Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Max Harrison Review of Jazz West Coast by Robert Gordon [From the Archives]

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

Along with Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 and Alain Tercinet’s West Coast Jazz [currently available only to French language readers, Robert Gordon’s [“Bob” to his friends and I’m happy to include myself among them] Jazz West Coast forms a trilogy of information and documentation about a period of Jazz that is near and dear to my heart.

I experienced much of this style of Jazz first-hand and even performed it with a number of its luminaries.

Over the years, Bob has been kind enough to allow JazzProfiles to highlight each of the book’s ten chapters as separate blog features and even gave his consent to reproducing it in its entirety which you can locate via this link.

The author and critic Max Harrison has been described as one of the “… few great contemporary listeners.” What follows is the review he did for Wire Magazine [1987] of Bob Gordon’s book which is currently appearing on JazzProfiles.  It is interesting to note Max’s reference to Howard Rumsey in the opening line of his review as Howard died last week on July 15, 2015 at the age of 98!

I have attached a West Coast Jazz video playlist at the end of the review.

Max Harrison’s Review of Jazz West Coast BY ROBERT GORDON (Quartet Books, 12.95 pounds)

Wire Magazine 1987

“THE NEWS THAT Howard Rumsey will be 70 in November brusquely puts West Coast jazz of the 1950s into one sort of perspective. If his name now means nothing there are good, or rather had, reasons for the fact. As Michael James remarked a while back, if a style takes the public's fancy for a spell it is afterwards condemned to a bad press. Thus all boogie is forever "monotonous", all West Coast jazz "gutless and academic". This repetition of facile  pseudo-judgments, which constitutes a large part of jazz commentary, can only be a source of amusement to those who actually listen to the music and can hear what they listen to. Robert Gordon is one such eccentric, and his book admirably unsettles what has long been a comfortably settled questioned. Indeed, it is so much overdue as virtually to qualify as a brave venture on the parts of author and publisher.

Of course, the West Coast scene has always been far more diverse than the standard histories allow - when they admit such places as Los Angeles and San Francisco even exist, that is. It is also considerably older, as Gordon hints when he says that the Club Alabam on LA's Central Avenue goes back to the 1920s. Ornette Coleman was first heard of on the West Coast, which was the scene of Mingus's initial activities, was where the Clifford Brown-Max Roach group started, where Dexter Gordon and Eric Dolphy came from, where Dupree Bolton was recorded. Though discredited from an early date by such records as Liberty's Double Or Nothin'(a Howard Rumsey initiative), which features jazzmen from both coasts to singular advantage, New York/California polarizations, with all virtue residing in the former, always enjoyed wide currency. That is because they simplified, made things easy. But these crass generalizations took many victims, like the Curtis Counce group, which, if its Contemporary and Doortone LPs are anything to go by, ought to have a secure place in jazz annals, as should Paul Horn's combo. Gordon writes about these and comparable bands eloquently and at length, and they deserve it.

What we think of as specifically "West Coast" jazz, the work of Rogers, Giuffre, Manne, etc, will ultimately require discussion in conjunction with earlier and later cases of the "cool" vein of expression that recurs periodically in jazz history; and its more formal, and experimental, aspects will need to be set in relation to composing and arranging practices in other styles. For the present, Gordon concentrates almost exclusively on events in California during the 1950s, and this is wise for a first substantial book on the subject.

He starts back in the 1940s, naturally, with the appearance of Parker and Gillespie at Berg's in Hollywood, though he is careful to point out that was not the first time bop was heard on the West Coast. The Howard long been a comfortably settled questioned. Indeed, it is so much overdue as virtually to qualify as a brave venture on the parts of author and publisher.

McGhee-Teddy Edwards group was already in action, as were others that went unrecorded. Gordon tells of Parker's subsequent adventures and in dealing with the Central Avenue scene makes it clear just how much jazz was to be heard in places like LA. The chapter on Milton Michael Rajonsky and His Giants begins with the Capitol recordings of Miles Davis and Tristano, explains why such jazz would appeal to West Coast musicians, and passes on to Rogers's early experience with Herman and Kenton. It was out of this latter, plus the contributions of the participants, that the characteristic sounds and textures of the Giants came, not from the simple watering-down of Davis's Capitols proposed by most histories. Gordon, though bypassing the Clickin' With Clax LP, has excellent comments on the music, for example on Shorty Courts The Count an imaginative venture that was the cause of much pious horror ("Travesty!") when first issued in Britain.

A chapter on Mulligan tackles the Quartet, Tentet, Chet Baker's earliest independent ventures. Too bad Gordon was nor able to take account of all the Baker-Russ Freeman material that has lately appeared on Mosaic. "The West Coast Sound" deals with Manne, the Almeida-Shank anticipations of bossa, nova, Niehaus, Jack Montrose. Two chapters are given to "California Hard", and these tell of Brown-Roach, Joe Maini, Hampton Hawes, the Gellers, Counce, Pepper Adams, more on Baker, etc. Among numerous valuable reminders is one about the Gellers' Emarcy LPs, which never had the circulation they continue to deserve. As Gordon remarks, such items "were largely ignored by influential East Coast critics".

But now this book has appeared they should be ignored no longer. Indeed, as with other good writing like this, one of its virtues is that we are led back to music that has been too long neglected, Such as the marvelous Getz-Brookmeyer Shrine concert performances or the 1955 Jack Montrose Sextet, However, because such a large quantity of relevant material invites consideration Gordon is inevitably selective, and one is surprised that he gave space to such bland efforts as Manne’s My Fair Lady and Paich’s Art Pepper Plus Ten. Better to have tried, say Music to Listen to Red Norvo By with its Montrose Poeme and Bill Smith’s 20-minute Divertimento and Duane Tatro's "Rubricity". The latter has another piece, "Maybe Next Year", on the Smack Up! LP which the author meets with in the chapter on Pepper, and while he recognizes it as "a strikingly original composition", one regrets that he did not go on to investigate Tatro's fascinating Jazz for Moderns LP of 1954-55.

In fact he is not quite independent enough. He stoutly defends the West Coast scene as a whole, and shows ample justification. But he also draws close to the once-fashionable dismissals of the sort of sophisticated and complex writing found on Tatro's record, on Giuffre's Tangents in Jazz, etc- Not too much should be made of this because a good account is given of the often exploratory compositions by Rogers, Montrose, Giuffre and Cooper that make up Contemporary's Shelly Manne Vol. 2, and of the same leader's adventurous The Two and The Three. Gordon is critic enough to tackle such material, as his detailed comments on the orchestrations in Manne's The West Coast Sound or the form and harmony of Horn's "Dun-Dunnee" and "Tall Polynesian" prove. Yet he sometimes retreats to a notional "East Coast" attitude that "straight-ahead blowing" is the only satisfaction players or listeners can legitimately seek in this music, anything beyond having "only a peripheral relationship to jazz". Again, lie commends certain LPs as "always easy to listen to". Should good music always be easy to listen to?  Remember Ives's "Very pleasing - if you want to be pleased.”

Undoubtedly the book's chief omission, however, is that while it contains many references to Giuffre, there is no discussion of the large body of music which he has brought into being. It is unaccountable that LPs such as the darkly seductive Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet or The Music Man should be ignored. The latter is, musically speaking, almost the sole survivor among countless jazz versions of Broadway show scores which appeared during those years.

Not all the book's chapters have been mentioned, but consideration is given to later work by Rogers, Montrose, Baker, Teddy Edwards, to Cy Touff, Chico Hamilton, Shank (New Groove), Joe Gordon (Lookin' Good), Harold Land (The Fox, of course), Richie Kamuca, Elmo Hope, Bill Perkins, Frank Morgan. There is a piece on the LA underground which has fine comments on Dolphy and particularly Ornette Coleman. Indeed, what is said here about the latter's early days well complements John Litweiler's treatment of the Atlantic ILPs in The Freedom Principle.

Gordon's book is, of course, recommended. There is a great deal more to be said on the subject, yet it fills an obvious gap on the library shelf. Unlike most of what comes out of the US these days, it is written in decent English, and it has been well researched. The factual errors are minor and only a few need be mentioned here. Parker's "Koko" session was in November, not December, 1945. The Fox was not Dupree Bolton's recording debut. Clifford Brown's dates with West Coasters did not precede all titles made by the group with Roach. The five-trumpet instrumentation of Rogers's "Astral Alley" and "Serenade In Sweets" was not "unique": As you see, the nits scarcely merit picking. But this book should be picked up, and all the records in its Annotated Discography listened to. Listened to and heard.”

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