The invaluable Spanish jazz-reissue company Fresh Sound Records recently entered new territory by out-doing itself with a huge 11-disc reissue called The Keynote Jazz Collection, 1941-47. With a whopping 243 titles performed by 62 different bands, it’s a massive compilation of music from one of the key (no pun intended) independent New York jazz labels of those years – Keynote Records. It offers a stunning cross-section of 1940s jazz in all its various styles, during a time when the music was in a process of transition as bebop was developing. More than one commentator has said that although it’s still early in the year, this is likely the jazz reissue of 2014. (Technically, it was released in 2013 – but late, in December – and word is just getting out. I missed the advance notice of this, but some jazz friends who have already received their copies informed me of it, also including a good review of the package in Jazz Weekly by George W. Harris.)
I was initially reluctant to buy this set, despite glowing reports about it. This didn’t have to do with the cost, which, depending on the source, is actually pretty reasonable, ranging between around $100 to $135 Canadian. My concern was that I already have quite a lot of this music, issued on CD by Japanese Mercury – single discs by Lester Young, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, a 4-CD set of Coleman Hawkins, as well as issues under group names such as The Keynoters and The Small Herd. My mind was changed by a review I read in the latest issue of Jazz Journal laying out in great detail the discography of this set, which actually took up more space than the rave review. From this I realized that, as much of this music as I might already have, there was a whole bunch of it that I’ve never heard, or even heard of. And a lot of it hasn’t been re-issued in a very long time, if ever. The graphically attractive and compact packaging was also praised – sturdy but slender cardboard CD sleeves instead of the dratted jewel cases, plus a detailed 124-page booklet and even a Keynote poster included as a bonus. The reviewer pointed to a few musical highlights, and concluded that the set deserved its own rating system in which he would give it ten stars, instead of the usual maximum of five. That was good enough for me, and I lost no time in ordering it directly from the Fresh Sound website, which was the cheapest option – amazon.com and other sites also have it at slightly higher prices.
At any rate, my copy was delivered very promptly and though I haven’t had time to properly digest it yet, or even listen to all of it (I’ve started with the music I hadn’t heard yet), I’m already very glad I bought this set. There’s a truly astounding range of very good music here and the well-written, informative and photo-packed booklet alone is almost worth the price of the set. I’ve learned more from reading it than I have from many jazz books I can think of and it’s also a great pleasure to look at, thanks to the reams of great photos in it. The first part of the booklet offers a fascinating history of the background and evolution of Keynote Records, written by Fresh Sound founder Jordi Pujol himself. This is followed by the information about each of the sessions, which are issued in chronological order from March 14, 1941 (a traditional jazz band of New Orleans musicians unknown to most outside of that city), to May 23, 1947 (an early session by the very forward-looking pianist Lennie Tristano, to give you some idea of the variety in the Keynote catalogue.) This info is interspersed with the photos and many excerpts from various reviews of the original records appearing at the time in Downbeat and Metronome magazines, giving the reader a bird’s-eye-view of what it must have been like to be a jazz fan in those days.
Keynote Records. Keynote was similar to other New York independent jazz labels, such as Commodore Records (owned and operated by Milt Gabler starting in 1938, as an adjunct to his family’s Commodore Music Shop); The Hot Record Society (HRS, started in 1938 by hot-jazz fan and record shop-owner Steve Smith); and Blue Note Records (founded in 1939, by a pair of German-born Jewish emigres named Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff ). There were some notable differences between Keynote and these other labels though. Keynote was a little more diverse stylistically  and also branched out more geographically, recording music not just in New York but as far afield as New Orleans, Chicago and eventually, many sessions in Los Angeles. And unlike the others, Keynote was not founded in 1940 by the man who would be its most important musical shot-caller, but rather by a man named Eric Bernay (nee Bernstein). Bernay had some interest in music and was open-minded about it, running a West Forty-Fourth St. record store called The Music Room. But his primary interest was politics – he was an activist of far-left persuasions , editing a Marxist publication called The Masses. Predictably enough, Bernay first saw his new Keynote label as a means of dispensing his political views, as the early issues were all of a left-wing, folk music variety – songs of the Spanish Civil War (pro-Republican of course), union songs, an issue of songs by the Red Army Chorus, another of anti-Jim Crow songs by Josh White, a collection of “Songs of New China” sung by Paul Robeson with a Chinese choir, and so on. Naturally enough, none of this esoteric material sold very well, with the exception of some records by The Almanac Singers, who actually had a following beyond political circles. Eventually, Bernay decided to improve the label’s fortunes by branching out into classical music, drama-related material and finally jazz, providing an outlet for a young man who was as much of a jazz activist as Bernay was a political one: Harry Lim.
Harry Lim. You couldn’t make Harry Lim up even if you tried, he was that unique. For starters he was from Java, one of the last places you’d expect to find a jazz fan in those days . Lim was born there on February 23, 1919, back when Indonesia was still a Dutch territory known as Batavia. His family was well-established in the rubber industry and Lim had a good education, learning early to speak fluent English. This helped with his growing interest in jazz, as did the family moving to Holland when he was four. Tough as it was to get American jazz records in Europe back then, it would have been impossible in his homeland. By the time he was ten, Lim had heard jazz in the form of Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, issued in Europe on the British Parlophone Super Rhythm Style Series; it sent the young Lim and the rest of Europe to the moon and back. After this he became an avid jazz record-collector and he took his collection back to Batavia with him when he returned in 1936, starting his own radio show using his records to spread awareness of jazz in Batavia. He became one of the founders of a jazz fan-club called the Batavia Rhythm Club and was also editor in chief of the Dutch East Indies jazz magazine Swing. He was all of seventeen when all this began, his jazz activism started early and never really stopped.
Lim visited New York as a tourist in 1939 and decided to stay in order to hear and meet in person the musicians he’d come to love from their records. His enthusiasm and knowledge about jazz impressed everyone who met him, as did his social skills. He stood out as an Asian in those days and his English was not only fluent, but peppered with hipster jazz argot, he got all the inside jokes and references. He was also friendly, sincere, outgoing – a very slight, nattily-dressed and charming man. He was soon seen everywhere jazz was presented and he was readily accepted into the inner circles of jazz movers and shakers like Eddie Condon and Ernest Anderson. As early as 1940, he was already active in organizing a series of private jam sessions involving many of New York’s elite jazz players. Anxious to check out other scenes, Lim went to Chicago in the summer of 1940, where he was soon presenting a series of Sunday public jam sessions at the Hotel Sherman involving such local stars as Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Noone, Bud Freeman and visiting luminaries from the Duke Ellington band such as Ivie Anderson, Lawrence Brown and Rex Stewart.
Perhaps wanting to trace his way back through the history of jazz, Lim visited its cradle of New Orleans early in 1941 and stayed for seven months. While there, he heard a band of white players led by a trumpeter/bassist named George Hartman that, to Lim’s surprise, knocked him out as much as some of the black players in this style he’d heard on record. Up to that point, Lim had a preference for black musicians, but hearing Hartman’s band was a revelation to him, and he impulsively decided to arrange his first session to record this band. This was significant, as Keynote would become one of the most racially balanced and mixed labels in jazz, presenting both integrated bands and splitting leadership fairly equally between blacks and whites. Among the independents, only HRS would come close to this .
Lim returned to New York with recordings of four selections by Hartman’s band, uncertain what to do with them. He played them for his friend Pee Wee Russell, who was really impressed, particularly by the unique clarinet playing of Leonard “Bujie” Centobie. There was speculation that they would be released by Gabler’s Commodore label, or that Lim himself would start his own label, but none of this came to pass. Lim continued his jazz activities, running a series of Sunday jam sessions at the new Village Vanguard club. In late 1941, he went back home to Java to finish his studies toward becoming a lawyer and he returned to New York in mid-1942, during the first musician’s union strike on recording, which was essentially aimed at obtaining a better royalty deal. Lim worked at that time as a jazz critic, record reviewer and sometime concert promoter, but was itching to produce jazz records of his own.
As the A. F. of M. recording strike was coming to a close in late 1943, Lim approached Bernay about the possibility of producing jazz records for Keynote and the two struck an arrangement : Lim would supervise the recordings and pay the expenses for each three-hour session – $100 to $150 for recording costs at WOR studios, $30 per sideman and double for the leader – out of his own pocket and (theoretically) recoup his money from the ensuing sales. The sessions were generally held late at night and were expected to yield finished takes of four different selections, often with alternates, the repertoire being a mixture of standards and originals chosen by Lim and the bandleaders. The records were issued as ten-inch and later, twelve-inch 78s. The bands usually ranged from four to eight pieces and Lim often hired an arranger (Buster Harding, Johnny Thompson, later Ralph Burns) to fashion cohesive intros and endings for the larger bands. Otherwise, Lim left the musicians alone and his sessions were marked by extreme relaxation and very well-chosen, unified bands; he knew how to put musicians together and get the best from them. All but a few of the Keynote sessions were supervised by Harry Lim, the exceptions being a few overseen by Bernay himself, two by Steve Smith of HRS, one by Leonard Feather and a couple by the legendary John Hammond, who came to work for Keynote in 1946 after resigning from Columbia Records.
So was Keynote jazz born, and Lim’s first move was to issue the four sides of George Hartman’s band he’d recorded in New Orleans in 1941. They are a revelation – the repertoire is straight-up Dixieland, but everything else about them is surprising. The buoyant, loose, streamlined rhythm section, the light, clean ensemble work and especially the very mobile and original sound of Centobie’s clarinet. These sides were hailed at the time as the best Dixieland issued since the days of Bob Crosby’s Bobcats and Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band, which is high praise indeed and remember, the Hartman sides were recorded well before the traditional jazz revival of the mid-40s which brought Bunk Johnson, Jim Robinson, Kid Ory, George Lewis and others out of retirement. Even when looking back, Lim was a visionary who didn’t care about stylistic categories as much as he cared about quality.
For his first New York session in December of 1943, Lim pulled out all the stops and went for the jugular, recording the Lester Young Quartet featuring Johnny Guarneri on piano, Slam Stewart on bass and the great Sid Catlett on drums. It’s a famous session, one of the crown jewels in the discographies of Young and Keynote, so it doesn’t require much comment other than to say the music is immortal and set the tone for future Keynote releases. Incredibly, though Young had recorded a lot of seminal music as a sideman since 1936 with Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others, this was his first session as an outright leader at the advanced age of 34. Making a long overdue and deserving musician a recording leader for the first time was something Lim would repeat many times as a producer in the next few years.
The rest of the Keynote jazz story is best told by the music offered in this set, and there’s far too much of it for detailed commentary, even by one as long-winded as me. Suffice it to say that it’s astonishing in quality, quantity and variety, with something to suit all jazz tastes. For those that like their jazz in a traditional vein, there’s another session from Hartman and Centobie, recorded in New York and featuring Frankie Froeba on piano with Jack Lesberg on bass and George Wettling on drums. A wonderful, eight-tune session done in New Orleans by the great Crescent City clarinettist Irving Fazola , who died young and recorded too little, and a fabulous date by another notable New Orleans clarinettist, Barney Bigard, featuring one of his greatest solos on “Coquette”. There are also thirteen fine selections by Bud Freeman in excellent company on three sessions from late 1945.
There’s a banquet for fans of Coleman Hawkins here, as he was featured in eight separate sessions in 1944 – five as leader, three as a featured sideman – at his peak and surrounded by elite players. Turning to the diametric side of the tenor saxophone, Lim again recorded Lester Young in 1944 with The Kansas City Seven, featuring Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells and a pianist named “Prince Charming”, formerly a Count.
Much of the music here is classic, small-group swing, and among personal highlights for me are a session by the wonderful alto saxophonist Pete Brown; two by the great trombonist Bill Harris (who didn’t record enough outside of Woody Herman’s band or as a leader), and a lot of Joe Thomas as both leader and sideman, he was one of the most beautiful sounding but neglected trumpeters of that period. The session by ex-Ellington bassist Billy Taylor was also one of the things that convinced me to buy this set, he’s long been a favourite of mine. His group features fellow Ellingtonian Harry Carney and an alto saxophonist named “Harvey” – Harvey was the name of the large, imaginary rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart movie of that time and Johnny Hodges’ nickname was “Rabbit”, so figure it out.
A lot of the small-group swing played here has innovative, forward-looking touches and very graceful rhythm sections – in fact, there isn’t a bum rhythm section in the whole set. Many of the players featured have one foot in the Swing Era and one in the world of bebop. Certainly Hawkins and Young, but also Don Byas, Red Norvo, Remo Palmieri, Shelly Manne, Ken Kersey, Jerry Jerome, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Ralph Burns, Budd Johnson, Billy Bauer, Shorty Rogers, Eddie Bert, Johnny Guarneri, Red Callender, Dodo Marmarosa, Howard McGhee, Serge Chaloff, Allan Eager, Neal Hefti and others who are all on various dates as sidemen or leaders throughout. Much of their music offers a strong rebuttal to the notion that ‘swing’ and ‘bebop’ were separate, black and white categories, their playing shows that bebop was not so much a revolution as an evolution. A large part of the fascination of this set lies in this transitional middle ground, where the classic qualities of mature small-group swing – melodic romanticism, rich individual sounds, a strong sense of ensemble playing and a virile beat – merge with the greater linearity, more complex harmonies and rhythms of bebop. The result is some of the finest jazz ever made – fresh, timeless and above all, swinging.
And later on, there are sessions of pure early bebop – the ones by Harris, Chubby Jackson and Neal Hefti (all then with Woody Herman’s band) and the two by Red Rodney, his first as a leader. The later of these includes such modernists as Serge Chaloff, Allan Eager, Al Haig and Tiny Kahn and the first one features the innovative bebop scat-singing team of Buddy Stewart and Dave Lambert. And of course, the two debut trio sessions by Tristano, who was so futuristic that musicians today are still chewing on his ideas. It’s hard to think of a label that recorded such a wide variety of jazz in such a short time as Keynote.
Apart from Tristano’s sessions, only four pianists were featured as leaders on Keynote, and all of them were lesser-known guys – Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s younger brother), Bernie Leighton, Arnold Ross (a superb and very underrated L.A. pianist) and Danny Hurd, who was mostly a pianist and arranger for big bands such as Hal McIntyre’s. Among the sidemen though are a glittering array of heavyweight pianists – Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Johnny Guarneri, Nat King Cole (as “Lord Calvert”) Joe Sullivan, Ken Kersey, Ellis Larkins, Dodo Marmarosa, Ralph Burns, it’s just silly good.
Harry Lim did feature bassists and drummers as leaders, which was unusual for that time. He would assemble an all-star lineup and make the drummer the leader, as he did twice with Cozy Cole , and once each with J.C. Heard and George Wettling. One would expect Wettling’s session to be Condon-Dixieland in character, but in fact it’s a very elegant mainstream swing date with a great band – Joe Thomas, Jack Teagarden, Hank D’Amico on clarinet, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison on piano and Billy Taylor on bass, with Tea singing a couple of the songs. With bassists, Taylor’s session has already been mentioned and Lim also gave a leader’s date to Milt Hinton and two to Chubby Jackson, perhaps not surprising in Chubby’s case, as he was a born leader, especially after “he quit Woody.”
Lim also occasionally did other unusual things, such as arranging sessions featuring the same instruments with rhythm sections – Roy Eldridge’s three-trumpet date with Joe Thomas and Emmet Berry, a Coleman Hawkins sax ensemble with Tab Smith on alto, Hawkins and Don Byas on tenors and Harry Carney on baritone. And perhaps best and most unusual of all, Benny Morton’s Trombone Choir with Morton, Vic Dickenson, Bill Harris and Claude Jones, wonderful stuff.
Along with all the big names, Lim also went out of his way to feature lesser-known veteran sidemen as leaders whenever possible. He did this in New York with Henderson, Taylor and Thomas, and also with reedmen Ted Nash and Gene Sedric. But he really expanded on this with his later sessions in L.A. Lim gave rare leader spotlights to four terrific saxophonists who had toiled for years as big band sidemen – altoist Willie Smith  and three tenor players – Babe Russin, Herbie Haymer and Corky Corcoran. He then did the same with two trumpeters in Manny Klein and Clyde Hurley. It’s extremely refreshing to hear these men step out of the shadows and blow, if only for a few tunes.
To jump on a jazz soap-box for a moment……The Keynote set features many prime examples of two elements that were common in jazz then, but have largely gone the way of the dodo bird since: great clarinet playing, and the use of rhythm guitar. Apart from Fazola and Bigard, there’s some wonderful playing from well-known clarinettists such as Edmond Hall and Peanuts Hucko here, but also some fine playing by lesser known wielders of the licorice stick – Rudy Rutherford, Hank D’Amico (very fluid and a favourite of mine), Heinie Beau and Aaron Sachs, who’s quite modern-sounding.
The clarinet was a key voice in jazz from its inception and right through the Swing Era, but this began to change with bebop. The complexities and challenges of the new music – louder, busier drummers, faster tempos, more chord changes, longer lines – posed a stiff test for the treacherously difficult and delicate clarinet. Plus, the clarinet was strongly associated with two things beboppers were trying to get as far away from as possible – Dixieland and Big Band Swing, as personified by bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. To make matters worse, those few clarinettists who had the technical wherewithal to negotiate their way through bebop – like Buddy DeFranco or Tony Scott – were regularly taken to task by critics for this very virtuosity. They were often automatically dismissed as being cold, unemotional, mechanical, overly technical – pick whatever cliche-term you want – and this got so bad with DeFranco, it actually drove him to a nervous breakdown and serious psychotherapy. Like it wasn’t tough enough to play bebop clarinet without a bunch of ink-stained numbskulls putting you down for even trying. This was both absurd and unfair, as if it was okay for saxophonists or trumpet players to have fantastic technique and play a zillion notes a minute, but not clarinettists – unless they were Goodman or Shaw, who were seen as old-hat anyway. (Clarinet virtuosos like Buster Bailey and Jimmy Hamilton, though not beboppers, also often suffered from similar accusations of coldness.)
The predictable effect of all this was the increasing marginalization of the clarinet in jazz. A few brave souls – Jimmy Guiffre, Perry Robinson, John Carter, Kenny Davern – managed to find a personal voice and play very creative clarinet, but this was a hard, lonely road, far too difficult for most. Nowadays, those that even bother taking up the ebony tube in jazz are relegated either to Dixieland bands, or periodic retro-tributes to Shaw or Goodman, if they get any work at all. It’s largely a matter of opinion I guess, but I don’t see the near-extinction of such a vital voice as progress, but rather as a lamentable and dumb tragedy. Hearing the clarinet playing on these records serves both as a balm against this loss as well as a reminder of just how costly it’s been. I realize this makes me sound like a dinosaur, so pass that pterodactyl bone over, would you?
It’s much the same with rhythm guitar. It’s not that I want to hear it all the time and I know that like everything else, jazz doesn’t stand still. But, where appropriate, say in groups of a certain style with more than three horns, rhythm guitar can bring a balance to, and take some of the load off, the rhythm section. The modern jazz party-line is that rhythm guitar ties everyone too much to the tyranny of the dreaded beat and blah-blah-blah, but I beg to differ, I think the opposite is true. The supple buoyancy of the guitar strumming chords gently on all four beats helps to lighten and define the walking bass, which can free the drummer and/or pianist to play away from the beat more, with percussive accents and cross-rhythms and so on, without a loss of momentum. This in turn frees the soloist to play whatever he wants without worrying about where the time is, or how it feels. The light texture, clarity and rhythmic security good rhythm guitar playing brings helps to lift and free the beat by making it airborne, which is the whole idea of swinging – to get off the ground. A lot of people seem to miss this point, but the only way the beat can drag you down is if it’s heavy – if it’s light (and rhythm guitar helps this), then it sets you free.
As the great and recently late Jim Hall (no mean rhythm guitarist himself) once put it: If you were to take the whole history of jazz – all the various styles, schools, theories, cross-pollinations, etc. – and boiled it all down to an essence, you’d be left with Freddie Green sitting under a tree going “chang, chang, chang, chang” on his guitar. Well said, Jim, and God rest you.
At any rate, many of the masters of this almost lost art – Green, Al Casey, Carl Kress, George Van Eps, Dave Barbour, Hy White, Al Hendrickson, Allan Reuss, Irving Ashby, Barry Galbraith – are gloriously present on these records and to this I say hallelujah. Say, are you gonna eat the rest of that caveman’s arm, or what?
One more point about this set – a disclaimer, but not really. This Keynote collection is not complete, nor does it claim to be. What Fresh Sound has done is to issue the master takes of all selections from these 62 sessions, while excluding all alternate takes. Judging from the Japanese Mercury reissues, there were alternate takes of every selection recorded at Keynote sessions, and often two or three. For example, the 4-CD Mercury reissue of Keynote’s Coleman Hawkins material is drowning in alternates, there are four takes of many tunes and naturally, they’re issued consecutively in the interests of chronological accuracy. As a result, I found myself not listening to these discs much even though the music was terrific. It was just too repetitive and I didn’t want to keep hitting the shuffle or fast-forward buttons on my CD player.
I love Mosaic Records as much as anybody, I must have 30 or 40 of their immaculate reissue sets. But if they’d handled this, they would likely have gone the complete route with all alternate takes in order and the result would have been 20 or 25 CDs, a price of $400 and very cumbersome listening. I’m glad Fresh Sound did it their way, they put the maximum amount of music on 11 discs and listening to them is very low-maintenance. I understand the completeist mentality and the value of alternate takes, sometimes these work. In the case of supremely inventive improvisers like Lester Young or Charlie Parker, alternates make sense because their solos are completely different, as are other things like tempos. A classic example are the three takes of Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” on Blue Note: heard back to back, they offer a fascinating insight into the development of a masterpiece.
But let’s not kid ourselves. To be honest, most alternate takes are very similar to the masters and including them all is just a way of filling up the extra space afforded by CDs. This is OK, I just wish companies wouldn’t insist on lumping all takes of one tune together – why not spread them out? I think of it this way: If you went to hear a jazz band live and they played the same tune back to back, then another one three times in a row, you’d soon get bored or annoyed and walk out – right? I don’t see that it’s much different with records.
So, there you have it, the Keynote collection, a cornucopia, a treasure trove of priceless jazz in one trim package. As my friends did with me, I in turn urge all you jazz fans out there to bite the bullet and buy this set before it disappears. You won’t regret it for a second, it will provide hours upon hours of listening pleasure and jazz joy. Thank you, Fresh Sound. And thank you, Harry Lim.
P.S. I’ll include the notes –  through  – in my next post. Enough for now, already.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.