No, this is not another post about food, I swear. The title of this essay is a pun I couldn’t resist, which I’ll explain. There’s an old expression in jazz that when a band is swinging, really cooking as it were, they “have the pots on.” This certainly applies to The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, a wonderful 1959 big band recording of Gershwin’s folk-opera, written by the D.C.-based arranger Bill Potts. It features an all-star cast of the best jazz and studio players New York had to offer at the time, probably the richest period in that city’s prolific jazz history. I first heard an LP copy of this record about twenty-five years ago and immediately bought it when it was later issued on CD. I’ve listened to it often with great pleasure ever since, it’s the kind of record that you can listen to for your whole life. It sounds better and better each time you hear it, as you become more familiar with its many highlights and nuances and I’ve had it on a lot recently. Before going into more detail about the record though, some commentary on the context in which it was made and on big bands in jazz generally, for the sake of perspective.
As organized, regularly touring units, big bands ran into hard times in the late-40s and all but a few of them disbanded in those years. They would never again dominate jazz or American popular culture as they did during the height of The Swing Era and up to the end of World War Two. This happened for a number of reasons, some having to do with economics – even then, keeping a big band afloat was costly – and changing musical tastes. Modern jazz in the form of bebop emerged in those years, a more intellectual and complex small-group music made for listening rather than dancing and, as it gradually won converts, big bands seemingly became dated. These factors were compounded right around then by some bureaucrats who cooked up a bright scheme – an asinine entertainment tax of 30%, to be levied against any venues which featured dancing . Of course, this extra cost would be passed on to the public, but rather than suffer this business-killing measure, most clubs simply stopped booking acts that played for dancing and covered their dance-floors with more tables. This put another nail into the coffin of big bands, not to mention striking a blow to the notion of jazz as a form of entertainment.
The effects were felt almost immediately in the big band business, as even the great Duke Ellington hit the skids. His band was old and tired by the late ’40s and sounded it; there were whispers and indeed, frank suggestions in the jazz press that the Duke should disband or at least take a break. Things went from bad to worse in 1951 when one of his key soloists – Johnny Hodges – left, taking drummer Sonny Greer and trombonist Lawrence Brown with him. Many thought this spelled the end for Duke.
Ellington’s chief rival Count Basie actually did disband in 1950, leading an excellent septet in place of the large band. Stalwarts such as Stan Kenton and Woody Herman somehow weathered the drought and kept their big bands afloat during this period, though Woody referred to his 1950s Herd as “the un-Herd” because its audiences were often so meager. Such persistence was largely a matter of attrition, as neither man was suited to do much else. As Woody put it, “Some guys dig ditches and some guys teach school. I lead a big band, it’s the only thing I know how to do.”
By the mid-50s however, there were signs that this worm was beginning to turn. As the function of big bands and the musical stylings they offered inevitably changed to reflect the mostly small-group advancements of modern jazz, there were signs that their fortunes were improving and this continued through the late-50s and into the next decade. It was always this way, change in jazz usually came from improvisers playing mostly in smaller groups and big bands followed their lead. To a large extent, a lot of the music of the Swing Era could be seen as simply an attempt to translate the musical innovations of Louis Armstrong to larger groups, and later big band writing would reflect the trail-blazing ideas of great improvisers like Lester Young, Charlie Parker and others.
At any rate, Ellington, with Hodges back in the fold and a fresh roster including some key younger players, scored an unexpected and riotous triumph at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which was fortunately captured on record. Almost overnight, this rocketed him to preeminence again and he never looked back, embarking on one of his greatest periods of creative output over the next decade.
Basie reformed in 1953 with his “New Testament Band” and by the mid-50s, with superior records like The Atomic Basie and Chairman of the Board under his belt, Basie’s band was as busy and popular as ever. He too would enjoy great productivity over the next decade. Perhaps encouraged by this, younger, more modern musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Terry Gibbs and Gerry Mulligan formed big bands in the ensuing years with mixed commercial success, but enviable musical results. Reflecting bebop, these bands didn’t play music for dancing so much as for listening, and very satisfying listening at that. Their music was exciting, swinging, with plenty of room for soloists and interesting, colourful arranging.
The “Dream Band” led by Gibbs never toured, but did a steady series of residencies in various Hollywood clubs, producing some great live records and enlivening the West Coast scene in the process. Quincy Jones made some wonderful big band records back then such as The Way I Feel About Jazz, but the great band he assembled in 1960 to play the Paris debut of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer jazz musical Free and Easy was stranded for several months in Europe when financial backers defaulted. The band had such spirit that they played their way back to America by doing a tour of Europe for very little pay, many of the members with families in tow. In the 1964 disbanding of Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band lay the seeds of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra which, along with the Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke Band, would set the standard for modern big bands through the ’60s and ’70s and pretty much to the present. The Jones-Lewis band was in turn a big inspiration behind Rob McConnell’s formation of The Boss Brass and another great Toronto musician, Phil Nimmons, would lead a very original band ranging in size from ten to sixteen pieces from the early ’50s till the mid-’70s.
Big bands still provided the backing of choice for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and many others on most of their records in the 1950s, so there was still plenty of playing and arranging work to be had in big bands assembled for recording purposes. Another encouraging sign was the greater frequency of high-quality, instrumental modern-jazz records made with great, studio-only big bands and top-notch arrangers, beginning mostly in New York around 1955 and continuing into the early 1960s. This was made possible by the incredible range of talented jazz players in New York at that time and by how sharp they were from working almost constantly . There were scores of musicians spread over several generations in the city who were not only great jazz players, but who had honed their studio skills – sight-reading, sectional playing, reed-doubling and so on – through the discipline learned by coming up in the big bands of the past. This meant these bands could be assembled easily and sound polished without a lot of rehearsal time. The other half of the equation was the staggering array of brilliant arranging talent on hand, ranging from veterans such as Eddie Sauter, Bill Finnegan, Gil Evans and Ralph Burns, to emerging younger writers like Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Manny Albam, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, John Lewis, George Russell, Melba Liston, George Handy, Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Foster, Nat Pierce, Herb Pomeroy, Benny Golson, Gigi Gryce, Thad Jones, Gary McFarland and others.
It’s hard to believe from today’s perspective, but record labels such as Columbia, RCA, Atlantic, Verve (and even smaller ones like Coral, Dot and Seeco) were willing to commit considerable sums to finance these more costly and largely uncommercial projects involving larger groups, some of them quite ambitious. They didn’t do so out of altruism, these records actually sold enough to make at least some profit and the bottom line then was not everything to companies as it is today. For example, in describing his early days of establishing Jazz at the Philharmonic, impresario Norman Granz remarked that people often forget that a small profit is still a profit, and that part of the reward of presenting jazz is in the quality of the music itself and being around it. This may sound philanthropic, but of course the canny Granz went on to make tens of millions with his jazz empire.
Anyway, it was with much this same spirit that these labels footed the bill for records by larger bands that didn’t exist outside the studio. It was a much different time and jazz had a much bigger share of the record market then, before pop and rock ‘n’ roll really took over in the early-60s. The fine arranger Manny Albam figured often in this sub-genre, beginning about 1955. Some of his earlier albums – The Jazz Workshop, Jazz N.Y. and The Jazz Greats of Our Time, Vols. 1 & 2 (the second volume was L.A.-based) – were straightforward and involved smaller big bands of ten or twelve players. Other ones, such as The Blues Is Everybody’s Business and West Side Story (my favourite jazz version of that great score) were more ambitious and used full-sized big bands of eighteen or more men.
Then there were the noted big band collaborations between Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans, which were a little different – more complex, benefitting from both the rising stardom of Davis and the deep pockets of his multi-national label, Columbia. Their efforts yielded three classic and critically acclaimed albums over a three-year period – Miles Ahead in 1957, their own version of Porgy and Bess  in 1958 and Sketches of Spain, from 1959-60. A fourth album by the pairing, Quiet Nights, was recorded between late 1962 and 1963 and not released until 1964. It may have been an attempt on Columbia’s part to jump on the then-current bossa nova bandwagon; at any rate it was musically far less successful than the earlier three.
Somehow during this period, Gil Evans found time to write and record two superb albums of his own, both of them issued on the Pacific Jazz label. Each featured a different fourteen-piece band with shifting personnel (including Evans as pianist) and showcasing his brilliant reworkings of classic compositions drawn from the entire range of jazz history. The first record, done in 1958, was called New Bottle, Old Wine and heavily featured Cannonball Adderley as a soloist. The second, Great Jazz Standards, was issued in 1959 and featured a greater variety of soloists, including trumpeter Johnny Coles, saxophonists Steve Lacy and Budd Johnson, and Evans himself. Without the star power of Miles Davis, these records didn’t quite receive the fanfare of the Columbia collaborations mentioned earlier, but perhaps went even further to establish the greatness of Evans as a jazz composer/arranger, if this was still in doubt.
Another notable example in a similar vein was Legrand Jazz, recorded in New York in July, 1958 and released on Phillips (though for a long time out of print.) The great French composer Michel Legrand was visiting New York that summer and was asked to write arrangements of eleven classic jazz tunes, ranging from early ones like “Wild Man Blues” and “In A Mist” to more modern ones, such as “Django” and “‘Round Midnight”. Legrand used three totally different larger groups, the first an eleven-piece band built around members of the Miles Davis Quintet – Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Paul Chambers. The second has ten men, with four trombones and tuba, featuring Ben Webster as a soloist. The third group is a fifteen-piece big band featuring some of New York’s best jazz players, including five men who play on the Potts record. Some may find some of the writing a tad fussy and precious at times, but the combination of Legrand’s very original scoring and the brilliant playing throughout makes for a unique one-off record.
Bob Brookmeyer became a frequent flyer in this field, as a sideman playing valve trombone or contributing arrangements to other people’s records and then on a series of his own albums made after moving to New York from the west coast around 1955. He announced himself as a unique big band arranger on a 1956 RCA album simply called Brookmeyer, and especially on the more ambitious Portrait of the Artist, done for Atlantic in 1960. Both these records were done with smaller big bands of ten to twelve men and show a steady progression by Brookmeyer as a composer and arranger to be reckoned with. This evolution culminated with his Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments, done in late 1961 for Verve with a full band of eighteen pieces, including much reed-doubling. A number of informed observers, Rob McConnell among them, have called this the greatest big band album ever made. From an arranging-composing perspective, it’s certainly one of the most original and wide-ranging ones, partly because Brookmeyer was not the sole arranger. He wrote four of the eight selections, with fellow heavyweights Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, Al Cohn and Gary McFarland each contributing one chart.
Happily, Brookmeyer’s big band masterpiece is paired on CD with another one done for Verve at exactly the same time – Gary MacFarland’s jazz version of Frank Loesser’s hit musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. MacFarland was fairly new to New York then and relatively unknown but this album, his first as a fully fledged leader, would change all that forever. MacFarland was largely self-taught as an arranger and, as he didn’t know better than to break many of the so-called “rules”, his writing is very fresh and original, not to mention brilliant. Only his tragically premature death a few years later kept him from achieving more. The pairing of these two superb albums on one CD is invaluable, this disc is not to be missed under any circumstances by fans of these men or of big-band writing in general.
There are many more examples from this period of good ‘one-off’ big band records, and because many of them share a common pool of writers and players drawn from the New York jazz “stock company”, it’s tempting to lump them together into a sub-category with a name, such as ‘modern swing’ or ‘big band mainstream’ – but they form a unique and satisfying body of work that eludes such easy labelling. The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess fits very comfortably among them but even so, making it was a courageous gamble on the part of United Artists and producer Jack Lewis , for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the record market at that very time was becoming saturated with a preposterous array of Porgy and Bess renditions, jazz and otherwise. First heard in 1935, Gershwin’s opera enjoyed a huge revival during the mid-50s, culminating with the much-ballyhooed release of the Hollywood film in March of 1959. In the years leading up to the making of the movie, there were several Broadway productions and dozens of Porgy and Bess albums, ranging from symphonic adaptations, vocal groups, Broadway casts, novelty groups, dance bands, choral arrangements and of course jazz versions, of which the Davis-Evans effort from 1958 was not the first .
And secondly, entrusting such a potentially redundant undertaking to Bill Potts was doubly risky because he was largely unknown to the jazz public outside of Washington, though he’d earned a solid enough reputation among Manhattan-based musicians. Potts began playing Hawaiian guitar and accordion as a child and picked up piano in his teens. While in the military from 1949-55, he had transcribed charts for Army bands and after his service he settled in Washington. He did the arranging for broadcaster Willis Conover’s series The Orchestra, which did both live shows and regular broadcasts, sometimes featuring such high-flying guests as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. During this time he also wrote freelance for various big bands and was arranger/composer and pianist for Freddie Merkle’s Jazz Under the Dome album. He was also pianist and leader of the house trio at a local jazz club called the Patio Lounge, often accompanying visiting big names from New York. Lester Young did a celebrated engagement there in 1956 and recordings from two of these evenings were released to some acclaim as the five-volume Lester Young in Washington, D.C., despite sketchy sound and a woeful piano. So, Potts had a fairly high profile in his adopted hometown, but Washington was still a relative jazz backwater. To make matters worse, Potts was also in a serious car accident late in 1957, which left him in a full body cast for several months after. He was fully recovered when UA commissioned him to begin work on the Porgy arrangements and the recording sessions were scheduled for three consecutive days beginning on January 13, 1959. The studio of choice was one of New York’s favoured recording venues, Webster Hall, with its superior piano and acoustics and the young veteran jazz engineer Ray Hall at the controls.
The band Potts took into the studio was dubbed “New York’s Finest” and was so studded with big names, jazz experience and ability, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll start with the saxophone section, which is all-world. Potts, or perhaps producer Lewis, made a really smart decision here – they formed a ready-made section by simply selecting a matched set of alto and tenor players, each pair of which had played together for years. The altos are Gene Quill (“the angry young man of the alto saxophone”) and Phil Woods, who had played and recorded many times together as “Phil and Quill.” Both came heavily out of Charlie Parker and Woods – the more responsible of the two – often acted as leader for their group. Among musicians, each man had a reputation for being able to play just about anything, written or otherwise; together they were sublime and each was an excellent clarinettist to boot. Quill’s fiery wildness led directly to his early death, whereas Woods went on to have a much longer and more successful career. At the time of this record they were very evenly matched, and occasionally it’s hard to tell them apart. Quill’s sound is a little more high-pitched and metallic than Phil’s, which was more robust and creamy. Quill has a little more double-time and sass in his playing than Woods, who tended to be more blues-oriented and direct, but both men are absolutely authoritative, trenchant jazz soloists.
The tenors are Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and not a lot needs to be said; it’s much the same as Phil and Quill, only more so. Al and Zoot began playing together in the saxophone section of Woody Herman’s famous “Four Brothers” band in the late-40s and in the years after they appeared together many times on studio dates such as this one. They formed a two-tenor quintet around 1956 and played together whenever possible, with Cohn often writing clever arrangements. Their playing dovetailed beautifully and they’re more easily distinguishable than Quill and Woods. Cohn had a thicker sound with more belly and tended to focus on the middle and lower registers of the tenor, making his attack and phrasing seem slower, almost like a lighter baritone saxophone. He also sometimes featured a delightful moan in his sound; I’m surprised he or someone else never wrote a tune called “Cohn’s Moan” or “Moan With Cohn”. Zoot’s sound was lighter and sleeker and he used the upper register more, so his playing seemed to come out faster. He was also a more volatile and whimsical improviser than Cohn, who was bound more by musical logic. Together they made a gorgeous sound.
Anchoring the section is Sol Schlinger, then one of the busiest baritone saxophonists in New York, as he would remain even after the arrival of Pepper Adams around the time this record was made. Schlinger’s ensemble playing had always been stellar, but he’s featured more than usual here and shows himself to be a mobile, thoughtful jazz soloist with a pleasantly crunchy sound. As he did with others, Al Cohn made a song title pun using Schlinger’s name, converting “Linger Awhile” to “Sol Schlinger Awhile”. A funny guy was Uncle Al. At any rate, this tremendous reed section stands out as a unit of strength even in this all-star lineup and serves throughout as a lyrical counterbalance to some of the hot and heavy brass work on this record.
The trumpets combine terrific power with precise and cohesive sectional playing, while offering a wide range of solo voices. The lead trumpet chores are handled by Bernie Glow, then one of the best lead men in the business, and he’s surrounded by three veteran soloists, each with roots stretching back to the big bands of the Swing Era – Charlie Shavers, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Irvin “Markie” Markowitz. The section is completed by the much younger Art Farmer, who had really come into his own in the five years or so leading up to this session and was then entering his prime. Although mostly known for his lyrical work in small groups, Farmer was much-featured in this kind of setting then, valued for his reliable section work, glowing tone and flawless technique, as well as his obvious melodic gifts as an improviser. Markowitz, a veteran of big bands (Charlie Spivak, Boyd Raeburn, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich in the 1940s) and no stranger to studio work, was the journeyman of the trumpet section and is probably the least well-known of them now. However, he manages to outshine all of his colleagues with his arresting turn as a soloist on “My Man’s Gone Now”, but more on that later.
With five men, the powerhouse trombone section has one or two more members than was customary. They are Jimmy Cleveland, an ebullient virtuoso with a gutsy, machine-gun delivery; Frank Rehak, a favourite of Gil Evans and a fixture on the New York studio jazz scene; Earl Swope, who cut his teeth playing lead trombone for Woody Herman and others in the ’40s; Bob Brookmeyer, equally prized as a section player and a unique, piquant soloist, and bass trombonist Rod Levitt, who was then kind of the Frank Rehak of that instrument. All of these men would be featured on the record at least once, except for Rehak, which is odd because he was a very smooth, eloquent jazz soloist.
Even more oddly, the rhythm section contains the lone non-ringer of the entire group in rhythm guitarist Herbie Powell. Before encountering this record I’d never heard of him, nor can I recall coming across his name on other records, although he must have been on plenty of them. Obviously, he’s a good player or he wouldn’t be in this company, but the guitarist one would expect to see here is Barry Galbraith, who was the very epitome of this kind of work in New York those days. For a while I thought Herbie Powell was a pseudonym for the ubiquitous Galbraith, concocted to avoid any contractual conflicts between record labels. Usually these were more tongue-in-cheek and coy in nature though, as with “Charlie Chan” for Charlie Parker, or “Art Salt” for Art Pepper. No, Herbie Powell was a real guy alright and acquits himself very well here, particularly during quieter passages where he can be heard rather than just felt.
The rest of the rhythm section is top-drawer; the pianist is Bill Evans, who requires no introduction. At the time this record was made he was gaining fame for working with Miles Davis, for his first two Riverside records as a leader and would go on to be most celebrated for the ground-breaking trios he led. But in his early years he was much sought after as a studio sideman in New York, prized for his phenomenal sight-reading, his thorough musical training and background which allowed him to assimilate seamlessly into complex, larger musical settings such as this one, and his ability to deliver memorable, pithy solos at the drop of a hat. He does not disappoint here, in fact his unique playing on several features helps to put this record over the top.
The bassist is George Duvivier, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. He was, along with Milt Hinton, the dean of New York studio bass-playing at that time, indeed he’s still one of the most recorded double-bassists in the history of American music. He was made for this kind of work and, although not at all heavily featured, he makes his presence felt here in delivering everything required – big tone, round, in-tune notes, springy bass lines, a wide, pulsing beat, accuracy and expert arco work – all without calling much attention to himself. Duvivier was utterly reliable and a pro’s pro, so was largely taken for granted by all except those who played alongside him.
Charli Persip is the drummer and was then at his very peak, known as a sleek, driving, lean-but-mean player in both small and large groups. His reputation for the latter was at an all-time high after kicking along the various high-octane big bands led by Dizzy Gillespie in those years.
So, a glittering and imposing lineup of players and to his credit, Bill Potts knows just what to do with them, his writing really allows everyone to shine individually and collectively. As Andre Previn  points out in his liner notes, Potts’ arranging abounds with originality, ideas and energy. His style is generally muscular and exuberant, but shows a sensitivity for ballads and all the dynamic shadings from pp to ff, a deftness with voice leading, counterpoint and counter-melody, a preference for full ensembles rather than small interludes between solos. He does some unusual things, such as using the melody of a song as a background behind solos, having one soloist play a quiet, improvised obbligato behind another soloist, or having soloists improvise against an ensemble statement of the melody. He’s occasionally fond of using the round form – having various voices echo a melody with staggered entrances – and he also uses key themes from earlier songs as intros or links in later ones, giving the whole album an organic quality without overdoing this. And, perhaps because he was a functioning jazz pianist, Potts understands rhythm sections, the needs of soloists and most importantly, jazz time. Above all, his writing always swings and the band has no trouble getting anything off the page, it all sounds like jazz.
Beyond what a jazz arranger actually writes – his scoring, orchestration, etc. – perhaps the most important consideration is how he handles the balance between the written and the improvised. After all, this is supposed to be jazz, and the ratio of improvisation to written ensembles, the degree of freedom afforded soloists and rhythm sections to cut loose and how they are integrated with (and accompanied by) the larger ensemble are all key factors. This demands an arranger who can see the big picture and avoid the temptation to over-write. One who excels at this – Toronto’s own Rick Wilkins – once said, “Some of the best written music is no written music at all.” I feel this is Potts’ greatest strength on this record, his deployment of the many soloists on hand and his determination to let them play. Whether it’s a melody feature or playing a jazz solo, time and time again Potts seems to find the right guy for the right tune, then drapes him in an interesting variety of background textures. In all, Potts uses sixteen different soloists, often as brief patches of vivid colour against the fabric of the ensemble.
This record was not meant to be a literal interpretation of the Porgy & Bess score, it’s really jazz versions of key selections from it. That being said, a lot of Gershwin’s music is covered here and for the most part the selections follow the general order of the original opera. Potts decides to forego the overture and elects to lead things off with the opera’s best-known song, “Summertime”. After an exciting intro with shouting brass and a brief saxophone section soli, the tune is stated by altos and trumpets at a medium-up clip, with some angular counter-melodies from the rest of the band. Then there’s a shout chorus from the band on an ascending figure, starting soft then rising to a crescendo, which kicks off the first soloist : Sweets Edison, with a cup-mute. He begins with a few of his patented ‘fall-off’ phrases, then knuckles under for a smoking solo with the band echoing the melody behind him. Duvivier is superb here, grabbing hold of the pulse with throbbing quarter notes. After a similar kickoff Al and Zoot trade choruses and the whole track swings like mad. Normally, my only criticism would be that the chart misses the gentle, lullaby essence of the song, but even with that quibble, it’s hard to argue with this as an opener. I don’t think this track should be considered on its own, but rather seen as a rousing ice-breaker to the whole record and as such, it’s irresistible. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck and yanks you into what follows, announcing, “This is a hot, swinging band and we’re going to take the gloves off and play some jazz, so buckle up!”
“A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” follows and it’s also pretty hot and heavy, with a sizzling stop-time exposition of the melody. There are good solos by Gene Quill and a very hard-blowing Earl Swope, followed by some crisp drum breaks from Charli Persip and a brief turn by Markie Markowitz on muted trumpet.
This sets the stage for the record’s first great, extended lyrical outing, Markowitz’s breathtaking turn on “My Man’s Gone Now”. It’s a very interesting and complex song in its own right, with built-in switches from 3/4 to 4/4 and subtly shifting harmonies under the mournful, bluesy melody and Markowitz plays it as if he’s been waiting his whole life to do so. Chiefly it’s his ravishing open-horn sound that gets to the listener at first – glowing and burnished, dense and broad, with just the right amount of vibrato to add some lustre. He stays mostly in the middle and very fat lower registers of the horn, suggesting Bunny Berigan in his prime, but with more bebop in the delivery. Markowitz sticks fairly close to the very strong melody throughout, but invests it with all kinds of personalized inflection – bends, smears and slurs, subtle shifts in vibrato and volume, little rips, turns and glisses – it’s a master class in how to make jazz while playing a written melody. Al Cohn drops in under him for a while, blowing a soulful obbligato. All the while, the band is thrumming along portentously under Markie and, as he builds the intensity on the repeat of the upward-moving bridge, there’s a climax as the trombones take over the melody briefly, then Markie answers them in a higher register. There’s an extended, closing vamp by the band over which Markie improvises freely, building to a crescendo with the final melody phrase played by the brass, way up high. This never fails to make the hair on my neck stand up, always brings goosebumps and I’m not alone. I remember listening to this record one night at my house with my good friends Mark Eisenman and John Sumner. Sumner had turned me on to the record in the first place and had introduced Mark to it more recently. Mark called for quiet when this track came on and we listened to it in a kind of rapture. When it was over, he was beaming, but his eyes were wet and he croaked, “That’s what my dad meant when he talked about schmaltz in music.” By schmaltz, Mark’s father Henry didn’t mean “corn” or mawkishness as many would think, but rather real emotion and soul. This track alone is worth the price of the CD, ten times over.
After an arresting brass intro and the melody, Sol Schlinger, Bill Evans, Gene Quill and Jimmy Cleveland are all featured on “It Takes A Long Pull To Get There”, with its minor-to-major chord sequence.
“I Got Plenty of Nuttin”’ is pretty much the saxophone section the whole way, as they take turns tossing the pastoral melody around with staggered entries in a round form. It’s very relaxed and almost canonical in character and shows off the beautiful sound these men make, both on their own and as a section. Then it’s Quill, Zoot and Al taking solos, separated by gently swinging shout choruses built around the melody. Zoot is particularly eloquent here and Quill shows his typically swaggering insouciance. It was this same swagger that would get the little Irishman killed a few years later when he picked one too many bar fights, but it was part and parcel of the personality that make him one of my very favourite alto players.
The record’s next great “goosebump moment” comes with “Bess, You Is My Woman”. It’s probably the opera’s greatest song, an aria really, and I wish it was played more often in small jazz groups. Without any decoration, its melody sounds to me like a great jazz chorus, but I can understand why it isn’t played more. It’s very complex, with built-in key changes and enough sub-themes and secondary melodies for several tunes, it almost demands a large, orchestral setting. Once again, Potts makes a wise choice of soloist in assigning most of the spotlight here to Phil Woods, who bathes the song in his luxuriant sound and tough brand of lyricism. While Woods is playing the melody, Charlie Shavers improvises an obligatto behind him, so quietly that at first he’s barely noticeable – he’s not only using a Harmon mute, but his horn sounds as though it’s wrapped in layers of cotton batting – it’s very effective. Woods goes on to play a bristling solo which builds as the full band enters under him with the melody and Phil just wails over this, it’s thrilling. As this climax is winding down, Zoot Sims enters and takes over briefly, then he and Woods engage in a lovely saxophone pas de deux, the band playing soft organ chords under them. The blend of their sounds and intertwining lines is just gorgeous. There’s a double-time shout leading into a vamp over which Woods plays an extended cadenza, ending with the opening phrase of the melody.
After a gospel-inflected intro, Al Cohn plays “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, his funky, moaning sound perfect for the blues-tinged melody. He’s off to blowing in fairly short order, then Rod Levitt takes over, his sound very round and fat. Then it’s Bill Evans with a boppish, long-lined solo full of the tensile and elastic rhythmic phrasing he was known for.
Next, Potts cleverly arranges the minor themes of the opera – “Prayer”, “Strawberries”, “Here Comes de Honey Man” and “Crab Man” – into a medley with shifting moods and tempos. Gene Quill, Jimmy Cleveland, Zoot Sims and Sol Schlinger are all featured briefly as soloists on “Prayer”. The highlight of the medley is Bill Evans playing the melody to “Strawberries” in glowing octaves, with the band padding softly behind him. No one ever made a more gorgeous sound on the piano or made it sing quite the way Evans does here. Charlie Shavers, with a cup-mute, is very sweet on “Honey Man” and speaking of confections, “Sweets” Edison takes the whole piece out with his puckish wah-wahs on “Crab Man” in a gradual fade.
“I Loves You, Porgy” is probably the most tender song in the whole opera and Potts chooses the perfect voice to play its melody: Bill Evans, with just the rhythm section at first, then with soft trombone chords underneath. His tone is very pearly and crystalline, and he uses the sustain pedal to get the melody notes to run together, then uses the damper pedal at precisely the right instant to freeze everything in place, a breathtaking bit of alchemy leading to more goosebumps. The trombones take over the melody on the repeat, and another great melodic voice enters, as Art Farmer plays a glowing solo over top, quoting “Falling In Love With Love” along the way. Zoot ups the lyrical ante with a ravishing solo over the bridge, his smoky Pres-inspired sound never better. The whole band plays the closing melody statement at full roar, then Potts brings everything down and has Evans finish it as he started. A beautiful arrangement of a lovely song that would remain a staple in the repertoire of Evans from this point forward.
Potts really makes something out of “Clara, Clara”, one of Porgy’s lesser-known themes. With bass and rhythm guitar providing a gentle pulse, he sets up a see-saw, four-note phrase repeated from tightly voiced muted trumpets, then has bowed bass and baritone saxophone play the solemn melody in unison underneath this. It’s a very effective and unusual combination of sounds and he later switches it up, assigning the four-note figure to low voices and the melody to higher ones in a kind of round. Markowitz and Edison both take graceful solos on muted trumpets, followed by gutsy ones from Phil Woods and Al Cohn. This unexpected little gem is my favourite track on the whole record.
Next is a straight-ahead, swinging arrangement of “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York City” at a perfect, medium tempo. Potts passes the various themes of the melody around the band very deftly, using the trumpet, trombone and saxophone sections separately where appropriate and together at full blast in other spots. It’s fittingly a very hot arrangement that again makes occasional use of the round form and has a folkish flavour at times. The brief solos are by Evans, Woods, Quill, Cohn and Farmer, with the pianist in hard-swinging form, this was a great period for Evans.
It’s late in the game, but after a startling brass intro of almost operatic intensity, Potts finally gets around to featuring Bob Brookmeyer on “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” One wonders what took him so long, but I think Potts was waiting for the perfect vehicle for Brookmeyer’s unique solo voice and this dramatic, bluesy and soulful ballad is an ideal fit. The melody has echoes of “Bess, You Is My Woman” in it, but overall this is a hotter, more mournful song and, much like Markowitz on his earlier feature, Brookmeyer makes it his own with his inimitable bag of tonally expressive effects. Smears, blats, half-valve effects, slurs, those wry, dissonant brays and surreal glisses he somehow managed, all delivered in his burry, flat tone and with darting shifts in volume, he’s quite remarkable here. Always sounding like himself and remaining utterly faithful to whatever he’s playing, Brookmeyer manages to echo almost every trombonist who ever played with Duke or Basie, while sounding fresh and modern at the same time. Not that Brookmeyer needed any help, but Charlie Shavers again sidles up and improvises another elegant, very soft obbligato behind Bob playing the melody on valve trombone. Overall, Potts makes quite unusual use of Shavers on this record – he was small, but a powerful enough trumpeter to blow the paint off the walls – but he’s the very model of taste and restraint throughout.
The album closes with an up-tempo “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way”. It’s intended as a flag-waving send-off, with exchanges of four-bar solos throughout the three horn sections – saxophones, followed by trombones and trumpets. All is going well, when there’s a sudden hiccup during the round of trombone exchanges – out of the blue, the tempo speeds up noticeably. The rhythm section is far too steady for this to have happened naturally, it’s far too abrupt. It sounds like a bad edit or splice to me, or may be something which happened on the CD transfer. The original master tapes for this session were lost, Potts and Jack Towers did the transfers by assembling as many mint-condition copies of the LP as possible and using the best one for each selection. At any rate, it’s a small blemish on the overall proceedings, the faster tempo gets a little out of control and it’s a shame this happens on the closing track. It leaves a faintly bad taste in one’s mouth near the end, but isn’t enough to spoil what is otherwise a splendid record.
For me, this album stands out today, but when it was made it probably didn’t – there was so much going on then, it was likely seen as just another record, even with its glowing personnel. It certainly couldn’t have been made today, and I don’t mean because pretty much everyone who was involved is now dead. It’s just that those were peak times, you couldn’t find a band who could play that way now, certainly not with so little preparation, and certainly not with so much personality and swagger. And you would have a tough time finding a record company to finance such a project now, it’s not commercial enough anymore. Although Potts’ reputation as an arranger is permanently cemented by this work alone, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference in his career or make him suddenly busy, there was far too much competition for that. He remained in Washington doing pretty much what he’d been doing before : free-lance arranging, some piano playing and eventually teaching arranging and composing at a college. He did do a similar album with a great lineup in 1963 for Colpix, though with less promising source music – a jazz version of Bye-Bye, Birdie. As with many good big band projects, it’s impossible to say how much of the overall success of Jazz Soul can be attributed to the writing and how much to the stellar playing. At the end of the day it’s equal parts of both, as each feeds the other.
I hope those who already have The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess will give it a fresh listen, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I certainly urge those who don’t have it to buy it, there’s a CD version of it available that also includes the 1963 Birdie material, which is worth hearing, if not quite as successful. You won’t be disappointed, Jazz Soul is a real keeper and a unique window into a time when giants roamed the streets of New York, disguised as everyday working musicians.
Notes. . Not much about this tax is remembered now, and I first heard about it when a friend emailed me a very well-written piece on it by D.C.-based trombonist and bandleader Eric Felten, published in The Wall Street Journal on March 17, 2013. I still would like to understand more about the whys and wherefores behind it, but the tax was called the “Cabaret Tax” and took effect in 1944, imposing a usurious 30% (later reduced to a merely crippling 20%) excise on all receipts from any venue that served liquor and food and allowed dancing. At first the tax’s name led many to think it would apply to only tonier spots such as The Stork Club, those with ‘roof gardens’ and other smart venues catering to the well-heeled. But once it began cashing in, the Bureau of Internal Revenue used the widest possible interpretation, meaning the tax applied to any restaurant, bar, room in a hotel or any other public place where dancing to any form of music other than instrumental or mechanical (i.e. recorded.) was offered along with food or refreshment. This hit not just the rich, but anyone who went out dancing, which was just about everybody back then. No wonder the Swing Era came to such a sudden, thumping halt and instrumental bebop flourished. Establishments tried all kinds of ways to get around the tax, including a “no show until after dinner” policy, but none of them worked, the tax man was ever vigilant. The tax was eventually reduced to 10% in 1960 and done away with altogether in 1965, but by then its effects had already waylaid an entire generation of music.
It seemed to me I’d read about a similar tax in connection with the sextet Jack Teagarden led in the late 50s and early 60s, but when I read Felten’s article in greater detail, I realized it was the same tax. Notice the tax was not applied to venues that featured instrumental or mechanical music. This meant that receipts of clubs featuring bands with vocals were also liable to the excise, even if there was no dancing. Teagarden took great exception to this – as a great trombonist, he could get along fine just playing instrumental music – but singing was a big part of his act, not only something he loved to do and was good at, but that people expected him to do. The tax all but forbade this and Teagarden had little leaflets printed up and displayed them on the tables of clubs where he played, urging customers to lodge a complaint, write their congressmen, sign a petition or anything else that would allow him to sing in public again. By the time this ludicrous tax was shelved in 1965, Teagarden was already dead and people were doing their dancing to bands made up of mop-haired young men singing with electric guitars.
This tax, coupled with New York City’s cabaret card laws in that period and the A. F. of M. recording bans imposed by James Petrillo between 1942-44 and in 1948, meant that those supposedly golden years were not all fun times for jazz musicians. Any musician working in a New York venue that served liquor had to apply for and carry a cabaret card, it was like a license to play. The administration of this was entirely in the hands of the police, who could suspend a card indefinitely without notice or recourse, entirely at their whim. A musician didn’t have to break any law to warrant this, but merely had to annoy the police, something jazz musicians seemingly did easily back then, especially black jazz musicians. Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were just two examples of many great musicians who had their right to earn a living in the city they called home taken away for years under this draconian law. From a labour standpoint, there were valid reasons for the recording bans, but one of the unfortunate side effects of these was that many fine jazz recording opportunities were lost forever, at a time when the music was undergoing rapid, significant and interesting change.
. The amazing thing about the range of talent on hand in New York then is that Potts could have formed several bands of this size with completely different personnel and they would have been just as good, with the possible exception of the saxophone section. To look at this another way, as remarkable as the lineup is on this record, it’s equally remarkable how many great players are absent. The trumpets might have included any of Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, Burt Collins, Taft Jordan, Jimmy Nottingham, Doc Severinsen, Nick Travis, Donald Byrd, Joe Newman, all of whom were very busy studio players then. The trombones could easily have included Urbie Green, Billy Byers, Tom Mitchell, Eddie Bert, J.J Johnson, Kai Winding, Chauncey Welsch, Wayne Andre, with Tony Studd or Alan Raph playing bass trombone. Those guys could have shaken the walls. It would be hard to improve on the reed section, but very good ones could have been assembled from the likes of Hal McKusick, Oliver Nelson, Jerry Dodgion, Dick Donovan on altos, Seldon Powell, Frank Wess, Jerome Richardson, Frank Socolow on tenors, and Danny Bank, Gene Allen or the great Pepper Adams on baritone. The rhythm section might have been Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson – in fact, those four did so much recording together in those years, they became known as “The New York Rhythm Section”. Other pianists who excelled at this kind of work included Dick Katz and Eddie Costa, a double-threat on vibes. Bassists who did a lot of jazz studio work in those years included Joe Benjamin, Wendell Marshall and Bill Crow. The drummer on this record could easily have been Don Lamond, Ed Shaugnessey, or Cliff Leeman. That’s how ridiculous the scene was in New York then, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
. Most on-line commentators on The Jazz Soul feel obliged to state their preference for the Davis/Evans version of Porgy & Bess. This is fair enough and understandable, as the Miles record is absolutely brilliant, one of the greatest ones ever made. But, although these two records share Porgy & Bess in common – as well as three musicians in Bernie Glow, Jimmy Cleveland and Frank Rehak – comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. It’s an oversimplification, but the Miles record is cool and the Potts record is hot. Despite the huge contributions of Gil Evans, the Columbia album is very much a Miles Davis record, as the trumpeter is featured throughout as the only soloist, whereas the Potts one features sixteen different soloists. The writing styles are also completely different. Evans concerns himself much more with orchestral colour, using an almost impressionistic symphonic palette, preferring clarinets and flutes in the reed section to saxophones (Cannonball Adderley is the only regular saxophonist in the band) and using French horn and tuba to augment the brass. In contrast, Potts uses a traditional big band instrumentation with five saxophones, none of them doubling on woodwinds. And above all, Evans, although he brings his utterly original orchestrating to bear, sticks very faithfully to the original score of Porgy & Bess and its sequence, whereas Potts does not, preferring to write swinging jazz interpretations of selections from the opera. The two records are not the same at all, don’t try to do the same things. I don’t see any particular need to compare them because I’m very glad that both exist and I’m a big believer in the varied diet approach to listening. Even vegetarians don’t eat just broccoli all the time, they branch out and it’s the same with records, it’s nice to have a variety to choose from.
. The Jazz Soul was only one of many feathers in the cap of Jack Lewis; it was quite common to see his name listed as producer/A&R man on jazz records made in New York during the 1950s and ’60s. He loved no-nonsense, straight-ahead jazz of both the big and small band variety, and had a real appreciation for good jazz arranging. After starting with Columbia in his teens, Lewis eventually oversaw the jazz division of RCA and instituted a series called the “Jazz Workshop”, which helped to showcase the writing and playing talents of men like Al Cohn, Joe Newman, Manny Albam, Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Gene Quill and many others. He later did similar work for Colpix and United Artists, as well as starting up his own short-lived Little David Records with jazz manager Monte Kay. Lewis and Al Cohn were particularly close, perhaps owing in part to a shared Jewish heritage (Lewis was born to Canadian parents – a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father) and the fact that both men each had only one functioning eye. This led to the well-known story involving these two and Zoot Sims. Once, Zoot was driving his red Volvo, with Cohn and Lewis as passengers. For no reason Zoot suddenly asked, “Both you guys have a glass eye, right?” Cohn and Lewis answered, “Yeah…..so?” After a pause, Zoot said, “I want you guys to keep both eyes on the road.”
I often confuse Jack Lewis with Jack Tracy, who filled a similar role in jazz during the same period. Tracy began as a jazz journalist, writing liner notes, record reviews and eventually became the Chicago editor of Downbeat magazine in the mid-’50s. He was very close to Quincy Jones, and in 1959 Jones persuaded Tracy to begin working full-time as a record producer and A&R man for Mercury Records, where he oversaw the making of many good jazz records into the 1960s. There’s a third Jack to make things even more confusing – Jack Towers. After a long military career, Towers became an expert in the field of CD mastering and transferring, overseeing this process on may projects including The Jazz Soul.
Returning to Jack Lewis, not many remember him now (he died alone and broke in 2011), but jazz would have been much poorer without him. In his prime, he exerted an important and benign influence over the recording world of New York and always put his money (and that of others) where his mouth was as far as jazz was concerned. Seeing his name on a jazz record is pretty much a guarantee that the music on it will be fresh, swinging, well-written and unpretentious.
. One of the problems with the frequent comparisons of the Miles/Evans and Potts versions of P&B is that they seem to imply that these were the only jazz versions made up to that time, but there were at least three which pre-dated the 1958 Miles record. The earliest of these was a massive one on Bethlehem Records, with an almost preposterously wide-ranging array of talent. The CD reissue is two discs, the original must have been on four or five LPs. It’s a full-scale jazz mounting of the opera, with each character assigned to a different singer and/or actor, including Mel Torme, Francis Faye, Betty Roche, Johnny Hartman, George Kirby, Sallie Blair, Frank Rosolino(!), Loulie Jean Norman, Joe Derise and Bob Dorough, with narration from jazz personality Al “Jazzbo” Collins. The large orchestra is drawn from Duke Ellington’s band, augmented by strings and woodwinds, but there are also instrumental contributions provided by the Stan Levey Group, the Pat Moran Quartet (including vocalist Bev Kelly) and the Australian Jazz Quintet. The musical direction is provided by the veteran arranger/conductor Russell Garcia and as one might expect from such a huge and motley crew, it’s a little wild and uneven in places, but well worth hearing.
There was a strange little one recorded in 1957 by the L.A. multi-reed whiz Buddy Collette, called “Jazz Interpretations of Porgy and Bess” and not easy to find. It has Collette playing flute and bass clarinet, leading a small group consisting of Pete Jolly on accordion, Gerald Wiggins on organ, Jim Hall on guitar, Red Callender on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. They play eight selections and achieve some interesting colours for such a small band, although frankly, the combination of accordion and organ is a bit much for me.
1957 also saw the release of the Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald version, done on Verve with a full orchestra also under the direction of Russell Garcia. It’s often overlooked in discussions of jazz recordings of P&B, but is a must-have, if only to hear Louis’ blistering treatment of “Summertime” on trumpet, his priceless vocal rendition of “Bess, You Is My Woman” (“Besssssssssssssssssss….”) and Ella’s beautiful singing on “I Loves You, Porgy”. Throughout, the luminous talents of Louis and Ells transcend the competent but unimaginative scoring of Garcia, who was maybe worn out by his 1956 efforts for Bethlehem.
There was a very good version done in 1958 on RCA by guitarist Mundell Lowe, who wrote all the arrangements for two groups – a trio featuring his guitar, and a septet notable for featuring Ben Webster, along with Art Farmer and some fine baritone sax from Tony Scott. Jack Lewis was also the producer on this date.
Pianist Hank Jones entered the fray in 1958 with his “Porgy and Bess: Swingin’ Jazz Interpretations”, done for Capitol with a quartet featuring Kenny Burrell on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and Hank’s incomparable brother Elvin on drums. The playing is impeccable throughout, but overall the record suffers from a kind of commercial blandness, as the tracks are all too short and these great players are kept under wraps.
There were also small group versions recorded after the big band efforts by Davis/Evans in 1958 and Potts and Co. in 1959. The Oscar Peterson Trio did one for Verve later in 1959 and, though hastily arranged and obviously lacking the tonal range of the larger-scale records, this one definitely has its moments.
The MJQ did a lovely version in 1964 on Atlantic and featured some of the songs from P&B in their repertoire for a few years after this. Their work on “My Man’s Gone Now” is particularly brilliant and this is my favourite small group interpretation.
Joe Henderson did an uneven but at times interesting version in 1997 with a sextet and two singers in tow – Chaka Khan and, believe it or not, Sting.
I have all of these in my record collection, but there are many others, including vocal ones featuring parings of Carmen McRae and Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles and Cleo Laine (though they never appeared together in the studio) and by Nina Simone. This would all indicate without any doubt that Porgy and Bess has held a lasting allure for players, arrangers and listeners alike, making it one of the most timeless masterworks in all of American music.
. As a composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist, Andre Previn was eminently qualified to write the commentary on The Jazz Soul upon its release in 1959. But more specifically, Previn had been at work for six months writing the orchestrations for the soundtrack score for the movie of Porgy and Bess, which would be released later that year. So to say the least, he was intimately acquainted with the music, and one could forgive him for not wanting to hear any more of it for a while. Nevertheless, he is effusive in his praise of both the musicians and the writing of Bill Potts on this record. To quote him: “I’m sure it would be natural for me to be practically immune to further versions of it; proof of the strength of the music and of Bill Potts’ unique creativity is that I found myself listening to this album with the attentiveness and pleasure of a premiere performance.”
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.