Bob Thiele was probably the most influential person in modern jazz whom you may never have heard of. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 27, 1922 and died on January 20, 1996 in New York City.
Unlike the subjects of the preceding 98 editions of Jazz For A Saturday Night, Thiele never played an instrument. What he did was just as important, though. He was a producer, promoter, and songwriter. He is probably best remembered as the man who wrote “What A Wonderful World,” although that was hardly the only song he ever penned.
When Thiele was just fourteen years old he became a radio disk jockey and hosted a weekly fifteen minute program of jazz. Eventually that led to a full hour gig at a different radio station.
While still in his teens he became leader of a band in New York that played the local area, and when he was seventeen years old he became editor of “Jazz” magazine, started by Thiele and a friend. That same year, 1939, he founded his own record label, Signature. During his stint at Signature he recorded Coleman Hawkins, Errol Garner, Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, and others.
Jazz was his first love, but over the course of his 60+ year career, Thiele worked with top musicians from the early pop/rock era also, including Teresa Brewer (whom he eventually married). Others he produced and/or recorded include Henry Mancini, Steve Allen, Ray Bryant, and Buddy Holly, as well as blues legends B.B. King, Big Joe Turner, and others.
Thiele signed John Coltrane to the Impulse! label when he was the main producer there and recorded a massive amount of material featuring Coltrane. So prolific was he that Impulse was still releasing “new” Coltrane material long after his death.
Despite the fact that he played no instrument, Thiele did release several albums under his own name, and one of those is the subject of this article. It was recorded and released in 1993 and was Thiele’s final album: “Lione-hearted.”
This superb album features an “A-Team” of jazz players who appear here as “The Bob Thiele Collective”:
Gary Bartz, alto saxophone
Ravi Coltrane, tenor sax
Steve Marcus, tenor sax
Ray Anderson, trombone
Roy Hargrove, trumpet (on track 3 and one other not named in the liner notes)
Kenny Barron, piano
Ray Drummond, bass
Grady Tate, drums
“Lion-hearted” consists of ten songs, six of which Thiele wrote. The title track opens the set with Barron tinkling a few gentle notes on the piano before he is overtaken by the horns who come in blowing hard. Everyone gets a solo and they all make the most of it.
The next song is one of the great classics of jazz, “Groovin’ High” from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. This is one of the most easily recognizable songs the prolific Gillespie wrote and has long been one of my favorites. Barron gets a nice solo here, backed by Drummond and Tate. Then Anderson steps in ratchets the pace up. Fans of Gillespie’s work will not be disappointed with this version.
“Groovin'” is followed by Thiele’s most famous work, the now-legendary “What A Wonderful World.” This song was, of course, made world-famous by trumpeter Louis Armstrong. In this version, we have another trumpeter, Roy Hargrove giving it a shot. With all due respect to Armstrong’s memory, I have to say Hargrove did a superb job here.
Tad Dameron’s “Good Bait” is up next. Like “Groovin’ High,” this has been one of my favorite songs for quite some time. On really well-known songs like this it’s hard to come up with something new, but it would, on the other hand, be all too easy to screw it up. Happily, that does not happen. This is a great song performed here by some of the best working musicians in jazz.
I’m going to skip ahead a few tracks because, as usual, I’m running late. Track eight is Duke Ellington’s classic “Black And Tan Fantasy.” I would be lying if I said this has been one of my favorite songs, because it hasn’t, not really. It’s always just sort of “been there,” not really liked or disliked. I have to say though, I really love this version. This blues is a horn-lover’s delight.
The last song here I’m going to write about is the final song on the album, Thiele’s “Stomp.” This is the shortest song we have here, running just under three and a half minutes. But the guys pack a lot into that short amount of time!
All in all, I have to say that “Lion-hearted” by The Bob Thiele Collective would make a delightful addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To learn more about Bob Thiele and his music, jazz writer Scott Yanow has posted a brief bio of him on the allmusic.com web site.
At jazzhouse.org, Arnold J. Smith has penned a nice appreciation of Thiele.
And in 2009, Thiele’s then thirteen year old grandson wrote this touching piece about a cherished personal possession: a photo of his grandfather whom he never met, Bob Thiele.
Thank you for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
PS: Don’t forget! There will be no JFASN next weekend. But! Two weeks from today, on January 4, 2014, we will see who is the subject of Jazz For A Saturday Night number 100!
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