Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 3

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

In celebration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth centennial, Steven penned a 10,000 word essay on the late President of the United States and his relationship to Jazz and has kindly consented to allow JazzProfiles to publish it on these pages in five, consecutive parts.

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jazz & JFK – in celebration of the 2017 Kennedy birth centennial. An intriguing five–part feature on the President's relation to the music, the artists and their heartfelt reflections––then and now.

By STEVEN D. HARRIS © 2013, 2017.


"How I mourned that man's death,” Lionel Hampton wrote of Jack in his co–written autobiography. Hamp was a lifelong Republican; still he was impressed with how his president “was working to help black people.” In February 1963, the jazz great was privileged to take part in a White House function representing his race. He was just one in a contingent of 1,100 of the nation’s leading black powers. The reception marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (held appropriately on Lincoln’s birthday). It was “an occasion as special as any,” the jazz man would fondly recollect.

For pianist–composer Thelonious Monk, JFK’s silencing would hit a kind of snag in his career. But the timing, in an artistic sense, would turn out beneficial. Around August of ‘63, the eccentric musician was approved for a special Time cover–story for its November 29 issue. Monk would be the fourth and last major jazz figure to appear on a Time cover, in the rear of Armstrong (1949), Brubeck (1954) and Ellington (1956).

With the grim reality of the President at press time, that all changed. Time reportedly destroyed some three million copies of its Monk issue already printed. Accordingly, magazine heads rushed to substitute the story and cover with the new power man in office: the presiding Lyndon B. Johnson. (For this decision, Time received countless calls and letters in anger and protest, since many Americans expected JFK to be the natural cover choice. But Time took a traditional stance of resisting a deceased person for its cover (though there were already some exceptions). The Monk issue was re–scheduled with a run date of Feb. 28, 1964.

This is where the matter of advantage came in. As the Time story was being set, an important concert lay in the works. Monk was forming a large ensemble to debut at Town Hall at the new Lincoln Center in New York, where it was to be taped for posterity. The date, by pure chance, was also assigned for Nov. 29, 1963. However, due to inadequate provisions, the program was set ahead for Dec. 30. Surviving rehearsal tapes indicate that the band sounded unprepared and ragged, but the added month for practice made all the difference. Monk's heralded concert was pressed for an album, resulting in rave reviews.

The event billed as New York's [45th] birthday Salute to President Kennedy would be a far lesser footnote of Camelotian lore, if not for the involvement of a sultry film goddess. Marilyn Monroe materialized in a scintillating spot that had her appearing next to naked in Madison Square Garden. The date was May 19, 1962 (ten days in advance of Jack’s actual birthday). The presidential function served as a fundraiser for Democrats, luring in a crowd of more than 15,000. The entertainment proved eclectic that eve, amounting to fifteen acts with alternating emcees––from opera's Maria Callas to actor Henry Fonda and that beloved laugh–getter, Jack Benny. To wit, two singers who would set a jazz wave throughout the indoor arena: Ella Fitzgerald and her trio, followed by Peggy Lee‘s quintet (playing scores by her conductor, Benny Carter).

Being aware of the historical worth, Stan Levey (Ella's drummer for the night) snuck an 8–millimeter movie camera into the pit with him. When he wasn't playing, Stan focused on the action. His color film segments included Jack from the stage angle making his grand entrance, as well as Marilyn's glorified arrival. Levey's widow Angela confirmed for the writer: "The filming wasn't allowed at all––those were the rules. But because Stan [was acquainted with] the president, he got away with it. Stan had known Kennedy because he played at different rallies before he became president." The 8–minute master footage by Stan (who died in 2005) was sold by Julien's Auctions in 2012 for $3,200.

In Jack's closing remarks at the Garden, he thanked the performers with a special nod to Peggy Lee, "who got out of a sick bed to come tonight." If illness nearly sidelined the singer, nobody could tell––she appeared absolutely radiant. A more versatile and looming talent than Marilyn (in the writer’s mind), Peg also bested her blonde counterpart in overall allure. (Frankly, I wince at combining the two in the same sentence.) But it was the actress who ruled the proceedings (Mrs. Kennedy was conveniently absent)––and her legend would only expand, since she would die in ten weeks. But even Monroe deserves a mention, if only for the accompaniment provided her on this night:

It was jazz pianist Hank Jones who keyed Marilyn in with some simple arpeggios to set in motion her birthday greeting to Mr. President, which segued into a satirized Thanks for the Memory. Both tunes took up a mere eight bars, still this infamous minute is what historically stands out. Hank relived the unforgettable night during an interview for NPR in 2006: "In 16 bars, we rehearsed 8 hours...I think that's something like an hour per bar of music! You know, she was very nervous and upset. She wasn't used to that kind of thing..." Marilyn also owed a debt of gratitude to Peggy that night. Peg was temperamental about how she was lit on stage, and it was her own borrowed lighting detail that would enhance Marilyn's chassis for all to see.

Note: Shortly after this event, Marilyn would mysteriously invite Hank (and another male party) to her Brentwood abode, ending up in a sort of interrogation of the two men. (Her home was wired with secret tape devices and their chat was supposedly recorded). Marilyn's intent: to probe them about their knowledge about the President and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, in order to expose them. After the tense questioning, Hank reasoned with the unstable star: "I don't know what the Kennedys did to you, but you ought to let it go…"

Benny Goodman had an opportune meet with JFK that summer of ‘62, due to a heralded State Department tour (literally years in the making) of the USSR. For the six–week trip, May 30 thru mid–July, Benny brought with him a newly organized crew of 22. His book was typically restricted to the kind of anachronistic dance scores the master preferred, but with the class of swinging musicianship (among Benny’s best), it made up for the outmoded repertoire.

Before Benny's departure, the band did some break–in dates, which included a banquet sponsored by White House press photographers. It took place at the Sheraton Park Hotel in New York City. In his assisted autobiographical account, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz, the returning BG pianist elaborates on the presidential function. After the show, the various artists formed a circle with Jack greeting them individually. Teddy was surprised to be singled out by the President, even before introductions. Jack called him by his surname: "Hello, Wilson––I hear you're going to Russia." "Yes, sir," Teddy replied. "Well," Kennedy told him, "do a good job." "We'll try."

Benny’s Moscow debut was attended by Nikita Khrushchev. If the severely square Premiere ever expressed his approval of jazz, it was reluctantly––and his sardonic smiles, in response to the rhythm, were surely just for show. The music had long been denounced by Hitler and Stalin as something decadent, if not vulgar––and it is not hard to fathom that Khrushchev felt similarly. No matter, the tour grossed nearly a half–million dollars.

Upon his return home, Benny received an invite to the White House on July 24. To go by existing newsreels, the congratulatory handshake from the President to Benny, like Khrushchev, was strictly for appearances. Jack appears blasé alongside Benny when caught on the sunny grounds at the West Wing Colonnade. (The President’s pseudo tan––caused by a variety of pills (some illegal) for his ailments, made him appear healthy when he was anything but.)

After the moment, Benny was asked by reporters about the President's musical preference. The King of Swing was mystified: "Gee, I don't know what his taste is, but...he used to come to the Ritz roof [atop the Ritz–Carlton Hotel] many years ago, when I played there with my band in Boston." This was likely around the period Kennedy was first elected as a Massachusetts Congressman in late 1946.


Next to music, Shelly Manne’s passion (imparted by wife Flip) was breeding horses for show––the couple won numerous awards in Standardbred competitions. When the tragedy unfolded, Shelly was miles away from operating his Hollywood jazz spot, the Manne-Hole, having been booked for a gig in Kentucky. While there––Nov. 22 in fact––the Mannes made a detour in Louisville for a Saddlebred horse sale. Flip told the writer: “The shooting was announced over the loudspeaker. We didn’t know the President was dead [yet]. I remember us going back to the hotel in tears and being glued to the TV.” Flip, now 96, can’t recall if Shelly’s club remained out of service at the time of national mourning. The Gerry Mulligan quartet with Bob Brookmeyer was booked that week, with the Stan Getz Quartet scheduled to take over on the evening of the President’s burial.

Elsewhere on that day, Nov. 22, Rosie Clooney––who had been active in JFK’s 1960 campaign––was guesting on the Garry Moore show from the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. "In the middle of a song,” she wrote in her published memoir, “the [TV] monitors suddenly cut away…horrified, transfixed, we watched as the news came in. The show couldn't go on, now." Five years on, the singer would be part of Bobby Kennedy’s traveling entourage on the '68 campaign trail. She was there that day of June gloom when the Senator was felled at the Ambassador Hotel. It was the catalyst to a traumatic nervous breakdown that she wouldn’t recover from for a full year."  (Jazz & JFK to be continued in Part 4.)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 2

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

In celebration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth centennial, Steven penned a 10,000 word essay on the late President of the United States and his relationship to Jazz and has kindly consented to allow JazzProfiles to publish it on these pages in five, consecutive parts.

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jazz & JFK – in celebration of the 2017 Kennedy birth centennial:

An intriguing five–part feature on the President's relation to the

music, the artists and their heartfelt reflections––then and now.

By STEVEN D. HARRIS © 2013, 2017.

Hampton Hawes, keyboardist and composer, was a flourishing favorite on the West Coast jazz scene (and deservedly so) throughout much of the 1950s. But alas and early on, he followed the mentality and drug path that so many of his colleagues surveyed, craving more than the music that should have been sufficient. If you have to ask How High the Moon, to be sure he was already there: the pianist was hooked on heroin before turning 21.
On the very night he was toasting to his 30th birthday in late 1958, Hawes would be arrested. Days later, while awaiting sentence, he cut an album of spirituals. It was called, perhaps not ironically, The Sermon (note that Hamp’s dad was a minister). The narcotics habit that caught up with him would result in a 10–year term in federal prison. He began “hard time” in April, 1959. In June, his sentence was extended by one year for contempt of court. Hawes was sent to a Fort Worth prison hospital the next month, where he lived out the duration. He wasn't set to be freed until 1970, but was eligible for release at the start of '66.

Enter John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Hawes was watching TV from his cell when the new president took oath that morning of Washington chill in 1961. The convict found himself over excited, assuring other inmates that Kennedy's "the right cat." He found the inaugural speech so full of promise that he made a decision right off. In his co–authored Raise Up Off Me (published in 1974), Hamp elaborates in detail about his desperate course. He would write the top man personally, requesting a presidential pardon.

The next day, Hamp shared his plan to a prison official, who couldn't help but be amused. His biggest obstacle, for the time being, was that no attorney would take him on (for well over a year). When the year–end holidays arrived in ‘62, Hawes had reason to rejoice: In the mail was his waiting request––an Application for Executive Clemency. The process was exasperating and tedious: a pile of pages to start off with, which reeked of indistinguishable legalities. To remotely comprehend it all, he helped himself to the prison library.

With all his myriad functions as Commander–in–Chief, it was highly improbable that Kennedy would ever have responded to Hawes' cause, yet that's exactly what he did. In fact, of the 42 prisoners pardoned by JFK, Hamp was second to last. The sparkling interpreter of jazz, with enough ability at rhetoric, had literally engineered his own release, all based on talent and musical status. The pardon was signed August 14, 1963. An added irony is that the touted piano man had been incarcerated in Texas, only 35 minutes away from where the JFK tragedy would unfold three months ahead.

His career resumed, Hawes entered the recording studio once again in early 1964. The album for Contemporary (label of his last nine sessions) was made Feb. 17, Its title track a testimony to a life once embraced, lost and restored: the film song Green Leaves of Summer.


Playing aside, vibes master Terry Gibbs, now 93, is a keen story–teller known for his lucid recall of events past in his eight–decade career. Hence, I predicted that he could easily tell of his whereabouts on the day when the world came to grasp the unfathomable heartbreak of Nov. 22, 1963. "We were at the London House," Terry confirmed, "probably one of the most exclusive restaurant–clubs in Chicago. I had Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, John Dense on drums and Louis McIntosh, a bass player. We were there two weeks. A whole lot of things happened before we opened. Alice [McLeod], who was working with me for a whole year [as pianist and in vibraphone duets with Terry], came to me the week before. She had to leave to join John Coltrane, because they were going to get married. I introduced her to John, so that was a big thing for me.

"The day after I opened [was when] Kennedy got it––and [the management] made us come into work. We went to the job, wondering if they would tell us to go home, but they didn't––they made us play. I thought they were crazy. I played ballads all night...and probably everything in a minor key…I couldn't play anything that was in [up] tempo. In fact, I just couldn't play. We didn't know what to do. I mean, if it was one of those jobs that wasn't that important to me, I never would have showed up. But I never thought I could [get hired to] play that club...because the only musicians who did were people like Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing––it was a piano room. So when Joe Glaser [the booking agent] got me into the room, I was thrilled. That's why I remember all of this.

“We played until we were told we could go home; I think we ended early. I never said a word [no tune announcements, etc.]. The audience was sparse, but they did have a crowd because people still went out to dinner. I'm surprised the audience didn't say: 'We don't want music.' I don't think they really cared. I know one thing: that whenever I played, I didn't remember it afterwards or really thought about what I was playing. Just trying to play one song, forget about the rest, was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Jazz musicians are lucky, because when you have trouble, you can go to the job and think [only] about the music. Things got better [for the duration of the run]; you can only grieve over a shock like that for so long."

Bill Basie had already appeared twice in the films of ardent fan Jerry Lewis, the first being Cinderfella (1960), followed by The Errand Boy (1961). His band appears on camera in the first; in the latter it functions as an audio backdrop for the comic's pantomime. Basie was due to take part in still another Lewis production in '63––Sex and the Single Girl. The cameras were set to roll for another day's shoot on Nov. 22 with the Count's swinging collective in place. Jet magazine reported that when the horrific news spread, Basie was "so shook up" that he rushed off the movie set in tears. The bandleader cancelled his next three shows. Surely, the President was been on his mind, due to an untimely slated date: the Count was to partake in a jam session on a nationwide TV special five days later, as part of a JFK gala on Nov. 27. Instead, the President’s burial had already taken place.

During the 40–minute ride to Dallas that had the President waving to crowds from an unprotected limo––that was from 11:50 AM to 12:30PM when the world changed in a few crackles––Woody Herman was on his way to a New York recording studio to make an album––his third of five for the Phillips label. The session was arranged for 2PM, Eastern Standard Time, one hour ahead of Texas. By start time, everyone involved had already heard the reports. Woody's latest Herd, a half–hour after the unbearable fact, was trying their utmost to make a satisfactory take on A Taste of Honey (a 1960 Broadway pop tune, arranged by lead trumpeter Bill Chase).

It was at that point when Gene Lees (the jazz editor–columnist and sometimes lyricist) arrived in the control booth. "I went up to the session," he said, "numb like the whole nation. Woody did a take...but no one felt like going on––and he called the session.” That take indeed appears on the album, simply titled Woody Herman: 1964. Lees wrote: “Its dark mood of mourning [is] a testament to the way jazz can almost instantaneously reflect public events––and express the emotions they engender." Irony seems to sit among the balance of titles; attempted the next day was Bill Holman's supercharged arrangement of After You've Gone.

On evenings, the Swingin’ Herd was enchanting crowds at the nearby Metropole (a jazz spot partly recalled for its space issues: the entire band was obligated to stand, sardine file, behind the club bar.) Trombonist Phil Wilson, a long–standing jazz educator on staff at the Berklee College of Music, was there the night of Kennedy's end. He told the writer in 2013: "The band did set up, [but] we played only briefly––one or two [numbers] to no audience. There was almost none, if any, and it was decided we close; the whole place was a ghost town. Broadway was surreal at 10 PM––no lights, no people."

Nat Cole, who had sung for President Eisenhower (and would for his grand–successor, LBJ), had become a strong ally for Kennedy after the two met at a 1958 dinner in support of Jack's re–election to the Senate. The President himself was part of an infinite fan base that the singer maintained. (If one account is true, the adulterous president would court at least one of his conquests with the aid of Nat’s music. 19 year–old Mimi Alford, a college sophomore, was a White House staffer when her year-long affair with JFK took place. Exactly fifty years later, in 2012, she divulged in her book how the President would cue up Nat on the resident’s stereo turntable, singling out the quaint ballad Autumn Leaves.) Once JFK placed his bid in for the big office in 1960, he encouraged Nat to volunteer his services in supporting the new candidate. The following phone–in telegram survives. It originates from Wisconsin (charged to Robert Kennedy's hotel room there) and was addressed to Nat Cole at his L.A. home. Writes Jack:

“I certainly appreciate your willingness to help me in the campaign...I would have liked to have had you with me on my visits around the state, but I understand that our schedules preclude us [sic] being here together...I would hope that in one of the primaries that is to would be willing to assist me. I am most grateful to you.

Best Regards, John F. Kennedy.”

Pete Barbutti
, 83, is one of the few ingenious comics to create a complete routine based on the jazz lingua. Nat Cole was so fascinated by his originality that he hired Pete as his opening act for much of the 1963–64 season. The two were inseparable at this period and roomed together on tour. When this writer interviewed the comedian in 2007, he spoke warmly of their kinship. JFK was recalled in two separate accounts. "I was in Nat's room in Washington, DC at the Mayflower Hotel; we were there working the Carter–Barron Theatre. The phone rings and Nat is saying, 'Yeah, sure Jack. Yeah, I can come over after the show.' He's talkin' to Jack Kennedy. Nat asked me, 'Do you want to go over?' I told him no; I wouldn't know what to say or what to do. So he went over and had dinner with Jack and Jackie." The time frame of Barbutti's account can be pinpointed to mid–August, 1963, when Nat visited the White House. He and the President almost assuredly discussed race relations. Three interrelated concerns come to mind: JFK's new legislation bill on civil rights, the crisis in the South and the forthcoming march on Washington, to take place August 28.

Barbutti segued to that specific November day that lay ahead. "We were in Omaha, Nebraska, working a theatre there when I got a call...I was still asleep and Sparky, who was Nat's valet, woke me up. He said, 'Did you see the news? Jack Kennedy was just assassinated.' Walter Cronkite had just announced it. We couldn't believe it. Nat called me and he was crying. [Natalie Cole, thirteen at the time, said it was the only time she saw her father break down.] Nat told us to 'Pack up; we're gettin' out of here.' The [theatre] owner had the audacity to say, 'Come on, Nat––it's not that big a deal. We can still do the show.' Of course, he went right back to L.A. and went home. There were only three [dates] left in the tour and we cancelled them all.” (Jazz & JFK to be continued in Part 3.)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Jazz and JFK by Steven Harris - Part 1

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

In celebration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth centennial, Steven penned a 10,000 word essay on the late President of the United States and his relationship to Jazz and has kindly consented to allow JazzProfiles to publish it on these pages in five, consecutive parts.

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jazz  and JFK – in celebration of the 2017 Kennedy birth centennial:
An intriguing five–part feature on the President's relation to the music, the artists and their heartfelt reflections––then and now.

By STEVEN D. HARRIS © 2013, 2017.

“It seems almost spooky that September Song was John F. Kennedy's favorite tune, yet it is confirmed as true. The 1938 ballad was the creation of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson––a story song with a bittersweet theme of a man in mid–age who contemplates his own mortality. Jack himself, we know, would never reach––as Sinatra so eloquently sang it––the September of his years, but was fated a count of 46. The man who captured the American imagination would be a source of imitation––from intellect and etiquette, to fashion, looks and class. (Gerry Mulligan seemed to emulate the man in a style sense, according to one critic. The month that Jeru’s Concert Band debuted in September 1960, he was seen sporting “a bop version of a Senator Jack Kennedy haircut.”)

For folks over 60, chances are you still recall your exact whereabouts the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when the unfolding events in Dallas took precedence over every possible news story across the globe. Of the more than 190 million people in America, 75 million had heard the reports within a half–hour. That was at 1PM CST, the time JFK's life would cease. What follows in this timely centennial report (the data was originally compiled for the 50th anniversary of the President’s passing in November 2013, updated here) is a varying degree of components that tie the JFK era with a gathering of jazz encounters, some that occurred before he secured high office. It covers more than 50 musicians and singers, taken from historical accounts at the key time, to current reflections which the writer collected at the semi centennial of his death. It also covers recorded jazz memorials to JFK.


Entertainment was the main force that played throughout the two main Kennedy inaugural bashes––part of a six-ceremony gala that the President and First Lady were scheduled to attend, January 19th & 20th, 1961. In the musical mix was pop, folk, symphony, opera, religious music and a healthy dose of jazz. The first night's pre–inaugural party was produced and hosted by Francis Sinatra (who had performed the Star–Spangled Banner for Jack at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in July). The black–tie affair of Jan.19 offered a diverse cast from stage and screen. From their hotels, Sinatra arranged to pick up his all–star entourage in school buses to make the short trip to the capital’s National Guard Armory. Frank later called his mass production “the most exciting assignment of my life.”

In the jazz arena were singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole. That connubial couple, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, were also rostered. So too was conductor Leonard Bernstein (premiering new music for the occasion) and the Basie band. The Count wrote in his assisted autobiography Good Morning Blues: “I can vouch for what was happening at the Armory: It was leaping, very definitely.” Bill also confirmed how his wife Katie “had been very active in the Kennedy campaign, so she probably would have been part of the big victory celebration even if the band had not been invited to play."

This gargantuan event, as Kennedy would relay in the customary sign-off thank you’s, caused two current Broadway shows to shut down for the night. After the swearing–in ceremonies.come morning, the new president re–tuxed and headed to the Statler–Hilton Hotel, where another D.C. ball awaited him. Nelson Riddle’s orchestra and the Woody Herman Herd alternated for dancers, playing continuously for some 8,000 privileged invitees. Al Hirt entertained that evening as well with his jovial New Orleans sound. In the years ahead, he would evoke the night again and again, telling how Kennedy went out of his way to shake hundreds of unfamiliar hands, in order to reach the stage and thank the trumpeter personally.


Al Hirt was watching TV at home in 1963 when a bulletin flashed in. "I drove down to my club," he later wrote in his memoirs, "which at that time of the day was empty...with remains from the previous night's revelry. I locked myself in, picked up my horn and played the blues...[It] seemed to allow me some release for the strong emotions I felt. After a time, I secured a black wreath, put it on my nightclub door and remained closed for business until after his funeral." (Note: Technically, Dan's Pier 600 belonged to Hirt's business manager. It closed in 1964 to reopen at year’s end under a new name and ownership: the Al Hirt club.)

Vince Guaraldi's trio was scheduled to play at the University of Pittsburgh, PA. Upon landing at the airport, the group was greeted by security agents and sent home. For singer Tony Bennett, the distress caused a reverse reaction to his long–term memory. Decades later, he struggled to pinpoint exactly where he was: "It affected me that much to where I couldn't remember what I was just felt like the Declaration of Independence had ended." John Clayton, the superlative bassist, writer and bandleader, was just eleven when the news from Dallas resonated thru his 6th grade hall that day. He remembered how the whole school went home early, adding, "I also saw the flag at half mast, maybe a first for noticing that."

Clayton's elder of the big bass, Howard Rumsey, was into his 14th year running the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach––a casual jazz spot already of legend, where sand and sandals were part of the decor. Though his memories had faded (Howard was 96 when we spoke), he did offer some insight. I inquired as to whether or not he shut down the club temporarily, as so many establishments did nationwide. "We did not close that week," he verified, "but I put a substitute group in there and took a week off, so that I could follow the [news updates] and burial––and to see how the nation was going to conduct itself. The question came to everybody: Who's going to take Kennedy's place, because he was so popular. That's what was on everybody's mind.” Howard answered affirmingly when I asked if he was a Kennedy fan himself, not expecting his quirky reply. “Yes,” Rumsey confirmed, “because he was the kind of guy that took his wife with him everywhere."

Gerald Wilson, who was 95 at the time of our interview, was also fuzzy on the details he encountered that week of national mourning. What he did recall was that "I was in Dallas after that time, a few years later. I was invited to conduct an orchestra there… A friend of mine showed me the spot where all of this happened." I asked Gerald how he perceived the era in retrospect. "Kennedy,” he offered, “had proved to be a man that was certainly going to do good things for the country. Things looked like they would be better if he was the president. I think he was a man that people in America liked. JFK, good guy." Gerald was more precise in pinpointing the facts five years later, when another Kennedy brother was felled in the same senseless manner––an event that affected him possibly even more in 1968. He elaborated on RFK this way: “I know where I was the night that happened. I was playing and conducting music for Eartha Kitt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. I had written this music for her, but I didn't even stay to the end of the engagement. I got on a plane to come back home."

Singer Joe Williams and his wife (who, coincidentally, was born on Nov. 22 *) were headed for New York’s Idyllwild Airport that day to pick up his back–up group, the Junior Mance Trio. They would all be performing that night in Detroit. When the early bulletins came on the car radio––this was before the President's death was confirmed––his wife's first inclination was to turn back. "Nobody's going to open a club now," she reasoned. Joe stopped to call the club owner and find out his plans. The owner took a chance, deciding to stay open. Joe sang his usual three sets on opening night to a mostly Canadian crowd, who had crossed over from Windsor, Ontario. By the third night, however, locals were showing up in droves––all seeking relief from the excruciating events. The social trauma of Nov. 22, as Joe later capped it, would "take the luster off" his wife's birthday forever.

[*Also born Nov. 22: pianist-singer-composer Hoagy Carmichael (1899–1981), reed player Ernie Caceres (1911–71), trombonist Jimmy Knepper (1927–2003) and pianist Craig Hundley (b. 1954), among other jazz personalities.]


When Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett were assigned for a joint effort in late August, 1962, the result was a White House “jazz first,” albeit off grounds. The one-hour set had been prepared as a Rose Garden lawn concert for local college interns. However, to accommodate the crowd, it was moved to the Sylvan Theatre of the Ellipse––a round field more commonly known as the President's Park South, just across from the White House. A superb recording from that day found its way to CD in May, 2013, released as Brubeck/Bennett: The White House Sessions–live 1962. Historic photos accompany the music and liner text. Hearing the tape 50 years later, Bennett was overjoyed: "I couldn't believe how spontaneous it all it was so well rehearsed." The two artists alternate in sets, starting with Dave’s Quartet. Tony then crafts out a half–dozen tunes with the Ralph Sharon Trio. For the too–brief finale, the Brubeck trio (Paul Desmond lays out) backs Bennett for eleven off the cuff minutes.

Due to its geographical spot (being outside the House gates), the Brubeck/Bennett date is more often passed up historically for its role as the first jazz happening by the White House. That designation belongs to a program arranged 12 weeks later: the more frequently cited event of Nov. 19––the first time jazz resonated inside the Executive Mansion, with a 90–minute program in the East Room. The Jazz Sextet of alto saxophonist Paul Winter (billed with a 19–year old classical pianist from Korea) played for a polite audience of ten–to–nineteen year–olds, all children of diplomats and government officials from various embassies in Washington. Paul remembered the young crowd as "warm and unpretentious." This was the fifth in a music series introduced and sponsored by Jacqueline Kennedy herself, called Concerts For Young People, By Young People. JFK had intended to take part, but was swamped with no less than eight meetings that day.

Jackie seemed genuinely excited, even if the group border lined on a hard bop style beyond her ears. "Simply wonderful," she expressed to Paul, adding, "There has never been anything like it here before." She gave the group "her cool blessing," UPI reported the next day. Another newspaper would headline “Jackie digs jazz!" in bold lettering. Shortly afterwards, in a half–hour ABC–TV special on the bossa nova craze, it was noted that Little Boat was Jackie’s favorite tune. She was even curious to know the origins of the coolly syncopated trend from Brazil. Jackie was so enthralled with the new sounds––and particularly Paul's latest release, Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova––that she said she'd been playing it "non–stop for two weeks." Record sales jumped when The Billboard reported how the First Lady "flipped" over it. The tape of this White House performance was finally released upon its golden anniversary in November, 2012. The 2CD set, with more previously unissued material from ‘63, is named after the group's theme song, Count Me In.

Paul Winter, just 23, had recently returned with his group from an extended cultural exchange tour of Latin America. The period covered February thru mid–July and, before it culminated, Paul wrote to the President on the progress and results. Jack expressed to one of his staffers that he found it all "very interesting." Paul explained: "The success of that tour brought the sextet to Jackie's attention." Paul always felt that because his group was equally integrated (three white members, the other three black), it secured his royal op at the White House. The week after JFK's burial, on Dec. 5, Paul entered the Columbia recording studios for his last of six albums with his seasoned sextet. (Added percussion was used on a few of the twelve titles, making it a septet). The results were titled Jazz Meets the Folk Song. It is hardly a coincidence that the 1963 album includes the folk favorite, We Shall Overcome. Paul included it as a jazz benediction. The distraught players would disband within days.

Of the quotes from more than 40 personalities covered herein, Mundell Lowe, who died on December 2, 2017 at the age of 95, deserves the anecdotal prize for his personal account––one that has never been documented at any time before. From 1953 on, JFK had a home away from home in New York. While in the area, Jack would stay at Manhattan's ***Carlyle Hotel on 5th Avenue, where he had an assigned penthouse duplex on the 34th floor. "All the big stars used to stay there," Mundell noted. Through the guitarist's personal chronicle, he produced this previously unknown tidbit for jazz history. He told the writer:

"Milt Hinton, the bass player, called me and said the President was in town and that he liked jazz. 'I want you, me, Tony Scott and Don Elliott to go up and play for him,' he said. There was some kind of little party going on upstairs in his private presidential suite. I'm not sure of the date, but 1961 sounds accurate. We decided it was best not to use a drummer, since we thought it should be quieter. Tony played clarinet [rather than sax] and Don played the vibes. We all arrived in this little room up there...and there was a rocking chair right in front of the bandstand.

"Pretty soon,” Mundell continues, “Kennedy came in and sat down with a guy on each side of him, so that nobody could disturb him. I don't remember if they were the FBI or the Secret Service, but they were plain clothes men protecting Kennedy. He sat there right in front of us for quite a while, listening. The President smiled and patted his foot and had a great time. He stayed there in that rocking chair facing us––and the guys would not let anybody get near him."

I asked Mundell to elaborate on the circumstances of November '63, when he joined in the nation's sorrow: "I think it was the same hour the news broke...I was in New York, leaving NBC studios, when I ran into Milt Hinton on the street––and he was in tears. I asked him what was wrong. He said: 'They just killed the only hope we ever had.' We [then] went down to a bar called Jim & Andy's and had a drink."

[***The jazz encounter at the Cafe Carlyle may have occurred when JFK was still a "president–elect." The writer researched into it to find that Kennedy spent at least three nights there between Jan. 4–18, 1961, just prior to his Jan. 20 inauguration. If this is the case, as Mundell notes, it was possibly FBI men rather than the Secret Service assigned to protect him.]

If the statement voiced by Miles Davis sounds like hyperbole, it was at least a fashionable take on his stance. "I like the Kennedy brothers," he told a reporter in 1962. "They're swinging people." In February, 1964, when the trumpeter appeared with his quintet at Philharmonic Hall in New York (for an NAACP benefit), he told England's Melody Maker that the concert was in memory of JFK. Some six months later, Miles would throw a party at his home for Robert Kennedy, who had announced his bid to run for senator of New York. Strangely, Miles admitted in his aided 1989 autobiography, he had no recollection of meeting his honored political guest. "People say he was there,” Miles guessed, “but if he was I don't remember..."

Miles' horn mentor––a fatherly force to the totality of jazz brotherhood––was Louis Armstrong. He had, in a satirical way, first paid homage to the Kennedys on record while participating in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors––a monumental jazz release from 1961. The track Cultural Exchange (about the State Department’s so–called “discovery of jazz”) has Louis uttering the phrase: "If the world goes wacky, we'll get John to send out Jackie!" A generic voice booms: "You mean Jackie Robinson?" to which Armstrong chimes, "No man, I mean the First Lady!"

Satchmo was a silent but dutiful flag–waver, the evidence of which rang out in parts of his repertoire. Following the JFK funeral, Louis reconvened a tour with his All–Stars. December 1 found the sextet performing in Massachusetts, where Jack Kennedy had served so long as a Boston politician. Louis had a set list of traditional closers, but felt obliged on this night––with no oral prelude––to play a different tune, unaccompanied. As his trumpet echoed the strains of God Bless America, the audience was fixed silently still, tied in unity. With only his horn and a single chorus, Louis was exemplified in his short elegant prose, telling his people––all people––that, through sacrifice, we can still hope. In his finish, he simply said to the tearing crowd: "That was for President Kennedy. Goodnight." 
(Jazz and JFK to be continued in Part 2)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Carmen McRae – A Grande Dame of Jazz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There's always a tigerish feel to her best vocals - no woman has ever sung in the Jazz idiom with quite such beguiling surliness as McRae.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Carmen McRae is the true grande dame of jazz. Like so many of the best women Jazz singers, including her friends Shirley Horn and the late Sarah Vaughan, Carmen is an accomplished pianist. This means she not only has a feeling for harmony, she has true knowledge of it. Carmen always knows exactly what she is doing.

The term ‘Jazz singer’ is a dubious one, and Sarah Vaughan objected to it. It means many things to many people, including merely a style that entails a cer­tain indefinable jazz feeling. If it means anything specific, it surely denotes some­one who can improvise with the voice. In a well-made song, the intervals of the music bear a significant relationship to the natural inflections of the words, and to alter the melody compromises the mean­ing and diminishes the dramatic effect of the song as a whole. Unfortunately, that is exactly what all too many ‘Jazz singers’ do. Carmen is a spectacular exception. When she changes the melodic intervals, she somehow, mysteriously, deepens the song, increasing the impact of the words.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz writer and critic

“No singer since [Billie] Holiday had been more adept at singing behind the beat than McRae, or more skilled at shifting from an intimate conversational delivery to hard-edged reconfigurations of melody and lyric.”
- Ted Gioia, A History of Jazz

“No singer was more stubbornly verbal than Carmen McRae, who inflected words as though she were giving them a tongue-lashing. McRae was famously outspoken and her songs had a similarly tart ap­peal. You didn't necessarily turn to her for profane insight into the song­writer's art, but you occasionally got it anyway. This is especially true of the numerous [Billie] Holiday tunes she covered.

If Holiday made the word ‘love’ shimmer with unrequited longing, McRae cast it in caustic languor. Consider her 1965 live recording of "No More": Holiday sang the line, ‘you ain't gonna bother me no more no how,’ as if trying to key up her resolve; McRae phrased those words as if she had a gun in her purse.
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz [paragraphing modified]

There was noting quite like hearing Carmen McRae sing, especially in-person.

To my ears, she was the epitome of a song stylist, but watching her style a song was a captivating and beguiling experience. I told her once that she was my “witchy woman,” to which she laughingly replied: “Be careful, or I’ll put a spell on you.”

Of course, she knew. She already had.

And it wasn’t only me. Carmen had a way of enchanting anyone who ever caught her in performance.

The reason was simple. She loved singing Jazz and she was good at it. She knew it, the musicians who backed her knew it and we knew it.  And if you were in her presence while she doing her thing, you knew that you were in for the thrill of your life.

What Carmen served up during her performances was akin to a musical feast: phrasing lyrics with meaning and understanding; picking tempos that were always just right; scatting – just enough – while employing the cleverest of harmonies; and just when you thought that you didn’t have room for dessert, she’d offered up a stomping version of “I Cried for You” or “Three Little Words” and leave you screaming for more.

I always sensed a great sadness in Carmen, too. The weightiness and gravity with which she handled certain ballads bespoke of a life with its share of disappointments.

She was nobody’s fool, but few of us go through life without some emotional bumps and bruises and it appeared to me that Carmen had had her share of these, including some personal relationships that didn’t work out.

It was easy to catch the sense of this if you listened closely to her banter between tunes or observed her knowing facial or lyrical expressions when she sang romantic ballads.

Carmen brought the Jazz musician’s life to her music,  a life which was never an easy one, even during the best of times.

I loved seeing her work at a club whether it was at Sugar Hill in San Francisco, or P.J.’s  on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood or at Donte’s Jazz Club in North Hollywood, CA.

Can you imagine a rhythm section made up of Joe Pass on guitar, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Chuck Domanico on bass and Chuck Flores on drums backing Carmen at an intimate Jazz club located only a 10-minute drive from my home?

Welcome to my world in 1972 when Carmen worked a week at Donte’s.

The room was loaded with musicians during her appearance and Carmen was always gracious about visiting with as many of them as possible during the breaks between sets.

With her signature – “Hey baby, what’s happening?” – she come up to your table and there would be hugs and giggles all around.

She was a queen who deserved to be an empress. Those of us who understood this treated her royally and gave her the respect that she merited.

In return, she bestowed upon us a treasure chest filled with rendition after rendition of great vocal Jazz.

Thankfully, much of her gift has been saved on recordings.

While I’m grateful for the recorded legacy of her music, there was nothing quite like watching her weave her special charms into a song while sitting three feet away from her in a Jazz club.

When you were around Carmen, "baby," it was always “happening.”

We put together the following video tribute to her with the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.  It features Carmen singing Let There Be Love accompanied by Norman Simmons on piano, Victor Sproles on bass and Stu Martin on drums.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Serge Chaloff - 1923-1957: A Brief Remembrance by Rik van den Bergh and “The Reeds”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“[Blue Serge – Dial LP 1012] …gave a vivid idea of the extent to which … [Chaloff] had absorbed Bird’s [Charlie Parker’s] … modern conception, and adapted it to the baritone saxophone ….
By this time [1947], Serge’s style was fully developed. He could get around on the horn at any tempo, played changes with incredible agility both of mind and of fingers, and generally was equipped to astonish anyone who thought the baritone was too cumbersome to be worth developing to this point.”
- Leonard Feather, Jazz critic/writer

“… [Chaloff] was an agile improviser who could suddenly transform a sleepy sounding phrase with a single overblown note.
At least the classic Blue Serge [Capitol 94505 – 1956] is still around … and … shows that Chaloff still had plenty of good ideas about what could be done with a bebopper’s basic materials.”
- Richard Cook & Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Serge Chaloff showed the deepest allegiance to bop among the [Woody] Herman saxophonists [of the 2nd Herman Herd, 1947-49] and earned praise for his skill in adapting many of Charlie Parker’s innovations to the baritone. … his work with Herman, as well as his various recordings in smaller combos, reveal an expressive, technically accomplished instrumentalist.”
- Ted Gioia, Jazz writer and historian

I'm in a baritone saxophone "bag" these days [does anyone use this term anymore?]. For the uninitiated, "bag" is bebop slang for a person's area of interest or expertise.

When it comes to bebop and baritone saxophone no one left a bigger footprint on the music than Serge Chaloff [1923-1957] and its nice to see him memorialized by Rik van den Bergh. Rik and his form the basis for this feature. 
As alto saxophonist Phil Woods observed: “A lot of people have died for this music.”

The “this music” that Phil’s referring to is the Bebop style of Jazz that came into vogue around the time when the Second World War was ending in 1945.

While their were many musicians who contributed to Bebop’s development, the movement became closely associated with alto saxophonist Charlie [“Bird”] Parker whose personal excesses were as great as his musical achievements.

In addition to being influenced by his music, sadly, many of Bird’s admirers became heroin addicts, too, and either died as a result or were sent away to federal prisons for long internments.

One of these youthful followers was Serge Chaloff who not only adapted Bird’s alto saxophone style to the baritone saxophone, but was almost the same age as Bird when he died from health problems that were no doubt worsened by his lengthy heroin addiction.

Thirty-three years of age is much too young for anyone to die.

In his insert notes to The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions [Mosaic MD4-147], Vladimir Simosko reflectively states:

“Unfortunately, ill health cut short a career already fallen into obscurity by the time of his death in 1957. Chaloff had provided the usual ingredients for fulfilling the stereotype "legendary tragic hero" role romantically assigned to several prominent jazzmen whose lives traced similar patterns across North American culture in the 20th Century — the "creative genius, frustrated by society, debauches to extremes and dies young" syndrome that was brought to the public's awareness by Bix Beiderbecke and carried to further extremes, with racist overtones, by Charlie Parker. However, as with many others also fitting that mold (some of whom didn't even debauch), Chaloff remained relatively obscure, his work recognized, treasured and collected primarily by knowledge­able jazz lovers.”

In the following excerpt from his piece in The Baltimore Sun entitled Fairy Tales and Hero Worship Richard Sudhalter places “the legendary tragic hero” view of Serge Chaloff in a different context. Perhaps as you read these thoughts, you might substitute “Serge” for “Bix.”

“One of my favorite sentences in the current literature on jazz was written by an old friend, British trumpeter-historian Digby Fairweather. It's about Bix Beiderbecke.

Bix, says Digby in Jazz: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 754 pages, $24.95), "was a man of enormous talent but meager character or self-discipline, and his creative despair, induced by technical inadequacy and lack of vision, made him take refuge in alcohol."

As a judgment it's a bit severe; but it works, stripping layers of exaggeration and wishful thinking from one of the most over-idealized musicians in our jazz century. Leon Beiderbecke, player of cornet and piano, dead at 28 in 1931, was a brilliant musician, an innovator, much admired; but he was also, as Fairweather reminds us, an autodidact, confined by his shortcomings. He wanted to play "serious" music, yet was a poor sight-reader and short on technique. Though he longed to compose, he knew little about harmonic theory, save what his ears told him.

And, rather than assess himself, redefine his goals, then actively seek the training needed to realize them, Beiderbecke drank himself into the nonjudgmental consolation of an early grave.

In viewing his subject this way, Fairweather is — among writers on jazz, at least — something of a contrarian. Even in our age of demystification, deconstruct ion, debunking, and disclosive debasement, too many jazz chroniclers still cling to a starry, fairy­tale approach not far from hero-worship. In its most extreme forms it idealizes, canonizes, seems most fascinated with, irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. …

I think Digby Fairweather had it just right: Bix Beiderbecke was prodigiously gifted, but betrayed those gifts through failure (or unwillingness) to realize that they conferred neither privilege nor license, but responsibility. His early death, as those of Young, Parker, Pepper, Powell, Baker, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Albert Ayler, and so many others, was not martyrdom. It was simple waste.”

As noted previously, fortunately for those Jazz fans who appreciate Serge’s music, Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna gathered all of the recordings that he made in his all-too-brief lifetime and reissued these as The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions [Mosaic MD4-147]. This limited edition set has long since been out-of-print.

There the matter rested until a group of Dutch Jazz musicians under the leadership of baritone saxophonist Rik van den Bergh entered a recording studio in Holland in June, 2007 and re-created a number of Serge’s compositions on Reserge: A Tribute to the Great Baritone Saxophonist Serge Chaloff which is still available on the Maxanter label [MAX 75373].

Detailed background information about why and how this a recording came about is included in these excerpts from Jaap Ludeke’s insert notes:

"Just because your parents are successful musicians does not always mean that you will be as talented. But barito­ne-sax player/composer Serge Chaloff did succeed, to some extent. His father Julius, of Russian descent, was a composer and played piano with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His mother Margaret Stedman Chaloff had British parents. She taught piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. Among her pupils were at various times: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Dick Twardzik, George Shearing and Herbie Hancock. When I spoke to Toshiko Akiyoshi about this period she told me: "Serge was very helpful to me, in my early days in Boston. I think he was a bit skeptical, at first, until he heard me play and noticed my bebop sensibility. I have fond memories of him, and of our performing together at the Newport Festival in 1956."

When little Serge was between the ages of six and twelve years old his mother taught him the piano. After that, he immediately picked up the baritone saxophone. Harry Carney was his favorite, but he could not chase after him for lessons while Carney toured throughout the USA. So Serge took his education into his own hands. In the late forties, things were looking good for Chaloff: he was a member of the famous 'Four Brothers' sax section of the Woody Herman Band (1947-1949]. Unfortunately, the percentage of drug addicts in that band was high and Chaloff became one of them. In the same period he fell in love with Charlie Parker's innovative bebop style. Both as a leader and a sideman, Chaloff made several interesting recordings for jazz labels like Savoy, Storyville and Capitol. Blue Serge on the latter label is generally thought to be his best record.

Like Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan was a fan of Carney, and from about 1953 on Mulligan started winning all the polls instead of Chaloff. It was similar to the relationship of Zoot Sims and Stan Getz: Zoot complained that people always talked about Getz. In 1954 Serge kicked his drug habit, but two years later his bad health led to paralysis of his legs. A tumor did the rest. I am happy to report that Dutch baritone player Rik van den Bergh and his group The Reeds have come up with the idea to bring Serge Chaloff's challenging music back to life. And that exactly fifty years after Serge died.

- Jaap Ludeke [is a contributor to Down Beat and He has a radio program called Ludeke Straight Ahead at the Dutch Concertzender/Radio 6].”


The Serge Chaloff  project has resulted in a great new band: The Reeds. This band is no less than a dream team: five of the finest Dutch saxophone players in one section, playing with one of the most swinging rhythm sections in Holland. They are all members of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and/or The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra, and they are not only great section players but also top soloists.

•  Rik van den Bergh (baritone saxophone] is one of the few Dutch saxophonists exclusively focusing on the baritone. For a number of years he was active with his baritone/Hammond-organ quartet Swingmatism. At the moment he is a member of The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra and of the Young Sinatra’s.
•  Marco Kegel (alto saxophone) is lead alto in The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. In 2003 he recorded the CD Jonquil with Lee Konitz and the Gustav Klimt String Quartet.
•  Jan Smit (alto saxophone] is a member of the Young Sinatra’s and a sought-after reed player in Holland.
•  Simon Rigter (tenor saxophone] is in The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. He teaches at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Zwolle and plays in quite a number of bands. He recorded and played with greats like Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton and George Coleman.
•  Sjoerd Dijkhuizen (tenor saxophone] plays in many different groups. He is a member of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and leads his own quartet with his brother Gijs on drums.
•  Erik Doelman (piano] has his own quartet with the rhythm section of The Reeds and Simon Rigter on tenor. In 2006 he recorded the CD The Erik Doelman 7tet Plays Cole Porter.
•  Frans van Geest (bass) played with about every major jazz artist in the world. He is the backbone and founder of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw.
•  Gijs Dijkhuizen (drums) is in great demand in the Dutch jazz scene. Together with Frans van Geest he is a member of the Peter Beets Trio.

Here’s a video tribute to Serge which has as its soundtrack an original composition from the Rik van den Berg Reserge tribute CD which was written by tenor saxophonist Simon Rigter entitled Brothers. The solo order is Sjoerd Dijkhuizen, Jan Smit, Rik van den Bergh, Marco Kegel and Simon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pianist Eddie Higgins From Two Perpsectives

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It recently came to the attention of the editorial staff at JazzProfiles that a friend of these pages is a huge Eddie Higgins fan. So we though we'd combine two, previous features on Eddie as a way of saluting his many contributions to modern Jazz in the second half of the 20th century and sharing more information about him with his fans.

You have to be very brave to earn a living as a Jazz musician as the late pianist Eddie Higgins explains in the following piece which appeared in the February 1985 Jazzletter edited by Gene Lees.

The business itself is intimidating and so are some of the monster musicians you come up against from time-to-time who make you wish you had turned to selling used cars or women’s shoes to earn a living.

Some monster musicians remain aloof, but others reach out and become inspiring teachers.

Such was the case when Eddie Higgins had an encounter one night with the magnificent Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago, IL.

"Or Opposite Oscar Peterson?
by Eddie Higgins

During one of the many times in the late 1950s and '60s I worked opposite Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago (fourteen times in twelve years, 'to be exact), he and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen were having a particularly hot night. Even when one or another of them wasn't "on", the trio was awesome — in my opinion the greatest piano trio in the history of jazz. And on this occasion, they were all on, and the total effect was just devastating.

After they had finished their third encore to a five-minute standing, whistling, screaming, stomping ovation and left the bandstand, it was my unenviable task to follow them with my trio. I was proud of Richard Evans and Marshall Thompson, and we had developed a good reputation of our own among the various groups with whom we shared the bandstand in those halcyon days. But there wasn't anyone who could have followed Oscar Peterson that night. I mean, there was, I swear, smoke and steam coming out of the piano when the set ended.

Well, I did what I was being paid to do, but with that sinking feeling you get when you're down two sets to love, the score in the third set is two-five, and you're looking across the net at John McEnroe.

After a lackluster set of forty minutes, which seemed like three hours, we left the stand to polite applause, and I started to look for a hole to climb into. Oscar had been sitting with friends in Booth 16 — remember? — and as I attempted to sneak past him into the bar, he reached out and grabbed my arm.

"I want to talk to you," he said in a grim tone of voice.

I followed him out into the lobby of the building, which of course was deserted at that time of night. He backed me up against the wall and started poking a forefinger into my chest. It still hurts when I think about it.

"What the hell was that set all about?" he said.

I started a feeble justification but he cut me off. "Bullshit! If you couldn't play, you wouldn't be here. If I ever hear you play another dumb-ass set like that, I'm going to come up there personally and break your arm! You not only embarrassed Richard and Marshall, you embarrassed me in front of my friends, just when I had been telling them how proud I am of you, and how great you play.

"I know we're having a good night, but there are plenty of nights when you guys put the heat on us, and if you don't believe me, ask Ray and Ed. We walk in the door, and you're smoking up there, and we look at each other and say, ‘Oh oh, no coasting on the first set tonight!' So just remember one thing, Mr. Higgins, when you go up there to play, don't compare yourself to me or anyone else. You play your music your way, and play it the best you have in you, every set, every night. That's called professionalism." And he turned and walked back into the club without a further word.

I've never forgotten that night for two reasons. It was excellent advice from someone I admired and respected tremendously. And it showed that he cared about me deeply.

I'm still making a living playing the piano, and, believe it or not, playing jazz for the most part. It's more of a struggle now, after thirty-five years, than it was at the beginning, but I attribute that to two factors mostly.

One, I insist on living where I want to — Miami in the winter and Cape Cod in the summer — instead of where I should live in order to further my career, New York City. Two, the thirty-year dominance of rock, country, disco, Top Forty, and other forms of musical primitivism (I don't care who does it; it's still musical primitivism) has just about dried up the venues for the kind of music I play, with the exception of a few remaining holdouts in the big cities. For example, in all of South Florida, with a population of close to seven million people, there are three jazz clubs at present — two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. So I've had to start traveling a little: traditional jazz festivals, at which I dust of my Dixieland repertoire and my stride and boogie-woogie chops; Chicago, which is still a place I can work just about any time I want; and infrequent trips abroad. I try to fill in the gaps with "casuals" (L.A. jargon), "the outside" (Miami jargon), "jobbing" (Chicago jargon), "general business" (Boston jargon), and whatever they call it in New York.

It's a tough way to make a living, but as Med Flory said in that same issue of the Jazzletter with your piece on Oscar, you're never completely happy doing anything else. So you just do it.

Drop a line if you have the time, and if you don't, I understand completely. Your friend always,


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Eddie Higgins is a very soulful cat who knows where it's at; lives there and stays there and constantly plays there!”
- Jon Hendricks

I know this might sound incredulous in today’s music file sharing world where a couple of clicks on an internet site can bring anyone into contact with the music of any recorded Jazz artist. The fact that  many of today’s Jazz recordings are self-produced and can be bought directly from the musician located anywhere in the world via a website only serves to further expedite the process.

But it was a totally different world a little more than half century ago and obtaining recordings by musicians who recorded for specialized Jazz labels was a bit like the Quest for the Holy Grail and seeking the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into one.

As the fifties progressed, it became clear that while jazz had largely lost its popular support - hardly any records by recognizable jazz artists made the Billboard album or single charts in the period covering 1955-60 - it had built up a committed, hip audience of both blacks and whites in the urban areas that were still nurturing the music.

The club culture of 52nd Street may have declined since its pinnacle of the first bebop era, but New York City was still full of places which had a jazz booking policy, from young venerables such as Birdland and the Village Vanguard to mayfly cellars and bars that lasted a while before switching policy or changing hands.

Just as significant were the many other cities - Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles -  which could boast similar, if less populous, local circuits. While urban real estate was still cheap and low-rent accommodation plentiful, there remained the margins which could almost comfortably support the jazz musician and his or her working life.

It was also a time, in American culture, of a new Bohemia. The beat poets, writers, film and theater people, artists and just a general gaggle of people who liked to hang out were temperamentally attuned to the idea of jazz, even if not always the substance or actuality of it. Most of the hard-bop musicians plied their trade in hard-core circumstances: their daily work was what it was. Unlike the situation on the West Coast, where a climate of session work had built up for many of the local Jazzmen, playing on pop records or for TV and film music, the idea of being a 'session musician' hadn't so far emerged in the hard-bop life.

Yet any sense that this was some kind of balmy period with plentiful work and agreeable conditions should be quickly set aside. The pull of New York began to hurt local scenes, as the most talented musicians in the end left for the principal jazz city. Clubland was still substantially in the grip of gangsters. And just as so many musicians a decade earlier had found themselves with remorseless narcotics habits, so heroin still exacted a considerable price among young musicians. Many Jazz musicians were acknowledged heroin addicts. Instead of the squalor which came to be associated with hard-drug dependence, the ugly reality of heroin chic sucked in many in this new Bohemia, jazz musicians making up a plentiful proportion of their number.

For all that, it was an intensely creative moment in jazz, perhaps even more so than the original bebop era, because the language had been established and was available for anyone to speak, if they had the will to do so, and a new record industry was rushing to grow up around it. Where bebop had once seemed almost outrageous, to some of the more settled swing-era musicians, hard bop was now familiar. The neurotic climate of bebop had been traded for a more studied intensity.

As the LP format became standardized, the music, now available in a medium which approximated the length of a typical club set, was documented in a way that sought a new audience. Followers of the music began to build collections - without necessarily becoming mere 'collectors'. If microgrooves encouraged a more leisurely, contemplative approach to jazz listening - no more rushing to change the record after three minutes - they also helped to educate tastes, and develop serious appreciation.

All of which might suggest an atrophying or at least a gentrification of this new jazz mainstream. But there were too many individuals, too many singular and identifiable voices at work in hard bop to allow anyone even to imagine that the movement could go stale or turn grey. For many listeners (although not all critics, of which more later), each fresh record spelled out an exciting new development. The further away one was from the local scene the more compelling it seemed.

Because I lived in Los Angeles, I had ready access to Jazz record labels such as Pacific Jazz and Contemporary, but Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige were much harder to find and therefore prized. This was also the case with Chicago based Jazz labels such as Argo, Veejay and Emarcy.

Luckily, a friend of the family was an AM radio DJ whose program focused on popular music - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat "King" Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the various vocal “sisters” and “brothers” groups - so he basically lined up the Jazz LP’s along his living room wall and periodically allowed me to “... pick out what you want; I can’t use this stuff on my program.”

And that’s how I met Chicago-based pianist Eddie Higgins.

He was seated at a grand piano, looking through the open top and staring right at me on the cover of a Vee Jay LP simply entitled Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017], so the least I could do was take it home and give it a listen - right?

Recorded in Chicago in 1960, the album featured four tracks by Eddie’s trio with Richard Evans [trio]/Jim Atlas [quintet]on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums, and three tracks on which the trio is joined by Paul Serrano on trumpet and Frank Foster on tenor sax.

As Jon Hendricks of the renown vocal group Lambert Hendricks and Ross states at the end of his liner notes to the LP:

“So, since Eddie Higgins can't get out of Chicago right yet so people can hear and see, the next best thing is that he's got his own LP, and this has been taken care of by Vee-Jay. Hooray!”

Hooray, indeed, because Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017] introduced me to an imaginative and interesting pianist whose career I have since followed on record for almost 50 years until Eddie’s passing in 2009.

Eddie was born in Cambridge, MA in 1932, the home of Harvard University but moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University [in nearby Evanston, IL] because they had “... a better school of music than Harvard’s, which was almost non-existent. I began playing at local clubs to earn some money and one thing led to another and I wound-up leading the resident trio at the London House [famed Jazz club] from 1957-1969.”

Eddie’s style of playing is unpretentious, straight-ahead and always swinging. It is based on a repertoire drawn primarily from the Great American Songbook with a smattering of Jazz Standards and a few originals thrown in to add spice and color to what can only be described as “the perfect set” on each of his recordings.

While listening to Eddie’s latest CD, it’s as though I am visiting him in a Jazz club and he is allowing me to call my favorite tunes for his trio to perform while I sit back a sip a glass of my favorite red plunk.

Eddie improvisations are generally close to the melody, sometimes blues inflected, and generally feature him playing on the full range of the piano.

After growing weary of Chicago’s long, cold winters, Eddie moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL where he co-lead a trio with Ira Sullivan [tenor sax and trumpet] that played at clubs, Jazz festivals in the US, Europe and Japan and on Jazz cruises.

In 1988, Eddie married vocalist Meredith D’Ambrosio and worked frequently as her accompanist. They made a number of recordings together for Sunnyside.

Over the years, Eddie’s fans have been treated to a series of excellent trio recordings on Venus Records produced by Tetsuo Hara and Todd Barkan. Many of these are highlighted in the video tribute that closes this feature.

All of Eddie’s Venus albums are highly recommended both for his consistently outstanding performances and for their unsurpassed sound quality.

Who knew that a chance encounter with Eddie’s first LP on Vee Jay with lead to a half century of listening some of the best piano trio on record?

Jon Hendricks’ way with words is always a joy to encounter whatever the context and here are the original liner notes from Eddie Higgins [Vee Jay SR 3017].

“Ever since first coming to Chicago I've been very favourably impressed by Eddie Higgins and the worthwhile piano he plays. I've mentioned to him several times that perhaps he ought to hit the road; that his appearance before audiences outside Chicago had been too long delayed, but he quickly assured me that he was working seven nights a week - quite often enough, especially when conditions on the road were best described as 'tough'.

Eddie doesn't work seven nights a week on the same gig. Not at all. In fact, he works in so many different places you'd think he'd snap his wig, but he says it's a boll. He'll work two nights as relief pianist with his trio in a jazz house, then two nights in a plush establishment featuring acts with a more 'commercial' name, but the music he plays is always the same.

I remember going to hear Eddie at the London House, a Chicago restaurant featuring fine food and idle chatter, and being so thrilled to hear him play Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" and "I Remember Clifford", and Gigi Gryce's "Social Call" amid the jingling of silverware and other clatter. And although only our party was listening and applauding, Eddie and the Trio swung right on, like it didn't really matter, which boils right down to the fact that Eddie Higgins is a very soulful cat who knows where it's at; lives there and stays there and constantly plays there!

Eddie's bassist on the Quintet tunes and on "HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?", Jim Atlas, is a mild-mannered, bespectacled chap of quiet demeanour whose execution could hardly be cleaner, who listens intently to what the other instruments are saying, and whose deep respect for Paul Chambers is evident in his playing.

Richard Evans, who joined the trio in between record dates, has worked with Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson and other greats. Richard is a dedicated bassist with great harmonic sense, and when he solos he gives his all, as you can hear from his work on "SATIN DOLL".

Drummer Marshall Thompson is another ex-hoofer who got tired of standin' up dancin' and decided to sit down while dancin', thus joining Jo Jones, Ed Locke, and Buddy Rich, to name some, who were dancers all before they sat down and started dancin' on the drum; so, rhythmically, Marshall's beat is steady because he stays ready.

Joining the trio on "YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS", "FOOT'S BAG," and "ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE", are Frank Foster, tenor saxophone, and Paul Serrano, trumpet, and they have a ball before they're done. Frank Foster needs no introduction because of his work with the Basie crew, but Paul Serrano, a Chicagoan, may be new to some of you. Paul is a calm, quiet man who says what he has to say with his horn on the bandstand. He's the kind of musician that the public finally hears then wants to know what he's been doing all these years! The answer is he's been doin' the best he could - playin' good.

The trio tunes, "AB'S BLUES", "FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE", and "SATIN DOLL", and one Quintet side, "YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS", are familiar tunes and have been heard, but about one trio side, "BLUES FOR BIG SCOTIA", and two Quintet sides, "FOOT'S BAG" and "ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE", it might be best to say a word.

"BLUES FOR BIG SCOTIA" is on Oscar Peterson original that Eddie heard Oscar, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen play. You'd never figure out who "Big Scotia" is, so I'd better tell you that it's Oscar's nickname for Ray's wife.

"FOOT'S BAG" is an Eddie Higgins composition, "Foot" being Eddie's wife. When you know that she is of Greek descent and that the tune is written in modes, common in Greek music, you'll know by the title just what is meant. You might say it is Eddie's musical reference to "Foot's" musical preference.

"ZARAC, THE EVIL ONE" is not a fiend with diabolical power, but the name an ex-drummer of Eddie's gave to the red light gleaming atop the Sheraton tower! That It couldn't be anyone really evil is made very clear, because the tune - composed by Eddie - is very beautiful to the ear, You have my word that "Zarac" is the most beautiful evil cat I ever heard!

So, since Eddie Higgins can't get out of Chicago right yet so people can hear and see, the next best thing Is that he's got his own LP, and this has been taken core of by Vee-Jay. Hooray!”

JON HENDRICKS [of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)

The following video features the quintet’s version of Eddie’s original, Zarac, The Evil One.