Mort Sahl, The Jazzman’s Comedian

Yesterday, October 26th, the world of comedy lost one of its more original and trailblazing members when Mort Sahl passed away. At 94 years old, he had certainly seen a lot, and his acerbic wit and style of comedy was directed not only at daily observations and absurdities but at political figures. From the beginning of his career in the 1950’s, Sahl aimed his comedic commentary at each president, from Eisenhower to Trump, sparing none from his sometimes biting but always humorous words.

Perhaps more than most comedians of the era, however, Mort Sahl was firmly entrenched with the growing jazz scene on the American West Coast. Not only did he associate with jazz musicians, but he often held forth like one. Going on stage with a newspaper under his arm, he would use the news of the day as his music, improvising and riffing off of the headlines and happenings of the day with aplomb.

One of the first musicians Sahl was associated with was the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Sahl began touring with the quartet at colleges and concerts, the Brubeck and the guys blowing their music at the beginning and end, Sahl blowing comedy during the intermission. A great example of this is his album ‘Mort Sahl At Sunset’, on Fantasy. Recorded in 1955 during a Brubeck concert in the California coastal town of Carmel (where Erroll Garner’s monster album ‘Concert By The Sea’ was recorded a few months later), Sahl moves with sometimes dizzying speed from topic to topic, throwing out ideas like a jazz musician and exploring the more fertile ideas. During the near-hour of his set, he made more than a passing reference to Brubeck and Desmond, west coast jazz, HiFi gear, and other topics.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Mort Sahl at the Hollywood jazz club, the Crescendo,
circa 1957

Paul Desmond, a witty and droll guy himself, became friends with Mort Sahl, a friendship that resulted in, among other things, a set of liner notes written by Sahl for Desmond’s second album as leader. In classic Sahl style, the liner notes make only a glancing reference to the actual music and album, spending most of the time improvising on themes of Brubeck, Desmond, and the 1956 presidential election. Being the comedian that he is, he punningly calls drummer Joe Dodge ‘Joe Chevrolet’, which Fantasy (comedians themselves) left in the notes and perpetuated in the numerous reissues. The humor was evidently lost on Nat Hentoff, who in reviewing the album for Down Beat in 1957 wrote that “Mort Sahl’s notes are neither useful nor funny”.

As a tribute to Sahl’s brand of comedy, here are the liner notes he wrote for Desmond’s Fantasy album ‘Paul Desmond Quartet, featuring Don Elliott’.

It was beastly hot. There was nothing for a man to face but heat, gin and tonic, and those drums, those incessant drums. Another night at the Blackhawk.

I go there between my shows at the Hungry i, here in San Francisco. If I average 50, ignore crosswalks, and make illegal left turns I can catch 12 minutes of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. The risks are usually justified. Desmond’s ordered thinking comes out of my chaos, anesthesia came out of the Civil War, and they say that new guy out of Pittsburgh cuts Bird. Oh yeah, and I’m out of context.

When I see Dave I say “Happy Mozart’s Birthday” or something appropriate. After the set Paul and I exchange views on women, generally. (Women hate you to generalize). I tell Desmond girls are suspicious of comedians because they figure your moments together will turn up in the act. He admits playing for them has an edge in conning them, but we agree girls are just as afraid of turning up in a panel discussion at Newport as in a story on stage. “At least we’re not from Consumer’s Guide” says the erudite Desmond. He usually hits it.

Paul and I worked together once in a concert for Jimmy Lyons (who gets a LINE FOR LYONS in the text). We discussed whose car we would use to get to Carmel. I have a sport car which was built around my body in pounded sheet metal at the factory, except for the plastic slide over the mouth so one can order gas, and other needed lubricants. Well, almost. It’s really to prove that no man is an island. Paul has a coupe with a transparent roof. No, they don’t tan you green, but if you park in front of girl’s houses prior to saying goodnite there is always the chance her brother will sit in a tree above and try to learn. Paul often eyes an Alfa Romeo convertible but has rejected the idea as impractical. He says it would just mean getting up, putting on a tee shirt and heading for coffee in an $18,500 bomb…unshaven.

Then someone you know would spot you and say “Crazy short” and Paul would say “It’s really kind of dirty now.” And the friend would ask “How fast you driven it?” And Paul would say “Well we’ve been on the road; I haven’t really had a chance to take it out of town.” The buddy would then suggest breakfast, Paul would say “Wild” and the friend would say “Let’s take MY car.” FUTILITY. We went in separate cars.

Jimmy Lions maintains the jazz outpost for the Monterey area via a daily radio show, as well as the afore-mentioned concerts. He is the latter-day Thoreau of Big Sur, Calif. (population 52, elevation – yes) and his wife is postmistress. Those of us who tire of the scuffle always repair to talk to Jimmy and Terre (some of us angling for Xmas work at the post office). We all know Jim from NBC when he did so much to bring Paul to the people. In the interim years, steady playing and audience acceptance produced that definition of self I shall call style.

In this album, Paul formed a group so he could attack another situation. He uses Don Elliott, limited here to less than thirty instruments. I think that Don has been on more record labels than Erroll Garner. On his latest disc he only plays four instruments. He would have played 30, but big bands aren’t making it. Small groups are the scene now. Don’s record is called “There’s No One I Can Trust.”

As the ad in the magazine says, Four out of Five play a Kay bass. They’re probably all Bates brothers… Norm Bates is on this record. He took Bob’s place. I think I know why. Paul Desmond has a number one fan. The fan has a better horn than his idol, a newer car, and has more net income. So Bob left the group to become a fan.

That leaves Joe Chevrolet whom many hipsters and no critics will recognize as the stick-clicking drummer with another group. The rapport of the four is especially evident on Jazzabelle.

In a year of candidates, here’s mine for best alto. I hesitate in making extremist remarks because it’s also a year of moderation. I’m a moderate. Others are extremely left left or right right but I’m interested in skiing. Paul wouldn’t care to be called outstanding, anyway. If you like the album, he’ll wonder “for how long.” He does want a copy, though, so he can verify the past when he winds up, as he puts it, “living on the steps of the Public Library.”

Lastly, here’s a video clip of Sahl with the Brubeck Quartet inside their beloved San Francisco club, the Blackhawk. This dates from a pilot television episode called ‘Jam Session’, filmed in the latter half of 1958. Rest in peace, Mort Sahl!

2 thoughts on “Mort Sahl, The Jazzman’s Comedian

  1. Many thanks…a great article, and a great era… and knowing Mort Sahl’s jazz leanings makes it even better.. May he rest in Peace..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s