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A View of Debut

Max Roach
Founding Father: Drummer Max Roach (pictured) and bassist Charlie Mingus were the driving force behind Debut Records for five fertile years.

A new reissue chronicles Debut Records' jazz highlights of the 1950s

By Harvey Pekar

DEBUT RECORDS was one of the first record labels owned by musicians--and not just any musicians, but jazz legends bassist Charlie Mingus and drummer Max Roach, who established Debut in 1952. Some of the best of their seminal recordings from the five years the label existed have been recently reissued by Fantasy as a four-CD set titled The Debut Records Story.

Mingus played a more active role in the operation than Roach did and, more than anyone else, was responsible for building Debut's unique and superb catalog. Much of the music here could be labeled "third stream," although that term was coined several years after Debut was founded. Musicians in the "third-stream" movement synthesized jazz and classical genres. Many of the wonderful recordings of the movement have been neglected, but they remain as fresh today as ever.

There are also a number of outstanding bop and postbop selections on The Debut Records Story, including one of the most storied live jazz concert recordings of all time: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Roach and Mingus performing as a quintet at Toronto's Massey Hall in 1953. Some privately recorded sessions from the late '40s by Parker groups also turn up on the collection, along with important early postbop tracks by the combos of Kenny Dorham, Roach and Oscar Pettiford.

Some of the groups Debut recorded featured unusual instrumentation, such as one containing four trombones (including J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding) and a rhythm section, and a Miles Davis quintet that used a trombonist (Britt Woodman) and a vibist (Teddy Charles) instead of a saxophonist and a pianist. Mingus, however, came to the fore as an avant-garde composer/arranger bassist, and not surprisingly, this side of him was well represented on Debut, where he was free to create without the constraints of other producers. Mingus had demonstrated his classical influences and advanced thinking in the 1940s with Lionel Hampton and on a few of his own 78s. At Debut, he had free reign and, happily, gave it to the other musicians he recorded as well.

Among the first selections Mingus cut were "Extrasensory Perception" and "Portrait" by a quintet including alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Phyllis Pinkerton, both disciples of the great Lennie Tristano, who founded a school of modern jazz that was an alternative to bop in the 1940s. Tristano was actually the recording engineer for these two provocative tracks, on which a cellist also appears. "Portrait" and "Paris in Blue" also feature Jackie Paris' poignant, melancholy vocals.

Mingus opened the door for many superb, innovative musicians. Among those making appearances early in their careers on Debut were John LaPorta, Thad Jones, Shafi Hadi, Teo Macero, Paul Bley, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Knepper, Dannie Richmond, Bob Dorough, Hank Mobley and Mal Waldron.

A particular favorite of mine is pianist John Dennis, who died in 1963 at the age of 33. On the basis of his only two recordings, both cut for Debut, a trio and unaccompanied solo date on which he was the leader, and as a sideman with Thad Jones, I'd call him a great musician. His "Variegations" is one of the first recorded free-jazz performances, and he demonstrates tremendous technique and a good deal of melodic imaginativeness.

Much of the material on this set is taken from in-print Fantasy discs, but some important Debut albums by, among others, Alonzo Levister and LaPorta have not been re-released in their entirety by Fantasy. With luck, they too will be repackaged, so that we can complete the Debut story.

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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