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September 22, 2008

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Mike Milner

I believe that it is difficult to put Oscar's contributions into perspective without taking into consideration who he was and how he approached his music. He was a driven person who aspired to financial as well as artistic success, and his relationship with Norman Granz reflected that. Both of them had similar personalities; they were emotional, highly opinionated and very head strong. Norman Granz was dedicated to the equal and fair treatment of African-Americans, at a time when all musicians, but especially black musicians, were routinely swindled by the industry. There is no doubt that Oscar trusted him without reservation, because he believed Norman was one of his best friends as well as his manager and business associate. Although I love all of Oscar's works, my favorite recordings are the acoustic piano/bass/drum trios with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. I agree that they recorded so much that inevitably there was some relatively pedestrian material, however I think their live recordings were outstanding, and if you want a testament to the ability of the group; this is where you should start. In a live setting they weren't constrained by time limits for songs, as they were in the recording studio, and the sheer virtuosity of the individual musicians really came to the fore. The one studio recording I would recommend, (if I had to pick one), would be the album "Night Train", dedicated to Oscar's father. It was very much a unique recording for him in that his playing on the album was very restrained and quite emotional.
Shortly before he passed on, Oscar released an autobiography titled "A Jazz Odyssey". It is quite readable and provides a fascinating insight not only into his life and music, but into his experiences and opinions about society and other jazz musicians.

David Winski

I see Oscar's peak years as spanning two decades from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. I agree with the earlier comment that (if forced to choose) the trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen is the best of Oscar's trios. The live recordings at the London House are astounding and this is arguably Oscar at the height of his considerable pianistic powers. This group also made some great studio recordings including some memorable sessions with Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry.

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  • Marc Myers writes on music and the arts for The Wall Street Journal. He is author of "Why Jazz Happened" (Univ. of California Press). Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a Jazz Journalists Association's "Blog of the Year" winner.
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