JANUARY 16, 1938 is a date many jazz fans immediately recognize as significant: Benny Goodman took his orchestra to Carnegie Hall. Few would recall that the 17th of that month was of equal, perhaps greater, importance in the history of American music. For it was on that day that Commodore Records, the first of the independent jazz labels, cut its first sides.
Milt Gabler, the producer of that label, recently spent years searching for a way to make available again his long out-of-print catalogue. Now the first batch of 10 albums is out, with 40 more on their way, under the auspices of Columbia Special Products.
Giants of the music abound throughout the collection: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster, Jelly Roll Morton; James P. Johnson and Art Tatum; Jack Teagarden and Vic Dickenson; Roy Eldridge, Lips Page and Cootie Williams; Pee Wee Russell and Benny Goodman; Oscar Pettiford and Pops Foster; Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett; Billie Holiday. Gabler didn't fool around.
Kansas City Six and Five (XFL 14427) presents two sessions in 1938. The earlier one is with Buck Clayton, trumpet, backed by members of the Count Basie rhythm section (less piano) and Eddie Durham on electric guitar. There is clarity, great swing and beauty to the numbers by this quintet - but it is only when Lester Young is added a half year later than the term "classic" can be applied. The five selections by that sextet are among the golden items in a set of albums replete with riches.
In his tenor-sax solo on "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" Young demonstrates why his approach exerted such influence. His style was cool on the surface yet implicitly hot. Low-keyed is a fitting description for this set.
"Prez" may have created his own quiet revolution but the man who first fashioned teh role for the tenor saxophone in jazz was Coleman Hawkins. There is no one around today on that instrument who has escaped the influence of "Bean."
Hawkins won first place on his instrument for the four years Esquire conducted an annual poll. The Chocolate Dandies (XFL 14936) is made up in part of a session in 1943 played by Hawkins and a sextet, all of them voted the best by a panel of critics more than third of a century ago.
On "Esquire Bounce" the great tenorist deals inventively with a simple melodic line, turning it this way, trying it on that way, creating beauty out of simplicity. His own composition, "Boff Boff (Mop Mop)" allows him to get off some boppish lines, displaying his sympathy for the new music just coming in. Througout the session Art Tatum proves himself to be na adept band pianist and contributes, as always, solo work of brilliance. Big Sid Catlett shows us whence came most of the drummers who followed him. Also present are that master of the plunger mute, Cootie Williams, on trumpet; Edmond Hall playing a grainy clarinet; and fine support and brief solos by guitarist Al Casey and bassist Oscar Pettiford. The music is timeless but only the trumpet player and the guitarist are still with us.
It has become a cliche to point out that Bille Holiday could transform the banal lyrics of Tin Pan Alley into works of art. Nevertheless one repeats that well-worn observation, citing examples. There are several one might choose from Fine and Mellow (XFL 14428) but one will suffice: Listen to how she reshapes "I'll Get By" - as unlikely a vehicle for a jazz vocalist as one could imagine, yet superbly illustrating her intuitive genius for personalized statement.
The two dates from which the album is called find Holiday in the company of Frank Newton (1939) and Eddie Heywood (1944), both of whom had worked with her at clubs. She is in fine form, giving us a least one masterpiece, "My Old Flame," several others nearly at that level, and the powerful mataphorical statement, bold for its time, condemning the oppression of blacks, "Strange Fruit."
New Orleans Memories Plus Two (XFL 14942) returns to currency the piano solos and vocals that Jelly Roll Morton recorded two years before his death in 1941. (I had the originals among the first 30 or so records in my jazz collection and recommend that those newly taking in interest in this music do likewise.) Two previously unissued tracks are included: "Sporting House Rag" and an alternate of "Naked Dance."
Tenorists Ben Webster and Don Byas share an album, Two Kings of the Tenor Sax , but not the sessions, of mid-'40s materials. Both illustrate the influence of the big-toned Hawkins, yet these two slightly younger masters of the instrument also reveal an unquestionable individuality. All three musicians died in the space of four years, 1969-1973.
Three's No Crowd (XFL 14941) showcases in trio format another important tenor saxophonist, But Freeman, who stands apart stylistically from both Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Jess Stacy, piano, and drummer George Wettling give him able support on these sides from 1938.
Pianists Mel Powell and Joe Bushkin lead groups on The World is Waiting (XFL 14943). The front line of the former's sextet of 1942 consisted of Billy Butterfield, Benny Goodman and Lou McGarity. His 17-piece orchestra of 1946 contained Neil Hefti, Mitch Miller (of Sing Along Frame , here on oboe), Cutty Cutshall and Big Sid Catlett - talk about a motley crew! Bushkin, in this 1944 session, is in the company of Bill Harris, a trombonist of major importance for the period, and the now ubiquitous (deservedly so) Zoot Sims.
Finally, for its devoted follwers there are three collections of "Chicago Style" jazz in its New York incarnation (which is where most of that idiom was recorded): Windy City Seven and Jam Sessions at Commodore (XFL 14427) featuring Eddie Condon; That's a Plenty (XFL 14939) with Wild Bill Davison; and Jack Teagarden and Max Kaminsky on Big T and Mighty Max (XFL 14940). Many of the other regulars of this rough and tumble genre - often called the "Condon Mob" after the music's promoter, Eddie Condon - are also present: George Brunis, Pee Wee Russell, Gene Schroeder. Occasional joiners in the fray James P. Johnson, Pops Foster, and Bobby Hackett assist in the feverish proceedings. And Condon himself is there on guitar on most of the numbers.
Annotation of the albums is by Dan Morgenstern, Leonard Feather, Richard Sudhalter and Gabler. The original 78 rpm's have been masterfully restored without doctoring to simulate stereo; surface noise is at a minimum. Personal listings and dates of performances are well organized and easily accessible with the titles (not buried in the liner notes, thankfully). Many numbers are coupled with second takes.