1960 Jazz: Argo Records

In 1956 Chess Records, famous for its blues, rhythm and blues and early rock and roll albums, established a new label named Argo. Chess was looking to release pop music with this label via a different distribution channel than its parent company, thus avoiding the need to crossover from the black music market Chess was known for into the mainstream charts. With the advent of the long play record Argo started signing jazz artists and the genre soon became its prime focus. While less known than other contemporary jazz labels (Blue note, Prestige, Verve), some of the finest jazz albums of the period were released on Argo. In this review we will look some of these albums, recorded in 1960.

One of the finest jazz ensembles in 1960 recorded three albums for Argo that year. The Jazztet was perhaps the best showcase for the material created by Benny Golson, one of my favorite composers and arrangers of jazz.

In 1953 Benny Golson met trumpeter Art Farmer when he joined Lionel Hampton’s band. After that band broke up, the two remained very active in the jazz scene, and from time to time met on various record dates. Between the two of them they had played in some of the best jazz ensembles of the late 1950s, including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and groups led by Horace Silver and Gerry Mulligan. In 1959 Golson had an idea: “At this time I knew there were a lot of quintets and quartets playing. I thought, ‘Hey, there might be room for a sextet.’ I thought Art Farmer would be perfect as my trumpet player. So I called Art and told him my idea. He broke out laughing. ‘You’re never going to believe this,’ he said, ‘But I was thinking about putting a sextet together, too, and using you as my tenor player.’ I said, “Why don’t you come by the pad and we’ll talk about it.”

Golson proceeds to tell how the two picked up the rest of the band: “We both agreed on trombonist Curtis Fuller. I told Art about this 19-year-old piano player in Philadelphia I had heard. Art asked me his name. I said, ‘McCoy Tyner’. Art asked if he could play. I said yes. We hired him. Art hired his twin brother Addison Farmer on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. This was the first Jazztet.”

Art Farmer recalls how McCoy Tyner joined the band. This was the pianist’s first trip to NYC and his first major recording: “We wanted a real piano player in the group, for whom we would write out a real part to go along with the horns, instead of just a member of the rhythm section. He could give us that much more versatility. We had decided to ask several piano players we all liked, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan and Ray Bryant, but as it worked out, all three had other plans. So then Benny and Curtis suggested McCoy Tyner, a young Philadelphian who’d worked with them earlier.”

After a few performances in Chicago and Maryland, the Jazztet made its television debut on The Steve Allen Show on February 15, 1960. They signed with Argo records in March, by then joined by Lex Humphries who replaced Dave Bailey on drums. With this lineup they recorded their first album, “Meet the Jazztet”.

Naturally, Benny Golson’s rich back catalog of great original tunes served as a basis for most songs on the album. One of them is the beautiful ballad “I remember Clifford”. The tune was written in memory of the gifted trumpeter Clifford Brown, who tragically died in 1956 at the young age of 25. It was previously performed by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers on the album “1958 – Paris Olympia”, when Golson was in that lineup.

Art Farmer – trumpet

Benny Golson – tenor saxophone

Curtis Fuller – trombone

McCoy Tyner – piano

Addison Farmer – bass

Lex Humphries – drums

Art Farmer does a fantastic job on this tune, having worked with Brown earlier in his career. He shared the trumpet seat with Clifford Brown during his stint with Lionel Hampton’s group. He said this about his performance: “When I play it I just try to think of what Clifford was to me. I wouldn’t want to play like him on the tune because that wouldn’t be my idea of him. I just try to say, ‘Yes, I do remember Clifford and he was like this.’”

The first new original tune that Benny Golson brought to the Jazztet became a standard after its release on this album. Golson talked about what motivated him to write it: “I wanted to try writing a tune inspired by what I used to see at Birdland—the pimps coming in with their ladies on each arm, their Cadillac Eldorados parked by the doorman at the curb, their fingernails done with clear polish, their shiny suits with the black shirt and white tie and hat, and hair processed. Coming up as a kid, everybody who was involved in illegal things in Philadelphia—bootlegging, numbers running and so on was named “Killer”—like Killer Johnson. The name epitomized everything that was illegal. I saw these guys in Chicago, Los Angeles and in New York at Birdland every night. So I named the song Killer Joe.”

The track proved to be the group’s first commercial success. A Philadelphia disc jockey liked it and called Leonard Chess. The ever-opportunistic label head did not waste any time. Within a few days a single with an edited radio-friendly version was released, quickly selling 50,000, a very large number for a jazz record.

A DownBeat magazine review of the album said this about the band: “The idea behind the Jazztet is to give ample space to each soloist but within a framework that does more than set up lines at the beginning and end in a jam session type of group.”

In an interview to Jazz Review in May 1960, Art Farmer talked about what makes the Jazztet unique: “Some listeners comment that we sound like a big band at times, but that’s not what we’re after. We want to sound like a sextet, just what we are. Maybe they say that because people have gotten used to small groups playing unison ensembles. But when you have three horns, unison gets pretty boring — it just doesn’t take advantage of the possibilities. With a harmonic approach we can get a lot more variety.”

Years later Art Farmer paid Benny Golson high compliments about his compositional skills: “He was able to write melodies that sounded like melodies, didn’t sound like something that came out of an exercise book. Benny is a master musician, a consummate artist who recognizes the value of a melody, and he can construct a melody that sings and that stays in your head once you hear it. Tunes like ‘Whisper Not’ or ‘I Remember Clifford’ are real songs.  That’s just not la-de-da-da-da-dah-da-dah. These songs don’t just go in one ear and out the other.”

In September of 1960 the group entered the studio again. McCoy Tyner left earlier in the year to join John Coltrane’s newly formed quartet (more about that in the Atlantic Records review of this article series). Group founders Benny Golson and Art Farmer were the only band members remaining from the original lineup, but they found excellent musicians who maintained the same high quality.

The group’s next album was Big City Sounds with this lineup:

Art Farmer – trumpet

Benny Golson – tenor saxophone

Tom McIntosh – trombone

Cedar Walton – piano

Tommy Williams – bass

Albert Heath – drums

On the album they perform a composition by Randy Weston called Hi-Fly, previously recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley:

An article about the Jazztet in DownBeat magazine noted that, “In 80 percent of the reviews of the Jazztet, The Modern Jazz Quartet has been mentioned.” While the instrumentation of the two groups is quite different, critics found similarities in the highly controlled arrangements and the focus on the overall sound of the band rather than its individual musicians. It was only natural that members of the two groups would be interested in a collaboration.

John Lewis met the Jazztet while the group played at the Village Gate in NYC. They asked him to write an arrangement for them, a task that Lewis expanded to a full album. In December of 1960 the band recorded these arrangements, later released on the album “The Jazztet and John Lewis”. It is interesting to hear them playing John Lewis’ arrangements, uniquely different from those by Benny Golson. A good example is their interpretation of Django, one of Lewis’ best known tunes. The Modern Jazz Quartet performed it numerous times in their delicate way, but never at the same pace taken here. Benny Golson remembers: “In fact the first time we played it, we thought we had it wrong. We asked John ‘Is this really the tempo you want?’ He said ‘That’s right.’”

The Jazztet never achieved the success of other jazz ensembles like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver Quintets. Their first major club engagement at the end of 1959 was side by side with Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot Café in NYC. While the alto sax player was making huge headlines with his quartet and new brand of jazz, a tightly-arranged jazz band seemed conventional and an anticlimax.

Still, the band was very productive in 1960 and in addition to the three albums reviewed so far, both its leaders led recording sessions and released solo albums with Argo that year.

The same week they recorded the album “Big City Sounds” in September 1960, Art Farmer led a quartet session that yielded the album “Art”. He said about that album: “I wanted to do a very intimate session. I wanted it to sound as if I were just sitting and talking to someone with the horn, talking to just one person. The feeling was to be as if the horn were in the room, right next to the listener.” About his disciplined method of playing Farmer said: “I want each note to count. I don’t want an endless chain of notes. Similarly, I don’t usually like to play 10 or 20 choruses. I’d rather play two good ones.”

The fine album cover featured a painting by artist Ernest Fiene, whose work has been showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.

On the album Art Farmer performs a piece called “Out of the Past”, composed by… you guessed it – Benny Golson. Art Farmer: “It’s one of his best, I think. I don’t know how he came by the title, but that title puts a picture in my mind, a picture with a bittersweet quality.”

Art Farmer – trumpet

Tommy Flanagan – piano

Tommy Williams – bass

Albert Heath – drums

We close this part of the article with one more solo album, this one by Benny Golson and his first for Argo. An interesting concept behind this album, starting with a track of solo saxophone by Golson, then adding one musician for each of the remaining tracks, finishing with ten for the final one. The album name: Take a Number from 1 to 10. Golson on that concept: “It is not a gimmick. I did all of these with a strong conviction and feeling. I’d never recorded before all by myself or with a duo or a trio. On the last three numbers there were several techniques I wanted to develop for the first time on records.”

Here is the closing track, Time, with Art Farmer joining as the tenth man. Golson: “In its broadest sense I mean the time that is now, living time, day-by-day time. It is meant to be a real experience of the present. I also meant the flexibility of time within the piece.”

Credits of all musicians who play on this album:

Benny Golson – tenor saxophone

Art Farmer, Bernie Glow, Freddie Hubbard, Nick Travis– trumpet

Willie Ruff – French horn

Bill Elton, Curtis Fuller– trombone

Hal McKusick – alto saxophone

Sol Schlinger, Sahib Shihab– baritone saxophone

Cedar Walton – piano

Tommy Williams – bass

Albert Heath – drums

Being a subsidiary of Chess Records, the jazz focus of Argo was always in search of commercial material that can increase the appeal of an otherwise low-selling art form. One of its artists, who started recording with the label in 1956, had that appeal. Ramsey Lewis said about his music: “Most jazz musicians get immersed into jazz. Although I love jazz dearly, I was never totally immersed in that. I was criticized for that in the early days. Critics didn’t hear that in my music. They were like ‘The nerve of you.’” Not all critics. A review in Billboard magazine of an album he released in 1959 reads: “The Lewis trio has a set that is one of the next small group examples of jazz. The pianist’s fleet and interesting approaches on folk of various types and a few spirituals are wonderful inventions.”

In February 1960 the Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded the album Stretching Out. Jazz purists never gave Ramsey Lewis the light of day, ignoring his trio’s excellent playing and ability to find new ways to cover popular songs. Here is one review of the album in DownBeat magazine: “This is another album of pop jazz with portions of semi-classical schmaltz and stylized funk, sometimes incongruously mixed. On ballads, Lewis invites comparison with Billy Taylor, but the two shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence.”  

Early on in the life of the trio they decided that all original material they record will be credited to all three members. That is the case with this tune from Stretching Out:

Like most labels from that time period, Chess was in the business of squeezing out as many albums as it could from its artists to increase revenue. Ramsey Lewis remembers: “Back in the ’50s and ’60s we were putting out two albums a year. That’s what the Chess brothers were saying – you know, every six months you gotta give us a new album. But they weren’t working the albums. People would buy the new album, and you’d only sell a limited amount but that amount was satisfying them, the record companies.”

In April 1960 the trio recorded a live set at the Blue Note jazz club in Chicago. After opening its doors in 1947 and being unique as one of the only establishments in the city that offered hospitality to both races, the club closed down only two months after this recording. Ramsey Lewis was the first and last jazz artist to record at the club.

DownBeat was only slightly more merciful in its review of that album: “The trio now goes in for little pianistic curlicues, sudden shifts of dynamics for melodramatic effect, trick endings, drum antics with an obvious comedy aim, and even moments of sheer cocktail corn. Yet there are many moments when everyone settles down to the business of swinging.”

Ramsey Lewis – piano

El Dee Young – bass

Isaac “Red” Holt – drums

It is interesting to read a different DownBeat review, this time of a live performance in Hollywood the same month this album was recorded. The set was likely similar to the tunes selected for the album. Read this: “In every sense a trio and no mere showcase for the leader’s piano, Lewis, Young, and Holt build to an impressive level of unified, well-conceived performance particularly. Between pianist and bass there seems to exist almost an extrasensory channel of communication.” Maybe the band was better experienced by critics in a live situation, but we have the albums to enjoy decades later.

Ahmad Jamal

We move from one popular jazz trio to another. Ahmad Jamal found early success with Argo when he released the album “At the Pershing: But Not for Me” in 1958. A few months after its release, DownBeat magazine announced that it sold over 47,000. We are talking about a period when small jazz labels considered 15,000 to 20,000 as big numbers for an album. Jamal became a cross-over jazz artist, and a favorite of Miles Davis, who complimented him on his rhythmic sense and his “concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement”.

In January of 1960 Jamal recorded the album Happy Moods with the steady trio he formed in 1956, featuring bass player Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Jamal said of the fantastic drummer: “Vernel Fournier grew up in that marvelous New Orleans environment, so he had marching bands, funeral processions, and all that great stuff in his background. He had the greatest brush work in the world.“

As you can expect, the critics’ thoughts of Ahmad Jamal’s music were on the opposite end from the record buyers. To them jazz that sells meant selling out, and they did not hesitate to write about it. Here is how a DownBeat review of the album in August 1960 starts: “This one left me in a pretty unhappy mood despite the fact that it was well executed. So many jazzmen have listed Jamal as one of their first sources of inspiration. It is more than mildly disappointing, therefore to hear this artist collapse into a sea of pretty cliches, pyrodynamics, and technical chicanery.”

Another article from the same month in Jazz Review did not fare any better: “One must admit that he has found a gimmick and, with the precision of Crosby and Fournier to complement him, he has perfected a series of shiny, beautifully produced, empty works.”

You be the judge. Here is one track from the album, “Excerpts From The Blues” filmed at the acclaimed TV series “The Robert Herridge Theater”, an episode that featured Ben Webster and Ahmad Jamal’s trio:

The sleeve notes for Happy Moods include this paragraph by Jack Tracy, Artists and Repertoire Director at Argo: “It has often been said of Ahmad that because of the taste and simplicity of his style, what he doesn’t play is often as important as what he does play. I must disagree. I like to hear what he does play.”

In September 1960 the trio was back in the studio, this time extending to a quintet that united the pianist with guitarist Ray Crawford, and with Joe Kennedy on violin. Jamal and Kennedy, both natives of Pittsburgh, PA, played together in the late 1940s in a group called the Four Strings. In 1959 Kennedy arranged and conducted a 15-piece string section on the album “Jamal at the Penthouse”.

Asked about how much of his music is improvised vs. arranged, Jamal said: “Contrary to what people have said, most of the things we do are written. Of course, I don’t write the improvisational sections, but the songs we do are structured on paper.” Ramsey Lewis talked about Jamal’s group, giving us a hint of what the experience of listening live to that ensemble felt like: “Many times we would hightail it out to the South Side to see Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, because the trio was really playing great music as a very cohesive unit. Having the occasion to go and hear him was simply a delight, because he had the room rocking.“

Ahmad Jamal – piano

Israel Crosby – bass

Vernel Fournier – drums

Joe Kennedy – violin

Ray Crawford – guitar

We come to the last album in this review, the sole recording on Argo by the phenomenon known as Roland Kirk. Blind since the age of two, Kirk learned to play the trumpet and bugle, then the clarinet and saxophone. At fifteen he was playing in R&B bands, demonstrating his ability to play multiple wind instruments simultaneously and his unique technique of circular breathing. To his arsenal of instruments he added two old horns he found in the basement of a music store: the manzello – a curved soprano saxophone, and a strich – a straight alto saxophone.

All these instruments are on display on an album Kirk recorded for Argo Records in June of 1960, “Introducing Roland Kirk”. Many critics did not appreciate that feat and saw it as a gimmick. DownBeat’s review of the album in February 1961 started with this paragraph: “The cover picture of Kirk with three huge horns hanging out of his mouth can make a listener approach this introductory meeting with Kirk with trepidation. Who can play three instruments at once and get anything out of them? Well Roland Kirk, for one, doesn’t even try. He only plays two at once with the third slung over his shoulder at the ready.”

Six months earlier DownBeat dedicated a short article to Roland Kirk titled “The Man Who Plays Three Horns.” It describes a scene from the recording studio: “During one of Kirk’s wilder passages, Tracy slapped his thigh, laughed, and said, “I can just hear the critics! They’re going to say, ‘My God, first Ornette Coleman and now this!’”.

DownBeat’s article mentions the other horn man on the recording session: “For the date, Tracy elected to couple Kirk with another triple threat man— Ira Sullivan, who causes arguments in Chicago over whether he plays tenor better than trumpet (his main instrument) or alto better than either. Sullivan, of course, plays his horns one at a time.”

A good summary of Roland Kirk was given by an observer in the control room: “He has all the wild, untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz man.”

Roland Kirk: tenor saxophone, manzello, whistle, stritch

Ira Sullivan: trumpet, tenor saxophone

William Burton: organ, piano

Donald Garrett: bass

Sonny Brown: drums

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