Victor Feldman - Part 1: The Arrival


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"One night [in 1955] a young man sat at the Hickory House bar listening and smiling as we played [the Marian McPartland Trio featuring Bill Crow on bass and Joe Morello on drums]. When our set was finished, he introduced himself as Victor Feldman. The talented English vibraphonist had just arrived in New York, and had come to meet Marian. He said he liked the way Joe and I played together.

"'I'm doing an album for Keynote,' Victor told us, 'and I'd like you guys to do it with me. I've already sort of promised it to Kenny Clarke, so I'll have him do the first date and Joe the second. I've got Hank Jones on piano.'

"Both dates went beautifully. Victor had written some attractive tunes, and he and Hank hit it off together right away. We couldn't have felt more comfortable if we'd been playing together for years. Victor was glad to have the recording finished before he left town to join Woody Herman's band.

"The next time I ran into Vic, he told a sad story. The producer at Keynote had decided to delay releasing the album, hoping Victor would become famous with Woody. But the next Keystone project ran over budget, and when he needed to raise some cash, the producer sold Victor's master tapes to Teddy Reig at Roost Records. Vic came back to New York, discovered what had happened, and called Reig to find out when he planned to release the album.

"'Just as soon as Keystone sends me the tape,' said Reig.

"Vic called Keystone to ask when this would take place, and was told the tape had already been sent. A search of both record companies offices failed to locate the tape, and as far as I know it was never found. It may still be lying in a storeroom somewhere, or it may have been destroyed.

"Since Keystone announced the album when we did the date, it was listed in Down Beat in their "Things to Come" column, and that information found its way into the Bruyninckx discography, but now that Vic and Kenny are both gone, that music exists as a lovely resonance in the memories of Joe, Hank and myself."

Kindly responding to an inquiry from me in March, 1997, Crow had this to say about Victor's approach to Jazz:

"I just liked everything I heard him play, and I liked the physical feeling of playing with him. He generated a good strong swing and communicated his enthusiasm for music in a very generous and enjoyable way. He chose good chord sequences, had a strong ear for the original melody, and knew that jazz is about having fun with music. I wish I'd had more chances to play with him."

While on the Herman band, in addition to the players that he had met in London, also on Woody's band were pianist Vince Guaraldi, tenor man Bob Hardaway and bassist Monty Budwig, all from California and all of whom would ultimately play a role in Victor's decision to stay on the West Coast after his playing days with Woody's band were over.

After nine months on the road, Woody disbanded and took a small group into Las Vegas and later into California. Victor recalled: "I liked the West Coast. Vince Guaraldi [who was from San Francisco] had been telling me about it, and he said I would like it better out there. He was right. I feel there's more of a compromise between the European way of life and the New York mad-house."

When Woody's small band broke up, Victor returned to England for a short vacation, but by then his mind was made up and, although he came back to the states to do a second nine-month stint with Woody, he ultimately left the band and at the "ripe old age" of 23, opted to come to Los Angeles and take up residence in 1957.

As Tynan observes: "Before locating a cheap flat in Hollywood, Feldman stayed at the homes of Monty Budwig and Bob Hardaway. Then he began exploring the jazz scene."

Victor went on to say: 'I met Leroy Vinnegar and played with him. And I met Carl Perkins. Carl showed me a lot. I learned a lot just from watching him and going around to his house. He didn't know the name of any chord, hardly; he didn't know much more than what a C minor or a C major was, or a major or minor chord. But the way he voiced his chords—I never heard anything like it in my life.'"

Victor arranged four of the seven tunes on Leroy Walks! (Contemporary/OJC, 1957), and since the other three tunes on the album were "head" arrangements, he essentially arranged virtually all the tunes in addition to performing on them for what was his very first recording in Los Angeles—certainly an impressive way to make his mark in new, musical surroundings. Nat Hentoff concluded his liner notes comments about him by declaring: "He is a flowing swinger with a forcefully inventive conception."

Victor also toured briefly with clarinetist Buddy De Franco's quartet in 1957 (the gig that actually brought him to L.A.) and, although they didn't record together at that time, when Buddy in 1964 wanted to do an album playing primarily the bass clarinet for Vee Jay, he asked Victor to fly into Chicago for the recording. The result was Blues Bag (Vee Jay/Affinity) on which Victor plays piano, with Victor Sproles on bass, Art Blakey on drums and, on two tracks, Lee Morgan on trumpet and Curtis Fuller on trombone.

Five of the seven compositions follow a standard blues pattern, including Monk's "Straight, No Chase," Coltrane's "Cousin Mary" and Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation." The other two, "Kush" by Dizzy Gillespie and "Rain Dance" by Victor, are according to Leonard Feather "unmistakably related to the blues if only by indirection." Leonard commented further about "Rain Dance":

""This unusually attractive Victor Feldman composition is the only track in the album for which, in the ensemble passages only, De Franco reverts to soprano clarinet. Blended with Morgan's trumpet and Fuller's trombone, this gives the ensemble a highly engaging sound in Feldman's ingenious voicings. The chorus is oddly constructed, consisting mainly of two 16-bar stanzas followed by a six-measure linking interlude. Morgan and Fuller are both featured in solos on the tune's beguiling changes."

However, it would be misleading to paint a picture of Victor landing in Los Angeles in 1957 and simply "taking it by storm" by launching into a recording career replete with arranging assignments while writing a host of original compositions. At this time, Victor had already established a substantial and significant career involving performing, writing and arranging before coming to the U.S.A.

[Victor's rather extensive recording career in London before emigrating to the United States will be the subject of another Jazz Profiles feature at a later date].

Suite Sixteen: The Music of Victor Feldman (Contemporary) contains a sampling of Victor's work done in England in 1955 just before he immigrated to the United States. Recorded with a host of fine British musicians, including Jimmy Deuchar and Dizzy Reece (tp), Derek Humble (as), Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott (ts) and Tony Crombie or Phil Seamen (d), these recordings feature the music of Victor Feldman in big band, septet and quartet settings.

As Lester Koenig, Contemporary Records owner and the producer of this album, commented in his liner notes:

"The album is an authentic musical portrait of Victor Feldman at the peak of his career in England, and shows him to advantage as a performer on three instruments [drums, vibes and piano], composer, arranger and leader."

As composed and arranged by Victor, the fiery and intricate big band tracks alone, such as "Cabaletto" and "Maenya" are worth the price of admission for this album. What becomes very obvious to the listener about "The Music of Victor Feldman" on Suite Sixteen and ultimately on all of his recordings is everything that is significant about it has to do with rhythm or, to loosely quote Bill Crow: "He generates a good strong swing and I liked the physical feeling of playing with him."

The significance of rhythm in Jazz cannot be overemphasized.

As Wynton Marsalis stressed in his interview with Ben Sidran, published in Talking Jazz: An Oral History in 43 Jazz Conversations (New York: Da Capo, 1995, p.344):

"... harmony is not the key to our music. Harmony is used in motion. And motion is rhythm. And rhythm is the most important aspect. I mean everything is important. But whenever you find a valid rhythmic innovation, the music changes. ... You change the rhythm, you change the music."

Perhaps it was the fact that he started in music as a drummer and continued on as a vibraphonist and ultimately as a pianist—two other percussive instruments—but there was a distinct physicality to Victor's music. Victor's orientation is always rhythmic first, which perhaps also explains why drummers such as Shelly Manne, Stan Levey and Frank Butler loved to work with him.

1957 was a turning point in Victor's career, for as Victor explains it: "I was very fortunate in ending up at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California." [Tynan interview]

In a conversation I had with Howard Rumsey in 1999 at a Los Angeles Jazz Institute commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jazz at The Lighthouse, Howard remembers Victor approaching him about his need for a vibes player. Howard replied that "I could really use a pianist."

"At the same event, I asked drummer Stan Levey, who was a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars when Victor came on the band, for his recollection of how it all began. Stan said that when he auditioned for the job, he was barely able to gig as a Jazz pianist. He rented a piano and woodshedded [practiced] for two weeks. When he came on the gig, his piano playing was right there."

In the Tynan interview, Victor talked about his time at the club: "I ended up working at the Lighthouse for eighteen months. ... The Lighthouse was what set me on my feet because it was a steady gig. Howard was very nice to me, and it was a ball playing with Rosolino and Levey and Conte. Bob Cooper, too. It was a very relaxed atmosphere."

"In a concerted effort to flunk out of high school, I started attending the Lighthouse regularly a short time after Victor joined the All-Stars, primarily on Sundays when they would play from 2 PM to 2 AM, but also on the occasional weeknight.

"As an aspiring Jazz drummer, it was late on one of the sparsely attended weeknights that I summoned the courage to go up to Stan Levey, always an imposing figure, to ask him a question about some aspect of the mechanics of playing the instrument.

"The band members usually congregated along the back wall of the club between sets. When I approached Stan and asked my question he replied: 'You don't wanna talk to me about that sh**; I'm self-taught. The guy you want to talk to is sitting over there [nodding toward Victor sitting alone at an adjoining table]. He even knows the names of all the drum rudiments!'

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