Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Pleasants on Pops - Louis Armstrong by Henry Pleasants

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

I guess I should be grateful to the Whippanong Library of the Morris County Free Library system in New Jersey for a remainder of Henry Pleasants The Great American Popular Singers [1974] as I was able to buy it as a used edition for a very modest price.

On the other hand, it is sad to note that such a definitive book by an educated, recognized authority on the subject is no longer available to a wider public.

Henry Pleasants received his early training as a professional musician at the Curtis Institute in his native Philadelphia. For over thirty-five years he served as music critic and contributor to leading newspapers and musical journals both in the United States and abroad. Besides writing The Agony of Modern Music, Serious Music—and All That Jazz and The Great Popular Singers, he edited and translated volumes of criticism by Eduard Hanslick and Robert Schumann as well as The Musical Journeys of Louis Spohr. Mr. Pleasants also served as London music critic for the International Herald Tribune and London editor of Stereo Review.

From Jolson to Streisand, The Great American Popular Singers presents essays on the singers whose artistry, innovative styles and sheer vocal accomplishments made American popular song uniquely what it was— the true people's music of the Western world.

Henry Pleasants shows us through the lives, careers and evaluation of their musical art, why singers as different as Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and over a dozen others, are closer to the tradition of bel canto — the basis of all great singing — than are all but a very few classical singers.

Mr. Pleasants finds this great vocal tradition alive in every field of popular music: in country singers (Hank Williams), gospel singers (Mahalia Jackson), blues singers (Bessie Smith and B. B. King), movie and theater singers (Judy Garland and Ethel Merman) and in scores of other singers who are introduced and put in perspective around these central figures.

"The  best of them,"  he comments, "—and some who have not been quite the best — may, in singing for their supper, have harvested a feast. But their familiar designation and dismissal as mere entertainers has discouraged a just appreciation of their artistic accomplishment.” 

No one reading The Great American Popular Singers can ever again think of popular singers as less than they really are: not merely entertainers but, as is so vividly shown in twenty-two brilliant profiles and introductory chapters, musical artists working in a great vocal tradition.

As a case in point, I’ve yet to find an analysis and explanation of what made Louis Armstrong a great vocalist that approaches the following treatment by Henry Pleasants in terms of coherence and cogency.

At long last, Pops gets his due as one of the greatest influences in American popular singing in the 20th century, as well as, a recognition of the his uniqueness as a song stylist.

“The Bessie Smith legend dates from her fatal injury in an automobile accident, and has been nurtured by tendentious accounts of what happened between the time of the crash and her death in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, hospital a few hours later. Not until many years had passed would a retrospective assessment of her artistic stature grant her a more satisfactory immortality.

How different the destiny of Louis Armstrong! He had been, at the time of his death, on July 6, 1971, a living legend for half a century, not just to his own black people, nor to the American people as a whole, but to millions of people around the world. He had been, probably, the most famous musician of the century. When a Johannesburg, South Africa, newspaper, in the summer of 1970, polled fifty-six persons at random to find out how many could remember the names of the Apollo 11 astronauts, one girl identified not Neil Armstrong, but Louis Armstrong, as the first man to set foot on the moon.

An exceptional, if charming, notion! The very word legend seems to imply semifiction, or history distorted and inflated by fancy. But Louis Armstrong, lunar adventure aside, had been everything the legend held him to be: the greatest of early jazz cornet and trumpet players; a unique and improbable vocalist; an exuberant and extrovert celebrity; a showman of genius; and an American ambassador more widely known and more warmly accepted than anyone who ever left the White House with a letter of accreditation in his pocket.

It was all true. It was all attractive. Yet, in the end, it was all wrong. Not factually wrong, but wrong because the legend was unjust to the man. Most legendary figures, being only human, fail to live up to the legend. The failure is condoned or denied because the legend, for sentimental or political reasons, is preferred to the truth. In Louis Armstrong's case it was the other way around. The truth surpassed the legend — and challenged credulity!

It must seem not merely improbable, but sheerly impossible that any one man could have exerted so original and so decisive an influence on the evolution of Western music, least of all an essentially unlettered black trumpet player from the slums of New Orleans. But he did. Almost everything we have heard in the past forty years in jazz [1974 at the time of this writing], and in a great amount of popular music not usually associated with jazz, short of folk and rock, derives from Armstrong. As jazz encyclopedist and critic Leonard Feather has written:

“Americans, unknowingly, live part of every day in the house that Satch built. A riff played by a swinging band on television, a nuance in a Sinatra phrase, the Muzak in the elevator, all owe something to the guidelines that Louis set.”

It was he who liberated the improvising virtuoso jazz musician, as soloist, from the tight collective improvisation of New Orleans jazz. It was he who, by his own example on trumpet, pushed back the technical boundaries of traditional musical instruments. It was he who broke the stereotyped rhythmic procedures of early jazz. It was he, more decisively than Bessie Smith, who established those characteristics of American popular singing that distinguish it from any kind of singing based on traditional European conventions and example.

That he should have exerted so decisive an influence on the art of the American popular singer must seem, at first glance, paradoxical. Louis, although certainly one of the most popular singers of the century, was always thought of primarily as an instrumentalist, as a trumpet player, as one who abused his vocal cords to spare his much abused chops. The common view of his singular vocalism is that it proceeded from his playing, that he sang as he played insofar as limitations of vocal compass would permit. One is tempted to suggest that it may have been the other way around, that his playing was an extension of his singing.

His instrumental virtuosity was, I believe, deceptive. The high notes, those devastating excursions above high C, unique and unprecedented in their time, diverted attention from the pervasive oratorical character and eloquence of his playing. Among those whose attention was diverted, and disastrously, were the jazz players of the next generation, and not only the trumpet players. They equaled and even surpassed him in range and dexterity, but they overlooked or ignored or disdained his roots in song.

An important contribution to the vocal or rhetorical aspects of Louis' musicality may be identified, I would suggest, in his association with the "classic" blues singers in the 1920s. The records he made with Bessie Smith are the most familiar example. But he also recorded with many others, among them Chippie Hill, Ma Rainey and Clara Smith.

More was involved in this than Louis' influence upon them or theirs upon him. Jazz and blues converged in the 1920s, much as swing and rhythm-and-blues would converge briefly in Kansas City a decade later. Not only Louis Armstrong, but also Red Allen, Sidney Bechet, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier and Don Redman, among others, worked behind the female blues singers of the time. This collaboration required a kind of playing markedly different from the polyphonic procedures of New Orleans jazz. The instrumentalist both complemented and commented upon the singer's vocal utterance, perpetuating the call and response patterns of some African and early American black idioms, and evolving a concept of instrumental attack, phrase and cadence that would become one of the most distinctive and also one of the most attractive characteristics of jazz.

That Louis Armstrong never forsook or slighted the musician's oratorical responsibility is attributable also to the sensible and restraining influence of Joe "King" Oliver, whose band he joined in Chicago in 1922. He emphasized his debt to Oliver in countless interviews.

Louis rejoiced, of course, in a prodigious facility. As a young man fresh from New Orleans, determined to make his mark in the big city, he was tempted to show off. What Oliver told him runs like a central theme through everything that Louis ever said about his development as a musician and about his musical philosophy.

"Joe would listen to my horn,' he told Steve Allen in a radio interview late in his career, "and I was fly, making all kinds of variations like they're tryin' to call bebop. I instigated all that, 'cause I was so fast with my fingering. But Joe Oliver said: 'No, play lead, play more lead on that horn so the people can know what you're doing.'"

Similarly, he told Geoffrey Haydon, in a television interview for BBC filmed to coincide with his seventieth birthday on July 4, 1970: "I was just like a clarinet player, like the guys run up and down the horn nowadays, boppin' and things. I was doin' all that, fast fingers and everything, so he used to tell me: 'Play some lead on that horn, boy.' You know?" And in the same vein: "Ain't no sense playing a hundred notes if one will do. Joe Oliver always used to say, "Think about that lead!' "

What Joe Oliver was talking about was melody line, or tune. Louis never became a tuneful performer, either on trumpet or as a singer, in the sense of faithfully adhering to the prescribed notes of a song. He made a stab at it in the early 1930s when his prodigious accomplishments on cornet and trumpet, and the unprecedented vocalism of his 1929 recording of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," swept him from the black entertainment world tributary into the white American popular music mainstream. The records he made then reveal a young man stylistically ill at ease, seeking to adapt his own musicality to the sweet, vapid, sentimental white popular songs and styles of the time.

Fortunately he failed. Whether as trumpeter or as singer, his musical individuality was too strong, his manner too vigorous, his inventive impulse too sheerly irrepressible. He came close enough to achieving adaptation to make some bad records. He never made a record that was not unmistakably Armstrong, although there are echoes here and there of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and some of the black female singers who were working more closely to white styles than Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey had worked. Nor did he ever make a record on which he was not conspicuously superior to both the song and the arrangement. But he made many that were marred by creative inhibition and stylistic insecurity.

He solved the problem, eventually, by ignoring white conventions and recasting white music in his own personal and musical image. His heeding of King Oliver's counsel saved him from disaster. It is likely that he never in his entire career sang or played a familiar tune note for note, bar for bar, from beginning to end. But neither did he ever spurn the tune and its chord structure as a frame of melodic and harmonic reference. The modern jazz musician rejects both tune and chords as a frustration of his individual creative freedom, as a violation, so to speak, of a musician's right of free speech. Louis Armstrong had no fear of traditional discipline. It was a challenge both to his invention and his ingenuity. He could accept it with relish and zest. In so doing he set precedents that would become the conventions of American popular singing and give to the singer creative opportunities—and creative responsibilities, too—that he had not enjoyed in Western music since the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Adjectives trotted out to describe the sound of Louis Armstrong's voice have included "hoarse," "rasping" and "gravelly," the last of these being probably the most apt. Humphrey Lyttelton, in a BBC tribute on Louis' seventieth birthday, came up with "astrakhan." I should not have thought of "astrakhan" as a descriptive adjective, but it impressed me at the time as singularly felicitous. The image that has occurred to me most frequently in listening to his later records is that of someone singing through a gargle.

However one chooses to describe his voice, there is no mistaking it. An axiom in the study of singers has it that the great, as opposed to the merely very good, are immediately recognizable. A Caruso, a McCormack, a Tauber—one knows them within eight measures, just as one knows Nat Cole, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Bessie Smith. None was more distinctive, more readily identifiable, than Louis Armstrong.

This probably explains why he had no imitators. He was imitated, of course, but always with a parodistic purpose. The listener knew what the imitator was up to—that it was impersonation rather than emulation. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra each inspired a generation of emulators, some of them admirable. Red Allen, Jack Teagarden and Jabbo Smith worked close to Louis in style, but they didn't sound like him, although Jabbo Smith may have tried.

What made the sound of his voice so utterly unique was, I venture to suggest, the cumulative effect of night after night, month after month, year after year, of bad singing; bad, that is, in traditional terms of vocal production. His voice had not always been so hoarse, so rasping, so gravelly. He had, at the outset, a reasonably agreeable quality and a reasonably extensive range, roughly two octaves from A flat to A flat. This would represent, in European music, a low tenor or a high baritone.

Louis comes through, on his early records, more tenor than baritone, and that was, I suspect, the beginning of his vocal infirmities. Every once in a while, a fine, free baritone escaped him in the middle of his range, revealing what I hear as the natural color and pitch of the voice. Had he elected to sing conventional ballads in a conventional way, he would have chosen keys at least a third below those in which he actually sang them.

He might have got away with those higher keys, for a time, at least, if he had known how to move from one register to another, to negotiate the "passage," to disguise register breaks and to cover the tone as he moved up the scale. But he knew nothing of such matters. Preferring to work in the upper fifth of his range, he was continually under vocal strain. He did not seem to mind. He may even have liked it. Many black singers, particularly those least susceptible to European musical conventions, have shown a predilection for the sense and sound of exaltation, exhortation and incantation that require a vocal production somewhere between singing and shouting, and achievable only by raising both voice and pitch. Louis Armstrong was one of these.

His procedures as a trumpet player provide the clue. He played higher than anybody had ever played a cornet or a trumpet before him. It was not just the odd, climactic, high E flat, E or F. He played consistently high. The performance was not without its purely exhibitionistic side. He obviously reveled in his ability to astonish. He wasn't, as a young man, above carving the competition. Sam Price, a pianist who worked with most of the great jazzmen of the 1920s and 1930s, remembers an encounter between Louis and Jabbo Smith in Chicago: "Louis played about 110 high Cs, and sheet, that was it; and Jabbo could play."

But the stunting was, I suspect, a by-product. Louis, early in his career, probably didn't know how high he was playing, or that what he was playing was assumed to be impossible. Playing high and recklessly was simply a satisfactory outlet for a musically exuberant and ebullient nature. One of his favorite words was "wailing"—and he used it in special contexts, notably and memorably when he told the Pope, who had asked if he and his wife, Lucille, had any children: "No, but we're still right in there wailin', Daddy!"

He was a wailer as a vocalist, too, and no singer can wail in the middle register. So, singing in a manner which came naturally to him, he sang unnaturally high. Wailing on the trumpet takes its toll on the lips, or, as Louis would have said, the chops. This could be countered by salves. The toll on the vocal cords and the muscles and cartilages of the throat was beyond remedy. The upper A flats, Gs and F sharps of the early records did not last long. To an opera singer the loss would have been a disaster. To Louis it mattered very little. If one note was no longer available, he had others to put in its place.

An example of his resourcefulness, of his inexhaustible fund of musical invention, is afforded by a comparison of two recordings of "Ain't Misbehavin'," the one made in 1929, the second in 1955. On the first, there are many high Gs. On the second there are none. But the two performances sound very much alike, and both are in the same key—E flat. Louis knew what he wanted to do with that song, and what he wanted did not essentially change in twenty-six years. If he could not get it one way, he could get it another. The casual listener, hearing the two records one after another, will not be aware that anything is missing, that anything was changed.

The earlier recording of "Ain't Misbehavin'" is instructive, too, as an example of how, with the great singers, the essential elements of their greatness are evident in their earliest work. It is true of early-Crosby, of early Sinatra, of early Fitzgerald, of early Presley and of early Ray Charles, They may waver a bit as they hit midstream. They may give inferior performances, make inferior records and flounder stylistically as they seek to widen repertoire, to accommodate their native musicality to the requirements of commercial fashion, and to escape being typed as singers of one particular kind of song.


Everything that made Louis Armstrong great is present in this earlier recording of "Ain't Misbehavin'." He subsequently made many inferior records with less congenial material before finally learning to discipline not himself, but the song.

He also learned a lot about his own singing. He never learned to sing. He would have been finished as a singer if he had. But he reacted instinctively to what was best in his singing. His phrasing was always as exemplary as it was original, including the trumpet-derived scatting. His improvisatory flights were almost always just right. But his diction, initially, was negligent and slovenly.  He was thinking instrumental, granting that his trumpet playing was rooted in vocalism. As he grew older he learned about the music of language. His diction improved. He mastered the art of milking text. He must have sensed, again probably instinctively, the musicality of his own speech. As his technical prowess and physical resources waned, both vocally and instrumentally, he became more of a talker and less of a wailer.

In the end, as seems to happen with all great singers, he also became the creature of his own distinctive characteristics. He fell into mannerism. His enunciation became meticulous and over articulated. His swoops, slurs and growls became the cliches of predictable artifice rather than the unpredictable expressions of irrepressible artistic impulse. But so profound was his musicality that his procedures, even as mannerisms, still worked. There had always been too much music in his speech to suffer constraint by a mere tune. He had never been, as I have noted, a tuneful musician. As he became even less tuneful with the years, he became somehow more musical.

This was his legacy to those who came after him. All, with the exception of Billie Holiday, were more tuneful than he. They had better, more agreeable, more extensive voices. But from him they learned to escape the strictures of the printed notes and the prescribed rhythms, to distort meter in favor of a more flexibly musical prosody, to work out of syllables rather than words, to take the melodic and rhythmic structure of a song apart and put it together again so that the singer talked as he sang and sang as he talked.

They were untroubled by what remained throughout Louis Armstrong's career, his principal shortcoming as an artist and especially as a singer—his lack of emotional identification or involvement with whatever he was singing about. I was often moved by him both in personal performance and on record, but my response was one of sheer delight with his genius, his taste, his invention and his own obvious pleasure in making music. He was always a joyous, jubilant musician. The toothy smile, the waving white handkerchief, the invitation to the audience to sit back and enjoy some of the "old goodies," the gay palaver with his sidemen — all this was genuine. All this was fun.

It would be unjust, probably inaccurate, to suggest that he was ever anything but serious in his approach to a song. But it may be permissible to suggest that he rarely, if ever, took a song seriously. His identification with the music was intimate, his relationship with the textual content casual and detached, often conveying an undertone of benevolent raillery. But the devices of his musicianship have proved both valid and invaluable to those who have taken their songs more seriously than he — or made you believe they did — notably Frank Sinatra.

Louis Armstrong's importance to musical history is difficult to overestimate, and responsible critics and historians have not shied away from hyperbole. Andre Hodeir, for example, in his Jazz, Its Evolution and Essence, has said of the records Louis made with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven between 1925 and 1928: "I wouldn't go so far as to state that Louis Armstrong was the man who 'invented' jazz, but listening to these records might make me think so."

One of those records was "West End Blues," of which Gunther Schuller, in his Early Jazz, has said:

“The clarion call of "West End Blues" served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression. Although nurtured by the crass entertainment and nightclub world of the Prohibition era, Armstrong's music transcended this context and its implications. This was music for music's sake, not for the first time in jazz, to be sure, but never before in such brilliant and unequivocal form. The beauties of this music were those of any great, compelling musical experience: expressive fervor, intense artistic commitment, and an intuitive sense for structural logic.”

Armstrong's reaction to this kind of commentary was characteristic. When Geoffrey Haydon, in the BBC-TV birthday program mentioned previously, asked him if he had been aware when making these records with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven that he was doing something very important, he replied, "No, we was just glad to play. We weren't paid no money, just was glad to play." Music, as Schuller noted, for music's sake.

The lay music lover or jazz fan, accustomed to think of Louis Armstrong as an amiable and irrepressible entertainer, even as a venerable and lovable clown, would be astonished to learn of the extent of scholarly literature devoted to his music. No one could have been more astonished than Louis himself, or could have found it more bewildering, more incomprehensible. He was not an intellect. But his improvisator-explosions have been copied down note for note and bar for bar in countless books and periodicals, and have been subjected to the most painstaking melodic, harmonic and rhythmic analysis.

The significance of his innovations is implicit in the fact that none of this analysis really works. Notation is inseparable from the European conventions it was evolved to record and represent. It cannot reflect the myriad shadings of attack, color, vibrato, release and so on that distinguish Louis Armstrong's playing and singing. It cannot document the slight deviations from pitch, and their harmonic and melodic connotations. Nor can it reproduce, visually, rhythmic subtleties so foreign to the fractional subdivisions of units of time in the rhythmic organization of European music.

Armstrong's own career after 1930 helped to frustrate any just evaluation of his achievement outside an inner circle of sympathetic and perceptive scholars. By the end of the 1920s he was already a celebrity. Indeed, as early as 1925, when he was twenty-five, he was being billed, probably accurately, as "the world's greatest trumpet player." The role of celebrity suited both his talent and his disposition. He drifted, or was drawn, into the mainstream of popular music, playing anything and everything that came his way. He appeared in moving pictures—usually as Louis Armstrong. He played and sang with popular musicians and popular singers, and not always with the best. He clowned and mugged and rejoiced in such monikers as "Satchmo" and "Pops."

Whatever he played or sang, he did in his own way, and there is no denying that the "way" commonly transcended the "what." He even survived an "Uncle Tom" label that would have been fatal to any other black musician after the mid-1950s. "Sure, Pops toms," said Billie Holiday, "but he toms with class!" As Benny Green, the English jazz critic, pointed out in a seventieth-birthday profile for the London Observer:

“The complaints have all come either from purist critics or political rebels. There is not a single musician of any consequence who takes exception to the personality Armstrong projects on the stage, and for a very good reason. It takes a performer to know a performer.”

If he played and sang to the grandstand, and too often accepted the grandstand's image not only of Louis Armstrong but of jazz itself, he knew exactly what he was doing. "I belong to the old school, you know," he told the French journalist Philippe Adler in 1968, "to the guys who think only of pleasing the public. I gave up the idea of playing for the critics or for musicians long ago." To Geoffrey Haydon he said: "A musician has no business being bored as long as he's pleasing the public." To Max Jones, as recounted in Jones's Salute to Satchmo, he said: "You understand, I'm doing my day's work, pleasing the public and enjoying my horn."

The jazz world, whose snobbery is, if anything, even more distasteful than the complacent snobbery of classical music, never quite forgave him. Sometimes, granting an exception for a seventieth birthday, it seemed almost to have forgotten him — or abandoned him to popular music, although jazz musicians of the generation immediately after his were usually eager to honor their debt. The best of the popular singers, too, acknowledged what their phrasing owed to his example.

Twenty years before Louis' seventieth birthday, Bing Crosby told Ken Murray, in a Down Beat interview: "Yes, Ken, I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to the Rev. Satchel Mouth. He is the beginning and the end of music in America." Similarly, Billy Eckstine, speaking to Max Jones in the winter of 1970: "Everybody singing got something from him because he puts it down basically, gives you that feeling. It's right there. You don't have to look for it."

But to younger artists, further removed from the source in time and example, he seemed an anachronism, both as man and musician. Or he appeared, to put a better face upon it, as a legend. In one sense it was a mark of his stature. Where other musicians of his generation had either to adapt their style to changing fashion or perish, he could adhere to his own style and not only survive, but prosper. But there was tragedy in it, too. He lived to see what was unique and wondrous in his early work become the clichés of the mainstream. He saw the inspired distortions that were the secret of his genius distorted beyond recognition in the work of some of his successors. He did not enjoy the experience.

He made only one bitter record, a parody of the " Whiffenpoof Song," in which he had some wry fun at the expense of the be-boppers, and on that one subject there was no mellowing with the passage of time. He sang the "Boppinpoof Song" on a Flip Wilson television program in the spring of 1971, just a few months before his death. "What's scattin' but notes — but the right notes?" he asked Geoffrey Haydon. "Just to be scattin' and makin' a whole lotta noise and faces, slobbin' all over yourself? No. Let them notes come out right, you know?"

In the span of Louis Armstrong's life and career this bitterness was only a passing shadow.

My whole life [he said in a letter to Max Jones] has been happiness. Through all the misfortunes, etc., I did not plan anything. Life was there for me, and I accepted it. And life, whatever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.

Even in the jails, in the old days in New Orleans, I had loads of fans. One morning on my way to court, the prisoners raked pans on their cell bars and applauded thunderously, saying "Louie . . . Louie Armstrong," until the guy who was taking me to court said: "Who are you, anyway?" I said to him, "Oh, just one of the cats."

And that's how it has always been.”

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Dexter Gordon "Doin' Allright" - The Blue Note Years - Part 2

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

“The King of Quoters, Dexter Gordon, was himself eminently quotable. In a day not unlike our own, when purists issue fiats about what is or isn't valid in jazz, Gordon declared flatly, ‘jazz is an octopus’—it will assimilate anything it can use. Drawing closer to home, he spoke of his musical lineage: Coleman Hawkins "was going out farther on the chords, but Lester [Young] leaned to the pretty notes. He had a way of telling a story with everything he played.' Young's story was sure, intrepid, dar­ing, erotic, cryptic. A generation of saxophonists found itself in his music, as an earlier generation had found itself in Hawkins's rococo virtuosity. …

Gordon's appeal was to be found not only in his Promethean sound and nonstop invention, his impregnable authority combined with a steady and knowing wit, but also in a spirit born in the crucible of jam sessions. He was the most formidable of battlers, undefeated in numer­ous contests, and never more engaging than in his kindred flare-ups with the princely Wardell Gray, a perfect Lestorian foil, gently lyrical but no less swinging and sure. …

Gordon was an honest and genuinely original artist of deep and abiding humor and of tremendous personal charm. He imparted his personal characteristics to his music — size, radiance, kindness, a genius for dis­continuous logic. Consider his trademark musical quotations—snippets from other songs woven into the songs he is playing. Some, surely, were calculated. But not all and probably not many, for they are too subtle and too supple. They fold into his solos like spectral glimpses of an alternative universe in which all of Tin Pan Alley is one infinite song. That so many of the quotations seem verbally relevant I attribute to Gordon's reflexive stream-of-consciousness and prodigious memory for lyrics. I cannot imagine him planning apposite [apt in the circumstances] quotations.”

- Gary Giddins

Chuck Berg [Downbeat Magazine, February 10, 1977: There's one thing that especial­ly impressed Sonny Rollins and which has always intrigued me. That is the way you lay back on the melody or phrase just a bit behind the beat. Instead of being right on top of the beat with a metrical approach like Sonny Stitt and a lot of the great white tenor play­ers, you just pull back. In the process there are interesting tensions that develop in your music. How did that come about?

Dexter Gordon: Yeah. I've been told that I do that. I'm not really that conscious of it. I think I more or less got it from Lester because I didn't play right on top. He was always a little back, I think. That's the way I felt it, you know, and so it just happened that way. These things are not really thought out. It's what you hear and the way you hear it.”

“ON NOVEMBER 7, 1960, DEXTER GORDON signed with Blue Note Records in what was to become one of his most successful relationships with a record company both musically and personally. Until February 8, 1967, Dexter kept in touch with Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff by letter and card. The following examples from their correspondence give some idea of the involvement of Dexter in his recordings and of Alfred and Frank with Dexter as an artist and as a friend.”

- Maxine Gordon

“April 26, 1961 Dear Dexter,

It was nice talking to you yesterday on the phone. I'll send you the airplane ticket by the end of this week along with exact instructions as to the hotel you'll be staying at, etc. You have to be in New York by Wednesday afternoon or evening. As I explained to you on the phone, I would like to make two sessions. The first one I have planned for Saturday afternoon, May 6th with Horace Parian, piano, George Tucker, bass and Al Harewood, drums. This rhythm section has been working steadily with Lou Donaldson, and, lately, with tenor player Booker Ervin. I have an idea that this will work pretty smoothly as I told you on the phone. I don't want any complicated music; but rather some good standards in medium, medium-bright and medium-bounce tempos. This, of course, should also cover some blues. A slow, walking ballad should also be considered. I think we should keep away from real fast tempos this first one. I would rather emphasize a good standard, played in the right tempo and delivered in a soulful manner, more so than displaying a lot of technique. I'd like to make something that can be enjoyed and played on jukeboxes stationed in the soul spots throughout the nation, I think you know what I mean.

The second session, which I have planned for Tuesday evening, May 9th, should consist of another rhythm section. Let's see who will be available when you come in. I have Kenny Drew in mind, and maybe a trumpet, Freddie Hubbard, if he's in town. Bring along as much material, including your originals, as you can; and dig into your bag of standards that lay well with you. You might have a few that have not been over recorded lately. I'll do the same on my end here. So the next letter you receive from me will contain your airplane ticket and instructions in regard to the hotel in New York, etc. With best personal regards,

- Alfred Lion”

Dexter Gordon: Doin’ Allright [Blue Note CDP 784077 2]

Dating back to tenor saxophonist Coleman’s Hawkins’ 1939 virtuoso performance of Body and Soul, the instrument had become almost synonymous with Jazz. Along with Louis Armstrong’s earlier stylings on the trumpet, these two B-flat concert key instruments became the front line foundations of most modern Jazz combos in the 1950s and 60s.

The more widely recognized exponents of the instrument during this phase of Jazz’s development were John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz.

Almost forgotten among a plethora of talented “big horn” players during this period was the huge sound, melodic inventiveness and powerful, pulsating rhythmic phrasing of Dexter Gordon [Sadly, Hank Mobley also falls into this category, although in his case it was more a question of being overlooked].

Thanks to Blue Note’s owners, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the operative term in this dynamic was “almost.”

Here’s Ira Gitler notes to the first of Dexter’s Blue Note LPs

DEXTER GORDON —there is a name to conjure with. Veteran listeners will certainly remember him but younger fans probably will not although he was intermittently active during the '50s.To musicians (especially those saxophonists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him). Dexter Gordon has always been a highly important player. As the first man to synthesize the Young, Hawkins and Parker strains in translating the bop idiom to the tenor saxophone, he was an important contributor. It is not, however, from a stylistic, historical angle that he has been appreciated. Dexter has always been a direct, exciting communicator of emotions; his big sound and declarative attack are as commanding of attention as his imposing height.

The owner of an acute harmonic sense, Gordon has never used it to merely run changes accurately. He is a melodist and can also contrast rhythmic figures effectively. His harmonic awareness was a great aid in preparing him to plunge into the new music that was fermenting in the early '40s. Unlike many of his immediate contemporaries, Gordon studied harmony and theory at the age of 13, the same time he took up the clarinet. Due to this, he was able to actively incorporate the beneficial effects directly into his playing as he was growing up. At 15, he started playing alto sax and two years later, in 1940, he quit school, switched to tenor sax and joined the "Harlem Collegians" in his native Los Angeles. From this local band he stepped into Lionel Hamptons aggregation in December 1940 and remained with Hamp through 1943. Illinois Jacquet was the principal tenorman and together they were featured on Pork Chops."lt was about the only thing I had to play," says Dexter.

After leaving Hampton, he returned to Los Angeles where he played with the groups of Lee Young (Lester Young's drumming brother) and Jesse Price. For six months in 1944, Dexter worked with Louis Armstrong's band. Then he joined Billy Eckstine's new orchestra and received a real chance to be heard: the tenor battle with Gene Ammons on Blowin' the Blues Away; his own bits on Lonesome Lover Blues and several of the modern jazz instrumental that the band played.

Gordon's impact was immediate. You could hear it in the work of his section-mate, Ammons. When he left Eckstine for New York's 52nd Street in 1945, his influence spread like the ripples a large rock makes when it is dropped into a pool of water. Allen Eager's first quartet recordings (Booby Hatch, Rampage) showed that he was listening and Stan Getz was captured temporarily according to such sides as Opus de Bop and Running Water. Of course, like Gordon, these players had been affected by Lester Young, but it seemed that in addition to getting inspiration directly from Pres, they were digging the Gordon translation, too. If a 12-inch, Mercury 78 rpm of Rosetta and I’ve Found a New Baby, cut with Harry Edison, demonstrated that Dexter could get very close to Young, the original version of Groovin' High, made with Dizzy Gillespie for Guild in February of 1945, showed a Gordon who had his own interpretation of the day's material.

Gordon worked at the Spotlite Club with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Bud Powell and then had his own group at the Three Deuces. The weekly Sunday afternoon sessions at the Fraternal Clubhouse and Lincoln Square Center usually included Dex as part of their all-star line-ups. His presence, before he even blew a note, always had an electric effect on the audience.

Gordon returned to the West Coast in the summer of 1946 but not before he had made several recordings with his own groups. He played for two months in Hawaii with Cee Pee Johnson. Then, in California, in the summer of 1947, he and Warded Gray teamed up at concerts, after-hours sessions and for their recording of The Chase. Later that year, it was back to New York and 52nd Street for Gordon but in 1948, he went home again, not to return to Manhattan until the May 1961 trip to record for Blue Note. He revived his association with Gray in 1950 but that soon ended and the next decade was not a very productive one for Dexter. The popularity of "West Coast" jazz left little opportunity for his brand of virile music to be heard in Southern California. Then, too, he was fighting personal demons. In the last five years of the '50s, he made only three record dates (two as leader) and worked sporadically in a small group context.

The '60s are a decade of new promise for Gordon. Through playwright Carl Thaler, he became involved in the West Coast version of Jack Gelber's The Connection. He composed an original score, led the quartet that played it on stage and held down a main speaking role. His success gave him a new confidence and led to a general revitalization.

Although his presence has not been directly felt on the jazz scene as a whole in a long time. Dexter has been with us. in part, through the work of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, two of the most important instrumentalists to develop in the '50s. Both owe a debt to Gordon for helping them to form their now highly personal styles. It is interesting to hear how Gordon, in turn, has now picked up on developments brought about by the men he originally influenced. Make no mistake, however, about Dexter. He is still very much his own man. His great inner power stands out in these recordings. He breathes maturity in every phrase he plays, his gigantic sound living up to the kind of musical voice one would expect from a person of his god-like dimensions.

A musician of Gordon’s reputation (particularly in the special setting of this recording), playing at the top of his game, will always inspire the men around him to do their best. Here, young Freddie Hubbard, impressive as he has been on Blue Note in the past, adds new, thoughtful qualities to his brassy fire. That this was no ordinary date is evident in every microgroove.

The rhythm section plays for Dexter, seeming to sense what he wants, following his lead yet never lagging. These three are no strangers to Blue Noters. As the Horace Parlan trio or as 3/5 of the Horace Parlan quintet (with the Turrentine brothers as the horns), they have made several swinging LPs. Presently, they are appearing around New York with tenorman Booker Ervin under the title, The Playhouse Four.

George Gershwin's I Was Doing All Right, the opener and title tune, is stated in a full-toned manner by Gordon at a loping medium tempo. He eases into his unhurried solo with a couple of bows to his old buddy Wardell Gray. Logic, warmth and melody abound. Hubbard plays beautifully and pensively, putting one in mind of Clifford Brown and some of Miles Davis' early '50s thinking. Parlan picks up the mood and spins out his solo in an equally relaxed, thoughtful way, ending with some perfumed chords.

The way he handles a ballad is one good indicator of a musician's depth. Dexter's You've Changed is a gorgeous piece of meaningful horn-singing by a man who knows what it's all about. Some of the lower register tones remind me of Don Byas, another old Gordon colleague (52nd Street vintage) who influenced quite a few people himself. The upper register and the story told are unmistakably Gordon. Hubbard is inspired again to play a poignant albeit short bit. Parian's even shorter interlude leads back to Gordons tender conclusion. Billie Holiday couldn't have done it any better herself.

For Regulars Only is a Gordon original with a catchy, contrasting theme. Dexter masterfully demonstrates how to build a solo, climbing up the thermometer, chorus after chorus, until his last one satisfies completely. Hubbard cooks in a brief solo; Parian alternates his stint between single-line and chords.

A marching, skipping, funky blues is Gordon's Society Red. It settles into a steady 4/4 as Hubbard takes an opening solo that beats things up with leaping rhythmic figures and a brightly burning flame of a sound. Again, Gordon builds to a point of climax. Here he does it more slowly than in For Regulars Only, spreading his expansive tone over a longer period of time. Parlan's single-line leads into a blue chordal exploration before George Tucker plucks his only lengthy solo of the set.

It's You or No One finds Dexter ascending to the upper reaches of his horn, alternating swift flights with rhythmic punching. Freddie is fleet but with underlying substance. After Horace's solo. Tucker walks and Harewood talks as they weave in and out of the ensemble.

All in all. Dexter Gordon's trip to New York was very fruitful. He renewed old acquaintances, made some new friends, bought a couple of groovy suits at a Broadway clothier and began an association with Blue Note that should prove to be mutually significant.

Dexter Gordon is a big man physically and musically. This album is representative of that kind of size.”


Note: Supported by Freddie Hubbard and the Horace Parlan trio. Dexter Gordon began his association with Blue Note with this session, which quickly rekindled his career and ended an eight-year lull. As well as two magnificent readings on standards, it introduced two of his finest and most lasting compositions "For Regulars Only" and "Society Red” which found new life in the film ROUND MIDNIGHT. For this Compact Disc, an alternate take of "For Regulars Only" and another Dexter tune "I Want More” both previously unissued, have been added. Dexter would recut and release “I Want More" on his next Blue Note album DEXTER CALLING.


Dan Morgenstern Sessions Notes from the Boxed Set Booklet -

(A) MAY 6,1961

“For his first Blue Note session, Dexter Gordon is supported by a working rhythm section and a rising young trumpet star. 

Pianist Horace Parlan, bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood were three-fourths of The Playhouse Four, named for Minton's Playhouse, the once-famed Harlem nightclub where (with tenorman Booker Ervin) they were ensconced as the house band. Parlan, born in Pittsburgh in 1931, started on piano at 12 and wasn't deterred when stricken with polio—he merely compensated for an impaired right hand by developing an exceptionally strong left. A professional from 1952, he first gained notice with Charles Mingus's Workshop (1957-9) and had also worked with Lou Donaldson, the tenor team of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin, and the Turrentine brothers. (He settled in Denmark in 1973 where he was reunited with Dexter.) 

Tucker, born in Florida in 1927, had come to New York at 20 to study music at Julliard; turning pro, he worked with saxophonists Earl Bostic, Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean and was in the house rhythm section at Brooklyn's Continental Club prior to hooking up with Parian. His sudden death of a heart attack in 1965 was a great loss. 

Harewood, born in New York City in 1923, first came into view in 1954 with J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding and subsequently worked with Gigi Gryce, Gene Ammons and David Amram; later associations included Stan Getz and Benny Carter. 

Freddie Hubbard, born in Indianapolis in 1938, had early classical training, hooked up with boyhood friends James Spaulding and Larry Ridley in his first working group, came to New York in 1960, and soon found himself in demand. Though he'd already participated in Ornette Coleman's landmark avant garde recording "Free Jazz" and worked with Eric Dolphy, his orientation was essentially straight ahead and 1961 was also the year in which he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Oscar Peterson - In The Black Forest [From the Archives]

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

Oscar Peterson's contract with Verve ran out in 1964 and he left the company. He signed with Limelight, a new subsidiary of Mercury that would prove to be desultory and ineffectual and eventually was closed down. The Limelight albums are not rated among his best, although one is notable as his first substantial venture as a composer. This was The Canadiana Suite which the editorial staff at JazzProfiles covered in a previous feature.

I had been a long-time admirer of Oscar and his prodigious technique, but frankly, he put out so many LP’s during his association with Norman Granz’s Verve label that I began to hear a certain sameness in his playing despite the thematic context.

In a way, I had the feeling that Oscar was a victim of his own success and I began to view him as a musician who had stopped growing as an artist.

The best description of Oscar’s plight was contained in a piece that appeared in The Times on London, May 11, 1970, in which Max Harrison wrote that, after the Carnegie Hall concert of 1949, “in terms of fame and fortune he never looked back: he toured the world and made far too many LPs. Indeed, musically he seemed never to look forward. He traded in the dullest sort of virtuosity - keyboard mobility as an end in itself, the effect frantic but uncommitted. That was sufficient to enthral an international audience, yet gradually the cognoscenti gave Peterson up, and I recall describing him, in Jazz Monthly a decade ago, as 'the biggest bore in jazz.'”

And yet, in the late 1960s, I had a number of piano playing friends who assured me that Oscar was really a different pianist than the one who was making LP’s by the fistful for Norman Granz and that what he really had to offer was being put on display in a series of six recordings that he made for the MPS label which was based in Germany one of which was entitled - The Way I Really Play! [The exclamation point is mine.]

I sought out these LP’s and after listening to them, it didn’t take me long to agree that there was indeed another Oscar Peterson, one who seemed to perform differently when he was doing so - Exclusively For My Friends - which is the title of the 4 CD set of the MPS albums that was issued by Verve in 1992 [314 513 830-2]

Gene Lees describes the background of how this music came about and explains the circumstances that helped create a startlingly different Oscar Peterson than the one that had been “mailing it in” at the end of his Verve relationship with Norman Granz [Granz had sold the label to MGM in 1962].

“For some time Oscar had been playing a series of private parties for a German millionaire. They would eventuate in some of the most acclaimed albums of his career - indeed, Richard Palmer would write, "some of the most remarkable recordings in jazz history." These included his first important solo albums.

Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's grandfather was a small businessman named Hermann Schwer, who manufactured bicycle bells in the Black Forest - Schwarzwald, in German - in the late nineteenth century. During the pioneering days of radio broadcasting, he began manufacturing receivers. The business grew.

Schwer had no sons to whom he could leave his business. He had only a daughter, Gretl, and she disappointed him when she married. She chose a musician, a symphony conductor named Brunner, who had been a classmate and friend of Herbert von Karajan. Brunner lived just long enough to father two sons, Hans Georg, born a little less than two years after Oscar Peterson, on July 21,1927, and Herman, who arrived two years later. His widow married a career army officer named Ernst Scherb.

Schwer's company was SABA, the acronym of a much longer name. Its factories were in the lovely little Schwarzwald city of Villingen, not far from the Swiss border. The surrounding folded hills are covered with steep-sloping farms and deep pine forests. In the 19308, SABA patented an automatic tuning device that locks a radio to a frequency, eliminating drift. It is still in use, though the patent has long since expired. SABA grew to be a major manufacturer of radio receivers. When World War Two arrived, the company was impressed into military manufacturing and prospered -until the Allied air forces put the small industries of Villingen, SABA among them, on their target list. They destroyed the SABA facilities.

With the defeat of Germany in 1945, Villingen fell into the French zone of occupation. The French commandant appropriated the finest home in the community for himself- the Brunner-Schwer house built by the grandfather and standing next to the ruined SABA works. The teen-aged boys, Hans Georg and Herman, and Gretl, their mother, were moved into the chauffeur's cottage. By then the grandfather was dead, and they, along with their mother, had inherited the estate, its lands, and what was left of SABA.

Stepfather Ernst Scherb, who had been captured on the eastern front, was at last released by the Russians, returned, and took over the reorganization of SABA, which he carried out with military discipline and clarity. In the meantime the French returned the home to its owners. Scherb decided the two boys should be trained to direct the company. Herman was a brilliant student who was chosen to run the business side of SABA. He obtained an MBA degree. Hans Georg was an indifferent student - in the formal sense at least - with a brilliant flair for those technical fields that interested him. He was elected to run the engineering and manufacturing side of the company.

Hans Georg had inherited from his father more than the love of music. Like the father - and like Oscar Peterson - he had the odd gift of absolute pitch. Again like Oscar, he was big, and he liked big things. He began collecting and restoring classic automobiles made by the now-dismantled Maybach company; some of his restorations are worth as much as half a million dollars. And Hans Georg built up, of all strange things, the world's largest collection of air-raid sirens, indicative of his intense interest in sound.

Hans Georg had learned to play accordion, then piano. Herman Brunner-Schwer, an enthusiastic soccer player, liked to associate with athletes; Hans Georg preferred the company of musicians and sound engineers. He knew the owner of the Berlin company that manufactured the excellent Neumann microphones, and people at Telefunken, as well as the manufacturers of the most sophisticated loudspeakers and recording equipment. He designed and installed on the third floor of his home at Villingen one of the most advanced recording studios in the world.

An associate put it this way: "Hans Georg loved sounds that matched his personality, full and deep, going down if possible to ten cycles and up to twenty thousand cycles. Commercially, these things were not available, but he was striving to achieve them."

The human ear cannot hear frequencies as low as ten cycles, but the body can feel them. And whereas the ear cannot hear higher than about fifteen thousand cycles - and many people can't hear even that far up the sound spectrum - the upper partials, as they are called, of sounds, which are in the very high frequencies, determine the timbres, the characteristic colours, of instruments.

Brunner-Schwer experimented with his advanced studio by recording German folk musicians from the Schwarzwald. But his deepest musical passion was for American bands of the swing era. Despite Hitler's formal proscription of jazz as "decadent Negroid Jewish music" - many musicians were sent off to concentration camps and eventually gas chambers for playing it - thousands of Germans nursed a secret love for the music and listened to caches of pre-war records or to the BBC from London, on whose signal they could hear Glenn Miller's air force band. Brunner-Schwer was one of these listeners.

In 1962, the Brunner-Schwer brothers began an association with a business consultant named Baldhard G. Falk, who had emigrated to the United States after gaining his doctorate in economics from the Free University in Berlin in 1951 and lived in San Francisco. Falk says the name Baldhard, drawn from Norse mythology and then misspelled on his birth certificate, is almost as odd in German as it is to the ear of the English-speaking, and even his American wife calls him BF.

Falk cleared up a business problem in the United States for SABA and the Brunner-Schwer family, after which he became their American business agent. A tall, fair-haired, humorous Prussian of considerable personal charm, Falk got along well with Hans Georg. For one thing, he too was a jazz fan. Once during the war, he was almost arrested for playing The Lambeth Walk outdoors on a wind-up gramophone. "And that," he said with a chuckle, "wasn't even jazz."

One of Hans Georg's early musical assignments for Falk was to find the American jazz accordionist Art Van Damme, whom Brunner-Schwer, an accordionist, considered one of the greatest players of the instrument in the world, and have him go to Villingen to record.

In the last days of the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen edition of the trio, Oscar was invited to perform in a paid engagement for a small group of Brunner-Schwer's friends. From that point on, he would go to Villingen at least once a year to play under exquisite circumstances for Brunner-Schwer. The audiences were small, no more than twenty or twenty-five persons, and raptly attentive. "They were really only props," Falk said with a smile. "I don't think Hans Georg cared whether they were there or not."

These parties were reminiscent of the nineteenth-century salon gatherings at which Chopin and Liszt were heard to advantage. The Brunner-Schwer house is in the midst of two and a half acres of groomed gardens. Musicians stayed as guests of the family in the home, which has a huge entrance foyer, a sweeping curved stairway, and wooden detailing hand-carved in the last century by Schwarzwald craftsmen. The parties were superbly catered by the staff of the Schwarzwald Hotel Konigsfeld.

Brunner-Schwer was never present except at the start of these recitals. He would first set his microphones, then go up to his recording equipment in a studio under the mansard roof, watching the performance on a television monitor. More perfect circumstances in which to make music would be difficult to imagine, and every musician who ever performed for Brunner-Schwer came away vaguely dazed by the pleasure of the experience. Sometimes there was no party at all: Oscar would sit at the piano in shirt sleeves, as at home, and muse pensively on the instrument while Hans Georg, unseen and for the instant forgotten, captured these reflections on tape.

A friendship developed between Brunner-Schwer and Oscar Peterson, despite the fact that Hans Georg spoke almost no English, although such was the perfection of his ear that the few words he did command were pronounced so well that one was deceived into assuming he spoke it fluently. But Baldhard Falk, when he flew in from San Francisco, or Brunner-Schwer's wife, Marlies, would translate for them. Both Oscar and Hans Georg, Falk points out, were physically big men, and they shared several passions - for jazz, for the piano, for advanced technology, and for sound.

Oscar was fascinated by everything about Brunner-Schwer's equipment and use of it, including the radical (for the time) way he miked a piano. He used, at least in the early days, two microphones, usually Neumanns, placed inside the instrument and so close to the strings that they were almost touching; a much more distant mike placement was usual at the time. Some of the microphones, in fact, were prototypes Brunner-Schwer had borrowed from their inventors before they were even marketed commercially. And the piano itself was superb, a full nine-foot concert grand, a German Steinway. The German-made Steinways were rated much more highly by pianists than the American-made instruments.

Because of the power of his technique, Oscar dislikes pianos with light actions, and the action of Brunner-Schwer's Steinway was crisp and strong. After the salon recitals, when the guests were gone, Oscar and Brunner-Schwer would listen to the tapes, and Oscar would shake his head and tell his wife Sandy and anyone else who was there that no one had ever captured his sound the way Hans Georg did. And it seemed that these tapes were destined to languish unheard by the world, like Gerry Macdonald's tapes of the trio with Herb Ellis. SABA was by now marketing high-fidelity equipment with capacities that exceeded the quality of available commercial recordings.

Hans Georg had gone into the recording business in a limited way, setting up the SABA label, on which he issued his Art Van Damme and other recordings, a total of forty albums sold through equipment dealers in Germany. The Oscar Peterson tapes could not be issued because Oscar was under contract to Limelight, and there was no plan to issue them, although they were far superior to the Limelight albums.

SABA continued to grow throughout the 1960s, finally reaching the point where it had to be refinanced or sold. The Brunner-Schwer family decided to sell and considered offers from several companies. Falk - after long and complex negotiations - finally made a deal with the American company General Telephone and Electronics. GTE acquired SABA but Hans Georg retained the music division, including the inventory of tapes. At this point Hans Georg decided to go fully into the record business, marketing his material through his MPS label - Musik Produktion Schwarzwald. He thought that nothing could announce his entry into the business with as much eclat as the Peterson material. And Oscar's Mercury contract had elapsed.

Falk flew in for Brunner-Schwer's 1968 Oscar Peterson house party. Oscar and Hans Georg listened to hours of the tapes they had accumulated, selecting not the best of the material but the best that was not covered by the Mercury contract. Recording contracts specify that the artist cannot re-record material for a certain period, usually five years. None of the tunes recorded for Limelight could be issued in an MPS version. Oscar called Norman Granz to discuss possible release of the material by MPS. Falk, whose fluent English was one of his important business assets to Brunner-Schwer, spoke to Granz, who named a price to which Hans Georg agreed, and, that being done, Granz sent them a contract.

"It was the shortest contract I have ever seen," Falk said. "Only a page and a half long. It was a world-wide contract for release of four albums by Oscar, for a lump sum and royalties. So MPS started with that, those four albums. Hans Georg got his money from GTE for SABA and started investing heavily in music and hiring salesmen. It was at that time that we met you in New York." So it was. Oscar returned from West Germany in 1968 with test pressings of the first albums. Falk and Hans Georg flew to New York. Oscar called me. Given his developed skill at hiding his emotions, I was surprised at the enthusiasm in his voice.

Oscar had told me on several occasions that his best playing had been done in private. I had heard him play with a wonderful muted pensiveness, and nothing on record - even the London House records themselves - equaled what I used to hear in the late-night sets at the London House.

So when Oscar told me that he believed these German recordings were the best he had ever made, my eyebrows rose. He said he wanted me to write liner notes for at least two of the albums, both containing only solo performances. For now, he wanted me to meet the company's owner and his consultant in the United States. "The owner," he said, "is Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, and his associate is - you're not gonna believe this name - Baldhard G. Falk." In the argot of jazz, Baldhard is slightly salacious.

I met Oscar, Brunner-Schwer, and Falk for lunch at the Carlisle Hotel, after which Hans Georg and BF, as I was learning to call him, repaired to my apartment to listen to the pressings. I remember being astonished by the recordings. I told Oscar, "This is the way you really play," and one of the albums was titled The Way I Really Play. In the days after that, I played the albums for various jazz musicians, who agreed that these were the best Peterson recordings they had heard. By then Oscar had left New York to tell interviewers in various places that he thought the MPS recordings were his best.

And critics were soon agreeing with him, including some who had been among his skeptical listeners. In The Times of London, May 11, 1970, Max Harrison wrote that, after the Carnegie Hall concert of 1949, "in terms of fame and fortune he never looked back: he toured the world and made far too many LPs. Indeed, musically he seemed never to look forward. He traded in the dullest sort of virtuosity - keyboard mobility as an end in itself, the effect frantic but uncommitted. That was sufficient to enthrall an international audience, yet gradually the cognoscenti gave Peterson up, and I recall describing him, in Jazz Monthly a decade ago, as 'the biggest bore in jazz.' Always there were a few people, chiefly jazz pianists, who stubbornly maintained that in private he played in a manner which flatly contradicted his public image, but evidence was lacking and we never believed them.

"Peterson's apparent satisfaction with his easy successes confirmed such incredulity, yet between 1963 and 1968, when pausing from his travels, he was recording, almost secretly, at Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's Villingen studio in the Black Forest. As never before, Peterson had sole charge of repertoire, tape-editing, etc., and many performances accumulated over those years were rejected. The survivors amount to about 170 minutes' jazz, however, and show him in so new a light as to compel reassessment. Earlier, irrespective of his material's character, Peterson strung together quite mechanical pianistic devices, the detritus, it sounded, of a thousand half-hearted improvisations, but here, as, say, the compact exploration of Perdido shows, spontaneity is balanced with the fruits of long consideration. These 26 treatments last from two minutes to over a quarter of an hour and always the length feels exactly appropriate. They are, in fact, substantially different one from another, and as the contrast between Little Girl Blue's velvety quiet and the bouncing gaiety encapsulated in Lulu’s Back in Town proves, the range of expression is wider than on all Peterson's other discs together....

"To hear Peterson's I'm in the Mood for Love pass from sombre opening chords through increasing but always cogent elaboration to its churning double-tempo climax is like watching the speeded-up growth of a natural organism, and the transmutation process whereby so much is drawn from so bad a tune is inexplicable....

"[Oscar Peterson] is, indeed, a conservative, a rare type in this music, but he has learnt one of Tatum's main lessons well, for, as the lithe, bounding phrases of Foggy Day or Sandy's Blues show, in his best moments decoration assumes a functional role and so is no longer decoration, ornament becomes integral to the processes of development."

Two years later, when My Favorite Instrument - one of the two solo albums for which I had written the notes - came out in England, Harrison wrote in Jazz Monthly, "It is a luxury to be able to indulge in a categorical statement for once, and to assert that this is the best record Peterson ever made. Of course, the sleeve note gets too excited and says he is better than Tatum" - the barb's aimed at me - "although even an offhand comparison between this version of Someone to Watch Over Me, described as a tribute to the older man, with the master's own performance of this piece reveals a considerable difference in executive refinement, and further listening uncovers the more concise yet more subtle structure of Tatum's reading. Such claims on Peterson's behalf are futile, but it is important to define just what his musical and pianistic achievements are.

"He is not original. Unlike, say, a James P. Johnson or a Cecil Taylor, there is very little in his music that can be isolated as being his alone. Peterson's strongest suit is his knowledge. He has learnt every procedure that has occurred in piano jazz up to his time and uses them in his own way. Put something in a new context and it can take on a fresh meaning: what is personal in [these] performances is not the musical and pianistic elements of which they consist but the particular way these are put together. Peterson's other point, obviously, is a technique which, unlike the techniques of most jazz pianists, has been systematically developed in all areas. This accounts not only for the feeling of completeness which all these improvisations convey despite their diversity of musical character, but also for his powers as a soloist: what Peterson does share with Tatum is that, contrary to popular superstition, he has no need of bassist or drummer. This is confirmed by the above program's freedom from that mechanical aspect which makes so many of his trio performances infuriating, and this in turn is underlined by such factors as that each track seems exactly the right length - two minutes is just right for Lulu, as are six for Little Girl Blue. And from none of the editions of his trio have we often encountered, say, the mood of wistfulness that sounds through Bye Bye, Blackbird or the lyricism of I Should Care.

"That Peterson's stance is essentially retrospective is shown by such things as the music's rhythmic vocabulary, as on Perdido. But notice that he displays a far better sense of dynamics here than we should ever suspect from his trio recordings, and that he makes a use of the bottom register superior to that of almost any other jazz pianist. The integration of bravura into the overall shape of Body and Soul is fine, too, even if it lacks the continuity which (no matter how often he is accused of not having it) is one of Tatum's most conspicuous qualities. Hear also the internal balance of the chords in Who?, the depth and warmth of tone - all taken for granted by non-pianistic listeners but none of them easy to achieve. Perhaps Little Girl Blue is Peterson's best recorded performance: its velvety quiet follows most tellingly on Lulu’s brief yet bouncing gaiety, and while nobody would claim for him the depth of Powell or Yancey, this music is more than merely pensive.

"Here, I am sure, is the one Peterson LP that should be in every collection."

The first four MPS albums were not only a critical success, they sold well in Europe, particularly West Germany.

Brunner-Schwer made two more albums with Oscar and then suggested a more formal and planned contractual arrangement. In view of the expansion of MPS, Norman Granz negotiated a contract calling for higher fees. And he suggested that for the first album, Oscar be recorded with a large orchestra, including strings. Oscar had made only one other album of that kind, a somewhat abortive and forgotten Verve recording with Nelson Riddle. Granz suggested that the arranger be Claus Ogerman, and Hans Georg immediately agreed. Ogerman - like Falk a Prussian by birth - was a far different arranger from Riddle. A former jazz pianist himself, he had revealed, in albums made for Creed Taylor at Verve after Granz sold it, deep sensitivity for soloists in albums with Bill Evans and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ogerman had a distinctive gift for writing string arrangements of a curiously austere lyricism that somehow enhanced but did not interfere with the featured player. Granz suggested that the album be made in New York, and since Ogerman then lived there, it was a sensible arrangement, to which Brunner-Schwer agreed.

The session was set for the A&R recording studio, one of the best and best-known in New York. Oscar at that time was a contracted Baldwin artist. In exchange for the endorsement of their instruments by major artists, which they are able to use in their advertising, piano companies provide instruments on command for the engagements of their contracted artists in various locations. Steinway was noted for its indifference to endorsements; Baldwin sought them sedulously. And when Oscar arrived in a city, he had only to pick out a Baldwin he liked and the company would send him the instrument.

But the concert grand Baldwin he chose for the album with Ogerman for some reason could not be used, and Oscar confronted a studio piano he found inadequate - "I don't like the box," as he put it. He declined to record on it. Brunner-Schwer faced a dilemma. He had committed substantial funds to this recording, including Ogerman's arranging and conducting fees, the cost of the A&R studio, and the salaries of the musicians who sat there waiting, and would be paid whether they played or not. He made a decision: to record the orchestra now and to overdub Oscar's part in Villingen on the piano Oscar liked. Oscar instantly agreed, the session proceeded, and he completed the album later in Villingen. The album, Motions and Emotions, is a lovely piece of work. It would be described by some jazz critics as a pop album, but the definition is irrelevant. Oscar plays an extended embellishment of Jobim's Wave that is breath-taking.

Oscar made in all fifteen albums for MPS. The concepts for them were planned and prepared, often in conversations with Brunner-Schwer. One of them was a quartet album with Bob Durham on drums' and Sam Jones on bass - and guitarist Herb Ellis. It was called Hello, Herbie, the first words Oscar said when his old friend arrived from California for the sessions. Another was an album called In Tune, with the brilliant vocal group known as The Singers Unlimited, which Oscar had brought to the attention of Brunner-Schwer. Led by Gene Puerling, the group's arranger, and with the young Chicago studio singer Bonnie Herman as the lead voice, the group made elaborate orchestrational albums by complex overdubbing of the four voices. Bonnie Herman vividly remembers the sessions. By then Brunner-Schwer had built a new studio on the property, installing therein a Boesendorfer Imperial concert grand piano. It was there, in fact, that Oscar became familiar with the Boesendorfer, which instrument he would embrace. "You could look out the window when you were recording," Bonnie said. "You'd see all the gardeners working, and the paths leading from the main house, lined with roses. And every morning there was the smell of fresh-ground coffee. Marlies, Hans Georg's wife, would make us fresh-ground coffee."

The last recording for Brunner-Schwer, a trio album with Niels-Henning 0rsted Pedersen on bass, was made in the spring of 1972. Norman Granz had returned actively to the record business, with the Pablo label - named for Picasso - in Beverly Hills. Oscar became a contracted Pablo artist, doing all his recording from then until 1986 for that company.

Oscar told the French writer Francois Postif in an interview published in Le Jazz Hot in April 1973, "I've never counted the number of albums that have come out under my name or under that of my trio, but I think it has to be about 60 now. And I made lots of albums with other artists, like Dizzy and Roy. But I think the best album I've ever recorded was the first solo album for MPS." He was referring to My Favorite Instrument. "Perhaps it was because it was the first album where I was completely free, and in which I did what I felt like. I chose the tempos, the keys I wanted to play in, if I wanted to change keys in the middle of a tune, there was no problem, because I was alone at the piano, alone with no one to give me problems."

It is a wistful statement. "Wistful" is the word his nemesis, Max Harrison, used to describe his performance of Bye-Bye Blackbird in the Villingen recordings. Harrison said of the first Schwarzwald albums: "It would be ridiculous to sound a valedictory note on a man of 45, yet it is through such music that Peterson will be remembered."

The great improvisers of the past, Chopin and Liszt among them, had only one way to leave their music for posterity: to write it down on paper. But the jazz improviser can leave his actual performances, and his recordings are his legacy. It is not coincidence that jazz evolved coeval with the development of recording technology.

Those MPS recordings, the sound quality of which was the state of the art at the time, are so important a part of the Peterson body of work that one is forced to ask, what happened there in the Schwarzwald?

For one thing, the man who once made ten albums in a week in Chicago recorded only fifteen albums in Villingen in eleven years, and mostly under ideal conditions.

Oscar Peterson is quite possibly the bravest man I have ever known. Challenge him, and he will respond. If it's a drunk in the London House or the Hong Kong bar who is distracting him, he will simply put on the pressure until he has conquered both the distraction and the distractor. If bravura display is all that will reach the back of a huge concert hall, that will be what he does. He simply will not surrender.

But at Villingen, with the roses in the garden and the smell of coffee in the morning, he had no need to command or demand respect: he already had it, had indeed the adoration of the people around him.

Jack Batten described one of Oscar's appearances in Toronto. "Peterson," he wrote in Maclean's (April 17, 1965), "was introduced to the Massey Hall audience with a lavish encomium by a local disc jockey, and the crowd - the house had been sold out two days earlier - hailed him long and vigorously as he walked onstage, a huge coffee-colored man of bearish contour, resplendent in a modish jet tuxedo and laceless patent-leather shoes. His hands and wrists dazzled with gold - gold cufflinks, gold wristwatch band, gold identification bracelet, and large beveled gold wedding band on his left hand."

The identification bracelet was the one Fred Astaire had given him.

What happened at Villingen?

Nothing had to be conquered. The gold, as it were, came off, the patent-leather shoes were slipped aside. There in the Black Forest the shy and sensitive boy from Montreal High School sat down at a Steinway and played Bye-Bye Blackbird.”

The following video features Oscar along with Sam Jones on bass and Bobby Durham on drums performing a rather incredible version of Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream. To my ears, this is a side of Oscar that was seldom heard up to the time of the MPS LP’s [c. 1965-1972] and rarely heard after their issuance when Oscar was again returned to recording for Norman Granz after he formed Pablo Records.