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Tenor Battles of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray- African-American Jazz in California

February 25, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Tenor Battles of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray

By the time Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray got together in Los Angeles in 1947 they had both become nationally known as pioneers of modern jazz on the tenor saxophone.
Dexter was a Los Angeles native, born there in 1923. He was a product of the legendary Sam Browne music program at Jefferson High School. Dexter’s classmates included Chico Hamilton, Vi Redd, Ernie Royal, Jackie Kelso and Melba Liston. The number of jazz greats that came through Sam Browne’s program at Jefferson is mind-boggling.

Dexter developed as a saxophonist so quickly that he was able to join Lionel Hampton’s new big band while still in his teens. By the time he was 20 he had been with Hamp for three years. After Hamp he worked with Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine and by the mid-forties was part of the modern jazz explosion on 52nd Street in New York. He was the first of that generation of Los Angeles jazz musicians to make it big. When he returned home in 1946 he was treated as a conquering hero by both fans and fellow musicians In New York he had signed with and already recorded for Savoy Records. But that didn’t stop Ross Russell from signing him to Dial not long after he arrived back in town.

Wardell Gray came to Los Angeles by way of the Earl Hines band. He and Dexter had actually met in 1943 in Detroit but didn’t come together until they both landed on the west coast in 1947. The two became good friends and started a regimen of nightly tenor battles on Central Ave. Their home base was the Downbeat Club at 41st and Central where they would go at it until the club closed for the night. From there they would move up to Jack’s Basket Room and continue on until the wee hours of the morning. Some nights Wardell would come out on top and some nights Dexter was unbeatable.

Ross Russell wanted to capture the excitement of the two tenors for Dial records. He brought them together on June 12, 1947 to try to re-create their nightly battles under studio conditions. The result was “The Chase” which ran for 7 minutes and filled up both sides of a 10” 78rpm record. The Chase outsold everything Dial had recorded up to that time.
A few weeks later on July 6, 1947 both Dexter and Wardell took part in a concert at the Elk’s Auditorium on Central Ave. A concert that has now reached legendary status.

Following two days of Independence Day celebrations It was billed as “Jack Williams Presents A Jazz Concert Dance Series.” Besides Dexter and Wardell the concert featured Howard McGhee, Sonny Criss, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel and Trummy Young. Producer Ralph Bass recorded the proceedings in hopes of selling it to Savoy Records. Instead he issued it on several 78s on his own “Bop” label. Later it was issued on Savoy as “Jazz West Coast Live.”

The Elk’s recordings are a great example of what happened every night with Dexter and Wardell. It’s a jam session format in front of a crowd of 2000 people who are driven into a frenzy as they listen to Dexter and Wardell chase each other for close to 20 minutes on “The Hunt.” Thanks to Ross Russell and Ralph Bass the legendary tenor battles were
immortalized on record.

They were also immortalized in literature by two of the beat writers that would emerge several years later. Jack Kerouac mentions “The Hunt” in his classic “On the Road”. The
passage reads: “Moriartry stands bowed and jumping before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record….The Hunt, with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.”

The other was John Clellon Holmes who wrote in his classic novel “Go”: “The Hunt, listen there for the anthem in which we jettisoned the intellectual dixieland of atheism, rationalism, liberalism-and found our group’s rebel streak at last.”

Lucky Thompson- African-American Jazz in California

February 24, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson was born in South Carolina but grew up in Detroit where he started playing the saxophone. He graduated from high school in 1942 and immediately joined the Erskine Hawkins Big Band. He worked with several big bands in the early forties including Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder. He was also a member of the bop-oriented Billy Eckstine Big Band where he worked alongside modern jazz pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1945 he came to Los Angeles as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra and decided to stay.

He was only in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1947 but was incredibly prolific appearing on dozens of recording sessions. He was in-demand because he was equally at home with the swing musicians as well as the young bebop players. He also worked with lots of vocalists and blues groups. In December of 1945 he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band at Billy Berg’s
for the now famous “bebop invades the west” engagement.

For the next two years he was one of the busiest musicians in Los Angeles. He recorded with the Berg’s group for Dial records as well as sideman dates with Slim Gaillard, Howard McGhee, Dodo Marmarosa, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and Charles Mingus.

He also worked in the progressive big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Earle Spencer and Phil Moore as well as leading his own west coast dates for Excelsior, Victor and Downbeat.
In 1948 he left Los Angeles and continued his busy career in NewYork and beyond.

Jump Blues- African-American Jazz in California

February 21, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Jump Blues

After World War 2 a new style of music emerged in Los Angeles. It eventually became known as jump blues. While electric blues was coming to prominence in Chicago, something different was happening on the coast. World War 2 plus the effects of the 1942-1944 strike between the musicians union and the record companies helped kill off the popularity of the big swing bands. Venue owners discovered that it made more economic sense to hire a 6-7 piece ensemble as opposed to 16-18.

A number of these smaller ensembles started to appear. Most were modeled after Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five. 8 beat boogie rhythms with a focus on the vocalists and the saxophone as the primary solo voice. Jack McVea was one of the first west coast bandleaders to form the smaller jump ensemble which happened in 1943. A few years later he had one of the biggest hits of the era with "Open the Door Richard."

Thanks to the influence of T-Bone Walker the electric guitar started to enter the scene as well. Besides T-Bone, Pee Wee Crayton and a few others paved the way for the guitar to eventually take center stage. World War 2 also changed the scene in other ways. The black population of Los Angeles increased dramatically during the war. This led to the establishment of a number of nightlife scenes most notably Central Ave and Bronzeville. Elk’s Auditorium, Alex Lovejoy’s Breakfast Club, Jack’s Basket Room, The Casablanca and the Club Alabam are just a few of the legendary Los Angeles nightspots. In San Diego it was the Creole Palace on Market.

Venues that couldn’t afford a live band discovered that the jukebox would work just as well. After the war the jukebox industry became big business. This music still wasn’t played on the radio so the jukebox became the arbiter of hit records.

Dozens of small independent record companies popped up after the war all looking for that elusive juke box hit. The first major success was Private Cecil Gant’s recording of “I
Wonder” for the Bronze record label. Within the first week it sold 1,000 copies. Bronze was too small to meet the demand but it showed other would be record company entrepreneurs what could happen with just one hit record. The race was on.

Gilt-Edge, Modern, Exclusive, Supreme, Swingtime, Specialty and Aladdin were all new companies that were looking to sign potential hitmakers. Joe Liggins had a hit with “The Honeydripper” that was another jukebox sensation. It dominated the summer of 1945. In addition to Liggins, his brother Jimmy Liggins and His Drops of Joy along with
Roy Milton’s Solid Senders and Jack McVea’s Door Openers established the west coast jump blues sound.

Another west coast invention was the honking screaming saxophone made popular by Big Jay McNeely. The legendary tenor battles between Big Jay and Joe Houston are still talked about today. There were also the pianists, most notably Amos Milbourne, Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown and Ivory Joe Hunter. There were the blues shouters: Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and Jimmy Witherspoon.

Johnny Otis maintained a larger group and became an important spokesman for the music. He was a drummer, vibraphonist, artist, pioneer radio disc jockey and eventually hosted his own television show. It was Los Angeles that gave birth to the Disc Jockey after World War 2. It took a while for these records to start to get airplay but by the
late forties it was Hunter Hancock who led the way with his Midnight Matinee.

The recordings coming out of the west coast between 1945-1950 was a combination of blues, boogie and jazz. There was a definite west coast sound. This sound would turn out to be a major influence on what would soon be called Rhythm and Blues.

Bebop- African-American Jazz in California

February 20, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Bebop

Bebop invaded the west with the arrival of Billy Eckstine’s Big Band in February of 1945. They were booked for an extended engagement at the Plantation Club, which was located at 103rd and Central Ave. in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The band featured a number of young bop oriented musicians including Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons, Tommy Potter and Art Blakey. Although the band was a vehicle for Eckstine’s lush vocals, there were a number of bebop charts in the book written by the likes of Tadd Dameron, Jerry
Valentine and John Malachi.

In December of 1945 Billy Berg booked Dizzy Gillespie for his new Vine Street club. Dizzy had already received a lot of publicity and was considered the face of the new music. Dizzy put together a group that included Charlie Parker, Al Haig, Ray Brown and Stan Levey for the multi-week engagement. He also brought along the young vibraphonist Milt Jackson. The Berg contract called for five musicians to be on stage at all times and Dizzy knew there would be occasions where Charlie Parker would be late or not show up at all.
Jackson was an insurance policy to make sure the contract was always fulfilled.

The group left New York from Pennsylvania Station in early December and arrived in Los Angeles on December 10 (Al Haig traveled separately and met them there).
When Dizzy and Bird arrived in Los Angeles they found that the new music was already being played by a group of young musicians working with trumpeter Howard McGhee. McGhee had come to Los Angeles several months earlier as part of Coleman Hawkins Quintet. McGhee decided to stay and formed a group that included Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss, Roy Porter and eventually Hampton Hawes.

That group debuted in May at the Downbeat Club on 42nd and entral which became their home base. The club was managed by “Pop” who was the father of gangster Bugsy Siegel.

They were playing bebop and broadcasting from The Streets of Paris in Hollywood Blvd. when Bird and Dizzy began Billy Berg’s engagement. Berg’s engagement drew lots of interested listeners during the first couple of weeks. One of those listeners was Ross Russell who owned the Tempo Record Shop which was located just a few blocks
from the club. Ross had been a die-hard traditional jazz fan but was won over to the new music when he heard Bird and Dizzy. He decided to form his own company in hopes of recording Charlie Parker. Dial Records was born in early 1946 and became one of the important labels documenting modern jazz on the west coast.

When Dizzy and the rest of the group went back to New York in early 1946 Bird stayed behind. He signed with Dial records and began working with the young like-minded musicians on the coast. The Finale Club in the Bronzeville section became a center point of Bird’s activity as well as the after hours scene on Central Ave.

Bird suffered his infamous breakdown during a Dial session that summer and spent the next few months "Relaxin at Camarillo." In the meantime modern jazz continued to take hold at various venues throughout southern California and featured a number of young modernists including Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Howard McGhee, Dodo Marmarosa, Barney Kessel and Erroll Garner.

By the end of the forties the Central Ave and Bronzeville clubs were shutting their doors. Ross Russell moved the Dial Records operation to New York and the bebop era on the west coast was coming to an end.

Gerald Wilson- African-American Jazz in California

February 19, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson first came to prominence as a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s trumpet section and as a composer and arranger for the band. He wrote several important arrangements including "Hi Spook" and "Yard Dog Mazurka." After Lunceford he did a stint in the Navy’s Great Lakes Band which included Clark Terry and Willie Smith among others.

After the Navy he ended up in Los Angeles.

In 1944 he was asked to put together his own big band for an engagement at Shepp’s Playhouse in the Bronzeville district of Los Angeles. The band was supposed to be for Herb Jeffries but Jeffries had to cancel which thrust Gerald into the spotlight as the leader.

Bronzeville had been Little Tokyo prior to World War 2 but was transformed into an African-American business district after the Japanese-American business owners and families were evicted from the area and sent to internment camps. In October of 1943 African-American businessmen formed the Bronzeville Chamber of Commerce and declared that the area was no longer “Little Tokyo.”

Along with “Central Ave,” Bronzeville became an area with an active nightlife scene highlighted by a number of breakfast clubs that stayed open all night to serve the war workers and general public. Shepp’s Playhouse was the biggest and best known.

Once tasked with forming his own band, Gerald scouted out the musicians he wanted which included Vic Dickenson, Melba Liston, Hobart Dotson and his old friend from the Lunceford days, Snooky Young. With Gerald’s cutting edge arrangements the band became an instant hit with the local audience. Within a few months they recorded for both the
Excelsior and Black and White record labels.

From that point forward Gerald more or less always had a big band but there was a big gap in recording between the 1940s sessions and theband’s resurgence for Pacific Jazz in the 1960s.

In addition to his own band Gerald was in tremendous demand as an arranger and wrote for many artists including Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He also wrote for film and television, hosted his own radio show and was a pioneer jazz educator.
 

Jazz at the Philharmonic- African-American Jazz in California

February 18, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Jazz at the Philharmonic

Jazz at the Philharmonic, or JATP, was a series of jazz concert tours and recordings produced by Norman Granz. JATP started in Los Angeles in 1944 and became the most successful jazz series of all time. Almost every great jazz artist from the forties and fifties were part of Granz’ stable of stars.

Granz was born in Los Angeles and became a jazz fan at an early age. He noticed injustices to the African American musicians who were his heroes and vowed to do something about it. He began staging organized jam sessions in 1942 at Billy Berg’s Trouville Club. He made sure that both the audience and the bandstand were racially integrated. He continued the jam sessions at a few other venues waiting for the right time to move to a larger space. That opportunity came in 1944.

Two years earlier there had been a murder that took place in Commerce, California near a swimming hole known as the Sleepy Lagoon. After a body was discovered the LAPD went into east Los Angeles and arrested 17 Mexican-American youths as suspects. There was no evidence but they were all held without bail on charges of murder.
The trial ended in January of 1943 with 12 of the young men convicted and sent to San Quentin. The other 5 were convicted of lessor offenses. It was obvious that the young men that were convicted likely had nothing to do with the murder and the public unrest led to the Zoot Suit riots that plagued east l.a. during the summer of 1943.

Concerned citizens formed the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to try to help the convicted men. Norman Granz was outraged as well and decided to do a larger jam
session to raise money for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Fund. He rented the Philharmonic Hall in downtown Los Angeles and held the first concert on July 2, 1944. The line up included Illinois Jacquet, Les Paul, Jack McVea, J.J. Johnson, Nat King Cole, Red Callendar and Lee Young among others. Because of the location it was called Jazz at the
Philharmonic.

The concept and the event was a huge success. By October they were able to get the case heard by the state court of appeals and the convictions were reversed. Granz didn’t stop there though. The momentum continued and led to more concerts and eventually nationwide tours. The Jazz at the Philharmonic name stuck. Many concerts were recorded and issued on Asch and Mercury. Granz became so successful that he eventually formed his own record companies Clef and Norgran and started issuing the recordings on his
own.

In 1956 he consolidated the two labels into Verve Records. Granz home base was an office in Beverly Hills. It was one of the biggest jazz enterprises of all time. He managed several artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson plus his record label recorded hundreds of classic albums. The JATP tours expanded to Europe in 1952 and
continued to be major successes.

In the sixties, Granz sold Verve, relocated to Europe and eventually retired the JATP tours. His crusade for civil rights resulted in many positives for the music business. He refused to allow segregation of any kind at his concerts and he made sure his artists were well paid and well treated.

In the early seventies, although happily retired, he recognized that many of his former artists such as Basie, Ella and Oscar had no record contracts.To remedy this he decided to start a new label which he called Pablo records.He followed his original pattern of tours and recordings to great success and rose to the top of the jazz world once again.

Christopher Hollyday and Telepathy Release New Dialogue on Jazz Live San Diego

Blog Name:Home Page News

Blog Author:San Diego's Jazz 88.3

Posted on:February 17, 2020

Jazz Live will welcome back Alto Saxophonist Christopher Hollyday and his Telepathy band to the Saville Theatre TONIGHT at 8pm. His band will be stellar- Gilbert Castellanos on Trumpet, Joshua White on Piano, Rob Thorsen on Bass and Tyler Kreutel on Drums. This concert will be the album release of 'Dialogue' AND Christopher's 50th Birthday so it's not to be missed. The show is SOLD OUT, but the broadcast starts at 8pm.  The box office will open at 6pm and unclaimed tickets will be available beginning at 730pm. As always, thanks to Big Front Door Sandwich Shop, located in University Heights (Park Blvd.) for providing food for the Jazz Live artists. If you are going remember that good ole' parking pass!

Christopher Hollyday and Telepathy Jazz Live San Diego 2020.2.10

Full Concert Audio - Christopher Hollyday and Telepathy

Lee and Lester Young- African-American Jazz in California

February 17, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Lee and Lester Young

Our President’s Day Black History spotlight is on Lee and Lester Young. Towards the end of 1940 Lester Young left the Count Basie Orchestra to go out on his own.
The story that was printed in the press at the time said that Basie had a recording session on Friday the 13th and that Lester refused to participate. Lester supposedly said that Friday the 13th was no day to play music. While It’s doubtful that event ever took place it has been part of Lester Young folklore since the 1930s.

In reality Lester was ready to go out on his own. He played several dates around New York in early 1941 before deciding to join his younger brother, Lee, on the west coast.
Lee was an outstanding drummer who had established himself on the Los Angeles scene in the late 30s working with Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton among others.
Lee was forming a band to play Billy Berg’s Club Capri and Lester came west to join him.

For the first six months of the engagement, Lester was forced to appear as an act due to union rules. In November his transfer was approved and the group became known as Lee and Lester Young’s Orchestra. No commercial recordings were made but a handful of the original radio broadcasts have turned up which give us an idea of what the band
sounded like. In addition to Lester Young on tenor the group included Bumps Meyers also on tenor, Paul Campbell or Red Mack Morris on trumpet, pianist Jimmy Rowles, Red Callendar on bass and Lee Young on drums.

The Club Capri was the first of five Los Angeles clubs owned by Billy Berg. In 1942 he opened a new club in the Beverly Fairfax district called the Trouville. Berg moved the Lee and Lester Young band to the Trouville where they played six nights a week. At the Trouville the band accompanied Billie Holiday for a lengthy engagement and broadcast over station KHJ.

It was during this engagement that a young jazz fan named Norman Granz approached Berg with the idea of opening the club on Sundays for an organized jam session. Granz stipulation was that the club and the bandstand had to be racially integrated during the Sunday sessions. Berg agreed and the first session took place in June of 1942 with Lester
Young headlining.

Those sessions were the beginnings of what would grow into Jazz at the Philharmonic. Granz also produced a memorable recording session featuring Lester and
Nat King Cole during the summer of 1942.

Los Angeles was Lester’s home base for a couple of years until he eventually re-joined the Basie band. By 1944 he was back in Los Angeles continuing his association with
Norman Granz. Granz produced, what is considered the greatest jazz film of all time, “Jammin the Blues” with Lester as the featured star. Lee Young lived in Los Angeles the rest of his life and was one of the busiest drummers in town for many years. He appears on many motion picture soundtracks and was the first African American musician to work
for a major Hollywood Studio.

Benny Carter- African-American Jazz in California

February 14, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Benny Carter

Benny Carter was one of the most important jazz musicians of all time and one of the true pioneers of both jazz arranging and of the alto saxophone. As an arranger he was one of the pioneers who, along with Don Redmond, established big band orchestration in a jazz setting.

As a composer he wrote many jazz standards such as "When Lights Are Low" and "Malibu." He also helped Capitol Records get off the ground providing the labels first hit with "Cow Cow Boogie."

As a soloist he was one of the first models for the instrument along with Johnny Hodges. He was equally adept as a trumpet soloist which was as unique then as it is today.

He was very successful during the twenties and thirties working with Fletcher Henderson, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and his own big band both in the United States and Europe.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1942 and remained there until his death in 2003 at the age of 96.

Once in Hollywood he continued with his own big band that featured many young players such as Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach,Art Pepper, Gerald Wiggins, Dexter Gordon and Al Grey. In 1943 he worked on the film "Stormy Weather" which began a long career writing for motion pictures and television. He kept the band going until 1946 working regularly at Billy Berg’s Swing Club on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood.

During the time he was working at the Swing Club he decided to buy a house in Los Angeles but many neighborhoods had restrictive covenants that kept certain areas racially segregated. He fought against it and won which was a major victory for equal rights.

He dropped the big band in 1946 and began concentrating on playing and writing. He was in huge demand as a vocal arranger and wrote for everyone including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan. He got more and more busy in the film studios and was one of the first black musicians to help break down the racial barriers on that side of the business. Los Angeles had two musicians unions, one for black musicians and one for white. Benny fought to consolidate the two into one which happened in 1950. The consolidation led to much more work for black musicians in all genres.

His band was never as popular with the general public as Basie or Ellington but he was one of the most revered artists in the history of the music. His legacy is immense. He left a massive body of work and his reputation among his peers is unequalled.

Jubilee- African-American Jazz in California

February 13, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Jubilee

On May 26, 1942 the War Department of the United States created the Armed Forces Radio Network also known as AFRS. The AFRS was one of many initiatives to boost the morale of service personnel during WW2.

It started out being headquartered in New York but very quickly moved it’s base of operations to Hollywood. Shows were broadcast on shortwave radio and recorded transcription discs were sent to outposts around the world. The programs were written by the best writers and featured top name entertainers, all donating their services to the war effort.
There were several AFRS programs that all had a specific approach including Command Performance, One Night Stand, Mail Call, Jill’s Juke Box, Downbeat, Spotlight Bands and Jubilee.

Jubilee was unique in that it showcased exclusively African American entertainers aimed at African American service personnel.  In the beginning, shows were done live on Monday nights at NBC studios at Sunset and Vine.  They were done in front of a live audience, recorded and edited into half hour shows.  All the great local artists as well as travelling groups took part.

This includes Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Lena Horne, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Benny Carter, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and many others.

The jovial emcee was Ernie Bubbles Whitman whose jive talking commentary became synonymous with Jubilee. 

Many of these programs happened between 1942 and 1944 while commercial records were not being made due to a strike between the musicians union and the record companies.  

Fortunately all 300 plus of the programs have survived and are important historical documents.