A beautiful film about a jazz legend
whose talent did not match his recognition.
- CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
BY GARY GIDDINS
June 7, 1988
Copyright Gary Giddins.
Reprinted by permission of Gary Giddins.
The limits of bicoastalism begin at the doorway of jazz. The impasse that divides East Coast and West Coast jazz is plainly insurmountable. Those labels haven’t been current for at least 25 years, and never accurately certified adverse styles, yet they suggest an invisible frontier across which only the hardiest souls have successfully traveled. It is a fact that West Coast musicians have enjoyed gloried careers in the sun and studios without attracting so much as a sneer on this tight little island; conversely, our most venturesome souls, not a few of whom were born and raised in Los Angeles, are lucky to get a one-nighter out west. Since jazz is no longer played at the Philharmonic or other major halls, and schools remain a largely unexploited itinerary, the only circuit that counts is that of the key jazz clubs, which gets harder and harder to penetrate. So once in a while a Benny Carter, Ray Brown, or Frank Morgan makes the big trip, but the superb quintet that Snooky Young and Marshall Royal formed a few years ago has never played in New York, let alone the all-star big bands of Frankie Capp and Nat Pierce or John Clayton. Even the prolific Gerald Wilson, a California icon for decades, is relatively unknown here. And, unimaginable as it sounds, had not Blythe, Murray, Newton, Morris and Crouch reversed Horace Greenley’s advise, they might now be as familiar to New Yorkers as say, Horace Tapscott.
Leonard Feather, who moved west in the early ‘60s and is an indefatigable propagandist for the L.A. club scene, has long argued that New York critics are remiss in refusing to look beyond the Allegheny. During a week-long visit I attempted to compensate by spending those hours I wasn’t lost on freeways in jazz rooms. The options are considerable. The L.A. Weekly lists no less than 35 venues under the heading Jazz. I ignored the very few places where circuit regulars -Red Rodney, Michel Petrucciani, Freddie Hubbard, George Shearing- could be heard, and scratched off those that succumbed to fusion. The first thing you notice perusing what’s left is that most L.A. clubs don’t book by the week. New bands every night. Even local favorites aren’t favorite enough to insure the necessary audience turnover. At many places the key attraction is food, and as one club owner put it, patrons who dine nightly don’t want to hear the same thing all week. That’s what she said.
One night I trailed Leonard’s car to the Comeback Inn, in Venice, because he’d heard good things about a saxophonist named Rudolph Johnson, a member of the Ray Charles orchestra, who was to debut in the Wednesday night slot. Johnson was ill, however, and his replacement was another Ray Charles saxophonist, Ricky Woodard. As Leonard remarked after set one, “How much better could Johnson have been?” Woodard brought a tenor and alto, but concentrated on the former. The general level of musicians who mine John Coltrane’s reserve is so high that Woodard will have a hard time distinguishing himself. Fast, sinuous arpeggios and a burnished sound are commonplace, and so is Coltrane’s book. A set made up of “Blue Trane,” “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” (the 1928 Sigmund Romberg ballad that sounds mysteriously like a Coltrane original), Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me,” “Straight No Chaser,” and “Body and Soul” is clearly designed to prove that the band can play the repertory, not break new ground. Still, Woodard has something of his own and it comes to life in his debt to another late-‘50s tenor tradition, the warmer, furrier players like Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, and George Coleman. Combining their more human intonation with fleet, tufted riffs that break up the scalar motion shows a way out of the Coltrane habit.
Of course, the choice of tunes reflects the fact that this surprise debut pinned Woodard to a band expecting to play with Rudolph Johnson. The band chatter between numbers was the stuff of jam sessions: “Do you know ‘Ugetsu?’” “No.” “’Straight No Chaser?’” “Hmmmm.” “Ready for a ballad? Want to try ‘Body and Soul?’” Everyone nodded in agreement. At which point pianist Bill Henderson played Tommy Flanagan’s vamp from Dexter Gordon’s version. Henderson is an engaging player, carefully plotting spare, lyric moves in the middle register, filling them out with block chords, or taking the Tynerish approach of heavy rhythmic patterns in the bass and light trebly figures skipping through the spaces. Bassist Jeff Littleton, whose linear solos had a lean, leathery appeal, and drummer Peter Hillman were no less familiar with the routine.
The Comeback Inn is pure El Lay. Billed as “The Vegetarian jazz club by the sea,” it offers grains, salads, tempeh, ciders, teas, almond milk, and raw fruit pie (no “artificial or animal products”), holds about 60 people, and is filled with plant life. The menu promises, “A NEW AGE of humankind has evolved, one with a new set of needs and desires.” The latter aren’t stipulated, but the owner-chef, Will Raabe, who created the place 15 years ago, steps out of the kitchen to introduce the band and welcome patrons, wearing a Palm Springs T-shirt and blue apron, and determined to spread pleasantness. He invites musicians to use the stage as a showcase, and two regulars, Ray Pizza and Milcho Leviev, will soon introduce a record label, Doron (Greek for gift), to document the music. Among those whom Raabe says got their start on his stage and “made it out here” are Henry Butler, Rickie Lee Jones, Dianne Reeves, and Billy Childs.
Nucleus Nuance on Melrose Avenue, is the other side of protein-lots of animal products, though pasta is primary. Whereas the vegetarians sip their cider with all eyes on the stage, and the only sound other than the music is an occasional cheer from a hyperventilating enthusiast, the animal eaters are a din unto themselves, plethoric and implacable. I went on a Thursday to hear Ernie Andrews, accompanied by an Art Hillery trio (Richard Simon, bass, Johnny Kirkwood, drums) that opened the set with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” –which, in this instance, was perhaps a hint. Andrews ascended the stage sporting a red beret, tried vainly to get some attention, cheerfully commented, “If it’s alright with you, it’s alright with me,” and made “Cabaret” a convincing anthem, sly and swinging. At 60, Andrews has too long been confined to California. He’s a wholly satisfying stylist with a mild bass-baritone that owes less than most to Billy Eckstine, even on patented ballad material like “Time after Time” and “A Cottage for Sale” (he uses the famous Eckstine coda). He made his first recordings in 1945, returning to the studios occasionally in the ‘50s, with Lucky Thompson and Benny Carter in tow. In 1959, he joined Harry James for four months, and later sang on records by Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, and the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut. Yet despite his easy way with embellishments and the ability to set an after-hours mood, he’s never had the hit that might have given him a national draw.
Nucleus Nuance consists of two large rooms (a wall-sized picture dividing them drops when the show begins), and you enter through a long hallway covered with photographs-first of movie stars, then old Hollywood scenes, and finally jazz musicians. Its owners, Bruce and Cathy Veniero (of New Yorks’ Veniero’s), became partners in the late-‘70s with chef Rudi Marshall, who had opened the restaurant in 1967. Cathy was a stuntwoman waitressing there and Bruce was a customer when they met, married, bought in, introduced a music policy in 1980, and revamped the room after the old Coconut Grove, with a dance floor (filled for Andrews’s set) and a reputation for attracting stars and politicians. Listeners are at a premium.
The next night I drove to Santa Monica and the Loa to hear one of the few living masters from the days of Central Avenue, when bop found its California accent: Teddy Edwards. Ray Brown has an interest in the huge brick room, which opened a year and a half ago under the ownership of Mariko Omura. When Brown plays, as he did last week with Herb Ellis, it’s filled. When Oscar Peterson’s trio came in, the room asked for and got a $75 cover from capacity crowds. Edwards is only there on the weekend, but by the second set the room spreads thin. I’ll bet he could pack the Vanguard. Notwithstanding his high reputation among musicians, Edwards is very likely the most underrated tenor saxophonist around. At 64, he embodies the whole travail of modern jazz. Born in Mississippi, he worked in territory bands at the age of 12, moved at 18 to Detroit, where he played with Hank Jones, and to Los Angeles two years later. Within a couple of years, he and Howard McGhee were among the first to establish modern jazz in a town that had recently banned Bird and Diz from the radio. He recorded tenor duets with Dexter Gordon; took a turn with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet; embarked on a 25-year on–and-off relationship with Gerald Wilson; appeared with Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, and numerous combos of his own; and built an imposing catalogue of original songs known for their melodic ingenuity and structural caginess.
Although I’ve long admired his records (the 1967 Prestige date, It’s All Rightis an authentic cult classic), I had never seen him live, so I was taken aback by the undiminished power of his sound and the constancy of his ideas. Edwards never merely runs changes.
His solos are crafted with steamy riffs, rifled through like a deck of cards, blues hollers, sonorous moans and high wails, and middle register melodies that paraphrase the song under study. It was, I suppose, characteristic of him to begin the set with an original ballad, “April Love” (“we don’t want you to get it confused with Pat Boone”), that commanded attention from the first note, a solitary worldly tone hovered like a winked eye, and sustained as an effusion of smoky lyricism. On a racing blues, he prolonged tension and interest with unfailingly lucid phrases, and on “Sunday,” he made the pretty chords shine at an equally nimble tempo bumming like an engine but also defining his notes with growls and trailing his phrases down into a cavernous rumble. On “Georgia On My Mind,” the notes were less articulated than sighed. On a typical original “No Name #1,” the eight- and 12-bar alternating phrases enforced clarity at every phrase of his solo. Like Horace Silver, Edwards writes in a way that encourages the soloist not to run scales.
The pleasure of this evening resided not in Edwards alone, but in the superior rhythm section. Art Hillery was on piano again, only this time you could hear him at length and well. He began his feature “Stella by Starlight,” with a paraphrase of the theme etched in minor seconds and substitute chords that continually played hide and seek with the melody. In subsequent choruses, he opened up the dissonances, employing an astonishing variety of voicings for each chord followed by a tight-fingered consonant variation, and a return to the minor seconds. The entire performance had a hushed and bracing quality. Hillery, a veteran who often plays organ and records rarely – with Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Whiterspoon – deserves more attention, as do bassist Allen Jackson, who pulls on the strings and plays near the bridge for emphasis, but does his most fortifying walk in the low register, and drummer Paul Humphrey, a familiar name on L.A. recording sessions who maintains complementary rhythms on the ride and sock cymbals and reserves the snare for midrash. This is a group ripe for touring and belated celebration.
Copyright Gary Giddins.
Reprinted by permission of Gary Giddins.