David Stone Martin

30. Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington

PetersonRecord: Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington
Artist: Oscar Peterson
Released: Clef Records, 1952

Before the record even comes out of the sleeve, this album is guaranteed to please. This format -- one legend plays another's material -- was incredibly common, but this particular effort, recorded way back in 1952, was surely one of the first examples. And when the source material is one of the greatest composers in the history of American music and the artist is perhaps the best piano player of his generation, the resulting record can only be great.

And so it is with this. I've written a few times already about the tradition of jazz standards, certain pieces that were universally known and played by everyone during the 1950s and '60s, serving two purposes. First, they served as common ground when musicians bounced from one band to another. A band leader could confidently call out "Take the A Train" and know that everyone on stage wouldn't just know it, they could play it together without further instruction.

Second, these pieces served as measuring sticks. If an unknown musician could keep up, he proved his worth. Better yet, if a player could improvise a bit and add his own flavor to an established classic, it meant he might be someone worth keeping track of.

Oscar Peterson is doing nothing like any of that in these sessions, however. He certainly had nothing to prove to anyone, even at this early stage of a career that would stretch across seven decades. He's leading a trio here, with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown, a threesome that Peterson described as "the most stimulating" group he ever played with, and the results reflect that confidence. 

I've been listening to this record in the evenings for a couple of weeks, and Peterson's swinging versions of Ellington's classics have been the perfect companion for lesson planning and paper grading. A bit of sleuthing reveals that this particular pressing was released in 1953, the year after the recording and original release, meaning that my father likely had this in his collection for fifteen years or so. The jacket is worn from use, with adhesive tape along the bottom to guard against a split, and a faded price tag on the corner tells me that this is another record he bought from the basement of the downtown Hudsons in Detroit. After sitting dormant for more than fifty years, it's been spinning again in my living room, proving once again that music is timeless and vinyl is forever.


Side 1
John Hardy's Wife
Sophisticated Lady
Things Ain't What They Used to Be
Sittin' and Rockin'
In a Mellow Tone
I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good

Side 2
Prelude to a Kiss
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
Take the A Train
Rockin' in Rhythm
Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me

13. Basie

BasieFrontRecord: Basie
Artist: Count Basie
Released: Clef Records, 1955

This is the third time that Count Basie has shown up here, a sure sign that he was one of my father's favorites. On this record -- another one that's well-worn and well-loved, with scratches and all -- Basie is again fronting his band as they run through ten tracks, each a stage for one of the members to roam free for a bit.

The result is an album that could be played almost anywhere. From Norman Granz's liner notes:

In the past we've labelled Count Basie's albums either as "Dance Session" or "Jazz," but actually Basie's music goes either way depending on your inclination at the time. You can dance and listen, or you can sit and listen; it's the same either way. It, therefore, seemed far simpler to merely say "BASIE" and let it go at that. The chances are you'll listen for a long time to Basie.

For me, it's a sit and listen kind of record, something that could be playing in the background while making dinner or washing dishes. Basie's band consists of the Count himself on piano along with five saxophones, a few trombones, and a percussion session. Granz is right when he writes about the difficult of classifying this album, and that's because it changes from one song to the next. One track will be smooth and reserved, perhaps to feature Basie's piano playing, the next will be upbeat, to allow two saxophonists to take the spotlight, and finally will be a song featuring call and response between a trumpet and a trombone. 

It's nice, and it's comfortable, and maybe that's why it doesn't really grab me. One thing that does grab me is the cover, which features more artwork from David Stone Martin. It won't be the last time he shows up here, so stay tuned.


Side 1
Blues Backstage
Down for the Count
Ain't Misbehavin'

Side 2
Two Franks

9. Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings

BasieJoe1Record: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
Artist: Count Basie and Joe Williams
Released: Clef Records, 1955

If there's one thing that classic jazz has in common with modern hip-hop and rap it's that it was as common then as it is now for major artists to collaborate. My father's collection is full of records like this one, with two legends sharing the studio, apparently unafraid of being overshadowed by the other. Instead each elevates the other, especially when a gifted singer joins a renowned band leader.

In some of these collaborations we see the genius of Count Basie. I've already written about the record he recorded with Frank Sinatra, in which his band adjusted to Sinatra's pop-leaning style. Here, Basie accommodates Joe Williams, one of the great blues singers of the era.

The opening track, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)," is a negotiation. The record opens up with Basie's signature stride piano style, and then the horns join in, reminding us that this is one of the most powerful big bands in history. Once that's been established, Williams is welcomed in, and his trademark baritone voice parts the waters; within seconds a swing tune morphs into the blues.

Nobody loves me,
Nobody seems to care.
Speakin' of bad luck and trouble,
Well, you know I've had my share.

Although he's best known for singing the blues like that, there are other tracks on the album that are more upbeat ("Alright, Okay, You Win") or ask Williams to do a little crooning ("In the Evening"). His versatility, along with Basie's, is on display, and the result is a showcase for both legends. (There will be lots more from both men as this project continues.)

Depending on the version you find, this record could have as many as twelve tracks, with the final three recorded in 1956, but my father's album, released in 1955, has only nine, which remains mysterious to me. 

One of my favorite things about this record is the slip case, which features cover art by David Stone Martin, an artist who designed covers for more than a hundred jazz albums in the 1950s and '60s. (Like Williams and Basie, we'll see Martin's work again.) On the back cover Basie and Williams, resplendent in suits that would still look sharp today, frame liner notes that are modest for the time, only six paragraphs. 

But most interesting is something that you won't find on your album. In the upper right hand corner there's a price tag -- $3.98 -- that's survived sixty-seven years. My father bought this record from Hudson's, a landmark department store in Detroit. Once upon a time, Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world, and only slightly smaller by square footage than Macy's in New York City. My own memories of the store are hazy, but I remember shopping trips and lunch and Sander's with my mother, and when I learned to write in cursive in the third grade, I patterned the H in my first name after the stylized loopy version in the Hudson's logo rather than the standard H I saw on the chalkboard.

I was just a boy back then, but it's fun to imagine my father as a young man twenty years earlier, walking into the flagship store at the corner of Woodward and Gratiot and heading to the record counter, either down in the basement or up on the twelfth floor. After settling on this record, perhaps he paid with a five dollar bill, then used the change to get some lunch on the way out. There's no way to know if he might've taken the same elevator my mother and I did twenty years later or sat in the same booth at one of the restaurants, but this morning I listened to the record he bought that day, and that's a pretty cool thing.


Side 1
Every Day (I Have the Blues)
The Comeback
Alright, Okay, You Win
In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)

Side 2
Roll 'Em Pete
Teach Me Tonight
My Baby Upsets Me
Please Send Me Someone to Love
Ev'ry Day