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See Hear!: Quincy and the Count

When musicians were outdoors working out the music eventually known as jazz, six instrumentalists were a popular grouping. Clarinet and trombone could weave their contrapuntal lines around the trumpet lead without too much chaos. A pianist laid down the chords that held the form of the song together. Tuba and a set of drums kept the tempo. All this was fine on the tailgate of a flatbed truck or in a market square, or in the front parlor of a house of genteel adult entertainment.

When the music moved indoors, or needed larger venues to hold the crowds who started to appear to support this strangely exciting music, some changes were needed. First a string bass gradually replaced the tuba, then a plucked pizzicato to move the beat in a more sprightly fashion. As the halls continued to increase in size, more instruments were stirred in to amplify the group sound. First a second trumpet was added. Louis Armstrong made his first recorded sounds allowing cornet legend King Oliver a welcome break amidst the breaks. An alto or tenor saxophone gave the clarinet player some help weaving through the ensembles.

By the time Duke Ellington was leading his first group through the finer circles of Washington, D.C. society, he featured three trumpets, two trombones and three reeds, which could play clarinet or sax. With all these additional instruments, the music had to be written down to keep the entire affair from sounding like a freight train had crashed into the bandstand. Although some bands like Bennie Moten’s group in Kansas City assembled tunes by ear at rehearsals in so-called ‘head arrangements’, eventually even these had to be sketched out, in case someone left the band or had to send in a substitute. Thus the arranger became a key person in establishing a band’s trademark blend.

This process can be followed in virtually any decent history of jazz. What few books discuss are all the other elements that went toward creating and maintaining the Big Band tradition that jelled during the Depression, and are still present in any group calling itself a “big band” today.

Leading a large ensemble successfully required a mastery of strategy and tactics similar to the skill set of a football coach. Whether they played an instrument or not (most did) a bandleader had to juggle a huge number of variables when approaching an engagement or recording. Chief among these duties was protecting the stamina of his ‘lead’ instruments. The lead trumpet, trombone and alto sax were responsible for playing the highest written passages without strain. Instrumental techniques like shakes (hitting a note then trilling to a note above it), and glissandos (hitting a note then sliding up or down to another note, blurring the notes in between) taxed the stamina of the best brass and reed player, particularly with as many as sixteen other players roaring along with him. As a result, most solo space was written into the second trumpet book. Second or third trombone parts were designated as the ‘jazz‘ books. The tenor sax (still listed as 2nd tenor in some arrangements) was the main improviser among the saxes to save the lead alto sax for pretty ballad features and dazzling ensembles, soli passages where all the saxes spun out complicated chordal and unison written passages.

Not only did an effective bandleader have to come up with varied sets of arrangements for difference types and sizes of venues, he had to be a master psychologist to keep all sixteen players happy. This meant finding space for as many different soloists as possible. Though some musicians preferred blending with a section to improvising, usually each band had a half dozen players eager to show the crowds what they could do. It was also to the band’s commercial advantage to have a number of different soloists to promote along with the leader. Thus every successful bandleader also had to be a talent scout, constantly scouring clubs and sessions for guys who could read the notes on the page and flash some impressive jazz chops. Admittedly, some bandleaders had band managers that ran the rehearsing and talent selection at least part of the time. But on the bandstand, the leader was king, calling the tunes and extending or shortening the solos to suit the crowd and the event.

It’s fitting that the first of the three DVDs on offer is under the name of a man who was (and is) one of the all time best at performing all the duties mentioned above. Quincy Jones: Live in ’60 is from the Reelin’ in the Years production company on the wonderful Jazz Icon series sponsored by Naxos Music. Quincy Jones was a trumpet player from Seattle who had studied at the Berklee School of music in Boston (when it was still known as the Schillinger House). He went to Paris to study composition with the esteemed Nadia Boulanger, and became music director for Barclay Disques, a leading French jazz label. In 1959, he was approached by famed talent scout and producer John Hammond to contract a jazz ensemble for a new Harold Arlen musical entitled Free and Easy. The musicians had to appear on stage in period costumes and had acting roles in the show. The excellent essay by longtime jazz critic Ira Gitler explores the make-up of this pan-ethnic, women-friendly band:

There were three who doubled flute and one of them was the band’s guitarist. There were two women, one a trombonist. Three of them went as far back as his days in Seattle – Buddy Catlett  (bass), Patti Bown (piano), and Floyd Standifer (trumpet). It was a mix of seasoned veterans such as tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, who had played and recorded with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, and Phil Woods (alto sax), not yet 30, but already seasoned in New York and on the road during the ‘50s.

Unrest in France over the Algerian War of Independence (“we could hear machine gun fire in the streets during rehearsals” remembers Quincy) led to sparse crowds for Free and Easy and the show closed before it could move to London. Rather than give up and fly home, Quincy started finding bookings for the band. In ten months they visited eleven countries.

On the February 1960 Belgium Concert that leads off the DVD, a beaming Quincy cues the band from a stairway on an ultra modern set that has the band tiered in three levels from saxes back to trombones back to trumpets. Quincy’s light v-neck sweater contrasts with the dark v-necks (paid for out of Quincy’s pocket) sported by the band. The black-and white picture is bright and sharply defined. Timing his walk to reach the front of the stand just in time for the band hit that launches the opening “Birth of a Band,” it’s immediately obvious that Quincy and the Belgian TV producers have thought out every visual and sonic aspect of the presentation. The full roar of the band brings the sound level to the brink of distortion, but the needle never quite reaches the red. Each soloist, from string bass to piccolo is properly miked and each song is introduced by a card graphic as if from a Quincy Jones LP sleeve, identifying the composer and the soloists. A jazz program would be lucky to get such classy production even today.

 

“Birth of a Band” caroms through a friendly tenor sax battle between Budd Johnson and Jerome Richardson to a big finish separated by flourishes by drummer Joe Harris perched on a platform high above the rest of the band. With only bass, drum, one cymbal, one tenor tom tom, one stand of high hat cymbals, and one gigantic snare drum, the very forgotten Harris proves that an elaborate kit is not needed to produce outstanding drum breaks.

The following tune, “Moanin’” by Bobby Timmons was mentioned in my piece on Clark Terry for his outstanding, stately flugelhorn solo, but the closing burnished ensembles are kept tight by Quincy’s conducting; it’s much more than mere arm-waving.

“Lester Leaps In,” a feature for tenor saxophonist Lester Young in Count Basie’s  band, spotlights Patti Bown’s light, sparkling solo lines, Johnson and Richardson playing Young’s original solo in unison and a solo by Budd that sits right on the ledge between Young and the other tenor giant of the time , Coleman Hawkins. The following duel between flutist (and guitarist) Les Spann, and Jerome Richardson on piccolo is one of the high points of the concert. Richardson positively smokes trading 8 and 4 bar phrases with a gamely cooperative Spann.

“The Gypsy” an obscure tune visited by Charlie Parker becomes a feature for altoist Phil Woods, seated dramatically at the top of the flight of stairs that occupies the right side of the set. The Hollywood key lights frame Woods beautifully, and he responds with a solo that is passionate, melodic, and spiced with leaping phrases that play with Parker sounds without sounding like a Bird clone. In the ultra close-ups, Phil manages to avoid the goo-goo doll type faces that sometimes invade the closed-eyes soloist. Even the extreme high notes he goes for are perfectly controlled. How long will it take Americans to appreciate Mr. Woods, who is still very much on the scene?

Al Cohn’s arrangement of another Lester Young line, “Twinkle Toe” features a handful of outstanding solos, with Benny Bailey’s bubbling straight muted effort standing out. Lead Trumpet Lennie Johnson, of Herb Pomeroy’s Boston band, well rested after the ballad, contributes fiery shakes on the concluding out choruses.

The set concludes with two staples of this band that are also part of the windup of the following concert in Switzerland. “Everybody’s Blues” starts with the Benny Bailey/Clark Terry wah-wah opening I mentioned in the Clark Terry essay. Trombonist Melba Liston, who later became a composer and arranger of some note, takes a relaxed bebop flavored solo, followed Julius Watkins on a high windy French Horn. Seated by himself to the left of the trombones, maybe Mr. Watkins is just happy to be with the rest of the brass for his solo.

The concluding “ Big Red” opens with an athletic baritone sax solo from Sahib Shihab, who also must have felt a little strange about his seat in the band, on the right of the sax section. I have never seen that in thirty years of big band participation, (sometimes as a baritone saxophonist). Budd Johnson, German Ake Persson and American Jimmy Cleveland contrast their trombone styles with Persson’s bebop going well against Cleveland’s high fast phrases.

The concert from May 20, 1960 is from a stage, not a television studio. There is a visible audience. The band appears in dark blazers and light slacks. Quincy wears a tasty light suit. No risers, the band is all on one level, making drummer Joe Harris less visible but fortunately no less audible. Auditoriums are usually boomy, echo-y space. Here, the sound is dryer, with the flute/sax blend more detailed. Quincy’s Seattle friend, Floyd Standifer replaces Clark Terry in the trumpet section. He seems to have replaced Clark in the ‘humor’ section as well – his angry muted comments during the melody of “Walkin” brings a look of mock shock from lead trumpeter Lennie Johnson. During Standifer’s later flugelhorn solo, he begins a quote from the marching band warhorse “Lassus Trombones” only to have some band members sing the end of it. The difference in feel from the Belgian performance four months ago is palpable. This is a much looser band. The charts are tighter sounding with the closer acoustic occasionally revealing some fatigue in the brass section, no doubt from the crowded performance schedule.

“Walkin’” a line credited to Miles Davis, but believed to be the work of one Richard Carpenter (not of ‘The Carpenters” vocal duo; but a jazz trumpeter) is the feature tune of this set and its centerpiece is a trombone solo by Jimmy Cleveland. Using an unusual cloth mute stretched over the bell of his horn, with perforations that give his sound an attractive roundness, Cleveland extends his allotted time. This is obvious by the reactions of altoist Phil Woods, standing patiently behind Cleveland to use the soloist’s mike. He mutters something down to one of the sax players then has to smile a ‘yeah’ at some whole-tone acrobatics by Mr. Cleveland. Phil even has to play some backgrounds behind Cleveland, just to keep his reed wet. When Phil finally reaches the mic, he erupts with lines that ricochet all over the auditorium.

Quincy uses two ballad features to give his lead players some rest, Early on, trumpeter Benny Bailey delivers a passionate rendition of “I Remember Clifford,” This classic jazz ballad was composed by saxophonist Benny Golson in memory of Clifford Brown, a dazzling trumpet player who died in an auto accident at the age of twenty five in 1956. The musician beloved by all players as “Brownie” added a wealth of great recordings to the legacy, and his influence echoes down to trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis. Though showing some strain early, Bailey recovers to render some passionate lines at the very top of the trumpet’s range.

The second slow tune, “My Reverie,” gives the band something soft to play after the long, demanding chart on “Walkin.’” Melba Liston takes a bebop flavored solo on this jazz rethinking of a Debussy piece.

The Swiss version of “Everybody’s Blues” features French trumpeter Roger Guerin taking Clark Terry’s place in the wah-wah duet with Benny Bailey. Also new is the mock-scared “wooooo” cry vocalized by the entire band in response to the all the spooky wah-wahing. The laughter and howling is another product of four months on the road. Traveling groups of any stripe become good at entertaining each other. This is noticeably faster than the Belgian performance. Julius Watkins climbs to the top of his French horn’s range and hovers, occasionally swooping down to scoop up a morsel of funky blues phraseology. Then veteran trombonist Quentin “Butter” Jackson takes out a rubber plumber’s helper and delivers a solo that is part sermon, part barroom joke. You could add words to it in the same manner that Jerry Lewis used to ‘lip synch’ to the classic Count Basie record, “Blues in Hoss’ Flat”

The program ends with Jerome Richardson’s alto-speed tenor sax tumbling over a refurbished version of the Belgian opener, “Birth of a Band.” Again, the results of four months of performances results in a much faster, more confident delivery of Quincy’s writing.

On this eighty minute DVD, Quincy exhibits three essential skills for leading a band of any size. First he spreads the solo space around generously, increasing his color palette as much as he’s massaging egos. Second, he knows how to sequence songs for maximum effect. This ability developed to the point that some years later, producer Quincy Jones’ sequencing of songs on Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller album becomes an element in that recording’s undeniably classic status. Put it on random-play on your listening device of choice to see what I mean.

To my ears, Quincy’s number one genius skill was the ability to pick the exact right tempo. How fast should this piece go tonight, in front of this audience, in this room, over this sound system? Quincy seemed to know, and this terrific DVD contains Exhibits A and B in demonstrating that skill.

Another band leader with an unerring sense of tempo is Count Basie. Quincy Jones wrote and produced much for Basie in the sixties. The Verve session Li’l Old Groovemaker from the early sixties is a whole album of Quincy charts and again, the tempos and sequencing are unimprovable. The Jazz Icon DVD Count Basie: Live in ’62 captures a complete 56 minute set  originally edited down to a half hour program for Swedish television.

There is no verbal introduction. A smiling Basie runs the whole show from the piano bench. A very underestimated pianist, Basie stirs some triplets around, cuing bassist Eddie Jones and drummer Sonny Payne to stroll along with him, waiting for the opportune moment to bring the whole band in. Sometimes, if the audience seemed distracted, Basie would bring the entire band in on a screaming chord, just to see the whole crowd jump in unison. And we did.

For this very attentive audience, Basie rewards them by sweetly rolling in the trumpets on Frank Foster’s “Easin’ It,” first in unison, then in sweet four part harmonies. This allows the entire trombone section to stroll up to the solo mike, where they introduce themselves to the crowd. Henry Coker is the open, bluesy guy, Quentin Jackson is the plunger–muted talkin’ guy, and Benny Powell is the bebopper.

The string of phrases continues on as the trumpets file down and we meet Al Aarons’ stem-in harmon muted friendliness, Sonny Cohn’s stem-out comments, Snooky Young’s backroom wah-wah and Thad Jones unpredictable harmonic leaps.

“ And that was the brass section.” Basie beams like a proud papa.

Basie gives the brass the next tune to rest on, by featuring tenor saxophonist Eric Dixon on the slow ballad standard “You Are Too Beautiful “ Dixon hits a gorgeous low B –Flat at the end of his first phrase; no breathy sub-tone, no thick vibrato. His solo spins uniquely Dixonian phrases over a lush brass backdrop.

The camera often studies guitarist Freddie Green, whose four-to-the-bar chords propelled the band for more than forty years. “Corner Pocket” is Freddie’s tune and shows off that propulsion with a classic Basie trolling intro, clean sax unisons that give Thad Jones and Al Aarons time to stroll down to pit Aaron’s muted chatter against Jones’ open horn replete with operatic leaps up to some unusual intervals.

A dancing Frank Wess tenor sax solo precedes some ensemble ‘shout’ choruses that bring drummer Sonny Payne’s fills to the fore. Elbows out, his press roles fan up into tsunamis of sticks, then crack with a perfectly placed hit with the entire band. Payne critics paint him as a showboat. But what a showboat! The visual show of twirling sticks and up-down cymbal attacks works because the ends always fit the context. The Swedish camera crew pans across the entire band during the ensemble feast.

“Stella by Starlight” again rests the band by giving trumpeter Sonny Cohn a chance to show off his Hollywood soundtrack tone. The vibrato is wide in spots, but that was more of a requirement in all horn players before sound systems became sophisticated enough to spread their sound without distortion.

The following mid tempo romp, “Back to the Apple” features the composer Frank Foster as the third tenor sax soloist of the first five tunes. Basie always stated that the band was built around the tenor saxes he had. Iconic Lester Young and Hawkins-driven Herschel Evans were Basie’s first pair of prime tenor men, and Foster, Frank Wess, and Eric Dixon made a great triumvirate in this edition. Once again, the ensembles that conclude this arrangement are a clinic in showing a rhythm section riding with a band that is swinging just fine on its own.

“I Needs to Be Bee’d With” is a minimalist blues by (of all people) Quincy Jones. You don’t need to provide much in the way of melody when you have so many other chefs to add their ingredients to the pie. Basie turns a finger on a black key, as if putting vibrato on a note, and the phrases chuckle and roll through the triplets he could always place so precisely in the beat, After some fleet Eddie Jones bass filigrees, our old friend Quentin Jackson ambles in with a story quite different than the ones he told us earlier. A lament more than a sermon this time, Quentin nearly drops his plunger during one passionate flurry. Basie gradually brings the sections in until the entire band is wailing under Jackson, who ends with a long high trill over a thick mattress of a chord. You’ll applaud too.

Irene Reid comes on to sing three tunes with the band. Classic big band singers were a breed of their own, forced to deal with an ever-changing series of venues with strange acoustics and even stranger microphones. Irene Reid went on to have a solo career, with albums on Verve. Her singing here is very influenced by Dinah Washington; few held tones, as much shouted as sung. Singing in front of a full band forces those choices. She swings, and she inspires the band to give some great support

After a medium “I Got Rhythm,” Reid relaxes into “Backwater Blues,” eventually having a conversation with (who else) Quentin Jackson, introducing yet another musical persona, that of the grizzled war vet who will comment on anything.

Reid’s set concludes with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with a new lyric that proclaims Basie as the ‘best band in the land’ – a very clever request for future engagements.

The set concludes with a roaring 108 –beat- a- minute arrangement of “Old Man River” that propels drummer Sonny Payne into the You-Tube age with a ten minute drum solo that is musical, visually astonishing, and deserving of (someday) being analyzed with the thoroughness given, say, the Zapruder film. Then the entire band roars back in under Payne, sweeping him towards a mock movie fanfare parade of clichés. Just hilarious. And a most impressive hour of entertainment.

Norman Granz’ Jazz in Montreux presents Count Basie Big Band ’77 is the unwieldy title of Eagle Eye Media’s DVD, which has been around since 2006, but seems to get left out of accounts of the band’s performances. Players like Al Aarons and Eric Dixon are still crafting distinctive solos. Al Grey takes Quentin Jackson’s place as the resident trombone virtuoso, and overall good-humor man. This information comes from Basie’s introductions; there is no personnel listing in the leaflet.

The opening tune “The Heat’s On” is uncredited as well; it’s an up-tempo rouser that features a completely different, but equally effective style of drumming from Butch Miles. Shaking a long blonde mane, Miles is very much Mick Jagger playing drums in a big band. Without using Payne-type flash, Butch produces a lot of sound with minimal movement.

Jimmy Forrest’s tenor solo establishes him as the partner for Eric Dixon in this edition of Basie’s lab. Featured on “Bag of Dreams,” Miles Davis’ first employer makes a stirring statement equal parts husky Ben Webster and scooping Johnny Hodges, with more than a dash of R & B.

“Night in Tunisia” features Wayman Reed taking a Dizzy-esque flugelhorn outing on the only Latin chart of the set.

There is more classic Basie piano on the shuffle blues “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” usually associated with Duke Ellington. Basie concludes a string of solos by unleashing his ‘screech’ specialist to bring the tune home. Screech trumpets usually played the low fourth or fifth trumpet parts until they were brought forth to rage with dazzling extreme high notes. Cat Anderson, Duke Ellington’s screech artist could get a texture something like a dog whistle for humans. By the brief exclamation by Basie, this sturdy gentleman was probably Linn Viviano, a veteran big band gun.

“I Needs to Be Bee’d With” gets an update fifteen years down the road from the ’62 band. Al Grey plays the Quentin spot to perfection. He closes with a mocking “Mama done told me” phrase for a very appreciative crowd.

“Li’l Darlin,’” a tiptoe ballad by Neil Hefti, is a signature Basie experience. This exact arrangement has been in circulation in the jazz education community for quite some time and it remains a staunch challenge for any group of student musicians to learn that, in order to swing at that careful tempo, sixteen people have to become a band. This version is faster than the original, but still takes its time making its points.

“Fantail” is another Hefti chart, a flag waver, with exciting ensemble choruses that bring out the Freddy Payne in any drummer. Unfortunately we don’t get to see Butch Miles in action because midway through the first shout chorus, the sound and image a fade out and when they return we are in the middle of a tenor battle between Jimmy Forrest and Eric Dixon. What happened? Did the camera crew inexplicably run out of film? Or fail to have a backup camera on hand for an emergency? Who knows how much was lost; it was a long ensemble on the late fifties recorded version. Even if you don’t know the tune, the change in energy will tell you something is missing.

While “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” a staple Basie tune from the late thirties, makes a fitting closer, this band lacks something of the visual flair of the ’62 brigade. Flicking hands in front of trumpet bells instead of derby mutes indicates a slight lack of interest in showmanship. And the missing “Fantail’ chouses do create a certain empty feeling, especially for Basie fans who know the tune well.

Of the three DVDs, the Quincy and ’62 Basie are indispensable documents of musical performances we should be happy to have access to.  The ’77 experience is a little rougher, in a sonic and video sense although the richly colored photography and a real stereo mix are definite bonuses.

All three are object lessons in how to construct and pace a concert environment. Both Basie and Quincy were masters bandleaders. These performances would be equally effective on the back of a flatbed truck or in the front parlor of a house of refined adult entertainment.

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Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.