Saturday, January 16, 2021

Charlie Rouse - A Creative Force on Tenor Saxophone

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

“Though a top tenor man in his own right, he will always be remembered as the saxophonist for the Thelonious Monk quartet. He adapted his playing to Monk’s music; his tone became heavier, his phrasing more careful, and he seemed to be the medium between Monk and the audience.”
- AllaboutJazz

"A communicator rather than a pioneer, he must have found it strange and galling to be pushed out of view with the rest of the 'avant-garde.' On the strength of [his solo albums], Charlie Rouse was 'in the tradition,' centrally and majestically."
-Richard Cook & Brian Morton, Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was a long-standing member of Thelonious Monk's quartet (1959-1970), the association for which he is best known.

In the 1960s Rouse adapted his style to Monk's work, improvising with greater deliberation than most bop tenor saxophonists, and restating melodies often. His distinctive solo playing with Monk may be heard on "Shuffle Boil" (1964), in which he alternates reiterations of the principal thematic motif with formulaic bop runs.
-Barry Kernfeld, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“Charlie Rouse, who has often been disparaged by critics but served his leader well. Rouse was certainly not a soloist of the stature of Coltrane or Rollins (or, for that matter, Griffin) but he absorbed and understood Monk's musical processes as well as anyone the pianist ever played with, and explored them with considerable imagination and timbral variety in a style of improvisation which he developed specifically for that purpose.”
- Kenny Mathieson, Giant Steps: Bebop and The creators of Modern Jazz, 1945-1965

“I never wrote a column about Charlie Rouse — can't explain it. When I first got to know Stanley Crouch, we bonded over our mutual outrage at how three favorite tenors had been critically disrespected when we were growing up: Rouse, George Coleman, and Paul Gonsalves. We set out to render justice. Rouse's pithy, almost epigrammatic phrases; sandy timbre, by way of Wardell Gray; and uncanny ability to blend with the tones of Thelonious Monk's piano amounted to a rare oasis in a frantic era. For that matter, I never wrote a long-planned column on Wardell Gray either. What the hell was I doing? Nearly 650 Weather Birds, maybe 400 Riffs, yet no Rouse, no Gray, no Ervin, no Tristano, no Dameron, no James P., no Teschmacher, no Lee Morgan, Mea multiple culpas.”
- Gary Giddins, Weather Bird: Jazz At The Dawn of Its Second Century

After reading the “mea culpa” by Gary Giddins, I didn’t feel so bad about having omitted a profile of tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse from these pages until I located a disc by him entitled Charlie Rouse: Unsung Hero [Columbia Jazz Masterpiece/Epic CD 46181].

That did it!

“Unsung hero?”

Not if I had anything to say about it.

Then the fun began because - you guessed it - despite an eleven year association with Thelonious Monk, one of the Grand Masters of Modern Jazz - good luck finding anything readily available about Charlie other than passing references.

But as Will Friedwald states in his assertion that Monk would have had to invent Charlie had he not existed, I had to conjure him up by a deliberate combing of the Jazz literature in order to represent something about Charlie on JazzProfiles. Charlie has become such an overlooked figured in Modern Jazz annals, it’s almost as though he didn’t exist.

In addition to the quotations about Charlie at the outset of this piece, what follows is the complete text of Will Friedwald’s notes to Charlie Rouse: Unsung Hero and Pete Watrous’s obituary which appeared in The New York Times.

Together these should provide you with a pretty good overview of Charlie’s 40+ career which seems to span the ascent and the descent of 20th century modern Jazz.

“If Charlie Rouse hadn't existed, Thelonious Monk would have had to invent him. Never exactly a co-leader of the groups they worked in together over the course of eleven years, Rouse was, nevertheless, more than a Monk sideman, more even than the Monk sideman. In Rouse, Monk found the collaborator of his dreams: not only a horn frontline player who shared his attitudes towards melody, meter and phrasing, but his Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, and Harry Carney all rolled into one.

A first listen to any of the hundreds of recordings, live and studio, extant by their magical quartet might lead one to assume that they thought as one. But actually it was more like one and a half, since Rouse was never merely a musical yes-man. Rather than just finishing Monk's sentences, Rouse added something of his own to them which added infinitely to the potency of the message.

Monk so trusted Rouse with keeping his stylistic flame alive that he felt free to rise from the piano bench during the tenor solos and give vent to the passion that Rouse's playing unleashed in him. As Rouse gave out, Monk danced around the piano in a terpsichorean display both hornlike and bear-like, and every bit as delightfully improvisation as his keyboard work. Even while Thelonious himself was producing no sound, the noises coming from the bandstand were no less Monkish. Still, even though Monk trusted Rouse to deputize while he became a one-man Buck and-Bubbles, apart from the quartet he never served as Monk's emissary, say, as Don Cherry has for Ornette Coleman. Throughout his career, Rouse was recognized by his fellow musicians (if only rarely by critics) both as a voice unique in and of himself, and for his equally extraordinary ability to groove into Monk's music.

Both he and Monk had passed through the bebop era, Monk at its birth, Rouse at its zenith, but remained stylistic outsiders to its tenets, belonging as much to the domains of swing and mainstream. Just as Monk could appear at times art extension—and not necessarily a bebop extension—of Duke Ellington, Rouse identified his roots in Ben Webster. "Somebody's always saying I was influenced by this guy or that guy," Rouse said to Don DeMichael in a down beat interview in 1961, "but they never mention the guy who really influenced me—Ben Webster. I dig his sound so, the warm sound he gets on ballads."

Remember, not only were forward-thinking stylemasters such as Monk and Duke Ellington attracted to Rouse, but so were advanced swing mavens like Count Basie and Buddy Rich, various voices from the bop era, like Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford, and Fats Navarro, and rhythm and blues groups like .Eddie Vinson and Louis Jordan. (Milt Jackson told him later, "I didn't know which side you were on, rock and roll or jazz.')

Growing up in the District of Columbia, the milestones in Rouse's early career included sessions with two fellow Washingtonians, Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington. He joined Eckstine's bond at age 20, the veteran of extensive "wood-shedding" at a local club called the Crystal Cavern during his high school years.

At first, as Eckstine associate tori Coleman recalled, the young tenorist was in over his head in this band of bebop firebrands whose store were, after the leader himself, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; and, after a tour of the South, Rouse and Lucky Thompson (for personal reasons) were let go in Chicago. For a year in Milwaukee he played on weekends while working odd jobs out of music, until Dizzy Gillespie sent for him, first to play in a short-lived small bond that worked in Washington before the Gillespie-Parker unit tackled California, and then more extensively with the fabled Gillespie big band.

The mid-'40s to mid-'50s served as Rouse's bebop decade, during which time he gigged extensively with virtually every major figure of the modernist revolution, making his first records in the company of Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro.

Rouse's bop period was interrupted by an engagement that would have serious ramifications on his development: "Ben Webster left Duke Ellington's band [for the second time, in 1949], and Duke was looking for a tenor player," Rouse remembered to Pete Dawson in a 1982 Coda interview, "and one of my fans, a lady who always wanted me to play 'Body And Soul” and who knew Duke very well, told Duke he should come and listen. So, Duke heard me and hired me."

Because of the recording ban and other problems, the Ellington band only did two short commercial sessions for Columbia during the few months when Rouse was in the reed section. Ellington did feature Rouse in his 1950 Universal Pictures film short, Salute to Duke Ellington. Rouse may well have been the next Ellington tenor star (a place in history that went to Paul Gonsalves); however, he encountered catastrophe when the band was booked to tour Europe in spring of 1950. Rouse couldn't find his birth certificate and was summarily denied a passport. "There I was," he told DeMichael, "standing on the dock, waving goodbye to them."

There would be lots more work with both modem jazz and r&b groups, including the most important of trumpet legend Clifford Brown's Blue Note sessions. But Rouse was clearly looking to make a kind of music somewhere between bop and Ellington.

He took an important step towards it when working with Oscar Pettiford (on a 1954 Bethlehem ten-inch Lp, and elsewhere), the bassist, cellist, and bandleader who had also pivoted between Ellington's band and the new musk and who himself was fast becoming one of jazz's most distinguished when he died at age 38 in 1960.

While playing with Pettiford intermittently and with trombonist Benny Green's more regularly working bond, Rouse joined forces with jazz's leading French horn player, Julius Watkins. "We discovered that tenor and french horn have a beautiful sound, so we decided to get a band together," Rouse said in a Cadence interview with A. David Franklin in 1987, explaining that the group's name "Les Jazz Modes" amounted to o franglais wink at the name of Watkins's instrument. "Our first album for Atlantic was The Most Happy Fella, an album of show tunes they wanted us to do. The next album was of our own compositions, and after that nobody wanted to book the band."

"Sonny Rollins was the one who told me that Thelonious needed a saxophone player/' Rouse recoiled in downbeat. "Sonny had been working with him off and on, and then Johnny Griffin had been working with him at the Five Spot - then Griff left the group and was on the way to Europe." As it turned out, Monk had already contacted Rouse when Rollins got in touch with him. "Before the Five Spot, I had worked with Thelonious now and then, so he knew me; we were friends. And after a point they just couldn't keep Monk back; if something was right, you can't stop it."

The Monk-Rouse combination turned out to be the rightest in music, easily the highlight of both careers. In 1961, the team switched from the smaller Riverside label to the big leagues at Columbia, and the '60s became the decade of international recognition-not to mention work-that Monk and Rouse had worked 20 years to achieve.

Early in their collaboration, some years before Monk came to Columbia, in fact, Rouse recorded an album and a half's worth of material for CBS producer Mike Berniker. Berniker was creatively using the Epic imprint at Columbia to give exposure to a series of worthwhile musicians, most of whom hadn't even been featured on the jazz specialist labels. Rouse's first two Epic sessions appeared on the album Oh Yeah!, while the remaining three tunes were combined with an unrelated date by the equally deserving tenorist Seldon Powell (Epic made several of these tandem albums, such as Ray Bryant and Betty Carter), in a set accurately titled We Paid Our Dues. The two Epics with Rouse quickly became valuable collector's items, if scarcely noticed by the jazz press and, apparently, never mentioned again by Rouse.

Just as a Monk-Rouse treatment of a standard excites because it makes you see an old friend from a new angle, the Rouse Epic sessions signify landmark achievements because of the ways they confirm what we suspected but didn't know for sure. Certainly they reveal stylistic elements inherent in Rouse's playing with Monk but, just the same, we had to hear Rouse with a more conventional pianist to confirm how much they were a part of Rouse's own stylistic lunchbox. On six out of nine tracks here, one Billy Gardner, whose name as much as his playing suggests stylistic similarities to both Erroll Garner and Red Garland, making his first session, plays piano (later he would play organ for Sonny Stitt), while on "When Sunny Gets Blue," "Quarter Moon," and "I Should Core" the swing and bop main-streamer Gildo Mahones (a close associate of Lester Young, and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross) sits on the piano bench.

Although Gardner and Mahones fete Rouse with conventional comping as opposed to Monk's nate-for-note empathy, Rouse still lets you have his putty-edged tone and his staccato melodic structure straight, no chaser. When he improvises on idea, Rouse doesn't dress it up or milk it until he can think of something else, but rather states it simply and elegantly and then moves on. Rouse's ballad improvisations resound as particularly impressive: out of the Thelonian context, his breathy exhalations reveal his roots in Ben Webster (especially in the "Chelsea Bridge"-styled "Quarter Moon").

However, Rouse has reasoned away Webster's emotional polarization, offering neither excessive sentiment nor aggressiveness as the older man was wont to do, but rattier speaking with a single unified voice. Even the cadenza intro to "When Sunny Gets Blue,” which would sound florid in the horn of another tenorman, comes off as a perfect route into the heart of the standard. Furthermore, the boppish uptempos in no way compromise the mood of the ballads, while "Billy's Blues," a moody, loping slow blues, assumes all the tenderness of the love songs, and, conversely, "Stella By Starlight" and "(There Is) No Greater Love" take on the groovy, medium gait of the blues numbers.

Overall, the blend of standards and blues edges the Monk-Rouse ideal from the left field to the mainstream, which anticipates Rouse's subsequent "leader” albums in which he succeeds at turning his tenor sax into a popular music voice, although his bid for that audience ultimately failed.

Long after Monk's retirement, Rouse reached a different sort of pinnacle in the cooperative collective Sphere, which, until his death in 1986, continued to explore the principles and sometimes the music of the Monk-Rouse group.

"Once you start creating, you never know what's happening on the bandstand," Rouse said in 1982, "and once the flow of whoever is on that bandstand starts meshing, and you hear that pulse, you hove to be dead not to start patting your feet. That's the beauty of that music."


The following obituary appeared in December 2, 1988, New York Times

Charlie Rouse, 64, a Saxophonist Known for Work in Monk Quartet


Charlie Rouse, a tenor saxophonist and one of jazz's great individualists, died of lung cancer on Wednesday afternoon at University Hospital in Seattle. He was 64 years old.

Mr. Rouse came to prominence in 1944 when he joined the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, which at the time included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lucky Thompson and Sarah Vaughan. He became known for his beautiful tone and the individuality of his playing.

He quickly became an important musician, working and recording with many of the major figures of the day. He played in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and in 1947 recorded with the trumpeter Fats Navarro and the composer Tadd Dameron. In 1949, Mr. Rouse replaced Ben Webster in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but he had to leave the band in 1950 when a passport problem kept him from embarking on an international tour. Months later, he was working with a small band led by Count Basie. Collaboration With Monk
During the 1950's, Mr. Rouse worked and recorded with a series of different musicians, including the bassist Oscar Pettiford, the trombonist Benny Green and the trumpeter Clifford Brown. In 1955, he started a group, Les Jazz Modes, which incorporated a French horn and a vocalist in the front line and featured gentle but firmly swinging arrangements.

But it was in 1959, when Mr. Rouse joined Thelonious Monk's quartet, that he began to do his best work, embarking on one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of jazz. By then, Mr. Rouse had finished developing his improvising style. His phrasing, clipped and emotionally blunt, was matched in its distinctiveness by his dry but luxuriant tone.

As a soloist, each of his phrases settled into a larger design and seemed to comment on what had gone before. Mr. Rouse was never shy of passion; his solos were full of dignity, joy and optimism.

Spare but Compassionate Play

This all served him well while he was working with Mr. Monk, who had an overwhelming personality. Together, between 1959 and 1970, they developed a sophisticated interplay, where Mr. Monk would interject ideas into Mr. Rouse's spare lines. Mr. Rouse's solos would become duets and the two would carry on extended musical conversations, with Mr. Monk's brittle, prolix improvisations contrasting perfectly with Mr. Rouse's compassionate, emotionally sympathetic playing.

But Mr. Rouse - a retiring man who was not the type to draw attention to himself - worked in the shadow of Mr. Monk. It wasn't until 1979, when Mr. Rouse formed the group Sphere, which was dedicated, at first, to playing Mr. Monk's compositions, that he began to achieve the sort of recognition he deserved. The group, which became one of jazz's most sophisticated bands, recorded several albums, showcasing his distinctive, assured style.

In New York he worked regularly at the Village Vanguard, either as a member of Sphere, with an exceptional band jointly led by the pianist Mal Waldron, or with his own quartet. His most recent appearances in New York City were at the Village Vanguard, in 1986, and at Lincoln Center in August, where he played with a trio at a tribute for Tadd Dameron.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen Rouse, a son, two brothers and a sister.

Additional Sources:

Dom DeMichael, “Charlie Rouse: Artistry and Originality, Down Beat, xxviii/11, 1961

P. Danson, “Charlie Rouse,” Coda, No. 187, 1982

A.D. Franklin, “Charlie Rouse,” Cadence, xiii/6, 1987.

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