Tag Archives: Gene Ammons

For the Pianist Junior Mance’s 88th Birthday, a Long WKCR Interview From 1991

Pianist Junior Mance, a professional for some 70 years, who played with everyone, turns 88 today. I had the opportunity to host the maestro for a WKCR Musician Show in September 1991 — here’s the full transcript of our conversation. A lot of Chicago history contained herein.

 

Junior Mance Musician Show (WKCR, 9-18-91):

Q: Junior is from Evanston, Illinois and came up in the Chicago environment. I’d like to know a little bit about your beginnings on the piano.

JM: The very beginnings? Well, when I was five years old… We had this little upright in the house, and my father played for his own enjoyment, not professionally or anything like that, but when he would come home from work he’d sit down… That was during the days of stride piano. He even took lessons. And when he wasn’t around, I just started fooling around with it, until I got caught one day.

Q: What did they do to you?

JM: Nothing. He was flabbergasted! In fact, what floored him, I asked him if I could take piano lessons. That was later, though. I started formal training when I was eight.

Q: What did that consist of? You had a teacher and…

JM: I had a teacher, yes.

Q: So I take it that you picked up pretty quickly on the piano. You had a proficiency…

JM: I guess I did. I wanted to play the piano, you know. I used to hear him do things, then when I was home in the daytime I’d sneak over to the piano when my Mom was in another part of the house doing something.

Q: Were you listening to records then? Or was it primarily just through your records and practicing?

JM: There were records, yeah; you know, the 78’s. My father was an Art Tatum fan, as all piano players are, and he was a bigger Earl Hines fan. In fact, Earl Hines’ band back then used to work around Chicago quite a bit, they worked the Grand Terrace in Chicago — and they used to broadcast. This was before they made a lot of records, you know, or records were played over the air. But all the bands would broadcast live from wherever they played.

Q: And the Grand Terrace was a major center. All the bands who were in there would broadcast to the West Coast particularly.

JM: Yeah. And all through the Midwest. Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines especially. Those were the two mainstays.

Q: So from a very early age you were hearing the best in piano, particularly the style of Chicago, the cross between the Blues piano thing, what Tatum and Earl Hines were doing, and the Big Band sound as well.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Did you go to hear the bands in person, or were you too young?

JM: I was too young. Occasionally… A few years later they started coming to the Regal Theatre, which was like the counterpart of the Apollo Theatre here. They had shows every week, and usually a big band. I remember the first big band I heard in person was Duke Ellington at the Regal Theatre, and the next one was Count Basie, and my father took me backstage to meet Count Basie when I was about 10 years old.

Q: Then the bands went around by railroad, and Chicago was and still is the railroad center of the nation, the crossroads, so many of the bands would come through Chicago and stay for extended periods of time.

JM: Right.

Q: When did you first start becoming active on the Chicago scene and do your first work for money? I won’t say professionally…

JM: Oh, when I was about 13 or 14.

Q: Tell us about those gigs. What was the nature of them?

JM: [LAUGHS] Actually, the first gigs, I remember there was this saxophone player who lived upstairs over us in Evanston. A good saxophone player. He never went out on his own; he always had a day gig. But he played very well. He played like Illinois Jacquet’s style, so he worked all the time; you know, the cat would come home from work… And he had a lot of gigs in what later became known as roadhouses, the places out on the highway that had a band, usually three pieces — saxophone, drums and piano. I don’t know why the basses were so absent then. They were around…

Q: Money, I guess.

JM: Yeah, I guess so. So I remember, oh, I guess I must have been somewhere between 10 and 13 — this guy’s piano player must have been sick and couldn’t make the gig. So he called everybody he could, and everybody was working, or else he couldn’t make the gig, you know — so he asked my father could he take me on the gig. And he was one of my father’s close friends, and my father trusted him, you know. So I went on the gig with him, and he taught me how to comp that night. A different style than what they do now, you know; it’s what they call (?)boonsen(?) — CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A-CHUN… That night he stuck to tunes, mostly Blues tunes or tunes with “I Got Rhythm” changes. And I was fascinated. So after that, whenever he was home, you know, I would bug him, like “Teach me some more of that!”

Q: And he would? He was forthcoming?

JM: Oh yeah, yeah. So then when I was about 13 or 14, I worked a lot of gigs with him, especially in the summertime, when I wasn’t in school.

Q: What was his name?

JM: His name was T.S. Mims.

Q: And was he playing mostly in Evanston, or…

JM: Well, the Chicago area. But strangely enough, not right on the Chicago scene, like where Jug was working or any of those places. This was mostly, like, out on the highway or out on the outskirts of town. And he was really a good player. He’s still alive. He’s in his eighties, around my father’s age now.

Q: Of course, Gene Ammons was the first musician with whom you first emerged on the national scene and did your first recordings. What were some of the events that led you from working with T.S. Mims on the various roadhouse gigs on the outskirts of Chicago to working and subsequently recording with Gene Ammons?

JM: Well, as time went on, you know, all the time I was in high school, I worked gigs myself. I would work with… Well, we would get gigs, guys my own age; we’d get, like, the school dances (which we got paid for; that’s why I consider that professional) and things like that. But I was working more in Chicago with a lot of Chicago musicians. I remember one guy when I was in my teens was George Freeman, who is still around, a guitar player, Von Freeman’s brother. I worked a lot of gigs with him.

Q: Were these mostly on the South Side?

JM: Right. Yeah, I did a long commute when I was young.

Q: That’s a long ride, straight down, north to south!

JM: Yeah, it was an hour each way. At that time. It’s shorter now, though, I think. Transportation is more modern now. I also met Leroy Jackson at that time.

Q: I can remember seeing him with George Freeman five or six years ago in Chicago as well, so that’s a partnership that’s lasted a long time, I guess.

JM: Yeah. And we had… Oh, man, there were so many good musicians around there that people never heard of. They just either faded away or got into bad habits that took them away, you know. I remember names like Elick Johnson, who was a tenor player. Oh, man, if he was around today, he would be, you know, right up there with the giants.

Q: He’s spoken of by many.

JM: Nicky Hill was another one.

Q: Again, what was the nature of these gigs? For instance, were they up on what was happening in modern music?

JM: Yes.

Q: Was everybody up on Charlie Parker in 1944 and 1945?

JM: Yes.

Q: Talk about how that music sort of came into the consciousness of the young Chicagoans.

JM: That was funny. I remember this was right after I graduated from high school. I was 16 at the time, and I was working a gig in Waukegan, Illinois, which is even north of Evanston — Jack Benny’s home town. So I was working there with a band that was pretty much an R&B band, but a good R&B band — it was really good. No names that you would know, but a pretty good one. And that was the type of gig we played, what they called floor shows in those days. We had like a tap dancer, a Blues singer, a shake dancer, etcetera. So one night during the week, business was kind of slow, and these two young guys came in and asked could they sit in. So the leader let them sit in. And it was a music I hadn’t heard before. But it, like, blew me away. I said “Wow!” I really dug it. And the two young guys…one guy, I don’t know if you ever heard the name Henry Prior…

Q: Who was nicknamed Hen-Pie, I believe.

JM: Hen-Pie, right. He was an alto player who sounded just like Bird, like Charlie Parker. And the other guy was a trumpet player named Robert Gay, they used to call Little Diz — which his name speaks for itself; he sounded exactly like Dizzy. These guys were around our age, too. They just wanted to go around and go out and play, and they didn’t care who they played with.

In the meantime, the band leader was telling me, “Man, don’t listen to that noise. That’s not music. That’s noise.” And I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, okay.” Next day, man…! [LAUGHS] We exchanged phone numbers. So that’s when I got into listening to records. I went and bought every Charlie Parker or Bud Powell record I could find! Which then, it was pretty well new in Chicago, too, but as they came out, word spread like wildfire among the musicians, like, of my generation: “Oh, there’s a new Bird record out.”

Q: One thing, though, is that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were briefly with Earl Hines…

JM: Right.

Q: …and then were raided by Billy Eckstine.

JM: Mmm-=hmm.

Q: And Earl Hines, of course, was based in Chicago, although I don’t know how often that band actually played. My impression is that was more of a touring band.

JM: Oh, no, they played. That band played in a club called the El Grotto, I think. That was their first (?).

Q: On 64th Street and Cottage Grove.

JM: Yeah.

Q: But I take it you never got to hear that particular edition of Earl Hines’ band. That’s a very famous band, but it never recorded.

JM: No, I did get to hear them then. Then I was sneaking into clubs. In Chicago at that time they didn’t check ID’s like they did later.

Q: A sort of wide-open type of town.

JM: Right, heh-heh, like the TV show The Untouchables; most of it took place in Chicago!

Q: That aura remained indeed. But did you have sort of distinct impression that listening to them left on you at that time?

JM: Oh, man, do I! Yeah, they just blew me away. It was just a phenomenal band. It was the direction I wanted to go in music. If Earl Hines wasn’t the piano player, I would have begged for the gig in that band!

Q: [ETC.] What was your first contact with Gene Ammons, who again, you did your first recordings with?

JM: I left this R&B band in Waukegan that I was playing with shortly after that, and I started working with a big band in Chicago — this is while I was in college, too. The band was called Jimmy Dale. It was led by a guy named Harold Fox, who was a tailor who specialized in musicians’ uniforms and band uniforms. And Harold had the most fantastic band book of anybody. Because his way of doing business was he would trade the bandleaders a whole set of suits for their band in exchange to copy some of the charts. So we had a book which was about as thick as three or four New York phone directories! And we had everybody’s music. We had, oh, the Billy Eckstine band, the big band music, we had some of Dizzy’s stuff, we had a lot of Stan Kenton, some Duke, some Basie…

Q: How many pieces was this band?

JM: Oh, let me see. We had five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and three rhythm.

Q: Any names you’d care to bring up who performed…

JM: Well, Jug was in that band. Not always. This was after he made “Red Top.” But Jug was very fond of big bands, too, and this was a fantastic big band. And Gail Brockman, the legendary Gail Brockman, who was a trumpet player who was in Billy Eckstine’s band. This was a guy, oh, Dizzy and Miles and everybody looked up to him. Gail and Freddie Webster were like two people who never got their complete due, I think.

Q: Of course this had to have been after Jug had left, after Eckstine had disbanded…

JM: This was after Eckstine broke up. This was like 1946 and ’47. Lee Konitz was in the band. Gene Wright. Who else was in the band? Some of the names people won’t know. But everybody else in the band was just as good as they were, too. They just didn’t…as I said, didn’t get out. Hobart Dotson was another in the band.

Q: Of course, a legendary teacher in Chicago was the bandmaster at DuSable High School, Captain Walter Dyett, who might have produced half of those musicians…

JM: Oh, man, did he! Yeah. Well, Gene was one of Dyett’s disciples. Benny Green, the trombone player. Johnny Griffin, Nat Cole…

Q: All the Freemans.

JM: All the Freemans, right.

Q: Dorothy Donegan…

JM: Dorothy Donegan, mmm-hmm. Elick Johnson, the guy I mentioned, and a lot of others who played just as good but never, you know, made it out there.

Q: Anyway, this is how you really first encountered and got to know Gene Ammons, was with the Jimmy Dale band?

JM: Right. The first night that I was with the band, and Jug played the gig right after… In fact, Jug offered me the gig with him. And both of us, like, were in and out of the band. When Jug wasn’t working, we’d work with this big band, with Jimmy Dale.

Q: So things were very busy. Lots of things were going on in Chicago, and of every sort, really.

JM: It was, yeah. Those were the days, you know, when the New York musicians used to look forward to coming to Chicago. Because I remember with Jug, we had like a home gig in a place right next door to the Regal Theatre called the Congo Lounge. And the bands used to come in and… See, in those days the hours for working were like 10 to 4, and 10 to 5 on Friday and Saturday. And the Regal was like the Apollo; at about 11 o’clock at night the guys were off from work, and they’d all file down from the Congo, man. That’s where I met so many of the main musicians.

Q: Let’s talk about that after we hear a set of music featuring some of these Gene Ammons sides from the late 1940’s on which Junior Mance appears.

MUSIC: “Blowing The Family Jewels,” “When I Dream Of You,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Cherokee.”

…that last was Sonny Stitt, from a series of tracks by Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in the ’78 period, when the tracks were short and everything had to be very compressed. Do you feel that having come up through that has affected the way you play today?

JM: No, I was glad to get out of that. Because they kept constantly reminding you in the studio to keep it under three minutes, not go over three minutes. And they didn’t want three minutes. They wanted not over 2 minutes and 50 seconds at the most. Two and a half minutes was perfect for them!

Q: Well, many a masterpiece was created in that time, but I can certainly see your….

JM: Well, it was good in a way, because it really taught you, like, how to really say a lot in a short space of time.

Q: Not waste a note.

JM: And not waste a note. Exactly.

[ETC.]
[END OF SIDE 1]

As far as employers go, Prez was probably one of the best. Sometimes we’d work a week, and not work for maybe the next three or four weeks. But Prez would take care of us, both Leroy and I, because both of us were about 19 at the time, and we were the only two in the band… Oh, and Jerry Elliott, the trombone player who was from Pittsburgh. We were the only three who weren’t from New York. The other guys had pads in New York or families there. And we all stayed in the same hotel where Prez stayed. And Prez took care of us. Prez saw to it that we ate every day and that we had spending money — and wouldn’t let us pay him back! He died with me owing him a lot of money. He just never would let us pay him back.

Q: What was it like being on the stand with Lester Young? Was it a similar format every night? Would he change it up all the time?

JM: As far as changing up, I guess he changed it up all the time. Because it wasn’t really like… He wasn’t a show-businessy type person. We’d get up there and it was almost like a session, like a group of guys get together and let’s play something, you know. And after a while, you forget who the leader is. And he’d play… He never played a lot of solos…I mean a lot of choruses. He’d play three or four choruses, and then maybe everybody played three or four, then take it out. Most of the bands then, people of the stature of Prez, weren’t based on charts or arrangements, unless you had a big band. Because of Prez’s reputation itself, people came there to hear Prez. They didn’t care what was around it, you know. So everybody got a chance to play.

And Prez had a philosophy about letting everybody play. When we went on the road, he would really let everybody stretch out. Because he said…I think one night he said… I don’t know, somebody didn’t want to solo on a certain tune or thought it was too long, and Prez said, “Look, I want everybody to play, because everybody might not like me, but they might like one of you.” After that, everybody played.

Q: A few words about Gene Ammons. When we were off-mike, you quoted a comment Frank Foster made about him.

JM: Well, Frank was talking Gene’s big sound and the way he swings. So Frank said, “One thing about Gene Ammons, he hit one note, and immediately the beat and swing would begin and the note would just fill up the whole room.” Which is true. Jug had a tone as big as ten saxophone players!

Q: What was it like going out with Jug in a small group at that time? You talked about him trying to establish his…

JM: Well, I joined the band after he made “Red Top,” which was his big hit; after Billy Eckstine’s band broke up and he recorded for Mercury, and “Red Top” was his big hit. And the band worked a lot. That was before I was with them. When I joined the band, “Red Top” was still popular, it was still his mainstay, but it was beginning to tail off a little bit. And he had a lot of other good Chicago hits. Because we worked a lot in Chicago. In fact, the union brought us up on charges, because one night we had five gigs…

Q: Oh, no!

JM: Yeah, heh-heh. And Jug’s car… One of them was in Gary, Indiana, the third gig, and the car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth gig! So the club-owner took Jug to the union.

Q: How did it get resolved?

JM: They fined Jug $500. What saved us, we had a drummer at the time from Kansas City named Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band. So we’re all sitting there, the whole band is down there, you know, and we figure we’re all going to get fined. So they ask each one of us, “Well, you guys know better. Why did you follow him in doing five gigs?” Now, that was a stupid question. If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it…

Q: Those are questions you’re not supposed to be able to answer.

JM: Yeah. So Ellis Bartee, who was very quick with it and he could come up with a quick answer, he just told them, he says, “Well, Mr. Gray…” Mr. Gray was the President, Harry Gray. He said, “Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here from Kansas City, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.” But they all laughed, the rest of the boys laughed when he said, “All I saw was Gene Ammons. I figured, well, that’s the man to be with, and that’s who I wanted to be with — so I got the gig.” So that got us off the hook. That sort of made them laugh a little bit. But Gene got fined the $500. Plus I don’t know what happened between him and the promoter. The promoter lost money or had to refund a lot of money. They were all dances, five dances in one night!

Q: Were there a lot of dances in Chicago at that time?

JM: At that time, yeah. There was the Pershing Ballroom, the Parkway Ballroom, the Savoy was still going then, and even a lot of places on the West Side. One of the gigs we were supposed to do was on the West Side, the last gig was on the West Side. We never heard from that guy. He just kept quiet. I guess he found out what happened.

Q: One other person you worked with I’d like to ask you about is the young Sonny Stitt. Were you working with his small group, or was that “Cherokee” we heard just put together for the record?

JM: We were both with Jug at the time, and the record date came up, and he got Art Blakey to make the date.

Q: Of course, he was one of the great virtuosos on all of his instruments at that time, particularly alto and tenor.

JM: Right. Well, alto was his main instrument.

Q: What memories do you have of working with him?

JM: Well, Sonny used to come and sit in with us at the Congo, too. He spent a lot of time in Chicago. He lived there for a while. And he used to come and sit in with us almost every night. A lot of cats used to come into the Congo almost every night and just sit in with us.

Q: Out of the Regal Theatre, as you were saying.

JM: Yeah, but I mean even other than the Regal. A lot of the local cats who could really play. Ike Day was another one who used to come in.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Ike Day. He’s one of the legendary drummers…

JM: Right.

Q: …who it’s commonly said Art Blakey would check him out, and Max Roach…

JM: Oh, everybody. Jo Jones gave him a set of drums. Ike was a genius, really, one of those young geniuses. I remember seeing Ike sit in with the Basie band when he was 16. He couldn’t read music. He played the book like he had been in the band all the time.

Q: He just had it.

JM: Just a natural. He had such a natural sense of anticipation, and hands that were just unbelievable, and could swing. And he was a teenager. He died very young. He was about 24 when he died.

Q: He had tuberculosis, I believe.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: He only made one recording, I believe, with Gene Ammons, and you can barely hear him on the recording…

JM: I wasn’t with him then. I didn’t know about that one. I think I heard something about it…

Q: Can you give us some idea of what his sound was like, an analogy to another drummer, or describe it in some way?

JM: I guess, now that I think back, he sounded a lot like Big Sid Catlett, who was always one of my favorites, too.

Q: And from Chicago as well.

JM: That I didn’t know.

Q: He studied with Jimmy Bertrand, one of the great show drummers in Chicago in the 1920’s.

JM: Yeah. Well, Big Sid was the drummer… That explains it, because most of the drummers in Chicago could do more than one style. They could do anything… Like, Big Sid played with Louis Armstrong, and then turned around and made a record with Dizzy and Bird, and it sounded like he belonged there on both.

Q: And plus, do the big band material as well…

JM: Exactly.

Q: I guess he played with Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace…

JM: That’s right, yeah.

Q: …amongst others. One person talking about Ike Day said that he had an incredible dynamic range, that he was very sensitive to sound and hearing the whole kit and using the whole kit.

JM: Yeah, he played with the whole band. He wasn’t just… You know, like some young teenage drummers, they want to stand out. No, Ike was a musician. Ike was a player.

Q: You referred to Art Tatum as probably your main influence on the piano.

JM: Everybody’s main influence! [LAUGHS]

Q: You’re going to hear a set of Art Tatum music. And you mentioned to me that “Elegy” was the…

JM: That’s one of my favorites, yeah.

Q: A few words?

JM: Well, the music speaks for itself on that. I just heard it, and it just blew me away. Because I had heard the Classical versions of it as well, and then when I heard Art Tatum’s version, I didn’t want to listen to the other versions any more.

[MUSIC: “Elegy” (Keystone Brdcst., 1938), “Fine and Dandy,”

“All The Things You Are”; Ahmad Jamal, “Raincheck,” “Poinciana”]

Q: You said that you used to work with Israel Crosby at a very famous club on 55th Street in Chicago called the Beehive. You were house pianist there for a while?

JM: House pianist, right.

Q: How long did that happen?

JM: Well, I was there for a little over a year. In fact, the day I got out of the Army I got home, and… I don’t know if this guy saw me on the street, but he heard that I was home, a drummer, a guy named Buddy Smith who is no longer with us. But Buddy had the gig there, and he had Israel on bass and myself.

Q: The Beehive at that time was one of the main places where people would come in from out of town and use the rhythm section.

JM: Right, exactly. That’s where I got to play with Bird for a month. They booked everybody for four weeks, which was great, too.

Q: Who were some of the people you played with there?

JM: Coleman Hawkins was the first one in there, and he was there twice during the time I was there. Charlie Parker I mentioned. Lester Young. That’s when I first met Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; also he was there.

Q: As a solo?

JM: Yeah. That was long before the days with Griffin.

Q: I was wondering if that was around the time he was working with Basie.

JM: I think in between times. He had been with Basie, and then he was on his own, and then after that he went back with Basie again.

Q: What do you remember about working with Coleman Hawkins?

JM: Oh, it was wonderful. Basically, working with him it was pretty much the same approach to the music as working with Bird. Like, they both had this thing… They knew every standard in the world, you know, and they would call a standard, and if I knew it, I’d say, “Yeah, I know that. What key?” And both of them… Bird’s phrase was “Make it easy on yourself.” And Coleman said something to that same effect. He said “Wherever you want it.” It didn’t make any difference to them what key you played it in?

Q: Would Coleman Hawkins generally play the same repertoire every night or would he change it up?

JM: No, he’d change it up. He went through all the standards. Of course, he had to do his hits, you know, like “Body and Soul” — he couldn’t get away from that. “Body and Soul” and “Stuffy.”

Q: Would he play a set solo on “Body and Soul” or would he make it different every night?

JM: He played pretty much the solo he did on the record, yeah. Because people… The solo was as famous as the tune, because people could hum that solo along with him.

Q: Another musician who played at the Beehive was Wilbur Ware.

JM: Wilbur Ware, yes. After I left there, Wilbur worked there a lot. I forget…let’s see, what did Israel do after that? I think Israel joined Jamal after I left, and Wilbur probably came in then. Not immediately, though. I think Victor Sproles was there a little bit before Wilbur.

Q: Well, Israel Crosby, of course, is one of the great rhythm masters in the history of the bass.

JM: That’s right. He was years ahead of his time, too.

Q: Talk a little bit about him and what he did that made him so special.

JM: His lines, his bass lines, the notes that he would choose — the clever things he did to fill up spaces. It’s what a lot of the bass players are doing nowadays, which is like the thing to do now. But he did it… He was ahead of his time. He was somewhat like… Well, Prez was ahead of his time. That’s the way Israel was.

Q: And you’d probably heard him on records with Teddy Wilson.

JM: I’d heard him on records with Teddy Wilson. And Israel was getting on in years then. Israel had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band and Benny Goodman’s early band, so he wasn’t…

Q: A spring chicken.

JM: Yeah. But he was just so many years ahead of his time. And playing with him was such… You never knew what he was going to do, but he would do something that wouldn’t get in your way; in fact, it would enhance you. He was the kind of bass player, when you play with him he keeps a smile on your face. Because every time he does something, the piano player’s face would smile, you know!

Q: You’d just listen to him throughout the set and you’d be very happy.

JM: Wilbur Ware was like that, too. Wilbur Ware and I worked at a place on the South Side with Buddy Smith again, and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. We must have worked there for a couple of years.

Q: What place was that?

JM: Cadillac Bob’s, I think it was called?

Q: On 71st Street, was it?

JM: Not that one. No, that’s the new one. This one was between… Right down the street from the Pershing. This is between 63rd and 64th on Cottage.

Q: Busy street.

JM: Oh, that was the thing. Man, that whole area was saturated with a lot of Jazz. The Ground Propeller, the Cotton Club, and all those clubs along 63rd.

Q: All of them had music.

JM: Yeah.

Q: I heard one drummer tell the day he got out of the Army he started walking down 63rd Street, and it took him I think three days he said before he got…

JM: Yeah! [LAUGHS] Because there was so much good music, and it was all Jazz, say starting from about South Park all the way over to the lake practically.

Q: And that’s about a mile-and-a-half or two miles.

JM: At least, or two miles, yeah.

Q: A few words about playing with Charlie Parker. You did say that he’d play a lot of material and make it easy on you. I believe he played at the Beehive about a week or two weeks before he died.

JM: If he did, I wasn’t there then.

Q: What was happening the week that you worked with him? Was he in good form, in good health?

 

JM: Excellent form. I tell you, he kept me awake! Boy, there was just so much music, listening to it…

[ETC., THEN MUSIC BY JUNIOR: “Emily,” “Jubilation,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Yancey Special”]

Q: Next we’ll hear some sides recorded by Dinah Washington during your time with her. She was from Chicago originally? Did she go to DuSable? I’m not sure.

JM: I think she went to Wendell Phillips, the rival of DuSable. I think. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure she did. I don’t think it was DuSable.

Q: At any rate, she had local fame in Chicago…

JM: Oh yeah.

Q: And she was a great church singer as well, in Chicago’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

JM: Right.

Q: I guess Dinah first worked with Lionel Hampton.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Lionel Hampton seemed to have picked up a lot of musicians out of Chicago.

JM: A lot of them to pick up!

Q: How did the gig with Dinah Washington happen for you?

JM: She just called me one day. Actually I was called to do a record date with her. That was the album that had “A Foggy Day” and “I Let a Song Go Out Of My Heart.” So after the date she asked me if… In fact, I was working at the Beehive at the time. And she offered me the gig. That’s when I left the Beehive.

Q: She must have been working quite a bit at that time.

JM: She was working a lot, she was paying good, and then you know, she lived in New York at the time, and it gave me a chance to…

Q: Get back there.

JM: Yeah. I wanted to be in New York a lot.

Q: That’s understandable. So it seems like you were going back and forth between New York and Chicago about half and half then, from the time you…

JM: Oh yeah. With the exception of the period between 1951 and 1953, when I was in the Army, I’d say between ’47 or ’48, when I was with Jug… I dropped out of Roosevelt after a year-and-a-half, because the gigs got heavy then — and I knew what I wanted to do, you know. Then I moved to New York permanently in ’56, when Cannonball formed his first group. Cannonball and I were in the Service together also.

Q: Where were you stationed?

JM: Fort Knox. Fort Knox, Kentucky. Cannonball and Nat. Curtis Fuller was there for a while, too.

Q: It must have been quite an Army band.

JM: Oh, it was, yeah. Yeah, we had a ball.

Q: Did you play a lot during those couple of years?

JM: Yeah, I did. I wasn’t supposed to be in the band, being a piano player. But Cannonball pulled some strings and got me into the band as a typist. [LAUGHS] I knew how to type, and they needed one to do the administrative work for the band, so on a technicality I got in.

Q: Was there a piano on the base?

JM: Oh yeah! Well, there were three bands there, the 36th Army band, the 3rd Armored Division band, and the 158th Army Band. But see, to get in an Army band, the piano player has to be someone who can also play a marching instrument. And I couldn’t play a marching instrument, although they tried to teach me! One day they gave me a bass drum, and said, “Okay, Mance, try to play this.” It wasn’t a long march I had to do. This basic training company was coming in at the end of their training; they were coming out of the woods, out of bivouac. So to give them a little spirit, you know, we’d meet maybe a distance equal to about five or six blocks before they got to the barracks, about a half-mile, say, and we were supposed to play for them. So where we had to meet them was at the bottom of a hill, and I had the bass drum on a windy day! So we’re going up the hill, and if you can imagine this, this would be how the beat of the drum went: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM..BOOM..BOOM…BOOM… So between the wind and not knowing what I was doing on this bass drum, the tempo got slower and slower. So one of the snare drummers, another cymbal player, ran over and said, “Mance, you’re gonna have the guys crawling, man. They’re tired already and we’re going up this hill. Give me the bass drum; you take these cymbals.” I said, “What am I supposed to do with these?” “Just hit ’em.” He didn’t tell me how because he didn’t have time. So I didn’t know, man. I just reared back and got a good lick and went, “WHAM!” Anyway, you saw guys scattering everywhere getting out of our way. They didn’t know what that noise! [LAUGHING] So then the band director told me, “Mance, just carry them under your arm!” So that was the only time…

Q: Back to typing.

JM: Yeah. The band always played for the Kentucky Derby every year, too, in Louisville — twice I went to that. But I had to have an out to get there, so I had to be in the marching band. So they let me carry the cymbals under my arm both times! And once we got inside Churchill Downs, I was on my own then.

Q: I hope you won some money.

JM: You know what? I made one bet on something like the second race or something like that, and won enough to, like, really hang out the rest of the day at the Derby. It wasn’t a lot, something like $40 or something, but in the Army back then… This was 1951 or so, and…

Q: That was good money then. A week’s salary.

JM: Right! So I had a ball. I didn’t bet no more after that. I just tasted, and looked around and watched the races and hung out. You know, there’s a lot to do at Churchill Downs rather than just sitting there and watching the races. It was a nice outing.

Q: Well, let’s hear some of these Dinah Washington sides. We’re going to start with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from In The Land Of Hi-Fi, Dinah Washington with Hal Mooney and His Orchestra, featuring Cannonball Adderly and Junior Mance, arrangements by Hal Mooney. Then we’ll hear something from the famous session Dinah’s Jam, which you were telling a story about — Dinah brought in a bunch of hard-core fans.

JM: Right. She had it catered. She invited about fifty of her closest friends, who were like real Jazz fans, not just people who liked the music. And there was a Who’s Who musicians there. So she had it catered, and what happened was we would play and… And it was in the studio. It was a live date, but in the studio. During the playback after each tune, while we were listening, people would help themselves to drinks and food, it was buffet style, and the drinks put them in a good mood… And it was really one of best record dates ever made, as far as enjoyment. There were no pressures, nothing was rehearsed. Most of the stuff on there is like first take. And the audience was just enthusiastic. Fifty people sounded like five thousand. It was just a small studio, but they were really into it.

[MUSIC: Dinah Washington: “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “You Go To My Head.” Teddy Wilson/Sarah: “When We’re Alone,” Teddy Wilson, “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Fine and Dandy.”

Q: Teddy Wilson, as you mentioned at the top of the show, is one of your very earliest influences on the piano.

JM: Right.

Q: Do you recollect the early sides you heard of his? Were you familiar with the sides we played?

JM: Not really. At the time, you know, I was about eight years old. Teddy was young then, too. Teddy was a teenager. Teddy was one of those people that got out there young, when he was in his teens. But I remember my first piano teacher, his idol was Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Teddy had just published a book of his piano solos, and that was one of the early things that my teacher gave me to learn. And then my father started buying Teddy Wilson records, so my father liked him, too.

Q: Of course, Teddy Wilson’s two primary influences, I guess, were Art Tatum and Earl Hines.

JM: Oh yes.

Q: We’ll move now to some Earl Hines material. Earl Hines, of course, was at the Grand Terrace while you were coming up in Chicago. I guess he was in Chicago after the War as well, when he had the El Grotto.

JM: He had the El Grotto.

Q: He did run that club, right?

JM: That’s something I don’t know. He may have, because he was there all the time.

Q: Did you get to know Earl Hines?

JM: Yeah, but later. Later I met Earl and I knew him.

Q: Any words about the Fatha?

JM: Oh, a wonderful man. And a great player!

Q: It seems that later on his life his pianism developed and developed and was featured much more.

JM: Well, after the big band. But even during the big band he was a great player. He could play then.

Q: But later, of course, he recorded all those wonderful albums…

JM: Yeah, where he’s doing solo or trio.

Q: We’ll hear the Earl Hines band featuring Billy Eckstine.

JM: I want to hear those. They are nostalgic for me.

[MUSIC: “Jelly, Jelly,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Boogie-Woogie On The St. Louis Blues.”]

Q: Junior, you said that’s one of the tunes you learned note for note when you were a kid.

JM: Yeah, that, and the other one was “After Hours.” Oh, there was one more, too. In fact, the first Jazz tune I ever learned was “Yancey Special” as a kid.

Q: Well, and you’re still playing it.

JM: [LAUGHS] Them habits are hard to break!

Q: Were you playing a lot of stride piano when you were a kid? Was that how you first really got your chops?

JM: Not really. I used to marvel at the stride piano players. But I have small hands, and I couldn’t… I’d miss notes when I do that.

Q: Can’t hit those intervals…

JM: Yeah. That’s why I was glad when Bebop came in. Even now, though, even now occasionally when I do solo piano, I’ll try, even though I can do it a little bit. See, most of the stride piano players could play tenths. Like, Art Tatum could walk tenths like a bass player walks single notes, you know. And I could never even… Even now I can’t reach a tenth on the piano.

Q: There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Earl Hines, that he had had surgery to cut the webbing…

JM: Oh yeah. That wasn’t true. Boy, that tale went all over the world, too. But that wasn’t true. Because doctors said if you do that, you can paralyze the hands.

Q: We’ll move now quickly to one of the very famous groups that Junior worked with between 1959 and 1961, the Johnny Griffin-Eddie Lockjaw” Davis tenor tandem. Actually, that was ’60…

JM: Yeah, it was more ’60 to ’61, because I was with Dizzy until ’60.

Q: Well, it seems like a long time because there are so many recordings by this band. It just recorded prolifically!

JM: [LAUGHS]

Q: How did that hook up for you?

JM: Well, Jaws and I knew each other from the Beehive when you worked there, and…

Q: Of course you knew Griff from Chicago.

JM: Well, Griff I’ve known all my life. He was from Chicago. They got their group together while I was still with Dizzy. Then I left Dizzy to form my own trio, to go out on my own, so to speak, not necessarily a trio… I had made that first album, the one with Ray Brown. So I wanted to test the waters for myself. And like all new groups, you know, times get hard. Then I did some gigs with Johnny and Jaws, and made a deal with Jaws. Jaws said, “You can work with us, and if you get a gig with the trio, go make that.” And it turned out during the time the band was together, I made more gigs with them than I did with my trio. And we were in the studios all the time.

Q: You recorded a lot of Monk’s material…

JM: We did a whole album on Monk called Lookin’ At Monk.

Q: Was Monk another musician whose music you were very much involved with? Or was that the first time you’d really started grappling with Monk?

JM: No, it wasn’t the first time. I’ve always been a Monk admirer. I think because we have the same birthday. I’ve always been very fond of Monk’s music. Probably more so now.

Q: Another point in common is that you both really developed a lot of your style by listening to stride and blues piano …[ETC.]

JM: Could be.

[MUSIC: “Tickle Toe,” “In Walked Bud”]

Q: “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s variation on “Blue Skies,” I think.

JM: Yeah, the outside is “Blue Skies”. The channel is a little bit different. [ETC.]
I enjoyed this. It’s a real nostalgia thing for me, too, to hear some of the other things, like the Earl Hines things.
[ETC.]

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For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

 

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

 

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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Gene Ammons 89th Birth Anniversary, a Liner Note for The Prestige Reissue “Fine And Mellow”

No one who loves the sound of the tenor saxophone doesn’t love Gene Ammons (1925-1974) who first entered public consciousness playing alongside Dexter Gordon in Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-’40s, and had the first of his many instrumental single hits in 1947 with “Red Top”. An unparalleled balladeer and blues practitioner  who could more than hold his own in any cutting contest (his solo starts at 7:32—rhythm section is Hampton Hawes, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke!), as evidenced on a series of recorded ‘jam sessions’ that he recorded for Prestige in the second half of the ’50s, including the 1958 date, Groove Blues, on which John Coltrane played alto saxophone. Ammons spent 7 of his prime years in jail on a trumped-up narcotics charge, which is perhaps why he’s less remembered than he ought to be. He came out of the penitentiary with powers undiminished and a raw edge, recording jazz funk classics, expressionistic ballads, and straight-up swing. He was state-of-the-art; the tunes sound better with time’s passage.

In any event, ten years ago or so, I had an opportunity to document my feelings about the maestro in a liner note for a reissue of the proceedings of three 1972 sessions that were released contemporaneously on the LPs Get My Own and Big Bad Jug, which I’ve posted below.

Gene Ammons, “Fine and Mellow” (Liner Notes):

No tenor saxophonist of his generation understood melody more profoundly than Gene Ammons, whose ability to make his metal instrument emulate the human voice with unparalleled presence and dramatic weight gave him great stature among his peer group.

“Jug’s one of my heroes of all time,” says tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, referring to Ammons by his nickname.  Now 81 and saying more on the tenor than just about anyone alive, Freeman met Ammons, two years his junior, in the middle 1930s at South Side Chicago’s DuSable High School, where both studied under the famous taskmaster Walter Dyett. “I give him a lot of credit, because he sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. Then again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.”

Freeman is referring to the way individualistic tenormen like himself and Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Frank Wess — ’20s-born musicians who assimilated Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before Charlie Parker entered the picture — blended Hawkins’ charging, arpeggiated, straight-up-and-down attack and thick operatic tone with Young’s relaxed, fluid, float-like-a-butterfly, bel canto conjurations. Ammons played economically, and he could accent his lines with stirring blues vocalizations, like Muddy Waters playing bebop saxophone. He had an unerring inner metronome, honed during an Art Blakey-booted two-year stint in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra; one Ammons note would launch the beat and the swing, and that note would permeate the room — or speaker. Plus, the ladies dug him; Ammons could bleed you to death with a ballad, smooth with quiet fire, like his idol Nat King Cole, or, a la Mario Lanza, oozing vibrato to maximize the melodrama.

Ammons possessed an incredibly powerful embouchure (Freeman recalls once seeing him snap off a saxophone neck while blowing), and in certain ways, his larger-than-life sound, which projected pain and jubilation in equal measure and seemed to emanate from deep in his innards, disguised his extreme musical sophistication. He inherited his rawer musical chromosomes from his father, Albert Ammons, the legendary boogie-woogie pianist-church deacon. He got the finesse from his mother, a music teacher and classical pianist.

“I used to go by Jug’s house,” Freeman recalls: ” They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything, but I didn’t know what I was doing. One day when I was about 14, his mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you.’ She’d been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, ‘The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords. Come over here.’ Then she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  She started me out.”

On the three autumn 1972 sessions that comprise “Fine and Mellow,” the 47-year-old, three years out of his second stint in jail, enters Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a cohort of New York A-list studio pros, quickly comprehends the form and the texture of the songs and arrangements – here a melange of Billie Holiday material chosen to exploit the release of “Lady Sings The Blues,” MOR pop, and a few elemental originals suffused with funk-tinged blues sensibility – and lays down a succession of declamations that contain a surfeit of heart and soul, with the occasional wild edge, as he had done for the previous quarter-century on a series of jukebox staples like “My Foolish Heart” and “Canadian Sunset.”

It’s the sound and approach that made Ammons the people’s choice in Chicago from 1947, when he formed his own unit after Eckstine disbanded, until his death in 1974. “One night we had five gigs, all dances,” recalls pianist Junior Mance, who joined Ammons not long after he departed from Mercury Records, for which he recorded ‘Red Top,’ his first big hit. “In Gary, Indiana, which was our third gig, Jug’s car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth. The club-owner took Jug to the union, and they called us down. We’re all sitting there, and Harry Gray, the local president, said: ‘You guys know better; why did you follow him in doing five gigs?’  Which was a stupid question.  If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it… Anyway, our drummer, Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band and who was very quick, said, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.’ They all laughed, and that got us off the hook.”

Musicians as diverse as Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill were hooked on Ammons. “Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine,” Rollins told me a few years ago. “He was out there doing it when I was still in school, and he was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal. When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.”

Threadgill recalls a memorable week in 1961 or 1962 when Ammons guested with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at McKie’s, a popular 63rd Street club that Rollins immortalized in a song. “You can often hear things live that will never get on record,” Threadgill stated on WKCR in 1996. “On Sunday night, they locked the doors around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until morning. I had no idea Gene Ammons could play like that.  He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was quite a lesson.”

Tenor players at all levels will find lessons aplenty in these sessions. Listen to Ammons bellow out his statement on “Lucille,” an impassioned love cry penned by Harold Vick. He imparts maximum blues impact with a minimum of notes on the downhome “Tin Shack Out Back” and on “Lady Mama,” the latter an elemental vamp on the chords of “Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by fellow DuSable alumnus Eddie Harris, who as a youngster subbed for pianist James Craig on Ammons dances at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom.  He squeezes every bit of melodic juice from “Can’t Help Myself” and “God Bless The Child,” and, in the company of maestros Hank Jones and Ron Carter, evokes the surreal ambiance of “Strange Fruit.”

For all his personal problems, Ammons played with remarkable consistency, and these statements, like so much of his finest work, transcend the particulars of time and place and genre. With the reissue of “Fine and Mellow” another piece of his career mosaic falls into place, and we are the richer for it.

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