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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Bill Harris/Charlie Ventura

"When I began playing trombone in 1943, the selection of people with distinct personalities that you could slice like bread were legion. Dickie Wells, Vic Dickenson, Trummy Young (what a player!), Jack Teagarden, Lawrence Brown and my hero, Bill Harris. These are only a few—there were many. On hearing Bill, chills went down my back—a physical shiver. The last time we met was 1963, in Las Vegas, where he was playing a 6 a.m. gig with Charlie Teagarden. He and I hung for an hour, then he got on the bandstand, and—at the very first note—sent chills down the back of a jaded, successful and angry 33 year old male child. Now THAT'S communication, personality, ta-dum, ta-dum, whatever. That illustrates the possibility of establishing a living relationship with the generation before me..."grandfathering" I think it has been called. There was someone that I could grow FROM." Bob Brookmeyer

Charlie Ventura and Bill Harris were childhood friends in their native Philadelphia. Both were born in 1916, achieved great fame on their instruments, and died in relative obscurity: Harris in 1973 and Ventura in 1992. They also shared prodigious technical abilities, but that's where the similarities ended. Ventura was bound for a career as a bandleader and consummate showman, while Harris was the retiring type, with seemingly little in the way of professional ambition. Indeed, he didn't even pick up a trombone until he was 22 years old, having dabbled on the trumpet, tenor saxophone and drums. Harris worked a variety of jobs - driving trucks, and reading electric meters before joining the Merchant Marines in 1935. He returned home and married two years later, keeping his day jobs while playing country clubs with Ventura and Buddy DeFranco. Ventura's family came to Philadelphia in 1930 from New Jersey, and by his mid-teens, young Charlie studied chords on the guitar and devoted himself to the saxophone, progressing from the C-Melody to the alto. He also had a regular job at his father's hat factory before working at the Navy Yard from 1940-42. Ventura even befriended his idol, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, and together they recorded a tenor battle on acetate. Two fellow Philadelphians, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and guitarist Teddy Walters recommended Ventura to their boss, Gene Krupa. He joined the band in late 1942, and stayed (with the exception of a brief interlude with Teddy Powell's band) through 1946. One of the first things Ventura did was to bring Harris into the band. An inability to read music on a professional level was to sabotage the Krupa gig and the two others that followed. As Harris himself put it, "I went back in the cellar and studied some more", and by mid-1943 Harris was able to hold down the solo trombone chair in Bob Chester's band. It was during one of the band's broadcasts that Benny Goodman heard him, and quickly offered him a featured spot. This was the major turning point in Harris' career. Although there was a recording ban in effect, the exposure with Goodman was invaluable. The band broadcast frequently, recorded V-discs, and appeared in a Hollywood film about a trombonist (Sweet and Lowdown - look at the band playing behind the opening titles for Harris playing the valve trombone), which featured Harris on the soundtrack. When Goodman disbanded shortly thereafter, he arranged for Harris to take a small band into New York's Café Society. Although the band included Zoot Sims (who had been in the Goodman band), Clyde Hart and Sid Catlett, it foundered after the engagement, and Harris was once again at loose ends. After a brief return to Bob Chester, Harris joined Woody Herman's band in July 1944, and his fortune changed once and forever. It was the right band at the right time, and the trombonist became its main solo voice. The recording ban ended in later that year, and the Herman red-label Columbias were at the top of the big band charts. Bill Harris found himself winning the music magazine polls as best trombonist, in addition to recording dozens of small group titles with Herman and his fellow sidemen.

Meanwhile, Charlie Ventura had become a featured attraction with Gene Krupa's band, and was featured in the Trio, along with pianist Teddy Napoleon. Although they were famous for their intricately cute arrangements, no one could deny their jazz credentials. The public ate up the trio's more hokey aspects, and Krupa and Ventura gave them just what they wanted. Like most star sidemen, Ventura eventually went out on his own, first with a big band that enjoyed a modicum of success at 52nd Street's Spotlight Club. Unfortunately, late 1946 was a bad time to get into the big band business, and with many of the major bands folding left and right (including Woody Herman's), Ventura regrouped and formed the band heard on these recordings. Tough, Harris and Burns were Herman alumni, and bassist Bob Leininger, a friend of Chubby Jackson's, had been with Les Brown.

There are precious few musicians, regardless of genre, who can be readily identified within a handful of measures. The jazz drummer Dave Tough is one of these rare artists who created an identity so personal that his musical signature stands out regardless of whatever the musical setting was. The tragic arc of his life is complicated and has been chronicled by Whitney Balliett and Burt Korall, but these recordings, made less than two years before his death (he fell during an alcoholic binge and fractured his skull), tell us things about his playing that are extant no where else.

Jazz is, at its base, rhythm. At the root of the rhythm section is the pulse that the drummer defines, in conjunction with the bassist. A great drummer can function like a musical alchemist, creating a rhythmic wave that transforms even the harmonic and melodic aspects of the music. That is what Dave Tough does on this recording. He did it with what Artie Shaw has referred to as his great psychic energy. Tough had been the intellectual mentor to many musicians - someone once remarked that a week after Tough joined a band, the musicians started showing up with books under their arms. The bassist Bob Leininger, who only worked with Tough during this engagement, remembers the drummer vividly 53 years later: " He used to try and play the drums to fit the melody of the tune we were playing - this was very unusual at the time. Davey was on the wagon at this time and very erudite. We would walk down 52nd Street between sets and talk, and he would talk about anything and everything. As a total musician, he was head and shoulders above Rich and Krupa. When he played he seemed to be in a trance - you could feel the concentration of a truly great artist." Though the nominal leader of the band was Charlie Ventura (certainly no shrinking violet), it is Tough who calls the shots in a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, when he urged Dorothy and company to pay no attention to the man behind the curtains.

Every title here has its treasures, and while not going in for an extensive track-by-track analysis, Characteristically BH will certainly establish a workable paradigm for this band's approach. There is a particular flavor to the instrumental originals that came out of the musicians in the Woody Herman band of 1944-46, redolent of 52nd Street, Gillespie and Parker, yet with a special twist that came from the composers Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti. The theme is based on a series of descending chords that Jimmy Heath later used on his celebrated "C.T.A". The bridge is similar to "Temptation", and shares its profile with Monk's "Well, You Needn't". Several things about this band's approach become clear as the piano solo takes off. Although the arrangements are spare, they are nonetheless extremely effective. Ralph Burns has structured things to maintain the spontaneity of a small group, undergirded by a compositional rigor that is more readily associated with larger ensembles. You can hear the same qualities in varying proportions in the John Kirby Sextet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Benny Goodman small groups, among others. The way that the themes are stated (the trombone/tenor switch-offs on Blue Champagne), getting the most variety out of the instrumentation at hand, and the overall pacing of the performances are among the vital aspects that separate this kind of music from the great majority of "blowing" sessions that characterize to so many what small group jazz is about. The rhythm section, with Tough at the helm, navigates a swinging course that fulfills its accompanimental role while also contributing an equal amount of musical information as the soloist does. The bassist Chubby Jackson, who played with Burns and Tough in the Herman band, has spoken at length about Tough's unique rhythmic philosophy. He did not believe in metronomic time for its own sake. He felt that the time should fluctuate (albeit minutely) with the emotional flow of the music, and would bring the tempo down just a notch during the climactic shout chorus of a slow instrumental, to great effect.

These recordings reveal a facet of Tough's playing that to my knowledge exists nowhere else. Among his personal effects were a wide array of cymbal textures, with which he generated an intensity equaled only by Tony Williams during his first years with Miles Davis in the mid-1960s. He also had an abhorrence of playing regular "backbeats", which played a large role in Sid Catlett's (one of his only peers) repertoire. What is unique about his work here, beyond the sheer length of the tunes, is the way he switches from one cymbal to another within a chorus, and the effect these sonic changes have on the soloist's intensity.

On Characteristically B.H., note how the bass plays the melody with the horns most of the way through the head. This leaves Tough keeping the time, and frees Burns to make free-floating commentaries in the piano's upper register. It is not until the bridge and then the piano solo that we finally get unfettered time keeping, announced with a splashing Tough cymbal, which assumes the role of a musical ligament, connecting many of the above-mentioned cymbal switches. The "hookup", as some musicians call it, between bassist Leininger and Tough is wonderful. They agree on precisely where the pulse is, and then are free to have fun with it. Burns caps his solo with some across the bar phrases during the last eight bars that reveal what he had in common with Lennie Tristano, Earl Hines and Nat Cole. Listen for how the rhythm section sets up the beginning of Harris's solo, leaving him "in the clear" to establish himself. These recordings should establish once and for all what an original and creative pianist Burns was. He stopped playing professionally when his career as a composer/arranger in both Hollywood and Broadway took off in the 1950s, which was a great loss for jazz. Burns' solos reveal an independence between the hands that is as rare as the mood he generates, especially on the ballads. The piano choruses on Blue Champagne and Body and Soul are truly astonishing.

Bill Harris had one of the most compelling "beats" in jazz, which you can hear from the very beginning of his solo. When matched with Tough's, the results are frequently thrilling. "Stomp" was a word used during the early days of jazz, and when Tough gets wailing on his bass drum, which he could control with a Bolero-like sense of pacing, the music really does stomp. Tough was one of the masters of playing with brushes (with no clicking hi-hat - an effect Elvin Jones has championed) and as the cymbal splashes mount, he is setting the stage for the switch to his sticks and his panoply of cymbal textures. Once that magical transformation takes place, there is no limit to the variety of sounds and levels of intensity at the band's disposal. One fascinating innovation of Tough's was to take the contrasting harmonic function of a 32 bar tune' s "bridge" – the middle 8 bars – and turn it into a similarly contrasting dynamic interlude. This lets the music ebb and flow, with the possibility of many different climaxes, as opposed to a non-stop "build", as most choruses are constructed. Hear how, during the bridges, he frequently plays very quietly and how both Harris and Ventura opt to deal with it.

Harris was, as the contemporary trombonist Ron Westray has put it, "drenched in the blues", and many of his solos follow the same declamatory bluesy outlines, broken up by the shards of rough-edged, irrational rhythms. In his creative hands, like that a master painter confronting yet another basket of fruit or the human face, the possibilities are endless. Key to Harris's music is the ever-present sense of danger, of risk-taking. He never plays it safe, yet always lands on his feet. Westray again: "Bill Harris has excellent control of his ideas and at the same time he is a player who seems to delight in taking musical risks, which is a crucial quality. Not only does he take the risks but he always pulls them off. These solos are timeless in terms of musicality and the complexity and the nature of what he is playing is just as modern as anything that you can play on the trombone in the year 2000." Bassist Bob Leininger recently said that Bill Harris looked like he should have been " a teller in a bank", and virtually everyone who knew him remarked on the disparity between his introverted demeanor and his extroverted playing. Harris belongs, along with one of his influences Dickie Wells, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young and Art Tatum, as one of the prime abstractionists of the era - hear his first eight bars after the tenor solo on Characteristically B.H. for proof positive. Every solo of his herein has brilliant moments compounded by his musical/rhetorical sense of humor. The same timing that made Harris' swing so overpowering also informed the humorous episodes -listen to the penultimate bridge on Frolic Sam, or his second bridge on High On an Open Mike. For more biographical information on Harris (and the recounting of some hilarious stories) you may want to visit the following website: www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/5327/harris1.htm. He also a world-class practical joker. One story that has circulated for years among musicians has to do with Harris' revenge on a Las Vegas show conductor he was particularly ticked off with. Hours before the job every night, Harris would saw a fraction of an inch off of the conductor's stool. This went on for weeks.

Ventura is an improviser of a different stripe. A contemporary exchange between critic Mike Levin and Ventura from Downbeat is instructive. Levin wrote: "Ventura, a scintillating technician, seems determined to fill every space with notes, regardless of phrasing limitations, and thus gradually driving his listeners in a slough of unhearing inattention. Whether it is because he thinks his playing is not sufficiently brilliant and therefore tries to top himself each instant, or whether he merely doubts the worth of his basic ideas, Ventura is trying to play too much too fast too often. He can and should play better". Ventura replied: "As for my using too many notes, the bookers are screaming at me all the time to play high notes. Well, I don't and I won't – I don't feel that way. While I may use more runs to make up some of the flash, I certainly don't think I use too many, and after all, I'm playing ‘em." Ventura with maturity and great depth on occasion but had more than a passing tendency to play to the crowd.

The first six titles were recorded by Jerry Newman late one night/morning at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street. Newman was already well known in New York circles for the location recordings he had made of Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and friends at Minton's in the early '40s (much of which has been reissued on HighNote). The last title, Harris' feature on Everything Happens To Me, comes from a Carnegie Hall Concert done a few weeks earlier, with the same band, with the exception of bassist Curly Russell replacing Leininger.

When the evolution of jazz gets reduced to the simplistic schools of traditional, swing, bop, cool, what-have-you, many important players get passed over. Music as rich in emotion, swing, individuality and humor as this deserves its place in the pantheon, and we are indeed fortunate that it has been lovingly preserved, and now issued pitch-corrected for the very first time.

 

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