For almost six decades, in one capacity or another, Jack Tracy has been a friend of Jazz. And, for the better part of this last decade, thanks largely to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s [LAJI] bi-annual, 4-day Jazz Festivals, he has become my friend, too.
Ironically, Jack lives along the southern California coast and I live about 100 miles southeast of him in Orange County. But given the enormity that is traffic on the Los Angeles freeways, we might as well live in separate states in terms of ready access to one another. Thank goodness for the LAJI’s bashes, which are usually staged at a location about equidistant from our respective homes, as they afford us an opportunity to get together without having to pack an overnight bag.
Like bassist and writer Bill Crow, who graced JazzProfiles recently with some of his many reflections on the music and its makers, Jack agreed to share some of his observations and anecdotes about Jazz in what the editorial staff hopes will become the first of a number of installments.
Down Beat Days
I graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in March, 1949, and left Minneapolis to become the assistant editor of Down Beat in Chicago. The editor was a wise and kindly gentleman named Ned Williams, previously a colorful New York publicist whose duties had included press management for Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
He left two or three years later and I became editor of DB and remained there until near the end of the ‘50s, when I joined Mercury Records as one of its A&R (Artists and Repertoire) men, a position now better known as Producer. In 1962 Mercury moved me to Los Angeles to head its West Coast office in Hollywood, and California has been my home ever since.
Regretfully I ignored one of the basics of becoming a journalist and never kept a daily diary, And thus I am delving into the mists of an 82-year-old memory to provide some flashbacks from the last six decades that are as close to accurate as I can manage right now.
Bear with me. Some of the following has appeared in threads I have submitted to online groups in which I participate, the rest is a ramble through some happy years.
I’m afraid that many jazz club owners and operators are seldom regarded as civic leaders, men of high principles and generous natures, or the sort of guys you hoped your daughter would marry. Or even men who knew much about music. I mean a lot of them were like the one who, when the bandleader complained that the piano was in bad shape, said, “What do you mean, the piano’s in bad shape? We just had it painted last week.”
But Frank Holzfiend, whose Chicago Blue Note was his pride and joy, was different. He was a balding, bespectacled man always dressed in a dark blue suit and somber tie who looked rather like a Methodist minister. He loved the music he was presenting, and I suspect you would have to look hard to find any musicians who ever worked there who would offer a bad word about him.
Duke loved him and worked many a two-week stint there, and his band always played the Blue Note over the Christmas holidays. When Frank finally had to close the club because jazz was now moving to concert halls and festivals and the cost of musicians was forcing him to put up admission and cover charges that he hated, Ellington called him the night the club closed its doors forever and told him that as of that moment Frank was now on Duke’s weekly payroll as his Chicago publicist. Name me another club owner who would have received that call.
Holzfiend had a good ear for musicians, was always kind to those who he thought were great but weren’t quite ready for prime billing yet, and used them when he could. When Ahmad Jamal’s name was still Fritz Jones Frank had him at the Blue Note for months playing on Mondays, customarily the off night for the attractions booked for the other six days. He was sure Ahmad’s time would come.
And when Studs Terkel was being hounded by local do-gooders in Chicago and found his TV series was canceled and work hard to come by because of the blacklisting and Red scares of those days, Holzfiend turned over another chunk of Monday nights into “I Come for to Sing,” in which Studs emceed and presented blues (Big Bill Broonzy), folk (Win Stracke) and Elizabethan (Larry Somebody) singers. I’d be surprised to hear that there was any profit to speak of on those nights.
Ruby Braff could be a bitingly sarcastic person, and it took very little to perturb him. When Ruby played the Blue Note, Frank, who used to introduce the band each set, invariably called Braff “Rudy”. We kept waiting for some sort of explosion to occur, but Braff liked Frank so much he never corrected him. Go figure.
On one occasion Holzfiend did something I would have bet the house no club owner would ever do. Times were getting very tough, and it was near the end of the road for the club, but Frank got a break when he was offered Fats Domino at an affordable price at a time when Domino was a big, big name.
I was sitting with him at his “Office” (first table on the right when you came in) on closing night when Fats joined us after the first set. The house remained full for the next one.
“Mr. Holzfiend,” said Domino, “I want to do something.”
“What’s that, Fats?” asked Frank.
“I want to buy a drink for everybody in the house.”
Now, God knows what sort of tab would have been presented to him by, say,
Birdland, but Frank shook his head and said, “No, thanks, Fats, but I can’t let you do that.”
My jaw hit my chest.
And although Domino repeated the offer, Holzfiend turned him down.
I told you he was different.
I was one of Don Fagerquist's great admirers. I first heard of him when
he was the kid trumpeter in Gene Krupa's band, and thus I was most anxious to
hear him in person when Artie Shaw's re-formed band that contained many young, great players like Fagerquist and Dodo Marmarosa came to the Blue Note in 1950.
It was opening night, and near the end of the first set Shaw announced that they'd play "Little Jazz," which was one of Roy Eldridge's showcases when he was with the band, and that Fagerquist would take over the solo responsibility.
I’d guess it was opening night nerves or chops trouble or whatever, but
Don's performance unfortunately included a couple of bad clams. When the tune was over, Shaw took the mike and said, "That was Don Fagerquist, ladies and gentlemen, and if you come back tomorrow night maybe he'll play it a little better for you."
Is it any wonder Shaw was heartily despised by so many of the musicians who
worked for him?
Dorothy Donegan was a tall, striking lady who was a great piano technician and a good jazz player. She once played Chicago’s London House, and opening night found the usual dozen or more press people at a long table down front. Donegan wore a fawn-colored, satiny, strapless gown and she looked elegant
Her first set started out with an up-tempo tune that showed off her considerable technique, then she followed it by yet another finger-buster. At its conclusion, obviously perspiring from her efforts, she graciously nodded to acknowledge the audience applause, reached for a large white napkin from beside her and proceeded to wipe the sweat from under her armpits
We sat there no longer quite as interested as we had been in the food before us..
How do you review something like that?
Big Sid Catlett
I'd like to tell you a little about Big Sid Catlett, who in early 1951 was the feature attraction at Chicago's prime Dixieland establishment, Jazz Ltd.
An Easter concert at the Civic Opera House that was held under the aegis of local disc jockey Al Benson featured various acts, some of which were jazz: I remember only Bud Powell, whose drummer was Max Roach. I was attending with my wife, and at intermission we went backstage to visit. When we got there it was almost eerily silent, with few people in sight.
Directly to our left we saw perhaps a dozen people gathered silently around a stretcher on the floor. There was a body on it covered with a gray blanket. All that could be seen of the person was a pair of shiny, yellowish shoes sticking out from under the blanket. I asked what had happened and a man replied, "It's Big Sid."
There was nothing to say. I saw Max there, smoking a cigarette and looking stricken. Behind us were two young men, not much beyond boyhood, who were whispering. Then one of them said, "I wish I could steal those shoes." My wife and I just looked at each other.
Not much later an ambulance arrived and Sid was gone.
An almost unbelievable result of my presence backstage that night came just a few years ago, more than 50 years after the concert. As a contributor to an online jazz group I happened to relate the details of that night in a thread I wrote about Big Sid. I got a return response from one of the members, who said, "Jack, you may not believe this, but I was the kid who wanted those shoes."
I am still amazed at that coincidence. I have since met the young guy in person; he's Gordon Rairdin, now an elderly and longtime contributor to the Jazz West Coast online group, and we still shake our heads when we talk about that occasion.
As for Sid at Jazz Ltd., I can recall only his majestic appearance on that tiny bandstand. He sat at the drums barely seeming to move as he played absolutely impeccably, and he looked like a monarch sitting there. Occasionally he might flip a stick in the air, catch it and continue to play, never missing a beat or the stick. It was a low ceiling, maybe a foot or two above his head, but that flipped stick never touched it. Sid never looked like he was showboating, but it just seemed to be part of his supreme skill and his enjoyment in what he was doing. I found it almost impossible to take my eyes off him.
He was at Jazz Ltd for several weeks, and I got to hear him maybe a half-dozen times. I wish it had been more.
Chubby Jackson – Bill Harris
Somewhere there is a recording of the quintet that Chubby Jackson and Bill Harris once toured with, but I don't have it and wish I did. Not only did they have a swinging little group that is well worth remembering, but both had outrageous senses of humor, and what I really wish is that I had a photograph of what would happen at some point during every night of their Blue Note 1953 two-week gig.
In the midst of a beautifully soulful ballad, the staid-looking, professorial Harris would trigger a release device, his pants would fall to the floor revealing white boxer shorts with large red polka dots, and he would go right on playing.
Now, please, all you purists, don't respond to this by decrying Bill and Chubby's
antics as a despoilment of jazz. Harris was a wonderful soloist and Jackson was a huge factor in assembling Woody Herman’s First Herd as well as a poll-winning bassist. They had the very best of creds, but both liked to occasionally show that playing music was not a matter of life and death.
So maybe you can understand why I still wish to hell I could again see Harris with his trousers around his ankles playing a remarkable solo on "Mean to Me."
Some things you just don't forget.
Speaking of Oscar Peterson, which we weren't, but are now, I vividly recall an evening when his trio (O.P., Herb Ellis and Ray Brown) was at the London House. "If you feel like it," I asked one night, "do you think you might play some stride the next set?" He just nodded briefly and went to the piano.
Culminating the set’s final tune, which had kicked off at a fast clip, and with his left hand just a blur, he drove into two or three choruses of stride that were a stunning exhibition of technique and swing. Amazing stuff.
After getting standing applause from the audience Oscar came down from the stand, looked over and asked, “Was that o.k.?”
I could do nothing more than crack up.
Bassist/violinist Johnny Frigo was not only a fine, creative musician, a talented painter, poet and songwriter, but as my friend Don Gold so nicely put it, "great company between sets."
One of my favorite Frigo moments came one day when he and I stood chatting at Universal recording studios in Chicago and an auto driver who was editing some racing tapes excitedly asked us to come into the editing room to hear what he had recorded.
“Did you hear that?.......Did you hear that?" he said excitedly as his car came down the stretch..
Frigo looked over and remarked dryly, "Sounded like you were rushing."
It was another opening night for Duke Ellington at the Blue Note, this one in 1956, and the usual large crowd of Ellington enthusiasts and more than several members of the press were all there. Midway through the second set Paul Gonsalves was head-down and nodding in his seat amidst the saxes, quite obviously the worse for wear. He was ignored by the rest of the band.
Slowly, inch by inch, he began to slide in his chair as the band wailed on about him. Inevitably gravity took hold and, saxophone gripped in both hands, he slipped all the way down to the floor and stayed down for at least half a minute until he shook his head slightly, got to his feet and sat down again.
The tune finished, Duke went right into introducing the next one to be played and that was that; no mention was made of the incident then or later.
The next night I went to the club well before the scheduled first set and saw Duke sitting alone a side table. We greeted each other and began to exchange pleasantries and then I thought, “Why not bite the bullet and ask about Paul’s performance the previous evening.”
“Duke,” I asked, “Wasn’t it an embarrassment to you as a leader when Paul fell out of his chair last night in front of that large audience?”
Ellington looked at me, then gave one of his urbane smiles and said, “Jack, a lot of people don’t seem to realize that when Paul was in the service of his country in World War II he was stationed in India where he unfortunately contacted a rare tropical disease that occasionally makes him fall asleep. Why should I be embarrassed when someone who gave so much to us all has to suffer the indignity of an affliction caused by wartime exposure?”
I could do no more than nod in agreement and then chuckled—I had been ducally euchred and satisfactorily squelched by the master of the non-reply. We went on to other subjects and had a most pleasant chat and Gonsalves went on nodding in his chair at odd intervals for years, all as a result of a rare Indian tropical disease.
Of course it was.