Columbia Records was one of the big five record labels in the 1950s. Along with Capitol, Decca, Mercury and RCA, Columbia was all over the air waves with over a hundred releases every year. The majority of these releases lay outside of jazz, as the comfortable zone for the label was mainstream, middle of the road music that appealed to masses of listeners. But – those were the days when such labels put out some of jazz’s most celebrated albums. Columbia had on its roster the genre’s biggest names, offering them lucrative contracts that small independent labels could not match. Columbia also spent the required marketing dollars to promote these artists, and most of them became household names. Columbia jazz artists were even featured on the cover of Time Magazine (1949 – Louis Armstrong, 1954 – Dave Brubeck, 1956 – Duke Ellington, 1964 – Thelonious Monk). We start this review with two of Columbia’s biggest jazz stars, both them following up on milestone albums they released with the label the previous year.
At the end of 1959, after releasing the album Kind of Blue, a watershed moment in the history of jazz, Miles Davis came back to the legendary Columbia recording studio at 30th street in New York and recorded a jazz interpretation of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, arranged by Gil Evans. This was not the first time the two collaborated on a recording for Columbia, having recorded the albums Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. We will discuss Concierto de Aranjuez in another article, and instead focus on a recording made in March 10, 1960 to complete sufficient material for an album of pieces influenced by Spanish music. Davis and Evans both brushed with Spanish themes before, recording Blues for Pablo on Miles Ahead and Flamenco Sketches on Kind of Blue. This time they went all in and in a single session recorded four more tracks, thus completing the album Sketches of Spain.
Miles Davis described the connection between Spanish music and the heritage of black people: “The Black moors were over there in Spain, because Africans had conquered Spain a long time ago. In the Andalusian area you have a lot of African influence in the music, architecture, and in the whole culture, and a lot of African blood in the people. So you had a black African thing up in the feeling of the music.” He found similarities between the mournful flamenco music with its feelings of longing, and the blues. Both styles project a raw emotion about loneliness and oppression.
The only original tune on the album and one of its best is the Gil Evans Composition Saeta. In the flamenco tradition the Saeta is a form of religious song. Miles talked about the style and his interpretation of it: “The Saeta was one of the oldest religious types of music in Andalusia. It is a song usually sung alone, without any kind of accompaniment, during the Holy Week religious ceremonies in Seville, and tells about the passion of the Christ. It’s a street procession, and the singer is a woman. I was supposed to be her voice on trumpet. My voice had to be both joyous and sad in this song, and that was very hard.”
Miles also found it difficult to combine the strict playing style of classical music, straight from the sheet, and the improvisatory style of jazz, with personal expression and feeling. He described the solution in his autobiography: “What I found I had to do in Sketches of Spain was to read the score a couple of times, listen to it a couple of times more, then play it.”
Saeta is a procession song, and the marching drums play an important part in it. Miles talked about how he used drummers on this tune: “I wanted the snare drum to sound like paper tearing, those little tight rolls. That meant we had to get a chorus of legit drummers to play in the background behind Jimmy Cobb on drums and Elvin Jones on percussion. We had that kind of sound from the drummers, the legit drummers, and we had Jimmy and Elvin play the stuff they normally play, solo and shit.”
A Downbeat album review from September 1960 by Bill Mathieu raved about Sketches of Spain, starting with this paragraph: “This record is one of the most important musical triumphs that this century has yet produced.” It goes on to lament the fact that most jazz music is either too intellectual (read: west coast) or too emotional. I can’t subscribe to this observation, but I do agree with its estimate of the album: “The real value of Sketches of Spain lies in the fact that the intellectualism is so extreme, and at the same time, the emotional content is so profound.”
Perhaps Columbia’s biggest jazz star in 1960 was Dave Brubeck, high on his success with Time Out, another game changing album released in December 1959. That same month the Downbeat Magazine readers’ poll selected Dave Brubeck’s Quartet as best combo, and its musicians to top spots in the individual instruments categories. Dave Brubeck and Joe Morello took no. 3 on Piano and drums, and Paul Desmond won the alto sax category.
On January 29, 1960 the Dave Brubeck Quartet went into the studio with singer Jimmy Rushing for the first of three recording sessions that yielded the album Brubeck and Rushing. The pairing of these two very different musical entities seems quite peculiar, but the results are wonderful. Rushing was Count Basie’s singer between 1935 and 1948 and was known as a blues shouter, with an ability to project his voice above Count Basie’s horn players. If you know how loud Count Basie’s band could get, that is one mighty voice. That voice required a mighty frame, and Rushing was known as “Mr. Five by Five”, as the song dedicated to him goes: “he’s five feet tall and he’s five feet wide”.
Dave Brubeck talked about how the project came to be: “Most people thought it was my idea to have Jimmy Rushing sing with the quartet, but it was the other way around – the album was Jimmy’s idea. Before we started, I asked him, ‘Are you sure we’re the right group behind you?’ and he said, ‘I’ve been listening to you for years, I know you’re the right group behind me!’ It was one of the greatest surprises of my musical life.”
Before you hear it for the first time you might wonder what this album would sound like. Putting together a group that just released the cerebral album Time Out and its multitude of odd time signatures, with an emotional blues belter, is an odd pairing to say the least. But Brubeck was not new to playing the blues, and Rushing may have been impressed by the group’s playing on tunes like ‘Keeping’ Out of Mischief Now’, ‘Balcony Rock’ and ‘Back Bay Blues’, released over various albums in the 1950s.
You will hear no odd time signatures here. This is a great blues album with one of the best singers in the history of the genre. Here is Evenin’, a signature tune he used to sing with Count Basie’s orchestra.
A Downbeat magazine review from March 1961 reads: “The use of the Brubeck quartet has put all of these pieces, which come out of the Rushing repertory rather than Brubeck’s, in a fresh light. One of the most interesting variations occurs on Evenin’, which Rushing has established as a hard punching, shouting piece.”
Jimmy Rushing – vocals
Dave Brubeck – piano
Paul Desmond – alto saxophone
Gene Wright – double bass
Joe Morello – drums
The next day Dave Brubeck’s Quartet was back in the same studio, this time for a completely different setup. How about accompanying Jimmy Rushing one day and playing alongside the New York Philharmonic orchestra the following day for music genre hopping?
In December of 1959 the Dave Brubeck Quartet participated in a New York Philharmonic series at Carnegie Hall. The occasion was a premiere of the composition Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The music was written by Howard Brubeck, Dave Brubeck’s older brother.
Howard Brubeck wrote in the Carnegie Hall performance program: “In this work an attempt is made to construct a score giving the orchestra an important part to play which adheres strictly to written notes, while the particular combination, or ‘combo’, of jazz instruments is free to improvise on the material of the movement.” He then proceeded to explain how such a combination of strict adherence to notes in tandem with improvisation is to work: “It should be noted that the work is so constructed that the combo would be free to add solo improvisations to be decided upon in advance by themselves and the conductor. However, only the fact of their use would be decided in advance. The nature of the improvisation and its duration can be left to the imagination of performer and sensitive conductor who would be expected to cue the orchestra back in after the final bar of the improvisational section.” Got it?
Two notable musicians attended the performance. Ornette Coleman, fresh in NYC from LA and creating his own storm in the jazz world at the end of 1959, had befriended Leonard Bernstein, who saw the alto sax player perform at the Five Spot Cafe. Ornette thought the performance was boring. On the other hand composer Edgard Varèse told Howard and Dave Brubeck that is was both a great composition and performance.
The album Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein contains the full composition played at Carnegie Hall plus a set of tunes composed by Bernstein for the musicals West Side Story and Wonderful town, performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Here is the beautiful Andante from Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra:
1960 was a year of collaborations for Dave Brubeck. After the Jimmy Rushing and Leonard Bernstein albums, he was back in the studio in September with another singer. This time the session featured Carmen McRae in her first collaboration out of many with the pianist. Brubeck said of the project: “One afternoon Carmen came to our house and obligingly ran through half a dozen songs we had picked out for her to sing. I looked at my wife in amazement. We had never dreamed out songs could sound so good. Carmen has an instinctive, intuitive understanding of a lyric. She can generate an emotional impact seldom found in a popular song.”
Dave Brubeck – piano
Paul Desmond – alto saxophone
Gene Wright – double bass
Joe Morello – drums
Carmen McRae – vocals
The CD release of the album included a song that was dropped from the LP release, a beautiful ballad called “There’ll Be No Tomorrow” with Lyrics by Lola Brubeck, Dave Brubeck’s wife:
We remain with another great singer but change pace and age and come to an 18 year old Aretha Franklin and her self-titled debut album “Aretha”. 18 may be a very young age for many, but after giving birth to two sons when she was 12 and 15 years old, and recording her first set of spiritual songs at 14, Aretha was an experienced singer and a mature person at 18. This is evident upon hearing the songs on Aretha, recorded for Columbia Records in 1960.
1960 was the year Aretha Franklin got an offer to sign with a new label established in her hometown of Detroit. The label was called Motown and the offer came from its founder Berry Gordy. Franklin and her father, who also acted as her manager, opted to try their luck in New York City instead. Don’t worry, Motown survived this unfortunate turn of events. We will come back to Motown in a future article in this 1960 music series.
Legendary Columbia producer John Hammond remembers the first time he heard Aretha Franklin: ”A composer came to my office by the name of Curtis Lewis. He came in with a demo of some tunes of his, and one of them was ‘Today I sing the Blues.’ There was a fantastic vocalist on the record, and it was of course – I asked him who it was – and it was Aretha Franklin.”
Aretha’s debut album suffers somewhat from an inconsistent selection of material. She was not sure at the time what she was after: a jazz, blues or pop singer. You find all genres covered, some better than others. Here is a fantastic performance of the blues number “All Night Long” by Curtis Lewis:
John Hammond hired pianist Ray Bryant to supervise the recording sessions and accompany Aretha with his combo. Hammond recalled the sessions: “She needed little direction. Her style was intact. Anyone with decent ears could hear that she was a gospel-trained singer extremely comfortable with jazz and blues. I hired Ray Bryant, a jazz-blues pianist rooted in gospel. He understood Aretha and she adored his playing. In fact, the first thing we recorded—‘Today I Sing the Blues’—became a classic and remained in her repertoire even when she changed labels.”
Indeed, after six years with Columbia, Aretha changed labels and signed with Atlantic. The rest of course is history, but you can hear the type of soul material she will become famous for during her Atlantic period already here on that debut album:
In 1960 Aretha Franklin was booked to play at the prestigious Village Vanguard jazz club in New York. A Billboard review read: “When Aretha Franklin sat at the piano and sang the blues, the audience at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village erupted into applause. The gal singer, who has had one single disk so far on the Columbia label, has a fine strong voice that bears emotional fruit when it is channeled into the material she knows and feels best.”
To close this part of the article, let’s go back to Carmen McRae and what she said about her meeting Aretha during that stint at the Village Vanguard: “Max Gordon, who owns the Vanguard, pulled my coat to her. He said she was gonna be the next Dinah. She blew me away—I’ll say that for starters. I leaned over to Max and said, ‘You’re right. She does have Dinah Washington chops.’ She sang the shit outta some blues and put a hurting on ‘Ain’t Necessarily So’ that I thought was just perfect.”
We move to another fine vocalist and piano player who, like Aretha Franklin, recorded for Columbia in 1960 and later had a significant part of his recording career with Atlantic Records. Mose Allison was born in Mississippi and graduated from Louisiana State University in 1952. He moved to NYC in 1956 and started recording for Prestige Records. After six albums with that label, he joined the big league and signed with Columbia Records, a contract that yielded two albums, both recorded in 1960.
The first album Allison recorded for Columbia was the curiously named “Transfiguration of Hiram Brown”. Producer Teo Macero explained the title in the original liner notes: “According to Mose Allison, ‘Transfiguration of Hiram Brown Suite’ is a serio-comic fantasy based on a perennial theme. Hiram Brown is the naive provincial who dreams of a life of opulence in the city. He goes there, is overwhelmed and disillusioned, longs for his youth, realizes that this too is an illusion, despairs, goes through a crisis and is ‘transfigured.’” The suite, comprising of eight tracks, takes up the full first side of the LP.
In 1994 Mose Allison said about the album: “For years after this record was made, I told everyone that it was my best recorded instrumental performance and I may have been right. There were those who dismissed the ‘Suite’ as ‘Program Music’ (impure, you know) but I believe that there is some real jazz and some honest expression therein.”
Mose Allison – piano, vocals
Addison Farmer – bass
Jerry Segal – drums
A Downbeat review of the album from April 1960 favored Allison vocal abilities over his piano playing: “Taken separately, the vocal Allison is humanly more attractive and warm than his pianistic counterpart. He sings with natural ease and infectious charm. His casual tossing off of the lyric is absolutely believable.”
Allison’s next album with Columbia was “I Love The Life I Live”, recorded over multiple sessions in 1960 with different trio lineups. The album opens with the title track written by blues legend Willie Dixon, who Allison cited as a major influence. He later recalled meeting Dixon: “I met him in Chicago, when I was playing in Chicago, at the Plugged Nickel I think. Willie came to see me, and I met him then. But I played with his band a couple of times at the Bottom Line.” Allison performed a number of tunes by Willie Dixon over the years, including one of his hits, Seventh Son.
Leonard Feather played “I Love The Life I Live” to singer Joe Williams of Count Basie fame during a blindfold test in 1961. This is what Williams said: “That was Mississippi’s Mose Allison, and I like this man. He’s a versatile artist. He plays good piano, too, as well as being a real different sound vocal-wise.”
Credits on this track:
Mose Allison – piano, vocals
Henry Grimes – bass
Paul Motian – drums
As you might expect, vocal acts are in abundance when it comes to mainstream record labels, and their presence is quite high on jazz albums as well. One such vocal group, and perhaps the hardest swinging of them all, was Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. After starting their recoding career in 1957, they won the Best Vocal Group category in the Downbeat 1959 readers’ poll and that year recorded their first album for Columbia, “The Hottest New Group in Jazz.” Due to the brilliant lyrics Jon Hendricks wrote, that followed the solo lines of great jazz instrumentals, they have been called “The James Joyce of jive” and “The Gilbert and Sullivan of jazz”.
In 1960 the trio recorded the album “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington”, tackling jazz classics performed by one of the best big bands in the history of jazz. The opening tune “Cotton Tail” was written by Duke Ellington in 1940. The composer was the first to write lyrics to the tune, famously performed by Ella Fitzgerald on the album “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook”. While Ellington’s lyrics are about Ben Webster’s sax solo in the original Duke Ellington performance, Jon Hendricks’ subject matter is a rabbit.
A Downbeat review of the album from February 1961 read: “As usual, most of the credit goes to Hendricks for his arranging and lyricising. His lines on Cottontail, for example, detail the escapade of a ‘rabbit with a carrot habit’ as the trio takes a flier in an up-tempo, galloping rendition.”
We move from an interpretation of Duke Ellington tunes to Ellington interpreting the music of other composers. Duke Ellington, whose recording career started in the 1920s, recorded tracks for Columbia sporadically in the pre-LP days. In 1955 he became a regular Columbia artist, recording consistently for the label every year until 1962. During the months of May and June in 1960 he led a number of sessions that yielded three albums on Columbia.
For the first time in his illustrious career, Duke Ellington decided to devote a full album to the music of another composer. For the first time he also attempted to record his own interpretations of the classic repertoire. Together with Billy Strayhorn he labored over Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite and they created a bona fide big band arrangement of that composition. Those not familiar with Tchaikovsky’s well-known ballet might think these are Duke Ellington originals.
Here is one of the highlights from the ballet, Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, whimsically retitled Sugar Rum Cherry:
The sessions yielded one more suite from the classical repertoire, with Duke Ellington also recording his take on Edward Grieg’s Peer Gynt. The liner notes to the album “Swinging Suites by Edward E. and Edward G.” include this paragraph: “Duke has deep respect for all things of worth, and as a composer has suffered a thousand times over the things that have been done to his own music through the years. His approach to the music of other composers is the approach he hopes he will receive from interpreters of his own music – a mixture of respect and innovation.”
One of the highlights from Grieg’s composition, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, is “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which gets another fine arrangement by Duke Ellington’s band. The liner notes reads: “Calling this orchestra a jazz band is as inadequate as classifying Duke Ellington as a piano player.” True.
Scheduled to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1960, Duke Ellington was commissioned by the directors of the festival to present a new original work. Monterey is famous for being John Steinbeck’s backdrop to many of his excellent novels, including Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954), the latter becoming Ellington’s new work title.
The humorously titled track “Zweet Zurzday” relates to episodes in Steinbeck’s novel. Duke Ellington provided notes for his performance in Monterey, describing the clarinet solo as ‘the beautiful dream’, or ‘the fuzz of imagination’, and Paul Gonsalves’ tenor solo as ‘the fog that clouds it.’
One last album for this review, another recording by Duke Ellington who was quite prolific in 1960. “Duke Ellington – Piano in the Background” is an album that features his piano playing more prominently within the context of his orchestra. Full of classic tunes from the vast history of the band, each track starts and ends with a piano section.
On the album we can find for the first time a combined track that starts with “Kinda Dukish” as an introduction to “Rockin’ in Rhythm”. The main track needs no introduction and has been a mainstay in performances of Duke Ellington’s orchestra over the years. It began as an improvisation behind a comedy duo in 1930, the year it was first recorded. “Kinda Dukish” was originally recorded as a piano solo piece in 1953, later joined to “Rockin’ in Rhythm” in live performances.
Categories: A Year in Music