Friday, July 1, 2016

"Joe Albany: Portrait of a Legend by Ira Gitler"

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

The Bop Landscape is dotted with pianists who “made the scene” [i.e.: achieved some degree of national recognition] and then, apparently, disappeared. Names like Dodo Marmarosa, Al Haig, George Wallington and Joe Albany among others. Some continued in music while others sequed into other occupations.

When I read this reference in the following article by Ira Gitler to Joe Albany’s meager discography - “One LP for Riverside (The Right Combination, taped in 1957) was the only recorded evidence of the legend since 1946” -  I went to check out my collection.

Much to my surprise there were six CD’s five of which had been issued since The Right Combination [1957]. I have interspersed the CD cover art throughout this piece.

THE USE of the word "legendary" in describing pianist Joe Albany has become such a standard practice in jazz circles during the last 17 years that it has almost taken on the status of a given name.

A talent fleetingly revealed to a small audience through some short solos recorded with Lester Young in 1946 was the start of the legend, although it may have started among musicians a few years before. Jazz has had more than its share of legends — dead and living—and Albany's has been one of the most persistent in the undercurrent of the backwash of the 1940s.

From 1950 he had lived in California, working in small suburban clubs when he did work, but he was totally overlooked in the early part of the decade when the rest of the jazz world discovered the West Coast. One LP for Riverside (The Right Combination, taped in 1957) was the only recorded evidence of the legend since 1946.

The extramusical aspects of the legend were still there, however: descriptions of a weird, strange, far-out guy, substantiated by a photograph in Metronome's 1956 yearbook, showing a wild-eyed, high-pompadoured Albany in the last row of a group picture taken of the participating musicians in a concert at the University of California at Los Angeles in the mid-'40s.

With all this in mind, one can be easily surprised on meeting Albany for the first time. It's difficult to prepare for meeting a legend. Everyone knows they exist only in the confines of their own unverifiable non-history. So when a slim, curly haired (without pompadour), self-effacing man introduces himself as Albany, the effect can be dumfounding.

Immediately one feels a paradox — that he has known Albany a long time, and yet, simultaneously, he is a stranger. The reason perhaps can be found in an attitude of the jazz fraternity that puts people, meeting for the first time, on a more intimate level than is usual. It is also the legend working. The feeling of confronting a stranger is reality.

That first meeting was in New York City's Half Note club last spring. At the second meeting, there were more realities. And the legend began to crumble. Unknown facts were brought to light, and the Joe Albany story took shape.

Born in Atlantic City, N.J., on Jan. 24, 1924, he has two sisters, one a pianist the other an opera singer. Joe was given an accordion as a child. His cousin was an accordion teacher, and so Joe learned the instrument but says he didn't like it particularly at that time. The switch to piano was accomplished in high school.

"There was this gym band," he recalled. "They used to play during lunch hour — and they needed a piano player. They had this Cab Calloway tune, Jim Jam Jumpin’ Jive—they had the 'stock' on it. I took the piano music and learned the left hand."

Albany's first contact with jazz was through records. When he was 15, fellow Atlantic City musicians Bob Kersey and Jay Lischin (a tenor saxophonist later known on the West Coast as Jay Corre) played their records for him.

"I got to listen to Duke Ellington, Hawk's Body and Soul, and the Billie Holidays with Teddy Wilson," he remembered.

Albany's family moved to California when he was 17, but the next year they returned to Atlantic City. It was at this time that Albany played his first professional job — at a strip-tease joint. (Trombonist Willie Dennis also was in the band, according to Albany.)

Then the young pianist returned to California and became a fixture on Los Angeles' Central Ave. jazz scene. He met guitarist Teddy Bunn and worked with singer-drummer Leo Watson. He heard Art Tatum in person for the first time and met Lester Young.

"I remember Pres telling me the chords to Sweet Lorraine—the bridge," Albany said. "I didn't know it at the time. I was going mostly by ear, but it felt good."

Albany married while he was located in Los Angeles, and the couple went to New York City where he worked for a month with trumpeter Max Kaminsky at the Pied Piper. This was still in the '40s. According to the pianist, everything was going along fine "until my father came and yanked me out of town." Joe might have been married, but he was still a minor and had to accede to his father's wishes. But he soon made his escape, back to the ever-beckoning West Coast.

He stayed there about a year, he said, and then he went on the road with Benny Carter's band, the one that also included drummer Max Roach and trombonist J. J. Johnson.

"I got as far as Detroit," Albany said, "and Shadow Wilson got me with Georgie Auld's band. The band folded at the Tune Town Ballroom in St. Louis, and we were left to our own devices. This trumpet player and I made it back to New York."

Back in New York Albany met someone who was to have a profound impact on his conception of music. He describes the meeting as if it were in some way mystical: ". . . and then I saw this guy walking down the street, and I followed him, and I said, 'Who is it?' And he says, 'Charlie Parker.' I had already heard from JJ. and Max about Charlie Parker. So I introduced myself." Albany soon was working with Parker and drummer Stan Levey. The three played Monday nights at the Famous Door around the end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945.

"There was no bass player," Albany said, referring to the Famous Door job. "Baby Laurence used to come in and dance. I had a hard time playing stop-time at that time for Baby."

The pianist rejoined another version of the Auld band in 1945 and again journeyed to — you guessed it — California. In May of that year, he recorded "an eight-bar, Basie-style solo on Stompin' at the Savoy. Stan Levey was with the band then too."

But Albany had his differences with Auld and left the band to join Boyd Raeburn's modernistic crew that included trombonist-arranger Johnny Mandel, tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, and vocalist David Allyn. He was with that band for a five-week period, after which he joined Charlie Parker's quintet at Los Angeles' Club Finale.

The job at the Finale was from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., with an air shot on a local radio station. Albany said that one night on the air "Bird was singing at me like I wasn't comping right, so I did it every which way, and finally I did what I thought was backwards, comping out of time, and I still didn't please him, so I turned around and said, '----you, Bird,' and that was the end. He fired me. We made up after that and laughed about it."

The reconciliation didn't come soon enough, however, for Albany to participate in the Dial record date he had been scheduled to make with Parker, Miles Davis, and Lucky Thompson, the session that produced Ornithology, Yardbird Suite, Moose the Mooche, and A Night in Tunisia. Ross Russell, who produced the recordings, wrote years later, in Jazz Review: "I was always sorry Joe did not make the date. His replacement, Dodo Mamarosa, is a wonderful pianist, but Joe had something special."

Albany also was one of the few, at the time, to have absorbed the essential character of Parker's music. In the telling of the legend, Albany often is referred to as "Bird's second favorite pianist" of that time (Bud Powell is named as No. 1).

"I think I was integrated with Bird's phrasing," he said, "but when I met Bird, my biggest influences had been Pres and Count Basie. Of course, my first piano influence had been Teddy Wilson. Then I heard Tatum. I wanted to go that way but didn't have the chops. I just developed my chops since 1957. Up to then, I was just getting by on my accordion talent."

He tends to pass off his playing on the 1946 Lester Young date for Aladdin as nothing special. He explained that he was "down between styles at the time" but admits that it "did swing, so that was groovy."

Ross Russell said it more poetically perhaps when he wrote, "There's a 12-bar solo on Lester's Bebop Boogie, a light, lacy thing laid on with a sure hand and lots-of-time, behind-the-beat phrasing. On New Lester Leaps In, the piano swings right out with a lyric solo that keeps building to a big convincing rhythmic period."

Albany returned to New York in 1947 and applied for a Local 802 card, but he left town within six months to make a southern tour with a traveling band. This, he said, turned out to be a mistake. Soon he was back in

California, where he remained, except for one short trip back to New York which "turned out badly" — until this year [1963]. Most of the time he lived in Los Angeles.

In the late '40s Albany was one of a group of young West Coast musicians who had been captivated by Charlie Parker in several ways. The others included saxophonists Joe Maini and Herb Geller, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and pianist Russ Freeman.

"Joe Albany was a great influence," said drummer Roy Hall, who has been a close friend of Albany's since the time Parker introduced the two in the kitchen of Billy Berg's Los Angeles club. "Russ Freeman was playing like Nat Cole until he heard Joe." (Hall added that Freeman's referring to him as being dead in Straight Talk from Russ Freeman in the March 14 Down Beat was greatly exaggerated. The drummer also expressed distress at Freeman's not mentioning Albany in that article.)

Hall accompanied Albany on several cross-country jaunts and has played with him on innumerable occasions, the most recent being at a club in Greenwich Village. The drummer said he feels that Albany's playing is "a timeless thing — so good it's commercial," it's main assets being "independence of hands, inside harmony, and his instinctive knowledge of intervals."

The 1957 Riverside date, with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and bassist Bob Whitlock, was an impromptu taping of a rehearsal the pianist had called before the group was to play a gig.

Again, Albany now apologizes for his performance: "It was a jam session. I had never played with Warne before. The engineer, Ralph Garretson, played some drums, but it didn't cook real hard at all, and anything I do I want it to cook."
Despite the leader's feelings about the record, his own contributions certainly are still worth hearing, particularly those on Body and Soul, Angel Eyes, and All the Things You Are. Unfortunately, the album is no longer available [It was reissued as a CD].

THE '50s in California were bleak for Albany. Personal problems picked up in the '40s continued to plague him and prevent him from realizing his potential. Divorced from his first wife, he had married again. When his second wife died, in 1959, he went to San Francisco. He stayed there through 1960, working briefly at the Pink Elephant.

"I didn't have a card there," he said, "and had to pay the traveling tax, and couldn't get started again. I'd written some tunes, and Anita O'Day recorded them." In San Francisco Albany met his present wife, Sheila, a former ad agency copywriter and singer who also writes lyrics. They went back to Los Angeles but earlier this year decided to return to New York, the first time for Albany in 13 years.

"I was vegetating on the West Coast," he explained, "and besides your blood thinning, it seems like your hopes get thinner too — ambitions — desire to play."
In New York he has done a couple of cocktail-lounge jobs, a Monday night at the Five Spot with baritone saxophonist Jay Cameron, and several nights with Charlie Mingus' 10-piece band at the Village Gate.

Some solo-piano tapes he made in June and July support his claim that now "my left hand is a lot fuller, more agile." There are flashes of the Tatumesque, a general similarity to Bud Powell (after all, they both come from Parker), but, above all, it is Joe Albany.

In this day, his playing may seem dated to some of the current hippies, but it is, as Roy Hall said, "timeless."

October 24, 1963
Down Beat

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