Cecil Payne, who died yesterday at age 84, had a large sound, even for a baritone saxophone player.
One of the early bebop baritones (Leo Parker was another), Payne was a triple threat. He had the “feel” to play the new music credibly, he had the chops to deliver ambitious bop solos, and he could read the new, bop band arrangements effortlessly.
If modern jazz begins in the mid-1940s with bebop's emergence, then Payne is the first modern baritone saxophonist. He transformed the horsey instrument from a tag-along fifth voice in the reed section to an audible and muscular participant.
Payne’s growly, double-thick sound was always dominant, even in trumpet-heavy bands. His swift attack on solos in Dizzy Gillespie's 1947 and 1948 big bands paved the way for Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff and other baritone individualists. If Duke Ellington's Harry Carney set the swing standard on the baritone, Payne inched it up a few notches during the cocky, confident bop era.
Payne’s horn was unmistakable and easy to pick out. He was most at home at the very bottom of the register and plenty agile in that lower range. Not an easy trick, considering how much air and strength is required to play the instrument well, let alone solo on it.
Payne’s first recordings were with J.J. Johnson’s BeBopers in June 1946. Later that year he recorded with Billy Eckstine's orchestra—a hit-producing band that included Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Tommy Potter, Art Blakey and so many other budding greats.
But perhaps Payne’s most significant and exciting period was from mid 1947 to late 1948, when he played in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. He gave the reed section a hefty, dynamic punch, while his solos on tracks such as Ow! and Stay On It are emblematic of the modestly assertive baritone style Payne pioneered.
From 1949 on, Payne freelanced extensively. During the 1950s he played on exciting record dates led by Tadd Dameron, Gill Fuller, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Stewart, Tommy Turk, Billy Valentine, Budd Johnson, Dickie Thompson, James Moody, Jesse Powell, Ralph Burns, Slim Gaillard, Illinois Jacquet, Kai Winding, Jackie Paris, Clark Terry, Kenny Dorham, Kenny Clarke, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cleveland, Joe Holiday, Sonny Stitt, Gigi Gryce, Gene Ammons, Duke Jordan and Ray Charles.
But perhaps Payne’s finest recording is his work in March 1956 on Tadd Dameron’s Fontainebleau. His playing on this date is absolutely sublime. The album, of course, is Tadd's masterpiece, but without Payne's knowing bop touch and bear-like lines, the album certainly would have fallen short. Just listen to Payne's gentle caressing on Flossie Lou or his silky solo on Bula-Beige.
From the late 1950s until recently, Payne recorded as a leader and sideman on dozens of dates, always retaining the gentle lessons and message of Tadd Dameron: Pretty can be deep, and deep can be pretty.
Cecil Payne was big. And sensitive.
JazzWax tracks: Cecil Payne's recordings in 1946 with J.J. Johnson's BeBopers can be found here on J.J. Johnson: Complete Early Master Takes (Savoy, Prestige & Sensation).
Payne's work in Billy Eckstine's 1946 band can be found here (used), on Billy Eckstine: The Complete Savoy Recordings. Payne is in the band when it records Oo-Bop-Sh'bam, I Love the Loveliness of You, In the Still of the Night, Jelly Jelly, My Silent Love, Time on My Hands, All the Things You Are and In a Sentimental Mood.
Payne's extraordinary body of work with Dizzy Gillespie's 1947 and 1948 big band can be found here on Dizzy Gillespie: Algo Bueno, which includes the famed "Salle Pleyel" Paris concert of February 1948 and a definitive 'Round About Midnight.
Dizzy's band from this two-year period may well be the greatest big band of all time. It's still vastly underrated. The compositions and arrangements by Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller remain incomprehensibly brilliant. The same holds true for the musicianship and energy level. This was the band to beat in the late 1940s. Though Harry James, Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton and Tommy Dorsey all tried bop ensembles, Dizzy's band was always one step ahead of the commercial pack.
Perhaps Payne's best work from the period is available on two rare LPs— Dizzy Goes to College (volumes 1 and 2). The concert was likely recorded at Cornell University in October 1947. Regrettably, you'll have to turn to eBay for these, since they aren't on CD.
Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau is a must-own. It's not available at iTunes. But you can buy it here.
JazzWax videoclips: You can catch Payne here, seated all the way to the left in the reed section of Dizzy Gillespie's Reunion Band of 1968 next to Mike Longo, the pianist.