Cracking the Continental Code
By Uncle Dave Lewis
When Rebecca and I were celebrating our Honeymoon in Logan, Ohio a few weeks ago, we did a little record shopping (my birthday was the following Monday) and found a treasure I’d sought for many moons, “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” (Masterseal MSLP 5013, 1957). I had known of it since I was a child, since my parents owned MS-1001, “Hi-Fi Sampler,” the ultra-cheap sampler LP drawn from the Masterseal catalog. “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” was pictured on the back, along with other albums, and I was interested. Even though it was a common, inexpensive album, I never seemed to have success in turning it up. Back in the 80s I found the jacket without a record in it, and used it to store another jazz album I owned that didn’t have a cover. The copy we found in Logan, thankfully, was well cared for, in a plastic outer sleeve and with a paper inner. Whoever owned it before me valued it.
Diving into the content, I soon discovered that it was hardly “Hi-Fi” — the vinyl was thankfully quiet, not always the case with the Gabors, but the recordings were all pretty old by the time the master tape was compiled, and extra reverb adds that artificial “Hi-Fi” touch. I’ve also owned some Continental 78s, some of which sounded pretty wretched, so I’m not doing too much complaining here. But there is no proper track listing on the jacket, and the liner notes by Joseph P. Muranyi identifies the various pieces in a chatty way, with partial personnel listings and seldom mentioning which groups really did these things. Titles are changed, identities are concealed and it is hard to know what you’re really listening to.
So I took a couple of hours and basically have it all worked out save one track. This is a guide to actually what’s on the album. Someone at Discogs went through the trouble of copying personnel listings from Muranyi’s notes, which may be found here: http://www.discogs.com/Various-Hi-Fi-Jazz-Session/release/1377584 The accuracy of this listing, unfortunately, falls on the sword of the material provided in Muranyi, and I may update it sometime, but my project deals more with provenance of the recordings, all of which were made in New York except where noted.
A1. Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie Septet: Mean to Me, recorded May 25, 1945, original release Continental 6024
A2. Timmie Rosenkrantz and his Barons: Bouncy, recorded December 1944, original release Continental 6012
A3. Timmie Rosenkrantz and his Barons: Blues at Dawn, recorded December 1944, original release Continental 6012
A4. Clyde Hart’s All Stars: What(‘s the Matter Now), recorded January 4, 1945, original release Continental 6013
A5. Clyde Hart’s All Stars: (I Want) Every Bit (of It), recorded January 4, 1945, original release Continental 6013
A6. H. Carel’s Combo: Rose Noire, no other information
B1. Cozy Cole’s All Stars: Look Here, recorded November 14, 1944, original release Continental 6000 (not “Comes the Don,” as shown on the album)
B2. Cozy Cole’s All Stars: Timmie’s Time (aka “The Beat,” “Beat Bounce”), recorded 1945, original release Continental 6014 (credited on later Gabor releases to Red Norvo)
B3. Freddie Mitchell (as Hen Gates Combo); Doby’s Boogie (aka “Cravin'”), recorded in Detroit, 1950, original release Derby 713
B4. Dorothy Donegan: Kilroy Was Here, recorded 1946, original release Continental 6056
B5. Sabby Lewis and his Orchestra: Edna, recorded 1946, original release Continental 6035
B6. Eddie South Trio: Swinging the Blues, recorded 1947. original release Continental 604?
A few things about Don Gabor’s jazz program. Gabor immigrated to the United States in 1938 and got a job as a stock boy at RCA Victor, and within two years he was working as a supervisor in RCA’s foreign division. Lots of staffers at RCA ran their own labels, and Gabor started Continental in 1941, at first issuing recordings of composer Bela Bartók in addition to polkas and various ethnic fare; I have owned some of the early Continentals, pressed at RCA Victor, and they sound really nice, though he eventually moved to cheaper pressing materials. Gabor started his jazz program in 1944 and ended it around 1947; Leonard Feather was the initial A&R on this project, though Timmie Rosenkrantz would have produced his own recording as that is what he did, and perhaps others helmed this series as it progressed. As far as I know it consisted of 61 couplings in a 6000 series with another nine in a short lived 10000 series and perhaps three more couplings in yet other series, though it is harder to tell if those were made by Continental or came from outside. I’ve never seen a complete listing of them, but the 146 masters indicated seem to be the extent of what Gabor achieved in jazz recording; most, maybe all, of the jazz masters that appeared on his various labels afterward were acquired from labels that had gone under, and there were many to choose from in the years 1947-1954.
Don Gabor’s personal expertise was solidly in classical music and what we now call “world;” not in jazz, and at first that was an advantage, as he picked his talent from what was going on around him. What that was in 1944 was the 52nd Street bebop revolution which had just begun, and Continental was one of the very first companies to record it. At the time, this was music that almost no one else wanted; for the year 1945, the only other labels in New York recording bebop were tiny ones like Continental: Manor, Guild, Comet and Herman Lubinsky’s slightly more established Savoy label. The Sarah Vaughan track that opens this album comes from the second studio recording session she ever had, and her first was for Continental also. Clyde Hart was a pianist who died, at age 35, in March 1945, and his sessions for Continental and Manor were the only ones he led. Hart isn’t even mentioned in the notes of the “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” album, even though two of the tracks are his. Charlie Parker is all over these sides, playing in an interesting, formative style still in development. There is a piece of a home recorded tape well known to Charlie Parker fans where he humorously describes what happened to singer Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams when he got hold of a tab of Benzedrine; perhaps the Hart session is where that incident happened, as Rubberlegs takes crazy vocal choruses on both Clyde Hart tracks.
Not all that glitters here is gold: the Eddie South track, which features Detroit-based pianist Hank Jones, is a little bit of a letdown. It’s underpowered, and Eddie’s vocal is somewhat off his best. While Muranyi quips that the rare track by little known Boston bandleader Sabby Lewis is “a typical riff-oriented big band tune of the forties,” in my view it is one of the highlights of the album. None of the Sabby Lewis sidemen are mentioned on “Hi-Fi Jazz Session,” but the original Continental 78 rpm label lists a tenor saxophonist by the name of “Paul Gonsalez,” really Paul Gonsalves who set the latter-day Duke Ellington orchestra ablaze in the 50s and 60s. This track shows that, even with Sabby Lewis, Gonsalves was already kindling his personal flame. Boogie Woogie specialist Dorothy Donegan made several fine Continentals, some of which I used to have; “Kilroy was Here” is in keeping with her dynamic, pumping style of boogie. Red Norvo is also prominently heard on this album; in 1945, he had just picked up the vibes after years of stubborn dedication to the xylophone and was making hair-raising note choices and exploring an astonishing variety of rhythmic ideas. Coleman Hawkins turns up on the first Cozy Cole track, Dizzy Gillespie is heard with Sarah and Clyde Hart; Slam Stewart, Tiny Grimes, Johnny Guarnieri, Don Byas, Charlie Shavers, Trummy Young, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Bothwell etc. etc. etc. are heard here and there. This is fabulous stuff, and you’ve got to wonder why on earth it would be collected onto an album that cost $1.49.
In 1954, Don Gabor bought the Derby Records label off the receiver’s index, and picked up much of Freddie Mitchell’s best work with it. Freddie was an R&B saxophonist whose discs are very loose, raw, clearly mostly improvised and quite similar to one another — I LOVE these records! I do believe that Freddie Mitchell contributed to the development of rock ‘n roll and that, along with John Lee Hooker, he was one of the only guys in Detroit who was doing that as early as he did. But to say that his Derby Records, made in 1950-51, ARE rock ‘n roll is not an entirely responsible way to approach them. That did not deter Don Gabor, who repackaged a bunch of the Derbys into album called “Let’s Go Dancing to Rock ‘n Roll” (Masterseal MSLP 5005, 1957) and put it in the bins at $1.49. He changed the name of the talent to “Hen Gates and his Gaters” and the ‘Hen Gates’ track here was something Derby released as “Doby’s Boogie” in 1950. Muranyi justifies the inclusion of this screaming honker into this ‘jazz’ album as “This […] proves that there’s nothing new under the sun, not even in Rock and Roll.” Man, were these guys ever out of touch!
Finally, that leaves H. Carel, whose name might have been “Carels,” and his combo. I have no idea what this is; the name might be changed, and it sounds vaguely European. Or not. It’s trumpet, baritone sax, piano and rhythm and if you can figure out what it is, I’d love to know. The bari sounds a little like Gerry Mulligan, but is nowhere near as good as he was.
Although its first, classical releases appeared in 1951 — and the name “Masterseal” deliberately chosen to create confusion with “Columbia Masterworks” — Masterseal was mainly a latter-day Don Gabor enterprise, starting in 1957 and ending around 1963. “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” had an identical predecessor on one of Gabor’s other labels called “Sarah & Dizzy” (Plymouth P 12-146, 1956) and it was also included in Gabor’s “Music Appreciation Library,” verbatim, as “A Jam Session by Sarah Vaughan and other Jazz Stars” (Paris International DG-120, ca. 1958). While I can’t seem to find a reference for it at present, Gabor also issued an LP that was half this album and half another album. He didn’t even try to disguise it; all of the matrix numbers for these various sides are the same.
I guess there is still every reason to want “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” in you can find it in better than good condition. The Danish label Storyville has issued three CDs devoted to what they call the “Continental Sessions” which collects much of the bebop stuff in discographical order, and they may as well do that (see http://www.bluebeatmusic.com/product_info.php?cPath=15&products_id=3237). Not long before Don Gabor died in 1980, he sold his entire operation to a fellow with connections to organized crime, later convicted on federal charges. The new owner was carted off to jail, and the former Don Gabor vault seized by the FBI. Recently this lead was checked out and none of that material now exists in any federal lockup; all of it was either discarded or destroyed. So it is doubtful that we will ever hear this music in much higher-fi than what comes from a well-kept copy of “Hi-Fi Jazz Session.” Although Don Gabor made some superb jazz recordings, he didn’t really care about them — his various packages of this material proves that — and I don’t think that he understood them. Nevertheless, judging from all of the words I have expended on this album, I am very happy that my two bucks spent in Logan brought it home, and perhaps some this read this will be less inclined to toss it aside once found. It really isn’t junk, and if you know what you’re listening to, it’s much, much easier to enjoy. — Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton, Ohio 9-9-2015
The gumshoe work on Don Gabor has been truly done, for all of us, by Rudolf A. Bruil. Set aside some time and check out the awesome Remington site.
The following discographies also helped me realize different aspects of this project: