Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot. John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel. And... Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk? Why doesn’t that seem to fit when we’re looking at historic runs of jazz groups playing live at clubs? Mainly because West Coast jazz gets short shrift when histories of jazz are written up. To be fair, it’s also because many jazzers move to New York City to make their mark, seeing as it was (and remains) the center of the jazz recording industry and maintains a thriving culture for the music. And thinking through that list, you go down the famous sidemen with these groups – Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and, um, Joe Gordon? Monty Budwig? Hmmm… another disparity there. Maybe it’s time for some introduction.
Shelly Manne cut his teeth in the 1940s in New York with harder swing music, but the bebop revolution fired him up, and his work playing alongside many of the bop greats and regularly in Woody Herman’s group allowed him the ability to play the music. He also worked in Stan Kenton’s progressive group, which gave him the ability to sharpen his skills in a very different style. But in the early 50’s Manne packed up and moved near L.A., becoming a vital force in West Coast jazz and bringing his firsthand experience with bebop to the scene. He was also the drummer on Ornette’s second album Tomorrow Is the Question!, from before Ornette made the opposite trip across the country that Manne had made a few years earlier. But in September 1959 he took his exciting new hard bop group out of town to San Francisco and immediately phoned his label, Contemporary, to tell them that they ought to get up to the Black Hawk and record the group. From the liner notes: “The original intent was to make one album. Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playback, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would be arbitrary and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in.” So one LP became four LPs and then a few decades later, four LPs became five CDs, with bonus tracks. It should also be noted that the sound, for something done on the fly, is exemplary throughout, and also represents one of the first times a jazz group was documented extensively in a club setting.
And who are His Men that created such excitement for the label? First up, we’ve got Joe Gordon on trumpet. He’s another East Coast émigré, trained in bebop through his work in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, who moved to L.A. in the mid-50’s and joined Manne’s Men in early 1959. Then we’ve got Richie Kamuca on tenor sax. Like Manne, he’d worked with both Herman and Kenton before moving to the West Coast. He also joined Manne in early ’59. Next up we’ve got Victor Feldman on piano. Feldman is a UK-born pianist and percussionist who moved to the States in the mid-50s. He too passed through Herman’s band en route to the West Coast where he lead his own groups and also worked with Manne’s group. Feldman went on to work with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and others before branching out into other genres that included work with Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits (again, following the lead of Manne, who’d recorded on Waits’ jazziest album, Small Change years before Feldman played alongside him), and others. Last but not least is bassist Monty Budwig, who in addition to a lengthy tenure with Manne, also played in Vince Guaraldi’s trio and may or may not be the bass you hear on one of the best selling-jazz albums of all time: A Charlie Brown Christmas.
So these are Manne’s Men. And in the time they’d been playing together through 1959, they developed the kind of rapport that makes any of the other groups mentioned so special – they’re perfectly in sync, know how to listen to and complement each other, and best of all, they all kick ass. The first tune on this disc is the well-worn “Summertime.” Once they state the primary melodic themes of the tune, the band keeps the song’s ballad feel in a series of solos that show off the sensitive communication of the group. Next up is “Our Delight,” which ups the tempo considerably. This is where Manne, with his bop background, shines, playing a supportive role but also throwing in so many accents, rolls, and fills of his own that he’s essentially soloing alongside the main melodic soloist without ever showing him up. “Poinciana,” the third track, is the show stopper – everyone here is on fire, but Manne slyly steals the show with his fire and Budwig’s bass right in line with him. And as fine as Gordon, Kamuca, and Feldman play, the ear keeps going back to Manne’s dazzling performance. But I mean, it IS his group after all! Lastly (not counting the 17-second closer), we get two versions of “Blue Daniel” – another lovely slow one in waltz time. There is little to choose between the two versions, but that only speaks to the uniform excellence of the entire set.
I mentioned it before, but I’m as impressed with the entire set as the label was. Is four volumes too much? Five? Absolutely not. Start here, but recognize that this is only the tip of the iceberg of this great group. So how do those other groups stack up? Ornette at the Five Spot in November ‘59? We’ll never know, because Atlantic didn’t have the foresight to record it. Coltrane at the Vanguard in November ’61? Stellar and out of this world. Miles Davis’ great Second Quintet at the Plugged Nickel in December 1965? Amazing deconstructive work as well. Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk in Sept. 1959? A perfect living specimen of Hard Bop at its finest. And Manne, it might be noted, did it first.
- Patrick Brown