Jazz at 100 Hour 42: The Chicago Sound (1956 – 1961)

John Gilmore – Clifford Jordan

Because it acted as a safe harbor for the New Orleans diaspora of the teens and twenties, Chicago played a key role in early jazz. By the 1950s, much of jazz was understood in the dialog between cool jazz and hard bop, aka West Coast and East Coast, with Los Angeles and New York playing inordinately important roles. But the Chicago scene was as vital as ever. In this hour, we will return to the “City with Broad Shoulders” and hear from Chicago-based musicians in the 1950s, with a focus on big-toned tenor players – Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. These musicians played hardbop with a bluesy, brawny edge, suffused with what Chicago native and jazz critic Larry Kart calls “an air of downhome experimentation.”

And speaking of experimentation, first we turn to one of the singular individuals in jazz – Sun Ra, who was also based in Chicago.

Sun Ra.
“Sun Ra drew on an equally eclectic mixture of forward-looking jazz styles in the various recordings made with his large ensemble, the Arkestra—a band invariably described by the leader with one or more impressive descriptives attached (e.g., the Myth Science Arkestra or the Astro Infinity Arkestra). A certain extravagance permeated almost everything having to do with this artist.” – Ted Gioia

“Sun Ra was either a fearsome avant-gardist or a traditionalist in the line of Fletcher Henderson, for whom he arranged early in his career. The truth about Sun Ra was that he was both those things. He grew up steeped in the blues, worked an orthodox apprenticeship with the big bands, and even when he founded his famous Arkestra, with its theatrical approach to jazz, and became a leading presence on the Chicago improvisation scene, his work was always grounded in melody and in blues changes. Sun Ra’s claim to come from Saturn was one of the great metaphors of Black American music. If you are a black man from Birmingham, Alabama, how much more ‘alien’ does this planet need to be?” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“The marvelous Jazz In Silhouette will surely someday be recognized as one of the most important jazz records since the war… The baritone solo on the short ‘Saturn’, most probably [Pat] Patrick, is an extension of Sun Ra’s brilliantly individual voicings. The great surprise of this recording (though presumably no surprise to those who have taken the Saturnian aesthetic fully on board) is its timelessness. Listening to ‘Enlightenment’, given an uncharacteristically straightforward reading, it’s very difficult to guess a date for the performance.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Saturn. Sun Ra and His Arkestra
(Hobart Dotson-tp, Bo Bailey-tb, James Spaulding-as/fl, Marshall Allen-as/fl, John Gilmore-ts, Pat Patrick-bs/fl, Charles Davis-bs, Le Sun Ra-p/celeste, Ronnie Boykins-b, William Cochran-d). From Jazz in Silhouette. 12/1958?

Enlightenment. Sun Ra and His Arkestra
(Hobart Dotson-tp, Bo Bailey-tb, James Spaulding-as/fl, Marshall Allen-as/fl, John Gilmore-ts, Pat Patrick-bs/fl, Charles Davis-bs, Le Sun Ra-p/celeste, Ronnie Boykins-b, William Cochran-d). From Jazz in Silhouette. 12/1958?

John Gilmore – Clifford Jordan.
John Gilmore, of the Arkestra, recorded only occasionally outside of the group. Of note is the LP Blowing in from Chicago, his session with Clifford Jordan, another hard-blowing Chicago saxophonist with robustly bluesy phrasing. Morton and Cook ask, of Blowing in from Chicago, “Is this the neglected masterpiece of Blue Note hard bop? It certainly features two figures whose standing in the music is far lower than it ought to be. That’s routinely said about Gilmore, who devoted much of his career to Sun Ra and the Arkestra, and saying it repeatedly doesn’t make it any truer. In point of fact, Gilmore probably found his creative niche with Sun Ra… He had, in fact, two distinct approaches: fluent hard bop and an eldritch abstraction, the latter his required mode with Sun Ra. Jordan, though, is simply accorded an admiring nod and passed over. He’s an immensely muscular player, but one who brings real thought and logic to his solos. It’s worth getting Blowin’ out of the box every now and then. It’s all to easy to forget the impact of its opening track, John Neely’s driving ‘Status Quo’, on which Gilmore leads with a beautifully crafted solo.”

Status Quo. Clifford Jordan – John Gilmore Quintet
(John Gilmore-ts, Clifford Jordan-ts, Horace Silver-p, Curly Russell-b, Art Blakey-d). From Blowing in from Chicago. 3/3/1957

Johnny Griffin.
Johnny Griffin would, in time, become the most recorded of the Chicago tenor saxophonists that emerged in the hard bop era of the 1950s. As recorded in David Rosenthal’s “Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, “Griffin described himself as ‘a nervous person when I’m playing. I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode.’” This tendency is manifest in a classic Blue Note session with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley as a three-tenor front line with Lee Morgan on trumpet, entitled, appropriately, “A Blowing Session,” from which we will hear “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The Way You Look Tonight. Johnny Griffin Septet
(Lee Morgan-tp, John Coltrane-ts, Johnny Griffin-ts, Hank Mobley-ts, Wynton Kelly-p, Paul Chambers-b, Art Blakey-d). From A Blowing Session. 4/6/1957

Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware.
Johnny Griffin’s Blue Note debut of 1956, included a terrific reading of the standard “Lover Man” that features his big tone at a pace that belies his reputation as the fastest tenor player around. His ballad playing was also featured to great success on his set with Chicago bassist Wilbur Ware the next year, entitled “Chicago Sound”.

“Though much of what Ware did stemmed directly from Jimmy Blanton’s ‘Jack The Bear’, he developed into a highly individual performer whose unmistakable sound lives on in the low-register work of contemporary bassists like Charlie Haden… He could solo at speed, shifting the time-signature from bar to bar while retaining an absolutely reliable pulse. Significantly, one of his most important employers was Thelonious Monk, who valued displacements of that sort within an essentially four-square rhythm and traditional (but not European-traditional) tonality; the bassist also contributed
[Sonny] Rollins’s finest recordings.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Lover Man. Johnny Griffin Quartet
(Johnny Griffin-ts, Wynton Kelly-p, Curly Russell-b, Max Roach-d). From Introducing Johnny Griffin. 4/17/1956

Body and Soul. Wilbur Ware – Johnny Griffin Quartet
(Johnny Griffin-ts, Junior Mance-p, Wilbur Ware-b, Frankie Dunlop-d). From Chicago Sound. 10/16/1957

Gene Ammons.
“Saxophonist Henry Threadgill said (1981): ‘I don’t hear the younger people talking about Gene Ammons much anymore. When I was coming through, he was one of the people you went to see, whenever he was playing. That was what the saxophone was all about, far as I was concerned.’ Son of the great boogie pianist Albert Ammons, ‘Jug’ [as Ammons was known] worked with Billy Eckstine and Woody Herman before leading his own bands through the ’50s and ’60s. His career was interrupted by prison terms for drug offences and his life was cut short, but Ammons exerted a considerable influence while he was active, and his records … are still more than listenable and fascinating to set alongside those of today’s more celebrated saxophonists … Gentle Jug is a winner … The 1961 material is all ballad-based with a glorious version of ‘Till There Was You’ and the peerless ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Till There Was You. Gene Ammons Quartet
(Gene Ammons-ts, Richard Wyands-p, Doug Watkins-b, JC Heard-d). From The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug. 1/16/1961

Someone to Watch Over Me. Gene Ammons Quartet
(Gene Ammons-ts, Richard Wyands-p, Doug Watkins-b, JC Heard-d). From The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug. 1/16/1961

This week has been a reminder that jazz wasn’t just happening on the coasts. Chicago continued to have a lively jazz scene and would continue to generate new approaches to the music.

The 1950s were a very productive decade for Thelonious Monk, perhaps his most productive as a composer. During the fifties his reputation and impact grew tremendously. His influence on other pianists can be seen in the work of Elmo Hope and Herbie Nichols, among others. Although neither had the longevity or enjoyed the popularity that Monk did, as the years go by their reputations have grown. In the next hour, we will turn to idiosyncratic pianist/composers Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope in the 1950s.

Sun Ra and His Arkestra – Jazz in Silhouette. Saturn LP 5786
Clifford Jordan & John Gilmore – Blowing In From Chicago. Blue Note BLP 1549
Johnny Griffin – A Blowing Session. Blue Note BLP 1559
Johnny Griffin – Introducing Johnny Griffin. Blue Note BLP 1533
Wilbur Ware – Chicago Sound. Riverside RLP 12-252
Gene Ammons – The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug. Moodsville LP 18

Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Modern Jazz
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Sun Ra and His Arkestra – Jazz in Silhouette
Clifford Jordan & John Gilmore – Blowing In From Chicago
Johnny Griffin – A Blowing Session
Wilbur Ware – Chicago Sound
Gene Ammons – The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 50. Sun Ra and His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette (1958)
Rosenthal, David. 1992. Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Tenors and Organs

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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