Monday, January 11, 2010


Okay, this is something of a confession for an erudite, sophisticated jazz listener such as myself. I have a weakness for Jazz At the Philharmonic. Norman Granz's jazz roadshow of that name was sometimes characterized by playing that could be described as "lowest common denominator" jazz. The saxophones often squealed and honked, the trumpet battled to see who could play who could play higher, and the drummers bashed and banged. The audiences responded with cheers worthy of a Mussolini rally. But a quick count shows that I have 11 LPs of JATP material, along with several concerts on CD and even some 78s, including Jazz At the Philharmonic, Volume One. Why?

Norman Granz began presenting jazz concerts in Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles in 1944. He started recording the shows almost from the beginning, and was so taken with the spirit of the music from a February 12, 1945 concert that he started shopping it around to record companies. All the major labels were horrified - the tunes were too long and sloppy, and the audience was too loud. But the small folk label Asch was interested, and released "How High the Moon" and "Lady Be Good" on three twelve-inch 78s. The music set the pattern for the dozens of JATP recordings that followed. The concert series soon hit the road, playing all over the United States and Europe, producing album after album, and keeping the Jazz At the Philharmonic name no matter where the performance was. By the turn of the 1950s, JATP shows generally consisted of two or three short sets featuring individual performers or established groups, and always ended with a long "jam session" set.

The saxophonists at that 1945 concert (Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Ventura, and Willie Smith) played in typical JATP fashion - each started his solos tastefully, but got more and more obvious, repetitive, and even hysterical. Jacquet and Flip Phillips, who played in many JATP shows, were famous for this kind of over-the-top improvising. Other saxophonists, though, played with Granz's troupe without pandering or compromising. Charlie Parker shows up on recordings from 1946 and 1949, and plays superbly, although it is disconcerting to hear lesser saxophonists get more applause for honking low C's. Coleman Hawkins made frequent appearances from 1946 on, and was never anything but his sophisticated, harmonically acute self. Lester Young was able to find a middle ground in his JATP showings. Honks and repeated notes were part of style anyway, although handled with more subtlety than by Jacquet and Phillips, and he was able to be himself while still appealing strongly to the audiences. Benny Carter usually exhibited his unruffled, urbane style, but during the Carnegie Hall concert of September 13, 1952, goes nuts a little bit, seemingly mocking the "JATP style" of saxophonics.

Charlie Parker's first recorded JATP appearance is somewhat legendary. He arrived late to the January 28, 1946 show at the Philharmonic in L.A. His playing was wild, sloppy, and brilliant; the three choruses he played on "Lady Be Good" were bluesy, inspired, and widely influential. When Bird stepped back from the microphone after this solo, none of the other horn players wanted to follow him, so the next solo was one of the rare bass solos in JATP history. While bassist Billy Hadnott played, the horns huddled and decided that Lester Young was best equipped to play something that wouldn't be totally eclipsed by Bird's solo; Prez reluctantly walked to the mic and played a solo which was indeed quite beautiful.

That's one reason I enjoy JATP recordings so much. As with any improvised music, moments of surprising beauty can occur at any time. A few days ago, I was listening to the JATP performance of "Mordido" from 1947. (The big blockbuster tune from that concert was "Perdido," so Granz named a couple of the other jam session tunes "Mordido" and "Endido.") I have the original issue of "Mordido," spread across six 78 sides. And, until the fifth side, it was all so hokey that I had just about decided to ditch these records. But then came the piano solo by Hank Jones, and it was just gorgeous - totally unlike any of the histrionics that had gone before. Needless to say, I kept the records.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. I don't just love JATP for the sublime moments. At times (like "Mordido"), the louder-and-higher atmosphere gets to be too much. But, warts and all, Jazz At the Philharmonic is a lot of fun. A JATP concert is usually more like comfort food than fine cuisine, but hey, sometimes I want a hot dog and fries.

My favorite JATP recordings (and I certainly haven't heard them all) include the 1946 concert with Charlie Parker and Lester Young described above, as well as the September 18, 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert that also features Bird and Prez. There's a great LP, issued in 1983, called The Coleman Hawkins Set; it collects three of Hawkins' feature sets, from 1949, 1950, and 1957. I'm partial to the November 21, 1960 Stockholm concert which resulted in four LPs; it has the only recorded instance of Benny Carter and Cannonball Adderley sharing a stage, as well as excellent playing by Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Don Byas, and others. But the best extant JATP recording, in my opinion, is from Carnegie Hall, November 2, 1949, although it was not released until 2002. Both Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins are on hand, as is Hank Jones and the great Fats Navarro on trumpet. The drummer is Shelly Manne, whose playing is tasteful and swinging - a nice change from the volume and showmanship of frequent JATP participant Buddy Rich. There are a few lesser lights on this recording, but no matter - there is plenty of inspired playing here. Parker, Hawkins, and Navarro are at their best.

One or two Jazz At the Philharmonic concerts would be plenty for most jazz fans. But you might end up, like me, needing a regular dose of the jazz comfort food that is JATP.

Thanks to blogger King Ubu for clearing up some of the discographical mysteries concerning JATP, Volume One.

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