Mister Ben’s Tempo

BEN DIXON (1934-2018) –

Drummer Ben Dixon sadly passed away on November 8. Flophouse reached out to Pete “Doodlin’ Lounge’ Fallico, who posted a RIP on Facebook. Through the grapevine, Fallico heard about someone who attended the funeral: ‘Apparently muslims bury or cremate a body the next day after death. Ben was a quiet person who did not have a web presence, hence the lack of information.’

Dixon was one of the great organ jazz specialists. He was born in Gaffney, South Carolina and grew up in Washington D.C. and Buffalo, NY. Early in his career, Dixon played with Buck Hill, Shirley Horn and Webster Young. During Dixon’s three-year stint with the popular r&b singer Lloyd Price, Dixon met John Patton, whom he persuaded to take up the Hammond. Introduced by Lou Donaldson to Blue Note’s Alfred Lion, Dixon and Patton (plus guitarist Grant Green) went on to form a prolific tandem on many of the label’s now-classic soul jazz albums of the early and mid-sixties. He quit the music business in 1967 but resurfaced in 1997 with The Real Jazz Quartet. His only album as a leader, Say Yes To Your Best including organist Adam Scone was released in 2000. Dixon’s discography as a sideman includes a series of albums with Lou Donaldson, Grant Green and John Patton, George Braith’s Laughing Soul, Ray Draper’s Tuba Sounds, Stanley Turrentine’s A Chip Off The Old Block and Baby Face Willette’s Face To Face.

The work of Ben Dixon is textbook material for aspiring soul jazz drummers. Playing in an organ group requires some adjustments and a whole lotta groove. Ben Dixon’s meaty hi-hat on the 2 and 4 constituted a tight pocket. His bass and ride cymbal locked tight with the organist’s bass lines. He accented changes, turnarounds, bridges and shout choruses with press rolls, but not excessively, so as not to disturb the flow and uses lively snare and tom figures to inspire the soloists. This way his accompaniment is an arc of tension, more tension, heat, release… Throughout, Dixon swings, grooves, makes sure those toes keep-a-tappin’. His shuffle was rock-solid. Dixon also wrote a number of catchy tunes like Cantaloupe Woman, Pig Foot and Fat Judy.

Check out Ben Dixon’s style on Brother Jack McDuff’s Whap!, Grant Green’s Miss Ann’s Tempo and Lou Donaldson’s Funky Mama.

Harold Vick’s Our Miss Brooks and John Patton’s Fat Judy. Picture of Ben Dixon.

Ben Dixon was 84 years old.

(Thanks Pete Fallico of The Doodlin’ Lounge and Jazz Organ Fellowship)

Don Wilkerson - Shoutin'

Don Wilkerson Shoutin’ (Blue Note 1963)

For his third and final release on Blue Note, tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson teamed up with a cookin’ crew that suits his style to a T. His debut on Riverside in 1960, The Texas Twister, hadn’t quite fulfilled his potential. His Blue Note-sessions were elevating and more successful. Shoutin’ maintains the enamouring blend of r&b and jazz of his previous Blue Note recordings, Elder Don and Preach Brother!. Not in the possession of a big sound, Wilkerson instead relies on a lilting tone and uplifting, bouncy phrases.

Don Wilkerson - Shoutin'

Personnel

Don Wilkerson (tenor saxophone), John Patton (organ), Grant Green (guitar), Ben Dixon (drums)

Recorded

on July 29, 1963 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 4145 in 1963

Track listing

Side A:
Movin’ Out
Cookin’ With Clarence
Easy Living
Side B:
Happy Johnny
Blues For J
Sweet Cake


Wilkerson was born in Louisiana and had spent a big part of his life in Texas. He played with rhythm and blues artists Amos Milburn and Charles Brown, as well as jazz luminaries Sonny Clark, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. He was part of the early Ray Charles band and functioned as featured soloist on classic hits such as I Got A Woman and Halleluja I Love Her So. So Wilkerson gained a bag of priceless experience.

It isn’t hard to imagine what those men presumably liked in Wilkerson. His alluring tone and candid delivery are at the heart of the medium-tempo Movin’ Out. Coincidentally, it has the structure and bounce of the early Ray Charles tunes; and their fresh elan as well. Wilkerson also displays subtle swing, which he employs to great effect in the ‘breathy’ ballad Easy Living. In it, the influence on Wilkerson’s style that shines through most prominently is that of Paul Gonsalves.

Cookin’ With Clarence is an example of this group’s solid interplay. These men share a lot of r&b experience. John Patton and Ben Dixon both had been part of Lloyd Price’s popular rhythm & blues orchestra. Grant Green played r&b and blues during the early part of his career in St. Louis, notably with Jimmy Forrest. The tune is an uptempo showcase for all involved, stimulated considerably by the climactic sections at the end of the ensemble choruses, that catapult the soloists into action. Don Wilkerson is swift as a rattlesnake. Grant Green is a spirited presence. His phrasing is fluent and his strumming confident and aggressive. John Patton’s lines are crunchy and fiery, inspired by the unisono background figures of Wilkerson and Green. Meanwhile, Ben Dixon’s probing rolls and cymbal crashes stoke up the fire. Both Movin’ Out and Cookin’ With Clarence are Wilkerson originals.

The modal-type tune Happy Johnny is also a Wilkerson composition. The variation in Wilkerson’s solo is more on the rhythmic than melodic side. Blues For J is a slow blues of the afterhours-kind, relaxed but driving. Sweet Cake, a tune from Wilkerson’s Louisiana friend Edward Frank, is a shuffle that strolls along nicely and includes a dynamic John Patton solo.

Wilkerson would continue to perform in the r&b field in the sixties and seventies. There are few, if any, players like Wilkerson today. The type of musician in the mixed zone of r&b and jazz, that matured after traveling the route of the chitlin’ circuit: the black neighbourhood music scene of local bars and small clubs. Nowadays those kind of musical breeding grounds are largely non-existent. Hence the virtual absence of contemporary saxophonists in the straighforward but sophisticated vein. Therefore, Shoutin’, is an example of a bygone era. It may be history, but it sounds lively as hell.

Grant Green - Grant's First Stand

Grant Green Grant’s First Stand (Blue Note 1961)

By January, 1961, when Grant Green’s debut as a leader Grant’s First Stand was released, Green was 26 years old and already a seasoned player. His debut is confident and chock full of suave blues.

Grant Green - Grant's First Stand

Personnel

Grant Green (guitar), Baby Face Willette (organ), Ben Dixon (drums)

Recorded

on January 28, 1961 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 4064 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
Miss Ann’s Tempo
Lullaby Of The Leaves
Blues For Willareen
Side B:
Baby’s Minor Lope
’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizniss If I Do
A Wee Bit O’Green


Some colleagues and friends from the guitarist’s hometown, St. Louis, have said that before the time alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson secured him a deal at New York’s Blue Note headquarters in 1960, Green’s unique style was already intact. Musicians who traveled through the jazz and r&b-friendly East St. Louis also were enamoured of Green’s approach. Said drummer Al Harewood: “(…) before he got there, the club was packed. So Grant must have been doing something right. Oh, boy, it was swinging, swinging, swinging. He was fresh. (…) It was like a revival meeting. They well appreciated him, too. So did the fellas in New York, once they heard him.

But was Green’s style really already fully-formed? Well, almost. It was mature, soulful, had a unique ring to it. But Green’s playing certainly underwent a few changes in the sixties. Playing in a variety of settings, with a roster of world-class young (and some older) lions, inspired Green to reach beyond his basic style in straight ahead as well as modal hard bop. Generally unbeatable and highly inventive, this period included career heights as Grandstand and Idle Moments. His funk period from the late sixties represented a direction into deep grooves and more percussive phrasing.

What they meant was that the core of Green’s style remained the same, whether the guitarist tackled gospel, Latin, modern jazz or blues music. Green’s unique assets are a lucid and round tone, fiery approach, melodic elan and abundant blues feeling. What those people who knew or met Green meant, was that Green was a man of the blues. Green felt very comfortable within the organ combo genre and made many fine recordings in it. After Green’s debut and initial side dates Green would become the most prolific musician in the Blue Note roster up to 1965. By 1962 Green had earned Downbeat Magazine’s New Star victory in the guitar category.

The trio of Grant’s First Stand had a nice rapport. It had worked together on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis a week earlier and would re-unite for Baby Face Willette’s debut as a leader, Face To Face, two days later. Not surprisingly, the three albums bear the mark and feeling of live r&b. Perhaps Grant’s First Stand is the most blues-drenched of the threesome.

Miss Ann’s Tempo is an example of excellent trio work. The playful theme of ascending and descending notes stated by Green is supported well through answering chords by Willette and effective cymbal and tom work by Ben Dixon. Green’s solo has a natural flow and logical structure. Baby Face Willette’s statements consist of probing, funky lines and poignant, short notes stabbed at the keyboard with the infectious joy of a bird let loose from his cage.

In building the solo of Baby’s Minor Lope – as the title states and suggests, a minor key blues that runs steadily on – Green uses his trademark sustained tremelos that work as a breath of fresh air before traveling on vigorously. In between the beforementioned and other like-minded mid to uptempo tunes are two slow blues songs. One of the most popular and recorded blues standards, Ain’t Nobody’s Business, has a solid but a bit subdued Green solo. It might’ve something to do with Baby Face Willette, who burns through an in-your-face solo that is hard to surpass. Wee Bit O’Green fares better. The slight change of beat creates a loose and down-home atmosphere Green relishes.

After Green’s debut, there would be no question of a ‘Wee Bit O’Green”. ‘A Whole Lot O’Green” is more appropriate. In 1961 alone, Green would not only appear as leader or sideman on a staggering number of seventeen (including five posthumously released) Blue Note recordings, but also record as a sideman for Jazztime, Jazzland and Prestige.

babyface

Baby Face Willette Face To Face (Blue Note 1961)

It was a busy week for organist Baby Face Willette, the last week of January, 1961. In fact, the three sessions Willette was involved in – sessions for Lou Donaldson and Grant Green and the leadership date of Face to Face – account for half of the organist’s discography. One may conclude Willette is something of a footnote in jazz history. As his best album, Face To Face, however, proofs footnotes usually don’t come that exciting.

babyface

Personnel

Baby Face Willette (organ), Fred Jackson (tenor saxophone), Grant Green (guitar), Ben Dixon (drums)

Recorded

on January 30, 1961 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ

Released

as BST 84068 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
Swingin’ At Sugar Ray’s
Goin’ Down
Whatever Lola Wants
Side B:
Face To Face
Something Strange
High ‘N’ Low


Lou Donaldson certainly was of that opinion. In reference to the session for Donaldson’s Here ’Tis, the popular alto saxophonist is quoted as saying (he also mentioned accompanists Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon): “These guys have all played a lot of rhythm and blues and they know what it’s about.” Lou Donaldson brought Grant Green to the attention of Blue Note’s Alfred Lion in 1960. Green was steeped in r&b and influenced by Charlie Christian. Together they met Willette in New York. Before turning to jazz, Willette had worked in a variety of r&b settings. Tenor saxophonist Fred Jackson worked with Little Richard, B.B. King and had been part of r&b-singer Lloyd Price’s outfit. Drummer Ben Dixon also played in that group.

Here ’Tis stems from January 23, Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand (also including Ben Dixon) was recorded on January 28 and the Face To Face-session took place on January 30. It indeed is about the blues or has a blues-based format. Willette penned five catchy originals. Willette’s edgy sound, a combination of a plucky percussion-setting and slight vibrato, is mesmerising. Style-wise Willette uses a number of tricks from Jimmy Smith’s bag. Putting heat into a solo, stretching over bars by way of a suspended left hand chord and freewheeling right hand, is one of them. He uses it in Whatever Lola Wants and Swingin’ At Sugar Ray’s. The latter is a sassy tune on which Grant Green gets into the picture with some trademark, throat-grabbing blues licks. His sound is unusually distorted on this tune, which unfortunately draws the attention away from the rest of his statements.

Willette does a great job of avoiding blues clichés. His lines are jumpy and fresh. Rarely at a dead end, one can hear the pleasure Willette takes in putting something surprising and funky in each new chorus. Willette carefully builds momentum on the slow, down & dirty blues Goin’ Down. Tenor saxophonist Fred Jackson delivers a juicy and humorous piece of rock ‘n’ jazz. His solo is lively, direct and consists of long wails that alternate with short, breathy puffs, valve effects and speedy, big-toned figures that bear the mark of Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons.

The title track, Face To Face, is an uptempo, stop-time tune cleanly executed by the rhythm section. (including the bass Willette provides) Ben Dixon lays down a driving shuffle in the middle section that finds all soloists in fine form. Whatever Lola Wants is the only non-Willette composition. It has a very danceable, exotic rhythm. Willette cooks, Jackson variates nicely on the theme; the element of surprise inherent in Jackson’s work is a strong asset of Face To Face. Green doesn’t really break out of his routine phrasing. Clearly, on Whatever Lola Wants, Fred Jackson’s got the better of him.

The album ends on a satisfying note. Something Strange and High ‘N’ Low aren’t standout tracks, but fine blues cuts. In the second part of his recording career – the 1964 albums Behind The 8-Ball and Mo-Roc for the Argo label – gospel and Carribean themes were highlighted more than on his Blue Note recordings. The albums show a full-grown identity and have their moments, but are inferior to Face To Face. They lack drive and the abilities of the high-quality personel that was present on Face To Face and his other Blue Note recording from 1961, Stop And Listen.

The liner notes of Face To Face refer to the wanderlust that had been characteristic of Willette’s personality ever since he was a kid. This penchant for traveling also accounted for his occasional disappearance from the scene and obscurity from the public eye after 1964. Ultimately, failing health led to his decease in 1971. Could Willette have been a new organ star contending with Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff? No doubt. Baby Face Willette had the chops, and the looks. Face To Face was a promising start. It, however, was also very short to the finish.

Harold Vick - Steppin' Out

Harold Vick Steppin’ Out (Blue Note 1963)

I hear a lot of Dexter Gordon in tenorist Harold Vick: a similar way of blowing forcefully, of bending notes and freewheeling easily between the lower and middle register. Beside the Dex comparison, there’s the blues, the core of Vick’s style. It’s the prime reason why Vick blended so well with organist Jack McDuff, whose group he was a part of during the recording of Steppin’ Out!. Steppin’ Out!, indeed, sounds very much like the output of his boss from that period: an r&b and gospel-tinged repertoire and a beguiling atmosphere close to that of a live club date.

Harold Vick - Steppin' Out

Personnel

Harold Vick (tenor sax), Grant Green (guitar), John Patton (organ), Ben Dixon (drums)

Recorded

on May 27, 1963 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 4138 in 1963

Track listing

Side A:
Our Miss Brooks
Trimmed In Blue
Laura
Side B:
Dotty’s Dream
Vicksville
Steppin’ Out


The musicians in question benefit from being acquainted to one another. Vick knew Grant Green from the guitarist’s stints with McDuff. Moreover, at the start of their professional careers, Vick, organist John Patton and drummer Ben Dixon played in r&b-singer Lloyd Price’s band and later on joined forces (along with Grant Green) for John Patton’s album Along Came John in the spring of 1963, recorded a mere six weeks before Steppin’ Out!. Finally, about that time Patton, Green and Dixon were becoming a remarkably tight soul jazz team, recording together on Lou Donaldson’ The Natural Soul and Good Gracious, Don Wilkerson’s Shoutin’ and Grant Green’s Am I Blue.

Drummer Ben Dixon deserves special mention. Dixon spurs his colleagues on, displaying flamboyant press rolls and ‘crash cymbalism’, accentuating the blues-based changes meticulously. Dixon’s share in the album’s succes is immediately apparent once the opening track, Our Miss Brooks, has been kicked off. It’s a Vick original that was also in the book of McDuff’s group and as such recorded as opening statement on Somethin’ Slick. Even if Dixon’s style is tough, it’s more polished and less in possession of a rock&roll edge as that of Joe Dukes, his fellow drummer, who was in McDuff’s group at that time.

It’s easy to understand why Our Miss Brooks was a McDuff favourite. It’s a delicious, medium-tempo blues, containing the kind of changes that give you the feeling they’re exactly where they supposed to be. The group performs it with apparent joy. The soloists, Green, Patton and Vick, inject into their tales an extra bit of energy. Vick’s part is a down-home treat from start to finish.

Besides showing unadultered emotion and a charming nonchalance that instead of being confused with lack of technique signifies maturity, Harold Vick also proofs to be a writer of compelling soul jazz tunes. Trimmed In Blue is a McDuff-style cooker including a standout Patton solo; Dotty’s Dream contains a carefully crafted tale by premier hard bop trumpet player Blue Mitchell and Steppin’ Out! is a joyful shuffle that more or less functions like one of those typical live ‘farewell’ tunes usually called The Theme and such. You’d expect to hear Vick incite applause from the audience by introducing the musicians on the bandstand any minute.

However, Steppin’ Out! is not a live show but one of the principal organ-sax combo studio releases from the early sixties.