Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lennie Niehaus: "Annie's Dance"

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

When the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wrote the feature on alto saxophonist and composer-arranger Lennie Niehaus which is currently available for review at the bottom of the columnar side [scroll down on the left] of the blog, the crackerjack graphics theme at CerraJazz LTD had not as yet developed a video tribute to him.

This has now been rectified.  We’ve also added gathered a few, more praiseworthy comments about this “… remarkable alto soloist, with a sense of flowing melodic line, lovely cool tone, and strong feeling for rhythm. He is a thoughtful and serious musician, who composes and arranges in his own style, with definite ideas of where he is going and what he wants to achieve.” – Lester Koenig, Contemporary Records

“In the mid-1950’s, Lennie Niehaus avoided cliché, incorporated audacious harmonic ideas, and distilled the essentials of big band writing into arrangements for small groups. His recordings are still notable in the 21st century for their freshness and daring.” – Fantasy Records/Concord Records Group

“Year after year, record after record, Lennie Niehaus seems ever truer to himself. His work is marked by the same simplicity of conception, same strength of execution, absence of the slightest extravagance and, …, the same honesty.” – Andre’ Hodier

“I’m still out there,” says Lennie Niehaus, looking trim and vigorous, a 78-year-old with plenty of miles left on his odometer. “Last year I did two movies and a six-hour miniseries, and a couple of years ago I went to England to conduct the BBC Jazz Orchestra.”

Not bad for a guy who was playing alto saxophone with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1951; has scored, arranged or composed the music for 17 movies produced or directed by Clint Eastwood; and who won an Emmy award for his score for the Showtime film Lush Life.” … - Don Heckman/ September 2007/JazzTimes

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tony Williams 1945-1997: The Unpredictable in Jazz Drumming

“Though regarded as one of the greatest drummers in the 20th century, in many ways Tony Williams remains un-credited with his contributions to American music. Speak to his collaborators and the musicians he has influenced about his music, and you often hear what amounts to mysteries and fables.”
- Ken Micallef, “Bridge to the Beyond,” down beat, November 2008

“Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he joined [Miles] Davis in May 1963 …. Williams was so young that Davis faced problems with authorities when he was booked to play nightclubs where minors were not allowed. But Williams compensated for his lack of professional experience with an excess of power, passion and creativity – indeed no other percussionist in the history of Jazz ever played so well, so young.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, p. 333.

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

Tony Williams literally walked into my life.

To digress for a moment, during most of the decade of the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco, but I could have lived anywhere because due to a dispersed, national group of clients, I traveled a portion of every week, every year for over a decade.

For a variety of reasons, all bad, San Francisco International Airport is a horrible place for the business traveler. Delays and flight cancellations are the rule rather than the exception, so I frequently found myself stranded following business meetings.

Fortunately, I worked for a major firm that allowed me to stay in a hotel of my choice while the company’s travel agents re-booked my flight home for the following day [hopefully].

One such incident occurred in October, 1993 when a cancelled flight to San Francisco found me staying over at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Of course, every Jazz fan has heard about Chicago’s legendary club – The Jazz Showcase. Founded in the late 1940’s by Joe Segal, it’s tenure as a club that featured top Jazz groups rivaled that of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York.
Although I was aware of its existence, I had never been there.  Being marooned overnight in Chicago one autumn night gave me the opportunity to do so.

When I asked at the hotel’s Concierge Desk if they could help with directions to the club, one of the gentlemen there looked up at me, gently smiled and in a wonderful accented voice asked: “Fancy short walk do you?” I found out later that it was a Yorkshire accent in which the use of articles such as “the” and “a” are dropped.

Now, October is generally an absolutely gorgeous month in Chicago weather-wise, so when I said I did, he continued: “Out front door of hotel, turn right down Monroe for block to Michigan Avenue, turn left, you’ll find it ways up on right in old Blackstone Hotel.”

Piece ‘o cake. Twenty minutes later I was in the beautiful lobby of the historic Blackstone with its aged, wood paneling and marble columns. I gather that Joe Segal had been forced to move The Jazz Showcase from a previous location and it was now housed in one of the hotel’s conference rooms just off the main lobby that had been re-fashioned for this purpose.

On the bill that evening was guitarist John Scofield who was fronting a trio that included Larry Goldings on piano and Hammond B-3 organ and Bill Stewart on drums.

There were more marble columns in the club area, in fact, these seemed so ubiquitous that they blocked a number of views of the stage. I glommed onto a small table off to the side of the stage with a perfect view of Bill Stewart [old habits die hard for drummers].

Just after the set began, someone was at my shoulder and pointing to the other chair at the table while asking: “Is anyone sitting here.”

I was so engrossed in watching Bill and listening to the music that I didn’t even look up to the male voice asking the question.  I just held out my hand in the direction of the chair and said: “It’s all yours.”
When the tune was finished, I looked over at my table guest, smiled and in a flash of recognition said” “You’re Tony Williams!” And he said: “Yes, I am, and you’re a drummer.”  “How did you know that?”, I queried. Tony offered: “The whole time you were digging Bill, your left foot was playing the high-hat on 2 and 4 and your right foot was feathering the bass drum on all 4 beats.”

And that’s how I met Tony Williams. He bought me a drink “ …for being kind enough to share ‘my’ table with him….”  I found out that, while he had been born in Chicago and was in town on some personal business, he too, lived in the San Francisco Bay area.

We talked about drums and drummers until Bill Stewart came by our table, and then all three of us talked about – you guessed it – drums and drummers.

When Bill left us to get ready for the next set, Tony shared how much he was enjoying writing for his own band and continuing his studies to expand his knowledge of music theory and harmony.

I had to confess that while I had been very familiar with Tony’s musical travels with Miles Davis in the 1960s and the group Lifetime in the 1970s, I had really lost touch with his career after that. 

He asked for my address in San Francisco and a short while later two Blue Note CDs that Tony had produced with his then current group, and for which he had written most of the music, arrived in my mailbox.

Later he sent me a copy of the CD Marvelous on which he appears with pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Dave Holland.

In the ensuing years, my world became professionally busier and, as it is sometimes wont to do, LIFE skipped a heartbeat and three years later in June, 1997 Tony was gone having died from complications following a surgery.

While working on the Davy Tough and Papa Jo Jones blog features, the JazzProfiles editorial staff began reflecting on who amongst contemporary Jazz drummers have been similarly influential in terms of setting trends in drumming styles?

The name that readily came to mind was Elvin Jones as elements of his method of playing have had a far-reaching influence of drummers such as Peter Erskine, Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum and a host of others. The way in which Elvin accented eight note and quarter note triplets and inflected them with the bass drum is everywhere apparent in the phrasing of many of today’s Jazz drummers.
But what of the influence of Tony Williams?  It’s there, but why is it harder to discern as compared with that of Elvin?  The answer may lie in Elvin’s predictability as compared with Tony’s unpredictability.

Although he would reconfigured them by beginning and ending on different parts of the drum kit, Elvin essentially played the same “licks” over and over again to create, what many describe as a “polyrhythmic” feeling or sound to his drumming.

With Tony, you never knew what was coming next; the licks and phrases were not repetitive so how could they be copied? How does one mimic unpredictability?

Instead of rudimental phrases, Tony Williams offered drummers a whole new concept of playing Jazz drums based around what has been described as “controlled chaos.” 

Tony underscored this tendency by making tempos sound “elastic” and by playing with intense swiftness and a pulsating forward motion.  All of these qualities became more pronounced in his playing as the years moved along.

The following description by Peter Watrous is an excellent overview of the elements and evolution of Tony’s approach to Jazz drumming:
“Early in his career he was the master of the ride cymbal. He liked a clean spare sound evoking the slight sizzle of fat in a frying pan, and often moved abruptly between light and cluttered textures. And in his swing, Mr. Williams was utterly committed. …

As part of the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section with Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass, Mr. Williams radically changed the way a band worked. In his hands, tempos were pliable, ….

Along with his band mates, Mr. Williams took group improvisation further than it had gone before, developing structural improvisations that made the form of a tune seem finally irrelevant to the music. Thirty years later, his early playing is still striking for its audacity; his capacity to listen, to hear within the group and augment the musical conversation, seemed unbounded.” [New York Times obituary, June 7, 2009].

Before moving on, let’s be clear about what type of drumming is being discussed here. This is not the unobtrusive playing-like-the-wind style of Jo Jones, or playing under a band like Davy Tough; Tony Williams drumming is pure, unadulterated, bombastic explosiveness.

In a 1992 interview he have to Bill Milkowski for the Modern Drummer, Tony stated:

“I like to play loud. I believe the drums should be hit hard.”

Maybe the reason that Tony’s style is so idiosyncratic is that he did not come up into the world of Jazz through the typical big band route.  And the reason for that is easy to understand because when Tony was growing up, primarily in the 1950’s, for all intents and purposes, big bands were a dying breed.

Perhaps another basis for the stylistic distinctiveness of Tony’s drumming is because it embraced the new, more complex Rock ‘n Roll that was just coming into existence as he was reaching his majority in the mid-to-late 1960s.

The infusion or inflection of Latin rhythms also gave Tony’s drumming another element of uniqueness in combination with other sources that he drew from outside the mainstream of the Jazz tradition.

As is the case with many creative young people, Tony was in-step with the influences around him; the influences of his time. His temperament seemed to prefer the inclusion of these seemingly disparate influences, rather than drawing lines or creating categories based around mutual exclusivity.

Given this process of development, Tony’s impressionistic and fiery timekeeping made an enormous contribution to the landmark series of recordings made by the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 1960’s including Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, E.S.P., Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

What was apparent in the 1960s was that Jazz was changing and, according to many, not necessarily for the better.  But this was largely the opinion of those Jazz fans who preferred the understated swing of the 1930s or the straight-ahead rhythms of the post World War II be-bop and hard bop eras.

The former group heralded the tap dance-like drumming of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson while the latter group preferred the driving propulsion of Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

Tony along with drummers of his generation and those that would follow, while certainly respectful and admiring of the technical ability of all these drummers, heard the music differently and wanted to incorporate other elements into their drumming in response to it.
Drummer Terri Lynne Carrington explains Tony’s significance this way:

“Every time I hear Tony I remember how great he is. It’s always fresh and amazing. Tony brought the drums to the forefront more than ever. He took from Roy Haynes and moved it forward in his own way. I hate to talk in absolutes, but he made the greatest individual personal statement on the instrument ever. His technique was incredible and he had the most important element – time feel.”

Put another way from drummer Peter Erskine:

“Words seem inadequate to describe his work with Miles, and how new it was and yet completely tied into tradition. … all of a sudden the drums were right in your face, the visceral reaction was that it was one of drumming’s biggest shots across the bow.”

And this from drummer Bill Stewart about Tony’s seminal recordings with Miles:

“One of the things I love about Tony’s playing in this period is his listening ability, his interaction and timing. He plays these interactive things at moments in the music that propel the music forward. It’s about the spaces he plays those things in…. The other thing that crept into his playing was using the hi-hat on all fours sometimes.”

These late 1960’s recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet on which Tony appears as such a dominant force are a dividing line of sorts for those Jazz fans who prefer the group’s from the period from 1955-1965.
In this later period, Miles continued to push forward and explore new areas for his music through the use of electronic instruments, primarily keyboards and guitar, percussion instruments that are played either in Latin rhythms [including the newly arrived bossa nova] or freely to add tonal colors and cross rhythms and by using rock beats.  Add to this what has been described as Tony Williams “scorched earth campaign” drumming, and it is easy to understand why those who preferred more traditional Jazz styles could become disenchanted with this music, let alone overwhelmed by it.

As drummer Billy Hart explicates:

“When Tony joined Miles … he had been a prolific young student under Alan Dawson. Tony had figured out the bebop guys, and that they were playing Latin from Dizzy and Bird’s interest in Afro-Cuban. Around the same time, the Brazilian thing hit. Tony had the advantage over the previous bebop drummers in that he could compare the Cuban vocabulary with the Brazilian. … Tony was in a position to use all incoming styles as part of his vocabulary.”

What super-charged all of this was Tony’s whole-hearted embracing of rock drumming and the manner in which he infused it into Jazz, especially of Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and one particular tune on this album – Frelon Brun.

Drummer Lennie White details the significance of this turn of events as follows:

“Tony plays Jazz-Rock, not Fusion. The connotation is different. Added to this was another innovation in the way he got a whole new drum sound with his larger kit and the way played eight notes and back beats. Tony played grooves and beats with a Jazz sensibility. He played his grooves on the sock cymbal. He’s got Papa Jo Jones up top with his back beat stuff on the bottom with bass drum and snare, playing in between like a great Jazz drummer would. He’s playing the history of Jazz drumming, because he is comping. He never forgot his roots.”

In 1998, the year following Tony Williams’ death, the Mike Zwerin published a feature for entitled Tony Williams: Finding His Beautiful Vase in which he commented:

“He would not be who he is without those he learned from. It’s a matter on universality. As he learned technique, he also learned that the drums are more important than he is.

He compares the learning process to a dusty living room. You’re comfortable there, it’s home, but one day you see something in the corner that attracts your eye. You never saw it before. To get it, you have to move everything and clean the dust.  Williams cleaned and cleaned and found his beautiful vase. Improvising is about being able to clean your dust, to find the vase and to recognize that it is beautiful in itself.” …

An optimist by nature, Williams does not believe in the good old days. He will not hold on to the past, he can envision the days when he will no longer play the drums.

The drummer never stops playing back there – there are aching feet, ankles, thighs, hips and elbows. He cannot imagine himself doing that forever. Plus, he loves being in his home south of San Francisco, even when he’s staring at the walls.

P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lester Koenig, Good Time Jazz and Contemporary Records

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

I will always be infinitely grateful to Lester Koenig for the many wonderful Jazz recordings that he brought into my life over the years.

On the one occasion that I met him, he was attired in much the same way as in the this photo [Brooks Brothers suits and ties – I asked him]:

Les looked and acted more like the graduate of an Ivy League University and a corporate executive, both of which he had been, than the owner of a small, independent recording label, which he was when I first met him.

Lester attended a concert at our high school that featured a performance by Shelly Manne and His Men, a Jazz combo with a long history of recording for Les’ Contemporary Records.

Our high school group played a few tunes prior to the appearance of the “Big Guys,” and our Band Director introduced each of us to Lester and Shelly backstage after the concert.

Lester said some courteous things about our music and complimented all of us on our playing.  Each of us were young, enthusiastic musicians and we started rattling off our favorite titles from the modern Jazz recordings that he had produced at Contemporary Records.

When it came around to me, however, I was stymied and tongue-tied for what seemed like ages [remember how easily we became embarrassed when The World was Young?].

I had always had a tough time with “favorites,” I had too many of them and could never chose from them whilst protesting such ratings with something like: “Why can’t we have more than one?”

I eventually settled on Shelly Manne and His Men at The Blackhawk which Lester had recorded over a two week period while Shelly’s quintet was in-performance at this once-famous San Francisco Jazz club and released on a series of four LPs [later the set was reissued as five CDs on Original Jazz Classics, OJCCD 656-660].

But then, for some reason, I blurted out that I was also a fan of the many Firehouse Five + Two [see below for details] LPs and other traditional Jazz recordings that he had produced for his Good Time Jazz [GTJ] label.

Les seemed pleased by my interest in “Dixieland Jazz;” surprised that someone of “the younger generation” even knew about such music let alone his GTJ recordings of it.

In order to ward off any further embarrassment, I explained that it was really my Dad who liked Dixieland and that I just happen to catch it when he played these recordings at home [the implication being that I was just being respectful of my father’s taste in music].

About a week later, the Band Director asked me to stick around following one of the many music classes in which I was enrolled.

He handed me a big package with Good Time Jazz stamped on the mailing label.

“I think this is for you,” he said.

The package included about a dozen albums by the likes of Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band, Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band and, of course, The Firehouse Five + Two.

The card inside was addressed to me and said: “For Your Dad. I hope HE enjoys the music. Best wishes, Les.”

And, yes, the “HE” on Lester’s card was capitalized to emphasize it as a tongue-in-cheek reference to me.

I never knew the details about how Les got started in the business so it was fun searching them out and getting to know him better courtesy of the reminiscences of Ralph Kaffel, Floyd Levin, and John Koenig, Lester’s son, which you will find below.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles would also like to thank an “Internet friend” in Germany who made a number of the resources used in this feature possible.

Although it was a mighty struggle, we were able to identify another of our favorite Contemporary LP’s and use a track from it in the video tribute to Les and Contemporary that closes this piece.

The album is Checkmate and features Shelly Manne’s Quintet performing Jazz adaptations of music from this 1960s TV series by composer-arranger John Williams, who would later go on to fame and fortune for his soundtracks to the Stars Wars and Indiana Jones movies.

© -Ralph Kaffel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Once upon a time, independent record companies were mirror images of the tastes, preferences and personalities or their owners.

Most were one-man shows. Owners did everything from recording sessions and writing liner notes to overseeing distribution and collection. Labels such as Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Pacific Jazz, Atlantic, and Contemporary/Good Time Jazz had uncommonly individual identities, sonically and graphically as well as managerially. You could distinguish a Blue Note cover across the room, and recognize a Blue Note session by a few opening bars.

Men like Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff, Bob Weinstock, Orrin Keepnews, Dick Bock, the Ertegun’s, and Lester Koenig virtually invented the jazz record business.

Koenig's Contemporary and Good Time Jazz releases were as distinctive as Blue Note's. They were carefully and beautifully packaged, precisely and impeccably annotated, with covers and liners having a style all their own.

Like Floyd Levin, I have a personal involve­ment with the music in this boxed set. I start­ed in the "business" in 1956 with Jack Lewerke's California Record Distributors in Los Angeles. Les Koenig owned the distribu­torship, so he was my first boss. Les's story has been told to a degree in John Koenig's profile of his father in the booklet for Lu Watters' Yerba Buena jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings, and by Floyd Levin in his notes for the set at hand (The Good Time Jazz Story).

I would just add that of all the many people in this industry it has been my privilege to know and meet, I have the most respect and admiration for Lester Koenig. He was truly a man of unshakable principle, and passage of time has only served to amplify this aspect of his character.” [Producer’s Note, The Good Time Jazz Story, booklet p. 16].

 © -Floyd Levin, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“When the producer, Ralph Kaffel, asked me to write the historical background of the Good Time Jazz Record Company, he was not aware of my personal "involvement" in the genesis of the influential record label. I happily accepted the assignment since it provided an opportuni­ty to reveal the true origin of the heroic little firm that helped reestablish worldwide interest in a vital segment of jazz history.

My personal role in this drama began in late December 1948. My wife Lucille and I were invited to a New Year's Eve jazz party in a large rehearsal room above Roy Hart's Drum City, a percussion store on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street in Hollywood. That memorable evening at Drum City creat­ed the stimulus that soon resulted in a new record company that would eventually docu­ment a broad spectrum of American music.
We invited our friend Bob Kirstein to join us in the New Year's celebration. Kirstein had an elaborate collection of early jazz records, and was keenly aware of the music's colorful history. He conducted a weekly radio program, "Doctor Jazz," on a tiny Hollywood FM station—long before many listeners had FM radios.

The musicians were setting up their instru­ments when we arrived at Drum City. To our astonishment, they were attired in bright red shirts, black pants, white suspenders—and firemen's helmets! The trombonist, Ward Kimball, also wore a tin badge that identified him as the "Fire Chief." The unusual garb con­trasted vividly with the accepted 1948 band dress code—tuxedos or dark suits. We learned that this was the initial outing of a group that would quickly become internationally famous as the Firehouse Five Plus Two!

A capacity crowd enjoyed a succession of high energy stomps, authentic blues, and spir­ited re-creations of early jazz classics we had only heard on rare recordings by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. When we sipped champagne at midnight, and the band played "Auld Lang Syne," the venera­ble Scottish melody was invigoratingly embellished with a clanging fire alarm bell and a shrieking siren! The Firehouse Five Plus Two and the year 1949 were launched simul­taneously, emphatically, and unforgettably!

The New Year's party was their first appearance with the colorful firefighter accouterments; but, from the tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, it was obvious that the little band had been playing together for some time. In an interview with Bob Greene, pub­lished in the Record Changer magazine (September 1949), leader Ward Kimball, then a cartoonist at Walt Disney studios, recalled the noontime studio jam sessions where it all began back in 1945:

"It happened that we had a New Orleans band working here without our knowing about it! Frank Thomas, our pianist, is an ani­mation director; Ed Penner, our bass sax man, is a writer; Jim McDonald, the drummer, is in charge of sound effects; and Clarke Mallery, the clarinetist, is also an animator." Johnny Lucas, a Pasadena writer, also played at the sessions and wrote arrangements for the band. He blew some fiery trumpet at the New Year's event, and, later, on the band's initial recordings.

The noon jam sessions continued at the Disney Studio and expanded to Kimball's house every Friday evening. "We were hired for a dance and the band didn't have a name, so we dreamed up the 'San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers,' named after San Gabriel, the little town near Pasadena, where I live."

For their formal debut at Drum City, Kimball drew inspiration from his additional interest in antique fire engines and trains. (He had an 1875 railroad station, a full-size Baldwin railroad locomotive, with tender and car attached, sitting on 650 feet of track—and a fully restored bright red 1914 American LaFrance fire engine—in his backyard!)

After the New Year's party, Bob Kirstein was very enthusiastic about the band. He told me that his close friend, Lester Koenig, who shared his interest in jazz, might be interested in recording them.

Koenig, who wrote a jazz column for the school paper when he attended Dartmouth University with Kirstein, had been a successful assistant producer at Paramount Pictures. During the 1947 Congressional Hearings to Investigate Un-American Activities, several prominent Hollywood film personages, including Koenig, were defamed and given no opportunity to defend themselves. They were carelessly implicated, and shamefully "blacklisted." As a result, he was looking for a suitable investment opportunity and con­sidered reverting to his earlier role as a record producer.

As Kirstein predicted, Les Koenig was very interested. We learned during the New Year's party that a member of the Valley Country Club engaged the Firehouse Five to play for a forthcoming dance. Koenig attended the event with Kirstein and was instantly enam­ored of the band.

Recalling the episode in his liner notes on the first Good Time Jazz LP, Koenig wrote: ‘While the firemen were packing their leather helmets, fire-bells and sirens, I was introduced to Ward Kimball. ‘Will you record for me, I ask politely.” ‘What company are you with,’ asked Kimball. ‘None,’ I told him. ‘But if you record for me, I’ll have one!’

A few weeks later (on May 13, 1949), at Radio Engineers’ famous Studio B, in Hollywood, with engineer Lowell Frank at the controls, the first Firehouse Five session began with their them, Firehouse Stomp – the auspicious start of a great recording career.

… Koenig promptly rented a small vacant store near Paramount Studios, and placed a sign in the window – Good Time Jazz Record Company. Kirstein was employed as ‘administrative assistant’ and helped Koenig pack and ship the new 10-inch ninyl 78-rpm records. Retail price: 79 cents!

To properly assess the heroism of Les Koenig's venture, a brief review of the jazz scene in 1949 is necessary. Very little tradi­tional jazz was accessible; the word "tradition­al" had not yet been conceived (by Turk Murphy) as a descriptive adjective for the music. Live performances were sporadic, and very few records were available. Despite our fervent pleas, the four major record firms (there were only four!), flushed with the suc­cess of their big band recordings, steadfastly refused to reissue the many cherished gems gathering dust in their vaults. There had never been a jazz festival. There were no organ­ized jazz societies. LPs and TVs were still visions in the future. CDs were beyond the fantasies of the most optimistic visionaries.

Against this dismal backdrop, the small record firm dared to challenge an industry that had turned its back on the "old-fash­ioned" music. Remember, this occurred dur­ing the postwar wasteland when jazz, which had lost favor during the swing era, was also reeling from the "blows" of the emerging bebop fad. Dave Dexter, Jr., in his carefully researched The Jazz Story from the '90s to the '60s (Prentice Hall, 1964), discussed the Firehouse Five Plus Two: ‘Their records and albums, on Lester Koenig's Good Time Jazz label, reportedly outsold ['Dizzy'] Gillespie's at the height of the bop craze!’” [The Good Time Jazz Story, pp. 6-8, 10]

© -John Koenig, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“My father, Lester Koenig, once told me that among the most powerful experiences of his youth was attending a Count Basie recording session. According to him, it was the signal event that kindled his interest in one day owning a jazz record label.

My father was born in New York City toward the end of the First World War and he developed a passion for jazz as a teenager, listening to the 78s of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and others. Like many New York jazz devotees, he frequented Doc Doctorow's record store at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, which was a well-known haunt for collectors of the day.

I recall that when John Hammond would come to visit us years later in the Seventies, he and my father often reminisced about the old days at Doc Doctorow's. In any event, my father was quite young when they met, and John, seven years older, was something of an idol to him. …

John, who was a wonderful and empathetic person, took a liking to his young admirer and invited him to attend some recording sessions he was producing.

I recall my father telling me that John Hammond had invited him to the Basie session that had first inspired in him the desire to own a jazz label, and that at that session, Basie had recorded One O’clock Jump. …

During those days in the late Thirties, John was recording artists such as Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Noone, Meade Lux Lewis, and others, so I presume that my father was present at some of these sessions and as a result was even more steadfastly committed to becoming a jazz record producer.

At college, my father found an outlet for his two abiding passions, movies and jazz; he wrote on both subjects for the Dartmouth College paper. Among his activities on the paper was to write record and film reviews and to interview those musicians whom he happened across. His work on the Dartmouth paper was also auspicious in advancing his career in the field of his other great passion, movies. …

One of his college mates at Dartmouth was Budd Schulberg, whose father, B.P. Schulberg, was then the head of Paramount Pictures. The elder Schulberg admired my fathers renews; they met in the course of things, and eventually, after an abortive interlude at Yale Law School (where he was said to have taken his class notes in limerick form), and a brief stint assisting Martin Block at WNEW on the program "Make Believe Ballroom" and organizing jazz concerts, he received a telegram from Schulberg in 1939, beckoning him to Holly­wood and a job as a writer at Paramount. … He worked there in that capacity until shortly after the United States entered World War II.

My father told me that while he was working at Paramount, he would often drive up the coast the odd weekend to hear Lu Walters, Turk Murphy, and others at the Dawn Club where the San Francisco revival was then in full swing. His earliest recordings, which were of the Waiters band and are included in this package, dated from that period.

During the war, my father joined the Army Air Corps film unit and began an association with film director William Wyler that was to last nine years. Throughout that period, he was second in command on virtually all of Wyler's films from the original 'Memphis Belle', for which he wrote the narration, to 'Roman Holiday', during the production of which our family lived in Rome for nearly a year.

Not long after the war ended, while still working with Wyler, he became prosperous enough to try his hand at his other passion. He did so by acquiring for release on his own new label, Good Time Jazz, several masters recorded principally by David Stuart and Nesuhi Ertegun during their respective periods of ownership of the Jazz Man Record Shop. …

In the late Forties and early Fifties, my father continued to produce more sessions on Good Time Jazz of the music of revival figures such as Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, Paul Lingle, Wally Rose, Don Ewell, and others as well as the Firehouse Five Plus Two, who at the time were quite popular with the motion picture crowd from their weekly appearances at the Beverley Cavern in Hollywood. …

He was, during the same period, recording modem jazz (Shelly Manne, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Hampton Hawes) and contemporary classical music - hence the name of his other new label, Contemporary.”

Besides his numerous recordings of Shelly Manne in various contexts, I sometimes wonder what artists like alto saxophonists Lennie Niehaus and Art Pepper, pianists like Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn, Jr. and groups like the Curtis Counce Quintet and the Teddy Edwards Quartet would have done without Lester’s patronage and support.

And then there are the recordings by guitarist Barney Kessel, the Broadway show albums with pianist Andre Previn and Shelly, the many recordings by vibraphonist and pianist, Victor Feldman, et al.

The list of musicians that Lester recorded is as comprehensive as it is commendable.

I doubt that Jazz on the West Coast, either in its contemporary forms or in its traditional or revivalist forms, would have been the same without Lester’s efforts on their behalf during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

To slightly paraphrase drummer Buddy Rich’s comment about Gene Krupa:

“Things wouldn’t be the way they [were] if he hadn’t been around.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tal Farlow & Red Norvo - All of Me

Guitarist Tal Farlow performing All of Me with Red Norvo on vibraphone and Steve Novosel on bass.

Brought to you courtesy of our friends in Omaha, Nebraska.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

David Matthews and The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra

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

As you will no doubt notice from the above photograph as well as those of him in the embedded video tribute that concludes this piece, David Matthews smiles a lot.

After hearing his music, you will understand why.

This guy is a splendid big band arranger.

One reason for this is that he took a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from the conservatory at the University of Cincinnati. He knows what he’s doing, technically.

Another is that he has been doing this for a long time dating back to 1970-1974 when he was the arranger and band leader for James Brown Productions and subsequently from 1975-78 when he was the staff arranger for CTI Records where he wrote for Nina Simone, Hank Crawford and George Benson, among many others.

You can find a fully annotated list of David’s arranging and composing credits as well as his other accomplishments in music by visiting his website.

A third and perhaps primary reason for his marvelous big band arrangements is that he has a special gift for it – some guys just play “orchestra.”

They just know what works in writing a big band “chart” [musician speak for “arrangement”]; they know what to put where and when in the music.

They have a commanding knowledge [and often, an intuitive sense] of the range and timbre of each instrument that allows them to voice and blend them to create a variety of textures or sonorities [i.e.: the way the music “sounds”].

Talented arrangers like David keep the music interesting and exciting for both musicians and listeners alike: the former love playing on their arrangements and the latter feel good after hearing them.

You can hear David’s mastery at work in the audio track to the following video tribute to him and his big band, The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra, as he takes Dizzy Gillespie’s oft-heard Manteca and transforms it into a fresh and stimulating piece of music.

One of the devices that he employs to give the piece a new sound is that he “plays orchestra”

You may think that there are only two solos on Dave arrangement of Dizzy’s Jazz standard: Ryan Kisor’s trumpet solo at 2:36 minutes and that of Scott Robinson on baritone sax at 4:03.

But David precedes each of these solos with one of his own using the full orchestra instead of the piano to play them.

You can hear the first of his orchestral solos just after the full exposition of the Manteca’s theme – from 1:51 to 2:35 minutes.

The second can be heard following Ryan’s solo, but before Scott Robinson’s: from 3:17 to 4:02 minutes.

David closes the arrangement with a stirring “shout chorus” [short for “shout me out” or “take me out”] that begins at 4:47 minutes.

Special mention needs to be made of Walter White on lead trumpet and Chris Hunter on lead alto sax, respectively, as their prowess is an important ingredient in making David’s chart come together so well. Chip Jackson on bass and Terry Silverlight on drums really keeps things flowing with the strong pulse they generate as a rhythm section.

This is brilliant stuff.

Did I say that David Matthews was one heckuva big band arranger?

Judge for yourself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

J.S. Bach: Bach to Jazz

David Matthews and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra is the subject of our next feature which will post tomorrow. In the meantime, you might enjoy listening to the band's music and David's "gawjus" arrangements by viewing this previously developed tribute to J.S Bach. Ryan Kisor [trumpet] and Chris Hunter [alto sax] are the soloists on Toccata and Fugue.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ben Sidran: The Cat in the Hat

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

Once a drummer, always a drummer.

It’s a different orientation, a different way of looking at and listening to Jazz.

It’s what you listen for first and then the rest of the music falls into place.

As a result of this percussive point of reference, it seems I’m always getting to other musicians through drummers: Philly Joe Jones got me to pianist Bill Evans [I bought Bill’s Everybody Listens to Bill Evans’ album because Philly is the drummer on it]; Larry Bunker got me to vibist Gary Burton; Kenny Washington got me to pianist Benny Green; Steve Gadd got me to pianist-composer arranger, Ben Sidran, et al.

“Bad” Steve Gadd came into his own as a drummer in the 1970s and, as a result, he easily absorbed and blended Rock beats and Latin accents into his style of Jazz drumming.  His drumming was as much a reflection of what was then contemporary in music as it was steeped in the traditions of Jazz drumming.

With Steve you could be listening to a marching band cadence on the snare drum one minute, a cow bell clave the next followed by a Rock backbeat; sometimes all three together.

He combined these drum rudiments, percussion “influences” and the extremely unique sound from the way he tuned his drums into a style that became instantly recognizable as “Steve Gadd;” not an easy thing to do on a drum kit. And while he was putting all of these rhythmic devices together in a new way, he constantly swung his backside off in whatever the setting he played in.

So when I came across a radio broadcast with a version of Seven Steps to Heaven that featured Steve’s inimitable drumming, I feverishly swung into my Jazz detective mode to find the source album [in other words, I called the radio station].

The track was from an album entitled The Cat in the Hat [AM CD 741] by “Ben Sidran,” whom I originally came to know as a pianist with a gift for writing lyrics to Jazz tunes and solos in the style of Jon Hendricks - what Jon refers to as “vocalese.”

You can hear both Steve’s intriguing approach to drum fills, kicks and solos and Ben’s ultra hipster lyrics on the Seven Steps to Heaven track from this album as we have used this Jazz standard by Victor Feldman and Miles Davis as the soundtrack for this video tribute to Ben. Joe Henderson is his typical first-rate self as the tenor saxophone soloist [see if you can pick-up Joe's reference to Johnny One-Note when he comes back in at 3:14 minutes].

Just in case you are in the mood to sing-along, here’s Ben’s vocalese to the tune:

© -Ben Sidran, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


One. two three, four. five, six seven
Steps to heaven
Five. six. seven, eight, see them pass
Free at last.

Trying to relate to the great masters
of our art Breaks my heart
As they depart
One. two. three, four. five. six. seven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven

When Miles was in style
The boys wouldn't smile
The girls wouldn't clear the aisle
Now the man’s in exile

When Trane led the pack
There was no looking back
There was no doubt about the fact
You had to catch that act

Now Charlie Parker he's a movie star
But they just wouldn't listen
When the man wasn't missin'
Now the man's gone
Say there, can you tell me where the
man's gone So long.

The record machine
t came on the scene
And closed down the nightclubs clean
It sure is mean.

They're gone for good
Free at last
They took those steps to heaven

As Michael Cuscuna explains in his insert notes to The Cat in the Hat, Ben already had eight CDs to his credit by the time of its issue in 1979 so I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fortunately for me, my awareness of Ben bridged beyond just his musical accomplishments to include the Jazz Talk program that he hosted for a number of years on National Public Radio.

The interviews that Ben conducted with Jazz greats on these NPR programs have all been issued in book form and are also all available as CDs.

Here are a few more background notes and observations about Ben and his music by Michael Cuscuna.

© -Michael Cuscuna, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is not surprising that a kid from Madison. Wisconsin, who gigged in college with friends Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and then went home to memorize Bud Powell and Sonny Clark records would turn out the way he did.

Ben Sidran played piano in that first Steve Miller band, but was really noted for the lyrics he wrote for many of their classic songs, including "Space Cow­boy" and "Seasons." Later, he went to England to study at the University of Sussex, and emerged with a PhD. in American Studies plus a brilliant book on American black music entitled Black Talk. He has continued to write, mostly for Rolling Stone, as well as liner notes on albums ranging from Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. He's produced records for Steve Miller. Tony Williams. Jon Hendricks, Sylvester and a few British rock bands that you've probably never heard of. As a pianist, he's done session work with the likes of Gene Clark and The Rolling Stones.

From all this, one might gather that Ben is versatile and eclectic, or that he has a multi-personality split to rival Sybil's. But the point is that his own music (documented by eight albums in as many years) is shaped by all of these diverse elements, not as in a patchwork collage, but existing simultaneously, congruently. welded together by Ben's personal vision and creativity. His is not some kind of "fusion" music: rather, it is simply Ben Sidran Music, forged through his own perceptions and detail­ing a style that's completely his own.

It you are a bebop junkie, the phrase 'the cat and the hat' will probably con­jure up images of Lester Young or Thelonious Monk, two famous knights of the lid. Or if you are a former kid. it may well remind you of the Dr. Seuss story of similar name about the feline in the striped stovepipe, who appears during the absence of adults to perform star­tling acts of turmoil and magic. That description might also apply to Lester and Monk, and not just a few other jazz masters as well, whose lyricism has that childlike simplicity and irrepres­sible inner logic. And this album could well be considered Ben's nod to all those cats who appeared, through their music, and touched him in that way. opening his soul and imagination to that which can only come from within.

The Jazz musician is the spellbinder, the consummate artist of great training who nonetheless still flies by the seat of his pants, taking chances and celebrat­ing life through the act of surprise. In his music, Ben often reminds us of the old tongue-in-cheek adage that 'in Jazz there are no mistakes, only opportuni­ties,' either through his deceptively simple lyrics, which detail the bitter­sweet ironies of life, or through his highly personal conception, which serves to reinforce the impossibility of stepping into the same stream twice, but the im­perative of trying it at least once.

Michael Cuscuna