Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lionel Hampton: A Founding Father of the Jazz Vibraphone

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

“When he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1936, Lionel Hampton’s principal instrument, the vibraphone, was relatively unknown in the jazz world as a whole.
Hampton, more than anyone, is largely responsible for taking what was a quasi-novelty sound—essentially a "souped up" xylophone with added vibrato effect— and transforming it into a mainstream jazz instrument. …

Hampton's work in the context of the Goodman combo gave the "vibes" (as it eventually came to be known) a new level of legiti­macy. Of course, Hampton's energy, inventiveness, enthusiasm, and sheer sense of swing also had much to do with this. His was a style built on abundance: long loping lines, blistering runs of sixteenth notes, baroque ornamentations, all accompanied by an undercurrent of grunting and humming from above.

Few figures of the be-bop era, with the obvious exception of Tatum (with whom the vibraphonist later jousted in a session of note-filled excesses), could squeeze more into a sixteen-bar solo than Hampton. In the battle of form versus content, the latter always won when this seminal figure was on stage.”

- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, [p.151, paraphrased]

“Hampton’s exuberant improvising, always full of high spirits, heady emotion and finger-poppin’ excitement, marvelously complemented [pianist] Teddy Wilson’s cooler, more controlled virtuosity. Between the two of them, they suggested the full range of expressive possibilities in Benny Goodman’s own playing.”

- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman

“The exuberance and excitement and feeling of exultation that Lionel Hampton contributes to any musical occasion with which he is associated are absolutely amazing. No other single performer in American jazz—and in American big bands, too—has so consistently and joyously incited and inspired his fellow musicians and his listening audiences. For Hamp invariably projects a wonderful, uninhibited aura of spontaneity that brightens every place in which he performs and that assures everyone within earshot that music, fast or slow, screaming or sentimental, can be a joy forever—or at least as long as Lionel happens to be playing it.…

The band that Hamp eventually led, and continued to lead for many years thereafter, was primarily a swinging one, a high-flying swinging one, com­plete with brilliant showmanship and musicianship from Hampton and a whole series of talented musicians whom he discovered and inserted into his lineups.

Hamp always surrounded himself with outstanding musicians, …. [He]had a good ear and a good eye for new talent, and the list of musi­cians he has discovered is truly an amazing one. "We've been the breeding place of some fine jazz musicians," he told me one day, as he reeled off, with obvious pride, such names as Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Cat Anderson, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer and many more, as well as singers Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.”

- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.

In looking back, Lionel Hampton was there at the beginning of my Jazz “Life.”

He holds a special place in my coming-of-age in the music as he was the vibraphonist in the very first small Jazz group I ever heard.

Lionel was a member of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s quartet which also featured Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums.

The irrepressible swing of this combo made an indelible mark on me and I’ve always held the music played Benny’s quartet as the standard by which to evaluate other combos.

Cohesiveness, listening closely to one another, sharing the solo spotlight but, above all, swinging with a sense of a firm rhythmic propulsion.

These are the qualities that impressed me in Benny’s quartet and its what I want to experience when I listen to other small groups.

Benny’s quartet had so much energy and enthusiasm and to my ear, the spark that ignited these qualities was Lionel Hampton.

Following his time with Benny Goodman, Lionel moved on to lead his own small groups and big bands for over 60 years.

The Jazz world also moved on and away from the style of Jazz that Hampton represented until his death in 2002.

For many of the reasons described in the following excerpts from Günter Schuller’s monumental The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, Lionel became less of an artistic Jazz performer and more of a commercially successful one, especially for those fans who prefer their Jazz expressed in a more discriminating manner.

When Universal Pictures made The Benny Goodman Story in 1955, it reassembled the Goodman quartet to appear as themselves in the movie.

While they were in town for the filming of the movie,  the Jazz impresario Norman Granz had his usual excellent presence-of-mind to bring Lionel, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa together to record a album for his then recently formed Verve Records label.

I coupled some schimolies together from my newspaper delivery route savings and bought a copy which I virtually wore-out while practicing to it.

Airmail Special from this Verve album is the audio track on the video tribute to Lionel Hampton at the conclusion of this profile about one of Jazz’s Founding Fathers. Teddy, Lionel and Gene all play exceptional solos. Have a look and a listen and see what you think.

© -  Günter Schuller/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Hampton has been one of the most successful and enduring multi-instrumentalists in jazz, obviously one of the few outstanding vibraphone solo­ists, but a drummer and (mostly two-fingered) pianist and talented singer as well. …

In any period of its history, one is tempted to apply the word unique to Lionel Hampton. Certainly no one has outrivaled Hampton in sheer exuberance, phys­ical as well as emotional. Motored by a seemingly limitless supply of energy and stamina, Hampton's playing is known the world over for its relentless physicality, unhampered technical facility (especially on vibraphone), and a seemingly im­perturbable inventiveness. Limitless outpourings of rhythmic energy being al­ways more admired in the popular arena than subtlety or refinement of thought, Hampton's image as the unremitting hard swingster has far outstripped an aware­ness of his considerable lyric and melodic talents.

To be sure, Hampton's approach to music is often unsubtle, uncritical, at times even tasteless. In truth, when he assaults his drums, brutalizes the piano keyboard in his hammered two-finger style, pounds the vibraphone into submis­sion, the perspiration quotient is high indeed, its inspiration equivalent often considerably lower. Both in his ability to generate audience frenzy and in his own susceptibility to it, Hampton foreshadowed the empty-minded hysteria of today's more outrageous rock singers. Nor is the distance between rock and Hampton's 1940s' early form of rhythm-and-blues all that great, certainly not in respect to its rhythmic, dynamic, and energy levels.

What all this unfortunately obscures is Hampton's talents as a balladeer, both as a vibraharpist and a singer, and his equally innate ability to express himself in gentler, more subtle ways.

Hampton's is a natural, uncomplicated musical talent—almost casually inven­tive—in which the sheer joy of performing, the direct unfurrowed communica­tion to an audience, is more important than any critical or intellectual assess­ment of it. He is in this sense also not a leader, the way Ellington and Lunceford, for example, were.

Stylistic identity and the creation of a recognizable individual orchestral style have never been uppermost in Hampton's thoughts, succumbing instead to a randomness of approach that accounts for much of the inconsistency of quality in both of his own playing and that of his accompanying groups, large or small. Indeed, his ambivalence in these matters caused him, when he contemplated forming a large band, to consider seriously any number of orchestral options, ranging from hot to sweet, from frantic jump to sedate dance, including the use of a large string section.

Fortunately Hampton did in the end opt for a more orthodox jazz instrumentation, one which in due course became pre-eminent as a dynamic hard-driving swinging ensemble.” [excerpted, pp. 393-394] …

“Great originality and well-conceived solos are, however, not Hampton's forte. He is not so much a creator as he is a compiler. His solos tend to consist of a series of remembered or "common practice" motives, which he infuses with his own brand of energy and strings together into a musical discourse. While this method ensures that Hampton is never at a loss for ideas, the solos tend to be based too much on patterns and repetitions, rather than development of ideas. Hampton improvisations are more apt to be a collection of riffs. This is espe­cially true in faster temps, whereas in more relaxed contexts his melodic and ornamental gifts are given freer rein. More disturbing even than the reliance on patterns, however, is Hampton's fatal compulsion for musical quotations. Un­critical audiences, of course, love these diversions, delighted to recognize some snippet from the musical public domain and enjoying the improviser's challenge of fitting it into, say, a 2-bar break, a challenge Hampton never fails to meet. The liability of these tactics, however, on a serious level is that they inevitably interrupt the musical argument, rather than extend or develop it. For all of Hampton's inordinate facility, his music-making is often indiscriminate and un­critical.

Hampton is also rarely adventurous harmonically. He may appreciate the "modern" orchestral settings provided by many of his arrangers, but he himself rarely contributes significantly in the way of harmonic/melodic explorations, being generally content to maintain a more conservative stance, well-rooted in the swing language of the thirties.” [excerpted p. 397]

Hampton is what he is, and no amount of latter-day analyzing can—or should— make him into anything else. He is, like Armstrong, one of the old school, where the entertainer role is always prominent, perhaps even primary. And like Armstrong—though certainly not on his creative level—Hampton is a dedicated artist-musician and craftsman, his flamboyance and exhibitionism not withstand­ing. And perhaps most significantly, Hampton has been the keeper of a venera­ble tradition which, though it stands apart from all recent developments in jazz, is nevertheless a respectable one and one which Hampton, given his age and stature, is well entitled to preserve.” [excerpted, p. 402]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Victor’s Vibes

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

For many years, the late Milt Jackson, affectionately known as “Bags,” was heralded as the undisputed king of the vibraphone and most vibists accorded him their highest esteem and pointed to him as a major influence.

I, too, love his playing, especially in the context of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

But I’ve always had trouble with the notion of ranking Jazz musicians, voting for them in polls and comparing them as artists. I think it’s an absolute waste of time; a meaningless exercise.

Jazz artists work very hard to establish their own approach to the music and I would imagine that, as is the case with actors, writers and painters, they have a tendency to gravitate toward those artists whose work “speaks” to them.

What, then, are the standards that one has to meet to be rated as “better” than another artist?

As Aristotle once said: “Each of us is different with regard to those things we have in common.”

And so it is with Jazz musicians in general and, for the purpose of this feature, Jazz vibraphonists in particular. Everyone imitates and emulates while trying to establish their own voice on an instrument.

Vibes are particularly challenging to play uniquely because of the limitations inherent in how the sound is produced on them.

Bags’ influence was pervasive when it came to Jazz vibes. I’ve played the instrument a bit and I recognize the truth in this assertion because I, too, found myself playing Milt’s “licks” and “phrases.” They lay so easily on the axe. You drop you hands [mallets] on the bars and out they come.

Another reason why so many vibist sound like Bags may be because he played a lot of the same “licks” [musical expressions] or phrases over and over again.

A lot of Jazz musicians do this [some call them “resting points”], but one has to be careful with repetitive phrases because employing the same licks too often can become an excuse for not thinking [in other words, not being inventive].

The expression that is sometimes used when this happens is that the musician “mailed in” the solo.

Bags was one of the “Founding Fathers” of Bebop, he toured all over the United States and Europe with the MJQ and he made a slew of recordings with the group, with other artists as well as under his own name.

As a result, his style of vibes had a lot of exposure.

This exposure helped make Milt Jackson instantly recognizable as a major exponent of the bebop, blues-inflected style of playing Jazz vibes.

But for my money, no one has ever played the instrument more musically than Victor Feldman.

Bags’ influence is there in Victor’s style, but Victor is his own man and takes the instrument in a completely different direction than Milt.

There isn’t the repetitiveness nor for that matter the constant bebop and blues phrases, but rather, a more pianistic and imaginative approach, one that emphasizes longer inventions and a constant flow of new melodies superimposed over the chord changes.

Victor also emphasizes rhythm differently than the dotted eighth note spacing favored by Bags. As a result, Victor, begins and ends his phrases in a more angular fashion which creates more surprises in where he is going in his solos.

The starting points and pick-ups for Victors solos vary greatly because he is not just looking for places in the music to put tried-and-tested licks, he’s actually attempting to create musical ideas that he hasn’t expressed before.

Is what Victor is doing “better” than Bags? Of course not.  Is it different? Is it ever.

Fresh and adventurous. And exhilarating, too.

Jazz improvisation is the ultimate creative experience.

One doesn’t need any awards. You just can’t wait for the next time you solo so you can try soaring again.

To help give you the “flavor” of Victor Feldman’s marvelous creative powers as a Jazz vibist, we’ve stripped things down to their bare essentials with an audio-only track that I think features him at his imaginative best.

No more words; no photographs or moving images; just the music.

This track has him performing his original composition Too Blue with Rick Laird on bass and Ronnie Stephenson on drums from his triumphant 1965 return to Ronnie Scott’s Club in his hometown of London [Jazz Archives JACD-053].

It runs a little over 8 minutes. You can hear the statement of the 12-bar blues theme from 0.00-0.22 minutes and again from 0.23-0.45 minutes. Each 12-bar theme closes with a bass “tag.”

Victor and Rick hook-up for a call-and-response interlude between 0:46-1:10 minutes before Victor launches into his first improvised chorus at 1:11 minutes.

He improvises seven choruses from 1:11-4:14 minutes before bassist Rick Laird takes four choruses from 4:14-5:46 minutes.

None of Victor’s choruses contains a repeated phrase or a recognizable Milt Jackson lick [phrase].

When Victor comes-back-in [resumes playing] at 5:46 minutes following Rick’s bass solo, if you listen carefully you can hear him using two mallets in his left hand to play 4-beats-to-the-bar intervals while soloing against this with the two mallets held in his right-hand.

He even throws in the equivalent of a big band-like “shout” chorus while trading fills with drummer Ronnie Stephenson beginning at 6:56 minutes.

The closing statement of the theme can be heard at 7:19 minutes ending with an “Amen” at 8:06 minutes.

When listening to Victor Feldman play Jazz on the vibraphone, one is hearing a true innovator at work. For him, making the next improvised chorus as original and as musically satisfying as possible was always the ultimate goal. 

It’s a shame that Jazz fans are not more familiar with his work on vibes. Having heard it on a regular basis for over twenty-five years, I can attest to the fact that it was something special. The only thing that Victor Feldman ever mailed in was a letter.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lambert Hendricks and Ross - "Airegin" [Sonny Rollins]

"The word "amazing" is wildly misused in contemporary conversation and writing, but it really does apply to this performance." - Jim Brown, Audio Engineer

The vocalese solos by Jon and Dave on this video will blow you away.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eli “Lucky” Thompson

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

“Lucky Thompson was a vastly under-acclaimed tenor saxophonist.”
- Doug Ramsey

Eli “Lucky” Thompson was born on June 16, 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina, but grew up in Detroit. From a very young age, Lucky was obsessed by music and long before he owned a horn, he studied instruction books and practiced finger exercises on a broomstick marked with saxophone key patterns. When he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 25, he practiced eight hours a day and within a month he played professionally with neighborhood bands.”
- Joop Visser

“… it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.”
- Bob Porter

"Like Don Byas, whom he most resembles in tone and in his development of solos, he has a slightly oblique and uneasy stance on bop, cleaving to a kind of accelerated swing idiom with a distinctive 'snap' to his softly enunciated phrases and an advanced harmonic language that occasionally moves into areas of surprising freedom."
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“There is the history of the saxophone in Lucky Thompson’s music.”
- David Himmelstein

“Music is the most interesting thing in the world.”
- Lucky Thompson

“You know I lost my interest in music. I had to run from place to place at the mercy of people who manipulated me. I never rejected music; it constitutes a great part of my soul.”
- Lucky Thompson to Mike Hennessey in MusicItalia interview

“Thompson's disappearance from the jazz scene in the 1970's was only the latest (but apparently the last) of a strangely contoured career. A highly philosophical, almost mystical man, he reacted against the values of the music industry and in the end turned his back on it without seeming regret. The beginning was garlanded with promise.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

I lived and worked in Seattle, WA for a while.

Given the city’s notorious commuter traffic, fortunately for me, it was easy to access my office at the downtown corner of Fourth and Pike Streets as it was a clear shot into town on the Aurora Highway [Hwy 99] from my home in the Green Lake area of the city.

It was a point in my work-life that often found me toiling late at the office.

Because of the manner in which one-way streets configured downtown traffic, I often exited the city along Second Street which is also the home of Tula’s, a great Jazz club that primarily features the work of local Jazz artists.

One rainy night - now there’s a surprise in Seattle! - I had worked so late that I decided to catch a set at the club and treat myself to a dinner of its excellent dolmathes and souvlaki before going home.

Jay Thomas, who plays both superb trumpet and tenor saxophone, was Tula’s headliner.

Besides the great music and tasty Greek food, I also met up that night with a couple of Jazz buddies who lived in the nearby Belltown part of the city [a downtown waterfront neighborhood that overlooks a portion of Elliott Bay].

We shared a bottle of red plunk while thoroughly enjoying the music on offer by Jay’s quartet.

All of us still smoked during those days and, as a result of the club’s ban on partaking of lit nicotine within the walls of its premises, we found ourselves merrily chatting and puffing away outside the club’s entrance during the first intermission.

Thankfully the rain had abated, or a least scaled down to a soft drizzle. While the three of us were standing and smoking by the curbside, we were approached by a street person who asked if he could bum a smoke.

After we obliged him and he had continued on his way, one of my friends asked me if I’d recognized the damp denizen of the night?

I thought I was making a wisecrack when I answered that “… he looked vaguely familiar.” “He should,” remarked one of my friends: “That was Lucky Thompson!”

Obviously, my Belltown buddies had met him before, under similar circumstances.

All of us became very subdued after Lucky left.

Each quietly puffed their cigarette which gave us time to adjust to the sense of sadness that had come over us following the sight we had just witnessed.

Needless to say, the evening wasn’t the same after that; no more frivolity and jocularity, only a deep and abiding hurt.

When I returned home with that chance meeting still on my mind, it occurred to that while I had heard Lucky’s tenor saxophone sound with Count Basie’s band [my Dad had some V-Discs by the band with Lucky], on Miles Davis’ famous Walkin’ LP and as part of Stan Kenton’s sterling Cuban Fire album [his solo beginning at around the 4:00 minute mark of the opening track – Fuego Cubano - always touches my heart], most of his recorded music had passed-me-by.

For whatever reasons, I had missed much of Lucky’s discography when he was a force on the Jazz scene, primarily from 1945-1965.

The following day, I decided to put that omission right and I began seeking out Lucky’s recordings which, to my surprise were plentiful, and still readily available.

As is often the case with chance meetings, it was the beginning of a love affair as Lucky’s music was engaging, full of marvelous twists and turns, and alive with an almost effortless swing.

Although it is a later recording in the Thompson canon, one of my first purchases of Lucky’s music under his own name was Tricotism [Impulse/GRP GRD-135].

The insert notes to this CD are by Bob Porter and they contained the following overview and commentary of Thompson’s career which was very helpful to me as a guide for further purchases of Lucky’s music.

If you are like me and not a member of the Lucky cognoscenti, perhaps it can serve a similar purpose for you.

“The career of Eli Thompson (6/16/24), musician, is one of the most enigmatic in all jazz. It is an odyssey involving four cities, two instruments, big bands, small bands, popularity, poverty, stylistic changes, associations with major names, (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton), and long peri­ods of inactivity.

Detroit is his home town. A grad­uate of Cass Tech, Lucky was among a number of remarkably talented saxophonists who were active in the Motor City during the early '40s. Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards, Yusef Lateef, and Sonny Stitt would lead the list and it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.

Lucky entered the ranks of pro­fessional musicians when he left Detroit with the Treniers in 1943. An unhappy six months with Lionel Hampton followed, ending in New York. Shortly thereafter Lucky went into the brand new Billy Eckstine Band. The Eckstine association was brief, and Lucky first began to achieve prominence during his year with Count Basic. The war-time Basic band was a fine organization, and Lucky had considerable solo space. The V-Disc of "High Tide" is especially impressive.

Lucky left Basic in late 1945, set­tling in Los Angeles. One of his first gigs in L. A. was as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Rebop Six. Actually he was the odd man out in a group that featured Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Stan Levey, and the leader. Lucky was hired because of the erratic habits of the co-star, Charlie Parker. Yet that engagement acted as a springboard for Lucky.

During 1946 and '47 Lucky was the most requested tenorman in the L. A. area. He worked frequently with Boyd Raeburn, but he also made over 100 recordings as a sideman during those years. He had recorded for Excelsior and Down Beat and in 1947 he made four famous sides for RCA, including his masterpiece "Just One More Chance." He won the Esquire New Star award in 1947. In 1948 Lucky migrated across coun­try. New York would be his home for the next eight years.
Lucky worked frequently at the Savoy Ballroom during the early '50s, but the recording slows had set in.

A couple of obscure small label ses­sions were Lucky's only recordings from 1947 to late 1953, when he did a date for Decca. Two dates in 1954 under his own name presaged anoth­er masterpiece: his "Walkin"' solo with Miles Davis.

During the 1950s Lucky was a close associate of light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore. Moore liked to warm up and work out while Lucky and company pro­vided the music.

Lucky and Milt Jackson have been close associates since their days in Detroit. In 1956, just prior to the recording of the music heard on this CD, Jackson and Thompson record­ed five LPs together, under Milt's name for Savoy and Atlantic.
I suspect that it was no accident that the trio session here included no drummer. If there has been one aspect of Lucky's playing that has been criticized through the years it is his relationship with drummers. The hard swinging sessions of the 1940s and early '50s were giving way to an almost ascetic rhythmic approach. I also suspect that some critics, in writing about the Jimmy Giuffre Three, (which had the iden­tical instrumentation as Lucky's group), may have forgotten these per­formances, which predated Giuffre by 10 months.

Paris in the spring of 1956 was, for Lucky, a period of tremendous activ­ity. He recorded five LPs for various French labels. Also while in France, he sat in with Stan Ken ton. This led to Lucky's participation in one of the most famous Kenton LPs of the' 50s, Cuban Fire. Before returning to France for an extended stay, Lucky worked again with Oscar Pettiford and recorded with him.

Lucky was the first major jazzman since Sidney Bechet to adopt the soprano saxophone. He predated John Coltrane by at least 18 months; but Lucky has never been given any credit for ushering the return to popularity of the straight saxophone. In the mid-'60s Lucky returned to the U.S.A., recording for Prestige and Rivoli. He had been back and forth to Europe several times since and did several interesting LPs for Groove Merchant in the early '70s. He also taught at Dartmouth for a year[1973-74].

When Will Powers interviewed him for Different Drummer, Lucky was completing his academic work and thinking of a new city. This time it might be Toronto or Montreal. Always the drifter, ever the search.

It is not my opinion, but consen­sus, that says the music on these LPs is the finest extended playing that Lucky Thompson has produced on record. As noted earlier, the sessions came at a period where Lucky had been recording frequently. He and Pettiford were a mutual admiration society and the rapport, even inti­macy, they achieve in the trio tracks is nothing short of remarkable.

This is not to take anything away from the quintet sides where Jimmy Cleveland shines so brightly. The presence of Hank Jones reunites a close partnership dating to Detroit days. Yet it is Lucky, with the warmth, the inner feeling, the depth, the mastery that permeates every groove on these LPs.

That this music is able to appear again after years of neglect is cause for celebration. Let's hope that this release is able to shed new light on the talent of Lucky Thompson.”

—Bob Porter, Contributor—Radio Free Jazz1975 (original edited liner notes from Dancing Sunbeam, Imp ASH-9307-2)

A few years after this meeting, I learned that Lucky had passed away in Seattle in 2005.

With everything he had gone through, including apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease during the later years of his life, somehow he had luckily [?] managed to live to be 81-years of age.

Here’s a video tribute to Lucky that features him at his beautiful, breathy and majestic sounding best.

The tune is A Lady’s Vanity on which he is accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. It’s from the Tricotism CD.

And if you are looking for a comprehensive discography of Lucky’s recordings, you can’t do better than the one that Noal Cohen has compiled. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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

Originally a sidebar posting, I was able to bring this posting over to the main page on 11/15/2011.

However, for a time, I lost the ability to use the video that concludes the piece and the posting reverted to the archives without it.

YouTube has since liberalized its copyright policy so I thought it would be appropriate to again feature this profile about Tony, include the video and, in so doing, to help in some, small way to remember him.

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 was developed with the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.

© -  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."