November 28, 2010

Gentleman June's Boom Boom, Part 1

Esteemed New Orleans drummer Albert ‘June’ Gardner, who passed away on November 19th at age 79, had a career in music spanning over 60 years. For an overview, read his obituary by Geraldine Wyckoff from the Louisiana Weekly. ‘Gentleman June’, as he came to be called by those who knew him, was a low-keyed, versatile professional valued and respected by those in the know in the music business; but he remained unrecognized by the public at large until he began leading his own traditional jazz group, June Gardner and the Fellas, somewhat later in life, gigging at various clubs around town and doing annual sets in the Economy Hall tent at Jazzfest for many years.

The Gondoliers, ca 1949

In the late 1940s, not yet 20 years of age, he began getting attention as a part of guitarist Edgar Blanchard’s popular band, the Gondoliers, playing numerous local clubs such as the Dew Drop and the Pelican. Booking agent and promoter Percy Stovall began representing them; and, besides their own work at various venues, they often backed singers of the day such as Roy Brown and Chubby Newsome in the New Orleans area. By 1949, Blanchard and the Gondoliers were in Houston, Texas for an extended run at the Bronze Peacock club, owned by Don Robey, who also had just started the Peacock label. They backed Papa Lightfoot and Norman Dunlap on two separate releases for the label and recorded a 78 (#1514) of their own for Robey; but, due to poor sales, no more sessions resulted. After they returned to New Orleans, Blanchard disbanded the Gondoliers in 1950 for a few years to take a position in Roy Brown’s road band. Gardner also played on the road with Brown during the decade but only backed him in the studio a few times. As far as I can tell, he never did did rejoin the Gondoliers after Blanchard re-started the group.

Like many R&B musicians of the day, especially in New Orleans, Gardner’s musical preference was for jazz; but, other than a stint touring with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton's band mid-decade, the jump music that came to be called rock ‘n’ roll paid the bills. By the late 1950s, though, he was back at home playing regularly at the Joy Tavern in a jazz combo fronted by saxophonist ‘Red’ Tyler that included Allen Toussaint on piano, Justin Adams, guitar, and Peter ‘Chuck’ Badie on bass. Tyler was also an in-demand studio musician, who had come up in Dave Bartholomew’s band to become a regular at Cosimo’s studio, and was doing a lot of work for Johnny Vincent’s Ace label as a session leader and arranger. After fellow saxophonist Lee Allen got a hot hit with “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee”, Vincent green-lighted an instrumental album project on Tyler, who recruited Gardner, Tousssaint, and bassist Frank Fields, along with Rufus Gore on second sax for the sessions.

“Double Whammy” (A. Tyler) 
Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler and the Gyros, from Rockin’ & Rollin’
Ace LP, 1959 (Ace [UK] re-issue, 1986)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

While I am no drum expert by any means, I have not found that June Gardner was ever considered a particularly innovative player, but he was solid, tasteful groover able to handle most any style from traditional jazz to bebop, and from R&B jump to soul, and even some funk later on. On this tune, his New Orleans roots show a bit in the underlying syncopation of his kick drum and snare as he propels the mid-temp rocker right into Danceville.

Most of the other songs on the album were more straight ahead. I featured one of the most rockin’, “Snake Eyes”, along with the great jazz-noir “Lonely For You” in my 2009 feature on Red Tyler. But one track in particular stands out, as it diverged from the rest into the tropics of Latin-jazz with particularly impressive percussive results.

“Peanut Vendor”
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

An instrumental take on the much covered Afro-Cuban rumba song, this brief version is surprising for its complex percussive underpinnings and Caribbean feel, with Adams guitar and Toussaint’s faint piano combining to suggest a steel drum at times. Gardner, at the poly-rhythmic center of the tune, seems to have been playing mostly his tom-toms, joined by shakers, cowbells and few other beaten objects. The breakdown in the middle with Tyler’s hard riffing over the various beats is cool enough, but, for local flavor, a chorus of shouted “Yeah’s” punctuate his playing in true second line style - another recorded example of the city’s musical and cross-cultural links to the islands farther South.

It may have been Tyler’s arrangement, but Gardner was a integral part of making it work so well.

In 1960, June got a call from Sam Cooke, asking him to join his touring band. New Orleans bandleader Joe Jones had recommended him to Sam, who wanted to replace Leo Morris, also from the Crescent City, later to change his name to Idris Muhammed and do quite alright for himself in the world of jazz. Morris came back home and took June's seat at the Joy Tavern gigs, while Gardner would work mainly as Cooke's road drummer until the singer was shot to death in 1964.

“Twistin’ The Night Away” (Sam Cooke)
 Sam Cooke, from Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, RCA (1985)

Here’s a fine example of June in performance with Cooke, playing one of Sam’s big hits right in the pocket with the snare on the two and four, while keeping a swing beat on his ride cymbal, inducing anyone within earshot to move to the groove, and all done with an easy authority.

Recorded early in 1963 by Cooke’s label, RCA, at a set of shows at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, Florida, the album was not released at the time, maybe due to Cooke’s untimely demise the next year, or because it presented a much rawer version of Cooke, the soul entertainer, as opposed to the more sanitized studio sound that the company had developed as his image. In any event, the recording did not appear commercially until 1985. That night, the band consisted of just two of Cooke’s regulars, guitarist Cliff White and Gardner, supplemented on that tour by saxophonist extraordinaire King Curtis and members of his group, the Kingpins.

Curits’ blowing on his two solos, not to mention Cooke’s energetic, throaty delivery, and the support of the slammin’ band, really took this little dance ditty up multiple notches, turning it into the pumped up party song the original had only implied. In that spirit, the obviously inspired Cooke appropriately wraps up the song by encouraging the crowd to take out their handkerchiefs and wave ‘em around, a la second line celebrating in New Orleans. Obviously, he had the right drummer for the occasion.

After Cooke’s tragic end out West, June Gardner came home and began working sessions and playing clubs. Next time, I’ll revisit a post I did five years ago on his solo recordings from the mid-1960s, expanded to consider some more material, including session work he did for Allen Toussaint. So, come on back for more boom boom.


Blogger olen said...

Well damn. I've been enjoying that "Live at Harlem" record since i was a kid and never new about King Curtis, incredible.

5:51 PM, December 04, 2010  

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