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Being the most prolific rock artist of 1949 has its advantages – namely ensuring your name never leaves the public’s consciousness – but also some disadvantages, especially when competing labels are issuing singles from your previous stint with them that will more than likely cause your records to cancel one another out in terms of getting noticed.

But if you’re an instrumentalist, as Big Jay McNeely was, there’s another potential disadvantage unique to those whose records don’t feature vocals… namely how do you keep one tenor sax workout after another from becoming repetitive? With two sides to a single and already the fourth single in the last six months to come out under your own name, plus a handful of others with you as a featured component of Johnny Otis’s crew, there was definitely a likelihood of sonic monotony to go along with the risk of overexposure.

Yet fans of Big Jay McNeely need not have worried, because while he may go down in history for epitomizing a brand of flashy showmanship he was never resigned to only that one approach, endlessly repeating himself until the novelty wore off. McNeely’s forte was always his adaptability.

Even now, barely out of his teens, his approach to songwriting was much farther advanced than any of rock’s saxophone brigade. While that versatility didn’t necessarily get him more hits – in fact, after his storming debuts earlier this year he wouldn’t chart another side nationally for a decade – it did ensure that he was never reduced to being simply a one note performer and kept him in steady demand among record labels and live audiences for years.

Back To Harlem
As stated repeatedly here over the last year much of rock’s origins were rooted in jazz, not the high-brow technical brand that’s come to embody the term since, but rather the dance music that dominated the 1940’s with horns anchoring the proceedings. When rock came along the brass sections were streamlined, the altos, trombones and trumpets were gradually discarded (not always fast enough for our tastes, but by this point in the story they’re becoming less and less prominent) and the muscular tenors and baritones were taking over, eschewing the whimsically melodic passages in favor of repetitive riffs and contrasting high and low parts designed to be both suggestive and frantic.

Yet the connection between rock and jazz wasn’t completely severed and for even the most committed rock horn maniac like McNeely there was a certain pride in being able to show you could handle the more demanding jazz parts as well as a definite benefit to being able to do so when it came to expanding your opportunities. The classier clubs would prefer someone who could competently execute some jazzier tunes and the record companies were still not completely sold on the long term viability of rock in the commercial realm themselves. So McNeely toned things down just a bit and with Willie The Cool Cat delivered something that may not be the first record you’d drop a nickel in the jukebox to hear as an avowed rock fan, but if someone else punched that number you certainly wouldn’t object.

We’ve delved into the importance of courting favor with disc jockeys numerous times here on Spontaneous Lunacy and how record labels would usually do so in the form of naming an instrumental in a key DJ’s honor. For New York’s Willie Bryant, this is already his second such tribute and if anyone was worthy of it surely it was the self-named, but unchallenged “Mayor Of Harlem” who ruled the roost at WHOM.

Hal Singer’s One For Willie got to the line first and was a modest effort by a musician who was actually MORE suited to the jazzier material that Bryant’s program was still largely featuring (though as stated in that review the top dee-jay servicing the black community in the Big Apple was by no means averse to playing rock and would soon be leaning heavily on it in his playlists as time went on), but McNeely one-ups Singer here with a song that effectively splits the difference between rock and jazz without it sounding forced and ill-conceived.

In fact, on Willie The Cool Cat the way Big Jay pulls off this unlikely feat is very interesting and quite creative.


Balancing Act
When we’ve covered other sax instrumentals that are more jazz-rooted we’ve taken pains to point out how they sound dated to the more modern (and less refined) approach rock was taking. For the most part they’ve fallen short aesthetically for our needs because in order to show their jazzier instincts they’ve scaled back the rock features which leaves the songs sounding lightweight by comparison to the more tribal rock records.

Many of these offending records tended to handle the tunes like an egg, cradling them gently, careful not to make too much commotion so they don’t break them. Typically they ramp things up at some point in order to try and at least modestly satisfy the rock crowd they’re now tasked with appealing to but the juxtaposition between the two styles within becomes too great to overcome and gives those records a schizophrenic sound that satisfies neither the snootier jazz fan or the lustier rock listener.

McNeely wisely avoids that trap as he takes the structure of a jazz song and delivers it with a forcefulness more associated with rock.

Willie The Cool Cat starts off with a deep bottom, McNeely’s horn sounding full and rich in its lower register rather than sticking to the flightier high notes. He’s backed by more horns and drums pounding out a staccato rhythm that solidifies the impression that this is a heavy riff-based song.

But the actual notes they’re playing, indeed the general mindset they’re inhabiting, is still more jazz-like and that impression becomes more noticeable once the piano come into the picture, playing a tinkly choppy refrain as the drummer rides the cymbals with only intermittent horn interjections. A guitar – itself an instrument still more associated with jazz than rock – adds a few mellow fills before the horns begin their climb so that McNeely can take off for his first solo.

Now it re-enters the rock idiom but the shift from one approach to the other was seamless. It comes off sounding organic, each part fitting into the larger arrangement like pieces of an intricate puzzle. Even now, as Big Jay’s presence suggests a bawdier atmosphere, he’s not taking it into the alley or honking up a storm as he walks across the bar, but the contrast from what preceded it makes his part sound plenty tough and therein lies the intelligence of the composition and by extension of McNeely himself.

Around The World
By the midway point, as McNeely gets heated up even more, the rock crowd listening is going to dismiss the very idea this has any relation to jazz even though when you start picking apart its individual components you find it’s not that far off.

Backbeat aside, the horn responses to McNeely’s aggressive blowing fits more with the jazz mentality of group dynamics than most of what you’ll find in rock where already there’s more of a back and forth technique between tenor and baritone that sets it apart. But while Jay’s brother Bob is indeed present here, he keeps his baritone well within the massed horn section rather than get involved in a duel.

But it’s the way they’ve done this that means you’re unlikely to notice its absence. By starting off slow and ramping up the intensity as they go along it gives the impression of being every bit as raucous as you anticipated.

That slight of hand technique allows them to maintain more of a jazz structure while merely suggesting – largely on the basis of his own growing reputation and the expectation that comes with it – that this is somehow far more ferocious than it really is. The rockers are thereby content while the jazz crowd aren’t completely put off.

We’ve mentioned McNeely’s knack for arranging many times in his past reviews and this is another example of his ability in that regard. I don’t think it’ll completely fool anybody, jazz fans aren’t going to be thinking he’s given up rock ‘n’ roll to join their ranks on the basis of this performance and rock fans, while reasonably satisfied, still aren’t going to be placing this on the level of his more outlandish honking displays, but he’s not trying to dupe you as much as he’s simply trying to balance the response.

Willie The Cool Cat by virtue of its musical malleability isn’t going to alienate either side, as his more romping rockers surely had. If the record company or a booking agent wanted to try and appeal to a classier customer without turning off his core constituency this record would fit the bill far better than most of the offerings from other sax men who were often conflicted as to which style they themselves wanted to play and therefore saw their attempts at splitting the difference compromised by uncertainty.

McNeely has no such problems. He’s content to be a rocker and get looked down upon by the more erudite crowd, but he’s also perfectly willing to meet those with loftier tastes halfway. He’s not pandering to them, not discarding what he’s made his name on to try and convince anyone he’s something that he’s not. But this shows that the two sides, growing further apart every day as 1949 unfolds, are still capable of being joined together without watering either side down too much.

The jazz cats who nodded their heads in appreciation at the start might not be the ones on their feet by the end when the rockers get into it, but they haven’t left the room in disgust either. For once, and maybe for the last time in quite awhile, jazz can co-exist with rock without either side feeling they’ve sold out.

Cool In The Evening
No, this certainly wasn’t going to be a hit on its own, it’s not McNeely’s best work, but it’s more than good enough for his purposes. As B-sides go it serves multiple purposes from broadening his musical palette somewhat to getting a foothold in the New York market thanks to the transparently shallow, but still reasonably effective, Willie Bryant connection in the title. Since Bryant himself was still known more for jazz it was the also the perfect song to bestow with the Willie The Cool Cat moniker.


By this point in rock’s lifespan the lines of demarcation were indeed becoming much clearer and everyone involved, musicians, record companies, fans and dee-jays alike, would soon have to pick a side. But as McNeely shows that split didn’t have to be entirely acrimonious, the camps didn’t need to remain hostile to one another even as they get further and further apart.

While it is true that rock was poised to knock jazz off its long held perch at the top of the black music marketplace, if it hadn’t done so already, the majority of the rockers ascending to the heights once reserved for the jazz masters were indebted to, and respectful of, those who first scaled those heights and enjoyed the view from a top the music world themselves not that long ago.

Music is a continuum, one style begets another. Sometimes they break apart entirely but as unlikely as it may seem from a distance it’s usually hard to envision one being conceived without input from the others and this record allows us to see the connection a bit clearer, even if just for a few lingering moments before they bid each other adieu.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)