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Various Artists: The Complete Jazz At The Philharmonic On Verve 1944 - 1949

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When Norman Granz produced his first Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) concert at Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Hall in July 1944, he had already been promoting jam sessions in Los Angeles for two years, with such players as Nat “King” Cole, tenorist Lester Young, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, among others. He began recording the JATP concerts and issued these recordings from the first, thus preserving the atmosphere of the jam session which he brought to its most formal venue, the concert stage. A trove of these recordings are included in a 10-CD release from Verve Records, to be released in late October: THE COMPLETE JAZZ AT THE PHILHARMONIC ON VERVE 1944 - 1949. It’s a startling inventory of great music, audience enthusiasm, emceeing from another era, occasional longeurs, and spotlights on brilliant talents both celebrated and largely ignored.

The fidelity of the recordings seems pretty accurate for live performance of the era, much better than, say, what the Charlie Parker enthusiast has to contend with. But Parker himself has some great solos over the five year span, including the justly celebrated “Lady Be Good” of 1946, which paralyzed his fellow blowers, so that the bassist got an unexpected chorus before Lester Young came in. Among the beboppers, the brilliant trumpeter Howard McGhee plays some dazzling episodes, and pianist Hank Jones has galvanizing solos, as does Oscar Peterson. Trombonist J. J. Johnson plays with passion and customary facility. Dizzy Gillespie makes a few memorable appearances, including a jam on “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Parker and Lester Young. Ray Brown gets a rare bass solo. But the musicians are largely those formed by the previous era, still going strong in the 1940’s, and the list of participants is an honor roll of the swing era and its aftermath: tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet, altoist Willie Smith, trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers and Buck Clayton, singers Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the jiving vocalist Slim Gaillard, humming bassist Slam Stewart, drummers Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

There isn’t really a “typical” CD, since new surprises keep appearing. Disc 5, with four to eight soloists each on “Bugle Call Rag,” a blues, “Lady Be Good,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Slow Drag,” performances lasting on average eight minutes and featuring such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Buck Clayton, and the elegant forgotten pianist Kenny Kersey, also includes the Gene Krupa Trio with Charlie Ventura, tearing it up on “The Man I Love,” and this last then beautifully sung by Billie Holiday, still in good voice as she is throughout, in a group of four brief vocal performances by her. And so they come and go, Holiday on several scattered CD’s; Lester Young sometimes soloing in front of the band, sometimes fronting a small combo, and Coleman Hawkins the same; trombonist Bill Harris making a few appearances with his usual verve; I’d run out of breath before I could name all the great players who make memorable appearances.

The audience is also a point of interest and a contributor. While rarely an annoyance, as when it tries to clap in time double rudeness, because it’s _on_ the beat and anyway _out_ of time mostly it’s wildly enthusiastic in a way I’ve never seen at a jazz concert, yelling, whistling, applauding like mad after solos, at apposite moments in solos, at the start of a recognized solo, and just generally in between tunes. They’re having a great time and some of this gets to me, so that I can almost see Illinois Jacquet preaching, Jacquet with his climactic sax screams perhaps the quintessential JATP performer, bringing the house down several times seemingly every time he steps up.

Altogether it’s a great collection. History isn’t recreated on matchbook covers, and while 10 CD’s may seem like overkill, there’s enough material here to justify it, as the changing styles of the era parade through the sound system. Verve has done a splendid job in packaging it, with a booklet well over 200 pages including solo-by-solo track list, extensive discography, song-by-song and player-by-player indices, brief performer biographies, JATP itinerary, essays on various matters, and an interview by Nat Hentoff with Norman Granz, who appears to have gone into the concert tour game in large part to fight racial segregation. Surely some of that righteous faith rubbed off on these performers, who seem so motivated to give it all to the audiences that their excitement and creativity still gives a charge, fifty years later.


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