Thursday, January 12, 2017

Milton Hinton and Jazz History: Parallel Courses [From the Archives]

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

Born in VicksburgMississippi in 1910 and relocated to Chicago by his family at the close of World War I in 1918, it seems that bassist Milt Hinton had been around Jazz since its beginnings.

But like Osie Johnson, his drumming counterpart on numerous recordings sessions over the years, I found it difficult to locate much information about Milt despite the fact that the Lord Discography lists him on 1,205 recording sessions!

So when my copy of Down Beat: The Great Jazz Interviews a 75th Anniversary Anthology arrived from Santa Claus this year, I was thrilled to discover that it contained Larry Birnbaum’s detailed essay about Milt entitled Milt Hinton: The Judge Holds Court, January 25, 1979.

Here are some excerpts that primarily focus on Milt’s nearly 16 year association with the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

I think you’ll find it to be a wonderful reminiscence of what the world of Jazz and the United States were like for a working musician from approximately 1935-1950.

© -  Larry Birnbaum/ Down Beat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Bass means bottom. It means foundation, and bass players realize that their first job j is to support the musicians and the ensem­ble. Bass players know more about sharing ffld appreciating one another than any other musicians. In all my years I have never heard a bass player put another bass player down; they have great love for each other and they learn from one another and they share experiences and even jobs. It's why the art of bass playing has made more progress in the last 40 years than the art of any other instrument."

Milt Hinton should know. At 68 [Milt died on December 19, 2000 at the age of 90], the dean of American bassists stands at the summit of a half-century career that has taken him from the speakeasies of Chicago to the pinnacle of the big-band era with Cab Calloway to the jam sessions at Minton's in the early days of bop. …

"But to get back, in '35 Cab went to California to do a movie with Al Jolson called The Singing Kid. His bass player, Al Morgan, was a fantastic visual player. He was really my idol; I used to watch him just to see how a great bass player acted, and that's what I figured I would be like when I grew up—of course I'm nothing like that at all. When they made this movie, the cameras would be grinding away and every time Cab looked around, instead of the camera being on him it would be on Al Morgan, because he was a tall, black, handsome guy and he smiled and twirled his bass as he played. This got under Cab's skin because it was a little too competitive for him. But nothing happened about it until one of the producers said to Al Mor­gan, 'Look, you're so very photogenic that if you were going to be around here, every time we made a picture with a band scene in it you would get the job.' So this guy quit Cab in California and joined Les Kite's band with Lionel Hampton and all those guys who were established in Hollywood, and he stayed there.

"Cab started back east without a bass player, and my friend Johnson told Cab that if he was going through Chicago he should stop at the Three Deuces and dig Milt Hinton. By this time Simpson's band had broke up and the owner had opened a Three Deuces at State and Lake. Zutty Sin­gleton was the bandleader and Art Tatum was the relief piano player there. When Art played, it was my responsibility to stand by and come in for his finale. He played solo piano, but for his last tune, which would be something up-tempo, I was supposed to join him and take it out and then come on with Zutty's band. Of course, Art Tatum was so fabulous that I don't think I ever caught up to him; his changes were too fast for me and he left me standing at the post. But it was such a joy to see him, and he was a very nice person. He could see slightly if you put a very bright light behind his eye, so during intermissions we played pinochle together.

"Zutty had the band, mostly New Orleans guys. It was Zutty playing drums, Lee Collins, a great trumpet player whose wife recently put out a book about him; there was a kid from New Jersey, Cozy Cole's brother, who played piano, and Everett Barksdale was the guitar player. We worked for months at the Three Deuces and my acceptance as a musician was established, because Chicago was a New Orleans town—all the jazz was New Orleans jazz—and Zutty Singleton was the drummer. There was Baby Dodds and Tubby Hall, but Zutty was really the guy. He had been with the Louis Armstrong Hot Five, with Earl Hines and Lil and Pre­ston Jackson, who is now living in New Orleans. Zutty finally decided to take me into his rhythm section. Now I was with the king and now I was established as a top bass player in Chicago.

"And now Cab comes down and he listens to me play. He never said a word tc me, he just sat there—I saw him in the room—and a guy said, 'Cab is in.' He came in with a big coonskin coat and a derby and, man, he was sharp, people were like applauding. He sat at a table and listened to us play, and on the intermission he invit­ed Zutty over to the table to have a drink with him—not me, but Zutty. He said, 'Hey, I'd like that bass player, I heard he's pretty good.' Zutty was most beautiful and kind to me and he was only too happy to have me make some progress, and he said, 'You can have him,' in that long drawl, New Orleans accent he had. So Cab said, 'Well, thanks man, and if you ever get to New York and there's anything I can ever do for you, you just let me know,' and they shook hands. Then Zutty came upstairs— I'm playing pinochle with Art Tatum—and said, 'Well, kid, you're gone.' 'Where am I going, Zutty?' 'Cab just asked me for you and I told him he could have you.' I said, 'Don't I have to give you some kind of a two-week notice or something?' and Zutty said, 'If you don't get your black ass out of here this evening, I'll shoot you.'

"Cab finally comes up and sings a song with us, he hi-de-ho's and breaks up the house—and as he's leaving he says to me, 'Kid, the train leaves from LaSalle Street Station at 9 o'clock in the morning. Be on it.' That's all he said to me, no dis­cussion of salary or anything. I dashed to the phone, called my mom, and told her to pack that other suit I had and my extra shirt. I got my stuff—of course, there was no time to sleep—and I met the band at the station. It was quite an experience, because I had never been on a train except coming from Mississippi to Chicago, and you know I didn't come on a Pullman or any first-class train—we were right next to the engine. I'd never seen a Pullman in my life, and here all of these big-time musicians were on this train, on their own Pullman.

"There were these fabulous musicians: Doc Cheatham, the trumpet player; Mouse Randolph, another trumpet player; Foots Thomas, the straw boss, the assistant leader of the band, a saxophone player; Andy Brown, a saxophone player; and the drummer, Leroy Maxey. These guys had been working in the Cotton Club in New York and they were really professional: Lammar Wright was another great trum­pet player in the band; Claude Jones, a great friend of Tommy Dorsey's, was the trombone player; and there was my old friend Keg Johnson who had recommend­ed me.

"I must have looked pretty bad. I had the seedy suit on, a little green gabardine jacket with vents in the sleeves—we called them bi-swings in those days. Keg was introducing me around, and the great Ben Webster was in the band. He and Cab had been out drinking that night and they missed the train at LaSalle Street, but you could catch the train at the 63rd Street sta­tion. They were out on the South Side balling away with some chicks and they didn't have time to come downtown. So they picked up the train at 63rd Street and got on just terribly drunk. I was sitting there and Keg was trying to introduce me to the guys, and Ben Webster walks in ter­ribly stoned and he looked at me—I must have weighed 115 pounds soaking wet— and said, 'What is this?' and Cab said, 'This is the new bass player,' and Ben said, 'The new what!?' I remember thinking I would never like Ben, and he turned out to be one of my dearest friends.

"I hadn't asked anybody about the price, but I was making $35 a week with Zutty at the Three Deuces and that was one of the best jobs in town. Fletcher Hen­derson was at the Grand Terrace at that time with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry and they were making 35 bucks a week. I didn't know how to approach anybody about money with Cab, so finally I told Keg that Cab hadn't said anything to me about money. Keg [Johnson, a trombonist] said, 'Oh, everybody here makes $100 a week.' Well, I almost fainted—$100 I had never heard of; it was a fantastic amount of money. This is before Social Security—they only took out $1 for union dues and you got $99, and $99 in those days was like $9,000 today. Honestly, you could get a good room for $7 a week; you could get a fantastic meal for 50 cents and cigarettes for 10 to 15 cents a pack; bread was 5 cents a loaf; so you can imagine what the thing was like.

"Cab told me after we started making one-night stands that he was only hiring me until he got to New York and got a good bass player. I was quite happy even to do that for 100 bucks a week. We made one-nighters for three months before we hit New York, all through IowaDes MoinesSioux City, everyplace, and I got a chance to really get set and all the guys liked me.

"Well, Al Morgan was not a reading man. He had been in the band so long he had memorized the book, so there was no bass book. And here I was quite academ­ic—I'd studied violin and I'd studied bass legitimately with a bass player from the Chicago Civic Opera and I never had a problem with reading—I was playing Mendelssohn's Concerto in E-minor so there was no problem. I said, 'Where's the music?' and there was no music, so Benny Payne, the piano player, said, 'You just cock your ear and listen, and I'll call off the changes to you.'

"Benny was most kind and we've had many laughs about this later; I'm about S'7" and Al Morgan was a tall man, he must have been 6'3". There was no time to get new uniforms so I had to wear his clothes, and when I put on his coat I was just drowning in it. His arms were much longer than mine so that you couldn't see my hands because they didn't come out through the sleeves. The guys said I looked like Ichabod Crane or somebody—I'm playing bass through the coat-sleeves and they were laughing.

"I had never really played with a big band of that caliber, and when they hit it that first night it almost frightened me to death. The black guys in those days used to wear their hair in a pompadour—it was long in front and we would plaster it down with grease and comb it back and it would stay down. Of course, when it got hot that grease melted and our hair would stand straight up. I had this big coat on and I got to playing and the grease ran all out of my hair and my hair was standing up all over my head and Benny Payne is calling out these chords to me—'B-flat! C! F!' The guys in the band told me later that they were just rolling with laughter, they could hardly contain themselves, because I was really playing good but I looked so ungod­ly funny.

"Finally Cab saw that the guys liked me and we were having so much fun that he said, 'We'll give him a blood test.' There was a special tune that Al Morgan did, featuring a bass solo, called 'The Reefer Man.' Cab said, 'OK—"The Reefer Man,'" and my eyes got big as saucers because I didn't know anything about this new music. I said, 'How does it go?' Benny Payne said, 'You start it,' and I said, 'What!?' He said, 'We'll give you the tempo but it just starts with the bass—just get into the key of F.'

I tell you, I started playing F, I chromaticized F, I squared F, I cubed F, I played F every conceivable way, and they just let me go on for five or 10 minutes, alone, playing this bass, slapping the bass, and doing all this on this F chord. Finally Cab brought the band in with a 'two... three... four' and they played the arrangement. Benny's calling off the chords to me, and after three or four min­utes the whole band lays out and Benny says, 'Now you've got it alone again,' and here I go back into this F. I must have played five or 10 minutes, and Benny comes over and says, 'Now you just act like you've fainted and just fall right back and I'll catch you,' and I did it and it was quite a sensation as far as the public was concerned, and the musicians were just out of their skulls they were laughing so.

"By the time we got to New York, Ben Webster liked me and Claude Jones liked me and the guys all said, 'This guy's going to make it,' so I was in. I stayed with the band 16 years, until 1951.”

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