Bethlehem Sampler: Jazz Highlights

Various Artists

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Bethlehem Sampler: Jazz Highlights Review

by arwulf arwulf

The Bethlehem record label was established in 1953 by Gustav "Gus" Wildi. A Bethlehem Sampler was issued by the budget Charly label in 1999, focusing on the ballad vocalists, West Coast, bop, cool, and mainstream jazz instrumentalists who gave the label its signature sound. These include Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus; Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon; Claude "Fiddler" Williams and Herbie Mann; J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, as well as vocalists Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Johnny Hartman, and Mel Tormé. The real Bethlehem story runs much deeper and takes in a wider stylistic range than is at first apparent. The earliest Bethlehem record was cut in September 1946, predating the "establishment" of the label by some seven years. The original focus was upon Afro-American blues and R&B, as evidenced by names like Johnny Temple, Lonnie Johnson, John Lee Hooker (billed as "Texas Slim" on his first Bethlehem session which took place in Detroit in 1948); Memphis Slim, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Jimmy Rushing. A dramatic genre shift occurred in 1953 as Piney Brown and Sticks McGhee suddenly made way for Chris Connor and Charlie Mariano. Blues artists would occasionally reappear on Bethlehem (such as Champion Jack Dupree in 1955 and Washboard Bill with King Curtis in 1956) but co-producer Creed Taylor's influence emphasized the jazz catalog and made Bethlehem one of the nation's best jazz labels during the mid-'50s. Part of this company's success was attributable to the excellent and often eye-catching album covers designed by Burt Goldblatt, most especially the numerous and at times wacky, kangaroo-infested illustrations that he crafted for the Australian Jazz Quartet, a group who recorded quite often for this label. Most importantly, what made Bethlehem truly outstanding was a policy that echoed Milt Gabler's approach as the founder and operator of Commodore records. In the words of Gus Wildi: "Bethlehem gave its artists total artistic freedom." A wider survey of the extensive Bethlehem catalog would reveal a formidable roster of musicians who changed the course of history and might have made this sampler even more impressive. They include Nina Simone, Roland Kirk, Herbie Nichols, Booker Ervin, Booker Little, Mal Waldron with Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd with Pepper Adams and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis with Shirley Scott. What you get here is therefore a tiny sliver of a much bigger picture. But it's one hell of a sliver -- this is a good sampler that contains accessible jazz suitable for most every occasion.

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