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Jazz at the Philharmonic: The Complete Recordings on Verve: 1944-1949

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illustration of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker

I don’t know Norman Granz. But if I ever have occasion to go to dinner with him, I’ll let him choose the wine. What he accomplished with his various record labels from 1948 to 1961 has never been equaled by anyone else before or since. He made more great jazz records than any other producer did and he did it because he hired the best musicians. This long delayed ten-CD cube consists of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert recordings of the 1940s: the rock upon which Granz built everything else.

Of the material included we have three separate categories: that previously issued on Verve CDs; music issued on LP but not on CD; and, lastly, previously unissued performances. In the first category we have The First Concert (July 2, 1944) with Illinois Jacquet, Les Paul, and Nat Cole. There are also the various JATP performances of Charlie Parker available individually or in the multi-disc Charlie Parker set. The Billie Holiday performances are all items that have been available. Slim Gaillard’s “Opera in Vout” was included in his Verve CD. Some of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1949 set was issued in the Parker box. The programming is chronological.

Of the material issued on LP: The Gene Krupa Trio at JATP. Pianist Teddy Napoleon and tenorman Charlie Ventura are featured in tightly arranged yet hard-swinging performances from 1946 and 1952. Krupa trios were a regular part of JATP and this was the best of them. There are two versions of “Stompin’ at the Savoy”: the earliest is previously unreleased. The material from 1952 is included here so that all the issued material could stay together, a good idea.

The Stinson material: The first issued JATP material from 2/12/45. Fans of this music should be very pleased to see “How High the Moon’ and “Lady Be Good’ here since they are two of the best of all JATP jams. In the notes, Granz relates how this music came to be released and then, how he lost the rights. Joe Guy, Howard McGhee, Willie Smith, Ventura, Illinois Jacquet and Krupa play with a functional LA rhythm section.

The Carnegie Hall concert from 9/27/47 with McGhee, Bill Harris, Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Jo Jones. Only four songs but together for the first time. The irresistible force (Phillips) vs. the immovable object (Jacquet). “Perdido’ was the biggest JATP hit on record and it is surprising that this is not discussed in the notes. It is clear that Phillips and Jacquet added a little arrangement to “Perdido” that was genuinely effective and, in light of that, it is surprising that sort of touch was never utilized again.

Charlie Ventura”s Carnegie Hall Concert. Featured is the Bill Harris-Ventura group of the time along with a rather disorganized combo with Charlie Shavers, Hank Jones, and Big Sid Catlett from 4/5/47. This was not a Granz show and suffers by comparison. He bought the music from Leonard Feather and issued it on Norgran. My guess is that this concert was included in this package because there was time for it. It is extremely unlikely that this would ever have been reissued by itself.

The 1946 material with Hawk and Lester had been scattered hither and yon often with incorrect recording dates. It is nicely organized here.

The 9/18/1949 concert is now issued in its entirety and for the first time we see how Granz organized his shows. There is a rather democratic apportionment when it comes to utilizing all this talent. For someone who knew JATP only from records, it would be surprising to discover that the jam session portion of the show was now less than 50% of the evening. Effusive praise and accurate predictions from Granz serve to introduce an obviously nervous Oscar Peterson for his first American concert performance. Contrary to the notes, Hawkins” treatment of “Sophisticated Lady” had been out before.

Of the unreleased material, several are excerpted fragments featuring solos by Lester Young (4), Illinois Jacquet (4) or Coleman Hawkins (2). In addition, there are two Hawkins items from 1949, from his quartet set, that are well below his usual standard. Of the four new Ella Fitzgerald songs, two are wonderful while another two are fine in performance yet beneath her as material. There are trio features for Hank Jones-Ray Brown-Buddy Rich (2) as well as Kenny Kersey-Slam Stewart-J.C. Heard (2) and Kersey-Al McKibbon-Heard (1). There is a piano solo by Meade Lux Lewis, a trumpet feature for Buck Clayton and the aforementioned Krupa trio track. The remaining titles are jam sessions-some in truncated form.

What is most fascinating is the introduction of players who had never appeared on JATP records. “C Jam Blues” from 7/2/44 features Shorty Sherock with both Bumps Myers and Joe Thomas! There is not a lot of jam session material by either of the saxophonists so this is very welcome. From 2/12/45 we have two lengthy tunes with a front line of Sherock, Neal Hefti, Corky Corcoran and Hawkins with Charles Mingus on bass. From 4/22/46 there is a fast “Bugle Call Rag” with four tenors: Lester, Hawkins, Corcoran, and Babe Russin! From 6/17/46 we have a slow blues with Jacquet and Allen Eager back to back. Finally, from 5/24/47, there is a fast blues with Roy Eldridge, Pete Brown and Les Paul featured in an eight-man group including regulars Phillips, Smith, and Hank Jones. These tracks do not all keep up with the best issued JATP jams yet it is wonderful to have them.

These JATP jams were essentially cutting contests and players such as Willie Smith, Roy Eldridge, and Illinois Jacquet were always out for blood. (I recall an interview with Eldridge in 1959 when he suggested that he had never heard anyone cut Jacquet on a JATP show.) There is lots of testosterone in evidence at all times. Granz alludes to a competition among the less combatant, which also took place regularly, involving more subtle distinctions than the mere reaction of the audience.

Along with the music there is a 240-page booklet. There are wonderful photos, excerpts from printed programs, and all the discographical data one would want. There is a useful section on JATP records by John Clement and Ben Young”s list of all known JATP concerts which will surely see additions over time. Nat Hentoff has a lengthy interview with Granz that concentrates on the promoter”s efforts to break down racial barriers. John McDonough takes us through an introduction involving stories of how the concerts were first recorded and issued. This also includes some of the vitriolic critical scorn heaped on some JATP events.

On the minus side there are twelve pages of musician biographies that are so brief that they are of little value. Six pages are devoted to growing up on JATP records by an English fan. Bill Kirchner has a helpful essay on the inner workings of the jam session marred only by some generational chauvinism in his evaluation of certain personalities. With all the information dispensed here it is a great disappointment to find almost no interview material from the surviving musicians. Hank Jones and Jacquet played important roles in JATP for many years. Phillips and Ray Brown were a part of virtually all JATP activity for more than a decade. There is nothing here from either Jones or Brown, while Phillips is quoted only on the subject of Ella.

This package will probably retail at about $160 and that is a hefty amount to lay out for any jazz CD set. According to Verve, there are no plans at this time to deal with the additional JATP material from the 1950s but the idea has not been ruled out. Good sales of the set at hand will probably make the label take greater interest. The music included here is Jam Session jazz at its most celebrated. It is not all great, some of it isn’t very good but when it is great, it is jazz for the gods.