Rousing Rabble

At JATP swing, bebop, and R&B found common ground on the solid rock of 4/4, the aggression offering a raucous alternative to dance as a way of participating

As Illinois Jacquet chomps down on his reed and squeals for the fifth or sixth time, you may feel a tad self-conscious about listening to The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve 1944-1949 (Verve) at home alone. No, the way you want to experience a good portion of these 10 CDs is to rent a hall and invite 1500 or so rowdy friends to shout encouragement as the music unfolds. You might also consider recruiting someone who can leap from a balcony to add mythic resonance, and actors in pinstripes to pretend to play onstage. Of course, having gone that far you may as well junk the discs and hire real musicians. Gosh, why hasn't anyone thought of that?

JATP, so named because the first concerts were staged at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, began in the early '40s, the brainchild of Norman Granz. The hugely successful series toured the United States until 1957, and continued in Europe for another decade. It popularized staged jam sessions and concert recordings and furthered the cause of integration in theaters (discussed in Nat Hentoff's welcome liner-note interview with the normally reclusive Granz) and the careers of Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. Critics loathed JATP and its audience; in a 1946 piece reprinted in the 224-page CD booklet (which includes everything but the track descriptions you'd expect), the reviewer observes, "Every hydrocephalic and congenital idiot in Chicago was on hand," and declares Jacquet "the lousiest tenor in the country making over $50 a week." Musicians also balked at JATP excesses. Asked to appear in a finale, the majestic Coleman Hawkins, the MVP of this collection, told Granz, "I don't play numbers like that."

For 50 years, JATP has been synonymous with showboating and vulgarity in jazz, a case amply made in several performances— I fast- forwarded through some of trumpeter Shorty Sherrock's exertions. But there is much fine, even historic music here, recorded at a nexus of swing and bop and r&b that suggests a stylistic rapprochement rare in any era. JATP has something going for it beyond great music. Lots of concerts produce great music— JATP produced great audiences, hydrocephalic or not. They generated the mayhem and their roar was the prize for which musicians like Jacquet battled. One of many previously unissued performances is an excerpt, the final two minutes of a Coleman Hawkins ballad, "The Talk of the Town," too brief to be of musical value, but worth including for the fans' rapturous yes— and for a ballad, yet.

JATP did infect the staged jam with a tastelessness by no means indigenous to the form. Legendary jams of the 1930s were, by all reports, as highly musical as the Battles of the Bands at the Savoy. During the last 30 years, the numerous jams staged by George Wein (especially Radio City blowouts in the early '70s) or Dick Gibson at his Colorado Jazz Parties boosted musical competition in a context that honored humor, melody, and resourcefulness as much as or more than yeoman straining. Why was JATP different? In part because in those years swing was fading, bop was impending, and r&b was making trouble on the sidelines. At JATP those styles found common ground on the solid rock of 4/4, the changes hammered out without subtlety (you can't fail to hear every bridge a soloist crosses), the aggression offering a raucous alternative to dance as a way of participating.

The r&b is strongest at the beginning, in 1944, on "Lester Leaps In," as Les Paul's slashing rhythm guitar sets the stage for Jack McVea, a good West Coast honker who two years later successfully invaded Louis Jordan's territory with "Open the Door, Richard." Yet he's far more poised than his fellow Lionel Hampton alum, Jacquet, who squeals and whistles and stomps and bellows. Call it a temper tantrum or youthful indiscretion; his solo on an unissued excerpt from "Oh, Lady Be Good" may be the most tawdry performance of his career. Other musicians keep their heads, including J.J. Johnson, laying down slablike riffs rather than twirling bebop triplets. Yet it's the pianist who consistently steals the show: Nat King Cole is the savviest soloist, and you look forward to his rhythmic aplomb, comic juxtapositions, and sly asides, just as you look away from Jacquet's tormenting variations on the same hell-raising solo.

By contrast, the infamous 1947 "Perdido" is almost well-tempered. Flip Phillips begins with an avuncular jauntiness, then grates his sound as he challenges Jacquet, who has to wait his turn as Howard McGhee, bebop's answer to Roy Eldridge and at his peak in those years, builds his own drama. Jacquet snorts a few Preservational choruses before charging, yet avoids the gimmicks, retiring from the field without causing alarm, as though Phillips had sobered him up. Hank Jones and the underrated Woody Herman trombonist Bill Harris seduce the piece to a finish. On "Mordido," Jacquet strikes first with a genuinely exciting solo before remembering the stakes and then squealing till the crowd signals catharsis. Phillips gets the ransom, however, with a solo of monstrous tackiness— live by the rabble, die by the rabble— that agitates Jacquet to go ballistic on "Endido."

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