Shelly Manne & His Men at The Black Hawk

Recommending CDs is always a difficult affair. As soon as you say that some CD is desert island material for you, someone gets on your case, taking you to task for having said that, stating that the relative merit of this or that recording diminishes when taking other, more relevant recordings into consideration. On top of that, in jazz circles, one is always prone to be drawn into endless discussions with fans complaining that one is ignoring East Coast jazz when recommending a superb example of West Coast jazz, as is the case here. In the end, usually, everyone’s none the wiser.

If you read my site regularly, you know that I recommend recordings based more on a mostly emotional response. I do list some negatives here and there, but if there aren’t any, in my little world, I won’t try to come up with any. I’m also not all that objective because there are enough reviews out there that try their very best to weigh the pros and cons to give you a seemingly accurate description of a recording. That approach usually leaves me somewhat cold, although it does have its merits, because I want to read about what a recording did for someone. Is it music that resonates with a person and, most importantly, why did it have that effect?

Having said all that, the five CDs that comprise the complete reissue series of “Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk” are what I would consider to be some the best live jazz ever recorded. Whenever I’m asked why I like jazz and what jazz means to me, I put on any or all of these CDs. Considering the many thousand CDs I have, I’m often surprised that it’s really that simple.

Besides having been exposed to jazz from an early age via my dad’s record collection, I really got into jazz when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting the small clubs there regularly, soaking in the jazz scene and trying to catch as much of especially small group (live) jazz as I could.

There’s a certain atmosphere in a smaller jazz club that is hard to describe. It’s about – on good nights – sitting in a rather crowded place, close to the musicians/the band, having a beer or three and trying to see something through all the smoke that’s being produced. It’s about enjoying live music in its purest form, watching it being developed right in front of your eyes, taking in the interplay between musicians that have either been playing together for ages or have just gotten together to create something more spontaneous. It’s about talking to other people with usually the same mindset about what is being created in front of your eyes and ears, debating and learning. It’s all of that and more. It’s a special kind of intimacy.

So, when I got these five CDs, I instantly felt at home. The Black Hawk, a once legendary San Francisco nightclub on the corner of Turk Street and Hyde Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, sounds just like many of the clubs I used to frequent, especially if you take one of the owners’ comments into consideration, who is supposed to have said that

I’ve worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer.

This is a live recording, committed to tape on three days in September of 1959, with Shelly Manne, who did not have his regular working band with him (Russ Freeman was absent, touring Europe with Benny Goodman, and was replaced by Victor Feldman, a vibes player who only plays piano here) and who, after a week of playing at the Black Hawk, actually enthusiastically phoned Contemporary, the record label, to come over and record the band:

I’ve never asked this before but we all feel you should come up and record the group in the club.

Originally, Contemporary had been thinking of producing one single album but, as Lester Koening put it in the liner notes:

Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playbacks, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would have been arbitrary, and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in. So, on the principle that proper length should be dictated by interest rather than time limit, Shelly decided to issue all the material.

It must be noted, before we continue here, that these five discs also display phenomenal sonic qualities. Reissued on CD in 1991 by Contemporary Records, they are still some of the best-sounding CDs available today and if you want to show your friends what a good CD can sound like, buy these and fire up your amp. When compared to the limitless amount of low-quality and altogether shoddy reissues around today, even the well-meaning ones, it is simply amazing how good these CDs sound and I don’t think any amount of careful remastering can make them sound any better (unless, perhaps, some Japanese engineers decide to work these over for a complete boxed set I would appreciate).

It is no surprise that these have such extraordinary sonic qualities as they were recorded by one of the truly great Hollywood recording engineers who was responsible for many of the Contemporary sessions: Howard Holzer. Carefully remastered – or better: transferred to the CD medium – in 1991 by Phil De Lancie (Fantasy Studios in Berkley, CA), these CDs are the epitome of a living and breathing live sound captured perfectly and consistently across the entire live gig, preserving the very special ambiance. This recording puts you smack-dab in the middle of the club. I have heard someone complain that the channels are perhaps reversed, with Joe Gordon and Victor Feldman on the left and Richie Kamuca on the right, but I have no idea if this is in fact correct. Suffice it to say that it really does not matter in this instance.

Originally, the three days at the Black Hawk were issued on four LPs and are available today in augmented form as five CDs, supplemented by alternate takes on each disc and what we are presented with is a perfect free blowing session with superb ensemble playing in stellar sound. I mean, what else could anyone ask for? The interplay between all of the musicians, a prime example of a leading modern jazz group of its time, is something special because it is at the highest level and seamless – you have the impression that this is a band that has played together since they took up their instruments.

At the center we have Shelly Manne, perhaps one of the most musical and altogether sensitive drummers of all time. He grew up in and learned his trade from a large number of ensembles and jam sessions he participated in and it shows. He wasn’t the one to push himself to the forefront (some fans of his have complained that he doesn’t solo enough on these recordings, but I would say they’re the better for it) with technical extravaganzas and the flashy show of fireworks, but he concentrated on moving the music forward, supporting the band members. Best of all, he doesn’t “push” as so many other known drummers have done. Instead, he lets the music develop and just “reigns” it in, somewhat.

What the rest of the band does is difficult to describe. I tried before to explain how much and how effectively these discs convey the sense of being there, of hearing music being developed, phrases being bounced around the stage, picked up and developed further only to be taken one step beyond on the next bounce. There are many lengthy performances on here (around 20 are more than 10 minutes long, some close to 20) and the chemistry between especially Joe Gordon (trumpet) and Richie Kamuca (tenor saxophone) is exceptional. Because they are given ample room to stretch out majorly, they do, and the results are fascinating. After countless listening sessions those two still bring many smiles to my face as I try to picture a surprised frown or a wide smile developing on any of the two faces after another successful trade-off. Add to that Victor Feldman who, as mentioned before, is sitting in here as pianist (not a doorbell to be heard) and does a spectacular job (also as a soloist). If you want to hear what Feldman was capable of on the piano, you need to turn to these 5 discs anyways as other work is not exactly easy to find. Monty Budwig lays a swinging and rock-steady – but versatile – base (he also plays some excellent solos) together with Manne, and the whole group just jells. These guys swing hard, they know their bebop inside out, they know their cool, and they give you a prolonged glimpse into what the West Coast sound was all about.

Altogether, you get a prime example of mainstream jazz played in an intimate setting in almost perfect sound. I also like to cite these discs as the one strong argument in a defense of West Coast jazz which is often trivialized and accused of being basically lifeless. Once you start investigating what came after the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands in the fifties, you will probably end up with these five discs which are, in a way, the culmination point and one of the best examples of what that scene had to offer. The five discs also show a band at the height of its art.

If you ask me which tunes to sample, I could name three tunes off the bat that I have played so often that the CDs are beginning to wear thin in those places. “Step Lightly”, “Cabu”, and “Whisper Not” should give you a good idea of the mastery on display here. Two of the above tunes fall into the midtempo department, one definitely into the uptempo one (“Cabu”). All three are so good that I never get tired of hearing them.

Run!
Beg, steal and borrow, so you have three sets!
You won’t regret it.

A word of warning: It has become difficult to find all five of these discs although when or if you do, they are still reasonably cheap (definitely below $10 a piece). Many people have waited too long and right now it still is possible to scrounge them together by hitting the various Amazon sites, the Amazon marketplace dealers and a second-hand shop or two. Do not wait too long because as it looks right now, there’ll be only a few weeks until some of these discs will have disappeared … hopefully only for now.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. The sound Shelly Mannes’ live recordings in the Black Hawk are vivid, surely they are one of the best live Jazz session that time.

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  2. Loved that description of sitting in Jazz clubs in Copenhagen Volkher. I would definitely agree with the intimacy point there.

    I wish I had more money, I’d buy CD’s again, even though there’s a degree of fear that the medium will someday soon become obsolete.

    Thanks for this great piece of writing. This has prompted me to check back more often to your blog.

    I’ll also set up a link to you from my 9rules blog Desperate Curiosity.

    Best wishes on a cold night in London,

    Andrew.

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  3. Andrew,

    nice to see you ‘round these parts.

    I’m not so concerned about CDs disappearing that fast, especially if LPs, which most people thought were dead and buried, are any indication. Besides, I have so many of them that I only need a company that still produces CD players 20 years down the line. If not, I’ll buy one from a company known for its quality products which will then hopefully last until I drop dead (yes, there are companies that sell those kinds of quality products).

    Thanks for the link! I also encourage my readers here to visit your “London Theatre Blog” (the site your link above points to) which I love … as you know.

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  4. I got the first volume in the library yesterday and listened to it 3 times in a row 🙂 It’s been way too long since I’ve heard such a swingin’ live date. there’s so much joy in their playing and the vibe is just wonderful. I’m definitely buying these, if I can find em. tnx Volkher

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  5. Ah, another one joins the fan base. 🙂

    It should be relatively easy finding the others if you don’t just look once but keep checking bac, whereever it is you do your shopping. Sometimes one or t’other is unavailable for a while but they usually pop up again relatively fast.

    I’m still hoping that someone will put all volumes out as a boxed set one day.

    Keep enjoying!

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  6. For those of you who are still on the fence about buying this set, I will tell you a story. About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to buy albums from a local radio station’s jazz collection. I looked through a tall metal cabinet jammed full of albums; probably about 2000 of them. I came away with about 200, which I hand picked. I leaned toward the earlier albums from the 50s through about 1965. I had Ellington, Gillespie, Davis, Coltrane, Tatum, Jackson, Bruebeck, Mingus, Monk, Evans…pretty much a basic collection of well cared for albums at yard sale prices. I was in heaven for months. There are still albums I haven’t played yet from this cache of vinyl. Anyways, one of these records was Volume 3 of this set, and I finally got around to playing it. Then I played it again, and again. Who were these guys? I really was not familiar with Shelly Manne and his Men prior to playing this album, but their music got completely under my skin. I had never heard anything so organic come out of my stereo. It was so real you could almost smell the smoke in the club. For me, it was all over after that, and for several years I was on a quest for the other volumes in the set whenever I would hit yard sales. Never found them of course, and then a couple of years back, I saw this blog. After reading the article, I realized that I HAD to redouble my effort to find the volumes – and find them on CD, which it turns out I was actually able to do without too much difficulty. The set cost all totalled about 50 bucks, but to this day it is the best 50 bucks I have ever spent on music. I don’t know why I love this album set so much, and I really don’t care to know why. I just know that I do. I cherish this set, and for me it would be desert island material, at least from an emotional point of view. It simply involves me that much.

    So – if you are still on the fence, I heartily recommend you get off that fence and take the plunge. Just go on A____N and find a vendor who has these. I got all 5 disks from one vendor, which saved me on shipping.

    If I could only have 10 disks of jazz on that hypothetical island, this set would probably comprise half of my jazz quota. It really is that good. Of course this is one man’s opinion, but one can always listen to sound samples if still in doubt. At any rate, check it out. I think you will be glad you did.

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  7. Keith,

    sorry for the very late reply. I’ve been busier than the proverbial outhouse rat. 😉

    I can only add that since I wrote this “review”, the files have never left any of my various portable players. It’s the one set that’s never erased and travels with me wherever I go. As far as I can tell, they are again easier to get hold of when compared to the general shortage around 2006.

    The CDs have also stayed next to my stereo since 2006. I’m quite sure this has never happened before, unless you count Bugge Wesseltoft’s Christmas CD that gets several spins per month here when I have to do 18-hour correcting shifts. That one has kept me sane this past decade (see my review elsewhere on this site).

    This music is timeless and I would go as far as saying that a lot of it comes as close to being what I call “perfect” as can be. I know there are detractors out there, but I wouldn’t let those into the above-mentioned outhouse if they paid for it, so …

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    🙂

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  8. First things first: this is a very fine website, Volker. Thanks for your hard work and good taste.

    In your review, you credit Howard Holzer and Roy DuNann with the recording, but according to the CDs, it was solely Holzer. Not to say that the master tapes weren’t sent south to LA and DuNann did the preparation for release, but I’d think the recordings were done live-to-two-track stereo, and what we hear to this day is pretty much exactly what Holzer put on the tape. (I don’t have the original LPs any longer, and don’t recall the credits).

    Yes, there would be some tape-to-disc EQing (and subsequent tape-to-digital EQing required for the CD release, but I say “Thanks to Howard Holzer, the sixth member of Shelly Manne’s Quintet”.

    And thanks to Lester Koenig for making it possible. I don’t think I have ANY better-representative-of-the-band issues than those of Contemporary. I love those owner-operated labels that have an outlook and statement to make — Contemporary, BlueNote, and even my hometown Toronto label, John Norris’ Sackville Recordings.

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  9. Ted,

    after my website was down for a day or so because of some maintenance, I’m back in business.

    First of all, thanks for commenting here and clearing that up. I’ll reword that sentence in the original post soon.

    I couldn’t agree more about the labels you mentioned, although I’m not such a huge fan of the Rudy Van Gelder remasters (essential as they are), many of which are lacking the kind of tonality I prefer. Nevertheless, where would we all be without Blue Note and the labels you mentioned? I’m glad a lot of what they put out there is still around.

    Sackville Recordings rang a very faint bell, but I need to investigate the label further. For those readers who know as little as I do about this label, a quick excerpt from The Canadian Encyclopedia:

    “Record label established in Toronto by John Norris, Bill Smith, and others in 1968. The label released recordings of Canadian jazz musicians […] as well as leading US traditional, mainstream, and avant-garde jazz musicians,[…]. While Sackville’s concentration was originally on jazz recording, and it was at one time the pre-eminent jazz label in Canada, the company has also signed musicians working in other genres, including country. Norris and Smith have served as producers of virtually all Sackville recording sessions. […] As of 2004, Sackville Recordings was still active, under Norris.

    Volkher

    Reply

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