February 28, 2015
I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.
Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)
As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.
Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.
To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.
Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.
Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man
Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?
Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.
So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions. Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.
Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.
Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.
For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.
December 15, 2013
Inevitably, Cootie Williams is remembered chiefly for his work with Duke Ellington; after all, he spent a total of about 22 years with the band. But there was more to him than that: he made important contributions with other leaders; as a bandleader he hired several sidemen who would themselves make significant marks in the jazz world; and he moved comfortably through swing era music, bebop, post-bop mainstream, and R&B.
Cootie was born Charles Melvin Williams, in Mobile, Alabama, on 10 July 1911. As a small child, he took an early delight in music (family legend has it that too young to talk properly, he burbled ‘cootie, cootie, cootie’ when hearing a band play). He played various instruments in school bands, in particular the trombone and the tuba, but then took up the trumpet on which he was at first self-taught before taking lessons from Charles Lipskin. The young boy’s proficiency was such that he was still in his early teens when he began playing professionally. This was the mid-1920s and among the bands with which he played was that run by the family of Lester Young. Cootie continued to play in territory bands, mainly in the south, including that led by Alonzo Ross, which was fortuitous because early in 1928 this band played in New York. Aware of the opportunities in the city, almost at once Cootie chose to quit the band and in that same summer he recorded with James P. Johnson, following this with brief spells with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. Early the following year he was hired by Duke Ellington to replace Bubber Miley.
At first, Cootie’s role in the band required him to play the so-called ‘jungle effects’ originally created by Miley, but his rich open horn sound and his distinctive plunger muted playing quickly became an important part of the palette with which Ellington worked. This, Cootie’s first spell in Ellington’s orchestra, was to last for 11 years. By the time of his last year with the band, 1940, he was one of the most distinctive musicians amidst a group of highly individualistic players. Ellington, ever alert to the qualities of his sidemen, showcased Cootie in a composition with which the trumpeter would be forever inextricably linked. This was Concerto For Cootie, recorded in 1940, which remains a jazz standard to this day although usually under the title by which it became better known after Bob Russell wrote a lyric for it: Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.
During this spell with Ellington, Cootie’s distinctive playing brought him work outside the band and he made records with other leaders, among them Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. With the latter, he appeared on sessions accompanying Billie Holiday. He was also leader of one of the small groups drawn from within the Ellington band, the Rug Cutters. When Cootie left Ellington in 1940, an event of sufficient importance in the music world to prompt Raymond Scott to compose When Cootie Left The Duke, it was to join the immensely popular Benny Goodman band, playing in the full band but mainly featured in the sextet. Although not with Goodman for long, this exposure to the big-time was such that Cootie decided to form his own big band.
Formed in 1941, and destined to last through to the decade’s end, Cootie’s band followed the swing era trend, employing several leading musicians of the genre, among them Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson. Significantly, and demonstrating Cootie’s musical open-mindedness, he also had on the band a number of the new young beboppers, notably Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, even if, most of the time, they had to limit their experimentation. That said, Cootie’s acceptance of new sounds led him to record Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight in August 1944. This was urged upon him by Bud Powell and is believed to be the first of the 1,000-plus recordings of this timeless jazz standard.
For all the band’s many qualities, Cootie was not immune to the commercial pressures that were affecting all big bands, and by the end of the decade, he was forced to cut the band down to a small group. There were other pressures, too, and as he would ruefully admit in later years, although he had been a temperate man before becoming a band leader, it was during these years that he became a serious drinker. For all the difficulties, however, Cootie’s band was a very good example of its kind and period; and an important aspect of it was his own playing that never lost its distinctive appeal. Despite the problems surrounding himself and the band, Cootie was ever alert to commercial trends and in particular ventured into R&B. This was in the early 1950s and he led small bands, including leading one for a long engagement at the Savoy Ballroom. He also enjoyed a hit, with (Doin’ The) Gator Tail, a number that featured the honking tenor saxophone of the number’s composer, Willis Jackson.
The late 1950s saw Cootie fitting into the post-bop mainstream with effortless ease, something that is vividly demonstrated on one of the best record dates of the time and genre. This was with a band he co-led with Rex Stewart in 1957 on a session released as The Big Challenge. This recording has seldom been absent from the catalogs, and with excellent playing from the leaders along with Coleman Hawkins, Bud Freeman, Lawrence Brown and Hank Jones, it is not hard to understand why. But despite successes such as this one, work was not easy to find under his own leadership although he did tour Europe as co-leader with Joe Newman.
In 1962, after briefly rejoining Goodman, Cootie was tempted back into the Ellington fold, an event the bandleader rewarded with several features for the trumpeter, among them New Concerto For Cootie, The Shepherd and Portrait Of Louis Armstrong. Cootie remained in the band – visually an apparently doleful presence – until Ellington’s death, staying on when the band was briefly led by Mercer Ellington before bowing out in 1978. He died on 15 September 1985, in New York City.
Throughout his years with Ellington, and on many occasions under his own name, Cootie consistently displayed a vigorous command of his instrument. Whether playing the muted colorful compositions of Ellington, or playing in the full-throated manner that reflected his admiration for Louis Armstrong, the distinctive trumpet playing of Cootie Williams remains one of the lasting joys of jazz,
As usual, the CDs illustrated above can be bought at Amazon, as can many other examples of this fine musician’s work.
November 20, 2012
Fortunately for all of us, there’s no shortage of material by Duke Ellington and his wonderful orchestra. For the newcomer, though, there might almost be too much. Now, if you are a fan, you might well argue, with considerable justification, that there’s no such thing as too much Ellington. But try for a moment to imagine what it must be like for someone coming along today who has yet to encounter this man and his music. Where should a newcomer begin?
At the risk of irritating the many Ellington experts, I have attempted to select just three Ellington albums I regard as unmissable. For me, these three, which have appeared frequently over the years, are exceptional, offering as they do, intriguingly varied glimpses of one of the finest bands ever to grace jazz.
First of the three albums is The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird), which comes from a short but highly productive and creative period in Ellington’s life.
He was of course always productive and creative, but this period, 1940-42, was astonishing even by his own high and prolific standards. Several of the band’s members had already spent long periods as Ellingtonians: Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer; others were relative newcomers, notably Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, whose contributions were of such importance that their names have ever afterwards been appended as identifiers for this brief era. Nothing on this album is weak or wasted, even the alternative versions included here add to our knowledge and understanding of and delight in the band.
But is it the real Duke Ellington?
The second album, At Newport 1956 (Columbia Legacy) marks the turning point in public awareness of the band; that evening designed by an alchemist when everything went right.
Its centerpiece is a roaring Paul Gonsalves solo that bridges the two parts of Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, even if this had the unfortunate consequence of tying the saxophonist to a roof-raising role despite his being one of the most rhapsodic of Ellington’s players (and, No, I haven’t forgotten Webster and Hodges). What this album gives us, is an immensely enjoyable view of the band, ensemble and soloists, in command of music and listeners. (This particular reissue has everything, including studio remakes.)
But is this the real Duke Ellington?
Twice I’ve asked the same, seemingly heretical, question, which stems from a remark made by Johnny Hodges. This is what has led me to question the claim often implied – sometimes explicitly stated – that these two marvelous sets of music really do present archetypal Ellington.
What was that remark? Well, one day, in the early 1960s, in conversation with a friend of mine, Hodges observed, ‘If you never heard Ellington play for dancing, then you never heard Ellington.’
Let’s be clear, this was not a deep discussion, just a casual conversation in the midst of which came this almost throwaway remark; but it is something of a conversation-stopper. Think about this for a moment; if Hodges was right, then almost no one living today really heard Ellington. After all, pretty nearly everyone around today has heard Ellington only on record or in the concert hall. And these are the sources of the two foregoing albums. In the case of The Blanton Webster Band we hear Ellington in the recording studio, bound by the three-minute side and, despite the glories that abound, perhaps affected as were many jazz musicians of the era by the relative austerity of the setting (to say nothing of the time of day, when they perhaps would rather have been . . . well, resting). As for At Newport, this has the band in concert; admittedly not a concert hall, but at a festival, a setting that has some of the same general ambiance, albeit considerably livelier than most.
This is why Fargo 1940 is so special; it is a dance date. Recorded with commendable foresight, by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, and with remarkably good sound considering the time and circumstances and technical shortcomings, this set captures that free floating spirit of an organization that was not only an outstanding jazz band, but was also an exceptional dance band.
Given the date, it is obvious that the band’s personnel is pretty much the same core of musicians as for The Blanton-Webster Band. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of the solos heard are on par with, or sometimes superior to, those on the studio recordings. Yet an indefinable atmosphere hangs over the Fargo dance; it is an ambiance that sparks the soloists and fires the ensemble, bringing out the very best in everyone and making it possible to detect a glimmer of what it was that prompted Hodges to make his remark. Not surprisingly, this exceptional set continues to reappear and in at least one case with additional tracks.
Okay, so my choice of these three superb albums is just my opinion. Ask a hundred other fans of Duke Ellington and the chances are you’ll get very different results. That said, these albums are, I believe, three important and invaluable examples of the Duke Ellington orchestra at its very best; everlasting aural images of a band of musicians who, with extraordinary alchemy, created magical music over many decades.
Any newcomer to Duke Ellington should seek to hear any, preferably all of these albums, and then hopefully add them to his or her collection. If you are not a newcomer then you probably have them already. If you haven’t, you should.
September 30, 2012
One of the outstanding big bands of the 1970s, Bill Berry’s LA Band was rich in talented soloists, powerful in execution, and dedicated in its approach. Sadly, it was barely recorded although many off-air and private recordings exist and I count myself lucky in having several of these. Officially, only two albums were released, the almost impossible to find vinyl, Hot & Happy (Beez 1), and Hello Rev (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4023) and the former on Bill’s own label. (One all-too brief track on an Ernestine Anderson CD doesn’t really count.) The CD incarnation of Hello Rev is therefore a ‘must have’ for all lovers of big band jazz at its fiery best. Soloists include Blue Mitchell, Cat Anderson, Jack Sheldon, Jimmy Cleveland, Tricky Lofton, Richie Kamuca, Marshal Royal and Dave Frishberg. Throughout his work, leading big and small bands, playing jazz cornet, composing and arranging, Bill Berry lived and breathed the music of Duke Ellington. This stemmed from a spell in the early 1960s when he was a member of the Ellington band. When he joined the Ellington band, Bill quickly discovered that much of the magic did not come from notes on paper. Seated in the trumpet section, he looked in vain for his part, finding only a tattered scrap of paper with a few notes scribbled on it. ‘What do I do?’ he asked Cat Anderson. ‘Grab a note and hold on,’ he was told. At the end of the number, Cat leaned over and growled, ‘That was my note.’ Years later, that scrap of paper, carefully framed, hung proudly on the wall of Bill’s study at his North Hollywood home.
Bill’s spell with Ellington coincided with the darkest days of the Civil Rights movement, and sometimes there were problems. Later, Bill would recalls that when touring some parts of the Deep South, as the only white member of the band, he was sent into diners to buy two dozen hamburgers to go, the rest of the band remaining cautiously in the bus. But bad as they sometimes were, the difficulties were outweighed by the musical experience – something that changed his life forever, all for the good, and which he never failed to credit.
Hearing Bill Berry’s big band albums almost matches the awesome experience of encountering the band live. I had this privilege just once, at Carmelo’s, a Los Angeles jazz club. That night, in the late 1970s, the band included Sheldon, Cleveland, and Frishberg, as well as Pete and Conte Candoli, Bob Efford, Jack Nimitz, Monty Budwig, and Frank Capp among a truly star-studded personnel. If only more of my memories were made of mouth-watering evenings like this.
Bill Berry also led small groups and they have fared a little better in the CD age. Of these Shortcake (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4075) also abounds in distinguished soloists, including Marshal Royal, Lew Tabackin, Bill Watrous and Dave Frishberg; additionally it is marked by ingenious and witty charts.
In the 1990s, Bill Berry and his wife, Betty, organized the Pacific Jazz Party, a richly rewarding trans-oceanic collaboration between musicians from America and Japan. The fine mainstream set, Jazz Party (Jazz Cook JCCD 1003) is one result of this meeting of musical minds. Cornetist Bill co-leads with his counterpart, clarinetist Eiji Kitamura, and they are joined by tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and a pulsating rhythm section that draws from both countries: pianist Kotaro Tsukahara and the veteran bass and drums team of Ray Brown and Jake Hanna. Then there is Live at Capozzoli’s (Woofy WPCD 54), recorded during a late 1990s Las Vegas club date. The uncommon front line of Bill’s cornet and Jack Nimitz’s baritone saxophone lend interesting textures to a nice selection of numbers, most of which are standards.
A passing thought: although Bill had played trumpet in his early years, for most of his career, he played cornet, preferring the slightly mellower sound and the freedom the instrument gave him to execute fast boppish phrasing. Towards the end of his career, Bill played a Japanese-made instrument that was reshaped to look decidedly un-cornet-like. This confused some; on one occasion an emcee ended an evening by referring to the instrument as a flügelhorn. Bill was too polite to correct this misapprehension. Neither did he trouble interviewers with technical reasons for his choice. When asked by the BBC’s Peter Clayton why he played cornet and not trumpet, Bill answered: ‘As you can see, I am of a somewhat diminutive stature and my arms are too short for a trumpet’ .
Apart from hearing Bill with his own big band during that particular trip to California, I also heard him in the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and an all-star outfit fronted by Bob Crosby as well as various small groups. Also memorable was his appearance in small and large groups at 1988’s Duke Ellington Conference. And I was happily able to make a few phone calls that helped smooth the way for Bill’s appearance in a playing and acting role in an Alan Plater television drama on British television. In this, he was cast as an American jazzman visiting the UK, but, completely against type, his character was decidedly ill-tempered.
Bill Berry’s death, in November 2002, brought to an end a personal friendship that existed between us for about a quarter-century. I miss Bill, but count myself lucky to have known him and to have heard him play live on many occasions in London and Los Angeles and points in between, including that never-to-be-forgotten night with his mighty big band.
Important in keeping alive memories of this fine jazz musician are the records, all of which exemplify something Bill once observed:
“You can be 100% serious about music, and still have fun.”