Monday, September 20, 2010

A Great Day in Harlem

Yep. That's me in the bottom photo. I finally got a chance to visit the holy site of the "A Great Day In Harlem" photo recently. If you're not familiar with it, it is a famous 1958 black and white portrait of 57 well-known jazz musicians. The photo was taken by Art Kane, a photographer for Esquire magazine, who set up his camera in front of a brownstone on 126th Street between Fifth Ave. and Madison Ave. in Harlem.

My trip to this hallowed ground got me thinking about just how many great jazz trumpet players were featured in the original photo. The photo serves as a great introduction to both the greats and some of the lesser-known players on the instrument. Below you can see the original photo (click to see a larger view) with each trumpet player circled. I've also included a video or an audio clip with each.

Starting at the top, we have Art Farmer. Farmer came onto the scene in the 50's performing with Gigi Gryce, Gerry Mulligan and Horace Silver. He's probably best know for his group, the Jazztet with Benny Golson. He had an original, lyrical relaxed post-bop style, which made him an ideal collaborator with players such as Golson and Mulligan. He was particularly adept at ballads, building beautiful, well-constructed solos. I always thought he had a unique trumpet sound, pinched and warm a the same time. Farmer loved playing flugelhorn and did so almost exclusively in his later years. He eventually ended up with a "flumpet," a horn designed by Dave Monette which is a hybrid of a trumpet and flugelhorn. The clip below shows Farmer in his heyday with is own group.

Next up are Buck Clayton and Emmet Berry. Buck Clayton was a famous as a soloist with the old testament Basie Band, which he played with until just after the end of World War II. Clayton was also in demand as a headliner. He was known for his brash sound and swinging solo style, indicative of the classic Basie sound. I always think of him as the jam session trumpeter. In the 40's and 50's, he put out a variety of jam session records with a fellow swing era sidemen as well as the boppers of the late 40's and 50's, and he was never afraid to do battle with anyone. I first heard him battling Charlie Shavers on the video "The Trumpet Kings." (I thought Shavers won that one.) Below, I've included a video of him with Emmet Berry, who is also in the "Great Day In Harlem" photo. For those of you not familiar with Emmet Berry, he is one of the swingingest trumpet players in the history of the music. He had a fat sound, and his solos were always both exciting and thoughtful. Berry played with both Fletcher Henderson's and Count Basie's band among others and he did some great work backing up Billie Holiday on some of her studio sessions. Check him out below. Shavers is shows off his range here, but man is Berry swingin! (Note: Berry is the player on the left in the video and Clayton is in the middle.)

Next up is Red Allen, another underrated trumpet player, in my opinion. Allen's early career shadowed that of his biggest influence, Louis Armstrong. Both musicians grew up in New Orleans and left to join King Oliver's band in Chicago. Allen's style was deeply rooted in the New Orleans sound and the innovations of Armstrong, but his approach was darker and more gritty than Armstrong's. Allen went on to play with a host of early greats including Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton. The video below shows him at the age of 51 in a famous appearance on the TV show "The Sound of Jazz" in 1957 sounding strong and really on his game.

Do I really need to introduce Dizzy Gillespie? He's was the pioneer of modern jazz with Charlie Parker, an ambassador of jazz to the world, expert in Afrocuban music, and social activist. In terms of the trumpet, he developed the first major new style after Louis Armstrong, expanded the range of the horn and reinvented the language. I'll just let the video below say the rest...

Next up is Roy Eldridge, another player who really doesn't need an introduction. His style alternated between exciting trumpet pyrotechnics and long chromatic lines that leaned towards what would come later with bebop. He is generally considered a bridge between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but he earned a place as an innovator in his own right.

Next up is Rex Stewart. I love Rex Stewart. Technically, he was a cornettist, as he rarely played the trumpet. He is best known for his association with Duke Ellington, who found ways to incorporate Stewart's interesting trumpet idiosyncracies. I especially like the way Rex Stewart used half-valving. Trumpet tricks aside, he was an exciting player with plenty of range and techique to go around. Throughout his career, he played with a who's who of bandleaders including Fletcher Henderson, Django Reinhardt, Sydney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins.

I was less familiar with the last three players in the photo. Taft Jordan I knew as a member of Duke Ellington's band, but I hadn't checked him out that much. Turns out, he got his start in Chick Webb's band before playing with Duke for four years. He also toured with Benny Goodman and even played in the section on Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain." Although he recorded four tunes as a leader, he's definitely known best as a swing era sideman. The recording below is of Jordan with Chick Webb's orchestra.

I wasn't familiar at all with Max Kaminsky until writing this blog entry. Kaminsky was known mostly for his associations with early jazz pioneers as well as some big names in the swing era. In the 1930's he played smaller groups led by Eddie Condon and Benny Carter as well as with big bands led by Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. In the 1940's he continued working with jazz greats such as Willie "The Lion" Smith, Sydney Bechet and Jack Teagarden. Kaminsky even did some work in television serving as the bandleader on one of Jackie Gleason's shows in the 1960s. He continued to play into the 70's and even published a jazz autobiography called "My Life In Jazz," which I'm going to have to check out. The clip below features Kaminsky with his band from a 1945 radio broadcast.

Last but not least, we have Joe Thomas, another trumpet player who is new to me. This guy has played with a long list of big names from the early days of jazz through the swing era including James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins. His style is marked by an extremely laid back time feel and very logical, almost cerebral solo lines. I learned a lot about the career of this obscure trumpet player from an entry on the blog "Jazz Lives." Check it out to learn more about this under-appreciated player.