Thursday, May 12, 2016

Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes

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

Hampton Hawes [1928–1977] was one of Jazz's greatest pianists.

With the help of Don Asher, a jazz pianist and author of nine books, Hawes wrote an autobiography entitled Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes " which was published in 1974.

Gary Giddins, the Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York, has called Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes "a major contribution to the literature of jazz."

Everyone who spent time with Charlie Parker seems to have written about it. Here, from Hawes's Raise Up Off Me (see p. 306), is some convincing testimony to Parker's overpowering influence.


HAMPTON  HAWES as told to Don Asher

“One of the great tracks in jazz is Charlie Parker's "Parker's Mood." It begins with a three-note figure contained in a G minor triad—in this sequence: Bb-G-D—and whenever you heard someone whistling those notes in L.A., you knew you were in the presence of a friend. It signified you were using but cool, and when you went to buy dope late at night (which was the usual time to cop) if the bell wasn't working or you didn't want to jar the Man out of a sound sleep or there might be someone uncool on the premises, you went Bb-G-D in that fast, secret way and the cat would pop his head out the window. When Bird first played his "Parker's Mood" I think those notes might have been drifting around somewhere in his head and they just flew right out.

In 1947 I graduated from Polytechnic High School, split out the back of the auditorium (thinking, Damn, I'm free, got my diploma and didn't f**k up, can sleep till twelve tomorrow), threw my cap and gown in the back of the Ford and made it only fifteen minutes late to The Last Word where I was working with the Jay McNeely band. A few months later I joined Howard McGhee's Quintet at the Hi-De-Ho. Bird had worked his way back from the East Coast and joined us. When I had first heard him at Billy Berg's in 1945, I couldn't believe what he was doing, how anyone could so totally block out everything extraneous, light a fire that hot inside him and constantly feed on that fire.

Now at the time there were maybe ten people in the neighborhood of 50th and Western who knew there was a genius playing alto. Most people who had heard him thought he was crazy. His playing was too free and blazing and pure; it could be dissonant and harsh on the ears if you weren't accustomed to the sound. He had already recorded those early classics with Dizzy but you couldn't find the records on any jukeboxes.

Today the DJ's can take a new sound and spread it like flash fire; before you know it you're on television beaming to thirty million people. But this was before TV, and jazz was years away from reaching the concert halls. The only people in the vicinity of 50th and Western who were hip to him were a few of the street people, one or two chicks at the house where he was staying — the woman who owned it, a madame with a whorehouse on the east side, was a good friend of his and put him up whenever he was in town — and, of course, other musicians. When word got around where he was playing they came to check him out. Motherf***ers peeked and backed right up. Those of us who were affected the strongest felt we'd be willing to do anything to warm ourselves by that fire, get some of that grease pumping through our veins. He f**ked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was.

As with anyone that heavy and different, some people were awed or afraid of him and kept their distance. Others pursued him, would drop by his pad and hang out, figuring if they were around him long enough some of his shit was bound to rub off on them. I watched motherf**kers write down his solos note for note, play them on their own gigs and then wonder why they didn't sound as good. And if they had to follow Bird's solo with their own stuff, that would really leave them exposed — like standing naked and wet in a cold wind. Bird would take advantage of these dudes, borrow money and burn them in various ways. It wasn't that he was a bad cat, any junkie would do the same thing. It was a matter of dope or no dope; survival. Bird was out and he was strung, and in order to be around him you had to contend with that.

I never crowded or bothered him. I was busy trying to figure out my own life and I sensed that aside from his music it wasn't going to do me any good to be spending a lot of time around Bird. But he was the best player in the game, and on the stand when he'd sometimes look around at me and smile I knew I had played something good.

He was a sad driver — when his two-year-old car fell apart he left it in the street; borrowed mine once and tried to shift without using the clutch — so I'd pick him up every night at the madame's house in my ' 37 Ford, take him to work and bring him back. When I came home early one night he motioned me to follow him to his room. I waded through piles of sandwich wrappers, beer cans and liquor bottles. Watched him line up and take down eleven shots of whiskey, pop a handful of bennies, then tie up, smoking a joint at the same time. He sweated like a horse for five minutes, got up, put on his suit and a half hour later was on the stand playing strong and beautiful.

For two weeks he never said a word to me — going to the club, on the stand, or driving home. But it wasn't an uncomfortable silence; he was either stoned, froze, or just off somewhere else, and I respected whatever trip he was on and whatever distant place it carried him to. It was never an ego trip. If someone were to ask him who he liked better on alto, Henry Prior or Sonny Criss — it was the sort of thing a young player starting to come up would ask — he'd shrug and say, Both. They're both cool. Shooting down other players was as foreign to his nature as a longing for sharp clothes and a Cadillac or whether or not he had a white woman, which were the black badges of success in those days. He had plenty of white women but it never interfered with his music.

Sometimes I'd pull up in front of the club and he'd be too high to get out of the car. Howard McGhee would ask me where Bird was. I'd say, ‘Sittin' in the car.’ No point in trying to pull him out, he wouldn't have been able to play anyway. After a while he'd get himself together, walk in and start blowing — even before he reached the stand, weaving his way through the tables playing in that beautiful, fiery way.

At the end of the second week of the gig he spoke his first words to me. It was close to three in the morning when I left him off at the madame's house. He got out, started walking toward the house, then stuck his head back in the window and said, "I heard you tonight."

The next day I told the guys in the band I was going to drop by Bird's place and see if he wanted to go to a movie. Everybody said, That's a dumb idea, he isn't going to want to go to any show. That's too square for him, too bourgeois. I dropped by anyway. He came to the door in a T-shirt and the same pin-stripe suit he wore on the stand. Said it was a nice day and a show sounded like a good idea. We went to a newsreel playing nearby. As I was buying my ticket I realized Bird was no longer with me. Looked up and down the street and saw him coming out of an alley halfway down the block. He wandered up to the box office and laid out his money, not saying anything about the little side trip. Afterwards we ate a hot dog and drove around downtown in my Ford, enjoying the spring day. When I dropped him off back at the house he said, "I had a nice time."

That weekend I smoked my first joint, some light green from Chicago Bird pulled out as we were driving down Avalon Boulevard to get a hamburger and a Coke. Didn't feel anything till after we ate and I started driving home. I said, Man, why are all these horns honking at me? Bird said, You're driving backwards. I stopped and let him take over the wheel. He made it back to his place, stripping gears all the way. I walked the ten blocks to my house and was weaving up to the door when I saw a tiny old lady from my father's church staring at me. Watched me trying to make it to the door and said, "Young man, are you behaving yourself?" I made it up the stairs, lay down under the bed, and getting a flash from the old church days asked God aloud to deliver me from the devil.

Next day Bird phoned me and said, "That was some powerful light green."

His uncle was Bishop Peter E. Parker and maybe he was close to God. I know he was damn near like a prophet in his music. He scared a lot of people over the years and died of pneumonia, so they say, in Baroness Nica Rothschild's Fifth Avenue living room when he was thirty-four. But as long as I knew Bird, I was never awed or afraid of him. I loved him. And how can you be afraid of somebody you love?”

If you are not already familiar with it, the following video featuring Supersax’s version of Parker’s Mood, will serve as an introduction to the three-note figure contained in a G minor triad—in this sequence: Bb-G-D - that Hampton references at the beginning of this piece.

1 comment:

  1. Love Hampton! Ellis Marsalis told me to check him out. The LP "For Real" features Frank Butler on drums, Scott LaFaro on bass and Harold Land on tenor. I've listened to it over and over. I read this book after checking it out from the Madison, WI public library. I really need my own copy.


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