I spent Saturday afternoon at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. David Amram celebrated his 77th birthday by hosting a program featuring artists performing works he wrote in the 1950s and 1960 for Joseph Papp's "Shakespeare in the Park."
David's works for Papp date back to 1957, when Papp's free Bard for the People program kicked off in Central Park. David's modern classical compositions with subtle jazz tones still sound extraordinary today—and were performed exquisitely on Saturday. As always, David was humble and joyous—leaving everyone in the theater feeling great about life, creativity and music.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of my interview series with David (October 15 and 16), we covered his early years when the French hornist fresh out of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music played host to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at his Washington, D.C., apartment.
In Part 3 (November 8), we looked at his year in Paris (1954-55) gigging and recording with Lionel Hampton and Bobby Jaspar as well as his return to the U.S. and his early dates with Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus in New York.
In Part 4 below, David talks about recording with the Oscar Pettiford big band of 1956-57 and with Kenny Dorham and
Cannonball Adderley in 1959:
"I first met Oscar Pettiford at Café Bohemia in the fall of 1955. Café Bohemia was located at 15 Barrow St. in New York's Greenwich Village and was the club where everything was happening at the time. Musicians would come in and jam and be discovered by leading jazz artists, who would hire them for their own bands or recording dates.
Oscar and I struck up an acquaintance there and soon started playing together. In the early spring of 1956, Oscar said he wanted to form a big band and that he wanted to use Julius Watkins and me on French horns. I told him I'd love to be a part of it.
The first big band Oscar assembled in 1956 was amazing. It featured Ernie Royal and Art Farmer on trumpets, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, I was on French horn along with Julius, Gigi Gryce was on alto sax and wrote many of the arrangements, Lucky Thompson and Jerome Richardson were on tenor saxes, Danny Bank was on baritone sax, Tommy Flanagan was on piano, Oscar was on bass and Osie Johnson was on drums.
It wasn't hard for Oscar to form that band. He knew everyone and had played on almost everyone’s recording session. Oscar had a huge personality. He was excitable, fun and passionate. Everyone jumped at the chance to play with Oscar. When he played behind you, you sounded five times better. When he soloed, his lines were simple, strong and musical.
The first time the band recorded was on June 11, 1956. It was a date produced by Creed Taylor. I remember Lucky Thompson and Oscar got into an argument because Lucky wanted more rehearsal time for a song he had arranged. Oscar said it sounded fine as is. Lucky said it didn’t sound fine and cursed Oscar. Oscar yelled back. Ultimately, we didn’t record the song. We recorded Deep Passion instead.
Despite Lucky’s nickname, he was always outspoken and said and did whatever was on his mind. But he was a musician’s musician, and you knew it was Lucky playing within the first four notes. He also was one of the nicest people I ever met. Everyone got along with him, which is probably why Oscar didn't go nuts that day when Lucky cursed at him.
Oscar wanted everything to be right the first time on those band dates. If we were recording something and someone missed a note, Oscar could hear it. Julius Watkins and I were playing impossible French horn parts, so from time to time there would be mistakes. I remember Oscar saying, 'I hear you guys. I don’t care how hard French horn is. If you and Dave make any more mistakes, I’m going to hire two mellophone players.'
The mellophone has three valves, like the trumpet. But the notes are spaced farther apart on the mellophone than on the French horn, leaving less room for error. The French horn has three valves but the notes are so much close together that it's much harder to know which note will actually sound, especially in the higher register.
Oscar was always passionate. When something was off with an arrangement or someone's playing, Oscar would look like he was in anguish. He also was high-energy. During all the times we played together, even if we had just gotten off the bus after an eight-hour drive, I never heard Oscar play out of tune or play a solo that wasn't stunning. He was a perfect musician.
When the big band toured, the bus rides were like music camp. Gigi Gryce would talk the whole time about different harmonies and chords, and he'd scat sing them to illustrate what he was thinking. Everyone loved playing in the band. I remember we traveled up to the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts and only about 38 people showed up to hear us. We played whole show anyway and loved it.
That band wasn’t about the money because there wasn’t any. If there was money from the door where we played, the guys with families got the most and the young single guys like me would get the least. No one ever complained.
In truth, I think most of the guys in the band wished we could have played Gigi's charts even better. We always we wished we had more rehearsal time. The guys who knew the charts cold pulled everyone else along. Some of that music was so difficult. Even after you got the arrangements down you’d have to go home and practice just to get it right the next time.
One time Erroll Garner sat in with the band. Oscar would always have friends sit in, I think in part to show them how tough and advanced the arrangements were. And they were. So on this day, Erroll sat down at the keyboard and we couldn't figure how he was ever going to play the chart. While Erroll could play in all 12 keys equally well, he didn’t read music—and these weren't standards.
When we ran through the number the first time, Erroll just sat there. We figured maybe he was going to lay out. The second run-through he started playing some chords quietly. The third time he filled them out and played so incredibly well that Oscar gave him a solo. Erroll played up a storm, as if he'd been playing with us for months. It was amazing.
By 1957, Oscar added Betty Glamann on harp. She was conservative looking and very well mannered. She was a classically trained harpist, but she loved jazz. And what a musician! Somehow she was able to figure out how to play different harmonies without making a sound with the pedals. We couldn't figure out how she did it. The few classical musicians who came to Birdland to hear the band couldn’t figure out how she made those pedal changes either.
You see, the harp is an open-string instrument.To get from one chord to the next, you have to prepare the instrument before you play the strings by stepping on pedals. Betty was able to do this without anyone hearing the pedals clunking. Instead of just playing swooping arpeggios that sounded corny, she turned those parts into a major ingredient of the band.
When we recorded in May 1957 at Birdland, Julius Watkins had to play a Broadway show and couldn't get out of it. So I got Ed London to play French horn in his place. Ed was a college roommate of mine at Oberlin. He was the only other person I knew who could play what was written and improvise. He knew all of Bird and Dizzy's stuff—in all keys. Jimmy Buffington could do it too, but didn't improvise that often.
Buffington was a classical player. When he played with a symphony, he'd play bald. When he played on TV, he’d wear a toupee. One night, when Buffington subbed for Juilus Watkins at Birdland, he wore the toupee, and we sat under some paper mache thing hanging down low. On Two French Fries, when Buffington took a solo, he stood up and the paper mache thing knocked off his toupee. But Buffington kept wailing.
By the summer of 1957, I had already started writing for Joseph Papp and New York's Shakespeare in the Park—free performances of Shakespeare in Central Park. Oscar really dug that I was writing music for it. He used to say, 'My French horn player Dave Amram wrote Shakespeare in the Park. Let’s go dig David Amram’s Shakespeare in the Park.' I kept telling him I wrote the music, not the plays. Oscar would wave me off and say it again. He was funny.
Oscar had a huge spirit. He and the band's musicians came up to Central Park to see the performances and hear my music and they dug it. In turn, a lot of the actors would come downtown to hear us play.
Eventually, the big band gigs dried up. Unlike many of the guys in the bad, Oscar had a family. He had to pay the band's costs out of his own pocket, and the band had a tough time surviving. There just were weren't enough venues to keep the music alive, and Oscar didn’t have a manager to help out. Work slowed down until all of the guys were too occupied on other dates to come together.
I loved Oscar. He had such a strong character and innate musicianship. He couldn't do anything wrong, and he knew it. He exuded such confidence and had the talent to back it up. One time I heard Oscar play on a record with Thelonious Monk. I told him how much I enjoyed him on there. Oscar's face changed. He said, 'Man, I was scared.' I asked, 'What do you mean, Oscar?' He said in a whisper, as if he were afraid someone would hear, 'I never knew what he was going to do next.’ Yet on the recording, his playing was perfect.
I saw Art Farmer at a memorial service for Gerry Mulligan back in 1996. We talked about Oscar. Art said, 'You know, Oscar was only four years older than us but he was like a father to me.' It's funny, I felt the exact same way. When Oscar spoke, he was like a great orator. He had this tremendous majesty about him.
In October 1957, Jack Kerouac and I did the first jazz poetry reading in Greenwich Village, which further linked jazz arm-in-arm with the other arts emerging in New York. That was the thing about jazz. It reached across all levels of society—from the streets to high society. And jazz musicians loved anyone who was risking everything to be furiously creative.
I spent much of 1958 writing for the theater. Then in January 1959, Kenny Dorham asked me to record with him on Blue Spring. Kenny had remembered meeting me with Charlie Parker back in 1952. Anyone who knew Charlie Parker shared a certain bond. I had run into Kenny countless times and jammed with him.
Cannonball Adderely also was on the date. I knew Cannonball from his dates with Oscar at Cafe Bohemia in 1955. I also had played with Cannonball’s brother, Nat, in 1951, down at a place in Washington’s Chinatown where there were strippers and jazz during the breaks. Nat and I also recorded together with Lionel Hampton in March 1955 when I was living in Paris.
Cannonball was a terrific player. He had been a school teacher and was the warmest, lovable, most brilliant guy. He was a joy to be around. What made him special was his warmth and his maturity. He had a real understanding of the social significance of jazz and realized that somehow, as musicians, we had to be educators, which I've never forgotten.
The first recording session for Blue Spring was on January 20, 1959. Kenny was on trumpet, Cannonball was on alto, Cecil Payne was on baritone, Cedar Walton was on piano, Paul Chambers was on bass and Philly Joe Jones was on drums. On the January date, we recorded two tunes with Philly Joe.
But on the album's second session on February 18, Philly Joe didn’t’ show up. So someone went off to track down Jimmy Cobb. While we waited for Jimmy, Kenny was easygoing and had us read down our parts. Then he sat down at the piano and wrote out an arrangement for another song. He also fixed up some of the charts he had already written.
To his credit, Orin Keepnews, the Riverside Records producer, remained really calm and very supportive. Kenny was his ultimate cool self. That was the thing about him. He was like a Buddha. He sat at the piano, finished another chart and handed out the parts. There were no temper tantrums.
Afterward, Kenny said to me, “Well, David, how’s it feel to play with the heavyweights?” “Great!” I said. “Terrific. Now you’re a heavyweight.” That was a beautiful thing.
There was an amazing quality that all jazz greats had back then. They were never snobbish or egomaniacs. For them, it was about spirit, and this was true about life, music, people and art.
Kenny and Cannonball loved each other, even though by 1959 Cannonball was getting more recognition than Kenny. Kenny was already a master since the late 1940s when he replaced Miles in Charlie Parker's group. Yet Kenny wound up working in a music store. Regrettably, the players of his generation never got the prominence they deserved during their lifetimes—except among musicians and in Europe. Kenny never expressed any bitterness about that. He just loved to play.
The whole philosophy back then in New York in the 1950s can be summed up by the titles of two jazz standards—Now’s the Time and Straight, No Chaser. The first meant don’t hesitate, just jump right in. The second song's significance meant that whatever setbacks and obstacles you faced, keep pushing straight ahead with your creative vision.
Back then, there was zero amount of whine-ology and blame-ology and greed-ology among these guys. It was a beautiful, beautiful time.
Note to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Time for a transcribed tribute to the Oscar Pettiford big band? The Gigi Gryce charts are still fabulous.
Part 5 of my interview with David—the final installment—will focus on his groundbreaking jazz movie scores for Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate. It will appear in the coming weeks.
JazzWax tracks: The Oscar Pettiford big band of the late 1950s has been captured on several CDs. The Lone Hill Jazz Records version here is the best of the bunch and includes two live Birdland performances. The album isn't available at iTunes.
Don't be faked out by the error in the title ("The Complete 1959 and 1963 United Artists Big Band Studio Recordings"). For one, this isn't a compilation of the 1959 and 1963 bands—it's the 1956 and 1957 bands. For another, they weren't for United Artists—they were for ABC Paramount.
The quality of the musicianship and arrangements will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
The band's May 1957 live Birdland date is available only on a Spotlite Records LP—Oscar Pettiford and His Birdland Band. (I recently managed to grab a copy on eBay for $20.)
Kenny Dorham's Blue Spring can be found here. Unfortunately, it's not available at iTunes.
JazzWax video clips: Sadly, nothing yet has surfaced on YouTube of the Oscar Pettiford 1956-57 big band. To see a clip of the great Oscar Pettiford, go to my YouTube list in the right-hand column of this blog and click on Pettiford's name.
Here's a clip of Kenny Dorham featuring only photos and music, but it's worth hearing for Kenny's lovely phrasing.