Tag Archives: Milt Hinton

Group of Groups

One of my favourite releases of recent months is the double Arbors CD of music by the 1970s supergroup Soprano Summit – much of it previously unissued. Browsing through the CD’s booklet this week, I realised that it’s 30 years since this small, but perfectly formed, outfit disbanded – though its members did get reunited in the 1990s and occasionally thereafter. Here’s a timely, 30th anniversary, tribute…

Soprano Summit was a band which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (seven years), has become something of a legend in the jazz world. Certainly, its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a jazz party organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that the late clarinettist Kenny Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, enjoyed telling.

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said in his Alabama drawl: ”Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

”We got a rhythm section together – by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number. We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972 the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album, the only difference in personnel being that busy bassist Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier. Then, after a follow-up LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born.

The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Rhythm guitarist Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

For Grosz, the invitation to join Soprano Summit was a lifeline – as well as a launchpad for the solo career he’s enjoyed ever since. “It was great for me because I’d been toiling in the vineyards – I’d been playing all the crumby jobs in Chicago and wondering if this was all there was in life for me,” recalled Grosz in a 1995 interview. “This band had a feeling of experimentation about it – and I love that.”

Grosz had already heard Soprano Summit on the radio and couldn’t wait to get to New York to take up his new job. “Soprano Summit was a sterling quintet, a peppy, interesting band sort of like the little Jimmie Noone Apex Club group with Jimmie Noone and Joe Posten on clarinet and Posten sometimes on alto sax.”

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love for tunes that were off the beaten standard track. (He passed the test with Davern by being au fait with the Red Allen-Pee Wee Russell number Oh Peter.) Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic groundplan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz they also had ”a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning”. Davern said: ”That was the basic sound of the group: two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue”.

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music but both have their own views on how it should be played. ”Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they would bounce the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. Then several rounds of musical jousting would take place, with each front man vying for musical supremacy – especially, remembered Marty Grosz, on their “big, next-to-closing number, Song of Songs,” a schmaltzy tune that Sidney Bechet used to play. “They way they did it, they’d uilt and build and build it – and people loved it.

“They would build up a head of steam and it would bring the house down.I don’t think either of them would have the horn out of his mouth during the whole number. They’d egg each other on, and try to outdo each other. Then, when they ran out of gas, they’d pass it on to me – and I’d be like a drowning man struggling to keep his head above water..”

There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, and the only clue to the planned nature of the programme was the fact that they had music in front of them. Indeed, Grosz pointed out: “They were the only band I ever came across who could somehow surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts. I thought it was good that they had little arrangements – otherwise if you don’t play together for a long time, every night in the same club with the same bass player and drummer, then you’re going to end up playing common denominator tunes. This was a chance to do out-of-the-way material.”

Bob Wilber was modest about the way he and Davern worked. “A lot of it was intuitive. We would find out what worked by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.” Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: ”Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

Although Soprano Summit split up in 1979, both Wilber and Davern, who thereafter played clarinet exclusively, continued to discuss their musical rapport in the present tense because following the recording of the Chiaroscuro album Summit Reunion (with their original line-up) in 1990, they increasingly found themselves being booked together for concerts, albeit with different rhythm sections. Indeed, plans were afoot for some Wilber and Davern concerts when Kenny Davern died suddenly in December 2006. As he had said, during a mid-1990s reunion, ”people still throw their babies up at this band, at this combination of instruments”.

Thankfully, there are plenty of recordings of this near-mythic band to testify to its ability to give the hairs on the back of the neck a work-out, even three decades after its demise. As the recent Arbors CD of highlights from the tapes recorded by the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1975 demonstrate, the Soprano Summit sound is as fresh, exhilarating and downright thrilling as ever.

***

MARTY GROSZ remembers:

“I joined Soprano Summit in 1975 for a concert at the Carnegie Hall. There I was, with my knees knocking together. Somehow, playing the Carnegie Hall is an unnerving experience. I had to put one foot up on a chair to stop my knees from clacking like castanets while I played the guitar and sang the Milenberg Joys.

“Around that time, we did The Today Show a couple of times. One time we were doing The Today Show and I was singing How Can You Face Me, and Kenny started mugging, pulling his fingers at the corner of his mouth and making all kinds of faces and obscene gestures. It was all I could do not to just give up in the middle of live television and crack up.

“I like that kind of thing in a band. I’d much rather they’d come out with water pistols and soda water bottles than those deadly bands where everybody sits there like zombies and the leader comes out and makes one of those deadly earnest announcements. In this band, we had a chance for craziness like Theatre of the Absurd, which I personally am a fan of.

“Soprano Summit was the only group I ever played with who managed to read music on the stand and not have it have a negative effect on the audience. Usually, when you have a little combo – especially – and the musicians have their eyes down at the paper, you lose contact with the audience. But, for some reason with Soprano Summit, they could surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts.

“We had these little orchestra stands and I sat in the middle – I was the guy who stopped Kenny and Bob from killing each other at times. Kenny was the outspoken one, and Bob was quiet – always thinking about the music; about arrangements.

“Soprano Summit was the band I actually looked forward to playing with. I’m really sorry it had to come to an end. Sometimes when Kenny and Bob were wailing away full tilt, and the rhythm section was boiling, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And I’m an atheist.”

* The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (Arbors Records ARCD 19328)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Contender

Amongst the many notable jazz anniversaries of recent months, one important one has been pretty much universally overlooked. December 2008 was the centenary of a trumpet legend with whom jazz history has been particularly careless. He was lost, found and lost and found again – so it’s almost fitting that his centenary went by unnoticed. Even in death, he’s an elusive character.

His name was Jabbo Smith, and, at the peak of his powers and the height of his celebrity, he was regarded by many as the only serious challenge to Louis Armstrong’s position as the greatest trumpet player of them all. But just over a decade later, he had slid out of the limelight and was all but forgotten.

Born in Georgia in December 1908, Jabbo Smith was christened Cladys to complement the name of a cousin, Gladys, who was just a few days older. His mother, who played the church organ, struggled to raise him by herself. Eventually, when Jabbo was six, she was forced to hand him over to the care of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. This institution supported itself by teaching the children to play music and then sending its student bands all over the country, to all the major cities. Jabbo quickly mastered trumpet and trombone and was duly sent out on tour from an early age. He invariably used these excursions as a launchpad for an escape bid..

When he was 14 years old, he ran away and remained free for three months, during which time he worked with a professional band in Florida. Two years later, he left the orphanage for good and headed for his half-sister’s home in Philadelphia. There, he immediately found work.

In 1925, at the age of just 17, he was playing in one of the most popular bands of the day, the Charlie Johnson band in New York – having already made his recording debut with no less a bandleader than Clarence Williams.

Jabbo – whose nickname came from an Indian character in a William S Hart western – was already beginning to be regarded as something of a sensation when he replaced Bubber Miley for the Duke Ellington band’s November 1927 recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy. So impressed was Ellington with Jabbo’s playing that he offered him a job. Happy with the Charlie Johnson band and unimpressed by the money being offered, Jabbo turned him down – a move which he may not have regretted, but subsequent generations of his admirers undoubtedly have.

He went on, in 1928, to join Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Garvin Bushell in the band playing for the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’ – the results can be heard on the four numbers this band, known as the Louisiana Sugar Babies, recorded together.

Keep Shufflin’ closed suddenly in Chicago in 1929 when its backer, Arnold Rothstein, notorious as the mobster who had fixed the 1919 baseball World Series, was the victim of a gangland murder. Jabbo may have found himself stranded in the Windy City, but the show’s impromptu closing had fortunate results for jazz recording history: the Chicago-based Brunswick Record Company offered him the chance to record 19 sides designed to compete with Louis Armstrong’s hugely successful Hot Five and Hot  Seven records, which were making money by the bucket-load for the rival Okeh label.

For what became the definitive Jabbo Smith sides, Jabbo not only led the band, which was assembled by the banjo player Ikey Robinson and christened the Rhythm Aces, but he also wrote all the numbers and sang on many of them – in his distinctive scat style.  He was still only 20, and his youthful energy simply explodes out of tracks such as Sau-Sha Stomp, Take Your Time and Boston Skuffle.

Not only that, but his style of playing is dazzling. He was technically brilliant, completely at ease playing in the upper register and able to deliver one fantastic break after another. In 1955, the bass player Milt Hinton was quoted as saying: “Jabbo was as good as Louis then. He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful.” Another trumpet great who was around at the same time as both Jabbo and Louis was Doc Cheatham who said that in the late 1920s, Jabbo was as good as Armstrong but that they were “very different players and that Jabbo shouldn’t be judged by comparisons”.

Despite having his astonishing and highly individual style of playing showcased on the Brunswick sides, Jabbo couldn’t shake off his image as an Armstrong imitator – much to his chagrin. The record company pulled the plug on the Rhythm Aces recordings because the records weren’t the commercial success that they’d hoped for. A year after their release, Jabbo went to Milwaukee and spent several years playing with different bands there and in Chicago. He seems to have drifted between the two cities. Late in his life, he told the trumpeter Michel Bastide: “You get into a little trouble in Chicago – you run to  Milwaukee… You get into a little trouble in Milwaukee – you run to Chicago.”

In 1936, the bandleader Claude Hopkins heard Jabbo as he passed through Milwaukee and signed him up for two years. Then, in 1938, Jabbo made what would turn out to be his last recordings for over 20 years, when he recorded four more of his own compositions for Decca – including the gorgeous ballad Absolutely and the jaw-droppingly complex Rhythm in Spain.

Jabbo slid into obscurity but seems to have been content to do so. Although he was wild and unruly as a young man, he has been described by many who knew him later in his life as a quiet, introverted character – something of a loner – who seems to have been quite happy to take whatever came his way. He certainly never sought fame – which is just as well, because he never again reached the heights he scaled when he was just 20.

Jabbo was more or less forgotten about by the mid-1950s when Milt Hinton’s comments for the Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya oral history prompted renewed interest in him. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that he was tracked down to Milwaukee and brought to Chicago for a recording session with a local rhythm section which included the guitarist Marty Grosz.

Grosz has described Jabbo as a free spirit, someone who followed his own path. It’s an assessment which ties in with Milt Hinton statement that if Jabbo made enough money for drinks and women in any small town, he would stay put. Michel Bastide, whose Hot Antic Jazz Band toured and recorded with Jabbo in the trumpeter’s seventies, believes that Jabbo was easily distracted by women and might have fared better in his musical career if he had had someone to look after him and advise him in the way that Lil Hardin did for Louis Armstrong.

When Jabbo was tracked down in 1961, he hadn’t touched his trumpet for nearly two decades and had been working for Avis car hire for many years. He said that he had married and settled down in Milwaukee, playing trumpet in a nightclub at first. When the club closed down, he simply put his horn under his bed and found himself another job. But he did continue composing.

After his rediscovery in the early 1960s, Jabbo seems to have retreated from the limelight once more. He next popped up in the mid-1970s when the impresario George Wein invited him to New York to receive an award as one of the greatest living musicians in jazz history. This time, he was back to stay: he began practising the trumpet again thanks to the encouragement of the clarinettist Orange Kellin who invited him to New Orleans, to play in his band. This led to his being hired for the show One More Time which earned him euphoric reviews.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jabbo enjoyed a last blast of glory. He played the New York jazz clubs and worked with such diverse names as Thad Jones and Don Cherry. He also toured in Europe,  in the company of a French jazz band which had been born out of a shared love of his recordings. The members of the Hot Antic Jazz Band – led by trumpeter Michel Bastide  – spent three years mastering Jabbo’s 1929 repertoire and were thrilled when he agreed to come on tour and record with them.

Their affection for him and enthusiasm for his music clearly paid off: the resulting LPs (Zoo and The European Ccncerts) are delightful and provide a happy ending for what could have been yet another sad jazz tale.  Jabbo Smith died in January 1991, leaving his trumpet to the Antics’ Michel Bastide.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

* Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces 1929-1938 (Classics Records 669)

*  Jabbo Smith: The Complete Jabbo Smith Hidden Treasure Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10352) is newly out, and comprises the original Hidden Treasure LPs, recorded in 1961 with Marty Grosz etc, plus previously unreleased material

* Hot Antic Jazz Band: Jabbo Smith (Memories CD04) features the music from the two Hot Antic LPs with Jabbo. It’s available to buy at Hot Antic Jazz Band concerts and from its producer – jeanpierre.daubresse@free.fr

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized