Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Dizzy Gillespie Story – Spending Time with The Writing of Max Harrison

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

Those of you who scroll the columnar or left-hand side of the blog may have come across Max Harrison’s singular comments about Tadd Dameron’s recording of Fountainbleau as reprinted from A Jazz Retrospect which is made up of a selection of his 1950s/60s reviews from the Jazz Review and Jazz Monthly magazines.

Max belongs to a select group of original thinkers that include Philip Larkin, Benny Green, Martin Williams and Stanley Crouch, to name a few, who speak their minds very directly about their likes and dislikes about Jazz, often in a style that is as much caustic and acerbic as it is literary.

The editorial staff thought we’d bring more of Max’s writing up on JazzProfiles, this time with a feature on the early recordings of Dizzy Gillespie.

© -Max Harrison/Jazz Review, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gillespie's innovations long since passed into the life blood of jazz and it scarcely is necessary to discuss the elements of his style now. Yet although the extent of his influence cannot be questioned, his position in the music has for many years been quite different from what it was just after World War II, when bop made its first impact. For non-American listeners that impact was initially felt through the records he made, several with Charlie Parker, for obscure, long-defunct com­panies such as Guild or Musicraft in 1945-46. To have gone on listen­ing to these for some thirty years has been a considerable enrichment because, although on first acquaintance they seemed to possess a rather contrived audacity, they have retained a power to delight, even astonish. Uneven in musical quality they certainly are, but all contain great moments, and it long ago became obvious that the finest of them are among the classics of recorded jazz, their value as unlikely to diminish in the future as it did in the past.

Many factors went into the making of postwar jazz: some were the creation of individuals and some were the result of a cross-fertilisation of ideas; some had been for years developing in the jazz of the 1930s, even of the late '20s, others had come from spontaneous insights. The early Gillespie records were the first attempt at a synthesis of all the playing and thinking which had gone on, but if by 1945 the key musicians were ready, the record company supervisors were not. It took them a while to grasp that something fresh had occurred, and so on many sessions boppers were confronted with players whose ideas had been completely formed in the 19305. In view of the new music's deep roots this was not too damaging, but unquestionably these early performances, in terms of style, are less than completely integrated.

Melancholy baby, Cherokee and On the Alamo, recorded under the clarinetist Joe Marsala's name, are representative here, setting Gillespie in a tight, jivey late-swing framework. He sounds like a disci­ple of Roy Eldridge—not in the negative sense of a Johnny Letman, mechanically echoing the mannerisms, but as one who has divined further possibilities within that idiom and can see where they might lead. His continuity already is better than Eldridge's, his use of the upper register less illogical. Blue and  boogie, the first item recorded under Gillespie's own name, finds him in comparable circumstances but achieving more positive results. The underlying pulse is wrong, and his execution is less immaculate than it soon became, yet the lengthy trumpet solo, although loosely put together, includes features of melodic invention, rhythmic structure, harmonic thinking and tone-colour that were to remain characteristic. Everything else in the per­formance is made to sound redundant, and, the 1944 recordings of Parker with Tiny Grimes and Thelonious Monk's with Coleman Hawkins notwithstanding, this improvisation is the earliest fully-fledged statement that we have from a major postwar jazz musician.

Soon Gillespie recorded with a more apt personnel, including Parker and Clyde Hart, who pecks out the chord changes with discre­tion and sympathy, and was among the few pianists qualified for this sort of music in 1945. Grooving high and Dizzy atmosphere are typical of the boppers' initially rather drastic renewal of the jazz repertoire, and are fertile ground for improvisation, their themes packed with musical incident yet enigmatically honed to bare essentials. Parker, indeed, is especially fluent, revealing a side of his musical personality not much represented on studio recordings: his tone has an airy, singing luminosity reminiscent of Benny Carter, and the alto saxophone solos on both these pieces are full of grace and elegance. This delicacy again characterised his work on the 1946 Ornithology session, and, to a lesser degree, the Relaxing at Camarillo date of the following year, but it was always rare.

Gillespie has two solos in Grooving high the first of which begins strikingly but collapses with a miscalculated descending phrase which leads into a bland guitar solo by Remo Palmieri. Later the tempo halves and he plays some beautifully shaped legato phrases that would then have been quite beyond any other trumpeter; this passage later provided the basis for Tadd Dameron's fine song If you could see me now. On the faster Dizzy atmosphere he takes a daring solo which conveys the essential spirit of the bop solo style and in itself is almost enough to explain the commanding position Gillespie held in the immediate postwar years. After the solos there is an attractive unison passage for trumpet and alto saxophone which flows into a deftly-truncated restatement of the theme—a neat formal touch.

The date which produced Hot house and Salt peanuts had a still better personnel, including Al Haig at the piano. Using the chord sequences of popular songs as the basis for new compositions was common during this period (though not an innovation, as so often claimed), and Dameron's Hot house is a superior instance of the practice, supplanting the usual AABA pattern of four eight-bar phrases with one of ABCA. Gillespie's solo here is effectively poised over Haig's responsive accom­paniment, and, as on One bass hit part 1, contains definitive illustrations of the bop use of double-time. Parker digs deeper than at the previous date and shows himself well on course for his great Koko session, which took place a few months later and is dealt with on an earlier page.

Salt peanuts is a good, rather aggressive theme based on an octave-jump idea, and this arrangement, which includes some interesting harmonic touches, draws from the two-horn ensemble a fuller sound than usual. Parker seems less assured than before, yet Haig is good and Gillespie better. His entry could scarcely be more arresting, and emphasises as clearly as any moment on these recordings the absolute freshness of his imagination at this time: surely nobody else would then have dared to attempt this passage on the trumpet. The rest of his improvisation is played with equal conviction, but in another version of this piece, recorded soon after, some of the intensity is replaced with a sharper clarity of organisation.

Although Parker's work was uneven almost throughout 1945, there is no doubt of the added emotional depth he gave to these recordings, and Gillespie noticeably dominates more in his absence. Twelve months after the Salt peanuts date the trumpeter led a session on which—at last—all the participants were bop adepts. Sonny Stitt, who shared with Sonny Criss a reputation (which really belonged to John Jackson) of being the first man to emulate Parker's style, has a fair sixteen-bar solo in Oop bop sh'bam that is close to the master in tone yet far simpler in melodic and rhythmic concept. Its effect is completely obliterated, however, by Gillespie. The trumpeter did other fine things at this date, such as his solo on That's Earl, brother and his imaginative accompaniment to Alice Roberts's singing in Handfulla gimme, but on Oop bop sh'bam he plays with unrelenting intensity and perfect balance between detail and overall form that produce a masterpiece of jazz improvisation, worthy to stand beside Louis Armstrong's stop-time chorus on Potato head blues of almost exactly nineteen years before.

Despite the originality of their small combo work, to which almost equally powerful expression was given on several other titles in this series, including Confirmation, Bebop and Shaw 'nuff, the boppers were unable to establish a comparable orchestral idiom. In fact, due to its intimacy and relative complexity, bop, like New Orleans jazz, was inherently a music for small groups. The harmonic vocabulary, which scarcely was more advanced than Duke Ellington's of several years before, could easily have been written into band scores, but melodic and rhythmic subtleties derived from the leading soloists' im­provisations could not. The linear shapes of the reed and brass scoring in Gillespie's earlier big bands, like that of Billy Eckstine which preceded them, did incorporate some new ideas, but included no innovations of ensemble texture comparable to those then being carried forward by Gil Evans with Claude Thornhill's band which are discussed elsewhere in this book. The boppers were able only to adapt their style to the big band rather than the converse.

Their best arranger was Gil Fuller, who, while possessing a good sense of traditional swing band style, and having an acute awareness of any large ensemble's requirements, managed to sacrifice fewer of the new ideas, to compromise less with the old. In fact, his scores, which are less subtle of mood and texture than Ellington's but more complex than Count Basic's, seem, in their use of the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument, to descend from Sy Oliver's work for Jimmy Lunceford. Marked differences arise because of Fuller's wider melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies, yet both men used their orchestras as vehicles for dazzling ensemble display, with sudden contrasts that, however aggressive, never descended to Kentonesque melodrama. Fuller's imagination, like Oliver's, was disciplined, in a sense almost conservative, and his scores are characterised by clarity of texture, an exceptional fullness of sound whether loud or soft. And yet if there are orchestral scores which at least partially embody the spirit of the little bands of the mid-19405 they are Gerald Wilson's Grooving high, Oscar Pettiford's Something for you, both of 1945, and Fuller's 1946 Things to come, an adaptation of the small combo Bebop. Unfortunately they were all played too fast in the recording studio to produce their complete effect, and Fuller got this conception over more successfully in The scene changes, which he recorded for the obscure Discovery label three years later.

On neither Things to come nor One bass hit part 2 are Gillespie's solos at all happy (in fact he does better on Pettiford's Something for you). His inventive power is as evident as before, yet it is as if he had difficulty in shaping his material in relation to the heavier sounds and thicker textures of this setting—which is surprising in view of his prewar ex­perience in swing bands. The above comments on the orthodox nature of his orchestra's library are borne out by a conventional statement of Dameron's excellent Our delight theme or by the saxophone writing in One bass hit part 2, but on the former, and also in Ray's idea, Gillespie responds to the themes' melodic substance with masterful solos that are better aligned with their accompaniment. On Emanon, basically a rather old-fashioned powerhouse blues, there are uncommonly forceful exchanges between leader and band, some agreeably pungent ensemble dissonance, a piano solo by John Lewis, and a striking passage for unaccompanied trumpet section. There seems no escaping the fact that in such relatively backward-looking pieces as this the boppers' attempts at orchestral jazz succeeded best.

It was also in 1946 that Gillespie made his first recordings with strings. These were of Jerome Kern melodies and remained unissued for many years because of object ions made by that composer's widow to the allegedly bizarre treatment to which they were subjected. Dur­ing 1950 he made another attempt and recorded eight miscellaneous titles which suggest that Mrs. Kern may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons. Eddie South, on some delightful records made in Paris with Django Reinhardt during the late 19305, proved that the violin is a fully viable jazz instrument, but this lead has never been followed up (least of all by the crudities of Stuff Smith). En masse, certainly, strings have been a consistent failure in this music, and it has been widely accepted that they cannot be employed in jazz due to their inherent sweetness. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a large number of works by twentieth-century composers, such as Schoenberg's String Trio, Bartok's Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, Xenakis's ST/4, or Boulez's Livre, which prove that this whole family of in­struments can yield sounds as invigorating, indeed as harsh, as any found in jazz. In short what is wrong with the use of strings on jazz dates is the incompetence of the arrangers employed, and never was this more so than with Gillespie's 1950 attempts, where they were only one of a number of apparently irreconcilable factors.

For Swing Low, sweet chariot Johnny Richards wrote an absurd light-music introduction for the strings and then established the rhythm with—of all things in a Negro spiritual—Latin American percussion; a male voice choir sings not the rather sultry original melody but a commonplace new one, presumably also by Richards; Gillespie's trumpet solo has better continuity than we might expect in these circumstances, but a final touch of incongruity is provided by a return of the strings' introduction. On Alone together and These are the things I love the strings interrupt less often, and he manages a few dashing phrases in Lullaby of the leaves, but he never really sounds involved and it is impossible to understand his enthusiasm for this project, which was carried through at his instigation. On the Alamo typifies the whole enterprise, for although Gillespie blows with real power here, the trumpet passages are separated by interludes of quite offensive gen­tility from piano and strings —light music at its heaviest. If Interlude in C, a tasteless hodge-podge on a theme from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, seems to have the thinnest string writing of all it may only be due to comparison with that composer's far richer alternative being unavoidable.

The virtually complete musical failure of these 1950 items with strings may seem unimportant until we recall that already the previous year, with his conventionally-instrumentated band, Gillespie had recorded such inanities as You stole my wife, you horse-thief. A random sampling of his small combo recordings from about this period tells the same tale, and shows an almost catastrophic decline from the master­pieces of just a few years before. The champ, an excellent theme, gives rise to a fine trombone solo from J. J. Johnson, but Gillespie merely reshuffles his mannerisms, and the other players are frankly exhibitionistic. Tin tin deo or Birk's works, also from 1951, are only negative in their restraint—despite some good moments from Milt Jackson's vibraharp on the latter and Stardust, which features the trumpeter throughout, is distressingly pedestrian. The reunion session with Parker compelled Gillespie to make an altogether exceptional effort (e.g. his solos on take 2 of Relaxing with Lee or take 4 of An oscar for Treadwell), but the overall impression left by most of his records from this time is of an artist who no longer wishes to dominate, or even to control, his surroundings. And rarely did he ever again. Perhaps the reasons for this were psychological as much as artistic, but Gillespie's rarely swerving downward path from the classic small combo recor­dings he made during the immediate post war years was among the most saddening features of the jazz landscape in the 1950’s.

Jazz Review, November 1959”