Singing sensation Gregory Porter has come a long way since the UK release of his debut album, Water, in 2011 and his first ever worldwide front cover in Jazzwise in March 2012. Now one of the hottest tickets in jazz, the vocalist has exchanged intimate clubs for concert halls, signed to Blue Note with platinum-selling success and bagged a Grammy, all without ever losing sight of the salience of his message. With the release of his lastest long-player, Take Me To The Alley, the gregarious singer speaks to Kevin Le Gendre about how he’s come to terms with this upsurge in his fortunes by staying true to his roots and how the deep inequalities that continue to divide society affect him and his music. You can also listen to Jazzwise's Gregory Porter Influences – Jazz, Soul, Gospel and Grit playlist on Apple Music
Located in the part of central London immortalised by the Bohemian literary set beloved of BBC drama writers, The Bloomsbury is a grand hotel whose strikingly ornamental lobby alone would make a film crew swoon. The uniformed doormen could be the leaders of a male grooming campaign while the well heeled, largely middle-aged clientele look as if they are used to the sight of the inordinately long chaise longues and chandeliers bright enough to illuminate designer labels at a distance.
A Travelodge is within walking distance. It is more than a world away.
This is a very different setting to that of my first encounter with Gregory Porter. Five years ago, when the 44 year-old American singer ghosted in to Britain for his debut gig at the Pizza Express, he slept in the spare room of the west London flat of his manager’s friend.
There was no waiter to serve him cocktails. There were no slabs of Italian marble decorating the bathroom. There were expenses spared. “Yeah, I didn’t even have a hotel back then,” Porter chuckles. “Man, that place was cold. That’s one thing I do remember. But yeah, that was another time.” Indeed the Californian-born, Brooklyn-based singer was then an unknown quantity, with his auspicious debut Water yet to break in the UK.
Since then he has become one of the biggest new names in jazz, and, perhaps more importantly, the artist who may now be on the radar of listeners outside of the music, a scenario given credence by the huge audience Porter reached through his collaboration with electronic dance act Disclosure. Their 2015 summer anthem ‘Holding On’ took Porter literally and figuratively to the lucrative Ibiza club crowd.
That commercial juggernaut outstripped other vehicles on Porter’s road to success that were nonetheless noteworthy. His gospel-infused baritone was majestic on 2012’s Be Good, where he invigorated a classic acoustic soul jazz template with social commentary as well as affairs of the heart, and the momentum garnered by international tours saw him upgrade from Motéma records to Blue Note (now owned by Universal) as he outgrew the Pizza Express to headline at the Royal Albert Hall.
Porter orders a gin and tonic in the elegantly lit bar of The Bloomsbury, and we settle to discuss Take Me To The Alley, the successor to 2013’s platinum-certified Liquid Spirit, a record that has come to embody his substantial change of circumstances. Has this upturn in fortunes brought additional pressure from either himself or his record label?
“No, not for me,” he says sipping his drink. “And I don’t mean to be flippant about the whole thing, but I can only be me. And in this entertainment environment people can change their likes just like that, and another big voice from America or elsewhere can soon replace me. Ultimately, music saves me, and even if Liquid Spirit had sold modestly, say 10,000, I’d still be doing this and I think this new record would have turned out the same way,” Porter asserts. “It sold a million and a half and that still doesn’t move me one way or another. I’m concerned about the integrity of me over the art, over jazz, soul, gospel or whatever genre they wanna put me in. I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me.”
Speaking in measured tones, his voice deeply resonant without the aid of a microphone, Porter does not come across as disingenuous. Materially, there has been a change since that first interview. He still has his trademark ‘wraparound’ cap, but the baggy fleece and jeans have been swapped for a well-cut grey suit and smart white shirt. There is a decided lack of pretense in his overall manner. When we relocate to the lobby because of the disruption caused by a saxophonist warming up for a dinnertime set, Porter doesn’t show dissent at the disturbance and coolly strides to our new surroundings.
“I still consider myself a jazz singer, but beyond genre, tempo or anything I’m thinking what is it I want to sing? Whether it’s brilliant or stupid I want it to be me”
Take Me To The Alley is for the most part a downtempo offering where love songs take pride of place. While ‘Fan The Flames’ is a rousing resistance anthem that chimes loosely with Water’s signature piece ‘1960 What?’ there are revealing personal tales on which Porter lays bare both past and present preoccupations, such as the Kardashian-era social media excesses of ‘In Fashion’ – “This type of obsession was frowned upon where you drove past people’s houses 15 times a day to find out what they’re wearing. It’s acceptable now, you check on somebody a hundred times a day” – and several examinations of relationships, notably the sharply poignant ‘Consequence Of Love.’
However, the piece that is arguably the most interesting for its choice of personnel is the title track, a fine duet with the singer Alicia Olatuja, wife of the excellent New York-based British bassist Michael, last seen on these shores with Joe Lovano. Olatuja’s voice blends gorgeously with Porter’s, but all technical considerations aside, it is a left-field move. Given his status, a more high-profile guest, certainly from the Universal stable such as Melody Gardot or Lizz Wright, could have been expected.
“I really wanted someone who was gonna be sensitive to my tone and phrasing and somebody who is their own musician. She was like ‘I get you’, so after meeting we just started to harmonise in the next 10 minutes and the tone matched,” says Porter, also bigging up his horn and rhythm section before pausing to tell the waiter he can’t take a call at the moment from Heather Taylor, his UK artist representative, who worked tirelessly to promote him in the days of spare rooms and anonymity.
“I was at the Bill Withers tribute at Carnegie Hall [In October 2015] so there were a lot of big voices in town then. And that performance happened to take place right in the middle of my recording, so it had my attention divided. But, yeah we just said with Alicia, she came to mind and, well, that’s the voice that’s right after all. It’s just the right voice for the song and I don’t think I really need a ‘name’ to carry the song.”
Porter was of course once in Olatuja’s position, namely a very talented independent artist seeking greater exposure. Happy as he is to discuss his commercial rise, my enquiry about his own artistic growth strikes a louder chord. Above all the question of when the former American football player, whose whole engagement with music was decisively shaped by his preacher mother during his formative years in Bakersfield, California prior to work in off-Broadway theatre in the late 1990s, really started to uncover what he felt was his authentic voice.
“I was in a jam session in San Diego just after college, around 1995, and friends of mine came down from Bakersfield. They were in a doo-wop group together. I wasn’t, but I knew the stuff that they did and I knew that they could harmonise very quickly. So we stood out literally on the street corner and just worked something out [he sings a slow groove].
“On top of that I did a lyric. Yeah, it was a profound moment for me because I had been at the jam sessions trying to be the best Eddie Jefferson, trying to fit in with the bebop cats, trying to do the songs that they did, and the point at which all the instruments dropped out and they let me and my friends do our thing… people were like ‘I never heard you like that before’, because I was singing the way my mother taught me to sing. So I thought why don’t I use that thing that my mother gave me, that way that we did it in our house? Let me put that into the way that I approach jazz, and I think that was when I really found my voice. When we sang in church and we sang a ballad it wasn’t… [he scats] it was heartfelt… [he sings ‘Amazing Grace’]. Tone was so important. It wasn’t flashy and showy, you know that thing that happens in the movies in terms of what the black church is, it’s not always like that. It can be and it is like that, but not always.
“The other part of it is in prayer, it’s singing in prayer. So once I brought that style into my singing, well I found out at this jam session it was cool. We dig it. Before that I was ‘skee ska be ya…’ [he scats hard]. I didn’t care whether anybody understood what I was doing. But Eddie Jefferson did it already and there ain’t nobody who can do it better. He did it already; the question is what contribution can I make to this art that’s really mine? A little country gospel blues, sure.”
That one of the oldest forms of black music has affected audiences as it has through Porter’s ascension is testament to the richness of the African-American church tradition that birthed him in the first place. While the intersection of faith, politics and art is epitomised by the relationship between such historic figures as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, Mahalia Jackson and the Staples singers during the civil rights era, the subject of religion and the betterment of society is still very much close to Porter’s heart. With little prompting he goes on to state that the wider context of Take Me To The Alley was precisely the visit of the current leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, to America in autumn 2015, which coincided with the Bill Withers tribute he mentioned, and more pertinently how that connected with his own past.
“Yeah, the Pope was in town and the idea of the song hadn’t yet come to fruition. But being in traffic and hearing the actions of the Pope, he was washing the feet of the prisoners and feeding the hungry and doing quite humble things, it brought me back to the memory – it was already there – of what my mother used to do. She would bring homeless people to our house, give them our clothes, feed the homeless our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and we would eat the leftovers after them! It was outrageous at the time. Now it’s a golden thing.
“But I think about it now and I’m glad that she made me a part of that. She was teaching me something. That’s the message. It’s my mother. And I saw the action in the Pope but I don’t wanna give him all the credit, because there’s my mother too and that’s how she rolled. If she got a new car she would pick up homeless people in her new car, urine-soaked homeless people. That’s real; she kept it so real it was scary.”
We are briefly interrupted by a young woman with what sounds like an Eastern European accent who recognises Porter and thanks him for ‘all his music’, a heartfelt, emphatic reminder that his concerts in Russia and the Baltic states have been instrumental in the expansion of his worldwide fanbase. After graciously accepting the compliment, which, interestingly, is not accompanied by the mandatory selfie request, Porter eagerly returns to the theme of music with a message.
“I like to discuss an alternative way to think instead of slamming the door on people. If somebody does something a certain way and you meet their argument with kindness then they might see the extreme nature of their position,” he says authoritatively. “So yeah, the song ‘Fan The Flames’ says ‘Stand up on your seat/With your dirty feet/Raise your fist in the air/Be sweet.’ It’s a homage to non-violent protest, because there are new protests going on, but I think that the most effective way was Dr King and non-violence. There are other protests that did have an effect but for me, when I look at the strength of those teenagers, those kids that pushed the civil rights movement, I think it’s amazing.
“I was looking at the Black Lives Matter campaign from London, Germany and Paris, and I was sad in a way, proud about the protest but sometimes, and it could be the media as well, two or three people will say something stupid that seasons the entire movement. So that’s who I’m talking to. I’m saying ‘stand up on your seat’. I’m with you. Have an uprising! Your feet are dirty because you’ve been walking through the bullshit politicians have been giving you. Raise your fist in the air. You’re mad! But be sweet. The point I’m trying to get across is you don’t have enough guns to fight with the military or the police.”
But the deaths of Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Errol Garner and Walter Scott have brought into chilling focus the endemic problem of police brutality visited upon blacks in America, a theme that has also been broached by jazz artists as disparate as Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller and Robert Glasper. You understand the anger, then?
“Without question, it breaks my heart,” Porter laments. “Those lives are real. Young black lives are so disconnected from the mainstream. People don’t care if they learn well, if they’re nutrition is right, or their health is right, they’re so disconnected. People can manouevre throughout the city to their job, their home, their community and not touch those people. They would rather not think about it. After you lock those kids up for 10 years where are they gonna go? All of them can’t disappear, all of them can’t die in jail? So yeah that’s what I’m talking about. And I don’t say everything that I wanna say. I could, but sometimes everything I wanna say is done through voting, and how I live my personal life and how I can contribute. And I think about more than race, because believe me there’s a whole lot of other issues going on.”
How did John Coltrane and Miles Davis get on? The odd couple, with contrasting personalities on and off the bandstand. But together the music they produced was peerless, says Ashley Kahn
Ice and fire they were: a two-horned paradox. Offstage, one was quiet, pensive, self-critical to a fault, practising obsessively. The other was cocksure, demanding; running with friends rather than running scales. But on the bandstand and on record, they reversed roles. John Coltrane, with saxophone in hand, became the unbridled one: long-winded, garrulous. When Miles Davis raised his trumpet, he played the sensitive introvert, blowing brief, hushed tones, exuding vulnerability.
Their names now command reverence, and rarely induce less than eulogy. The music they created together during an almost five-year union still resonates, entrances, influences and sells, sells, sells. Miles’ 1959 classic album Kind of Blue marking the apex of their collaborative years – stands as the most popular jazz album of all time, loved by a vast, non-partisan spectrum of music consumers. Their absence has only succeeded – like Sinatra, like Presley, like a rarefied few – in intensifying their recognition and elevating their legend.
September, 1955: the trumpeter was desperate. He was preparing for his first national tour arranged by a high-powered booking agent. Columbia Records – the most prestigious and financially generous record company around – was looking over his shoulder, checking on him. 'If you can get and keep a group together, I will record that group,’ George Avakian, Columbia’s top jazz man, had promised. To Miles, an alumnus of Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking bebop quintet, ’group’ meant a rhythm trio plus two horn players, but he still had only one: himself.
For the up-and-coming trumpeter, the preceding summer had been filled with promise. He was clean and strong, six months after kicking a narcotics habit he described as a ‘four year horror show’. His popular comeback had been hailed when, unannounced, he had walked on to the Newport Jazz Festival stage in July and wowed a coterie of America's top critics with a low, laconic solo on 'Round About Midnight'. And Davis had the foundation of his dream quintet firmly in place: Texas-born Red Garland on piano, young Paul Chambers from Detroit on bass and the explosive (and his former junk-partner) Philly Joe Jones on drums.
But Sonny Rollins had disappeared. Miles’ chosen tenorman from Harlem – blessed with a free-flowing horn-style and dexterous sense of rhythm – had long been threatening to leave town. Rollins, it later turned out, checked himself into a barred-window facility in Kentucky to kick his own drug addiction. Davis – with time running out – shifted his recruiting drive into top gear.
A number of possibilities topped the list: Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley, the new alto sensation from Tampa was one. Sun Ra’s accomplished tenorman John Gilmore was another. But the former had to return to Florida to complete a teaching contract, and the latter simply 'didn’t fit in', as Miles remembered.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, John Coltrane, a tenor player not on Davis' short list but with a respectable – albeit local – reputation, was playing in organist Jimmy Smith’s combo. Philly Joe made Miles aware of his availability.
Coltrane was not unknown to Davis. As early as 1946, he had been impressed by an acetate of an impromptu bebop session recorded during the saxophonist's tour of duty in the navy. Coltrane’s subsequent tenure in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band brought the two in contact. In his autobiography, Davis recalled with glee a memorable match-up he orchestrated in 1952.
'I used Sonny Rollins and Coltrane on tenors at a gig I had at the Audobon Ballroom... Sonny was awesome that night, scared the shit out of Trane.’
When Coltrane arrived in New York to audition with the group, Miles was not expecting much. But the saxophonist surprised him. ‘I could hear how Trane had gotten a whole lot better than he was on that night Sonny set his ears and ass on fire,’ Davis recalled.
What Miles heard was a sound that, though still developing, was singular and unheard. Almost all tenor players at that point blew under the spell of one of two, massively influential pioneers: the brash, highly rhythmic Coleman Hawkins or the breathy, understated Lester Young. Even the much-heralded, innovative playing of Dexter Gordon – an early stylistic model for Coltrane – vacillated between those two stylistic poles.
But Coltrane was searching for something original, and that search was part of his sound. He repeated phrases as if he was wringing every possibility out of note combinations. He was determined never to play predictable melodic lines; instead, unusual flourishes and rhythmic fanfares cut through the structure of the tune. Many writers would puzzle over – some actively denounce – this new, 'exposed' style. They were familiar with polish, not process. Was he practising or performing? Was that harsh rasp intentional, or just a loose mouthpiece? Why were his solos so long?
Miles could not have cared less about the critics (though he later responded when Coltrane admitted difficulty ending his extended improvisations: 'Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth’). As Davis proved time and again through his career, he had an uncanny ability to detect greatness in the bud. 'People have creative periods, periods where they (snaps fingers three times), like that, you know?’ Miles humbly informed Ben Sidran in 1986. 'I recognise it in other people.'
Miles recognised it at that first rehearsal, but kept his excitement hidden. Coltrane, unaware of his reaction and used to a sideman role, requested direction. Davis responded curtly and discourteously, unnerved that a self-professed jazz player required spoken instruction. ‘My silence and evil looks probably turned him off,’ he admitted later.
Meeting an unexpectedly cold draft, Coltrane packed his horn and returned home disgruntled, ready to rejoin Jimmy Smith. But there was method behind Miles’ muteness, as the pianist Bill Evans whose nine-month term with Miles would overlap Coltrane’s shift – understood.
It was a lesson in nuance Coltrane later exploited with great consequence in his own groups. But at that point, whether or not the saxophonist was hip or original enough was suddenly less important than Miles' immediate need. Trane was the only one who knew all the tunes,’ Miles later wrote. ‘I couldn’t risk have nobody who didn’t know the tunes.' He instructed Philly Joe to call back Coltrane.
At first glance, it reads like a recipe for discontent: a sullen, guarded, complex personality – extremely so in Davis’ case hiring another who was just as intense, but in a sincere and humble way. And beyond differences in temperament, their backgrounds predicted discord.
Coltrane was the scion of a middle-class, religious family – both his grandfathers were ministers – and came from a small country hamlet in central North Carolina. A series of deaths left him the sole male figure in his family at the age of 13, causing him hardship both financial and emotional. Turning inward, he relied on music for solace and spiritual strength; outwardly he remained quiet and serious, with an air of innocence about him. His professional career evolved slowly; 10 years of journeyman gigs in a variety of bands – blues, R&B and jazz – preceded his joining Davis.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born to and raised in privilege. Miles II, a college-educated dentist and landowner, bankrolled his son's musical education and errant, drug-filled years. Headstrong and fortunate, the young trumpeter made it into Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking bebop quintet by the ripe age of 19, benefiting and making the most of the association at a rapid rate. By 1947, he was recording under his own name and topping jazz critic polls.
But to the two intrepid jazz men, it was the music that mattered above all else, set them on parallel paths and ultimately brought them together. Both Coltrane and Davis were charter members of a determined jazz brotherhood who saw themselves as serious artists rather than entertainers, and their music as deserving the same respect and regard as other high-brow forms of culture. Both matured from the big band era of the 1940s, fell under the spell of bebop, and spearheaded jazz through its small-group heyday of the 50s and well into the 60s. Both were junkies who traded heroin for harmony, going cold turkey for the sake of their music.
Had their respective natures not yin-yanged so effectively, perhaps the Coltrane/Davis union never would have survived as long as it did. Given the nature of their characters and careers, it’s hard to imagine the two together in any other fashion than a complementary, master/pupil relationship. Predictably, as their music developed, and as Coltrane's confidence grew, so the bonds of that union were tested and retested. Like so many fertile musical unions, they loved and respected, suffered and fought with each other.
Coltrane solemnly and ceaselessly studied music exercise books; Miles would write out chord sequences on matchbooks, ruminating for hours on one musical puzzle
Most importantly, both were musical explorers, driven by a gnawing hunger to learn, to change and to hone their craft. Coltrane solemnly and ceaselessly studied music exercise books; Miles would write out chord sequences on matchbooks, ruminating for hours on one musical puzzle. As they eventually grew comfortable in the close proximity of the road, Davis opened up and shared his passion. ‘We used to talk a lot about music at rehearsals and on the way to gigs I'd say, "Trane, here are some chords but don’t play them like they are all the time, you know? Start in the middle sometimes and don’t forget you can play them up in thirds. So that means you got 18, 19 different things to play in two bars." He would sit there, eyes wide open, soaking up everything.’
Free from the more limited musical challenges of big bands, earning and learning in the greenhouse that was Davis' group, Coltrane blossomed. His self-education was pushed into high gear nightly, propelled by an ace rhythm section. When not onstage, Coltrane could be heard constantly rehearsing alone: backstage, in the club’s kitchen, in his hotel room.
'As much as I liked Trane we didn’t hang out much once we left the bandstand because we had different styles... he didn't hang out much,' Miles stated, shaking his head, and marvelling at his sideman's total focus. He was just into playing, was all the way into the music,’ Davis recalled. 'If a woman was standing right in front of him naked, he wouldn't even have seen her. That’s how much concentration he had when he played.’ To the chagrin of many writers and fans, Davis began leaving the bandstand while still in performance to better hear, and not distract from, his sideman's solos.
January, 1956: During the group's first visit to Los Angeles, tenorman Stan Getz begged to sit in. Miles consented, sat at a table and watched as his new protege blew one of the prime purveyors of the California-based, 'Cool' jazz school off the bandstand.
'It destroyed West Coast jazz overnight,’ one witness reported. 'There were a few of us who got an immediate positive reaction to Trane.’
As the sound of the entire quintet was a sizzling, ear-grabbing study in contrasts – sophisticated yet funky, swinging hard but with a laid-back, lyrical ease – so Miles soon realised that he had found not just a great sideman in Coltrane, but the perfect counterpoint to his own subdued trumpet. 'After we started playing together for a while,' he later revealed, using his favourite term of endearment, 'I knew that this guy was a bad motherfucker who was just the voice I needed on tenor to set off my voice.'
'Trane’s Blues' – an overlooked gem composed by Coltrane from the quintet’s second recording session for Prestige Records in May of 1956 – is a telling example of their side-by-side effect. Serene and poised, Miles phrases his solo like an off-hand chat, playing off the light swing of the tune, pausing, allowing space to breathe in between the notes. A slight drum roll introduces Coltrane. More assertive in tone, he answers Davis, building a rougher, more urgent reply, but still finding loose, melodic lines that lead him to longer statements.
Their contrasting approach was even more pronounced during performances, and less balanced. Often, Coltrane would take three, four, even five times as much time for his improvisations. Their own words revealed the reason: Miles listened for 'what can be cut out'; for Coltrane, ‘it took that long to get it all in.’
Solo lengths notwithstanding, the quintet coalesced and clicked, its success and popularity growing at a swift rate. Unfortunately, as it toured coast-to-coast, the group – and particularly Coltrane – carried a pernicious problem that was growing just as rapidly: the burden of drug addiction.
As Miles remembered in his autobiography, Coltrane’s habit began to get the better of him, to the point of threatening his future with the group. Davis reported his star saxophonist showing up to gigs in rumpled clothing, picking his nose distractedly and nodding out onstage, drinking heavily at the bar when he could not score. Miles initially resisted judgment, knowing only too well the suffering Coltrane was experiencing. 'I just tell them if they work for me to regulate their habit,’ Miles shrugged. 'You can't talk a man out of a habit until he really wants to stop.'
Exasperated, the diminutive trumpeter slapped his taller sideman in the head, and slugged him in the stomach
October, 1956: Miles could take it no longer. In a now legendary pique at New York’s Cafe Bohemia, Davis berated Coltrane for his slovenly appearance and tardiness. The saxophonist was too much in a stupor to respond with anything but silence. Exasperated, the diminutive trumpeter slapped his taller sideman in the head, and slugged him in the stomach. Coltrane still offered no resistance. A non-plussed Thelonious Monk witnessed the one-sided argument, stepped in and urged the saxophonist to quit and join his band.
A man with higher self-regard might have struck back or at least walked away for good, but Coltrane was an extremely humble, non-violent man. And with a young family and a growing habit to support, he desperately needed the pay. Despite the assault on body and pride, he intermittently returned to Miles over the next few months. But Davis’ blow up was only followed by further disappointment; in April, 1957, he ran out of patience and fired both Coltrane and Jones for ‘their junkie shit.’
It was a wake up call for Coltrane, hitting him harder than any well-aimed punch. Leaning on friends and family for support – and relying on a burgeoning spirituality influenced by his church-based roots and his wife Juanita’s embracing of Islam (by then calling herself Naima) – he returned home to Philadelphia, and put the needle and bottle forever behind him. Fittingly, upon his return to New York – clean and revitalised – he entered the studio and recorded his debut as a leader: First Trane.
December 1957: Miles, back from a tour of France, had a vision. After getting through most of the year without Coltrane, after a series of replacements that included Sonny Rollins, the trumpeter had eventually lured Cannonball Adderiey into the band. But Miles had not forgotten his former tenor player; ‘I had this idea in my head of expanding the group from a quintet to a sextet, with Trane and Cannonball on saxophones...'
Much had changed in Miles' group. Tired of a scene that felt littered with musical cliches and formulas left over from the heyday of bebop, Davis was pursuing a path that became known as modal jazz. His compositions began to rely on scales rather than established chord patterns, as both tempo and harmonic movement of the music downshifted. With few or no chordal patterns available on which to hang his notes, Miles forced his soloists to rely on their own innate sense of melody to improvise and express.
Meanwhile, Coltrane had enjoyed a six-month residency playing with Thelonious Monk in Manhattan's East Village, honing the scale-skipping flurries that defined his ‘sheets of sound’ style. What began as a faltering attempt to grasp Monk’s idiosyncratic approach to chord structure and rhythm, became a crash course in harmonic flexibility. Much like his ongoing dialogue with Miles, Coltrane reported: ‘I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.’
Coltrane's intrepid spirit had led him to probe the very nature of his saxophone, ostensibly a single-note instrument. He learned to adjust his mouth on the reed and – with Monk’s tutoring – use unorthodox fingering, finding a way to actually voice two or three notes at once and play chords through his horn.
When Coltrane resumed with Miles that final week of the year, the result was a creative pressure cooker wherein the tenorman's blues roots and recent rule-bending experiments dovetailed perfectly with the challenge of an expanded lineup and a new modal form of music.
From 1958-59, whenever Coltrane and Miles performed and the tapes were rolling, the full promise of their collaborative magic was finally fulfilled. What had been great jazz from Davis' 1955-7 quintet, now broke through to a category of timelessness as recorded by the trumpeter’s sextet in 1958 and 1959. Even their impromptu live recordings merit focused listening. But the two masterful studio albums from this period – Milestones and Kind of Blue – are list-topping must-haves for any jazz enthusiast, any student of 20th century music, any music lover. Anyone with ears.
It’s no coincidence that Coltrane recorded his own chord-based masterpiece – Giant Steps – only two weeks after Kind of Blue. The same maturity and self-assurance powers his work on both. But the former album is significant as his declaration of creative independence, acknowledging Coltrane’s arrival as a fully matured, triple threat: soloist, bandleader and composer. His musical vision was leading him in a direction away from Miles, and there was only room for one leader in the trumpeter’s band. The bonds of their bossman/hired hand relationship were straining.
Miles keenly sensed Coltrane drifting away, just as he felt how frustrating it would inevitably be to find a replacement of equal talent. As Davis confessed, he tried to both expedite and defer their parting.
'It was hard for [Coltrane] to bring up that he wanted to leave... but he did bring it up finally and we made a compromise: I turned him on to [my manager] Harold Lovett... to handle his financial affairs. And then Harold got him a recording contract [and] set up a publishing company for Trane... To keep Trane in the band longer, I asked Jack Whittemore, my agent, to get bookings for Trane's group whenever we weren't playing, and he did.’
March, 1960: Coltrane grumbled his way through a month-long tour of Europe, his last with Miles, his mind more on his own music. Though scheduled to appear as headliner at the Five Spot for most of the month, he had cancelled the appearance, agreeing to accompany Davis, his one blue suit and two white shirts testament to his reluctant, last-minute decision. If his irritable attitude did not make it clear that his time as a mere band member was finally up, a tape from the group's Paris performance certainly does.
Miles offered a familiar song list meant to satisfy fans both new and diehard. When Coltrane stepped to the microphone, a breathless flurry cascaded forth. As Davis left the stage, he played on and on, pushing the saxophone like a racehorse, leaping between registers, finding sounds that tested ears attuned to the more mellow solos on Kind of Blue.
For the first time, most Parisians were witnessing the raw, boundless intensity that was Coltrane’s trademark for the rest of his career; the tentative, experimental breeze Miles had felt in 1955 was becoming a full-force gale.
On the tape, each tune comes across like three different bands, depending on the soloist: Miles, Coltrane or the pianist Wynton Kelly. But during the saxophonist’s solos, one can hear the crowd growing restless: whistling and arguments erupt in the audience.
French propensity to vocally express dissatisfaction notwithstanding, Coltrane had outgrown his role with Miles and the music he was playing. The trumpeter's modal experiments launched the saxophonist out of the band in a totally different musical direction.
When the group landed back in New York in early April 1960, save for a few impromptu night club jams and one more studio session, the Coltrane-Davis coalition reached its coda.
How the two looked back on their time together can be divined in how each continued to look upon the other. Years after Coltrane evolved into a bandleader of renown and many disciples, Alice Coltrane recalls he still reverently called Davis 'The Teacher'. Miles was typically more oblique. When speaking with jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in the late 60s, the journalist noted that Davis' music had become complex enough to demand five tenor players. Gleason recorded his response: 'He shot those eyes at me and growled, "I had five tenor players once." I knew what he meant.'
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Jazzwise. Photos by Dan Hunstein, courtesy of Sony Music
When the Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954, it became a barometer for all that was hot in jazz in 1950s America. As such it was the backdrop behind the singular career trajectory of Miles Davis, gloriously documented in Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 – The Bootleg Series Vol.4 (Columbia/Legacy). The wide-ranging music provides a parallel live soundtrack to Davis’ studio career that saw him rise from the lows of drug addiction, to new musical highs – Kind of Blue among them – and back again to poor health and his semi-retirement in 1975. Stuart Nicholson takes an in-depth look at this extraordinary career arc and how his appearances at Newport were of singular importance in jazz history and in creating the legend of Miles Davis
If any person’s career could be defined by being in the right place at the right time, then it was Miles Davis. The place was the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The time was the third concert on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955. Billed in the festival programme as an ‘All-Star Jam Session’, the innocuous 20 minute spot was there to give the festival crew time to clear the stage and dressing room after Count Basie’s set in readiness for a performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, then enjoying enormous popular success. Guest emcee that evening was none other than Duke Ellington, who joked that the jam session musicians “live in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach”. Outer space, in other words.
After introducing Percy Heath and Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet on bass and drums respectively, Ellington raised his voice, “and we go on down to Miles Davis, trumpet, Miles Davis!” Davis stepped onto the stage a picture of sartorial elegance in a white striped jacket and black bow tie. His appearance was completely unscheduled. Jaws dropped in the press gallery. For most of the 1950s he had been struggling with drug addiction and had come to be regarded by both music business insiders and fans as inconsistent and undependable. He was considered, even by the best informed critics, to be a figure from jazz’s recent past, underlined by the release two months earlier of eight instrumental nonet sides from the 1949-50 Birth of the Cool sessions on a 10 inch Capitol album called Classics in Jazz – Miles Davis (the first time they had appeared on vinyl). Yet here he was, looking the complete antithesis of received opinion.
“They launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead”
Ellington introduced the remainder of the sextet – Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax and Thelonious Monk on piano – and they launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent, despite the brisk tempo, was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead. It translated into an electric solo, and by now he had the attention of both critics and crowd. Another Monk tune followed – ‘’Round Midnight’ – and again Davis shone, playing with both economy and emotion. The group rounded out their brief spot with Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’, a piece Davis had recorded with Parker in 1945 when he was a member of the saxophonist’s quintet. The sextet left the stage to a standing ovation; Metronome magazine noting that Davis’ performance was “dramatic enough to include [him] in all the columns written about the festival”.
This performance has been released as a part of the Columbia/Legacy set Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975. The Newport Jazz Festival – founded by promoter George Wein and wealthy Rhode Island socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard – was the first annual outdoor music festival in the USA. It began in 1954, and the four CD set documents Davis’ appearances in 1955, 1958, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1975 at Newport, Rhode Island, New York City’s Lincoln Center, Berlin and Switzerland, all produced by Wein under the Newport Jazz Festival imprimatur. It includes four hours of previously unissued material and the set is both a commentary and obbligato on Davis’ pace-setting role in shaping jazz of the period. It is also rich in historical significance, not least his 1955 ‘’Round Midnight’ solo.
In the audience that evening was Columbia record producer George Avakian and his brother Aram, a photographer. They had box seats since George Avakian was a charter member of the festival board. Nothing much had been expected from the ‘All Star’ sextet while Davis’ inclusion was an afterthought, added too late to the festival roster to even be mentioned in the programme. Both Avakian brothers had known Davis since the late 1940s. “Soon after I set up a pop album department in Columbia in 1947,” recalled George Avakian, “Miles started this little campaign. Whenever I’d run into him, he’d say, ‘Hey George, when are you going to sign me up?’ He would say it in a charming, winking kind of way. But I always knew he meant it.”
Unfortunately, there were two problems standing in the way. One, Davis was under contract to Bob Weinstock’s Prestige record label and two, Davis was a junkie. Although Davis had been a member of Charlie Parker’s Quintet (Parker was also a notorious junkie), he did not succumb to addiction until 1949, after he had left the group. “I didn’t want any part of junkies,” Avakian said later. “I’d been around them enough to know they’re nothing but trouble. It was terrible to see it in Miles. Around 1952 he was hardly working and would come and sit-in at New York’s Birdland on Mondays when they had an open door policy. He looked slovenly and his playing had deteriorated… he looked like a bum. He went downhill so badly he didn’t shave or bathe… it was a sad thing.”
In mid-1953, Davis returned to his parents’ farm in Millstadt, Illinois, some 14 miles south of East St. Louis. There he shed his addiction ‘cold turkey’. He returned to the jazz scene in early 1954 determined to make up for lost ground, signing a three-year record deal with Prestige that resulted in the album Walkin', recorded on 3 and 29 April 1954, which received a rave review in Downbeat magazine. That record is now a bona fide jazz classic. Davis’ comeback may have got under way but club owners and booking agents remained wary. “He used to cancel out at the last minute so club owners saw him as absolute poison,” recalled Avakian. “He had a terrible reputation for not showing up and leaving owners hung-up with the financial bill.” Nevertheless, Avakian checked out “the clean Miles Davis” at the Birdland open door sessions and felt reasonably sure the trumpeter was back on the straight and narrow, “Increasingly he was beginning to sound like the Miles of old,” he concluded. And still, with a cheeky nod and wink, Davis kept asking, “When are you going to sign me?”
So when he strode onto the Newport Festival stage that evening in July, 1955, Avakian’s professional interest was awakened. Halfway through his solo on ‘’Round Midnight’, Aram turned to his brother and said, “Sign him – now! After tonight everybody will know he’s back”. By the time the band were into ‘Now’s the Time’, George was on his way backstage. As soon as Davis caught sight of him in the dressing room, he threw him a big grin. They agreed to meet for lunch the following Tuesday at Lindy’s, just up the street from Avakian’s office at Columbia. Davis came with his friend and adviser Lee Kraft and his lawyer Harold Lovett.
Avakian offered Davis a two-year contract with options and a $2,000 advance for two albums against a royalty of 4%, which was only a point below what Doris Day, a big Columbia star, was receiving. An agreement was reached with Bob Weinstock of Prestige; Columbia would record Davis right away, but not release anything until the Prestige contract expired. Weinstock agreed, recognising the promotion Davis would receive from the Columbia publicity machine would help leverage sales of his Davis’ albums on Prestige. Also, Avakian insisted, Davis must have a regular, working band. Long before the waiter brought two Nesselrode desserts and four forks, a working plan had been thrashed out.
But a verbal contract is, as they say, not worth the paper it’s written on. The proposed deal almost didn’t happen. One, Columbia Vice-President, Albert Earl, knew of Davis’ reputation, “George, think about this,” he said, “this guy might be dead by the time you can record him.” Avakian succeeded in getting Earl to sign-off on the deal, based on his success with Dave Brubeck, and all parties signed on the dotted line a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, news of Davis’ Newport success spread fast, and by November, Downbeat magazine was reporting: “After a time of confusion and what appeared to be a whirlpool of troubles, Miles Davis is moving rapidly again to the forefront of the modern jazz scene,” going on to report a recent contract with Birdland that guaranteed him 20 weeks’ work a year and his recent addition to a three-and-a-half week Birdland All-Stars tour.
But Avakian had not signed Davis as a hard bop player, even though his debut with Columbia, Round About Midnight, might have suggested otherwise. “I saw Miles in a different way,” he said. “What struck me was that Miles was the best ballad player since Louis Armstrong. I was convinced that his ballad playing would appeal to the public on a very large scale. While his bebop playing had established his reputation among musicians and jazz bands, I knew bebop would never connect on a large scale. It was ingenious music but far too complicated for the average ear and too hard for the mass market to follow the melodies. It’s really Miles’ melodic playing that put him across with the public on a wide scale. That happened first with our album Round About Midnight in 1956.”
When Round About Midnight was released, it flew out of record shops thanks to Columbia’s promotional campaign. It resulted in a nice surprise when Davis received his first royalty cheque, which was substantially above his advance. He promptly bought a Mercedes two-seater sports car. The Davis legend was gathering momentum. However, for his next album Avakian was ready to put his plans into action. He had a title for the album – Miles Ahead – but wanted to get away from the small group concept that had defined Davis’ work on Prestige. He suggested an orchestral album and Davis asked for Gil Evans as arranger to build on the kind of ensemble concepts he had explored on Birth of the Cool. In 1957, the Round About Midnight quintet disintegrated, but Davis was concentrating on recording Miles Ahead and made no small group recordings that year. “The release of Miles Ahead in the fall of 1957 eclipsed everything Miles had ever done and started him on his way as one of the biggest selling jazz artists of all time,” said Avakian. “It sold one million copies and established him internationally.”
In 1958, Davis was back with a new group, recording Milestones in March. Meanwhile, Avakian left Columbia around this time to help set up the Warner Brothers label, but Columbia would largely stick with his long term plan for Davis. However, while Davis’ appearance at Newport in July that year is documented on the Columbia/Legacy Newport set, this concert is rather perfunctory – despite being the legendary Kind of Blue band live. Tempos are too fast with ensemble playing falling apart on ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’, while the band appears uninterested. “Unfortunately the group did not perform effectively,” was Downbeat’s verdict. What also seems odd is that Davis did not join in the tribute to Duke Ellington (who was in the wings and whose band would climax the evening) by playing an Ellington-themed set, as festival producer George Wein intended. Dave Brubeck, for example, who followed Davis, did exactly as asked, his performance released by Columbia as Newport 1958.
If Wein was disappointed that Davis did not acknowledge Ellington he did not say publicly, but for whatever reason the trumpeter did not appear again at Newport until 1966. By now his celebrity in the jazz world had grown exponentially, helped by the huge success of Porgy and Bess, which he began recording in August 1958, and Sketches of Spain, which he began recording in November 1959, two major collaborations with Gil Evans. Also in 1959 came Kind of Blue, which today is Davis’ most famous album.
By the time of his 1966 Newport appearance, he had the most sophisticated ensemble in jazz with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. In December 1965, a Columbia recording remote had caught them at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago and Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel represents jazz-making at the highest level of creativity. That their Newport appearances in 1966 and 1967 did not quite reach this intense level of artistry – both are documented on the Columbia/Legacy set – in no way diminishes the remarkable achievements of this band or the value of these performances.
From 19 October to 12 November 1967, the Davis group, together with roster of top jazz talent, headed for Europe with a tour called Newport Jazz Festival In Europe, organised and promoted by George Wein (their London concerts, between 23-29 October were called Jazz Expo ’67). On the final leg of the tour, Wein and Davis had a falling out over money, with Davis pulling out of the tour. In June 1968 came evidence of change in Davis’ music again as subtle inferences of rock music seeped into Filles de Kilimanjaro, but because of the falling-out between Wein and Davis, the trumpeter did not appear at Newport that year. He was there in 1969, although Wayne Shorter was held up in traffic and failed to show, by which time the change in his music embracing the tone colours and rhythms of rock was well underway, with a ramped up version of ‘It’s About That Time’ from the album In a Silent Way, which had been recorded in February that year, and a preview of what was to come with ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ and ‘Sanctuary’, both of which would be recorded again in six weeks time for the seminal Bitches Brew.
Davis was touring with Santana in 1970, so did not appear at Newport that year, neither did he appear there in 1971. Instead, the Columbia/Legacy set documents Davis’ Newport Jazz Festival in Europe concert that year at Switzerland’s Neue Stadthalle in Dietikon, presented by George Wein during an Autumn European tour that took in 12 cities in three weeks. Once again Davis’ music had changed, Keith Jarrett was on a twin keyboard set-up, saxophonist Gary Bartz was the latest recruit through the revolving saxophone door following Wayne Shorter’s departure, Motown bassist Michael Henderson was on hand with percussionists Don Alias and Mtume and an interesting feature was the presence of drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler. The music is edgy and in a constant state of becoming; collectively it is a powerful statement but Jazz Journal felt Davis’ playing at the London concert had, “too much of the hot declamatory outburst and less of the natural rhythm. The Davis who had swept along with the rock sounds had become bogged down by them.” Meanwhile writer Leonard Feather noted that Davis had become indifferent to touring, aiming for a “policy of semi-retirement.”
In 1972 came On the Corner, a year when Davis was again involved in a falling out with George Wein, but this time it was highly publicised. The festival, now transplanted from its Rhode Island home to New York, advertised the Davis’ concert for 4 July. He did not appear, a Freddie Hubbard group playing instead. Davis complained to the New York newspapers he had not been offered enough money, and besides he added, he had never agreed to the concert in the first place. The fact that his festival appearance would have been his first concert date in months lent speculation as to whether the fee was the real issue. Later in the year he broke both ankles in an accident in his Lamborghini, completing a year when he was inactive for the first four months of the year and completely inactive for the last two.
“By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained”
In 1973, he reformed his band with Dave Liebman on sax, and spent the second half of the year playing in Europe, where he had not appeared since 1971 because of his health. The first tour was in July, the second as part of a Newport Jazz Festival in Europe package but before he embarked he was in the studio working on Get Up With It. The second trip lasted three weeks opening at Malmo on 24 October. The Columbia/Legacy set includes the Berlin Philharmonie concert on 1 November. The band is introduced by Britain’s Ronnie Scott, but the concert is a somewhat rambling affair, Davis dependent on morphine to dull the excruciating pain from an arthritic hip which had become an increasing distraction. But at least Scott has six amusing minutes to himself at the end. Yet despite his health, Davis was now performing more than he had for some years, and in March 1974, Columbia recorded his Carnegie Hall concert for release as Dark Magus. By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained. By the summer of 1975, he was aware he couldn’t put off surgery much longer.
When Davis played a midnight concert on 1 July 1975 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York – billed as ‘The Midnight Miles’ – most reviewers noted that it was his first return to the Newport Jazz Festival in New York since refusing to play in 1972. This concert is only partly documented by the Columbia/Legacy set with a lacklustre performance of ‘Mtume’. Distracted by both pain and painkillers, Davis’ music was now only attracting lukewarm reviews and this concert was no exception. While the liner notes claim it was his last concert of the year (before taking his much publicised six year furlough from music) he in fact played the Schaefer Festival in Central Park on 5 September, The New York Times noting that, “Miles Davis’s ability to leave his listeners languid was given pointed display”. Two days later, Davis’ band members and equipment were in Miami, for a concert at the Gusman Hall. Davis failed to make it, cancelling at the last minute with the promoters impounding his equipment to set against their losses. One more concert, on 12 October at the Auditorium Theatre, had been planned, but again Davis pulled out, finally recognising treatment was his only option.
Davis would not be heard of again until his ‘comeback’ concerts in 1981, the most publicised event in the history of jazz. It leaves Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 as an absorbing counterpoint to the albums that were released during his lifetime – some of the best-crafted, emotionally serious and aesthetically satisfying albums in the whole of jazz. Yet for all these great achievements, the Newport set awakens a thought that lingers in the mind. From his July 1955 performance at Newport that announced his rehabilitation from heroin, to his final Newport concert in July 1975 where the creative flame that had lit up his music had all but been extinguished, it is impossible not to wonder how this remarkable career, and by extrapolation the history of jazz during this period, might have turned out if Davis had not made that fateful Newport Jazz Festival appearance on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955 in Freebody Park, Rhode Island, or George Avakian had been looking the other way.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Jazzwise.
The first and greatest soloist and improviser in Jazz, Louis Armstrong, nonetheless, has been misrepresented in jazz history, says Stuart Nicholson. Was he really the greatest thing in jazz?
It is difficult to think of any single artist who exuded the word jazz more completely than Louis Armstrong. He was a star performer who succeeded on recordings, on radio, on television, in the movies and on the concert platform in personifying jazz to the world. As influential as an instrumentalist as he was a singer, he was a key figure in transforming a polyphonic folk music into a soloist’s art while transcending the racial conventions of his day, thrusting open the doors for others to follow.
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy) is probably the cornerstone of every jazz follower’s album collection. These recordings, together with the early big band sides and the best of his recordings for the Decca label provide testimony to his greatness. That he was a key figure in jazz is beyond debate. What is not beyond debate, however, is the tendency in recent years to go the whole hog and claim that all his work is equally great. While there is genuine pleasure to be had from some of the All Star sides, and among them classics such as Satch Plays Fats and Plays W.C. Handy, Armstrong’s later period often inspires affection rather than awe.
Today, Armstrong has been elevated into a father figure for jazz, a metonym for a grand artistic tradition, a patriarchal continuum of jazz artistry and wisdom. This omnipotence has tended to obscure the achievements of Henry ‘Red’ Allen, who, like Armstrong, also came from New Orleans and although, from time to time, he found himself a sideman in Armstrong’s big band, he was nevertheless a bravura trumpeter in the Armstrong mould in his own right.
Fine examples of Allen’s playing can be found throughout his career, which began on record at the age of 21 in 1929 and include ‘Stingaree Blues’ with King Oliver, ‘Jersey Lightning’ and ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’ with Luis Russell and his Orchestra, ‘Roamin’’ and ‘Patrol Wagon Blues’ under his own name (with the Russell band recording for a different company), with the Billy Banks Rhythmakers, Spike Hughes and his Negro Orchestra, on ‘Shakin’ the African’ with Don Redman, with Horace Henderson on ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day’ which inspired the Benny Goodman brass team of Harry James, Chris Griffin and Ziggy Elman to base their own trumpet soli on Allen’s solo (see the 1937-8 Columbia airchecks), on ‘Wrappin’ It Up’, ‘Down South Camp Meeting’ and ‘Queer Notions’ with Fletcher Henderson, and with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.
Yet while Allen was an important contributor to jazz history in the late 1920s and 30s he has been curiously underrated. As Martin Williams has pointed out: ‘Hear Walter Fuller with Earl Hines; Harry James with Benny Goodman; Ziggy Elman with Goodman and Tommy Dorsey; Buck Clayton and Harry Edison in their early days with Count Basie, and many others, Louis Armstrong is clearly the inspiration, but Red Allen is the model.’ Yet although Allen remained under Armstrong’s shadow for the greater part of his career, towards the end of his life, during a period when he was playing Dixieland jazz at the Metropole in New York – by all accounts a rowdy tourist tavern off Times Square – his playing underwent an astonishing transformation indicative of continued artistic growth.
This transformation amazed fellow trumpet player and then avant-garde musician Don Ellis to observe in the 28 January 1965 edition of Downbeat magazine that ‘Every time I have gone to the Metropole to see Henry [Allen] during the last two or three years I have said to myself: “It can’t be true. He must be having a very good night. All those wild things he is doing must be lucky accidents! After all, he has been around for almost as long as Louis and it is simply impossible he could be playing that modern.” Well, a few weeks ago, after hearing Red on a slow Tuesday night with only a handful of people in the club – a type of night that would be very uninspiring to most artists – I became convinced that Red Allen is the most creative and avant-garde trumpet player in New York. He is one of the major improvisers in the truest sense of the word. Other trumpet players may be able to play faster or higher than Red (although his facility and range are remarkable), but no-one has a wider range of effects to draw upon and no-one is more subtle rhythmically and in the use of dynamics or asymmetrical phrases than Henry ‘Red’ Allen.
Allen made several recordings with Coleman Hawkins around this period, not least Ride Red Ride (RCA) from 1957 that included ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ which Gunther Schuller described in The Swing Era as, ‘One of the most magnificent extended trumpet solos of that or any period. It brims with interesting, bold, contrasting ideas, draws continually upon his lively creative imagination, is alternately gently ruminative and passionately expressive, and is played with a new, husky, breathy, singing tone… He can sound at times like a richly endowed Bobby Hackett or a wise, matured Miles Davis… as the years passed, Allen could embrace other styles without really ever going outside himself.’ In fact, Allen recordings from this period of career provide the kind of unequivocal pleasure that today’s revisionism tells us we should find in Armstrong’s later work.
In the Ken Burns book of the TV series Jazz, on the page devoted to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the pace setting Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Armstrong’s album Hello Dolly is featured. The implication is clear: here is an album that should be considered alongside these works. Indeed, Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon is now no longer just about his music, something that was bought home to me while I was in the States recently and met a leading Armstrong scholar: I gave him a copy of my Billie Holiday biography, pointing out an interesting snippet about Armstrong I had come across that had not – to my knowledge – appeared elsewhere.
In 1936 Armstrong appeared in a production Stars Over Broadway in which Billie also appeared, together with a host of other stars. But in March that year, New York Amsterdam News reported that Armstrong’s affair with an ‘ofay corine’ had ended in tragedy when she jumped out of a fifteenth storey window. With the girl’s mother threatening adverse publicity, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser pulled Armstrong from the show and sent him out on the road. An interesting story, you might think, but it was greeted with horror – I well remember the academic’s expression, which said this kind of information was neither sought nor welcome.
Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon has been consolidated in part as a way of responding to the economic, racial and cultural legacy of the Reagan-Bush years since sadly, jazz history in America is becoming about ‘the negotiation of agendas’, as one leading musician put it. Politics to you and I. The tragedy is that this distorts history, marginalises the choice canvases of a minor master like Henry Red Allen and devalues Armstrong’s greatest masterpieces by claiming that all his work is equally great.
The emergence of Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington as one of the hottest names in jazz – thanks to the avalanche of music he unleashed on his remarkable triple-disc debut album The Epic – has caused shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did The Epic come out at No.1 in Jazzwise’s Album of the Year Critics Poll, it’s won almost universal acclaim from both the jazz and rock press. This new LA scene’s wider impact now sees Herbie Hancock working with influential jazz-influenced über-producer Flying Lotus and bass-guitar whirlwind Thundercat. Kevin Le Gendre speaks to Washington and his bassist Miles Mosley, joining the dots of this expansive collective and tracing its deep links from contemporary rap star Kendrick Lamar to 1990s psychedelic hip hop and the 1960s spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane
A major cinematic event of 2015, Straight Outta Compton would have done nothing to change a defining image of Los Angeles: the birthplace of gangsta rap. The big screen dramatisation of the rise and fall of N.W.A, a lethal force in 1990s hip-hop, reinforced the notion that the West Coast of America is a stomping ground for ‘urban’ music in which political substance often battles hard with a certain gun-ho nihilism.
However, a few months before the release of the above came the attention-grabbing arrival of one of the key jazz moments of the year, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, an engrossing triple album that presented California in a distinctly different cultural light. Blending the spirituality of the Coltranes [Alice and John] with Stravinsky’s orchestral flourish and the tonal density of modern black pop, the music unveiled a largely unknown young tenor saxophonist of startling maturity. Perhaps more importantly it bolstered any legitimate claim Los Angeles can make to being a vital creative hub for improvised music, even though the geography of the city, above all its sprawling expanse, may have given another impression, as Washington explains.
“The scene is interesting,” he stated via email. “There are lots of amazing musicians, but Los Angeles is just a really big, as in large, city. You can drive for two hours in no traffic and still be in LA! That can sometimes make the scene feel diluted, but if you look closely there are some truly unique talents and one-of-a-kind sounds in LA.”
No greater symbol of this creative subsoil is the collective The West Coast Get Down (WCGD), a 10-strong aggregation of players in their early 30s, of which Washington is a part, that includes double bassist Miles Mosley, pianist Cameron Graves, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, bass guitarist Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner and vocalist Patrice Quinn.
Crucially, there is a chemistry that binds these musicians by dint of the fact that they attended the same music education programmes at the tender age of 15, above all Reggie Andrews’ Locke Multi-School Band, before they went on to strengthen their ties through countless gigs at anything from post-match shows for basketball teams at the Great Western Forum to clubs like Boardners in Hollywood, which mostly leans towards rock and goth audiences. The other Tinseltown venue that proved to be a ‘compositional incubator’ was Piano Bar. “This was where the WCGD residency had the longest, most popular run,” explains Miles Mosley. “We would regularly pack 300 people in there on a Wednesday night and 500 on a Friday. It became the ‘go-to’ hang for every high level musician in the city. We created a controlled environment in which quality was guaranteed and the music was entirely ours.”
Such is the collective thinking that drives the WCGD, the sessions that yielded The Epic comprise no fewer than 170 songs that will filter through to the wider world as albums under the names of each composer in the collective in the fullness of time. Having said that, WCGD member Thundercat has been a known quantity since his 2011 debut The Golden Age Of Apocalypse. That wily offering and its 2013 follow-up Apocalypse drew together electric jazz and a digital age lexicon in a manner that was neither contrived nor incoherent.
In other words virtuosity was offset by a finely calibrated use of programming, sequencing and bang up to date audio software. Solo did not submerge song. Pop went with art. Player and studio were at one.
Thundercat’s longstanding association with Flying Lotus, grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, a producer at the cutting edge of electronica, was key to his development, and they also bonded over their love for another Californian, the late keyboard wizard George Duke, whose 1975 fusion classic, The Aura Will Prevail, lit their creative path. “Me and Thundercat would drive around and listen to that record like some people listen to Juicy J [aka rapper Jordan Michael Houston],” Lotus told The New York Times last year. Tellingly, Kamasi Washington has loosely connected references, given that his father Rickey was a horn player for a band that greatly inspired Duke and also had a wholly unique take on populism, sophistication and Egyptology: Earth, Wind & Fire.
Los Angeles, location for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, the revolutionary 1971 film for which EWF provided the soundtrack, is a city with a rich jazz heritage in any case. Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton began blazing trails there from the 1940s and many other keepers of the flame would follow. All of which means today’s prime movers did not simply step out of a vacuum. They are part of a history with very deep roots.
It was indeed the old guard to which the young Turks of the West Coast Get Down turned in their formative years. They learned much at The World Stage in Leimert Park. “We would constantly attend jam sessions at that venue,” says bassist Mosley. “And surround ourselves with LA heroes like Billy Higgins, who was a mentor to us all.”
Washington echoes his sentiment and also hails the pianist-composer Horace Tapscott as a key pathfinder. “I grew up in Leimert Park and his footprint is all over that area. We all learned his music and his philosophies from the elders who played with him that are still with us. Horace is one of the most important figures in the foundation of music in LA, from both a purely musically and socially conscious perspective. My dad took me to hear [Tapscott’s] Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra many times and I played with them after Horace passed away.”
The aforementioned group is something of a west coast jazz institution, certainly for its decisive political as well as musical substance, and the sense of community that it came to embody. While the legacy of Tapscott, who nurtured countless musicians between the late 1960s and his death in the late 1990s, can be heard in the WCGD, the other artist who is a kind of bridge between the two is vocalist Dwight Trible. One time vocal director of P.A.P.A he has brought his sterling baritone to the music of Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders and Kamasi Washington and in 2005, after long years as a guest artist, he made a superb album under his own name, Living Water, which was flooded with Coltranian spirituality and luminous balladry.
Perhaps more importantly Trible collaborated with producer Carlos Nino, one half of hip-hop duo Ammoncontact, and while this might have appeared a novel consolidation of jazz and beats-based music it simply became another strand in the established entwinement of the two forms. Lest we forget the West Coast, despite the headline grabbing rise of gangsta-rap, yielded throughout the 1990s and into the millennium a wave of esoteric, irreverent, feverishly original, often jazz-informed hip-hop acts that includes Freestyle Fellowship, Hieroglyphics, The Pharcyde, Madlib and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, whose pithy compound nomenclature is a thinly veiled reference to a legendary Chicagoan bandleader who beamed all the way down to earth from Saturn.
Quite fittingly, Sa-Ra member Shafiq Husayn contributed to Thundercat’s Golden Age Of Apocalypse, and as far as Washington is concerned the ‘alt’ hip-hoppers drew on the same sources as West Coast improvisers. “Horace Tapscott heavily influenced local hip-hop heroes like Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde as well. His form of avant-garde jazz really set the table for what we are doing now!”
Accurate as the observation may be it doesn’t quite explain why the likes of Washington and Thundercat have made such a big impact beyond a jazz constituency. What has brightened the mainstream spotlight on them is the record deal offered by Flying Lotus, who has issued their work on Brainfeeder, a subsidiary of Ninja Tune, the UK label that has purveyed cutting edge dance music for some 25 years.
Miles Mosley welcomes the connection. “In releasing Stephen [Thundercat] and Kamasi’s records he [Lotus] has introduced his fan base to music they may not have otherwise taken note of. It seems that he has a shared theory that the music we refer to as jazz is broad, and does not have to be reserved for intellectual pursuits.”
Furthermore, Thundercat, Washington and other WCGDers made a significant contribution to one of the other great musical events of 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, not so much a hip-hop jazz album as an encounter of the two aesthetics in which one neither neuters nor adulterates the other. Again Mosley sees benefits here.
“Much of what has helped expand the reach of The Epic is the pop culture influence of Kendrick, and his willingness to share the spotlight with us, the musicians that worked on his album. As I see it, the symbiotic relationship, and the magnetism found in Kendrick’s album openly exhibiting jazz influences and The Epic portraying open hip-hop influences, allowed for a bridge to be made between the two.”
All of which should hopefully shift perceptions of the West Coast beyond the gangsta-rap brought to the big screen. Then again cinema has also partially impinged on local jazz. The availability of work in film and television leads to what Mosley calls, “the dispersion of its most talented musicians into more lucrative areas of the music business”. Yet as Washington et al are proving, a peer group committed to its art that is open to other collaborators can make a difference. “There is a telepathy that has developed among the musicians, a short hand that defines a unique sound for a scene, and often an entire city.”