The last few articles in the 1960 jazz series focused on jazz of the adventurous kind, featuring albums by the likes of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. We now shift to mainstream labels who appealed to larger audiences yet maintained high quality of jazz recordings. These labels usually had contracts with some of the genre’s biggest stars and offered them lucrative contracts compared to the smaller labels. The focus of this article is Verve Records, and we start with its biggest star, the First Lady of Song.
Verve Records was founded in 1956 by Norman Granz, bringing under one roof recordings made by two other labels under his management, Clef Records and Norgran Records. His primary goal with Verve was to act as a vehicle for albums by Ella Fitzgerald, whom he managed personally since the mid-1940s in tandem with his jazz concert tour series Jazz at The Philharmonic (JATP). The first album he produced for Verve Records was “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book”, a turning point in the singer’s career, starting a series of song book albums that continued to the mid-1960s.
At the beginning of 1960 Ella Fitzgerald participated in a JATP concert tour of Europe. Other performers on that tour included the Jimmy Giuffre Three, Paul Smith Quartet, Roy Eldridge, and the Shelly Manne Quintet. The first stop of the tour was in Berlin on February 13, 1960 at the Deutschlandhalle, a 12,000 seat capacity hall that was inaugurated by Hitler in 1935 to host sport events in the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Ella Fitzgerald captivated the German audience in attendance that Sunday night. Performing many songs from her various song book albums, her delivery and interpretation of these well-known songs was immaculate. The German editor of Jazz Podium magazine mentioned “Her sincerity, her gifts as an impressionist and her endearing humor and childlike grace,” plus ”Her instrumental phrasing and close rapport with the musicians.” The musicians were a quartet led by pianist Paul Smith and featuring guitarist Jim Hall.
But the performance was immortalized by one song. Thirty years after the song was written by a German songwriting duo during the Weimar Republic, Ella brought it back to a performance hall inaugurated by the man how caused this writing duo to flee Germany. We are talking about Mack the Knife, a song from Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. A year after Bobby Darin made it a huge hit in the US, Ella decided to sing it in its city of origin, and the local audience ate it up.
About two minutes into the song, Ella starts ad-libbing the lyrics, obviously having forgotten the English lyrics adapted by Marc Blitzstein. What ensues is sheer brilliance of improvisation. Only Ella could come up on the spot with these lyrics, complete with rhymes and sang perfectly to the rhythm of the song:
“Ah, louis miller, Oh, something about cash
Yeah, miller, he was spending that trash”
“And now ella, ella, and her fellas”
“You wont recognize it
Its a surprise hit”
You couldn’t write it that good. She even manages to name drop and imitate Louis Armstrong, who first performed the song in English in 1955, and Bobby Darin, while admitting “We’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife.”
Norman Granz issued the song as a single and it became a crossover hit, peaking at #27 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. That performance earned Ella Fitzgerald a Grammy Award for Best Female Vocal Performance.
This is what Jim Hall, her guitar player on this album, said about Ella: “I used to tune up to her. If it was a choice between her and the piano, I would go for her!”
Ella Fitzgerald – vocals
Paul Smith – piano
Jim Hall – guitar
Wilfred Middlebrooks – double bass
Gus Johnson – drums
Ella Fitzgerald’s singing career is vast and well-documented. Her movie career, on the other hand, is much less known for a good reason: While she played roles in four films, they were usually limited to small singing parts: Ride ‘Em, Cowboy (1942), Pete Kelley’s Blues (1955), St. Louis Blues (1958). Her last appearance in a film was in 1960, when she played a drug addict in the film Let No Man Write My Epitaph. A Downbeat magazine news item from January 1960 read: “Ella Fitzgerald, whose last movie role was in Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955, will co-star with Burl Ives and Shelley Winters in Columbia’s Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Her part will be that of a skid row nitery singer who becomes a junkie. Ella?”
Here is a scene from the movie with Ella acting as a junkie in need of a fix:
The movie was released in October 1960, and another Downbeat item a month later reported: “Previews of the film Let No Man Write My Epitaph, a Willard Motley best seller, say there is too little of Ella Fitzgerald’s singing. Ella, who plays the drug addict Flora, sings a tune written by Jimmie McHugh and Ned Washington titled Reach for Tomorrow.”
Ella entered the studio in April 1960 to record songs for the soundtrack, accompanied only by her conductor and pianist Paul Smith. The tunes are standard American ballads, similar in style to many of her song book albums, but delivered in a much more intimate setting. From the liner notes: “This album proves once again that Ella Fitzgerald is without peer when it comes to singing ballads, whether accompanied by the largest orchestra, or, in this case, the smallest.” Paul Smith said of the recording: “We did it together, just her and the piano. I would advise any singer to listen to that and see how easy she sang. She just loved to sing ballads, and when she really got into that groove, she enjoyed it more than the ‘up’ tunes.”
Here is I Cried for You, a 1923 tune that was performed in a number of films by artists including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. Diana Ross sang it in Lady Sings the Blues, personifying Billie Holiday:
Norman Granz was ever trying to find commercial avenues for Ella Fitzgerald. Song selections were often geared toward scoring a crossover hit, and what better chance to do that than record a holiday album? In July and August of 1960 Ella entered the studio with an orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. The two started collaborating in 1957 and together recorded a number of albums on Verve, including Like Someone in Love, Hello Lover, Get Happy and Ella Sings Sweet Songs for Swingers. Unfortunately DeVol never had the opportunity to work with Ella on one of her celebrated song book albums. The result of their 1960 sessions was the album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, a collection of well known and loved secular Christmas songs. From the original liner notes: “Mindful that Christmas albums normally emphasize the religious and the solemn, Ella chose in this to stress the festive aspect of the season.” The album includes songs you cannot miss with, such as Jingle Bells, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I can’t say that I am a fan of holiday music, and in my mind it is ever connected with sprees of mindless shopping. But – this is a really good jazz record, and if you forget the context of the album for a minute, it sounds as good as many classic Ella-backed-by-orchestra albums.
A favorite song of mine from the album is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, originally performed by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. It became a hit with American troops serving in World War II and longing to be home for the holidays. There was also a memorable performance that Garland gave of the song at the Hollywood Canteen during the war.
Ella does the song justice with her emotional version:
We mentioned the song book albums a number of times, so it is fitting to finish the Ella Fitzgerald portion of this article with the sixth album in that magnificent series. Over five sessions in August 1960 and January 1961 Ella recorded the Harold Arlen song book accompanied by an orchestra conducted and arranged by Billy May. The prolific arranger worked with all the major jazz and popular singers of the day: Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Nancy Wilson, George Shearing, Nat King Cole. This was his only collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald, and a fine collaboration it is.
After five song book albums that covered the music of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen was a less obvious choice. Harold Arlen was not a house hold name, but he was a brilliant creator of popular songs, as evident by the selection on Ella Fitzgerald’s album. If there is one song he would forever be remembered by it is Over the Rainbow, immortalized by (again) Judy Garland in the film The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Other fantastic songs Ella chose to interpret from Harold Arlen’s repertoire include Stormy Weather, Let’s Fall in Love, That Old Black Magic, I’ve Got the World on a String, Come Rain or Come Shine and It’s Only a Paper Moon. But the selection goes much deeper, with a total of 24 songs in the original double-LP. The sleeve notes address this: “Those people responsible for the background work to these sessions have performed diligent research, resuscitating the corpses of numbers which should never have been allowed to die.”
Arlen himself said of Ella Fitzgerald and her interpretation of his songs: “She is unique. Her style is unlike anyone else’s – she stands alone while most everyone is derivative. She has sung songs and made them irresistibly attractive. The glory of this is the astonishing fact that she has reached such an amazingly large audience. Her voice, her style, are pure unadulterated American. Her phrasing impeccable – she improvises playfully and with more fluidity than most instrumentalists.”
As with the previous song book albums, Ella’s performance of Harold Arlen’s songs became classics and is the reason why some of the lesser-known songs survived. As singer Mitzi Gaynor said when asked if she plans to record an album of American song book songs: “I doubt it. There aren’t many good songs left to discover now. Ella has produced all the definitive editions.”
It is impossible to pick one tune to play from this album, but here is one nevertheless. I picked the song Get Happy, and here is an interesting background story, as told in the liner notes: “One day in the summer of 1929 Arlen was asked to fill in for Fletcher Henderson as pianist for the dancers in a musical. Unable to play the same old thing all day, Arlen amused himself by tossing off variations on the vamp. The show’s choral director, Will Marion Cook, suggested that he make a song of the vamp.” Thus was born the song Get Happy. This was Arlen’s first professional song and his first hit.
One singer who was not deterred by Ella Fitzgerald’s dominance in the area of the American song book albums was label mate Anita O’Day. In 1959 she followed Ella’s footsteps and recorded tunes composed by Cole Porter with…Billy May. In 1960 it seemed as if she is adopting Ella’s formula to a tee, recording – like Ella – a follow-up album with songs by Rodgers and Hart. Her recordings were smaller in scope compared to Ella’s double album projects, and while it seems like a copycat formula conceived by Norman Granz, they are actually fine recordings in their own right.
O’Day and May selected tunes from the later period in Rodgers and Hart’s collaboration, between 1930 and 1942. Starting with Ten Cents a Dance, the theme song from the Barbara Stanwyck film, and ending with To Keep My Love Alive from the 1943 revival of the 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee. That was the last song that Hart wrote before his death from pneumonia. I love that song, one that over a cheerful melody proceeds to describe the 15 methods that Vivienne Segal (Queen Morgan Le Fay in the 1943 production) used to murder her husbands. As one writer penned about this performance of the song, “Here she proves herself one of the most astute interpreters of the song ever, and doesn’t take a back seat to any musical comedy star in terms of getting laughs.”
In August and September of 1960 Anita O’Day recorded another fine album called Waiter, Make Mine Blues. She is accompanied by a big band arranged by Russell Garcia plus guest appearances by Bud Shank on saxophone and Barney Kessel on guitar. Garcia worked on a number of Verve Records productions, including previous albums by Anita O’Day and Ella Fitzgerald.
Leonard Feather writes it well in the album’s original liner notes: “Like most singers who have played the night club circuit, she has worked from time to time under conditions that would reduce a lesser talent to hysteria. I have heard her in these circumstances and marveled at the ease with which she has surmounted the problems of her setting.”
Here is a beautiful rendition of the standard Angel Eyes, written in 1946 and used in the 1953 movie Jennifer, starring Ida Lupino and Howard Duff:
We continue with one more album featuring the talents of Russell Garcia, this one by another successful artist on Verve Records who would become a huge star within a couple years. Time to introduce Stan Getz in this article series.
Stan Getz started recording for Norman Granz at the end of 1952 with the album Stan Getz Plays, released on Norgran Records. Continuing with Granz and Verve Records, Getz recorded over 20 albums with the producer by 1960. In 1958 he moved to Copenhagen, Demark and until he returned to the US in 1961, his albums were recorded in Europe (Stan Getz Live in Europe, Imported from Europe, Stockholm Sessions ’58 and Stan Getz at Large). One of his last recordings in the continent was Cool Velvet, recorded in Baden-Baden, West Germany in March 1960.
Cool Velvet was the first album Stan Getz recorded with a backing of a string orchestra. The album is shadowed by his next outing with strings, 1961’s fantastic album Focus with arranger Eddie Sauter. Still, the more traditional Cool Velvet has its moments, and Getz’s playing is excellent. Classical sax player Robert Black had this to say about the synergy between Stan Getz and the classical world: “The style and concept of classical saxophone are different from jazz saxophone, but one thing you can say about such players as Stan Getz and Paul Desmond: Everything was very precise, even when they were playing fast. You never heard the horn being ‘slid around’ on. Every note was in place, which is very much in the style of classical composition. It made everything they played into a melody.”
Stan Getz – tenor saxophone
Russell Garcia – arranger and conductor
Blanchie Birdsong – harp
Dave Hildinger – vibes
Jan Johansson – piano
Freddy Dutton – bass
Sperie Karas – drums
John Wilson, reviewing the album for High Fidelity magazine in 1961 wrote: “Getz’s playing on this disc is so richly serene, so full of calm assurance and strength, that one scarcely recognizes him at times. This is a mood album, but instead of the wispiness that has sometimes characterized his playing, Getz expresses himself with quiet guts.”
The album was produced by Creed Taylor, coinciding with the sale of Verve to MGM. In 1960 Norman Granz, tired of running a record label and opting to focus on artist management and tour booking in Europe, was looking for a buyer. Frank Sinatra was in the running but lost the race to MGM who were able to put a better offer on the table. Creed Taylor was appointed as head producer for the label, starting a more commercial phase for some of the artists on its roster, Stan Getz included. Together the two masterminded the bossa nova craze in the US, but that it a topic for a future article.
We take a quick break from jazz and move to acoustic blues courtesy of genre masters Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. We met the duo in a previous article in this series that focused on Prestige Bluesville. The two were quite active in 1960 and in January that year, a month after their Bluesville recording session, went into the studio again to record an album for Verve Records. Most of the songs were written by Willie Dixon, a composer of many tunes that became blues standards and a favorite of blues rock artists in the 1960s and 1970s.
Willie Dixon – Vocals, Bass
Memphis Slim – Vocals, Piano
The album includes a great blues number called Home to Mamma. Nat Hentoff writes in the original liner notes: “In one of the most mournful blues vocals on record in a long time, Willie Dixon takes the role of the penitent son who plans to return to the only place where he knows he’ll be welcome. Because of discrimination and poverty, Negro family life was often matriarchal and the mother was the basic anchor of security.”
Gerry Mulligan has been recording for Verve since 1957, when he released the album “The Teddy Wilson Trio & Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Bob Brookmeyer at Newport.” After that he released a number of Gerry Mulligan Meets… albums with other Verve artists, including Stan Getz. Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. In 1960 he recorded two albums with The Concert Jazz Band, a small big band he formed in the spring of that year. The band toured and recorded extensively through the end of 1964, eventually recording five albums for Verve Records. In December of 1960 Verve recorded their performance at the Village Vanguard club in NYC.
Gerry Mulligan talked about the uniqueness of live recording: “There are times when a few things may go wrong in a performance, but when conditions are right, the band can achieve more vivid presence and can create more spontaneous excitement than in the studio. Working in front of an audience has a markedly different effect on the band.”
Gerry Mulligan – baritone saxophone, piano
Don Ferrara, Clark Terry, Nick Travis – trumpet
Willie Dennis – trombone
Alan Raph – bass trombone
Bob Brookmeyer – valve trombone
Bob Donovan – alto saxophone
Gene Quill – alto saxophone, clarinet
Jim Reider – tenor saxophone
Gene Allen – baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Bill Crow – bass
Mel Lewis – drums
The last track on the album is “Let My People Be”, arranged by Bob Brookmeyer and featuring Gerry Mulligan on piano. This is a great big band modern swing number. Mulligan talked about this performance: “We got into a real Count Basie-style ensemble and things got romping like mad. By Judicious use of hand signals, we skipped a lot of the written material and continued as we were going. We did many things in the spur of the moment that we’ll never do again in quite that way.”
One last artist for this review, and perhaps my favorite (spare Ella, you cannot outclass Ella). Jimmy Giuffre was a disciple of west coast jazz and a central figure in the scene’s hot spot, The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, where he played as part of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars in the early 1950s. He started his recording career in 1955 with Capitol Records and moved a year later to Atlantic, recording a series of fantastic and innovative albums including “The Jimmy Giuffre 3” and “The Four Brothers Sound”. In 1959 he started recording as a leader for Verve after a number of albums with the label as a sideman. The same year he taught at the Lenox School of Jazz Summer Program, where some of the students included Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.
In 1960 Giuffre recorded two albums for Verve. The first demonstrates his abilities as a composer of both jazz and classical music, scoring pieces for clarinet and a string orchestra. In the early 1950s, while living in Los Angeles, Giuffre studied with Wesley La Violette. The composer and educator had other notable musicians in the west coast jazz scene including Shorty Rogers, and was cited a major influence on the arranging sensibilities prevalent in many albums recorded in LA during that period of time. Jimmy Giuffre said that studying with La Violette “turned out to be one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. His influence personally and musically has been profound on me. I remember one time Barney Kessel talking to me about that. I told him I was writing fugues and canons and counterpoint inventions, and he said, ‘Why do you want to study writing fugues?’ He wasn’t negative, he just didn’t understand it, didn’t see the point of it. It took me about five years studying with La Violette to shake off all the prisons I had locked myself in.”
“Piece for Clarinet and String Orchestra Mobiles” is a great showcase for third stream music, recorded during a fantastic year for that neglected branch of jazz. In 1960 Giuffre also guested on the album Third Stream Music by The Modern Jazz Quartet, which was reviewed in a previous article in this series, about 1960 albums on Atlantic Records.
Jimmy Giuffre – clarinet
The Südwestfunk Orchestra of Baden-Baden conducted by Wolfram Röhrig
In an interview for Jazz Review in 1961, Jimmy Giuffre said: “I’ve been playing the clarinet since I was nine and I’m thirty-eight now— so that’s twenty-nine years of playing the clarinet! I started on the E flat clarinet, and it took a lot of blowing. I didn’t start improvising on the clarinet actually, until about six years ago or so.”
Giuffre has been criticized about the softness of his playing on the clarinet. He addressed this topic in another interview in the mid-1950s: “It has been said that when jazz gets soft it loses its gusto and funkiness. It is my feeling that soft jazz can retain the basic flavor and intensity that it has at a louder volume and at the same time perhaps reveal some new dimensions of feeling that loudness obscures.”
1960 was a good year for Jimmy Giuffre. The August 18 issue of Downbeat magazine featured him the blindfold test seat and in December the magazine’s readers picked him for second place in the clarinet category, not far behind Buddy DeFranco in the first spot. The winner of the poll sat for a different blindfold test just a month later, and one of the tunes Leonard Feather played for him was by Jimmy Giuffre playing the clarinet. DeFranco recognized Giuffre and similar to other critics who complained about how Giuffre only plays the lower range of the clarinet, was critical of Giuffre’s limited use of the instrument: “Frankly, I don’t get the point of something like this. You can’t judge it as clarinet playing: it isn’t clarinet playing; it doesn’t use the full resources of the instrument.” Giuffre was well aware of that critical view of his playing: “One time I played a performance that seemed to be very successful and a critic said it was successful, but that my playing clarinet was like mowing a lawn with an electric razor. When it was announced that I was going to be a clarinet teacher at the School of Jazz another critic passed the remark, ‘Who will teach the upper register?’ Then another time a critic said he liked the way I played, but that he wouldn’t vote for me because I didn’t play the whole instrument.”
Jimmy Giuffre’s style changed when he started paying attention to jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Although it is difficult to find traces of Monk’s music in Giuffre’s compositions, the jazz giant has been an important influence. Giuffre: “I went down to hear Thelonious Monk. I heard an element in his music that I didn’t seem to have in my music. I don’t mean ideas, style or anything like that, but it was a certain way of stating things with conviction that he spoke clearly and surely, and he played this idea without any restraint—he played it immediately, right in front of you.”
Giuffre got back to the tenor saxophone and said: “I was tired of being soft, as valid as softness is. (And a funny thing is that you can have this definiteness and still be soft—it isn’t a matter of volume). Recently I finally got up enough nerve to where I felt I could really handle a blowing album by myself as a soloist. It may seem funny, with so many years of experience behind me, I hadn’t made one.”
In 1960 Giuffre started an engagement at the Five Spot Cafe in NYC with a quartet that featured Steve Lacy. The gifted soprano sax player remembers: “I was playing with Jimmy Giuffre at the Five Spot club in New York, and Coltrane came in to hear us play. He was intrigued with the soprano and he asked me what key it was in. I told him it was in B-flat, just like the tenor. He said, ‘Oh yeah?’ And then a couple of weeks later, he was playing it.” Read a lot more about Coltrane and his first recordings with the soprano sax in the previous article in this series.
In July of that year guitarist Jim Hall replaced Steve Lacy in Jimmy Giuffre’s quartet and the new lineup recorded the album “The Jimmy Giuffre Quartet in Person”. On the album Giuffre plays a composition by Thelonious Monk, one of his lesser known tunes called Wee See.
Jimmy Giuffre – clarinet, tenor saxophone
Jim Hall – guitar
Buell Neidlinger – bass
Billy Osborne – drums
Other articles in the 1960 jazz series you may find interesting:
Categories: A Year in Music