Jack Purvis – a Walk on the Wild Side

September 15, 2014

I’ll admit it up-front, choosing to write about Jack Purvis is an indulgence. Why? Well, for one thing, he was a remarkably gifted musician. For another, he led an astonishing life. But trying to trace his life is like stumbling blindfold through a minefield. Even his own claims were often misleading, appearing to be wildly imaginative; sometimes they were but to make matters worse, sometimes even the wildest were true. Well, maybe. So the real indulgence is that it is possible to write pretty nearly anything and no one can offer much in the way of contradiction. Purvis’s life was so extraordinary that if it were to be boiled down to a pitch for a biopic, any self-respecting film studio would turn it down because audiences wouldn’t accept it as a true story. What follows contains facts, fiction, speculation – as to which is which, well that’s anybody’s guess.

John Purvis was born in Kokomo, Indiana, on 11 December 1906, to comfortably middle-class parents but the death of his mother when he was only six years old was a damaging blow. He began stealing and was sent to reform school where he discovered music and learned to play trombone and trumpet. gold and silver trumpetsHe mostly played the latter instrument but during his career he would occasionally be heard on trombone as well as piano and even, reportedly, harp. After reform school, and now in regular school, he played trumpet professionally and an early job was with Hal Denman’s dance band. Other dance band work after finishing school included playing with the Original Kentucky Night Hawks and Whitey Kaufman’s Original Pennsylvanians. In 1927, he married and was soon a father; his daughter, Betty Lou, became a radio DJ and also wrote for Down Beat magazine. So far so good, and all verifiable. Along the way, he had learned to fly, something that would open up highly questionable fields of activity for him in the future. In 1928 he joined George Carhart’s band and went to France. There, he appears to have been involved in illegal activities (petty theft) and had to leave the country in haste. The following year, Purvis’s musical skill brought him to wider attention when he joined the very popular band led by Hal Kemp. He also began recording and over the next couple of years appeared not only with Kemp but also with Smith Ballew, Rube Bloom, the California Ramblers, and he also recorded under his own name, backed by the Hal Kemp rhythm section. Resulting from this session were two sides: Mental Strain At Dawn and Copyin’ Louis.

That last title is significant because Purvis was hugely influenced by Louis Armstrong. Of course, he was far from alone in this; any trumpet player of the time with any interest in playing jazz was guided by the dramatic effect Armstrong was having on the world of music. Records made by Purvis clearly demonstrate the Armstrong-effect, but in his case it is striking how very good he was and that despite the title of that particular recording, Purvis brought his own distinctive ideas to his work. Among other recording sessions of this period is one on which he led an integrated band with J.C. Higginbotham. Around this time he left Kemp for the California Ramblers and he also played with the Dorsey Brothers, with Fred Waring and Charlie Barnet; he also appears to have played as featured trumpet soloist with The New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Accounts from the time suggest that Purvis was a highly skilled musician, could sight-read the most difficult arrangements and, as is apparent from his records, he was also a gifted and inventive jazz soloist.

All this said, it is also extensively reported that he was unreliable and subject to acute depression. He also appears to have used his ability to pilot aircraft to work at this in Texas, with rumors that he flew in and out of Mexico as a smuggler. A move to California added to his already broad range of abilities; he worked on radio and in film studios as an arranger, composed a work in classical form, Legends Of Haiti, and, as if this were not already enough, he also worked as a chef in San Francisco. Not long after this, he went to New York where he joined another name band, that led by Frankie Froeba, making more records in 1935. He was then briefly with Joe Haymes but then dropped out of sight. There has been speculation of what he was doing at this time, but the next verifiable activity was again illegal; this came in mid-1937 when he was arrested in Texas on robbery charges and ended up doing time in the state pen at Huntsville. While there, music was a saving grace; he led and played piano with a prison band, the Rhythmic Swingsters, which broadcast on WBAP radio. Released on parole in 1940, Purvis promptly broke the conditions and was sent back to prison where he remained until late in 1946. His life from this point on is mostly rumored; he played in some bands, he played on street corners as a busker, he again worked as a chef, a carpenter, a radio repair-man, and he flew in Florida. There are also (obviously unverifiable) reports that somewhere along the way he was a mercenary in South America; and he might also have been a bigamist.

Even in death, in San Francisco on 30 March 1962, Jack Purvis confounded those who like everything neatly cut-and-dried and verified. His death certificate states the cause as ‛fatty degeneration of the liver’ but extensive research by Paul Larsen suggests that he committed suicide by gassing himself. As if this were not enough, insistent, if barely credible, rumors suggested that he was still alive six years later, when he reportedly met and talked with cornet player Jim Goodwin.

All of the foregoing should raise expectations for the recent release of a 3-CD Boxed Set, Jack Purvis 1928-1935 (on Jazz Oracle BDW 8035). jsck purvisIt is a delight to report that expectations are fully realized. There are more than seventy sides assembled here, showing Purvis on the recording sessions mentioned above, as well as others with the Boswell Sisters, Adrian Rollini, Lloyd Newton, Nick Lucas, Lee Morse, Dick Robertson, and Seger Ellis. However profligate and undisciplined he might have been in life, on record Jack Purvis was a man of musical substance and this album, with its many hot solos by a noteworthy if largely forgotten trumpeter, is an excellent way in which to live, however vicariously, a little on the wild side of jazz.

For more details on the boxed set, see Jazz Oracle‘s website and this album can be found at Amazon.


Cootie Williams – Doleful Joy

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.

Melodie Records

Melodie Records


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.

Collectables Records

Collectables Records


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.cootie-poster 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.

Fresh Sound Records

Fresh Sound Records

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.


Clark Terry

September 20, 2013

I met Clark Terry just once; this was after a concert at Sheffield’s Leadmill Theatre in the mid-1980s during a UK tour by a truly all-star band; the other members of the sextet were Buddy Tate, Sir Roland Hanna, Al Grey, Len Skeat and Ronnie Verrell. I was backstage with a colleague, Mike Pinfold, who was hoping to interview some of the musicians for a radio show. I just hung in the background, speaking when spoken to. Clark was friendly and polite although our conversation didn’t get far from “Hello, how are you?” and “Fine, thank you.”

To digress : Mike was not especiallyserenade to a bus seat successful with his interview plans. Maybe one day he will tell the full story of the reasons for this but, briefly, Ronnie Verrell was depping that night and all that the American visitors wanted to talk about was how astonishingly inspiring his drumming had been.


Digressing again: I connected with Clark only one other time. This was when I planned to put him into one of my crime novels and because I intended giving him lines to speak, I thought it appropriate to write and seek his approval. Clark wrote back, saying it was fine with him; although the letter was brief, beside his signature was a delightful little drawing. It would be nice to publish this here, but I no longer have the letter; I gave it to a friend who was both a collector of autographs and a jazz fan.

cover top & bottom brassAltogether, it would seem that all of this is not much to remember him by; but the reality is that Clark Terry was for decades an important part of my jazz life, even if it was only through records.

“Only through records” sound a bit dismissive; a reality check displays the fact that this outstanding musician appeared on a staggering number of record dates, often as leader. The total number of jazz dates is measured in the high hundreds, making him one of the most prolific of jazz recording artists. Importantly, in Clark’s case, quantity never affected the quality of his work. He was superb in all that he did. Whether as sideman or leader, it seldom took more than a few well-chosen notes to subtly inform the listener of his presence. When he was the leader, or was called upon to solo, he always performed with skill, inventiveness, passion and genius. Clark Terry was a master.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 14 December 1920, for a few years Clark Terry played trumpet in local bands, and was able to develop what became a remarkable technique while serving in the US Navy. Interestingly, the fluid sound that became a hallmark of Clark’s playing might well have come about because he used a clarinet book when practicing. At the end of World War 2, Clark was briefly with Charlie Barnet, then spent three years with Count Basie’s band, before joining Duke Ellington in 1951 where he stayed for eight years. As the 1950s ended, he became a studio musician in New York City, and was thus one of the first black musicians to be regularly employed in this way. cover happy horns + what's happeningA side effect of this was that for more than a decade he appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show as a member of the Doc Severinsen band. Although clearly important, Clark’s extensive studio work didn’t keep him off the jazz scene. Through this same period, he played in jazz groups, working with Bob Brookmeyer, J.J. Johnson among many.

He also formed the ‘Big B-A-D Band’, in which he was joined by many leading New York session musicians.

cover Big B A D BandEarly in the 1970s, Clark Terry joined Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic. Around this time, he also began playing flügelhorn, which eventually became his principal instrument. Anyone who saw him live or on television will recall his remarkable duets with himself. Playing flügelhorn and trumpet simultaneously, he managed to display his skill and showmanship while avoiding merely showing off.

Although rooted in the swing era, Clark was comfortable in most areas of jazz, notably the post-bop mainstream; whatever the setting he played with astonishing technical accomplishment that he never allowed to overshadow the depths of emotion that imbued his exemplary playing with heart and soul.

Anyone wishing to hear Clark Terry at his best can pick almost at random from the hundreds of records he made; almost everything is better than merely good, often the random picker will find something of genius. If something other than chance is preferred, then a prospective listener might confidently choose Serenade To A Bus Seat (Riverside) or Top And Bottom Brass (Original Jazz Classics) or The Happy Horns Of Clark Terry (Impulse) or It’s What’s Happening (Impulse) or Clark Terry’s Big-B-A-D-Band Live At The Wichita Jazz Festival 1974 (Vanguard) clark after darkor Clark After Dark (Verve) or Live At The Village Gate (Chesky) or Yes, The Blues (Original Jazz Classics) or One On One (Chesky).

cover yes the bluesAs this started with a personal note, I will end the same way. The Clark Terry album that I have played most often since its release in 2004 is Porgy & Bess (Americana Music). Back in the 1940s, for a while Clark became something of a mentor to Miles Davis, then a young and up-coming musician. As everyone knows, in 1958 Davis joined forces with Gil Evans to create a landmark recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. Evans’s arrangements and Davis’s playing have withstood the years and numerous changes in jazz styles. The durability of this music became vividly apparent when Jeff Lindberg, of the Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra, decided to revive the work. Together with Charles Harrison III, Lindberg transcribed the original arrangements and then had the remarkable prescience to choose Clark Terry as featured soloist. Although a trumpet master vastly different from Davis, Clark clearly possessed in abundance qualities of wit and ingenuity. Not only that, but Clark’s playing was gorgeously lyrical, a quality that suited perfectly the operatic origins of Gershwin’s music. As for his skill, that was as abundantly clear as it ever had been in the past, even though at the time of this recording (between November 2003 and February 2004) he celebrated his 83rd birthday.

cover porgy & bessUnerringly, on this album, Clark finds the richly emotional depths of the work and while as different as can be from that of Davis the result is quite outstanding. The music is timeless, the arrangements are rightly legendary, and this version does not pale beside the original. While that original will forever remain a masterpiece, it might well be that in time this performance will be recognized as one of the great achievements of Clark Terry’s career. Both Terry and Davis cut to the emotional core of the music; different routes perhaps, certainly different sounds. Terry plays with a rich, burnished sound that contrasts vividly with Davis’s biting, acerbic tone, but both are true to the musical conception and each stands on its own merits. This is a wholly admirable recording and one that casts an alternative and equally valid light on the original.

Sad to say, this album was available for only a very short time. Indeed, it was gone almost before anyone had a chance to buy it. Hopefully, the tapes are still around and someone will reissue this wonderful music.

In addition to his huge body of recorded work, Clark also composed about two hundred jazz songs. cover TerryTunesHis books include Terry Tunes: The Compositions of Clark Terry, Let’s Talk Trumpet: From Legit to Jazz, Interpretation of the Jazz Language and Clark Terry’s System of Circular Breathing for Woodwind and Brass Instruments (with Phil Rizzo) and, most recently, Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (with Gwen Terry) was published.Clark Terry autobiography

From 2010 onwards, Clark’s health deteriorated and in December 2011 his right leg was amputated; in May 2012, his left leg was also lost. Despite all of this, his spirits remained high and he benefited greatly from the love and care of his wife, Gwen, his friends and fans, who continued to communicate with him from all around the world. As 2012 gave way to 2013, news came that, remarkably, Clark was once again teaching, thus passing on to today’s generation of musicians the inestimable skills he had learned and used with such skill for so many decades.




Bill Berry – Serious Fun

September 30, 2012

Bill Berry pen/ink drawing

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. Bill Berry-Hello Rev coverSoloists 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.Bill Berry-Shortcake cover 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. Bill Berry-Capozzoli's coverThen 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.”

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