Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Lester Koenig: Good Time Jazz and Contemporary Records [From the Archives]

© -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.”


  1. A wonderful write-up that would be improved with some attention paid to Roy DuNann who, for my money, engineered circles around Rudy Van Gelder.

  2. Les Koenig was clearly a GIANT despite his obvious preference to be low-key, himself. THANK YOU, Steven Cerra!!! The world is a better place because of people like Les! Like Laurie(Pepper) & the list goes on & on forever! Like YOU, Steven! Thanks to ALL who work behind the scenes, on or off-stage, etc. etc. etc... -in support of the featured "Player" & "Sidemen" so that "We the people..." can be out in the audience having the time of our lives enjoying "the show" or "Artistry, Talent, Efforts" and so on! My attitude is one of gratitude!! THIS art form & ALL original American Art forms must be preserved and encouraged to not only survive, but to thrive!!!


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