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JJ 06/60: In My Opinion – Roy Eldridge

Sixty years ago 'Little Jazz', short of stature but big of tone, gave Jazz Journal his opinion on Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Humphrey Lyttelton, Ken Colyer, Ornette Coleman and more. First published in Jazz Journal June 1960

‘There was a heap of things that Miles could have said there, but he left them all out. He plays in one straight line and it’s great background for a film. For myself I wouldn’t want just to be sitting here drink­ing and just listening to that – sad-sounding’

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 judgement affected by any uncertainty as to the identity of the musicians involved. This month’s “guinea-pig” needs no introduction, for David Roy Eldridge, more affectionately known as “Little Jazz” is a person well known to everyone and anyone who takes an interest in jazz. It was an honour to have him as our first American guest in this series. – Sinclair Traill

“Oh Baby”. Kenny Baker (After Hours). (Polygon JTL 4)
Well, I liked that very much. Kenny Baker really blows in his horn. He has good control, shows command of his horn, has a fine range and makes a good full sound. That saxophone player had me a little puzzled, until I caught on to who he reminded me of – Boyce Brown, a cat who used to play in Chicago. The rhythm there was fine too – they got a real beat.

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“Chippyin”. Chet Baker (The Hard Swing). (Vogue LAE 12152)
This sort of thing may be good, but I don’t care for it too much. There are a lot of changes in that tune and the guy tries to get them all in, but he has a strange way of getting them in. The first chorus and the last chorus (they are the same) is nice ensemble playing, but there are ten thousand trumpet players that can play like that – and I don’t like any of them! Chet Baker doesn’t really blow his horn – not like that other Baker, Kenny, does.

“Generique”. Miles Davis (Lift to the Scaffold). (Fontana TFL 5081)
“Ain’t Necessarily So”. Miles Davis (Porgy and Bess). (Fontana STFL 507)

That was perfect music for films – that first record. There was a heap of things that Miles could have said there, but he left them all out; but that’s his style of playing. He plays in one straight line and, as I said, it’s great background for a film. For myself I wouldn’t want just to be sitting here drink­ing and just listening to that – sad-sounding.

Well, that did nothing to me either. I’m sorry. The arrange­ment was beautiful, I like Porgy and Bess, but I didn’t dig that playing – it’s mouse music, man! I know Miles can do much better – perhaps on some of the other tracks? – I heard a lot about that record; read about it, but that is the first time I heard it.

‘When I first came to New York, Lips Page heard me and said “Man, how come you play like an ofay trumpet player?” – I was kinda playing like Red Nichols in those days. So Lips took me along to hear Louis and that was the first time I caught that sound; I still dig it’

Sweet Lorraine”. Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson. (HMV CLP 1328)
That rhythm section is the end, but it isn’t the right rhythm section for Louis. To me it doesn’t fit the style he plays – there’s nothing wrong with them in no kinda way – but the modern changes don’t suit him. I could tell Pops wasn’t as comfortable as he might have been with a different kind of background. He never varied much from the melody, except for seven or eight bars when he would say something, but he never really stretched out on that tune. Of course, lots of people can play like Louis but they can’t get that sound – that’s what puts Louis in first place – it’s that sound! I remember when I first came to New York, Lips Page heard me and said “Man, how come you play like an ofay trumpet player?” – I was kinda playing like Red Nichols in those days. So Lips took me along to hear Louis and that was the first time I caught that sound; I still dig it.

“Unbooted Character”. Duke Ellington (Historically Speaking). (Parlophone PMC 1116)
Well thanks for playing that record, man. That’s the first thing that got my foot really beatin’ since I’ve been here. That was very, very nice! I wouldn’t have recognised Clark – he sounded quite different from what he does now. Nance, of course, is just the same – great trumpet player, great enter­tainer, great almost anything. Duke’s band, of course, kills me – always has. It’s that original sound. It is like that voice I was talking about, like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, people like that all get their own kind of sound. Duke always got a band that has its own sound – irrespective of who is in it, the band just comes up with that Duke voice anyhow. You figure that out.

Great drummer Sam Woodyard; I was partly responsible for him getting that gig with Duke. He was playing with the Milt Buckner Trio, when I was working in the same place and I told Duke about him. He’s a real hard worker, he really plays, and he practises all the time. He used to swing that Buckner group and he swings Duke’s band on that record.

I’m only sorry I’ve never been fortunate enough to play in Duke’s orchestra – Cootie came to me once and asked me if I’d join Duke, but I had my own little band in Kelly’s Stable in those days. I was pretty happy with them, so I didn’t make it, yet I would have loved to have played with Duke. Of course, I’ve played with him in joints and clubs and places, but not with the band.

It’s a ball to play after hours with Duke behind you – he gives you a wonderful background. I dig him as a person, I dig how he feels musically – I dig everything he does. Play with him and you don’t need drums, for he really knows how to back a cat.

“Oh How I Miss You Tonight”. Johnny Letman. (Cascade of Quartets) (Columbia 33SX 1218)
Well, Johnny Letman is a Chicago boy – he’s been in New York now for a couple of years or so and recently has been doing real nice. He has worked on several of the jobs I’ve been on and he’s another who really blows in his horn. You can hear Louis there all the time; he’s got that Louis feeling in everything he does. Sometimes I think he plays a lot like me – but as I said, he has often been playing on the other bandstand to me and, well, it rubs off, y’know. But he’s a real good trumpet player, there is plenty of life in his playing.

I like a horn that has life to it – otherwise it just don’t ring no bell with me at all. That’s why I like that Kenny Baker. I’m not getting at what anyone plays, but I mean that new sound – I can’t get with that lifeless tone so many cats pro­duce these days – I don’t think it’s the way it should be. Jazz isn’t supposed to be a sad thing – even the blues, the sad blues, there must be feeling in it. But a straight tone with no vibrato always reminds me of a brass band cornet player: no warmth, no feeling. Even a symphony band – there is a flute player I heard (I forget the title now but think it’s the Firebird Suite) – he’s a French guy, and man he’s got the most wonderful vibrato – so warm and exciting, he floats away – it’s so good. But I can’t get with that straight sound on no kind of horn. It’s for brass bands, but it ain’t for jazz!

‘Panama Francis is a fine drummer. I gave him that name, by the way. I was trying out various drummers to replace him and Panama, who was just a kid then, he came in my band. I didn’t know, but he was kinda strange looking and I thought he must be from the West Indies (which he is) and so I used to call him Panama – and the name stuck!’

The rhythm section was good in there. Ramey … well! Dick Wellstood is a real striding piano player and Panama Francis is a fine drummer. I gave him that name, by the way. When Chick Webb died, Bill Beason left me and took over on drums. I was trying out various drummers to replace him and Panama, who was just a kid then, he came in my band. I didn’t know, but he was kinda strange looking and I thought he must be from the West Indies (which he is) and so I used to call him Panama – and the name stuck! That was in 1939. He’s been making a lot of rock ‘n’ roll records recently; he’s practically got rich off that rock ‘n’ roll stuff – working round the clock on those things. There are plenty of real good cats on those rock ‘n’ roll things – they don’t want their names mentioned but they are there. You’ve got to be a good, solid drummer to play with one of those groups; it can be tough going.

“Oooh”. Earl Hines. (Felsted FAJ 7002)
If that’s a piano record, don’t tell me, I’ll tell you! I’ve always played with good pianists – started with Teddy Wilson and I know ’em. Ken Kersey, Billy Kyle, Dick Wellstood, all wonderful, and, of course, the boy I used just before I came over here, Ronnie Ball. He’s a real striding pianist when he plays with me – he likes that style. On bass in my band I had Bennie Moten and when making introductions I finish up “… and bassman Bennie Moten from Birmingham, Alabama and pianist Ronnie Ball also from Birmingham … England” – it always gets a laugh.

Well, that was Earl of course – like Louis, he keeps on going along, and like many other good ones he has one little something you can recognise him by. He plays good! I played with him this year at the Monterey Festival. We had a wonder­ful set, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Vernon Alley, Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, limmy Witherspoon and Earl. Man, he really plays, and the sound he gets is very wonderful. He’s another that has his own voice, and he can play so much you don’t know what you’re listening to. I was surprised at that blues there – I didn’t know Earl could play blues that way – forceful, very strong. I can’t really play the blues, wish I could. I come from the East and you have to be born with the blues to really get with them. You have to know all those little things that the bluesmen get in there – those little things that no one can teach you – you have to be born with blues. Lips Page, he came from Dallas, Texas and he could really play blues – best trumpet man for blues there ever was.

“South Winds”. Humphrey Lyttelton (Triple Exposure). (Pariophone PMC 1110)
That sounded nice – I liked it. Good full sound and the trombone player really knocked me out. The trumpet player there had a good feeling for jazz, I liked his lead – he blows on his horn and has none of that dead-sounding tone. Rhythm was nice and lively. The alto man’s time was good – and that’s really something. So many guys play a lot of good things, but they don’t have that time. If you listen close you will often hear a cat rushing up to something, instead of staying right there with it. They rush their phrases, instead of pacing it easily. It’s a question of time, that’s all.

“Cheek To Cheek”. Ken Colyer (This is Jazz). (Columbia 33SX 1220)
Well, that was a strange tune for a Dixieland group – there’s quite a few changes in that which they might find difficult, but they get through, and they have the feeling. It’s very important playing that type of music. Take many young cats I heard back home, playing that way, they couldn’t make it, couldn’t get that sound or that jazz feeling – the real Dixieland feeling. There’s a trumpet player in the States, who loves Louis, and who loved Lips, and he’s my boy too y’know. He plays just like that. In fact, when you put the record on I thought it was him – that same slow, shaky vibrato that Colyer has.

This cat never really made it, though I got him a job once. Took him uptown and told him if you don’t really play I’ll sure jump on you. He got the job and stayed there a year; he’s called Nat, can’t remember the rest, but we call him Space – he’s a real space cadet! He’s a funny little cat. When I came back from Europe eight or nine years ago, I brought back a flugelhorn. Nat was working, but he didn’t rest till he got himself one of these flugelhorns and also a little baby cornet I have – used to play one of them things years ago, back in the 20s.

Yes, something like the one Don Cherry plays now with Ornette Coleman. Yes, I heard that group, and I know one thing – they’re the bravest people I ever seen! I went three nights in a row, sober at that, and never got the message. You have to hear them in person and then you really can’t understand it. I went with some young, modern musicians, took Paul Cham­bers with me. “You explain to me what’s happening”, I said. But he said “Man, I don’t understand it either.”

‘We played and it came out all right; there was a sort of melody going along there, but this stuff Ornette Coleman plays there ain’t even nothing like that to it. ’Course, everybody back home is afraid to say anything about it, because it’s new and it might be good y’know’

The group start out with something, play a riff on the first chorus, then they leave everything and just blow. No amount of bars, nothing conventional, just blowing in their horns – no melody, no kinda’ way. You can’t say it’s the blues, nor How High The Moon – or nothin’. You remember years ago I used to play with Clyde Hart, the pianist? Clyde and I were at the Paramount Theatre one time and I had a little recording machine in my bag. So we decided to play without telling one another beforehand what we were going to play. We played and it came out all right; there was a sort of melody going along there, but this stuff Ornette Coleman plays there ain’t even nothing like that to it. ’Course, everybody back home is afraid to say anything about it, because it’s new and it might be good y’know. After all, there’s all kinds of music, Dixieland, modern and all that, and there’s got to be something new sometime.

“Chicago”. Jonah Jones (Swinging Round The World). (Capitol ST 1237)
Well, Jonah’s making it real big now and I’m glad ’cause it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. We played together in Horace Henderson’s band in 1928. Jonah’s been playing a long time and he finally got the break. That old shuffle rhythm they keep going there – I remember years ago playing that kind of rhythm on a record date, but John Hammond said “Oh man, don’t put that in there – just cut it out.” But it still works out.

Like I was telling you about Louis and Oscar Peterson, if you get the kind of background that fits your playing you always sound that much better. I know one can play with anything, but with the right backing it’s always that much better. Jonah here has got the right group for him, that’s why these records of his sound so good – so finished. They fit, those cats. This kind of playing gives his playing the freedom he needs; his pianist backs him as he wants, whereas if he played boom-boom as modern pianists play, it wouldn’t suit Jonah – no space for him to work in. It’s a fine little group. I could dig playing with them and Louis would fit perfectly too.

Well, that’s that! I’ll probably be hated for the rest of my life, but who cares!

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