Last week’s “post” offered a hypothesis about the relationship between geography and how music is interpreted and performed that elicited much response. One was a fascinating comment that mentioned sitarist Ravi Shankar’s introducing the musical traditions of his native India to the Great American Culture Machine and the lasting influence of that. Shankar was clearly a bold and avid explorer of the sociological, as well as physical, reflexive terrain of location and musical genre. This was mirrored in the way his daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, paid tribute to his memory. The commenter also brought up an early recording overlooked in my post that featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! A-5, 1961), led by composer-arranger-saxophonist Oliver Nelson that included baritone saxophonist George Barrow, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, and Eric Dolphy playing flute and alto saxophone. While the album is, arguably, a nod to the landmark Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue (Columbia CL1355, 1959), Hubbard’s ground-breaking solo on its best known track, “Stolen Moments” is the antithesis of Davis’s subdued approach and defined Hubbard as a new voice on trumpet. But the cool thing about including The Blues and the Abstract Truth is that it makes for a convenient “six degrees of separation” style segue to the late Al Kiger, the biographical subject of today’s post.
The modal exploration that ostensibly inspired Kind of Blue stemmed from the philosophy of George Russell, the theorist and composer whose seminal book The Lydian Chromatic Concept for Tonal Organization was first published in 1953. In addition, his own compositions and arrangements, as well as his work at the Lenox School for Jazz helped set the stage for modern jazz studies. Bill Evans, the pianist on Kind of Blue as well as The Blues and the Abstract Truth studied with Russell and was featured in a composition, “Concerto for Billy the Kid” (which is based on Gene de Paul’s “I’ll Remember April”), on Russell’s first recording as a leader, The Jazz Workshop (RCA Victor LPM 1372, 1957).
George Russell’s “Concerto for Billy the Kid” featuring Bill Evans at the piano with Art Farmer – trumpet, Tony Scott – alto saxophone, Jimmy Cleveland – trombone, Barry Galbraith – guitar, Osie Johnson – drums, and (probably) Teddy Kotick – bass.
Integration of philosophy, theory, composition, teaching, and performance was key to Russell’s vision of making music unfettered by cliché, but still rooted in the jazz tradition. His strategy to achieve this included writing for ensembles with a fixed personnel of musicians who would learn to improvise by what he called “The Concept” (even to the point of writing out solo passages) or who had already developed their own unique musical language. Two examples of the latter, trumpeter Don Ellis and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, played on Russell’s album Ezz-thetics (Riverside RLP 375, 1961), which was recorded a few months before the release of The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Both became icons in American music; Dolphy for raising the standards of technical proficiency and harmonic invention on the flute, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet in jazz avant-garde and Ellis as a jazz-pop crossover big band leader known for idiosyncratic instrumentation and playing in quartertones and odd-meters. Dolphy filled the chair previously held by David Young, an extremely talented tenor saxophonist who, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, was a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. The rest of the group on the Ezz-thetics session featured two more Indiana musicians as well: drummer Joe Hunt and trombonist-composer-educator David Baker. (The bassist on the date, Steve Swallow, hails from New Jersey and was replacing Chuck Israels.) Before this album, Russell’s core group was comprised of musicians he met in his 1959 class at the Lenox School. All but the bassist were from Indiana. Along with Hunt, Baker, and Young, the 1960 George Russell Sextet included Indiana native Al Kiger on trumpet. (To complete the list, Chuck Israels was born in New York City and Russell in Cincinnati, Ohio. Russell’s next steady saxophonist, Paul Plummer, was also from Indianapolis.)
Alan Kiger was born in Muncie, Indiana, a small city (population: 70,085) that is the Delaware County seat and home of the Ball Corporation (the ones who used to make fruit canning jars) and Ball State University (formerly the Eastern Indiana Normal School). His mother was a piano teacher and the young Kiger studied with, among others, Max Woodbury, the principle trumpet for the Indianapolis Symphony (also Freddie Hubbard’s instructor). He met trombonist David Baker while they were students at Indiana University in 1952. It was Baker who led the pilgrimage with fellow student David Young to the Lenox School in 1959 and later enlisted Joe Hunt into George Russell’s group. But it was Hunt, after hearing Kiger at a jam session in Indianapolis, who enlisted the trumpeter to be a “ringer” in a marching band sponsored by the Indiana chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles that appeared in a parade in New York City in “either 1955 or ’56.” Kiger was a few years older than Hunt, who was still in high school, and knew several Indiana ex-patriots who had relocated to New York, principally pianist Al Plank (with Anita O’Day) and drummer Harold Granowsky (with Lennie Tristano). It was probably Granowsky who showed Hunt and Kiger the town while they were on parade, but Hunt is firm that Plank introduced Kiger to New York-style cheesecake, which he understandably became infatuated with.
According to Hunt, Russell travelled to Indiana to rehearse his new band in 1960 and finalized the group’s personnel there. Not all discographies agree on specifics, but they do agree that Kiger recorded three commercially released albums with Russell: Jazz In the Space Age (Decca DL 9219, 1961); George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot (Decca DL 9220, 1960), and Stratusphunk (Riverside RLP 341, 1960). (The disagreement is about whether Jazz In the Space Age was recorded in December of 1959 and January of 1960 or May and September of 1960.) Although neither Hunt nor Israels are on Jazz In the Space Age, they are on the other two recordings as well as several private ones, which confirms the time frame of Hunt’s reminiscing. He also described Kiger as an extremely shy person, not given to disclosing his feelings or opinions, something that David Baker describes about Young in a tribute to the saxophonist aired on WFIU (Indiana University Radio) in 2009.
Some critics cite Stratusphunk as marking Russell’s first application of his modal theory, which might suggest that Miles Davis’s exposure to Russell’s theories exploited on Kind of Blue was more anecdotal than firsthand. But for The Blues and the Abstract Truth there is a possibility that Nelson had heard the music from George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot, either live or on the album, and paid a Stravinsky-ish homage to Russell. This assessment comes from listening to Carla Bley’s composition, “Beast Blues,” (my apologies for the accompanying video) and comparing it to Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” The voicings of Nelson’s arrangement match those of Russell’s piano comping and the harmonic motion of the form’s consequent phrase is similar between the two as well. The possibility that the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Russell’s version of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” which comes after “Beast Blues” on George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot, is another consideration. Furthermore, the rest of the tracks on The Blues and the Abstract Truth, bear a closer resemblance to Russell’s sound; only “Stolen Moments” has Davis’s Kind of Blue vibe. It is very possible that Russell’s Indianapolis group made an impression on Nelson in 1961.
New York City is Mecca to thousands of aspiring artists, especially jazz musicians. But, to twist a phrase into a Gordian knot, not everyone who makes it there, makes it there. And America was a different place in 1960 than it is now. Eisenhower was still the President and John F. Kennedy was campaigning against Richard M. Nixon. Although Russell could find work for his group in New York City, racial tensions elsewhere were worse than they are today (and they’re not very good today, either). Jim Crow was still commonplace in the South and touring in a racially diverse avant-garde music group could have been seen by some as an invitation for disaster. Both Hunt and Baker believe that Young and Kiger didn’t like being on the road and decided to go back to their Indiana homes. (Baker himself would eventually return to Indiana, but because his mouth had been injured in an accident and it had become difficult to play the trombone comfortably.) Fortunately, the world of jazz musicians is usually friendly to those with talent, which all of the members of Russell’s bands had. The link to the radio show mentioned above will reveal several examples of how good the Indiana contingent of Russell’s sextet were. “Waltz from Outer Space,” “Kentucky Oysters,” “Dimensions,” and “Moment’s Notice” contain tour-de-force performances delivered by Hunt, Baker, Young, and Kiger. Needless to say, the jazz scene in Indiana welcomed them back and they prospered.
And Kiger’s career didn’t start or end with the George Russell Sextet. His discography shows that by 1952 he was working regularly in big bands and small groups. He recorded in Chicago, Bloomington, New York, and San Francisco with bands assembled by Al Cobine and Jerry Coker. When he returned to Indiana, he played often and recorded regularly. The discographies referenced thus far focus on his jazz work, but Kiger was also a session player who did his fair share of jingles and non-jazz work (Muzak, show bands, film music, etc.). When he played in big bands, though, he was usually assigned the soloist’s chair. This afforded him an outlet for his creativity and also a bit of local stardom. On top of this, he was also a skilled arranger and good copyist. He did quite a bit of work for Henry Mancini in this capacity and damaged the tendons in his right hand, but instead of letting that stop him, he became a left-handed trumpet player.
Royce Campbell, guitarist for Henry Mancini and the Smithsonian Institute Jazz Band, was 15 years old when he met Al Kiger playing on a job at the Indianapolis 500 led by Campbell’s uncle, pianist-arranger Carroll De Camp. Campbell used Kiger on his first two albums, Nighttime Daydreams and Gentle Breeze. He described him as a great arranger and a “sincere, warm, and intelligent” person, who “if you were his friend, you were a friend for life. He was sincerely happy to see you. If you weren’t, he wasn’t.” I met Kiger once, very briefly in the early 1990s and found him politely aloof. But I heard him play several times at The Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis with a house big band that was originally co-led by Stan Kenton alumnae John Von Ohlen (drums) and Chuck Carter (woodwinds) and found him to be a very impressive soloist. Pianist Steve Allee, a regular member of groups led by bassist-composer-educator Rufus Reid, was the Von Ohlen/Carter band’s arranger and eventually took it over. (Von Ohlen now leads the Blue Wisp Big Band in the club of the same name in Cincinnati.) Allee’s musical relationship with Kiger was a close one that included playing each other’s arrangements and compositions for over twelve years. He spoke of meeting Kiger in the late 1960s at the regular jam sessions the trumpet player hosted at his farm in Daleville, Indiana, and described Kiger as erudite, living in a home filled with novels and books on art and poetry. He believed that Kiger “elevated the [musical] standards for Indianapolis.” Allee generously supplied links to these examples of Kiger playing with his big band: “Downtown Blues” and “Saturn Dance.”