Wednesday, November 17, 2021

"The Blue Notes" by Whitney Balliett and the Beginnings of Mosaic Records

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

The Boston Globe stated: “Balliett’s genius for pictorial description (which helps make him a gifted writer of profiles) extends to the music itself. No one writes about what they listen to anywhere near as well.”

Although he played drums during his college days and was a member of a band, Whitney was not a studied musician. He had no formal training in theory and harmony so during the 40+ years he wrote Jazz profiles for The New Yorker magazine he had to fall back on his other gifts when describing the music - his gift for “pictorial description.”

In many ways, this made Whitney’s Jazz writings more accessible to the majority of Jazz fans since they, too, for the most part, lacked procedural training in melody, harmony and rhythm - the building blocks of music.

As a result, "Balliett comes as close as any writer on jazz—perhaps on any musical style — to George Bernard Shaw's intention to write so that a deaf person could understand and appreciate his comments. This volume approaches indispensability." Choice reviewing Balliett’s American Musicians.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to share some briefer pieces from the pen of our ideal - Whitney Balliet - to give you an appreciation for his “ … genius for pictorial description.” This is the third in a series of six continuously running featuring Whitney’s sui generis pictorially descriptive approach to writing about Jazz which is marked by what Gary Giddins has labeled “writerly attributes: insight, candor, observation, discernment, delineation, style, diligence and purpose.”

These are all drawn from Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981-1990 [1991]. This is number 3 in a series.

Largely lost in the 40 odd years of the history of Mosaic Records is how it all began [it was founded in 1982].

Whitney Balliett indirectly calls attention to the early years of Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Laurie’s gift to the Jazz world in the following essay entitled “The Blue Notes” [1984].

Mosaic is still with us having met the challenge of continuing to issue high quality boxed sets of actual vinyl LPs and CDs replete with extensive booklet notes, photographs and discographical information, although as a sign of the times the company announced that at the end of 2021 it was moving to a strictly online business model and giving up its physical plant in Stamford, CT.

As you read Whitney’s account of the earliest Mosaic reissues of Blue Note recordings, you will no doubt note that this was a far different Blue Note than the label that reached national and international attention in the Jazz World for producing recordings by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver’s Quintet, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Tina Brooks, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson among a host iconic groups and individual musicians synonymous with Jazz in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s.

The musicians featured on these early Blue Notes were the “modern” Jazzmen of their times and “influencers” of the bop and hard bop Jazz musicians who came to prominence after the Second World War.

Many of them are largely forgotten today but thanks to these Blue Note masterpieces and their Mosaic reissues their memories are well-served.

Although these recordings are no longer in print and used copies are more than likely very expensive if bought through resellers, occasional checks of eBay do surprisingly turn up affordable used copies. Something to keep in mind, perhaps.

The Blue Notes

“Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the visionary German immigrants and ardent jazz-record collectors who founded Blue Note Records in New York in 1939, created a classic catalogue of recordings during the first five or so years of the company's existence. The two men worked exclusively and unfashionably with black musicians, and they mixed them up in unique and joyous ways. They put the New Orleans clarinettist Edmond Hall with the Chicago boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis (on celeste) and added the fleet young avant-garde Oklahoma City guitarist Charlie Christian (on acoustic guitar) and the bassist Israel Crosby. The four numbers they made are airy and spacious and delicate. Lion and Wolff combined the trumpeter Frankie Newton with the trombonist J. C. Higginbotham, and on one date they added Sidney Bechet. The rhythm sections included either Lewis or his Chicago peer Albert Ammons, the bassist Johnny Williams, and Sidney Catlett. Lion and Wolff put Bechet with Lewis, the guitarist Teddy Bunn, Williams, and Catlett, and Bechet made a surpassing four-minute "Summertime," which became something of a best-seller. 

They let Ammons and Lewis loose on twelve-inch 78-r.p.m.s for the first time, giving them the room to find their imaginative limits. They even allowed Lewis to record a slow blues, "The Blues," which lasted twenty-five minutes and filled five 78-r.p.m. sides. (They also let him do four twelve-inch sides on harpsichord. (It was not a fortunate meeting: both Lewis and the instrument sounded put upon and helpless.) Blue Note's last great early outpouring took place between 1943 and 1945 and included the likes of Sidney De Paris, Hall, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Harry Carney, James P. Johnson, and Catlett.

Some of these recordings were reissued thirty years ago on ten-inch L.P.s. After Blue Note was sold to Liberty Records, in 1965, some were released chaotically on twelve-inch L.P.s. All have long been out of print, and it has seemed in recent years as if Lion and Wolff's early records might vanish. But a record producer and jazz writer named Michael Cuscuna and a former recording executive named Charlie Lourie have started Mosaic Records, and they intend to reissue most of the early Blue Note recordings (as well as material from other labels) by leasing them from whoever owns the labels, packaging them in limited editions, and selling them by mail. Their first reissue of the early Blue Notes collects all the solo work the boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons did for the label between 1939 and 1944. Called "The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis," the set contains thirty-four sides, only twelve of which have been reissued before and eight of which have never come out at all. 

Boogie-woogie is blues piano music. The left hand plays a variety of basses—two- and three-note four-four basses, complex four-note eight-to-the-bar basses, octave "walking" basses, and basses that are a mixture. Most are ostinato, but some are interrupted by odd climbing or descending single-note figures. The main function of the left hand is to provide an insistent rhythmic impetus that sets off the right hand. The right hand uses a lot of dotted eighth or sixteenth notes, heavy, often hammering chords, riffs, floating offbeat chords (sometimes placed just behind the offbeat), tremolos, and single notes spaced out four or five to a chorus. The result is a sort of counterpoint, in which there is a lot of dissonance — and a lot of consonant poetry. At its best, boogie-woogie was a powerful, primitive blues music — a strange outpouring of the black South and Southwest around the time of the First World War. The oddest thing about this music was that it became a fad in this country between 1938 and the early forties. But the music was too limited, too ingrown to withstand such exposure, and the craze almost destroyed it. The craze also destroyed its chief practitioners, all of them worn musically threadbare long before they died.

By the time they made their first Blue Note recordings, Ammons and Lewis, nurtured by Pinetop Smith and Jimmy Yancey, were quite different from one another. (In 1928, Smith, Ammons, and Lewis lived in the same rooming house in Chicago.) Ammons was a loose, swinging pianist. His left hand rocked ("Boogie Woogie Blues"), and his right hand was a constantly revolving array of tremolos, glinting upper-register figures, and brief single-note melodic lines. "Suitcase Blues" (after Hersal Thomas's recording) and "Bass Coin' Crazy" are jumping. They are full of billows and wind. Lewis was probably the better pianist, but he had a hard, narrow quality. (None of the boogie-woogie pianists were highly accomplished; their techniques generally allowed them to play what was in their heads, and missed notes and uneven chorus lengths were ignored in the hustle.) Ammons worked in oils; Lewis did etchings. Lewis's onomatopoeic train pieces ("Honky Tonk Train Blues," "Chicago Flyer,” "Six Wheel Chaser," "Bass on Top" are thundering wonders, but they have a mechanical quality —  they are machines. This quality comes through in the celebrated twenty-five-minute "The Blues." Done in a medium-slow tempo, it is a meditation on the blues spelled out in offbeat chords, low-register single notes, and occasional tremolos, accompanied by a gentle four-four single-note left hand. It is absorbing to compare Lewis's long blues with any of the slow blues that Art Modes has been setting down in recent years. Lewis's work does not have the "down" feeling, the blue intensity, the deep melancholy of Hodes, who grew up in the same place and time as Lewis and Ammons and is probably — though he is rarely given his due — the greatest of blues pianists. (Lion and Wolff recorded Hodes in the mid-forties.)

Mosaic Records' second and third batch of reissues of the early Blue Notes is made up of "The Complete Recordings of the Port of Harlem Jazzmen" and "The Complete Blue Note Forties Recordings of Ike Quebec and John Hardee." The first album has just one L.P. and consists of ten numbers — five set down on April 7, 1939, by Frankie Newton, J. C. Higginbotham, Albert Ammons, Teddy Bunn, Johnny Williams, and Sidney Catlett, and five set down two months later by the same group plus Sidney Bechet and with Meade Lux Lewis replacing Ammons. The Quebec and Hardee album, on four L.P.s, has forty-nine tracks, fourteen of them previously unreleased. They were done with eight different small groups between 1944 and 1946, and among those on hand are Tiny Grimes, Catlett, John Simmons, Marlowe Morris, the late Trummy Young, Milt Hinton, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Keg Johnson, John Collins, and J. C. Heard.

An extraordinary number of good jazz recordings were made in 1939. These include Count Basic's "Dickie's Dreams," Duke Ellington's "Tootin' Through the Roof," the Benny Goodman Sextet's "Soft Winds," Lionel Hampton's "Haven't Named It Yet," Erskine Hawkins' "Tuxedo Junction," John Kirby's "Royal Garden Blues," Jack Jenney's "Star Dust,” Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball," Andy Kirk's "Big Jim Blues," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," Jelly Roll Morton's "Mamie's Blues," Jimmie Lunceford's "Uptown Blues," Muggsy Spanier's "Relaxin' at the Touro," Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul," Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow," and Rex Stewart's "Solid Old Man." But none of these dim the Port of Harlem recordings. Made at the height of the big bands, which depended largely on monochromatic ensembles interrupted by brief solos, the Port of Harlem recordings were given over almost completely to improvised solos. They also concentrated on the blues, slow and medium. They were not designed for the giddy, the loose-wigged, the jitterbug. Lion wanted his musicians to go down into the instrumental blues further than anyone had gone before, and that's pretty much what they did.

The personnel on both dates was drawn from the new Cafe Society Downtown (Ammons, Lewis, Newton, Williams), from Louis Armstrong's big band (Higginbotham, Catlett), and from the Spirits of Rhythm (Bunn). Bechet, of course, had his own groups. It was a daring combination. Newton was a gentle, lyrical trumpeter, a legato performer who liked to drift down his solos, and Higginbotham was an eloquent trombonist who liked to shout and exult. Bechet took his own musical world with him wherever he went, and it didn't matter to him if it fitted or not. The pianists were solo boogie-woogie players, not much used to working with ensembles, and the rhythm section was modern but adaptable. (Catlett purposely plays old-fashioned, down-home drums, using press rolls and on-the-beat rim shots as well as beautiful tongue-in-cheek Baby Dodds ricky-ticky on his bass-drum rim; compare his dashing, driving ultra-modern work just six months later with Hampton on "Haven't Named It Yet.") "Daybreak Blues," from the first session, is built around Newton, who, instead of playing blue notes and smears, constructs a lovely melody in his first solo. (He does this again in the opening of "Port of Harlem Blues.") Higginbotham is equally melodic in "Wearyland Blues," which is built around him, and in "Port of Harlem Blues" the two men commune, establishing a musing quietness that carries through the ensemble at the end. The tempo goes up slightly in "Mighty Blues," which has two clarion Higginbotham choruses. (The Blue Notes are among the best and most consistent records Higginbotham made.) "Rockin' the Blues," the last number of the session, is a stomping boogie-woogie band number that Catlett carries in the palm of his hand.

The second session, with Bechet, has a different feeling. The first two numbers are again set around Newton ("After Hours Blues") and Higginbotham ("Basin Street Blues"), and are notable for Higginbotham's four-bar breaks—especially the next to the last. Newton and Higginbotham rest on "Summertime," which is a Bechet extravaganza. The remaining two sides are by the whole band, and they are soaring slow blues that come to a fiery conclusion in the jammed closing ensemble of "Pounding Heart Blues." 

The original Port of Harlem 78-r.p.m.s sounded as if they had been recorded in a closet, and the first three numbers on the Mosaic reissue still do; the rest have been opened up, although there is a disturbing cavern effect here and there. (Eight of the ten numbers were done on twelve-inch discs — a rarity for the time, and certainly a contribution to their looseness and sense of space.) But the sound doesn't matter. The dignity and beauty and simplicity of the music pass directly from the players into the listener.

The tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec was born in 1918 and died in 1963. He became known in the mid-forties through his Blue Note records and as a member of Cab Galloway's band, and he had a brief return to favor in the late fifties when he again recorded for Blue Note. A member of the Coleman Hawkins-Ben Webster school, he had a big, rough tone and a big vibrato, and he took up a lot of room when he played. He tended to dominate his recordings, both because of his sound and because of his attack, which was direct and emotional. He dominated his listeners, too: whole solos stay in the mind forty years later, as do various short passages, such as the devastating three-note phrase with which he opens his solo on "Mad About You." Unlike Hawkins, who was not particularly comfortable with the blues and preferred the harmonic ladders of the thirty-two-bar song, Quebec was at ease with both the blues and standard songs. He grafted blues emotions onto his slow ballads, and he brought the lyrical urgency of ballad playing to his blues. There are five different Quebec sessions on the Mosaic reissue, and they range from quintets to septets. There are good numbers in each session: "She's Funny That Way" and the great "Blue Harlem" from the first; "If I Had You" and "Mad About You" from the second; "Dolores" and "The Day You Came Along" from the third ("The Day You Came Along" has never been released before); the master of "I Found a New Baby" and both takes of "I Surrender Dear" from the fourth; and "Basically Blue" and the first take of "Someone to Watch Over Me" from the last. Listen to Buck Clayton on "I Found a New Baby" (he is uncertain on the alternate take) and to Keg Johnson on the master of "I Surrender Dear." He was the tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson's older brother, and he was a complex and original soloist who never got his due.

John Hardee was a Texas tenor saxophonist who was born in the same year as Quebec and died last spring [1984]. He enjoyed a small success in New York in the late forties, then went back to Texas for good. He did three dates for Blue Note, and they reveal his big Southwestern tone and his sure sense of swing, but they also show that he was an uncertain improviser, whose melodic lines lacked logic and continuity. Sid Catlett is on drums on the first two sessions, and he makes Hardee work.

With the release of "The Complete Edmond Hall/James P. Johnson/Sidney De Paris/Vic Dickenson Blue Note Sessions" and "The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Sidney Bechet," Mosaic Records has nearly finished its rescue and restoration of the best of the early Blue Notes. The first of the two new reissues has sixty-six selections, on six L.P.s, many of which are by a kind of repertory company consisting of De Paris, Hall, Ben Webster, Dickenson, Johnson, Jimmy Shirley, and Sidney Catlett. Hall leads one of the repertory-company sessions, and he also leads three other, very different sessions, which include Charlie Christian, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Benny Morton, Harry Carney, Carl Kress, and Catlett. There are also eight James P. Johnson solos and a Vic Dickenson date. The Bechet set has seventy-four selections, on six L.P.s, recorded by Bechet with the Port of Harlem Seven, a trio with Josh White, his own quartet, and assorted bands made up of De Paris, Dickenson, Max Kaminsky, Art Hodes, Sandy Williams, Wild Bill Davison, Albert Nicholas, and Jonah Jones.

Four of the eleven groupings on the first album are by the repertory company, and the first three are as fresh as they were forty years ago. (The fourth suffers from the absence of Catlett, who is replaced by the plodding Arthur Trappier—not "Al," as he is called in the personnel listings.) The versions set down of "High Society," "Royal Garden Blues," "After You've Gone," "Everybody Loves My Baby," and "Ballin' the Jack" have never been surpassed, and "After You've Gone" is one of the great jazz recordings. 

There are also five lilting medium-slow blues. The music on these recordings is not classifiable. It may have been designed by Alfred Lion to mesh with the New Orleans revival then under way, but it has little to do with New Orleans music. Edmond Hall was born not far from New Orleans, but he came up in big and small swing bands, as did Webster, De Paris, Dickenson, and Catlett. James P. Johnson, of course, was one of the pioneer stride pianists, and he helped build the bridge from ragtime to jazz. (He doesn't actually fit very well here. Someone a little sleeker—a Joe Bushkin or Eddie Heywood or Kenny Kersey—would have been better.) The ensembles are loosely arranged or jammed, but they are not in the New Orleans or Chicago mold. The voices do not strive or jar or jostle; they coast and converse, they cast no shadows. The solos they enclose are often exceptional, and they are often supported by riffs or organ chords. It is an amiable, cool New York music of a kind now gone—and it should be studied by such modern archeologists as David Murray and Henry Threadgill. The brilliant "After You've Gone" is, like the soaring "Sweet Sue" done eleven years earlier by Red Allen, Dicky Wells, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins, simply a string of solos. But they are so good and fit so tightly that the number gives the impression it is going faster and faster when it is actually moving easily and steadily and with grand momentum toward its triumphant final chorus: Sidney De Paris paraphrasing the melody over organ chords and Catlett's lifting half-open high-hat. (Listen all through these numbers for the rhythmic hide-and-seek Catlett plays with De Paris and Dickenson, who rarely played as well with other drummers, and to his tongue-in-cheek Dixieland drumming on "Ballin' the Jack.")

One of Edmond Hall's four sessions is quite famous. It includes Hall, Charlie Christian on acoustic guitar (the only recordings he made with an unamplified instrument), Israel Crosby on bass, and Meade Lux Lewis on celeste, a chichi forerunner of the electric piano. Hall, with his cordovan Albert-system clarinet sound and his growls and stilted rhythmic sense, represented the old school, as did Lewis; Christian, then with Benny Goodman, belonged with early modernists like Lester Young and Thelonious Monk; and Crosby, reading the future, often played melodic rather than rhythmic bass. Despite Crosby's big low register, it was a treble group, full of piping and tintinnabulation. It also never quite swung, and it is still not clear why. Perhaps Hall was ill at ease. (He liked a strong Catlett-style flow under him.) Perhaps Crosby's melodic ruminations got in the way. Perhaps Lewis, a tractor-trailer driver, felt he had been put at the wheel of a Morris Minor. Perhaps Christian did find Hall and Lewis archaic. The remaining Hall dates swing and are free of pretension. One has no drummer and includes Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Carl Kress, and Johnny Williams, and the other has a rhythm section made up of Don Frye, Everett Barksdale, Junior Raglin, and Catlett, and a horn section of Hall, Benny Morton, and Harry Carney. The first session is cheerful and cool (Norvo and Wilson, true style-mates, are in excellent form), and the second has great melodic beauty—attend to both takes of "It's Been So Long" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me." The album has one other blessing — a 1951 Vic Dickenson date on which the trombonist plays four numbers backed by Bill Doggett on organ, John Collins on guitar, and Jo Jones on drums. Dickenson does two good medium-tempo numbers and two classic slow numbers-sly, satiric readings of "Tenderly'' and "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You." Tommy Dorsey made this last famous as his theme song, but, never able to improvise, he always played it smooth and straight. Dickenson performs it with a cunning smoothness, then steps off into an improvisation full of smears and asides and whispers that gently twit Dorsey's silkiness and the tune itself. And there are three choice solos by Collins, a fine guitarist who worked for Art Tatum and Nat Cole.

Although Sidney Bechet's New Orleans style never changed, he regarded himself as a modern musician who liked to travel in fast musical company — thus the sides made for Victor in 1940 and 1941 with the likes of Red Allen, De Paris, Rex Stewart, Charlie Shavers, Higginbotham, Dickenson, Sandy Williams, Earl Mines, Kenny Clarke, and Catlett. But, for whatever reasons, many of the seventy-odd numbers he recorded for Blue Note during the next fourteen years were made with inferior musicians. There were exceptions. The De Paris—Vic Dickenson session of 1944 contains the Bechet slow blues "Blue Horizon," played on clarinet and full of antediluvian melancholy, and it also has a lovely "Muskrat Ramble." A date done a month later with Max Kaminsky has some high-spirited ensembles — particularly those in which Bechet, again playing clarinet, moves through his own hollowed-out space between the trumpet and the trombone ("High Society" and "Salty Dog"). A 1945 session with Wild Bill Davison swings (despite the ponderous rhythm section), and there is a serene series of duets done the next year with the New Orleans clarinettist Albert Nicholas. The final session on the album, done in 1953, during Bechet's last visit to this country (he had settled in France), is with fast company. Jonah Jones is on trumpet, and there is a streamlined rhythm section built around the fine, little-known pianist Buddy Weed. Jones is majestic throughout and Weed sparkles, and Bechet responds to them both.”

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