Sunday, May 13, 2018

Jimmy Gourley - A Portrait of An American Jazz Guitarist in Paris

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

The critic and author, Mike Zwerin, who for many years wrote a column on Jazz for The International Herald Tribune, often asserted that “Jazz went to Europe to live.”

Specifically, he was referring to the exodus of many American Jazz musicians who, after the modern Jazz halcyon days of 1945-1965, relocated to Paris, Copenhagen and other major European cities where they found work in clubs and on the concert circuit and were accorded a respect abroad that they rarely received at home.

Some American Jazz musicians including drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Bud Powell and guitarist Jimmy Gourley beat the exodus and took up residence in Paris around the mid-1950s.

While Clarke and Powell are renown as two of the founders of Bebop, Jimmy Gourley is much less known, but no less significant, at least, as far as those Parisian musicians interested in learning about modern Jazz are concerned.

For as Norman Mongan explains in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz explains:

“In the 1950s, when guitar playing in Europe was dominated by Django Reinhardt, Gourley introduced to the Continent a style that was inspired by cool-jazz musicians, especially Lester Young. Influenced at first by fellow-guitarist, Jimmy Raney's subdued melodies, he gradually made greater use of the instrument's harmonic potential and played with increased rhythmic urgency, but his tone remained characteristic of cool jazz - smooth and free of vibrato.”

While in the process of preparing a review of Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald’s second edition of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, I came across Jimmy Gourley’s name again in connection with a trip that Gigi made to Paris in 1953 as a member of Lionel Hampton’s big band. It seems that Gigi and other members of Hamp’s band [including legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown] made some “unauthorized” recordings for a French label on which Jimmy appeared.

This reference reminded me that I owned one of the few recordings that Jimmy ever made as a leader - The Left Bank of New York: Jimmy Gourley - Uptown UPCD 27.32.  Created by Robert Sunenblick, M.D., Uptown has a reputation for finding obscure recordings by famous Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and for producing sessions by obscure musicians such as the one that led to Jimmy Gourley’s recording for the label which was made on August 25, 1986 at Rudy van Gelder’s Englewoods Cliffs, NJ studio [which was also the setting for many of the famous Blue Note LP’s that were recorded by Rudy in the 1950s and early 1960s].

Robert Sunenblick’s sleeve notes to The Left Bank of New York: Jimmy Gourley  [Uptown UPCD 27.32.] contain the following, comprehensive overview of Jimmy Gourley’s career.  

“JIMMY GOURLEY is an American jazz guitarist who has lived in Paris during the last three and a half decades - a 'real' American in Paris. Although he has remained little known in his native U.S., he has played a pivotal role in the development of jazz in Paris, and all of Europe. His love of the great American songwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, his musical education in Chicago, and the fact that Europe was isolated from jazz developments in the U.S. during World War II, all contributed to Gourley's importance. When French musicians, such as Henri Renaud, heard his modern approach and his choice of popular and Broadway show tunes, they were exposed to a capsule of American jazz that they had never heard before.

When Gourley arrived in Paris in April of 1951, it seemed it would never stop raining. "I remember it rained, as it can only rain in Paris." He ran into an old friend from Chicago, "a real crazy painter," who put him up and most important provided him with conversation. "Like it was the end of the world. I couldn't talk with anyone." Eventually, as he had done in his native Chicago, he took his amplifier and began sitting in with Don Byas, Henri Renaud, and other musicians and pretty soon was thrust into a most exciting and beautiful period — postwar Paris. St. Germain des Pres was "a little Greenwich Village" filled with many small clubs, musicians, U.S. servicemen, students, and hangers-on wanting to enjoy the movement and life of Paris - and jazz was the music they were listening to.

Gourley lived in a hotel in the center of Montparnasse, where many musicians, artists, writers and students lived. Both in the hotel and at the many bistros and cafes that line the narrow streets, Gourley played and talked jazz. "There was a very relaxed atmosphere. There was not the 'professionalism' one sees today, where everybody is seeking his place in history. We played - and good musicians were numerous."

Gourley was raised in Chicago. When he was discharged from the military service in June 1946, he returned home and found a music scene "full of effervescence." He joined "all his old friends" in the Jay Burkhart Band and brought his guitar to numerous jam sessions in Bronzeville, the black area in the southern part of the city. He saw Charlie Parker in late 1946. "They'd say, 'Bird's coming, man! Everybody left any job they had, anything they were at. Everybody was there." He played with many great musicians: Gene Ammons, Sonny Stilt, Lou Levy, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Ware, Jimmy Raney, and Sonny Rollins. Two guitarists influenced him: Jimmy Raney and Ronnie Singer. "When I heard Raney, it was a shock. He was the best." Singer is described as a "beautiful guy, maybe even more melodic than Raney."

Why did he leave Chicago? In the jazz community, drugs were everywhere. "It was happening all around me. Guys dying, guys getting busted." Gourley, a non-user, was especially affected by the suicide of his good friend Ronnie Singer. "Ronnie went to New York. He worked with Artie Shaw a bit. But he was terribly strung out. Couldn't get off it. A nice guy. He finally married a chick who was using and they committed suicide. They found them dead in a hotel room with a Bud Powell record playing." Gourley ran away to Paris.

Friends had told him about Paris, and because the Gl Bill guaranteed ex-U.S. servicemen an education, he had a little financial security. He enrolled in a music school in Paris, but soon found that he could "learn Paris again - the rhythm, the food, the bistros - and in 1957 he left the U.S. for good. "I didn't know it was for good, but it happened that way."

Ben Benjamin was opening the Blue Note jazz club and offered Gourley a key role. For a few months, he led a quartet; however, because the club was new and there were no names in Gourley's group, the Blue Note adapted a new policy toward the end of 1957. Gourley was to be part of the rhythm section along with Kenny Clarke, Pierre Michelot, and Rene Urtreger, accompanying name players. "Everybody wanted to play with Kenny Clarke." Therefore, the Blue Note featured such names as Stan Getz, Kenny Drew, Bud Powell ("I wish we had tape recorders in those days), Dexter Gordon, Brew Moore, J.J. Johnson, Chet Baker and most memorably Lester Young ("Pres played there for two months. I was on his final recording which he made in Paris."). This arrangement lasted until 1963, but when he left the Blue Note he often returned during the next four to five years. Therefore, Gourley became closely associated with this famous jazz club. In fact, it was his description and consultation that led to the Blue Note set in the film, Round Midnight. In the movie, guitarist John McLaughlin occupied Jimmy Gourley's place, as part of the renowned rhythm section.

After the Blue Note closed, Gourley continued his association with Kenny Clarke in organ trios, first with the American Lou Bennett (heard on a French RCA release, Amen), then with the French organist Eddy Louiss (two Lps on the America label). Based in Paris, he has remained an important musician in Europe - at festivals, club dates in Paris, and has appeared in or recorded the soundtracks for several movies (The Only Game in Town; Ballade Pour Un Voyou; Paris Blues, with Duke Ellington). He has also recorded three albums under his leadership for small French labels (Promophone, Musica, Bingow).

In July 1986, Gourley returned to the U.S. to show his new bride New York City, and visit old friends in Los Angeles. He appeared for a week at Bradley's, a piano club in the Village, then went out to the West Coast where he appeared with Mundell Lowe at Donte's in North Hollywood. It was on his return East that this album was recorded. Although Gourley has played and recorded with many of the jazz masters (Clifford Brown, Zoot Sims, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, and Lester Young) and occupied a central place in the Parisian jazz scene, this is Gourley's first album recorded in the U.S. Backing him are bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Victor Lewis who have appeared and recorded with him in France. The exciting tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and trumpeter Don Sickler round out the quintet tracks. Several selections from his Le Tabou  days [a Parisian Jazz club on the Left Bank of the river Seine] have been updated (Au Tabou, Toot's Suite, and Salute to the Bandbox) and Gourley's choice of material includes rarely heard tunes.

To his Raney-influenced style, he brings a European flavor developed during his life in Paris. "I don't know whether I’ve got regrets about taking up roots in the States and putting them down in Paris. For me, jazz is American. But, Paris will stay my home."

In Paris, Gourley introduced many European jazz musicians to an American phenomenon - Charlie Parker and bebop music. Now in New York City, let Jimmy Gourley  - a 'real' American in Paris - musically introduce you to a phenomenon that has occurred since his departure, the development of a French presence in New York City - coffee bars, bistros, croissant shops, French spoken everywhere — reminiscent of the atmosphere of Le Tabou and the Blue Note  -  The Left Bank of New York.”

The following video features Jimmy on Gigi Gryce’s rarely heard Au Tabou as arranged by Don Sickler with Don on trumpet, Ralph Moore on tenor sax, Marc Johnson on bass and the irrepressible Victor Lewis on drums.

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