Precious little is known about Oscar Dennard. A gifted pianist with octopus hands and superb time, Dennard made far too few recordings and wasn’t alive long enough to be fully appreciated or routinely interviewed. Now, with the release of The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier (Groovin‘ High/Sunnyside), we have a rich new find. The first CD in the two-CD set features a previously released album—The Legendary Oscar Dennard, which was recorded in July 1958. The second CD features Dennard performing at a party at Quincy Jones’s New York apartment in March or April 1959. More on this new set in a moment.
Dennard was likely born in 1928, perhaps in or near Memphis. In the 1940s, he was in the city working at Club Handy at the Mitchell Hotel. In Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, we get a glimpse of the young Dennard: “At the Mitchell Hotel on Beale and Hernando in Memphis, the club seldom shut its doors. So owner Sunbeam Mitchell employed numerous house musicians to rotate throughout the days into nights. The head-cutting never stopped. Phineas Newborn Jr., then a teenage prodigy, dominated the piano. ‘Phineas cut me,’ fellow tinkler Ford Nelson admitted. ‘The only one that ever got to him was a fellow named Oscar Dennard.’ “
Dennard began his recording career in New York in January 1956. On the session for the obscure Henson label, he was backed by bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Osie Johnson—two studio stalwarts. Strangely, the recording was never released. In most cases, the decision to release recordings rested with the session producer or label, which may have been dissatisfied with the results. Or Dennard may have been unhappy when he heard the playback.
Either way, the decision to withhold the recording seems odd because just weeks later, Dennard joined Lionel Hampton’s orchestra and went on tour with the band to Europe. Hampton was notoriously picky and demanding when it came to the musicians he hired. Dennard was on Hampton’s recordings throughout 1956, including A L’Olympia, Vol. 1 & 2 and Hamp In Hi Fi (both recorded in Paris); the precious Jazz Flamenco (recorded in Madrid); and Lionel Hampton And His All Stars 1956 (recorded in New York). As jazz critic and author Dan Morgenstern wrote in editor Sheldon Meyer”s Living With Jazz, Hampton “had a wonderful unsung pianist in the late Oscar Dennard who never was sufficiently featured.” Dennard continued to play with Hampton throughout 1957 and ’58.
In July 1958, Dennard went on tour with leader Idrees Sulieman (tp) and Jamil Nasser (b) and Buster Smith (d). One of their stops was in Tangier, Morocco, where they remained for several months at the city’s Casino. The studio recording eventually was released on Japan’s Somethin’ Else label. The music here is breathtakingly elegant. Sulieman remains unheralded as a masterful arranger and trumpeter with a strong, open tone akin to Donald Byrd’s and Kenny Dorham’s.
In October 1958, Dennard appeared on A.K. Salim’s brilliant Blues Suite album on Savoy, and in ’59 he played on Jesse Powell’s album Blow Man Blow. It’s around this time that Dennard was at a party at Quincy Jones’s apartment in New York, and his piano performance that evening was captured on tape by Jamil Nasser before the quartet headed off to Europe and the Middle East. [Photo above, from left, of Oscar Dennard, Idrees Sulieman and Jamil Nasser, likely in Tangier in 1958]
In his liner notes for the Japanese CD and the new two-CD set, reissue producer Jacques Muyal writes that the quartet went on to play in Marseilles (France), St. Gallen (Switzerland) and Cairo (Egypt), where Dennard was stricken with typhoid fever. He died in 1960 and was buried in Cairo at Zan Eldin cemetery. Dennard was only in his early 30s.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier (Groovin’ High/Sunnyside) here. The sound on the first CD is sterling while the sound on the second disc is a bit coarse. But for me, the less-than-perfect fidelity can be overlooked given the profound insights into Dennard’s playing.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Oscar Dennard with Idrees Sulieman (tp), Jamil Nasser (b) and Buster Smith (d), from The Legendary Oscar Dennard (the first disc on The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier set) playing All of You…
And here’s Invitation from the second disc, recorded at Quincy Jones’s apartment in 1959…