Monday, May 21, 2018

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

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

"It's easy to criticize young people by saying how lucky they are in terms of modern-day communications and information, and how back in 'the day' (a phrase I hate) we had to work harder to get things moving socially, politically, and culturally. But the truth is that even oldsters like myself have pretty much forgotten how different things were in the pre-internet/social media days. When it comes to jazz there were always (and I really mean prior to 1985, so these are really the pre-pre-internet days) walking legends, musicians we knew were still alive but could not locate except through obscure LPs, notices of far-off gigs, and word of mouth.

So for someone like me, who came of age, as a listener, in the late 1960s, there were obscure men and women who lived by both recording and reputation - I spent years trying to locate Allen Eager, wondered about Dodo Marmarosa and Ronnie Singer, and tried to picture players like Joe Albany, who I knew from a few solos on some Aladdin sessions with Lester Young, and some live shots from the Finale with Bird. So when the 'word on the street' said Albany was coming to New York to play at the West End Cafe (circa 1978) I jumped into my car (I was living in New Haven Connecticut by then) and was down there, if not on opening night, than soon after.

To make a long story short, I was not disappointed in his performance, and became friends with Joe soon afterwards; I supervised a recording session for  which he was a sideman, drove him to various gigs (including a memorable one at the Yale Cabaret up in New Haven, for which we sold out the room) and started hanging with  him and his lady-friend Jean Roth at their 57th Street apartment. Things were never dull there; Joe was always arguing with Jean, there was always a lot of very powerful pot, and he always had something interesting to tell or show me (I remember seeing a lead sheet in Monk's handwriting of Ruby My Dear that Monk had given Joe).  One night as we drove along the FDR drive he said to me "I'm going to call my autobiography I Licked Bird's Blood, because we used to shoot up together and when Bird handed me the needle I rubbed the blood off with my finger and licked it clean." That was Joe - "you should try horse tranquilizer. Or really, maybe you shouldn't" he said on that same night. And Jean told me the last time she had seen Joe before their reunion 25 years later in NYC, "he pawned everything in my apartment for drugs and then left town. But Joe was a gentleman - he left me the pawn ticket.""
- Allen Lowe

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

For more insights into Joe and his music, Joe's daughter, A.J. Albany has authored Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood which is available from Amazon which also offers the following annotation about the book on its site.

"A. J. Albany's recollection of life with her father, the great jazz pianist Joe Albany, is the story of one girl's unsentimental education. Joe played with the likes of Charles Mingus, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, but between gigs he slipped into drug-induced obscurity. It was during these times that his daughter knew him best. After her mother disappeared, six-year-old Amy Jo and her charming, troubled father set up housekeeping in a seamy Hollywood hotel. While Joe finished a set in some red-boothed dive, chances were you'd find Amy curled up to sleep on someone's fur coat, clutching a 78 of Louis Armstrong's "Sugar Blues" or, later, a photograph of the man himself, inscribed, "To little Amy Jo, always in love with you--Pops." Wise beyond her years and hip to the unpredictable ways of Old Lady Life at all too early an age, A. J. Albany guides us through the dope and deviance of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Hollywood's shadowy underbelly and beyond. What emerges is a raw, gripping, and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a young girl trying to survive among the outcasts, misfits, and artists who surrounded her."

"In this beautiful memoir of jazz and junk, loyalty and abandonment, A. J. Albany—the daughter of pianist Joe Albany—writes with such straight-up charm and unsentimental lucidity that she makes her harrowing childhood seem as romantic and thrilling as she remembers it."
—Francine Prose

Also for your consideration is the film Low Down which Jeff Preiss directed:

"Jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes) and his daughter Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) battle insurmountable odds in seedy 1970s Los Angeles in this compassionate and compelling story of the unwavering love between a father and a daughter.
Starring:Elle Fanning, John Hawkes, Glenn Close Runtime:1 hour, 54 minutes"

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