Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jack Tracy - Part 3

I have had two experiences as a co-producer of Jazz recordings: one involving Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni and the other with Jazz pianist Christian Jacob’s tribute album to the music of the late French pianist, Michel Petrucciani.

From my limited participation, I can assert unequivocally that everything that Jack Tracy states about the process of producing Jazz recordings is true: it involves a great deal more talent, ability and hard work than most people realize.

What follows in Part 3 of the continuing JazzProfiles feature on Jack are his remembrances from his Producer Days.

- [C] Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

What is a Jazz Record producer?

In 1958 Mercury Records, based in Chicago, offered me the opportunity to join the company as the director of its jazz wing and in that move I found myself now producing the recordings I previously had been reviewing and writing about. I took a rather brief exit to serve the same function with Argo Records, a Chess Records jazz operation, in 1960, but returned to Mercury at the instigation of Quincy Jones and remained there into the late '60s.

During my years with those companies, some of the artists whose recordings I was responsible for were Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet, Gerry Mulligan, Roland Kirk, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, James Moody, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis and singers Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Jon Hendricks, Ernestine Anderson and the Four Freshmen.. It was a new world that I continued to live in until I retired from the record business in the 1970s. Rock and roll came in, jazz was in a terrible state, and I got out.
A few years ago I read an online contribution by a man who contended that anyone could call himself a jazz record producer. I offered the following response:

To suggest that anyone can call himself a jazz record producer is undoubtedly true. To suggest that anyone can BE a jazz record producer and come up with results that are generally regarded as worthy of critical appraisal and produce profitable sales is not always true.

To suggest that all one need do is go into a recording booth and be a cheerleader or a nodding yes-man and be called the producer is to misunderstand the functions that apply to that title.

A producer is responsible for the creation of a finished product and must be involved to some degree in all the following:

*The overall budget
*Concept of the recording
*Selection of the recording studio and the engineer and recordist
*Hiring of the musicians if the recording is not being done with an already established personnel
*Selection of the compositions to be recorded
*Supervising the recording sessions
*Confidence in the producer's ear by the musicians, particularly the leader.
*Preparing all of the paperwork necessary for the payroll department, the musicians
union and the publishers performance societies so that the many legal and financial
requirements are satisfied.
*Editing the results (often with the artist not there--he may be out on the road),
selecting the master takes, arranging the sequence and mixing the tracks to
prepare a test CD for the artist to listen to and approve
*Mastering the final results with an engineer whose ear he can trust.
*Selection of the artwork for the CD and the liner note writer
*Consulting with the promotion department to determine the best venues for marketing the record.

In all honesty, however, that there was at least one instance when I received producer credit for an artist that was probably undeserved.
Some of the producers at Mercury like Quincy Jones, Pete Rugolo and Bobby Scott were also recording artists, and it was decided that they should have another staff member as their producer, someone who could handle a lot of the niggling details that take away from the time really needed to write arrangements and get ready for the recording dates.

Quincy and I had become very close friends, so I was handed the title of producer for Q. Well, to tell the truth, I was no more producer for Quincy Jones than you were, except that I got to remind him of deadlines (he was notorious for pushing the envelope where they were concerned), attend the recording sessions and stay the hell out of the way.

Sort of like a cheerleader.

Mercury – Chess - Argo
Among the many record labels that sprang up after World War II, two that were based in Chicago became important players in the game, Mercury and Chess. The former began to develop a roster of singers that made a huge dent in the pop market—Patti Page, Vic Damone, Georgia Gibbs and Frankie Laine led the way—and created jazz and country/western departments that were significantly serious. Chess was a blues label headed by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley that began to have success in jazz as well, and then came up with a smash hit in Ahmad Jamal and became a real jazz contender.

Both companies were headed by men who were tough, demanding and, unlike the heads of the large and unwieldy major labels, were able to move swiftly to respond to any situation and establish a personal relationship with key disc jockeys and radio stations that enabled them to get all-important airtime for their records. They didn’t hesitate to spend money for whatever it took to get that done.

Leonard Chess ran the company that carried his name, and Irv Green headed a cadre of WW II vets who ran the A&R (Artists and Repertoire), sales and promotion departments at Mercury.

Irv Green was an experienced record man whose father had owned the old National label. He was big, forceful, intimidating and not always easy to get along with. I never heard anyone refer to him as "a really nice guy," although when he wanted to steal an artist from another company he could be remarkably charming and persuasive.

This incident might give you an idea of his personality and business acumen:

When we had a surprise hit on our Philips label with "The Singing Nun," a 45 rpm side that found its unexpected way out of an expensively packaged specialty album, there was a rush to get quantities of the album into the stores to cash in on the single's huge sales. At one of the Monday staff meetings that kicked off each week, Green asked the art director how the production of the jacket was progressing. He was told that one of the fancy artwork gimmicks on the cover was slowing down the printing process considerably, and it would be a while yet before we could get it out in quantity.

Green, face red and veins bulging, slammed his fist down on the conference table and roared, "I don't give an eff if you put the effing record in a brown paper bag, get that goddamn thing out there, do you here me? I don't give a shit what it takes. You get it out and get it out fast or you're gone."

Irving B. Green was definitely one of a kind, and anyone who ever worked for him will never forget him.

Leonard Chess [above] came to the United States with his parents and younger brother Phil from Poland when he was just a boy. The elder Chess was a junkman, a rags and old iron guy with a horse and wagon. Leonard helped. As the little Chess junkyard grew in size they figured a truck would be a good investment.

So after a lot of looking around and shopping for the best deal they could find on a used truck, they bought one. Leonard hand-painted the sign on the door. It read:

Chess Junkyard
Truck #2

Little by little Leonard and Phil turned a South Side Chicago bar into a tiny record label started on practically zero dollars into a company with three labels (Chess, Checker and Argo), a recording studio, a music publishing company, a radio station, a pressing plant and who knows what else. Leonard was a canny, tough, shrewd businessman who viewed with suspicion every invoice he saw and every bill he had to pay. I would guess that every check that left the building met his eye.

His attitude, although I never heard him express it in just these words, was, “I’ll take a chance and record some of your songs and put ‘em out. If I make any money on them, I’ll give you some.”

He never did understand jazz musicians, let alone their music. Jazz musicians expected to be paid union scale for recording dates and any overtime. They had their own publishing companies and wanted to control the rights to their own compositions.

They expected to get their royalty statements on time, and they were able to read them. Some of them even had (God forbid!) attorneys and/or agents representing them, people who asked for things like promotion budgets and ads in the trade papers and recording sessions with strings! The six strings on one guitar were about as much as Leonard figured was necessary.

But, boy, was he a record man! I brought The Jazztet, Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s group, to Argo. Shortly after their first album came out, a Philadelphia disc jockey called to say that one of the tracks, “Killer Joe,” was getting a lot of listener response. Within five minutes of that call Leonard had me in the studio editing “Killer Joe” to suitable singles length, and the next day it was being pressed and deejay samples were readied for radio play. “Killer Joe” sold some 50,000 copies, a very large number for a jazz single, and opened the door for the group’s success.
One more story about Leonard.

He had a hideaway office tucked behind the recording studio in the building in which he could conduct those aspects of business that required closed doors. Rumor has it that once, when some of Chicago’s bent-nose guys made an appointment with him to tell him they had decided to become his partners, Leonard had a mike installed behind his desk, ran the line to the studio control room and taped their entire conversation, one in which he told them that there would be no partnership.

When they called the next day to tell him his health might suffer if he did not reconsider, he told them about the recording he had and to whom he might send copies. And so Phil remained his only partner and they were sole owners of the company until Leonard’s death in 1969.

The record business doesn’t have any Leonard Chesses anymore. It has lawyers and accountants and people who talk about demographics and world markets and conglomerates, but no one who takes a disc jockey to dinner and helps the guy out if his new house needs carpeting.

It’s a different ballgame.

Benny Goodman
There are, of course, scores of stories about Benny Goodman and his foibles, his absent-mindedness, his treatment of musicians and his reluctance to spend money. I have one to add.

When I was at Argo we had an opportunity to acquire enough unreleased material in Benny’s personal stockpile to put together an album. It required that I fly to New York and be driven to Benny’s Connecticut home by his brother Harry.

Goodman and I spent two or three hours in his private retreat off the garage that served as a practice site, music room and even rehearsal space for a small group if need be. When at last we decided on the tracks to be purchased Benny asked if I’d like to come in the house, meet his wife and have a drink before Harry and I hit the road back to Manhattan. I of course agreed, and we went in, passing the carefully manicured surroundings that included a personal trout stream.

“What do you drink?,” Benny asked. When I told him Scotch on the rocks would be just fine, he reached up to an impressive section of shelves holding what must have been many hundreds of dollars’-worth of cut glass, selected one, and then opened a cupboard beneath.

He pulled out a pint bottle of White Horse with perhaps 1/4 an inch of Scotch left in it and asked, “Do you think this will be enough for a drink?”

I managed to offer a yes without raising my eyebrows..

There was no second.

Woody Herman

You have to be almost a golden-ager to remember where you were the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I can tell you where Woody Herman was, and where I was, and where Bill Chase, Sal Nistico, Jake Hanna, Nat Pierce, and some other names known well to this group were on that 22nd day of November in 1963.
We were all at the A&R Recording Studio in New York, in the midst of making a record album that would be titled "Woody Herman: 1964." I was the producer.

We had taped one three-hour session two days previous, and we had two more to go, this one on the 22nd and the final on the 23rd. I lived in Chicago at the time, was in New York to do the dates, and had arranged a reunion lunch on the 22nd with two former Chicago neighbors.

We enjoyed a leisurely meal and decided to walk to the studio, which was on the second floor of a building on 48th St. right next to Jim & Andy's, the well-known musicians' bar and hangout. As the three of us walked in and headed for the elevator, a radio was playing loudly in the lobby cigar stand and a voice was excitedly yelling something about someone being shot. We were in the elevator behind closed doors before we heard anymore.

The grim news awaited us when we entered the control room. Kennedy, in an open convertible, had been shot at from a window in the Dallas Book Depository and had been rushed behind screaming police sirens to the Parkland Memorial hospital.

Stunning.

Woody and the band were already there. So was the recording engineer, Phil Ramone. A radio was on and was pouring out whatever facts were known. It was shortly after the shooting. No one seemed to know whether Kennedy had been seriously wounded or not. We just looked at each other.

"What do you want to do, Woods?" I finally asked. He was quiet for a few seconds,
then said, “Let's go ahead with it. We don't have much choice."

Indeed, we didn't. Their itinerary had been wrapped around these sessions, and after the next day the band would be out on a string of dates that would make it impossible to have the album finished anywhere near the deadline that had been set for its release.
Woody went out into the studio and talked to the guys. They agreed it would be better to get the job done now than to cancel the session and sit around and do nothing. Professionalism prevailed.

And so for the next three hours we recorded three of the nine charts that make up the album. It was not an easy time, especially at the point when the flash came that JFK was dead. We took a long break then, and I can't forget the look on Phil Ramone's face when we heard those words. He had done some special assignment recording for Kennedy on several occasions and knew and admired him. Tears welled up in his eyes and he looked stricken. I guess we all did. I silently pushed the bottle of J&B that was sitting on the console desk over to him. He took a hit, nodded his thanks, and we went back to work.

When it was over, everyone quietly packed up instruments and headed off. Woody and I went downstairs to Jim & Andy's and watched the events as they unfolded on the bar's TV set. When Air Force One landed at Andrews Field and the casket was unloaded there was an aching quiet in the room. People just looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. There were some tears. And there were some curses.

I walked with Woody back to his hotel and then headed off to my own. The streets of Manhattan, usually a Babel of voices and a concerto of car horns and traffic sounds, were eerily silent. It could have been a small town we were walking through, Elm St., not Broadway.

We finished recording the next day.

It was a fine album and still holds up well after some 40 years. But if it doesn't seem to have quite the fire and crackle and joyful exuberance the band showed in the two great ones that preceded it, perhaps you'll understand why.

It’s hard to be joyfully exuberant when you’re grieving.

Roland Rahsaan Kirk

Certainly the most unusual recording artist I ever encountered was Roland Kirk, who later added “Rahsaan” to his name. Shortly after I joined Argo, Ramsey Lewis told me he had recently heard a remarkable player in Louisville and had told him if he was ever in Chicago to be sure to look me up.

It was perhaps a month later that the receptionist rang me and said there was a man named Roland Kirk in the lobby to see me. I went there and was met by an extraordinary sight: there stood a man in dark glasses, raggedly dressed and carrying a white cane. Beside him was an old golf bag with two wheels attached that allowed it to be pulled. In it were some strange horns that looked like reed instruments. Over his shoulder in a separate cloth bag was a tenor sax. He was alone.

I greeted him, brought him into the office, and he produced an LP he had recorded some time previous for a small label in the Midwest. I played it and was immediately taken by his extraordinary ability to play several instruments at the same time and with great jazz feel. Kirk told me that he and his rhythm section had driven to Chicago to look for a gig and to take a chance that I would record him. I would and did. We got a contract signed, a recording date was set, and the resulting album was issued as “Introducing Roland Kirk”.
My next album with him would be for Mercury. Shortly after “Introducing” was issued I was rehired by them to direct their jazz program, and with agreement from Argo, I was able to take Roland with me.

Our first Mercury album, done in New York, was titled “We Free Kings,” and became the album that really brought Kirk to the attention of disc jockeys, jazz fans and musicians. It was his growling, moaning, utterly unique flute playing on one track that created all the attention.

After the first take on a yet-unnamed blues, a friend of mine, Phil Moore, the noted vocal coach, drew Roland aside before we did take 2 and quietly suggested to him that he further personalize his performance by thinking of it as a story and giving it continuity. What resulted was an extraordinary and ground-breaking solo that culminated in Kirk growling an impassioned “You did it, you did it,” thereby creating the tune’s title and making Roland suddenly well-known.

Kirk’s refusal to let blindness keep him from trying almost anything that appealed to him made for some interesting situations. My favorite was the time I picked him up at his motel to take him to a recording date. He got into my car, but before I could turn the key to get started he asked, “Can I drive?” I just looked at him as if he was insane. “How the hell can you drive?” I asked.

“Just tell me what’s ahead and I’ll be ok,” he said.

I told him no.

John Lennon

Here's how I learned of John Lennon's death.

I was at Donte's jazz club in the San Fernando Valley and the TV set above the bar was tuned to the Monday night football game. The band was on a break. Howard Cosell made his now-notable announcement that Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his New York apartment. It was silent. Then Jake Hanna looked up at the screen from his bar seat and proclaimed firmly in his best W.C. Fields voice, "One down, three to go."
You gotta love the guy.

....to be continued in Part 4.

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