Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chu Berry and His Stompy Stevedores

Looking back on my posts so far, ,I see that I haven't posted any early jazz, or even any pre-war swing era jazz, since to me, "early jazz" implies music recorded before about 1935. This LP collects music recorded between 1936 and 1941, featuring the great, ill-fated tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry. During the 1930s, Berry was considered by many to be second only to Coleman Hawkins in the pantheon of jazz tenor saxophonists, at least before Lester Young came on the scene. His style resembled Hawkins' somewhat, but his sound was lighter and his playing was more fluid, although he couldn't match Hawkins' harmonic sophistication.

Berry only recorded four sessions under his one name: two for Variety/Vocalion/Columbia (as the labels changed ownership) and two for Commodore, one of the earliest jazz specialty labels. The former two sessions are here on side one, and if they're not quite as good as the Commodores, they're very good indeed. Side two has one 1936 track of Berry with a Teddy Wilson small group; the rest of the side is by the Cab Calloway big band, of which Chu was a member from 1937 until his death in 1941. Berry's feature number with Calloway was the ballad "Ghost of a Chance"; the 1940 Calloway recording is included here, and it's a beautiful thing.

This reissue album, on the Columbia subsidiary label Epic, can't be said to be rare, but it took me years to find a true mono copy. Every copy I came across was fake stereo. For the uninitiated, many recordings from before the stereo era were issued on LP with an indication on the cover, "Reprocessed for stereo," or something like that. The mastering engineer would split the mono signal into two tracks, and roll off the bass on one side and roll off the treble on the other, to give an illusion of stereo depth. In practice, it usually sounded awful.

The liner notes, by guitarist and raconteur Danny Barker, who was Berry's bandmate in the Cab Calloway band, end with a description of Chu's death that is made even more chilling by its detached, straightforward tone:

The last time I saw Chu alive was getting into a car going to Canada from Ohio. He asked me if I wanted to ride with the group in the car instead of the big Greyhound bus. It was after a dance and I was tired and could stretch out on the bus - Chu and the group left before the bus - a half-hour later the bus stopped on the highway. There were many night red flares on the road - an accident. The bus emptied to see what had happened. There was the car. The front smashed in, and on the roadside Chu lay unconscious. The ambulance sped up. We followed to a small hospital in a small town. They laid Chu on a bed - and I heard the attendant say "We can't get a doctor until tomorrow morning, seven a.m." I looked at my wrist watch - it was three a.m. We boarded the bus and sped off to Toronto, Canada.

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