The Poll Winners Instruments Reunite During Modernism Week

The instruments of several famed jazz masters will be played live onstage to celebrate the 1957 album.

Tracy Conrad Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital, Modernism

An attempt to re-create the magic of the 1957 album The Poll Winners will occur during Modernism Week.

Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, and Ray Brown stepped into a recording studio in March 1957 to have a musical conversation.

The trio were not a band in the traditional sense, though they all had spent their fair share of time in a recording studio. Kessel, Manne, and Brown had each topped the respective reader’s polls in 1956 for the best players in the world conducted by DownBeat, Metronome, and Playboy magazines.

Kessel was known for his exuberant, athletic guitar style. He worked days as a studio musician and at night played clubs, recording with Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson. His famous introduction to “Cry Me a River,” sung by Julie London in 1955, sold a million copies and turned into an iconic guitar lick. His playing with famous friends was far from unnoticed. No stranger to taking home these sorts of prizes, Kessel was rated the No. 1 guitarist in Esquire, DownBeat, and Playboy every year between 1947 and 1960.

Manne’s drumming was nothing short of extraordinary. As a young man, he played with jazz royalty — Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Brown was considered the best bass player in the world and was sought after by everyone on the jazz scene. Dizzy Gillespie hired Brown on his arrival in New York at age 20. Soon, Brown was playing with Art Tatum and Charlie Parker and composing.  Brown’s swingin’ tune “Gravy Waltz” won him his first Grammy.

The readers of DownBeat, Metronome, and Playboy knew greatness when they heard it in choosing Kessel, Manne, and Brown as the standout rhythm section players in 1956 at the apogee of jazz in the middle of the 20th century.

Perhaps amused by the readers’ selection, the three master musicians decided to drop into the studio at Contemporary Records in Los Angeles and see what happened. They were at the height of their powers and profession. No rehearsal was needed. They knew countless tunes by heart and could play them in any key. They were just going to have some fun listening to each other play and, in that back and forth of musical ideas, see what happened.


The Poll Winners (1957)

The cheekily named album that resulted was called The Poll Winners.

Writing for the album liner notes, music critic Nat Hentoff summed up the atmosphere around the album’s recording.

“The music in this set is primarily conversational, and it is conversation between three spirits with much in common in terms of life view and way of living as well as music. It is a conversation between experts whose knowledge has gone so far that they can never now regard themselves as experts, knowing not what they’ll discover next time they talk,” he wrote. “And it is a conversation essentially for kicks, the kicks that come best and most frequently when you talk with your peers and are thereby in no need to worry whether your quick allusion will be picked up or whether you’ll goof a spiral reference. It’s not often that we amateurs, literally as well as figuratively, have a chance to hear this much of this kind of talk.”

Kessel, Manne, and Brown were exceptional in terms of sheer ability, but they were also generous, inventive, and in sync. They made magic together. The Poll Winners album would go to the top of the charts, followed by another three albums between 1957 and 1960, and a reunion album in 1975.

Like true masters, they adapted their abilities to changing times. Kassel became a member of the ultra-famous studio musician group The Wrecking Crew. Manne and Brown were similarly in demand as renowned session players. When the time came for them to put away their instruments, people smart enough to know what they were looking at kept the trio’s tools preserved.

John Clayton with Ray Brown’s bass. 

Those instruments are coming to Palm Springs for Modernism Week and will be played together again. The instruments will reunite in the hands of Bruce Forman, Jeff Hamilton, and John Clayton for an historic concert Feb. 21 at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

These three contemporary jazz masters  will revisit that musical legacy of The Poll Winners, and we amateurs have a chance to be in the room and hear the magic.