Monthly Archives: February 2012

On Dexter Gordon’s 89th Birthday, my liner notes for The Complete Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon

Several years ago, before Concord purchased the holdings of Fantasy Records, I had the honor of writing the liner notes for an immense box set of Dexter Gordon’s complete recordings for Prestige. I researched and wrote the essay while simultaneously putting together a large assignment for DownBeat that involved interviewing a cohort of saxophonists about either their favorite musician or their five favorites on a particular label (can’t remember which), which gave me an opportunity to inquire about their sense of the Gordon’s impact. Maxine Gordon graciously cooperated as well. Gordon’s 89th birth anniversary is today, and, for the occasion, I’m pleased to be able to append these notes.

The Complete Dexter Gordon on Prestige (Notes):

One day in 1945, on his way home from school, a 14-year saxophone beginner named Jackie McLean made a pit stop at a Harlem luncheonette on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. As he waited for his hot dog and root beer, he heard emanating from the backroom jukebox the joyful noise of two distinctly different tenor saxophones exchanging a string of choruses over a thunderous tom-tom shuffle.

“It was ‘Blowing the Blues Away’ by Billy Eckstine’s big band, and that was the first time I heard Dexter Gordon,” McLean recalls. Not long after that, a friend across the street played me ‘Dexter’s Deck.’ That did it. I had been in love with just one saxophone player—Lester Young. But listening to Dexter taught me how to swing.”

Few jazz musicians have stamped the vocabulary of their instrument so definitively at such a tender age as Dexter Keith Gordon, who was not yet 22 when he recorded that iconic tenor battle with Gene Ammons. But he was already a seasoned veteran. The son of a Los Angeles doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as patients, and a private student of noted L.A. educator Lloyd Reese, Gordon joined Hampton in December 1940, two months before his 18th birthday. A devotee of Lester Young’s records with Count Basie, he’d seen Young play the previous October on Basie’s first California visit. “Lammar Wright, Jr. and I ditched school that day to catch the first show, which I think was at eleven in the morning,” Gordon told Ira Gitler in Swing to Bop. “They opened with ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,’ and Lester came out soloing—he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach. And of course, in his pre-Army days he had such a zest for living. It felt so good to hear him play.”

On the road with Hampton, Gordon mastered the ritualistic dueling tenors function, telling ebullient stories with pretty notes, Lester Young style, in counterstatement to the brash, declarative Herschel Evans tales of Illinois Jacquet. Midway through 1941, Hampton’s band came to New York to work Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom opposite Jay McShann, whose alto saxophonist was a 21-year-old virtuoso named Charlie Parker.

“Bird had a lot of Lester in his playing, and also Jimmy Dorsey, who was a master saxophonist,” Gordon recalled in Gary Giddins’s essay “Dexter,” from Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “He was playing so much saxophone, new tunes, new harmonic conceptions; he extended the chords, altering them fluidly. Pres stayed around ninths—he must have listened to Ravel and Debussy—but Bird went all the way up the scale.” On various New York visits in ́41 and ́42, the aspirant heard trumpet modernists Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, and Victor Coulson. “I heard [the new sound] gradually here and there,” he told Gitler. “Not in an organized band or even with all the cats playing that kind of style in a group.”

Gordon wasn’t doctrinaire about his influences. He knew the Coleman Hawkins lexicon inside out, and drew inspiration from Dick Wilson (1911-1941), a much-admired tenorman with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy. In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes that Wilson executed “sinuous and unpredictable” lines “with consummate control. . .interposing quick flurries of notes with more sustained phrases,” and projected them with a tone distinctive for being “at once imbued with a searing old-style intensity and a subtle ‘modern’ coolness.”

During the first nine months of 1944, Gordon refined his skills on jobs with drummer Lee Young (Lester’s older brother), Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. In October he received a call to join Eckstine’s seminal bebop orchestra at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater. Maxine Gordon, his widow, relates: “Dexter told Louis, ‘I’ve got to go; that’s my boys.’ ‘Is it a matter of money?’  He said, ‘No, the money’s fine.’ ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘I’ve got to play that music.’  He was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ Dexter said that the publicity about Louis being anti-bebop was way overstated, that Louis encouraged the young musicians. He said, ‘Try your new thing. What we played was new!’”

Soon after recruiting Gordon, Eckstine hired a young Chicago tenorist named Gene Ammons, a Coleman Hawkins disciple. For the next ten months, a Gordon-Ammons cutting contest became a highly anticipated nightly ritual, establishing both youngbloods as rising stars.

“Dexter was a child of Lester Young,” Maxine Gordon says. “He tried to play like Lester, thought he played just like him, looked like him and acted like him. Lester was his number-one man. But Gene Ammons was his favorite tenor player among his contemporaries. Dexter said that Gene Ammons could do something that he was never able to attain, which is to play one note and affect the people so much that they fall on the ground and faint. They didn’t have much time for their solos. Dexter would work out, play everything he knew, show all he’d been working on. Gene’s ears were so good that he would come up and play everything back, and then play a low B-flat or a note where people would just go ‘Wow!’ Dexter said he learned that if you only worked on technique and speed, and neglected tone, projection, and feeling, you weren’t playing the tenor.

“Dexter told me that he once yelled at Jug, ́Stop playing back my shit! Play your own shit; don’t play mine.` Gene was very sweet and quiet and sensitive, and he took it badly. Dexter and Lammar Wright went to hear Basie. They went out back, and Lester was there. Lester said to him, ́I heard you had a beef with Brother Gene.` People talk. Dexter said, ́Yeah. I’m tired of him stealing my shit.` And Lester said to him, ́Oh, really? You want to be careful about that.` Then Dexter was like, ́Oh my God, I’m stealing every note from Lester.` He was just mortified. ́Okay, I get it.` Then he went and apologized to Gene and tried to be quiet. He said he never forgot that.”

Blending harmonic lessons from Dizzy Gillespie—Eckstine’s musical director and first trumpet until the end of 1944—with tutelage from Ammons in the art of efficiently telling a story with notes and tones, Gordon learned to conjure concise, melodic riffs from extended chord structures. Although he retained Young’s horizontal phrasing and low-vibrato tone, he gradually shed the skin of his idol, projecting a robust timbre and surging attack that appealed to audiences in Southern tobacco warehouses, Western dance halls, and soul lounges in Northern inner cities. He sidemanned on Gillespie’s “Blue and Boogie” in February 1945 for Guild, and appeared with Charlie Parker on sessions led by trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Sir Charles Thompson. He led his first date in December 1945, and for the next three years—recording in New York for Savoy and in Los Angeles for Dial—tossed off a succession of attractive three-minute riff tunes with ad hoc quartets and quintets, including “The Duel,” a tenor joust with West Coast bop avatar Teddy Edwards, and “The Chase,” an epic encounter with L.A.-based tenorman Wardell Gray.

Both Gordon and Gray are in particularly good form on “Move,” taped at Hollywood’s Hula Hut on August 27, 1950. It was originally issued on The Wardell Gray Memorial Album, and is the first of the 88 tracks that comprise The Complete Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon. Over an unwavering, crackling beat from L.A. modernists Jimmy Bunn, Billy Hadnott, and Chuck Thompson, Gray uncorks a string of flaming, elegant, thematically linked choruses, constantly building momentum. There follows a classic solo by trumpeter Clark Terry, in town with the Count Basie Octet; fully cognizant of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, he’s completely his own man. Perhaps aware that it was Young’s 41st birthday, Gordon leaps in (4:22) with an eloquent stream-of-consciousness monologue that continues for 3 minutes and 35 seconds. Swinging fiercely and never repeating himself, he choreographs a continuous flow of melodic ideas, referencing Lestorian fragments as signifying guideposts, throwing in for good measure a well-timed phrase from “Let’s Fall in Love.”

It’s the kind of well-wrought eruption that caused Gordon’s peers and acolytes to keep him firmly in their sights. “Dexter was a tough man to beat in a cutting session,’” says Von Freeman (b.1922), who had first-hand knowledge of the fact. “He was very modern-thinking, could play the stew out of the horn, and you could tell he had studied a whole lot. He was among the very first modern tenor players to break away from Pres, to start emphasizing minor IXs, major IXs, XIIIs, and flatted Vs. In other words, he had some Bird in him early, which gave him an edge among a lot of tenor players who were playing like Pres, since Pres didn’t stress those notes, though he used them in the context of his normal playing. In bebop you start in or end on those type of notes, and that makes your playing different to people who study music. Dexter to me was that stop on tenor between Pres and Hawk, and then Coltrane.”

“Besides the gods, Lester and Hawk and Don Byas, Dexter and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis were the guys that guys my age were listening to when we were coming up,” says Sonny Rollins (b.1930), who grew up in Harlem. “Dexter made a great contribution to the bebop language; in fact, I think he defined it during a certain period. He transcribed a lot of the stuff that Bird was doing, and brought that approach to the tenor without being a copier. He was an important figure in bringing people along. Coltrane at one time sounded a lot like Dexter, and I still hear that lineage. And one time when I was in Chicago, this guy had heard one of my records, and he said, ‘Yeah, man, you sound great; you sound like Dexter.’ I have nothing but praise for him.”

“Around Philadelphia, we all wanted to be like Dexter,” recalls Jimmy Heath (b.1926). “He had this relaxed, behind-the-beat way of playing that made him swing harder than most of the saxophone players. Coltrane, Benny Golson, and myself all were keyed into his sound, and we all were listening to his records, because we were so impressed with the way he adapted the bebop style for the tenor saxophone. One of his records was ‘Setting the Pace,’ and he set the pace.”

“Dexter could take those common chords and string a melody to it like an expensive necklace of pearl beads,” says Golson (b.1929). “His ideas were completely different than Don Byas and Lester Young. To me, they sounded a little more hip, and I guess they were, because he was much younger than them, and he came onto the scene with a new breath of air, so to speak. He had a lot of soul in what he was doing. He was suave—his  movements were that way, and his speech was so smooth and deliberate; he thought about what he was going to say. He wasn’t a person that you knew for playing an abundance of notes, though that didn’t mean he couldn’t. He wasn’t approaching his tenor saxophone the same way Charlie Parker approached his alto saxophone. Charlie Parker played a lot of double-time things. With Dexter it wasn’t a flurry of notes. It was the way he played the notes that he played! It was like he gave more attention to each note rather than a slew of ideas. Charlie Parker came with rapid fire, and Dexter came with single shots, but they were well-aimed. And it was those shots that touched my heart and my brain.”

Six-and-a-half feet tall and bronze-complected, with sculpted, florid cheekbones, full lips, and lidded, ironic eyes, Gordon oozed charisma. “Dexter was a movie star on the saxophone,” says McLean. “My aunt Miriam opened my room door one day when I was practicing and said, ‘Jackie, last night I was on 52nd Street, and this tall, beautiful guy named Dexter something was playing, and oh my God, he was so great.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute! That’s Dexter Gordon.’ I had a little windup record player, and I wound it up and put on ‘Dexter’s Deck’ for her.”

McLean recalls hearing Gordon play several afternoon jam sessions at the Lincoln Square Center, a converted stable in Manhattan’s west sixties. “The first time, Ben Webster and a bunch of other people were playing,” McLean states. “The next time I went, I stepped up with my dollar to get in, and the guy asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I tried to drop my voice down. I said, ‘18.’ ‘No. Come on, kid. Get out of the line.’ I was dejected, and went outside. Then I saw Dexter coming, and I ran up to him in the street. ‘Mr. Gordon, I want to go in to see you play, but they won’t let me in—I’m too young.’ Dexter said, ‘How much does it cost?’ ‘A dollar.’ ‘Give me your dollar. Just stay with me.’ I walked right in with him. Every time he tried to get away from me, to talk to the ladies or something, there I was! When he went to unpack his horn, I was looking in his case. Finally, he said, ‘Go have a seat, man.’ Ben Webster was already playing onstage, and Dexter walked out and joined him on ‘Cottontail,’ and tried to steal the scene. Ben didn’t like it too much.

“Ten years later, I went to the West Coast with Art Blakey, and Dexter showed up and started talking. I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, Dexter, do you remember me?’  He said, ‘You lost a lot of weight, man, but I know who you are. You’re the pest.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’  He said, ‘I remember you, man. You were a chubby little kid. You used to be in my face all the time.’”

In Eckstine’s band, Gordon and reed section mates Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, and John Jackson dubbed themselves the Unholy Four; their experiments with heroin quickly led to addiction. Sonny Rollins recalls encountering Gordon at a Forties dance at the Hunts Point Ballroom in the Bronx. “Dexter was strung out at the time, and I was a young cat whose mother had just bought me my brand-new tenor,” Rollins recalls. “He didn’t have a horn, so I lent it to him. He was already an established star; I was just a kid. But he didn’t steal my horn!”

Around this time, Don Schlitten—who went on to produce four of the albums that appear on this collection—first saw Gordon at a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Club 845 on Prospect Avenue and 160th Street in the Bronx. Soon after, he went to Lincoln Square Center to see his idol at a welcome-home party for the Billy Eckstine band. “They had Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Leo Parker, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Monk on piano, and John Simmons on bass,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter was supposed to be there and so was Charlie Ventura. Charlie Ventura couldn’t make it, so he sent in a sub, who was Don Byas. The show was from 3 to 7, and everybody was waiting for Dexter. At 7 o’clock, the curtains parted, and Dexter stuck his head out of the curtains and waved to everybody hello. But he never played! Then Symphony Sid or one of those cats came out and said that Dexter would be here next week.”

Gordon remained enmeshed in his habit throughout the Fifties. He relocated to California in 1949, spent 1953 and 1954 incarcerated at the Chino State Penitentiary, and went back to jail soon after his encounter with McLean. He didn’t get out until 1960. Gordon didn’t like to talk about those years, telling friends simply, “It saved my life.” Maxine Gordon notes that, unlike Ammons, who spent most of the Sixties in a maximum security lockup in Joliet, Illinois, Gordon “always played, always had his horn. The jail had a band. All the best players were in jail at that time.”

On parole in 1960, Gordon led a house band at the Zebra Lounge and joined the Los Angeles production of The Connection, the Jack Gelber play about heroin addicts. Pianist Freddie Redd—who wrote the score—and McLean had performed in the famous 1959-60 New York stage and film production; in L.A., Gordon led an onstage quartet through several of his minor-key originals, and, writes Gitler in his vivid chapter on Gordon in Jazz Masters of the ‘40s, “handled an important speaking role that called for a lot of ad-libbing.”

During the play’s run, Cannonball Adderley approached Gordon to do a one-off date with Jazzland. The result is Resurgence, and a fine album it is, though the back story described by trumpeter Martin Banks (b.1936) indicates that Gordon was remaining in character outside the theater. “Leonard Feather and Shorty Rogers and all sorts of people were in the control room,” Banks told a reporter in Austin, Texas, his hometown, where he currently lives and plays. “Dexter had some manuscript up on the music stand, and he was pointing at it. But there was nothing written on the paper! He said, quietly: ‘We’re gonna make up this date, because they’ve already paid me for the music. And I’ve spent the money.’”

In point of fact, Gordon makes only two contributions to his comeback album. On the hard-charging “Home Run,” the front line slams out three bars of a chord not dissimilar to the opening of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” before resolving into the form of Ray Brown’s “Two Bass Hit.”  Propelled by the unrelenting swing of Larance Marable, the “West Coast Philly Joe Jones,” Gordon, Banks, and trombonist Richard Boone—the latter an Arkansan who later gained notoriety with Count Basie for his authoritative “mumbles” vocalese, and moved in 1970 to Copenhagen and an eventual sinecure in the Danish Radio Orchestra—take concise, pithy solos. The tenorist also offers a soulful reading of “Jodi,” an original ballad that he would revisit in 1965 on the Blue Note album Clubhouse.

Saving the day is pianist Charles “Dolo” Coker (1927-1989), a Hartford, Connecticut native whose c.v. included gigs and recordings with Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, and Philly Jones. The first of Coker’s four compositions is “Dolo,” a twisty “Rhythm” variant taken at a racehorse tempo. Gordon tears through the theme with impeccable articulation and, showing no strain, spins a solo that illustrates McLean’s contention that “Dexter was the master of swinging and playing just a little back of the beat, and then switching over and getting in front of the beat, like Bird often did.” Coker’s “Lovely Lisa” is a tipping blues with a Basie flavor, tight three-horn voicings, and nice changes that Gordon gobbles up; Boone’s vocalized solo crosses Bennie Green fluency with raspy Henry Coker tone. More a tango than a rumba, “Affair In Havana” affords everyone a solo, while “Field Day” finds Coker presenting his own take on the vocabulary of Tadd Dameron—Gordon’s strutting, pellucid solo is a highlight.

Not long after Resurgence hit the street, Gordon signed with Blue Note and moved to New York. Between April 1961 and August 1962 he made four superb studio albums—Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling, Go, and A Swinging Affair—that reignited his career. Unable to procure a New York cabaret card, Gordon had trouble parlaying critical acclaim into work, and he extended a September 1962 engagement in London at Ronnie Scott’s into a two-year European sojourn. Gordon spent part of 1963 in France, where he made the classic Our Man in Paris with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, and received warm greetings in Copenhagen, which became his base until 1976. There he married, fathered a son, drove a Volvo station wagon and rode a bicycle, had a piano in his house in suburban Valby, performed steadily around Scandinavia and continental Europe as a combo leader and member of various big bands, and took working vacations in the Canary Islands.

“Dexter did things when he was living in Copenhagen that he never was able to do before,” says Maxine Gordon. “He would practice on his piano and work on music. But he wasn’t working on it because he had a record date that night or that week. It changed his way of playing and his way of thinking. He thought longer and worked with bigger ideas. You don’t want to think of his time in Europe as one when he fell into obscurity, and then comes back and is rediscovered. He was very active. He played with a lot of American musicians as well as Europeans. He played all the festivals. He could have worked all the time. He was very happy about this period of creativity, and I think his playing reflects it.”

After recording his final albums for Blue Note in New York on May 27-28, 1965, Gordon returned to Copenhagen, working most of the summer in town at the Jazzhus Montmartre. He took a break on July 31st to play the jazz festival in Molde, Norway, which included a jam session with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin (1930-1970), an early Gordon admirer and an explosive stylist with a penchant for stratospheric flights through standard songs. Out of Dallas, Texas, Ervin signed with Prestige in 1963 after several strong sideman appearances with Charles Mingus and dates for Bethlehem, Savoy and Candid. By 1965 he’d recorded four freewheeling albums under Don Schlitten’s supervision, two with an anything-goes rhythm section—iconoclastic stride-to-avant pianist Jaki Byard, virtuoso bassist Richard Davis and Boston drum giant Alan Dawson. That October, Schlitten put together a tenor summit tour of Germany featuring Ervin, Gordon and Sonny Rollins, and booked a Munich studio to record Ervin with Byard, Dawson and bassist Reggie Workman. He decided to contract with Gordon to reprise the Molde meeting and documented a tenor battle between the master and his acolyte on two classic riff tunes from Gordon’s Savoy years.

The ensuing album, Setting The Pace, is a must-hear of the two-tenor genre. On the title track Gordon solos first and Ervin second, while on the Rhythm-rooted “Dexter’s Deck,” Gordon follows Ervin’s signifying deconstruction with a quote-laden down-the-middle testimonial that lasts 9 minutes and 35 seconds and justifies Schlitten’s comment: “It’s one of the classic saxophone solos ever put on record, like a summation of his entire playing before and after and during.”

Schlitten and Gordon remained in touch, and in February 1969, Gordon signed a two-album contract with Prestige. He arrived in New York in April, gigged a week at the Village Vanguard with Barry Harris, Ron Carter, and Mickey Roker, and recorded Tower of Power and More Power, his first studio dates in America since 1960. Their release over the next nine months caused elation amongst Gordon’s still sizable American fan base who had lost track of their hero over the preceding decade.

“We were going to do a session with James Moody and one with just the rhythm section,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter came to my little studio on the Grand Concourse, and went through a batch of sheet music that I had there, took out his horn, and started to play all these different songs. I was sitting there, digging the private concert. He chose ‘Those Were the Days’ and ‘Meditation,’ which he recorded that week, and ‘Some Other Spring,’ which he didn’t.”

Blended for the LPs Tower of Power and More Power, the dates appear here in chronological sequence. Moody sounds out of sorts on the April 2nd performance, which has a tentative, edgy quality despite the synchronous rhythm section (Barry Harris, Buster Williams, and Albert “Tootie” Heath). Unfazed, Gordon roars through “Montmartre,” a up minor blues that he’d written about a year before the session. He navigates the sweet changes of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” with swinging lusciousness; at Schlitten’s instigation, the tenors juxtapose Dameron’s melody with “Half Nelson,” a Miles Davis variant that the trumpeter recorded on his first leader session, in 1947, with Charlie Parker on tenor saxophone. A Dameron connoisseur, Harris plays laid-back Bud Powell lines on both takes of “Lady Bird” and and comps valiantly throughout. On the alternate take of “Sticky Wicket,” a minor blues by Gordon, Moody responds disjointedly to Gordon’s quotefest; on the master take, Gordon concocts a new invention, and Moody plays only on the opening and closing unisons.

“Dexter usually took everything in his stride,” Schlitten notes. “He’d been around, understood everything and everybody, and did what he had to do.”

He’s in peak form on April 4th, which produced high-level performances. The tenorist digs into “Those Were the Days,” a Gene Raskin tune that was getting much airplay at the time. Inspired by the loose camelwalk tempo, Gordon—now 46—digs deep into the nostalgic lyric (“Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two; Remember how we laughed away the hours, and dreamed of all the great things we would do. . .”). Shortly after his first jail stay, Gordon penned “Stanley the Steamer” for a 1955 Bethlehem date led by West Coast bop drummer Stan Levey. Fourteen years later, the pulse on this blues stomp shifts from mid tempo to a sleek up-medium, and Gordon devours the changes in his updated manner.

According to Thorbjørn Sjøren’s authoritative discography, Long Tall Dexter, Gordon first documented “Rainbow People” on a Stockholm radio broadcast the preceding January 20th, with pianist Bobo Stenson and expat bass giant Red Mitchell. Like much of his Copenhagen writing, it’s more a composition than a tune, with attractive changes that beg for a lyric. Gordon and Barry Harris swing deep into the melody deeply on both takes. Both bopwalk eloquently on two takes of “Boston Bernie,” a Gordon variant on the 1939 Jerome Kern song “All the Things You Are” (from the musical Very Warm for May) and on “Fried Bananas,” Gordon’s ingenious up tempo version of “It Could Happen to You,” by Rodgers and Hart. First documented in performance at Amsterdam’s Paradiso Club on February 5, 1969, “Fried Bananas” became an enduring staple of Gordon’s repertoire. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation” is Gordon’s first investigation of a bossa nova. As Ira Gitler wrote on the liner notes for More Power, “Talk about creating a mood—Dex does it in all registers of the horn with a gorgeous sound and a feeling that envelops one with fireside warmth. Heavy romance. I have often mused how groovy it would have been to hear Pres and Bird work out on a bossa nova. Now I have a better idea.”

The April 4th meeting concludes with the unissued “Dinner for One Please, James,” a bittersweet ballad by Michael Carr, perhaps chosen by Gordon to signify on Moody’s absence from the session. Barely straying from the melody, Gordon lets his tone do the work, wringing out all the bathos.

His trip already paid for, Gordon set up several gigs to make it all worthwhile. These included a May 4th engagement at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society with a strong pickup group featuring pianist Bobby Timmons (1935-1974). Out of Philadelphia, Timmons had risen to prominence a decade earlier with Art Blakey, for whom he composed such soul jazz classics as “Moanin’” and “’Dat Dere.” Here he draws on bop and blues roots, playing with great imagination, intensity, and finesse on a hopelessly out-of-tune piano. Bassist Victor Gaskin and veteran drummer Percy Brice round out the unit. Both sets were recorded for posterity, and Fantasy released them on the CDs LTD and XXL in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The famous Gordon joie de vivre is evident on every note.

“The way he plays on the Left Bank gig is incredible!” Joe Lovano states. “I played there a few times with Woody Herman’s band and also with Jack McDuff in the mid-Seventies. It was like an afternoon into the evening party. Now, Dexter got you in different ways in different periods. In the Sixties he was up on his articulation and up on the beat, and his tone and presence and interaction with the rhythm section changed. A lot of joy always came through in Dexter’s playing, and it’s probably the thing about him that influenced me most. Just the way he hit one note made you feel great.”

LTD annotator Larry Hollis counts 11 Gordon choruses on  the set-opening “Broadway,” a flagwaver whose co-composer, tenorist Teddy McRae, brought the youngster to Armstrong in 1944. Lester Young made the song famous with Basie in 1940, and Gordon memorably covered it on Our Man in Paris in 1963. He uncorks a lengthy discourse on the various things that the aforementioned “Boston Bernie” is. The release of the Left Bank tapes would be worthwhile if only for Gordon’s sensual tenor reading of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he would record on soprano sax for Steeplechase in March 1975. Feeling his vonce before the soulfully enspirited Baltimore congregation, Gordon counts off the tempo for “Blues Up and Down,” the ritualistic set-closer, “roaring out the blocks hotter than a bowl of three-alarm chili, expatiating inventive verse after verse until the total rings up to an astounding 40,” in the words of Hollis.

The band picks up where they left off with Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” beginning with an intense 7:30 solo by Gordon. Timmons plays six blues-inflected minutes; Gaskin bows fiddle style for another four, and Brice steps out of his tipping role for an exciting five-minute display that exploits his quick hands and strong sense of organization. To the crowd’s delight, the leader digs into the famous refrain of Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” and develops the melody—with a nod to Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You”—at a leisurely lope. Timmons matches the mood, and Gordon returns for a heartfelt recapitulation and coda, quoting “How Are Things in Glocca Morra.” Gordon had recorded Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” at the Montmartre in 1967, and addresses it similarly, stating the theme over a Latin groove, as played by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis on the 1958 album Something Else. At 3 minutes, the beat changes to 4/4 swing and Gordon notches up into the next gear, launching a four-minute explosion. Timmons and Gaskin have their final say, and Gordon swings through his summation and a stimulating series of exchanges with Brice, concluding an inspired sermon of tenor saxophony with the opening bars of “Soy Califa” (“I am the caliph”), a 1962 opus from Go!.

Prestige renewed Gordon’s option, and assigned Schlitten to produce the summer 1970 sessions that became The Panther and The Jumpin’ Blues. Three weeks before this American sojourn, he joined the Junior Mance Trio for a radio broadcast from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Mance’s label, Atlantic, couldn’t use it, and sold the master to Prestige in 1974, enabling Gordon to fulfill his contractual obligations to the label.

Addressing a good piano, Mance—out of Chicago, he was Gene Ammons’s pianist of choice from 1947 to 1950 and Cannonball Adderley’s from 1956 to 1958—solos and comps with as much authority and vigor as any pianist who appears on this corpus. Gordon responds in kind; playing with all the power and discursive invention he customarily brought to club sets, he projects a polish and concision apropos to a concert setting. He surges fluently through “Fried Bananas,” evokes the bittersweet aura of Ellington’s voluptuous “Sophisticated Lady,” and roars cohesively through Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” After Mance postulates a few McCoy Tyner chords, Gordon states the melody of “Body and Soul”—the first citation in Sjøren is a February 1968 Frankfurt concert; later that year, Gordon recorded it with Teddy Wilson on Danish TV—and cuts to the chase for a soaring, operatic improvisation on the “Coltrane changes,” concluding with an extended coda that references Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” Gordon first tackled “Blue Monk” on a May 1970 recording with vocalist Karin Krog and pianist Kenny Drew. Here, backed by Mance’s soulful chords and Oliver Jackson’s subtle backbeat, he develops an ingeniously anthological treatise with vocal inflections, including a variation on “Parker’s Mood,” inexorably building the dramatic arc. Mance plays the blues as only he can, bassist Martin Rivera has a tasty solo, and Gordon starts his final chorus with the “Reinhardt, Reinhardt” motif of “Harvard Blues,” a 1942 Jimmy Rushing-Don Byas vehicle with Count Basie. The set concludes with the premiere performance of “The Panther,” an original minor blues in 5/4 with a catchy melody and a funky feel.

In New York’s RCA studios three weeks later with Tommy Flanagan (1930-2001) on piano, Larry Ridley on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums for his first formal session of the summer, Gordon has chiseled out a point of view on “The Panther.” Midway through his decade-long stint as Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist and musical director, Flanagan follows the leader’s sturdy arcs and planes with a graceful sketch. Thus begins a cohesive session on which, as Schlitten says, “the stars were aligned, the elements were right, and everyone was in the mood to play beautiful.” On this “Body and Soul”—“I always ask my favorite players to play it; it’s a sick thing I have,” says Schlitten—Gordon goes bel canto, subtly deploys timbre, his huge enveloping tone more Ben Websterish than Lestorian on an immortal reading. If “Body And Soul” implies a waltz feel, “Valse Robin”—Gordon’s dedication to his daughter—is explicitly so. “It floats along on a strong, buoyant pulse under an orb that is both Manakoorish Moon and Midnight Sun, and yet neither,” wrote Gitler in the notes. Dedicated to a British friend, the third original, “Mrs. Miniver,” is a medium swinger with another imprintable melody and meaty changes. It’s hard to imagine anyone extracting a more viola-like sound from a metal tube with holes than what Gordon achieves on Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song”—it’s pure tenor melody, like Ben Webster playing “Danny Boy.” The six-hour session ends with another brawny, architectonic Gordon solo on Clifford Brown’s “Blues Walk.” Flanagan lays out for about a minute at 1:55, and Gordon stretches the harmony, referencing “Chasin’ the Trane,” coming back inside after the pianist rejoins the fray.

“Europe has been very good because my lifestyle is much calmer and relaxed,” Gordon told Down Beat in 1972. “I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show.” In a sense, The Panther is the first extended document of Gordon’s mature style. Still functioning at a peak of physical prowess, he kept the fierce attack, deep swing, and populist imperatives of the Blue Note years, while internalizing the developments of the preceding decade.

“Dexter loved Trane,” Maxine Gordon. “He used to say, ‘Maybe if I didn’t give him that mouthpiece, I’d play as good as him.’ I said, ‘You do play as good as Trane.’ ‘No, I don’t.’”

“When Coltrane lived in Philly, I know he was listening to Dexter’s records, and Dexter later started playing some of Trane’s tunes,” says Jimmy Heath. “Dexter was over in Europe, and this revolution was happening here. He caught up with it later. There were a lot of people on his tail, so he had to move. Everybody has to. The free jazz movement influenced all of us to get a little freer in our playing, to try to get away from such a structured style. If you’re a musician who’s trying to get better all the time and improve your craft, you’re always looking for different substitutions, different ways to play on chords—or without chords. Different ways of expressing yourself. The search continues, and it continued with Dexter.”

“Dexter’s approach changed in the late Sixties and early Seventies,” says Eric Alexander, an astute Gordon student from a later generation. “When he resurfaced with Blue Note in the early Sixties, he was already playing with heavier articulation and swaggering swing, and more so by the late Sixties. Plus, he was listening to what was going on around him, and he started to extract bits and pieces of stuff he heard avant-garde players doing which start to show up in his playing. He didn’t stay in one place. He was constantly morphing into something else, even though he was Dex always.”

Piggybacking on the favorable reception for the Power albums, Gordon criss-crossed the States in the summer of 1970. He gigged at the Newport Jazz Festival, made a return visit to Baltimore, stopped in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and took two bookings in Chicago. On the first Chicago visit, Windy City impresario Joe Segal hired Gordon to play afternoon and evening jam sessions at the North Park Hotel in the company of fellow expat Don Byas and old pal Gene Ammons. It was the first Gordon-Ammons recording since the Eckstine days, and Segal recorded the proceedings, placing a pair of Gordon-Ammons dialogues and one solo turn by each on The Chase.

Now we can hear the music in sequence, beginning with two quartets by Gordon and the afternoon rhythm section—idiosyncratic swing-to-bop pianist John Young (b.1921), bassist Cleveland Eaton of the Ramsey Lewis group, and drummer Steve McCall, who would become well-known later in the decade for his deft textural drumming with Air, an avant-garde collective trio. A staple of Gordon’s late Seventies repertoire, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” does not appear in his discography until an October 1969 TV broadcast with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Presumably omitted from the original LP for reasons of length, but included on the subsequent double-LP 25 Years of Prestige, “Wee Dot” is a J.J. Johnson blues first recorded for Savoy on December 19, 1947 by a septet under the nominal leadership of baritone saxophonist Leo Parker, joined by Johnson, Gordon, Leo Parker, Joe Newman, Hank Jones, Curly Russell, and Shadow Wilson. Gordon would wax a fire-and-brimstone version on a 1974 album for Steeplechase. Here he uncorks a solo as long and effervescent as his personality, quoting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Here Comes the Bride” along the way. Ammons comes on board for a long ballad medley, sounding wistful on “Lover Man” and heart-on-the-sleeve on “My Funny Valentine,” while Gordon puts a light touch on “I Can’t Get Started” and “Misty.”

Manning the piano for the evening set is Chicago first-caller Jodie Christian, joined by local drum king Wilbur Campbell and bassist Rufus Reid, a member of Gordon’s working American quartet at the end of the decade. The surviving selections are a lively reprise of “The Chase,” Gordon’s notoriously popular 1947 tenor battle with Wardell Gray, and two versions of the popular Eckstine feature “Lonesome Lover Blues.” According to Segal, the intention was to record a new version of “Blowing the Blues Away,” with alto saxophonist/vocalist Vi Redd singing Eckstine’s  lyric, but Redd—who had not heard the tune for several decades—opens the first version [Disc 7:8] singing what Joe Segal describes in the original notes as “a combination lyric best described as “Blowin’ the (Lonesome Lover) Blues Away.” In response to her repeated request to “blow Mr. Gene, blow Mr. Dexter, too,” Gordon and Ammons begin with several choruses of call-and-response. Gordon sets forth a string of citations (the original line from his own solo on the Eckstine recording, “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” “Candy”) before resolving into several choruses of blues invention. Ammons starts slow, making each note count, belting out his phrases like a Kansas City blues shouter, moving into the upper register as he builds the dramatic arc of his testimony, quoting “Frankie and Johnny” back at his old partner. John Young solos, Ammons ripostes, and the tenors banter to a conclusion over an extended, sloppy vamp. On the second version, which seems to conclude the concert, the saxophonists play the heads more cleanly and are more organized on the vamp, but stay closer to the vest on the solos.

“If you want to learn how to really phrase the saxophone and slow your actions down, listen to Dexter Gordon,” says tenorist David Murray in a comment relevant to Gordon’s playing on the Chicago concert. “This is a guy who had the ability to think ballad during an up tempo piece, and that’s why he sounds so smooth and so full. The way he played was effortless. He wasn’t racing anywhere. He could play fast if he wanted, but he didn’t really need to. I played opposite him and Johnny Griffin, and Johnny prefers to play fast. But when Johnny soloed opposite Dexter, Dexter always—unless he was completely torched—would come out and get house because he was grounded. In complete command.”

Gordon returned to New York for another Lester Young birthday visit to the studio in the company of a A-list rhythm section selected by Schlitten. On piano, out of Brooklyn, is Wynton Kelly (1931-1972), slightly past his prime but still swinging hard, and on bass is Florida native Sam Jones (1924-1981), whose down-the-center beat, huge tone, and melodic conception gave him steady work with Cannonball Adderley from 1959 to 1965 and with Oscar Peterson from 1966 to 1970. Detroiter Roy Brooks (b.1938), a Barry Harris disciple and Horace Silver alumnus with a bop-friendly disjunctive time feel, has the drum chair.

While Gordon selected repertoire for The Panther that framed him with contemporary beats and harmonies, he harks back to his early years on The Jumpin’ Blues, and plays with unwavering consistency and focus throughout—there’s little to choose between his solos on the alternate takes and the masters. Written for the session, “Evergreenish” is an attractive AABA form with a Dameronian connotation. Gordon’s solo swings with staunch precision, but Kelly is tentative in his solo, and the flow peters out. Brooks strokes an introductory train bell tone on his cymbal, cuing the tenorist into a streamlined “Rhythm-a-ning.” Gordon puts himself in the mood to swing with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”; Kelly finds his vonce; Sam Jones plucks a walking chorus; and Gordon and Brooks embark on bracing 16-, 8- and 4-bar exchanges. “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)” was a Billboard #1 hit for Nat Cole in 1946-47, and was subsequently charted by Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Spivak, Dinah Shore, Sam Cooke, and the Cleftones. Had jazz been the zeitgeist in 1970, Gordon’s orotund, mellifluous version—hewing to Lester Young’s dictum that knowledge of lyrics is the basis of informed interpretation—might have been as popular. Gordon had interpolated the climactic coda of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” in both his recorded codas of “Body and Soul.” Here he caresses the lyric bop melody of the 1946 Sarah Vaughan Musicraft hit, gives way to a gentle Kelly solo, and returns for a rippling final chorus. He closes this paean to bebop with two homages to Charlie Parker. Springboarding off Bird’s rumba-like intro to his famous 1950 recording of “Star Eyes,” Gordon launches another graceful solo over a rolling, medium-up 4/4, breaking up his phrases and moving easily up and the down the horn. Recording with Jay McShann in 1941 for Decca, Bird introduced his concept to the world with pungent solos on “The Jumping Blues” and “Hootie Blues.” Gordon digs into the former, a prototype riff tune, and gets creative, weaving a quote of “Raincheck”—a 1941 Ben Webster feature by Billy Strayhorn—into the end of his solo.

Gordon won the 1971 Down Beat Critics Poll for top tenor saxophonist on the strength of his four LPs with Schlitten, and signed his third and final contract with Prestige on July 14, 1971, to do two more albums. Much of the jazz fraternity was plugging in—on the heels of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis was about to record Jack Johnson; Herbie Hancock had cut Mwandishi at the end of 1970; and Weather Report had recently recorded their first album—and it probably seemed like a good deal. But hardcore jazz was Gordon’s game, and he was not about to change.

Asked by a Down Beat interviewer in 1972 to choose between the terms “jazz” or “black music” as a self-description, Gordon responded: “I prefer to call it jazz, because to me it’s not a dirty word. It’s a beautiful word—I love it. To call it black music  would be untrue, because many of the harmonic structures of bebop come from European music—from Stravinsky, from Handel, from Bartók. So to say ‘black music’? I don’t know what that is, unless it would be some African drums or something.”

Prestige got three LPs out of Gordon’s two sessions at the end of June 1972. First comes The Group, supervised by veteran A&R man Ozzie Cadena. Gordon shares the front line with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, then under contract to CTI, as he had done on his Blue Note debut, Doin’ Allright, and 1965’s Landslide. The rhythm section is pianist Cedar Walton, who had gigged with Gordon the previous November; bassist Buster Williams; and Gordon’s favorite drummer, Billy Higgins.

Though he’s a bit low in the mix, Higgins’s buoyant ride cymbal and subtle touch propels the soloists through the master take of “Milestones,” a John Lewis line for which Miles Davis took credit on his 1947 Savoy debut with Charlie Parker on tenor. Gordon again mirrors Bird’s asymmetrical phrasing and structural logic; Hubbard eschews pyrotechnics for a fat, burnished tone on a reflective solo; Walton is typically witty and incisive. On “Scared to Be Alone,” a 1968 song by Dory Previn [“When someone is around us/We don’t know what we’re seeing/We take a Polaroid picture/To find the human being”], Gordon again makes you feel the lyric message with his keening, commanding sound. Hubbard’s virtuosic solo includes clean upper-register triplet trills. Composed by Gordon for the occasion, “The Group” has an extended form and tasty bridge that propels declarative solos by Gordon and Hubbard—the latter struts into the upper register for much of his declamation, followed by a brief Walton summation. Composed by Henry Mancini for a Jack Lemmon–Lee Remick vehicle directed by Blake Edwards, “Days of Wine and Roses” is an extended ballad feature for the tenorist, who constructs his solo over Higgins’s inimitable medium bounce, before giving way for several well-conceived Walton choruses. All parties stretch out on Thelonious Monk’s “We See”—originally recorded by Monk on a May 1954 Prestige session with Frank Foster—to conclude a satisfying, no-nonsense convocation.

A week later, Gordon entered Van Gelder’s studio with a quintet of jazz virtuosos, and recorded seven tunes, several of blatantly commercial intent. His front–line partner is Thad Jones, one month Gordon’s junior, who worked in the Basie trumpet section from 1954 to 1963, and co-led the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966 until 1978. Working with Gordon for the first time since the 1947 “Wee Dot” date is pianist Hank Jones (b.1918), who was then too busy in the New York commercial studios to get around much any more to serious jazz dates. After graduating from the Philadelphia Academy of Music the previous year, bassist Stanley Clarke had accumulated New York credits with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, and Stan Getz; with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, formed also in 1972, he’d bring the bass to the front of the band, inaugurating a successful career in electric jazz/fusion. Detroit-born drummer Louis Hayes (b.1938) hit the scene with Horace Silver in 1956, and spent much of the Sixties working with Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson.

After Gordon intones the title, Clarke and Hayes lay down a relentless Afro-funk groove on “Ca’Purange,” recorded by Gene Ammons in 1962 and by Stevie Wonder in 1970. Gordon signifies on Ammons in his improvisation, substituting punchy phrases for his trademark long melodic lines. Thad Jones displays his singular harmonic concept and phrasing on an economical solo, and Hank Jones digs in as well. The leader returns to familiar ground on “Tangerine,” composed by Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger for the 1942 film The Fleet’s In, and taken here as a up tempo burner. Roberta Flack won the 1972 Grammy for Song of the Year and Album of the Year with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and Gordon sticks close to the melody, again channeling the manly, warm mid-register voice that his fans could never get enough of. Propelled by a churchy Stax-Volt backbeat, “What It Was,” penned by Gordon, features another Ammons-centric effort by the leader and a fleet turn by Thad Jones, who manages to interpolate a fragment of “Fascinating Rhythm.” Gordon finds some changes he can dig into on two takes of “Airegin,” a Sonny Rollins line that debuted on a 1954 Miles Davis quintet session for Prestige. Laconic on the master take, Thad Jones blows a mouthful on the alternate, which also features a solo chorus by Hayes. A classic Hank Jones intro brings on Gordon’s second original of the date, “Oh! Karen O,” a medium-slow blues on which the tenorist and Thad Jones testify at length. The pianist does the same on the attractive theme of Gordon’s sprightly “August Blues,” perhaps cooked up on the spot, and offers his meatiest solo of the day, following some harmonic twists and turns from his little brother and yet another example of Gordon’s consistent ability to find new things to say on the most elemental forms.

In the ensuing week, Gordon participated in two recorded all-star jam sessions for the first Newport Jazz Festival in New York at Radio City Music Hall, before returning to Europe. Though these would be his last New York performances until 1976, American enthusiasts enjoyed numerous Gordon recordings with the Danish Steeplechase label, which signed him in the latter part of 1972. Over the next four years, he did several tours on a circuit that took him from Western Canada to his native Los Angeles. On one such L.A. engagement in July 1973, documented on the Up Front label, Gordon revisited the music he’d written for The Connection 13 years before with old friend Hampton Hawes on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and ur–bop drummer and fellow expat Kenny Clarke.

A July 7th radio broadcast with that quartet at the Montreux Jazz Festival, issued contemporaneously on Prestige as Blues a la Suisse, wraps up this package. It may be the most swinging record of 1973. After perfunctorily outlining the theme on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Gordon bridges into a long, lick-filled solo, playing all over the horn with impeccable timing and a thick, ravishing tone. Hawes is guitaristic and percussive on the Rhodes, and Clarke precisely syncopates his off-beat accents on the snare drum. The title track is another name for John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues,” which Sjøgren cites Gordon playing on two gigs the previous November. A slick klook-a-mop figure on the hi-hat and a tasty Hawes intro escort Gordon into the theme, and without further ado, boosted by Clarke’s crisp, inventive timekeeping, he essays a joyous declamation. Hawes again morphs the Rhodes into tuned drums, and Clarke says a mouthful with a minimum of strokes. There follows a stunningly beautiful, almost plainsong reading of Irene Kitchings’s “Some Other Spring,” introduced by Billie Holiday in 1939, and an extended romp at an unwavering boptrot tempo through Sammy Fain’s Oscar-winning “Secret Love,” written for the 1953 film Calamity Jane and sung by Doris Day. The quartet ends their hour with “Tivoli,” a gentle minor waltz by Gordon with nice melodic motion within the changes. Gordon is poetic, expressive and transparent; if this concert were the only recording of his oeuvre, he would rank as one of the great voices on any instrument.

Fittingly, the 88th and final track is a rousing Dexter Gordon–Gene Ammons tenor battle, augmented by Nat and Cannonball Adderley, on a spontaneous Ammons riff titled “’Treux Bleu,” in honor of the venue. Gordon inserts “3 O’Clock in the Morning,” “Candy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Chicago,” “Salt Peanuts,” and other good old good ones; Nat Adderley blows a few strong choruses before losing his lip; Ammons rip-roars through an ascendant oration with many “Wow!” moments; and Cannonball explores the lower depths of the alto with complete control, meeting the tenors on their own terms and adding something else.

Three years later, Gordon would sign with Columbia and relocate to the Apple to embark on his efflorescent final act. Until his death in 1990, he gigged around the world on a regular basis with several top-shelf American quartets, made records with good budgets and adequate rehearsal time, and brilliantly portrayed the shambling, dissipated jazzman Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier’s film ́Round Midnight. “I saw Dexter in the early days of the filming and asked how he was feeling,” says producer Todd Barkan, who booked Gordon into San Francisco’s Keystone Korner on a regular basis during his pre-“homecoming” years. “He said, ‘I have been preparing for this movie all my life.’ He considered it to be his life story.”

Long before he became a movie star, Gordon brought to bandstands on a nightly basis the emotional transparency that made him so effective in the film. His music was an ongoing memoir. The Fantasy holdings give us a clear picture of how consistently he was able to access his creative muse on impromptu jam sessions, concert performances, and studio dates executed with various degrees of rehearsal. Loyal to old-school values, he continued to grow, navigating the here-and-now on his own terms.

“Nobody was more hip than Dexter, or less doctrinaire or more liberal,” says Barkan. “I think he fit perfectly into the zeitgeist of the Sixties. His warmth and graciousness made him stand out in the musical community—an especially likable and well-liked guy. He was very urbane and appreciated the finer things in life, but he had a common touch with people—he got along with a whole spectrum.”

“Dexter could charm anybody,” Jimmy Heath affirms. “His personality was very open. The ladies loved him, but everyone liked him a lot. They liked his playing, they liked the way he looked, the image he had.”

And people still like Dexter Gordon. Consider this appreciation from Joshua Redman, who won the 1991 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition with a version of “Second Balcony Jump”:

“The thing about Dexter that hits me more than anything else is the depth and hugeness and commanding power of his sound. Dexter makes you realize that the sound is everything. Because if you have the sound, all the ideas and vocabulary flow through it. Dexter showed me that it’s clearly not about which notes you play or how many, and it’s not about your technical prowess. It’s not necessarily about harmonic sophistication, even though he was very sophisticated harmonically. It’s about your voice. He was such a master of strong, declarative playing. And so relaxed, so behind the beat. You can hear it in his phrasing. Just taking his time. Allowing that big voice to speak at its own pace. There’s something very joyful about his personality, a subtle sense of humor that makes you smile. Those corners of your mouth start to go up as the solo progresses.

“For me as a saxophonist, trying to learn the language of jazz, and specifically the language of bebop, there was no better tenor player than Dexter Gordon to learn that from. Dexter’s improvisations lay out the language of bebop in very clear, strong, simple terms. He trimmed all the fat off of it. There’s no ornament. It’s pure substance. Pure content. It’s raw material spoken through this strong, elegant, powerful, and gentle voice.”

Even as life chipped away at Dexter Gordon’s constitution, that voice remained constant. However much he abused his body, he always sounded comfortable in his own skin. “Dexter liked the jazz world,” says Maxine Gordon. “He loved jazz musicians. He wanted to be remembered as the bebop tenor saxophonist.” When you’re done listening to this boxed set from beginning to end, you’ll agree that he was.

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For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

* * *
“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at the University of California-Claremont, and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

* * *

David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It's not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he's from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It's not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He's still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It's not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It's a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he's from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane's style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? ['99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That's questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn't his arrangement.  He was playing someone else's concept.  I'll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you've done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona's project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that's William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That's who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It's Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don't need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? ['98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He's older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he's old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you'll kick yourself if you don't know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY "Impulse"] My father is almost 75 years. [That's how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It's like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids –  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn't get your own sound until about '83-'84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He's someone you have encountered over the years.  You've had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I'm just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain's record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey's influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it's not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who's the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY "Modern Man."] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he's a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who's the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always play when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

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Filed under Article, Blindfold Test, David Murray, DownBeat, Jazziz

On Buddy DeFranco’s 89th Birthday, a 1999 Downbeat article, plus Interview

Clarinet maestro Buddy DeFranco turns 89 today. I had the honor of writing about him during the latter ’90s, once for a publicity bio for a Concord date with pianist Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn, and subsequently for a DownBeat Profile. I’m appending below the final draft of the article and the interview that I conducted  for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a digital copy of our interview for the publicity bio.

Buddy DeFranco:

Named for a pope, a king and the supreme artist-scientist of the Renaissance, the clarinetist Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo “Buddy” DeFranco came to maturity during the golden age of jazz.  Now 76, he’s the supreme jazz virtuoso of his instrument, an innovator who defies category — and time.

“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” the 20-time Downbeat Poll winner reflects.  “Periodically I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite.  I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody.”  Nurtured on the driving arpeggiations of Benny Goodman and the sophisticated line of Artie Shaw, DeFranco viewed them through a lens cut and polished by Charlie Parker’s liquid phrasing and harmonic extensions, forging a unique sound and approach.  Known as the first bebop clarinet player, he’s no ideologue about vocabulary.  “I had a wide range of experience in all facets of music,” DeFranco remarks, “and my playing reflects the gamut.  We brain-pick as many people as we can, and make our own voice from what we’ve heard and studied.”

DeFranco draws on resources garnered through six decades on the road in inspired dialogue with piano wizard Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn on “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us” (Concord), a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1997 DeFranco-McKenna duo “You Must Believe in Swing.”  On both recordings he takes chances, playing crisply executed lines with impeccable intonation, unfettered imagination and a fiery edge, never losing the arc of conversation.  In short, he conjures the kind of “unedited” improvisations that have been his goal from the very beginning.

Raised in south Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing clarinet at 8, after several years of ear instruction on mandolin from his father, a blind man who played guitar and earned his living as a piano tuner.  “Then I wanted to play saxophone,” he continues.  “My Dad knew many good musicians, who suggested I start clarinet first, and he took the advice and bought me one for $25, which was a lot of money — our family was very poor.  I attended Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school with a great music course, where I got my basic training and developed my clarinet skills.  I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood, and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ and Art Tatum’s ‘Elegie’ and ‘Yesterdays.’  My Dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them.  That’s how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz.

“I decided to play jazz clarinet after listening to Johnny Mince with Tommy Dorsey.  My brother, Leonard, had a good ear, and he and a friend took big band arrangements from the records, like Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie’ and ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’  When I was 13 we organized a big swing band, which played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night.  We also had a kiddie band on a Sunday morning children’s hour.  South Philadelphia had an Italian section, a Jewish section and a Black section — we were all friends.  It was very common for kids of all the races to go to somebody’s basement and jam.  There were two jam clubs, one owned by Billy Kretchmer, a terrific jazz clarinet player, and the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal.  As teenagers, we’d sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman’s band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in.  Once in a while on slow nights Billy Kretchmer allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there.

“Hearing Benny Goodman capped the whole idea of jazz playing — the feeling, the swing idea on clarinet, plus his great technique.  Then I heard Artie Shaw, who was way ahead of his time harmonically, and had the technique and ability to express what he wanted without editing, which is what I expect from someone who handles the clarinet.  His fluency was like a fine violinist; he could navigate all the chord progressions and make them flow.  I liked Buster Bailey, who could have been a great symphony clarinetist, except that he was black, so he couldn’t get a break.  I listened to him because of the purity of his tone and his execution, whereas many other noted clarinetists then were slightly too primitive in their approach to suit me.  I had the so-called “legitimate” background, which is the only way you can play the clarinet correctly.  There’s still a prevalent notion that the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  I disagree with that.”

After graduating from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco embarked on a field work apprenticeship in elite dance bands, playing challenging music day-in and day-out for a decade.  While touring with Charlie Barnet’s crackerjack unit around 1943, he heard Charlie Parker’s seminal recordings with Jay McShann.  Only 20 years old, he’d already spent four years with trumpeter Johnny “Scat” Davis (“Hooray For Hollywood”) and Gene Krupa.  With Krupa he met Roy Eldridge, then Krupa’s featured soloist, who DeFranco regards as “at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.  He was a musician’s musician, a creative player with feeling and emotion.  He was a good influence, and I gleaned a lot from him.

“I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating harmonically towards a different way of playing at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was.  I was led by Artie Shaw, while Dizzy was moving to a more modern approach — it wasn’t bebop — out of the Roy Eldridge style, as you can tell from his records then.  It wasn’t until Bird came along that both Dizzy and I said, ‘He wrote the new study book; this is it.’  No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation.  I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax.  It wasn’t so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.  Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embrochure and perfect fingers.  I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level.  From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good.”

DeFranco’s solo on “Opus One” during the first of three tumultuous stints with Tommy Dorsey led to a Downbeat award in 1945.  “Dorsey was a strict disciplinarian, but one of the greatest musicians ever, possibly the best trombonist I’ve heard,” DeFranco says.  “He was unequaled at playing even a simple melody and making it meaningful, which almost every musician will tell you is the most difficult thing to do.  Technique is something else.  Practice enough and you’ll get a technique.  I learned the feeling of playing a melody and playing long phrases from Tommy Dorsey.”

In 1947 he played with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous orchestra.  “It was one of the first outside bands I ever heard,” DeFranco recalls.  “It was intellectually unbelievable, like going to a conservatory.  You could play exactly the way you wanted and the writers could write any way they wanted.  We played off-the-wall, space charts by George Handy and Johnny Richards, and a couple by Bob Graettinger; a very difficult, technically challenging library which took great skill to play.  We could empty a room in two minutes.  Announcers used to say, ‘From the Planet Mars, here’s Boyd Raeburn.’”

DeFranco settled in New York in 1948, and joined the 52nd Street mix.  “I played in sessions at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club before it was Birdland.  Once I worked at the Clique with the George Shearing Trio, where Sarah Vaughan was the headliner, opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach and Bud Powell.  George Shearing got me a New York union card and a police card, which you needed in those days.  So I got a chance to hear and work with these guys in the very beginning.  In fact, I had Bud Powell and Max Roach in my group for a while.  When Bud was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  It was dazzling.  But when he was strung out or something, he’d get evil.  You’d suffer for a whole set.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could throw you off.  You’d shift with Bud’s emotions.

“By then I was fairly well-known.  I’d started winning polls, and was picked to do Metronome All-Star dates, which is when I really got to know Bird, and we became friends.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was very gregarious and always gracious; he’d talk about philosophies and attitudes toward life.  He seemed to read people quite well, and he was knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  I remember once he told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown — things out of the blue.  Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened.  There’s something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player.  All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird’s shadow.”

DeFranco’s career was taking off.  After several modernist sides with big band and sextet for Capitol in 1949, he joined the Count Basie Octet in 1950-51.  “Working with them was an education in the idea of swing,” DeFranco emphasizes.  “I’d never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano.  I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling.”  DeFranco had met Norman Granz by this time, and went out periodically on Jazz at the Philharmonic.  In 1951, a nadir for big bands, he formed his own, following the path of idols Goodman and Shaw — it dissolved in under a year.  During the rest of the ’50s he recorded prolifically for Granz, including numerous dates with Oscar Peterson and documents of a touring quartet between 1952 and 1955 comprising pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassists Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White.

“I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career,” DeFranco states.  “Sometimes when I was really tired and whipped (we were on the road a lot; the band was pretty hot at that time), I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.’  And Art would say, ‘I’ll make you play.’  He meant that.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn, as the saying goes.  Sometimes we’d get static from the ‘civilians’ about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys.  Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship.

“The only thing I can say about Black and White is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.  The white bands were maybe a little more polished; they’d try to simulate that swing, but never really got it.  Not to belittle the white bands; it’s a simple fact of life.  Tommy Dorsey was aware of that, and once in a while he’d say, ‘We don’t have a swing band; if you want one, go listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does — that’s a swing band.’  I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  That’s the feeling I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I play.”

DeFranco’s interaction with Parker, Basie and Blakey helped him come into his mature sound, a process enhanced by rigorous self-examination.  “I’m from humble circumstances,” DeFranco says, “I was riddled with insecurities; my only security was my playing.  When that was satisfactory, I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and perform and emcee on the microphone, it was painful.  I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, a trumpet player, and decided that when I was in New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.  Frankly, both therapies — Reich and Blakey — brought out in me something that was lacking in my playing and demeanor.”

As DeFranco blossomed, the bebop business withered, and he moved to California in search of work.  He led a succession of cream-of-the-crop combos and worked in studio orchestras led by Nelson Riddle.  In 1956, Norman Granz offered DeFranco the ultimate improvitorial challenge, pairing him with Art Tatum for a recording.  “Tatum made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats,” DeFranco laughs.  “Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything; even when you soloed, you accompanied Art Tatum.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was gratified.  It was fun to him.  Even the highly technical things were kind of a game, and he’d show off.  Now, showing off is part of playing jazz.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  On the stage you show what you can do.  A lot of people scoff at that.  They said, ‘Well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.’  Well, of course he was!  It was his inner voice.”

Accessing his own inner voice is the quest that’s sustained DeFranco through good times and bad.  A quixotic project with Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that “focused on polychordal music which we learned from the old masters — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the movie writers, like David Raksin,” was a creative peak and a financial disaster.  DeFranco led the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 to 1974, and even stopped playing by around 1970.  He resumed his jazz career in 1975, and he’s maintained a dual track of working steadily with small units and presenting numerous clinics, many in conjunction with Yamaha, his clarinet-maker.  He recently published “Hand In Hand With Hanon,” an acclaimed study book for woodwind players.

Our third conversation finds DeFranco off the road from a 10-day Swedish tour with clarinetist Putte Wickman, followed by four days at Hilton Head, S.C. with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a frequent partner of the last two decades.  “Over the years people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music — or myself — too seriously,” DeFranco confesses.  “With your own group, there’s a certain tension because everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  Terry is funny and clever, and the attitude — not the music — is lighter.  The sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton connotation, and we manage to play pretty much what we want when we solo.

“All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, ‘That’s who it is.’  That’s Bird.  That’s Art Tatum.  That’s Oscar Peterson.  That’s Buddy.”

[-30-]

* * * *

DEFRANCO:  Then the thing is this.  I’ll just briefly tell you that my recent history in the past couple of years has been one of the most interesting of my careers…

TP:    you said you had about six of them.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I’m starting another one.

TP:    You’ll have to tell me exactly which six they are.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I can’t really tell.  They go up and down.  I guess that’s nothing unusual with people in the music business.  Phil Woods gets discovered every three years.

TP:    Oh, when you say you’ve had six careers, you mean you keep getting rediscovered.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, rediscovered.  Fall down and go broke, and sometimes…and then back again.  That’s happened quite a bit.

[PAUSE]

DEFRANCO:  I’ve done a lot of music festivals and also music clinics, mostly for Yamaha.  They make a great clarinet.  I’ve played it for about 25 years. What I find appealing about the Yamaha is it suits my needs almost to a T, as they say.  It’s a very classical instrument.  It has a nice tone quality… Of course you have to produce that.  But built in is a good tone quality, and a very exact scale, even scale.  It also affords a flexibility that I need to play jazz.

TP:    What are the dynamics of the instrument that do this?  You went into some description of this in our interview.

DEFRANCO:  I did.  Yes, not too many clarinets are flexible enough to where you could play as close to what they used to call “legitimate”…I hate to use the term, but “legitimate,” symphonic music.  Then you use the same instrument to feel the freedom of playing jazz, the flexibility.  Yamaha does that for me.

Also, toward the mid-’50s, when Rock-and-Roll got very big and jazz was really pushed out of the picture, almost totally… The only guys who were really popular were Miles Davis, the top guys, Stan Getz… They were still making money and doing very well.  They were really the stars of the jazz world.  Everybody else kind of fell apart.  And I was bemoaning my fate to Stan Kenton one time, and Stan Kenton said, “Instead of crying, let’s get together.  I’ve started a program with Dr. Gene Hall of North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas.”  He said, “Gene Hall is the first guy to let the students obtain credits for jazz in a college or university.  He said, “We’re doing clinics, and we’re doing them all over the country; in fact, all over the world.  We get the young people.”  He said that the tie-in was the band directors who remember the big bands and jazz, who have a stage band (so-called; it’s really a swing band).  He said that we go in and we impart as much knowledge as we can, and keep the idea of swing bands and jazz alive, and the band directors respond to this because they remember when.  He said, “That way we get to the youngsters, because we cannot get to the youngsters through television or radio now” [at that time he was speaking] or recording.”  So there were very few jazz recordings being made.

So he said, “Try that,” and I did.  It was the best advice I think I’d had in many years, because I found out that the youngsters in the bands respond to what you’re doing, but the band directors are the ones who kept jazz alive, underground, all these years.  Not too many people acknowledge that fact.  It’s guys like Gene Hall and Matt Benton and Stan Kenton, the band directors through all the high schools and universities and colleges who have kept jazz going, even though in the public eye it was finished.  So that’s a very important thing, and I am still doing those clinics.

TP:    This was still in the ’50s, when you started?

DEFRANCO:  Around ’54, somewhere…

TP:    So this dovetails with when you moved to California.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I actually moved to California because I thought maybe with some friends I could get some work there.  Which I did.  I got the studio work from Nelson Riddle.

TP:    Oh, just playing in the section.

DEFRANCO:  Just clarinet, but playing behind, you know, TV shows.  I did all the segments of “Route 66″ and I did “Profiles In Courage” and all those things where Nelson Riddle wrote the scores…

TP:    Oh, were on the Sinatra sessions.

DEFRANCO:  “Oceans 11.”  And I was on two Sinatra sessions.

TP:    Do you remember which ones?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t remember. [LAUGHS] Also, last September Yamaha and I got together, and we did the first Buddy De Franco-Yamaha Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.

TP:    Is that on your web-site?

DEFRANCO:  I think so.

TP:    Did you have any input into the specifics of making this clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  No.  None whatever.

TP:    Do a lot of other jazz clarinetists use it?

DEFRANCO:  They have.  I don’t know if they still do.  I know Eddie Daniels used it for a time, but he’s now using another clarinet that he says functions the same way — Blanc(?), I believe.  But a lot of professional clarinet players have used it.

TP:    Do you keep up with the current state of the clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  I have to.  I listen to them all.

TP:    Who are some of the people you like these days?

DEFRANCO:  I like Eddie Daniels.  I like Ronnie Eldridge.  He’s a periodontist, and a fine clarinet player.  I like Putte Wickman.  I’ll be playing with Putte in Sweden.  We leave tomorrow.  We’ll do 11 concerts and a CD in Sweden.  Putte Wickman is one of the best.

TP:    Ken Peplowski?

DEFRANCO:  He’s a good player.

TP:    Alvin Batiste?

DEFRANCO:  Well… I’ll pass.

TP:    I was just wondering about your current taste.

DEFRANCO:  When I talk about clarinet players, I must include the fact that they are more than just competent players, because if you go along with the competent players, you’ve got a big list.

TP:    Did you like John Carter, by the way?

DEFRANCO:  No, I did not.  See, as a clarinetist, I’m pretty critical.  There are two aspects of playing the clarinet, as in all jazz; two diametrically opposed fields and schools of thought in jazz.  On the one hand, people say, “Don’t study too much because it will ruin your jazz playing.”  In fact, years ago it was an old story.  The band director said, “Can you read music?” and he said, “not enough to hurt my playing.”

TP:    Most of the great players I’ve talked to wouldn’t think that was much of a notion, I think.

DEFRANCO:  Well, that’s still prevalent in jazz where the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  And I disagree with that.  I’ll give you a good example in the piano world.  One of my favorites of all time, of course, has been Oscar Peterson, mainly because of what he plays and how he plays it, the dexterity he has.  He has such a great technique.  So I’ve kind of aligned myself with him because I had a technique.  I love his playing, as opposed to, say, Thelonious Monk, who had no technique… I’ll quote Oscar Levant.  “He played piano with arthritic abandon.”  That’s not to say that he doesn’t play jazz.  He was a force in jazz.

TP:    Did you like Monk?

DEFRANCO:  I liked what he was getting at and I liked his songs.  I couldn’t play with him and I did not like his playing, because it lacked the proficiency that I am used to hearing.  Then there’s for instance the later Miles Davis as opposed to Freddie Hubbard.  My bet would go with Freddie Hubbard, see.  Because he’s a trumpet player and a jazz player and a more than competent execution in his playing.

But there are two schools.  Years ago in clarinet, everybody said Benny Goodman was the greatest, Artie Shaw was the greatest; and the other school of thought, like in the Thelonious Monk camp, would be Pee Wee Russell.  There are people who swear by him.  They think he’s the greatest clarinet player who ever lived.  And I pass on that.

TP:    Well, you made the comment in our interview that you liked… I asked you if you’d listened to Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds and those guys, and you said no, because of your technique, but you loved Buster Bailey.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, he had an excellent technique.  He was a fine clarinetist.

TP:    I’d like you to talk more about Charlie Parker.  We can relate this to the technique question.  You said that he was the first unedited player, that his technique enabled him to be an unedited player.

DEFRANCO:  I’ll qualify that.  Modern jazz player.  Because Art Tatum was that.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his recordings and you hear different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  So I align he with Bird.

TP:    Tell me what you remember about the session you did with Art Tatum.  I know you said you were sick and that you weren’t at your best.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Norman Granz wanted to know if I wanted to cancel, and I did not cancel because I knew that would be the only time I would ever get to play with Art Tatum.  I just had to do it.  I’m not sorry I did, because a lot of it came out good.  But if I were feeling better and if it were later in my career I could have played substantially better.

TP:    You’d feel more equipped to have played with Tatum, say, 20 years later just because of general knowledge and…

DEFRANCO:  Right.  I’ll give you a good example of my thinking.  Somebody said to me, “Who’s the best?”  Well, that’s silly because, in a way… I’ll quote Eddie Daniels.  If you go into an art gallery and you see Van Gogh, and then you stop and you see Gauguin, and then you’ll see Da Vinci, who is going to say who is the best?  It depends on what you derive from that particular thing.  They’re all good.  They’re all genius.  So if somebody said to me, “Who is the best?” it’s hard to say.

However, when you talk about what I consider the best, on a genius level, I’d have to say Art Tatum and Charlie Parker.  Immediately.  That’s it.  From that point on, then we talk about all the other guys who are really good.

TP:    Do you remember anything about Tatum’s demeanor during that session or the process of putting it together?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats.  It was very difficult, very hard.  He sometimes would suggest a strange key to play the tune in.  Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything, so that when you played with Art Tatum it was his ballgame.  You were there almost accompanying him, even when you were playing your solos.  But I expected that, and I didn’t care because I just admired him so much.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was very gratified with that.

He was terrific.  It was fun to him.  His attitude was great.  Even on the highly technical things, it was kind of a game to him, and he’d show off.  But there again, that’s part of playing jazz — showing off.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  What you do on a stage is show off.  You show what you can do.  That’s part of playing jazz.  And a lot of people scoff at it.  They say, “Oh, well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.”  Well, of course he is!  Just like Oscar Peterson.

TP:    Well, I guess he just internalized it.  He didn’t get all that technique separate from his inner voice.  That was his inner voice.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  It was his inner voice, that’s for sure.

TP:    You said that you first heard “Hootie Blues.”  Can you put a date on it?  You said 1941, so you must have been with Johnny “Scat” Davis?

DEFRANCO:  Or Charlie Barnet’s band.

TP:    The encyclopedias say that you joined Charlie Barnet in ’43.

DEFRANCO:  That can’t be.

TP:    That’s not true?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t think so.  They might be right because my recall isn’t… But in ’43, it seems to me, I was in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

TP:    I’ll read you what the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz says.  “Scat Davis in late ’39.  Gene Krupa ’41-’42.  Ted Fiorito, who is a new one on me, in ’42.  Charlie Barnet ’43 and ’44.  Tommy Dorsey ’44 and ’46.  You settled in California.  Boyd Raeburn.  Return to Dorsey ’47-’48.  Then you go to New York, small combos in New York and Chicago and I guess traveling.  Count Basie Septet in ’50.  Big band in ’51. Then you start with the quartet from ’52 to ’55 or so.

DEFRANCO:  That’s pretty close to it, except that in the early years… I have a feeling that in the latter part of ’41 and part of ’42 I was with Barnet, and then in ’43 I was with Tommy Dorsey.  It seems to me that I was with Tommy Dorsey from ’43 to ’48 three times.

TP:    Three times in that period.  I’m not interested in splitting all the hairs.  But in terms of the Charlie Parker thing, when you say you heard Charlie Parker’s “Hootie Blues” when you were with Charlie Barnet, what impact did that make on you?  Did it sound like anything you had heard before?

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    Why?

DEFRANCO:  Well, by virtue of the fact that the articulation of what he was doing was completely different, and the chord progressions that he used, even at the very beginning…the substitute chords were different than most people were using, with the exception of Art Tatum.  But no horn player used at that time as many alternate chords, and no horn player used that kind of articulation.  It had never been done before.  So in my humble opinion, Bird wrote the book.

TP:    So you were well-schooled enough to hear what Charlie Parker was doing because of the high quality of education you’d had at Mastbaum.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, I would say that.  Not only that, I was playing… I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating towards more modern playing while I was with Charlie Barnet at the same time that Dizzy was.  Dizzy grew out of the Roy Eldridge style.  But when you listen to some of his stuff during that time, he was gravitating toward a more modern approach to playing.  It was not Bebop.  And my case was the same way.  Harmonically I was gravitating towards something else, in a way.  But it wasn’t until Bird came along that both of us said, “He wrote the book; this is it; this is the new study book.”

TP:    I guess Dizzy got that close-up proximity to Charlie Parker with Earl Hines…

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  He got hold of Bird, listened to that, and it was immediate.

TP:    Dizzy had some other qualities, particularly his assimilation of rhythm and being able to codify Latin rhythms into…

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  He was the first I can remember playing modern jazz like that…

TP:    But if Dizzy came out of Roy Eldridge doing that, was your assimilation of Benny Goodman leading you in that direction?

DEFRANCO:  It was Artie Shaw leading me.

TP:    Talk more about Artie Shaw, who obviously had a profound influence on you.

DEFRANCO:  Well, I would say the way he executed the clarinet, and harmonically he was way ahead of his time.  His approach to playing, the fluency that he had was like a fine violinist.  That impressed me.  If you listen to his early records with his bands, when he played, he played more modern than the whole band, than anyone in the band.  Also, when he started playing, he changed the color of the band just by playing, so that the concept was much more advanced.  Then when he stopped playing, the band would seem to go back to its old symmetrical and angular way of playing.  So I always admired Artie, the way he made all those chord progressions that he did and made it flow.

TP:    Then I guess you could also say that Coleman Hawkins was implying the modern style as well.

DEFRANCO:  yes, absolutely.  No question about that.

TP:    Were you influenced by saxophonists as well as clarinets?  You did say that your concept of clarinet was playing the clarinet but thinking saxophone.

DEFRANCO:  Thinking saxophone.  But no, my major influences were more than likely piano players.

TP:    Primarily Tatum or other piano players?

DEFRANCO:  All of them.  Teddy Wilson and Dodo Marmarosa.

TP:    We didn’t discuss Dodo Marmarosa in the previous interview, and I know you were very close to him.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, We lived together in California for about a year, and we played in about five different bands together.  He was a great influence in my playing.

TP:    You played together with Dorsey.

DEFRANCO:  Well, we played in Johnny Scat Davis’ band together, Gene Krupa’s band, Charlie Barnet’s band, Ted Fiorito’s band, and then Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    So you really hung together.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He was also in the same kind of state of flux that I was, playing.  We wanted a more modern approach to playing, and he played his piano in a more advanced modern way, but did not play bebop at that time.  We both heard Bird together, and we both decided this is the way it’s going to be.

TP:    So when you heard “Hootie Blues” you were with Dodo Marmarosa.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Well, more than “Hootie Blues,” but all the stuff that he played.

TP:    If it was in 1941, then “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Blues,” “Swingmatism,” the only records he was featured on.  But when did you first meet Charlie Parker?

DEFRANCO:  ’42.  End of ’42, beginning of ’43, somewhere in there.

TP:    Was he with Earl Hines?

DEFRANCO:  No, he had left Earl Hines.

TP:    Did you hear the Earl Hines band with Bird and Diz?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah.  I thought it was the forerunner, or one of the forerunners of the big swing band idea.  They were ahead of their time — at the time.  Very few bands were playing with anything that resembled the modern concept.  Earl Hines did.  Jay McShann.

TP:    Did you hear McShann live?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    With the White big bands, would your paths intersect with the Black big bands?

DEFRANCO:  Well, you see, the White… I hate to talk about Black and White because they’ve been intermingled for so long that you can’t say this… But the only thing I can say about Black and White is during those days the Black bands had a feeling, a swing feeling that would…I don’t know, that would grip you.  You could feel it in your hips, the depth of your emotions — the swing.  The Black bands had the swing, and the White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, but never got it.  They never really got it.  And Tommy Dorsey was one who was aware of that, and he used to say once in a while, “We don’t have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that’s a swing band.”  Glenn Miller had the same thing.  He said, “I have a commercial band; I don’t have a swing band.  Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the swing bands.”

TP:    Jimmy Crawford and Jo Jones.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, boy.  Jimmy Crawford was marvelous.

TP:    So you really loved the big bands.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, of course.  Well, mainly because my Dad, who was blind, he and his brother, my uncle, loved the big bands.  When they caught on, they bought every record that they could.  They especially liked Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie and Chick Webb — those bands.  Well, there again, they had the feeling.  This is not to belittle the White bands.  It’s a simple fact of life.  Black bands had the feeling there.

TP:    Of a lot of the prominent White improvisers who came up when you came up, I can’t think of another one who worked as seamlessly with Black musicians as you did.  People have told me that Art Blakey would speak glowingly about you.  Now, he didn’t do that about everybody!

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    So it seems as though you were very much truly accepted by the black musicians, who didn’t necessarily open their arms to everyone who was coming along.

DEFRANCO:  That’s true.  I simply had an affinity with those swing bands.  Because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  They were swinging.  That’s the feeling that I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I played.  And playing with different people through the years, like Jimmy Jones and Sid Catlett on drums, or John Simmons, these kind of players years ago, playing with them when I was a kid…

TP:    When did you play with Sid Catlett?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I sat in with him many times.  There’s a good example of a feeling, a rhythmic feeling and concept opening the door for you.  When I played with Sid Catlett and a few other drummers during my career, and of course Art Blakey… I can quote Art Blakey.  Sometimes when I was really tired and beat (we were on the road a lot, the band was pretty hot at that time — a lot of recording), I’d say, “Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.”  And Art would say, “I’ll make you play.”  He meant that.  He did.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn as they said.

TP:    Let’s get back to Charlie Parker.  Talk about the relationship you had with him.

DEFRANCO:  Well, when I first met him, Dodo and I were just overwhelmed at what he did.  It was a very brief meeting.  But then later on, he got very popular, then I got fairly well known as a jazz clarinetist and started winning polls, and so we were both picked to do the Metronome All-Star dates (I think we did two together), and that’s the point in time when I really got to know Bird.  From that point on we were friends, and every chance I got, I went to hear him.  Sometimes if I would play somewhere and he would be in the same town at another club or even in a nearby city, I would go to hear him.  And we got friendly.  So we spent some time together.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was like Art Tatum.  He was very gregarious.  Knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  And was always-always-always gracious.

TP:    It sounds like he showed different sides of his personality to different people.  I mean, there were certain people he would not be around when he was strung out, and there were people he did that with.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that’s true.  Also, he was well aware of being victimized by that drug.

TP:    He talked about it?

DEFRANCO:  He talked about it, and he told young people to stay away from it.  “Don’t even start.”  I can remember that distinctly when Bird… He’d almost get hostile.  “Don’t even start.  Don’t think about starting it.”

TP:    And a number of the younger musicians who did get strung out said he would treat them with no mercy once that happened to them.

DEFRANCO:  Well, they got started because they thought he’s the guy who…

TP:    Well, we don’t have to talk about that aspect of Bird.  But apparently he had many interests and much knowledge of matters outside of jazz as well.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.

TP:    Do you remember what sort of things he’d talk about?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he’d talk about certain philosophies of life and attitudes of life.  He had a good perception of people.  He could seem to read people quite well.  I remember him telling me one time… I don’t know what the circumstances were.  He told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown.  Things just out of the blue.  I guess I told the story about “Skinning Rabbits.”  Those were the type of thing…

And another time, coming home from some town outside of New York on a train with Bird.  It was a Sunday morning.  We had played and then hung out all night or something.  Sunday morning we got a train back to New York.  It was a time when you could move the seat back and forth and face the other way.  We had a Sunday paper, and he read through the whole paper.  Then a guy came in, and I don’t know if he was a workman or a farmer or something, kind of a little cardboard suitcase, what we would call in those days a real square…

TP:    A hayseed.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, a hayseed.  But Bird said hello to him, and started talking with him, and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”  Then finally Bird said, “Come on, sit with us,” and he got up and moved his seat, the other seat, so that we faced each other.  He began telling this guy about the record date that he’s planning with strings.  He was telling me as well, because I didn’t know that he was going to do a date with strings.  He told me that Mitch Miller was going to be the A&R guy.  The funny thing is that he said several times to me, “And Buddy Rich is on drums.”  I said, “yeah.”  And he repeated it like I didn’t hear him.  “Buddy Rich is on the drums, and I’m going to do it with strings.”  And he started talking about how eager he was to work with strings.  He liked the idea.

That was a strange session because it wasn’t the greatest string section, and not the greatest rhythm section really.  But Bird was like a shining star.  He just made the whole thing come together with his playing.

TP:    Did you play on the same bill with him on 52nd Street?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I had my group and he had his group.  Sometimes, even in the summertime…two times I remember that Bird liked my rhythm section a little better than he had.  Who knows why?  And he’d come down with his horn and sit in with me.

TP:    Well, that’s because you had Bud Powell, Max Roach… This was after Max Roach left him, right?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I had Max Roach and Bud Powell; I had a lot of guys.

TP:    So you had Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Max Roach as your rhythm section.  What was that like for you?  You were talking about the technical difficulties of the clarinet.  Was there a volume problem?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I could project.  I needed a microphone because these were heavy players.  But I could project most of the time.  And also, Bud Powell was interesting, because when he was feeling okay and when he was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  He was just fantastic.  There was no question about it.  It was just dazzling.  Smashing, as they say.  As opposed to when he was strung out or something, and he’d be getting nasty.  Then it was hopeless.  You really suffered for a whole set.  Because he’d get evil.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could get you off.

TP:    He’s try to mess with you.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah.  It wasn’t only me.  It was anybody.  He tried it once with Bird, and Bird almost hit him with the horn.

TP:    Tell me about your time with Count Basie.

DEFRANCO:  There again, working with Basie and that group was really an education and a lesson — a lesson in the idea of swing.  I didn’t realize before that how much feeling comes from Bill Basie at the piano.  Not only Freddie Green, but Bill Basie at the piano, the way he played — for the group, for the soloists — was just superb.  And the feeling… There again I got… It was an eye-opener.  Another door opener.

TP:    So you were playing with some of the greatest, Max Roach, who was young…

DEFRANCO:  Oh, the list of guys I played with.  I had a group in California with Victor Feldman on vibes, Carl Perkins on piano, Billy Higgins (he must have been 11 years old), and Leroy Vinnegar, and Howard Roberts I believe on guitar.  We played East Los Angeles.  Never recorded.  What a great group.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    Talk about what you learned about what playing with Max Roach, Art Blakey, or Basie did for your rhythmic concept.

DEFRANCO:  That’s hard to put into words.  I always hesitate to describe at a clinic rhythm.  I don’t do it in my clinics, in fact.  When it comes to rhythm, I tell the students, “Find the most swinging or find the best player that you can in your area, play with them, and it will either come to you or it won’t.”  There’s no way you describe technically what happens.  Harmony you can, in terms of execution on your instrument you can.  But when it comes to swing feeling, two cliches: Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got it; and if you don’t know what it is, forget it.  Because if you can’t feel it, it’s not going to happen.

TP:    I’d like to see if you can pinpoint a couple of things for me from way back.  You said you got your clarinet when you were about 8, and you joined the Sympathy Youth Club, and your Dad bought records of Django Reinhardt and Art Tatum and you were overwhelmed by them, and you were about 10 years old, so it’s got to be about ’33.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Well, the things Django did were “Nuages” and those things, and Art Tatum’s “Elegie” and “Yesterdays.”

TP:    Also, you said that your brother would take big-band arrangements off of records, and you had a swing band.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly the clarinet.  We took a couple of Tommy Dorsey arrangements, like “Marie” and “Don’t Be That Way”, and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”

TP:    On your website you said you had won a contest that was a jumping off point for you or an incentive to play when you were a teenager.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that was in Philadelphia, in 1939 I believe.

TP:    You said you were wearing short pants.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  At the Earle Theater in Philadelphia there was a Tommy Dorsey swing contest, a weekly contest out of various cities every week in a theater, and it was broadcast nationally.  There were four contestants.  I was fortunate enough to win that.  I think I won $75, and a little plaque of some kind.

TP:    Good money in 1939.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, it was great.  And I was a hero in my neighborhood the next day.  But it didn’t make the papers.  I did have a youth group at the same time that played different jobs, and every Sunday night a ballroom in South Philadelphia with a big band.  We also played the Horn & Hardhardt’s children’s hour, of which Stan Lee Broza was the emcee, and his son was Elliott Lawrence.  He played tenor sax in those days with the band.  We had what was called the Band Busters. That was broadcast every Sunday morning.

Anyway, there were four contestants in this contest, and I managed to win almost by default, because I didn’t play that great.  Even for a youngster, I wasn’t that good — at that time anyway.  But I was a young kid, and my teacher advised me to wear short pants.  He said, “The audience will love it.”  He showed me how to play one note on the clarinet with one hand, and he said, “This is what you’ll do at the end of your solo.”  And it worked.  I mean, those other guys didn’t have a chance.

TP:    Showmanship.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, showmanship plus the fact that I was a little kid.

TP:    So there’s Johnny Scat Davis, you go on the road with him, and then you join Krupa for a while.  Do you have any memories of Krupa?

DEFRANCO:  All fond memories.  Because Gene Krupa was one of the nicest persons I ever worked for.  A delightful guy.  And he gave us every opportunity to play.  All the soloists.  Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge… He featured everyone who could play.

TP:    Oh, you were in the band that Roy Eldridge was in, so you got to know him a little.

DEFRANCO:  Oh my gosh, yes.  He was at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.

TP:    Even Pops.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, I’m afraid so.  Pops had done great and he was a great influence, but he concentrated I guess more on his commercial playing and singing, and Roy was a musician’s musician at that time in terms of jazz.  A real creative player.  Feeling, emotion.  He was tough.  He was number one at that time.  And the whole band used to love to hear him play a solo.

TP:    Did he influence your improvising approach?

DEFRANCO:  Yes, quite a bit.  Roy was a good influence.  I gleaned a lot of things from Roy.

TP:    So it sounds like you really developed your technique and conception in the big bands, polishing off the technical foundation you got at Mastbaum.  It was your laboratory.

DEFRANCO:  Right.

TP:    here’s what I want to ask you about when you get back.  A little more detail on Charlie Barnet, a little more on Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the big bands you were with and the personalities…

We should discuss what you think are the salient points, and come up with a happy medium.

TP:    May I ask you a little more about your father, and the way your aesthetic developed?  Was he born here or in Italy?

DEFRANCO:  He was born here.  His parents came from Italy, from an area called Foggia, which is central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea.

TP:    I read Whitney Balliett’s article on you.  Before he was blind he was a musician?

DEFRANCO:  He was a guitarist.  But he was an amateur guitar player.

TP:    But did he come from a family that had an artistic bent, or was there sort of an artistic craft tradition in his family?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Both sides had musicians.  I don’t know exactly what they played, but I know that both my parents had musicians in the background in Italy, and it’s almost an axiom that they loved the opera.  They were very musical.  That augured well for me, because they could tell whether I was playing well or out of tune or missed the beat or did something.  Unfortunately, too many youngsters who are playing today, their parents really don’t know.  So that was kind of a good thing.

My Dad had a terrible, terrible life.  It’s a long story; I don’t think I can go into it.  But it would make a book.  You just wouldn’t believe the tragic things that occurred in his life, and how he rose above most of it.  He was just incredible.  He was always in good humor and good wit, and kept us interested in music.  Never failed to play for us or have us play with him in the little band that he had which I told you about.  Once in a while, when we first started, he’d let us sit in with his group.  That’s where it started.  It was a whole musical background, experience… Everything was music in our family.

TP:    So basically there was never anything for you other than… Did you ever consider that you were going to do something else?

DEFRANCO:  No, I never did.  Mainly because that seemed to be all I was interested in.  Though I did later, on my own, read extensively, and I got interested in psychology, and read Adler, Freud and Jung, and I became a Wilhelm Reich disciple for a while, and I went into therapy for three years in New York.  Every time I came to New York I went to therapy with Dr. Pelletier, who was a Reichian therapist.  Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

TP:    Why was that?  How did that affect you musically, would you say?

DEFRANCO:  Being from somewhat humble circumstances, I was somewhat insecure in life.  The only security I had was my playing.  When that was good (when it was satisfactory, I can’t say good), I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and be somewhat of an actor on the stage and speak in a microphone and emcee, since I was beginning to have my own groups, it was painful.  It was painful for me to even say anything on a microphone.  I was riddled with insecurities.  So I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, who was originally a trumpet player who played in my big band and played on a lot of my recordings, and he played with a lot of different bands — Jerry Jerome and Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn.  He was interested in a lot of different things, like religion and philosophy and psychology.  We spent a lot of time together, and he introduced me to Reich.  I bought some books and I began avidly reading those books.  I decided when I got back to New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.

TP:    Was this around the time you started the quartet that toured?

DEFRANCO:  No, it was actually before that.  It was when I had my big band.

TP:    Which was the year before.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  But I really got into going for therapy when I had a small group.  It was easier, and I worked in New York quite a bit, so I could go for my therapy sessions.

TP:    So you were getting one type of therapy from Art Blakey and another type of therapy from the Reichians!

DEFRANCO:  That’s the idea.  And frankly, both therapies brought out in me something that I was kind of lacking in my playing and my demeanor.

TP:    Am I correct in emphasizing the impact of being with Art Blakey for a couple of years?  Because the other articles I’ve read haven’t gone into that so much, and I was concerned I was doing too much amateur psychologizing.

DEFRANCO:  The effect that Blakey had on me was obvious musically.  I think it goes hand in hand with the effect that Tommy Dorsey had, that Art Tatum had, that Bird had, and that Count Basie had.  Count Basie had a tremendous effect on me.

TP:    You went into that a little bit.  Would you say a bit more about Basie’s impact?

DEFRANCO:  Well, let me see.  It’s tantamount to the Blakey experience.  First of all, I never realized how dynamic Count Basie was at the keyboard, playing.  I never realized how much influence he had from the keyboard to manipulate the sound of the band, and it was his personality and his playing, that he could get any 15 musicians who were capable, and within a couple of hours they would sound like Basie’s band, partly because they wanted to and mostly because of Bill, because of the way he accompanied people and the little nuances in the way he played.  A dynamic force.  He and Freddie Green were just unbelievable, the feeling they could get.  And Gus Johnson had the same kind of feeling when he played.  So the rhythm section for Basie always sounded pretty much the same.  Even though there were different types of personalities and different types of players playing from time to time in Basie’s rhythm section, generally they sounded the same because of Bill Basie, his dynamic way of playing.

TP:    What did it do for your playing?  Did it make it more relaxed?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  Absolutely.  No question about it.  More relaxed and more cognizant of a time feeling.

TP:    Would you talk a little more about Dorsey for me?  He seems to have been immensely important to you, and it seems to have been a very complex relationship.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  First off, he was important to everyone who worked for him.  He influenced everyone who worked for him.  Everyone who worked for him would say the same thing.  It was incredible, the influence he had.  We were all somewhat seasoned players (we weren’t brand-new into the business) and somewhat sophisticated.  Yet, Tommy Dorsey could play just a simple melody and the band would applaud.  You could hate him at the same time, but what came out of the trombone was great — unequalled, I think.  So everybody got a feeling of playing and breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    Did he ever give you any hands-on instruction about the breathing technique, or was it just something you’d watch and pick up?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly something we watched.  Though from time to time he would give us some tips.  Most people thought that he employed that circular breathing, but that was not true.  He had a way of taking in air in the corner of his mouth, and not having his mouth or embrochure leave the mouthpiece, as opposed to circular breathing.  Circular breathing means that you take the air through your nose while you’re blowing at the same time.  Tommy didn’t do that.  He got a tremendous amount of air through the corner of his mouth, never taking the mouthpiece away from it, but also, filling up the abdomen, filling up his lungs.  He knew how to spin a note.  He used to call it “spin a note.”  He knew how to play very soft on the instrument, but you could hear it in the room.  You could hear it in the far corners of the room.  It’s a combination of physical and mental mechanism, so that you could play, or he would… He was a master at it.  He could play very soft, and everyone could hear what he was playing.  And he could play as loud as the whole band.  It was incredible.

TP:    Did you feel restrained in these big bands of the ’40s?  Were you sort of chomping at the bit to play what you really wanted, or was it a satisfactory musical experience?

DEFRANCO:  No, all the soloists felt restrained, because the big bands were dance bands.  They were not ostensibly the show bands and a showcase for soloists.  So the only chance we got to show off was in the theater.  But we were playing the one-nighters in ballrooms.  I mean, you played maybe 16 bars of a solo, then maybe you wouldn’t play a solo for two sets or a set.  Nothing extended.

TP:    So it wasn’t like the Ellington band playing a ballroom where the solo function would be integrated into the dance experience, as it were.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  This was strictly a big band… Even Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played for dancing.  That was one of the gripes Artie had about the whole idea.  He wanted himself and his band to be more concertizing.  In fact, if he were operating now with his big band, it would be a perfect setting for him, because he could do all these concerts, he could do festivals, and play exactly the way he wanted to play, and not conform to the dance.  You’re too young to remember this, but Artie Shaw one time walked off the stage in the face of, I don’t know, a million dollars of contracts that he had.  He walked off the stage and announced that all the jitterbugs were idiots — which made the front lines of the papers.  But he also doubled his attendance.  He called them idiots and he said, “We love you.”

TP:    Prefiguring Miles Davis.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, Miles Davis, exactly.

TP:    When you left Dorsey in ’48 and came right to New York, had you been knowing all of your contemporaries who were involved in Bebop?  Is that one reason why you fit in so comfortably with them?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  We knew that New York was the hub at that time.  At the same time, there was the beginning of the Cool School, although ironically enough, most of the cool guys, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…all those guys were from New York.  That was ironic.  But they lived in California.  They kind of generated this Cool School of playing.  But the kind of playing that I was engaged in was, as Lennie Tristano would say, “obvious swing,” which he detested. [LAUGHS] Oh, we used to argue for hours.  Lennie Tristano I think approached genius.  He was incredible.  His technique, his musical prowess and his ability to do some things that were at that time phenomenal on the piano and with his group.  He didn’t like the idea of the swing feeling projected into music.  He liked the idea of rhythm, of course.  But he used to say to me that he couldn’t understand why I played with the obvious swing.  It was ridiculous, you know.

TP:    Why did he think it was ridiculous?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he just didn’t feel that was necessary, and he didn’t feel that creative jazz needed that.  Well, I did.  I go back to the school of Basie or Blakey where if it’s not swinging, it doesn’t mean too much — or that’s only half the picture.

TP:    So no matter how intellectually challenging the thing may be, Ellington’s dictum is still the operative principle.

DEFRANCO:  Swing’s the thing.

TP:    Can you tell me a little bit about playing with Boyd Raeburn’s band.  It sounds as though that was the place where you could really expand your horizons intellectually in terms of music.

DEFRANCO:  You could.  You could play exactly the way you wanted to play, which was why he hired me and the other guys in the band.  And the writers could write any way they wanted to write.  So consequently, we got some pretty spacy music.  But it was intellectually unbelievable and very difficult.  It took great skill to play that library.  Probably one of the most difficult, technically challenging libraries in the business.  The guys were George Handy and Bob Graettinger and Johnny Richards.  Johnny Richards was a phenomenal writer, although I thought he was ponderous in many ways and overwritten — but still a great writer.

TP:    Was your own big band a cross between the Artie Shaw concept and the Raeburn concept?

DEFRANCO:  Maybe.  I didn’t try to get that outside with it.  But the concept was the big Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw… You can lump them all together and that’s what I had.  I wound up with zero.

TP:    It wasn’t entirely your fault.  I mean, it was not a great time to be starting a big band.

DEFRANCO:  No, it was the wrong time.  But I could sense when we played… I thought I mapped out everything, so to speak, so that we could play our music in a dance tempo and still make it a jazz-worthy project.  But I realized that that didn’t work.  That did work with what I had in the audience.  So you give it up and go on to other things.  Then I got the small group, and that did work.  That was hot for about a year-and-a-half or two years.

TP:    Then you had to move out to California.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Well, the jazz (?) died completely.

TP:    By the way, when did you leave Philadelphia for good?

DEFRANCO:  1939.

TP:    were you coming back to Philly after that?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, sure.  I’d come back to see my family and friends.  Once in a while I’d play in Philadelphia.

TP:    But you were basically a citizen of the road.

DEFRANCO:  That’s it.

TP:    And you’d come home and touch base with your family.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  For a while I established a home in New York, got an apartment and played out of New York, then gave that up and got a place in California.  But the same kind of thing.  I’ve been actually ostensibly on the road for sixty years.  These past few years have been more of a home base operation.  I’ve spent more time here in Florida and more time in Whitefish, Montana, than I have out playing.

TP:    I think you’re entitled.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah!  I really feel entitled.

TP:    Can you tell me about your relationship with Terry Gibbs.  That seems to be your longest standing association of this particular period anyway.

DEFRANCO:  We’ve been working together several times a year.  We link up and work with a local rhythm section or a rhythm section in Europe, or we get a rhythm section from New York or California.  We work together well and it’s a lot of fun.  I take those jobs because Terry and I enjoy each other’s playing, and it’s fun.  There’s not the kind of tension you would imagine when you go out, for instance, with your own group.  There’s a certain amount of tension where you’re being tested; your group is being tested, you are being tested, and everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  This is kind of a different aspect of playing what we want.  Terry, first of all, is great to work with because he’s funny and very clever, and the attitude is lighter.  Not the music, but the attitude is lighter.

TP:    So he lets you lighten up a little bit.

DEFRANCO:  I think so.  I would tend to get pretty grim in my music.  Sometimes people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music too seriously, or myself too seriously.  And through the years that has been true.  It took the Reichian therapy for me to realize that my music was not the center of the universe.

TP:    Even of your universe.

DEFRANCO:  Even my universe, yes.

TP:    Even with Terry Gibbs, it lets you operate in a specific instrumental tradition.  Because having the clarinet and the vibes together is going to bring up associations for people.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  And the sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton thing, because they started that particular sound.  Which is great for us, because in a way, we manage to play pretty much what we want to do when we play solos.  People hear that sound, and they identify with Benny Goodman and Lionel, so they like it.

TP:    Could I ask you a couple of specific things about your bands from the ’50s until the Glenn Miller thing?  I think I have conflicting information.  I think Balliett had some inaccuracies because he conflicts with Gitler’s note on the Mosaic box.  Was the group with Tommy Gumina only a quartet?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    And that came after you played with Victor Feldman and Carl Perkins and Billy Higgins.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  That was another interesting experience for me working with Tommy.  He was a magnificent musician.  We did five albums together, which people don’t realize — one for Decca and four for Mercury.

I had Scott LaFaro and Victor Feldman in New York.

TP:    Let me ask you something philosophically about the craft and the art of making music, coming back to the question of whether art was the family craft, as it were.  Do you see yourself as analogous to artists in other traditions and other media?

DEFRANCO:  All of the jazz players who amounted to something, who contributed to the idea of jazz, I think are all analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something…however minimal, something different, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, “That’s who it is.”  That’s Bird.  That’s Art.  That’s Oscar.  That’s Buddy.  That’s what I wanted.  You can copy.  For some period of time, I copied Benny Goodman.  Now, of course, it’s too hard to copy Benny Goodman, because you can refer to your basic studies.  The Klosee method or the Behrman method, basic studies of arpeggiated forms, Benny used in his jazz.  That was the focal point of his jazz clarinet playing.  So it was kind of easy to do that, as opposed to, say, not so easy to imitate Artie Shaw who at the same time was involved in linear playing, making lines, or, even more difficult, Bird.  So it was tough enough to play sort of in the Bird tradition on any instrument, but doubly difficult on the clarinet because clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.

TP:    But you don’t seem to be a vocabulary quoter.  I don’t pretend to have heard every one of your records.  But even when you’re playing bebop things, I don’t hear you quoting Bird.  It’s very much your personal vocabulary.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, there are a few quotes I maintain.  But most of the quotes in my playing are my own quotes.  Sometimes when I’ve been criticized for being repetitive, my answer to that is, “I’m allowed to be, since it’s my stuff.”  I mixed that with some quotes from the Bebop era, but not… Also, I tried not to directly quote.  Just like there are some things I’ve gotten from, oh, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nelson Riddle, Bill Finnegan, David Raksin, where I used it in my jazz playing.  But I didn’t quote them exactly.  It’s just an inference of what they did.

TP:    Let me take you back again for a second.  In the ’30s when you were a kid, you talked about jamming at these clubs.  There were two different clubs, right?

DEFRANCO:  Two different clubs.  Billy Kretchmer is still alive.  He lives in Margate, New Jersey, and up until just a couple of years ago he was still playing.  At that time, in the ’30s, he was neck and neck with Benny and Artie.  He was quite a jazz player.  He just played in his own group in his club, and he played in the pit theater at the Earle, next to my teacher, Willy Di Simone.

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A 2002 DownBeat Blindfold Test with Butch Morris (Happy Birthday, Butch)

For Butch Morris’ 65th birthday, here are the proceedings of a Downbeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me in November 2002.

Butch Morris Blindfold Test (11-21-02):

1.    Thad Jones, “One More” (from THAD JONES, Debut, 1991) (Thad Jones, tp; John Dennis, p; Charles Mingus, b; Max Roach, d) – (2 stars)

Is that Sweets?  Howard McGhee?  Is it a youngster?  Roy?  I mean, Roy Eldridge.  This is a modern crowd we’re speaking to; we don’t want them to misunderstand.  You kind of stumped me.  And then the drummer… Play it again.  The trumpet player’s velocity was amazing, especially the way he played those dynamics and his capacity for strength.  Amazing.  He’s probably a real good section cat, too, along with being a good improviser.  But somehow to me he sounds like he could have been a big influence, but also he’s been influenced by a lot of people.  I mean, all of those people I named, I think.  There was a lot of originality, because I think at the time everybody was pretty much original.  It could even have been late ’40s, for that matter, but I think the ’50s.  I hear a little Diz, I heard a little Sweets, I hear a little Fats, I hear a little Howard McGhee.  But at this point, I’m guessing.  Do I have to give it stars? 2 stars. [AFTER] That was Thad Jones?  What year?  2 stars only because he was quoting from so many sources.  Not to say Thad wasn’t original.  But he seemed to go from… I mean, there was some Fats in there, there was some Howard McGhee, there was some Roy Eldridge.  He was all over the map.  That’s probably what made him such a good arranger that he knew the terrain.  I probably put my foot in my mouth from saying he’s not original.  But I’d prefer to hear Thad in the late ’70s.

2.    Miles Davis, “White” (from AURA, Columbia, 1985/2000) (Miles Davis, tp; Palle Mikkelborg, comp.) (5 stars)

It sounds like Don Cherry.  Huh, that’s strange.  It sounds like Don Cherry, it sounds like Miles Davis, it sounds like Ron Miles a little bit.  It’s very nice music.  But the first few notes were very deceiving.  Immediately I thought of Don. Then I thought of Miles.  Miles Davis.  I’ve never heard this before.  Whoever it is, is all over Miles.  It’s probably Miles, some Miles I’ve never heard.  It sounds like the record could be around the “Siesta” thing.  I think the music is way up in Gil territory, too, for that matter, but I don’t know where it is or what period is from.  In a way, it sounds like a lot of stuff me and J.A. Deane and Wayne Horwitz used to do, too. I’d give it 10 stars.  Even though I hear more and more similarities between Don and Miles, it’s interesting the way Miles uses history to reevaluate his present.  Because you hear his quotes, you hear things he’s going around, you hear even maybe “Stella By Starlight,” you hear things that maybe preceded this recording by 20 years in there.  But the way they’re fragmented are very interesting.  And the more it goes on, the more you realize it is Miles, by the way he says things.  But I don’t know this recording.

3.    Jackie McLean, “A Fickle Sonance” (from A FICKLE SONANCE, Blue Note, 1961/2000) (McLean, as, comp; Tommy Turrentine, tp; Sonny Clark, p; Butch Warren, b; Billy Higgins, d) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Tommy Turrentine.  That’s probably Tommy Turrentine at the height of his game — on record.  Oh, Jackie.  Is the drummer Pete LaRoca?  No?  Oh, that’s Billy Higgins.  Tommy is a motherfucker.  That is Tommy.  I know a lot of motherfuckers slept on Tommy, but I didn’t! [LAUGHS] I shouldn’t say Tommy makes me think of him, but there’s two cats I really like right in here — Richard Williams and Tommy.  They just kill.  They took care of some territory that a lot of people just didn’t.  Actually, Roy Hargrove reminds me a lot sometimes of Tommy and Richard Williams — a tiny bit. Is the pianist Cedar?  Herbie?  Wynton Kelly? Sonny Clark!  Oh, shit.  Goddammit.  I take my bebop very seriously.  I love that.  Especially in this period, I really like Jackie’s stuff, and I really like Tommy Turrentine.  What was that, “Fickle Sonance”?  Great track.  5 stars.

4.    Franz Koglmann, “Make Believe” (from MAKE BELIEVE, Between the Lines, 1999) (Koglmann, flugelhorn; Tom Varner, fr.horn; Tony Coe, cl; Brad Shepik, g; Peter Herbert, b)

Sun Ra?  Is that some of the Delmark stuff? [As in AACM?] As in AACM. [No.] I’m starting to hear what the tune is. [Kenny Dorham once recorded this.] It’s strange.  The guitar player is starting to sound more familiar to me than anybody else.  But I can’t say I know who it is.  The name of the tune is on the tip of my tongue. Is it “I Can’t Get Started”?  It’s in that vicinity.  I don’t know who this is, but let’s go on to the next one. I thought it was Sun Ra.  I think it’s a concept. [What do you think of the concept?] It’s all right.  It still reminds me of Sun Ra.  It reminds me of Fletcher Henderson, too.  It also reminds me of Gil. [FINAL SECTION] Is this from the same record?  Can I hear something else?  Is the bassist Martin Aaltena?  Whoever they are, they have good company.  So let’s go on to the next.  I don’t have to rate it as high or low.  Let’s put it like this.  They were in good company.  I don’t have to give it stars. I’ve been reading the Blindfold Test for thirty years!  I think throughout the process, until this record, I was very clear at least in stating my opinions about these.  I stated my opinion about this in the beginning, so I stated the kind of company I feel they’re in.  Now, if I have to give them stars, I’ll give them stars.  I give them stars.  Stars.  Stars.  Stars. [AFTER] Franz Koglmann.  The trumpet player.  Good company.

5.    Ryan Kisor, “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” (from POWER SOURCE, Criss-Cross, 1999) (3 star)

Is that a Mingus song?  Oh, yes.  “Ellington’s Sound of Love.”  It’s nice.  Can we go on to the next?  I think they’re giving a very nice rendition of this classic.  I think it’s nice.  That’s all.  It’s very nice.  It’s nice.  It’s very nice. [Can you be a little more substantive than that?] Than what? [Than "it's very nice.] It’s very nice.  I think the expression was way over the top.  It was a modern rendition of something that was a modern rendition of something.  I mean, it was Mingus’ expression of Duke, and it’s their expression of Mingus. [Do you think they did justice to Mingus?] Oh yeah.  I think they did justice to Mingus.  I mean,they didn’t do him any harm.  Let’s put it like that.  It was nice. [Did the trumpet player catch your attention, for better or for worse?] Neither, for better or for worse.  I certainly don’t mean this in a negative way, but I’d like to hear somebody like Lonnie Hillyer play that.  But I thought it was good.  I think it was a little bit over the top in terms of expression.  It seemed to try too much to make it sound like sound-like, like “I can play in that groove” or “I can do that.” It was cool.  I can give it a star.  1 star.

6.    Leo Smith, “The Year Of The Elephant” (from GOLDEN QUARTET: THE YEAR OF THE ELEPHANT, Pi, 2002) (Smith, tp; Anthony Davis, p; Malachi Favors, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (4 stars)

The drummer sounds like Philip Wilson.  Is that Leo Smith?   Oh, is that Jack?  [LAUGHS] Oh, God!  That’s Anthony and Malachi.  Well, it took me a minute to find out that was Leo, but the way he was putting that composition together with Tony, the way they were expressing it, it became clear it was Leo.  Actually compositionally more than… I mean, it came together at the same time compositionally and his sound.  The way he started to bring the piano into his lines, when he was playing.  Like, how the piano will go away from the line and then come back into the line was interesting.  And then I could hear it was Leo.  This is only an observation, but he still sounds like Philip to me! [LAUGHS] That’s by no means an insult.  I heard Philip immediately.  And I’m still hearing it, is what I’m saying. They played in Lisbon last year.  I didn’t hear the performance, but I saw them there, and I went to a rehearsal there. It’s a band of wonderful musicians.  A star for each person in the band.  4 stars.

7.    Ron Miles-Bill Frisell, “We See” (from HEAVEN, Sterling Circle, 2002) (Miles, tp; Frisell, g)

Monk.  Thelonious Monk is the composer.  Is this “We See”?  It should make me want to dance.  When I think Monk, I want to dance.  I think it’s a nice rendition, let’s put it that way.  I don’t want to guess here, because I could guess wrong.  I thought Tom Harrell at first.  But it’s not.  I can’t guess who it is.  Or the guitar player. He sounds out of Jim Hall somehow.  But I don’t know. 3 stars. [AFTER] Oh, I should have known that was Ron Miles. Actually, Ron is one of the few trumpet players I’ve heard in the last few years that I like a lot.  He’s got something I like.  And I like Frisell a lot.

8.    Johnny Coles, “Jano” (from LITTLE JOHNNY C, Blue Note, 1963/1996) (Johnny Coles, tp; Duke Pearson, p., comp; Joe Henderson, ts; Leo Wright, as; Bob Cranshaw, b; Walter Perkins, d) – (5 stars)

That sounded like Philly Joe at first.  Is it Philly Joe?  It’s not Billy again. The alto player’s got that hard Jackie thing again — that edge.  Almost like between Jackie and James Spaulding.  He’s got some kind of angular thing, like Braxton.  Did you play the head?  Did you start this tune at the beginning? [Yes.] This is strange, because the rhythm section almost sounds dated, like you could put them in one area of history, and then the horn players come on with this other, more modern thing.  I mean, the way the piano player is comping, the way the drummer is playing the time. [trumpet solo] Wow!  Sounds like K.D. now.  I’m on the warm side?  [tenor solo] When was this recorded? [Early '60s.] Sam Rivers?  John Gilmore?  Wow, that’s familiar like a motherfucker!  I mean, that’s FAMILIAR. It’s not Billy?  Dennis Charles?  My God, I’m lost somewhere.  The pianist sounds like Cecil now. [Cedar?] No.  Cecil Taylor.  I mean, only… It’s very interesting, not only because I’m trying to think of who it is, but it’s a convolution of a lot of things to me.  That’s not Sonny Clark?  Can you play it again?  I don’t know who the alto player is at all.  Can you run the trumpet player one more time?  Strange, because it’s got this Kenny Dorham thing, and it’s got some Bobby Bradford stuff in there… That’s classic!  Listen, can we go on to something else and come back to this?

This appealed to me because…how can I say… It’s very attractive.  It’s a simple line.  It just happens to be 9 bars.  They could have made it 12 if they wanted to, and they could have made it 8 if they wanted to, and they could have made it 10 if they wanted to.  But it was very, very attractive, I think. I didn’t feel I was hearing it from the beginning… That’s why I said, “Did you play it from the top?”  It begins like it’s a continuation of something.  When you started it, and it began, it felt like a continuation.  It never felt like it was the beginning to me.  Which was appealing.  But I’d like to come back to it. There’s something there that I’d like to get my hands on.

The trumpet player reminds me of Wilbur Hardin.  But then there’s a couple of other players right in that period who had… The other cat’s surname is Young, but I can’t think of his surname.  The tune has challenging edge because it is 9 bars or so.  To turn around. So it’s not Wilbur Hardin.  It’s not Idris Sulieman. 10 stars. I’m sure I know everybody on this.  But I just can’t put them within my context right now. First tell me who the piano player was.  Duke Pearson?  Was that his tune?  Was it Donald Byrd?  Wait a minute.  Shit.  I would have got Joe Henderson on a good day.  I want to say Woody Shaw, but no… Actually, at this point I can’t identify. Johnny Coles!  Oh, God.  I love Johnny Coles, but I certainly wasn’t thinking in his direction.  I used to have this record.  Of course.

9.    Bob Brookmeyer, “Child At Play” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.) – (3 stars)

You’re out for blood today, Ted!  Right?  I’m out for blood.  Is that recent? [Yes.] It’s really great writing, I think.  Good writing and an interesting stream of thought in terms of what they’ve written.  Is that Marty Ehrlich on clarinet?  Definitely good writing.  I mean, they work that one motif to death, which is cool, that’s what you do.  It’s nice.  With this kind of band, it would be great to hear… They didn’t get a lot of chances to play through these charts.  And it would be great to hear this music after it had been played for a while, like for a year, by the same people.  It just sounds over-read to me.  Really over-read.  It’s trying to feel relaxed, but I don’t hear that.  Often, music, when it’s not read enough, it sounds too contrived.  Not to say this sounds contrived.  It’s pretty music.  It’s wonderful music.

10.    Bill Dixon, “Pellucity” (from VADE MECUM, Soul Note, 1993) (Dixon, tp., comp; Barry Guy, William Parker, b; Tony Oxley, d.) – (3 stars)

Is that Bill Dixon?  Bill’s interesting, because he gives you the impression that he’s wrapped up in every note, that he’s emotionally involved in every note, or every sound he makes, every phrase.  His flugelhorn work is really intimate, I think.  Highly personal.  Highly emotional.  I don’t know who the drummer is.  Certainly somehow out of Milford.  But I don’t know really know who it could be.  Oh, Tony Oxley?  It’s nice. 3 stars.  It’s a trio?  Two basses?

11.    George Russell, “The Outer View” (from THE OUTER VIEW, Riverside, 1962/1991) (Don Ellis, tp.; George Russell, p, comp; Paul Plummer, ts; Garnett Brown, tb; Steve Swallow, b; Pete LaRoca, d) – (4 stars)

I really don’t like this music.  The piano player keeps doing something that irritates me.  [trumpet solo] Is it Dave Douglas?   Is it Wynton?  [When do think this was recorded?] In the ’80s or early ’90s. [It was recorded in '62.  Does that change your assessment?]  Yes, of course it changes things, because it makes it a predecessor to all this stuff that’s being played now like then.  I mean, it’s not Sam Rivers on piano. [No.  But I think the pianist is a Schillinger guy.] I’ve heard so much of the bad examples of this lately that my view of this… That it’s in the early ’60s certainly changes my view.  I’d have to listen to it in a new light now.  Could you play the trumpet player’s solo again?  Is that Bill again?  This was recorded in ’62?  Okay, who is it? [Don Ellis] Oh, of course!  Yeah, I can dig that.  He certainly was one of the predecessors to all this shit that’s going on now that sounds like that.  I’ll tell you probably why I thought it was so recent.  That is an excellent recording for 1962.  So again, yes, sure, the quality not only of the music, but the recording. [Any idea who the composer was?] Should I know by the tune?  [Not necessarily.  But you'll feel bad if you don't get him.] George Russell?  It sounds like George Russell.  But when you said the ’60s I was really confused, because I was trying to figure out who had control over that kind of recording in 1962.  Where was it recorded, and who recorded it? [Ray Fowler.] Really.  Wasn’t he recording a lot of singers back then? 4 stars.  4 stars for a lot of reasons.  Like I said, that’s been done over and over, especially in the ’80s and ’90s — that kind of arrangement, that kind of playing. I must admit, I was dumbfounded, because I was listening a lot to the sound of the recording, and the sound of the recording made me think of ’80s-’90s, and so I started to think in that area.  When you told me it was recorded in the ’60s, I couldn’t hear who was playing, because I was trying to figure out who made recordings that good in the ’60s, not in terms of the quality of the music but the quality of the recording.  I think this is interesting in itself.  I don’t think there’s too many records on your shelf where you can go to 1962 and find any record recorded as well as that record is recorded, unless it was done by a singer.  I like Don Ellis.  I liked him better with his electric recordings.

12.    Italian Instabile Orchestra, “Sequenze Fugue” (from LITANIA SIBILANTE, Enja, 2000) (Giancarlo Schiaffini, comp.; Enrico Rava, tp) – (5 stars)

Is this the beginning of the song?  Oh, they’re Italian!  It’s Enrico Rava.  Enrico’s covered a lot of ground better than a lot of people in terms of the trumpet thing.  He’s a motherfucker.  Motherfucker.  I’ve heard him kick butts on many, many nights in Paris in the ’70s and in Italy.  He’ll step on the gas, jack.  He’s a bad cat.  What can I say?  Is this the Instabile?  It’s interesting.  They seem to have covered a lot of ground that is non-European. It’s just their Italian thing that covers an area of jazz that is kind of clear.  This is their fresco, and it’s clearly theirs.  Really clearly theirs.  So it’s Enrico Rava with the Instabile.  It’s cool.  I think you hear Instabile one or two times, and you see the kind of… I’m not saying that’s all.  But they made a statement.  And certainly Enrico; Enrico has, too. 5 stars for Instabile and 5 for Enrico. The thing is, they’re Italian, and that’s Enrico, and this is their fresco.

13.    Fats Navarro, “The Tadd Walk” (from GOIN’ TO MINTON’S, Savoy Jazz, 1947/1999) (Navarro, tp; Tadd Dameron, p., comp; Ernie Henry, as; Curley Russell, b; Denzil Best, d) – (5 stars)

Fats Navarro.  I was trying to figure out who the piano player was first, and then the trumpet player.  Around this time, I’d think K.D. and Miles, in that range.  I was waiting for the trumpet player to go up a little higher to understand a little better where he was, and even some areas where Miles sounded a little like Dizzy, I thought it could be… I also thought Fats, but I was also thinking Dizzy and Fats would have gone up in terms of register by then.  But Fats.  Fats was such an articulate motherfucker.  Who was the piano player?  Tadd Dameron! 25 stars for everybody.

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