King Queen (pt.1)

Survivor. Last of the Mohicans. Royalty. Alvin Queen signed, sealed and delivered his statements in classic jazz. In part 1 of our interview, the veteran drummer talks about growing up in Mount Vernon, NY, the roots of the black beat, sitting front row at Coltrane’s epic Birdland performance besides ‘mentor’ Elvin Jones at age 13 and finding his way as a young professional with Wild Bill Davis, George Benson and Horace Silver. “We were set up during one of the most beautiful times in music.”

The camera reveals a strong man. Pronounced jaw lines. Plenty muscle. The type that was like a leopard on the court in the hood, dunking methodically and swiftly. The type that carries nephews on his shoulders at the fairground. His body is like his beat. And his beat is very strong. It’s like an unbreakable wheelbarrow. To put extra weight into his words, Alvin Queen regularly bends forward, adding a resolute “okay?!” or “you see?!” He’ll tell you where it’s at, where it’s been and where it should go. A preacher, beyond any doubt. A very generous one, at that. It is impossible to avoid the legendary drummer’s twinkling eyes. They speak of love for his art and trade. They speak of the serious fun of endlessly discussing those. They speak of the giants of jazz of lore.

Alvin Queen oozes classic jazz. At age 73, he looks back upon a spectacular career that gained momentum when he was taken under the wings by Elvin Jones and developed into the to-go-to rhythm pal of Wild Bill Davis, George Benson, Horace Silver, Ray Brown, Harry Sweets Edison, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Kenny Drew and Oscar Peterson, among many others. Queen migrated to Geneva in Switzerland in the 1970’s and started the record label Nilva. A figurehead of the European scene and a middle-aged class act with truckloads of experience, he adopted the new breed and played with the Marsalis Bros, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Mike LeDonne, Eric Alexander, Christian McBride and Jesse Davis.

Those were the days when hand-written letters were something to cherish. Now we have the avatar of Elvis Presley putting another gig in his hip pocket in Las Vegas. People adjusting their blinds with their smart phones while they’re drinking cocktails at a sidewalk café in Malaga, Spain. A world of difference. But no mistaking, Queen has both feet on the ground of the 21st century. Although he is critical of the system that breeds well-intentioned but ignorant young players, he still likes to play with talented young lions, preferably those that deserve wider attention. His latest tribute to Oscar Peterson, Night Train To Copenhagen, features a couple of fine young Danish fellows that fly by the digital highway from the word go. Queen: “My Oscar Peterson tributes did very well. The first one from 2018, O.P., went BOOM to the charts, then Night Train To Copenhagen went BOOM up the charts as well, up to number 3 out of 100 best albums in the USA last year. I am not doing anything out of the ordinary. I’m playing normal music. I can’t change music. Most of the best composers in the world, they’re dead and gone. I’m playing the kind of melodies that people can understand.”

(Tobias Dall, AQ and Calle Brinkman, the Night Train To Copenhagen trio.)

FM: You grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. What was it like?
AQ: “Great. We had after-school programs those days. Every kid had something to join, like a band or a swimming team. I followed the roots of my brother, who played drums. Kids had drumsticks and banged on the sidewalk. I lived in a black neighborhood and there was a lot of exposure to music. You had these little cafés that sold hot sausages and had a jukebox. We would bang on the side of the jukebox. Everybody had some kind of rhythm going on. There was music all up and down the streets. All cafés opened the doors because there was no such thing as air-conditioning. I would sit on the stoop, eat ice cream and listen to the music. Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock. My brother didn’t keep the drums going and I joined the school band. We would do parades. This was about 1958/59. My mother went Christmas shopping down the avenue. There was this store window, Woolworth’s dime store I think it was, and up there was a little kid and a guy who was teaching him drums. I kept looking, thinking, how in the hell can I get up to this guy… one day when my mom is not around… So, one day I did. I was a shoeshine kid with a little box. I went to the illegal skin joints, got a quarter or fifty cents. I went up Fourth Avenue, the guy was Andy Lalino, he had worked with Neil Sedaka. I said, ‘you want a shoe shine?’ Just a nosey kid, you know. ‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘You play drums?’ ‘Yeah’, I said, ‘I’m in the school marching band’. He said: ‘Tell your mother to call me.’ She did and I got lessons for two months. But it was 5 dollars an hour. And my mom was on social service. She was on welfare. I had two brothers and sisters. Money didn’t stretch that far. Lalino said, ‘Miss Queen, he’s a nice kid, I don’t wanna see him go bad in the street. He can stay here, run coffee errands, sweep the floors, I give him his lessons.’

“I grew up with Denzel Washington, the actor. His father was a minister at the church where I went. My grandmother played piano and directed the choir. My father was working the bars as a bar manager. There were about six jazz clubs in one square mile. We weren’t allowed in white areas so much, we had everything in our own neighborhood. One day, in one of those clubs, Jimmy Hill had a gig but something happened to the drummer. Jimmy went to the bar where my father was manager. My father’s nickname was Dead Eye and Jimmy said, ‘Dead Eye, the drummer didn’t show, could we use the kid?’ I was eleven years old! My father said, ‘can you do this, Alvin?’ I said, ‘Dad, if there’s any music that they play that is in your record collection, I can help!’ ‘Ok’, he said, ‘put your suit and necktie on.’ My dad was chaperone. That was the first gig that I played. I knew all the music. At drum school we played along with records of Dinah Washington. Dance music.”

FM: What music did you play that night? Swing?
AQ: No, no. Art Blakey. Chicken ‘n’ Dumplins. The Blue Note stuff. Shuffles were very popular. Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon. We knew all those records by heart because we heard ‘m all the time. All those tunes that guys like Symphony Sid put on air.

FM: How much influence did church and gospel have on you?
AQ: “In the first place, the thing about the black churches was, if you didn’t go to church on Sunday, you couldn’t go out and play on Saturday. Inside the church we had big mamas. Everybody watched each other’s kids. If you played hookie, somebody told your mother or father and they would say, where were you!

“I would see grandmothers play tambourines and how they beat the rhythms. You would see upright basses and a piano player that played on a piano that had broken keys and was out of tune. There was the organ, that was a black thing. All great organ players came out of church. When you see exactly what was happening from gospel, blues, the shuffle rhythm to rock and roll and Little Richard, Tina Turner, The Beatles, you see one pattern. This is the gospel root. The whole thing about it, it’s 6/8 or 12/8, counted in triplets. That is what makes it swing. In school they teach them to play in sixteenth notes but that’s not swinging. I always try to explain to students and everybody, count in triplets and play the ¾. Listen to Gene Harris & The Three Sounds and Lil’ Darlin’ for instance, you’ll hear it. All triplets going on. See where all the accents are falling. It’s how you interpret it. I play all rhythms in one beat. A lot of people want to play with me because they think, that guy has got an ‘older’ right hand. I care about the definition of the beat. That’s what the musicians need. I believe in a solid, sturdy beat.”

FM: Your father regularly took you up to Harlem and the Apollo Theatre. That’s very generous.
AQ: “At that time, black people had process hair. They mixed lye and potato and straightened their hair. Look at Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner. They had to do this once a week or every two weeks. The famous boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, opened a barbershop in Harlem. My father frequented his shop and always said, ‘Alvin, after I have my hair done, we’ll get you a hot dog and see the show’. I saw Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Count Basie, John Coltrane, entertainers as Pigmeat Markum and actors like Red Foxx. They had a Gospel Caravan. Afterwards, we would buy the records across the street at Teddy McRae’s record store. Music was like food.”

FM: You mentioned that you were a shoeshine boy. I read that you shined the shoes of Thelonious Monk. Pretty crazy! How did something like that come about?
AQ: “Yeah, they had Beefsteak Charlie’s at 50th Street and Broadway. I was a kid and listening where these guys hung out. I’d use the shoeshine box again, just like I did in Mount Vernon. Coleman Hawkins hung out there when he was doing studio work in New York. I’d say, ‘you want a shine?’ to Hawkins, Monk, Buck Clayton, Cozy Cole… All those guys worked at the Metropole, which was close by. They would say, ‘hey, young boy, gimme a shine!’. They never pushed you away, they always behaved like decent adults.”

(Birdland, Elvin & Alvin and anonymous shoe shine boy)

FM: You also went to something like the Gretsch Drum Night, right?
AQ: What happened was, the guy that taught me drums in Mount Vernon, he got permission from my mother to take me to a drum show downtown at the Roseland. Elvin Jones was the guest and we got very close. That was in 1962. Then the teacher chaperoned me to the Gretsch Drum Night. They had Red Garland on piano and I think Paul Chambers on bass. Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Mel Lewis and Charli Persip took turns. For some reason, Elvin said, ‘get him up there’… I played and it was the biggest thing they’ve seen, man this kid is playing! Birdland was just across the street. I hung out there and saw Eric Dolphy, Wes Montgomery.”

FM: At Birdland, you saw John Coltrane perform what would be recorded as part of the famous Live At Birdland album in 1963. At the tender age of 13! Please tell me how that came about.
AQ: Yeah, it was my teacher that took me out again. That was the night that Coltrane met his future wife, Alice. There were always two bands playing at Birdland and she was playing with Terry Gibbs. Of course, she was still Alice McLeod then. Anyway, I was sitting at the table with Elvin. He said, with that deep, gritty voice of his, ‘the kid’s got to learn, the kid’s got to learn’. He picked me up and put me up there with Coltrane. I’m making all these sounds. I remember John Coltrane turning around and saying, ‘Elvin, get the kid, man!’ Haha!”

FM: Do you remember what tune you played?
AQ: I don’t remember the tune! I was in a state of shock. It lasted for maybe five or ten minutes. I was young, my hands weren’t that strong as Elvin’s. Elvin put me back at the table. One thing Elvin and Art Blakey always did, they took you right under them, you could watch their feet and see what they were doing.”

FM: So, you were mentored by Elvin after that?
AQ: Off and on. I would follow Elvin around, me and guys like Reginald Golson, that’s Benny’s son, who also was a drummer and died. We stayed at The Peanut Gallery at Birdland. We were allowed to sit there because we were kids. We weren’t allowed at the bar. During breaks musicians would come over. All of them talked with the kids.

FM: Your first professional gigs were with singer Ruth Brown and organist Wild Bill Davis.
AQ: Yes, I don’t even know how I got that gig with Wild Bill. We went to Atlantic City and played at Grace’s Little Belmont club. It was a chicken ‘n’ waffles bar. After that I joined the organ circuit. Everything was organ at the time. They needed drummers all the time. So, you go and hang out in a bar in Harlem. That was how I got in touch with Grant Green and people like that. He would say ‘hey young boy, what are you doing next week?’ ‘Oh, Sir,’ I would say, ‘I’m not doing anything.’ ‘Okay, have your drums ready on Monday at 7:30, we’re going out of town…’. That probably was with John Patton. All organ players had a trailer. I started working with Don Pullen. He is best-known through his work as pianist with Mingus and George Adams but he also played the Hammond organ. I played with him and Ruth Brown. Then I played with guitarist Tiny Grimes at Sue’s Rendezvous at 115th Street. You don’t even know who they really are, you’re just making gigs.”

(Elvin Jones, George Benson and Horace Silver)

FM: You also played with George Benson around that time.
AQ: Yes, he was with Ronnie Cuber and Lonnie Smith. George sang a lot in the car, but he wasn’t a singer yet. I remember that we went to Buffalo one time. There was a snowstorm and so we were snowed in. We were playing the Beemose club but there weren’t any people. Nobody. ‘Who you’re playing for?’ said the owner. ‘Man,’ I said, ‘I want my money.’ ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘cool it, have a drink…’. Then B.B. King came in with two young ladies. He also had a gig and was snowed in as well. He said to George, ‘George, if you change up your style a little bit, you’ll probably be successful.’ That’s when he came up with Breezin’, the big hit.’

FM: At the same time, you joined Horace Silver. How did that come about?
AQ: I auditioned and got a call from Horace Silver in September 1969. I had to have a suit, went to a pawnshop on 8th Avenue, purchased two cases for the drums and joined the union. I had to have a cabaret license. Me and Tony Williams, we were young and always had trouble with police cards and fingerprints. Union delegates would come and check, we couldn’t play with any name bands a lot of the time. At that time, Horace had Bennie Maupin on saxophone, Randy Brecker on trumpet and John Williams on bass. Silver would take a vacation each year, I was with him for nine months and would do the other three months with George Benson. That’s how it worked.”

Next time, part 2, Alvin Queen talks about his reconnecting with Silver in the 1970’s, his migration to Switzerland and pivotal role as drummer with the elderly jazz legends and explains the difference between classic and contemporary jazz…

Alvin Queen


Oscar Peterson: “Alvin is one of the best drummers that I ever shared the stage with. He has a great sound and time feel. He plays with fire and I really love it.”

Elvin Jones: “Alvin has something that I don’t have and will never have: precision. I love him!”

Pierre Boussaguet: “Alvin’s backbeat is unique in this world and when he plays a ballad, you hear each time clear and wide. Amazing.”

Benny Carter: “Alvin knows exactly what to give to every musician in the band to play at their best. I love him.”

Butch Miles: “I wish I could have Alvin’s chops! He’s so fabulous!”

Calle Brickman: “Apart from his amazing musicianship that I listened to on records throughout my life, Alvin is also a great person. He is happy to share his views on music and life, which is the way jazz tradition has been brought through the generations. A true friend and a historic figure in jazz.”

Selected Discography:

As a leader:
In Europe (Nilva 1980)
Ashanti (Nilva 1981)
Lenox & Seventh (with Lonnie Smith – Black & Blue 1985)
I’m Back (Nilva 1992)
Nishville (Moju 1998)
Hear Me Drummin’ To Ya! (Jazzette 2000)
This Is Uncle Al (with Jesper Thilo – Music Mecca 2001)
I Ain’t Looking At You (Justin Time 2005)
O.P. (Stunt 2018)
Night Train To Copenhagen (Stunt 2021)

As a sideman:
Charles Tolliver, Impact (Strata-East 1975)
Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Jaw’s Blues (Enja 1981)
John Patton, Soul Connection (Nilva 1983)
Guy Lafitte/Wild Bill Davis, Three Men On A Beat (Black & Blue 1983)
Pharaoh Sanders, A Prayer Before Dawn (Evidence 1987)
Tete Montoliu, Barcelona Meeting (Fresh Sound 1988)
Kenny Drew Trio, Standard Request: Live At Keystone Corner (Alfa 1991)
George Coleman, At Yoshi’s (Evidence 1992)
Pierre Boussaguet, Trio Charme (EmArcy 1998)
Cedric Caillaud Trio, Swinging The Count (Fresh Sound 2012)

Check out Alvin’s website here.

The Pepper-Knepper Quintet The Pepper-Knepper Quintet (MetroJazz 1958)

The legacy of the short-lived group of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and trombonist Jimmy Knepper consists of one excellent hard bop album, The Pepper-Knepper Quintet.

The Pepper-Knepper Quintet - The Pepper-Knepper Quintet


Pepper Adams (baritone saxophone), Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Wynton Kelly (piano, organ B2), Reggie Workman (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)


on March 25, 1958 at Beltone Studios, New York City


as MetroJazz E1004 in 1958

Track listing

Side A:
Minor Catastrophe
All Too Soon
Adams In The Apple
Side B:
Riverside Drive
I Didn’t Know About You
Primrose Path

First of all, the album title sounds great: The Pepper-Knepper Quintet. Doesn’t it? Let it roll on your tongue: The Pepper-Knepper Quintet….

Most importantly, this group, also consisting of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones, swings its set of hard bop to the ground, adding to it a couple of fine original tunes. Adams and Knepper parted ways soon after they joined forces in 1958. However, Adams held on to the rhythm tandem of Doug Watkins and Elvin Jones, added pianist Bobby Timmons and formed a frontline with trumpeter Donald Byrd, the outfit that recorded the top-notch live album 10 To 4 At The Five Spot a month after this session in April, 1958.

Nobody like Pepper Adams, descendant of bop bari greats Leo Parker, Serge Chaloff, king of hard bop baritone sax playing. Little man with big lungs, Adams barks like a hounddog, wails with balanced fury and is a meaty and lyrical balladeer of note. The valves rattle, meat and potatoes is his favorite dish, backrooms laced with red velvet his natural habitat… Pepper Adams strikes a perfect balance between sleaze and purity.

Knepper is part of the same generation, class act trombonist that played with Woody Herman, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Most notably, he was part of Charles Mingus’s group from 1957 to 1961 and was featured on classic albums such as Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Ah Um. Ample reason to ah um. Bad-tempered Mingus punched Knepper in the face while rehearsing in the bassist’s apartment in New York City and broke his teeth. As a result, the embouchure of Knepper was altered, he couldn’t reach the upper octave for two years straight.

It was not the only altercation between Mingus and band members. One wonders how in the world our brilliant but nasty composer Mingus succeeded in recruiting first-rate musical staff time and again. What’s more, Knepper even returned for a stint with Mingus in 1978 and was part of the posthumous Mingus Dynasty band from 1979 to 1988. His teeth ok and Mingus k.o., this attitude succinctly points out Knepper’s uncompromising love and devotion for their mutual form of art.

The minor-keyed Adams In The Apple by Jimmy Knepper and the thoughtful melody and interesting harmony of Riverside Drive by Leonard Feather (Feather was the producer of this session) is fertile ground for the vigorous blowing of Adams and Knepper. Beaubien by Pepper Adams is a catchy blues riff. The beat, wonderful old-school drumming by Elvin Jones, is derived from jump blues and similar to the traditional tune of Hastings Street Bounce from 10 To 4 At The Five Spot. Most impressive is Wynton Kelly, master of mixing elegance with the down-home aesthetic of the juke joint. Kelly furthermore embellishes the Ellington ballad I Didn’t Know About You with orchestral accompaniment on the organ.

Primrose Path by Jimmy Knepper is the ear-catching climax of the solid The Pepper-Knepper Quintet. Like paragliders in the Alps, Adams, Knepper and Kelly navigate expertly and with hot swing through the breeze of the elongated, pretty melody, which subsequently changes keys during the secondary theme. Knepper revisited the tune on his 1980 album on the Scottish Hep label, Primose Path. Best tunes are – ask Monk – the ones that deserve refreshing readings.

Wayne Shorter Night Dreamer (Blue Note 1964)

After all these years, the dark-hued adventures of Wayne Shorter on Blue Note have lost nothing of their mysterious charm.

Wayne Shorter - Night Dreamer


Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), Lee Morgan (trumpet), McCoy Tyner (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)


on April 29, 1964 at Rudy van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as BLP 4173 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
Night Dreamer
Oriental Folk Song
Side B:
Black Nile
Charchoal Blues

Dutch bassist and jazz scholar Hans Mantel once asked Wayne Shorter if he was conscious of creating stone-cold classic albums on Blue Note in the sixties. The tenor and soprano saxophonist’s answer was: ‘What you young cats must realize is, is that we made our records to pay our rent!’

Gold coins from the Byzantine period fade into insignificance compared with the run of Blue Note platters by Wayne Shorter. The tenor and soprano saxophonist, best known by the general public for his role in the Second Great Quintet of Miles Davis and fusion group Weather Report, still going strong today as ‘the greatest living jazz composer’, started off his stretch on Blue Note as a leader with Night Dreamer in 1964. It preceded the perennial favorites and classic albums Juju and Speak No Evil.

Significantly, Shorter’s debuting run of albums on VeeJay in the late fifties and early sixties consisted almost solely of original compositions. As part of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers from 1959-64, Shorter also contributed a slew of fresh, exciting tunes. Furthermore, the Newark, New Jersey-born saxophonist showed his prowess as an original tenor man. As the years went by in the acclaimed and propulsive Blakey outfit, Shorter’s solo’s grew more explorative and explosive. His roaring tale during the rousing modal Shorter composition Free For All is plain crazy. A raid of hand granates kicked back by Blakey in equally tempestuous fashion. Shorter carried over that vibe to Night Dreamer, drawing on the energy of another legendary drummer, Elvin Jones. He stretches his limits song-wise, presenting a set of haunting compositions that are unusually structured but nevertheless flow effortlessly like the meandering side branches of the Euphrates or Tigris.

Where to begin? Any song writer would’ve been happy to deliver the moody melodies of Oriental Folk Song and Virgo. However, the key pieces are Night Dreamer, Black Nile and Armageddon. The whole package – structure, mood, energy, interaction – is perfectly balanced, like an essential performance of a Mozart symphony, with the remarkable difference, the ultimate feat that distinguished jazz from any other music form, that the core of Night Dreamer is spontaneous improvisation.

The album features trumpeter Lee Morgan, Shorter’s frontline partner of The Jazz Messengers, bassist Reggie Workman and the powerhouse duo that was part of the epic John Coltrane Quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Masterclass of depth and hard swing guaranteed. The pushing and pulling of the beat and wide open spaces of Elvin Jones and the extravagant and tasteful piano excursions of McCoy Tyner cannot fail to be a stimulus to original reed and brass players like Shorter and Morgan. Shorter is a dark prince lurking in the shadows, occasionally darting out of the corner, growling ominously, reciting ancient poetry, the stanzas streaming out of his mouth like wine from a bottle: enigma. Morgan is the florid touch, hard bop royalty, weaving in and out of modal spheres fluently, shooting multiple straight arrows, cocky and convincing: brilliant sleaze. He’s the uplifting opposite of Shorter, who is a demon driving away demons.

Shorter’s sound may not be as characteristic as the tone of great contemporaries or past masters but his compositions never cease to amaze. The nocturnal Night Dreamer hinges on the subtle balance of relative chordal simplicity and depth of feeling and the suave and surprising storytelling by Shorter. The relentless drive is one of many striking aspects of the modal cooker Black Nile. The long, beautiful lines of Armageddon contrast with the booming in-your-face rhythm, the furious rolls and switch of polyrhythm to explosive shuffle groove by Elvin Jones. Expressiveness is the focus of a composition with a minimum of subtly moving chords. Shorter and Morgan rise to the occasion.

The mood nocturnal, with a sense of foreboding and inner turmoil that’s crystallized in a curious state of serenity, Night Dreamer is akin to Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles and Andrew Hill’s Judgement. The avant-leaning catalogue of Blue Note, that daring mid-sixties series of albums from Shorter, Hancock, Hill, McLean and Hutcherson that require repeated listening. Label boss Alfred Lion gave his roster of adventurous talents free reign, very insightful from the legendary independent record executive. To boot, Lion even paid for rehearsal time. And so, in a way, for the rent of the Shorter family’s apartment somewhere deep in the bowels of The Big Apple.

Julian Priester Keep Swinging (Jazzland 1960)

No either/or for trombonist Julian Priester, who switches smoothly from avant-garde and fusion to hard bop, and back. His 1960 debut album on Riverside, Keep Swingin’, fits neatly in the latter category.

Julian Priester - Keep Swinging


Julian Priester (trombone), Jimmy Heath (tenor saxophone), Tommy Flanagan (piano), Sam Jones (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)


on January 11, 1960 at Plaza Sound Studio, New York City


as RLP 12-316 in 1960

Track listing

Side A:
24-hour leave
The End
Just Friends
Side B:
Bob T’s Blues
Under The Surface
Once In A While
Julian’s Tune

Here’s an open-minded gentleman who isn’t satisfied to keep playing in the same bag for the rest of his days. In high demand by stalwarts of modern jazz, Priester played and recorded with Max Roach, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, Blue Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Booker Little, Clifford Jordan, Stanley Turrentine and McCoy Tyner. Then too he was part of Sun Ra’s orchestra on and off from 1956 to 1995. In the early 70s, Priester held the trombone chair in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. One year – 1969 – Priester was featured on organist Lonnie Smith’s The Turning Point, the other – 1970 – he joined the experimental Mwhandishi band of Herbie Hancock for three years. Priester cooperated with Charlie Haden, Eddie Henderson, Dave Holland and Anthony Braxton. Yet, his teenage years in Chicago, where Priester was born in 1935, were spent on stage with blues and r&b legends as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Well, avant-garde doesn’t mean anything if it at least has a semblance of the roots, right? Right. Discussion forum’s open. Draft or bottle?

One can imagine what attracted Duke Ellington to Julian Priester. Priester is skilled in the modern approach of pioneer J.J. Johnson, not a specialist of certain techniques like the earlier Ellington trombonists, but his sound is tart and joyful. His fluent lines have sustained swing and his phrases have built-in blues feeling. In 1960, while he was part of Max Roach’s group, Priester set himself in the limelight with two releases. Generally, Spiritsville is the album that gets the attention on the world wide jazz web. It’s a fine album that boasts the challenging tune Excursion and a great ballad reading by Priester of It Might As Well Be Spring. However, it’s weird that Keep Swingin’ is largely ignored.

There’s swing and then there’s swing. Spiritsville, with McCoy Tyner, Sam Jones and Art Taylor in tow, has no lack of it. Yet I feel that, somehow, the juices aren’t really flowing, the spirit is held in check by God knows what. Something between the devil and the deep blue Hudson River. Keep Swingin’ may not be a classic session, but it has the edge on Spiritsville.

The line-up includes tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Elvin Jones. The stars stood in the right spot, the time was right, the guys were in sync, in a happy mood, comfortable. The Detroit cats, Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan, were cracking jokes, is what one is liable to imagine. Because the mood is right. The session is relaxed yet urgent. There are a number of blues-based tunes like Heath’s 24-Hour Leave, Priester’s Bob T’s Blues, bop-inflected tunes like Priester’s The End, Under The Surface, Charles Davis’ 1239A, the standard Just Friends and the Edwards/Greene ballad Once In A While. Bob T’s Blues is a low-down mean slow blues.

Priester’s in-your-face handling of the Just Friends melody after the solos, coupled with his booming sound, is a gas. Jimmy Heath is fiery and gutsy. Flanagan is sprightly as spring water. His lines, full of ideas, move so effortlessly! Sam Jones and Elvin Jones are tight-knit and greasy, Elvin Jones is on top, teasing Sam like (although they’re not related) the older brother throwing curve balls to the kid brother with a bat that’s too big for comfort. They’re like a steam locomotive that, if asked for, could keep running from here to eternity, and back. Priester is at the wheel, smiling.

Julian Priester lives in New York City, where he plays and teaches.

Listen to Keep Swinging’ and Spiritsville back to back on Spotify below.

Thad Jones The Magnificent Thad Jones (Blue Note 1956)

Hackensack magic on The Magnificent Thad Jones, the trumpeter’s most celebrated early career outing.

Thad Jones - The Magnificent Thad Jones


Thad Jones (trumpet), Billy Mitchell (tenor saxophone), Barry Harris (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Max Roach (drums)


on July 9 & 14, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey


as BLP 1527 in 1956

Track listing

Side A:
April In Paris
If I Love Again
Side B:
If Someone Had Told Me

The year 1956, hard bop has been gathering substantial steam for a few years now. The Magnificent Thad Jones is on some level affected also by the fresh extensions of modern jazz that Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey introduced. The album’s harmonic textures run along bop’s course, it includes bop-inflected phrasing, particularly by tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell and pianist Barry Harris. However, the stress is on bouncy mid-tempos typical for hard bop instead of fast, familiar bop tempos, the mood is relaxed but vivacious and Jones introduces clever writing with one of two original compositions, the blues-based Billy-Boo and, especially, Thedia. Two seldom played standards, Murray/Oakland’s If I Love Again and DeRose/Tobias’ If Someone Had Told Me, alternate with the well-known, beautiful melody, April In Paris.

It is often said that talented musicians that hailed from the same city and have come to try and conquer the jazz capital of the world, New York, often had a special rapport as a result of their mutual background. Perhaps it is still like that today. Assisted by Percy Heath from Philadelphia and Max Roach from New York, the three remaining Detroit-raised guys, Harris, Mitchell and the leader, Thad Jones, indeed gel particularly well. Harris, by then already a long-time devoted bop pianist with an encyclopedian knowledge of Monk, Powell and standard melodies, and a mentor to John Coltrane, Charles McPherson, among others, is the personification of glue, his resonant harmonies and concise tales provide refined support and sparkle. Max Roach, VIP bop veteran, incubator of the finest hard bop with Clifford Brown, balances fervent and delicate swing. His alert, melodic ear is virtually unparalleled. During the ensembles, the full, punchy sound of tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell blends well with the happy-blues-sounds of Jones, and Mitchell regularly chimes in with short, resonant, smoky statements.

To get you into this place where time stands still. Not a place that’s safe from the outside troubles, but perhaps instead a state wherein you chew on them, let them heat like hotcakes on a stove, live through them, to come out of them somehow cleansed. If that is the purpose of good jazz, April In Paris, the opening track of Thad Jones’ The Magnificent Thad Jones, is a winner. And winner takes all. There’s a loping gait to the standard of Vernon Duke and Edgar Harburg that’s exquisite, courtesy of the precise flow of bassist Percy Heath, the lush backing of pianist Barry Harris and the conversational coloring of Roach, who drives this band home with sensitive hi-hat and crystalline ride cymbal drumming.

And courtesy definitely of Thad Jones. If a diamond could blow, it would probably sound like Thad Jones on his second album for the Blue Note label. Moreover, the moving story of the trumpeter and future bandleader of the renowned Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra is a poignant amalgam of ideas strung together from series of keenly divided notes, the silence between them functioning as the apex of improvisational flow and coherence. It’s a story that runs over several choruses, and Jones keeps it simultaneously relaxed and intense, on a constant high level. His solo of Thedia, a beautiful, boppish, elongated line is longer still and an example of taste and sustained energy.

There’s something special about the trumpet sounds that Van Gelder recorded in Hackensack, New Jersey. Jones has become one of those angels blowing from the upper celestial plateau, the tone full and sensual like a female body on a Rubens painting, juicy like the flesh of the blissful orange, a perfect blend of sweet and sour. Yes, Charles Mingus said that Rudy van Gelder messed up everybody’s sound, depersonalized it through his innovative but all too strict methods. It’s a valid statement. But did Mingus mean it? This comes from a bandleader who told every sax player he worked with not to play like Charlie Parker. Yet Charles McPherson, a singular player yet more firmly steeped in the Parker tradition than most of his colleagues, played longer than anybody in the Mingus band except for drummer Danny Richmond. Regardless, the sound of ‘RVG horns’ and in this case, Thad Jones, is fantastic. The overall production is bliss. The execution, focus and mellow drive of the quintet are exceptional. The Magnificent Thad Jones is a perennial favorite for lovers of classic mainstream jazz and will undoubtedly attract newcomers for years to come.

McCoy Tyner Today And Tomorrow (Impulse 1964)

McCoy Tyner picked Brother Elvin and a bunch of interesting, first-class colleagues for his fourth album as a leader, Today And Tomorrow, arguably his most varied Impulse recording.

McCoy Tyner - Today And Tomorrow


McCoy Tyner (piano), Thad Jones (trumpet A1, A3, B2), John Gilmore (tenor saxophone A1, A3, B2), Frank Strozier (alto saxophone A1, A3, B2), Butch Warren (bass A1, A3, B2), Jimmy Garrison (A2, B1, B3), Elvin Jones (drums A1, A3, B2), Albert Heath (drums A2, B1, B3)


on June 3, 1963 (A2, B1, B3) and Februari 4, 1964 (A1, A3, B2) at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as Impulse A-63 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
Contemporary Focus
Night In Tunesia
T ‘N’ A Blues
Side B:
Autumn Leaves
Three Flowers
When Sunny Gets Blue

Perhaps The Real McCoy is pianist McCoy Tyner’s greatest achievement as a leader. The Blue Note album, released in 1967, certainly is a perennial favorite for many fans and musicians alike. On a series of inventive and ‘meaningfully simple’ modal pieces, Tyner’s whirlwind style was totally synced with the interaction between Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. The album’s emotional directness goes straight to the gut. It’s got that something. However, the discography of Tyner is filled with hi-level gems. For all their boisterous dips into scales and dynamic voicings, most of them in fact have a conservative touch, as if the pianist took a breather from the intense wrestling match with Coltrane, whose famous quartet Tyner was part of from 1960 to 1965. Titles like Plays Ellington and Nights Of Ballads And Blues offer evident clues. Obviously, Today And Tomorrow, Tyner’s fourth album on Impulse, also finds Tyner realizing his indebtedness to the tradition. At the same time, the pianist revels in his ongoing search for new lands.

The album is divided between tunes with a trio and sextet line-up. The trio includes drummer Albert Heath, the sextet Elvin Jones, his friend from the Coltrane group. Tyner and Jones lock tight, the interaction of Tyner’s hefty voicings and the pushing-and-pulling rhythm of Jones on the modal blast Contemporay Focus is unbelievable. Contemporary Focus comes close to the energy of, say, Coltrane’s Crescent or Art Blakey’s Free For All. How’s that for spirit? The sidemen on Contemporary Focus, T ‘N’ A Blues and Three Flowers, the latter a beautiful melody that dances like a surfer on the waves of Butch Warren’s waltz figure and the contrasting polyrhythm of Elvin Jones, are Thad Jones, John Gilmore and Frank Strozier. Differing textures mingle, each one, Thad Jones’ snappy, balanced trumpet playing, John Gilmore’s soothing and refreshing mix of blues and space oddities, and Frank Strozier’s fervent twists and turns on the alto, equally distinct.

Whether in small or larger ensembles, McCoy is McCoy, all colorful strokes like Van Gogh high on absinthe. Underlined by a dense chordal labyrinth, his rather otherworldly technique creates patterns resembling the running of water, his right hand lines high on the keyboard flowing like cool water that splashes and gurgles its way through the narrow channels of a rocky river, and develops into cascading waterfalls before you can say ‘awesome’. Too much? Can’t breathe? Not taking away anything from Tyner’s unmatched gift, I can imagine. It may just be me. Regardless, there’s a balance of flamboyance and romance in McCoy Tyner’s playing that will intrigue listeners till kingdom come.

Of the trio recordings, Night In Tunesia stands out. Albert Heath’s brush playing is meaty, swift, rivaling the unforgettable mastery that Elvin Jones regularly displayed, notably on Tommy Flanagan’s Overseas. You can see Tootie sitting behind the kit, body erect, arms slightly moving along with the swift wrist that is doing the job so expertly. Today And Tomorrow is a masterclass in musical excellence, intense stuff. A rather indistinct title but a major league McCoy Tyner album.

Benny Green Soul Stirrin’ (Blue Note 1599)

Of the invariably soulful albums from trombonist Benny Green, Soul Stirrin’, with the heavyweight line up of Gene Ammons, Billy Root, Sonny Clark and Elvin Jones, is arguably his finest effort.

Benny Green - Soul Stirrin'


Benny Green (trombone), Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), Billy Root (tenor saxophone), Sonny Clark (piano), Ike Isaacs (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), Babs Gonzalez (vocals A1, A2,)


on April 28, 1958 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey


as BLP 1599 in 1958

Track listing

Side A:
The Cooker
Benny’s Back
Bossa Rocka
All Of Me
Big Fat Lady
Side B:
Benson’s Rider
Ready And Able
The Borgia Stick
Return Of The Prodigal Son
Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid

Benny Green is like that friendly uncle who always takes you aside at a family gathering, stuffing a couple of bucks into your pocket, ‘here kid, go buy yourself some candy.’ Green’s playing is accessible, uplifting, his phrases smack of smoke-filled back rooms, where burly whisky drinkers throw dirty jokes to the other end of the card table. His altogether very deft, modern style retains a lurid sense of old-timey swing, which places him at the other end of the spectrum opposite pioneer J.J. Johnson. His tone is tart, a lovely blast of fresh air.

By 1958, Green’s experience consisted of a decade spent in the bands of Earl Hines and Charlie Ventura. He had worked and recorded with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Criss, Hank Mobley and Randy Weston. Green was up for his second Blue Note album, following Back On The Scene and a slew of releases on Prestige onwards from 1951.

Not only did Green have aboard Ammons, Root, Clark, bassist Ike Isaacs and Jones, the bop poet and songwriter Babs Gonzalez also put his best foot forward, providing two melodies. Throughout the album, there are ample examples that justify the title. It’s a spirited, blues-drenched affair. There’s the sparse, precise riffing behind the soloists in We Wanna Cook, an uptempo, twelve-bar blues swinger, reminiscent of the Count Basie cookers, and also marked by Papa Jo Jones-style drumming by Elvin Jones. The same procedures – saxes spurring on trombone – mark the title track, absolutely the best tune of the album, a heated Blues March-type groove, albeit a bit slower. Babs Gonzalez hums the melody, the soloists take off, Gene Ammons especially commanding, on top of his game, blowing long wailing notes, coupled with sparse, melodic bop figures, a wall of sound from The Boss.

Gonzalez’ Lullaby Of The Doomed, Round Midnight-ish, is a breather. B.G. Mambo’s fat-bottomed theme jumps and jives, but turns into a rather pedestrian, straightforward 4/4 rhythm. Sonny Clark’s introspective side comes to the fore in Lullaby, his accompaniment on the album is spicy, he turns a beat here, injects a persuasive bass note further away from the sequence there, continuing to hold momentum all the way. Perhaps the mutual understanding of Green, Ammons and Root, who played together earlier in their careers, contribute to the album’s coherent soul groove. Billy Root, rather the mystery man of this set, a great, hard-swinging player, had a more imposing career than most people probably realize, most of the time spent as a sideman. He played with John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Stan Kenton, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Check out an enlightening interview of the candid Root with guest writer Gordon Jack on the great Jazz Profiles website of Steven Cerra here.

When listening to Black Pearl, you will notice that it closely resembles Black Pearls – with the added ‘s’ – from John Coltrane’s album Black Pearls. Soul Stirrin’ was recorded on April 28, 1958. Black Pearls – released as a profitable afterthought by Prestige in 1964 when Coltrane had long since moved to Atlantic and Impulse – is recorded on May 23, 1958. So Bennie beat ‘Trane to a month. The liner notes to Soul Stirrin’ say: ‘The program is completed with Black Pearl penned by sax man Bill Graham.’ However, Coltrane’s album credits not Graham but John Coltrane as composer. Did Coltrane nick a tune? Aficionados on the in-depth Organissimo website suggested that Graham’s credit got lost, it was then registered as unknown, and subsequently assigned to Coltrane. Apparently, Coltrane remembered the nice melody, picking it for that wonderful session with Donald Byrd, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. Organissimo adds the fact that the tune is registered to Graham in The Coltrane Reference, the Bible of Coltrane facts. Recognition after all for Bill Graham, born 1918, a relatively unknown saxophonist who warrants more than a few words in another time and place. To be sure, Black Pearl is another one of the tunes making sure Soul Stirrin’s a keeper.