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Al Haig: March 13, 1954

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Like Bud Powell, Al Haig had two sides to his piano-playing personality. He could play as fast and as meticulously as any bebop pianist on New York's 52nd Street in the 1940s, making him a first pick of both Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. But Haig also had a lush, romantic side that favored melody, dense chord changes and impressionistic tempo changes. And like Powell, Haig had inner demons.

The delicate side of Haig is most evident on a March 13, 1954 marathon recording session for the Vogue and Esoteric labels. In one day, Haig, along with bassist Bill Crow and drummer Lee Abrams, recorded 21 tracks--a testament to the enormous musicianship of all three artists. The session was produced by French pianist Henri Renaud, who was in New York recording jazz musicians closely identified with Birdland for his Vogue label. The session was recorded by Jerry Newman at his 23d Street loft. The date went so well that the Vogue tracks were finished in an hour. So Newman kept the trio in place, and with tape rolling captured another 13 tracks for his own Esoteric label.

While there is plenty of biographical and discographical information about Haig, little is known about his off-duty personality. So yesterday I called singer Helen Merrill, who knew Haig well and in 1978 produced his stunningly gorgeous album Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern. Said Helen:

“Al was very much within himself. He didn't talk much, and he often appeared cold and distant. But his music told another story, of course. He could have a temper sometimes, and I found him to be both highly educated but also emotionally troubled. He had a lot of devils, and there were some moments when his behavior couldn't be predicted.

“What remains in my mind, though, is his fantastic talent. Unlike Bud [Powell], Al didn't play ferociously from an angry place. I think he adored playing pop and cabaret music because he felt that kind of music was less demanding. Playing jazz can put you under a pretty hard magnifying glass. Pop music gave him a chance to unwind and explore music within a familiar frame.

“Al and I were friends, and I respected his talent very much. Nothing is cut and dry in life, and there were many facets to his personality. I knew the musician and the gentle person. Al was nice to me--but there was always an edge that was palpable, and I knew how to sidestep that part.

“Al clearly was in physical pain--I once saw him take a whole bottle of aspirin. It wasn't to get high, of course. Something was ailing him terribly. I think there was a deep sadness about his first divorce. The experience left him very distraught and bitter."

Born in Newark, N.J., Haig attended Oberlin College. Though he was classically trained, Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole were early keyboard influences. Haig spent World War II in the Coast Guard patrolling New York Harbor and playing piano and clarinet in the music unit. After his discharge in 1944, Haig played with Jerry Wald's band briefly before making his way to 52d Street, where he worked with Tiny Grimes at the Spotlite Club.

Like pianists Dodo Marmarosa, Bud Powell, Billy Taylor, and George Wallington, Haig was a quick study, picking up the complexities and feel of bebop almost immediately. In 1944, Haig auditioned for Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, winning the keyboard seat in the group's quintet. Haig recorded with Parker and Gillespie in May 1945 on the famed Salt Peanuts session for Guild Records and appeared at a Town Hall concert in June--a performance that recently was released on CD.

In late 1945, Haig traveled with Gillespie and Parker to California, returning to New York with Gillespie after the group's subdued run at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles was completed. Back East, Haig recorded with Ben Webster, Dave Lambert, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis, Red Rodney and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1948, when Stan Getz left Woody Herman to form his first quintet, Haig was his pianist of choice.

In late 1948, Haig rejoined Charlie Parker, who by then was playing with Miles Davis. In 1949 the quintet played a series of radio remote broadcasts from the Royal Roost that eventually were issued on LP and CD. Also in 1949, Haig was the pianist on Davis' “Birth of the Cool" nonet sessions. By the time Haig left for a European tour with Parker late in the year, trumpeter Kenny Dorham had replaced Davis. [Pictured: Al Haig and Miles Davis]

Returning to New York in 1949, Haig recorded again with Getz on his famed Long Island Sound date for Prestige. He also recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Fats Navarro and Wardell Gray, playing behind the saxophonist on his seminal Twisted session. Haig was back with Parker in 1950 and again with Getz in 1951.

Haig relocated to Los Angeles in 1952, playing with a series of West Coast groups led by bassist Harry Babasin. Back in New York, Haig recorded on Parker's Now's the Time session for Clef in 1953.

Haig's March 13, 1954 trio session is fabulous for its sheer beauty. Every song Haig embraced is spun into gold, from Yardbird Suite, with its Ladybird opening, to the most tender versions of Autumn in New York, Moonlight in Vermont and April in Paris imaginable. Haig's bop style emerges on several tracks, including All God's Chillun Got Rhythm and Taking a Chance on Love. What's more, Bill Crow on bass and Lee Abrams are absolutely perfect, providing Haig with just the right amount of strength and subtlety.

Al Haig continued to record sporadically in the 1950s and 1960s. His inner demons became public in 1968, when he was arrested for strangling his third wife. Though he was acquitted in 1969 following a trial, Grange Rutan, Haig's second wife, challenged Haig's account in her recent book, Death of a Bebop Wife. Her book also relayed accounts of Haig's domestic abuse and his violent personality.

Reflected Helen Merrill:

“Al's last [and fourth] wife loved him very much, and he seemed to respond to that. She is a lovely person. I doubt that he ever mistreated her. I suspect that in a love relationship he had problems--but for whatever reason those problems didn't emerge with her."

Twenty-six years since Haig's death, the pianist remains an enigma. Despite his reported violent personal life, Haig's beautiful, sensitive piano work on March 13, 1954 continues to amaze.

JazzWax tracks: All 21 tracks recorded by Al Haig, Bill Crow and Lee Abrams at Jerry Newman's loft on March 13, 1954 appear on Al Haig Trio: One Day Session here. There's a bonus track added from Haig's West Coast period with Harry Babasin and Larry Bunker.

Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern, produced by Helen Merrill (who sings on one track), can be found as a download here or as a CD here. This 1978 solo album must be viewed as a companion to the March 13, 1954 session, in that both feature definitive treatments by Haig of timeless standards.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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