Sunday, May 10, 2020

Shorty Rogers and The Wizard of Oz

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“If ever a “Wiz there was” at adapting superior popular songs to big band modern jazz, it's curly-bearded Shorty Rogers.”
- John Tynan, West Coast Editor Down Beat 

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to continued its visit to Mr. Rogers neighborhood - no, not Fred, Shorty - and thought we’d focus on one particular album to discuss the nature and structure of his big band arrangements which Ted Gioia describes this way in his seminal work on the subject of West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960:

“ … [Shorty’s] arrangements could swing without ostentation; his solos were executed with untroubled fluency; his compositions seemed to navigate the most difficult waters with a relaxed, comfortable flow that belied the often complex structures involved.”

Put another way, Ted associates this “swing without ostentation” with the concept of  -“Sprezzatura” - “The ability to do difficult things with apparent ease.” [ the concept is attributed to Baldassare Castiglione, count of Casatico, Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and prominent Renaissance author].

Since the Renaissance was a 15th and 16th century Italian reawakening largely based on the rediscovery of the cultural and artistic achievements of ancient Greece and Rome, perhaps it's appropriate to apply the following Roman maxim to Shorty's talents and skills as it parallels sprezzatura”:

“Ars Est Celare Artem” - “The perfection of art is to conceal it.”
- Ovid, Roman poet; Proverbs 12:23

As Ted Gioia also points out ” Rogers recorded prolifically between 1951 and 1963e but his visibility in jazz was hindered by his virtual retirement from performing situations since the early 1960s.  Rogers [had not ]actually left the music world; … [he]simply applied … [his] skills elsewhere, in studio work or academic pursuits. Rogers But his lengthy absence from the jazz world has meant that his work, once widely known, is now largely unfamiliar to many jazz fans and critics.” [paraphrased].

Not surprisingly, there is another ancient Roman saying that describes this development as well, although the original intent of the adage may have been different:

“Ut Saepe Summa Ingenia In Occulto Latent” - “How often the greatest talents are shrouded in obscurity.”
- Plautus, Roman playwright [c. 254-184 BC]

We’ve been doing our part to remedy this Shrouded Shorty Situation [sorry, I couldn’t resist] with periodic features about Rogers on this page.

Although Shorty often expressed his fondness for the easy swing of the Count Basie band and tried to reflect that in his big band arrangements, I’ve long been of the opinion that Shorty also had an affinity for some aspects of Duke Ellington’s approach to writing for a big band.

I don’t want to force comparisons here because the Duke maintained his own orchestra for almost 50 years, while Shorty would assemble a band as needed for recording projects.

But both men tried to reflect the singular features of members in their band by voicing arrangements to reflect, incorporate or emphasize certain aspects of their tone, timbre, range, improvisational style or just the unique sound of the instrument itself.

With regard to the latter, the Duke was one of the first to add the baritone saxophone to his sax section; he employed a valve trombone; emphasized muted trumpets and plunger trombones.

Shorty came of age during a period of high register trumpets, pedal tone bass trombones, electric guitars and vibraphones and blended all of these in his arrangements, along with French horns, tubas, piccolos and flutes.

So Duke takes into consideration the singular characteristics of trumpeters Cootie Williams, Ray Nance and Clark Terry, trombonist Tricky Sam Lofton, valve trombonist Juan Tizol, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney when voicing his arrangements.

Shorty, on the other hand, would score for upper register trumpet screamers like Maynard Ferguson and Al Porcino, the master of the clarinet’s lower register, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Enevoldson’s valve trombone, Frank Rosolino’s tenor trombone, John Graas’ French horn, Gene Englund’s tuba,  the flutes of Paul Horn and Bud Shank, Art Pepper’s alto saxophonist, vibraphonist Larry Bunker, and guitarist Barney Kessel. Of course, you need to leave lots of room in your arrangements for kicks, licks and fills by Mel Lewis, the personification of big band drumming in the modern era, and Shorty certainly accommodated this “need.”

Duke wrote much of the music for his band and seldom arranged the works of other composers. Shorty, too, wrote many compositions for his big band recordings but he wasn’t averse to orchestrating the music composed by others, especially the songs composed by those usually associated with the Great American Songbook.

Which brings me to the album featured in the title of this piece Shorty Rogers and his Orchestra featuring The Giants The Wizard of Oz and other Harold Arlen songs which was released in 1959 as RCA Victor LPM-1997 and reissued on CD in 1996 [RCA BMG Spain 74321453792].

John Tynan, the West Coast editor of down beat magazine and a great fan of Shorty and his music, wrote the following liner notes for the 1959 LP.

If ever a “Wiz there was” at adapting superior popular songs to big band modern jazz, it's curly-bearded Shorty Rogers. Shorty's singular quality in this area is his capacity to get the most out of the music at hand from the standpoint of orchestration, yet hew strictly to a swinging jazz line. The success of his recent album, CHANCES ARE IT SWINGS (LPM/LSP-1975), in which the tunes were those of Robert Allen, is a perfect case in point. This time the lure was the superlative songs of Harold Arlen who, with lyricist E. Y. Harburg, wrote the score for M-G-M's film version of the fantasy. In addition to the Oz music, this album proffered a tempting opportunity to present five other enduring Arlen melodies.

Results of the trumpeter-arranger's jazz pilgrimage to the Emerald City of Oz for an audience with the Wizard are tangible evidence that in jazz it's not only what you do but the way you do it. As Shorty sees it, the issue reduces itself to a two-way proposition—the manner in which one handles certain music and the substance of the music per se.

Contemplating the score from the Judy Garland film classic, Rogers confesses he's been wigged by the Wiz since childhood. And from time to time, the vagrant thought occurred that a jazz adaptation of this music should prove an interesting challenge to him as arranger-orchestrator. "The one thing that gassed me about this music," he declares, "is that it's so well suited to a fairy tale. It's gay, light in spirit... and even when done in jazz it's still got that cute, merry quality."

As Shorty tells it, this album might never have happened had it not been for pianist Lou Levy's choice of tunes in his album SOLO SCENE, recorded under Shorty's supervision some years ago. "Lou's album was the first I did for Victor," Rogers recalls, "and from the production end it's my favorite. Anyway, one of the tunes on the date was Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead. This revived my interest in the music from The Wizard of Oz' and from that time on I've wanted to orchestrate it — but in a special way. Lou's treatment of the tune was so great, I wanted to orchestrate it in a similar style — I mean to use Lou's solo as direct basis for the instrumentation. And that's just what I did here. In several sections of the arrangement all I did was merely orchestrate what Lou played. So, in a way you could say that Lou Levy is indirectly responsible for this album." Also included on the SOLO SCENE album were Harold Arlen's That Old Black Magic and that perennial vehicle for jazz improvisation, Get Happy. In the Rogers' arrangements of those songs in this set, the Levy influence is again apparent. The out chorus of Get Happy is taken straight from Levy's solo.

As in CHANCES ARE IT SWINGS, Rogers has utilized the small-band-within-a-big-band format, one integrated with the other or in opposition. There are frequent occasions, also, when the arrangement is split between small and big units. On Let's Fall in Love, for example, the small group — consisting of vibes, guitar, clarinet and muted trumpet with the rhythm section —  take over on the first bridge from the block-busting brass. Again, in If I Only Had a Brain, the big and small groups alternate, creating a framework for the soloists.

Heard throughout in solo spots both on trumpet and flugelhorn is the effervescent Shorty constantly chased by the horns of Jimmy Giuffre (clarinet and tenor), Barney Kessel—(guitar), Bob Enevoldsen (valve-trombone), Herb Geller (tenor), Bud Shank (alto and tenor), Larry Bunker (vibes), Don Fagerquist (trumpet in the small group) and Frank Rosolino, whose gymnastic solo trombone is heard only in The Merry Old Land of Oz. Joe Mondragon is responsible for the occasional bass interludes, and his rhythm mate, Mel "The Tailor" Lewis, sews up the time with relentless imaginative drive. Pete Jolly whose piano is an unfailing asset both in rhythm section and solo, takes charge on Over the Rainbow which here takes the form of a miniature concerto for Pete's considerable talent. In keeping with the overall ebulliency of this album the opening Afro-Cuban track proclaims in overture fashion, We're off to See the Wizard. There can be no doubt that Shorty and the boys were granted the sought-for audience in Oz.... Quite obviously, the Wizard dug the scene.”                                                                                                      —JOHN TYNAN

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