Pete Welding wrote liner notes for many reissues of classic West Coast sessions for a variety of record labels. His notes for the Xanadu collection, The Hampton Hawes Memorial Album, provide a snapshot of Hampton Hawes place in the emerging jazz scene in Los Angeles.
Before West Coast Jazz exploded in the ears of the world during the early 1950’s some fascinating music had already been made and played in the clubs and concert halls of California. Until now those important sounds from the Los Angeles area have been largely unheard and unknown. One man who recognized their value was Bob Andrews, a migrant from Wisconsin who had been a devoted jazz fan since his teens.
Now, for the first time, we can hear much of that significant and creative music, thanks to the foresight of Andrews and the remarkable efficiency of his small Pentron recorder and single microphone. What he and the musicians did then for “kicks” has assumed historic significance for what Jerry Newman accomplished for modern jazz on the East Coast in the early 1940’s, Bob did similarly for the West Coast cats a decade later. The Bob Andrews Archives constitute a priceless collection of outstanding jazz, truly representative of a whole era.
Most jazz listeners beyond the Los Angeles environs probably first became aware of pianist Hampton Hawes not so much through his trio recordings as through his participation in various groups associated with what in those days was labeled “West Coast Jazz.” Hamp, for example, had been a member of the very earliest group to record in this idiom, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, which made six titles for Capitol Records in October, 1951, and over the next several years he performed and recorded with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars, Art Pepper, a later edition of Rogers Giants, Bud Shank, and Red Mitchell, among other representatives of the West Coast movement.
While the West Coast school, as several of its leaders indicated, took its original impetus from the groundbreaking music of the Miles Davis Nonet, an influence that was obscured as the idiom gradually moved further away from that source, Hawes’ music was much more firmly grounded in the fertile soil of bebop, as his own recordings as leader showed clearly. And as the present album of “live” recordings confirms, Hamp was no mean disciple of bebop but from his earliest years had perfected a crisp, excitingly original command of that challenging idiom. He played it well, with understanding, idiomatic authority and a clearly defined singularity of expression in which the blues played no small part.
By February of 1952, when the earliest of these performances were recorded in Los Angeles’ Surf Club, the pianist’s distinctive approach was already well in evidence. He sharpened and refined his music in later years, of course, but in its main contours his approach didn’t really change all that much from the vigorous, free-wheeling, exuberantly spontaneous playing style on display in these early club recordings. And these, you will hear, possess an abundance of fiery, imaginative, totally committed music making of a type and degree of intensity not always present in his studio recordings of the time or after. These simply crackle with the electric excitement of a player totally involved with his muse.
And Hawes’ muse, make no mistake, was bebop. Barely twenty-two at the time the first of these recordings were made, the pianist was one of the earliest West Coast musicians to have embraced the new music.
Born in Los Angeles in 1928, Hawes had taken up music while quite young, and guided by a piano-teacher sister and studies with Sam Sax, had progressed sufficiently that by his late teenage years was playing professionally in his hometown. Initially drawn to the Swing-styled jazz he had heard while coming to age in the mid-1940s, all this was changed when Hawes was introduced to bebop. The major catalyst to this was provided by the December, 1945 appearance at Billy Berg’s Hollywood club of Dizzy Gillespie and His Sextet, which included Charlie Parker, Lucky Thompson, Al Haig, MiIt Jackson, Ray Brown, and Stan Levey. The opening was attended by every serious young musician in the Los Angeles area, among whom were Hawes and his close friend alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, then third-year students at Manual Arts High School.
Like many young jazz musicians of the time, Hawes and Criss had been following the musical innovations Parker, Gillespie and others were setting in motion via the few recordings of the new music then being released.
Having the opportunity of hearing in person the two chief architects of the new idiom provided the capstone to Hawes’ complete conversion to bebop. “That opening at Berg’s was the greatest musical event of our lives,” he recalled many years later. “Bird played eight bars, a bridge on Salt Peanuts, that were so strong I was molded for life, stamped out, there and then, like a piece of clay. Sonny got so excited he stood on top of the table and shouted. We were different people after getting that message from Bird. It turned us around completely, headed us in a new, mysterious direction, and determined our destinies as artists.”
If the Gillespie-Parker Berg’s engagement, which ended in February of the following year, represented Hawes’ baptism in the new musical movement, confirmation was not long in following. This came about as a result of his participation in the heady, exciting musical activities taking place at the Finale Club operated in downtown Los Angeles by ex-dancer Foster Johnson who, on Parker’s decision to remain in the city after Gillespie’s group left for New York, engaged the altoist as the club’s musical director. Parker soon gathered around him a group of like-minded players who formed the nucleus of a band ranging in size from seven to 12 pieces. Among its members were some of the most forward-looking musicians in the Southern California area: trumpeters Howard McGhee and Art Farmer; saxophonists Criss and Teddy Edwards; pianists Joe Albany and Hawes; bassists Addison Farmer and Bob Kesterson, and drummers Chuck Thompson and Roy Porter. During its all-too-brief lifetime the Finale, which suffered its share of police harrassment and licensing difficulties, served as the West Coast equivalent of Minton’s Playhouse as an incubator and disseminator of bop, drawing to its sessions most of the city’s younger bop devotees, as well as acting as port of call for boppers visiting the area with name bands and groups. It finally folded in the early summer of 1946 but left a sizable legacy behind in the form of a large number of young musicians who had passed through its sessions ranks and had their musical experiences broadened as a result.
Hawes was one whose commitment to bebop was fixed and his knowledge of its disciplines deepened through these experiences. Over the next several years he persevered in his studies of the music, and worked with Criss, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and others who shared his allegiance to the new music; his solid, constantly growing command of the idiom is well documented on the recordings in which he participated during the late 1940s and early ’50s.
The first of his own sessions, a trio date with bassist Harper Cosby and drummer Lawrence Marable, took place on September 22, 1951, and is available on The East/West Controversy (Xanadu 104).
Now, here we are presented with additional samples of Hawes’ maturing artistry from this important and, as you’ll hear, exciting, exploratory stage of his career. Not surprisingly, the sound quality of the recordings does not challenge that of today’s standards; quite simply, the recorders manufactured for home use in those days were rather limited. But the music more than adequately compensates for any deficiencies in this area and, in any event, the ear soon acclimates itself to the medium-fidelity sound of the recordings. And the music, let’s face it, is the reason you’ve got this album in your hands in the first place.
The material derives from four different club dates, three recorded in Los Angeles in 1952 by Bob Andrews, with the fourth commemorating Hawes’ 1956 appearance at The Embers in New York City. The earliest of the LA. recordings was made at the Surf Club on February 12, 1952, during an engagement by the Art Pepper Quartet of which Hawes was then a member. An extraordinarily productive evening, it has resulted in two splendid albums issued under Pepper’s name, The Early Show (Xanadu 108) and The Late Show (Xanadu 117). Standout is easily the performance of “All God’s Chillun,” a marvelous example of Hawes’ Bud Powell-inspired playing at its exciting, imaginative best, three riveting choruses of unflagging linear invention over jabbing, percussive chordal accompaniment, framed by statements of the theme. The pianist’s third improvised chorus is notable for the exciting parallel motion-like passage with which he introduces it. Powell figures in Hawes’ approach to the medium-tempoed “Where Or When,” particularly in the first half of his second chorus, the latter half of which offers a nicely nuanced rhythmic handling of its chorded passages. Hawes’ other major pianistic influence, Art Tatum, is evoked in the introduction to “I’ll Remember April,” a performance notable for the pianist’s oblique statement of the theme and a treatment more paraphrastic than involving real thematic development.
The Haig was the site of the remaining Los Angeles recordings. On the evening of September 9, 1952, while performing with saxophonist Wardell Gray, the proceedings have been memorialized as Wardell Gray/Live In Hollywood (Xanadu 146). Given the solid blues orientation of any program Hawes really shines, for this was his real metier and he maintains consistent levels of deeply felt emotion and imaginative resourcefulness as he addresses himself to what some have described, erroneously, as a limited musical form. For those who understand this bedrock expression—and Hawes clearly did—it actually stoked the creative fires, as is revealed here time and again, in the driving intensity of “Buzzy,” the leaping insouciance of “Jumpin’ Jacque,” or the sheer exuberance of “Hawes Paws” The sole sport in this program is the ardent, ruminative and ingratiatingly elliptical reading of the ballad “It’s You or No One,” a lovely improvised tone poem and tribute to Hamp’s personal artistry at its ravishing best.
Three and a half months later, on December 23,1952, Andrews again caught Hawes, Mondragon and Manne in action. The occasion was an appearance by saxophonist Warne Marsh, the results of which may be heard in Warne Marsh/Live in Hollywood (Xanadu 151). On his portion of the proceedings, Hawes really digs in on the light-hearted “Blue Bird,” mixing singing Parker-inspired lines with more purely pianistic effects, chorded passages noted for their subtle rhythmic spicing, the whole a nicely shaped, always interesting series of variations on the blues. Much the same is true of his well-modeled handling of “What A Difference A Day Makes,” with its light bluesy touches, effective use of a space and an ever increasing density of expression, making this one of the most completely individualistic Hawes performances of the album.
There can be little doubt, however, that the real jewels of this set are the final three selections, all well known standards stemming from the pianist’s May 15, 1956, engagement in New York, during which he was seconded by bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Chuck Thompson. Nor can there be any doubt that during the four years that elapsed between the two groups of live recordings Hawes had indeed gotten the full impact of that message from Bird—i.e., play yourself—and had brought his art to full maturity. The fervent, eager creativity of his early work has here been ordered by a keen, finely developed musical sensibility, so that while there has been no loss of fire or passion, it is now directed by a more knowing, controlled lucidity of conception. These three performances show us an artist who has distilled all his influences and experiences into a fully fashioned, seamless, deeply personal mode of expression in which heart and mind are in perfect fruitful balance. And that’s why we should remember and honor Hampton Hawes.
— Pete Welding