The Backstory

Having committed to redouble my digitization efforts, I decided I’d start with the oldest and most obscure. The first album I pulled from the racks was the Hal McKusick “East Coast Jazz / 8[1]Hal McKusick Quartet – East Coast Jazz Series No. 8 | Discogs.

The album is unique in a couple of ways, apart from being a 1955 Bethlehem release produced by Creed Taylor. First, it’s the debut leader album by Hal McKusick, and second, it’s one of the very few albums Creed gets a liner note credit for. I’d never heard this album, it was one of a group I bought a while back from a private sale.

I was blown away when I set up the digital equipment and pressed record and then started the turntable. I was doubly surprised when I sat down to write this post to find the album was on Spotify, it’s also on Yutube Music, Pandora, qobuz and iTunes. Listen along.

East Coast Jazz Series No. 8 – Hal McKusick

Alto Saxophone, Clarinet - Hal McKusick
Bass – Milt Hinton
Drums – Osie Johnson
Guitar – Barry Galbraith
Producer, Liner Notes – Creed Taylor
Engineer – Tom Dowd

Label:Bethlehem Records – BCP-16[2]

As far as I’m aware the album has never been repressed or remastered since the original US release mid-year 1955. There were two US Pressings and nothing since. It’s been repressed on vinyl in Europe, and Japan has both repressed and remastered from the mono release master. Listening to the Spotify version as I write type, it would seem that the streaming version is from the same master rather than the CD.

McKusick had been busy since his first professional appearance with Les Brown in 1942, followed with sets with Dean Hudson, Woody Herman, and Boyd Raeburn. In 1945 Hal went west, spending a couple of years on the road before joining Buddy Rich’s band back on the east coast. He spent 2-years Claude Thornhill, followed by time with the bands of Terry Gibbs, Don Elliott, and Bill Harris. He also worked on the Mel Torme TV Show and would record on a Bethlehem album with Mel later in 1955.

In December 1954, he recorded “Hal McKusick Plays Betty St Claire Sings” for Jubilee. Arguably this could have been his first album as leader, equally since McKusick and St Claire were both signed to manager Lee Magid, at the time, it can also be seen as a torch song album to establish Betty St Claire. The recoding was released as 2x 10-inch EP’s. A March 1955 review would describe St Claire thus:

The gal has an easy-to-listen-to pair of chords and an utterly relaxing style. In fact the entire motif of the LP is music modern but soft. It retains melody while also keeping in the progressive groove.

Clearly though, McKusick’s style and benefitted from his time on the west coast. At the time of the studio session for the “East Coast” album, Hal was working club and recording dates in New York with the same lineup for this album, he was also working with Elliot Lawrence on the Red Buttons (TV) Show.

Cash Box magazine, May 14th, 1955

Creed Taylor himself pronounced on the liner notes for McKusick’s Bethlehem outing:

1955 is seen by many as the “flood-the-market” era of Jazz recordings.

The solution to the problem appears to be not so much in the recording company’s producing “good” Jazz as differentiated from “bad” Jazz, as it does in its conveying something new and good to the many already battered ears of todays Jazz fans. BETHLEHEM believes that the HAL McKUSICK QUARTET is an important step towards the solution.

This is clear, forward thinking, emotional Jazz played by a quartet of unusual empathy, and technical ability. Manny Albam has written technically demanding. yet swingingly simple arrangements. Hal’s brainchild involves the incorporation of guitar into the quartet as a brass or reed section. “Blue-Who” is particularly exemplary. Credit for the section-type

sound on “Blue-Who” goes to Tom Dowd for his rather ingenious engineering. A slight echo was placed on the guitar mike[Yes, it’s spelled mike in the liner notes], and Hal’s alto sound was left in the open. This produced a sort of lead tenor sound on top of the voicings on Barry’s guitar. Barry, incidentally, accomplishes some “impossible” finger positions on this side.

Of the ten recordings cut in this 12″ L.P, eight were “first takes.” When you listen to these recordings of the new HAL McKusick Quartet, we believe that you, too. will feel the happy, spontaneous air that pervaded this entire session.

Creed Taylor, liner notes to East Coast Jazz / 8. 1955

McKusick described the album and the music as

Here is a new sound in modern jazz. It was inspired by Gerry Mulligan’s piano-less quartet which utilizes the bass as the basic sound of the group, leaving the ocher instruments free to weave their lines in an unrestricted way.

After several sessions with Barry Galbraith, I realized that guitar and alto have unlimited musical possibilities. We can obtain a reed section sound by placing the alto over the full chording of the guitar. We also have two individual lines weaving contrapuntally using the bass as a mainstay and the drums for color and embellishments. The guitar can also be used as the melody instrument with the alto providing a sustained or moving background. I then discussed these ideas with Manny
Albam. who subsequently put pen to paper and arranged the music contained in this album.

Hal McKusick, liner notes, Bethlehem Records BCP-16, 1955

In a July 1955 column in Cash Box magazine, Bethlehem national sales director Murray Singer would boast of the jazz stable the label had signed. This included McKusick as well as many Creed would record with over and over again, including J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding, also Urbie Green. It’s often overlooked that Herbie Mann was signed to Bethlehem at this time as well, but it wouldn’t last.

Creed Taylor would leave that year for ABC Paramount, and in September, McKusick would be signed to Victor’s new jazz series and “was recorded last week by Jack Lewis.”[3]Cash Box Magazine, Sept. 24th, 1955

McKusick would move again in 1956, this time recording for Coral Records. He made a number of albums with trumpeter Larry Sonn And His Orchestra, along with Al Cohn and the members of his quartet. In 1957, the Hal McKusick Quintet made an apperance on vinyl, featuring Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Eddie Costa and Gus Johnson.

What happened over the next few years, especially on the east coast jazz scene was remarkable. Hal McKusick played his part. Marc Myers Jazzwax has an interview with Hal, I can highly recommend it. In Jazzwax style, GO HERE[4]

I’m Glad There Is You – The Johnny Mathis Connection

Marc also has a link at the end of his 2010 write-up. It links to a now deleted youtube video. It took me a while to track down and unpack. Marc includes a note that “You’ll find the track at iTunes or here on Johnny Mathis: 40th Anniversary Edition. The track is incorrectly listed at Amazon as the Percy Faith version. That one came later and had strings.”[5]

The Amazon Music link also doesn’t work for me, and I’ve never used iTunes. Unfortunately, digital music distribution that has errors and mistakes, has the opportunity to erase a performance from history. In this case, it will likely happen to this Hal McKusick performance.

Interestingly the confusion involves one time CTI Director of Press and Advertising Didier Deutsch. As Myers notes, McKusick and the members of his quartet, with Bernie Glow(tp) Bernie Glow (tp), Ben Harrod (oboe), and Ray Beckenstein (fl), Danny Bank (b-cl) were the backing band for Johnny Mathis’ first session for Columbia in 1956 Manny Albam wrote the arrangements. “One of the four tracks recorded that March was I’m Glad There Is You, with Hal McKusick on alto saxophone behind Mathis”[6]

What appears to have happened was the track was among a number recorded at that session, for what is now called Mathis 1956 “jazz album”[7] The track was left off the original Columbia album, probably because Mathis voice was so good, McKusick’s phrasing and obbligatos distracted from it. The original album was repressed many times, but never included the track.

In 1957, Columbia, having re-focused Mathis in a more pop oriented direction, released his third album, “Warm”. This time backed by and featuring the Percy Faith and his Orchestra[8] This became effectively THE version by Mathis of a hugely popular track that has been recorded thousands of times[9]

In 1996, Didier Deutsch, one time CTI Director of Press and Advertising[10], the driving force to digitize much of the CTI catalog in the 1980’s, and who would be nominated for a GRAMMY for his work on a Frank Sinatra box set, would set about compiling the early Johnny Mathis jazz album on CD for the first time from the original monaural session tapes.

As Deutsch note in the accompanying CD booklet:

In the course of the six sessions it took to prepare it, Johnny recorded many more songs than the twelve that were eventually released.

In 1958, however, the masters were destroyed, and only “I’m Glad There Is You,” included here as a bonus track, remains from these sessions.

Didier Deutsch, 1996 CD Notes for “Johnny Mathis” – Columbia Legacy CK 64890 [11]

Sadly, as seen from the above Spotify track, the two versions have now been completely mixed up. Somewhere, someone created/updated/tagged the media database with the wrong artists credit. Unless corrected, the Hal McKusick version from 1956 will be heard and become just a different version with Percy Faith and his Orchestra. I don’t have the energy to fight Columbia to get them to correct this.

More Information:

Hal McKusick [Wikipedia]
Hal McKusick bio and discography [discogs]

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