THE PRODUCERS: TOM WILSON
by DEREK ANSELL
Jazz Journal, October 2012
Transition Records from Cambridge, Massachusetts was different. Of all the small independent record companies making jazz LPs in the 1950s they should have been one of the most successful and highly regarded.
Why? Their LPs came out on heavy vinyl in thick cardboard jackets with a front cover pasted on. The backs were textured like imitation leather. Inside were booklets which had liner notes, full personnel listings, photographs of the musicians and on the last page an invitation to join the Transition Jazz Club and receive glossy photos of “your favourite Transition artists,” five-inch acetate samplings of new releases (at 78 rpm) and periodic newsletters.
Transition released albums by Herb Pomeroy, Donald Byrd, Sun Ra (his first LP), Donald Byrd (his first LP), Cecil Taylor (early issues, if not his first), Lucky Thompson, Doug Watkins and others who were to become leading jazz names. There was also a bargain-priced sampler LP, Jazz In Transition (TRLP-30), on which you could hear music by all of the above plus John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Pepper Adams, Joe Gordon, Curtis Fuller and several lesser known jazzmen.
So why did this ambitious, adventurous enterprise not succeed? One reason might be the cost of the records to the producer. The sampler LP, complete with extensive booklet and music by some of the best jazz musicians around at that time, sold for $1.98, a little less than £1 at that time.
Ironically, given this apparently misguided pricing strategy, the founder of Transition was a political science and economics graduate from Harvard University. He was Tom Wilson, one of the first black jazz record producers. He started Transition in Boston in 1954 or ’55 and recorded classical music, folk and cabaret acts, but the largest slice of his output was modern jazz. Later he would turn more fully towards pop and rock, producing records by Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground.
Wilson’s first jazz record was by a group led by Herb Pomeroy called Jazz In A Stable (TRLP-1), because that was the name of the Boston jazz club where Pomeroy was working in 1955. The record was issued in the UK on Esquire but reviews were bad and sales were poor. Trumpeter Donald Byrd’s very first LP as leader was recorded live at The New World Stage, Detroit on 23 August 1955 as Transition TRLP-5. With him were Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris and Bernard McKinney on euphonium, but again sales were poor. The record later came out on Delmark and did rather better.
When the sampler LP came out in 1956 the Coltrane track, “Trane’s Strain,” featuring him with Curtis Fuller, Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, was so badly reviewed that Wilson decided to scrap the session it came from and not to issue the LP. Many years later it appeared on a Blue Note CD under Paul Chambers’s name as Chamber’s Music, together with tracks from an old Imperial set recorded in California in 1956. “Trane’s Strain,” “High Step,” and “Nixon, Dixon and Yates Blues” (titled satirically to mock three politicians involved in sleaze and representing Nixon in early typical form) present some fine, idiosyncratic blues playing by Coltrane, Fuller and company and excellent contributions from Chambers and Jones.
Cecil Taylor’s LP Jazz Advance is one of his most accessible discs and features his versions of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” plus “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “Sweet And Lovely,” although the last named was not on the original LP. It’s a good introduction to the complex music of Cecil Taylor and fortunately it’s now available as a Blue Note CD.
Other notable Transition LPs included Sun Ra’s orchestra [sic] in Chicago, sounding like a modernized version of the Count Basie band, a first leader set for bassist Doug Watkins and a Donald Byrd session recorded in Boston at sound engineer Steve Fassett’s Beacon Hill Home with local pianist Ray Santisi.
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WHAT OF TOM WILSON, the man who tried to offer innovation and value for money and failed?
In 1957 he decided enough was enough and approached Alfred Lion of Blue Note and sold him the master tapes to a session by trumpeter Louis Smith, another debut date. It came out on Blue Note as Here Comes Louis Smith. Then in early 1958 Wilson sold three other sessions to Lion—the Cecil Taylor set, the unissued Coltrane, Fuller, Adams tapes and the Jazz In Transition masters. Oddly enough Lion never issued any of this material in his lifetime, although most of it was right in the Blue Note style. It did, however, apart from the sampler disc, eventually all come out under a Blue Note logo.
Wilson moved to United Artists where he produced fine LPs by Benny Golson, Thad Jones, Booker Little and Cecil Taylor. Then he was off to Savoy and then Columbia, where he became involved in projects for folk music, including a Bob Dylan record. He also helped to produce “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel.
Wilson did return to jazz at MGM/Verve with Walt Dickerson’s A Patch of Blue, with old favourite Sun Ra on piano. He also worked on successful records there with revolutionary rockers like Frank Zappa (a man with jazz associations) and the Velvet Underground. He eventually wound up in Los Angeles but was not very active in recording after 1969. He died there in 1978.
Commercially speaking, the story of Wilson and Transition is the story of an honourable failure. But if Wilson hadn’t made those recordings, how long would it have taken for Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and possibly even Donald Byrd to get started?
Recommended listening: The Transition Sessions (Blue Note 40528; 2-CD set containing three LP sessions with Donald Byrd and Doug Watkins)
© 2012 JJ Publishing Ltd. and Derek Ansell