Thursday, September 12, 2013

Booker Little: 1938-1961

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

“Some artists are simply in a hurry. It is probably pointless to mourn the waste and loss. With Booker Little, though, a scant 23 years really does seem like short change. More than Fats Navarro, more even than Clifford Brown, who put his stamp on the young man's bright, resonant sound and staunch-less flow of ideas.

What occasionally sounds like hesitancy, even inaccuracy in the har­monic language is probably something more positive, a rethink­ing of the syntax of bebop, parallel to what his friend and associate, Eric Dolphy, was doing. There was precious little chance to find out. When a creative life is as short as this one was, almost every survival is of value.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“[Following on the loss of Fats Navarro at age 26 and Clifford Bown at age 25]…, Another brilliant player who had even less chance to reach his full potential was Booker Little. Little was a restless and adventuresome spirit who found a soulmate in saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Together they recorded At the Five Spot (Prestige) in New York only three months before Little succumbed to uremia at the age of twenty-three. In the last two years of his life he recorded four fine albums as a leader, which reveal him as a highly original player and writer, just on the threshold of achieving full maturity.”
- Randy Sandke, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, ed.

“Little's playing was characterized by an open, gentle tone, a breathy attack on individual notes, and a subtle vibrato. His solos had the brisk tempos, wide range, and clean lines of hard bop, but he also enlarged his musical vocabulary by mak­ing sophisticated use of dissonance, which, especially in his collaborations with Dolphy, brought his playing close to free jazz.”
- David Wild, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz   

Coming a half dozen years after the passing of trumpeter Clifford Brown in 1956, the sudden death of trumpeter Booker Little in 1961 at the age of twenty-three stunned the Jazz world in general and drummer Max Roach in particular.

Max had co-led a quintet with Brownie and was really “at sea” psychologically and musically for a few years after the automobile crash that took Brownie’s life.

He reformed his group in 1958 calling it “Max Roach + 4” and Booker Little held down the trumpet chair in Max’s quintet until he went out on his own in 1961. After a brief association with alto sax and flutist Eric Dolphy which resulted in their “new directions” recording At the Five Spot (Prestige), Booker would be dead. He died of complications resulting from uremia on October 5, 1961.

As you would imagine, Max was crushed over the loss of both Brownie and Booker within a five year span-of-time.

I first heard Booker on Max Roach+ 4 on the Chicago Scene which was produced in 1958 for the EmArcy label [a subsidiary of Mercury Records].

Like Brownie and Fats before him, Booker was one of those fiery, young trumpet players that made you sit up and take notice. His playing was forceful, bright and straight-forward. It was full of unusual phrases and lots of rhythmic displacement, much like that of one of his idols, Sonny Rollins, about whom Booker said: “Sonny has such a twist for the unexpected, and I was inspired by him to do things differently, but musically.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Booker on these pages and compiled the following profile largely from the insert notes to his recordings, most notably those by Nat Hentoff, and from Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’ Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954 -1965 [Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd., 2002, pp. 213-219].

Booker Little had led only four sessions under his own name prior to his untimely death from kidney failure in 1961, but he left a sharply-etched imprint on hard hop. His discography is considerably expanded by his work with drummer Max Roach (whose band had earlier featured the equally ill-fated Clifford Brown, a major influence on Little's playing), and with saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Like Donald Byrd, Little acquired a classical training which, allied with the relentless practice for which he was famous, gave him a brilliant technical foundation and a strong, lustrous sonority throughout the whole range of the horn.

While firmly rooted in hard bop, he was also a player who foreshadowed some of the directions which the jazz avant-garde would take in the 1960s, notably in his use of unusual or microtonal intervals (most conspicuously when working with the like-minded Eric Dolphy), and in his love of dissonance. In his remarkable book Thinking In Jazz, Paul Berliner notes that “Booker Little mastered infinitesimal valve depressions for ornamenting pitches with refined microtonal scoops that added pathos and distinction to his language use.”

Little himself expanded on the topic in an interview with Robert Levin for Metronome in 1961.

“I can't think in terms of wrong notes - in fact I don't hear any notes as being wrong. It's a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong I think you're thinking completely conventionally technically, and forgetting about emotion. And I don't think anyone would deny that more emotion can be reached and expressed outside of the conventional diatonic way of playing which consists of whole notes and half steps. There's more emotion that can be expressed by the notes that are played flat.

. . . I'm interested in putting sounds against sounds and I'm interested in freedom also. But I have respect for form. .. . In my own work I'm particularly interested in the possibilities of dissonance. If it's a consonant sound it's going to sound smaller. The more dissonance, the bigger the sound. It sounds like more horns, in fact, you can't always tell how many more there are. And your shadings can be more varied. Dissonance is a tool to achieve these things.”

Booker Little, Jr. was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 2, 1938. He played clarinet briefly before taking up trumpet at the age of twelve. As a teenager, he hung out on the Memphis jazz scene, sitting in with players like the Newborn brothers, pianist Phineas and guitarist Calvin, and saxophonist George Coleman. His obsessive practice routines started early, and his musical grounding was solidified when he attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music (he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in music in 1958). He roomed with Sonny Rollins for a time in the Windy City, and played with saxophonist Johnny Griffin and drummer Walter Perkins in their group MJT + 3.

Max Roach hired the trumpeter in June, 1958, and Little spent some eight months in his band. It is sometimes said that he joined as a replacement for Clifford Brown, and that Roach hired him for their similarities in sound and approach, but he did not directly replace Brown - he took over the seat vacated by Kenny Dorham. He made his recording debut with the drummer on Max Roach Plus 4 On The Chicago Scene in June for EmArcy, and turned in a fine ballad outing on 'My Old Flame'. The band, which also featured George Coleman on tenor, Art Davis on bass, and the unusual coloration of Ray Draper's tuba, used as a melody rather than bass instrument, were recorded again at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, also for EmArcy, then went into the studio to cut the Riverside session which produced one of Roach's most powerful albums, Deeds, Not Words, on September 4, 1958.

Little left the band in February, 1959, to work as a freelance in New York, but his association with Roach was renewed on several occasions, and he is heard making memorable contributions to several more of the drummer's albums, including The Many Sides of Max on Mercury (some of Roach's Mercury and EmArcy albums have long been hard to find, but Mosaic Records issued The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions at the end of 2000), and two indisputable classics, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite for Candid in August-September, 1960, and Percussion Bitter Suite for Impulse! a year later, in August, 1961.

These albums moved Roach's music beyond the stylistic and structural norms of bop, and reveal greater use of tonal clusters and dissonant harmonies, and also of time signatures other than the familiar 3/4 and 4/4. The overall sound had also shifted toward the more visceral sonorities of the free jazz era, although that was more overtly evident in the contributions of saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Eric Dolphy than in Little's ripe sonority and subtle inflections.

The trumpeter lived only two more months after that session, and his death - coming as it did in the wake of Clifford Brown's tragic passing - shook Roach badly, and left him with the feeling that he might be a jinx for trumpet players. Little's contributions to Roach's music are an essential part of the trumpeter's recorded legacy, as is his work with the multi-instrumental reed and flute player Eric Dolphy. He first teamed up with Dolphy on record for Far Cry, a Prestige session recorded on December 21, 1960, with a great rhythm section of Jaki Byard on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

They recorded again in a sextet session under Little's name in April, 1961, as we will shortly see, while a further meeting at The Five Spot a couple of months later produced a justly celebrated live album, recorded on July 16, 1961, with a quintet which featured Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. This classic date was issued as Live! At The Five Spot, Volume 1 and 2, and Memorial Album, and should be regarded as essential listening (the recordings were also collected in a 3-LP box set as The Great Concert of Eric Dolphy, and incorporated in the comprehensive 9-CD box The Complete Prestige Recordings of Eric Dolphy).

In the course of 1959-60, Little also recorded sessions with singer Bill Henderson, trombonist Slide Hampton, and a strong date with another Memphis musician, alto saxophonist Frank Strozier, on The Fantastic Frank Strozier Plus for VeeJay, with Miles Davis's rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Little was also captured with vibes player Teddy Charles in concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on August 25, 1960, originally released as Metronome Presents Jazz in the Garden on the Warwick label (and later as Sounds of the Inner City on Collectables, credited to Little and Booker Ervin), and in studio sessions with Teddy Charles and Donald Byrd, among others, issued as The Soul of Jazz Percussion, also on Warwick.

The trumpeter was also heard with Max Roach in a studio version of his own 'Cliff Walk' from November, 1960, as part of the Candid All-Stars' Newport Rebels album, inspired by the breakaway festival set up that year in protest at the booking policy of the Newport Jazz Festival. Little was reunited with Roach for several dates in 1961, and also recorded with Roach's then wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, but only after both he and Dolphy had participated in John Coltrane's Africa/Brass sessions, cut for Impulse! in May and June, 1961. The core of his work as a leader, however, is contained in only four albums: Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, 1958, later reissued on Blue Note); Booker Little (Time, 1960, later reissued as The Legendary Quartet Album on Island); Out Front (Candid, 1961); and Victory and Sorrow (Bethlehem, 1961, also known as Booker Little and Friend).

His debut as a leader was cut not long after the Deeds, Not Words session, in October, 1958. Booker Little 4 & Max Roach also featured George Coleman on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Art Davis on bass, and was originally issued by United Artists. The Blue Note CD issue in 1991 reprints the original sleeve note, in which Jon Hendricks appears to claim that Sonny Rollins introduced Little to Clifford Brown in 1957 (a year after his death), but also included two rather scrappy tracks from a blowing session with an all-Memphis band featuring Strozier, Coleman and both Newborns in 1958, in which Booker is heard alongside another trumpeter, Louis Smith, in versions of 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be' and 'Blue 'N' Boogie'. Smith recorded two solid albums for Blue Note in 1958, Here Comes Louis Smith - with Cannonball Adderley masquerading as 'Buckshot La Funke' for contractual reasons - and Smithville, and seemed set to make an impact on the hard bop scene, but turned to teaching instead, and did not record again until the late 1970s.

It was a strong (if rather indifferently recorded) debut, and Little is already identifiably an original voice in the making. The six tracks included three original tunes by the trumpeter, 'Rounder's Mood', 'Dungeon Waltz' and 'Jewel's Tempo', each allowing him and his colleagues to stretch out in exploratory fashion, always nudging outward at the boundaries of bop convention. Coleman is an excellent foil for his home town buddy, while Roach is majestic on drums.

The trumpeter's next session, though, cut for the Time label on April 13th and 15th, 1960, and issued as Booker Little, was even better. It presented him in the most unadorned setting of his brief career, a quartet with a rhythm section of either Wynton Kelly (from the 13th) or Tommy Flanagan (15th) on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, and bassist Scott La Faro, another great young musician who would also die prematurely in 1961 in a car accident.

The session provided the most concentrated example of Little's fluent, inventive, but always probing style as a soloist, and also a further showcase for his abilities as a, composer of original and engaging tunes (nor was he adverse to a spot of recycling - 'The Grand Valse' here is the same tune as 'Waltz of the Demons' on the Strozier album, and 'Booker's Waltz' on The Five Spot disc with Dolphy). His almost unaccompanied opening cadenza on 'Minor Sweet', with only Haynes's spectral drum fills shadowing the horn, is a perfect encapsulation of the rich sonority and precise articulation which was so characteristic of his playing, and the flowing solo which follows underlines the lyricism which was always intrinsic to his approach, as well as his imaginative and un-hackneyed phrasing.

Little once observed that Sonny Rollins inspired him 'to do things differently, but musically', and the trumpeter might well have adopted that comment as his own motto. Even in his most adventuresome moments, there was an elegant grace and subtle logic to everything he played (in his sleeve note for Booker's next album, Nat Hentoff neatly described it as 'a rare and stimulating combination of sense and sensibility, clarity and daring'), and the relaxed-to-brisk rather than flat-out tempos and often bittersweet mood of this album provides an exemplary illustration of those qualities.

Booker's penultimate disc as a leader was cut almost a year later in two sessions for Candid, poised midway between his studio session with Eric Dolphy on Far Cry in December, 1960, and the Five Spot recordings in July, 1961. The music on Out Front, recorded on March 17th and April 4th with a sextet which featured Dolphy on reeds, trombonist Julian Priester, Don Friedman on piano, Art Davis (March) or Ron Carter (April) on bass, and Max Roach on drums, tympani and vibes, continues to push outward in the progressive fashion evident on the earlier date with Dolphy, but also reflects Little's contention that while he was interested in freedom, he was equally interested in form.

His compositions and arrangements manipulate structure and movement in inventive fashion, as in the subtle harmonic ebb and flow between the more complex ensemble sections and the simpler solo passages on 'We Speak', the sharp harmonic contrasts underpinning 'Strength and Sanity', the alternating tempo changes of 'Quiet, Please' (inspired by a child's rapidly changing moods), or the sequentially shifting time signatures (cycling through 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4) of 'Moods In Free Time' are all indicative of a thoughtful and experimental musical mind at work.

Whatever formal challenges his music took on, however, Little's primary focus remained firmly on passionate emotional expression. Hentoff's sleeve note quotes the trumpeter's belief that jazz needed 'much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all that you want,’ and his own music is eloquent testimony to that aim. Here and elsewhere, his own sound is always more centered than Dolphy’s caustic cry, but the combination is highly effective, and if Little's use of dissonance is more discreet and insidiously inflected than would be the case in the free jazz movement, he has clearly moved beyond the conventions of bop, and is equally clearly a precursor of many of the experiments to come.

The story reached its final chapter when the trumpeter cut his last album for Bethlehem in either August or September, 1961 (the precise date has not been determined). Victory and Sorrow retained Priester and Friedman from the Candid date, and added George Coleman on tenor, Reggie Workman on bass, and Pete La Roca on drums. Little again employs more complex chorus structures, ensemble lines and chord voicings; than were customary in the unison themes of hard bop, and his ruling ethic – exercising emotional freedom within a controlled structural framework dominates the music.

All but one of the tunes, the standard ballad 'If I Should Lose You', is by Little. They include a version of 'Cliff Walk', under the title 'Looking Ahead', with its sophisticated ensemble interplay for the three horns (to confuse matters further, a CD reissue of this album retitled that track 'Molotone Music'). The title track is among his strongest and most resourceful compositions, shifting tempo in subtle fashion to delineate its changing sections, while 'Booker's Blues' plays with blues form in imaginative fashion, shuttling between 8 and 12-bar forms.

Everything on the record points forward, but there was to be no more progress for the trumpeter. He died in New York on October 5, 1961, of kidney failure brought on by uraemia, a blood disease which had left him in constant pain for some time beforehand. He joined the tragically long list of jazz greats dead before their time, but even at the tender age of twenty-three, he had left a distinctive legacy of lasting value.

The following video tribute to Booker features him on Memo: To Maurice, the first tune I ever heard him play. It is from the Max Roach+ Four On The Chicago Scene [MG 36132] and it was written by Eddie Baker, the pianist on that date. George Coleman on tenor saxophone and Bob Cranshaw on bass round out the group.


  1. Booker, more than anyone, inspired me to persue what has become a life-long quest for new sounds. From Booker I discovered Dolphy, Jaki Byard with whom I studied only too briefely, Reggie Workman and more.... Booker still inspires and shall continue to be a portal to the new. Forever Booker!

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