The Jazz.com Blog
July 12, 2009 · 0 comments
Walter Kolosky, who recently contributed an article on Dexter Gordon in this column, shares below a memorable encounter with Big Joe Turner. This is the first installment of a two-part article. (For part two of this article click here.) T.G.
In the winter of 1980 I witnessed one of the most formative musical performances I would ever see. It taught me that music, and art for that matter, can transcend life’s station and circumstances.
My best friend Chris and I decided to visit our mutual pal Buck Sutter in New York City. Buck was a great guitarist and college buddy of mine who had wasted his time trying to teach me to play some decent guitar. He also gamely attempted to help my pal Chris with his playing. Despite Buck’s valiant efforts, Chris and I never went on to jazz or blues fame and fortune. We didn’t even go on stage. We were destined to be listeners.
Buck had promised to be our musical guide for the weekend, so we decided not to plan ahead.
Chris and I were taken aback when we arrived at Buck’s family’s home. It was the first time we had ever visited him. His home was the whole floor of some building on 5th Avenue. The walls were covered with what appeared to be museum-quality artwork that was lit indirectly from underneath by upside down music stand lights. To this day, that is the only private home I have ever been to that had lighted artwork.
Buck, who we now knew was idly rich, was on the couch playing a small acoustic guitar. His financial wealth was confirmed when he told us that he was planning to backpack through Spain in the next year to learn flamenco guitar. Apparently young guitar players live like gypsies traveling through Spain, staying at hostels at night and learning flamenco by running into other players doing the same during the days. He told us that a lot of these flamenco guys were fanatics going to all extremes to live the life. In particular I remember him telling us that some musicians would even melt metal and put it behind their fingernails to strengthen them for playing. He also explained to us that the guitar he was playing was a two-thirds size model so that he could comfortably strap it to his back for those long days hitchhiking in Spain. Since Chris and I were planning to spend our upcoming summer moving furniture for North American Van Lines, Buck’s story of his Spanish adventure thrilled and depressed us at the same time.
Buck had looked at the newspaper before we arrived and determined he wanted us to go to two shows that night. The Latin jazz conga star Poncho Sanchez was playing at a jazz loft at midnight. But first Buck wanted to start the night by catching a set from Big Joe Turner at Tramps nightclub.
Chris and I were familiar with Big Joe. Chris knew him from his blues recordings. Turner had many nicknames. The “Kansas City Shouter” was our favorite. His style was to holler out his lyrics in the Kansas City style of some blues singers. I knew that Big Joe had been a very fine jazz singer as well. I seemed to remember that he even did a stint with Count Basie’s Big Band at one time. In the ‘50s he had some big pop hits such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and my favorite, “Flip, Flop and Fly.” Both Chris and I were surprised Buck suggested seeing Big Joe because, quite frankly, we thought Big Joe was long ago dead.
We went to the first set. I was a young man and this was my first experience being in a nightclub that had a minimum food order. So in addition to the money we paid for the ticket, we had to spend another four dollars on something to eat, whether we ate or not. That was a lot of money to me back then. I remember trying my first quiche at that place because the other three items on the menu were even less appealing.
A jazz band, which later turned out to be Turner’s backing band, opened the show. They were very good. I would have been happy just listening to these cats play. But the band did seem to play a long time and I knew there were two sets scheduled that evening. Chris, Buck and I began to wonder if Big Joe was late for the show.
To us it was not a sure thing that Big Joe would show-up. We knew he was a big fat old guy who apparently drank a lot. I guess that is why we assumed he was dead. Perhaps he dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to the first set. Who knew?
Finally, it came time for Big Joe to make his appearance. The emcee took the microphone and told us a little history about Big Joe and asked us to welcome him to the stage. The enthusiastic audience responded with very strong applause. Some time passed. We didn’t see Joe yet. Finally, out of the corner of my eye, there he was, Big Joe Turner. He had been sitting in the crowd at a table only about 10 feet away from us. I had noticed this lonely guy sitting all by himself several times while I had been picking at my quiche. He had been sitting there drinking shots with a big blank stare on his face. I had no idea it was the legendary Big Joe Turner!
He was a very large, but extremely frail man, who had to use one of those four-legged walkers to make his way to the stage. We were not the only ones in that crowd who were shocked. Big Joe looked like death warmed over. His gait was so slow that it appeared he would never make it to the stage. The crowd continued its applause, but it was difficult to sustain it through Big Joe’s 50-foot death march.
I remember instantly feeling very uncomfortable. That feeling turned to guilt within a minute. It was apparent that Turner was a broken-down old man who had to sing for his supper. I know I wasn’t the only one in the crowd that night who felt in some way we were part of the exploitation of poor Joe Turner. We all had just come out for a good time. But it appeared we were gathered to watch Big Joe’s last few days on earth instead. . . .
To be continued. This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky. For part two of this article click here.