporary jazz. His recordings from the early '50s still sound modem today. Rudy is not unaware of his position in the jazz pantheon, and actively guards his "secrets."


He will not talk about the kinds of microphones he uses or where he places them, or anything even vaguely related to the technical process of recording music. For many of today's young jazz musicians, walking into his studio is a bit like arriving at the inner chamber of the great pyramid (where the mysteries of the past have unfolded); for many older musicians, it's like coming home.”


To be continued:


Rudy van Gelder [1924-2016] R.I.P.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Rudy Van Gelder 1924-2016: A Signature Sound [From the Archives]

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




[Rudy van Gelder died on August 25, 2016. He was 91 years old. The Jazz World owes him an enormous debt of gratitude not only for what he did in preserving so much recorded Jazz, but also because of the absolutely first-rate way in which he did it. The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is re-posting this earlier feature as an homage to him. It’s our very small way of repaying the debt.]


I never thought much about the quality of the sound on the Blue Note LPs that I purchased in the 1950s and 60s. I didn't need to.

Blue Note’s sound quality was something that one could take for granted because the now, legendary Rudy van Gelder was the commanding force behind it and, as you’ll come to understand after reading the following interview, he obviously gave it a great deal of thought.

The sound on Blue Note’s albums had a “presence” that wrapped the listener in an audio environment which was dynamic and vibrant.

The sound came forward; it reached out; it enveloped.

Rudy made the sound seem as though it was emanating from musicians who were performing it in one’s living room.

In a way, this is more than an analogy because Rudy’s initial recording studio was the living room in his parents’ home in HackensackNJ before he built his own studio in near-by Englewoods CliffsNJ.

Rudy doesn’t talk much about himself or his views on the subject of sound engineering.

Fortunately, James Rozzi was able to interview him at length and publish Rudy’s responses to his questions in the November 1995 edition of the now defunct Audio Magazine.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought this rare glimpse of Rudy van Gelder discussing himself and his technical approach to sound recording would make an interesting feature for its readers.

It is hard to imagine let alone conceive of what The World of Jazz would have been like if Rudy Van Gelder hadn’t been around.



© -James Rozzi/Audio Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dr. Rudy Van Gelder’s formal education was in optometry, but his heart and the majority of his professional years have been devoted full-time to the recording industry.

Ask any Jazz buff about Rudy, and they’ll name him as the recording engineer responsible for all those classic Blue Note and Prestige Records, among almost countless others.

This interview, one of the very few that Rudy has granted in his 40 plus years in the business, was conducted in his Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio, a gorgeous facility just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. I thank him for sharing his history and his views.

It’s a given in the Jazz world that you have set the standards for Jazz recordings for the past 40 years. In an ever-changing industry, how do you continue to maintain consistent quality in your recordings?

I prefer to do my own masters, my own editing. By ‘my own,’ I mean, I want it to be done here. It’s not that I influence what it is. It’s just that I need to be involved in the whole process – up to and including the finished product – in order to give my clients what they expect of me, which is the reason why they are coming here. They agree upon that before we can do anything.

This is really the only major stipulation I have, that I do the process. It’s not because it is expensive, because the expense is minimal. I purposely keep it that way because I don’t want the money to be a part of their decision.

The point is that I’d like to have at least some measure of control over the finished sound before it’s sent for replication to the plant.

This is contrary to the way most studios work.

The business, at least from my point of view, has really become fragmented – more like the movie industry. There are engineers who do Jazz recording who don’t own the studio and don’t have anything to do with the maintenance, ownership or operation of the studio.

They just go to a studio as a freelance engineer and use the facility for their own clients. Obviously, this is not the situation here. I own the studio, I run the studio and I maintain it. It’s my responsibility, I’m here everyday, not somebody else. It reflects me.

Being involved in the complete digital post-production is highly unusual for any studio. Would you please explain it?

Once we have gotten to the point of recording and mixing the two-track tape that has all of the tunes the client wants for the CD, the next step is to get together with the producer or the musician, whoever is in charge of the project – and sequence it.

We have to put the tunes in the order that they will appear in on the CD, get all the timings in between the songs precise, and takes all the noises out.

As for the medium for that, the most common medium is DAT [digital audio tape]. Now most people – including musicians and producers, except for those who work here – believe that this is a master tape. That format was not designed to be and is incapable of being a master.

There are other elements required for CD replication that cannot be incorporated into a DAT.

There is just no room on a DAT for the information which tells your CD player to go to track one when you put a CD in and press "play." The information that makes this possible has to be incorporated on the CD. The DAT must be transferred to another medium that incorporates this information. This studio uses a CD-R. Prior to the CD-R, 1630 was the de facto standard. I consider that now obsolete. Most recording studios do not get involved in this process.

If most recording studios don't get involved in digital post-production, then how is it commonly done?

The very fact that most recording studios don't care to do it has created the existence of what are called mastering houses. They don't have studios. They don't even have a microphone. They just put the numbers on there and then transfer from one medium to another.

Why are you so concerned with accom­plishing this process yourself? Isn't the equipment expensive?

Yes, it's very expensive, very difficult to ac­quire and maintain. The problem is that there can be processing at this stage, quite extensive processing.

Intentionally changing the sound from that of the DAT?

Intentionally changing the sound! Chang­ing the loudness to softness, the highs to lows. Yes, it's a very elaborate procedure; it is a part of the recording process that most people don't even know exists.

Who is responsible for making the decision to alter the sound at this late a stage in the recording process?

Whoever is following the course of the pro­ject, usually whoever is paying for it or their representative. I'm now defining why I in­sist on doing everything myself. And you can extend this into the reissue process too. Reissuing is nothing but post-production. The people who were originally involved in the recording are no longer there, or they no longer own it. These mastering decisions on reissues are being made by someone else, someone affiliated with the company who now owns the material.


What are your feelings on issuing alternate takes?

Now, to me that's just a sad event which has befallen the record industry. The rejected outtakes have been renamed "alternate takes" for marketing reasons. It's a disser­vice to the artist. It's a disservice to the mu­sic. It's also rampant throughout the land, and I'm just telling you how I feel about it. I would recommend to all musicians: Don't let the outtakes get out of your hands. Of course, that may be easier said than done.

You must be disappointed by much of what has been released as alternate takes.
                                                                                 
Yes, when I hear some of this stuff, I'm re­minded of all the problems I had, particu­larly on these outtakes. It's like reliving all of the difficulties of my life again. So I don't take a lot of pleasure in that because I know I can do a lot better now, and all that does is reinforce my uneasiness. Of course, when it was a recording problem, the music was usually still so good that it was worth it to me. And the fact that it's still being heard— in many cases being heard better than ever before—is an incredible experience. And it's clean, with no noise. I don't like to com­plain too much.

I feel that way very often myself, the way you described, being able to hear the music better than ever. I'm not a person who locks into the sound as closely as I do the music. The music is all-important to me, but sometimes I become distracted by how bad the sound is. It seems that a big prob­lem in translating those old recordings onto CD is the sound of the bass. It be­comes very boomy.

Well, you can't blame that entirely on the people who are doing the mastering. That particular quality is inherent in the record­ing techniques of the time—the way bass players played, the way they sounded, the way their instruments sounded. They don't sound like that now. The music has changed the way the artists play. Now everything has got to be loud. A loud .drum­mer today is a lot louder than a loud drummer of 30 or even 20 years ago. It's all relative. But as far as that certain quality you're talking about, some of it is very good, by the way. There were some excellent bass recordings made at that time because the bass player and I got together on what we were trying to do.

Considering the reverence given to the his­torical Blue Note recordings and the fact that they were accomplished direct to two-track, do you get many requests nowadays to record direct to two-track?

 Usually they say, "I want to go direct to two-track like the old days." And I say, "Sure, I'll do that." I can still do it, or we can record to the 24-track digital machine. As far as the musicians are concerned, regarding their performance out in the studio, that's trans­parent to them. There's no difference in the setup. I sort of think two-track while I'm recording and actually run a two-track recording of the session, which very often serves as the finished mix.

But this is the real world now. The musicians will listen to the playback, and the bass player will say, "Gee, I played two bad notes going into the bridge of the out-melody. Can you fix that, Rudy?" Now, it used to be that when a client asked for a two-track session, I would never run a multi-track backup. They didn't want to get involved in it, for money reasons. They didn't want to spend the money for the tape or didn't want to have to mix it af­ter the session. I went along with that for a long time. But the bass player would still come in, hoping to fix wrong notes, and I'd sit there like a fool and say, ‘Well, I can't do anything about it. The producer didn't want to spend the money for multi-tracking.’

So I decided I wasn't going to do that anymore. I think of it as a two-track date— we're talking about a small acoustic jazz band now, not any kind of heavy produc­tion thing—and I run a multi-track backup. Then when the bass player asks to fix a cou­ple of notes, I look at the producer or who­ever is paying for the session, and that be­comes his decision, not mine. He now has to answer the bass player.

So the final product may consist of both multi-track and two-track recordings?

That happens. Right. And my life is a lot happier. And the producers have come around a little bit too.

How did you first become affiliated with Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records?

There was a saxophone player and arranger by the name of Gil Melle. He had a little band and a concept of writing, and I recorded him. This was before I met Alfred. I recorded it in my Hackensack studio in my parents’ home. So somehow—and I was not a party to it—he sold that to Alfred to be released on Blue Note. And Alfred want­ed to make another one. So he took that recording to the place he was going. It hap­pened to be in New York at the WOR recording studios. He played it for the engi­neer, who Alfred had been using up until that time, and the engineer said, "I can't get that sound. I can't record that here. You'd better go to whoever did it." Remember, I wasn't there; this is how it was related to me. And that's what brought Alfred to me. He came to me, and he was there forever.


Those Blue Note records, they're just so beautiful....

Masterpieces.

Did Alfred and you work at producing those jazz masterpieces? Did he have you splice solos?

Yes, he did. He was tough to work for com­pared to anyone else. He knew what he wanted. He knew what that album should sound like before he even came into the stu­dio. He made it tough for me. It was defi­nitely headache time and never easy. On the other hand, I knew it was important, and he had a quality that gave me confi­dence in him. The whole burden of creating for him—what he had in mind—that was mine. And he knew how to extract the maximum effort from the musi­cians and from me too. He was a master at that. I think one of the reasons our relation­ship lasted so long was because he listened to what other people were doing parallel to our product. I don't believe he ever heard anything that was better than what we were doing. I have no doubt that if he had heard someone doing it better than what I was doing, he would have gone there. But he never did, and that made it possible for me to build this studio. I knew he was always there.

Once you developed that sound, you knew exactly what to do initially. When the mu­sicians walked in, you knew right where everything should be regarding micro­phone placement and all of that. And you went from there. From that point, it was just minor alterations according to that session.

That's very well put, and do you know why that was? Because Alfred used to come here often. He used to bring the same people out in various combinations. They all knew what I was like. Everybody would come in and know exactly where their stand was, where they would play. It was home. There were no strangers. They knew the results of what they were going to do. There was nev­er any question about it, so they could focus on the music.

Then when Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records started with you, there was that whole crowd of musicians, sometime cross­ing over personnel.

Well, Weinstock would very often follow Al­fred around, but with a different kind of project in mind. And you know, when I ex­perimented, I would experiment on Bob Weinstock's projects. Bob didn't think much of sound; he still doesn't. He doesn't care. So if I got a new microphone and I wanted to try it on a saxophone player, I would never try it on Alfred's date. Wein­stock didn't give a damn, and if it worked out, great. Alfred would benefit from that. 

I've always thought of the Prestige dates as a more accurate indication of what was happening in the clubs. Although I know that after a Blue Note session wound down, the musicians could go out into the clubs and play original tunes, with Pres­tige it was mostly standards. That's what they went out and jammed on. And that deserves documentation as well.

Absolutely. I agree with that, and I’ve said so, though not as well as you did. I wouldn't want the world to be without them. There are people who say that the difference be­tween Blue Note and Prestige is rehearsal. That's just glib. That's bullshit. That's not even a fair way to put it. It resulted in a lot of my favorite recordings. You know, those Miles [Davis] Prestige things ... they can't hurt those things. It's really one of the most gratifying things I've done, the fact that people can hear those. It's really good.

When you were in the control booth listen­ing to the sessions, were you ever aware that those sides would end up as classics?

 Well, you can't see into the future. I had no way of knowing that. But I knew every ses­sion was important, particularly the Blue Note stuff. The Blue Note sessions seemed more important at the time because the procedure was more demanding. But in ret­rospect, the Prestige recordings of Miles Davis, the Red Garland with Philly Joe Jones, the Jackie McLean and Art Taylor, the early Coltrane—sessions like that—turned out to be equally if not more important. I always felt the activity we were engaged in was more significant than the politics of the time, to the extent that everything else that was happening was unimportant. And I still feel that way. I treat every session ... every session is important to me.

Have you done any classical or pop?

There was a long period of time parallel to those years when I was working for Vox, a classical company. I would get tapes from all over Europe and master those tapes for release in this country. I did that for 10 years or more. So I had three things going: Blue Note, Prestige, and Vox. Each of them was very active. And I did some classical recordings: Classical artists, solo piano recordings, a couple of quartets.

How about pop?

A lot of that popular stuff came with Creed Taylor later in the '70s. He was oriented more toward trying to commercialize jazz music. You're familiar with his CTI label? That's another world altogether. That's when we started to be conscious of the charts. I love the sound of strings, particu­larly the way Creed Taylor handled them with Don Sebesky. And I love an exciting brass sound too. Creed is a genius as far as combining these things that we're talk­ing about. I'm not at all isolated in the world of a five-piece be-bop band. As a matter of fact, sonically, this other thing is more rewarding.

What are your feelings on digital versus analog?

The linear storage of digital information is idealized. It can be perfect. It can never be perfect in analog because you cannot repro­duce the varying voltages through the dif­ferent translations from one medium to an­other. You go from sound to a microphone to a stylus cutting a groove. Then you have to play that back from another stylus wig­gling in a groove, and then translate it back to voltage.

The biggest distorter is the LP it­self. I've made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes go­ing simultaneously, and I'm glad to see the LP go. As far as I'm concerned, good rid­dance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don't like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engi­neer. That's why some digital recordings sound terrible, and I'm not denying that they do, but don't blame the medium.

A lot of people argue that digital is a cold­er, sterile sound. Where do you think that comes from?

Where does it come from? The engineers. You've noticed they've attributed the sound to the medium. They say digital is cold, so they've given it an attribute, but linear digi­tal has no attributes. It's just a medium for storage. It's what you do with it. A lot of this has to do with the writing in consumer magazines. They've got to talk about some­thing.

What should be discussed is the way CDs are being marketed as 20-bit CDs, but there is no such thing as a 20-bit CD. Every CD sold to the public is a 16-bit CD. You can record 20-bit and it is better than 16-bit, but it has to be reduced to 16-bit before you can get it onto the CD. History is re­peating itself. 

It reminds me of when they marketed mono recordings as "re-mastered in stereo." All they did was put the highs on one side, put the lows on the other, and add a lot of reverb to make it believable. Then they'd sell it as a stereo record.

Do you feel today’s jazz musicians stack up to the players of the 1950s and '60s, Blue Note's heyday?

Well, there are a lot of great kids around. You know, technically they're great. I feel they're suffering from a disadvantage of not being able to play in the kind of environ­ment that existed then. You don't want me to make a broad statement saying, "Gee whiz, it was better 20 years ago than it is now." First of all, I don't believe that. I don't even think of it that way.

Do you see yourself as a technician and an artist?

Absolutely. When you mention the techni­cal end, the first thing I think of is making sure all the tools are working right. The artistic part is what you do with them. The artistic part involves everything in this place. There's nothing here that isn't here for an artistic reason. That applies to the studio. The whole environment is created to be artistic. It's my studio and it's been this way for a long, long time, and people like it. It's even mellowed through the years, and people are aware of that. Musicians are sen­sitive to that. Someone came in here only yesterday and said: ‘If the walls could only repeat what has happened here ….’”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Stoop Summit - The Story Behind The Iconic 'A Great Day in Harlem' Photograph

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


“There were musicians from several eras of jazz. That picture depicted what a robust scene it was for jazz musicians in New York.”
— Sonny Rollins


“Certain things end up being bigger than the original intention. The photograph has become part of our cultural fabric.
— Jonathan Kane


“Every time I think about those artists, what they had to go through…it’s great music.”
— Noella Cotto


“A Great Day in Harlem” dives into the story behind the picture in detail, incorporating the priceless, joy-infused Super-8 footage that Mona Hinton, Milt’s wife, shot during the session. It shows the musicians milling about, greeting each other, telling stories, laughing — doing just about everything but paying attention to the photographer across the street, who implored them to come into formation through a megaphone improvised from a rolled-up newspaper.


More than three decades later, director Jean Bach sought out many of the then-surviving musicians to interview them about the picture, including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Marian McPartland. “Living in New York, you saw everybody,” trumpeter Art Farmer says in the film. “Anyone there, you were liable to run into any of them any day.”
- Jonathan Kane HISTORY IN THE MAKING The January 1959 issue of Esquire in which Art Kane’s photo originally appeared.

The following article by Sarah Goodyear about Artie Kane’s iconic “Great Day in Harlem” Esquire magazine cover photograph appeared in the Friday, August 12, 2016  NY Daily News under the banner of -


Stoop Summit: How a Harlem brownstone was immortalized when the living legends of jazz assembled there for an iconic photograph.


“The year was 1999, and Noella Cotto was just looking for a place in Harlem to call her own. When she finally found the perfect place — a brownstone, in decent shape, at 17 E. 126th Street — she had no idea that the building had played a historic supporting role in American pop culture when, in 1958, 57 of the coolest cats in jazz assembled there to have their picture taken for a special issue of Esquire magazine. Cotto, who worked as a postal cop at the time, was unaware that the famous photo, titled “Harlem 1958,” was ubiquitous around the neighborhood, or that a generation of folks who’d grown up in the so-called Cultural Capital of Black America had seen the image so often, hanging in barber shops and bodegas, that they’d long since forgotten about it themselves. Nor did she realize that the photo had gotten another close-up only five years earlier in an Oscar-nominated documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.”


The whole audacious idea was conceived by a man who none of the musicians knew, 33-year-old Art Kane, who had made a name for himself as a magazine art director but whose passion was photography. This was his first professional shooting assignment and, with it, he ended up making history almost by accident.


“He became aware that Esquire was planning a big issue on jazz,” says Jonathan Kane, Art’s son, a musician and photographer who also manages his late father’s photographic legacy (Art Kane died in 1995). “He cooked up the idea of doing a big portrait (with) all these musicians. Art pitched his crazy idea, and they said, Do it.” There was no question about where he would shoot. “Harlem was where the jazz scene came into being and coalesced,” Kane says. “It had to be in Harlem. And he wanted a place that reflected everyday life rather than a club. This could be a street where anybody could live.”


After scouting for a typical building on a typical block, Kane chose 126th St. between Fifth and Madison Aves. He wanted one that was convenient to the subway and what was then the New York Central Railroad (now Metro North), which had a station at 125th and Park. He put out the call for musicians through agents, record labels, union halls, clubs — pretty much any channel he could think of.


One of the musicians answering the call was Sonny Rollins, the brilliant tenor saxophonist who was 27 years old when the picture was shot and already among the period’s most acclaimed jazz artists. Rollins, who says he started playing music when he was 7 or 8 years old, had grown up in central Harlem, surrounded by the ferment of jazz. “All of the black musicians lived in Harlem, it was the only place you could live,” he says. “Harlem was the place. All my idols, like Fats Waller, all these people performed around where I went to school, at P.S. 89, at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. So it was quite a community.”


When he heard about the photo shoot, he knew he had to be there. “I didn’t hesitate,” says Rollins, who is now 85 and, along with Benny Golson, one of only two surviving musicians in the photo. “Something like that had never been done, and the guys were just eager to do it. I certainly was eager to do it. They were all my compadres. It was great fun.”


They had fun even though the start time, in jazz terms, was brutal. Because he wanted to utilize the best light on the north side of the street, avoiding any shadows, Kane asked people to arrive by 10 a.m. — a tall order for artists who typically worked until 4 in the morning. In the 1994 documentary about the photograph, Steve Frankfurt, who was assisting Kane that day, put that early call time in perspective: “Somebody said they didn’t realize there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day.”


The nighthawks showed up anyway, dressed to the nines and ready for action. They came by subway and commuter train. They came by taxi and on foot. Among the greats who made the gig that morning were Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, Milt Hinton and Lester Young. It was a crazy scene, made even more beautiful by the row of neighborhood kids who sat in a row along the curb alongside a jovial Count Basie. “There were musicians from several eras of jazz,” Rollins says. “I think that picture depicted what a robust scene it was for jazz musicians in New York.”


By the time Noela Cotto started searching for a home in Harlem, the neighborhood was perceived as pretty sketchy, and she encountered a variety of obstacles. People told her it wasn’t safe, an assertion she dismissed. They told her she wouldn’t be able to get a construction loan to fix up one of the many buildings that had fallen into disrepair; that was harder to argue with. She thought about buying a co-op, yet despite her steady job, she encountered problems when she talked to a real-estate agent about purchasing one at a new building just a short distance from where she lives now. “The lady was racist,” says Cotto, who is Puerto Rican. “ ‘You probably don’t qualify,’ she told me. That woman did everything she could to keep me from seeing a place.”


That was just as well, as it turns out. Cotto ended up getting a tip from a different agent that the building at 17 E. 126th Street was available. It was in fair shape after a developer’s rudimentary renovation, and she was able to swing the price. (Cotto suspects the previous owner was also unaware of its heritage, or he certainly would have charged more.) Today, the building is probably worth six times what she paid for it. “You’re going to pay a million for a shell now,” Cotto says. “Everything is being taken up. I consider myself pretty fortunate.”


Cotto, now 67, has settled nicely into the house. She has three steady tenants, including her former partner on the postal beat, and she says the group feels like family: “We all look out for each other.”


Being a big jazz fan, Cotto could really appreciate the significance when she found out, not long after she closed the deal, that she was obtaining a piece of history. She made a point of listening to the music of every single person in the picture. She bought an original copy of the Esquire jazz issue on eBay. “Every time I think about those artists — what they had to go through,” she says. “It’s great music.”


“An aesthetic, a tradition, and an audience: these are the prerequisites for a Golden Age,” wrote John Clellon Holmes in an essay that accompanies the photograph in Esquire, “and jazz has achieved them now.” The world represented by those 57 men and women — a world of late-night clubs, of gents in suits and hats and ladies in gloves, of martinis and Lucky Strikes — was already vanishing in the rear-view mirror of popular culture. Harlem was changing, too, emptying out and deteriorating. But change has always been part of the place.


Back in 1958, the city was still a place where aspiring musicians could live on the cheap, sometimes in boarding houses with other rising talents. Scoville Brown, a saxophonist and clarinetist, reminisces in the film about living in a place like that, run by a guy named Pop Collins. “It was a notorious home for musicians where you could come, eat and sleep for a reasonable sum,” Brown says. “I think his dinners were 35 cents apiece, and they were outta sight.” The rooms, he says, went for about $8 or $9 a week.


These days, a one-bedroom apartment at 62 E. 126th, just a block from the spot where Art Kane wrangled all those genius jazz artists, goes for $1,900 a month. And in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, that’s a deal.


East Harlem — the area east of Fifth Avenue and north of 96th Street — is being touted in news stories and on real-estate blogs as one of the last “affordable” parts of Manhattan. Affordable, that is, if you’ve got plenty of money to spend. Earlier this year, the median price of a condo in Harlem was $640,000. That may be considerably less than the figure of $910,000 in Manhattan overall, but it’s still a lot of scratch.


An increase of 30% in home prices since 2010 means that ordinary working people are increasingly unlikely to afford property in Harlem. The same goes for artists in any medium — unless they’re celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris, who three years ago paid $3.6 million for a townhouse on Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th, just around the corner from the jazz house. (He and his husband then renovated it at an unknown cost.)


Fewer than half the people living in Harlem now are black, the first time that’s been true since the 1930s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and Langston Hughes lived one block up on 127th Street. Cotto says she welcomes the increasing racial diversity. The area was Italian and Irish once, she points out, before Latino and African-American people moved in, and it has never stopped shifting. She made a note of it recently when she was walking down 125th Street, where a Bed Bath & Beyond opened recently and a Whole Foods is under construction. “From Lenox to the end of the block, I counted 20 white people. It’s mixing up nicely. The Barrio used to be Puerto Rican,” she says, referring to the part of the neighborhood sometimes known as Spanish Harlem. “Now, it’s mostly Mexican. Everything is changing.” Still, she adds, “I do wish we had more Chinese- and pizza places.”

Cotto also enjoys the regular flow of tourists and jazz fans, from as far away as Japan, who come to see the place where the musical innovators stood. She has taken pains to keep the stairs exactly as they were in the original photograph. Some, like the group Women in Jazz, come to recreate the image that Art Kane engineered all those years ago. “I’ve met some really nice people,” she says.


Now for the best part, if you click on the following link it will take you to the Great Day in Harlem photograph as it appeared in the NY Daily News feature. Once there, if you click on any of the musicians in the photo, a box will open with an audio sample of that musician’s music.



Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vic Dickenson - A Melodic Trombonist

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



A recent feature on trombonist J.C. Higginbotham brought to mind Vic Dickenson, Dickie Wells, and Trummy Young.

You don’t hear their names mentioned very much in Jazz circles, although I would suspect that Trummy gets a nod or two occasionally because of his long association with Louis Armstrong, but all three were individual stylists who made their mark on the instrument and the music.

As part of its continuing effort to remember those Jazz musicians who shaped the music during the early years of its creation, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles searched out sources and developed the following profile of Vic Dickenson from Stanley Dance’s articles about Vic that he wrote for Melody Maker [1954] and Down Beat [1964] magazines and as part of the insert notes for Vic’s recordings on the Vanguard label. We’ve also included some material by Michael Shera and Sinclair Traill who reviewed Vic’s Fontana and Vanguard recordings for the Jazz Journal.

What never ceases to amaze me when I research one of these back-in-the-day stories is how much local work was available for musicians outside of the major cities. Of course, one of the reasons for this was if you wanted to hear music then you had to “make it” and not just reproduce it in some sort of technical fashion. The radio and records were making their presence felt but music was still something that you went to hear played by real, live musicians. It was a means to socialize not a form of solitary musing and a way to close out the world with ear buds plugged into an Mp3 player or downloading digitalized music from The Cloud.

According to Leonard Feather's syndicated column, when Vic Dickenson flew out to Monterey, Calif., for the jazz festival there in September 1964, he received a "standing ovation from the youthful audience"  for his "tongue-in-horn trombone ... on Basin Street Blues" A short time before, Down Beat's International Jazz Critics Poll, in which some 52 critics participated, showed Dickenson sharing third place in the trombone section with Lawrence Brown.

This is remarkable at a time when a jazz musician's popularity depends a great deal upon successful phonograph records. There isn't a single album under Dickenson's name in the Schwann catalog, and he has done relatively little recording of any kind in the last few years. During that period he has seldom played in any of the major jazz venues, but he has not been inactive. With pianist Red Richards he has been a mainstay of a sextet called the Saints and Sinners, which plays regularly to a loyal and devoted following in cities like Pittsburgh, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; and Toronto, Ontario.

There were quite a few persons at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival early last summer who hurried eagerly down the hill on the festival's last night and into the Riverboat Lounge of the Pitt-Sheraton Hotel, where this group was appearing. With Dickenson in the front line were two other veterans, clarinetist Buster Bailey and trumpeter Herman Autrey. The rhythm section was completed by bassist Danny Mastri and drummer Jackie Williams.

The Saints and Sinners play some Dixieland when they work in that room, but what they were playing about 1 a.m. that particular Sunday was a long-lost Benny Carter song called Blues in My Heart, and they were playing it with feeling and imagination in a neat head arrangement, with backgrounds to each other's solos, as though they were a team.


They have a lot of numbers like that, including a Lonesome Road that rocks at a singularly appropriate medium tempo, and they play them in a way that suggests the Eddie Heywood and John Kirby groups of a few years ago, except that it is more down and more punchy. In their version of Bourbon Street Parade, there's a very effective background figure that Dickenson said came out of Alexander's Ragtime Band.

"I contribute a little," he added modestly. "We all get together, and I give a few ideas."

He is not a little unusual today in his love and knowledge of melodies and in a mind that inclines to original tempos and treatment for them.

"He knows about a million numbers," his friend trombonist Dickie Wells once said, "and he always likes to play melodies."

"That's partly true," Dickenson said. "I like to play the melody, and I want it still to be heard, but I like to rephrase it and bring out something fresh in it, as though I were talking or singing to someone. I don't want to play it as written, because there's usually something square in it. Now, Johnny Hodges, he plays melody; but he makes such beautiful melody because he plays it his own way. He's one of the best soloists I know. You've got to feel it, and Johnny does. He's the greatest alto, I think. Sidney Bechet had a lot of what Johnny has, but it wasn't as smooth and tender. He played with more drive and was rougher."

Dickenson was born 58 years ago in Xenia, Ohio, in a musical milieu. There was an organ in the house, but he never, he noted with sadness, heard his mother play it. His father played a little violin—"folk music, you might call it," he recalled—and his own first instrument was harmonica. "I could play things like There's No Place Like Home" he said, "but I couldn't play them well."

His brother was supposed to be taking trombone lessons but failed to give much time to the horn, which lay about the house, neglected. The time came when the principal at young Vic's school decided to form a band and asked all the children who had instruments to bring them. Vic told him he had a trombone at home but didn't know anything about it. "Bring it on in anyhow," said the principal, who formerly had been a trombone player.

He showed the youngster positions by the solfeggio method and left him to find where they were in every key by himself.

"I had been something of a singer when I was a kid, and that was the way the singing teacher had taught us, so it wasn't too hard to understand," he said. "But it takes time to learn trombone. It's the brass horn most like the violin, and it's a matter of position rather than valve. You just have to learn to feel it, so you won't play this note too flat or too sharp. I used to copy records at first, and I loved Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, but then I got tired of hearing the trombone and wanted to play like the other instruments. The singing and the words meant nothing to me; it was the horns and the melodies that I heard. The trombone's part was too limited, and I learned what everybody played on the records, the saxes and clarinets, too."

Dickenson's father was a plastering contractor, and his two sons were learning the trade in Columbus when Vic met with a serious accident. "I had a heavy hod full of mortar on my shoulder, and a rung of a ladder broke," he explained. "I was bent back double and never could lift anything heavy after that, so I had to quit hard, physical work."

Vic and his brother, Carter, who played clarinet and alto, joined Roy Brown's band in Columbus. A cousin, also a plasterer, was playing piano in it, but only in F-sharp. "And I could play very good in F-sharp," Vic said. This was his first professional band, and after that, he and his brother were in another local group, the Night Owls. Work and money were not plentiful around Columbus, however, and eventually Carter joined a band from Cleveland while Vic went off to another led by Don Phillips in Madison, Wis.

"I was up there until I was fired because I couldn't read," he recalled. " Play the C scale,' the leader said one day. I didn't know the C scale from any other, because I was playing from do-re-mi-fa, but I could pick up the horn and play anything I heard on it. It was just like singing to me. I was fired without being given any notice or transportation back, and that made me mad. I had to play piano and sing to make enough money to leave.

"After that experience, I learned to read and to arrange by myself, from books and by asking questions. That would be about 1926.

"I found that to play melody on a trombone, you had to transpose pieces to a brighter key than the one they were originally written in. I'd heard Claude Jones with the Synco Septet by this time—he was with McKinney's Cotton Pickers later—and been very impressed. He didn't play the instrument like a trombone. He played all over it. Then I heard Jimmy Harrison with Fletcher Henderson's band, which was popular around that time—1926-'29. I also used to buy all the Gennett records by Ladd's Black Aces, and I liked the way Miff Mole played melody, rather than the old way that sounded like a dying cow in a thunderstorm.

"The trombone was late developing as compared with the other horns. Jimmy Harrison and Jack Teagarden both sounded like Louis Armstrong, and they influenced me because they were playing the way I had wanted to play before I heard them."

While he was still studying, Dickenson went to Kentucky for a period and then to Cincinnati, where he took J.C. Higginbotham's place with Helvey's Troubadours.

Then he went back to Madison and a band that contained trumpeter Reunald Jones and some of the musicians he had previously worked with, but this time they were fronted by Leonard Gay.

On his return to Columbus in 1929, he joined Speed Webb's band for a little over a year.

"It was a very good band," he said. "Webb had Roy Eldridge, who used to come down from Detroit with his brother, and Teddy Wilson and his brother. Teddy was crazy about [pianist] Earl Hines and was playing beautifully even then. Seven guys arranged in that band, including Teddy's brother Gus, and every week we had seven new arrangements. Of course, we played everything in the way of dance music in those days — waltzes, pop songs, everything. I did some arranging, but I didn't bother with it much because I found it held me up in my playing. I'd be thinking about the other horns and get mixed up. I wouldn't want to get into it now unless I stopped playing. I imagine that was how it was with Sy Oliver. It's not the same for a piano player, because he's got everything there. Playing a horn is a different thing.

"Sy Oliver was in Zack Whyte's band, which Roy Eldridge and I joined in Cincinnati. Several guys left Speed Webb because there was no work. Zack was playing walk-athons. That was what they were called, but people just danced, for hours and hours and hours. It was like pole-sitting, to see how long they could do it. We'd play for a time, and then another band would take over.


"After we'd been to the Savoy in New York, we went out on a five-band tour with Bennie Moten, Blanche Calloway, Andy Kirk, and Chick Webb. We played all around, and the tour broke up in Cincinnati. The guys weren't making so much, but the ballrooms used to be jammed, and the promoters made money. That was how the Kansas City guys came to know about me. When Bennie Moten's band was splitting up, they sent for me. So I went out there and played with Thamon Hayes for a while. Harlan Leonard was in that band, and later he took it over. I left after a few months but went back the following year."

This time they had a booker and went down the Missouri on a boat, up the Mississippi and on to Peoria, Illinois. From there they went to Chicago, where a lot of negotiating went on but not much happened, Dickenson said. Eventually he got a wire from Blanche Calloway and joined her band. Her brother Cab was famous then, and besides Blanche there was a Ruth Calloway and several other Calloways trying to cash in on the name. "But so far as I know," Dickenson said, "Blanche was the only other one to have a good band, with people like Ben Webster in it."

On records, she did a lot of singing, but in person the band played plenty of dance music. Dickenson stayed with her from 1933 to 1936 and then joined Claude Hopkins. After a year with Benny Carter in 1939, the trombonist joined the flourishing Count Basie Band.

"All the musicians knew me," he remembered, "but it wasn't until I was with Basie that the writers and people seemed to become aware of me. Dickie Wells and Dan Minor were in the section with me. Being with Basie was a big help to me. Dickie and I played the jazz solos, and we had many a nice drink together. There were two or three numbers on which we both used to solo.

"When I left Basie in 1941, I worked with Sidney Bechet. He and I got on fine together, personally and musically. He had a style of his own, and you had to
know it. He just didn't like trumpet players. He said they got in his way."

The next job was with trumpeter Frankie Newton, and Dickenson was with the band at Cafe Society in New York City when Newton's contract ran out. Pianist Eddie Heywood's trio was hired and after about one night of the trio, the boss called to see if Dickenson wanted to come down and play with Heywood. The trombone was the first horn Heywood had. After playing the downtown cafe, they went to California and then came back and played the Cafe Society Uptown as well as 52nd St. By this time the Heywood group was a sextet, with trumpet and alto saxophone added to Dickenson's trombone in the front line.

"I got very sick when I was out on the coast again in 1947," Dickenson said. "I had a lot of trouble with an abscessed ulcer, and I had to hang around a long while and have a second operation. In the meantime, I formed my own band, and it was pretty nice, though the fellows in it were not well known."

When he returned east, Dickenson "played around Boston for a long, long time—about eight years." He went into the Savoy there with clarinetist Edmond Hall and stayed on as a kind of house trombonist until the manager opened his own club downtown. Dickenson took over there with his friend Buster Bailey and stayed on to play first with Jimmy and Marian McPartland and then with Bobby Hackett. After working in New York with Hackett, he went back to Boston and George Wein's Mahogany Hall. Pianist-promoter Wein's appreciation of the trombonist's talent subsequently led to Dickenson's appearances at Newport and in Belgium, Germany, and Japan.

In 1957 Dickenson returned to New York and once more took J.C. Higginbotham's chair, this time with Red Allen and Buster Bailey at the Metropole.

With Red Richards, the story comes up to date. "I'd known Red since the early '30s, when we both lived in Harlem," Dickenson said. "He would go out and play piano as a single, but he and I used to sit down and talk about getting a group together, and the Saints and Sinners really began about 1960. Since then, that has been the main thing."

Today, Dickenson, a musician of considerable and varied experience, still has a number of unresolved ambitions.

"I always wanted to record with my brother, Carter," he said, "but he died earlier this year. He played alto and clarinet very well, and he was due to retire from the mail service in 1964, and then I thought it would be easy to get him to come and make a record with me, if only someone would have backed me.

"I would like to make an album that was really my own, one where I picked the men. Every time I've made a record, someone else has picked for me. I'd like seven or eight pieces, and if I chose them, I would get real co-operation. I have some beautiful numbers of my own, too, that I want to record, but I want my own date—and royalties. I never have had any royalties on any records. When I was in Japan and Australia, people were always asking where they could get my records.

Sometimes I wonder whether companies wait until musicians die before they reissue records, so that they won't have to pay royalties. "One of my numbers was recorded in 1956—What Have You Done with the Key to My Heart?—but it was issued in Europe only. It was a good album, made with Budd Johnson (one of the greatest), Andre Persiany, and Taft Jordan. Some of my numbers like that could use a good singer. You know who I would like to record with— the Mills Brothers! As I said, I always have liked melodies."