Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Friday, April 30, 2010

John Birks Gillespie 1917 - 1993: A Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie in South America

PART 1 – Introduction

“There is a gesture he has, a motion, that always reminds me of a great batter leaning into a hit. He has a way of throwing one foot forward, putting his head down a bit as he silently runs the valves, and then the cheeks bloom out in a way that has mystified his dentist for years, and he hits into the solo. When that foot goes forward like that, you know that John Birks Gillespie is no longer clowning. Stand back.”
- Gene Lees, Waiting for Dizzy

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Scroll down a bit on the columnar side of the JazzProfiles site, and this colorized version of William Gottlieb’s famous photograph of Dizzy Gillespie appears with the following quotation from Diz inscribed below it:


“You can’t steal a gift. If you can hear it, you can have it."

Dave Usher gave the world of Jazz a gift when he recorded and subsequently issued three volumes made up of four [4] CDs of Dizzy’s 1956 State Department sponsored tour of South America.

And in an act of continuing generosity, Dave Usher gave JazzProfiles - and its readers - a gift by granting the editorial staff permission to transcribe and post the interviews with Dizzy and members of the band that made the 1956 South American tour and which are included on the two CDs that comprise Volume Three of the set.


And the gifts continued to abound when the noted Jazz writer, Ira Gitler allowed, JazzProfiles copyright permission to reproduce his insert notes to Volume One of the Dizzy in South America series in order to provide a context for Dave Usher's interviews with Dizzy and the band members that make up Part 2 of this feature.

Although the CDs themselves have been discontinued by Dave’s Consolidated Artists Productions, all three volumes are available as Mp3 downloads at Amazon.com.

© -The following insert notes to Volume 1 are reprinted with the permission of Ira Gitler; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

© -The subsequent interviews which comprised Part 2 of this feature are transcribed and reprinted with the permission of Dave Usher; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"From the September 5, 1956, issue of Down Beat: “The John (Dizzy) Gillespie band, making its second trip this year under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, began its Latin American swing July 25 in Quito, Ecuador. The band played Guayaquil, Ecuador (July 26-27); Buenos Aires, Argentina (July 28-August 4); Montevideo, Uruguay (August 5); Rio de Janeiro (August 6-12) and Sao Paulo (August 13-17), Brazil."

"At press time, it appeared possible that Dizzy and the band might play Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela on the way back."

While this projected back-end of the trip did not happen, what did take place was momentous. At this point in his career, Gillespie, at 46, was a young elder statesman of jazz and a musical ambas­sador for his country. As co-founder of the modern jazz movement and a prime mover in bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms and themes to jazz, he was one of the most respected and recognizable musicians in the world. Earlier in 1956, he had suc­cessfully toured the Middle and Near East for the U.S. State Department, leading a big band for the first time since 1950 (other than in isolated engagements).

No one would ever accuse Gillespie of being a slouch as a small-group leader, but he was truly in his element when fronting a big band. That is the back­ground from which he came, including the orchestras of Teddy Hill, Cab Cal­loway, Edgar Hayes, Lucky Millinder, Charlie Barnet, Les Hite, Earl Hines, Boyd Raeburn, and Billy Eckstine, to name a few. The first big band of his own was the one that made the ill-fated south­ern U.S. tour with Hepsations of 1945. The second attempt at a big band was made in the spring of 1946, after Diz had returned (without Charlie Parker) from a month in California, and once again put down roots on 52nd Street.
After opening with a sextet at the Spotlite in late February, expanding to an orchestra was discussed. By April it became a reality - one of the most excit­ing, explosive big bands of all time, caught up in the realization that it was taking part in something that was "hap­pening," a musical benchmark. You did­n't have to consciously think, 'This is his­toric." You felt it.

By the summer of 1947, the band, now at the Downbeat club, a few doors away from the Spotlite, had lost some of its rough edges but none of its fire, and had the luxury of an ever-expanding book. A signing by RCA Victor toward the end of August proved to be a beneficial relation­ship for both the band and the recording company, until it ended in 1949. Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra became a major force in jazz. The next contract, with Capitol Records, proved to be not as sanguine. The material recorded was not up to Gillespian standards. (The last recording they made with Capitol — under pressure - was a novelty tune titled "You Stole My Wife, You Horse Thief.") By 1950, the hand business was in seri­ous decline. It was a year in which the Count Basie band broke up, as did Gillespie’s. Basie went to a small group before reorganizing his orchestra in 1951. Dizzy wasn't to get a big band underneath him again until 1956.

Like Basie, Diz went to a sextet format.
Enter Dave Usher, a young jazz fan from Detroit work­ing in his fathers reclaimed-oil busi­ness. Usher first met Gillespie in Detroit, at the Paradise Theater. During Usher’s undergraduate days in the east, he met Gillespie again, on 52nd Street, in 1946. When, later that year, the trum­peter played in Detroit, they renewed their acquaintance, which strengthened into a lifelong friendship. With money he had saved from driving a truck for his father, Dave formed Dee Gee Records with Dizzy in 1951. There were artistic successes and commercial hit singles, such as "Oo-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be" and "School Days," but distribution and other woes forced them to lease the masters to Savoy. Usher explains: "We didn't want to lose the company, but it was Tap City, and I didn't want to declare bankruptcy. Dizzy signed with Norman Granz, and I got mar­ried and went back to work for my dad."
Gillespie led combos and also toured as a member of Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, recording for Norman’s labels in a variety of contexts. In 1956, Dizzy was asked by the U.S. State Depart­ment to organize a big band for a tour of the Near and Middle East. Quincy Jones, who had assembled several orchestras for recording dates, etc. for Diz in 1954 and 1955, was given the assignment to put together another one. As a result of the successful Middle East trip, Gillespie was asked by the State Department to tour under its auspices once more, this time in South America, with Jones again as musi­cal director. Gillespie asked Usher to join the traveling troupe. Dave explains: "Dizzy informed me that he was going to buy a portable tape machine. It was an Ampex 600 fitted into Samsonite luggage. He said, 'Why don't you come along and record?’ From being a producer, I became an engineer. We felt it was a very exciting opportunity, but for some reason Norman Granz wasn't interested."

Regarding his task at hand, Usher said, 'The good thing was that because we were on a State Department tour, we were always met by a representative from eith­er the consulate or the embassy, and they would help us with the technical aspects. We had to convert from 60 cycles to 50, and we could always rely on the people from the State Department to call ahead for a transformer, which made my job much easier. Whenever we had a prob­lem, they were there to help us and did."

'The tape ran at 7-1/2 ips. Profession­al taping at that time was always done at 15 ips (symphonies at 30). Only the 'pub­lic' used 7-1/2. Well, we disproved that theory, because this stuff is still unbeliev­ably good today, more than 42 years later. We used 3M 111 magnetic tape. It was great equipment for its time. The pre-amp was a Fisher. The Ampex was a monaural tape machine, and a guy in New York had shown me how to adapt it so that I could have two Electrovoice mics — a solo mic plus an overall mic — that I put on a stand which went up eight feet max. Most times we didn't bother trying to get the piano because we never had a decent one.

"It was a very exciting tour. The band, after the Middle East tour, was very well-seasoned, and the thing that really got me is that generally, when you're on the road, you're going to have arguments; some guys aren't happy with the other guys. We had nothing like that. There were no ani­mosities, no gripes; nobody was bitching. It was a happy tour. We had times when things were bad, like on the boat from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, when there was no heat. I mean it was winter! Every­one was bundled up, but there was never any complaining.
'This was in 1956, only two years after the Supreme Court had rejected the prin­ciple of separate but equal to end segre­gation in schools. In a sense we were an experiment, this integrated orchestra. There were four white musicians — Phil Woods, Frank Rehak, Rod Levitt, and Marty Flax. Melba Liston, the only woman, and the rest of the band were black. The State Department had spon­sored this tour to show that the U.S. was promoting integration, but an incident involving a hotel in Buenos Aires almost backfired in the State Department's face.

"We were coming from Chile after play­ing in Ecuador, and we had lost the use of two of our four engines coming over the Andes. We made it, but we were really late. People were waiting for us at the Teatro Casino. Whenever we arrived somewhere, we had to first check into a hotel in order to get ID cards in exchange for our passports. So we just dumped our gear at the hotel and immediately went to the theater. People kept saying to me 'What about the hotel? What about the hotel?' I didn't understand what they were talking about. I didn't even think about the fact that we weren't staying at the Savoy, where we had made reservations. It turned out that the Savoy Hotel had refused our admittance because there were blacks in the band. This was partic­ularly ironic because the Savoy was owned by Americans. It was a huge story in South America, in all the headlines.

"Peter Hahn, a stringer for CBS news, took me to La Prensa, the leading news­paper in Buenos Aires. This was right after Peron had fallen, and there were shell holes in the building. Hahn showed me that he was filing the Savoy story to the press services in the States. It was sup­posed to come back down in Spanish. He said, 'Watch. It'll never come back.' And it never did. The story never appeared in the U.S. It was squelched. The incident wasn't the State Department's fault, but the Communists had a field day.

“The next morning, while Dizzy was still sleeping, Peter came and dragged me out of bed. He said we had to get to the 'Pink House,' where the president of Argentina wanted to make an official apology. I accepted the apology on behalf of the band (the hotel was fined $2,500)."

None of this deterred the band from its appointed sounds. Gillespie was a great ambassador. Usher notes, "I admired Dizzy for many reasons, but one that real­ly hit home to me was when we were in Sao Paulo. We went to be interviewed at a school, Casa Roosevelt [the Franklin Roosevelt School], which was sponsored by the U.S. to teach English. It was an open-air, backyard kind of thing. There were a great many young kids, junior high and high school students, who were ask­ing Dizzy questions. They wanted to come to the evening performance, but they did­n't have the money. (We found out that our secondary sponsor, the American Nation­al Theater Academy, was charging admis­sion.) We told the kids to present their IDs and they'd get in. Dizzy refused to play until the kids were allowed in. He said, 'We're doing this for the people.'"
"For me, one of the most interesting and poignant facts of this documentary on Dizzy is not only about his music. I often looked on Dizzy as a Chaplin-esque character. He would do these cute, funny things. In addition to being known as a supreme musician, people knew him as a clown. He had comedic tendencies, and he would utilize them with an audience and be able to get an audience friendly. This can be heard here, particularly dur­ing "Manteca," when you can hear the audience's laughter. He did these little dances and all that kind of stuff, and of course the band would follow him. How­ever, having known him for the number of years that I did, I also knew a serious side to him. That serious side was shown very rarely - sometimes during an interview, but never within the structure of a performance. But he does one number [track seven], and there's a pause. Then he comes to the mic, and he comes on very straight. He says, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen.' Then he turns from the mic and says [to himself), 'Oh my good­ness, I'm out of character.' He didn't intend for the mic to pick it up, which it did, just barely. It's so brief that it escapes attention, but the memory of that moment looms in my mind.

“The U.S. also gained as a result of the tour. In every hotel, in every country we
visited, people were always waiting in the lobby, day and night, to meet Dizzy, or even just get a glimpse of him. Somehow, a few of them would always get upstairs. They would be waiting in the hall outside Dizzy's room. We tried to be nice, but it would often get intense. It was hard to move around or visit from room to room, as we often did. Someone would always want to accompany you, or take you out somewhere for a drink, or give you a pre­sent for Dizzy. Some of these guys must have figured out I was P.R. because they started approaching me. One day, a young man introduced himself to me. He was very bright, with a really quick wit. I gave in and took the young Lalo Shifrin (with his arrangements) to meet Dizzy. Lalo was the leader of the only bebop big band in Argentina. Dizzy listened to him play and immediately wanted to hire him. He asked Lalo to go to the U.S. and work with him. After that, Lalo spent nearly four years and countless sit-ins with Dizzy. Of course, Lalo went on to write some of Hol­lywood's greatest scores; Bullet, Coolhand Luke, Dirty Harry, Mission Impossible, and, recently, Tango and Rush Hour."
Reminiscing about the orchestra put a smile on Usher's face. “They flowed and drove so well. Precision and warmth. These two words don't normally go togeth­er, but they do in the case of this group of musicians. The band was able to achieve this partly because they had been working together on the road with only one day a week off, and partly because they were doing these particular compositions steady every night. But steady doesn't mean a thing if you don't have the enthu­siasm of an audience. These audiences picked up on the feel. They understood what the band was doing."

Now we can all hear what the band was doing in South America, beginning on Volume 1 with Tadd Dameron's "Cool Breeze," taken at a faster pace than in the old days. This is one of the arrangements that Billy Eckstine let Gil Fuller have for the second Gillespie band, five days before it was to open at the Spotlite in 1946. Trombonist Frank Rehak, who styl­istically was coming behind Earl Swope, opens the soloing with a combination of fluidity and rich tone. Gillespie is up next. Here a quote from Bama Warwick is in order. In Dizzy's book, to BE or not to BOP, Warwick says, "Diz was really at his peak. He was really fired up playing in front of that big band..."
Bama was referring to the Middle East tour, but he could just as well have been talking about Latin America. Dizzy's chops are phenomenal, with imagination to match. Sprinkled into his leaping solo are quotes from "Hawaiian War Chant" (altissimo), “The Hut-Sut Song," and Illi­nois Jacquet's "Bottoms Up." You can hear the crowd in a stirred-up state before the saxes begin to riff behind Diz. Then Billy Mitchell's tenor sax keeps the tem­perature at its elevated state. Dizzy comes back for a second helping, melding with the band to a close.

Ernie Wilkins' "Groovin' for Nat" (Hentoff, as you might rightly assume) is an airy, sophisticated swinger with Char­lie Persip kicking away. Gillespie's two solo spots sandwich Mitchell's, and there's a short bit from a distant Walter Davis.

In a studio version of "Can't Get Start­ed," Quincy Jones gets credit for the arrangement. Perhaps he did the orches­tration, but the introduction/ending, which Dizzy created for his small-band version in 1945 and also utilized on "Round Midnight," is present here, as are the figures under his opening inter­pretation of the melody, also from 1945.

Quincy's insinuatingly syncopated theme, "Jessica's Day" (another dedica­tion to a member of the Hentoff family, this time Nat's daughter Jessica), grooves along, giving the first bridge to Mitchell. Then it's Dizzy and Phil Woods' mobile alto sax splitting a chorus, followed by some well-grooved ensemble work with a little time out for Davis at another one of those sad pianos.

In Gillespie's big-band format for his "A Night in Tunisia," the trombone always transmits the exotic theme. Rehak helps establish the mood before the table is set for the dazzling Diz catapulting seamlessly into his solo with one of his classic suspended beginnings. Tenorist Benny Golson, with his Byas-ed stylings, catches the air of mystery well, and bassist Nelson Boyd (the man for whom "Half Nelson" was named) plucks a sonorous solo. Dizzy's coda caps the trip with a climactic exclamation point. Then, in a variety of languages, he thanks the audience for its applause before stating some multilingual toasts.
Then it's Austin Cromer's turn in the spotlight. Judging by his efforts here, it is hard to figure out why he never made it. His voice is effective in all registers. He can shout, as on "Seems Like You Just Don't Care," where Gillespie solos; and croon, amply demonstrated by "Fla­mingo," where lead alto saxist Jimmy Powell is heard in solo. Cromer's dramatic ballad style is Eckstine-tinged (in a way he reminds me more of Al Hibbler) but he has his own sound within the genre.

"Stella by Starlight" is the first of two Melba Liston arrangements. Gillespie interprets the melody, interweaving and alternating with the chart in which Liston uses the song's arresting harmonic struc­ture to her advantage. Diz solos more broadly toward the end, topping it off with his heavenly chops.

The band shuffles off to "School Days," with Davis plinking away before expand­ing his single line, which includes a refer­ence to 'The Peanut Vendor." Vocalist Gillespie updates the old nursery rhyme, having a lot of fun, and Mitchell comes on like a bar-walker with some rock-house tenor that, even in its semi-parody, cooks like crazy.

Volume 1 of this tour closes with "Manteca,” one of Dizzy’s hits. It’s all here: the ‘I’ll never go back to Georgia,’ chant; the maestro’s flights over the Latin vamp; the theme; a short solo from Mitchell; and an even shorter one from Dizzy. The rhythm section takes over at this point with bass bone and cowbell in the mix.  Soon the ensemble is into the ‘Is-tan-bul, Con-stan-ti-nople’ groove, and you know Diz is dancing. Persip, an inspiring helmsman throughout, brings it back into the ‘Manteca’ vamp and out with the main theme never restated.

There you have Volume I of Dizzy in South America. Volumes 2 and 3 will be issued in the near future.  They will not only contain more exciting big-band sides, but also some very special recordings Dizzy made with a samba band in Brazil and a tango ensemble in Argentina!”

- Ira Gitler

[Gitler’s first published piece on Jazz, which appeared in his high school (Columbia Grammar prep) newspaper (March 1946), covered Dizzy Gillespie’s small group at the Spotlite. Gitler’s friendship with Dave Usher began when they met at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.]

Personnel
Dizzy Gillespie - Leader & Trumpet
Quincy Jones, Bama Warwick, and
E. V. Perry - Trumpet
Phil Woods and Jimmy Powell - Alto
Benny Golson and Billy Mitchell -Tenor
Marty Flax - Baritone
Melba Liston, Frank Rehak, and Rod Levitt -
Trombone
Walter Davis, Jr. - Piano, Nelson Boyd - Bass
Charlie Persip - Drums









Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Phil Woods

Philip Wells [Phil] Woods
Born: Springfield, Massachusetts, November 2, 1931


© -Reprinted with the permission of Gene Lees; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Phil Woods sometimes refers to himself as Dubois. He is more than half French by ancestry. His father changed the name from Dubois. The rest of Phil is Irish.

When I played one of Phil's records for a friend whose main experience of music was country and western, she said, "Oh yes—he cares." And so he does. Phil's wife Jill (whose brother, Bill Goodwin, is the drummer in Phil's group) once said to me, "Phil's angry about all the right things."

And so he is. He gets angry about indif­ferent musicianship, politicians, racism, injustice in all its forms, and any failure to render to jazz and its past masters the respect he thinks they deserve. Phil man­ages to combine in his brilliant alto playing an improbable combination of ferocity and lyricism. Phil once said pointedly that his influences were "Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Charlie Parker, in that order." He has assimilated all his influ­ences to become utterly distinctive, one of those people you can identify in two or three bars, sometimes in one assertive phrase.

Phil graduated from Juilliard as a clari­net major. He still plays the instrument occasionally, and always beautifully. But he has specialized since early days in alto saxophone, on which he achieves a huge tone. He has played with absolutely eve­rybody of consequence in jazz, in every imaginable context, and has recorded with Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie, two of his major heroes. He is an intriguing com­poser and, as a soloist, inexhaustibly inventive.

One of Phil's early idols was Artie Shaw, on whose work he modeled his own clari­net playing. It was my pleasure to intro­duce Phil to Artie, who began his pro­fessional career on saxophone, at a party after one of Phil's concerts. Also at that party was the fine tenor saxophone player Eddie Miller. When Phil had gone off in the crowd of his admirers, Shaw said to me, "I've heard them all. All. Phil Woods is the best saxophone player I ever heard." And Eddie Miller warmly agrees.

Phil is completely uncompromising. He dislikes amplification, and will not allow microphones on the bandstand. Though he was a successful studio musician in New York in the 1960s, he has since then declined to play anything but jazz, and only on his terms. He tours with a quintet that usually contains a second horn, whether trumpet or trombone. Tom Harrell is one of the alumni of his group.

I don't wish to make Phil sound forbid­ding. He isn't. Indeed, he's terribly funny and a delight to be with. But Jill got it right; I know no one on this earth with more integrity than Philip Wells Woods.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

J.J.Johnson Sextet - "In Walked Horace"

J.J. Inc. – A Look at the Music of J.J. Johnson



© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At a point in the development of recording technology when you could still do such things, I literally wore out my copy of trombonist J. J. Johnson’s Columbia LP - J.J. Inc. [1606]. I still have the scarred LP to prove it. Imagine my delight, then, when it was re-issued as a CD [Columbia/Legacy CK 65296] with three [3] additional tracks, no less!

Why does this album have such a great appeal to me?  After all, although my father venerated the music of trombonist Jack Teagarden, I am not a trombonist nor have I ever had any desire to be one [this also in spite of the fact that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to hear the marvelous trombonist Frank Rosolino as a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars on an almost weekly basis].

Over the years, my mates who played the instrument made me aware of the technical reasons why many trombonists revered J.J. and many of these skills and qualities are outlined below in trombonist’s Steve Turre’s insert notes to the CD reissue.

What initially struck me about this recording is that it was one of the few that I always enjoy listening to from beginning to end. Many albums in my collection have one or a few cuts that I find interesting and/or enjoyable, but over the years I’ve noticed that there are only a relative few that I want to repeatedly hear in their entirety.

As I was pondering the reasons for my attraction to this album, both at the time of its issuance and retrospectively some 50 years later, it came to me that I also like the album for its consistency and continuity.


All of these factors may ultimately be due to what is denoted on the album cover: “Compositions by J.J. Johnson, Arrangements by J.J. Johnson and Conducted by J.J. Johnson.”

This recording was my first exposure to J.J.’s writing skills and they are considerable.

Recorded in 1960, J.J.’s songs and arrangements on J.J. Inc. incorporated many of the musical sensibilities that were relatively new to the music at that time such as modal Jazz, adding blues and gospel inflections to bebop, odd time signatures [i.e.: other than 4/4 time] and unusual or ‘exotic’ sounding minor key harmonies.

And then there are the magnificent musicians who perform on the date, many if not all of them relatively new on the Jazz scene at that time including a fiery and technically monstrous Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Clifford Jordan’s bel canto singing tone on tenor saxophone and Cedar Walton’s perfectly dotted eight-note phrasing and extended, lyrical improvisations on piano; all held together by Arthur Harper’s strong bass lines and Albert “Tootie” Heath crackling and incessantly, driving drumming.


If you are looking for a masterpiece, one that will keep you engrossed and enthralled for 70+ minutes, then look no farther as it’s all here whether it be the classic execution of the blues in two versions [short & long] of Fatback whose line is enhanced by Tootie’s use of 6/8 triplets on the cymbal with backbeats on the snare on “2” and “4;” or Clifford Jordan’s surprise take-over from Freddie Hubbard in the middle of his solo on In Walked Horace [need I say more about the style of this composition?]; or the vamp that holds Minor Mist together as it alternates between two minor chords before it releases each soloist into a medium walking groove; or the Milestones-inspired Shutterbug; or the easy way the soloists glide over the 3/4 time signature of Mohawk and the 12/8 time signature of Aquarius making them sound anything but “odd.”

And the CD adds three more tracks by J.J. and this brilliant group of “Young Turks” in the form of Blue ‘N Boogie” by Dizzy Gillespie, in which J.J. trades “12’s,” “8’s,” “4’s,” “2's,” and “1’s” at a lightning fast clip with "Tootie" Heath before beginning his own glorious solo,  a 13 minute version of Turnpike [a 32 bar AABA tune by J.J., based on “I Got Rhythm" changes that are altered to include the then-atypical, minor key harmonies], and the extended version of Fatback.


But don’t just take my word for it, here are the highly regarded trombonist Steve Turre’s impressions of the album.

“When I first heard a J.J. Johnson recording as a high school student, my initial reaction was one of amazement, energy, emotion, inspiration and a little disbelief!

I didn’t know it was possible to play the trombone on that level – with the technical fluidity and clarity of a sax or a trumpet – with the kind of sound possessed by the best symphonic players – with a unique conception as an improviser marked by melodic invention, harmonic sophistication, unbelievable rhythm acuity and emotional warmth based on the blues.

I was immediately converted to this new school of trombone playing and, as a young practitioner of the instrument, quickly found out that it was a lot harder to play this way than one could even imagine!

J.J. made it sound so easy, and upon seeing him in person, he made it look easy, too!

After buying every one of his recordings I could get my hands on, I sound found out
that there was so much more to his music than just a trombone player without peer.


He is as talented an arranger and composer as he is a trombonist. As a band leader, his ability to pick the right players to get the chemistry happening at the highest level and set a personal direction in the music is a gift possessed by few. When J. J. puts a band together, one hears the majestic sound of the trombone front and center. There is no doubt about it—the SOUND of his horn commands your attention as he tells his story!

J.J. INC. finds the master in a sextet setting, with an incredible line-up of young talent. A young Freddie Hubbard—before he joined Art Blakey—gives us a taste of the immense talent that he went on to develop into innovation and stardom. Likewise, a young Cedar Walton—also pre-Art Blakey—shows the promise of the innovator he became with his marvelous ensemble/accompaniment as well as his masterfully construct­ed solos. Even at an early age, Cedar is the consummate team player! Tootie Heath—from the famous family of the Heath Brothers—is smokin', playing with the fire and dynamic subtle­ty that he is known for. The wonderful tenor sax of Clifford Jordan adds a unique voice. Clifford went on to become one of the mainstays of the New York scene, playing with all the greats. Bassist Arthur Harper supplies a solid bottom with a big sound.

J.J.'s affinity to the blues is all over this recording. Mohawk is a minor blues in 3/4; Fatback is a straight ahead, funky blues in F with a slick head that gives us a classic solo by J.J.; Shutterbug is a 20 bar form that is a variation on a minor blues, and Blue N' Boogie is another up tempo blues written by Dizzy, with lots of fireworks from J.J.!

Another form closely associated with the blues is "Rhythm Changes." In Walked Horace is medium tem­po and Turnpike is up tempo and both are written on "Rhythm Changes." You can hear more blues in J.J.'s solos than in his younger bandmates, and that depth of feeling is always appar­ent in whatever he plays, whenever he plays. J.J. said that this was one of the best groups he ever put together, and he enjoyed playing with them very much. That joy is apparent!

Two tracks stand out as "compositions" rather than "tunes." Minor Mist is a beautiful melody woven by J.J. in and out of the ensemble—it showcases his beautiful tone—and there is some great brush work by Tootie. Aquarius is almost orchestral the way it is put together, with the trumpet/trombone unison melody going against the tenor sax/piano counterpoint. The interlude is very contrapuntal as well. The mood of the piece is exotic with drums playing mallets on the tom-toms.

There are many wonderful trombone players in America's clas­sical music – jazz - and they have different areas of excellence that they bring to the music. The profundity of J.J. Johnson is that he is totally balanced in all areas-as a trombonist, as a musician and as a beautiful human being. (What you are as a person comes out of the horn in the music!) He has no one area of excellence - at the expense of other areas. He has range-both high and low, a huge sound, a flawless attack, dynamics, speed, swing and soul, and yet all these great powers are only used to serve the music. They are never used superficially for their own sake. He did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. He brought the trombone into the modern world with a unique conception that affected all those who came after him and set the standard that is yet to be matched. He is still "Chairman of the Board" and I love him and thank him for all the beautiful music, inspiration and guidance.

Steve Turre
New York, May 1997

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Oliver Nelson 1932 - 1975: A Tribute

OLIVER NELSON INTERVIEW By JOHN COBLEY



© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I have long thought that had he not died so tragically young at the age of 43, Jazz saxophonist, arranger and composer Oliver Nelson may have produced a body or work to warrant consideration as “the Duke Ellington” of the second half of the 20th century.

Given his brief life, Oliver’s arranging and composition talents were prolific, by any standard of judgment.  More importantly, his music is exciting and interesting and always fun to listen to, especially in a big band context.

The editorial staff was particularly pleased to be granted copyright permission by Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records to use Kenny Berger’s insert notes to their reissue of Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Session [MD6-233] as a September 24, 2008 feature on JazzProfiles.

And subsequently, when John Cobley contacted us and offered his permission to post the following interview with Oliver that he conducted three years before Nelson’s death in 1975, needless to say, we now had reason to become doubly pleased.

John lives in British Columbia. We’ve never met in person, only coming together via the Internet as a result of our common interest in Jazz.

He has had a successful career as a professional writer. In addition to Jazz, another of John’s interests is running. He used to work as a track and field writer. Not surprisingly, then, he is currently “…  working on a ‘book’ on running, great runners, coaches and famous races.”

Here’s what John had to say as by way of background to his interview with Oliver:

“Going over it after all these years, I was surprised how well it went and how much Oliver Nelson [ON] opened up to me (a humble student). His frustrations with the "scene" come over quite strongly. I was quite moved by his comment about his black brothers. The first part is rather long (about jazz education),….   Still I think that overall the interview will give those interested in Nelson some useful insights.”

© -John Cobley. Reprinted with the permission of the author; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

SALT LAKE CITY, 1972 

In the spring of 1972, Oliver Nelson visited Salt Lake City to work with the University of Utah jazz program. I attended one of his sessions with the university big band. At one point he got out his alto and began a solo; however, after a minute he stopped abruptly, apologizing that the thin air at 5,000 feet was too much for him. (In retrospect, this might well have been an indication of the heart condition that was to end his life three years later.)

After the session I approached Oliver Nelson for an interview. I introduced myself as a third-year student from BYU who had a weekly jazz program on KBYU-FM. He agreed to meet me later at his hotel.  Arriving on time, he commented on some “weird looks” he got on the streets of Salt Lake City because of his color. After the interview, he talked to me personally and, giving me his home address, said he would welcome any ideas that I might have for projects he could work on.

Q: First of all, I’d like to ask you about jazz education. I believe you’ve been greatly involved in it for the last few years.

ON: The University of Utah jazz program is only three years old. In that three-year period, enrolment has gone up constantly, to the point that the jazz curriculum is one third in terms of student numbers. And the school felt that they should find some way to merge jazz and the regular music department.  However, the regular music dept has nothing to do with the jazz department, and they are worlds apart in concept. Of course, jazz theory and harmony are quite different from European classical theory and harmony.  North Texas State’s program is 25 years old and it has been successful for 25 years. But even there they are finding resistance to the jazz program.

Q: Could you define what you mean by successful?

ON:  When I went to Washington University in St Louis, we could not even mention the word jazz. So I got a very good classical background—in 16th century harmony. Then in 1966 they invited me back to start a jazz program. It’s as if they are finally seeing that jazz is an important art form. If you are going to teach it, you can’t just pull out an educator and say “Teach jazz.” You have to get people who have been professional musicians, who have traveled. I’ve played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Quincey Jones, Louis Bellson, so they said that the logical person is a former student who has gone out and been very successful in the world. It was an honor for me.
Q: Do you think that this gulf between classical and jazz education is getting any narrower?

ON: Jazz programs are bringing a great deal of pressure upon music schools.  For instance, emphasis is now on improvisation. As a student, I had a professor at Washington University who said that any music that is improvised is not art. I raised my hand and said, “What about the troubadour songs with mandolins and lutes? Troubadours would go all around Europe singing and improvising. It’s codified in one large book. How do you account for this?”  He just told me to see him after class. I got a D in that course. So communication is a big problem because all the heads of music departments have no real knowledge of jazz. Their only option is to bring in professional people to teach it. But professionals like Dizzy Gillespie have the experience   but no degrees after their name. So the heads say, “Why should we pay someone like Dizzy Gillespie $25,000 a year to teach when he doesn’t have a Ph. D.?”  Well, he doesn’t need one.  So lines have to be clearly drawn.

Q: Would you say then that jazz programs have become embarrassingly popular?

ON: That’s right. And that makes it very difficult for the classical part music departments. In one of the reports concerning Dr. Fowler’s resignation here at the University of Utah, the words “domination by the Jazz Department” appeared.  Well, that’s a strange word, domination. The University of Utah stage bands have been consistent winners in the festivals; that’s great publicity for the school. You’d think the school would be very happy about it, but somehow they feel very nervous and threatened.

Q: There has been some cross-fertilization between jazz and classical music—Stravinsky for example. Do you think that this cross-fertilization will develop into one musical form?

ON: I think so. Recently there was a review of a piece of mine that was premiered by the Eastman Orchestra at Rochester. It’s a 15-minute piece. And the reviewers didn’t know where it belongs. You can’t tell where the jazz stops and where the classical music begins. So that’s what I’ve been working for in my own career—to try to cross-fertilize. I find it’s happening more and more because of the exposure the jazz musicians are getting and the exposure to rock. They also have to take classical courses, and somehow it rubs off. It goes back and forth. I think it will be a natural thing. And it’s going to take years before we can really see the truth of it.  But I hate this resistance that you get in a music department where the classical people don’t speak to the jazz people.  It’s wrong, you know.

Q: There is an aloofness to any kind of exuberance in classical music.

ON:  Oh, yea.  One good example is this. Zubin Mehta of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They did a piece of mine maybe two years ago for full orchestra. Zubin was very concerned. He said, “Why is it that you don’t see any black faces at these concerts at the Music Center?” I said that I’d thought about it. So he said, “Why don’t we have the whole symphony orchestra play the high school in the so-called ghetto area of Watts?” And we did this piece of mine there. They also played the first part of The Rite of Spring. And the black kids loved it. So he said, if they won’t go to the Music Center, let’s take the music to them. He’s also changing his program, doing less say of Mozart and Bach. And he will have one concert featuring the music of Lalo Schifrin and Frank Zappa. He’s trying to reach a new audience.

Q: We had him here at Provo. In our interview he seemed concerned with the image of classical music. But most of those involved in classical music don’t seem concerned. They feel people have to rise up to their level.  We feel that Mehta has almost been ostracized for his attitude.
ON: He  comes down to the grass roots level and tries to reach the people. He says the programming of a normal symphony orchestra is usually bad. People aren’t coming out to hear things that they’ve heard before. So he’s putting on a great deal of new music, and they are giving him a hard time for that. He’s bringing jazz composers into the Music Center to do things with the orchestra; he’s getting problems with that. What’s happening in the universities is almost a parallel with what’s happening with symphony orchestras. Q: So what advice would you give to the heads of university music departments?

ON: To recognize that they will have to deal with it sooner or later.  My son, Oliver Junior, who will be 17 soon, is asking where he should go to school and what he should take. I tell him, “You really do need a good classical background, beside what you are going to find out about jazz and everything else. You still need a good basis.  I recommended he study classical harmony and theory. But he should also be free to elect to take jazz harmony courses and not have the feeling that the two are separate things. He’s content now to get a good education, one that will give him the best of both worlds.
At the Eastman School of Music, the students decided: they wanted jazz to be taught. And they started the program there two years ago. The students got the head of the music department to resign. The students will have a lot to do with the future.  They know what they want. They’ve looked at the world their fathers have given them and said, “The world doesn’t work.” The students will decide that jazz will be taught in the music departments; they may even decide who will teach it. And I think this is a good thing—as long as they don’t burn the place down!

Q: I recently did a talk on the problem of soloing with a big band as opposed to soloing in a small group. Do you have any opinions on this?

ON: I personally prefer small groups. I’m using a synthesizer now and an electric piano. And maybe an electric bass, though I always feel the need for the upright bass. I find that with three good players I can make more music than with a 20-piece orchestra that’s hard to handle because you have to conduct and play at the same time. A large orchestra sort of hems you in. So when I work with a large group I always write places inside the piece where I can play with the rhythm section. And then at some point I’ll scream, “Let’er in” or something, and the orchestra will join me at that point. But I do prefer small groups.

Q: With college bands the ensemble sounds fine, but there is often a letdown when the solos start.

ON: They aren’t developing soloists like they should. They’re developing ensemble groups. This problem has been on my mind. I was at a festival where I heard 80 bands in three days, and I don’t think we heard one outstanding solo. It bothers me because this means that improvisation is not being taught the way it should be in the colleges.

Q: I’m wondering whether it might be better for big-band soloists to have some sort of solo worked out beforehand.
ON: No. Just let it come right off the top of your head.

Q: Even at the college level?

ON? Yeh. I think the blame falls mainly on the educators. The 80 bands were all white bands—very little integration. They had some Orientals and Spanish-speaking kids. But they were playing mostly rock not jazz. Since this was a jazz festival, this was very puzzling to me. When I talked with the band directors, their attitude was that they were trying to play the music of the kids’ generation. Improvisation is not part of their teaching process. So you hear ensemble after ensemble--but no outstanding soloists.

Q: Can you give any comments on the problems students have when they first start composing for jazz orchestra?

ON: First they need to know theory, instrumentation/orchestration. You need to know how to handle all the instruments because not all of them are transposing instruments. It puts a burden on the young composer just to copy the parts because the orchestra is so large. I would personally select smaller ensembles first and then work up to the larger groups.

Q: How did your own career develop?

ON: I started out with piano when I was four and with saxophone when I was 11. I was working professionally when I was 12, touring with a territory band when school was out. After that I went with Louis Jordan’s big band, and then I had to go in the Marine Corps for two years.  Public Law 550 provided me the means to get an education so I went to Washington University from 1954 to 1958 and then Jefferson University in Lincoln City, Missouri. Then I got married and went to New York. My first success, I would say, was an album I did for ABC Paramount, Blues and the Abstract Truth. On the basis of that one record, I had created my own sound. It only worked for me. If other people used it, guys would say, “You sound just like Oliver Nelson!” And then I went on to do an album with Jimmy Smith, Walk on the Wild Side. That was a start. After that I was writing more than I was playing. I stayed in New York almost ten years, bought a house on Long Island and had to fight that traffic every day. Then I said, “I think I want more out of life than this. I think I’d like to write for films.” So we moved to California, where I’ve been writing for feature films: Death of a Gunfighter, Zigzag, Skullgduggery.
Q:  How did you find satisfaction doing that? I hear that Quincy Jones is giving it up.

ON: He needs money. Well, he’s starting to go very commercial now. That’s what Hollywood can do. So now I’m involved in film writing I do music on a regular basis for Longstreet, for which I created the theme, and do underscores for Ironside and a show called Night Gallery.  But I find that’s not enough. I get the feeling that this year is going to be critical because I’ve decided to make my own music available to schools and colleges. I think I am going to do less and less of the other and do more and more in education.

Q: On this album (Leon Thomas in Berlin) I noticed a change in your playing. It seemed to be cathartic, terribly powerful emotionally.

ON: (Laughs) I was having a wonderful time in Berlin, and I guess it shows up on that record. And I don’t  play that often. When I do play I just take my saxophone right out of the bag and put it together and play it. I don’t live with it every day. The reason that I can pick up my saxophone and play it is that I am always thinking about it.

Q: We had Don Ellis here recently, and he was talking about Gary Burton, how he practices…

ON: In his head. Right. Same thing.  But that album—you’re saying my playing is different. There was a period when my playing was one way and then my playing changed almost over night. I have a Japanese Yamaha saxophone that they gave me in Tokyo three years ago. And then I have a German mouthpiece which has an adjustable chamber inside. The Japanese instrument is so good that it enables me to go outside the well-tempered whatever. I can play as high as I want. My French Selmer saxophone wouldn’t allow me to do that because it was too good. It’s like owning a Rolls Royce, but you wouldn’t enter it in a race.

Q: But there’s a purity in your playing in that recording. I don’t know whether it’s a change in your style….

ON: I think it’s happened inside me.

Q: …as though you felt content within yourself and confident that you had no need to prove yourself. Could you make any comments on this album?
ON: Leon Thomas is also from St. Louis. He’s always talking about “Back to Africa.” And I’ve been to Africa, and I’m saying Africa is not where it is. He has never been there, and he’s talking about the Mother Country! The one thing that I found out about Africa is that it was not alien in the true sense. But there’s such a difference in the cultures that I said that the place to start thinking about making a living is in this country, America, although Africa was very nice to visit. Maybe that has something to do with my playing on this album too. It gave me a chance to focus on things I hadn’t thought about. As you can see I had on a dashiki for the occasion. But that’s not the normal way I play.  It used to be suits and ties, but I can’t do that anymore.

Q: What do you think about this African movement in Jazz—Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane—although their music is perhaps more North African and Indian?

ON: Well, it’s the same thing I’ve mentioned earlier. They’ve never been there. I thought that in going to Africa we would find some black faces and we would be able to exchange things musically. But in the major portion of my tour there, in the capital cities, we didn’t find one person who could play any jazz. And then I started to think about it: was American slavery the catalyst that was needed in order to make this music? Why did it only happen her and nowhere else? It didn’t happen in the Virgin Islands. It didn’t happen with the Africans who went to South America. Why did jazz only happen here?  Maybe slavery was the answer. The records of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane are very commercial. And when I say commercial, it’s that people are now trying to identify with something. So Pharoah Sanders sells quite a few records. But I don’t know if that’s how he really feels about it.

Q: I have a theory which I’d like to put to you. I’ve read that rather hysterical book by Frank Kofsky (Nelson laughs, “Oh, Frank”) and the rather better one by Ben Sidran, Black Talk….

ON: I don’t know that one.

Q: …and it seems to me that through the history of jazz the black musician has created a style and the white man has come along and copied it.

ON: That’s true.

Q: And each time that has happened, the black musician, to keep his individuality, has to jump to something different.
ON: This is very true because one of the things I ask young players when I meet them is, “Have you ever heard of Charlie Parker?” They say no. Then I look at the band instructor and wonder how the hell he can teach jazz. Another man, who will remain nameless, if I would say Charlie Parker, he would say Lee Konitz. If I would say Duke Ellington, he would say Stan Kenton. If I would say John Coltrane, he would say Stan Getz. He didn’t realize that he was trying to have a complete division, saying this was white jazz, cool jazz. Of course, what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing, that was black jazz. And I hate to think of jazz being that kind of music. As long as politics can stay out of it, I think music in this country will be very, very healthy. If I were white composer, I would have been totally famous and a millionaire by now. But it takes me longer. I have to prove myself every time I write a film score. Every time I stand in front of an integrated orchestra, I’ve got to know what I’m doing. Whereas you can get other people—Chuck Mangione, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him--he’s a big success because of some album he did with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra.  There’s no music there. But you hear Chuck’s name on the radio constantly, that he’s gonna be the man of the future.  Someone said that everyone is still looking for the great white hope. I hate to think of music in those terms.

Q: In Europe we respect you for what you are.

ON: In Europe it’s different. Why do you think I go to Berlin and have such a wonderful time? Because of the music, first of all. I can write anything for a German audience. I know I can extend my thoughts and do this and that, and I don’t have to be commercial.

Q: Why is there a difference then?

ON: I don’t know. It’s a complete reverse in Europe. Phil Woods, he goes to Europe and he feels he is being discriminated against because they think of him as a good white saxophone player. He says all the black musicians over there get drunk and they can’t play, but everybody leaves them alone because of their contribution to music. Over here Phil Woods was sought after, but in Europe….especially in France…they said before he died Sidney Bechet would play so badly some nights because he was sick, but people loved him just the same. He didn’t have to prove himself; he’d done that years ago. But Europe is lovely. I haven’t been to London yet. I always stop there to change planes. I can’t work there because British musicians would have to go to the States. In a country like Finland they play very, very good and play jazz as close as they can play it. I’m going to Norway this summer. Music can speak in an international way to all people. But over here we have Shaft. Everybody’s saying that’s the way all movie scores should be written. I don’t agree. You have to write for the  picture. Now the Shaft fad has taken Hollywood by storm. This country is very faddish. I somehow come through it all. I just go through the whole period, and I don’t change my style and I don’t change my ideals of what music should be. As a result I hear people say I’m one of the few who have not sold out yet. And they’re waiting for me, waiting for me to sell out.

Q: Do you feel bitter?

ON: No, I just feel that the music business in this country is geared to the lowest common denominator.  Do you know what they call me, my black brothers?  They call me a white musician. They call me a white composer. It’s because I’m always trying to do something. I couldn’t stay with Shaft just to prove how black I am. So I write all kinds of twelve-tone music. I write from my experiences through my education, and now I’m putting together my own thing. And if it goes outside their spectrum, they say, “You’re thinking white.”  You should see my last score; I showed it to Gerald Wilson this morning. It’s Berlin Dialogue. He said it looks like a road map! I said exactly what it is. I just give players places to start and stop. Driving from here, you have to take directions and know what turn-off to take. This is the way I think about improvisation. I don’t want to tell a player what to play, but I give him certain road maps and signs, and he can do whatever he wants as long as he is does it during this period. And he says you’re giving him too much freedom, but I say that every time we play this piece it sounds pretty much the same. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want everybody just playing anything they wanted to play; I wanted to control it just a little—enough to have the same performance time and time again.

Q: At a certain point jazz suddenly became serious. I wondered if you knew why.

ON:  They were trying to make it respectable. It started with John Lewis and the Third Stream. It was because most of the musicians were going back to school, and they were studying with people who were saying, “In order to make a good piece you have to go about it in this manner.” And it came out sounding serious. When jazz musicians write for a jazz orchestra—saxophones  and trumpets-- they write one way, and when they have a chance to write for a symphony orchestra--strings--they write in a completely different style. And then you wonder why.  Is it because respect for the symphony orchestra makes you write that kind of piece? My piece for Zubin was very rhythmic and I left a place inside the piece for me to improvise. The only thing I did was use the larger orchestra. When I write for a symphony orchestra, I think about the piece and what I want to do. But I only go about it in a bigger way. I don’t get serious about it. My music comes right off the top, you know.
Q: There is another kind of seriousness, which is almost a religious seriousness.  Coltrane for example.

ON: John Coltrane approached his music from that standpoint. He was very serious about it, but serious in that sense doesn’t mean pretentious. Maybe he knew he was going to die. Towards the end he was getting more and more involved in thinking about life. And then he dies, and that was the end of it. Pharoah Sanders has this quality also—music as a religion. Eric Dolphy was like that too—always serious about his work. I understand what you mean by seriousness that takes on a spiritual quality.

Q: I wonder if it started earlier.  Lester Young had his religious conscience nagging him.

ON: Listen. I have a religious conscience nagging me.

Q: But why didn’t it happen in the twenties?

ON: Well, everybody was having such a good time. It’s almost like if you go out and get drunk, the next day you feel like you’ve committed a sin—especially when your head hurts and you feel rotten. And you probably did commit a sin because you hurt your body. But John Coltrane was a very nice person, and he had a great deal of respect for other people’s work. Pharoah Sanders called me a couple of months ago to do an album for him. That’s one of the  projects I hope to be working on soon. I don’t know what kind of project it will be.  With him, his music is not ordered in a sense but is ordered, and with me working with a large a group over which I have to have some control, how do we put Pharoah Sanders in the middle and have it come out meaning something? It’ll be a project to work on.