The demise of the big bands is often blamed on a declining post-war economy and shifting musical tastes. But there was a third factor—live television. Starting in the early 1950s, the new, rapidly emerging medium needed an ever-growing number of top-notch musicians and arrangers—leaving big bands with fewer musicians to hire and hold on a steady basis.
Coupled with this trend was the rise of the 33 1/3 LP. Larger records meant more artists and more music were needed by a growing number of record lables, and many were open to taking greater risks with the jazz styles they recorded.
Hal McKusick [pictured above, center] in 1955 was perfectly suited to capitalize on both trends. By the time he left Elliot Lawrence's big band early that year, he had become one of the best connected sight readers in jazz. Years of seasoning had prepared him as a musician and leader, and he was grooved for live television's grueling demands. After 16 years of steady band work, Hal had developed a pure tone, a sharp eye, and an unrivaled ear for beauty.
Hal picks up the story from our conversation earlier this week:
"By 1955, Elliot Lawrence was writing more and more for Broadway shows and televising, and his band was touring less and less. Meanwhile, I was becoming stretched thin, and my daily schedule was jammed.
I remember once when Elliot's orchestra was in Pennsylvania, I played with the band that night, got up early the next day, caught a small plane to New York, played a record date, took a cab to a TV session, finished at around 3 pm, raced to LaGuardia, and flew back to Pennsylvania in time to play with Elliot's band that night. It all was getting to be too much.
One day in early 1955, I met with Creed Taylor at Bethlehem Records. Creed said he wanted me to record an album and asked if I had any ideas. I told him about my piano-less quartet. We had been rehearsing on the side. I played alto and clarinet, Barry Galbraith was on guitar, Milt Hinton was on bass and Osie Johnson was on drums. Manny Albam was writing the charts. Creed loved the idea, and we recorded East Coast Jazz/Volume 8.
Not long afterward I walked into a drugstore in Greenwich Village. There, behind the counter working was George Russell. I asked him what he was doing there. George had written Cubano Be Cubano Bop for Dizzy [Gillespie], which was one of the first combinations of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz in 1947. He also had written Ezz-Thetic in 1951 for Lee [Konitz]. Both arrangements were huge.
George told me he had a wife to support and that nothing was happening for him in the music business. Then he said he had hit upon something called the Lydian Theory. He asked if I wanted to hear it. I agreed, so I met him at his apartment nearby the next day.
When I got there, George sat down at his upright piano and showed me that if you played in the key of C, it could have an F sharp instead of an F major, and so on. We went through all his altered modal scales. I dug what he was doing, and he asked if I wanted lessons. I told Barry [Galbraith, pictured] and the two of us took three or four lessons until we got it.
I asked if George if he wanted to write a couple of songs for my quartet. He said sure. So he wrote Lydian Lullaby and The Day John Brown Was Hanged. When I ran into Jack Lewis, who was RCA's A&R guy at the time, I told him about George. Jack asked me if I was sure I wanted to get involved with George, who hadn't really recorded anything significant in some time. I told Jack that George's material was fresh and that he had a good thing going.
I told Jack to come out and hear the group. When he did, he was blown away. Soon afterward we recorded The Jazz Workshop for RCA in March 1956, and then RCA signed George. It's funny, our chance meeting at that drugstore put George back in the music business.
In November 1956, my quartet recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy for an album called Jazz at the Academy. We were opposite Dave Brubeck. Gil Evans was writing one of the charts for us. But by the time we were on stage rehearsing, he was still up in the balcony furiously trying to finish the arrangement. I remember it was a tricky one, in 6/4 time. When we wrapped the rehearsal, Gil was still writing. He couldn't finish it in time. So Sonny Lester, the album's producer, had to tell him no dice. Sonny never paid Gil for the chart, but there were no hard feelings. Man, I wish I had that chart today.
In early 1957, I recorded Cornucopia for Coral Records, the first of the Quintet sessions with Art Farmer, Eddie Costa, Milt Hinton and Gus Johnson. That year I also recorded the Brandeis Jazz Festival album with the Gunther Schuller-George Russell Orchestra. Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, John LaPorta and Bill Evans were on that date, too. On a re-listen today, I don't think much of it holds up. It sounds a little too heavy and self-absorbed.
In December 1957 I put together a different group and recorded one of my favorite albums, Triple Exposure. Billy Byers was on trombone, Eddie Costa on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Charlie Persip on drum. I played clarinet, alto and tenor sax.
I'm Glad There Is You on there is one of the prettiest songs. We took it at a medium tempo, and I told Paul to play in 2/4 time, to really walk it. I played the clarinet. Paul played so pretty, I still remember the line he ran [Hal sings Chambers' bass line, note for note].
In 1958, I recorded Cross Section: Saxes. Frank Socolow and I were on a lto, Dick Hafer on tenor, Jay Cameron on baritone with Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Connie Kay in the rhythm section. I had just left Coral Records for Decca and was working with a four-sax group at the time. The sounds was really great. George Handy, George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre wrote the charts. After Cross Section: Saxes, Bill and Paul joined Miles a month later in May.
Later that year I joined the CBS Studio Orchestra. But I still recorded as a sideman. In November I did George Russell's New York, New York album. You can't believe the guys on there—Art Farmer, Ernie Royal and Joe Wilder were on trumpets; Frank Rehak and Bobby Brookmeyer on trombones; me, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, John Coltrane and Gene Allen on saxes; plus Bill Evans, Barry Galbraith, George Duvivier and Max Roach, and Jon Hendricks narrated. It was an experimental album, but in retrospect, I'm not sure it still works.
In May 1959 I recorded with Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre on Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre, which featured Lee, me, Warne Marsh, Jimmy, Bill Evans and others. In 1960 I recorded again with George Russell on Jazz in the Space Age, which also sounds way too out there today.
From that point on I worked heavily and steadily for CBS until 1972. When I started at CBS there were 80 musicians on staff. By 1972, when the orchestra was disbanded, there were just 12. Hank Jones, Chuck Wayne and many other top jazz musicians were there, too.
Since then I have been playing locally with a terrific nine-piece group. We play mostly private functions. I also get tremendous satisfaction teaching music and writing arrangements at a local private school. It's fascinating to see these kids grow musically.
When I think back to the 1950s, one of the funniest moments for me was walking down Broadway with Dizzy. I had played in Dizzy's big band at Birdland in the early 1950s, and we had played together in Boyd Raeburn's band back in 1944.
I can't recall why we were walking together that day, but Dizzy had just come back from a tour in Greece and he was telling me about it. As we walked along, people on the street kept giving him the up and down. I just figured it was Dizzy. He was such a hero to everyone. Then I realized they were looking at what he was wearing. He had on shoes that turned up at the ends with bells on the tips. Combined with his goatee, bebop beret, sunglasses and huge meerschaum pipe, he was some sight!
Tomorrow I will feature the final installment of my five-part interview with Hal McKusick. Hal reflects on the key musicians he played with over the years, including Barry Galbraith, Bill Evans and others.
JazzWax tracks: Prior to today's blog, the CDs and tracks I have recommended have featured Hal in other jazz artists' bands. Now I have a chance to focus on his recordings as a leader in the 1950s. I think you'll agree that they are among the best and most inventive alto sax dates of the period.
Hal's Live at the Academy, The Jazz Workshop, East Coast Jazz/8 and In a 20th Century Drawing Room all can be found on one CD—Hal McKusick Quartet: The Complete Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson Recordings. This double CD can be found here.
If you are not familiar with these dates, I think this CD will completely revolutionize your thinking about reed playing during the 1950s. Hal's tone and the range of the arrangements are astonishingly beautiful. I have been listening to this CD all week—which at this point amounts to about 30 plays. I have not yet tired of hearing it or Hal's playing and ideas.
The CD, Hal McKusick: Now's the Time (1957-58), can be found here and includes most of Cross Section: Saxes as well as tracks from Hal's other Decca albums.
Another album that should not be missed is Triple Exposure. It can be found here. This album features some of Hal's finest playing—on alto, tenor and clarinet. Each track is a gem.
What will surprise you about all of these CDs is Hal's velvet-slipper sound. If you are unfamiliar with Barry Galbraith, whose guitar truly set the standard for everyone who followed, you're in for a double treat. More on Galbraith in a future post.
If you're interested in George Russell's New York, New York or Jazz in the Space Age, both are available at iTunes. The Brandeis Jazz Festival (1957) CD is actually under Bill Evans and can be found here.
JazzWax clips: I managed to track down a clip on the web of Hal McKusick from June 2007. To see Hal playing tenor on My One and Only Love, go here. Dig the muscles in Hal's face! He's blowing solo, on the high end of the horn, and halfway through you realize that's all you need with a guy like Hal. His tone is that seductive.