Sixty years ago this month (January 3, 1949, to be precise), one of the greatest gatherings of jazz musicians took place at an RCA Victor recording studio. The 14 musicians on hand that day were winners of the 1948-49 Metronome magazine readers' poll. Unlike other jazz magazine polls at the time, Metronome had a deal with RCA to record its winners, and the arrangements were crafted to give each star a solo.
In January 1949, the "Metronome All-Stars," as they were billed, featured an inconceivable lineup: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro on trumpets; Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson on trombones; Buddy DeFranco on clarinet; Charlie Parker on alto sax; Charlie Ventura on tenor sax; Ernie Caceres on baritone sax; Lennie Tristano on piano; Billy Bauer on guitar; Eddie Safranski on bass; Shelly Manne on drums, and Pete Rugolo, the date's conductor. [Click on group photo to enlarge; back-click to return to post]
The All-Stars recorded just two songs that day—Rugolo's Overtime and Tristano's Victory Ball. The arrangement of Overtime was handled by Rugolo while Victory Ball belonged to Tristano and Bauer. Overtime showcased the full lineup of winners while Victory Ball was scored for a combo that included Gillespie, Winding, DeFranco, Parker, Ventura, Bauer, Tristano, Safranski and Manne. According to Eunmi Shim's Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music, Metronome magazine reported at the time that Tristano, Bauer and Parker "rehearsed separately to work out their intricate passage."
But these pros had little trouble with the musical complexities or synchronized solos. Just two takes of Overtime were recorded and three takes of Victory Ball. Multiple takes were needed for shorter versions meant for 78-rpm release while the longer, 12-inch ones were likely for radio airplay and more ardent fans.
JazzWax: Did you know at the time how amazing this gathering was?
Buddy DeFranco: Oh sure. We knew it was special but we didn’t know what kind of sound would emerge from all those different kinds of players. Even though we were all in modern jazz, there were contemporary jazz guys, cool school guys, swing guys, and guys who were breaking into bop. I think the way it worked out, Bird [Charlie Parker] kind of took charge and led the parade along with Lennie Tristano.
JW: What happened when you arrived at the studio?
BDF: After we got there, Lennie [pictured] and Bird kind of grabbed the horns and directed everything that went on. The first time I saw those arrangements were right there that day. We used to make all our recordings like that. One time, and that was it. Our training in the big bands and steady recording sessions made us accustomed to that. We just had to make the result congeal and make sure everyone had same thing in mind. That was tricky.
JW: Was there competition among the players?
BDF: There were a lot of egos there that day, but it didn’t show. There was no serious pecking order. Everyone had a say. Everyone kind of knew instinctively that Pete Rugolo was leading the ensemble and that Bird and Lennie were the top of the heap as far as musicianship went. They had more input than anyone else.
JW: Take me through the session.
BDF: We ran it down once or maybe twice and then did it. The songs came off, but that was typical of recording then. A far cry from the rock guys who take a year to make an album [laughs].
JW: What was Fats Navarro like?
BDF: Fats was delightful. He was a marvelous player. He could play good lead trumpet as well as jazz trumpet, which are quite different. He and Dizzy were very close. They were very funny. They were like a comedy team. [Photo of Fats Navarro: Herman Leonard]
JW: How so?
BDF: Dizzy could play first trumpet, but he was not in Fats' league in the first chair. Fats was a superb first trumpet as well as a jazz player. During a run-down, Fats gave Diz the first trumpet part. Dizzy was all set to play but just before he came in, Fats said, 'You think you’re going to make it, Diz?' Everybody broke up.
JW: What about Miles Davis?
BDF: Miles was an up and coming guy at that point, a smart alec. He had a way of playing and got very popular, becoming one of the biggest names in jazz and pop music. But next to Dizzy and Fats that day, he was a weak third. He was not that super a trumpet player yet. [Photo of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: Because Davis was more into music theory than the technical part of playing?
BDF: No [laughs]. He just wasn't as talented.
JW: Were Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson close?
BDF: Very. The funny thing about jazz, it’s not always about competition. In fact, more times it’s the interplay between two guys, like Phil [Woods] and [Gene] Quill, Fats and Diz, and Bird and Lucky Thompson. It was the interplay that was interesting. You always played your best, but it was the interplay that made the difference. That’s why that date came off so well.
JW: Were Johnson and Winding [pictured] aware then that they sounded great together?
BDF: No question about it. That session turned out to be a lot of fun to do. There was nothing uptight about it. Even though Lennie was completely different than Bird, their interplay and acknowledgment of each other was obvious.
JW: You emerged just as most other clarinetists were sounding somewhat old fashioned. Your style was completely fresh.
BDF: I locked onto Bird. He influenced me at that time more than anybody else. He still does.
JW: What did you think of Artie Shaw's playing at the time?
BDF: I felt that Artie kind of gave up in a sense. But if he had continued playing with that drive of his, he would have been No. 1 over anybody. But he didn’t. He had a funny [odd] personality.
JW: But by 1949, he had a fairly well regarded bop band.
BDF: That bop band was a mistake. Artie [pictured] underestimated the idea of playing bop. He tried, but it didn’t come off. He didn’t spend enough time learning bop. Bird was the originator but he had spent years developing that style. You could hear it when he played tenor [sax] several years before he had even played alto. You also could hear it when he played behind singers. You could hear him developing his interpretation of music all along.
JW: What do you think held Shaw back?
BDF: Artie, with his tremendous ego, thought all you had to do was play a few bebop licks and in one week you’d have it. That wasn’t so. I spent a lot of time devouring Bird and what he did, his embouchure [how your mouth and tongue work with the mouthpiece and reed] and how he’d breathe. If Artie had spent six months or a year studying bebop, he could have done it. Benny might have.
JW: What was the problem?
BDF: Artie didn’t really care that much. He was interested in too many other things—you know, writing, politics and other things that took his interest away. The idea of a band was a good idea to Artie until it got boring, in a sense. But I admired his playing. I knew him well.
JW: What did Shaw think of your playing?
BDF: He didn't understand my playing.
JW: Did he say that?
BDF: In his last years, before he passed away, Artie [pictured] and I spent a lot of time together. He’d say, 'You and this [clarinetist Eddie] Daniels guy, I don’t know what the hell…' [laughing]. And of course my lack of discourse with Artie Shaw didn't do much to influence his thinking. When you met with Artie, he talked and you listened. Which was OK with me because he was brilliant.
JW: How were your interactions with Parker?
BDF: Great, great. Except for a few times when he was stoned, but that was very few times. Once in a while he was out of it, but most of the time he had a great approach to playing, a fantastic understanding, and he was well read. He knew about a lot of different things.
JW: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from Parker?
BDF: [Laughs] I'd need weeks to explain that one.
JW: Let me put it differently: What groove do you have to get into to play like that?
BDF: Well, once you get past the technical aspects, which are monumental, then comes the mental approach, the thinking. When to play what, when to play a lot, when to play less. There’s a certain element in there that’s indescribable. Which is why so many great players in the 1940s couldn’t play bebop. It was that unique.
JW: Deceptive, wasn't it?
BDF: Absolutely. Look, even with classical music, there was a big difference between classical writers and contemporary classical composers in the early 1900s. A lot of classical writers could not fathom Ravel, for instance, even though they were great musicians and experts. There’s something about innovators. And Bird was an innovator. I resent the fact that writers and publicists have credited Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis on the same level or over Bird when it comes to the invention of bebop. That’s wrong. I was there. Charlie Parker wrote the book.
JW: Did you ever ask Parker why he didn’t play clarinet?
JW: What did he say?
BDF: He was very kind. He said, 'Because you play it' [laughs].
JW: Did you ever want to hand Parker your clarinet and urge him to give it a shot?
BDF: No. He said, 'It’s too hard for me.' I can understand what he meant. The clarinet all your life is a love-hate instrument.
JW: What do you mean?
BDF: There are four different registers you play on the clarinet. Four different registers mean there are four different sets of fingerings for the same octave. And there’s a thing in between, the middle part of the clarinet. The notes occur right where your left hand is playing those left keys, which are somehow smaller than other keys. I don’t know why. Someone once said the clarinet was invented by three guys who never met [laughs]. Which gives you an idea what I meant about Bird. I was stubborn enough to stick with it. I admired Bird so much I felt I had to accomplish that same bebop aspect on the clarinet. [Photo of Buddy DeFranco: Harry Nowell/Sun Media]
JW: What did you think of Charlie Ventura, who also was on the Metronome date in 1949?
BDF: We grew up together in South Philadelphia. Charlie [pictured] was a natural player. He didn’t learn how to read music until later. He was so clever that once you ran down an arrangement, he knew his part cold. But he kind of went astray with bad habits. He got very popular with his commercial group but when that faded, he didn’t stay on top of the tenor [sax] as he should have. But he was a very talented guy.
JW: Did you hear a magical sound coming out of the reeds that day at RCA?
BDF: How so?
JW: The four of you reed players together were amazing. You have that beautiful cool sound, Parker has the blues going, Ventura has that growl, and Caceres anchors the section.
BDF: Yeah, it was fantastic. Everyone seemed to feel it gelled.
JW: Ernie Caceres isn't a household name today, is he?
BDF: That's true. Ernie played baritone sax with all the major bands. He was a great section player. Not much of a jazzer but an excellent, excellent player. A great sound. [Pictured: Caceres in the Glenn Miller band, from Orchestra Wives (1942)]
JW: And Lennie Tristano?
BDF: In a league by himself. He was pulling away from bebop and moving toward more contemporary music at the time. He was close to genius. He could play classical pieces with the correct fingering, which is amazing for him to know, considering he was blind.
JW: Billy Bauer?
BDF: Very talented but not in the same league as Lennie Tristano. Lennie was one of kind.
JW: Did everyone realize they were in the company of special musicians?
BDF: I think so. We had a good time, and I think you can hear that.
JW: After the session was over, did everyone stick around for a while?
BDF: Not that I recall. I think everyone packed up and went their separate ways. It was just another date.
JazzWax tracks: You can download the short and long versions of Overtime and Victory Ball at iTunes. All five tracks are available on the Complete Recordings of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano here. Interestingly, the third track of Victory Ball features all of the musicians on the date.
Careful listeners will note that Tristano's Victory Ball is something of an abridged, sped-up model for Wow, which the pianist would record two months later with his sextet for Capitol. You'll find it on the CD Intuition.
To tide you over, here's an audio clip of Victory Ball. Dig the complex melody line and tight configuration of Parker, Bauer and Tristano.