In the groove

In the groove – where hard bop jazz meets the blues

The incomplete musings of a music fan, written in Maryland USA, 2015

One of the great regrets of my life is to have lived through arguably the most productive and creative periods of American recorded music history, and for it to largely have passed me by. The period I refer to is between the mid-fifties and late sixties which were my childhood and teenage years, when I was understandably more familiar with the popular music of the day, until my late teenage years when my musical allegiance was transferred first of all to blues and secondly to jazz, and the rich domain where the two intersected. Gradually I developed a love for a style of jazz I was to learn much later was widely referred to as “hard bop”, a term not widely known or understood outside of jazz circles.

Most readers have heard of “bop” or “bebop”, the revolutionary jazz movement that emerged in the 1940s inspired by a small group of virtuoso soloists and improvisational stylists led by Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. This style featured complex harmonic and rhythmic patterns often played at breakneck speed, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that even at the peak of this movement in the last 1940s, blues themes were frequently invoked – none better than “Parker’s Mood” recorder by Parker’s “All Stars” (Savoy, 1948) – a combo featuring some of the biggest names in post-war jazz – Miles Davis, John Lewis, Curley Russell and Max Roach. Of course blues themes and patterns have been part of jazz since the beginning, and in fact Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (1928) is regarded by many aficionados as the first truly improvised solo in jazz – take a listen to this.

Birth of hard bop

By the mid-fifties Bird had passed on and pure bebop had lost its’ edge. Many jazz followers now embraced the West Coast “cool school” as exemplified by the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ – all of who were bebop alumni), Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre and so on. As a non-musician it is beyond me or the scope of this article to comprehensively identify the key features that distinguish hard bop from other improvisational forms of music, but since some of these features are at the heart of this topic some explanation is required. Compared to bebop, hard bop is a more accessible style for listening and dancing to, having more in common with R&B – in fact many hard bop players started their careers in R&B and even straight blues bands such as BB King’s. The style retained the “polyrhythmic vitality” of bebop and both featured the classic line up of two horns (usually trumpet and saxophone, occasionally trombone) along with piano, bass and drums. Another common BOP characteristic is the tendency for the horns to play two choruses of the theme in unison at the beginning and end of the tune.

What most distinguishes hard bop are the blues and gospel inspired piano lines as exemplified by pianist-composer Horace Silver, described by jazz authority Joachim E. Berendt as “slow or medium blues, played hard and on the beat, with all the feeling and expression of the old blues”, a style that became known as “funky” – the precursor to 70s-style funk. This style, clearly designed in part to appeal to African-American fans of R&B, also embraces aspects of gospel music, a potent combination in the hands of pianists such as Silver as well as the emerging star Ray Charles, who began his career as a jazz pianist in the Nat Cole west-coast tradition (a forties style with minimal influence from bebop), but who began to combine elements of hard bop, gospel and blues into a new sound that became known as “soul jazz” – a precursor to the popular form of “soul music” in the sixties. Note that vibraphonist Milt Jackson, founding member of the MJQ, recorded an album “Soul, Plenty Soul” (Atlantic) in 1957, and in the same year two albums in duet with Ray Charles named “Soul Meeting” and “Soul Brothers” also on Atlantic. So it is fair to say that both funk and soul as we know them had their origins in jazz. And if anyone doubts Horace Silver’s influence on Ray Charles try listening to the delightful Silver composition “Doodlin” (Blue Note, 1954) and the Ray Charles cover hit. It’s hard to believe but Silver continued his rollicking music style well into the 1990s, just listen to his 1987 “Blowin’ the Blues Away” (Blue Note) and you may agree the energetic hard bop jazz sound survived  well past it’s official demise around 1970.

Insert section on Lou Donaldson. Quartet/quintet/sextet album 1952-54                   (Blue Note 1537)

“Lou’s Blues” with Horace Silver, “ Home” with Silver, Blue Mitchell (tr)  “ Stroller”, “Moe’s Bluff” with Elmo Hope (p), Kenny Dorham (tr) Matthew Gee (tb) Heath/Blakey.

The bandleaders  – Miles Davis and Art Blakey

Miles Davis needs little introduction to music fans, and along with numerous other jazz styles he was a key innovative figure in the hard bop movement. His 1951 Prestige album “Dig” featuring the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey on drums gave an early glimpse of what hard bop might sound like, with extended up tempo solos by virtuosos Davis and Rollins, while the 1954 “Walkin” heralds the dawn of hard bop with raunchy, blues based numbers such as the 13 minute plus title tune and “Blues and Boogie”, featuring Horace Silver on piano, Lucky Thompson on tenor, J.J. Johnson on trombone and bop stalwart Kenny Clarke on drums. The cover notes refer to the “two extended jams that heralded both the return of modern jazz musicians to a focus on the blues and the coming of the funky hard-bop era”.

For readers looking for an introduction to the hard bop sound, along with the Miles Davis selection it would be hard to go past the “The Jazz Messengers” album (Columbia, 1956), featuring Silver in company with hard bop icons Art Blakey and tenor sax player Hank Mobley. The group which forever after was known as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recorded dozens of albums over three decades with a host of sidemen, the only constant being the explosive drum playing of Blakey, brought up in the big band swing and bebop schools. To quote from the cover notes this group “sounded the keynote to the movement called Hard Bop. With Blakey’s sizzling ride symbol, swelling press rolls, and tom-tom bombardments on top of the beat, the Messengers welded blues and gospel’s roots to bebop’s high wire execution”.

Hank Mobley’s tenor sax had great rhythmic dexterity that was ideal for hard bops gospel-driven sound, and while not technically brilliant in the sense of a Rollins or Coltrane, he could still sound relaxed at high tempos, acting as a foil for the nervous energy perpetuated by Blakey and many of his sidemen. For great blues and soul saxophone try listening to “Soul Station” (Blue Note 1960).

For me the first album that really brought together my love of blues and modern jazz was the John Coltrane album “Blue Trane” (Blue Note 1958??) and particularly the title track, an eerie blues featuring some emotionally drenched tenor horn by John Coltrane, but for me the highlight is the piercing trumpet of Lee Morgan who could play at astonishing tempos and high pitch while bending notes in a way reminiscent of blues guitarists such as Albert Collins. This was a watershed for me, the moment when blues and jazz became inseparable. Bebop and hard bop had already produced some brilliant trumpet players, in particular Fats Navarro who had already passed on by the time hard bop arrived, and the equally talented Clifford Brown who recorded some of the best early hard bop in the company of drummer Max Roach and the tenor boss Sonny Rollins, but who tragically lost his life while also in his prime.  The vacuum left by these two giants of their instrument was soon filled by Lee Morgan, who began his career as an 18 year old in the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, was soon making albums under his own name, and by the late fifties had joined the Jazz Messengers. Not to be overlooked, pianist Kenny Drew played funky lines reminiscent of Horace Silver while the rhythm section of Paul Chambers on bass and “Philly” Joe Jones drums – already a fixture in the Miles Davis quintet – became arguably the swingingist and most widely recorded rhythm section in hard bop’s short history.

My high expectations for Lee Morgan’s trumpet prowess were raised even higher when I first heard that iconic Jazz Messenger’s album “Moanin’” (Blue Note, 1958). By this time a younger pianist in the Horace Silver mode, Bobby Timmons, was on piano and like Silver his playing was full of gospel, blues and funk but still drenched in bop savviness. The title tune composed by Timmons is the ear and soul catching tune here, a blues based on a call and response pattern in which the piano calls are responded to by the horn section of Morgan and Benny Golson, who plays some of the raunchiest sax ever heard, in my opinion at least. For me the star is still Morgan who stretches out even further than on “Blue Train”, but the whole album is a great tribute to all of the musicians present including bassist Jymie Merritt (note that all the musicians are from Philadelphia except for the Pittsburg born Blakey). For another take on a blues theme, try the “Blues March” written and arranged by Golson. It is set in the mold of New Orleans style marching band rhythm featuring outstanding percussion by Blakey both in support of the soloists and as he guides the whole tune to a crescendo assisted by Timmons fluent piano rolls. “Blues March” was previously recorded by trumpeter Blue Mitchell but this is a superior version.

As if the emergence of Morgan and Timmons in Blakey’s band was not enough, the next few years really marked the peak of the movement, and Blakey in particular strode the stage while introducing the music world to some of the greatest talent in jazz history – Wayne Shorter (tenor), Herbie Hancock (piano), Cedar Walton (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) to name but a few. However by this time hard bop had stretched its wings and was by no means restricted to the Blakey and Miles Davis combos and their offshoots.


The alto player Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who had in fact been a sideman to Miles Davis, along with his trumpet playing brother Nat, produced several albums in this vein, occasionally including a touch of Latin American. For his Quintet in San Francisco (Riverside, 1959) album he borrowed Bobby Timmons, who features in a classic rollicking blues-funk composed by Timmons “This Here” which follows an another composition he wrote for Blakey “Dat Dere”. Hear also the Adderley Sextet’s “Jazz Workshop Revisited” album (Riverside, 1962) featuring Nat Adderley’s “Jazz Samba” which was released as a 45-rpm to become a cross-over hit record. By this time Adderley had acquired the services of the brilliant Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul who stayed in the band right through the sixties until joining Mile Davis and featuring in such seminal (non hard bop!) albums as “In a Silent Way”, while the funky rhythms of “Jazz Samba” were accentuated by Yusef Lateef’s flute playing.

The soul of Jimmy Smith

For some blues fans the hard bop style may still seem to speak another language, however (Ray Charles not withstanding) the artist who best combines the idiom for me is none other than an organist – Jimmy Smith!  A local blues singer that I knew from my hometown Brisbane (Australia) recommended him to me in the late sixties, and once I heard him I was wrapped.  This had everything I loved  in music, it was really swinging though somehow evincing a relaxed demeanor, with regular blues themes and extended jam sessions featuring guitarists – most notably Kenny Burrell – funky horn players such as Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine – and dynamic drummers, in particular Billy Higgins and Donald Bailey. Given the fairly relaxed style of Smith (try the blues title track from “Back at the Chicken Shack” (Blue Note 1960) – it has the ultimate “down home” tempo. I was a little surprised when I first heard him play with some of the hardest of hard bop players Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Joe Henderson on tenor sax on his highly successful “The Sermon” (Blue Note 1958) The title track (dedicated to none other than Horace Silver) is another rollicking 12-bar blues with Smith driving the engine and all players providing peak performances.  During this period Jimmy Smith was the biggest selling artist at Blue Note and one of the biggest in jazz. Another classic album featuring a similar line up to “The Sermon”, plus the trombone of Curtis Fuller, who also featured in the previously mentioned “Blue Trane” as well as numerous Jazz Messengers albums.

Like Silver, Jimmy Smith continued to produce his brand of funky keyboard music for the rest of the twentieth century, but as if that isn’t enough of a legacy, he probably more than any other individual inspired the funky, soulful organ-based jazz that was so popular in the 1960s and beyond, with the likes of organists Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott and “Groove” Holmes, keyboardist Les McCann, sax players Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (fresh from the Count Basie band), Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman (from the Ray Charles band), Houston Persons and Eddie Harris. This music tends to be closer to R&B than hard bop, but for non-purists it is both pleasurable and most danceable.

The Lee Morgan blitz

However probably the biggest hit in the funky hard bop mold didn’t feature an organ at all. Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” (Blue Note, 1963 ) is a totally “in the groove” finger-popping blues jam, featuring Morgan in the familiar company of Joe Henderson and Billy Higgins along with Barry Harris on piano and long-time Sonny Rollins bass accompanist – even to the current day – Bob Cranshaw (I witnessed the legendary duo combination together at the Kennedy Center just a couple of years ago). I heard an interview with Cranshaw who spoke of how in awe he was of Morgan at the time, and he shared an anecdote that during the recording session Morgan excused himself to go to the bathroom, finally returning in 1/2hr with a hand written tune which became “Sidewinder”. He asked Cranshaw if he could add an intro bass line which he dutifully did, however when it came to repeat the line for the final chorus his mind went blank – he hadn’t had a chance to write it down. Hence even listening to the record today there is a noticeable pause before the final chorus commences. Whether that is because it was recorded in one cut or it was just decided to leave the pause for effect I don’t know. I’ve heard that “Sidewinder” marked the beginning of the “boogaloo” style era. For me the composition and high-energy performance draws on the Muddy Waters classic “I’ve got my Mojo Working” – which, whatever we call it – makes for great dance music .

At this point I should make it clear that my love for hard bop does not begin and end with the groovy blues style that I’ve focused on. For example, much as I love “The Sidewinder” title track, when I listen to the album I find “Totem Pole” – by no means a blues, if anything it has an oriental flavor, the tune that stays in my mind and challenges my music sensibilities. Apart from Morgan’s brilliance as a soloist he was a major composer whose repertoire included ballads, blues and strait-ahead jazz – indeed he composed the majority of tunes that he recorded, as well as for Blakey and other band leaders. Coincidentally while writing this I’m suddenly hearing “Totem Pole” by west coast saxophonist Hadley Caliman coming out of my laptop, thanks to my new favorite radio station (though the announcer doesn’t credit Morgan at the end). I’ve never hear of Caliman, but I salute his treatment of one of my great favorites!

Despite attempts to cash in on the popularity of Sidewinder with similar funky blues offerings, Blue Note records were never able to emulate that success. However it has to be said that Morgan never compromised his standards for the sake of commercialism and he continued to make great albums. One example of a Sidewinder follow up is “Cornbread” (Blue Note, 196 ) in which the title track is a familiar laid-back blues along the lines of Jimmy Smith’s “Back to the Chicken Shack”  whereas “Ceora” is one of the most poignant instrumental ballads of its’ time – one that has found itself in the repertoire  of jazz performers to the current day. How does the hard playing extrovert make such an offering, which according to Ira Gitler’s cover notes leaves the listener “ floating on folds of gossamer forgetfulness” (ok, such a description has never been made of a blues tune!) Incidentally the personnel of this band reads like a whose-who of hard bop, with Jackie McLean on alto, Hank Mobley tenor, Herbie Hancock piano and the unmistakable Higgins on drums. Another great recording was made on a Joe Henderson album, with a brilliant rhythm section of Cedar Walton (p) Ron Carter (b) and Joe Chambers (d). (Blue Note, 1966). Tunes to watch for are the mesmeric “Caribbean Fire Dance” and Morgan’s “Free Wheelin’”, a solid up-tempo 12-bar blues in 6/4 timing with Morgan in top form with extra accompaniment from Bobby Hutchinson on vibes and the evergreen Curtis Fuller (tb).

Vale Lee Morgan and hard bop

Lee Morgan with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1960

“In January 1972, in a scene straight out of “Frankie and Jonny”, trumpter Lee Morgan was shot dead at Slug’s, a jazz club on New Yorks City’s Lower East Side. Morgan was 33 years old……. In a number of respects, Morgan could be considered the quintessential hard bopper…….Finally his death coincided with the collapse of hard bop artistically and economically…And of course, it deprived the school of it’s star trumpet player” (David Rosenthal [1992] Hard Bop. Oxford University Press).

Other observers have argued that hard bop had already diminished by the end of the 1960s, as musicians moved into more experimental fields such as avante guard, fusion or more commercial styles such as funk and even rock. Morgan continued to advance musically, however he stayed true to the straight ahead hard bop style, sometimes now referred to as “post bop”, to the end.

With so much attention on Lee Morgan it shouldn’t be overlooked that in the few years leading up to his demise the jazz world lost several jazz icons most of whom featured in the hard bop era – John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Timmons, two  significant hard bop base players in Paul Chambers and Doug Watson, and the supreme guitarist Wes Montgomery. All had great musical careers spanning the hard bop era, and in some cases at least, the hard living and drug abuse may have stunted their careers. Other such as Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Horace Silver played on for another decade or two (or three in the case of Silver), while I am delighted to report that to the best of my knowledge some of the greats from the era are alive and occasionally playing, and I have been fortunate enough to hear the likes of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Lou Donaldson, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Cobbs – drummer from the first classic Miles Davis Quintet – in recent years, while the late Cedar Walton performed at my (then) local suburb of Montpelier in Laurel Maryland around 2012.


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