Howard McGhee: Before the Storm


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It's hard to know why so many jazz trumpeters wound up hooked on heroin in the late 1940s and early '50s. The list included Freddie Webster, Fats Navarro, Chet Baker and Miles Davis. The first died of an overdose, the second from tuberculosis and drugs, the third seemed to impale himself on his habit only to survive for decades in declining health, and the fourth managed to clean himself up and have a profound influence on jazz's direction multiple times. But perhaps the most unfortunate victim of junk was Howard McGhee, an early bebop pioneer with Dizzy Gillespie in the mid- and late-'40s. [Photo above of Miles Davis, center, and Howard McGhee, right, by William P. Gottlieb]

As a result of his addiction, McGhee spent critical chunks of the 1950s at the Narcotic Farm—the federal drug-treatment facility in Lexington, Ky. His first stay came in late '53 and lasted until '55. During his time away, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown and Art Farmer rose to LP prominence on the East Coast and altered the sound and purpose of the trumpet.

It's easy to grasp how vital McGhee would have been had he remained clean and free by listening to his Blue Note recordings of 1953, particularly the ones in May with Gigi Gryce [pictured above]. During this period Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion was struggling to fill his recording pipeline as the label entered the magnetic tape and 10-inch LP era. Lion also sought jazz that was in step with the horn-forward trend occurring on the West Coast and the punchy urgency of R&B, which had begun to eat into sales. 

The personnel on the seven McGhee tracks in question were Howard McGhee (tp), Gigi Gryce (as,fl), Horace Silver (p) [pictured], Tal Farlow (g), Percy Heath (b) and Walter Bolden (d). The tracks (with their composers in parenthesis) were Jarm (McGhee), Goodbye (Jenkins), Futurity (Gryce), Shabozz (Gryce), Tranquility (McGhee) and Ittapnna (Bolden).

What's fascinating is how mature these hard bop compositions sound. If you didn't know that the date was 1953, you might have thought they were recorded later in the decade. All have a sinewy, melodic attack, and McGhee's playing is plenty stinging on complex lines. Yet he's cooler and more focused on working in harmony with Gryce than delivering blistering solos. The results are unlike virtually anything else going on at the time. Remember, Charlie Parker is recording with the Dave Lambert Singers in May '53 and the Lou Donaldson-Clifford Brown hard-bop studio date wouldn't come for another 2 1/2 weeks.

McGhee recorded again in June and September of 1953 before he disappeared from the scene. He wasn't in a recording studio again until 1955, when he made a series of albums for Bethlehem. They included The Return of Howard McGhee—a title device that would be used often for albums by jazz musicians who were just back from rehab. As the Blue Note tracks show, if McGhee had been clean and on the scene the entire decade, he might have been as innovative and as well known as Miles Davis.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the tracks mentioned above on Howard McGhee Vol. 2 (Blue Note) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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