The mark of a great producer is to create the artistic equivalent of a family, in which, however clear the resemblances may be and however similar the shared practical experiences, they never get in the way of individual self-expression. With loving guidance, the producer helps to encourage individuality, to foster audacity, to coax the members of the family into situations where unexpectedly fruitful possibilities arise—and to provide the means for doing so. On Saturday, a great producer, Alan Douglas, died at the age of eighty-one. He is responsible for some of the greatest modern jazz recordings ever released (and perhaps for some that remain unreleased, too).
Douglas is best known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, and some of that work has proved controversial (although I think the pairing with the modern-jazz organist Larry Young is excellent). For me, his most interesting work with Hendrix is a recording that didn’t happen: a session with Miles Davis. There’s a terrific 1997 article by Edwin Pouncey from The Wire that’s posted on Douglas’s Web site, in which the producer speaks at length about this project, noting that he had fostered a two-year friendship between Hendrix and Davis, and that the recording session, which was on the verge of taking place, foundered over money (a half-hour before the session, Davis asked for fifty thousand dollars, and the drummer, Tony Williams, countered by asking for the same sum). But, intriguingly, Douglas adds, “ ‘Bitches Brew’ ”—the seminal work of Davis’s turn to electrically amplified band and rock-based rhythms—“was the result of Miles hanging out with Jimi for two years.”
Douglas’s epochal insight regarding the merging of jazz and rock was rooted, from the start, in his profound understanding of jazz itself, with its own inherent clashes and fusions of styles. He was a modernist from the start, putting Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane together for “Hard Driving Jazz,” in 1958, and recording some of the most electrifying live dates involving Charles Mingus (“Nostalgia in Times Square”), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (“Three Blind Mice”), and Jackie McLean and Kenny Dorham (“Inta Somethin’ ”). But his taste was matched by the discerning originality of his sound world. Douglas’s live recordings have a stark, harsh dryness that captures the intimate physicality of performance: the breath in the saxophone, the vibration of a reed, the drummer’s contact of wood on skins and metal rims, the plucking of a string bass and the resonations of its body. Until reading about Douglas now, after his death, I had never realized that he was responsible for these recordings, but their family resemblance in the tone of their musical voice is distinctive; it’s one of the sounds of the era.
But Douglas’s absolute artistic coup, the crowning glory of his career, is a studio session that brings together three of the best of all jazz musicians—two longtime modernist allies, the bassist Charles Mingus and the drummer Max Roach, and their regal swing-era elder, Duke Ellington, playing piano. Douglas explained that, as a record-company employee in Paris in the nineteen-fifties, he had worked with Ellington’s band. When Douglas was placed in charge of the new jazz label at United Artists, in 1960, he recalled,
Duke said to me one day, “Why don’t you make a record with me?” I thought that he should make a piano record. I wasn’t so keen on the big band stuff, because he had done so many records like that. Six months later he called me at United Artists and I said, “Let’s do it with people who are from your mould, the next generation.”
The record that resulted, “Money Jungle,” is unlike any other that Ellington made, before or after. Here’s the title track. From the start, Mingus’s tone is aggressive, his rhythms provocative and fluctuating, as if to goad Ellington, who, for his part, responds with aggressive playing of his own. His left hand slams the keyboard in a persuasive emulation of Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk, and some of the figures (as at 2:55-3:10) have a chromatic wildness—and a percussive pugnacity—worthy of Taylor’s. Here, too, Douglas, by emphasizing the snap of Mingus’s bass and catching Ellington’s piano head on and close up, creates a soundscape that is as crucial to the record’s impact as the performances themselves.
As a teen-age aficionado of modern jazz, and especially the music of Eric Dolphy, I bought an odd-looking record on a knockoff label, on which Dolphy and some unnamed musicians played Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and an exotic, Latin-tinged, jinglingly comical tune called “Music Matador.” The record featured soloists whose sound was unfamiliar to my ear but joyfully distinctive and decidedly avant-garde. It turns out that these recordings, too—as well as others by Dolphy from 1963 that feature many of the same musicians, on a record called “Iron Man”—are Douglas’s (I blew out a pair of speakers with Dolphy’s solo on thetitle track). It’s some of Dolphy’s most advanced work (and, again, it’s recorded with a startling immediacy). But what Douglas says about the recording sessions sets me dreaming:
We spent an entire week in the studio with these guys playing non-stop from three o’clock in the afternoon to four o’clock the next morning. They just kept blowing. We weren’t even thinking about records, we were just thinking about music & getting Eric’s ideas out. There was stuff coming out of those sessions that nobody had ever heard before.
And, I wondered on Twitter this week, stuff that nobody has heard since? Do those tapes, with their likely dozens of hours of music—featuring Dolphy with such luminaries as Woody Shaw (in his first recordings, at the age of eighteen), Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, Sonny Simmons, Prince Lasha, and Clifford Jordan—still exist? Finding and releasing them would be an extraordinary tribute to Douglas’s musical vision—and to his large and enduring artistic family.
Alan Douglas (right) with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus during the recording of the album “Money Jungle.” Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.
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