By Armand Lewis
Historians have dated the dawn of modern jazz in Los Angeles to December 10, 1945: The opening night of the Charlie Parker / Dizzy Gillespie Quintet at Billy Berg’s nightclub in Hollywood. While this date marked the first performances of Parker and Gillespie’s New York-based group on the West Coast, it was not the first modern jazz heard in California.
L.A.’s Central Avenue already boasted a strong modern jazz scene. Charles Mingus, whose first records for the L.A. based Excelsior label were recorded in June of 1945, was already well known locally. But it was trumpeter Howard McGhee who led what was likely L.A.’s first resident modern jazz group.
Coming to Los Angeles in early 1945 with Coleman Hawkins, McGhee quickly set up his own quintet featuring tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. By September 1945, the locally based Philo label had already recorded several sides with the group. And by the end of the year, the group settled in for an extended engagement at the Streets of Paris nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard — one of many nightclubs located throughout the area.
Local radio stations would often air live “remote” broadcasts from these clubs — usually late at night. Many of these broadcast sets from the 1940s have been lost, but Uptown Records has unearthed some early broadcasts of Howard McGhee’s group along with the trumpeter’s first recording sessions.
The resulting package – Howard McGhee: West Coast 1945-1947 (Uptown UPCD27.74) provides not only a valuable introduction to a now-forgotten trumpet master, but a rare document of early nightclub entertainment and pre-Charlie Parker bebop in Hollywood.
After a brief introduction by radio host Fred Shields, McGhee and company start the broadcast with a rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” Likely introduced to West Coast audiences a couple weeks earlier by Gillepsie and Parker at Billy Berg’s, McGhee and Edwards give Diz and Bird a run for their money with a fiery rendition of what was to become a bebop classic.
The other main highlight from the half-hour broadcast is “Howard’s Blues.” A hybrid of boogie-woogie and be-bop, the number successfully straddles the two styles and features a strong “Jazz at the Philharmonic” style solo by tenor saxophonist J.D. King.
The album continues with extremely rare 78s — including McGhee’s first Philo sides — by McGhee and Edwards, along with (on various tunes) Sonny Criss (alto sax), Hampton Hawes (piano) and Roy Porter (drums).
Proving that Charlie Parker did not have a lock on sheer speed, McGhee’s first Philo 78 “Mop Mop” takes off at a blistering pace. At the time, modern jazz meant speed, and nobody played faster than Howard McGhee. Tenor saxophonists Edwards and King keep up, but in the end it’s McGhee ahead by a wide margin. Likewise on the next track “Intersection.”
McGhee’s compositional skills are on full display for his next recording session from the spring of 1946 for the L.A. based Melodisc label. The four sides resulting from the date are more commercially oriented, but find McGhee and Edwards in fine bebop form, notably on “Hoggin’” and “Sweet Potato.”
By this time, Charlie Parker’s first Savoy records had been released and Parker’s influence on popular music was being felt throughout the country. McGhee would record several classics with Parker himself in 1946 and ‘47 for the L.A. based Dial label. (The Dial sessions are widely available, but are not included in this package.)
Parkers’ influence was such that the last recordings on this album, made for Armed Forces Radio Services in 1947, feature not only Parker’s own classic composition “Ornithology,” but also a very Parker-inspired Teddy Edwards rendition of “Body and Soul.”
While bebop would always be the foundation of Howard McGhee’s style, the trumpeter would never achieve Parker or Gillespie’s fame, though some would rank McGhee as being their equal. Subsequent years spent away from performing and a relatively sporadic recording career over the next four decades would insure that Howard McGhee would be known only as a “musician’s musician,” and be relatively forgotten by the public. “West Coast 1945-1947” shows that he could hang with the best.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org