JJ 08/59: Dave Lee – In My Opinion

First published in Jazz Journal, August 1959. Thirty years later Dave Lee was one of the founders of London radio station Jazz FM

Dave Lee at Jazz FM, March 1990. Photo © Brian O'Connor

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Dave Lee, pianist with the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra was born in London, but whilst still a boy moved to South Africa. Here he studied music and for some years led his own band at Ciro’s Club, Johannesburg. He was one of a syndicate who was responsible for bringing Johnny Dankworth to South Africa in 1954, as a result of which he was persuaded by Johnny to return to England with him and to become his pianist and road manager to the band. He has stayed with the Dankworth band ever since. The records I played him all featured pianists – Sinclair Traill

Jelly Roll Morton: ‘…never reached the top with me – maybe it was that bad left hand that annoys me’

“Grandpa’s Spells” piano solo by Jelly Roll Morton. London AL 3534
That was Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t it? I think he had a great deal, yet to me he was never one of the greatest of the old time piano players. He was always a pleasure to listen to, but never reached the top with me – maybe it was that bad left hand that annoys me. I somehow felt he was never one of the real makers of early jazz. Sorry, I don’t go for him very strongly.

“South End Boogie” piano solo by Cripple Clarence Lofton. Vogue LDE 122
But there are plenty of the old timers I really like. Heard something by Memphis Slim once that was fabulous. Who is that playing now? Cripple Clarence Lofton is it? Has some tricky touches, but is not too impressive. Certainly has a lot of beat, but lacks subtlety, though some of his little riffs are cute. If I want to listen to boogie, then Albert Ammons is my man. He plays great blues with that strong beat – he can be inspired, really great! To me Ammons was as far out ahead of all other boogie and blues pianists as Fats Waller was in front of all other stride men.

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” piano solo by Ralph Sutton. Columbia 33S 1018
That’s Fats you’re playing now? No. I hear it’s not, but he’s great. Ralph Sutton is it? Well that’s great stride piano, but yet a long way behind the man whose style he was copying. Fats just had the greatest feeling for swing – that something that no one else had. And yet even he didn’t swing half as much as Art Tatum.

‘So much so-called modern jazz just isn’t modern at all. It’s just “Let’s all play like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie”. No, Earl plays real modern piano’

“Father Steps In”. Earl Hines and his orchestra. HMV DLP 1132
That’s Earl Hines, of course. I don’t like him playing with a band – wrong environment. Tatum never played his best when surrounded by other instruments. Hines and Tatum both had so much to say and are so great that any record which includes other instrumentalists is just a waste of time until it gets to them – then more often than not they’re thrown for they haven’t the time to say what they wanted. I suppose you realise that Earl Hines is really a modernist. So much so-called modern jazz just isn’t modern at all. It’s just “Let’s all play like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie”. No, Earl plays real modern piano, but he doesn’t try or even want to piay in the Parker or Gillespie manner. That’s the thing! There is a very important difference between real modern jazz and playing Charlie Parker music. Hines doesn’t want to play in that style and when he gets in that environment, as with a small modern band, it is apt to throw him a little. He must and should have plenty of room to have his say. Of course he played wonder­fully well with that big band of his, but the excellent arrange­ments left plenty of room for him to move. He is really a tremendously exciting pianist. Do you know when he played here with Teagarden, I got so excited at that concert at the Coliseum that I found myself actually standing up, after one of his solos, saying to the people around me, “Say, did you hear that!” Oh, he has so much!

“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” piano solo by Bud Powell. Columbia 33C 90U
Well this is wonderful before it begins – it is Bud Powell of course. If Powell had had an inch more technique, I don’t know just how great he’d have been – impossible to gauge. You know, there is a strong and direct line between the playing of Powell and Hines. Powell’s greatest influence was undoubt­edly Hines. His left hand reminds me constantly of Earl’s and the way he sticks in those little push notes is typical Hines. Sometimes the resemblance is fantastic (do you know “Jazz at Massey Hall” – Powell is at his most Hines-like on that?). ’Course when Powell plays solo he often copies Art Tatum, but never mind how near Art he gets the method is still Hines. Hear that left hand? That’s not Tatum, Art never used his left hand like that – that’s a Hines left. But despite all the influence, Bud Powell is without question one of the great jazz pianists.

Tatum: ‘That’s where all cross-roads meet, all styles, all idioms, all techniques, all everything meet with Tatum. He’s it. Never a greater jazzman, let alone pianist’

“Sittin’ And Rockin'” piano solo by Art Tatum. Columbia 33CX 10053
Tatum is wonderful! You see I can’t even try to explain about Tatum. I am a pianist and have never got over my feeling of astonishment when I listen to any Tatum record. His playing is so far ahead of me I don’t feel I’m even in a position to judge. Everything he does – that distinctive sound, he has it all – that’s it! That’s where all cross-roads meet, all styles, all idioms, all techniques, all everything meet with Tatum. He’s it. Never a greater jazzman, let alone pianist. Phineas New­born said Tatum was the greatest and Phineas, alongside Hines, is the greatest I’ve heard in the flesh. Peterson is wonderful but not quite in the top bracket. It is a personal opinion but Peterson’s style is not quite my cup of tea – I’d rather listen to his influences (Tatum, Powell, Garner) than just listen to a patchwork pattern of all three.

“Barbados” piano solo by Phineas Newborn. London LTZ-U 15057
Phineas I love. He has but recently arrived but in 10 years I think he will be recognised as the greatest. People will say “after Tatum came Phineas Newborn”. Completely different conception to Tatum – much more modern. He’s the modern man. Ask him to play a standard and he’ll play “Barbados” or a Charlie Parker tune – for that’s where he began. His grounding, his beginning was with Charlie Parker and so, there­fore, he must sound different (mine was with Duke, Teddy Wilson, Fats). When he leans back on the greats his great influence was Charlie Parker; others are to him merely history with historical interests. His style comes from the Milt Jack­son side of the world – very modern school – the good side of the modern school. He plays a lot of jazz and has pretty good idea of beat. Funnily enough his records, those I’ve heard anyway, are immature and unformed – wonderfully brilliant but don’t hang together all that well. Whereas when Tatum plays a solo he transforms it from “here I am playing a tune” to “here is a composition based upon such and such a tune”; a new tune which has form, meaning, contrast, everything. New­born hasn’t managed that on record yet. However, when I heard him recently he showed a real funky blues feeling and played a lot of things which I found just too beautiful. In fact I think he’s here now. Pettiford said given a few years and he will be it – ahead of them all. The only piano player Basie spoke of outside Tatum was Newborn. I was surprised to hear Basie praising him so highly as at that time I had only heard his records: but he is so much better in the flesh.

Monk: ‘I’ve heard him four or five times with rhythm, with group and solo but I’m afraid, like Dave Brubeck, he leaves me cold, uninterested and bored! Neither have anything to offer me’

“Mood Indigo” piano solo by Thelonious Monk. London LTZ-U 15019
Monk? I don’t like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing – I’ll probably lose a lot of friends if you quote me but I don’t like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing. I like some of the things he does. He has a very beautiful modern conception but I always want to hear it put down. I want to hear him play it but he goes in too much for amateur ramblings. I feel he tries to create an impression of “If only you knew me better you’d know I’m doing something great”. But more often than not I can’t understand what he’s trying to say. I can only judge by what I hear and what I hear I don’t like. There’s nothing there for me – nothing at all. I’ve heard him four or five times with rhythm, with group and solo but I’m afraid, like Dave Brubeck, he leaves me cold, uninterested and bored! Neither have anything to offer me. Of the newcomers I rate Ray Bryant very highly. I’ve only heard a little of him but he floors me. Horace Silver’s another very great jazz pianist although not quite amongst the top leaguers. He swings but is not one of the real great ones.

“Louise” piano solo by Erroll Garner. Philips BBL 7313
Of course we mustn’t forget Erroll Gamer. He is right in the top league. A fabulous performer. Do you know his “Blue Lou”? I rate that as one of the finest piano solos ever played by anyone. Let us remember the piano’s a big instrument. It has got to be played – got to be filled out. It is probably the only instrument which needs nothing. It can stand on its own – played correctly and properly it needs no one. But it takes a man to play it – not a boy. It’s an awful lot of music you’ve got to make to fill a piano. It’s not like, for instance, a front line musician – with all due respect and there are some great ones – they only have to think of one line – which is what they are playing. They have to be aware of the chords and sequence and tune and mood and play it. But to be a piano player – what I call a piano player – you’ve got to have all that plus the orchestration behind it – the filling out of the melody, whatever you’re playing. One hand supporting the other, accompanying and helping – alternatively. If you can do this then you begin to be what I call a piano player. Once you’ve got all that you start filling out the piano. You don’t just use three octaves which a lot of the modern musicians do today – tap away and think “this must be good ’cause it sounds like John Lewis”. Tap, tap, tap, with the right hand – tut, tut, tut, with the left, plus some odd little push chords. That to me is not playing the piano. The instrument’s got to be played nobly. It’s got to be “here I am – a man an’ playing the goddam piano”. Big – not finick­ing around you know. It annoys me when I see people being knocked out by pianists not using a quarter or fraction of the instrument at all. Not even playing it. Whereas we all know that Louis Armstrong and others have made great jazz solos on three notes, we know too that if that was all they’d ever done it wouldn’t be enough. Louis uses his instru­ment to the full as well – you’ve got to. You’ve got an instru­ment to play – it’s part of the duty of the musician to his instrument to play it to the full – that’s the beauty of the piano – it’s all there to play. You need no one – not like a trumpet player standing there in the studio hoping a piano player will pass by so he can practise with him. You’ve got it all. If I hadn’t been a pianist I’d have been a trumpeter, for there is one thing about a trumpet – you can stand up there and hold a note. One damn thing you can’t do on a piano. You just can’t hold a note for four bars. It’s a weakness of the piano in jazz.