For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath.
One might think that after all the years and experiences of saxophonist / composer / arranger / educator Jimmy Heath that he would have so much to say about the places and the people, the music he’s composed and performed and the influences on the instruments on which he is so proficient. Perhaps he’s saved those for his forthcoming autobiography, I Walked With the Giants, due in January. What we shared –and there was a bunch left unsaid of our 35-year ongoing relationship— was alluded to in the brief analysis and observations of the premiere of his Queens Jazz Orchestra at its home at Flushing Town Hall recently published in the jazz.com blog. (Click here to read it.)
The topic with which we are both most concerned is legacy. “I have two bands now, so I have to be careful not to have a conflict,” he explained. The other, much older band is the Jimmy Heath Orchestra which has its own schedule of appearances,” Whichever group he speaks on the subject is always about disseminating information about the music. We might be discussing his commissions of some thirty years ago, or his more recent ones, or the formal and informal teaching he continues on campuses around the country. Jimmy recently made a guest solo appearance with the New Jersey City University Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Ed Joffe. (In the spirit of full disclosure I am an Adjunct Professor of Jazz History there.) I had assigned my students to review the proceedings. Their reports emphasized Jimmy’s “youthful exuberance,” the manner in which he explained his music and the enthusiasm he elicits from the student musicians.
“I do a number of those every year,” he said. “I feel that I can give something so that the music will continue. You have to do things so that young people can understand there’s more to it than what they are being given.” He was alluding to the one-chord vamp with a drum beat that can so easily be played on a machine.
profiles of jazz legends who are creative and active beyond their eighth decade:
The Heaths, i.e., Jimmy and wife Mona moved to Queens in 1964. “I was tired of the row houses in Philadelphia where I was married and living with my parents. I wanted to come to Queens after speaking with Clark Terry and Cannonball Adderley who told me that the Dorie Miller Coop [where he still resides] was where they lived and how many others lived there.” There were trees and the schools were better in Queens — there were none of the former in the part of Philly where he lived. He and Mona had two children together, so the latter was important as well.
The name Heath was already established by big brother Percy who, along with the rest of a Dizzy Gillespie rhythm section, formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Jimmy began playing alto — he loved Charlie Parker — then tenor, and later soprano, and lobes began to stand at attention. [Read all about that in his forthcoming book.] But these essays are about more; it was his teaching and writing that fired my interest.
“I began teaching in 1980, at Housatonic College in Bridgeport, CT. Then for a year at City College. I taught at Jazzmobile prior to the college and university level. I was teaching privately while I was in Philadelphia.”
While at Jazzmobile Jimmy had the opportunity not only to teach, but to write, play and conduct for and with professional and student ensembles. Dr. Billy Taylor was the founder and director followed by Paul West then David Bailey. “Under Billy we had these lecture concerts in the Intermediate Schools,” Jimmy remembered. “We would do an evolutionary program beginning with ragtime and boogie woogie. The kids would love boogie woogie because they had been brainwashed by the repetition of the music of the day. We might play the theme from the television show “Sanford and Son” [by Quincy Jones]. I would play the soprano part. When we got to the more complicated parts of the music, Billy would talk about [people like] Art Tatum. At one school in Brooklyn one of the kids told us that all ‘they’ ever sent them were string quartets and like that. They were so happy that we brought jazz.”
That opened Jimmy’s mind to the fact that jazz was not being exposed in the schools. He gives Dr. Billy all the credit for doing that. And presently Wynton Marsalis as well.
In 1973 I attended a concert at the Town Hall in NYC presented by Jazzmobile of Jimmy Heath conducting an all star orchestra, big band and choir in the commissioned premiere of The Afro-American Suite of Evolution. It was a mammoth effort running some 30+ minutes, tracing our music from its inception to what was then current. While Jimmy unearths excerpts from time to time, the suite in its entirety has never been performed. No clean recorded copies of the premiere exist. “That was 30 years ago; why do you want to talk about that now? he asked me.” His recollections answer his own question.
He had applied for funding and Jazzmobile was the vehicle. “I had to study,” he said emphatically. “I had never written for strings nor choirs up to that time.” Every week for two years Jimmy became a student studying with Professor Rudolph Schramm, whose teaching of the Schillinger System helped make him legendary. “He knew what I was doing on recordings, etc., and took me from where I was to where I wanted to be. Prof. Schramm gave me the confidence I needed to complete the difficult task of tracing the history of African Americans through music.” Jimmy had heard Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, and still listens to the music of Stravinsky and other Western Classical composers. He knew that Bird, for example, had The Firebird score. I’ve heard that that music often wafted from Bird’s dressing room between sets. “We were interested in the harmonies, not the rhythm,” he said. “We had the rhythm!” The Suite was performed twice subsequent to the Town Hall debut: at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in Winnipeg, Canada.
[If there is a copy out there, might someone send it to me, please?!]
Jimmy still utilizes sections. “Each section is dedicated to one of my icons, my heroes,” he admitted. “'The Voice of the Saxophone,' with its dedication to Coleman Hawkins, was recorded twice: once with CBS and once with the Heath Brothers.”
Two of his other heroes are Dizzy Gillespie, for whom he wrote "Without You No Me," performed in Flushing, and Parker, for whom he was commissioned to write "Bird Is The Word" for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and on the Lower East Side. “For the NYC Parks Dept. commission of 'Bird Is The Word' I used only seven pieces whereas the Afro-American Suite was for a huge orchestra. I had the band sing, chant, if you will, ‘Bird is the word, the music we all heard; he made it clear and his music is still here.’ I encouraged the people to chant along.” [I did.] Jimmy’s looking for a “connection” to record the piece.
For his latest commission for the QJO, "Cultural Crossroads," Jimmy again utilized a chant which was later echoed instrumentally by sections of the band. He explained that the use of a chant is not so much of African roots as it is from his experiencing the big bands at the Earle Theatre in Philly. “Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Tommy Dorsey all had the band sing something,” he remembered. “When I was with Dizzy he had us sing some nursery rhyme. So when I wrote "Moody’s Groove" the vocalizations were homage to him. It’s a communicative thing. If it’s the blues it’s ‘Hey, baby let’s go home and do it.’ Unless it’s country & western; in that case it’s all about your truck, in sexual terms no less. Or ‘All my ex-es live in Texas that’s why I moved to Tennessee.’”
There is no chanting in the 'Basie' section" of the “Afro-American Suite” which was performed at Flushing Town Hall with the QJO. Count Basie was a long time resident of Queens and his presence triggered Jimmy’s warm feelings about the borough and its inhabitants. Jimmy and Cobi Narita were on a panel at FTH at about the time when the “Queens Jazz Trail” map was being created. The map highlights the homes of the artists. The map begat a motorized trolley to take people on a tour of said homes [refer to my previous jazz.com article for some names, or www.flushingtownhall.org and follow the trail yourself.] Jimmy said that if they got the funding he would put the band together. In fact, the title, Queens Jazz Orchestra was Jimmy’s idea. “I thought it was just another idea that would not come to fruition,” he remembered thinking. “They had jumped the gun by putting it on the schedule then said that I had to write something since it was already on the schedule.”
Cultural crossroads, indeed. Flushing has turned from upwardly mobile Jewish to Pan-Asian. Corona is multi-Hispanic. Nearby is Shea Stadium and soon the new Citi Field home of the New York Mets. Yuppies and their puppies have long-ago re-discovered Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. There are CUNY and other institutions now inhabiting former factories and warehouses in Long Island City. Want upscale shopping malls? Try Elmhurst. The diversified area has been featured in major newspaper articles, on radio and on television.
All of which is echoed by FTH’s programming: jazz, Latin, Broadway, photo and fine art exhibits, arts & crafts. The QJO was the next natural step. “The band is made up of the same quality musicians that I have in my own band,” Jimmy said. “The repertoire comes from the people who lived there. The idea is to have a touring organization under the banner QJO. Dates and venues have yet to be named. We have to crawl before we walk.”
REGRETS?: Jimmy made an appearance at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for an anniversary in 2007. Rev. Herbert Daughtry mentioned that he knew Jimmy from a certain period in both their lives and from a time and place of which Jimmy said, “I was stupid. I would like to relive that period when I had a problem with drugs. I would take out those four or five years and use them productively.”
UNFINISHED?: “Just to continue enjoying life. I have five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.”
With “The Queens Jazz Orchestra” now off to a good start with the success of it’s inaugural concert the plans for the future are almost writing themselves.
”Flushing Council on Culture & The Arts” is planning a “Jazz Camp” next year at “Flushing Town Hall” that will utilize “Queens Jazz Orchestra” members to teach jazz improvisation, harmony, history and technique to students who aspire to become proficient jazz players and perhaps pursue careers as professionals.
Plans to bring the Queens Jazz Orchestra on tour are already in motion and requests to book the ensemble are coming in. The Orchestra would like to perform at the major Jazz Festivals abroad including the Montreux Jazz Festival and festivals in Japan and India, as well as colleges in the United States.
Flushing Town Hall is planning a cruise for the orchestra, “The Queens Jazz Orchestra Jazz Cruise” for 2009, which will be an evening of music; dining and dancing departing from the Flushing Marina and the orchestra will have some special guests performing with them to spice up the summer night.
July 05, 2008 · 2 commentsTags: octojazzarians
For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is pianist and radio personality Marian McPartland.
“I hate all those words that end in -arian.”
Thus spake Marian McPartland whose music indeed has no time frame. She celebrated her 90th birthday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. An all star assemblage feted Lady Marian with some of her songs including the title track from her most recent album Twilight World, (Concord), sung by Karrin Allyson. “I’ve sung it many times and even recorded it,” Allyson said later. Marian couldn’t remember the lyricist, so I offered Johnny Mercer. “Oh, more famous than that,” she said. To some of us more famous than Mercer you don’t get.
While cadging together a DVD for a Women In Jazz Festival at NYC’s St. Peter’s Church, at which Marian was honored as a living legend, I came across two videos in which she was featured. The first was made at the Clinton White House. The intense gaze of President Bill while she was speaking of -- then playing -- a Fats Waller tune is worth the balance of that VH1 broadcast. The second was a lecture and demonstration at a school where she took one tune and played it in the many styles of jazz piano from Scott Joplin forward.
“I did a lot of those things for some time,” Marian said. “I traveled as long as I could show youngsters what this music is about. I had a young trio at the time, almost the age of the students.” She has always said that her favorite trio was bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, the Hickory House trio.
[Note: The Hickory House was a restaurant on W. 54th St. in NYC that was not a jazz joint per se. It was close by the famed “52nd St.” -- a/k/a “The Street” -- and its brownstone walk-in clubs. Hickory House was noted for its steaks and chops and later for its trios. In addition to Marian’s decade-long tenure there Billy Taylor did a long stint at the Hickory House, as did Mary Lou Williams. See the “Postscript” below for more on McPartland’s Hickory House trio, including anecdotes from Joe Morello and Bill Crow.]
Prior and during the Hickory House stint, Marian played and toured with husband, then ex-husband, then husband redux, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. “We always said that the divorce was a failure,” Marian quipped. “You have to play it right or it just doesn’t come off. We didn’t play the divorce right.”
Speaking of playing it right, Marian studied at London’s Guildhall. “I was already playing by ear since I was three. I had a private teacher for a while but that didn’t take. In school I was badly behaved so my father asked what could he do? The teacher replied that ‘she should be studying music, of course.’” Three years later she was asked to tour with a four-piano show playing “like Frankie Carle. I was in show biz and I never looked back.” It was after Marian met Jimmy, who was still a G.I. and they began working the USO shows during WWII that she started meeting some of her American heroes. “We were in Belgium and I met Dinah Shore, Edward G. Robinson and Fred Astaire.” Then came New York where she met Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Louis Armstrong. She was as green as one could be in those days being from England and the first time in the Apple. “I remember walking down Broadway with Jimmy showing me the town. We walked by this club where Louis was working, the Aquarium Club. The door was open so we looked in. Louis shouted, ‘Hey, McPartland. Come in here!’ So we did. We were staying at Gene Krupa’s house and went to hear him a lot too.”
The conversation turned to Krupa’s hometown, Chicago, where Jimmy replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverines. Jimmy and Marian were working in the Windy City not long after they visited NYC, when Jimmy suggested to her that she get her own trio. “He said then I can play whatever I like [trending to] bebop and anybody I can hear on records or see in person.
"There was a funny incident. We worked a horrible club called the Rose Bowl in Chicago which had a bowling alley attached to it. Jimmy always liked to hear me play a solo. I was playing "Claire de Lune" for some reason and not a jazz tune when a roar came from the bowling crowd next door for somebody getting a strike or something. That ended the solo spot.”
There was a penchant for swinging classical music at that time as another of the 52nd St. crowd, Art Tatum, proudly demonstrated his breathtaking technique on "Humoresque." “You know I had to learn that,” Marian continued. “We went to see [Tatum] who took us to a speakeasy which was just an ordinary house, but when you walked upstairs there was this club in full swing with juke boxes, a big piano, people drinking and carrying on. Tatum sat down [at the piano] and he must have played till 10 o’clock in the morning. Such a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood, you’d never guess there was all this gaiety going on.”
Marian had already met Louis and then Mary Lou, but she didn’t get to play with any of them until Jimmy was playing Eddie Condon’s. “That was the first time I was asked to sit in,” she remembered. “I knew all those traditional tunes, “Ostrich Walk,” “Royal Garden Blues,” all of them.”
Fast forward. Jazz was hot in 1979, for me in particularly. WBGO, our local jazz NPR affiliate, went on the air; Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program was born, and — dare I even utter in the same breath — my live interview series at the New School called Jazz Insights© began its 26 year run. The first two are extant; the last sadly not. Most of the McP’s Piano Jazz shows have been done in the studio, Sherry Hutchinson producing. But there have been some live: that Hickory House Trio and a tribute to Jimmy McPartland to name but a pair. (Not to be confused with a Jimmy McP tribute hosted by cornetist/Bix and Hoagy Carmichael author Richard Sudhalter.)
Marian spoke of some of her favorite shows. “We got Teddy Wilson to talk, which was not always that easy to do. Mary Lou did my first show and she actually taught me things, on the air. She was very tough. I think she wanted her own show and she was annoyed that I had it. At one point I said, ‘I really liked that chord you played.’ She replied, ‘I didn’t play that chord.’ I didn’t pursue it; it was, after all, my first show and Mary Lou Williams at that. After a while she got mellow, even sang a song. Later we went out to dinner to the Russian Tea Room. We tried to get Count Basie a few times, but I think he was ill. We even announced him in the program guide. We tried to get Earl Hines, too.”
The program had its genesis thanks to songwriter Alec Wilder who had an NPR radio show based on his book American Popular Song. He recommended that Marian do a show and Piano Jazz was the result. “We’re looking forward to a big 30th Anniversary bash in 2009.”
The guest parade actually began at the Hickory House where people like Duke Ellington would fall by for dinner and sometimes play. “Duke’s press agent and the Hickory House’s, Joe Morgan, was the same. A pain in the ass but he did get some good press items. Billy Strayhorn would sit quietly alone in a corner booth,” Marian remembered. “He never played. I often wondered about that, never sitting with Duke. Oscar [Peterson] came by; Artie Shaw, too. Once we had Martin Luther King come in, but I never got to talk to him. He was friends with my bass player at the time, Ben Tucker, composer of “Comin’ Home Baby.” He must be making a fortune from that one song. Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows got engaged there.”
The music was continuous at the Hickory House. John Mehegan was the “intermission” pianist. One night Marian remembered that while she was on he came running down the room shouting, “That should have been a C7! People at the bar had that ‘Who the hell is this guy’ look.” An infrequent visitor Joe Bushkin was at the Embers and Marian was asked to follow him with her trio. Marian: “Joey had taken all his fans with him and nobody knew who I was. The management thought I needed some backup so they brought in Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge which turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. While I was at the Embers Jimmy was at the Metropole Café.” [Note: The Metropole was a long drinking joint on Broadway not far from 52nd St. where the bands played on the long bar. It was rarely quiet so the bands had to play louder than the clientele. Krupa and Cozy Cole had a drum school upstairs. It (and the original Birdland) became a Gentlemen’s Club.]
I asked Marian if there were any reunions of the Austin High Gang, the band of Chicagoans with whom Jimmy had played “They had disbanded but there was one where we played the Blue Note in Chicago with Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman. [What was more interesting is that] we played opposite Billie Holiday. Mousey Alexander was our drummer.
An underplayed side of Marian’s success is as a songwriter. The melodies have been in her repertoire for years but, as we all know, it’s only when we hear a lyric that we remember the tune. Such is the case with “Twilight World” and an earlier one “The Days of Our Love,” lyrics by Peggy Lee, which has been famously recorded by Cleo Laine and Jackie Cain.
To conclude the long phone interview, for good measure, Marian reiterated that she “hates that word ‘blog.’ I don’t have a computer; I don’t have email. I do have a website, but I don’t know what’s on it. That’s all she wrote.”
And we have Marian McPartland.
Postscript: The Hickory House Trio:
Bill Crow was a self-taught bass player at the time he met Marian and he said he was struggling with difficult keys. “Marian loved all those keys,” Crow said. “She improved my playing just by pushing me to play in every key.” He remembered getting a lot of solo space.
Visitors to the centrally located stage atop the bar played an integral part in Crow’s career: “Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral] came by and hired Joe [Morello] and me for a record date. British pianist/vibist Victor Feldman liked the way we sounded together and we recorded his first American album. Unfortunately the record company lost the tapes.”
Marian occasionally took the trio on the road to places like Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, where they had more than just one-nighters. “We met the greats,” Crow remembered. “Not only would Jimmy [McPartland] sit in but in between rounds of golf we would be joined by some of Jimmy’s Chicago and trad pals: Vic Dickinson, Pee Wee Russell, Marty Napoleon, Bud Freeman, Herb Hall, Eddie Condon and Yank Lawson. I even got to work with some of them.”
Crow related how the writers from Down Beat and Metronome were always asking Joe Morello to compare himself to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, then the marquee names. Crow: “Hating to make those comparisons, Joe invented a fictitious drummer named Marvin Bonessa who [Joe] claimed was better than all of them. He claimed that Marvin was reclusive, wouldn’t record and wouldn’t give interviews, but was head and shoulders above all other drummers in both technique and imagination. Marian and I and Joe’s friend [guitarist] Sal Salvador joined in the conspiracy. We had writers going crazy trying to locate Marvin. I think he even got nominated in one of the Down Beat polls.”
I first laid ears on Morello when he was with Dave Brubeck at a 1956 Brooklyn College concert. I was stunned by his phenomenal left hand and asked him if he hadn’t been a left-hander. Crow now tells the story. “Joe had developed a finger system with which he could keep a string of eighth notes going with just his left forefinger controlling the drumsticks. Then he would add accents by using his wrist.” Crow was fooling around with sticks on breaks on a pad made up of a folded napkin. Eventually he figured out the Morello finger system. “I could do that one trick so that when a visiting drummer would marvel at his control, Joe would say, ‘Oh, anybody can do that even my bass player.’ Joe would hand me a stick and I’d do the trick.” I would have loved to have seen the looks on those visiting drummers’ faces.
Morello remembered coming to NYC “at the starvation level. My friend Sal Salvador, then with the [Stan] Kenton band, told me of this British girl [sic] who was looking for a drummer. I’d never heard of her but Sal had evidently told her about me. Mousey Alexander, who was playing drums with her, had this big bass drum which was booming so I remember not using it too much.” Morello would drop down to the Hickory House once a week or so and sit in. During one of his visits he remembered Marian pointing him out to a guitarist. That introduction led to a long association with the legendary Johnny Smith, first for three weeks at the original Birdland, then to the more posh East Side boîte The Embers. Then came the calls. “I couldn’t believe it; first Stan Kenton, who was at Birdland, wanted me to sub for Stan Levey who went into hospital for something. The next day Marian calls for me to replace Mousey who wanted to go with Sauter-Finegan.” Seems everything that happened for him in NYC had Marian attached. “Even though we’d travel, New York and the Hickory House was always home base.”
May 02, 2008 · 6 commentsTags: octojazzarians
For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is pianist and composer Randy Weston.
VERSE: I was recovering at home from a heart attack in 2001. A visiting rep from HIP was taking down my personals, you know, weight, height, generally how to prescribe treatment. He asked me what I want to be, presuming I wanted to lose weight, like that. Thinking of Randy Weston I replied, “six-two & 220 pounds.” He looked totally confused as my wife cracked up. As the guy left the phone rang. It was Randy Weston. True story.
REFRAIN: From Brooklyn with the blues; from jazz to the mother continent making all stops (even Capt. James T. Kirk’s “next star to the right and straight on till morning.”). That’s what Randy Weston’s music does for me. Tough to describe as the music is in constant flux, dynamic as opposed to static. The sources from which it culls boggle the imagination: Nigeria, Morocco, where he owned a nightclub, Tangier, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, the American South, the Church and always the Blues, or more precisely the Blues all ways.
Randy, in his eighth decade of garnering experiential data, has no intention of either quitting or even looking back. “There is so much more [to be heard] so why stop now,” he said.
Randy’s first love was not the piano. “I wanted to play basketball,” the six-seven --I lied to the HIP guy-- musical giant said. “It was my father, Frank Edward Weston, a barber, who insisted I take piano lessons. He often said that we were Africans born in America and that I had to learn about my forebears. And that one day I would have to journey back. I thank him for [all] that everyday.”
Return he does and each time he comes home with new musical discoveries. I saw Randy at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal late last century with a group of musicians representing a people I had never heard of prior. “I met the Gnawans in 1967 and we’ve traveled all over the world,” he said. "2008 is the year the African community in Tangier honors me in return. We intend to talk about my club in Morocco, which I had for three years, called African Rhythms Club, and also the Festival we gave in Tangier in 1972. We presented over 200 African and American groups including Max Roach’s Group, Odetta, Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Mandrill, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew. It was a cultural success, but an economic disaster.” He laughed then said “not bad for a guy from Brooklyn -- opens a club and lives in Morocco, gets involved with the culture and now they want to honor me.” He sounded humbled by it all.
You’ve no doubt read of musicians surrounding him as he matured, but to see the glint in Randy’s eye when he recounts them, it’s worth retelling. “We had a very hip community in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant] Brooklyn: there were Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan, Len Gaskin, Percy Brice, Kenny Dorham, Eubie Blake, Ray Abrams, Ernie Henry, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Stitt and so many clubs. But most of all there was Max.” That would be drummer Max Roach, the southern transplant. “Max was so important that we are celebrating Jazz In Brooklyn for four days from April 25-28 and we are dedicating them to him.” (Events will be presented at Concord Baptist Church, Boys & Girls High School, Brooklyn Historical Center and Medgar Evers College.)
But I digress. In 1967 the Randy Weston band went on a State Dept. tour of 14 African countries. The personnel was: Dexter Gordon, tenor sax, Ray Copeland, trumpet, Bill [now Vishnu] Wood, bass, Ed Blackwell, drums, Chief Bey, African percussion, son Azzedin, then 15, went along.
Randy picks up the story: “Among the stops we made were Cameroon, Niger, Liberia; Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Beirut, Lebanon. We did the history of jazz starting with Africa, the Caribbean, the Black Church, and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ That all came about because of my association with Marshall Stearns.” Stearns was one of the original historians and authors of this music we call jazz. His vast collection became the basis of the Institute of Jazz Studies currently housed at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University. “Jazz started to take a back seat [to other popular music] in the fifties and I wanted to move to Africa anyhow. I might have picked Nigeria because I had been there, but the Biafra War was going on.”
After writing the required report of that tour Randy received calls from people in Morocco telling him how much they had liked his music. Would he come back? He did -- this time with just the trio of Wood and Blackwell. He ended up staying seven years. “Prior to the State Dept. tour I requested that I would like to hear as much indigenous music as possible. When it was possible the request was honored.” He went to Tangier. “The best school in Morocco was there; that’s why I moved there.” While in Tangier he met a Moroccan who had heard Randy was interested in traditional Moroccan music. “He suggested I listen to the Gnawa,” Randy related. “Up to that point [‘67] I had never heard of them.” A meeting was arranged for Randy to meet a Gnawan named Abdullah El Gourd who worked for the Voice of America. “He spoke not only English, but also French and Spanish; he said he was always interested in the history of his people and he played a traditional instrument with three strings called the hadjouj (formerly the guimbre). It was like hearing Jimmy Blanton. He would come by and bring some of the older Gnawa; we’d make tapes.”
Just as important were the stories of their own intra-African slavery, crossing the Sahara, or by boats from West Africa to North Africa (now sometimes referred to as the Middle East). “Some were put on ships and transported across the Atlantic and others were left behind. Gnawa was created within Morocco from the Songhay and Mali empires. When the Berber people heard this music they gave it the name of Gnawa.” Randy has seen to it that the world recognizes Gnawan music the name of which exists only in Morocco.
When I asked if jazz is really African music, which I personally do not believe, Randy replied that “the entire world comes from Africa, the cradle of civilization, farming, mining, gold, diamonds. As we migrate we take various instruments and cultures with us and we integrate with the established cultures. Thus the African Diaspora: tango in Argentina, cumbia in Colombia, samba in Brazil, reggae in Jamaica, steel drums in Trinidad, and Afro-Cuban [everything] in Cuba. The Egyptians created music to keep them in tune with the universe. Think of the music of the spheres where every planet’s orbit has it own frequency. Music is the basis of spirituality and healing.”
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. there was Duke Ellington’s early band, the so-called Jungle band, James P. Johnson’s piano concerto Yamekraw, Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha and James Reese Europe, whose early 20th century band not only got him to Europe as the first Black band over there (WW I) but was also the subject of a weekend of music presented at City College by Randy.
For Randy it’s not that jazz is or isn’t African music, “it’s a matter of helping me understand how the music had the power to influence the entire world and how Ellington and Thelonious Monk followed that tradition. The slaves came here with nothing; their freedom, their instruments, their communication were taken from them. And yet the music survived. You can’t explain it; it comes from God. You get your first lesson in your mother’s womb; the second lesson is the Black Church. That’s directly from Africa.”
Ellington and Mary Lou Williams created religious music as their final offerings, a sort of giving back to their creator what He/She had given them: their musical gifts. Randy made it even more personal. “When first I met Art Tatum he was doing so much that I felt it was coming from someplace other than himself. I was afraid to shake his hand. Tatum, Nat King Cole and Count Basie are like musical prophets.” I understood Tatum and Cole for creating new directions, but why Basie, I asked. “The blues. I have written some 40 blues. It’s our language. [Among our] people there are those who come on the planet to lift our spirits, people like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong.”
Randy’s father was a (Marcus) Garveyite, who taught him that “we are responsible to give something back to our homeland, Africa. We never leave our mother and Africa is our mother.” She seems to keep on giving. “There are rhythms on this planet we haven’t even heard yet.”
CODA: The long-running Randy Weston Ensemble consists of T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe), saxophones; Benny Powell, trombone; Neil Clarke, African percussion and Alex Blake, bass.
T.K Blue: (28 years) “[From Randy] I have learned that African culture and music has influenced not just the United States. I have gotten books on the early African presence in Asia and Europe. I recently discovered that the Pope who started the celebration of Easter was African. You wouldn’t know to look at his images now; all the African traces have been removed. All that Randy saw about Africa was from the Tarzan movies; that wasn’t enough for him. He passed that [curiosity] on to us. As a result I moved to Paris to learn French so that I could better communicate on some level with West Africans.”
Benny Powell: (He says 28 years; I figure more like 33) “Randy Weston is among the wisest people I’ve ever met. You will never hear an unkind word uttered from him. When he plays the ‘hits’ they are different each time. For instance, ‘Hi-Fly,’ on which I am featured, has gone from a medium tempo to a ballad. That’s why I love playing with him; while we do have a set schedule he will change up. Most of us have been together for quite a while but we are still learning from each other. I never ‘met’ Randy; I encountered him. When you encounter a person you feel that you’ve known them for a long time. We walk on parallel roads and then our paths cross.
"I was in California working with Merv Griffin and told Randy that I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I asked to consider me if he needed a musician. He called me to work the  Spoleto Festival-Charleston, SC. I had other commitments and turned him down. I said to myself, ‘You damned fool. You tell the man you’re drowning in California for lack of culture, he throws you a life raft and you throw it back at him.’ [Happily] He called again we’ve been together ever since. His character, like his figure, is head and shoulders above everybody. When I was on tour with him and on dialysis [Benny has had a kidney transplant] he made sure that I had a bed on the bus to myself while he had to fold himself into a seat. He prepared me for Brooklyn and their clannish attitude toward people from New York [Manhattan] even though I was there to participate in the Brooklyn Consortium’s festival at the personal invitation of [founder] Alma Carroll, [singer] Joe’s wife. He soothed the situation in the Addis Ababa airport when they were dumping out my bag and throwing things away. Playing with Randy is never just a gig; it’s an adventure.”
Special thanks to Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz Talks hosted by Dr. Lewis Porter whose one-on-one with Randy Weston was part of the impetus for the above article.
April 15, 2008 · 2 commentsTags: octojazzarians
Our subject this month is drummer Chico Hamilton.
When I called this vastly influential drummer, band leader, educator, composer he was busy at work saying that he was between two chords. “Monday and Tuesday I’m giving my finals [at the New School] so can we talk later?”
My personal ills flow off me when I hear about OctoJAZZarian activity like that.
Those two chords were for not one but two CDs on his Joyous Shout label, one with trio and the other for his ensemble Euphoria. All sans piano. When I first heard Chico as a leader in the 1950s I presumed that he got that piano-less concept from an early boss, Gerry Mulligan. Chico’s explanation was simpler. “All the pianists I wanted were unavailable, especially Gerry Wiggins, the ultimate accompanist; so I went without one,” he explained.
Being a perfectionist, Chico developed his own sound with unison guitar and sax. Some of the guitarists he introduced --sometimes playing in tandem-- were Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Jim Hall, Dennis Budimir, Howard Roberts, John Pisano, and current long-time sideman Cary DiNegris. The saxophonists included Eric Dolphy, Buddy Collette, Charles Lloyd, Paul Horn, Arthur Blythe and Arnie Lawrence, the founder of the New School’s jazz program. Other sidemen include bassist Carson Smith and trombone virtuoso Steve Turre. For so many of these artists, Chico’s leadership was a springboard to their stardom.
Never standing still, Chico introduced classical cello to the jazz canon in the person of Fred Katz, later replaced by Nate Gershman. Hamilton/cello appearance in the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day solidified the efficacy of the cello sound in small group jazz. (Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones and Percy Heath were also cello antecedents but they were bass-doublers. Percy said that his was even tuned like a bass. “I didn’t want to learn another instrument all over again,” he once told me.)
Speaking of filmdom, Chico’s group was a foil in Sweet Smell of Success (‘57) with drugs being planted on his guitarist, played by Martin Milner, to get him arrested and away from the Burt Lancaster character’s sister. (The Lancaster role was a thinly disguised Walter Winchell. Chico says the young woman was based on Winchell's daughter.) The Lancaster character had better plans for his sister than a jazz musician. (Has anything changed?) The film is classic black & white film noir with the added thrill of seeing a fine jazz group, and the ending in an abandoned Times Square.
I like to say that the best things that have happened for me have happened to me. Chico puts it much more simply. “Everything that has happened in my life has been by accident.” He claims that all those now legendary or near-legendary players in his bands just wandered into his life. There were moments, however, that “the word went out that I needed [sidemen] and they contacted me or I contacted them.” True, serendipity played a role, but not the kind you might think.
“I always considered myself as being blessed, he told me at his United Nations neighborhood penthouse. "Music is God’s will and God’s will will be done. This is my reward.” Reflecting on some of those blessings we spoke of a particular concert on a steamy afternoon at the Singer Bowl (now Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadow) where the Chico Hamilton group boasted three guitar players. “I remember that gig,” Chico mused. “There was Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo and Mike Santana. It was the first time that I had played before such a large crowd [80-90 thousand]. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Arthur Ashe. At the time he was the only black athlete to tell the kids to stay in school and get an education. And they are still not doing it.” We talked of some of the inarticulate sports spokesmen who sound like they are on the corner. “They are supposed to be role models. Instead they talk of other things, but not education.”
At earlier times Chico Hamilton was an accompanying drummer to such luminaries as Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and on a now-famous multiple percussion ensemble recording with Tony Bennett. (It was Tony’s first time as producer.) But it was with Lena Horne (1947-55) that things began to take shape.
Chico spoke of the famous piano-less concept. He had decided not to go to Europe with Lena but stayed Stateside with the Charlie Barnet band. “Gerry (Mulligan) came to my apartment in L.A. where I was rehearsing my quartet and liked what he heard.” There was no room for a piano in his apartment. The vastly influential and oft-imitated Gerry Mulligan Quartet was formed from that nucleus: Mulligan, Chico, Bob Whitlock, bass, and trumpeter, later vocalist, Chet Baker.
If I am pressed to the wall I would say that this was the group that most personified the “cool west coast” sound of jazz in the 1950s. And the subtle, brushes-emphasis, soft, in-the-background, almost effortless drumming of Chico Hamilton was the rhythm sound. His opposite number was Art Blakey, the east coast “hard bopper.”
It was Baker who most impressed Chico. “Chet and Miles were two of the most handsome dudes on the scene,” he said. “The last time I saw ‘Chesnake’ [Chet’s given name was Chesney] was in Amsterdam.” Baker had moved there due to easy access for his drug habit. He died there in 1988. “Chet looked like a thousand year-old man,” Hamilton recalled.
I remember Chet in his prime, a young man “pretty” of face, voice and tone, and later when he would periodically return to NYC –Strykers on the Upper West Side and Highlights in Jazz at NYU-- looking more cadaver-like each successive time. He died having fallen (?) from a hotel window. “I was in Paris when I got the news. I don’t know anything about the circumstances,” Chico offered. “He might have fallen considering his condition. He didn’t have a vein left.”
After his stint with Mulligan, Hamilton went back with Lena. By this time (1955) Chico knew the concept of what he wanted his sound to be. His recordings for West Coast’s Pacific Jazz behind him, he moved east to Columbia under the aegis of George Avakian, then to Reprise. The piano never entered into his ken.
“The guitar’s sustaining power makes me able to do the things that I do, rhythmically and melodically.” He pointed out that his drum kit is not like others. “I play low on a relatively small set, drums and cymbals well below eye level. My arms get tired playing up here [he gesticulated] so I play down here.” His bass drum is almost a miniature. “Did you know that I was the first to play a small bass drum? It’s actually a floor tom turned on its side.” Actually, I had noticed from the get-go that all the drummers who followed Chico with Mulligan –particularly Larry Bunker and Dave Bailey— also played the smaller bass drum.
“If you are not comfortable and you start to hurt something’s got to give. And the first thing that goes is the tempo. So it’s easier to play down.”
Uniqueness in the Hamilton sound may also emanate from the fact that he makes his own drums. He laments that he was unable to buy skin heads during WWII so now he buys his own skins and makes the heads. Also due to that calf shortage, as an economy move Chico resorted to using one-headed drums. “I was the first to do that, too” he said matter-of-factly. Single-headed drums are now standard fare for rock drummers who want thud not reverb. He received a citation for that innovation from former New York State Governor Pataki.
Drums aren’t the only thing he’s built; how about an estate house in the Hamptons? “I built that sucker from scratch.” How about an advertising jingle company? “I was working with Lena Horne in London and working on Roman Polanski’s film ‘Repulsion’ when I got a call from Mike Wollman of Grey Advertising who asked me if I wanted to do a commercial. Seems that he had heard my work from the ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’ Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t even know what a commercial was.” He was to write music for a cigarette called Spring.
There was a great deal of “modern” jazz being used in commercials at that time, especially in cigarette and beer spots. The music was considered so hip that the hucksters figured the identification would sell their product. Chico had fallen into liquid gold. “Not only did I produce it, I wrote it, arranged it and recorded it.
“When I found out how much they were paying I jumped at it. Do you realize one spot paid me more that a year’s worth of gigs?” He stayed on Madison Ave. for ten years, but never stopped playing and recording. “I was the first to use small groups in commercials and in bands when tv was live.”
And then there were the movies.
About Sweet Smell of Success, Chico remembers that they stalled for six months, “making sure we were clean.” The film, you might remember, was about drugs being planted in the guitarist’s coat. “The guitar scenes were innovative,” Chico said. “They alternately cut between John Pisano’s hands on the fret board and Marty Milner’s face when his hands were at his side. It worked pretty well, I think. One time I put my hands on the fret board and cracked everyone up. It stayed in, too. The royalties keep comin’”
You can’t be more unique than unique. Bill Cosby, who is known for his keen jazz ears, had heard “Blue Sands” on Jazz On A Summer’s Day and wanted to use it. But he didn’t call Chico. “He tried three other drummers, and they still didn’t get it right. He thinks I’m cute.”
Another TV celeb, the late Ed Bradley, was hosting an early New School Beacons In Jazz Awards ceremony. Chico’s printed bio was lost and I was asked to brief Bradley. I proceeded to delineate the aforementioned sidemen. Not only did Bradley memorize the names, but he stepped to the podium and gave a biographical sketch of Chico as though he had known him all his life. “I didn’t know him at all.” Chico told me. But Ed Bradley knew Chico Hamilton.
Our conversation had come full circle. “Remember I told you that I was blessed,” he began. “Twice in my life I experienced a Zen thing. I became my drums. I can’t begin to tell you the feeling; it was overwhelming. I felt it throughout my whole body. ‘Zen for you yesterday and here you come today,’” he quipped. I changed the subject. He’s somewhat disappointed as to the way the New School has turned out. “It’s become academia. The kids don’t know what jazz is all about. [Speaking of the New School] I pray for Arnie [Lawrence] every day.” The two met at Jim and Andy’s, a musician’s hangout beneath A&R studios in NYC. “Arnie was on the ‘Tonight Show’ band. I immediately put him into one of my commercials. I took him all over Europe.”
His affiliation with AFM/NYC local 802 is another story. “For years I didn’t own my publishing rights the way I do now. Now I can build up some pension because everything has been in Joyous Shout for some 20 years.
Chico Hamilton is at one with his universe. “There are still more good days than bad.”
What he wants for his next birthday? “Another one.”
Regrets? “Why bother with them?”
His future? “Keep on doing what I’m doing, playing, teaching.”
About television: “Fortunately, we’re not going to be around when all that stuff comes home to roost.”
March 03, 2008 · 5 commentsTags: octojazzarians
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
February 10, 2008 · 2 commentsTags: octojazzarians
Our subject this month is trumpeter Clark Terry.
Like his idol, Louis Armstrong, trumpeter, flugelhornist, vocalist, bandleader Clark Terry wants only to be an entertainer. “Louis said it should be fun,” Terry said. “As long as (Louis) was making people feel good he was happy.”
Indeed, Louis repeated that credo to anyone who would listen: close friends & acquaintances, informal gatherings & large audiences, even on recordings & at private parties. That was some of Clark’s reasoning when he began “mumbling,” his patented –well, it should be-- method of vocalizing, part scat, part vocalese, nonsensical patter which sounds like scatter logical dialects. But it’s always tasteful, if whimsical, fun.
It began in the bars of his native St. Louis, Mo. He calls them “stein bars.” “The piano player didn’t get paid, normally,” he told me. “Just keep putting steins of beer on the piano.” He always played in F#.” (Not your normal vocalist’s key.) “He took requests and invited singers to sit in. It didn’t matter what they sang so long as it was in F#. The rest was unintelligible, anyhow. You know, those steins.”
His legacy, of course, is his horn playing; the kind of playing that has recognized signatory power after only a note or so. He’s actually talking through the horn. “Anyone who plays can sing,” he said. “Even if we don’t have voices.” He was thinking of Louis. “Ella (Fitzgerald) couldn’t play, but she wanted to sound like an instrument. Anyone she sang with treated her as another instrument in the band. His stylized mumbling came from a Dick Tracy comic strip character whose over-his-head balloons carried hieroglyphics instead of language. Clark used it on the Johnny Carson show when the band was asked by the audience to play some obscure campfire song as part of the “stump the band” segment. Again, fun prevailing.
“When we lived in Corona, Queens near Dizzy Gillespie Diz and I would walk over to Pops’ (Louis Armstrong) house and ring the bell. Lucille, Louis’ wife, would peek through the hole and turn to Pops and say to her husband, ‘It looks like Diz and Clark are here to get their batteries charged.’” And that’s what it was. “We would sit around and listen to Pops spin stories.” Clark remembered sitting under a picture of Louis sitting on the potty, pants around his ankles looking out at you with the caption, ”Leave it all behind you.” It was an advertisement for a fierce laxative called Swiss Kris, which Louis endorsed, a box of which remains in the medicine cabinet of the spot marked Louis Armstrong House in Corona.
It was at one of those informal get-to’s when Pops said to Clark, ”You should sing more.” An indirect result was the first formal mumbles recording, The Oscar Peterson Trio + One.
Peterson had just passed away at the time of our informal telephone chat. “It was essential to know and play with Oscar Peterson,” Clark said. “We had this gag when we didn’t like the piano player. I would move to the piano and bump whoever it was off the bench saying, ‘Get lost’ and proceed to play. One time at the Blue Note (NYC) I did that when OP was at the piano [if you can imagine anyone doing such as thing]. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off the bandstand.” (The piano was close to the edge.)
Clark related that Peterson, riddled by painful arthritis, would play as treatment. So instead of curtailing his performing schedule he increased it. Only a stroke would finally limit him, and only his left hand at that.
While mumbles was a lark which became a CeeTee trademark, other experiments involved his horns. An album called Top ‘n’ Bottom Brass featured Clark’s trumpet and flugelhorn and Don Butterfield’s tuba. (Hence the title.) On it Clark played a tune called “Blues for Etta.” “Etta was the mother of a sax player I knew some time ago,” he remembered. “I played it on only the mouthpiece, no horn. It was a way you used to practice to strengthen your chops. It was also something different like playing two horns at once, or playing upside down.” Which he does to make his sets more fun.
Personally, whenever I saw the Clark Terry name on any LP it was in my figurative shopping cart, whether it was with Count Basie –he was a member of that transitional small group-- Duke Ellington –the spectacular ‘50s-‘60s band-- or just some studio backup group. If CT was in it you knew the arranger, producer, or booker was astute enough to record more than just musical wallpaper.
One such person was the late Bob Thiele who produced more than a few jazz recordings with and for his wife, the late Teresa Brewer. “The trick you need to remember is to stay out of the singer’s way,” Clark said. “We were with Teresa in Europe recording some of Louis tunes. There was a whole bunch of trumpet players each featured [on a different Armstrong favorite]. One of the players was [a young] Nicholas Payton who came on like gangbusters.” Clark intimated that Payton was in danger of losing the gig. “[After a couple of unsuccessful takes] I called him over to the side and told him to lay back; don’t overpower her. She’s the star,” advice which Clark learned from decades of accompaniment from as long ago as the riverboats.
“In racist St. Louis a form of communication was the Mississippi River and its entertainment boats,” Clark explained. “While I was too young to play on them, they came to town and stayed for a week. One booking agent was trumpeter Dewey Johnson and his Musical Ambassadors. The deal was ‘cheap booze, living and ladies,’ accent on the ‘cheap.’”
In one of those riverboat bands led by the legendary Fate Marable “if you arrived late for a gig you ’got the ax,’ literally, Clark remembered. “When you arrived at the bandstand there was the boat’s fire ax on your seat and you knew you were fired. That’s how that expression originated.”
Across the Mississippi from St. Louis, MO. is East St. Louis, IL, birthplace of Miles Dewey Davis. Dewey, as he was called, was not named after Dewey Johnson as Clark initially thought, but after his father. Clark remembers the young Dewey very well.
“Miles’ teacher [at Lincoln High School], Elwood Buchanan, pulled my coat to him,” Clark said. “We were then all fans of Harry James, who was very popular. Miles loved James’ vibrato and would play everything like that. Buchy would wrap paper around a ruler and hit him [to get him out of the vibrato habit].” And now we know how Miles got his vibrato-less style. Lest we forget that the award-winning Milesian dress code was a result of his admiration for Clark’s sartorial splendor.
“Miles played Heim mouthpieces which were a favorite of symphony player and teacher Joe Gustav,” Clark continued. Dizzy Gillespie heard of Gustav’s teaching prowess so he went to him for some lessons. Clark: “Diz played some fast runs as only he could to Gustav’s amazement considering those puffed cheeks. Gustav asked how long he had been playing like that. Diz hesitated then replied, ‘All my life.’ [The great] Gustav turned away and said, ‘Just keep doing it and get the hell out of here.’”
Clark and the as yet pre-bop Miles’ paths crossed many times thereafter each time eliciting a tangential tale from Clark. “We were working Carbondale, IL with one-legged band leader Benny Reid. Miles was there with Buchy’s [Lincoln High] band to play for a bunch of girls dancing around a Maypole. Miles liked that, all those girls. Our band was staying in a rooming house. Reid would get up an hour earlier than us and eat all our food. So one morning we got up two hours earlier and hid his peg leg, and ate all his food. You could hear him stomping around upstairs looking for his leg.”
Another encounter with Miles was at a downtown St. Louis club called the Elks, a steep climb to a loft area. Miles was there with Eddie Randall’s band. “I heard something I had never heard before coming from upstairs. I raced up all those stairs and found out it was Miles.”
The term “downtown” has special meaning for St. Louis residents. The West End was considered high class,” Clark explained. “’Downtown‘ meant something else; West Enders kind of looked down on us. I went to Vashon High, a Downtown school; my friends Ernie and Jimmy Wilkins went to Sumner, a West End school.” That didn’t stop the Terry/Wilkins team from writing and playing some of jazz’s great charts for Terry’s Big B-a-d Band over many decades. “Ernie’s first chart for his own band was ‘Forrest Fire,’ written for [another St. Louis native] Jimmy Forrest, Clark noted. “The piano player was Charlie Fox, who we called ‘Sluggo,’ comic strip Nancy’s boy friend. He was built like a fire plug: short and strong. The bass player was Wendell Marshall, who later replaced his cousin Jimmy Blanton in the Ellington band.”
When I asked this truly legendary man about regrets he readily replied, “The piano. I never had access to one so I never learned how to play. I could have done more writing and arranging.”
Perhaps that left more time for other delights. During my salad days I would travel throughout Europe often passing Clark in railroad stations and airports. We’d wave and he would yell the name of some restaurant in some city he had just visited. I frequently followed his gustatory advice.
As to now, “I am unprepared to cope with road any longer. Just trying to get through the day with personal stuff, you know the private function things. There is one thing though: I love kids. I don’t want to do to them what was done to me. One time I went to a trumpet player to learn how to develop my lower register. He told me to go home and practice sitting straight up in front of a mirror, grit my teeth and wiggle my left ear. I think I heard him say as I left, ‘That ought to hold him for a while.’ I don’t ever want to be that way. My home is like a school: whoever drops in gets a lesson.”
Just like Louis.
January 11, 2008 · 14 commentsTags: octojazzarians
The jazz world often romanticizes the musician who dies at a young age - Bix and Brownie, Blanton and Bubber and the other great talents whose lives were cut short. But what about that rare jazz musician who lives a long life? Can we celebrate longevity as well as brevity?
Lawrence Lucie celebrated his hundredth birthday last week. No other living jazz musician can match his stories: serving as best man for Louis Armstrong, gigging with Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson, or playing with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.
Jazz.com's occasional contributor arnold jay smith -- one of my two favorite writers among those with all lower case names -- was in attendance at this happy occasion and sends along his report. T.G.
Guitarist Larry Lucie turned up at his own 100th birthday party at a jazz celebrity-packed NYC Musicians Union Local 802 last Monday. And he remembered everyone who came to greet him.
As part of weekly Jams sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, the usually shy Lucie sat there while the greeters passed by and he responded to reporters' queries. It was also 802's annual Christmas bash and the bands played on.
The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, an ensemble which boasts one nonogenarian and a couple of octo's, serenaded the packed rehearsal room #1 as did a small group led by Bertha (the blues) Hope and featured George Braithwaite and his twin-horned Braithe-a-phone, Bill Saxton, tenor sax, Bob Cunningham, bass, and Jackie Williams, drums.
Lawence Lucie --born 1907 not 1914 as listed in the Feather/Gitler encylopedia-- played with the legends: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Millander, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson. When asked about the rumor that he had played on the Riverboats with Fate Marable he said that he played the boats but not in their hey day with Marable as Louis did.
Other birthday fetes were scheduled during the week-long celebration. One was at his convalescent home on the actual day, December 18, and another at the Duke Ellington Society the day after that. Radio station WKCR broadcast a day-long salute. Also in attendance on Monday, and celebrating his 75th was bassist John Ore, who was celebrating his 75th birthday. Ore was with Earl 'Fatha' Hines aboard an historical cruise which sailed to Cuba 30 years ago.
While more musicians are living longer, and while I was lucky enough to be among the celebrants at Eubie Blake's century mark, I still mutter "one hundred . . . Jeez!"arnold jay smtih
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith and Ted Gioia
December 23, 2007 · 1 commentTags: octojazzarians
Our debut subject in this series is pianist, broadcaster and jazz advocate Dr. Billy Taylor.
I had a heart attack in March 2001. Among the first phone calls I received, before most of my relatives even knew of my hospital confinement, was from Billy Taylor. As is his wont to so many before me, “Doc,” as I have gotten used to calling him since his PhD, has been friend, mentor and sometimes personal encouragement for many decades. To remember his voice that day still warms me inside. When he had a stroke I was asked to wait a bit before phoning him. Sure I did! We didn’t talk much; mostly he listened for those few seconds. A debt repaid.
Earlier there was the happy responsibility when I was hired by his long-time publicity firm, Peter Levinson Communications (PLC), and became not only Dr. Billy Taylor’s publicist, but also had the honor of writing the booklet notes for his long-overdue return to a major jazz label. The CD was “Dr. T” (GRP) a sobriquet I mistakenly thought I had given him. (Seems a long-ago student had beaten me to it.) We had become formally engaged.
All of the above was last century. We were to work together again professionally during the current millennium when Doc left PLC to sign with DL Media. What the heck does Dr. Billy Taylor need with a publicist?
In addition to all the information you can access via his website, www.billytaylor.com, he is, after all, DR. BILLY TAYLOR: pianist / composer / bandleader / arranger / author / educator / radio & television jazz evangelist. (I’ve run out of slashes.)
In his 80th (& ½) decade Billy is directing the Kennedy Center’s jazz programming: “Art Tatum’s Piano Panorama,” continuing Betty Carter’s Brooklyn, NY-born youth-oriented “Jazz Ahead,” and the very successful Mary Lou Williams Women’s Jazz Festival.
Looking back -- which Taylor emphatically does not do -- he considers himself, as did Gehrig, one of the luckiest of men. He stepped off a train and onto one of the greatest jazz scenes in history, 52nd St. and into the band of one of his heroes, Ben Webster. That was 1944. A gig-filled decade later he presided over the house band at the first incarnation of Birdland. In between his was the piano heard in the first band to tour Europe after WWII. “It was a totally integrated band,” Taylor said. “Racially as well as musically. The leader was Don Redman. Some sidemen included Don Byas, Tyree Glenn and Quentin “Butter” Jackson. The music was a combination of Swing & Bebop.”
Taylor’s first foray out of NYC was with another of his idols, violinist Eddie South. “That man could swing you into good health,” he has told me on many occasions. Billy had the opportunity of singing South’s praises on one of his radio programs “The Talking Violin.” He has hosted &/or written many programs for NPR, for which he tempers his usual unabashed praise. “NPR had upwards of 250 stations across the country playing jazz in a major way and they let them slip through their fingers due to lack of support or some other manner of canceling the programming.” Some of Taylor’s NPR shows were “Jazz Alive!” (The successor to which, “Jazz Set,” survives albeit abbreviated.) “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center,” (“Kennedy Center Jazz” survives on “Jazz Set.”), the “The Talking Violin,” and “Dizzy’s Diamond.”
Billy related some history with the subject of the last show. “I was [on 52nd St.] at the [Three] Deuces with my trio; Dizzy [Gillespie] was at the Onyx. Bud Powell was Dizzy’s first choice as his pianist, but was too young to play in clubs [or tour]. The rest of Dizzy’s group was Don Byas, tenor sax, O.P. [Oscar Pettiford], bass, and Max Roach, drums. Dizzy had decided that if he couldn’t get Bud he would do without a pianist.” Billy saw an opportunity and snapped at it. The vignette continues.
“During my breaks [at the Deuces] I would run across the street [to the Onyx] and sit in with Dizzy. I was late getting back to my own gig too many times and got fired.” There’s a happy ending to that story, “They hired me back,” Billy concluded.
(I’ll tell more about happy-ending conflicts involving Dizzy when OctoJAZZarians chronicles congero Candido Camero.)
About chronologically advancing, Billy never expected to “get this old.” There was long life in his genealogy; his mother lived to 98. “There are certain things one always wants to do over, or make better,” he said. “We no longer have the jazz venues to hopscotch across the country, which were our life-credit schools.” On the other hand, that might be more healthful.
Billy‘s legacy is secure. Not only his name recognition, the teaching, the Kennedy Center programs, but his “stuff,” for lack of a better description. “I have left most of my things to the Library of Congress, which is expanding,” he said. “They have already picked up many cases, which makes Teddi [Mrs. Taylor] very happy.” The WNEW radio shows have been preserved, for the most part; as have the David Frost Shows. As for the CBS News Sunday Morning segments, Billy said that “they are there should I want to edit them.” I immediately offered my services. He hosted a daily broadcast on WLIB in NYC, which were not preserved. “The string group tours [“Turtle Island,” “Juilliard,” others] have all been preserved,” he noted.
What Billy Taylor, musician and clinician, emphasized most was the understanding of the three basic elements of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. “The newer players are losing sight of them,” he lamented “They are what made us personal. They [the players] seem bent on losing their individual voice.”
And leave us not forget Duke’s dictum which ends, “doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wha.”
November 03, 2007 · 1 commentTags: octojazzarians
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