Saturday, December 5, 2020
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In his essay on the subject of orchestration in the November 1998 edition of his Jazzletter entitled “Pencil Pushers,” Gene Lees prefers the term “writers” to “arrangers” because the process involves the conceptualization and the writing out or scoring of the music that each musician plays rather than merely arranging the notes in some sequence.
Today’s popular music scene with its heavy reliance on digital sounds produced by some version of a synthesizer rarely involves the work - in a formal sense - of a pencil pusher - aka - composer-arranger or “writer.”
But there was a time beginning with the large orchestra and big bands of the Swing Era in the 1930 through to the film scores and music written for television programs and series up until the end of the 20th century when music “writers” were in heavy demand. These “pencil pushers” also worked in close association with popular singers and vocal groups to help underscore and/or produce their unique sonority [think Nelson Riddle with Frank Sinatra].
During this period, the New York and Hollywood musical worlds come to mind and while these were certainly the Media Meccas for the halcyon days gone by for the “pencil pushers,” there were also vibrant musical scenes in other major metropolises with their notable writers working to generate scores of orchestrated music for singers, big bands and film and TV productions.
The following essay by the always splendid Simon Spillett shines a well-deserved light on the work in this regard that Harry South was doing in London from the mid-1950s until his death in 1990 at the age of 60. Thanks to Simon, Nick Duckett and the folks at Rhythm and Blues Records we are very fortunate to have the 4 CD compilation The Songbook: Harry South [RANDB040] which offers a comprehensive overview of Harry writings for both large and small groups from 1955-1990.
As frequent visitors to these pages have come to know, Simon has researched the English Jazz scene during the second half of the 20th century quite extensively.
A tenor saxophonist who is based in the UK, he leads his own quartet and big band and is the great tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes’s biographer. You can locate more information about him by visiting his webpage.
It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to host his thoughts on Jazz and its makers on these pages.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
"Harry never wrote for effect ...he composed with great taste ...if he was there when you played a jazz session, you could relax and know that everything would be all right. He had a huge musical presence, and yet he was very quiet and retiring, almost studious in his appearance…"
“As last hurrah's go, it was both glorious and dispiriting. In January 1990, barely two months before his death, aged just sixty, Harry South, pianist, composer, arranger, musical director and bandleader, conducted the National Youth Jazz Orchestra on a recording of his own music. Always a fervent supporter of young jazz talent, there was nothing unusual in South doing this – his scores had featured in the pad of Bill Ashton's baby since its inception in the mid-1960s and since then he'd often come in to coach the bands litany of ascendant stars - but there was something ironic, rather melancholy and perhaps more than a little disturbing in the fact that by this point in his career most people – including the eighteen or so young tyros who sat before him - were more likely to know this veteran musician as the composer of the theme for a television cop show than as a front-rank, bonafide British jazz legend.
But then Harry South wasn't the kind of man to shout about his achievements. Beginning his career back to the late 1940s, a time long before Regan and Carter started skidding about London as The Sweeney, and when the acronym NYJO would have signified nothing to anyone, he'd eventually become a central figure in the establishment of British jazz, a national treasure whose contribution to the art of big band composition and arrangement could justifiably be bracketed with those of John Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Kenny Graham, Mike Westbrook and Kenny Wheeler.
To some, it even seemed like he'd been around forever, part of that Soho-centric musical Mafia who'd ruled the roost of British jazz back in the day. He hadn't been among the first wave of Britain's modern jazz pioneers though – born in 1930 he was a shade too young – but he was certainly among their first disciples, following the ground-breaking teachings of Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth and co. with unbridled teenage enthusiasm.
Mark Baxter's notes elsewhere in this set lay out South's back story and tell how, like many of his generational peers, the young Harry came to music via a side-route. What happened next is a little less easy to convey. Indeed, his journey from would-be Bop pianist to eminent composer/arranger is something that should, by rights, have been set out on record for all to see. However, this was British modern jazz, an art form that for most of its first two decades had a relationship with the UK record industry that could be called patchy at best. As with Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar, Ronnie Ross, Tommy Whittle and many other leading lights in UK modernism, you won't find a whole tranche of albums under South's own name. Quite the reverse. In fact his best known record – his only purely jazz effort in a career lasting four decades – Introducing The Harry South Big Band (Mercury, 1966) – afforded him a meagre 32 minutes of playing time, long enough to prove his musical points, but way way too short to do his wide-ranging writing talent full justice. And, although subsequent generations of jazz fans have since raised the album's status to that of a collectors item, it remains a British jazz classic yet to make it onto CD.
Outside of The Sweeney, South's other most talked of work, his collaboration with Georgie Fame, the now iconic LP Sound Venture (Columbia, 1966), was also until very recently another casualty of a music business indifference, waiting until the fiftieth anniversary of its original issue to receive a UK digital release.
British jazzmen grew used to this couldn't care less attitude long ago. And it wasn't just the record companies. Back in the 1960s, when UK-recorded modern jazz albums were as rare as rocking horse excreta, getting a critics endorsement was almost as hard as getting a recording contract. “Enjoyable but hardly memorable,” was Jazz Monthly's verdict on South's album, while the Dick Morrissey Quartet's LP Storm Warning (Mercury, 1965), on which South also appeared and contributed two original compositions, was given a self-righteous panning by Jack Cooke, who dismissed it as both “unimpressive stylistically” and “pretty adequate”. (To be fair, Jazz Journal thought South's big band the equal of that of Gerald Wilson on America's West Coast, the inference being that both the music and the musicians were world class).
That Britain has never quite known how to view – or handle – its jazzmen had long been a fact, and, for men like South there was really only one way to cope with this lack of support; do things yourself. And so what if the critics didn't go into raptures – he had the esteem of his colleagues and that, in the tribal jungle of British modernism, counted for a hell of a lot, as was proven in 1960.
After a decade of playing musical chairs in the bands of such luminaries as Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott and Ronnie Ross, an offer of a BBC “Jazz Club” broadcast led to South assembling what was supposed to be a one-off all-star big band (including all of the above named leaders) which is exactly what it would have remained had South's writing not been greeted with such enthusiasm by players and listeners alike. Over the succeeding decade and a half the band made repeated appearances over the airwaves and on occasion in-person. To his credit, South didn't let the disinterest of local record executives deter him, capturing his various line-ups on a number of private tapes, the existence of which has only recently come to light. As welcome as this discovery is, it's also altogether rather sad that were it not for this DIY documentation, the legacy of one of Britain's finest ever big band composers and arrangers would comprise a meagre two and a quarter albums.
Focusing on South's compositions, this anthology - the compilation of which has at times been closer to archaeology than discography - hopes to redress what is an artistically criminal oversight. Scouring hours of South's own recordings – many of which have required careful transfer and restoration and, in some instances, editing – has enabled a hitherto hidden world to emerge, one that will surely call for a re-evaluation of his contribution to the art of British jazz composition. Including performances both with his own units and in bands led by others, it brings to life a musical trajectory that winds from fashion-chasing emulation to stylistic independence and which maps much of the UK's jazz landscape along the way.
Assembled chronologically, it also shows both how and why South's talent grew and reveals that, far from being landlocked by parochialism and embittered by thwarted opportunity, in many ways British jazz during the 1960s and early '70s actually brimmed with optimism.
Harry South may have been a name on the tips of the tongues of only the cognoscenti until now, but this collection will prove that his sometimes seemingly apocryphal reputation rests firmly in fact.
Growing up in the late 1940s, South was a child of Bebop, the cypher-like musical revolution that twisted the formulaic style of the Swing Era into a something new, something else, something distinctly non-pedestrian. In its purest form Bebop traded in bright, vibrant musical colours, most often in major keys, used to dress up old material in new, attention-grabbing post-war garb. Even it its rawer British incarnation – the style the young South would have heard on his trips to London's Club XI around 1949/50 and in some senses a (cultural) ocean away from its Parker/Gillespie inspiration – there was still a multi-coloured quality to the music, a highly attractive quality lifting the austerity-riven, dull grey ennui of the day.
The second wave of American modern jazzmen – Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Horace Silver - perhaps even more hermetically hip than their predecessors, turned things into something darker, their message being driven home largely in original compositions often cast in more earnest minor keys. It was to be this kind of jazz writing at which Harry South was to excel, especially where enlarging the ideals of Hard Bop to the forum of a big band was concerned.
Indeed, in comparing some of his earliest work here – Orient Line and Ode To Ernie written for Tubby Hayes and Bandbox penned for the Kirchin band – with that from the late 1950s onwards one witnesses a marked leap ahead. Admittedly, these early compositions were still hamstrung by vestiges of dance band music, a strong force in British modernism for much of its first ten years, but once freed of these South's style hit its stride. From here on in hip to Harry usually meant brooding bass-lines, stark but catchy melodies and chord sequences that were often anything but easy to negotiate. Not for nothing was he sometimes aligned to Horace Silver, another master of groovy but not so simple tunes (Liggin' is one especially Silver-like South line). But, like all good jazz composers, no matter who he wrote for – be it Joe Harriott, Dick Morrissey or Humphrey Lyttelton – South continued to forge his own identity, his compositions showing an innate understanding of the language of jazz, albeit filtered through a distinctly London brogue.
Harry South was, of course, one of a generation of British jazzmen who never truly abandoned their deferential admiration of American jazz. Indeed, although reliably his own man he was not without inspiration or influence. At various times in his career he admitted to being moved by the work of such American giants as Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Gary McFarland, Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson, the latter three being particularly felt in several of the (sadly unidentified) themes which end Disc Three of this collection. There were other forces at play too; Afterthought sounds for all the world like something Ellington's long time partner Billy Strayhorn might have dreamt up, as its opening nod to the American's U.M.M.G. makes clear (South also successfully arranged Strayhorn's Lush Life, a song that has unseated some of the finest names in jazz). The gorgeous saxophone writing on Royal Flush - once recorded by Paul Gonsalves - is another wink in the direction of Ellingtonia, as is Tribal Dance, one of several contributions to Humphrey Lyttelton's band.
South was also very much a man of his time, and given that the most creative stretch of his career also coincided with the rise and then increasing sophistication of rock-driven pop (not to mention its successful takeover bid from jazz in London's clubland), he can be applauded for making the artistically healthy decision to embrace the new sounds rather than pooh-poohing them, as did many of his colleagues, such as Stan Tracey.
Coming at a point when Britain's modern jazzmen were starting to appear disgruntled, bitter and prematurely middle-aged, it was a decision that almost certainly saved his career. While the musicians South chose to employ were more practical than passionate about the situation - taking the work, playing the parts and acting like the professionals they were - when Georgie Fame began his collaboration with South's big band in 1965, purist jazz critics began clucking noisily. After Sound Venture appeared in the autumn of 1966, a record boasting a star-packed band going full tilt on South's multi-faceted scores, each written in close collaboration with Fame, there was almost as much opprobrium for the arranger as there was the vocalist, as if he had somehow gone rogue. Having dismissed Fame as “not so much a jazz singer as an imitation of a jazz singer” (The Daily Mail), the press now rounded on South, Jazz Monthly's Brian Priestley calling him “an exceedingly dull arranger with no feeling for this kind of commercial work.”
It was South, however, who was to have the last laugh. Despite the carping, Sound Venture took off, taking him and his regular sidemen into a world where they no longer had to worry about popular meaning substandard or youth meaning corruption. Nice gigs came with the territory too; festivals, theatres, real money. (Fame didn't exactly do too bad out of it either; within less than a year of Sound Venture's release
he was on-stage with Count Basie). The irony that a hit-making household name had given British jazz a much-needed helping hand was not lost on South. It could also be argued that, almost as if the association with Fame had pumped the lifeblood back into his music, the late Sixties were the time when he truly came into his own. Going with the mood of the moment, as the decade edged towards the 1970s, South's writing showed a keen awareness of both the groove-based end of the Blue Note house style (Storm Warning) and the more adult side of popular music. Realising that stepping outside a narrow-minded comfort zone was the only way in which his big band could survive – a realisation that had also dawned on American heavyweights Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson - he took to jazz-rock with a surprisingly effective gusto (One For The Woodwards, Black Eyed Peas).
In fact, South was showing signs of dissatisfaction with the tired old presentation of British jazz as early as 1963, when he complained in Melody Maker that “dingy back rooms of pubs” were killing the music. “Showmanship is important”, he declared, an opinion rarely heard in those days of modern jazz stoicism. Ironically, it was to be in one pub back room – that of The Bull's Head in Barnes – where he was to find himself working virtually weekly in the mid-1960s, as part of the quartet led a player whose extroversion – both musical and in temperament – was a distinct contrast to the usual stone-faced image of British jazzmen, tenorist Dick Morrissey.
During the early 1960s, South had effectively taken the young saxophonist under his wing, providing via his writing a framework for a quartet that was anything but one horn and rhythm. The effect was to set Morrissey like a jewel (Minor Incident). In return, South saw the benefits of musical youth up close and, as the 1960s progressed, he continued to pay attention to up and coming players, displaying a less cliquish attitude to untried talent than many of his peer group. By the end of the decade he had begun to liberally sprinkle his bands with fresh contemporary players like Alan Skidmore, Ian Carr, Ron Mathewson, Chris Pyne, Spike Wells and John Taylor.
Recognising virgin talent was actually nothing new for the arranger. Around 1950, he'd met a preciously gifted teenage musician who was to become not only one of his closest colleagues but also one of his dearest friends, Edward Brian “Tubby” Hayes.
From the off, Hayes and South were to have a symbiotic relationship, and regardless of their five-year age difference, there was never a question of senior and junior; they were equals, each man learning from the other in reciprocal fashion. For instance, it was with Hayes' 1955-56 band that South finally got the chance to write how he wanted, becoming the unit's house arranger. In turn, he recognised that although the piano was a perfectly functional medium with which to make music, writing was his true creative voice. As if giving something back, he encouraged his tenor saxophone-obsessed leader to take up pen and score paper, thus helping broaden Hayes musical scope. The saxophonist never forgot the practical assistance South had given him. Indeed, even when his career went international in the mid-Sixties and he was leading his own star-studded big band, he always made time for South's projects, appearing on many of his old friends gigs and broadcasts. The two men's mutual respect transcended everything, even musical disagreements; Hayes had been among those initially sceptical about the Fame/South collaboration but soon came to see the young singer as a conduit to a deeper understanding of the pop scene. And he always knew he could turn to Harry for support in more trying times too; indeed Hayes had stayed with the South family for some weeks during his “cold turkey” period in 1970. The two men were still collaborating barely a fortnight before Hayes' death in 1973, a loss which shattered South. “I don't think I've ever seen him so upset,” the arranger's wife wrote in a letter to Hayes' girlfriend.
As Hayes himself had done towards the end of his life, South continued to keep a weather eye on the bits of popular music that could best be translated into the jazz vernacular. When, in 1968, Philips record producer Johnny Franz suggested following up Introducing The Harry South Big Band with something along the lines of Bert Kaempfert, he turned the idea down flat, instead choosing to record an LP of quality contemporary chart hits associated with Sergio Mendes, Motown and Simon and Garfunkel (the album Say No More, Philips 1969). Jazz-meets-pop big band albums were all the rage during the late 1960s/early 1970s but South wasn't just content with a new repertoire, he wanted a new sound too, tinkering with the very instrumental fabric of the big band itself. For a time, out went the traditional five-piece sax section and in came two separate brass sections, the “Stereo Brass” (which can be heard to good effect on Themeology). Electric instruments appeared too; not just guitar and bass but electric piano, Hammond organ and amplified percussion. And, as with most of the major British jazz figures of the day, his bands started to incorporate the caprices of free-jazz. Having left Joe Harriott's quintet a decade earlier due to musical misgivings about the altoists “free form” experiments (“I only hope something comes from it...rather than this continual striving to produce something for its own sake”, he said of the avant-garde in 1966), he now took active steps to encourage a looser approach. In fact, it's impossible to envisage South's big band during the 1970s without the ferocious, free-wheeling abstractions of Alan Skidmore (Irresistible Force).
Not only did he look to other musical genres for inspiration, he looked to other cultures. He was certainly well ahead of the general 1960s trend towards all-things-subcontinental. Having spent a year in India with Dick Morrissey during 1961/2 (a stay he thought had effected him “as a person more than as a writer”) the influence soon showed up in his compositions. Raga, a signature piece for Tubby Hayes flute, was one notable Indian-inspired effort. The Rainy Season (heard in a version from 1970) went one better though, this time bringing in Bob Efford's querulous cor anglais to suggest some half-remembered ethnic reed instrument.
He got hung up on Spain too; Poncho and Costa Fortuna were attempts to, as he put it, “get this Spanish 'bit' out of my system.” Less temperate climates drew him as well, although in the case of The Scandinavian, commissioned for Tubby Hayes' big band, the inspiration was more personal than geographic; in 1960 Harry had married a Swedish beauty, Harriet, with whom he would have two daughters, Anita and Annabel, the first child immortalised in Harry's theme The Goblin, a tribute to her Elfin looks as a baby.
The place Harry South's music conjures best, however, is not Sweden or India, it's London, the London of the middle-1960s, a city bursting into creative bloom, a centre for fashion, art, cinema, cult-TV and subversive popular culture of all stripes. Although, rather surprisingly for a man who was a native Londoner who lived his entire life in the smoke, South rarely commemorated his home town in overt terms. North of The Soho Border is a rare exception, a showcase for one of the capitals favourite adopted sons, Burton-on-Trent-born drum icon Phil Seamen. Nonetheless, play any of the tracks at the heart of this box, those say between 1963 and 1968, and you can hear a soundtrack to the vibrant hub of the Swinging Sixties, a sound that at times suggests the world of another Harry - Harry Palmer, a man who in between defeating double agents and perfecting his seduction-by-cookery technique one can well imagine being a South fan.
(The South's home in Palace Road, SW2 was a familiar port of call to the greatest UK musical talent of the day; indeed, it wasn't uncommon to find Harry deep in conversation with Georgie Fame, Tubby Hayes or Stan Tracey in the kitchen, while Stan's children played with Harry's).
South's writing had always had an almost strutting “cinematic” quality to it, even back in the early 1960s and so it was a small wonder that he eventually took his gifts onto the big screen. Sadly, although he gave the projects his all (“I found an identity in [writing for] films I didn't know I had,” he once said, “not bound by categories of music.”) the source material – three Pete Walker sexploitation films – was hardly inspiring. Four Dimensions of Greta (1972), his last project for Walker, did at least leave a stirring theme, in this instance a funky outing for Tubby Hayes' flute, heard on Disc 4. South even found himself in front of the cameras on one occasion, making a cameo appearance in the 1969 Ringo Starr comedy The Magic Christian.
It was, however, to be TV writing that would finally seal Harry's place in the nation's popular culture. When he was tasked with coming up with a theme for a new John Thaw-Dennis Waterman police drama produced by Thames Television in 1975, inspiration kicked in in the most expedient way. Within minutes he had a composition that would shortly be ingrained into the subconscious of a generation and which, to this day, can be sung by anyone who grew up watching television in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and '80s. Yet again, London had given the composer his muse. In fact, The Sweeney put Harry South – TV composer – firmly on the map.
As well as interest in his writing, it also generated a healthy income, and not just for the composer. Interviewed by this writer in 2005, Ian Hamer, whose plugged-in trumpet wah-wahed the theme on the original recording, revealed that its royalties “helped put my kids through private school.”
But, like all things popular, The Sweeney was something South couldn't outrun, no matter how many musical side-streets his getaway car ducked down. After repeated requests, he even blew up what had been a couple of minutes of music into a full-on big band score, as heard on Disc 4. Once the familiar theme is out the way, South turns it into a minor blues, over which his own flying squad of soloists (Peter King and Alan Skidmore) let rip.
...and we're back where we came in; the assertion that there was, of course, far more to Harry South than one TV theme. As this body of work makes abundantly clear he was a musician of many parts. All of them are on display here, from his economic and direct piano playing (“He was a slow pianist – his fingers didn't seem to move that fast,” remembered man-about-1950s British-jazz Tony Hall, “but what he played was always very pertinent and he was a very good comper for the soloists”) to his talent-scouting abilities (guitarist Louis Stewart made his very first BBC broadcast under South's leadership, for example) and his gift for mirroring the music of the times, enabling him to come up with his own take on jazz fashions, covering the gamut from down-home blues to near-funk.
Throughout his professional life South also had one other, perhaps even more significant, quality, one which endeared him to all those who knew and worked with him; he was a nice bloke, a decent family man, who, even when the most Rabelaisian of his colleagues like Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen were whooping it up, seemed able to keep a clear head. There aren't legions of untold stories about dope and illicit liaisons and dirt with Harry – there is just the music, music of such strength and depth it ensured he was consistently able to draw in the finest jazz talent around him, through a career that lasted forty years, and which, God knows, should have continued for much, much longer. He led some incredible bands, each of them centred upon the construct that it was the arrangements and the players and not the leader that were the star attractions. And he had a quiet kind of magnetism too – meaning that good things tended to come to him rather than happen through bluster and posturing. “I don't hunt around for work with the big band,” he once said. “It's a big enough headache trying to get the boys together for the work that comes in.” Thankfully, a lot of that work is here, testament to a man who was a genuine catalyst, a figure at the centre of British jazz, a hero more under-sung than unsung, and one who certainly deserves this belated moment in the spotlight.
South isn't forgotten. How could he be? True, the Harriott's and the Hayes's and the Seamen's may have led more flamboyant existences, and carved out very real bad boy legends during their own lifetime, but that wasn't Harry's way. Like all the best jazz composers and arrangers, he was too busy making everybody else sound good.”
Friday, December 4, 2020
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Born 100 years ago, the pianist and composer found immense success melding musical classicism with polyrhythmic experiment.
By John Edward Hasse WSJ Nov. 28, 2020
© Copyright ® John Edward Hasse - Wall Street Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“When pianist Dave Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, he was both thrilled and embarrassed. At age 33, he was only the second jazz artist to be so honored— Louis Armstrong was fittingly the first—and Brubeck felt the distinction should go to his idol Duke Ellington, who would wait two years to be recognized.
In the 1950s, it seemed that Brubeck was everywhere—on college campuses and world stages, on records, radio and TV—becoming a household name. He forged a singular trail in American culture as a musical magnet, popular pianist, and—his supreme calling—composer.
Born on Dec. 6, 1920, and raised on a California ranch, Brubeck took piano lessons from his mother. As a teenager, he began playing jazz. He studied counterpoint and orchestration with the French émigré composer Darius Milhaud, one of the 20th century’s finest, who deeply influenced Brubeck’s purpose. Brubeck called himself “a composer who plays piano.”
In the 1950s, he and his wife, Iola, hit upon the novel idea of booking his band at college campuses, where legions of students became lifelong fans and where albums such as “Jazz at Oberlin” were recorded.
In 1958, his quartet jelled as the now-classic foursome—the tightest of his career—with the supremely lyrical alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the versatile drummer Joe Morello, and the solid bassist Eugene Wright, who was Black. When asked to undertake lucrative tours of the South and of South Africa with only white musicians, Brubeck refused.
Fighting a Cold War with the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1950s, the U.S. State Department began sending American jazz musicians abroad to promote the ideal of freedom. In 1958, they sent Brubeck to perform a two-month tour of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The Black musicians whom the U.S. sent abroad were hailed wherever they went (in the Congo, Louis Armstrong was carried on a throne), but they returned home to the same old pernicious racism and exclusion from many hotels and restaurants. Inspired by jazz diplomacy, Dave and Iola Brubeck wrote a one-of-a-kind musical, “The Real Ambassadors.” Featuring Armstrong and singer Carmen McRae, the 1962 album is a complex mixture of celebration, satire and social commentary. In the song “Cultural Exchange,” Armstrong sings:
The State Department has discovered jazz
It reaches folks like nothing ever has.
Arriving for a 1958 concert in Istanbul, Brubeck encountered a folk dance in an unfamiliar rhythm. “I was on my way to a radio station to be interviewed in Turkey,” said Brubeck in a Smithsonian oral history. “There were street musicians playing in 9/8.” That unfamiliar beat inspired him to compose “Blue Rondo à la Turk” around the rhythm. His recording of it works magically, in part because of a contrast: Brubeck’s firm piano playing grounds the performance, while Desmond’s ethereal lines lift it skyward.
“Blue Rondo” became a cornerstone of his landmark 1959 album “Time Out,” which featured seven pieces in such unusual meters as 6/4 and 7/4. Brubeck was not the first American jazz musician to explore odd meters—drummer Max Roach had been doing that—but Brubeck popularized the idea. To the surprise of all, the album became a bestseller, earning a gold record, and spawning a radio hit with Desmond’s “Take Five.” The piece melded the simple—a repeated vamp—with an unexpected 5/4 meter. The first jazz album to sell one million copies, “Time Out” was a breakthrough—all-new material in meters that challenged listeners used to tapping along.
Brubeck’s embrace of repertoire stretched from Disney songs—the album “Dave Digs Disney” drew flak from jazz purists—to popular standards, jazz originals, and even Japanese koto music, as in his “Koto Song.” Among his over 400 jazz compositions, two became standards: “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke,” inspired by Ellington.
Eschewing the prevailing bebop style, Brubeck developed his own piano sound, marked by block chords, a solid touch, polyrhythms, polytonality (harmonies in two different keys at the same time), and experiment. His music and career sparked frequent controversy—over his classicism, sense of swing, and commercial success. Yet, as a warm and gracious performer, he made many friends for modern jazz.
Deeply religious, he composed large-scale choral and orchestral works starting in the 1960s, including the oratorio “The Light in the Wilderness” and cantata “The Gates of Justice.” The classic quartet broke up in 1967, Desmond died in 1977, but Brubeck kept performing until 2011. He died on Dec. 5, 2012.
His centennial is being marked by Philip Clark’s refreshing new biography, “Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time”; his last studio album, “Lullabies,” recorded for his grandchildren; “Time OutTakes,” alternate versions of his 1959 album; and a series of live and streamed concerts.
“You can’t understand America without understanding jazz,” said President Obama when Brubeck received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009. “And you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.”
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” "
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 8
Thursday, December 3, 2020
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
One of the many what-might-have-been moments from Jazz history that has always fascinated me was what it might have been like to see the pairing of Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck in the latter’s The Real Ambassadors staged as a Broadway musical.
Regrettably, Dave’s music and Iola Brubeck’s librettos and lyrics for what Pops’ claimed at the time to be “an opera that the Brubecks wrote for me” was performed by the original cast which included the Armstrong Sextet, the Brubeck Quartet, vocalist Carmen McRae and the vocal group of Lambert Hendricks and Bavan only once at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Since both Pops and Dave were managed by the powerful and influential Joe Glaser of the Associated Booking Company, the Brubecks had hoped that he would use his clout and resources to bring The Real Ambassadors to the Broadway stage as a continuously running musical.
Instead, Glaser took a very dim view of this idea mainly because he thought that the fees from concert and club appearances by Armstrong and Brubeck would far exceed anything generated by a Jazz-themed Broadway play with political and diplomatic overtones. To add insult to injury, Glaser even barred TV crews from filming it!
For this reason along with many other real and perceived injustices perpetrated by Joe Glaser, President, Associated Booking Corporation, I have never had a high opinion of the man and could never for the life of me figure out what Pops saw in him. That is, until I read the following in Gary Giddins’ SATCHMO .
© - Gary Giddins, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
“Louis Armstrong's professional and private lives were at ebb tide when he returned to the United States in 1935. His lip had become infected in Paris and a doctor told him not to play for six months. [His agent Johnny] Collins was suing him for breach of contract. Lil was pressing for divorce, and Alpha, for marriage. He returned to Chicago and renewed his friendship with Joe Glaser, the tough-talking erstwhile manager of the old Sunset Cafe, who was also down on his luck. They formed a partnership that became the most important professional relationship in both of their lives. They didn't socialize much, but they talked on the phone incessantly, and a kind of love developed between them.
Armstrong's devotion to Glaser galled many of his admirers, who were put off by Glaser's crude manners and strong-arm business tactics. He was apparently connected to the mob, at least in his early years, and was rumored to have been involved in a murder. He made himself a millionaire through Armstrong, but then he made Armstrong a millionaire too. The most frequent criticism of him is that he worked Armstrong and his band too hard, though it's difficult to imagine Louis not wanting to work. Even when he was dying, he made notes to himself about returning to the road. It's certainly true, however, that as late as the "Hello Dolly" years, Armstrong was playing zigzag one-nighters, traveling in a bus that had no heat (the stylish pianist Billy Kyle is said to have died from pneumonia because of one of those tours). Sallie Young, Trummy Young's widow, recalls that since Louis never complained, the younger musicians didn't feel they had the right to, either.
On the other hand, Glaser was probably the only man who could have extricated Armstrong from his managerial war and pushed him to the unprecedented prominence he would soon enjoy. Glaser was notorious for signing potential Armstrong rivals and putting a freeze on their careers. Louis always came first. Jack Bradley recalls that the one time he made a disparaging remark about Glaser in Louis's presence, he was brought to tears by Armstrong's non stop barrage of curses. He later explained to Bradley, "First there's music, then there's Mr. Glaser, tben Lucille."
There is much speculation about how much of Armstrong's earnings Glaser took. Lucille said it was 50 percent, but pointed out that Louis wanted for nothing. Glaser provided the ideal kind of management for him, leaving him free to concentrate on music. He didn't have to worry about taxes, bank accounts, checkbooks, contracts, the hiring or firing of musicians, or anything else but playing. In collusion with Lucille, Glaser once prepared to surprise Louis with an estate on Long Island, but he refused to move from Corona. He said he liked the neighborhood and the people. He insisted on having two wads of paper money in his pocket every night after the show. One was his, and the other was to dole out to people who lined up for handouts. At an engagement in Los Angeles, an old connection from the Cotton Club days told him he was working as a driver but his car was in the shop and he couldn't pay the bill. Armstrong bought him a limousine. Glaser hit the roof, but he paid for it. It has been argued that Armstrong's insistence on calling him Mr. Glaser when a third party was present indicated some sort of servility. No one says that of Duke Snider, who throughout his autobiography refers to Mr. Rickey. Armstrong was proud of his association with Glaser. When the two disagreed and Louis was adamant, Glaser backed off. A running argument between them concerned pot. According to Jack Bradley, "Glaser would scream and Louis would say, ‘Fuck you.' ''
Glaser may have reminded Armstrong of the no-nonsense bosses he had known and admired in his honky-tonk days, not to mention the Karnofsky family [Look at any picture of Louis Armstrong relaxing with an open shirt collar and you are very likely to see a Star of David hanging around his neck. Where did that come from? It’s an expression of his lifelong gratitude and devotion to the kindnesses shown him by the Karnofsky family when he was a seven-year-old boy in New Orleans.]
Pianist Barbara Carroll, whose husband, Burt Block, worked for Glaser for fifteen years, describes him as "very opinionated, very quick to anger, very amusing, though he didn't know he was amusing, and very generous in certain ways. He had tremendous affection for Louis and did whatever he thought would further his career, and from Louis's point of view, what could have been better? He took care of whatever made Louis happy, he was there for him." Something of an eccentric, he kept salamis hanging on the walls of his apartment, drying out, and if he liked you he'd give you one. He was famously crude: He'd order a bowl of peanuts in a posh club and flick the shells on the floor. He employed few men, but his Associated Booking Corp. handled everyone, including Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. "He was very concerned about Billie," Carroll recalls, "but Louis was his baby." The publicity books he prepared for Louis were fifty-page "manuals" that advise how and in what size typeface he should be billed. The 1949 edition suggests: "Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, world's highest paid colored musician, trumpet player extraordinary and now acclaimed as the international Trumpet King of Swing.' "
In a letter to attorney William Hassan, in 1961, Glaser boasts — in a record-breaking run-on — of having brought Louis to Chicago from New Orleans, "when King Oliver was working for me in one of my places and told me to bring up this sensational young trumpet player who he said was even better than King Oliver and of course history shows that Louis Armstrong did prove to be greater and attained greater stardom than King Oliver within a few years." Glaser had little to do with Armstrong's career before 1935, but — according to Armstrong's account —he did put his name in lights for the first time, at the Sunset in 1926. "He watched over Louis like the treasure he was," Duke Ellington wrote. There can be no doubt that however ambivalent anyone else was, Armstrong had very strong feelings about Glaser. On March 31, 1969, lying in bed in Beth Israel Medical Center, Armstrong interrupted a rewrite of his account of the Karmofsky family to write the dedication page of his autobiography:
I dedicate this book
to my manager and pal
Mr. Joe Glaser
The best friend
That I've ever had,
May the Lord Bless him
Watch over him always
His boy and disciple who loved him
Louis Satchmo Armstrong
Glaser died five weeks later, on June 4. On July 29, in a letter to blues singer Little Brother Montgomery, Armstrong wrote, "I was a sick ass, yea. My manager + my God Joe Glaser was sick at the same time and it was a toss-up between us who would cut out first. Man it broke my heart that it was him. I love that man, which the world already knows. I prayed, as sick as I was, that he would make it. God bless his soul. He was the greatest for me + all the spades that he handled."
From the time they shook hands in 1935 (Armstrong told friends that there was never a written agreement with Glaser), Louis's star soared. That fall he signed a contract with Jack Kapp's Decca Records that lasted seven years — until the recording ban of 1942 — and produced some of his best and certainly his most diverse work. After the ban, Armstrong emerged as one of the industry's few free agents, recording for RCA, Decca, Columbia, and anyone else who could afford Glaser's asking price. In 1936, he was featured in a major Paramount film, Pennies from Heaven, opposite Bing Crosby. In 1937, he appeared in two more movies (there would be twenty-eight others during the next thirty-two years), and became the first black performer with a network radio series, sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast. During the next ten years he became a fixture of the entertainment world. He played the best theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs; kibitzed with Crosby on radio; recorded a series of unique and inimitable trumpet concertos. Still, he pushed himself, trying to impress other musicians, playing outrageous strings of high notes that would result in a bloodied lip and bring cheers from the crowd and accusations of vulgarity from the critics. He was mesmerized by the spotlight but never unnerved by it. Jean Bach recalls the night at the Apollo when he was emcee and was supposed to introduce a white adagio team, whose name he could never remember. "So he was announcing the band members, the various acts, and now it came time to announce the adagio number and he said, 'And now folks,' and you can see he's troubled and stalling and he's thinking what the hell are their names, 'cause he knew all the other acts personally. Finally he looks out in desperation and says, 'The two ofays!' [''a term for a white person, used by black people.”]