Tag Archives: Lester Young

A 1999 interview with Teddy Edwards

Several people have asked why I’ve kept the blog mostly inactive lately, to which I can only respond a blend of inertia and too much work. However, a Facebook post on Teddy Edwards from a friend prompts me to share this interview I did with him in 1999 for  a liner note for a two-tenor date that he did with Houston Person. He went deeply into his personal biography, but what’s interesting to me is that this recounting came about almost free-associatively, in response to questions about his relationship to each of the tunes. On the top is the liner note, followed by the verbatim interview — I had closely read an oral history that Patricia Willard conducted with Mr. Edwards for the Institute of Jazz Studies, which I had transcribed some years earlier — I’d love to share that as well, but am not at liberty to do so.

* * *
Though Teddy Edwards, sixty-two years as a professional musician under his belt, knows a thing or two about the cutting contest function, he claims that it was never a context he favored.  “I used to do it,” says the 74-year-old tenor saxophonist, “but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn than fight with it.”

Which is not to say that Edwards wouldn’t enthusiastically tie it up with the fastest company back in the day or the here-and-now, nor that circumstance mightn’t occasionally raise the Taurus bull within him.  Iconic tenor champions Edwards locked horns and matched wits with in venues ranging from lowdown after hours joints and prestigious arenas include Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Paul Gonsalves and legions of the famous and obscure.  In 1994, Houston Person, the tenorman with the mammoth sound who doubles as a producer, jumped on an opportunity to bring Professor Edwards into Rudy Van Gelder’s studios for a friendly encounter.  That was “Horn To Horn” [Muse 5540], and it came off so well, they decided to do it again.

Each tune is a memory-raiser, evoking complex webs of associations and relationships for the tenor cohorts.  Edwards’ recollections date to the early 1940′s, when he played a major part in codifying the vocabulary of post-swing tenor saxophone.

Consider the spirited version of “Twisted,” an ebullient Wardell Gray line from 1948 which inspired a still-hilarious lyric by Annie Ross (“my analyst told me that I was out of my head…”).  Edwards and Gray met as teenage alto saxophonists making their way up the ladder in Detroit.  “We first worked together in 1942 at the Congo Club in Detroit’s Norwood Hotel, ” Edwards recalls in his hotel room following at week’s engagement at New York’s Iridium.  “It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee, Bernie Peacock, Big Nick Nicholas, Matthew Gee, Al McKibbon and a lot of great players came out of that band — Sonny Stitt, Rudy Rutherford, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones and Lucky Thompson were also in Detroit during those days.  We had a chorus line and we’d get the top acts for the week after they left the Paradise, Detroit’s black theater.  Wardell and I were partners in Detroit and later in California; we studied together through the years, practicing the various saxophone books, playing duets, developing our facilities.  Wardell was very thorough at what he did.  Every morning he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  He was a light-hearted, joyful type of guy with a good sense of humor and a good spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing because he prepared himself.  If he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together!”

Edwards arrived in Detroit in 1940, a 16-year-old professional who’d already worked four years in big bands arouind his native Jackson, Mississippi.  “When I was a kid in Jackson, I learned about harmony, which gave me a lot of security.  I was 12 when I met my father, a strong reading musician who played with Silas Green’s tent show (about the strongest one out there), but he had left an Orem harmony book on our piano, and I started listening to it as well as my cousin’s piano book.  All of the bands came through to play Jackson, which had over 100,000 people — it wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  We had two good big bands in Jackson, with good arrangers, and 19 miles away was Piney Woods College, which had several bands — the Sweethearts of Rhythm came out of there.  My grandfather, Henry Carson Reed, was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.  The people who ran the dance-halls knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come hear the bands.

“Some musicians in my first band talked about how a fellow who came through Jackson had chopped everybody down playing in a chordal style, and I started looking at the chords real seriously.  I learned to transpose them verbatim as fast as the piano called them to me.  I ran up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play, not from records.  I loved Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Hilton Jefferson, Tab Smith and a lot of others, but I never copied them.  I learned how to improvise, turn the chords around, and make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies, which is what I call chords.  They aren’t numbers; they’re groups of sounds, and you reach in there and pick the notes you want to get the colors you’re looking for.  People have always responded to me, as far as I can remember.  When I was 12 years old I could always satisfy an audience of adults.  I was born with that.  I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man!

Gene Ammons was famous for doing precisely that; he had an early ’50s jukebox hit with “Pennies From Heaven.”  Edwards met him playing with King Kolax at the Champion Bar on Hastings Street, where Detroit’s sporting crowd held office hours.  “I was young and full of fire,” he laughs, “and I’d go there and sit in with Jug and Lank Keyes, who were just getting their thing together, and fire it up!  Gene Ammons had that big sound and wonderful feeling.”  Edwards and Person take it at the camelwalk clip that drummer Kenny Washington likes to call the grown-up’s tempo.  “I like the song,” Edwards continues.  “It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and nights I play it as a perky thing, talking about the ‘pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.’”

Edwards switched from alto to tenor when he landed in Los Angeles in 1945.  “Howard McGhee decided to stay after he finished an engagement with Coleman Hawkins at Billy Berg’s,” Edwards told Patricia Willard in an interview for the Oral History Project of the Institute of Jazz Studies.  “He was searching around, trying to find a tenor saxophone player that he liked, and he couldn’t find anybody.  So he asked me to switch and hook up with him, and I thought it was a good idea.  I was able to transfer my knowledge of how to get through the chords.  I always had my own sound on both instruments.”

Edwards’ solo on “Up In Dodo’s Room,” a 1946 Spotlite recording, was significant in the evolution of swing-to-bop tenor vocabulary.  “I didn’t realize that the solo had any significance until I met Fats Navarro in 1948,” he told Willard.  “‘Look,’ he said, ‘do you realize that you changed the course of history?  That solo was the first solo by any tenor saxophone player that didn’t come from the Lester Young or the Coleman Hawkins school.’  If I remember correctly, the solo had all the half-steps; it had the major-seventh, which was just beginning to get popular; and it had the flat nine.  I played all the hip stuff that they call hip today in 1945.”

Back at the hotel, he continues: “The main thing I learned from Bebop in terms of harmony was the use of the flat-five, which Howard McGhee pulled my coat to.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  It was a natural evolution, just going with the flow.  I moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands to where I could play fast.”

At the time Edwards switched, Chu Berry, Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young had put their stamp on “Ghost Of A Chance,” a popular vehicle ever since for tenor players of the romantic persuasion, as Edwards and Person are.  It’s primarily a feature for Edwards, who vocalizes his horn to the max, a sour-sweet, been there-done that, never-jaded tone, extracting every bit of emotion from the lovely theme.

Person puts his trademark plush tone and intense melodicism on “Little Girl Blue,” his feature.  “It’s a saxophonist’s song,” says the 64-year-old South Carolina native.  “I’m a big Hank Mobley nut, and he did one of my favorite versions of it, so this was done with him in mind — I just played it like I play it.”

Which is the spirit they bring to “Blue and Sentimental,” a song rife with tenoristic implication since Herschel Evans recorded it as a tenor feature in 1938 with the Basie band.  “I never heard Herschel play in person,” Edwards states, “but the records I remember very well.  This was one of my favorites.  Herschel was in the Coleman Hawkins school, and he had a beautiful touch.”

“I was into Lester Young, and didn’t hear Herschel Evans until later,” Person recalls.  “That was my first song ever in my college band.  They had another saxophone player who played it great, but he was a senior and was leaving, so I got the spot.”  College was South Carolina State, where Person began playing the saxophone after years of diverse listening that spanned Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet (his main influence) to Stan Kenton to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  “We had a piano in the house, which my mother played, and I had experience with the youth choir in church, but that was about it for me until my father got me a saxophone for Christmas late in high school.  I just liked the sound of it.  On the tenor saxophone it just seems you can get all the different sounds that you want.”  Person enrolled in the Army in 1956 and was stationed in Germany, where he encountered Eddie Harris (“he gave me a lot of helpful help”), lifelong friend Cedar Walton, and Leo Wright.  After his discharge, he enrolled at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and began his distinguished career playing all manner of gigs on the New England circuit.

Person often heard soul tenor king Willis “Gatortail” Jackson play “The Breeze and I,” Ernesto Leuconia’s Latinate line which ends the session.  Edwards’ notey, swooping style contrasts nicely here with Person’s blues-shout-style locutions.

Both have played the familiar refrain of “Night Train” — purloined from Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” by Jimmy Forrest — thousands of times over the years.  “I became very familiar with this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early and middle ’50s,” Edwards says.  “To eat and support a family, you had to come up with something.  But I learned a lot.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, the biggest thing I got from playing for those strippers was learning how to play the melody real well, because I had time to think.  You could build your strength, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  All those things make you strong.”

Teddy Edwards and Houston Person are self-made men, individualists who found their sounds by inner conviction and diligent work.  “There was a lot of do-it-yourself when I came up,” Edwards states, “because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records.  On the other hand, you came up through bands which trained you.  That was before television, which took away the stages where things would come along naturally.  That’s when bands would travel on the road, really practice, have section rehearsals and get things down.  Now everything is wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell didn’t have band training when I hear them play.  Something about coming through that band era gave you another thing.”

Neither got where they are by looking backward.  As Person puts it, “Cutting contests were a great ritual back then, and it was all done in advancing good musicianship and people trying to establish their turf, so to speak.  But this date isn’t a cutting contest.  We got together with an appreciation for what’s gone before and what’s happening now, trying to pay homage to guys who made contributions.  We tried to show mutual admiration for each other, and tried to have fun.  Everybody’s adding company to the legacy.”

* * *

Teddy Edwards (3-22-99):

TP:    With “Twisted” we have to think about Wardell Gray.

EDWARDS:  He was my first partner.  We first worked together in 1942, and we worked at a club called the Congo Club in Detroit.  It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee came out of that band, Matthew Gee came out of the band, Bernie Peacock, and a lot of great, great players.  George “Big Nick” Nicholas…

TP:    You mentioned also the lead alto player with Lunceford.

EDWARDS:  Ted Buckner.  He came into the band after he left Jimmy Lunceford’s band.  He inspired me to… I was 18 years old, I was playing lead alto, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to give up this alto chair, this lead chair” when he came in.  He said, “Youngblood, you’re doing fine.  You just stick to the lead, it’s okay; we’ll split the lead little,” and I sat next to him and heard him play.

TP:    And Kelly Martin was the drummer, right?

EDWARDS:  He was the original drummer, but we had two or three drummers while I was there.  Vernon Brown was another fine drummer, and Johnny Allen became a leader… During that time a lot of guys were getting drafted.  Al McKibbon was with the band during the time we were there.  We had a chorus line and we were getting the top acts when they left the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  They had a black theater chain where the bands would go to different theaters…

TP:    In Detroit they’d play the Paradise.

EDWARDS:  They’d play the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  When they’d go to Chicago…

TP:    Was the Congo Club analogous to the De Lisa in Chicago, a similar type of room?

EDWARDS:  Well, I imagine you could say that in the sense that they had a band and a chorus line and different kinds of acts.  But the Congo Club was something very-very special.  It was a beautiful room in the Norwood Hotel at 555 E. Adams in (?) Detroit.  But we were out in California when Wardell made “Twisted,” and then “Stoned” and what’s that other thing…”my analyst said”… [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s “Twisted.”  It still sounds good.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s a great line.  I remember when he made that line.  That was in ’48, when he left Los Angeles to go to New York to record for Prestige Records.  We were real partners.  We studied together through the years.

TP:    You were all playing alto at that time.

EDWARDS:  In Detroit.  But when we got to California we were all playing tenor.

TP:    I know why you switched to tenor.  It was circumstances, because Howard McGhee had been with Coleman Hawkins…

EDWARDS:  He liked the sound.

TP:    Why did Wardell Gray switch to tenor?  Because Charlie Parker was taking up too much space?

EDWARDS:  No, it wasn’t that.  I think he switched to tenor because he liked it.  I think he switched to tenor with a band called Benny Carew, one of the Midwest bands.  But he just liked the tenor, like a lot of guys.  I don’t think it’s that Charlie Parker ran you off your instrument.  He didn’t run me off mine. [LAUGHS] But I think he just picked up playing the tenor.

TP:    You said that the two of you practiced together all the time.

EDWARDS:  We practiced in the books, the saxophone books, playing duets, all the Singerland stuff, developing our facilities.

TP:    You also said that I think the contractor for the Congo Club band helped you with your sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Stack Walton.  He was a tenor player.  He inherited the band.  The band was changing pretty fast in those days, the personnel.  When I first came into the band actually some of the guys preferred Sonny Stitt and Rudy Rutherford who were a little more advanced than I was in playing the saxophone and the clarinet.  But he liked what I was doing; he said, “I like what you’re doing.”  We were playing in a shell; man, that shell was eating my little sound up, so he showed me how to develop my diaphragm.  And I practiced real hard.  I practiced before the gig and after the gig…

TP:    Were you like a big sound alto player, like Willie Smith or Johnny Hodges?

EDWARDS:  I had my own sound.  I’ve always had my own…

TP:    Can you describe your sound on the alto.

EDWARDS:  Well, it’s hard to describe your sound.  You have to hear it.  But I’ve always had my own sound on the alto and even on the tenor.  I think it’s just a matter of me doing it my way, the way I learned how to do it.  I never tried to copy Johnny Hodges or copy Willie Smith, but I loved those guys.  I loved Hilton Jefferson, I loved Tab Smith, I loved a lot of them.  But I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to try to play like this.”  I never did.

TP:    It was all functional for you.

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    Playing a situation…

EDWARDS:  Right, and learning.  Just learning.  Fortunately I learned about harmony real early, so that gave me a lot of security.  My father had left a harmony book on the piano.  I never saw him until I was 12 years old, but that Orem harmony book stayed on the top of our piano all those years, and then I started listening to it.  Then I’d look in my cousin’s piano book and think about what was going on with the music.  Then I heard the guys in my first band talk about a fellow who came through home playing a chord style named Devarney from Milwaukee.  They were talking about how he chopped everybody down playing these chords, and I started looking the chords real seriously.  I learned to play the chords verbatim.  I could transpose them verbatim as the piano called them to me; as fast as you called them, I could transpose them.  I’d just run up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play instead of listening… I listened to the records, but I didn’t just copy off the records.

TP:    You had a very good opportunity as a kid to play with these very good, professional bands.

EDWARDS:  We had two good bands at home, with good arrangers.  We had two good bands in Jackson, big bands.  So I was very fortunate as a kid.  My grandfather was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.

TP:    It sounds like when you were a kid you needed a 36-hour day.  You were working pressing clothes, practicing, playing gigs, going to school and doing pretty well.

EDWARDS:  Right.  My aunt had a cleaners.  I used to press clothes in the morning, I’d clean clothes in the morning and go to school, come back and practice, and go do some more work at the cleaners, and then come back and rest and go to my night gig.

TP:    Say a few more words about Wardell Gray personally.

EDWARDS:  He was very thorough at what he did.  One thing that I saw him do first thing every morning, he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  That way you’d pick it up.  You see?  First thing in the morning he’d take it out of the case and put it on the bed.  That’s what he would do.  He read all the time; he read all kinds of things, you know.  Every night when we got off, he’d get the newspaper.  He loved to read.  Hampton Hawes loved to read, too.  He had his way about him.  We were good friends.  He was light-hearted and kind of a joyful type guy.  He had a good sense of humor and a good spirit.

TP:    you can hear it in his playing.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Good spirit, a lot of spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing, because he prepared himself.  He really prepared himself, much more than I did, in a sense.  Because if he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together! [LAUGHS] Get his stuff together to bring to the jam session.

TP:    Let’s move on to “Ghost of A Chance.”

EDWARDS:  During the ’40s, “Ghost of A Chance” became popular amongst the tenor players.  Illinois Jacquet had done his recording on it and Lester Young had done it.  So it was kind of a good vehicle for tenor players, popular among the tenor players.  So I was just another (?) to “Ghost of A Chance.”  And it’s a great song.  In fact, I should do it more often.

TP:    Well, for your sound it’s really custom-made.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] Yes, I should do it more often.  I’ve done it once or twice maybe since I did this record.  But it’s such a great vehicle.  It’s got good room for you to work.

TP:    Let’s get back to your being an original stylist even though you were in the middle of things.  Lester Young had such a profound impact on people, and Coleman Hawkins on a lot of the Detroit guys like Yusef Lateef and Lucky Thompson…

EDWARDS:  Well, they came off that tree.  I think Ben Webster and Don Byas later on influenced Lucky more than Coleman Hawkins.  But they came from Coleman Hawkins.  They’re off that tree.  The big tree was Coleman Hawkins and the next big tree was Lester Young.  From Lester, Stan Getz, Wardell, Dexter, Gene Ammons and all of them leaned heavily.

TP:    But for you, what was your relation to that music?  I know you admired it.

EDWARDS:  I admired it.  I listened to all the great players, altos and tenors or whatever.  But when I changed from the alto to the tenor, I just transferred my knowledge.  I knew how to get through the chords.  And that’s been a very-very valuable thing to me, even to today.  I’m so thankful that I learned as a kid about the chords, how to improvise and turn them around and try them…

TP:    Make them melodies.

EDWARDS:  Make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies.  That’s what chords are.  I call them sound bodies.  You reach in there and get what you want.  You might not want but one note out of this one, or you might want three or four of them, then you might want to alter them, learn how to alter the chords, add to them and find the common tones that will work… In fact, I wrote a song called “April Love” that I can play one note all the way through the whole song; just one note is common to every chord in this whole song.  You look for these kind of things when you’re playing.

TP:    So chords correlate to sounds and colors for you.

EDWARDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    They’re not numbers. They’re sounds.  They’re vivid.

EDWARDS:  They’re not numbers at all.  They’re sounds.  I call them sound bodies, groups of sounds.  You pick what you want out of the sound.  I can run up and down, naturally; that’s how I learned how to play.  I can go down… But then I like to alter them, you know, sharp this or flatten that, or add this to it.  It might be a VII chord and I add a IX, or maybe a XIII to it, or raise the V or inflect the IX — anything to get the colors that I want to get.

TP:    Were you into that level of harmony by the time you got to California?

EDWARDS:  I was pretty much in it.  You know, the main thing I learned from the Bebop era as far as harmony was concerned was about the use of the flat-five.  I didn’t know that one.  Then Howard McGhee pulled my coat how to alternate like the V-minor VII to the chord, the VII chord and alternate it.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  You’ve got to learn how to work it.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the really revolutionary thing in bebop was the way rhythm was approached and not so much the harmony?

EDWARDS:  Oh, the harmony was very important.  And the speed that you needed to play.  Guys were playing fast.  You needed good chops, good technique to play, and we practiced to have that.  No, the harmony was definitely strong.

TP:    Why for you was it such a big break?  Did you align yourself firmly as someone who was a Bebopper as-opposed-to, or was it just a natural line of descent?

EDWARDS:  It was just a natural line of descent.  I just moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part on you, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music, how to get the phrasing out of it.  But it was just a natural evolution, more or less.  Just going with the flow.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands up real good where I could play fast.

TP:    Did you know Lester Young well?  I know he had a house in L.A.

EDWARDS:  Not real well, no.  But I had occasion to meet him.  In fact, he played my horn one night in San Francisco at Bop City.  But I met him after he had come out of the Army, and he was kind of…oh, what I say…

TP:    Introverted.

EDWARDS:  Introverted.  He didn’t want to have too much to do with anybody, because the Army had really…

[PAUSE]

TP:    Let’s talk about “Night Train.”  We can talk about Ellington and big bands and “The Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” and we can talk about Jimmy Forrest and that way of playing the horn.

EDWARDS:  Well, I first heard “Night Train” around ’44 when it first came out.  I was in Seattle, Washington, when I was playing a dance with Ernie Fields’ Orchestra, and I heard it on a jukebox.  Everybody was putting their nickels on this song, and it was very strong, very popular.  But it wasn’t exactly in the vein that I was in.  I was closer to the Bebop vein.  He had the Bebop knowledge thing going himself, Jimmy Forrest, but he chose to make this record, “Night Train,” which later on I found was almost a direct copy of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local.”  Some might say he’s very fortunate that Duke Ellington didn’t sue him about it, which I don’t think he ever did bring a case against him — because he had a clear case as far as the copyright issue is concerned.  Then Buddy Morrow came along and put his twist to it, and he had a big record on “Night Train.”

Now, I used to play this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs for the dancers.  “Night Train” was one of the themes; they’d make their bumps and all that stuff.  The strippers had about four or five tunes that they really took a liking to.  I used to play it, and that’s how I became very familiar with the song.

TP:    You were still in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  I played in some burlesque places in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  When you had to eat and had a family, you had to come up with something.

TP:    In the later ’40s and early ’50s.

EDWARDS:  Mostly part of the early ’50s and some of the middle ’50s.

TP:    You’d be behind the screen?

EDWARDS:  Well, you would be off to the side.  You wouldn’t be hid behind the screen, but off the scene completely.  But I learned a lot by playing in those burlesque places.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, when I played for those burlesque dancers, I studied playing the melody.  I had to play the melody real well.  That’s the biggest thing I got from that, was learning how to play the melody real good, and I’m thankful for the burlesque clubs! [LAUGHS] I had time to think about the melody we were playing.  You could build up your strength in your playing, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  You’d have drums and a piano in those places, and sometimes you’d play two of you at a time, maybe just you and the drums playing 15 minutes and you and the piano player playing 15 minutes, then you’d play 15 minutes all together.  All those things make you strong.

TP:    you’ve been working since you were 12, right?

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    In this oral history, after about 3 hours of it, you’re up to age 18.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    There’s an obvious difference between the musicians of your generation and the people who are under 40, say.  Talk about that do-it-yourself quality.

EDWARDS:  During those days there was a lot of do-it-yourself, because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records to play with.  On the other hand, you had bands to come up through and train.  That was before television.  That’s when bands used to really practice and rehearse and get the things down real good.  Traveling on the road together, you’d have section rehearsals, and before they’d put the band together… You don’t have much of that any more now.  Everything is so wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell when I hear them play, like on their records…I can tell they didn’t have band training.  Something about them coming through that band era that gave them another thing.  I could tell.

TP:    It seems for a lot of the guys who came up during your time and a little before, a little after music was a religion.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s what it was.  See, television changed things a whole lot.  Television took away the stages.  Every little club had a little stage, and they’d have a tap dancer or something.  Television wiped all that out.  Television took away a lot of things that were coming along naturally.  If you were a dancer and you wasn’t dancing on television, you wouldn’t have nowhere to dance.  You see what I’m saying?  Then the music got that way.  If you weren’t sitting in one of those studio bands recording, you’re not getting too far, unless you’re a big star who can get out here and make it on your own.  But I would never aspire to be a musician, even though I played for the studio; they’d call me when they want what I have — in special situations.

TP:    They want your sound.

EDWARDS:  Right.  Like, I played on the movie, Jane Fonda…

TP:    They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

EDWARDS:  I played on that one, too.  That was Johnny Green.  I did it for George Donen, who did Any Wednesday with Jane Fonda.  He had the contractor call me.  The contractor said, “Teddy Edwards?”  I said, “yes.”  He said, “Mr. Donen wants you on this soundtrack.  There’s a 60-piece orchestra.  Mr George Donen, who wants you on this soundtrack.”   He said, “Do you read music?”  I said, “I’ve been reading it all my life practically.”  “Well, he said he doesn’t care whether you read music or not.  He wants you on here, because he wants your sound on this movie soundtrack.”  Then he had me playing a special thing on clarinet, which I had no idea, with my name on my part, you know, to play this special clarinet part for this movie.

TP:    A customized part for you.

EDWARDS:  He liked my sound.  He had heard my playing with Gerald Wilson, and he loved the sound I got out of the horn.

TP:    Gerald Wilson’s band must have been a nice outlet for you over the years.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that was a great band.  That was one of the finest bands ever been, that’s for sure, the band of the early ’60s — the real band.  We had probably the finest reed section I played with; I liked the way we sounded.  We had Jack Nimitz on baritone, Harold Land on the other tenor, Joe Maini playing lead alto…

TP:    Did you meet Gerald Wilson in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  No, I didn’t really meet him.  He had left when I came there.  I’m trying to think of the other alto player.  He was a good alto player; in fact, I got him a contract with Contemporary Records.  [Jimmy Woods.] Anyway, we had a great blend in that reed section.  I played with Basie, with the saxophone section, but sitting in there it didn’t have that… It was a great section, but it had a lot of individual… Everything is individual in that reed section.  Even though when it comes out, it came out great.  But we were on a one-mind kind of thing with the Gerald Wilson saxophone section.  We were on the same thinking plane as far as the sound of the music.

TP:    And that seems to be a thing that you see throughout with guys from your period, who came up then, probably because of that band training.

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was a big help.

TP:    Now, in Jackson, it would seem kind of a backwater, but a lot of bands came through and you were able to keep up with a lot of music.

EDWARDS:  All of the bands came through Jackson to play Jackson.  Well, we had over 100,000 people in Jackson.  We had a 22-story building when they only had 12 in Los Angeles.  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  Then there was Piney Woods, down 19 miles at Piney Woods College where they had several band.  They had the male bands, then they had the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all-girl band which came out of there.  The Daughters of Rhythm came out of there.  So a lot of excellent musicians were in that vicinity.  Plus the bands that came through playing the dance, and the people who ran the dance-halls, they knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come up and hear the bands.

TP:    Well, you had a story of being able to hear the Ellington band through the grace of one nice guy.

EDWARDS:  One nice guy, yeah.

TP:    Which we don’t have to repeat here.  But you did say that Johnny Hodges was your early idol.

EDWARDS:  Well, he was the first one who really got to my ears.  But the first song I learned how to play was Wayne King’s theme song, “The Waltz You Sing For Me.”  That was the first song, from the radio, where I learned how to play it.  Then Johnny Hodges came, and I loved that sound and that feeling that he had, even though I never copied him verbatim — but he influenced me.  Then I heard Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway, and that was another thing of beauty to me.  He’s not the most famous saxophone player, but he was beautiful, Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway’s band.  There were a lot of different guys who came through. Tab Smith.

TP:    You had to have heard Budd Johnson with Earl Hines’ band which came through the south.

EDWARDS:  Oh, I heard Budd with Earl Hines’ band.  That’s when he had Billy Eckstine.  This was in the ’30s.  Billy Eckstine was with the band, he had George Dixon, the baritone player, who was the guy who played jazz on a flute.  A lot of guys claimed later, but he was the first guy…

TP:    George Dixon, huh?

EDWARDS:  George Dixon.  He was the baritone player with Earl Fatha Hines.  He had the great singer Walter Fuller singing with him, and Madeleine Green singing, and Keg Johnson playing the trombone.  Earl Hines had some fantastic bands.

TP:    But also, you mentioned you heard the beginning of the Earl Hines band that had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Detroit.

EDWARDS:  Oh, right, the first gig.

TP:    Bird left McShann in Detroit and joined Earl Hines.  Do you have a memory of the band?

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was great.  In fact, that picture in the book that Francis Paudras wrote about Charlie Parker… Opening up the book, they’ve got a picture of Sarah Vaughan in that band playing piano back-to-back with Earl Fatha Hines.  They had two white grand pianos back to back on the stage.  I was sitting there when that picture was taken.  I said, “Damn, I was there when that picture was made.”  I was at the opening show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s when you first met Charlie Parker, was in Detroit at that time?

EDWARDS:  I met him the week before, when he was with McShann.  But I had listened to him on his recordings with McShann, like “Hootie Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism,” those great solos that he played.

TP:    so you knew right from the top that he was doing something special.

EDWARDS:  Oh, he was doing something special, no question about it.  He had a little tinge of Lester Young in him back then, a little tinge of Lester Young on that alto.  If you listen to him close.  Lester Young was his idol, you know.

TP:    When he did the few things on tenor, you can hear it.

EDWARDS:  The few things on tenor.  But I’ll tell you, he hadn’t played the tenor long enough for his embouchure to get right for the tenor.  It would have been brighter.  It was kind of dark because his chops hadn’t come up to that tenor thing.  It’s another kind of thing.

TP:    Talk about the difference, what the challenges are.

EDWARDS:  The big challenge is that if you play one, your ear gets set to that one.  If you’re playing a tenor, your ear gets set to the tenor, then when you pick the alto up, it’s a fifth away.  So your ear has got to make the adjustment, you see.  But now, if you play them both all the time a lot, then it’s easy.  It becomes natural.  But if you stay with one and go to the other… Then what you have to do, like in my case… You have to use your mind.  I know that this chord goes because I want to play this chord.  I can use my mind that way, see.  But it’s an ear thing, where your ear knows where the notes are.

TP:    A lot of alto players say it’s harder to play the alto than it is to play the tenor.

EDWARDS:  It’s not harder to play.  They have different demands on you.  Controlling the pitch of the alto is a little more delicate than the tenor, because it’s higher.  The soprano is really rough to control.  But the you’ve got to have more wind down on the tenor.  So they have their differences.

TP:    Let’s go to “Blue and Sentimental,” with a real Basie connotation.

EDWARDS:  I first heard Herschel play that with the Basie band on the records.  I never did hear him play in person, but the records I remember very well.  It was one of my favorites, and Lester played 8 bars on the clarinet on that recording of “Blue And Sentimental.”  Herschel was on the Coleman Hawkins school, but he had a beautiful touch. [SINGS REFRAIN]

TP:    Big and gentle.

EDWARDS:  yeah, he was something beautiful.  Died real young.

TP:    Were you as much into the Basie band of that time as you were Lunceford and Ellington?

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Man, when Basie came along, that was a revelation.  When Basie came along with that all-American rhythm section, they had Lester sitting on one hand and Herschel on the other, they had Harry Edison sitting on one corner and Buck Clayton sitting on the other one.  Goodness me.  That was power-power-power.  Papa Jo Jones sitting back there on the drums.

TP:    On the previous record with Houston Person, you were dealing with a little later repertoire, like you did “Equinox” and Richard Wyands put “Moose the Mooche” on the intro to “Lester Leaps In.”  This one puts you more in the older school.

EDWARDS:  I guess so.

TP:    So if someone’s listening to this record, they won’t necessarily know what you’re a modernist player…

EDWARDS:  I imagine they’d be surprised.  Because I had most of the leads in the “Night Train” thing.  I thought about my burlesque days.  That’s going to be a strong song on this record, too.

TP:    Again, I don’t want to put you back as someone who stopped at 1952 in a burlesque house, because I know what you did.  Talk to me about how your repertoire… Do you work all over with a touring band, or do you pick them up when you come to town?

EDWARDS:  Well, mostly I’m picking up bands, because I’m not a big commercial item.

TP:    You’re someone for the connoisseurs.

EDWARDS:  Yes, more or less, the collectors and all those people.  And I gain all the time new people.  My problem has not been with the audience.  If I have a problem, it’s been with the negotiators — the agents and the managers.  They’ve never taken a liking to me.  But people have always responded to me, as far as I can remember, when I was 12 years old.  I could always satisfy an audience.  I never lost that.  I got that.  I was born with that.  Nobody can ever take that away.

TP:    you were born with that.

EDWARDS:  I was born with that.  I can make the people feel what I’m doing.

TP:    And when you were 12 years old…

EDWARDS:  I could do the same.  To adults.  I could do it then.  That’s just a thing that was natural to me.  Well, I understood in later years why I was that way.

TP:    Why?

EDWARDS:  It’s a case of… I’d compare it to a radio set.  You’ve got a transmitter and a receiver.  The audience is the receiver.  The artist is the transmitter.  Now, in order to transmit, you have to generate, and you generate it within yourself.  You see, I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  And it’s going to get through.  You can be sitting at the bar talking, but I’m going to get through to you in your subconscious.  I’m going to get through to you most of the time.  Because that’s the way I am.  I can project the music that way, because I can build it within myself.  And I know, because these sound waves can go through this building!

TP:    What sound does to people.  And chords are sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man.  It gets real deep.

TP:    Another guy who was like that was Gene Ammons, who I associate with “Pennies From Heaven.”  He had a little hit on that, didn’t he?

EDWARDS:  Oh, yeah, Jug did.

TP:    You met him in Detroit, too, with King Kolax.

EDWARDS:  Yes, with the King Kolax band.  He was playing at the Champion Ballroom on Hastings Street, and I used to go over there and sit in with him.  Because I was young and full of fire.  Jug and Lank Keyes and them, they were just getting their thing together, and I’d go over there and sit in with them and fire it up!  Yeah, Gene Ammons had that big sound and that wonderful feeling.

TP:    But you and he also had that good-natured cutting contest type of attitude… Not cutting contest, but matching sounds or wits or whatever you want to call it.

EDWARDS:  Well, that was going on.  I used to do it, but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn rather than fighting it.

TP:    That can be a battle, too.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] But that was the thing.  We were doing it.  Okay, let’s tie it up here.  Like, Stanley Turrentine still talks about the time he heard Paul Gonsalves and me in San Francisco.  He said, “I never will forget that as long as I live, the night I heard you and Paul get together.”  But you get together sometimes and the thing will be working.  And it’s good.  I did several tenor things.  I did a tour with Buck Hill and Von Freeman in Holland, on which we had a lot of fun.  It was a friendly fight going on between us.  And Dexter… All the guys through the years, we would tie it up there, and… A tenor player, Joe…

TP:    Joe Alexander.

EDWARDS:  No.  He was a white kid.  Played real good.

TP:    These days?

EDWARDS:  We made a record with Frank Butler together on Xanadu.

TP:    Oh, Joe Farrell.

EDWARDS:  Right, Joe Farrell.

TP:    From Chicago also.

EDWARDS:  Yeah, he was an excellent player.  Now, we kind of got off on a bad leg, but we got close.  I was sitting in the studio waiting on everybody to come in.  But he didn’t know me really.  I’m sitting there when he came in, I spoke to him, and he barely spoke!  So I said, “Okay.  We’ll see about this when they turn the tape on.” [LAUGHS] He didn’t know me.  I could have just been a chair sitting there as far as the way we talked about a greeting.  It kind of raised that old Taurus bull up in me a little bit. “Okay, when they turn the machine on, we’ll straighten all of this out.”  We became real close.

TP:    I was mentioning my associating Gene Ammons to “Pennies From Heaven.”  What was your association to it?

EDWARDS:  Well, I like the song.  It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and rainy nights I was would play it as a good perky thing, talking about the “pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.”

TP:    Do you sing in performances now?

EDWARDS:  No, I never went into singing too much.  I sing on Blue Saxophone, “Hymn For the Homeless,” but anybody could sing it.  It didn’t take a great singer to sing that.

TP:    But you’re a lyrics man, obviously.

EDWARDS:  I’m a lyrics writer.  Yes, I’m a lyricist.

TP:    When you play these tunes, you know the lyrics.

EDWARDS:  I have an idea about most of them.  I might not know what all… But I know what the lyricist is talking about.  I know the subject matter, and that’s important, to help you to express the song and know what it’s talking about.

TP:    Talk a bit about playing with Houston Person.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Houston’s a joy to play with.  He’s just like a big baby boy.  In fact, when he got his job producing with Muse Records, I think he might have been the very first person he called.  I was under contract to Polygram, which killed that, but then later on when we talked again I said, “I can record as a sideman or co-leader for another label, but I can’t record as a leader under my contract.”  He said, “Good, let’s make one together; we’ll co-lead it.”  That’s how we made Horn To Horn.

TP:    Tell me about the rhythm section guys.  Kenny Washington.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Kenny’s a beauty.  He’s steady as a rock.  I always enjoy playing with him.

TP:    He knows what to play, knows what not to play.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, in the first place he’s a music historian.  Not just jazz, many forms of music.  He’s an historian, and he knows what goes where.  He’s very knowledgeable about the subject.

TP:    Ray Drummond plays beautifully on this record.  His solos are like Paul Chambers.

EDWARDS:  He has that sound.

TP:    And Stan Hope?

EDWARDS:  Well, that was my first time playing with him.  The reason he made the date, somebody couldn’t make it, so Houston said, “We can use my regular piano player.”  I said, “If you like him, he must be good.”  And he was wonderful, played great.

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Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Teddy Edwards

A 2002 Downbeat Profile of Frank Wess for his 90th birthday

Due to a foulup by my provider, my Internet has been down for the last week, a refreshing if frustrating lifestyle change. Today, though, it’s incumbent to observe Frank Wess’ 90th birthday, Jan. 4th, by posting a profile that I wrote about him ten years ago for DownBeat. A magnificent musician.

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Not long before his 80th birthday, Frank Wess, in the studio with the Bill Charlap Trio, unfurled a tenor saxophone solo on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” that stands with the classics of the canon. Over a relentless camelwalk groove, Wess leaps in from the top, dissecting the melody with minimum embellishment and maximum soulfulness, spinning out lucid theme-and-variations with a burnished candlelight tone that contains just the right amount of vibrato. Poetic and functional, he conjures the spirits of such old-school storytellers as Lester Young and Chu Berry, who set the standards when Wess was cutting his teeth as a teenager in Washington, D.C.

Wess was full of stories in June at his compact mid-Manhattan apartment, chock-a-block with a top-shelf audio system, instruments, sheet music, tapes, albums, photographs and correspondence. Just back from a Seattle weekend, he was gearing up to fulfill a ten-day itinerary that would tax a man half his age—two concerts with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, successive one-nighters with tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and with Charlap’s trio, and a week’s residence at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Orchestra.

“When I heard Lester Young, that was that,” Wess says, leaping back to 1937. An Oklahoma native who had moved to D.C. two years before, he took early stylistic cues from such big sound heartland tenormen as Don Byas (he met him while summering with his mother in Langston, Okla., in 1932), Dick Wilson and Ben Webster. “Basie came through town for a dance at the Lincoln Colonnades; I couldn’t even sleep that first night. They were waving those hats, doo-wah, doo-wah. Prez and Herschel Evans were in the band, and Eddie Durham was playing guitar. The band was hot!

“Prez was staying at a three-story rooming house, and a friend of ours brought us there. Prez came out in his pajamas, with his horn in his arm and a little powder-box full of joints. He offered everybody a joint! We asked him how he made all those funny sounds, and he showed us.”

Sixteen years later, Wess became an integral component of the Basie mystique. From 1953 until 1964, he served as a triple threat tenor saxophonist, alto saxophonist and flutist, almost single-handedly creating a modern jazz vocabulary for the latter instrument. Within Basie’s distinctive environment, operating on the principle “less is more” as opposed to “bigger is better” and never—for all the compositional sophistication of such hardcore modernist colleagues as Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins—going over anyone’s head, Wess blended the varying strands of his epoch into a style that might define the term “mainstream.”

Wess speaks of his employer with unsentimental fondness. “I hadn’t been with Basie long, and we were in Atlanta,” [he recalls]. “Next door to the hotel was an upstairs club, and I was drinking, feeling good and acting crazy. Basie saw me, and when I went back in, one of the valets said, ‘Chief wants to see you.’ I knock on the door and come in; he’s sitting on the side of one bed and I sit across from him. He started talking about the transportation was eating him up, and all the humiliation he had to go through. He went through a whole lot of shit with me. I didn’t say nothin’. I didn’t nod my head one way or the other. I just looked at him. And he started through his story the second time, and I still didn’t say nothin’. He’s crying the blues; he was in debt. Then he started through his story the third time. I said, ‘You know what I think? I just want to know why you ever hired Jimmy Rushing, the way you can cry the blues.’ He was trying to talk me out of my salary. That’s the last time he ever did that.

“You had to understand Basie. We used to go to the track together; he loved to gamble and couldn’t gamble—not one lick. So everything was beautiful as long as you didn’t ask him for the money. Then you got stories for days. When we went to England the first time, he wouldn’t carry the music. He said, ‘I’m not gonna pay all of that overweight. You all don’t look at it no-way; you’re always looking out in the audience at some chick!’ So we went to England, and we did two weeks with no music. Blew them people’s minds! They invited us back to do a command performance the same year.”

Basie himself had learned the techniques of blowing people’s minds with swinging riff-based music as a late ’20s member of the Oklahoma City-based Blue Devils, the territory band that spawned the southwest sound. Wess lived a few hundred miles down Route 66 in Sapulpa, an oiltown of 20,000. Guitarist Barney Kessel and future Basie lead altoist Marshall Royal had grown up there, and Wess recalls childhood games of marbles with trumpeter Howard McGhee, a few years his senior. Wess’ mother taught school in town; his father, raised on Lake Seneca in upstate New York, taught 30 miles down the road in Okmulgee, the hometown of Oscar Pettiford. There wasn’t much to do in Sapulpa but practice, and Wess—who picked up the alto saxophone at 10—progressed quickly.

Relocated to Washington, Wess enrolled at Dunbar High School, studying theory with orchestra teacher Henry Grant, a friend of James Reese Europe who had taught Duke Ellington. Away from the classroom, the precocious cohort—they included pianist Billy Taylor and saxophonists Julius Pogue, Billy White, Paul Jones and Charlie Parker soundalike Oswald Gibson— soaked up information from local mentors like guitarists Samuel Wood and Biddy Fleet (the latter would soon show Parker how to execute the augmented and diminished chord extensions that became the DNA of bebop).

Wess graduated high school at 15 and enrolled at Howard University, attending classes by day and working a succession of increasingly remunerative jobs at night. He ascended the ladder, graduating from the dance bands of Bill Baldwin and Tommy Miles to a $35-a-week [position] in the Howard Theater pit band. Blanche Calloway took over the band and brought Wess on the road in 1940 for double the pay. After various adventures involving Lionel Hampton, union bookers and a tragicomic Boston run-in with Bojangles Bill Robinson, Wess enlisted in the Army, sponsored by his ROTC bandleader, John J. Brice, for a spot in the Special Services. Sent to Africa in 1942, he honed his skills as assistant bandleader of a 17-piece unit that accompanied Josephine Baker on a 1943 tour of North Africa.

A few months after his discharge, Wess joined [young firebrands] Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro and Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s bebop orchestra. A proponent of the gangsta esthetic half-a-century before hip-hop, the dapper, silken-voiced Eckstine commanded tremendous respect for his well-documented willingness to beat crackers and hoodlums at their own game at various points along the road. “B didn’t take no shit,” Wess agrees, launching into another saga. “People would come up and say, ‘Hey, B!’ and slap him on the back. ‘How you doin’?’ He’d say, ‘I’m fine!’ and then he’d smack them in the stomach.

“We lost a job nine days before Christmas in 1946 in Boston. The stage is about two feet higher than the floor, this couple is sitting ringside, and while he’s doing his act the woman keeps hollering, ‘Sing it, honey chile,’ a whole lot of bullshit. B kept doing his act. When he finished, instead of going off backstage, he went off front, walked down to this table and said, ‘Now, listen. When I’m doing my act, you don’t be hollering up on me. You crazy bitch, what’s wrong with you?’ Then he told her husband, ‘Man, you’re a silly son-of-a-bitch for being out with a dumb bitch like this.’ So her husband gets up. When her husband stood up, B knocked him down and went to get on top of him, but he kicked B in the mouth. B is going for his hunting knife. The cat gets up. Art Blakey is standing right up over him on the dance floor with a chair, comes down with it on his head, and back down he went. At the same time, two of them big Irish cops are standing in the back of the club. They ain’t moving. Then the boss comes out there saying, ‘Get that goddamn band out of here.’ He was a crazy man. Good cat to work for.”

Eckstine disbanded in February 1947. With a young family, Wess settled in Washington, supplementing local jobs through road work with Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson. “After I’d been South with Moose for the third time in one year, I gave it up,” Wess says. He enrolled in D.C.’s Modern School of Music on the G.I. Bill to study flute. “Mr. Grant had given me one when I was 14, but I realized that I couldn’t do it myself, and I couldn’t afford a teacher then. So I put it on the back-burner until I had a chance to do it.”

After several years of scaling down, Basie began to reassemble his “New Testament” band in 1951, and Eckstine recommended he snare Wess. “Basie had been calling for a couple of years, but even once I graduated school, I wasn’t thinking about going on the road,” Wess says. “Then Basie said, ‘Frank, I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.’”

At this point, according to Wess, the band was nowhere close to the sleek polished powerhouse it would become. “It wasn’t sounding too good,” he says. “There wasn’t much music and the brass wasn’t too strong, though the reed section was pretty good. Things started tightening up after our first tour south, when Joe Williams and Sonny Payne came in. I knew Snooky Young from 1940, when I was in Boston with Blanche Calloway, and in ’57 I talked him in. That really did it.”

Congenial and sharp, Wess had a keen eye for talent that would fit. “Basie didn’t know anybody. I told him to get Al Aarons and Thad Jones. I knew Thad from ’51, when I did a whole summer in Atlantic City in the front bar at Club Harlem, working with a quartet and a singer, and Thad was in the back room with Jimmy Tyler’s nine-piece band, making it sound like a million dollars. Later I I brought in Eric Dixon and Sonny Cohn, and early on, I recommended Eddie Jones to play bass. When Basie said they were getting four trombones, I recommended Bill Hughes, who lived across the street from me in Washington.”

Wess would frame his flute with those four trombones on one of several mid-’50s albums that built on the popularity of his fluid, blues-drenched sound on Basie charts like “Perdido,” “The Midgets” and “Cute.” “Don Redman had heard me play flute on jobs around Washington, and asked Basie if he’d heard me,” Wess says. Then he describes some of the secrets of the Basie sound.

“Basie never fired nobody. That’s where he was smart. Everybody got to know each other—for good or bad—and we knew what to expect and how to work together. He never rehearsed us. Everybody in the band had been playing forever, and we knew how the music should go. The reeds were a fraction behind the trumpets, and the trombones were a fraction behind the reeds, but it was consistent, so when you heard the BAM!, it sounded like one thing. And the band laid back til the last split second to hit a note. That’s the way the music said it should be played. Basie would let you know what he wanted in his own way. He’d say, ‘I want something like this,’ and you’re supposed to know what he’s talking about.”

By 1964, Wess figured he’d been in the game long enough. “The band changed,” Wess says. “It wasn’t as good as before. Snooky and Eddie Jones left the same day. When I told Basie, he said, ‘When do you want to go?’ ‘Sunday.’ ‘No, I’ve got something important coming up. Don’t go now.’ He went through that for about a month. Then we were in Chicago and I told him, ‘Base, I’ve got to go home. Tomorrow.’ ‘Who am I going to get?’ ‘Get Sonny Stitt or somebody.’ ‘He can’t read.’ ‘Well, I don’t care who you get. I’ve been listening to all that for a month. I’m gone.’ ‘When you coming back?’ I said, ‘I’ll be back in ten days.’ I came home and I got everything straightened out for doing Golden Boy with Sammy Davis. I went out and got paid with Basie one Thursday; the next Thursday I got paid for Golden Boy. I never missed a payment.”

Since then, Wess has made his blues turn green as a first-call New York freelancer, putting his kids through college on a mix of jingle sessions, sinecures in TV bands and Broadway pit orchestras, and occasional combo and sideman work, including the New York Jazz Quartet, a “Two Franks” quintet with Frank Foster, and a quintet with trumpeter Johnny Coles. Since 1984, when he left “Sugar Babies,” Wess has stuck strictly with jazz, leading and guest-starring in a variety of what he terms “trendy necrophiliac ensembles” and doing sessions with such younger New York mainstreamers as Bryan Stripling (Wess plays up a storm on Bryan … Get One Free ), Bill Charlap (Stardust), Joe Cohn and Michael Weiss.

A witness to seven decades of jazz history, Wess ruminates on the changing mores of[the scene. "When I was coming up, jazz was a dirty word," he says. "At Howard, they’d put us out of school if they caught us playing jazz. Now it’s in the schools and you can get a degree, which doesn’t always mean something, but still you can get it.

"And the kids don’t dissipate as much as they did. I remember a time when it was just pitiful. Almost everybody was messed up. I drank, but I never was in that other clique. I was lucky when I was 17, in the pit band. One of the trumpet players, who’d been with Lunceford, was the first junkie I knew. We hung out together, and he was a helluva nice cat. He used to tell me, ‘Look, kid, you keep on drinking your whiskey; don’t ever bother with this stuff.’ We’d go to rehearsal Friday morning at 8, and he’d come in with a mouthpiece. I’d have to borrow one of my friend’s horns for him to make the gig.

"What’s funny is that when I was in B’s band, wasn’t nobody in there messed up. Maybe smoking some pot or something, but nothing more. Miles Davis was smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Cola. Jug wasn’t messed up until he went with Woody Herman. Fats Navarro wasn’t messed up. Dizzy used to sit in with B’s band to play with Fats; both were playing in the same idiom, but Fats had a little Spanish tinge to his thing and his sound was so much bigger. He’d hit a high G and A, and it enveloped the whole band. After the band broke up, I was playing the Apollo with Eddie Heywood, and I was walking down 126th Street. Somebody called, ‘Hey, Flank.’ That’s what Fats used to call me. I looked around, and man, he was just a skeleton. I almost cried. Just that quick."

Then Wess jerks himself into the present tense, and offers a closing thought [on the futility of nostalgia.] “Ellington never did a whole concert of nobody’s music. Neither did Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Ain’t nobody that we revere and know ever did that! There’s 24 hours in the day. If you spend all your time looking back, how in the hell you going anywhere?” DB

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NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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