Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pete Fountain Salutes the Great Clarinetists * Coral Records (CRL 757333) * 1960

Side A

Woodchopper's Ball
Petite Fleur
Sometimes I'm Happy
When My Baby Smiles at Me
March of the Bobcats

Side B

Begin the Beguine
Me and My Shadow
Green Eyes
Let's Dance
My Inspiration

Pete Fountain * Clarinet
Charles 'Bud' Dant * Big Band arrangements & Conductor

The second of Pete Fountain's Big Band collaboration albums with Charles 'Bud' Dant (the first being 1959's The Blues), Pete Fountain Salutes the Great Clarinetists highlights Pete's gratitude towards several clarinetists who either helped shape his style, or laid the trajectory for the branch of jazz he was to contribute to in his career. Those highlighted are Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Ted Lewis, Irving Fazola, and Jimmy Dorsey. Two in particular were foundational influences on his playing: Fazola and Goodman.

The liner notes of this album, written by Leonard Feather, are more interesting than most, as they touch upon jazz history. In them, Pete draws some telling lines, helping define his artistic goals, both in the album, and as a clarinetist.

"This is my tribute to some of the great people who have been associated with the clarinet. It's not in any way an attempt to duplicate their own individual styles," said Pete regarding the album itself. This caveat functions in at least a couple of different ways. First, it seem to me the only real way any meaningful jazz tribute can happen. To copy someone else's style wholesale, parroting back performances, is really antithetical and destructive to actual jazz, which has to be a representation of the actual person playing. That's not to say that influences are bad; they're not. We all can, and in a sense should be openly expressive of those who came before us--jazz musicians are part of a living tradition of this music, after all. But the very nature of this art form demands more than reproduction or interpretation: it demands the whole of a person's expression, which by definition will end up being unique.

In a secondary sense--and this can get a bit touchy--whether we're talking about Jimmy Dorsey or Monty Sunshine (whose version of Bechet's 'Petite Fleur' probably served as the immediate inspiration for its inclusion on this album), Pete was actually far more technically brilliant a performer, and couldn't duplicate the styles of such players without the result seeming like a parody. Comparison with Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert is instructive: during the historical survey, Benny's imitation of Ted Lewis sounds like a satire, though it was clearly an homage.  Pete's strategy on this album prevents such a problem. 

"I have to keep in mind," Pete went on with typical frankness,"that I was lucky to have an open field on my instrument. After all, when Benny Goodman came along, most of the time he had Shaw and Herman and Dorsey and others on his back; but the fellows who came up in between that period and the present--Buddy de Franco, Tony Scott and the others -- are in a different field and represent a different approach to the instrument."

To this, Leonard Feather interjects: "I would debate this last item; despite his New Orleans associations and Dixieland background, Pete essentially is a modern musician, one who has listened to jazz with ears that are as harmonically sensitive and fingers consistently agile as those of De Franco and the other contemporary stylists."

It's an interesting opinion. Buddy DeFranco was an acknowledged bebop virtuoso who had consciously left the Big Band and swing scene in the late '40s to pursue modern jazz single-mindedly. Though he'd occasionally return to that world for the sake of making ends meet, his jazz vocabulary and technique remained decidedly influenced by Charlie Parker. As a clarinetist, DeFranco was clear in interviews that he wasn't influenced or interested in the New Orleans tradition. He had been trained classically, and attracted to jazz clarinet specifically through the playing of Johnny Mince and Artie Shaw. He wasn't as openly dismissive of New Orleans style as Shaw later was (Artie claimed to have invented jazz clarinet along with Benny Goodman, suggesting everyone before them was more or less irrelevant), but DeFranco's attitude seems to have been similar.

Also at the time, and continuing to a certain extent to this day, there was already an ambiance cultural hauteur cultivated around bop and modern jazz: a pretense that it was somehow more intellectually and technically advanced than earlier jazz styles. Perhaps Feather was sensing that Pete's playing approach was just as virtuosically demanding as DeFranco's, or perhaps he felt Pete's ability to play over more contemporary rhythm sections suggested equality with modern jazz musicians. If so, he was certainly correct, and in any event, I think his point was meant to defend Fountain against condescension.

My own opinions about modern jazz and bop language are fairly well known to anyone who has read this blog for the past six years or so. I think it's a mistake to view jazz as an art in which one style supplants earlier expressions--and I think it's destructive to apply modern jazz language to all forms of jazz equally. I think we're getting to a point, perhaps because it is so conducive to conservatory pedagogy, that bop language has become a bit of an invasive species in other jazz ecosystems--we hear trad bands with bop language being used, which is kind of like thrusting Bartok  into Mozart's music. I hear bop language in gypsy jazz, smooth jazz, fusion. In one sense, it's a testimony to bop's popularity among musicians, but in another, something lyrical and expressive is being crowded out and lost.

Pete's playing, and what I think he meant by his comment, was that he had no interest in playing with bop vocabulary--he had built his clarinet style and language upon New Orleans and swing foundation, and would follow that trajectory. Significantly, unlike the modernists after him, he resisted switching to small bore clarinets--maintaining the large, commanding tone in the tradition of clarinetists from an earlier era. I've pointed out many times that the public seems to have preferred that style of clarinet, and that sound, at least in jazz.
As for this album in particular--beyond the very intriguing liner notes!--there's a lot to enjoy, but it is mostly about the arrangements.

"The orchestra," says Bud Dant, "was supposed to be built around Pete to showcase him, rather than to be integrated with him. And in the arrangements we would use a phrase or a passage here and there that might be reminiscent of the original recording, but here again there was no exact carbon copying." 

Pete's playing is solid, vintage Fountain, but perhaps not as dynamic as his playing on The Blues. He hits all of his spots and makes the tunes his own, but the stars of the show are Bud Dant, Don Bagley, Art Depew, Morty Corb, and Matty Matlock: the arrangers. Over the course of two sides and twelve tunes, they reinterpret swing era favorites for an audience in 1960. The charts all have the bright, streamlined quality of others of the era: the Elgart band come to mind, and the optimistic grace of Neal Hefti's work for Count Basie and Harry James. These are a bit broader than both, as their goal was primarily to frame Pete.

My favorites on this album are 'Sometimes I'm Happy', originally a Fletcher Henderson arrangement for the Benny Goodman band. Pete's version is arranged by Don Bagley, who masterfully weaves hints of the classic arrangement while giving it a completely different twist. Pete's statement of the melody demonstrates the importance of subtle tonal shadings for clarinetists--the meaning and nuance he brings to the simple melody carries the tune. That's apparent on all of Pete's recordings, and in many ways what sets him apart, but the simplicity of 'Sometimes I'm Happy' is also, in a way, it's difficulty. Pete shows how effective nuance can be.

'Frenesi' was such a big hit for Artie Shaw, I was skeptical anyone could reinvent it convincingly until I heard this version. Art Depew throws down a stylish cha-cha with his arrangement. It's a rare version of a creative cover that works just about as well as the original, making the listener want even more.

Another standout is Bud Dant's game plan for 'Petite Fleur.' This is a tune, like so many Bechet numbers, that seems to call out for larger orchestration, so operatic is the theme.

At the end of the day, this is a rather light album in terms of jazz. Mostly, it's a nice, refreshing listen on a hot summer day. Upbeat and romantic, it's a pretty showcase for Pete's legendary sound.

Bud Dant's words to close out the liner notes are a good reminder, though, of how important they felt the album to be to restoring the place of the clarinet in the jazz world:

"Pete hasn't only helped to bring the clarinet back in front where it should be," said Bud, "he's also managed, with his musicianship and his colorful personality, to make many new friends for jazz in general." This is context that's been marginalized in the decades since, and worth reconsidering when we think of the broad and diverse sweep of jazz music as a whole.

Pete Fountain Mardi Gras Bracelet 2015 (Eric Seddon Collection)

Monday, July 16, 2018

Pete Fountain * Mr. New Orleans * Decca (DL7-5377) * 1963

Side A

South Rampart Street Parade
Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet

The Second Line
Basin Street Blues
The Darktown Strutters' Ball
Marching 'round The Mountain

Side B

Over The Waves
Careless Love
Walking Through New Orleans
Sugar Bowl Parade
Farewell Blues
Washington And Lee Swing

Pete Fountain * Clarinet

Godfrey Hirsch * Marching Drum
Jack Sperling * Snare, Cymbal, Foot Drum
Nick Fatool * Field Drum
Paul Barbarin * Vertical Bass Drum with Brass Rim Cymbal
Jackie Coon * Trumpet
Moe Schneider, Lou McCreary, Bill Schaefer, Dick Nash, Dick Noel * Trombones
George Roberts * Bass Trombone
Bobby Gibbons * Banjo
Phil Stephens * Tuba
Morty Corb * Bass

Directed by Bud Dant

This is an unusual album, but also quite enjoyable if the listener is open-minded. It seems an experiment in tone painting--an interpretation of New Orleans street beats and parade music by a fictional marching band. That might sound odd...and, well, the music is a bit odd in a way, but that's part of its interest and charm.

First and foremost, the orchestration is innovative. Fountain and Dant employed four drummers, who play simultaneously, on this record, including Godfrey Hirsch on a marching drum, though he was usually Pete's vibraphonist! Along with Hirsch are three more legendary drummers, all playing street beats together--Jack Sperling, Nick Fatool (who played with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw before Pete), and New Orleans legend Paul Barbarin (whose credentials included stints with King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard, and Jimmie Noone!) The four of them create a fictional marching drum corps, generating grooves for the entire album--and while the parade that aurally suggests itself is fictional enough, the groove isn't! What these masters did with marching and field drums was pure soul.

The band is trombone heavy with arrangements tending to script the low brass, giving Pete's clarinet and Jackie Coon's trumpet room to work. Those expecting real polyphonic improvisation, like Pete's earlier recording of South Rampart Street Parade with the Village Scramblers, might be initially disappointed by the opening of this album. When I first heard this record as a teenager some thirty years ago, I had a hard time getting past the counted off feeling and block arrangement that shocked my system at the beginning. My advice, though? Please stick with it. This album has a ton of very interesting and evocative playing and writing. You just have to understand the concept, which is unique. I've said that Pete's 1959 album The Blues is symphonic in its pacing and musical material, carrying the listener through. Similarly, Mr. New Orleans is like a tone poem--part orchestrated, part improvised--to evoke a clarinetist's view of a Mardi Gras Parade.

These arrangements probably wouldn't work very easily in actual parade circumstances--the balance would be difficult. The clarinetist would have to be mic'd and probably on a float, and who knows how acoustics would be properly achieved. But they hang together as though almost through-composed, with a unity typical of Fountain/Dant projects from this era. It's worth pointing out the diversity arrangers and arrangements:

Don Bagley arranged 'South Rampart Street Parade.'

'Grey Bonnet' and 'Careless Love' were good old fashioned head arrangements. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, 'Farewell Blues' was virtually a head arrangement, too, with a little prodding from Bud Dant, who also wrote the playbook for Godfrey Hirsch's original 'Sugar Bowl Parade', 'Walking Through New Orleans', and 'Marching Round the Mountain.'

Matty Matlock had the honor of arranging Barbarin's original 'The Second Line' (with Barbarin in the drum corps!), while also contributing charts for 'Washington and Lee Swing.'

Heinie Beau arranged 'Basin Street Blues', 'The Darktown Strutter's Ball', and 'Over the Waves'.

Pete's playing is excellent throughout. His sound is particularly mellow and full. Either the sound engineers or his set-up avoided most of the reediness that comes through on his more aggressive live album soloing of the same time period, so if you like the Pete Fountain sound that is smoothest and most mellow, this is an album you'll want to hear, even if it's also pretty loud and raucous from beginning to end. While every jazz studio recording tends to balance clarinet somewhat synthetically, this one does so more extremely in a sense--enabling Pete to play in a very relaxed manner over four pounding drummers and blazing trombones, while still being easily heard. 

Jackie Coon's trumpet playing is a real treat on this LP, especially on the beautiful classic 'Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet.' Coon evokes all the sweetness and love of the old couple in the song, celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary and taking a ride through the fields to revisit the place they first said their vows. His nuance and sound are a perfect match for Pete's, leaving us to wish we had more examples on record of the two collaborating.

For Pete Fountain fans, of great interest is to hear how he navigates these arrangements of standards, propelled by street beats rather than a drum set with a ride cymbal. I think they'll be happy with the results. He even manages to salvage a tune like 'Over the Waves' which has been played so badly by so many--Pete imbues it with charm and jauntiness, rather than saccharine vibrato.

Fountain and Dant were to collaborate on many concept albums as the years progressed--some of them truly great, some less successful. To me, this is one of the most successful, worthy of repeated listening as the years go by.

Pete Fountain Half/Fast Walking Club Mardi Gras Doubloon
(Eric Seddon Collection)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Eric Seddon's Hot Club * Go Down, Moses * Bootlegs from the Bop Stop * Marlboro Man Music * 2018

Here's a video of a spiritual included on our new album Bootlegs from the Bop Stop, available through Marlboro Man Music here (shipping to the US only). All of the recordings for this album were captured live in single takes during our Trad Jazz Invasion of Cleveland's Bop Stop in the Fall of 2017.

Eric Seddon, clarinet
Jim Davis, cornet
Kevin T. Richards, guitar
Gene Epstein, bass
Bill Fuller, drums

video by Bill Laufer/Laufer Film


Pete Fountain * The Blues * Coral Records (CRL 757284) * 1959

Side A

St. Louis Blues
Blue Fountain 
Columbus Stockade Blues
Aunt Hagar's Blues
Lonesome Road
The Memphis Blues

Side B

My Inspiration
Wang Wang Blues
Beale Street Blues
Wabash Blues
Five Point Blues
Bayou Blues 

Pete Fountain * Clarinet
Stan Wrightsman * Piano
Morty Corb * Bass
Jack Sperling * Drums

Reeds: Babe Russin, Chuck Gentry, Eddie Miller, Jack Dumont, Matty Matlock, Russ Cheever, Wilbur Schwartz, William Ulyate
Trombones: Harold Diner, Moe Schneider, Peter Lofthouse, William Schaefer
Trumpets: Art Depew, Conrad Gozzo, Jackie Coon, John Best, Mannie Klein, Ray Linn,  Shorty Sherock

Charles Bud Dant * Director

Arrangements by Bud Dant, Frank Scott, Stan Wrightsman, Art Depew and Morty Corb

The Blues was the second of four albums Pete Fountain cut for Coral Records in 1959 immediately after his departure from the Lawrence Welk Show. This remarkable sequence of records seems to have been carefully considered to document Pete's many strengths. Pete Fountain's New Orleans, for instance, is a pristine, beautifully executed Los Angeles studio album of his quartet. At the Bateau Lounge showcases another of Pete's quartets (retaining Jack Sperling on drums for both dates) in a small New Orleans club. Contrasting that atmosphere considerably, Pete Fountain Day demonstrates the quintet's power in New Orleans Municipal Auditorium (proving, among other things, that before there was Arena Rock, there was exceptionally effective Arena Jazz). Municipal Auditorium is quite a space compared to a French Quarter lounge, holding nearly eight thousand people at capacity. And unlike any of the others, The Blues -- recorded in Los Angeles almost immediately after Pete Fountain's New Orleans -- demonstrates how compellingly Pete could front a Big Band.

That a jazz clarinetist will automatically succeed as a Big Band soloist is decidedly not a given. Polyphonic New Orleans jazz (whether it's called 'Dixieland' 'Ragtime' or 'Trad')  is in many ways a different discipline than Big Band approach, and not everyone can make the adjustments necessary. Sidney Bechet, for instance, over the course of his years recording with Noble Sissle's Orchestra in the 1930s, never seemed the right fit (though in fairness, it would have been interesting had Bechet put down the soprano sax in favor of the extended range of a clarinet for those recordings).

In order for the pairing of clarinet and band to work, a few things need to come into place. Most importantly, the player needs a commanding sound, especially in the altissimo, and the arrangements must work to the advantage of hearing the clarinet shine in all registers. Those elements are evident on this LP, which is perhaps the most enjoyable of all Pete's Big Band albums.

The arrangements by Bud Dant, Frank Scott, Stan Wrightsman, Art Depew and Morty Corb, while not typical of swing era writing, are certainly in the wheelhouse of late '50s, early '60s West Coast sound--direct precursors to the sort of clear, strong arrangements of Tommy Newsom and others, which would come to dominate the Tonight Show Band under Doc Severinsen for decades to come. They're extroverted at times and subdued at others, with large, sweeping gestures, leaving perfect room for Pete's rich chalumeau when necessary, and providing plenty of raucous volume for his altissimo to clear the band like a pole vaulter clears the bar at other moments.

The band itself was comprised of jazz veterans of the top ensembles of the swing era, many of whom had settled into the Los Angeles studio scene after the 1940s. There's a maturity and commitment to their playing not easily matched. 'St Louis Blues' sets the tone perfectly with hot playing from the band and dynamic altissimo of Pete at the climax. The rest of the album unfolds with the natural flow typical of Dant's skill as an arranger and producer. In fact, the remarkable flow of the various blues numbers chosen, along with their contrasting elements, gives the listener a sense of unity and diversity similar to a great symphony, with Five Points Blues on Side B functioning as a finale, and Bayou Blues (written by Pete's bass player, Morty Corb) as an epilogue or coda.

In between, however,  are plenty of numbers fans of Pete Fountain will want to hear regularly. 'Blue Fountain'--a moody, blues-noir number-- seems to have been written specifically for this album, by fellow Welk alum Frank Scott and the album's pianist Stan Wrightsman, and is a creative vehicle for Pete's singing lyricism. The other numbers show the remarkable range, formally and contentwise, of the Blues as a genre. There are marches, spirituals such as 'The Lonesome Road,' which Pete famously recorded in small combo settings as well, and ballads.  Side B leads off with 'My Inspiration,' a decided nod towards Pete's childhood hero, Irving Fazola, foreshadowing another Big Band album Pete was to record with Dant a year later--Pete Fountain Salutes the Great Clarinetists.

In terms of balance, soloing, and especially the engaging way this record pulls the listener through from beginning to end, this is a classic era Pete Fountain/Bud Dant collaboration. Highly recommended, essential listening, and a pure delight.

Pete Fountain 2015 Mardi Gras Doubloon (Eric Seddon Collection) 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Pete Fountain At the Bateau Lounge * Coral Records (CRL 757314) * 1960

Side A

Deep River
My Melancholy Baby
I've Found a New Baby
Mack the Knife
Creole Gumbo
You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me

Side B

Londonderry Air
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
After You've Gone
Gin Mill Blues
Little Rock Getaway
Blue Lou

  • Pete Fountain * Clarinet
  • Merle Koch * Piano
  • Don Bagley * Bass
  • Jack Sperling * Drums

Recorded Live at Dan's Bateau Lounge, Bourbon and Toulouse Streets

It's difficult to imagine any current musician releasing albums at the prolific rate of Pete Fountain in 1960. After the rapid succession of Pete Fountain's New Orleans, The Blues, and Pete Fountain Day, the clarinetist newly liberated from the world of Lawrence Welk and commercial music fired off his first small club live recording with Pete Fountain At The Bateau Lounge -- an astonishing fourth album in five months. Like the others in this series of Coral records, Pete is in top shape, partially because of the intense work schedule he was maintaining since returning to New Orleans. At the Bateau lounge he and the band were performing four shows a night, six nights a week, and the tightness of the ensemble show the value of that work.

Leading off the set is the traditional spiritual, 'Deep River', which had been recorded multiple times in the popular song adaptation version entitled 'Dear Old Southland' by Sidney Bechet. Contrasting Bechet's broad and heartfelt rhapsodizing, Pete ratchets up the tempo, sizzling with exuberance. While the choice of title was probably related to multiple factors, the symbolism serves to highlight the lyrics of the African-American spiritual: 

Deep river,
My home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord.
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go,
To the Gospel feast;
That Promised Land,
Where all is peace?

The subject of homecoming--including ultimate spiritual homecoming--is therefore symbolically represented. And with Pete's crew, that means a pretty happening party.

This 'Melancholy Baby' is one of Pete's finest, and once again we hear why Pete's clarinet and Jack Sperling's drumming were so well matched. As usual when those two were in the same band, the rest of the group work around that central dialogue, Koch and Bagley gently murmuring responses.

'I've Found a New Baby', another stalwart Fountain show piece, is presented with polish, verve, and inspiration--the crowd appreciating everyone, and the intensity of the live date coming through. Sperling's drum solo, replete with double bass drums, is a high point, providing Pete with a launching pad for the ride out.

Aside from the standards on the album, we're treated to an original called "Creole Gumbo" credited to Fountain, Koch, and Bud Dant (arranger for many of Pete's big band, orchestral, and even small group numbers). It's a riff tune reminiscent in some ways of 'Struttin' With Some Bar-B-Cue' or any number of Benny Goodman sextet tunes like 'Seven Come Eleven' or 'Air Mail Special', but with a particularly Fountainesque flavor. The band obviously enjoys it, with Jack Sperling contributing a chorus of melodic drum soloing.

While I love all the cuts on this album, three from Side B stand out in particular to me. 'Londonderry Air' (Danny Boy) is the first--a medium uptempo version of the classic Irish Ballad, proving once again that anything lyrical is fit for the style of Fountain. The next is 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.' Pete's take is intimate, reverent, but resolute. In the tradition of New Orleans clarinet that runs from Irving Fazola through Pete, there is a sweetness of sound he is able to get, matched by few others, while still retaining depth of statement. As a jazz clarinetist who in many ways specializes in Trad/NOLA style, I'm always less than impressed if the only means a player has to express depth is by becoming more extroverted. Contrasting  Pete with those whose style demands an overwrought approach is instructive: he has a far wider expressive palette, generated primarily from his tone, his attacks, and his phrasing. This is sometimes paradoxically lost on many modern jazz musicians and academics, but never on the public. And in fact, these things are perhaps even more important musical concerns for a professional than any amount of obscure harmonic analysis or rationalizing. 

'Gin Mill Blues' is my other favorite, simply because any time Pete plays a blues, I'll be listening.

This album is one of those that doesn't really transport the listener back in time, at least not me, simply because the music making sounds so valid today. It's perfect nightclub music--exuberant, relaxing, refined, intelligent, confiding, and heartfelt. Along with the others of this era that Pete cut, it's one of the finest live albums of jazz clarinet on record, perhaps the finest in a small club atmosphere. This band would outstrip most current jazz groups for professional nuance, emotion, and depth.

To my knowledge, as of this writing, while some of the tracks may have been remastered and released on compilation albums, I don't think it has ever been reissued as an entire album. My hope is that it will be soon, along with all of the early Coral masterpieces.

Autographed Portrait of Pete Fountain
(Eric Seddon Collection)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Pete Fountain's New Orleans * Coral Records (CRL 757282) * 1959

Side A 

While We Danced the Mardi Gras
A Closer Walk With Thee
When the Saints Go Marching In
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Ol'  Man River
Cotton Fields

Side B

Sweethearts on Parade
Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans
Basin Street Blues
Lazy River
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans
Tin Roof Blues

Pete Fountain * Clarinet
Stan Wrightsman * Piano
Morty Corb * Bass
Jack Sperling * Drums

Recorded in Los Angeles after leaving Lawrence Welk's show over artistic differences, Pete Fountain's New Orleans constitutes an opening statement of sorts, just prior to his return to the Crescent City. His first under a new deal with Coral records, this album lays down mature (for some even definitive) versions of twelve standards he was to reference and develop for the rest of his career. Unlike many of his early Coral albums--too often underappreciated classics in desperate need of reissue--this album has been continuously in print for nearly seventy years, the sound remaining remarkably fresh and timeless.

The tune selection was, for the time, a mix of old and new. Songs like 'Ol' Man River' and 'While We Danced the Mardi Gras', while already firmly established, were still relatively recent additions to the repertoire. The others were venerable New Orleans songs and hymns of diverse backgrounds and associations. 'When It's Sleepy Time Down South' was Louis Armstrong's theme song for many years,  'A Closer Walk With Thee' was deeply associated with George Lewis, becoming synonymous with Pete as a result of this album, and from there a legacy to all jazz clarinetists (those interested can even hear my version on our live album).  'Tin Roof Blues' will always be linked to many New Orleans clarinetists, but most especially with Leon Roppolo; likewise 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans' with Jimmie Noone. 'Lazy River' is a tune from the all but forgotten New Orleans clarinetist, Sidney Arodin. Significantly absent are regular numbers from Pete's repertoire associated with clarinetists outside of New Orleans--no 'Avalon', 'After You've Gone', 'Shine', or others which might bring Benny Goodman to mind, for example. In short, this album, so unified in concept and delivery, is a tour through a master clarinetist's view of New Orleans.

For Pete personally, the album was seminal:

The first album was a milestone. [...] Back to that first recording session. It was beautiful. The simplicity and ease of not having to worry about what somebody else thought of every note was fantastic. I was on my own and I could play what I felt like playing.(Fountain 158)

The tunes were worked out in studio--'head arrangements' decided upon mostly by the musicians, though producer Bud Dant contributed some into and outro music. The Dant-Fountain collaboration was to prove fruitful for many years to come, both in small and large group settings, over the course of many discs.

Though I haven't bothered to look into the album's commercial success, as of the publication of Pete's autobiography in 1972, Pete Fountain's New Orleans had gone multi-platinum and, having been reissued in every available format since, has undoubtedly continued to sell. Part of the reason for this must be the timeless quality of the playing. The players aren't self consciously trad in approach--this isn't New Orleans revival style of any era. Instead, it's a creative fusion of New Orleans, swing, and west coast cool that seems to have a permanent place in American musical aesthetic. In fact, it's far less dated sounding than many 'classic' modern albums of the same era--a tribute to the musicians and recording engineers.

Those who are students or fans of Pete Fountain's playing will undoubtedly know other versions of every tune, perhaps even preferring different takes. Maybe the unbridled creativity of Pete's playing of 'Tin Roof Blues' live in Santa Monica two years later strikes some listeners as his best, or various versions of 'The Saints.' In many ways, though, this album was the blueprint for all subsequent performances. Here, with simplicity, beauty and significant flashes of that fire he was known for, Pete gave a unified vision of his own style. It reminds me of another album from the same era: Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus. Both albums are summas of a sort, while simultaneously a fresh start--pivot chords in both men's careers. The albums have a perfection of balance that seem to pull the listener through--once started, you can't help but listen to the entire thing, in one refreshing session. Both were to be expanded upon for decades afterwardss, and both utilized that remarkably balanced ensemble, the jazz quartet.

This is Pete's love letter to New Orleans--the one where he told them to leave the light on for him, cuz he was coming home. The music shines as brightly today as it did in 1959.

Further reading:

Fountain, Pete and Neely, Bill. A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story. Regnery: Chicago (1972). 

Autograph inscription in a copy of Pete Fountain's 1972 Autobiography,
A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story. (Eric Seddon Collection) 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Pete Fountain Day * Coral Records (CRL 57313) * October 23, 1959

Recorded Live in New Orleans Municipal Auditorium October 23rd (or 26th or 29th) 1959

Side A

I Got Rhythm
China Boy (Go Sleep)

Side B

Tiger Rag
Don't Be That Way
Poor Butterfly
Someday Sweetheart
'S Wonderful

Pete Fountain * clarinet
Godfrey Hirsch * vibes
Merle Koch * piano
Don Bagley * bass
Jack Sperling * drums

The first of a series of live recordings from Pete Fountain's Coral Records period, this album is unique. It documents and celebrates the return of Pete Fountain to New Orleans after his year of national success on the Lawrence Welk show in Los Angeles. Although he was to speak with gratitude of Welk for the rest of his career, for the exposure and the break, Pete never liked working for the show. The cameras and pressure made him a nervous wreck, he didn't get enough playing time for real jazz, and he was stifled creatively by Welk. In his own words, he "finally cracked" after the 1958 holiday special, when Welk called his jazz phrasing of Silver Bells "sacrilegious." Pete pointed out it wasn't even a religious song, but was further chastised for messing with Welk's arrangement. This was the final straw: realizing he wasn't happy playing Welk's music, and that he was homesick for New Orleans, he took the risk of quitting. The gigging scene was bleak in the Crescent City, especially for a top paid performer with a national audience and young family to provide for, but when Welk asked him what he would do in New Orleans, Fountain answered, "I don't know. But I'm going back home even if I have to play for strippers as Faz did." (Fountain, 155-56).

Shortly after this became public knowledge, Charles "Bud" Dant, an A&R man for Coral Records stepped in and offered Pete a contract. A five year deal was inked that became the foundation for some of Pete's most important albums, including Pete Fountain Day, which was not the first they did (that was the studio album Pete Fountain's New Orleans, followed quickly by The Blues, which featured Big Band arrangements by Dant--both of which were recorded in Los Angeles before his return). Pete Fountain Day, however, was perhaps the most symbolically significant.

Pete Fountain Day LP (Eric Seddon Collection)

Pete quickly lined up a steady gig at the Bateau Lounge in the French Quarter after his return, moved the family to Annunciation Street (Fountain, 165), and was content to ply his trade. In a rare moment of exposure and a appreciation for a jazz musician, however, New Orleans Mayor Vic Schiro had something more in mind--an idea that might tie Fountain's return to a tourist marketing scheme for the city. He declared October 23, 1959 "Pete Fountain Day" and offered a concert at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. [Note regarding the actual date of "Pete Fountain Day": Pete's autobiography lists it as October 23rd. The liner notes to the Coral album, however, mention it twice--once as October 26th, the other October 29th!]

"I will never forget that day," Pete was to write in his autobiography, years later. "It was the highest honor I have ever received." (Fountain 165-66).
Coral Records decided to record it and release a live album. The result, aside from its significance historically to the history of jazz in general and the New Orleans scene specifically, is one of the finest live albums any jazz clarinetist has produced.

The liner notes to the album, mostly written by Sim Meyers (then Amusements Editor and Music Critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune), with a summary on the back by Burt Korall, (then Co-Editor of The Jazz Word), stress the sweep of New Orleans musical history, from the opening of the first resident opera company in America there in 1796 through the years of slavery, Civil War, emancipation, the distressed economic and social condition of freed African Americans and the birth of jazz, all the way up to 1959. The notes suggest that Pete's concert represented a final consummation of high culture, symbolized by the opera house, and native culture, symbolized by jazz. Other historians have presented other narratives, and perhaps don't view Pete Fountain Day with the same level of significance, but it's worth noting that for many this was a truly symbolic day in the history of music.

Interior Liner Notes to Pete Fountain Day (Eric Seddon Collection)

Our understanding of history is always growing, always changing as we learn more and, hopefully, as we grow in honesty about ourselves. While knowing other perspectives, I personally found these notes heartening, and gladly add them to the record of important opinions concerning the history of jazz. But all of that aside, what makes this album essential beyond its historical context, nearly seven decades later, are the exceptional performances of the repertoire. 

I won't go into depth on the individual tracks, except to say that this version of "China Boy (Go Sleep)", has been reissued on various compilation discs over the years, and for good reason. It might be the greatest version of the tune recorded by a clarinetist, or anyone for that matter--and I say that with the classic takes of Benny Goodman, Sidney Bechet, and many others squarely in mind. The rapport between Pete and Jack Sperling on drums, particularly, borders on telepathic, and solidifies the two as a tandem to be considered along the lines of Goodman & Krupa, or Artie Shaw & Buddy Rich. All of the other cuts are vintage Pete Fountain, with top notch Coral recording sound. To my knowledge, as of this writing, the album has not been fully remastered, nor has it been reissued. Why, I'm not sure: there are various internet rumors, which I won't bother with here. My advice is to buy one of the LP copies still floating around the internet. Its importance and brilliance are worth the effort.   

Looking back at that moment in 1959, it's perhaps worth noting that not many jazz musicians, if any, have made the decision to return as Pete Fountain did. He continued making TV appearances, most notably on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, entirely to promotional purposes--to keep audience interest in his New Orleans nightclub. Pete still hated being on TV, and it always made him a nervous wreck to do these spots. Yet partially because of them, he remains a solitary figure in the history of the music: one who hit it so big that he was for a brief period synonymous with "jazz" to a large portion of the American public, yet who returned to New Orleans permanently.    

Back Cover: Pete Fountain Day LP (Eric Seddon Collection)

Further reading:

Fountain, Pete and Neely, Bill. A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story. Regnery: Chicago (1972).