Tag Archives: Count Basie

The Sound of Jazz at 60

Sound of Jazz 2Sixty years ago, at 5pm on Sunday December 8, 1957, a television broadcast went out on air and down in the pages of music history. The Sound of Jazz was made as a one-off show for a CBS series called The Seven Lively Arts, but it has ended up as a priceless treasure trove which has been systematically plundered by makers of jazz documentaries and which is, unfortunately, seen in its entirety all too rarely (although it can, of course, be found on YouTube).

The show was the brainchild of CBS producer Robert Herridge who had the further inspiration of leaving the selection of the musicians involved to two eminent jazz critics, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett. Hentoff and Balliett were given complete artistic control, and the results – six numbers featuring 32 of the top musicians on the jazz scene – were stimulating, surprising, and historically invaluable.

Balliett and Hentoff created various small groups featuring musicians who seldom had the chance to work together. They teamed clarinettist Pee Wee Russell – a player who was still associated with Chicago jazz of the 1930s in the minds of many – with the young clarinettist of the moment, Jimmy Giuffre. They even convinced Count Basie that he should lead an all-star big band of their choosing rather than his own, regular, outfit.

The influence of Hentoff and Balliett extended beyond the musical. It was they who decided that the show should have the minimum amount of chat, the maximum amount of music, and the informal feel of an after-hours jam session or a recording date. The musicians were asked to turn up in casual gear – there was to be none of the artifice associated with television entertainment shows of the day. Not all of the participants were initially happy with the dress code, however. Hentoff later wrote that singer Billie Holiday’s response was: ”I just spent five hundred goddam dollars on a gown!”

The resulting look and atmosphere of The Sound of Jazz are inextricably bound together with the music in the memory of anyone who has seen this icon-packed programme. Cigarette smoke billows around the horns of the Basie band as it rip roars its way through the opening number. The cameras – there were several, covering every angle since this was a live transmission – roamed about the undecorated studio, and were able to provide excellent close-ups of the likes of the bug-eyed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.

Thanks to director Jack Smight’s eye for detail, the unusual method with which pianist Thelonious Monk kept time was captured for posterity: we see him scliff his foot along the floor as he played his most famous number, Blue Monk. We also see other musicians’ reactions to the playing of Monk, an outsider whose discordant playing revolutionised jazz piano. Fellow pianist Count Basie is shown sitting at the other side of Monk’s piano, listening intently to and clearly delighted by what he hears. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins can also be glimpsed, snapping his fingers along with the music.

For the jazz fan there is endless pleasure to be found in the simplest of the many details which were caught on camera during The Sound of Jazz, in particular a rare chance to witness the interaction between musicians as they play.

Of the six numbers, one eight-minute long piece stands out. The show’s all-star version of Billie Holiday’s blues Fine and Mellow has taken on a life of its own. To appreciate fully the import of this song, consider these facts. The song signalled the reunion – after a period of estrangement – of Holiday and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, both of whom were dead within 18 months of the show. Shortly after the transmission, Young was given two months to live. He died in March 1959, and Holiday followed him four months later.

At the time of The Sound of Jazz, however, Holiday was in good form: Doc Cheatham later recalled that she was in jovial mood and invited all the musicians back to her place afterwards. Young, on the other hand, was so physically fragile that his parts in the Basie big band numbers had to be split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and he remained sitting down through most of Fine and Mellow.

Of course Fine and Mellow is one of the last great performances by Holiday, whose voice was still magnificent despite its splintered, needle-scratched grain. Dressed in twinset and slacks, with her hair pulled back into a sophisticated ponytail, she looked beautiful, laid-back, and happy. She was surrounded by some of her favourite musicians – Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, and, of course, Lester Young, whose solo – a beautifully understated and superbly constructed blues chorus of almost unbearable poignancy – and the reunion which it represented, reduced Nat Hentoff and some of the other observers to tears.
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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Tom Gordon 7 – Count Basie

Tom Gordon 7: Count Basie, Rose Theatre Basement *****
 
Drummer Tom Gordon has emerged in recent years as the go-to guy for a terrific Count Basie-themed gig. When his specially formed septet played the Edinburgh Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, it was a great concert with a horn section drawn from musicians who had performed in an Ellington tribute the night before.
 
The 2017 incarnation of the 7, as heard in the sweltering basement room of the new Rose Theatre venue, had an entirely different horn section – and, thanks in particular to the inclusion of the irrepressible English trumpeter Enrico Tomasso who is a veritable jazz dynamo, it was even more sensational than the last time.
 
Once Tomasso was unleashed for a solo on the opening number, the Basie theme, One O’Clock Jump, it was clear that we were in for a treat. The energetic trumpeter’s hot solo seemed to light a flame under the rest of the band; one which took hold properly about halfway into the gig when the cool, slick, sumptuous sounds of such classic Basie ballads as Silk Stockings and L’il Darlin’ gave way to a series of fiercely swinging numbers peppered with spicy, punch-packing solos from Tomasso and his fellow front-liners, Phil O’Malley (trombone) and – especially – Ruraidh Pattison (tenor saxophone).
 
Lady Be Good, Royal Garden Blues, Dickie’s Dream and Jumpin’ at the Woodside were all knockouts, with Ruraidh Pattison’s powerhouse, Illinois Jacquet-like, solos bringing the house down and the exciting little riffs cooked up by Tomasso to play with Pattison or O’Malley during solos helping to make this one of the best, most swinging, gigs yet in this year’s festival.
 
* First published in The Herald, Thursday July 20th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Les Doigts de l’Homme

LES DOIGTS DE L’HOMME, THE HUB
***
With their witty pun of a name, Les Doigts de l’Homme are, evidently, a playful bunch out to entertain as much as impress. On Wednesday night, they were greeted like long lost copains by a crowd which had undoubtedly heard them last year and been won over by their Gallic charm. “We’re back by popular demand,” explained the leader. “That’s what I read in the programme. So are you the popular demanders?”
For the first-time listener, this four-piece band (three guitars and bass) seemed to be more about style than substance as it wheeched through super-fast versions of Blue Skies and Ol’ Man River, as if to prove how quickly les doigts of these particular men could operate – and possibly to compress the very late-starting first half so that it didn’t overrun.
Over at the Queen’s Hall, there was no point in organisers hoping that the gig wouldn’t overrun. With a star-studded band, in the form of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, playing a programme of Count Basie music, there were lots of musicians to be featured and, in the second half, the ego of singer Dennis Rowland to be accommodated. And boy did he like the sound of his own speaking voice.
His slow-drawled announcements suggested that he thought this was his show, and his limelight-hogging body language – even during instrumentalists’ solos – was beyond annoying. Joe Temperley, who was conducting the band, was almost frozen out. It’s testimony to the musicians’ self-restraint that none of them biffed him when he stuck his face into theirs as they soloed. Luckily, his singing helped make up for the irritation – and, despite him, the band swung beautifully.

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