Early Days, Big or Small? Part One

In connection with the post on The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess, I wanted to include some more general commentary on jazz and big bands, some of it personal and involving my very early days as a jazz fan and player. As that piece was overly long, I’ll take up the subject again here.

Big bands are not for everybody, they sometimes form a dividing line in jazz not unlike Dixieland. By this I mean that there are jazz musicians and fans who don’t care for big bands at all, and others who prefer them, some exclusively. The first group finds them to be too loud or bombastic, not intimate or free-wheeling enough, that they place too many limits on the creativity and space given to improvising soloists. In short, they feel there’s not enough jazz played in big bands. These are the people who go running to turn the volume knob down if they hear a big band record on the radio, or who ask, “Why don’t the trumpets shut up, and why do the soloists only play one or two choruses, when are they gonna stretch out a little?”

Those who can’t get enough of big bands love the roaring excitement of them at full blast, the greater range of dynamics, sounds and colours that more instruments can provide. The shouting brass, the sax solis, the sizzling backgrounds, the shorter solos, the chugging rhythm, the increased organization that more written material and ensemble teamwork can bring. When listening to small groups these types might be apt to ask, “So, where’s the beat?” Or, “When are the soloists going to stop droning on and on already, so that we can get back to the good parts when everybody’s playing together at the same time?”

To make matters more confusing, when someone talks of “big band jazz” it’s hard to know if they’re referring to the older bands of The Swing Era – Goodman, Shaw, Dorsey, etc. – or to newer ones led by people like Maria Schneider, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland. Or they could just be talking about the relative merits of bigger bands playing jazz in general, as I intend to here.

There is a middle ground between the two extremes mentioned above and I for one have come to occupy it over time. I like both small groups and big bands and see them as part of the whole jazz picture and feel that both should be assessed with the same musical yardstick, despite their obvious differences. Sometimes a jazz fan’s preferences in this regard have to do with their age or what they were first exposed to when they started listening to jazz, which can be very formative. Older fans who began listening when big bands were more prevalent in the 1940s – or even the ’50s and ’60s – are more apt to like them, whereas younger fans who began in the ’70s, ’80s or later, maybe not so much.

When I got interested in jazz as a teenager, it was mostly small group bebop that I first listened to and I had no interest in big bands whatsoever. The bebop business was anachronistic – it was 1971 or ’72 and I was listening to music from the mid-’50s – but this was mostly a matter of dumb luck and random selection in the form of my uncle Gil’s [1] record collection – he was a bebop fan. I was studying guitar at the time with a very fine jazz guitarist named Gary Benson, who taught me a lot. When I first took lessons with him, I was mostly interested in blues and he showed me about that but also began gently steering me in a jazz direction with some theory, chord inversions and learning the chord progressions to simple jazz songs. One day, my uncle Gil heard me playing a few of these and said, “Hey that sounds pretty good, like jazz, maybe I should lend you some records.” The next time he visited, he brought two old LPs from the ’50s – Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet and Clifford Brown and Max Roach – the untitled album with “Daahoud” and “Joy Spring” among other selections.

Miles was more famous and the cool cover art on his album intrigued me, so I started with that one. It was completely beyond me, the only thing I liked right away was Red Garland’s piano playing, the tinkling blues lines and those happy sounding block chords. The rest of it was too frantic, scary and abstract for my ears at first – John Coltrane sounded like an angry snake to me, Philly Joe Jones like artillery and I couldn’t make sense of the very chromatic bass lines Paul Chambers was playing, though he did seem to be swinging – whatever I thought that meant. Even then, in my head I knew that Miles was incredibly hip, but he didn’t really get to me either.

A little discouraged, I turned to the Clifford-Max record, fearing more disappointment. But right from the opening bars of the mysterious, “take me to the Casbah” intro to “Delilah” (Victor Young, not Tom Jones), I was drawn in, this was a whole other ballgame. These guys sounded calmer and more organized, seemed to play together better and more simply, things at least made a little more sense to my callow ears. And I liked the tune and the way they played it, it sounded like something I might have heard in an old, exotic adventure movie. (In a way, it was. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but “Delilah” was written for the soundtrack of – you guessed it – Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature as the guy with the magic mullet.) Clifford played the melody with a cup mute over a lilting beguine beat with Max using mallets, then they seamlessly switched into a swinging four as Harold Land played the bridge on tenor. Everything about this completely rocked me – the surprising and smooth move into four, and Land’s slithering, warm and bluesy sound – I’d never heard anything quite like it.

I was beginning to vibrate just with the song’s melody, then the solos began and things got even better. Land was first and sounded just great, his serpentine lines were shaped with great rhythmic logic and everything he played sounded like the blues to me, which is what I related to then. Brownie was next and he was something else again, he just took my breath away. He started slowly with short, jabbing phrases, which he built into longer lines. And his sound, oh his sound – it was fat, sweet and hot, like molten butter, and as he played with more intensity it crackled and hissed like dry twigs in a bonfire. He built to a climax, playing higher toward the end of the chorus and just when I thought he was finished and couldn’t get any hotter or go any higher, he went (gulp) for a second chorus. He played a rocket gliss way up to a blistering high note, then played a chromatically descending phrase that sounded like the insinuating aria from Carmen, only better – way, way better.

I guess I must have heard the rest of his solo and the track, but I’m not sure because at that very moment my head caved in and a kind of shimmering light went on and my musical world, such as it was, changed forever. I’d never heard anything so sensational and simply couldn’t believe that anyone could play so brilliantly, especially when they were making it up as they went along. I don’t know if it was the special qualities of this particular track itself, which are considerable, or the fact that I was just ready to hear it – or both – but from that moment on, I was a jazz fan, there was no turning back. I didn’t know how yet, but I knew I had to hear more of this music (starting with the rest of this record), had to learn more about it and maybe even try to play it, though I’d certainly never reach that level, not in a million years. 

So that was the beginning for me, all it took was the thrill of that first spark to get me interested and I couldn’t stop. Everything else that eventually followed – a growing appreciation for nuances and details in the music, the subtleties of harmony, comping and rhythm section playing and a million other things – stemmed from getting lit up by that Brownie-Max record. The rest of the record sounded great to me also and I listened to it so constantly that one day my mother, normally a patient and gentle woman, burst into my room and suggested in pretty scarlet terms that I give it a rest or try listening to something else for a change, for Chrissakes. As my ears grew and adjusted, the Miles record sounded better and better to me, the track that finally won me over was “When Lights Are Low”. Coltrane was the most difficult to acclimatize to, but a simple little phrase he played on “Lights” won me over and convinced me there might be something to this guy. It consisted of seven attacks using just four notes – the tonic F played three times, then down to D, back up to F, G and Ab – it was the blues personified and sounded like a vocalized, desperate prayer –  “Please someone… come rescue me”.

Although Brownie had been my first jazz love and would remain a favourite forever, I soon threw him over for Miles. Apart from the Miles mystique itself, this mainly had to do with two things: His many great records were easy to find, and I fell in love with the rhythm section from his quintet – Red, P.C. and Philly Joe. That band formed the nucleus of my interest and listening for a while, not a bad place to start and I eventually branched out to other connected artists like Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. I began reading anything I could get my hands on about jazz from books in the local libraries and the one in my high school and these made it clear I was going to have to check out Charlie Parker, whom everybody mentioned as the fountainhead of the kind of music I was interested in, but I didn’t know where to start. 

Then one day I remembered that Gil had given me an old beat-up Parker LP a couple of years earlier and I eventually found it stashed somewhere. It was “The Early Bird” on a budget label called Baronet, but was actually an excellent compilation of some of Bird’s greatest sides for Dial. I eagerly put it on and, now thinking of myself as a seasoned jazz listener, was completely unprepared for the impact hearing Bird for the first time would have on me – he blew me over backwards. Everything about him – the rhythmic intensity, the urgent, scalding sound, the devastating lines, that it all sounded like the blues, even when he wasn’t playing a blues – just terrified me, yet excited me beyond words at the same time. Here too were Miles and Max, but ten years earlier, and there were some tracks with Erroll Garner playing piano, which surprised me. What was the guy who wrote “Misty” doing playing with Bird? He sounded good though, and that Red Callender guy on bass did too. That Bird record was already pretty worn out, but I wore it out some more playing nothing else for days on end, it was just killing me.

So there I was at fifteen or sixteen, a stone bebop fan, with nowhere to go but up. Then a strange and fateful thing happened – I met a trumpet player at my high school named John MacLeod [2]. He was interested in jazz too, so it was odd in a way that we hadn’t met before, but he was a grade behind me and involved with the school brass band, while I’d been playing cello in the string orchestra, so our paths hadn’t crossed. John was already pretty advanced and serious about the trumpet, taking private lessons from a pro and considering a career in music. He’d started a little extra-curricular Dixieland band and they were already set with a good guitar player in my friend Greg Stone, but they needed a bass player and John asked me if I’d give it a try. I said that I didn’t know anything about playing the bass and he told me not to worry about it, that the main thing was to not stop playing, no matter what. (Some of the other guys he tried in the band played bass in the orchestra and stopped playing as soon as their fingers blistered up or their hand cramped – usually in a minute or two.) I gave it a go and I’ve been not stopping ever since.

I was nowhere near ready to play bebop, but Dixieland was a great place to start. You have to work really hard to be heard and find your place in that music, plus I was learning right off the bat about jazz tradition and the discipline of ensemble playing. I’d heard a little Dixieland in passing and always liked it on a gut level [3] – the anarchic heat of it, the joyful weaving of the three horns together, the stomping tunes, and the way drummers kicked things along with rimshots and sizzling cymbals (though not the stone-handed guy we had playing drums in our band.) I picked out a school bass to use and started to feel my way around on it, trying to find the notes by thinking of the bottom four strings of the guitar, which are the same – E-A-D-G. I tried to play walking quarter-notes or two-beat, and my hands soon hurt something awful – blisters, cramps, blood – tape, bandages and burning fingers were my constant companions. But, I was playing jazz of a sort, it was a start, and the bass seemed to be in the middle of everything. John and Greg could already play, but the rest of us really stunk. I didn’t care though, I’d found a home and a means of expression on an instrument that interested me, now I just had to learn to play the beast.

So, hanging out with John and playing Dixieland opened up my ears more to older forms of jazz. I wanted to branch out a little and listen to some more of this and I found two important new sources – the jazz record collection at The East York Public Library, and Ted O’Reilly’s radio show “The Jazz Scene”, which came on weeknights at 10 o’clock and Saturday mornings till noon. I found a copy of Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy at the library and it just knocked me out, I kept renewing it for weeks on end till I knew all of its nooks and crannies. Trummy Young’s booting trombone, Billy Kyle’s wonderful background piano fills, the marvelous subtlety and timing of Louis’ soulful singing and the way he built his majestic trumpet solos till the band was in a lather. It was totally different, but I got the same visceral thrill from this that I did from listening to Bird, everything swung so much and had that same deep sound of the blues. I began to realize there was a connection between different kinds of jazz and that maybe this mostly had to do with feeling.

I also got lucky and found a good two-LP Dixieland set on some budget label, for about $3 at a local drugstore. The first record had Rex Stewart, leading a band of Buster Bailey, Vic Dickenson, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and George Wettling, playing the standard Dixie repertoire – “Rampart St. Parade”, “High Society”, etc. – I thought this would be good for learning more about this music. And it was; I liked this one right away, it was glittering, hot and happy and I loved Rex’s pungent sound and the loose drumming of Wettling. The other record was a live one by Pee Wee Russell and I didn’t like it so well at first, it sounded boozy and messy and there was a lot of crowd noise, like they were playing in a beer hall, which they more or less were. Pee Wee sounded out of tune, wheezy and drunk and the tunes like “Love Is Just Around the Corner”, “Coquette” and “Sweet Lorraine” weren’t really Dixie, but that guy on trumpet named Ruby Braff had a kind of bruising, crimson rage in his sound I liked and he swung, so it wasn’t a total loss. I also checked out some small group swing from the library – Coleman Hawkins, and a Charlie Christian album called Solo Flight, which also knocked me out.

So, I was still a bebop fan, but had branched out in my listening and I’d begun taking private bass lessons from Lenny Boyd, who was a terrific teacher. I still hadn’t really heard any big band music though, nor did I want to, I generally took a dim view of them. I suspected big bands were corny and commercial because they played for dancing and were part of the nostalgic world of my parents, naturally anathema to me as a teenager. To be fair to my narrow-minded young self, the big band picture of that time didn’t help. It was the beginning of the “stage band” craze and there were all sorts of high school and college stage bands soddenly playing wooden charts that didn’t sound much better than the football marching bands of the past. And the pro big bands that were making waves at the time – like those led by Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich – played a kind of hyper-aggressive, loud, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am brand of music that seemed to be all about showing off and higher-faster-louder. I didn’t hear much thought or jazz in it, if any, and I didn’t want any part of them.

My opinion of big bands changed forever when I chanced to hear one featured for an hour on Ted O’Reilly’s show one night – the Count Basie band [4] of the late ’30s. They knocked me out right away, this was a big band that played like a small group. The “All American Rhythm Section” of Walter Page, Jo Jones, Freddie Green and Basie just killed me with their power, precision and balance. They throbbed as one man and the incisive little fills and interjections Basie played always seemed to add something vital at precisely the right moment. And such great soloists, starting with Lester Young. I hadn’t heard him before and he lit me up just as Clifford, Bird and Louis did – his neon, glow in the dark sound, his floating time, the endlessly surprising ideas he played, his devastating blues playing. The other soloists weren’t bad either – Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison both witty and elegant on trumpet and Dickie Wells, with his braying mule sound on trombone. And I loved the way the rest of the band tossed simple, swinging little riffs around between the sections and under the soloists to create more excitement and momentum, it was just too much.

I was amazed that so much profound jazz was coming from a big band, I hadn’t thought this possible, but hearing was believing. I lost no time in getting hold of some records by this band – The Best of Count Basie on Decca, and Super Chief, on Columbia – and they became heroes to me and have remained so to this day. This wasn’t the last time that a preconception of mine would be blown out of the water so thoroughly, this really knocked down some walls and it was now a short trip to hearing and enjoying some other big bands. Also on Ted’s show I heard the Blanton-Webster Ellington band for the first time, which knocked me out almost as much as Basie, but not quite, not at first. This band didn’t swing as much as Basie’s, wasn’t as balanced or precise. But of course, the music Duke wrote for them was more layered and complex, there was a lot more colour, mood and jungle exotica. And the soloists were so individual, so expressive and rhapsodic. It was great but a little messy and wild for me at first, it would take a while before I fully appreciated Duke’s band, though I was already convinced of his genius. I also heard Woody Herman’s band [5] on another radio show – Phil McKellar’s on Sunday nights. Phil was a huge Woody fan and he played the early ’60s Jake Hanna-Sal Nestico band on his show and the mid ’40s Bill Harris-Flip Phillips band too, both of them thrilling. It was maybe the first time that I realized that big bands, aside from having good soloists and swinging like small groups, could deliver a unique kind of excitement all their own, having to do with the sheer mass and volume of the sections pulling together like this. I also came to really like Benny Goodman’s various bands, I’ve always thought there was a very high quotient of no fooling around, quality jazz in Benny’s playing and in his bands, which were always precise and swinging [6].

Another thing that really turned my head around about big bands was hearing Rob McConnell’s The Boss Brass live at The Savarin Tavern, when I was in Grade 13. By that point I’d improved some as a bass player and heard quite a bit of live jazz, but this was the first time I’d heard a big band of this caliber in person and it bowled me over. I was with John MacLeod and a couple of other friends and I still don’t know how we managed to get in to the Savarin – it was a Friday night, the place was packed and I for one was underage. But somehow we pulled it off and heard two blazing sets by this great band, which was just entering its early peak. Everything about it – Rob’s very creative writing, the rhythm section (especially drummer Terry Clarke), the soloists (Rob himself, Guido Basso, Ed Bickert, Moe Koffman, Gene Amaro, Rick Wilkins, Jerry Toth among others), the precision and power of the horn sections, the incredible saxophone solis, the dynamics – just dazzled me, I’d never heard anything like it. Hearing this live awakened me to some possibilities I hadn’t really considered, such as the fact that there were real guys in my hometown – not some distant heroes on records – that were actually making music on this level, in the here and now. This was 1974, and if someone had told John MacLeod and me that we would actually be playing in this band by 1983, we’d have laughed and then sent for the men in white coats.

So at that point, I’d made a start, had done some listening and had even branched out from playing Dixieland a little, we were now trying to play some more modern stuff too. I had at least come to like some big band jazz, but still hadn’t had any experience playing in one. My first taste of playing in a big band would come when I joined MacLeod and Greg Stone the next year in the music programme at Humber College, and would prove to be an unmitigated disaster. But I’ll touch on that and more in Part Two.

Notes. [1]. Gil Burry is my mom’s kid brother and lived with us in Scarborough until I was four or five. In fact, one of my earliest memories is digging out some of his records and looking at the jackets. There was one by Shelly Manne in particular – Swinging Sounds on Contemporary – that really got to me when I was about four. Not the music, the cover. The guys all looked so tough and hip. Shelly on the front in black and white, playing his drums with mallets and sporting an impossibly flat brush-cut. And the other guys along the bottom of the back cover in passport-size photos – Stu Williamson with a rakish cookie-duster moustache, Charlie Mariano and Russ Freeman looking very Rudolf Valentino swarthy and intense and above all Leroy Vinnegar, his sweat-slicked skin looking like oiled ebony. I didn’t know anything about jazz, but I somehow knew even then that these guys were way cool, way bad.

As a teenager Gil got interested in jazz, playing some drums and trumpet and chumming around with Art Ayre, who became a professional pianist and organist around Toronto. Gil went through a kind of juvenile delinquent phase and bebop was part of his young “rebel without a cause” persona in his teens, which is funny because he later became very religious, while never entirely losing his interest in “the devil’s music.” Clifford Brown was his idol and when Brownie died in the car crash in June of 1956, Gil was utterly inconsolable and went into a deep depression which was worrisome to my parents. I was born two months later in August of that year, and my father later told me that a new life in the house helped pull Gil out of this and he came around. How strange and ironic then, yet fitting, that it would be a Clifford Brown record lent to me by Gil that would light me up and set me on a jazz course. Gil’s record collection was the source of more discovery for me early on, he lent me some more Clifford Brown, some Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, MJQ and Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. To show how life sometimes comes full circle, Gil just turned 75, plays the clarinet as a hobby and has been a regular borrower from my CD collection in recent years and occasionally asks me for some jazz tips. I’m not sure if Gil knows how much impact these early record loans had on me, especially that Brownie one, but things would have been much different without them and I’ll always be grateful to him, even though the jazz path has led me to some pretty un-Godly places.

[2]. John MacLeod has of course gone on to a long and successful career as a musician and is well-known to Toronto jazz fans. Aside from playing trumpet, he started and ran a record label for some time, teaches and has become a first-rate composer and arranger, writing a great deal of music for his own big band, which won a jazz Juno in 2012. Meeting John in high school changed my life forever, not just because he was the one who got me playing the bass, but because he also showed me music was a possible life path. John was (and is) my first jazz friend and he was also the first guy I met who was totally focussed on music to the exclusion of other things and was serious about it as a career. For me, it was an important interest, but I was a good student and probably set on some kind of straight, academic career. Once I got involved in playing jazz on the bass and all, my grades and attendance took a bit of a nose-dive and I kind of followed John to Humber and a career in music, which I wouldn’t have considered without knowing him. John has confessed to me of having mixed feelings of responsibility about this, because I had other options and might have been better off in a straight career. I told him not to worry, that I wouldn’t trade the jazz journey for anything, even with all the ups and downs, pitfalls and cardboard sandwiches. To tell the truth, I was taking the academic stuff a bit seriously back then and jazz lightened me up a little, rescued me from the dryness of this. School had become something of a boring dead-end to me and jazz may be many things, but it’s rarely boring.

John and I aren’t quite as close now as we once were, which is natural enough. Divergent careers, marriages, families and lots of other water under the bridge has passed since high school. And yet, even if we haven’t seen each other for a little while, there’s that bond between us from all those shared experiences and memories that’s easily renewed. We don’t play together as often as we once did, though we’re in a couple of regular bands together and also play together in all sorts of pick-up situations from time to time. Recently we were on a gig together that hammered home all this for me and how far we’ve come (as did having a friend of even longer standing in the audience one night). It was a three-night John Alcorn gig at The Jazz Bistro and I liked everything about it. Alcorn’s singing, the venue, the chemistry in the rhythm section between Dave Restivo, Davide Direnzo and me, the wonderful songs that Alcorn chose. But having MacLeod there was the icing on the cake, it really made it special. Though we’ve played together so many times, there was something extremely fulfilling about playing these standards with him. It’s one of the things he’s really good at and it’s one of the reasons he and I started playing in the first place, over forty goddamn years ago. Normally, realizations like this make me feel old like so many other things do these days, but this was different, this was more a feeling of pride and satisfaction that the long journey with guys like John MacLeod has been worthwhile and meant something. It almost felt like we were kids again and we’d just started only yesterday………until my back tightened up at the end of each set.

[3]. Although I’ve used it a lot, I don’t really like the term “Dixieland” because it’s fraught with all sorts of irrelevant connotations, like straw hats, stripey shirts, sleeve garters and so on. But it’s entrenched and convenient, as everybody knows more or less what it means – a repertoire and a polyphonic approach involving the weaving of lines between trumpet, clarinet and trombone, etc. I think I see Dixieland a little differently than most people, certainly most people my age anyway. A lot of folks think of the banjos, rickety ancient guys, boozy atmosphere and consider it old-hat, square music. Played at its best, I see it as one of the more anarchic, rebellious and avant-garde forms of jazz, as embodied by someone like Pee Wee Russell, who broke all the rules. I hear similarities between the Dixieland I like and the so-called “free jazz” I like by artists like Albert Ayler, Roswell Rudd, Ornette Coleman and The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There’s a kind of primitivism, an emotionalism, freedom of expression more concerned with sounds and shapes rather than notes or harmonic correctness, an intermingling of many lines at once, a rhythmic vibrancy and above all, an in-your-face thumbing of noses in both Dixieland and free music that is part of the essence of being a jazz player. Albert Ayler and Roswell Rudd sound like they don’t give a good goddamn what anyone thinks of their playing and the same goes for Kenny Davern, Baby Dodds, Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill Davison and others. I also like the repertoire, the chord progressions are put together in a different way than bebop and there’s more ensemble work and instrumental breaks, which I think modern jazz suffers from a lack of. Because I began by playing Dixieland, I’ve never been able to look down my nose at it as freely as some do, it’s always had some relevancy for me and there’s never any doubt that when I hear Dixieland played well, I’m hearing jazz and nothing else.

[4]. Count Basie is one of my real heroes in jazz; I think he’s a rhythmic genius and an antidote to too much mindless virtuosity, especially among pianists. As Ruby Braff once said to me, “There are only about eight pianists in the whole history of jazz who didn’t overplay, and Count Basie was three of them.” But with Basie, as with Duke Ellington in a much different way, it’s not just a matter of the man himself, his playing or even his band. So many important players were associated closely with him that he has become a symbol for a whole family or school, a way of playing jazz. The Basie way represents a kind of model involving, among other things, the principles of space, balance, the importance of the blues, rhythmic vitality and relaxation welded together and brevity, as in speak your piece, then get the hell out of the way. I’m very happy to say I received first-hand lessons in these principles by having the chance to play quite a bit with some of Basie’s men – Sweets Edison and Buddy Tate from his early band, and Lockjaw Davis and Joe Newman from his later ones. It’s one thing to pay lip service to Basie and the fact that his music swings and all, but it wasn’t until I played with these men that I realized how strong and deep this was. There’s swinging and then there’s swinging – these men swung, not just with a groove, but with wit and profundity. They also embodied not only a way of playing, but a wisdom and philosophy, a way to being that’s all but gone now, but not quite. I’ve played (and enjoy) many types of jazz that are far removed from Basie, but I always find myself coming back to him in some way – by listening to his records or those that are marked by him. It’s like getting my back scratched, it feels like going home and reminds me where the middle of the beat is.

[5]. Woody Herman was not a great clarinettist like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw were, wasn’t a great alto soloist like his contemporaries Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. Nor was he a great composer or arranger like Duke Ellington. What he was however, was a great bandleader and as such, his output needn’t take a back seat to that of many others, if any. Woody was a superb judge of jazz talent across several generations and involving both players and writers, he was also a superb nurturer of that talent. His bands always swung, had tremendous spirit and teamwork and featured terrific soloists and wonderful writing. The list of great players to pass through his bands is far too long to mention, but I’ve noticed that among other things he was blessed by having a lot of terrific drummers. Dave Tough, Shadow Wilson, Don Lamond, Shelly Manne, Sonny Igoe, Chuck Flores, Jake Hanna, Ronnie Zito, Jeff Hamilton. Woody’s philosophy in regard to drummers reveals part of the wisdom that made him a great bandleader. When a new drummer came into the band, Woody would let him have the book of drum music for a week or two, then took it away permanently. Jake Hanna explained to me that Woody didn’t want to hear a drummer reading the drum parts, but rather playing them, using his ears and instincts. And Woody explained further when I asked him about this that he didn’t care how a drummer played a chart the first time he saw it, but rather the fiftieth time – in other words, the music isn’t on the page and he wanted the drummer to bring something of himself to it night after night, some fire and gas, some creativity, some spark. There’s a lot to this. I think to succeed as jazz entities, big bands need rhythm sections that are made up of jazz players and require both writers and leaders that will give them the freedom to play as such. It’s different for horn players, when not soloing they have to play what’s written and there’s a separate discipline to playing in a big band section for them. With rhythm sections, especially bassists and drummers, it’s important to know when to play what’s written, but maybe even more important to know how and when to play what’s not written. This is something it took me a long time to learn, and I’ll return to it in Part Two.

[6]. There are hundreds of Benny Goodman stories, about how cheap, eccentric, aloof, selfish and exacting he could be, with his glowering look known as “The Ray”. But here’s one not many have heard, told to me by trombonist Dan Barrett, that demonstrates what an insightful bandleader he was. Dan was part of a band that Benny put together in the early 80s to play The Rainbow Room and a series of concerts. It was mostly a young band, with other young mainstream players in it such as Warren Vache and Scott Hamilton. Benny called for three straight days of rehearsals so the band could tackle the large book and on the first day after a lunch break, the rhythm section was gone, Benny had sent them home. Some of the guys thought Benny had fired them (as would have been typical) but it was actually quite the opposite. Benny lectured the horn players that they might think they were playing good time and swinging, but that most of them were sitting in the weeds and leaning too much on the rhythm section and he was going to clean this up by making them play all the music on their own. Sure enough, things without the rhythm section were dragging, flabby and loose, not everybody was pulling their own weight or lining up rhythmically and it was pretty easy to hear this. Benny made them play that way for the rest of that day and all of the next, until everybody was feeling the time together and standing on their own two feet. Then he added the rhythm section on the last day and the band really sounded like something, just took off. This story knocked me out and Dan said he learned a great deal from going through it. Namely that you may not be swinging quite as much as you might think, and just because the rhythm section feels good, doesn’t mean that everything else does. To swing, a big band can’t have any passengers, everyone has to either be a jazz player, or at least have jazz time. Once again, the music isn’t really on the page, what’s written is only the beginning.

© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Early Days, Big or Small? Part One

  1. Steve, I found this latest entry simply delightful. Any time I’ve talked to a jazz player I’ve always asked the question “what turned you on to this music and how were you first come to hear it?” Your personal story demonstrates beautifully how anyone first exposed to jazz between say 1940 and the present has had to embark on a voyage of discovery, moving backwards and forwards through time in an attempt to piece together the evolution of this forever shape-shifting art form. And I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see Pee Wee Russell and Albert Ayler mentioned – both in a positive manner – in the same sentence. Great stuff.

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