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Fun in the Sun: The West Coast Jazz Box Set

By Brian L. Knight

There has been a geographical disparity with the jazz re-releases that have occurred in the last 12 months. Through the works of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, and labels such as Impulse and Blue Note, we have been inadvertently led to believe that jazz of yore strictly occurred east of the Mississippi. To any person born more than thirty years ago, this concept is absurd. To the younger generations, whose exposure to jazz most likely has begun with the fusion of Davis, the funk of Hancock or the innovation of Coltrane, the jazz sounds of the West Coast may be a mystery. Without being too stereotypical, most of today’s new jazz enthusiasts are initially attracted to jazz through the influences that jazz musicians have had on rock & roll. Viperhouse loves Sun Ra. Phish used to play Metheny. The Miracle Orchestra looks to Miles Davis for inspiration. Ulu is a reflection of the Headhunters. Santana claims Coltrane as a primary influence and cut many albums with John McGlaughlin.

When we listen to the new "jazz" of 1990s that has made the most commercial headway, we think of Medeski, Martin &Wood, Galactic and Charlie Hunter. When listening to these 1990s musicians, there is little reflection to the West Coast sounds of Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Zoot Sims and Shelly Manne. This is not due to the West Coast’s talent inferiority, but rather to the rock and roll/funk attraction of today’s music fans and the proliferation of fusion sounds on the East Coast. The fact of the matter, the West Coast during the 1950s and 1960s produced some of the best sounding jazz of the era. Instead of the brooding tones of Miles Davis, the atonalities of Coltrane or the 45-minute solos of Roland Kirk, the West Coast provided more upbeat, concise and easy-feeling music.

After years of planning, the minds of Los Angeles’ Contemporary and Pacific and San Francisco’s Fantasy labels have joined forces to release The West Coast Jazz Box: An Anthology of California Jazz. Through four discs, 62 songs and 56 bands and countless musicians, this box set provides a look into twenty exciting years of California jazz.

Just as the Blue Note Studios served as a farm system for modern jazz on the East Coast, the big bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton had a similar impact on the West Coast. Although the sounds, technique and popularity of Herman’s and Kenton’s bands were quite different, the two bands shared a similarity in the fact that they both played distinctly modern music and by doing so, their bands were able to survive the post-swing era. With the advent of the bop of Dizzy Gillepsie and Charlie Parker during the 1940s, swing met a quick demise. However Herman and Kenton were able to keep the swing sound going through the clever combination of big band and bop styles. From these two bands, the core for both the West Coast Jazz scene and these four discs found its roots. Between the straightforward swing of Herman and the somewhat controversial sounds of Kenton, West Coast players such as Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Jimmy Guiffre, Bill Holman, Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers and Bill Perkins (even musicians such as Shelly Manne, Zoot Sims, Richie Kamuca and Conte Candoli played in both outfits.) found their springboard for successful careers.

The West Coast Jazz scene centered on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Just as New York City had its 52nd Street, with its numerous jazz clubs; Los Angeles had its Central Avenue which contained a dense pack of clubs. Throughout the Los Angeles and Hollywood area, musicians played in intimate clubs such as Shelly’s Manne Hole, The Haig and Zardis. Coinciding with all of these live venues were the labels that brought these musicians to the national limelight. Thanks to Richard Bock’s Pacific Jazz and Lester Koenig’s Contemporary and many other smaller labels, the jazz musicians of West Coast were actively promoted. It wasn’t all Los Angeles though. San Francisco’s Fantasy Records, and Bay Area clubs like the Jazz Workshop worked hard to promote the music of talented players such as Vince Guaraldi, Ornette Coleman, and Dave Brubeck. It was all of these California labels and clubs that are responsible for this compilation.

There is a misunderstanding concerning the definitions of bop, cool jazz and West Coast Jazz. First of all, both West Coast Jazz and cool jazz are a variation of the bop sound. Bop was a post World War II movement, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillepsie that offered an intense alternative to the dominating swinging sounds. Gillepsie and Parker did not change the face of jazz overnight, as it was a slowly developing process in which Parker and Gillepsie both started in swing bands and then steadily made a transition.

Cool Jazz was a variation of bop in the sense that the style still employed the innovations of Parker and Gillespie (i.e. improvisation and soloing), but cool re-introduced "swing" back into the fold. Swing is much more than a word that describes and era of music; it also describes the way music is played. Music "swings" when the tempo is constant and there are minimal breaks and sudden changes. Even during the avant-garde hey-dey, musicians such as Albert Ayler who strove on cacophony, actually made their music swing for they never lost tempo.

In any compilation involving the sounds of the West Coast Jazz scene, the big players can not be neglected. The Stan Getz Quintet provides " Crazy Rhythm". The Gerry Mulligan Quartet plays "Bernies Tune" and "My Funny Valentine". The Chet Baker Quartet provides "Isn’t It Romantic" and "Maid in Mexico". San Franciscan pianist David Brubeck plays "Stardust" while saxophonist Art Pepper provides "Shaw Nuff" and " You’d be So Nice To Come Home To". Although these players and other such as Bud Shank and Bob Brookmeyer provided the quintessential West Coast sound, there are many more that comprised the meat and bones of the sound. This compilation brings many of those players and their works to the surface.

The hardest working man on the West Coast was drummer Shelly Manne and these discs do an excellent job of representing his work. Manne spent time in both Herman’s and Kenton’s Big Bands and then went off to be one of the most popular leaders and sideman in the Pacific region. As a leader, Manne had two groups – "Shelly Manne and his Friends" and "Shelly Manne and His Men". Between these two outfits, this compilation has three tunes – "Get Me To The Church On Time", "Etude de Concert" and "Theme: A Gem From Tiffany". As a sideman, Manne participates in saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ appropriately titled "Way Out West"; vibraphonist Red Norvo’s "Red Sails", saxophonist Lenny Niehaus’ "Whose Blues?", and the Clifford Brown Ensemble’s " Daahoud". Trumpeter Clifford Brown’s Ensemble also featured one of the greatest sounding names in jazz history (besides Thelonious Monk) – saxophonist Zoot Sims.

In addition, Shelly Manne participated in two ‘all-star’ bands that were synonymous with the West Coast Jazz sound. The first was bassist Harold Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars. During the early stages of the West Coast movement, many of the players from the bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton were looking for new venues to ply their new music. Their first "home base" was the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, where marathon jam sessions would occur every weekend. Sometimes these jam sessions were caught on records and released to the public. On this compilation, there is a version of Harold Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars’ "Swing Shift" and "Sunset Eyes" which features Rumsey, Manne, saxophonists Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Cooper and trumpeter Shorty Rogers. Manne, Guiffre and Rogers would also join up together for a version of "Popo" by Shorty Rogers and His Giants".

Some other interesting contributions to this album are a versions of Dizzy Gillepsie’s " A Night In Tunisia" by Harold Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars. This version of the band features Max Roach on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet and signify a meeting of the two coasts. There is a cut of San Franciscan Ornette Coleman playing "The Sphinx". With his constant tempo changes, Coleman’s track stands out from the other tunes and signifies that the West Coast was not all about the "cool" sound. Eric Dolphy can be found playing the flute on Chico Hamilton’s "Far East" which provides an early glimpse of Dolphy before he headed East. And for all of us who believed that Vince Guaraldi only played the "Peanuts Theme", this compilation will revert our closed minds. The talented pianist is heard on his own "Cast Your Fate To the Wind", Richie Kamuca/Bill Holman Octet’s "Indiana" and the Brew Moore Quintet’s " Dues Blues." Saxophonists Kamuca and Holman (who was an arranger for Stan Kenton) also joined together for the Big Holman Band’s "No Heart".

This compilation also provides the work of the great West Coast guitarists. With the names Wes Montgomery and George Benson dominating the 1960s guitar media and hype, the masterful works of Jim Hall, Barney Kessel and Joe Pass are often neglected. Joe Pass provides "For Django" while Jim Hall can be heard playing on the remarkably original "Pickin’ em Up and Layin’ ‘em Down" with Jimmy Guiffre and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Hall also contributes to saxophonists Ben Webster’s "Georgia On My Mind"; saxophonist Bill Perkins/pianist John Lewis’ "2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West"; and drummer Chico Hamilton’s " Blue Sands". The gifted Barney Kessel can be heard on The Poll Winners’ version of the standard "On Green Dolphin Street". The Poll Winners, which also consisted of Shelly Manne and Jim Pass, was given their name do to the fact that the three had won so many polls in their respective instrument’s categories. Kessel also plays on Benny Carter’s " A Walkin’ Thing" and Red Norvo’s "Red Sails". Two less popular guitarists, but equally talented, are Ray Crawford and Dennis Budimir who play on Curtis Amy’s "Katanga" and Chico Hamilton’s "Far East", respectively.

West Coast Jazz is simply a geographic term that has been misused over the years. West Coast Jazz, although predominantly Cool in nature, also had musicians that represented the bop and hard bop styles. The majority of the West Coasters played Cool jazz for they came from swing bands such as Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, but they also loved the soling techniques that dominated the East Coast. While Baker, Mulligan, Pepper and Getz were synonymous with the cool California sound, there were also Mingus, Coleman, Hawes, and Amy who deviated from the cool. In addition, West Coast Jazz has also been misrepresented as an uniquely Caucasian event. Automatically, there is going to be disparity between blacks and whites due to the disparity that existed on a cultural level up and down the West Coast. In Vermont, the same inequality occurs as well. You could say that the "Burlington Jazz Scene" is a predominantly white scene. Well, in a state that is almost 90% white, what would you expect. The same idea, but less extreme percentages, can be said about the West Coast scene.

The players who were considered the flag bearers of West Coast Jazz – Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Bob Brookmeyer – were all white players. This is the primary reason for the racial misconception. If you look at the other players who filled the next "level" of popularity, you will find a larger amount of Afro-Americans- bassist Curtis Counce and Leroy Vinnegar, saxophonists Buddy Collette and Wardell Gray; pianists Hampton Hawes and Art Tatum and drummers Chico Hamilton and Max Roach. Ironically enough, many of the Afro-American musicians emigrated from California to further accentuate the disparity. In addition to Roach and Hawes, Saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charles Mingus, and flautist Eric Dolphy all contributed to the West Coast sound but also made their names elsewhere.

Even the bastion for West Coast Jazz, Hermosa Beach’s Lighthouse Café didn’t believe in one universally defined "West Coast Jazz sound". The Café’s matchbook stated the following words: " The policy of the Lighthouse has been to ignore the meaningless divisions between the various modern jazz groups, to bring together the finest available instrumentalists and writers, and to transform the Lighthouse into a workshop where their music could be heard by larger audiences."

Many of the players of the West Coast Jazz scene were also transplants from other regions of the United States. Even the dominating force of this compilation, Shelly Manne, was a native of New York City. One of the archetypal West Coasters, Gerry Mulligan, was also from the Big Apple. Richie Kamuca haled from Philadelphia, the home of definitive east coasters such as John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and McCoy Tyner. Bud Shank came to age in Ohio and North Carolina. Shorty Rogers was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts while Jimmy Guiffre was a Texan. The West Coast also had its natives – Howard Rumsey, Hampton Hawes, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton, and Zoot Sims were all born along the pacific coast. Ironically, most of these players moved on from California and played in New York City and Europe.

Regardless of how long they stayed in Los Angeles or where they were born, the players on these discs, like so many people, most likely enjoyed California due to the fact they could play their music in Hawaiian shirts and enjoy the good weather. The West Coast Jazz scene, was not "an all-white, all-native, all-cool jazz scene" that allowed no exceptions. It was simply a gathering of musicians who felt that they didn’t have to make it big in New York City. Due to the cultural free spirits that are associated with the Pacific, the music reflected the mood of the coast – loose, less intense and freewheeling. This same thing happened years later in rock and roll as the cool sounds of the Eagles, the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash offered a less intense alternative to New York City’s Velvet Underground. There is a definitive California attitude and these players were attracted to it. They didn’t emigrate westward to join a sub cult of musical creation. They moved there to enjoy the good life and play their music. When you think about it, if you wanted to be a poor, destitute talented musician, wouldn’t you rather do it in a warm climate. I would.