Tag Archives: Doug Lawrence

“A CLASSICALLY BIG-TONED TENOR PLAYER”: THE MANY KINGDOMS OF PERCY FRANCE, thanks to DANIEL GOULD

If you already know Percy France, don’t spend another moment reading what I’ve written. Go immediately to www.percyfrance.info — where you can hear him play, read about him (tributes by people who loved him), and learn more.

But if he’s only a name to you . . .

Perhaps because it is often mistaken for simple entertainment, jazz is oddly distinguished from other art forms by a powerful Star System. There is too much of “the greatest of all time,” which negates the broader accomplishments of many beautiful artists. But those who listen deeply know that alongside — not behind — Louis, there are Ray Nance and Bill Coleman; alongside Art Tatum there are Ellis Larkins and Jimmie Rowles, and so on, creative men and women ignored in the speeding-train chronicles of Important Artists.

With that in mind, and the joy of discovering someone “new,” here is tenor saxophonist Percy France. He may be little-known or even unknown to many. I did hear him on the radio (broadcasts by WKCR-FM, Columbia University’s station, from the West End Cafe in New York, presided over by Phil Schaap), but I never saw him in person.

But before you assume that Percy’s semi-obscurity is the result of a diluted talent, let me point out that this summer when Sonny Rollins was asked about him, his response was as enthusiastic as it could be. The excerpt that caught my eye is simple: I never could beat him. We were good friends, and I think of him as my brother.

Let that sink in.

And since you might be saying, “All right . . . praised by Sonny. What did he sound like?” here are three samples, thanks to Daniel Gould, about whom I will have more to say.

Here’s Percy, fluid, melodic, cheerfully making the over-familiar come alive:

and a different kind of groove, quietly lyrical:

France plays Fats, light-hearted and witty:

I admire honest deep research unashamedly, since often what’s passed off as information is made of cardboard. So I present to you Daniel Gould’s wonderful Percy France site — solid and ever-growing — his energetic tribute to a musician who should be cherished as more than a name in a discography: www.percyfrance.info will take you there.

Daniel has done and continues to do the great hard work of the reverent researcher: he proceeds without ideological distortion, for his sole purpose is to ensure that Percy and his music (as if one could separate the two) are not going to be forgotten. And, also quietly and without fanfare, he wants us to honor Percy as an individualist, someone “with his own voice,” not simply another “tough tenor” following well-worn paths.

To the site. What will you find there? First a biography (audio as well as print) documenting his too-brief life (1928-1992) his musical development, his associations with Sonny Rollins, Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Roach, Sir Charles Thompson. Charlie Parker and Count Basie make cameo appearances as well. Then, even more beautiful, remembrances by Doggett, Bill Easley, Allen Lowe, Mike LeDonne, Sascha Feinstein, Michael Hashim, Sammy Price, Randy Sandke, Chris Flory, Scott Hamilton and others — all testifying to Percy’s qualities as musician and gentleman.

Then the treasure-box opens, revealing hours of unknown enlightenment and pleasure: a session by session listing, complete with newspaper clippings, photographs, record labels — first, Percy’s King and Blue Note record dates of 1949-1962.

The sessions continue — 1977-81, live dates featuring Percy alongside Doc Cheatham, Sammy Price, Chris Flory, Loren Schoenberg, Randy Sandke, Allen Lowe, Dick Katz, and others . . . and here Daniel has provided selections from these wonderful and wonderfully rare performances.

Finally, and most expansively, the period 1982-1990, is documented through the Leonard Gaskin Papers held at the Smithsonian — and it contains seventy-five percent of Percy’s recorded work . . . with Gaskin, Cliff Smalls, Oliver Jackson, Budd Johnson, Buddy Tate, Lance Hayward, Bill Pemberton, Major Holley, Bob Neloms, Bill Berry, Wild Bill Davis, Big John Patton, Doug Lawrence, and others. And there’s MUSIC . . . my goodness, how much music there is. I abandoned my chores for the better part of the day to listen, and I still have more to hear.

A few more words about Daniel Gould and his site. He is a clear fluent writer; his site is a pleasure to visit, and the treasures overflow. And he has a purpose: that Percy France, one of the lovely creators now no longer on the planet, shall be remembered with the attention and affection he deserves. I delight in Percy and in Daniel’s efforts.

May your happiness increase!

BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.