Saturday, October 20, 2012

Lou Blackburn and Freddie Hill Quintet – Fire and Heat in L.A.

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

It is not uncommon to associate the words “fire” and “heat” with Los Angeles.

The point-of-view that many non-Californians have of the City of Angeles is that, when it is not undergoing horrendous earthquakes, it and its environs are threatened by raging wildfires often sparked by hot winds, blowing through the canyons that ring the city.

The persistent heat also conjures up the laidback, backyard living and beach culture that has become almost synonymous with Los Angeles’ lifestyle.

This being said, the words “fire” and “heat” were rarely used with the style of modern Jazz that emanated from the sprawling city that constitutes Los Angeles, since the inception of that movement after WW II. 

To state the obvious, such judgments are all subjective, but every now and then a series of recordings came along that belied the perception of Los Angeles Jazz as languid, laidback and lethargic.

Such was the case with the albums made by trombonist Lou Blackburn’s quintet which he co-fronted with trumpeter Freddie Hill.

The group just seemed to “happen” on the LA Jazz scene in the early 1960s and hearing them in person at one of the many small clubs that populated the Watts area of L.A. was always an exciting experience.

Although Lou subsequently went to Europe – where as Mike Zwerin puts it – “Jazz went to live” - and formed a unique Jazz-fusion group before his death in Berlin in 1990, Freddie faded from the Jazz scene and died in relative obscurity in the late 1970's.

Fortunately, Michael Cuscuna, who heads up Mosaic Records and does reissues for Blue Note/EMI, gathered the recordings made by Lou and Freddie’s quintet and put them out on a single CD entitled Lou Blackburn: The Complete Imperial Sessions [0946 3 58294 2 6].

Here’s what Michael had to say about the musicians and the music on these recordings in his insert notes for the CD reissue.

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


This disc contains the complete output of the Lou Blackburn-Freddie Hill Quintet. Like Curtis Amy, Teddy Edwards, Jack Wilson, and so many others in Los Angeles at the time, Hill and Blackburn were making their living in the recording studios and film soundstages. Their creative efforts were confined to low-paying club dates and the occasional album, which was usually met with nice reviews and poor sales.

Big bands were another creative salvation and the L.A. scene. Hill and Blackburn were, at various times, members of the Gerald Wilson, Onzy Matthews, and Oliver Nelson orchestras, which enjoyed some joyous live gigs and the hipper studio dates.
Together, they appeared on Wilson's Moment Of Truth, Matthews's Blues with a Touch Of Elegance, Lou Rawls's two Matthews-arranged albums Black and Blue and Tobacco Road, Oliver Nelson's Live From Los Angeles, and Nelson-arranged projects by Carmen McRae, The Three Sounds, and Thelonious Monk

Lou Blackburn was born in Rankin, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, on November 22, 1922. His first instrument was piano, but during his final two years at Roosevelt University in Chicago, he switched to trombone, an instrument he felt to be mare natural for expressing himself.

He was drafted into the army in 1945 for two years. After discharge and a couple of years of civilian life as a musician, he rejoined the military and gained incredible experience while stationed in Japan and Germany, performing with David Amram, Don Ellis, Walt Dickerson, John Wright, and Jesse Belvin, and other artists who toured where he was stationed. In 1956, he left the service and gigged around Philadelphia and Atlantic City with Charlie Ventura, among others.

In 1958, he started a two-year stint with Lionel Hampton's big band, and then worked with Cat Anderson's group. An offer came from Duke Ellington in 1961 and Lou joined in time to participate in the Paris Blues and First Time/The Count Meets the Duke projects. It's easy to see why Ellington would be attracted to such an expressive and versatile trombonist, but the gig lasted only nine months.
Blackburn decided to settle in Los Angeles and, with his abilities, he had no problem breaking into the jazz, studio, and film scenes.

Freddie Hill was born in Jacksonville, Florida on April 18, 1932. He studied cello and piano as well as trumpet. After four years at Florida A & M on a music scholarship and two years in the army that brought him into contact with the Adderley brothers, among others, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue graduate studies at Los Angeles State College. Gigs with many artists, including Gerald Wilson and Earl Bostic, followed.

Hill eventually had the security Of steady studio work thanks to Wilson, Matthews, Nelson, and H. B. Barnum, but his opportunities to record as a jazz soloist were few. Besides Gerald Wilson's Pacific Jazz sessions on which he had to share space with a lot of outstanding soloists, he is heard to great advantage on Leroy Vinnegar's Leroy Walks Again!! and Buddy DeFranco's Blues Bag, which also included Curtis Fuller and Art Blakey.

Trumpeter Charles Tolliver remembers, "In 1966,I met Freddie Hill while he was working with Gerald Wilson. We discovered that we were both from Jacksonville and, it turned out, he knew my mother. He got me into Gerald's band and let me live in one of the houses he owned, which was around the corner from where Lou Blackburn lived and near where Andrew and Laverne Hill were staying at the time. Freddie and Lou were working studio dates around the clock. Earl Palmer was contracting a lot of sessions at that time."

Like Blackburn, Horace Tapscott,  born in Houston, Texas on April 6, 1934 but raised in Los Angeles from the age of nine, started on piano and switched to trombone. He worked in the bands of Wilson, Hampton, and Matthews on that instrument; he had begun to shift his emphasis back to the piano by the time of these sessions. He remained one of L.A's best kept secrets although there were glimmers of hope when he wrote and arranged the music for Sonny Criss's Sonny's Dream (Birth Of The New Cool) in 1968 and made his debut as leader the following year with The Giant Is Awakened, an album that also introduced Arthur Blythe, on the newly formed Flying Dutchman label. From the early 1970’ss until his death in 1999, Tapscott would record a series of albums, either solo or trio or with his Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra on Nimbus and a variety of independent labels, that revealed a distinctive pianist/composer with a conception all his own.

Bassist John Duke, who had already worked with Horace Henderson, gigged with Bobby Bryant and Louis Jordan among others after the dissolution of this quintet. He joined the Basie band in the 70s, frequently working side jobs with Al Grey when the band was off. Drummer Leroy Henderson is best known for his 1961-62 stint with Richard "Groove" Holmes's trio, which gave him the opportunity to record with Gene Ammons and Lou Rawls. Beyond gigs with Vi Redd and Charles Kynard, little is known about him after 1963.

In a feature article on the group in the February 13, 1964 issue of Down Beat, Blackburn told John Tynan that the idea for the group came shortly after he'd arrived in L.A.: "One night back in 1961, not long after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was playing with some fellows at the Rubaiyat Room in the Watkins Hotel. Freddie was one of them. Well, we seemed to get such a good blend with his trumpet and my trombone; he suggested we try to make it permanent. So we did."

The group was formed in November 1962 and quickly secured a contract with Imperial, a label not known for much jazz recording. The front-line instrumentation is rather rare. There was a 1957 Blue Note album by Curtis Fuller with Art Farmer, J. J. Johnson's 1958 quintet with Nat Adderley, the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet of 1964-65, and, much later, Woody Show's 1980 quintet with Steve Turre. Rather surprising given that the combination has a lovely sonority all its own.

In Blackburn and Hill, one can hear all the qualities that made them in demand for studio work: their clarion tones, their accurate pitch and clean articulation, their breadth Of idioms, and their blend. But unlike many studio musicians, they were both expressive, first-rate soloists. Horace Tapscott, the other soloist here, had only recently returned to the piano; these were his first recordings on the instrument. He had yet to find his own personal voice on the piano, but elements of his style, like his percussive approach, were already in place.

The aforementioned Down Beat article, by which time Varney Barlow was the drummer, mentions plans for a third album that would include Blackburn's recently composed "Afro-Eurasian Suite," but it never materialized. There was also talk of a European tour, but, in all likelihood, aside from one gig in Denver, this quintet never played anywhere but in L.A. - and even then only infrequently. Blackburn's ten years in Los Angeles was not without its many rewording moments (including performing "Meditations on Integration" with Charles Mingus at Monterey), but in 1971, he moved to Berlin and soon formed a unique band, Mombasa, that forged its own fusion of jazz, blues, and African music, which he led into the '80s. He died in Berlin on June 7, 1990.

Freddie Hill also left the L.A. scene in 1971. He had married the sister of skater Peggy Fleming and moved out to the desert. Studio work was dying up and Hill died a forgotten man before the end of the decade.

- Michael Cuscuna, 2006”