A Great Night in Manhattan: Jazz at the Plaza 1958

On Tuesday, August 12, 1958, the most inclusive single piece of jazz documentation occurred when Art Kane, on an assignment from Esquire magazine, produced a group photograph of 57 mostly well-known jazz artists who had gathered on the steps of a brownstone in Harlem. The picture and the story behind it became known as A Great Day in Harlem. Collectively, these musicians were to ultimately issue recordings over a 99-year period—from Luckey Roberts’ 1916 recording to Benny Golson’s 2015 recording – essentially the entire history of jazz.

Around the time that the issue of Esquire containing Kane’s historic photograph hit the newsstands, a second grouping of jazz musicians were brought together who, if not quite equal in size to the Great Day in Harlem gathering, were every bit as august.

By the Fall of 1958, Columbia Records had acquired an impressive roster of talent in their jazz division. During that year, Columbia produced/released Miles Davis’ Milestones and Porgy and Bess, Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, Duke Ellington’s Ellington Indigos, as well as Ellington at Newport (1958) and the studio recording of the jazz performed live on producer Robert Herridge’s December 1957 edition of CBS’s series The Seven Lively Arts, entitled The Sound of Jazz.

RARE 1950's JAZZ TV PROGRAMS: - Jazz From 61 (1959) - The Sound of Miles  Davis (1959) - The Sound of Jazz (1957) Art Ford's Jazz Party (1958) +  EXTRAS - - Two VHS & Three DVD-R | Jazz | Audiogon
The Sound of Jazz, 1957, with Billie Holiday

Columbia also had reason to celebrate their immediate future. Within the first eight months of 1959 Columbia was to produce three of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. During March and April, Miles Davis and his sextet produced his masterpiece, Kind of Blue. In May, Charles Mingus entered Columbia’s 30th St. studio and recorded one of his classic albums, Mingus Ah Um. In June and August, Dave Brubeck brought his quartet to 30th St. and on the strength of Paul Desmond’s composition “Take Five” and the use of some uncommon time signatures, turned out the best-selling album of his long career, Time Out.

In September 1958, Columbia’s jazz division decided to collectively puff out their chests and booked the tony Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel for a self-congratulatory party to take place on the afternoon and early evening of Tuesday, September 9, to celebrate the division’s recent and planned future artistic and financial successes – sort of a party on 58th Street to celebrate ’58. The date was exactly four weeks to the day after The Great Day in Harlem photo shoot.

The Columbia artists asked to perform included Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, the Miles Davis Sextet with John Coltrane and Julian Adderley, and the Buck Clayton Quartet with Mal Waldron. Special guests were Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing.

Miles Davis & Billie Holiday, New York City 1958 | Don Hunstein
Billie Holiday and Miles Davis talking with Jimmy Rushing at the Plaza Hotel September 9, 1958

Given that it was a private party, by invitation only, any unsuspecting jazz connoisseurs who arrived at the Plaza that afternoon for the soon to be in vogue, three-martini lunch or happy hour, might have been startled to pass John Coltrane in the lobby or be standing next to a sullen and silent Miles in the men’s room or notice a rather taciturn Johnny Hodges killing time in an overstuffed lobby chair between sets.

In total, there were 27 musicians who performed that afternoon. The short list included Ellington, Davis, Holiday, Rushing, Coltrane, Hodges, Carney, Adderley, Chambers, Gonsalves, Evans, Clayton and Waldron. Only Rushing and Clayton attended both the GDIH photo shoot and the Columbia Records party.

Miles Davis- September 9, 1958 Plaza Hotel, NYC [Jazz At The Plaza] -  YouTube
The Miles Davis Sextet in the Persian Room, Plaza Hotel, New York, New York September 9, 1958. Shown is cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Not shown is Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb.

Columbia sent out a remote recording crew to capture the event, though the intent was not to release the performances commercially but merely to provide documentation for the record company’s archives in case such an event should never be repeated.

In those archives is where the tape remained for the next 15 years.

 In the early 1970s, perhaps driven by the bohemian leanings of college students, and an emerging interest in the reissuing of jazz from the bebop era forward, Columbia rediscovered the Plaza tapes and in 1973 issued the Miles Davis performances as Jazz at the Plaza Vol. 1 as well as the Ellington performances, which included guest performances from Holiday and Rushing, as Jazz at the Plaza Vol. 2. The two volumes were accompanied by separate sets of liner notes written by Columbia producer, Irving Townsend.

Beyond a small bump up in the market demand for jazz product, we might speculate that another marketing strategy for releasing the tapes might have been at work. Perhaps the primary reason that Columbia issued the Davis recording was to further cash-in on Miles Davis’ great financial success for the label with his fusion albums of the early 1970s. If the label could get some of Davis’ earlier work into the hands of his rather young fusion fans, perhaps they could create some more demand for his classic 50s and 60s Columbia albums. The Plaza recordings were the only classic period Davis that they had in the vaults that they wished to release at that time (The Plugged Nickel sessions sat until the early 80s for U.S. release), so perhaps a “new-old” Miles Davis album could create more demand for the retro era releases. To a lesser financial extent, the same rationale might apply to the Ellington Plaza release, as the label had much Ellington product on hand from the late 50s and early 60s.

Jazz At The Plaza | Miles Davis
The 1973 Album, Jazz at the Plaza, The Miles Davis Sextet, Vol. 1

In getting the two Plaza releases ready for market, Columbia Records ran into some problems. The performances from 1958 were a distant memory to those personnel who had been involved with the original production. The co-producer of the event, Irving Townsend, had, by 1960, relocated to the west coast offices of Columbia as Vice President of A&R. Few top Columbia executives who were around in 1958 were still with the organization in 1973. Goddard Lieberson, Columbia’s president in 1958, had been succeeded by Clive Davis in 1967, whose dismissal in May 1973—around the time that the two albums were in production—threw the label into turmoil. By the early 70s, Columbia had reduced its commitment to jazz and invested heavily in the emerging rock, pop and soul market segments. So there existed little institutional memory for all that happened that afternoon in September 1958. 

Because this was never intended to be released commercially, the normal level of background documentation for the recording was scarce or non-existent. Most of the musicians involved probably had not been aware that they had been recorded. If they were, they assumed it was for documentation purposes because they were not paid union scale as they would have been for a formal recording session. In fact, as Bill Evans recalled upon the 1973 release of the albums, the surviving musicians from the session were, in 1973, offered union scale … at the 1958 rate!

Consequently, those who were still alive in 1973 may have viewed this as a party and not a recording session and were of little help to Columbia in piecing together the session.  

Collectively, these factors likely were responsible for the large number of inaccuracies and embarrassing errors—both major and minor—present in the reissues track names and listing of the musicians. Irving Townsend’s liner notes for both albums were inaccurate and out of character for him. Given that Townsend was present at the party that day, the inaccuracies are even more surprising.

In those liner notes, Townsend indicates that the venue was The Plaza’s Edwardian Room, when in fact it was the Persian Room. He compounds the confusion by then describing the Edwardian Room’s attributes, normal class of clientele and physical size.

Irving Townsend liner notes for Jazz at the Plaza, Vol. 1

Townsend goes on to describe the opening selection on the Ellington record which is listed as “Jazz Festival Suite” as being written “…for his 1958 Newport appearance.” Actually, the suite that Ellington and his Orchestra performed at the Plaza had never been entitled Jazz Festival Suite. Further, it had not been written for Newport, nor was it performed at Newport. It had been a commission to Ellington by the directors of the Great South Bay Jazz Festival and was premiered at the GSBJF on August 3, 1958, one month after Newport and was originally entitled, The Great South Bay Suite. Ellington must have felt that the suite had possibilities for further development because twelve days later, on August 15, 1958, it was again performed when the band appeared at the Sheraton Hotel in French Lick, Indiana as part of the French Lick Jazz Festival. However, as Ellington might phrase it: It is in very bad taste for one to play the Great South Bay (Jazz Festival) Suite at the French Lick Jazz Festival. Easy solution – simply rename the suite. So, it appears quite likely that the suite was then renamed Toot Suite. Eventually, Columbia recorded Toot Suite in its entirety on February 19, 1959 for the Ellington Jazz Party album.

Townsend then proceeded to reveal that the Ellington band at The Plaza was “…the same band that broke up the Newport Jazz Festival that summer (1958) and made a popular hero out of Paul Gonsalves.” Obviously, he confused the 1956 NJF with the 1958 NJF.

In the Ellington reissue’s liner notes, no mention was made of the presence of the Buck Clayton/Mal Waldron Quartet—understandable in that no quartet performances were included on either record.  But what was a major historical oversight was that no mention was made that it was Waldron, Holiday’s regular accompanist on piano, not Ellington, accompanying Holiday for her two songs with Buck Clayton joining Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard of the Ellington Orchestra. The significance of that fact is that it establishes that there is presently no known commercially released recording of Ellington on piano accompanying Holiday.

The Complete Jazz at the Plaza + 11 Bonus Tracks - Jazz Messengers
The complete Jazz at the Plaza recordings with the Duke Ellington Orchestra

Holiday did sing with the Ellington band with Ellington on piano in the short film from 1935, Symphony in Black. In 1945, Holiday participated in a radio broadcast with Duke’s Orchestra in the California Philharmonic Auditorium during Esquire Magazine’s Second Annual Jazz Concert. This was never commercially recorded. Finally, in 1952 she was present at Ellington’s 25th Anniversary Concert (in show business) which took place at Carnegie Hall. Again, no commercial recording.

Two further errors are real head scratchers. The Miles Davis volume starts out with Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” which is listed correctly on the record label, but as “Jazz at the Plaza” on the back of the record’s jacket. In the liner notes, Townsend was evidently provided the false information about the name of track #1 and repeated it in the notes, calling it “an original (composition).” Rather strange how someone at Columbia could possibly not identify the Monk piece and then compound the error by simply creating another name for it with nobody at the label catching the mistake. After all, “Straight No Chaser” is one of the most easily identified pieces in the Monk canon and Monk had been a Columbia artist from 1963 to 1968.

Finally, in the personnel listings for the Davis album as well as in Townsend’s liner notes, they list Philly Joe Jones as the drummer. Earlier that year, Davis fired Jones for the second time and had replaced him with Jimmy Cobb who appears on the Plaza recording and claimed the drum chair for the duration of the 1st classic Davis group.

I focused upon all these errors because the music contained within both volumes is mostly excellent and truly deserved to be treated with a bit more respect. Additionally, because liner notes are the primary source of educational information for most jazz fans, there exists an implied responsibility to the record companies to be as accurate as possible with documentation.

So, here we have two musical giants of the 20th century who came from two different, though overlapping eras, who were brought together on a Tuesday afternoon at a very ritzy, formal environment for the purpose of satisfying the whims of some well-to-do corporate bosses and their business associates. Consequently, the gig had all the makings for the musicians of simply an afternoon of free top shelf booze, food beyond the usual fare of what you might get on the road. (Think what the Ellington band might have had to eat in French Lick, Indiana.) So, why bust a gut when just an adequate effort would suffice?

In searching for an explanation for why both recordings exceeded expectations, let us turn to the thoughts of one of the esteemed invited attendees, the writer and critic, Ralph Ellison.

In a letter that Ellison wrote to Albert Murray, dated September 28, 1958, Ellison offers some rather interesting observations of the unspoken dynamic that he observed taking place between Duke, his musicians, and the Davis band members who, because the two groups were alternating sets, were presumably present in the Persian Room observing each other’s handiwork.

I was at a party given by Columbia Records at the Plaza recently, where they presented Duke, Miles Davis, Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday and it was murder. Duke signified on Davis all through his numbers and his trumpeters and saxophonists went after him like a bunch of hustlers in a Georgia skin game fighting with razors.  Only Cannonball Adderley sounded as though he might have some of the human qualities which sounds unmistakably in the Ellington band. And no question of numbers was involved. They simply had more to say in a hundred more ways in which they say it.

Read From Ralph Ellison's Novel, Juneteenth ‹ Literary Hub
Critic Ralph Ellison

Notwithstanding the bias that Ellison might freely admit that he had toward the big bands of the post-bop era and, in particular, Ellington and Basie, as well as his perceptions of the lack of emotional commitment on the part of the “New Thing” musicians, his statement is supported by the times.

If we believe Ellison’s observations to be true, then perhaps what elevated the session was that unbeknownst to most of the invited guests, they were witnessing an old school, friendly cutting contest ala Chick Webb or the Savoy Sultans, with the Ellington organization coming prepared to give a performance that would leave no doubt as to the band’s bona fides. One can further speculate that because the two organizations alternated sets, the Davis group had the opportunity to become aware of what Ellison had sensed and responded to it with a fine performance of their own – Ellison’s opinion notwithstanding.  

To shed further light on why Ellington might have been signifying to Davis we can look toward the mid-1950s into the early 1960s. This period was a rather interesting time in jazz history where two different generations of musicians straddled a musical divide—that divide being created mostly through the advent of the modernist movement that came about in the mid-1940s. It is oftentimes conjectured that this movement was in part, intended to challenge the older generation through the younger generation creating “barriers-to-entry” to the music, based upon the new rhythmic and harmonic structure of bebop (amusical to many ears of the time).

Unlike previous generations, where many untrained or intuitive musicians were supplanted by changing times, the best musicians of Ellington’s generation gave away nothing to the youngsters. Possessing crackerjack reading skills, great musical imaginations and total mastery of their instruments, many of the older musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins, moved comfortably back and forth between both camps, as did Ellington, which he demonstrated in his solo or trio piano albums of the 1950s and 60s and his work on Money Jungle with Max Roach and Charles Mingus. When the best musicians representing these two eras came together at jazz festivals or in the clubs and ballrooms in the major cities throughout the country, sparks might fly and wounds could be inflicted, as both camps were busy signifying in support of their music or even to demonstrate their mastery of the other generation’s musical approach.

Coleman Hawkins Was Jazz's Bridge To The New — Vinyl Me, Please
Coleman Hawkins

Beyond the difference in musical styles, the philosophical difference between the two bands boiled down to the manner in which Ellington and Davis viewed their audience. Ellington came from a generation that in addition to stressing artistic excellence rarely lost track of the fact that they were entertainers; Davis, on the other hand, carried the flag for those of the modernists who considered much of the audience incapable of appreciating the aesthetic that drove the new music. We might refer to this dichotomy of how the two groups viewed the audience as the Entertainers versus the Disdainers. Of course, not all individual musicians within both organizations adhered to this split. Hodges could provide Davis with some stiff competition in a disdainful look competition (Hodge’s disdain was generally focused upon Ellington). On the other hand, Adderley, in his personal appearances, established an excellent rapport with his audience.

Another factor which could explain the fine performances of the participants was the great respect the two leaders had for each other and the desire to impress. Davis once offered this about Ellington: At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington. Heady stuff from the Prince of Darkness. In fact, Ellington might have been one of the only jazz musicians who Davis cared about impressing.

Despite the unintentional yet unrelenting assault these albums perpetrated on the concept of historically accurate jazz information, ultimately these recordings are all about the music and that is the albums’ strength. The fact that after 15 years Columbia thought to release two performances from musical icons of the 20th century, that were never meant to be heard by the general public, was commendable.

Copyright: Steve H. Siegel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

(This article first appeared on the blog “Jazz Profiles” on May, 17, 2021)

One thought on “A Great Night in Manhattan: Jazz at the Plaza 1958

  1. Great article — love the note about Ellison (and the quotes) and your thorough rundown of the mistakes in the liner notes. Excellent on all counts.

    This one thing jumped out at me: i couldn’t figure out the “two giants” you’d referenced at first —
    “So, here we have two musical giants of the 20th century who came from two different, though overlapping eras…”

    Several giants present by my count! Oh, I told myself, he’s talking about the bandleaders. (For some of us, Coltrane is the colossus in that Davis band.)

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