During the two decades that followed the end of World War II in 1945, independent record labels flourished. Many of these micro labels succeeded by specializing in specific types of music that the more bland-minded giants—RCA, Columbia and Decca—largely ignored. In the process, these small labels wound up establishing beachheads for new music genres and cornering the market for the genres' best musicians and singers.
Tiny specialty labels in the late 1940s, '50s and early '60s included Four Star (country), Sun (rockabilly), King (R&B), Atlantic (gospel-R&B), Vanguard (folk), Motown (soul-pop), Stax (Southern horn-based soul) and Philles (pop-rock). Perhaps the very first of these themed indie labels was Savoy, which gave bebop credibility and momentum at a critical time starting in 1945.
Savoy was founded by Herman Lubinsky (above) in late 1942, just after the start of the first of two American Federation of Musicians' recording bans. The bans prohibited union musicians from working for record companies, which in 1942 meant the Big Three—RCA, Columbia and Decca. But in 1943, a nearly bankrupt Decca agreed to pay royalties into a union fund earmarked for the hiring of unemployed musicians at union events, dozens of small labels emerged to take the same deal. To survive, they carved out unexploited niches in the recording market.
At first, Savoy's mission was rather aimless, recording forgettable sides in 1943 by no-name combos such as the Original Kings of Harmony and Teddy Tucker's Band. The following year, Savoy took a bolder step by recording Swing-era and blues stars such as "Hot Lips" Page, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson and Tiny Grimes. But this was a rather staid business move.
Savoy's bold shift arrived in early 1945 with the hiring of Teddy Reig (above, in 1948), who had a sterling eye and ear for a new form of jazz emerging in New York clubs. This music scrapped swing-band dance tempos for the inventiveness of individual musicians in small combos.
The new music was called "bebop" in 1946 by the jazz press. Its tempo was too fast for dancing, and only those musicians familiar with bebop's complex music theory could improvise with authority and flare. Making up fresh and flawless melody and harmony lines at breakneck tempos was akin to French chefs plating meals perfectly on the backs of pickup trucks barreling down a dirt road. Bebop's art rested on the articulation of gutsy ideas, blues sensibility, limber dexterity and a burning desire to stand out with passion and velocity. Audiences needed to be thunderstruck.
Much of the bebop recorded by Savoy starting in 1945 relied on the impeccable taste of Reig, who early on identified and appreciated the circus-like excitement and aggression of the new music and artists. Bebop wasn't just familiar melodies played fast. It was a deft interpretation and expression, a new language for fitting in and competing based on one's abilities and poetry, not one's race. [Photo above of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray]
Bebop began in the early 1940s in the hands of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who arrived at the same musical conclusions separately. By May 1945, bop had congealed when Gillespie and Parker recorded together for Savoy. Though other labels had recorded bop by then, including Guild, Musicraft and Continental, Savoy, through Reig, brought something special to the mix. With the Savoy sides, there was sophisticated wit and an intellectual hipness that transcended musical wheel-spinning and flamboyance. You could hear the soloist's burning drive and daring simmering within the grooves of recordings.
Now, Mosaic Records has assembled all of Savoy's bebop sessions (sans Parker) in a new box—Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49, a 10-CD set with a 32-page booklet with photos, liner notes by Bob Porter and Neil Tesser, and detailed discographical information. For too long, Parker has loomed large as bebop's godfather. Easily the form's most lyrical and breathtaking practitioner, Parker's work for Savoy has been endlessly documented. But as the new Savoy box shows, he wasn't the only bebop saint, not by a mile.
The new Savoy box features 216 tracks that have been warmly remastered, providing the listener with several marvelous narratives. There's the reveal of bebop's B-story thriving in Parker's shadow between 1945 and '49. There's the story of the label's and Reig's shrewd choices in musicians to record. But best of all is the chronological evidence of bebop's evolution from its birth at Harlem's after-hours clubs in the early 1940s to the style's saturation and waning with the arrival of cool jazz in 1949.
Under the auspices of Reig, Savoy's bop run (excluding the Parker recordings) began with Dexter Gordon in October 1945 and Kai Winding in December. But if Reig had hopes of turning Savoy into a Parker palace, those dreams were quickly dashed. Parker left for Los Angeles at the tail end of 1945 and didn't return until mid-1947, recording mostly for Dial. Reig was forced to amp up his search for bop's brightest lights. He found them in Allen Eager, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Fans Navarro, Gil Fuller, Ray Brown, Eddie Davis, Serge Chaloff, Kenny Hagood, John Lewis, Leo Parker, Tadd Dameron, Howard McGhee, Brew Moore and Kenny Clarke, along with the dozens of accomplished bop sidemen who accompanied these session leaders.
What you learn by listening to the Savoy bop recordings in chronological order is how loose and inventive the music became over time. At first, ensembles often played bop lines rigidly in unison before soloists took flight. But this attack became much more loose and peppery by 1946. You can hear this transition and freer approach in Eddie Davis's Just a Mystery in '46 and Fats Navarro's Eb Pob in '47. The Serge Chaloff Sextette upped the frantic ante while Dameron's sides and Navarro's Nostalgia introduced a cosmopolitan sheen. By 1949, J.J. Johnson's Goof Square and Brew Moore's Mud Bug had the smoothness of an automatic transmission. [Photo above of Tadd Dameron]
The box ends in mid-1949 with Fuller's dense orchestral bop session, which as remarkable as it sounded now seems like a rhinoceros ice-skating. To be sure, his arrangements were a miracle to play and hear. But by then, a new jazz revolution was underway, a drier, airier approach that critics would come to call cool jazz. The first of these recordings by Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in March were captured in March '49.
Between 1945 and '49, jazz transitioned from the swing of collective bands to the daredevil skills of the soloist. Mosaic's new box and booklet document these critical four years brilliantly through the catalog of a single label. Remarkably, the music remains Jell-O bouncy and highly electrifying. It's also important to note that bebop in the mid-1940s threw open the doors to post-war modernity, blazing a trail for the action painting, abstract sculpture and non-hierarchical cubist architecture that would follow in the late 1940s and early '50s. Bebop taught artists who could hear the message that the individual mattered and would be rewarded for thinking highly of themselves, tapping into their feelings and taking creative chances. The recipe is all here in this box. [Photo above, from left, Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller]
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Mosaic's Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49, a 10-CD set here. And if you don't have Mosaic's The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions, order it as well (here). Both are important jazz history lessons. You'll cry when the limited editions are gone and you held off.
JazzWax clips: Here's tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in July 1946 playing Running Water with Hank Jones (p) Curly Russell (b) and Max Roach (d)...
Here's bassist Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Burns (tp), John Brown (as), James Moody (ts), Milt Jackson (vib), Hank Jones (p) and Joe Harris (d), with Gil Fuller (arr), playing Smokey Hollow Jump in September 1946...
Here's tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in December 1946 playing Red Pepper with Fats Navarro (tp) Al Haig (p) Huey Long (g) Gene Ramey (b) and Denzil Best (d)...