Jazz history is full of celebrated examples of brilliant improvisation – the 1928 Louis Armstrong-Earl Hines duet “Weather Bird”, Charlie Parker’s solo on “Ko-Ko”, the 1939 reading of “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins are obvious cases, where an artist or band sets a new standard or at least reaches rare heights. But such evaluations are only possible because the performances themselves have been preserved and codified by virtue of having been recorded, otherwise they would be long gone and forgotten. We take records for granted now, but just think how different the development of jazz would have been without them, if everything had to be heard in person or spread by word of mouth and great performances were lost forever the instant they ended. Because so much of it is fleeting and not written, records are to jazz what the score is to classical music, or the printing press is to literature.
Most jazz records were (and are) made in studios and given the drawbacks of that environment – an often sterile atmosphere, generally poor ambient sound, physical separation of the musicians, the ‘under the microscope’ pressure of microphones – it’s amazing how many good jazz records have been produced under these conditions. This is especially true considering how much of jazz is improvisation, which can draw upon sources of inspiration often missing from the studio, most importantly a live audience.
The recording studio does have its advantages though, mostly having to do with control and the absence of real-time considerations. If a performance goes awry, the band can stop and start over, multiple takes can be made, splicing and editing can be done, plus the sound quality itself can be better balanced or manipulated, sometimes to the point of artificiality.
Live recording carries risks (as does jazz itself), but under the right circumstances it can offer the best of both worlds – preservation and spontaneity. There may be a drop-off in recorded sound quality, but the greater energy and relaxation of playing before a live audience can make for more visceral, inspired music. There are no magic formulas or guarantees though, sometimes attempts at live recordings utterly fail and other times they succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams under the dodgiest of circumstances.
What follows is a list of ten such instances where magical live performances were luckily captured on record against long odds, with a discussion of each. I’m not trying to do David Letterman here with the ‘top-ten’ – it just seems a nice round number and the list is by no means complete or definitive. These are simply some live gems that stand out for me and spring readily to mind; some of them are very famous no-brainers, others are little-known and entirely personal. Some of the entries are only a few tracks or even just one, others are whole records and the list is subjective, could easily change if I were to put it together another time. Jazz is like that and so is being a fan of it.
One other caveat – the order of these is not a ranking of quality or importance at all, but mainly one of unlikeliness – the higher on the list, the more improbable the surviving result. Where available, I’ve left youTube links to some of these performances after the commentary on each.
1. Jess Stacy – January 16, 1938 – Carnegie Hall.
The occasion of course was Benny Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert, featuring his big band, quartet and various guests in one of the most important jazz concerts ever, a big first step on the road to respectability for the music. Jess Stacy’s piano solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing” ranks first on this list both for its spectacular quality and because the odds of it happening at all were incalculably low, something of a miracle. The recording of it was also a fluky accident, the afterthought of a CBS employee who hung a single recording microphone over the stage before the concert, just in case. After all, it was an ‘historic occasion’.
Stacy’s solo was such a long-shot because, although a much-admired and distinctive pianist, he was often buried in Goodman’s big band and others. He would get the odd solo of eight or sixteen bars here and there and had a knack for improvising memorable little introductions or brief interludes, but the brilliant counter-melodies he often played tended to “melt into the band” as he put it. When Goodman would feature his trio or quartet in live shows as on this evening, the pianist was the great Teddy Wilson, fast becoming a major star. Jess Stacy was very good, but a young journeyman pianist of second-banana standing.
He was certainly never before featured on the big band’s bombastic flag-waver “Sing, Sing, Sing”, which they played late in the program this night. After the roaring, ensemble theme statement and the interpolation of the riff-tune “Christopher Columbus”, the piece settled into customary solos by tenor saxophonist Babe Russin and trumpeter Harry James, followed by Goodman in a long clarinet outing, each backed only by Gene Krupa’s ‘jungle’ tom-toms.
After the applause greeting his virtuosic solo died down, Goodman for some reason turned and pointed to Stacy in his vague, absent-minded way – “take some, Jess.” Stacy certainly wasn’t prepared for this and took a moment to gather himself as Krupa brought his throbbing toms down to a dull roar, focusing everyone’s attention. In terms of improvisation, there wasn’t much to work with here, just the tempo and minor key, maybe both a challenge and a blessing in this case. Starting slowly, Stacy proceeded to spin the solo of a lifetime.
It’s structured very organically and unfolds out of itself logically, each musical phrase a kind of nuanced cadenza leading to another, then yet another. Harmonically, he moves back and forth from the tonic minor to the dominant-seventh chord and occasionally to the subdominant minor, giving the solo something of a blues feeling, but the overall impression is of classical piano. Many listeners hear Debussy in the feathery, rippling, up and down runs and Stacy himself said he’d been playing a lot of Debussy at the time. I think of Rachmaninoff because of the minor key, the bell-like ringing chords and crackling sonority he draws from the piano. Most importantly, the solo sounds like Jess Stacy, except nobody present knew what that meant till that moment, just as they were being hypnotized. The dynamics here are breathtaking, building to several small crescendos then backing away again. At one point he gathers rhythmic momentum to a kind of barrelhouse climax of stride-piano flourishes and his trademark jingling tremolos. The solo casts a spell and has a palpable mood of flickering rapture, of light and shadow. I always see images of embers glowing in a fireplace and reflecting on to a wall when I listen to it.
Stacy gradually moves higher and higher on the keyboard throughout, finishing very quietly and gently up top in a gradual fade. The whole thing lasts just over two minutes, which doesn’t seem long by today’s post-Coltrane standards, but was unheard of in those days when solos were often measured in seconds. There was a brief pause of stunned silence from the audience as they realized he’d finished, then a burst of blazing applause, they were just astonished. Maybe the ghosts of past Carnegie Hall concert pianists were at work, but Jess Stacy had somehow taken this unexpected turn in the spotlight and delivered the most indelible moment of many that evening, earning himself a small slice of jazz immortality thanks to the presence of the microphone. I envy anyone who hasn’t heard this solo because they have the first thrill of it yet to come when they hear it. Like all immortal solos though, this one sounds fresh each and every time it’s heard.
2. Duke Ellington Orchestra – a) Nov. 7, 1940 – Fargo, N.D. and b) – July 8, 1956 – Newport Jazz Festival.
With the possible exception of Louis Armstrong, Ellington probably played more live dates than anyone else in jazz history, so it’s hardly surprising that he and his band would have two entries. I couldn’t choose between these two famous occasions so I’ve included both here. The surprise in either case is not the wondrous music, that would be expected from such a great band. The miracle in the 1940 case is that an amateur recording made under such dubious circumstances in such a remote location happened at all, and then survived to be released almost 40 years later. In the case of the 1956 performance with Paul Gonsalves’ 27 choruses on “Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at Newport, the fluke is that microphones were present to capture such an unexpected, sensational performance, magnifying its game-changing impact forever.
The 1940 Fargo discs captured Ellington’s greatest band playing a dance date, normal for that time, but a bit unusual for a live recording. The other circumstances are also notable. Two young friends, Jack Towers and Richard Burriss, were rabid Ellington fans and had the November 7 date circled on their calendars for months. They asked for and received permission to make a private recording of the gig from the William Morris Agency, provided it was for non-commercial use only and that Duke and the manager of the Crystal Ballroom both agreed before the gig started. The recording equipment was a microphone and a Presto portable turntable that cut the recordings on to 16″, 33 1/3-RPM acetate discs, each with a capacity of 15 minutes per side. This was located next to the piano and 5 1/2 discs were used altogether.
Apart from Duke himself reaching a peak as a composer in those years, what made the 1939-41 Ellington band so great was the addition of three giants to an already imposing line-up. Ben Webster, giving Ellington his first great tenor saxophone soloist; Billy Strayhorn, who would contribute so many beautiful compositions and most importantly, the brilliant young bassist Jimmie Blanton. Blanton played long, ringing notes that made the band swing as never before and had the technique and imagination to make the bass a fully-fledged solo instrument for the first time in jazz; he managed all this before dying of tuberculosis in 1942, aged 23. As an added bonus, these discs would mark the Ellington debut of trumpeter Ray Nance, who travelled by train from Chicago to join the band a few nights before, replacing Cootie Williams. (Not only had Williams joined Benny Goodman with Ellington’s blessing, but Duke personally negotiated a generous salary for his ex-trumpet star!) Nance would be a fixture with Ellington for almost 30 years. His ‘styling’ personality and multiple talents – he also played violin, sang and tap-danced – led Duke to nickname him “Floorshow”.
Considering the setting and primitive recording technique, the sound is actually quite good; a bit uneven at times and there are background noises. The biggest problem is that some of the takes are incomplete, interrupted by having to change discs every 15 minutes. In the end though, none of this matters because the music is just so marvelous and full of personality. All of the things that made this band so special can be heard and felt very directly here. The oddly mushy yet propulsive drumming of Sonny Greer, full of colouristic, splashy flourishes. The quixotic blend of “God’s trombones” (Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol and Lawrence Brown), the sensual jungle heat, the unique, almost unbalanced reed section, anchored by Harry Carney’s fog-horn baritone. Duke’s rippling, percussive piano and Blanton’s bass are very front and centre here and Blanton is a tower of strength throughout. God, what a talent, what a tragic loss his early death was. There are great solos by Johnny Hodges, Webster, Rex Stewart (an unbelievable feature on “Boy Meets Horn”), Nance, Blanton, Barney Bigard and Tricky Sam, it’s a feast, a carnival, this is the band you wish could have played at your birthday party just once.
There are a few brief, incomplete tracks on these discs called “chasers”, probably because it’s hard to identify what song is being played as they are excerpted in progress. They last between 10 and 20 seconds and rather than being annoying, they’re fascinating, vivid little musical vignettes. Because they’re so short, these little sound-bites are very intense and disorienting, capturing how otherworldly and colourful the band could be, like a short visit from Martians. Most of the complete numbers are famous Duke compositions such as “Ko-Ko”, “Sepia Panorama”, “Cotton Tail”, “Never No Lament” and many more. But they also play some loosely arranged standards which show what a fabulous jamming band this was, and Nance is heavily featured in these, Duke wasted no time getting him involved. He sings and plays a terrific trumpet solo on a jump-tune called “Wham” and his violin is featured with other solos on a swinging “Honeysuckle Rose”. The biggest impression of all though is made by Ben Webster as a soloist; the blend of his incredibly soulful, purring-tiger sound with the band is overwhelmingly warm. He was too temperamental to stay for long, but he formed the model for later Ellington tenor soloists – Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby.
Towers was the driving force of the two fans and kept his word about not releasing these discs as long as he could. He allowed people to hear them over the years, made a few dubs for real fans and to preserve the discs, he made transfers to newer technologies as they became available. Gradually word of these recordings spread and in 1978, the Book-of-the Month club released them on three LPs. Incredibly, these would win a Grammy Award in 1980, 40 years after the fact. There are several 2-CD versions available, including a deluxe 60th anniversary set issued in 2000 by Storyville. In giving the listener a vivid sense of how possibly the greatest big band of all time sounded on that given night, these are priceless recordings, warts and all.
Before getting to the 1956 Newport, I want to mention another live recording of the band playing at a level similar to the Fargo night, but made much later under more favourable circumstances. The band played some concerts in February, 1963 at the Paris Olympia which have been issued on a two-CD set called The Great Paris Concert and capture them in superlative form. It’s a much different band, but there are some holdovers from 1940 – Carney, Hodges, Nance, Lawrence Brown and Cootie Williams is back in the fold, playing with great power. The first two tracks alone – “Kinda Dukish” (just Duke with bass and drums) and “Rockin’ In Rhythm” – are worth the price of the set. Duke and his men must have started hundreds or even thousands of concerts with these same two numbers, but I doubt they ever played them with such electricity, the band simply raises the roof and takes your head off. These are followed by three straight Johnny Hodges features – “All Of Me”, “The Star-Crossed Lovers” and “Sunny Side of the Street” and there are plenty of great moments after these, this set is not to be missed.
The 1956 Newport set is of course mythical and has been long available on the Columbia record Ellington at Newport 1956, now expanded to a two-CD set with a stereo mix of “Diminuendo & Crescendo In Blue” and extra tracks. Gonsalves’ electrifying 27-chorus blues solo on “D&CIB” provoked a near-riot and propelled the band back into the national spotlight after six or seven years in the doldrums, with a nadir in 1951 when Johnny Hodges left, taking Sonny Greer and Lawrence Brown with him; with Juan Tizol defecting soon after. The band had sounded tired even before this, Duke seemed to have lost his inspiration and there were whispers that he should disband or at least take a rest. He soldiered on through the early ’50s though, somehow finding suitable replacements and by the time Hodges rejoined in 1955, things were looking brighter. To go along with his core of veterans, Duke now had a solid nucleus of young talent – trumpeters Clark Terry and Willie Cook, trombonist Britt Woodman, Gonsalves on tenor, bassist Jimmy Woode and maybe most importantly drummer Sam Woodyard, not as technically assured as Louie Bellson but more fully committed to swinging than either Bellson or his predecessor Sonny Greer.
The legend of this performance has built to the point where people think Gonsalves and the band somehow magically pulled a rabbit out of the hat that evening alone, but recordings show that the band was building toward this, rounding into good form from 1955 on. And Duke’s decision to play the 1938 D&CIB on this night wasn’t isolated either, I’ve heard live air-checks of it from both shortly before and after this that are quite similar in quality and also feature Gonsalves in the “wailing interval” between the two long written sections, he just doesn’t play quite as long or as well.
There’s no getting around it though, this performance is probably the ultimate example in jazz of catching lightning in a bottle. Legends abound about players taking 70 or 80 choruses at this jam session or that after-hours joint, but nobody until then had ever stretched out to anything approaching 27 choruses on record, even on a short form like the blues. It’s not just the length (although that is a big part of the tension and excitement here), but the quality and intensity of what Gonsalves and the rhythm section play, the sheer frothing swing of it that so amaze us. This is a classic example of a soloist and a rhythm section being locked in and feeding off each other, they’re phrasing as one. It’s towering, irresistible and as the frenzied excitement mounts, you can hear the audience start to react, their cheers sound just like a hurricane in the background, eight full years before The Beatles played at Shea Stadium.
It’s both pointless and impossible to describe or analyze the solo in any detail other than to say it’s a unique marathon and wildly exciting, its momentum has to be heard to be believed and again I both pity and envy those who haven’t heard it – fasten your seat-belts and enjoy the ride. It’s not the most subtle or considered improvisation you’ll ever hear but it is thrilling. It has a booting, gutbucket, R & B quality yet is also almost abstract because of the blurred pitch and serpentine lines Gonsalves plays. This is not music for the mind so much as for the gut, the groin and the feet, you can’t sit still through it. A palpable sense of tension and suspense builds with the length of it, as a listener you wonder how long they can keep up at this level and there’s an immense release when Gonsalves finishes and turns it over to Duke, who has been comping up a storm.
It was an immediate sensation, people were dancing on their chairs and in the aisles, hooting and hollering, a lady began removing some of her clothing and I wouldn’t be surprised if several babies were conceived in the bushes during the whole thing. It was broadcast on Willis Conover’s Voice of America show and there was a lot of other media coverage, it had massive impact. People went away talking about Duke Ellington and his fabulous band, wondering where they’d been lately. Soon after, Ellington was on the cover of Time magazine and entered one of his greatest sustained periods of creative activity, he never looked back. People wonder how Duke was able to tolerate the incorrigibly wayward behaviour of Paul Gonsalves all those years, wonder why he put up with it – this performance is the answer. Yes, Mex was prodigal and loaded much of the time, but he could also deliver this kind of fabulous stretching out as few others could.
I shouldn’t really mention the following because it’s a studio recording, but I can’t resist. Even after the Newport solo, if anyone should have any doubts about the unique greatness of Paul Gonsalves as a saxophonist and improviser, I urge them to get a John Lewis record called The Wonderful World of Jazz. The first track is the only one Gonsalves plays on, a long version of “Body and Soul” as a walking ballad, with Herb Pomeroy on trumpet, Lewis, Jim Hall, George Duvivier and Connie Kay. It’s mostly wall-to-wall Gonsalves though, he plays five or six stunning choruses that amount to a masterpiece, his sinuous sound and surreal harmonic sense just breathtaking. He virtually takes the tune apart and puts it back together again; “Body” has long been associated with great tenor players ever since the 1939 Coleman Hawkins recording of it, but this for me eclipses even Hawk and is the finest playing on the song I’ve ever heard. Yes, Gonsalves was sensational and caught lightning in a bottle at Newport, but luck had nothing to do with it and there was much more to him than that one solo, he was truly a deep and original player.
© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.