by Jack Chambers © 2002
Side One of Assorted Flavors strung together several excerpts from the Pacific Jazz catalogue while a man with a radio voice told a kind of company history of West Coast jazz, starting with Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet at the Haig in 1952. The radio man sounded like he gargled with Coppertone. His voice-over commentary obscured the beginning of A Crutch for the Crab, and its ending disintegrated into a fade-out. The excerpt, counting the commentary, was less than two minutes long. It was, you would have thought, the worst way to hear any kind of music.
[illustration 1.1] Assorted Flavors, Pacific Jazz HFS-1. Packaging by William Claxton/Will McFarland. © 1956 by Pacific Jazz Records.
In fact it was sensational. Twardzik's piano-playing was fluent and eccentric and immensely attractive. His tunea composition, really, when we finally got to hear all of itwas full of jagged turns and crisp releases. Somehow it came out sounding exactly right for its wild title, crabbily fluid with sudden lurches. It was a revelation.
What the narrator said, oozing cool, was also a revelation. He said: "When Chet Baker went to Europe in September of 1955 he took with him a startling new pianist from Boston named Richard Twardzik. Twardzik died in Paris a few months later, depriving us all of the great ability that was his. Here's the late Richard Twardzik as he sounded in 1954 playing his own composition A Crutch for the Crab."
It was the only time I can remember hearing a news item on an LP.
I tracked down the source LP, partly fearing that I had been bamboozledthat Richard Twardzik would turn out to be an ordinary piano player who had been cleverly edited to make a few brilliant minutes on a promotional record. I had to wait to find out. Twardzik's LP was a new release, copyright 1956, the same date as the sampler. I had to order it at the record store, as an import. "It's gonna cost you, son, " said the man at the record shop, "and it's gonna take six weeks at least."
The LP was called Trio (Pacific Jazz 1212). Just looking at it, holding it in my hand still swathed in its protective plastic sheath, took my breath away. The cover was the print of an oil painting in shades of brown, with three solid figures, guys built like cairns, apparently tossing boulders around as if they were helium balloons. The credit line said "WEST COAST ARTIST SERIES/ Edmund Kohn," and the back cover carried a profile and a small picture of old Edmund, a round man with a handlebar mustache and a kerchief knotted around his neck, looking like the street musician with the dancing monkey you see in cartoons. It also told about Edmund's success as an illustrator and about the awards he had won at the Sacramento State Fair and other lesser places. Since then I have read testimonials by very serious people about how their lives were changed forever when they saw Picasso's Guernica or Botticelli's Primavera. For me, it will always be Edmund Kohn's unnamed cover painting for Trio.
[illustration 1.2] Trio Russ Freeman/Richard Twardzik (Pacific Jazz Records 1212), © 1956. Cover painting by Edmund Kohn.
The billing on the cover announced that Twardzik shared the LP with another piano player, Russ Freeman. In fact, it gave Twardzik second billing on the cover, but on the actual disk the six tracks by Twardzik's trio filled the first side. The second side was given over to Freeman, then the dean of West Coast piano players by dint of appearing on nearly every jazz record that came from California. The back cover was packed with information: besides the box about Edmund Kohn, there were six column inches about Russ Freeman, another six column inches by Freeman about Richard Twardzik, and two black & white 3.5" x 4" portraits, one of Freeman by the famous California photographer William Claxton showing Freeman with a pencil mustache and dark suit, looking more like a used car salesman than was surely intended. The other portrait was of "THE LATE RICHARD TWARDZIK " (as the caption portentously put it), and it showed Twardzik against a dark background, hollow-cheeked, staring into the distant gloom. It is brilliantly evocative, and for many years it was the only known portrait of Twardzik. The liner credited the portrait to "Nick Dean, Boston," not a name that registered any recognition, then or now. Nick Dean has remained elusive. I have spoken to a dozen Boston contemporaries of Richard Twardzik, but none can place Nick Dean, the photographer. But some 45 years later, I discovered more photographs by Nick Dean, as we shall see, some the equal of the back-cover portrait.
[illustration 1.3] Back cover of Trio (Pacific Jazz Records 1212), © 1956. Cover design and photograph of Russ Freeman by William Claxton. Photograph of Richard Twardzik by Nick Dean.
Freeman was credited as producer of Twardzik's recording session. In his liner notes about Twardzik's music (Freeman 1956), Freeman praises Twardzik's "really original concept," and tells how he had come across him in Boston and was struck by his music as "fresh and very uninhibited, especially harmonically." Freeman said that the recordings by Twardzik came about because Freeman had phoned Richard Bock, the owner and producer of Pacific Jazz Records in Los Angeles, to tell him about this hot young player, and Bock had given him permission to record Twardzik for the label.
Freeman says the recording took place "late in 1954," but the exact date was only fixed 35 years later with the kind of sleuthing (as we will see later) that jazz discographers revel in. It took place at Rudy Van Gelder's parlor in Hackensack, New Jersey, the now-legendary recording studio that was just beginning to earn its reputation when Freeman took Twardzik and the other musicians there. In his notes, Freeman identified the sound man as "Rudy Gelder," which seems like a major faux pas now but was close enough at the time. With Twardzik was Chet Baker's regular bassist, Carson Smith, a Californian who was young, only 23, but already well known for playing in Mulligan's Quartet as well as Baker's, and a young, unknown Boston drummer, Peter Littman. (Full details for these and all other recordings by Twardzik are included in the discography..)
Freeman's endorsement easily stands up on the evidence of Twardzik's music. The original Pacific Jazz release included three standards, Bess You Is My Woman Now, 'Round About Midnight and I'll Remember April, and three originals, Albuquerque Social Swim, Yellow Tango and, of course, A Crutch for the Crab.
The standards were fresher then than we can imagine today. Twardzik's recording of Bess You Is My Woman Now pre-dates by four full years the Porgy and Bess boom that came with its movie version in 1959 and brought with it jazz versions of its score by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Mundell Lowe, Bill Potts, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and others. It had been revived in 1952 for an international tour starring soprano Leontyne Price, but that was a more operatic version than the film would be, and it hardly caught the attention of jazz musicians, except for Twardzik. Although several George Gershwin songs ranked high in the standard jazz repertoire, the tunes from the opera Porgy and Bess were not common among them except for Summertime, and that by virtue not so much of the opera as a seminal 1939 jazz recording by Sidney Bechet. When Twardzik recorded Bess You Is My Woman Now in 1954, it was completely unknown as a jazz vehicle.
More surprisingly, so was 'Round About Midnight. Thelonious Monk had made his original studio recording in 1947 and, apart from an obscure solo recording he made of it in Paris in 1954, he did not record it again for a decade, until 1957. By then, it had been discovered as a jazz vehicle and Monk's interpretation of his own ballad was one of dozens, albeit primus inter pares. It was destined to become one of the two or three most recorded jazz compositions of all time. But Twardzik's pensive, almost introverted, take on it in 1954 caught it on its rise into the standard repertoire, and surely it was one that caught the ear of many other piano players.
Refreshing as the ballads Twardzik recorded were, his original compositions were positively brilliant. Yellow Tango is a confection based on a mannerly latin beat sustained by bass and drums while Twardzik teases the genre with high-note filigrees in the manner of then little-known Ahmad Jamal. Albuquerque Social Swim is tougher, its oblique melodies played staccato with sudden, unexpected stops. The improvised choruses burst into rock-steady 4/4 time, and after the stutters of the theme they come as a blessed relief. The device of inexplicable stops released into flowing melodies dominates Albuquerque Social Swim and animates it by creating knots of tension and unraveling them in flowing melody. In A Crutch for the Crab the stop-and-release is just one of several devices.
If Twardzik's side of the original LP had a flaw, it was in programming. A Crutch for the Crab and Albuquerque Social Swim were set together at the beginning, as tracks one and two, where their similarities somehow seemed more evident than their stunning differences.
A Crutch for the Crab, heard in its entirety, is a 3-minute symphony. Its structure is ambiguous: the opening exposition takes 24 bars but the final reprise takes only 20, having lost the first four bars. Those first four bars open the piece as a kind of cadence; they seem to be a prelude. The second four bars are syncopated, with the piano playing on one and three while the drums accent two and four. The effect is unforgettable, and sets up a repeated figure in the 17th and 23rd bars where the piano fills the second and fourth accents with its own out-of-tempo syncopations. The same figure comes back at points in the improvisation, and so do references to other melodic figures, always modulated in some way. The performance is rich with nuance. It ends too soon from one vantage point, or it entices you to go back to it, as real art does.
In my imagination, the syncopation caught the crab's motion in the title, seemingly lurching, almost awkward, but at the same time fluid and swift. Try to catch it and it darts through your hands. It is edgy and slightly frightening at first, and just when you start feeling good about moving in on it, it is gone.
The recordings by the Richard Twardzik Trio last 21 minutes and 44 seconds. (A mistake on the timings printed on the cover took off more than a minute, but Yellow Tango is over five minutes, not 4:18.) Of its six tracks, three ballads and three originals, all but Yellow Tango are around the three-minute mark, the industry standard length for decades in the era of brittle old 78 rpm shellac records and one that was imprinted so forcibly onto the psyches of musicians and producers that it was still the industry standard length in 1954, two years after jazz recordings invariably came out on unbreakable vinyl at 33 rpm. Twardzik's music held up to repeated listenings, in fact endlessly, but there was still too little of it.
You never got tired of it. You never got enough of it.
From the start I knew there was more recorded music by Richard Twardzik, because Russ Freeman, in his liner note, wrote, "He recorded with Serge [Chaloff] and Charlie Mariano," who I knew about as two Boston jazz musicians with national reputations. Freeman added, "He also had an original, The Fable of Mabel, [soundbite.aif 4.3 Mb] recorded by Serge for Storyville Records."
Those were tantalizing clues, and they cost me many frustrating hours. The man at the record shop could find no listings for either Chaloff or Mariano as leaders, and nobody I knew with a jazz collection had ever heard of these particular records. Even Joe Rico, the jazz jockey on Buffalo radio who seemed, in my teenage pantheon, to know everything worth knowing about jazz and about life, when I finally got a friend of a friend's friend to make an inquiry, just shrugged.
In 1956, channels of communication were sluggish. It was years before I realized that the records Twardzik had participated in had had mainly local distribution in the Boston area, and that the Mariano record was out of print even before I had started making inquiries about it. Probably the Chaloff record was too. In 1963, when I found a discography of Richard Twardzik's recordings in an English jazz magazine (Morgan 1963), I finally learned more of the detailslabel, title, recording dates, personnel, instruments, compositions. (One revelation: not only did Chaloff record Twardzik's composition The Fable of Mabel, but Twardzik played on it too.) I added those three records to the list of collectibles I carry in my wallet. Over the years, numerous items on those lists got crossed off, but those Boston LPs took on an annoying permanence. As jazz buffs do, I watched for the records to come up in delete bins and record auctions. As my travels broadened, first in my college days when I found myself across the river from Detroit and then as my professional pursuits took me to conferences all over North America and eventually Europe, I spent hours pawing through dusty stacks of vinyl in far-flung cities on two continents.
To this day, I have never found those records, either of them, in the LP format. I finally got to hear them when the commercial boom brought on by the new CD technology at the tail-end of the 1980s led record companies to sweep out their vaults.
Freeman's liner note also offered the news that Twardzik's "professional career began at the age of fourteen," and that "he worked with Tommy Reynolds, Charlie Barnet, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Serge Chaloff, Charlie Mariano, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker." Somewhere there had to be live performances on acetate or tape reels, and, sure enough, a few years later a single track surfaced of Charlie Parker in his declining years with a pick-up band in a Boston nightclub. Twardzik's piano was largely inaudible, but the very existence of the performance held the promise of more, and over the decades more performances have slowly accumulated, seldom or never out of regard for Twardzik himself but usually triggered by lingering sentiments for the leaders of the bands he happened to be playing inParker, Chaloff, or Chet Baker. There is quite a bit more to come, I now know, and come it may if the growing sentiments for Twardzik, or at least curiosity about him, continues to gather momentum.
With only the twenty-odd minutes of the trio recordings, it might have been impossible for me and for other jazz fans to sustain interest in the ill-fated piano player for the next half-century or so. But there was more. World Pacific Records released a new recording with Twardzik within a year of the trio record, while I was still in high school, and the recording was a small treasure of beguiling, open-minded, cool music that provided a whole new view of Twardzik's brilliance, and solidified his stature in case there were lingering doubts.
The records were made in a Paris studio by the Chet Baker Quartet in two sessions. The date of the second session was exactly one week before Twardzik died. The LP that was issued in North America was called Chet Baker in Europe (World Pacific 1218), and the tracks with Twardzik consisted of nine pieces of extraordinary delicacy, almost like chamber music. There were also five other tracks, fillers in my mind, by Baker with European musicians recorded after Twardzik's death.
My copy of the 1957 Pacific Jazz LP has disappeared, as things tend to do in the course of 46 years. It was a rare one. It has never been reissued in the original format and I now realize that its rarity has nothing to do with the plebeian tastes of the company executives, about whom I harbored resentment for years, assuming they did not know they were hiding a masterpiece in their vaults. I now know that the American distributor, Pacific Jazz, leased the music for one-time-only American distribution from Barclay Records in Paris, the original producer and owner. These leasing details presumably accounted for the strangely impersonal packaging of their original release, with a cover photo of an airliner instead of the customary romantic pose of Chet Baker, who was not only the best-selling jazz musician of the moment but also a highly photogenic boyish hipster. His cover poses, staged by the cool California photographer William Claxton, had a certain cachet (eventually collected in coffee-table format as Young Chet, in Claxton 1993). Chet's absence from this cover seemed slightly uncanny, and so did all those strange foreign names of the musicians on the filler tracks. Come to think of it, so did the names of what had been, until Twardzik's sudden death, Baker's working quartet.
Baker had formed the quartet immediately before embarking for Europe. So abrupt was the change that in his first European concerts the young musicians in his band were billed as the sidemen he had left behind. The first European concerts of the tour advertised Russ Freeman on piano and someone named Bob Carter on bass in the Chet Baker Quartet. But Freeman and the others had elected to stay in the United States. Baker's new young sidemen were in any case so unknown beyond their own home towns that advertising them by name would have stirred no expectations abroad and almost none at home.
But it was the music on Chet Baker in Europe, more than anything, that set it apart. The composer credit for eight of the nine pieces with Twardzik and the other young sidemen said, simply, "B. Zieff"another mystery man, this one without even the distinctive markings of a given name. And his music was a mystery too. There were no funny valentines, no lilting Mulliganesque counterpoint, no harmon-muted tendernesses, in other words, none of the hallmarks of Baker's popularity. This guy Zieff composed cerebral music. (You can dance to it, in the bop mockery of the hopelessly passé Swing Era, but only if you work out your steps very very carefully.) Zieff's compositions are intricate little gems. They sound like they are difficult to play but the rewards of mastering their difficulties are obvious in the subtle swing and the melodic surprises. The main impression of discipline and control, the aspect that gives the pieces the chamber-like feel, should not imply that the quartet's performances are subdued or in any way timid. Baker and Twardzik, the principal soloists, range freely through key changes and tempo shifts with what seems uncanny ease.
[illustration 1.4] Young Chet, captured in photographs by William Claxton. [Use the photo in T-shirt with horn at rest 4th photo from end of booklet The Pacific Jazz Years or the cover of Young Chet]
Baker was praised from the beginning of his career for his spontaneity. He had an uncanny knack for inventing attractive phrases on the spot. In jazz, where spontaneous invention is required, Baker has few peers at spinning lines of disarmingly simple and lyrically attractive variations. He received scant notice for the beauty and fullness of his range on the trumpet, perhaps because he displayed it infrequently, playing almost exclusively in the middle register. Zieff's music required him to move briskly over the scale, especially on the tunes called Rondette and Re-Search, and to play rapid exercise-like sequences in Mid-Forte[soundbite.aif 4 Mb] and Piece Caprice, sometimes requiring octave leaps. Baker carries it off with total control. He makes it sound easy. His technical skills were never so evident, before or after. And through it all his lyrical bent never flags.
Zieff's music sets Baker into brooding moods on Sad Walk, Just Duo and Brash, and winsome melodies with minor drags on Rondette, Sad Walk and Pomp. Baker's sensitivity is drawn out, almost extracted, by the ingenious harmonies. These recordings may represent the apogee of Baker's talents as a pure musician.
The only other composition recorded by the young quartet in Paris was composed by Twardzik himself, called The Girl from Greenland. If I had never heard A Crutch for the Crab and Albuquerque Social Swim (and, eventually, The Fable of Mabel, Twardzik's other remarkable composition) it would be tempting to credit Zieff rather than Twardzik. The kindred feelings in the music of Twardzik and Zieff were inevitable, I would discover 20 years later, when I accidentally sat down beside Robert A. Zieff at a conference on the music of Duke Ellington.
Twardzik's Girl from Greenland is a ballad (A A´BA´) built on a lilting rhythm. Baker's statement of the ascending scale of the melody is countered by Twardzik's trills at the top of the piano. When Baker and Twardzik break free of the melody in their solo choruses, they sustain the contrasting moods of their melodic motifs. Baker emphasizes the minor mood, brooding over it quietly. Twardzik mocks the mood, teasing it by spreading four bars of melody over eight and inverting phrases. Baker is involved and Twardzik is aloof. Baker is romantic and Twardzik is cynical. It is an ingenious arrangement, perfectly executed. Both solos are brilliant, but it is the contrast between the two solos that makes them shine.
And when the last note of The Girl from Greenland faded, there would be no more music from Richard Twardzik. As the man with the Coppertone voice on the Pacific Jazz sampler said, "Twardzik died in Paris a few months later, depriving us all of the great ability that was his." What he left behind did not seem like much, not enough to sustain a reputation, surely, by any reasonable standards. The Baker quartet sides from Paris amounted to 39 minutes and 28 seconds. Add to that the 21:44 of the piano trio recordings and you get the grand total: one hour, one minute and 12 seconds. Eventually more music by Twardzik would be found, but the very best of it is here, in these two studio recordings.
Over the years, I have returned to this music often, and always with the fear that I would find its pleasures gone flat, in retrospect nothing more than teenaged brooding for a doomed young artist. It has not happened.