Jazz Institute of Chicago

Why can't they get it right?

Why can't they get it right?
By Don Rose

The music world was saddened by the recent death of composer-arranger Ralph Burns, whose remarkable career led him from Woody Herman's two great Herds of the mid-'40s and early '50s, all the way to major successes in Hollywood and on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for "Fosse."

But before he left us, he at least had the pleasure of seeing his great jazz suite, "Summer Sequence," reissued. The work had long been out of print and was also the subject of an on-going discographical error. He clarified the matter in the liner notes to the reissue, but the confusion still found its way into otherwise fine obituaries in major publications.

The error, one must note, was first made by Columbia Records, which recorded the original suite and reissued it in late 2001 as part of a wonderful and overdue Herman compilation. Ironically, the notes to the double-CD compilation, called "Blowin' Up a Storm!: The Columbia Years, 1945–47," contain further errors, which is quite shameful considering that the material all comes from the company's own archives.

Here's the story: "Summer Sequence" was originally recorded in 1946 as a three-part suite; one of its first performances took place at a Carnegie Hall concert by the First Herd (the band that first made "Apple Honey," "Northwest Passage" and other hits featuring Flip Phillips on tenor, Bill Harris on trombone and Chubby Jackson on bass). It was not released, however, until 1949, in an album of 78-rpm records, along with another charming Burns composition, "Lady McGowan's Dream." This was just at the dawn of the LP era and an LP was issued a bit later. (Columbia released a live version of the Carnegie concert a few years ago, but parts of the suite were somehow lost.)

Despite the remarkable commercial and artistic success of the First Herd—which had its own network radio program for a couple of years and regularly placed its hits on the pop charts—Woody disbanded it at the end of 1946. He couldn't stay idle long, however, and began building a new band scarcely a year later—this was the Second Herd or the "Four Brothers" band, originally featuring Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward on tenors and Serge Chaloff on baritone. Jimmy Guiffre, composer of "Four Brothers," and Al Cohn, Don Lanphere and Gene Ammons would later take tenor chairs.

The new band had its own bebop oriented book, but also played many of the first Herd's favorites, including "Summer Sequence." As Burns told Charles Granata in the liner notes to the new compilation:

"'Summer Sequence' had become a showpiece for the band, and everyone but Stan had a part. I wrote 'Summer Sequence (Part 4) as a feature for him at Woody's request." The new movement, recorded at the end of 1947 was issued in 1949 on one side of a 78, so titled, featuring a beautiful Getz solo that swiftly brought him to national attention. The movement continued the original "Summer Sequence" theme—a 32-bar ballad—iterated by the full band and solo trombone. Then, following Getz's solo, a new theme is briefly introduced in the out-chorus, played by the saxophone section and its then-novel voicing of three tenors and a baritone.

Burns continues: "Later, I crafted 'Early Autumn,' based on the original solo as a stand-alone for him to record on Capitol Records [where the band had moved]. There were a lot of chord changes in it and he was the only one that could play those chords."

"Early Autumn," recorded in mid-1948, took on a life of its own. It was as big a hit as a jazz instrumental could become back then in, at the end of the big-band era, and launched Getz to superstardom (though he had left the band by the time the record was issued). A few years after, Johnny Mercer added lyrics to the tune and it became a favored vehicle for vocalists who dared negotiate its sinuous melody. Even during Burns's big Broadway years, he remained strongly identified with its haunting beauty.

When Columbia began issuing small Herman compilations on LP and CD, if they included the fourth movement of "Summer Sequence" they began calling it "Early Autumn." The most recent example I found was a 1994 "Essence of Woody Herman" disc, issued as part of its Legacy series. Was this a simple error or a calculated effort to cash in on the song's popularity? Whatever it was, many musicologists and discographers began repeating the error: conflating the distinction between "Summer Sequence (Part Four)" and "Early Autumn," though the former contains a strain of only a few measures of the latter song. Ted Gioia, in his otherwise admirable "The History of Jazz" (Oxford, 1997) repeats and institutionalizes the confusion. The error thus was repeated in several Burns obituaries in late November.

Ironically, though the newest compilation contains Burns's clarification of that question, it presents other incorrect discographical information about different takes of "Summer Sequence (Part Four)" and several classics from the two Herds. The compilation reissues 23 works by the First Herd with 8 alternate takes, and 4 works by the Second Herd with 2 alternate takes. One of the Second Herd's offerings is, of course, "Summer Sequence (Part Four)." Problem is, they reversed the order of the takes, presenting the original master take as an alternative (Disc 2, Track 22) while what they call the original is actually a never-before-issued alternative (Disc 2, Track 12).

On a lesser but equally silly note, they mis-spell the title of "Keen and Peachy," in the text and on both takes, turning it into "Kean and Peachy," a nonsense title. The tune is a contrafact of "Fine and Dandy," the first of the Second Herd's bop works to be issued. By giving it the mysterious name "Kean" the fine pun is lost—but, fortunately not the music.

Even stranger is the handling of the First Herd's "Bijou," Burns's "rhumba a la jazz" that was a showcase for the unique playing of Bill Harris. The compilation offers what they say is the original master plus an alternative take. Here, however, neither one is the original—they are both alternative takes. Interesting as both alternates may be, the music of the superior and deservedly master take is missing. (Anyone who wore down the grooves of the original issues of "Bijou" and "Summer Sequence (Part Four)," as I did, can instantly recognize the mislabeling of these takes. The masters are virtually imbedded in our psyches.)

The compilation was produced by the knowledgeable and usually reliable Orrin Keepnews. The liner notes are presented in the form of Burns commentary "as told to" author, historian and producer Charles Granata ("Sessions with Sinatra"). Despite the errors, of course, the music is wonderful and welcome—and Burns's historical commentary and critiques of various takes is rich and useful.

So how do things like this happen? Why can't they get it right? Moreover, does anybody care?

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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