BlackhawkA few years ago my brother and his family gave me a gift of music for Christmas. They knew I was a jazz fan and must have asked a store clerk about a recommendation when they decided on the box set – “Miles Davis in person Friday and Saturday Nights at The Blackhawk.” It’s a complete 4-CD set of Miles performances on the weekends of April 21-22, 1961 and for the past few weeks, I’ve been unable able to take the “Saturday night” disc out of my player.

Listening to a great jazz CD is easy for me to listen to over and over again and you may think this as exaggerating, but disc three of this 4 Box set has been in my music player for close to four weeks and it surely has played more than 100 times. For some reason, CD’s like this intrigue me and it’ seems void of monotonous rrepetition that bores me from popular CDs. I’m not sure why it took so long to take the wrapping off this present either, but it’s quickly become one of my favorites – taking it’s position next to ‘Kind of Blue,’ ‘Monk’s Mood’ and ‘Love Supreme’ by Coltrane.

It might have been a recent documentary about Miles – The Miles Davis Story (2001). Netflix has a good library of jazz documentaries and I couldn’t wait to watch this one on my new big-screen. After watching several great performances and once again entranced by the influence of this trumpet player from Kansas, I had to listen to the disc. Not only is the recording a stellar collection of classic Miles songs performed before a live audience at one of the oldest jazz clubs on the West Coast with some of the hardest swinging players in the business, but this disc introduced me to a new musician who is sure to influence my own style.

Wynton Kelly

Wynton Kelly is a Jamaican-born pianist who performed with Miles in the late fifties and early sixties, most notably to me personally on ‘Kind of Blue.’ He played specifically on ‘Freddie The Freeloader’ from the one of the 20th century’s most important jazz recording. For the past decade, I’ve been intoxicated by the other pianist on this record – Bill Evans. Miles referred to Bill’s playing as “waterfalls” and sure enough, that’s what I hear when I listen to the complex harmonies and his melancholy style. Wynton’s performance was over-shadowed by Evans fluid landmark performances, but what stands out on the Black Hawk recording is the understanding class of player who’s erratic and complex left-hand chordal accompaniment made his music driving and rhythmic than any jazz player on my list.

There is still lots of listening ahead for me with Wynton Kelly, but every time he charts out a solo on the Black Hawk recordings, I hear something new. While preparing this “Digg,” it surprised me to discover a relic video performance with The Wynton Kelly trio and “the saint” – John Coltrane. This is one to add to your favorites if you’re a jazz fan.

The Blackhawk is one of those legendary clubs like The Five Spot, The Vanguard and a few other rooms that hosted jazz legends. Located in San Francisco, it was the West Coast mecca of great jazz performers and from the liner notes, the Black Hawk was nothing special – aesthetically. A dank rough exterior with worn carpet, black funeral drapes on the walls and no AC, just a fan in the room. During one of the recordings of this CD it is reported that a tin pan was in the audience to catch rain from the holes in the ceiling.

Despite the facade, it’s place is important in jazz history and served as the breeding ground for Parker, Miles, Brubeck, Coltrane, Tjader and others. It was visited by celebrities, royalty and politicians and of its distinct characteristics was the attitude toward patrons. The Black Hawk charged a $1.00 for each performance and didn’t take reservations. The bureau chief for Time Magazine tried to get in for a review and had to stand in line and wedge in near the refrigerator during the standing-room only performances that were common for this stage. “The tails stand in line with the taxi-driver” at this club and its equal treatment of all fans may have added to the appeal. The Black Hawk was located on the corner of Turk Street and Hyde Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. In May of 2004, a new building was constructed on the Black Hawk’s old location, and is now the 222 Club.

This recording is a four CD set that covered these performances in the Spring of 1961 and is a delightful and spontaneous collection of songs. Some of my favorite Miles tunes are on this recording including different versions from night to night. There is a powerful version of Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ and they stepped up the tempo on ‘So What’ from the Kind of Blue, made me fall in love all over again with this song. The disc also features one of the hardest swinging bands in the Bebop/Cool era including Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Hank Mobley on sax.

They made this recording before a live audience and the work is some of the most exhilarating live performances you can imagine in jazz. The improvisation is surreal – there are moments where it sounds rehearsed, but I’m certain that many of the magic moments over these two nights were a direct response of the talent and the audience. After the recording, a reporter asked Miles of the music and he said, “There’s nothing to say about the music, the music speaks for itself.” He’s right! If you like jazz and are looking to add an important performance to your collection, pick up the Black Hawk recordings any way you can.