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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Liner Notes: Complete John Coltrane/Wilbur Harden Savoy Sessions

Chances are that you purchased this recording thinking that you were filling in a missing link in your understanding of the tremendously complicated musical journey that was the life of John Coltrane. In a sense you have, since it contains many truly inspired moments from this magical musician, but this music tells us much more about a musician who remains as obscure as Coltrane has become virtually deified within the jazz world.

These fascinating sessions were led by the fluegelhornist/trumpeter Wilbur Harden and originally issued under his name on the Savoy label in the late '50s. He had the taste to hire John Coltrane as his tenor saxophonist, and by doing so ensured that the music would remain in print over the decades, but at a price. The price was that Coltrane's name continues to ensure record sales, so as the sessions were re-issued, Harden's took second billing, that is, if his name was mentioned at all. But that is in keeping with the hard luck nature of his story. Here we have two bands, a quintet and a sextet made up of some of the greatest players in the history of the music. The program is challenging, varied and extraordinarily well played, given the lack of preparation allowed by the record label's notoriously penurious owner. Harden has not been heard from since 1966 (see producer's note).

Given the vantage point of a few decades, every era will at some point be viewed as having been a golden age. But even taking into account what is an inherent part of human nature to view the past as "simpler" and "better" than the present, the late 1950s were an extraordinarily fertile time for jazz. And so it was that an exceptional talent such as Harden's could be taken for granted. A handful of leader dates on one of the smaller jazz labels was not uncommon for musicians who had made it to the top as sidemen, and Harden's work with Yusef Lateef's group was certainly recognized as above average at the time. He also appeared on a Frank Wess Savoy session, where they recorded one of his tunes, SRAM, which brings up another element of his obscurity. A search of the BMI files for any information for Wilber Harden comes up blank; check under Hardin, and there he is. So even in the official music publishing database he is misrepresented. But for the all the mystery surrounding his persona, it is through his compositions that we get a solid handle on his musical makeup.

There are xxx Harden originals in this set, 88 by Cutis Fuller, and one standard. These originals all contrast with each other, with extra care given to compositional aspects, which were usually ignored in the great majority of the era's "blowing sessions". Coltrane had left Thelonious Monk's Quartet, and was back with the Miles Davis Sextet. On these sessions he in the midst of his burgeoning expansion of both his technical and emotional grasp. It is striking that while Coltrane is clearly demarcating new territory for the jazz improviser, much of the basic attitude that he brings to the music comes directly from his main inspiration Charlie Parker. The cramming of all sorts of odd numbers of notes (5's, 7's) into even jazz rhythm (largely based on even numbers) is a concept that goes directly back to the Louis Armstrong of 1928, but whereas these episodes were used as an element of climax in Armstrong's work, they became part of the normal exposition in Parker's. Coltrane uses this ability time and time again on these sessions to create a stark emotional contrast with Harden's work, which is much more like Miles Davis' (and Lester Young's) with its emphasis on an overt feeling of rhythmic relaxation at all costs. This is not to say that Harden's playing is lacking in rhythmic sophistication; just that lies further under the surface. Coltrane sounds positively gleeful throughout the sessions, as though he was really enjoying a busman's holiday away from the pressure in playing in one of jazz's most famous combos. Every element of his originality is full swing, all built on top of that overarching lyricism that permeates even the most convoluted runs (his Tatum-Parker heritage).

The rhythm section is first rate – Tommy Flanagan was and is a pianist's pianist, and plays with the same rare sort of elegance that epitomizes the work of Teddy Wilson, Hank Jones and John Lewis. The drummer Louis Hayes plays with maturity rare for any 20-year-old. Both men have certainly gotten their due as jazz rhythm section royalty, but like Harden the bassist Doug Watkins is largely forgotten. Only 24 years old at the time of the session, he is the real catalyst throughout the first session. From Detroit (like the rest of the rhythm section) and a cousin by marriage of Paul Chambers, Watkins plays in the true spirit of Jimmy Blanton. He participates in the music on every level, even stopping the traffic on occasion with a particularly pithy comment in the midst of a horn solo. Bassist Peter Washington, one of the most in-demand bassists of the '90s has listened to and thought a lot about Watkins: "He was different from everybody else playing at the time. When he came on the scene in the mid-50's, nobody really had the length of note he had. Bass players had heavy attack and a shorter ring to the note with the exception of Percy Heath, who was Doug's big idol. He took what Percy had done, and by softening the attack and lengthening the note gave the beat a more supple quality. It's a much more flexible way of playing, which allowed him to play in many more situations than some of the more famous players. He wasn't concerned with projecting his sound through sheer volume and playing hard. It was a very sophisticated concept whereby Watkins used his intonation and his placement of the note to be heard rather than sheer power. In this sense he pointed the way towards Ron Carter."

Listen to Watkins on WELLS FARGO, Harden's slow-medium tempoed variation on the harmonies of I GOT RHYTHM. The bass had a richness on the low end that sounds like a tuba. Washington: "He made the lowest string on the bass E string stand out in with a new clarity and purity with no slapping or fingerboard sound. Doug brought something to the jazz bass that no one did – not even Ray Brown, Paul Chambers and his idol, Percy Heath. I think he died too soon for recognition to catch up with him. He continued to improve as the years went by, and if he hadn't died in that tragic car crash when he was only 27, Watkins would have given even Ron Carter a run for his money as the first call jazz bassist."

The solos are uniformly and typically excellent, so the commentary will be focused on Harden's masterly compositions. As the program continues, the music becomes gradually more complex. WEST 42nd STREET, which bears no relation to the theme song of the famous 1932 Warner Brothers classic, is a lyrical 24-bar theme with an ABA structure. When you put two choruses together, you get ABAABA, which sounds like a typical 32 bar chorus plus half a chorus. Note how Harden's phrasing comes straight out of 1954-Miles Davis but with his own personal melodicism. Watkins' lines form a more vital counterpoint with the soloists than either Flanagan or Hayes, both of whom play with an orchestrator's sensitivity as Coltrane enters so lyrically and gradually changes the emotional and spatial texture.

E.F.F.P.H. makes for a perfect contrast with its harmonically and structurally simple 16 bar, two-chord structure. Watkins' guitar-like strumming at the top is reminiscent of Ellington's 1941 feature for Jimmy Blanton and drummer Sonny Greer, Jumpin' Punkins.

SNUFFY, with its 8 bar Flanagan introduction, is a Bird-like blues, with those start and stop rhythms. Harden's leadership qualities come to the fore in giving Flanagan the first solo, and alleviating the ennui of the same solo order that plagues so many jazz performances. RHODAMAGNETICS, in this sequencing, plays with the ambiguity of a similarly eloquent 8 bar Flanagan introduction, but then branches off into yet another 24 ABA structure, this one featuring the piano on the second 4 bars of each A section. Hear how the soloists exploit the Monkish harmonic twist in the B sections. Subtle touches like these, whether these performances were originally intended to be heard in this order or not, are testaments to Harden's talents as a composer.

COUNTDOWN was not issued at the time, and bears no relation to the Coltrane original recorded the following year. This one fits neatly with the other Haden originals in that it is both another Parker-esque blues with allusions to Monk in the introduction. The next session adds trombonist Curtis Fuller to the front line, whose J.J. Johnson inspired playing had brought him to the attention of many, including Lester Young, with whom he gigged around this time. The pianist Howard Williams makes a rare recorded appearance – he currently leads a fine New York based big band on Monday nights at a club (The Garage) on the West Side and the bassist Ali Jackson who was the brother of the drummer Oliver Jackson. He has frequently been confused with fellow Detroit bassist Alvin Jackson, Milt's brother. The drummer is Arthur Taylor, who had already played with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins. Harden forsook the unusual structures for the blues and a standard ballad from the late 1930s. Nonetheless, there is a lot of great music. Both ANEDAC (the A&R man's name spelled backwards) and B.J. are first cousins of the blues from the previous session in that they sound like Charlie Parker tunes. Even the addition of the trombone hearkens back to the sound of the famous 1947 Dial session when Parker added J.J. Johnson to his classic quintet.

The elusive nature of Harden dogs even the reflections of his friends from the '50s: Tommy Flanagan: "He was a quiet guy who was off the scene most of the time; I don't remember him having any gigs in New York. He did work back in Detroit, though." Howard Williams, who leads his own big band at New York's The Garage every Monday night recalls: Wilbur was a nice guy, was aggressive, just a pure musician. We used to jam a lot in my loft, which was on 6th avenue, right next to Hall Overton's. I heard that Wilbur had a nervous breakdown or something, but after that he just vanished. I'd love to know what happened to him."

ONCE IN A WHILE is dressed up with a dramatic introduction and coda that bookend a straight-ahead ballad rendition, featuring feelingful solos by the horns and pianist Williams.

The third session finds Flanagan back in the piano chair, with an interesting quartet of Harden originals. DIAL AFRICA is another blues, with tom-toms and modal chords (hear Flanagan try something new on tk.2) backing the melody – they may be calling Africa, but the call was placed from Manhattan! The Miles Davis influence can be heard in Harden's solo – more in the shapes of the phrases and the tone than in the time, but its there. Arthur Taylor paces the tune with a different sound for each soloist – note the bright cymbals that herald Coltrane's entry (with such a beautiful phrase on both takes – almost IN THE GLOAMIN') who makes snakes come out of the saxophone, and the pithy snare stuff behind Fuller. Take 1 is more informal all the way around than the issued take 2. Flanagan's solos are so logical that you can almost hear him thinking as he wends his way through each chorus of the blues in a different fashion. Fuller's rougher-hewn take on J.J. Johnson is always a pleasure to hear. OOMBA gives Taylor a chance to showcase his subtlety and mastery of the cymbals (expertly captured by engineer Van Gelder). The opening chord is similar to the one Harden used on ONCE IN A WHILE, and leads right into an extended and varied vamp with solos by Coltrane and Fuller. What follows is another well thought out Harden composition with tempo changes and alternations of grooves (Flanagan and Jackson get into an Ellington feel for a few measures) that comes across clearly enough, though even as accomplished a band as this could have clearly benefited from another take. Unlike most of Harden's tunes, this one is for the most part through composed. There is already a band dedicated to the repertoire of Herbie Nichols – why not one for our man Harden?

The introduction, horn voicings and general mise en scene of Curtis Fuller's GOLD COAST are reminiscent of Mingus (in the beginning, at least – the bassist would have not gone for so long a blowing interval). Many times, a band would turn out an extended track to fill up the space needed for an LP. The highlight of this performance is Coltrane's solo, played in his most fleet-fingered 1958 style. So much attention has been placed on the various harmonic permutations that obsessed him at the time that the panoply of vocal tones he exhorts from the instrument are sometimes forgotten. This is the kind of tenor playing that truly speaks in tongues. One of Tommy Flanagan's strongest suits has always been his telepathic sense of accompaniment. Hear how he deals with three wildly different soloists and both leads and follows at the same time – magic! And then there is his solo, which is, as always, a breath of fresh air. Jackson gets a rare solo, and nimbly imbues it with the blues. Though Fuller's TANGANYIKA STRUT is basically just an eight-measure phrase in a minor key, listen to the magic these masters divine from it. More kudos must go to the rhythm section, led by Flanagan's chording, who find so many fresh paths around the same block. All the soloists are in inspired form. Harden starts his solo with a strange leap into his solo, and ends it by passing off a phrase to Coltrane. This practice continues from Coltrane to Fuller (who plays his strongest, if off-mike, solo of the session) to Flanagan, supplementing the thematic unity of the performance. A brief, Max Roach-like solo by Taylor leads to the recapitulation of the melody.

This music leaves no doubt that John Coltrane remains a jazz innovator of epochal dimensions, but that fact should not diminish in the least the recognition due his peers, and none of their legacies is more deserving of resuscitation than that of Wilbur Harden. The following are letters that Loren wrote to the editors of Commentary Magazine:

I am responding to Terry Teachout's "The Color of Jazz" piece in your September issue. Under the guise of shining light on an important issue, Mr. Teachout has revealed a rather dim and cliché-filled vision of the jazz world. The first paragraphs bemoan the issuance of a recent collection of jazz recordings as "Black Legends of Jazz", and is followed by the lamentation that this chronicles a new low in racial divisiveness. Doesn't he know about the mid-'60s, when the racial stratification in the jazz world was pitched at a far more fervid pace than it is now? And what of the Black Giants of Jazz album, which Columbia issued in the '70s?

Of greater significance is his trashing of two of our most eloquent writers, both of whom have done so much to foster a more honest and unified union between blacks and whites. If Albert Murray, in the totality of his writing, fiction and non-fiction, chooses to focus on black artists in his STOMPING THE BLUES, so what? If the terrain he chooses to explore in that estimable tome is an angle on the blues, why not deal with the folks who created the blues? Murray's transmutation of the blues from a 12-bar structure which began as the accompaniment to a rigorously unsentimental world view into a marvelously coherent and profound vision of black life in America was a great accomplishment. Teachout seems disappointed that it wasn't another collection of anecdotes, photo album or similarly unchallenging re-hash of what has become true dogma in jazzography.

Teachout accuses Stanley Crouch of a sort of schizophrenia in his jazz writing, something not borne out by even a cursory perusal of Crouch's written statements in any number of literary venues. To wit: from New Perspectives on Jazz (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1990), Crouch responded (and laid a hatchet) to Amiri Baraka - the topic was Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form. Are these the words of a "racialist", as Teachout brands both Murray and Crouch? "Human meaning and human value are what make an idiom universal, nothing else. Specific stylistic estimates are the things that create individual, idiomatic identity, and style is inevitably a code for the perception of human life and human meaning in a particular context. When Leontyne Price performs Tosca, what we observe is that Italian opera is so inclusive that a Negro from Laurel, Mississippi, can meet its requirements and express her own artistic identity as well. Parallel truths are witnessed when we hear a white musician play good jazz, or when we listen to a gypsy named Django Reinhardt light up the guitar..." Whether one would want to quibble with Crouch on the fine points of his analogies is beside the point. Granted, these are the words of someone with some strong opinions about the origins and subsequent development of jazz, but does Teachout call Lennie Tristano a racialist?

And what's with calling Albert Murray's writing "ahistorical" ? Murray's collaboration with Count Basie on his biography "The World of Count Basie" is exemplary as a historical document - no small accomplishment given Basie's taciturn manner. Murray has written several books, none of which are mentioned by Teachout. The most noticeable omission is any mention, much less discussion of Murray's classic "The Omni-Americans". As a writer, Teachout should address the totality of his subject's oeuvre, so not to purposely distort the record.

And regarding Teachout's observations re: the program at Lincoln Center, most of what they have accomplished has been ignored. If de Toqueville's ideals had been met, and there was a true "American", then this discussion (and many, more important ones) would be moot. I believe that the basic impetus behind jazz was a black one, albeit a black American one. Instead of hurling the "racialist" epithet, why isn't Teachout equally vigilant about the inclusion of blacks in the pantheons of all the American genres they've been influential in? One example - So much of our humor is derived from Negro sources and it's subsequent distortion into minstrelsy, yet the "face" of American humor is not usually rendered or conceived of as a black one.

Given the upwardly-mobile ladder jazz still represents to the black community in this age of gansta rap, Bob Dole, crack, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest, I find it hard to cavil about what LC has done to accomplish their goals. One of these, the integration (not only racially, but across the board) of their core audience, has been a wonderful thing to witness. Another one, the hope offered to black kids that jazz may be just the thing to increase what are their still small odds of leaving a disadvantaged neighborhoods makes me want to be a little more lenient about exactly what it is that the program at LC stands for. I understand the problem some musicians (and writers, including Teachout's apparent paterfamilias, James Lincoln Collier) have with the relatively recent resurgence of the more traditional forms. For decades, this repertoire was the exclusive domain of white players, many of whom - Ruby Braff, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Don Ewell - transcend(ed) "schools" of jazz styles. Now, all of a sudden, this music has been discovered by a slew of young, mostly black players, who have gotten an inordinate amount of publicity that one wishes Dick Wellstood could have received even a meager portion of during his lifetime. But in the morass that surrounds race relations and its related manifestations in the music business, such simple conclusions are at best naive, and at worst, disingenuous. There will continue to be dues paid on both sides of the racial coin until things work themselves out - after all, we are still only a blink away from slavery, in the true time-table of human existence.

I share Teachout's fervor in championing Goodman, Getz, Tough, Teagarden and the other white players as jazz musicians with no superiors (save Armstrong). But I also know that they all gave credit where credit was due as to exactly what this music is about, and where it came from. And ultimately, what we love about them so much was their absorption and personal way of expressing themselves in this American musical dialect, one that they all knew was at first truly black and now truly American.

 

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