Prestige Records and Latin jazz

There were other significant New York City-based independent record labels – Riverside, Savoy, Atlantic, Clef/Norgran/Verve – that recorded modern jazz in the post-War decades, but, Blue Note aside, few would be so closely associated with the music as Prestige Records.

Few would release jazz with such alacrity, for that matter.  I should be clear: The discography at Prestige Records – formed in 1949 by twenty-year-old jazz fan Bob Weinstock – is one of post-War jazz’s most important and essential, with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and other heavyweights recording unimpeachable masterpieces for the label.

But the Prestige model, which operated on a dizzyingly prolific schedule, occasionally at the expense of quality and fidelity, would essentially remain the same over its twenty-two-year history.  Product quality was improving by the mid-‘50s, but Weinstock would remain legendarily insistent on using single, unrehearsed takes and for encouraging unstructured (and cost-saving) jams; i.e., “blowing sessions.”

Such variables captured a certain spontaneity, certainly, but Prestige’s mentality was, especially early on, something of a carryover from the pre-LP, singles-market years immediately after World War Two.  Jazz in that decade was an era of 78s, radio and jukebox markets and the occasional crossover hit on the R&B or pop charts.  Prestige Records had an eye attuned to commercial markets from the start, perhaps more than any other jazz-oriented label in its day, with many bop singles issued, a handful of them – including sides by King Pleasure (“Moody’s Mood for Love,” 1952), Stan Getz (“Four and One More,” 1949), Sonny Stitt (“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” 1949) and Annie Ross (“Twisted,” 1952) – achieving some modest chart success.

Which brings us to Latin jazz, or cubop, as it was tagged early on, the hybrid form then coalescing around thrilling, seminal experiments by Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and Chico O’Farrill.  Unlike Norman Granz, another entrepreneur and early champion of both modern and Latin jazz, Weinstock never envisioned a program of Latin jazz for his young Prestige label.   Rather, Latin jazz, which early on found some traction amongst jazz fans, and which also supplied the broader mass demand for the then-ascendant mambo, was just another logical crossover market to accommodate.

Beginning in 1951 with Joe Holiday’s “Mambo Holiday” and Sonny Rollins’s “Mambo Bounce,” many of Prestige’s ‘50s artists – Red Garland, Sonny Stitt, Billy Taylor, James Moody, Shirley Scott, Gene Ammons, to name a few – recorded Afro-Latin-inspired singles and, a few years later, whole albums.  Prestige would continue to release Latin-inspired jazz tracks and albums until the label’s sale to Fantasy Records in the early ‘70s, including some some some crucial releases in the ’60s by Juan Amalbert’s Latin Jazz Quintet, Montego Joe and Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers.

This week, however, we set the clocks back the early ‘50s for some of the earliest, and best, Latin-oriented sides from the Prestige stable.

Juan Tirado’s Mambo Band, Farmer’s Market Mambo (El Baile Del Campesino) (Prestige 912-X45)1.  Juan Tirado’s Mambo Band, Farmer’s Market Mambo (El Baile Del Campesino) (Prestige 912-X45)
Bandleader and timbalero Juan Tirado’s “Farmer’s Market Mambo” is several things.

It is the first Prestige Latin jazz session to be headed by a Latino musician.  Recorded and released in late 1954, the 45 is also the latest, chronologically speaking, of this week’s selections.

Finally, it is among the most obscure of the early Prestige jazz releases.  Despite the historical interest in Prestige’s jazz discography, information about Tirado and his Prestige session is scarce.   What can be gathered comes mostly from contemporary accounts in trade magazines like Billboard and later discographies that compiled Prestige session rosters.

This selection is Tirado’s impeccable version of trumpeter Art Farmer’s “Farmer’s Market” (which, incidentally, Farmer had first recorded with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray for Prestige Records in 1952).   According to Michael Fitzgerald’s jazzdiscography, the session – which featured Don Elliott on vibraphone, Hector Romero on piano, John Drernak on bass, Frankie Colon on bongos and Eleuterio Frasquera on conga drum – produced one other 45 (“Shake It Easy” b/w “Cha Cheando”) for the label.  (Which, I should note, I would very much like to hear.)

There is one other confirmed Juan Tirado 45 – “Dorothea” b/w “Cha Cha Cha No. 1” – recorded for New York City-based indie label Derby Records, again from late 1954 or early 1955, and presumably in a similar style.  Tirado himself seems to have vanished, at least as a recording artist, from the music world by the early ‘60s.

Billy Taylor, Early Morning Mambo (Prestige PrEP 1327, cover)2.  Billy Taylor, Early Morning Mambo (Prestige PrEP 1327)
The standard line about Billy Taylor is that his importance as a pianist (and composer) was overshadowed by his role as an educator and spokesman for jazz.  Certainly this is true to a extent – Taylor’s radio and television appearances brought him to a whole new audience.  But it would be accurate to say that, well into the late ‘60s, Billy Taylor was one of jazz’s best-selling, if not most visible, pianists, a fact hardly worth sneezing at.

Taylor was born in 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina, grew up smitten with music in Washington, D.C. and received a degree in music from Virginia State College in the early ‘40s.   Moving to jazz hub New York City in the mid-‘40s, Taylor’s involvement in the jazz scene was, from his arrival, nothing if not democratic, playing with young modernists like Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie as well as swing-era luminaries like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones – without necessarily aligning himself stylistically or philosophically with either particular cohort.

Early gigs with Cuban-born percussionist Candido and Machito’s director Mario Bauza proved significant in engendering Taylor’s interests in Latin music.  An early ‘50s residency at New York City’s legendary Birdland club would follow, as would Taylor’s first recordings as a trio leader, these professional advances culminating in several Latin-oriented sessions for Prestige Records in ’53 and ’54.  These sessions would be issued in turn in various formats over the next few years.

Billy Taylor, Early Morning Mambo (Prestige PrEP 1327)“Early Morning Mambo” was recorded in 1953 – still early in Taylor’s recording career – and features, in addition to a beautiful solo by Taylor, bassist Earl May, drummer Charlie Smith, and Latin percussionists Chico Guerrero, Jose Mangual and Ubaldo Nieto on bongo and conga drums.  (The latter two percussionists were part of Machito’s rhythm section.)

This wouldn’t be the last time Taylor played Latin jazz (see Billy Taylor Trio Featuring Candido and Taylor Made Piano), though, in ensuing decades, the style would never again be as well represented in his oeuvre.

He never stopped performing or composing, but Taylor was, by the late ‘60s, assuming a greater role as a jazz educator and emissary, profiling jazz artists on the CBS series Sunday Morning, earning his doctorate, leading the orchestra on the David Frost Show and directing the Jazz Alive radio program.

After this long, fruitful career in service to music, Billy Taylor passed away in New York City in December, 2010 at age 89.

Joe Holiday, Mambo Holiday (Pt. 1) (Prestige 45-772)3.  Joe Holiday, Mambo Holiday (Pt. 1) (Prestige 45-772)
Cool-toned tenor saxophonist Joe Holiday was born Joseph Befumo into a musically-inclined family in 1925.  Born in Sicily, Italy, but raised in the New York City area from an early age, Holiday was a jazz modernist who, like many of his post-War cohort, made occasional forays into Latin music and R&B-oriented territory.

Holiday was barely out of his teens when he began leading small jazz groups in the Newark area in the mid-‘40s.  He debuted with two jukebox jazz singles on the excellent Federal Records label in 1951, but Holiday’s greatest success as a jazz musician – at least in terms of units sold – came for Prestige Records that same year with “This is Happiness,” a Latin-infused instrumental with solid bop leanings.

Joe Holiday, Mambo Holiday (Pt. 2) (Prestige 45-772)4.  Joe Holiday, Mambo Holiday (Pt. 2) (Prestige 45-772)
Like his label-mate Billy Taylor (with whom he recorded in 1953, incidentally), Holiday recorded both bop and Latin-tinged jazz for Prestige Records.  A dozen excellent singles largely in this vein – a few were in larger-group settings – followed quickly over the next three years.

“Mambo Holiday” was the second of these.  A spare,  laid-back Holiday composition, it was recorded in New York City in late 1951, with accompaniment provided by bassist Clarence Johnson, drummer Milton Hayes (presumably on timbales here), bongo player Nick DeLuca and keyboardist Jordin Fordin.

Holiday was one of many talented jazz musicians about whom it can fairly be said: he didn’t record as much as he should have.  After his spell at Prestige, Holiday’s sole full-length LP, Holiday for Jazz, was released in the 1957 on Decca Records.  Though now fairly obscure, it was a great modern jazz date, an anomaly in the catalog of that normally staid major label.

But Holiday seems to have retired from the world of professional music by the ‘70s.  His last recording date was a session supporting the young jazz organist Larry Young in 1960.

Joe Holiday currently lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and remains active, to this day, as a musician and friend of the arts.

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3 Responses to Prestige Records and Latin jazz

  1. oliver says:

    subtle goodness joe h. in particular

    hey off-topic but how bout motown v. brewtown in the series!

    let the coasts go golfing early 🙂 maybe marfa in the spring for some r and r/chinati springs relaxing

  2. Ravel says:

    Very good… Thank you !

  3. ana_b says:

    Marvelous piece. Thank you!

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