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Ben Carruthers and the Deep

Ben Carruthers2The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.

It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.

It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.

The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for  a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”

No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.

Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.

I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.

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Vibes man

Bobby HutchersonThe last time I saw Bobby Hutcherson, during a short season at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, I came away convinced that he is the finest living ballad player in all of jazz. It was a Saturday night, the club was packed, and not every member of the audience could have been relied upon to recite the titles of his early Blue Note albums in sequence. Barely seeming to touch the vibes as he spun out glorious melodic variations on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and other beautiful songs, he held the place in a spellbound silence purely through the beauty of his turn of phrase. A similar subtlety informed his performance of several John Coltrane tunes drawn from his then-current album, titled Wise One — after one of those tunes — and released on the Kind of Blue label.

The ulterior motive for my presence that night was to persuade Hutcherson to talk to me about the trumpeter Dupree Bolton. He was courteously reluctant at first, but eventually gave way and presented me with a long and colourful account of their association back when the vibes man was a teenager and still at school while playing in a band with Bolton, Frank Morgan and Elmo Hope at the It Club in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. When I get around to writing my book about Dupree (a promise to myself, if to no one else), that story will find its way into the public domain.

His playing has always been important to me. Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, on which he played in a quartet completed by Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, is probably my favourite Blue Note album of all. His contributions to Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination Out!, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Grant Green’s Idle Moments and Street of Dreams and his own Happenings — one of the great Sunday-morning albums — and the superlative Oblique, all recorded for that same label in the mid-1960s, are records I wouldn’t be without, largely thanks to him. But almost anything with his name on it, whether he’s stroking the contours of a ballad or feeling his way out on to a musical precipice, has always been worth hearing.

That night when I went to see him at Ronnie’s, emphysema was forcing him to leave the stage every 10 minutes or so to take a hit from his oxygen tank. It had no effect whatsoever on his playing, which was of the very highest quality. He’s 73 now, and the respiratory condition has apparently taken foreign travel off the schedule, but it has not stopped him playing occasional club dates in the US and making some extremely fine records.

The latest of them is called Enjoy the View, and it finds him back home on the revived Blue Note label, under the supervision of its new president, Don Was. Anyone fearful that Was’s background might compromise the jazz content of the label’s new releases can stop worrying now: this album is nothing but jazz, coming from a lovely and completely uncompromised place somewhere between the more adventurous and the more conservative examples of his earlier Blue Note output.

Hutcherson is joined by the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn and the drummer Billy Hart: it’s a line-up from heaven, playing a bunch of originals (by all participants except Hart) which combine fine grooves with the sort of acute melodic and harmonic angles likely to provoke thoughtful improvisers into producing their best work. I can’t really pick out an individual contribution because they’re all exceptional, although perhaps I should say that this is the best I’ve ever heard Sanborn play, and detail inside Hart’s propulsive drumming will astonish those who’ve never listened to him properly.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood by Frank Wolf, the album has a clarity, depth and warmth that, even on CD, evokes the matchless sound Rudy Van Gelder bestowed on all the legendary sessions held for Blue Note at his place in Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: a special quality for which the label became famous.

I read a review in an American publication that awarded this album three stars (out of five) and dismissed it as run-of-the mill-stuff. I can’t buy that. This is a very good Bobby Hutcherson album, which means it’s as good as it gets. Here’s one of the gentler tracks, a Hutcherson composition called “Montara”, so you can decide for yourself.

* The photograph is from the cover of Bobby Hutcherson’s For Sentimental Reasons, released in 2007 on the Kind of Blue label, and was taken by Jimmy Katz.

Love Motown

Love Motown“My Cherie Amour” has never been a favourite song of mine. In terms of the Motown catalogue alone, there are scores, probably hundreds, I think of with greater fondness. But Beverley Skeete and Noel McKoy changed that at the Festival Hall on Saturday night, when the Stevie Wonder chestnut was sung by the duo in a captivatingly elaborate arrangement that featured Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica All-Stars augmented by 15 horns and a dozen strings.

The occasion was a concert titled Love Motown, a follow-up both to Jazz Jamaica’s Motorcity Roots album of 2008 and last year’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Wailers’ Catch a Fire. Like the latter event, it featured the big band — mostly drawn from Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project — plus the 200-member Voicelab choir, whose enthusiasm was channelled to good effect.

This was not about cover versions. It was about creative reinterpretation through the lens of an Anglo-Caribbean sensibility, using the special qualities of the Jazz Jamaica musicians. So Crosby’s bass and Rod Youngs’ excellent drumming evoked Aston and Carlton Barrett rather than James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, often jettisoning the factor that distinguished the original — the riff on which Holland, Dozier and Holland built “This Old Heart of Mine”, for example — and setting the song free.

Rubén Blades: time and tango

Ruben BladesRubén Blades is one of the most interesting survivors of the salsa explosion of the 1970s. Born in Panama City in 1948, the son of a Cuban mother and a Colombian father, he moved to New York in his mid-twenties, joining Jerry Masucci’s stable of emerging stars at Fania Records, he had started work in the classic manner, with a job in the company’s mail room.

Barely on the radar at the time I was trying to get a British audience interested in salsa via a couple of Island compilations of Fania material in the mid-’70s, he would soon be enjoying success via collaborations with Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto and Willie Colón, and through regular appearances with the the hugely popular Fania All-Stars. His song “El Cantante”, recorded by the brilliant but ill-fated Hector Lavoe, became a massive hit, and his 1978 album with Colón, Siembra, was for a while the most successful album in the history of salsa, said to have sold 25 million copies.

With a great-uncle who had fought against Spain in Cuba’s war of liberation, Blades’ compositions often displayed a strong political consciousness. In 1984 the A&R people at Elektra Records saw his potential to reach a wider audience. Soon after moving from Fania to his new home he recorded Escenas, with a new band called Seis del Solar, winning a Grammy for best Latin album. There was another one in 1988 for Antecedente, one my favourite albums of that decade.

While making these records he followed up his law degree from the University of Panama with a masters from Harvard. He also pursued an acting career, appearing in Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, and several other films. In 1994 he stood for the presidency of Panama, winning 18 per cent of the vote, and 10 years later he served a term as the country’s minister of tourism.

But he never stopped making music, and now he has released a new album, which sees him exploring the music of one of the countries of Latin American with which he does not, so far as I know, have ties of blood. Tangos consists of well known Blades songs recast in the Argentinian idiom by the arranger and conductor Carlos Franzetti, using a variety of means: a group of four bandoneon players accompanied by a string orchestra, a classic tango nuevo quintet (à la Astor Piazzolla), and the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra. 

Familiar pieces such as “Juana Mayo”, “Pablo Pueblo” and “Pedro Navaja” fit perfectly into this new format. “Perhaps these tunes were always tangos,” Franzetti remarks in his brief sleeve note. In some cases, like gorgeous opening “Paula C” and closing “Tiempos”, they gain in drama from the elegant orchestrations, which inspire Blades to a series of exceptional vocal performances, his tone and phrasing beautifully controlled. Almost 80 years after the great Carlos Gardel died in an air crash in Medellín, Rubén Blades unexpectedly presents himself as a thoroughly credible heir.

* The photograph of Rubén Blades is taken from the cover of Tangos and was taken by Vincent Soyez.

Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie HadenThe night before Barack Obama’s first US presidential election, back in November 2008, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra opened a week’s residency at the Blue Note on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village. It was 40 years since the ensemble had begun its mission of performing politically conscious music, and before the first set began Charlie told the audience about a remark made by Joe Daley, the band’s long-serving tuba player, in the dressing room while they were readying themselves. “If Obama gets elected,” Daley asked Haden, “can we call it a day?”

Everyone laughed, not least the band. And when I went back the following night, with Obama’s success assured, the set was infused with a special sense of joy. But there was no question of calling it a day. Six months later most of them were in London, chosen by Ornette Coleman to appear during the Meltdown festival at the Festival Hall, where their numbers were rounded out by Jason Yarde (alto), Andy Grappy (tuba), the incandescent young Shabaka Hutchings (tenor) and Robert Wyatt, who sang Silvio Rodriguez’s “Rabo de Nube” and played cornet on a spellbinding version of Haden’s “Song for Che”, first heard on the band’s self-titled debut album, which is one of the great classics of large-ensemble jazz (or any kind of jazz, for that matter). 

Both in New York and London they concentrated on material from what I guess will turn out to be their final album, 2005’s Not in Our Name, with which they brought their protests home in pieces like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie’s “This Is Not America”, Ornette’s “Skies of America”, a sardonic treatment of “America the Beautiful”, a wonderful recasting of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, and Bill Frisell’s “Throughout”, which at the Blue Note featured the tenors of Chris Cheek and the amazing Tony Malaby. As ever, the music was arranged by Carla Bley.

Charlie Haden died on Friday, aged 76. For more than 50 years he was one of the most important musical figures in my life, ever since I first clapped eyes on him as the skinny white kid over on the right hand side of the Lee Friedlander’s photograph on the cover of Ornette’s This Is Our Music. It’s still probably the coolest picture of a group of musicians ever taken, but there was much more it than that. I loved his sound on the double bass, which was dark without being heavy, the resolute economy (probably no great modern bassist played fewer notes) that sometimes gave way to dark strummed solos, and the way he seemed to be able to follow the improvisations of Ornette and Don Cherry so closely despite the absence of formal guidelines. (If you want to know how that happened, read Ethan Iverson’s fascinating 2008 interview with Haden here.)

Mostly, however, it was the sheer weight of emotion he conveyed in every note he played and in everything played by any band he led or with whom he performed. The Atlantic recordings of Ornette’s 1959-60 quartet are up there with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens and Parker’s Dials and Savoys, of course. But I also loved the way his Quartet West delved into the noir moods of post-war Los Angeles (particularly on Haunted Heart in 1991 and Always Say Goodbye in 1993), his collaborations with pianists such as Paul Bley, Hampton Hawes, Hank Jones, Chris Anderson, Kenny Barron and Keith Jarrett (notably on the recently released Last Dance), and the albums by Old and New Dreams in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

And, of course, there are the Liberation Music Orchestra’s five albums, four made in the studio and one live, essential documents reflecting current and historical liberation struggles in Spain, Central and South America, South Africa, Portugal and its colonies Mozambique, Angola and Guinea, and elsewhere. Here were the songs and hymns of the International Brigade, the Sandinistas, the MPLA, the ANC: this was music that mattered, its attention firmly fixed a greater scheme of things. It was an attitude that got Haden arrested by the Portuguese secret police while on tour with Coleman in 1971.

He was unique, absolutely, but he was also completely emblematic of the very best of America’s musical gift to the world. Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, he spent much of his childhood singing country and folk songs with the Haden Family Band, a background he revisited six years ago in Ramblin’ Boy, a well received album that featured his son, Josh, who leads the band Spain, his triplet daughters, Rachel, Petra and Tanya (whose own bluegrass album appeared a few months ago), and many other guests, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas and Bruce Hornsby. From those beginnings he made his way to the leading edge of jazz at a very early age.

He had a wonderful life and a marvellous career, despite health problems that began with childhood polio, and he left so much for us to enjoy and to contemplate. I suppose if any single performance sums him up, it must be his playing on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, recorded in October 1959 and released the following year on Change of the Century. Haden had just turned 22, and no one had heard anything like this before: the daring combination of harmonically free 4/4 walking and a powerful strumming that seemed to carry the echoes of all sorts of folk music. That combination of sophistication and deep soulfulness turned out to be typical. Thanks, Charlie, for all of it.

Ella and Nelson on Park Lane

Ella with NelsonThirty years ago this month — on July 26, 1984 — I sat down at the next table to Princess Margaret and her entourage in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. Not my usual company, but this was a special occasion: Ella Fitzgerald, making what I’m pretty certain was her final appearance in London, with an orchestra conducted by the great arranger Nelson Riddle.

It was a charity gig, the first of three nights in aid of the NSPCC, hence the presence of royalty and courtiers. But it was clearly something not to be missed, since it united two figures of great significance whose work together in the Gershwin Songbook series of albums — five LPs containing 53 songs, recorded over an eight-month period in 1959 for Norman Granz’s Verve label — remains a landmark of the genre and the era.

Ella brought her own first-class rhythm section: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Bobby Durham (drums). The rest of the large orchestra was assembled by Johnny Howard, the British saxophonist, bandleader and session contractor. It included Mitch Dalton on guitar and the young saxophonist Jamie Talbot, to whom I’d been listening in the very different environment of Clark Tracey’s hard-bop quintet.

Dalton had recorded with Riddle in London a few months earlier as part of another band put together by Howard for a Decca album called Blue Skies, in which Riddle’s orchestra accompanied the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. When I asked him about the gig with Ella, he responded with a lovely anecdote.

“My one abiding memory of the gig,” he told me, “is of rehearsing the overture — Nelson’s arrangement of ‘The Sheik Of Araby’. I was seated right in front of the conductor’s rostrum, no more than three feet from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Great Man had not necessarily committed his all to this particular commission, possibly because it might have been a last-minute (and inconvenient) request to provide Ella with an introduction. Anyhow, I was required to play the banjo in cod ’20s style. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a rhythmic feel which fitted the chart. Each time that we played it down I tried a different approach. During my third attempt to create something passable, Mr Riddle leaned across to me and intoned: ‘Ah, I see that you have an excellent ear for shit when you hear it!’ I’m not sure if his poker face and laconic delivery translate well off the page but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. It certainly encapsulates his modesty. An endearing trait in a genius, I find!”

And a genius he certainly was: a genius of popular music. He was aged 64 then, and taking time out from a tour to promote Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, the first of three hugely successful albums they made together. He and Ella had recorded their final collaborative album, The Best is Yet to Come, two years earlier, for Granz’s last label, Pablo. Fifteen months after the Grosvenor House shows, Riddle would die as a result of problems caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Ella’s long-term health problems were about to become more serious; in and out of hospital throughout her last years, she died in 1996.

At Grosvenor House, aged 67, she was no longer in full command of the powers of vocal expression and agility that had made her such a great artist. But that didn’t seem to matter too much. Although I wasn’t taking notes that night (in those days, before Live Aid, there was a rather civilised convention that charity concerts were not reviewed), I have a clear memory of a wonderful recital, including a particularly lustrous reading of “Blue Moon”. And Princess Margaret, who liked a bit of night life herself, certainly seemed to enjoy it. 

* The photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle is by Phil Stern and is taken from September in the Rain, Peter J Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle, published by Billboard Books in 2001.

The eye (and ear) of Dennis Hopper

EASYRIDER-SPTI-14.tifWhat I remember about hearing “The Weight” for the first time in 1968 was how timeless it sounded, how completely beyond all normal ideas of pop-music chronology. Although it was only just over four and a half minutes long, it somehow appeared to occupy a much more extended time-frame: longer, in a strange but true way, than the extended jams that were all the rage in the parallel universe of blues-rock and psychedelia. And in terms of style, it sounded as though the Band might have begun playing it in the previous century, and could very well continue into the next one.

Taking its place in The Lost Album, an exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographs currently on show at the Royal Academy in London, it becomes literally timeless. Hopper’s 400 black and white images — original prints on board, uniform in their modest size, with the tonal warmth and small marks of age that make looking at them like listening to vinyl — are divided between several large rooms, and in the middle comes a change of pace: the spectator stands on what amounts to a balcony, looking across a space on a lower floor at a projection of scenes from Hopper’s Easy Rider on the opposite wall. The accompanying music, configured in an endless loop, is Jaime Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece, seamlessly repeating without end, at least until the exhibition closes.

The song can stand it. You hear it first in the distance, and you want to get closer. When you’ve watched the film montage a couple of times, you move on — and although the music recedes, it won’t go away. To begin with, you wonder why the curator didn’t add a few more songs featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher”, perhaps, or the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”. But it’s a clever way of encouraging you to stay long enough to absorb what the exhibition wants you to see, while discouraging you from taking root. (On a second visit, I noticed that the volume had been turned down.)

Hopper was at his best as a photographer when making portraits of artists and art-world people in the early ’60s: there is something assured and definitive about the beautifully composed studies of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. His pictures from civil rights demonstrations lack the dynamism other photohgraphers brought to the same subject, or that of his own images from the celebrated Sunset Strip riots of 1967. His abstract images, too, are unexceptional, but there are some nice photographs of hippies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, of Hell’s Angels, of bull fights in Mexico, and of bands: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane. And it’s always nice to hear “The Weight” again, and again, and again.

* Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, London W1 until October 19. Easy Rider and The Last Movie are regularly screened in full as part of the exhibition.

 

Wardell’s last stand

Moulin Rouge 1In the days when I covered the big fights in Las Vegas, I always tried to persuade the newspaper to let me have a rental car. As budgets tightened, that became increasingly difficult. Why would you need to spend the department’s money when the only essential travel expenditure, apart from the plane ticket, was the price of a taxi to and from McCarran airport? If you were staying at, say, the MGM Grand, and that’s where the fight was being held, then it was a hard argument to make. But the key to getting the best out of Vegas, it always seemed to me, involved possessing the means to get away from it.

Not that I actually disliked the place. Disapproved of it, maybe, but I was always fascinated by the dark history of how a desert truck stop became the fastest growing city in the US. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Mayweather fight, simply to get a Vegas fix. But had I been there, I’d have been itching to get into a car and head as far away from the Strip as newspaper deadlines allowed — perhaps to the Red Rock Canyon state park, or more probably to the Mexican swap-meet on the north-eastern edge of town, out towards Nellis Air Force Base, a giant open-air weekend bazaar where you can buy anything from a cassette of norteño music to a tyre for your earthmover.

I was always a little sad that Vegas’s eye for future profit had led it to blow up the past behind it. I was there just in time to see the old Sands, for example, still in operation; on my next visit, the former Rat Pack playground was just another vacant lot, waiting for redevelopment. That sensational example of ’50s modern resort architecture — slogan: “A Place in the Sun” — was torn down in 1996. It seemed very short-sighted. If they’d been smarter, the city fathers would have preserved one of those old hotels as a living memorial.

Such thoughts were on my mind when I got in the car on a hot afternoon one day about 10 years ago and headed for Vegas’s Westside, the remote black section of town. I was looking for whatever was left of the Moulin Rouge, opened in May 1955 as the town’s only non-segregated casino hotel. This was a time when black entertainers performing on the Strip were barred from staying in the establishments that employed them; famously, after Sammy Davis Jr went for a swim in the pool at the New Frontier, the management had it drained. Not surprisingly, the Moulin Rouge was a great success.  Some of the great stars of the era played there, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, and among those who headed across town to enjoy the shows and the relaxed ambiance were Frank Sinatra, Tallulah Bankhead, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Gregory Peck. They were greeted by the former world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had been given a small ownership stake by the project’s white backers.

After six months, however, the place was suddenly closed, overnight, without warning or explanation. The croupiers, the cocktail waitresses and the dancers were paid off. The belief has always been that the Mob didn’t like the idea of customers being drawn away from their places on the Strip, and took appropriate action.

I’d heard that, half a century later, it was still standing, so I drove around the Westside, where some of the streets were still unpaved and the visitor felt a world away from the neat and ever proliferating suburban estates housing most of Vegas’s well heeled incomers. And when I found my way to 900 West Bonanza Road, there it was: the low buildings and its high landmark tower still intact, and most of all the giant neon sign, 60ft high and a classic of its type.

I drove in through a gate in the wire fence, parked the car and approached a group of workmen. They told me that it had been used as welfare apartments for some years, and that it had gone through a period when it was notorious as a kind of crack supermarket. Now, following a bad fire a couple of years earlier, it was almost deserted. The workmen told me that plans were under way for it to be refurbished and reopened, more or less as per its original incarnation.

A few calls confirmed that such optimistic plans did indeed exist. The building had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that turned out to be a meaningless gesture. Further fires, a failed foreclosure sale and pressure from vested interests persuaded the local authorities to issue a demolition permit, and the most significant parts of the property were torn down in 2010. The giant sign, designed by Betty Willis, a local woman, was removed to the city’s Neon Museum, where 150 such relics are preserved.

All this came to mind the other day when an album called Way Out Wardell came through the post. This is a CD reissue, on Ace Records’ Boplicity imprint, of an LP — originally on the Modern label — made up of two recordings from two 1947 concerts, at Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine in Los Angeles, both featuring the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray with a couple of all-star groups including Erroll Garner on piano, Howard McGhee on trumpet and Benny Carter on alto saxophone, under the banner of Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concert series. It was Carter who, eight years later, was hired as the musical director of the Moulin Rouge, and his big band was the main attraction during the gala launch week.

On the opening night, Wardell Gray was present and correct in the reed section. At 34, born in Oklahoma City but raised in Detroit, and a Los Angeles resident since 1946, he was a player with a substantial reputation. He had made his recording debut in 1944 with Billy Eckstine, appeared on Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” date, and become a favourite sideman of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. The two-part 78 of “The Chase”, his duel with his friend and fellow tenorist Dexter Gordon, a recreation of their marathon battles in the clubs of Central Avenue, had been a hit in 1947. His career stalled a little in the early ’50s, perhaps thanks in part to the acquisition of a heroin habit, but he was still playing clubs and making the occasional record date when he took Carter’s call and headed for Vegas.

On the Moulin Rouge’s second night, however, he didn’t turn up. The band waited, knowing that his habit had rendered him not entirely reliable, but eventually went ahead without him. The next day his body was found in the desert on the outskirts of town. It was assumed that he had died of an overdose, either accidental or administered as a “hot shot” by a dealer to whom he owed money, but the police investigation was cursory at best and no one was ever able to come up with an explanation for marks of blows to his head or exactly how the body might have found its way to its last resting place.

The story was explored at some length back in 1995 in Death of a Tenor Man, one of a series of atmospheric and entertaining crime novels by the American musician and author Bill Moody, whose fictional protagonist is a jazz pianist and amateur detective called Evan Horne. Moody grew up in Southern California but lived for some years in Vegas, where he taught English at the university as well as playing the drums with bands on the Strip, and the local colour is authentic.

So many jazz musicians perished as a direct or indirect result of the heroin plague of the 1950s. Gray’s demise has always seemed one of the most poignant, particularly since the town in which he died was built largely on the laundered profits of a narcotics trade pioneered by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, the principal founders of modern Las Vegas. Which is just one of the reasons why I find it hard to warm to the place.

As with Chet Baker, it’s impossible now to assemble the individual components of Gray’s tragedy into a definitive account. So we’ll never know the truth. But Way Out Wardell finds him at full strength, playing for enthusiastic audiences. Maybe this is how he sounded — confident and full of ideas — on that opening night at the Moulin Rouge, before the curtain came down.