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    Harold Vick: Steppin' Out

    Screen Shot 2016-10-24 at 8.49.42 PMTo pay the bills and gain experience in the 1950s, a good number of jazz saxophonists began their careers in R&B bands. The list is too long to feature here but it includes John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford and Tina Brooks. For R&B bnads, there was plenty of work at urban bars in African-American communities and all along the so-called Chitlin' Circuit—the archipelago of clubs and theaters between the East Coast and Midwest that booked such groups.

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    One of the most talented and soulful saxophonist-composers who came up through R&B was Harold Vick. Born in Rocky Mountain, N.C., in 1936, Vick began playing in his high school band before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., as a psychology major. By his junior year, he was hired by Rick Henderson, who led the house band at the Howard Theatre in Washington. The house band backed all sorts of artists, which meant Vick played virtually every night and developed a wide range of styles.

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    When Vick graduated college in 1958, he began working in R&B bands. He soon moved to New York and worked briefly with trumpeter Howard McGhee and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Then he teamed with organist Brother Jack McDuff (above) in 1960. By then, Prestige Records had begun recording organ-sax combos to capitalize on the trend popularized by Blue Note's Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton. Vick woudl record five albums for Prestige with McDuff between 1961 and '63. Then he was contracted by Patton as a sideman on Patton's Blue Note album Along Came John.

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    In May 1963, Vick was given a chance by Blue Note to record his first leadership album—the superb Steppin' Out, with Blue Mitchell (tp), Patton (org), Grant Green (g) and Ben Dixon (d). The album remains a gorgeous example of early soul-jazz wrapped in a gospel-blues feel. Patton had a locomotive chug on the organ, Mitchell added a bright jazz vernacular, Green provided a swinging, pecking groove and Dixon threw down strong but delicate syncopation. As for Vick, he has a big bossy sound here akin to Turrentine's, though Vick's horn had a bit more bark and bite.

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    Steppin' Out
    is one of those albums where every track is delightfully smart and loaded with blues energy and daring. Best of all, five of the six tracks were Vick originals. Turns out Vick was a marvelous composer who could write engaging soul-blues and hard-bop barnstormers. My favorite is the driving Dotty's Dream, which lets each artist exhibit what made them special. Long forgotten, Vick and Steppin' Out remind us of a time when jazz remembered the blues and musicians added their own church and R&B experience to the mix. This album is a gem. [Photo above of Big John Patton]

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    Harold Vick died in 1987 of a heart attack at age 51. He was a wonderful player, inspiring Sonny Rollins to write and record Did You See Harold Vick? in 2000.

    JazzWax tracks: Harold Vick's Steppin' Out appears to be out of print and selling for $41 here. The price is even stiffer at eBay. Sadly, it's not available at iTunes or Spotify.

    JazzWax clips: Here's Dotty's Dream...

    And here's Vicksville...

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