Discover more from Listening Sessions
Quincy Jones' Camelot
Q's time capsule of jazz in 1963 New York
Hi there and welcome to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’ A special hello in particular to those who have subscribed in the past ten days. So great to have you along and I hope you will enjoy my writings about music.
Today’s essay examines a fascinating recording that Quincy Jones made in 1963, Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits, a survey of some of the most popular jazz pieces of the early sixties played by an incredible array of the top musicians of the day. Whether one considers the music the lightest of jazz or the most palatable of easy listening, there is no denying that the album is an intriguingly nostalgic time capsule of the Camelot era.
Jazz is something I write about quite frequently here. Recent essays have included looks at Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land, Jackie Cain & Roy Kral and an undiscovered, mystical gem by flautist Lloyd McNeil.
Coming later in March is a look at two sad poets of country music: Don Gibson and Mickey Newbury, singer-songwriters whose work has been overshadowed in recent attempts to chronicle the music’s history.
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you’ll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so. Consider ‘Listening Sessions’ the music column in a publication like the Village Voice.
If you are a subscriber, I hope you’ll share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
And now here is my essay on Quincy Jones, circa 1963.
Jazz is a music that often thrives as a democratic ideal while retaining an allure of clubby exclusivity, a way to bond over secrets shared by the anointed few. Musician names bandied about like secret passwords, recordings passed around like buried treasures, all in a recognition that this music is not simply to be enjoyed in the background—a kind of aural wallpaper—but to be savoured.
If this all sounds like snobbery, there’s a good reason: it mostly is. An attitude that is antithetical to fostering a thriving art form. An entranceway marked “members only” instead of “everybody welcome.” Surely there is a way to approach jazz with its hipster cred intact while also permitting the curious to inch past the door, take a seat and begin their initiation into the ranks of the jazz buffs. Perhaps we need to look no further than Q: Quincy Jones.
In 1963, Jones wasn’t yet the all-encompassing force that he remains but he was well on his way. He was a jazz trumpeter, composer, orchestra leader, big-band and vocal arranger, student of Nadia Boulanger and a record executive with Mercury Records, all an ample demonstration of his inexhaustible work ethic and ambition.
He also had a knack for enlisting a breathtaking array of musicians on his own recordings for Mercury. Ellingtonians, Basieites, young lions, grizzled veterans, Black, white, male, female—the personnel listings on his albums speak to Jones’ clout, a seemingly endless rolodex and a sense of persuasion that when Q calls, saying no is not an option.
The music on these records exhibits a similar breadth—it’s jazz we are hearing but it is of a fashion and style that invites a wider audience than say, a contemporaneous recording by Charles Mingus. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this mass-appeal jazz is Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits, recorded primarily in April 1963, smack dab in the middle of a golden era for the music, the disruptions to come triggered by the arrival of the Beatles on American soil still too far away to worry about.
The album is an all-encompassing survey of some of the most popular songs of the era, those written specifically as jazz compositions as well as songs that received noted interpretations in the idiom. There may be nothing from the pens of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Lewis, John Coltrane or Horace Silver on the program, but one gets shots of Vince Guaraldi, Herbie Hancock, Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith, Dave Brubeck and others.
True to the lure of Q, the personnel that appears is dazzling. In total, 58 musicians play on Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits. By way of comparison, the landmark Great Day in Harlem photo from 1958 included 57 musicians. It's a sign of New York as a Mecca for jazz players, the city providing a chance for a working musician to make a reasonable living from his or her craft by frequently the studios or the clubs. Some on the album, like the bassists Milt Hinton and George Duvivier, are among the most recorded musicians ever; others, like trumpeters Clark Terry and Snooky Young, and drummer Ed Shaughnessy drew a steady pay cheque as members of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson band; and others, such as reed men Phil Woods, Al Cohn and Jerome Richardson appear on oodles of studio dates during this era.
There is a technicolour sheen to the recordings on this album, an aural representation of the age of Camelot, the Vegas of the Rat Pack, Doris Day movies, the businessman’s bounce, elegance, taste, liquid lunches, martinis before dinner and little heed paid to the hangover that surely awaited both the overly enthusiastic imbiber and America itself as Dallas in late November looms in the background.
The arrangements, credited to Jones but whether some are the work of a ghost arranger (a tactic most arrangers at the time used simply as a way to deal with the mountain of work that came their way) is an open question, keep things relatively simple: a lot of unison voicings but there is some interplay between the brass and reeds.
The opener, ‘Comin’ Home Baby,’ popularized instrumentally by flautist Herbie Mann and vocally by Mel Tormé, immediately calls to mind the sound of ‘Soul Bossa Nova,’ which, through its use in the Austin Powers movie franchise, has become a shorthand for sixties kitsch. In other words, a prioritization of superficiality over substance which comes through in the overeager way the theme of ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ is attacked. The same danger is raised in the treatment of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Desafinado,’ but with the theme played by Clark Terry and the ever-lyrical guitarist Jim Hall soloing, the small sins are easily granted absolution for the bigger pleasures on offer.
Here are some: the swooning trumpet line at the end of the first A section of the theme of Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ the scooping sax lines bringing a slight exagerration to Ray Brown and Steve Allen’s ‘Gravy Waltz,’ the Bond-esque buildup powered by the baritone saxophone of either Cecil Payne or Jerome Richardson after a short alto solo by Phil Woods on Nat Adderley’s ‘The Jive Samba,’ or the ingenious recrafting of Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five,’ a delicious spotlight for frequent sparring mates, altoist Al Cohn and tenorman Zoot Sims.
Jones takes a lick from Desmond’s solo on the iconic recording of ‘Take Five’ by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and uses it to add a bridge to the structure for the solos by Cohn and Sims (in the Brubeck Quartet’s version, Desmond improvises over the song's signature harmonically static 5/4 vamp). After Cohn and Sims’ solo statements, they dance around each other in a repeat of the main theme, fetchingly flitting around the music like a vision of Kim Novak. Sims also glides through Ernest Gold’s main theme for Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Leon Uris’ Exodus, in a nod to Eddie Harris’ famous recording; the use of a French horn choir in the introduction nods to the spectacle of Preminger’s production.
Things don’t come together quite as nicely for an excessively boozy version of Elmer Bernstein’s theme for Walk on the Wild Side which retains the shift to a blues progression for improvisations as was used in organist Jimmy Smith’s hit version, a decision that has always struck me as entirely incongruous even if here, it’s an opportunity to hear Quentin “Butter” Jackson’s gruff interjections on trombone using the plunger mute. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s a peril of broad-minded music. Subtlety must be in moderation. The fine details not as important as the bigger picture. I first heard much of the music on this album over 15 years ago and a lot of it, particularly the arrangements of ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ and ‘The Jive Samba,’ has never left me. Jones has also never entirely left jazz, though just before most of Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits was put on tape, a new horizon dawned.
As part of his A & R (artists and repertoire) work with Mercury, Jones had heard some demos featuring a teenaged singer. Sufficiently intrigued and after poring over approximately 200 songs with her in search of material to record, Jones brought Lesley Gore into the studio on March 30, 1963 to cut ‘It’s My Party.’ Discovering that very night that Phil Spector had just recorded his own version of the song with the Crystals, Jones pulled out all the stops to cut his rival producer off at the pass and had Gore’s version in stores on April 5. Four days later, the first of the three main sessions for Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits was scheduled. On June 1, ‘It’s My Party’ hit the top of the Billboard singles chart and Quincy Jones, pop hitmaker, was born.
Needless to say, Quincy Jones Plays the Hip Hits was a far less consequential marker in Jones’ evolution from musician to arranger to bandleader to musical polygot to Q, the icon. It’s the lightest of jazz or the most substantive of easy listening—ultrasonic bachelor pad music—and perhaps having such a high calibre of musicians creating this music is a waste, though it’s the very act of employing the well-spring of jazz talent in 1963 New York that allows it to cast its spell, to be better than it has any right to be. Art should challenge and confront, but it should also comfort and set us to dreaming and in so doing, invite us in and reassure us that everyone is welcome.
Thanks for reading Listening Sessions! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.