Ike Quebec: saying it with sound

    The swing-steeped tenor player who went on, as A&R man, to persuade Blue Note to take on bebop insurgents Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Tadd Dameron

    Ike Quebec

    Tenor-man Ike Abrams Quebec is a somewhat forgotten figure these days but from the mid 40s to the early 60s his distinguished Gene Ammons by way of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster approach graced a number of recordings with people such as Roy Eldridge, Cab Calloway, Trummy Young, Grant Green, Jimmy Smith and Bennie Green.

    Ike was born 17 August 1918 in Newark, New Jersey and began his show-business career during the late 1930s as a dancer with a travelling show named Harlem On Parade. He mastered the piano but decided not to persevere after hearing Teddy Wilson (“He was saying so much that I turned to the tenor”) which is when he joined a local band The Barons of Rhythm. They played Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Andy Kirk material and Bobby Plater wrote the band’s theme-song The Jersey Bounce. The Barons never recorded, disbanding in 1941 when the USA entered the war. They should not be confused with a Basie band of the same name however that had a residency at the Reno club in Kansas City in 1935/36.

    He began playing at Minton’s Playhouse where he became friendly with Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke. He co-wrote Mop Mop with Clarke which was recorded by one of his early influences, Coleman Hawkins, in 1943. In the early 40s he worked with Frankie Newton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter and Ella Fitzgerald’s orchestra under the direction of Eddie Barefield. His first recording date took place in November 1943 with Eldridge, who generously gave him a whole chorus on The Gasser. It’s a themeless romp on Sweet Georgia Brown where he produces some big-toned Ben Webster-like lines. In 1944 he appeared with Trummy Young on a triple-bill at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street with Coleman Hawkins’s sextet and Billy Eckstine’s orchestra. That was the year he joined Cab Calloway’s band as principal tenor soloist following in the footsteps of Chu Berry and Illinois Jacquet. He was to remain with Calloway off and on until 1951.

    Ike’s first recording as a leader took place in July 1944 for Blue Note, a label he was to have a long relationship with both as a performer and A & R man. He was accompanied by Milt Hinton and J.C. Heard from the Calloway band together with his friend Tiny Grimes who had been working with Art Tatum. Roger “Ram” Ramirez, whose Lover Man was famously introduced to the jazz world two months later by Billie Holiday, was on piano. The date produced one of Quebec’s originals, Blue Harlem, which became a juke-box hit thanks to regular air-play on Fred Robbins’ Robbins Nest radio show. Grimes opens the slow themeless blues with the distinctive down-home sound he made all his own over the years and once again Ike’s two choruses would convince many they were listening to Ben Webster. Incidentally J.C. Heard gets close to Jo Jones’ rhythmic time-feel on the session which is probably why Ike selected him for all his own recording dates during the 40s.

    Two months later Ike was again in the Blue Note studios fronting a band that featured two more Calloway colleagues – Jonah Jones and Tyree Glenn – with arrangements by Buster Harding. The trumpeter has his moments, especially on Mad About You, and Tyree Glenn has some fine Jack Teagarden-like trombone on Hard Tack but the leader impresses throughout, especially on a rhapsodic If I Had You. He was always a master ballad performer and his ravishing tone is a reminder of what he once said: “From the time I started on tenor, sound became very important to me. No matter how foxy a man’s ideas were, if he didn’t sound good he wasn’t saying anything to me.”

    In July 1945 Ike Quebec’s Swing Seven, with Buck Clayton and Keg Johnson (Budd Johnson’s older brother), recorded three standards together with Cup-Mute Clayton, jointly credited to the leader and the trumpeter. I Found A New Baby is given a brisk work-out with the soloists sounding perfectly relaxed despite the 80 bpm tempo. I Surrender Dear is another ravishing ballad feature for Quebec, which he climaxes with an emotional cadenza. Three weeks later he was back in the studio for a quintet date with Johnny Guarnieri and Bill De Arango performing a toe-tapping Girl Of My Dreams with delicate Teddy Wilson-inspired piano from Guarnieri. After some fleet De Arango guitar on Quebec’s own Jim Dawgs, based on I Got Rhythm, the leader really digs in for two extrovert J.A.T.P type choruses clearly inspired by the hard-swinging rhythm section.

    Throughout the 40s Quebec was one of the most heavily featured artists with Cab Calloway and nearly everything the band recorded had one of his solos. Here is a small selection: For A Little Bally-Hoo, Russian Lullaby, St. Louis Blues, Frantic On The Atlantic, 9.20 Special, The Great Lie, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Rosemarie and One O’Clock Jump. On these titles he often adds a little touch of Illinois Jacquet to his more customary Ben Webster approach. Apart from those already highlighted, Shad Collins, Quentin Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Rudy Powell, Sam “The Man” Taylor, Panama Francis and Cozy Cole were just a few of the notable sidemen who passed through the band while Quebec was there. Gerald Wilson and Buster Harding wrote many of the arrangements.

    The band was frequently resident at the Zanzibar, which Billboard advertised as “The flashiest Sepia Night Club on Broadway since the Cotton Club”. In August 1944 the Ink Spots followed a Calloway booking at the club. Orville “Hoppy” Jones, who provided the memorable bass-talk heard on so many of their hits, collapsed on stage and died a little later. Towards the end of the decade Quebec, who had recorded extensively for Blue Note, became something of a talent scout for the label. Although essentially from the earlier swing school himself, he persuaded Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff to take a chance with contemporary talents such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Tadd Dameron. He was particularly friendly with Monk, whose first date as a leader in 1947 featured Ike’s nephew Danny Quebec West on alto – his only recording.

    Ike recorded with Kansas Fields early in 1952 and a year later he performed with vocalist Carl Davis for a run-of-the-mill R&B session which produced Get Your Business Right and I’m Leaving You Today. Apart from an appearance at the Café Bohemia in 1955 little else was heard from Ike Quebec for most of the 50s because like so many performers of his generation his heroin addiction precluded regular work as a performer. A 1957 survey of over 400 New York jazz musicians conducted by Nat Hentoff revealed that 16% were regular heroin users and more than half smoked marijuana. He served two short sentences at Rikers Island Prison and for most of the decade he seemed to earn a living driving a cab in Manhattan. However by the late 50s he was able to re-establish his relationship with Alfred Lion as an A & R Man at Blue Note, often driving the recording artists who were his friends to the studio. He supervised dates for Dexter Gordon and Jackie McLean, who both went on to appear frequently for the label. Leo Parker too benefited from Quebec’s recommendation. Ike co-wrote Blue Leo with Parker, who recorded two fine albums for Blue Note in 1961. Parker was negotiating a third before his untimely death the following year at the age of 37.

    Quebec began his comeback as a Blue Note artist with a series of 26 short tracks for the juke-box market which took place between July 1959 and February 1962. Tenor dates with organ backing were becoming the order of the day and the material had Ike in quintet settings with Sir Charles Thompson, Eddie Swanston and Earl Vandyke featured at different times on organ. These sessions showed that his artistry and powerful sound had lost nothing during his absence from the studios and served to reintroduce Ike to a public that had all but forgotten him. With the success of those performances the next few years brought a flurry of recording activity for him. His first extended jazz date took place a year later with a Jimmy Smith led group including Blue Mitchell and Jackie McLean. Smith had never heard of Quebec but after the first tune he apparently ran to the control room to tell Lion how “excited and thrilled” he was by what he had just heard. It’s a blowing session with everyone able to stretch out but the solo spotlight falls on Quebec when Mitchell and McLean sit out on Old Folks and Time After Time. Once again he proves what a consummate balladeer he was.

    Ike’s November 1961 album Heavy Soul featured Milt Hinton and Al Harewood with organist Freddie Roach, the latter recommended by Quebec and making his recording debut. The stand-out track here is Quebec’s sensitive reading of Bing Crosby’s 1933 hit Brother Can You Spare A Dime. It became a theme for the depression years and Yip Harburg’s evocative lyric (not heard here, of course) was one of the finest ever protest songs, summing up the devastating social scene of the time. Two weeks later Ike was back in the studio with the same group performing three of his signature ballad readings – It Might As Well Be Spring, Lover Man and Willow Weep For Me. He has that old warhorse Ol’ Man River all to himself for four fluent, foot-tapping uptempo choruses clearly inspired by Shirley Scott-like chords from Roach.

    A week later, with Grant Green, Sonny Clark and Sam Jones, he revisited Count Basie’s Blue And Sentimental in an emotional performance that recalls Herschel Evans’ famous 1938 solo. The guitarist is a perfect foil throughout, with his light, delicate touch. Together they create a suitably late-night mood on Blues For Charlie, recalling Ike’s 1944 hit Blue Harlem with Tiny Grimes. In July 1962 he recorded five titles with Bennie Green, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Clark, Milt Hinton and Art Blakey which for some reason were not released until 1982 when Blue Note made them available. Ike has some typically soulful outings on See See Rider, B.G’s Groove Two and especially his own I.Q. Shuffle. Green worked with some very fine tenor players over the years and it’s a pity that this is the only example of him performing with Quebec. They were stylistically very close and although influenced by the bebop revolution they were essentially veterans of the swing era who would have made a perfect combination.

    In October 1962 Ike decided to join the bossa-nova bandwagon with his Bossa Nova Soul Samba. Ted Gioia has pointed out in his definitive Jazz Standards that nearly everyone at New York’s Local 802 was recording a bossa-nova album at the time. Coleman Hawkins had dipped his toe in the water and Stan Getz’s Jazz Samba was constantly on the airwaves. Quebec, who admired Getz, probably thought “Why not me?” The subtle charm of the idiom is a perfect fit for his understated performances. He ignores the Jobim, Gilberto and Bonfa classics of the genre, preferring to concentrate mostly on his own material. Blue Samba is a delightful marriage of jazz music’s oldest and most basic harmony (the blues) with the bossa nova. Ike rarely indulged in contrafacts but Me ’N’ You is a clever reconstruction of You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To. Dvorak’s Goin’ Home and Liszt’s Liebestraum are given totally fresh looks with the bossa’s delicate rhythm. He was in physical difficulties at the time but Alfred Lion said “Ike played just beautifully and kept the session going.”

    These Blue Notes releases should have been the prelude to a new and successful career but three months after his bossa-nova album Ike Quebec died from lung cancer on 16 January 1963.

    Selected discography

    As leader:
    The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Ike Quebec And John Hardee – Mosaic MD3-107.
    The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions Of Ike Quebec – MD2-121.
    Ike Quebec All-Stars – Classics (F) 957CD.
    Ike Quebec Four Classic Albums – Avid Jazz AMSC1322.

    As sideman:
    Cab Calloway Club Zanzibar Broadcasts (1944-45) – MCPS CD 6.
    Bennie Green – Mosaic Select MS-003.
    The Incredible Jimmy Smith – Open House/Plain Talk – Blue Note CDP7-84269-2CD.

    I would like to acknowledge the help received from John Bell, Bob Weir and the Jazz Institute, Darmstadt Germany while researching the career of Ike Quebec – GJ.