Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lionel Hampton: A Founding Father of the Jazz Vibraphone

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

“When he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1936, Lionel Hampton’s principal instrument, the vibraphone, was relatively unknown in the jazz world as a whole.
Hampton, more than anyone, is largely responsible for taking what was a quasi-novelty sound—essentially a "souped up" xylophone with added vibrato effect— and transforming it into a mainstream jazz instrument. …

Hampton's work in the context of the Goodman combo gave the "vibes" (as it eventually came to be known) a new level of legiti­macy. Of course, Hampton's energy, inventiveness, enthusiasm, and sheer sense of swing also had much to do with this. His was a style built on abundance: long loping lines, blistering runs of sixteenth notes, baroque ornamentations, all accompanied by an undercurrent of grunting and humming from above.

Few figures of the be-bop era, with the obvious exception of Tatum (with whom the vibraphonist later jousted in a session of note-filled excesses), could squeeze more into a sixteen-bar solo than Hampton. In the battle of form versus content, the latter always won when this seminal figure was on stage.”

- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, [p.151, paraphrased]

“Hampton’s exuberant improvising, always full of high spirits, heady emotion and finger-poppin’ excitement, marvelously complemented [pianist] Teddy Wilson’s cooler, more controlled virtuosity. Between the two of them, they suggested the full range of expressive possibilities in Benny Goodman’s own playing.”

- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman

“The exuberance and excitement and feeling of exultation that Lionel Hampton contributes to any musical occasion with which he is associated are absolutely amazing. No other single performer in American jazz—and in American big bands, too—has so consistently and joyously incited and inspired his fellow musicians and his listening audiences. For Hamp invariably projects a wonderful, uninhibited aura of spontaneity that brightens every place in which he performs and that assures everyone within earshot that music, fast or slow, screaming or sentimental, can be a joy forever—or at least as long as Lionel happens to be playing it.…

The band that Hamp eventually led, and continued to lead for many years thereafter, was primarily a swinging one, a high-flying swinging one, com­plete with brilliant showmanship and musicianship from Hampton and a whole series of talented musicians whom he discovered and inserted into his lineups.

Hamp always surrounded himself with outstanding musicians, …. [He]had a good ear and a good eye for new talent, and the list of musi­cians he has discovered is truly an amazing one. "We've been the breeding place of some fine jazz musicians," he told me one day, as he reeled off, with obvious pride, such names as Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Cat Anderson, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer and many more, as well as singers Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.”

- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.

In looking back, Lionel Hampton was there at the beginning of my Jazz “Life.”

He holds a special place in my coming-of-age in the music as he was the vibraphonist in the very first small Jazz group I ever heard.

Lionel was a member of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s quartet which also featured Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums.

The irrepressible swing of this combo made an indelible mark on me and I’ve always held the music played Benny’s quartet as the standard by which to evaluate other combos.

Cohesiveness, listening closely to one another, sharing the solo spotlight but, above all, swinging with a sense of a firm rhythmic propulsion.

These are the qualities that impressed me in Benny’s quartet and its what I want to experience when I listen to other small groups.

Benny’s quartet had so much energy and enthusiasm and to my ear, the spark that ignited these qualities was Lionel Hampton.

Following his time with Benny Goodman, Lionel moved on to lead his own small groups and big bands for over 60 years.

The Jazz world also moved on and away from the style of Jazz that Hampton represented until his death in 2002.

For many of the reasons described in the following excerpts from Günter Schuller’s monumental The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, Lionel became less of an artistic Jazz performer and more of a commercially successful one, especially for those fans who prefer their Jazz expressed in a more discriminating manner.

When Universal Pictures made The Benny Goodman Story in 1955, it reassembled the Goodman quartet to appear as themselves in the movie.

While they were in town for the filming of the movie,  the Jazz impresario Norman Granz had his usual excellent presence-of-mind to bring Lionel, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa together to record a album for his then recently formed Verve Records label.

I coupled some schimolies together from my newspaper delivery route savings and bought a copy which I virtually wore-out while practicing to it.

Airmail Special from this Verve album is the audio track on the video tribute to Lionel Hampton at the conclusion of this profile about one of Jazz’s Founding Fathers. Teddy, Lionel and Gene all play exceptional solos. Have a look and a listen and see what you think.

© -  Günter Schuller/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Hampton has been one of the most successful and enduring multi-instrumentalists in jazz, obviously one of the few outstanding vibraphone solo­ists, but a drummer and (mostly two-fingered) pianist and talented singer as well. …

In any period of its history, one is tempted to apply the word unique to Lionel Hampton. Certainly no one has outrivaled Hampton in sheer exuberance, phys­ical as well as emotional. Motored by a seemingly limitless supply of energy and stamina, Hampton's playing is known the world over for its relentless physicality, unhampered technical facility (especially on vibraphone), and a seemingly im­perturbable inventiveness. Limitless outpourings of rhythmic energy being al­ways more admired in the popular arena than subtlety or refinement of thought, Hampton's image as the unremitting hard swingster has far outstripped an aware­ness of his considerable lyric and melodic talents.

To be sure, Hampton's approach to music is often unsubtle, uncritical, at times even tasteless. In truth, when he assaults his drums, brutalizes the piano keyboard in his hammered two-finger style, pounds the vibraphone into submis­sion, the perspiration quotient is high indeed, its inspiration equivalent often considerably lower. Both in his ability to generate audience frenzy and in his own susceptibility to it, Hampton foreshadowed the empty-minded hysteria of today's more outrageous rock singers. Nor is the distance between rock and Hampton's 1940s' early form of rhythm-and-blues all that great, certainly not in respect to its rhythmic, dynamic, and energy levels.

What all this unfortunately obscures is Hampton's talents as a balladeer, both as a vibraharpist and a singer, and his equally innate ability to express himself in gentler, more subtle ways.

Hampton's is a natural, uncomplicated musical talent—almost casually inven­tive—in which the sheer joy of performing, the direct unfurrowed communica­tion to an audience, is more important than any critical or intellectual assess­ment of it. He is in this sense also not a leader, the way Ellington and Lunceford, for example, were.

Stylistic identity and the creation of a recognizable individual orchestral style have never been uppermost in Hampton's thoughts, succumbing instead to a randomness of approach that accounts for much of the inconsistency of quality in both of his own playing and that of his accompanying groups, large or small. Indeed, his ambivalence in these matters caused him, when he contemplated forming a large band, to consider seriously any number of orchestral options, ranging from hot to sweet, from frantic jump to sedate dance, including the use of a large string section.

Fortunately Hampton did in the end opt for a more orthodox jazz instrumentation, one which in due course became pre-eminent as a dynamic hard-driving swinging ensemble.” [excerpted, pp. 393-394] …

“Great originality and well-conceived solos are, however, not Hampton's forte. He is not so much a creator as he is a compiler. His solos tend to consist of a series of remembered or "common practice" motives, which he infuses with his own brand of energy and strings together into a musical discourse. While this method ensures that Hampton is never at a loss for ideas, the solos tend to be based too much on patterns and repetitions, rather than development of ideas. Hampton improvisations are more apt to be a collection of riffs. This is espe­cially true in faster temps, whereas in more relaxed contexts his melodic and ornamental gifts are given freer rein. More disturbing even than the reliance on patterns, however, is Hampton's fatal compulsion for musical quotations. Un­critical audiences, of course, love these diversions, delighted to recognize some snippet from the musical public domain and enjoying the improviser's challenge of fitting it into, say, a 2-bar break, a challenge Hampton never fails to meet. The liability of these tactics, however, on a serious level is that they inevitably interrupt the musical argument, rather than extend or develop it. For all of Hampton's inordinate facility, his music-making is often indiscriminate and un­critical.

Hampton is also rarely adventurous harmonically. He may appreciate the "modern" orchestral settings provided by many of his arrangers, but he himself rarely contributes significantly in the way of harmonic/melodic explorations, being generally content to maintain a more conservative stance, well-rooted in the swing language of the thirties.” [excerpted p. 397]

Hampton is what he is, and no amount of latter-day analyzing can—or should— make him into anything else. He is, like Armstrong, one of the old school, where the entertainer role is always prominent, perhaps even primary. And like Armstrong—though certainly not on his creative level—Hampton is a dedicated artist-musician and craftsman, his flamboyance and exhibitionism not withstand­ing. And perhaps most significantly, Hampton has been the keeper of a venera­ble tradition which, though it stands apart from all recent developments in jazz, is nevertheless a respectable one and one which Hampton, given his age and stature, is well entitled to preserve.” [excerpted, p. 402]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bill Mathieu conducts 'Skylark'

The montage of photographs in the following video was prepared by Gordon Sapsed of Southampton, England. He took these photographs at the recent Los Angeles Jazz Institute Centenary Tribute to Stan Kenton. The audio track is Bill Mathieu's hauntingly beautiful arrangement of Skylark which can be found on Bill Lichtenauer Tantara Productions CD entitled Double Feature, Volume 2  [T2CD-1127].

Friday, November 25, 2011

Victor’s Vibes

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

For many years, the late Milt Jackson, affectionately known as “Bags,” was heralded as the undisputed king of the vibraphone and most vibists accorded him their highest esteem and pointed to him as a major influence.

I, too, love his playing, especially in the context of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

But I’ve always had trouble with the notion of ranking Jazz musicians, voting for them in polls and comparing them as artists. I think it’s an absolute waste of time; a meaningless exercise.

Jazz artists work very hard to establish their own approach to the music and I would imagine that, as is the case with actors, writers and painters, they have a tendency to gravitate toward those artists whose work “speaks” to them.

What, then, are the standards that one has to meet to be rated as “better” than another artist?

As Aristotle once said: “Each of us is different with regard to those things we have in common.”

And so it is with Jazz musicians in general and, for the purpose of this feature, Jazz vibraphonists in particular. Everyone imitates and emulates while trying to establish their own voice on an instrument.

Vibes are particularly challenging to play uniquely because of the limitations inherent in how the sound is produced on them.

Bags’ influence was pervasive when it came to Jazz vibes. I’ve played the instrument a bit and I recognize the truth in this assertion because I, too, found myself playing Milt’s “licks” and “phrases.” They lay so easily on the axe. You drop you hands [mallets] on the bars and out they come.

Another reason why so many vibist sound like Bags may be because he played a lot of the same “licks” [musical expressions] or phrases over and over again.

A lot of Jazz musicians do this [some call them “resting points”], but one has to be careful with repetitive phrases because employing the same licks too often can become an excuse for not thinking [in other words, not being inventive].

The expression that is sometimes used when this happens is that the musician “mailed in” the solo.

Bags was one of the “Founding Fathers” of Bebop, he toured all over the United States and Europe with the MJQ and he made a slew of recordings with the group, with other artists as well as under his own name.

As a result, his style of vibes had a lot of exposure.

This exposure helped make Milt Jackson instantly recognizable as a major exponent of the bebop, blues-inflected style of playing Jazz vibes.

But for my money, no one has ever played the instrument more musically than Victor Feldman.

Bags’ influence is there in Victor’s style, but Victor is his own man and takes the instrument in a completely different direction than Milt.

There isn’t the repetitiveness nor for that matter the constant bebop and blues phrases, but rather, a more pianistic and imaginative approach, one that emphasizes longer inventions and a constant flow of new melodies superimposed over the chord changes.

Victor also emphasizes rhythm differently than the dotted eighth note spacing favored by Bags. As a result, Victor, begins and ends his phrases in a more angular fashion which creates more surprises in where he is going in his solos.

The starting points and pick-ups for Victors solos vary greatly because he is not just looking for places in the music to put tried-and-tested licks, he’s actually attempting to create musical ideas that he hasn’t expressed before.

Is what Victor is doing “better” than Bags? Of course not.  Is it different? Is it ever.

Fresh and adventurous. And exhilarating, too.

Jazz improvisation is the ultimate creative experience.

One doesn’t need any awards. You just can’t wait for the next time you solo so you can try soaring again.

To help give you the “flavor” of Victor Feldman’s marvelous creative powers as a Jazz vibist, we’ve stripped things down to their bare essentials with an audio-only track that I think features him at his imaginative best.

No more words; no photographs or moving images; just the music.

This track has him performing his original composition Too Blue with Rick Laird on bass and Ronnie Stephenson on drums from his triumphant 1965 return to Ronnie Scott’s Club in his hometown of London [Jazz Archives JACD-053].

It runs a little over 8 minutes. You can hear the statement of the 12-bar blues theme from 0.00-0.22 minutes and again from 0.23-0.45 minutes. Each 12-bar theme closes with a bass “tag.”

Victor and Rick hook-up for a call-and-response interlude between 0:46-1:10 minutes before Victor launches into his first improvised chorus at 1:11 minutes.

He improvises seven choruses from 1:11-4:14 minutes before bassist Rick Laird takes four choruses from 4:14-5:46 minutes.

None of Victor’s choruses contains a repeated phrase or a recognizable Milt Jackson lick [phrase].

When Victor comes-back-in [resumes playing] at 5:46 minutes following Rick’s bass solo, if you listen carefully you can hear him using two mallets in his left hand to play 4-beats-to-the-bar intervals while soloing against this with the two mallets held in his right-hand.

He even throws in the equivalent of a big band-like “shout” chorus while trading fills with drummer Ronnie Stephenson beginning at 6:56 minutes.

The closing statement of the theme can be heard at 7:19 minutes ending with an “Amen” at 8:06 minutes.

When listening to Victor Feldman play Jazz on the vibraphone, one is hearing a true innovator at work. For him, making the next improvised chorus as original and as musically satisfying as possible was always the ultimate goal. 

It’s a shame that Jazz fans are not more familiar with his work on vibes. Having heard it on a regular basis for over twenty-five years, I can attest to the fact that it was something special. The only thing that Victor Feldman ever mailed in was a letter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

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 trans­ferring 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 www.fourfreshmen.com.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lambert Hendricks and Ross - "Airegin" [Sonny Rollins]

"The word "amazing" is wildly misused in contemporary conversation and writing, but it really does apply to this performance." - Jim Brown, Audio Engineer

The vocalese solos by Jon and Dave on this video will blow you away.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eli “Lucky” Thompson

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

“Lucky Thompson was a vastly under-acclaimed tenor saxophonist.”
- Doug Ramsey

Eli “Lucky” Thompson was born on June 16, 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina, but grew up in Detroit. From a very young age, Lucky was obsessed by music and long before he owned a horn, he studied instruction books and practiced finger exercises on a broomstick marked with saxophone key patterns. When he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 25, he practiced eight hours a day and within a month he played professionally with neighborhood bands.”
- Joop Visser

“… it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.”
- Bob Porter

"Like Don Byas, whom he most resembles in tone and in his development of solos, he has a slightly oblique and uneasy stance on bop, cleaving to a kind of accelerated swing idiom with a distinctive 'snap' to his softly enunciated phrases and an advanced harmonic language that occasionally moves into areas of surprising freedom."
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“There is the history of the saxophone in Lucky Thompson’s music.”
- David Himmelstein

“Music is the most interesting thing in the world.”
- Lucky Thompson

“You know I lost my interest in music. I had to run from place to place at the mercy of people who manipulated me. I never rejected music; it constitutes a great part of my soul.”
- Lucky Thompson to Mike Hennessey in MusicItalia interview

“Thompson's disappearance from the jazz scene in the 1970's was only the latest (but apparently the last) of a strangely contoured career. A highly philosophical, almost mystical man, he reacted against the values of the music industry and in the end turned his back on it without seeming regret. The beginning was garlanded with promise.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

I lived and worked in Seattle, WA for a while.

Given the city’s notorious commuter traffic, fortunately for me, it was easy to access my office at the downtown corner of Fourth and Pike Streets as it was a clear shot into town on the Aurora Highway [Hwy 99] from my home in the Green Lake area of the city.

It was a point in my work-life that often found me toiling late at the office.

Because of the manner in which one-way streets configured downtown traffic, I often exited the city along Second Street which is also the home of Tula’s, a great Jazz club that primarily features the work of local Jazz artists.

One rainy night - now there’s a surprise in Seattle! - I had worked so late that I decided to catch a set at the club and treat myself to a dinner of its excellent dolmathes and souvlaki before going home.

Jay Thomas, who plays both superb trumpet and tenor saxophone, was Tula’s headliner.

Besides the great music and tasty Greek food, I also met up that night with a couple of Jazz buddies who lived in the nearby Belltown part of the city [a downtown waterfront neighborhood that overlooks a portion of Elliott Bay].

We shared a bottle of red plunk while thoroughly enjoying the music on offer by Jay’s quartet.

All of us still smoked during those days and, as a result of the club’s ban on partaking of lit nicotine within the walls of its premises, we found ourselves merrily chatting and puffing away outside the club’s entrance during the first intermission.

Thankfully the rain had abated, or a least scaled down to a soft drizzle. While the three of us were standing and smoking by the curbside, we were approached by a street person who asked if he could bum a smoke.

After we obliged him and he had continued on his way, one of my friends asked me if I’d recognized the damp denizen of the night?

I thought I was making a wisecrack when I answered that “… he looked vaguely familiar.” “He should,” remarked one of my friends: “That was Lucky Thompson!”

Obviously, my Belltown buddies had met him before, under similar circumstances.

All of us became very subdued after Lucky left.

Each quietly puffed their cigarette which gave us time to adjust to the sense of sadness that had come over us following the sight we had just witnessed.

Needless to say, the evening wasn’t the same after that; no more frivolity and jocularity, only a deep and abiding hurt.

When I returned home with that chance meeting still on my mind, it occurred to that while I had heard Lucky’s tenor saxophone sound with Count Basie’s band [my Dad had some V-Discs by the band with Lucky], on Miles Davis’ famous Walkin’ LP and as part of Stan Kenton’s sterling Cuban Fire album [his solo beginning at around the 4:00 minute mark of the opening track – Fuego Cubano - always touches my heart], most of his recorded music had passed-me-by.

For whatever reasons, I had missed much of Lucky’s discography when he was a force on the Jazz scene, primarily from 1945-1965.

The following day, I decided to put that omission right and I began seeking out Lucky’s recordings which, to my surprise were plentiful, and still readily available.

As is often the case with chance meetings, it was the beginning of a love affair as Lucky’s music was engaging, full of marvelous twists and turns, and alive with an almost effortless swing.

Although it is a later recording in the Thompson canon, one of my first purchases of Lucky’s music under his own name was Tricotism [Impulse/GRP GRD-135].

The insert notes to this CD are by Bob Porter and they contained the following overview and commentary of Thompson’s career which was very helpful to me as a guide for further purchases of Lucky’s music.

If you are like me and not a member of the Lucky cognoscenti, perhaps it can serve a similar purpose for you.

“The career of Eli Thompson (6/16/24), musician, is one of the most enigmatic in all jazz. It is an odyssey involving four cities, two instruments, big bands, small bands, popularity, poverty, stylistic changes, associations with major names, (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton), and long peri­ods of inactivity.

Detroit is his home town. A grad­uate of Cass Tech, Lucky was among a number of remarkably talented saxophonists who were active in the Motor City during the early '40s. Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards, Yusef Lateef, and Sonny Stitt would lead the list and it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.

Lucky entered the ranks of pro­fessional musicians when he left Detroit with the Treniers in 1943. An unhappy six months with Lionel Hampton followed, ending in New York. Shortly thereafter Lucky went into the brand new Billy Eckstine Band. The Eckstine association was brief, and Lucky first began to achieve prominence during his year with Count Basic. The war-time Basic band was a fine organization, and Lucky had considerable solo space. The V-Disc of "High Tide" is especially impressive.

Lucky left Basic in late 1945, set­tling in Los Angeles. One of his first gigs in L. A. was as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Rebop Six. Actually he was the odd man out in a group that featured Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Stan Levey, and the leader. Lucky was hired because of the erratic habits of the co-star, Charlie Parker. Yet that engagement acted as a springboard for Lucky.

During 1946 and '47 Lucky was the most requested tenorman in the L. A. area. He worked frequently with Boyd Raeburn, but he also made over 100 recordings as a sideman during those years. He had recorded for Excelsior and Down Beat and in 1947 he made four famous sides for RCA, including his masterpiece "Just One More Chance." He won the Esquire New Star award in 1947. In 1948 Lucky migrated across coun­try. New York would be his home for the next eight years.
Lucky worked frequently at the Savoy Ballroom during the early '50s, but the recording slows had set in.

A couple of obscure small label ses­sions were Lucky's only recordings from 1947 to late 1953, when he did a date for Decca. Two dates in 1954 under his own name presaged anoth­er masterpiece: his "Walkin"' solo with Miles Davis.

During the 1950s Lucky was a close associate of light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore. Moore liked to warm up and work out while Lucky and company pro­vided the music.

Lucky and Milt Jackson have been close associates since their days in Detroit. In 1956, just prior to the recording of the music heard on this CD, Jackson and Thompson record­ed five LPs together, under Milt's name for Savoy and Atlantic.
I suspect that it was no accident that the trio session here included no drummer. If there has been one aspect of Lucky's playing that has been criticized through the years it is his relationship with drummers. The hard swinging sessions of the 1940s and early '50s were giving way to an almost ascetic rhythmic approach. I also suspect that some critics, in writing about the Jimmy Giuffre Three, (which had the iden­tical instrumentation as Lucky's group), may have forgotten these per­formances, which predated Giuffre by 10 months.

Paris in the spring of 1956 was, for Lucky, a period of tremendous activ­ity. He recorded five LPs for various French labels. Also while in France, he sat in with Stan Ken ton. This led to Lucky's participation in one of the most famous Kenton LPs of the' 50s, Cuban Fire. Before returning to France for an extended stay, Lucky worked again with Oscar Pettiford and recorded with him.

Lucky was the first major jazzman since Sidney Bechet to adopt the soprano saxophone. He predated John Coltrane by at least 18 months; but Lucky has never been given any credit for ushering the return to popularity of the straight saxophone. In the mid-'60s Lucky returned to the U.S.A., recording for Prestige and Rivoli. He had been back and forth to Europe several times since and did several interesting LPs for Groove Merchant in the early '70s. He also taught at Dartmouth for a year[1973-74].

When Will Powers interviewed him for Different Drummer, Lucky was completing his academic work and thinking of a new city. This time it might be Toronto or Montreal. Always the drifter, ever the search.

It is not my opinion, but consen­sus, that says the music on these LPs is the finest extended playing that Lucky Thompson has produced on record. As noted earlier, the sessions came at a period where Lucky had been recording frequently. He and Pettiford were a mutual admiration society and the rapport, even inti­macy, they achieve in the trio tracks is nothing short of remarkable.

This is not to take anything away from the quintet sides where Jimmy Cleveland shines so brightly. The presence of Hank Jones reunites a close partnership dating to Detroit days. Yet it is Lucky, with the warmth, the inner feeling, the depth, the mastery that permeates every groove on these LPs.

That this music is able to appear again after years of neglect is cause for celebration. Let's hope that this release is able to shed new light on the talent of Lucky Thompson.”

—Bob Porter, Contributor—Radio Free Jazz1975 (original edited liner notes from Dancing Sunbeam, Imp ASH-9307-2)

A few years after this meeting, I learned that Lucky had passed away in Seattle in 2005.

With everything he had gone through, including apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease during the later years of his life, somehow he had luckily [?] managed to live to be 81-years of age.

Here’s a video tribute to Lucky that features him at his beautiful, breathy and majestic sounding best.

The tune is A Lady’s Vanity on which he is accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. It’s from the Tricotism CD.

And if you are looking for a comprehensive discography of Lucky’s recordings, you can’t do better than the one that Noal Cohen has compiled.