Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rudy Van Gelder - The Well-Tempered Engineer by Burt Korall

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

Rudy van Gelder died on August 25, 2016. He was 91 years old. The Jazz World owes him an enormous debt of gratitude not only for what he did in preserving so much recorded Jazz, but also because of the absolutely first-rate way in which he did it.

Subsequent to his death, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles, as an homage to him, re-posted an earlier feature entitled “Rudy van Gelder - 1924-2016 - A Signature Sound” which was based on James Rozzi’s November, 1955 article that appeared in Audio Magazine, and a 2-part interview that Ben Sidran conducted with Rudy in December 1985 which was included in his book, Talking Jazz: An Oral History.

I recently located the following article about Rudy by Burt Korall from the January 1956 issue of Metronome Magazine and thought it would make an excellent addition to the blog archived material on Rudy.

“With a flourish of the maitre d's hand we were seated. When the orders had been taken, the conversation reverted back to recordings, sound and the responsibility of the recording engineer to the artists, to himself, and especially to those who devour the end product ... the listeners.

It is most essential to identify my dinner companion, for he is the subject of tfiis piece, and, in my opinion, possessed of the greenest thumb for transferring sound to wax.

I first became aware of Rudy Van Gelder and his enigmatic recording studio through very expansive commendation of his work by various musicians and singers. If the commendation didn't come directly, it would usually occur in the in the context of a conversation  that was generally overheard in any one of the gathering places for people in the music business.

In just this fashion (spreading the news by word of mouth) Rudy's House of Sound has become a most important counterpart of many an artist's recording personality.

It is interesting to note that his species of recording  magic is performed in a room the size of a large living-room, and certainly the sound quality belies its comparative smallness If you've heard the current Jerri Winters vocal album (among many others),  with a string section, assorted horns and rhythm, you have somewhat of an indice into the capacity of this man and his living-room.

After hearing jazz musicians swear by him and singers refuse to do their dates anywhere else because of the undeniable quality of his recording procedures, my curiosity was pushed to a point where it demanded satisfaction. I had to find out the whok story.

Music and Rudy Van Gelder have been having a love affair for about fifteen years, take or leave a year (an affair I know his charming wife will excuse), and as in any affair of the heart, one must find an appropriate way to manifest one's love.

Rudy found his basic interest in the technical aspect of sound could best nurture this affair by bettering recording techniques, or at least making them more valid. For a few years, there was experimentation. The seeds of his ideas were sowed and cared for until in 1946, with Alfred Lyon and Blue Note Records as his first client, some of the full grown produce were harvested.

Time told the story of success, but under the foundation of all this experimentation, technical data and knowledge of microphones and sound relations lies a soul and this is the heart of the matter.

One concedes as a matter of obvious fact that every arranger arid musician feels a responsibility to his audience of getting the best of himself across to them under any conditions, but it is somewhat of a rarity when a recording engineer (a comparative middleman in the process), feels as intensely about it as Rudy does.

This factor takes the recording situation beyond the capabilities of his equipment into the sphere of artistic understanding. It is this and only this that engenders this man with the patience and limitless good will that permits full grasp of the meaning of a recording date and what it should be. The basic strength derived from complete understanding of his function both as an engineer and a human being allows for the capture of that particular quality that has led him to a place of leadership in his field.

It is a matter of overall satisfaction to Rudy: "Burt, I want things to be right for the artist's benefit as well as myself. His satisfaction is my satisfaction. It is ample reward, for a recording date if it can become a lasting rather than ephemeral thing, art, if you will, if the one most closely associated with the recording is able to approach it in a way that will induce the best out of air concerned."

Experimentation in technical as well as happy human relations continues out in Hackensack, and if you happen to catch Rudy between dates, it is likely he is on his way to his optometry practice In New York City to see a patient. Yes, whether it be eyes, or more important to us, eears, Rudy Van Gelder makes things just a bit more distinct and believable."

January, 1956
by Burt Korall

Friday, December 30, 2016

George Shearing on Erroll Garner

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

- “Young Garner's father was a singer who played several instruments, as did his older brother, Linton. Erroll was an entirely self-taught musician who hit the keys when he was three years old and never did learn how to read music. But he played like no other pianist, and his flamboyant style was a delight to the ears. He would start a ballad with a long, discordant introduction that didn't even hint at the melody to come. At last when he swung into it, his left hand lay down chords like a guitar, keeping up a steady pulse, while his right hand never seemed to catch up, improvising chords or playing octaves that lagged way behind the beat for the rest of the number. Just a pinch of Fats Waller added spice.

I was fascinated by this fellow's joyously swinging piano, and I sought him out while Louis Prima was on. Erroll was anything but happy. He didn't know many people in New York and was downhearted. No one was interested in listening to him—Louis Prima was the showman attraction. And Erroll was only making forty dollars a week!

He told me he thought he'd go home soon, as it seemed nothing was going to happen for him in New York. Somehow, I had to stop him. I invited him home to 7 West 46th Street, showed him my rented Krakaur grand, and once he got started, it was impossible to pry him off the bench. Little did I know at the outset that he had a bad case of asthma and couldn't sleep lying down!” [p. 176]
- Fradley Garner’s superb English adaptation of Timme Rosenkrantz’s Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir, 1934-1969.

“None of my prior experience with recording artists- Erroll Garner included- had prepared me for what happened when Erroll came in to record the session from which this album is produced.

In a business where the hoped-for standard is to complete four three-minute sides in three hours (with innumerable re-takes), and a recording director is ready to break out the champagne and caviar if he's finished half an hour ahead of schedule, Erroll smashed precedent with a performance that can be compared only to running a hundred yards in eight seconds- and with perfect form.

In other words: something that just can't happen. But this time it did. Erroll came into the studio a few minutes after his accompanists had arrived, took off his coat and had a cup of coffee, sat at the piano and noodled a bit, got up and removed his jacket, lit a cigarette, loosened his tie, and one minute past the hour announced he was ready. We hadn't discussed repertoire specifically; I had only told him that I wanted him to record some double-length numbers for long-play release. To give the engineers a chance to check balance, I asked Erroll to play something; anything. He played for a minute or so; the balance was fine, so when he stopped I asked Erroll through the control-room talk-back if he'd like to get started on the first number.

"Ready!" Erroll called.

"Fine," I said. "What's it going to be?"

"I don't know yet," said Erroll. "Just start that tape going."

The saucer-eyed engineers were no more startled than I, but I held back my surprise long enough to ask if Erroll would like me to signal him when he got around the six-minute mark.

"I might not remember to look," he said. "Let's just feel the time; OK?" Wondering what Dr. Einstein might have to say about that concept, I agreed; Erroll struck a couple of chords, nodded a tempo to bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Eugene “Fats” Heard, threw me a wink, and pointed to the recording light. I snapped it on, and he swung into an introduction which baffled all of us; what was it going to be? By what telepathy Ruther and Heard knew, I will never understand, but they followed Erroll unerringly into the chorus of Will You Still Be Mine?- a tune which, Erroll explained six minutes and twenty seconds later, they had never played together before.

But we didn't even have to play it back to know that it was a perfect master.

That's how the session went; with complete relaxation and informality, Erroll rattled off 13 numbers, averaging over six minutes each in length, with no rehearsal and no re-takes. Even with a half-hour pause for coffee, we were finished twenty-seven minutes ahead of the three hours of normal studio time-but Erroll had recorded over eighty minutes of music instead of the usual ten or twelve, and with no re-takes or breakdowns. And every minute of his performance was not only usable, but could not have been improved upon. He asked to hear playbacks on two of the numbers, but only listened to a chorus or so of each, before he waved his hand, said "Fine."

As for myself, I was happy with everything the first time 'round and repeated listenings to tests since then has confirmed that my first opinion was right.”
- George Avakian, Liner notes to Columbia 12" LP CL 535

“I never had an influence, for the simple reason that I loved big bands. I think this is where part of my style came from, because I love fullness in the piano. I want to make it sound like a big band if I can. I wasn't influenced by any pianist, because when I came up, I didn't hear too many. We used to have places like the Apollo Theater where you could go and hear big bands. They used to come to Pittsburgh and play at the Stanley Theater. I saw all the great bands. I knew Mary Lou Williams when I was a kid. When Fats Waller came, the piano was so sad that he played organ. I'll never forget how he took that organ, blended in with the band and made it sound like forty-four pieces. That sound was the most fantastic thing! I thought, oh my goodness, how can he do that? That's something new to me. I love Jimmy Lunceford, and I love Duke. Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie taught me how to keep time. Those two bands really laid that on me, and it was a thrill. I think [Basie’s guitarist] Freddie Green is one of the greatest timekeepers in the world.”
- Erroll Garner to Art Taylor, Notes- and-Tones, Musicians-to-Musicians Interviews

Erroll Garner didn’t talk about Jazz very much. He just played it.  And could he ever bring it.

He wasn’t a particularly good interview. You can go through the Jazz literature, but you are more-than-likely to come away empty-handed if you are looking for an expository about Jazz piano by him as told to a Jazz essayist.  Fortunately, he did talk on occasion with other musicians and one of these musician-to-musician interviews can be found in drummer Arthur Taylor’s Notes- and-Tones.   

In many ways, Erroll Garner was an odd fellow, but “odd” in the unconventional sense of the word - unusual,  peculiar, bizarre, eccentric, unusual. And not in the more outlandish definition of the term such as quirky, zany, wacky, kooky, screwy, and freaky.

You get the sense of his uniqueness from the quotations that precede this introduction and also from the following assessment of his talent by fellow pianist, George Shearing, which is contained in his autobiography - Lullaby of Birdland.

“I first heard Erroll Garner on record in about 1945, and my thoughts about him have never really changed from that moment. I said to myself, "This is an astoundingly original style!"

From the outset, Erroll had a very personalized and highly unusual approach. In many ways, he was the most un-pianistic of all jazz pianists because he treated the instrument as if it were an orchestra, which made him one of a kind. If you're used to hearing records by Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, or Hank Jones, all of whom treat the piano very legitimately as a piano, you won't hear very much of that in Err oil's playing. It's true that he did use a lot of single-note solos, but they were more than equaled by what I call his "shout" playing, the technique that he used after he'd finished such a solo. Rather than his fingers just cascading up and down the keys, he'd play these big, massive chords, which he used as what big band arrangers call a "shout," just like a huge ensemble of brass and saxophones. He would do that for four or eight bars followed by another four-bar single-note solo, all the time keeping a steady four to the bar with his left hand. It was almost as if he had Basic's guitarist Freddie Green, with his perfect time, kept prisoner inside his left hand. Regardless of how much his right hand lagged behind the beat, that left hand was always the time governor. There's never been another pianist quite like him, and I don't think there ever will be.

I first met Erroll in person after I'd moved to the United States, when he came back to New York from the West Coast, and I was playing opposite him at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in 1948—a gig which lasted for quite some time. He was leading the Erroll Garner Trio, which was no less a line-up than Erroll on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and J. C. Heard on drums. It was just ridiculous what they did, they were such a tight group.

Perhaps the best estimation of anyone's talent is, firstly, originality, which Erroll had in spades, and secondly, the musical and technical ability to put that originality into practice. His talent wasn't about being able to play everybody else off the stage by mastering their style and then some, but about being himself. It didn't matter to him what kind of piano he was playing — good, bad, indifferent, they were all the same to him — nor did it seem to affect him if the audience was talking. He would just play up a storm.

Nobody else can play the way Erroll Garner did. I try to get close to it from time to time, and I received a nice compliment from Erroll's manager Martha Glaser, when she said that I'm probably the closest. That's good enough for me, because that's all I want to do—be as close as I can when I'm representing his style. I sometimes used to kid my audience by saying that Erroll and I were always being mistaken for each other, which is ludicrous, really, because he was much shorter than I am. But I loved Erroll.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie

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

“Regardless of any preferences as to style or performer, if you are a Jazz fan, then you are a fan of Count Basie’s music. It really is as simple as that. In the over 60 years of my association with this music, I’ve never met anyone who claimed otherwise regarding this equation.”  
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

The full title of this work is Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray - and therein lies the conundrum because if you know anything at all about the personality of Bill [never William] Basie and Albert [never Al] Murray, you, like me, are scratching your head in wonder at the pairing.

You can take solace from the fact that we are not alone in musing about these two working in concert to produce this volume as Dan Morgenstern, the distinguished Jazz critic and Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, also emphasized this “odd couple” in his Introduction to the book.

However, he also goes on to reconcile this enigma by explaining how the two built on their strengths and offset their weaknesses to produce an autobiography of a Jazz Master that was long in coming and almost didn’t arrive.


When Albeit Murray told me that he was going to be, as he put it, Count Basie's co-writer on the great man's autobiography, I was both baffled and elated. Elated because Basie, a notoriously difficult interview subject at best, had for years been stalling journalists and scholars with the excuse that he was saving anything worth talking about for a (hypothetical) book; baffled not so much because I knew that Murray had other literary irons in the fire, but because these two, on the face of it, made such an odd couple.

Basie was laid back, laconic, taciturn, the incarnation of the man-of-few-words, while Murray was intense, animated, a brilliant and enthusiastic talker, a veritable verbalist. What I should have known is what this wonderful book made obvious: that Albert Murray is also a brilliant listener, and that these two remarkable men shared a gift for editing — Basie of music, Murray of speech. By the time he sat down with his co-writer, Basie was a master of the art of artistic economy, of knowing what to leave out — both when it came to playing the piano and to editing and enhancing arrangements — and exactly what to leave in. That was something Murray understood and accepted from the start, and that understanding created the climate of trust that made the relationship, almost from the start, like one between old friends.

Which, in a way, they were, these two masters of the blues idiom. Murray was far from a stranger to Basie's realm of swinging and stomping the blues, and I cannot, in all honesty, think of another writer who could have made Basie come to life so fully on the printed page, in what throughout sounds like Count's own true voice. Such a minor miracle could only have been wrought by a writer able to combine the very different requirements of reporter and poet — the former to sort out and render the many facts of a rich and long professional life; the latter to capture every nuance and rhythm of the speech and thought of a man who, while often disarmingly straightforward and self-deprecating, was as complex and mysterious as any artist worthy of the name.

What Basie clearly didn't want his book to be was any kind of expose, as he makes crystal clear near the end of Good Morning Blues: "I know you can get away with putting almost anything in a book these days. But I don't want any more outhouses in mine than I have already put in here."

That's putting it plain enough, and Basie-Murray do adhere to it. Not that the Count makes himself out to be some kind of saint; the narrative is full of good times recalled without regret. Basie makes clear that he liked to take a drink, loved the company of pretty women, and was far from averse to playing the horses. He is frank about scheming to further his career, as in how he managed to become a member of Bennie Moten's band though Moten was a fellow piano player: "I have always been a conniver and began saying to myself, I got to see how I can connive my way into that band." But that, of course, is nothing dishonest, and Basie does not shy away from telling it like it was when it comes to unfair dealings he encountered. But he does not tattle or smirk.

Nor does he dwell on the many injustices, big and small, that he inevitably encountered in his many years on the road during (and after) the official reign of Jim Crow. He doesn't gloss over the negatives, but, as he explains, "If I haven't spent a lot of time complaining about all of these things, it's not because I want anybody to get the impression that all that was not also a part of it. It was [but] you don't let that stop you if [you know] what you really want to be."

One of the finest moments in this book is when Basie discovers that what he really wants to be is a jazz musician. Prior to his discovery (one morning in Oklahoma) of the great Blue Devils band (which is to say, the blues as transformed to instrumental jazz, and with that unique 4/4 beat that he did so much to bring out into full hearing of the world), he merely wanted to be a part of show business, but now he is about to find his calling. It was a storyteller's masterstroke to depart from chronology and begin the narrative with this epiphanic moment and its emblematic slogan, Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.

There is much to learn from this plainspoken, non tendentious book, which, alas, Count Basie did not live to see published — though he read and approved a first draft that essentially was what we find here — and which is the fruit of a seven-year-plus labor of love. It involved, for the co-author, frequent visits to the Basie home in Freeport, Bahamas, many trips to spots where the Basie band was in residence for more than a night or two, and countless hours of researching transcribing, and editing, resulting in one of the best and most authentic of all jazz autobiographies and biographies.

What was Basie's secret as a leader of two of the greatest bands in jazz history — the old and new testament ones? As it emerges from his own story, there is the key element of the band as an extension of family life—of a very special kind of togetherness. Thad Jones, speaking with Royal W. Stokes, put it so very well: "There was a roundness and a togetherness about everything we did that was very exceptional . . . coming from that strong and binding family circle. It was incredible that a man could organize people to form this strong bond of friendship and generate such a warm, human feeling toward one another, concern for each other's welfare, and consistently maintain it, as Mr. Basie did. That's true genius."

And then there was Basie's time. As another great Basie trumpeter, Harry Sweets Edison, that one from the old testament band, told Stanley Dance (for The World of Count Basie, which makes a fitting counterpoint to this book): "[Basie] was and is the greatest for stomping off the tempo. He noodles around on the piano until he gets it just right."

That incomparable noodling set the tempo just right for more than five decades of the swingingest music this side of heaven. There were times when the band would get to swing so hard that Basie, having set that tempo (and kept it there) just right, would lift his hands from the keyboard, and just sit there with the most blissful expression on his benign countenance. That, an onlooker felt, was a man fulfilled—one of the lucky ones. As long as there's recorded music, Count Basie will keep us tapping our feet, and with Al Murray as an added starter to that incomparable All-American Rhythm Section, he tells us how.”

One of the most revealing aspects of Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray is how much thought or, if you will, forethought that Count Basie put into everything he did over the course of a career that spanned a half century.

Because he was a man of few words and preferred a blues-based, straight-ahead approach to Jazz, one gets the impressions that there’s not very much to it and that Basie fifty year evolution as a bandleader just happened.

But after reading the 16 chapters that make up Basie’s autobiography, I came to the realization that it was well-thought out and planned every step of the way.

Basie’s career developed as it did because The Count wanted it to happen that way.

Of course, he fell under the sway of other musicians he respected. As a case in point, the following excerpt indicated how important Billy Eckstine was in convincing Basie to re-establish a big band in the early 1950’s at a time when many considered them to be a thing of the past.

Part Two
THE COMEBACK, 1950-1954

“The main one who was really responsible for me deciding to get a full band back together again when I did was Billy Eckstine. I have to give him a whole lot of credit for that. And no matter how much I give him, it will never really be enough. Because he was the one who just kept on after me and kept on after me and wouldn't let me alone until finally I just said, hell, Fd go along with it.

My co-writer has reminded me that a lot of people who were around during that time still like to think of the band that I began to work with that next year as the Birdland Band, and they have a point. Because Bird-land, near the corner of the east side of Broadway at Fifty-second Street, was known as the jazz corner of the world in those days, and that was where things finally began happening for the new band, just as the Famous Door was where the first band really broke into the big time about fourteen years earlier.

So I'm not forgetting Birdland, and I'm not forgetting Norman Granz either. Because without all of those fantastic gigs in Birdland, it would not have been the same story for us, at least I don't think so; and I also have to say that all those records that Norman began bringing out on Mercury and then Clef and then Verve labels were also very, very important. That was the main way the new band got nationwide exposure.

Those first records were not big hits or anything like that, but there were disc jockeys playing them, and they were on the jukeboxes; and when we were out on those early tours, everywhere we went there were almost always some people waiting for us, mainly because they were already familiar with how the new band sounded on tunes like "Bleep Bleep Blues," "Sure Thing," "Why Not?," "Fancy Meeting You," "Cash Box," and "Tom Whaley" from those Mercury and Clef LP's that Norman was distributing all over the country, along with his Jazz at the Philharmonic releases that were so popular at that time. Because I really didn't give a damn about going back into the big-band thing at that time. I'm not saying that I didn't miss it.

Some people insist that all during that time with the combo I was always talking about how much I missed that bigger sound of the full band. Even my wife claims that I used to mope around the house grumbling and complaining about not being able to hear my music the way I was used to.

But the combo was doing all right [Basie led a septet for a few years in the late 1940’s following the demise of his big band]. There was no problem about getting bookings for it, and those guys were burning it up every set, every night. It worked me a little bit hard, but I was getting used to it, and I was having a ball. I really was. But Billy came by to see us one night. I forget exactly when it was, but it was while we were working in the Capitol Lounge in, Chicago. Whenever it was, he started in on me and that was just the beginning.

"Man," he said, "what you doing messing around out here with this stuff for?" Of course, all of Billy's close friends know damn well that he didn't really use nice little words like "crap," "stuff," "fooling around," "messing around," but we'll just pretend he did, because he really wasn't talking dirty to be nasty. That was just his way of showing how much he liked you. Instead of coming somewhere and telling how much he loved you, he would come in and cuss you out, just like some people show you how glad they are to see you by slapping you and pushing and carrying on like that.

"Man, goddamn, we don't need you out here with this old crap. We need you out here with a big band again."

And every time I saw him from then on, it was the same thing.

"Man, what you keep fooling around with little old one- and two-piece stuff for? Get your goddamn big band back together. Man, hell, you look funny up there messing around with that little old two- and three-piece crap. Stop kidding yourself. This is small garbage for you, Base. This ain't your goddamn thing. Hell, your goddamn thing is a goddamn big band, man." Now, he might have said, "your thing," but
what he actually said was a word that begins with the letter s.

The thing about Billy was that he was really sitting on top of the world of show business at that time. He had a whole gang of hit records out, and he was getting top billing at some of the biggest theaters from coast

to coast, beginning with the Paramount in Times Square. And that's the way it had been for a couple of years or so. Of course, he had already become one of the top band singers back when he was with Earl Hines's great band. And for a few years at the end and right after the war, he had also led his own wonderful band that had all of those great stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Sarah Vaughan, Budd Johnson, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, and I don't know how many others in it. But at the time I'm talking about now, he was working as a single and he was the top male vocalist in the country, and everybody was talking about the great Mr. B. and everywhere you went you could hear that big, wonderful voice on the radio and the jukeboxes.”

Serendipity [or “fate”] also played a role in the direction that the Basie band took, witness the following excerpt about how drummer Sonny Payne became a member of what became referred to at the “New Testament” Band:

“By this time, that current band was really getting there. But before the year was out, we found ourselves with a hell of an emergency on our hands, Shortly after we opened in Birdland for the Christmas holidays, Gus Johnson had an attack of appendicitis and had to go into the hospital for an operation. That was just two days before Christmas. But that just shows how fate works sometimes.

Because the guy we brought in to pinch-hit for Gus was Sonny Payne, and he came in and hit a home run with the bases loaded. That was not any reflection on Gus at all. Absolutely not, because Gus, even up to this very minute, is still one of the great drummers. He's got a great sense of timing, and he can hold things together. Everybody speaks of him as being a great man for backing a band. He can set things behind a big band or any kind of band or any kind of group. It doesn't make any difference. He's a great drummer even if he's just playing by himself. He can do it from one and two on up. He's just an all-around great guy to have in your organization.

But fate is a funny thing. Sonny Payne came in there, and right away he touched off a new spark in that band, and we had to keep him as much as we all loved Gus. Naturally people noticed that Sonny was more of a showman than Gus was, but I wouldn't say that showmanship was what made the difference. It was not that easy. You can't see any stick twirling and trickerlating on those next records, but you can hear and feel a difference in the band.”

But one thing remains clear throughout a reading of Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray and that is Bill Basie’s unswerving devotion to how he wanted to play Jazz. Of course, as he puts it, he was very accommodating of fate along the way and was always “game” - willing to take a chance.

So to wrap things up for the time being, I'll just say whatever happens from here on in I can't complain. I've had my breaks, and I really can't squawk. Whatever else happens, I'm still going to have to say I've been blessed. I've been very lucky. Fate has been very good to me. It really has, and I'm thankful. That's why I never sit down to a meal without first pausing to give thanks. Every time I think about how many years I've been able to do what I enjoy doing and make a pretty good living and also make a name for myself and a reputation that stands for something, I realize how much I have to be thankful for.

And of course, I was also game. I was always game. I have to put that in here, too. If something came up, I was willing to try it. That doesn't mean that I was always changing what I was doing because I was out there trying to latch onto the latest thing to come along. Some people are like that. Not me. Naturally there are things that come up over the course of the years, and you have to adjust to them because that is the way life is. But I've seen people get away from who they are and what they can do—something they are just wonderful at—just because they think they have to try to be something else. You don't have to do that. You don't have to leave from where you are. I've never forgotten that. You can still be yourself and grow and keep up with the times. If you are going to grow.

When I say I was always game, I mean being willing to take a big chance on yourself because you want to do what you want to do, because when I say that I'm thinking about how I jumped at the offer to go out on the Columbia Wheel with Katie Krippen, and the things I did out on the TOBA* with Gonzelle White's Jamboree, and how I got my job playing organ at the Eblon Theatre in Kansas City, and how I left the Eblon the first time to join the Blue Devils and the second time just to see if there was any way to get with Bennie Moten. And so on to how I did what I did to take over that job at the Reno and start that Three, Three, and Three outfit that got me the attention that brought me back to New York and into the big time. [*TOBA = Theater Owners Booking Association, a circuit of theater owners who booked talent into a string of 80 theaters extending from the East Coast across the South and back across the Midwest with Kansas City being the farthest stop west.]

I was always willing to say, "Let's see what happens," when something came up that looked like it might help me get a little closer to where I wanted to be, and since that's the way I still am, that really is old Count Basie right on up to date, motor scooter and all. As my co-writer says, autobiographies don't have endings. It's like when I segue into the out-chorus of "One O'Clock Jump" to wrap up a dance set or a concert or a stage or nightclub show. I'm not saying this is the end. I'm just saying that's all for now. I'm saying: to be continued, until we meet again. Meanwhile, keep on listening and tapping your feet.”

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray is a joy to read not only because it is choc-a-block with details about all aspects of Count Basie’s career, but also because the narrative flows so easily.

I suspect that the latter has a lot to do with Albert Murray’s skills as a writer. Although it’s Basie telling his story, it’s Murray writing and editing it in such as way as to make the process of reading it similar to the excitement one feels while reading an enthralling novel or an exciting mystery.

It’s also an interesting documentary on the development of Jazz in Kansas City which complements the many studies of the evolution of the music in New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. This book goes a long way toward rectifying the fact that Kansas City Jazz is often overlooked as a major wellspring for the music.

Lastly, it is a delightful read about a world-gone-by, never to come again. But you can visit it vicariously through a reading of this marvelous autobiography which was a longtime in coming, but well worth the wait.

The following video montage features the New Testament Basie Band performing Neal Hefti’s composition and arrangement of The Flight of the Foo Birds.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Lullaby of Birdland" - George Shearing

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

The following is excerpted from George’s aptly-titled autobiography Lullaby of Birdland [New York: Continuum Books, 2004].

Jazz clubs were always a mixed blessing for the music and its makers. They were, for the most part, unhealthy environments: smoke-filled rooms that pedaled booze. But ever since its inception, clubs had been where Jazz musicians went to make a living.

But leave it to George to write a lullaby to one.

“In 1952, Morris Levy, who owned Birdland, which had opened on the site of the Clique, came to me and said they were about to start a regular disc jockey show sponsored by the club. The club was at 1678 Broadway, at West 44th, a few blocks south of 52nd Street, and it's been built up so much in jazz legend by people with vivid imaginations that you might think it was a huge palatial place. In fact it was just a little jazz club, not very different from those on the Street itself, that held around 150 people, 175 at the most.

Nevertheless, its fame had spread much wider than the immediate area, because it had had a wire in there for broadcasting almost since it opened back in 1949. Mostly, those radio shows had been eavesdropping on sets by whatever band was playing there, but now the local WJZ station in New York was going to take this new disc jockey program, sponsored by Birdland, and running from 11 p.m. for up to six hours every night, as well as featuring some of the bands playing there.

Morris wanted me to record a theme, to be played every hour on the hour, and he sent the music to me. It wasn't much good, and so I called Morris and said, "Look, I can't relate very well to this theme you've sent me, why don't I write one for you?"
He was immediately on the defensive. He said, "I'll bet you'd like to write one, because you have your own music publishing company, haven't you?"

He figured that if the show was a success and the tune was played every night, then the rights would add up to something worth having. But although I had set up my own publishing firm, that wasn't actually the reason I didn't want to record Morris's song. It just wasn't very good. So I said to him, "The reason I want to write a tune is so that I can feel comfortable about playing it."

"Well," he came back with, "we would feel comfortable about you recording a tune that we own."

So I suggested a compromise. I said, "Okay, I'll give you the publishing rights, but
I'll keep the composer's rights."

Morris said, "Fine."

As it turned out, [my wife] Trixie wasn't too happy with this decision. She was running my music publishing company  — indeed there were eventually three companies, including one for ASCAP and one for BMI — and she really thought I ought to have kept all the rights for myself. But to start with, that was hardly a problem, because writing the tune wasn't quite as straightforward as I had expected. I sat down and wrote something, but when I played it to Trixie, she said, "This is terrible."

So for two days I thought the thing over. For some reason my mind went blank and although I wanted to write a song, I just couldn't think of anything. Finally I got to the point where I thought there was nothing for it but to send in the piece I'd written that Trixie reckoned was so awful.

That night, at our house in Old Tappan, New Jersey, where Trixie and I had moved not long before all this happened, I was sitting down to dinner, my favorite char-broiled steak. I'd just started to eat when I jumped up.

Trixie said, "What's wrong with it?" thinking there was something amiss with the food, because sometimes I would jump up with a yell if there was something on my food that was unexpected or which I didn't like.

That night there was nothing wrong with the food. I rushed over to the piano and said, "How's this?" I sat down and played right through Lullaby of Birdland. It just came to me, the whole thing, just like that. Within ten minutes I'd got the entire song worked out. Since then I've been back to the same butcher several times and asked him if if he could manage a repetition of that steak. Actually quite a lot of my compositions have come this way — very slow going for a week or so, and then the finished piece comes together very rapidly, but as I say to those who criticize this method of working, it's not that I dash something off in ten minutes, it's ten minutes plus umpteen years in the business.

It sounds rather flippant to say that, to justify why I can write something so quickly which will come out as a piece that people remember. I'm not pretentious enough to have thought from the outset, "I knew they were going to remember that song," but there's undoubtedly a catchiness in that opening phrase that people identify with me. "Oh, Shearing," they think — in other words, musically they know how to spell my name.

By contrast, I have to say that I observe a number of today's jazz musicians who are attempting to compose without much knowledge of jazz history. They don't know how it all started, and even some of those who do, don't really care. They take the attitude that, "This is what I want to do, and these are the few chords that I want to play to do it." My response is that if they took the trouble to listen to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Coleman Hawkins, or to study wonderful orchestrators like Fletcher Henderson, Sy Oliver, and Bill Finegan, they'd have a much deeper grounding in music in general and jazz in particular.”

That grounding has allowed me to record numerous different treatments of Lullaby of Birdland over the years. I've played it so many times that it is possible to get quite tired of doing so — although I never tire of being able to pay the rent from it!””