Who Plays Drums on Gillespie's Rare Jerome Kern Album?
During The Swing Era, several Big Bands appended strings to their ensembles. These strings’ wings undoubtedly provided Charlie Parker a bird’s eye preview to his eventual vision of mating his improvising alto saxophone with a truncated chamber ensemble in arrangements of American Popular Songbook items.
That stated and acknowledged as truth, a devout Bird Watcher can’t help but notice that Dizzy Gillespie presented a prototype for the hit album Charlie Parker with Strings while Bird was playing with Diz in California in early 1946; this first recorded demonstration precedes, by nearly four years, Bird’s first foray into orchestral arrangements on “Charlie Parker with Strings”.
In early 1946, for the obscure Paramount label, Dizzy Gillespie recorded four Jerome Kern compositions (“All The Things You Are”; “The Way You Look Tonight”; “Who?”; and “Why Do I Love You?) with strings, woodwinds, French horn, harp, and - as Bird later would - a three-piece rhythm section.
Did Bird have any substantive contact with this Gillespie initiative? I believe it is certain that he derived some form of inspiration for “Charlie Parker With Strings” from this obscure Gillespie album of Kern compositions. This essay, however, is not focused on this important concern.
Neither will this essay detail the strange story of Gillespie’s proposed memorial to the just-deceased Jerome Kern (who died suddenly at age 60 on November 11, 1945), a story that reveals that the records were pulled immediately upon release and destroyed at the request (or the threat of law suits?) by the Kern estate, specifically his widow.
The topic, here, concerns the rhythm section on these exceedingly rare (on 78, anyway) recordings. Most specifically, I am concerned with the identity of the long-unidentified (or misidentified) drummer on this little-known but astounding display of BeBop improvisation and lush orchestral arranging.
The original records are not only among the most rare Jazz issues of all time, but also also provide no information about the recordings. The few references to their existence stated, properly given the situation, that the personnel – other than Dizzy – was entirely unknown. A much larger matter, though, was that the music was unheard: very, very few knew that it had even been recorded.
That changed in the mid-1970s. Bob Porter, on his Phoenix label, released the tracks under the title Dizzy’s Delight as Phoenix LP #4. It was this record that provided the first real opportunity to hear the music or even to know that it existed. Bob was able to recollect some details regarding the ensemble’s personnel, providing firm identification for two members of the rhythm section: Al Haig, piano; and Ray Brown, bass. Less certain as to the drummer’s identity, Bob Porter suggested Roy Porter (no relation).
At that time, I felt that Stan Levey – Gillespie’s regular drummer during the 1945-46 period – was a more logical choice than Roy Porter. Listening to the record, I heard the drumming sound a mite like Lee Young. That Lee Young (Lester Young’s brother) was the drummer made sense, as Lee was doing quite a bit of studio work at that time: he, in fact, was an essential figure in integrating soundtrack orchestras into the Hollywood movie industry.
That’s where the identification of those accompanying Dizzy on his Kern tunes with strings stood for a few years, until a picture of the session surfaced in the 1980s. The photograph revealed the rhythm section, confirming the presence of Haig and Brown. The drummer, however, was Caucasian.
That the drummer was white eliminated the possibility that it was either Roy Porter or Lee Young. It might have made it seem certain that the drummer was Stan Levey. Levey was Caucasian and also seemed a logical choice – he was, after all, Dizzy’s regular drummer at the time. But the drummer in the photo didn’t look like Stan Levey; so, the mystery of the drummer’s identity continued.
One person who took on the challenge of solving this mystery was Angelo Ascagni, a friend of Charlie Parker who plays a prominent narrative role in Robert Reisner’s oral history entitled Bird: The Legend Of Charlie Parker. Ascagni looked at the photo and stated that the drummer looked like Roy Hall. He called on me to confirm this theory; I explained to him that while I did not know Roy Hall personally and did not know what he looked like, I did know that he was a very obscure musician. I deemed it unlikely that Roy Hall would record on a date with such an illustrious figure as Dizzy Gillespie.
I still don’t know too much about Roy Hall. Early on, Hall, already under the spell of Bird & Diz, was part of the first wave of BeBop players on the West Coast. Hall was known to be associated with Dean Benedetti and those musicians, such as Jimmy Knepper and Russ Freeman, who were guided to BeBop by Benedetti. Hall knew producer Ross Russell, and is allegedly the one who obtained (then-unissued) alternate takes of Parker recordings done for Dial and thus allowed those recordings to be accessed by Benedetti and others. In fact, Roy Hall is as much the real-life figure represented by “Royo” (Roy Dehn) in Russell’s novel The Sound as is Benedetti. I believe that Roy Hall was pivotal to Benedetti’s field recordings and helped Dean when he first recorded Bird on acetate discs at the Hi-De-Ho in early March 1947.
OK, I do know something about Roy Hall, but I was unwilling to believe he would play on such a prominent record date as Gillespie’s for Paramount in early 1946.
This might be a good time to mention that the union (the American Federation of Musicians, likely the then-all-white Local 47) ledgers of this session might exist and would provide not only the drummer’s identity but all of the instrumentalists’ names. To research this, a person in Los Angeles would need to invest quite a bit of time on what might turn out to be a proverbial wild goose chase. Nevertheless, I pray that someone tries.
Angelo Ascagni died in 2005, and his suggestion that Roy Hall is the drummer on the obscure Gillespie album was mostly forgotten.
Then, on an entirely different research project, I was reviewing Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be Or Not To Bop. The discography included as an appendix is fairly extensive. It cites the obscure Diz does Kern with Strings album and lists Roy HAYNES as the drummer. In early 1946, Roy Haynes was 20 years old and playing with the Luis Russell Orchestra. He had not yet been in California – where the album was recorded – and would not play with Dizzy Gillespie until many years later. Roy Haynes has nothing to do with this session and the drummer does not play at all like him. Yet Dizzy, in his autobiography, states that Haynes is the drummer. Why would he do that?
My best guess is that there was some documentation or recollection that the drummer was named Roy; perhaps Roy HALL. Even a Jazz expert in the late 1970s, even Dizzy Gillespie, maybe, would not know of any drummer by that name. So, Dizzy, perhaps, or Al Fraser, who co-wrote the book with Dizzy, or someone – possibly armed with only the name “Roy”, or perhaps with the name “Roy Hall”, a total unknown – decided to list the famous and more suitable Roy Haynes as the drummer on this very rare session.
I kept this insight in my pocket and called Bob Porter on July 31, 2012. “Why did you suggest Roy PORTER on drums for the Gillespie-Kern-strings rarities?” I asked. Initially, Bob analyzed the question as though he was searching the data from scratch and trying to find a new answer - taking on his own conjecture as though he was not the source of it. I then revealed to him that a picture of the session revealed that the drummer was Caucasian and could not have been the African-American drummer Roy Porter. Suddenly, Bob was able to reconnect with his own studio memories from over 37 years ago. Bob Porter remembered that the drummer was somehow documented as Roy, and, knowing of Roy Porter’s prominence in early West Coast BeBop, surmised that Roy Porter might very well be the “Roy” from the rare Gillespie date.
That cinched it for me.
In two very prominent references during the 1970s, the limited identification of a drummer on an early 1946 recording – identified either as “Roy” or as “Roy Hall”, an unknown – led, first, to Bob Porter’s suggesting Roy Porter as the drummer on Phoenix LP #4; and, then, Dizzy Gillespie and Al Fraser’s suggesting Roy Haynes. It could not be either. But the wonderful Angelo Ascagni recognized his friend Roy Hall on drums from the photograph taken at the session.
I’ve now connected these three dots to form a line that leads to ROY HALL as the drummer on these uncelebrated but marvelous and very significant recordings: the obscure Gillespie “album” of Kern compositions with strings.