Tribute and awards shows are almost always boring exercises in self-promotion and professional logrolling. Apparently no one told the Los Angeles Jazz Society: Their annual Tribute Awards & Concert, Sunday at the Alex Theatre, was a series of musical treats and an affirmation of heritage and community.
The theme of the evening was "Celebrating the Music of Shelly Manne," and it was an inspired one. Manne was a drum innovator whose protean styling fit every musical configuration and style. The former San Kenton drummer settled in L.A. in the early 1950s to help define the West Coast jazz movement in Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. In recording studios, he enlivened countless soundtracks, record dates, pop music sessions and commercials. As a bandleader, he provided a launching pad for great talents. After he opened Shelly's Manne-Hole in 1960, Hollywood had a world-class jazz club from 1960 to 1972. He provided a showplace and breeding ground for local talent, and brought the biggest names in jazz to town. He was also a father figure who taught by example and gentle counsel. His 1985 passing left a void that has yet to be filled.
The LAJS choosing Shelly’s widow, Flip Manne, as recipient of its annual Jazz Tribute Award might seem to be more than a little self-serving. Flip (don’t dare call her Florence) is a quiet, universally respected presence in the L.A. jazz community. She was a prime mover in the early years of the 31-year-old LAJS, has sat on its board and has been its president since 2003. She’s been an effective advocate for the organization, which gives recognition to jazz masters, provides musical instruction and instruments to LAUSD youngsters, and has maintained an exemplary mentorship program to promising young players. What Shelly lived — in the studios, on the bandstand, at the Manne-Hole, and at his home — Flip has institutionalized. Her recognition is well deserved.
At the Alex, an embarrassment of jazz riches was on display, and all of it local. This year's New Talent Award winner, 17-year-old trombonist Nicholas Lee, stood tall with the fine trio led by pianist and composer Tamir Hendelman; bassist Katie Thiroux is a past winner.
The trio then backed the gifted vocalist Tierney Sutton on three songs from Shelly’s iconic “My Fair Lady” album of 1956. With unmistakable authority, she played with the time, leaped octaves and used hip chord substitutions. But Sutton’s inner innovator overpowered her storyteller. Singer Carmen Bradford followed and, in a beaded dress given to her by Ella Fitzgerald, won the unspoken Communicator of the Night Award by simply swinging a couple of Ellington tunes. She noted that each of her parents (vocalist Melba Joyce and cornetist Bobby Bradford) played the Manne-Hole, underscoring the heritage aspect of the evening.
The capable drummer Clayton Cameron joined pianist Mike Wofford and bassist Chuck Berghofer, both veterans of Shelly Manne and His Men. Wofford dealt harmonic beauty on Russ Freeman's "Fan Tan" and Cameron worked out incisively on Shelly's closer — Bill Holman's brisk "A Gem From Tiffany."
A brief montage of vintage newsreel clips showed the young Flip Manne in her high-kicking days as a Rockette. It set up the most entertaining interlude of the night when young Sarah Reich tap-danced a tribute to her with Hendelman’s Trio. She was fast and the sound of her taps was crisp. Too bad the Manne-Hole closed before the tap revival of the 1970s kicked in. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that Shelly would have hosted drum and tap nights.
Paul Kreibich hosted a fascinating piece on his arrangement of "The Man I Love." He was one of a clutch of drummers — Cameron, Kevin Kanner, Sammy Miller and Alex Smith — who played snare drums while Peter Erskine anchored a trap set. There was synchronized melodic playing on the theme, and each man took an identifying solo chorus.
Emcee and bass soloist John Clayton conducted an all-star big band in three numbers connected with Shelly. Erskine played an homage on “Artistry in Rhythm,” Shelly’s Kenton feature, while Rickey Woodard’s tenor sax led Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.” Oliver Nelson’s three-movement “Sound Pieces,” with its dissonances and angular writing, closed out the show on an exhilarating high note.