Savoy Records, while small, was one of the most important US record labels in the 1940s. Founded by Herman Lubinsky in Newark, NJ in 1942, Savoy was crucial to the development and exposure of bebop in the years immediately following World War II. Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Jay Jay Johnson, Fats Navarro, and perhaps most importantly of all, Charlie Parker all recorded for the label, establishing the parameters of a brand-new style of jazz, cognizant of tradition but leaping forward into the future and setting standards against which, for good or ill, musicians are still measured today.
Bebop was a radical development in jazz, abandoning the danceability of big-band swing for small-group interplay focused on technical virtuosity and harmonic sophistication. Players sought to outdo each other in the studio and on the bandstand, playing as fast as possible, calculating complex variations on standards and the blues, and generally being more than willing to leave melodically and rhythmically conservative listeners in the dust. And it felt that much more radical because of when it emerged. The first bebop recordings were made in 1944 and 1945, but the style didn’t really emerge into the public consciousness until 1946, effectively cementing it in the public consciousness as a postwar innovation.
The new Mosaic box set Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49 (get it from the label) is a companion piece to their 2015 set, The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions. While that nine-CD set included Parker’s recordings for the label (making up, as they did, the bulk of its catalog), this new 10-disc box omits his recordings, focusing on the other artists Savoy recorded at the height of the bebop era. These included saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Davis (not yet known by the nickname “Lockjaw”); trumpeters Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro (pictured above) and Kenny Dorham; trombonists Kai Winding and Jay Jay Johnson; pianist Tadd Dameron; and more.
The music all has a jumpy energy; there are relatively few ballads, but plenty of acrobatic melodies, frequently played by trumpet and saxophone sprinting along in unison. No matter who’s on drums (Denzil Best, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, and others appear) the hi-hat is basically relentless, driving the music forward with a kind of ticking hiss. Trumpet solos feature speedy runs and soaring high notes; saxophonists often start in a romantic, Lester Young-ish mode, but quickly run wild. Players like Navarro and Gordon throw in quotes from recognizable popular songs and other sources; you’ll frequently find yourself glancing upward, wondering if you heard what you thought you heard. (You did.)
Navarro was a tremendously influential and technically accomplished trumpeter; he worked in numerous big bands before connecting with Charlie Parker and becoming one of the most in-demand players on the bebop scene. Unfortunately, he was overweight, suffered from tuberculosis, and was a heroin addict. He died in 1950, at 26. But his performances on this box—not just the ones under his own name, but collaborations with Davis and others—are frequently astonishing, and you can trace a direct line from his precise, exhilarating solos to the work of Clifford Brown a few years later (another player who would die young, in a car accident in 1956).
The thing with bebop is, it’s best in small doses. These musicians were ferociously talented, but in their zeal to break the boundaries of swing and come up with something new, they occasionally crossed over the line separating “thrilling” from “exhausting.” Speed and complexity are qualities that mostly excite fellow musicians, because they know how hard it is to play something really fast and really complex with any degree of technical facility. But the untrained ear starts out hearing something bouncy and exciting, and 20 or 30 minutes later hears a chaotic flurry of notes, signifying nothing. Fortunately, the majority of these tracks were originally recorded for 78s, so they’re rarely more than three minutes long.
The players who best overcome the music’s tendency toward twitchiness, who drag it back into the realm of the blues and get good and gutsy, are tenor saxophonists like Gordon and Eddie Davis, the latter of whom is already the forceful, R&B-style blower he’d be in the 1950s and beyond. The vulgarian excitement of his music is more than hinted at by the track titles he comes up with, which include “Hollerin’ and Screamin'” and “Stealin’ Trash.” Stan Getz, on the other hand, sounds like a man wearing borrowed and ill-fitting clothes on some early quartet tracks—his later, smoother work was much more conventionally beautiful, and better, than the frantic wind-sprints found here.
As always, Mosaic Records provides a superbly informative booklet with this set, packed with old photos, discographical data, and anecdotes about the history of the record industry in the 1940s. Unfortunately, their organizational style tends toward the utilitarian: The tracks are sequenced in chronological session order, and bizarrely, the alternate takes actually come before the masters! That said, once you re-sequence the music in a way that works for you, it’s a blast. This stuff isn’t just historically important—it’s great music. And these guys weren’t huddled in conservatories, furrowing their brows over score paper; they were nightclub entertainers. Treat these tunes like entertainment, and you’ll love it.
Author Martin Torgoff recently published a book, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs (get it from Amazon), that examines bebop—as well as the hard bop that followed, in the 1950s—not so much as a musical phenomenon, but as a cultural one. Torgoff uses a blend of history and biography to describe how bebop musicians’ drug habits influenced their art, and how the police and the federal government’s attempts to crack down on drugs, in turn, made their lives harder and more chaotic.
Much of the book focuses on the lives of Charlie Parker and singer Billie Holiday. It’s a natural enough choice to pick them out: while many jazz musicians in the’40s and’50s were using heroin, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Philly Joe Jones, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young, all of whom are discussed in the book, to one degree or another, Parker and Holiday were legendary for their self-destructive appetites.
Bop Apocalypse also discusses Beat Generation authors and their sordid lives, as well as the history of governmental narcotics enforcement. At times, Torgoff seems a little too willing to tacitly endorse the idea that a heroin habit brought creative liberation with it, and he doesn’t write like he knows that much about jazz; he seems like more of a Sixties rock guy. His view of jazz musicians comes across as clouded by romanticism as Jack Kerouac‘s was. Still, it’s worth a read, particularly the sections on William Burroughs (the Beat-linked writer whose work has held up the best), and this box set makes an excellent soundtrack.