Tag Archives: Eddie Safranski

A MAGICAL SESSION IN JAM: JUNE 27, 1945

 

 

 

In case you can’t read the label, these four sides — two 78 discs — were created by the Don Byas All Stars: Byas, tenor saxophone; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Eddie Safranski, string bass; Denzil Best, drums, in New York City on June 27, 1945, almost seventy-five years ago.

This session has been part of my consciousness for a long time, perhaps going back before 1980.  Don Byas doesn’t get his name written large in those jazz-history-trees I have seen recently, and in the taxonomy of jazz Stars of the tenor saxophone, he’s rarely noticed in the rush to oversimplify: it’s Hawk and Lester and Ben — leaving out Don, Chu Berry, Dick Wilson, Bud Freeman, Gene Sedric, Video Musso, Prince Robinson, George Auld, Herschel Evans, Eddie Miller, Buddy Tate, Robert Carroll, and many others.  But Byas continues to amaze: his lovely expressive ballad playing, his indefatigable work at fast tempos, and his intense swing in general.  He knew his harmonies, and his arpeggios never put a foot wrong.  You might know his early work on a 1938 record date for Victor under the nominal leadership of Timme Rosenkrantz, or his classic opening solo on the 1941 HARVARD BLUES with Basie, but he made perhaps a hundred consistently realized small band sides for small independent labels between 1944-46 before leaving for Europe, where he spent the rest of his life, coming back to New York a few times before his death.

On these four sides, he’s in the company of giants who also rarely get their proper recognition.  Eddie Safranski, then a young bassist in Hal McIntyre’s big band, was at the start of a long career — his last recordings are in 1975 — and he played and recorded with everyone from Stan Kenton to Teresa Brewer.  Denzil DaCosta Best began at the top — his playing career ended in 1962 and he died a few years later, sadly, but he also recorded with everyone from Ben Webster to George Shearing to Erroll Garner to Sheila Jordan.

Johnny Guarnieri is one of the finest pianists and musicians, but he also seems neglected.  An ebullient virtuoso, he was a regular life-enhancer on small-group dates going back to the Benny Goodman Sextet: he could do so many things beautifully that he might not be well-known for his delightful swing.

I left the graceful and astonishingly consistent Buck Clayton for last: his autobiography tells of his long career better than I could (BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD) but I can’t think of an uninspired performance in his forty-plus years of recordings.  I have some late-career trumpet videos I will post, and even when his embouchure was not completely certain and his range was seriously limited, he made lovely melodies out of the fewest notes and he always swung.

As to the recordings themselves: you must discover their marvels on your own, but each is both wonderfully impromptu and a careful orchestral composition on its own, their texts being familiar pop songs from 1930-1, with DEEP PURPLE being the newest theme (a piano solo in 1934, a hit with lyrics in 1939).  I can imagine them discussing tunes, tempos, and approach briefly before making a take.  They knew how many choruses would fit on a side; someone took the lead and someone improvised a countermelody; someone took the bridge; they decided on how to begin and how to end — but the records document a peak of this music, the great meeting of experience, professionalism, and passion.

Walter Donaldson’s ode to candor:

and the lovely violet ballad, so rarely played or sung these days:

The eyes are the windows of the soul, aren’t they?

and a more hopeful ballad, about a sudden magical romantic appearance:

Now, a different perspective on these lovely creations.  I never knew anything about the Jamboree Records issues except that they must have sold well — there’s one label in red and silver, another in red and gold — and used copies continue to be offered for sale.  The label had a short run: three four-song sessions with Byas as leader (one where he is the only horn, this one with Clayton, and a third with Joe Thomas), a Dave Tough-led session (with Thomas and Ted Nash), a Horace Henderson-led date featuring Clayton, Eddie Bert, and two reeds (recorded for Harry Lim’s Keynote label and sold to Jamboree), a trio session recorded in Detroit in 1947 featuring pianist Willie Anderson and one vocal by Kenny Hagood, and finally a 1949 date led by pianist Skip Hall, featuring Clayton, Buddy Tate, Walter Page, with six issued and two unissued sides.

Jazz fans deep into the wonderful music of this period know that small labels with terrible pressings were frequent, owing to the number of brilliant improvisers at large (without recording contracts with major labels) and the end of the first Petrillo record strike or ban . . . think of Regis, Manor, Session, Guild, National, Apollo, Signature, Comet, Hub, and a dozen others.

I’ve been aided in my fragmentary research into Jamboree by Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, founder of The Hot Club of New York, so thanks to him.  The head of Jamboree Records was one Morty Kline, who ran Melody Record Supply and Record Associates on 314 West 52nd Street, although another address has it on Tenth Avenue.

Where Melody Record Supply once stood.

That address allows one of my favorite hypotheses (“favorite” because I find it plausible but lack any specific evidence that it happened).  Did jazz musicians walk into Melody Record Supply, talk to Morty, and walk out with a handshake agreement to cut four sides next Thursday — bring a quintet at 9 AM for scale, or words to that effect?  Had Morty known Byas’s recordings from his Basie days, or from those on Savoy in 1944, or had he been in the audience for the Town Hall concert produced by Timme Rosenkrantz?  Or did Morty walk east after he closed the shop to have a drink on Swing Street and offer some of the musicians on the stand a record date at the bar?  I don’t know if Morty took a hand in the music’s direction (as did people like Harry Lim and Milt Gabler) or if he was simply the businessman-producer.  I suspect that it was an excellent business move for Melody Record Supply to have its own issues to sell: “product,” as we now say. I can’t ask Morty: he died in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1997.  But I can thank him for the commerce that allowed these beautiful minutes of imperishable music to exist and live on.

May your happiness increase!

AL COHN LIVES ON

The critical eye will find many flaws in the video clip below.  It takes place at a jazz festival (not in itself a bad thing) and the cast of characters is stellar: Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Tate, Harry Edison, Woody Herman, Urbie Green, Jake Hanna , and Al Cohn.  But the end result is not all it might be: several musicians seem bored, detached.  Tate, during his better-than-average late-period solo, even glances around him for a second to mutely ask, “Aren’t any of you jazz all-stars going to play a riff or a background behind me?  Do I have to do all of this myself?”  Herman, pursued to his death by the IRS, looks exhausted and frail.  The composition, IN A MELLOTONE, Ellington’s line on the 1917 ballad ROSE ROOM, is mis-identified by the translator / subtitler: it’s not BERNIE’S TUNE.

But then there’s Al Cohn, who makes up for it all when he enters, around seven minutes into the performance.  In the Forties, Cohn was identified not only as a Woody Herman’s alumnus, but as one of the Caucasian Lestorians — tenor players who memorized all of Lester’s performances and offered them forth in their own way.  Many of them apparently emulated Lester’s delicacy.  Here, Al’s playing has energy and sinew.  He’s onstage to say something important.  He doesn’t shout.  But his solo has an easy majestic urgency all its own , even though one thinks of Ben, Bird, Herschel, preaching about mellow tones.  All of this takes place in ninety seconds.  And when the group of somewhat jaded jazz titans hears what Al has to say, they wake up and launch a suitable riff.

That’s one aspect of Al Cohn — inspiring by his fervent example.

But even posthumously, Al is an inspiration.

That’s not an empty phrase, and it’s not limited to tenor saxophone players or to listeners with good music libraries (I am thinking of the Xanadu recording HEAVY LOVE, an imperishable duet of Al and Jimmy Rowles.)  Next to me as I write this post is the Fall 2008 issue of THE NOTE, the journal of the Al Cohn Memorial Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  (The collection’s website is www.esu.edu/alcohncollection, and their email address is alcohncollection@esu.edu.)

Their mission isn’t purely archival: they want to “stimulate, enrich, and support research, teaching, learning, and appreciation of all forms of jazz.”  One of the ways they have done this — for twenty years now — is by making the collection’s resources available “and useful to students, researchers, educators, musicians, historians, journalists and jazz enthusiasts of all kinds.”  Commendably, they preserve what they have already collected “for future generations.”  The collection includes records, books, photographs, oral histories, sheet music, art,memorabilia, and ephemera.  Although their definition of jazz is broad and inclusive, the collection focuses on Al Cohn and his many friends, chief among them Zoot Sims.  Other collections draw on the life and music of bassist Eddie Safranski, the rare acquisitions of the jazz scholar Coover Gazdar, and research materials about the history of jazz in the Pocono Mountains.

(As an aside, I sent the collection — some years back — a copy of a private tape where the noble participants were Al, Zoot, and Bucky Pizzarelli.  I have some candid jazz photographs that I’ve been saving for them, too.)

I started this second half by mentioning THE NOTE.  It’s no sentimental valentine to days-gone-by, nor is it a dry academic wafer.  Professionally done, it’s a pleasure to read.  The front cover of the current issue is a beautiful color photograph of David Leibman; the back cover a 1985 shot of Hank Jones by the always-surprising jazz photographer Herb Snitzer.  In this middle, rather like a jazz fan’s chaste version of a Playboy centerfold, is a two=page candid shot of Al and Jimmy Rowles in concert in Kansas City.  In the middle — a long hilarious screed of a column by Phil Woods, who writes as vigorously as he plays.  There are also brief comments from Bob Bush, the collection’s co-ordinator, “Thinking of Al” by Doug Ramsey, and an interview with Manny Albam done by Flo Cohn, Al’s wife, memories of jazz in Disney’s “Magic Village” by Jack SImpson, photos, letters, and hilarious anecdotes.

I can hear my readers murmuring, “How can I get a copy of THE NOTE for myself?”  Well, the journal is available free to those who ask to be placed on the mailing list.  But enterprises of this sort require some support — so a little contribution (if you don’t have a large one at hand) would be appreciated.  Email or send your best wishes and checks to

ACMJC – Kemp Library

East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

200 Prospect Street

East Stroudsburg, PA 18301-2999

And if your basement is crammed with rare tapes, acetates, photos, or charts, call Bob Bush at 570-422-3828.