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Shelly Manne at the Black Hawk

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When Shelly Manne agreed to play San Francisco's Black Hawk club in September 1959, he viewed the gig as a working vacation. For months, the West Coast drummer had endured a grueling schedule, spending days in Hollywood's movie and TV studios and nights at Los Angeles-area clubs. Taking on the extended San Francisco engagement with his newly formed quintet meant a return to bop without the commercial distractions. No insistent studio contractors. No time-crazed producers. And no stress of first-take film dates.

But just a week after the Black Hawk engagement began, Manne picked up the phone and called Lester Koenig, the founder of Contemporary Records. Manne and Koenig had been close since Manne began recording extensively for the label in 1952. “I've never asked this before," Manne reportedly said to Koenig during the call, “but we all feel you should come up and record the group at the club." The next day, September 22d, Koenig arrived with recording equipment and remained at the club for three successive nights, capturing the live performances on tape.

What Manne heard in his own group was something extraordinary, and his instincts were spot on. The group featured Manne (drums), Joe Gordon (trumpet), Richie Kamuca (tenor sax), Victor Feldman (piano) and Monty Budwig (bass). They were edgy and intuitive as a unit, and each musician had a distinct personality on solos.

When Koenig and Manne returned to Los Angeles, they faced a dilemma. Listening to the playback, they had trouble selecting songs for a planned LP. The problem wasn't subpar material. On the contrary, there was too much superb tape. Anything left behind would be a shame. What to do? Koenig decided that instead of producing one LP, Contemporary Records would release virtually all of the recorded material on four albums. It was a radical concept in 1959--something of a serial box set. But Koenig felt the music's quality would sell itself. If consumers bought one, they'd be so taken with the jazz they heard that they'd want the others.

The result was Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk, Vols. 1-4. These recordings (today on five CDs) have largely been forgotten and remain vastly under-appreciated. Upon a careful re-listen this week, I was blown away by the quality of jazz captured live. I also believe that the work remains some of the finest examples of live West Coast hard bop since Clifford Brown and Max Roach recorded at the California Club in Los Angeles five years earlier.

The closest comparison to this quintet in 1959 probably was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Joe Gordon's trumpet is crisp and fiery, while Richie Kamuca digs in on every track with his strong, smoky tone. Victor Feldman's piano is urgent and graceful without being frenetic. Monty Budwig's bass is big, broad and confident. And Manne's playing is precise and intensive but with soft caressing figures and strokes. [Pictured: Richie Kamuca and Shelly Manne]

The band recorded two Benny Golson tunes at the Black Hawk: Whisper Not and Step Lightly, and the results are tender and sly. Back in September, when I interviewed Benny Golson, he said he recently was listening to the radio when Step Lightly came on. He told his wife: “They're playing my version.“ But as the saxophone (Kamuca) started to play, he said, “Wait a minute, that's not me." Benny told me, “It turned out to be Shelly Manne on a 1959 Contemporary recording." This is that recording (Vol. 3).

I wish I could rave about one musician in particular but the truth is they're all fabulous and distinct. This quintet, like the Jazz Messengers, functions on two levels: as a single muscular unit and as a collection of superstar players. And like the Jazz Messengers, all take their cue from the drummer.

We tend to forget just how great Manne was. According to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, Manne was one of the most recorded drummers in jazz history, appearing on 830 known sessions, excluding his TV and movie dates. By comparison, Gene Krupa was on 598, Buddy Rich was on 590 and Jo Jones on 507.

Long considered a West Coast drummer, Manne actually was born in New York and developed his chops on 52d St. His earliest recordings between 1943 and 1945 were with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford. Manne joined Stan Kenton's band in 1946 and remained with the bandleader off an on for about seven years.

As a freelancer during this period, Manne appeared on many of the most noteworthy recording sessions. He was the drummer on Neal Hefti's Repetition date in 1947 featuring Charlie Parker. In addition to recording several sessions with Parker, Manne appeared on the famed Metronome All-Stars date of 1948-49 and was part of the game-changing recordings by the Lennie Tristano Quintet with Lee Konitz in January 1949.

Later in 1949, Manne joined Woody Herman's band before moving to California in 1950. That year, Manne rejoined Kenton's newly formed Innovations Orchestra. He stayed with Kenton until 1953, when a large contingent of the band's best-known players left to join Shorty Rogers and His Giants. Manne also was in huge demand as a freelancer on small group West Coast sessions, including several with Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes. [Pictured: Manne at the Lighthouse]

Thoughout the 1950s, Manne also led his own groups. One of the best-known of these was Shelly Manne and His Men, which featured various lineups of musicians at different points. In 1953, the group featured Don Fagerquist, Shorty Rogers, Bob Enevoldsen, Paul Sarmento, Marty Paich and Joe Mondragon. In 1956, Manne's “And His Men" recording unit included Stu Williamson, Charlie Mariano, Russ Freeman and Leroy Vinnegar.

In January 1959, Manne recorded Peter Gunn with yet a new group featuring Conte Candoli, Herb Geller, Victor Feldman, Russ Freeman and Monty Budwig. This date was followed in May by Son of Gunn!! and included all of the musicians he would take to the Black Hawk in September. The only difference was that Feldman played vibes and marimba on the Gunn recording with Freeman on piano. According to Ted Gioia in his fine book West Coast Jazz, Feldman was a last-minute keyboard replacement on the Black Hawk trip. Freeman was Manne's go-to pianist but had joined Benny Goodman for a road trip.

What's especially exciting about the Black Hawk recordings is the high energy level and ensemble components. Focus your ears on the horns, and you hear the strong, forceful trumpet of Gordon up against the deep, grainy attack of Kamuca. Shift to Feldman and Budwig, and you hear solid rhythm-keeping and impeccable lyricism.

Or you could spend the entire time listening solely to the tasteful brush and stick strokes of Manne, who is stirring throughout but not overwhelming. Manne was a drummer of subtle strength, and his beauty comes through in jabs and flurries rather than roundhouse blows. Shelly Manne and his men in San Francisco created a deep rich sound with a strength and sensitivity that's remarkable to this day.

As Doug Ramsey wrote in the liner notes to the Vol. 5 release of previously unissued material: “When one of Shelly's groups was in full cry, it epitomized the central jazz values: swing, musicianship, inventiveness and an eagerness to take chances that pushed the music to the edge."

Hear for yourself.

JazzWax tracks: With Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk, you have two choices: You can buy one of the five albums in this series here--or you can grab the entire set of five. If you want only one CD for now, I recommend Vol. 1 here, which includes gripping versions of Summertime, Our Delight, Poinciana, Frank Roslino's Blue Daniel and the band's theme, Bill Holman's A Gem from Tiffany. The reason I suggest Vol. 1 is you eventually are going to want the rest of the set, so you may as well start at the beginning.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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