I’ve always enjoyed anecdotal history; it gives all of us the chance to recapture the spirit of being in a given situation as a first-hand observer.
Of course, the magic of being transported back into a particular situation has a lot to do with how well the original story is described. When it comes to subjectively recounting Jazz stories, no one does it better that Jack Tracy.
Following Part 2, we look forward to at least a couple more chapters of his reminiscences in JazzProfiles.
- Steven A. Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Down Beat Days
For most of the ‘50s I was assistant editor, then editor of Down Beat, and there is no job I could have enjoyed more. I got to hear, meet and in some cases become friends with many of the giants of our music in an era that I believe will be regarded as the golden years of jazz. I had the privilege of working with a staff of writers whose names grace some of the best writings on jazz to be found anywhere. In one city alone, Chicago, I could listen to at least three or four jazz programs on AM radio every day (Dave Garroway’s show was among them) and another half-dozen that played quality pop music that often included jazz.
Live music? Any night of any week you wanted to hear jazz there were at least two dozen places you could go to hear swing, bebop, Dixieland, mainstream jazz, excellent singers—take your pick. There’d be big names and big bands at the Chicago Theater, the Regal and the Oriental, and seemingly everywhere local talent waiting to break out nationally. You’d hear them at any of the many local bars and restaurants that would sporadically give music a try. A number of smaller local clubs made jazz their steady policy.
One example of such venues was the Hi-Note, a club on seedy Clark Street that was said to be at least partly financed by Anita O’Day. She often worked there, and for one stretch was co-featured nightly with Billie Holiday, singing to audiences sometimes as few as a dozen listeners. Jeri Southern got her start there, and a young Buddy Greco played solo piano and sang for maybe $125 a week.
Monday nights were “off-nights” at the Hi-Note, a chance for local musicians to come in and jam. Traveling guys would drop by to check them out and sometimes sit in. If anyone got paid I’d be surprised, but if they didn’t have gigs elsewhere you’d see Cy Touff, Ira Sullivan, Ira Shulman, Red Lionberg, Joe Daly, Hal Russell, Bill Russo, Guy Viveros, Irv Craig, Doug Mettome, Kenny Frederickson and so many others with great talent and ambitions. Some made it, some fell into the drug scene and disappeared, others stayed and played in Chicago.
The South Side, Chicago’s vast black community, was like a city unto itself. Places with live music abounded, and on the bandstands would be performers as varied as Gene Ammons, Muddy Waters, Lurlean Hunter, Frank Strozier, Willie Dixon, Von Freeman, Sun Ra, Jody Christian, Joe Williams, Tom Archia and John Young, plus the likes of stars such as Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis at clubs like the Bee Hive and the Sutherland Lounge.
So many names, such marvelous music and so many venues, all gone now but with echoes that can still be faintly heard if you close your eyes and listen very closely.
You should have been there.
Jimmy Yancey Memorial
Jimmy Yancey, the venerable Chicago boogie-woogie and blues pianist, died In September, 1951, and Dizzy Gillespie was playing with his quintet at the Capitol Lounge at that time. A memorial was planned for Yancey for the following Saturday afternoon, to be held at a local watering hole which occasionally featured a Dixieland band or solo pianists like Don Ewell, a standby. I told Gillespie I planned to be there and asked if he’d like to join me. Somewhat to my surprise he said yes.
So we met and walked in together, where perhaps a hundred trad music fans were gathered. Heads swiveled as we stood at the bar. Diz was wearing a maroon suit and beret and carried his horn in a corduroy bag. One guy turned to his friend and asked loudly, “What the hell is he doing here?” Those were the days in which boppers and moldy figs were in separate camps.
Mama Yancey, Jimmy’s blues-singer wife, was at a large table surrounded by family and friends. Dizzy said, “Here, hold my horn,” and went to the table to pay his respects to her.
The musicians onstand, led by trumpeter Lee Collins, a veteran from New Orleans who had played with many bands there when he was a youngster, then later with Jelly Roll Morton and others, finished the tune they were playing. He was a lyrical and powerful player who had been playing for several years in Chicago with his own band at the Victory Club, a strip joint.
Dizzy stopped on his way back to the bar to chat with Collins for a few moments. “You gonna sit in?” I asked when he returned. He nodded, took his horn from the bag (he was still playing a straight one in those days), softly buzzed the mouthpiece he took from a pocket a couple of times, then went to the stand and took a seat next to Collins.
From all around the room came looks of amazement and, in some case, outright hostility from those who must have thought Dizzy was going to take over the stage and start playing some of that damned bebop.
Lee kicked off the band and we all proceeded to hear and witness an astounding performance. Dizzy, as Louis Armstrong was reputed to have done when he joined his older mentor, King Oliver, played a respectful and perfect second to Collins, never intruding, always supporting and keeping completely within the spirit and character of the music. He played only a couple of short solos that were little gems stitched seamlessly into the structures of the songs that were played during the next half hour, then quietly thanked Lee and came back to the bar, ready to leave.
The applause was overwhelmingly heartfelt, as were the cheers from people who realized they had seen something special. They shouted thanks and goodbyes to him as we left.
In 1994, more than 40 years later, I received in the mail from a friend who I had once told about that special night the picture you see here—he had attended a record collectors’ event, saw the picture among a group of miscellaneous photos for sale, bought it and sent it to me.
I treasure it.
Jeru & Erroll
Before George Wein became a major jazz impresario he owned Storyville, a Boston jazz club. I met him for the first time when I was in that city in the early ‘50s and spent an evening at the club listening to Gerry Mulligan’s sextet on an opening night. Erroll Garner had closed a Storyville engagement the previous evening and had stayed in town to hear Mulligan, so at the end of the night Wein invited Mulligan, Garner and me to join him for some Chinese food and then a visit to a local after hours club.
All I remember of the club was a bare and somewhat tacky interior with a bandstand and a bar and perhaps a half-dozen people sitting quietly at tables. No one was onstand when we got there, and after ordering and receiving our drinks Mulligan, who had brought his horn in with him, not wanting to leave it in George’s car, asked Garner if he’d like to play a little, just the two of them.
Erroll agreed immediately and they went to the bandstand. Garner tried out the battered upright piano and shook his head at what sounded like at least four or five grossly out of tune chipped and yellowed keys. Jeru honked a couple of warm-up notes and they started to play.
At which point the magic began. Just two of the most celebrated musicians in jazz, no bass, no drums, a bad piano and lovely music being played free for a handful of an audience at 2 a.m.
Somehow Garner avoided the offending keys and made that old wreck of a piano sound like a real instrument, Mulligan played effortlessly and they had themselves a wonderful time. I’m not sure whether the few people who were there, other than Wein and I, even knew who the musicians were, but it didn’t matter.
Sounded great to me.
Bill Crow once wrote:
"Lennie Tristano deliberately chose drummers who would just keep time softly, with few accents. He wanted to do all the rhythmic accenting himself. I heard him at the Half Note one night with a last minute replacement drummer who I thought put a lot of life and swing into Lennie's music, but Lennie didn't like him at all. Most of the jam sessions I played at Lennie's studio were with drummers who just played brushes very softly, usually with just a snare drum and hi-hat."
In 1957, as Down Beat's editor, I was asked to be on the board of trustees of the School of Jazz at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass. Among the impressive list of instructors at the now-legendary session of schooling that summer were Tristano and Max Roach (others included luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Russo and more).
Every night someone would organize a session in which some of the staff would participate, so one of the nights I was there I persuaded Lennie and Max to play together. I can't recall the bassist, or if there even was one. It could have been Percy Heath.
I can only tell you that I wish someone had taped it--Lennie and Max played some inspired music, and if Tristano was unhappy with Roach's compelling playing, I'm certain no one was aware of it. Max anticipated Lennie's every twist and turn and lent surging pulse to it all. They played two beautiful sets and it remains one of the highlight nights in my some 65 years of listening to and writing about jazz.
In the summer of 2002 I took off on a trip to visit some people I hadn’t seen in a long time, people who meant a great deal to me and who I feared I might never see again if I didn’t initiate some effort to reestablish physical proximity.
My first stop was in Chicago, where I had prearranged a lunch date with Bill Russo, someone I first met when I went to work for Down Beat in 1949. We struck up a close friendship immediately, hung out together a lot (I even took some lessons in music theory from him) and were tight buds until he was hired by Stan Kenton and left town.
Our mutual regard never wavered over the years, even though my moving to California and he to New York, then back to Chicago, precluded much of any contact except by phone and email. And so our lunch was a delight (great Italian food, of course), a couple of hours of reminiscences, laughs and bread-breaking. We may even have told a lie or two.
The effects of cancer on him were obvious, but his mind was still keen, his curiosity insatiable and his enthusiasm for the music he was involved in as high as ever. I was grateful we had found the time to rekindle our interest in each other’s welfare and current activities. Bill died six months later.
In recent times I have tended to growl loudly about the misuse of the word “legendary.” It seems that anyone who has ever stepped on a stage more than once is now so described—it’s as common as another overused device, the standing ovation. So I am not going to drop “legendary” in Russo’s direction.
But I do want to say this about him: A lot of people are going to remember his name and his accomplishments for a very long time. Google him if you don’t believe me. I’m one of them, although in my case “a long time” has a great deal of relatively attached. And I must add that I was very fortunate to be around when he accomplished them.
So I think I’ll just remain right here in my chair and give him a sitting ovation.
Sharon Pease wrote a column for Down Beat for years in which he transcribed and analyzed recorded solos from prominent pianists. A teacher and songwriter, he had a studio and office in a downtown Chicago building.
He once received a letter from the building’s management starting out, “Dear Miss Pease,” telling him that they were about to refurbish the women’s’ rest room on his floor and asked for any suggestions for improvements.
He requested they install a urinal.
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the frequently combative brothers whose battles were often juicy reading in Down Beat, were among the bands that would play the Orpheum Theater in my home town of Minneapolis. The first time I heard Jimmy was at that theater in the mid-‘40s, when the band opened after a midwinter train trip from Omaha during which large amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all to ward off the chill..
Jimmy's instrumental tour de force at that time was David Rose's "Holiday for Strings," played at a full-speed-ahead tempo and featuring him on alto sax. Well, he couldn't quite make it that night, and had to start over after a few bars, at which point he got a loud raspberry from a guy in the front row.
Drawing himself up with great drunken dignity, Jimmy announced, "Please come back tomorrow, folks, and we'll play "Holiday for Strings" for you. And as for you (pointing to the heckler), you can go shit in your hat!"
Bang! Down came the curtain, the movie started running, and Dorsey was fined a chunk by the Musicians Union for his performance that night.
I loved it. Almost as great as the time Sammy Kaye's toupee slid almost over his eyes while he was a tad over-energetic in conducting the band with that three-foot baton he used to wield.
My first and last contact with Tommy Dorsey came when I was still a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and writing a jazz column for the college daily newspaper. TD’s band played the Orpheum in 1946 and had some great sidemen, including Buddy DeFranco and Charlie Shavers.
Hoping to get an interview with one or both of them I went to the stage door and introduced myself to the band boy. He suggested I come by the next afternoon before the first show and he’d try to help me out.
When I got there he pointed to a chair just inside the stage door entrance and I sat down to wait. A bit later Dorsey came down the stairs from his dressing room with trombone in hand, looked over at me and asked the band boy, “Who’s he?”
“A writer for the college paper and he wants to write about Buddy or Charlie.”
Dorsey barked, “Get him the eff out of here,” and kept walking.