These recordings are of particular significance given the deep history that Larry Young and my father shared coming up in Newark, New Jersey. Knowing what we know of Newark as a hotbed of indigenous talent and the incubator of so much musical innovation, having produced artists like Wayne Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, Grachan Moncur III, James Moody and so many others, it is clear that Woody Shaw (1944 – 1989) and Larry Young (1940 – 1978) were destined to achieve something significant by the very shape and fate of their geography.
However, there is more to this than the simple hometown cliché of dreams fulfilled by two young visionaries on the quest for self-realization. This recording is, in fact, the precursor to what we know of as one of Blue Note Records's more eclectic iconographic masterpieces, an album that crosses all seeming boundaries of musical taste and generational identity: Unity. And while the CD (or perhaps LP) that you have before you exists in most part due to the towering status of its lead subject, there were in fact a number of other characters who helped orchestrate its existence, and that of its later offshoot.
As legend has it, it was Dr. Nathan Davis who sought out Woody Shaw in 1964 in fulfillment of the echoing last request of the great multireedist and composer Eric Dolphy (1928 – 1964), Nathan’s close musical friend and mentor, who had intended to put together an “all-star” band in Europe with a number of U.S. musicians including Woody, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Billy Higgins. Due to Eric’s untimely passing, however, this was a dream that remained largely unfulfilled, if only posthumously and partially so following the request of Nathan to bring Woody out to meet Eric’s last musical wish.
As Nathan recounted it to me once, Eric told him enthusiastically, “Man, you got to hear this little trumpet player, Nat. He knows all my music. . . And as crazy as my music sounds? You know he must be special to know all my music.” It was true, as Woody Shaw often boasted in his interviews, “I memorized all of Eric’s tunes. . . Eric’s music helped me find my own approach to the trumpet.” Woody was 18 years old when he made his first debut on Eric Dolphy’s 1963 masterpiece, Iron Man. So it was within this context of transition, discovery, and exchange that Woody Shaw arrived in Paris in 1964 at the invitation of Nathan Davis.
Not too long after gigging with European musicians, however, my father apparently “had enough” and soon became musically “homesick,” longing for the edification and camaraderie that he shared with musicians that he knew and grew up with. Chief among those musicians was a drummer named Billy Brooks and an organist named Larry Young, Jr. (Woody Shaw was also a “Jr.” at the time), both of whom he played with regularly in his hometown of Newark, NJ where all three attended the "infamous" Arts High School.
Woody’s insistence that Nathan help bring Billy and Larry to Paris was supported by impassioned references to the uncanny musical mastery of Larry Young and his development of a whole new style of organ playing, one that was both highly personal and unprecedentedly uncharacteristic of the instrument’s idiomatic conventions. Yet such was the attitude of these musicians in valuing the cutting edge and in championing each other’s courage to venture “outward” towards the musically uncharted. As Nathan stated, Woody told him, “Man, you got to hear this guy, Nat. He plays organ, but it don’t sound like organ. . . He plays the organ like a piano player.” “I don’t know, Woody,” said Nathan. “I don’t really dig organ, man.” Woody then replied, “No, Nat. . . This organist plays like McCoy [Tyner]!” So there you have it (“Trane of the organ”).
Listen to Woody Shaw discuss the influence of Larry Young (1980)
The camaraderie built around shared meanings inherent within a sound, a sound lived each day not simply in music, but in the everyday interactions, reactions and impressions of a youthful musical life in Newark, NJ, are what these young men would soon craft together and elaborate on across the stages of Paris, France. These were musicians still freshly under the influence of the climactic apexes of John Coltrane’s revolutionary Quintet, particularly in the exploration of new intervallic and harmonic possibilities, stylistic personalization of the “standard repertoire,” and the investigation of new altitudinal sounds and expressions that sprang forth from the growing ethos shared among young Black artists in the pursuit of a much broader and more liberating harmonic “existence.” And thus, with this growing sound came a broader sense of humanity, one inclusive (think, “Unity”) of sensibilities beyond the aesthetic criteria of America and Europe, and which could be expressed as articulately and individualistically, and with as much beauty, force, and deliberate vengeance as possible. Suffice it to say, these were not young musicians who simply “played” for fun. These young musicians played as much for the love of the music as they did for the affirmation of pride, respect, and self-empowerment. “Unity” meant Brotherhood.
As Nathan recalled it, the three Newark natives would often declare to each other as they walked down the streets of Paris, “Straight ahead, Nat. . . Straight ahead, Larry. . . Straight ahead, Woody. . . Straight ahead, Billy. . .” An affirmative mantra and reminder of who they were, where they came from, and where they intended to go. The mindset of musicians so young and yet so eerily on the prodigious verge of self-mastery is something not to be taken lightly. Looking back, Larry Young was but 24 years old during these recordings (possibly 23 on the octet recordings included here). Woody Shaw was only 20 (possibly just 19 on the octet material).
And thus, Newark, once again, being what it was, as one of the more culturally dense and historically tumultuous capitols of African American revolutionary and creative thought, exists as much in this recording in sound, feeling and volition, as it does in its anointed sequel, Unity. The orchestrated delivery of juxtaposed attitudes and self-summarized situations, of the natural and narrative shapes, harmonic logic, the vernaculars “spoken” and un-spoken amongst these three men and their honorary elder, Nathan Davis, speak to a certain counterassault to contrivance, pretense, and to the clichés of social indifference and apathy towards injustice, discrimination, and segregation, all of which would have been normal features of any sudden kaleidoscopic snapshot taken during the period in which this recording was made. Just shy of Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act, and the subsequent assassination of Malcolm X, this recording is as indicative of where jazz was going as it was deadly serious to young Black musicians of a certain radical persuasion, and to the individual formations of identity being experienced across continents of thought and culture by young musicians who unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, made history that year (1964-1965) in Europe.
Unity is, in fact, the outcome of this extended experimental period, a period in which these musicians took all liberties to broaden their creative and intellectual horizons (studying everything from Eastern philosophy to meditation, yoga, and martial arts, and listening to everything from Indian, African, and Eastern European folk music to 20th century European Classic) while saying as much as could be said about the world in which they lived. As with Unity, a number of the compositions included here were written by Woody Shaw, all of them bearing idiosyncrasies of a burgeoning style, a new way of speaking to the tradition of jazz while pushing the limits of the music to new heights, meanwhile establishing a point of departure for new discoveries that would long succeed them. And while the direction in which this music was headed is often overly-characterized as avant-garde due to its implicit evasion of categorization (that’s kind of the point here, folks), everything about it is idiomatic and indigenous to the historical tradition of jazz. A tradition built upon the circumstantial necessities for ingenuity, self-empowerment, and transcendent self-realization of human potential is perhaps most iconized by the expression of those very elements, those very principles that first commanded its existence.
These are the original “Young Lions,” forging new ground and taking irredeemable risks, daring to face the consequences of individuality with few ambitions other than those invested in the advancement of the music itself. Such was the badge of courage, integrity, and loyalty that these young men sought, lived and played by, while still barely out of their teens and entering into their twenties.
Fifty or so years after the fact, we have a gem in our possession, and what better time to release a prequel than during the 50th anniversary of its canonical epic (Unity, 1966). And as with all great stories and all great works of timeless art — the saga continues. So with that continuum in mind and on behalf of my father, Larry Young, Nathan Davis, and Billy Brooks, I leave you with two words: Straight Ahead.
Written by Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw, III
Copyright 2016 © Woody Shaw Legacy LLC/Moontrane Media Group