Various Artists: Savoy on Central Avenue

Various Artists
Savoy on Central Avenue
Savoy Jazz

This two CD set is much the same story as the other recent Savoy cheap (I am not talking about the price) production I’ve seen. “For years, jazz writers ignored Los Angeles in favor of cities east of the Mississippi, mainly New Orleans, Chicago and New York,” Billy Vera tells us in a geography lesson no worse than his following “No further proof is needed of the provincial nature of the New York intelligencia…” (I suppose he means “intelligentsia”?) “than the fact that the name of Nat Cole, one of the greatest of jazz pianists — who happened to find fame and fortune in L.A. — cannot be found or is barely mentioned in East Coast biased books.”

Of course you can recognise an East Coast biased book by its not mentioning Nat Cole, and books which don’t mention Nat Cole don’t mention Nat Cole, and are therefore East Coast biased books?

Fame and fortune was what Cole found by singing rather than being the outstanding jazz pianist many of his later fans never knew or cared he had been. According to a creature (sorry) called Mathis (cough!) on a television tribute (sic) show long, long ago, Cole began as ”just a piano player”. You can say the same of Oscar Peterson, who has never made a secret of what he owes Nat Cole!

Cole does sing on his token appearance here. Errol Garner and Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes get one track each, suggesting that our compiler had come up with the name and found there was something on Savoy and picked something out without much thought. Of course there was a vinyl two-fer called Black California on Savoy long ago, and there were also jam sessions with Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes and Wardell Gray on the West Coast and on in earlier Savoy reissue series. Rather than Billy Vera’s self-indulgence in packing in more of the R&B sort of stuff which came all too easily to hand, presumably Savoy also own some of the New Orleans jazz on a Savoy vinyl two-fer I remember but missed — and it could well have been here instead? Research?

B. Vera tells us that beside the L.A.-based labels picking up on what was happening on the West Coast in the years around 1950 “Newark, New Jersey’s Savoy wanted some of the action. Not content to merely find and record artists, the label’s visionary owner, Herman Lubinsky, also purchased masters and even whole catalogs from other labels who fell on hard times.”

One had gathered from musicians that Lubinsky had been content merely to record them, as opposed to also paying them. Venal was a more accurate term than visionary for that businessman-entrepreneur; though he was most often recalled less politely. If there’s occasion to feel grateful to him, it’s nothing personal.

Talking of personal, the musicians deserve at least a thought. “The Preston Love on one of the titles”, says B. Vera of one highlight of the Johnny Otis sides included, “refers to Johnny’s Omaha friend, who played alto sax…” If I had been born nearer yesterday, I might have wondered whether “Harlem Nocturne” was a feature for Preston Love. Of course it is! A competent sleeve note would have said so! It’s a magnificent solo performance; he was a very individual voice, though the arrangement is sometimes brilliant sometimes merely efficient. The title named after him is pretty good too, though the “only scratching the surface” disclaimer at the end of the sleeve note indicates a level of ambition beyond what is represented here by too many further and R&B sides by Johnny Otis.

Marshall Royal plays wonderfully on two titles accompanying the exceptional Helen Humes, one of the magnificent originals of jazz singing (she can also be heard on the Savoy Blues set, but one of the same sides is on both that and this). The Lord blessed her with a little girl voice, a contrasting physique and great musical talent and the wit to play on her not looking like she sounded. You don’t need to see her to hear the wit, and don’t miss her live “Million Dollar Secret” with Don Hill on alto on a date which produced Jimmy Witherspoon’s most steaming very paradoxically titled “No Rollin’ Blues” if you ever get the chance. Don’t miss either! If Savoy had owned the masters would they have been here?

As for the Johnny Otis stuff which doesn’t belong here, B. Vera tells us of “those long ago times, before compulsive categorists began striving to catalog and separate one broad form into as many categories as possible” and for some reason goes on about Cecil Gant (who is not featured here). Unlike I am sure B. Vera, I can recognise Gant’s pedigree in 1930s barrelhouse piano playing nearer the Mississippi. I can also observe the nonsense in Vera’s asking whether a certain record producer recognised Harold Land’s “potential as a jazzman” when Land played in Jimmy Liggins’s “rocking R&B band” — and in going on to ask whether “the line” between R&B and jazz was “in 1949 so blurry that it made no difference”?

Harold Land wasn’t especially “sadly neglected”, as maybe Preston Love was. He made some nice records for Contemporary. Before his still relatively recent death, I saw him on German television in a terrific all-star band playing Monk tunes at a European jazz festival. He sounded pretty much as he’d done on the outstanding 1949 “Outlandish” here, and on a couple of other titles with an (as ever here) unidentified group on that date. Those small group titles follow written out routines a little too much, an R&B ensemble trying to imitate big band routines without having the richness of arrangement. But there is absolutely no mistaking Land’s distinction and finesse, his sophisticated sound, his jazz talent and not just “potential”. The coarser tenor playing on an R&B instrumental by a sextet under the name of Johnny Otis’s pianiste Lady Dee Williams gives a fair contrast. Those who’ve seen the film Bird should remember the scene in which Parker’s represented snatching an R&B hack tenorist’s horn and sending him up something dire. Parker was perhaps a compulsive categoriser? Well, he wasn’t very popular on the West Coast during the period in question, except among musicians. Harold Land worked with Elmo Hope, says Vera, and Hope didn’t find the West Coast congenial at all. This is not the story Vera tells.

I could have done with less Ike Carpenter, a sort of Eddie Heywood virtuoso playing Ellington music with a well-drilled band but only on the fringe of jazz. But there’s only one title by the Roy Porter band, which included the very young Eric Dolphy! Vera talks about intonation problems and relates them to perhaps lack of commercial success as much as “artistic overreaching”. He certainly doesn’t seem to like the latter, and I don’t seem to hear problems of intonation so much as an unusual excitement I’d like to have heard more of.

Mary Ann McCall is as good a singer as Vera says, but Phil Moore’s musically ambitious Gil Evansish ensemble is responsible for some of the merits of her two “cool” sides — with expert flute. You don’t by now expect Vera to mention things like that. There are two ordinary (by her standards) Kay Starr items with a Ben Pollack Band with strings. But for the presence of a Les Paul style of guitarist they could have been (and this is not a criticism) from 1935 rather than 1945.

Oh, and one of the Johnny Otis big band titles has Jimmy Rushing as vocalist. I would love to hear an intelligent selection of this band’s jazz playing. It could include some personnel details.

A lot of the better music which turns up here can be found on reissues from independents, and while the photographic illustrations and extraordinarily good sound might well not be matched it does matter what you process. And if the best of this music can be found elsewhere in decently organised selections, I’d recommend them. There’s a lot of Illinois Jacquet including the one title here cheaply available in Europe. B. Vera tells us that a proper appreciation of “the incubating place of artists like Charles Mingus, Teddy Edwards, Hampton Hawes, Harold Land and Dexter Gordon is being recognised, thanks to … CD sets like this one.”


Teddy Edwards? B. Vera refers to him as “recently departed”, bad news I missed. Edwards was a very great saxophonist, and is he yet another musician who appears on this CD uncredited? He did record for the same label which recorded the here rather superfluous “Relaxin’ at the Camarillo” by “Charlie Parker’s New Stars”. I’ll not ask why he’s not therefore on this further bran tub botch, which may however appeal as nostalgia to people who don’t read music reviews.