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The precious legacy of Booker Little

Booker Little:Max RoachThe four studio albums recorded under the Memphis-born trumpeter Booker Little’s name between 1958 and 1961 were issued by four different labels. It’s always been my feeling that if he had signed a contract with Blue Note Records early in his career, his reputation today would more than match that of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd. But they did and he didn’t, and after his untimely death from uraemia, a kidney disease, at the age of 23, the piecemeal nature of his recorded output somehow prevented him from acquiring the stature he deserved.

For many years those four albums were hard to find and expensive to acquire. You might have gone without a few meals to buy one. Now, thanks to European copyright laws, all four are available in a single 2CD package for which I paid £12 the other day. Those copyright laws are problematic in some respects, but when they make it possible for independent companies to reissue music like this, in which the corporate successors to the original labels have seldom shown any constructive interest, it’s very hard to argue against them, so I won’t.

The original albums in question were called Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, recorded 1958), Booker Little (Time, 1960), Out Front (Candid, 1961), and Booker Little and Friend (Bethlehem, 1961). The package in which they are assembled, titled Complete Recordings: Master Takes and issued on the American Jazz Classics label, has been put together with evident care, reproducing the original sleeves and notes, with full recording details and extra pictures.

The first of them reminds us that Little came to prominence as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, whom he joined just after his 20th birthday, following studies at the Chicago Conservatory. He made several albums with that band, and his qualities as a soloist were obvious from the start: his clean articulation, bright, burnished tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic acuity made him the obvious successor to Clifford Brown. And at a time when skilled hard-bop trumpeters were not exactly thin on the ground, his playing was immediately identifiable.

The Time album is by a quartet, with Wynton Kelly or Tommy Flanagan on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, and it still sounds pristine. But the remaining albums are the real jewels, since they place his improvisations in the context of a developing compositional gift. They feature sextets, both including the trombonist Julian Priester and the pianist Don Friedman, with Out Front also including Eric Dolphy and Max Roach while Booker Little and Friend (a coy reference to his trumpet) features George Coleman and another great drummer, Pete LaRoca. Little’s 14 tunes on these albums are distinguished by a gift for lyricism that was not always to be found in the composers of the post-bop era; perhaps the nearest equivalent would be the great Benny Golson, who also achieved a song-like quality in his themes for hard-driving horns-and-rhythm combos. Little, though, was a more sophisticated thinker than Golson. In pieces as breathtakingly gorgeous and structurally fascinating as “Forward Flight”, “Strength and Sanity” and “Moods in Free Time”, written in his very early twenties, there are unmissable signs of boundless potential.

His partnership with Dolphy would no doubt have borne further fruit. They were ideal partners, utterly dissimilar in instrumental style but clearly on the same musical and intellectual wavelength, as can be heard on Dolphy’s Far Cry, recorded for Prestige in December 1960, and in the three volumes of live recordings by their quintet, taped in July 1961, just three months before his death, and released as Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot (now also available in a complete edition, from Essential Jazz Classics).

Among the last things he played on, as a sideman, were John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Max Roach’s Percussion: Bitter Sweet. Wherever jazz was heading in that turbulent and exhilarating era, he was going to be part of it. We’ll never know what he might have achieved in the years that a fatal illness denied him, but the four albums under his own name — brimming with the amazing clarity of his playing and a talent for exploiting the resources of a small group — are evidence of a remarkable artist at work. It’s a legacy that all jazz fans should know about.

* The uncredited photograph of Booker Little (left) and Max Roach is taken from the booklet accompanying the American Jazz Classics package. 

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Evan Parker #

    Thanks for reminding us of what an amazing trumpet player and composer Booker Little was.
    Of the four records in the new collection, great though they all are, it is “Out Front” that takes the writing and playing to its most sublime point. The voicings for the three horns sound so full and rich. It still sounds fresh today.

    February 18, 2014
  2. A good read! We should remember that Booker Little, even though he led a tragically short life, has an influence, especially on Kenny Wheeler and Dave Douglas.

    February 18, 2014
    • Wiebke Hahn #

      Hi Tony, do you have sources with more information about the influence of Booker on Kenny and Dave? I would be very pleased, if you could give me some hints.

      May 22, 2017
  3. caroline boucher #

    You’re bankrupting me! x

    February 18, 2014
  4. Steve Beresford #

    Beautiful picture! I still hear shadows of Booker Little in everything Kenny Wheeler plays.

    From: “thebluemoment.com” <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: “thebluemoment.com” <comment+_gfpe98opi408o_fn47h1t6@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Tue, 18 Feb 2014 12:48:46 +0000 To: <S.Beresford@westminster.ac.uk> Subject: [New post] The precious legacy of Booker Little

    Richard Williams posted: “The four studio albums recorded under the Memphis-born trumpeter Booker Little’s name between 1958 and 1961 were issued by four different labels. It’s always been my feeling that if he had signed a contract with Blue Note Records early in his career, his “

    February 18, 2014
  5. Jeff Gifford #

    Thanks Richard. Nice work Man! Through my years of listening to Jazz, Booker Little’s name has kept popping up. I suspect this article will be the tipping point for me in getting more involved with his stuff.

    February 18, 2014
  6. Mick Steels #

    For pure unadulterated Booker Little I’ve always preferred the Time album, which strangely enough popped up on Island Records in the 70s, belated thanks for that. It does seem true that Little was quite an influence on Ken Wheeler, which is quite unusual when you consider BL was a good 8 years younger than the Canadian.

    February 18, 2014
  7. Great piece Richard and this collection is a must buy. I am glad Richard didn’t mention Amazon as a place to buy it. They avoid taxes and are squeezing local retailers, including those that sell music, out of business. Last night I searched for alternatives who stock this and came up with two:

    Broad Street Jazz: http://www.broadstreetjazz.co.uk/proddetail.php?prod=ajc99078&cat=11

    and

    MDT: http://www.mdt.co.uk/booker-little-quartet-quintet-sextet-takes-american-jazz-classics-2cds.html

    Both are local businesses and specialist classical and jazz retailers. The ethical choice is to support small firms like this. They are only slightly more expensive than Amazon.

    February 19, 2014
  8. I’m a huge, huge fan of these records…Out Front in particular blows me away; ‘Man of Words’ has to be right up there with the most heartbreaking things on records. Funnily enough, was listening to the Dolphy Five Spot stuff only the other day…love Little’s Navarro to Dolphy’s Bird (though that sells all four far short…) on that too…

    February 19, 2014
  9. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    A really good piece on Booker Little; many thanks. He has always been one of my favourite jazz musicians and I’m so glad to see the re-appearance of his four solo albums. I’ve got them all already in one form or another – including an Island LP, ‘The Legendary Quartet’, to which you contributed the sleeve notes, accompanied by a lovely tribute to Booker by the late, great John Stevens – but I can think of no compelling reason why I shouldn’t buy them again; I’ll be off to Ray’s Jazz in Charing Cross Road as soon as I’ve sent this reply …

    A tragically short recording life of just over 3 years means that his output represents a comparatively slim legacy. But as your piece highlights, there is still quite a bit to choose from, all of it worth seeking out. To the recordings you have mentioned, can I add a recommendation for a fantastic Frank Strozier set – titled, appropriately enough, ‘The Fantastic Frank Strozier’ (it may also be available as a second-hand LP called ‘Waltz of the Demons’) – on which Strozier’s alto and Booker Little’s trumpet front a band completed by Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb; it’s terrific.

    February 19, 2014
    • Mick Steels #

      Spot on about the Strozier album, great pity he is no longer active, understand he took up the piano and did some teaching but a very underated saxophonist.

      February 19, 2014
  10. love the Bookers – Ervin and Little….listening to Sounds of the City right now….the Blues Book tops it all for me though….lovely writing as ever Richard – thank you

    February 24, 2014
  11. Pierre #

    I think the following paragraph is a bit harsh and possibly inaccurate: “For many years those four albums were hard to find and expensive to acquire. You might have gone without a few meals to buy one. Now, thanks to European copyright laws, all four are available in a single 2CD package for which I paid £12 the other day. Those copyright laws are problematic in some respects, but when they make it possible for independent companies to reissue music like this, in which the corporate successors to the original labels have seldom shown any constructive interest, it’s very hard to argue against them, so I won’t.”
    Of the four albums two were hard to find, the Bethlehem and the United Artists’ (which is owned by Blue Note), the Timeless on has been available for at least 10 years and the Candid album has, to my knowledge, been available for decades. Although it is convenient to find all of them in one package, it is quite unfair to the original companies, of which Candid has been the most active to keep its catalogue accessible, that these recordings are made available without them having any word to say in the matter. Buy this package if you wish, but then go and buy Out Front from Candid as well.
    By the way, Bethlehem records have been revived, it is now part of Verse Music Group which releases its catalogue mainly online except for the Japanese market.

    Pierre

    January 31, 2015

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