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Legends on Parade: Jazz . . . /Country . . . /. . . and Punk

Illinois Jacquet/Sax Manieac



Legends on Parade:

Jazz . . .

In May 1942 vibist Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra recorded "Flying Home," a hard-driving swing-era original that would remain his signature song for decades to come. Although a 19-year-old Dexter Gordon played on the recording, another tenor saxophonist of the same age stepped forward to take the first solo: Illinois Jacquet's muscular, throaty improvisation plunged to a deep rumble, hinted at multiphonic screams, repeated bent notes with the urgency of a blues guitarist, and just generally teetered on the brink of insanity. The recording was three minutes long, but live the band might stretch it to nearly twenty, and until he left to join Cab Calloway's group in 1943, Jacquet's garrulous playing was the main event.

The "Flying Home" solo is often regarded as a paradigm for the tenor saxophone in rhythm and blues. Although plenty of horn players presaged Jacquet's extroverted excess--nearly every trick in the book had already been used to comic effect by vaudevillians like Wilton Crawley and Rudy Wiedoeft--Jacquet alone pretty much galvanized the blustery, bar-walking jump-blues sax style. He never really moved on to that style himself, remaining faithful to jazz. But back in the 40s, it wasn't so clear what jazz was: the lines between swing, bebop, and R & B were still being drawn, and the overlap made for some exciting music. You can hear the styles evolving for yourself on three new CDs from the local Delmark label, all reissues from the vaults of Apollo Records, a New York label that specialized in gospel, jazz, and R & B.

The best of the lot, not surprisingly, is Jacquet's Jumpin' at Apollo, a collection of sextet and octet recordings the tenor man made between 1945 and '47. Surrounded by a slew of top-notch jazz players--including bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Denzil Best, trumpeter Joe Newman, baritone saxophonist Leo Parker, guitarist Freddie Green, and pianists Bill Doggett and Sir Charles Thompson--he blows with full-bore gusto almost all the time, whether the song at hand is a tender ballad like "She's Funny That Way" or the barnstorming "Bottoms Up" (essentially "Flying Home" with the chord progression flipped). The high-velocity charge of "Diggin' the Count" races with the exaggerated speed of bebop, but in the solo, where your average bopper would let loose with an endless string of tricky sixteenth notes, Jacquet goes for some low-down honking instead. Blues shouter Wynonie Harris is featured on a couple selections from 1945, further proof of the mushy border between jazz and R & B at the time.

Baritone saxophonist Jack McVea played by Jacquet's side in the Hampton orchestra, and although he too straddled the lines between emerging genres, he's more associated with R & B, thanks to his 1946 hit "Open the Door, Richard." On another of the Apollo reissues, McVoutie's Central Avenue Blues, where he plays alto and tenor, there are a couple prebop instrumentals, but most of the collection tends toward vocal R & B and boogie-woogie. Harris does a couple songs here too, but the spotlight is on the singing of Rabon Tarrant, who also worked as a drummer. The songs are more blatantly bluesy, but the pace is less frenetic than on Jacquet's stompers, and when the various horn players--including alto saxophonist Lucky Thompson and trumpeter Teddy Buckner--comment behind the singers, their approach comes straight out of the jazz tradition.

By the late 40s, jazz and R & B had finally parted ways. Blues shouter Eddie Mack had once worked with sometime Duke Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams, and though the material on his reissued Hoot & Holler Saturday Night! features horn-dominated backing bands, the rhythm sections rock rather than swing, and the gruff honking Jacquet pioneered is de rigueur; rock 'n' roll is just around the corner.

Country . . .

I was just a kid in 1977, when Johnny Paycheck scored a number one country hit with "Take This Job and Shove It," but it only reinforced my juvenile belief that country music was only for rednecks. And even after discovering George Jones, Hank Williams, and Webb Pierce and realizing the error of my ways, until recently I continued to think of Paycheck as a hokey yokel. If you still do, you might start your reprogramming as I did, with The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin' Years (Country Music Foundation), a 1996 collection of hard-core honky-tonk, cut between 1964 and '68, that illustrates his finesse as a singer and his envelope-pushing songwriting. His "Apartment #9" was a hit for Tammy Wynette; more recently his gripping "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate" has been covered by Kelly Hogan, and the psychologically twisted gem "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" is resurrected by Lonesome Bob on the new Pine Valley Cosmonauts album.

Now Epic/Legacy has released The Soul & the Edge: The Best of Johnny Paycheck, 23 tracks recorded between 1971 and 1986. In those years Paycheck struggled with drugs and alcohol and ran up against the law for everything from check forgery to tax evasion to a 1985 Ohio barroom shooting that landed him in prison for a couple years--so not surprisingly, Epic positioned him as an outlaw. Many of the songs here play up his bad-boy image, from "I'm the Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)" to "Me and the I.R.S." Yet Paycheck's voice manages to cut through the conceit and Billy Sherrill's excessive production--he tweaks syllables and stretches vowels with the grace of a master storyteller. On a ballad like "I've Seen Better Days," he's on par with his old pal Jones. I still prefer his earlier stuff, but considering the context Paycheck acquits himself pretty well.

. . . and Punk

Rocket From the Tombs are legends among legends: they existed for just over a year, in 1974 and '75, and never made a proper recording, but members went on to found iconic Cleveland punk bands the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. Songs they wrote have been covered by Mission of Burma, Guns n' Roses, and Living Colour, among others...and guess where Rocket From the Crypt got their name? Life Stinks, a vinyl-only bootleg released by the Jack Slack label in an edition of 600 back in 1990, gave outsiders the first glimpse into what the fuss was about: RFTT was one of America's first and greatest punk bands, combining the primal sneer of the Stooges and the MC5 with the sonic adventurousness of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart. Though many of the songs resurfaced in the members' later projects, they're markedly different from the later versions. There's a snarling garage kick to future Ubu classics like "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution," and "Sonic Reducer," the Dead Boys anthem, sprawls where it would later seethe. Now an expanded version of the bootleg called The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, which also includes rehearsal tapes and music from two live shows, has been legitimately released on 180-gram marbled vinyl (a double LP, limited to 1,500 copies) and CD (in an unlimited edition) by Cleveland's Smog Veil Records.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James J. Kriegsmann.

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