Historical Essays
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Shelly Manne and His Men featuring Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca
by Thomas Cunniffe
Part 2

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The final night at the Black Hawk, September 24, was the most productive with over two hours of music, most of which was issued on the original LPs. The master takes of “Cabu”, “Step Lightly” and “Blue Daniel” and an alternate of “Whisper Not” comes from this night. As would be expected, the solos and their backgrounds are quite different from night to night. For example, on the master take of “Cabu”, Kamuca’s solo takes less chances with the time and phrase lengths, and Gordon’s solo starts with bass and drums; on the alternate, Kamuca had just finished playing with bass and drums, so Gordon worked with the full rhythm section.

Among the material recorded for the first time on the 24th is a lovely 3/4 version of “Just Squeeze Me” transposed to the Mixolydian mode. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” had been released about a month earlier, and in addition to the use of modes, we can hear another example of its influence in Budwig’s bass ostinato, which echoes Paul Chambers’ bass line from “All Blues”. The modal transposition gives the Ellington standard a melancholy air, and the soloists play tender improvisations over the lovely adapted changes. One of the composers of “Nightingale” was the Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat, and while Manne hints at a Latin beat in the opening chorus, most of the performance is straight-ahead and swinging. Somehow, this performance never soars, despite good ideas from the soloists and solid support from the rhythm section. The whole piece sounds uninspired; yet this track made it to the original album while other worthy tracks stayed in the vault.

Cole Porter’s “I Am in Love” is a much better song and one of the best performances in the entire Black Hawk series. Written in 1953 for the show “Can-Can” (and not to be confused with “I’m In Love”, which Porter composed in 1929 for “Fifty Million Frenchmen”) the song has a great chord structure for improvising and a 64-bar form that allows the players to stretch out. The happy, medium-fast groove swings magnificently and the solos overflow with inspired ideas. And how Manne kicks it along with his accents and fills! Charlie Mariano’s “Vamp’s Blues” is another extended blues which filled an entire LP side. In contrast to the improvised and themeless “Black Hawk Blues”, Mariano’s composition includes a striking melody and unaccompanied declamatory statements by the horn soloists. But far from being stuffy, “Vamp’s Blues” offers plenty of room for extended improvisation, and all of the soloists play long, tasty solos over a supremely grooving pulse. The members of this group didn’t play a lot of quotes, but there are two here: Feldman’s interesting re-working of “Whistle While You Work” and Gordon’s passionate interpolation of “Stormy Weather” (which precedes an exciting double-time episode by the trumpeter). “What’s New?”, normally played as a ballad, gets a spritely up-tempo treatment which elicits a muscular solo by Kamuca, incisive thoughts from Gordon, clearly articulated lines by Feldman, and intricate melodies from Budwig. Manne plays an energetic set of fours with the horns near the end, but his brushwork through the majority of the piece is truly stunning. Among the previously unissued tracks are a delightful bass feature composed by Feldman, “Pulling Strings” and a cooking five-minute version of “A Gem from Tiffany”.

Taken as a set, the Black Hawk recordings are an amazing document of a working jazz combo. Its occasional flaws only add to the value of the set, and it is fascinating to hear how the performances evolve from night to night. And while the music had limited radio exposure due to its lengthy tracks, it has become one of the most beloved collections among jazz fans. It is simply impossible to recommend one volume over the others—it is a set to own and enjoy in its entirety.

On the strength of his work on the Black Hawk sessions, Feldman was offered the piano chair in the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Feldman’s last recordings with Manne occurred over three sessions in December 1959 and January 1960  for an album of music from the independent feature “The Proper Time”. The film’s star and director was Tom Laughlin, better known for his 1970s “Billy Jack” films. Laughlin plays Mickey, a college student who stutters around women. He gets involved with two different women, the “good” Sue and her “evil” roommate Doreen. After the romantic triangle breaks up, Mickey is cured of his stuttering at the college clinic. Manne’s group improvised the score with Gordon’s trumpet and Manne’s drums symbolizing Mickey, Feldman’s vibes and marimba portraying Doreen, and Kamuca’s saxophone for Sue. The album is not a soundtrack recording, but a re-recording of the music for LP. Still, most of the cues are very short and represent source music and underscoring. There are a handful of short solos on the recording, and they are all well-played. However, the film is rarely seen (I was unable to find any evidence of a home video release) and without a connection to its images, it’s hard to get interested in this music.

About two weeks after finishing the “Proper Time” album, Manne and his group joined Norman GranzJazz at the Philharmonic for a 5-week tour of Europe. Manne resisted multiple offers from Granz because he disliked the squealing tenor sax solos that were a usual part of JATP concerts. According to Manne’s widow Flip, Manne kept raising his fee until Granz finally made him an offer too good to refuse. There were a few personal issues between Manne and Granz during the tour: the musicians were required to play in tuxedos onstage, and while Manne had been fitted for a tux while still in LA, he didn’t try it on until his first night in Europe. The pants were too small and Manne was the only musician who played in a suit that night. Granz made him get a new tux the next day, and Manne was quite uncomfortable in the new getup. Manne did not share Granz’ love of gourmet food, and one night in France, Manne and his group ditched the Granz entourage in search of hamburgers.

Three concert recordings have been released from this tour. From the recorded evidence, it’s hard to tell just how much stage time Manne’s group received each night. 26 minutes survive from a Zurich concert on February 22, 1960; 16 minutes from Copenhagen on March 2; and nearly 47 minutes from Manchester on March 12. The first two concerts have been issued on a Pablo CD “Yesterdays” and the Manchester concert was first issued on a Jazz Groove LP and later on a Solar CD, both with the title “West Coast Jazz in England”. The Solar CD also includes the Copenhagen concert as bonus tracks.

The Zurich recordings open with “Cabu”, taken slightly slower than the Black Hawk version, but still inspiring spirited solos from the horns. However, unlike the Black Hawk recordings, the solo time is limited to two choruses each, making these versions quite compact. Also, the bass is nearly inaudible, so any rhythm section interplay is lessened as a result. “Bags’ Groove” is basically an excuse to play the blues, but this group played them so well, it’s good to hear another example. Here, the group stretches out for nearly 13 minutes, and they include horn riffs and unusual rhythm patterns to vary the backgrounds. Kamuca and Gordon play soulful improvisations, and while Freeman’s style is quite different from Feldman’s, the rhythm section maintains its tight cohesion. Budwig takes an extended solo, and while the engineers did what they could, the bass still sounds like it’s in another room. Too bad Granz didn’t bring Howard Holzer along to record the concerts! “Poinciana” closes the Zurich tape, at a slightly brighter tempo than the Black Hawk. Kamuca plays a fiery solo, accompanied first by Gordon and the rhythm, and then by bass and drums alone. Gordon matches Kamuca’s passion, and Manne’s animated comments spur the trumpeter on. Freeman’s concentrated energy and Manne’s intense brushwork makes the pianist’s solo sound like a pressure cooker about to lose its lid. Manne and Budwig conclude the solo cycle with a reprise of their duo improvisation style from the Black Hawk.

The Copenhagen tape has two selections, neither of which had been recorded by this edition of the group. “Straight, No Chaser” opens with a brief drum solo, and after the unison theme, Kamuca plays another finely-crafted blues solo. The recording quality is much better, and we can hear Manne’s powerful rimshots leading the rhythm section. Gordon wails in the high register through most of his solo, and includes a reference to “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”. Freeman accents his treble improvisation with sharp bass note accents a la Horace Silver, and Budwig and Manne use a stop-time background near the end of the piano solo. The effect is repeated during Budwig’s bass solo. After an exciting set of 8-bar exchanges with Manne and the horns, the performance closes with a gently fading recapitulation of the theme. “Yesterdays” is a ballad feature for Kamuca, and while he seems to move away from the melody early on, there are quite a few allusions to the tune in his first chorus. The tempo jumps to double-time on the second chorus, where Freeman contributes a linear improvisation, followed by Kamuca’s solo turn. At first, Kamuca is accompanied by Budwig alone, but within a few bars, the entire rhythm section is there and in full swing. Budwig and Manne trade fours for a couple of choruses before the horns enter, still in the fast tempo, and with Gordon on the melody. After the horns complete the theme, there is a little improvised episode from the rhythm section before the track ends.

The Manchester concert contains six tunes, four of which had been played at the Black Hawk and one from Zurich. “Our Delight” starts the proceedings, and as on the Black Hawk version, the group plays Dameron’s closing variation in addition to the familiar theme. As on the earlier recordings from this tour, the solo time is limited, and both Kamuca and Gordon seem to just get started when they have to yield to the next soloist. Freeman does better in restricting his solo thoughts, but one wishes for the expanse of the Black Hawk sides. On “Bags’ Groove”, the opening theme is played sotto voce by the horns, making Kamuca’s full-bodied solo entrance all the more powerful. Gordon opens his solo with a direct quote of Miles Davis’ solo from Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and then shifts to his own lyric and unsentimental musical language. Freeman’s solo starts below middle C before moving up the keyboard to end in the high register. As in Zurich, Manne punctuates Budwig’s bass solo with tasty brushwork and unusual hollow sounds from his tenor drum. And also as in Zurich, Manne brings the horns in with an extended drum roll. In perhaps the only instance where these later concert recordings exceed the Black Hawk versions, the Manchester version of “Nightingale” has all the passion and excitement that the San Francisco version lacked. All of the soloists sound inspired, especially Freeman who digs into the harmony with unique intensity. “Vamp’s Blues”, here at half the length of the Black Hawk recording, retains its effectiveness with rough-hewed tenor, adventurous piano, preaching trumpet, and soulful bass. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” opens with a quiet chorus by the rhythm section before the horns split the next chorus, both providing touching variations on the melody. Freeman improvises tenderly for eight bars before returning to the theme. The album ends with an energetic version of “Cabu”, which contains a surprising nod to the avant-garde movement by Kamuca, high-flying fireworks from Gordon, sharply defined rhythmic ideas by Freeman, and another duo improvisation by Budwig and Manne. The drummer moves into a full solo, played entirely on brushes, and the performance ends without a reprise of the theme.  

The final recording of this edition of Shelly Manne and His Men is also a concert recording, made on July 31, 1960 at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. It was issued on Fresh Sounds, and its booklet claims that the recording was made by the Lighthouse’s owner, Howard Rumsey. A version of “Our Delight” fades up at the end of Gordon’s solo. Freeman plays a swinging solo before the horns trade eights with Manne. Kamuca has some issues with a squeaky reed, but Gordon sounds like he’s on fire. Dameron’s closing variation closes this incomplete performance. The other two cuts, “Summertime” and “Poinciana”, were both included on the Black Hawk sets. Like those versions, the Lighthouse recordings run about 12 minutes each and let the musicians stretch out. In the intervening nine months since the Black Hawk, Budwig had loosened up the opening double-stopped figure on “Summertime”, and indeed, this rendition of the Gershwin classic is much looser and less intense than the earlier version. Freeman’s active accompaniment to Kamuca makes it sound like a dual improvisation. The pianist’s own solo is marked by perfectly wrought melodic lines spiced with a touch of funkiness. “Poinciana” is taken faster than any other version by this group, but the band is up for the challenge, and they all handle the speedy tempo with aplomb. Kamuca gobbles up the changes, despite his uncooperative reed, and while Gordon is off-mike, it’s easy enough to hear his impassioned ideas. The influence of Horace Silver on Freeman is particularly noticeable here (or could it be the other way around—or at least a mutual influence?). Finally, there is one last bass/drums dual improvisation before the final recorded performance by this wonderful group.

In September 1960, Gordon left Manne and starting leading his own quintet. Conte Candoli filled the trumpet chair in Manne’s group and the Men recorded another pair of live albums at Manne’s new LA club, Shelly’s Manne Hole. Gordon recorded an album on his own in July 1961, and was apparently gigging regularly around Los Angeles. However, his fortunes seemed to rise and fall as his heroin addiction continued. In the autumn of 1963, he was sleeping in a condemned building in Venice, California. There was no electricity and Gordon used candles for warmth and illumination. On Halloween night, one of the candles (or possibly a cigarette) fell on Gordon’s mattress as he was sleeping. Gordon suffered third-degree burns on 85% of his body, and four days later, he died at the age of 35. While none of his bandmates experienced a tragic demise like Gordon’s, several of them died young. Richie Kamuca died of cancer, in 1977, one day shy of his 47th birthday. Ten years later, Victor Feldman, 53, died after an asthma attack. The original rhythm section fared better, with Monty Budwig passing in 1992 at 66, and Russ Freeman the longest living survivor, dying in 2002 at 76. Manne, like several of his fellow musicians, worked continuously in LA for many years, and the drummer reportedly made his last recording on the day before he died, of a heart attack at 64 in 1984. While all of these men have passed on, they have achieved the immortality of all great jazz musicians. And if you don’t believe that, just put on one of the Black Hawk albums and relive those wonderful nights from September 1959.

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