City Paper is not for tourists
If Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis are the bookends of modern jazz trumpet, the volumes in between are written by Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan. Along with Diz and Davis, these three jazzmen, all of whom died tragically young, have influenced every contemporary player to purse his lips around a mouthpiece. Three new complete collections from the Blue Note vaults document nearly 15 years of trumpet triumphs.
Fats Navarro played in dance bands as a teenager in the early ’40s, and in 1945 replaced Gillespie in crooner Billy Eckstein’s band before going solo the following year. Navarro left Eckstein because of the musical constrictions of a big band, but he was also out of shape and unable to handle incessant touring. His unending weight problems, as well as his sensitive disposition and feminine voice, earned him the nickname “Fat Girl.”
Addiction was to be Navarro’s downfall, but it wasn’t just to food. Heroin had taken hold of the lives of scores of musicians in the 1940s, and Navarro was no exception. While generally considered a gentle, intelligent man, Navarro’s increasingly desperate need for fixes left him edgy. (One story tells of his clunking the already psychologically damaged pianist Bud Powell on the head with his trumpet.) Ever trying to lose weight, Navarro told friends in early 1950 that he had just gone on a dietunfortunately, it was a regimen of smack. He died of drug-exacerbated tuberculosis on July 7, 1950, at a withered 100 pounds. He was 26.
Despite personal turmoil, Navarro crafted a sound of pure joy. He brought jazz trumpet into a new era, tying Roy Eldridge’s melodicism to Gillespie’s technical accomplishment with great energy and a luminescent tone. The seven sessions (over two discs) featured on The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings, which were recorded between 1947 and 1949, showcase the settings in which Navarro excelled. But the compilation is as much a testament to pianist Tadd Dameron’s skill as composer and arranger as to Navarro’s distinctive solo voice. Dameron greatly enriched the jazz repertoire with tunes such as “Hot House,” “On a Misty Night,” and “If You Could See Me Now.”
Navarro had an uncanny ability to blend with fellow trumpeters. Sessions with giants like Gillespie, Davis, Howard McGee, and Kenny Dorham are highlights of this compilation, providing a rare opportunity to compare pre-Clifford Brown bebop styles. Navarro’s Oct. 11, 1948, sessions with Howard McGee, featuring “The Skunk,” “Boperation,” and “Double Talk,” are special because McGee’s normally thin tone gains some bite as he is spurred on by his protégé. (In 1943, the two had played together in Andy Kirk’s band.)
The Capitol sessions of Jan. 18, 1949, with Dameron’s nonet/octet, presage Miles Davis’ more celebrated Birth of the Cool sessions, which followed three days later. Dameron had hired two Afro-Cuban percussionists to exotify the grooves, but the results, “Sid’s Delight” and “Casbah,” are more playful than exotic. An earlier session (Sept. 13, 1948), featuring Chino Pozo’s conga on “Jahbero,” is a damn funky affair, however. Despite the recording’s low fidelity, the drums should long ago have been sampled by a hip hiphopper. They start the song in a backsliding gallop and occasionally break down the piece, opening up space in a way that sonically separates the tune from such beautiful bop burners as “The Chase” and “The Squirrel” from Dameron and Navarro’s first Blue Note session (Sept. 26, 1947).
Navarro’s Aug. 8, 1949, session with Bud Powell stands out as one of the pianist’s few sessions with horns. Powell generally recorded in a trio setting throughout his career, but here the coupling of Navarro and a young Sonny Rollins on tenor sax lends Powell’s propulsive playing an aura of space, the combinaton foreshadowing hard bop by several years. The Powell standard “Bouncing With Bud” is presented three times in all its flash and effervescence, and Thelonius Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” is a back-to-the-wall burner, the players splashing through it with feverish abandon.
As with most complete collections, there are as many alternate takes as originals, and listening to the disc without programming it can become tedious. Unlike Charlie Parker, whose solos were constantly evolving, Navarro was obsessed with playing the perfect melody and tends to stick with a melodic narrative, refining it on each take. This affirmation of beauty was sadly missing in Navarro’s life, so these Capitol and Blue Note recordings represent a “what if” scenario as much as a testament to the trumpeter’s skills.
Bebop was still alive in 1955, despite the deaths of figureheads like Navarro and Charlie Parker. Gillespie still played “Night in Tunisia” as if it were his last night there, and the harmonically rich Powell style was still in full swing. But a newer music began to evolve, built on similar changes to bop’s, but without the reliance on the popular repertoire. Inspired by the soul of R&B, hard bop put the reins on hellbent speed in favor of catchier, though still tough-minded, melodic motifs.
Clifford Brown moved away from bebop’s slurred phrasing by tonguing his mouthpiece; he fired crisp rounds of musical ammunition which targeted the feet, while more pronounced melodies flowed from his bell. Navarro had initiated this melodic shift, but where Navarro was content to caress a newly discovered melody until it was just right, Brown worked liked a pivoting basketball playerrevolving around a planted position, but able to dodge, weave, and fake until his band was exhausted. (Fellow trumpeters were exhausted as well. Marcus Belgrave, though fond of Brown, said he had to quit listening to him because Brown’s technique made him feel inadequate.)
Brown’s debt to Navarro is most apparent in his buoyant style, in which displays of technique were downplayed (though Brown surely could cut anyone in a bandstand showdown) in favor of warmer timbres and more soulful statements. And Brown didn’t shy from the comparison to Navarro. In interviews, he named Navarro as his main influence, and eagerly recalled when the elder trumpeter had encouraged him as a teenager.
While their musical styles were related, Brown and Navarro’s lives couldn’t have been more different. Where Navarro had led an addict’s life all too familiar to those in the jazz scene, Clifford Brown was straighter than a desert highway. Yet all Brown’s roads weren’t so smooth; he had two horrible car crashes within a six-year span. His first, in 1950, left him convalescing for a year, and the second killed him. Brown died in 1956, at age 26.
Blue Note’s box set contains some of Brown’s earliest recordings. Since he recorded very little for either label as a leader, two very popular (and widely available) Art Blakey-led albums featuring Brown, A Night in Birdland Volumes One and Two, are included in their entirety. Another session is led by trombonist J.J. Johnson, while the other three are led or co-led by Brown. (The original 10-inch albums are collected on the still-available Memorial Album.) Padding out the four discs are nearly a dozen alternate takes. But because Brown, like Navarro, died so young, these truly complete sessions are welcome.
Brown’s Blue Note box is packaged as a miniature book, small in size but lavish in design. Though the liner notes are at times effusive in their praise, the high-contrast photographs are beautiful in their simplicity. But for the cream of Brown’s achievement, the material on Emarcy/Mercury’s 10-CD box set (much of which is still in print on individual albums) carries the bulk of his best work and showcases his ability to switch between vocal and string sessions outside a strict bop format, whereas the Blue Note/Pacific work is exclusively in the hard bop idiom.
“Cherokee,” “Cookin’,” “Carvin’ the Rock,” and “Wail Bait” are all sinuous hard bop classics and spark the first disc’s fire. Disc 2 is a strange affair mixing two sextet sessions by very different bands: Brown’s June 22, 1953, session with trombonist J.J. Johnson features the Modern Jazz Quartet’s rhythm section bouncing through some pleasant bop, while the July 11 or 21, and Aug. 12 or 13, 1954, sessions feature Brown as leader playing arrangements by Jack Montrose. Such classic Brown originals as “Daahoud” are placed next to “Blueberry Hill.” It was a West Coast session with players generally steeped in the cool craze, such as Zoot Sims and Russ Freeman, but Brown’s capacity to adapt to a more relaxed styleas well as his enthusiastic interpretations of such drivel as “Hill”highlight his uncanny ability simply to playwhatever the situation, whoever the players, whatever the material.
The Blakey-led sessions on Discs 3 and 4 are the most famous here. From Blue Note’s house MC, Pee-Wee Marquette, screaming “Art Blakey!” in his famously squeaky voice to Blakey himself saying “Wow! First time I enjoyed a recording session,” it’s all giddy energy. From “Night in Tunisia,” to Parker’s “Confirmation,” to the straight romp, “Blues,” the heat on these two discs could melt a Russian winter.
After Brown’s death, the search for a “New Brownie” filled column inches in jazz rags across the land. One brash youngster, confident enough to covet the title and good enough to earn it, stepped forward. At 18, Lee Morgan was an anomaly. As the liner notes to Morgan’s Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions make clear, it wasn’t so common in the ’50s as it is today for teenagers to be leading sessionsespecially not with as much talent, charisma, and daring as Morgan exhibits over these four discs.
Just as Brown was a mixture of Gillespie and Navarro when he began, Morgan was a combination of Gillespie and Brown. His sound was fat, bright, and brash. He mixed bluesy runs with swaggering, off-center riffs that redirected the momentum of a tune but never killed the groove.
The roots of Morgan’s later, funkier style are in these discs, distinctly shaped by saxophonist Benny Golson’s compositions. And just as the Navarro collection highlights Dameron’s skills, Morgan’s box set is a testament to Golson’s. The six albums represented here (Indeed, Volume Two, Volume Three, City Lights, The Cooker, and Candy) show Morgan tackling 14 Golson compositions with appropriate enthusiasm (“Reggie of Chester”) and pathos (“I Remember Clifford”).
The Buddy Johnson ballad “Since I Fell for You,” which begins Candy, is especially representative of Morgan’s unswerving confidence. Even today, ballads are considered the true proving ground for jazz youngsters ready to demonstrate that their harmonic thinking is equal to their chops. Morgan is more than up to the task, drenching the tune in soothing warmth.
Morgan’s ’50s sessions see him absorbing his influences and stepping into the spotlight, rather than exploding with innovation. In 1958, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, becoming their musical director in 1960. He left the jazz scene in 1961 for several years because he favored not only Navarro’s melodicism, but also his drug of choice. The mid-’60s brought Morgan his greatest success as he wedded soul and jazz to form hyperfunky jukebox hits.
Superstition says death comes in threes, and Morgan’s fulfilled the prophecy. It was 1972, and Morgan’s biggest hit, 1964’s “The Sidewinder,” was far behind him. Jazz-funk had taken over, inspired by Morgan’s soul jazz, yet Morgan was still playing, however sporadically. He was shot by his common-law wife (or mistress, depending on the account you read) at the ironically named Slugs Saloon in New York City. He was 33. But Morgan had the most years of any, and while he tended to rewrite “The Sidewinder” for much of the ’60s, his incessant hard funk sound never grew tired.
In-depth liner notes by Bob Blumenthal, evocative photos by Francis Wolf, and Mosaic’s typically thorough presentation make Morgan’s box the most exquisite collection of the three. But those on a budget interested in the essential recordings are advised to seek out the Navarro compilation, Brown’s two Night at Birdland discs with Blakey, and Morgan’s Candy. (Mosaic Records releases are available only through mail order. Call (203) 327-7111 for a catalog.) CP