West Coast jazz has many definitions, depending on your perspective. To some, this 1950s jazz style conjures up images of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet playing contrapuntal lines at the Haig in Los Angeles. To others, West Coast jazz means Hampton Hawes, Curtis Counce and Harold Land swinging hard at Shelly’s Manne Hole.
On Thursday July 18 at 8 p.m., pianist Bill Charlap will attempt to crystallize and illustrate West Coast jazz’s many influences and styles when he performs in New York as part of 92Y’s Jazz in July Festival. He’ll be joined by Michael Philip Mossman (trumpet), Jon Gordon (alto sax), Jimmy Greene (tenor sax), Gary Smulyan (baritone sax), Michael Dease (trombone), Ted Rosenthal (piano), Sean Smith (bass) and Rodney Green (drums).
Two weeks ago I caught up with Bill and asked him about the upcoming concert…
JazzWax: From your perspective, how did West Coast jazz differ from East Coast jazz in the ‘50s?
Bill Charlap: Much of what is written about West Coast jazz tells only part of the story. For instance, most people think of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Bob Brookmeyer when they hear the term West Coast jazz—the sound that focused on counterpoint and the relaxed Lester Young feeling.
But there’s a corollary to that sound, a very swinging scene that took place out there at the same time but hasn't received the same amount of attention. I’m talking about musicians like Curtis Counce, Harold Land, Gerald Wiggins, Carl Perkins, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and many others. There was plenty of hard swinging and edgy rhythm sections on the West Coast then. There’s a lot more to West Coast jazz than the Haig or the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.
JW: To some extent you’re differentiating between the white and black experiences on the West Coast.
BC: Yes, but I’m actually thinking about all of it together, which I know is a different way of looking at West Coast jazz. In our concert, you’ll be hearing a wide cross-section—from Brookmeyer, Brubeck, Mulligan and Baker to Harold Land, Victor Feldman, Elmo Hope and Teddy Edwards. That’s my idea of West Coast jazz: the two camps presented as one. A lot of vital things that were happening musically in California in the ‘50s and ‘60s weren’t just emblematic of the cool school.
JW: Part of that sound is shaped by the artist’s personal experience—from lifestyle to racism. But it’s also regional—meaning a more laid back environment.
BC: Absolutely. But West Coast jazz has long been pegged as not having the same pressure and edge as New York jazz. While there’s certainly some sunshine in West Coast jazz, there’s no lack of intensity. There’s nothing lightweight about what was happening out there. I’m talking also about West Coast artists like Jimmy Rowles, Russ Freeman and Cannonball Adderley with Victor Feldman and Joe Zawinul.
The concert will be a celebration of key figures in all forms of West Coast jazz who haven’t necessarily received the attention they deserve. We’ll also be looking at artists like Mulligan and Brubeck. It will be a mixture of what was happening in the African-American scene on Central Avenue and in harder swinging rhythm sections as well as other developments.
JW: Is there a risk of trying to be everything and winding up with an audience that has little understanding?
BC: Of course, but we’ll limit those risks with a clear narrative. The concert isn’t going to be a lecture—but we will take the audience through the artists we’re highlighting and why they’re important. We’ll also fill in the audience about what they’re hearing. One song we may play is the ballad For Sue, recorded by Bob Gordon and Jack Montrose in 1954. It was written by Jack for Jon Gordon's mother Sue, who was involved with Bob Gordon. Bob was killed in a car crash in 1955, so Jon, who's playing with us, never knew him.
Ted Rosenthal and I both played with Gerry Mulligan for years, so we won’t leave him out. But instead of touching on the music he made at the Haig, we want to play Gerry’s works that are more developed, like Curtains, which he recorded in 1989 on Lonesome Boulevard [Bill also recorded the song on his album The Gerry Mulligan Songbook]. We might play Gerald Wiggins’ A Fifth for Frank (1957), Carl Perkins’ Mia (1956), Hampton Hawes’ Hamp's Blues (1967) and Victor Feldman’s Falling in Love (recorded first by Stan Getz in 1986 on Voyage).
JW: Don't you think the audience will expect to hear the laid-back West Coast sound?
BC: They’re going to hear all of it. It will be an education. New York in the ‘50s was still the country’s creative center. There has long been a critical view that what was happening on the West Coast was weaker and less significant. The point I’m making is this: If you're listening for a rhythm section that sounds like one driven by East Coast drummer Art Blakey, your assumption is correct—you won't find that.
But the West Coast featured many intense artists who need to be exposed and appreciated. There also was an edgy, swinging studio scene with composer-arrangers like Benny Carter, Benny Golson and Clare Fischer. There was plenty of hot jazz and innovation on the West Coast and the audience will get to hear both types, for a fuller, truer picture.
JW: What are some of your favorite West Coast jazz recordings?
BC: I’d have to say Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s Line for Lyons, Bob Brookmeyer’s Rocky Scotch, anything by Hampton Hawes, Curtis Counce’s Landslide and recordings by Bob Gordon and Jack Montrose.
JazzWax note: For the full schedule of 92Y's Jazz in July events, go here.