Bebop trumpeter HOWARD McGHEE: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”

Trumpeter Howard McGhee, among young jazz adepts unjustly almost forgotten today, was a reliable man if you’re following his steadily flowing recorded output between 1942 & 1948, which were the heydays of the bebop era.

And ‘Maggie’, so his nickname in musicians’ circles, was in the middle of it all.

He was not phrasing as “mathematically” like his great successor and friend Theodore ‘Fats’ Navarro, or the next in the line, Clifford Brown, affectionately called ‘Brownie’ by his friends and fans, but he could express his ideas as fast, and as eloquently as the two other trumpet geniuses. For me, he is the stylistic link between Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, rooting deeper in the swing tradition than Fats & Brownie who were straight ahead boppers quasi from the start.

Here is one of his earliest solo features, and since he was also a distinguished composer, he is performing his own tune “McGhee Special” with Andy Kirk & His Twelve Clouds Of Joy, recorded in NYC on July 14, 1942. — This is a brilliant ride, starting in F, then modulating to D-flat for even more furiously swingin’ trumpet fireworks:

This very modulation is the same like at Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and its rip-off “Two O’Clock Jump” by Harry James, and it may be that the latter’s artistic trumpet acrobatics made a big impact on young Howard McGhee who has the same vibrato like Harry when he finishes his phrases.

As for the title of this short entry (you will find quite a lot of information about ‘Maggie’ on the internet), it’s important to know that the trumpeter was one of the first who had a regular gig in a white big band, namely that of Charlie Barnet.

As far as I know are there no recordings, featuring the boppin’ bugler with Barnet, but this story I’ve found by chance, should tell you enough about the problems, that brave black American brass men like ‘Little Jazz’ Roy Eldridge (Gene Krupa & Artie Shaw), Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page (Artie Shaw), Charlie Shavers (Tommy Dorsey) & Herbert Lee “Peanuts” Holland (‘Maggie’s’ predecessor in Charlie Barnet’s orchestra) had to face when it came to hotel reservations, entering ballrooms via the main entrance, or being served in restaurants:

Trumpeter Howard McGhee’s Endless Journey into the Worcester Night by Chet Williamson.

‘Maggie’ participated in two legendary recording sessions with Charlie Parker, one with a disastrous interlude (and a triumphant finish for McGhee), and the other, featuring some of the most concentrated and creative works I’ve ever heard by any jazz group.

Most of you may know the tragic version of “Lover Man”, performed by Charlie Parker when he was in very bad shape, but not many are aware of the two outstanding numbers, recorded by Howard McGhee on the same date with the same band, after Bird was gone: “Trumpet At Tempo” (“Indiana”) & “Thermodynamics” (a.k.a. “Trumpet In Spades” by Duke Ellington). This happened in Hollywood, on July 29, 1946.

The outcome of the 2nd date on February 26, 1947 was more than just satisfactory, it was an absolute highlight in the careers of all participants: Charlie Parker (who contributed two brand new compositions, the utterly complicated blues in C-major, “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, and the lesser known, easier blues in E-flat, “Carvin’ The Bird”), Wardell Gray, alongside Dexter Gordon the first boppin’ tenor man, Howard McGhee, who penned “Cheers” and “Stupendous”, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, who comprovised the ultra-modern intro to “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” on the spot (it sounds actually 10 years ahead of its time), the imaginative Barney Kessel on guitar, bassist Red Callender & Don Lamond on drums.

Here come the master takes of “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, “Cheers”, “Carvin’ The Bird” & “Stupendous”, and a couple of more tracks in a row:

Our today’s hero, Mr. Howard McGhee, may have the last word. The track stems from one of his later recordings, “Maggie’s Back In Town”, a through and through lovely LP, containing solid, slightly modalized bebop sounds by a wiser Howard McGhee in his best years.

Howard McGhee (tp) Phineas Newborn, Jr. (p) Leroy Vinnegar (b) Shelly Manne (d) – Contemporary Records, Los Angeles, CA June 26, 1961.

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