18. Chico Hamilton Quintet

Chico1Record: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Artist: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Released: Pacific Jazz Records, 1956

The Chico Hamilton Quintet is different, and it's immediately clear why this was one of my father's favorites. Hamilton was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he became one of the pioneers of a more relaxed style sometimes referred to as cool jazz, or even West Coast jazz.

I'm guessing there wasn't an East Coast-West Coast rivalry like Biggie and Pac, but things are different out here, even now. Back then? California might well have been an island floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview sportswriter Arnold Hano who had been born and raised in the Bronx before eventually moving out west to California, where he continued writing in the 1950s and '60s. (Here's the full interview: Part I/Part II.)We talked about how the West was viewed back then.

Hano:  When I was back in New York I did whatever was around there. But when I was on the west coast, you know, that’s an insular attitude. I was sent from Laguna Beach to Seattle to cover a basketball scandal at Seattle University!

Waddles:  Because it’s the west coast, it’s all the west coast.

Hano:  “Oh, Hano’s out there. He’s on the west coast, he can do that.” They would never send anybody from New York to Cleveland, but this is a greater distance, much greater distance. So yeah, you’re right. It was geographic. It was wonderful. 

I can only imagine that the geographic isolation of the time allowed for, or at least contributed to, the creation of a sound that was dramatically different from the big band and bepop styles percolating on the East Coast. What this record preserves is a form of jazz that sometimes includes elements of classical music, combining my father's two loves. (Had Sinatra showed up to sing a few bars, we'd have had the trifecta.)

The opening notes of the record come from Fred Katz's cello, bowed not plucked, instantly establishing the classical feel. The rest of that first side, recorded in a Hollywood studio with Hamilton on the drums behind the rest of the quintet, certainly puts the cool in cool jazz, but I prefer side two. Not only is the style closer to the traditional jazz that I prefer, it was recorded live. In between tracks we hear polite applause from a small crowd, and during the songs, most noticeably during Carson Smith's bass solo on "Spectacular," we can hear the band members cackling with delight. The joy is palpable.

But here's the most interesting part. The live tracks were recorded at a nightclub called Harry Rubin's Strollers in Long Beach, California, just a short drive from my house. Some quick research gave me an address, but I wasn't surprised to find that there were no signs of a jazz club when I arrived on the scene. That stretch of the street has long since been closed to cars and renamed "Promenade" as part of the city's downtown revitalization project. As near as I can tell, the spot where the club must've stood is now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel.

It would've been nice to be able to walk into a darkened night club and imagine a scene from sixty-seven years ago, but instead I stood blinking in the California sun as bikers sped past and young couples pushed babies in strollers. It didn't matter. The connection was still there. On August 4, 1955, the Chico Hamilton Quintet recorded a few tracks in a long forgotten club in California. Not long after that my father bought the resulting record in Detroit and, judging by the wear and tear on the album jacket, came to love it. On a November afternoon in 2022, I brought the record back to where it had started. The circle was closed.

Chico3

Side 1
A Nice Day
Funny Valentine
Blue Sands
The Sage
The Morning After

Side 2
I Want to Be Happy
Spectacular
Free Form
Walking Carson Blues
Buddy Boo

Chico2


17. Big New Herd at the Monterey Jazz Festival

WoodyMonterey1Record: Big New Herd at the Monterey Jazz Festival
Artist: Woody Herman
Released: Atlantic Records, 1960

For the second week in a row I'm writing about a live performance recorded at a jazz festival. Last week it was Duke Ellington at Newport, and this week it's Woody Herman at Monterey. The Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals are unquestionably the biggest and most storied music festivals in America, so it's no surprise that so many of the greats have released recordings of their performances at one event or the other, and also no surprise that so many of those recordings are in my father's collection.

There's essentially zero chance that I'll ever make it to Newport, Rhode Island, and even though it's possible that I could head up the coast one summer to Monterey, the event I'd truly love to check out is the Detroit Jazz Festival, held annually on Labor Day Weekend. I've even got a cousin who sometimes performs there, so there's really no excuse not to make the trip. Someday. 

But back to Woody and his band. Herman had taken to referring to his orchestra as a "herd" rather than a band, due in part to the fluidity of such groups. For this festival the herd included many of its usual members, but they also added a few guests from the nearby San Francisco Symphony. According to Ralph J. Gleason's liner notes, Herman remarked, "I wish I could take this band on the road!"

The result is some of the most listenable jazz you could ever find. It's not bland background music -- there's plenty of substance here -- but it isn't challenging. That's hardly a criticism. 

We choose our music with a purpose in mind, creating a soundtrack to fit the moment. In my early twenties, when I was regularly making the six hour drive between L.A. and the Bay Area, for example, I had a playlist of CDs designed to keep the energy up during an otherwise monotonous trek. Some genres work well as the background for a study session, while something else might fit for an evening with friends. 

There are even differences within genres. Charles Mingus demands your attention; Woody Herman says, "Don't mind us. We'll just be over here having fun if you want to listen." And it's the fun that shines through in this live recording. As one solo is passed to another, all the expected instruments have their moments -- a trumpet here, a saxophone there. But there's also Woody's clarinet as well as Vic Feldman's vibraharp, a warmer relative of the xylophone. Because it's a live performance -- and not just remixed versions of what was played that afternoon and evening in Monterey -- we can often hear the band members shouting encouragement to one another. (Gleason also writes that we can even hear a plane buzzing the crowd at various points, but I can't quite make that out.)

Gleason closes his notes by explaining that "Monterey was a gas for musicians and fans alike." We spend the time and money to go and see our favorite bands in concert precisely because "it's a gas." Cuing up the music and singing along at home to our favorite tracks is one thing, but being part of a crowd waiting for something unexpected to happen is something completely different.

Sometimes the venue matters. My wife and I went to see one of her favorite bands, the Shins, in a small club several years ago. There might've been five hundred people there, and the setting was so intimate that we could hear conversations between the bandmates between songs and comments from some of the superfans who predicted upcoming numbers based on which guitar the lead singer grabbed before heading back to the mic. I remember seeing the English Beat with a friend in an even smaller venue on the Sunset Strip; the crowd was so small that frontman Dave Wakeling opened the stage for any of the women, soccer moms all, to come up and dance as he played "Tenderness." 

But somehow that joy of the performance isn't lost when the venue gets larger, it only changes. There's nothing like the collective explosion as an arena crowd hears the opening chords of a favorite song or sings along with the chorus. I saw U2 at the Rose Bowl several years ago, and even though our seats were roughly 200 yards from the stage, there was still a connection as one hundred thousand of us shared our voices with Bono as we sang the songs we'd been singing alone in our cars for the past twenty-five years. It was magic.

There might not have been any dancing on the stage on October 3, 1959, in Monterey, but there's no doubt the crowd that afternoon and evening arrived with the same expectations of concert and festival goers anywhere. Perhaps that's why we see only Woody Herman's silhouette on an album cover that's dominated by the crowd, row upon row of fans that say something significant about the era. Many of the men are wearing dress shirts and ties, and a few are even in suit jackets. There are hats everywhere with a few programs serving as makeshift visors, and those who aren't wearing sunglasses are squinting into the sun. If it were Woodstock or Lollapalooza or Coachella there'd likely be a lot more skin showing, but on some level a festival is still a festival. 

The panorama of the crowd does bring up another issue that I've written about before. There might be two hundred faces in the photo, but only four of them appear to be Black. Granted, this was Monterey, California, and a picture like this taken in Chicago or New York or Detroit might've looked a bit different, but this was still 1959, a time when jazz musicians, both Black and white, were playing for predominantly white audiences like this one. So maybe this was more like Coachella than we might think.

WoodyMonterey2

Side 1
Four Brothers
Like Some Blues Man
Skoobeedoobee

Side 2
Monterey Apple Tree
Skylark
The Magpie


16. Ellington at Newport

Ellington1Record: Ellington at Newport
Artist: Duke Ellington
Released: Columbia Records, 1956

For the second time I find myself writing here about a Duke Ellington performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The first time was Newport 1958, but this record was from two summers earlier, in 1956, a recording that many still see as one of the most important in Ellington's career.

Ellington's performing career spanned from the 1920s until his death in 1974 and included dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of recordings. He is, without question, not only one of the most important and most influential jazz musicians of all time, but one of the greatest American musicians of any genre. Given that, it should be no surprise that his work is well represented in my father's collection.

One way in which jazz differs from more modern genres of music is in the importance of performance. It isn't uncommon today for the most popular artists and bands to eschew touring altogether in the later stages of their careers even as they continue to produce new music in studio sessions. Some bands may develop reputations as being outstanding showmen, but even in those cases the studio work takes precedence. 

For many jazz performers, however, this wasn't the case. As the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival approached, Duke Ellington's career appeared to have been waning. It was his performance on July 7 -- not a stunning new studio album -- that revitalized his career and gave him the momentum to continue for another two decades. This record is ostensibly the documentation of that evening (which stretched into morning), and it eventually became the best selling album of Ellington's career.

Why was performance so important? Jazz is an ephemeral art form, due in part to the improvisational nature of the genre but also to the limitations of vinyl records. With only about twenty-two minutes available on one side, there often wasn't room for longer studio compositions or live performances that stretched beyond those limits. (As a result, the CD era saw an explosion of releases of older material that couldn't have been released in previous formats.)

As alluded to above, this recording isn't completely live as suggested. Columbia Records did indeed record Ellington and his band that evening, but there were problems. Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves apparently played into the wrong microphone for long stretches and was completely inaudible, for example, and some of the crowd noise we hear on the record is artificial.

But when you're discussing a landmark record like this there's no point in quibbling over details of perceived authenticity. George Avakian's rich liner notes ignore all of this and instead focus on the impact of the live performance. His description upends any image the reader might have of a jazz concert, more specifically a jazz audience, in 1956. 

The most important moment is preserved on side two during the fifteen-minute masterpiece "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which featured a lengthy tenor sax solo by Gonsalves. Ellington had told him to blow as long as he felt like blowing, and the result was a near ten-minute solo that brought the house down. We imagine row upon row of dignified listeners, perhaps tapping their toes but nothing more. But reading Avakian's description of the night, it might've been closer to the Rolling Stones at Altamont, if not as tragic.

As Gonsalves continued to wail away, the energy in the audience began to build. "A platinum-blonde girl in a black dress began dancing in one of the boxes (the last place you'd expect that in Newport!) and," writes Avakian, "a moment later somebody else started in another part of the audience." (There's a photo of the blonde on the back of the album and although she was anonymous at the time of the album's release, she was eventually identified as Elaine Anderson. You can read more about her and her recollections of that night here.)

Those dancers, the energy of Gonsalves's long solo, the driving rhythm of Ellington's band, and, no doubt, the lateness of the hour all combined to bring much of the crowd to its feet. They filled the aisles and pushed closer to the stage, at points leading police and festival security to consider shutting the show down. But Ellington, perhaps sensing the magnitude of the moment, would have none of it. The record ends after "Diminuendo and Crescendo," but the band played on into the night. And Ellington played on for another twenty years, thanks to this performance.

Ellington2

Side 1
Festival Junction
Blues to Be There
Newport Up

Side 2
Jeep's Blues
Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue


15. Mingus Revisited

Mingus1Record: Mingus Revisited
Artist: Charles Mingus
Released: Limelight Records, 1965

The cover of this record tells you everything you need to know. To steal a phrase from the modern parlance, back in the 1960s Charles Mingus was playing chess while everyone else played checkers. Look at him as he sits comfortably before the board, fingers intertwined, eyes closed as he contemplates his next move.

His move with this record was to be experimental, to push the boundaries of jazz forward. This was originally recorded in 1960 and released the following year by Mercury Records with the title Pre-Bird. (That title reflects the idea that Mingus hadn't yet listened to Charlie "Bird" Parker, who would become a great influence.) Producer Leonard Feather writes in the liner notes, "Unavailable for many years, it is herein reissued because of its historical importance."

It's important because it's unlike anything almost anyone else was doing at the time. John Coltrane and Miles Davis, both separately and together, would push jazz into challenging directions, but even they weren't doing what Mingus was. 

Mingus had already made his mark as a bassist, and now he was composing. Most of the tracks on this record are compositions of his own for a band that is big, if not a "big band." In addition to Mingus's bass, there are five trumpets, four trombones, six saxophones, three percussionists, a tuba, a flute, a cello, a piano, and even an oboe. Most of those unexpected instruments contribute to the Mingus originals, the final four tracks on side one, and the final two on the reverse. 

Mingus sets up an interesting contrast on each side as he begins with traditional tunes, including a tribute to one of his greatest influences, Duke Ellington (more on that coming), then finishes with his own songs which are anything but traditional. Mingus spoke often about his love of classical music and composers like Ravel and Debussy, and those influences are heard in these compositions which are jazz numbers, certainly, but are also orchestral in nature. 

On two songs he even enlists the services of a vocalist, Lorraine Cousins, uncredited except in Feather's notes, and her haunting vocals paired with the unorthodox feel of those tracks produce songs which are as unsettling as they are brilliant. I was listening to them one evening in the dining room when my phone pinged with a text from my wife who was writing in the adjacent office. 

"Do you mind using headphones? The music is kinda stressing me out... It sounds like a scary movie or something."

She wasn't wrong, and I'm guessing many listeners in 1961 (or 1965) must've had similar reactions. It's different, to say the least.

But let's go back to the opening tracks from each side. The record begins with "Take the 'A' Train," a Billy Strayhorn classic that I remember playing in middle school jazz band. Side two opens with an Ellington number, "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me."

It all seems fairly straight forward until you look deeper at the track listing and put the needle on the record. Each opening track is actually an interpolation of two songs. Mingus has overlapped two songs on one track. On side one that means in addition to "Take the 'A' Train," you're also listening to "Exactly Like You." Mingus's arrangement overlaps the two songs, with the melody from one on the left channel (in your left ear if you're using headphones) and the second melody on the right channel. It isn't just genius, it's mad-scientist-genius. And the best part? For listeners who aren't aware of what's going on, it's just a song.

Considering all this, Mingus Revisited isn't just a record. It's the preservation of a moment in time when an artist pushed the boundaries of his chosen medium. Like any artwork described as avant garde, it can be disconcerting at first listen, but after spinning it almost every day for the past week, I've come to appreciate the challenging sections as much as the melodic interludes. It's all fairly amazing.

Finally, there was a surprise. On the back of the album jacket in the upper righthand corner, a message is written with a blue ballpoint pen in my father's elegant handwriting: "Demo for Sylvia." I don't know who Sylvia was, nor do I need to know. Those three words trigger the imagination and conjure a scene of my father sharing this music with someone else. Music, after all, is meant to be shared.

Mingus3

Side 1
Take the "A" Train/Exactly Like You
Prayer for Passive Resistance
Eclipse
Mingus Fingus No. 2
Weird Nightmare

Side 2
Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart
Bemoanable Lady
Half-Mast Inhibition

Mingus2


14. Woody's Winners

WoodyFrontRecord: Woody's Winners
Artist: Woody Herman
Released: Columbia Records, 1966

I have thoughts about the clarinet, so I hadn't been looking forward to this record. I started playing the alto saxophone in the fourth grade and continued through high school with two notable detours. I played baritone sax for a bit during the eleventh grade, but back in elementary school I tried clarinet. 

I had been playing saxophone for two years at that point, and I was beginning to think of myself as more than just a sax player; I wanted to be a "musician." It's amusing to think about the level of delusion necessary for a ten-year-old to think such thoughts, but there I was. I knew that true musicians played multiple instruments, so I couldn't just focus on the saxophone. I needed to diversify my skill set. I'm not sure why I chose the clarinet, nor am I sure how I convinced my parents to buy me a new instrument when an old one was already sitting in my room, but somehow I managed the trick. That year I even auditioned (twice) for the district honor band. I missed the cut with my clarinet, but made it with my sax, so I actually played both instruments that year.

It's a cruel thing to put a clarinet into a child's hands. First, it isn't very cool. If my wife is reading this, she likely just spit her coffee all over the screen; I understand that "cool" is a very relative term. But there is a clear hierarchy in the world of elementary and middle school band. What's always been interesting to me is that while the band kids are typically on the fringe of the overall school society, the social structure of the band often mimics what's going on in the larger school. The trumpet, flute, and percussion sections are filled with the cool kids. The clarinet section? Not so much. (Quick but important side note: band kids are some of the nicest kids you'll ever meet. That was true then, and it's still true now.)

Beyond the coolness issue, the clarinet is a technically demanding instrument. Not only must the player navigate a maze of twisting, interlocking levers and keys running the length of the clarinet, there are also holes which must be covered with finger tips. And if you've ever had an aspiring clarinetist in your house (I have), you know that it's an instrument that's notorious for its squeaks -- immediate but painful feedback that the player is doing something wrong.

And so when I pulled this record out of my father's collection and looked at the cover, I had all of these thoughts and more. I'd heard of Woody Herman, so I knew he'd had a long and distinguished career, but it was a long career playing the clarinet. And the design of the cover seemed like such a transparent attempt to compensate for a poor choice he had made years earlier. I felt sorry for him. There he sits with his clarinet surrounded by the cool kids -- fifteen young women who had clearly just come from their audition for That Girl, which would debut only months after this photo was taken. Sure, they lost out to Marlo Thomas, but I'm certain they all went on to garner walk-on roles in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The cool kids always end up on top.

So I had low expectations for this record. Very low. But I couldn't have been more wrong.

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but this record is incredibly cool. I had scoffed at a description of the opening track, "23 Red," as a "blistering swinger," but that's exactly what it is. Herman's band is phenomenal. He wisely filled it with all the cool kids from band class -- five trumpets, four saxophones, and three trombones. I should also note that Woody plays clarinet and alto sax here, just like I did once upon a time.

As I've written here before, I'm a sucker for horns in all genres, and I especially love them here. Each song has its own flow, but typically they play like this: big horns for a few bars, then a quieter interlude to allow for a saxophone or clarinet solo, followed by more big horns. Blistering, indeed.

There's probably nothing more cliché than judging a book by its cover, but I'm guilty here. I had thought about skipping this one altogether, and probably the only reason I even listened to it was because it would give me a chance to write about my dalliance with the clarinet. As it turns out, I can't stop listening. This is definitely a record I'll come back to.

When I started this project I expected that I'd be listening to a lot of good music and thinking a lot about my father. What I didn't expect were the tangents each record would inspire and the things I'd learn as I pulled on one thread or another. The album notes, for example, have almost always been treasures of information about the artists, the recordings, and the era. It truly is a distinct art form, and the Recording Academy has awarded a Grammy for Best Album Notes each year since 1964.

The notes are always credited, and when I finished reading about Woody's Winners and saw the credit at the end -- Herb Wong, KJAZ-FM, San Francisco -- I wondered about the obviously Asian name, so I investigated. It turns out that Herb Wong was a long-time jazz expert and deejay in the Bay Area. He fell in love with jazz as a boy when a package of classic jazz records was incorrectly delivered to his house, and he went on to live a life full of jazz, among other pursuits.

I think that says something about the inclusivity of jazz as a musical genre. We can talk about cultural appropriation -- take another look at the cover of this record -- or the fact that this medium, the first true American art form, was largely created by Black Americans and then performed by Black Americans for primarily white audiences. That dynamic led to the stories which may or may not be true about why Miles Davis famously played with his back to the crowd.

Like it or not, the issue of race is a part of the history of jazz, but there's also something more. I like the image of a young, Chinese-American boy serendipitously discovering a few Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and becoming enamored with an art form that couldn't have been further removed from his own family's history. It seems incongruous at first, but then it makes perfect sense. Jazz, after all, is all of our history.

WoodyBack

Side 1
23 Red
My Funny Valentine
Northwest Passage
Poor Butterfly
Greasy Sack Blues

Side 2
Woody's Whistle
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
Opus de Funk and Theme (Blue Flame)