JJ 06/61: In My Opinion – Kenny Graham

As he opined on various records Kenny Graham lamented the joyless neurosis of contemporary jazz: 'There is not enough laughing in jazz these days – it’s all much too serious. Half of them are frightened of being called modern and the other half are frightened of being called old.' First published in Jazz Journal June 1961

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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. Kenny Graham is one of Britain’s foremost composers and arrangers. Originally a reedman, playing tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute with various of our bigger and better dance orchestras, he now concentrates entirely on composing and arranging. He has done some sterling work for Ted Heath and Humphrey Lyttelton, and is the writer behind the current album by Harry Carney. He led for a time a band of his own, an original and entertaining group known as the Afro-Cubists. – Sinclair Traill

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”. Tony Crombie. Decca SKL 4114
Well, as far as I understand, that was made as a kind of test record for stereo sound. It was to be a kind of British trade mark of sound and I am surprised it has been issued. However it’s good – I like the sound of the band. Victor Feldman is great and I am pleased that Tony himself hasn’t left for the States – so many of our best ones go! Tony is a strong-minded guy and it’s good to hear he hasn’t fallen here for this Jazz à la American nonsense. He is not frightened of sounding like himself, as so many musicians here apparently are. He is a most original pianist and a very natural musician. But the whole thing bears the stamp of good musicianship. Can’t say too much about it, as I was kind of in the background of the session myself.

‘Miles is always sad. He’s got in a sad rut. I’m told he can be a happy man, but I’ve never heard him play happily, or with humour. But Diz does; he can play funny, happy, sad, any-old-how’

“Seabreeze”. Dizzy Gillespie (The Greatest Trumpet of Them All). HMV CLP 1381
The greatest trumpet of them all! Well, perhaps so. This is a beautiful theme, but I don’t know if it would sound quite so beautiful if it were someone else playing it. Dizzy always moves me – he shows great soulfulness; if that is the right word. And of course, there is always that sense of humour underlying everything he does. He knows what it is to be happy and so he knows what it is to be sad. Miles, on the other hand, he’s always sad. He’s got in a sad rut. I’m told he can be a happy man, but I’ve never heard him play happily, or with humour. But Diz does; he can play funny, happy, sad, any-old-how. Incidentally, I liked the way the backings were written there, and the drummer, Charlie Persip, was very good. I think a good title for this album would have been “One of the greatest trumpets of them all!” Let’s be honest at all costs!

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“Spanish Town”. Bobby Hackett (Gotham Jazz Scene). Capitol T 157
The thing that knocked me out there was Hackett himself. Now there’s a man who is not frightened of Dizzy Gillespie, or any of them. He knows what he can play and he still plays it and plays it well. He really understands that type of music, which is a kind of hybrid thing which has happened – a trad-y front line with a swing rhythm section behind them. It’s a kind of serious-happy disc – they are serious about what they’re playing and happy to be playing it. Hackett’s approach is beautiful: lovely melodic ideas in his solos, and a glorious tone. It’s good to hear him having a real bash like that, after all those silly things with strings. The tuba player there was a real howl – a wonderful musician – but a giggle. There is not enough laughing in jazz these days – it’s all much too serious. Half of them are frightened of being called modern and the other half are frightened of being called old.

“Blue Ribbon Charleston”. Bob Prince (Festival in Hi-Fi). Warner WM 4015
I liked the way that started off, but the solos were all shadows of other people. I hardly got the Charleston part, though the beat occurs when they remember to play it, or how  to play it. Bob Prince has taken it right back to the African start which was a good idea, but then he let it drift into the hackneyed ensemble, solo, solo, solo, ensemble, that all small groups play today. The alto was a terribly pale Charlie Parker wasn’t he? And the other just so-so. The band made a healthy sound, but the solos were very unoriginal.

‘That scored solo for the saxes, it shows just how great Lester was, for if we didn’t know he played it all that time ago, you would swear it was a piece of modern writing. That to me is modern jazz’

“Lester Leaps In”. Quincy Jones (Great Wide World of Quincy Jones). Mercury CMS 18031
If my memory serves me right that Ernie Wilkins arrangement was a blow-up of Lester’s own solo, blown up for the saxophones. It knocks me out! Sounds fine and fresh after all this time. That is jazz as I like it – big band, really swinging – big sound and organised spaces left for solos. It doesn’t matter too much if the solos are terribly good when it comes to a thing like that – the whole framework of the thing is so good. I like the band and Quincy obviously learnt a lot from Diz – he gets the same sound as Diz did with his big band. And that’s the right setting for Diz; he would have fitted in that record beautifully. To return to that scored solo for the saxes, it shows just how great Lester was, for if we didn’t know he played it all that time ago, you would swear it was a piece of modern writing. That to me is modern jazz – jazz in a modern conception. So much so-called modern jazz is just solos, solos, solos. I find after a time I have stopped listening, it can’t hold my interest. But that Quincy big band I could listen to all night. Terrific!

“Lester Leaps In”. Harry James. MGM CS 6007
Oh no, no that won’t do at all! If I hadn’t read it was Ernie Wilkins’ arrangement I wouldn’t have believed it! The whole thing is terribly neurotic – it made me feel all tied up to listen to it. I was terribly disappointed in Harry James. I heard him in one of those 1938 Carnegie Hall Concerts and he was terrific. His playing lifted the whole Goodman band, but there he had the horrors – the horrors about what all the new boys are doing. He’s apparently trying to play Dizzy Gillespie on the rocks, but the style doesn’t suit him and he’s not happy at all. There are a lot of worried men in there, a kind of panicky feeling when they play fast like that – they think fast rather than play fast. If the drummer had stopped I’m sure the whole thing would have fallen apart and come to a grinding halt.

“Too Damn Hot”. Ella Fitzgerald (In Berlin). HMV CLP 1391
All that applause! Was it dubbed in afterwards I wonder? You never know these days. Everyone there applauded – they all clapped like mad, yet they couldn’t all know what was happening – Ella put something over but half of them didn’t know what – it’s that universal mob-adulation again. I am always very uncertain if it is possible to sing jazz or not. I have a terrible feeling that it is not possible – for I think it’s a completely different thing. There is no doubt about it, it is jazz-like, it’s a kind of form of music based on jazz, but I can’t quite see it as jazz somehow. Of course there is a great difference between Ella and Frank Sinatra – if either of them sing jazz it’s obviously Ella, but I doubt if either of them do. Another thing about that record is that such an un-jazz-like person as Cole Porter can write material which is capable of being played so many ways. That’s an ideal number for Ella, just made for her. I love listening to her impeccable timing, phrasing; she has everything. But, as I say, I have this thing – I’m never sure in my own mind if it’s really jazz, good though it may be.

If there ever was any singing that was jazz it came from the old blues singers – and there was where it began and stopped. There they used the voice as a separate thing – an instrument if you like – the words didn’t matter all that much. It was the sound. Now with Ella it is the words that are so important and not the sound, and it’s the sound, not the words, that makes jazz.

Another peculiar thing, and I don’t think it happens to everybody, is that I have great difficulty in listening to words – I hear it all as an instrument, as a sound. As for those smart Cole Porter lyrics, I remember “It’s too damn hot” and that’s about the lot – I heard it all as a sound, and not as jazz, because she doesn’t sound like an instrumentalist to me. When she improvises or scat sings or whatever they call it, it’s just a giggle, not anything serious.

‘Ellington there was not only playing the piano, but sounded to me as if he were playing an orchestra. Those morons who say he can’t play jazz must look stupid when they hear that! Perhaps that’s what people mean when they say he doesn’t play good solo piano’

“Stompy Jones”. Duke Ellington – Johnny Hodges (Side by Side). HMV CLP 1374
The strange thing there was I didn’t at any time get the impression it was a small group – those boys can do no wrong as far as I am concerned. I suppose now they could be called virtuosi (that right?), and I suppose the greatest of them all must be Johnny Hodges. He has never been influenced by anyone, and perhaps has never influenced anybody, but is just content to play in his own particular way. I always have the feeling when listening to him that he never has extended himself – there is always that margin – he is always well within himself. He reached his standard some time ago: he discovered what was Johnny Hodges and that was it! It is amazing watching him play. He is so casual . . . he knows everything, everything that can be done with any tune. It is all so easy, so relaxed and yet so right, and he is never lost, knows exactly where he is going all the time. Ellington there of course was not only playing the piano, but sounded to me as if he were playing an orchestra. Those morons who say he can’t play jazz must look stupid when they hear that! When he plays I think he must hear other instruments than the piano – he must hear other sounds than the ones he is making. Perhaps that’s what people mean when they say he doesn’t play good solo piano – I don’t understand it myself, for to me he plays perfect piano. He never interferes and his little solo bits really are played with swing, you know. That guitarist, Les Spann, was great – sounded like a guitar and not a mess of overloaded sound. Marvellous record all through.

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