Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lennie Niehaus: "Annie's Dance"

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

When the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wrote the feature on alto saxophonist and composer-arranger Lennie Niehaus which is currently available for review at the bottom of the columnar side [scroll down on the left] of the blog, the crackerjack graphics theme at CerraJazz LTD had not as yet developed a video tribute to him.

This has now been rectified.  We’ve also added gathered a few, more praiseworthy comments about this “… remarkable alto soloist, with a sense of flowing melodic line, lovely cool tone, and strong feeling for rhythm. He is a thoughtful and serious musician, who composes and arranges in his own style, with definite ideas of where he is going and what he wants to achieve.” – Lester Koenig, Contemporary Records

“In the mid-1950’s, Lennie Niehaus avoided cliché, incorporated audacious harmonic ideas, and distilled the essentials of big band writing into arrangements for small groups. His recordings are still notable in the 21st century for their freshness and daring.” – Fantasy Records/Concord Records Group

“Year after year, record after record, Lennie Niehaus seems ever truer to himself. His work is marked by the same simplicity of conception, same strength of execution, absence of the slightest extravagance and, …, the same honesty.” – Andre’ Hodier

“I’m still out there,” says Lennie Niehaus, looking trim and vigorous, a 78-year-old with plenty of miles left on his odometer. “Last year I did two movies and a six-hour miniseries, and a couple of years ago I went to England to conduct the BBC Jazz Orchestra.”

Not bad for a guy who was playing alto saxophone with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1951; has scored, arranged or composed the music for 17 movies produced or directed by Clint Eastwood; and who won an Emmy award for his score for the Showtime film Lush Life.” … - Don Heckman/ September 2007/JazzTimes

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lester Koenig, Good Time Jazz and Contemporary Records

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

I will always be infinitely grateful to Lester Koenig for the many wonderful Jazz recordings that he brought into my life over the years.

On the one occasion that I met him, he was attired in much the same way as in the this photo [Brooks Brothers suits and ties – I asked him]:

Les looked and acted more like the graduate of an Ivy League University and a corporate executive, both of which he had been, than the owner of a small, independent recording label, which he was when I first met him.

Lester attended a concert at our high school that featured a performance by Shelly Manne and His Men, a Jazz combo with a long history of recording for Les’ Contemporary Records.

Our high school group played a few tunes prior to the appearance of the “Big Guys,” and our Band Director introduced each of us to Lester and Shelly backstage after the concert.

Lester said some courteous things about our music and complimented all of us on our playing.  Each of us were young, enthusiastic musicians and we started rattling off our favorite titles from the modern Jazz recordings that he had produced at Contemporary Records.

When it came around to me, however, I was stymied and tongue-tied for what seemed like ages [remember how easily we became embarrassed when The World was Young?].

I had always had a tough time with “favorites,” I had too many of them and could never chose from them whilst protesting such ratings with something like: “Why can’t we have more than one?”

I eventually settled on Shelly Manne and His Men at The Blackhawk which Lester had recorded over a two week period while Shelly’s quintet was in-performance at this once-famous San Francisco Jazz club and released on a series of four LPs [later the set was reissued as five CDs on Original Jazz Classics, OJCCD 656-660].

But then, for some reason, I blurted out that I was also a fan of the many Firehouse Five + Two [see below for details] LPs and other traditional Jazz recordings that he had produced for his Good Time Jazz [GTJ] label.

Les seemed pleased by my interest in “Dixieland Jazz;” surprised that someone of “the younger generation” even knew about such music let alone his GTJ recordings of it.

In order to ward off any further embarrassment, I explained that it was really my Dad who liked Dixieland and that I just happen to catch it when he played these recordings at home [the implication being that I was just being respectful of my father’s taste in music].

About a week later, the Band Director asked me to stick around following one of the many music classes in which I was enrolled.

He handed me a big package with Good Time Jazz stamped on the mailing label.

“I think this is for you,” he said.

The package included about a dozen albums by the likes of Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band, Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band and, of course, The Firehouse Five + Two.

The card inside was addressed to me and said: “For Your Dad. I hope HE enjoys the music. Best wishes, Les.”

And, yes, the “HE” on Lester’s card was capitalized to emphasize it as a tongue-in-cheek reference to me.

I never knew the details about how Les got started in the business so it was fun searching them out and getting to know him better courtesy of the reminiscences of Ralph Kaffel, Floyd Levin, and John Koenig, Lester’s son, which you will find below.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles would also like to thank an “Internet friend” in Germany who made a number of the resources used in this feature possible.

Although it was a mighty struggle, we were able to identify another of our favorite Contemporary LP’s and use a track from it in the video tribute to Les and Contemporary that closes this piece.

The album is Checkmate and features Shelly Manne’s Quintet performing Jazz adaptations of music from this 1960s TV series by composer-arranger John Williams, who would later go on to fame and fortune for his soundtracks to the Stars Wars and Indiana Jones movies.

© -Ralph Kaffel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Once upon a time, independent record companies were mirror images of the tastes, preferences and personalities or their owners.

Most were one-man shows. Owners did everything from recording sessions and writing liner notes to overseeing distribution and collection. Labels such as Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Pacific Jazz, Atlantic, and Contemporary/Good Time Jazz had uncommonly individual identities, sonically and graphically as well as managerially. You could distinguish a Blue Note cover across the room, and recognize a Blue Note session by a few opening bars.

Men like Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff, Bob Weinstock, Orrin Keepnews, Dick Bock, the Ertegun’s, and Lester Koenig virtually invented the jazz record business.

Koenig's Contemporary and Good Time Jazz releases were as distinctive as Blue Note's. They were carefully and beautifully packaged, precisely and impeccably annotated, with covers and liners having a style all their own.

Like Floyd Levin, I have a personal involve­ment with the music in this boxed set. I start­ed in the "business" in 1956 with Jack Lewerke's California Record Distributors in Los Angeles. Les Koenig owned the distribu­torship, so he was my first boss. Les's story has been told to a degree in John Koenig's profile of his father in the booklet for Lu Watters' Yerba Buena jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings, and by Floyd Levin in his notes for the set at hand (The Good Time Jazz Story).

I would just add that of all the many people in this industry it has been my privilege to know and meet, I have the most respect and admiration for Lester Koenig. He was truly a man of unshakable principle, and passage of time has only served to amplify this aspect of his character.” [Producer’s Note, The Good Time Jazz Story, booklet p. 16].

 © -Floyd Levin, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“When the producer, Ralph Kaffel, asked me to write the historical background of the Good Time Jazz Record Company, he was not aware of my personal "involvement" in the genesis of the influential record label. I happily accepted the assignment since it provided an opportuni­ty to reveal the true origin of the heroic little firm that helped reestablish worldwide interest in a vital segment of jazz history.

My personal role in this drama began in late December 1948. My wife Lucille and I were invited to a New Year's Eve jazz party in a large rehearsal room above Roy Hart's Drum City, a percussion store on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street in Hollywood. That memorable evening at Drum City creat­ed the stimulus that soon resulted in a new record company that would eventually docu­ment a broad spectrum of American music.
We invited our friend Bob Kirstein to join us in the New Year's celebration. Kirstein had an elaborate collection of early jazz records, and was keenly aware of the music's colorful history. He conducted a weekly radio program, "Doctor Jazz," on a tiny Hollywood FM station—long before many listeners had FM radios.

The musicians were setting up their instru­ments when we arrived at Drum City. To our astonishment, they were attired in bright red shirts, black pants, white suspenders—and firemen's helmets! The trombonist, Ward Kimball, also wore a tin badge that identified him as the "Fire Chief." The unusual garb con­trasted vividly with the accepted 1948 band dress code—tuxedos or dark suits. We learned that this was the initial outing of a group that would quickly become internationally famous as the Firehouse Five Plus Two!

A capacity crowd enjoyed a succession of high energy stomps, authentic blues, and spir­ited re-creations of early jazz classics we had only heard on rare recordings by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. When we sipped champagne at midnight, and the band played "Auld Lang Syne," the venera­ble Scottish melody was invigoratingly embellished with a clanging fire alarm bell and a shrieking siren! The Firehouse Five Plus Two and the year 1949 were launched simul­taneously, emphatically, and unforgettably!

The New Year's party was their first appearance with the colorful firefighter accouterments; but, from the tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, it was obvious that the little band had been playing together for some time. In an interview with Bob Greene, pub­lished in the Record Changer magazine (September 1949), leader Ward Kimball, then a cartoonist at Walt Disney studios, recalled the noontime studio jam sessions where it all began back in 1945:

"It happened that we had a New Orleans band working here without our knowing about it! Frank Thomas, our pianist, is an ani­mation director; Ed Penner, our bass sax man, is a writer; Jim McDonald, the drummer, is in charge of sound effects; and Clarke Mallery, the clarinetist, is also an animator." Johnny Lucas, a Pasadena writer, also played at the sessions and wrote arrangements for the band. He blew some fiery trumpet at the New Year's event, and, later, on the band's initial recordings.

The noon jam sessions continued at the Disney Studio and expanded to Kimball's house every Friday evening. "We were hired for a dance and the band didn't have a name, so we dreamed up the 'San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers,' named after San Gabriel, the little town near Pasadena, where I live."

For their formal debut at Drum City, Kimball drew inspiration from his additional interest in antique fire engines and trains. (He had an 1875 railroad station, a full-size Baldwin railroad locomotive, with tender and car attached, sitting on 650 feet of track—and a fully restored bright red 1914 American LaFrance fire engine—in his backyard!)

After the New Year's party, Bob Kirstein was very enthusiastic about the band. He told me that his close friend, Lester Koenig, who shared his interest in jazz, might be interested in recording them.

Koenig, who wrote a jazz column for the school paper when he attended Dartmouth University with Kirstein, had been a successful assistant producer at Paramount Pictures. During the 1947 Congressional Hearings to Investigate Un-American Activities, several prominent Hollywood film personages, including Koenig, were defamed and given no opportunity to defend themselves. They were carelessly implicated, and shamefully "blacklisted." As a result, he was looking for a suitable investment opportunity and con­sidered reverting to his earlier role as a record producer.

As Kirstein predicted, Les Koenig was very interested. We learned during the New Year's party that a member of the Valley Country Club engaged the Firehouse Five to play for a forthcoming dance. Koenig attended the event with Kirstein and was instantly enam­ored of the band.

Recalling the episode in his liner notes on the first Good Time Jazz LP, Koenig wrote: ‘While the firemen were packing their leather helmets, fire-bells and sirens, I was introduced to Ward Kimball. ‘Will you record for me, I ask politely.” ‘What company are you with,’ asked Kimball. ‘None,’ I told him. ‘But if you record for me, I’ll have one!’

A few weeks later (on May 13, 1949), at Radio Engineers’ famous Studio B, in Hollywood, with engineer Lowell Frank at the controls, the first Firehouse Five session began with their them, Firehouse Stomp – the auspicious start of a great recording career.

… Koenig promptly rented a small vacant store near Paramount Studios, and placed a sign in the window – Good Time Jazz Record Company. Kirstein was employed as ‘administrative assistant’ and helped Koenig pack and ship the new 10-inch ninyl 78-rpm records. Retail price: 79 cents!

To properly assess the heroism of Les Koenig's venture, a brief review of the jazz scene in 1949 is necessary. Very little tradi­tional jazz was accessible; the word "tradition­al" had not yet been conceived (by Turk Murphy) as a descriptive adjective for the music. Live performances were sporadic, and very few records were available. Despite our fervent pleas, the four major record firms (there were only four!), flushed with the suc­cess of their big band recordings, steadfastly refused to reissue the many cherished gems gathering dust in their vaults. There had never been a jazz festival. There were no organ­ized jazz societies. LPs and TVs were still visions in the future. CDs were beyond the fantasies of the most optimistic visionaries.

Against this dismal backdrop, the small record firm dared to challenge an industry that had turned its back on the "old-fash­ioned" music. Remember, this occurred dur­ing the postwar wasteland when jazz, which had lost favor during the swing era, was also reeling from the "blows" of the emerging bebop fad. Dave Dexter, Jr., in his carefully researched The Jazz Story from the '90s to the '60s (Prentice Hall, 1964), discussed the Firehouse Five Plus Two: ‘Their records and albums, on Lester Koenig's Good Time Jazz label, reportedly outsold ['Dizzy'] Gillespie's at the height of the bop craze!’” [The Good Time Jazz Story, pp. 6-8, 10]

© -John Koenig, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“My father, Lester Koenig, once told me that among the most powerful experiences of his youth was attending a Count Basie recording session. According to him, it was the signal event that kindled his interest in one day owning a jazz record label.

My father was born in New York City toward the end of the First World War and he developed a passion for jazz as a teenager, listening to the 78s of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and others. Like many New York jazz devotees, he frequented Doc Doctorow's record store at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, which was a well-known haunt for collectors of the day.

I recall that when John Hammond would come to visit us years later in the Seventies, he and my father often reminisced about the old days at Doc Doctorow's. In any event, my father was quite young when they met, and John, seven years older, was something of an idol to him. …

John, who was a wonderful and empathetic person, took a liking to his young admirer and invited him to attend some recording sessions he was producing.

I recall my father telling me that John Hammond had invited him to the Basie session that had first inspired in him the desire to own a jazz label, and that at that session, Basie had recorded One O’clock Jump. …

During those days in the late Thirties, John was recording artists such as Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Noone, Meade Lux Lewis, and others, so I presume that my father was present at some of these sessions and as a result was even more steadfastly committed to becoming a jazz record producer.

At college, my father found an outlet for his two abiding passions, movies and jazz; he wrote on both subjects for the Dartmouth College paper. Among his activities on the paper was to write record and film reviews and to interview those musicians whom he happened across. His work on the Dartmouth paper was also auspicious in advancing his career in the field of his other great passion, movies. …

One of his college mates at Dartmouth was Budd Schulberg, whose father, B.P. Schulberg, was then the head of Paramount Pictures. The elder Schulberg admired my fathers renews; they met in the course of things, and eventually, after an abortive interlude at Yale Law School (where he was said to have taken his class notes in limerick form), and a brief stint assisting Martin Block at WNEW on the program "Make Believe Ballroom" and organizing jazz concerts, he received a telegram from Schulberg in 1939, beckoning him to Holly­wood and a job as a writer at Paramount. … He worked there in that capacity until shortly after the United States entered World War II.

My father told me that while he was working at Paramount, he would often drive up the coast the odd weekend to hear Lu Walters, Turk Murphy, and others at the Dawn Club where the San Francisco revival was then in full swing. His earliest recordings, which were of the Waiters band and are included in this package, dated from that period.

During the war, my father joined the Army Air Corps film unit and began an association with film director William Wyler that was to last nine years. Throughout that period, he was second in command on virtually all of Wyler's films from the original 'Memphis Belle', for which he wrote the narration, to 'Roman Holiday', during the production of which our family lived in Rome for nearly a year.

Not long after the war ended, while still working with Wyler, he became prosperous enough to try his hand at his other passion. He did so by acquiring for release on his own new label, Good Time Jazz, several masters recorded principally by David Stuart and Nesuhi Ertegun during their respective periods of ownership of the Jazz Man Record Shop. …

In the late Forties and early Fifties, my father continued to produce more sessions on Good Time Jazz of the music of revival figures such as Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, Paul Lingle, Wally Rose, Don Ewell, and others as well as the Firehouse Five Plus Two, who at the time were quite popular with the motion picture crowd from their weekly appearances at the Beverley Cavern in Hollywood. …

He was, during the same period, recording modem jazz (Shelly Manne, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Hampton Hawes) and contemporary classical music - hence the name of his other new label, Contemporary.”

Besides his numerous recordings of Shelly Manne in various contexts, I sometimes wonder what artists like alto saxophonists Lennie Niehaus and Art Pepper, pianists like Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn, Jr. and groups like the Curtis Counce Quintet and the Teddy Edwards Quartet would have done without Lester’s patronage and support.

And then there are the recordings by guitarist Barney Kessel, the Broadway show albums with pianist Andre Previn and Shelly, the many recordings by vibraphonist and pianist, Victor Feldman, et al.

The list of musicians that Lester recorded is as comprehensive as it is commendable.

I doubt that Jazz on the West Coast, either in its contemporary forms or in its traditional or revivalist forms, would have been the same without Lester’s efforts on their behalf during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

To slightly paraphrase drummer Buddy Rich’s comment about Gene Krupa:

“Things wouldn’t be the way they [were] if he hadn’t been around.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tal Farlow & Red Norvo - All of Me

Guitarist Tal Farlow performing All of Me with Red Norvo on vibraphone and Steve Novosel on bass.

Brought to you courtesy of our friends in Omaha, Nebraska.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

David Matthews and The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra

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

As you will no doubt notice from the above photograph as well as those of him in the embedded video tribute that concludes this piece, David Matthews smiles a lot.

After hearing his music, you will understand why.

This guy is a splendid big band arranger.

One reason for this is that he took a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from the conservatory at the University of Cincinnati. He knows what he’s doing, technically.

Another is that he has been doing this for a long time dating back to 1970-1974 when he was the arranger and band leader for James Brown Productions and subsequently from 1975-78 when he was the staff arranger for CTI Records where he wrote for Nina Simone, Hank Crawford and George Benson, among many others.

You can find a fully annotated list of David’s arranging and composing credits as well as his other accomplishments in music by visiting his website.

A third and perhaps primary reason for his marvelous big band arrangements is that he has a special gift for it – some guys just play “orchestra.”

They just know what works in writing a big band “chart” [musician speak for “arrangement”]; they know what to put where and when in the music.

They have a commanding knowledge [and often, an intuitive sense] of the range and timbre of each instrument that allows them to voice and blend them to create a variety of textures or sonorities [i.e.: the way the music “sounds”].

Talented arrangers like David keep the music interesting and exciting for both musicians and listeners alike: the former love playing on their arrangements and the latter feel good after hearing them.

You can hear David’s mastery at work in the audio track to the following video tribute to him and his big band, The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra, as he takes Dizzy Gillespie’s oft-heard Manteca and transforms it into a fresh and stimulating piece of music.

One of the devices that he employs to give the piece a new sound is that he “plays orchestra”

You may think that there are only two solos on Dave arrangement of Dizzy’s Jazz standard: Ryan Kisor’s trumpet solo at 2:36 minutes and that of Scott Robinson on baritone sax at 4:03.

But David precedes each of these solos with one of his own using the full orchestra instead of the piano to play them.

You can hear the first of his orchestral solos just after the full exposition of the Manteca’s theme – from 1:51 to 2:35 minutes.

The second can be heard following Ryan’s solo, but before Scott Robinson’s: from 3:17 to 4:02 minutes.

David closes the arrangement with a stirring “shout chorus” [short for “shout me out” or “take me out”] that begins at 4:47 minutes.

Special mention needs to be made of Walter White on lead trumpet and Chris Hunter on lead alto sax, respectively, as their prowess is an important ingredient in making David’s chart come together so well. Chip Jackson on bass and Terry Silverlight on drums really keeps things flowing with the strong pulse they generate as a rhythm section.

This is brilliant stuff.

Did I say that David Matthews was one heckuva big band arranger?

Judge for yourself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

J.S. Bach: Bach to Jazz

David Matthews and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra is the subject of our next feature which will post tomorrow. In the meantime, you might enjoy listening to the band's music and David's "gawjus" arrangements by viewing this previously developed tribute to J.S Bach. Ryan Kisor [trumpet] and Chris Hunter [alto sax] are the soloists on Toccata and Fugue.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ben Sidran: The Cat in the Hat

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

Once a drummer, always a drummer.

It’s a different orientation, a different way of looking at and listening to Jazz.

It’s what you listen for first and then the rest of the music falls into place.

As a result of this percussive point of reference, it seems I’m always getting to other musicians through drummers: Philly Joe Jones got me to pianist Bill Evans [I bought Bill’s Everybody Listens to Bill Evans’ album because Philly is the drummer on it]; Larry Bunker got me to vibist Gary Burton; Kenny Washington got me to pianist Benny Green; Steve Gadd got me to pianist-composer arranger, Ben Sidran, et al.

“Bad” Steve Gadd came into his own as a drummer in the 1970s and, as a result, he easily absorbed and blended Rock beats and Latin accents into his style of Jazz drumming.  His drumming was as much a reflection of what was then contemporary in music as it was steeped in the traditions of Jazz drumming.

With Steve you could be listening to a marching band cadence on the snare drum one minute, a cow bell clave the next followed by a Rock backbeat; sometimes all three together.

He combined these drum rudiments, percussion “influences” and the extremely unique sound from the way he tuned his drums into a style that became instantly recognizable as “Steve Gadd;” not an easy thing to do on a drum kit. And while he was putting all of these rhythmic devices together in a new way, he constantly swung his backside off in whatever the setting he played in.

So when I came across a radio broadcast with a version of Seven Steps to Heaven that featured Steve’s inimitable drumming, I feverishly swung into my Jazz detective mode to find the source album [in other words, I called the radio station].

The track was from an album entitled The Cat in the Hat [AM CD 741] by “Ben Sidran,” whom I originally came to know as a pianist with a gift for writing lyrics to Jazz tunes and solos in the style of Jon Hendricks - what Jon refers to as “vocalese.”

You can hear both Steve’s intriguing approach to drum fills, kicks and solos and Ben’s ultra hipster lyrics on the Seven Steps to Heaven track from this album as we have used this Jazz standard by Victor Feldman and Miles Davis as the soundtrack for this video tribute to Ben. Joe Henderson is his typical first-rate self as the tenor saxophone soloist [see if you can pick-up Joe's reference to Johnny One-Note when he comes back in at 3:14 minutes].

Just in case you are in the mood to sing-along, here’s Ben’s vocalese to the tune:

© -Ben Sidran, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


One. two three, four. five, six seven
Steps to heaven
Five. six. seven, eight, see them pass
Free at last.

Trying to relate to the great masters
of our art Breaks my heart
As they depart
One. two. three, four. five. six. seven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven

When Miles was in style
The boys wouldn't smile
The girls wouldn't clear the aisle
Now the man’s in exile

When Trane led the pack
There was no looking back
There was no doubt about the fact
You had to catch that act

Now Charlie Parker he's a movie star
But they just wouldn't listen
When the man wasn't missin'
Now the man's gone
Say there, can you tell me where the
man's gone So long.

The record machine
t came on the scene
And closed down the nightclubs clean
It sure is mean.

They're gone for good
Free at last
They took those steps to heaven

As Michael Cuscuna explains in his insert notes to The Cat in the Hat, Ben already had eight CDs to his credit by the time of its issue in 1979 so I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fortunately for me, my awareness of Ben bridged beyond just his musical accomplishments to include the Jazz Talk program that he hosted for a number of years on National Public Radio.

The interviews that Ben conducted with Jazz greats on these NPR programs have all been issued in book form and are also all available as CDs.

Here are a few more background notes and observations about Ben and his music by Michael Cuscuna.

© -Michael Cuscuna, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is not surprising that a kid from Madison. Wisconsin, who gigged in college with friends Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and then went home to memorize Bud Powell and Sonny Clark records would turn out the way he did.

Ben Sidran played piano in that first Steve Miller band, but was really noted for the lyrics he wrote for many of their classic songs, including "Space Cow­boy" and "Seasons." Later, he went to England to study at the University of Sussex, and emerged with a PhD. in American Studies plus a brilliant book on American black music entitled Black Talk. He has continued to write, mostly for Rolling Stone, as well as liner notes on albums ranging from Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. He's produced records for Steve Miller. Tony Williams. Jon Hendricks, Sylvester and a few British rock bands that you've probably never heard of. As a pianist, he's done session work with the likes of Gene Clark and The Rolling Stones.

From all this, one might gather that Ben is versatile and eclectic, or that he has a multi-personality split to rival Sybil's. But the point is that his own music (documented by eight albums in as many years) is shaped by all of these diverse elements, not as in a patchwork collage, but existing simultaneously, congruently. welded together by Ben's personal vision and creativity. His is not some kind of "fusion" music: rather, it is simply Ben Sidran Music, forged through his own perceptions and detail­ing a style that's completely his own.

It you are a bebop junkie, the phrase 'the cat and the hat' will probably con­jure up images of Lester Young or Thelonious Monk, two famous knights of the lid. Or if you are a former kid. it may well remind you of the Dr. Seuss story of similar name about the feline in the striped stovepipe, who appears during the absence of adults to perform star­tling acts of turmoil and magic. That description might also apply to Lester and Monk, and not just a few other jazz masters as well, whose lyricism has that childlike simplicity and irrepres­sible inner logic. And this album could well be considered Ben's nod to all those cats who appeared, through their music, and touched him in that way. opening his soul and imagination to that which can only come from within.

The Jazz musician is the spellbinder, the consummate artist of great training who nonetheless still flies by the seat of his pants, taking chances and celebrat­ing life through the act of surprise. In his music, Ben often reminds us of the old tongue-in-cheek adage that 'in Jazz there are no mistakes, only opportuni­ties,' either through his deceptively simple lyrics, which detail the bitter­sweet ironies of life, or through his highly personal conception, which serves to reinforce the impossibility of stepping into the same stream twice, but the im­perative of trying it at least once.

Michael Cuscuna

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm – Portrait of a Jazz Legend

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

“[The ancients Greeks] … knew that Fortune was an idiot’s dance, springing away, and then back, and then again away. And they knew that no one is ever always fortunate.”
- Donna Leon, The Girl of His Dreams [p.109].

With almost 40 years as the leader of a Jazz big band, no one knew better about la forza del destino than Stanley Newcomb Kenton.

Thank goodness for the many fans of Stan’s music that this talented and dedicated musician had perhaps more than his fair share of good fortune over the span of his nearly four decade career [1941-1979].

If you lived in Southern California, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, the name “Stan Kenton” was closely associated with big band jazz. It also had a similar relationship to Jazz on the West Coast during the decade of the 1950s as most of its principals had been “on” the Kenton band at one time or another.

And when the Jazz clubs began to fold and the Jazz festivals diminished or disappeared, if you wanted to learn to play Jazz, Stan Kenton’s name became synonymous as a source for learning about this fascinating form of music through the many clinics and college concerts his band appeared at in the 1960s and 1970s.

The JazzProfiles editorial staff has recently written extensively on Stan and you can re-visit these past features by clicking on the following segment links:

Beyond the fact that preparing these blog features on Stan provided us with a focus for spending more time familiarizing ourselves with recordings of Stan’s music, the arrival of Michael Sparke new book – Stan Kenton: This is an Orchestra! [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press] – a few months after its publication in April, 2010 also served to further our knowledge about the career of this amazing musician.

And now, along comes a magnificent documentary DVD by Graham Carter, the Producer and Director of Jazzed Media [], which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Stan Kenton's birth [Wichita, KS on December 15, 1911].

Two ingredients make Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend must viewing: Graham Carter’s exceptional skills as a filmmaker and the film’s heavy reliance for source material on Ken Poston, Director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, and his knowledge of all-things-Kenton.

During its 117 minutes, the “DVD includes over 20 people interview about Stan Kenton’s career, and over 20 television and movie performances of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. [It] also includes over 300 photos and images from Kenton’s almost 40 year Jazz music career and rare taped interviews with Stan Kenton.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Graham’s DVD is the audio visual equivalent of a nearly two hour gold mine of Kentonia, the pace at which this material is presented never gives its viewer the sense of being rushed or of being lectured.

The experience the DVD affords is more akin to hearing and viewing a good story teller unfold a well-conceived narrative.

Even for those who may already be familiar with certain aspects of the “Kenton story,” they have certainly not heard it told this way before.

Graham keeps the film visually interesting with a sentimental but not maudlin interview with Howard Rumsey, the bassist with Stan’s first band in 1941; footage of Stan with a coat jacket slung over his shoulder talking about where it all began while standing on the beach sand just down from the burned out site of the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA [having been rebuilt after a fire gutted it in 1935, it was lost forever in a second fire in 1966]; interviews with former band members Peter Erskine [drummer] and Mike Vax [lead trumpet] explaining the significance of the orchestra in its later years, something not always well-understood or appreciated by the fans of Stan’s earlier bands.

But perhaps what stands out the most among the film’s many attributes is the way in which Graham constantly captures and underscored Stan’s humanity for I would venture to say that never in the history of big band Jazz was a band leader more universally loved by musicians than was Stan Kenton.

Another theme that the DVD emphasizes is Kenton’s constant search for new forms of Jazz expression: here again, not all of his fans stayed on board the USS Kenton as it navigated its way along the Seven Seas of Jazz in search on new musical treasure.

But this was Stan quest: it was his musical soul that was on this journey looking for new forms of musical expression.

In viewing Graham’s DVD, it appears as though Kenton was not always certain of the best direction to take in order to satisfy this search – the expression “we’re lost but we’re making good time”  sometimes comes to mind, but Stan was always very welcoming in allowing both musicians and fans to join him for the ride.

If you are inclined to undertake the adventure that was Stan Kenton’s musical journey through life, I can think of no better way of experiencing it than by watching Graham Carter’s superb documentary DVD on the subject.

Here is Graham’s own annotation about the film.

“Stan Kenton is acknowledged as one of the pioneers in developing contemporary big band jazz, with a career as band leader starting in the 1940s and lasting through the late 1970s. Kenton was also responsible for helping bring to fame many jazz stars including June Christy, Maynard Ferguson, and Lee Konitz. Many great arrangers wrote for the Kenton band including Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Lennie Niehaus, Gerry Mulligan, and Pete Rugolo.

Celebrating the 100th birthday centennial of Stan Kenton in 2011, this almost 2 hour documentary film, produced in association with the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, provides an in-depth look at Kenton s almost 40 years as a big band leader.

Kenton was a leader in combining Afro-Cuban rhythms with big band jazz in America in the late 1940s. The "Progressive" era of Kenton jazz introduced various elements of modern classical music to the big band jazz setting. His "Innovations" orchestra of the early 1950s offered up a touring band combining jazz and classical music elements and featured soon to be worldwide jazz stars including Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank, and Shorty Rogers. Kenton was instrumental in the formation of jazz education starting in the late 1950s. The 1960s brought further development of additional instrumentation to the band with the "Mellophonium" sound, and later many works written for the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. Kenton continued leading bands through the changing times of the rock influenced late 1960s and 1970s.

Producer & Director Graham Carter has interviewed many people connected with Stan Kenton s life and career including Howard Rumsey, Dr. Herb Wong, JoAnn Kenton, Audree Kenton, Peter Erskine, Carl Saunders, Joel Kaye, Mike Vax, Bill Holman, and Jack Costanzo.

Many famous Stan Kenton Orchestra film and television performances have been included from the big band era of the 1940s through the late 1970s. A large collection of audio music performances are included in the film showcasing the various Kenton bands and their renowned soloists.”

And here are a few comments from the many fans who have already viewed it.

“It's wonderful!!!! Just to see Stan the Man, in all his phases, leading his band, coming to life ... it's priceless. …

Ken Poston does a running narrative (if you've ever been to one of his presentations in L.A., you will appreciate the significance of that) and there are interviews with Jack Costanzo, Herb Wong, Bob Curnow, Eddie Bert, Mike Vax, JoAnn Kenton, Audree, Howard Rumsey, Bill Holman, and many others, and film clips ranging from the earliest beginnings right up to the last band. How this was all compressed and edited into a comprehensive and smoothly flowing narrative is just amazing. …

Congratulations to Graham Carter, and thanks to all who collaborated to produce this marvelous video, which, I agree, every Kenton fan will want to own and play, many times. The music itself hits on so many of his phases! Most of us probably have the full-length recordings, but this is like a nice sampler to remind us how much we've always enjoyed it all. You'll see John Von Ohlen, you'll see Dick Shearer, you'll see June and the early band members and Shelly and ... well, get your copy and see for yourself. Make it your Valentine to yourself. :) ….

- Lillian Arganian”

“This year the legendary big band leader Stan Kenton would have been 100 years old. "Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm – Portrait of a Jazz Legend" is a great way to celebrate the Kenton Centennial. …

This film provides an overview of Kenton's memorable career, one marked by some of the most important and controversial innovations in the history of big band jazz. The story is related through interviews with friends, associates, admirers and family, as well as a variety of photographs and archival performance footage. …

Producer/director Graham Carter has done a marvelous job of gathering together these disparate elements to provide the viewer with a cohesive picture of the Kenton career and personae. The interview segments are masterfully blended into the excitement of the musical footage to keep the story moving along at a rapid pace. At the conclusion of the almost two hour running time, I felt that the elapsed time was considerably less than the actual time. That is always a sign that the creator of the film has been successful in engaging the viewer in a way that justifies the effort that went into producing the final product. ( …

- Joe Lang”

“”Stan Kenton - Artistry in Rhythm, Portrait of a Jazz Legend - ****½:

Graham Carter of Jazzed Media has done a Herculean job of documenting through archival footage and 20+ interviews with Kenton alumni and family, the jazz life of Stan Kenton from the early 1940s all the way to end of Stan’s life in the late 1970s. This 40 year period encompasses all the generations of Kenton’s bands from the Artistry in Rhythm Band of the early 1940s; through the 1950s Innovations in Modern Music and Contemporary Concepts; the New Era in Modern American Music and The Neophonic Years of the 1960s; and concluding with The Creative World of Stan Kenton period of the 1970s when Stan created a record label just for his band.

What jumps out to viewers of this extended period of Kenton excellence is Stan’s restlessness. For example, Stan would do largely commercial work to support the costs for his band to incorporate strings in a 43 member band at the beginning of the 1950s, which was an artistic success but a financial failure to tour. He was arguably the first big band leader - certainly on the West Coast - to incorporate Afro Cuban rhythms by using the talents of Johnny Richards.

Throughout this historically well researched near two hour encapsulation of the musical life of Stan Kenton it became clear that he was a father figure to his band. They represented the family that he did not have the time to raise. His failings as a family man were partially “cured” by the love of the musicians he traveled with on lengthy bus trips.

Proper time in the
DVD is devoted to Stan Kenton’s role as a jazz educator. He knew full well that fostering jazz education in the schools would keep jazz alive. For that alone he should be honored.

 - Jeff Krow, Audio Audition”

For order information, please click on this banner:

Or you can visit Graham’s website at

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sliding Hammers: Karin and Mimmi Hammar

Karin and Mimmi Hammar, trombonists from Sweden, performing their original composition High Altitude Delivery with Mathias Algotsson on piano, Martin Sjostedt on bass and Ronnie Gardiner on drums.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dave Pike: It’s Time, Again

“I was in [Roy Harte’s] Drum City in Hollywood one afternoon in 1953, where I saw a vibraphone for the first time, picked up the mallets and started playing. I knew immediately that I had found my means of expressions.”
- Dave Pike

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

Although we went to the same high school, Dave Pike is five [5] years older so I missed him.

He was President of the high school’s Instrumental Music Association, as was I, and for a time, our photos hung together above the wall of the music room.

By the time I graduated and had started gigging around Hollywood, Dave had already left for the East Coast and was gigging around New York.

Given my long association and friendship with Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker, both of whom were exceptional vibraphonists, vibes were always a part of my musical life. Some of my earliest Jazz gigs as a drummer were playing in trios and quartets that featured them on vibraphone.

All three of us were to become great admirers of Dave Pike’s skills on the instrument.

I’ve also always been a big fan of be-bop, a style of Jazz that Dave Pike specializes in and which he plays passionately and with great reverence for its traditions, particularly those established by its principal co-founders, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Therefore, when Orrin Keepnews, President, Artists and Repertoire man and Chief Cook and Bottle washer for Riverside Records issued his 1961 LP – It’s Time for Dave Pike - it seems that I was destined to own a copy [Riverside RLP-9360].

The 2001 CD reissue of this recording on Original Jazz Classics [OJCCD-1951-2] contains the following annotation on the back tray plate.. Presumably written by Orrin, it is an excellent summation of Dave Pike’s playing:

Dave Pike occupies a distinctive niche in modern Jazz. A vibraphonist with an attack and sound like no other, he plays with a concentrated strength that makes the improvised lines all but take physical shape.”

The ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD put together this video tribute to Dave on which he performs Solar, one of the tracks from the It’s Time for Dave Pike, along with Barry Harris on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.

We’ve also gathered the following observations about Dave by Thomas Schnabel, Zan Stewart and Mark Gardner, Ira Gitler, and a little more from Orrin Keepnews in closing. The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought these might be helpful in providing some perspective on this marvelously talented and too often overlooked musician.

“The sound of the vibraphone is like no other instrument. At once seductive and ce­lestial, the sound is transparent, cool, and airy, yet it is capable of filling a large room with a soothing warmth. Countless people have been fascinated with its magic sound, yet ironically there are only a dozen mallet players world wide who have mastered the instrument. Of these precious few artists, some have exploited the instrument's gentle pulse, churning out syrupy ballads; others have been seduced by the harpies of com­mercialism, while others have remained sub­merged in the tidepools of esoterica. That leaves the world with just a handful of truly creative and evolving players, an exceedingly small family of gifted artists in which Dave Pike has secured for himself an enduring and enviable niche.

Pike is a gentle and slightly built man, whose ingratiating and soft-spoken manners don't betray the rhapsodic power one exper­iences when watching and hearing him per­form. He was born in Detroit on March 23, 1938, and though not from a musical fam­ily, found himself playing piano, drums, and horns from an early age. A percussive player, the vibraphone perfectly suited his artistic needs. "The minute I touched the instrument", he began in his thoughtful and deliberate manner, "that was it, I knew that this was the instrument I was meant to play. I was physically designed to play it. Your whole body's involved with it, your soul, heart, and mind, just like the drums, but with the enormous universe of harmony and melody. I love the sound, I believe music should be beautiful and strive for a beau­tiful sound, and I just can't imagine playing anything else."
- Thomas Schnabel, liner notes to Let the Mnstrels Play On [Muse Records MR-5203

“The vibraharp, or vibraphone, a descendant of the xylophone developed in the United States in the late 1920's, is an instrument with an unusual, very clear tone. A superior set of vibes can send a reverberating sound across a room, filling that space with a sooth­ing diffused warmth. With the mallets in the hands of a master player, the vibraharp can sing the softest song or wail the wildest waltz, always with that sen­suous, percussive timbre that only it possesses. The vibraharp is, indeed, a magical instrument.

Dave Pike is a magical vibraharpist. He is a player of sensitivity and emotion, of imagination and power. His concept of music is broad and open, allowing for many diverse styles in the make up of the complete musician. Over the years, he has shared the limelight with such heralded compeers as Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Herbie Mann and Lee Konitz, and his art reflects the expanded horizons he experienced while working alongside these greats. Whether playing free form or jazz-rock, Dave Pike is a superb modern creator in the jazz idiom.”
- Zan Stewart, liner notes to On A Gentle Note [Muse Records MR- 5168]

“… [Dave’s] style is notble for its well resolved and quicksilver ideas, inspired more by such bop giants as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell than any other vibraphonist. Pike's sound has come in for much praise from his fellow musicians and jazz critics over the years. Dan Morgenstern wrote in 1963: 'Dave's sound is neither excessively vibrato-laden nor excessively dry; it is clear but not brittle, lyrical but never sentimental. The honesty and warmth of his playing is underlined by his habitual 'singing' - as much a part of his improvisation as Hamp's 'grunts' are part of his.'”
- Mark Gardner. Insert notes to Pike’s Groove [Criss Cross 1021]

“The electrically amplified set of metal bars, first made popular in jazz by Lionel Hampton, is known by many names-vibraphone, vibraharp, vibes and bells are some of its appellations. Dave Pike has another name for his set. He calls it the "steam table,”  a humorous title, but one that has accuracy.

Adjectives like "steamin',” "cookin’,” etc. have been used to signify playing with heat, or, to put it even more basically, swinging. The best jazz vibists have always realized the percussive nature of their instrument and have never allowed it to become a purveyor of bland sounds. While Dave Pike is a steamer, he is not a steam fitter. He is a dancer and a singer.

Let me qualify this. Pike's physical approach to the vibes is very active. On up tempos he seems to be interpreting his own modern dance; on ballads his toe-work is gracefully in a ballet bag. Of course, you can11 see this on a record, but you can hear another example of his complete involve­ment with his instrument in the singing with which he underlines his playing. This is common practice among many pianists and vibists, but in Dave's case it is perhaps more intense. Most importantly, you can hear his playing. Inspired more by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell than by other vibists, his conception is original and becoming more so all the time.”
- Ira Gitler, insert notes to Pike’s Peak, [Portrait RK 44392]

“The intensity with which … DAVE PIKE ap­proaches the vibes seems to me so compelling and over­whelming that it surely can almost be felt —  like a ghost at a séance that cannot be seen or touched, but is nevertheless so convincing a presence that you're ready to swear it's definitely there. Having watched Dave at work, I considered the possibility that I was assuming too much in feeling that this aura of vivid excitement comes through clearly on a recording. But a couple of judicious advance experiments with listeners who had never seen him in action convinced me that all that spirit and energy are really audible, and almost tangible, here.”
- Orrin Keepnews, insert notes to It’s Time for Dave Pike [OJCCD-1951-2]

In case you haven’t already done so, it’s time for you to take a hearty sampling of Dave Pike’s music.