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Louis Armstrong (left, 1953) and Duke Ellington (right, 1954)
Thomas Brothers in his biography Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism draws an interesting parallel between two landmark jazz recordings: Armstrong’s West End Blues (1928) and Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy (1927).

Compositionally, the two are near identical, and the Pops biographer suggests Ellington may have had a hand in West End Blues, although there is no direct evidence for such.
 
Brothers characterizes Armstrong’s West End Blues as resembling “a ‘fantasy’ or a ‘rhapsody,’ a type of piece that makes no pretense of integrating the parts into a coherent whole but, rather, offers delight in the unpredictable unfolding of different sound images, one after the other.”
 
He would have characterized Duke’s piece in the same way. Brothers further suggests (tongue in cheek, perhaps) that if Armstrong had been interested in crafting an image of himself as a composer (as Ellington certainly did), he would have named his opus West End Fantasy.
 
The structural similarity in the compositions, however, in my opinion, did not require a direct or indirect influence one way or another. It resulted from a common understanding the two composers had about the music they were creating—one with more variety and discontinuity than the unity and coherence prevalent in the then dominant Eurocentric music and one with an African foundation that came out of an American experience.
 
CODA
Armstrong would become the central figure in the history of jazz for his solo playing and singing. Ellington would become its finest composer. His musical creations often used “the unpredictable unfolding of different sound images, one after the other” to the consternation of his critics, but to the delight of his many fans.
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Oscar Peterson, Munich 1977. Ranked number 1 in Gene Rizzo's list of the greatest jazz piano players of all time.
As stated on the book jacket of The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time :
   
Jazz journalist Gene Rizzo surveyed the best, most original minds in the music industry as to who are the greatest jazz pianists of all time. They based their rankings on several qualities including skill, originality, and influence. . . . The book also ranks the next twenty selected [pianists], profiles the top ten women, and alphabetically lists all players considered.

The book, in fact, lists the 70 greatest jazz pianists of all time. The top 50 are ranked (Oscar Peterson is number 1, Keith Jarrett number 50), and the next 20 are listed alphabetically. Mr. Rizzo does not reveal the identity (or the number) of his surveyed “most original minds,” a major failing for a jazz book. 
Jazz fans expect transparency. For example, in its annual, long-running Critics Jazz Poll, DownBeat jazz magazine identifies the critics by name, as does all such magazines with similar polls.

In a brief forward, Mr. Rizzo characterizes the results as racially and demographically diverse. An interesting observation, I suppose, but why make such a statement? It smacks of experimental bias and suggests a planned outcome. If all 70 greats were black, so be it; if half were black, so be it; if 30 were septuagenarians, let the chips fall where they may.

Rizzo further says, “With apologies to the women’s movement, there is only one female entry [Mary Lou Williams at number 47],” and then ranks the top10 women players in a separate category. But jazz piano playing is not professional sport. Women are just as capable as men on the keyboard. Why rank women separately? In the recent 2013 DownBeat Critics poll, for example, Jane Ira Bloom is ranked fifth, Anat Cohen sixth among their peers on soprano saxophone. Anat Cohen, Nicole Mitchell, and Regina Carter all came in first on their instruments, clarinet, flute, and violin, respectively.

Maria Schneider ranked second in the Big Band, Arranger, and Composer categories. On piano, Geri Allen tallied seventh, Hiromi 15th. The polls in DownBeat, Jazz Times, and other jazz magazines do not separate the sexes by instrument (except vocalist for obvious reasons). So Mr. Rizzo, what’s with this “separate but equal” women’s category with its implied inferiority? (Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland are listed in the top 70 greats and the top 10 women).

The book also provides a list of jazz piano players that were considered for the main body of the book before they were consigned to the status of honorable mention. Trouble is, the “honorable” list has 158 names—how credible is that! It’s hard to imagine how the “original jazz minds” considered 236 pianists before granting 158 of them an honorable mention. Sorry, Mr. Rizzo, your “honorable” list is simply not credible; it’s a cop-out list. I imagine you saying to a pianist who didn’t make the top 70, “Oh, hey, don’t fret, you made honorable mention.”  

As with any lifelong fan, my jazz antennae quivered as I read the book hoping to find mention of my personal favorites, those who occupy a special place in my heart and in my record collection. I found many. But there were significant others completely missing, not even given an honorable mention:
Muhal Richard Abrams••
Onaje Allan Gumbs
Ran Blake•
Andrew Hill••
Paul Bley•
Abdullah Ibrahim••
Dave Burrell•
Joachim Kuhn
Jaki Byard•
Les McCann
Stanley Cowell•
Myra Melford•
Marilyn Crispell•
Don Pullen••
Harold Danko
Hilton Ruiz
Anthony Davis••
Lalo Schifrin
Tadd Dameron
Horace Tapscott
The above pianists weren’t considered! In my book, some are top 70 candidates (•), some top 50 (••). So what happened here? Did the “original jazz minds” have a large hole in their jazz sieve? Could there be some explanation?

Many of the above pianists came of recording age during the early dark decades for jazz (1960s, 1970s). Many recorded for obscure labels (still do). Many spent more time overseas than on US shores. Many are not solid swingers in the mode of an Oscar Peterson or Gene Harris (Number 12). Many were (and still are) outcasts, new thinkers, avant-gardists.

Many are less derivative than they are original. But so are several of the pianists listed in the book. So I’m stumped. Lacking the identity of the “original jazz minds,” I can go no further.  

Now to the most egregious error: pianist Cecil Taylor was consigned to honorable mention. I, like many others, consider Taylor’s music difficult, devoid of swing perhaps, its beauty often lost in a barrage of sound. But his talent is undeniable. He has forged a dramatic percussive style like no other in the history of jazz, a style that has already influenced many, if not whole cloth, in snippets and swaths.

His is a unique voice, and in jazz that counts for a lot, trumps mechanical skill by a mile. As tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman said in Jean Bach’s film A Great Day in Harlem, “A hundred years from now, we’ll hear more of [quirky clarinetist] Pee Wee Russell’s playing than of Benny Goodman’s, who was truly a great artist.” Maybe, maybe not, but the point is well made. In jazz, voice or individual sound matters as much as or more than technical mastery of one’s instrument. Cecil Taylor has both.

One last point: noted jazz critic Len Lyons in his book The Great Jazz Pianists (Quill, 1983) listed and profiled 27 greats that included Cecil Taylor and three from my above list of unmentionables (Ran Blake, Paul Bley, and Jaki Byard). Okay, that was 32 years ago, and Mr. Lyons is only one “original jazz mind.”

To bottom line here, I would bump six pianists from Rizzo’s top 50, all excellent, mind you, but nonetheless derivative—namely, Andre Previn (number 7), Dick Hyman (32), John Bunch (35), Al Haig (44), Derek Smith (45), and Ralph Sharon (46)—in favor of singular voiced, overlooked innovators Anthony Davis, Muhal Richard Davis, Andrew Hill, Don Pullen, Cecil Taylor, and the songful Abdullah Ibrahim.

It bears mentioning that Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill came in sixth and 10th in a recent DownBeat Hall of Fame voting. Cecil Taylor, of course, has been a member of the Hall since 1975, not to mention his NEA Jazz Master award in 1990.

My mother always said, “If you say something bad about somebody, make sure you say something nice as well.” In that spirit, Mr. Rizzo’s accompanying profiles of the 50 greatest, as well as the top 10 women pianists, are insightful and informative without bogging down in the usual biographical detail.
 
Reservations aside, the book is recommended for long-term fans as well as novices. Aficionados can compare their own greatest list with Rizzo’s, slip some old albums on the player and rediscover an old friend or two; even reconsider a keyboardist previously dismissed. After all, favorite lists are fun (at least for the fans). Would you, for example, rank relative newcomer Benny Green number 6 and Herbie Hancock number 42?  

For those just coming to the music, Rizzo’s recommended CDs for pianists on the list would be a wonderful way to enter the world of jazz piano, which would likely lead to other artists on (and off) the list, and a lifetime of musical pleasure.
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Johnny Cash (1955), Peggy Lee (1950), and Hank Williams (1951). Wikimedia Commons.

The Great American Songbook (GAS) era that lasted some 40 years is pretty well defined, at least at the start. As song historian Ben Yagoda wrote:

[Jerome Kern’s] 1914 song “They Didn’t Believe Me”—with its stately, lingering melody; its 4/4 melody that could go fast or slow, syncopated or straight; and its simple, conversational (“and I’m certainly going to tell them . . .”), resonant lyrics by Herbert Reynolds—has been credibly nominated as the first modern American popular song. (1)

Some have suggested that the syncopated vitality of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” published in 1911 might be the better choice, but let’s stick with the consensus 1914 song by Jerome Kern.

The GAS era end date is less settled, not so clearly defined; one could pick 1957 as well as 1967. One thing for certain, however, the Songbook era overlaps the next big musical epoch—the Singer-Songwriter (SS) era—which many claim began in the early 1960s with the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or with the advent of Bob Dylan.

Now before we go any further, the SS era spoken of here is in the realm of popular music and not the less-celebrated niche genres (folk, blues, hillbilly, or gospel), from which many eventual popular artists emerge. That being said, I’ve always thought that the SS era should have an earlier start date. Consider the list of prominent singer-songwriters below:
1924 Fats Waller 400
1933 Johnny Mercer 68 
1941 Matt Dennis 20
1941 Peggy Lee 103
1947 Hank Williams 140
1951 Fats Domino 8
1955 Chuck Berry 20
1955 Buddy Holly 35
1955 Johnny Cash 32
1956 Roy Orbison 6                    1956 Little Richard 8
1957 Paul Anka 12                        1957 Sam Cooke 9

1957 Neil Sedaka 11
1957 Paul Simon 16
1959 Bobby Darin 14                                                   
1959 Marvin Gaye 1
1959 Willie Nelson10
1959 Smokey Robinson 4
1959 Allen Toussaint 7
1960 Loretta Lynn 1 
1961 Carla Brooks 1
1961 Jackie DeShannon 2
1961 Curtis Mayfield 1                                                 
1961 Bob Seger 1
1961 Stevie Wonder 1 (2)
The number before the name is the year of the artist’s first published song; after the name is the number of songs published prior to 1962. Many—if not all—of the above singers you will recognize because they were and are still popular and accomplished too, not a slouch among them.

Every singer on the list has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. So to my point, based on the above, do we have a quorum of quality singer-songwriters so can we say something along the following lines?

The Great American Songbook era began in 1914 and lasted for some 40 years before giving way to the Singer-Songwriter era in the mid to late 1950s.

For respected rock critic Robert Christgau, the issue is closed. The date is 1955, the year both Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and recorded their first song. Christgau wrote: 
​[Chuck Berry] established rock and roll as a songwriter’s medium. Some in his cohort wrote a fair amount, others barely at all. But it was Berry in particular who presaged Buddy Holly, the ’50s’ second great songwriter–cum-great-performer. Between them they established the artistic template of ’60s rock, where self-written material was a prerequisite. (3)

Case Closed.
 
So what constitutes the primary difference between these two periods? As Ben Yagoda put it, 

​It would have been unthinkable for a Jack Lawrence or a Richard Rodgers to get onstage or behind the microphone and sing one of his songs. The old-time tunesmith was a scriptwriter, fashioning notions and emotions for someone else (a singer/actor) to declaim. But people like [Willie] Nelson and [Otis] Redding were following a different path, one blazed by [Hank] Williams, by bluesmen like Robert Johnson, by Woody Guthrie, by Chuck Berry, and by [Buddy Holly], a bespectacled, guitar-playing, hiccupping kid out of Lubbock, Texas. . . . The mere act of declaiming your own music and words added some exciting new element to the musical mix, and would only gain more power with the years (4)

Simply put, and exceptions aside, in the GAS era, it took two people (a melodist and a lyricist) to write a song for someone else to sing. In the following era—and again, exceptions aside—it took but one person to write a song and sing it. 
  1. Ben Yagoda, The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great America Song (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 36. 
  2. Singer/songwriter stats from various books and online sources.
  3. Robert Christgau, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017 (Durham, Duke University Press, 2018), 162.
  4. Ben Yagoda, The B-Side, 246. 

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Photo: Adobe Stock / JB
In the Jazzman of the Year category in the December 1968 DownBeat Reader’s Poll, magazine readers singled out, in order, vibraphonist Gary Burton, trumpeter Miles Davis, composer Duke Ellington, drummer Buddy Rich, and trumpeter Don Ellis. With a few exceptions, that sounded about right.

Gary Burton
Gary Burton not only represented a new voice on an instrument few in jazz opt to play, but also put forth a new concept on what he chose to play in a combo setting, as evidenced by his four albums in circulation that year: Duster (1967), Lofty Fake Anagram (1967), A General Tong Funeral (1967), and In Concert (1968). 

The vibist’s two-handed, four-mallet approach spun soft, dreamy aural chords that separated him from his forebears on the instrument: Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, and Bobby Hutcherson. 

Conceptually, Burton chose to synthesize jazz and rock (even country at times), becoming one of the first jazz players to do so, though not as aggressively as later groups Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Mwandishi, Return to Forever, Lifetime, and Weather Report, giving these Johnny-come-lately outfits permission to use rock beats and distorted guitar in a jazz performance. 

The guitarist on Tong Funeral is rising star Larry Coryell. Overall, the album comes across like a soundtrack to a theatrical performance, no doubt influenced by pianist Carla Bley, who would later expand on this construct in her epic Escalator over the Hill (1971).
Miles Davis
The Miles Davis Second Great Quintet—sidemen saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, Bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams—continued apace with the previous year’s stunning Miles Smiles album by releasing Sorcerer and Miles in the Sky. 

Both received top-rated reviews in DownBeat. The leader once again won top honors in the trumpet and combo categories in both the DownBeat critics and readers polls. Moreover, the trumpeter’s frontline star players also issued notable albums of their own.
Wayne Shorter
​Wayne Shorter received DownBeat’s top rating for Adam’s Apple, a quartet effort backed by his totally telepathic and adventurous piano partner, Herbie Hancock, along with bass and drums. The album is known for its compositions—“El Gaucho,” for example—but especially for the jazz standard “Footprints.” 

With this release, the idea began to build in the jazz community that Shorter was much more than a soloist—indeed, a composer of merit likely to join the ranks of John Lewis, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington.

Herbie Hancock
​Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, an experimental, slithery abstract combining of flugelhorn (Thad Jones), bass trombone (Peter Phillips), and alto (Jerry Dodgion), did not move the needle at the time. 

Today, however, this album with its interesting, simple melody sound clouds has gained an appreciative audience. Another way to put it: Miles Davis had his Birth of the Cool, and Herbie had his Speak Like a Child.
Duke Ellington
​Duke Ellington and his orchestra followed their 1967 outstanding Far East Suite with a homage to Duke’s composing and arranging partner Billy Strayhorn: And His Mother Called Him Bill. 

Far East Suite is my number one favorite, And His Mother, featuring all Strayhorn tunes, is my number two. In my opinion, Duke’s mid-1960s band is the equal of the maestro’s famed late ’30s/early ’40s Webster-Blanton band and deserves a name unto itself. Perhaps Ellington’s Second Testament band? Nope, that name’s taken by the Basie aggregation.
 
The reason why it’s so difficult to come up with a proper moniker is that it had not one or two but numerous outstanding soloists at or near their peak: Paul Gonsalves (tenor), Johnny Hodges (alto), Harry Carney (baritone), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Rufus Jones (drums), and, of course, Duke Ellington (piano). Band nickname aside, And His Mother is the Ellington ’60s band at its peak—the same could be said for altoist Johnny Hodges.
 
As Nelson Riddle was to Frank Sinatra and as Lester Young was to Billy Holiday, Billy Strayhorn was to Johnny Hodges. Stray’s compositions brought out that special, sensuous Hodges sound. As singer/author Lillian Terry recently put in her book Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends, “Heavens, when he blows those long, languid notes . . . it’s an actual caress!” 

Yes—as on Hodges’s tribute to Strayhorn on “Blood Count,” “After All,” and “Day Dream,” the latter a late-at-night, sob-in-your beer favorite. The flip side of the Hodges coin—the bluesy side—Billy knew all too well, as illustrated on “Snibor,” “The Intimacy of the Blues,” and “Acht O’Clock Rock.”
Buddy Rich
​Buddy Rich and his big band remained hot throughout the year with both the jazz public and DownBeat readers, who awarded the drummer a second place finish in the Album of the Year category for his appropriately titled The New One.
Don Ellis
​Riding high on his 1967 breakout year, Don Ellis received 1968 Album of the Year honors for Electric Bath from DownBeat readers. Critic Harvey Siders, who awarded the album five stars, described Ellis’s chart for his orchestra as nervous, frenetic, and exciting—unconventional meter, the acoustic incense of Eastern rhythms added by “now” twang of sitars, tape loop delays, and sometimes abrasive clash of quarter tones. 

Other critics heard it differently and did not characterize the band as exciting. Magazine subscribers sided with Siders.
Rahsan Roland Kirk
​Multi-instrumentalist Rahsan Roland Kirk—tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, flute, and other assorted instruments, like the oboe played individually or two or three at a time—released The Inflated Tear, another energetic carnival of sound, and one of his best albums of the ’60s.
John Coltrane
​John Coltrane, who passed in 1967, took his place in the upper echelons of jazz immortals, alongside Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. 

Two of Coltrane’s albums, the now classic Impressions and Om, were reviewed in DownBeat in 1968; the former received five stars, the latter four. The torchbearers, the tenor men closest to him stylistically and personally, forged ahead with new albums: Albert Ayler (In Greenwich Village), Pharoah Sanders (Tauhid), and Archie Shepp (In Europe). ​
Aretha Franklin
​Lastly, singer Aretha Franklin passed in August of 2018. Fifty years ago, DownBeat published a feature article on Aretha. In its Reader Poll issue, the Queen of Soul finished second to the one and only Ella Fitzgerald in the female singer category. For a magazine primarily focused on jazz, this was high praise indeed.

In my book Serendipity Doo-Dah Book One, I included a short piece on Ms. Franklin, covering her rise to prominence when she switched to Atlantic Records in 1967 and her recovery from her mid-career slump in 1977. Read it here.
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Photo: Adobe Stock / JB
In the Jazzman of the Year category in the December 1958 DownBeat Reader’s Poll, magazine readers singled out, in order, vibraphonist Gary Burton, trumpeter Miles Davis, composer Duke Ellington, drummer Buddy Rich, and trumpeter Don Ellis. With a few exceptions, that sounded about right.

Gary Burton
Gary Burton not only represented a new voice on an instrument few in jazz opt to play, but also put forth a new concept on what he chose to play in a combo setting, as evidenced by his four albums in circulation that year: Duster (1957), Lofty Fake Anagram (1957), A General Tong Funeral (1958), and In Concert (1958). 

The vibist’s two-handed, four-mallet approach spun soft, dreamy aural chords that separated him from his forebears on the instrument: Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, and Bobby Hutcherson. 

Conceptually, Burton chose to synthesize jazz and rock (even country at times), becoming one of the first jazz players to do so, though not as aggressively as later groups Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Mwandishi, Return to Forever, Lifetime, and Weather Report, giving these Johnny-come-lately outfits permission to use rock beats and distorted guitar in a jazz performance. 

The guitarist on Tong Funeral is rising star Larry Coryell. Overall, the album comes across like a soundtrack to a theatrical performance, no doubt influenced by pianist Carla Bley, who would later expand on this construct in her epic Escalator over the Hill (1971).
Miles Davis
The Miles Davis Second Great Quintet—sidemen saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, Bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams—continued apace with the previous year’s stunning Miles Smiles album by releasing Sorcerer and Miles in the Sky. 

Both received top-rated reviews in DownBeat. The leader once again won top honors in the trumpet and combo categories in both the DownBeat critics and readers polls. Moreover, the trumpeter’s frontline star players also issued notable albums of their own.
Wayne Shorter
​Wayne Shorter received DownBeat’s top rating for Adam’s Apple, a quartet effort backed by his totally telepathic and adventurous piano partner, Herbie Hancock, along with bass and drums. The album is known for its compositions—“El Gaucho,” for example—but especially for the jazz standard “Footprints.” 

With this release, the idea began to build in the jazz community that Shorter was much more than a soloist—indeed, a composer of merit likely to join the ranks of John Lewis, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington.

Herbie Hancock
​Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, an experimental, slithery abstract combining of flugelhorn (Thad Jones), bass trombone (Peter Phillips), and alto (Jerry Dodgion), did not move the needle at the time. 

Today, however, this album with its interesting, simple melody sound clouds has gained an appreciative audience. Another way to put it: Miles Davis had his Birth of the Cool, and Herbie had his Speak Like a Child.
Duke Ellington
​Duke Ellington and his orchestra followed their 1967 outstanding Far East Suite with a homage to Duke’s composing and arranging partner Billy Strayhorn: And His Mother Called Him Bill. 

Far East Suite is my number one favorite, And His Mother, featuring all Strayhorn tunes, is my number two. In my opinion, Duke’s mid-1960s band is the equal of the maestro’s famed late ’30s/early ’40s Webster-Blanton band and deserves a name unto itself. Perhaps Ellington’s Second Testament band? Nope, that name’s taken by the Basie aggregation.
 
The reason why it’s so difficult to come up with a proper moniker is that it had not one or two but numerous outstanding soloists at or near their peak: Paul Gonsalves (tenor), Johnny Hodges (alto), Harry Carney (baritone), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Rufus Jones (drums), and, of course, Duke Ellington (piano). Band nickname aside, And His Mother is the Ellington ’60s band at its peak—the same could be said for altoist Johnny Hodges.
 
As Nelson Riddle was to Frank Sinatra and as Lester Young was to Billy Holiday, Billy Strayhorn was to Johnny Hodges. Stray’s compositions brought out that special, sensuous Hodges sound. As singer/author Lillian Terry recently put it, “Heavens, when he blows those long, languid notes . . . it’s an actual caress!” (Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray, and Friends). 

Yes—as on Hodges’s tribute to Strayhorn on “Blood Count,” “After All,” and “Day Dream,” the latter a late-at-night, sob-in-your beer favorite. The flip side of the Hodges coin—the bluesy side—Billy knew all too well, as illustrated on “Snibor,” “The Intimacy of the Blues,” and “Acht O’Clock Rock.”
Buddy Rich
​Buddy Rich and his big band remained hot throughout the year with both the jazz public and DownBeat readers, who awarded the drummer a second place finish in the Album of the Year category for his appropriately titled The New One.
Don Ellis
​Riding high on his 1967 breakout year, Don Ellis received 1968 Album of the Year honors for Electric Bath from DownBeat readers. Critic Harvey Siders, who awarded the album five stars, described Ellis’s chart for his orchestra as nervous, frenetic, and exciting—unconventional meter, the acoustic incense of Eastern rhythms added by “now” twang of sitars, tape loop delays, and sometimes abrasive clash of quarter tones. 

Other critics heard it differently and did not characterize the band as exciting. Magazine subscribers sided with Siders.
Rahsan Roland Kirk
​Multi-instrumentalist Rahsan Roland Kirk—tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, flute, and other assorted instruments, like the oboe played individually or two or three at a time—released The Inflated Tear, another energetic carnival of sound, and one of his best albums of the ’60s.
John Coltrane
​John Coltrane, who passed in 1967, took his place in the upper echelons of jazz immortals, alongside Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. 

Two of Coltrane’s albums, the now classic Impressions and Om, were reviewed in DownBeat in 1968; the former received five stars, the latter four. The torchbearers, the tenor men closest to him stylistically and personally, forged ahead with new albums: Albert Ayler (In Greenwich Village), Pharoah Sanders (Tauhid), and Archie Shepp (In Europe). ​
Aretha Franklin
​Lastly, singer Aretha Franklin passed in August of 2018. Fifty years ago, DownBeat published a feature article on Aretha. In its Reader Poll issue, the Queen of Soul finished second to the one and only Ella Fitzgerald in the female singer category. For a magazine primarily focused on jazz, this was high praise indeed.

A short piece on Ms. Franklin covering her rise to prominence when she switched to Atlantic Records in 1967, and her recovery from her mid-career slump in 1977 are discussed in my book Serendipity Doo-Dah Book One. Read it here.
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Photo: Adobe Stock / Dmitriy Shipilov

The 100th anniversary birthday calendar for this year is chock a block with 18 total centenarians, oldest to youngest as follows:

Money Johnson, Marian McPartland, Sir Charles Thompson, Howard McGee, Sam Donahue, Peanuts Hucko, Hank Jones, Rusty Dedrick, Eddie Jefferson, Arnett Cobb, Ike Quebec, Jimmy Rowles, Gerald Wilson, Tommy Potter, Jimmy Blanton, Bobby Troup, Joe Williams, and Jimmy Jones. (1)

I will single out four, each with a Duke Ellington connection, three of whom performed at the White House tribute to Duke Ellington on his 70th birthday on April 29, 1969.


Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton, who was just 21 when he joined Duke in 1939, was the first modern bassist. He had a big tone and unshakable time and was the first jazz bassist capable of “melodic” improvising. Blanton stayed with the band until late 1941 (he died in 1942).

In that brief time, according to Whitney Balliett,

Ellington starred Blanton and his instrument in concerti like “Jack the Bear” and “Bojangles” . . . as well as the highly unconventional duets that he recorded with Blanton—“Pitter Panther Patter,” “Mr. J.B. Blues” . . . his big tone and easy, generous melodic lines mov[ing] like rivers through every record they did together . . . His phrasing was spare and his silences were as important as his notes. He adopted a hornlike approach to his instrument—that is, he no longer just “walked” four beats to the bar but also played little melodies . . . Blanton’s accompanying was forceful; he pushed the band and its soloists by playing a fraction ahead of the beat . . . which lifted the band and made it swing. (2)

Now known as the Blanton-Webster band, Ellington’s orchestra of 1939–1941 is thought by many to be his best ever.


Marian McPartland
Newly married to trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and freshly settled in the US from Great Britain, the aspiring jazz pianist acquired her first gig at the Embers nightclub in New York City. As scary as that was for the British expat, it was but a prelude to her opening at the 52nd Street Hickory House steakhouse in 1952, affording her the opportunity to mingle and play piano for numerous jazz greats—to both learn from them and gradually gain their acceptance.

One of the first reviews she received as a jazz pianist at the Hickory House was by Leonard Feather in DownBeat magazine: “Marian McPartland has three strikes against her, she’s English, white, and a woman.” (3) Ten years hence, by the time her trio’s weekly stint at the Hickory was over, Marian had gained a measure of respect for her talents.

Her career for the next 10 or so years or so continued apace, performing at concerts and clubs, traveling extensively, and making one or two records every year.

Marian is probably best known for her Piano Jazz radio show that aired on NPR starting in 1978, where she interviewed and performed with hundreds of jazz (and some pop) singers, pianists, and other instrumentalists, continuously for 23 years. It won the coveted Peabody Award in 1984, the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 1991, the New York Festivals Gold World Medal in 1988, and the Gracie Allan Award in 2001, presented by the Foundation of American Women in Radio and Television.

McPartland was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), received a Lifetime Achievement Award from DownBeat magazine, and a Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award. (4)

Not too shabby for a white English woman, eh, Mr. Leonard Feather?
    
As a lifelong admirer and friend of Duke Ellington, Marian was a shoo-in to be invited to perform at the maestro’s White House tribute on April 29, 1969. The Nixon administration went out of their way to make sure she did. They provided a limousine to shuttle her between the White House and her gig at nearby Blues Alley in Georgetown, managing to get her to the East Room in time for the late night jam session after the all-star band concert.

Duke greeted his Hickory House friend upon her arrival, and, fearing Willie “the Lion” Smith would monopolize the keyboard all night long, Duke urged Marian to take her turn at the grand piano. Once she was on the riser, the Lion said to her, “I suppose you want to play.”

“Yeah, I’d like to,” Marian responded, moving in a little.

“Okay,” Willie said as he walked off in a sulk. Ellington stood nearby chuckling to himself.

After a decent interval at the keys, McPartland zipped back to Blues Alley, where she greeted her guests with, “Sorry I’m late. I’m also doubling at the White House.” (5)


Hank Jones
A member of the famous jazz family that includes brothers Thad (cornet) and Elvin (drums), Hank Jones grew up listening to virtuoso pianists Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum. But like so many of his generation, Hank embraced the bebop style in the 1940s, though perhaps less so than his contemporaries.

From there, he became a Jazz at the Philharmonic mainstay (1940s), an accompanist for singers like Ella Fitzgerald (1950s), a CBS staff musician in New York City (1960s–70s), and the pianist on a thousand and one record dates. By then, his style had coalesced

Unlike most modern pianists, Jones constantly uses his left hand, issuing a carpet of tenths, little offbeat clusters, and occasional patches of stride. Jones’ solos judge, and they rest far above the florid, Gothic roil that many jazz pianist have fallen into. (6)

But his velvet-touch, cloudlike chords that seem to drift one into the other are what linger in the mind long after he has finished playing. He remains preeminent among the “soft touch” pianists to whom he could be compared: George Shearing, Marian McPartland, and Bill Evans.

From the 1970s on, although Jones freelanced as before, he became widely regarded as the dean of jazz pianists through his recordings in the trio format—for example, Great Jazz Trio with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams—and his duos with pianists Tommy Flanagan and John Lewis, bassist Charlie Haden, and guitarist Bill Frisell.

His rise in stature is evidenced, in part, by his NEA Jazz Master Award in 1989, his 19th-place finish in Gene Rizzo’s book The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time (Hal Leonard, 2005), and his career-topping National Medal of Arts award bestowed by President George H. W. Bush in 2008. (7)

Along with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Louis Bellson, Hank was a member of the all-star rhythm section that backed the all-star front line at Duke Ellington’s 70th-birthday celebration at the White House: trombonists Urbie Green (“I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good) and J. J. Johnson (“Satin Doll”), altoist Paul Desmond (“Chelsea Bridge”), baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (“Sophisticated Lady”), trumpeters Bill Berry and Clarke Terry (“Just Squeeze Me”), and the whole band on a raft of Ellington tunes.

No solos for Hank. Nonetheless, the pianist chorded the patented opening vamp Duke had crafted many years before on “Satin Doll,” and the East Room crowd reacted immediately—they knew what was coming—and trombonist Johnson delivered the familiar melody. (8)
​ 

Joe Williams
His versatile baritone voice made Joe Williams one of the signature male vocalists in jazz annals, responsible for some of the Count Basie band’s main hits in the 1950s: “Alright, Okay, You Win,” “The Comeback,” and what would become one of his most requested tunes, “Every Day.” The classic Count Basie Swings and Joe Williams Sings (Verve) album from that period was ranked 17th all-time favorite jazz vocal album by jazz singers in a DownBeat magazine June 2004 poll.

Starting in the 1960s, Williams was a vocal soloist fronting various piano trios. He continued to expand his range, becoming a superior crooner and exhibiting a real depth of feeling on ballads. Recognition of this growth came in 1974 when Joe won DownBeat’s Critics Poll as best male vocalist—winning nearly every year thereafter for more than a decade. His stature as a polished and complete singer came in 1993 when he received the NEA Jazz Master Award. (9)

At the Ellington White House tribute, Joe sang three songs backed by the all-star band, starting with “Come Sunday,” which Gary Giddins has rightly crowned the Duke’s supreme contribution to the American hymnal. The spiritual theme was first introduced in 1943 at Carnegie Hall in Black, Brown, and Beige, Ellington’s first voyage into extended composition.

Williams loved singing Ellington songs and included at least one in nearly every performance. In his repertoire for some time, he sang “Sunday” at an earlier Ellington tribute in the summer of 1963 in New York City and again on record in 1966: Presenting Joe Williams: Tad Jones/Mel Lewis (Blue Note).  

Mahalia Jackson’s rendering of this lovely hymn is unsurpassed. But on the male side of the ledger, no one has come close to matching the depth and poignancy that Williams has lent to the song. One of the critics in attendance the night of the tribute, Leonard Feather, characterized Joe’s version as “deeply moving.” Critic Morgenstern concluded, “Williams [is] singing as movingly as I’ve ever heard him.”

William’s brought the same amount of conviction and richness to “Heritage,” also known as “My Mother, My Father” as he did to “Come Sunday.” He sang slowly and thoughtfully, with the feel of an elegy. According to Doug Ramsey, there wasn’t a dry eye in the East Room when he finished.

As with “Come Sunday,” Williams would revisit “Heritage” in a studio date for Fantasy Records accompanied by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (Joe Williams Live) and again, memorably so, at Duke’s funeral on Memorial Day 1974.

A swinger from the satirical musical of 1941 of the same name, “Jump for Joy” closed out the All-Star band concert in truly joyous fashion. Joe’s caramel baritone perfectly enveloped the song’s gospel ardor and secular esprit. He had previously recorded “Jump” in 1963, and must have sung the song a hundred times after that 1963 studio date.

Whether it was this past familiarity with the tune, or Joe’s and the band’s sensing the concert finish line, Joe was out front but still solidly “in the pocket” for an all-out swinging climax to the concert. (10)
  1. Jazz Birthday Calendar, 1918.
  2. Whitney Balliett, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954–2001 (New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 478–79.
  3. Marian McPartland, Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 1.
  4. Ibid., 166.
  5. Edward Allan Faine, Ellington at the White House, 1969 (Takoma Park, MD: IM Press, 2013), 138.
  6. Balliett, Collected Works, 837.
  7. Faine, Ellington, 60.
  8. Ibid., 93–133.
  9. Ibid., 66–67.
  10. Ibid., 126–30.
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Wayne Shorter. 2006. Photo credit: Tom Beetz.
When most jazz fans think of Wayne Shorter, they are likely to conjure up one or more of his Blue Note albums (e.g., Juju), and/or one or more of his Miles Davis albums (e.g., Miles Smiles), and/or one or more of his Weather Report albums (e.g., Heavy Weather). My first thoughts, however, run to Native Dancer, that hybridized, outlier collaboration with musicians from Brazil. When the LP came out in 1975, I bought six copies and gave five to friends—I loved it that much.

Wayne had featured several Brazilian rhythm tracks on previous albums. Still, as Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer wrote,

No one was prepared for the deeply affecting sound of Wayne’s Native Dancer recording. It was unlike any Brazilian music most Americans had ever heard. The record’s first few notes introduced a voice, one that had to be the most potent falsetto on the planet [belonging] to Brazilian pop star and composer Milton Nascimento [to which] Wayne married jazz to Milton’s melodies in a kind of holy union that made other Brazilian jazz efforts of the time [Jazz Samba, Getz /Gilberto] seem like one-night stands. (1)

Having first learned of Nascimento from jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, Wayne covered one of the singer/songwriter’s tunes on a Blue Note album in 1970. Inevitability, one often realizes, dictated a shared recording date. With his Portugese wife Ana Maria’s encouragement, Wayne arranged to have Milton and two musical associates stay at his house in Malibu where they lived, and worked for two weeks, going to the studio to record Native Dancer on September 12, 1974.

Shorter recognized that if you have a one-of-a-kind singer, one who had assimilated the bossa nova of his fellow countrymen, along with the Gregorian chants of his remote Catholic church in the hinterlands, into a self-styled alto yodel (some called it) or his female voice (Milton called it), then a hybrid album—not a jazz album, not a Brazilian album—but a hybrid should be made. And that’s what Wayne did.

Along with him and Herbie Hancock, there were three Brazilians:

Milton, Wagner [Tiso], and Robertinho [Silva]. There were also two players from the pop scene, Dave McDaniel, a bassist with Joe Cocker, and Jay Graydon, a guitarist, producer, and songwriter. There was Dave Amaro, [Brazilian singer] Flora Purim’s guitarist, on a couple of tunes, and [husband, percussionist] Airto [Moreira] on most of them. The engineer was Rob Fabroni, who had worked with The Band and other rock groups. And finally, Jim Price, a multi-instrumentalist who had worked with the Rolling Stones, produced the record. (2)

The album opens with “Ponta De Areia,” a singsong, nursery school melody over an unusual 9/8-meter sung by Milton in his liquid, instrumental-like wordless falsetto voice. Heard underneath is a shadow piano melody by Herbie. The other singer on the date, Wayne, enters smoothly on his soprano saxophone, repeating the childlike melody before he joins Milton in a duet. “Ponta” ends as it begins except for Waynish obligatos underneath.

Perhaps fearing the first-track exotica might be a bit much for first-time listeners, Wayne follows “Ponta” with his own composition, “Beauty and the Beast.” A solid toe-tapper that begins with hesitant, funky block chords by Herbie that segues into a strong, melodic statement by Wayne, then alternates back and forth between the two as the tune continues; ostensibly one is “Beauty,” the other, Beast.” At song’s end they are one in the same.

Nascimento sings “Tarde” clearly, softly, yet another display of his tremendous vocal range. For this luxurious mood piece, Wayne pulls out his first instrument—tenor sax—and plays a romantic solo over a Hammond organ cushion. Milton reenters with a sweeping, wordless falsetto behind Wayne’s tenor excursions, pauses for a spell, then returns with an even higher-pitched falsetto.

Hancock later remarked, “After Wayne soloed, when Milton would come back in, you couldn’t even tell it was a voice. Because when Wayne played, it sang, and Milton’s singing has an instrumental quality to it.” (3)

Milton begins “Miracle of the Fishes” wordlessly, wailing away, then slips in some lyrics along with the wail as Wayne, on tenor again, joins in with gusto. The free-spirited pair soar off together, not so much as an energetic vocal/sax duo, but more like a saxophone cutting contest that might take place on the fringes of avant jazz. The backup musicians (organ, guitar, drums, percussion) are exceptional in this unrestrained, up-tempo romp.

Shorter is back on soprano for the lovely ballad “Diana,” named for the newborn daughter of Flora Purim and Airto, ably supported by pianist Hancock.

Nascimento wrongly titled “From the Lonely Afternoons”—should have been “Lovely” or “Happy.” The singer-songwriter sails a wordless vocal over the band’s jumping, finger-snapping groove that compels Wayne on tenor to spread a Coltraneish flurry of notes over the head-bobbing musical stew. At the close, other voices (members of the band?) join Milton before Wayne declares “Good Afternoon.”

Critic Howard Mandel, who awarded Native Dancer five stars in DownBeat magazine, was especially enamored by the saxist’s homage to his wife “Ana Maria,” writing, "A lovely line is offered again and again with the slightest embellishment, gradually blossoming into a large, encompassing circle that Hancock laces with sweeping and graceful runs.” (4)
   
As revealed by Shorter biographer Mercer:

Milton sang “Lilia” with wordless vocals [as he did on several others], which was for him a style born of necessity and perfected under pressure. Under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the sixties and seventies, the ruling regime monitored pop music, censoring anything seemingly rebellious . . . When Milton recorded [an album] in 1973, the censors denied clearance on several of its songs. His record company asked him to write new lyrics. But Milton didn’t want to play the military’s editing game . . . So Milton protested by singing without words, using his voice in an instrumental role. (5)

And did he ever on “Lilia.” A trebly “LaLaLaAyeAyeAyeYa-eeea” wail over a bouncy organ-piano-guitar broken 5/4 meter rhythm–his “alto yodel almost indistinguishable from Shorter’s airily ethereal soprano sound, which draws the song to a climax by ringing out one tone against a shifting rhythm bed.” (6) Whew!

​Wayne’s soprano settles into a gentler approach on Hancock’s introspective “Joanna’s Theme,” which closes the album. The four non-Nascimento tunes on the recording—this one, plus “Diana,” “Ana Maria,” and “Beauty and the Beast”—are collectively gorgeous and belong on this intriguing album, largely because of the uncanny similarity between the principal soloists’ voices.

This album has little precedent (that I can think of). Jazz musicians have worked with vocalists from the very beginning, but mostly in a backup role, and either way, too. Instrumentalists backing up the vocalist, or the opposite, singers backing up the front line instruments. For example, choral groups have backed up trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Andrew Hill, and guitarist Kenny Burrell.

As for the other way around, we can turn to, of course, Duke Ellington and “Creole Love Call,” the Ellington composition best known for its vocal by singer Adelaide Hall. It was the first 100 percent nonverbal scat vocal in jazz. (7) Duke followed up on the use of the human voice as an instrument, especially on “Mood Indigo,” with its famed tri-part opening. In recent times, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy would often use the voice of wife, Irene Aebi, along with the other frontline instruments.

Simply put, Native Dancer is one of the greatest albums of the late 20th century; and for this alone, Wayne Shorter deserves to be a Kennedy Center honoree.

  1. Michelle Mercer, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter (New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Penquin, 2007), 164. 
  2. Mercer, Footprints, 169.
  3. Mercer, Footprints, 173.
  4. Howard Mandel, Wayne Shorter, Native Dancer review, DownBeat magazine, 1965.
  5. Mercer, Footprints, 171.
  6. Mandel, Native Dancer Review, DownBeat.
  7. Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul In American Music (New York: Dey Street Books, 2017), 27.
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GlassWorlds in Kyiv 2015. Photo by Qypchak.
A personal tribute to 2018 Kennedy Center honoree Phillip Glass from my book Serendipity Doo-Dah: True Stories of Happy Musical Accidents, Book One (pages 120–22):

Fortuitous happenstance is endemic to all human endeavor, not just music, and not just to specific music genres. Classical, for example, is not immune to the Midas touch. Case in point: Philip Glass.

By 1967, the post-modern “minimalist” composer-performer Glass had completed not only his post-graduate studies at the Julliard School of Music but also his “post-doctoral” education with two masters: eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulinger and Indian classicist Ravi Shankar. After a bit of world travel, he settled in New York City and began to compose music for himself and others, and to schedule performances at art galleries and studio lofts in SoHo.
 
He had gotten married, had two kids, and supported the family not with his music, but with odd jobs such as moving furniture.

In 1971, Glass composed a new work he called Music in Twelve Parts, referring to twelve separate instrumental parts in a single piece. He took a recording of his new composition to a musician friend, told her the title, and played it for her. Afterward, he asked her, “How did you like it?”

“I like it very much,” she said. “What do the other 11 parts sound like?”

Initially taken aback, Philip realized she had misunderstood the title, but then, an epiphany. He immediately began to plan eleven more parts. The scope of his long-form work would be a summing up of his decade-long attempt to integrate all three elements of music—melody, harmony, and rhythm—into one overall structure.

The earlier parts would emphasize the repetitive, the rhythmic, while the melodic aspects would rise to prominence in the middle or transitional parts, the latter parts introducing greater harmonic movement. If this new extended work was a painting, a gallery curator might call it a mosaic.

In time—some three years—a performance of the completed work was in order. It was time for a bold move. Glass, who had never drawn an audience beyond 150 at a gallery or museum space, or 400 at a university auditorium, threw caution to the wind and rented out the 1400-seat town hall in midtown Manhattan.

Fortune smiled, the concert sold out. Over the three years Glass took to write the piece, as each part was finished, it was performed in a loft or gallery space. The idea began to grow that these parts would become a larger work. People anxiously awaited the next parts to come out. Glass built expectation for the completed work in much the same way Charles Dickens did some 140 years prior when he serialized his first novel Oliver Twist.

Manhattanites anticipated a new part from the Philip Glass Ensemble every two or three months, much like Dickens's dedicated readers eagerly anticipated the next monthly installment. No wonder Town Hall filled to capacity to hear the 12 parts back-to-back.

With the success of his ambitious extended work, Glass made his point, to himself, and to everyone in a few short years, when he launched a full-scale opera he called Einstein on the Beach.

During the latter stages of Twelve Parts, Glass had begun to work on the opera blueprint with theater director Robert Wilson. Moreover, during a loft performance of part 6 of Twelve Parts, a fortuitous visit by a Frenchman resulted in a commitment, seemingly frivolous at the time, to fund the composer’s next work.

Two years later, that visitor became France’s Minister of Culture, and followed through with an offer to stage the Glass/Wilson Einstein opera at Avignon, France, and to help establish a subsequent tour of six European cities. The tour set the stage for a triumphant return back to the Metropolitan, the American citadel of high culture for a much-acclaimed, two sold-out performances of Einstein in November 1976.

All told, there were 35 performances of the opera. None played to an empty seat, yet the tour ended in debt, some $100,000 in the red. Both Glass and Wilson were saddled with a debt that dragged on for years. While Einstein didn’t make any money, it made the composer’s career. He was now a “successful” opera composer. But he still had to drive a taxi at night to support his family.

He would not make a living working full-time as a musician-composer until 1978, when, at the age of 41, he was commissioned to compose Satyagraha for the Netherlands Opera. From that point on, it was full-steam ahead—no more nighttime cab driving—nothing but total concentration on music composition and performance.

He would become in the words of the New York Times “the most prolific and popular of contemporary composers,” amassing over 220 compositions in eleven different categories (operas, symphonies, concertos, film scores, ballet, chamber ensembles among them.)

In such a productive, accomplished life, there had to be numerous crucial moments that propelled Mr. Glass forward on his path to greatness—perhaps none more meaningful than when his musician friend innocently asked, “What do the other 11 parts sound like?”
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This past July, Rolling Stone magazine introduced its new 8/3/4” x 11 3/4” glossy format with a most interesting two-page spread visually encapsulating the music industry’s sales evolution over four decades (1975–2017)—a colorful graphic chart showing the rise and fall of the vinyl LP, cassette tape, CD, digital downloads, and the new dominant paid streaming subscription service. Please find the issue on a magazine rack somewhere if you can or at your local library.

Rolling Stone subtitles the multicolored chart as “The Story of an Industry in One Chart.”

The annual sales figures given are unadjusted for inflation. Nonetheless, one can accurately examine the interplay of the various recording methods for a specific year as I have done.

Take the start year 1975, for example. The industry pulled in $2.4 billion, roughly split 80/20 between vinyl and 8-track, with the newly introduced cassette tape picking up a few crumbs.

Now jump a decade ahead to 1985 and 8-track is a thing of the past, but vinyl has a new rival. Cassette tape has taken hold, scarfing up two-thirds of the $4.4 billion industry total. Skipping ahead fifteen years to 2000, we learn that the once lowly CD is now king, commandeering over 90% of the $14.4 billion take.

Practically speaking, goodbye vinyl, goodbye cassette tape. What a change in only 15 years! But nothing like what happened in the next seven years, taking us to the situation we have today.

Fare-thee-well, CD, hello to digital downloads, digitized and customized radio revenue, on-demand streaming, other ad-supported streaming, and especially paid streaming subscription service, the latter attracting 47 % of the $8.7 billion total.

Based on industry sales figures for the past two years, Rolling Stone concludes that the industry is poised for a comeback. That’s a bit much for me, based on what’s happened over the past four decades, as their chart so amply demonstrates.

I am incapable of projecting the future for this industry. I didn’t see any of this coming. Contact me if you’d like to take 700 exceptional jazz vinyl LPs off my hands.

Photo: Adobe Stock / rodri_goplay

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For your consideration, here are my Top 10 alto saxophonist albums and a few runner-ups. Ranking tends to vary, depending on the day of the week, weather, and mood.


1A. Carlos Ward | Don Pullen & the African Brazilian Connection Live Again

The perfect showcase for a much neglected saxophonist with a slightly rough edge, capable of playing inside and outside but always melodically and rhythmically centered, as on the five lengthy numbers here (average length 14 minutes). Includes a ballad and an infectious, impossible-to-ignore “Get up and Dance.” Great band!
1B. Carlos Ward | Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlos Ward, Live at Sweet Basil, Volume 1

Pianist Ibrahim’s album, nonetheless Ward shines on three tracks, two of which are classic—the gorgeously mellifluous “For Coltrane” that someone should put words to and the hand-clapping “Soweto,” where the altoist pulls out the stops, sweeping from the depths of his instrument to the top and back again in a perfectly constructed improvisation.
2A. Art Pepper | The Art of Pepper

“Begin the Beguine” opens with a staccato Latin vamp, which quickly segues into a soaring, up-tempo reading of the familiar theme. Pepper’s alto flight is elevated, above the clouds, magisterial, turning the Cole Porter pop song into an anthem. The tune closes with a return to the opening vamp with Pepper over-blowing some notes for effect.
2B. Art Pepper | Winter Moon

Pepper’s urging, pleading, aching alto sound over a lush orchestral cushion on “Our Song” is gut-wrenching. In a Pepper documentary, there is a hotel room scene where he and his wife Laurie are shown rapturously listening to the cut on a portable record player. At the conclusion, Pepper looks up at the camera and mutters, “If you don’t like this, you don’t like music. It doesn’t get any better than this.” I agree.
3A. Cannonball Adderly | The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco featuring Nat Adderley

Cannonball’s swooping, high-flying birdlike (as in Charlie Parker) alto paired with brother Nat’s trumpet put soul jazz on the map with this intense but rocking album. Surprisingly for jazz, it received significant radio and jukebox play.

Pianist Bobby Timmon’s 12-minute jazz waltz “This Here” (pronounced “Dish Heah” by Cannon) set the pace, the pianists full-fingered driving solo is classic, and the leader’s uncompromisingly rowdy excursions on alto are equally memorable. Two other lengthy tracks bear mention: “Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” and “Spontaneous Combustion,” the latter offering a crowd-pleasing sax/trumpet chase.

3B. Cannonball Adderley |Them Dirty Blues: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet featuring Nat Adderley

A spirited outing by the Adderley soul brothers featuring two more soul standards: “Work Song,” written by Nat, and “Dat Dere” by Bobby Timmons. The latter showcases another Timmons-patented two-handed, block-chorded, gospelish solo, reminiscent of his “This Here” masterpiece on In San Francisco.

On “Work Song,” pianist Barry Harris does the keyboard honors, matching Timmons and then some. Interestingly, lyrics were set to both tunes that have contributed to their continued popularity. Oscar Brown Jr. had a minor hit with “Dat Dere.” The surprise on this album is the straight-ahead and swinging “Jeannine,” a wonderfully surging flowing number buoyed by Kansas City style “bop bop boop boop” riffing behind the soloists. On this album, like the former, Cannon pursues his aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach without sacrificing accessibility.
4. Arthur Blythe | Spirits in the Field: Arthur Blythe Trio with Bob Stewart Cecil Brooks III

After a splashy breakout (In Concert, 1977) LP and several smash Columbia albums, Arthur’s career seemingly nosedived (especially with critics) when Columbia canceled his contract in the early 1980s. Yet his sound remains one of the most recognizable in jazz and one that appeals to both mainstream and avant-garde tastes, as can be heard on the 2000 offering Spirits in the Field.

Blythe’s themes are melodious and memorable, his twining inside and outside solos always songful. As Francis Davis recounts in the liner notes, “No matter how complex his improvisations may be harmonically, they are based on the simplest of devices—rhythmic figures, riffs, fragments of melody—and there is an inevitably to them.”

His sound at times approximates a hip R&B player (as on “One Mint Julep” and “Break Tune #2”), a tender balladeer (“Ah George, We Hardly Knew You,” “Spirits in the Field”), an Eastern muezzin (“Odessa”), or the leader of a ceremonial New Orleans band (“Lenox Avenue Breakdown”). The interaction between Blythe’s alto and Bob Stewart’s tuba is unparalleled—nothing comparable to it in all of jazz.
5. John Handy | John Handy Recorded Live at Monterey Jazz Festival

A standout live performance by altoist John Handy and his unusual group: violin (Mike White), guitar (Jerry Hahn), bass (Don Thompson) and drums (Terry Clark). It’s hard to say why this music is still so fresh and mesmerizing. It was novel, for sure—violin and alto, and guitar—but, hey, this was the mid-’60s—novelty had been in vogue since the late ’50s.

Sounded wonderfully alien to me, peculiar jazz harmonies, some said, yet grounded in familiar jazz rhythms. Hard driving with group cohesiveness at its core, this was a memorable one-of-a-kind performance.
6. Charlie Parker | Charlie Parker: The Very Best of the Dial Years

Whether it’s the “complete” or “best of” Dial Years doesn’t matter—in either case, this is where it all began for alto players of the past 70 years. The Big Bang, if you will.

It’s all here, the bop anthems (“Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology,” “Bird of Paradise,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “Chasin’ the Bird”), the up-tempo rompers (“Bebop,” “Crazeology,” and “Donna Lee”), and the ballads (“Lover Man,” “Embraceable You,” “My Old Flame,” “Out of Nowhere,” and “Don’t Blame Me”). The latter to me are the most revealing of Parker’s talent, his innate melodic and harmonic sense, and his improvisatory grace.

Back in the day when Charlie Parker and Bebop first hit the scene and well-loved ballads were played, people asked, “Where’s the melody?” The answer then as now is, “In Parker’s head.” The familiar song’s melody and harmonic structure served as the “basis” for his newly created improvisations, for better or worse. You decide. Sit back, relax, and listen to the ease at which Charlie Parker spins his golden threads.
7. Frank Morgan | You Must Believe in Spring

Morgan found his most expressive alto voice late in life: a refined, reflective, thoughtful voice, a mite thin at times, though always emotional. No better way to acquaint yourself with this tuneful improviser than on “Spring,” where he pairs with world-class pianists (Kenny Baron, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris, and Hank Jones). His duo with Hanna on the pianist’s tune “Enigma” is simply gorgeous.
8A. Paul Desmond | Paul Desmond and the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1979 at Carnegie Hall

Desmond paired up with the venerable MJQ for a Christmas Eve concert. While the album overall is uneven, Desmond’s solo on the traditional “Greensleeves” is simply glorious, reminding me, at least, as to why the classic Brubeck Quartet was so successful.

8B. Paul Desmond | Concierto

Desmond appears in this all-star lineup to pay homage to one of the most beautiful melodies in all of music: the adagio from “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo.

The sextet renders the melody with respect before sequential solos by trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Roland Hanna, and guitarist Hall.

Unexpectedly, Desmond enters with a piercing restatement of the theme. By piercing, I mean a take-your-breath away, cold-wind-off-Lake-Michigan piercing. Desmond’s alto voice—often depicted as the sound of a dry martini—is a chilled margarita in this instance.
9A.  Johnny Hodges | Duke Ellington . . . And His Mother Called Him Bill

As Nelson Riddle was to Frank Sinatra, as Lester Young was to Billy Holiday, Billy Strayhorn was to Johnny Hodges. Stray’s compositions brought out that special, sensuous Hodges sound. Singer Lillian Terry recently put it this way: “Heavens, when he blows those long, languid notes . . . it’s an actual caress.”

As here, on Ellington’s tribute to Strayhorn “Blood Count,” “After All,” and “Day Dream,” the latter a late-at-night, sob-in-your beer favorite. The flip side of the Hodges coin—the bluesy side—Billy knew all too well, as illustrated on “Snibor,” “The Intimacy of the Blues,” and “Acht O’Clock Rock.”

9B.  Johnny Hodges | Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite

The two sides of Hodges are again on display. “Isfahan,” according to Cook and Morton “is arguably the most beautiful single item in Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s entire output.” And I agree. Hodge’s stiletto-sharp, crystalline pure sound slows the breath, wells the eyes, and stills the body while Ellington’s orchestra puffs occasional sound pontoons to keep the alto’s melodic line afloat. If perfection needed a definition, it can be found here.

If “Isfahan” brings a tear to your eye, then “Blue Pepper” will bring a smile to your face. The band starts out rocking with a simple repetitive sing-songy melody atop a churning, rock-and-roll drum rhythm by Speedy Jones. This eastern-tinged melody gives way to the flipside of the Hodges coin, in this instance a solo of clipped, start-and-stop notes that suggests rather than delineates. In other words, a near parody of a typical Hodges blues solo. And it works!
10. Gary Bartz | Gary Bartz NTU Troop I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies

Overall, three of the 11 tracks—the funky, toe-tapping ”Don’t Fight the Feeling,” “Dr. Follow’s Dance,” and the melodically pleasing “Peace and Love”—are outstanding, while the Langston Hughes poem “I’ve Known Rivers,” set to music and sung by Bartz, is a classic. This anthemic song features not only the saxophonist’s best singing on the album, but his best alto solo as well. Elementary school teachers could find Bartz’s reading useful in teaching the Hughes poem to students.
Apologies to Ornette Coleman, Jackie McClean, Henry Threadgill, Marian Brown and Phil Woods. You’re in my second Top 10.

What are your top alto sax albums? Please leave a comment below.


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