The Forgotten Tenor
by Marshall Bowden
The story of Ike Quebec is in many ways the story of the prototypical working jazz musician who never quite catches a lucky break, but who nonetheless perseveres and is able to earn a livelihood from his art for his entire life.
A product of the swing and big band era, Quebec made a name in the Cab Calloway band, but before that he played with an outfit known as the Barons of Rhythm and then with such luminaries as Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, and Benny Carter. In the 1940s Blue Note released a series of 78 rpm recordings featuring Quebec as the leader. At the end of the fifties he returned to Blue Note, cutting a series of 45 rpm recordings that served both as a trial balloon as to Quebec’s popularity with the record-buying public and as a Blue Note strike into the 45 rpm jukebox market. Quebec was a success on both counts
Alfred Lion brought Ike into the studio to record a succession of sessions that featured the tenor saxophonist as both a leader and a sideman. Both Heavy Soul and It Might as Well Be Spring, recorded in 1961, are fantastic albums. Sadly, a mere 13 months after these albums were recorded, Ike Quebec died of cancer. Three more recordings, Blue and Sentimental, Easy Living, and Bossa Nova Soul Samba, were released in 1962.
The Blue Note 45s have been collected in the Blue Note Connoisseur Series release Ike Quebec: The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions. These performances demonstrate just how much of an R&B slant Quebec could put on his material. True, tracks like “A Light Reprieve” (a title Quebec later used for another composition on It Might As Well Be Spring) aren’t much different than his work on the 1961 sessions. But tracks like “Zonky,” “Dear John,” and “Later For the Rock” positively bristle with the energy of R&B and what was becoming rock and roll.
Quebec’s choice of accompanying instruments ensured a sound that was both modern and gritty. Working with a succession of organists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers, Quebec fronted an amazing series of musicians on these recordings. Organists include Edwin Swanston, Sir Charles Thompson and Earl Van Dyke; guitarists are Skeeter Best, Willie Jones; bassists are Milt Hinton, Sam Jones, and Sonny Wellesley; drummers are J.C. Beard, Wilbert Hogan, and Les Jenkins.
These groups can, of course, turn on the juke joint charm, and they do it often. But they also prove to be sensitive backers on the ballads. Take the weary, red-eyed rendition of “Blue Monday,” with organist Edwin Swantson providing gentle washes of sound over which guitarist Skeeter Best provides commentary on Quebec’s Ben Webster-ish breathy tenor statements. While this is a particularly bluesy number, the same approach is heard on the last three tracks of disc one: “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “For All We Know,” and “Ill Wind.” On these last three, the group is comprised of Sir Charles Thompson, Milt Hinton, and J.C. Heard, with no guitarist.
Through it all, Quebec’s tenor has the same reference points—swing to bop, with the influences of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, heavily overlaid with a blues sensibility and a congenial, conversational tone. These recordings, along with the 1961 sessions formed the basis of what Alfred Lyon anticipated to be a significant comeback for the tenor man whose career had been sidetracked both by stylistic changes in jazz and drug abuse. In any event, Quebec’s solid tenor sound was perfectly amendable to the backing of an organ, and he stuck with the formula throughout the rest of his recordings as a leader.
On both Heavy Soul and It Might as Well Be Spring Quebec worked with a group comprised of organist Freddie Roach, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Al Harewood. Roach is an excellent foil for Quebec’s tenor work, which here has a somewhat less overt R&B sound, hewing closer to the territory of another saxophonist who Quebec helped get signed to Blue Note: Dexter Gordon.
His interpretation of the ballad, though, clearly owes a debt to the original tenor balladeer, Coleman Hawkins. Prior to Hawkins, the tenor sax had been much more of a honking instrument, not one thought to have a romantic voice suitable to more tender material. But while there is a nice array of ballads here, there’s more than enough balance in the program.
The title track has a sinewy Latin beat to it, until downshifts into an easy, easy swing beat for solos from Quebec and Roach. “The Man I Love” starts as a ballad but breaks into a full, faster than walking clip, swing around the half way mark, culminating in an old-fashioned R&B tenor dustup. And Quebec takes a star turn on “Nature Boy,” a near-solo performance on which the comb provides merely the suggestion of a background.
It Might As Well Be Spring features the same group and much the same type of repertoire. Quebec plays the hell out of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track, imbuing it with a soul that it certainly had never possessed prior to his playing it. The other “A Light Reprieve” and “Easy—Don’t Hurt” represent Ike’s compositional output here, with both being blues-based vehicles for the tenor player to stretch out and show what he could do. “Lover Man” and “Willow Weep for Me” provide two more ballad opportunities for the saxophonist, while “Old Man River” is taken in a rare highly upbeat version that shows Quebec thinking in a more boppish direction.
Pretty much all of Quebec’s 1959-1962 Blue Note work is memorable, and between the Rudy Van Gelder and Connoisseur Series his available discography has grown to befit the excellence of these recordings. Blue and Sentimental is considered one of his finest, though its formula of rousing jump blues and sensitive ballads is similar to that found on the other Blue Note sides. His backing group on this disc is comprised of guitarist Grant Green, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. With no pianist to fill in many of the spaces, Quebec is left open to display his balance of yin and yang, while Green not only proves the perfect accompanist but also solos tastefully throughout.
Soul Samba finds him working a Brazilian mood, with guitarist Kenny Burrell, percussionists Willie Bobo and Gavin Masseaux, and bassist Wendell Marshall. The album isn’t strictly bossa, as the group takes a shot at Dvorak’s “Going Home” theme as well as “Liebestraum.” Easy Living features performances by Sonny Clark, Milt Hinton, Art Blakey, Bennie Green, and Stanley Turrentine, and continues the familiar Quebec formula, with performances of “See See Rider,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and the title track.
In the early to mid 1950s, Quebec was considered a jazz artist who had already done his best recorded work, but that turned out not to be the case, thanks to Quebec himself and Alfred Lion. Now listeners can hear one of the major tenor voices of the late 50s and early 60s who, while not forging any particularly new paths nonetheless managed to create a distinct body of work with a voice that remains, despite its many influences, fiercely independent and original.