JJ 01/61: In My Opinion – Humphrey Lyttelton

Sixty years ago trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton had a hard time with folk and folk-influenced musicians, but relished Eddie Condon, Ellington and Armstrong. First published in Jazz Journal January 1961

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Humphrey Lyttelton (left) and Louis Armstrong. Photo by Gilbert Gaster from JJ Archive

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. The title of this series is extremely apposite as far as Humphrey Lyttelton is concerned, for there has never been a musician anywhere who has more decided opinions than Humph. A fine musician and a great writer, Lyttelton is undoubtedly a name which will be remembered, in the years to come, as one of the real giants of British jazz and jazz journalism. – Sinclair Traill

“Blues After Dark” Dizzy Gillespie (The Greatest Trumpet Of Them All). HMV CLP 1381
I think that’s very funny after all the kerfuffle of the past twenty years or so. If you put this record against a small swing band record of 1941 or ’42 you’d think that only five years had elapsed, if that. I like it, but have against it what I have against so many LP things – the length. Whether I’m getting short winded in my old age or not, some tracks these days seem to go on for ever and ever. Not so much there, as there was some nice, interesting writing, but it was long. Let’s face it, that was just swing music – in fact they’ve all stopped running away. Dizzy is no longer running away from Roy and the tenor players are no longer running from Hawkins any more; they’re not afraid to get that big sound. It’s a good trend altogether. There was a time when jazz was like a worm – chop it up into little lots and they all started going off in different directions. Anything that tends to create a real jazz tradition that one can trace right the way through is a good trend.

“Joy”. Ray Bryant (Alone with the Blues). Esquire 32-106
Very good, very very good. For me Bryant is one of the few comparatively modern piano players that you can recognise within the first two or three bars. In much the same way as one can recognise Earl Hines – it’s an actual sound out of the piano, a tone from the piano rather than a cliche or some kind of idiosyncrasy. Bryant sounds good in any company; he can play anything. The first time I ever heard him was on an Art Blakey record – you know that Drum Suite thing? There is one track on that which is, I think, written by Bryant – splendid! I took the record on tour to play that drum stuff to Eddie Taylor, but directly this piano track came up everyone in the band sat up, and listened with all ears. He has that sound which makes you listen. I think he’s one of the big boys that crop up now and again in jazz.

“Bill Dogs It”. Bill Doggett (Big City Dance). Parlophont PMC 1118
That was nice. It is good to hear Hal Singer on record ’cause I heard him in New York at the Metropole, and thought he was one of the best things we heard over there. That’s the sort of music you can walk into in New York, just casually off the street. It goes well with a drink, nothing very profound, but it swings and is in good taste. It comes easy to them; it’s natural for them to swing that way.

‘I think all these folk music things are really hard to listen to, in a way … One really has to switch off the critical faculties altogether’

“l Must See Jesus”. Snooks Eaglin. Heritage HLP 1002
Well, that’s a tough one! I think all these folk music things are really hard to listen to, in a way. Not from the point of view of it being a bore to listen to, but it depends a great deal on being in the right mood. For example, there are cir­cumstances, maybe late at night when you’ve had plenty to drink and so on, when you could be absolutely bowled over by that. But at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it can pass you by. One really has to switch off the critical faculties altogether. Play that to me later on to-night in the correct atmosphere and I would probably have something entirely different to say about it. It gets by entirely on the fact that it is com­pletely unpretentious and has much of that over-worked word “sincerity” about it. It rests on that and therefore it depends enormously on who is listening to it, and also the circum­stances in which they are listening.

“Oh Baby”. Eddie Condon (That Toddlin’ Town). Warner WM 4009
That was the Condon First Eleven! That particular team, ever since the Condon style was on record, is the best. Cutty is by way of being a new member of the team (I used to like Brad Gowans’ playing), but he fits nicely. We were playing this tune during our recent Scottish tour and it’s the kind of traditional, or Dixieland, or anything you like to call it, jazz that you can play with modern musicians, for they can take it seriously. With this particular group (I am not talking about other Condon bands), they never sound as if they were just going through the paces, through the old routines. There is always something unusual going on – often coming from Pee Wee Russell who, to my mind, is one of the really great jazz men.

Jazz men are divided into two main categories: those who have just an overall technique and can express almost anything that comes into their heads, and the other class who may be technically limited, like Jimmy Yancey for instance, and yet who say something within the limitations of their technique, something which covers a far wider scope. One note from Pee Wee for instance, means more than a whole string of choruses by any of those Benny Goodman imitators, despite the fact that their playing is extremely facile and they know their instruments inside out. Again, that comes from the same end of the scale as that singer we’ve just heard, Snooks Eaglin. Although Pee Wee would probably deny it hotly himself, it’s more the folk music end of jazz, with people making the instruments say what they want to say.

‘Take one of the modern people, like Jimmy Giuffre, for example, who is obsessed, all the time, self-consciously obsessed, with tone pro­duction and so on. When he was over here with JATP, this obsession kept getting in the way; you kept thinking: if he could only get his mind off tone production he would play something nice’

Although this LP has had some criticism, I have played it a lot. Bud Freeman, currently much underrated, is a great jazz tenor player – one of the real top ones – for exactly the same reason: the music comes pouring out without any self-conscious straining towards any particular effect. You take one of the modern people, like Jimmy Giuffre, for example, who is obsessed, all the time, self-consciously obsessed, with tone pro­duction and so on. When he was over here with JATP, this obsession kept getting in the way; you kept thinking: if he could only get his mind off tone production he would play something nice. Whereas with people like Bud and Pee Wee the sound takes care of itself.

Kaminsky, though I was disap­pointed with him when he played here, is, with the exception of Bobby Hackett, the best trumpeter of the Condon team. Certainly he says much more to me than Wild Bill, for ex­ample. Again it’s the matter of sound. Kaminsky gets a deep sort of sound. I don’t mean deep in a musical sense; it’s a clouded sort of sound, with several layers to it. It’s all the more effective, because Max is in no way a glib player; he doesn’t just run up and down the chords, but has to listen all the time. Harmonically, I get the feeling he’s sometimes struggling – in fact over here a time or two, he gave up the struggle and left one wondering how a musician of his stand­ing could stray so far from the simple harmony. Yet here he plays beautifully all the way through. He gets that wonderful sound in the ensembles. This is a Condon record 1 shall definitely keep.

“Swinger’s Jump”. Duke Ellington (Blues in Orbit). Philips BBL 7381
Duke’s a wonderful person for restoring one’s faith in almost anything. We were talking earlier about these informal get-together sessions which go on and on for ever and which are merely a series of solos strung together with bits of en­semble – in other words, much like those Miles Davis con­certs we recently heard. They are fine to play when one is sweeping up after a party and picking out the potato salad which has been trodden into the carpet, but it’s rather like seeing the raw product before it’s been put into production. These Duke tracks were made, according to the sleeve note, in a couple of late night sessions, in the course of which Duke had his supper and the copyist didn’t turn up and every­thing went wrong. In fact, nothing could have been thrown together with more haste and with less formal production, yet Duke makes fullest use of all the different sounds at his disposal.

‘All I heard from the Miles group was five musicians, and particularly Miles, saying, “This is what I can do, these are my harmonic ideas, this is the wonderful sound I get on the horn, this is the way I feel, but if you want to hear me do something with it come again another day”’

All the time there are exciting and interesting things going an. I think the Duke Ellington organization, aggregation or what have you, is so far the best permanent group in jazz as to barely merit comparison. It’s right all the way though. I think it would have been an excellent thing for Miles Davis to have done a stint, a long stint, as a regular with Duke, because all I heard from the Miles group was five musicians, and particularly Miles, saying, “This is what I can do, these are my harmonic ideas, this is the wonderful sound I get on the horn, this is the way I feel, but if you want to hear me do something with it come again another day.” It was rather like going to visit Rembrandt and him saying, “This is my palette – isn’t it lovely? – one of these days I’ll use it to paint a picture.” You know that kind of strung-out stuff seems to me to be so far below the potential talents of someone like Miles, or Stitt, that it left me completely dissatisfied.

But Duke or even any of his men (that Stan Dance LP Cue For Saxophone) make music however or wherever they are assembled. That Strayhorn thing of Dance’s was only a kind of pick-up thing with a string of solos, yet all the way through you get little bits of duet, and the actual sounds the musicians got were used to create a coherent, built-up pattern. This particular track I see was one of a couple of blues made at the end of the session to pad out the LP – it was probably thrown together at a moment’s notice, with the sections riffing just on their own without much direction. But nevertheless you get something you can call a coherent performance.

I think it was underlined – you know, this worry I have about some of these modern trends of merely extended solo work – it was underlined at these Miles Davis things by all that non­sensical walking on and off. It seems ludicrous to me that during one alleged composition within one piece that as soon as somebody has taken five, six, seven or ten choruses, they then renounce all interest in the proceedings and just stroll off to chat with the people backstage, and never show renewed interest in the proceedings until they come back for a final ensemble. There can’t be any building up of any­thing, as good jazz must. With that group they appeared to say as soon as they had finished – “Well, that’s me, I’m not interested any more. Goodbye!” You see it to a large extent in the modern jazz clubs in London, where every number lasts for about 25 minutes and where everyone must take a string of choruses – bass player, drummer, everyone on every number. If the only alternative is to stand around looking bored or half asleep, well then Miles is probably quite right to walk off. The whole format seems to be below the obvious talents of the people taking part. It’s too easy. Of course it isn’t all bad – one hears some fine choruses, but so much is boring.

Duke shows the way by making use of his solo potential and blending it under his own direction into some­thing constructive as a whole. Some of the Gil Evans things, although somewhat pretentious, make more use of Miles’s talents. Sketches Of Spain was a little bit over-ambitious, but it was a fine idea to use that sound and to build other things round it. Some of the small band things, when you get the right musicians, all working together, are fine, but I don’t think we’ve yet heard it over here.

“Lester Leaps In”. Quincy Jones. Mercury CMS 18031
That was a good follow-up to the last record, for Quincy is about the only man – band-leader and composer – who could possibly take over the mantle of Duke. Not from the point of view of following in his train of thought by imitation or anything else, but by his way of organising all the things he has at his disposal. I think his two most recent records, Birth Of A Band and this one, are the most exciting big band records of recent years, outside Duke and Count, of course. As a regular band, if it manages to weather the storm in this age of the small group, it will soon be alongside these two great bands.

‘If you meet Quincy Jones – you think here is somebody who is a proper, mature human being, which is nice, and always inspires confidence’

What I particularly liked about that track was the abundance of new ideas – there are all kinds of things in there that show Quincy’s mind is working all the time. Yet from the opening bars you get the idea that here’s a band which is playing for you. That, of course, is why Ellington and Basie are so popular, because they have the common touch and can convince anybody within a few bars that their function on the stage is to entertain, to get those feet tapping, and so on. That is the main problem in jazz at its present stage – to combine the artistic notion of originality and sound with communication – to get it across to an audience.

Of course, this was a track you could play over and over and still find something new. I liked that Lester chorus played by the tenors – it’s a witty kind of a touch, and you feel the writer has a great sense of humour – you get the feeling he is a man with a balanced personality. Which is exactly what you do feel if you meet Quincy Jones – you think here is somebody who is a proper, mature human being, which is nice, and always inspires confidence, shall we say. Inciden­tally, although the sleeve states “flutes” in the plural, it sounds to me like a flute and a piccolo. You can hear him riding up above that last ensemble … sure it must be a piccolo.

‘If the people who rave about the Hot Fives … had gone to a Louis Armstrong live perform­ance, they would have been as horrified as they are now. They’d have seen him do his boy and girl dressed-up act with Zutty Singleton, the Heebie Jeebies thing and the Rev. Satchelmouth complete with dog-collar and others. Louis has always done that kind of thing; he has always been fond of the old hokum’

“Jelly Roll Blues”. Louis Armstrong. Audio Fidelity AFSD 5930
Although called Jelly Roll Blues, that seemed to have a different harmonic sequence to the one I know – but what’s the odds? Louis must be heading now for the title of the most maligned man in jazz. People are profoundly disturbed by his stage presentation – all the comedy stuff, the clowning and the routines. It seems to have obsessed everybody now-a-days. Yet this King Oliver set, the “Handy” and “Waller” LPs and the autobiography albums are today’s equi­valent of the Hot Five recordings of the 20s. If the people who rave about the Hot Fives regard them as being the most profound music performed in those days, which is probably true, if they had gone to a Louis Armstrong live perform­ance, they would have been as horrified as they are now. They’d have seen him do his boy and girl dressed-up act with Zutty Singleton, the Heebie Jeebies thing and the Rev. Satchelmouth complete with dog-collar and others. Louis has always done that kind of thing; he has always been fond of the old hokum. Then he would go into a studio and make records that were, for the most part, well thought out, with original material, so I don’t really know what all the fuss is about.

To harp back on the old theme, Miles Davis makes records that have nothing to do with that casual jam session performance he gave us over here. You know, jazz operates on so many different levels that if one has to have a band like Louis’s going round putting in a lot of extraneous stuff in order to keep together, in order to make records like this, I think it is a very, very small price to pay. It’s been happening all the way along. When Louis played here people said “Oh, it’s not the same as the Hot Five days”, but really it was exactly the same. At odd times he and his mates went into a record­ing studio and played exactly as and what they wanted – wonderful records which are in everyone’s collection – classics of jazz. Then at night he went out, put on his funny hats, did his Reverend Satchelmouth act and played pretty for the people. These are the facts of life. You see, no-one could produce, night after night, music of the quality of Potato Head Blues, S.O.L. Blues, and those others; it’s just a physical impossibility!

Of course, apart from some of the live con­cert recordings, which are merely made by the gramophone companies as a cheap method of fulfilling the demand for LPs and are not the best method of recording and are rarely significant of what musicians can do – apart from Louis’s re­cordings in that field, his records since 1954 have been of a consistently high standard. In fact, here he is playing as well as ever, if not better. So well, what more do you want!?

I think if someone invented a time machine which took some of to-day’s jazz fans back to the so called Golden Age, they’d commit suicide on the spot – they would see and hear things far more horrifying to them than the odd bit of hokum Louis puts on these days. After all, we know we heard one hundred times more jazz from Louis’s concert band, when they toured here, than he ever put on when he came to the Palladium in 1932. Then it was the odd scrap here and there, now the whole programme is jazz.