Work for Hire

Sonny Stitt and Bobby Hackett Survive the Marketplace

All artists who have to work for a living are coaxed into adjusting the aspirations of their talent to the fashions of the marketplace. Recent compilations on Mosaic (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, suggest how two freelancers handled this dilemma. Although only nine years separate Bobby Hackett from Sonny Stitt, that's a generational leap in jazz—the difference between coming of age with Armstrong's big bang and to maturity in an era of Dixieland and swing; and coming of age with swing's big bands and to maturity with bebop and r&b. Yet from the purview of a new century, the symmetries overwhelm the distinctions. The Complete Capitol Bobby Hackett Solo Sessions and The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Sessions capture both men at their peaks, while also muddling through compromised or indifferent settings. Mosaic, it should be noted, does not edit best-of sets. If the constituent albums were available separately (they aren't at present), one or two from each box might satisfy most listeners. What we have here are warts-and-all biographical portraits of two pros making their way.

One obvious parallel involves questions of influence, which caused greater anxiety among critics than the musicians. Stitt (1924-82) idolized Charlie Parker and began to master his style by 1943, before Parker was known to the public. He took Parker's light, bright sound, speed, and a lexicon of Parker riffs that he never stopped using. Stitt's alto had its own fire (e.g., 1949's "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm"), but he underscored his emerging style by taking up tenor, allowing the classic swing legato of Lester Young more parity in his work (1950's "Mean to Me"). No matter how thrillingly or distinctly he played, though, Stitt was bedeviled by the comparison. Hackett (1915-76) initially made his name in 1938, playing a minute of a Bix Beiderbecke solo at Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall debut, and had to withstand decades of assumptions that made no sense, because Hackett's approach to trumpet and cornet is thoroughly individual on every level, from timbre to phrasing. His Beiderbecke readings on a 1955 session (see Mosaic's The Complete CBS Recordings of Eddie Condon and His All Stars) are conspicuous for the absence of Bix licks.

Homages to Bix and Bird were the least of it. Pigeonholing bound them to generic conventions—polyphonic revels for Hackett, harmonic steeplechases for Stitt. This was natural enough, on the surface, but one can't help but feel that their promise was stifled by the comforts of routine. Thus Hackett flitted predictably between Condon-style Dixieland and mood music, for which he apprenticed during a brief but momentous stay with Glenn Miller and a blockbuster success as the soloist on Jackie Gleason's seduction LPs. Thus Stitt flitted predictably between small bop ensembles, with frequent saxophone jousting, and the humbler mood music of organ bands, a love child of bop and r&b that got radio play. Hackett, who liked to perform modern pieces live, often recorded great tunes in corny settings; Stitt, who had a taste for Tin Pan Alley detritus, often recorded corny tunes in hip settings.

Sonny Stitt: an invulnerable sense of noblesse oblige
photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images
Sonny Stitt: an invulnerable sense of noblesse oblige

For a while, each had to overcome the bad habits of a generation: the bottle for Hackett, the needle for Stitt. That didn't make them any more independent. Yet the ways they acceded to commercial dictates could hardly have been more different. Stitt, who would record anytime, anywhere, usually with a pickup band, had an invulnerable sense of noblesse oblige. If the session was uninspiring, say an organ group or electric saxophone venture or a rent-paying session with a dull producer, he just connected the dots, letting arpeggios unreel while his brain vacationed, assuming that his serious fans could tell his committed music from his work for hire. I'm speculating, but not without experience, having, in 1975, produced Stitt's worst album. He arrived at the studio, took one look at the all-star band I had assembled, the lead sheets I dared to propose, and my own callow but eager face, and demanded, consumed, and regurgitated a quart of scotch, before mentally leaving the building—yet how his fingers flew!

The Mosaic set has plenty of both Stitts. "Cherokee" (naturally) is pure exhilaration—incisive bebop acrobatics, spry and sly, pushed forward by a heroic rhythm section (Hank Jones, Wendell Marshall, Shadow Wilson), with Stitt so adroitly commanding that even his Bird quote has a kind of stubborn brio. Many of the Roosts are this good, including the rare use of large ensembles arranged by Johnny Richards, whose modernist harmonies are close and almost cuddly, yet juiced by occasional dissonances, and Quincy Jones, who employs a Basie-ite rhythm section—Stitt draws energy from Freddie Green's guitar on "My Funny Valentine"; on "Lover," when he feels a cliché coming on, he bats it away like a gnat.

Stitt has his cornball side—tag endings and those little pick-me-up turnbacks with which he wheels from one episode into another, not to mention a predilection for ditties like "My Blue Heaven" and "(Keep Your) Sunny Side Up" (mistakenly described as a Stitt original!), heard on the excellent 1959 Sonny Side Up; here, on tenor, he is his own man, even when referencing Parker in his double-timing or channeling Young in his yearning introspection—the neat eight-bar units with which he poses variations on "My Mother's Eyes." But then there's "Sposin'," from one of the many sides he made with organist Don Patterson, where mellowness is a consequence of distraction and the turnbacks are covered in moss. Nor does he perk up for a session with Thad Jones and Chick Corea, which verges on jazz lite—a producer's idea, no doubt. Fortunately, he goes out on a high note, stimulated by Harold Mabern and Roy Haynes for his last date at Roost.

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