Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Four Freshmen: A Vocal Quartet with Quarter Tones

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live The Four Freshmen. May they never graduate!

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

For tour dates and venues, go to”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Blumenthal on Thelonious

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

“He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced.

When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp.”
- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz writer, columnist and critic

During the many years that he wrote about Jazz for The Boston Globe, CD Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Downbeat and numerous other publications, Grammy-Award winning author, columnist and critic Bob Blumenthal became one of my most consistent teachers about all-things-Jazz

For his long affiliation with it and studied application of it, Bob knows the music.

Equally important is his ability to communicate this knowledge and awareness in a writing style that is clear, cogent and concise.

Bob’s a mensch and a mentor.

My first awareness of Thelonious Monk’s music was based on the LPs he recorded for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records from approximately 1955-1960. The significance of these recordings was that they helped make the Jazz public of that period aware of Monk’s genius, such that Thelonious career was set on a path that would lead to fame and fortune.

The Riverside albums were a renaissance of sorts for Monk who, although he was one of the originators of modern Jazz along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke and others from the Minton's Playhouse days of the early 1940’s, had largely become a forgotten man by the end of that decade.

In 1994, Blue Note Records issued a boxed set of the music that Thelonious had recorded for the label under his own name and as sideman on a 1957 date with Sonny Rollins as the leader. The set also includes the five tracks that were recorded by John Coltrane's wife Naima at the Five Spot in NYC during Coltrane's tenure with Monk's quartet in 1958.

This reissued set provided a sort of missing link in my quest to appreciate the early years of Monk’s music.

And if that wasn’t enough, wouldn’t you know that the insert notes to the four CD’s that make up Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings [CDP 7243 8 30363 2 5] were written by none other than … you guessed it … Bob Blumenthal.

Bob has kindly granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to use the introductory portion of his Blue Note annotations on these pages.

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

“Thelonious Sphere Monk inherited his striking name, yet it is doubtful that the collective energy of all the slogan-makers could have devised a more appropriate appellation. Never has a moniker so perfectly reflected someone's music. "Thelonious" announces imposing complexity and originality with roots in tradition, "Monk" signals abrupt angularity, and the rhythmic impact of the two in juxtaposition is indelible and unique. The rich internal detail was frequently lost on others in the past, who tended to fashion the first name as "Thelonius," mirroring the confusion that surrounded Monk's music (fortunately, misunderstandings of both types have diminished over time). Most revealing of all, though, is "Sphere," with its intimations of rounded, three-dimensional completeness, of a self-contained planet pursuing its own course in the musical universe.

That sense of fullness, together with Monk's brilliant use of sound, silence, dissonance, rhythmic surprise and melodic cogency, marked the music in this collection from its initial appearance as something exceptional. For many, musicians as well as listeners, it was also somewhat undecipherable when first released on a series of 78 rpm records taken from the six sessions that form the bulk of this collection. At the time, Monk was considered the jazz world's primary enigma, the farthest out of the far out. He was said to be one of the fountainheads of bebop, its "high priest"; yet his music did not sound like bebop. The breathless, arpeggio-driven virtuosity of bop that was already becoming cliche when Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader was replaced in his music by a concept of space that was poetic. He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced. When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.

These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp The uniqueness of his music was reinforced by the eccentricities of his personality. He may have been the "genius of modern music," as Blue Note proclaimed when it first reissued some of the enclosed performances on 10-inch IPs in the early '50s; but to many he was a mad genius, given to wearing odd hats and sunglasses and with what his wife Nellie once described as a "marvelous sense of withdrawal." When he cut his first session as a leader in October 1947, he was five days past his 30th birthday, a point at which too many of the music's innovators had exhausted both their creative and biological spans. By the time of his sixth and final Blue Note date as a leader in 1952, he was nearly 35 and, thanks to public indifference and his willingness to take a drug possession rap for a friend, seemingly even further from the acclaim that would put him on the cover of Time Magazine little more than a decade later and elevate him still further in the years following his death in 1982.

Of course, Monk was nothing if not patient. At the time of his first Blue Note session, he had been a key figure in the emergence of the modern style for years; yet all he had to show for his efforts on record were four titles cut in 1944 with Coleman Hawkins and some samples of the already legendary jam sessions at Minton's taped at the club and issued under Charlie Christian's name. As a composer he fared better, with Hawkins, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell already having introduced several of his most famous compositions. The three sessions he led for Blue Note in a span of 38 days in 1947, which included 10 of his compositions, might be viewed as one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in history if Monk had not been waiting to unleash this brilliant music for a decade. On record at least, he began fully formed and more than ready.

Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was named after his father. (His son, the drummer T. S. Monk, is actually Monk III.) His family moved to New York City in 1923, occupying a house on West 63rd Street in the San Juan Hill neighborhood that would remain Monk's home for much of his life. His musical career began typically enough for an African-American youth of the time: piano lessons at 11, rent parties and amateur contests three years later, and regular work in church, where he accompanied his mother. Despite excelling in math and science at Stuyvesant High School, Monk dropped out in 1934 to accompany an evangelist on a tour that ultimately took him to the Midwest. Mary Lou Williams, one of his earliest champions, heard him at the time and later reported that he displayed a fluid swing piano technique, with touches of Teddy Wilson.

Back in New York by 1936, Monk studied briefly at Juilliard and began taking the diverse gigs that are a young musician's lot. He also quickly immersed himself in the Harlem after-hours scene, landing a job in the house rhythm section at Minton's Playhouse in 1940. This was the period during which young musicians began developing a more technically advanced approach that went beyond the conventions of swing music, in clubs like Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House. At Minton's, Monk and his rhythm section mate Kenny Clarke jammed with such sympathetic contemporaries as Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The pianist also began introducing his compositions to the sessions, and encouraged a second generation of even younger players, especially his protege Bud Powell. These efforts continued when Monk moved with Clarke to Kelly's Stables in 1942.

Gillespie and others have verified that Monk participated actively in the give-and-take of these sessions, and the music that evolved from this period expressed, especially in its harmonic approach, certain aspects of Monk's thinking. The rapid tempos and arpeggiated melodies generally identified with bebop are far removed from Monk's aesthetic, however, and he quickly distanced himself from the center of bop activity. Although he did some work with Lucky Millinder, Coleman Hawkins and both the early combo and big band of Dizzy Gillespie, much of his time in the remainder of the '40s was spent organizing his own groups, often with young players like the teenaged Sonny Rollins. A few jobs cropped up, but his bands spent much of their time rehearsing in Monk's kitchen (where he kept his piano), even after he began recording for Blue Note.

The notoriety of his accompanists was less important to Monk than their ability to learn his music correctly. He had little tolerance for complaints about his music's difficulty - he famously told Sahib Shihab at one of the Blue Note sessions, "You a musician? You got a union card? Then play it!" - his insistence on writing little down and forcing players to use their ears only heightened the challenge. Most responded surprisingly well, whether they turned out to be giants like Art Blakey and Milt Jackson, or obscure journeymen who would be totally forgotten if not for their role in the documentation of Monk's music.

Saxophonist Ike Quebec, a Blue Note leader and adviser to label owners Alfred Lion arid Francis Wolff, was

instrumental in bringing Monk to their attention when they expressed interest in documenting modern jazz. His input is most obvious on Monk's initial session, recorded on October 15, 1947, where Quebec takes composer credit on two of the four titles and where his 17-year-old cousin Danny Quebec West is the alto saxophonist. The other saxophonist, tenor man Billy Smith, is similarly unknown, while the remaining sidemen proved to have greater longevity. Trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, born Leonard Graham in 1923, worked in various big bands and combos before moving to Europe in 1961 and is still playing in 1994. Bassist Gene Ramey (1913-84) was a colleague of Charlie Parker's in the Jay McShann orchestra and became one of the most widely recorded players of the period. Art Blakey (1919-90), soon to be identified as Monk's perfect drummer, would begin his own career as a leader for Blue Note before the year was out. …”

At this point, Bob begins a session-by-session analysis of the tunes and musicians that make up the music on the four Blue Note CD’s and concluded his essay with the following observations about the importance of Monk’s music on Blue Note in the evolution of Monk’s own career and to the development of modern Jazz in the 1950s and beyond.

“Some might consider the lengthier tracks with Rollins and Coltrane extraneous additions to what otherwise would be a perfectly acceptable set of "complete" Blue Note Monk. Given that Monk's music grew and expanded, though, sounding ever more clearly in the ears of musicians and listeners, these later performances strike me as essential complements to the groundbreaking sessions of 1947-52.

They take us into the future, where Monk becomes more and more central to jazz of the late 20th century and where, in the years following the issuance of this collection, he will no doubt assume his rightful place as one of the greatest contributors to American culture.”

- Bob Blumenthal

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros - Will Friedwald on Jazz Singing

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

Mention Jazz singing in the context of books on the subject and the name “Will Friedwald” immediately springs up, no doubt because many Jazz fans consider him to be the ranking authority on the subject.

Whether it's Bessie, Bailey or Billie; Teagarden, Turner or Torme; Will is the “go to” guy for information on all aspects of Jazz Singing - not to mention - his definitive writings on Frank Sinatra.

If you think about it, it’s kind of tragic that the two men largely responsible for much of the vocal direction in American Popular Music in the 20th century are largely forgotten these days.

With Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in mind, I went to Will's seminal Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond, and found these thoughts by him on the significance of Pops and Der Bingle.

“Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, the two most important figures in jazz-derived popular singing, both went to their graves without the world knowing when they were born. Only in a 1988 Village Voice article did Gary Giddins, author of Satchmo (New York: Dolphin, Doubleday, 1989), the finest study of Armstrong yet, reveal that the date of Armstrong's birth was August 4, 1901, and only in the eighties did Ken Twiss, president of the Bing Crosby Historical Society, prove beyond all doubt that Crosby was born on May 3, 1903 (baptismal certificates held the answer in both instances).

We know also that both came from poor families— Armstrong's hardly a family at all. In the late forties, when Crosby was seen as the ultimate American everyman, the writers of his broadcasts and his press releases tried to create a middle-class background for him. Ironically, this was the one stratum to which he had never belonged. Raised at near-poverty level in Tacoma, Washington, he became one of the wealthiest men in show business before he was forty. Crosby's father, when he worked, held down a job in a brewery and was barely able to support his wife, seven children (of which Bing—originally Harry—was the fourth), and the various other relatives who lived with them. Crosby later admitted that while his father succeeded in feeding and sheltering them all, the children had to work for everything else, including clothes, shoes, and school-books. Armstrong's upbringing was even bleaker. He was raised in the most squalid, desolate area of New Orleans—it would make a contemporary black ghetto seem like Shangri-la by comparison—by a mother who was barely around. His father wasn't there at all.

Both men became attracted to music and entertainment early on and each grew up determined to make it his career. In New Orleans' Negro red light district, where Armstrong was born and raised and where diversions of every sort were the principal trade, even danger (to use Armstrong's metaphor) "was dancing all around you then." "Little Louis" sang in a vocal quartet in his early teens; no casual affair this, since there was money to be made by poor boys on the Storyville streets and almost no place else. Armstrong's group faced much competition and had to rehearse and make an informal study of harmony and part-singing. "He could sing real well, too," remembered Peter Davis, bandleader in the Colored Waif's Home where the teen-aged Armstrong learned to play cornet, "even though his voice was coarse."

From the beginning, Armstrong's interest in singing and songs equaled his enthusiasm for the cornet and instrumental jazz, the music he more than anyone else would turn into a international art form. Shortly after leaving the orphanage, in fact, Armstrong composed what would later become the popular standard "I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate." Still, for the next dozen or so years of his life, singing took a backseat to the trumpet.

His rise to the top of the New Orleans music scene, though not overnight, occurred quickly, and over the next few years he played with virtually all the major bands in the city, including Fate Marable's riverboat groups and Kid Ory's. In 1922, Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver, invited him to work with his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, and after playing and recording with Oliver for over a year, Armstrong moved into what, thanks largely to him, would become the most important early-jazz big band, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. Armstrong had recorded dozens of discs as a sideman with Oliver, Henderson, Clarence Williams, and a dozen or so blues singers (including the greatest, Bessie Smith) by the time he began his most important series of records in 1925. Collectively known as the Hot Fives, a term that refers to all the small-group sessions under Armstrong's leadership between 1925 and 1928, these are by general consensus the most influential of Armstrong's accomplishments and quite likely the most significant body of work in all jazz.

Here he changes the face of jazz on every conceivable level: Rhythmically, he establishes the soon-to-be standard 4/4 "swing" tempo; structurally, he solidifies use of the theme-solos-theme format; conceptually, he defines the idea of jazz itself with the soloist at the center, from playing short, simple "breaks" of slight melodic embellishments to fully improvised chord-based solos of a whole chorus or longer. And in the strategy he describes as progressing from the melody to routine-ing the melody to routine-ing the routine, he sets down the basic model as well as the vocabulary most, if not all, jazz soloists would use from then on. Even before 1928, Armstrong's achievements begin to elevate from a purely musical plane to a social one, as he launches the shifts in the music that would enable it to become both a high-brow art form and an international pop entertainment. To use Lester Bowie's phrase, Louis Armstrong created "jazz as we know it."

How to top an act like that? For Armstrong, the logical next step after reinventing jazz was to reinvent popular music in his own image—to apply his discoveries as a jazz musician to mass-market pop. To speak diagrammatically, from 1929 onward Armstrong works just as hard at expanding outwardly as a performer as he had at growing upwardly from 1925 to 1928, the years of the Hot Fives. The opinion of some of his critics to the contrary, this expansion did nothing to lessen the internal content of Armstrong's art; it altered his music only in terms of its outward manifestations in three specific areas: On records especially, Armstrong now works almost exclusively with big dance bands as opposed to Hot Fives and Sevens; he concentrates more on popular songs instead of original compositions and material out of the jazz tradition; and he gives equal time to singing.

To be sure, Armstrong had sung quite a bit on his earlier small-band records, his vocals on these coming off more like a direct extension of his horn work than the other way around (as was actually the case). On "Hotter Than That" (1927) and "West End Blues" (1928), for example, Armstrong experiments with transposing the functions of the voice and the trumpet: He trades call-and-response phrases with another musician, but sings back his answers where you expect him to play them.

Armstrong also sings a trumpet-style obbligato behind Lillie Delk Christian, the main vocalist on "Too Busy" (1928). Many Hot Five sides also contain stop-time breaks sung instead of played, but the most revealing glimpses into the future occur on Armstrong's longer scat choruses. As we have seen, Cliff Edwards had been the first to apply scat to pop singing, and he had done as much as it was possible to do with the technique in the pre-Armstrong world. Armstrong not only brought scatting into his universe, he devised new contexts for it. "Heebie Jeebies" (1926), the most celebrated of his vocal improvisations, transliterated patterns Armstrong had conceived for instrumental music very directly into vocal terms, starting with lyrics, then modulating into scat phrases, and returning to the words at the conclusion, which all lends credence to the trumped-up tale of the record's scat sequence not being deliberate (as rehashed by Armstrong and Crosby in the broadcast excerpt at the beginning of this chapter). No one could make such a claim with Armstrong's two equally remarkable 1928 scat vocals, "Basin Street Blues" and "Squeeze Me"; so in place of an extra musical explanation, Armstrong "excuses" his scat episodes by having two other members of the band hum in harmony behind him—as if to somehow normalize them. In doing so, Armstrong unearths the folk origins of each tune, investigating what they might have sounded like before W. C, Handy and Clarence Williams codified them into song form.

Other indications of things to come can be found on his more or less conventional vocal refrains. There's the monumental sense of humor that produced the comic duet of Mr. and Mrs. Lil Armstrong (then also his pianist) on "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and the mastery of the blues in spirit and form on "I'm Not Rough" {both 1927), which contains the single most powerful blues ever sung by a man (or anyone besides Bessie Smith) in this period, authenticated by the presence of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, here serving as guest accompanist.

By 1929, Armstrong had all the elements necessary to become a great singer. The next move in the evolution of jazz-influenced popular singing would then be a matter of integration. Fortunately (as Armstrong once later said of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), Bing Crosby happened to be "working on the same thing."

The story of Crosby giving up law school to play drums and sing in a jazz band ("I'd rather sing than eat," he reportedly told his disappointed parents) and the one about his trip from his native Washington to find big-time showbiz in Los Angeles in a beat-up old jalopy, are as much a part of the mythology of popular music as the tale of little Louis Armstrong firing a gun and winding up in the orphanage is to that of jazz.

A few months after Armstrong cut "Heebie Jeebies" in 1926, Paul Whiteman, who had been one of the first popular bandleaders to show an interest in jazz and, as we have seen, in vocalists, hired Crosby and his partner, Al Rinker, as the industry's first full-time recording band singers. The mere act of signing on someone who did nothing but sing seemed strange enough in those days, but the choice of Crosby proved to be nothing less than radical. Crosby did not fit into either of the two molds that had been established for non-classical singers by this point. He was not a noisy Jolson clone like Billy Murray or Irving Kaufman. Nor did he act like the equally affected zombies of the early post-microphone period, like Ruth Etting, Whispering Jack Smith, and Gene Austin, who overdid the understatements to such a degree that they were even farther away from jazz than the belters had been. Even his voice, a steadily deepening baritone with a husky rasp and an occasional trill, sounded as far removed from the popular tenors and falsettos of the time as Armstrong's vocal gravel pit.

The pop music world must have wondered what Whiteman saw in Crosby. My guess is that Whiteman realized that Crosby had the potential ability to accomplish one of the basic functions of an artist, one that was particularly germane to what Whiteman himself aspired to: to recognize what was valid in contemporary popular music, to preserve the best parts of it, and to integrate them all into a cohesive whole by filtering them through his own personality. Integration, in fact, represents the single most important element of Crosby's accomplishments. In this sense, integration means more than a union of African and American elements; it means art as a whole being, as a series of connections, of making seemingly disparate forms fit together in new ways. And in the traditional sense, integration signifies the single most crucial element of American music, the very basis of its existence.

In Crosby's earliest recordings, made with the Whiteman orchestra, Crosby puts together the various ingredients as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; but in each case, what Crosby adds of his own is equally important. The classic blues singers, especially the phonetically correct but no less blue Ethel Waters (who, in turn, would learn a thing from both Armstrong and Crosby), had already adapted blues feeling to the harmonic practices of Western music, but not, as Crosby did, to the American pop song. Jolson and Marion Harris provided a model for energetic charisma and the concept of black imitation, but Crosby would firstly remove all traces of the minstrel show, fitting and Austin and the other early microphone singers demonstrated how the new electric recording technique could be used, but left it to Crosby to prove that subtlety didn't have to mean somnambulance.

Edwards had demonstrated the relevance of scatting to pop singing but never really developed it as Crosby and Armstrong would, simultaneously taking the technique forward into the new world of post-Armstrong rhythm. Most importantly, Crosby absorbed the new instrumental soloists, especially Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, Beiderbecke: their approach to melodic organization, their use of rhythm, and their concept and vocabulary of improvisation.

Crosby's greatest accomplishment—the result of all this alchemy—was the application of jazz to the music of Tin Pan Alley. The significance of "hot" music to ballads, in particular, had been a nut that no one had been able to crack, especially vocally. Certainly Crosby's assimilation of Armstrong's rhythmic advances gave him a major jump on the competition. On White-man's records of "I'm Afraid of You" (1928, Victor) and "T'aint So, Honey, T'aint So" (1928, Columbia), he introduces the device of holding notes at the end of phrases as a means of playing with the time. On "Make Believe" (1928, Victor), Crosby goes even farther, leaving his colleagues in the orchestra behind. To reduce the risk of the elephantine Whiteman entourage getting in his way, the strings and the horns lay out while Crosby takes his chorus with just the rhythm section. And not even all of them: The piano, banjo, and drums keep fairly quiet while Crosby performs what amounts to a duet with the band's New Orleanian string bassist, Steve Brown.  While the piano, banjo, drums, and Whiteman's other bass (tuba actually) churn out dated oom-pah chunks, Crosby and Brown genuinely swing and at times they even ease into surprisingly modern 4/4 time. (Brown later described this time signature as one of the cornerstone elements of "modern" jazz.)

The success of the other half of Crosby's achievement, his use of lower pitches, can't be explained in strictly musical terms. The twenties were great years for "naturalism," but their idea of natural differed drastically from any that has come since—and Crosby represents the line of demarcation. He was the one who came up with the kind of "natural" that worked: the warm B-flat baritone with a little hair on it, the perfect balance between conversational and purely musical singing, the personality and the character. Crosby was the first singer to truly glorify and exalt the American popular melody, and his deep, perfectly intone resonance gave American music the wherewithal at last to compete with (and, in my ears at least, surpass) opera and the European art-song tradition. It became the sound that defined generation after generation of pop singing, largely because of its jazz origins: The single most identifiable characteristic of Crosby's style, in fact, was as a jazz device, namely, the use of trills and what classical music crit Henry Pleasants describes as mordants or satellite notes, which serve as grace notes* or syncopes employed to break up the time.

This takes us ahead of our story but not by all that much. Once Crosby had conquered the new rhythm, all the other elements began to fall into place; after 1929, both he and Armstrong could finally perform jazz-ballads that meet all the requirements of both sides of the hyphen. While Crosby's earliest solo outings (outside dance-band refrains and vocal groups), such as "Till We Meet" (1929, Columbia), reveal a not-surprising apprehension about how he's going to fill all two hundred seconds by himself, his later vocal refrains, like "Oh! Miss Hannah," "Waiting at the End of the Road" (both with Whiteman [both 1929, Columbia]), and "It Must Be True" (with Gus Arnheim's Coconut Grove Orchestra [1930, Victor]) show considerable progress and characteristic confidence.

Simultaneously, Armstrong's 1929 recordings, especially "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (Okeh), show that interpreting lyrics is gradually becoming as important to him as scarring, though at this early stage his vocals still serve as mere interludes between more crucial trumpet solos. Armstrong's 1930 "I'm Confessin' " (Okeh), selected by Gary Giddins as the Armstrong record that most strongly reflects Crosby's reciprocated influence, represents a milestone of the latest stages of the new art's development Armstrong gives out with as many Bing-ish trills and extended line-ending notes as he does his own devices, like roars, repeated phrases, and personal interjections, playing off the guitar accompaniment in the same manner that Crosby had done with his guitarist, Eddie Lang. (Armstrong's November 1931 "Star Dust" includes a line of "boo-boo-boo"-ing inspired by Crosby's May 1931 record of "Just One More Chance.")

The early thirties saw the Crosby and Armstrong styles at their most convergent, although their individual personalities were strong enough to pull them away before too long. Nevertheless, they would retain enough of their mutually developed bag of tricks to make their later performances together high points of both careers. More importantly, now that they had put all the pieces together, no man could tear them asunder, and hundreds and hundreds of singers, arrangers, and songwriters would use the vocabulary developed by Armstrong and Crosby in the late twenties and early thirties. The spread of the new language was hastened by the rising popularity of each man in two of the only cases in Western history where an artist's fame and fortune came to equal his talent. They were so perfectly a part of their time and culture. By the mid-1930s all of the problems had been solved. …”