Archive for the Jazz Category

R.I.P. Ahmad Jamal (1930-2023)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on April 17, 2023 by telescoper

With the passing, on Sunday, of Ahmad Jamal, at the age of 92, another legendary Jazz musician has left us. He was a consistently inventive pianist, of great elegance, and a wonderful knack of deconstructing a tune into its component parts before reassembling it into something fresh. His formative years were a time when many keyboard players emphasized virtuosic brilliance, but Jamal’s approach was relaxed and spare. He was great letting his story develop gradually but very enjoyably through a series of riffs over a compelling rhythmic foundation. A perfect example is this track, Poinciana, from a hugely popular album Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me, recorded in 1958 with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums. Ahmad Jamal is no longer with us, but this groove will last forever!

R.I.P. Ahmad Jamal (born Frederick Russell Jones, 1930-2023).

Just a Closer Walk with Thee

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , on April 9, 2023 by telescoper

When my father passed away in 2007, the main music music played at his funeral was the hymn or spiritual (and of course Jazz standard) Just a Closer Walk with Thee. It’s a lovely old traditional tune that often plays a central role in New Orleans style funerals and is a melody that, at least for me, has a deep association with loss and bereavement. The recording that was played on that occasion was this one, made at the same session as the track I posted a few days ago, featuring the same personnel (including my Dad on the drums), but with vocals by a fine Jazz and Blues singer by the name of Annie Jenkins.

A Jazz Centenary

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 5, 2023 by telescoper
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band vintage 1923. From the left: Warren “Baby” Dodds (drums); Honore Dutrey (seated front, trombone); Joe “King” Oliver (standing rear, cornet); Louis Armstrong (seated front, cornet); Bill Johnson (standing rear, string bass and banjo); Johnny Dodds (seated front, clarinet); and Lil Hardin (piano)

I’ve been looking forward to this day because it marks an important jazz centenary. Or at least I think it does. There’s some contradictory evidence about whether it was April 5th 1923 or April 6th, or maybe both, when King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band did its first ever recording session at the Gennett studios in Richmond, Virginia. They recorded 20 sides in that session, which may well have involved two days with a break in between or working through the night.

These dates represent a remarkable occasion not only because King Oliver’s band was really the first jazz Supergroup, but also because it had been joined just a few months earlier by a young cornet player by the name of Louis Armstrong. This session therefore represent the first examples of Louis Armstrong ever heard on record.

It is somewhat surprising that this historic session happened at the Gennett studios. The band was based on Chicago, Illinois, and the studios were in Richmond, Virginia, so it required a long road trip to get there. Moreover the studio building wasn’t exactly in a prime location, as it was right next to a railroad line:

Musicians had to time their recordings so as to avoid the noise from passing trains. Still, records only lasted about 3 minutes in those days so presumably weren’t so frequent as to make it difficult to fit in a take between two of them! Recording techniques were rather primitive in those days though, and the sound quality that emerged isn’t great.

The lineup for the band is shown in the picture at the top of this page. It’s interesting to note that four of these musicians (Armstrong, Hardin, and the Dodds brothers) were to feature regularly from 1925 onwards in the classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. King Oliver’s band, however, had style that was very different from these later records, with a much greater emphasis on polyphony, much more complex arrangements, and much less emphasis on solos. Also, King Oliver’s band played to live audiences on a regular basis, but the Hot Fives and Hot Seven only ever performed as such in recording studios.

As far as I understand how this band worked, King Oliver made the arrangements. I don’t think they used full written scores, but tended to play from wonderfully intricate “head arrangements” worked out beforehand, with ensemble passages, gaps for breaks and solos, and King Oliver introducing the (usually very catchy themes). Armstrong and Johnny Dodds improvised a decorative counterpoint, and Honore Dutrey added harmonic breadth to the ensemble. This must have been a great learning experience for the young Louis Armstrong, has he had to develop a great ear for what was going on around him to play like this. I gather that Louis Armstrong often tended to play very loud so he was kept well in the background in these early Gennett sessions, but such a prodigious talent was never going to play second fiddle for long and in later sessions he effectively duets with King Oliver and swapped leads with him freely and completely intuitively, producing a sound that was entirely unique. I am always astonished by how much is going on in these old records, even if you can’t hear it all very well!

I’ve mentioned before that, over time, this classic type of polyphonic Jazz – derived from its New Orleans roots – gradually morphed into musical form dominated by much simpler arrangements and a succession of virtuoso solos. This change was also reflected in the differing fortunes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. The former went on to become an international celebrity, while the latter lost all his savings when his bank went bust during the Wall Street Crash and ended his life working as a janitor.

As well as Gennett, this band recorded with other labels in 1923 including Okeh and Columbia. Sadly however they split up at the end of 1923 over disagreements about a possible tour in 1924. Only about 40 sides were ever recorded King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Many of them are absolutely marvelous.

This is the first track recorded by the band in April 1923. It’s called Just Gone. It’s a scratchy old record, with a rather compressed acoustic, so it’s like putting your next to one end of a tunnel leading back a hundred years, but it’s a good example of the Creole Jazz Band’s style. Joe Oliver’s lead cornet clearly influenced Louis Armstrong’s later style. You have to listen hard to hear Satchmo in the background on this track, but it’s worth the effort. You’re listening to a piece of music history, and a wonderful piece at that.

Test Piece

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags on March 31, 2023 by telescoper

The newly enhanced version of this blog, improved at great expense, enables me to upload audio files. I thought I’d check out that facility by sharing this rendition of the tune Petite Fleur which was written in 1952 by the great Sidney Bechet but made famous by Monty Sunshine by a recording with Chris Barber’s band in 1959. The version here was performed in the 1990s in a little recording studio in Gateshead. Can you identify the clarinet player? (Hints: (i) it is not Sidney Bechet; (ii) nor is it Monty Sunshine; and (iii) it was my Dad playing the drums…)

R.I.P. Tony Coe (1934-2023)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 18, 2023 by telescoper

It’s a very sad coincidence that just the day after I had reason to blog about the death of Wally Fawkes, I have to mention the death of another superb jazz musician also associated with the clarinet, Tony Coe, who has passed away at the age of 88. In a prolific career and leader and sideman, Tony Coe also played with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band (from 1957-61) but he is best known for his work in more modern forms of jazz. He was known for the virtuosity and originality of his style, not only on clarinet but on tenor, alto and soprano saxophone. I read yesterday that he was also the first music teacher of Tim Garland who, on his Facebook page, mentions that he found Coe’s tenor playing rather reminiscent of that of the great Paul Gonsalves, which I’d never thought of before but is true.

My first encounter with Tony Coe was on an album I bought round about 1981 called The Crompton Suite by the Stan Tracey Sextet. It’s a rare find on vinyl these days but I still have my copy:

I haven’t heard this for ages because I no longer have a turntable and as far as I’m aware it hasn’t been re-released on any digital format, but I remember it very well and would have picked a track from this album as a tribute if it were on YouTube but instead here’s a lovely recording he made just a couple of years ago with John Horler on piano, the title track of the very nice album Dancing in the Dark:

R.I.P. Tony Coe (1934-2023)

R.I.P. Wally Fawkes (1924-2023)

Posted in Art, Jazz with tags , , , , on March 16, 2023 by telescoper

I just heard today – via the latest Private Eye – of the passing of Wally Fawkes on 1st March at the age of 98. His name won’t be familiar to many of the readers of this blog, but it is a name that I grew up with in a jazz-loving family. Wally Fawkes played clarinet with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band in its heyday in the late 40s and early 50s and was the last surviving member of that group. That band may have had a rhythm section that always sounded like its members were wearing diving boots, but the front line of Humphrey Lyttelton (trumpet), Wally Fawkes (clarinet) and Keith Christie (trombone) was truly outstanding.

Wally Fawkes wasn’t just a musician, though. He was also the acclaimed cartoonist known by the pseudonym Trog, and contributed a variety of cartoons to a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the long-running comic strip Flook. He was also an occasional contributor to Private Eye. He had to give up drawing in 2005 because of failing eyesight, after 62 years in the business.

I’ve already drawn attention to Wally Fawke’s excellence as a clarinet soloist with the Lyttelton band on The Onions at the famous 1954 Festival Hall Concert so it seems apt to pay tribute to his skills as both a cartoonist and a musician by returning to that concert for him playing his own composition Trog’s Blues. Wally Fawkes was a huge admirer of Sidney Bechet, and this tune clearly pays homage to Bechet’s monumental Blue Horizon (which I think is the finest instrumental blues ever recorded) but while Bechet’s blues performances were hewn from granite, Wally’s were wrought from finest porcelain.

R.I.P. Wally Fawkes (1924-2023)

R.I.P. Wayne Shorter (1933-2023)

Posted in Jazz with tags , on March 2, 2023 by telescoper

I got home this evening to find the sad news that legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter has passed away at the age of 89. I only got to hear him live once, many moons ago, when he was part of a band led by drummer Jack de Johnette (I think that was in the early 1990s) but I have a big collection of CDs of him in various settings, including with Miles Davis, The Jazz Messengers, and, of course, Weather Report. As a tribute I feel it’s appropriate to post a great record he made as leader.

Speak No Evil was recorded in 1964 and released as a Blue Note LP in 1966. It features a superb band, including Freddie Hubbard (tpt), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b) and Elvin Jones (d) alongside Shorter himself on tenor saxophone. It’s one of the must-have jazz albums, and it demonstrates Shorter’s flair for composition as well as improvisation. In both respects his approach to this album is very different from that he took just a few years earlier with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Standout tracks on this album include the suave yet unsettling Dance Cadaverous, the brooding Fee-fi-fo-fum, and the curiously agitated Witch Hunt.

Every piece on this album was composed by Shorter and as a player he revels in the ambiguous harmonies he created alongside the melodies. Although his style is clearly influenced by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, his tone is unlike either of these other giants, and Shorter expresses his individuality through varying emphasis producing asymmetric phrases. His playing is very quick-witted, full of abrupt changes of mood and dashes of fierce humour. A good example is Infant Eyes, a theme made up of three 9-bar phrases, played at a leisurely pace, on which Shorter’s lines impose a sense of determined exploration when many other soloists would have dawdled.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. You can listen to the full album as a playlist on Youtube. The track order is: Witch Hunt, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, Dance Cadaverous, Speak No Evil, Infant Eyes and Wild Flower.

R.I.P. Wayne Shorter (1933-2023)


Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2023 by telescoper

Today is Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, and Mardi Gras, which gives me three excuses to post an authentic New Orleans parade tune from way back in 1927.

Jazz began with the marching bands that performed in New Orleans but then largely moved into the bordellos of Storyville, the biggest (legal) red light district in the history of the United States. When Storyville was closed down in 1917 as a threat to the health of the US Navy most professional jazz musicians lost their only source of regular income. Fortunately the very lawmakers who condemned jazz for its association with vice and crime soon passed a law that unwittingly ensured the music’s survival, proposing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, passed in 1919, which prohibited the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol for human consumption. This was soon followed by the Volstead Act, which gave federal government the powers to enforce the 18th amendment. This ushered in the era of Prohibition, which turned Chicago into a bootlegger’s paradise almost overnight and jazz musicians flocked there to perform in the numerous speakeasies. That’s why so many of the great New Orleans Jazz records of the 1920s were actually made in Chicago.

Although the exodus was substantial, not all Jazz musicians left New Orleans. Many stayed there and kept the roots of the music going while it branched out in Chicago and, later, New York. Most of the bands that stayed kept going through the depression but never really achieved great commercial success until the traditional Jazz revival of the 1940s and 1950s. This example is a record produced by the Victor Record Company who sent a recording unit to New Orleans in 1927 to record some of the musicians who had stayed behind, many of them still playing in the marching band tradition of Buddy Bolden.

The title is To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa. I don’t know what it means but it’s an old French creole version of a tune that has subsequently reappeared many times in different forms with different names, most notably Bucket’s Got A Hole In it. The band is Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight. Besides the lead cornet of Louis Dumaine, who lived from 1889 to 1949, it’s worth mentioning the clarinet style of Willie Joseph, which is heavily influenced by that of the great Johnny Dodds.

Anyway, it’s the kind of jaunty march-like number that’s perfect as a Mardi Gras parade tune and it always puts a spring in my step every time I hear it! There are also some old photographs of Mardi Gras parades to get you in the mood.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Posted in Jazz with tags , on January 20, 2023 by telescoper

I was just reminded via social media that it was on this day 60 years ago, i.e. on 20th January 1963, that a recording session took place under the direction of Charles Mingus that led to the class album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I hadn’t realized that this entire album was recorded in a single day!

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady relies much less on soloists than earlier Mingus performances and involves a rather bigger band: Mingus himself (bass, piano and composer); Jerome Richardson (soprano & baritone saxophone, flute), Dick Hafer (tenor saxophone, flute); Charlie Mariano (alto saxophone); Rolf Ericson and Richard Williams (trumpet); Quentin Jackson (trombone); Don Butterfield (tuba, contrabass trombone); Jaki Byard (piano); Jay Berliner (acoustic guitar); and Dannie Richmond (drums). Charlie Mariano is outstanding on this album but the other solos tend to be short, acting more as punctuation than as part of the actual composition. It is very much an orchestral work, with thematic material introduced and recycled in various ways, some of it from pervious recording sessions. That gives this work a retrospective feeling, as well as being very original in style. Overall the sense is of Mingus trying out how he could use elements of his past approaches in a new direction. A good example are the accelerando passages. Danny Richmond did have a bit of a habit of speeding up, but on this album these bits are intentional. The first, however, starts very abruptly and doesn’t really work. Mingus tries the idea again, much more successfully, and again a couple of times more.

This is a great album but I think it provided Mingus with a practical difficulty, in that he was clearly getting more interested in longer works with big orchestral textures but most of the venues he could play in could only cope with smaller bands. He responded by working more at jazz festivals that could indulge this taste.

Anyway, here is the whole album which I have just listened to all the way through. I have it on vinyl LP and CD but fortunately it is also on the YooToob:

As Time Goes By – Dexter Gordon

Posted in Jazz with tags , on January 19, 2023 by telescoper

I’ve been grading examinations all day and still haven’t quite finished so here’s a quick post I’ve been keeping up my sleeve for a busy day. It’s the great Dexter Gordon recorded in 1980 playing As Time Goes By. Ever since Coleman Hawkins recorded Body and Soul in 1939, the yardstick by which tenor saxophonists have tended to be measured is their playing on ballads and Dexter Gordon was right up there among the best. It’s very hard to play with accuracy and imagination at slow tempo than it is to produce a quick flurry of notes. Young musicians can learn a lot from his intelligent, but never overcomplicated, improvisations.

This performance was filmed in 1980 when Dexter Gordon was 57 years old but it has to be said that he looks much older, no doubt as a result of his lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol. He seems somewhat inebriated as he recites the words to the song at the start – something he did regularly in live performances – but once he’s in the zone he plays quite beautifully. I am sad I never got to see him live; Dexter Gordon passed away in 1990, at the age of 67.

P.S. When he was much younger, Dexter Gordon featured in one of the most famous of all jazz photographs taken by Herman Leonard in 1948 which I’m taking the liberty of posting here:

Time goes by indeed.