JJ 11/59: In My Opinion – John Dankworth

The young eclectic on Parker, Coleman, Ellington, Moten and more. First published in Jazz Journal November 1959


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. Johnny Dankworth, as a musician, needs no introduction. But in addition to his activities in leading Britain’s best big band Johnny is also a young man of unusual perspicacity, with a broad knowledge and love of all types of music. This fact is borne out by his trenchant comments on the records played to him.
Sinclair Traill

“The Opener”. Anatomy of Improvisation, Charlie Parker et al. (Columbia 33CX 10141)
That was very interesting. I first heard Charlie Parker just before that was made, about 1947, when he was playing at the Paris Jazz Festival. Actually, I am not too keen about listening to that kind of concert performance. Most of the musicians sooner or later seem to fall for the fact that there is an audience there and so they are not particularly discriminating in what they play. Lester Young was obviously a little adversely affected by the atmosphere; as he always was to my mind. His first couple of choruses were just as I like to hear him play, easy and relaxed, but these were occasions which unfortunately became increasingly rare during the later part of his life. Tommy Turk, the trombonist, is one of those players who always plays the obvious and never the unexpected. But Parker was not in the slightest affected by the atmosphere – he played just as he might to himself in a backroom or with three or four other musicians in an empty studio. The record was worthwhile for Lester’s opening chorus, and the great Charlie Parker.

Of Ornette Coleman: ‘It doesn’t strike me that there is any particular brilliance or fresh innovation about it, in fact it is somewhat naive’

“A La Mode”. Budd Johnson. (Felsted FAJ 7007)
That was marvellous! There is a certain recording impresario who takes a great delight in putting together numbers of well-known musicians, from quite different concepts, hoping for good records. Sometimes he gets good results but all too often he does not. But here Stanley Dance evidently got together a group of what are, to my mind, under-rated musicians, with remarkably good results. Budd Johnson and Charlie Shavers are both almost old-timers and have been under-rated because we do not hear enough of them these days. Ray Bryant’s name is hardly a household word and yet he is a wonderful pianist. Joe Benjamin and Jo Jones combine to provide that steady and very satisfactory rhythm. The total result is excellent, for although they have taken a well-worn chord sequence – an ordinary 32-bar I Got Rhythm sequence – the music is fresh. If you had told me someone had written a unison theme on that old chord sequence and had managed to do something different with it, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet here Budd Johnson has composed something which is entirely novel and a very welcome change from the quasi-bopping, hard-bop school (is that what it’s called?), who bore us with their repetitious chord sequences. Shavers was in great form there, Johnson played some beautiful tenor, Bryant surprised me by his excellence, and the rhythm was perfect! The record is so good that one must forgive the bad tape editing in between Shaver’s and Budd Johnson’s choruses, which leaves out about a bar and a half of music – a most interesting record.

“The Disguise”. Ornette Coleman. (Columbia 33CX 10141)
That was more of a surprise than a disguise. Obviously, the tune is called Disguise because it is difficult to tell that it is merely a straightforward twelve-bar blues, with one or two slight alterations. Actually it is a thirteen-bar blues on the theme, but it would have been more interesting had they kept to the thirteen bars during the improvisations. This is a thing that proves little to me except, perhaps, the capabilities of the musicians. It is the sort of thing that Joe Harriot or Dizzy Reece can do just as well here as they do over there. It doesn’t strike me that there is any particular brilliance or fresh innovation about it, in fact it is somewhat naive. It may be that Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and the rest of them there may become good hard-core jazz musicians later on, but they are all fairly young and haven’t quite arrived. There is nothing really outstanding there – it is just another way of dishing up the same old musical fare. It would have been twice as interesting had they made half as good an attempt at doing something twice as original.

‘…the public here for traditional music is quite incapable of distinguishing between good and bad musicianship’

“Begin the Beguine”. Wilbur De Paris. (London LTZ-K 15154)
That is a curiosity, and you picked a very good track to play me, because, from all Cole Porter’s tunes, this is the one with the most interesting and unusual chord sequences to play on. It is a sort of sequence that most modern jazzmen would swear by all that’s holy that no traditional or New Orleans player could ever get around, had he to save his life by doing so. I would still swear that there are few British traditional musicians who could get round it – but the fact is it once again proves that real New Orleans players can play any tune under the sun if they think it fits their style – and play it with just as much conviction and sincerity as they do the perennial High Society. It also proves that so many American musicians who play this sort of music are thorough musicians, and know exactly what they are doing in any circumstances. Such musical knowledge defies most traditional musicians over here, with the usual exceptions of course, but the trouble is that the public here for traditional music is quite incapable of distinguishing between good and bad musicianship.

“After You’ve Gone”. (Beauties of 1918). Charles Mariano and Jerry Dodgion. (Vogue LAE 12166)
Most enjoyable. After someone thought of recording two trombones or two tenors together, the idea of two altos was bound to come along. Both played in a very similar, Parker-based style. My only regret was that they did not fully explore the potentialities of the two instruments playing together. Even the theme at the end was in unison as opposed to the Kai Winding, J. J. Johnson recordings which were usually scored to let you know there were two trombones there. When I heard Mariano in the flesh, I was very, very impressed, but whilst this is very professional jazz, exceedingly well played, it is, however, something that comes off much better in the flesh than it does on record. What it really amounts to is that neither Mariano nor Dodgion have yet achieved the greatness that can be perpetuated and listened to a great deal, but it is the sort of stuff that, had I heard it in a club in the right conditions, I would probably have thought absolutely marvellous and would have gone back to listen again and again. Incidentally, I liked the pianist, Jerry Rowles, very much and of course Victor Feldman, of whom we are all very proud, plays very amusingly. I have heard him play greater stuff but never more fluently.

“Blue Skies”. Happy Wanderers Plus One. (Esquire 32-081)
I am as interested in that as I could possibly be in a social phenomenon and would grant it as much licence as I would grant the very early New Orleans bands. Except, of course, that here they are playing music which, indirectly and through numerous channels, has come from that same source – they are kind of playing New Orleans parade music, five times removed. I suppose they play with a certain amount of sincerity, but possibly what removes most of the enjoyment for me is the fact that there is no bass. I have an ear that is heavily loaded towards bass recording frequencies and to have to listen to a continual one-note bass drum instead of a number of notes from a string bass or a tuba or anything which will bring out that side of the harmonic structure worries my bass-loaded ear. The tenor player, about whom I see they rave in the sleeve notes, is very ordinary. I have heard hundreds of tenor players quite as enthusiastic in semi-professional bands and dance halls all over the country. He may have been guided by important influences but I don’t really see his place in that band. That’s all you’re going to get out of me on that one!

“Jazz Festival Jazz”. Duke Ellington. (Phillips BBL 7279)
That was untypical of what we know as Ellington and yet so typical of the Ellington that really is. He will put anything into a concert if he feels it is the right place for it. Some of it is great, some not so great, yet it is all typical of the way Duke thinks. I personally think this is one of the lesser things he does on such occasions, but at other times he can push his band to the greatest heights by doing something just as little prepared and just as relatively impromptu. I have heard Jimmy Hamilton play a lot better – in fact that was one of his much lesser moments – as great a musician as I think he is … Clark Terry, I thought, played well up to standard and so did Gonsalves, but I felt the whole thing towards the end of the fast movement was a little uncomfortable. It seemed to get faster and it seemed as if the musicians knew it, but couldn’t hold back. I don’t quite see the sense of the Dixieland ending, but that is just one of these flights of fancy that are part of Duke’s make-up. Didn’t quite come off.

“Lafayette”. Bennie Moten and his orchestra. RCA RCX 1027
That’s the sort of stuff which was obviously the forerunner of the Basie hand – one cannot only see from the personnel but by the vigorous way it is played. That sort of tempo has certainly gone out of fashion for big bands these days. But the spirit of it all is quite overwhelming, and, of course, the virtuosity of the saxophone is something that has never been approached in latter-day big band jazz – it’s a thing that always impresses me about recordings of this period. The speed at which they play is fantastic; a lot of modern saxophones would find it very difficult to play those things properly. That’s not to say that I particularly like the way they play, but the technical side of their work is astounding. It’s the sort of music that I enjoy when I’m able to hear a lot of it at the same time. One track out of the blue like that leaves me a bit breathless and makes it difficult to get into the right listening mood.