In many ways, jazz is like a fabulous, 50-year drama opus. Over the course of five decades (roughly 1920 to 1970), this epic story offers plots, twists, subplots, hidden meanings, shocking moments, shootings, accidents, beatings, revelations and scores of brazen individualists and hip characters.
Unlike nearly all other art forms, jazz is as much about lore and legend as it is about the medium itself.
That's what makes jazz so interesting—beyond the joy and inspiration the music provides. With jazz, there's a story within a story, an evolution, a struggle beyond the music to create and be singularly special in America at a time when audiences and recording technology beckoned and rewarded genius.
Jazz is a glorious film noir in which tough musical guys and gals come and go, and jazz has the leading role. As with any great dramatic work, this story—the history of jazz—has moments of high comedy and of heart-breaking tragedy.
One of jazz's most tragic figures was Booker Little. The trumpeter was born in 1938 and died in 1961 at age 23 of kidney failure.
Little emerged in 1958 as the hot new successor to Clifford Brown, who had died (also tragically) in a car crash two years earlier. In just three short years—between 1958 and 1961—Little would leave a haunting mark and contribution that today has been somewhat lost as the jazz-fan focus concentrates mostly on Brown and Miles.
Of course, after Little's death in 1961, Miles would regain the metaphoric title of "innovator in chief" and hold onto it until the late 1960s, when the trumpet no longer represented the sound of what's new. Like the clarinet before it, the trumpet died a hard death, rendered old fashioned by the electronica of the British Invasion, Sly Stone, Motown, Stax, studio mixers and producers.
But before all of this, back in 1958, there was a trumpet gap. When Brown died, the jazz trumpet faced a big loss. What Louis Armstrong had started, Roy Eldridge had extended, Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro had interpreted, Miles had modified and Clifford Brown had supercharged—all in succession—suddenly there was no dominant, young new trumpet superstar to push jazz into new territory.
Competing for the role were Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd and Art Farmer among others. The major players to beat during this 1956-1958 period were Miles and Kenny Dorham, but both were seasoned old pros by then.
Enter Booker Little. Little was discovered by Sonny Rollins in 1958 while he was studying at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Sonny cautioned Little not to be overly influenced by other players and not to listen to too many records. So Little developed his own sound.
The Rollins-Little encounter led immediately to a series of major record dates for Little with Max Roach, who since Brown's death had been using Kenny Dorham but was sorely in need of a hot young trumpeter not under contract yet to a major record label.
From 1958 through 1961, Little recorded steadily with Max Roach, and the 1958-59 records are some of the most exciting and innovative jazz trumpet dates of the period, which is saying something considering the years in question and the players on the scene.
Booker Little also appeared on several major recordings led by other artists through 1961, including Eric Dolphy's Far Cry! and At the Five Spot, Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite—We Insist! and John Coltrane's Africa/Brass.
Little recorded four albums as a leader. His first—and my favorite—is Booker Little 4 & Max Roach for United Artists (now Blue Note). Joining Little on the date were George Coleman on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Art Davis on bass and Max Roach on drums.
This album—like all of Little's leadership dates—takes you by surprise with its beauty. The first track, Milestones, is an uptempo rendition of the Miles Davis composition from 1947. Sweet and Lovely is a standard ballad. Rounder's Mood is a Little original with a Charles Mingus feel, Dungeon Waltz is an original minor hard bop piece. And Jewel's Tempo, another original, has a peppery Jazz Messengers feel.
But the high point for me on this album is Moonlight Becomes You, a Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Burke ballad. The song opens with a series of lush chord changes by pianist Tommy Flanagan. Then Little enters with a pure, pensive reading of the melody, wandering in and out, skipping over notes in flurries.
Little has a Clifford Brown feel on this track, but his tone and runs are softer, more caressing and less brooding. He's inside the song, roaming around and hitting all the notes your ear anticipates.
This is true on all the album's tracks. Where Brown would strive for a certain purity and impact, Little seems to be enjoying his own playing and gentle attack. After the 12th listen, I realized there's a more feminine quality to Little's playing compared with Brown's muscle-bound execution.
At the end of Moonlight Becomes You, Little descends wonderfully but then shifts gears with a sudden run that seems to catch Flanagan off guard. Listen carefully. As Little takes run after run, Flanagan and Davis (bowing at this point) appear to be conservatively anticipating what Little is going to do, fearful of ruining a perfect take. Little finally starts high and spirals down, landing and holding a beautiful note. Wow, perfection.
I remember Booker.
Wax tracks: Booker Little 4 & Max Roach is available as a download at iTunes and as a CD online. For some strange reason this great album hasn't been remastered. It was last transferred digitally in 1991. Shame on Blue Note.
Nevertheless, the album is a must. In addition to the tracks mentioned above, there are two additional cuts with a slightly different group that weren't on the original album.
Wax clips: To see Booker Little with Max Roach in October 1958, go here. The song is Minor Mode Blues and the piano-less group features Max on drums, Ray Draper on tuba, George Coleman on tenor and Art Davis on bass.
Then go here for The Scene Is Clean, a Booker Little arrangement (apologies for the rubbery clip). Check out Little's trumpet runs! The clips are from ABC-TV's Stars of Jazz series.
Unfortunately, a clip of the third and hottest track captured on film that day, Love for Sale, isn't up on video sites.