Behind The 8 Ball

BABY FACE WILLETTE –

Journalist Bobby Tanzilo published an extensive and thoroughly researched biographical sketch of the life and career of organist Baby Face Willette on onmilwaukee.com on September 11. Willette periodically resided in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

September 11 is the date of birth of Baby Face Willette.

Baby Face Willette is the much-admired but enigmatic organist who released two albums on Blue Note in 1961 – Face To Face and Stop And Listen and two albums on Argo in 1964 – Mo’ Rock and Behind The 8 Ball. He was also featured on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis and Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand in 1961. Willette was rooted in gospel and r&b and loved Charlie Parker, a combination that resulted in a unique, groovin’ and single-line style most everybody just feels from the first beats is the real thing.

(Baby Face Willette’s legacy as a jazz artist: six records.)

Like a mine digger with the eye on diamonds, Tanzilo put together Willette’s story from various sources, including Willette’s son Steven. Yes, Willette resided in Milwaukee but the sharp-dressed cat with the youthful demeanor was all over the place, traveling the country in spells that led him from his gospel-infused youth, career as r&b-artist to the famous Blue Note headquarters and, finally, to the obscurity of Mid-Western clubs and his early demise in 1971. The article’s design is a treat and includes fantastic previously unreleased picture material.

Do yourself a favor. Stop and read.

Howard McGhee - The Return Of Howard McGhee

Howard McGhee The Return Of Howard McGhee (Bethlehem 1956)

Howard McGhee returned to Bethlehem. A glorious entrance.

Howard McGhee - The Return Of Howard McGhee

Personnel

Howard McGhee (trumpet), Sahib Shihab (baritone saxophone, alto saxophone), Duke Jordan (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)

Recorded

on October 22, 1956 in New York City

Released

as BCP 42 in 1956

Track listing

Side A:
Get Happy
Tahitian Lullaby
Lover Man
Lullaby Of The Leaves
You’re Teasing Me
Transpicious
Side B:
Rifftide
Oo-Wee But I Do
Don’t Blame Me
Tweedles
I’ll Remember April


By 1956, trumpeter Howard McGhee already was a veteran of bebop and one of the earliest collaborators of Charlie Parker, The One, The Kick Start of modern jazz. More than a colleague, he was a friend. Howard McGhee was born in 1918 and two years the senior of Charlie Parker. Now and then, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-born trumpet player helped out Parker, saxophoniste maudit, who continuously ran into trouble.

Sign of the (ominous) times: In 1946, Charlie Parker had completed his first recordings for Ross Russell’s Dial label in Los Angeles. McGhee lived in Los Angeles with his wife Dorothy. They were a mixed couple that was continually harassed by the L.A. police force. At one time, the vice squad planted drugs in their apartment and promptly arrested McGhee. Parker was in bad shape, living in a garage on McKinley Avenue, his daily diet solely consisting of port wine. The McGhee’s took him to their apartment. Howard and Dorothy, against the grain, opened a little jazz club on the premises of the defunct Finale club and booked Charlie Parker.

The first thing one notices is that The Return includes Lover Man and Don’t Blame Me, two standard ballads identified by influential renditions by Charlie Parker. Lover Man, Dial 1946, was an earthquake – notwithstanding the fact that Parker was completely out of it, sick and close to a nervous breakdown, which perhaps was one of the reasons Parker abhorred this version. McGhee, himself a trumpeter who inspired many of the up-and-coming players of the hard bop era, was the trumpeter on that recording and continued to perform Lover Man for the rest of his life.

Furthermore, McGhee’s group includes pianist Duke Jordan. Jordan was part of one of Parker’s most steady groups of 1947-48, which also included Miles Davis, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. The bop-oriented The Return Of Howard McGhee – McGhee had been off the scene a while as a consequence of his use of narcotics – also featured alto and baritone saxophonist Sahib Shihab, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Both Shihab and Jones had occasionally played with Parker.

The chemistry – no pun intented – is striking. The group performs as a bunch of buoyant teenage pals at play in the lake, two diving from the bridge, one showing his prowess as a crawler in clear sight of nearby feminine onlookers, another shouting crazy things to fly-over goose. Not a wild bunch of hooligans, but charged and charming. So Get Happy makes perfect sense. And the old warhorse is exemplary of a great album that is too easily overlooked. There’s the rare sparkle and bite of Philly Joe Jones. The smooth blend of McGhee’s exuberant, sinuous trumpet and Shihab’s pretty spectacular baritone sax. The spry and gracefully fashioned solo’s of Duke Jordan.

The group performs eleven tunes, including the soft-hued, hypnotic Lullaby Of The Leaves, the catchy, Latin-ish and uptempo I’ll Remember April and the sizzling flagwaver Rifftide. Lover Man is excellent, the coupling of McGhee’s sly variations on the melody and delicate bittersweet comments with the bright and full-bodied tone that’s reminiscent of Louis Armstrong is very attractive. The long life already lived, from his stints with Count Basie and Charlie Barnet, to the laboratory of Minton’s Playhouse and ‘carvin’ with the bird’ signifying a weathered and stellar jazz artist.

A set of eleven tunes that rarely stretch beyond four minutes – unfortunately – suggests that Bethlehem was aiming at radio airplay, perhaps inspired by the success of the Mulligan/Baker group of Pacific Jazz. Bethlehem wasn’t strictly a jazz label. Nonetheless, its jazz discography has slowly but surely turned into a special place for jazz freaks, like that little superb Juarez burrito joint for Texan lovers of hot Latin cuisine. The great engineering can compete with Rudy van Gelder as well as Roy DuNann from Contemporary, the label on which McGhee recorded two more successful albums in 1960. To boot: you ever seen such a beautiful sleeve? In the words of Babs Gonzales: exboopident!

Steamin’

DUTCH JAZZ HISTORY – STOOM & VERVOLGCURSUS BEBOP

Just for the fun of it I checked all the classic (hard) bop albums I reviewed over the past four years that featured musicians who participated in Stoomcursus & Vervolgcursus Bebop. Stoom & Vervolgcursus Bebop is the series of lectures on modern jazz and performances that the renowned Dutch pianist Rein de Graaff organized in The Netherlands from 1987 to 2012. De Graaff invited over American legends and unsung heroes for performances with contemporary European and Dutch counterparts. Almost without exception, the musicians were accompanied by his regular trio of bassists Koos Serierse (1936-2017) and Marius Beets, and the extraordinary drummer Eric Ineke.

The lectures and performances have been enormously valuable to the Dutch and European jazz landscape. De Graaff delivered his insightful introductions with understated humor. Season after season, Dutch jazz fans were treated to performances by legendary American jazz men and women that they never would have experienced in such an intimate setting would not the now semi-retired Rein de Graaff have taken great pains to locate them from practically all the States that do not begin with an ‘I’. He has been a straight-forward and acclaimed organizer. Plays mean piano too.

Here’s my check. Quite the list:

Marcus Belgrave, James Clay, Al Cohn, Junior Cook, Ronnie Cuber, Eddie Daniels, Charles Davis, Teddy Edwards, Art Farmer, Frank Foster, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris, Red Holloway, Clifford Jordan, Harold Land, Charles McPherson, James Moody, David “Fathead” Newman, Dave Pike, Julian Priester, Billy Root, Doug Sides, Louis Smith, James Spaulding and Art Taylor.

(Advertising poster 1987/88; Buck Hill, Teddy Edwards and Von Freeman 1991/92); Marchel Ivery, David “Fathead” Newman and the Rein de Graaff Trio 1989/90; Source: Coen de Jonge’s Belevenissen In Bebop. (Passage, 1997); Photography Anko Wieringa)

They usually performed at Vredenburg in Utrecht, Oosterpoort in Groningen and at small venues around the country. Many of these jazz greats stayed at De Graaff’s place in the village of Veendam, Groningen, where they were treated by their friendly host to a hearty breakfast and a view on the flat, wide and open spaces of the Northern countryside…

Coming season at the Flophouse Theatre: Billy Mitchell and Sal Nistico. Both Stoomcursus alumni. I’m not doing it on purpose. Those cats just keep wanderin’ through the backdoor!

Rein de Graaff

Pianist Rein de Graaff (Groningen, 1942) recorded more than 40 albums, both as a leader and in cooperation with numerous Americans and fellow Europeans. De Graaff played with Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Philly Joe Jones and many others. He won the Boy Edgar Prijs in 1980 and the Bird Award at North Sea Jazz Festival in 1986. Rein de Graaff semi-retired this year, adding a salute the end of his career with a widely publicized and successful farewell tour.

Read my interview with Rein de Graaff here. And my interview with his longtime companion Eric Ineke here.

The Rein de Graaff Trio featuring tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen performs at Café Pavlov in The Hague on Sunday 8 September at 16:00.

Quickie

NEW RELEASE – THE GABRIEL MERVINE QUARTET

The Gabriel Mervine Quartet consists of trumpeter Gabriel Mervine, guitarist Alex Heffron, organist Tom Amend and drummer Alejandro Castano. The Denver-based soul jazz outfit released their new single Quickie on Color Red on August 27.

Quickie is unadulterated boogaloo jazz, modern but strongly rooted in the classic organ and soul jazz format of the mid/late sixties, particularly the commercial Blue Note affairs of Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan et. al. It’s a catchy, clever melody and arrangement and a strong effort with vigorous statements by all four members.

I love the way Mervine, accomplished trumpeter who cooperated with Terenche Blanchard, Christian McBride, Maceo Parker, Houston Person and was part of funk outfit The Motet, glides over the funky backbeat, a greasy slur here, a surprising backflip of high notes there. Mervine displays a rewarding, balanced vitality.

Color Red confirmed the release of new tracks by the band in the near-future.

The Gabriel Mervine Quartet

Gabriel Marvin Quartet - Quickie

Find Quickie on the Color Red label here.

The Cedar Walton Trio - A Night At Boomers Vol. 1

The Cedar Walton Trio featuring Clifford Jordan A Night At Boomers Vol. 1 & 2 (Muse 1973)

Mainstream jazz at its most fluent, refreshing and adventurous. That is A Night At Boomers Vol. 1 & 2 by The Cedar Walton Trio featuring Clifford Jordan.

The Cedar Walton Trio - A Night At Boomers Vol. 1

The Cedar Walton Trio - A Night At Boomers Vol. 2

Personnel

Cedar Walton (piano), Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone Vol. 1 A1, A3, B1-4; Vol. 2 A2, B1-3), Sam Jones (bass), Louis Hayes (drums)

Recorded

on January 4, 1973 at Boomers, New York City

Released

as Muse 5010/5022 in 1974

Track listing

Volume 1
Side A:
Holy Land
This Guy’s In Love With You
Cheryl
Side B:
The Highest Mountain
Down In Brazil
St. Thomas
Bleecker Street Theme
Volume 2
Side A:
Naima
Stella By Starlight
All The Way
Side B:
I’ll Remember April
Blue Monk
Bleecker Street Theme


Gary Giddins: “Where is jazz going?”
Cedar Walton: “It’ll go wherever we take it. We’re the masters of it. And wherever my colleagues and I feel like going tomorrow.”

The time is January 4, 1973, the place is Boomers in Greenwich Village, NYC, the club that, by all accounts, overflows with knowledgeable jazz fans. The paranoiac and grumpy Republican, Richard Nixon, is in the Oval Office. The burglaries at the headquarters of the Democratic Party take place in May 1972. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sink their teeth into the case. It’s a pressure cooker. The termination of the Vietnam War is long overdue. The number of casualties has been highest among blacks. The army is still segregated. Blacks here, whites there. And here means low in the hierarchy – straight from the assembly line of the Ford factory to the battlefields. Few if any black men wear stripes and play cards in the mess. It’s still, well, a mess.

James Brown is now singing that crack is ruining the hood. The seeds of gangsta rap are sown. White rock is fed to the general public, the corporate smile grows broader and broader by the minute. In jazz, fusion is the big thing, Miles Davis and Weather Report the big names. Living jazz giants are doing fine: Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz. Dave Brubeck is a star. In general, straight-ahead jazz is having a hard time. Regardless of the passionate promotional and educational efforts of Cannonball Adderley, John Lewis, critics, and the occasional write-up in Time Magazine, Average Joe has by and large been (kept?) ignorant of jazz, the beautiful musical art form that, though not exclusively of black origin, can’t be separated from the tormented past and lively culture of the black race and would have been void without it. Amidst the general turmoil, a group of outstanding innovators and stylists, either in the USA or as expatriates in jazz-minded Europe, keep the flame of classic jazz burning: Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Griffin, Zoot Sims, Art Pepper, Benny Bailey, Phil Woods, Slide Hampton, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Art Farmer.

And pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Ray Bryant, Kenny Barron. Cedar Walton. Walton, born in Dallas, Texas, was supposed to play on his friend John Coltrane’s landmark album Giant Steps. But while he was out of town, Tommy Flanagan got the call. Walton came into prominence as the pianist of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. A gifted writer, Walton penned future standards as Mosaic, Ugetsu, Bolivia, Mode For Joe and Holy Land. Now it’s 1973. Walton, already a very accomplished player in the 60s, matured into a commanding maestro – it has slowly but surely dawned on me that the work of the Flanagans, Bryants, Barrons and Waltons gained considerable depth in the second phase of their careers. Much to our delight.

Crew of Boomers: Walton, craftsman with amazing skills, skills subservient to flexible, rich lines, unceasing drive and phrases crusted with the grit of the honky-tonk floor. Bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. Extraordinary rhythm engine since The Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Hayes the former drummer of Horace Silver’s group, who elevated ‘small ensemble’ hard bop drumming to its ultimate level. Tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, who matured from Rollins-styled player to volatile Mingus associate and individual personality that delivered the remarkable Glass Bead Games eight months after the Boomers gig.

Glass Bead Games – extension of John Coltrane’s music – tapped into mankind’s subconscious longing for beauty and unity. It’s uniquely organic. A Night At Boomers, regardless of progressive tinges, is more concerned with redefining mainstream jazz. It does, however, possess a wholesome vibe, perhaps because everybody felt it, musicians and audience alike. If this was an exemplary performance of the Cedar Walton Trio featuring Clifford Jordan, and there is not much room for doubt, I envy those who were able to experience it night after night. The Baby Boomers comprised a lucky crowd.

Boomers bristles with invigorating interpretations of standards, All The Way, Down In Brazil and Charlie Parker’s Cheryl among them. Stella By Starlight and I’ll Remember April are souped-up Kreidlers suddenly taking swift turns like the slickest of Kawasakis. The first four minutes of April are reserved for Sam Jones’s meaty and lyrical bass story, the second part for Clifford Jordan’s fiery tenor playing. Clifford Jordan’s balanced but potent blues playing is the topping of Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk’s leisurely pace. The archetypical juxtaposition of the Carribean rhythm and uptempo 4/4 sections of Sonny Rollins’s St. Thomas are handled just that extra specially, the Latin part boisterous, the 4/4 part lightning fast and crisp as crackers on Sunday morning. Walton reacts accordingly, switching smoothly from percussive variations to a quicksilver update of Bud Powell.

A joy. The best, however, is yet to come. At least, the tracks that I usually have been immediately drawn to are Holy Land, The Highest Mountain, This Guy’s In Love With You and Naima. The composition of Holy Land is a stroke of genius. The simple and lovely melody – you can hear a child humming it in the playground – is introduced and ended by Walton’s glamorous Bach-like outlay of the chords, which flows smoothly in and out of the tune’s mid-tempo bounce. Whatever the holy land means from Walton’s perspective – Israel for the chosen ones that fled from Egypt, the promised land of Dr. Martin Luther King – Walton obviously had good hopes of discovering it one day.

Perhaps he also longed to reach The Highest Mountain, an equally beautiful, modal-tinged composition. He’s assisted on his travels by Clifford Jordan (Led by Joshua, the tribes of Israel crossed the river Jordan…), who tells one of his all-time great stories. Jordan gives pleasures in measured doses. His tone doesn’t push you against the wall, it’s relatively thin, light as a day in early Spring. His phrasing is agile like the movements of the antelope and his smooth but forceful message is interspersed with sudden, emotionally charged grunts and growls. One hears him searching, investigating, wondering, smiling, pondering and, finally, finding something he deems worthy for a new search. A great artist.

Cedar Walton reaches new levels of trio playing. There’s an endless stream of long lines and ideas during This Guy’s In Love With You, which is started in a funky vein, developed into a crisp groove. Walton is exuberant and his superlative skills are balanced by commanding blues figures. John Coltrane’s Naima never fails to touch my heart, Walton’s voicing and lines a rare, heartbreaking thing of beauty. I have to go with Gary Giddins, who says in the liner notes that Walton is ‘meshing softness with command. It has the cumulative effect of a rose unfolding its pedals.’

This group with near-telepathic synergy effortlessly moulds contemporary jazz to its feelings and highly developed aesthetic.

The Hank Bagby Soultet - Opus One

The Hank Bagby Soultet Opus One (Protone 1964)

Lots of great Hanks out there. One of the lesser-know Hanks, tenor saxophonist Hank Bagby, delivered a first-rate hard bop album in 1964, Opus One.

The Hank Bagby Soultet - Opus One

Personnel

Hank Bagby (tenor saxophone), Chuck Foster (trumpet), Dave MacKay (piano), Al Hines (bass), Chiz Harris (drums)

Recorded

in 1964

Released

as Protone 133 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
Dee Dee
The Great Wall
Soul Sonnet
Side B:
Kiss Me Quigley
Iborian
Algerian Suite


Thanks Matt Block from Chicago, major league hard and post-bop collector, for putting Flophouse on to The Hank Bagby Soultet’s Opus One through the grapevine of the evil but occasionally very pleasant world wide web. There’s always more hardbop out there than expected. Live and learn. Die and reincarnate as the insect from Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, crawl on the pavement of Sunset Boulevard and get squashed on the star tile of Hugh Hefner before, to cite Kinky Friedman, you were able to bug out for the dugout. Come back again as Mahatma Gandhi, slip into suit and tie and invest in big data. Be ashamed of yourself. Nothing to be ashamed of if you’re Hank Bagby. Hank Bagby is ok. But is Opus One an album we should be ashamed of having ignored for so long? No not exactly. It’s not a milestone of mainstream jazz. But then again it’s about time it gets the attention it very well deserves.

The pulse of the album is pretty contagious, Jazz Messengers-like in spots. Moreover, both Dee Dee and The Great Wall wouldn’t have been out of place on Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers albums. Perhaps most striking, the typical hard bop format of quintet line-up featuring sax and trumpet, blues-based repertoire and medium tempos is strengthened by a number of exotic flavors, the melodies of Soul Sonnet and Iborian (Nairobi spelled backwards) in particular.

Obviously, Bagby was a good writer. As a tenor saxophone player, his big hard tenor sound is exciting but his lines have a tendency to somehow pass by unnoticed. Trumpeter Chuck Foster is more impressive. His bright tone and sparkling lines lift up the fresh set of tunes. Even better is pianist Dave MacKay, who provides pulsating backing with a combination of strong-willed chords and pesky lines. As a soloist, without exactly imitating them, he’s somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver. Not a bad place to hang around.

Bagby started as a singer in Denver in the 40s, then worked as a saxophonist on the West Coast in the 50s with Kenny Drew, Leo Wright, Joe Maini, Elmo Hope, Dexter Gordon and Harold Land. Opus One is his only album as a leader. Currently going for 400$ on Discogs. Mind if I pass? Luckily, there’s also a CD that was released by Jazzhus in 2012. And the full album is on YouTube. Listen here.

Clarence Henry Bagby passed away in 1993.

Jimmy McGriff - Honey

Jimmy McGriff Honey (Solid State 1968)

You can pick your favorite soul tune from Jimmy McGriff’s 1968 Honey album and dance, dance, dance.

Jimmy McGriff - Honey

Personnel

Jimmy McGriff (organ), Uncredited ‘Organ & Big Blues Band’

Recorded

in 1968 in New York City

Released

as SS-18036 in 1968

Track listing

Side A:
(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
Respect
Chain Of Fools
We’re A Winner
Up, Up And Away
Side B:
Tell Mama
Honey
I Thank You
I Got The Feelin’
Baby, I Love You
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay


It’s a blatantly commercial album by McGriff, who was quite popular ever since the organist from Philadelphia scored a hit on Sue Records in 1962 with Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman. Switching to Solid State in 1966, McGriff’s version of Cherry did very well on the charts. Producer Sonny Lester must’ve dreamt of making McGriff just as famous as his mentor and friend, Jimmy Smith, who was the most popular soul jazz artist of the era, more so after he switched from Blue Note to Verve, under the guidance of Creed Taylor. Sonny Lester used McGriff in a variety of settings, from blues, pop to big band, some more successful than others. Essentially, Honey presents a rather arbitrary choice of popular soul tunes. Just put ‘m all on one album, see which one picks up any airplay.

But. Big but. Although it would’ve been nice if McGriff had recorded more often in a modern jazz setting in the sixties, (McGriff’s albums on Milestone in the 80s and 90s are more jazz-oriented) McGriff’s clever voicing and modern approach have not altogether vanished from his chart-running songbook. Besides, McGriff is a blues master that rarely disappoints in the kind of setting Honey represents. He is, after all, a groove monster without peer!

The album is a mix of uptempo classics like Respect, Chain Of Fools, I Thank You, medium-tempo tunes as (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, James Brown’s funky I Got The Feelin’ and the odd pop tune, Jimmy Webb’s Up, Up And Away. Throughout, McGriff’s charming mix of screamin’ blues riffs and dazzling little bop lines keeps the listener on his toes. His timing is hip, floating around the beat. The band is seriously rocking, backing McGriff as if Otis, King Solomon or the Wicked Pickett is holding the mic. The sax player has no inkling to play ‘safe’ soul licks but instead – a pleasant surprise – injects cookers like Honey with tantalizing modern-jazzy phrases on what sounds like the electric Varitone saxophone. The group is uncredited. It might be saxophonist Fats Theus, who played on McGriff’s The Worm in 1968 as well.

Honey paid the bills. In later life, McGriff kept gigging steadily, making a living on the road. A while ago, the late flutist, saxophone player and educator Peter Guidi recounted his stint as a sideman with McGriff to Flophouse, describing the traveling organist’s classy van as a bonafide ‘mobile bordello, laced with red velvet’. It also carried the Hammond B3 and indispensable Leslie speaker. Guidi remembered the day McGriff offered him a gig, but Guidi, who almost once got killed carrying a B3 down the stairs of a club, said: “I love your work and I want the job. As long as I don’t have to carry the damn thing!” McGriff laughed. Guidi got the gig anyway.

It is a blessing that, in spite of the machine’s awkward shape and elephantine weight, there have been so many fine organists. Jimmy McGriff definitely was one of the leaders of the pack.

The full album is on YouTube. Listen here.