Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sco - John Scofield with The Metropole Orkest Tribute to Carlos Santana

Sonny Rollins – The Prestige Years

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“Sonny Rollins first recorded for Bob Weinstock's new Prestige label in 1949, when he was not yet 19 years old and at the very beginning of his professional career, although he had already appeared on three recording sessions (one with JJ. Johnson, and two with singer Babs Gonzales). Rollins went on to participate in a total of eighteen sessions for Prestige between 1949 and 1956—formative years in which the saxophonist would make some of his greatest strides as an improviser.”
- Charles Blancq

One of the great things about the boxed set Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is that a good portion of the sleeve notes are authored by Bob Blumenthal.

So not only does the owner get a ton of brilliant music from tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ earliest recordings, a purchase of the set also brings the observations, comments and insights of a Jazz writer who has been awarded Grammys for the excellence of his insert notes [In 1999 for Coltrane: The Classic Quartet/Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings and 2000 for Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61].

You can read more about Bob’s background and current activities at

As was the case with our earlier posting of Doug Ramsey’s brilliant insert notes to The Complete John Coltrane Prestige Recordings, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is very grateful to Nick Phillips and his team at The Concord Music Group for granting copyright permission to reprint Bob’s writings on these pages. Order information regarding Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is available at

And, of course, our thanks go out to Bob as well for his continuing generosity in allowing us to represent his work once again on the blog.

© -Bob Blumenthal/The Concord Music Group, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

Sonny Rollins – The Prestige Years by BOB BLUMENTHAL

““Spontaneous". . ."A music of personal expression". . ."Different every performance". . . "The sound of surprise."  

It's amazing how frequently catchphrases of jazz are honored only in the breach, how often even ranking stars of the music settle for reliable choices when navigating through the potential minefield of the improvised solo. 

But when Sonny Rollins plays, the spontaneity, surprise, and freshly-minted personal expression are always present, which is one reason he has been cited more frequently than any of his peers as the greatest living jazz improviser (and hence jazz musician) in the two decades since he emerged from his last sabbatical.

Rollins has deserved the designation of model jazz artist for about twice that long, as the music in this collection indicates. At the age of 25, while he was still working primarily as a sideman, and had only recently returned from an earlier absence, his achievement was already imposing enough to justify the album title Saxophone Colossus. Few of those who had heard his previous Prestige sessions considered the designation mere record-company hyperbole. Rollins, who began as far more than just a promising talent, had been growing by leaps and bounds into one of those rare artists who define a musical epoch. His aggressive virtuosity, searing energy, caustic humor, and boundless imagination were already well documented, and had contributed to the evolved conception of jazz modernism known as "hard bop." Rollins's music would continue to grow in later years, as would his mystique; but by the time his Prestige contract expired at the end of 1956 he was already an acknowledged giant.

Rollins earned his reputation through the music contained on the present seven compact discs, which can be heard as Acts 1 and 2 in one of the longest (and still-running) sagas in jazz history. As such collections go, it is uncommonly comprehensive. While Rollins had made three prior visits to a recording studio before his New Jazz/Prestige debut with trombonist J.J. Johnson in 1949, and actually cut his most important session as a teenager three months later (with Bud Powell on Blue Note), the early Fifties found the tenor saxophonist establishing an exclusive base on Prestige. Over a period of five years, from his first session with Miles Davis through his first 12-inch LP tour de force Work Time, all of Rollins's commercial recording was done for that label. While 1956 would also find him making important studio appearances elsewhere—with Clifford Brown/Max Roach and the succeeding Roach quintet on EmArcy, with Thelonious Monk on Riverside, and on the first of his own Blue Note albums—he still turned out the bulk of his performances for Prestige founder/producer Bob Weinstock.

Despite the music they were creating, these were not the best of times for Rollins or his contemporaries. America had only begun to confront the racism that permeated its society, jazz was still trying to make a case for itself as an art form, and the scourge of heroin addiction among young jazz players added another and often insurmountable obstacle to personal growth. That Rollins could overcome these circumstances testifies to a strength of character equal to the strength of his sound and conception. Even when witnesses report that he was not in the best of physical shape during one or another of his early sessions, Rollins always provided at least some intimations of brilliance. His rich and bellicose tone, the bold way in which he extended and often anticipated a tune's underlying harmonies, his emphatic swing and frequently abstract counter-rhythms, and the astounding continuity he was able to generate with such diverse techniques made Rollins an influence before he had pulled himself together. This is the erratic but invaluable Rollins heard on the first half of this collection. After he had dealt with his personal problems and emerged as a featured sideman with the Brown/Roach quintet at the end of 1955, he was unstoppable.

Rollins enjoyed the luxury of working almost exclusively with jazz giants during his Prestige years — although few of them were as yet recognized as such. A quick glance at the collective personnel of this package indicates the wealth of talent involved, and also that the evolution of an entire musical style is documented here. With Brown, Davis, Kenny Dorham, or Art Farmer on trumpet; John Lewis, Monk, and Horace Silver among the pianists; a roll of drummers including Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Roach, and Art Taylor; and appearances by fellow saxophonists John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, and Charlie Parker, Rollins's Prestige recordings serve as a mini-history of hard bop. This more percussive and blues-centered wing of jazz modernism, which soon came to be known as East Coast style (to differentiate it from the less assertive West Coast variety), made its first appearance on early Miles Davis sessions recorded for Prestige and Blue Note. Certainly Blakey's drumming on the October 1951 Davis date in this collection, and Philly Joe's work on the trumpeter's subsequent January 1953 recordings, are prototypes of hard bop accompaniment, just as the Rollins solos they support helped to define the hard bop approach to the tenor.

These performances document as well the technological and marketing changes in record formats that strongly influenced the music's evolution. The very first sessions were produced for release as 78-rpm singles, yet as early as the late-1951 Davis date the possibility for extended performance offered by the 33-rpm, 10-inch "long-playing" album was being explored. By 1955, the 10-inch discs were already obsolescent, being replaced by 12-inch albums, which contained far more playing time. It was a new era for recorded jazz, and Rollins was one of the era's prophets.

Sonny was well positioned to reach such early eminence, for he grew up in one of the richest environments a young jazz musician could imagine. Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York City on September 7, 1930; some references have listed the year as 1929 because he had once claimed to be a year older in order to obtain working papers. The Rollins family first lived in an apartment in the heart of Harlem, on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. The Savoy Ballroom was right around the corner, and the Cotton Club was nearby. "I used to walk by both [places] as a kid," he once recalled, "wishing I could go inside. You didn't have to be grown up to go to the Apollo, though, so I went down there at least once a week and caught practically everybody—Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie .... We used to see those guys do a stage show, and then there'd be a movie. Boy, those were the days; go get some candy, see maybe a murder mystery. You'd hear the bands warming up in the background, and then you'd actually see them. You caught a great show."

The movies, and the popular music heard on the radio, also made an impression on the young Rollins, and explain his ongoing fondness for both the staples and the obscurities of Tin Pan Alley. "I'm attracted to the older standards because I listened to them growing up. I remember a lot of them, and was influenced by Hollywood songs, songs from pictures. A lot of these songs I can still relate to," he has said. His family also played a role in shaping his tastes. "My playing calypso is mainly due to my mother coming from the Virgin Islands. I went with her to a lot of calypso dances, and heard many of the songs I play at a fairly early age."

By the time Rollins was 10, his interest in music had been focused: "What made me want to be a musician was seeing a saxophone in a case. It was so beautiful and shiny, I fell in love with the instrument." His fondness for Louis Jordan led Rollins to begin on an alto sax. When his family moved further uptown in the early Forties, to Harlem's Sugar Hill section, the youngster's enthusiasm grew into passion. The new neighborhood was full of established musicians, including his early idol Coleman Hawkins, as well as such like-minded youngsters as Jackie McLean, Art Taylor, and Kenny Drew. The teenage friends would often play together in pickup bands. "For some reason, I was always the leader," Rollins recalls, "although Kenny was the most schooled in terms of classical training.

"We were thoroughly dedicated to playing all through school," Rollins continues. "And as we got older, we got to hang out with a lot of the musicians. I got all kinds of things from a lot of people—the meticu­lous shine on Buddy Tate's shoes when he came out front to solo with Basic was something that registered. We'd also go down to 52nd Street and try to get into the clubs. We'd put eyebrow pencil around our lips and wear big hats pulled over our faces so no one would see how young we were. Charlie Parker was down there, and we pestered Bird a lot, but he was always very nice.

"I first heard Parker when I was 15, on his record 'Ko-Ko.' I was attracted to
him, but wasn't with him completely. At the time there was a rumor that Bird was dead, then Savoy put out 'Now's the Time' and 'Billie's Bounce' and that was all you would hear in Harlem. I began to get the message. At the same time, I was a devotee of Coleman Hawkins—I had an alto, but wanted a tenor so I could be like Coleman. I got my first tenor in 1946, so these influences were intertwined. A few years later, guys in Chicago called me 'the Bird of the tenor.'"

Rollins also acknowledges hearing a lot of other players in this formative period. "There was this older guy in the neighborhood who knew I played sax and asked me, 'Who's the greatest tenor man in the world?' I said Coleman Hawkins, but he said 'No, Lester Young.' So I went out and got my first Lester Young record, 'Afternoon of a Basie-ite,' and started paying attention to Lester. Of course, I also loved Don Byas, Ben Webster, and Georgie Auld.... All of the great tenor players made an impression."

The teenaged Rollins lacked confidence in his playing, and seriously considered pursuing his talents in the visual arts by becoming a cartoonist or painter until he received critical encouragement from several of the period's innovators, including two who would employ the young tenor man on their own Prestige recordings. He met Monk through Lowell Lewis, a trumpet-playing friend and classmate who led a high-school combo with Rollins.

"Lowell and I lived up on the Hill, but went to high school on 116th Street on the East Side. This was the beginning of New York City's efforts to desegregate the schools, so we were sent to Benjamin Franklin High School in an Italian neighborhood, and the situation was tense. Frank Sinatra came to sing at the school after one of the incidents. He was a big star, and an Italian-American, and it made an impression to have him come to a school in an Italian neighborhood and tell the students to settle down. Nat Cole's trio came to the school and played as well around this time." A decade later, Rollins would remember Sinatra's visit when selecting "The House I Live In" (which had been closely associated with the singer) for one of his final Prestige sessions.

"After school, Lewis would go down to Monk's apartment for rehearsals, and he'd bring me along. Monk was using another young tenor player in his band at the time, and Lowell was convinced that I was a better horn player. I learned a lot rehearsing with Monk, trying to learn that music." Indeed, the complex rhythms and harmonies, daring use of space, and idiosyncratic humor that became trademarks of the Rollins style can be traced back to Monk, and can already be heard in embryonic form in his first recorded solos, cut with Babs Gonzalez for Capitol in January and April of 1949, when Rollins was 18.

It was at about this time that he was first heard by Davis. "I used to play in the jam sessions at Minton's. There was a promoter who heard me there who ran Sunday afternoon sessions at the 845 Club in the Bronx. He would get people like Miles, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and J.J. to be the featured attractions, then hire younger guys to play intermission. Miles first met me on one of those Sunday sessions, where I was playing with my trio. [Rollins was already working in the tenor-bass-drums format that he would popularize in the late Fifties.] He invited me to work with his band, and those were some of the most memorable playing experiences I had. Miles was an idol of mine, and we seemed to have a lot in common; our styles blended. Encouragement from Miles, Monk, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey finally convinced me not to be so self-deprecating and to try to make it."

The musical odyssey charted in this collection begins with an example of Rollins from this period, his early 1949 session with the sextet known as Jay Jay [sic] Johnson's Boppers. It was the tenorman's fourth visit to a recording studio, and his second with Johnson, who had used him two weeks earlier on a quintet date for Savoy that included Rollins's first two recorded compositions. The Prestige debut contains another early Rollins original, the bop blues "Hilo," and coincidentally includes three-fifths of a future Max Roach quintet, Roach, Sonny, and Kenny Dorham. About the brass giants on hand here, Rollins says: "I knew Kenny from when he moved up on the Hill. We were tight, and used to practice and rehearse together. J.J. had been on my first record date with Babs Gonzalez, but I may have met him earlier at a session."

By 1951 and his first session with Davis, Rollins had begun paying the dues that were all too common during the period. After leaving New York for Chicago to work briefly with the respected but unrecorded drummer Ike Day in late 1949, he was incarcerated for eight months on a drug-related charge in 1950. Rollins was even more intense and rambunctious after his release from prison, and his work with Davis reveals that he was a perfect contrast to the more pensive trumpeter. "Miles always needed a strong, aggressive sax player to play off his style," Rollins notes. Davis was so enthusiastic that he persuaded Weinstock to tape a track featuring Rollins at the end of the session, and, since John Lewis had already left the studio, provided the piano accompaniment. These themeless choruses on the chords of Parker's "Confirmation," ultimately titled "I Know" when released as a 78-rpm single, apparently led the Prestige executive to give the young saxophonist a recording contract.

Another studio appearance with Davis preceded the first official Rollins session in December 1951. While these dates include several intimations that the young tenor player was already something special (how many musicians would have quoted "Well, You Needn't" then, as he does during his chorus on "Out of the Blue"?), Rollins was scuffling at the time, a situation indicated by his reported use of a coat hanger and a length of rope in place of a neck strap on his first session.

"Drugs passed through like a tornado in the early Fifties," he has recalled in frank evaluation. "Guys came back from Korea smoking heroin. It was plentiful, and I was hooked pretty bad, along with everybody else. It was a thing we all went through; some of us came out of it, and some didn't. I did."

The battle was not easily won. He was arrested again in 1952 for parole violation. Out once again and back on the scene in January 1953, Rollins made his third studio appearance with Davis in a sextet that also included Charlie Parker on tenor. This summit meeting proved to be a tension-filled affair that went unreleased until 1956, after Parker's death. Rollins sounds like the most together of the soloists through much of the date, although his actual condition led to a pivotal conversation with Parker.

"I'm sure Bird thought it was because of him that I was using heroin," Rollins recalls, "and he asked me at the session if I was straight, because he knew I was on parole at the time. I had just messed around with another musician before the session, but I lied and told Bird I was straight. At a break, somebody else mentioned that I had gotten high. That's when Bird told me I could be a great musician if I didn't mess around, and that stayed on my mind. He couldn't get off of it, and when he saw all of these young kids hooked, he took it on himself. This motivated me—I wanted to show him that one of his followers got the message. The sad thing was that Bird died while I was in Lexington the second time, so I never got to tell him." His respect for Parker was clear enough at the time, despite suggestions to the contrary after he quoted "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" on both takes of "The Serpent's Tooth." "Miles and I both liked to play that song. The quote really had no particular significance, although I thought later about how it could be taken the wrong way."

Rollins continued to grow as a musical force during 1953 and '54 despite two more years of personal turmoil. His October 1953 recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet reveal a more mature soloist and composer. A month later, he cut his first session with Monk. More of the rough edges had been planed away on a January 1954 date with Art Farmer, who had approached Rollins about recording after the two had played together at sessions. Among its other features, the Farmer session included the Horace Silver/Percy Heath/Kenny Clarke rhythm section that would go on to make three important sessions for Miles Davis later in 1954. The last of these was the June 29th date on which Rollins came into his own.

Not only was the saxophonist playing on an elevated level on this most famous of his five Prestige sessions with Davis, but the presence of "Airegin," "Oleo," and "Doxy" made Rollins the composer a force to be reckoned with as well. The trumpeter was already an acknowledged star maker at the time, and his inclusion of a sideman's tunes on his recordings was the ultimate seal of approval. "Those tunes had all been written prior to the date," Sonny recalls, "some of them while I was incarcerated. I don't recall playing them on jobs with Miles, though; it was probably a situation where we were in the studio and Miles said 'Got any tunes?'" The arrangements of "Oleo" and "Airegin," which build tension by having pianist Silver lay out for extended stretches, were also highly influential. Rollins, like many later Davis sidemen, cannot recall if this idea was his own or the trumpeter's. "I'll give Miles the benefit of the doubt, since it was his date, but I don't really know who had the idea. When I played with Miles during this period, the piano would often inhibit what we wanted to do, and both of us would ask the pianist to stroll. We had a lot of similar ideas about music."

Musicians and fans were starting to pay attention to Rollins, and Prestige responded in the latter half of 1954 with two 10-inch albums under the saxophonist's name. As commanding as he sounds on Sonny Rollins Quintet (with Dorham and Elmo Hope) and Sonny Rollins (the quartet encounter with Monk), he was still wrestling with his drug habit. By year's end he had checked himself into the federal drug facility in Lexington, Kentucky, motivated by Parker's earlier advice to cure himself once and for all. After four and a half months in Lexington, Rollins returned to Chicago, where he felt that he had experienced important musical growth four years earlier. He took a room at the YMCA, found work as a janitor and as a laborer loading trucks, and used his spare time to practice.

Months passed before he began playing in public. "Then it started," he has recalled, "the real test. Guys coming up to you at sessions and offering you stuff, and your palms sweating; you've seen it in the movies. There I was struggling, working my little day job, and right around the corner from the YMCA where I was living was a record store with my quartet album with Monk in the window! It was tough, but I came through that okay." His practice time was spent "just working on things. I had my loose-leaf notebook—I still have that notebook, in my apartment in New York—and it had various individual things that I wanted to work on. I was always working on something, and I was also learning songs. I remember rehearsing 'There's No Business Like Show Business' in the basement of the T with Booker Little."

Rollins took the majority of 1955 to pull himself together. While in Chicago, he turned down an offer to join the newly formed Miles Davis quintet, which made a place for the then-unknown John Coltrane. In November, he subbed for Harold Land when the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet visited Chicago; some of their first performances at the Beehive club were taped and released a quarter-century later. When the quintet left town, Rollins was on board as a full-time member, creating one of the most inspired (and sadly short-lived) front-line pairings in jazz history. Act 1 of the Rollins saga had concluded; and Work Time, recorded in New York shortly after he had joined Brown/Roach, brings up the curtain on Act 2.

In little more than a year, Rollins would record six sessions under his own name for Prestige, as well as a final studio appearance under Davis's leadership. This is a truly prodigious output, particularly for an artist who takes so much time to prepare his contemporary releases. "All recording is a traumatic experience for me," Rollins once told Orrin Keepnews; but it was an experience he was more readily willing to undergo after his return from Lexington and Chicago. The demand for product in the dawn of the era of the 12-inch album may explain in part this burst of activity, although the determination of Prestige to stockpile material before Rollins's contract expired may have also played a role. From Rollins's own perspective, he recalls simply wanting to work and make some money after his period of struggle. Whatever the reason, Rollins approached these albums with a mixture of furious energy and intellectual rigor that announced a new creative plateau. Viewed as a group, they form an intriguing pyramid, with the first and last being the most hard-driving and confrontational, the second and fifth capturing Rollins at the head of bands where he appeared nightly as a sideman, and the middle masterpieces Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus revealing more subtlety and an even greater range of expression.

Work Time, from December '55, and Tour de Force, made almost exactly one year later, are the most heated of the efforts. The former has often been identified as one of Rollins's greatest achievements, while the latter features starkly contrasting moods, given the two ballads with Earl Coleman. ("Earl's recordings with Parker put him in an exalted place, in my view. Since Bird did a record with Earl, I wanted to do one too.") What earned the latter album its title, though, were the themeless dashes through the chord changes of "Lover" ("B. Swift") and "Cherokee" ("B. Quick"), as well as the voracious invention of the blues "Ee-ah." "Max and I did want to see how fast we could play," Rollins admits about this last session. "I was young and strong, and able to at least try anything."

Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and Rollins Plays for Bird found the saxophonist fronting the Brown/Roach and Roach quintets, respectively. In each instance, Rollins chose material that was not a part of the regular group repertoire. "I wrote 'Valse Hot' on the road, right after I joined the band, but never performed it in person until after the album came out. The rest of the material was just current pop tunes that I liked or, in the case of the Bird medley, songs that Max and I associated with Parker. I was interested in writing a waltz; the precedent was Fats Waller's 'Jitterbug Waltz,' that was in my mind, and I used the chords from 'Over the Rainbow.' Tent-Up House' was not based on another tune. The title comes from my situation when I wrote it. I was staying in someone's house at the time, and felt pent up because I couldn't practice."

The session with Clifford Brown is one of only two studio encounters between the trumpet giant and Rollins, who had taken part in a Brown/Roach session for EmArcy earlier in the year. It is one of the few albums of his own that the perpetually self-critical Rollins admits to liking. "I like the different moods I got with Clifford on that session. We really sound compatible." He will also express fondness for "The House I Live In" from the Plays for Bird session, although Prestige did not release the track with the other material recorded at the date. "I was never consulted about what would and would not get released," Rollins explains. This track, as well as "Sonny Boy" from the final session, only surfaced in the early Sixties after Rollins mentioned them in a conversation with critic Joe Goldberg, whose subsequent reminder to Weinstock led to their rediscovery.

The Tenor Madness album features Rollins with the Davis band of the time minus its leader, an inspired pairing of undetermined origin. "I'm not sure whose idea it was, to be honest, mine or the record company's. At that time, everybody was hanging out together, and you'd see each other all the time. Groups would be put together for albums without a lot of premeditation. It was a much smaller, tighter world." Whatever the source, the empathy of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones inspired Rollins to some of his most relaxed and lyrical- work, before John Coltrane was added for an extended performance on a line that Kenny Clarke had recorded ten years earlier under the name "Royal Roost." "I have to plead innocent for taking a composer's credit on 'Tenor Madness,'" Rollins emphasizes. "A lot of record companies wanted to claim publishing rights at the time, and would put your name on a piece and publish it through their company. . . .The same thing happened with 'St. Thomas,' which of course is a traditional song that I heard my mother singing."

"Tenor Madness" presents the only recorded opportunity to hear Rollins and his good friend John Coltrane together, and it points up one significant difference in their outlook: Coltrane was relentlessly serious, to the point of humorlessness, while Rollins had a profound wit that ranged from whimsical innuendo to broad musical pratfalls. One particular exchange epitomizes the distinction so clearly that I have frequently played it for friends who want to hear the difference between the two giants. It takes place during the last four bars of the third chorus of "fours," and the first four bars of the next chorus. Coltrane grows increasingly heated in his turn, laboring over a pet ascending figure; then Rollins responds by juggling the lick and ultimately playing it backwards. "Humor in music is a very subjective thing," Rollins has said. "I feel whether a person has humor should be a natural thing. Because of the humor in my music, people have accused me of not really playing, of just playing around. In fact John told me that about 'Tenor Madness'; he said, 'Aw, man, you were just playing with me.'"

The consensus masterpiece of the Prestige years is Saxophone Colossus, recorded a month after Tenor Madness. Rollins describes it as "very clean for me—I'm a rough player usually," and has admitted that "it caught everybody on a good day." It has the first great Rollins calypso, "St. Thomas"; and another unique original composition, "Strode Rode." ("I might have written that one in Chicago. It was named for a legendary place there called the Strode Hotel, which is where Freddie Webster [an influential but little-recorded trumpet star of the Forties] died. I never even saw the Strode Hotel when I was in Chicago, but I wanted to dedicate something to Freddie Webster.") And it includes the most celebrated performance of Rollins's career, "Blue 7." Several essays have been written about this performance, most notably by Gunther Schuller in The Jazz Review. "I didn't really understand what I was doing until I read Gunther Schuller," Rollins would remark later.

"It's really funny. I didn't know what I was doing. This thing about the thematic approach, I guess it's true, but I had never thought about it; I was just playing it. But I guess it could be analyzed and you could find some sort of theme developing all the way through, which is nice."

Rollins would continue on his way, leaving the analysis to others while he blazed new paths. The Tour de Force session was his last for Prestige. Another two-year cycle of intense recording followed, with the saxophonist preferring to spread his masterpieces among the Blue Note, Contemporary, and Riverside labels rather than signing another exclusive contract. Keepnews, his Riverside producer (and the producer of this collection), sees this as a first attempt to take control of his own career, rather than be at the mercy of contractual demands. Rollins would push the boundaries of what had quickly become hard bop convention further in this period with his use of various piano less rhythm sections, and with his first totally unaccompanied performances. Then, in 1959, he abruptly retired, and was out of sight until a critic came upon him practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge two years later. Upon his return in 1962, he was criticized from one direction for not radically altering his style, then put down from the opposite quarter when he reorganized his band to include former Ornette Coleman sidemen. After a few years he dropped out again, this time to find spiritual fulfillment in Japan and India.

Rollins has been a more constant presence since his return to active playing in 1972, and his performances of the past 20 years have received numerous accolades. His recent working bands cannot compare, however, with the units regularly assembled in the studios for Prestige; and too many of the standards and originals that served him so well on his early recordings now go unplayed. "Actually," he reports, "I still play most of the tunes from Saxophone Colossus, including 'Moritat,' when I'm in Japan, because that was the best-selling jazz saxophone album of all time in Japan, and the fans still want to hear it. And I do hope to play with some of my old friends again. Tommy Flanagan was on a recent album, Falling in Love with Jazz [Milestone 9179]- I'd like to play with Max again, too. We were going to do something, but had problems with the proposed venue. But I would like to play with Max and some of the others, while we're all still around."

One can only hope that such encounters come to pass, and lament that similar reunions did not occur while Blakey, Davis, Monk, and the other departed giants who assisted in the coming of age of Sonny Rollins were still among us. They are all present here on this audio Bildungsroman [generally, something such as a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education], this document of one musical pilgrim's progress from promise to lasting mastery.” 

As you would imagine, it was almost impossible to select an audio track from the bounty of riches that is the boxed collection Sonny Rollins-The Prestige Years, but in the end we had to go with Sonny's Pent-Up House because it features Brownie on trumpet along with Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass and Max Roach on drums.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Structure and Freedom: A Reappraisal of the Modern Jazz Quartet by Don DeMicheal

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

“When John Lewis stated his jazz ideals for the 1955 Metronome Yearbook, Jazz 1955, he said "They stem from what led to and became Count Basie's band of the thirties and the forties. This group produced an integration of ensemble playing which projected — and sounded like — the spontaneous playing of ideas which were the personal expression of each member of the band rather than the arrangers or composers. This band had some of the greatest jazz soloists exchanging and improvising ideas with and counter to the ensemble and the rhythm section, the whole permeated with the folk-blues element developed to a most exciting degree."

"I don't think it is possible to plan or make that kind of thing happen. It is a natural product. All we can do is reach and strive for it."

In that statement, I think, John Lewis has hit upon one of the most unique virtues of the Modern Jazz Quartet — its spontaneous unity. There have been relatively few groups in recent jazz history which have achieved the submersion of the individual talents into a group sound, feeling and existence which is actually more than the sum of its parts. The Basie bands that Lewis spoke of qualify; at times the Goodman small groups, Ellington's band, Woody Herman's First Herd, and more recently the Erroll Garner Trio (when Fats Heard was with him), Gerry Mulligan's Quartet and the current Oscar Peterson Trio. They are all groups which have had and have a particularly happy amalgamation of individual talents stewed, brewed and cooked together long enough to emerge as a single thriving, throbbing organism. And yet the individual was never lost in them. He was made greater by his contribution to the whole.

The Modern Jazz Quartet today is just that. It is indicative of their oneness that they are able to dispense with the use of microphones and loudspeakers in the night clubs (except for announcements); their balance is so good they do not need the help of electronics to make them heard. The true sound, the true note and the true blend of sound can fill a room by itself and does.”
- Ralph J. Gleason, Jazz author, columnist, critic

The following appeared in the June 17, 1965 edition of downbeat and its author, Don DeMicheal, also served as the Assistant Editor of the magazine at that time.

The Modern Jazz Quartet has to be considered one of the most successful groups in the history of the music both in terms of longevity and artistic excellence.

Over the 40+ years that the group was together, it was also a financial success, something that the so-called “Jazz purists” [read - starving musician lovers] latched onto as a major resentment.

This disgruntlement [envy or jealousy?] is the major basis for Don’s “reappraisal” which goes well-beyond pushing aside the undeserved bitterness in highlighting the MJQ’s many positive attributes.

In the mid-1990’s, the group often performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and after one of its concert, John, Milt, Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath [Connie Kay had passed away a couple of years earlier] held a meet-and-greet for select VIPs in one of the banquet rooms of the city’s majestic Masonic Auditorium.

Always the quiet one, I noticed John Lewis sitting at a table in the corner with a couple of local musicians. I joined the gathering and was soon sitting alone with him after the other musicians left. I remarked about how fortunate he and the group were to visit Europe on a regular basis and, as my work took me to Europe quite frequently, we were soon comparing restaurants and favorite wines.

After chatting  for a time, John was called away to be introduced to more, important dignitaries, but as he was leaving, he concluded his description of the MJQ’s travels in Europe with the remark: “Not a bad lifestyle over the years for four, Black Jazz musicians.” He was quietly laughing to himself as he shook my hand and thanked me for being a fan of the group for almost as many years as it had been in existence.

Here’s Don’s piece.

“THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET is taken too much for granted. It's time for reassessment.

It would seem that in jazz, success breeds contempt, for several musicians, a few critics, and numerous hippies have delighted in calling the MJQ sterile and stagnant, precious and prissy. They see music director-pianist John Lewis as a villain, bent on working some evil against vibraharpist Milt Jackson, a man of the people. Bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay are dismissed as either pawns of the villain or as flies caught in a spider's web. The detractors, however, base their criticisms much more in fancy than fact; there are no Simon Legrees or Little Nells [beggars in a Charles Dickens novel] in the Modern Jazz Quartet.

That is what the MJQ is not.

It is four gifted musicians who have worked hard to build what is one of the most musically varied and consistently excellent groups in jazz. It is not perfect, but it is unique.

The coming together of these men has proved to be one of the more fortunate meetings in jazz history. The combination of talents, particularly
those of Lewis and Jackson, has resulted in an impressive body of music, both composed and improvised.

It has been the contrast of Lewis' sophisticated musical conception with Jackson's basically folk-blues orientation and the fusion of those divergent approaches that have made the quartet a continually invigorating, ever-growing musical organization, a delightful blend of the formal and the informal, sobriety and wit.

Though the quartet's music has become increasingly intricate, the four men never have lost sight of the jazz essential — swing. At every performance there are ample portions of straight-ahead, cooking jazz. It is a soft, insinuating swing that rolls along as if on ball bearings, particularly when Lewis solos in his lean but strong manner. When he is right, Lewis stitches the time together as a cobbler stitches sole to boot.

The quartet today is so closely knit that if one member becomes ill, all engagements are canceled until the ailing member is well. There are no substitutes.

The musical development of the MJQ can be easily traced through the 24 albums produced by the group since its first recording session, in December, 1952. (The group, which originally included drummer Kenny Clarke in place of Kay, had recorded spontaneous blowing sessions previous to that but as the Milt Jackson Quartet.)

That first 10-inch LP, issued on Prestige in 1953 as The Modern Jazz Quartet with Milt Jackson, indicated the areas the group would work in: the imaginative compositions of Lewis, often in classically oriented forms (Vendome and The Queen's Fancy) but also in the accepted jazz tradition (Delauney's Dilemma); development of the music, bebop, with which the men were closely associated (All the Things You Are and La Ronde); ballad reworkings usually featuring Jackson (Autumn in New York); and updated mainstream swinging (But Not for Me and Rose of the Rio Grande). One major area not included was the blues, Jackson's forte.

Though the quartet was not a permanently organized, working unit, musicians and critics gave it unstinting praise. Nothing quite like it had been heard theretofore.

"The original idea for the quartet," Jackson said in a recent group discussion, "came from the fact that John and I played with Dizzy Gillespie in the big band, and music for the brass section was difficult sometimes, and to give them a chance to rest their lips, we would play as a quartet — John, myself, Ray Brown, and Kenny Clarke or Joe Harris. It was successful, so we decided to form a group like that. This was '46, '47."

Jackson and Lewis left the trumpeter's band soon afterwards. Lewis enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music; Jackson worked with various groups, including a return to Gillespie's small combination in 1950, which had Heath as bassist.

"Once in a while," Lewis said, "we would go out and play. Things are different now than they were then, and we were younger. We were all friends, so naturally, whenever we got a chance, we'd go out and play, go to Minton's or some place like that, or somebody would get a dance job."

The group, when it worked, was called the Milt Jackson Quartet.

"By '53," Heath said, "we had already made the Modern Jazz Quartet album, and we were getting a few jobs as the Modern Jazz Quartet. Philly and a few other gigs that year."

When did the members decide to make the group a permanent combination?

"The beginning of '54, probably," Jackson recalled. "Actually, we decided to work when we could get jobs. In the meantime, John went on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, and I still made a few gigs with Dizzy — till August of '54 when we started getting a few gigs."

"We started working pretty good after the [1954] Down Beat critics award for that record," Heath said. "We won the combo award for that Prestige Modern Jazz Quartet record."

Lewis suggested the name for the quartet; he told the others he was not interested in building a group that used someone's name as identification. The four men agreed to make the group co-operative, and each was assigned a portion of the work involved in running a musical unit.

IN THE BEGINNING, and to some extent now, the major drawing power of the quartet was Jackson. It was he who most often broke through the sometimes complex arrangements to create an improvisation that captured the hearts of the audience. But it was the setting — the contrast of a highly organized ensemble structure with solo freedom — that made Jackson even more effective than he normally was in a strictly improvisatory milieu.

The milieu, in turn, had its effect on Jackson. Before the quartet became a working group, the vibraharpist's solos occasionally were marred by flashiness. In the quartet, from the beginning, his playing took on greater introspection and depth; he shaded his work more skillfully, accenting to better advantage, balancing emphasis with de-emphasis; and in recent years, there has been an intricacy that was missing in the early days.

By the time the men recorded their second album, the Modern Jazz Quartet was a working unit, and as a result, the music was more relaxed. La Ronde, which had been a showcase for Clarke, was now a four-part performance, with each member featured in his own segment. It was the first of many reinterpretations of the group's repertoire. This second LP also contained Lewis' Django, one of his most moving and popular compositions, one that incorporated a change of tempo, something that became increasingly frequent in the quartet's performances.

All was not smooth sailing for the four men, however.

"I never thought we could stay together and make money," Jackson said a few years ago. "A lot of people tried to crush us — the agencies. Unless you have an agency in your corner, you're sunk. If you get one person in your corner, you can do it."

One person who was in their corner was Monte Kaye, the group's manager from the beginning. He helped get proper bookings. But the concept of presenting the quartet with a dignity and a formality seldom before seen in jazz was the members' own.

But not all members saw eye to eye, and in 1955 Clarke and the MJQ parted company for various reasons. Connie Kay was selected to take Clarke's place.

"I was working with Lester Young," Kay remembered, "but he was on tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic at the time. He would go with JATP for six or eight weeks, and I'd stay home. Monte called me and told me he had a job for me with the quartet in Washington and two weeks in Boston and asked me if I wanted to work."

Though he had known Jackson, Lewis, and Heath for some time, Kay was relatively unknown and unheralded in the jazz world, but he was more than an adequate replacement for Clarke. Kay's subtlety, taste, and flexibility were perfect for what the group, and particularly Lewis, was attempting to do. His ability to alter the complexion of a piece by judicious choice of cymbal, triangle, or whatever, along with his finely honed sense of time and pacing, coalesced the group. His presence had a significant effect, for it was not until he joined that Lewis attempted longer compositions, such as Concorde and the splendid Fontessa. In addition, Kay's dignified bearing fit hand in glove with the MJQ plan of presentation.

A major part of the plan was to make the group a concert-hall attraction. At one point, the MJQ had limited its night-club appearances to about two a year; all other appearances were on concert stages. This has changed somewhat recently.

"We're playing more clubs now than we ever played," Jackson said. "It has come to the point where, when we play a club, we can more or less cater to the concert-like audience because, say, 60 percent of the audience has already seen the group, and they know what to expect. Whereas before, when we played clubs, it was sort of difficult, a constant battle between the drinks, the glasses, and things like that and the kind of music we were trying to produce. . . . Through having played concerts, we can more or less create the same atmosphere in the majority of the clubs we play."

"I think we did a lot to educate night-club audiences," Heath added. "And as to why we're playing more clubs now, it's good business. There's a certain section of our audience that our managerial department felt we were neglecting by not appearing in night clubs. There's a segment of the populace that prefers to listen in that night-club atmosphere. They feel it's more intimate than sitting 30 rows back in a concert hall."

Has formal attire at concerts had a salutary effect on the group's success?

"It helps," Kay offered.

"Yes, but I think it's really the music," Heath said. "It's a good sound."

"Also they want to come see somebody who looks clean," Lewis said.
"At one time we had established the reputation for a number of things," Jackson inserted. "As an example, the owner of [San Francisco's] Black Hawk when we first went up there, told us this was the only group of musicians he knew of that had any kind of discipline, the only group that when it was 20 minutes to 10, or whatever time they hit, he never had to go out and look for.... He didn't believe this sort of thing existed in jazz.

"These things were purposely done to prove to the public that this is a respected art and profession that carries dignity and class just like any other cultural art form. It paid off. We eventually worked it out so that people could see it clearly for themselves. And I think these things, along with the music itself — that's the whole story of the success."

In an art-business where permanency is almost unheard of, how have they managed to stay together so long?

"Three squares a day," Lewis answered, with a smile.

"What John is saying," Heath said, "is that we're together because we were successful together. Why change a good thing? If it had got so we didn't have any bookings and there was no market for what we were doing, then we probably wouldn't have stayed together."

"We get along together," Jackson said. "Plus looking around you and seeing the existing circumstances.... I'm talking about top qualified musicians who can't even get a job."

IN THE 11 YEARS of its existence as a working group, the MJQ has pared and added to its repertoire, constantly reshaping those compositions it has retained. The group has grown ever more sophisticated since it reached its first peak of artistry in 1957, when it had fully established the basic tenets of its artistic creed — exposition of blues and standards, interspersed with Lewis compositions that reflected his background and ranged from suites, ballet music, and movie background music to attractive original blues, ballads, and loping 32-bar songs.

By then the members had solidified their individual styles and welded them into the group sound. Since 1957 the MJQ has spent most of its energies exploring its tenets, re-investigating much of the music it had produced, and, in general, developing as a musical unit.

"The music is more involved than when I first joined the quartet," Kay said. "But for me, it doesn't seem more involved because I'm more relaxed now; I'm used to everybody. Now I have an idea of what John wants and how everybody plays."

"The basic ideas have remained," Jackson remarked. "How John always thinks ahead, always looks for something different or helpful, to more or less extend a variety to the music, is largely responsible for the success of the quartet, I think. We can play in so many different settings and surroundings without any trouble. This lends great variety to the group."

"I don't think it's changed so much as it has developed along the direction it started out in," Heath stated. "It naturally developed. In the beginning, John may have been restricted in his writing because of the capabilities of the members — me, personally. He always wrote a little more challenging as we went along, at least he did for years. . . . Now he's better able to inject what he had in mind originally. I can do things now that I couldn't do then. I just hadn't been playing long, only about four or five years."

Lewis, who had sat quietly by as the others spoke, merely said, "I think the explanation of the other members is perfect. I mean that sincerely.... We put our eggs, so to speak, in the kind of music we wanted to play, and I think that came from associations with Dizzy, Charlie Parker, and so forth, and those who preceded. We did what we seemed to like to play best."

NOTHING IN the group's repertoire remains the same. Even Now's the Time, a Charlie Parker blues that one might assume would offer little room for development, is now played much differently from the way it was when the four recorded it in 1957. Some listeners undoubtedly would prefer to hear, say, Django, performed in its original form, but this is beside the musical point — music belongs to the players, not to the listeners. This development of its repertoire has done much to keep the quartet fresh.

"When you play a tune like that," Jackson said, referring to Django, "it eventually becomes spontaneous, it just automatically comes out different. You look for different ways of getting the results out of the same piece. We recorded Django three times, and each is different. John doesn't write a new version...."

"And it'll stay that way for a while," Heath said. "And maybe next week, John may come up with an entirely new concept of that first chorus."

Though the group has kept current a good portion of its recorded repertoire, some things no longer are played.

Heath pointed out that it is impossible to perform every composition they have recorded — the number is too large. "Another thing to take into consideration," he said, "is that as long as we've been around and if we'd had the same repertoire all that time, everybody would have figured they'd heard it. Even though it's actually different, they'd recognize the melody thing and say, 'Oh, those cats are laying back; they're just jivin' now; they got it made.' That's the public's reaction. ... This is another reason why the programs change — to keep the interest of the audience. Always give at least one thing new in every appearance."

"It takes time to keep up with all of them," Lewis said in reference to the tunes in the repertoire. "We have to rehearse them, and we have to learn new things so it's better to use the rehearsal time for the new things."

The amount of rehearsal depends on whether Lewis is working on what Jackson called a "project." Sometimes, depending on the project, rehearsals are held two or three times a week, Jackson said.

(The most recently completed Lewis project, a fetching one the quartet plays at each performance, is a group of songs from Porgy and Bess Summertime; I Want to Stay Here; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; My Man's Gone Now; It Ain't Necessarily So; Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess?; and There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York. The quartet recorded the George Gershwin compositions early last month, and it marks the first time the group has done a complete album of works by a composer other than Lewis.)

Though Lewis said he has no set method for writing for the quartet, he did offer an explanation of how he approaches the matter:

"I've been living with these people here for 14 years ... and I want to know all there is to know about, say, Milt. Any little hint I see, or if he does something I haven't heard before, I try to include that in the next thing. But I don't think you can do music with talk; you really have to do music with music. If he plays something that's better than what we had, I" — Lewis grinned and nodded his head vigorously—" and it stays in. But no one talks."

How developed are the individual parts for a new composition?

"All the essential music is there," Lewis answered.

"Some pieces, as far as the bass part's concerned," Heath said, "are written out completely.... Then there are pieces that are really head arrangements, held over from the bebop days. It runs from one extreme to the other, the whole gamut."

Jackson added, "There are pieces we have that sound like John outlined the whole thing, but nothing's been put on paper. Also, when you associate with someone every day for a number of years, you eventually learn methods, habits, and all those kind of things. To me, there's no difficulty to immediately associate a habit or something like this when we play together."

In other words, the music is collective.

"I think it's as collective as you can get," Lewis said.

Did he mean collective within his framework?

"No, not in my framework — in these four people, who years ago decided how they wanted to play the framework, to play the way we wanted. If I write music for four other people, it doesn't have anything to do with this at all. I write for each man."

Sometimes the four become five when the quartet has a musical guest. Last year, guitarist Laurindo Almeida joined the quartet for a tour of Europe and, upon their return, a successful album date. For the MJQ's European tour this September, October, and November, Lewis and the others are considering asking another outstanding musician to work with them.

When asked if the addition of a fifth person was strictly a musical consideration or if there were commercial overtones, Lewis may have unwittingly summed up his and the others' long-prevailing musical attitude when he answered:

"I can't separate them. What's good is good. If it's good music, people will like it. That's the only way I can consider it."”