Saturday, October 23, 2021

Joe Maini by Gordon Jack

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his perceptive and well-researched writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the October 6 & 15, 2021 editions of Jazz Journal. 

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© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“During a relatively short career Joe Maini became one of the finest alto soloists and lead players of his generation. Hugely admired by fellow performers he was born on 8 February 1930 in Providence, Rhode Island and by 1948 he was on the road with Johnny Bothwell. Bookings became scarce so together with fellow band-mates John Williams and Frank Isola, Maini jumped-ship in Ohio. He took off for Los Angeles where he worked with Roy Porter’s orchestra sitting in the section with Bob Gordon and Eric Dolphy who played lead. His friend Jimmy Knepper was also in the band and by early 1950 they decided to leave the west coast to try their luck in New York.

Once in the big city they rented an apartment located on the corner of 136th. Street and Broadway which soon became a location for all-night jam-sessions. Herb Geller who was a regular attendee told me, “You could visit at any time and there was always music being played together with all kinds of nefarious activities going on. Everybody used to go there –Dizzy, Joe Albany, Max Roach, Miles, Mulligan, Zoot, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. If you went to Joe’s you would meet the entire who’s-who of jazz”. Lenny Bruce often visited to socialise with the musicians. Don Lanphere recorded Charlie Parker there in May 1950 with John Williams, Buddy Jones and Frank Isola and the results were eventually released as The Apartment Sessions (Philology W842-2 CD). A more famous example of Lanpheres’s taping (aided by Maini) occurred a few months earlier when Parker’s quintet with Red Rodney appeared at a dance gig at St.Nicholas Arena. The album was released as Bird At St. Nicks (OJC CD041-2).


Around this time Maini was involved with a Gene Roland project that rehearsed at Nola’s Studio.  It was a twenty-five piece band designed as a feature for Parker known as The Band That Never Was because it did not work, it just rehearsed. Eddie Bert was there and he took a series of photos that have been reproduced in Ken Vail’s Bird’s Diary. Maini already had a drug problem which led to his incarceration at The Public Health Facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Vail’s book quotes a letter Joe sent to Charlie Parker from Los Angeles dated 23 January, 1953 – “It felt good to get your warm letter while I was in the “hospital”. Jimmy Knepper and I got out on 17 November and I have become a solid citizen and good musician. No more raucous living for me. That sixteen months changed me. Jerry (sic) Mulligan is making a lot of money out here. He’s got a small group with no piano and I played with him the other night on his gig and it was a lot of fun.”  Parker and Maini became very close and for a while they lived in the same apartment. Parker gave Joe a tenor which he continued to use during the fifties.

Having been off the scene for a while Joe like a lot of musicians took whatever work he could find which often included  performing in strip clubs. Brew Moore, no stranger to burlesque, once said he was 21 before he saw a naked woman from the front. Geller told me about the Los Angeles bohemian under-world of the time - “I sometimes worked in striptease clubs because I knew Night Train and Harlem Nocturne which I suppose qualified me. Lenny Bruce was the comic at several clubs and we got to know each other real well. Sometimes Joe Maini and I would split a job. If I had a jazz gig he would cover for me at the strip club and vice versa.” One of the most notorious clubs was Duffy’s Gaiety near Santa Monica Boulevard where Bruce was the M.C. and his wife Hot Honey Harlow did the stripping. Ronald Collins and David Skover in their Trials Of Lenny Bruce make it clear what the punters would find at Duffy’s - “Unemployed jazzmen gigged there, hookers cruised there, strippers grinded there, junkies scored there and Lenny thrived there”. Stars like Bob Hope, Hedy Lamarr and Ernie Kovacs were regular visitors and Gary Crosby (Bing’s son) used to date the girls. As Herb said, “Lenny was really infamous then, not quite a star yet but “in” to the real hip people”.  When Maini, Geller and Jack Sheldon were not actually playing they apparently had a free seat every night.

In 1954 Maini made notable contributions to a high-profile Best Coast Jazz date for Mercury where he more than held his own in the heady company of Clifford Brown, Walter Benton, Herb Geller, Kenny Drew, Curtis Counce and Max Roach. He is heard on Coronado, You Go To My Head, Caravan and an inspired Autumn In New York where his soulful approach contrasts effectively with the suave elegance of the other alto-man on the session - Herb Geller. The following year he was seen on screen with Connie Haines and the Dan Terry Orchestra in a short film titled Birth Of A Band. That year he also appeared on a relaxed Shelly Manne date with Bob Enevoldsen, Bill Holman and Jimmy Giuffre where they performed Summer Night, Spring Is Here and You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.

When Bob Gordon died in 1955 his wife Sue wanted a band to play at his funeral. Jack Sheldon, Bob Enevoldsen, Joe Maini and Jack Montrose performed Jack’s arrangement of Good-Bye and Enevoldsen told me that it was almost impossible to perform given the circumstances. Maini was working with Kenny Drew at the time and he is featured on both alto and tenor on the pianist’s Talkin’ And Walkin’ which has a number of the pianist’s intriguing compositions together with a memorable I’m Old Fashioned. The following year he and Red Norvo recorded Concertino Da Camera with composer Jack Montrose. It has an unusual three-part baroque canon form with a series of key and tempo changes developing into an examination of the blues featuring Maini at his best.

Joe Maini, a consummate sight-reader, was part of the large studio orchestra on Johnny Mandel’s 1958 I Want To Live film sound-track. Years later Mandel told Marc Myers, “Joe was beyond great. He could play anything I wrote with incredible soul and energy”. Everyone who knew Maini had similar views about his musicality. This is what Bill Perkins who played with him in Terry Gibbs’s band told me, “He was one of my all-time favourite musicians...those who played with him will never forget him. Along with Lanny Morgan he was the greatest, most dynamic jazz-oriented lead alto I ever played with.” When Pete Christlieb was about sixteen he played in a Saturday morning rehearsal band. He told me that “Occasionally somebody good would sit-in to show us how the charts should really sound. The great Joe Maini once visited and played the lead alto chair and he was so good it was frightening. He more or less said, “You follow me kid and try to stick close to my ass because we’re going down the road and we’re going fast!” Man what authority. It was fantastic to play in the section with him”.

Herb Geller once told me an amusing story concerning Maini and Art Pepper. This anecdote which occurred in the late fifties also appears in Pepper’s Straight Life but with a slightly different ending. “There was never any love lost between Art and Joe, or Art and anyone else for that matter because nobody liked him personally. They had both been in jail and there were rumours that Art had named names. The word for that is a fink and that is what people were calling Art. Anyway there was an after-hours club on Hollywood Boulevard where Bill Holman had the group with my wife Lorraine on piano and musicians would go there after their gigs to jam. Joe and I would usually go together and one night we met Art in the parking-lot getting ready to go in. We greeted each other and Art’s wife Diane said, “How can you be so friendly when you know that you all hate each other?” Art said to Joe, “Yeah, you’ve been going around telling everyone I’m a fink and that’s not true”. Joe said, “Listen, I was in the joint too and I would never call anyone a fink unless I really knew for sure. I didn’t call you a fink, all I said was that you couldn’t blow shit man! I’ve been telling everyone that”. They were going to start fighting but Herb and Diane held them both back. Pepper’s friend bass player Hersh Hamel provides a different ending in Art’s autobiography –“They got into a fist-fight and were rolling around on the concrete hitting each other”. 

In 1959 he became a founder-member of Terry Gibbs’s dynamic and well-named Dream Band recording eight albums with them until Gibbs disbanded in 1962. Apart from the leader the band was packed with top-draw soloists like Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca. Maini had features on No Heat, Evil Eyes, Flying Home, The Big Cat, Opus One and many others. In a recent telephone conversation this is what Gibbs had to say about his lead alto – “Joe could memorise a chart after playing it just twice – he wouldn’t have to look at it again. The only other musician I knew who could do that was Stan Getz. He was a great sight-reader able to play anything that was put in front of him. He had a drug problem but he was always reliable, showing up on time and taking care of business. Buddy Clark once brought in an arrangement of Parker’s Just Friends. The saxes (Med Flory, Maini, Kamuca, Perkins and Bill Hood) used to play it at the end of the night and that was really the beginning of Supersax. I announced them as “Joe Maini and the Maniacs!”  More fine examples of his big band work can be heard on Louis Bellson’s 1962 Live From The Summit album and on Cool from West Side Story Bellson said “Joe reached a peak of down-home swing”. One of his last bookings was with the band at Shelly’s Manne-Hole in March 1964. 

 Joe Maini died on 8 May 1964 and Down Beat’s obituary gave the cause of death as “A bizarre accidental shooting”. Reference books over the years like The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and The Feather/Gitler Jazz Encyclopaedia have claimed he was playing Russian Roulette and this has become an accepted part of jazz folk-lore. In June 2010 Marc Myers’s excellent JazzWax site provided a platform for Maini’s daughter Tina to put the record straight with information she received from Joe’s friend Ray Graziano.  “Late at night after a gig my father went back to Ray’s house to get high. He picked up the pistol and started telling a joke. He waved the gun around and it went off accidentally.” After the funeral there was a Memorial concert at Shelly’s Manne-Hole and the money raised was put into a trust-fund for Maini’s two children.

Selected Discography

As Leader

Joe Maini - The Small Group Recordings (LonehillJazz LHJ 10322).

As Sideman

Clifford Brown All Stars – Best Coast Jazz (Emarcy 838306-2CD).

Terry Gibbs Dream Band – The Sundown Sessions (Contemporary CCD 7652-2).

Terry Gibbs Dream Band – The Big Cat (Contemporary CCD 7657-2).

Terry Gibbs Dream Band - Main Stem (Contemporary CCD 7656-2).

Louis Bellson – Big Band Jazz At The Summit (Fresh Sound Records FSRCD 783).

I would like to acknowledge the help received from both Bob Weir and the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt, Germany while researching this article.

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