1960 Jazz: Atlantic Records, part 1

In the six previous articles of this series we covered jazz albums recorded in 1960 and released on labels dedicated to the art of jazz. A common attribute to them all was that they were all small and operating on tight budgets. It is time to shift gears to bigger labels who released albums in a wide variety of genres, but also catered to jazz audiences. We begin with a label that started with two jazz-loving brothers, who became successful by focusing on black music, albeit of the racier flavor. We come to Atlantic Records and jazz albums recorded in 1960 under the supervision of their jazz department head, Nesuhi Ertegun.

Nesuhi Ertegun joined Atlantic Records in 1955 after his brother Ahmet and his partner Jerry Wexler persuaded him to become a full time partner instead of accepting a job at Atlantic’s competitor Imperial Records. Nesuhi had the experience of working under Lester Koenig at Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, where he was involved with albums by some of that label’s stars including Barney Kessel and Shelly Manne. 1955 was the year LPs entered the market in a big way and with his meticulous attention to the quality of sound and packaging of albums, Nesuhi Ertegun was the perfect man for Atlantic. He was made head of the company’s full LP catalog and given the responsibility of building a jazz division.

Ertegun has been described as a fussy sound man who runs back and forth between the control booth and the musicians, rebalancing microphones or changing the relative positions of instruments. But like many of his contemporaries who run jazz labels, at heart he was simply an avid listener and a fan of jazz music. His best memories from the sessions he organized were not technical but related to the enjoyment of the music, as he related: “You hear a musician say something during a solo you never heard him say before or all of a sudden a rhythm section will catch on fire. You sometimes forget you are a record producer and become a fervent jazz listener in the control booth.”

Nesuhi Ertegun

A number of jazz giants recorded albums for Atlantic in 1960, some of them multiple albums that year. However none of them were more prolific than the Modern Jazz Quartet, both as a group and solo sessions led by its members. The band represented Nesuhi Ertegun’s most important signing to the label, recording twenty albums for Atlantic and becoming the backbone of their jazz catalog.

The MJQ started the year with a session on January 15, 1960, when they recorded a number of pieces that ended up on two separate albums, combined with tracks they previously recorded in 1959. These recordings and most of the music the group recorded in 1960 has been labeled as Third Stream Music, a term that was highly debated at the time. In 1961 Gunther Schuller wrote an article titled ‘Third Stream’ in which he described the origin of the name:

“I first used the term ‘Third Stream’ in a lecture three or four years ago, in an attempt to describe a music that was beginning to evolve with growing consistency. For lack of a precise name, one was forced at the time to describe it either in a lengthy definition or in descriptive phrases comprising several sentences. I used the term as an adjective, not as a noun. I did not envision its use as a name, a slogan, or a catchword.”

Gunther Schuller, 1964

In a later article titled Third Stream Revisited, Schuller expands on the definition by listing what Third Stream is not:

It is not jazz with strings.

It is not jazz played on “classical” instruments.

It is not classical music played by jazz players.

It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between bebop changes—nor the reverse.

It is not jazz in fugal form.

It is not a fugue played by jazz players.

It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.

And by definition there is no such thing as Third Stream Jazz.

Rejecting a number of jazz critics who saw Third Stream as a threat to the core principle of jazz as improvised music, Schuller commented on the incorporation of arranged written pieces and formal structure into jazz: “As jazz grows in form, it will develop a freedom in the use of form that is inherent in all the great masterpieces of classical music. The best and most successful of how form is becoming more meaningfully extended in jazz is the work of the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

MJQ Readers Poll, Combo category, Downbeat December 1960

The Modern Jazz Quartet was at the height of its popularity in 1960. In December of that year the group won the best combo category in the Downbeat readers’ poll, beating the Dave Brubeck Quartet, thus reversing the previous year’s poll (Dave Brubeck released Time Out in 1959 with Take Five, it was a guaranteed win). Entering the studio on January 15, they embarked on two pieces of music that exemplified Gunther Schuller’s insights about them. The first was a new take on Vendome, a track they originally recorded for their first, self-titled album back in 1952, released on the 10” LP (those were pre-12” LP days). Compared to the original, tentative version of the tune, this new interpretation is at a higher tempo and it swings. John Lewis, who wrote the closest thing to ‘jazz in fugal form’ with that piece, said: “When I started working with the Modern Jazz Quartet, I began to imitate classical forms. With Vendome, I hadn’t solve the problem of creating contrapuntal material that would have the feeling of swing. I had much to learn.”

In another interview Lewis added: “Some of the music we’ve played, Vendome for instance, was very unnatural when we started playing. On the record it was not natural at all. Now it has become natural, but it has taken a long time.” Eight years after the original recording of Vendome the problem seemed to be solved, as you can hear in this recording:

Vendome was released on the album Pyramid, which mostly comprised of tracks recorded in 1959. It was played to Cal Tjader in one of Downbeat’s blindfold tests in 1961. He immediately recognized the band and the piece of music, adding: “John Lewis is one of my favorite pianists. Every pianist studying jazz should listen a great deal to John Lewis, because absence is as important as presence.” Smart man.

The second piece they recorded in January 1960 was much more ambitious. Exposure is another composition by John Lewis, written for a United Nations documentary of the same name. The MJQ are joined by a chamber ensemble consisting of clarinet, flute, bassoon, French horn, cello and harp. If Third Stream Music is about finding a sweet spot where the classical and jazz worlds can meet, this is it.

Not everyone liked these attempts at using classical forms within the context of jazz music. In a 1960 review for Metronome, Martin Williams wrote that the piece was very well played, but the main theme was weak and repeated too often. He found Lewis’ solo too reliant on the theme, but was impressed by Milt Jackson’s solo.

Exposure was released on the album Third Stream Music. In a 1960 Downbeat article that focused on Nesuhi Ertegun, the producer said of the album that it is musically the most important record on Atlantic this far, and “a significant effort to fuse jazz with the classics.”

In a review of the album, Leonard Feather wrote about Exposure: “One Lewis passage, in which he uses no left hand and merely toys a while in single note style with a G 7th, is exquisitely simple and propulsive. A colorful and highly ingenious piece of writing.”

Tracks from the album were played by Leonard Feather a number of times in blindfold tests for Downbeat magazine. In October 1961 composer Andre Previn said of the album “I would give this all stars for the playing, the execution, the time, the recording, the whole thing – a marvelous record.”

George Russell, another major proponent of third stream music (we covered his album Stratusphunk in the article about Riverside Records in 1960), sat on another blindfold test and the first album played for him was MJQ’s Third Stream Music. The piece played was composed by Gunther Schuller, and Russell of course immediately recognized the album. After raving about it he said “I have too much respect for the composer and the quartet to rate this one.”

We move to a related album recorded for Atlantic in February 1960, this time a John Lewis project that resulted in the album “The Golden Striker, John Lewis conducts music for brass”. After experimenting with woodwinds and a string chamber ensemble, Lewis set his eyes on a brass ensemble and composed a collection of tunes in various styles of music. Most of the album is dedicated to Italian themes inspired by traditional Italian comedy, the commedia dell’arte. Pieces like Piazza Navona, Pulcinella and La Cantatrice will be recorded again by the MJQ for the album The Comedy in 1962 to be covered in a future article.

The album included two tracks composed for films. One is Odds Against Tomorrow, the only non-‘Italian’ tune on the album. The second in the title track, originally recorded as part of the 1957 album The “Modern Jazz Quartet Plays One Never Knows: Original Film Score for No Sun in Venice”. Gary Kramer writes in the original liner notes: “This brass arrangement is a lusty, swinging dance of the hours. There are brass flourishes that have a certain amount of churchly feeling, reminding us of the location of the Golden Striker (these life-size figures that strike the hour from Venice’s Clock Tower.”

The tune was played to Quincy Jones in a Downbeat blindfold test in February 1961. Jones almost nailed it: “The piano player reminded me a little bit of John Lewis: a helluva lot of eminence. A lot of influence, and that’s another reason why I think it might have been something cut either in England or Germany.” The album was recorded in New York.

John Lewis – piano, conductor

Melvyn Broiles, Bernie Glow, Alan Kiger, Joe Wilder – trumpet

David Baker, Dick Hixson – trombone

Ray Alonge, John Barrows, Al Richman, Gunther Schuller – French horn

Jay McAllister. Harvey Phillips– tuba

George Duvivier – bass

Connie Kay – drums

Another MJQ band member followed with a solo recording just a week after John Lewis. Co-founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, was already a veteran recording artist outside the group, with about 15 albums listed under his name a leader, 7 of them with Atlantic Records. In February of 1960 he recorded the album Vibrations with fellow MJQ member Connie Kay and a group of musicians less associated with the band.

Unrelated to this LP, but a story worth telling: In 1944, after leaving the army, Milt Jackson came to New York and quickly joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band. At the time the band was a quintet that included Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Al Haig on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Stan Levey on drums. Gillespie talked about why he hired Jackson: “I wasn’t always sure Bird would show up, and that’s why I hired Bags. The contract was for only five men. With Bags we were sure to have at least five men on the stand whether Bird showed up or not.”

Milt Jackson Deagan ad

The album included a number of compositions by jazz trombonist Tom McIntosh, who also created beautiful arrangements, as in the track featured below.

Milt Jackson – vibes

Henry Boozier – trumpet

Tom McIntosh – trombone

Jimmy Heath – tenor saxophone

Tate Houston – baritone saxophone

Kenny Burrell – guitar

Tommy Flanagan – piano

George Duvivier, Alvin Jackson – bass

Connie Kay – drums

The MJQ first toured Europe in 1956 as part of a Birdland All-Star tour with Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Lester Young. In 1957 they returned to the continent on their own. They performed 88 concerts in four months in Germany, France, and the British Isles, receiving rave reviews. European audiences loved their experiments with classical forms and gave their music the attention it required. Band members commented on the difference of playing to European and American listeners. Milt Jackson: “In Europe they have a different outlook than we do in this country; they’re more responsive to art. We are just getting around to listening. Like if you go to a theater. You’re not there to listen — you’re there to see. Americans have been taught to go see, not to go hear. Illinois Jacquet was hot not because of what he was playing but because he was jumping around. If you go through those gymnastics, how’re you going to play? Your instrument demands your whole attention. If you don’t give it, you’ll be nothing but a jive musician.”

John Lewis: “I hate to say it, but we first hit in Europe because the audiences were far better educated than audiences in the U.S. More than that, the music we played was well organized and planned. In other words, nobody was up there rehearsing on the stand, hunting and searching for things.”

We can contrast this with an experience told in a 1961 Downbeat profile article about Milt Jackson describing a performance in Ann Arbor, Michigan: “The concert’s finale was given over to a several-part composition written by Lewis, who announced and explained each part. Before the third section, as he was explaining his attractive, but complex, piece of work, a man in the first row shouted, ‘Bags’ Groove!’ Lewis recoiled as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown in his face. He replied with dignity, “We’ll play that later. And now in this third section…”

In April 1960 four concerts of the group were recorded over three nights in Stockholm and Goteborg, Sweden. The MJQ picked a great set of tunes to play to the appreciative audience, most of them they recorded in the past. John Wilson wrote in a Downbeat review of the album: “Without exception, these are the most finished versions (if a Lewis piece can ever be declared finished, since like Duke Ellington, he constantly rethinks and reworks his writings) of key MJQ pieces that have been put on record. The album is a brilliant summation of the quartet to date, one of the most completely realized sets of jazz performances ever recorded.”

The recorded performances in Swedden were released on two LPs, European Concert Volumes 1 and 2. The first album inlcudes a great version of Django, a piece they originally recorded in 1954. Back  then It was the last recording with drummer Kenny Clarke. Django is one of John Lewis’ most lyrical compositions. It is dedicated to Django Reinhardt who died in May 1953, a year before the first recording was made. While it is a blues, it owes as much to Bach as it does to the blues. Its structure is unique, starting and ending with what to me sounds like a eulogy to Reinhardt, with a somber melody accentuated by single bass notes.

The liner notes by Jule Forster gives us a hint of what the experience of being in the audience watching a Modern Jazz Quartet concert might have been like: “Visually, The Modern Jazz Quartet has eliminated distraction from the jazz concert stage. It was with full intent that the four members of the group have sought to lose the individual personality within the unit by following close rules of stage arrangement and dress. Aesthetically as dull-looking on the stage as a string quartet (the British have called one of their performances , ‘jazz in sober suits’), the quartet’s stage attitude forces the audience into a state of listening.”

Remember the man who shouted ‘Bags’ Groove!’? This was one of the group’s crowd pleasers, first recorded by the Milt Jackson Quintet on April 7, 1952. Milt Jackson got that nickname after his release from the Army when bags were visible under his eyes following a drinking binge. Here is a performance of the song from the second volume of the European Concert:

In June 1960 the MJQ were back in Europe for another recording, this time a studio session in Stuttgart, Germany, with the band accompanied by a large symphony orchestra. Gunther Schuller condusted the orchestra on most of the tracks and also wrote the liner notes: “The idea and content of this album were conceived by John Lewis. He loves the concept and sound of a symphony orchestra. On the other hand, he believes that the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet, with its unique communicating powers, can help orchestras reach a new and wider audience.”

In an interview after the album’s release John Lewis commented on the type of audiences the MJQ was seeking: “We have to try to make people understand. We can put jazz on another level, create a new audience. This is what jazz needs – cultured people. Rich people’s groove is opera and symphony. We integrate the two. People with money go to opera and symphony but now they’re interested in jazz because of this new thing, Third Stream. The last album (The MJQ and Orchestra) is what we’ve been doing with the orchestras.

A Downbeat critic did not agree. He found the album unsatisfying, explaining: “One consistent element throughout the disc is the fact that the symphony orchestra constantly gets in the way of the quartet (that is, it seems evident that the quartet could have done each piece much better if it had not had to contend with the orchestra) while at the same time the orchestra contributes very little of value of its own.”

You be the judge. I find this next piece of music wonderfully intriguing. Divertimento was written by German composer Werner Heider who met John Lewis at the Festival of Light Music in Stuttgart and was asked at the time to produce an arrangement of Out of Nowhere for the MJQ and a Danish choral group.

John Lewis kept a busy schedule in 1960 with and outside of the Modern Jazz Quartet. In July and September that year he left his experimentation with classical forms aside and recorded an album of jazz tunes, titled The Wonderful World of Jazz.

Ralph Gleason gives us a hint of the pianist’s dedication to his work in the liner notes: “There have been very few musicians, in jazz or any other music, who have devoted themselves so completely to their art as has John Lewis. He is, I think, the only jazz musician I have ever known with whom it is possible to schedule a 9am appointment and know that he will make it.”

The most interesting track on the album was recorded on a day when Gunther Schuller, Eric Dolphy, Benny Golson and Jimmy Giuffre joined forces in the studio. You cannot miss with a lineup like that. Listen to “The Stranger” by Arif Mardin, who also arranged it. It was not included with the original LP that was released in 1961, and later added as a bonus track to the CD release.

John Lewis – piano, arranger

Jim Hall – guitar

George Duvivier – bass

Connie Kay – drums

Herb Pomeroy – trumpet

Gunther Schuller – French horn

Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone

Benny Golson (tracks 4 & 6), Paul Gonsalves (track 1) – tenor saxophone

James Rivers – baritone saxophone

Arif Mardin – arranger (track 6)

John Lewis closed the year with a recording in December 1960 that can best be described as third stream meets free jazz. This time Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Scott LaFaro are on board, along with a string ensemble, Bill Evans and other fine musicians. The album was released as Jazz Abstractions with the full title of “John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music Compositions.” Most of the tracks were composed by Gunther Schuller, including interesting arrangements of Django by John Lewis and Criss Cross by Thelonious Monk.

John Wilson wrote about the album: “Mr. Schuller’s compositions reveal a highly provocative mind at work, for he composes not only with a sense of adventure, but also with an extremely sensitive feeling of proportion and balance.”

Schuller wrote in the album liner notes that he let “Ornette Coleman improvise against a composed background which approximates a completely free ensemble improvisation. On the initial rehearsals, Ornette listened about four times to the composed background, and only when he felt he had its pulse and color, its varying tensions, did he begin to play with us.”

Schuller also talked about the track Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss-Cross): “Criss-Cross is a composition for instruments, meant to be heard, not danced or sung to. Brief though it may be, it is as complete in its concise statement and development as a Scarlatti sonata or a Haydn quartet. I have long wanted to pay homage to this unique piece and its composer.”

Gunther Schuller – arranger, conductor

Jim Hall – guitar

Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone

Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute

Robert DiDomenica – flute

Bill Evans – piano

Eddie Costa – vibraphone

Charles Libove, Roland Vamos – violin

Alfred Brown, Harry Zaratzian – viola

Joseph Tekula – cello

Alvin Brehm (track 1), George Duvivier (tracks 3 & 4), Scott LaFaro – bass

Sticks Evans – drums

In the next article we will explore jazz albums recorded for Atlantic Records in 1960, with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and others.

Categories: A Year in Music

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5 replies »

  1. Another great selection, buddy. The highlighted tracks are good and it seems that listening to the albums will be time well spent. I have a question not related to music, though. On the first paragraph, you say that “we begin with a label that started with two jazz-loving brothers, who became successful by focusing on black music, albeit of the racier flavor.” What do you mean when you write “albeit of the racier flavor?” See, it’s not the case that I don’t get your point: I don’t get the point of the sentence itself. It’s a lack of English knowledge, if you get my point. 🙂 And as always, thanks for the effort of writing your posts.

  2. Good question, Mário. It is a little bit a play on words, but there is some history there. Prior to the popularity of rhythm and blues, made possible in part due to Atlantic Records in its early days, the term “Race Music” was used to describe different kinds of black music: jazz, blues, gospel. The term became obsolete after a while, but during the first years that Atlantic Records operated in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the music the label released was called race music, and it did not yet have jazz on the menu.

    • Oh, I see. Thanks for explaining. Things were different back then, and yet everything feels like the same, sometimes.

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