JJ 09/61: In My Opinion – George Wein

Sixty years ago George Wein reacted to Ruby Braff ('refreshingly new'), Pee Wee Russell ('soul of true jazz'), Oscar Peterson ('hasn’t the musical scope') and more. First published in Jazz Journal September 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. George Wein is one of the very few jazz impresarios who have a real knowledge of jazz and who is at the same time a very genuine lover of the music. As a pianist of some ability he has played in many notable small groups with such musicians as Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson and may others. By his enterprises as a club and concert promoter (he ran his own clubs, the Storyville and the Mahogany Hall, in Boston) he has been the means of giving employment to many deserving musicians, many of whom ring his praises with frank sincerity. – Sinclair Traill

“Squeeze Me”. Lennie Felix (That Cat Felix). Nixa NJT514
That’s a typical example of a pianist, a good one, who is playing a style he hasn’t grown up with but has absorbed rather. I wouldn’t have known if he was English or American. He has good feeling for jazz and didn’t copy note for note – the style he was playing – Fats Waller there – but put his own thoughts into what he was doing. It wasn’t terribly exciting but I found it very pleasant.

“Midnight to Midnight”. Kenny Baker (After Hours). Polygon JTL 4
That’s an interesting record – very able! I have always been keen to hear these fellows. I heard Kenny Baker during the war and was most impressed – I had wondered what had happened to him. He plays there rather like Herman Autrey used to play with Waller – same kind of muted tone. Very good. But the whole group are good, except perhaps the drummer. Why all that ricky ticky business on the wood blocks? This is a fairly recent recording isn’t it? Except for that, which sounded dated, it was fine, free-swinging jazz. The pianist, Dill Jones, is exceptional! Great musician – that was a nice chorus he played there – full of drive, lovely tone.

“I Can’t Get Started”. Buck Clayton & Ruby Braff. Vanguard PPT 1200
Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff are two of my favourite trumpet players and two of my favourite people. Their characteristics are entirely different, for although Buck has influenced Ruby strongly, due to their association music­ally, if you examine their styles there is a vast difference. Of course they both work within the framework of the swing style of the ’30s, but Ruby’s melodic-concept differs harmonic­ally very much from Buck’s.

They both, of course, stem from the Louis Armstrong tradition. Individually, they are very different: Ruby has always been shadowed by lack of finance and it shows in his playing; Buck is a much more mature person and when he’s out for blood then man, he really plays! He doesn’t always play with these long lines, or with that clear, fine tone. When he’s fooling around he doesn’t play like that, for Buck, funnily enough, plays his best when he knows he’s being recorded. Buck played wonderfully with Sidney Bechet at Brussels – that record, with the one he recorded after the Newport Festival, are two of his best albums. Of course, he’s made many great records – this is in point one of them.

Ruby Braff, on the other hand, hasn’t, I think, ever been recorded correctly. It is probably his fault as much as anyone else’s, for he’s never had a group, or got a framework together, before he entered the studio. His best recordings therefore are at live shows. I believe in live recordings, for if musicians are relaxed and feel like playing they play better and there is always more atmosphere.

Ruby has it in him to be one of the most important figures in jazz for many days to come, for he is the only young musician playing in the traditional style to have come along with any originality of concept. He has taken things from the so-called modernists, but his style is refreshingly new and original. He needs a break – the luck to be recognised by the public – and if he gets that he could really go places. It may be a funny thing to say, but I feel I know the music of those two as well as I know my own.

‘To me Pee Wee Russell personifies the jazz musician – he is the soul of true jazz. Every true jazzman must have a sound and a style as his identity, but within Pee Wee’s style and sound he has complete freedom’

“Pee Wee Russell’s Unique Sound”. Newport Jazz Festival All Stars. Warner WM 4009
To me Pee Wee Russell personifies the jazz musician – he is the soul of true jazz. Every true jazzman must have a sound and a style as his identity, but within Pee Wee’s style and sound he has complete freedom. Unlike other musicians, Pee Wee has never become locked-in by his style of performance. He is always concerned with improvising – always.

On our recent tour of the Continent Pee Wee had a feature number Sugar, which he never played the same way twice. The band always listened in awe, for he’d play his phrases differently each night. No prepared solo for Pee Wee, no cliches, just pure improvisation. As he plays he composes, all his choruses could have been taken down and made into other songs, based on the chords of Sugar.

He has that same melodic approach that Thelonious Monk has – they are both concerned with intervals. Pee Wee, you will have noticed, never uses an interval you will be expecting, which is part of the great appeal of his playing. Monk is the same. He is, of course, more concerned with the harmonic concept, but his intervals are usually where one would least expect them to be. Although Monk is a little more ‘out’ than Pee Wee, their approach to jazz is in many ways very similar. They both play what to many people are dischords, they are both always looking for that note – that note that is right yet different.

Pee Wee also had a perfect sense of time. When you’re playing with him, it is suicide to attempt to follow him because he’s way ahead of you – just go ahead, because his time will always be superior to yours; even if you’re a drummer, he knows where the beat is, every second. I’ve never heard him play a wrong note, and he is always listening acutely to the other men playing with him. Whatever the lead man plays, that will dictate what Pee Wee plays, and his reactions are instantaneous. To me he is unique, very nearly the perfect jazz musician.

“Staccato Swing”. Benny Golson Quartet. Esquire 32-125
That was interesting, particularly for the playing of Ray Bryant. I was first taken by his playing when he was accompanying Carmen McRae a few years back. He is one of the very few of the younger musicians who, although their concept is modern, still recognise the roots of jazz. That shows in his playing. He has a complete style of his own, but I don’t know how important he is going to be, for to me he so far lacks the great virtuosity that makes for the outstanding jazz musician.

This is particularly necessary in pianists, this virtuosity. Erroll Garner has it; Monk has it, not as a pianist, but as a personality; and a few others – Earl Hines, Tatum, to mention but two. It requires a great strength of personality to be able to qualify for this valhalla of the greats. That is no criticism of Ray Bryant, for he is one of the most tasteful pianists in jazz today. I have never heard him play anything I disliked – he uses a forceful rhythmic drive, and as I said he has a completeness in his style.

Incidentally, the trombonist on that record, Curtis Fuller, is a young man who may well be heard much more in time to come. I have heard him in a few jam sessions and he is quite a startling musician. There is a new school of trombonists back home right now – Fuller, Slide Hampton and others who have forsaken the J. J. Johnson style and are using a new form of their own. They are all good musicians, but I think Fuller is the best of them all.

In New York right now there are a whole heap of youngsters – good keen musicians. And they are not all playing like Miles Davis, or Horace Silver or even Dizzy, but are trying to create something new. Of course much is derivative, taken from what has gone before, but it is new. Nothing world-shattering at present, but full of interesting thought. Maybe the wheel is turning again.

“In San Francisco”. Earl Hines. Fantasy 3238
Well, Hines was an innovator – he was the man who invented what they called “trumpet”-sty]e piano, the man who broke down the barriers that had surrounded the pianists before he came on the scene. He liberated the pianist from being only a member of a rhythm section and showed there were other ways to play piano than the stride method.

But as you hear, Hines was himself a great stride pianist, when he wanted to play that way, so he didn’t free anybody from anything he couldn’t do himself. It’s a tribute to his genius that although he was brought up in the days of barrelhouse and stride he still developed a style completely his own. He is to me one of the all-time important pianists, but for some reason or other he is continually, terribly, underrated. Today he still plays great piano – as good as anyone else in the business.

‘I’ve never heard anyone play like Garner can, when he stretches out sometimes late at night and is not locked-in by the Garner style which has been so commercially successful’

I remember one night at the Embers, New York. Sitting at the table with me were Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner and Eddie Heywood. The customers had all left, it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and Earl and his trio were still on the stand. For two and a half hours Hines just tore it up – it was fantastic! He knew who he was playing for, of course, and the music that came from that piano – I can’t start to tell you!

Many people don’t know how great a piano player can play, because so often at concerts they’ll hear a great show of technique and improvisation and that is all. It is only at rare times that one is lucky enough to hear the very greats – Hines, Garner, Tatum – in a setting where they have complete freedom of swing, and where they can do things that defy description or analysis. One could copy, to a certain extent, what Hines did that night, but you won’t really get very close to what he did, because he was creating something that was his alone.

For the same way, I’ve never heard anyone play out of tempo as Tatum did, and yet still be in tempo; I’ve never heard anyone play like Garner can, when he stretches out sometimes late at night and is not locked-in by the Garner style which has been so commercially successful. And I have never heard anyone play as Earl Hines played that night – it was something that lifts these men above the mortal piano players.

“Liza” Oscar Peterson. (Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson). HMV CLP 1429
Well, Oscar is technically a great musician but, and I say it in all sincerity, he does not approach the greatness of the three we have been talking about. He hasn’t the musical scope they have. That is not criticism, for I believe Oscar knows in his own heart that he does not quite approach their greatness. He is just not in their league. He is a great pianist all right, but I get the feeling he is in a league of his own. This may sound silly but sometimes I fancy if I practised very, very hard for about 150 years I might play like Oscar Peterson; but I could play for a thousand years and still never approach what Hines, Garner and Tatum could do, because they have that little extra something that just can’t be learned by study or practice – however hard one tries.

Read John White’s obituary of George Wein