One of the things I love about old jazz records is that even after decades of seeking them out and listening to them, I can still make discoveries that come as a complete surprise. Here is one of these. Before listening, I knew nothing about the song, the group leader, any of the musicians or the record label. So click “more” and join me in discovering a little gem from the days when New York musicians were gingerly stepping into the new thing called bebop.
In the world of recorded jazz, the immediate postwar period was a little bit like going back to the “wild west” of the 1920s. You had players nobody had heard of bouncing between little groups nobody had ever heard of playing songs nobody had ever heard of on little record labels nobody had ever heard of. Like this one.
The Jazz Age of the 1920’s begat the Swing Era of the 1930’s, which gave way to the era of the singer as the war got underway. The top hits of 1945 came from names like Perry Como, Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters. The most jazz-like of any of them probably came from the Les Brown band, but even it hid behind the popular vocals of Doris Day. Jazz and pop had been on speaking terms at the beginning of the 1940s, but the relationship between them had become strained by the beginning of 1946.
Or a year before that, really, as we have already seen when Dizzy Gillespie was in the recording studio cutting an early version of the bebop standby Salt Peanuts. For those not so deeply schooled in this era, “bebop” turned pop on its head, keeping a melody’s chord changes but replacing the melody with a simple riff at the beginning and end, spinning things out from there in between.
This record from January of 1946 shows how influential those proto-bop players were – It was no longer just the “cool kids” like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker who were playing bop. Younger and more adventurous musicians of all stripes loved the sound and were amped to play real jazz again. There are many names from that period with some recognition, but this little group would not be one of them.
Where do we start? I suppose we should start with the leader. Who the heck was Ted Nash? It turns out had played for a handful of groups before becoming a saxophonist for Les Brown and his Band of Renown. He played behind Doris Day on some of those hit vocals we just mentioned.
He would eventually get married, head west and become part of that huge group of musicians who worked for television and film. Do you remember the fabulous hit theme song from the 1958 television show Peter Gunn? That high, trilly alto saxophone featured all through the song? Ted Nash. He was also reported to be Frank Sinatra’s favorite sax player.
In fact, he developed into one of the very best high-note players on the saxophone, and even wrote a book on high note harmonics that is still available. But in early 1946 he was one of the many young players scruffling around for a new sound.
Then there was Joe Thomas on the trumpet. One way that music in 1946 was not like the 20’s was that it was becoming common for black players and white players to record together. Thomas had been around since the 30’s playing for many well-known black groups, such as those of Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and many more. As an old-school swing stylist, Thomas acquitted himself quite well on this bop-style arrangement.
Geoff Clarkson on the piano was one of those guys who spent most of his career in the background, including quite a few years working with Ted Nash in the Les Brown band. Clarkson, by the way, represents the first jazz player who was active from the 1940s through at least the 1960s for whom I completely struck out in finding an online photo.
Drummer J. C. Heard may be the best known of this crew. The other African-American in the recording studio, Heard was a little younger than the others and did not break into the jazz scene until 1939. He spent a career playing for anyone who was anyone (the list of whom he didn’t play behind might be shorter than the list of those he did) and was known for playing in a style that sort of bridged between traditional swing and bebop.
Finally there was Herman “Trigger” Alpert on the bass. A sentimental favorite among this group, given that he was an Indianapolis native who studied music at Indiana University before going to work for Glenn Miller right before the war, and playing for Miller’s Army Air Corps band during the war. His high-octane playing style kept him in demand over a long career. And why the nickname Trigger? Because he always had a camera handy, making photography his profession in the 1970s and beyond.
Keynote Records was also a new one to me, and one with a more interesting history than most record labels. Eric Bernay started it in 1940 after owning a New York record store. A hard, anti-war leftist (and rumored to have been an actual communist spy), he made the kinds of protest records that were not very popular after Pearl Harbor. In 1943 he accepted a proposition from Indonesian emigre’ and jazz promoter Harry Lim to add some jazz to the catalog. Lim had been active in the New York jazz scene and put together a stellar catalog over about three or four years. But it was not enough and Bernay only avoided bankruptcy by selling to Mercury Records in 1948. These Keynote jazz sessions have been highly regarded but sparingly reissued.
Anyway, there’s your cast. Why did Nash call the piece Wicks Kicks? I have no idea. It was on the flip side of a recording by a group headed by the much better known Cozy Cole. There is really not much notable about this record, except that it is a great example of what was bubbling up from the bottom of jazz at the beginning of 1946, far away from the influence of movers and shakers at the high-dollar end of the music business.
The main theme with the tenor sax and trumpet in unison would be a fairly common way for early bebop themes to be laid down. That Nash and Thomas were total pros is evident in the way their unison is almost perfect, combining for a single sound that is neither all sax nor all trumpet.
Then come solos by Nash, Thomas and Clarkson before a final restating of the theme and then the end. For me, the most noteworthy thing (other than the high caliber of all of the playing) was Trigger Alpert’s rambunctious bass playing. Even on this recording taken straight from a 78 rpm record (which gives us all the snaps, crackles and pops even the best discs gave us after just a few playings) it is easy to hear Alpert running all up and down that bass in a really high-energy performance.
So here we are – a record and a group and a song I knew zero about just a couple of weeks ago, and now here I am an expert. Did you ever want to know about something that almost nobody else has ever heard of? Well, now you do.
Music Credit (and record label photo): Wicks Kicks by the Ted Nash Quintet from the YouTube channel of Tim Gracyk – a page which also features some fascinating stuff from the very earliest days of recorded music.
Dizzy Gillespie May, 1947 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Ted Nash – cover of an album issued in 2011 via FreshSoundsRecords.com
Joe Thomas – September, 1947 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
J.C. Heard – July, 1946 William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Public Domain
Herman “Trigger” Alpert – Artist photo accompanying information on the 1956 album Trigger Happy at FreshSoundsRecords.com
Keystone Recordings album of the Red Army Chorus – offered for sale at russionrecords.com