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JAZZ NOTES

Bob Thiele: A Behind-the-Scenes Giant

February 16, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Occasionally in the arts, someone who works behind the scenes--a producer, an impresario--has the impact of a major performer. Bob Thiele was one of those people.

Thiele, who died of kidney failure in New York on Jan. 30 at the age of 73, was a prodigy as a producer, starting his first label, Signature, at age 19, and recording such greats as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. He later made hit pop records with Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue") and Jackie Wilson. But it was during his tenure as producer at Impulse! Records from 1962 to 1969 that Thiele made his most important recordings, some of which--particularly those by John Coltrane--helped change the face of jazz.

Coltrane's "Live at the Village Vanguard," "Crescent" and "A Love Supreme," made in 1962, 1963 and 1964, respectively, and all now reissued on CD, signaled the arrival of a style that drew on elements of bebop for its foundation but also embraced free-form playing.

At Coltrane's behest, Thiele also recorded such other then-avant-garde artists as Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, making Impulse!, along with Blue Note, one of the two most progressive labels in jazz. But Thiele was catholic in his tastes, issuing two of Coltrane's most lyrical efforts--"Ballads" and "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman"--as well as other recordings by Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner and a hundred more. Many of these are currently available as reissues.

In 1967, Thiele produced his most well-known recording, Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" for ABC-Paramount Records. The number gained additional attention when it was spotlighted in 1987 on the soundtrack of the Robin Williams-starring film "Good Morning, Vietnam." Thiele was married to singer Theresa Brewer. His memoirs, "What a Wonderful World," were published by Oxford University Press last year.

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The Son Also Shined: Until he took over the Duke Ellington Orchestra after his father's death in 1974, Mercer Ellington was not a particularly noted jazz figure. The Juilliard-schooled trumpeter, composer and arranger who died in Copenhagen on Feb. 8 of heart failure at age 76, Ellington was for most of his life an intermittently active musician, known more for being his father's son than any other achievements, which included writing the perennial blues "Things Ain't What They Used to Be"--often credited, ironically, to Duke.

The younger Ellington began his career in 1939 by leading a band that featured a young Dizzy Gillespie and arrangements by Billy Strayhorn, who had yet to write for Duke. A few years later, he was writing for his father--"Blue Serge" and "Jumpin' Punkins" among other numbers--and sometimes playing section trumpet. Other jobs he held were record company owner, liquor salesman, disk jockey and aide to his father.

Mercer Ellington came into his own when he took over the famed orchestra, which he led until his death. From 1981-83, he fronted the band in the show "Sophisticated Ladies," which had a long run at the Schubert Theatre in Century City, as well as in New York and London. And in 1988, the Mercer-led band won a 1988 best large jazz ensemble Grammy for "Digital Duke" on GRP Records.

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Historic View: Gerald Wilson, the seemingly tireless and ageless bandleader- composer- arranger- educator currently nominated for a Grammy for his "State Street Sweet" CD, takes a break from his busy schedule to give a lecture on jazz history. The talk, part of Black History Month celebrations, will be held Saturday, 2-4 p.m., at the World Stage, 4344 Degnan Ave., (213) 292-1538. Bassist Mark Shelby's quartet also performs. Suggested donation is $5.

"I'll just talk about some of the things that happened, the people that formed jazz, how it developed," says Wilson, who is a professor of music at UCLA. "I'll just try and get in as much as I can. The more people that know about jazz, the more fans we'll have."

Wilson will also be honored at a special tribute at the Ventura Club in Sherman Oaks on Feb. 26; $25, (818) 872-2244.

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Delivering Strayhorn: "Lush Life," "Passion Flower" and "Day Dream" are songs from the pen of the great Billy Strayhorn. "But he also wrote more obscure tunes such as 'Lament for an Orchid,' " says pianist Fred Hersch. And he should know: Hersch has gathered together a splendid assortment of Strayhorn for his just-out Nonesuch Records release, "Passion Flower."

"About half of these tunes I knew, the other half are new to me and just about everybody else, which makes for new and interesting challenges," says Hersch, who appears with his trio Wednesday and Thursday at the Jazz Bakery, (310) 271-9039. "Many tunes I do as he wrote them; others, like 'Raincheck,' I do differently, not destroying their Strayhorn-ness."

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