Awesome-ness!

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We love Duke Ellington — surely no other jazz artist is as well-represented in our collection. It’s a pleasure to pull out a stack of his records, put a favorite on and pore through the liner notes, discovering how his composing adapted to the comings and goings in his famous orchestra and learning about the unique personalities. Duke once told an interviewer that he didn’t write for a particular instrument, he wrote for a particular performer — that is, he wrote a part for Paul Gonsalves playing the tenor saxophone, not the tenor saxophone.

intimate ellingtonRecently we were listening to an album in the shop which isn’t in our collection at home, The Intimate Ellington, which Pablo released in 1977 shortly after Duke’s death. It collects spontaneous pieces from 1970-1 sessions with smaller versions of the orchestra (including two suprising Monk-ish trio performances of “Edward the First”). The liner notes by Stanley Dance describe the atmosphere of his late-period recording sessions.

intimate ellington 2It is probably not too much to say that some of the happiest hours of Duke Ellington’s life were spent in recording studios at relaxed sessions like those illustrated here. He might call them when the band was laying off as a means of getting some return from those of its members permanently on a salary, but he always liked to hear next day what he had written overnight, and sometimes the summonses to appear went out at very short notice. If the music were of an experimental character or not completely worked out, the sessions too place with a degree of secrecy, quite unlike those commissioned by major labels and attended by an enormous retinue of relatives, friends and fans. The fact that he was paying all the expenses of the date himself did not guarantee his own punctuality. He often came in late to find that musicians who had arrived on time had wandered off on a variety of errands. Johnny Hodges, say, had gone to buy grapes for his monkey, and Paul Gonsalves was across the street having “breakfast” in a bar, but so long as the bassist and drummer were present Ellington was unperturbed.

Wait, let’s back up a minute. Johnny Hodges had a monkey? A monkey?! How is this extraordinary fact passed over so quickly? How has this never been mentioned in the liner notes to the hundreds of Ellington or Hodges albums that we’ve read here in the record shop? What kind of monkey? Did it come to the sessions? Is that why he had to buy grapes for it? Was the monkey in the room when they recorded? Did it behave? Can you imagine Curious George in a recording studio?!

This can’t be a drug references. We’re familiar with forties phrases like “feed the monkey” and references to the monkey on one’s back, but Hodges — who died at sixty-four the year before the sessions collected on Intimate Ellington — didn’t have a drug problem. He was buying grapes for a pet monkey. Probably a really awesome one, probably one who did the monkey to Hodges’ 1963 b-side “Monkey Shack.”

This 1997 review of a CD reissue of Hodges’ RCA/Bluebird album Triple Play, written again by Stanley Dance, gives us a little more insight because the disc includes an out-take, “Monkey on a Limb.” The monkey’s name was Shuma. So Johnny Hodges had a monkey named Shuma. It may have attended recording sessions. It was probably the awesome-est monkey in the entire world. Maybe Shuma’s still alive, maybe Shuma will make a record someday. There can never be enough Ellington tribute albums, especially if they include a monkey playing the saxophone.

 

Two decades ago we discovered Man…Or Astroman? after seeing them perform at 7th Street Entry — for those of you unfamiliar with this mostly-instrumental band from Georgia, their catchy gimmick is embedding science fiction samples into surf rock jams. The songs are reliably good but sometimes its the timing of the samples that make them memorable.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from their first album Is It Man…Or Astroman? which came out in 1993. The song is called “Invasion of the Dragonmen.”

moam

actionMan…Or Astroman? was very prolific in those days, issuing more 7″ singles and oddities (10″ and even 5″ records, etc) than one could count, let alone collect. More recently, when our kids had their first Fisher Price record player, we unpacked a box of story albums, including a Spider-Man book-and-record adventure. Suddenly, we recognized the voice of DRACO, KING OF THE DRAGONMEN!

draco

(You can click on that image for a larger view of DRACO, if you dare!)

Songs of Metric Man is one of the funkiest educational records we’ve ever heard. This 1976 album tells the story of Newton Joule, a mild-mannered substitute school teacher who works for M*O*M (Measures of Metrics) teaching America how to use the metric system. If he says the magic word “Kilometer!” he becomes Metric Man!

Metric Man fights against the Big O, who is the head of the Ounce Family, but he triumphs over his adversary and soon America was singing the praises of metric measurements.

The music is by Jimmy Vann and Richard Hieronymus and the lyrics by George Greer and Jimmy Vann. It was released by Educational Film Systems but is officially on Metric Records. Its track “I Weigh With Kilos” was sampled on a Ghostface Killah and Raekwon track.

Marine reservist Major Bill Hendricks started the Toys for Tots program in 1947, finding inspiration when his wife could not find a charity to take a homemade Raggedy Ann doll she hoped could go to a child in need.

In the sixty-nine years since, the organization has distributed more than 469 million toys to children. They stopped accepting second-hand toys in 1980, owing to the mixed-message implied and the time involved in refurbishing them, which previously had been done by Marine reservists.

In 1995 Secretary of Defense William Perry added the Toys for Tots program to the Marine Reserve Corps official list of missions. The organization distributes toys at other times of the year besides the holidays, for instance working with FEMA to provide toys for children during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

You can find opportunities to donate on their official website here.

Hendricks worked as a director of public relations for Warner Brother Studios when he founded the charity, and in its first year the familiar donation bins made their debut at Warner theaters. His position provided the opportunity to get celebrity support for the charity when it went national the following year.

This 1980 promotional record was sent to radio stations by Warner Brothers and features a side of celebrity spots, including Frank Sinatra, Michael MacDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and George Harrison.

toys for tots

Depending who you ask, the American Recording Society was the first non-profit record label. Discogs considers it to be so, but sussing out the truth of such a claim lands a listener into the murky territory of Obi Wan Kenobi’s “certain point of view” pretty quickly. What is certain is that the ARS was historically significant to music lovers, even if the sort of record collectors who are only looking for things to sell on Discogs are unimpressed by the albums.

The label was launched in 1951 under the ‘book club’ model and with a specific goal of supporting American composers (think Copland, Ives and company). Its subscription service added a jazz series in 1956 under an arrangement with Norman Granz, familiar to collectors as the founder of Verve, Clef, Norgran and Pablo Records — all pretty essential jazz labels. ARS gave him the opportunity to move some of his stock of unissued recordings as well as promote artists under his umbrella.

When you’re digging through a box of albums, they don’t look like much — especially since they’re in these plastic sleeves. Audiophiles have discovered that the engineering of these records was of the highest quality. They came in soft plastic sleeves with fairly extensive liner notes included on an insert. The jazz highlighted in the short-lived series (about fifty records produced over a two year period) trends towards what you’d expect given Granz’s economic interests: there are sessions by Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz and Count Basie for instance. All were prominent artists recording for Verve Records at the time. One of the catalog’s standout releases was a “Modern Jazz” record with the Cecil Taylor Quartet on one side and the Gigi Gryce/Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory on the other. Both sets were recorded at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

This was one of Taylor’s first appearances on LP, and almost certainly a surprising listen for the subscription label’s customers, who received the album in the mail in 1958. Taylor’s incredible approach was just forming at the time of this performance.

Our copy is not in especially great shape so we apologize for the so-so sound quality of these recordings. Somebody must have loved this album and played it a lot! Here, for those interested in early free jazz, is the Cecil Taylor side of the album:

 

This classic compilation of late 40s jazz singles contains several gems. The album’s liner notes remark that “the most important big band of the period … was that of Dizzy Gillespie,” and the record includes five tracks from the truly amazing large group led by Diz. Few records so successfully straddled the line between swing and bop, and Gillespie’s big band earned its place in jazz history.

The reason we love this compilation is that it is the only LP (that we know of) which contains “Rat Race,” a 1950 small group single by Count Basie. The tune is a tenor battle between Georgie Auld and Gene Ammons, and it also features guitarist Freddie Green — none of these jazz musicians are prominent figures in bop or modern jazz but each were enormously influential on the performers who were. “Rat Race” is a quintessentially swinging Basie side on the cusp of modern jazz.

An adapted version of the tune was arranged by Quincy Jones on the album One More Time in 1958.

Session guitarist Grady Martin appeared on so many hit 45s in his epic career it would take a collector a while to find them all. Everything from rockabilly classics like Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” to country standards such as “On the Road Again” — with stops along the way to discover guitar fuzz on Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry”¬†and offer up an enduring riff on “Oh Pretty Woman.”

He also recorded a number of records of his own. Included in them is this cover of the theme from Dragnet, which is both silly and awesome at the same time.

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