1960 Jazz: Prestige Records

In 1960 Prestige Records was in its 12th year of operation. The label was founded in 1949 by Bob Weinstock, recording and releasing jazz singles by the likes of Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and many others. In 1955 they started to release 12” LPs, and along with Blue Note and Riverside, where one of the top independent labels focusing on jazz in that golden era of the genre. 1960 was a year of change at the label. Producer Esmond Edwards who joined a few years earlier, now oversaw many of the recording sessions. The company also started to diversify with a number of specialty labels. Bob Weinstock was still very active, and much of the selected material on the label’s albums was a result of his judgement: “We had a basic framework, and we’d discuss who we were going to use. I didn’t try and shove people down their throats. I’d have suggestions, they’d have suggestions. My knowledge of songs was tremendous.” Many sessions were quite spontaneous, minimal preparation involved. The label relied heavily on the musicians’ ability to do what they do best: improvise. Esmond Edwards: “With Prestige we worked on a limited budget. Things were done in the studio, no rehearsal as a rule. It was a matter of getting compatible musicians together and, to some extent, giving them a direction in advance. A lot of times things were kind of ad hoc. You get four or five guys in the studio, and they’re scratching their heads. ‘What are we going to do now?’”

Let’s take a look at some of the albums recorded by Prestige in 1960.

We start with a singer who recorded her first of twelve albums for Prestige in June 1960. Although this was Etta Jones’ debut on the label, 16 years had passed since her debut recording session. Back in 1944 she recorded a single for Leonard Feather, who tried to repeat his success from a year earlier with Dinah Washington. Since then Jones kept herself busy as a lead singer in big bands and as a solo artist, but did not visit the recording studio very often. Her first recording for Prestige changed all that. The resulting album, Don’t Go to Strangers, included the title song which was released as a single and surprisingly did very well, both on the R&B and pop charts.

Producer Esmond Edwards remembers: “She picked the tune. I was unfamiliar with it. Initially I thought of it as the B-side of the single, but it was the side that got all the attention.” Ron Eyre, sales manager for Prestige at the time: “Don’t Go to Strangers broke pretty fast nationally. It started off with R&B and wet quickly into pop play. It was tough to convince the distributors because they didn’t really believe that Prestige could have a pop hit.”

Etta Jones – vocals

Frank Wess — flute, tenor saxophone

Richard Wyands — piano

Skeeter Best — guitar

George Duvivier — bass

Roy Haynes — drums

Prestige’s bread and butter recordings since the label’s inception consisted of straight ahead blowing sessions, and the next album is no different. Tenor saxophone players teamed many times in the past, the vast tonal range of the instrument allowing two musicians to share the soloing without stepping over each other. Gene Ammons and Sony Stitt, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Frank Foster and Frank Wess are fine examples, and on this date here we meet Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin. Jaws and Griff, as they were known, are both masters of the instrument. They certainly enjoy exchanging solos and also playing lead lines together. From the liner notes: “This is a straightforward, free-wheeling, no-nonsense jazz. It will make you tap your foot and shake your head, and at times the shouting and hollering will make you laugh out loud.”

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Johnny Griffin – tenor saxophone

Norman Simmons – piano

Victor Sproles – bass

Ben Riley – drums

If two tenor sax players are not enough, what about three? Jimmy Forrest and King Curtis have been busy writing and recording rhythm and blues numbers in the 1950s. Jimmy Forest scored a #1 hit with Night Train, and King Curtis played with many artists of the genre including Ruth Brown and The Coasters. Match them with composer/arranger and fellow tenor player Oliver Nelson, who started his recording career as a leader the previous year, and the combination works wonders. For some reason the label loved to use the term “battle” for albums featuring multiple musicians playing the same instrument, and this one gets the title Soul Battle. However the playing is very complimentary and no casualties were found at the end of the session.

Jimmy Forrest, King Curtis, Oliver Nelson – Tenor Saxophone

Gene Casey – Piano

George Duvivier – Bass

Roy Haynes – Drums

Let’s remain with King Curtis, who recorded two sessions as a leader with Prestige in 1960. Those were his first pure jazz recordings, after a decade rich with R&B sessions. The tenor man reflected on that side of his work: “It’s been frustrating up to now. Although my regular combo plays 60% or 70% jazz, record companies haven’t let me record jazz, because I had already had a reputation in commercial music.” Both sessions featured pianist Wynton Kelly, who goes back with King Curtis since the days he accompanied Dinah Washington. Curtis: “I really like musicians who can play many styles. Wynton played beautifully with Dinah, was excellent in rhythm and blues, and then fitted in very well with Miles Davis’ modern jazz conception.”

Two albums were released from these sessions, The New Scene of King Curtis and Soul Meeting. They were packaged together when reissued in 1994. The liner notes included a heartfelt article by none other than Atlantic R&B authority Jerry Wexler, who reminisced about Curtis later in the 1960s: “He was a mighty presence, six foot one, powerful, cool and radiant. He was always in charge. He loved to eat, play sax, record, shoot crap, ride his cycle, and make shrewd deals with music mahoffs. He had an endless parade of great players in his bands, including Jimi Hendrix.”

King Curtis – tenor saxophone

Nat Adderley – trumpet, cornet

Wynton Kelly – piano

Sam Jones – bass

Belton Evans – drums

Starting in 1960, Prestige label founder Bob Weinstock founded a number of specialty sub-labels to cater to audiences with different types of listening preferences. One of them was Moodsville, going after the easy listening market that was blooming in the late 1950s. Think of it as jazz that is easy on the ears. Ron Eyre described the genre: “Some few years ago, along with the popular acceptance of the long playing high fidelity record, a new vogue was created in the form of ‘mood music.’ It was found that there was a definite market for this type of listening and it was not long before there were scores of albums to be seen displayed on record counters with titles beginning with ‘Music to…’. Whatever the individual wanted to do, there was an album of music to do it by.”

Easy listening is not my personal cup of musical tea, but it is still worthwhile to look at some of these recordings from 1960. These albums paid the bills that allowed the label to record its less commercial albums, and many of them were quite good.

By 1960 Coleman Hawkins has been around the block a few times and then some. One of the key jazz musicians to make the tenor saxophone a main jazz instrument, he was known for his smooth and controlled style. Miles Davis said “When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads.” Hawk was an ideal choice for Moodsville.

Prestige house producer Esmond Edwards, who also took many of the front cover photos for the label, worked closely with Coleman Hawkins. He called the sessions and selected the tunes: “He’d look it over, run it down. ‘Yeah, it’s all right.’ He didn’t give a shit one way or the other. It was just music. He didn’t care. Given the music, he could play it.”

The tenor player’s loose attitude towards the selection of tunes proved challenging to start, but not for long. Edwards continues: “Surprisingly, a lot of the tunes which I considered well-known standards, he wasn’t familiar with. But the guy, you could stick the music in front of him. He’d run it down once. And it was like he wrote it the second performance.”

Coleman Hawkins – tenor saxophone

Tommy Flanagan – piano

Wendell Marshall – bass

Osie Johnson – drums

In April 1960 Red Garland was in the studio for a session that yielded two albums on Moodsville. After he found fame as a part of Miles Davis’ celebrated 1950s quintet, he kept a steady schedule of recordings as a leader and sideman for Prestige. This was the first time in his career as a jazz musician that he recorded as a solo piano artist. Here are entries from Ron Eyre’s random notes he took during the session: “Habit of throwing in little phrases by Basie… beauty of listening to Red solo is in hearing all the little unattended nuances that are sometimes lost when he is with a trio.” The date features some of my favorite standards, including These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You), You Are Too Beautiful, I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and When I Fall in Love.

Red Garland – piano

Earlier in the article we heard Oliver Nelson as one of three tenor sax players, and it is time to feature him as a composer, for a fine composer he is. The album Nocturne features a number of Nelson’s compositions, with him playing saxophones and Lem Winchester on vibes. The title track is influenced by the night music sections in the compositions of Bela Bartok, Nelson’s favorite composer. A few months earlier Nelson recorded the album Taking Care of Business, including the track All The Way in which he played a full section from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra during his solo. Joe Goldberg who wrote the liner notes observed: “Instead of doing it in a way which flaunt his erudition, he integrated it so completely into his solo that no one writing about the album noticed the insertion.”

Oliver Nelson – alto and tenor saxophone

Lem Winchester – vibes

Richard Wyands – piano

George Duvivier – bass

Roy Haynes – drums

We close the article with an album on another Prestige specialty sub label. Like Moodsville, sister label Swingville was short-lived and in its four years of existence produced about 40 albums. It focused on mainstream jazz by some of the great soloists of the swing era. By 1960 they were “on the periphery of jazz attention” as writer Nat Hentoff observed, and most labels were reluctant to record them.

Such is the case of Pee Wee Russell. Trying to shake his image of a pre-historic, pre-Bird jazz musician, when asked by Prestige producer Esmond Edwards about what rhythm section to provide to him for the recording, he said “You go ahead and surprise me. I trust your judgement. But don’t make it a Dixieland session.” After the session he commented “It was modern. And the piano player is one of the best I’ve ever played with.” That piano player was Tommy Flanagan. The resulting album, Swingin’ with Pee Wee, is an enjoyable listen with the great clarinet master.

Bob Weinstock talked about Pee Wee Russell and the Swingville label: “He was the greatest. He could play with anybody, but people didn’t realize that. We were the first ones, on the Swingville label, to take Pee Wee, put him with Buck Clayton, and let him play swing. That’s what we would do on Swingville. We mixed people and put modern rhythm sections with older-style players.” Other labels such as Impulse! would follow this method of putting records together throughout the 1960s.

Pee Wee Russell – Clarinet

Buck Clayton – Trumpet

Tommy Flanagan – Piano

Wendell Marshall – Bass

Osie Johnson – Drums

If you enjoyed reading this article, here are a few more about jazz recorded in 1960:

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