The Jazz.com Blog
February 10, 2008 · 2 comments
Jazz.com's arnold jay smith offers this tribute to bassist Earl May, who passed away last month. Smith covers the OctoJAZZarian beat for jazz.com, and his recent interviews with elder statesmen of the jazz world Clark Terry and Dr. Billy Taylor are well worth checking out. Later this month, we will be publishing his piece on Chico Hamilton.
The OctoJAZZarian articles are usually inspiring accounts of artistic creativity still flourishing during an artist's golden years. But this beat also has its sad side, especially when an admired musician and gentleman like Mr. May passes on. Smith mixes his personal recollections below with comments from others whose lives were also touched by this artist. T.G.
Bassist Earl May, once part of a very elite band of jazz musicians, moved up in January. Earl was a left-handed bassist. Other southpaws have included Bobby Mackel, Lionel Hampton’s perennial guitarist, trombonist Slide Hampton, and a Billy Taylor Trio made up of drummer Charlie Smith and Earl May. But Earl's challenge was quite another matter: the bass was tuned right-handed. Seems that while his teachers encouraged him to play the bull fiddle they deemed it awkward and inconvenient to have one left-handed school bass.
The ever-smiling, always cheerful May was aboard an S.S. Rotterdam Jazz Cruise some 30+ years ago when first we met. He was with a Dizzy Gillespie group (1971-4) which at one time also featured Diz’s long-time pianist, music director and friend Mike Longo. “I met Earl at Le Bistro in Atlantic City in 1961,” Longo said. Mike was with Nancy Wilson who left to have a baby leaving Mike and trio as the house band. “Gloria Lynne [the succeeding headliner] was accompanied by the Earl May Trio. Midway through that gig she had a falling out with Earl and hired [the Longo trio].” Later the Longo/May duo played at the New York Playboy Club
There’s a CD due in the spring on Longo’s CAP label of Dizzy’s quintet which featured the May/Longo rhythm combo recorded at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Gillespie said in an interview during the London engagement that, due to the addition of guitarist Al Gafa and drummer Mickey Roker, this was the best band he ever had. “He was so inspired by them,” Longo remembered “that we were held over for another week. Dizzy played for the door for the first time in my memory and doubled our salary.” Norman Granz was so impressed that he recorded them the entire final week.
I guess it would be cliché to say that the list of those Earl did not play with would be shorter than those he did. But…
That Billy Taylor Trio – later Smith was replaced by Ed Thigpen - recorded and toured for a total of twelve years and was among Dr. Taylor’s favorites. Actually, Earl had replaced Charles Mingus. “Earl epitomized what a good friendship is about,” Taylor said. “He gave so much more than music.”
The first time Billy had met Earl was in the late 1940s. They both were playing with Lester Young at an insignificant dance at the hall where, later, Malcolm X was killed. Taylor recalls “Lester arrives just in time to start the gig. Otherwise wordless, he turns to me and says ‘Vonz’ and he starts to play. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Earl, who had played with Prez and knew what he wanted from past experience, jumped right in.” From Earl’s first two chords Billy picked it up. “Earl would never miss, laying down comfortable rhythms; everything in order.”
Dr. Taylor played – his own “In Loving Memory”-- and spoke during a joy filled memorial at St. Peter’s Church in NYC, hosted by WBGO’s Sheila Anderson. There we learned that Earl never gave up on anything from playing “backwards,” as it were, to personal relationships (4 wives, the last, Lee, for 22 years) and, most notably, to helping the people who needed it most. Dr. Frank Forte of the Englewood Hospital & Medical Center, whose pro-bono services to jazz musicians, via the Jazz Foundation of America, have grown exponentially, told us that Earl would perform there once a week for the patients accompanied by guitarist Roni Ben Hur. Dr. Forte suggested that Earl’s ebullient demeanor was as important as the music he played. It never appeared that it was just another gig but something more.
To look at Earl belied his chronological age –he was 80-- but looked as young as I remember when hanging with him on and off that swinging boat 30-odd years ago. Proof that good feelings can, indeed, turn inward.
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith