Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dexter, Freddie, Ira, Ivar, Jack, Jackie and The Connection [From The Archives]

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

"A quintessential bebopper who was incessantly inventive with his melodic lines, Gordon played with authority at all tempos and maintained a commanding presence on the bandstand. His enormous sound, swaggering approach and innate sensitivity would profoundly influence generations of bebop, hard-bop and post-bop saxophonists—Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane among them."

- Ed Enright

The above quotation is excerpted from Ed Enright's essay Everybody Loves 'Dex' which appears in the January 2014 edition of Downbeat magazine along with other tributes to the "Sophisticated Giant" [Dexter was 6'6" tall] by Dan Quellette, from his new book about record producer Bruce Lundvall, who was responsible for helping to return Dex to the US after a 15 year tenure in Denmark and reviving his career with a new recording contract for Columbia, and two pieces by the esteemed Jazz writer and critic, Ira Gitler.

All of which reminded the editorial staff at JazzProfiles that it was time to repost this earlier blog feature about Dexter, Ira and some wonderful memories from when the World was young.

It seems that you couldn’t walk a block in the Hollywood of my “Ute” [apologies to Joe Pesci, that should be “youth”] without literally passing a movie house, a theater or a night club.

Walking a few blocks down Vine Street from Franklin, across Hollywood Blvd. and then turning left on to Sunset Blvd. would bring you past the TV production facilities of ABC, CBS and NBC. This short walk would have also brought you by Capitol Records, the Huntington Hartford Theater, Wallich’s Music City and a half-dozen watering holes all of which featured some type of Jazz.

A quick stroll west would bring you to Cahuenga Blvd and Shelly’s Manne Hole and on your way over on Selma Street from Vine you’d pass the Ivar Theater.

Although I had both walked and driven by it a number of times, I had never been inside the Ivar.  I had heard from friends that it was a small, intimate theater and a great place to watch stage plays.

That was about to change when I noticed tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s name on the marquis announcing his appearance in the West Coast version of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a play that had premiered in New York City in July, 1959.

Dexter’s name was legendary in some West Coast Jazz circles, particularly those associated with Central Avenue [Hollywood’s contemporaneous counterpart to the early bebop scene on NYC’s 52nd Street].

I stopped at the Ivar’s box office to pick up some tickets, although I must confess to knowing absolutely nothing at the time about Jack Gelber’s play.

This was going to be my first opportunity to hear “long tall Dexter” in person which was reason enough for me to check out Jack’s play.

Shades to come of his role in the movie ‘Round Midnight, Dexter “acted” in the play along with performing the music he composed for the play with Gildo Mahonnes on piano, Bob West on bass and Lawrence Marable on drums.

Shortly thereafter I picked up the Blue Note LP The Music from the Connection: Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean [[B2-89392] with Jackie on alto sax, Freddie on piano, Michael Mattos on bass and Larry Ritchie on drums. It was different than what Dexter had written for the West Coast version although I seem to remember Dexter performing Freddie's Theme for Sister Salvation as the curtain rose and fell at the Ivar.

I had been a fan of Jackie McLean’s music for some time, but I knew hardly anything at all about Freddie Redd’s music or the details about Jack Gelber’s play and how he came to write it.

Ira Gitler’s informative and insightful insert notes to the recording gave me all the missing information.

We recently wrote to Ira and asked his permission to present on these pages his original liner notes to The Music from the Connection: Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean.

He graciously agreed to allow them to be posted to the JazzProfiles blog with the proviso that anyone also wishing to publish them in any form or fashion seek his consent before doing so.

Like Leonard Bernstein, I came away from the play whistling the Theme for Sister Salvation and I haven’t forgotten it since.

© -  Ira Gitler, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with the author’s permission

THE CONNECTION by Jack Gelber is a play about junkies but its implications do not stop in that particular circle. As Lionel Abel has stated in what is perhaps the most perceptive critique yet written about the play (Not Everyone Is In The FixPartisan Review, Winter 1960), "What adds to the play's power is that the characters are so like other people, though in such a different situation from most people."

The situation in which the four main protagonists find themselves is waiting for Cowboy (Carl Lee), the connection, to return with the heroin. These four, Solly (Jerome Raphel), Sam (John McCurry), Ernie (Garry Goodrow), and Leach (Warren Finnerty) are in attendance at the latter's pad with the bass player. One by one, the three other musicians drift in. They are also anxiously awaiting Cowboy's appearance. Also present, from time to time, in this play-within-a-play, are a fictitious playwright Jaybird (Ira Lewis), producer Jim Dunn (Leonard Hicks) and two photographers (Jamil Zakkai, Louis McKenzie), who are shooting an avant garde film of the play.

The musicians not only play their instruments during the course of the play but, as implied before, they also appear as actors. Some people have raised the question, "If they are actors, why are they using their real names?" Pianist-actor Freddie Redd, composer of the music heard in The Connection answers this simply by saying that he and the other musicians want recognition (and subsequent playing engagements) for what they are doing and that there would be no effective publicity if they were to appear as John Smith, Bill Brown, etc. Author Gelber concurs and says that having the musicians play themselves adds another element of stage reality.

When The Connection opened at The Living Theatre on July 15, 1959, it was immediately assaulted by the slings and arrows of outrageous reviewers, a group consisting, for the most part, of the summer-replacement critics on the local New York dailies. Although several of them had kind words to say about the jazz, none were explicit and one carper stated that the "cool jazz was cold" which showed his knowledge of jazz styles matched his perception as a drama critic.

A week later, the first favorable review appeared in The Village Voice. It was one of many that followed which helped save The Connection and cement its run. In it, Jerry Tallmer didn't merely praise the jazz but in lauding Gelber as the first playwright to use modern jazz "organically and dynamically", also pointed out that the music "puts a highly charged contrapuntal beat under and against all the misery and stasis and permanent crisis."

This the music does. It electrically charges both actors and audience and while it is not programmatic in a graphic sense (it undoubtedly would have failed it if had tried to be) it does represent and heighten the emotional climates from which it springs at various times during the action.

The idea to incorporate sections of jazz into The Connection was not an afterthought by Jack Gelber. It was an integral part of his entire conception before he even began the actual writing of the play. If Gelber did not know which specific musicians he wanted onstage, his original script (copyright in September 1957) shows that he knew what kind of music he wanted. In a note at the bottom of the first page it is stated, “The jazz played is in the tradition of Charlie Parker." (The Connection is published by Grove Press Inc. as an Evergreen paperback book.)

Originally Gelber had felt the musicians could improvise on standards, blues, etc., just as they would in any informal session. When the play was being cast however, he met Freddie Redd through a mutual friend. Freddie, 31 years young, is a pianist who previously has been described by this writer as "one of the most promising talents of the '50s" and "one of the warmer disciples of the Bud Powell school". During the Fifties he played with a variety of groups including Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, Joe Roland and Art Farmer-Gigi Gryce, all of whom recognized his talent.

After he had gotten a quartet together at Gelber's request, auditioned for him and was given the acting-playing role in The Connection, Freddie told Jack of his long frustrated wish to write the music for a theater presentation. Armed with a script and the author's sanction, he went to work. In conjunction with Gelber, he decided exactly where the music was to occur. By familiarizing himself with the play's action, he was able to accurately fashion the character and tempo of each number. What he achieved shows that his talent, both the obvious and the latent of the '50s, has come to fruition. He has supplied Gelber with a parallel of the deep, dramatic impact that Kurt Weill gave to Brecht. His playing, too, has grown into a more personal, organic whole. Powell and Monk, to a lesser degree, are still present but Freddie is expressing himself in his own terms.

The hornman he chose to blow in front of the rhythm section and act in the drama, has done a remarkable job in both assignments. Jackie McLean is an altoman certainly within the Parker tradition but by 1959 one who had matured into a strongly individual player. His full, singing, confident sound and complete control of his instrument enable him to transmit his innermost musical self with an expansive ease that is joyous to hear. It is as obvious in his last Blue Note album (Swing, Swang, Swingin' — BLP 4024) as it is here or on stage in The Connection. As an actor, Jackie was so impressive that his part has grown in size and importance since the play opened.

During the early part of the run, Redd's mates in the rhythm section were in a state of flux until Michael Mattos and Larry Ritchie arrived on the scene. Mattos has worked with Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, Max Roach and Lester Young among others. Ritchie came out of B. B. King's band to play with Phineas Newborn and later, Sonny Rollins. Together they have given the group on stage a permanence; the fusion of many performances' playing as a unit is evident here.

The first music heard in the play is introduced by a mute character named Harry (Henry Roach) who comes into Leach's pad early in the first act with a small portable phonograph on which he plays Charlie Parker's record of Buzzy. Everyone listens religiously. When the record is over, Harry closes the case, and leaves. With this, the musicians commence to play Buzzy (not heard here) but are interrupted by Jaybird who rushes up on stage exclaiming that his play is being ruined by the junkies' lack of co-operation. After some argument, he leaves and the quartet begins to play again. This is Who Killed Cock Robin? The title was suggested by Warren Finnerty because the rhythmic figure of the melody sounds like that phrase which he, as Leach, screams in his delirium when he is close to death from an overdose later in the play. It is an up tempo number, yet extremely melodic as most of Freddie's compositions are. In the composer's words, "It is intended to plunge the music into the action of the play and to relieve the tension of the confusion which had begun to take place."

McLean and Redd solo, urged on by the rhythm section which features Larry Ritchie's dynamic drumming.

One of the devices employed by Gelber is having his main characters get up and solo like jazz musicians. Sam, a Negro vagabond junky goes on at length, promising to come out into the audience at intermission and tell some of his colorful stories if they will give him some money so that he can get high until he goes to work on a promised job. As he finishes, he lies down and asks the musicians to play. They respond with Wigglin', a medium-tempo, minor-major blues which Redd explains, "accentuates Sam's soulful plea to the audience. It is humorous and sad because we suspect that they know better."

This is effective "funk" that is not self-conscious or contrived. Jackie and Freddie are heard in moving solos; Michael Mattos has a short but effective spot before the theme returns.

The last piece in Act I is detonated by Ernie's psychopathic out-burst. Ernie is a frustrated saxophonist whose horn is in pawn. He sits around bugging everyone by blowing on his mouthpiece from time to time. In his "confession" he digs at Leach. In turn, Leach ridicules his ability and laughs at him for deluding himself into thinking he is a musician. Music Forever calms the scene and in Freddie's words, "expresses the fact that despite his delusions, Ernie is still dedicated to music."

The attractive theme is stated in 2/4 by McLean while the rhythm section plays in 4/4. Jackie's exhilarating solo at up tempo shows off his fine sense of time. He is as swift as the wind but never superficial. Freddie, whose comping is a strong spur, comes in Monkishly and then uses a fuller chordal attack to generate great excitement before going into some effective single line. The rhythm section drives with demonic fervor. This track captures all the urgency and immediacy that is communicated when you hear the group on stage. In fact, throughout the entire album the quartet has managed to capture the same intense feeling they display when they are playing the music as an integrated part of The Connection.

The mood of Act II is galvanized immediately by the presence of Cowboy who has returned with the heroin. Jackie comes out of the bathroom after having had his "fix" and the musicians play as everyone, in their turn, is ushered in the bathroom by Cowboy. The group keeps playing even when they are temporarily a trio. In this
album they are always a quartet. Since this is the happiest of moments for an addict, the name of the tune is appropriately Time To Smile. Freddie explains, "The relaxed tempo and simplicity of the melody were designed to have the audience share in the relaxing of tensions."

The solos are in the same groove; unhurried, reflective and lyrical.

In order to escape from a couple of inquisitive policemen, Cowboy had allied himself with an unwitting, aged Salvation Sister on the way back to Leach's pad. While everyone is getting high, she is pacing around, wide-eyed and bird-like. Sister Salvation, (Barbara Winchester), believes Cowboy has brought her there to save souls. She sees some of them staggering and "nodding", and upon discovering empty wine bottles in the bathroom thinks this is the reason. She launches into a sermon and Solly makes fun of her by going into a miniature history of her uniform. The music behind this is a march, heard here in Theme For Sister Salvation. When she tells them of her personal troubles, the junkies feel very bad about mocking her. This is underscored by Redd's exposition of a sadly beautiful melody in ballad tempo. Here, in the recorded version, McLean plays this theme before Freddie's solo. Then the march section is restated. The thematic material of this composition is particularly haunting. I'm told Leonard Bernstein left the theater humming it.

Jim Dunn is in a quandary. Jaybird and one of the photographers have rendered themselves useless by getting high. The chicks that Leach supposedly has invited have not appeared. Leach asks Freddie to play and the group responds with Jim Dunn's Dilemma, a swiftly-paced, minor-key theme. Redd especially captures the feeling of the disquietude in his two-handed solo.

From the time of the first fix, Leach has been intermittently griping that he is not high. Finally Cowboy gives him another packet as the quartet starts to play again. He doesn't go into the bathroom but makes all the preparations at a table right onstage. The tune O.D., or overdose, is so named because this is what Leach self-administers. Where in the play the music stops abruptly as he keels over, here the song is played to completion. McLean is again sharp, clear and declarative. Redd has another well developed solo with some fine single line improvisation.

I first saw the play the week it opened. My second viewing was in March 1960. To my amazement, I found myself injected into The Connection. As the musicians left the pad of the supposedly dying Leach, they reminded one another that "Ira Gitler is coming down to interview us for the notes."

The above is just a small part of why The Connection helps The Living Theatre justify its name. Gelber's dialogue, which still had the fresh feeling of improvisation on second hearing, is one of the big reasons. Another large one is Freddie Redd's score. Effective as it is in the play, it is still powerful when heard out of context because primarily it is good music fully capable of standing on its own.


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