Using a rather primitive recording device — a suction-cup microphone attached to a telephone receiver,…
Using a rather primitive recording device — a suction-cup microphone attached to a telephone receiver, its sound picked up by a cassette recorder — music journalist Michael Jarrett chronicled the history and techniques of some of jazz’s most celebrated record producers. In his book Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums From Louis Armstong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and DianaKrall (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Jarrett traces the trajectory of the technology and psychology employed by the producers who created enduring art that set the template for much of what followed. Jarrett’s conversations took place during a 25-year-period while writing for outlets such as Pulse! and JAZZIZ. A professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, York, Jarrett has published several books about music. The following edited excerpts are from Pressed for All Time’s second chapter, which chronicles a particularly fertile time in jazz recording. The section begins with Jarrett’s historical analysis then features producers’ commentary about some of the most storied albums in jazz.
Rolling Tape: Producing Jazz LPs, 1950-1966
In 1947, Bing Crosby, who had invested heavily in the newly established Ampex Company, recorded his nationally syndicated radio show — not to standard 16-inch transcription discs (cut at 33 1/3 rpm) but to magnetic tape. (Allied troops had “discovered” tape machines when they liberated Berlin.) Then, a year later, Columbia Records introduced the vinyl LP or “long-playing record.” Discs that used this new medium played quietly at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, and they began to replace the shellac 78-rpm record, which had been the industry standard for half a century. A 10-inch LP — the format initially reserved for popular music — could now hold 35 total minutes of music; both sides of a 10-inch, 78-rpm disc held a grand total of five and a half minutes. Call it a revolution in recording technology. That’s exactly what it was — but one with a caveat. Producers could now capture for reproduction and sale on records music that had routinely happened for many years only on various stages. Recording technology had, at long last, caught up with the actual practice of making jazz music. It therefore utterly transformed how jazz was formatted to records, though it scarcely affected how jazz musicians made music outside recording studios. No one was better positioned to take advantage of the revolution in recording technology than George Avakian, head of Columbia’s Popular Album Department. In 1948, he produced The Voice of Frank Sinatra, the first 10-inch LP. In 1950 — after transferring Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert to tape (from a stack of transcription discs) — Avakian produced the first 12-inch LP, a double album, of that historic concert. For Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (1954), Avakian — working with one-track or monophonic tape — had Armstrong sing and, at the same time, accompany himself on trumpet. When the Ellington Orchestra played Newport in 1956, Avakian employed the still-new medium of tape, not only to record on location but to capture soloists — such as Paul Gonsalves on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”— in full flight. The resulting album exemplified new possibilities for the jazz album. A year later, with Miles Davis’ Miles Ahead (1957), Avakian exploited the artistic possibilities of cut-and-paste editing to create (or to enable) an ideal performance. And, of course, he used tape splicing to fix the occasional mistake — the flubbed note. With the above and other LPs — by Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, and Buck Clayton — Avakian, in effect, created the jazz album as a format commensurate with jazz as an art form. Which means, with Avakian as the great exemplar, the jazz record producer came into his own as something much more than the A&R man of the 78-rpm era. The technology that introduced new mediums (tape and the LP) enabled the development of a new format (the record album) and the arrival of a new kind of artist (the record producer). Foiling any theory of technological determinism, the new recording mediums and formats didn’t bring about significant new performance practices for jazz musicians. Rather, for at least 30 years — since the 1917 recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — there had been a distinct lack of fit between jazz as performed on stage and jazz as retooled for the recording of 78-rpm records. Certainly, musicians had accommodated the old recording medium. Indeed, by formatting their music to meet its severe restrictions, they had developed an art form: the jazz record. For example, Ellington wrote compositions specifically for 78s, and improvisers — Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, for example — learned to work brilliantly within the 78’s time limitations. But such adaptations resembled a forced exercise: something like requiring epic poets to write only in haikus printed singly on index cards. Great poetry could result, but at a substantial cost. Tape and the long-playing album arrived, therefore, as a wish fulfillment. Jazz could be recorded as it was actually made on stages and in jam sessions. But realizing and developing the potential of new mediums and new formats is no small thing, and that is why Milt Gabler, Avakian, Bob Weinstock (at Prestige Records) and the musicians they produced were so innovative. To coin a tautology, they made jazz more what it already was. If the album is understood as a form for organizing music on LP (an electronic medium) — analogous to the sonata form organizing music on a score (a literary medium) for performance in symphony halls — then its development divides fairly neatly into the two eras surveyed in this chapter and the next. The period of one- and two-track recording can be regarded as the jazz album’s classical era (1950-66); the period of multi-track recording as its baroque era (1967-90). Although I wouldn’t live or die by these distinctions, they do align the story of the jazz album with a conventional opposition used to conceptualize art history, and they make sense of the stylistic gulf that separates, for instance, Miles Davis’ ’Round About Midnight (1957) and his album Get Up With It (1974).
Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Sings Gershwin (1950, Decca)As far as the record company was concerned, the man responsible for the sessions was the producer. They didn’t use that term. It was just in the A&R department, artists and repertoire. I used to say, “I don’t play the horses. I bet my job every day, by picking the songs and the people who are going to perform them.” [Ella Sings Gershwin] was my idea. Ellis [Larkins] was one of my favorite piano accompanists. The singers loved to have him play behind them. To keep it pure, I used just Ellis and Ella — not even a drummer. My job was to get a proper balance between the two. Sometimes we got it [a master] in two takes, sometimes three, sometimes one. That’s why the historians or those who go into the archives sometimes find more than one take of a tune. I had to like the performance, figure they couldn’t do it better or determine that was the best they had that day. They never argued with me if I asked for another take, or if I made a suggestion. I very seldom had to tell Ella to go for another take. If you play different takes that she made in the studio on a particular session, the performances and the interpretations are almost identical on all of them. It was hard to choose. I chose the performances I liked the best at that instant in the studio and had them processed. I had stampers made and sample pressings. Then I had to approve which take was the master take — the first choice. When I left the studio, what was on those lacquers was what came out on records.
Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954, Columbia)My idea was to do packages, what they now call concept albums. The first one was Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. Louis was in love with the idea. The second one was built on Fats Waller songs. How did Armstrong prepare for the Handy album?He said, “I haven’t played too many of those tunes. You’ve picked a couple that I’ve heard only vaguely. We’ll have to work them up and do them on the road. Then, I’ll let you know when we’re ready. We’ll book the studio when I’m in New York or Chicago.” That’s the way it came about. I think it took maybe five or six months of on-and-off rehearsing on the road before Pops called and said, “I’m ready. We’ve got three or four days off in Chicago. Can you do it?” We did. The preparation involved learning the tunes that he’d never played before, like “Chantez-les Bas,” which is a very obscure tune, though Artie Shaw had recorded it. Louis trusted me completely. He asked me how I wanted the routines to go on some of those songs. “You decide,” I told him. He said, “No, no, no. I don’t want us to fall into the pattern that we do with stage performances where everybody has a good idea of what he’s going to do on the next chorus, and all that.” So on a lot of the routines he left it up to me. I felt that was a pretty big responsibility. But you couldn’t go wrong with Pops anyway. Whenever an idea was a little bit unusual, I’d take a chance and try it anyway. Of course, it was fun doing things [with tape] like correcting situations where somebody didn’t back up Louis’ vocal with as much closeness to the mike as he should have. I had Louis play behind his own vocal. I even had him scat behind his trumpet.
[caption id="attachment_32533" align="alignleft" width="720"] Bob Weinstock and Oliver Nelson (Courtesy Music Afficianado Blog)[/caption] Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (1957, Prestige) Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, and Max Roach: Sonny came in with the group he wanted to record. We agreed. But once he was there [Rudy Van Gelder’s studio], it was like a ball game. The team’s either hot or cold. And that’s the way I played it, like the middle of a Stanley Cup, seventh game, with Mario Lemieux playing against Wayne Gretzky. I’d sit out in the studio. I’d be out there with the musicians. I left Van Gelder alone all the time. I never tried to tell him anything about recording. The man was a genius. I’ll tell you how I met him. I knew his work, because I’d always buy Blue Note records. I kept seeing “Van Gelder recording” on the record credits. I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, and it was 1954. One day I was walking down the main street and noticed a sign: Optometrist Dr. Rudolph Van Gelder. I went in and asked to see him. He came out, and I asked, “Are you the Rudy Van Gelder who’s recording Blue Note? I’m Bob Weinstock.” He said, “Come in. I know all about Prestige.” “Well, I’ve been listening to your stuff for six or eight months, maybe a year.” I talked to him and asked, “How do you do it? It sounds different — better.” “I have my techniques,” he said. “I don’t discuss it. It’s there on the records. If you hear it and you like it, fine.” I asked him, “Are you under contract to Blue Note? Can I do something with you?” “I can record anybody,” he said. “Call me. We’ll set up a session.” So I got Miles to record with him first. We went in there, and Rudy took over. I didn’t say a word. I listened to the playback, and it was great. You could hear the drums, the bass. It sort of sounded like an echo, but it wasn’t a deliberate echo chamber. He just added dimension to the recording. So back to Saxophone Colossus. You get to “Blue Seven,” which to me is a classic, I heard it building and building. When I saw Sonny Rollins was playing his ass off, I’d give him a high sign. Other times, I’d show him the stopwatch and throw it on the couch. That meant, “Play, man. Ignore the clock.” I did that to Lucky Thompson. He played twice as much as Miles, I think, on Miles’ “Walkin’” session. He nodded, closed his eyes, and kept playing and playing. To me, we were in a game. Spontaneity ordered it. I’ve had bands, like the great Gil Evans, a monster arranger, one of the best in the history of jazz. He came in and did a session [Gil Evans and Ten, 1957]. Lee Konitz was there. Good people. I took him aside. “Gil, nothing’s happening. I don’t know why, man.” He said, “I know.”“What can we do to make it swing and cook?”“Let me forget the charts,” he said, “and play like we were just playing.” But it still had the Gil Evans stamp. It was free and swinging. We eliminated the collar that was around the music. That was my style. My underlying thing was it had to be happy. It had to cook and swing. It had to be funky, too, little by little even with some of the modernists. I always tried to mix a variety of players from different schools. They liked it, and they inspired each other.
Tom Dowd (Atlantic engineer)
Charles Mingus, The Clown (1957, Atlantic)Mingus was the worrier. He was overpowering and demonstrative, but he always wanted spontaneity. When we were doing Pithecanthropus Erectus , I had devised a means of taping a microphone onto the tailpiece of Mingus’ bass so he could rotate and turn around. Keeping him still while he was trying to look at this or that guy, give them a head motion, was tough. I couldn’t keep him on microphone; so I managed to fasten the microphone to the instrument. He could roam around, rotate, or do whatever he wanted. We were doing this one selection. It might have been “Haitian Fight Song” or something like that [on The Clown]. It was something dynamic. Mingus is playing. He looks over and gets the piano player’s eye. And he gets the drummer’s eye, but he can’t get the horn players’ attention. He keeps motioning to them. Finally, he picked up the bass while he was playing, and he did a peg-leg across the room, up to where the trombone player stood. It’s Jimmy Knepper. He played something, and Mingus pulled the horn away and punched him in the nose and went back to playing. He’s like, “I was trying to tell you not to play there, dummy.” It was that kind of expression. Knepper was so deeply entranced in what he was doing. All of a sudden, he’s got a fist in his face. That was Mingus.
[caption id="attachment_32537" align="alignleft" width="699"] Esmond Edwards, right (Courtesy History of Recording)[/caption] Eric Dolphy Quintet, Outward Bound (1960, New Jazz) You didn’t need to do much with Eric except tell him that he had a session on a certain date. He was a nice, easy-going, very dedicated guy. He didn’t want anything to stand in the way of his music. He wasn’t much interested in anything else. That was his life.In some situations it may have been improper to impose restrictions or philosophies on what he was doing. Some artists are so unique in their abilities that they just do what they do. If you want to record them, you record them. You take them as they are. If not, you leave them alone. The only problem I had was between Eric and Rudy Van Gelder. Rudy is a great engineer and a real martinet in the studio. You couldn’t smoke in the control room because the tars and nicotine would clog up his switches. You couldn’t ask him any questions about what kind of equipment he used. They were custom-built, and he didn’t want anyone to know what kind of speakers he was using, stuff like that. Which was OK. But in the studio he had rather strict parameters as to how he wanted to set up his microphones. Here’s Eric doubling on an alto [saxophone] and a flute on a tune, and Rudy wanted to mic the alto primarily. When Eric was to play his flute solo, he had to almost bend double to be close to where the mic was set up for the alto. He protested vehemently. Rudy was adamant. He didn’t want to move the mic. It was quite a crisis. I think Rudy prevailed. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting him down. Rudy was an excellent engineer. He set the tone, no pun intended, for jazz recording. You served as intermediary between engineer and artist.That’s always one of the producer’s functions. When you’re in the control room, you’re looking out for the artist, and it’s your responsibility to see that the artist’s sound is captured on the tape as truly as possible, or if you are not trying for a true sound, then you want some kind of distortion of what would be a “true” sound to get that. But it’s one of the producer’s functions to see that the sound gets on the tape as desired.
[caption id="attachment_32539" align="alignleft" width="954"] Creed Taylor (left) with Freddie Hubbard[/caption] Gil Evans Orchestra, Out of the Cool (1961, Impulse)I thought that the audience for jazz was, generally, of a higher level of intelligence with more access to money to purchase albums. That audience I perceived as being more aesthetically oriented: “What does my record come in? Does it look good on the coffee table? Are the notes informative?” By the way, I was going to call the label Pulse! That didn’t clear with the copyright or trademark office. So I came up with Impulse. It fit the idea of improvisation. I wanted to set apart the label from all the other genres of records which were on ABC-Paramount, the parent of Impulse. That was Lloyd Price, Danny and the Juniors, Frankie Avalon, Eydie Gormé, and Paul Anka. I was trying to put something together that would really distinguish it from the other packages. Also, we didn’t release anything until I had four packages together [in 1961]. They were Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth; Ray Charles, Genius + Soul = Jazz, the Basie Orchestra with Quincy’s arrangements; Kai Winding and J. J. Johnson, The Great Kai and J. J.; and Gil Evans, Out of the Cool, which, if you recall the cover, had a photograph of Gil seated on a stool. He’s holding a manuscript. It was set up to have the look, the class, of Madison Avenue, to give him an entrée. Instead of the shadowy, artistic type of photograph that depicted jazz musicians as, at that time, moody or whatever. “Oh, he’s a pretty good-looking guy. He’s intelligent-looking. I thought jazz was down-in-the-basement and seedy.” The gatefold sleeve was a unique physical concept for LP packaging at that time. Maybe classical records had been done that way, but generally, even aside from the graphics, it made the packages stand out. Also sheet lamination gave it that glossy look that you couldn’t get from spray lacquer.