June 28, 2017

Jon Hendricks, An Appreciation

Jon Hendricks, in 2000

Too often we wait until a person has passed before we reflect on their accomplishments. If I had to pick ten of my favorite interviews from the 340 we have gathered for the Fillius Jazz Archive, both of our sessions with Jon Hendricks would make the cut.
Jon Hendricks is now 91, retired from performing and unfortunately is beset with health issues. He is a man who enjoyed a remarkably creative career and could speak intelligently about seemingly any subject. Jon was a fascinating storyteller. During our initial interview in 1995, he related this tale about Count Basie:
MR: You had quite a wonderful association with Count Basie.
JH: Oh, yeah. It was gorgeous. He was a great man. I mean he was great in such a quiet way. There wasn’t any flamboyance about him. What it was about him, I think was his magnetism. He just set still and was quiet. But nothing happened until he moved. I mean the band would be on the bandstand, and everybody would be sitting there and he’d come and make that introduction, and the whole band would come to life. You know he was such an honest man that it was funny, I mean it was joke the way he would just let the truth come out of his mouth. Like one time we went to London with him. And he asked me to come by his hotel you know, because he was going to do an interview with the London Times. And he was kind of worried about it, and wanted to make sure that everything went well. So he wanted me there in case I had to translate for him for the reporter. So this man sits down and he says, [with a British accent] “Tell me, Mr. Bahsie” he says, “you have a style of playing the piano” he says, “you don’t seem to play too many notes. You’re sort of economical in your style of playing.” He says, “How did you arrive at such a style?” And Basie said, “I just can’t play no more piano.” And I was sitting there and I went into the bathroom and cracked up. Because it was so true but totally unexpected. And then when we saw the article the next day, the guy remarked on how Mr. Basie was so — what did he call it — so modest. He said he was so modest. He wasn’t modest, he was telling the truth.
Jon is often cited as an influence on current vocal groups due to his participation in the iconic jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. His fortuitous meeting with cab driver Tim Hauser helped jump start Manhattan Transfer, a jazz vocal ensemble that is still performing after forty years. From Part 2 in 2000:
JH: I tell the story of the formation of the Manhattan Transfer. Their idea was to be a group like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. That’s why I helped them. That was their aim. I met Tim Hauser in a taxi. He was a taxi driver. And I got in his cab with my brother. And he says, “I know you, you’re Jon Hendricks.” I said, “How do you know me?” He says, “I know you. My name is Tim Hauser and my girlfriend Janis Siegel and I live in Brooklyn and we’re going to start a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross type group called Manhattan Transfer.” I gave him my card, and I said, “Any time I can help you, let me know.” And that was how they started. I said so that’s what vocalese is. It’s the setting of lyrics to established American jazz instrumentals in a form so that it tells a story with a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, a cast of characters, the horns become the characters, and they make a commentary on the subject matter which is determined by the title.
Janis Siegel, an original member of the Manhattan Transfer, speaks of Jon Hendricks with reverence and respect:
MR: How did you get connected?
JS: Well we’ve been doing his stuff from the very beginning honestly. And certainly we were aware of vocalese. For the first album Tim and I wrote a vocalese to “You Can Depend on Me” in the style — I mean influenced certainly by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Jon in particular.  I think “Vocalese” is something that we’re very proud of, continuing the tradition of. And we did a whole record of vocalese with Jon and tackled some very meaty things. And Jon was able to tackle some meaty subjects in his lyrics, particularly “Joy Spring,” “Airegin” really amazing lyrics. And he was in the video of “Rock House” and he was in the video of “Night in Tunisia.” And whenever we could perform with Jon it’s always a blessing.
Individual singers have also been influenced by Jon’s singing and his remarkable skill with the practice of vocalese. In our interview in 2015 Giacomo Gates commented on Jon’s skill:
GG: Jon Hendricks is amazing. And every time I would get something of his I’d say, “Wow, this is the better than the last one.” And then “Freddie Freeloader,” did you ever hear that? It’s amazing what he wrote, and that he sings a John Coltrane solo. I mean who could sing a John Coltrane solo? Jon Hendricks.
The thing I will remember best about our sessions with Jon is his eloquence and passion when speaking about humans, humanity and human nature.
JH: The philosophy that we had as my father’s children, you know. Like he was a very spiritual man and he taught us that we were children of the living God. And every man, woman and child on this planet were our brothers and sisters. And never mind that they didn’t feel that way, that was their problem. It was our job to remember that we are brothers and sisters to every human being. So I find it solved all the racial problems I might have had. Because I’ve never really had any. You know, anybody comes to me, I give them the love I would give a brother. So if they have animosity toward me, first it’s got to get through that. And that’s pretty hard. That’s pretty hard to get through. So I find I have no problems you know. I don’t accept anything but God’s children. And I read Paul, God is no respecter of person. So who is man to cause problems, and to have all this racial — all these politicians talking about the problems between black and white, already are expressing gross ungodliness. And lack of belief in any real God you know. And thus I’ve had no part of that.
MR: We can all learn from some of those comments. That’s wonderful.
JH: I just will not have anything to do with that. Mankind? That’s me. I’m there. If you want something for mankind? Okay. But I will not compartmentalize it you know.

May 25, 2017

Dave Pell, 1925-2017

Dave Pell passed away on May 8 at the age of 92. He was not a familiar name to the casual listener, but he carved himself multiple niches in the West Coast music scene. While Dave was mainly known as a tenor saxophonist, he was a man of many hats, and applied his talents to producing records, taking photographs for album covers, arranging music for large and small ensembles, including the Dave Pell Octet, and organizing the Lester Young based group called The Prez Conference.
I’m sure those who knew Dave would comment on his high energy and healthy sense of humor. While he was born in New York, he never returned after leaving on a trip to the West Coast with the Tony Pastor Orchestra. He did not suffer mediocre musicians gladly, and had a unique way of getting solo space, even as a young man.
DP: I was with Tony Pastor getting there. And the story about Tony Pastor, I get to California and I say, “Gee Tony, this is great. Good-bye. I’m quitting.” He says, ‘you can’t leave me in L.A., this is wilderness. There’s no guys. I can’t get a guy that’ll leave California, they don’t want to come here.” I said, “good-bye.” And so he says, “well stay with me until we leave California and then you can quit. So six weeks later I left the band. But I had fun with Tony because I’d run out to the microphone to beat him to his own solos. Because he didn’t really like to play. But the only way I could get to play was to be a cocky kid and run up to the mic when he’s ready to play and I’m up there playing already. “Sorry, Tony.”
MR: Sounds like you didn’t lack for self confidence.
DP: Oh, no, I was a smart ass, it was terrible. I was just terrible. But that’s kind of a thing that you have to do. It’s almost like the sidemen on the band, they keep watching the leader. And watching all the mistakes he makes. And all the wrong things he does. Because in the back of his mind, I’m going to be a leader some day and I ain’t never gonna put myself — I mean Les Brown, I had a great time with Lester’s band and played on every tune, you know I had a great, great book to play, and we had [Don] Fagerquist and all the good players. And I remember as I went out every time to play a solo out front, we’d just didn’t stand up, we’d go out front — show biz. And I remember kicking over Lester’s horn at least once a night. “Oh, I tripped, ohhh, I’m so sorry, Oh, Les I’ll fix it later.” Well he didn’t play too well. And we didn’t like him playing in the band with us, because the saxes sounded so good. But when he played he played awful. And so if his horn didn’t work, he wouldn’t play. And Les after years and years he finally figured out I was doing it on purpose. You know, “I’m so clumsy, Les, I’m sorry.” But I was kicking over his horn so he wouldn’t play. Terrible, terrible.
Like other Los Angeles-based musicians, Dave was a passionate golfer. He decided there was a niche market for custom-made golf clubs, and he was the man to fill it. In his own words, he stated: “I found out that if I hit the ball and missed the shot that couldn’t be me, it must be the equipment.” This gave birth to yet one more project for the always active Mr. Pell.
I have the feeling that Dave did not enjoy what we call “down time.”
DP: I loved it. I think I would have been happier just playing. But it wasn’t enough for me. It wasn’t enough of a challenge. I figured it’s like sitting there in the band and watching the leader and then realizing all the things he did wrong, and saying I’m going to be the leader now. All right I’m the leader, now what? Well I got 30 albums. Well now what? You know? You keep on wanting to spread out. It’s like improvising. Exactly like improvising. It’s making something happen.
You can watch the entire interview I did with Dave in April of 1996, fresh off the presses on the Fillius Jazz Archive Channel. Click here.

April 25, 2017

She Could Sing the Telephone Book

Today is the one hundredth birthday of vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. When jazz critics debate the superlative jazz singers, they start with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, then move on to everyone else. Ella has always been number one on my personal list. She offered what I wanted in a jazz singer: an impeccable sense of swing, respect for the composer’s melody, and emotion tempered in measured amounts.
In 1999 I had the good fortune to interview pianist Paul Smith in Los Angeles. He cited his time as Ella Fitgzerald’s accompanist as a career highlight:
Paul Smith, in 1999
MR:         Tell me about working with Ella if you don’t mind.
PS:         That was a total delight. Musically you can’t beat it. I mean it spoiled you for most other singers. She was such an easy person to play for. I mean that was a case, I mean when she’s scatting, you play one-fifteenth of what you’re capable of playing. We did one album together, which I bought three or four copies of for posterity for my family and everything, and it’s called “The Intimate Ella,” and it’s just piano and her.
And it’s the one album where nobody plays choruses. I mean most, I’d say 99% of her albums, she was the band singer. The band played 16 bars, or if it was done with Oscar or Joe Pass or whoever, I mean they played choruses and they played behind her, and it was kind of like a coordinated thing between them but it wasn’t really her album. And this one, she loved to sing ballads. And I don’t think she had ever done a complete ballad album, she always ended up having to scat or having to do swinging things. So we did like 15 tunes, all ballads. And she was at the height of her career at that time. And I said, “I’m going to play four bars, and you sing. There’s no piano choruses, nobody else, this is just you, you just do what you want to do.” And it turned out to be — I mean it’s a singer’s tour de force. Every singer should listen to that whole album. That’s where the statement came from she could sing the telephone book and make it sound good. Because she did all the tunes that people have trouble with — “Melancholy Baby,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and the “Black Coffee,” “One for the Road.” It’s just a beautiful album, not because I’m on it but just from the singing standpoint she was exquisite and singing just what she wanted to sing. She didn’t want to do any scat, didn’t want any tunes where she had to ad lib. She did her little ad libs, which she does on ballads, but generally it’s straight melody pretty much. And it’s a great album for her.
You can view the full interview with Paul Smith on the Fillius Jazz Archive YouTube Channel.
Here’s a link to “Angel Eyes,” one of the cuts from “The Intimate Ella.”
As a contrast, you may also enjoy this classic performance of Ella scatting on “How High the Moon.”
Happy Birthday, Ella!