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.”
The January 28, 1946, concert with Charlie Parker and Lester Young represents JATP at its most profound and uneven. Lester’s drummer brother Lee keeps the session swinging like mad, but the overwrought altoist Willie Smith and high-note trumpeter Al Killian are out of their depths. Parker’s solo on “Oh, Lady Be Good,” a triumph of the blues imagination, is one of his most celebrated and influential, but, after a clubfooted bass solo that goes on for a day and a half, Young stays in the game with a solo that is a phenomenon in its own right— so melodic it inspired a song, King Pleasure’s “Golden Days.” In the absence of jousting pugnacity, the more refined jams don’t cohere— you succumb to the good parts and suffer or skip the bad ones. Parker was billed below Hawkins and Young (their promised Battle of the Tenors is thoroughly noncombative), but if you think bop was too sophisticated for the clamoring throng, listen to it thunder the first time Granz introduces Bird.
In addition to numerous nonjam sets, ranging from Billie Holiday, in gorgeous voice, to the hilarious Slim Gaillard, who brings down the house every time he announces “Groove Juice Special,” the boxed set— which looks like a cross between a highway billboard and a Japanese house and demands an altar rather than a CD shelf— has many surprises. Hawk, Pres, and Buck Clayton are sublime on “I Surrender Dear.” The two tenor mandarins have de facto dueling seconds on “Bugle Call Rag,” in Corky Corcoran (a Hawkins man) and Babe Russin (in his Lester period). Even Jacquet calms down in their presence, demonstrating his own mastery with a forthright sprint on “Philharmonic Blues” (he can’t resist that Martha lick, though, which on another selection Bill Harris mimics). Dizzy Gillespie is spellbinding on “Crazy Rhythm,” as is Mel Powell’s virtuoso extension of Teddy Wilson, whose style shapes every pianist on hand except Meade Lux Lewis and Nat Cole, much as Charlie Christian animates all the guitarists, especially Les Paul and Dave Barbour. A 1945 set combines Hawkins, big band sidemen, and an unknown bassist named Charlie Mingus— “a recording man around town.” “I do hope that we dig you righteously,” an announcer says. Hawkins, superb in every appearance, can rouse rabble as well as anyone, but with the tough-guy incisiveness of, say, Bogart. After a weird Buddy Cole intro on “Body and Soul,” he spins baroque variations on his variations.
Volume Six is special, despite poor sound and dated spoken commentary, as it collects surviving scraps from a 1946 Carnegie Hall program, including an exceptional Lester Young quartet set. The brightest jewel is a reading of “D.B. Blues” on which he plays two choruses for an even deeper performance than the Aladdin recording. An excerpt from “I Got Rhythm” fades in on Lester playing a superfast interpolation of the usually languid “Blue Lester.” Billie Holiday sings “Fine and Mellow”— a yawp of recognition follows the first notes— with beautiful obbligato by Buck Clayton. Backed only by pianist Bobby Tucker, she tosses off a beguiling 90-second Ethel Watersstyled “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” Another savory discovery is buried in an otherwise discursive B-flat blues: a dynamic 11-chorus solo by Roy Eldridge that may have been too breakneck and intricate to engender a riot, but is one of the meatiest solos in the whole box.
Still, the biggest payoff of all is a re-creation of the September 1949 Carnegie Hall concert, two and a half hours of music spread over the last three discs, with Parker, Young, Eldridge, an entire set by Hawkins, Oscar Peterson’s U.S. debut (backed by Ray Brown), and solo after solo by an ebullient Ella Fitzgerald, whose joy-of-bop scat and spot-on Louis Armstrong impersonation were still new to most of the public. Her radiance is amplified by the astonished delight of the crowd, which by then ought to have suspected that the musical anarchy of the ’40s was fading in favor of the precious and the cool, to be reborn half a decade later in a form it could never dig. Yet it may also have gleaned in that intoxicatingly girlish yet assured lady some continuity toward a merrily swinging future.