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