SWINGING ON THE VINE: Always a melodist

Capture.PNGWith perspiration running down my face, my stomach cramps as I vomit helplessly on the floor. I open my eyes – but the floor is clean in my Hunter Valley hideaway. I gaze suspiciously to where Big J is snoring contentedly after lapping up another bowl of award winning shiraz. Shaking my head I reach for a glass of wine… then I remember. It had all been a dream – lying on the lawn at Devonport in the Deep South hoping that I had the first swim as the patient in my examination for a bronze medallion in the surf club. It was near the end of the summer of 1958; how could I forget? It was the year I discovered Stan Getz!

The Verve 12” LP cover, which showed water from a fountain running over a nubile model, was called Stan Getz And The Cool Sounds consisting of tracks the great tenor saxophonist had recorded for Norman Granz between 1953-55. But it was the sound of his horn that excited me: it was vibrato-free and pure. Like classical music virtuosos, jazz’s romantic poets like Getz are acclaimed for the purity of their tone and the sensitivity of their phrasing. Getz spoke the music of Lester Young, his stylistic mentor. In a Paris bar in 1959, shortly before his death, Young gave Getz his ultimate stamp of approval telling him: “You’re my poet. You tell me a story when you play.”

Getz was a marvellous ‘singer’ of great melodies, a fertile sauce of musical comment in any situation. He made music real for people. He seemed more at home with the melodies from The Great American Songbook such as Stella By Starlight. They inspired him. Not only because they are melodically and harmonically meaningful but also because of their lyrical and emotional depth. Listening to Getz from the 1950’s is always an experience for me as his playing recalls memories and experiences from my teenage years.

Melody was Getz’s calling card. He was lucky to work with the orchestras of two of jazz’s greatest instrumentalists who both sang through their horns – trombonist Jack Teagarden, with whom he first played when he was 15, and clarinettist Benny Goodman. I often listen to his solo on Goodman’s 1945 recording of Rattle And Roll and marvel that he was only 18 at the time. Getz credited Teagarden, Goodman and Young in the development of his tone quality and overall style. When bandleader Stan Kenton made light of Young’s wistful, mellow timbre calling it simple, Getz quit the orchestra.

Musicians were generous in their praise. Pianist Kenny Barron, with whom Getz played up until he lost his fight with liver cancer at the age of 64 on June 6, 1991, said: “He could do most anything but his ballads were memorable. He could make you cry”. In another life, Wynton Marsalis described Getz to me as “a beautiful player. He could always play”. Dizzy Gillespie was even more forthcoming: “An incredible soloist. I loved his melodies. He’s right up there with all of them, all the greats. You can’t get any better than him”.

Great sessions 

Capture.PNGGillespie saw and heard Getz at his greatest on many occasions both live and on record but none more so that the 1956 session released on Verve as For Musicians Only with a cast of Getz, Gillespie, alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt, pianist John Lewis, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Stan Levey. Gillespie and Stitt vowed to “put this little white boy in his place”. Were they in for a shock! Getz dominated the recording session. No matter how fast the tempo he blew like a hurricane without losing the beauty of his sound. In my humble opinion, it’s these mid-1950s sessions that represent the best of Getz. They include: From 1955, Hamp and Getz and West Coast Jazz (arguably his greatest album); from 1956 The Steamer; and from 1957, the sessions with J.J. Johnson at the Opera House and with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Like all great musicians, Getz evolved with the passing of time. The lyrical, romantic and pure sound became deeper, fuller and more flexible but he was always himself, playing in a manner which suited him best. The musical philosophy of this genius who helped shape jazz in the 1940’s was simple: “Life goes into you and comes out of your horn. Its’ as simple as that”.

With that marvellous lyrical moment by a 21-year-old Getz on Woody Herman’s 1948 recording of Early Autumn playing in the background I fill my glass and raise it.

– Patrick D.Maguire


This article appeared in the July edition of Fine Music Magazine – you can subscribe to our monthly magazine and have it posted to your home or business or click the link here to read online.

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