Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eddie Daniels: Masterful and Magnificent

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Daniels’ clarinet sound is exemplary, as everyone knows: throaty but not too throaty down low and mellow but not too mellow up top .… His execution [is almost]  flawless no matter how resourcefully his imagination roams, or how swift the tempo. He woos the ear rather than wrestled it, daring, in this post-Coltrane world, to please…and even to elaborate on (get ready) the melody.”
- Tony Gieske

“Eddie Daniels is truly a phenomenon. Musically, he is matchless in his proficiency, accuracy, technique, and purity of style in both jazz and classical arenas. On an artistic level, his drive to be the best has earned him a position unequaled by any of his contemporaries. On a personal level, it is frequently evident that he is intent on this purpose.
His often gentle, resonant, speaking voice sometimes hides this constant, under-the-surface intensity, but conversation with Eddie soon reveals his passion and enthusiasm for life-love: his music performance. His enthusiasm for his mission seems unlimited.
A certain sense of humor belies his seriousness about his chosen path and reveals a tinge of mischievousness which characterizes his demeanor and displays itself in his playing.”
- Kim Richmond

“Eddie Daniels is a rare example of a post-bop musician specializing on clarinet.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Sometimes I write from recollection.

As the years go by this can be a dangerous source, therefore, the following story may be fact or it may be fiction.

In either case, it’s a great story and if it isn’t true, then I’m happy to be writing it into fiction.

Although his principal instrument is the clarinet, when Eddie Daniels first joined the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra, he did so as a member of its saxophone section.

Unlike the Glenn Miller, Swing Era days, there was little call for clarinets in modern big band arrangements except to add a bit of “color” here and there.

So Eddie went on Thad and Mel’s band as a tenor saxophonist

One night when Eddie’s solo turn came up on Thad’s Little Pixie following those of saxophonists Joe Farrell, Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson, instead of taking it on tenor saxophone, for whatever reason, he decided to take the solo on clarinet.

Eddie’s clarinet solo knocked everybody out, so much so that he was urged to take more and more solos on the instrument [this despite the fact that Thad Jones was no fan of the clarinet as a solo instrument].

After leaving Thad and Mel’s orchestra and gigging around New York for a few years, Eddie was eventually able to reunite was his first “love” and launch a “new” career as a Jazz clarinetist in the 1980s when he became a GRP recording artist.

Eddie Daniels is in good company as a number of brilliant Jazz saxophonists, notably, Lester Young, Art Pepper and Phil Woods [who majored in clarinet at Julliard], have also performed on the instrument.

But Eddie took it the other way and I’m sure glad he did.

To put it in somewhat dated bop-speak: Eddie is a gas on the axe.

And, as a result of playing it more, he just got better and better and better.

Clarinet is a wickedly difficult instrument to play, let alone to play well. Squeaks and squawks abound as does bad intonation and reedy tones.

Impoverished, improvisatory ideas make some clarinetists sound as though they are in a death struggle with the instrument and are trying to strangle it.

But in Eddie Daniels’ hands, I am reminded once again of how magnificent the instrument could sound when played by masters like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Buddy DeFranco.

Oddly enough, Eddie and I have a common starting point in Jazz – Benny Goodman.

“Benny Goodman was my first idol,” Eddie said to Leonard Feather in the insert notes to Daniels’ GRP CD with Gary Burton entitled Benny Rides Again [GRD-9665].

“Most people who know my music might not think that, but between the ages of 13 and 15, I was inspired by him. He really blew me away! I had all his records. Later, I moved the away from Benny a bit and got into Bird [Charlie Parker], [John] Coltrane and [Sonny] Rollins.

A similar sequence of events happened in my life, although, in my case, it was drummer Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman’s band serving as an early inspiration and not Benny, himself.

Here’s a little more background on Eddie’s career as written by Leonard Feather in the Benny Rides Again insert notes:

“Few musicians can claim to have scaled the heights twice, on two different instruments, in the course of a single career. Eddie Daniels has that remarkable and possi­bly unique distinction.

In 1966 he took part in an international jazz competition held in Vienna, and won first prize — as a tenor saxophon­ist. Today, of course, he has numerous awards to his credit as a clarinetist and has virtually given up the sax.

Throughout most of his career, until 1986 (the year his Breakthrough album was released on GRP), Daniels had divided his time between the two horns. He studied alto and then clarinet as a pre-teenager. He earned clarinet credits while at the High School for The Performing Arts in New York, and in 1957, just before his sixteenth birth­day, he played alto sax with Marshall Brown's Newport Youth Band.

He earned an MA in 1966 after study­ing clarinet at Julliard, and in that year he became one of the pillars of the sax section in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra, playing tenor. 'Thad really didn't want me to play clarinet,’ he recalls, ‘but on one record I did man­age to get a short solo — and that one opportunity was enough to earn me a “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” listing in the clarinet category of the Downbeat poll.’

Daniels was never satisfied to be pigeonholed in one area. He studied classical flute for ten years. His men­tors included Julius Baker, Harold Bennett and Thomas Nyfenger. He even took up trombone and played it on a record with La Playa Sextet.
After leaving Jones/Lewis in 1973, he took up a variety of jobs in and around New York, but the decision to concen­trate on clarinet became a turning point that enabled him to acquire a new and distinct image.”

And here are some excerpts from an interview with Eddie which was conducted by Kim Richmond, the wonderful saxophonist based in Los Angeles, CA, and published in the May/June 1995 edition of The Saxophone Journal. You can locate more about Kim by visiting and back issue order information to obtain a copy of the full article at

“Eddie Daniels is truly a phenomenon. Musically, he is matchless in his proficiency, accuracy, technique, and purity of style in both jazz and classical arenas. On an artistic level, his drive to be the best has earned him a position unequaled by
any of his contemporaries. On a personal level, it is frequently evident that he is intent on this purpose. His often gentle, resonant, speaking voice sometimes hides this constant, under-the-surface intensity, but conversation with Eddie soon reveals his passion and enthusiasm for life-love: his music performance. His enthusiasm
for his mission seems unlimited. A certain sense of humor belies his seriousness about his chosen path and reveals a tinge of mischievousness which characterizes his demeanor and displays itself in his playing. Several years ago he made the decision that the clarinet would be his exclusive instrument. During the next few years, he established himself as the jazz clarinetist on the scene, as well as a high contender in the classical field. In the last two years, he has resumed performing on tenor saxophone as well, much to the delight of his many saxophone fans.” …

What was behind your decision to go, several years back, with the clarinet exclusively?

Well, the clarinet is a great challenge as an instrument, an unlimited challenge;
it just doesn’t yield. I tend to be a stickler for punishment. I like punishment. The saxophone yields easier, not that it’s an easy instrument, because it’s not easy to play musically, but I felt that maybe I could do something unique and play the clarinet in a way that would make people more inspired to want to play the instrument.

It seems to me that you bring so much more to the jazz clarinet because of your
classical background.

That was the way I was taught to do it. I can’t let myself play any instrument
until I can really master the sound of that instrument. I look at the jazz sound as coming out of the classical sound, as really being controlled, beautiful, manipulative, and colorful. Most people approach the clarinet from just the jazz sound; they make
one kind of color. It’s a kind of “woofy” sound. I have, however, recently returned to performing the saxophone. It was at the request of friends. Also, I want to expand my audience a little more.

I know of people who wouldn’t listen to you because they were not fans of the clarinet, perhaps because of other jazz clarinet players they had heard and didn’t
care for.

That’s right. Also, I felt that because I had become a clarinet player I was kind out of the “fold.” To the young jazz student in school, the clarinet is still a strange instrument; the saxophone isn’t. The saxophone is so much a part of my bloodstream that it unites me with young people a little bit more directly; then I can introduce the clarinet to them. Saxophone players didn’t relate to me that much. Now that I’m back to playing tenor again, we speak the same language. I’m playing their instrument. I’m loving the tenor. I feel like I have a special affinity for that instrument and I’m having a great time playing it. Now I can go to colleges and talk to kids who play the saxophone. I’m a saxophone player; they identify with me. I can transmit something of what I feel about good saxophone sound because the saxophone has gone in a certain direction lately that I’m not so pleased with.

What is that?

I love Michael Brecker’s playing, but every student has tried to become a Michael Brecker clone. He’s an amazingly great player, but he’s not the only direction. They have kind of gone away from what the tenor really was meant to sound like. Not that I’m really the one to make it sound that way, but there was Ben Webster, Getz, and Coltrane. You know, there’s a whole gamut of other sounds and this whole, funky, fusion, tenor sound that they’re all going towards is great for Brecker, but not great for everybody. ….

“Eddie Daniels is unquestionably included among the very best musicians on the scene today. He is an excellent example of the results of talent, hard work and drive.

Herb Mickman [bassist and Eddie’s close musical companion from their formative years] has a multitude of anecdotes about Eddie dating back to those early days.

He sums it up best when he says: ‘Eddie’s goal in life is to be better than himself!’”

I’m glad that Eddie brought the clarinet back into Jazz.

Maybe you will also feel that way after listening to him play I Fall in Love Too Easily n the following tribute video.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Montgomery Brothers and George Shearing: An Intriguing Musical Collaboration

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

One of the aspects of Jazz that I have always been intrigued with is its many styles.

If, as Louis Armstrong states – “Jazz is who you are” – then it stands to reason that different people will create Jazz that sounds singular and distinct.

Put another way: “We are all different with regard to those things we have in common.” – Aristotle.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s pardon-me-while-I-swing approach to Jazz is quite a contrast to the assertive, loud, take-no-prisoners hard bop of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but equally as enjoyable.

Bill Evans played piano in an introspective way while Oscar Peterson played it aggressively; Bobby Hackett played trumpet in a lyrically romantic manner while Lee Morgan seemed to attack the instrument and breathe fire through its bell; Tal Farlow never left a note un-played during his finger-poppin’ displays on guitar while Jim Hall might play less than a dozen notes on guitar in an entire chorus.

And yet, depending on my mood, the music of Bill, OP, Bobby, Lee, Tal and Jim all find their way into my disc changer at one time or another.

Musicians who play a certain way gravitate toward one another: pianist Alan Broadbent and alto saxophonist Gary Foster are pulled together by a deep and abiding interest in Lennie Tristano’s music; Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb were naturals in a dueling tenor saxophone setting carrying on the tradition set by Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, as were Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; a mutual love of the songs from the Great American Songbook were no doubt responsible for the pairings of cornetist Ruby Braff and pianist Roger Kellaway, or the many recordings that Roger made with bassist Red Mitchell or the duo albums that bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis produced together over the years.

Jazz is very egalitarian and ecumenical; it brings people together, especially those who have a stylistic affinity for certain approaches to the music.

Such was the case when The Montgomery Brothers – guitarist Wes, vibraphonist Buddy and bassist Monk – got together with pianist George Shearing.

Although they never worked as a formal group, The Montgomery Brothers and George did jam together on a few occasions and thankfully produced one album of music for Jazzland Records that features a rich blend of sound between piano, guitar and vibes all firmly supported by Monk Montgomery’s formidable bass work and Walter Perkins’ solid drumming.

The album, which is entitled George Shearing and The Montgomery Brothers, features a number of standards, some original compositions written expressly for the recording date and Latin Jazz tracks on which percussionists Armando Peraza and and Ricardo Chimelis were added. It has been re-issued on CD and is available as OJCCD-040-2.

Here is a portion of producer Orrin Keepnews’ insert notes which touch on the smooth-flowing togetherness that characterizes the music of George Shearing and The Montgomery Brothers and our opening theme of how Jazz musicians seem to find their musical soul mates.

Following Orrin’s notes is a video tribute that features the crackerjack graphics developed by the folks at CerraJazz LTD with an audio track comprised of The Montgomery Brothers, George and Walter performing George Shearing’s original composition – And Then I Wrote.

 Jazz at its beautiful, best.

“One of the most fascinating aspects of jazz is the almost infinite number of rewarding combinations of men and styles that are possible. And particularly since some listeners, and critics, tend to get hard-headed about setting up rigidly separate categories and "schools," it is always especially intriguing when chance and cir­cumstance bring together supposedly divergent artists like these. Night club audiences in California, and then in New York, were the first to get unscheduled glimpses of the present amalgamation late in 1960 when Shearing discovered for himself the magnetic appeal of the Montgomery’s and began sitting in with them whenever the opportunity presented itself. He found it particularly stimulating and challenging to work with the remark­able guitarist Wes Montgomery — whose truly incredible efforts have been startling the jazz world ever since the issuance of his first Riverside album at the end of '59.

From their enjoyment of their informal encounters grew a mutual musical respect and affection that event­ually and inevitably led to this album. Shearing, although in clubs he has continued to work primarily in a small-group framework, has in recent years done most of his recording with large brass-choir and lush-strings back­grounds. He made no secret of the fact that he was drawn to this date by the prospect of playing in a looser and more free jazz setting than he has been able to mix with for quite some time.

I was able to watch the mutual unity of feeling grow ever stronger during a series of informal rehearsals and get-togethers during the week preceding the recording, and then had the pleasure of seeing it come to a peak in the studio. There is of course nothing surprising about the fact that the three Montgomery’s mesh together perfectly. They began playing as a unit when they were all 'teen-agers back in Indianapo­lis, although they were apart for a time while Buddy and Monk were gaining considerable success as the nucleus of "The Mastersounds."

Therefore the big news lies in the way they adapt themselves to Shearing and he to them, to produce a joyously swinging — although unfortunately only quite temporary — team.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lou Levy: A Most Musical Pianist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For all of his modesty – and it is real, not affected – Lou, in an instrumental setting, is a fleet, inventive and brilliant soloist.”
- Gene Lees

“Lou Levy is quite a musician. Long an established and a highly respected pianist among his fellow musicians, he has been woefully neglected by the public and even by jazz fans. In his approach to the piano, there is always a great sense of assurance, of playing on a larger scale; there is intensity, reflection, humor and showmanship.”
- Andre’ Previn

Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers.”
- Gene Lees

Like so many other teenagers growing up in the 1940s, Lou Levy was captivated by the language of Bebop.

Unlike many of those teenagers, however, Lou Levy developed the facility, skills and melodic inventiveness to play piano with the best of the Beboppers.

Lou’s Dad played piano by ear and, as a result of his father’s encouragement, he began studying piano at the age of ten in his hometown of Chicago, IL.  Lou’s early idols were Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

In 1945, at the age of seventeen, Lou took his first professional gig with Georgie Auld’s band. Thereafter he performed with artists like Sarah Vaughan, Chubby Jackson and Flip Phillips and bands like the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra and Woody Herman's Second Herd, the bop band that featured saxophonists Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Al Cohn.

He joined Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1950. Tommy fired him after telling him: “Kid, you play good. But not for my band.”

In recounting this story to Gene Lees, Lou went on to say: “And he was right, I didn’t like it and he didn’t like it.”

Lou never got fired again.

In the early 1950's Lou dropped out of jazz for two years to live in Minneapolis and work in the medical-journal publishing business.

However, it has never been possible to keep a natural and accomplished a musician as Lou away from his chosen instrument for too long a time, and in 1954 he capitulated to numerous requests to return to music and opened at Frank Holzfeind's Blue Note in Chicago, playing solo intermission piano.

Woody's band was booked into the club, and suddenly the sidemen were paying Lou one of the great musi­cians' compliments: they were using their intermissions to sit around the stand, listening closely and passing the word around that Lou was back and in great form. On the last Sunday of their engagement, Al Porcino, the wonderful trumpet player, lugged in his tape recorder and took down some fifteen or twenty of Lou's solo efforts.

These tapes soon achieved almost a legendary status. Musicians all over the country heard them, some had them copied, others remembered them in detail, and "Hey, did you hear those Blue Note Lou Levy tapes?" became the opening gambit of many a jazz discussion.

In 1955, Lou moved out to Los Angeles and began gigging around: with Conte Candoli, Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers, on record dates and one-nighters.

He also began an 18-year association (including some breaks to take other jobs) with the singer Peggy Lee. From then on he became known as a particularly sympathetic accompanist for singers. Like Lester Young, one of his idols, he believed that a musician should know the lyrics of a song he was interpreting and said that a bandleader -- even if not a singer -- should be considered a voice.

As Gene Lees has observed: “Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers, including three of the best: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. Peggy calls him ‘my good gray fox,' both for the color of his hair and the clever yet sympathetic nature of his accompaniment.”

After settling in California, Lou became a staple of the studios.   

And he worked with a number of other singers: June Christy, Anita O'Day, Lena Home, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra.

He played with the big bands of Terry Gibbs and Benny Goodman, and with Med Flory’s group, Supersax, which specialized in the solos of Charlie Parker orchestrated for five saxophones.

When Gene Lees asked him about those jazz pianists who are reluctant to accompany singers, Lou simply said, "They're crazy.”

Gene observed: “Lou has a love for the words of songs. It is manifest in the way he plays. He has had a long personal rela­tionship with Pinky Winters, a subtle and sensitive singer little heard outside Cali­fornia.”

Over the years, Lou had a very close and long working relationship with composer, arranger and trumpeter, Shorty Rogers. Along with Pete Jolly, Lou was Shorty’s pianist-of-choice for his own quintet as was drummer Larry Bunker.

In the 1950s, Shorty was hired by RCA to become the head of its Jazz artists & repertoire department and, not surprisingly, Shorty signed Lou to a recording contract with the label.

Thank goodness that Shorty stepped up with the RCA offer as the limited discography of recordings under Lou’s own name would have been significantly smaller.

In addition to a solo piano recording and a trio LP, Lou put together a quartet album for RCA with Stan Levey on drums, whom Lou had worked with dating back to their days together with the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra in 1947, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, everyone’s favorite bassist on the West Coast Jazz scene in the 1950s and Larry Bunker, who in addition to being an excellent drummer, was also an outstanding vibraphonist.

Lou’s quartet album for RCA was entitled Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [reissued on CD as Fresh Sound ND-74401].

Here’s what Shorty had to say about the evolution of the album:

“In planning this album, Lou and I spent much time try­ing to figure out a "different" instrumentation. This was no small problem in face of the fact that so many albums are being made today. While trying to figure out an instrumentation, Lou went to work on a job that enabled him to renew one of his favorite musical acquaint­ances: Larry Bunker on vibes. Lou and Larry enjoyed playing together and made a wonderful nucleus for a quartet. This also presented the possibility of forming a group that could record and appear in public.

This album could be called "the birth of the Lou Levy Quartet," and I must say that it was a privilege and a great thrill to be a witness to the birth of this swingin', tasty, musical baby.”

The following video tribute has as its audio track Miles Davis' Tune Up as performed by Lou Levy on piano, Larry Bunker on vibes, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Stan Levey on drums. It is the lead track on Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [Fresh Sound CD; ND-74401].

Friday, August 19, 2011


If you have ever wondered what a samba-beat infused with hip-hop and Portuguese rap sounds like, checkout the audio track in this video tribute to the music of Caetano Veloso's score for the movie Orfeu.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Rodney: Jazz Master and Mentor

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I don't play like I played back in the early days with Bird. I play like today and that's what these young musicians help bring to me. I give them roots and traditions from fifty years of playing this music.  They weren't around when this music was born, but they had quite a bit of experience playing it because any Jazz musician has to go through the Bebop era.”.
- Red Rodney

“The warmth of Red’s solos, his impeccable ensemble work, the culmination of his vast experience and his highly original way of playing puts his name among my list of favorite modern Jazz trumpet players.”
- Joe Segal, owner, The Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL

“Red turned his life around and ended back on top of the Jazz heap where he belonged. The Jazz life back in those days wasn’t an easy one. Too many of the cats checked out early or ended up broke or broken. Thank God every once in a while one of the guys managed to put the pieces back together again and go out on an up.”
- Joel Dorn, Jazz record producer and DJ

No one really masters the art of playing Jazz.

But trumpeter Red Rodney played it well enough over his 50-year career to be accorded the respect of - a Master [in the literal, not the aristocratic, sense].

And, during his later years, he also mentored a number of young musicians in the precepts of modern Jazz.

Yet, neither of these distinctions – Master or Mentor – were assured, for as the eminent Jazz writer, Gene Lees, points out:

“By all accounts, Red Rodney ought to have been dead.

Instead he was flying all over the earth in glowing good health, leading a quintet whose members were often a third his sixty-seven years, playing better than he had ever played, and enjoying what one critic called ‘one of the most celebrated comebacks in jazz history.’

‘In fact,’ Red said, ‘the odds were against my coming back and doing anything.’

They certainly were. Heroin was the elixir of bebop, but few of those who succumbed to its blandishments in the 1940s and '50s are using it today: they have either quit, like Red, or they're dead. A few, like Art Blakey, maintained their habits with such aplomb that they managed to reach a good age before dropping of other causes. By and large, dirty needles, self-neglect, improper nourishment, sojourns in the slammer, and all the other concomitants of heroin addiction took a devastating toll. Red Rodney is almost able to say, with Job, ‘And I only am escaped to tell thee.’
Red is briefly portrayed in the Clint Eastwood film Bird, which attracted both high praise and a bored condemnation in the jazz community.

They've never made a good movie about jazz, you'll hear it said by those who have not bothered to notice that they've almost never made a good movie about music—period. Red is listed in the credits as being an adviser on the film, but his advice, he says, was limited largely to telling the young man who plays himself how to hold the horn and stand. There is a scene in which the Charlie Parker character upbraids him for having taken up heroin. Some­thing like that happened in life: Bird, according to accounts I've heard from several musicians, urged his proselytes not to follow him into drug use. Few of them paid attention to his admonition; they paid attention to his example.

The question of drug use among artists is a complex one. You cannot say you have examined a question until you have entertained all sides of it. I believe we have reached the limits of what the mind now can do and arc trying to exceed them….

Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey compared the human mind to a telephone switchboard that you encounter in a small motel. The motel has only a dozen or so rooms, but the circuitry is sufficient for thousands of rooms. The expansion of the brain and the brain case occurred compara­tively quickly in evolutionary time,
Eiseley reminds us. What is all that extra circuitry for? Will we some day learn to use it?

I suspect that it is this yearning for the balanced function of intellect and feeling, what Blake called the marriage of heaven and hell, the recurring suspicion that it can be achieved and that there is something more somehow, a something we glimpse occasionally and fleetingly through mist, a sublimi­nal flash of a divine future, that has drawn men such as Charlie Parker and Bill Evans into heroin. …

… Certainly no one can speak of drug addiction with a greater depth of experience than Red.

On the other hand, we should not dwell only on that aspect of his life. This is, let us keep constantly in mind, a brilliant musician, a gifted man. One of the protégé’s of Charlie Parker, for three years a member of Bird's quintet, standing night after night beside Bird's horn and hearing its out­pourings, Rodney was one of the first white bebop trumpet players. Red is uninhibited about discussing his past, and he is frank about it when young musicians ask him about it in music clinics.” [Gene Lees, The Nine Lives of Red Rodney, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White [New York: DaCapo, 2000, pp. 91-93, excerpted].

Red began playing music at the age of ten when his Dad gave him a bugle and enrolled him in a drum and bugle corps in Philadelphia, PA. His first trumpet came along a few years later.

Red quickly developed the trumpet “chops” [skills] to serve as a substitute in a variety of big bands that came to Atlantic City, many of whom had lost musicians to the World War II selective service draft.

After the war, he was a member of the CBS radio orchestra based in Philadelphia and led by Elliott Lawrence.

“…. It is hard for people born after that era to grasp the range and creativity of radio's role in American musical life. Today it is a force for decay and debasement, but it wasn't in those days. In addition to all the remote radio broadcasts of the big bands and the various commercial net­work broadcasts that featured Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, John Kirby, and many more, and even full symphony orchestras maintained on staff by NBC and CBS in New York, various local stations had studio bands of their own, some of which were heard nationally through network hook­ups.

The Elliot Lawrence band was one of these. Though it is little men­tioned in big-band histories, the Lawrence band—Lawrence in recent years has been a conductor of Broadway musicals—was notable for intelligent, advanced arrangements. One of its writers was a young Gerry Mulligan.

‘I got Gerry in that band,’ Red said. ‘We stayed a year. That was the first I heard jazz.’

‘The studio band was a day gig. I would go around to the Down Beat club at night. It was the modern jazz club in that town. Bebop was starting to be played there.

Dizzy had worked there two years before as the house trumpet player. His mother Lived in Philly, and Dizzy lived in Philadelphia for quite some time. I didn't know who Dizzy Gillespie was, though. I went up there and tried to play. The piano player was a guy named Red Garland. I knew Exactly Like You and Body and Soul and that's it. And Red Garland said to me, “Young man, if you want to play with us, you're gonna have to learn some new tunes. So if you come in early tomorrow, I'll go over some with you.” How sweet.

‘Next day I came in early and he taught me how to play the blues and he taught me I Got Rhythm. I didn't know what the changes [chord progressions] were. I had no idea. All by ear. And I played in that band, a quintet, with a tenor sax­ophone player named Jimmy Oliver, who's still living in Philly.’

‘There was a streetcar conductor who used to stop the streetcar and run upstairs and sit in on drums. His name was Philly Joe Jones. He had the 11th Street run, and that's where the Down Beat was. The cars would be blowing their horns, people would be yelling, “Get that damn streetcar moving!” They finally fired him, so he wound up working at the Down Beat. …’

"There was a big night coming up. Gene Krupa's band came to town with Roy Eldridge. I'd already heard Roy on a big hit record, Let Me Off Uptown. I thought, 'Wow! That's sensational!' But it didn't have any attraction to me yet. That wasn't the Harry James tone. It was different. I thought it was sensational, but it didn't mean anything to me. Then I realized. Oh yeah. Roy Eldridge came to the Down Beat. Dizzy Gillespie was coming. And they were going to have a jam session.

That was the night that Dizzy made me think, “Oh my God.” I heard that Roy was great, but Dizzy was new. It was apples and oranges. You couldn't compare them.
That night Dizzy showed us—we were very young; I was eighteen years old—the way to go. I even thought in my head, “You know, if this guy didn't play such weird notes, he'd be great.” Roy played the notes that I could understand. Dizzy was playing harmonically things that I'd never heard.

Three weeks later, I realized they weren't weird notes.

There was my influence.

Then I started listening heavily. I tried to play like Dizzy, which of course I couldn't do. The notes that he made were sensational. The fire, the time that Dizzy had! He's truly one of the greats of the instrument.’

I was always pretty lucky, Even back then I had my own sound. Like it or not, it was me. You could always say, “Well, that’s Rodney. But Dizzy’s influence was already set.’ [Lees, Ibid, pp. 95-97, excerpted]”

Gerry Mulligan went on to join drummer Gene Krupa’s big band as an arranger in January, 1946. Later that same year, Red also became a member of the Krupa band. Both were 18-years old!

‘Gene embraced anything new. Nothing frightened him. And he had what was really the first white name bebop band. He tried, he did it, he let it happen. He let the young guys do what they had to do. I remember he billed me as the surrealist of the trumpet. I didn't know what the hell it meant. I had to go to him ask, “What does this mean?”’

But 52nd Street was beckoning.

“I wanted to come to New York and really become a full-fledged jazz player. I left the band at the Capitol Theater in New York. It was a difficult thing, because of Gene. I loved him. To the young ones he was like a father. He was never an employer or a boss. Never. He was so good. I've never met one like him. I loved Woody equally as much. But they were different.’ [Lees, Ibid, p. 98]

After scuffling around New York for most of 1947, Red landed a gig with the Claude Thornhill band where Mulligan was once again on the arranging staff, this time with the likes of the great Gil Evans.

From there he went on the Woody Herman band where Shorty Rogers joined him in the trumpet section. Shorty was also one of Woody’s chief arrangers and he would assign trumpet solos to Red and not to himself.

Red’s ongoing love affair with bebop resulted in his leaving the Herman band to hang around New York with his friends and fellow trumpeters Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham and Fats Navarro [“Fats was far ahead of all of us.”]

Then in late 1949 he became a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet and stayed for three years.

Following his departure from Bird’s group, “I stayed in music and I stayed a junkie.”

It was more a matter of Red being in and out of music for the next twenty years, mostly out due to being incarcerated for his heroin habit or running from the law as a result of various schemes he got caught up in order to support his drug habit].By some miracle, Red survived it all.

In 1976-77, during what would become his last imprisonment at the federal prison in Lexington, KY, Red was “rediscovered” by some knowledgeable Jazz fans led by Vince de Martino, a professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky.

Vince, with the help of a sympathetic warden at the federal prison, got Red into teaching a Jazz theory class and into some closely supervised, local gigs.

In 1979, Red made parole and from 1979-1994, the year of his death, Red entered into the “mentor” phase of his life.

As Gene Lees describes it, “at this point Red's life changed completely. The woman's name was Helene Strober. She was then a buyer of women's wear for the 2000-store Woolco chain, which meant she had a great deal of power in the garment district of New York, that crowded and shabby area, not far south of Times Square, of narrow streets and double-parked trucks where workmen push carts full of dresses hanging from horizontal poles along the sidewalks from one establishment to another. It is incredibly busy in the daytime, bleakly deserted at night.”

Red tells it this way: ‘She had her natural mother instinct. Here I was in trouble, just getting out of it. She saw that I was really trying. She watched it very carefully at first. By the time we were ready to get married, she knew everything was fine. After the half-way house, I planned to get my own apartment. But I moved in with Helene. Out of a flophouse to a gorgeous apartment.

My first gig was in a restaurant called Crawdaddy's at the Roosevelt Hotel. It was only a trio gig: piano, bass, and me. An old publicist named Milton Karle, long dead, who had Stan Kenton and Nat King Cole, got me the gig. And on piano I hired Garry Dial, who was then twenty-three. That was the beginning of a long association. We worked there five or six weeks. We did good business, because Helene had the place packed with garment center people. The job was 6 to 11; they'd finish work and come over. The manager wanted us back quickly. …

My chops were good. I started working. I went to a gig in Florida and we bought an apartment in Boynton Beach. Ira Sullivan had the house band in the place, Bubba's, in Fort Lauderdale. I spoke to Ira. I said, I’m sup­posed to go into the Village Vanguard. Why don't you come in with me?' I talked him into it. He never traveled.

So we had a band together for almost five years, Rodney-Sullivan. Garry Dial on piano. We had Joey Baron on drums for a while. My favorite kid, man, he was sensational. I started recording quite a bit, some for Muse, some for Elektra Musician, for Bruce Lundvall.'

The association of Sullivan and Rodney was to produce a series of memo­rable albums. [Lees, Ibid, pp. 116-117, excerpted]

‘By now, I've been back in the music scene for twelve years and what I hope is the next thirty or forty years. My sights are squarely set on making the best music I can make, embracing ail of the newer forms of jazz that specifically fit my style. I'm not going to take anything that sounds like snake-charmin' music and fit that in, because it doesn't fit in.

So that's what's happening to me now. I'm enjoying a nice run of success. The music I'm involved in, I'd like to say it's bebop of the '90s, but it's even a little more. I think I'm leaping into the twenty-first century, using the new electronic instruments, but being me. We're playing jazz and using those instruments as colorations. I don't want to do what other experimenters have done, even though they've been very successful, like Weather Report. And they're very good. I just don't want it that way….

Having been with Charlie Parker did me a world of good. But what I did before is not what I'm working on and how I'm getting my work today. Life isn't lived yesterday. If I had to live through yesterday, I think I'd commit suicide. I look back at all these things and say, “Oh my God! How could I have done that? It's not me, it's a different person.”

Yet, when I look at it realistically, all I can say is, “Well it was me.” I'm very proud that I could overcome this. I didn't expect anything.

I've seen so many very fine players never come back: lose their health, lose their ability to play, lose their careers, then lose their lives.

This in a sense was not planned. It was hoped-for. I didn't expect to accomplish this much.’” [Lees, Ibid, p. 119]”

“In the early evening of Friday, June 18, 1993, Red performed in a two-fluegelhorn duet with Clark Terry in a huge tent on the lawn of the White House, during a conceit presented by President Bill Clinton. He played magnificently. That was the last time I saw him.

A few months later, he told me on the telephone that he had an inoper­able lung cancer for which he was receiving chemotherapy.

Red died on a morning in May, 1994.” [Lees, Ibid, p.121]

The following video tribute to Red features an audio track that was made in 1991. The tune is by Red's long-time associate, pianist Gary Dial’s and is entitled In Case of Fire. Red’s quintet at the time included Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, David Kikoski on piano, Chip Jackson on bass and Jimmy Madison on drums. Chris takes an absolutely breath-taking solo on this cut. He was all of 20-years old at the time! Red was certainly some mentor.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chris Potter: A Saxophonist With His Own Voice

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 "Chris was in my composition class at the New School [for Jazz and Contemporary Music, NYC] for about a year. When he called me for a private lesson, I had no idea how he played. We started with a bebop tune; but he went further out on the second thing we played, and on the third tune he was playing in the language of my contemporaries, guys who grew up following all of Miles' bands and aspiring to the kind of spiritual strivings that defined Coltrane's music. By the fourth tune, I wanted to take a lesson from Chris."
- Kenny Wheeler, Jazz pianist

“I try not to allow myself any preconceived ideas of what I should sound like, what kind of music I ought to be writing, or what I ought to be listening to. In this way I hope to discover what I actually do sound like, and what I enjoy in music. The moments of greatest beauty and originality always seem to happen when there's no agenda.”
- Chris Potter, Jazz saxophonist

“Potter is growing into one of the major saxophonists of today. [He is an] astonishingly confident and full-bodied player and shows prowess on any of his chosen horns, each of which he plays in a muscular post-bop manner that are full of surprising twists ….” [Paraphrase]
- Richard Cook, Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“He’s something special. It’s funny. Of all the youngsters out there today, they didn’t find out about Chris until after all the ballyhoo. But he’s the man.”
- Red Rodney, Jazz trumpeter

I’ve always had a lot of respect for the late Jazz trumpeter, Red Rodney, both as a person and as a musician for reasons that will be discussed at length in a future JazzProfiles feature about him.

I’m also always on the lookout for “new voices” on the Jazz scene.

So when I heard Red Rodney declare during a radio interview words very similar to the ones in the following quotation, I paid attention.

I’m glad I did because it helped me discover the Jazz saxophone playing of Chris Potter sooner, rather than later, and I have really enjoyed making the journey “with him” over the past twenty years or so as he has become one of the premier saxophonists in today’s Jazz world.

Here’s what Red had to say about Chris:

“I first played with Chris Potter at the South Carolina Main Street Jazz Festival, an annual thing we do. Three years ago the producer said, we've got our young hot shot here. Every town has one so I said, yeah, OK. Not to be nasty I let him play a tune. Well he wound up playing the whole set.

This young kid knew everything, the entire repertoire. He was not quite eighteen then, but very mature. He went on to win a Presidential scholarship for academic and musical excellence. He also won the Zoot Sims scholarship for the New School, and the Hennesey Jazz Search scholarship. I told him, when you come to New York, call me and I would introduce him around.

Coincidentally, he called just as Dick Oatts was leaving. Dick Oatts had been in my band for five years after Ira Sullivan. So I asked this young man to come and play with us and he's been there ever since.

Everywhere we go, he just breaks it up. This young man is mature. I think with a young man like Chris, you have to let him alone. You have to nurture him but let him do it his way. Eventually he'll swallow the world. In addition, he's a great pianist. We could have recorded a piano solo by him and he would have played beautifully. And he's also a writer.

His style is highly original but, he absorbs something from everyone. He is not, however, like many young ones are, a Coltrane or Michael Brecker clone. That's very important because the main idea of Jazz is to become original, to gain your own style. This is the epitome of Jazz.

When you hear Clark Terry, in two bars or four bars, you know who it is. The same for Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. There are so many others that you can tell within two or four bars, you know them immediately. That's what I've always tried to get in my playing. If it's original, you've succeeded.

So when you find a youngster like Chris Potter who develops his own style, it's wonderful.” – Red Rodney [as told to Bret Primack].

Following Red’s radio interview, I searched out Chris Potter’s first CD under his own name which Gerry Teekens appropriately entitled: Presenting Chris Potter [#1067].

Neil Tesser insert notes to the CD contain the following observations about Chris’ uniqueness:

“In the current proliferation of baby-faced jazz musicians — many of them gifted, and almost all of them hitting the ground with far more training than their counterparts of earlier generations — we can certainly grant the modern listener a certain skepticism. A well-earned reserve. An instinctive tendency to survey the landscape and wonder where the hell so many similarly skilled youngsters came from. Can they all be that good? What does it take for a musician to rise above the rest, to leave an imprint on the music as a whole? And how soon can such a player really establish himself as a leader of this pack?

At the heart of such conjecturing stands the unpretentious young saxophonist named Chris Potter, who with this album makes his five-star debut as a leader. …

"He's been with me three years now," brags [trumpeter] Red Rodney (warming to the role of surrogate father). "I watched him grow. When he got to New York, he went all over, listened to everybody, soaked it up like a sponge — then spit it out like Chris Potter.

He has his own sound, his own style, and his time is by God sensational. Every place I bring him all over the world, people just stand up and cheer, and he's not the kind of player who plays screech music for that kind of attention; he gets it by sheer artistry."

Ah, youth.

And yet, Potter invites and survives comparisons with musicians who have three times his experience. Two days shy of his 22nd birthday at the time of this recording, he shows a maturity in his improvising, as well as his writing, that obliterates the qualifiers attached to so many in jazz's youth movement. Potter doesn't play well "for a 22-year-old"; he plays well, period.

He brings to each of his saxes a separate personality and the makings of a distinct and recognizable tone, in each case descending from his first horn: his tenor work has a comparatively light timbre — more alto-like — and his soprano sounds rich and full. What's more, Potter doesn't restrict himself to the bebop and post-bop idioms favored by so many of his contemporaries; he frequently edges a solo outside the expected boundaries, yet always with ‘form and structure, and a melodic bent’ in the words of Red Rodney.

Beyond anything else, Potter improvises like someone with an ancient soul; on each tune, he spins a knowing, patient, and yet excited and exploratory solo. He finds deeply effective melodies everywhere and at any tempo, ….”

As is the case with many of today’s Jazz artists, Chris has his own website which you can locate by going here. It contains a full discography, a number of videos and photographs and lots more information about his career including the following overview of his career written by the highly respected Jazz writer, Bill Milkowski.

At the conclusion of Bill’s retrospective, you will find two videos containing audio tracks that provide samples of Chris’ powerful saxophone work. The first of these is a tribute to Chris which features him along with trumpeter Ryan Kisor on Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle.  The second has Chris performing his original composition Juggernaut with John Swana on trumpet as the audio track to a feature on The Art of Jazz Drumming, Part 2.

We’ve also included Bret Primack’s video “interview” with Chris entitled Way Out in the Southwest [you can close out of the commercial at the outset of the video by clicking on the “X” in the upper-right hand corner] and two videos from the Jazz Open Stuttgart concert of December 22, 2010 on which you can hear and see Chris performing Duke Ellington’s The Single Petal of a Rose and his own composition, The Wheel, with his current group, Underground.

 “A world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, saxophonist Chris Potter has emerged as a leading light of his generation. Down Beat called him "One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet" while Jazz Times identified him as "a figure of international renown." Jazz sax elder statesman Dave Liebman called him simply, "one of the best musicians around," a sentiment shared by the readers of Down Beat in voting him second only to tenor sax great Sonny Rollins in the magazine's 2008 Readers Poll.

A potent improviser and the youngest musician ever to win
Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, Potter's impressive discography includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 albums. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on "In Vogue," a track from Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 album Pink Elephant Magic, and was prominently featured on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Ray Brown and many others. 

His most recent recording, Ultrahang, is the culmination thus far of five years’ work with his Underground quartet with Adam
Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, and Nate Smith on drums. Recorded in the studio in January 2009 after extensive touring, it showcases the band at its freewheeling yet cohesive best.

Since bursting onto the
New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney (who himself had played as a young man alongside the legendary Charlie Parker), Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer-arranger. Through the '90s, he continued to gain invaluable bandstand experience as a sideman while also making strong statements as a bandleader-composer-arranger. Acclaimed outings like 1997’s Unspoken (with bassist and mentor Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Scofield), 1998’s Vertigo, 2001’s Gratitude and 2002’s Traveling Mercies showed a penchant for risk-taking and genre-bending. "For me, it just seemed like a way of opening up the music to some different things that I had been listening to but maybe hadn’t quite come out in my music before," he explains.

Potter explored new territory on 2004’s partly electric Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hays) then pushed the envelope a bit further on 2006’s Underground (with guitarist Wayne Krantz, electric pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith). As he told Jazz Times: "I've wanted to do something more that seems to be in the air, all around us. But also keep it as free as the freest jazz conception."

He continued in this electrified, groove-oriented vein with 2007’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (with guitarist Adam
Rogers replacing Krantz in the lineup). Says Potter of the adventurous new path he’s carved out for himself with his bass-less Underground quartet: “There was a point where I felt like the context I had been using before wasn’t quite working to express what I wanted or to move forward in some kind of way. My aesthetic as a saxophonist has always been based in Bird and Lester Young and Sonny Rollins and all the other greats on the instrument. What I’ve learned from them in terms of phrasing, sound, and approach to rhythm I’ll never outgrow. However music’s a living thing; it has to keep moving. I’ve been touched by many forms of music, like funk, hip hop, country, folk music, classical music, etc., and for me not to allow these influences into my music would be unnecessarily self-limiting. The difficulty is incorporating these sounds in an organic, unforced way. It helps me to remember I want people to feel the music, even be able to dance to it, and not think of it as complicated or forbidding. If I can play something that has meaning for me, maybe I’ll be able to communicate that meaning to other people, and the stylistic questions will answer themselves.”

With the ambitious Song For Anyone (released in 2007 also and dedicated to the memory of Michael Brecker), Potter flexes his muscles as an arranger on original material for an expanded ensemble featuring strings and woodwinds. "That was a learning process," he says of this triumphant tentet project, "because I hadn’t done anything on that scale before. I just decided to sit down and write, and it was extremely gratifying to see how it translated into live performance."

Looking back over his 20 years since arriving in
New York, Potter says, “I’ve had the chance to learn a lot from all the leaders that I’ve worked with. Each gave me another perspective on how to organize a band and make a statement. It’s taught me that any approach can work, as long as you have a strong vision of what you want to do.”

His initial gig with Red Rodney was an eye-opening and educational experience for the 18-year-old saxophonist. “I wish I had had the perspective I have now to appreciate what a larger-than-life character Red was.” Potter's years with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band represented a wholly different approach from Rodney’s old school bebop aesthetic on stage. “Motian has really had a big affect on the way that I think about music,” says the saxophonist. “He approaches things from such an anti-analytical way. It’s so different than so many of the other musicians that I’ve had a chance to work with. Motian more relies on his aesthetic sensibility and his instinct. He’s basically just trusting his gut and he’s so strong about it that he can make it work. And it takes a lot of courage to do that.”

From bassist-bandleader
Dave Holland he learned about the importance of focus and willpower. "Dave is determined to make his music as strong as possible and present it in the best way," says Potter, who has been a member of Holland's groups for the past 10 years. "Playing with him, you have the feeling there’s this mountain standing behind you that you can completely rely on. Working with him over the years has helped me see the true value of believing in what you’re doing.”

Potter also cites his time on the bandstand with guitar legend Jim Hall as inspirational. “The way that he can be both melodic and sweet and deeply inventive and open-minded at the same time made a big impression on me," he says. Touring and recording with the enigmatic duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (Steely Dan) offered further insights into the artistic process. “They totally went their own way," says Potter. “I have a lot of respect for them and their commitment to their art.”

And Potter has remained committed to his art since his formative years. Born in
Chicago on Jan.1, 1971, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina when he was 3. There he started playing guitar and piano before taking up the alto saxophone at age 10, playing his first gig at 13. When piano legend Marian McPartland first heard Chris at 15 years old, she told his father that Chris was ready for the road with a unit such as Woody Herman’s band, but finishing school was a priority. At age 18, Potter moved to New York to study at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, while also immersing himself in New York’s jazz scene and beginning his lifelong path as a professional musician.

Now a respected veteran (as well as a new father), Potter continues to work as a bandleader and featured sideman. Surely many interesting chapters await. As his longtime colleague, alto saxophonist-composer
Dave Binney, told Down Beat, “Chris is open to anything now. From here on anything could happen.” -Bill Milkowski