‘Let’s face it – we’d all sound like that if we could.’ John Coltrane on Stan Getz
Stan Getz was without doubt the first jazz saxophonist I ever heard. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my Mum.
Family lore has it that, within a few weeks of being born, the first music I ever demonstrated a response to was that of this most famous American jazz icon, he of the caressing tenor tone, baby-faced good looks and general dashing glamour. For a one-day-to-be tenor saxophonist there really couldn’t have been a better place to start, an 8-Track cassette of Getz’ Greatest Hits - the bossa-nova and Easy Listening covers that turned him from jazz to (almost) pop-star in the 1960s – making for as beguiling a lullaby as anything written by Brahms.
Getz re-entered my life again around the age of thirteen, as a previous chapter in which I detailed how I started to build a record collection of my own, rather than commandeer that of my Dad, has already explained. He was there in Dad’s collection too, of course; a name who I already knew was one of the most revered in jazz, gifted with a tone on his instrument so poetic that he’d acquired the nickname ‘The Sound’ from those attempting to capture its near-other worldly beauty.
The bossa-nova discs of the early 1960s had played up this aspect of Getz’ talent as never before, setting his lyrical way with a melody into the Brazilian ‘new wrinkle’ (as bossa-nova translates) like a perfectly polished jewel might be seated into a gleaming crown. A series of large-scale orchestral projects, in which he played the pops of the day, helped build on this commercial victory, and it was one of these – Didn’t We, taped for the Verve label in 1966 – that I found myself most drawn as a young saxophonist.
Where Dad had got this LP I don’t know (possibly from a tenor-playing friend named Dave Brown, who I later played with), but I remember it for two things; first, that it had no album jacket, just an off-white inner sleeve, and secondly, how, in a moment of teenaged inspiration I once drew a makeshift cover design on this plain paper envelope, as I recall a blobby wording of ‘Stan Getz’ followed by the tune titles, all in shaky free-hand. I’d done it for two reasons; one, that I got fed up with looking at a spinning disc every time I wanted to know the title of each track and, perhaps more tellingly, because I thought a record so lush, passion-filled and influential (to me at least) deserved to be housed in something a little less anonymous.
The album was a curious mix of contemporary popular songs (Goffin and King’s 'Go Away Little Girl'), old standards ('The Night Has A Thousand Eyes',' What’s New?') and classic jazz compositions (Benny Golson’s 'I Remember Clifford', Milt Jackson’s 'Heartstrings') and with its positively luxurious, sweeping string section, had been condemned by most jazz critics at the time of its issue as so much sentimental mush. But they’d missed the point, as they so often did with Getz and more generally with the concept of ‘jazz soloist with strings’. This wasn’t a jazz giant carving yet another notable achievement in the bedpost of jazz improvisation (and God knows by 1966 Getz had practically whittled the thing to dust), it was Getz the craftsman, using his sound – that sound – to sing songs atop a big-scale backing, like a master vocalist might. As I wrote in an earlier chapter, to judge one by the criteria of the other was just plain idiotic, akin to criticising a bottle of fine wine for not having the qualities of a real ale.
I loved the album, and marvelled at a player who could go from the sweetest of deliveries one minute to the an almost manically fierce barking (the close of' Heartstrings') the next. And in its mood of pure romanticism it played straight into my teenaged melancholy, just as Frank Sinatra and Julie London’s records had. I felt much the same about his 1962 collaboration with guitarist Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba – which had effectively launched the bossa movement in North America. The story surrounding the album is famously fraught with conflict; Byrd and Getz fell out after the saxophonist copped a Grammy for the album, which technically was co-headed, although thankfully, awareness of this tension has never interfered with an appreciation of the resulting record’s merits. As easy as it was to listen to – Getz in particular making the entire proceedings sound no more taxing than a walk in the park – Jazz Samba was nevertheless a highly musicianly undertaking, some of its material replete with harmonic surprises that made manifest the new style’s quirks in the most challenging way. I discovered this one evening in the loft early on in my trombone-playing days, during which I attempted to graft my inexperienced improvisational skills upon the album in the most opportunely vulgar way. What Getz and co had made look easy and relaxed, over a tick-tick-tick rhythm that appeared to offer unwavering support, was actually fiendishly complex. And besides not being able to play any of the tunes, I could hardly pronounce them. This then was an album of both overt and hidden subtlety; a sleeper of a classic, easily played but with hidden traps for the musically unwary.
Other Getz records in Dad’s collection made a bit more sense but were still just as daunting; the mano-o-mano Diz and Getz summit with Dizzy Gillespie, made for producer Norman Granz in 1953 - which launches with a version of 'It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)' so frenzied that the remainder of the record never really recovers; the tricksy version of 'Thou Swell' taped at Boston’s Storyville Club in 1951, which was enough to convince me that the saxophonist was so much more than just a pretty sound - a foolish notion to raise with me in person, by the way.
He was also one of those players who seemed a constant in my life, no matter what my vacillating tastes in jazz. Even when I was deeply enamoured with the Sixties avant-garde, Getz still had a piece of my musical heart, whether that be through his commercial successes like the album Voices (a record I’ll not hear anyone label as a lesser achievement for its unconventional vocal choir backing), or through more challenging fair such as the sui generis Focus, his collaboration with arranger Eddie Sauter from 1961, which is a genuine rarity in jazz, an album ‘with strings’ in which the voices of soloist and ensemble are equal in their invention.
Around the time of Getz’s death in 1991, reissues of his earlier music were coming thick and fast, very often handy compilations which helped guide the listener through what was an enormous and surprisingly diverse discography. For a young tenor player, they were mandatory listening.
Highlights (which I remember buying on cassette in WHSmith in Henley on Thames on a gloriously hot July afternoon exactly thirty years ago this month) was a double-album retrospective of the saxophonist’s work for the Verve label (incorporating early 1950s sessions on Clef and Norgran) stretching from 1952 to 1971. Within it, I discovered such beautiful performances as 'A Ballad', made in the company of Gerry Mulligan in 1957 and the charming 'Melinda', one of the few really successful tracks from Getz’s 1964 collaboration with pianist Bill Evans, which, although it promised much on paper - two of jazz’s great romantics meeting for the first time on disc – spends much of its time plodding along rather than wooing the listener.
There was also another handy addition to the Compact Jazz series on Polygram – Getz with Strings – which sampled a broad swathe of the tenorist’s work not only with orchestral accompaniment but with vocal choir (from both Voices and the oddly underrated Communications ‘72 arranged by Michel Legrand) and wind ensemble (the rare 'The Queen’s Fancy', taped with John Lewis in 1955).
I was also taken with another ‘best of’, assembled by the veteran writer Alun Morgan, which usefully compiled a sampling of Getz’s output for the Roost label in the very early 1950s, taking in tracks lifted from the steaming At Storyville album, taped with guitarist Jimmy Raney, but mainly focused upon the series of 78rpms made in quartet format that had effectively launched Getz’s solo career after leaving the Woody Herman ‘Four Brothers’ band in the late 1940s.
In many ways this remains my favourite period of his work. I still marvel, as I did when I first heard them back in 1992, at performances like 'Hershey Bar', 'Imagination' and 'Split Kick', still unable to comprehend how anyone could conjure a tone so opaquely beautiful from an instrument that up to his arrival (with the sole exception of Lester Young) had been indelibly equated with musical machismo. If there is one track from the Roost years I’d direct listeners toward if they don’t know Getz’ work at this juncture it would have to be his version of Jerome Kern’s 'Yesterdays', taped in 1950, a solo of truly Romantic intent, so delicately constructed that it hangs together like a spiders web; translucent, fragile, yet with each phrase finely woven to the next. Nothing else in Getz’s discography sounds quite so vulnerable as this (although 1952’s 'Autumn Leaves' might be considered something of a replay), and no performance in jazz could provide more misleading a false flag as to its creator’s character.
Somehow, I knew Getz was a difficult so and so. I think it might have been Ronnie Scott’s well-honed tale about ‘bending over backwards to please Stan Getz’ that first alerted me to the fact. Watching him perform – those eyes wide open and seemingly emotionless – you got a sense that something was going on behind them which it might not be wise to try to explore further. The saxophonist himself described entering an ‘alpha state’ while playing, but I kept thinking of how Scott had noted that one look from him could ‘fell a polar bear’.
The trickle of rumour about Getz’ off-stage character became a dam-busting onrush in 1996 when Donald L. Maggin published his biography of the saxophonist, Stan Getz: A Life In Jazz (William Morrow, New York). There had been books about him before, including a tidy volume by Richard Palmer, which hinted at some of what lay beneath the surface of the apparent serenity, but if Palmer’s book had offered a cursory glance at this aspect of the tenorist’s character, Maggin’s read more like a psychiatrist’s evaluation. Getz emerged as an addict, a serial womaniser, an incorrigible bully and the kind of pathologically selfish individual who would ride roughshod over anyone should he choose to do so. Nothing new in jazz there, you say; weren’t Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker in the same class, larger than life creative types unconfined by social niceties? Well, yes, but Getz, however, upped the nefarious character traits stakes by becoming a wife-beater, one so unpredictably violent when drunk that his spouse spent years – years! - secretly administering anti-alcohol medication to him.
Maggin served up supporting evidence for these sins throughout the book, which given that they thread through a story that is otherwise one of near constant public success, made reading A Life In Jazz at times an exercise as schizophrenically divided as was Getz himself. It was hard not to be appalled by what you were discovering, and at the time of its publication Maggin got into very hot water for what some saw as a woeful lack of prudence. I certainly came away from his book feeling slightly soiled, knowing now that one of my heroes – indeed my first hero – had been as handy with his fists as he was with a tenor saxophone. For a time afterwards, I couldn’t listen to Getz, so violating had these revelations been. His records went back on the shelf unplayed, and whenever I saw a photo of him in his prime – as handsome as any film star, looking as if he were tailored by God to fit the proportions of the tenor saxophone – I no longer felt the pangs of admiration I once had.
Getz had it all – talent, looks, opportunity and fame – and yet something within him, certainly in the first two thirds of his career, drove him to sabotage (or at the very least undermine) it all. Nobody has ever really been sure why. The saxophonist himself referred to a ‘taut inner spring’ that drove him to be a musical perfectionist, but he never ever admitted – publicly – why he’d been such a monster off-stage. Was being in harness to such a mega-talent really that difficult? Did having a stunning wife and WASP archetype children seem somehow anti-climactic? Was being one of jazz’s few millionaires such a drag? Or was he, like his one-time boss Benny Goodman simply too in love, and in too deep, with his music to really give a damn about anything or anyone else, yet another of those Jewish entertainers who, in the words of author Bernard Kops, ‘were either angels or bastards and sometimes angelic bastards’?
Late in life, when an on-off battle with cancer appeared to humble him, he became almost cloyingly contrite and there is an argument that his very final recording – the double album People Time, taped three months before his death, aged 64 – is a step too far in the taste stakes, almost as if Getz were turning his own mortality into a sales pitch. I’ve never doubted his musical sincerity, but, personally, I suspect Getz was merely a good actor when it came to all other business; putting on a mask of humanity, using his well-practised charm and handsome looks to ameliorate his appalling behaviour towards others.
In this he is by no means alone. As a personality, Getz had very much in common with two other musical titans who rose to new levels of prominence (and artistic maturity) during the same time, the 1950s; Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Indeed, the three shared a lot; doting mothers, somewhat indulged childhoods, movie star good looks, the ability to use performance as a pulling tool, off-the-scale sexual appetites, barely repressed rage. They also shared an innate gift for melody, never just outlining it blandly as per the song copy but tooling it, subtly but never waywardly, to their own ends. They were, in sum, three of the greatest ‘singers’ of their era, each possessing a tone at once recognisable and inimitable, yet relentlessly copied the world over. History records that there was something of a mutual admiration between them. For a time there was talk of a Sinatra/Davis/Gil Evans summit – a truly mouthwatering proposition – while Getz once spoke of waiting ‘like a bride’ for the call to record with the vocalist, a match that makes perfect sense in the inner ear of anyone who likes either artist. In fact, so conjoined do these three now seem – all the more so since distance stops a lot of the once prevalent sniffiness about jazz versus pop – that had the much vaunted Rat Pack been appointed on artistic merit rather than general chumminess, Getz and Davis would’ve both made ideal choices, save perhaps for Davis’ absolute refusal to glad hand an audience.*
* In his autobiography Davis claimed listening to Sinatra had influenced his phrasing.
There’s another connection too; that, in the late 1960s, when The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the first stirrings of rock as a ‘serious’ art form were tilting the balance against them, all three came up with music that fought back, not always successfully, but always willingly. As we’ve seen, Miles plugged in and tried to get with the kids. Sinatra did much the same, sometimes embarrassingly so (if you’ve never seen FS perform with the Fifth Dimension then please don’t. You’ll likely never forgive yourself for sitting through a career nadir so low it’s almost subterranean). Yet, every so often, each man was capable of coming up with a workable synthesis of their own way of doing things and those of the new breed. Sinatra singing Downtown may not have worked but when he alighted on the lyrics of, say, Alan and Marilyn Bergman it was a marriage as perfectly apposite as that he’d already enjoyed with Sammy Cahn. Likewise Miles Davis, whose In A Silent Way was, to this writers mind, the best realised meeting between the trumpeters austere post-bop and more populist notions, made just before the latter began to waylay the natural course of his music.
As we’ve seen, Getz was just as comfortable playing Burt Bacharach as he was Richard Rodgers. But then he was comfortable playing anything. As the 1960s wore on, he also dipped his toe into the waters of the avant-garde, albeit in his own way. In some ways he’d always been avant-garde; listen, for example, to the aforementioned 'Yesterdays', taped in 1950, and you’ll hear an abstraction of melody as daring as anything created contemporaneously by Lennie Tristano. And who in jazz in 1961 – of any school – was coming up with music so radically different as Focus? - a record whose very concept (the adding of an improvised element to a work already created as a stand-alone entity) was the sort of thing many a ‘serious’ composer would approve of.
When Getz faced the challenges of new innovations within jazz head-on – in particular the caprices opened up in the rhythm sections of the John Coltrane Quartet and Miles Davis ‘time no changes’ Quintet – the effect could be electric. 1967’s Sweet Rain (my all-time favourite Getz record) is perhaps the best example of this, with its swift shifts in texture and tempo and general air of steely adventurousness, much of it down to the provocative compositions of pianist Chick Corea.
An imperfect record
This album has a sequel of sorts, which, although not widely known, is among my own choices of Getz’ at his most engaging. I discovered it by chance one morning in early 1997, in my local record shop, Track Records, which I’ve described in an earlier chapter. Titled The Song Is You, and in bland, generic packaging and with an anachronistic cover photo of the saxophonist (taken in 1961 by Ray Avery), I instantly took it to be yet another compilation of early Getz, pulled together opportunistically in the wake of his death from recordings now in the Public Domain. It was, however, to my surprise, a February 1969 concert recording (made by French radio station RTE) from the Salle Pleyel in Paris, featuring the tenorist’s then regular band of pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Hardly vintage Getz, then, but intriguing nonetheless.
This same band had alighted at Ronnie Scott’s on the same tour, occasioning reviews that reveal genuine bewilderment, even from party-faithful admirers like Benny Green who regarded Getz as just this side of God incarnate. ‘Accompanied’ by a trio who took the ideals of Miles Davis’s recent bands as their starting point, the tenorist was pitched this way and that on a sea of almost complete freedom. To the regulars at Ronnie’s – where Getz was held in the highest esteem despite his testiness and general bad behaviour – this was tantamount to sacrilege. Where was Getz the great balladeer? Where was their hero’s signature sound? Why had this most ardent champion of melodic improvisation pitched in with this noodling nothingness? Indeed, this sort of musical garb appeared as ill-suited to the saxophonist as his new double-breasteds, flared trousers and bushy sideburns.
Where was the old Stan Getz?
Actually, the answers to all these questions were hiding in plain sight. Getz himself hadn’t changed, rather the context in which his gifts were framed had. This was actually nothing new. Ever since the early 1960s – and before the bossa boom diverted his and his record buyers’ attention – he’d been championing new jazz talent; Steve Kuhn, Scott La Faro, Pete La Roca, Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Chick Corea all passed through his Sixties quartets, each successive band becoming less and less conventional, both in its choice of material and its overall approach. The 1969 band was, perhaps, the end game of all this progress, much like Miles Davis’ 1964-68 quintet had brought to a logical conclusion his (Davis') interest in acoustic line-ups. When Getz formed his next band in 1971 it featured a Hammond Organ. The year after that he recorded the proto-fusion classic Captain Marvel, an album unimaginable without electronics and its (remarkably noisy) aggressive post-Bitches Brew rhythm section.
The Paris concert (issued on the LRC label in the case of my copy, but released - semi-officially one suspects - on other imprints) is therefore a fascinating if troubling listen, the great saxophonist wobbling on the axis of old and new. He is heard at his silky best on ballads like 'Tonight I Shall Sleep With A Smile On My Face' and 'Summer Night', although these are now played so openly as to be near-free jazz, and there are some hard-swinging if abstracted performances in 'The Song Is You, and 'All The Things You Are', but at other times the music is close to a total mess. On 'Dane’s Chant', the band sound lost from the off, and one can frequently sense Getz’s unhappiness in his off-mic comments which variously admonish the band for taking too many bows, or curtly snap out tune titles. Nor are things like Vitous’ seven minute long solo bass piece – received by the Parisians like a lead balloon - entirely helpful.
However, if you’ve never heard Getz in such an open-setting, as indeed I hadn’t when I bought the album in the late-1990s, it’s a gripping experience. Like Sinatra or Davis’ recordings from the same time, it’s a curate’s egg of a performance, enabling you to witness a middle-aged performer then increasingly regarded as ‘safe’ trying to find some sort of middle-ground with those younger and more adventurous than him. That in itself is no bad thing. At the time I first heard The Song Is You I’d not long turned professional and was very much still learning how jazz performance was at root a truly hit and miss affair, generally always compromised by something - material, venue acoustics, a ‘dep’ player, whatever. Some bands I was either hearing (or playing in) would gel instantly. Others had to find their way to the end of the gig in rather more strained (or at times actively forced) ways, relying on sheer professionalism to right things when the chain came off. This latter way was what I heard in The Song Is You, albeit at the highest possible level – four master musicians not coasting, nor playing safe, but relishing the chances that spontaneous ‘freedom’ might afford them, undeterred by the occasional wrong turning. When it worked, as on 'Tonight I Shall Sleep', the results were as beautifully affecting as anything born of stricter discipline. When it failed – as it did on 'Dane’s Chant' – you were left with a performance not so much disappointing as revealing, which was both the reason why I played The Song Is You to death in the weeks after I purchased it, and why today I consider it a huge part of my practical education. Yes, it’s an imperfect record (it’s live and all live jazz is surely not intended to be faultless?) and yes, it hardly qualifies as one of the ‘great’ Getz albums, but as a candid document illustrating how jazz musicians – even truly legendary ones – deal with the on-off nature of their chosen idiom it’s unbeatable.
I admit that it’s somewhat odd to conclude that a patchy record by a musician otherwise known for the sheer polish of his performances should be a favourite. And yet it is. This choice is another that supports part of the reasoning behind this book; that, when all’s said and done, it matters not what attracts you to jazz, whether it be a ‘classic’ album feted for representing the art form at its most creative, or an obscure LP comprised of lo-fi broadcast recordings on a label never heard of before or since. What matters is that something caught your attention and kept you hooked to such an extent that you grow to consider it an irreplaceable part of your discovery of the music. This is why I consider Getz’s The Song Is You and Didn’t We, both releases that are hardly regarded as mandatory stop-offs in his voluminous discography, as key influences rather than ephemeral cut-offs, easily dismissed. Like Rollins’ Plays For Bird, Curtis Fuller’s New Trombone or Zoot Sims’ The Modern Art of Jazz, or any number of the records discussed in these pages, these Getz albums aren’t landmark achievements for their creator; yet they remain landmark experiences for at least one listener; me. They taught me so much – the effectiveness of a well-paced ballad; how abstraction can meet structure and result in a creative win-win; the idea that workable repertoire is only as limited as you make it, and, above all, how a signature sound can still sing its song – a lullaby, even - whatever the context.
Photo; the singer and the sound: Getz on-stage in Paris with vocalist Flora Purim, February 1969