Saturday, February 21, 2009

Miles Ahead: Prestige Records Goes Viral... 1951 - 1958

Imagine a 22 year old New Yorker in a suburban Illinois town for the first time, thumbing intently through a phone book looking for 23 year old Miles Davis, and you've got a good idea of how it was for Bob Weinstock in the fall of 1950, barely a year after he started the legendary Prestige Records. As he clearly recalled in an interview 45 years later; "Miles had vanished after he did those Capitol sides with the nonet [Birth of the Cool - 1949]; nobody knew where he was. Somebody had said that he may be at home in East St. Louis, so while I was in Chicago on business, I tracked him down. His father was a dentist, so I knew that his number would be in the phone book. I called information, got the number, called, and Miles answered ... I said that I was interested in doing a series of recordings, and that I wanted to sign him to a contract. He said alright, just get him to New York and we'd talk about it then."

By January 1951, Weinstock managed to get Davis to New York and his fledgling jazz record label into the history books. Sure, Weinstock had already recorded a breathtaking litany of artists who helped to spread the word, but more than anything it was securing Miles that sounded the clarion call of Prestige's importance within NYC's jazz community and beyond.

Davis' first Prestige sessions took place on an unseasonably warm January 17th 1951; with him were trombonist Bennie Green, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Percy Heath and John Lewis. Click here to check out Whispering, one of the 4 tunes they recorded.

Miles would record another hundred, including the groundbreaking "Walkin" sessions of 1954 and a torrential string of 28 "sides" ( as they were called back in the day) in the spring and fall of 1956, his last year with the label. Click here to check out Davis' final Prestige record date, October 26th 1956, joined by John Coltrane on If I Were A Bell.
Another incomparable performance and a fitting farewell to Prestige and Weinstock, the 20-something kid who built Davis' launch pad to superstardom.

The same could
be said for Coltrane, who met Weinstock when he joined Miles Davis' band in 1955. 'Trane became a bandleader for the first time while at Prestige; among his sessions was (with stablemate Sonny Rollins) Tenor Madness , now considered one of the most important jazz records of all time. Click here to listen to their 1956 masterwork; of special note is the compelling way the tenor giants compliment each other.

Prestige celebrates it's 10th anniversary and charts the course of jazz for the next decade in our next post...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Weinstock's gamble leads to gems: Celebrating Prestige Records "Diamond" Anniversary - Pt 2

It's January 11th, 1949 and the sound of music has worked it's magic on a young New Yorker named Bob Weinstock, who has been collecting jazz records with his father since the age of eight. "We carried home armfuls of records, and a new world of music opened for me." Now he's 21, in a New York City recording studio looking at his watch and waiting for the arrival of pianist Lennie Tristano and saxophonist Lee Konitz - Weinstock's first day on the job after elevating his ambitions from a relatively secure station - international music distributor - to the owner of a jazz record label aptly called New Jazz. The fact that there was really only one other successful jazz label at the time made Weinstock's gamble a risky move...or a sure bet.

Weinstock had bet on his passion for jazz before; as a teenager he opened "The Jazz Record Corner" in Manhattan - and spent much of the money he made stalking New York's jazz clubs night after night, absorbing the scene and it's inhabitants. Some of the musicians he meets eventually become customers. One of them, the seminal drummer Kenny Clarke, urged Weinstock to start his own record label; "He introduced me to musicians like Thelonious Monk," Weinstock said, "and told me that if I started a record company he would get all the jazz greats to record for me." Soon after, Weinstock's family bet on his future and loaned him the money to start New Jazz Records.

The sessions with Tristano and Konitz went well and one of the four songs recorded that day, "Subconcious Lee" (click title to hear music) , is now is a defining moment in modern jazz history. It also inspired Weinstock to no end. He changed the name of the label to Prestige (a ballsy mission statement for anything other than classical music in the late 40's especially when you consider the most successful jazz label of the day was called Blue Note) and over the course of the next 11 months, Weinstock recorded a hall of fame collection of young lions and veterans; Stan Getz in April. Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, John Lewis in May. Gerry Mulligan in August. Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell,Wardell Gray, Roy Haynes & Coleman Hawkins in October November & December.
The following year it was Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Heath, Milt Jackson , Percy Heath, Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, Gene Ammons & Zoot Sims. Listen to Sims' 1950 recording of "Dancing in the Dark" here .

By the time Prestige prepared for it's second anniversary, jazz royalty populated the label's archives but there was still one name missing from the list; the name that would deliver Prestige Records' destiny.

The story continues in our next post.

Prestige Records at 60... Pt. 1

Amidst all of the justifiable, but slightly self serving hoopla surrounding the 70th Anniversary of a certain record label, it seems the jazz brain trust has missed out on another, and perhaps more significant milestone - the 60th birthday of Prestige Records, arguably the greatest jazz label of all time.

For further proof of this glaring oversight, simply do a Google search on Prestige Records 60th Anniversary.

But then again, Bob Weinstock always knew, when he created Prestige in 1949, that he would have to play second fiddle to Blue Note, unless he could come up with a different way of doing things. And of course, he did and it made him and scores of gifted improvisers famous.

One look above at the diverging arrows in the label's logo speaks volumes about the "Weinstock method", which we'll describe in greater detail... within our next post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cruisin' Smooth with Norman Brown and Co.

Jazz lovers from around the world and from all walks of life were swimming in first rate, crowd pleasing (and at times surprising!) performances by Acoustic Alchemy, Mindi Abair (who was especially impressive), Greg Adams, Larry Carlton (and his Grammy nominated-wife Michelle Pillar), Steve Cole, Alan Hewitt, Boney James, Michael Lington, Michael Manson, Marion Meadows, Chielli Minucci, Steve Oliver, Shilts & Althea Rene' aboard the Celebrity Cruise Ship Century during the recent Smooth Music Cruise to Key West, Nassau and points in between.

Grammy-winning guitarist Norman Brown did a yeoman's job as cruise host and played an electrifying set that included the singing of his two daughters; we found that one is currently a student at Berkeley School of Music. In fact, Norman's unpretentious, good natured vibe seemed to permeate everything; it was most evident in the camaraderie between musicians, who played on each other's gigs and watched the work of their fellow players from the audience.

And gauging by the audience reaction, singer Heather Headley's gig was even better than her grand performance on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial during the Obama Inaugural weekend "We Are One" concert (see YouTube video).

Perhaps the biggest stars of the trip were Neptune & Mother Nature; both were in good spirits and weather on land and at sea was mostly sunny and trouble-free albeit a little chilly and a tad rainy for some of the day in Nassau.

The unsung heroes were the rock solid steady and indefatigable "house" rhythm section musicians who played, with only two rehearsals, a dizzying array of styles and moods and some 105 songs over a five day period; they brought the house down with a version of the rock anthem "Vehicle" which also featured the song's creator, guitarist/songwriter Jim Peterik, formerly of the bands Ides of March and Survivor; you may remember that Jim also penned "Eye of the Tiger", made famous by it's inclusion in the "Rocky" motion pictures.

We saw one of the rhythm section players, the bassist, in the Ft. Lauderdale airport after the cruise; he was on his way to another gig, with The Fifth Dimension!

But by far the most inspired moments during the 5 day soiree came from watching the aqua green Caribbean Sea glide by while listening to the soft voice and soothing guitar of The Century's resident balladeer Franklin at the aft deck bar and the incomparable, late jam sessions hosted each night of the cruise by guitarist Nick Colionne, who showed uncanny comedic flair in addition to his deft skills as a bandleader, participant and Fashionista. Seeing Colionne at the helm with some of the finest jazz musicians in the world unwinding at the end of the night by playing the music Sly Stone, Funkadelic, Miles Davis etc. is a sight and sound we won't soon forget...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Arrivederci Luigi...

The 70 year success story that was Louis Bellson came to end over the weekend as the pioneering drummer, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator passed away at the age of 84. According to The Los Angeles Times, Bellson's wife, Francine said he died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications of Parkinson's disease following a broken hip in November.

Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni's star began rising in 1941 when, in competition with 40,000 other young players, he won a national drumming contest sponsored by Slingerland Drums and his hero, Gene Krupa. At the time Bellson was just 17 years old and already a trailblazer; at 15, the Rock Falls, Illinois native was credited with inventing a new way to keep time with not one but two bass drums.

Bellson would eventually follow Krupa's footwork when he joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1942; nine years later, after work with Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Harry James, Bellson became a member of The Duke Ellington Orchestra. By the time he left to be musical director for his new wife Pearl Bailey in 1953, Ellington was calling Bellson ""not only.... the world's greatest drummer . . . he's the world's greatest musician!"

He held four honorary doctorates, the latest from DePaul University in 2001; Bellson received a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994; a Living Jazz Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2007 and a Jazz Living Legend Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Bellson wrote more than a dozen books and booklets on drums and percussion as well as over 1000 compositions and arrangements. He also appeared on over 200 recordings and his last, "Louie & Clark Expedition 2" (with former Ellington band mate Clark Terry) was released last year. For detailed info about Louis visit his website.

A Los Angeles-area service for Bellson is being planned, followed by a funeral and burial in Moline, Ill. Send your condolences to...

Mrs. Louie Bellson
c/o Remo, Inc.
28101 Industry Drive
Valencia, CA 91355

Contributions in memory of Louie Bellson can be made to: Emmanuel Baptist Church and mailed to Mrs. Bellson at the address above.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Maiden Voyage...

"All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..."

JazzSearch's new Blogspot sets sail today 2/15/09...and that quote from John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever" is apropos in it's reference to the beginning of a journey and in it's connection to the spirit of exploration that is at the core of the JazzSearch "mission" and the idea and ideals of jazz itself. Within this small corner of the blogoverse, we'll survey every aspect of the art form
in a honest and comprehensive fashion setting up an easy way for anyone to navigate the ocean of jazz activity.

Fittingly, in our next post we'll review the 5 day excursion on the Caribbean sea aka The Smooth Music Cruise... stay tuned.