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Originally published April 7, 2012 at 3:44 PM | Page modified April 10, 2012 at 11:06 PM

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Historic Seattle jazz recording rescued from obscurity

Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz all appear on the newly released recording "Jazz at the Philharmonic: Seattle 1956."

Seattle Times jazz critic

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When Bill Carter of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation (SFTJF) heard there was a storage container full of reel-to-reel tapes sitting next to the San Rafael dump, he figured it might be a good idea to check it out.

Little did he know he had found a treasure chest from the golden age of jazz. Among the hundreds of tapes Carter retrieved from that container was a recording of a 1956 Seattle concert that featured Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz — yes, all on the same show.

Hard to believe, but proof positive has arrived with "Jazz at the Philharmonic: Seattle 1956," a CD being released Tuesday on the Acrobat label, from England. This remarkable, two-disc live recording, made on Oct. 11, 1956, at the old Civic Auditorium (now the site of McCaw Hall), showcases not only the artists above, but saxophonists Sonny Stitt, Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet; guitarist Herb Ellis; bassist Ray Brown; trumpeter Roy Eldridge; and drummers Gene Krupa and Jo Jones. It is a feast.

The all-star gathering came to the Emerald City thanks to Los Angeles impresario Norman Granz, whose Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) tours are legendary.

"That was like the Beatles, man," recalled Quincy Jones in the Seattle jazz history "Jackson Street After Hours." "People screaming, just happening. It was killer."

Granz named the tours after a 1944 show he mounted at L.A.'s Philharmonic Hall, meant to elevate the status of jazz by presenting it in a symphony hall.

Hours and hours of JATP shows have been issued on Granz's record label, Verve, but not this one.

The clarity and presence of the sound, however, suggest the recordings were made if not by Granz's crew, then certainly with his knowledge. This doesn't sound like the classic "bootleg" made by someone in the audience or by a recorder surreptitiously plugged into the sound console.

The recording may have been made for a live broadcast in San Francisco, since the tapes eventually found their way into a collection named after San Francisco radio broadcaster Ken Ackerman, who in the '50s and '60s did remotes for his half-hour show on KCBS.

No one paid much attention to the Ackerman tapes until Carter found them in 2006.

Bill Radlauer, also of the SFTJF, digitized the material and in 2009 the entire collection was donated to Stanford University's Archive of Recorded Sound.

Last year, Acrobat's Paul Watts arranged with Carter for the release of the Seattle show. Watts plans to bring out more material from the collection.

If the rest of the tapes are anything like this one, jazz fans will welcome them. Fitzgerald was at her peak in 1956 and hearing her spar with the effervescent Peterson is thrilling. She's also compelling on ballads ("Solitude" and "Easy to Love") and her scat singing on "Air Mail Special" is a tour de force.

Even if you didn't know the year of the concert, Fitzgerald leaves a clue by dropping a tongue-in-cheek allusion to Elvis Presley's then-newly minted hit, "Blue Suede Shoes." At the end of the show, she plays a harmonica solo, another unusual touch.

Jazz at the Philharmonic shows were a big deal.

"The Civic Auditorium was huge, so JATP shows weren't always packed," said Seattle reed man Ronnie Pierce, but this one was jammed.

"Tenor saxophonist Getz had on a white suit and he looked like somebody from outer space," said Pierce.

Joni Metcalf, who sang and played piano on the Seattle scene, was there, too. Things were so casual, she said, that she and her friends could stroll backstage.

"I remember one of those, Charlie Parker was nodding off in a chair," she said.

John Voorhees, who reviewed the concert for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was particularly impressed by Ella and the great Kansas City drummer Jo Jones, who indeed played a mighty solo.

"Mostly my reaction," said Voorhees in a recent interview, "is that the music sounded so bad in the old Civic Auditorium. It was a big barnlike thing — flat floor as I recall — and the performers were miles away. But it was the only place to go."

Luckily, the venue's shortcomings don't show in this rare, two-hour window onto the golden era of jazz.

Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros is the author of "Jackson Street After Hours." He can be reached at 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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