Don’t Even Mention My Blue Suede Shoes

 

The Name Game.

As if jazz fans don’t feel confused and isolated enough already, there are some snarly name-duplications around just to make matters worse. Take the name Tommy Flanagan, for example. Most jazz fans would think of the pianist, but the general public might think of the Scottish actor. Google is neutral and offers up about an equal number of hits for each, though the actor’s come first. Or Tommy Williams – is it the jazz bassist (who hardly even many jazz fans know about), the equally obscure rock bassist, or the Republican Senator from Texas?

But surely the granddaddy of these is Carl Perkins, who could be the star-crossed and now little-known jazz pianist, or the rockabilly musician who achieved lasting fame for writing “Blue Suede Shoes”. This pair is really confusing as they were both musicians and were active during the same period. (Just to show that confusion also swirls around song titles, it’s quite possible to get “Blue Suede Shoes” mixed up with Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes” if you’re not firing on all cylinders. I’m still waiting for someone to request “My Little Blue Suede Shoes” on a gig but, so far, no luck. However, at a Christmas party I once played at, I had the supreme pleasure of witnessing a very drunk East Indian man react to John Alcorn singing “Route 66” by bellowing “Oh goody, Route 67!”, sounding for all the world like Peter Sellers in The Party, only much louder. I still don’t know how Alcorn managed to continue without laughing himself silly, but that’s professionalism for you.)

Jazz Jeopardy.

But, I digress….If you’re a big fan of the pianist Carl Perkins like me, there’s the ever-present danger that if he happens to come up in conversation, he’ll instantly be confused with the “Blue Suede Shoes” guy. This will definitely happen with people who don’t follow jazz, but also can with some jazz fans and there goes the conversation, not to mention the neighbourhood. This actually happened to me once at a cocktail party, but, before going into that, I should explain the concept of the “Jazz Weenie”.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many wonderful jazz fans over the years, they’re part of the life-blood of the music. They are generally very nice people who combine a love and knowledge of jazz with normal social skills. Jazz Weenies (or JWs for short) are distinguished from regular fans by their obtuseness and lack of social grace. They just naturally assume there’s nothing you’d rather do than talk jazz (or rather, listen to them talk jazz), even though you seem to be busy doing other things, like tuning up, or trying to order some food on a break. And their timing is terrible: they’re forever interrupting one of the guys just as he’s coming to the payoff of a choice joke or road story, just to deliver the breathtaking news that their uncle once knew Oscar Peterson’s second wife. Or they’re on the bandstand a minute after you’ve finished a long night of playing and are trying to pack up, asking – since some of the band once played with Moe Koffman – why didn’t you play “The Swinging Shepherd Blues”? The club could be burning down, people choking and clawing at each other to get out, but the JW would have you cornered, finishing his all-important story about how he once heard you at the Wannawackmypeepie Inn, 27 years ago in Peterborough.

Anyway, you get my drift. If they spot a jazz musician at a do, a JW will glom on to him or her like a barnacle, wreaking social havoc in the process. It was like this at the cocktail party I mentioned. It was one of those ones we’ve all been to, with drinks, nibblies and an assortment of people you know a little and some you’ve only just met, so you try to make with the nice chit-chat. I was trying to do just that while holding an all-too-rapidly dwindling martini – why do they always go down so easily when you need them the most? I was standing with the JW and a woman that we’d just been introduced to. The JW was talking about Jim Hall, which was making me uncomfortable (gulp, where’s that bartender gone?) because we were excluding the lady. For some reason he asked a question about Hall’s first record (why do they insist on doing this?), to which the answer was Carl Perkins. When I answered “Carl Perkins”, the lady saw her opening and took it. “Oh, I know him, he’s the guy who wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, I love that song!”

This was what they call “awkward” and required fast thinking on my part, much faster than writing this has been. There were a couple of ways to handle this, each requiring delicacy. I preferred that I do this rather than the JW, who would only botch things up even further. On the one hand, this lady was quite delighted to have at last found her way into the conversation and I was relieved about this too, so it was tempting to leave things alone and let her think we’d been talking about the rockabilly Perkins. But the JW would never stand for this, as the lady now had the ball and might run with it, steering the topic to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Artists for a $1000 please, Alex.” This was OK with me and probably preferable to the JW’s conversation, but sooner or later she’d likely get around to how Elvis was her favourite and that she and her husband Norm met at a rep-house screening of Kissin’ Cousins and they went to Graceland on their last vacation, where they had a nice little quickie in one of the guest rooms when nobody was looking and returned home with a fabulous Elvis bust and a set of autographed coasters and… oh shit, I don’t like where this is going at all.

On the other hand, if I told her that we’d been talking about a jazz pianist who also happened to be named Carl Perkins – no matter how politely – it would be tedious, she’d feel embarrassed and it might come off as snooty, even elitist on my part. As Shorty Pederstein once said, “Be cool, baby, like I didn’t want to fall up here in the first place, man.”

Caught between this rock ‘n’ roll and a hard place, I opted for a truly insane third option which had only just occurred to me: I’d improvise a put-on to smooth things over, praying that the JW would play along.

“We-elll” I chortled affably. “Actually, the guy we were talking about was the brother of the ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ fella and he was named Carl Perkins too. Isn’t that weird?” She was on it right away, answering, “Oh, you mean like on The Bob Newhart Show, ‘My name is Darryl, this is my cousin Darryl and this is my other cousin Darryl’…”. “Exactly” I answered with some relief that I’d somehow managed to put this over and, although the JW was looking a little bemused, he was at least keeping his trap shut. “The Perkins boys’ parents were from hillbilly country and apparently it was quite common down there for people to give their kids the same name……”.

Having steered the conversation to the more neutral topic of fictitious hillbilly customs, I saw an opening of my own and took it. “Excuse me a moment, I’m empty and the bartender seems to be free, I’ll be right back.” Dragging myself to the bar like a man in the desert who’s seen an oasis, I thought, Phew, that was a close one Wallace, sweat trickling down into my underwear.

Oops, sorry. I digressed again, but, having indulged in this little rant, I feel much better. I swear I’m not a jazz snob and I like rock ‘n’ roll as much as most people, having grown up with it. But, in all honesty and objectivity, the rockabilly Carl Perkins is just not in the same league musically as the pianist Carl Perkins, not even close. And yet he’ll always be more famous, simply for “Blue Suede Shoes”, it’s the way of the world. As the old saying has it, “Don’t get mad, get even”, so the following is my attempt at making the pianist Carl Perkins a little better known.

Bounce.

Carl Perkins is one of my favourite jazz pianists. I call him “Bounce”, partly to separate him from you-know-who, but mostly because of the amazing rhythmic drive, soulful feeling and subtlety in his playing. He was a very funky, individual stylist with a happy, trenchant, vitally swinging groove. The blues ran through everything he played, he was so knee-deep in them that he didn’t wear blue suede shoes, but rather “blues wade shoes”. His playing is never frantic or even especially aggressive, but it’s intense and relaxed at the same time and I find it impossible to sit still when I’m listening to him. His very tactile attack conjures up an image of a pinball bouncing around inside musical space, careening off in various directions with tensile energy. Before going any further, here’s a quotation about Perkins from my favourite time-bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who grew up with Perkins and probably played with him more than anybody. It sums him up very eloquently :

Carl “was the kind of musician who played right with you, who played the things you heard. He not only played the chords, he played the beauty in those chords – his own way. And his time was perfect. In that respect he was what you’d call a rhythm section pianist. A man with time like Carl’s was so important to a bassist, because you’re supposed to play those changes together.”

Vinnegar is certainly right in describing Perkins as a rhythm section pianist, his spurring and propulsive comping made every band and rhythm section he played with swing more.  But this only gives part of the picture, he was also a very personal and expressive soloist. Before getting into this though, here are some biographical details:

His Early Life.

Oddly enough, Carl Perkins and I share the same birthday of August 16. He was born on that day in 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city that produced many important jazz musicians for one of its size. There are probably more, but just off the top of my head : J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding, the Montgomery brothers (Wes, Buddy and Monk), Vinnegar and Perkins.

Perkins was from a musical family : one brother became a good amateur violinist and his other brother Edwin was a professional bassist, his sister was an amateur pianist. He began on piano at age nine and was entirely self-taught, never took a lesson in his life. He graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1946, then spent two years in the Army. In 1948 he took to the road with Tiny Bradshaw’s band and played with various groups in the mid-West before arriving in Los Angeles with Big Jay McNeely in 1949, where he would remain for the rest of his short life.

Before the term “West Coast Jazz” was coined, there was a lot of jazz activity in Los Angeles on several fronts and in several styles, most of it much less-known than whatever was happening in New York. There was a Swing scene involving both black and white musicians, a trad-revival movement of mostly white players and a core of young bebop players that was mostly, but not exclusively, black, who played in the many clubs along Central Avenue and Pico Boulevard. The young Perkins was primarily interested in bebop and fell easily into this circle, which included Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, the Farmer twins (Art and Addison), Sonny Criss, Frank Morgan, Howard McGhee, Hampton Hawes, Gerald Wilson, Art Pepper, Jack Sheldon, Chet Baker, Red Callender, Curtis Counce, Joe Comfort, Oscar Moore, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler, Lawrence Marable and many others. Many of these men would be frequent colleagues of Carl’s for the rest of his life and the music they played was straight-up bebop with some leaner California touches, which had very little to do with the cooler style that would later characterize much West Coast Jazz.

His Style.

Carl Perkins found a very original voice within the general confines of bebop and later, hard-bop. But the essentials of his personal style also fit in well with more swing-oriented musicians he played or recorded with, such as Illinois Jacquet, Oscar Moore, and Stuff Smith. He was not a virtuoso at all, or even a very technical player, he didn’t play a lot of notes or long lines. He tended to play shorter, jabbing, accented phrases that almost had a vocal quality about them. He was a very emotionally direct player, who I would characterize as “wet” rather than “dry.”

Part of the fascination with Carl Perkins is that, like the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the pianist Horace Parlan, he fashioned such a unique personal style, despite – and also because of – having only partial use of one of his hands. In the case of Django, he could use only two fingers on his left hand after it was damaged during a fire in his caravan, but he went on to play the guitar as powerfully and originally as anyone who ever lived. Parlan was stricken with polio as a child and the disease left him with limited use of his right hand. His parents thought playing the piano would be good therapy for him, and he created a highly effective and interactive style by letting his left hand roam all over the keyboard to help his right, and vice versa. Perkins was also afflicted with polio as a child, but it affected his left arm [1]. This resulted in a very novel posture at the piano; Perkins played with his left arm bent sideways at the elbow and held parallel to the keyboard, with his thumb pointing toward the bottom of the keys. He became very adept at banging out bass notes with his elbow and his left hand resembled a kind of bent claw with which he played simple ‘shell’ voicings. This is all quite clear in several photographs of him playing. The unorthodox technique worked for him, he was able to play what he wanted with his left hand, certainly enough to make him a very effective comper, even for himself. His left hand was never very active or a big part of his style – for example, he didn’t play a lot of locked-hand stuff or block chords – but this was entirely in keeping with the way a lot of bebop pianists played. Not many of them used their left hand much and there’s never a sense when listening to Perkins that something is missing, his perfect time being a big reason for this.

The other reason is that his right hand was so developed and strong, perhaps in keeping with how the other senses of blind or deaf people often become stronger to compensate for the missing one. At any rate, Carl’s right hand was a marvel of elastic and very expressive articulation, using a wide array of attacks and approaches. His single-note lines have a very horn-like quality, as if he were blowing into the piano and they’re full of the accents, ornamentations and turns that trumpet or saxophone players use. Though he plays hard, he rarely hits a note right on the head, but often slurs or slides into them from an adjoining note, or uses small glisses. But he also does some very pianistic things with his right hand. In the middle of a line, he’ll use a finger or two to strike notes underneath, forming funky little clusters or smears, which sound like “splang” or “splunk” and punctuate his lines like little jewels. These give the impression that the keyboard is malleable, almost liquid and that he’s bending the notes, which is impossible on the piano. Other pianists like Floyd Cramer (in country music) or Vince Guaraldi did this in similar ways, but with less impact and variety. Perkins also occasionally would finish a single-note line by playing the last part of it in crackling octaves, making the whole phrase gleam and glitter. The effect of this was not showy or cute but instead pithy and eloquent, with maximum rhythmic impact. His playing sparkled and jumped.

Coupled with his great time which dug right down to the bottom of the beat, and his thorough grasp of both the blues and bebop vocabularies, his very expressive right hand made Perkins one of the most distinctive and compelling of bebop pianists. Very few pianists sound like Perkins, the two most similar to him are Ray Charles (who mistakenly is not considered a jazz pianist by many) and Hampton Hawes. Perkins sits between these two in terms of technique and linearity. Charles plays simpler, has less bebop in him but shares with Perkins a very direct, earthy and spare approach to the blues. Hawes has more technique and so tends to play longer lines, more notes and faster tempos than Perkins, but they have the bebop and blues language in common and a similar conception of time. The only other pianist who comes to mind is Nat King Cole. Perkins echoes Cole’s relaxed but intense beat, the sparse tidiness of his phrasing and his polished sound, especially when playing standards rather than blues or bebop tunes.

In writing that the blues ran through much of what Perkins played, I don’t mean to give the impression that he was some kind of backwoods primitive who simply fashioned solos by stringing together a bunch of stock blues phrases. It was much more complex than that. Like Lester Young or Charlie Parker, the blues language was second nature to Perkins and it informed his phrasing, spacing, rhythm, sound and was present as a feeling in his ideas whether he was playing an actual blues or a song. And his playing on the blues form itself was multidimensional, he could be funky and down-home or harmonically sophisticated. Those who don’t care about chord theory might want to sit the following out, but here’s an example of what I mean:

Bebop musicians developed various sets of chord changes for the twelve-bar blues form that used more chords than earlier styles, particularly in bars six through eight. Here’s an example, in the key of C :

/C …/ F7 F# dim./ Gm7… / C7

/ F7…/ Fm7 Bb7/ Em7 A7/ Ebm7 Ab7/

/Dm7…/ G7…/C A7/ D7 G7 //:

Carl Perkins often took this one step further by adding an extra chord in bar nine, as follows (bars five through ten):

F7…/ Fm7 Bb7/ Em7 A7/ Ebm7 Ab7/ Dbmaj.7…/Dm7b5 G7 / C….etc.

He uses a Db-major 7 in bar nine, which is both hip and logical, because the preceding Ebm7-Ab7 wants to resolve to the Db chord, which he then resolves to C by using Dm7b5-G7. I don’t know if Perkins originated these changes himself, but he’s the only musician I’ve heard who used them at all regularly.

His Career & Recordings.

The earliest recordings by Perkins were three singles recorded for Savoy in 1949. The first of these pairs “Summertime” with “Lullaby in Rhythm” and feature his brother Edwin on bass with a drummer named Herb Williams. The second single goes religious with “The Rosary” and “Ave Maria”, the third returns to standards territory with “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “I’ll Never Smile Again”; the bassist and drummer on these is unknown. I’ve never heard these because they’re very rare and hard to find, but his next recording of note, with Illinois Jacquet from 1951, shows his style to be already essentially in place. He’s not heavily featured as a soloist here, but his comping throughout in a rhythm section that includes Oscar Moore, Red Callender and J.C. Heard is characteristically incisive. And he plays a typically biting intro to “All of Me” which not only brilliantly sets up the tempo, but also the feeling and mood of the whole track, one of my favourites in all of jazz [2]. These very effective, stage-setting intros became something of a specialty of Carl’s, he played a lot of them and this was one of the things that made him such a prized rhythm section pianist. Sometime during this period, Miles Davis and Perkins played together on several occasions and Davis became a great admirer of the pianist, which is often mentioned in liner notes to records Perkins played on. here is “All of Me”:

Perkins was back in the Army from January, 1951 to November, 1952, seeing action in Korea. He spent much of 1953 playing with bassist Joe Comfort in a trio led by Oscar Moore, the great guitarist who played for so many years in the Nat King Cole Trio; Moore’s trio would record an album called Skylark in 1954. Max Roach and Clifford Brown were living in L.A. then and Perkins played in the earliest edition of their famous co-led quintet, with Teddy Edwards on tenor and George Bledsoe on bass. This band can be heard on half the tracks from a live record of concerts produced by Gene Norman, the other half feature the later band with Harold Land on tenor, Richie Powell on piano and George Morrow on bass, which Brown-Roach would take out on the road and record with. Reportedly, Roach wanted Perkins in this band too, but Carl was unwilling to leave L.A. Richie Powell was not as strong a pianist or soloist as Perkins, but was an excellent comper and had a unique gift for chord voicing and small-group arranging which served the band very well.

1955 saw Perkins making frequent live appearances in L.A. clubs as well as recording some sessions for Verve – another one with Oscar Moore and one with Dizzy Gillespie that was part of the album called A Jazz Recital. He also played a lot with alto saxophonist Frank Morgan and appeared on his live album in 1955, also produced by Gene Norman. Morgan’s subsequent, long imprisonment for narcotics possession interrupted their fruitful association forever. Speaking of which, Perkins would play on a very good Dexter Gordon record called Dexter Blows Hot and Cool, made for the obscure Dootone label late in 1955, soon after the saxophonist was released from serving 18 months in Chino prison on narcotics charges. Perkins was heavily featured on it, which would prove to have a beneficial impact on his career – the label’s owner was so impressed by Perkins that he offered the pianist his own date as a leader.

Introducing Carl Perkins would be Carl’s only full record under his own name and stands as the most complete statement of his musical oeuvre. It was recorded in late 1955 and early 1956, with a trio consisting of two of his favourite players – Vinnegar on bass, of course, and drummer Lawrence Marable – this trio was also present on the Gordon record and is a perfectly balanced rhythm section. Neither Vinnegar or Marable required much solo space and, while one misses the dimension of Carl’s comping behind a horn soloist, this trio setting allows him to really stretch out and show the full range of his inventiveness and personality. There’s an awful lot of meaty, no-frills piano playing here and much of what I wrote about his right hand is on display. The date offers a pleasingly varied program of songs and tempos – two standards (a glorious, medium “The Lady Is A Tramp” and a fast, very intense “Just Friends”) and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘N’ You”, which Perkins recorded several times elsewhere as a sideman and had a real affinity for. There are three ballads – “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “It Could Happen To You” and the lesser-known “Lilacs In the Rain”.

The rest of the program has five originals by Perkins, which show him to be a composer of considerable ingenuity. Perhaps not surprisingly, three of them are blues, but each of these is very distinctive and, taken together, they offer the full spectrum of his blues moods. “Marblehead”, written for Marable, is tough, taken at a loping, grinding tempo and is reminiscent of Lou Donaldson’s “Sandu”. “Westside” is a fast blues with an abstract, very syncopated riff-theme. And “Carl’s Blues” is classic medium tempo bebop blues with some gospel touches. His playing on all three shows his utter mastery of the form.

His other two pieces are more complex, engaging and very original indeed. “Way ‘Cross Town” opens the record and is a highlight. (A faster version which Perkins arranged for two horns was recorded by The Curtis Counce Group with Perkins in 1956 under the title “Mia”.) It’s a 32-bar, AABA form but otherwise is quite unusual. The A-sections have a nice built-in key change, some tasty harmony clusters and they finish with an interesting, jarring rhythmic phrase that ends abruptly on beat four of bar seven, which sounds backwards. It’s upbeat and ebullient, yet tricky and elusive, it sounds a bit like some of Ornette Coleman’s early songs, only happier. Perkins really has at it during his solo, this is one of the most joyous piano trio tracks ever recorded and I never tire of hearing it. Perkins also refers to the song’s opening melody line during his solos on several other selections, revealing a sly sense of humour.

His other original, “Why Do I Care?” is just beautiful. It’s at a perfect, meaty medium tempo, has a very attractive melody over a sequence of chords in a boppish cycle that I’ve never heard elsewhere and is very conducive to relaxed blowing, which is exactly what Perkins offers here. Both these originals should be played more.

The three ballad performances show an entirely different side of his piano playing. Whereas he’s often trenchant and sparse, his ballad style is full, romantic and lush, it suggests a breeze gently drifting through trees and reminds me a little of Erroll Garner. He uses rippling tremolos, glittering chords and octaves, some sparkling runs, it’s quite rhapsodic, almost florid. At first, I didn’t like his ballad style so well, but over time I’ve come to appreciate its beauty and sweetness, which provide a necessary contrast in presenting a mixed program as on this album.

This is one of my all-time favourite piano trio records, it’s unique, intense and joyous and hearing it makes one wish that Perkins had recorded more as a leader. But one such gem is better than none at all. Here’s a link to the album:

His career expanded further in 1956. He played on a very good hard-bop album with a sextet led by Chet Baker, issued both as Playboys and Picture of Heath, as the program featured five compositions by saxophonist Jimmy Heath [3] and two by Art Pepper. The band is excellent – Baker, Pepper, Phil Urso on tenor, Perkins, Curtis Counce on bass and Marable playing drums – and Perkins contributes a great deal to the record’s success. Perkins also found a regular home and playing outlet when Counce formed a quintet that year, known as The Curtis Counce Group. It was a very cohesive band which played hard-bop, California style. The members were Jack Sheldon on trumpet (later replaced by Gerald Wilson), Harold Land on tenor, Perkins, Counce, and Frank Butler on drums, who was sort of the Philly Joe Jones of L.A. and one of the scariest bebop drummers ever. (Occasionally, he would suddenly hit a sharp rimshot on the snare drum with such arresting snap and force that it hurts your eyes.) The two horns sounded beautiful as a front line and each was a pungent, distinctive soloist capable of telling a story. And the rhythm section was marvelous, with Butler’s fiery drumming and the dynamic playing of Perkins being anchored by Counce’s rock-steady bass. They played around L.A. a fair bit and secured a contract to record for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary label. Their first album, Landslide, was recorded in October of 1956 and was followed by two more in 1957 – Counceltation [4] and Carl’s Blues. Each of them is first-rate, offering a range of cleverly arranged standards, bebop tunes and interesting originals contributed by all of the group members and other local musicians such as Elmo Hope and Gerald Wiggins. The band provided a forum for some of Carl’s best playing; the wide range of the repertoire brought out some of his finest soloing and accompaniment. Along with Shelly Manne’s various excellent quintets, this band was the equal of any of the East Coast hard-bop bands, with the exception of the Miles Davis Quintet.

1957 was a banner year for Perkins, the busiest one of his career. He seemed to be everywhere and recorded no fewer than thirteen records that year as a sideman with a wide range of people. Apart from the two albums with Curtis Counce, he made four with Buddy de Franco (with an excellent band in a marathon burst of recording in October), and single records with Stuff Smith, Jim Hall, Art Pepper, Victor Feldman, Richie Kamuca, Pepper Adams and Leroy Vinnegar. He also recorded four solo piano tracks for a Mode album called Piano Playhouse (also featuring Jimmy Rowles, Paul Smith, Gerald Wiggins and Lou Levy) and one on a Pacific record called Jazz Pianists Galore. The above records are all very good, but the ones with Smith, Hall, Pepper and Vinnegar are very special and deserve closer attention.

Jazz Guitar, a wonderful trio record with Jim Hall, Perkins and Red Mitchell on bass, is Hall’s first as a leader and still my favourite of all his records. It was made just as Hall was receiving wider attention for his sensitive and groundbreaking work with Jimmy Guiffre’s drummerless trio and captures him during a great phase of his career. Hall’s playing had lyrical and intellectual elements, but he also always had a strong affinity for the blues. This may account for the inclusion of Perkins and his rhythmic impetus was certainly desirable, especially in another trio without drums. Mitchell was a great bass soloist, but sometimes had a tendency to slow down ever so slightly. The forward motion and bounce provided by Perkins simply doesn’t allow this to happen, he’s the glue of this very straightforward, classic and eloquent record.

Stuff Smith’s Have Violin, Will Swing, was recorded for Verve in two quartet sessions done early in 1957, both featuring Perkins. Smith was the hardest-swinging jazz violinist who ever lived and Perkins, both as accompanist and soloist, is the perfect foil for Stuff, they sound made for each other. Carl has some of his best Nat King Cole moments here, delivering bubbling solos on “It’s Wonderful” and “Blow, Blow, Blow.” A terrific record, for my money the best of Stuff’s career.

Art Pepper and Perkins played together a fair bit in 1956-57 and on April 1, 1957 they recorded fifteen selections with Ben Tucker on bass and Chuck Flores on drums. They seemed to strike sparks off one another, the very immediate and natural chemistry between Pepper and Perkins resulted in some of the best playing on record of either man’s career. They come at each other with an intense, relaxed mutual admiration and a completely integrated sense of rhythm, the music sounds juiced and bristles. They play Bud Powell’s “Webb City”, a couple of Pepper’s originals (“Surf Ride” and “Holiday Flight”) and a selection of standards, some of which you wouldn’t expect these men to play (“Begin the Beguine”, “The Breeze and I”, “Without A Song”). These songs and the rhythm team of Tucker/Flores seem very much to Perkins’ liking, as he contributes some of his most interactive comping and ebullient soloing to this music, which doesn’t fit comfortably at all into the “West Coast Jazz” niche. Come to think of it, not much that Perkins played did.

The Leroy Vinnegar record was his first as a leader, the classic Leroy Walks!, recorded on a session in July and two in September. Vinnegar was known as “The Walker” for very good and obvious reasons and all the tunes have “walk” or “walkin'” in their titles, with the exception of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, which at least has a walking reference. The band is superb, built around the two old friends from Indianapolis, with Gerald Wilson on trumpet, Teddy Edwards on tenor, Victor Feldman on vibes and a young, little-known drummer who Vinnegar would take under his wing – Tony Bazley [5]. Vinnegar is an old favourite of mine and it goes without saying that this is one of my desert island records. It’s very relaxed and soulful and swings from beginning to end with a groove about a mile wide. It’s Leroy’s show all the way, yet it is hard to overstate how much Perkins is all over every bar of this music.

Swan Song.

On January 13 and 14, 1958, Harold Land took a quintet into the Contemporary studios to record what would be one of his best records, Harold In the Land of Jazz. Along with Land’s tenor, the band consisted of men he’d played with a lot and admired: Perkins, Vinnegar, Frank Butler and the Swedish-born trumpeter Rolf Ericson, who had played in Duke Ellington’s band. The record has so much to recommend it – a band which plays together beautifully, a great selection of interesting tunes and the rare chance to hear the wonderful Ericson in such good company – that it would likely be one of my favourites anyway. But the fact that it would be the last record Carl Perkins ever played on makes it bittersweet and even more special to me. It also contains the classic rendition of Carl’s final and most definitive composition, “Grooveyard”.

Like many musicians of his time and milieu, Perkins was a serious junkie, but also drank enough to be considered an alcoholic and these bad habits eventually caught up with him. He was admitted to hospital on March 11, 1958, seriously ill from a heroin overdose. Doctors revived him but it became apparent that his health had been seriously compromised by all the drinking. Despite constant medical attention, he died early in the morning of March 17, the official cause of death being uremia, a form of kidney disease. He was just 29, but fortunately left behind so many great moments on record in a career that lasted just under ten years.

Conclusion.

I’ve played “Grooveyard” many times with The Barry Elmes Quintet and also on occasion with saxophonist Scott Hamilton. It’s the perfect expression of the very essence of Carl Perkins’ music; funky and direct, yet never hackneyed or obvious. It has a structure of three eight-bar sections (the first two being the same), which are each sub-divided into two four-bar phrases, an unusual form of ABABCD. This sounds complicated but the tune isn’t, it’s simple and natural to play. It’s not a blues, but the feeling of the blues pervades it. Like his playing, “Grooveyard” is tough (in the hard key of Eb minor) and has a lot of rhythmic insinuation. It’s greasy and relaxed, with a deep, loping groove, but it’s also full of subtlety, little nuances of phrasing, articulation, timing and emotion.

If musicians miss these nuances and this feeling when playing “Grooveyard”, it doesn’t sound like much, just another “soul-jazz” tune. It’s similar with Carl’s playing. If you don’t pay attention or listen closely, he may sound like “just a blues player”, yet another guy stringing together blues licks, but this completely overlooks his rhythmic mastery and utter lack of artifice. Carl Perkins was never trite or glib, he didn’t try to play the blues, or play at the blues, they were simply a part of who he was and what he felt and they came through in everything he played.

Carl Perkins is not well-known even within jazz, a lot of otherwise well-informed jazz fans and players have never heard of him. There are a number of reasons for this. He didn’t live long and recorded only once as a leader, and that record was on an obscure label, often out-of-print and hard to find for years. His milieu – where, when and with whom he played – was also a factor. As mentioned earlier, the jazz played in L.A. during his career generally received much less attention than any from New York, and even after “West Coast Jazz” was coined and started to make some waves, Perkins and the musicians he played with were not really a part of that style or its growing renown. The musicians who received the most recognition (and also some of the critical condemnation) for being West Coast Jazz stylists were mostly white and stylistically cool. These included Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond, and the various players associated with Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, The Lighthouse All-Stars or Shelly Manne (with these last four there was a lot of overlap.) The groups Perkins played in were a sub-genre of the L.A. jazz scene, out of step with the above and they generally received short shrift in terms of coverage or promotion.

If he’d lived longer, recorded more as a leader, or if his career had taken place in New York or been better managed, Carl Perkins was the kind of pianist who could have achieved considerable fame and popularity. I say this because I’ve seen the emotional reaction of many people hearing Perkins for the first time, without knowing it or who he is. Often, people who aren’t particularly jazz fans have been over to my house and invariably, if I happen to be playing a record Perkins is on, they’re drawn right in by his playing, their feet are tapping and there heads are bobbing. They hear a few of his pithy smears or clusters or a bubbling octave-run or two and ask, “Who the hell is this piano player? He sounds great!” He was that kind of player – happy, infectiously swinging, emotionally gripping – he reached people directly and continues to, so it’s a shame he isn’t better known.

With his unusual, home-grown technique and his deep, natural feeling for swing, Perkins could never have been anything but a jazz player. Some jazz musicians take a more studied, practiced and balanced approach to playing, which may result in greater smoothness, versatility and more work opportunities outside jazz, such as playing in studio orchestras and doing a lot of commercial recording work (at least back when these existed.) But there are others who were very idiosyncratic individuals, like Lester Young, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon, who only ever played jazz, and nothing but jazz. Carl Perkins was like that – every note he played was a jazz note and every chord he played was struck with jazz intent.

As a player or a listener, it’s possible to approach jazz from a mainly intellectual perspective. There are elements in the music that appeal to the mind and are mathematical in nature, such as harmony, chord construction, theory, or rhythmic patterns. But there are things that happen in the spur of the moment in jazz that can’t be predicted, explained, understood or put into words, even after the fact, and these are primarily abstract and emotional. The ongoing mysteries of time, space, swing and the emotion of the blues. “Wrong” notes made right by being played in just the right place, notes that are bent in and out of shape, notes that are not really notes at all, but sounds. The hair-trigger timing of a perfectly placed rimshot or cymbal crash, or the tension that mounts as a bassist walks higher and higher and his notes get shorter, followed by the release as he suddenly drops down low. The out-of-the-blue, splanky ‘happy’ chord which gooses a flagging soloist to further heights. These and countless other tiny, spontaneous events are all part of the magic of jazz, and they fascinate me endlessly. But they can’t be seen or touched or written down, they can only be heard, can only be felt. It took a long time for me to realize it, but I relate to jazz primarily on an emotional level. It’s all about the feeling for me, and Carl Perkins is one of the players who made me recognize this. I’m sure that he had his fair share of pain in his short life, but his playing offers courage, pure feeling and the stuff of joy.

Notes. [1]. – It would seem there is some room for debate about the reason behind the unusual positioning of Carl Perkins’ left arm and hand. Not much has been written about Perkins, but everything I’ve read or heard mentions that he had polio as a child, hence the bent left arm, so I went with that in this piece. However, when asked about this, Perkins told a very different story. The following quotation of Perkins is from the liner notes of the Curtis Counce record Landslide :

When I was small my hand was too little to make the bass chords so I turned my hand around and used my elbow to make them.”

This seems reasonable, but I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, we should take his word, Carl Perkins would have known his reasons better than anyone and he had no particular reason to lie or cover up having had polio. On the other hand, in photographs of him playing, the left arm posture looks awkward and uncomfortable, if not downright painful. The idea of him continuing to use this technique by choice or out of habit after his hands grew larger seems implausible, even bizarre.

However, jazz history is full of players who found unorthodox ways to play their instruments, for whatever reasons. Wild Bill Davison played the trumpet off to one side of his mouth, rather than in the middle. Lester Young held the tenor saxophone horizontally at an angle of 45 degrees or more, which must have been tiring. Adrian Rollini made the cumbersome bass saxophone more mobile and manageable by using a baritone sax mouthpiece on it. Or Roland Kirk, who fashioned a brace to hold his tenor saxophone, manzello and stritch in place so he could play all three at once. Barry Elmes is left-handed and sets his drums up in a left-handed formation, but actually plays right-handed and left-footed, which I’ve never seen anyone else do. The reason is that drum teachers tried to convert him to playing right-handed, but got only half-way. And come to think of it, the way I use my right hand in plucking the bass is not exactly textbook either. I fold the second finger over the first one and use them together to get more weight into the string. I was told repeatedly not to do this because it would cut down on my speed and agility, but it felt natural and I’ve been doing it this way for forty years, it works for me. Jazz is like that sometimes, you find what works and stick with it, to hell with the manuals.

[2]. – In a piece from some time ago called “Aural Hygiene”, I wrote about my obsessive, 20-year search for Jacquet’s record of “All of Me”, which had taken on almost talismanic qualities for me. When I finally found it, there was a good deal of satisfaction when I realized that Carl Perkins had a lot to do with the special zing of this track. It was just one more example of how he keeps cropping up for me in surprising and almost fateful ways.

[3]. – When I was quite young I appeared as a guest on Hal Hill’s jazz radio show, which partly took the form of a blindfold test. I did OK, but was badly fooled when he played a track from Playboys. It was “C.T.A.”, a Jimmy Heath tune that I knew. Heath came from Philadelphia and was active around New York, so I just assumed that a recording of this tune would have been by a New York band only, plus I knew very little about West Coast players back then. So I made all kinds of wild stabs, guessing that Perkins was Horace Silver (oops), Phil Urso was Hank Mobley (close, but no cigar), and Chet Baker was Kenny Dorham or Donald Byrd (ouch). I don’t even remember who the hell I thought Art Pepper might be, but it was pretty funny. I learned a lesson – when you’re trying to figure out who’s playing, don’t think, listen.

[4]. – Counceltation was also issued under the title “You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce”, another reason I thought of nicknaming Carl Perkins “Bounce”. The CD version I have has the “Bounce” title and the cover art is really quite something. It shows an alluring and sex-crazed blonde model, along the lines of Marilyn Monroe, dressed as a nurse, with a stethoscope and her white lab coat tantalizingly open to almost reveal her ripe, firm breasts, but not quite. She appears to be swooning, her impossibly red lips parted coquettishly, one hand stretched languidly behind her head, while the other is pressing the stethoscope to her chest, seemingly to monitor her imminent orgasm. Such were the boner-making joys of cheesecake jazz record cover art, 1950s-style.

A fourth album by the Counce group called Sonority would be issued much later on CD by Contemporary, consisting of unreleased tracks from their other sessions. Perkins is on most of these, but Elmo Hope guests on three tracks and he would be the group’s regular pianist after Perkins died. Returning to funny cover art, the Counce group would record their final album in April, 1958, with Hope on piano and Rolf Ericson on trumpet. It’s called Exploring the Future and, as sci-fi, U.F.O.s and the space race were just beginning to heat up, the hilarious cover runs with these themes. It shows Counce grinning wildly in a bright orange spaceman suit, complete with utility belt and a bizarre collar, against a backdrop of many galaxies. He’s holding his bass by the neck with one hand and his other hand is held up with spread fingers as if he were conducting The Uranus Symphony Orchestra – “To infinity, and beyond!!”.

[5]. – Tony Bazley (not to be confused with the Irish statesman of the same name) is a drummer from New Orleans who lived briefly in L.A. in the late ’50s and fell into the circle of musicians surrounding Leroy Vinnegar and Carl Perkins. He played on Leroy Walks! and on some Pacific Jazz records with the Montgomery Brothers and Teddy Edwards, then promptly vanished from sight, seemingly forever. Here’s a real long-shot story about him :

In the late ’80s, I was playing a gig with a band led by drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve at Meyer’s Deli. On the Saturday night, a tall, thin black man I hadn’t seen before turned up in the audience. He looked to be in his middle fifties and resembled Don Byas a little, wearing a beret, wire-rim glasses, a moustache and soul-patch. Norman talked to him on a break and on the next set announced that this fellow was going to sit in on drums. Norman talks like his mouth is full of marbles and it’s even worse with a microphone, so when he announced the guy’s name I didn’t catch it, I just heard something that sounded like “Oola-Boola”. He played a couple of tunes with us and sounded very good. He was a simple, grooving kind of player with a nice ride-cymbal feel, he reminded me a bit of Archie Alleyne or early Billy Higgins. Afterward, I told him that I’d enjoyed his playing and hoped we’d get to do it again sometime.

The next day I was playing an afternoon gig at a pub in the Beaches called Quigley’s. John Sumner was playing drums and John Gittens, who had recently retired from running the jazz department at York University, was on piano. The saxophonist might have been Bill Goddard, I don’t quite remember. The drummer who’d sat in at Meyer’s the night before turned up and approached me about sitting in. I told him he should check with Gittens, who was the leader and a little wary about that sort of thing. I assured Gittens that this guy could play and he said OK. So, after a couple of tunes on the next set, Gittens announced, “And now ladies and gentleman, we’d like you to welcome Tony Bazley on drums.” The name rang a vague bell for me, but I heard a sharp gasp from Sumner and looked over at him. He looked like he’d seen a ghost, his eyes wide as saucers and his skin pale. I asked him “What’s up?” and he answered “I’ll tell ya later”, as he vacated the drums for our guest.

After the set, I went over to Sumner, all curious about what was going on. He told me that Tony Bazley was the guy who played drums on Leroy Walks!, also one of Sumner’s favourite albums. Sumner said he’d spent 25 years trying everything he could think of to find out what had become of Bazley. He’d talked to older drummers and other L.A. musicians from the ’50s, called jazz friends in cities all over the place, writers and whoever else to locate Bazley, or at least explain his sudden disappearance into total obscurity. He’d all but given up and was beginning to think that Bazley was dead when, of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, Tony Bazley turned up in ours from out of the blue. It really was quite incredible and Sumner and I were just dumbstruck.

Sumner talked to Tony and explained all this and they got to be friends. Bazley, who now went by “Tony Oola-Boola” returned home to New Orleans when the L.A. jazz scene dried up for him in the early ’60s and had spent some time in Texas. I saw Tony a few times on his home turf when I visited New Orleans in 1994. He had a good little trio that played street gigs, with a very young girl who sang and played hot clarinet and a killer tuba player who could play solos like Paul Chambers and who covered the part of his tuba where his arm rested with vinyl so it wouldn’t get too hot and sear his skin. You just never knew where or when you’d run into Tony Bazley.

 

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Even Mention My Blue Suede Shoes

  1. Thanks for this history of Carl Perkins. I must explore his playing. Grooveyard
    Is one of my favourite tunes and I first heard played by Barry,s 5tet. Once at the Old Mill for some reason I thought of it and asked if the trio knew it. Richard Whiteman thought he might – it was the title tune on his first album!

    As for JWs, I fear I might be one. I don’t often talk to Toronto jazz musicians any more. Generally speaking I believe they disrespect their audience, talk down to or over them and carry on like they really can’t be bothered. But maybe that’s just me.

    P.S. Another two finger guy is Peter Washington.

    • Hi Mike and thanks for your comments. I probably know you, but can’t put the name to the face, so to speak. If you think you’re a Jazz Weenie, then chances are you’re not; self-awareness and introspection are not among their noted qualities. Your point about how jazz musicians sometimes dispespect or talk down to their audiences is well-taken and true, in Toronto and elsewhere. It’s something I try to avoid doing and don’t generally care for and pointing it out does not make you a JW.

      You’re right about Peter Washington being another two-finger guy – he puts his first finger on the bottom and holds his second finger on top of it, I do it the other way around.

      Cheers for now.

  2. I have actually never even heard of Carl Perkins the pianist. He had escaped my ken completely, but no more… I found “Introducing Carl Perkins” on YouTube and am enjoying it right now. Beautiful feel!

  3. Damn fine writing, Steve – a perfect blend of style, nostalgia and historical data. By the way, your nicknaming Carl Perkins (the pianist) as “Bounce” reminded me that Cannonball Adderley applied the same sobriquet to the Czechoslovakian (and killer bassist!) George Mraz. When asked why Cannonball called Mraz “Bounce”, Adderley replied, “Because he’s a baaaad Czech!”

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