Jumping the Blues – Pete Brown, Tab Smith, Earl Bostic

July 30, 2012

Among many fine jazz alto saxophonists of yesteryear are three who deserve to be remembered rather more than is the case. They are Pete Brown, Tab Smith and Earl Bostic. All three of these fine jazz musicians played with verve, generating excitement and enthusiasm among listeners and dancers. And because they lived when and where they did, their repertoire and playing styles ranged widely. In particular, they covered the jumping jazz style that cross-pollinated with R&B in the 1940s and 50s and even when they were in ballad mode there was always an earthy subtext that appealed widely.

Pete Brown was a remarkably gifted multi-instrumentalist, becoming one of the most distinctive alto saxophonists in jazz and was a foremost member of the small number of swing era musicians to make the transition to bop. He was born James Ostend Brown, on 9 November 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland, and throughout his teenage years established a solid local reputation. Chafing at the limitations of working in his home-town, he expanded his horizons by playing in Atlantic City. That still wasn’t enough for him end when he was 21 he moved to New York City, making this his permanent home. pete brown cdAlthough his instrumental arsenal was wide, the alto saxophone was the instrument upon which he made his name.

Sometimes as leader, other times as sideman, his reputation grew throughout the 1930s as a vigorous and inventive player with a quirky and wholly distinctive sound. Towards the end of the decade, as driving blues-based jump bands became increasingly popular, Pete’s aggressive and inventive style was a perfect match. Already a 52nd Street favorite, as the 1940s began, he was on hand when the bop revolution thrust irrevocable changes upon jazz. Unlike the majority of Pete’s contemporaries, his saturation in swing era music did not inhibit him from taking on board the concepts of bop. Indeed, his clipped phrasing, allied as it was to the in-built aggression of his style and his gritty sound suited certain aspects of the new music. Pete was equally as comfortable in the concurrent milieu of R&B small bands. His rasping solos, filled as they were with wit and invention, provided a model for many alto and tenor saxophonists in that genre.

Similarly stylish and direct was alto saxophonist Tab Smith whose playing made him an instantly identifiable jazzman but one whose fame was always less than he deserved. He was born Talmadge Smith, on 11 January 1909 in Kinston, North Carolina, and became a gifted multi-instrumentalist although it was on alto saxophone that he made his name.  Tab-Smith cdDuring the 1930s, Tab’s reputation spread and was often called upon for recording sessions with artists such as Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Charlie Shavers and Coleman Hawkins. He also led his own band, showcasing his forceful playing on both alto and soprano saxophones. His solos have a restless urgency, his sound attractively burred and possessing a surging intensity that was one of the reasons why he was able to make a success of his transition into R&B. Even so, by the end of the 1940s, he was playing only part time.

Although his playing style had similarly earthy undertones, Earl Bostic was the most overtly romantic of these three jazzmen. He was born Eugene Earl Bostic on 25 April 1913 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Another gifted multi-instrumentalist, he played guitar and trumpet as well as various reed instruments but it was his alto saxophone work that brought him fame. Before that, he paid his dues working in territory bands and with many leading lights of the swing era. Formally trained in music, with a degree in music theory from Xavier University, the early 1940s saw him in the right place at the right time when the bop revolution struck. A regular at Small’s Paradise and at Minton’s Playhouse, he played with all the new rising stars of modern jazz.

Pete Brown’s distinctive playing attracted the attention of other musicians and among those who drew upon his work for some of their own inspiration – and in some cases were tutored by him – were Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker, Cecil Payne and Flip Phillips. Throughout the 1950s, persistently poor health limited Pete’s activities although he did make an appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, fortunately captured on record. He died in New York City on 20 September 1963.

In the early 1950s, Tab Smith made some R&B recordings that proved to be popular, among them his version of Because Of You, an R&B chart-topper. Thanks to success like this, he was able to keep afloat a new band for some years. But then, late in the 1950s, when times were again hard, he abandoned full-time music. From then on he still played, but was now an organist in a restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, where he had made his home. He died in the city on 17 August 1971.

Earl Bostic had most success with recordings made from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s with his own band for the Majestic, Gotham and King labels. These brought him lasting fame and some fortune, notably the considerable success he had with R&B-styled versions of Temptation, Sleep, You Go To My Head and Flamingo, the last-named reaching the top of the R&B charts. By the 1960s, Earl Bostic was venturing into soul but his health was suffering and on 28 October 1965, he died while playing a gig in Rochester, New York. Earl-Bostic cd

Today, it is hard to imagine that either Pete Brown or Tab Smith would fit into the smooth jazz category although Earl Bostic might well enter that genre without too much upheaval. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why these fine, distinctive, hard-swinging jazzmen only rarely attract the attention of record companies engaged in reissue programs. Pete Brown’s 1940s independent label recordings and his 1950s albums for Bethlehem and Verve remain hard-to-find even if transferred to CD although Complete 1944 World Jam Session (Progressive) and From The Heart (Verve), the latter a 1960s recording, are attractive exceptions. Like so many players who were undervalued in their lifetimes, Tab Smith did not make nearly enough records but those that he did show him to be a musician who is deserving of a reappraisal. Some of his work can be heard on Ace High (Delmark) and Crazy Walk (Delmark). Perhaps because of his extensive hit parade successes, Earl Bostic has been much better-served with several CD reissues among which The Earl Bostic Story (Properbox), a 4-CD boxed set, is an extremely good example. One thing is certain, even if it takes some searching, the work of Pete Brown, Tab Smith and Earl Bostic is thoroughly recommended to all those who enjoy muscle on the bones of jazz.

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