Sunday, November 21, 2010

Duke Ellington Orchestra, Herbie Hancock Sextet, Redd Foxx, and Smoke. Frost Amphitheatre 5/4/69

A few weeks before I got my dad to the Fillmore West to see Woody Herman and the Who, he took me to see another outstanding jazz concert closer to home, back at the Frost. We went to the second day of a weekend celebration of African American culture entitled “Two Days in May.” The first day, which we did not attend, featured mostly vocalists: O.C. Smith, Lette Mbulu, Oscar Brown Jr. and the Chicago Blues All Stars. The show we attended was a Sunday afternoon jazz affair headlined by Duke Ellington and also featuring Herbie Hancock’s sextet, and Bay Area contemporary jazz combo Smoke. Rashaan Roland Kirk was also advertised as part of the bill, but did not appear.

Although it was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, attendance was relatively light – a shame, given the calilber of the musicians. Activist comedian Dick Gregory was the planned emcee, but he was incarcerated at the time, so he was replaced by another popular comedian, Redd Foxx. Foxx, still three years away from his big career break in Sanford and Son, gave what were certainly the raunchiest monologues that my tender ears had heard up until that time during the course of the afternoon. Racy or not, he had the crowd rolling in the aisles.

The first act, Smoke, was a popular Palo Alto based quartet led by vibist Woody Webb that at the time also featured bassist Chris Cristy, sax player Kenny Washington, and drummer John Felder. No clear memories of their set, but I do remember them being very good, with some tuneful yet extended explorations. The original group released an eponymous album on Session Records in 1970, which my dad had and regrettably I no longer have. Webb and a different lineup released a second Smoke album, Smoke Everything,  on a different label, in 1974. Both are now extremely rare, and neither has been released on CD.

After touring with Miles Davis for five years, Herbie Hancock struck out on his own by putting together a sextet in 1968. The lineup at the Frost was the same group that recorded Hancock’s 1968 Blue Note album Speak Like a Child, comprising Johnny Coles (trumpet, flugelhorn), Garnett Brown (trombone), Joe Henderson (sax, flute), Buster Williams (bass), and Tootie Heath (drums). Hancock, who continued to do sessions with Miles until 1972, was used to using electronic keyboards with Davis, but his performance at the Frost was entirely on acoustic piano, with Williams also playing standup rather than electric bass. Their repertoire included material from Speak Like a Child, as well as a luminous, extended performance of Speak Like a Child. Contemporary jazz had really first caught my attention when my father picked up Davis’ revolutionary In a Silent Way, and the Hancock performance was close enough to the territory Miles (and Herbie) mined on that album to be particularly appealing to me.  Only months later, Hancock would be commissioned to write the soundtrack for the television cartoon series based on Bill Cosby’s character Fat Albert and the soundtrack from that show, Fat Albert Rotunda, would mark his shift into more electric jazz funk.

After some more blue humor from Foxx, we were treated to an exemplary performance by one of the giants of jazz, or, for that matter, any American music idiom. Duke Ellington came to the Bay Area days after celebrating his 70th birthday at the White House in a legendary celebration that included an incredible list of guests including Earl “Fatha” Hines, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Richard Rogers. According to Ellington biographer A.H. Lawrence1, Ellington politely sat through some piano renditions of his compositions by Vice President Spiro Agnew before Ellington himself took the stand for a marathon jam session that included numerous other jazz luminaries including drummer Louie Bellson, pianists Dave Brubeck, Hines, Hank Jones, saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, bassist Milt Hinton, and guitarist Jim Hall. By the time the jam session was underway, President and Mrs. Nixon had retired to bed.

For the Frost show, Ellington’s orchestra consisted of trumpeters Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Rolf Ericson, Mercer Ellington, and Ray Nance, trombonists Lawrence Brown and Chuck Connors, a sax section comprising Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Norris Turney, Harold Ashby, Harry Carney, and Russell Procope, second pianist Wild Bill Davis, bassist Victor Gaskin, drummer Rufus Jones, and vocalist Tony Watkins.  The Ellington band was in transition at this point. He retained loyal employees like Hodges, Carney, Williams, Procope, Brown, and Golsalves who had been with him (in some cases on and off) for 25 up to 40 years or more, but was working with a rhythm section and vocalist who were newcomers to the fold. His loyal composition partner and ‘deputy pianist’ Billy Strayhorn had passed away the previous year, and his position onstage was occupied by Davis, another relative newcomer.

Ellington, who served as an icon of one of the most successful and visible African American bandleaders, was also walking a political tightrope that required all of his charm and diplomacy. He graciously accepted the White House invitation, but provided a guest list that did not clearly align with the current administration’s politics. The day after the Stanford performance, Ellington performed at San Francisco State, where he fell short of denouncing the embattled President S.I. Hayakawa but did dedicate the concert to “those of us who are totally dedicated to developing the Black Studies Program.2

At Stanford, politics did not present themselves, but Ellington and orchestra did deliver a remarkable afternoon of music. This was my first exposure to one of the classic big bands, and it was remarkable to see them decked out in their suits and matching music stands. I was too new to this music to remember the entire set list, but Ellington did perform a good chunk of what was his second Sacred Concert, which he had recorded in New York and performed at a number of churches, including San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral the preceding year, along with classics like the inevitable “ Take the A Train.” As usual, Ellington premiered some new music as well possibly part of his Latin American Suite, but I regrettably can’t summon up any further details.

I was mightily impressed by Ellington’s music, and as much by his charisma and style, which were such a strong contrast to the earthier presence of many of the rock musicians to which I was being drawn. I do remember feeling that Ellington was impossibly old, but a current reality check is that both the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Hancock celebrated their respective 70th birthdays this year, and I am only 13 years behind them. To his credit, Ellington stayed on the road playing one nighters until he was hospitalized with advanced cancer a couple of months shy of his 75th birthday, and he passed away less than a month after that milestone.

My father was ecstatic about the concert, but dismayed at the relatively sparse attendance at the event. It spurred him to write a letter to the Dean of Bay Area music critics, Ralph Gleason, bemoaning the apparent failure of the Stanford student body to get the word out about the show. Gleason’s short, hand typed reply to my father is one of my favorite musical mementos from the era.

1. Lawrence, A.H. 2001. Duke Ellington and His World, Routledge Press, New York. Pp. 377-380
2. Gleason, R.J. San Francisco Chronicle, 5/7/69.


Corry342 said...

Wow, the original Herbie Hancock sextet and the Duke Ellington Orchestra on the same bill, some show indeed.

The signed letter from Ralph Gleason is a rare artifact as well--I don't think later Chronicle rock critics would have been so gracious.

phunkey said...

Amazing! I only stumbled across your blog just now and am fascinated to read your detailed accounts from all these concerts way back.

I am a fervent Herbie Hancock collector and was searching the web (once again) for any photo material of Hancock's early Sextet (1968-1969). Despite years of research I have not been able to locate a single photo of that group. Did you perhaps make any photos during Hancock's gig at Frost Amphitheatre?


cryptdev said...

Alas, for whatever reason I did not take my camera to this show. I wish I had, particularly as it was the only time I got to see Duke Ellington (and it was a beautiful, sunny day), Sorry!

VG- said...

Found this photo of Smoke performing at Frost (I think), could it be the concert you saw?

cryptdev said...

VG-: It certainly looks like it. I don't know if Smoke played Frost more than once during their existence, but the stage setup and general appearance of the band is as my admittedly foggy memory remembers them.