Starting tomorrow, a conversation with legendary vocalist Chris Connor on her early years with Claude Thornhill, Jerry Wald and Stan Kenton as well as her 1950s and early 1960s recordings for Bethlehem and Atlantic. Chris talks about June Christy, Anita O'Day, Zoot Sims, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and much more.
Showtime at the Apollo. On Thursday night I took the A train up to 125th St. and walked two blocks east to the Carnegie Hall of Harlem—the Apollo Theater. I was there to see the 7th Annual Jazz Foundation of America's A Great Night in Harlem extravaganza. To call it a benefit concert would be unfair considering who performed—Randy Weston, Dave Brubeck, Hank Jones, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess, Phil Woods, Junior Mance and so many others. See what I mean? It was indeed a benefit to raise money for the Jazz Foundation, but this event was more akin to being transported back to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival or one of the Apollo's legendary revues.
My seat was way up high, and I mean way up high. I almost could put my forefinger into the white, smoky cylinder of light beaming down onto the acts below. I was in the seats you see in 1960s newsreels, when rows of kids are swaying in unison to James Brown's Please, Please, Please or turning fist over fist in a synchronized seated dance to Mary Wells' You Beat Me to the Punch. A righteous place to be.
Like all grand concert halls built originally for vaudeville and popular music rather than symphonies, the Apollo's balcony is pitched at a staggering angle. The purpose of the pitch was to ensure that the all fans could easily see who was on stage and performers could feel the proximity and energy of those up above. The angle was so sharp that as I walked down to my row, I got the queasy sense that if I tripped and fell, I'd stumble headlong over the rail and wind up splayed across the concert grand piano on stage. The steeple-like angle is that sheer—and precipitous.
The concert actually started before it began. As audience members took their seats, Danny Mixon played the Hammond B-3. Hearing an organ at the Apollo is topped only by hearing it played at a gospel church. Mixon's sound in that tall hall swinging Blue Moon, Watch What Happens, Blue Monk and I Can't Get Started was massive and rousing.
When the lights went down low, Randy Weston came out, with Alex Blake on bass and Neil Clarke on bells and percussion. They played The Healers, an atmospheric African-themed composition. Dave Brubeck Quartet was next, featuring Michael Moore on bass, Bobby Militello on also sax and Randy Jones on drums. They played Take Five, with Militello referencing Paul Desmond but blowing largely a Coltrane-inspired solo. Dave [pictured] played as if it were 1959, combining stormy chord clusters and delicate lines.
Dave's group left and out came pianist Hank Jones and Buster Williams on bass. It was Hank's 90th birthday, so the audience sang an impromptu chorus of Happy Birthday. Hank and Buster were joined by Norah Jones, who sang The Nearness of You in that powdery Etta Jones style of hers. Hank was, of course, an impeccable accompanist, using the entire keyboard to shape perfect chord changes and runs behind Norah.
Next, clarinetist Dr. Michael White [pictured] and the Original Liberty Jazz Band came out. Singer Thais Clark belted out Horn Man Blues, which was thick with innuendo as Clark expressed what pleases her most about each horn man in the band. Next came Bill Cosby, who was dressed in what appeared to be a cream-white Yale crew outfit. He traded jokes and barbs off the cuff with Clark as roadies rearranged the stage behind them for a big band.
Frank Foster, who has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering a stroke, came out and praised the Jazz Foundation for all of its noble work providing jazz musicians with work, healthcare and in some cases homes and mortgage payments. Then Foster's Loud Minority Big Band played Shiny Stockings. There were solos by Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess [pictured, photo by Ronald K. Marsh], and Phil Woods. The band then backed singer Nnenna Freelon on a moody Don't Explain.
The last performer of the night was blues guitarist James Blood Ulmer
[pictured] backed by J.T. Lewis on drums, Brandon Ross on guitar, Melvin Gibbs on bass, Junior Mance on piano, Gary Brown on sax and Beverly "Guitar" Watson on guitar.
Wendy Oxenhorn, the Jazz Foundation's executive director and miraculous ball of energy, played harmonica. To be
completely honest, Wendy's blues performance was mind-blowing and, for me, one of the evening's high points. While each of the jazz legends certainly played superbly, Wendy's gritty blues harp came as a big surprise to anyone who has not had the privilege of hearing her play.
There's certainly something to seeing a showcase revue, especially at the Apollo, with one great act following the other. It felt good to be up in the high balcony, where fans once voted performers on to stardom or the dustbin with their hands, shouts and feet.
Sid's ahead I heard from many readers last week on my Coleman Hawkins Meets the Big Sax Section post. A good number were unfamiliar with the recording and others had completely forgotten about it. An email from Sid Gribetz, one of my favorite disc jockeys (WKCR-FM, New York, 89.9), offered the following addendum:
"You show the Columbia studio album as a link. However, the Columbia album was actually recorded at a rehearsal the day before, and doesn't present the fire and elan of the actual broadcast. Audio recordings of the actual live TV broadcast are available on several 'bootleg' CDs. Plus, the actual TV broadcast is available on home video, which may interest your readers."
Bill Evans. Jan Stevens, who hosts the BillEvansWebPages, has started a monthly feature called "The Bill Evans Album of the Month," a look back at significant or less known recordings.
This month (June), Jan looks at Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve/June 15, 1968). Here's a taste:
"The Bill Evans of Montreux is more stylistically aggressive for sure, and not as predisposed to some of the tonal nuances he's known for. That may be due in part to the somewhat brittle-sounding and "treble-y" baby grand provided. But he had been playing all those dates with the take-no-prisoners Philly Joe in the past months, and as he said in ’68, referring to that association, 'during that time I did play physically much stronger, because the strong things that we played were that much more robust. […] It’s just that it got going, and I acquired the habit of playing that way then. So it may be somewhat of a carryover from that.' "