Sunday, June 24, 2018

Richie Kamuca - The Gordon Jack Interview

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

In view of how little tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca [1930-1977] recorded under his own name over the years, I was immensely fortunate to hear him play in performance on an almost weekly basis from about 1958 - 1964.

Of course, this observation is made in retrospect because like everyone else who directly experienced the West Coast Style of Jazz which was in vogue from in California from about 1945-1965, I assumed that the music would go on forever.

From 1958 to 1960, I was an habituĂ© of the Lighthouse Cafe at 30 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, CA and although Bob Cooper was the resident tenor saxophonist, because Richie’s boyhood friend Stan Levey occupied the drum chair, bassist Howard Rumsey, who led the resident Lighthouse All-Stars, would often turn over the last set to Richie and a fabulous rhythm section made up of Victor Feldman on piano and Stan on drums, both members of the All-Stars, and a young bassist phenom, Scott LaFaro.

You can check out this group on the last two tracks of Joe Gordon and Scott LaFaro: West Coast Days [Fresh Sound FSCD 1030], recorded in performance, September, 1958.

A year later in, September, 1959, Richie, then a regular with drummer Shelly Manne’s quintet, would perform with Victor, who was subbing for Shelly regular pianist Russ Freeman on the classic 5 CD set that Shelly’s group recorded at the Blackhawk Cafe in San Francisco, CA [Contemporary, Original Jazz Classic CD OJCCD-656-660].  Needless to say, I wore out the original LP’s during repeated listenings and if you want to hear Richie at the peak of his powers, this is the set to get.

Shelly returned from the cozy atmosphere of the Blackhawk even more determined to open his own club which he did at 1608 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood, CA in November of the following year.

Along with Conte Candoli on trumpet, Richie formed the front line of that band from about 1960-1962 and you can hear the exciting music this band made on a 2 CD set recorded in performance in 1961 and released on Contemporary as Shelly Manne and His Men at The Manne Hole Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 714/715-2]. If you look closely, you’ll find me garbed in a white polo shirt and blue slacks, seated in front of the bandstand with my chair turned around, staring at Shelly so I could pick up a few of his licks, fills and tricks. I caught the group every chance I could and was rarely disappointed in the quality of the band’s playing, especially Richie’s.

Oh, and while all this was going on, Richie was a member of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ Dream Band from about 1960-1963 which made regular “off night” [Monday night] appearances at club venues on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA.

Talk about a surfeit of riches - or should I say, Surfeit of Richies .

The editorial at JazzProfiles had planned to do a feature on Richie, but when it received word that Gordon Jack had done just that for JazzJournal magazine, we reached out to Gordon about posting his piece on Kamuca on the blog.

As many of you know, Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles re-publishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was first published in Jazz Journal August 2017..
For more information and subscriptions please visit
© -  Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; copyright protected, all rights reserved., used with permission.
Richie Kamuca was already a stellar member of Woody Hernan’s Third Herd when he recorded Johnny Mandel’s Keester Parade with Cy Touff and Harry Edison in 1955. It became enormously popular and helped establish his reputation with jazz audiences especially when it was used as a theme by disc jockey Frank Evans on his Frankly Jazz Show on Mutual KHJ. In 1959 Marty Paich memorably transcribed Mandel’s chart for Mel Torme’ and the Mel-Tones on their Back In Town album (LoneHill Jazz LHJ10304). Keester was to undergo a name-change when Harry Edison performed it as Centerpiece in 1958 with Jimmy Forrest (Fresh Sound FSRCD 547-2). Just like Keester Parade, Centerpiece found favour with another vocal group when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recorded it on their Giants Of Jazz release – The Hottest New Group In Jazz (CD 53127).

Kamuca was born in Philadelphia on 23 July, 1930. He studied at the celebrated Mastbaum Vocational High School where Red Rodney was a fellow student.  In 1951 he began working with Stan Levey’s quartet along with Red Garland and Nelson Boyd at the local Rendezvous Club. As the house-band they had to be highly adaptable backing non-jazz acts like Burl Ives as well as visiting singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Richie and Stan became very close over the years and Kamuca was Godfather to two of his sons. It was thanks to a recommendation from the drummer that Kamuca joined Stan Kenton on 26 August 1952 – the same day as Lee Konitz. The band was appearing at the Moonlite Gardens, Coney Island, Cincinnati at the time.

Two weeks after his debut Kamuca performed on Kenton’s New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm album recorded for Capitol Records in Chicago. The opening title is Stan’s ambitious This Is An Orchestra! which includes his verbal introduction to each band member who then solos briefly.  He highlights Kamuca’s ability to “Swing at the drop of a hat” which Richie ably demonstrates on his album features - Young Blood and Swing House. As Bill Holman said at the time, “Richie is a tried and true Lester Young person… with his own sound that nobody else had”.

During his early career with the band he did not get too many solo opportunities on studio dates but he makes an impressive contribution to Bill Russo’s chart on Fascinating Rhythm along with two of the band’s giants – Frank Rosolino and Lee Konitz.  I still have the L.P. with Alun Morgan’s sleeve-note pointing out that this was the 37th. take yet the performance retains the freshness of a first run-through. Live performances though  – well documented by Sounds Of Yester Year and Submarine – are replete with his contributions to Intermission Riff, It’s The Talk Of The Town, Eager Beaver, Too Marvellous For Words, Jump For Joe, The Big Chase, Royal Blue and Walkin’ Shoes.

Richie was a good looking young man and very popular with the girls who followed the band.  Michael Sparke in his authoritative biography of Stan Kenton reveals that Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis were once in the audience, both clearly enamoured with him.  Andy Hamilton’s book on Lee Konitz points out that this probably occurred at the Blue Note in Chicago. Apparently Kamuca and Ms. Clooney eventually became an item for a while. Richie left Kenton soon after an engagement at Birdland in June 1953 and his place was taken by Zoot Sims. Count Basie apparently wanted him but there were union difficulties that prevented him joining the band.

Kamuca took over from Dave Madden with Woody Herman in October 1954 just as the band finished a two week engagement at the Hollywood Palladium.  Jack Nimitz who played baritone with Kenton and Herman told me in a JJ interview (December 1997) that the money was not as good with Herman. One of Woody’s road-managers - trumpeter John Bennett – put it more bluntly to writer William D. Clancy, “The pay was atrocious…you have to save up for these kind of gigs!”. Travelling between jobs was certainly not as comfortable either. Kenton had an air-conditioned band-bus but Woody’s musicians frequently travelled in four Ford Sedans even on road trips of 800 miles or more. Trumpeter Don Rader who joined the band in 1959 put it quite succinctly to Clancy - “To say that Woody was operating on a shoestring would be an understatement”. Herman’s music though was more straight ahead and swinging than Kenton’s with less emphasis on the experimental.

Richie is heard on a driving Captain Ahab (his favourite solo with the band) and Nat Pierce’s arrangement of Opus De Funk but the highlight of his time with Herman was when Woody took an octet into the Riviera Starlight Lounge in Las Vegas on 8 September, 1955. He only used five horns - Dick Collins and John Coppola (trumpet), Cy Touff (bass trumpet), Kamuca (tenor) and his own clarinet. The engagement lasted three months and after performing nightly from midnight to 6AM the band was really tight as can be heard on the Fresh Sound release that documents the octet’s repertoire. There is a little bow to Basie with numbers like Every Day I Have The Blues, 9.20 Special, Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Broadway which are all perfect fits for Kamuca’s Prez-like tenor. There is plenty of the leader’s clarinet to enjoy and his vocals on Every Day and Basin Street Blues are an added bonus.

Richie finally left the band around July 1956 soon after their appearance at The Lagoon in Salt Lake City, Utah. The venue was an amusement park that also booked bands with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong all appearing there during the year. Incidentally, Leonard Feather once asked Herman which tenor players impressed him the most of the new generation and he replied, “Richie Kamuca and Bill Perkins”. After four years on the road he probably wanted a rest from travelling so he moved to Los Angeles where he was able to take advantage of all the recording opportunities there. These  were  the boom years for West Coast Jazz and his discography reads like a who’s-who of the Californian scene featuring albums with Bill Perkins, Marty Paich, Stan Levey, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. Living at 1032, North Pass Avenue, Burbank he quite soon became a Lighthouse All-Star and from time to time he returned to the Kenton fold whenever Stan had bookings on the west coast.

One particularly memorable date took place when Manny Albam came to town to record the second volume of his Jazz Greats Of Our Time in August 1957. (The first volume had been recorded four months earlier with the cream of the New York set – Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan). Richie more than holds his own with the superior company assembled by Manny Albam including Harry Edison, Jack Sheldon, Herb Geller, Bill Holman and Charlie Mariano. He is at his most poignant on the moody Afterthoughts and his exchanges with Bill Holman on It’s De-Lovely call to mind Al and Zoot at their best. Another album I frequently return to is Just Friends with his good friend Bill Perkins. The title track finds them opening with an unaccompanied chorus of contrapuntal interplay that sets the scene for one of their finest collaborations. In a 1958 Downbeat interview Perkins generously said, “Richie is a much better jazz player than I am…he possesses the most original combination of tonal quality and ideas of any tenor player around”.

Unlike many former Kenton and Herman musicians who had settled In California in the fifties, Kamuca made very few movie recordings. He does appear however in a lengthy scene with Red Norvo and Pete Candoli in the 1958 Kings Go Forth film starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Frank Sinatra.

In 1961 he performed with Terry Gibbs’ Dream Band at The Summit in Hollywood.  This was the band (with the great Joe Maini on lead alto) that had so impressed Bob Brookmeyer that he recruited Conte Candoli, Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis for Gerry Mulligan’s CJB. A little later he decided to move back east - not to his home-town of Philadelphia but to New York City where he lived at 780, Greenwich Street.  Gary McFarland soon recruited him for his new sextet along with trombonist Willie Dennis.  Richie introduced his oboe on the sextet’s only album and with Willie’s unique slide-work producing numerous overtones they created a distinctive ensemble sound. He often worked at the Half Note with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon and Roy Eldridge who was one of his favourite musicians.  In January 1964 he performed at Birdland with Mulligan’s CJB playing new material that the band unfortunately never recorded like Al Cohn’s Mama Flosie, Gary McFarland’s Kitch, Wayne Shorter’s Mama G and the standard, I Believe In You. That was the year he became a member of Merv Griffin’s TV Show Band which was a home-from-home for some prominent jazz musicians like Bill Berry, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Byers, Dick Hafer, Art Davis, Jim Hall and Jake Hanna. He remained with the band when Griffin relocated to Los Angeles in 1971.

Until his death Kamuca remained active on the Los Angeles scene with Mundell Lowe, Bill Berry’s Big Band, the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut and a quintet he co-led with Blue Mitchell. One of his final recordings in February 1977 took place with Dave Frishberg for the Concord label. Dave of course is a consummate songwriter and one of the titles Dear Bix has Richie singing Frishberg’s charming hymn to the trumpeter. It is yet to be released on CD but it can be heard on YouTube. The lyric’s opening line makes it clear just what the trumpeter meant to the composer – “Bix old friend, are you ever going to comprehend you’re no ordinary, standard Bb [B flat] run-of-the-mill type guy”.

When it was discovered in early 1977 that he had cancer a benefit performance was given for him that included Steve Allen, Milt Jackson, Doc Severinsen and others. Towards the end, his good friend Stan Levey used to wheel him to the car and drive him to the beach where he could sit and watch the birds. Richie Kamuca died the day before his birthday on July 22, 1977.


As Leader
Cy Touff and Richie Kamuca Quintet Octet (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2237)
Richie Kamuca and Bill Holman: Jazz Erotica (Original Jazz Classics 1760)
Richie Kamuca Quartet (V.S.O.P. 17CD)

As Sideman
Stan Kenton: New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm (Capitol Jazz CDP 7 92865 2).
Woody Herman: His Octet & His Band (Fresh Sound FSR 2238).
Frank Rosolino Quintet (Tofrec TFCL-88920).
Bill Perkins:  Just Friends (Phono 870250).
Manny Albam: Jazz Greats Of Our Time Complete Recording (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10118).
Shelly Manne and His Men: Complete Live At The Black Hawk (American Jazz Classics 99009).
Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Main Stem Vol 4 (Contemporary CCD-7656-2).

Richie was often praised for the “appealing freshness" of his "tender ballad style." The following video shows off his affinity for ballads as he joins with Bill Holman perform on Bill's arrangement of The Things We Did Last Summer.

Saturday, June 23, 2018


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

Shelly Manne liked to introduce his band members in this ironic manner: 'On tenor—Richie Kamuca from Philadelphia, PA; on trumpet — Joe Gordon from Boston, Mass.; on bass—Monty Budwig from Pender, Nebraska; our pianist is Victor Feldman from London, England; I'm Shelly Manne from New York City—WE PLAY WEST COAST JAZZ!'

In 1992, Chronicle Books published a coffee table sized book entitled California Cool: West Coast Jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. Edited by Graham Marsh, it is essentially a compilation of the album cover art from the period nicely reproduced in color on thick paper.

The following essays by photographer William Claxton who had a great deal to do with creating the most prominent album cover art “look” of this period, Jazz author and essayist Leonard Feather who was the Jazz Critic for the Los Angeles Times newspaper for many years and Brian Case provide an excellent short summary of the main characteristics of Jazz on the West Coast or - “West Coast Jazz.”

Reasonably priced used and new copies of the book can still be sourced through online booksellers.

- William Claxton

“The jazz scene on the West Coast of the USA, notably California, in the 1950s was indeed a real and prolific musical happening. Early in 1955 a book of my photographs was published, called Jazz West Coast. It was accompanied by two 12-inch LPs with the same title, and served to sum up what was happening musically at that time. This book was a success, and the media picked up the title and made a great deal of this 'school' of jazz from the West Coast.

The question of geographic limitations and origins of any art form can best be left to the historians and, in this case, the musicologists. In the 30s, 40s and early 50s, jazz compatriots from the East Coast—the Apple, Philly, the Windy City and other points west—had always strayed to the Pacific shores long enough to play a few gigs and to have their pictures taken. In the early 50s a group of young, healthy (well, mostly healthy) arrangers and writers — such as Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Lennie Niehaus, Jack Montrose and Jimmy Giuffre — and young players — such as Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Jack Sheldon, Shelly Manne and Bob Brookmeyer— were, indeed, in the right place at the right time. They were musically sophisticated, educated, and sought new ways for jazz expression. Some jazz journalists have implied that this was largely a white musician's movement when, in fact, during this period the black players, who had long been an important force in the Los Angeles jazz scene, were treated as new stars and were now gracing the covers of their own albums. Important names like Benny Carter, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon, Red Callender, Ray Brown, Hampton Hawes, Wardell Grey and Harold Land were to be seen and heard everywhere during this prolific period.
On the New York scene the photographers and designers were producing album covers with a hard-edged, gutsy look (sweaty musicians in smoke-filled clubs); while out in California, we — myself, along with others, such as the brilliant Bob Guidi of Tri-Arts—were creating album covers with a different look . . . covers that reflected this new, laid-back West Coast sound. We worked for all the major record companies, but the majority of the most amusing covers were for Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz Records, Les Koenig's Contemporary and Good Time Jazz labels, and the Weiss brothers' Fantasy Record sin San Francisco, plus a dozen other neophyte labels that sprang up overnight.

This early 50s recording phenomenon came about for various reasons: the advent of the 33 ⅓ rpm long-playing record, for one thing, which gave us, the graphic designers and photographers of that time, a generous 12x12" format to use as a billboard to display our art and to sell the recording artist. This engineering and commercial event happily coincided with renewed interest in jazz.

By 1955, the rush to produce jazz LPs and their cover art became so frantic (recording day and night), that we had constantly to invent new ways to sell these jazz artists visually.

The sheer volume of work produced created a problem of just what to do next with any one of these blossoming young jazz musicians. I would shoot Shorty Rogers in a space helmet, then the following week i'd shoot him up high in his kid's tree house; then atop the windy Hollywood hills with his quintet, when the title of the album became Wherever the Five Winds Blow. Indeed, the photograph of a group would often determine the title of the album: Chet Baker and his quartet perched on a beautiful yacht became Chet Baker and Crew; visiting Easterner, Sonny Rollins, wanted to wear a cowboy hat on his cover, so I took him to the Mojave Desert, added a six-shooter and created Sonny Rollins Way Out West; I put Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars on the Santa Monica Beach, piano and all; for a Jazz West Coast anthology for Pacific Jazz, I had a diver in his black wetsuit clutching a bright, shiny trumpet as he sprang from the salty, foaming Pacific Ocean; for The Poll Winners Ride Again I put Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Ray Brown on a merry-go-round. The ideas went on and on ... new juxtapositions of palm trees, sunshine and sandy beaches with jazzmen. All in all we had fun while creating a cool look . . . California Cool.”

- Leonard Feather

“The term 'the art of jazz photography' is a misnomer; a better phrase would be 'photography devoted to jazz musicians, by photographers who love and understand jazz'. That, of course, is one of several ways in which one can characterize the work of William Claxton.

Born in Southern California, with a mother who was a semi-professional singer and an elder brother who played boogie-woogie piano, William was seven when, fascinated by a musical short featuring Cab Calloway and Lena Home, he assembled a scrapbook devoted to them. While in his early teens, he was exposed to live jazz on a memorable scale, hearing Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller in a single matinee at the Streets of Paris in Hollywood.

Later idols were Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy and Bird, Bud Powell, and the name bands of the 1940s. Meanwhile, a teenage neighbourhood friend, Richard Lang, had turned him on to photography.

While photographing the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Haig club on Wilshire Boulevard, Claxton met Richard Bock of the newly formed Pacific Jazz Records. His photographs on the record covers became almost as important as the music inside. Claxton became an integral part of that organization and was soon shooting for almost every important record company in the country. His record cover art has won many awards. His ubiquitous appearance at recording sessions and his easy rapport with the musicians led Shorty Rogers to dedicate a tune to him, 'Clickin' With Clax'.

Over the years, Claxton's work expanded beyond jazz. On an assignment for a major magazine he met a young actress, Peggy Moffitt. He suggested that she became a fashion model. She did, indeed, become a very successful model and also became Mrs William Claxton. She went to work for fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, and Claxton photographed most of his collections on Peggy, including the notorious Topless Swimsuit. Rudi, Peggy and Clax became a formidable threesome and produced some memorable work in the 60s and 70s.

For a while, Claxton was largely removed from jazz; instead of musicians, his close friends and subjects were film stars. He worked mainly doing special photography on motion picture sets for the major magazines and continued his fashion photography with Peggy and Rudi Gernreich. The latter part of the 6Os was spent living in Paris and London.

By that time, though, he had accumulated a veritable gold mine of jazz photographs, representing every era from New Orleans origins (shot on location) to post-bebop days.

During his early years as a jazz photographologist, Claxton had some memorable encounters. 'In June of 1952,' he recalls, 'I was still very green and naive; I was shooting with a big old 4x5 Speed Graphic with film plates and flash bulbs — I hadn't yet discovered the technique of available light. At this time I had a chance to shoot Bird at the Tiffany Club on Seventh Street. I hung out with him till the place closed,then brought him and his young fans to my parents' home in Pasadena. Bird was delightful; he entertained us and played for us. I improvised a studio in my bedroom and posed him with his fans in a formal portrait. It's pretty good for a kid photographer. I've never seen Bird look happier.'

Like a very few other jazz experts, Claxton has an eye for more than the obvious picture presented by his subjects. Often, along with the settings in which he showed them, they became metaphors for the Zeitgeist, for a whole era of musical evolution.”

West Coasting
- Brian Case

“Listening to veteran tenorman Teddy Edwards' reminiscences of the West Coast can make your mouth water. 'Everybody was in town because the war was in the Pacific. Soldiers, sailors, whole families had moved to the West. Los Angeles was a 24-hour town during that period. I'm sure that the 40s was the most productive period in American history in the arts and everything else. Everything was in full production, employment was at its highest peak, everything was in motion -and money was almost running down the street to meet you. Nobody thought about the war hitting America. The whole thing was alive and in motion.' In the war years the population of LA quadrupled, and Central Avenue became the Harlem of the West Coast, with clubs like Jack's Basket, Cafe Society, Casablanca and the Jungle Room, in the words of Hampton Hawes, 'jumping in to the sunrise'.

In 1945 Diz and Bird made the scene at Billy Berg's, bringing Bebop to the Coast. Few jazzmen linked with the region were born there. Out-of-town big band musicians on Blue Goose buses saw the palm trees and failed to climb back aboard. Teddy Edwards had been with the Ernie Fields Orchestra. 'We played there and then went on. The bus broke down above Cheyenne, Wyoming, and all you could see was snow. I thought, you can have all this stuff. I'm going back to California.' Tenorman Brew Moore made it in a go!-man-go! trip that allegedly inspired Jack Kerouac's On the Road. 'Billy Faier had a 1949 Buick and somebody wanted him to drive it out to California so he rode through Washington Square shouting, "Anyone for the Coast?" And I was just sitting there on a bench and there wasn't shit shaking in New York so I said, Hell, yes.' But the migrant who put the West Coast Sound on the map travelled by thumb, packing a baritone saxophone and a case full of arrangements.

Crew-cut Gerry Mulligan was responsible for some of the arrangements on the highly influential 'Birth of the Cool' album by Miles Davis, and when he formed his pianoless quartet with Chet Baker in 1952, the music shared that velvet melancholy elegance at low decibel levels. Weatherless, neatly contrapuntal, the sounds from The Haig were afar cry from the blowing sessions and cutting contests between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Cray on Central Avenue. A Time magazine article on the group set the seal upon the white West Coast sound, encouraging a rash of topographicality among record producers, after which many blazing black musicians suddenly experienced 'the LA slows'. The greatest musician in California, Art Pepper, was white and didn't feel right: 'I wanted to be a black because I felt such an affinity for the music.' Shorty Rogers, along with Mulligan, the linchpin in the West Coast movement, viewed his band, The Giants, as an update on Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven. But the copy-writers had taken over and a half-truth was born: West Coast cool, East Coast hot.

If California had the weather, it also had the film studios which provided steady work for schooled ex-big band players tired of the road. Some, like the talented Lennie Niehaus, quit the scene and wound up working for Clint Eastwood, but for many jazzmen, playing film scores by Henry Mancini or Elmer Bernstein didn't burst the spirit's slumber. Bud Shank, whose flute was always in demand for deathbed scenes, teamed with Laurindo Almeida off the lot to experiment with bossa nova. 'Was I on "The Last Detail"?' said the late Shelly Manne. 'I can't remember. Probably was. I was doing two or three a week, and I didn't always see the title. Often it hadn't got one.' He lived for the after-hours gigs, for blowing at Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse and the Blackhawk, and finally founded his own club, Shelly's Manne Hole.

Contemporary and Pacific album covers emphasized fun and sunshine in primary colours. The West Coast looked like a theme park. Visiting Brooklynite Sonny Rollins, kitted out as a gunslinger in a stetson and posing by a cactus for Contemporary's 'Way Out West', was embarrassed for decades about it until he learned that the sight of a black cowboy so influenced Courtney Pine, then a black Londoner at school, that he took up the tenor.

The long-playing record fed an expanding market, and sales techniques came up with stereotypical images for the hi-fi. Finally, the whole West Coast thing was oversold, and a reaction set in which was unfair too. Good music was playing on both coasts, often, since travel is an economic necessity, by the same cats. Dexter Gordon, born there, played everywhere. The West had its legends: Pepper, Mister Chet, the preternaturally on-it drummer, Frank Butler, Sonny Criss, who gave Bird a run for his money, and not forgetting the forever tantalizing promise of trumpet player Dupree Bolton, jailed forever. Ironically enough, it was Contemporary which first put Ornette Coleman, a Texan revolutionary whose music split both coasts, on to the market.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

“Fine As [Phineas] Can Be”: Phineas Newborn, Jr.

“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to Jazz – the greatest pianist playing today.  In every respect, he’s tremendous. He is just beautiful. A wonderful Jazz musician,”
- Jazz pianist, Gene Harris

“Technically, he was sometimes claimed to run a close second to Art Tatum. In reality, Newborn was a more effective player at slower tempos and with fewer notes; but he could be dazzling when he chose,…. A sensitive and troubled soul, even the lightest of his performances point to hidden depths of emotion.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”
- Leonard Feather

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

Legendary bassist Ray Brown, along with Les Koenig of Contemporary Records and Norman Granz at Pablo Records, were largely responsible for insuring that one of the greatest Jazz pianists of all-time – Phineas Newborn, Jr. [1931-1989] - didn’t slip into total obscurity following his initial acclaim.

Although Phineas was not a celebrity, he was highly regarded by knowledgeable Jazz fans, especially in the 1950's and 60's. ''In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum,'' said the late Leonard Feather, who for many years served as a Jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and The Los Angeles Times.

There was a time when Phineas looked set for stardom, but mental problems forced him to return to Memphis in the '60s, where he spent his remaining years struggling against the alcohol and drug problems that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state.

Whenever Phineas [who prefers to pronounce his name - “Fine as, ” with the accent of the first syllable, hence the title of Ray’s tribute tune] could pull himself together, Ray Brown brought him into the studio and recorded him in a trio setting along with Ray on bass and such drummers as Jimmy Smith or Elvin Jones on drums.

I got to know Phineas a little during the early 1960s when he played one of the week nights at The Manne Hole, drummer Shelly Manne’s venerable club in Hollywood. He usually worked with bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Milt Turner, but drummer Frank Butler often performed with him, as well.

One night he told me “his [my] Count Basie story.  It seems that Bill Basie was a friend of his Dad, a drummer who led a Rhythm and Blues band on Memphis’ famous Beale Street during the late 1930s.  Basie nicknamed Phineas, Jr. “Bright Eyes” because ‘as a boy his eyes would light-up as soon as he heard the music!’”

It was staggering to try and take-in all that Phineas had to offer. His technique was phenomenal and he tossed off so many ideas while improvising that if you stopped concentrating even for a second you were lost.  Listening to him in such an informal and personal setting was an exhilarating experience. Sadly, it was often not much of a shared experience as he hardly drew an audience.

The legendary Jazz pianist George Shearing once said that the “trick” to this music is getting it from the head and into the hands. Based on my first-hand observation of Phineas, I had the feeling that he had invented the “trick!”

With his technique, harmonic mastery, rhythmic displacement, and brilliant tone, Phineas Newborn, Jr. was nothing short of a Jazz piano phenomena.

But prodigious technique is frequently more of a curse than a blessing in Jazz circles and is often heavily criticized.

As the late Jazz writer, Leonard Feather, pointed out in his liner notes to Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano [Contemporary LP S-7600; OJCCD 175-2]:

“There has always been a tendency among music experts, and by no means only in jazz, to harbor misgivings about technical perfection. The automatic-reflex reaction is: yes, all the notes are there and all the fingers are flying, but what is he really saying? How about the emotional communication?

Art Tatum at the apex of his creative powers suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of a not inconsiderable pro­portion of the critics. Buddy De Franco, of course, has been a consistent victim. Phineas has been in similar trouble, and not because of any lack in his ability to transmit emotion but possibly, I suspect, because of the listeners' reluctance or in­ability to receive it. Nat Hentoff, in the notes for Maggie's Back in Town, pointed out that Phineas has "harnessed his prodigious technique during the past couple of years into more emotionally meaningful directions!" True, though conservative; I would lengthen the harness to four or five years. During that time, too, the technique has taken on even more astonish­ing means to accomplish even more incredible ends — witness one ploy that is uniquely remarkable: the ad lib use of galvanic lines played by both hands two octaves apart. Today, bearing in mind that Bernard Peiffer is French and Oscar Peterson Canadian, it would not be extravagant to claim that Phineas has no equal among American jazz pianists, from any standpoint, technical or esthetic. He is a moving, swinging, pianistically perfect gas.”

George Wein, the impresario who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, wrote these thoughts about Phineas and his music in 1956 as the liner notes to Phineas’ first album for Atlantic Records Here is Phineas [#1235; reissued on CD as Koch 8505].

For years now I've listened to people scream at me about unknown pianists they have discovered. "He’s greater than Bud . "He cuts Oscar . "He leaves Tatum standing still". As many times as I have heard these cries, that is how often I have been disappointed. In­variably, these unknowns are, at their best, simply minor talents, and, at their worst, pale copies of great pianists.

About a year ago I began to hear stories about a fan­tastic pianist in Memphis, Tenn. with the almost quaint sounding name of Phineas Newborn. Jr. Men I re­spected, such as John Hammond, Willard Alexander and, of course. Count Basie, among many others, insisted that I must hear this guy. Due to my previous sad experiences, I could not get excited. However, when I got a chance to really hear Phineas in Storyville [a nightclub in Boston which Wein owned], for the first time I was not disappointed. The unknown had lived up to his press notices.

Phineas Newborn, Jr. was born December 14. 1932 in Memphis. Tenn. I believe this makes him all of 23 years old at the recording of this album. In all my years of listening to music I have never encountered a music­ian of such tender years who had such a fantastic com­mand of his instrument. Perhaps my reaction to Phineas can be traced to my personal concern with the piano. If this was my only reason for liking him, then I say it would be sufficient, for to my knowledge the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.

Phineas is a two handed pianist, as opposed to the tendency of modern pianists to dwell on the single finger, right hand style. The only time he can be ac­cused of being a one-handed pianist is when he puts his right hand in his pocket and plays two choruses of a ballad, such as Embraceable You. exclusively with his left hand. Unfortunately, he does not do this in this album, but when you see him in person, ask him to play a left-handed solo for you. His left hand is de­veloped to such an extent that he can and does execute any passage or chord with his left hand that he would do with his right. When you realize that he has the fattest right hand of anyone since Tatum (he might even exceed Tatum for sheer speed) then you get an
idea of just what happens.

However, technique is only one facet of music. What of Phineas' basic musical style? From whence does he come and where is he going?

First, let me warn the reader of what not to do upon first hearing Phineas. Do not be so overpowered by his technique that you neglect to listen to the music he plays. Through all his technical intricacies I hear a wonderful musical mind, a mind that without copying has absorbed the music of the jazz masters. I get a funny feeling when I hear Phineas. I concentrate on his fan­tastically-"Bird'-influenced ideas and then I can't help but get the feeling that at any moment he is going to swing right into a Waller-James P. Johnson stride piano effect. He never quite does and I sometimes wish he would.

Phineas says his first jazz idols were Bird, Dizzy and Bud Powell. Later on, after he had begun to develop his own style, he heard Tatum. There is no doubt of the influence that these men left on Phineas. There is also evidence that he has listened to Erroll Garner.

However, there is never a question that Phineas has a unique approach to music. (In this album I believe Daahoud comes the closest to defining the Phineas Newborn style).

The only real criticism I have of his playing can be traced to his immaturity, both musically and in years. He tends to want to play everything in the same tempo. To be more explicit, he feels so relaxed at up-tempos that even in ballads he resorts to double-timing in order to utilize his technique. Also, he has a few figures of which he is fond. These appear a little too often in his playing. As soon as Phineas gets over the idea that he must create an impression the first time around the nightclub circuit, I am sure these minor faults will disappear.

Biographically, Phineas' history is not startling. The son of Phineas Newborn, Sr., a fine drummer and band leader in Memphis, he and his brother, Calvin, one year his junior, had an early musical beginning (Calvin plays guitar in the Phineas Newborn Quartet and is heard on some of the sides in this album). Phineas started the study of piano at the age of six with the pianist in his fathers band. He continued right through high (trumpet, tuba, baritone horn, French horn). Later on, he learned the vibes, and in college and the Arm/ he acquired the baritone, tenor and alto saxophones. Those who have heard him say he is nearly as fantastic on these various instruments as he is on the piano. For­tunately, Phineas has concentrated on piano and does not try to impress us with his versatility.

His formal education, in addition to graduating from the Memphis School System, consists of two years as a music major at Tenn. A and I. Later on he spent a year at Lemoyne College in Memphis, before he was drafted into the Army in August 1953. He was discharged in June 1955, and played with his father's band until last month when he made the break after the Willard Alex­ander agency convinced him he should come North and let the world hear his talent. I am sure that Count Basic, who is Phineas' greatest booster, had much influence on his decision.

As in any record, the music in this album speaks for itself. My personal favorites are the Clifford Brown Daahoud, and a very Tatumesque Newport Blues. I also like his treatment of the Ellington standard I’m Beginning to See the Light. He is accompanied very ably by two jazz greats, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, in addition to his brother Calvin on guitar.                                             


Leonard Feather, who, as noted, became an early and frequent champion of Phineas’ music, offered these cogent observations about him and comparisons with other Jazz pianists in the liner notes to Phineas’ 1969 Contemporary album, Please Send Me Someone to Love [S-7622; OJCCD 947-2:

“For a more than a half century, there was a series of evolutions in keyboard jazz, which originated in ragtime, then was marked by the successive advent of stride, with its volleying left hand; horn-style piano, characterized mainly by a fusillade of octaves or long runs of single notes in the right hand; bebop piano, with its central concern for harmonic experiments and relatively limited left-hand punctua­tions; and a 1950s trend marked by a concern for rich, full chords and a more expansive left-hand concept.

The only pianist who succeeded in absorbing many character­istics of each of these phases, in fact the first authentic and com­plete virtuoso of jazz piano, was Art Tatum. His death in 1956 seemed to close the book; there was no room for development, no area to examine that he had not already explored.

Time has shown that there were indeed other directions. The atonal improvisations of Cecil Taylor were acclaimed by many observers as taking jazz forward into a freer, more abstract music. Bill Evans launched what I once characterized, in an essay on jazz piano for Show magazine (July 1963), as the Serenity School, cre­ating new harmonic avenues, new voicings, swinging without hammering, asserting tersely yet subtly, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. McCoy Tyner, armed with exceptional technical facili­ty, moved along still another route with extensive use of modes as a departure from the traditional chordal basis.

All these changes during the late 1950s and throughout the '60s did nothing to demolish the theory that Art Tatum represent­ed the ultimate. Coincidentally, it was during the year of Tatum's death that Phineas Newborn, Jr. first came to New York and emerged from Memphis obscurity (he was born Dec. 14,1931 in Whiteville, Tenn.) to establish himself as the new pianistic pianist, in the Tatum tradition.

In the abovementioned Show article, I wrote: "Most astonish­ing of the dexterous modernists is Phineas Newborn, Jr. As small, timid, and frail as Peterson is big and burly, Newborn belies his meek manner with a relentlessly aggressive style. His technique can handle any mechanical problem and he has, moreover, a quick, sensitive response to the interaction of melody and harmo­ny." Commenting that most critics tended to be skeptical of tech­nical perfection, I wrote of Newborn's A World of Piano! album (Contemporary S-7600) that it was "the most stunning piano set since Tatum's salad days in the 1930s."

A year later, in 1964, I went out on a rare limb to declare unequivocally, in Down Beat, "Newborn is the greatest living jazz pianist."

Five years later, while perfectly content to let that categorical statement remain on the record, I reflected on what esthetic, what ratiocination led me to this conclusion. Under the spell of a set by Peterson in top form I might have made a similar remark. In either case, my reaction would have been primarily emotional, but the emotions in evaluating a work of art are often guided, per­haps subliminally, by a consciousness of the craftsmanship required for its creation.

Despite the chattering of the anti-intellectuals, I cannot see how any possible advantage can be found in technical limitation. Clearly technique can be abused, or used without imagination; I can think of a dozen popular pianists, some of them well-known via network television, who have made this point painfully clear. But a man like Newborn, who reached his present command of the instrument by practicing perhaps six or seven hours a day, automatically has an advantage over the simplistic artist, who resorts to simple figures and clichés only because that is as far as his fingers and mind will take him.

Phineas demonstrates all the virtues and none of the handi­caps (if there are any) inherent in knowing how to use the piano. Taking him on his own terms, he's an involved, committed artist, for whom the instrument is virtually an extension of the man. This would not be possible if he were in any way hamstrung by not being able to execute whatever idea may cross his mind.

I won't deny that when he uses a personal device, such as the parallel lines in unison an octave apart, I am impressed by the ease with which he dashes off such passages; but even more meaningful to me is the originality and artistry of the melodic structure he has been able to build.

When Phineas plays the blues, as he does on at least three tracks in this album, it is not down-home, backwoods blues, but it's just as deep a shade of blue, and comes just as straight from the heart, as if he were a primitive trying to make something meaningful out of three chord changes and a couple of riffs. I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

If you spend some time listening to the music of Phineas Newborn, Jr., I think that it would be safe to say that you, too will “… hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

After all, if Leonard Feather is indeed correct, there have only been two other Jazz pianists comparable to Phineas in the history of Jazz: - Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

Not bad company, eh?