© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Mr recent posting about the newly released Nat King Cole Trio’s 1950 performance in Zurich brought to mind Nat’s work on another of my favorite recording - Lester Young Trio with Nat "King" Cole and Buddy Rich - which was recorded in 1946 by Norman Granz for his Clef Records label and released on CD as Verve 314 521 650-2.
Because Nat had been under contract with Capitol since 1943 he surreptitiously made these recordings using the pseudonym “Aye Guy.”
Granz and Cole had a close friendship dating back to the early 1940s when Norman used to hang out at the Swanee Inn in Hollywood where Nat’s trio was featured, but his career as a concert impresario and record producer didn’t really kick off until the close of WWII in 1945.
Nat would be the headliner for Norman’s second Jazz at the Philharmonic concert which took place on July 30, 1945 at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles at which Buddy Rich also performed.
Recorded in April, 1946 and initially issued on Mercury Records, Lester Young Trio with Nat "King" Cole and Buddy Rich would ultimately be among the first recordings that Norman re-released as 78 rpms on Clef Records upon its founding in June, 1947.
Lester’s association with Norman dates back to the early 1940’s when he co-led a band with his brother, drummer Lee Young, that Norman often listen to in the clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles when he was a student at UCLA. This early relationship with Lester was to culminate in photographer/director Gijon Mili’s cult film “Jammin’ the Blues” which was released in theaters in December 1944 and for which Norman hired the musicians and served as recording supervisor and producer.
As explained in Bill Kirchner’s insert notes to the Verve CD reissue of Lester Young Trio with Nat "King" Cole and Buddy Rich, the bond between Lester and Norman would become even closer when Young signed a personal management contract with Granz in 1946.
Bill is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Jazz, an excellent saxophonist who heads up his own notet and a distinguished music educator. Over the years, he has also been extremely kind to these pages in allowing his work to be featured on them.
To put things in perspective, during the formative years of his association with Jazz, Norman Granz, essentially hung out with the three musicians that recorded the music for Lester Young Trio with Nat "King" Cole and Buddy Rich.
With the early guidance and friendship of these Grand Jazz Masters, is it any wonder that Norman later went on to do great things in the music?
Reissuing Lester Young Trio
“In the spring of 1946, a lot of things were changing.
World War II had ended, and amid vast alterations in the world's political landscape, the US was returning to a peacetime economy — though one that was quite different from its Depression-era counterpart. Americans were drawn to new forms of entertainment: network television was in its infancy.
And Lester Young was out of the Army.
Much has been written about the traumatic effects of Young's fourteen months of military service: his arrest, court-martial, and conviction for possession of marijuana and barbiturates: his ten months in the detention barracks at Fort Gordon, Georgia: and then his dishonorable discharge on December 1, 1945. Some of his associates have said that the effects of these events were deep and lasting. And a number of commentators have made the case that, whatever the merits of his postwar playing, he was seldom if ever the joyous Lester Young of his early recordings.
One thing is clear, though: On a single, undetermined date in late March or early April of 1946 (not December 1945 as was previously thought). Lester Young played some music that ranks with his finest recordings. You'll find it in this package.
Hearing Young at the peak of his powers is a pivotal experience in jazz listening. If Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic innovations in the 1920’s made the Swing Era possible, then Lester Young more than any other musician changed the focus of that era. His buoyant, airy sound, his lyricism and unorthodox phrasing, and his comparatively even eighth-note feel fit perfectly with the innovative Count Basie rhythm section.
He made further rhythmic developments by Charlie Christian. Kenny Clarke. Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker, and others not only possible but necessary. (Even in the late Thirties, though. Lester's innovations didn't stand alone. Listen to Django Reinhardt’s 1937 solo on "Japanese Sandman with Dicky Wells, and you'll hear an even eighth-note conception worthy of Wayne Shorter.)
So for hosts of players, including the fledgling Charlie Parker (and later Miles
Davis and Dexter Gordon), Lester Young became an idol whose recorded solos were eagerly memorized. And it wasn't just the instrumentalists who were entranced. Composer-arrangers such as Eddie Finckel. Jimmy Giuffre. and Johnny Mandel incorporated Young's innovations in their scoring. As Finckel. who wrote for the Gene Krupa. Boyd Raeburn and Buddy Rich bands, told historian Jack McKinney. his goal was "orchestrated Lester.” And as Mandel said recently: "Lester was the first to play the saxophone like a percussion instrument. Probably because lie started as a drummer.”
In 1946, Young was perhaps at the height of his influence in jazz. He had just signed a personal management contract with impresario Norman Granz, an association that continued almost until Young's death in 1959. Signing with Granz provided Young with considerable recording opportunities plus lucrative tours with Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). (Some complained, though, that the often extroverted jam-session formal of JATP was a less than ideal setting for the sensitive Lester.)
The Young-Cole-Rich date was thus a Norman Granz production, though it is unclear whether the idea to record without bass player was Granz's or the musicians'. Whatever, it was an inspired choice.
“These recordings," says Frank Ichmann-Moller in his Lester Young biography, You Just Fight for Your Life, Praeger, New York, 1990),
"are now classics. Every number has a high quality and its own beauty. Lester and Cole really listen to each other all the way through, and Lester is marvelous throughout. When necessary he is very romantic, poetic, dreaming, urgent, melancholy, humorous, cheerful, aggressive, or showing great drive. Because there is no bass player he is also forced away from lying behind the beat, playing much in the same way as he did in his earlier recordings."
Like Lester Young, Nat "King" Cole was a musicians' favorite but he was, more so than Young, a figure of wide popularity. “Straighten Up and Fly Right" had been a hit for the King Cole Trio in 1944, and the group, featuring the leader's piano and vocals and a soon-to-be widely copied piano-guitar-bass format, recorded prolificacy.
Moreover, Cole was one of the most important jazz pianists of the day, with a "crystalline sound'* (as Gene Lees has written), advanced harmonic concept, and impeccable swing. It is not surprising that most of the major jazz pianists who emerged in the next decade and a half — including such disparate stylists as Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson, and Bud Powell — were influenced by Cole. (For a sampling of this influence, listen to the opening chorus of “I Want to Be Happy"; such technique was surely not lost on Powell.)
From his beginning as an enfant terrible who sparked the Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey bands. Buddy Rich had become one of the most in-demand drummers of the era. (In 1944, reports Doug Meriwether. Jr. in his bio-discography of Buddy Rich, Count Basie presented Rich with a blank check after Rich filled in for two weeks with the Basie band. Rich graciously declined it.) At the time of these recordings. Rich was appearing in Los Angeles at the helm of his own big band and was thus available for these recordings.
Those who regard Buddy Rich as a flamboyant but not particularly sensitive virtuoso may well be surprised by this session. For one thing, Rich remains almost entirely on brushes, which is perfect for the needs of this group, especially on "I Want to Be Happy". (On “Peg o' My Heart,” he is absent entirely, having gone to get something to eat; Lester was merely fooling around with the Fisher-Bryan chestnut when Nat started filling in behind him. Norman decided to record it and another gem was cut.)
There is no need for a play-by-play description of this music, but it should be pointed out that the most adventurous interplay comes on the two fastest tracks, “I've Found a New Baby” and “I Want to Be Happy.”Lester is exquisite — totally relaxed and in complete control of all registers of his horn. Nat is propulsive yet sensitive — listen to the touches of Earl Hines (an early influence) and Art Tatum that crop up in his playing. Buddy Rich sounds like he's having a ball — you can hear his vocal exhortations.
In fact, all three sound like they're having fun; the prevailing mood is serious yet playful. (Don't miss Lester's quotes from "March of the Toy Soldiers" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" on "I Want to Be Happy".)
In 1950, down beat gave a release of four of these selections its highest rating, saying: "Four magnificent sides, made four years ago, with Lester most often at his fluent best. 'Baby', in addition to some wonderful tenor, has some deft and humorous kidding between Cole's piano and Rich's drumming."
Over four decades later, that review — and this music — still rings true.”
Bill Kirchner, 1993
One of the first tunes I ever played Jazz on was I Found A New Baby [doesn’t everybody?] It’s one of the reasons I selected it as the soundtrack for the following video montage.