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Jams That Made History

**** VARIOUS ARTISTS "The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve 1944-49" Verve Records

October 25, 1998|Don Heckman

When trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Nat King Cole, guitarist Les Paul, tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and others stepped on stage at Los Angeles' Philharmonic Auditorium in the summer of 1944, no one could have imagined that they were kicking off one of the most powerful series of concerts in jazz history. For the next two decades (with a few more recent revivals), Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts--featuring brilliant all-star lineups--continued via tours and individual events in Los Angeles at the Philharmonic (formerly at 5th and Olive streets) and Shrine auditoriums, at New York's Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia's Academy of Music and dozens of other venues around the world.

What was Jazz at the Philharmonic? Pretty much what it was at that first Los Angeles concert: a jam session type of format in which major artists assembled to play a fairly limited repertoire of blues and standard tunes. One of the shows' features--hard-honking, high-shrieking tenor saxophone solos--was also established early via the soloing of Jacquet, whose performances essentially served as the template for the bar-walking, crowd-rousing, rhythm & blues styles of the saxophonists of the 1950s and '60s.

It was not, initially at least, a format that particularly pleased serious jazz fans, who felt that the tenor-saxophone battles and the shameless efforts to drive the audiences into enthusiastic responses did not enhance the music's image. Leon Wolff, writing in Down Beat in 1946, described a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Chicago as a "musical catastrophe . . . everything that is rotten in contemporary jazz."

Audiences disagreed, and when producer and jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz, who created the concept, began to market concert albums, they sold like hot cakes. As it turned out, however, the albums were released throughout a technologically changing period in the record business, starting out as 78 rpm discs and acetates recorded for Armed Services broadcasts, moving to 7-inch EPs, 10-inch and 12-inch LPs and, eventually, CDs. Tracking the albums down through the Byzantine series of issues and reissues was the principal challenge in assembling this invaluable collection of classic jazz performances (which also includes an informative interview with Granz).

The 10 discs, recorded for the most part in Los Angeles and New York City, encompass one of the most dramatically transitional periods in jazz history. And it was a transition that colored many of the series' performances.

The first two discs, for example, still retain strong characteristics of swing--especially in the flow of the rhythm section. But bebop keeps knocking on the door in the image of Johnson, trumpeter Howard McGhee, tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura and others. By the third and fourth discs, with the arrival of bebop masters Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the lineups, and somewhat (but still not completely) compatible rhythm sections, modern postwar jazz makes a meaningful appearance.

But Granz was too slick a producer to risk confining himself to a single genre, especially one that was newly emerging. And the other discs mix and match swing-style players such as Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young and others with young adventurers such as Parker, Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones, tossing in vocal performances by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for seasoning.

Despite the generally predictable programming--"Body & Soul" and "Lady Be Good" appear in five different versions, "The Man I Love," "How High the Moon" and "I've Found a New Baby" in nearly as many--the playing is never less than fascinating. In part, the appeal traces to the jam session format being the most exposed, demanding environment for a jazz artist. And in part because the artists chosen for these programs, regardless of some players' tendency to go for crowd-stimulating gimmickry, were among the finest in the world.

It's worth noting that the audio quality of some of these recordings, especially those assembled from pre-LP sources, can be spotty. But their value, both as history and as sheer entertaining jazz, is beyond question.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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