Thursday, April 8, 2021

Nat King Cole - Jazz Pianist - Part 3

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It would be Carlos Gastel and then Nat's second wife, Maria, who would encourage the so-called commercial side of Cole's music; but even before then, it was Norman Granz who helped Cole to realize this other side of his musical mind, the purely jazz side. In turn, it was Nat who helped Norman realize his ambition to become one of the most successful concert and record producers of all time, that rare impresario who would do much to transform the shape of the music itself.”

- Will Friedwald, Straighten Up and Fly Right [2020]

NAT AND NORMAN: THE JAM SESSIONS, 1941-1946, continued

While Granz was back in the army, from August 1941 to May 1943.  Granz returned to California in June 1943 and almost immediately went to see Cole, who was working with the Trio in what was the second leg of their long run at the 331 Club. Granz and Cole convened with owner Herb Rose and relaunched the jam sessions at the 331, now on Monday evenings. For the first session, they were able to boast an extra special band consisting mostly of current sidemen with the Count Basie Orchestra: trumpeters Snooky Young and Sweets Edison, tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate, drummer Joe Jones, plus Cole and Callender. Down Beat, which referred to the Trio as "the house combo," noted that the club was packed "not with jitterbugs and zoot suiters, but with movie celebs and folk prominent in the show world."

For the second time, Granz took the opportunity to document the action on recordings, again producing a session of four extra-long five-minute tracks, But where the 1942 date was a meeting of the titans, this summer 1943 session is more like a regulation jam session. Indeed, the last number, the well-titled "I Slowed and Gone," is an archetypical 1940s jam blues. Cole was clearly in charge, since the other three numbers all come from his own "songbook" and that of Earl Hines: "Sweet Lorraine" and the Fatha's own "Rosetta" are numbers that we know he was playing with the Trio and in other contexts as well.

This time, Granz and Cole lined up a fully developed quintet, with Harry "Sweets'' Edison from the Basie band, Johnny Miller on bass, an otherwise unknown drummer named "Juicy" Owens. For the other half of the frontline, they reached out to an outstanding tenor saxophonist who was then rising in more ways than one: twenty-year-old Dexter Gordon, then with Lionel Hampton's orchestra, was not only a future star of the modern jazz movement but quite possibly the only musician Cole ever played with who was taller than he was. (Since Cole, Gordon, and Callender were all well over six feet, the band could have been called "The Giants of Jazz.")

While the 1942 Cole-Young date produced masterpieces, the 1943 session is just plain fun and almost certainly captures the jamming spirit of the 331 Club sessions. Throughout, the tenor solos by the very young Long Tall Dexter are so much under the influence of Lester that almost anyone would mistake them for the Pres himself in a blindfold test. "Sweet Lorraine" is the closest thing to a ballad here, giving the melody to Edison (who plays mostly muted on the entire date), while the rest are more purely jam vehicles. Gordon is impressive, if not particularly original on "I Found a New Baby," the 1916 jazz standard often used for blowing sessions by the original Basie-ites. "Rosetta'' was also a long-venerated jam vehicle, and while Cole can't help but sound a little like his favorite "Fatha," I don't think anyone would ever confuse him for Hines — Cole's distinctive crystalline touch is, as always, unmistakable. "I Slowed and Gone," credited to Edison (who would re-record the same title in 1945), anticipates the climactic title track Jammin’ the Blues, a masterpiece movie short subject that Granz would help produce in 1944 for Warner Bros., which featured Edison and Young himself. For this session, Granz astutely held on to the masters, releasing them in 1948, as by "The Dexter Gordon Quintet," with only the two horn players credited, "and rhythm section,"

By February 1944, the Trio's long residency at the 331 Club began to wind down, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" was about to hit the charts, and Granz was taking steps to bring his jam sessions out of the nightclubs and into the concert halls. They found a venue called Music Town on the corner of Jefferson and Normandie, which Down Beat described as a "southside rehearsal hall." At less than 200 seats, it held fewer people than the larger cocktail lounges, but the important thing was that it was a sit-down auditorium, not a nightclub — there was no drinking or dancing.

That month, Cab Calloway and His Orchestra were in Hollywood, filming a sequence in the United Artists musical Sensations of 1945. Granz took advantage of the opportunity to book three star players from that band: the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, trumpeter Lester "Shad'' Collins, and drummer J. C. Heard. For the first Music Town event, on Sunday, February 6, he also hired bassist Gene Englund from the Stan Kenton band, alto saxophonist Kirk Bradford from Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, and the nineteen-year-old guitar savant Barney Kessel.

The pianist, leader, and star was Nat King Cole: in all of the advertising and listings, Cole was listed first and most prominently. "Have you heard about the series of jazz concerts being given each Sunday at Music Town by Norman Granz?" proclaimed an ad, placed in the form of a review. "The first was held last Sunday, and the place certainly did jump." Among those who came to sit in and observe were Ted Alexander, pianist, with crooner Tony Martin, and dancer Marie Bryant (then Granz’s girlfriend and soon to appear with Jacquet in Jammin The Blues], and "heaps more from the Walt Disney Studio. They suggest that you arrive early next Sunday. That smooth, mellow jive is too good to miss." "Guided by Cole's piano, the jazz really came on and never let down," Down Beat added.

Nat and Norman were continually kicking it up a notch and once again commemorated the occasion with a recording session. Sometime early in February, the three Calloway men, Jacquet, Collins, and Heard, convened in an unknown studio with Cole and Englund for a third series of extra-long jam numbers. This time there were two fairly spontaneous blues, "Heads" and "Pro-Sky" (the meaning of the second title has been lost to history — it has nothing to do with "Proschai," a traditional Russian folk song recorded earlier by Artie Shaw), and two standards, "It Had to Be You" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

Alas, it's obvious that Cole's attention is elsewhere; there's far less magic here than either of the two previous Cole-Granz sessions. This is the weakest session of all his non-KC3 dates; the rhythmic feeling is rather different for him, and he never quite jells with the drummer, J. C. Heard. Were it not for some familiar introductory figures at the start of "Pro-Sky," which are somewhat reminiscent of "K S. T." and "Jumpin' at Capitol," I would have never guessed (on a blindfold test or elsewhere) that it was actually Cole playing. Cole had a lot on his mind at this moment; he was also worrying about the draft (both for himself and Oscar). Jacquet is his usual exuberant self, growling on the blues and evoking Lester Young on "It Had to Be You," but there are no standout moments from the piano player.

Music Town was but a temporary stop for Granz and Cole. "Nat Cole, I think, got a little tired of being the house pianist," said Norman, "He suggested to me that it might be a good idea if I kind of laid off for a while. I could see that it was a no-growth proposition." In April, Cole had a big opening coming up—the Trio's first important theater engagement, at the Orpheum—and probably wanted to concentrate on that; immediately after, he had a gig in San Francisco (and, of course, would spend most of the rest of his life on the road). It was clear that he could no longer keep on being the house pianist and de facto leader of Granz's ongoing weekly sessions

In February, the month that the Music Town concerts were launched, Cole signed formally with Carlos Gastel, who already represented Stan Kenton, which possibly explains how they connected with Gene Englund. Playing in public, as they did at Music Town, with a white musician on the stand was a risky business—even illegal in most of the country—but Granz and Cole were both motivated by social and political as well as musical ambitions. In fact, as Granz planned his next move, he had humanitarian issues on his mind; the heinous "Sleepy Lagoon Murder" of 1942 and the "Zoot Suit" riots of 1943 were two shameful examples of violence perpetrated against minority groups. Granz decided to stage an event as a fundraiser for the Sleepy Lagoon case Defense Committee, thus ensuring that he and his nascent concert series would be on the right side of history. As Cole later said, Granz was firm in his convictions on every level. "Even in those days Norman wouldn't knuckle down to anybody. A lot of people disliked him, but I understood his attitude. He knew just what he wanted and exactly how he was going to get it."

Now Granz was ready to realize his grandest ambition yet: to bring a jam session, for the first time, into a large-scale concert setting—and at the same time, to use the event to promote a worthwhile social cause. He rented Philharmonic Hall (for what seems like the absurdly low price of $175) for Sunday afternoon, July 2, 1944, and hired ten musicians—the entire budget was given as $75O.31 Most of the players had worked with Granz in his earlier sessions: trombonist J. J. Johnson, then in Benny Carter’s orchestra and later to become the primary exponent of modern jazz on his horn; trumpeter Shorty Sherock, best known as a Roy Eldridge disciple who played in several major swing bands; two highly extroverted tenor saxophonists, Illinois Jacquet and Jack McVea, the latter better known as an R&B star; and Cole's longtime associates, bassist Red Callender and drummer Lee Young.

In an ad for the concert, the first name on the list of the artists appearing was "King Cole Trio"; obviously Nat was in, and so was Johnny Miller, but Oscar Moore was, once again, a no-show. As it happened, the last-minute substitute for Moore turned out to be nothing less than a historic choice. Early Sunday morning, guitarist Les Paul received a call from Cole urging him to appear at the concert, then just about three or four hours away. "Les, can you come to the Philharmonic and play with us today? Oscar’s been shacking up in a room with a chick for three days, and we can't get him out. We're shoving pizzas under the door. So, come and play." Les was thrilled to get the call; he had already played quite a bit with Cole (presumably at the 331 jam sessions). As he put it, "Nat and I had already been playing together so much for so long. I had jammed at every place he ever played."

Les Paul, born Lester William Polfuss (1915-2009) was a brilliant guitarist and technical innovator, who, in the overall arch of his career, would be equally celebrated for his virtuoso playing in at least three different genres: pop, country, and jazz. Still, he is much better known to history as the foremost creator of the electric guitar—he did more than anyone else to conceive the instrument as we know it today. He also made an invaluable contribution to many other groundbreaking developments in recorded sound, such as multi-tracking, reverberation, and overdubbing.

The original plan for the July concert was to have two extended jam sessions with the players mentioned above as well as two female singers, Marie Bryant and Carolyn Richards, and two separate other bands playing their own segments: the King Cole Trio and an all-star group playing traditional jazz led by pianist Joe Sullivan of the Chicago school and clarinetist Barney Bigard from New Orleans (and many years with Duke Ellington). With Oscar in absentia, Nat and Johnny didn't attempt to play any of the Trio favorites, except for "Sweet Lorraine," for which they retained some of Cole s familiar vocal and piano embellishments but no other aspects of the classic Trio arrangement.

Granz made an arrangement for the performance to be recorded by the Armed Forces Radio Service, and he stipulated that the discs and the rights later be returned to him. It was an especially far-sighted move, as no one then had any notion that nine- and ten-minute jam session tracks, recorded live in concert (with audience noise and applause) numbers, could ever be released commercially. (None of Granz's earlier five-minute, 12-inch studio sessions had yet been issued.) "You know how the JATP recordings started?" Cole recalled. "We were approached by the Armed Forces Radio Service to tape some of our sessions for overseas transmission and V-Disc coverage. That was okay as far as the AFM was concerned and didn't cost anything extra in the musicians' fees. Then a couple of years later, when Norman had more money, he got the tapes back from APRS and decided to issue them commercially. By this time, he was in position to pay the men for the session, and so we all got a nice bonus,"

The majority of the July 2, 1944, concert was released for the first time in 1946 (as part of a 78 RPM album on a label called "Disc," and later on Mercury, Verve, and many other labels). At the actual concert, Les Paul had to originally be billed under a pseudonym ("Paul Leslie"), since he was officially enlisted in the military at that moment, and civilian gigs were prohibited; bur the King Cole Trio was officially advertised. It turned out, however, that Capitol Records was even harder to get around than the army: when the recordings were issued, Les Paul was listed under his actual name, but Cole was billed under the nom-de-matrimony "Shorty Nadine," one of his pet names for his wife. His vocal on "Sweet Lorraine," however, wouldn't be heard again until almost fifty-five years later.

Although two other pianists were present, Joe Sullivan and Buddy Cole

(best known as a vocal accompanist, who would later serve in that capacity for Nat Cole, although the two were not related), it seems to be Nat on all of the surviving, issued recordings—even playing behind singer Carolyn Richards on "The Man I Love," which roughly follows the Trio instrumental versions he had already recorded for Capitol and MacGregor. In general, though a jam session is by definition without a leader, and even though it was the tenor saxophone pyrotechnics of Illinois Jacquet that attracted the most attention on this and many subsequent Jazz at the Philharmonic shows, the dominant voice and musical mind governing the proceedings is Cole's. Nearly all of the repertoire derives from his own personal history, tunes that he would play again and again, and indeed help make into jazz and pop standards: "Tea for Two," "Body and Soul," "I've Found a New Baby," "Rosetta."

There are Trio versions of most of these numbers, and Cole plays almost exactly the same way here as he does in the familiar piano-guitar-bass context (drummer Lee Young here stays out of his way). In fact, he sounds so much like the leader of the King Cole Trio, even without singing, that it's a wonder Capitol let Granz release these at all—the "Shorty Nadine" pseudonym wasn't fooling anybody. (During his solo on "Tea for Two," you hear someone off in the distance shouting, "Yeah, go, Nat!") "Lester Leaps In" is a dedication to the tenor star (who would later participate in many future JATP shows) and is of a piece with the many "I Got Rhythm" versions Cole would compose and perform. "Tea for Two" already a signature for the pianist, has the horn ensemble following Coles jaunty tempo, while he plays some of the licks and variations he would later include in later performances with Nelson Riddle's Orchestra, on his 1955 album The Piano Style of Nat King Cole and his 1957 NBC TV show—not to mention a quote from "The Donkey Serenade."

"Body and Soul" opens with McVea and his big tenor tone referencing Coleman Hawkins's groundbreaking 1939 recording, while Cole adheres to his own tradition of using the Johnny Green melody as a delivery system for a series of quotes, including his signature lick from "Mountain King," followed by a Gershwin-y phrase that suggests both "The Man I Love" and “Rhapsody in Blue” simultaneously, a bit of "Donkey Serenade" (echoing an earlier quote from the same tune that he played on "Tea for Two"), and "Lullaby in Rhythm." Then Cole leads the ensemble into a tempo change reminiscent of the Chu Berry-Roy Eldridge "Body and Soul." Near the end, he solos again, briefly in the faster tempo, with a familiar sounding cascading run.

On "New Baby," Cole dances aggressively around the melody and sets up a passage by both bassists, Callender and Miller, soloing together. Remarkably he doesn't solo on Earl Hines's "Rosetta," a tune that really was his meat, but he's all over "Bugle Call Rag," and more important than his solos here is the way the pianist sets up the stop time breaks for Jacquet, who's at his loudest and most exciting here. Cole provides the springboard from which Jacquet propels himself into a pool of sonic euphoria.

D-Day, which launched the Allied invasion of Normandy and signified the turning point of World War II, had occurred only a month earlier on June 6, 1944; the King Cole Trio had already marked that occasion with the song (by the young songwriter Lew Spence) titled "D-Day." Just as the Trio's "Gone with the Draft" caught the mood of the nation as it was gearing up for war (and later, "The Christmas Song" and "Nature Boy" depicted a world ready for Heavenly Peace), the Jazz at the Philharmonic shows served as a barometer of the mood in the final phase of the long conflict. Wearied after many years of combat, Americans were now ready for a new kind of jazz, one that was almost violently transgressive. While Cole is a sharpshooter and a musical sniper, Illinois Jacquet's solos sound like a whole platoon of tanks descending on a German battalion.

The July 2, 1944, concert was a particular highpoint in the relationship between Cole and Granz. But perhaps they eventually stopped working together because the artistic differences between them paralleled those between Cole and Lionel Hampton. The King Cole Trio, for all of its excitement and exuberance, had little in common with a typical Illinois Jaquet tenor solo, all high notes and screams. Therein, in fact, lies the essential paradox of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic series; he did more than any other impresario to move jazz out of smoky nightclubs and give it the respect it deserved, in concert halls alongside the European classics. Yet the signature sound of JATP was nothing like what anybody thought of as concert music—indeed, for all the battles and duels in his concert productions, many thought that a football game, or even an ancient Roman gladiatorial contest, was a more apt point of comparison. Yet there's no denying that Granz's concerts were irresistible, even addictive. Jean Bach, who was then married to Sherock (and later a radio producer and filmmaker), said that Jacquet's high note solos gave her a headache, but even she couldn't deny that it was a "milestone in jazz history."

If the two battling tenors, Jacquet and McVea, could be likened to open, mechanized warfare, the most memorable moment of that premiere JATP concert was more akin to a covert military operation carried out by two spies, stationed behind enemy lines, exchanging coded messages with each other. Les Paul, until the very end of his life (and he lived to be ninety-four), was an extremely frisky and playful improvisor, sometimes to the point of being downright perverse. At the July 2 concert, he decided he was going to challenge Nat King Cole to what he called a game of "cat and mouse." The exchange occurs near the end, about seven minutes into a ten-minute track, after Cole and Paul have both already soloed. Paul ends his solo with a repeating figure, somewhat balletic (and vaguely inspired by the multiple references to "Donkey Serenade" in previous tunes), and Cole catches his cue, so he repeats Paul's guitar figure on piano. They repeat the process, trading and repeating increasingly bluesy phrases back and forth, for almost three minutes. This sequence could have been one side of a 1944 10" 78 RPM single disc all by itself, but it climaxed in a moment that was beyond the power of the microphones to capture. "When I threw that one [phrase] at him, he just slapped his hands down on the piano, took his hat off, and threw it out in the audience. The audience threw their hats all up on the stage, and the place went crazy." It wasn't that the pianist couldn't play what the guitarist had thrown at him; rather he realized that the time had come to finish this exchange and he chose to do so with a visual rather than an auditory move. If JATP teaches us anything, it's that music is as much showmanship as it is musical skill, and this was sheer showmanship. As Paul described it, "People were standing in their seats, screaming."

Granz and Cole quickly followed up with a repeat concert in the same venue on July 30, This was planned as a more Basie-centric event, and originally three stars of the Basie organization were set to headline: Lester Young, Sweets Edison, and drummer Jo Jones. However, they were prohibited from appearing by a lawsuit served on Granz by the Orpheum Theater on Central Avenue. The full Basie band was booked to open there two days later, and the Orpheum didn't want to take any chances that Granz's concert might draw some business away from that engagement by featuring three of Basie's biggest stars. All that survives from this second JATP concert is two incomplete fragments (issued in 1998), "One O'Clock Jump'' and "Oh Lady Be Good," both featuring Jacquet and Cole. Down Beat noted that "for the second time, guitarist Oscar Moore failed to appear, but Cole and Miller played a duet." Les Paul was also present, this time playing under his own name rather than a pseudonym.

The first two JATP concerts were the last time Cole would play on a live show for Granz, although as we shall see, the producer and the pianist would work together on one more all-time classic project in 1946. The first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert was also the one and only recorded collaboration between Nat Cole and Les Paul; it's hard to imagine how they could have possibly improved on it. "Everybody gets keyed up about the Jacquet solo with all the screaming and everything." Even Granz had to admit, "The exchange between Nat and Les Paul was more interesting, in that the give and take of what a jam session could accomplish was there in its purity." Ten years later, both Cole and Paul were on the top of the pop music charts and had moved well beyond their early lives as jazz musicians. But there's no doubt that they both well remembered that summer afternoon in 1944, when two guys with the improbable names of "Paul Leslie" and "Shorty Nadine" changed everything.”

To be continued.

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