Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Shelly Manne & His Men ‎– The Gambit ( Full Album )

Shelly Redux – More Thoughts From and About The Manne

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

“Shelly Manne was first-call studio drummer for nearly every major film writer in Hollywood. He worked for Mancini, Goldsmith and Fielding, Williams, Bernstein and everyone in between.

But Jazz was his love, his art.

For 45 years, he was one of the most important voices in Jazz drumming elevating it to a new musical level – and his influences are still felt today, nearly 30 years after his death.

Stan Kenton called him “the greatest drummer in the world.”

Henry Mancini said: “He was a fine reader, but that never got in the way of his musicianship. He was one of the most consistent players I have ever known.”

Shorty Rogers said he was a “genius.””
- Jack Brand and Bill Korst, Shelly Manne: Sounds of a Different Drummer

“There are many reasons for Shelly's success in the studios. He was very quick and bright and kept picking things up as he went along. Nobody had taught him to read. He learned timpani on his own. His natural talent and his ambition made it possible for him to do a lot of things.”
- Florence “Flip” Manne, Shelly’s Wife

“In a truly formal sense, Shelly could barely play the drums. If you gave him a pair of sticks and a snare drum and had him play rudi­ments—an open and closed roll, paradiddles, and all that kind of thing—he didn't sound like much. He never had that kind of training and wasn't inter­ested in it.

For him it was a matter of playing the drums with the music. He could play more music in four bars than almost anyone else. His drums sounded gorgeous. They recorded sensationally. All you had to hear was three or four bars and you knew it was Shelly Manne.
- Larry Bunker, Jazz drummer and premier, studio percussionist

This statement by Larry Bunker is why the late, Shelly Manne is one of my enduring heroes.

I studied with Larry Bunker. He was a stern taskmaster who was very precise about the mechanics of drumming. He knew what he was talking about and could back it up in an instant.

Sometimes, after I had finished playing a lesson, he would pick up the sticks and just rip through it with power, speed and finesse.

But Larry always emphasized that the point of the whole thing was to master the technical aspects of drumming so that you could forget them and concentrate on bringing music out of “… your mind, heart and soul.”

In a way, the entire act of music is mind put into sound. It has to go through some sort of physical medium in order to be heard.

Shelly Manne chose the drums, but the whole issue is to have such control over the instrument and over what you hear that the instrument physically doesn't get in the way of visualizing sound.

Technique was to Shelly merely a means of dealing with an instrument in the most efficient manner possible so that it's no more than peripheral to expression.

[The above is a paraphrase of something that tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen said about music, but it applies directly to Shelly.]

Shelly was a musician who chose to express his musical “genius” through the drum kit.

Shelly didn’t care about drum rudiments and techniques, per se, he cared about the drums as a means of physically producing the sound of his musical conception.

I developed this piece because I wanted to spend more time with Shelly’s own views and with others talking about why he was such a special musician.

We placed his reflections and the recollections of others about him somewhat randomly throughout this piece as once it got into high gear, there was seldom anything linear about Shelly’s career and we wanted this profile to reflect that.

On any given day, he might make a couple of recording sessions and then play three sets with his quintet at his club in Hollywood.

Can you imagine?

A first-call studio drummer who never had any formal instruction in reading drum and percussion parts!

And no matter the helter-skelter of his professional life, he couldn’t have been nicer to you, whenever he met you, whoever you were.

If you were a Jazz fan then you were Shelly’s friend … period.

Not to take anything away from his hard work and dedication, but he knew how fortunate he was to be able to live his dream and he wanted to share the warm glow that came from basking in his dream with others who were a part of the Jazz World.

Shelly enjoyed living so much that he made everyone around him enjoy it more. He could take a group of musicians or a group of people and just lift it by force of personality.

And if you were a Jazz or a studio musician, as you got to know Shelly better, your fondness was also accompanied by admiration. A master of a profession knows another when he sees him, and they knew that they were seeing one in Shelly.

They admired his thoroughness, his tirelessness – the way he threw himself into every aspect of music, really, into everything he did, with an enthusiasm and effort that seemed limitless.

This from a guy who had very little formal training as a drummer and what little he did have, he took only that which interested him – musically.

As Jim Chapin, author of numerous and highly respected books and manuals about drum techniques including the monumental Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, observed of Shelly:

“Shelly was very brave. Even when he couldn't really play, he'd sit in with major people. He developed "playing chops"—a certain level of facility. He always related strongly to the music, much like Jo Jones.

We used to spend a lot of time together because we started at about the same time and had mutual interests. I was studying with Sanford "Gus" Moeller, and he was getting pointers from the great Billy Gladstone. Unlike a number of drummers, Shelly never concentrated heavily on development of technique and great dexterity. A bunch of us did—Krupa, Louie Bellson, Allen Paley, Alvin Stoller, Lou Fromm, myself, and a few others attempted to combine the formal and informal sides of drumming in the best way possible.

Shelly took what he wanted from his meetings with Billy—stuff that would help him play. He spent little time practicing and a lot of time playing and listening. That's better in many ways. If you spend most of your time playing and practicing that much by yourself, you become used to hearing yourself alone. Understand? You don't hear yourself in relation to other people.

Unless you realize the limitations of that situation and do both things - practicing and playing, alone and performing with other musicians — you can have real problems out in the world.

Shelly knew exactly what he wanted to do. Being a speed merchant wasn't it. He loved Jo Jones—his creativity and taste—and, of course, Davey Tough. Time and becoming a part of the music were his thing.”

Although Shelly’s father Max Manne was an accomplished percussionist who at one time had also been the musical director for the famed dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle and headed-up special effects at the famed Radio City Music Hall during the early years of its existence, it was the legendary percussionist Billy Gladstone – “the drummer’s drummer”  - a close friend of the Manne family, who helped him get his start in drumming. Shelly explains it this way:

“My father and two uncles were drummers and very much involved in various aspects of entertainment. But they never encouraged me to play drums. Billy Gladstone is the one who got me involved in drumming. I had studied alto saxophone for six months, at my dad's suggestion. But it didn't feel right.

I was just eighteen when I decided I had to play drums. The sound of the instrument, which had been so much a part of my life, was one of the things that attracted me. To start, I used an old drum set that was in the storeroom of the Music Hall. I played in and around town—mostly for free.

Later, when I got my first real job on an ocean liner, Billy took me to Manny's Music Store on West 48th Street, not far from the Music Hall, and traded the saxophone in for a set of Gretsch-Gladstone drums. Billy and Frank Siegfried paid the balance. My dad didn't want to have anything to do with the whole thing.

That day was memorable in still another way. I met Basie drummer Jo Jones for the first time. He was very encouraging and gave me a pair of 6A sticks. I used that model for years.

I'll never forget my first lesson with Billy, right after we bought the new set of drums. He took me back to the Music Hall—downstairs where the musicians had their quarters—to a room where the percussion instruments were stored. Billy showed me how to set up the drums and how to hold the sticks. He talked about playing the hi-hat and moved me into the right posi­tion. Then he put "Topsy" by the Basie band on the phonograph, and as he walked out of the room he said: "PLAY!" Billy's "lesson" set the tone for my entire career.”

If you ever talked at length with Shelly about drumming technique, you came away with the feeling that he basically distrusted having an abundance of it.

As Burt Korall explains in Drummin’ Men: The Heart beat of Jazz – The Bebop years:

“Shelly had the feeling that too much technique would adversely affect the natural quality of a performance. He was right, certainly about technical temptation – the overwhelming concern that many drummers have about technique, sometimes to the exclusion of the music itself.  It is my contention that a drummer has many more options if he/she develops hands and feet and combines performance ease and facility with the taste and instincts awakened and stirred by the music.”

As Shelly put it:

“I don't believe in letting your hands control you. I have my own view of technique. It's only a means to an end, not an end in itself. I don't think your hands should have the final say in what you're going to do. What you play should be controlled by your heart and your head, and they should deliver the message to your hands.

Some drummers become so technically facile that their hands do their thinking for them. They automatically do things that they've been practicing and consequently their playing is somewhat on the cold side. I feel you have to let the music tell you what to do.”

Shelly’s first big break came in 1946 when he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra where it became apparent almost immediately that “… he could bring vitality to this large sometimes ponderous orchestra. He was a source of color, variety, and, whatever subtlety was possible in this large, loud ensemble. More than that, Manne conceptually modernized the rhythmic feeling of the Kenton Orchestra, adding significantly to its musicality and swing.” [this quotation and the following are excerpted from Korall, Ibid, pp, 175-177].

“Beginning in the mid-1940’s, Kenton found an enthusiastic, ever-growing, devoted audience. His music seemingly spoke to the postwar young and veterans of World War II. The enveloping, orgasmic sound of the orchestra had a hypnotic quality. The general feeling was that Kenton was hip. And though many critics disagreed vehemently, supporters of the orchestra would have none of that. They loved with a passion this vivid, often stirring, immoderately loud music that made them feel good and seemed to promise something for the future.”

Here’s what other Kenton musicians had to say about Shelly during his time on the band.

Bob Cooper: “Shelly was an inspiration to me and everyone else in the band. He had already done a lot and knew so much, particularly about bebop—the new music we all were getting into. We learned from him. His playing gave the Kenton band new life. Whatever he did seemed to turn out right. We became friends right away.”

Pete Rugolo:  “Shelly and I spent a number of years together on the bus, doing all the one-nighters. Stan loved Shelly; we all did. We felt he was the most creative drummer of them all. I palled around with him. I guess I was pretty square—didn't drink or smoke anything. Neither did Shelly. He and Flip and I liked good food, and we kept trying new restaurants in various towns and cities. Stan was good about letting the wives travel with us. We were on the road almost all the time. Flip was wonderful. She came to all the concerts and dances.”

Flip Manne: “I was on the road with Shelly for six years. He admired Stan tremendously. He struggled a lot because there was never any help from anyone in the rhythm section, including Stan, who was up front a lot of the time. Shelly had to carry the whole band.”

Art Pepper: “Shelly loved to play. He never was into drugs, drinking— anything wrong. The only thing he did was smile and be happy. On the road with Stan, he made the best of an impossible situation. I'd be so dragged and unhappy about the lousy circumstances, traveling on the bus what seemed like forever between dates, putting your band uniform on in the back of the bus. But it didn't make Shelly mad. I never once heard him put anything down. He'd smile and say: ‘Here we go. We're really going to swing tonight!’ And he played great, always played great. He was completely content that he was given this talent, this gift.”

Eddie Bert: “I sat next to Shelly for about eight or nine months in 1947 in the "progressive jazz" Kenton band. He was fantastic with rhythms. That was what was happening in the band. Polyrhythms. Rhythm against rhythm— layers of rhythm like in Latin music. Stan was moving into a Latin/jazz fusion.

Shelly could play a different rhythm in each hand, another with the left foot, and still another with the right. He switched time signatures in a minute—4/4 to 6/8, whatever. He was so smooth because he just felt and knew how to cope with rhythms, pulsation, time signatures.”

Bud Shank: “To tell you the truth, I can't imagine the Stan Kenton band with another drummer. Shelly had that positive thing going on. And it got over to the guys in the band. He was a real leader. Let me put it this way, man. As far as I'm concerned, he was the leader of Stan Kenton's band — at least when I was with Stan during the Innovations period, 1950-51.

Everything musical started with Shelly. He didn't do any of the writing. But whenever an arrangement was brought in, it ended up sounding good because of what Shelly did. He kept his ears open and let the music talk to him. So many times, he'd crack us up with one of his jokes, and that put the band in the right mood. He was marvelous that way.

Shelly was probably the most musical drummer I ever played with. He was moving beyond just playing time and swinging. He was into melodies and making music. The attention Shelly paid to tuning his drums, just so, made "melodic" playing more than possible.”

Gerry Mulligan: “Shelly was so thoughtful in a big band setting. What he did became a part of the music. He played the hell out of the charts I wrote for Stan in the early 1950s. He sensed just how my things should be done. I was trying for something else, which oddly enough had an effect on other writers. I don't think Stan cared for my charts. He liked music stacked up in impres­sive vertical structures. I always favored economy—horizontal moving things.”

Shelly also had a brief stint with Woody Herman’s Big Band before coming off the road and settling into his “new life” as a small group and studio drummer for much of the decade on the 1950s and beyond.

Pianist Lou Levy was with Woody when Shelly joined the band and had these reflections about him:

Lou Levy: “As soon as Shelly Manne hit the first four bars the day he joined us, everybody in the band turned around and smiled. It was a totally different feel than what Don Lamond had established—but it was wonderful.

Shelly's time thing was great. And it was his time. He didn't sound like Philly Joe, Stan Levey, Tiny Kahn, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, or Chick Webb, Yet all of them were in there, somehow. Anyone who is real good has a lot of people in them.

And he was a pleasure to be around, so humorous and good-natured. Flip used to cook for us after the gig in their hotel room. I remember some great things she rustled up on her little electric grill.”

Burt Korall: “Shelly reaped benefits from the Kenton and Herman experiences, especially his years with Stan for as the band changed and expanded its musical horizons, becoming more than a relatively commercial, blustery presence, Manne had to call on untapped capacities, new ways and means to make the music work.”

Shelly’s thoughts about big band drumming reflect on aspects of it that most Jazz fans are not aware of:

“Big band playing requires great flexibility and strength. The drummer has to bend and give and pull and shove and move with the band and still keep that swinging motion going. You're one of the key people in the large ensemble—along with the first trumpet player and the section leaders— and can shove the band any way you want. But it's hard work.”

Like so many other veterans of Stan Kenton’s and Woody Herman’s bands, Shelly became enamored of the Southern California lifestyle with its casual living, plentiful sunshine and ready access to beaches, mountains and deserts, all within a two hour driving time.

His first major gig after leaving the Kenton band in 1951 was to become a member of bassist Howard Rumsey’s All-Stars which appeared nightly in the Lighthouse Café on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, CA.

Howard Rumsey: “Shelly put the Lighthouse All-Stars on the map. The people loved him. He had this ebullient manner and connected with audiences. During the time Shelly was in the band, we played some great mate­rial, much of it by Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre. It was a wonderful time for all of us.”

In the early 1950s, Shelly became increasingly involved in studio drumming.

Flip Manne: “Bobby Heifer, a big contractor in Hollywood, made it possible for Shelly to have a career in the studios. He hired him to play some very complicated things for Rear Window, the Jimmy Stewart-Grace Kelly picture for Alfred Hitchcock. Shelly sat down and just read them off, playing the stuff perfectly.

There are many reasons for Shelly's success in the studios. He was very quick and bright and kept picking things up as he went along. Nobody had taught him to read. He learned timpani on his own. His natural talent and his ambition made it possible for him to do a lot of things.

During our first years in Hollywood, there were wonderful writers at the studios—many of them into jazz—like Andre Previn, Hank Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Leith Stevens, Billy Byers, Johnny Mandel, Jeff Alexander, Pete Rugolo, and others. They gave Shelly freedom; they made it interesting and challenging for him.”

Shelly and his bandmates from his days with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman helped destroy stereotypical notions regarding jazz musicians that had been deeply embedded for so long in the minds of motion picture, TV, and advertising executives.

An extraordinary example of reliability, creativity, "instant ability," and good feeling — in and out of the studios – Shelly and his colleagues made the major breakthrough into motion pictures and television and they began to be employed in media previously closed to them.

Andre Previn : “Shelly had no fear of anybody. There were certain people in Hollywood he didn't want to play for. He felt they were frauds and wouldn't accept work from them. Sure, there are frauds everywhere. But they seem to be very public about it out there.

We worked a lot together in the studios, in clubs and concerts. One of the things I admired about him musically was his complete rhythmic freedom. He taught me a lot. We would be playing somewhere and he would suddenly say: ‘Let's play five’ — trade fives. That could drive me crazy, since he kept playing across the bar line anyway. It meant harmonically you were always one or two or three bars away from where you would ordinarily play. Shelly would do things like that because suddenly he would think: "Let's see what this feels like."

Burt Korall: “Despite his studio commitments, Manne remained active in jazz. He worked as a sideman but mostly as a leader. And if you listen to the music he made on countless recordings over thirty-three years in California, with occasional trips to New York, it is clear that jazz was not only his passion but something more: a central, motivating life force.”

One of Shelly’s greatest gifts to his friends was the establishment of his own club on Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood, CA. In the 1960's, it practically became “a home away from home” for Jazz musicians and Jazz fans, alike.

John Tynan, the West Coast editor of Down Beat magazine wrote a lengthy article on Shelly and the club which will post to the blog in a few days following this feature.

In the meantime, you might enjoy the following videos, all of which have audio tracks of Shelly playing drums in a variety of settings.

The world was made a richer place because of Shelly Manne – “The most musical drummer who ever lived.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Herbie Hancock - Sonrisa

Joan Benavent - SUNRISE

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

Not to demean other approaches to the music, but I have a preference for straight ahead Jazz: Jazz that you can pop your fingers to; tap your foot to; nod your head to. Its metronomic pulse - what some refer to as “swing” - creates a feeling of elation in me as I get carried away listening to the music.

And in this context, solo, duo, trio, and horn plus rhythm section are all enjoyable formats for this form of Jazz,  although, I have a particular fondness for what I refer to as “ensemble Jazz;” Jazz as played by quintets, sextets and octets.

Multi-horn front lines allow for more use of harmonies which in turn produce more textures or sonorities in the music. To my ear, the music sounds richer and fuller

In the modern idiom, the most common form of ensembles are quintets headed-up by trumpet and saxophone combinations. But I was particularly intrigued by groups led by Art Blakey, Benny Golson and Art Farmer and Gerry Mulligan formed sextets that included the trombone as the latter provided a bass clef extension or vehicle for the harmonies used in their arrangements. More recently the Marsalis brothers sported such a group.

The traditional, straight tenor trombone is written in the key of C, and it is in "Concert Pitch." This means that trombone, unlike many other wind instruments, will have the same notes and note names as a piano.

This sets up a host of possibilities for the arranger in terms of creating “colors” when the trombone is combined with a trumpet and a tenor saxophone.

When powered by a hard-driving and swinging piano, bass and drums rhythm section, and in the hands of a composer-arranger who can take full advantage of the possibilities, such a sextet becomes a Jazz Juggernaut. 

Enter tenor saxophonist Joan Benavent’s latest CD - Sunrise [SedaJazz Records V448-2020] - which pairs him with Pep Zaragoza, trumpet and Bart van Lier, trombone on the front line and a rhythm section made up of pianist Miguel Rodriquez, bassist Steve Zwanink and drummer Eric Ineke.

The album is made up of four originals by Joan and four standards from what is now commonly referred to as The Great American Songbook: Skylark, Mean to Me, Body and Soul and What Is This Thing Called Love.

In listening to the recording, I started at the end, so to speak, with What Is This Thing Called Love - an old standby which closes the album because its familiar melody gave me a chance to “set my ears” to Joan’s arranging style, and also because, I knew it would most likely by played as and up tempo tune in a straight ahead manner.

I wasn’t disappointed. Using Pep’s trumpet as the lead voice for the melody and the tenor to play the bridge, Joan beautifully integrates the sonorities of the instruments to explore the song as well as develop countermelodies and riffs off the main theme.

It’s a prime example of the way that the music boldly bursts forward on this recording as Joan takes advantage of the range of possibilities presented by this instrumentation.

The interplay of the textures afforded by the trumpet, trombone, tenor sax and piano is particularly evident on the recordings four originals, all penned by Joan: Sunrise, El Banca de La Serp, Tres Voltes Maria, and El Ogro Grogro [which is based on Benny Golson’s Jazz standard, Stablemates].

Joan takes great care in his treatments of the ballads on the recording. For example, Body and Soul has a rubato Intro by Joan with Miguel, Steve and Eric coming in at the bridge in tempo; Miguel plays the first solo with Joan coming in on the bridge to solo after which Miguel, Steve and Eric return to take it out. Miguel offers a brief introduction on Skylark, Joan states the melody with the rhythm section and the tune then becomes a vehicle for sensitive solos by Bart van Lier on trombone and Joan.

Skylark highlights Joan's ability to play a simple melody and get some feeling into it - a rare thing these days of overplaying and overblowing to the point that even familiar tunes lose all recognition.

Mean to Me is given a surprising twist when it’s played at an up tempo ¾ time and serves as a solo vehicle for Joan, Bart and Miguel.

Joan’s tone comes from Sonny Rollins with some harmonic helpings of Michael Brecker and Walt Weiskopf and he blends well with Pep, who has a brilliant solo with overtones of Freddie Hubbard and Jim Rotondi on the opener, Sunrise, and Bart, whose trombone style, while being very much his own, reminds me in places of Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper. Miguel’s solos are always informed, both rhythmically and harmonically, and bring to mind a young Herbie Hancock. 

Chuck Israels the renown bassist, composer-arranger and music educator once stated that when he works with a drummer he expects to hear “wedding bells” -  an obvious metaphor for the bassist and drummer locking in to drive the time feel. Well, Chuck would certainly be happy with the union that bassist Steve Zwanink and drummer Eric Ineke established throughout Sunrise as this fusion forms a “heartbeat” that keeps each of the tracks on the album alive, fresh and swinging.

The use of modes, odd time signatures, and tempo changes keep things interesting throughout and, with so much going on in the music, Miguel, Steve and Eric keep it moving straight-ahead by laying down the beat and staying out of the way. 

Whenever possible, in the few reviews that I do bring up on these pages, I attempt to have the musician talk about the music on their recordings to bring you their perspective.

In this instance, I elicited some commentary by asking Joan the following questions which he was kind enough to answer via email.

I do have two questions for you - why did you decide to arrange the music for a sextet?

Also, why did you choose these particular musicians for your group?

“I decided to arrange for sextet because it's the largest small ensemble, and it gives the opportunity to have harmonic density in the melodies and arranged parts like solis or counterpointistic melodies without having the inconvenience of putting together a large band. That can be an inconvenience for the reason of matching agendas, because some of us were flying from Spain to record in Holland, so we had quite a short time for making the whole thing happen.

I've chosen these musicians because Eric and I were looking for a project that combined both jazz scenes, the Spanish and Dutch. So we have invited some of our favourite musicians and great friends that, at the same time, were representative from each of the scenes.

Miguel Rodriguez is an Spanish piano player that has been living in Holland since he moved there to graduate, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he became one of the most essential pianists in NL, playing with the top of the scene. The same happens with Steve Zwanink, a Canadian-Dutch bass player that moved to NL to follow jazz studies. Since he is around he has shared the stage with the most important local jazz musicians and with others from abroad that called them as a local sideman. Bart van Lier is probably the father of the Dutch jazz trombone, he is still active and kicking, as you can hear him. The same with Eric, sharing stage as a side man for some of the most important jazz cats in history when they came to Europe, and still burning. Pep Zaragoza is one of the top trumpeters from the young wave in Spain, awarded and claimed several times.

In my case, I also moved to NL to study jazz, then I met Miguel and Steve (as classmates) and Eric as a teacher first and my mentor afterwards. After seven years living there I moved back to Spain and since then I'm living happily making music in my place and coming back to NL every once in a while to play with these cats.”

Sunrise by Joan Benavent and his colleagues is another example of Jazz as a music without boundaries or as “the gift” that Dizzy Gillespie once described as - “If you can hear it, you can have it.” Thanks to Joan, Pep, Bart, Miguel, Steve and Eric, Jazz is well-heard in both Spain and The Netherlands.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Dexter Gordon - Body And Soul - 'Round Midnight Movie (1986)

Round Midnight: Bertrand Tavernier

The Film That Jazz Deserves Bertrand Tavernier’s ’Round Midnight

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

“ ’Round Midnight” shows what it means to devote your life to music. 

By Howard Fishman

The New Yorker

 April 7, 2021

Jazz musicians play a club, in a scene from “ ’Round Midnight.”Photograph from Warner Bros. / Photofest

The jazz world owes a debt of gratitude to the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who died on March 25th, at the age of seventy-nine. The French auteur’s career included such stylistically disparate films as “A Sunday in the Country” and “Death Watch,” but his signature work may be the moody, impressionistic “ ’Round Midnight,” from 1986, about an aging American jazz musician in nineteen-fifties Paris and the admiring fan who befriends and helps him. It’s ironic (and maybe fitting) that it took a foreign director to do justice to a quintessential American art form. “ ’Round Midnight” is the film that jazz deserves.

American jazz movies tend to resemble the “scare films” in driver’s-ed classes, cautionary tales that show what happens when we don’t follow the rules. From “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927, right up through this past year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the story that Hollywood has told about jazz is one involving over-the-top caricatures, the lives of its geniuses rife with criminality, runaway libidos, wanton self-destruction, and obsessive madness. If American cinema has a message to impart, it seems to be that jazz musicians are trouble—best observed from a safe (read: morally superior) distance. They’re exotic creatures, these movies say. They’re not like us.

“ ’Round Midnight” is the exception. Tavernier treats the jazz milieu with respect, subtlety, and restraint. (He also co-wrote the screenplay, with David Rayfiel.) There is no overheated drama to be found here. There is a love story, but, rather than a fraught tale of sexual misadventure, it’s a platonic one—and it’s between two men. That one of them is Black and the other is white doesn’t overtly factor into their relationship, a reminder that the opportunity for regular work was not the only reason that many great African-American jazz artists fled to Europe in that era. (The film was inspired, in part, by Francis Paudras’s “Dance of the Infidels,” an account of the pianist Bud Powell’s expatriate years in France.)

Tavernier’s elegiac film shows us scenes of musicians as real, three-dimensional people: plying their wares each night, talking about life, listening to records, sharing meals, taking walks. They’re funny and flawed, imperfect yet dignified. Some tropes do appear—the central character struggles with alcohol dependence, and there is a fast-talking New York manager (played by Martin Scorsese)—but these are treated with a soft touch.

Tavernier’s best decision was entrusting the lead role to the saxophone legend Dexter Gordon, who infuses every frame he appears in with a kind of insouciant gravitas. (His acolyte is played by François Cluzet.) Although only in his early sixties when the film was shot, Gordon was “very old for his age,” the film’s producer, Irwin Winkler, told me. He seems ancient, and not of this world. His character interacts with everyday reality as much as is required of him—to place an order, to introduce a tune, to offer some gentle wisdom to a small child. But whether speaking, playing, or simply in repose, what Gordon exudes most is philosophical detachment, the melancholy knowledge that the life he has chosen demands that he keep some part of himself separate, ready to heed the call of his muse when he takes the stage each night. “My life is music. My love is music. And it’s twenty-four hours a day,” Gordon’s character says. His heavyweight, world-weary performance is that of someone who knows that his days are numbered, like Robert Ryan, in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh,” or Richard Farnsworth, in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.”

Although Gordon portrays the fictional Dale Turner, we always know who he really is, and we’re lucky to have his magnetic performance captured for posterity. (Gordon died less than four years after the film was released.) When he’s heard invoking the names of some of his favorite tenor-sax players (“Lester Young . . . Coleman Hawkins . . . Ben Webster”) or when he rhapsodizes about Count Basie and Charlie Parker, these are stirring meta-moments that add to the film’s verisimilitude. Tavernier called the film “incredibly emotional to shoot, because the frontier between life and fiction was always completely thin.”

Gordon had never before played a dramatic role on film, and his only acting experience had been in a Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection,” a quarter-century earlier, in which he portrayed a jazz musician with a drug habit. But his widow, Maxine Gordon, told me that “Dexter always considered getting onstage as a performance and as acting. He was ready when he was selected for the film, and knew that he had to do what other great artists had never had the opportunity to do.” Gordon received an Oscar nomination for his work, and Marlon Brando wrote to him to say that it was the first time in fifteen years that he’d learned something new about acting.

The entire film is like a lazy, languid ballad performed by an ensemble of masters. In interviews that Tavernier gave after the film’s release, he spoke of the challenges of capturing “the bizarre, enigmatic way jazz musicians relate to each other. They make Pinter’s characters sound like . . . over-explainers.” He solved this by allowing Gordon and his fellow-musicians (a cast of jazz heavies that included Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Billy Higgins) to set the tempo of the scenes. He let them relax. He gave them space, and then let them fill it up. Sometimes, there are long, empty pauses, “the same way that in the jazz the notes that the people don’t play are as important as the notes that they play,” Tavernier said.

All but one of the musical performances were shot live, and are gorgeously captured, with long swaths of camera stillness that linger over the introspective concentration of players who are creating in real time and the audiences that are admiring them. Tavernier was careful to populate these scenes with genuine jazz fans and people from that world rather than with movie extras, to allow for authentic reaction shots. “I wanted that kind of thing where nothing happens,” he noted. “Just people listening.”

It’s the sort of cinematic pace that has all but been done away with in the Netflix era; no swirling cameras or frenetic jump shots here—just long, pensive, slow takes of musicians at work. We see Gordon’s wordless gestures again and again, his reactions to what his bandmates play, the delight he takes in the colors they choose in their comping and in their solos. We see the joy of musicians simply making music together—the smiles, the eye contact, the body language. It feels authentic because it is.

“I was impressed with the approach,” Ron Carter told me. “So often, you see musicians played by actors who don’t even know how to hold their instruments correctly” (although he was quick to single out Chadwick Boseman for fingering his trumpet properly in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). To the untrained ear, jazz can sound as random as a Jackson Pollock drip painting looks, but the visual intimacy that Tavernier captures makes the mystery of a jazz ensemble universally accessible.

I was a teen-ager when “ ’Round Midnight” was released, just beginning to explore jazz as a listener, and I remember the revelations it held for me about the life surrounding this music, one so at odds with the values presented by my homogenous, upwardly mobile upbringing. These musicians didn’t make a lot of money, drive fancy cars, or have much in the way of creature comforts. They lived in small, sparsely furnished rooms, ate home-cooked meals, and lived modestly. But they were seemingly in possession of an inner calm that I found alluring. Their spirits seemed vital, their souls intact. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do that.”

Having now spent most of my adult life as a musician and bandleader, I can say that just about every other jazz film I’ve seen depicts a reality I don’t recognize. Although it’s true that the history of this music is littered with struggle, misbehavior, and hardship, what profession isn’t? Humans are human. For every Buddy Bolden, Lester Young, or Anita O’Day, there are any number of lesser-known, less-celebrated jazz musicians as dedicated to their art, minus the self-torture. The ones I know—those with staying power, the first-call players who always have work—are mostly a quiet bunch, humble people dedicated to their craft. They’re good friends, devoted parents, loving siblings, and loyal partners who do their jobs with the positive attitude, solid work ethic, and healthy sense of humor that are the hallmarks of any career professional. The ones who unhappily subscribe to the Hollywood notion that great art requires suffering, those who engineer chaos when their lives get too placid, generally don’t last. As the violinist Charlie Burnham, a man who’s been doing this for more than half a century, said to me, “The jazz life is not that much different from any other kind of life.”

Revisiting “ ’Round Midnight” after all these years, I was stunned by how nuanced and true it still feels. Maybe it’s just the effect of this long year (and counting) of being unable to perform in small rooms, but the film viscerally evoked the best associations I have of my life as a bandleader: the cozy, unspoken camaraderie that can be established with a group of strangers each night. The daylight hours spent exploring the streets of a new city, breathing unfamiliar air, noticing a different quality of the light, internally reviewing the previous night’s show: what had worked, what had not, what could be added or changed—a different tempo or new song—to the set that evening.

But, more than anything, I was reminded of a feeling I’ve been fortunate enough to have known at the end of many of those long evenings on the stand. Having made myself completely available to the flow of improvised music, emboldened by the trust afforded me by my bandmates and our audience. Having followed unexplored paths, and discovered worthwhile things. Those nights walking home along the deserted streets of a dreaming city, with perhaps only a fistful of dollars in my pocket, my clothes reeking from perspiration and the stench of the club, but rich with a feeling I might call ecstatic peace—an awareness that I’d not only served my purpose that day as well as I possibly could but had even managed to somehow transcend the particulars of my individual life. A sense of being complete, of deep satisfaction, a kind of success not included in the American dream of cash and prizes.

I count these experiences as among the highlights of my life, a fulfillment of the promise I saw offered by “ ’Round Midnight” when I first watched it, thirty-five years ago. As Dexter Gordon himself asks rhetorically in “Sophisticated Giant,” Maxine Gordon’s account of her husband’s life, “Why do most jazz stories dwell on the negative side of this life? We are people who get to play music for a living. What could be better?”

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Shorty Rogers Is Long On West Coast Jazz

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

“The definition of "West Coast Jazz?" You know, I've been asked that question so many times. It's a hard one. I'm not trying to evade the question, I'm just trying to figure it out myself. Maybe I was a practitioner of it, but as I think it over, all of us in music are products of our environment and heritage. Shelly Manne, Jimmy Giuffre and myself who are so distinctly associated with this sound...when I look back at our musical heritage, I remember that we all loved the Kansas City 7, a small unit out of the Basie band, and groups that you don't hear people speak about anymore. Bassist John Kirby, for instance, had kind of soft sounding group.

Just to express ourselves and have fun, some of our tunes were in the softer groove. Lester Young played clarinet in the Kansas City 7 and created a sound much like Giuffre was getting later. If you research it and analyze it, you'll see a very strong similarity between the Kansas City 7 sound and what later became known as the "West Coast Jazz" sound. A quite similar sound coming out of the East Coast was called "Cool Jazz." They are kind of interrelated with each other.

The bottom line is we're just a few guys trying to have fun, enjoying and expressing ourselves through playing.”
Shorty Rogers as quoted in Steven Harris, The Kenton Kronicles

Although not specifically credited, the following piece on Shorty Rogers appeared under the continually running “The West Coast of Jazz” series in the February 5, 1959 edition of Down Beat magazine. The Los Angeles Associate Editor at that time was John Tynan who more than likely penned the piece.

As you read about what was going on in Shorty’s career in 1959, please keep in mind that this is just one aspect of the vibrant and dynamic musical scene that was the world of many Los Angeles based Jazz musicians.

Doing movie studio calls, radio jingles and TV commercials during the day and playing Jazz gigs at night while interspersing recording sessions at all hours of the day and night was the norm.

It was a marvelously creative time for all concerned.

Who knew that in less than a decade much of it, if not most of it, would all be over?! With the benefit of hindsight, there is an ironic twist to one meaning for the word  “long” in the title of this piece.

“Arms dangling, head bent and bobbing to the beat, fingers snapping and jaws chomping gum, the short, dark-bearded trumpeter stood alone in the center of the recording studio listening to a playback.

Shorty Rogers had left his horn at home for this particular record date. In his capacity as west coast supervisor for RCA-Victor jazz albums his job in this instance was in the booth, overseeing the performance of a small group, led by tenor-ist Jack Montrose, which included Red Norvo (Shorty's brother-in-law), Barney Kessel, Red Wooten, and Mel Lewis.

''Swell, fellas," Shorty drawled as the playback ended, "let's go on to the next one."

Back at his bench in the booth, Rogers lit his tenth cigarette since the session began, took a swig from a bottle of coke and, when the musicians were ready, cued them on the first take of the next number.

During Montrose's solo, Shorty nodded repeatedly, a broad smile on his face. "The closer Jack gets to the shape of a pretzel," he grinned, "the funkier he plays."

"The Kenton guys used to call Jack 'George Washington' because he looks just like him. See?" Impulsively he pulled out a dollar bill, blocked off Washington's head, triumphantly repeating, "See? The cover of this album's gonna be a dollar bill," he chuckled.

With an unusually generous capacity for fun and laughter, 34-year-old Milton Rogers, late of Great Barrington, Mass., has much to enjoy these days.

Now solidly established at Victor's Hollywood office as jazz chief, his arranging chores know little letup as he churns out endless charts for record dates that range from his own swingers to the most commercial pop singles.

Shorty works all hours of the day or night, when he has a deadline to meet, in a large, untidy work room in back of his redwood-and-brick ranch style Van Nuys, Calif., home. Here an old upright piano stands in a corner adjacent to the large draftsman's table on which he writes. The rest of the space is taken up by a clutter of papers, a guitar and miscellany on a low table, old magazines and a variety of bric a brac. On the far side of the room four multicolored mobiles dangle and stir restlessly in perfect balance.

"I shut the door and make these," he laughed, "and my wife thinks I'm writing."

Marge, Shorty's pretty, blond wife, functions in the very positive capacities of wife, mother of three sprouting children and intelligent manager of her husband's business affairs.

Tangible results of Mrs. Rogers' skill in management are evident in many corners of Shorty's demesne. Not only is his back garden graced by a large swimming pool, but he has had built two poolside Polynesian-type grass huts, one for changing clothes, the other a cabana with table and chairs.

Here his three children, Michele, 11; Mike, 9, and Marshall, 7, romp to their hearts' delight while Mom and Dad relax in the cabana enjoying the fruits of a successful career in music.

A typical week's activity for Shorty was the seven-day period preceding Down Beat's interview. Monday he had a record date with a vocalist; he wrote four arrangements for that. The next four days were spent locked in his study, completing charts for his own big band date, Chances Are — It Swings, set for April release. Saturday Shorty spent in the studio, recording the album till the early morning hours.

On the day of rest, the trumpeter-arranger lounged around his home in a grey, terrycloth playsuit while wife and children visited relatives. Most of the afternoon he spent sprawled in the rumpus room watching a basketball game on one of three television sets in the house.

There is no question of Will success spoil Shorty Rogers?  It hasn't — personally nor musically. While his backbreaking writing chores are accepted as a happy vocation, he enjoys more than ever, he says, playing trumpet or Fluegelhorn.

"It's really a gas blowing now." He tugged at the short, curly beard, eyes twinkling. "I get the same feeling playing now as I used to get when I was real young. Today, when I get a club gig with the group, I feel like I'm back in high school when I play. It's my getting a chance to blow . . . a fresh feeling. Playing for enjoyment's sake, that's a groovy thing."

Shorty, who plays only on his own dates now, admits the tension and clinical atmosphere of a recording date puts somewhat of a strain on his own playing.

"There's such a lot to think about," he explained. "You're concerned with the writing, balance, kicking off the tempos, and all the rest of it. But in spite of all the hassle, when you get your horn up and blow, it's a relief from all the other complications."

Rogers' records have enjoyed particular success on the Victor label, and the sales statistics account for his being the only jazz artist on the west coast under long term contract to the Little Dog.

Though in charge of Victor jazz recording on the coast, Shorty spreads his talents to encompass much writing in the pop field, too. He doesn't feel that this versatility will work to his detriment with fans and buyers of his jazz albums and cites the activity of arrangers such as Neal Hefti and Al Cohn to support his contention. Besides, he argues, his connection with non-jazz record production provides additional work for the many jazzmen he calls to do the pop sessions.

"My using the jazz cats on these dates gives them a chance to prove to everybody that they're very good musicians who can handle any style music with ease," he stressed.

As the acknowledged first High Lama of modern jazz on the west coast, Rogers feels that if coast jazzmen are playing differently from their brothers in the east ". . . it's not because of their more stable, domesticated lives, but because they're listening more . . . to all music.”

"Jazz is constantly changing," he avered. "It's changing so rapidly that what's valid today might not be valid three weeks from now. So musicians have got to go on developing with it and, in turn, change the music to fit the time."

Shorty's efforts in this direction are due principally, he feels, to study under Dr. Wesley La Violette, Los Angeles teacher whose students include Red Norvo, Jim Hall, John Graas, and others.

To Rogers, LaViolette's main value and most important quality as a teacher is that "... he tries to teach the technique of writing. Just as a pianist works to develop his fingering, La Violette encourages his students to develop their personal writing technique. And within that lies the development of what you might call the 'inner technique' to be yourself and to express yourself."

As proof of the soundness of La Violette's method, Shorty cites the fact that none of those musicians who have studied under the white-haired maestro write alike.

Looking forward to touring Europe in the spring, Rogers said simply, "I'm a bug on the National Geographic and I'm dying to see some of those places I've been reading about/' Originally, he said, the tour was planned for last October but the promoters, changing their minds, felt that the hornman would encounter better weather in six months.

One of Shorty's favorite enthusiasms is the husband of his sister, Eve, Red Norvo. During the Montrose date red-headed Norvo was relaxing on a chair by the piano, arm propped on the chair back and his little cap tilted over one eye. Watching him from the booth, Shorty grinned. "Look at Red. He looks looks like a cross between Hemingway and Burl Ives." Then, he added, "For all the years Red's been around, it's really great to see his records doing so well for Victor.''

Shorty and Red are inveterate football fans. "When we go to a game together, Red is jumping up and down like a yo-yo, tearing his cap off his head, slapping it on again, yelling at the plays. And the cap is waving in the air like a flag. He's cute."

Of Bob Yorke, the RCA-Victor executive to whom Shorty is directly responsible, the trumpeter waxed eloquent. "He was the cat I did my first Victor albums for. Remember? He's a wonderful guy and a great friend to jazz musicians. Having him here is crazy for us because now he's in charge of everything. Yeah, it's a real break for jazz."”