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, mosaicrecords.com) 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.

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.

Hackett had a lot worse to contend with than Stitt, but his response was to play every solo as though it might be his last. The same silvery brilliance he brought to sessions with his own bands is heard amid arrangements of breathtaking awfulness. Mosaic uncharacteristically presents the albums as originally sequenced, reserving two infelicitous concept LPs for the last disc: On Blues With a Kick, which has little in the way of blues, he delivers on those rare occasions when permitted to poke his horn through the charts (his break on "Sugar Blues" goes off like an alarm clock—it failed to wake up the producer, but did amend the shuffle rhythm); on Hawaii Swings, a good little band is restrained by cuteness.

Don't Take Your Love From Me, however, could be the most schizoid album every made; the utterly appalling charts by one David Terry present Hackett with the obstacle of a three-women choir from the banshee school of wordless shrieking (they suggest a theremin at times), plus such condiments as tambourine, tympani, and harpsichord. And yet, and yet: Hackett plays with the infallible tact and expressive determination of a man who doesn't know or care that he's surrounded by philistines. On songs like "Autumn Serenade," "Street of Dreams," and the obscure "Wonderful One," there are moments of ludicrous drama, a meeting of the mind and the mindless. So much for apologies. The other seven albums wreath Hackett in clover.

When I was younger, I used to resent the short playing time of, say, The Bobby Hackett Quartet. But in this context, as gorgeous details proliferate in one number after another, I'm more inclined to appreciate how complete and realized his every solo is. Only one number, "My Monday Date," from At the Embers, comes to an ungainly or abrupt end; elsewhere, a canny grace dominates, a combination of animated arrangements and Hackett's alacrity in attacking the melodies. Most of this music is supposed to be not jazz lite but light jazz, '50s style—supper-club fare. The depths he achieves romping through "Spring, Beautiful Spring," of all things, is a reassuring surprise, as though he were aiming every note in defiance of the dollar sign Capitol was trying to stamp on his head. This isn't mood music: You could do aerobics to "C'est Magnifique." One marvels at the energy of the opening notes on "It's Been So Long" or the swinging élan of "If I Had My Way," the stuff of barbershop quartets, wondering how he got away with playing as much as he does. Of course, he didn't get the big hits either. But then, I don't imagine Mosaic will be collecting the Capitol quartets of Jonah Jones, who did.

From the first bars of Soft Lights and Bobby Hackett, for which he is backed by rhythm and an efficient string quartet that never becomes oppressive, Hackett embellishes tunes more boldly than he is generally thought to do (Jon Hendricks could write a lyric to his choruses on "Old Black Magic"), hitting key melody notes while kneading harmonies to bring out every lovely curve, always maintaining the equilibrium of a dance—for example, his breaks on "I Cried for You." Something else brought into sharper focus by this box (and Dan Morgenstern's superb notes) is the variety of sounds he effects through mutes, always maintaining an impeccably controlled timbre—for example, the harmonic buzzing on "You Turned the Tables on Me."

Still, I prefer his open horn, as on the exceptional April 3, 1956, session, when Hackett recorded four masterpieces, including an almost embarrassingly sexy "Moonlight Becomes You." His timelessness is underscored by a session that borrowed the sound of the George Shearing Quintet (the label, which had him under contract, might better have borrowed Shearing); its calculated modernism now sounds cloying in a way Hackett's variations don't. Hackett kept growing: His "Embraceable You" from the 1959 Easy Beat rivals his classic 1939 version and trumps it in harmonic complexity. Sonny Stitt has always benefited from the imprimatur of the modern, which sees him and us through a lot of journeyman work. Maybe Mosaic, which previously released Hackett records on The Complete Capitol Fifties Jack Teagarden Sessions (including the ebullient Jazz Ultimate), Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions, and Classic Columbia Condon Mob Sessions has earned for Hackett a re-evaluation beyond the stereotypes of Dixieland and Muzak.

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