I have been doing a lot of driving recently. On one of these drives, I was mulling over what to write about this week when a song bubbled to the top of the randomized playlist on my iPod. Before I knew it, I had hit repeat more times than I paid attention to, then realized that my decision had been made. Let me introduce you to three minutes of classic jazz perfection.
Artie Shaw is not one of the first names that will come up in a jazz discussion, even one that goes back into the older stuff. Shaw was among the top tier of bandleaders during the swing era of the 1930s and 40s. His big bands (there were at least five distinct versions over a fifteen year stretch) were among the better quality groups, as you might expect from one who paid more attention to the music than to the business. However, he also fronted an occasional small group that he called his Gramercy Five.
World War II interrupted a lot of successful careers, Shaw’s included. Like many other stars of the time, Shaw enlisted in the military. As expected, Shaw led a band for entertainment of troops in combat. Unlike most, though, Shaw took his band deep into combat areas in the Pacific Islands, in order to bring some R&R to the fighting men who needed it the most.
After Shaw mustered out of the service at age 34, he put together a new big band, and from within that band, chose five men to make up the new Gramercy Five. Drummer Lou Fromm (age 25) and bassist Morris Rayman (30) were both underrated players who really made the music move, but were not obtrusive about it. Guitarist Barney Kessel (21) was just starting a long and brilliant career.
Dodo Marmarosa on piano was just 19 and even then was a brilliant player who could seamlessly navigate both the older swing style and the emerging new style of bebop. Finally, there was Roy Eldridge (33) on trumpet, whose style was intense and a bit raspy. Eldridge was the most famous of the group, other than Shaw. “Little Jazz”, as he was known, had a difficult time as a black man touring with a white band, particularly when the band went on tour in the deep south.
On July 31, 1945, the group assembled at the RCA Victor recording studios and recorded this gem, which they called Scuttlebutt. You can listen to it here, which I urge you to do. The record begins with an intro which sort of introduces all of the players to the listener, and then off they go, with a moderately quick-tempo theme sketched out by Eldridge. This record is almost a perfect bridge between old-style swing and the newer, harder-edged bebop which was just beginning to spread. The result is a recording that will satisfy fans of either genre.
When I listen to an unfamiliar record, I like to listen to it several times, paying particular attention to a different instrument each time through. Even if you don’t do that, listen for the sublime piano work of the teenaged Marmarosa. He fills in with chords, but adds a percussive effect, where he sort of becomes part of the rhythm section too as he backs the other soloists. His balance of rhythmic kick and a light, sparkling right hand is just about perfect.
There are also solos by Shaw and Eldridge, broken up by a short solo of Kessel’s guitar. Shaw finds a way to finish each phrase by taking us in an unexpected direction. I don’t really like the clarinet, but Shaw has a way with it that makes you want more. Eldridge’s solo with his muted trumpet, while brief, lives up to the high standard that you expect from a Roy Eldridge performance. Too many leaders claim the biggest share of the playing time, overshadowing the sidemen. To Shaw’s credit, there is none of that here. In fact, it is arguable that Marmarosa is the star of this performance.
After a final repeat of the opening phrase, the record finishes with two piano chords which linger for nearly five seconds before disappearing into the mist. A good jazz record (and this one is) is like capturing lightning in a bottle. Skilled musicians will never play an improvisational piece the same way twice, just like the way a group of friends can never exactly repeat a conversation. This session is one for the ages, without a single weak performance from anyone in the group.
I have often joked (OK, half-joked) that the advent of the long play record ruined jazz. The old-timers who were kids in the era of the 78 rpm shellac disc developed an economy and an efficiency in their playing, which resulted in packing a whole lot of stuff into the three minute time limit dictated by the technology of the day. As you listen to this record, try to find a theme that is undeveloped, or something that is missing. This record has everything that should be there, and nothing that shouldn’t. I have heard longer versions of this piece, but I have never heard a better one.
Even the composition of the group was like quicksilver, as each of them soon went their own ways. Fromm the drummer was battling a drug problem even in 1945, and disappeared some time in the late ’40s, never to be heard from again. Rayman the bass player would go on to a career in the furniture business. And pianist Dodo Marmarosa would play less and less as mental instability overtook him. He died in a Veterans hospital in Pittsburgh in 2002, not having played professionally in decades.
But there were also success stories among the players. Roy Eldridge remained a jazz icon until his disability from a stroke in 1970, by which time he had amassed a huge legacy of recordings. Even then, he continued playing publicly until a heart attack in 1980. The most surprising turn was that of guitarist Barney Kessel, whose studio work led to his becoming a member of the now-famous Wrecking Crew, that informal group of top-flight studio musicians who played anonymously on literally hundreds of the biggest hit records of the 1960s.
Perhaps the strangest end was that of Artie Shaw himself. After self-producing some small group tracks in 1954 and failing to find a record company to release them, he put down his clarinet and never picked it up professionally again, despite the fact that he lived an active life until he died at the age of 94 in 2004. Shaw even occasionally fronted a band in his later years, that included a hired clarinet player.
I have gone on for quite a long time over a three minute record, have I not? However, in writing this piece, I have listened to this recording perhaps thirty times or more. I find something magical about taking in a three minute slice of 1945 that remains as relevant as ever. I will not hesitate in calling this one of the greatest jazz records that most people have never heard of. But you have heard of it now, and I hope that you will give it a listen. Or three. Now that I have mentioned it, that is exactly what I’m going to do.