Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons: Cutting Sessions and Chases

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

“Today, fame can come swiftly on the heels of a Top Twenty record, but there was a time when a musician had to prove himself to other musicians in a cutting session. Whether a fellow hailed from New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, or wherever, he had to come to the center—New York— before he could get on the road to (relatively speaking) fame and fortune.

There, in the Apple, his skill was tested in competition with the established ones. If he couldn't cut the mustard, he became part of the anonymous mob; capable, perhaps, but not of star quality. However, if the critical, hard blowing jazzmen conceded him recognition, that acclaim would carry him on to bigger and better jobs.

This musical action on the New York battlefield was the cutting session, and the expression was an appropriate one. When a musician picked up his instrument, his intention was to outperform the other man. No quarter was given or expected, and the wound to a musician's ego and reputation could be as deep as a cut.

To a degree, all musicians, white or black, underwent the same test of strength. After arriving in the big town, a player first got squared away with a room. The next thing he'd do would be to ask where the musicians hung out. Downtown and in the evenings, this was usually a bar, say Charlie's Tavern. By day, it was much easier—most of the fellows could be found congregated on the street around the offices of the musicians union, Local 802. But uptown, night or day, Bert Hall's Rhythm Club at 132nd Street, just off Seventh Avenue in Harlem was the main testing ground, and there most of the jamming originated.”

As I recall, the process of elimination usually went this way. Whenever a stranger popped into the Rhythm Club, somebody would greet him with a hearty "Hi there, where are you from?" followed by "What do you blow?" If the newcomer was carrying his saxophone, trombone, or trumpet case, he would be invited to blow some, or, as they said in the argot of the time, "to show out."

Some piano man—and there were always a few of them in the place— would amble over to the keyboard and start comping a tune like "Sweet Georgia Brown" or "Dinah." This was the cue for the stranger to pull out his instrument and show what he could do. Meanwhile, the word had gone out all over the neighborhood—"stand by!"—because if this cat was really good, it was the duty of every tub to drop whatever he was doing and rush to the club. And nobody ever did fall into New York City and cut the entire field— some brother always came to the rescue of New York's prestige.

These sessions, as every other aspect of life, had a pecking order. The giants seldom deigned to compete with the peasantry. Instead, they sat around getting their kicks, listening with amusement as the neophyte struggled to justify his claim to entry into the charmed circle of the (for want of a better word) establishment.
The blowing would start, and the pilgrim's status was soon established— he was either in or out. If he was in, he would be toasted at Big John's bar, and friendships were formed that assured his being invited to sit in a session with the big shots, who did their serious blowing at the Hoofer's Club, downstairs in the basement of the same building.

There, in the Hoofer's Club, the cream of the crop in New York could be found—Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Frankie Trumbauer, Buster Bailey, Sidney De Paris, Fats Waller, and just about every other great name in jazz. Almost every night, rain, snow, or what have you, there was a session—nothing prevented the cats from getting together.”
- Excerpted from Jazz trumpeter Rex Stewart’s chapter, The Cutting Sessions, in his book Jazz Masters of the Thirties as quoted in Robert Gottlieb, ed., Reading Jazz [pp. 387-388]

Cutting sessions and chases, duels and battles and even, for that matter, jam sessions are largely gone from today’s Jazz landscape.

But, as recounted in the opening quotation from Rex Stewart, there was a time when aspiring Jazz musicians had to prove themselves in one of these martial settings.

There are many famous combative pairings in Jazz history - trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa - among many, many others.

This feature focuses on two of my enduring favorites, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons.

Here is some background on each and discography of their recordings together as drawn from Peter Mathieson’s Cookin’ Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65.

© -Peter Mathieson, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Sonny Stitt made his initial impact as an alto saxophonist in a mould that was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker. In 1950, he added tenor and baritone to his armoury, and became equally well known on both alto and tenor. Stitt made a huge number of records across a long career (estimates are put at around 150 albums), most of which have long been unavailable, but his performance on disc was often inconsistent, and frequently fails to justify his high reputation for delivering exciting live performances. When he did find himself in a compatible setting in front of the microphones, or simply in the right mood, he laid down enough tangible evidence of his qualities to ensure that his posthumous reputation would reflect the best of his abilities.

He was born Edward Stitt on 2 February, 1924, in Boston, and emerged to notice playing alto in Tiny Bradshaw's band in the early 1940s. He joined Billy Eckstine's famous bebop-oriented big band in 1945, where he met another saxophonist who became his frequent collaborator over the decades, Gene Ammons. Captivated by Charlie Parker, Stitt developed an early style which owed a great deal to Bird in his phrasing, albeit with distinctive nuances of his own.

He worked with Dizzy Gillespie in both his sextet and big band, and formed a sextet with Gene Ammons in 1949, by which time he had adopted the tenor and, more occasionally, the baritone saxophone as an alternative to the alto. He quickly tired of carrying the baritone on gigs, but interchanged alto and tenor throughout the remainder of his career.

He recorded what are now regarded as classic bop sessions with both Bud Powell and J. J. Johnson for Prestige in 1949-50, and made his own recordings for the label in 1950-1, followed by sides for Savoy in 1952. They reveal a player in full command of the bop idiom, but with an equally sharp awareness of pre-bop styles (Lester Young is a palpable influence on his tenor voice, and he always seemed at home with players from the so-called Swing era).

By common consent, Stitt also possessed the requisite killer instinct when things grew combative on the bandstand. Johnny Griffin has identified him as a particularly formidable and even intimidating presence, while saxophonist Red Holloway has recounted the tale of how Stitt took time and trouble to teach him valuable lessons, then cut the younger saxophonist mercilessly after inviting him onto the stage on a club date.

Such stories locate Stitt firmly in the 'tough tenors' mould, and his partnership with Gene Ammons - as well as other blowing encounters with players like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis - reflects the ethos of the cutting contests and tenor battles which became part of jazz lore in the clubs and after hours joints. The Kansas City scene was one of its prime pre-war battlefields, later succeeded by the clubs of New York in the bop era, and institutionalised in the concert arena through Norman Granz's Jazz at The Philharmonic productions. When it came to sparring, Stitt was widely regarded by his fellow musicians as the toughest of the tough, but his music had a tender side as well, and he was a fine interpreter of ballads, and a genuine master of the blues idiom. …

“Gene Ammons (whose familiar nickname was Jug) was the son of the famous boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons. He was born in Chicago on 14 April, 1925, and was every bit as prolific a recording artist as Stitt. His early joust with Dexter Gordon on Billy Eckstine's 'Blowing The Blues Away' demonstrated his love of a challenge. He worked equally comfortably in both rhythm and blues bands and jazz outfits (including a brief stint with Woody Herman's Third Herd in 1949), and, like Stitt, spent most of his career working as a single. The two saxophonists played together in a twin tenor band in 1949-51, and are heard from that period on Ammons's All Star Sessions on Prestige, which includes three versions of one of their most famous features, 'Blues Up and Down', and its successor, 'New Blues Up and Down'.

Ammons best known records were cut for Prestige, who continued to release their accumulated stock of his recordings while the saxophonist was off the scene from 1962-69, serving a long jail sentence for possession of heroin (he had served a shorter sentence for a previous conviction in 1958-60). They include The Happy Blues (1956), Jammin With Gene (1956), Funky (1957), Jammin In Hi-Fi (1957), The Big Sound (1958), Groove Blues(l 958), Blue Gene (1958), Boss Tenor (1960), Jug (1961), Up Tight (1961), Boss Soul (1961), Angel Eyes (1961), Late Hour Special (1962), Preachin (1962), Bad! Bossa Nova (1962), The Boss Is Back! (1969), Brother Jug! (1969), The Chase (1970) and Big Bad Jug (1972), among others.

The titles say most of what needs to be said about the music -sometimes uneven but usually enjoyable, these are unassuming, hard swinging outings in which strong, emotionally direct blowing in a blues and funk vein is the standing order of the day, leavened by his soulful ballad interpretations (heard to advantage on Nice An' Cool (1961) and The Soulful Moods of Gene Ammons (1962), which were later combined as The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug), and the odd foray into more tightly structured material like the four cuts arranged by Oliver Nelson for a ten-piece band on Late Night Special, or David Axelrod's more pop-oriented ensemble writing on Brasswind (1973).

He played with a number of organists at the height of the soul jazz wave (The Gene Ammons Story: Organ Combos) has a good representation, with Jack McDuffand Johnny 'Hammond' Smith as the featured Hammond men). His sound incorporated an inherent gospel tinge in any case, but he made it overt on Preaching a curiously uninspired collection of well-known hymns. He also cut a valuable session with the rarely recorded pianist Dodo Marmarosa in 1962, which was only released after his death, as Jug and Dodo.

His final disc for the label, returned to the jamming ambience of his classic 1950s sessions, with a fine acoustic septet. Ironically, the last tune of this final session in March, 1974, was an emotional version of the title track, which proved prophetic. The saxophonist died from cancer on 6 August, 1974, in his native Chicago.

The success of Ammons’ records made him one of the most popular saxophonists on the soul jazz scene,  … his overt emotionalism, big sound and truculent tone were tailor-made for the heat of the chase rather than more reflective avenues, and his partnership with Stitt, which they resumed in 1960, provided plenty of opportunity to exercise their considerable chops in that direction.

The pair recorded a number of albums together for Prestige, including Soul Summit (1961), Soul Summit Vol 2 (1962), and We'll Be Together Again (1961) in this initial phase of the reunion, and You Talk That Talk (1971) and Together Again for The Last Time (1973)....  The best of their collaborations, though, is Boss Tenors, recorded in Chicago on 27 August, 1961, for Verve, while the subsequent Boss Tenors in Orbit, recorded in February, 1962, repeated the dose, and is also very strong.

If you were looking for a template for the twin-tenor formula, you could do little better than Boss Tenors. Both men blow their hearts out on a set made up of two standards, including a fiery 'Autumn Leaves' (blown hard from the trees) and a version of 'No Greater Love' taken at a brisk tempo; a couple of original tunes, Ammons's quirky 'The One Before This' and Stitt's 'Counter Clockwise'; and their familiar co-composed blues vehicle, 'Blues Up And Down'. Stitt recorded a tribute to his partner in July, 1975, released as My Buddy: Stitt Plays for Gene Ammons, on the Muse label….”

You can check out the magic of Sonny and Jug blowing together on the following video which, not surprisingly, has as its soundtrack Red Sails in the Sunset from their We’ll Be Together Again recordings Prestige [OJCCD-708-2]. They are accompanied by John Houston, piano, Buster Williams, bass and George Brown on drums.

Gene takes the first solo, Sonny the second; the same order applies to the four bar chase sequence in the “tag” that takes the tune out beginning at 3:20 minutes. Just listen for the piano and bass drum accents to pick up the four bar breaks between the tenor saxes.

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