History of Contemporary Records
Shelly Manne & His Men Play Checkmate
In a documentary film about food supplies to be consumed in time of war, stored in underground bunkers, I used a solo of drummer Shelly Manne for a sequence of never ending rows of shiny tins with biscuits and corned beef. The solo was from the Contemporary LP "Shelly Manne & His Men Play Checkmate". My colleagues complimented me on the excellent choice of music and the mixing engineer asked me where I got that superb recording from.
Well, I had bought the Checkmate LP in a sale in a department store. After coming home and playing it, I became an avid lover of West Coast Jazz instantly. The adaptation of the score of John Williams - who was a pianist and who in those days was called Johnny Williams and was writing a lot of music for television before he became the prolific John Williams of the big screen - was played with suspense and a sort of coolness by Shelly Manne (drums), Conte Candoli (trumpet), Richie Kamuca (tenor), Russ Freeman (piano) and on bass Chuck Berghofer, the youngest of them all.
sound of the LP was indeed superb, realistic and full of detail and I realized
that I had stumbled upon a treasure, a product in the category "State of
the Art" - even if in those days this term was not commonly used.
Roy Dunann built the studio. Yet even the earliest recordings before Dunann joined
Contemporary, the recordings made by engineers Val Valentine or John Paladino
had already a specific signature in sound, as can be heard on Shelly Manne Vol.
2 with modern jazz works, composed and played by Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill
Holman, Jack Montrose, Marty Paich, and Shorty Rogers on C2511: Divertimento For
Brass & Rhythm, Alternation, Lullaby, Etude de Concert, Dimensions in Thirds,
Shapes, and Motion and Color.
Sebastian Cabot, Doug McClure & Anthony George
my respect was for producer Koenig, it was Shelly Manne who became, at least to
me, a sort of trademark. His name on the label was the quality stamp. Sure there
were the other artists, and more good drummers among them. But Manne with his
controlled and refined style - which is completely the opposite of, say, Gene
Kupra's - appeared to be the bonding factor of 'music making without egos fighting
to get the upper lead' (which by the way can be fun too!). And when Shelly's group
came to the end of a live session, A Gem from Tiffany
was played, the names of the musicians were mentioned and the audience was thanked
for their attendance. John Koenig says about Shelly Manne:
"The Gramophone", of December 1962, Alun Morgan, editor and reviewer
of the Jazz & Swing Section, quotes Shelly Manne saying about Checkmate: "What
attracted me to the music was the mood the pieces create—you might call it a "modal"
mood. I mean there aren't a lot of changes and because of it you can create more
exciting rhythmic interest".
At The Manne Hole
more Contemporary artists were on my list to be investigated: Curtis Counce, Hampton
Hawes, Art Pepper, Cecil Taylor, Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, André Previn,
Phineas Newborn, Ray Brown. This led to my second best buy, this time the 2 LP
set "Shelly Manne and his Men at The Manne Hole" (S7593/4) which is
another striking Koenig account, again with Howard Holzer responsible for the
sound recording, and again with Shelly Manne, Conte Candoli, Richie Kamuca, Russ
Freeman, and Chuck Berghofer. The liner notes were written by Leonard Feather.
Contemporary records do have a high content of naturalness. Like Mercury Living Presence, Contemporary served as an example and inspiration to other labels from the 1970s like Sheffield Lab, Eastwind, Concord Jazz, Proprius (because of a strange phase shift their title Jazz At The Pawnshop cannot compete with The Manne Hole Sessions), and also Three Blind Mice, I dare say. Even today many a Contemporary record can be qualified as being a true reference.
Many record companies do print technical data on the back of their covers just to impress the buyer. Often these data are accompanied by an advertising slogan. The technical data mentioned on the back of Checkmate were there for advertising purposes, no doubt, but the mention of these data was really meaningful and justified, and surely Lester Koenig wanted the buyer to know that his recordings were among the best a fan can get. I had taken the wide frequency band of 30 to 20.000 Hz. and the tangible mid band for granted until l noticed that the cover of the stereo version of Checkmate - which I bought later - mentioned 15.000 cycles as upper limit. That stereo issue sounded rather thin. I realized that the cutting head was not yet able to engrave the same dynamics stereophonically. Many early stereo cuttings of Blue Note, Riverside, Pacific, London (English Decca), Deutsche Grammophon Red Stereo, and Philips Hi-Fi Stereo do have this slender sound.
Making a live recordings in a club is something completely different from making a studio recording where producer and recording engineer can have full control over acoustics, the positions of the players, the sound can be tested and microphone placement can be meticulously adjusted, and if the musicians do not have the right spirit they just can go away and come back some other day. Not so when an actual performance is to be recorded in Shelly's club in Hollywood. Then and there one must make shift with what one has. From the recording it is clear that there is no luxurious grand piano but a simple upright piano. And an upright has a distinctive sound because the attack of the felt hammer moves the string with force towards the soundboard first. The reflection which is picked up by the microphone is primarily out of phase.
In and Out of Phase
In recordings of a grand piano, microphones are often positioned left and right from the piano. And at least one microphone above (or somewhat close to) the strings. There the felt hammer strikes from underneath and the mike(s) picks up the sound which is for the most part in phase. The intensity of the reflected sound is less and that reflected sound of course is out of phase with a minute time delay.
In an upright piano the sound board is in a vertical position and the space between the strings and the sound board is much smaller so there is less volume of sound. Now the felt hammer strikes in the direction of the sound board and the initial vibration is out of phase relative to the microphones, does not matter if these are positioned above the piano or in front when the lid is taken of. Of course it is possible to connect the microphone out of phase, but only then if it does not mess up the characteristic of the complete sound recording.
Shelly Manne & His Men at The Manne-Hole features a 'primitive' upright piano. Primitive, but at the same time determining the atmosphere in the club. On top of that one can hear that during a few passages and solos the level of one of the microphones is adjusted to bring out the piano or another instrument better. One can hear, that at least in one instance in Cole Proter's melancholy "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", the signal of the microphone placed near the piano, when a solo is played, is slightly increased. That too tells the listener that this is a live recording. Despite this circumstance, S7593/4 became one of my treasured Contemporary albums too, because the recording gives a strong sense of 'being there'.
Checkmate on C3599 and Shelly Manne & His Men at The Manhole on S7593/4 -
with classics like Softly as in a morning sunrise; Love for sale; On green Dolphin
Street; I am a bell, Whats new?, etc. all embedded in the live atmosphere
- have always been favorites. But there are more Contemporary titles on the shelves.
For instance LP's of pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., and there is the disc with Swingin
Sounds. A later title 'More Swinging Sounds' is from 1956 and - mind you - was
already recorded in stereo. It has Russ Freeman's The Wind on it which is in some
way foreboding the atmosphere of the Checkmate recording. Whenever a Contemporary
disc was spotted by me, it was bought. Too many examples. One fine example in
the long list is 'Grooveyard' with Harold Land (tenor), Rolf Ericson (trumpet),
Carl Perkins (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Frank Butler (drums) on S7550.
And even when many titles of the catalog were re-issued on Old Classic Jazz by
Fantasy, they were considered if the originals were missing in the collection.
That is why More Swinging Sounds as a reissue in the OJC-Series is a much appreciated
LKS, LKL, LAC
a very young guitarist, Pepe Romero, is on Contemporary. He came with his father
to the studio to play flamenco guitar. No matter what, there is always this kind
of perfect music making. And there is the "natural sound", notwithstanding
the fact that Lester Koenig and his technicians used multi miking. There are no
problems with phase that are noticeable. Early pressings had green and black labels.
They also can be recognized by the machine stamped matrix number in the dead wax.
For stereo discs the reference began with LKS, meaning Lester Koenig Stereo. The
newer editions had the matrix numbers written by hand. Records were pressed under
license in Great Britain with reference LAC probably meaning Los Angeles Contemporary.
When the Contemporary catalog was issued by Fantasy, the releases were issued
by Boplicity. Contemporary records were pressed in Japan with prefix GP, and in
France they were pressed by Vogue also with LAC as prefix written in the dead
Koenig: "My father, Lester Koenig, ran a jazz record company, which he founded
in 1949 in Los Angeles (...). He'd started it as a kind of a hobby." Lester
Koenig (December 3, 1917 - November 21, 1977) may have officially founded his
record company in 1951.
Koenig started also a label for classical music, Society
for Forgotten Music (SFM). Piano Sonatas for Four Hands (Jan Ladislav Dusek)
is the earliest mono release on M 1002, and later recordings were released of
instrumental and chamber music by composers Mily Balakirev, Guillaume Lekeu, Ernest
Chausson, and Vernon Duke.
Gillespie (at far left, with glasses, looking up) at the time he made
the recordings in Paris, in 1953. In centre Don Byas (thumbs up) and at
right Sarah Vaughan.
A 10 inch JAZZ SELECTION pressing from France of Shelly Manne and His Men. Reference J.S.L.P. 50.003 the equivalent of C2503 from 1953. Original Contemporary matrices LKL 37 and 38.
Harold Land (tenor sax) - Curtis Counce (bass)
Carl Perkins (piano) - Frank Butler (drums)
During the 1953 session of Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band, William Claxton photographed the musicians and Lester Koenig. Koenig can be seen in the lowest image on the Kodak Safety Film, third strip from left in this edited arrangement of pictures (which I copied from the front of GTL 21).
In 1956 when tape recorder, cutting lathe and matrix production had reached a higher level, Lester Koenig produced his first stereo recordings. 1956 was the year Roy DuNann (originally from Capitol Records) joined the company. Lester Koenig often wrote the liner notes himself. There are also notes written by Leonard Feather who himself was already producing records and playing piano in the nineteen forties. See Jazz on Continental 78 RPM.
In the nineteen forties Lester Koenig was a writer for documentaries (Thunderbolt, The Memphis Belle) and later he was an associate-producer with Paramount Pictures. IMdB mentions The Heiress (with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, 1949), Detective Story (with Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, 1951) and Carrie (with Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, 1952), although Art Pepper in his biography also mentions Roman Holiday (Audry Hepburn and Gregory Peck, 1953). It was already in his early years with Paramount that Lester Koenig displayed his interest in the technical aspects of filming and recording sound and investigated in these aspects. John Koenig:
After World War Two had ended the Soviet Union was no longer a partner to confer with, naturally, but became the new enemy in the political doctrine. It meant that The Cold War had started. Now anyone with more or less liberal ideas was suspected of having communist sympathies. Already in 1947 the hunt on so called communists had started. Famous is the fate of The Hollywood Ten. In 1950, Josef McCarthy, a Senator from Wisconsin who himself had served in World War Two, made a speech about how the Democratic administration had been infiltrated by subversive Americans, to be more precise, by communists. From 1950 on not only the government and its institutions, but now all media were being scrutinized. People who had suspicions about the liberal views of colleagues were urged to report this. But many refused to testify for the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Also the film industry was now thouroughly X-rayed for alleged subversive characters. The outcome was that several writers, directors and producers were no longer employed. People were summoned to testify at the hearings organized by McCarthy and his Committee.
In his autobiography "A Straight Life" (originally published by Schirmer Books, New York, 1979), Art Pepper writes about how Lester Koenig became a producer of records:
Pepper also remembers that Lester Koenig was like a father to him and many times
helped him to make a start for "a straight life" again and again by
giving him the chance to make recordings and help him clean up his financial situation.
Senator Richard Nixon of California took part in the hunt
with heart and soul and insinuated that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai
Stevenson had ties with the communists. The hunting reached a pinnacle when Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and were executed. They died because they refused
to confess and name others, one commentator said. (See for more info
Educational). Eventually McCarthy's Committee was more and more criticized
and McCarthy himself became unbelievable and died a mad man. Wikipedia has pages
about The Hollywood Ten, the Un-American-Activities-Committee, The Hollywood Blacklist,
and about Joseph McArthy. And again Spartacus Educational tells about the
American Activities Committee which had
already been established during the depression, in 1937. The page links to videos
on YouTube. Also check out
Night, and Good Luck at the Internet Movie Data
Base (IMdB). You may also want to read the Wikipedia entry on
Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who developped the atomic bomb for America
to be used at the end of World War II. He also was accused of having leftist ideas.
John Koenig who studied to be a cellist and studied with the great Gregor Piatigorsky, played in orchestras in Israel and Sweden. When at home in LA he was active in his father's firm. He was co-producer of the Art Farmer album On The Road (1976; S7636). After his father's untimely death in 1977, John gave up his post in the Swedish Radio Symphony in Stockholm and returned to Los Angeles to manage his father's record company and the estate. Now he was the producer of Contemporary Records and he himself was featured on disc: Chico Freeman - Peaceful Heart, Gentle Spirit (C14005). There were quite a few legal obstacles in the way. Koenig Jr. subsequently studied law and became a lawyer in a big law firm and then founded his own firm. You can read his fascinating biography at the site of the International Cello Society. John Koenig has a vast knowledge of Contemporary Records Inc. by experience and by perception. He was also quoted in Art Pepper's biography.
Although Les was a man who had an ear for new ideas, even if they were not executed well, he always was the man with taste and the technique had to serve.
Pianist Hampton Hawes also wrote down his esteem for Lester Koenig. Hawes had made a 45 rpm single for Discovery in 1952 with Shelly Manne, and he cut a ten inch for Vantage Records in 1955. That was it. But Shelly Manne took him one day to Lester Koenig's office. Hampton Hawes in his biography "Rise Up Off Me" (written with Don Asher, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 1972):
Valve Condenser Microphone AKG C 12
The AKG C-12 is a smooth sounding microphone and has the character which is so typical of good, vintage condenser microphones. The character is completely different from dynamic microphones which are so en vogue these days in the pop music business. It is clear that the equipment used in those days by Lester Koenig, Howard Holzer, Roy DuNann, Val Valentin, John Palladino, was of a different nature if compared to transistors and op-amps and one bit converters of today. The equipment matched the mikes to bring about the best characteristic and dynamics. The C-12 has a very individual signature which is easily recognized. For example in André Previn West Side Story disc (S7572), or Phineas Newborn's A World of Piano (S7600 - Old Jazz Classics Records reissue OJC 175).
When Cecil Taylor was recorded in New York City at Nola's Penthouse Sound Recording Studios by Tommy Nola and Lewis Merritt, no microphone type and other equipment is mentioned. Except that the cover shows an upright piano which is evident when listening to the disk.
a gap of nearly two years, John Koenig started producing several records which
were issued in the S14000 Series. Check
Koenig at Discogs. One example is Sonic Text (Contemporary S14002) with Joe
Farrell (tenor and soprano sax, flute), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet, flugelhorn),
George Cables (piano, electric piano), Tony Dumas (electric and upright basses),
Peter Erskine (drums). The recording is made by engineer Bernie Kirsch and is
produced and mixed by John Koenig. It
is evident that by that time the technical equipment had changed. There
is a reminiscence of the old Contemporary style.
Fantasy: Old Jazz Classics
Finally, in 1984, Contemporary was purchased by Fantasy Inc., Berkeley, California. Now original Contemporary recordings were remastered and issued by Fantasy as Old Jazz Classics (OJC). These definitely show that the tapes were replayed by using modern tape recorders for play back and that the music may have been re-recorded on another modern tape machine using modern sound equipment and that these recordings served as the new master tapes from which the OJC lacquers were cut. OJCs bear the character of transistors and have more straight dynamics, specifically in the high frequencies. Fortunately there is always some of the original sound character coming through, unmistakingly Contemporary and unmistakingly the C-12 microphone for which AKG has designed a more modern version, the C12VR. John Koenig points out:
John Koenig's words give insight in how carefully recordings were mastered, and how slight alterations to the procedure were made in respect to the equipment used at the time. It explains also that the entire production of a title was truly a work of art. The slight addition of reverb can be noticed here and there, for instance in Whisper Not (Black Hawk 3 - S7579) which gives the performance just that little extra of realism. Yet the OJC editions are practically the only affordable ones if you want early items like The Two (with pianist Russ Freeman) and The Three (with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre).
Digital Audio on LP and Compact Disc
Eventually Contemporary Records moved into the digital era. At right the covers of two recordings: C14012, California Concert (1984), and C14026, Bebop Lives (1986) with the indication "Recorded Direct To Digital". They were issued on LP. No Compact Disc equivalent of either one could be traced in Schwann catalogs from 1984, 1985 and 1987. The new digital format confronted any producer and any sound engineer with a few difficulties. Apart from the limitations of the digital format in those days, the biggest problem was that multitrack recorders - if available - were very expensive. Making multitrack recordings with the Multi-channel Ampex tape recorder as used by Contemporary in the years before was out of the question; unless you wanted to make an analog recording and convert it to the digital format afterwards. So the sound picked up by the various microphones had to be balanced on the spot, and the signals had to be mixed down then and there to the two channels of a basic stereo recording. These signals were then converted by a Sony PCM-F1, or a PCM 1630, and recorded on a U-matic or even a Betamax video recorder.
On the Spot
re-mixing at a later date was possible. That is what "direct to digital"
in most cases meant. The cover of Bebop Lives says that the performances were
recorded and mixed aboard the Aura Sonic Mobile Unit by engineer Tom Mark. Given
the equipment's capabilities, most recording engineers did a fine job when recording
in a studio, but making a live recording was not all that easy. Whether the artistry
of the musicians playing during the California Concert is worth listening to or
not, is to be judged by the listener. However, the technical aspects of that and
other recordings cannot be compared to Contemporary's analog recording technique
of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, employed in whatever setting, be it club or studio,
and the mastering and pressing of the quality discs.
This page is an adaptation and expansion of an article first published in 1995 of which an edited version also appeared in Analog Aktuell, the magazine of the Analog Audio Association, Germany. Page researched and written by Rudolf A. Bruil and first published on the web on June 28, 2010.
I am indebted to John Koenig for his recollections, comments and additional information.
Page first published on the web June 28, 2010 and updated since.
My thanks to John Koenig for submitting his recollections which were added to the page on November 30, 2011.
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Next page with the original American inner sleeve.