“S’Posin'” (1954) Artie Shaw Gramercy Five

“S’Posin'”

Composed by Paul Denniker; head arrangement by Artie Shaw Gramercy Five.

Privately recorded by Artie Shaw Gramercy Five in June of 1954 in Hollywood.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; and Irv Kluger, drums.

The story: By the time these recordings were made, Artie Shaw was thoroughly tired of leading this wonderful jazz group. It had evolved from its immediate predecessor, a sextet called Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five, which had included Tal Farlow on guitar and Joe Roland on vibraphone. Shaw formed that group in New York in the late summer of 1953. He had been approached by Ralph Watkins, who previously operated Bop City in Manhattan, to assemble a small band that would play stimulating jazz, but generally at lower volumes, for his new, elegant supper club called The Embers, which was located at 161 East 54th Street. Shaw selected the musicians he wanted to use, rehearsed them, and put together a “book” of musical selections that they would play. This book existed only in the minds of the musicians, as they developed a core of tunes they wanted to play, worked out sequencing and other ensemble details in rehearsal, and then began playing before audiences. After that started, the general outline of each tune further developed in performance.

It is interesting to review how Shaw rehearsed this group before they played in public. Paid rehearsals were held in Shaw’s four-room flat on East Fifty-Seventh Street. Intense is the way pianist Hank Jones described them. The rehearsals lasted for “…a considerable length of time, enough so that we were quite familiar with the music and the way he wanted to play it. Artie was a super perfectionist: he wanted things absolutely, exactly the way he intended to have it sound.” Decades after all of this happened, Jones remembered further, “…all musicians admired Artie’s style; it was relaxed, and at the same time, precise. He was a master at interpreting chord progressions. No single chord got by him. He was meticulous as far as interpreting the harmony.” (1)

The interior of The Embers in Manhattan in 1953. There are no televisions on the walls.

Shaw took the group into the Hi-Hat Club in Boston for a one-week shakedown gig at the end of September. For whatever reason, the drummer Shaw had chosen, Denzil Best, was not fitting-in. My informed speculation about this is that Best found it difficult to play at the minimal levels of loudness Shaw insisted upon with this group. Artie then called Irv Kluger, the drummer who had worked with him in 1949-1950 with his jazz-oriented big band. Kluger was then working in the pit band for the long-running Broadway show Guys and Dolls, a job Shaw had helped him to get back in 1950. At the time of Shaw’s call, Kluger had been working on that job “…for three years and two months.” But as those things worked then, the musicians in the pit bands for Broadway shows had “a run-of-the-show contract. They can’t fire you, but you can’t quit.” Shaw got Kluger out of that job and he joined the Gramercy Five twelve days into the Embers gig.(2)

They opened at The Embers on October 5, and had a very successful run there, closing on December 5.

After that, the group toured, but returned for a shorter stay at The Embers in late February-early March 1954. On several nights after finishing work at The Embers during that second stand, Shaw took this group into the Fine Sound Studio, 711 Fifth Avenue, and recorded much of its repertoire at his own expense. By the end of March, Shaw resumed touring, but with the personnel listed above, as Tal Farlow and Joe Roland elected to stay in New York.

Shaw’s slightly smaller Gramercy Five moved in a generally westward direction, until they opened at the new Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on April 21, 1954. At this venue, they played for four weeks in the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge, not in the hotel’s main showroom. The money was good however, and the gig was successful. After closing at the Sahara on May 17, Shaw moved into the Downbeat Room in San Francisco from May 19 through June 1. He then took the group to Los Angeles, where he once again recorded them at his own expense. Shaw returned to the Sahara in Las Vegas for a time in June, and then disbanded. (Above: Artie Shaw at the Embers – October 1953. The drummer behind him is Denzil Best.)

The recordings Shaw made and retained ownership of in 1954 were shopped around to various record labels. A licensing deal was arrived at with jazz producer par excellence Norman Granz, and a good many of the 1954 Shaw recordings were first issued on Granz’s Norgran and Verve labels. It is instructive to see what Granz himself said about Artie Shaw in the liner notes he wrote for the Norgran LP that included the initial issue of “S’Posin'”: “Though Artie Shaw’s reputation was born and flourished during the so-called swing era, few people really regard Artie as a jazz artist, thinking of him more as a bandleader, albeit a swing band, and as a player of pretty standards, particularly ballads. There are others too who savor Mr. Shaw’s own appreciation of the classics. On the other hand …there are many of us who regard Mr. Shaw as a jazz artist too, and this album is primarily designed to substantiate our position. It is, if you will, an album of jazz by Artie Shaw, with the emphasis …on improvisation.” (1)

The music: This semi-standard was composed in 1929 by Paul Denniker, with a lyric by Andy Razaf. Early recordings of it were by Rudy Valee and Fats Waller. I suspect that Artie Shaw was reminded of this song by a hit recording of it made in 1953 by singer Don Cornell. By the sound of this joyous performance, it is clear that he saw musical possibilities for inspired jazz in its melody and harmonies.

As I mentioned above, this five man group descended from a six man group that Shaw had formed, played a two-month gig at the Embers in New York, and recorded with. The differences between the two are significant. This second group had no vibraphone, and that, to me, made its sound and overall musical approach more balanced. The earlier group had to make accommodations for its three chordal instruments (piano, guitar and vibraphone) not stepping on each other. For example, when the guitarist Tal Farlow soloed, he was accompanied by Joe Roland on vibes, Hank Jones laid out. In this group, no such accommodation was required, and the result was music that was more streamlined and congenial for improvisation.

Pianist Hank Jones plays the band on, followed by Shaw doing what he always did so well, paraphrasing, and swinging, the main melody. Notice the spicy accompaniment he gets from Jones. Mr. Jones then steps out for a full chorus of improvisation which is not only harmonically rich, but rhythmically bracing. Shaw follows with some of the most inspired jazz playing he ever recorded. Note his quote from the bop tune “Moose the Mooch” at the end of this solo. Shaw understood bop, but was never a bopper himself.

Joe Puma then has his turn on guitar, and definitely keeps up with the creative pace set by Shaw and Jones. Shaw then returns accompanied only by Tommy Potter’s bass and Irv Kluger’s brushed snare drum. In this sequence, we hear Shaw in an almost stream-of-consciousness mode, exploring nooks and crannies of the chord changes in a way that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who appreciates jazz.

He is followed by bassist Tommy Potter, who also plays a marvelous solo, with small sonic bursts from Shaw and his compatriots at strategic points. Artie then plays again, this time with the entire group backing him. After a bit of improvisation, he seamlessly slips back into a melodic paraphrase to bring this rousing performance to its finale, a gleeful round of riffs capped by Puma’s guitar chord.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake …The Life of Artie Shaw, by Tom Nolan (2010), 281.

(2) Ibid. 282.

(1) Liner notes written by Norman Granz for the 1954 Norgran LP Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five Album # 3.

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/03/24/bewitched-bothered-and-bewildered-1956-ella-fitzgerald-and-1954-artie-shaw/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/02/09/my-funny-valentine-1954-artie-shaw/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/06/30/where-or-when-1950-artie-shaw/

Here are two salutes to Maestro Shaw, the first featuring clarinetist Walt Levinsky, the second featuring clarinetist Dan Levinson:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/11/01/theme-from-exodus-1962-bernie-lowe-with-walt-levinsky-and-al-cohn/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/03/30/swing-redux-the-unheard-artie-shaw-stairway-to-the-stars-2016-the-new-york-all-star-big-band/

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2 Comments

  1. I like Hank Jones’ observation on his then-employer: “No single chord got by him.” Those of us who play polyphonic instruments can really appreciate that. Evidently, it was Artie’s being so “meticulous,” in Jones’ apt description, about a song’s inherent chordal content that impelled him to make critical comments about what he perceived to be Goodman’s limited harmonic understanding and vocabulary. Though I find the musicianship of the last Gramercy Fives, sextet and quintet form, to be superb, I’ve never had the emotional response to their recordings that I have to the music of the ’40 and ’45 editions — oddly perhaps, since Artie seems more rhapsodic and open,(at least, to the extent that he could be) in these later sides. Sometimes, I think improvisation benefits from the imposition of a time limit, as it forces the musician to be concise and pithy and to edit himself/herself in real time. It’s true, though, that the later Gramercy Five units, even with the time restrictions of the 78 rpm record removed, never seem to have been intent on testing the non-jazzphiles’ patience. I think it’s partly the high incidence of quoting in the last G5s that puts me off a little. The brief “Moose the Mooch” quote here is a nice touch. In other performances, the quotes are more numerous, and seem to me just a little too cute in multiplicity and, thus, tiresome. “S’posin'”, though certainly light in mood, is easily one of my favorites. This assemblage of musicians was technically equipped for a wide variety of jazz but especially well-suited to this chamber variety. Joe Puma, who gets the last, decisive word here, is a big favorite of mine. Artie’s long rehearsals and minute attention to detail suggest he had something in common with Raymond Scott, though I rather imagine he would have resented the comparison.

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