It is always a pleasure and a privilege to have Gordon Jack as a guest writer on these pages.
His latest profile is about tenor saxophonist Allen Eager, one of the legendary musicians associated with the post World War II “cool” style of playing inspired and influenced by Lester Young.
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“Allen Eager’s interests ranged far beyond the narrow confines of jazz, which explains his frequent disappearances from the scene over the years. Lester Young described him as “the best of the grey boys” and Buddy Rich once said, “he could have been one of the giants if he just paid attention to his ‘thing’, instead of his other ‘things’”. In September 2001 over a long, leisurely lunch near his home in Oak Hill, Florida, he looked back on a colourful life which included playing with most of the major figures of the bebop era as well as excursions into the world of racing cars, skiing, horse riding and the ice cream business. Sadly, he died earlier this year and this is possibly his last ever interview.
“I was about fifteen when I went to see Duke’s band at the Royal Roost and I was knocked out by Ben Webster who was a magnificent and gorgeous player. I wanted to ask him for some lessons so I went to the rooming house above Minton’s in Harlem where he was staying, and his room was so tiny that he opened the door without getting out of bed. I could imitate him a little and had learnt his solo on Cottontail, which really impressed him because he called Ray Nance and some of the other guys and said, ‘Hey listen to this little white kid.’ He showed me some embouchure things and it was just great being around him and hearing him play.
Lester Young on record and I changed my conception completely. I altered my mouthpiece and started to play like Pres which all the white kids at the time did. The coloured guys apart from people like Paul Quinichette and Wardell Gray didn’t and I don’t know why. I stayed in California for a couple of years and took over from Zoot Sims at a club called The Hangover when he got drafted. Big Sid Catlett was the drummer and I stayed there for about four months sharpening my skills.
“When I went back to New York I started working in the clubs on 52nd. Street with people like Stan Levey, George Wallington, Al Haig, Max Roach and Curley Russell. My playing got honed nicely because I was working all the time but you have to keep doing it, you can’t drop out for long periods like did later. I remember when I was working at the Three Deuces, Billie Holiday used to come in with her dog Mister every night after her last set. She sat down right in front of the band and she was crazy about me, probably because I sounded like Lester. It was thanks to Leonard Feather that I got called for a date with Coleman Hawkins and I did the solo on Allen’s Alley because Hawk didn’t want to play on it (RCA (F) PM 42046). A month later in March 1946 I made my first record as a leader (SJL 2210). It was a quartet date and Bud Powell was supposed to be there, but when he didn’t show I used Ed Finckel. Another one of my early records was with Red Rodney and Serge Chaloff (C&B CD 102). We were all living together and I loved Serge’s playing, he was a great bebop player.
“One of the pianists I really liked working with was Monk and I used to hire him all the time. Everyone thought he was weird but I didn’t because he played the right changes with his own little rhythmical embellishments and he was always ‘there’. Years later he became successful when he had that group with Charlie Rouse who was a sweet guy and an excellent player. I liked him very much personally but his playing was a little one-dimensional, not very exciting but he certainly knew music.
“Like a lot of the young musicians then, I used to play at Don Jose’s studio on West 49th. Street with Zoot, Mulligan, Don Joseph and Jerry Lloyd. Everyone who could play in New York used to come at one time or another and the guys chipped in to hire the studio but the public wasn’t allowed in. That was around the time that Gerry and I became good friends. He had a small room in a brownstone on the West Side off Central Park West, and it was amazing to see him writing arrangements there without a piano. He had his own great sound on the baritone and I always loved the way he played. He could do no wrong as far as I was concerned and the funny thing is when I play baritone, my tone is like his and on alto I sound like Bird without really trying.
“Gerry was always organizing and getting things together. Once when nobody had any money to hire a studio he took us all out to Central Park for a rehearsal and we just sat on the grass and played. By then, he and his girl-friend Gail Madden had moved into my parent’s place in the Bronx and Gail was pretty bossy and opinionated, always wanting to affirm women’s position in society. She was a strong, ‘women’s-libber’ type which was the kind of woman Gerry seemed to like. She played maracas and wanted to be on a record date with us but she didn’t kick the beat off into something better than it was, in fact she was a bit of a drag (Prestige OJCCD-003-2). Jerry Lloyd was there and he was a fine trumpeter but very introverted and like Curley Russell he ended up driving a cab.
“I started living with Fats Navarro in Benny Harris’ flat in the Bronx towards the end of the forties. You know, someone recently sent me a CD with Fats and me but I haven’t listened to it at all. I’m afraid it will be embarrassing because I don’t feel that I was a good player. I don’t like listening to myself whereas Al Cohn, Zoot, Lester or Ben Webster just knock me out. When Fats and I were at the Roost with Tadd Dameron he used to bring new music in all the time but we never rehearsed, we sight-read on the job.
Tadd was so talented and I never knew how I got the gig. I think they needed a token white guy and that was me although he must have liked my playing or he wouldn’t have hired me. I was there for a year or more and the club did fabulous business. The sad thing about Fats though is that just before he died, he was hardly working at all.
“Bird and I used to play at the Open Door in Greenwich Village and I also used to hang out there with Tony Fruscella because we were living together for a while. In 1955 we did a record for Atlantic (JFCD 22808) and just like me, he was a free spirit but we were hardly playing at all at the time. I hadn’t worked in months and we both had to take our horns out of hock the day before the session which was a nice date, not great or anything but Tony always sounded good. He was a sweet player but a little strange and difficult to be with. I also worked quite a bit with Buddy Rich who was one of the great natural talents. He wasn’t a real swinger like Philly Joe but he had fantastic co-ordination, playing things that nobody else could even if they practiced for a hundred years. I was also very friendly with Miles who really liked the way I dressed. I introduced him to cars and clothes although I never found out what he thought about my playing. He was sure lucky with all those great players like Coltrane, Bill Evans, Red Garland, Cannonball, the list just goes on. Nothing since has come close to those albums like In A Silent Way, Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain.
“It was around this time that I lost my cabaret card which meant I couldn’t work in Manhattan which stopped me playing for a while. I managed the occasional gig in New Jersey where they didn’t seem to check if you had one. The cards were issued at the discretion of the police department who were a corrupt bunch at the time and a few years later when I was going with a very rich lady, I hired a lawyer. We had the whole thing thrown out by the supreme court on the basis that it was unconstitutional and that was probably my biggest contribution to music! It was too late for people like myself and Billie Holiday who had been kept from working in New York for years.
“In 1956 I persuaded my mother to give me the money to buy a couple of soft ice cream machines which were pretty new then. I took them with me to the French Riviera. figuring I would make a fortune, but the French laws are very difficult for foreigners and I gave the whole thing up. I was into this non-musical thing and I was completely broke so of course I went back to playing. I recorded with Jimmy Deuchar (Vogue LAE 12029) which wasn’t a very good date but he was real fine and I stayed in Paris for about eighteen months, often working with Kenny Clarke. I got to know Roger Vadim and
Louis Malle and I had a little fling with a lady who had been married to Henry Fonda. I also became very friendly with Rex Harrison’s son Noel, although his father didn’t like me because I called him ‘Rex’ when we were introduced, instead of ‘Mr. Harrison’.
While he was making The Young Lions, Marlon Brando came to see me in one of those basement clubs on the Left Bank. He wasn’t really a jazz fan but we knew each other from New York and I asked him if he ever made a Western, would he use me as an extra because I loved horses? In 1961 he made One Eyed Jacks which I loved but he never called me! When I got back to the States I took a band to Aspen, Colorado and when the job finished I stayed on teaching skiing and horse riding. My parents always had stables at the hotels they ran in the Catskills and I had become a pretty accomplished rider.
“Ornette Coleman came to New York in 1959 and just turned the scene upside down. I couldn’t really get with it but I used to hang out with Don Cherry who was one of the great players and we got along really well. He could play free and on the changes too. This was when I started going with Peggy Hitchcock who was related to the famous Mellon family who were real ‘old money’. She was a millionairess several times over and we lived at her apartment on Park Avenue in New York. Thanks to her, I had unlimited funds but I didn’t give up music completely although I was interested in many other things, especially automobiles. She bought me a 12 cylinder GT Ferrari and I took it to Germany to race at the Nurburgring and when I came back to the States, I won at Sebring in 1961, beating guys like Stirling Moss and Phil Hill. I also became friendly with the composer John Cage and around that time I went to live in Millbrook which is in upstate New York. One of Peggy’s brothers had a mansion there in 300 acres which is where I met Timothy Leary who was a psychologist from Harvard. He introduced acid to the world and that’s when the psychedelic movement really started. I had been getting
high for years but acid was something else. Occasionally guys like Mingus and Tony Williams came up to play but for most of the sixties and into the seventies, I was pretty inactive musically.
“ By 1977 I wanted to get back into jazz but I couldn’t find any place to play, so I enrolled in the music course at the University Of Miami. They were all kids of course and nobody knew me but the standard was pretty good. I played in the third rehearsal band because I didn’t play flute or clarinet and I wasn’t a great reader. I remember once though playing a solo which the whole band applauded and that had never happened before. I stayed on in Florida because my mother had a condo on Miami Beach but I started to get
a complex about my playing, because nobody was hiring me. I did come to Europe a few times and I played with Chet Baker in 1984 in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw. (T. Sjogren in his Baker discography lists a private recording of this performance). He had these complicated charts which came out during the concert and I had to sight-read them.
The changes were difficult and I was expected to be at home with all this tough material but it was terrible. I don’t think I coped very well because I didn’t know what was going on and we didn’t communicate at all. Chet sounded great and he knew all the stuff and anyway, he had a great ear. Al, Zoot, Gerry and Stan Getz were all like that too because they could hear anything and play it. I have to really know a tune, which is why I am not
in their league I suppose. I’m probably up near the top of the second division.
“Looking back on my career, it all came so easily in the beginning because I was an exotic-looking guy. People were attracted to me and that was my trouble. Everything came without trying and I never had to promote myself, but then heroin came into the picture and the gigs seemed to stop. Right now, I’m broke and I’m sick of living here and not working. I have no credit cards and I’m on Social Security - what the government call ‘Assisted Living’. I really want to move to the West Coast where Dick Bank says he can get some work for me and Freddie Gruber, who is a great guy and a drum teacher there, says I can stay with him. I played in LA recently with Sir Charles Thompson and Barry Harris and everyone was surprised to see me. They treated me real well although I had trouble on the first couple of tunes but finally it all came back and I started to play. I know I could work at least once a week there which is more than I’m doing in Florida.
I’m not as inspired as I was when I was younger but maybe I can turn my life around at least at the end of it, because I just want to play.”
Achnowledgements: I would like to thank Dick Bank, Brian Davis, Jack Simpson* and Bob Weir for their help while researching Allen Eager’s career.
* For those living in Orlando, Florida, Jack’s radio show, ‘Jazz On The Beach’ can be heard on WUCF-FM.”