Album reviews

Classic Jazz At The Philharmonic Jam Sessions (1950-1957) 

Classic Jazz At The Philharmonic Jam Sessions (1950-1957)
(Mosaic Records MD-10-275
. 10-CD set. Review by Len Weinreich)

In case this review catches the attention of a visiting Martian, a ‘jam session’ could be described as ‘jazz musicians playing together informally without any preparation’. Jam sessions can be test beds, launch pads, showcases or, more aggressively, cutting contests (and a combination of all four). If not held behind closed doors, they could occur in clubs with audience capacities roughly equal to a compact wardrobe, For any non-musician, being present is a both a privilege and a joy.

In 1943, a thought occurred to Norman Granz, energetic young Hollywood film editor and jazz buff. Striving to raise funds to defend a group of young Mexicans arrested by racist police, he figured it might be a smart move to make the private experience more public. Then, applying his considerable powers of persuasion, he convinced the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium to grant, for the first time ever (and with great reluctance), permission for him to arrange a fully-integrated jam session on stage with a fully integrated audience. The concert, a veritable smash, morphed into Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) to become the most renowned travelling circus in jazz.

To succeed, JATP required musicians of the highest calibre to create non-stop jazz action and magic. Fortunately for Granz, his idea coincided with the collapse of the big band and the arrival of revolutionary bebop, two events that resulted in many former jazz idols left marooned by stylistic change and unable to land remunerative gigs. The more fortunate of the swing stars fell into Granz’s welcoming embrace and, under his direction and encouragement, replicated the thrills and informality of the private cutting contest. Mixing seasoned jazz vets with a handful of Young Turks, Granz staged tenor, trumpet and drum challenges in public, introducing the world to the idea of Jazz As Gladiatorial Combat.

Granz based his JATP unit on a skeletal version of the classic Basie 16-piece band, only more flexible. Retaining a full vigorous four-on-the-floor rhythm section, he stripped out two saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, all written arrangements, sentimental vocals and band uniforms, while preserving all the most energetic characteristics of the Swing Era (fast tempos, stratospheric trumpets, swaggering tenors and sweaty drum solos). Background riffs and head arrangements could be instantaneously organised on the spot. And then, at concerts, by resting the horns and drums, he revealed the increasingly popular Oscar Peterson Trio which could also support single soloists.

Trusting in his musicians’ instincts and experience, JATP was jazz with the gloves off, immediate, improvised and unpredictable. Commercially, it was an idea whose time had arrived. Audiences adored it. Any note repeated more than three times was whooped and cheered. Stomping to the backbeat of Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, testosterone-fuelled adolescents whistled and howled for blood.

But it was not all barn-storming solos and high-octane riffing. Set among the relentless beat were the encrusted gems known as ‘Ballad Medleys’, moments of poise and stillness when jazz masters bared their souls and revealed their more tender personalities. They were an object lesson in never underestimating the innate power of lyrical artistry: ravishing balladeering subdued rowdy balconies into almost librarian levels of quiet.

It took a clever, committed talent to manage a bunch of unique, but unruly, talents (imagine delivering everyone to the gig on time). But no-one came smarter or more committed than Norman Granz, a radical who went from card-carrying membership of the U.S. Communist Party to travelling the world first-class, a peerless collection of Picassos and understated Savile Row tailoring, courtesy of Anderson & Sheppard.

But make no mistake: he was a mensch (Yiddish for ‘person of integrity and honour’). The antithesis of a slave owner, Granz was a belligerent anti-racist who threatened to cancel concerts if bigots insisted on segregated audiences. Mother Hen to his talented cast, he managed his disparate brood with his combination of respect, admiration and kid gloves. Fully aware of the relationship between fragile jazz ego and personal style, JATP musicians were booked into the best possible hotels (indeed, he was notorious for threatening to throttle hotel clerks who refused rooms for his musicians.). And, If they happened to be playing in the vicinity of Savile Row, they were encouraged to pop into Anderson & Sheppard and order a suit on Granz’s account.

Among the jazz police, ‘success’ is an unpleasant word, leaving almost as nasty a taste as ‘commercial’. Granz was never the pin-up boy of the jazz critical establishment. Indeed, although solemn contemporary reviewers regarded JATP as a monument to vulgarity, seven decades later, attentive modern ears might be puzzled by their genteel snootiness. The evidence lies in the music, not the memory. Granz was in the business of marketing excitement which, although it occasionally bubbled into excess, as evidenced by the jam sessions in this collection, was packed with bold attack, instant invention, imagination, sly humour, intimations of R&B and, above all, driving swing. Listen, if you will, to Oscar Peterson’s intro on ‘Cool Blues’ (Disc 3, track 4).

Seldom has any recorded collection been populated by so many giants congregated on any public stage. Lick your lips: among the trumpets: Harry Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Shavers; among the trombonists: Bill Harris and J. J. Johnson, alto saxophonists: Benny Carter, Willie Smith and Sonny Stitt; tenor saxophonists include Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Stan Getz and Flip Phillips (someone who deserves greater recognition); pianists Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson (discovered in Montreal, Canada by Granz and Coleman Hawkins) and John Lewis; guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis; bassists Ray Brown and Percy Heath; drummers Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, Connie Kay and J. C. Heard; clarinettist Buddy de Franco and, finally, the undisputed queen of big band singers: Ms Ella Fitzgerald.

From their beginning in the 40s, JATP concerts were recorded, but licensed to other record companies. By 1950, Granz was releasing his own concert recordings on his own label, Clef, with the celebrated trumpeter (said to be based on Howard McGee) label and sleeves designed by David Stone Martin, spreading the brand’s popularity worldwide. Clef also issued albums by significant musicians, often important historical figures, (like Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Art Tatum) marooned by abrupt changes in fashion and neglected by major U.S. labels. By recording them profusely when no other company would, he gave them purpose as well as income. After his death in 2001, it was learnt that he sent substantial packets of cash to musicians in need. By restoring people’s self-respect, he certainly prolonged jazz lives and productivity, reason enough to declare him a mensch, a description seldom awarded lightly, particularly in the shark-infested world of jazz promotion.

The more than ten hours of music assembled on these ten CDs are studded with artistic highlights. For instance, concentrating on the tenor saxophone performance alone, this set provides unrestricted access to tenor heaven with almost anything blown by Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins (copious solos and plenty of ballads from both); Ben Webster’s husky, breathy ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ like a seductive murmur in a lover’s ear, and, on Disc 10, track 7, you can hear why the late Humphrey Lyttleton, usually averse to hype, introduced Stan Getz’s treatment of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ on radio as ‘the most beautiful sound ever to emerge from a tenor saxophone’.

Then there’s Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Lady be Good’, an unbeatable model of jazz singing. All Benny Carter’s ballads are models of sophisticated urbanity. And, on a knockout version of ‘Flying Home’, clarinettist Buddy de Franco and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton demonstrate how gravity can be defied. And we’re lucky to hear the presence and elegance of Hank Jones on the earliest tracks on Disc 1 (excellent example: Victor Young and Ned Washington’s ‘I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You’, followed by two perfectly constructed solos: first by ex-Basie trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and second by the immortal Lester Young before the treat of ex-Woody Herman trombone star Bill Harris with his distinctive burr. Now listen Hank Jones’ delectable intro on the Gershwin’s ‘Lady Be Good’). And, there are multiple instances to marvel at the miraculous Ray Brown on bass.

Oscar Peterson was once heard to comment: “Jazz At The Philharmonic was like having your record collection come to town”. Try the Ballad Medley from the 1957 Shrine concert and sample bebop altoist Sonny Stitt’s luminous version of Warren and Gordon’s ‘This Is Always’, followed by ex-Lionel Hampton star Illinois Jacquet exhaling a sensuous ‘Robbin’s Nest’ through his tenor, a song written by Sir Charles Thompson and himself. If you find pleasure in having your ears pinned back, immerse yourself in Dizzy Gillespie’s flamboyant take of Carmichael and Parrish’s perennial ‘Star Dust’ on Disc 5.

Granz couldn’t allow the platform energy to flag. Over and over, sensing a lapsed moment lapse, he’d signal Roy (Little Jazz) Eldridge to step forward and project his personal brand of cheerleading, concentrated lightning. As if to reinforce the incandescence of his ideas, Eldridge’s trumpet mouthpiece was studded with rhinestones that reflected the stage lights, dazzling the fans on the balcony. And yet, and yet, this pugnacious trumpeter, victor of so many jazz brawls (hear his many jousts with Dizzy Gillespie, his trumpet heir), delivered a version of the Gershwin’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’ so sensuous, it should be strictly reserved for February 14.

Roughly ten hours of music means a whopping amount to hear (including the U.S. National Anthem with some slightly cheesy cymbal clashes from Gene Krupa) and scads of musicians to identify. As ever in Mosaic country, the accompanying literature is authoritative, absorbing and illuminating. Granz’s biographer Tad Hershorn examines his subject’s personality while John McDonough supplies a deeply considered historical/critical view. The original tapes were meticulously transferred by Brett Zinn and the sound restoration and mastering by Andreas Meyer and Nancy Conforti catch the authentic atmosphere. You could almost swear you were in the hall.

LINKS: Page for the set at Mosaic Records

Book review of Tad Hershorn’s Norman Granz biography

Categories: Album reviews, Reviews

3 replies »

  1. Personal: Wonderful piece Len. And great to read your thoughtful reviews always. You may remember me from way back..Donald Helme from Irish advertising, European board etc. still alive and doing jazz as well.

  2. Thank you for capturing jazz history. I remain in awe of my father’s contribution to jazz history and the many talented jazz musicians he shared the stage with at JATP concerts. It will never be repeated.

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