Keynote Address, Part Two – Notes

These are notes I wanted to include in the post “Keynote Address”, but felt it was long enough as it was.

[1].  Alfred Lion arrived in New York in 1929, but health issues forced his return to Germany soon thereafter. He worked in South America from 1933 and would return to New York in 1938, in time to hear John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts of 1938 and ’39, which inspired him to found his own label. His good friend Francis Wolff joined him, reportedly catching the last passenger boat to leave Germany in early 1939, before the war began. Blue Note was the most cash-strapped of the small New York independent labels, so in the early going their releases were more intermittent and modest than the others. However, slow and steady wins the race, even with jazz record labels. Due to financial problems, Keynote and HRS both folded in the late 1940s, and while Commodore did a few sporadic recordings in the ’50s, it was largely done by 1947. But, Blue Note gathered momentum as a bebop label in the late-’40s and really hit its stride in the ’50s and ’60s as the label went on to great fame and some fortune, before it all ebbed in the early ’70s. Of course the label was revived after a long gap and is now part of the Capitol/EMI imprint, surviving its founders with frequent reissues of its large back catalogue and new releases by contemporary musicians.

[2]. Of these four independents, only Keynote offered the full range of traditional jazz, small group swing and bebop in its short history. Commodore featured some early jazz in its recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, some solo piano, mainstream swing and a lot of music based around the Eddie Condon circle, which, for want of a better term, could be called Dixieland. The label was not interested in bebop at all though. HRS mostly offered classic mainstream swing, often with an Ellingtonian flavour and featuring lots of original music as well as standards. Some of its later recordings had slight boppish touches. In its early days, Blue Note was devoted entirely to blues-based or traditional jazz – boogie-woogie piano, Sidney Bechet, Art Hodes, The Blue Note Jazzmen, The Port of Harlem Jazzmen, the Benny Morton/Jimmy Hamilton Swingtets, etc. This all changed abruptly in 1947, when saxophonist Ike Quebec introduced Lion and Wolff to some of his musician friends who were early bebop pioneers, such as Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie. The owners of Blue Note were immediately intrigued and almost overnight, Blue Note went from being a traditional/swing label to being a bebop label, with releases by Monk, Tadd Dameron/Fats Navarro and Bud Powell among its early bop issues of the late-’40s. Blue Note became almost exclusively a bebop/hard-bop label in the ’50s, with some fairly adventurous post-bop releases in the 1960s. But only Keynote offered such a variety of jazz styles all at once in such a short span of time. 

[3]. Those were vastly different times in America, and it was entirely possible to be as far-left politically as Eric Bernay and still be a respected member of mainstream society, own property and a business, the whole works. There were a number of reasons for this. The public work programs of F.D.R.’s New Deal – which helped pull America out of the Depression, but were seen by some as a brand of socialism – were not far removed. The barbaric repressions and excesses of Communism under Stalin (and later in Red China) were not widely known to the public then, or for some time. And most of all, socialism was seen as preferable to – and a valuable bulwark against – something which posed a far greater and more immediate threat : the Fascism of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Many people who were not particularly political or left-leaning supported the anti-Fascist Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with some gusto, their cause captured the imagination of the public around the world in a big way. Indeed, apart from seeking to promote awareness of black music in America, John Hammond staged his “From Spirituals To Swing” concerts as benefits to aid the Republican cause in the Spanish war. A good share of the  proceeds were donated to relief of the anti-Fascist forces in Spain, and Bernay had a large hand in helping Hammond with the organization and funding of these concerts. Though he was related by marriage to the aristocratic Vanderbilts, Hammond’s politics were almost as far left as Bernay’s. Of course, once the Fascism of Little Moustache (Hitler) was defeated, with no small help from the forces of Big Moustache (Stalin), Communism instantly became America’s number-one enemy.

[4]. Harry Lim became the first Asian among a group of non-Americans who wielded some influence (as critics, writers, reviewers or record producers) on the still almost exclusively American field of jazz. These included Hughes Panassie, Charles Delaunay (and later Andre Hodeir) from France; Leonard Feather from England; Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun from Turkey, the Belgian Robert Goffin and the Danish Timmie Rosenkrantz. Lim’s early efforts did a great deal to spread the awareness of jazz in Asia, and this would bear fruit later as Japan became a huge part of the international jazz market.

[5]. With the possible exception of Blue Note, none of the independents had a fixed or exclusive racial policy. Commodore recorded bands led by black musicians such as Morton, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Chu Berry, Hot Lips Page and others. The majority of its catalogue was devoted to the Condon circle, whose key figures were all white – Condon himself, Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Muggsy Spanier, Max Kaminsky, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Bushkin, Jess Stacy, George Wettling – all these men would record a lot as leaders and sidemen for Commodore. However, this was a musical rather than a racial decision, and the bands were quite often racially mixed.

In its earliest years from 1938-1940, HRS sessions were led by white players (Russell and Teagarden) and black ones (Rex Stewart), with a session co-led by Sidney Bechet and Spanier. When they resumed after the war, most HRS sessions were led by black musicians, but the bands were almost always mixed, with white sidemen such as Dave Tough, Sid Weiss, Bernie Leighton, Buddy Rich, Ted Nash, Shelly Manne and in-house arranger and rhythm guitarist Brick Fleagle, who was on almost all of the dates.

The leadership on Keynote’s sessions was split exactly in half, racially speaking. 31 of the 62 dates done in those years were led by black musicians, with many of the white leaders coming to the fore in 1945-6, when Keynote did a lot of recording in L.A., which was then mostly dominated by white players. Regardless of who was leading the bands, many of the Keynote groups were racially mixed.

Blue Note though was a different story, throughout its entire history under Lion and Wolff, the label was devoted almost exclusively to black musicians. This became especially true after Blue Note switched to bebop; white musicians were sometimes used as sidemen, but from the peak years of 1947-70, one could count on two hands the number of white leaders recorded by Blue Note. I’m not here to suggest that this was good or bad, right or wrong (I have no opinion on the matter), but to point out that this had considerable impact on the careers of many jazz musicians. Blue Note became known as a label which really supported its artists with promotion, quality recording and graphics, fair royalties and which also encouraged them to record their own original music, backing this by also paying for rehearsal time. During those peak years, black musicians who were Blue Note regulars and helped make the label’s name – Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Booby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and many others – in turn found a home, an identity and a creative outlet at Blue Note with which to launch and sustain their careers, one which would have been otherwise unavailable to them. White jazz musicians in those years largely had to look elsewhere, some with limited success – labels as committed to jazz as Blue Note did not grow on trees.

[6] Irving Fazola was born Irving Prestopnik in New Orleans on December 10, 1912. Stories vary on how he came to be named Fazola – one has it that this came from his early skill at solfeggio (“fah-sol-la”) – another that it was given to him by his frequent colleague Louis Prima after the Italian word for beans, fagioli. Either way, it stuck for life. By all reports, Fazola was an unlovely and dissolute character – he drank and ate a lot, was foul-mouthed, ill-tempered and generally neglectful of personal grooming and hygiene, making his already corpulent and seedy appearance even less attractive. However, he played the clarinet as if touched by an angel – very soulful and mellifluous, featuring a sweet, woody sound with the warmth of a sunbeam. After leaving New Orleans in 1935, Faz was featured with a number of name bands, culminating in 1938 when he joined Bob Crosby’s band, whose Dixieland-inflected style perfectly suited him. His playing was so well received that he won first place in the clarinet category of the 1940 and 1941 Down Beat polls, ahead of such notables as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Edmond Hall. He seemed to be poised for stardom, but never really broke through, perhaps owing to the qualities mentioned above. At any rate, he returned home to New Orleans in 1943 and remained there until his death at 36 in 1949, making his Keynote sides all the more valuable.

{7]. With two sessions as a leader and six as a sideman, Cozy Cole was the most heavily used drummer during the early years of Keynote, 1943-45. There’s nothing unusual about this, as Cole was the busiest drummer in New York during that time, owing to his general versatility and reliability. He was a great master of rudimental drumming, had flawless technique and was an excellent sight-reader, making him a pioneer among black musicians in the integration of recording studios in New York. Despite all this, he’s never been a favourite of mine, I’ve often found his work to be a little stiff and even mechanical, lacking in the imaginative, loose swing of drummers like Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, or George Wettling, whose work in that period I prefer. However, after listening to this set, I must say my opinion of Cozy’s work has changed for the better. It could be the great company he’s in here, or that I’m growing soft with age, but Cole is better here than I expected – he swings more and sounds very good indeed. Most of the above also applies to J.C. Heard, who also shines here.

[8]. Willlie Smith is featured as a sideman on two Keynote sessions led by Juan Tizol and Corky Corcoran, one under the name “The Keynoters” with Nat King Cole, as well as his own session in May of 1945, incredibly his first as a leader. Smith was known as a great sax section guy, playing lead alto for many years in the very polished bands of Jimmie Lunceford and several editions of the Harry James band. He was also the obvious choice to replace Johnny Hodges when Rabbit quit Duke Ellington in 1951. As a soloist he was very much in the same league as Hodges and had many of the same virtues – a great sense of the blues and a creamy, big, luxurious sound with a sensual vibrato. For most of his career, Smith lacked the creative, expressive outlet that Ellington’s music provided Hodges, that was the biggest difference between them.

© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Keynote Address, Part Two – Notes

  1. I’m absolutely loving your musical history lessons.I think a book of essays is in your future. Something to supplement the future pension cheques! Although Writers probably get even less pension than musicians.Ahhhh life in the Arts. Thanks for the reading.

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