Slam Stewart was born Leroy Eliot Stewart on September 21, 1914 in Englewood, New Jersey. He originally played violin before switching to bass at the age of 20. While attending the Boston Conservancy he heard Ray Perry singing along with his violin giving him the inspiration to follow suit with his bass.
In 1937 Stewart teamed with Slim Gaillard forming the novelty jazz act Slim and Slam. The duo’s biggest hit was in 1938 with Flat Foot Floogie (With A Floy Floy).
Stewart found regular session work throughout the 1940s with Lester Young, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Johnny Guarnieri, Red Norvo, Don Byas, Benny Goodman Sextet and Beryl Booker among others.
One of the most famous sessions he played on took place in 1945, when Stewart played with Dizzy Gillespie’s group during Charlie Parker’s tenure. Out of those sessions came some of the classic bebop tunes such as “Groovin’ High” and “Dizzy Atmosphere”.
Throughout the rest of his career, Stewart worked regularly and employed his unique and enjoyable bass-playing style trademark of bowing the bass (arco) while simultaneously humming or singing an octave higher until his death on December 10, 1987 in Binghamton, New York.
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Chu Berry was born Leon Brown Berry on September 13, 1908 in Wheeling, West Virginia. Following in his piano playing stepsister’s footprints, Chu became interested in music at an early age, playing alto saxophone at first with local bands. It wasn’t until he heard Coleman Hawkins was he inspired to take up the tenor.
Most of Berry’s abbreviated career was spent in the sax sections of major swing bands of Sammy Stewart, Benny Carter, Teddy Hill, Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. He recorded with Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey, The Chocolate Dandies, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Lionel Hampton among others.
Although Berry based his style on Hawkins’ playing, the older man regarded Berry as his equal, saying, “‘Chu’ was about the best.” His mastery of advanced harmony and his smoothly-flowing solos on up-tempo tunes influenced such young innovators as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Chu was one of the jazz musicians who took part in the jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in New York that led to the development of bebop.
Collaborating with lyricist Andy Razaf, he composed “Christopher Columbus”, a tune that was the last important hit recording of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. From 1937 to 1941 he would be associated with Cab Calloway until his death from complications stemming from a car accident. On October 30, 1941, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry passed away. He was just 33 years old. Author Jack Kerouac immortalized him in the beginning of his novella “The Subterraneans”.
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Meade Lux Lewis was born Meade Anderson Lewis on September 4, 1905 in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, he was greatly influenced by pianist Jimmy Yancey.
His 1927 rendition of “Honky Tonk Train Blues” for Paramount Records marked his recording debut and his best-known work. His early recordings included Adrian Rollini, Frankie Trumbauer, classical harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, theater organist George Wright and drummer Cozy Cole. His performance at John Hammond’s historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 brought Lewis to public attention.
He went on to perform with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, played an extended engagement at Café Society, toured as a trio, and inspired the formation of Blue Note Records in 1939. Their success led to a decade long boogie-woogie craze with big band swing treatments by Tommy Dorsey, Will Bradley and others.
He became the first jazz pianist to double on celeste, recorded with Edmond Hall and Charlie Christian, also, then continued to Chicago and California. Lewis appeared in the movies “New Orleans”, “Nightmare” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” playing piano in the scene where George Bailey gets thrown out of Nick’s Bar.
Pianist and composer Meade Lux Lewis, who played the swing, blues and boogie-woogie styles, died in a car accident in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 7, 1964.
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Ernie Fields was born Ernest Lawrence Fields on August 28, 1904 in Nacogdoches, Texas, though raised in Taft, Oklahoma. He attended Tuskegee Institute before moving to Tulsa. From the late 1920s, he led the Royal Entertainers, and eventually began touring more widely from Kansas City, Kansas to Dallas, Texas, and recording. Fields’ band became the first African-American band to play at Tulsa’s landmark Cain’s Ballroom.
A 1939 invite to New York by John Hammond to record for Vocalion. He began touring nationally, never became a star but continued to work steadily, recording for smaller labels, and gradually transforming his sound through a smaller band and a repertoire shift from big band and swing to R&B. During WWII he entertained troops both at home and abroad.
Continuing to straddle these styles into the 1950s, Ernie played swing standards such as “Tuxedo Junction” and “Begin The Beguine” in a rocking R&B style. In the late 1950s he moved to Los Angeles, California and joined the Rendezvous Records and ran the house band In 1959 this band had an international hit with an R&B version of Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” that reached #4 on the Billboard chart, selling over a million copies. He would go on to record instrumentals under a variety of names including B. Bumble and the Stingers, The Marketts and The Routers.
After Rendezvous Records folded in late 1963, trombonist, pianist, arranger and bandleader Ernie Fields retired and returned to Tulsa. He died on May 11, 1997, at the age of 92.
Lester Willis Young was born on August 27, 1909 in Woodville, Mississippi and grew up in a musical family. His father, Willis Handy Young, was a respected teacher, his brother Lee Young was a drummer, and several other relatives performed music professionally. His family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana when he was an infant, then later to Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father was a musician, who would teach his son to play the drums, trumpet and violin in addition to the saxophone.
Playing in his family’s band, known as the Young Family Band, vaudeville and carnivals were their circuit but in 1927 he left, refusing to play the Southern states under the racial segregation of Jim Crow laws.
Settling in Kansas City, Missouri in 1933, he briefly played in several bands, then rose to prominence with Count Basie. He would leave Basie to replace Coleman Hawkins in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, followed by a stint with Andy Kirk, then back to Basie. Lester made small group recordings for Commodore Records, and the sessions became known as the Kansas City Sessions by the Kansas City Seven, playing clarinet and tenor.
After Young’s clarinet was stolen in 1939, he abandoned the instrument until about 1957. He left the Basie band in late 1940, subsequently led a number of small groups that often included his brother, accompanied Billlie Holiday in a couple of studio sessions in 1940 and 1941 and also made a small set of recordings with Nat King in June 1942. It was Holiday who gave Young the nickname “Pres”, short for President.[
In December 1943 Young returned to the Basie fold for a 10-month stint, drafted into the army during WWII and after discharge joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe in 1946 and for the next 12 years toured regularly with them. He recorded for Verve, Aladdin and Savoy records through the Forties.
From around 1951 Young’s level of playing declined more precipitously as his drinking increased. His playing showed reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality. His playing and health went into a crisis, culminating in a 1955 hospital admission following a nervous breakdown, emerging improved in 1956. He recorded and toured with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet through Europe and had a successful stint in Washington, DC with the Bill Potts Trio.
By 1957 Lester appeared with Billie Holiday, at a time when both were in their declining years, but both gave brilliant and moving performances with Holiday’s tune “Fine and Mellow”. By this time his alcoholism had a cumulative effect and he was eating significantly less, drinking more and more, and suffering from liver disease and malnutrition.
He made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and virtually drank himself to death. He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49.