Friday, May 8, 2020

Little Johnny Coles - From Three Perspectives

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

“Moody's 1956 version [of Body and Soul] (Chess) is notable for a splendid Johnny Coles long-meter trumpet solo that coolly navigates the major/minor changes.”
- Gary Giddins, Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation

“Trumpet player Johnny Coles, who worked with Gil from 1958 to 1964, plays a prominent role on … Out of the Cool and delineates Gil's ambiguous nuances. Though Coles's playing recalls Miles's in some ways—spare, with a meted-out intensity — Coles has a sound all his own.”
- Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool: His Life and Music

“DAVENPORT BLUES is a vehicle for the beautifully lyrical trumpet of Johnny Coles. His solo is marvelously constructed using space, inflection, a wide variety of scales, a fat, funky sound and imaginative articulation to excellent advantage.”
- Dave Baker, insert notes to Gil Evans: The Great Jazz Standards

“Johnny’s Coles’s bare and evocative style was a favorite of Gil Evans, who used it to great advantage on such recordings as Out of the Cool and The Great Jazz Standards.”
- Randy Sandke, The Trumpet in Jazz, Bill Kirchner, Ed. The Oxford Companion to Jazz

One of the personal benefits of writing this blog is that I get to go on a great exploration as I prepare each of the features that I post.

Sometimes these quests take me to places in the music that I wasn’t expecting to go.

As a case in point, preparing a recent feature on tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks re-introduced me to the playing of trumpeter Johnny Coles who joins Tina on the front line of Brooks’ CD The Waiting Game.

If you know anything about the career of Jazz trumpeter “Little” Johnny Coles [1926-1997], then you know that what there is about him in the Jazz literature is so meager and so hard to find that one would be fortunate to have one point of view on his playing and career, let alone three.

5”3” tall with his shoes on [!], Johnny Coles was the recipient of the Downbeat Critics New Star award in 1965.

Johnny sculpts beautiful solos with hardly a superflous note.

He never became a star name, but his associations with a half-dozen of the leading jazz figures of the post-war era are significant enough testament to his musical ability.

Whether through circumstances or lack of inclination, Coles seemed content to work with others at the helm throughout his career, but he earned a significant reputation within those parameters. He was never a band-leader of any note, and recorded very few records under his own name. His debut album The Warm Sound, appeared in 1961 [Epic], while his most significant record as a leader, Little Johnny C, was issued on Blue Note label in 1963.

He taught himself to play trumpet from the age of 10, later adding the customary flugelhorn as well. He studied music at the Mastbaum Vocational School in Philadelphia, and played in army bands during the war years. His initial post-war experience came in commercial bands, notably a rhythm and blues outfit led by saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, which also included John Coltrane and Red Garland in its ranks.

He had an extended association with saxophonist James Moody in 1956-8. On leaving Moody's band, Coles began working with Gil Evans, whose own standing in the public eye had been greatly elevated by the success of his collaborations with Miles Davis.

Coles was a very different trumpeter in stylistic terms, but Evans admired his dry, economical sound and his ability to exploit musical space with just the right placement of notes, a virtue he did share with Davis.

Those qualites are evident in Coles's contributions to several of Evans's important recordings, including the imaginative re-workings of classic jazz material in the New Bottle Old Wine (1958) and Great Jazz Standards (1959) albums, and the seminal Out of the Cool, recorded in 1960 and regarded as Evans's masterpiece.

Coles's rounded tone and controlled, almost austere lyricism, combined with his ability to find his own means of individual expression within the context of what his leader was trying to create, make that record a highlight of his six year tenure with the Gil Evans Orchestra, which ended when he was recruited by Charles Mingus for a tour of Europe in 1964, in a sextet which also featured saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan, and pianist Jaki Byard.

Sadly, we will never know what might have come of that association, or that fascinating combination of talents. Coles was taken ill early on the tour, and had to return home. He never rejoined the Mingus band, and missed most of the live recordings made on the tour, although those on which he did feature (which includes a concert with the sextet recorded at Town Hall, New York, just before the tour began) have left an intriguing glimpse of what might have been.

He continued to play and record in New York, including albums with pianist Duke Pearson and the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto. In 1968, he joined the first incarnation of pianist Herbie Hancock's ground-breaking sextet, and is featured on The Prisoner (1969).

In 1969, Coles went all the way back to his early rhythm and blues roots when he joined the Ray Charles Orchestra, an association which lasted until the trumpeter was recruited by Duke Ellington in 1971. He remained a fixture in the Ellington Orchestra until 1974, then spent another two years with Ray Charles.

In the 1980s, his versatility and experience remained in demand. He made a rare album under his own name, New Morning, for the Dutch-based Criss Cross label in 1982, and toured with several tribute and revival bands, including the Count Basie Orchestra, Mingus Dynasty, and a project devoted to the music of pianist and arranger Tadd Dameron.

Coles retired from performing in 1989. He died in 1997.

What follows are the three perspectives referenced in the title in the form of an overview of Johnny’s career which Phil Freeman developed for Blue Note Records’ website, Duke Pearson’s liner notes to Little Johnny C [LP 32129, CDP 7243 8 32129 2 7], perhaps Coles’ most important recording, and Michael James’ extensive review of this recording which appeared in the April, 1966 edition of Jazz Monthly.

I realize that portions of these pieces may be repetitive concerning some of my introductory comments, but I wanted to maintain the integrity of each of these essays and in so doing perhaps present a fuller portrayal of Johnny Coles, a musician who was much admired by his peers but little known by the general public.

Phil Freeman - Biographic Overview of Johnny Coles for the Blue Note Website

“Trumpeter Johnny Coles, born in Trenton, NJ in 1926, was an in-demand sideman from the 1950s to the 1970s. Though he got his start in R&B, he made a smooth transition to jazz, working with James Moody, Gil Evans (playing on Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain) and Herbie Hancock, as well as returning to his roots with Ray Charles, and later on joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra and Art Blakey’s band. Perhaps his most famous role, though, was as trumpeter in Charles Mingus’s highly regarded 1964 sextet, which also featured reedists Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan, pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Dannie Richmond. Coles made few recordings as a leader, and only one for Blue Note—1965’s Little Johnny C. But his sharp, clear tone always made him stand out, and he played on several notable albums for the label during the 1960s.

Coles’ first Blue Note gig was on saxophonist Tina Brooks’ final session, in March 1961. The music wasn’t released until 2002, as The Waiting Game. It’s a punchy, swinging hard bop date featuring the two horns backed by pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummerPhilly Joe Jones. Coles and Brooks work well together, trading melodic, bluesy solos that showcase the lyricism that marked each man’s style. Brooks was a performer somewhat ill-served by the record industry; only one of his Blue Note albums, True Blue, was actually released during his lifetime, making him far better known as a sideman (working with Kenny Burrell,Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Smith and others). But both he and Coles swing hard on The Waiting Game, particularly on opening track “Talkin’ About,” the forceful, yet romantic “Dhyana,” and the somewhat exotically flavored “David the King.”

In February 1963, Coles played on pianist Horace Parlan’s Happy Frame of Mind, alongside saxophonist Booker Ervin, guitarist Grant Green, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Billy Higgins. Like The Waiting Game, it sat in the vaults for a while—it was originally released in 1976, under Ervin’s name, as Back From the Gig. Though it’s definitely grounded in the bluesy, soulful hard bop that was Parlan’s stock in trade, the album finds all the players stretching into more adventurous territory, along the line of many similar sessions Blue Note would record and release between 1963 and 1965, as they shepherded a number of “inside-outside” musicians, including Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Bobby Hutcherson, among others. Like Lee Morgan’sSearch for the New Land, Happy Frame of Mind offers the sound of players breaking their own self-imposed limits and uncovering rewarding new territory in the process.

The trumpeter next appeared on Green’s Am I Blue?, recorded in May 1963 with saxophonistJoe Henderson, organist John Patton, and drummer Ben Dixon. As its title suggests, this is an album suffused with a powerful, stoic melancholy, and Coles and Henderson serve as a superb chorus, punching in behind Green’s lead lines as though he was a blues or soul vocalist. When the trumpeter takes his first (brief) solo, on “Take These Chains From My Heart,” his tone is full, but somehow constricted, and his notes pierce the listener; it’s as though he’s trying to hold back tears. He plays in a similarly mournful style on the affecting “I Wanna Be Loved,” perfectly summing up the album’s overall feeling of sorrowful brooding. Am I Blue? is one of the great late-night, coffee-and-cigarettes albums in Grant Green’s discography, and Coles’ trumpet solos are one of the crucial elements of its success.

Coles recorded his sole Blue Note album as a leader at two 1963 sessions, held on July 18 and August 9. Little Johnny C was made with a mixture of well-known players—Joe Henderson on tenor sax again, Duke Pearson on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Pete La Roca on drums half the time—and other, slightly more obscure musicians, like alto saxophonist Leo Wright and drummer Walter Perkins, who plays on the other half of the album. In many respects, this was as much Pearson’s session as Coles’; he wrote five of the six tunes, and did the arranging. Still, despite Pearson’s sweetly bluesy soloing on the title cut and elsewhere, it’s a horn-driven album, and the interplay between Coles and Henderson in particular is fierce and joyous, the two men trading turns in the spotlight at great speed and with sharp clarity of musical purpose.

One of Johnny Coles’ greatest recordings was lost to history for over four decades. Charles Mingus’s 1964 sextet barely got anything on tape other than European bootlegs and a single concert at New York’s Town Hall, but in 2007, Blue Note released Cornell 1964, a concert that was not only previously unreleased, but forgotten by all but those who’d been present at the time. The radically extended workouts the band indulged in—two tracks, “Fables of Faubus” and “Meditations,” run a half hour each, and three others, “Orange Was the Color of Her Hair Then Blue Silk,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “So Long Eric,” are more than 15 minutes long each—provide plenty of room for lengthy soloing. Coles makes the most of his time in the spotlight, particularly on “Fables” and, of all things, a version of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” a tune that elicits audience laughter as it begins, but wild applause after the band, and the trumpeter in particular, have wound their way through it.

Coles only appeared on one other session for Blue Note—he was part of the expanded ensemble that recorded Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner. But his unique voice and style on the horn always made him a standout player, no matter the session or material.

Duke Pearson - Insert Notes to Little Johnny Coles [LP 32129, CDP 7243 8 32129 2 7]

“MY first contact with Johnny Coles came early in 1959. Just after my arrival in the big city, I went to Birdland to hear the pure sounds of the modern jazz giants. As I was descending the stairs to sit in the "peanut gallery" (reserved for non-drinkers), I was greeted by the established sound of the Gil Evans orchestra, but attracted more so by the warm sound of the trumpet soloist. I paused on the bottom step staring in wide eyed amazement at a young man standing about five feet, three or four inches tall, leaning way back, and using much "body english" to help emphasize each phrase he played. This little man, I learned, was John Coles.

The next tune was his spotlight number, Davenport Blues. It was a gas! He leaned even farther back, and used more "body-english" with his phrases, and his horn seemed to cry from the warmth that was within the very big soul of this little giant.

My next encounter was in 1960 while I was with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. We played a theatre date at the Howard in Washington, D.C., and Johnny Coles was the featured soloist with the James Moody band. (He was with Moody five years.) I wondered why I hadn't heard more of him before, because it was quite obvious that the music had been written and arranged around the way he plays. And he was truly "the sound" in both groups.

I learned that aside from playing and recording with Gil and Moody, he had worked with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (John Coltrane and Red Garland were in the band), and with the Gene Ammons group. Also with Bullmoose Jackson, who at the time had Benny Golson, Tadd Dameron, Jymie Merritt and Philly Joe Jones.

Remembering what I had heard at Birdland and at the Howard Theatre in D.C., I called Johnny to record with me, using two trumpets, the other being my good friend Donald Byrd. This began a very close musical relationship with Johnny that's still in existence.

Earlier this year, I worked a Monday night gig with Johnny at Birdland. Blue Note's Alfred Lion happened to be there and heard us play Little Johnny C. He liked it very much and thought it would be a good number to record. Mr. Lion and I talked this over, and eventually I was given the green light to prepare the session. Aside from the already chosen Little Johnny C, other music was needed to compliment the delicate way Johnny plays. This was no problem, because Johnny and I had been working together for more than a year, and during this period we came to know each other's taste very well.

Little Johnny C.—the title tune, is an uptempo F Major blues. The first solo is by guest artist Leo Wright for five cookin' choruses, followed by "Little Johnny C." himself. With piano strolling the first two choruses, Johnny displays his ability to deviate from form by playing in several "other" keys without disrupting the context of pattern. Thirdly, Joe Henderson for four choruses, then piano and out.

Hobo Joe — written by Joe Henderson, is a Latin-flavored B flat blues that goes to swing on the third and fourth blowing choruses. Johnny is first on the solo order, and here his versatility is most evident. He's cool, aggressive and always in good taste. Leo makes his entrance reminiscent of the early Louis Jordan influence. "Hobo Joe" Henderson enters cool and remains cool throughout. For me, Henderson is the possessor of the freshest tenor sound around. And he too belongs to the Blue Note soulstation. He can be heard at length on his Blue Note album Page One (BLP 4140), as well as with Kenny Dorham on his album Una Mas (One More Time) (BLP 4127).

Jano — a nine bar tune, concludes the side. And here Coles is at his best. His knowledge of what to do with chords is amazing. Honorable mentions here for Bob Cranshaw's sturdy bass lines and Walter Perkins' unobtrusive fill-ins.

My Secret Passion — This jazz waltz melody is prettily played by Johnny, after which he goes into a very engaging solo. Henderson's development of phrases is unique, and Leo's flute solo displays his versatility. Pete LaRoca replaces Walter Perkins on drums, and Bob Cranshaw remains solid as a rock.

Heavy Legs — a bright 32-bar tune presents Coles as the pace-setter. Here he sounds like he did when I heard him with Gil Evans, only mellowed with age. He definitely sets the mood for what's to follow. Joe Henderson comes through splendidly — the rhythm settles — Joe quotes 'Isn't It Romantic?" — and it certainly is! Leo ends his climactic solo, and Cranshaw and LaRoca steadily carry the romp through the piano solo and the shout phraseology "heavy legs".

So Sweet My Little Girl — was written for my seven-year-old daughter, Cynthia. Johnny restricts himself to solo-melody duties, and I'm given the solo spot to play tribute to my little Cynthia. Johnny's sound here is that of a proud parent serenading his own little daughter.

Such trumpet greats as Miles, Dizzy, Fats, Brownie, Kenny Dorham, etc., have all reached their own distinctive styles as a result of admiration and respect for other greats.

This respect and admiration did not give in to imitating, which, therefore gave them the unrestricted opportunity to discover their own individual potential.
Johnny Coles is a warm individual with a personal approach to each note or phrase he plays. A painter of very beautiful patterns. And after listening to him here, you'll be able to distinguish his style from any of his contemporaries.

So, with the given permission to prepare this album, the original compositions contributed, piano accompaniment, and the writing of these liner notes, it gives me a great honor to pay tribute to such a big little giant as "Little Johnny C."
—DUKE PEARSON [original liner notes]

Michael James

Jazz Monthly  April 1966  “Through The Net”
However keen a student of jazz you may be, so ample are the companies' monthly release lists that it is all too easy at the present time to overlook really exceptional records, particularly if the musicians involved are not especially well-known.  The big fish will almost certainly be caught in the collector's net, but a Johnny Coles, who has never attracted much critical notice, may very well make a fresh and exciting record and still see it escape the attention of even the best informed enthusiast.  In initiating the present series, I hope my colleagues on the magazine will be inspired occasionally to contribute to it. If the records they choose to write about are as good as “Little Johnny C”, which was recently released as Blue Note [BLP 4144, 11 catalogue number for release in England and the british Commonwealth]] for one shall be more than grateful.    
Earlier recordings featuring Coles, such as Duke Pearson's “Hush” or the Gil Evans albums, showed that without being overwhelmed by Miles Davis's influence he had nevertheless been deeply affected by that trumpeter's style: using similar phrasing he somehow managed to evoke a personal climate of feeling.  This is a feat clearly superior to, say, Nat Adderley's skilful pastiche of the Davis style.  It is instructive to reflect that Davis might himself have arrived at an identical manner had he not elected to develop his gifts along different lines.  
Whereas the Davis of this decade presents at his unfettered best a sharper, tauter, and altogether more extreme version of the lonely lyricism that informed his work of ten years back, Coles, working forward, it seems, from the same basis, has concentrated on further developing the complementary facets of the style: mobility within the line, tonal grace, and melodic charm.  Again like the Davis of a decade ago, Coles ensures that the tenderness implicit in his style is not dissipated into mere sentimentality by choosing to work with a strong rhythm team and enclosing the solo statements of the group he leads within firm ensemble frameworks.  This, at all events, is the conclusion we must draw from the album at present under discussion.  
The session which produced it found him leading a six-piece band comprising, in addition to his own trumpet, tenor and alto saxophones, piano, bass and drums.  Duke Pearson, pianist and composer on the date, and of whose valuable contributions to the album's success I shall have more to say presently, drives straight in with two brisk choruses on the opener and title number, Little Johnny C, before the sinuous blues theme is twice stated by the horns.  
Leo Wright opens the solo sequence with five storming alto choruses.  Working mainly in the upper register, he conveys a climate of fervid expostulation without sounding markedly individual.  The chief influences on his style seem to be Parker and Adderley.  
Coles, who follows, operates at a higher creative level.  At once thoughtful and harmonically adventurous, he maintains an unusual level of tension not by extremes of tonal force or basic rhythmic drive, but through unconventionally spacing out runs and single notes over the rhythm team's fast yet precise beat.  One gets the impression that, like Lee Konitz, he never plays a favourite lick just to fill a gap in the line.  Joe Henderson follows with a short solo, hard and nasal, before Pearson's piano stint, notable for its rhythmic case and interesting chordal section, heralds the theme's reprise.    
Although possessing a latin flavour, Hobo Joe is a much more ordinary sort of blues by today's standards, replete with the funk the preceding number lacks.  Its rhythmic and melodic content are nevertheless well developed.  Coles is the first man in.  He plays two wistful, understated choruses over the saxes' riffs and the rhythm section's latin pattern before he goes to swing on the third, releasing the tension in masterly fashion.  

This chorus and the next have Wright and Henderson playing a theme-derived figure on which Coles comments tellingly.  In his last two solo choruses he works over a straight four, bending and squeezing notes to engaging effect and making his phrases scamper up, over and around the basic beat, displaying a command of time the equal of Hank Mobley's.  The climaxes he engineers here are the more exciting for the light tone and, one might even say, the quietness with which they are created.  To draw what to some may seem a rather distant comparison, they have the incisiveness of those moments in Jane Austen's work when a spiteful action assumes dimensions of cruelty it could never take on against a more turbulent backdrop.  This to my mind is Coles's best improvisation of the set and dwarfs the contributions of the other soloists, laudable as they are.    
In Jano he comes close to this level, but via a different route.  The virtues of his work on this unorthodox nine-bar theme are those of fluency and sustained melodic inventiveness.  His harmonic knowledge enables him to create a surprisingly 'free' solo over the course of which the listener is never vexed by undue awareness of a recurring chordal cycle.  Once again, there are piano, alto and tenor solos, the saxophonists being split by Coles's piece.    
On the numbers already described Bob Cranshaw played bass  and Walter Perkins drums, making, with Duke Pearson, a strong and dependable team.  Perkins's style, however, does at times tend towards stolidity, and it was pleasant, if also for variety's sake, to find that the remaining three items featured Pete La Roca instead.  La Roca, who first came to enthusiasts' notice with Sonny Rollins in 1957, has grown to be one of the foremost drum stylists of his generation; his playing is especially notable for the fluent intricacy of his cymbal work, and this skill, coupled with the consistent level of inspiration we have come to expect from him, raises the standard of group interest in the items featured on the second side.  
My Sweet Passion, a lifting, leisurely theme in 3/4 time, gives him lots of scope.  Since this piece also has the best piano solo of the set, this would seem to be the most appropriate moment to pay tribute to Duke Pearson.  His nimble right-hand variations in the Powell tradition are complemented by chordal patterns harmonically richer and more rhythmically varied than most of the great pianist's disciples contrive; his flair as an accompanist approaches that of an Al Haig; and his organisational skills are clearly demonstrated throughout the album.  
Perhaps the most eloquent tribute to his ability is afforded by the writing.  Responsible for all the themes except Hobo Joe, he has devised a programme that is considerably more arresting than those found today on most records made by a similarly sized group.  His musicianship is also abundantly clear here in the way he rounds out from the keyboard Coles's resilient yet firmly evocative melodic lines.  Besides Henderson's sound tenor work, there is also a short flute solo from Leo Wright.    
In Heavy Legs, a storming 32-bar theme with riffs for the horns, Wright is back on alto, but again it is Coles who steals the show with two leaping choruses, building cleverly to a peak of rhythmic intricacy in the last eight bars.  Other points worth noting here are Pearson's adroit use of the melody in his solo and the subtle shifts of texture La Roca engineers in his cymbal work to suit the varying top line.  The drummer's skill, not only with sticks but with brushes too, is also a feature of the final number, So Sweet My Little Girl, a carefully arranged ballad that comes as a contrast to the buoyant excursions that make up the rest of this collection.  If projecting personal feeling whilst interpreting a written line is as sure a test of a jazzman's quality as it is often said to be, then we have here a further proof of Coles's stature.  Cushioned by saxophone harmonies and the tasteful support of the rhythm men, he gives a thoroughly convincing reading of this yearning. slow-paced theme.  Though avoiding extremes of volume and featuring his characteristic tone, he never allows the piece to bog down in sentiment; in comparison with his playing, Pearson's discreet piano sounds positively lush!  Really this is a most suitable conclusion to the programme, because although at first hearing it seems divorced in mood from the other items, in actual fact it exhibits, in a different tempo range, the self-same qualities: imaginative writing and a distinctive and well supported solo voice.    

Numerous auditions of this record and comparisons with Miles Davis releases have convinced me that in Johnny Coles we have a man who, as I implied at the start of this essay, is much more than an adroit imitator.  If you doubt me, play Miles's Walkin' from the Blackhawk set after, say, Jano from this one.  Marked similarities there are in phrasing, even affinities of tone, but each man stamps his own mark on the music.  Where Davis explodes, Coles insinuates; where Davis can cut through to the heart of a theme, Coles often seems subtly to draw out its melodic essence.  I don't expect to carry every reader with me on this point, because I know full well it is easier to catalogue the likenesses than apprehend the distinctions; but if only he is given greater opportunity to work and record, Coles, I feel sure, will go on to command ever greater respect from the dedicated jazz listener.”

The following video features Johnny on the track that started this quest. The tune is tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks’ Talkin’ About which features a rhythm section made up of Kenny Drew, piano, Wilbur Ware, bass and “Philly” Joe Jones drums.

1 comment:

  1. Great article about Little Johnny Coles, who's not as well known today as he definitely deserves to be. A few months ago, I wrote an article in my blog, Jazz Flashes, about one of his Blue Note albums. You may access it here:

    Thanks again for a very thorough post!



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