Mod jazz

From the avant-garde to the mainstream, it’s easy to brood on the status of jazz in this lifetime, at least insofar as its public visibility and cultural vitality go. Jazz seems to hit low after historical low, and, likewise, it’s pretty easy to indulge the question of what this says about us as a society.

The days when an honest-to-god jazz combo like the Ramsey Lewis Trio could pack Chicago clubs with their brand of hip, accessible jazz are over, certainly. And so, too, are the days when they might turn around and have a genuine chart hit with something that they’d recorded the only night before.

I simplify, of course. The Trio’s 1965 smash hit “The In Crowd” (hear an excerpt here) really wasn’t the first of its kind. Lewis and company’s was an earthy jazz infused with traces of Latin boogaloo, gospel, and R&B; (as well as a dash of sartorial nightclub style) that trumpeter Lee Morgan had pioneered with his 1963 hit “Sidewinder.” There were others who had done – and would do – the same, but it was the Ramsey Lewis Trio that truly popularized the style that would later be identified as “mod jazz” in soul and jazz fans’ circles. Their “The In Crowd” would never set the world aflame, but its infectious brand of club-based jazz was, if nothing else, the last time that modern jazz was truly a viable form of pop music.

1. Reggie Cravens Quartet, Uptight (Jond-or)
Reggie Cravens was a pianist who played at the Arlington Hotel, a grand, storied pile in the spa town of Hot Springs, Arkansas – and apparently once a refuge for notorious mobster Al Capone

Recorded around 1967, Cravens’s loose-limbed version of the 1966 Stevie Wonder hit “Uptight” must have made for quite the dissipated Saturday night at Hot Springs when his quartet took the stage. I can see the bluehairs momentarily abandoning their gin rickeys and boozily swaying to the “Uptight” chorus, as verily I can smell the English Rose perfume.

Reggie Cravens is no longer with us, sadly. Thanks to a wonderful communiqué from Kimberley H., though, who provided information about Reggie Cravens as well as about his bass player Buck Powell. Powell now plays piano, and continues to stay active in jazz circles.

2. Jimmie Willis, Soul Power pt. 1 (Orr)
Jimmie Willis’s “Soul Power” leans to the funkier R&B; side of the equation, but its catchy, Latin-ish piano vamp and, moreover, its celebratory party atmosphere are pure mod jazz mojo (à la Ramsey Lewis, again). If the mid-‘60s were a send-off party for post-War America’s swinging, recreational buzz – Jimmie Willis definitely wanted you to be there.

3. Jimmie Willis, Soul Power pt. 2 (Orr)
Whether you were hearing “Soul Power” blaring from a jukebox, or whether you were hearing it live, anywhere could be good times. Provided, of course, that there was a crew of shouting, wasted partygoers.
“Soul Power” was recorded in the late ‘60s on Orr Records, an obscure Chicago label with a few other fine soul releases.

I believe that it’s Willis himself at the helm of the gurgling Hammond B-3 organ on this selection.

4. Googie Rene Combo, Smokey Joe’s La La (Class)
Los Angeles’s Googie Rene Combo recorded for the Class label in the late ‘50s and ‘60s; like so many working R&B; and jazz combos of the time, Rene had a few minor instrumental hits (“Wiggle Tail,” “The Slide”) that reflected rather than advanced their art form.

Rene would record throughout that time, however, with several LPs and numerous 45s to his name. Whether it was Googie’s serviceable musical talents on keyboards or the fact that Googie’s father Leon (a well known Los Angeles songwriter and record label honcho) owned the Class label that allowed him to record so prolifically is subject to debate. When it sounds as good as the thumpingly hip “Smokey Joe’s La La,” though, it sort of makes such debate moot.

From 1966, “Smokey’s Joe’s La La” was released near the end of Rene’s recording career. The composer credit here goes to one Jeanne Vikki, a mysterious presence at Class Records (and its subsidiary label Rendezvous) who gets a lot of the writing credits on Rene’s recordings. Who Vikki was – and what role she might have played in what is only nominally a “composition” – remain a mystery as well.

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10 Responses to Mod jazz

  1. rebecca says:

    Some of the first people we met when my husband and I moved to Hot Springs, Ark. five years ago were members of the Hot Springs Jazz Society. Many of them have become our closest friends.

    Recently geographer Warren Bland named Hot Springs, Ark. the No. 1 place in America to retire.

    I gotta admit, Hot Springs is a pretty cool place to live, even for those of us who aren’t yet retired.

    Rebecca McCormick,
    Feature and Copy writer, Hot Springs Life & Home plus cellist and wedding officiant!

  2. Jeff says:

    A particularly tasty selection. Thanks much!

  3. Vincent says:

    Thanks Danny… as always, you go to the ends of the earth to bless us with your awesome obscurities…

  4. Larry Grogan says:

    All nice ones Danny, esp the Jimmy Willis.

  5. great tunes! soul power is slaying me.

  6. dr gazz says:

    thanks for the great tunes! – your site will be the soundtrack to my summer! keep on keepin’ on!

  7. C says:

    Reggie Cravens Quartet played Uptight at the Arlington Hotel for my 21st birthday. Yow!

  8. Hey C, that is fantastic. Do you recall any details of the Reggie Cravens Quartet that night? (If you can recall any details of your 21st birthday at all.) Like, say, what other songs they might have played?

  9. Mark says:

    Reggie was an upright bass player from the beginning. His loved that bass. When he got going, his eyes would close, his head swaying with the rythm and his fingers running up and down the neck of the bass like they were coated in teflon(or callouses).

    Buck Powell was then, and is varied musician; not restricted to the piano. He plays anything he desires from keyboards and pianos to brass flawlessly (never heard him play a stringed instrument-though far be it from me to put it past his abilities) and is among the best jazz pianists I’ve ever heard.

    The Reggie Cravens Combo also had Fred Younts on the sax and the drummers name was Willy…something :/ (Willy also wrote movie reviews for the Hot Springs newspaper and perhaps the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.) All of them great guys and great musicians.

    Reggie always had a warm smile on his face and a friendliness in his heart that is sorely missed.

  10. John Patterson says:

    Stumbled on to this looking for info about Reggie Cravens. I saw his combo play 3-4 times in the late 80s in Hot Springs. Wow, those guys could rock! The Arlington’s big open lobby would be filled with mostly folks in their 60s and 70’s, getting their drink on and when Reggie would play something like Take the A Train, they’d all get up and start dancing. As someone who never got to see jazz except in small smoky clubs, seeing Reggie entertain a couple hundred elderly party-ers and get them up cutting the rug was something special indeed. He was a legend.

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