John Graas: French Horn Jazz

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According to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, the French horn in jazz dates back to 1921. By the 1930s, the instrument was popping up on recordings by Bing Crosby and Woody Herman. In the 1940s, Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill, Harry James and other bandleaders included the horn when they added strings. Neal Hefti used Vincent Jacobs on French horn when he recorded Repetition with Charlie Parker in 1947. Junior Collins was on the horn during Miles Davis's “Birth of the Cool" sessions in the late 1940s. And Julius Watkins played horn with Kenny Clarke and His Clique in 1949.

The first French hornist to lead a jazz recording session was John Graas. The album, French Horn Jazz, was recorded for Los Angeles's Trend label in June 1953. Originally a 10-inch LP (or two 45s), the album was expanded to 12 inches in 1956 with four additional tracks. By the early 1950s, the French horn was closely associated with the cinema and pop music, and it was a short leap from there to West Coast jazz.

The 1953 recording session included a fabulous octet and a terrific arrangements. The players were Shorty Rogers (tp), John Graas (fhr) Bud Shank (fl,as), Bob Cooper (ts), Jimmy Giuffre (bar), Russ Freeman (p), Bob Manners (b) and Shelly Manne (d). Nelson Riddle arranged Pyramid and Bananera, Shorty Rogers arranged Argyles and Be My Guest, Jimmy Giuffre arranged Egypt and Frappe, and Grass arranged 6/4 Trend and Not Exactly.

In 1956, the group shrank to a superb quintet featuring Graas (fhr), Jack Montrose (ts), Gerald Wiggins (p), Buddy Clark (b) and Larry Bunker (d). Grass arranged all four songs: Sequence, Cordova, Lady Like and Blue Haze.

There are no bad John Graas recordings. From his earliest records with Claude Thornhill in 1942 to his last on Henry Mancini's Hatari in December 1961, Graas always delivered a French horn sound that was sexy, assertive and melodic. While Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers played the most significant role in shaping the sound of West Coast jazz as arrangers and players, Graas certainly made a major contribution to the style's development and warm tone.

As early as 1950, Graas was a member of Shorty Rogers and His Giants. His French horn gave the group a panoramic, Pacific Coast feel and he did the same on Rogers's Modern Sounds (1951) and Mulligan's Modern Sounds (1953). What would Mulligan's Westwood Walk and Ontet be without Graas? Or Rogers's Cool and Crazy and Shorty Courts the Count?

And then there are all of the wonderful leadership albums Graas recorded: French Horn Jazz (1953), Jazz Studio 2 (1954), Jazz Studio 3 (1954), Jazz Lab 1 (1955 and '56), Jazz Lab 2 (1956), College Goes to Jazz (1956), John Graas Sextet (1957), Jazzmantics (1957), Coup de Graas (1957) and International Premiere in Jazz (1958).

As you can hear on French Horn Jazz, John Graas added a distinctive ingredient to West Coast jazz. Without his French horn and the dry, aggressive sound he pioneered, the music would have been less dimensional, less cool and less ambitious.

John Graas died in 1962 of a heart attack at age 45.

JazzWax clip: Here's the entire 10-inch album...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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