I spent last weekend in Seattle with my brother, Andy, while he recovered from surgery to remove a tumor from his back. We did make it to a couple of my Seattle-trip staples like Easy Street Records and Ebbets Field Flannels, but most of the trip was spent in his apartment. If you saw the pictures of the metal rods and screws holding his back together, you’d understand why. While it may sound foolish to some to wake at 1:00 in the morning and spend 13 hours on planes, train, and automobile (not in that order) just to sit in an apartment, I can think of few ways to better spend three days. It helped that, between Easy Street and a recent Amazon binge, Andy had a stack of new vinyl for us to enjoy.
Quick side story: Andy introduced me to Numero Group while I was there. Here’s an attempt a brief explanation of who Numero Group is and what they do from someone who just learned of their existence ten days ago: Numero Group finds diamonds in the rough. They listen through old music that never saw the light of day or was only popular regionally but never got wide distribution, and they make high quality compilations. They dig through stacks and find the best stuff nobody’s ever heard, then they put it out on vinyl for everyone to enjoy. They have a few hundred releases covering different genres and eras. I liked what Andy was playing and Easy Street had a stack of Numero records to choose from, so I considered purchasing one. It’s difficult to decide which album to get because you’re really only getting a description. The outside of the sleeves on these records contain zero information about artists or songs, so it’s a surprise when you open the album for the first time and see the tracklist. I’d love to hear them all, but my bank account does not allow for such extravagant things. I really wanted to hear one called Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound but they didn’t have it. As Andy and I were considering my options a friendly worker at Easy Street overheard us and said (I’m paraphrasing), “I love those Numero records. I’ve listened to all of them and the only one I didn’t like was the one with yacht rock.” I turned to Andy and said, “I’d like that one. I’m getting it.” I found Seafaring Strangers: Private Yacht and purchased it. I was anticipating some Loggins, Christopher Cross, Player, or Michael McDonald. What I got was exactly what was promised: a list of people and songs I’ve never heard of. I also got some of the trippiest music I’ve ever heard. We listened to – and mostly enjoyed – one side of one record. Someday when I’m in the mood for feeling like it’s 1979 I’ll put that album on again. In the meantime I look forward to collecting a few more Numero compliations. Also, my apologies to the guy at Easy Street. I didn’t mean to offend. I just thought it was funny that I immediately grabbed the one album he said he couldn’t listen to.
Back to our weekend…while we took in a wide range of records from Tame Impala to Kanye, to the Beatles, Beyonce, and the yacht rock, most of our turntable time was spent analyzing some of the best jazz ever recorded. Of course there was plenty of Miles. Even though the mediocre quality of Andy’s speakers hindered the listening experience, I was introduced to Acensuer pour l’échafaud and enjoyed it so much I purchased it immediately upon my arrival at home. There was also plenty of Coltrane. We got in some Monk. Bill Evans, Lee Morgan, and a few others got spins. I desperately wanted Andy to hear some Ahmad Jamal, but the record he ordered was literally snapped in half right out of the box.
My favorite record of the bunch we listened to was A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 by the Art Blakey Quintet featuring Blakey on drums, Horace Silver on piano, Curly Russell on bass, Lou Donaldson on alto sax, and Clifford Brown on trumpet. I have a special spot in my heart for Clifford Brown. I was a trumpet player in high school and took my very limited funds on a mission one night to find an album by a jazz trumpet player not named Miles Davis. I love Miles, but in 1993 with no internet and no real way of researching jazz on my own, as far as I knew Miles Davis was the only jazz trumpeter on earth. I ended up finding a CD called Brown and Roach Incorporated for $5 and I loved it. As with much of the music I purchased in 1993, I selected it solely based on the coolness of the album cover. The music was cooler than the picture. Soon after I bought my first ever CD box set: Clifford Brown: The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings. A Night at Birdland Vols. 1 and 2 were included in that set. Those four discs changed my life. I felt like I had discovered something nobody else had ever heard. Clifford Brown was my guy and he was beautiful. He had a warm, full tone, and could smoke through a hot joint like “A Night in Tunisia” and then just as easily bring tears to your eyes on a ballad like “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You”.
After listening to those albums repeatedly I wondered why I never heard Clifford Brown’s name among the jazz greats. What happened? He died at the age of 25. Overdose, right? Wrong. He may have been the only jazz musician in the 1950’s who wasn’t addicted to heroin. Sonny Rollins is actually quoted as saying, “He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a jazz musician.” He was traveling to Chicago for a show with pianist Richie Powell and his wife. On June 26, 1956, Powell’s wife was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during a rain storm and lost control of the car. All three of them died. What a shame. Not only was Brown an amazing trumpet player, but he had composed many of the songs that he recorded. Only 25 years old… I can’t imagine the music he could’ve given us with more time. He could’ve been right there with Miles.
A Night at Birdland was recorded 65 years ago this month. I’ve been listening to this album for 25 years and it never gets old. I love to listen to not just the music, but the sound of the crowd. Pee Wee Marquette’s introduction of the band that would be sampled 40 years later on Us3’s “Cantaloop” (Brown’s trumpet from this album was also sampled on that song). Art Blakey saying, “Wow. First time I’ve enjoyed a recording session,” between songs. What was it like at Birdland in 1954 when they were recording this incredible music? This is what vinyl does for me that streaming music could never do. It gives me a feeling that someday 65 years ago someone was listening to this music in this exact same format. What were they doing? Were they playing it at some cool dinner party? Was there a teenager sitting alone in his bedroom thinking, “I’ve gotta get my friends over here so they can hear this new Art Blakey record?” It fascinates me.
This album, specifically the song “Quicksilver”, also takes me back to our deer hunting shack. When I was a teenager my dad, brother, grandpa, and uncles would drive two hours north deep in to the woods and spend the weekend hunting deer and living in a tiny shack. We still do, but the accommodations are borderline luxurious now. Back then the hunting shack we frequented had no electricity or running water. My favorite time at deer camp was always after dinner when everyone would just sit down to relax and the card games would start. The only radio station that came in was WNMU-FM. On Saturday nights that meant Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”, then great jazz until we turned off the radio and went to bed. Every time I hear this record I’m transported back to that musty old shack lit by lanterns. It smelled like a combination of the fire and whatever awful cheese dad and the uncles were using to torture us. Yet in this desolate cabin 20 minutes from the nearest building with a telephone, it sounded like Birdland in the middle of Manhattan in the 1950’s. Well…if Birdland also had a bunch of smelly deer hunters talking shit about their pegging skills while playing cribbage. A unique juxtaposition.
So, last weekend 1954 Manhattan, 1995 Florence, Wisconsin, and 2019 Seattle, Washington, gloriously combined for a short time in Andy’s apartment while the Art Blakey Quintet struggled to reach its full glory on Andy’s subpar audio equipment. I can’t wait for the next Seattle trip when I expect better audio quality and a copy of Ahmad Jamal’s Live at the Pershing in one piece.
Correction: A loyal reader currently suffering through a full blown speaker crisis has pointed out that the radio station we listened to at the deer hunting shack was not Wisconsin Public Radio, but actually WNMU-FM out of Marquette, Michigan. I had previously written that it was Wisconsin Public Radio and am truly ashamed. It has been corrected. My apologies for misleading readers. Long live the NMU Wildcats.