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Various Artists: Birmingham Jazz Festival, the Early Years, 1960, Volume 1

We’re not talking about the Birmingham in Alabama or across the pond in England; this is the upscale hamlet just outside of Detroit. And we’re focusing on the geodesic dome in Shain Park, where a noble experiment was launched 43 years ago. City fathers recruited native Detroiter Dave Usher to produce a Birmingham Jazz Festival, hoping to utilize his experience and contacts as a record producer.

During the ’50s, Usher joined with Dizzy Gillespie to found Dee Gee Records and later became jazz A&R man for Argo/Chess, producing such artists as Ahmad Jamal and James Moody. In 1960, as impresario, he managed to put together an eclectic package that included pianist Junior Mance; harmonica player and guitarist “Toots” Thielemans, drummer J. C. Heard, tenor saxophonist Sandy Mosse and vibist Lem Wincheste. Among the lesser-known, mostly local players were pianists Bess Bonnier and Johnny Griffith, bassist Nick Fiore and drummer Dick Riordan. They appeared in various configurations and results were predictably uneven.

Highlights of Vol. 1: Mosse, whose thinner-sounding Getzlike figures propelled “Frankie and Johnny” with great comping from Mance. The same combination works just as effectively on the ballad “Sweet and Lovely.” There’s a cooking tempo on “That Old Black Magic,” but there are some questionable changes by Fiore. Equally questionable: the tuning on the piano Mance was stuck with. The slick J. C. Heard dominated the last half of Vol. 1, particularly his clever brushwork while trading fours with Mance on “A Smooth One.” Heard and Fiore’s best solos come on “Walkin’.” The durable Fiore was the only bassist that evening.

Winchester adds his vibes to Vol. 2 and plays impressively, sounding like Terry Gibbs. Violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. reveals a Joe Venuti influence with “Dancing on the Ceiling,” but his loveliest contribution is the contemplative “Two Different Worlds,” which features Kennedy and Thielemans’ guitar arpeggios. Contrastingly, overarranged charts weigh down Bonnier’s set with Riordan and Fiore.

Thielemans steals Vol. 3 with his sardonic comments, his harmonica, which is way up on “I’ll Remember April,” and with his guitar, which is way down and dirty on “The Blues and I.” He even whistles in unison to his guitar lines on “Mack the Knife.” Clearly, Toots was the darling of the one-night festival. The engineering was so good, it backfired: you can hear the audience clapping on one and three.

A Jazz at the Philharmonic-type finale on “I Got Rhythm” (at least its changes) was a big crowd pleaser. There was a second Birmingham bash, and Usher hopes to release it soon.

Originally Published