The Search for Roy DuNann

I don't remember the year, but I remember the moment when I first became intensely curious about Roy DuNann. It must have been about 1975, right after I moved to Seattle. I bought a Sonny Rollins LP called Way Out West, took it home, cued it up on my Thorens turntable, dropped the tonearm, and suddenly I was in a room with Rollins and Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. It was a shipping room with records stacked on shelves all around the musicians, but I wouldn't know that until many years later.

The song was, improbably, "I'm an Old Cowhand," and it began with Shelly Manne striking a woodblock in the right channel, and the blows carried in a perfectly defined acoustic space that included me. Then Rollins' tenor sax came in, so real in the left channel that I believed I could walk up and touch it. Deadpan, Rollins bit off the notes of Johnny Mercer's cowboy melody, the details of his pronunciation audible in his reed, now raspy, now clarion-clear.

The label was Contemporary, and the back of the album jacket said, "Recorded at Contemporary's Studios, Los Angeles. Produced by Lester Koenig. Sound by Roy DuNann." What made the sound truly astonishing was the recording date: March 7, 1957.

I found other Contemporary albums, and discovered some extraordinary music, such as Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and Sonny Rollins & the Contemporary Leaders and Teddy Edwards' Teddy's Ready. The sound of these albums had a naturalness and sense of space that I had never heard before—except in live music. And that purity of sound was achieved in the very early days of stereo, in 1957 and 1958 and 1960. Who the hell was this Roy DuNann?

It was not easy to find out. Lester Koenig, owner of Contemporary and producer of all of its sessions, died in 1977. He had typically provided voluminous liner notes for each album, but none of them talked about recording techniques or the engineer. Reliable reference works and histories, such as Jazz: The Essential Companion by Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, and the scholarly West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia, never mention DuNann, though the latter repeatedly affirms the historical importance of Lester Koenig and his label.

The most comprehensive reference work of all, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, contains no entry on DuNann, though it covers the Contemporary label in detail, even praising Koenig's "high standards" and "concern for quality"—without ever mentioning sound. It was easy to find references to Rudy Van Gelder. Van Gelder's quantity certainly exceeded DuNann's, since he engineered hundreds of famous sessions for the Blue Note label in the 1950s and '60s, and has remained active to the present day. But the quality of Van Gelder's early recordings, with their fuzzy pianos and flat soundstages, is not in the same class with Roy's.

The only people with whom I could share my enthusiasm for DuNann's work were jazz engineers and producers. Jim Anderson knew about Roy DuNann. He's one of the most respected engineers on the current scene, responsible for the lick-your-ear sound of Patricia Barber's recordings, and he absolutely lit up (over the phone) when I mentioned DuNann. Anderson remembered his college days at Duquesne, when he first heard some of the DuNann Contemporaries in a friend's dorm room and was stunned by their "beautiful golden round bloom."

Joe Harley knew all about Roy—or rather, Roy's sound. Harley is the producer of several dozen sonically exceptional recordings for labels like AudioQuest and Groove Note and Enja. He had been a DuNann fan since he was in high school in the late '60s. But, like everyone else who admired Roy's work, Harley mused, "I wonder whatever happened to him. I wonder if he's still alive." Harley was the first to tell me that DuNann's last known whereabouts were Arizona.

My respect for DuNann's achievements reached a new level in spring 2001, when I received a batch of Contemporary titles on the JVC XRCD label. They included classics like Art Pepper + Eleven, André Previn's West Side Story, and, yes, Way Out West.

For the XRCD reissue program, JVC engineers Akira Taguchi and Alan Yoshida micromanage every element of the mastering and manufacturing processes in order to get the highest-quality transfer from the original master tape. In its XRCD version, Way Out West was sublime. Another title in the batch was Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, and it made me laugh out loud. No recording from January of 1957 had any right to hit me in the face like that—Pepper's alto fiercely alive and dancing on air, Paul Chambers' bass hitting deep and hard. I had to find Roy DuNann, and ask him how he'd done it.

It was not easy. There was, as far as I could discover, not a single DuNann living in the state of Arizona. There were DuNanns in southern California, but no Roys. Fantasy, Inc. in Berkeley, California, current owner of the Contemporary catalog, couldn't help.

Azteca X's picture

I was delighted to find this piece while searching for info on the new-to-me Shelly Manne and Andre Previn recordings, and the XRCDs in particular.  I appreciate the justice you have done to this man's story.  While he might not see it like we do, the man has left some astounding work, work that a 24 year old hardcore punk enthusiast in Ohio can find in the year 2014 and go "wow" over.  As a teacher of digital audio and a lightweight recording engineer, I salute you and Mr. DuNann both.

Azteca X's picture

For anyone just coming across this, I found a great follow-up with Roy himself and Thomas the author.