It’s the 91st birth anniversary of the late baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who passed away six years ago. Despite various physical ailments, he was performing at a high level until into the early aughts. In 2000, I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for a Delmark recording, his fourth, titled Live At The Jazz Showcase, with Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Harold Mabern, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. I’ve appended first the liner note, and then the unedited interview with Mr. Payne.
Cecil Payne, Chick, Boom: Live At The Jazz Showcase:
“People know what a Mambo is, they know what a waltz is, and they know what a tango is, but they don’t know what jazz is,” says Cecil Payne, who, from the perspective of 78 years on the planet, 60 spent as a working musician, has some wisdom on the subject. “When you play Jazz, you play Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom. It’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds. If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.”
On “Live At the Jazz Showcase,” culled from three revelrous evenings in the hospitable ambiance of the venerable Chicago room, Payne and his hardcore unit — all but pianist Harold Mabern are 40 to 45 years his junior — apply that seemingly elementary dictum with a vengeance, conversing with a swinging simpatico that devastates any presumption of a generation gap. The dialogue began one evening in 1993, when tenorist Eric Alexander came to Augie’s — the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured many of New York’s finest during the ’90s — to jam with Payne, the late tenor giant Junior Cook, and master-of-all-tempos trapsetter Joe Farnsworth.
“I had retired from music,” Payne recalls, “but I would take the bus to New York to play with Junior and Joe, because there’s something about playing with friends where you don’t have to worry about wrong notes. I was having a great time. I still am.
“From the first tune Eric played that night, I thought he was going to be great.’ He had style. He still has. And everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago. They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me. It’s not only the spirit of their playing, but these jokers are like computers in music theory. I keep learning from them. We didn’t have any music when we made this date, and Eric created the background harmonies.”
The sentiment is mutual. “Cecil has a certain economy in his playing,” says Alexander, who along with Farnsworth and authoritative trumpeter Jim Rotondi comprise half of One For All, a cooperative sextet with five records under its belt whose members have evolved into consequential voices during their long association. “In his soloing and writing he always seems to break down any series of chord progressions or melodies to the true essence of the tune. I’ve never heard Cecil play anything corny or extraneous or trivial. Then, his time is ridiculous, and he gets the most pleasing baritone saxophone sound I’ve heard. A lot of times you hear baritone saxophonists bark or go heavy on the tongue, but Cecil’s approach is very light. I think it comes from the fact that he was originally an alto player, and in addition he liked Lester Young, and tried to transfer that approach to the baritone. He is from the era that we all wish we were from, and he is part of that revolution in the music that we wish we could have been part of. For us, it’s a treat to be associated with him.”
Payne enthusiastically cosigns his passion for the President, manifested here by “Ding-A-Ling,” a modernist reworking of the Basie classic “Jive At Five,” and by the perfectly timed quote of “Taxi War Dance” that he deploys to springboard into the turnback of his solo on “Bosco,” a Latin rouser in B-flat-minor.
“When I was about 13, I heard Lester Young’s 2-bar break on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Count Basie,” the Brooklyn native remembers. “I told my father, ‘Buy me a saxophone!’ Every now and then I heard Basie at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and I stayed by that bandstand all night to watch Lester Young. His horn was all green in between the keys! But the sound that came out was something else. My main influence was listening to Lester Young. I bought every record that came out. I learned every note, every solo.”
Payne’s father not only bought him an alto, but took him to neighborhood celebrity Pete Brown, the renowned jump alto saxophonist, for lessons at a quarter a pop. By 19, Payne was “playing alto parts” in a band led by Boys High School classmate Max Roach (personnel included ur-boppers Victor Coulson [trumpet], Allen Tinney [piano], Leonard Gaskin [bass] and, for a short time, Charlie Parker) at Georgie Jay’s Taproom at 78th Street and Broadway for a 9-to-3 shift; he occasionally accompanied Roach to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem to play the 4-to-8 a.m. afterhours shift. He caught the ear of proprietor Clark Monroe; when Payne emerged from three years in the Service, Monroe, walking the walk on his determination to “get jobs for all my boys that come out of the Army,” sent the newly decommissioned young saxman to Roy Eldridge, who was looking for an alto player for a fortnight gig at the Spotlite, the 52nd Street club that Monroe managed.
“When I got there,” Payne relates, “Roy Eldridge told me he’d just hired Sahib Shihab to play alto. I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished, Roy said, ‘Where can I find a baritone player?’ I had a baritone I’d played in a stock band when I was 15, and he said, ‘Bring it tomorrow.’ Dizzy came in to see Roy, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy Ballroom, where he was working. When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing, and I put on a uniform jacket and joined them. Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and then I took a solo in B-flat, maybe ‘I Got Rhythm’ — I couldn’t play much else. Everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.”
During Payne’s two years with Gillespie he recorded well-parsed, Prez-inflected solos on “Ow!” and “Stay On It” that cemented his rep as bebop’s first baritonist. On a Fall 1948 session with James Moody and Chano Pozo he waxed the oft-recorded “Cu-Ba,” kicking off a career as a composer of pungent melodies and protein-rich harmonic progressions whose logic masks a subtle, complex sensibility. That Payne retains the fire of the nascent bop years is evident in the chopbusting set-closer “Cit Sac” (it’s “Lover” in B-flat, with a sly quote of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge). That he has not forgotten the passions that fueled that fire is clear on “You Will Be Mine Tonight,” a lyric champagne before the fireplace ballad of 1999 vintage inspired by memories of an Army buddy bandmate’s amorous adventures in a hotel room while on the road directly after the war.
Payne’s subsequent c.v. includes big band stints with Illinois Jacquet, Machito, Woody Herman and Count Basie, not to mention substantial combo work with the likes of fellow Brooklynites Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, and the indefatigably creative Harold Mabern, a friend and colleague for forty years. There isn’t much jazz history he hasn’t seen or experienced.
“Cecil knows a lot, and if you want to find out what he really knows, you have to sit down and talk to him and ask him questions,” Alexander notes. “When he explains how he approaches certain things, it seems so obvious and simple that you can’t believe you didn’t already think of it. It’s the most obvious way, but it’s also the way that most people never even get to — it’s in front of their face, and they look right past it. I think that explains a lot about the directness and honesty in his playing. There’s no B.S.”
You’ll hear that directness and honesty in the declamations of all members on Chick, Boom, a session providing abundant proof that Cecil Payne’s DNA contains no atavistic genes. Resolutely optimistic, Payne unfailingly wields his memories and experience as a springboard to future explorations and conversations framed by the jazz lifebeat.
Which is neither BOOM-CHICK nor BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK. In case you didn’t hear him clearly before, Payne reiterates what it is: “It’s Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth. That’s ‘and.’ Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up. That’s ‘and-one.’ Then you bring it down to the ‘and-boom.’ Chick-boom. It’s very easy. It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.”
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Interview with Cecil Payne for Liner Notes:
TP: This is your fourth record for Delmark, and on each one Eric Alexander has been by your side. It sounds like you got a lot of inspiration from coming down to these sessions at Augie’s and hearing these guys, and that it’s been a reciprocal inspiration — they’ve obviously been inspired by you. But it’s like a context or framework to just do your thing.
PAYNE: What you’re saying is true. It started in 1992 when I retired. I was living in Camden, and I wasn’t playing much, just in some of the clubs here. I ran into a friend, Junior Cook, the tenor player. I had a Jazzmobile to do in New York. I called everybody up, but I didn’t have a drummer. I said, “Can you find me a drummer, man?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get you drummer.” I said, “Who is it?” He said, “Don’t worry about it!” Up to the last minute I was thinking about it, because drummers have to play the right beat and keep the groove. So here comes the drummer. He has a blue suit on and a tie, and that was Joe Farnsworth. I say, “Is that the cat?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “Oh my goodness.” He didn’t look that good. But when we’d crossed the point where we’d played the first number, I turned to Junior and said, “Where did you find this cat?” That was Joe Farnsworth. And he’s a hundred times better now than he was then.
TP: He sounds like no one else but him now.
PAYNE: Yeah. So it was me, him and Junior working at Augie’s. Every weekend I would go to New York, just to play, because there’s something about playing when you don’t have to worry about wrong notes, just getting yourself together and playing with friends that you know and have the same feeling. I was having a great time. I still am. That’s when Eric Alexander came down to play at Augie’s. The first tune he played, I said, “Man, this cat is going to be great.” Because he had style, too. He still has. Everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago. They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.
TP: You just said a word that’s very interesting to me. You’re able to have a conversation with these guys, and they’re all about 40-45 years younger than you. That’s an amazing thing about jazz, isn’t it.
PAYNE: Yeah, with jazz you don’t have to speak a language. You can go to any country in the world and play with musicians, and you understand each other. It’s a feeling for the music.
TP: So what you’re saying is that playing with these guys, because they’ve mastered the fundamentals and they’re such fluent musicians, allows you to be free.
PAYNE: Yeah, but it’s more than that. You said fundamentals. See, these jokers are like computers in music theory. See, there’s not only the spirit of playing, but they also know everything they play on piano and the chord changes and the notes and everything they do. They’re very advanced. So it keeps me learning from them, too. In the old days sometimes you’d play by ear, and then there were chords you’d play. But these young musicians, they have computer minds that they can just stand up and talk to you about it ‘and tell you what note. When we made the record date, Eric was the one who could create the harmony in the background at the date, and we didn’t have any music. He, Jim Rotondi and Steve Davis all work together. They’re like best friends. I feel real comfortable when I play with them…for my last few days.
TP: And Harold Mabern is also a constant on these records.
PAYNE: Mabern is my teacher! [LAUGHS] We know each other from way back, since the ’50s.
TP: He got to Chicago in ’56 or ’57 and then New York at the beginning of the ’60s.
PAYNE: He moved to Brooklyn. We lived right near each other. Mabern is my mentor, man. He knows that piano. He’s like the foundation.
TP: He’s one of the few with a real two-hand approach to bebop language.
PAYNE: Oh yeah, he knows that.
TP: Say a little something about each of the tunes. “Chick, Boom.”
PAYNE: “Chick, Boom.” Most people say, “What is jazz?” Nobody knows what Jazz is. They know what a Mambo is. They know what a waltz is. They know what a tango is. But they don’t know what Jazz is. Jazz is Chick-Boom. It’s not Boom-Chick. When you play Jazz, you play Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom. That’s Jazz, “Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom. It’s not BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK. If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz. Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth. That’s “and.” Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up. That’s “and-one.” Then you bring it down to the “and-boom.” “Chick-boom.” It’s very easy. It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.
TP: You were born in 1922 and you started playing before Bebop. Is that the beat you remember from when you were first playing, and it continued in various forms after you played with Dizzy and so on?
PAYNE: You’re going too far ahead. See, when I was younger, the only thing I ever heard was calypsos, because my parents are from Barbados. When I went to public school and was about 13, we moved into a house that had a victrola, and somebody had left a record on there, which was a Count Basie record, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and when they put it on I heard Lester Young make this 2-bar break. I told my father, “buy me a saxophone!” He bought me an alto. There was a musician my father used to hear on Gates Avenue named Pete Brown. We lived right by this 129 public school, and my father asked him if he could give me lessons, and he said yes. 25 cents a lesson.
TP: So you studied with Pete Brown, one of the first jump alto players.
PAYNE: I think I heard Pete Brown play once. I never heard him play jazz. But he taught me how to read. If I came there and didn’t know the lesson, he would say, “Go home, man, and read and study.”
TP: So he’d embarrass you into learning it.
PAYNE: That’s right. He made me… I didn’t know how to solo. When I went to high school, at Boys High School, I met Max Roach. I didn’t know I was older than him until recently. There were some local bands we played with. I played with some big bands, just reading music from those stock arrangements by Count Basie and the Benny Goodman band. Max played with another group, and we became friends going to school.
TP: Did the big bands play in Brooklyn? Did Basie or Ellington or Lunceford play the Paramount Theater?
PAYNE: Every now and then, if I was lucky enough, I could hear Count Basie up at Bedford Avenue and Atlantic in Brooklyn. And I stayed by that bandstand all night.
TP: So you could watch Lester Young.
PAYNE: [LAUGHS] His horn was green! In between the keys, man, it was all green. But the sound that came out was something else. Nobody had a sound like Lester Young, man. Paul Quinichette tried to imitate him. But his sound changed after a while, too. Lester got a new horn, and his sound was different.
TP: So you’re coming up playing on alto, and switched to baritone. But that beat, the chick-boom beat, is the beat of jazz and has been since you started playing.
PAYNE: No, it’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and all them. That’s the jazz beat. That ain’t from my time. That’s the start of jazz.
TP: It’s the continuity. So the record begins with you stating that this is jazz. Then “Ding-A-Ling.”
PAYNE: That’s a Lester Young tune called “Jive At Five.” I tried to modernize it a little bit.
TP: It made me think of the way Illinois Jacquet might treat it, then I realized that you’d played with Illinois Jacquet.
PAYNE: He’s like a father to me, although he’s only one year older than I am.
TP: You were with him for three years at the turn of the ’50s.
PAYNE: Well, I played with Roy Eldridge in 1946. That’s when Dizzy heard me. He came to hear the Roy Eldridge Band, and he was looking for a baritone player. That was a lucky day for me.
TP: When Dizzy heard you, you were familiar with him, I guess.
PAYNE: In 1943, I went into the Army for three years. I was stationed at Camp Ellis in Peoria, Illinois, for about a year-and-a-half, then I went to Europe. At first I was in the 520th Trucking Regiment, because I had a license. I didn’t have any union card. Then I was in the 1333 Engineers. When the war was over in Europe, we went straight to Okinawa, and they had a band there that I got into. When I came out of the Army, I was a Sergeant in the 219 Army Ground Force Band.
TP: So you were 20 when you went in the Army.  Before you went in, you were playing around Brooklyn.
PAYNE: I played with Clarence Berry’s Big Band, and I played with Max Roach’s group in the 78th Street Taproom on Broadway playing parts.
TP: Oh, you played at Georgie Jay’s Taproom?
PAYNE: Yeah, with Allen Tinney and me and Gaskin…
TP: But you were in the Army when Bird came in and played with them.
PAYNE: Bird came in one night and played my horn.
TP: So that’s the first time you met Bird.
PAYNE: Yes. But he wasn’t famous then or nothing. He just came and played it.
TP: Do you have a memory of that?
PAYNE: Well, anybody who played solo was better than I was, because I couldn’t solo at all.
TP: I’ve heard Max Roach talk about that, that he had the gig at Georgie Jay’s, then they’d pack up and go to Minton’s, so they’d wind up playing 12 hours in two different clubs.
PAYNE: Oh, Max got around a lot. I got to go uptown. He got me out of Brooklyn.
TP: So when you got out of the Army…
PAYNE: When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe, who had an after-hour house where we used to go down… That’s where I heard Bird play. When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe said, “I get all my boys that come out of the Army jobs.” He said, “Go down and speak to Roy Eldridge; he’s looking for an alto player.” When I went down there, Roy Eldridge said, “I’m sorry, man. I just hired an alto player.” Believe it or not, the alto player was Sahib Shihab. So I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished playing Roy Eldridge said, “Where can I find a baritone player?” I said, “I’ve got a baritone.” He said, “Bring it tomorrow.” I had a baritone that I played with Clarence Berry when I was 15, and it was (?) because I only played three notes on it — A-G-E. Leonard Gaskin said, “It sure would sound good if we had a baritone to play those notes.” So my father bought me a baritone sax. $45. In those days that was a whole lot of money. Clarence Berry just led the band; he didn’t play.
TP: So you wound up playing baritone with Roy Eldridge because he needed a baritone player.
PAYNE: We played two weeks on 52nd Street, in Clark Monroe’s club.
TP: That was the Spotlite, that club that Clark Monroe fronted.
PAYNE: That’s it. Dizzy came in to see Roy Eldridge, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy. He was working up there. Back then it was rehearsal. When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing. Bill Graham was playing. I was scared. I was going to go home because I heard the band playing. Anyhow, Bill Graham said, “If he told you to come down, stay, man!” When I went on the bandstand, Bill Graham gave me a uniform jacket, and we sat down there. Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and when I read the music, they were saying, “Oh, man!” Then I took a solo in B-flat, like “I Got Rhythm.” I couldn’t play much else. In those days I wasn’t… You played chords, but you didn’t play chord changes. Anyhow, I played the solo, and everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned. They were happy. But Bill Graham gave me (?).
TP: So you joined Dizzy after Dizzy debuted at the Spotlite. The way Moody tells the story, he joined Dizzy in the mid-summer of ’46 when they were at the Spotlite, the club that Clark Monroe was fronting. You joined Dizzy after Moody had already joined the band, in late ’46, and you took the first solo people really remember was “Stay On It.”
PAYNE: Well, my first tune, my claim to fame, was “Ow!” They called me like the first bebop baritone player.
TP: What do you think of that?
PAYNE: Well, do you remember Serge Chaloff? You ever hear him play? He was playing like that before I ever joined Dizzy.
TP: You must have heard Jack Washington and Harry Carney.
PAYNE: Of course. But I wasn’t playing the baritone then.
TP: Were there any stylistic models for you on baritone, or were you winging it and figuring it out as you went along?
PAYNE: The only influence was listening to Lester Young’s solos. I bought every record that came out. I learned every note, every solo.
TP: So you know every Lester Young solo by heart.
PAYNE: Mostly, yes. Me and Lee Konitz!
TP: Then “You Will Be Mine Tonight” is your tune? It’s a nice ballad. When did you write it?
PAYNE: Not too long ago. Last year. I was playing with someone, an alto player a good friend who I’d known since the Army days. He’s the one who got me into the band when I was in the Army. I heard the band walking down playing “Reveille,” and when I’d look at them… Vincent (?). He was playing alto in the band and he took me into it. Anyhow, after we came out of the Army, we played in a band (I can’t remember who), and we went on the road, and he had his girlfriend with him. We stayed in separate rooms. They were in the room one night, and you’d hear him chasing his girl around the room. He would say, “I will have you tonight! I will have you tonight.” So when I wrote this tune, I tried to think of him.
TP: You made it sound much more romantic than that.
PAYNE: Well, I changed the words. I said, “You will be mine tonight.” I couldn’t put “I Will Have You Tonight.”
TP: On “Bosco”, midway through your solo, you quoted “Taxi War Dance.”
PAYNE: “Bosco” is my stepson’s name here in Camden. I got married in 1970, and my stepson’s nickname is Bosco.
TP: That sounds like some of the things you did with Duke Jordan, like “Scotch Blues” and things like that.
PAYNE: I played with Duke and K.D. for years. We played together all the time.
TP: You were very close to K.D., too.
PAYNE: Yes. He lived right there in Brooklyn, too. He had six daughters. Miles had five children. Max has a whole lot of children, too. And believe it or not, I don’t have any children, man. I have a stepson.
I started writing way back. Everybody started getting their own music together. So I started getting tunes together. I didn’t actually play them until I went to Europe.
TP: About how many tunes would you say you have copyrighted?
PAYNE: I have a whole lot of tunes. I don’t know how many. Don Sickler has them. Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet recorded two of my tunes. I did them in collaboration with another fellow, whose name I forget. He’s the one who got me to write the tunes with him.
TP: Were you playing in Latin bands in the ’50s, or did that start when you went with Machito in the early ’60s?
PAYNE: It started with Machito.
TP: Of course you played with Chano Pozo.
PAYNE: Right, with Chano Pozo. But Dizzy didn’t play with no Latin beat. We were just playing swing. But Machito was when I started playing with Latin bands. Their beat is unmistakable! The timbales keep the downbeat, the bass plays 3/4. You can play the same thing on jazz, but you have to turn the beat around. They have their own beat. Jazz is different. It fits, but you have to change that beat around to synchronize it. You can’t play a Latin beat with a jazz beat. You have to play the Latin beat on another beat to make it sound right.
TP: So you played with Machito for three years, and then Woody Herman.
PAYNE: I had stopped playing and went into the real estate business, trying to sell real estate. But I couldn’t sell anybody anything, man. I didn’t care about it.
TP: So you did that in the ’50s, and when you decided to get back into music is when you joined Machito and Woody Herman?
PAYNE: It was 1958 or ’59. I actually had stopped playing, but I did work with Machito, and then I had this thing with the Broadway production of The Connection with Kenny Drew. I didn’t (?) into jazz at that time.
TP: The scene was changing then, too.
PAYNE: Yes. Because in 1957 Coltrane changed everything!
TP: So after “Bosco” we have “Here’s That Rainy Day.” You play flute.
PAYNE: I’m still trying to play the flute. But whoever wrote the tune, the last tune he hits is a minor chord, and I said, “If I record this tune, I’m not going to play a minor chord.” The minor chord makes it sound real down. It’s the same thing with “I Should Care.” When I play that tune, if it wasn’t for the last bar, I wouldn’t even have thought about the tune.
TP: Are you a big fan of singers?
PAYNE: I’m a big fan of singers, but not playing with them.
TP: The last tune is those “Lover” changes, with “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge. Racehorse. Great set-closer. That’s one of the tunes people liked to play.
PAYNE: Well, Bird played that.
My lucky day was when I got hooked up with those young folks, man. One thing before you leave. When Joe Farnsworth was 27, it was his birthday, and he said to me, “Man, Cecil, I’m 27 years old, man!” I said, “What the heck are you telling me that for? I’m 72.”