Saturday, May 31, 2008

Remembering The Mastersounds

Appearing as it did on 5/31/2008, this feature 

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

The Mastersounds were formed in 1957 and included Charles Frederick “Buddy” Montgomery on vibes, Richie Crabtree on piano, William Howard “Monk” Montgomery on bass [originally a Fender electric bass, but later an upright string bass] and Benny Barth on drums. The Montgomery Brothers were natives of Indianapolis, IN as was their more famous guitar playing brother Wes, who was to join with them on two of their group LPs.

Monk Montgomery developed the idea for the combo while living in Seattle after he got off the road with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1956. According to Ralph J. Gleason, a down beat columnist at that time: “Monk, from his experience in Seattle, was convinced a good jazz group would have a chance to work in that city and he was right.”

The Mastersounds opened at Dave’s Blue Room on January 14, 1957 for a successful three month engagement. However, a dearth of work followed prompting the group to pool its meager resources and send Monk Montgomery on a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles looking for gigs and a recording contract.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Monk Montgomery stopped by The Jazz Showcase, a then newly formed club on venerable Market Street with a unique “soft drink only” policy. Dave Glickman and Ray Gorum, owner and manager of the club, respectively, upon hearing the Mastersounds tapes Monk Montgomery had brought along, booked the group into the room beginning in September, 1957 for an unlimited engagement.

The fairy-tale quality of Monk Montgomery’s California trip was to get even better when he continued his ‘quest’ down to Hollywood. There he met fellow bassist Leroy Vinnegar whose immediate reaction to listening to the Mastersounds demo tapes was to call Dick Bock, president of World Pacific Records. Upon hearing them, Bock signed the group to a contract that would result in six albums being produced for the World Pacific/Pacific Jazz Series until The Mastersounds disbanded as a performing group in December, 1959.

Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz recorded legacy of the Mastersounds has found its way onto compact disc. Ironically, the group reunited in the recording studios of Fantasy Records on August 10 and November 2, 1960 and the two albums that group made on these dates [Fantasy 3305 and 8862] have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds Fantasy FCD 24770-2. The cover art for this CD is by Ray Avery and is shown as the graphic lead-in to this article.

The CD tray plate annotations offers the following comments about The Mastersounds:

"Because their instrumentation of vibes-piano-bass-drums mirrored that of the contemporaneous Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the finest and most celebrated groups of all time, the Mastersounds may have been somewhat overlooked. Moreover, the Mastersounds best known members, vibist-arranger Charles “Buddy Montgomery [b. 1930] and William “Monk” Montgomery [1921-1982], who pioneered the electric bass in jazz, were the younger and older brothers, respectively, of Wes Montgomery, merely the greatest jazz guitarist of the post-bop era. (The ensemble was completed by drummer Benny Barth who, like the Montgomerys, was from Indianapolis and pianist Richie Crabtree). Still, the West Coast foursome’s coolly soulful, tastefully-arranged approach won them their share of fans, as well as the 1959 Down Beat Critic’s Poll for Best New Group."

At World Pacific, The Mastersounds first LP – Jazz Showcase … Introducing the Mastersounds [PJM-403] incorporated many tunes and arrangements that had become staples of their repertoire during the group’s tenure at the club including a spirited [an oft-requested] version of Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, Wes’ Tune by Wes Montgomery, and Dexter’s Deck by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This debut album also offers intriguing Buddy Montgomery arrangements on such standards as Lover, If I Should Lose You, That Old Devil Moon and Spring is Here.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, what followed this initial release were three Mastersounds albums on World Pacific which were intended to capitalize on the Jazz-Impressions-of-Broadway-Show craze that swept the country in the late 1950s.

In the span of about two years, Dick Bock was to release The King and I: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [PJM-405], Kismet: An Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1243] which included Wes Montgomery, and Flower Drum Song: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1252].

These three LPs were a commercial success for Dick Bock’s label and helped to enhance public awareness of the Mastersounds. Somewhat surprisingly, given the inappropriateness or unwieldiness of much of the material for Jazz treatments, each does contain some interesting music.

The King and I offers intricate arrangements by Buddy Montgomery particularly on Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance; Kismet has a lovely interpretation of Baubles, Bangles and Beads and some fresh ideas on how to syncopate the usually stodgy Stranger in Paradise; Flower Drum Song with tunes such as Love Look Away, Grant Avenue, Chop Suey and I’m Going to Like it Here provide many opportunities to employ pentatonic scales, modal vamps and even a Max-Roach-tympani-mallet extended drum solo by Benny Barth.

It wasn’t until late in 1958 with the issuance of Ballads and Blues [WP 1260] that the Mastersounds returned to its jazz roots.

This album includes a captivating Blues Medley made up of Milt Jackson’s Bluesology, Dizzy’s rarely heard Purple Sounds, and John Lewis’ Fontessa, as well as, first-rate interpretations of Miles’ Solar and Dizzy’s The Champ.

In late 1958 and throughout 1959, the Mastersounds became a frequent fixture at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, while also appearing that year at the Blue Note in Chicago, Birdland in New York and Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival.

With their return to Southern California in 1959 for a stint at Jazzville in Hollywood, Dick Bock picked their April 11th concert at Pasadena Junior College to record an issue their only in-performance recording – The Mastersounds in Concert [WP 1269].

As C.H. Garrigues, jazz critic of The San Francisco Examiner at the time comments in his liner notes for the recording:

“From the opening of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ through the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,” into the flying carpet of ‘Love for Sale,’ through the thoughtfully lyric development of ‘Two Different Worlds,’ … it would be difficult to find any area of sincere jazz feeling in which they are not at home.”

And, in celebration of their warm reception as artists-in-residence at their beloved North Beach San Francisco bistro, The Jazz Workshop, at the end of 1958, World Pacific released The Mastersounds Play Compositions of Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop [WP-1282].

With their sensitive interpretations of Horace’s Ecaroh, Enchantment, Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, [the-all-too-rarely-heard] Moonrays and Buhania, as Richard Bock points out in his liner notes:

“The music of Horace Silver provides a perfect vehicle for the Mastersounds to project their very earthy concept yet sophisticated jazz conception. The group has never been recorded in better form. …

The Mastersounds have reached a jazz maturity that has developed from over three years of playing together. This collection of the music of Horace Silver, one of Jazz’s greatest new composer-arrangers, represents a high point in the Mastersounds’ career.”

For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, the Mastersounds decided to disband as a performing and touring group in 1960, although the fact that they all took up residence in the greater San Francisco area after this decision made it easy for them to regroup later in the year to record the two sessions for Fantasy.

From the standpoint of what might have been, and to my great delight since these are their only recordings in a digital format, the Fantasy recordings made on August 10 and November 2, 1960 which have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds [Fantasy FCD 24770-2] show the group to be in exceptional form both individually and collectively.

The ensemble work is superb, the arrangements are intricately complex, and their improvisations are, to a man, their best on record, especially those of Benny Barth who had developed into a inventive and technically adroit drummer over the 4 year span of the group’s existence.

Unfortunately, the Mastersounds existed during a time when the World of Jazz, unlike today, basked in a surfeit of riches making their superb contributions to the genre all too easy to overlook.

And, with all due respect to Messer’s Jackson, Lewis, Heath and Kay, the Mastersounds during its brief life, were the equal musically, of anything offered by the MJQ with the exception of its longevity which, in and of itself is not always the ultimate standard of judgment.

The problem in any “Age of Excess” is that the star that burns the longest is not necessarily the brightest.

And yet, the existence of the Mastersounds made my formative days in the World of Jazz all the better for having not missed the opportunity to know them and their music.

It is always important to remember those who helped "make you as you go,” thus - a remembrance of the Mastersounds.

[The Jazzprofiles editorial staff wishes to acknowledge Ralph J. Gleason, Russ Wilson, Nat Hentoff, Richard Bock and C.H. Garricules whose Mastersounds liner notes provided much assistance in the factual and interpretive material contained in this feature.]

Monday, May 26, 2008

Norman Granz: Jazz Impresario

Over the years, Jazz has had many heroes, but few have done as much for it as Norman Granz who, ironically, never contributed an actual note to the music.

Alex Barris offers this brief chronicle of some of the achievements of one of the great patrons of Jazz. The photograph of Mr. Granz is by William P. Gottlieb and is in the Library of Congress/Gershwin Fund.

By Alex Barris The Jazz Report Summer 1996

“Jazz lover are, by and large, a jaded lot. You need only mention a few words like ‘producer’ or ‘promoter’ and your jaded jazz fan will react as though you had used a dirty word. Of course, sometimes they are right. But not always.

For example, I maintain – and have for some time – that jazz has had no greater friend, certainly among non-musicians, than Norman Granz. Yes, I know about John Hammond, George Wein, Leonard Feather, George Simon, Ira Gitler and Whitney Balliett. I’ll still put Granz ahead of them.

Okay, some reasons. First of all there was Jazz at the Philharmonic [JATP], which, starting in 1943, presented a long-running series of concert tours, attracting countless thousands of young people to the wonders of jazz. True, some of them tended to get noisy, stomped and applauded and cheered and behaved like – well, exuberant kids. (So Had Sinatra fans before that, and Presley, Beatle and Michael Jackson fans since).

But JATP fans got to hear the giants of jazz like Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Willie Smith. And it was at a JATP concert in New York that people outside of Canada were introduced to Oscar Peterson.

In the 1940s and 1950s, racially segregated audiences were still the norm. Not with Granz. He insisted, and got it written into contracts, that in travel arrangements and in accommodations for his musicians, there must be no segregation. And he did not hesitate to cancel dates if these conditions were not met. More, he insisted that the same rules apply to buying tickets and seating arrangements. Which explained why JATP simply did not play in the U.S. south. Granz stuck to his principles.

Then, in 1944, there was Jammin’ the Blues, the first and arguably still the best movie short made that dealt with jazz, presenting Lester Young, Harry Edison, Barney Kessel, Illinois, Jacquet, John Simmons, Red Callender and Sidney Catlett in a jam session atmosphere that was revolutionary for a Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers, in this case, who did not care a hang about jazz but wanted to give the wizard photographer Gjon Mili a shot at directing and allowed Granz to function as producer of the 10-minue film).

Credit Granz also for introducing millions of jazz fans to the brilliant work of graphic artist David Stone Martin (No, Granz did not discover him, nor did he claim to).

Martin had done some album covers for Asch records in 1944. But it was when Granz began to record his JATP albums with Asch that record buyers became aware of Martin’s remarkable work.
And when Granz left Asch to form Clef he persuaded David Stone Martin to join Clef. Indeed Martin’s splendid line drawing of a trumpeter (for which Charlie Shavers was the unwitting model) became Granz’s logo on Clef and later on Verve album covers.

Over a period of two decades, Martin was to produce more than 200 album covers for Granz, most of them startlingly imaginative.

Of course, JATP was only one aspect of Granz’s producing-recording career. There was also once-in-a-lifetime projects such as The Jazz Scene a magnificent package recorded in 1949 (on six 12-inch 78 rpm discs) that presented, in various combinations, such diverse artists as Duke Ellington, Neal Hefti, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich and Bud Powell.

This was issued (on Mercury) in a limited and numbered edition. Only 5,000 copies were made (mine is number 4396). It was later reissued on LP, but it’s hard to find.
[A CD version is still available at:].

My own favorite on this album is the combination Lester Young, Buddy Rich and Auy Guy (code name of Nat King Cole, who was under contract to Capitol) playing I Want To Be Happy. The package also had some marvelous photos by Mili [see below for photo of Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge] and some equally exquisite drawings by Martin [see above for cover art].

And then, just a few years after that, there was The Astaire Story, in which the famed dancer introduced and sang some of his movie hits, backed by such stellar jazzmen as Oscar Peterson, Charlie Savers, Barney Kessel, Flip Phillips and Ray Brown. Once again, Martin supplied a memorable sketch of Astaire for the cover.

Most of all, however, I think Granz deserves a lot of credit for his dedication to jazz and to the musicians who played it. One important manifestation of that dedication was during the dark decade starting in the mid-50s, when the explosion of rock ‘n roll all but wiped out the market for many jazz artists.

It was during those years that Grant went stubbornly on, recording some of the greatest jazz artists – in many cases, saving them from virtual extinction, at a time when nobody else would touch them. Among those recorded by Granz during those lean years: Art Tatum, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins,
Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Hank Jones and Stan Getz.

Granz also initiated the Ella Fitzgerald “songbook” albums and made no less that 27 albums with Art Tatum, and later fought to regain control of them (he had sold Verve to MGM) so that he could reissue the Tatum albums.

No doubt, the cynics will argue that Granz did all these things to make money. Perhaps. But even if that’s true (and I don’t think it is in every case) the fact that he did them was of immense help to the beleaguered jazz community.

And, finally, I have one more reason for respecting Granz, and I’m willing to admit some prejudice here, because we happen to agree. Once, on a European tour, a reporter asked him which musician most typified jazz for him. Oscar Peterson, who was present, urged Granz to name his idol, Art Tatum. But Granz disagreed: “No,” he said, “it’s Roy Eldridge who embodies what jazz is all about. He’s a musician for whom it’s far more important to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak – even if he falls on his ass in the attempt – than it is to play it safe. That’s what jazz is all about.”

Even if you disagree with his choice of that particular musician, you can’t argue with his yardstick."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shelly Manne - Jazz "Today"

The Jazzprofiles editorial staff is indebted to Mr. Jim Harrod of Jazz Research for this Ray Avery photograph of drummer Shelly Manne from the November 1956 edition of Jazz Today and the Add Manne and Vinnegar: Serve Piping Hot article by Jack Maher from the July 1957 edition of Jazz Today.

As you read the cover subject comments below, the reader may wish to keep in mind that by the mid-1950s, the Jazz world was still experiencing the [relatively “new”] transition from big bands to small groups. Indeed, the November 1956 edition of Jazz Today also contains a feature article entitled: A History of the Small Group in Jazz!


“Shelly Manne, our cover subject for this month, is about as much representative of the small group movement today as can be found. His recordings with the varied and sundry personnel of the Los Angeles area, and, with his own group reflects the strength and popularity of the three, four, five and six piece bands on both coasts.

Through his development from Kenton’s and other big bands, to leader of his own combo there is a note of integrity and excellence of musicianship. Shelly is a leader now but is always first a musician, putting his musicianship before any other consideration. Shelly as the new leader in the new world of small group Jazz is the very essence of this month’s Jazz Today.”


“Time, and the application of it, has taken another and more perfect turn through the recent performances of a rhythm duo operating on the far West Coast. Responsible for this new, invigorating concept of the drum and bass duo are Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar. To be ultra-truthful, there’s nothing new about the Manne-Vinnegar team. What they have done is to solidify and expand the rhythm team all at once.

The solidification comes from the feeling of unity that Shelly’s drumming and Leroy’s bass are able to produce. Shelly’s concept of drums is primarily four-four. He uses the high-hat as a point of emphasis most times in a very slight way. This gives his rhythmic line an evenness rather than a predominantly two-four feeling. Leroy, in accordance with this, throbs his bass line, with that same four-four concept and with the added value of a big, round, sound making each note sound for its full value. The linear effect of the two instruments played separately is really as if they were one. The drums providing a sharp, critical percussion and the bass a wide, controlled full-sounding note value to each stroke of tempo.

The expansion takes place in the individual ability of each of the musicians in himself. Leroy often plays through the notes that go to make a particular chord, instead of just sounding the same notes over and over again. He uses also, often in concert with Shelly and a pianist, a triple-plucking technique that presents an effective variant to the usually strong, straight quarter-note line. Shelly’s use of counter-rhythm figures, bass drum punctuation and counter-tempo variation in the high-hat broadens the usual repetitive playing of the drummer. His concept in figures behind a soloist often has all the variety and all the freshness of the distinctively individual and stimulating melodic ideas he has in his solos.

Together these two individuals form a near perfect basis for any soloist: non-intrusive, fresh and inspiring, and, what’s of the utmost importance, a unified feeling and sound. A feeling and sound that has compactness, pressure and pulse.

After writing the above impression of the Manne-Vinnegar team, we went by way of Bell long-distance telephone to the Northridge, California home of Shelly Manne for verification or, if necessary, disputation by Shelly himself. What follows are the impressions Shelly Had on the position and functions of the rhythm section.

‘What I like to hear, and strive for myself, in a rhythm section, is a section. I want to hear three men playing together as a section, the same as a brass section or a sax section with all the members playing together, not as sometimes happens an individual drum section, bass section and piano section. It’s all important that members of the rhythm section, and in fact the whole band, to be at one with one another. There’s a need for personal as well as musical regard for one another.

It’s most important too, for the bass and drums to have the same sense of time, the same swing feeling, and mutual respect for one another’s abilities. They must be open to hear what’s going on around them, and aware and flexible enough to fit with the whole band. Sometimes we play things along with the horns, at other times we play contrapuntal figures. In any case, the rhythm men have to be sensitive and equipped enough to respond to one another and to the other members of the band.

As far as the importance of the rhythm section today is concerned, I think it’s just as important now as it ever was. The pulsation is the important thing. Even when you don’t have the constant pulsation, when you eliminate it, the swing, the pulsation itself must be there – implied if you like – for it to swing. I don’t seriously believe you can ever do away with the rhythm section altogether in jazz. For variety and development you can have the rhythm section stop playing for a chorus or two, we do, and the effect when they come pounding back in is twice as exciting.

About Leroy” We first met when he sat in when Shorty and I had the group and then I heard him around Los Angeles with other bands. I was very impressed with him and still am. He’s got all those qualities I mentioned and we have a similar time sense. He plans to do a lot of studying in the future.”

And about drummers in general: ‘You know, I think a lot of drummers are confusing funk with soul. Playing the high-hat, for instance, seems to be a lost art. I like the feeling of having a snap on two and four but not the heavy predominance that’s so much in evidence today: the heavy two-four accent is becoming a crutch. I think I need to spend more time with the high-hat – go back and listen to some of those old Basie records with Jo Jones – they have some wonderfully colorful effects.

The drummer tends to imitate the leaders on his instrument, instead of developing something of his own. It seems to me that all the really big people in jazz all have had that identifiable individuality.’

After reading this series of quotations, I think you can see just why Shelly and Leroy are quite possibly the best two man rhythm team in the country – there’s a personal and musical understanding between them that’s evident on every tune they play.”

Should you like to know more about Shelly Manne, perhaps "... the most musical drummer who ever lived," Jack Brand and Bill Korst have put together a magnificent biography, discography and filmography of his career entitled Shelly Manne: Sounds of a Different Drummer copies of which can be obtained at