Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Curtis Counce Group

“The Counce quintet is one of the great neglected jazz bands of the 1950s. The reasons for this neglect are difficult to pinpoint.” Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz In California [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.318].

Boy, it’s great to have friends, especially when one of my closest friends, Bob Gordon, is also the author of the brilliant Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950’s [London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1986]. Among it’s many attributes, the book contains an excellent section devoted to the Curtis Counce Group [pp.147-50 & 156-61] whose members are also depicted in the graphics that adorn the book’s cover.

Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums made up the original powerhouse group whose aggressive and hard-hitting style of Jazz certainly belied Grover Sales wrap that West Coast Jazz “… recordings … today strike us as bloodless museum pieces ….”

It is this point in contention that Bob takes on directly in the “California Hard (II)” chapter of his work which he has kindly allowed the editors of Jazzprofiles permission to reproduce in an effort to draw attention to the marvelous music of the Curtis Counce Group. [C]. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

“It is hard to understand why the Curtis Counce Group failed to achieve the recognition ‑ either popular or critical ‑ it deserved. Perhaps it's because the group was so difficult to pigeonhole. As a Los Angeles‑based group it couldn't remotely be identified with the West Coast school. Stylistically, the Curtis Counce Group fit quite naturally with such groups as the Jazz Messen­gers or the Horace Silver Quintet, but such a comparison tended to upset the East Coast‑West Coast dichotomy that then figured so prominently in jazz criticism. So, stuck as they were thousands of miles from the centre of editorial power, the musicians in the group turned out their own brand of hard­-swinging jazz in relative obscurity. It wouldn't be fair to say they were totally ignored by the influential critics, but they were seldom evaluated at their true worth.

We've already discussed most of the band's principals. Bassist Curtis Counce had played with Shorty Rogers and numerous West Coast groups, and was one of the few black musicians to have gained acceptance in the Hollywood studios; he had just returned from a European tour with the Stan Kenton orchestra when he set about forming a band in August of 1956. Tenor saxophonist Harold Land had of course been a mainstay of the Max Roach‑Clifford Brown quintet. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, shared the front line with Land, was born 30 November 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to LA in 1947, where he studied music for two years at LA City College. Following a two-year stint in the air force, he gigged around town with Jack Montrose, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Herb Geller; he was also a charter member of the group centered around Joe Maini and Lenny Bruce. The rhythm section of the Curtis Counce Group was anchored by two exceptional musicians, pianist Carl Perkins and drummer Frank Butler. Carl Perkins (no relation to the rock‑and‑roll singer) had been born in Indianapolis, Indiana, 16 August 1928. A self‑taught pianist, Perkins had come up through the rhythm‑and‑blues bands of Tiny Bradshaw and Big Jay McNeely, and had forged a blues‑drenched modern style for himself. He had developed an unorthodox style and often played with his left arm parallel to the keyboard. Frank Butler was born on 18 February 1928 in Wichita, Kansas and had made jazz time with Dave Brubeck, Edgar Hayes and Duke Ellington, among others.
None of the musicians in the band was a household name, although Harold Land had gained some fame during his stay with the Clifford Brown‑Max Roach band. But this was, above all, a group, and it was as a co‑operative unit that the band excelled. Everyone is familiar with all‑star bands that somehow or other don't quite make it ‑ the chemistry between the players is somehow wrong; perhaps an ego or two gets in the way. The Curtis Counce Group was that sort of band's antithesis; a living, working example of a unit wherein the whole is much greater than the sum of its components. Although the original idea to form the group was Curtis Counce's, the band functioned as a collaborative affair. 'We were all close friends within the group,' Harold Land remembers, 'so it was a good idea for all of us, because we all liked each other personally as well as musically.' The Curtis Counce Group was formed in August 1956, played its first gig at The Haig in September, and entered the recording studios a month later. Lester Koenig always had an ear for promising musicians, and in the latter part of the 1950s he recorded a fascinating assortment of exciting and forward­-looking groups and musicians, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, for his Contemporary label. The Curtis Counce Group was one of his happiest finds. The musicians entered the studio on 8 October for their first session, and the band's chemistry was evident from the start. The first tune recorded was Harold Land's 'Landslide', a dark yet forceful hard‑bop theme. Harold leads off with some big‑toned tenor work and is followed by some thoughtful Sheldon and grooving Carl Perkins. Two other originals were contributed by members of the band: 'Mia' by Carl Perkins, and Jack Sheldon's blues line 'Sarah'.

'Mia' sports a bright, bouncy tune with unexpected chord progressions and sparks swinging solos by all hands. Everybody digs deeply into the blues on 'Sarah', but Carl Perkins is especially impressive in his solo; throughout his all too short career Perkins displayed a close affinity for the blues. 'Time after Time' serves as a vehicle for Harold Land's tender yet muscular ballad style. 'A Fifth for Frank', as the title suggests, is a showcase for Frank Butler. Frank's driving support for the band throughout the session belies his relative inexperience ‑ this was in fact his first recording. A sixth tune, Charlie Parker's 'Big Foot' (recorded by Parker as both 'Air Conditioning' and 'Drifting on a Reed' for Dial), was also recorded at this original session, but was not issued until later. To round out the initial album, a tune recorded at the group's second session ‑ held a week later on 18 October ‑ was used. 'Sonar' (written by Gerald Wiggins and Kenny Clarke), is taken at a bright tempo and has plenty of room for stretching out by all of the musicians.
The first album, titled simply The Curtis Counce Group [Contemporary S-7526; OJCCD-606-2], was released early in 1957 and immediately gained favourable attention. Nat Hentoff awarded the album four stars in an admiring review in Down Beat magazine. Yet somehow national stature seemed to elude the band. Undoubtedly the main reason for this was that the Curtis Counce Group was not a traveling band. Harold Land does remember that the group 'went to Denver one time, but as far as getting back east, it never did happen'. In Los Angeles the band enjoyed an in‑group reputa­tion ‑ they were especially well‑liked by fellow musicians ‑ but they never achieved the popularity of, say, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. They did play regularly around Los Angeles. 'There was another spot down on Sunset: the Sanborn House,' Harold remembers. 'We played there quite a while, longer than we did at The Haig, and the group built up quite a following. The Haig was very small, but this was a larger club.'

In the meantime, the band continued to record prolifically for Contemporary. The group's second album contained tunes cut at various sessions held in 1956 and throughout 1957. In addition to 'Sonar', the band recorded a swinging version of 'Stranger in Paradise' at the second session of 15 October 1956; this tune and the aforementioned 'Big Foot' were on the second album, which was originally entitled You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce [Contemporary C-7539; OJJCD-159-2]. Two more tunes were recorded 22 April 1957 ‑ 'Too Close for Comfort' and 'Counceltation'. The latter is an original by the leader. Curtis was studying composition with Lyle 'Spud' Murphy at the time, and 'Counceltation' is an experimental piece based on Murphy's twelve‑tone system. The tune is interesting, but smacks a little too much of the classroom. As if to balance this, another tune of Counce's, a bright blues named 'Complete', was recorded at a session in May. Everybody gets to let down his hair on 'Complete', and Jack Sheldon contributes a funky Miles Davis‑influenced solo in Harmon mute. A ballad version of 'How Deep is the Ocean', also recorded at the May session, and an up‑tempo 'Mean to Me', recorded in September, complete the album. When the album was released late in 1957, the Curtis Counce Group was riding high, but unfortunately several unforeseen events would soon contribute to the band's early demise. Chief among these was the tragic death of pianist Carl Perkins in March of 1958; an additional strong factor was the rapid decline of jazz, clubs in LA in the closing years of the decade.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the break‑up of a working band was that of the Curtis Counce Group, if only because the group had shown so much promise from inception. They did manage to hold together through 1957 when so many bands fell by the wayside, but finally broke a early in 1958. But before the group disbanded they manage produce two more albums, both enduring legacies of jazz in fifties.
The group's final recording for the Contemporary label titled ‑ when it was finally released in 1960 ‑ Carl's Blues [Contemporary S-7574; OJCCD-423-2]. The title was, unfortunately, especially apt, both because 'C Blues' by pianist Carl Perkins is one of the album's highlights and because Perkins died shortly after the tune was recorded. The album contains tunes cut at three sessions in all. J Sheldon's 'Pink Lady', a smoking work‑out on the standard ‘I Got Rhythm' changes, and a spirited version of 'Love Walked In’ are from the earliest date, held on 22 April 1957. There is also a grooving version of Horace Silver's Latin‑flavoured tune 'Nica’s Dream', recorded 29 August. The tempo here is slower and more deliberate than Horace Silver’s justly famous Blue Note recording, but the Curtis Counce performance is no less expressive.

The album’s remaining tunes were recorded at Carl Perkins's final session on 6 January 1958. For this date, Gerald Wilson replaced Jack Sheldon in the group's trumpet chair, although Wilson plays on only two tunes. One track, 'The Butler Did It', is an unaccompanied drum solo by Frank Butler. 'I Can't Get ' features Harold Land and the rhythm section, and the performance gives a strong indication of Land's growing powers improviser. The two tunes featuring the entire quintet are ‘Larue’ and the aforementioned 'Carl's Blues'. The ballad ‘Larue’ was written by Clifford Brown for his wife; Harold Land plays an especially tender solo on the tune. 'Carl's Blues', written by Perkins expressly for the session, is a leisurely examination of the blues and a fitting epitaph for the pianist.

Carl Perkins died on 17 March 1958, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, another victim of drug abuse. He was the at of the Curtis Counce Group, and it is not surprising e quintet did not long outlive him. When Les Koenig issued his third album, several years after the selections en recorded, he had this to say about the band.

"While it lasted, the Curtis Counce Group was one of the most exciting ever organized in Los Angeles. Counce picked four men who almost immediately achieved a togetherness only long‑established bands seem to have. Today, Carl Perkins is dead, and the members of the group have gone off in different directions ... It would be difficult under the best of conditions to recapture the feeling of the 1957 quintet. Without Perkins whose unique piano style was basic to the group's special sound, it is impossible."

It is tempting to wonder how the band would have been received had it been based in New York; certainly it would have give some of the more famous groups of the fifties a run for the money.

Carl's Blues was not, however, the final recording of the band. A month after Perkins's death the restructured quintet recorded for Dootsie Williams's Dooto (Dootone) records. Counce, Land and Butler remained from the original group. The trumpeter the date was Rolf Ericsson. Ericsson, born in Stockholm, Sweden on 29 August 1927, had moved to the States in 1947 and had worked with various bands including those of Charlie Barnet, Elliot Lawrence and Woody Herman. He was a member of Lighthouse All‑Stars in 1953. The new pianist was Elmo Hope native New Yorker, whose brief tenure on the Coast in the late fifties sparked several outstanding recordings. Hope, born on June 1923, was a childhood friend of Bud Powell and an active participant of the New York jazz scene of the forties and early fifties, although he remained little known to the public at large. Hope's piano was not as blues‑oriented as that of Carl Perkins but was instead sinewy and spare, the hard‑bop piano style pared to its very essence. In view of the band's restructuring, it is significant that the group was billed as the Curtis Counce Quintet rather than the Curtis Counce Group.

This set is unfortunately something of a let‑down after the three previous albums. Contemporary and Pacific jazz were the class of the West Coast independents, and however one may quibble over Les Koenig's or Dick Bock's choice of artists or material on any given record, their records were always superbly engineered and professionally produced. The Dootone album Exploring the Future [Dooto LP DTL 247; CDBOP 007], is noticeably inferior to the Contemporaries in recording quality, and there seems to have been a lack rehearsal time as well. Of course this was not the tight working band of a year earlier ‑ Carl Perkins's death and Jack Sheldon's departure obviously disrupted the group's cohesiveness ‑ but a couple of the numbers could have benefited from an additional take or two.

There is also the matter of the album's 'theme'. The group was definitely not ‘Exploring the Future’, but was diligently laboring the well‑established vineyards of hard bop. The futuristic album cover, showing Curtis Counce floating through the void in a space suit, and the choice of titles, which include 'Into the Orbit', 'Race for Space', 'Exploring the Future', and 'The Countdown', promise things the album simply can't deliver. (It is possible that some of the names were tagged on to untitled numbers after they had been recorded, a common enough practice.) All of this is not to say, however, that the album is a lure: the record does deliver a satisfying amount of modern, hard‑driving jazz.

Four of the album's eight numbers were written by Elmo Hope; all are decidedly in the hard‑bop vein. 'So Nice', the record's opener, has a catchy tune and driving solos by Ericsson, Land and Hope. Rolf Ericsson's tone is brash, and fits well in the hard‑bop context, but his trumpet playing suffers in comparison with Jack Sheldon's fluid yet funky work. 'Into the Orbit' seems well-named, since each soloist is launched into his solo at a doubled‑up tempo. 'Race for Space' is a rapid minor‑key theme which has a burning solo by Harold Land. And 'The Count­down', the album's closing number, sounds very much as if it were used by Hope as a set‑closer; it features the rhythm section working as a trio. 'Exploring the Future' has a nice theme that is attributed to Dootsie Williams, but since he is also credited on the album for Denzil Best's classic 'Move', one wonders. 'Move' serves largely as a drum solo for Frank Butler. The album also has two ballads. 'Someone to Watch Over Me' is a solo vehicle for Curtis Counce's bass, while Ericsson, Land and Hope all contribute tender solos on 'Angel Eyes'.

Although this was the last recording of the band under Curtis Counce's leadership, two additional sessions featured largely the or same personnel. The first of these was under the leadership of Hope. On 31 October 1957 the Elmo Hope Quintet ‑ Stu Williamson, Harold Land, Hope, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler -, recorded three tunes for Pacific Jazz: 'Vaun Ex', 'St Elmo's Fire’ and 'So Nice'. All three of course were the pianist's compositions. Whether Dick Bock had originally planned on an entire album for the group or not, these were the only tunes recorded (or at least ever released) by Pacific Jazz. Two of the numbers were released on anthologies the following year; all three eventually found their way on to an Art Blakey reissue in the early 1960s. The recording quality on these Pacific jazz sides is noticeably superior to that of the Curtis Counce Dooto album, but it's also true that the Dooto sides exhibit a bit more uninhibited fire.

At this point, Bob’s essay on the Curtis Counce Group/Quintet segues into the work of Harold Land, particularly his Harold in the Land of Jazz [Contemporary S-7550; OJJCD 162-2] which carried on the musical “feel” of the Counce groups. This may of course be due to the fact that with the exception of Leroy Vinnegar substituting for Curtis on bass, the group consisted of musicians who had all been with Counce’s combos, including pianist Carl Perkins, for whom this would be his last recording. Given these close connections, Bob goes on to write:
Perhaps the definitive recordings from this period came under the leadership of Harold Land for Contemporary records. Harold in the Land of Jazz (reissued later as Grooveyard) is significant both as the first album released under Harold Land's name and as Carl Perkins's last recording. The sessions were held on 13 and 14 January 1958, and the musicians were Rolf Ericsson, Land, Carl Perkins, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. These Contemporary recordings combine the fire of the Dooto recordings and the recording quality of the Pacific Jazz session.

The album opens with a driving arrangement of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low'. The interplay between Land and Frank Butler here ‑ as always ‑ seems nothing short of miraculous. The two had been playing together almost daily since the formation of the Curtis Counce Group, of course, but beyond that Land and Butler could communicate on a telepathic level that was sometimes almost frightening. 'We've always been close friends, Land would later remember, 'and we were born on the same day of the month in the same year [Butler on 18 February, Land or 18 December 1928] ... and even our wives get sick and tired of our talking about how "in tune" we are with each other [laughs]. At times during one of Land's solos, the saxophonist will begin a phrase and Butler will immediately jump in, the two finishing together. 'Delirium', Harold Land's tune, is composed of descending sixteen‑bar phrases following each other like an endless succession of waves. 'You Don't Know What Love is serves as a solo vehicle for Land, who names it as one of his favorite ballads. Elmo Hope's 'Nieta' features Latin rhythm and some unconventional chord progressions. Two of the remaining tunes were written by Land. 'Smack Up' is a boppish tune which is propelled by some strong rhythmic accents, while the ballad 'Lydia's Lament' is a tender tribute to Harold's wife

The remaining tune, and the album's high point, is the Carl Perkins composition 'Grooveyard'. It has a relaxed and timeless theme with roots in both gospel and the blues, and yet it has none of the self-conscious posturing of so many of the soul tunes of the day. Land, Ericsson and especially Perkins reach deep into the jazz tradition with their solos. The performance remains a fitting tribute to the composer.”

In 1989, subsequent to the publication of Bob’s book, and thanks to the diligence of Ed Michel’s perusal of the Contemporary Records vault, a fifth album of the group’s music was released as Sonority [Contemporary CCD 7655].

Ed revels how his “creation” came about in the following insert notes to these recordings:

“I always feel like I m being given a treat when I get to work on materials from the Contemporary vault (not only because one of the things I’d hoped for in my salad days was to grow up to turn out something like Les Koenig): but this batch of Curtis Counce previously‑unreleased takes strikes some sort at special nerve. They were all recorded around the time I was starting out in the record business (for Contemporary’s down‑the‑street rival Pacific Jazz, run by the estimable Richard Bock), and featured players I was hearing with great regularity at the time on the active and exciting L.A. scene. And "active" and "exciting" are appropriate words to describe things.

In a recent set of Art Pepper notes, Gary Giddins refers to 'the cool posturing of those improvising beach boys who tried to recreate California jazz as fun in the midnight sun…,’ which pretty well reflects what was, at the time West Coast Jazz was getting lots of press, the Official New York Party Line on matters west of either Philly or, in the musings of particularly open­-minded writers, Chicago. It’s a little frightening to see this view coming around again as ‘the way it really was.’ Looking backward at art can certainly be an iffy business. There was certainly a great deal more going on along the Hollywood‑South Central‑East LA‑Beach Cities axes (for the life of me, I can't recall anything at all happening in the San Fernando Valley, which might be just another regional blindness) than one would have expected after reading the (non-­local) critics.

One of LA’s many joys was the music made by Curtis Counce and his associates. In what was, certainly, an often largely caucasian‑complected bandstand scene, Curtis's was a black face you could see with regularity in many contexts, It's my recollection that I first became aware of him during a Shorty Rogers‑ Shelly Manne stint at Zardi's, when he was featured on an ear‑opening "Sophisticated Lady." Harold Land was everywhere, and playing in a way that hardly fit any descriptions of an effete West Coast style. Jack Sheldon always seemed to be in the company of the lamentably‑undervalued alto saxophonist Joe Maini (you could catch them in the band at, if memory serves, Strip City, just off Pico Boulevard's Record Distributor's Row, around the corner on Western, where, more likely than not, Lenny Bruce was working as M.C.). And Carl Perkins. who really did play with his left hand cocked around so his thumb was aimed toward the bottom of the keyboard, ‘fingering’ bass notes with his elbow, was always working at some joint on Pico or somewhere south, more often than not with Frank Butler (who Miles Davis managed to find interesting enough to use on a few early Columbia sides).

Pianist‑composer Elmo Hope was in town from New York, and for some reason part of my job involved my spending a good deal of time driving him around to various record companies where he was selling his compositions (actually, I know for certain that he sold "So Nice" and "Origin" to both Pacific Jazz and Contemporary because I took him to both offices and watched negotia­tions go down, record business practices are learned under apprenticeship/ observation condi­tions. and I assumed everybody did business that way; I may have been right). And in addition to his splendid trumpet work and arranging in all sorts of contexts, Gerald Wilson was establishing his reputation as the leader of a remarkable, talent‑fostering band….

So it was a sweet surprise to find these cuts waiting in the can a bit more than 30 years after they'd been recorded, a reminder that there was a good deal more going an along the Pacific Rim than made the popular magazine covers. Or‑ more accurately than "surprise"‑ a reminder, and for some of us, lucky enough to have been mousing adolescently around the edge of the scene, no surprise at all.”
‑Ed Michel

In retrospect, we are fortunate that this music was recorded when it was as in 1963, just a few years after these splendid recordings were made, Curtis died of a heart attack while in an ambulance on its way to a hospital. He was thirty seven years old.

By then, as Ted Gioia points out [paragraphing modified]:

“The great flowering of modern jazz on the West Coast, which had begun in the mid-1940s on the street of Central Avenue, had reached a dead-end, financially if not creatively. It’s place in Southern California music culture was now taken over by innocuous studio pop records, the nascent sound of surf music, and the steadily growing world of rock and roll.

In retrospect, the music being played by Harold Land, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards … [and that had been played by the Counce groups], and the few other straggling survivors of the modern jazz revolution stands out as the last futile effort to hold onto the ground painfully won over a decade and a half of jazz proselytizing in the Southland, of attempts to spread the gospel of a rich, complex and deep music, a music now on the brink of being drowned out by the amplified sounds of garage bands, three-chord wonders somehow made into media stars.”


  1. great piece
    on curtis counce
    i'd seen it before
    and revisited
    this time i wanted to leave

  2. My sister, Dorothy Conlon(Schlicter), sang with The Curtis Counce Group in the late '50's in and around L.A. and traveled with the band for gigs in Denver. She is gone now and I have never been able to find recordings of her from the day. She had a very "whiskey" voice, a la Nancy Harrow. I know she did "Time After Time" with the Group.

    Does anyone out there know of her and if any recordings exist of her with the Group?


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