Jazz Birthdays: Harry Edison (1915), Thelonious Monk (1917), Julius Watkins (1921), and Junior Mance (1928)

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Lester Young took to calling Harry Edison “Sweetie Pie”, referring to his musical style, when both were in the Basie band of the 1930s. This became “Sweets”. The first time I noticed him was in a 1955 album (Tour de Force) in which he teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge in a joint effort involving a friendly rivalry, like two sports teams playing a game. Going into the studio and holding your own against the latter two powerhouses is quite a feat but Sweets did it with an unstoppable free flow of melodic ideas. Edison came up in the big band era and later returned to the big name bands that came back in the 70s such as those of Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich and Quincy Jones. In between, from 1952 onwards, he was in heavy demand in California as a studio musician, and he also played with Shorty Rogers. He worked steadily with the likes of Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra (for six years), Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Billy Daniels, Margaret Whiting and Ella Fitzgerald. The music we take for granted comes about through numerous cooperative joint ventures. At times Sweets fronted a quintet for engagements in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Edison’s musicianship was of the highest caliber as in “Pennies from Heaven“.

Monk was a jazz genius, as piano player and composer, and as early contributor to bop and modern jazz. I first heard him in his 1955 “Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington” album, and somewhere around 1964 I saw him play in a jazz club in Newburyport, Mass. I hung out at the bar, which was only a few feet away from the piano. When Monk came up next to me and the bartender asked him what he wanted to drink, Monk said “Cointreau”. And he took it straight, no chaser. That choice showed his good taste, right there. Monk’s compositions, often humorous, dissonant in just the right places, offbeat, tuneful, swinging, memorable, and unexpected all in one, have become jazz standards. Think “Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Ruby, My Dear”. Monk played many of his own tunes again and again, and they always stayed fresh. His solo playing is intense, meditative, evocative, and hauntingly beautiful. He plays a rich-sounding piano and yet he has reduced or eliminated many of the excess notes and then invented his own harmonies. The result is often spare, lean but not empty, fresh, to the point, and fulfilling, as if you are hearing fascinating patterns of the man’s soul, without cliché. It is communication that gives great pleasure.

Julius Watkins was one of a few who struggled to make the French horn (now called simply the horn) a jazz instrument. He succeeded. On the “Jazz Icons Quincy Jones – Live in ‘60” dvd, Watkins plays an incredible solo on “Everybody’s Blues”. His stunning range, tastefully used, is well beyond that of classically-trained horn players. His controlled lip trills on those high notes are perfect. His thoughtful, measured and compositional approach to improvisation treasures musicality over the production of many notes. On “Think of One“, he plays with Monk, and here he fronts a sextet.

Junior Mance, journeyman pianist, is interviewed here (open the pdf file). He started out playing all the boogie woogie tunes and went from there. His three-year stint with Dizzy Gillespie was a music college, since Diz always shared his harmonic discoveries. This version of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” features Diz and Mance, and if you listen to his solo, you can hear the influence of boogie-woogie. Asked about the essentials of achieving success, Mance answers: “Be yourself. Don’t try to be like other people. Don’t be an imitator.”

4:43 am on October 10, 2012