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“Although he was one of the finest baritone saxophonists to emerge from the bop era, Cecil Payne has been underrated and frequently overlooked throughout his long career. Payne, who played guitar, alto and clarinet (and spent 1943-46 in the military) first played baritone with Clarence Briggs’ band in 1946, giving up alto around the same period (after making his recording debut on the smaller horn with J.J. Johnson). Payne made his reputation as a key member of Dizzy Gillespie’s classic bebop big band (1946-49), appearing on virtually all of the orchestra’s famous recordings. Payne played with Tadd Dameron, James Moody and with the popular Illinois Jacquet band (1952-54), but then spent a period working at a day job. He returned to music in 1956, starting a long-term association with Randy Weston, and he had periods with Machito (1963-66), Woody Herman (1966-68) and Count Basie (1969-71), but despite appearing on many records over a five-decade period, fame (except among musicians) has always eluded Cecil Payne. He led dates as a leader for Decca (1949), Savoy (1956-57), the Charlie Parker label (1961-62), Spotlite, Strata-East (1969-70), Muse and Empathy.”
— Scott Yanow, All-Music Guide
“This powerfully voiced New Yorker gave up playing alto and switched to the big horn in 1946 while working with JJ Johnson. If bebop seemed resistant to the tenor saxophone, it was even more so to the baritone. Payne, though, established a limber, articulate touch while with Dizzy Gillespie, and he has continued to make convincing bop-tinged jazz ever since, albeit with a lighter tone which owes a debt to Lester Young.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
I wanted to remember Cecil Payne, the late baritone saxophonist, on these pages and went searching for stuff about him on the internet where I found a touching description of his last years on the Jazz Foundation of America’s website and Peter Keepnews moving obituary in The New York Times.
It is very difficult for Jazz musicians to grow old with any degree of security and comfort because for most of them ther work is very inconsistent and its is difficult to accrue the necessary savings and resources to provide for the needs of old age.
Typically, when they do find work, their wages are paid into the Musicians Unions of the big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where dues and other fees are collected out of them before a check gets issued to the musician.
Many of these unions do make available basic medical and hospital health insurance plans, but in order to gain and maintain the coverage, the musician has to generate enough hours worked to qualify for them.
What more typically happens is that the work of playing and/or recording Jazz is so sporadic that the musician essentially leads a hand-to-mouth existence, skips going to the doctor or getting health care on a regular basis and puts very little away for a “rainy day” or for retirement.
Rent controlled apartments are a blessing as are cheap restaurants and fast food stores as Jazz musicians usually generate enough money to pay the rent and eat junk food - barely.
For many years, Jazz musicians who were skilled at reading music could find studio work recording sound tracks for movies and television shows, TV commercials and radio jingles. But such work was only available to a small coterie of Jazz musicians and has since largely dried up with the advent of digitally developed music that relies largely on electronic “instruments” that can synthesize a wide variety of sounds.
For many Jazz musicians, this world of “studio security” largely passed them by including Cecil Payne. But he bravely carried on through the years forming small combos with musicians in the greater New York area, playing at clubs and festivals, doing a little touring abroad until one day he just disappeared.
Fortunately for Cecil, the Jazz Foundation of America afforded him some comfort and dignity during the closing years of his life.
If you are one of the lucky beneficiaries of the joys of Jazz, you might want to consider visiting the website of this fine, charitable organization and supporting their work on behalf of those Jazz musicians who have brought so much pleasure into your life. Here’s a link to their website - Jazz Foundation of America.
Jazz Foundation of America
“Cecil Payne has proved to be one of the bebop era's strongest baritone saxophonists. Payne joined the most progressive big band of the era, Dizzy Gillespie's, where he made his reputation as a fluid player on a sometimes cumbersome instrument and played on the orchestra's groundbreaking recordings, including Cubano-Be/Cubano-Bop. Payne later freelanced in NYC with Tadd Dameron and Coleman Hawkins, and later working with the Illinois Jacquet.
About nine years ago, Cecil had gone into seclusion because his eyesight was failing due to severe glaucoma, which could have been prevented if he'd had access to proper health care. He didn't reach out to friends for help because he had been a strong and independent man all his life, and he "didn't want to bother anyone." One night Jazz bassist Ron Carter ran into Wendy Oxenhorn [Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America] at a club in Harlem and said, "I'm worried about Cecil. No one has seen him in a year."
The next day Wendy called Cecil and spoke with him. He said he was "fine" and didn't need any help. He admitted that he had been going blind. When Wendy asked him how he managed to shop and cook for himself, he confessed that he could only walk as far as the local corner 7-11. He had been living off two cans of SlimFast and a package of M and M's a day for over a year and a half. After hearing that, Wendy tried to tell him that they could at least get "Meals on Wheels" delivered to his home, and he'd get a wonderful meal each day. Cecil wouldn't hear of it. He hung up the phone immediately. The next day, Wendy called him again and said, "Cecil, I was up all night worried about you - please would you let us try the Meals on Wheels just once." "Well, I don't want you to worry about me…actually...Meals On Wheels…sounds cool," he said slowly in his Cecil way, "Meals...on Wheels..."
As it turned out Cecil loved the Meals on Wheels. He called up Wendy the next day and told her, "The volunteer was so nice, and the food was great. I forgot greens were green!"
Because of these nutritious meals, his health improved. He came out of seclusion and started to play again in New York City at Smoke with Eric Alexander, Harold Mabern, John Farnsworth, John Weber and others he loved dearly. We were able to help Cecil in other ways too. We looked into housing organizations for the blind and got him a home health aide to help him out with laundry and shopping. When he discovered he had liver cancer, we were able to help him with his medical needs as well.
Payne had remained highly active during the decades since; even though his eyesight had begun to fail him, his songful sax, flowing lines, and warm tone remained fully intact well into his 80's.
Cecil had the chance to play the Jazz Foundation's Annual "A Great Night In Harlem" benefit concert at the Apollo Theater, where he was reunited with many old friends like Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Frank Foster, Freddie Hubbard, Candido, Ray Baretto, Clark Terry, Frank Wess and many others. You would have thought he was 25 again if you had seen his face light up when being reunited with his peers.
After this, Cecil found time to perform in the local nursing homes in the Somerdale area, entertaining elderly patients for free. When it became time for Cecil to enter an assisted living situation, we were able to facilitate a smooth transition for Cecil to move into a very good nursing home in Stratford. Never complaining about the pain of his cancer, just the same optimistic Cecil who would say, "The Sun is up and so am I...it's a good day."
In 2007, Cecil said to Wendy, "I want to go home." He said he was tired and ready. He said, "It's time to go." He passed at 6:30 AM on November 27th. He did not die alone. Bucky, his friend and landlord, called to say "He's gone." The sun came up this morning and Cecil rose with it.
Cecil Payne was one of the truly great human beings on this Earth. His positive attitude and his endlessly optimistic nature, no matter how bad things were, always got you a "It is what it is" and "Everything is Everything" and never a complaint or a negative word was uttered from his mouth. The Earth is a little emptier from his passing.”
Cecil Payne, Baritone Saxophonist, Dies at 84
By PETER KEEPNEWS DEC. 6, 2007 NY Times
“Cecil Payne, who in the 1940s was one of the first baritone saxophonists to master the intricacies of modern jazz and who for more than half a century was a leading exponent of his instrument, died Nov. 27 in Stratford, N.J. He was 84.
The cause was prostate cancer, said Wendy Oxenhorn, director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides support to musicians in need and had been helping Mr. Payne.
Mr. Payne spent virtually his entire career out of the spotlight: he never led a band of his own, recorded only a few albums as a leader and played an instrument that rarely takes center stage in jazz. But he was highly regarded by his fellow musicians, especially those he worked for — a list that included Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Randy Weston and many others — and by the critics.
The beginning of Mr. Payne’s career coincided with the birth of bebop. With its complex harmonies, tricky rhythms and blistering tempos, the new music posed challenges to all musicians, but some instruments were better suited to its demands than others. While the often cumbersome baritone saxophone was not an ideal vehicle for modern jazz, Mr. Payne’s highly fluid and melodic approach effected a seamless marriage between instrument and idiom.
One of his first high-profile jobs, shortly after he was discharged from the Army in 1946, was with Gillespie’s big band, an ultramodern ensemble that played a famously demanding repertory. He remained with Gillespie’s band for three years and was prominently featured on some of the band’s best-known recordings. Few if any baritone saxophonists recorded as many memorable solos in the early days of bebop.
Cecil McKenzie Payne was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 14, 1922. As a teenager he studied alto saxophone, and his earliest recordings were made on that instrument. By the time he joined Gillespie, after a brief stint with Gillespie’s fellow trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the baritone had become his primary horn.
After leaving Gillespie in 1949, Mr. Payne worked with various other bandleaders, notably the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. But by the mid-1950s he was essentially a freelance sideman, and he remained one for the rest of his life.
In his later years he battled glaucoma and other health problems, but he continued performing and recorded several albums for the Chicago-based Delmark label. Encouraged by a group of younger musicians who worked with him, and given financial and medical help by the Jazz Foundation, he was a frequent attraction at the Upper West Side nightclub Smoke and, more recently, at the Kitano Hotel at Park Avenue and 38th Street.
Survivors include his sister, Cavril Payne, a singer.”
For many years, Cecil has a close association with pianist Randy Weston and he performs Randy’s original composition J & K Blues on the following video montage along with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Randy, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Wilbert Hogan on drums.