By Tad Richards

State University of New York Press. 177 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-4384-9600-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“The roads diverged......In 1942. The two roads were Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet”, according to Tad Richards, whose Jazz With A Beat explores the changes taking place in jazz in the years between 1940 and 1960. It’s always a little dangerous to fix specific dates to shifts in musical styles and tastes, but Richards opts for 1942 as a key year. It was when Charlie Parker had an alto solo on Jay McShann’s recording of “Sepian Bounce” and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was featured on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home”.  In addition, 1942 was also the year when Louis Jordan, who like Parker played alto, began to establish his group as a major influence in the movement towards a new kind of small-group swing. He had been active and popular by 1942 with records like “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (when you’re gonna get drunk again)” and “Five Guys Named Moe”, so the date may be flexible. But in general we can accept the use of 1942 as a handy starting point.

So, why does Richards see a divergence opening up in that year? Parker’s solo pointed to the development of the kind of modern jazz that became known as bebop. It was a music that was complex, using chords as a basis for improvisation rather than the melody, and had a less emphatic regular beat. It wasn’t designed for dancing. Bop had to be listened to and didn’t lend itself to simply creating a background accompaniment to dancing and drinking. The musicians didn’t see themselves as entertainers in terms of providing what the audience wanted. That was more likely to happen with Lionel Hampton and his big-band, which, while having some good jazz players, aimed primari;y to put on a show. “Flying Home” was a part of that policy  and Illinois Jacquet’s solo set the style for a hundred other tenor players who, throughout the late-1940s and early-1950s, would honk and squeal their way through solos that usually didn’t come anywhere near Jacquet’s. Whatever else can be said about his solo it was tightly constructed and memorable.

The war years saw the big-bands still riding high as people flocked to dance-halls and theatres, and spent money that, in other times, would have been used for housing, cars, and consumer goods. Which is what happened in the post-war years as soldiers came home, war industries wound down, and concerns switched to finding jobs, buying houses, resuming education, and starting to raise families. It was no longer economic to take big-bands on the road, nor for them to be hired. Club owners, dance-hall proprietors and others discovered it was cheaper to bring in small groups, especially when they could use a limited instrumentation to approximate the sound of a big band. There had always been small groups, of one kind or another, in jazz and popular entertainment, but the late-1940s saw them proliferating. And producing a new kind of music known as rhythm-and-blues. It was urban, not country, and essentially aimed at black working-class audiences in big cities and towns. Central to it were hard-driving rhythms and saxophones, primarily the tenor.

Richards points out that, on the whole, jazz critics, who were mostly white, and many jazz enthusiasts, were dismissive of rhythm-and-blues. People who liked to listen to rural blues singers looked on rhythm-and-blues as a corruption of the blues tradition. Those who were devoted to bebop, or still yearned for a revival of the big-bands, saw it as a debased form that, with its honking saxes and shouting vocalists often delivering suggestive lyrics,  lacked the seriousness they wanted to be seen in their musical interests.

If I can insert a personal note, I recall that in the late-1960s I was writing about bebop and big-bands for various magazines, but I was also listening (as I had done since the 1950s) to recordings by Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw, Sonny Thompson, and many more rhythm-and-blues artists. In 1972 I wrote an article called “Let the Good Times Roll” for Jazz and Blues in which I attempted to point out how much listenable jazz was evident on recordings by the kind of performers I’ve referred to.  It surprised me that, even at that late date, I still encountered some hostility in conversations, admittedly sometimes with older listeners, to my advocacy of rhythm-and-blues. But then, those people who needed jazz to be classified as art so they could like it, didn’t share my enthusiasm for calypso and some country-and-western music, either. I have to say that I’m not claiming any pioneering attempt to draw attention to rhythm-and-blues. Insofar as the UK is concerned that credit belongs mainly to Charlie Gillett’s ground breaking The Sound of the City, published in 1970.  

It does appear to be true that much of the impetus for the development of rhythm-and-blues seems to have originated on the West Coast. New York was where bebop took shape and where the majority of its practitioners were active. But Los Angeles provided a base for numerous rhythm-and-blues musicians and there was a fair amount of intermixing of musical styles along Central Avenue where many of the clubs and bars that offered employment to musicians and singers were located. Recordings from the 1940s show that there were no hard-and-fast lines drawn when putting together groups for public performances. A fascinating example occurred at the legendary 1947 concert-dance at the Elks Club in Los Angeles. This was the event at which Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray competed on “The Hunt”, famous because of the reference  in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. What isn’t as well known is that two other tenors – Wild Bill Moore and Gene Montgomery, both associated with rhythm-and-blues – also engaged in a “battle” on the same day.  

Norman Granz’s famous Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts started their life in Los Angeles in 1944 and the line-up included Illinois Jacquet and Jack McVea on tenors. McVea had his own group in the 1940s, playing the sort of sounds that were known as rhythm-and-blues. One of his popular records was “Open the Door, Richard”, based on a vaudeville routine by a comedian called Dusty Fletcher. He made his own version with Big Nick Nicholas on tenor. Which points to other examples of musical mixing when Nicholas worked with  trumpeter/singer Hot Lips Page (listen to them on the fast instrumental, “La Danse”) and the Dizzy Gillespie big-band. It’s Nicholas who takes the tenor solo on the 1947 Gillespie bop classic, “Manteca”.  As for McVea, he easily played alongside the others with JATP, including Jacquet, bop trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Nat ‘King’ Cole, who had his own trio and was later to become a popular vocalist, and guitarist Les Paul who, in the early-1950s, had hit records using multi-tape techniques.

It was with the small groups scattered across America that the tenor saxophone really came into its own. As Leroi Jones put it : “All the saxophonists of that world were honkers. Illinois, Gator, Big Jay, Jug, the great sounds of our day”. Gator was Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson,  Big Jay was Big Jay McNeely, and Gene Ammons was nicknamed Jug and had a firm reputation in the jazz world. He made numerous straight jazz records under his own name.  But one of his early recordings, “Red Top”, could easily fit into the rhythm-and-blues category.  It was, perhaps, Big Jay McNeely who was the most notorious of the so called “honking tenors”, though it’s intriguing to note that he had a sound musical education and, at one time, associated with young would-be beboppers like Hampton Hawes and Sonny Criss. But he realised that if he was to make a living in music he’d have to provide what the public wanted and not devote his skills to playing bebop. He knew how to be a showman.

Bop was never likely to be a widely-popular music and even one of its leading lights, Dizzy Gillespie, realised that to keep working steadily he had to compromise. In the early 1950s he formed a small group which featured baritone saxophonist Bill Graham, who mostly played with rhythm-and-blues bands, and Gillespie’s 1951 recording of “The Champ” spotlighted tenorman Budd Johnson honking away merrily, no doubt to the disgust of bop purists. It wasn’t well reviewed in Britain. But it was a popular release. And as Gillespie told a reporter from the Melody Maker when he brought the group with Graham to Paris in 1953: “Last time we were here, our jazz had entered a dangerous phase – we had lost the rhythm. We had experimented and tried to find something new. I guess we were influenced by European music. Whatever the reason, we had just lost the rhythm. Now we’ve got it right back. We realise that rhythm is the basis of American jazz”.  

A problem that black artists faced when white disc-jockeys and record producers began to pick up on rhythm-and-blues was that white singers and bandleaders came out with cover versions of black performances. A good example might be Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 “Night Train”. It was popular, but was soon covered by the white trombonist and bandleader Buddy Morrow and that version was more likely to be played by predominantly white radio stations. Richards notes that it was included in Billboard magazine’s pop charts. It might be of interest to listen to the recording of a session with Forrest and Miles Davis from a St Louis night-club in 1952. A musician like Forrest moved easily from “Night Train” to “A Night in Tunisia”.

Mentioning Forrest reminds me of Johnny Griffin.  He was a tenor saxophonist who had been central to the success of the Joe Morris band in the 1940s with records like “The Applejack” and “Weasel Walk” where his forceful tenor had supplied much of the excitement, though he could play in a relaxed way, as he did on the attractive “Tia Juana”. Griffin recorded with Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1950s and toured in America and Europe. I recall hearing him in a club in Stockport in the 1970s.

Richards uses 1960 as a convenient cut-off date for his survey of how rhythm-and-blues catered for black tastes in the 1940s and 1950s. This doesn’t suggest that everything suddenly altered after that date.There had been changes going on throughout the 1950s, with the rise of rock-and-roll and other factors that affected what was played. The career of Johnny Otis might give a guide of sorts to shifting influences and tastes. Otis, a drummer, had worked with big-bands and small groups in the 30s and 40s. In 1945/46 he had his own big-band in Los Angeles, but by 1948 or so he had to accept that there was a declining demand for the kind of music it played. He decided to reduce to a smaller size, while keeping sufficient instruments (trumpet, trombone, tenor snd baritone saxes) to give it a full sound. He also employed a number of vocalists, both male and female, and aimed for a no-nonsense rhythm-and-blues approach with a firm beat. Always adaptable, by the mid-1950s he was achieving some pop status with recordings like “Willie did the Hand Jive”, a track I always liked, its rhythm having an infectious effect. Otis’s book, Upside Your Head: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) should be essential reading for anyone interested in the place and the period.

I think it should be obvious by now that this is not an impartial review. My interest in bebop and rhythm-and-blues has lasted well over seventy years. I first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on records around 1950, and I knew Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home”. I must have come across Louis Jordan around the same time. Not many rhythm-and-blues records found their way to Britain in the early-1950s, and if they had I doubt whether the staid BBC would have played them. Their raucous sounds and sometimes salty vocals wouldn’t have been deemed suitable for broadcasting. But Louis Jordan was acceptable, his humorous records (“Ain’t nobody here but us Chickens”) often being innocuous enough. If memory serves me right there were a few rhythm-and-blues discs that were released here, among them Joe Liggins’ “The Honeydripper” and some by Wynonie Harris, including “Bloodshot Eyes”. And there was Big Sis Andrews singing “The Hucklebuck”.

Reading Jazz With a Beat reminded me of so many records I’ve heard over the years. Eddie Chamblee on Sonny Thompson’s “Long Gone”, Red Prysock and Rufus Gore on Tiny Bradshaw’s “Soft”, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis on “Leapin’ On Lennox”. Davis also recorded with Fats Navarro and other boppers. And so many additional tenor saxophonists – Maxwell Davis, Lynn Hope, Tom Archia, Fats Noel, Morris Lane, who can be heard with Lionel Hampton’s band and on some early bop records, Charlie Ferguson. and Bull Moose Jackson.

As well as coming up with material for a nostalgic trip, Tad Richards offers an informed guide to the music he discusses. His book is well documented and has a useful discography. It should appeal to those, like myself, who are familiar with the music, but also to those who want to know more about it.