Chicago Tenor Sax (first installment)

jug_1950Gene Ammons around 1950. Photographer unknown.

Up to the late 1950s you could usually tell where a tenor saxophone player may come from geographically. This goes especially for tenorists from Chicago, where the dominant way of playing was very relaxed and way behind the beat. The most famous exponent of this school  who was also widely known outside of Chicago was of course Gene Ammons. But in the 1940s and 1950s this town had a whole lot of great or at least  very interesting tenor saxophonists – some of which are well known, some more or less obscure. Not all of them are members of the Lester Young school though: Von Freeman, Dick Davis, Sax Mallard, Claude McLin, Eddie Johnson, John Neely, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Tom Archia – and the list goes on.

If I start to listen to tenor players from Chicago,I might end up  doing so for days. So I decided to let my readers in on the fun and present in a loose series some of the best jazz and r’n’b tenor saxophonists that played in the clubs of the Windy City in the 1940s and 1950s. I will try to use original 78 rpms for this purpose, but this probably will not work in very case, as there are some things of which I only have bad tape copies or the like.

The first installment of this series has to start of with Gene Ammons, of course. “Hey Mr. Freddy”on Aristocrat 8001 was recorded in February 1949 by group that included Ammons, singer and pianist Christine Chatman, Leo Blevins on guitar, bassist Lowell pointer and legendary drummer Ike Day. It was for the first time reissued in 2003 on a CD by the french company Classics, all the previous compilers of Ammon’s output for Aristocrat/Chess had overlooked this track.

Not really from Chicago, but from close enough Gary Indiana comes John “Schoolboy” Porter (born in 1926). Porter recorded for Chicago based Chance Records from 1950 to 1952. Then he appeared – as guitarist! – on a Roosevelt Sykes session for United, also in 1952. After that he opted for a career in the military. Porter has an interesting sound, most of his records pair jukebox groovers with sentimental ballads as was usual during these days. “Kayron”, recorded in 1950, was a fine piece of bop from Chicago with – I think – a really great solo by Schoolboy (search for it on youtube, someone has put it up). On the shuffling “Schoolboy’s Boogie” which was recorded in September 1950, Porter is accompanied by pianist Jesse Hart (who also sang, but not on this track), bassist Walter Broyle and drummer Carl Scott.

If you want to know more about John “Schoolboy” Porter, you should check the Chance Records page at the Red Saunders Research Foundation. On the other hand if you know anything about what Porter is doing nowadays, it would be nice if you would let me know.

Now for today’s third featured Chicago tenor man. After having recorded with Earl Hines in the mid 1930s saxophonist Leon Washington joined drummer Red Saunders’ house band at Chicago’s famed Club De Lisa in 1937, staying with Red until the late 1950s.

delisaSmiling Ladies at the Club DeLisa, unknown date.
From the Crown Propeller Archive (click to enlarge)

Leon Washington isa  totally overlooked saxophonist. Red Saunder’s band is mostly interesting not for Washington’s solos but for the fact that Sun Ra wrote arrangements for it. Understandably so, since the Saunders orchestra was essentially a show band and Leon rarely had an opportunity to shine. Elaborate boppish playing was not asked for in between singer’s verses.

In 1954 and 1955 Washington and McKinley Easton, Saunders’ baritone man, did some work for the very small Theron label. You can read all about Theron on the Theron page of the Red Saunders Research Foundation. On “Forward Blow” which was recorded in 1954, Easton and Washington show what they could do if let loose

Watch this space for further installments of this series!

4 Responses to “Chicago Tenor Sax (first installment)”

  1. George "Guenti" Schmid Says:

    Great stuff, please keep it up. Your work is much appreciated.

  2. Doug Basmajian Says:

    I Loved finding reference to John Schoolboy Porter on this blog.
    John lived in the Phoenix Arizona area for many years, in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. He played jazz and casual gigs with a number of local musicians, including the late and tremendous Prince Shell on piano, who played with Gene Ammons, and arranged for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Earth Wind and Fire. He recorded bop with The Tom Goodwin Quintet for radio station KMCR in the 1980’s. I was fortunate to play some gigs with Schoolboy along with the piano player David Valdivia, owner of Los Compadres Northern Jazz, and various local bass players and drummers. I play jazz flute. I knew Schoolboy worked day gigs for local school districts and played gigs and did some arranging on the side. Schoolboy was always a larger than life character. Sometimes, on gigs he would dance with the girls, more than the guests. Schoolboy’s sax tone remained one of the fattest and most exciting of all time. You should have heard him live soloing on Sweet Georgia Brown! His tone filled the room and was truly beautiful and full of expression. I wish to this day that I taken private lessons from him, as he was a great mentor. I am not sure if John is gone now, but he has to be very old if he is not. The whole time I knew him he never bragged about his recordings with Chance Records. He would just say he played allot in the Air Force. Sometimes he would play gigs at Luke Air Force Base. This level of player is largely gone now, unfortunately. I count it one of my greatest blessings in life to have played along side a great like Schoolboy, and Prince Shell. P.S. Schoolboy would play along side Helen “Lady Day” Jones, a Phoenix jazz singer, occasionally.

  3. Up to the late 1950s you could usually tell where a tenor saxophone player may come from geographically. This goes especially for tenorists …

  4. I got to play and hangout with Schoolboy in Anchorage when he was stationed at Elmendorf in the Air Force Band circa ’65-’66. I was a local 18 year old tenor sax player and jammed with him at Eastchester Flats afterhour clubs…these were B-3 based organ groups…everyone knew he was on another level…(as mentioned above) he never mentioned his career as a recording artist, etc.. he was a very personable gentleman and in retrospect he really put up with chorus after chorus of beginning level musicians that got up to sit in. He would always call “Moon River” or “Satin Doll” because he knew they were tunes myself and couple other guys had in common. Hopefully more info on Schoolboy will show up.

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