Whether you’re a young musician in training or a fan in the making, the early days of jazz discovery are heady ones, not unlike Christopher Columbus landing on the shores of the New World. Because there’s so much music to hear for the first time the musical slate is blank and your ears are fresh and unspoiled, just waiting to be thrilled on a daily basis. Reading about jazz in books and magazines fuels the curiosity and helps along the knowledge, but hearing great music in person or on records is what really makes a visceral impact in those fledgling days.
My first such “light-bulb” experiences came while listening to jazz records alone. But later, quite a few of these wow moments came in the company of trumpeter John MacLeod, my oldest jazz friend. This is intended as an account of maybe the most memorable of these.
I’ve mentioned John a number of times in other posts; we met in high school and he inducted me into his Dixieland band on bass with the general instruction to “don’t stop playing till the tune’s over.” Relative to that time – 1973 or so – we were both ‘retro-ists’ in terms of our jazz tastes and listening habits, John perhaps more so. He was mostly into trad and Swing: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook records and a bunch of older big-band stuff. I was more of a bebopper, heavily into Bird and Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, some MJQ and above all Miles Davis with John Coltrane. So John and I cross-pollinated, introducing each other to records the other guy hadn’t heard before.
John’s parents owned a nice chalet-style cottage on a beautiful piece of land in Haliburton. The core of the Dixieland band – MacLeod, John Ellison, who played tenor and clarinet, guitarist Greg Stone and I – often gathered there on weekends or during the summer to play, practice and hang out. We would talk music and listen to records or just plain goof off. It was all pretty teenager-bohemian.
One time, the two Johns and I had just arrived at the chalet and Ellison went off somewhere in his dilapidated pick-up truck, maybe to buy some beer. MacLeod peeled the cellophane off a budget-label Roy Eldridge record he’d bought the day before at a drug store. I can still see the cover, Roy looking like a miniature Muddy Waters with his hair all conked up, wearing a red-and-black-checked flannel shirt and playing a trumpet with a flat green-yellow finish. I don’t remember if I’d heard much of Roy at that point, probably not. I knew from reading that he was a small, very intense guy who had earned the nickname “Little Jazz”, and that he’d been a star soloist in the Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa bands And perhaps most importantly, that his playing was a major inspiration to Dizzy Gillespie and some of the other bebop trumpet players.
The record was a generic compilation without any personnel listing so we just threw one side of it on the record player and listened. It was very good, showing the essence of Roy’s style – a lot of speed and range, a hot buzzing sound, and a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners mentality.
Intrigued, we flipped it over and were immediately captured by the piano on the first track: it sounded like Oscar Peterson (and it was) playing a speedy intro that used Bird’s “Cool Blues” as a motif. It perfectly set up “Blue Moon” at a medium-up tempo, Roy playing the melody with a Harmon mute, another trumpeter with a cup-mute answering him with a sweet little counter-melody. They switched off at the bridge, the cup-mute trumpet taking the melody with Roy blowing insistent little fills behind him. The melody statement was already swinging really hard and it was hard to believe this was the same tune that had been a doo-wop hit for The Marcels. But none of it prepared us for what came next: as the melody came to an end there was a two-bar break in which the cup-muted trumpeter identified himself with authority, and then some. He played a tightly spinning, chromatic figure articulated with such coiled precision and fury that it could only be Dizzy Gillespie.
The force of it literally knocked us over, sending us both on to our backs: “Jesus, did you hear that? Whoa!!” There was no time to recover or catch our breath though, because the break was only a warm-up, a calling card, as Dizzy continued at that blistering level for a whole chorus. Then Roy came in for one, still with the Harmon mute in He picked up right where Diz had left off with a little bugle-call singsong line, his sound urgent and rasping, his phrasing trenchant. Wow.
The pair traded two choruses each like this with mutes in, sparring and turning up the heat, then backing off a little, toying with the tune and each other. It was just unbelievable. Diz ended his second helping with a pithy five-note phrase – “man, can you dig this?” – which extended over the end of the form. Roy immediately picked up on it to start his chorus, later playing it up an octave. They were killing me, but I could only imagine what John must have been feeling as a trumpet player. I remember looking over at him, his eyes closed and his face all sweaty, his body rocking back and forth like a jockey riding Sea Biscuit.
I was just beginning to cultivate the ability to divide my listening between what was happening up top and what was going on underneath, so I was dimly able to appreciate the rhythm section while the soloists were blowing me away. The bassist could only be Ray Brown, nobody else had that sound and played those Jack Dempsey quarter-notes like punches to the gut. And there seemed to be a buoyant cushion of air around each one of them, provided maybe by some light rhythm guitar. Yep, as I found out later, it was Herb Ellis. The drummer (Louie Bellson) had a nice combination of litheness and power, playing brushes first on the snare drum and then the cymbal, while laying a stick to the rim of the snare and chopping some wood to bring up the intensity during the second traded choruses. And Peterson was there stoking the fire with his comping, which had a little bit of everything – percussive chords or more leagato ones strung together into riffs, and spinning melodic interjections which goosed everything. It was just mind-blowing.
Then Diz and Roy began trading eights for a few even more dazzling choruses, bringing things to a boil. At that point we were in a lather of excitement, heads spinning, spines tingling, when Dizzy suddenly upped the ante by taking out the cup-mute. At that precise instant, Bellson switched to sticks and our heads caved in. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal now, but the sudden ramping up of the sonic picture with open trumpet and ride cymbal was just electrifying, maybe the most exciting little musical moment I’d heard up to that point. It felt like somebody had touched a live wire to my skin, things had gone from hot to hot to hot. Just as we were adjusting to the new ride of this rocket – like Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb in Doctor Strangelove – Roy provided the turbo-boosting coup de grâce. After Dizzy’s eight bars he played two notes, also open-horn and way up high, delivered with screeching viciousness. Powwwww!! Zoom!! The impact even got to Dizzy, who yelled “Yeah!!” in the background. John and I were off to the moon Alice, just gone, on our backs again, in orbit. Giggling, drooling, groaning…. “Oh man….can you believe how great this shit is?!?…….Whoo-ee…..”
Brilliant and intense as Diz and Roy had been up to that point, they were relatively well-behaved until Roy’s two Gabriel notes screamed “Let’s go!” and the gloves came off. Dizzy immediately came out swinging on the bridge as he and Roy continued to exchange open-horn eights for chorus after chorus, each gathering air and inspiration while the other blasted away with a vengeance. Diz played some impossibly long, flowing-yet-jagged lines way up high, Roy countering with shorter jabbing phrases, swinging like mad, his sound a frenzied buzz. I can’t speak for John, but I don’t really remember what I heard after the first chorus or two of open-horn eights. I was in a state of delirium which still feels like retro-amnesia to this day, a kind of jazz black-out.
It was literally too much, we never saw it coming: we’d been hit right between the eyes by this electric bolt of creative improvisation and swing at a level we hadn’t remotely dreamed was even possible.
It was like a title fight between two heavyweights, but there was no blood, no bells or rounds and no champion having his arm raised at at the end. It was a thrilling draw in which the combatants came at each other with mutual respect and admiration, bringing out the best in each other and willing the other to be great. John and I were the winners for having stumbled onto this incredible performance, for being involved with something that promised such an exciting journey as jazz did.
Eventually, after how long I couldn’t say, Roy and Diz wound it down and returned to the melody stated as before and took it out in a loose vamp. When it was over MacLeod and I just sat there for a few seconds, limp and stunned, but lit up. We were in a state of ecstatic exhaustion; incredulous, surprised and overjoyed by the blazing combination of heat and invention we’d just heard. Sometimes when you hear something so overwhelming at such a tender stage, it can be utterly crushing, make you want to give up, wondering what’s the point of even trying. But this was different, this was energizing and inspiring. It was too joyous and swinging to be dispiriting; rather it gave us a kick in the ass and woke us up to the possibilities jazz held. We were quite sure we would never reach that level, but if we really worked and practiced hard and listened, we might get close and trying seemed like it sure might be fun. Of course there was nothing for it but to listen to “Blue Moon” again immediately. This we did several times, just to see if we’d really heard what we thought we had.
Here it is, this is what we heard that day. If you haven’t heard it before, I envy you…..remember, for your safety there’s no smoking on this flight:
Back then I was nowhere near a point where I could really comprehend or analyze what these musicians had done here in any concrete way; that might come later, in time. What I was left with was the feeling of it, the heat, the energy, the joyous burn that wouldn’t leave me alone. But that’s a valuable thing, a good place to start. You must believe in swing, and from that moment forward, I sure did. What I felt listening to Roy and Diz that day became my heroin and I’ve been hooked on it ever since, a helpless jazz junkie.
Postscript. I played a gig with John MacLeod just the other night and told him I was in the middle of writing a blog about that day we heard “Blue Moon” so many years ago. He smiled, saying he still had the LP and that he’d told the story of hearing Roy and Diz and the impact they had on us to his students many times over the years, hoping it might give the same prod it gave us.
About six months after I first heard “Blue Moon” I was doing some Christmas shopping downtown at Sam the Record Man’s – I usually gave musician friends records as presents. I came across a deluxe, imported two-LP set of Roy and Diz and checked to see if “Blue Moon” was on it. Indeed it was, along with a whole bunch of other stuff from the same sessions, including some ballad medleys. It was pretty pricey and I really wanted it for myself, but I knew what I had to do. I had to get it for MacLeod as a Christmas gift, as a thanks for all the musical sharing and learning. Besides, I knew that I’d at least have the chance to hear all these Diz and Roy tracks after John opened it. It’s been hammered home many times, but I’ve learned that any generosity extended to another musician is repaid in kind a thousand fold. That giving spirit never gets old, it still knocks me out.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.