JJ 10/59: In My Opinion – Benny Green

The celebrated critic inveighs against Max Roach, Sandy Brown. Pete Fountain passes muster. First published in Jazz Journal October 1959

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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. Musician, critic and jazz writer Benny Green has a strong claim to the title of the foremost humorist in jazz. His witty writings have brought him fame both sides of the Atlantic, but it must be admitted his saxophone playing has yet to cause any great stir on the other side of the water.
Sinclair Traill

“Arnett Blows for 1300”. Arnett Cobb. (Vogue EPV 1054)
Well that kind of jazz was as far as the old swing style went – until they discovered the modern changes. Everyone there sounds very experienced – they didn’t have to worry about swinging, it’s just instinctive. I wasn’t too happy about bits and pieces of Arnett Cobb’s tenor playing; the stop choruses were a little too facetious, but it was not too complicated and had plenty of the real jazz spirit. The type of thing they played, just a blues, seemed to suit the styles of all the soloists. What happens a lot in modern jazz is that the harmonic themes of the material they play often don’t suit the people playing them. And for that reason that was a happy record – the guys were never in trouble with what they were playing, it suited them fine and so it all comes off – despite Cobb’s questionable humour in places. There is in his playing a great Jacquet influence, incidentally.

“Bear Wallow”. Buster Bailey. (Felsted FA 7003)
Why I liked that kind of jazz is because it has been neglected so terribly, since the Parker-Gillespie revolution. Many, many people – including myself – for too long were inclined to dismiss that kind of playing, because we were too familiar with it, and thought it had got itself in a rut. But it is wrong to discount the many wonderful musicians of that era, who are still fine jazz players. One of the most favourable developments of recent times has been the more reasonable attitude taken towards that type of jazz. Now we have got used to modernism – much of which is now incorporated into the mainbody (don’t want to say mainstream) of jazz – we can now recapitulate on music such as this, which is very valuable. It teaches us a valuable lesson, because jazz is a continuous development – a one single continuous process, and performances like this help us to understand where modernism came from.

I don’t know if a musician can learn anything from this record, but he can certainly get a great deal of enjoyment from it. Don’t let us in the future neglect this type of jazz!

Of course musically it can also stand on its own legs – the drummer, for instance, Jimmy Crawford, doesn’t play in a modern style, in same way as Max Roach does, but he is a beautiful player, a brilliant drummer who sparks the band from start to finish. Although we shouldn’t have, that is the kind of playing we have neglected. In the last couple of years there have happily been quite a few recordings like this and they have been completely justified because, if nothing else, they have served to remind us of the many fine players whom we had forgotten. Hilton Jefferson is still such a fine player, as you can hear on this record. I don’t know if a musician can learn anything from this record, but he can certainly get a great deal of enjoyment from it. Don’t let us in the future neglect this type of jazz!

“Swinging the Blues”. International Youth Band. (Philips BBL 7323)
The main fault there, and it was probably unavoidable, was the unevenness of the musicians. In such a group, drawn from all European countries, it was hardly to be avoided, but I noticed a great discrepancy between the tenor player and baritone on the one hand, and some of the brass players on the other – the latter were not nearly up to same standard as the saxophonists. I wasn’t very happy about the drummer either, but considering the handicaps it was not too bad a performance. When two soloists are so much better than the rest it puts everything out of balance. I am not sure if this was the best method of letting Americans hear jazz from outside their country. It will be much better when they get an organised band from here or the continent, as in the case of Johnny Dankworth. A brave attempt, but it smacks too much of a gimmick.

The time has gone when Americans raised their eyebrows if they heard anyone but an American playing good jazz

Incidentally, I don’t know what they mean on the sleeve by saying ‘it is hoped these guys take back enough to teach other people the American way of life’ – a typical sleeve note platitude, and utter nonsense! The time has gone when Americans raised their eyebrows if they heard anyone but an American playing good jazz – there are heaps of good musicians these days outside the States playing excellent jazz. If the Americans who came here to choose musicians for this band had taken the trouble to hear more than they did, I am sure more Britishers would have been in the band. There are several of our musicians who play much better trumpet and trombone than what I heard on that record.

“Blues From Black Rock”. Sandy Brown. (Nixa NjE 1054)
The first adjective on this sleeve is ‘adventurous’, but that is the last word I’d use for that jazz. Not necessarily a bad record, but it is anything but adventurous. It’s the kind of music I have great difficulty in being reasonable about, for when players of my own day and age and environment choose to try and reproduce something that is so far away from them they set themselves an impossible task. The other thing is that, as usual with bands of this nature, you get one or two players who seem to know what it is all about, but the rest are not too good. Al Fairweather for instance, would probably do much better if he played with musicians with a little more subtlety. The trombonist really has only a very elementary idea of playing jazz.

Sandy Brown’s clarinet I understand is considered very good in its idiom, but it hits a blind spot in me, for I just find it grates

Sandy Brown’s clarinet I understand is considered very good in its idiom, but it hits a blind spot in me, for I just find it grates. Perhaps because, having tried to learn to play clarinet myself, I tried not to do the things Sandy does, has something to do with it. If I only had a few shillings left in the world and had to buy one record of this style – this wouldn’t be it! I suppose they’re martyrs of a kind, dedicating themselves to a style of music that is dead and gone; except for the guys who originated it. It’s miraculous the record exists, for the musicians seem oblivious to what is going on around them – must be a case of arrested development. I hope Al Fairweather, a really good trumpet player, will grow out of it, like Dickie Hawdon did, for he can’t give of his best playing with a rhythm section like that behind him.

“Tune Up”. Max Roach. (Mercury MMB 12005)
Well that had about as much relationship to jazz as doggerel has to poetry – reminds me of those Danny Kaye gibberish songs. I think gibberish is just the word to describe that! First of all I hate drum solos, no matter who plays them, and the long one on that upset me. But I was uncomfortable long before that for the tempos are so prohibitive that nobody can play anything, and the changes so frequent that nobody has time to think of any melodic phrases to play.

Of Max Roach: The jazz content is nil, and the spirit of jazz completely absent

It seems to me to be an exercise, a kind of competition to see who can keep up with the tempo. The jazz content is nil, and the spirit of jazz completely absent. The only musical content is in the theme and it is played much too fast. The tenor player particularly, has so little time to think of anything else but the tempo and changes, that he races through the arpeggios and plays nothing at all. This is part of the price we have to pay for mammoth concerts and huge audiences – flag waving! Impressive technically, but artistically has no value at all. Don’t bother with it!

“Let’s Do It”. Bud Freeman. (London LTZ-N 15030)
Well I’ve got a blind spot about Bud Freeman. I can’t really criticize him, because when I was learning to play the saxophone Freeman was one of my first idols. I learnt his solos note for note, and even now I kind of get paralysed when he starts playing. He’s a most underrated jazzman. He was really original and he did something on the tenor that nobody else did. He played in the Coleman Hawkins era and yet did not copy Coleman, which was remarkable. Lester Young himself testified to the fact that he got more than one idea for his tone and style from the way Bud Freeman played. He seems to be a bit flabbier now than he was years ago, the vibrato is a little shakier and the tone somewhat softer, but it is still unmistakably Bud Freeman, and he still obviously plays good jazz. This kind of jazz generally has been left behind; it’s not really ‘swing age’ jazz, and it’s certainly not modern jazz, but a kind of residue from the Chicago period. Ruby Braff, never a Chicagoan, of course, is a special case; he plays wonderfully well and has assimilated perfectly all the old nuances. Freeman has a gift for getting small bands together that hang together and sound good. They play with good taste, sensitivity and the melody was an unusual one with good chord changes. Freeman’s playing is full of interest, his technique perfectly suited to his requirements and he still has that spark of originality. I still think he is the best saxophonist of that style – better even than Eddie Miller, tho’ there is not much in it.

“Farewell Blues”. Pete Fountain All Stars. (Vogue EP)
Every time I hear Farewell Blues, I think of that old Venuti-Lang record. The clarinettist (Pete Fountain) reminds me of Benny Goodman, but most Dixieland clarinet players have been inspired by Goodman at one time or another. I don’t know the trumpet (Al Hirt) or trombone (Abe Lincoln). but both were very good. The muted trumpet solo I liked enormously, a cunning chorus – he sounded so completely different from his open work in the first chorus it might have been a different man. The trombonist was full of beans, tremendous power, good technique and spirit – a fine player all round. Eddie Miller I have always liked – difficult to choose which is the better, he or Freeman. He is also an original player. Usually I distrust these reconstructions of old tunes played in the old way, but this without question really comes off one hundred per cent. Full of good things.

“Bess You Is My Woman, Now”. Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, Porgy and Bess Revisited. (Warner Bros)
Well this is experimental, and you could have a discussion as to where the jazz begins and ends. A fine example of jazz musicians playing formal music and interpreting it in a jazz manner. Although trumpet and alto were more or less playing what Gershwin wrote, they gave it that indefinable jazz spirit. In a way it’s a good thing they didn’t try to improvise, for the melody is such a beautiful one – one of Gershwin’s loveliest and they respect that fact. How far they interpret the actual vocal parts of the opera is another matter. I don’t suppose they even bothered to think about the words when they were playing, as they play in the same mood throughout. I couldn’t really say they were successful in putting over the ideas behind the lyrics, for it’s just one musical mood which they don’t try to alter.

…to a saxophonist the playing of Hilton Jefferson is always of great interest. He is still a really fine player

With a string background such as that, the trumpet player Cootie Williams sounds rather incongruous, and I would like to hear the score played by a full jazz orchestra without strings. In fact, the inevitable thought occurs, why hasn’t Ellington done something like this? Nevertheless, and despite the strings, this is the kind of record I’d like to have in my collection and that for two reasons, one because the music of Porgy and Bess is always worth listening to, and two because to a saxophonist the playing of Hilton Jefferson is always of great interest. He is still a really fine player. It may not be jazz all through, but what does it matter – it’s good music anyway.