Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dupree Bolton (Fireball) music review

Even though I've been a jazz fan for thirty five years, I'd never listened to Harold Land's album “The Fox” until about five years ago. The date is fifty years old and not exactly obscure, but Land, the leader and tenor player, probably remains the best known soloist on the album and he never came close to being a household name in jazz. In 1959, the year the Fox was recorded in Los Angeles, jazz critics liked to divide the music into East Coast and West Coast. East Coast was driving, harmonically challenging, and full-throated. West Coast was cool, melodic, wispy, and to put it bluntly “Whiter”.

“The Fox” was East Coast music cut on Contemporary, a west coast label and that may be the simple explanation for why it never got the attention it deserved. Had it been on Blue Note, it would have fit right in with classics like Hank Mobley's Soul Station, Dexter Gordon's Doin' Allright, and Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder.

Technically, the Fox was as much an Elmo Hope album as it was Harold Land's. Hope wrote four of the six compositions. This is one of the few instances where the pianist who both influenced Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk and whose own style seems to split the difference between the two was both playing well and got recorded cleanly. Still, most everyone I know who has heard “The Fox” seems to have the same reaction- “Who the heck is that trumpet player?”

When Dupree Bolton solos on tracks like Mirror-Mind-Rose and Sims a Plenty, he dominates what many consider Land and Hope's best album. Bolton's conception on the instrument was both mature and fully-realized. It's big-toned, confident, clear, and agile and after you listen to the album, you both can't forget it and you just want to hear more of the guy. The Fox was Bolton's first appearance on an album. He later appeared on Curtis Amy's “Katanga”-- another underrated album-- and was equally impressive (listen to him on the title track) . Mysteriously, that was the trumpeter's entire commercially-released output at a time when hundreds of jazz albums were issued by dozens of labels on both coasts.

Go up to some hardcore jazz buff and say the name “Dupree Bolton” and you'll either get a shrug or hear something like “What a waste!” The simple answer was that Bolton had a lifelong drug habit that resulted in multiple long term incarcerations. Still, that doesn't explain it completely. If you read about virtually any of Charlie Parker's progeny, you quickly realize that hundreds of musicians from the period had serious drug problems and dozens of them recorded anyway between prison and rehab stints. In fact there are stories that musicians used to show up for recording sessions at one fairly well-known label, get their twenty five dollars, then head straight out for a fix. Based on the recorded evidence, here was a trumpet player who appears to have been on a par with Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, and Kenny Dorham (a couple of these guys were hardly paragons of sobriety or virtue) whose complete discography consisted of about ten tracks.

Equally strange, Dupree Bolton lived into his sixties(1929-1993) and apparently never stopped playing. One of the stories was that during much of the eighties, he played on the sidewalk by Ghiradelli and Union Squares in San Francisco as a street musician. It's said that he'd lost something, but his sound was still recognizable. I lived in San Francisco during that period and still wonder if I might have heard him.

When “Fireball”, a posthumous album of Dupree Bolton's lost tracks appeared a few weeks ago, I was very excited. My friend Tony, a fellow jazz afficionado to whom I'd introduced The Fox, heard about it he ordered a copy immediately. It took a couple months and he had to deal with two different outlets, but he was very excited to get the thing and we both figured that the ghost of Dupree Bolton had simply been responsible for the delay.

Fireball is clearly a labor of love. In addition to fourteen previously unreleased tracks of Bolton's playing, the CD includes fifty pages of liner notes (mostly by Richard Williams who wrote an article in Granta about Bolton) with everything that is known and probably will ever be known about the trumpeter's mysterious life including several surprises. The biggest of those is that I had assumed that Bolton was very young when he recorded The Fox. He was actually already thirty –I'd just never done the math. The real story was that he'd left home after dropping out of high school and toured with Jay McShann (who once hired Charlie Parker) among others, but literally no one much noticed or remembered him, something that suggests that his playing wasn't all that special at the time. My guess is that if the Dupree Bolton of Katanga had played in those bands, he'd definitely have stood out. Somewhere in his early twenties, Bolton did the first of many long prison stints. He seems to have reappeared in Los Angeles in the late fifties as a fully-formed musical presence and was playing club dates when Land brought him into the recording studio.

The simple answer was that even though he was getting noticed, he couldn't hold it together. The bio explains that he was signed to a recording contract to do at least one date as a leader, for which he was given a substantial advance, but for various reasons (almost all of which appear to have to do with Bolton), the album never got made and there don't seem to be any tapes from it.

To many fans, the possibility that there was some magical lost Bolton recording is second in forgotten trumpet lore to the generations old rumor that Buddy Bolden (the New Orleans trumpet player who supposedly influenced Louis Armstrong) made at least one recording late in his career. This “lost session” phenomenon is one of the pleasures of being a jazz fan. Three years ago, a very good live concert of Thelonius Monk playing with John Coltrane appeared from some State Department-sponsored concert. In the late sixties, A.B. Spellman's “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” sparked an interest in the music of pianist, Herbie Nichols, who was almost as obscure as Bolton. Nichols recorded three albums for Blue Note in the fifties which were re-released in the seventies and brought more attention to his music than he'd ever enjoyed when alive.

Sadly, the music on Fireball doesn't exactly uncover lost jazz treasure. The material consists of air checks from the 1962 tv show, Frankly Jazz (Frank Evans) where Bolton plays with Curtis Amy (it's good, but compromised by indifferent audio quality and Curtis Amy arguably sonds better than Bolotn here), two lost tracks/outtakes from a Pacific Jazz session with Amy (good again, but one can understand why they didn't get included on an album-- this material also includes solos by Earl Andeerza a sax player whose mystique as a lost jazz genius almost matches Bolton's) and most intriguing of all several tracks from 1980 of Bolton playing with an Oklahoma prison band (to me this was the saddest of all, it might have been that the other musicians couldn't push him, but there's a subdued and slightly broken quality to Bolton's playing on it that all but destroys the fantasy that the trumpeter of The Fox and Katanga's music continued to progress and grow).

I'm not saying that Fireball is bad. It's actually quite listenable, especially the two tracks from Pacific Jazz. It is, however, simply not up to the standard that Bolton so intriguingly set with his two long ago commercially released albums as a sideman. Instead of extending that legend, the music on the Fireball merely echoes it and while the liner notes don't say that they more or less imply it with their lack of superlatives in discussing the music.

The project itself was clearly a labor of love. If you've ever wondered about what happened to Dupree Bolton, whatever answers we're ever going to get are probably in this album. Sadly, though it all but smothers my fantasy that the man somehow kept playing and the genius that was so briefly evident never slipped away. I probably set my hopes too high.

One of the most fascinating parts of the materials is an essay by someone who knew Bolton from the trumpeter's time in prison in Oklahoma. The author reveals that he knew Bolton as an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive individual who for various reasons was more drawn to getting high than to maintaining his very real gifts as a musician. He speculates that Bolton had some anti-social psychological disorder and shares a story about Bolton, out of prison, being invited on stage by Dexter Gordon (a sign of respect and generosity), playing creditably, then trying to pressure Dexter into giving him a job, insulting the man so intemperately that Gordon went from trying to lend a hand to angrily writing the trumpeter off.

In any case, Dupree Bolton's story deserves to be told and remembered. Fireball completes that story. In some ways, it's the quintessential bop story. A man plays a couple thousand notes on his instrument so well that those who get to hear him can't forget them, but the tradeoff seems to be that he's not allowed to accomplish anything else in his life and we can't remember him as a person. If you want to know about the story of Dupree Bolton, pick up a copy of Fireball, make a point of reading the liner notes, and enjoy the music on the CD. If you want to understand the legend, you need to go back to the Fox and Katanga, sit back, turn up the volume, and revel in dreams of what might have been and the fundamental mystery at the heart of the jazz experience. It is, after all, the music that lives in the moment and even the best attempts to preserve or record it never do it justice. With jazz (like the blues), what is forgotten and can't be reconstructed feels every bit as vital to the experience as what we can hold onto.



At 2/28/2009 07:01:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

My knowledge of jazz if fairly limited but my piano teaching opera buff friend may know Dupree and the gang, I'll have to ask.

If I had to classify you, I might place you into a jazz blogging category because your 'songs' always start in one place, visit a lot of other references and then come back around, satisfying stuff.

At 2/28/2009 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale.
I'd never thought of it that way, but it fits.

I think Dupree Bolton is one of these musicians only really serious jazz fans know, so I'll be interested to see if you friend knows who he is.

At 7/06/2009 10:15:00 PM, Anonymous Edward Pollard said...

I knew Dupree in 1985/86 when an art school postpunk band I was in became the houseband in West Oakland on 7th Street, by chance the same block that Dupree "lived' on. I can tell you some interesting things, in fact I included as much about him as I could in a novel/memoir that i wrote on that period. Interested? Maybe you've already read what British former music editor Richard Williams wrote about him in his collection of essays called Letters From Home. He was also a huge fan and craved any news of his later life.

At 7/08/2009 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'd love to hear more about Dupree Bolton in the 80's.
The Richard Williams article was included in the liner notes for Fireball. Stories like Dupree Bolton's seem to be at the heart of jazz in some way.

At 8/26/2009 01:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an excellent 2-part article about Dupree Bolton, written by the distinguished jazz scholar Ted Gioia. You can find the article on Ted tracked Bolton down and conducted a series of interviews. Ted even took Bolton to the recording studio and cut a few tracks.

At 1/30/2010 08:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello,how strange is this dupree was my uncle. now i am reading about his some what sad adventures.

At 12/16/2011 03:07:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

fwiw, I later had a short story published, Red Notes, in Brilliant Corners ( a jazz literary magazine) that was based very loosely on Gioia's story.


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