In 1957, an era when singles were for kids and Broadway shows dominated the LP charts, drummer Shelly Manne scored a surprise hit with an album of jazz treatments of songs from My Fair Lady, featuring the coy piano stylings of Andre Previn. Its success started a trend for Broadway tie-ins that lasted well into the ’60s. These were a&r department concoctions—exploitation records, pure and simple—because even though vintage show tunes still rivaled the blues in providing raw material for jazz, sharing billing with a recent stage hit in pursuit of bigger sales meant staying closer to the melodies than most jazz modernists generally preferred. Even so, the attempt at piggybacking yielded a surprising number of musical successes. Following are a baker’s dozen in no particular order, except as I thought of them. An asterisk indicates current availability on CD.
Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof
Auteurist film critics revere Howard Hawks precisely because he was a glorified assignment director, a hired hand whose touch was clearly visible whether the film was a John Wayne western or a Marilyn Monroe musical. Though an LP of songs from Fiddler almost certainly wasn’t Adderley’s idea, his sensibility pervades—with help from a Coltrane-obsessed Charles Lloyd, he earns the auteur’s possessive by strong-arming Sheldon Harnack’s schmaltzy Broadway yi-diddle-diddle into funky, Eastward-looking, modal hard bop.*
Kenny Dorham Quintet
A first-generation bebopper overshadowed by Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro (and then by Miles Davis and Clifford Brown), Dorham by this point in his career was more beholden to Sonny Rollins than to any fellow trumpeter. Six melodies from the mother of all “book” musicals show off his Rollins-like flair for thematic improvisation while setting free his inner comic thespian.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
Sammy Davis, Jr. starred as a singing prizefighter in this civil rights–era hit musical, adapted from Clifford Odets and boasting one Strouse-and-Adams showstopper after another. An expanded edition of the Messengers (including both Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan) lets Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, and Wayne Shorter test their wings as arrangers—Shorter’s the one who soars, on the flapping “This Is the Life.”
All American in Jazz
More Strouse and Adams, this time reconceived as Ellingtonia. It’s as remarkable a transformation as the maestro’s adaptations of rival bandleaders’ themes a few years later, and Paul Gonsalves’s leaping balladry on “I’ve Just Seen Her” is a performance for the ages.
Gary McFarland Orchestra
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
An underacknowledged classic, briefly available on CD about 10 years ago. The Frank Loesser tunes are among the most clever ever written for Broadway, and the liberties taken by arranger McFarland are based on recognizing what made them special to begin with. Amid a parade of star soloists, Clark Terry is the standout for the insouciant way he sails through “I Believe in You.”
Prestige Moodsville, 1962
The show was talked about for its color-blind casting of Diahann Carroll, for putting a chamber orchestra onstage, and for Richard Rodgers writing his own lyrics. The only song that caught on was “The Sweetest Sound,” but you’d never guess the others are mediocre from the courtly treatment tenor patriarch Hawkins gives them. Featuring his regular quartet from this period, including the infallible Tommy Flanagan on piano.
The Music Man
The clarinetist/saxophonist’s own rural leanings and respect for simplicity made him the ideal man to jazz up Meredith Wilson’s paean to small-town America. The ballads yearn, the marches strut the blues, and “Marian the Librarian” is treated to a stylish makeover.*
Goes “Girl Crazy”
Warner Bros., 1958
Reviving material from a show that had closed almost 30 years earlier was merely an excuse to let the vinegary cornetist lavish attention on “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” and lesser-known Gershwin gems alongside Al Cohn, Hank Jones, and Jim Hall. As if Braff needed an excuse to play Gershwin, or to treat melodies gorgeously.*
Herb Geller & His All-Stars
A British LP reissue was called The Rhythm Section, and you’ll know why after hearing Scott LaFaro and Elvin Jones lay the blueprint for free jazz in support of Thad Jones’s trumpet and the leader’s Parker-fluent alto on a pair of piano-less romps. Elsewhere, Hank Jones alternates piano with Billy Taylor, making this one of very few albums to feature the entire Jones clan. But what really clinches it for me are four fetching vocals by the forgotten Barbara Long, who was obscure even then.*
Eddie Costa Quartet
Guys and Dolls Like Vibes
I’m one guy who might have liked this even better if Costa and Bill Evans had gone mano a mano on piano. But it reminds us that Costa, who died in a turnpike accident in 1962 at the age of 31, was no slouch with mallets, either. And with songs this generous, all he and Evans had to do was agree on head arrangements and leave the rest to chance and chemistry.*
Rex Stewart & Cootie Williams
Porgy & Bess Revisited
Warner Bros., 1959
Not the best jazz Porgy—that would be Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s, or maybe Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s—but easily the most novel, what with Jim Timmens (later an arranger for Sesame Street) assigning each singing part to a specific horn player. It works only because Cootie (Porgy) and Rex (Sportin’ Life) were talking horns anyway, going back to their days with Ellington. With the Johnny Hodges–like Hilton Jefferson as Bess, Lucky Millinder veteran Pinky Williams as Jake, and Lawrence Brown stealing the show as Serena on an especially rending “My Man’s Gone Now.”
West Side Story Bossa Nova
This bid to cash in on two trends simultaneously was going to be my dud, until I gave it another spin. Barron’s tenor is more bracing than I remember it being, and his near-chromatic arrangements suggest the influence of Hindemith or George Russell. Only the bossa rhythms still sound contrived.*
Don Elliott Octet with Candido
Lost Gil Evans, so overlooked it doesn’t show up in disciple Laurent Cugny’s online discography. The material is minor Harold Arlen, and when Elliott starts shimmering on vibes or adds his bongos to Candido’s conga, we could be in a tiki bar. But on “Little Biscuit,” when Elliott switches to muted trumpet as bassoons and French horns begin their rise, it’s could be an outtake from Miles Ahead.
By 1970, neither jazz nor Broadway still occupied a spot adjacent to the center of popular culture, and Barney Kessel’s Hair Is Beautiful seemed utterly pointless. But in the ’60s, while the going was good, even the avant-garde got into the act. Along with Coltrane’s “Feelin’ Good” from The Roar of the Greasepaint and the compulsory “My Favorite Things” from Great Black Music the Great White Way, my purely imaginary compilation would also include Cecil Taylor’s “This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific; Lester Bowie’s “Hello, Dolly” (from ’74 and a love letter to Louis Armstrong rather than Carol Channing, but still); and the Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp surging, lyrical, embattled “Somewhere,” from West Side Story.