Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Nothing But Denzil Best

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

Those of you familiar with the music of pianist George Shearing’s classic quintet, especially during the first few years of its existence, will recognize the title of this piece as somewhat of a play on words.

Denzil Best [1917-1965] was the drummer with the first quintet which formed in 1949 and he was also a talented composer who contributed a number of original compositions to the group, one of which was entitled Nothing But D Best. Denzil’s composition Move gained some fame in Jazz circles when it appeared on the famous Birth of the Cool recordings.

Plagued for many years by poor health and accidents, Denzil began his career as a trumpet player who also studied piano and picked up some of the basic tenets of theory and harmony before moving over to drums.

Coming up during the bebop years of the 1940s, drummers like Denzil were overshadowed by the likes of Sid Catlett, Max Roach, Art Blakey and the other “Innovators” of modern Jazz drumming.

But like another prestigious member of the more famous members of Bebop drumming - Kenny Clarke [1914-1985] - Denzil decided to dispense with the flash and concentrate on being an accompanist who supported what the music needed from the drum chair.  This was underscored through his use of brushes, especially in the context of the quieter instrumentation of the Shearing quintet with its front line of piano-guitar and vibes.

Of course, all the great drummers of the modern era were fine brush players as well, but what particularly struck me about the way Denzil played them was that he opened them up.

Wire brushes are retractable: they are pushed and pulled through the hand grip to expose more of the wires that strike the drum head, but the bigger the fan of wires becomes the harder it is to control them especially at fast tempos.

On the other hand, the fatter the wire fan, the meatier [fuller] the sound when the brush strikes the drums, particularly on the snare which carries the beat.

Of course, the “trick” is to learn to play fat brushes faster in order to keep the fuller sound; not an easy thing to do. 

Denzil Best established a tradition with this “meatier” brush sound, one that was to be continued by other drummers who followed Denzil in George’s Quintet including Percy Brice and Vernel Fournier.

There is not a lot about Denzil in the Jazz literature but fortunately he did get a chapter in Burt Korall’s seminal Drummin Men: The Bebop Years [2002].

DENZIL BEST (1917-1965)

A stylistic hybrid and latecomer to drums, Best brought to the instrument a highly musical approach stemming from his earlier experiences as a trumpeter, pianist, and bassist. His performances were particularly notable for their balance and unity. He was an adaptable, open-minded musician, relaxed and productive, no matter what the circumstances were.

Best was very much a team player. He thought and functioned as part of [he rhythm section, whatever the size of the group. He helped and supported other players, making everyone sound good by allowing his colleagues' inspiration and style and his own to meld and to lead to mutually comfortable and satisfying musical conclusions.

As an artist, he seldom, if ever, called attention to himself. While making music, he was simultaneously invisible and significant. What was played by him in a small unit or a larger group brought quality and elegance to the music. Like the man or woman who dresses quietly and in very good taste, he made a positive impression but never upset the equilibrium, beauty, and essential quality of a performance.

Best made a significant contribution to jazz as a trumpeter, a drummer, and a composer. But his life was filled with health problems, accidents, and hard luck. As one person put it: "If he didn't have hard luck, he wouldn't have had any luck at all."

It all started pretty well. A member of a musical West Indian family— from Barbados—that took root in New York City, he became musically involved as a youngster, studying piano for a number of years. His father, a part-time tuba and bass player, encouraged him to become a professional pianist. Best the younger found the trumpet most suitable to his needs and worked after school to earn the money to buy one. He suffered the disapproval of his father, having frequently fought with him about his choice of an instrument. Because of this, he practiced his horn while his dad was out of the house, progressing rapidly. He began to work professionally soon after getting out of school.

The father acknowledged the son after he heard him on radio, playing several remotes with drummer Chris Columbus's New York-based band. He was so proud that he brought his friends to where his son was playing,

Soon Best was writing material. He had learned about harmony as a student of the piano and made a habit of jotting down what he "heard" in his head. Ideas kept coming to him, and he was very productive. Best loved the music scene; he was out there playing, writing, and hanging out around the clock, or so it seemed. "I'd get three or four hours sleep a night, and grab a sandwich and cup of coffee when I was hungry ... if I had time," he told Pat Harris in a 1951 Down Beat interview.

The early 1940s had a special excitement. Best was at the center of turbulence created by the changes taking place in jazz. He played trumpet or piano in the company of such pioneers of modern jazz as pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, trumpeter Joe Guy, and drummer Kenny Clarke at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. The usually taciturn Monk had a special feeling for Best's trumpet playing, describing it as "outstanding, full of ideas."

Then suddenly, at twenty-four, Best was beset, for the first time, with the sort of hard luck that would bedevil him throughout his life. He became ill with tuberculosis. When he began to heal, he was warned by his uncle, a doctor, that he would be dead in ten years if he continued to play trumpet. His career seemed over. Little did he know, it was just beginning.

Life and music are curiously dependent on timing. Success at both is a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right people. Luck, in this case, was with him. Best gigged as a pianist and bassist and subbed on drums with Joe Gordon's New York band and spent a few months as drummer with a group of musicians led by Saxie Payne. He turned to drums and seriously applied himself, beginning in 1943.

PAT HARRIS:  “Best . . . after a total of not more than nine months' experience as a drummer, found himself filling that job in Ben Webster's unit on 52nd Street.

Webster was working at the Three Deuces when Jimmy Crawford [Ed. note — the former Jimmy Lunceford drum star who had been appearing with Webster] got drafted. He was auditioning all the drummers in town, and some friends urged Denzil to try for the job. "I was being pushed for real," Denzil remembers. A friend, Charlie Drayton, was on bass with Webster and introduced them. During one number in the trial set, when the piano player had a solo, Webster kept eyeing Denzil.

"He didn't smile or anything, just stared at me. I had to look away, because I couldn't concentrate," Best said. "I was ready to walk right out and forget about it, and I supposed he felt the same way.

"However, at the end of the set Webster walked over to the manager and Maid: 'There's our new drummer.'"”

Not long thereafter, Best joined Coleman Hawkins for a tour of Canada and an engagement at a 52nd Street club. He couldn't believe it was happening to him. He wanted to back off. But his wife, Arline, pushed and supported him, as she always had, and he moved ahead.

STAN LEVEY: Denzil was one of the first guys I heard after immigrating to New York from Philly early in 1944. He was with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street. Thelonious Monk was in Hawk's group. So was tenor saxophonist Don Byas. Benny Harris and Vie Coulsen alternated on trumpet. And Eddie "Basie" Robinson was the bass player.

You should have heard that rhythm section! Those guys could play! The bandstand would actually seem to levitate, these guys would cook so deeply into the beat! Denzil swung you off the bandstand without ever overplaying.

A swinger—not a bomb dropper—with a good sound and a sense for what was musical, he would take a band and move it. He didn't play like Max Roach, as so many of us did. Denzil had his own way of doing things. He'd give a band a great foundation and strengthen it as he went along.

One of his inventions was an adroit form of independence that made the beat undeniable. He'd lay down the time on the Chinese cymbal with his right hand while playing four beats to the bar on the snare drum with his left hand. It would really get things going. Before long, a lot of guys started doing that.

I got to know Denzil very well. I used to come into the club every night and stand right behind the bandstand to check him out. He would explain everything about his work. I'd say: "Why do you do this or that?" And he'd tell me. He was a reserved kind of guy but very open and nice.

Denzil was a natural talent. Though he had limited technique, he made what he did work for him. His solos were "confidential," subtle, never exhibitionistic. Musicians tuned him in. They appreciated his conception and the way he made the music better. What he played was right — you know, the punishment fit the crime.”

What Denzil Best played was strongly linked to the music. He reacted, commented, and gave of himself. Thoughtful, often quite inspiring, he compounded instinct, sharp reflexes, and the sort of interior musicality that is a gift given to very few.

Best kept improving. Before going with the George Shearing Quintet in 1949 — which resulted in the sort of containment and stylistic inhibition that are inevitable when an artist becomes a part of a specific sound and style - Best worked briefly with Illinois Jacquet's swinging, small band, subbing for Shadow Wilson. He gigged and recorded with other interesting players as well. Best was anxious to involve himself in situations that were challenging.

CHUBBY JACKSON: Denzil came to Scandinavia with my group in 1947. Tiny Kahn was supposed to have made the trip, but at the last minute, he had to back off. Someone in the group suggested Denzil.

We had wonderful musicians in the band: Terry Gibbs [vibes], Conte Candoli [trumpet], Frankie Socolow [tenor saxophone], Lou Levy [piano]. They were very much into modern jazz. It was such a groovy, happy hand. We were the first bebop band to play in Sweden and Denmark.

Denzil fell right in with what was going on - he was a cooker and quite hip. shaping the music, going with the straight-ahead feeling of the band — all those eighth notes and fast-moving things. The way Lou Levy substituted chords at the piano made the rhythm section sound a bit different. But Denzil just sat there and played time. He didn't get too cute, or do that stop-and-go thing, like many of the early bebop drummers. I never really dug that; it's like breathing fast then stopping to get a glass of seltzer.

I didn't have to say anything. Denzil allowed the music to filter through him and just responded to the boppish environment without letting anything affect his own conception,

As the bass player in the band and another primary source of rhythm, I got into the team thing with him—very much in the big band mode and in accord with the sort of drive that was within me. I liked his combination of brushes, sticks, explosions and quiet, and the way he played time.

Because he had a great sense of humor, Denzil put a grin on the music —  and that's so important to me. He was very aware that you have to respect a leader's wishes and what the music is trying to say as well.”

Best was far more flexible and reactive in the Jackson sextet than with 

George Shearing. He showed to particular advantage on the recordings he made with the bassist. Producer Don Schlitten brought out some of the Jackson material — recorded in December of 1947 — on his Xanadu label in 1975. 

The LP, titled Bebop Revisited, Vol. 1—Dexter Gordon/Fats Navarro/Chubby Jackson,  finds the drummer prodding and probing with his left hand while keeping fluent time with his right. Best's sound on the drum set and the cymbals is warm and exciting. He controls the instrument and the music without being obtrusive, communicating with his players and with the listeners as well.

The rhythmic urgency increases as each interpretation — aside from one ballad on the set  — proceeds. Try "Crown Pilots," "Boomsie," and "Dee Dee's Dance," a Best composition. The quality of the band and its drummer is instantly apparent. 

The Shearing experience began for Best prior to the formation of the renowned quintet. I recall going to the opening of the Shearing quartet at the Clique on Broadway in 1948. Best was with the group, which included classic modern jazz clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and bassist John Levy. Best's hiring probably stemmed from an earlier, mutually agreeable association with Shearing on Savoy Records in 1947, soon after the pianist came to America from England.

GEORGE SHEARING: We appeared opposite Machito's band at the Clique. It made me wonder how our musicians could stand up to that storm of Latin music. But somehow we did. Denzil played a lot of brushes with the group. He certainly was one of the brush kings.

When the quartet broke up, critic Leonard Feather suggested that I keep the rhythm section the same when we recorded in 1949 for Discovery with the quintet. Margie [Hyams] came into the group on vibraphone. Chuck [Wayne] joined us on guitar. And before long, the quintet was happening. We had hit records, better and better bookings.

I loved Denzil's playing. He was the perfect drummer for the quintet and my musical concept at the time. He did an absolutely marvelous job. I have many warm memories of the quintet's early days — playing Cafe Society Downtown in the Village, the Blue Note in Chicago, Bop City here in New York. We were opposite Lionel Hampton at Bop City. Hamp and the whole hand would march off the stand at the end of each set and go down one flight to the Turf Restaurant on the main floor, which had such great cheesecake.

Denzil stayed with me for a couple of years [1949-52]. He had an alcohol problem. Ho left and came back. A wonderful musician and a sweet guy, Denzil could surprise you. At a party given by Ed Furst— an insurance man and my road manager for a time — he called out chord changes while the music was playing. It seemed so unusual for a drummer to do that. But, as you say, he had a well-rounded musical background.”

Unfortunately, what brought Denzil Best international recognition — his brush work with the George Shearing Quintet — only partially mirrored his multiple abilities. The quiet pulsation and rhythmic identity he brought to "the Shearing sound" — a voicing of piano, vibes, and guitar — masked his musical capacities. Because he was an excellent composer and a drummer equipped to do a variety of things, he felt somewhat unfulfilled and became depressed.

Don't misunderstand, Shearing didn't purposely lock the drummer in; he a number of Best compositions and gave him the freedom to play as

would. But Best couldn't break away from the manner of performance that he had helped popularize.

Like Jo Jones, he had a great flair for playing brushes, provocatively, bringing to the beat perfect consistency and a delicious sense of thrust. Best had the just-right recipe for Shearing right from the start — the quintet's first recording date of January 31, 1949.

To get an idea what the Best of the brushes sounds like, sample the results of that initial session by the group, notably "Cottontop" and "Moon Over Miami"—indeed, most of the entire second side of the recording George Shearing, So Rare (Savoy). Hearing these recordings again evokes for me a picture of Best, with a bit of a smile on his face, sitting up straight yet comfortably, gracefully moving the wire brushes in circles, up and down and across the snare drum. Without Denzil Best, the Shearing Quintet would have lacked a crucial quality that made for both musicality and commercial impact.

That old devil hard luck reappeared in 1952. Best was in an auto accident, fracturing both legs. He was forced into temporary retirement. Following a lengthy recuperation, he returned to action in 1954 with Artie Shaw's updated Gramercy Five. The kind of drummer Shaw favored, he stayed out of the way and allowed the music to develop, helping it along in his typically understated manner. He stylistically adjusted to each musician and the overall contemporary stance of the group.

Best moved on to the Erroll Garner Trio, using his artful performance with brushes to advantage; he remained with the dynamic, historical pianist for two years (1956-57).

In 1957, he had more bad luck — calcium deposits in his wrists. They affected his performances to a certain extent, playing havoc with his flexibility and ability to handle fast tempos. But you wouldn't have known he had any difficulty.

PHIL LESHIN: “We were with pianist Lee Evans at the Left Bank, a New York club owned by columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and her actor-husband Dick Kollmar, for nine months in 1957. I took the job with Lee because I wanted to work with Denzil. He talked about his illness, but it didn't seem to inhibit him at all—at least while I was working with him.

Denzil was exciting; he kept things on a very high level. I learned a lot from him. He taught me "stumbling" — eighth notes and triplets leading into the first beat of the bar. Only a few bassists — Ray Brown, for example—were doing it back then.

Because Lee Evans has phenomenal technique, we played fast things in almost every set. Denzil had no trouble whatsoever. With brushes, he was a delight; with sticks, he played lightly and easily on the cymbal. His taste was remarkable. And he always swung.

We used to hang out after the job and sit in all over town. I remember we went to a club on the cusp of Harlem and the Bronx where pianist Bill Evans was working with a trio. We had a wonderful time performing with Bill, who, as you well know, was a wonderful player. On another occasion, we sat in a at a club right by the 155th Street Bridge.. Guitarist Kenny Burrell was the attraction there — I don't remember the name of the club. But again we really enjoyed ourselves.

Denzil was a sweet guy. He wrote many inventive tunes and played his butt off. I was stung by his tragic death.”

Life is not always just. Denzil Best didn't make out as well as he might have. His last years were not easy. He was troubled by a variety of things but continued working intermittently with singers Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt, trombonist Tyree Glenn, Ben Webster, and others.

JOHN LEVY: His life and playing began to get away from him after we both left George Shearing. Denzil's biggest problem was his frustration about not being able to fully express himself as a musician. He did more drinking than was necessary to compensate for his depressed feeling about that and his physical problems.

When I look back at his career, it's quite clear he accomplished a great deal. He was an excellent musician and accompanist. He was highly respected. Everyone liked to play with him because he provided what was needed. And, as everyone will tell you, he was such a nice person.

Best died on May z$, 1965, at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. He had collapsed the day before in midtown Manhattan — according to some, right outside the Copper Rail, a musicians' hangout — fracturing his skull In the fall. His streak of hard luck played itself out to the end.

His compositions — "Move," "We" (a.k.a. "Allen's Alley"), "Bemsha Swing," "Dee Dee's Dance," and "Nothing but D. Best" — are still performed and recorded. They tested the capacities of Shearing, Miles Davis ("Move" was the centerpiece of the historical Birth of the Cool Davis album on Capitol), Thelonious Monk, Chubby Jackson, and Don Lanphere, among others who played them. Listen to Best the drummer on records. You might learn in the process what a drummer can do for music.”

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