Classic Black & White Jazz Sessions
(Mosaic Records MD-273. Limited Edition 11-CD Set. Album Review by Len Weinreich)
Mosaic Records is a Connecticut record company which reissues carefully curated sections of jazz history together with an informative illustrated booklet written by eminent jazz gurus, in limited edition black boxes most often covering the work of a single musician or group across a particularly productive period.
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But, occasionally, the obsessives at Mosaic readjust their outlook and delve into dusty archives to offer rigorously researched and restored collections spanning the output of crucial independent jazz labels like Commodore, H.R.S., Beehive, Savoy and Dial. This new black box, virtually a time capsule, contains more than twelve hours of music on eleven CDs, comprising nearly all of the jazz recordings of Black & White, a short-lived indy label.
Like many other independents, Black & White was started by an avid aficionado, Les Schriber. But shortly before Schriber actually launched the company in 1943, he’d cut private recordings of stride pianist Art Hodes after hearing him in a Greenwich Village dive. Soon afterwards, James Caesar Petrillo, authoritarian boss of the American Federation of Musicians, detonated a bombshell banning his members from entering any recording studio, almost halting the entire U.S. recording industry. Schriber, who’d recorded Hodes prior to the ban, grabbed the opportunity to release his recordings legitimately to a market gagging for fresh music. So far, so promising.
Except that Schriber’s plan was stymied by events. The manufacture of 78rpm phonograph records required large amounts of a key ingredient, shellac, a resin imported from the Far East. But, by 1943, the U.S.A. was embroiled in World War II and conflict in the Far East was throttling supplies of shellac.
Back home in the U.S. market, where jukeboxes accounted for over 50% of record sales, finger-snapping hep cats hanging around jukeboxes were hooked on the boogie beat and dismissed Schriber’s ‘moldy fig’ (‘trad’ in Britain) taste as old hat. So, plagued by a scramble for shellac remnants coupled with sneering cats, Schriber quit the business, selling the label to Paul Reiner who took it to Los Angeles.
Indy labels have been the lifeblood of jazz, giving voice to talent either jettisoned by fashion or regarded as too advanced for the major labels. Whether the company’s name was intended to reflect a non-racial policy isn’t clear but, fortunately, there’s no evidence of bigotry. Although Black & White was never an exclusively jazz label (it later released country, polka and semi-classical), the quality and integrity of these 245 jazz performances reveal the presence of a genuine fan somewhere in the front office. And don’t underestimate its value as a genuine time capsule. The big and small bands playing classic jazz, swing, bebop and R&B allow us a glimpse of America’s musical soundscape during the transition from war to peace. Significantly, over 10% of the record titles in this collection include the word ‘boogie’.
During its brief existence, Black & White even managed a smash hit: for a long stretch of 1946, Open The Door Richard by Jack McVea, a jumping tenor player who’d once recorded with Charlie Parker, could be heard knocking on jukeboxes and radios across the country. Yet only three years later, fortune frowned and Black & White folded forever. But no-one should ever blame the music: many of these tracks resurfaced on albums subsequently reissued by other labels.
The accompanying 44-page booklet crammed with informative notes and discographic data from Dan Morgenstern, Billy Vera and Scott Wenzel introduces a remarkable roster of talent, eccentrics and near-mythical characters. Black & White had no shortage of either with keyboard masters including Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Lil Armstrong (Louis’ ex-wife who helped propel him towards the big time), Erroll Garner, Nat Jaffe, Gene Schroder, Billy Taylor, Cliff Jackson and eight-to-the-bar specialist Meade Lux Lewis. Guitarists on the label included Everett Barksdale, Al Reuss, Chuck Wayne, Irving Ashby, Arv Garrison, Barney Kessel, Tony Rizzi, Jack Marshall and Gene Sargent.
A legion of distinguished classic jazz and swing veterans etched their musical personalities into Black & White’s grooves: multi-saxophonist Charlie Venturo before he’d altered a vowel to become Ventura, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, who’d soloed with Benny Goodman, altoists Marshall Royal, who eventually led Count Basie’s reeds, Charlie Kennedy,who’d led Gene Krupa’s reed section and Willie Smith, an ex-Lunceford man who also worked with Duke Ellington and Harry James. Trumpets included the respected lead man, Snooky Young, leather-lunged high-note specialist Al Killian, the John Kirby band’s Charlie Shavers, Jonah Jones, New Orleans’ musicians Wilbur and Sidney de Paris and Max Kaminsky. Trombonists J. C. Higginbotham, Vic Dickenson and Henry Coker appear as well asdrummers Harold ‘Doc’ West, Nick Fatool, Lee Young (brother of the immortal Lester) and George Wettling whose facility with sticks was matched by his facility with brushes and oils: an exhibited artist, he studied painting with foremost American cubist Stuart Davis. And, not to be forgotten, New Orleans’ drummer Baby Dodds (brother of the celebrated clarinettist Johnny Dodds) who’d supplied the pulse to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.
Black & White’s fleeting lifespan coincided with the flowering of bebop and prominent modernists like trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee and Red Rodney, pianist Arnold Ross,saxophonists Lucky Thompson, Budd Johnson, Buddy Collette and Aaron Sachs, trombonist Melba Liston, guitarist Barney Kessel, vibraphonist Margie Hyams,bassists Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and Red Callender and drummers Chico Hamilton, Stan Levey and Shadow Wilson appeared on the label. Many of the boppers shared sessions with older musicians without clashing their styles although, after the session which produced performances of Perdido, My Melancholy Baby, On The Alamo and Cherokee, clarinettist Joe Marsala was reported to be slightly peeved that Dizzy Gillespie could reach higher notes than he could.
Bebop almost obliterated the Bb clarinet as a popular frontline jazz instrument but, at Black & White, they bucked the trend and continued to employ star clarinettists including New Orleans master and jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet, distinguished Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard, Pee Wee Russell (master of the unexpected), Joe Marsala (appearing with his wife, harpist Adele Girard), Gene Sedric (Fats Waller’s right-hand reed man) and the tragic Rod Cless who’d worked with Muggsy Spanier’s celebrated Ragtimers and died in his early 30s soon after his Black & White quartet session with James P. Johnson. Also skulking about the studios was the notorious Mezz Mezzrow who,born Jewish, was convinced that he should have been born black. More fumbler than virtuoso, his real talent lay in sniffing out Harlem’s finest weed, which accounts for his presence on a number of recordings and, possibly, his uncertain intonation. Recently, someone named a New York jazz club after him. And, while on the subject, one track in the collection, Sweet Marijuana Brown, featuring Barney Bigard and Art Tatum, has a vocal by Joe Thomas dealing with herbal issues.
This collection alerts us to the totally overlooked producer Ralph Bass who, although relatively unknown, was responsible for many of the most successful sessions on the label. Then there was also Leonard Feather, the London-born jazz writer with a reputation for self-promotion who transplanted himself to the U.S. and appears with surprising frequency as pianist, composer and producer. In an action most unconventional for 1945 (and bound to attract media attention), he produced six tracks for Black & White with an all-female group called ‘The Hip Chicks’ comprising Jean Starr, trumpet; L’Ana Hyams, tenor and soprano saxophones; Marjorie Hyams, vibraphone; Vicki Zimmer, piano; Marion Gange, guitar; Cecilai Zirl, bass, Rose Gottesman, drums and vocalist Vivien Garry. Later, Feather re-appears as pianist, supporting the irrepressible and unpredictable scat singer, Leo Watson and the Spirits of Rhythm. In Watson’s surreal biosphere, Honeysuckle Rose became Honey-Sock-Me-On-The-Nose. He went on to record with both Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa.
There’s a fine blossoming of female vocalists: as well as Vivien Garry, there’s also Ella Logan (who was also Annie Ross’s aunt), Etta Jones, Helen Humes, Ivie Anderson (another Ellington alumnus), Ernestine Anderson and lesser-known names like Estelle Edson, Jo Evans, Linda Keene and Anita Boyer.
Surfing the 1946 zeitgeist, bop made an early West Coast appearance when Black & White recorded Junior Jazz at The Auditorium at Compton Junior College in Los Angeles with a clutch of spirited beboppers, Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson, Jimmy Bunn, Irving Ashby and Red Callender, importing the latest Parker and Gillespie themes from Fifty Second Street.
Earlier, Wilbert Baranco’s Rhythm Bombardiers augmented the same Junior Jazz team with, among others, Snooky Young, Vic Dickenson, Henry Coker, Willie Smith and Charles Mingus to form a stomping Basie-inspired big band to record four fine tracks, Night And Day, Weeping Willie, Every Time I Think Of You and Baranco Boogie, all arranged by pianist Baranco, whose trio is also included in the collection.
The second big band fronted by Will Osborne makes only a single appearance but packs a massively unexpected surprise. Osborne’s soloist on When The Gooses (sic) Come Back To Massachusetts is Red Nichols (later to be played by Danny Kaye in a biopic), the veteran trumpet player who once led the popular Five Pennies through the ’20s and ’30s. And an essential part of the unexpected surprise is that Nichols does really well.
The third big band, represented by eight tracks, was led by trumpeter and arranger Gerald Wilson, graduate of the Jimmie Lunceford, Les Hite, Benny Carter and Cab Calloway bands. At a recording session in early 1946 supervised by Norman Granz, Wilson led the cream of LA musicians in blowing a storm on a version of a piece he wrote for Calloway, Cruisin’ With Cab. At another session later the same year, he paid hommage to the tonal complexity of Duke Ellington’s music with a moody composition, The Moors.
The fourth big band, well represented by 24 tracks and unfairly neglected by jazz historians (with the notable exception of Spanish reissue company, Fresh Sounds Records), was led by ex-trombonist Earle Spencer. The band was inspired by the sturm und drang of the all-powerful Stan Kenton machine (one number is unashamedly titled Earle Meets Stan) and operated from 1946 until 1950 when Spencer’s ill-health forced retirement, though he survived until 1973. The well-disciplined band had chosen the ‘progressive’ path, conjuring soundtracks for massive movies not yet imagined. The titanic dissonances of Gangbusters with ramparts of shrieking brass and ionospheric trumpet by the steel-lipped Al Killian, display Spencer’s hero-worship. Even vocalist Toni Auban on Sunday Afternoon resembles frostily cool June Christy. The Kentonian admiration might even have rubbed off on the arrangers, because a couple of charts suggest lack of success in ridding their memories of Kenton’s catchy Intermission Riff (itself a reworking of Jimmie Lunceford’s Yard Dog Mazurka).
The 24 Spencer tracks here present an opportunity for analysis and reconsideration. In the 1946 sessions, ex-Artie Shaw altoist Les Robinson delivers an elegant version of Soft And Warm, an unfamiliar song that appears to start as Deep Purple and finish as I’m Through With Love. Concerto For Guitar features Jack Marshall, but Five Guitars in Flight is a concentrated fret-fest: Arv Garrison, Barney Kessel, Irving Ashby, Tony Rizzi and Gene Sargent, a quintet of top-flight guitarists playing together with the band. Throughout its short life, the Spencer band maintained an exceptional standard of musicianship, notably on the four final tracks recorded in 1949, when the band had enlisted promising young lions like trumpeter Buddy Childers, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, altoists Art Pepper, Herb Geller and Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida.
245 tracks on eleven CDs mean this review could never be more than a polite introduction (and you haven’t yet met Mike Lo Scalzon or Mushmouth Robinson). Mosaic’s reissues consistently reveal glittering gems, music unheard, long lost or forgotten, always worthy of re-examination and the Black & White box is no exception. Also, considering that the original source material is around eighty years old, the sound quality is nearly all pristine and clear, owing to fastidious restoration and mastering by Andreas Meyer and Nancy Conforti. My considered advice is hang close to the jukebox and get those fingers snapping.
Categories: Album reviews