A Great Day in Harlem

Episode Two – Danny Silverstone – October 2021

Listen to the playlist

I have a large, framed version of A Great Day in Harlem above my piano. I draw inspiration from it each day.

One of the fascinating dimensions of this picture is that it brings together in one sitting a group of outstanding musicians all born in the first 3 decades of the 20th century. Individually responsible for establishing the language of jazz for the 20th & 21st centuries. Here you have a full set of jazz idioms,

  • Mainstream- Pee Wee Russell, Roy Eldridge
  • Bebop-Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford
  • Hard Bop- Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin
  • Soul Jazz- Horace Silver, Gigi Grice
  • Swing and Big Band jazz- Count Basie, Gene Krupa & Jimmy Rushing
  • Beyond category- Coleman Hawkins & Sonny Rollins
  • Composer-led bandleaders- Charles Mingus and Mary Lou Williams

In my view these categories- usually the invention of jazz critics rather than jazz musicians -have limited value, certainly in terms of one’s enjoyment or understanding of jazz. But what this group picture does embody is the dynamism and constant adaptations and changes that underpinned jazz through these musicians’ lifetimes. And all of them-with the sad exception of Lester Young who had less than a year to live- were at or near their peak in 1958.

I’d like to draw out particular characteristics of the jazz life that this photograph represents, picture embodies, namely musicians coming together both across and within the generations. Jazz masters playing with future jazz masters. Jazz masters playing with jazz masters of their own generation.

Across the generations

Here I’m going to focus on two cross-generational pairings; Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins and Charles Mingus and Roy Eldridge.

Sonny Rollins & Coleman Hawkins

In the attached video Sonny talks eloquently about his hero worship of Coleman Hawkins as he was growing up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, where Hawkins also resided. At one point offering to carry Hawk’s saxophone to a midtown gig. The video is also worth watching for Sonny’s reflections on the influence of Ben Webster and Lester Young on his early formation as a player.

The case has been made many times that Coleman Hawkins single-handedly established the tenor sax in the lexicon of modern jazz, nowhere more so than in his revolutionary solo on Body & Soul recorded as early as 1939. This solo has been the subject of mandatory study for subsequent generations of jazz musicians ever since. A similar case could be made for Lester Young who also appears in the photo. Hawk’s muscular tone, incredibly advanced harmonic grasp, his comfort in a wide range of jazz genres and his lifelong interest in seeking out up-and-coming young lions to play with mark him out as a jazz immortal. 

My playlist gives you the chance to hear and compare Hawkins’s original take on Body & Soul with Rollins’s solo version recorded in 1958, the year of the photo. My choice from the Sonny meets Hawk album recorded four years after the group photo was taken exemplifies the shared history and individual trajectories of these two phenomenal musicians. Sonny Rollins although now retired from the concert platform and recording studio is still very much with us at 91.

Charles Mingus & Roy Eldridge

By 1958 the irascible Charles Mingus had established his path as a bandleader whose assembly would become a vehicle for Mingus’s voluminous output of original compositions and re-imaginings of established tunes within the jazz canon. Having served a 10year apprenticeship as a supremely accomplished, classically schooled bass player initially with Red Norvo in LA and then with the founding fathers of the bebop generation in New York in the 1950’s, Mingus was now ready to plot his own totally distinctive course. Always on his own terms, even if that led, as it sometimes did, to verbally abusing and occasionally assaulting his audiences and band members.

While Mingus was a true original, he was always ready to acknowledge his influences-black churches, Duke Ellington, the civil rights struggles, tin pan alley and show tunes, 20th century classical music. In 1962 Mingus joined Max Roach and his mentor, Duke Ellington in an explosive recording, Money Jungle. I’ll return to this extraordinary album in a future episode.

So, it was entirely in keeping with Mingus’s jazz aesthetic that in his album Charles Mingus and the Newport Jazz Rebels, he chose to pay homage to Roy Eldridge, one of the great trumpeters of a much earlier generation. Born in 1911, and entirely selftaught, Eldridge developed a personal approach to the “hot” jazz trumpet style of Louis Armstrong. A featured soloist in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra through the 30’s and a frequent accompanist to Billie Holliday throughout her career. In 1942 Roy broke through the “colour bar” to join and tour with Gene Krupa’s all-white big band. 

By 1958 Roy was a regular participant in Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, which provided a show case for top jazz soloists to be reasonably well paid, touring one-nighters in large auditoria in the U.S. and indeed globally. Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie had a particularly close affiliation as you can see from the picture-Dizzy is the guy on the extreme right with his tongue pointing at Roy.

Mingus’s radical, cutting-edge combo would have been quite a challenge to the more mainstream Eldridge, but as you can hear on Body and Soul (again!) he rises to that challenge with ease.  Mingus provides a bespoke, & respectful context in which Eldridge could best be showcased. And also, a unique opportunity to hear Eldridge on the same bandstand as the revolutionary saxophonist, & flautist Eric Dolphy.

The album title – The Jazz Rebels is also interesting. In 1960 Mingus and Max Roach led a breakaway from the annual jazz festival at Newport in protest against pay, scheduling and what they saw as a narrow and outmoded approach to the presentation of contemporary jazz music. The album was recorded live at their alternative to the Newport festival. Somewhat ironic given that Roy Eldridge was a mainstay in the similarly middle-of-the-road Jazz at the Philharmonic roadshow. Worth noting that Jo Jones, the founder of modern jazz drumming is present on both the picture and album. Another nod towards jazz across the generations.

Within their generation

On the playlist, I have curated a range of recordings involving photo participants from the same generation, all established top line players in the ecology of New York jazz of that era.

Notes on the episode playlist…

Coleman Hawkins

Body and Soul  1939

Tenor Sax

This short track is almost pure improvisation with infrequent references to the tune, or head as jazz musicians describe it. Shimmering cascades of notes. Truly revolutionary for its time and ours. Recorded shortly after Hawkins’s return from a long stay in Europe.

Sonny Rollins

Body and Soul
from Sonny Rollins Brass & Trio 1958

Solo Tenor Sax

A solo amuse added to an album made up elsewhere of big band and trio numbers. Short and sensational

Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins

All The Things You Are
Sonny Meets Hawk 1963

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Saxophone
Coleman Hawkins: Tenor Saxophone
Paul Bley: Piano
Roy McCurdy: Drums
Bob Cranshaw: Bass

The two tenor giants’ distinctive takes on a jazz standard. Of particular note is the impressionistic, almost futuristic accompanying from Paul Bley on piano-Bley went on to a long career at the freer end of the jazz spectrum. 

Charles Mingus and Roy Eldridge

Body and Soul
Charles Mingus and the Newport Rebels 1960

Charles Mingus: Bass
Roy Eldridge: Trumpet
Eric Dolphy: Alto Sax
Paul Bley: Piano
Dannie Richmond: Drums

Body & Soul again played lyrically by Eldridge and freely and powerfully by Dolphy. An unusual chance to listen to  two players at opposite ends of the jazz continuum. Only Mingus would have thought to bring them together. Note the respectful, customized accompaniment for Roy Eldridge’s trumpet.

Sonny Rollins & Wilbur Ware

Night in Tunisia

Sonny Rollins: Tenor Sax
Wilbur Ware: Bass
Elvin Jones: Drums
from Sonny Rollins Live at the Village Vanguard 1957

At this stage of his career Rollins began to experiment with piano-less trios, putting a much greater weight on is boundless creativity. Legend has it that Rollins hired and fired his accompanists through the Village Vanguard engagement. Fortunately Blue Note captured the trio with Wibur Ware and the polyrhythmic master , Elvin Jones on drums. Elvin went on to form one of the pivots in the John Cotrane quartet. Hard to realize that Rollins was in his mid twenties when this was waxed.

Sonny Rollins and Wilbur Ware

Softly As in a Morning’s Sunrise
Night in Tunisia

Thelonious Monk & Johnny Griffin

Blue Monk
Thelonious in Action-Live at the Five Spot 1958

Thelonious Monk: Piano
Johnny Griffin: Tenor Saxophone
Ahmed Abdul-Malik: Bass
Roy Haynes: Drums

Hard to believe that Monk was coming to the end of a six month residency at the Five Spot in New York. John Cotrane held the tenor sax spot in the early months with Johnny Griffin coming in for this recording. Griffin was just starting out at this stage of his career. He became known for the ease with which he played at killing tempos. I recall hearing him playing in a London pub in the early 70’s destroying the reputation of the bass player in his London pick up band as a result of the speed of his tempi.

Thelonious Monk & Gerry Mulligan

Round Midnight
From Mulligan Meets Monk 1957

Thelonious Monk: Piano
Gerry Mulligan: Baritone Saxophone
Wilbur Ware: Double Bass
Shadow Wilson: Drums

Mulligan & Monk

I Mean You
Round Midnight

Gerry Mulligan composed for and played with almost everybody at the cutting edge of the jazz scene in the late 40’s and 50’s. From Miles Davis, to Chet Baker to Lee Konitz and Bob Brookmeyer. Very few baritone sax players could match his lightness of tone and speed of thought. Interesting to hear him with Monk.

Dizzy Gillespie & Sonny Rollins

The Eternal Triangle
Sonny Side Up 1959

Dizzy Gillespie: Trumpet, Vocal (track 1)
Sonny Stitt: Tenor Saxophone
Sonny Rollins: Tenor Saxophone
Ray Bryant: Piano
Tommy Bryant: Double Bass
Charlie Persip: Drums

Sonny Stiit makes up the trinity of jazz greats on this track. Had to live down his announcement as the new Bird after the death of Charlie Parker. Total mastery of the bebop idiom, with a very individual sound-yes reminiscent of Parker. A highly sophisticated improvidser. Listen out for his trading 4 and 8 bar breaks ( 4’s & 8’s) with Rollins.

Art Blakey and Benny Golson

Along Came Betty
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers-Moanin 1959

Art Blakey: Drums
Lee Morgan: Trumpet
Benny Golson: Tenor Saxophone
Bobby Timmons: Piano
Jymie Merritt: Bass

This was one of the early versions of the Jazz Messengers which Art Blakey led for the next 35 years. Benny Golson, a gifted tenor player and Philadelphian contemporary of John Coltrane, wrote most of the tunes for this band. This one , with its unusual structure has been played ever since.

Count Basie, Lester Young & Jimmy Rushing

From Count Basie at Newport 1959

Features Lester Young on Tenor and Jimmy Rushing on Vocals
Quite possibly the last recording of “Pres”, the great Lester Young in the year of his death. Still capable of presence and sophistication in his playing despite his fragile health. Evenin’ is always associated with Jimmy Rushing-“Mr.5-by-5”, who sang with the Basie band through the 30’s and early 40’s. The picture tells the story!

Count Basie and Lester Young

Polka Dots and Moonbeams
From Count Basie at Newport 1959

Another beautiful showcase for Lester Young