Russ Freeman could not recall the exact date that he wrote “The Wind,” but he was certain that it was sometime in 1953. It might have been the fall of 1953 when he and Chet Baker were renting a house on Hollyridge Drive and Bronson in the Hollywood Hills. Southern California experiences hot winds in the fall when a high pressure system over the Great Basin creates conditions that force hot winds toward the coast. These winds have been termed the Santa Ana Winds for the exceptional high velocity that they achieve in the Santa Ana Canyon, and they have been chronicled by Raymond Chandler in his Los Angeles noir classics as perhaps being responsible for murderous sprees and other acts of crime.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
― Raymond Chandler, Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories
So Russ might have been at the piano in the fall of 1953, feeling the Hollywood Hills house shake from the battering that the Santa Ana winds were providing. Russ recalled that the basic structure of the tune came to him in about ten minutes. He immediately realized that he had composed something unique, and grabbing some music manuscript paper he worked until all of the tune was captured on paper. “The Wind” would be one of the tunes selected for inclusion in a Chet Baker with strings session for Columbia Records later that fall.
In an article published in the November, 1954, issue of Theme magazine, Dick Bock described the genesis of the Columbia album:
“While Chet was rehearsing for the Ensemble date, Columbia Records, through Paul Weston, made Pacific Jazz an offer which was too interesting to dismiss. Because Chet is under exclusive contract to Pacific Jazz, Columbia wondered if we would agree to record a twelve inch Long Playing album featuring Chet. We were to be allowed complete freedom to select the material, arrangers, instrumentation, and even the cover artist. Pacific Jazz could be persuaded and were. Terms were agreed upon. Chet, Russ Freeman and myself had discussed the possibility of recording with just a string section and rhythm section, perhaps with one other solo horn added. Columbia’s offer proved to be the opportunity to try such an album.”
The Columbia album, Chet Baker & Strings, arrived in record stores in late spring of 1954 while Chet and his quartet were still on their first national tour. It proved to be one of the best selling jazz albums for Columbia.
In his liner notes for the first CD reissue of the album in 1991, Ira Gitler noted:
“Freeman introduces the theme of his own somberly beautiful “The Wind,” further exposed by the strings and completed by Baker. Chet’s solo work makes one wonder why more jazzmen have not recorded this piece over the years, it’s just that good a vehicle. Shank, on what sounds like alto flute, and Baker supply the finish to what is a masterly complementary arrangement by Johnny Mandel.”
“The Wind” became a mainstay in the quartet’s book and received its next recorded versions on live sessions at Boston’s Storyville Club and LA’s Tiffany Club in the spring and summer of 1954.
The January, 1955, issue of Theme magazine noted that:
Johnny Mercer is writing lyrics to Russ Freeman’s composition “The Wind”.
Russ recalled that the offices of Pacific Jazz were still located on Santa Monica Boulevard above Drum City when a visitor walked upstairs and asked if Russ Freeman was in? Russ identified himself whereupon the visitor introduced himself as Johnny Mercer. Mercer got straight to the point of his visit expressing the desire to write lyrics to “The Wind,” but wondered if Russ would be willing to change the name of the tune. Russ replied that since it had already been published on record, he would not want to change the name. Some time later he heard again from Mercer to the effect that he had not been able to come up with lyrics for the tune.
But the popularity of “The Wind” caught the attention of another lyricist named Jerry Gladstone. His lyrics were completed in time for June Christy to premiere them in her Capitol album, The Misty Miss Christy, in 1956. Several instrumental versions preceded Christy’s including Ramsey Lewis’ first interpretation, a version by the Chico Hamilton Quintet which could have been transmitted by the then bassist with the quintet, Carson Smith, who had helped to establish “The Wind” while a member of the original Chet Baker Quartet.
“The Wind” has not been restricted to its west coast origins as east coast pianist Oscar Dennard chose it for inclusion in his Henson Records release in 1956. Russ’ association with Shelly Manne & His Men led to the inclusion of “The Wind” on the fifth volume of Shelly’s group for the Contemporary label.
The next appearance of “The Wind” on vinyl was a vocal version by Don Nelson for Mode Records in 1957 where the tune was also featured as the title of the album. Leroy Vinnegar, who played bass on the Contemporary session for Shelly Manne & His Men, was part of the rhythm section for the Mode session. Numerous instrumental and vocal versions of “The Wind” appeared over the next decades, one of Russ’s favorites being the Charlie Mariano version on Regina Records. Mariano was also a member of Shelly’s group that recorded “The Wind” for Contemporary.
Around 1991 Russ received a call from Sony Records in New York. One of their artists was interested in recording “The Wind,” but wanted to supply their own lyric. Russ explained that he had renewed the copyright on the music after the original 28 year term had expired, but that he had not renewed the copyright on the lyric, and thus this paved the way for a new lyric to be composed by the Sony artist who had an interest. Russ did stipulate that he would require approval of the new lyric.
Months passed without further contact from Sony. One day he received a call from a Sony executive in Los Angeles who asked Russ to visit their LA office to review the pending release of “The Wind” by Mariah Carey. Although thoughts of registering a complaint with Sony regarding prior approval raced through his head, Russ was clever enough to realize that Ms. Carey was the hottest property in the Sony stable at the moment and that a CD release by Mariah Carey could sell millions of copies. Russ nodded his approval of the new lyric which in comparison made the Gladstone lyrics “Mercerlike” – Carey’s lyric bemoaned the death of a young lover and not a single word rhymed with another, and the climax of the original music in the ninth bar was altered which in effect destroyed the dramatic structure of the tune.
But, one would ask, what led a young ingenue like Mariah Carey to want to record a cult jazz classic written in the 1950s?
The credit goes to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe who, in 1951, composed a catchy tune for their theatrical musical, Painted Wagon, entitled “They Call The Wind Mariah.” It would later be immortalized by Vaughan Monroe and his orchestra. Although the tune was “They Call the Wind Maria,” the recorded versions of the tune pronounced Maria as Mariah (muh RYE ahh), not (muh REE ahh), as in West Side Story fame. So a young singer named Mariah Carey discovered a tune that linked her to “The Wind.” The license royalties that descended upon one of jazz’s finest bop pianists could not have found a finer or more deserving home in all of jazz.
Russ Freeman is convinced that a possible lyric by Johnny Mercer could never have provided the income that Ms. Carey’s version has provided for him. Fate works in strange ways.
The west coast editor of Down Beat magazine conducted an interview with Russ which was published in the March 14, 1963 issue. The interview concludes with this quotation from Russ:
“I’d like to make some money out of songwriting. But what’s equally important is the inner satisfaction of having others like and perform your songs. This is quite different from, say, getting a good review of your playing on a record, because you may not care at all for that particular performance.”
The versions cited below provide ample proof that Russ Freeman’s fellow jazz musicians and friends admired his composition greatly, and the continued performance and recording of “The Wind” over the years validates the continuing appeal of this haunting jazz classic.
The obituary below notes that a memorial celebration of Russ Freeman was held at the Jazz Bakery (in the old Helm’s Bakery building) on July 18, 2002. I attended that event and recall that the room was packed with many attendees standing in the back and the aisles. I cannot remember all of the musicians on stage for the performance of “The Wind” but I do recall Herbie Harper remarking to Bud Shank that he had recorded “The Wind” to which Bud replied, “I did too!” Of course, Bud’s flute solos on the original recording of “The Wind” on the Chet Baker & Strings Columbia LP was a highlight as cited by Ira Gitler in his notes for the first CD reissue of that album.
The releases cited above have been checked against the Tom Lord Jazz Discography online version. Using the tune search feature TJD retrieved 123 songs with “Wind” in the title. Many of these songs were not Russ Freeman’s composition. I have included only those versions that I was able to verify as being “The Wind” – composed by Russ Freeman with lyric by Jerry Gladstone.
I am deeply grateful to the following who made this compilation possible:
Russ Freeman, Carolyn Freeman, George Ziskind, Olivier Bruchez, Dick Bank, Jon Brooder, Ken Koenig, Bert Whitford, Leon Leavitt, Steve Cerra, Trevor Graham, Errol Buddle, and all of the musicians who have kept “The Wind” a vital part of the jazz repertoire over the years.