Shelly Manne, along with alto sax Lee Konitz, Mike Wofford on Piano and Chuck Domanico on bass, recorded live at Maison Pour Tour in Elancourt, France by the ever-present and reliable Radio France on November 11, 1977.
Shelly Manne was an institution. Known primarily as one of the innovative figures in West Coast Jazz, Manne stretched out to include a wide variety of genres and an impressive list of collaborators from both coasts. He was active from the late 1930s all the way up until his death in 1984.
Manne is often associated with the once frequently criticized West Coast school of jazz. He has been considered “the quintessential” drummer in what was seen as a West Coast movement, though Manne himself did not care to be so pigeonholed. In the 1950s, much of what he did could be seen as in the West Coast style: performing in tightly arranged compositions in what was a cool style, as in his 1953 album named The West Coast Sound, for which he commissioned several original compositions. Some of West Coast jazz was experimental, avant-garde music several years before the more mainstream avant-garde playing of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman (Manne also recorded with Coleman in 1959); a good deal of Manne’s work with Jimmy Giuffre was of this kind. Critics would condemn much of this music as overly cerebral.
Another side of West Coast jazz that also came under critical fire was music in a lighter style, intended for popular consumption. Manne made contributions here too. Best known is the series of albums he recorded with pianist André Previn and with members of his groups, based on music from popular Broadway shows, movies, and television programs. (The first and most successful of these was the My Fair Lady album based on songs from the musical, recorded by Previn, Manne, and bassist Leroy Vinnegar in 1956.) The recordings for the Contemporary label, with each album devoted to a single musical, are in a light, immediately appealing style aimed at popular taste. This did not always go over well with aficionados of “serious” jazz, which may be one reason why Manne has been frequently overlooked in accounts of major jazz drummers of the 20th century. Much of the music produced on the West Coast in those years, as Robert Gordon concedes, was in fact imitative and “lacked the fire and intensity associated with the best jazz performances”. But Gordon also points out that there is a level of musical sophistication, as well as an intensity and “swing”, in the music recorded by Manne with Previn and Vinnegar (and later Red Mitchell) that is missing in the many lackluster albums of this type produced by others in that period.
West Coast jazz, however, represented only a small part of Manne’s playing. In Los Angeles, and occasionally returning to New York and elsewhere, Manne recorded with musicians of all schools and styles, ranging from those of the swing era through bebop to later developments in modern jazz, including hard bop, usually seen as the antithesis to the cool jazz frequently associated with West Coast playing.
Manne refused to play in a powerhouse style, but his understated drumming was appreciated for its own strengths. In 1957, critic Nat Hentoff called Manne one of the most “musical” and “illuminatively imaginative” drummers. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Bob Cooper called him “the most imaginative drummer I’ve worked with”. In later years this kind of appreciation for what Manne could do was echoed by jazz notables like Louie Bellson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and numerous others who had worked with him at various times. Composer, arranger, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter was “a great admirer of his work”. “He could read anything, get any sort of effect”, said Carter, who worked closely with Manne over many decades.
Though he always insisted on the importance of time and “swing”, Manne’s concept of his own drumming style typically pointed to his melody-based approach. He contrasted his style with that of Max Roach: “Max plays melodically from the rhythms he plays. I play rhythms from thinking melodically”.
Manne had strong preferences in his choice of drum set. Those preferences, however, changed several times over his career. He began with Gretsch drums. In 1957, intrigued by the sound of a kind of drum made by Leedy (then owned by Slingerland), he had a line made for him that also became popular with other drummers. In the 1970s, after trying and abandoning many others for reasons of sound or maintainability, he settled on the Japanese-made Pearl Drums.
For a reminder, here is a set recorded in France in 1977 featuring the legendary Lee Konitz on alto sax. Dig in and enjoy.