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Today [July 27th] was
Jack Tracy’s birthday and we wanted to remember him on these pages by
combining the four-part interview he graciously consented to give us in April/May
2009 and to add John McDonough’s reflections on Jack, his importance to Downbeat magazine and to the world of
For almost six decades, in one capacity or another,
Jack Tracy has been a friend of
Jazz. And, for the better part of this
last decade, thanks largely to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s [LAJI]
bi-annual, 4-day Jazz Festivals, he has become my friend, too.
Ironically, Jack lives along the southern
coast and I live about
100 miles southeast of him in California . But given the enormity that is traffic on the
Orange County freeways, we might as well live in
separate states in terms of ready access to one another. Thank goodness for the LAJI’s Jazz bashes,
which are usually staged at a location about equidistant from our respective
homes, as they afford us an opportunity to get together without having to pack
an overnight bag. Los Angeles
Like bassist and writer
Bill Crow, who graced JazzProfiles
recently with some of his many reflections on the music and its makers,
Jack agreed to share some of his observations and anecdotes about Jazz in what
the editorial staff hopes will become the first of a number of installments.
Down Beat Days
I graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in March, 1949, and left
to become the assistant editor of
Down Beat in Minneapolis . The editor was a wise and kindly
gentleman named Ned Williams, previously a colorful Chicago publicist whose duties had included
press management for Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. New York
He left two or three years later and I became editor of DB and remained there until near the end of the ‘50s, when I joined Mercury Records as one of its A&R (Artists and Repertoire) men, a position now better known as Producer. In 1962 Mercury moved me to
to head its West Coast office in Los Angeles , and Hollywood has been my home ever since. California
Regretfully I ignored one of the basics of becoming a journalist and never kept a daily diary, And thus I am delving into the mists of an 82-year-old memory to provide some flashbacks from the last six decades that are as close to accurate as I can manage right now.
Bear with me. Some of the following has appeared in threads I have submitted to online groups in which I participate, the rest is a ramble through some happy years.
I’m afraid that many jazz club owners and operators are seldom regarded as civic leaders, men of high principles and generous natures, or the sort of guys you hoped your daughter would marry. Or even men who knew much about music. I mean a lot of them were like the one who, when the bandleader complained that the piano was in bad shape, said, “What do you mean, the piano’s in bad shape? We just had it painted last week.”
But Frank Holzfiend, whose Chicago Blue Note was his pride and joy, was different. He was a balding, bespectacled man always dressed in a dark blue suit and somber tie who looked rather like a Methodist minister. He loved the music he was presenting, and I suspect you would have to look hard to find any musicians who ever worked there who would offer a bad word about him.
Duke loved him and worked many a two-week stint there, and his band always played the Blue Note over the Christmas holidays. When Frank finally had to close the club because jazz was now moving to concert halls and festivals and the cost of musicians was forcing him to put up admission and cover charges that he hated, Ellington called him the night the club closed its doors forever and told him that as of that moment Frank was now on Duke’s weekly payroll as his Chicago publicist. Name me another club owner who would have received that call.
Holzfiend had a good ear for musicians, was always kind to those who he thought were great but weren’t quite ready for prime billing yet, and used them when he could. When Ahmad Jamal’s name was still Fritz Jones Frank had him at the Blue Note for months playing on Mondays, customarily the off night for the attractions booked for the other six days. He was sure Ahmad’s time would come.
And when Studs Terkel was being hounded by local do-gooders in Chicago and found his TV series was canceled and work hard to come by because of the blacklisting and Red scares of those days, Holzfiend turned over another chunk of Monday nights into “I Come for to Sing,” in which Studs emceed and presented blues (Big Bill Broonzy), folk (Win Stracke) and Elizabethan (Larry Somebody) singers. I’d be surprised to hear that there was any profit to speak of on those nights.
Ruby Braff could be a bitingly sarcastic person, and it took very little to perturb him. When Ruby played the Blue Note, Frank, who used to introduce the band each set, invariably called Braff “Rudy”. We kept waiting for some sort of explosion to occur, but Braff liked Frank so much he never corrected him. Go figure.
On one occasion Holzfiend did something I would have bet the house no club owner would ever do. Times were getting very tough, and it was near the end of the road for the club, but Frank got a break when he was offered Fats Domino at an affordable price at a time when Domino was a big, big name.
I was sitting with him at his “Office” (first table on the right when you came in) on closing night when Fats joined us after the first set. The house remained full for the next one.
“Mr. Holzfiend,” said Domino, “I want to do something.”
“What’s that, Fats?” asked Frank.
“I want to buy a drink for everybody in the house.”
Now, God knows what sort of tab would have been presented to him by, say,Birdland, but Frank shook his head and said, “No, thanks, Fats, but I can’t let you do that.”
My jaw hit my chest.
And although Domino repeated the offer, Holzfiend turned him down.
I told you he was different.
I was one of Don Fagerquist's great admirers. I first heard of him when
he was the kid trumpeter in Gene Krupa's band, and thus I was most anxious to hear him in person when Artie Shaw's re-formed band that contained many young, great players like Fagerquist and Dodo Marmarosa came to the Blue Note in 1950.
It was opening night, and near the end of the first set Shaw announced that they'd play "Little Jazz," which was one of Roy Eldridge's showcases when he was with the band, and that Fagerquist would take over the solo responsibility.
I’d guess it was opening night nerves or chops trouble or whatever, but
Don's performance unfortunately included a couple of bad clams. When the tune was over, Shaw took the mike and said, "That was Don Fagerquist, ladies and gentlemen, and if you come back tomorrow night maybe he'll play it a little better for you."
Is it any wonder Shaw was heartily despised by so many of the musicians who
worked for him?
Dorothy Donegan was a tall, striking lady who was a great piano technician and a good jazz player. She once played
’s London House, and opening night
found the usual dozen or more press people at a long table down front. Donegan
wore a fawn-colored, satiny, strapless gown and she looked elegant Chicago
Her first set started out with an up-tempo tune that showed off her considerable technique, then she followed it by yet another finger-buster. At its conclusion, obviously perspiring from her efforts, she graciously nodded to acknowledge the audience applause, reached for a large white napkin from beside her and proceeded to wipe the sweat from under her armpits
We sat there no longer quite as interested as we had been in the food before us..
How do you review something like that?
Big Sid Catlett
I'd like to tell you a little about Big Sid Catlett, who in early 1951 was the feature attraction at
's prime Dixieland establishment,
Jazz Ltd. Chicago
An Easter concert at the Civic Opera House that was held under the aegis of local disc jockey Al Benson featured various acts, some of which were jazz: I remember only Bud Powell, whose drummer was Max Roach. I was attending with my wife, and at intermission we went backstage to visit. When we got there it was almost eerily silent, with few people in sight.
Directly to our left we saw perhaps a dozen people gathered silently around a stretcher on the floor. There was a body on it covered with a gray blanket. All that could be seen of the person was a pair of shiny, yellowish shoes sticking out from under the blanket. I asked what had happened and a man replied, "It's Big Sid."
There was nothing to say. I saw Max there, smoking a cigarette and looking stricken. Behind us were two young men, not much beyond boyhood, who were whispering. Then one of them said, "I wish I could steal those shoes." My wife and I just looked at each other.
Not much later an ambulance arrived and Sid was gone.
An almost unbelievable result of my presence backstage that night came just a few years ago, more than 50 years after the concert. As a contributor to an online jazz group I happened to relate the details of that night in a thread I wrote about Big Sid. I got a return response from one of the members, who said, "Jack, you may not believe this, but I was the kid who wanted those shoes."
I am still amazed at that coincidence. I have since met the young guy in person; he's Gordon Rairdin, now an elderly and longtime contributor to the Jazz West Coast online group, and we still shake our heads when we talk about that occasion.
As for Sid at Jazz Ltd., I can recall only his majestic appearance on that tiny bandstand. He sat at the drums barely seeming to move as he played absolutely impeccably, and he looked like a monarch sitting there. Occasionally he might flip a stick in the air, catch it and continue to play, never missing a beat or the stick. It was a low ceiling, maybe a foot or two above his head, but that flipped stick never touched it. Sid never looked like he was showboating, but it just seemed to be part of his supreme skill and his enjoyment in what he was doing. I found it almost impossible to take my eyes off him.
He was at Jazz Ltd for several weeks, and I got to hear him maybe a half-dozen times. I wish it had been more.
Chubby Jackson – Bill Harris
Somewhere there is a recording of the quintet that Chubby Jackson and Bill Harris once toured with, but I don't have it and wish I did. Not only did they have a swinging little group that is well worth remembering, but both had outrageous senses of humor, and what I really wish is that I had a photograph of what would happen at some point during every night of their Blue Note 1953 two-week gig.
In the midst of a beautifully soulful ballad, the staid-looking, professorial Harris would trigger a release device, his pants would fall to the floor revealing white boxer shorts with large red polka dots, and he would go right on playing.
Now, please, all you purists, don't respond to this by decrying Bill and Chubby's
antics as a despoilment of jazz. Harris was a wonderful soloist and
was a huge factor in assembling
Woody Herman’s First Herd as well as a poll-winning bassist. They had the very
best of creds, but both liked to occasionally show that playing music was not a
matter of life and death. Jackson
So maybe you can understand why I still wish to hell I could again see Harris with his trousers around his ankles playing a remarkable solo on "Mean to Me."
Some things you just don't forget.
Speaking of Oscar Peterson, which we weren't, but are now, I vividly recall an evening when his trio (O.P., Herb Ellis and Ray Brown) was at the London House. "If you feel like it," I asked one night, "do you think you might play some stride the next set?" He just nodded briefly and went to the piano.
Culminating the set’s final tune, which had kicked off at a fast clip, and with his left hand just a blur, he drove into two or three choruses of stride that were a stunning exhibition of technique and swing. Amazing stuff.
After getting standing applause from the audience Oscar came down from the stand, looked over and asked, “Was that o.k.?”
I could do nothing more than crack up.
Bassist/violinist Johnny Frigo was not only a fine, creative musician, a talented painter, poet and songwriter, but as my friend Don Gold so nicely put it, "great company between sets."
One of my favorite Frigo moments came one day when he and I stood chatting at Universal recording studios in Chicago and an auto driver who was editing some racing tapes excitedly asked us to come into the editing room to hear what he had recorded.
“Did you hear that?.......Did you hear that?" he said excitedly as his car came down the stretch..
Frigo looked over and remarked dryly, "Sounded like you were rushing."
It was another opening night for Duke Ellington at the Blue Note, this one in 1956, and the usual large crowd of Ellington enthusiasts and more than several members of the press were all there. Midway through the second set Paul Gonsalves was head-down and nodding in his seat amidst the saxes, quite obviously the worse for wear. He was ignored by the rest of the band.
Slowly, inch by inch, he began to slide in his chair as the band wailed on about him. Inevitably gravity took hold and, saxophone gripped in both hands, he slipped all the way down to the floor and stayed down for at least half a minute until he shook his head slightly, got to his feet and sat down again.
The tune finished, Duke went right into introducing the next one to be played and that was that; no mention was made of the incident then or later.
The next night I went to the club well before the scheduled first set and saw Duke sitting alone a side table. We greeted each other and began to exchange pleasantries and then I thought, “Why not bite the bullet and ask about Paul’s performance the previous evening.”
“Duke,” I asked, “Wasn’t it an embarrassment to you as a leader when Paul fell out of his chair last night in front of that large audience?”
Ellington looked at me, then gave one of his urbane smiles and said, “Jack, a lot of people don’t seem to realize that when Paul was in the service of his country in World War II he was stationed in
where he unfortunately contacted
a rare tropical disease that occasionally makes him fall asleep. Why should I
be embarrassed when someone who gave so much to us all has to suffer the
indignity of an affliction caused by wartime exposure?” India
I could do no more than nod in agreement and then chuckled—I had been ducally euchred and satisfactorily squelched by the master of the non-reply. We went on to other subjects and had a most pleasant chat and Gonsalves went on nodding in his chair at odd intervals for years, all as a result of a rare Indian tropical disease.
Of course it was.
I’ve always enjoyed anecdotal history; it gives all of us the chance to recapture the spirit of being in a given situation as a first-hand observer.
Of course, the magic of being transported back into a particular situation has a lot to do with how well the original story is described. When it comes to subjectively recounting Jazz stories, no one does it better that
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Down Beat Days
For most of the ‘50s I was assistant editor, then editor of Down Beat, and there is no job I could have enjoyed more. I got to hear, meet and in some cases become friends with many of the giants of our music in an era that I believe will be regarded as the golden years of jazz. I had the privilege of working with a staff of writers whose names grace some of the best writings on jazz to be found anywhere. In one city alone,
, I could listen to at least three
or four jazz programs on AM radio every day ( Chicago Dave Garroway’s show was among them)
and another half-dozen that played quality pop music that often included jazz.
Live music? Any night of any week you wanted to hear jazz there were at least two dozen places you could go to hear swing, bebop, Dixieland, mainstream jazz, excellent singers—take your pick. There’d be big names and big bands at the Chicago Theater, the Regal and the Oriental, and seemingly everywhere local talent waiting to break out nationally. You’d hear them at any of the many local bars and restaurants that would sporadically give music a try. A number of smaller local clubs made jazz their steady policy.
One example of such venues was the Hi-Note, a club on seedy
Clark Street that was said to be at least
partly financed by Anita O’Day. She often worked there, and for one stretch was
co-featured nightly with Billie Holiday, singing to audiences sometimes as few
as a dozen listeners. Jeri Southern got her start there, and a young Buddy
Greco played solo piano and sang for maybe $125 a week.
Monday nights were “off-nights” at the Hi-Note, a chance for local musicians to come in and jam. Traveling guys would drop by to check them out and sometimes sit in. If anyone got paid I’d be surprised, but if they didn’t have gigs elsewhere you’d see Cy Touff, Ira Sullivan, Ira Shulman, Red Lionberg, Joe Daly, Hal Russell, Bill Russo, Guy Viveros, Irv Craig, Doug Mettome,
Kenny Frederickson and so many others
with great talent and ambitions. Some made it, some fell into the drug scene
and disappeared, others stayed and played in . Chicago
The South Side,
’s vast black community, was like a city unto itself.
Places with live music abounded, and on the bandstands would be performers as
varied as Gene Ammons, Muddy Waters, Lurlean Hunter, Frank Strozier, Willie
Dixon, Von Freeman, Sun Ra, Jody Christian, Joe Williams, Tom Archia and John
Young, plus the likes of stars such as Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Sonny
Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis at clubs like the Bee Hive and the
Sutherland Lounge. Chicago
So many names, such marvelous music and so many venues, all gone now but with echoes that can still be faintly heard if you close your eyes and listen very closely.
You should have been there.
Jimmy Yancey Memorial
Jimmy Yancey, the venerable
boogie-woogie and blues pianist,
died In September, 1951, and Dizzy Gillespie was playing with his quintet at
the Capitol Lounge at that time. A memorial was planned for Yancey for the
following Saturday afternoon, to be held at a local watering hole which
occasionally featured a Dixieland band or solo pianists like Don Ewell, a
standby. I told Gillespie I planned to be there and asked if he’d like to join
me. Somewhat to my surprise he said yes. Chicago
So we met and walked in together, where perhaps a hundred trad music fans were gathered. Heads swiveled as we stood at the bar. Diz was wearing a maroon suit and beret and carried his horn in a corduroy bag. One guy turned to his friend and asked loudly, “What the hell is he doing here?” Those were the days in which boppers and moldy figs were separate camps.
Mama Yancey, Jimmy’s blues-singer wife, was at a large table surrounded by family and friends. Dizzy said, “Here, hold my horn,” and went to the table to pay his respects to her.
The musicians onstand, led by trumpeter Lee Collins, a veteran from New Orleans who had played with many bands there when he was a youngster, then later with Jelly Roll Morton and others, finished the tune they were playing. He was a lyrical and powerful player who had been playing for several years in
with his own band at the Victory
Club, a strip joint. Chicago
Dizzy stopped on his way back to the bar to chat with Collins for a few moments. “You gonna sit in?” I asked when he returned. He nodded, took his horn from the bag (he was still playing a straight one in those days), softly buzzed the mouthpiece he took from a pocket a couple of times, then went to the stand and took a seat next to Collins.
From all around the room came looks of amazement and, in some case, outright hostility from those who must have thought Dizzy was going to take over the stage and start playing some of that damned bebop.
Lee kicked off the band and we all proceeded to hear and witness an astounding performance. Dizzy, as Louis Armstrong was reputed to have done when he joined his older mentor, King Oliver, played a respectful and perfect second to Collins, never intruding, always supporting and keeping completely within the spirit and character of the music. He played only a couple of short solos that were little gems stitched seamlessly into the structures of the songs that were played during the next half hour, then quietly thanked Lee and came back to the bar, ready to leave.
The applause was overwhelmingly heartfelt, as were the cheers from people who realized they had seen something special. They shouted thanks and goodbyes to him as we left.
In 1994, more than 40 years later, I received in the mail from a friend who I had once told about that special night the picture you see here—he had attended a record collectors’ event, saw the picture among a group of miscellaneous photos for sale, bought it and sent it to me.
I treasure it.
Jeru and Erroll
Before George Wein became a major jazz impresario he owned Storyville, a
jazz club. I met him for the
first time when I was in that city in the early ‘50s and spent an evening at
the club listening to Gerry Mulligan’s sextet on an opening night. Erroll
Garner had closed a Storyville engagement the previous evening and had stayed
in town to hear Mulligan, so at the end of the night Wein invited Mulligan,
Garner and me to join him for some Chinese food and then a visit to a local
after hours club. Boston
All I remember of the club was a bare and somewhat tacky interior with a bandstand and a bar and perhaps a half-dozen people sitting quietly at tables. No one was onstand when we got there, and after ordering and receiving our drinks Mulligan, who had brought his horn in with him, not wanting to leave it in George’s car, asked Garner if he’d like to play a little, just the two of them.
Erroll agreed immediately and they went to the bandstand. Garner tried out the battered upright piano and shook his head at what sounded like at least four or five grossly out of tune chipped and yellowed keys. Jeru honked a couple of warm-up notes and they started to play.
At which point the magic began. Just two of the most celebrated musicians in jazz, no bass, no drums, a bad piano and lovely music being played free for a handful of an audience at
Somehow Garner avoided the offending keys and made that old wreck of a piano sound like a real instrument, Mulligan played effortlessly and they had themselves a wonderful time. I’m not sure whether the few people who were there, other than Wein and I, even knew who the musicians were, but it didn’t matter.
Sounded great to me.
"Lennie Tristano deliberately chose drummers who would just keep time softly, with few accents. He wanted to do all the rhythmic accenting himself. I heard him at the Half Note one night with a last minute replacement drummer who I thought put a lot of life and swing into Lennie's music, but Lennie didn't like him at all. Most of the jam sessions I played at Lennie's studio were with drummers who just played brushes very softly, usually with just a snare drum and hi-hat."
In 1957, as Down Beat's editor, I was asked to be on the board of trustees of the
at the Music Inn in School of Jazz Among the impressive list of
instructors at the now-legendary session of schooling that summer were Tristano
and Max Roach (others included luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis,
Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Russo and more). Lenox, Mass.
Every night someone would organize a session in which some of the staff would participate, so one of the nights I was there I persuaded Lennie and Max to play together. I can't recall the bassist, or if there even was one. It could have been Percy Heath.
I can only tell you that I wish someone had taped it--Lennie and Max played some inspired music, and if Tristano was unhappy with Roach's compelling playing, I'm certain no one was aware of it. Max anticipated Lennie's every twist and turn and lent surging pulse to it all. They played two beautiful sets and it remains one of the highlight nights in my some 65 years of listening to and writing about jazz.
In the summer of 2002 I took off on a trip to visit some people I hadn’t seen in a long time, people who meant a great deal to me and who I feared I might never see again if I didn’t initiate some effort to reestablish physical proximity.
My first stop was in
, where I had prearranged a lunch
date with Bill Russo, someone I first met when I went to work for Down Beat in
1949. We struck up a close friendship immediately, hung out together a lot (I even
took some lessons in music theory from him) and were tight buds until he was
hired by Stan Chicago Kenton and left town.
Our mutual regard never wavered over the years, even though my moving to
and he to California , then back to New York , precluded much of any contact
except by phone and email. And so our lunch was a delight (great Italian food,
of course), a couple of hours of reminiscences, laughs and bread-breaking. We
may even have told a lie or two. Chicago
The effects of cancer on him were obvious, but his mind was still keen, his curiosity insatiable and his enthusiasm for the music he was involved in as high as ever. I was grateful we had found the time to rekindle our interest in each other’s welfare and current activities. Bill died six months later.
In recent times I have tended to growl loudly about the misuse of the word “legendary.” It seems that anyone who has ever stepped on a stage more than once is now so described—it’s as common as another overused device, the standing ovation. So I am not going to drop “legendary” in Russo’s direction.
But I do want to say this about him: A lot of people are going to remember his name and his accomplishments for a very long time. Google him if you don’t believe me. I’m one of them, although in my case “a long time” has a great deal of relatively attached. And I must add that I was very fortunate to be around when he accomplished them.
So I think I’ll just remain right here in my chair and give him a sitting ovation.
Sharon Pease wrote a column for Down Beat for years in which he transcribed and analyzed recorded solos from prominent pianists. A teacher and songwriter, he had a studio and office in a downtown
He once received a letter from the building’s management starting out, “Dear Miss Pease,” telling him that they were about to refurbish the women’s’ rest room on his floor and asked for any suggestions for improvements.
He requested they install a urinal.
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the frequently combative brothers whose battles were often juicy reading in Down Beat, were among the bands that would play the Orpheum Theater in my home town of
. The first time I heard Jimmy was
at that theater in the mid-‘40s, when
the band opened after a midwinter train trip from Omaha during which
large amounts of alcohol were imbibed
by all to ward off the chill.. Minneapolis
Jimmy's instrumental tour de force at that time was David Rose's "
Holiday for strings," played at a
full-speed-ahead tempo and featuring him on alto sax. Well, he couldn't quite
make it that night, and had to start over after a few bars, at which point he
got a loud raspberry from a guy in the front row.
Drawing himself up with great drunken dignity, Jimmy announced, "Please come back tomorrow, folks, and we'll play "
Holiday for Strings" for you. And as for you (pointing
to the heckler), you can go shit in your hat!"
Bang! Down came the curtain, the movie started running, and Dorsey was fined a chunk by the Musicians Union for his performance that night.
I loved it. Almost as great as the time Sammy Kaye's toupee slid almost over his eyes while he was a tad over-energetic in conducting the band with that three-foot baton he used to wield.
My first and last contact with Tommy Dorsey came when I was still a journalism student at the
and writing a jazz column for the
college daily newspaper. TD’s band played the Orpheum in 1946 and had some
great sidemen, including Buddy DeFranco and Charlie Shavers. University of Minnesota
Hoping to get an interview with one or both of them I went to the stage door and introduced myself to the band boy. He suggested I come by the next afternoon before the first show and he’d try to help me out.
When I got there he pointed to a chair just inside the stage door entrance and I sat down to wait. A bit later Dorsey came down the stairs from his dressing room with trombone in hand, looked over at me and asked the band boy, “Who’s he?”
“A writer for the college paper and he wants to write about Buddy or Charlie.”
Dorsey barked, “Get him the eff out of here,” and kept walking.
I have had two experiences as a co-producer of Jazz recordings: one involving Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni and the other with Jazz pianist
Christian Jacob’s tribute album to the
music of the late French pianist, Michel Petrucciani.
From my limited participation, I can assert unequivocally that everything that
Jack Tracy states about the
process of producing Jazz recordings is true: it involves a great deal more
talent, ability and hard work than most people realize.
What follows in Part 3 of the continuing JazzProfiles feature on Jack are his remembrances from his Producer Days.
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What is a Jazz Record producer?
In 1958 Mercury Records, based in Chicago, offered me the opportunity to join the company as the director of its jazz wing and in that move I found myself now producing the recordings I previously had been reviewing and writing about. I took a rather brief exit to serve the same function with Argo Records, a Chess Records jazz operation, in 1960, but returned to Mercury at the instigation of Quincy Jones and remained there into the late '60s.
During my years with those companies, some of the artists whose recordings I was responsible for were Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet, Gerry Mulligan, Roland Kirk, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, James Moody, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis and singers Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Jon Hendricks, Ernestine Anderson and the Four Freshmen.. It was a new world that I continued to live in until I retired from the record business in the 1970s. Rock and roll came in, jazz was in a terrible state, and I got out.
A few years ago I read an online contribution by a man who contended that anyone could call himself a jazz record producer. I offered the following response:
To suggest that anyone can call himself a jazz record producer is undoubtedly true. To suggest that anyone can BE a jazz record producer and come up with results that are generally regarded as worthy of critical appraisal and produce profitable sales is not always true.
To suggest that all one need do is go into a recording booth and be a cheerleader or a nodding yes-man and be called the producer is to misunderstand the functions that apply to that title.
A producer is responsible for the creation of a finished product and must be involved to some degree in all the following:
*The overall budget
*Concept of the recording
*Selection of the recording studio and the engineer and recordist
*Hiring of the musicians if the recording is not being done with an already established personnel
*Selection of the compositions to be recorded
*Supervising the recording sessions
*Confidence in the producer's ear by the musicians, particularly the leader.
*Preparing all of the paperwork necessary for the payroll department, the musicians
union and the publishers performance societies so that the many legal and financial
requirements are satisfied.
*Editing the results (often with the artist not there--he may be out on the road),
selecting the master takes, arranging the sequence and mixing the tracks to
prepare a test CD for the artist to listen to and approve
*Mastering the final results with an engineer whose ear he can trust.
*Selection of the artwork for the CD and the liner note writer
*Consulting with the promotion department to determine the best venues for marketing the record.
In all honesty, however, that there was at least one instance when I received producer credit for an artist that was probably undeserved.
Some of the producers at Mercury like Quincy Jones, Pete Rugolo and Bobby Scott were also recording artists, and it was decided that they should have another staff member as their producer, someone who could handle a lot of the niggling details that take away from the time really needed to write arrangements and get ready for the recording dates.
Quincy and I had become very close friends, so I was handed the title of producer for Q. Well, to tell the truth, I was no more producer for Quincy Jones than you were, except that I got to remind him of deadlines (he was notorious for pushing the envelope where they were concerned), attend the recording sessions and stay the hell out of the way.
Sort of like a cheerleader.
Mercury – Chess - Argo
Among the many record labels that sprang up after World War II, two that were based in
became important players in the
game, Mercury and Chess. The former began to develop a roster of singers that
made a huge dent in the pop market—Patti Page, Vic Damone, Georgia Gibbs and
Frankie Laine led the way—and created jazz and country/western departments that
were significantly serious. Chess was a blues label headed by Muddy Waters,
Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley that began to have success in jazz as well, and
then came up with a smash hit in Ahmad Jamal and became a real jazz contender. Chicago
Both companies were headed by men who were tough, demanding and, unlike the heads of the large and unwieldy major labels, were able to move swiftly to respond to any situation and establish a personal relationship with key disc jockeys and radio stations that enabled them to get all-important airtime for their records. They didn’t hesitate to spend money for whatever it took to get that done.
Leonard Chess ran the company that carried his name, and Irv Green headed a cadre of WW II vets who ran the A&R (Artists and Repertoire), sales and promotion departments at Mercury.
Irv Green was an experienced record man whose father had owned the old National label. He was big, forceful, intimidating and not always easy to get along with. I never heard anyone refer to him as "a really nice guy," although when he wanted to steal an artist from another company he could be remarkably charming and persuasive.
This incident might give you an idea of his personality and business acumen:
When we had a surprise hit on our Philips label with "The Singing Nun," a 45 rpm side that found its unexpected way out of an expensively packaged specialty album, there was a rush to get quantities of the album into the stores to cash in on the single's huge sales. At one of the Monday staff meetings that kicked off each week, Green asked the art director how the production of the jacket was progressing. He was told that one of the fancy artwork gimmicks on the cover was slowing down the printing process considerably, and it would be a while yet before we could get it out in quantity.
Green, face red and veins bulging, slammed his fist down on the conference table and roared, "I don't give an eff if you put the effing record in a brown paper bag, get that goddamn thing out there, do you here me? I don't give a shit what it takes. You get it out and get it out fast or you're gone."
Irving B. Green was definitely one of a kind, and anyone who ever worked for him will never forget him.
Leonard Chess came to the
with his parents and younger
brother Phil from United States when he was just a boy. The elder
Chess was a junkman, a rags and old iron guy with a horse and wagon. Leonard
helped. As the little Chess junkyard grew in size they figured a truck would be
a good investment. Poland
So after a lot of looking around and shopping for the best deal they could find on a used truck, they bought one. Leonard hand-painted the sign on the door. It read:
Little by little Leonard and Phil turned a South Side Chicago bar into a tiny record label started on practically zero dollars into a company with three labels (Chess, Checker and Argo), a recording studio, a music publishing company, a radio station, a pressing plant and who knows what else. Leonard was a canny, tough, shrewd businessman who viewed with suspicion every invoice he saw and every bill he had to pay. I would guess that every check that left the building met his eye.
His attitude, although I never heard him express it in just these words, was, “I’ll take a chance and record some of your songs and put ‘em out. If I make any money on them, I’ll give you some.”
He never did understand jazz musicians, let alone their music. Jazz musicians expected to be paid union scale for recording dates and any overtime. They had their own publishing companies and wanted to control the rights to their own compositions.
They expected to get their royalty statements on time, and they were able to read them. Some of them even had (God forbid!) attorneys and/or agents representing them, people who asked for things like promotion budgets and ads in the trade papers and recording sessions with strings! The six strings on one guitar were about as much as Leonard figured was necessary.
But, boy, was he a record man! I brought The Jazztet, Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s group, to Argo. Shortly after their first album came out, a
disc jockey called to say that
one of the tracks, “Killer Joe,” was getting a lot of listener response. Within
five minutes of that call Leonard had me in the studio editing “Killer Joe” to
suitable singles length, and the next day it was being pressed and deejay
samples were readied for radio play. “Killer Joe” sold some 50,000 copies, a
very large number for a jazz single, and opened the door for the group’s
One more story about Leonard.
He had a hideaway office tucked behind the recording studio in the building in which he could conduct those aspects of business that required closed doors. Rumor has it that once, when some of Chicago’s bent-nose guys made an appointment with him to tell him they had decided to become his partners, Leonard had a mike installed behind his desk, ran the line to the studio control room and taped their entire conversation, one in which he told them that there would be no partnership.
When they called the next day to tell him his health might suffer if he did not reconsider, he told them about the recording he had and to whom he might send copies. And so Phil remained his only partner and they were sole owners of the company until Leonard’s death in 1969.
The record business doesn’t have any Leonard Chesses anymore. It has lawyers and accountants and people who talk about demographics and world markets and conglomerates, but no one who takes a disc jockey to dinner and helps the guy out if his new house needs carpeting.
It’s a different ballgame.
There are, of course, scores of stories about Benny Goodman and his foibles, his absent-mindedness, his treatment of musicians and his reluctance to spend money. I have one to add.
When I was at Argo we had an opportunity to acquire enough unreleased material in Benny’s personal stockpile to put together an album. It required that I fly to
and be driven to Benny’s New York home by his brother Harry. Connecticut
Goodman and I spent two or three hours in his private retreat off the garage that served as a practice site, music room and even rehearsal space for a small group if need be. When at last we decided on the tracks to be purchased Benny asked if I’d like to come in the house, meet his wife and have a drink before Harry and I hit the road back to
. I of course agreed, and we went in, passing the
carefully manicured surroundings that included a personal trout stream. Manhattan
“What do you drink?,” Benny asked. When I told him Scotch on the rocks would be just fine, he reached up to an impressive section of shelves holding what must have been many hundreds of dollars’-worth of cut glass, selected one, and then opened a cupboard beneath.
He pulled out a pint bottle of White Horse with perhaps 1/4 an inch of Scotch left in it and asked, “Do you think this will be enough for a drink?”
I managed to offer a yes without raising my eyebrows..
There was no second.
You have to be almost a golden-ager to remember where you were the day that John F.
Kennedy was assassinated.
I can tell you where Woody Herman was, and where I was, and where Bill Chase, Sal Nistico, Jake Hanna, Nat Pierce, and some other names known well to this group were on that 22nd day of November in 1963.
We were all at the A&R Recording Studio in New York, in the midst of making a record album that would be titled "Woody Herman: 1964." I was the producer.
We had taped one three-hour session two days previous, and we had two more to go, this one on the 22nd and the final on the 23rd. I lived in
at the time, was in Chicago to do the dates, and had arranged
a reunion lunch on the 22nd with two former New York neighbors. Chicago
We enjoyed a leisurely meal and decided to walk to the studio, which was on the second floor of a building on
48th St. right next to Jim & Andy's,
the well-known musicians' bar and hangout. As the three of us walked in and
headed for the elevator, a radio was playing loudly in the lobby cigar stand
and a voice was excitedly yelling something about someone being shot. We were
in the elevator behind closed doors before we heard anymore.
The grim news awaited us when we entered the control room.
Kennedy, in an open convertible, had
been shot at from a window in the Dallas Book Depository and had been rushed
behind screaming police sirens to the Parkland Memorial hospital.
Woody and the band were already there. So was the recording engineer, Phil Ramone. A radio was on and was pouring out whatever facts were known. It was shortly after the shooting. No one seemed to know whether
Kennedy had been seriously wounded or
not. We just looked at each other.
"What do you want to do, Woods?" I finally asked. He was quiet for a few seconds,
then said, “Let's go ahead with it. We don't have much choice."
Indeed, we didn't. Their itinerary had been wrapped around these sessions, and after the next day the band would be out on a string of dates that would make it impossible to have the album finished anywhere near the deadline that had been set for its release.
Woody went out into the studio and talked to the guys. They agreed it would be better to get the job done now than to cancel the session and sit around and do nothing. Professionalism prevailed.
And so for the next three hours we recorded three of the nine charts that make up the album. It was not an easy time, especially at the point when the flash came that JFK was dead. We took a long break then, and I can't forget the look on Phil Ramone's face when we heard those words. He had done some special assignment recording for
Kennedy on several occasions and knew and admired him. Tears
welled up in his eyes and he looked stricken. I guess we all did. I silently
pushed the bottle of J&B that was sitting on the console desk over to him.
He took a hit, nodded his thanks, and we went back to work.
When it was over, everyone quietly packed up instruments and headed off. Woody and I went downstairs to Jim & Andy's and watched the events as they unfolded on the bar's TV set. When Air Force One landed at Andrews Field and the casket was unloaded there was an aching quiet in the room. People just looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. There were some tears. And there were some curses.
I walked with Woody back to his hotel and then headed off to my own. The streets of
, usually a Manhattan of voices and a concerto of car
horns and traffic sounds, were eerily silent. It could have been a small town
we were walking through, Babel Elm St., not Broadway.
We finished recording the next day.
It was a fine album and still holds up well after some 40 years. But if it doesn't seem to have quite the fire and crackle and joyful exuberance the band showed in the two great ones that preceded it, perhaps you'll understand why.
It’s hard to be joyfully exuberant when you’re grieving.
Roland Rahsaan Kirk
Certainly the most unusual recording artist I ever encountered was Roland Kirk, who later added “Rahsaan” to his name. Shortly after I joined Argo, Ramsey Lewis told me he had recently heard a remarkable player in
and had told him if he was ever
in Louisville to be sure to look me up. Chicago
It was perhaps a month later that the receptionist rang me and said there was a man named Roland Kirk in the lobby to see me. I went there and was met by an extraordinary sight: there stood a man in dark glasses, raggedly dressed and carrying a white cane. Beside him was an old golf bag with two wheels attached that allowed it to be pulled. In it were some strange horns that looked like reed instruments. Over his shoulder in a separate cloth bag was a tenor sax. He was alone.
I greeted him, brought him into the office, and he produced an LP he had recorded some time previous for a small label in the
Midwest. I played it and was immediately
taken by his extraordinary ability to play several instruments at the same time
and with great jazz feel. Kirk told me that he and his rhythm section had
driven to to look for a gig and to take a chance that I would
record him. I would and did. We got a contract signed, a recording date was
set, and the resulting album was issued as “Introducing Roland Kirk”. Chicago
My next album with him would be for Mercury. Shortly after “Introducing” was issued I was rehired by them to direct their jazz program, and with agreement from Argo, I was able to take Roland with me.
Our first Mercury album, done in
, was titled “We Free Kings,” and
became the album that really brought Kirk to the attention of disc jockeys,
jazz fans and musicians. It was his growling, moaning, utterly unique flute
playing on one track that created all the attention. New York
After the first take on a yet-unnamed blues, a friend of mine, Phil Moore, the noted vocal coach, drew Roland aside before we did take 2 and quietly suggested to him that he further personalize his performance by thinking of it as a story and giving it continuity. What resulted was an extraordinary and ground-breaking solo that culminated in Kirk growling an impassioned “You did it, you did it,” thereby creating the tune’s title and making Roland suddenly well-known.
Kirk’s refusal to let blindness keep him from trying almost anything that appealed to him made for some interesting situations. My favorite was the time I picked him up at his motel to take him to a recording date. He got into my car, but before I could turn the key to get started he asked, “Can I drive?” I just looked at him as if he was insane. “How the hell can you drive?” I asked.
“Just tell me what’s ahead and I’ll be ok,” he said.
I told him no.
Here's how I learned of John Lennon's death.
I was at Donte's jazz club in the
San Fernando Valley and the TV set above the bar was
tuned to the Monday night football game. The band was on a break. Howard Cosell
made his now-notable announcement that Lennon had been shot and killed outside
of his apartment. It was silent. Then Jake Hanna looked up at
the screen from his bar seat and proclaimed firmly in his best W.C. Fields
voice, "One down, three to go." New York
You gotta love the guy.
Although they often contain more than a modicum of truth, I really dislike trite expressions.
But all I could think of when
Jack Tracy informed the editorial
staff of his decision to conclude his memoirs on JazzProfiles was the
adage: “All good things must come to an end.”
Thanks to Jack’s reminiscence about pianist Johnny Guarnieri, I spent an afternoon preparing a draft of this portion of Jack’s last feature listening to Johnny’s Echoes of Ellington [Star Line SLCD-9003].
Since I was already somewhat downcast because of the disappointing nature of Jack’s news, it didn’t help that some of the song titles on Guarnieri’s Duke tribute album are entitled In a Sentimental Mood, Birmingham Breakdown, Mississippi Moan and In My Solitude.
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The last years of Woody Herman's life were desperately tough. Abe Turchen, his manager, put Herman into such terrible trouble tax-wise that he was constantly hounded by the
IRS, who levied fines and threatened
to take away his Hollywood home, a house he had purchased from Humphrey Bogart
many years before.
Then his beloved
died, he had a crippling car accident driving to a gig
and never really recovered, and yet he somehow he stayed out there on the road
and put one foot in front of the other. Charlotte
There were two big reasons Woody didn't realize the extent of Turchen's financial didoes in time to do something about them: (1) Abe had power of attorney, and everything concerning the band went through him, and (2) Woody was a great bandleader but a terrible businessman. He had experienced some of the same sort of problems years before with a management team that booked the First Herd, yet he left everything up to Turchen, who took full advantage of Herman's trust in him.
For example, when I brought Woody to the Philips label, everything was handled by Abe, including signing Herman's name to the agreement and then telling me, "Don't tell Woody the details of the contract, I'll handle that." When the band, whose record sales had been moribund for several years, had big success on Philips I'm convinced it was Turchen who talked Woody into leaving us to sign with Columbia, which now was interested in him after turning down the chance to sign him at the time I made my offer. If any money changed hands to effect that switch it went to Abe.
It was a sad story, and Herman's last years were wretched, as the
IRS nagged him to his grave, creating
a bitter ending for one of the most decent and fine men o ever grace the jazz
world. Woody Herman didn't deserve that --he gave us too much to get so little
I must tell you this about him. For decades he had an East Coast friend, still alive at this writing, named Jack Seifert. They were tight buddies, and Woody would spend as much time as possible with Jack whenever he was in the vicinity of
. One night he called his dad, by
then a senile widower in Philadelphia , from Seifert's home and listened
patiently as the old man rambled on and on.
When he finally hung up, Jack said something like, "Woody, I know
this is none Milwaukee
of my business, but sometimes I wonder why you spend so much time and money calling your dad. These days he doesn't even know who you are."
Woody looked at Seifert. "But I know who HE is," he said.
That was Woody Herman.
I am a member of an online group that deals in singers. One person once asked about a particular Buddy Rich vocal album, "Weren't you at Mercury at that time? Did you have any professional interaction with him then? I wonder what other musicians thought of his vocal abilities? "
I was indeed there then, and in fact I had signed Buddy, a longtime friend,
to the label. The album was recorded in 1959 after Rich had suffered a heart
attack that left doubts as to whether he could ever withstand the physical rigors of playing drums on a fulltime basis again. So he was seriously considering putting together a night club act that would have him doing some standup patter, some dancing and some singing, along with perhaps a closing drum solo on a reduced-size kit.
We didn't expect to be a threat to Sinatra, Bennett, Torme or the like -- we
wanted to do an album that would let people know Buddy could sing well enough to hold an audience. And I thought that by adding a four-singer backup group, along with charts by longtime vocal coach and mentor to many singers, Phil Moore, we'd have a product that could introduce disc jockeys to another side of Rich that would get some attention.
The album was titled "The Voice Is Rich," and I think it came off quite well and served its purpose. In the several albums that I did with Buddy, never once did I find him to be anything but a complete professional and very easy to work with. I saw him scores of times in clubs, concerts and recording studios, and he always gave it 100%. It was when he felt that others involved were slacking that his temper flared and his language grew colorful.
It turned out, of course, that he recovered completely from the heart scare and, except for a couple of tryout dates, the nightclub act became unnecessary and was ditched. He went on for many years as an astounding drummer and top bandleader, but Buddy's ability to get to an audience with his wit and patter was often demonstrated in his appearances on the Johnny Carson show.
And what did other musicians think of Buddy's singing? I haven't the slightest
idea, and Buddy wouldn't have cared, either; it was the standards he set for himself that mattered.
I wish he was still around.
(This was written in 1999 in response to someone who wondered if Jack Leonard was still alive)
Jack Leonard died 10 years ago. He had cancer and spent his last days at the Motion Picture home in
. Woodland Hills, California
He was a dear friend, and a kinder, sweeter, nicer, more thoughtful man you will never meet. And he could sing. Sinatra always referred to him as one of his early influences. After he quit performing, he worked for the legendary (and I use that word very sparingly) Carlos Gastel, the hard-drinking personal manager for such stars as Nat Cole, Stan
Kenton, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, June Christy, Billy May,
etc., etc. All of Cole's promotion was handled for the Gastel office by Jack.
After Nat and then Carlos died, he went to work first for Paramount Pictures' music publishing division, then for the publishing wing of Columbia Pictures. The last recording he ever made was for the Capitol series of re-creations of big band favorites arranged by Billy May. Jack once more sang his biggest hit of all, "Marie", with the Tommy Dorsey band. Pete Candoli played the classic Bunny Berigan trumpet solo.
One Dorsey record that Jack hated to talk about was titled (if you can believe this) "The Man in the Moon Is a Coon". Once I asked him how on earth he could ever have brought himself to sing it. He grimaced and said, "I had to do it. When I got the lead sheet at the recording session I told Tommy I couldn't sing a lyric like that. He just looked at me and said 'You shithead, you'll sing the effin song or get the eff out of here, because you're fired if you don't.'
"I figured I didn't have a choice, but I've always been ashamed of having done it. Nat would kid me about it once in awhile, but I didn't think it was funny."
The late Milt Bernhart was a gifted writer whose literary abilities nearly matched his skills as a trombonist. He once said that it might be fun to try to write a Jazz mystery novel. I responded as follows.
I have become enamored of your idea for a mystery novel about a trombone-playing bandleader who is found dead on the bandstand. I think it would make a helluva movie and I’d like to take the liberty of helping you cast it. Here are some suggestions.
“DT” The hard-drinking, satirical, trombone-playing bandleader who is detested by everyone: Steve Allen (don’t laugh, remember how great he was as Benny Goodman?)
“Fancy” The girl singer secretly in love with the lead trumpet player, even though she sits in the right front bus seat with DT and shares a blanket with him when the lights go out: Betty Grable (who else?)
“Chops” The terrifically talented, triple-tonguing lead trumpet who happens to have a thing for girl singers and ladies’ underwear: Dan Dailey
“Speedy” “The World’s Fastest Drummer,” who has a quick mouth to match his sticks-a-plenty: Mickey Rooney
“Sonny” The heartthrob boy singer, skinny as a microphone but hung like a horse: Frankie Avalon
“Blinky” The nearsighted bandboy who is an amateur photographer and may have inadvertently taken a picture of DT being ( a ) poisoned, ( b ) stabbed in the heart with a hatpin or ( c ) strangled with a size 36D bra: Phil Silvers
“Artie” The fawning song-plugger who is furious when DT refuses to play Artie’s #1 plug of the week on the band’s “Fitch Bandwagon” broadcast: Tony Curtis
’s only Jewish
Oriental homicide detective: Keye Luke New York
"Leon Fartner" Jazz critic and would-be pianist who breaks the story of the romance between DT and Fancy in Down Beat, thus revealing their affair to DT’s wife, who is terminally ill with breast cancer: Peter Lorre
Various sidemen could be played by such noted musician/actors as Georgie Auld, Pete Candoli, Jerry Colonna, Tony Martin, Hal Linden, Sid Caesar, Jack Sheldon and Phil Harris.
What do you think, Milt?
Any stories you might run into these days about Judy Garland are likely to lay stress on the tragedy of her passing and the empty ending of her career, but I have to agree with the writer who recently said, "She was very funny, whether recounting scripted anecdotes or just bantering with the band or the audience."
I'm of the same mind: I saw her perform several times, and aside from an appearance at the Miami Fontainebleau when she was very heavy and quite obviously spaced out, she was always witty, appealing and full of energy.
I particularly enjoyed
's performance on a windy Sunday
afternoon at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. It was outdoors, and the sound
engineer had covered the mikes with condoms to shield them from the wind. Garland
At one point Judy stared at her slim, hand-held mike for a couple of seconds, then treated it in a fashion so graphic that it brought a huge appreciative laugh from the audience. She offered a salacious grin in response.
I like to think of her as she was that Sunday.
Johnny Guarnieri could flat out play piano. I recall more than several evenings spent at the now-long-gone Tail of the Cock in Sherman Oaks,
, where Johnny gave lessons
nightly on how to play solo piano. California
On one occasion I invited John Campbell, one of my favorite pianists, to dinner at the Tail and to introduce him to Guarnieri's playing.
recognized Johnny's name, but had
no idea of how he played--he just took my word that he was worth listening to. Campbell
We had dinner in a room well away from the bar where Johnny was playing a perfunctory first set in which he tried not to bother the dinners as they ate. I noticed
's reaction as the music drifted
over...he tried hard to be polite, but it was obvious that he was wondering
what this old fool had led him into. Campbell
Then we went to the bar to hear the next set. By the third tune, Guarnieri was turning it on. When he began a brilliant stride version of "Stealing Apples"
could contain himself no longer
and left me to stand directly behind Guarnieri to see exactly what the hell he
was doing. Campbell
He stayed there for the remainder of the set. When he came back he said simply, "Jesus Christ!"
I repeat, Guarnieri could flat out PLAY piano.
This was written in 2006 to a friend:
I went to hear Clark Terry last night when he appeared at a
concert. I cried when they
brought him onstage--he is very heavy, he needs someone to support him when he
walks even though he also uses a cane, and to see him like that tore me up. You
know the first words he said at the microphone? "The golden years
suck!" Santa Barbara City College
He played a couple of tunes with each of three different big bands, all of which rehearse regularly at the school and only the last of which was much good. The first couple of things he played were embarrassingly bad--he sounded terrible—and I almost walked out because I just couldn't take hearing and watching this giant sitting in a chair and sounding like a beginner.
His chops got better in the next two sets, and he managed to fire off a few bars in each of another half-dozen tunes that let you know he was once somebody, but it was all very bittersweet stuff -- I was glad to have seen him one more time but almost wished I hadn't. The full house of some 400 applauded and quite properly showed their love and respect for a true hall-of-famer, however, and I know he must have appreciated it.
Couldn't bring myself to go backstage and say hello afterwards, but I'll never forget the many nights I heard him in person with small groups and with Brookmeyer and with Duke and with Basie's septet in '51 and I remember the sheer delight he always gave everyone in the house.
It is a privilege to know him.
An online contributor once said of Miles Davis: "I only went to one of his concerts. Nina Simone was the opening artist. It was her famous 1959 Town Hall Concert--which was really Miles' concert. Nina was a revelation to everyone. Miles was a total s**t. He showed this receptive audience total contempt".
Isn't it sad that Miles would act in this manner to people who had come to listen to a great artist? Because, from a number of firsthand experiences, I can tell you that Miles could be a witty, friendly, open man who was fun to be with on a one-on-one basis.
An example: Once we were chatting casually, and jazz critic Leonard Feather's name came up. Leonard was slightly stooped with a prominent nose and a vaguely furtive appearance who sort of scurried when he walked. When I mentioned his name, Miles exclaimed in that guttural voice of his, "Leonard Feather? Leonard Feather looks like a man who just stole somethin'."
's music, not his public behavior,
that spoke for him, and when I listen to the best of Miles I hear a shy, lonely
man who loves things that are beautiful but looks at a world through eyes that
see mostly ugliness and greed. Davis
Most of his difficulties came when he attempted to cope with that vision.
But he had a broken coper.
Les Koenig, a screenwriter and associate producer at Paramount Studios, found his motion picture career aborted by 1950s blacklisting. A fine writer and lover of music and the arts, he founded his own record label, Contemporary, and first found success with his Dixieland band of Walt Disney technicians, The Firehouse Five Plus Two.
It was not long, however, before he started to record modern West Coast musicians, and his fastidious taste in the selection of artists, recording techniques and packaging began to set a standard in the industry. He was the first to record Ornette Coleman, and Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel and Andre Previn were just a few of the jazz artists whose careers were given a huge boost by their association with Contemporary.
His death in 1977 was a sad loss for us all.
I first met him on a West Coast trip for Down Beat in the mid-1950s, but after I moved to
in 1962 I got to know him well. I found that Les took his
time evaluating people before he extended friendship, but when he did, it was
to reveal a sense of humor and mature wisdom that made any time spent with him
Leonard Feather initiated a series of sessions in which a small group of some of us jazz regulars would meet in one of our homes to listen to and offer opinions on the newest record releases. It was a great way to keep abreast of what was happening, and among the participants was Koenig. It was his ear that I quickly began to trust when comments were offered, and his judgment that I invariably agreed with.
And so it came to pass that I once brought a new recording I had produced to one evening’s meeting, Roland Kirk’s “Rip, Rig and Panic.” Customarily we’d play just a track or two of an LP to get the feel of it, then move on; there were always many records to hear. After the seven-minute Kirk title track was played, Leonard started to lift the record from the turntable, but Koenig said, “Play some more.”
The second track was played, then Les turned to me and said, “I wish I had made that record.”
I think it was the greatest compliment I have ever received.
Regrets? Some. Shortly after I left Down Beat to join Mercury Records, a concert was held in
featuring many of the prime Dixieland players in the
country: a group from Chicago that included Pee Wee Russell,
Jimmy McPartland and George Wettling and a band of Chicagoans headed by Art
Hodes. I contracted them all to record a New York/Chicago “Battle of Bands,”
and then made a stupid mistake. New York
To take advantage of the growing interest in stereo recordings, I put the two bands on opposite sides of the studio and had them stopping and starting as the soloists played. It was an absolute mess, and I was too inexperienced in recording to abandon the scheme, reshuffle, and just get some good music out of the guys. The talent was all there to make a fine album and I plain screwed it up. If you ever see a copy of the record that came out you may be looking at the only one anyone bought.
When I was at Argo Records I became quite friendly with Oscar Brown Jr., who was struggling to create a songwriting career and was not yet a recording artist. He came to me one day with a tape of a young
pianist he had heard and asked me
to listen to it. I thought it was terrific and was interested in signing the
youngster, but asked Oscar to give me a couple of days to think about it. I
talked it over with others at the company and they convinced me that it might
not be fair to the pianist to sign him—that we already had two pianists to
promote and take care of, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis. Ahmad was already a
major star and Ramsey was threatening to break open and both needed a lot of
So I called Oscar and told him that I reluctantly would turn down the young pianist. The young pianist’s name? Herbie Hancock.
Actually I created a double regret in this episode: I didn’t have the brains to sign Oscar Brown Jr. either.
I recall some record reviews I did at Down Beat that I wish I’d been more careful about, but I’d guess every reviewer goes through that. The one I really regret and cannot explain was one I wrote of George Wein playing piano and singing on an Atlantic LP made shortly after his initial success as producer of the Newport Jazz Festival.
George is no Tatum, but certainly a capable pianist, and not a bad saloon singer either. But for no reason I can yet offer, I dismissed the record with a totally unnecessary remark that went something like, “He should work his side of the street and let musicians work theirs.” It was stupid and uncalled for, but I can’t pull it back.
Somewhat similar was the thoughtless editorial judgment I made in allowing Nat Hentoff to suggest in a Down Beat review of a Charlie Ventura record that Charlie hang up his horn and get out of jazz. I should have pulled that from his review as a cruelty that didn’t belong in our pages.
There were times in those days when record company sales departments were able to say they had to have product by certain artists by a specified date and that producers had to come up with albums by them to meet that deadline. What occasionally resulted was a record that didn’t fully reflect the artist’s talent because it was all done in too much of a hurry.
We used to get hard looks and reprimands if we didn’t complete an entire album--some 35 minutes of music—in three three-hour sessions, which would be laughed at today, when it takes longer than that to lay down a track. Overtime was considered an expensive luxury. But I still now wish that at some sessions I had ignored the bitching which would result and taken more time to make a better record.
There was one session, however, that didn’t cause any worry about the time clock and was one of the easiest and best I was ever to be involved in. The final album Cannonball Adderley recorded for Mercury was done in Chicago with Adderley and the rest of Miles Davis’s sextet sans Miles. Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb strolled into the studio on a frigid February night an hour past the scheduled recording time and walked out about four hours later after completing an entire album of six tunes, none of which required more than two takes.
Titled “Cannonball and Coltrane” (I wish now I’d called it “Ball and Trane”), it is a prime example of two outstanding jazzmen at their finest and sounds as good today as it did that night.
No regrets on that one.
And there will be no regrets, either, about writing this little series of reminiscences. Thanks for letting me share them.
By John McDonough/August 2011 [p. 54]
© -Downbeat Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"I started writing for DownBeat just after Jack left," said
Dan Morgenstern, Director of the Institute for Jazz
Studies at , "and knew him
primarily as the record producer he became. But there's no question that his
tenure at DownBeat covered one of the magazine's most transformative
decades." Rutgers University
In a 1995 interview,
reminisced about his
arrival at the magazine. "I had just graduated from the University of
Minnesota School of Journalism when I joined the DownBeat Chicago staff,"
he recalled. It was April 1949, and his salary was $75 a week. "I was 22
and that was one of the highest salaries of anyone in my class." Born in
1926, Tracy had served as a medic
in the Navy during the end of World War II before coming to Tracy . His first DownBeat
byline appeared Chicago Oct. 7, 1949.
arrived at DownBeat,
its founder and publisher, Glenn Burrs, still ran the magazine. But its
fortunes were floundering as unpaid printing bills piled up. Thirteen months
after joining DownBeat, Tracy found himself with a
new employer when the John Maher Printing Company took control. In January
1951, with editorial management still in flux, Tracy and two staffers took
over the record reviews. Each scored a given record on a scale from one to 10.
The combined average of the three became the rating. This method proved
unwieldy, though, and in May 1952 it was abandoned for the present five-star
rating system, with each review assigned to a single writer. It was Tracy who
decided in January 1957 that full personnel listings should accompany all
record reviews—an editorial approach that continues to this day. Tracy
In October 1952 Norman Weiser came over from Billboard to become president and publisher. He appointed
editor in early 1953. Tracy recruited or nurtured
dozens of important writers, including Ralph J. Gleason, Dom Cerulli, John
Tynan, John S. Wilson, Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff. " Tracy Jack Tracy was DownBeat,"
said Hentoff. "His spirit, his knowledge and his continual determination
to be accurate and insightful was the magazine."
As circulation slumped with the decline of the big bands,
responded with a
flurry of innovations. He began devoting issues to specific niches on an annual
basis. First came the annual orchestra and combo issues. Advertisers loved
them. The first dance band edition was the biggest issue in 15 years. Soon
there was a procession of annuals covering percussion, brass and reeds. In 1952
the annual Hall of Fame was added to the Readers Poll. For years DownBeat had
been a tabloid, but Tracy adopted a standard
magazine format on Tracy April 24, 1955. The move made
possible more in-depth articles and greater newsstand circulation.
hired Don Gold, who
would succeed him as editor in two years. "Even though I had a degree from
Northwestern in journalism, Jack was a mentor to me," Gold said. Tracy
It was also Tracy who steered DownBeat into a more controversial survival strategy—a conscious embrace of more pop coverage. Covers from the '50s include some unexpected faces: Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, Lawrence Welk, Liberace and Bill Haley. Because covers could boost circulation,
rarely led with a newcomer. Miles Davis,
Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, even Charlie
Parker all had to wait until the '60s to land on the cover. Race was also a
sensitive issue for any magazine in the pre-Civil Rights '50s, even one
covering jazz. Tracy
Then there was Elvis Presley. "One day Jack brought me an LP," Gold recalled, "and said, 'What do you think of this guy?' It was Elvis. Jack realized early that DownBeat couldn't avoid him. He was establishing a new kind of mainstream and we had to acknowledge it."
DownBeat's traditional bridges. Benny Goodman appeared on nine Tracy-era
covers; Frank Sinatra, seven; and Louis Armstrong, Tracy Dave Brubeck and Duke
Ellington, six each.
Perhaps the most important page that DownBeat turned during the
era was its initiative
into jazz education. When Tracy was unable to attend a festival of high school
bands in 1956, he passed the invitation to the magazine's publisher, Chuck
Suber, who returned convinced that schools represented a growth frontier in
which DownBeat could play a major role. From that point forward Tracy and Suber
became leaders in the growing student band movement. The magazine helped rally
advertisers to sponsor festivals and musicians to become clinicians. On Tracy Oct. 3, 1957, DownBeat published its first annual school
That turned out to be
's last major act at
DownBeat. In March 1958, he left to join Mercury Records, where his many
DownBeat contacts proved invaluable. One was Buddy Rich, whom he had met in
1950 and brought to Mercury for the famous teaming with Max Roach, Rich Versus
Roach. In 1960 he moved to the Chess-Checker-Argo group, where he concentrated
on the Argo jazz line. Among the artists he produced were Jamal, Golson, Ramsey
Lewis, Art Farmer and James Moody. He also recorded Kirk's first important work
for Argo, then brought him to Mercury when it merged with Dutch Phillips in
1961. He continued with the company and helped form another jazz subsidiary,
Limelight Records, in 1965. In 1963 Tracy co-authored (with
Leonard Feather) an anecdotal memoir, Laughter From The Hip. Tracy
As contributors for DownBeat, we will always be grateful that
made the magazine what
it is today.