August 2008 By Nat Hentoff
Jazz Revelations for Baby Boomers
A lawyer I know began his jazz listening with the bebop of Bird and Dizzy, although he knew they had forebears whom he intended to sample eventually. Upon hearing Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” on Newark jazz station WBGO, he excitedly called me: “Where can I get more records by Armstrong?” (The sobriquet “Satchmo” was unfamiliar to him.)
I obliged, having had similar calls from listeners decades younger than I am. To all of them, I recommend they get the catalog of Mosaic Records, which has set international
standards for rediscovering and regenerating much of the timeless history of this music (www.mosaicrecords.com).
In 1983, I bought its first release, a boxed set of The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk. Ever since, Michael Cuscuna, Scott Wenzel and the late Charlie Lourie have been formidable jazz detectives. Leasing jazz product from major labels, they burrow into those companies’ vaults, discover unissued sessions and alternate takes, and call surviving musicians to get accurate personnel for these Mosaic releases.
There is also an online music store, True Blue Music (www.truebluemusic.com), that I recommend to baby boomers curious to learn how much pleasure they’ve been missing. A convenient place to start the surprises is the True Blue 2007/2008 catalog that has a set I urge everyone to buy, regardless of age: Lester Young: The “Kansas City” Sessions.
When I was 19, I bought the original Commodore release—with Pres on clarinet and tenor, Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Eddie Durham and, on many of the tracks, the core Basie rhythm section (Jo Jones, Freddie Green and Walter Page) that quintessentially defined what it is to swing. It is the first record I’d pick to take to the proverbial desert island because, as Loren Schoenberg says, it is “among the most prophetic and profound meditations on jazz ever recorded.”
Also in that True Blue treasure trove is a set my lawyer friend may well put in his will—Louis Armstrong’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1923-34).
On another True Blue page, I was brought back to a revelation I experienced at 16 when, in a secondhand record and book store in Boston, I found a 1929 Mound City Blue Blowers session with Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins. I played it so often I almost drove my mother crazy. In 1961, during my brief time as an A&R man, I brought Coleman and Pee Wee into a studio together for the first time since 1929, for Jazz Reunion: Pee Wee Russell/Coleman Hawkins, originally issued on Candid.
When the session ended that afternoon, pianist Nat Pierce, who had arranged all the tracks, said to Hawkins, who was enjoying his well-deserved cognac, “Did you notice Pee Wee’s ‘28th and 8th’ tune sounded like something Monk might have written?” Hawkins, the patriarch, nodded affirmatively, adding: “And for 30 years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes he used to think were wrong. They weren’t. They didn’t have a name for them then.”
It’s one thing to have had the privilege of writing about jazz for some 60 years, but it was an extraordinary experience to have been a part of putting some of this music into the grooves. As a record “producer,” all I actually did—after finding out if the leader was available—was to keep track of how long each take was, send out for sandwiches, and make sure the leader was in the studio for the final editing. It was his or her byline, not mine.
I was very pleased to see in that True Blue catalog another of my Candid sessions. It was by a Texas tenor, Booker Ervin, who is hardly mentioned anywhere anymore. He died in 1970, just short of his 40th birthday, of kidney disease, but his signature room-filling sound and daring unpredictability made Charles Mingus, for whom Booker had worked, say, “Nearly everybody I’ve worked with whom I’ve liked seems to get into a trance when they’re at their best. When Booker was really going, I’d say something to him and he just didn’t hear me. He was somewhere else—inside the music.”
And if I’ve contributed nothing else lasting to jazz, I was able to send out into the world “Booker’s Blues” in this set. The album title, That’s It, came to me when, in the studio, listening to a playback, Booker said, “Yes, that’s it!”
That deep sense of fulfillment—answering Duke Ellington’s song, “What Am I Here For?” (from the Hawkins-Russell reunion session)—resounds through so many sessions that Michael Cuscuna and his colleagues have brought back to life, and with much more than was in the original grooves.
In Dan Morgenstern’s essential book, Living With Jazz, he writes of Mosaic’s beginning and its release of the Thelonious Monk set: “Not only are there 11 previously unissued alternate takes, including one each of the masterpieces, ‘Criss-Cross’ and ‘Horning In,’ but there are also two entirely new pieces. One is a delightful trio version of the pop tune, ‘I’ll Follow You,’ which Monk never recorded before or again. The other (in two takes) is a Monk original, ‘Sixteen,’ from the memorable sextet date of 1952. These discoveries alone make this Mosaic issue a major event.”
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters designations were expanded to include non-musician “Jazz Advocates,” of which I was the first. In that spirit, there ought to be room in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Hall of Fame for Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie and Scott Wenzel.
Originally published in August 2008