© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"During my years of labor at KGO-TV in San Francisco, I never passed the parking lot a block away at Turk and Hyde without regretting the injustice of a world that puts more value on the storage of automobiles than on preserving historical landmarks. To be accurate, the Landmark Preservation Commission never actually got around to trying to save the Black Hawk or even mounting a brass plaque at space number five, the approximate location of the door where Elynore Cacianti and Susan Weiss collected one-dollar entry fees and dispensed wisdom. All right: the matter never came to a vote, never even came up for discussion.
Nonetheless, officially recognized or not, history was made in the dust and dimness of that temple of gloom. ‘I've worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer,’ Guido Cacianti used to say of the joint he ran with his partner, George Weiss. In the 1950s, when the club was in its florescence, Count Basie set a new world record for compacting musicians by cramming 16 men onto the Black Hawk's little stand, adding Joe Williams, and still finding room to swing. Cal Tjader's and Dave Brubeck's groups were more or less headquartered at the Black Hawk and did some of their best live recording there. The first ten-inch LP by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet was made in September 1952, while Mulligan, Chet Baker, Carson Smith, and Chico Hamilton were at the Black Hawk refining their alchemy. The Miles Davis Quintet with Hank Mobley recorded two albums there, commemorating that regrettably short partnership. …
… [T]he Black Hawk was the scene of triumph for Manne and his quintet on the nights of September 22, 23, and 24, 1959. Thirty-two years after the event, this volume of music emerges to join its four predecessors in celebration of the electricity and joy that was generated for half a week in Guido's and George's establishment when Shelly's band performed above its usual high level.
‘We never play anything the same way once,’ Manne told an audience in his own club in Los Angeles. In fact, his bands were always well rehearsed. But the spirit of the remark is correct. When one of Shelly's groups was in full cry, it epitomized the central jazz values: swing, musicianship, inventiveness and — to the point of Manne's remark — an eagerness to take chances that pushed the music to the edge.”
- Doug Ramsey, author of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers; Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond; http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides/
Everytime I listen to the 5 CD set of Shelly Manne and his Men at The Black Hawk, the improbability of the 4 hours and 48 minutes of music on them never ceases to amaze me.
In a nutshell, this amazement stems not only from the consistent quality of the music on these recordings, but from the fact that there is so much of it, each of the tracks is so long because the musicians were allowed to “stretch out” [take extended solos], the sustained cohesiveness of the quintet throughout the playing of each tune [excluding two brief closing statements, there are 24 tracks averaging 11.21 minutes in length!] the music was recorded on location, which was still something of a rare occurrence in 1959, and the unremitting intensity and energy that listening to these tracks still generates over 50 years later.
From so many perspectives, Shelly Manne and his Men at The Black Hawk, was a documented “moment in time” for an improvised style of music that’s characterized by the ephemeral, the transient, and the impermanent.
Another aspect of the phenomena that was Shelly Manne and his Men at The Black Hawk is that the piano player for that gig - Victor Feldman - was not a regular member of the group which at the time consisted of Joe Gordon on trumpet, Richie Kamuca on tenor saxophone, Monty Budwig on bass and Shelly on drums.
For conjectures on my part that are described below, Victor’s appearance on these recordings may have also helped add to their memorability.
The Black Hawk was located at the corner of Turk and Hyde Street in San Francisco and featured Jazz weekly from about 1950-1963.
“Guido Cacianti and John and Helen Noga became its owners in 1948. Jimmy Lyons, a San Francisco-based DJ who was later to become one of the founders of the Monterey Jazz Festival, walked through the club’s door in early 1950 and was able to talk Cacianti into hiring some of his Jazz buddies among whom were Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader,
The tradition of the old-style, smoke-filled jazz club was kept alive on the corner of Turk and Hyde. Cacianti enjoyed his establishment's seedy reputation and strove to keep it that way. Under the feeble lighting was a small bandstand and an elongated bar minus the stools. In between were discolored plastic-topped tables, rickety chairs and an area for minors that was screened off with chicken wire from adults and their alcohol. Maximum capacity was approximately 200.
As a result of the Blackhawk's open door policy, many soft drink sipping high school and college students became fans of local artists such as Brubeck, Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, as well as, Jazz groups that toured nationally.” [paraphrased from S. Duncan Reid, Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz p. 32].
Enter drummer Shelly Manne and his quintet.
Lester Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records and the producer of the
original, multiple 4 LP set of Shelly Manne and his Men at The Black Hawk explains how they came to be and why they are significant in these excerpts from his sleeve notes:
“WHEN SHELLY MANNE and HIS MEN opened at The Black Hawk in mid-September 1959, it was one of the group's infrequent engagements away from home, almost a vacation for Shelly who, besides regular Los Angeles gigs with The Men, had been at work in the motion picture, TV and recording studios for months without a break. The first week at The Black Hawk was so exciting to the musicians as well as their audiences, that Shelly phoned Contemporary about it: "I've never asked this before but we all feel you should come up and record the group in the club." On the strength of Shelly's enthusiasm, we were in San Francisco the following day with the essentials of our special studio equipment. With the cooperation of Black Hawk owners Guido Cacianti and George Weiss, microphones were placed on the bandstand, and for the next three nights the tape machines recorded everything that happened.
The original intent was to make one album. Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playbacks, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would be arbitrary, and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in. So, on the principle that proper length should be dictated by interest rather than time limit, Shelly decided to issue all the material. ...
THE VALUE OF ROUGHNESS AND SPONTANEITY in art is often underestimated; it takes a mature artist to realize that striving primarily for form and technique usually leads to sterility. The emotions are not orderly and reasonable, and nowhere in art is this lesson more apparent than in jazz. Its very nature, from the beginning, was a protest against and a departure from the lack of vitality and individual expression in so much commercial popular music.
This is by way of perspective on Shelly Manne's first "live" recording, done in a nightclub under conditions which force artists to be natural, spontaneous and rough, in spite of any tendencies they may have to overvalue polish and perfection.
Shelly Manne and His Men was organized in 1955, which makes it one of the oldest modern jazz groups in point of time. Despite some changes in personnel, the quintet has maintained a consistent style of its own. The development of The Men has been documented on a number of Contemporary albums. However these four Black Hawk discs, which contain three hours of free-blowing jazz, are Shelly's first "in-person" recordings. They give the listener a unique opportunity to hear a leading modern jazz group at the top of its form, with each musician free to stretch out and play as many choruses as he needs to express himself fully.”
Here’s more about how Victor Feldman became a part of these momentous recordings as drawn from my overview of his career.
“In late summer 1959, after a tenure of about 3 years, Victor decided to leave Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars [The Lighthouse is located in Hermosa Beach, CA and began featuring Jazz in May, 1949]. As he told John Tynan, the West Coast editor of Downbeat magazine, “... I felt I had been in one place too long; musically you can stay in one place just so long.”
However, Victor’s availability would prove portentous as it would make it possible for him to participate as a temporary replacement for pianist Russ Freeman in Shelly Manne’s group during its September, 1959 two week engagement at Guido Cacianti’s Blackhawk at the corner of Turk and Hyde in San Francisco, CA.
One of my earliest impressions of Victor centered around how the All-Stars radiated a crackling, propulsive drive underscored by Stan Levey’s impeccable time coupled with Victor’s percussive and hard-driving piano “comping” [musician-speak for “accompaniment”]. This was a characteristic of Victor’s playing that always impressed me – his drive was formidable as can be heard in any variety of settings and I think it was largely responsible for transforming Shelly Manne’s group in the seminal sessions recorded and issued by Contemporary from the group’s Blackhawk appearances [Contemporary S7577-7580; OJCCD-656-660-2].
Victor’s role in helping to make these classic recordings so singular is discussed by three authorities on West Coast Jazz: Ted Gioia, author of West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 [New York: Oxford, 1992], Bob Gordon, author of Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950s [London: Quartet, 1990], and Lester Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records who produced these in-performance albums and wrote their liner notes.
As Gioia describes [pp.279-280]:
“The final newcomer [Shelly reorganized The Men in 1959 adding Joe Gordon on trumpet and Richie Kamuca on tenor sax] to the Manne group for the Blackhawk session was an unexpected last-minute substitution. Manne regular pianist Russ Freeman had left on a road trip with Benny Goodman around the time of the San Francisco engagement. Looking for a replacement on short notice, Manne settled on Victor Feldman.
More familiar to some listeners as a vibes player, Feldman made clear his piano credentials during the Blackhawk gig – his ensuing engagement with Cannonball Adderley is reported to be the result of the latter’s favorable response to the Manne recordings. …
Feldman … never gained the jazz reputation he deserved, although he eventually established himself as one of the premier studio musicians in Southern California …. His piano playing was anything but the limited ‘two-fingered’ approach of many doubling vibraphonists and instead revealed a rich harmonic texture, a strong percussive element, and a good sense of space and melodic development.”
Or as Bob Gordon shares [pp.206-207]:
“There was a bit of apprehension about Feldman, who was in effect learning the book on the job, but he fitted in from the start. … Cannonball Adderley was so impressed by Victor’s playing on the [Blackhawk] sides he hired Feldman for his own group.”
And lastly, Les Koenig’s insert note comments:
“Those who know Victor Feldman as a vibes player will be startled to discover that on the Blackhawk set he plays piano only. Whether he is comping for the horns, or soloing, his invention, drive, and basic jazz feeling put him in the front rank of today’s jazz pianists.”
I think the world of Russ Freeman, Shelly’s regular pianist and, having lived for a number of years within a 10 minute drive to Shelly’s Hollywood, CA club, The Manne Hole, I had the opportunity to hear Shelly with a variety of groups.
Maybe it was because they were trying to keep warm during the damp and cold San Francisco nights, but rhythmically, none of Shelly’s quintets ever sounded as “heated,” and tenaciously tight [together] as the Blackhawk version. To my ears, the indisputable reason for this was the presence of Victor Feldman. He makes Shelly play differently: more forcefully, with more imagination and more daring. And these changes in Manne’s playing affect everyone in the group causing them to take more chances, play in a more physical manner and to create what Richard Cook and Brian Morton have called “One of the finest and swingingest mainstream recordings ever made.” [The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]
Victor could have that effect on people. He played drums from the piano stool and booted the band along.
Some years later when I asked Shelly about these dates, he said: “Well, I can’t say it was like having another drummer on these sessions as we both know that he is another one and what a bad-a** drummer he can be. The feeling is just different with Vic; it’s like looking into a musical mirror only your hearing it, not seeing it.”
I also asked Victor about my observation and he laughed and said” “You have to remember that I had only been playing piano on a regular basis for less than two years when I made the Blackhawk gig. I didn’t have the facility yet so I would have to fall back on chorded rhythmic phrases, particularly at the end of a long solo. After a bit, I got the feeling that Shelly liked me to bring this into my solos so he could do some things behind it
But what I remember most about that gig was that everybody had a good time. We couldn’t wait for it to start each night.””
The following video uses the quintet’s performance of Cabu from Vol. 2 of Shelly Manne and his Men at The Black Hawk as its soundtrack.