Historical Essays
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Shelly Manne and His Men featuring Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca
by Thomas Cunniffe
Part 1

As you probably have read, or heard me say, this is what we call a West Coast jazz group. And that’s because on tenor saxophone, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we have Richie Kamuca, and on trumpet, from Boston, Massachusetts, we have Joe Gordon, and on bass, from Nyack, New York, we have Monty Budwig, and on piano, from London, England, we have Victor Feldman. Of course, what makes it truly a West Coast jazz group is that I’m the leader, and I’m from New York City.

With that nightclub announcement, drummer Shelly Manne debunked one of the great myths of West Coast jazz, namely that it was produced by a group of California natives. With the music of the above-mentioned band, Manne proved that West Coast jazz could be as soulful and swinging as East Coast bop.

In retrospect, the East Coast/West Coast jazz debate of the 1950s was as silly and troublesome as the moldy fig/boppers war of the previous decade. To be sure, there were plenty of West Coast jazz recordings that were every bit as pretentious and composition-heavy as the East Coast critics claimed (and it should be said that many of those records had Manne on drums, and some were issued under his name). Yet there was always an audience for hard-driving jazz in California. In 1945, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played an extended stay at Billy Berg’s club in Hollywood, and when Parker stayed behind, he recorded three superb dates (and one disastrous one) for Dial Records. Los Angeles’ burgeoning Central Avenue scene featured several distinguished alumni, including  tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and  Teddy Edwards, trumpeters Howard McGhee and Clark Terry, and pianist Hampton Hawes. In 1954, drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown founded one of the great hard bop quintets while in Los Angeles. Edwards was the tenor saxophonist on its first recordings, followed by Harold Land. When Land left Brown/Roach in 1955, he returned to LA and played in the hard bop Curtis Counce Group, which also featured trumpeters Jack Sheldon, Rolf Ericson and Gerald Wilson, and pianists Carl Perkins and Elmo Hope. Land’s replacement in Brown/Roach, Sonny Rollins, recorded a masterpiece while in California, “Way Out West”, featuring Manne on drums and Ray Brown on bass. Meanwhile, Land’s discography included the superb LPs “Harold in the Land of Jazz” and “The Fox”, the latter featuring legendary trumpeter Dupree Bolton. In the early 60s, there was a reunion album with McGhee, Edwards and pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. that sounded like the Blue Note recordings of the period, plus there were several soulful organ/tenor albums by Curtis Amy, and the burning Amy/Bolton collaboration, “Katanga”.

Manne made his most lasting contribution to the California hard bop school in the beginning of 1959 when he formed a new edition of Shelly Manne and His Men. Pianist Russ Freeman had worked with Manne since 1953, and bassist Monty Budwig had been with Manne since 1957. Several sources, including an interview with the trumpeter, claim that Joe Gordon joined Manne on Thanksgiving 1958, and that he worked for a few months with alto saxophonist Herb Geller in the front line. However, Conte Candoli filled the trumpet chair on Manne’s January 1959 album of music from the TV crime drama “Peter Gunn”. Since Gordon came to California with a heroin addiction and had spent several months at the rehabilitation center Synanon, it’s possible that Gordon had a relapse and called Candoli to fill in. It’s just as likely that Gordon joined Manne after the “Peter Gunn” date. Also on the “Peter Gunn” album was Victor Feldman, here playing vibes and marimba, but who would become the group’s temporary pianist while Freeman toured Europe with Benny Goodman. Richie Kamuca replaced Geller in the early months of 1959, filling out the front line. The group stayed together for about a year and a half before Gordon left to start a solo career. As a unit, the group recorded two studio albums and four concert recordings, including a remarkable collection of music from San Francisco’s Black Hawk.

The first LP by the new group was a studio-recorded sequel to the “Peter Gunn” album. As on the earlier record, all of the themes were written by Henry Mancini. Mancini encouraged Manne to create his own settings of the cues and Manne did just that, changing moods, instrumentation and time signatures. While Mancini’s themes are just functional, they provide good vehicles for the band’s improvisations. Gordon and Kamuca make an interesting front line, with the trumpeter developing ideas from Clifford Brown, but with a sharp-edged tone and without vibrato, while the tenor freely swings in a style derived from Lester Young through Zoot Sims. Feldman plays vibes and marimba here, and plays in a flowing yet rhythmic style. Freeman’s piano style uses short, punched chords and mercurial melodic lines, Budwig provides solid time and a melodic solo style and Manne is a delight as he creates all kinds of different sounds to accompany the group. Manne plays drum solos on “My Manne Shelly” and “Lightly” but they are not too interesting: Manne was never a flashy, solo-driven drummer—and by the time of the Black Hawk sessions four months later, he and Budwig had found a new way to feature themselves. Both Gordon and Kamuca have fine ballad features on the album; “Joanna” with Gordon in Harmon mute, and “Blues for Mother’s” with Kamuca playing both in straight tempo and double-time. These provide great contrasts to the swinging, albeit brief solos found elsewhere on the album. On “A Quiet Gass”, Manne’s group uses an unusual solo format where each succeeding soloist plays a double improvisation with the preceding soloist before taking the spotlight for themselves. Lest it be said that no one on the East Coast was paying attention to these albums, Gunther Schuller used a variation on this relayed solo concept in his composition “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk”, recorded in New York 19 months later. By the way, the aforementioned “My Manne Shelly” was written specifically for the drummer and his group to play on one of the “Gunn” episodes. Their appearance (minus the horns), can be seen here, about 4 minutes into the clip.

In September 1959, Shelly Manne and his Men played a two-week engagement at San Francisco’s legendary Black Hawk nightclub. In between Hollywood studio gigs, the band had developed an attractive repertoire of standards, blues and jazz originals. The early sets at the Black Hawk went so well that Manne called Contemporary Records president Les Koenig in Los Angeles and said “I’ve never asked this before, but we all feel you should come up and record the group in the club”. The next night, Koenig, engineer Howard Holzer and the essential components of Contemporary’s recording equipment arrived at the Black Hawk, and Koenig claimed that they recorded everything the group played. The original plan was to release a single LP, but the quality of the music was so high that Koenig decided to issue 4 LPs of material from the date. With alternate takes and previously unissued material, just under 5 hours of music have been issued from 3 nights of recording. The results of each night have been scattered across the 4 LPs/5 CDs, but it is instructive to examine each night’s recordings separately.

The first night, September 22, yielded about 93 minutes of music, and fully justified Manne’s enthusiasm. The recording order has not survived, but it would be hard not to discuss “Summertime” first. It was the opening cut on the first disc and it is a stunning performance. Taken at a slow, meditative tempo, the arrangement starts with a haunting double-stopped vamp by Budwig and light finger taps on the suspended cymbal by Manne. Gordon plays the theme and his solo in a Harmon mute, creating a lonely and soulful sound. Kamuca follows with a rich tone and thoughtful lines. Feldman, now on piano for the touring Freeman, comps with wide-voiced “shell” chords, and his solo style is heavily influenced by Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal. His solo is almost entirely derived from block chords, and the subtle shift to double-time helps him build the intensity in his solo. The performance never loses its focus throughout its 12-minute duration.

Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight” was also recorded on September 22, and it also appears on the first side of the first disc. This track swings from the start, with a fiery solo by Kamuca that is accompanied by the full rhythm section, then with a background figure with Gordon and the rhythm, and then—by Manne’s verbal cue of “Go!”—by bass and drums alone. The rhythm section is astounding here with their cohesive ensemble and imaginative communication. When Gordon starts his solo with bass and drum accompaniment, his precise rhythmic sense dominates the melodic line. Pianist Dick Whittington, who recorded with Gordon on the trumpeter’s 1961 album “Looking Good”, said that Gordon could focus a band’s rhythmic groove like few other horn players, and that factor, along with Feldman’s experience as a drummer and the existing rhythmic synchronicity between Budwig and Manne give the Black Hawk recordings a great rhythmic vitality. Near the end of “Our Delight”, we hear Manne and Budwig engaged in a duo improvisation, with Budwig powerfully walking his bass while Manne improvises responses. More often than not, this would be the way that bass and drum solos would appear in the band.

Benny Golson
was represented in the Manne book with two pieces, “Step Lightly” and “Whisper Not”, and each title was recorded twice for the Black Hawk set. A 14-minute alternate take of “Step Lightly” was recorded on the 22nd and it features another finely crafted Kamuca solo (he was having a very good night), incisive, sassy trumpet from Gordon, and a relaxed, but funky take by Feldman. As with most of these “alternates”, they were probably second-choice only because of length. The master of “Step Lightly”, recorded on the 24th, was about two minutes shorter, and with these live tracks ranging from 8 to 20 minutes, Koenig was doing all he could to squeeze the tunes onto very full LP sides, without editing the music.

“Poinciana” was getting a lot of air play at the time through Ahmad Jamal’s medium-slow trio rendition, but Manne’s version is taken at breakneck speed. Kamuca sails through the easy changes abetted by Gordon’s riffing and the surging rhythm section. Gordon uses more space in the beginning of his solo, but later, the silences shorten as his ideas begin to overlap. Kamuca picks up on the rhythmic excitement on an alternate version of “Cabu”, as he chops his ideas into interesting portions and lands on unexpected points in the measure. And how those ideas swing when played against the background of bass and drums! “Black Hawk Blues” was one of two extended blues from the Black Hawk set. A group improvisation, it ran just over 18 minutes, and it filled up the second side of Volume 3. It is a slow enticing blues in 6/8. The rhythm section sets the mood, but when Kamuca enters, Manne throws accents into unexpected places to loosen up the feel. Feldman picks up on Manne’s idea and it is fascinating to hear the varying patterns created through their interplay. When Gordon takes over, it takes him a little time to find his rhythmic place, but he soon locks into the unusual groove. Feldman, who had been playing the groove for several minutes, starts his solo by developing his own ostinato, and then finds ways to play cute ideas between the beats. As the performance reaches its conclusion, the rhythmic interplay settles down, but there is a wonderful little moment where Manne plays an intricate cymbal pattern behind Budwig’s bass solo.

Bill Holman’s “A Gem from Tiffany” was the band’s theme song, and there are several short versions on the Black Hawk set. The longest of two existing full versions comes from September 22. It is filled with the same exciting give-and-take as the other up-tempo performances from this night. Gordon’s exciting solo seems to overflow with brilliant melodic ideas, and Manne is thrilling on brushes behind Feldman’s solo. The performance closes with short solos by bass and drums, and without a return to the theme. Manne’s closing announcement for the evening was retained for the LP.

September 23 provided only about an hour of music, and only one of the tracks recorded that night made it onto the original LPs. The rest turned up when Fantasy reissued the set on CD and added a fifth disc of previously unissued material. It’s hard to say just went wrong. Horace Silver’s “How Deep Are the Roots?” (a piece apparently never recorded by Silver) finds Kamuca still in good form, but Gordon has trouble with the changes and only gets his bearings when Feldman lays out. “Wonder Why” is a feature for the rhythm section alone. It is a medium-tempo ballad with a sassy solo by Feldman over a tight groove from Budwig and Manne. While the performance is not spectacular, I’m surprised that this tasty change-of-pace was not included on the original albums. On the other hand, the group’s version of Feldman’s “Eclipse of Spain” should never have been issued, even on the Volume 5 CD. Gordon has a terrible time with the convoluted melody, and the horn solos are uninspired and flat. Far from their usual confident interplay, the rhythm section just seems to plod along, and while Feldman tries to encourage the others through his keyboard, no one but him sounds too interested in this piece.

Things improve dramatically with the master take of “Whisper Not”. Kamuca emits a dark sound from his tenor and plays a dramatic solo with fine melodic development and soulful demeanor. Gordon is right on track with a stark muted solo where every phrase adds an important element to the overall statement. Feldman pares down his style for a solo that has just the right amount of soul and funk (Oddly enough, the alternate of “Whisper Not”, recorded the next night, plods even more than “Eclipse of Spain”). Frank Rosolino’s skipping waltz “Blue Daniel” was recorded on the 23rd and 24th and while either take could have been the master, the take from the 23rd was not issued until the CD era. Kamuca seems a little unsure of the chord changes here, and that may have been the reason that the take was originally rejected. However, his solo is quite melodic and soulful and perfectly acceptable on its own terms. Gordon is in better form here than on the master, as he subtly introduces a little double-time section in the middle of his solo (the next night, Manne tried to goad him to double-time with little success!) Feldman’s solo unfolds like a delicate flower in the sunlight, finding its voice without losing its beauty. Harry Warren’s “This Is Always” is the only piece in the Black Hawk recordings in true ballad tempo. Aside from a few minor issues with intonation, Kamuca’s opening theme and solo are masterful, being tough and tender at the same time. While his vibrato-less tone seemed to eschew sentimentality, Gordon’s solo still touches the listener with its dramatic lines and full-bodied sound. Feldman plays another beautiful improvisation, this time creating lines out of a simple melodic idea. Gordon leads the final chorus of the arrangement with a powerful group climax followed by a short meditative duet between trumpet and piano. This is another track that deserved to be issued on the original albums.
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