Red Norvo: Congo Blues


Congo Blues


Red Norvo & His Selected Sextet


Congo Blues (Savoy compilation released 2007)

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Red Norvo (vibes), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (alto sax), Flip Phillips (tenor sax), Teddy Wilson (piano), Slam Stewart (bass), J.C. Heard (drums).

Composed by Red Norvo


Recorded: New York, June 6, 1945


Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

In the 1950s, best-selling author Jack Kerouac godfathered the Beat Generation, an unwashed gaggle of ofay deadbeats who lamely tried to appear hip by pretending to dig jazz. Kerouac brought to jazz the same intellectual carelessness he flaunted in his literary output. ("That's not writing," Truman Capote famously observed of Jack's Benzedrine-fueled scrolls of nonstop prose. "It's typing.") Kerouac routinely misspelled such essential jazz names as Charley [sic] Parker, Thelonius [sic] Monk, and Billy [sic] Holliday [sic]. In one magazine column, citing "hundreds of great soloists" as "sign of a great jazz resurgence," Jack mangled the monikers of more than two dozen jazzmen. (Altoist Hal McKusick emerged through Kerouac's Benzedrine fog as "Al Macusik.")

Kerouac often couldn't even recall what instrument a giant played, as in this description of vibist/drummer Lionel Hampton: "Lionel would jump in the audience and whale [sic] his saxophone [sic] at everybody." Jack thought bassist Carson Smith was a guitarist, baritone sax man Pee Wee Moore was a trombonist, and both trumpeter/arranger Quincy Jones and drummer Dave Bailey were "bassplayers" [sic].

On those rare occasions when he spelled a musician's name right and matched him with the correct instrument, Kerouac still managed to make a fool of himself. Jazz fans have no doubt heard, for example, "the sudden squeak uninhibited that screams muffled at any moment from Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet." Say what? An uninhibited squeak that screams muffled! Oh, yeah, far out. Not only does the squeak scream, it's so uninhibited it's muffled. Hey, pass those bennies over here, man.

Max West

All of which brings our roundabout safari to "Congo Blues." In his magnum opus On the Road (1957), Kerouac cites this track as an early Dizzy Gillespie record with Max West on drums. Who?  For working stiffs without the benefit of bennies, Max West was a baseball player, not a drummer. For that matter, "Congo Blues" was not a Dizzy Gillespie record. It was by Red Norvo & His Selected Sextet. What's especially galling, though, is Kerouac's reference to this "valued" record. Sure, so valued Jack can't recall the bandleader, and thinks the drummer hit a game-winning 3-run homer for the National League in the 1940 All-Star Game.

This is a sad fate to befall an important Swing-to-Bop transitional track. Recorded on the first anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion during World War II that signaled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, "Congo Blues" signaled the beginning of the end for the Swing Era. But besides its historical importance, this track is more fun than a barrel of beatniks washing over Niagara Falls.

Heard first is J.C. Heard, playing drums only because Max West was still in the Army (where he spent what would otherwise have been his peak playing years). Next bassist Slam Stewart contributes some vocally doubled bowed whole notes, atop which Dizzy Gillespie enters for a brilliant high-speed cup-muted solo, particularly impressive at the start of his second chorus. Then Bird takes flight, displaying the same audacious originality as Dizzy.

Following two such groundbreaking beboppers, Teddy Wilson's stride-style piano and Flip Phillips's Ben Webster-ish tenor are inevitably anachronistic. Red Norvo, though, always one of jazz's most adventurous souls, both bridges this confluence of Swing and Bop and sails past it, anticipating what theorist George Russell would later call pan-chromaticism.

After Slam butts back in for one of his typically annoying fiddle-faddle hum-along arco bass solos, Diz & Bird in unison restate the theme, bringing this wacky Odd Couples convention to a rousing finale. Except for the disappointing absence of a sudden squeak uninhibited screaming muffled from Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, this track makes you wanna jump up and whale, man. You dig?

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz

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