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MIRACLE 119; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the traffic along the streets is thin. There are still a few people in the bar and out on the sidewalk just before closing and you can hear them talking in low murmured voices, but you can’t make out what they’re saying. It’s irrelevant anyway, they’re simply late night atmosphere for your own wayward activities.

You count the bills in your pocket making sure you have enough for a decent tip for the bartender who’s poured your drinks along with a couple of sympathetic smiles at no extra charge throughout the night and as they announce Last Call you motion for another.

You slide the money across the worn mahogany bar, the lights streaming through the window of the place reflecting off the sweat left by the last bottles consumed by those who occupied the seats to your right as that party is now out the door and into the street. Their boisterous chatter that had filled the room just moments before is now growing more distant as they fade into the night. Finishing your own drink you nod a goodbye and get one in return and head outside, jacket buttoned to the collar to protect you against the chill in the air in these nights of limbo that exist in the week between Christmas and the New Year.

You have enough for cab fare back to your dingy apartment where a string of Christmas lights around the window watches protectively over the record player under that window, the one that you listen to each night as you drift into unconsciousness, but you decide to walk the four and a half blocks home instead. You tell yourself the predominately lighter jazz fare that makes up your record collection can wait another twenty minutes for you to turn it on, but what you don’t know as you head off in that direction is that you won’t be listening to it for much longer.

In fact as 1947 winds down the sounds you’ve come to rely on to help you ease out of one day and into another while you sleep are growing more distant with each successive midnight. The music those records exude are growing fainter as tomorrow’s dawn approaches bringing with them the sounds of 1948… the sound of the future.

But for a moment longer, provided you’re sober and alert enough to listen closely, you can hear the two sounds mingle like mixed spirits in a glass, unaware of the exchange that the two musical genres make as they drift by.
 

 
The Late Shift
The hardcore jazz music that thrived commercially and creatively for the 1920’s, 30’s and much of the 40’s was seeing its heyday come to an end amidst changing tastes of younger audiences and the machinations of a recording industry that for the second time in a decade would find itself dealing with a recording ban that ground the exposure of new sounds to a halt. Jazz would never again hold the nation’s tastes in their hip pocket, though for the true believers its reputation would still be held aloft as the most creative musical genre for quite some time.

During the ensuing fifteen years jazz maintained a healthy level of respect amongst the musical elite even as its commercial prospects gradually dimmed in the mainstream, its adoration now confined to a small but steady coterie of fans. Eventually even that would dissipate as the intelligentsia turned their attention elsewhere.

It was during this second phase spanning the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s that another form of music took over. One far less complex, never as respected musically or culturally as that which preceded it, but with a captive-like hold over its fans that has lasted over multiple generations who’ve aligned themselves with the latest sounds in ways that even the most devoted jazz fan couldn’t seem to pull off.

That music was rock ‘n’ roll, a style with some jagged shards of jazz amongst its musical DNA which grew less prevalent as time went on. But as 1947 came to a close the jazz remnants it possessed were still easily seen in many of rock’s earliest forays as the two styles passed each other wordlessly in the night.
 

First Call
Miracle Records was a small independent record company of the late 1940’s with a rather limited roster of talent. Aside from blues pianist Memphis Slim, the label wouldn’t make much headway with their primary artists over the years but their session musicians were another story altogether, two of them not only helping to keep the company afloat commercially but actually for two years had them thriving in the new rock marketplace.

Pianist Sonny Thompson was one whom we’ll soon meet down the road. The other was Eddie Chamblee.

The two would have their legacies intertwined forevermore thanks to a single record they collaborated on, as well as some others with good returns, but while Thompson went on to a long career in rock, his name appearing on a wide array of records as not just a musician but a producer, songwriter and arranger as well, Chamblee saw his career revert back to the sideman designation after his brief moment in the spotlight.

Like so many tenor sax stars of rock’s early days Chamblee was well versed in jazz which he played in the Army during World War Two. Upon his release Eddie was like many other ambitious musicians in his mid-20’s trying to make a career in the jazz field that had been dominant for so long. But with the increase in independent record companies which were attempting to carve out their own piece of the commercial music pie by focusing largely on the music ignored by the major companies, namely black rhythm music, there was a dire need for skilled musicians who had the chops, the experience but not yet the name recognition to be averse to slumming in this part of town, playing music that was decidedly more simple, if not simplistic, for a cruder clientele than they were used to in their jazz pursuits.

Chamblee first joined with fellow sax player Dick Davis on some frantic swing sides a year earlier and must’ve impressed the folks at Miracle who brought him back to lead the band backing vocalist Browley Guy, a balladeer with no association with the budding rock scene. But since Guy was rather limited stylistically they let Chamblee cut what turned out to be Last Call, an instrumental which they used on the B-side of a middling Guy vocal performance called Certain Other Someone.

Last Call was filler in modern parlance. A throwaway, something designed to act as a sort of thank you to Chamblee and at the same time allowing them to not waste another Guy-led song on a flip side that was probably not destined to be heard much.

The fact that it wasn’t heard though, the record overall I mean, meant that Chamblee would have to wait a few months for some public recognition for his work, because while certainly not a an ear-catching track like his future output with Sonny Thompson, Last Call was actually fairly alluring. Certainly not a record that was destined to be a hit in any style, but upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be one of the keys to deciphering just where jazz ended and rock began.
 

Rockin’ And Walkin’
Chamblee’s stuttering sax opens the song like a subdued rallying cry, slightly echo-laden with a growing urgency as it goes. He’s then joined a by fleet-fingered electric guitar that straddles the border between jazz and rock, which itself still had yet to embrace the instrument but were anyone listening they’d have been able to sense its potential stirring in the smooth licks featured within.

Though medium paced throughout the song has a certain vitality to it, a sense of moving forward with calm assertiveness, confident in its direction as it’s stepping further and further away from the jazz environs the musicians had called home for so long.

You never get the sense that this is a jazz exercise that lost its way, but rather a conscious decision to take what they’re playing down a new dimly lit path. When Chamblee’s sax returns mid-way through for another solo it’s more mellow in tone but not wandering melodically. There’s no indulgent passages designed to flex his musical muscles and impress fellow hipsters but rather it’s tied closely to the mood they’re building and keeping it all on track.

As rock instrumentals go, even this early in the game, it’s got a slightly seductive feel to it, sort of dreamy with just a hint of subtle menace to it, almost like movie scene where everything has an eerie sense of tranquil calm before a corpse is discovered, while beyond the closed doors life goes merrily along, unaware of what lurks in life’s shadows.

But the still warm body of the jazz carcass manages to make its presence known all the same thanks to the piano solo that takes a good portion of the latter third of the record, played in a spry sort of way but with a little more floridity than rock would ever call upon to keep the proceedings moving. It doesn’t clash with what came before, in fact they mesh pretty well together which shows just how much closer club jazz and rock were at the start than generally given credit for, but it nevertheless eases back on the pressure the rest of the song was building.

It’s well played though and if the left hand takes a back seat to the right more than we’d like to hear it’s forgivable, especially once Chamblee returns with a solid – if too brief – coda that returns it to the smoky late night ambiance that it otherwise thrives in. On the whole it’s a pleasant song, not insistent enough to fully grab you as a rock fan, already expecting more out of the idiom than what you get here, but it’s nice enough to ensure you won’t be so quick to brush it aside either.
 

Closing Time
It’s doubtful anyone hearing Last Call in the waning days of 1947 would know what 1948 had in store musically… for Eddie Chamblee and for the entire marketplace itself. Like quite a few artists and songs of this era it was a flexible sound, conceivably at home in multiple fields but never fully comfortable confining itself to just one. As the calendar turned nobody was quite sure of which way it’d lean and maybe that was part of its appeal. You could hear in it what you wanted before the decision was taken away from you in the months to come, the lines of musical demarcation becoming ever wider as time went on.

Yet far from being schizophrenic or uncertain in its aims the tight structure and confident playing gives notice that Chamblee had more on the ball than your typical anonymous session cat. You may not be able to pin down Chamblee’s specific stylistic goals if you’d asked him, but it’s likely he didn’t really know them himself either. Like so many others in these months he was vaguely aware of what was stirring in the night air as he stepped out onto the sidewalk with the rest of the musical vagabonds. All of them had a nice buzz on, a few bucks in their pockets and were in no hurry to make it back to their comfortable enclaves.

While 1947 was enjoying its last few nights before vanishing forever into history it was perfectly understandable why the musicians as well as the listeners might want to take a more leisurely stroll home after dark when the clubs and bars closed for the night rather than hop into a cab and speed through the vacant streets in an impatient rush. While you have the time why wouldn’t you want to take a last look around the town before the next year and all of its uncertainty came up with the next morning’s sun.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Eddie Chamblee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)