Bill Potts: The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess (1959) United Artists

Updated: February 26, 2019

(replacement rip Davis/ Ain’t Necessarily So – Columbia CL1274 Mono Six-Eye)

An LJC first head to head between two arrangers – Bill Potts and Gil Evans  – in their treatment of the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess. We will be pitting King of Cool Miles Davis against the finest jazz musicians of late-Fifties New York.

The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess was of the first Jazz albums with gatefold cover containing pages of extensive notes and photos from the sessions, published by United Artists as a numbered Limited Edition.Followers-of-the-evil-silver-disk_800_LJC Followers of the Evil Silver Disc: (CDP 7 95132 2 Capitol Jazz) should note: The master tapes to this exquisite session have been lost. “To produce this CD, Bill Potts and Jack Towers gathered as many mint copies of this collector’s item as they could find and painstakingly transferred the best pressing of each selection to tape”.


Charlie Shavers, Harry Edison, Bernie Glow, Art Farmer, Markie Makowitz (tp), Bob Brookmeyer (v-tb), Frank Rehak, Earl Swope, Jimmy Cleveland (tb), Rod Levitt (b-tb), Phil Woods, Gene Quill (as), Zoot Sims, Al Cohn (ts), Sol Schlinger (bs), Bill Evans (p), Herbie Powell (g), George Duvivier (b), Charlie Persip (d). Arranged, orchestrated and conducted by Bill Potts, recorded at Webster Hall, New York City, January 13, 14 & 15, 1959, recording engineer: Ray Hall


1. Summertime (Gershwin)

Bill Potts / New York’s Finest / United Artists / Plastylite                                                Solo order: Harry Edison, muted trumpet Al Cohn, tenor sax Zoot Sims, tenor sax

.  .  .

Guest Opinion

Meerkat-ProfessorCompare the Interpretation with LJC Visiting Professor of Musicology, Dimitri-Shostakovich von Meerkat, PhD, who offers his critical review of each performance

The classic Gershwin tunes are the same but, mine-gott, ze attitude and spirit is different.

Potts layers and intertwines New York’s Finest jazzmen in a whirlwind of hot brass and even hotter soloists. It is the spirit of Porgy and Bess, the stage show musical. The girls have victory roll fringe, the men shiny shoes, dancing to save their lives. The arrangements are outstanding – you are in a different time zone: Glen Miller, forces sweethearts, throwing every instrument possible at the musical canvas in perfectly choreographed changes of speed and direction.

Where Potts is hot, Gil Evans and Miles are – in complete contrast – cool, pointing a different direction into the Sixties, but still able to turn up the heat when needed. Miles claims the centre stage and it remains resolutely Miles album, where New York’s Finest step in and out of the solo spotlight to dazzle. Both have a lot of interest to offer.

Now shall we talk engineering?

Gil Evan’s/Miles’s performances are all captured in Columbia’s amazing 30th St Studio – Fred Plaut at the helm maybe, sleeve notes too often fail to give due credit to the engineer. Plastylite and Columbia pressings are pretty well matched but I think Columbia’s engineering in this case give them the sonic edge with the large band. The sound is spacious compared with the United Artists effort recorded at NY’s Webster Hall, by engineer Ray Hall which is the big band sounds to me a tad bright and boxed, though the solos are very feisty, cutting well through the ensemble.

Ray Hall was a relatively unknown young engineer at this time with just a few jazz recordings to his credit – Coleman Hawkins, Phineas Newborn, though later he went on to record a lot of Rollins RCA Victor studio albums, and some Bill Evans and Paul Desmond. By the late Sixties he was at the desk recording most of The Monkees albums and was still working in 2012 – a longer career than most he recorded. With the huge investment in the musical production of The Jazz Soul, one might have expected a big name engineer, but it does look like corporate culture at  United Artists was show-biz, interest in the people in front of the microphone and not those behind it – a weakness that was never remedied and left a rather lacklustre legacy in of vinyl output.

LJC thinks…

LJC Thinks some moreI am sure both albums would benefit from Stereo edition, but the United Artists tapes were all lost so an unfair contest. And I don’t have the Stereo. First poster to opine it would sound better on a mono cart gets a slap. We know and I know. There are just some logistical matters that make a second cart/arm/TT not possible at Chateau LJC at this time.

Learning Point: Big band is not for everyone. I am not really a big band person either, except perhaps occasionally for Francy Boland /Kenny Clarke (Sahib Shihab!), and Tubby Hayes at a pinch, but the sheer exuberance and energy of this record pushed me along the scale a little towards Big Band sound. That’s the thing with this jazz stuff. It’s a huge genre with thousands of flavours, all available. Each time you decide you don’t like something you shrink your palate. It is a rich man who can take them all in, and enjoy it all.

In terms of contemporary musical taste, Miles classic period has weathered better, and still sounds cool fifty years on, Big Band perhaps less so, with its feet more in the Forties than the Sixties. I expect I am not alone in preferring Davis’s take on Porgy and Bess, but I have always usually gained something from travel outside my usual comfort zone. That applies as much to spiritual Coltrane, cerebral Anthony Braxton, or Duke Ellington (Main Stem!). Good music should have no boundaries, and that applies not just to “hard to listen to” variety.

And now some other opinions (if you must)
Bill Potts Porgy

The Vinyl: United Artists UAL 4032 promo – Plastylite ear – mono – 209gm


The Gatefold: Limited Edition numbered A 246

There are some great pictures of the musicians who played on this production, lift you straight back to 1959, and the text is rich in context, and should be readable full screen at 1800px –  but tough on the smart phone viewer.(Who says hand-held devices or even wearable computing is the future? Why, the people selling it to you, of course )


Artist listing


Collectors Corner

Connoisseurs of coincidence may like this. During an early morning surf of some music sites I follow I came across an enthusiastic review of this unusual album, and I was in awe of the line up, if somewhat underwhelmed by the cover art, which shouts “ignore me!”. I thought no more about it. Later that morning I made my way up town and across the river, deep into the occupied territories of North London. I dropped into a shop I rarely visit, and skimming through its jazz section, what should rise up from the shelf but Bill Potts  Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess – limited edition – numbered A – first batch-  audition copy – and good grief, the Plastylite ear in the run-off. Read about it one minute, three hours later, looking at it. Coincidence? Pull the other one. Sometimes this record collecting business is just plain spooky.

Always interested in any views on issues raised in this post. Are you a big-band person? What’s the attraction? Have I got the engineering  stuff wrong? I’ve done all the work so far, the floor is yours.

Postscript: CD reissue, following poster Bob’s observation:


How marketing has moved on. Still, its probably more attention-getting than the prissy sentimental folksy UA cover – this embraces the basic principle of modern marketing: sex sells.

21 thoughts on “Bill Potts: The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess (1959) United Artists

  1. My father just passed away and am sitting listening to his record collection from the last sixty years and found this nugget. I also made the same comparison to the Evans/Davis rendition but have to say that I was impressed with the overall quality of the performances. I prefer the Evans/Davis version because Miles was plowing new ground in bridging modal with Big Band, but Markowitz is outstanding on side one. (I have the early vinyl pressing). I’m going to listen to side two when I am not as overwhelmed with emotion. I agree with the Downbeat critic from 1990 on “Summertime” but then the album takes a turn. This was an album that appealed to traditionalists first and foremost in its opening, but then it gets to modern jazz. This version will definitely be on my listening list for quite some time despite the criticism of LJC. There a many acceptable versions of Porgy and Bess music and this is one of the better and original ones.

  2. I quite like Ellignton’s bigger bands. Especially the Newport sessions; Black, Brown and Beige; Liberian Suite; Far East Suite; Such Sweet Thunder and Soul Call. Awesome music. I am also a big fan of Mingus’ bigger ensembles (he is the musical heir of Ellington, together with Sun Ra), Sun Ra’s big bands and, as Kees de Kat thankfully highlights, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy. Oh yes, and Basie…..

    • Looks like I’ve acquired a very fine sobriquet here. Thanks Boukman. Although my memories of Lester Bowie in his lab coat remain strong, I never followed up by listening to any of his recorded music. That will change. I intend to buy the next Brass Fantasy recording I see.

      Kees de Kat

  3. I do have some big band releases in my CD collection, but I don’t play them a lot. I simply keep running for the volume button too often. It’s better material for when I’m DJing a bit at open air jazz festivals. And that story of the lost mastertapes for the later CD reissues makes the whole write up extra interesting: the vinyl was pulled from the actual master, the CDs aren’t. So you can never compare audio quality, really. At the same time one wonders: where did that tape go? And what did the Japanese use for their reissue of this album, if they ever did reissue it?

    • And I forgot to mention the great photos, they make for a great read, just like that link below to the story about Jack Lewis. 😉

  4. Interesting to see something on big band jazz. I have very little in my collection, as I tend to listen to smaller ensembles. I prefer a less structured or formally charted sound as a platform for soloists.
    I understand from Richard Cook’s book on Blue Note that there wasn’t much inclination, or cash to record big bands on that label. Perhaps physical space may have been an issue too as RVG’s Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs studios were probably quite small.
    Live, two of the best gigs I saw at Ronnie Scott’s in the early 90’s were big band sets, which I attended, without much enthusiasm, on the off-chance. If Sun Ra and Lester Bowie were still alive, I’d be the first in line for performance tickets for the Arkestra and Brass Fantasy.
    I had planned to write about an interesting big band album that I bought recently on my own blog- but was wondering whether it would be considered to be legitimate territory by purists. This post has encouraged me to go ahead and do it at some stage before the end of the year. So thanks for that- a personal by-product of your very interesting post. What a lavish sleeve the limited edition has, by the way.

  5. That little D-S von Meerkat fellah is on the money, ain’t he — “hot”. It sure is. Hot, hot, hot. The problem is that Gil (with and without Miles) and Duke spoil one for other big bands. Gil made big bands sound light and fleet and transparent; Duke made even small bands sound big and lushly textured. But with Potts there just seems to be too much of everything. Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste, and the Potts LP is a very nice package and all that, but I don’t think it would ever wean me away from Gil and Miles.

    However, anyone craving more of Miles (and dozens of other stars) in a big band format that can be set alongside Gil and Duke in its inventiveness and scoring should sample Michel Legrand’s LEGRAND JAZZ.

    • I love LEGRAND JAZZ.
      As for “Porgy & Bess”, I do prefer the Gil Evans version, although the star-studded Bill Potts lineup (which, by the way, includes at least two musicians who played on the former date) has its own merits. Anyway, here’s what Herb Pomeroy said about the Bill Potts version of “Summertime” in a blindfold test published in the October 1990 issue of Down Beat:
      “All my comments are negative here. Excitement is obvious excitement; they’re rushing the time – very “white”. Background and solos too loud. I can’t stand arrangers writing melody behind soloists. The music never breathes: it’s played and heard by human beings who breathe. Leave spaces for players to develop and listeners to digest. Drum recording had nothing to do with reality. This is a zilch.”

      • The Summertime interpretation is “polar”: north and south, no surprise it drew this critic’s ire. There is an underlying philosophical issue here. I hear the ” A is better/preferable to B” but I come from the “varied diet” school. If broccoli was the “best tasting vegetable”, would you eat nothing else? If the Mona Lisa was the “best painting ever” would you look at nothing else?

        Also I change my view of what I like over time. “Best” is not fixed and immutable, it’s an opinion at a point in time. Opinions change. I like the Potts interpretation for the same reasons the critic disliked it. I’ve never had much time for the “consistency” line of argument. Yesterday I thought this, now I think that. That’s the experience.

        • Let me just add one little aside: Being a white musician himself, Herb Pomeroy nevertheless assesses and criticizes some of the typical characteristics of “white” jazz music. And he knows what he is talking about, having played with both Charlie Parker and Stan Kenton in the early 50’s.
          LJC, I fully appreciate your statement that “Yesterday I thought this, now I think that.”
          But it certainly isn’t a random change of opinions, is it? What you think now is by necessity determined by what you thought yesterday. As for me, I am fully convinced that my musical understanding has grown with time, and my tastes have been shaped by a number of elements, some of which were emotional, while others were more of a rational kind. I, too, prefer a “varied diet” – but it would be highly improbable for me to return to some of the music I have heard, and for which I developed a dislike when I began to understand, say, its underlying market mechanism.

  6. To my ears, the Evans/Davis is much more enjoyable. However, I’ve never been a big Porgy & Bess fan. I find myself easily distracted while listening to it in a single session. That probably explains why I only have the 200gram Jazz Track pressing and no original. I generally have higher priorities whenever I come across an original … and those aren’t expensive either. I’d like to complete my Davis discography eventually, so perhaps I will return to it again someday with new ears.

  7. I got a 78″ copy of “Main Stem” and it Rocks!

    I’m not a specialist in all big band stuff but always liked Ellington and Basie bands. And especially classic 30’s and early 40’s period. Must have something to do with the time when big bands were the hotest thing in town. When they got plenty of work and were well paid they got the best men and sounded just so good. And everybody were dancing those days!

    Ellington often sounds so modern that you would just wish to be able to hear Blanton-Webster band recorded with 50’s studio technology. I got 1959 UK copy of “In a Mellotone” LP (1940-42 period) I bought when I studied in England and it sounds pretty good. Does anybody know early US LP editions of Ellington/Basie bands?

    Ellington’s “Far East Suite” from mid sixties is also superb. And of course Sinatra’s 50’s Capitol LP’s are the ones where big band meets strings & great arranging and a pretty good voice too.

    I have been lately having great fun buying $10-$20 jazz LPs from Ebay. With a price of a new CD you get great 60 years old music delivered to your door!

    • The early Ellington 33 1/3 LPs on Columbia Masterworks are exceptional. They were famously engineered and mastered by the Masterworks classical department, and are pressed on extremely heavy vinyl with blue (Masterpieces) or gray and black six-eye (Uptown) labels. My copy of Ellington Uptown sounds as good as any other jazz record I own. Glorious sound, amazing band.

      • Thanks Joe ! I’m gonna find Ellington Uptown copy soon…

        Today I had more time to listen LJC Davis/Potts selection. I thought I might enjoy Potts line up but I still prefer Davis tracks. Potts LP has got a superb cover/photos!

  8. I love the Gil Evans/Miles I doubt if anything else could come close. I will have to find the CD above cos I doubt if I will be able to find it on the black stuff fast enough, I am about to search on the bay.
    Thanks for flagging it up

  9. Even if “the United Artists tapes were all lost”, the stereo version of this one seems to have survived in some way or other:

    I have no idea concerning the source material (master tape or stereo vinyl), but the stereo version is available in digital form.

  10. Great session – I was just listening to the ‘Blue Note’ CD of this one the other day. My LP of this is a stereo copy I think – later UA pressing featuring a hooker in purple stilletos on the cover. Class !!

    Marky Markowitz on trumpet is an absolute standout. He almost out-does MIles on his ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ feature.

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