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ATLANTIC 874; MARCH 1949

 
 

 

On our journey through rock history so far we haven’t exactly sidestepped the role that jazz played in rock’s birth and rapid expansion. In fact that’s been one of the more prominent themes on this website over the first year and a half of reviews.

Yet in spite of the many instances where we’ve reported on the prevalence of ex-jazz musicians making the transition to rock – be it as merely sessionists earning a few extra bucks moonlighting behind other artists in the studio, or those who wholeheartedly jumped with both feet into the new genre with the intent on making it their permanent home – you never can be quite sure if the message is sinking in. It’s kind of hard to off-set years of having it reported that blues and even country music were somehow responsible for rock ‘n’ roll being conceived and hatched and that jazz and gospel had little if anything to do with it when in fact it’s largely the other way around.

But just because jazz had far more input into rock’s conception than has been widely acknowledged that doesn’t mean that rock was a direct descendant of it either. Jazz continued on its own path as rock was arriving on the scene and had another fifteen years or so of solid creative and commercial acclaim still to come before the mainstream critical luster began to wear off. Rock may have taken its place in the spotlight of popular music but it didn’t replace it, only pushed it aside.

That’s the condensed history of that transition which took place at the tail end of the 1940’s as clearly as I’m able to state it, which I fully admit may not be all that clear. But what if there were a song that could help illustrate that concept and pull each of those threads together and tie them in a bow?

Of all the songs we’ve reviewed to date this might just be the one that’s best suited to serve that very purpose.
 

 

At The Center Of It All
The song at the heart of this study was written and performed by Lionel Hampton, one of the greatest jazz bandleaders in history, a pianist/vibraphonist/drummer who transformed American music in the 1930’s and 40’s. He’d worked alongside Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa in one of the first integrated units in music in the mid-thirties and when he went out on his own in 1940 his own band, or orchestra as it was regally known, became a proving ground for musicians, one of whom, teenage tenor sax wunderkind Illinois Jacquet, helped lay some of the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll’s flamboyance with his torrid solo on 1942’s Flying Home.

Two years earlier Hampton had written and recorded Central Avenue Breakdown which featured his own piano playing front and center (along with Nat Cole taking either alternate lines or playing one of the roles entirely as Hampton took on the other). Somebody’s left hand is laying down a solid boogie while a right hand went wild, dancing across the treble keys with grace and impeccable musicality.

The song has only a tenuous grip on a proper melody and is more a confluence of loose-limbed piano riffs that seem as though they must have been improvised and topped off by some impressive drumming to merely keep the song locked into a groove.

Though it was indeed written out by Hampton – and knowing him it was painstakingly worked out as well to have it wind up sounding so good – the sheer fact that it comes across as a performance by design rather than a composition would seem to make the idea of covering it almost foolhardy.

Naturally that’s the kind of idea that a cocky rock upstart like Frank “Floorshow” Culley would take as a personal challenge and so in his first session for Atlantic Records the last song they cut was a revised and noticeably roughed up Central Avenue Breakdown with his tenor sax attempting to replicate the frantic, chaotic, yet ultimately cohesive piano lines of Hampton.

To our amazement he actually succeeds at it.
 

Speed Demon
Though the session information is a little sketchy we know that he’s got at least two heavy hitters on this with him, Tiny Grimes on guitar and Harry Van Walls who is manning the piano, which kicks the record off at breakneck speed, but after that brief hyper-fast intro neither Van Walls or Grimes factors into the arrangement, they’re incidental pieces as best.

The same can’t be said about the drummer, whoever he is, who sounds as if his arms are spasming in rhythm throughout Central Avenue Breakdown, leading you to think he’s the one actually having the breakdown the title speaks of. It’s his job to not allow the tempo to fall below Mach 3 and he somehow manages to do so even if it cost him his limbs in the process.

But the main event is Culley who up until this point in his career… well, up until this point in his career he’s been trying to BUILD a career out of a succession of studio dates playing anonymously behind others, assorted club appearances around New York and more recently two little heard singles for Lenox Records this past fall.

Though the hit would wind up being the top side of this release, Cole Slaw, another song taken from, or shall we say borrowed from, the guy who ironically wound up producing these sides, Jesse Stone, I’m willing to bet that Frank thought this is the one which would get him noticed… maybe not by record buyers but certainly musicians because of the difficulty of the task itself.
 

Take A Trip Down Central Avenue
Now certainly nobody needs to be told of the tonal differences of the piano and the tenor sax but there’s also the means with which both are played that makes for a rather interesting dilemma when it comes to transposing Central Avenue Breakdown from the keyboards to horn. Though both instruments utilize fingerwork, the difference is that while playing the piano at a hyper-fast pace you don’t need to also be drawing enough oxygen in to then rapidly push it out through a reed. Your hands can be flying across the ivories while your lungs take a breather… no pun intended.

But Culley needs to be circulating air like a jet engine on this, not just remembering these disparate riffs that Hamp laid down and imitating them the best he can on a different instrument, but he’s got to jump from one to another, squealing like a stuck pig at some points and honking away like a congested goose at other times. Unless your name is Earl Bostic there’s not many sax players in rock, even those technically more skilled than Culley, who’d jump at the chance to cut something like this.

But they didn’t call him “Floorshow” for nothing, the man was a born scene stealer and show stopper on stage and itching for a chance to show off his wares, something he’s got no shortage of opportunity to do here.

He starts off with his fastest playing, a razzing type of riff that sounds like he’s laughing at the drummer who’s already sweating because he’s going to have rotator cuff surgery when this done. From there Culley rousts a bees nest, then runs like hell when they come for him, slowing as he ducks around a corner thinking he’s escaped and strolling past a few girls he spots while trying to look cool and nonchalant.

Hearing the bees on his trail again, or maybe having no luck with the ladies who sneer at his self-absorbed attitude, he speeds up again and breaks into a trot and then a mad dash, slips on some ice, ducks under a low hanging branch, hops over a curb, sideswipes a Buick, knocks over a lady carrying groceries, gets caught spinning in a revolving door in a hotel before getting tossed back into the street by the doorman, trips over his shoelaces which causes him to lose both shoes and that in turn forces him to tap dance on the hot pavement in his bare feet before doing a face plant right in the middle of Central Avenue… or at least the musical equivalent of all of that.

WHEW! That was some journey just to get a block and a half.
 

Back To The Avenue
The performance is impressive even if the record itself is a little too chaotic to be listened to regularly outside the padded cell of your friendly neighborhood mental institution. Yet that type of balls-out display is perfectly situated for rock ‘n’ roll and though the song itself is the same one that Lionel Hampton wrote it’s altogether different as well, with Culley’s tenor sax flexing its muscles which transforms Central Avenue Breakdown into a full-fledged rocker.

The sinewy sound of that instrument has already proven to be rock’s most potent weapon and while it was certainly utilized very effectively by jazz, including Hamp himself, first with Jacquet and later Arnett Cobb, the roles they took were largely supporting in nature whereas Culley had the other instruments supporting him.

The REALLY interesting thing about these two artists and this one song is the fact that one week after Culley cut it in New York Lionel Hampton went into a New York studio himself and re-recorded the song, moving from piano to vibes and letting Albert Ammons, the great boogie woogie king, play the part he originally did back in 1940.

Ammons was still relatively young but on his last legs, as he’d pass away in December at 43, but he went out with a flourish, playing at Harry Truman’s inauguration on January 20th and then recording with Hampton the next week on this, showcasing a more dainty style than Hamp had years earlier, one with far less drive and sheer power than the original which is ironic considering the recent emphasis on rhythm in black music circles. Still impressive in its own way but much different than either of the other two versions.

This revised version, called New Central Avenue Breakdown, does attempt to update the sound somewhat by adding horns, but it’s not saxes that get that assignment, it’s Duke Garrett and Benny Bailey taking extended trumpet solos instead. Now as anyone who’s read the couple hundred reviews here to date well knows that’s the instrument where jazz and rock parted company. Rock had tried – and would still try for awhile longer – to incorporate the trumpet into their arrangements since so many of their musicians were well-versed in jazz where that horn ruled the roost, but it was a lost cause and if you wanted excitement in rock you let the saxophones take the reins.

But that’s the telling point in all of this: Hampton wasn’t a rocker, he was a jazzman, and so even as he picked a perfect time to revisit this (which raises the question of whether someone was wise to the Culley transformation and tipped him off to it and suggested Hamp do it again himself to head off any interest Culley’s version might elicit), the fact remains that he wasn’t about to abandon his musical outlook in the process.
 

Three For One
That’s one of the things that makes this record – or THESE records as it were – so fascinating to examine. In the span of just a few minutes of listening we get to see the changes in black music styles over the course of one decade and two genres.

Hampton’s 1940 original was jazz at its absolute peak – creatively, commercially and in terms of providing a visionary outlook for what was to follow in the next couple of years.

Yet Hampton’s 1949 version was stuck in time, no longer forward thinking even for jazz, well played as you’d expect but sedentary when it came to inspiration.

Sandwiched in between though was Frank Culley who paid the debt he and so many rockers had to the jazz of their youth by tackling the song in the first place and skillfully working out Hamp’s original piano riffs on sax. But it was in doing so that he brought the attitude into the present where rock ‘n’ roll was in the process of shedding those jazz influences and establishing their own benchmarks for future rock artists to draw from.

Central Avenue Breakdown a la Frank “Floorshow” Culley may just be an average rock instrumental for 1949, but think about what that means for a minute… an average rock instrumental… something he was able to appropriate from another realm and then redefine for this audience before discarding it and going on to look for something he could make above average for rock’s growing horde of fanatics.

Like jazz in 1940 where the future was limitless, rock ‘n’ roll in early 1949 was much the same way to those partaking in it, as aspiring stars set out to climb higher by stepping on the carcasses of yesterday’s heroes from another world and another lifetime ago.

Today it’d be Lionel Hampton being stepped on, tomorrow it’d be Frank Culley and down the road it’d be somebody who used Culley’s prototype as a starting point who’d get thrown in the gutter of Central Avenue to be walked over by someone new. In this way the traffic pattern remains the same in all of music, even if the bodies lying in the street and the feet stepping over them change with the each passing day.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUANCY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)