Jazz guitarist Grant Green was a mainstay of the Blue Note label in the 1960s. Before that, while in his early 20s, Green was a journeyman player on the St. Louis club scene. A newly unearthed live recording from 1959 documents his early development, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's fascinating for more reasons than that.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bob Graf on tenor sax from the newly unearthed "Grant Green, The Holy Barbarian, St. Louis, 1959." That could be the name of a fine stage play, perhaps based on the actual circumstances of the recording. One musician on the way up, another past his moment in the limelight and one more who had his chance but never quite made it all convene on Christmas night, part of their week-long stand at a beatnik hangout replete with chess players and a local artist painting portraits. The emcee chats loudly near the stage, then grabs the mic to spout what sounds like a send-up of beatnik poetry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a subway far from Ireland, far, far away, far, far away, and how far away can you be? Don't ask me. Round and round she goes, and where she stops, damned if I know or care.

WHITEHEAD: There isn't much of that. Dramatic potential aside, the CD "The Holy Barbarian, St. Louis, 1959" is a vivid snapshot of live jazz in the heartland, half a century ago. Jazz has always had a deep bench: Not all great players head for New York; musicians tell stories of traveling stars getting sandbagged by local talent at friendly after-hours jam sessions. When the stars go back to the Apple to shake it off, the local heroes go right back to work.


WHITEHEAD: Grant Green on guitar, I love how cooking drummer Chauncey Williams hints at a Chicago blues shuffle. Even when Midwesterners play a million notes, they can convey a sense of relaxation; on that score, St. Louis is part of a rhythmic continuum from Oklahoma City to Chicago.


WHITEHEAD: Organist Sam Lazar's shot at fame came a few months later, when he recorded the first of a few sessions for the Argo label in Chicago. With Green on guitar, Chauncy Williams again on drums and blues titan Willie Dixon on bass. But Lazar's early '60s albums went nowhere, and a couple of sessions didn't even get released.

Even so, at the keyboard, Sam Lazar had a boxer's punchy timing and a gift for mining the Hammond organ's skankiest tambours. He's especially good backing another soloist. Boldly splashing on the colors, Lazar turns accompaniment into a kind of action painting.


WHITEHEAD: Bob Graf on tenor. Trumpeter Clark Terry had once recommended him to Count Basie. Graf played in a Basie small group in Chicago in 1950, before Woody Herman's band lured him out on the road. But then they broke up. By and by, Graf returned to St. Louis, working with various local bands and keeping up with modern ideas.


WHITEHEAD: Right around when this music was made, New York saxophonist Lou Donaldson came through St. Louis, heard Grant Green at a session across the river, and told the folks at Blue Note Records about him. They must have been very grateful: the guitarist did more than a dozen dates for the label in 1961 alone. Grant Green moved to New York to capitalize on all the attention. He kept up his ties with St. Louis, but he never recorded there again.

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and Emusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Grant Green, The Holy Barbarian, St. Louis, 1959," on the Uptown label.

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