The search for the origins of free jazz continues…. A couple weeks ago, my former teacher Mr. Bill Goodwin called me to talk about my post on Pete LaRoca and “Minor Apprehension”, a tune LaRoca recorded with Jackie McLean in 1959. LaRoca’s drum solo on that tune is, as far as I know, the earliest example of free jazz drumming.
Bill appreciated the essay— he knew Pete LaRoca very well, and was glad to see a few words about him. However, regarding “Minor Apprehension” being the first free drum solo— Mr. Goodwin urged me to take another listen to Shelly Manne’s “Un Poco Loco”, recorded in 1956.
Was this the beginning? Does free jazz drumming come from Shelly Manne, is that what Bill was saying? Or was it something else Mr. Goodwin was getting at, some musical connection or context I wasn’t quite understanding?
Regardless, I went back to Shelly Manne, and “Un Poco Loco”.
Here’s what I found….don’t forget the footnotes, there’s a lot of context in them!
You’ve heard more Shelly Manne than you realize: he’s the drummer on the original Pink Panther theme, on the original Peter Gunn theme (both by Henry Mancini) and a lot more movie and TV scores where those came from. He’s also on a classic Coleman Hawkins session from 1943 and appears on important records by Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, and other grand masters.
To be a part of popular culture and jazz culture— to bridge those worlds— is a stunning achievement, but before we explore it, and how “Un Poco Loco” fits into the story of Shelly Manne and avant-garde jazz, I should talk a little bit about studio drummers.
At that time, if a drummer worked for a movie studio, radio station, or later, a television network, chances are that the drummer would have very limited experience on a drumset; the drumset was a brand-new instrument in the early 20th century, with origins in ragtime and jazz, folk music, dance crazes, showbiz and vaudeville. A highly trained professional percussionist might understandably be quite skeptical about this new percussive upstart!
Instead, these ‘studio orchestra drummers’, as clunky a phrase as has ever been written– all highly skilled and passionate performers– were classical percussionists, folks who could sight read, play timpani, mallet percussion, snare, bass drum, cymbals, and all the percussion of modern orchestral music.
So, roughly, from the 1920s into the 1950s, a studio drummer (or really, a studio percussionist) was a classical percussionist, one and the same. Of course, this job did not die out; plenty of busy, talented, and passionate percussionists are playing and making a living right now. Watch any movie scored by John Williams or other well-known film composers, and you’re hearing the contemporary inheritors of these percussionists.
Shelly Manne, though, signified a change.
But, Shelly Manne was first and foremost a jazz drummer, of the highest order. He apprenticed in groups led by Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie in NYC in the 1940s, where he was a major part of the 52nd Street scene, present with Max Roach, Stan Levey, and Kenny Clarke at the moment when modern jazz became both a complete, mature style and a commercially viable proposition.
His work on 52nd Street led to a gig with Stan Kenton in 1946. This was a big gig; Kenton’s band was immensely popular and was billed as a ‘progressive’ band, not so different in spirit and intent from the classic prog bands of the early 1970’s: jazz for the smart set.
Kenton required a drummer to be both a master jazz drummer and something else, a drummer who could swing and knew jazz folkways, but had the open mind and quick hands of a contemporary percussionist. Ergo, Shelly Manne.
Tellingly, Kenton’s initial commercial success was not with a composition in the Basie or Ellington traditions, but with The Peanut Vendor (1946), an adaptation of a Cuban song by Moises Simons, with touches of jazz, Cuban percussion, and contemporary composition. Manne sinks his teeth into the piece, and connects these disparate, unrelated threads of music organically and charismatically; without Shelly swinging so hard, this piece would be little more than a curiosity now.
According to Manne, his first big movie studio gig was a call to be a member of the percussion section for an excerpt of Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free ballet score in the Hitchcock film Rear Window.
Fancy Free has more than a few nods to jazz, but it is a modern composition for concert dance, and Manne was uniquely well-suited to participate.
Consider this background: Manne’s father (Max Manne) was the timpanist in the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, a job halfway between a Broadway gig and the NY Phil, where he accompanied the Rockettes, and other entertainers; a job requiring immense skill and professionalism. (I remind myself that a timpani ca. 1925 would have had a calfskin drumhead and probably was sometimes hand-tuned.)
Shelly’s first drum teacher was the great Billy Gladstone, a percussionist so widely admired that Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, and others would attend shows at Radio City just to see and hear Billy Gladstone play a buzz roll on a snare drum. Here’s a link to Max Manne, Shelly’s father, giving an interview about his career and talking about Billy Gladstone, incredible insight into Shelly’s background.
Shelly had already shown his flexibility, professionalism, and ability to adapt when he recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, the pinnacle of modernity, in 1945. With Dizzy, Manne adapted what he knew as a swing drummer to the new world of Gillespie’s music; listen to him with Dizzy in 1945 on the original “Blue ‘n’ Boogie”.
- There it is: a percussion provenance, a classical teacher, and formative experience on jazz’s cutting edge.
Manne was able to draw on these experiences— and his own individuality, separate from his training and background— and found a perfect outlet for them in the mid-century
Lo, the modern studio drummer.
Bud Powell is the composer of “Un Poco Loco”, and he originally recorded it in 1947 with Max Roach on drums— a performance worthy of its own essay. The tune was, it seems, Manne’s preferred feature at the time, the tune he liked to take an extended solo on. According to an eyewitness account, Manne was playing with Shorty Rogers when he developed a solo to be played with a brush in his right hand, and a bare left hand.
Here’s a link to the track. Manne’s solo begins at 5:11. Click this link, and even if you’re familiar with this track, you’ll hear something you haven’t heard before.
Shelly Manne’s solo is played on a 4-piece drumset, with a tambourine placed on the floor tom; in his right hand is a brush, and his left hand is empty, he’s using it like a conguero might
The solo is improvised and has an open form: “Un Poco Loco”’s melody form is not referenced by Shelly; in fact none of the soloists (Charlie Mariano, alto; Stu Williamson, trumpet; Russ Freeman, piano; Leroy Vinegar, bass) seem to be playing on a prescribed number of bars, on a pre-determined form
The solo is motivic: Manne returns to his simple, four-note (snare, tom, tambourine-on-floor-tom, bass drum) opening phrase several times; the phrase is almost a hook, and our ears are looking for it all the time.
The solo suggests contemporary composition: Because Manne is focussed on his motif, the solo has a unified quality and suggests a composition; indeed many of the film composers with whom Manne recorded composed exactly in this manner, with motives recurring throughout film scores in a technique derived, ultimately, from Richard Wagner!
The solo has a wide tonal palette and suggests percussion traditions outside the dance band and drumset: Manne grew up around classical music and show business, had just acquitted himself as the drummer in a “progressive” big band, and had already worked alongside classical percussionists and Latin percussionists; he was well aware of the sounds available to an open-eared jazz drummer.
And, most important, the solo is a piece of beautiful music— great tones, a simple motif, loose feel, the phrases sing, and so on. It’s just great.
But instead of demonstrating chops, generating excitement, Manne created a subtle, quiet, motivic masterpiece. A useful comparison might be to Philly Joe Jones’ “Salt Peanuts” with Miles Davis, recorded just a few months later in May, 1956.
Jones’ “Salt Peanuts” is sort of a synthesis of swing drumming, Buddy Rich, and bebop innovation, presented in Jones’ inimitable, show-stopping, charismatic manner. An amazing solo by any measure, but I don’t connect Jones’ “Salt Peanuts” to the coming avant-garde movement, to Pete LaRoca, the beginnings of free jazz, and so on.
So, while I’m not sure Manne’s solo is free jazz as its commonly understood, I don’t think that’s the point. “Un Poco Loco” is wildly suggestive of free jazz, and this is a big deal. Manne is showing the possibility of great improvisation that doesn’t rely on chord changes and recurring forms, the architecture of modern jazz.
I think this is the point Bill Goodwin was trying to get me to see— that Shelly was opening doors, creating possibilities, moving the music forward; that LaRoca and McLean had a precedent.
When a new idea is hatched, it is never without precedent; it’s startling to for me to sense a connection, however distant, between Shelly Manne and his scene on the West Coast with the ultra-modern beboppers on the East Coast.
But then, it makes perfect sense to hear a connection between Shelly Manne and Pete La Roca: the drums have always been a change agent, drummer have always been free improvisers. The drums have, in a sense, always been avant-garde.
So, sit back, relax, click on the link to “Un Poco Loco”, and treat yourself to 9 minutes of great music, with a three-minute drum solo that isn’t exactly free jazz, isn’t totally straight-ahead, but is something more valuable than all these labels and questions: completely unique good music.
Special thanks to Bill Goodwin for getting in touch about “Un Poco Loco”, and Adam Nussbaum for support.
I don’t know the names of the percussionists playing the brilliant percussion parts on the Disney or Warner Bros cartoons from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but just a quick glance at those and we know how brilliant they were.
Composer Carl Stalling was best known for his Warner Bros. cartoon scores, and these percussionists were playing Stallings’ hyper, pastiche style of symphonic music with personality and accuracy. And, as far as I know, they are watching the cartoon on a huge screen, following the conductor, reading the music, and going for as few takes as possible, given that editing and splicing were much harder jobs then.