For those who love listening to jazz recordings of the '40s and '50s, it's easy to forget a simple fact: The jazz life back then was hard and physically exhausting. Artists who came up in those decades toured under harsh conditions and then had to perform brilliantly night after night, no matter how tired or how ill they felt. Complex music had to be memorized in some cases and played in top form in hot or drafty rooms choked with second-hand smoke. The pay wasn't great, loneliness and boredom were common, and few saw much daylight, let alone their families. Jazz was manual labor. [Photo of Art Farmer by Enid Farber]
I mention all of this because we never should forget the hard conditions under which the jazz we love was created. Today, we complain when it rains a few days in a row, when customer service doesn't answer on the first ring, when we have to wait for a restaurant table or when traffic slows.
The next time you think you have it rough, consider what the people who recorded the music we love had to endure—and still managed to produce dazzlingly improvised works night after night. Jazz was (and is) as much a physical task as it is a creative challenge. Hands hurt, lips are sore and muscles ache. [Photo: Hot Lips Page]
When I interview jazz legends and hear what they had to endure and the stamina required, I realize why so many of them have a wonderful sense of humor. You had to laugh if you wanted to survive. Misfortune and bad breaks had to be shrugged off. Otherwise you wouldn't have lasted long. There were no weenie jazz musicians in the '40s and '50s.
Arthur Penn. City Island director Raymond De Felitta posted a touching, personal essay on the late film director Arthur Penn last week at his blog Movies 'Til Dawn. Here's one of the great movie intros to Penn's Mickey One (1965), featuring the saxophone of Stan Getz and arrangements by Eddie Sauter:
CD discovery of the week. Trombonist Carl Fontana began his recording career in Woody Herman's Third Herd in 1952. He moved on to Stan Kenton's band in 1955, starting with the leader's Contemporary Concepts album with Bill Holman arrangements. By the late 1950s, Fontana was on record dates led by Kai Winding and Bill Holman.
Since Fontana was often in band settings in the 50's, you rarely had a chance to hear him and his warm sound other than as part of a trombone section. Now you can, on the newly issued single CD entitled Carl Fontana: The Fifties.
There are four sessions on this CD: A live radio recording with Fontana and the Vido Musso Quintet in 1958; a session in Paris in 1956 with a unit from the Stan Kenton band directed by Fontana; a Jimmy Cook big band date in Las Vegas in 1960 (the two tracks are Polka Dots and Moonbeams arranged by Bill Holman, and Soon scored by Bob Enevoldsen); and two tracks featuring Fontana with extended solos in the Kenton band in 1956.
Among my favorites is Intermission Riff with Fontana and Musso going at it, and the Cook and Kenton big band tracks with superb Bill Holman charts.
You can sample and buy Carl Fontana: The Fifties (Uptown) here.
Oddball album cover of the week. Leo Diamond was a harmonica virtuoso who played in novelty combos in the '40s and then signed with RCA in the mid-'50s for a series of LPs. Based on the YouTube clips posted from this album (warning: spare yourself), it seems the LP was a crash dummy for the label's development of stereo. Great to see that the art director found a model who could breathe under water.