Monday, July 30, 2007

Booker Little: His Life and Music

In understanding the evolution of jazz trumpet, one must be familiar with the historical lineage of it's finest players. The influence of each generation upon the next is present in almost all art-forms, and it's definitely evident in jazz (Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge, Roy to Dizzy Gillespie, Dizzy to Fats Navarro and Miles Davis--and so on).

Written by Dan Miller

After the untimely death of Clifford Brown on June 26, 1956 at the age of 25--a handful of trumpeters, touched by his genius, were poised to attain their own maturity. This group included Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little.

Booker Little was born in Memphis on April 2, 1938. After experimenting with other instruments, Booker decided on trumpet at age 14. Many fine musicians were developing in Memphis at this time including George Coleman, Phineas Newborn, Frank Strozier and Booker's cousin Louis Smith (a fine trumpeter in his own right).

In 1954, Booker went on to Chicago and in four years, he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in trumpet. He also studied theory, composition and orchestration. In those four years he gigged around Chicago and played with Johnny Griffin and the MJT.

During his sophomore year at Chicago Conservatory, Booker roomed for some nine months with Sonny Rollins at the YMCA. "Sonny was a big help," Booker emphasizes. "For one thing, he cautioned me about allowing myself to become overly influenced by other players. He told me not to listen to too many records, because he felt I was listening to them mainly to emulate what the soloists were playing. 'You've got to be you,' he told me, 'whether that's bad or good.' "Sonny at the time was spending his time practicing; it was before he joined Max Roach and Clifford Brown."

"Sonny," Booker continued, "introduced me to Max and Clifford around 1955 and I met Max again after Clifford died. Kenny Dorham was with Max then. Max asked me to make a record with him, and I did my first record. Around June of 1958, when I'd just gotten out of school, Max called me from St. Louis and asked me to join him, I flew out there, and worked with Max until February 1959."

Kenny Dorham's stay as Max Roach's trumpeter ended with Max Roach Four Plays Charlie Parker (April 11, 1958--Emarcy). This album was Max's first experiment with the piano-less format, which would become the platform for the Little/Coleman groups. This date also marked the beginning of George Coleman's recording relationship with Max. During his nine month tenure with Max, Booker recorded six albums.

First, Max Roach plus four on the Chicago Scene (June 1958--Emarcy) which featured George Coleman on the front line with Booker. Booker's tone is so pure and gorgeous, showcased beautifully on his treatment of My Old Flame. His ideas soar and his enthusiasm is boundless.

Next, Max Roach plus four at Newport (July 6, 1958--Emarcy) which established Max's working group of this time. Coleman was back on tenor with Ray Draper on tuba and Art Davis on bass. The excitement of the Newport Jazz Festival combined with the electricity of Roach's new group led to a splendid album. Highlights from this album include Booker's solo on A Night in Tunisia and the first recording of a Booker Little composition Minor Mode.

The first studio recording of Roach's new group was Deeds, Not Words (September 4, 1958--Riverside). This album featured lush arrangements, especially You Stepped Out of a Dream which had the horns playing the melody as a through-composed ballad. Art Davis and Max establish a brisk tempo for blowing and the tune takes off, only to return to the ballad melody at the end. This record also sees Max perform an amazing unaccompanied solo on Conversation. Little also contributes Larry-Larue as well as arranging some of the standards.

During a trip to the west coast, the group appeared on ABC-TV's 'Stars of Jazz' program (October 13, 1958). With razor-sharp precision and fiery intensity, the group treats Booker's Minor Mode Blues, Tadd Dameron's The Scene Is Clean and a blistering version of Love For Sale. Everyone is familiar with the Brown/Roach version of The Scene is Clean, but this one is clearly representative of the new band. Penned by Little, this arrangement features an intro and interlude which are pure Booker. The beautiful melodicism of Dameron meets the avant-garde harmonic modernism of Little. Like the recently unearthed Clifford Brown film, this rare footage allows us to see Booker Little in action. In our modern era of television and video, where nearly every single event is recorded, this film allows us to get a glimpse of what until now was only imagined.

Booker's first album as a leader Booker Little Four: The Defiant Ones (October 1958--United Artists) had a combination of standards and three original tunes (Rounder's Mood, Dungeon Waltz and Jewel's Tempo). Roach, Coleman and Davis were joined by pianist Tommy Flanagan.

Roach's next quintet album Award Winning Drummer (November 25, 1958--Time) has the group doing a wonderful reading of Old Folks as well as Little's Gandolfo's Bounce.

The Many Sides of Max Roach (February 1959--Emarcy) would be Booker's last record as a member of Max's group until August 1960. This date found George Coleman on tenor, Julian Priester on trombone, Ray Bryant on piano and Bob Boswell on bass. Booker stakes his claim to Bemsha Swing, Connie's Bounce and A Little Sweet.

After leaving Max Roach's group, Booker free-lanced around New York and recorded four albums. The first, Down Home Reunion: Young Men From Memphis (April 15, 1959--United Artists) was very interesting for many reasons. It was a reunion of Booker's cohorts from Memphis, including George Coleman on tenor, Frank Strozier on alto, Booker and Louis Smith on trumpet, Phineas Newborn on piano, Calvin Newborn on guitar, George Joyner on bass and Charles Crosby on drums. It was a wide-open blowing session with the musicians locking horns on every tune. The highlight for me is the interplay between Booker and Louis Smith throughout the session. It is their only recorded meeting, but we definitely get a taste of what they must of sounded like on numerous New York and Memphis jam sessions.

Louis Smith made two excellent records for Blue Note as a leader, Here Comes Louis Smith (February 1958) featuring Cannonball Adderley, and Smithville (March 1958) featuring Charlie Rouse. Smith was member of Horace Silver's group and also recorded with Kenny Burrell. Although Smith was only seven years older than Booker, their styles are markedly different. While both men were indebted to Clifford Brown, Smith decidedly more so than Little, Booker was definitely aligned with Coltrane and the new school. Smith, who grew weary of the New York City lifestyle, moved to Michigan in the early sixties to teach at the university. He has released a series of beautiful records for Steeplechase over last 15 years featuring Junior Cook and George Coleman.

Next, is a recording by the Slide Hampton Octet entitled Slide! (October 1959--Strand). This session spotlights Booker and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, George Coleman on tenor, Jay Cameron on baritone, Bernard McKinney on baritone horn, George Tucker on bass, Slide Hampton on trombone and Pete La Roca, Charli Persip and Kenny Dennis on drums. This project combined Slide's ambitious arrangements with some of modern jazz's finest young players, and the results are outstanding. Booker is featured on Newport, originally penned for Maynard Ferguson. Freddie Hubbard contributes an excellent solo on Woody 'n You.

Third, is a album with the wonderfully swinging vocalist Bill Henderson entitled simply Bill Henderson Sings (October 27, 1959--Vee Jay). This was the first of two meetings between Booker, and the then-current Miles Davis rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Rounding out the front-line were Yusef Lateef on tenor and Bernard McKinney on euphonium. Henderson led the group through wonderful renditions of Moanin', The Song Is You and You Make Me Feel So Young.

The final record Booker made before he returned to Max Roach's group was entitled The Fantastic Frank Strozier (February 2, 1960--Vee Jay). This date saw the return of the Miles Davis rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Coupled with one of the most swinging trios ever assembled, Little and Strozier burn their way through a collection of standards, blues and originals in a straight up blowing session (the Japanese CD re-issue yields an additional 56 minutes of music). I feel this record shows Booker Little at his most relaxed, a joyous free-blowing outing.

After a year away Booker decided to rejoin Max Roach's quintet in February of 1960. Max's group had featured Tommy Turrentine on trumpet and Stanley Turrentine on tenor during Booker's absence. The group with the Turrentine's had recorded (January 1960) and traveled to Europe for an extended tour. Nat Hentoff wrote in his liner notes to Booker's Quartet album: "Being with Max," says Booker, "has been an enormous help to me. I learned, for one thing, that it's so important to be authoritative on your instrument. And from Max, even more than from horn soloists, I got the idea of how to tell a story. In general, what I basically learned from Max was the necessity of clean musicianship. Also, while with him, I learned a lot about the business--the true people and the not so true. Finally, from both Sonny Rollins and Max, I learned how much work is involved in perfecting yourself. They're both extraordinarily conscientious."

From April 1960 to September 1961, Booker was very active, recording fourteen albums. He continued his relationship with Max Roach and began to work with Eric Dolphy, as well as focusing on his own music. Booker's second album as a leader was simply titled Quartet (April 13 and 15, 1960--Time). This recording only contained one standard, as Booker's writing began to come to the fore. The originals on this are Opening Statement, Minor Sweet, Bee Tee's Minor Plea, Life's a Little Blue and The Grand Valse. Booker's fiery confidence is in full force during this session. Being his only quartet work, he really gets an opportunity to shine.

Next up is The Soul of Jazz Percussion (Summer 1960--Warwick), an album produced by vibist Teddy Charles. The personnel on this record include Booker, Donald Byrd, Marcus Belgrave and Don Ellis on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Pepper Adams on baritone, Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans and Mal Waldron on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums and many other percussionists. The groups vary in size and personnel. Booker shines on his own Witchfire. The trumpeters get to play together in various groupings.

Sounds of the Inner City (August 25, 1960--Warwick) finds Booker in another live setting, this time at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC with the Teddy Charles group. The personnel on this date are Booker Ervin on tenor, Teddy Charles on vibes, Mal Waldron on piano, Addison Farmer on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. Ervin's huge, brawny tone and searing intensity provide a perfect foil for Little.

Next is Max Roach's We Insist--Freedom Now Suite (August 31 and September 6, 1960--Candid), a work with serious political and sociological overtones. The personnel from this session include Abbey Lincoln on vocals, Coleman Hawkins and Walter Benton on tenor, Booker on trumpet, Julian Priester on trombone, Max Roach and Olitunji on drums with many other percussionists. Oscar Brown Jr. and Max wrote Driva' Man, Freedom Day and All Africa as part of a long work to commemorate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863-1963). Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace was written by Max for a ballet.

Newport Rebels (November 1, 1960--Candid) has an interesting story attached to it. In protest of the commercialization of the Newport Jazz Festival, Charles Mingus and Max Roach held their own alternative festival at nearby Cliff Walk. Those who participated included Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones and Kenny Dorham. This album tries to capture the flavor of that festival by reuniting the participants. Booker plays on one tune with both Max and Jo Jones drumming.

Eric Dolphy's Far Cry (December 21, 1960--New Jazz) is Booker's first recorded association with the saxophonist. The rhythm section includes Jaki Byard on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Far Cry and Miss Ann (in particular) give Booker a marvelous springboard toward his unique ideas. The ensemble on Miss Ann is a thing of joy.

The beginning of 1961 saw Booker in familiar company for Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead (February 22, 1961--Candid). Coleman Hawkins is back on tenor (he guested with Max's working group six months earlier for We Insist--Freedom Now), along with Eric Dolphy on alto, Julian Priester on trombone, Walter Benton on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano, Art Davis on bass, Max Roach on drums and Abbey Lincoln on vocals. This date features excellent arrangements and fantastic contributions from Hawk. Lincoln was forging a new conception of vocal interpretation. Alongside Max, Dolphy and Little--she contributed mightily to the evolution of her instrument, modern jazz singing.

Booker's third album as a leader Out Front (March 17-April 4, 1961--Candid) has Eric Dolphy on alto, Julian Priester on trombone, Art Davis and Ron Carter on bass, Don Friedman on piano and Max Roach on drums. This album is the full realization of Booker Little the composer. The sheer beauty of his music is evident in every piece. His tone dark and burnished, his improvisations daring and inventive, and his lyricism poetic--Booker soars to new heights. On Strength and Sanity, he paints in broad sweeping stokes creating a tender portrait of himself. All the music on this album is unique to Booker Little--it's no wonder many consider it to be his finest work.

Booker joined Freddie Hubbard to form the trumpet section for John Coltrane's Africa/Brass (May 23-June 7, 1961--Impulse). Booker and Hub's role in this historic date was strictly section work.

The raw and exhilarating recordings that make up Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (July 16, 1961--Prestige) grew out of a lengthy engagement during the summer of 1961. The quintet included Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. The club environment allowed the musicians to stretch out and experiment with the new music and it's ideas. Without the constraints of a recording studio and the restrictions that conventional settings normally inspire, Booker is able to create some of his most glorious solos, especially on his own Bee Vamp.

Booker's final recording with Max Roach was Percussion Bitter Sweet (August 1, 3, 8 and 9, 1961--Impulse). This date saw Booker joined by Eric Dolphy on alto (for the last time on record), Julian Preister on trombone, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano, Art Davis on bass, Max Roach on drums, Potato Valdez on congas and many additional percussionists. Featuring multiple percussionists in various settings, Max achieves many individual colors to give each tune it's own special flavor. Booker's work on Mendacity is particularly outstanding.

Victory and Sorrow (August and September 1961--Bethlehem) is Booker Little's fourth record as a leader and his final recording. Beautifully through-composed like Out Front, this album has George Coleman on tenor, Julian Priester on trombone, Don Friedman on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums. I find this album to be my personal favorite, alongside Out Front, for Booker's unadulterated genius. His maturity as a soloist had reached fruition, combining his unique harmonic approach with his innate lyricism and a rhythmic intensity shared by few of his contemporaries.

Booker was able to express his views on music very succinctly, and did so in a Metronome magazine interview with Robert Levin in Spring 1961:

"My background has been conventional and maybe because of that I haven't really become a leftist, though my ideas and tastes now might run left to a certain degree. I think the emotional aspect of music is the most important. A lot of guys, and I've been guilty of this too, put too much stress on the technical, and that's not hard to do when you've learned to play in school. I think this goes along with why a lot of trumpet players have come up lately sounding one way--like Clifford Brown. They say everyone's imitating him now and that's true in a way and a way it isn't. Clifford was a flashy trumpet player who articulated very well. He started a kind of trumpet playing that's partly an outgrowth of Fats Navarro--insofar as having a big sound, articulating well all over the instrument and having an even sound from top to bottom. Most of the younger guys, like myself, who started playing in school, they'd have the instructor driving at them, 'Okay, you gotta have a big sound, you gotta have this and that.' Consequently if they came in sounding like Miles, which is beautiful for jazz, they flunked the lessons. They turned toward someone else then, like Clifford Brown. Donald Byrd is a schooled trumpet player, and though he's away from that now, he'll never really be able to throw it out of his mind."

"Those who have no idea how 'classical' music is constructed are definitely at a loss--it's a definite foundation. I don't think it should be carried to the point where you have to say this is this kind of phrase and this is that kind of development. Deep in your mind though, you should maintain these thoughts and not just throw a phrase in without it answering itself or leading to something else. Say I know the chord I want the piano player to play and I give it to him. But the other instruments won't necessarily be playing that chord. Most of the guys who are thinking completely conventionally--they'd say 'Well maybe you've got a wrong note in there.' But I can't think in terms of wrong notes--in fact, I don't hear any notes as being wrong. It's a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong I think you're thinking conventionally--technically, and forgetting about emotion. And I don't think that anyone would deny that more emotion can be reached and expressed outside of the conventional diatonic way of playing which consists of whole-steps and half-steps. There's more emotion that can be expressed by the notes that are played flat. Say it's a B-flat, but you play it flat and it's not an A and it's not a B-flat, it's between them and in places you can employ that and I think it has great values. Or say the clash of a B-natural against a B-flat.

"I'm interested in putting sounds against sounds and I'm interested in freedom also. But I have respect for form. I think sections of a piece can sometimes be played, say on a basic undersound which doesn't limit the soloist. You wouldn't necessarily tell him how many choruses to take. You say 'You blow awhile. You try and build your story and resolve it.'

"There are alot of people who think the new direction should be to abolish form and others who feel that it should be to unite 'classical' forms with jazz. The relationship between 'classical' and jazz is close, but I don't think you have to employ a 'classical' technique as such to get something that jells. I think the main reason a lot of people are going into it is because jazz hasn't developed as far as composition is concerned. It's usually a twelve bar written segment and then everybody goes for themselves. Personally, I don't think it's necessary to do either of these things to accomplish something different and new. And I think sometimes a conscious effort to do something different and new isn't as good as natural effort.

"In my own work I'm particularly interested in the possibilities of dissonance. If it's a consonant sound it's going to sound smaller. The more dissonance, the bigger the sound. It sounds like more horns; in fact, you can't always tell how many there are. And your shadings can be more varied. Dissonance is a tool to achieve these things.

"Most people who don't listen often, say jazz is a continuous pounding and this is something I can feel too. I think there are so many emotions that can't be expressed with that going on. There are certain feelings that you might want to express that you could probably express better if you didn't have that beat. Up until now, if you wanted to express a sad or moody feeling, you would play the blues. But it can be done in other ways."

Through all of this, one word keeps coming up in describing Booker--beauty. Booker Little was everything we should strive to become as musicians. Dedicated to the creation of his music and always striving toward new horizons.

Booker Little died on October 5, 1961 of uraemic poisoning (a blood disorder) at the age of 23.

The genius of Booker Little will always be with us through his wondrous recordings and from talking to the people who knew him.

Discographical Notes

Discrepancies exist for the dates on two of the recordings. The Many Sides of Max Roach had listings for February 1959 as well as September 22, 1959. The same problem exists with Award Winning Drummer which had listings for November 25, 1958 and November 25, 1959. First, according to Little's own interviews, he left Max at the end of February 1959 and didn't rejoin until August 1960. Secondly, the working band of Spring 1959 until at least March 1960 featured Stanley Turrentine on tenor, Tommy Turrentine on trumpet, Julian Priester on trombone and Bob Boswell on bass. This group recorded four albums during this period--Buddy Rich vs Max Roach (April 1959--Mercury), Quiet As It's Kept (January 1, 1960--Mercury), As Long As You're Living (February 5, 1960--Enja) and Parisian Sketches (March 1, 1960--Mercury). This group also recorded an album with Abbey Lincoln and Ray Bryant entitled Moon Faced and Starry Eyed (October 1960--Mercury). To me, these points invalidate both of the Fall 1959 dates.

While speaking with Kenny Washington, he told me about an extremely rare recording on the Strand label (the same label as the Slide Hampton Octet recording) by vocalist Pat Thomas entitled Jazz Patterns. The musicians are unaccredited, but Kenny says Booker's participation is unmistakable.

Unfortunately, not every recording discussed is currently in print on compact disc. The following is a list of the available titles: Deeds Not Words, Defiant Ones (Booker Little 4), Award Winning Drummer, Many Sides of Max, Down Home Reunion, Slide!, Fabulous Frank Strozier, Quartet, Soul of Jazz Percussion, Sounds of the Inner City, We Insist--Freedom Now, Newport Rebels, Far Cry, Out Front, Africa/Brass, Five Spot Volumes 1-3, Percussion Bitter Suite and Victory & Sorrow.

Kenny Washington assembled an excellent collection of Max Roach's work for Mercury and Emarcy entitled Alone Together (Verve). This two cd set features Clifford Brown on cd 1 and Kenny Dorham, Booker Little and Tommy Turrentine on cd 2. The second disc has A Night in Tunisia and La Villa from Max Roach plus 4 at Newport as well as selections from the above mentioned Tommy Turrentine featured groups.

Since this article was published in 1999, Mosaic Records has issued The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions which has the entire recorded output of Max on Mercury. This wonderful set features all of Booker's work with Max on Mercury. Kenny Dorham, Tommy Turrentine, Sonny Rollins and George Coleman are also on these landmark recordings. Mosaic has also released The Complete Vee Jay Paul Chambers/Wynton Kelly Sessions 1959-1961 which includes the complete Frank Strozier/Booker Little session.

Special thanks to Nat Hentoff, Kenny Washington and Dave Miller for input and assistance.

Photo courtesy of: Don Schlitten



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