Monday, October 17, 2011

“I’m gonna tell Benny about you”: When Barney Met Charlie

On the occasion of what would be the 88th birthday of Barney Kessel (1923-2004) . . .

. . . and also, remarkably, what is the 53rd of another guitar virtuoso, Howard Alden, a keeper of Barney Kessel’s flame . . .

. . . I reproduce this reminiscence of Kessel’s cited by Wayne E. Goins and Craig McKinney in The Biography of Charlie Christian, Jazz Guitar’s King of Swing (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005, 286-88). 

In 1981, in preparation for a special Charlie Christian issue, Jas Obrecht, who had edited Barney’s column for Guitar Player magazine since the late ‘70s, interviewed him. In that interview Barney elaborated upon not only what Charlie meant to him personally, but also upon the context of jazz guitar playing that Charlie had burst into and then transformed. This valuable interview was never published until earlier this year when Mr. Obrecht posted it on his blog, to which I hope jazz aficionados will turn after visiting mine. What now follows is Goins and McKinney's introduction to Barney Kessel recollection taken from that earlier interview:

One of the places Charles [Christian] dropped by while on vacation, at the behest of a friend who worked there as a waiter, was the Oklahoma Club.  As he worked, the waiter listened to the band blow and was quite taken by a young guitarist whose style had shadings similar to the unique Charlie Christian approach. The guitarist was Barney Kessel, who was still in his teens. Years later, Kessel recounted the incredible story of how he got to know Charlie Christian for Guitar Player magazine:
Around October of 1940 [i.e., the month Kessel would turn 17.--T.F.] I was going to high school and playing with a college band from Stillwater, Oklahoma called the Varsitonians. We were playing three nights at the Oklahoma Club in Oklahoma City during some time off from classes. The first night I was taking a lot of solos on electric guitar, and throughout the evening I noticed that a young black waiter kept looking at the bandstand listening and smiling, and when I would play a solo he would nod and grin. He became very animated and showed me from a distance that he really did like what I was doing.
When we took an intermission this waiter approached me and told me that he did enjoy the way I  played and was surprised to find someone so young playing solo guitar. He went on to say that he knew Charlie Christian. He also said Charlie was there in Oklahoma City at the time, and that he intended to call him and tell him about my playing. Well, I didn’t believe that at all; as far as I knew, Charlie Christian was playing with the Benny Goodman Sextet somewhere in New York—certainly not in Oklahoma.
So in the middle of the next set I was absolutely astounded and bowled over when I looked down and in front of my very own eyes there was Charlie Christian looking up at me, registering his approval of the music and what we were doing. He was tall and very lean, and he must have been about twenty-one then. [Born in July 29, 1916, Charlie Christian was 24 in October 1940.--T.F.] I was just overwhelmed! I guess for me to see Charlie Christian at that time would be very much like a twelve-year-old girl having The Beatles look at her during their hey-day.
He seemed genuinely happy to be in my company, and of course I was delighted to be in his; so when he found out I was going to be in town for two more nights, he suggested that we might get together the following afternoon to jam.  Well, I hadn’t dared to bring this up, just out of respect for his artistry and his stature, but since he suggest it I was all for it.
So that night I went to bed almost unable to sleep, just thrilled beyond belief over being able to meet this man and have him be so nice and helpful. I say it over and over again, because I did respect him so much.
Charlie kept his word, and over the next two days, he spent some quality time with the young Kessel, who couldn’t believe what he was experiencing.
Finally, when we had finished playing and Charlie was taking his leave, I just thanked him over and over for having allowed me to jam with him and told him how I would never forget him or that day. He walked away a few steps, then turned and smiled. I can recall today his last words to me and just the way he said them, they inspired me so much. I lived on these words for a long, long time, and they helped me to build a sense of worth in myself. He walked away just a few steps and turned around and said, “I’m gonna tell Benny about you.”
[Barney would first play in Goodman’s orchestra seven years later.--T.F.]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Grant Green (1935-1979)

The basic facts about the legendary jazz guitarist Grant Green's life (June 6, 1935-January 31, 1979) and career can be found easily enough. Here's the Wiki entry for him. Here's the complete discography (although I prefer the more colorful version with its thumbnails of album covers, compiled by a Japanese fan). While he was at Blue Note records, he was its most recorded artist.

A technical discussion of Grant's distinctive tone (over the years: tones) is here. Sharony Andrews Green's Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar, his daughter-in-law's biography, fills in the many blanks left by his albums' liner notes. (Here's Bill Milkowski's helpful review.) 

I prefer to devote this birthday tribute to Grant Green by recalling my long road to appreciating his playing.  

I began playing the guitar shortly after the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, and jazz guitar became a topic for me in 1971 when I heard Melvin Sparks on the radio. One by one, I investigated all the names my jazz aficionada mother dropped on me: George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel. A friend of hers, who had played briefly in the '50s, turned me on to Kenny Burrell, and in his living room I discovered one of the more powerful influences on my playing, Pat Martino. (In my mind's eye, I can still see his Strings! album on Charlie's living room floor.) 

A few months passed, and Grant Green's name was in the air, but I knew of no one who really knew or dug his playing. I took it on faith that he was great, and bought one LP album after the other every payday at J&R's on Park Row. Here are three I remember buying (and still have, but listen to them on my iPod):

Unfortunately for my musical ears at the time, however, nothing "clicked."

I wanted "more" from Grant's playing. More what? More notes. Notes, notes, notes. He was a "single-note" player, that is, you didn't go to him for innovations in voice-leading chord progressions from him. I liked that. But I thought others, Pat Martino, for example, doled out in bushels what Grant Green seemed only to be hinting at. I had thought, and continued to think, that Pat and George Benson "said" more. 

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (1 Cor. 13:11)

I was looking for the evidence that others had apparently found. Several times in the early '70s, before Breezin' changed his life, Benson and I -- separately and coincidentally -- would come into the same New York clubs to catch one or more of Pat's shows, which offered me a chance to chat with him. On one of those between-set occasions (at "Folk City" on West Third Street, as I recall), I asked George, seated on a barstool, straight up: 

"What is 'it' about Grant Green? What am I missing?" 

"Aw, man! . . . "

Smiling easily, but unable to hide a "where-do-I-begin?" look, George began to express his apparently limitless admiration for Grant's musicality.  His touch, his taste and, yes, technique were exquisite (not George's exact words, which not even my diary holds, but those were the bases he covered). Grant's "chops" or technique was perfectly suited to his musical intention. (And what are "chops" without that correspondence but so much unmusical showing off?) His intention was simply to groove, high and hard.
Grant with Larry Young on Hammond B-3. The picture was allegedly taken in 1966
making a mystery out of the display of the LP of a '63 recording.

I sensed that perhaps George was merely being gracious: if I couldn't hear "it" in Grant's playing, his words weren't going achieve what only further listening, and living, could.

When I made a firm intention in October 2007 to return to jazz guitar with a renewed sense of purpose, I engorged myself on a great deal of music, much of which I had heard decades ago, but never listened to with the ears of someone who intended to do this one day for a living. Tunes became objects of study, not just vehicles for jamming. 

I bring my autobiographical musings to a grinding halt to say that during the next few years I finally "got" Grant Green. After downloading over a dozen of his albums as .mp3's, I understood and respected his ability to express himself in diverse genres in diverse settings, to lead a trio, a quartet, or a hard bop band that could rival Blakey and his Messengers, or to play whatever was called for in someone else's setting. 
Grant with a 22-year-old Herbie Hancock at piano. 
From the Goin' West or Feelin' the Spirit recording sessions.

Most pleasantly, and surprisingly so, I found myself wanting, not to "sound" like Grant Green, but make others feel the way I feel when I listen to him, the joy and happiness carried by those clean, articulate lines.  That's what his playing exudes. But the process of "entering into" the music of another, like entering into the thought of another, is not something done without intention. 

My appreciation of Grant Green has not lessened my regard for anyone else's playing. It is tinged only with the regret that although I have lived simultaneously with his music (albeit it was "below my radar" until 1971), I was never got to hear him "live."

I cannot repay someone on whom I can count to make me happy with his music, but I can try to pay it forward. 

Enough feeling-diluting words! Here is the only known footage of his playing (alongside legends Kenny Burrell [left], Barney Kessel [center]). Grant solos first. Enjoy it, and then with the help of the links provided above, explore and share his legacy!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Coltrane-Hartman Collaboration, March 7, 1963

47 years ago today, two men named John walked into Rudy van Gelder's studio and made music history, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmanwith the indispensable assistance of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.
    1. "They Say It's Wonderful" (Irving Berlin) - 5:15
    2. "Dedicated to You" (Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, Hy Zaret) - 5:27
    3. "My One and Only Love" (Guy Wood, Robert Mellin) - 4:50
    4. "Lush Life" (Billy Strayhorn) - 5:20
    5. "You Are Too Beautiful" (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart) - 5:32
    6: "Autumn Serenade" (Peter DeRose, Sammy Gallop) - 4:11
At just over 31 minutes in length, it was shorter than the average LP, but incomparably richer esthetically:

"Though Coltrane and Hartman had known each other since their days playing with Dizzy Gillespie's band in the late 1940s (Hartman had been with the band on an on and off basis, and Coltrane played [third] alto with the band in 1949), Hartman is the only vocalist with whom the saxophonist would record as a leader. Initially when producer Bob Thiele approached Hartman with Coltrane's request that the two record together Hartman was hesitant as he did not consider himself a jazz singer and did not think he and Coltrane would complement one another musically. However, Thiele encouraged Hartman to go see Coltrane perform at Birdland in New York to see if something could be worked out. Hartman did so, and after the club closed he, Coltrane, and Coltrane's pianist McCoy Tyner, went over some songs together. On March 7, 1963 Coltrane and Hartman had decided on 10 songs for the record album, but en route to the studio they heard Nat King Cole on the radio performing "Lush Life", and Hartman immediately decided that song had to be included in their album. The legendary compilation was made that same day . . . ."  (From the Wiki entry)
Now let's get lost in their classic take on Billy Strayhorn's  "Lush Life": 

And on Guy Woods and Robert Mellin's "My One and Only Love": 

The last word (at least here) is from reviewer Jacob Teichroew:
"The most striking aspect of this album, filled with songs about love's shortcomings, is the simplicity with which both Coltrane and Hartman treat the melodies. Hartman, never much the bebop singer, chose to stay close to original melodies as a general rule, letting his velvety tone and thoughtful phrasing become the focus. Coltrane, who had a few years before recorded Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959), a document of his technical wizardry, was inspired by Hartman's simplicity. On John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Coltrane plays as if he is singing. The result is a stunning combination of lyrical and emotional expression.  Coltrane went on to produce many more albums, and developed an often-studied body of experimental work. Hartman never saw quite the same level of fame, and never strayed far from nuanced, romantic jazz. While Coltrane is now considered an American icon, Hartman is unknown to all but jazz enthusiasts. However, on this record, the two talents meet to create a dark and beautiful masterpiece."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 6, 1923. Happy Birthday, Wes!

Wish I had time to do more than to say I hope you'll enjoy this clip of Wes Montgomery's hard-boppin' lines on "Jingles."  That's Harold Mabern on piano, very much still with us!

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4th in Jazz History: Two Charlies, Too Soon Departed

On March 4, 1941, "pre-bop" Jazz guitar legend Charlie Christian recorded (with the Benny Goodman Sextet) "Solo Flight," which reached the top of Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade and 20th from the top of Billboard's Hot 100 (Pop).  (A very helpful analysis of Christian's distinctive ideas, some from "Solo Flight," is here.) A couple of days less than a year later, Christian died of complications of tuberculosis (contracted in the 1930s), age 25.  If you have three minutes to spare, spend it on this, right now:

Exactly fourteen years later, March 4, 1955, at Birdland, the club named in his honor (and from which, ironically, he was once barred for lack of a cabaret license), Charlie Parker played in public for the last time.  He died eight days later at the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan at the age of 34. ("The official causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but Parker also had an advanced case of cirrhosis of the liver and had had a heart attack. Any one of the four ailments could have killed him." From the Wiki article.)  A moving reminiscence by Jackie McLean was my favorite part of this video clip:

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Night at Birdland: February 21, 1954

In 1954, February 21st fell on a Sunday.  
In that morning’s New York Times you might have been amused by a little article on Atlantic City boardwalk chairs by Gay Talese. (He was then working as a copy boy at the Times.
By 1954, you probably owned a black-and-white television. In April, RCA would launch its first color model. If you stayed home that evening, you could have seen Lucille Ball play mystery guest on What’s My Line?, which had premiered on CBS only a few weeks earlier. Or you could have bought a ticket to see her surprise hit comedy, The Long, Long Trailer, which had opened a few days earlier.   

If you were au courant, you knew the war against polio would accelerate that Tuesday in Pittsburgh, where children would be vaccinated en masse, thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk and his colleagues. And, as in our time, Egypt was in the news with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s grabbing the helm of state two days later.
The same week What’s My Line? hit the airwaves, President Eisenhower used them to warn against American intervention in Vietnam—after authorizing $385 million to fight communists there (on top of the $400 million already committed).
To put those millions in perspective: gas was 29 cents a gallon; a loaf of bread, 17 cents; a stamp, 3.  The average working stiff grossed $4,700 a year, putting that thousand-dollar color TV out of reach for most.
BUT . . .
If you loved jazz, then for the cost of a few drinks you could have witnessed heaven on earth at Birdland, Hard Bop’s Bethlehem,  “The Jazz Corner of the World.” For an equivalent amount today, you can download the tracks that Alfred Lion produced and Rudy Van Gelder so expertly recorded there that night, which practically put you at a table down in that Broadway & 52nd Street basement. (Yes, you can find heaven in a basement.)

For February 21, 1954 was the night The Art Blakey Quintet (or, "Art Blakey and His All Stars," as Birdland's M.C. Pee Wee Marquette announced) recorded what became A Night at Birdland, Volumes 1 and 2 (Blue Note 1521 and 1522).


1. Split Kick (Silver)
2. Once In A While (Green-Edwards)
3. Quicksilver (Silver)
4. Wee-Dot (Johnson-Parker)
5. Blues (Traditional)
6. A Night In Tunisia (Gillespie-Paparelli)
7. Mayreh (Silver)


1. Wee-Dot (Johnson-Parker)
2. If I Had You (Shapiro-Campbell)
3. Quicksilver (Silver)
4. The Way You Look Tonight (Kern-Fields)
5. Lou's Blues (Donaldson)
6. Now's The Time (Parker)
7. Confirmation (Parker)

In his distinctive delivery, the M.C. appeals to the audience's vanity: their applause will be part of the recording session and then announces the line-up:
". . . the great Art Blakey, and his wonderful group, the new trumpet sensation, Clifford BrownHorace Silver on piano, Lou Donaldson on alto, Curly Russell on bass."  
Marquette does not announce them as "The Jazz Messengers," even though Blakey had used "Messengers" on and off for the title of his various groups since 1947 (e.g., "The Seventeen Messengers," reflecting Blakey's conversion to Islam). The album covers refer simply to "Art Blakey Quintet." They become "The Jazz Messengers" regularly after Hank Mobley joins the group later that year, and "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" permanently after co-leader Horace Silver leaves in 1958.

(Stephen Schwartz and Michael Fitzgerald's virtually complete discography of Blakey and his ensembles is enhanced by many excerpts from interviews with him, so I encourage you to explore their site.)

In the interest of accuracy, we should remember the joint leadership of Blakey and Silver who (unlike Blakey) contributed many songs to the band's book. Indeed, in 1955 the group was known as "Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers," and it recorded under that very name.  

Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers

Horace Silver is indisputably a father of hard bop. Or, as he dubs himself, "The Hardbop Grandpop."

Some of the stand-out tunes: "Split Kick" (a contrafact of Harry Warren's "There Will Never Be Another You"); two versions of Michael Edwards' "Once in a While"; two of Horace Silver's breakneck "Quicksilver" (which recalls, and rivals in inventiveness, Bird's most distinctive compositions); Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" that could make me forget Blakey's 1960 studio version featuring Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt. (I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet encountered the recording of the 1957 line-up that tackled that classic:  Jackie McLean, Johnny Griffin, Bill Hardman, Sam Dockery, and Spanky DeBrest. Both albums are titled, A Night in Tunisia.)

Two versions of a J. J. Johnson' and Leo Parker's fast blues, "Wee Dot," surround "Mayreh," another Silver bebopper. The featuring of two of Charlie Parker's signature tunes, "Confirmation" and "Now's the Time," nearly a decade after they heralded the birth of bop, shows Bird's continuing influence over the next generation.

The longest track (10:15) belongs to Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight," Oscar winner for Best Original Song (Fred Astaire crooned it to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time in 1936). It is exemplary of how the jazz improviser can mine and refine hitherto undiscovered harmonic and melodic possibilities of popular music. In his solo Lou Donaldson (born 1926), throws in the proverbial kitchen sink, including a taste of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" (just as his idol Bird, on that very stage three years earlier, interpolated the opening of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, to its composer's delight, into his solo on "Ko-Ko"). 

After finishing "Now's the Time" (vol. 2, track 3), Blakey with his crisp, resonant voice, acknowledges to his audience 
"that I'm working now, and I hope forever, with the greatest musicians in the country today. That includes Horace Silver, Curly Russell, Lou Donaldson, and Clifford Brown. Let's give them a big round of applause! Yes sir, I'm gonna stay with the youngsters, and when these get too old I'm gonna get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active."

Of this stellar outfit, only Donaldson and Silver (born 1928) are still with us. (When I was being introduced to jazz in the early '70s, these two gentlemen had taken their music in a direction that didn't interest me, and so their improvisational and compositional gifts on so many historic recordings stayed below my radar for too many years. May no one reading this make that mistake.) A car accident took Brownie's life in June of 1956, and Blakey himself passed away in 1990. Bebop bass pioneer Dillon "Curly" Russell (1917-1986) had left music altogether by 1960. (Miles Davis' bop classic "Donna Lee" was named after his daughter.)

Hard bop expert Eric B. Olsen (who compiled the discography for Silver's autobiography Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty) does not list A Night at Birdland in his list of 100 Hard Bop albums which he lists chronologically. If he had, that session -- one of the first "live" recordings of jazz -- would have been listed third. Perhaps that's because while the players are all budding hard boppers, the music they made that night is bebop. There's no hint of gospel or rhythm & blues, elements that set that stage of jazz's evolution off from its predecessor. Listen to two other double-album sets by Blakey and the Messengers recorded six years later in the same club: At the Jazz Corner of the World and Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World. It's Bebop-Plus.

No, A Night at Birdland isn't hard bop. But anyone, 57 years ago tonight, who wanted to see and hear its progenitors would have had to skip What's My Line? and make their way to Broadway & 52nd.  A lucky few did, and as Pee Wee Marquette promised, their applause was immortalized on wax along with the searing sonorities they cheered.