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SUPREME 1522; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying about answering the door when you hear opportunity knocking. In fact pre-rock sensation Julia Lee even had a song dispensing that very advice, telling listeners in no uncertain terms, (Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It.

Sadly, even though that record was a huge hit in the days just before rock’s breakthrough in 1947, not everybody in the black music kingdom took her words to heart.

One who clearly didn’t was saxophonist Big Jim Wynn, a figure ideally suited for the musical storm that followed who nevertheless largely took shelter from rock ‘n’ roll under the eaves of the condemned dwellings of the recent past, rendering his chances at stardom in the style of music he was meant for all but stillborn.
 

 
So how many chances does one get? When will opportunity, its knuckles sore from knocking on unanswered doors, simply decide to move on to the next house? Surely there are far more people on the musical block to still be reached for opportunity to keep wasting time on somebody not even willing to get up off the couch and see who was on their doorstep.

Jim Wynn had turned the corner on forty years old when rock came into its own over the past year and a half. He was pretty well established, respected for his musical abilities and already quite influential in his exciting style of live performance. Yet he wasn’t a star.

At every turn it seemed that the stars – the ones in the sky that is – were aligned against him ever reaching their altitude. He came along a bit too late to establish himself as a force in swing music yet a bit too early to first draw notice and make his name in rock. He played an exciting brand of music on stage yet proved incapable of – or unwilling to – replicate it on record. He had the ability to be a headliner yet curiously he’d remain largely a sideman for much of his career.

So that sound you hear faintly at the door is opportunity giving Big Jim Wynn perhaps his one last shot at breaking through while there’s still time to live up to his potential and help define rock ‘n’ roll, a style of music that in truth no longer needed his help for anything.
 

No Peddlers Allowed
We look back from a safe vantage point of seven decades later, knowing full well that the rock ‘n’ roll storm alluded to at the beginning of this review was about to turn into a tsunami, scattering well-established musical styles to the commercial winds. But we also know that wasn’t an overnight occurrence, that it’d be almost a decade after rock music first appeared in 1947 that it’d pull even with, or slightly ahead of mainstream pop in the singles market, then another few years for it to start widening the gap, largely due to pop music being too creatively stagnant to offer much progress in its own realm to draw in new audiences.

So for artists like Wynn and others who were around in the days before rock had, well… crawled out from under a rock in the fall of ’47, there didn’t seem to be TOO much impetus to sell their souls to rock ‘n’ roll in order to stay relevant. After all music styles constantly ebbed and flowed in popularity and new styles came along that gradually caused older styles to recede. Who was to say this rock stuff would be any different thereby allowing artists from other factions of music to still be viable headliners in those shrinking, but fairly stable, worlds.

But here’s the thing, in order to maintain a fairly successful career in those fields on the wane you actually needed to BE successful in them first, before they began to erode. It’d be no problem for the likes of Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington to keep garnering headlines and hits in the years immediately following rock’s arrival, or for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to maintain their status and the steady gigs that went with it, but for those like Wynn, still clawing to get recognized for his own important contributions which somehow seemed to slip from his grasp before fully making his name well-known, he could afford no delays. Not at a time when the charts were increasingly being filled with younger, more ambitious and more cutting edge rockers who weren’t inclined to slow things up just to ease the transition for someone lagging behind.

So Big Jim Wynn, somebody more than capable of joining in on the commotion and honking up a storm to draw notice while there was still time, had to give the most fertile audience available a record that would firmly entrench him in their consciousness or else it’d be too late for him to be more than an afterthought. Without a legitimate hit to his name in this style that was the most open for his talents he’d remain little more than a second tier musician without the name recognition, track record and reputation to live off his modest past especially as that past got ever more distant in the rear view mirror.

In other words, Big Jim Wynn needed to consent to rock and he needed to rock NOW!
 
 

 

He Goofed
We’ve gone over the basic attributes of the tenor sax instrumental in rock plenty of times here over the last year to make anything more than a basic recap superfluous. Basically though the dueling approaches of the most successful are either maintaining a steady seductive groove or blowing up a frenzied storm.

The latter is more common and theoretically simpler for a horn player to produce, as it requires less structural precision or melodic inventiveness, but it’s also now an increasingly competitive market that sees only the cream rise to the top. The likes of Big Jay McNeely, Hal Singer and Frank Culley are setting the bar ever higher and even in their cases when there’s something just a bit off in their plan the audiences are apt to reject it.

That’s the pitfall Wynn is steadfastly trying to avoid on Goofin’ Off a title which either makes you think he’s hoping its nonchalant lightheartedness might be alluring to the audience in question, forging a connection before the record starts… or that he himself might be looking at this attempt at wooing them rather derisively, resenting the suggestion he lower himself to this level in search of a hit.

I won’t go so far as to definitively state it’s the latter that he was feeling but I also won’t claim he was gung-ho about his task at hand when listening to the results. The fact is, no matter his mindset going into this, the record is a half-hearted effort at best, a gross miscalculation at worst.
 

Things kick off with an anchoring riff, a repetitive lurching groove with no build up played in a foggy tone that suggests either a weak baritone or a tenor with a frog in its throat. The idea itself of establishing a base off which to build is alright, but how they deliver this is not captivating enough on its own to pull you in.

Wynn appears around the bend playing a lightly swinging tenor in a pleasant tone but one largely devoid of any muscle. It’s not quite supper club in its structure yet it’s hardly suited for the roadhouse or tobacco barn either.

You can envision Wynn on a sidewalk in some anonymous city debating which club to enter. On one side of the street is a swankier joint with tablecloths and candles, on the other is a hole in the wall with a chalk outline of a recent disturbance still visible next to the door. Frustratingly Wynn walks a tightrope between the two destinations on Goofin’ Off, careful not to lean too far in either direction without knowing for sure whether he has the support of those along for the ride on this night on the town.

Eventually the others – probably getting tired of the stalling game – tell him to just get in off the street and head towards the seedier establishment, which is what we were hoping he’d get around to doing all along.

Forty seconds into the proceedings things start to pick up. The weak jazzy backing that it’d featured to this point with a prominent plucked string bass and faint cymbals at the front of the mix now takes on a more aggressive approach with the drummer making a bit more noise as the two horns start to trade off with increasing urgency.

They duck into the club trying their best to fit in, throwing their weight around as if they think they can bluff their way to the bandstand and nobody present will be any the wiser as to their actually belonging there.

Fat chance.

Though the band has the chops to carry it off they don’t have the intestinal fortitude to commit to it. All of them keep one eye on the door in case they need to make a quick getaway. In the process they just barely manage to keep the song from ever going entirely off the rails. While everything remains orderly enough to be moderately enjoyable if serving as mere background music, for the seasoned rock crowd on their fifth drink and third girl of the night already who make up this crowd Goofin’ Off is but a mere interlude before something with more potency is served up.

The reality is if Wynn and company can’t deliver that stronger drink they crave then that audience will have absolutely no trouble finding somebody else who can.
 

The Door Closes
Needless to say Big Jim Wynn never answered the knock at the door which beckoned him to a join them in the world of tomorrow’s music. His reserved seat at rock’s table was soon given to someone else, someone younger and more enthusiastic about the opportunity being presented. I’m sure when it happened Wynn didn’t even realize he’d been taken off the guest list at first, only when he was finding doors closed in his face around town, or at best being forced to wait in line to get in these clubs like everyone else, did it sink in that his golden opportunity had been taken away from him.

The sad thing is Jim Wynn wasn’t done in by his abilities, which remained more than solid enough to suffice, but rather he was hamstrung by his lack of faith in what rock music offered and his lack of vision to see when the calendar was turning and leaving the music he’d grown up in behind.

We can’t necessarily fault him for this, for as stated earlier the future usually arrives incrementally and today’s characteristics don’t seem all that different than yesterday’s. But over time, even a very short time such as the twenty-two months since rock emerged from the womb, the difference is clear. Nobody in June of 1949 when this was released, nor even December 1948 when it was recorded, could honestly say that the music landscape for tenor sax in black musical styles was anywhere near the same as it’d been in the first half of 1947 when his career still held plenty of promise.

Those who grasped this change, who embraced it rather than fought against it, were the ones who had a chance to make it in the new frontiers. But truth be told even those who did, the ones who somewhat successfully managed to straddle the eras to some degree, were just prolonging their own departure from the forefront of trends by a few weeks, months or at best a year or two.

The reason for that is simply that the changes underway, not just in 1948/49 but at ALL points over time in the rock era, were constant and unrelenting. Those who jumped on board first, who pushed the envelope the most and set the new trends would be the ones who’d have the best chance to define the next era. But before long even that would give way to the next generation just a few years younger who’d do the same, leaving the earlier groundbreakers behind.
 

 
For someone like Jim Wynn, who pre-dated all of this pandemonium, it was a long shot that he even be included in the festivities once it was someone other than him who started the rock sax trend to begin with. When he missed that call he had to consider himself fortunate that opportunity even bothered to hang around a bit longer and knock on his door again to give him a few more chances to join in, but I doubt even they had much hope that he would.

On the same day he cut Goofin’ Off he also laid down the flip side of this, a bland jazzy-pop vocal with some thoroughly outdated quasi-scat vocals called Farewell Baby which was an all too appropriate title for the end of his run on the outskirts of rock.

Sticking the needle in even further, a line in that song could very well be used by the purveyors of rock who now cast him aside with the harsh admonishment, You’re holding back my progress and now I’m through with you.

With that cold send off rock ‘n’ roll bid Big Jim Wynn adieu.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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