Thursday, July 27, 2017

Jazz Lab- Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce "In The Laboratory"

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

One thing often leads to another when the editorial staff at JazzProfiles goes hunting through its extensive library and recording collection to prepare these features.

Inevitably, we get so caught up listening to the music of a proposed feature such that other ideas about related postings come to mind.

This is exactly what happened while preparing a general overview of Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald Second Edition of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce.

Out came the Gigi Gryce recordings and while listening to them I was reminded of my particular fondness for the LPs that Gigi made with The Jazz Lab, a quintet that he co-led with trumpeter Donald Byrd.

When we returned to Noal and Michael’s “Gigi Book,” here’s what we found about The Jazz Lab’s short-lived but amazingly productive existence.

“BY THE MEASURE OF RECORDING ACTIVITY, at least, Gryce's jazz career peaked in 1957. This would be his most productive period nor only as a leader, but as a sideman and writer on several recording sessions of high quality and great importance. It was at this time also that he would solidify his group conception of jazz, utilizing as a unifying element his series of recordings as co-leader of a quintet with Donald Byrd. And having entered the elite group of New York musicians capable of filling roles in a variety of settings, he was now getting sufficient work to ensure financial security. …

A very important event occurred in early 1957 when Gryce and Donald Byrd decided to join forces and co-lead the Jazz Lab ensemble. Seven years Gryce's junior, Byrd (1932-2013) relocated from his native Detroit to New York permanently in 1955, and soon thereafter was ensconced in the jazz scene, working and recording with nearly all of the hard bop stalwarts including Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, George Wallington, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver. He shared with Gryce a formal musical training, having received a Bachelor of Music degree from Wayne State University in 1954. Byrd also studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (1963) and later became an educator, obtaining advanced degrees from Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. At the time of his death [2013] he was teaching at Delaware State University as a distinguished artist-in-residence.

Fluent and lyrical, Byrd's style, like that of Art Farmer before him, fit beautifully with the conception of Gryce, spinning long, graceful lines in his solos. His facility at very fast tempi was notable, and in general his approach was somewhat more aggressive than that of Farmer, but not to the extent that it conflicted with or overshadowed that of Gryce. Furthermore, Byrd had an interest in writing and would contribute both originals and arrangements of standard tunes to the group's repertoire.

The name "Jazz Lab" might suggest an esoteric or academic approach to ensemble performance, but in reality the music the band offered was most accessible. It consisted of original compositions (many taken from Gryce's publishing company) and cleverly reworked standards. Blues were an important component of the repertoire. Gryce, who appeared to be the more dominant musical force of the two co-leaders, summed up the philosophy the band espoused:

The Modern Jazz Quartet will come to a club or concert and play very soft subtle music, and then Blakey will come around like thunder. We're trying to do both, and a few other things he-sides. Insofar as I can generalize, our originals and arrangements concentrate on imaginative use of dynamics and very strong rhythmic and melodic lines. We try to both give the listener something of substance that he can feel and understand and also indicate to the oriented that we're trying to work in more challenging musical forms and to expand the language in other ways.

One advantage, we hope, of the varied nature of our library, which is now over a hundred originals and arrangements, is that in the course of a set, almost any listener can become fulfilled. If he doesn't dig one, he may well dig the next because it will often be considerably different. Several people write for us in addition to Donald Byrd, myself, and others within the group. We have scores by Benny Golson, Ray Bryant, and several more.

A point I'm eager to emphasize is that the title, Jazz Lab, isn't meant to connote that we're entirely experimental in direction. We try to explore-all aspects of modern jazz—standards, originals, blues, hard swing, anything that can be filled and transmuted with jazz feeling. Even our experimentations are quite practical; they're not exercises for their own sake. They have to communicate feeling. For example, if we use devices like counterpoint, we utilize them from inside jazz. We don't go into Bach, pick up an invention or an idea for one, and then come back into jazz. It all stays within jazz in feeling and rhythmic flow and syncopation. In any of our work in form, you don't get the feeling of a classical piece. This is one of the lessons I absorbed from Charlie Parker. I believe that one of the best — and still fresh — examples of jazz counterpoint is what Charlie did on "Chasing the Bird."

We want to show how deep the language is; in addition to working with new forms, we want to go back into the language, show the different ways the older material can be formed and re-formed. We want to have everything covered. My two favorite musicians among the younger players may give a further idea of what I believe. Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson are not playing the cliches, and they play as if they have listened with feeling and respect to the older men like Herschel Evans, Chu Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. They're not just hip, flashy moderns.

In its brief existence of barely a year, the Jazz Lab quintet utilized some of the finest rhythm section accompanists available: pianists Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones, and the underappreciated Wade Legge (1934-1963), a great talent who passed away at the age of only 29; bassists Wendell Marshall and Paul Chambers; and drummers Art Taylor and Osie Johnson. During this period, the Jazz Lab recorded for no fewer than five different labels, at thirteen sessions, producing a total of six LPs, all of which helped to establish a high standard for ensemble performance within the hard bop genre.'

On February 4, 1957, a landmark jazz recording took place, the debut of the Donald Byrd-Gigi Gryce Jazz Lab on Columbia Records [CL998], the most prestigious label in the business. At this time it was the label of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. The Jazz Lab was signed just after Columbia dropped Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers upon completion of three albums, the first of which Byrd had participated in. Gryce returned to the nonet instrumentation (the working Jazz Lab quintet augmented by four additional horns) to reprise three compositions from earlier sessions. The fledgling Signal label on which Gryce had recorded in 1955 would soon be history, and Gryce was apparently hoping to capitalize on the distribution and publicity advantages now available through his association with a large, well-established record company.

To this end, "Speculation" was recorded for the third time in two years in very much the same format as the original version but with some modifications in the solo patterns. Now Byrd, Gryce, and pianist Tommy Flanagan each take an introductory chorus to begin the proceedings, but Gryce's solo following the theme is only two choruses as opposed to four in the earlier version. This is unfortunate since his playing is now more assertive and developed, although still very much in the Charlie Parker mold in this blues setting. In general, solo space on the nonet tracks is limited, probably because of Gryce's desire to include as much material as possible.

"Smoke Signal" is also performed using the same basic arrangement as on the Signal date but in a slightly shorter version wherein Gryce and Byrd split a chorus, the piano solo is omitted, and Art Taylor's drum feature is only a half chorus versus Kenny Clarke's earlier full-chorus outing. This track was not released with the original LP, Don Byrd-Gigi Gryce Jazz Lab, but appeared for the first time on a Columbia anthology entitled Jazz Omnibus (and not on CD until 2006) along with selections from many other artists associated with that label, including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, J.J. Johnson, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey.

Gryce's fourth recording of "Nica's Tempo" borrows elements from the Oscar Pettiford chart but features a new and attractively voiced introduction. The soloists, who again take only one chorus each, are the composer (in fine form), Byrd, Flanagan, and Taylor.

The very next day the quintet recorded two tracks, again for Columbia. Gryce's arrangement of "Over the Rainbow" is typical of the jazz Lab approach to standards, fresh yet accessible. This 1939 chestnut is transformed from a ballad into a swinging medium-tempo piece in which the melody has been reformulated rhythmically and embellished harmonically to provide a very appealing and memorable frame for the improvisations. Byrd, Gryce, and Flanagan each provide two choruses, while bassist Wendell Marshall plays one.
In the same lyrical vein, a second version of "Sans Souci" was recorded, this time at a faster tempo than in 1955 and now featuring Flanagan's celeste in the introduction and coda. Gryce utilized this instrument more and more during 1957 sessions for a different orchestral color (it was probably only available at the better recording studios). The pianist lays out or "strolls" during the first of Gryce's two solo choruses, a practice commonly employed by hard bop ensembles of this period to offer some variety and tension to performances. The routine conforms to the 1955 Prestige version with Byrd and Flanagan each taking two choruses, and the same shout variation leads to Marshall's solo which continues for another chorus. The final track of the first Columbia Jazz Lab LP was recorded a few weeks later (March 13) and was yet another return to earlier material, this time "Blue Concept," in its third incarnation. Wade Legge was back on piano in the quintet. Always conscious of form and eager to avoid a haphazard jam-session approach, Gryce updated the Prestige version with shout figures behind the horn soloists and an interlude incorporating "The Hymn," made famous by Charlie Parker.

On March 13, 1957, Gryce returned to the nonet instrumentation to record the very first version of Benny Golson's touching tribute to Clifford Brown, "I Remember Clifford," arranged by the composer, as well as the waltz by Randy Weston, "Little Niles," dedicated to Weston's son. Gryce's playing on all the Columbia sessions is especially robust and consistent, and his solo on the Weston piece displays his most soulful traits. Jimmy Cleveland has a special fondness for these Columbia sessions:

“Yeah, they're great. I thought they were just out of sight. The personnel was great, you know. That's the other thing too. He made sure he got the right kind of guys to work together great and get the concept that he’s looking for.””

The following video montage features The Jazz Lab on Gigi’s An Evening in Casablanca which can be heard on the group’s second Columbia LP - Modern Jazz Perspective [CL 1058]. Here’s how Gigi described the structure of the tune in Nat Hentoff’s liner notes:

“While with Lionel Hampton's band a few years ago, Gigi played North Africa, including Casablanca, and while still there, excerpts from what later turned out to be An Evening In Casablanca began forming into a song. "I guess," he adds, "you could call the introduction Arabian-like, It's also an attempt to describe musically what I'd seen and felt. It had been the warm part of the year; it was dusty; the winds were blowing; and yet it was relaxed. It's based on a minor key and ends in major and some of the inner harmonic workings are a little unorthodox. The first statement is 24 bars; there's an 8-bar bridge; and then a final 14. We do another thing differently here in that we switch parts. After the introduction, the trumpet takes the melody while the alto plays the moving harmony part in the background. At the bridge, the alto takes melody and the trumpet plays the background. The alto keeps the melody from the bridge throughout the latter part of the return of the theme. Then there's an interlude reminiscent of the introduction followed by a piano solo. The trumpet takes the bridge of the piano solo ad lib and the alto freely improvises the last statement of the them toward the end of which the horns come together for a retard ending."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Quintetto Basso Valdambrini: A Tribute

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

Having been raised in California during an era when the West Coast Jazz style of Jazz was still predominant, this approach to the music with its emphasis on composition, harmonically blended front lines, elaborate counter-melodies and easy, loping swing has always been among my favorites.

It would appear that I am not alone in this regard as over the years this style of "cool school Jazz" influenced many Jazz musicians in Scandinavia, Holland, France and Germany and was a major factor in the development of the samba-lite bossa nova music that originated in Brazil.

Because of my fondness for it, I'm always on the lookout for other groups who play Jazz in this manner.

Thanks to a close friend who hipped me to their recordings, I became aware of an Italian Jazz Quintet led by trumpeter Gianni Basso and tenor saxophonist Oscar Valdambrini that sounds as though they could have stepped in for Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars without missing a beat [bad pun intended].

There's more about the group and its music in the following review by Andrew Cartmel which appeared in the London Jazz News, Saturday, December 20, 2014

Basso Valdambrini Quintet – Fonit H602-H603
(Rearward RW154LP. Double LP. Review by )

"The small groups co-led by tenor sax player Gianni Basso and trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini were the most celebrated jazz units to emerge from Italy in the late 1950's and early 60's. First rising to prominence in Milan, under the name The Italian Sextet, Basso actually came from Asti (where they make such damn fine wine) while Valdambrini was born in Turin. They played the San Remo and Lyon jazz festivals and distinguished themselves in Armando Trovajoli’s big band before reverting to their own quintet. Working in a West Coast and hard bop idiom they held a long term residence in Milan which was successful enough to attract Verve Records in the USA, who issued a Basso-Valdambrini album in their International Series in 1959. The following year Basso and Valdambrini released a classic album Walking in the Night on RCA Italy. In 1962, operating as a sextet, they won a contest as ‘The Best Modern Jazz in Italy’ and toured the USA and recorded another RCA album under this banner. All these excellent albums went out of print and became collectors items. But in recent years they have resurfaced, first as Japanese reissues, and then in their native Italy.

While the back catalogue of Basso-Valdambrini’s most famous titles is now in pretty healthy shape, the Rearward/Schema label (based, appropriately enough, in Milan) has pulled off a real coup by unearthing some extremely rare library recordings by the Quintet. Library music, often performed by top musicians, is an anonymous genre designed to be used, uncredited, by TV and radio programs who don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of commissioning bespoke compositions. The recordings here were first released as two vinyl albums on the Milanese Fonit Cetra label, with generic covers and the inscrutable designations H602 and H603. Their subtitles are more enlightening: Stile: Pop-Jazz and Stile: Californiano (the ‘pop jazz’ is actually closer to a soul jazz feel). Recorded in 1970, these sessions are reportedly the last performances of the Basso-Valdambrini Quintet. They are certainly the rarest.

What is most striking about this music is the spirit with which Basso and Valdambrini and their rhythm section approach the project. These anonymous recordings — never, as far as they knew, destined to be linked with their names — are performed with as much conviction as anything they ever did. In fact, they play their hearts out. Plinius is reminiscent of Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth in the horn arrangements and the general balance of the instruments; it’s a tight knit blues vehicle with a driving, rolling beat. Subtle and deceptively complex drum patterns come courtesy of Lionello Bionda while Basso’s sax offers a taut commentary with Valdambrini shadowing him like a Siamese twin.

Maglione (‘Sweater’) also evokes Nelson’s masterwork, with gorgeous hard edged tenor which hands over to Valambrini’s virile trumpet and skirling scales on the piano from Ettore Righello. The abrupt, instant ending is audacious and breathtaking. Invertime pays homage to vintage Miles Davis in Valdambrini’s trumpet approach while on the free jazz outing El Gato (‘The Cat’), Basso conjures the spirit of Coltrane.

In the Stile: Californiano sessions, Gold Mine has a jaunty but laidback Jazz at the Lighthouse atmosphere, a mood which continues with Glaucus in its Chet Baker feel and E’ Molto Facile (‘And Very Easy’). Pick Up provides a bright barrage of trumpet, skipping piano and a Dizzy Gillespie rhythmic riffing. On The Jolly Basso’s tenor is darkly emphatic, with a lovely burnished, glowing tone. Ettore Righello contributes agile, methodical, story-telling piano cushioned by Giorgio Azzolini’s bass until unison sax and trumpet take over, waving the banner of the melody.

Behind this less than alluring title lies an exciting reissue for fans of Italian jazz. What were once impossibly rare and expensive records are available again in a fine sounding double vinyl set which comes complete with a free CD."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tony Fruscella: THE NAMES OF THE FORGOTTEN - John Dunton

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

Jazz history is full of enfant terribles, mythical characters, maudits, legendary figures who seem to have been born in order to become protagonists in hardboiled stories of the darkest nature. Outsiders destined to a mala vita, which can only be avoided thanks to an inborn talent that transforms them into all-time romantic symbols of the artist and his struggle. Tony Fruscella was one of these characters.

As a musician, Tony Fruscella led an intermediate path between Bop (Dizzy Gillespie) and Cool (Miles Davis), a style later made popular by Chet Baker (whom Tony regarded as "Chatty" Baker, by the way). His dense, muted, velvety sound expressed a sense of poetry full of "literary" references, in the low and medium registers, of a rich variety of tonalities that made his solos sensual, deep and somewhat melancholy.

- J.G.Calvados. Translated by A. Padilla

“Tony is no Bix, and for that matter, no Miles Davis, …, but it’s the rich, full whisper of his middle and especially his low register that sets him apart immediately.”

- Claude Nobs

“In the right setting, Tony’s lyrical creativity was unsurpassed.”

- John Williams, Jazz pianist

“All works of art are not produced by a handful of major poets, painters, musicians, or whatever, and at any time there are always hundreds of others active and often creating worthwhile, but overlooked, contributions to their chosen area of activity. It ought to be the duty of a critic to recognize those contributions, though too many take the easy way out and concentrate on a few famous names. This is certainly true of jazz writing, with the result that numerous musicians are virtually forgotten.”

– John Dunton

John Dunton is a past, regular contributor to the Penniless Press which is edited by Alan Dent.

I have populated the piece with photos that are not a part of the original essay. The video tribute to Tony 

© -  John Dunston/The Penniless Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The name Tony Fruscella may not mean much unless you have a specific interest in the modem jazz of the l940s and 1950s but the facts of his life and his few appearances on records, say a great deal about the period and the musicians he worked with. A fascinating jazz "underground" comes to life when his activities are examined, and it offers, as well, a comment on the society in which Fruscella and his contemporaries sought to function. 

Fruscella was born in Greenwich Village in 1927, though his family belonged to the Italian-American working class of that area rather than to the bohemian element. His childhood years are largely undocumented, but he was brought up in an orphanage from an early age and seems to have had little exposure to music other than as it related to the church. However, he left the orphanage when he was about fourteen or fifteen, started studying the trumpet, and came into contact with both classical music and jazz. He appears to have been quick to develop his skills and was soon playing in public. When he was eighteen he went into the army and gained more experience by playing in an army band. It was around this time that Fruscella also encountered the new modern sounds of the day, and the post-war years saw him mixing with the many young, white New York jazzmen who were devoted to bebop and cool jazz. They had an almost-fanatical belief in the music and had little time for anything else.

William Carraro recalled: "We'd jam at lofts, or flats in old tenement houses on Eighth Avenue, around 47th or 48th Street. The empty rooms were rented for a few hours, and the musicians and the 'cats' that came by just to listen would chip in whatever they could afford at the moment to help pay the rent. Brew Moore, Chuck Wayne and many other names-to-be came by." 

One of the musicians who participated in these sessions was an alto-player by the name of Chick Maures, and in 1948 he and Fruscella recorded for a small label called Century, though the records never appeared commercially until thirty years later. They are fascinating documents in terms of what they say about jazz developments. Of course, by 1946 bebop was well-established, and the music shows the influence of the famous Charlie Parker quintet of those days. But the tricky themes played in unison by the alto and trumpet also suggest an awareness of the kind of approach favored by pianist Lennie Tristano and his disciples Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who were cooler and more careful in their improvising. And Fruscella's trumpet playing, though superficially akin to that of Miles Davis, had its own subtlety and warmth. [In my opinion,] Fruscella was more melodic than Davis

But what happened after the heady days and nights of the late1940s'? Fruscella and the others no doubt continued to play when and where they could, and a few even got to work professionally. But paying jobs, especially those involving jazz, were often hard to come by. Bob Reisner, a writer around Greenwich Village in the early1950s, recalled that Fruscella never seemed to have a permanent address:
"Short marriages, short stays in hospitals and jails, and he invented the crash pad. He walked the streets, an orphan of the world, but with incredible dignity. He never accepted anything for free. He would cook and clean and play music if you put him up."

The chaotic nature of Fruscella's life wasn't improved by his use of alcohol and drugs. He wasn't alone in this. Chick Maures, his companion on the 1948 record date, died from a drugs overdose in 1954, and Don Joseph, a trumpeter who was not unlike Fruscella in his playing and was close to him as a person, had a career that was marred by drug addiction. Both were wayward to the point of self-destruction. Bob Reisner once got them an engagement at the famous summer festival at Music Inn in the Berkshires, but Fruscella, when asked by a polite listener what he would play next, replied "We Want Whiskey Blues," and refused to carry on until a bottle was provided. And Joseph somehow managed to insult the son of the owner of the place. Bassist Bill Crow, who was around New York at the time and later wrote a fine book, From Birdland to Broadway, about his experiences, remembered Fruscella almost losing them a rare job in a club with his response to a customer's invitation to have a drink: "Well, I'm already stoned, and the bread is pretty light on this gig, so would you mind just giving me the cash?" Crow said that he "loved the way Tony played in a small group,” but noted that he didn't fit into a big-band format. His low-key style needed a small group and an intimate club setting to allow it to flourish. 

It's perhaps indicative of Fruscella's lifestyle, and his liking for a Bohemian environment that Beat writer Jack Kerouac knew him in the 1950s. In his "New York Scenes," a short prose piece included in Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac writes:

"What about that guy Tony Fruscella who sits cross-legged on the rug and plays Bach on his trumpet, by ear, and later on at night there he is blowing with the guys at a session, modern jazz." Kerouac also mentioned Don Joseph in the same piece: "He stands at the jukebox in the bar and plays with the music for a beer." 

There were a few moments of near-glory in Fruscella's career. In 1951 he was hired to play in Lester Young's group, though the job lasted only a couple of weeks and no recorded evidence of it exists. It would seem that Fruscella was ousted from the band due to some sort of rivalry which may have involved a form of reverse racism.

Pianist Bill Triglia, who worked with Fruscella over the years, tells the story:
'Fruscella was a white fellow and very friendly with Miles Davis and used to jam with him. He played with myself and Red Mitchell a lot. He had a beautiful sound. He didn't play high, he didn't play flashy, but he played beautiful low register, very modem. When Kenny Drew left and some jobs came up, John Lewis was playing with Lester. According to what I heard, and Tony Fruscella was a good friend of mine, Tony used to get drunk with Lester. Lester loved him. He didn't play the same style as Lester, but it fit nicely, it was a beautiful contrast, but John Lewis didn't like Tony. Tony said he didn't like him because he was properly white, I don't know, but John Lewis tried to get somebody else on. The next job they had Lester's manager didn't call Tony Fruscella and he was so hurt, because he loved Lester, you know. He wanted to stay with him, he was a young fellow and very tender."

It was just after this experience that Fruscella again recorded some tracks which, like those from 1948. didn't appear until many years later. In February, 1952, he joined forces with altoist Herb Geller, tenorman Phil Urso, pianist Bill Triglia, and a couple of others, to produce some music which ought to have been heard at the time and drawn some attention to Fruscella. Instead, it simply disappeared into the vaults, and Fruscella and his companions carried on struggling to play their music and earn a living. Critic Mark Gardner noted that, although the 1950s were, for many, years of affluence, the good times did not necessarily arrive for musicians, "especially those who had rejected the commercial sop dispensed over the airways and via the jukeboxes." Gardner added:" Jazzmen adapted, as they always have, and found places to play the way they wanted - in basements and cellars, seedy bars, strip clubs and coffee houses.

Surroundings were uncongenial but unimportant. The main thing was that in those varied environments were the patrons were either alcoholic/moronic or intellectual/revolutionary, nobody told you how to play or what to play.   If you were looking to dig what was happening you went to the open door in Greenwich Village or wangled an invitation to pianist Gene DiNovi's basement or to where Jimmy Knepper and Joe Maini lived  The people who passed through these underground pads and dives were the jazz underground   The life of prosperous, middle-class America was far removed from those basement jam sessions, those rehearsals and gigs in down-at-heel corner bars. Musicians, natural skeptics, turned their backs on McCarthyism and the rest."

A little steady work did come along now and then, and in 1953 Fruscella was hired to play with Stan Getz's group. Some poorly-recorded excerpts from a broadcast from Birdland do exist, and on "Dear Old Stockholm" Fruscella demonstrates all that was best in his playing as he shapes a solo that is relaxed, warm, melodically coherent, and in which the use of spaces between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. Some listeners might think there is a resemblance to Chet Baker in Fruscella's sound. He did play with Gerry Mulligan's group briefly in 1954, but it is only slight, and Fruscella very much had his own way of constructing a solo. There are interesting comparisons to be made between Baker's 1953 recording of "Imagination" and Fruscella's version from the same year. Admittedly, Baker's was a studio recording, with the disciplined format that implies, whereas Fruscella 's was from a live session at the Open Door and has a relative looseness, but even so, there is greater depth in Fruscella's playing. As Dan Morgenstern said of it: "It is music very much of its time - a time of scuffling, an inward looking time, a blue time." 

The recordings from the Open Door - and, yet again, they came to light only years later - are valuable not only for the way in which they allow us to hear Fruscella soloing at length, but also for the window they provide into the modern jazz world of New York. The Open Door was a bar and restaurant frequented by jazz musicians and which they soon began to use as a place for jam sessions. Dan Morgenstern remembered it as a "haven for jazz people with no money. It was a weird place. When you walked in off the street, you entered a room with a long bar that had a Bowery feeling to it. At one end of this bar stood an ancient upright piano, manned most evenings by Broadway Rose, a fading but spry ex-vaudevillian, her hair dyed an improbable shade of red. She knew a thousand old songs and cheerfully honored requests. From the bar, right next to Rose, a creaky door led to the huge, gloomy back room, sporting a long bandstand, a dance floor which was never used, and rickety tables and chairs."

Bob Reisner, a freelance writer who some years later produced a couple of short but lively memoirs of the 1950s, and also wrote a funny book about graffiti, hired the room for Sunday afternoon concerts at which Charlie Parker sometimes appeared.  Others spontaneous sessions appeared and drummer Al Levitt recalls musicians like Herb Geller, Gene Quill, Jon Eardley, Milt Gold, and Ronnie Singer, dropping in to play. Geller did go on to make a name for himself on the West Coast in the late 1950s and is still around, having lived in Germany for many years. Most of the others made only occasional appearances on record and those mostly in the 1950s. And the casualty rate amongst them was high. Quill was badly injured in a road accident and spent the rest of his life virtually immobilized, Singer committed suicide and Eardley had an up-and-down career due to drug addiction. 

The music produced by Fruscella at the Open Door, mostly with tenorman Brew Moore and pianist Bill Triglia, sounds relaxed almost to the point of casualness, and it is played without any concessions to non-jazz tastes. Using a few standard tunes from the jazz and popular music repertoire (the popular music of the pre-rock period, that is), the emphasis is on improvisation, and Fruscella shows how inventive he could be in such a setting. He never repeats ideas and always sounds poised, no matter the tempo. He was fond of the ballad, "Lover Man," using it at the open Door sessions and also at an engagement at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey which must have taken place around the same period (1953). "A Night in Tunisia," the classic tune from the hop era, also crops up at both places. There are moments on the ballad performances when Fruscella can sound pensive, almost hesitant, but he skillfully uses that mood to shape his solos and his emotional sound complements it.

It needs to be noted that the Ridgewood High School recordings, presumably made by one of the musicians or an interested fan, were some more that only went into general circulation twenty or so years later. Bill Triglia appears to have been the man who organized the group's appearance. Interestingly, some other live recordings from the same period and with Triglia again in the group feature Don Joseph and a good alto-saxophonist, Davey Schildkraut, who was in Stan Kenton's band in the 1950s, recorded with Miles Davis, but then drifted from sight. Memoirs of the New York scene prior to 1959 or so place him in the center of a lot of the activity at the Open Door and elsewhere. 

1955 was probably the peak year in Fruscella' s short career, and he was featured on a couple of recordings by Stan Getz and was also invited to make an LP under his own name for the Atlantic label, a well-established company. Fruscella chose Bill Triglia to accompany him on piano and he added tenor-saxophonist Allen Eager, a musician who had been highly thought of in the 1940s, when he was amongst the leading hop players, but who was by 1955 slipping into a shadowy world of occasional public appearances and even fewer recording dates. With Phil Sunkel, another little-known trumpeter, acting as composer-arranger, Fruscella came up with some of his finest work, especially on "I'll Be Seeing You" and the attractive "His Master's Voice," on which he uses some of his classical background to fashion an engaging Bach-like series of variations. Fruscella and those who admired him no doubt imagined that this album would help him widen his reputation, but it soon slid from sight and was remembered by only a few enthusiasts. The mid-1950s were reasonable years for some jazzmen provided they could be identified with bright West Coast sounds or the hard hop forcefulness associated with black New York. Fruscella's music, like so much good, white New York jazz of the 1950s, didn't fit into either category. 

What happened to Tony Fruscella after 1955? Very little, it seems, if the reference books are anything to go by. He probably still played at jam sessions and perhaps even did some club work in obscure places, but the "dogged will to fail" that Bob Reisner saw in him, and his drug and alcohol problems, must have held him back. And the 1906s were lean years for a lot of jazzmen, as pop music took over in clubs, dance halls, and on the radio. His kind of music, quiet, reflective, and requiring sympathy and understanding from the listener was hardly likely to appeal to many people. It never had, it's only fair to say, but things got even worse in the 1960s. After years of obscurity, Fruscella died in August, 1969, his body finally giving up the struggle against barbiturates and booze. Bob Reisner, in a touching elegy written for a jazz magazine just after Fruscella died, said: "If I were an artist, I would paint Fruscella in the Renaissance manner. A side portrait of him bent in concentration over the horn which produced the flowing and delicate music. The usual background landscape would be strewn with a couple of wives, countless chicks, barbiturate containers, and empty bottles. His artistic life, however, was in sharp contrast. He was completely austere and disciplined. There was not a commercial chromosome in his body."

This short survey of Fruscella's life is scattered with the names of the forgotten. What did happen to Don Joseph and Davey Schildkraut? Allen Eager is dead. And a whole world of New York jazz of the 1950s comes to mind when one listens to a few of the records by Fruscella and others. Where are Jerry' Lloyd, George Syran, and Phil Raphael and Phil Leshin? Jerry Lloyd was around in the 1940s and 1950s and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, and George Wallington, though he never became well-known and worked as a cab driver even when he was featured on many records. George Syran was on an album with Jon Eardley which also featured trombonist Milt Gold, and the two Phils worked with Red Rodney in 1951, but what else? That fine tenor-saxophonist Phil Urso, who soloed on Woody Herman records in the early-1950s, was with Chet Baker's group a few years later, and then seems to have faded into obscurity around 1960 died in 2008. There were so many who had only a brief moment or two in the spotlight. Not all of them were necessarily as ill-fated as Fruscella. Bill Triglia. who figures so prominently in the Fruscella story, seems to have still been alive in the 1980s, though hardly in the forefront of jazz.

Nor would it be true to say that all the musicians mentioned were victims of an unjust or uncaring society. When there were casualties, they often came about through personal waywardness and self-indulgence rather than from any form of oppression. Some jazzmen may well have felt that their music was misunderstood and neglected, but that's hardly an excuse for taking drugs or drinking heavily. Dan Morgenstern may have got nearer the truth  when he said it was an 'inward-looking time." Were drugs a part of that inwardness or simply just a social fashion? 

But a lot of musicians probably just gave up playing jazz, or even playing any kind of music, and some possibly turned to commercial sounds in order to earn a living.

Compromises are often necessary if one wants to eat. The point is, though, that all those I've named, and more whose names are mentioned when people reminisce, deserve to be remembered for their contributions to jazz, even if those contributions were small ones. We do the artists and ourselves a disservice when we neglect the past. A form of "organized amnesia' takes over, as is so often evident when one listens to those radio stations which purport to cater for a jazz audience but which mostly present a non-stop procession of bland sounds. There is little or no historical sense in what they do, and certainly no place for a fine, forgotten musician like Tony Fruscella."

Monday, July 24, 2017

Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce - 2nd Ed.

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

“In the few short years Gigi Gryce lived in New York, it seemed just about every important jazz musician knew him. This was inevitable because of his ability as an alto saxophonist and an extremely creative writer. Many times, as the new boy in town, I was completely thrilled when visiting his apartment and Coleman Hawkins or Art Blakey or Max Roach or Howard McGhee or Hank Jones or others would call. I wanted to be in on the conversation so badly that the only thing I could think of to say was, "Tell him I said hello!" Of course, only a few actually knew who I was at the time. Gigi, knowing this, indulged me nevertheless.

He came to New York with bundles of music under his arms and even more in his mind. He was an organizer of the highest magnitude and quickly gained a reputation for it. When people—musicians, club owners, entrepreneurs—wanted quality jazz underscored with quality business, they often included Gigi in their calls. Although a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he chose not to teach school in those early days because of devoting full time to writing and playing and becoming a well-informed business man in the marketplace. In fact, he and I later became partners in two publishing companies. Though he did not formally teach in any university then, he was always teaching. He was didactic by nature and could not envision life without intuitively teaching at every opportunity. I do not infer, however, that he was aggressive or arrogant in this. In a quite natural way, he lovingly and mercifully shared all the information he had stored in his capacious mind.”...

After perusing the contents of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, the reader will never ever find Gigi Gryce relegated to the two-dimensional medium of vinyl discs and CDs only, but he will become as real as anyone we've ever known in life. Let's be glad that there was a musician like Gigi Gryce, and let's be glad that there were people like Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald who had enough conviction and vision to recall Gigi's plethoric life with the aid of their minds, hearts, and pens. Noal, Michael— I salute you.”
- Benny Golson, tenor saxophonist, composer-arranger bandleader

Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald are a couple of brave guys.

Not only have these courageous explorers signed on to navigate the dangerously obscure currents of the “Sea of Jazz History,” but in seeking to uncover the hidden island that is the biographical life of one “Gigi Gryce,” they have also volunteer to compile a discography of his recordings. Each a monumental task in-and-of-itself!

All metaphorical kidding aside, given the woeful and largely anecdotal information that exists about most major Jazz figures, not only have Noal and Michael taken on the huge task of writing a Jazz biography about a musician who was not particularly well-known outside of select Jazz circles, they have somehow managed to compile an excellent discography of his recordings, many of which were made for record companies who kept poor records at best, if they kept any at all!

The musician is question is alto saxophonist and bandleader Gigi Gryce 1925-1983 and the book is entitled Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce [2nd edition.

Noal and Michael have assumed distribution responsibility for the second and subsequent editions of the book and you can locate more about them as well as order information by visiting this site.

What Noal and Michael set out to do and how they set out to do it are fully explained in the following excerpts from the book’s preface.

“THIS book is the result of nearly a decade of serious research and half a century of casual interest. It slowly came together as we became aware of Gigi Gryce's efforts, efforts scattered across many classic albums. Although his career was brief, lasting only a decade, he seemed to be associated with the greatest, most creative artists in jazz and his writing and playing were unique and readily identifiable.

Never before has there been a thorough and exhaustive look at the entire oeuvre of Gigi Gryce, which numbered over a hundred recording sessions, most of them issued commercially. During his lifetime he was the subject of a chapter in two books (Raymond Horricks's These Jazzmen of Our Time and Robert Reisner's The Jazz Titans), and since his death he has only figured as an auxiliary to the career of Clifford Brown and as one-of-many in the school of lyrical hard bop composers. Almost no writing existed that evaluated his career, his many compositions, and his place in the history of jazz. What did exist perhaps covered one aspect but ignored several others. Only when examined in full could the range of his musical development be seen and properly assessed.

Even before beginning work on this project it was apparent that there were contradictions and errors in the biographical details and in credits and titles of compositions. We worked to verify or disprove these definitively by using multiple sources. In digging deeper, we learned that Gryce's birth and death dates have regularly been misreported and that no published account of his life was without some kind of misinformation.

"So, whatever happened to Gigi Gryce?" was a frequent question we heard, not only from fans but also from some of the musicians who were close to him in the 1950s. Rumors were rampant and, if truth be told, Gryce himself contributed to the confusion. While this book cannot clear up the entire mystery, it will certainly present the clearest and most accurate account of his post-jazz life available at this time. It should be noted, however, that these years are not the focus of the book, which is concerned with the composer and performer.

Any biography of a musician must necessarily deal with that artist's recorded legacy and a complete discography was begun. This is the only comprehensive discography of Gigi Gryce ever to have been attempted, although general discographers (Raben, Bruyninckx, Lord) included the vast majority of sessions to one extent or another. Items were added and corrections made up until weeks before submitting the manuscript for publication. Items that had been issued but never documented were included and, in most cases, new information was added to amend the earlier work. An international community of record collectors supplied rare recordings and information relating to foreign issues.

One of the first thoughts regarding research strategy was to interview the musicians who knew and worked with Gryce. This logical idea led to compiling a list of survivors based on the most accurate discography. Added to this list were family members and then friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. The period with which we were primarily concerned was the years 1953—1963 and in the intervening decades a number of the participants have passed away. Even as we were conducting our research and writing the text of the first edition, we learned of the deaths of several important colleagues: Art Taylor (1995), Johnny Coles (1996), Gerry Mulligan (1996), Walter Bishop, Jr. (1998), Betty Carter (1998), Jaki Byard (1999), Art Farmer (1999), Milt Jackson (1999), Melba Liston (1999), Ernie Wilkins (1999), Al Grey (2000), Milt Hinton (2000), Alan Hovhaness (2000), Jerome Richardson (2000), Stanley Turrentine (2000), JJ. Johnson (2001), John Lewis (2001), and Makanda Ken Mclntyre (2001). Three of Gryces sisters also passed away during this time: Kessel Grice Jamieson (1997), Elvis Grice Blanchard (1999), and Harriet Grice Combs (1999). Regrettably, we were unable to communicate with some of them and, of course, these missed opportunities can never be regained. Some other subjects declined to be interviewed, and some were impossible to contact (though we certainly did try). In the end, we were fortunate to record over seventy-five conversations specifically on the topic of Gigi Gryce and his music.

Each of these presented new information and interesting anecdotes. We have tried in many cases to preserve in the text the actual words of the interviews. In the tradition of earlier books like Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, this has elements of an oral history, but here the stories of the participants share the page with retrospection, critique, and our follow-up research which attempts to support and clarify the quotes. While neither of us ever met Gryce, we hope that through the words of those who knew him, something of him may be conveyed to future readers. (The code for each quoted interview is listed in a table.)

Another avenue of research involved going through the periodicals and literature with a fine-tooth comb. Sometimes even the smallest mention would eventually lead to a major discovery, particularly when several items were used in conjunction with each other, and with the interviews and photographic contributions. The bibliography included here does not detail all of these, but covers the publications that contain significant coverage related to Gryce s work and the world in which he operated.

Although this book is not targeted for musicians only, a great deal of examination was conducted on Gryces music, involving transcriptions and study of copyright deposits at the Library of Congress. It is hoped that any musical discussion here will be accessible to all readers. We anticipate that the printed compositions preface of Gigi Gryce will finally be made available in the near future and this will certainly generate more interest among the musical community.

We are eager to share our knowledge and enthusiasm and encourage future researchers to contact us with questions or new information. This has been a labor of love and although publication here brings some sense of finality, there will continue to be discoveries that will complete the picture of Gigi Gryce as man, musician, and teacher.

Addendum for the Second Edition

As predicted, further discoveries have indeed been made in the twelve years since the first edition was published. In many cases, these have been the result of the first edition's existence. Other new information has become known as a result of new digital research tools.

We have been able to pinpoint the timing of Gryce's mysterious trip to Paris in 1952, and we have gained access to materials that were previously unavailable to us, including unissued recordings as well as the full score of a large scale classical work that Gryce composed during his conservatory studies. Finally, having been able, at last, to identify and interview students in Gryce's classes during his twenty years as a teacher in New York City (as Basheer Qusim, the name he used during this period) has provided further insight into his methods as an educator. These discoveries and others now provide an even more complete study of this fascinating but often inscrutable individual.

The demand for Gryce's music continues to grow, and happily, it has become available. For the music student and professional, a number of Gryce's compositions have been published in lead sheet form thanks to the efforts of Don Sickler at Jazzleadsheets.

In sadness we must note that since publication of the first edition, we lost additional colleagues and family members, many of whom had provided valuable information: Valerie Grice Claiborne (2002), Henri Renaud (2002), Idrees Sulieman (2002), Mal Waldron (2002), Louis Victor Mialy (2003), Edwin Swanston (2003), Rev. Jerome A. Greene (2004), Walter Perkins (2004), Clifford Solomon (2004), Mort Fega (2005), Raymond Horricks (2005), Lucky Thompson (2005), Bruce Wright (2005), Don Butterfield (2006), Clifford Gunn (2006), Jack Lazare (2006), Bob Weinstock (2006), Art Davis (2007), Esmond Edwards (2007), Norman Macklin (2007), Cecil Payne (2007), Max Roach (2007), Harold Andrews (2008), Jimmy Cleveland (2008), Daniel Pinkham (2008), Dick Katz (2009), Mat Mathews (2009), Danny Bank (2010), Hank Jones (2010), Benny Powell (2010), Fred Baker (2011), Sam Rivers (2011), Teddy Charles (2012), Eleanor Gryce (2012), Hal McKusick (2012), Donald Byrd (2013), Donald Shirley (2013), Ed Shaughnessy (2013), Ben Tucker (2013), and Horace Silver (2014).

Lastly, we have made a significant decision regarding the revised and expanded discography and appendixes. These will not be found herein but rather online at Our reasons for doing this stem from the following considerations:

1. The files can be updated regularly as new information and corrections are discovered or reported to us.

2. Online publication allows the incorporation of more tabulated information in an easily viewable format that is impractical with a print version. In this regard, it should be noted that the discography has now been compiled using Steve Albin's BRIAN database application, a major breakthrough in the storage and display of discographical information (

So while this new approach may seem an inconvenience at first, we are confident that the reader will ultimately appreciate the advantages online publication of these sections offers in the digital age.

Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald September 2014”

The following video tribute to Gigi Gryce offers a sampling of his arranging skills from his Jazz Lab association with trumpeter Donald Byrd. The tune is Horace Silver’s Speculation.