Had Charlie Christian not died of tuberculosis at age 25 in 1942, he certainly would have been the first guitarist to record bebop. His single-string attack on Up on Teddy's Hill with Dizzy Gillespie, captured live at Minton's in 1941, was clearly ahead of its time. But the solo was more blues than bop, a jazz form that hadn't been fully formed yet. The first bebop guitar solo recorded in a studio would come three years later, on February 9, 1945 when Dizzy Gillespie led a sextet on two tracks for Guild Records. The guitarist on the date was Chuck Wayne, who today is more closely associated with the George Shearing Quintet and Tony Bennett's early records. During the 1950s, Wayne appeared extensively as a sideman on other artists' recordings, making only three albums as a leader during the decade. Among the finest was String Fever in 1957.Wayne was born in New York and began his career as a mandolinist in a Russian balalaika band. When his mandolin began to warp, he reportedly tossed it into the furnace and bought a guitar. To earn a living, Wayne worked as an elevator operator and began to play guitar professionally in 1941, quickly becoming a regular in the clubs on New York's 52nd Street.
Wayne first recorded with Gillespie on New Year's Eve of 1944, when they backed singer Sarah Vaughan, with saxophonist Georgie Auld, pianist Leonard Feather and others for the Continental label. Wayne and Gillespie recorded together again with clarinetist Joe Marsala in January 1945. By early February, Gillespie was ready to record two sides as a leader for Guild: Groovin' High and Blue 'n' Boogie. Gillespie used Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, Frank Paparelli on piano (who transcribed the music parts), Wayne on guitar, Murray Shipinski on bass and Shelly Manne on drums.
This is the first Groovin' High, which preceded by several weeks the more popularly known version with Charlie Parker. Wayne clearly understands the new music, and his solo lines are confident and distinctly bop. Throughout 1945 and into 1946, Wayne freelanced extensively, recording with a range of different leaders. In mid-1946, Wayne joined Woody Herman's band, remaining until mid-1947.
Later in 1947 Wayne recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and in late 1948 with Lester Young. In early 1949, Wayne joined the George Shearing Quintet [pictured] and was a key ingredient in the group's sound through 1951. Wayne's first leadership recording came in 1953 for Savoy with tenor saxophonists Brew Moore and Zoot Sims. In 1954, Tony Bennett used him on Cloud 7, arguably the singer's best pure jazz recording, and kept him on as his musical director until 1957. Wayne's next leadership date was for tracks included on Four Most Guitars in 1956.
Then came String Fever in 1957, Wayne's most ambitious LP session. He arranged and conducted the date, which featured Tommy Allison, Don Joseph and Alvin Golbert (trumpets); Sonny Truitt (trombone), Sam Marowitz (alto sax); Caesar DiMauro, Eddie Wasserman and Sol Schlinger (tenor saxes), Wayne (guitar), Eddie Costa (piano and vibes), Clyde Lombardi (bass) and Sonny Igoe (drums).
What's sublime about String Fever is how Wayne swings on top as the album's primary soloist. On the album's tracks, Wayne shows off enormous sensitivity for space while letting single notes ring. On the uptempo Lullaby in Rhythm, Wayne runs his signature staccato picking technique. On the ballad Embraceable You, Wayne envelops the song with a range of approaches, all with enormous taste. My favorite track is Along with Me, which Mel Torme recorded with Artie Shaw in 1946. Here, Wayne voiced the saxes almost like an accordion, providing a breathy backdrop to his bee-in-a-bonnet lines. Or dig Body and Soul, with Wayne's delicate single-note choices and full chords. [Pictured above, from left: Al Cohn, Brew Moore, Dave Lambert, Gus Grant, Ray Turner and Chuck Wayne in the early 1950s]
Wayne worked extensively in the television studios of CBS between 1959 and 1971, and continued to record into the mid-1990s. He died of emphysema in 1997 at age 74.
JazzWax tracks: Chuck Wayne's String Fever is available at Amazon here. The album was originally released on RCA's Vik label. It's now on Sundazed with alternate and unreleased tracks. Tony Bennett's Cloud 7, featuring Wayne on guitar, is available at iTunes and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the George Shearing Quintet in 1950 playing Conception, with Shearing on piano, Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy on bass, Don Elliott on vibes and Denzil Best on drums...