Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 18, 2020

Ray Draper-A TUBA JAZZ (Jubilee Records LP, 1958)

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ray draper pic

Ray Draper-A TUBA JAZZ (Jubilee Records LP, 1958)

The tuba has a long history in jazz, though it was missing in action for a few decades in the 1930’s and 1940’s and early 1950’s. In the 1920’s, many jazz bands and “hot dance” bands with a jazz element had a “brass bass,” not a stand up acoustic bass, and that role was played by a tuba. Even a sophisticate like Duke Ellington had a tuba in his 20’s bands. By 1927-28, the tuba was on its way out, and by 1929 bands with a tuba sounded a bit antiquated (it’s the same with banjos, which were widely used in 20’s jazz, they were out by the late 20’s and replaced by guitars).

Tuba virtuoso Ray Draper recorded three albums as a leader in the 1957-1958 period, and two of them featured John Coltrane, which is why they’ve stayed in print (although usually under Coltrane’s name, not Draper’s) ever since. One was for Prestige’s “New Jazz” subsidiary, called THE RAY DRAPER QUINTET FEATURING JOHN COLTRANE. Coltrane played on five of the six tracks on that album, and of course, those tracks later appeared on Prestige albums under Coltrane’s name, such as THE BELIEVER. Draper and Coltrane also recorded an album for Jubilee in 1958, with very much the same line-up (different pianist) as the New Jazz album, which was called A TUBA JAZZ, and that too has been in print in one form or another ever since its issue, due to Coltrane’s presence.

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In the 70’s, when I was a broke teenager, the material from the Jubilee album became part of a two-LP set TRANE TRACKS on the infamous TRIP label (“a division of Springboard International,” the back cover proudly stated). We’ve provided a pic of that album AND the rare 8-track variant of it—if you’ve got that 8-track, congratulations! As I remember that Trip album, which had the two LP’s stuffed into one sleeve, the personnel listing was dodgy. I had no way of knowing back then that some of the material on the album was actually from a group led by Lee Morgan (and supposedly one side of the two-LP set did not even contain Coltrane—typical for Trip Records). I just knew that the tracks with no tuba were not from the Draper sessions. Good old Trip/Springboard Records—who can forget their Hendrix albums of pre-fame R&B jams never intended for release, pre-fame Allman Brothers material from the “Allman Joys” days, the Sonny Boy Williamson with the Yardbirds album, etc.

Many years later, I discovered that the actual original album from which the TRANE TRACKS material came from was a 1958 LP on Jubilee called A TUBA JAZZ, credited to bandleader Ray Draper. It’s very interesting and satisfying as an album, and when placed alongside Coltrane’s Prestige material of the day, it offers quite a contrast. First of all, there are not a lot of jazz tuba players out there. Howard Johnson comes to mind, but few others. And Draper himself did not have a long and prolific career. He made three albums as a leader in the late 1950’s, while still in his late teens, and then made a jazz-rock album for Epic in the late 60’s credited to Red Beans and Rice. He appeared as a sideman on albums by Archie Shepp and Brother Jack McDuff and Sonny Criss and Dr. John, but health and lifestyle issues plagued him, and sadly he was murdered while being robbed in 1982 at the age of 42. Who knows what unique roads he could have explored could he have recorded more and had more opportunities…

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As for this album (and the other one with Coltrane), Draper was only 17 or 18 at the time he recorded it and was viewed as something of a young prodigy. The tuba is not a particularly agile instrument, so when the material is the kind of post-bop or hard-bop (or whatever it’s called) that was the jazz mainstream in 1958, during the statement of the song’s theme at the beginning and end of each piece, Coltrane (on tenor sax throughout) is the one who pretty much handles the melody, while Draper’s tuba offers the kind of blurred smears of sound I associate with New Orleans tailgate trombone players such as Kid Ory at their most primitive and non-mainstream. It’s kind of percussive in its effect and provides counterpoint to the lead instrument. The two Sonny Rollins pieces here, particularly “Oleo,” are very much bebop in their construction, and to hear Draper maneuver his way through the statement of theme on those rapid-fire pieces is like seeing The Incredible Hulk, blindfolded, working his way across a minefield….and succeeding. Coltrane always appreciated a challenge, and during his Prestige period (and while this was not recorded for Prestige, it IS during his Prestige period), he no doubt especially appreciated when he was given a unique situation to work in…..like that odd session recorded for a 16 rpm release (called BARITONES AND FRENCH HORNS) where he was teamed with two baritone saxophonists, or the sessions with Mal Waldron, with MW’s quirky and unique compositional style (it makes sense that he and Steve Lacy were perfect duet partners) and non-traditional sense of rhythm. So Trane’s playing here is always fascinating in that he’s teamed with a non-traditional player and has to compensate for what his partner can and can’t do. I probably listened to these tracks hundreds of times back then on my cheap Trip-label LP, and I always found new and interesting elements in them. I still do today.

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As Jubilee and Roulette later found themselves both owned by the EMI group of labels (nowadays under the Universal Music banner, I think), these tracks—along with Coltrane tracks from material recorded for Roulette—found themselves on an album called LIKE SONNY, under EMI’s Roulette Jazz subsidiary. Also, an exact reissue of the original Jubilee A TUBA JAZZ album can be found on the Spanish FRESH SOUND label, on both LP and CD. You can score a like-new CD of the LIKE SONNY album for four or five dollars used. You may even find a copy of the old TRANE TRACKS album out there in the wild at some junk store or flea market—it’s not particularly a desirable collectible, but with it you can recreate the joy I had, listening to it late at night as a teenager in the family basement, where the stereo was.

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