the root cellar: titans of tenor sax

Legend has it that the majority of the crew were waiting outside the club Birdland in Manhattan, waiting for a ride across the river to Rudy Van Gelder’s place in Englewood, NJ. to record for the afternoon. Coltrane comes walking by and stops to chat with his friends. The Griff asks Trane if he’d like to come along and blow with the boys. ‘Trane says sure, and the rest is history…”


by john pinamonti


Think about your Jazz collection. Perhaps you have a few Coltrane albums, some Stan Getz, maybe a couple of things by Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson. These guys are all great tenor saxophonists in their own right – I could devote an entire series of columns to them, and you should have more than just a few of their records in your collection. However, there are also many other lesser-known but no less great players who bear consideration. These are not guys you’ll find mentioned by Ken Burns, but musicians and jazz fans in the know are aware of them. This month we’ll take a look at 4 of those that are not as well-remembered and appreciated as they should be.

Don Byas (1912 – 1972)

Byas was and is revered in the jazz world and played a pivotal role in the development of the saxophone. He was one of the “old school” players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young who managed to bridge the gap between the swing styles of the late ’30s and early ’40s and the burgeoning bebop styles of the ’40s and ’50s. In 1944, he played with Dizzy Gillespie in what was arguably the first bebop band (before the style was labeled), and was a mainstay on the New York scene, constantly jamming at a multitude of 52nd Street clubs and uptown at Minton’s, the “birthplace of bop”.

Unfortunately, since he moved to Europe in 1946, he was not recorded or appreciated as much as he should have been. One of the best performances in the history of Jazz is his duet with bassist Slam Stewart on I Got Rhythm, Candy and Indiana from a 1944 Town Hall concert, which doesn’t seem to be in print in CD form, but has been issued on the Commodore label in various forms down through the years. I have it on a cassette from the late ’80s called Giants of the Tenor Sax: Ben Webster and Don Byas. (You can also find I Got Rhythm on the Smithsonian History of Classic Jazz vinyl box set).Byas’ playing on this live concert “fill-in” (he and Slam were hired to play between the full band acts) transcends labels – it is just plain music, plain genius. Stewart keeps up right along with him, and his unique sing-along bass solos are a perfect match for Byas’ tone and attitude. More readily available is Don Byas 1944-1945 (Classics), which has many gems on it, and also features Stewart on a good number of selections, as well as bluesman Big Bill Broonzy on vocals and guitar on the final 4 cuts. Big Bill’s guitar is barely audible, but his vocals are full and offset nicely by the support lines and solos of the horns. If you have a desire to hear some later Byas, then you’ll want to pick up Don Byas Meets Ben Webster (Prestige). This is a good addition to the “dueling tenor” tradition, and shows that both of these masters were always inventive and always on top of their game. Also recommended is the vinyl version of Savoy Jam Party: The Savoy Sessions (Savoy) (the CD version is ok, too, though it is a truncated version of the two-record set). Look for this and for the Commodore stuff at your favorite used record store.

Gene Ammons (1925 – 1974)

The “Jug”, as he was affectionately called, holds a special place in my heart because he always makes me smile. If you ever find yourself feeling down, all’s you need to do is put on his album with Sonny Stitt called Boss Tenors (Verve). Cue up the track entitled “The Blues Up and Down”, and it will blow whatever blues you got right out da house. Exuberance exudes from his horn as he and Stitt spur each other to glorious heights. Every time I hear this I wish I played the saxophone! Also superlative is Boss Tenor (Prestige/OJC), which features Jug as the only horn backed by an outstanding rhythm section featuring the likes of Tommy Flanagan and Art Taylor. This record has been recently reissued in a nice remastered package.

Johnny Griffin (1928 – )

Griffin (a.k.a. the Little Giant) is the only living member of the tenormen I’m discussing here, and he is another expatriate who fortunately still manages to cruise through the States now and then. Thankfully, he has been well-recorded and there are many albums to choose from. Perhaps the most famous is A Blowin’ Session (Blue Note), where he matches chops with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, and has an incredible cast rounded out by Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Art Blakey. Legend has it that the majority of the crew were waiting outside the club Birdland in Manhattan, waiting for a ride across the river to Rudy Van Gelder’s place in Englewood, NJ. to record for the afternoon. Coltrane comes walking by and stops to chat with his friends. The Griff asks Trane if he’d like to come along and blow with the boys. ‘Trane says sure, and the rest is history. Let me add that there are very few players who would a) invite Coltrane to their own featured session and b) count off the tune “The Way You Look Tonight” at a breakneck tempo, and proceed to burn through the changes right in front of ‘Trane! The true beauty of Griff is that this was not done in a competitive way, but in a love of music way, as if it was his way of saying “OK, ‘Trane – thanks for coming – now let’s go for it!”.

Also worth getting are Live In Tokyo (Westwind import), featuring the unsung pianist Horace Parlan and the masterful Art Taylor on drums. I remember when I bought this two-record set and was blown away when I discovered that their version of “All The Things You Are” took up an entire side! If you listen to A Blowin’ Session, then you’ll be able to compare the version on there with this one. And last but not least is his appearance on Dexter Gordon’s Great Encounters (Columbia), where the Griff and Dex add to dueling tenor history with a smoldering swinging version of the above-mentioned Ammons/Stitt vehicle The Blues Up and Down. It’s nice to reference/compare with the Ammons/Stitt version, and Dexter is his ever charming self when he announces his dear friend “The Griffin” – you know even before they play that it’s going to be something special.

Hank Mobley (1930 – 1986)

Hard to believe that Mr. Mobley is an unsung hero of the tenor, seeing as how he recorded 25 albums as a leader for Blue Note, not to mention several for Prestige and Savoy, was also an integral part of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, played with Miles Davis in ’61 and ’62, and was featured in many groups and on many fine Blue Note albums by Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. But perhaps because he was so prolific, it proved to be a liability, and he was and is taken for granted. So where to reach for a taste of his work? I suggest two of his Blue Note records – Far Away Lands, which features some superb players (pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Billy Higgins are particular favs), and Soul Station , (featuring the same all-star rhythm section that appears on Griffin’s A Blowin’ Session – a nice continuity there). The latter utilizes Mobley as the only horn, as opposed to the majority of sessions featuring other horn players as well. Both albums showcase his own compositions, which are as grooving as they are harmonically and melodically interesting. I am also partial to his playing on a Lee Morgan record called The Rajah (which features both Walton and Higgins from Far Away Lands – again, a nice continuity) and the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ At the Café Bohemia (Vols. 1-3). The relationship between Blakey and Mobley is an important one, as Mobley spent several years as a key player in the Jazz Messengers, and Blakey propelled many of the sessions done under Mobley’s name. They had a great affinity for each other’s playing, and you really can’t go wrong with any session by Mobley that features Blakey or any of the Jazz Messenger sessions from 1954-56 featuring Mobley.

Final Note: There are many great dual-tenor albums out there, but perhaps one of the most intriguing is Apogee (Warner) by Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb. Marsh was well-known on the West Coast, played and recorded with people like Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, and actually ended his career on the bandstand at the L.A. club Dante’s when he dropped dead while playing (what a way to go!). Christlieb (who is fortunately still alive and blowing) was a long-time lead tenor of the Tonight Show Band during the Johnny Carson years and has played on countless recording sessions. Both of these guys rise to the occasion, and there is a killer version of Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee (they play the melody one beat apart – one starts exactly 1 beat after the other – and it’s a fun and intense rendition). Lastly, the album was produced by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, of Steely Dan fame! Also of note is another tandem tenor album Marsh made with Lew Tabakin called Tenor Gladness (Disco Mate). Don’t know who produced this one – maybe Elvis Costello?

Next Month: Post-war swinging honky tonk by The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band – The Maddox Brothers and Rose.


Originally published:
Issue Nine
May 2001


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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