AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
When I had been working in Café Society for a year I decided I needed a vacation, and took off July and August to do some writing. Moe Asch, the best recording man in the business, wanted me to do a session. I have always admired Asch. The poor guy never quite made it financially because he was too nice to musicians. He would pay their price even if he had to sleep in the rain. And he never told a performer how to record or what to do. If you only burped, Moe recorded it.
He thought up bright albums of children's records and all types of folk-song, as well as jazz, and hired good cover artists. The major companies used a lot of his ideas. Moe would treat the musicians he recorded to big steak dinners and drinks. Some deserved this, many did not. In fact, we ruined a couple of sessions from being too high.
I am grateful for the things that Asch did. He submitted my music to all the New York libraries, he paid me for recording musicians I had heard in Pittsburgh, and he encouraged me to record my Zodiac Suite, which sold and is still selling. Sessions for Asch brought me more royalties than I've had from any other record company, and gave me the freedom to create.
I met a very talented artist named David Stone Martin, and asked him to do a cover for one of my albums. Through this he received additional work with Asch, and people soon noticed his outstanding work. Today he is well known in the jazz world for his illustrating and record album and sleeve designs, and in the high brackets for picture sales. He has not forgotten me, and always credits me with his first step to success. We are very good friends.
Another friend from this period was Gjon Mili, the photographer who worked on the jazz short, Jammin' The Blues. Gjon tried to get a good picture of me for some while without succeeding, but finally made it with five studies -- one of which went on display in New York's Modern Art Museum. Naturally I was delighted to see so many people looking at me, amazed, no doubt, by the quality of Mili's photography.
Meanwhile, I was back at the Café; elsewhere in New York bop was really moving. Al Haig, with Ben Webster's band, was bopping nicely on piano and going to school to study more theory. Soon he was blowing with Gillespie, Parker and the rest.
About now I met Babs Gonzales, the only original singer bop produced (to my mind). Babs was wailing in his highly personal way, and wailing with the pen as well as the voice. He was writing a book about bebop, and in between bouts of writing was coining all kinds of hip expressions for a famous New York disc jockey. Unluckily for Babs, the book got away from him; stolen, he says, by a publisher.
One day I heard that Erroll Garner was opening the following week at a place on 52nd Street. I could hardly wait to hear him again, and got away between shows to catch his opening. He was playing more than ever before, yet seemed to me to have got on a Tatum kick, playing fast runs and all. I reminded Erroll of his own original manner of playing which I had admired so much when he was working in Pittsburgh. Before very long I was glad to hear him back on his old style.
In those times, Garner made a habit of going over to Inez Cavanaugh's apartment, an inspiring spot for musicians where Erroll used to play and compose all day. She told me he once sat gazing at a subdued table lamp of hers, then composed something to fit the mood, which he titled Lamplight. Often he gets ideas for his pieces from some object or scene that happens to catch his attention.
Some unpleasantness came up on the job about this time, so Erroll went out to California for two years or so. When he returned to New York he was astonished by the reception he got. He had thought of the Three Deuces as just another job, he told me later, and was surprised to see it full of people like Robert Sylvester, Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather for his opening. Garner had not realised the impact made by his bestseller, Laura, in the East. And to back this up, he had dozens of sides with small companies, all of which released his stuff at one time in an attempt to cash in while Laura was still hot. So far as jazz pianists go, I guess Erroll has become the fastest seller on records in the world. And he surely deserves this success, for he is a fine and distinctive player.
Unknown to Erroll, I often won small bets on him. You see, many people have the idea that he lacks technique and cannot execute difficult passages. I have been able to prove them wrong. Garner is modern, yet his style is different from bop. He has worked out a sound of his own, doing four beats in the left hand like a guitar. He often uses bass and drums but can play alone and still promote a terrific beat. I like his playing for several reasons, primarily because it is original and has more feeling than almost any pianist I can think of. To me he is the Billie Holiday of the piano. Some musicians put him down because he does not read music nor indulge in a lot of senseless modern progressions. But these are not the important things in jazz.
What would jazz piano have done for inspiration without Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Monk, Tatum, Garner and the older giants like Willie The Lion Smith, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller? Without these individualists, many of today's pianists wouldn't be playing anything, for they lack the power of creative thinking. Garner has been an asset and inspiration to the jazz world.
Teddy Wilson I would call a genius. He has studied a great deal, and it is reflected in his playing, but the study has not been allowed to impair his individual style. Many people forget that jazz, no matter what form it takes, must come from the heart as well as the mind. Regardless of what technique he may have, a jazzman must be able also to tell a story. I can never admire a robot pianist whose runs flow straight from his studies instead of his feelings.
For short periods I would be out of the Café, on concert tours and such, and then go back. I had become like one of the fixtures, and was treated like a member of the boss's family. On Sunday nights we had a little party, just the staff and a few musicians. Hazel Scott, Thelma Carpenter, Billy Strayhorn, Aaron Bridges and Lena Horne and friends would come by and we'd have the most enjoyable time.
The only drag in New York was the many benefit shows we were expected to do -- late shows which prevented me from running up on 52nd Street to see my favourite modernists. Sometimes Johnny Gary (the valet) and I would dig a boogie character coming to take me on a benefit. We'd tear across the street to the 18th Hole and hide real quick under a table till the danger was past.
All this time, Minton's Playhouse jumped with cool sounds. People had heard about Monk and were coming from all over town to see what was happening. Teddy Hill had named Monk the `High Priest of Beebop' (at first that spelling was often used), and this title attracted disc jockeys and newspapermen. I cannot remember who gave bebop its name, though it was explained to me that the word was derived from the sound of the modern drummer dropping bombs. Klook Clarke was one who developed the bop method of drumming, and Art Blakey was bombing away very early. Sometimes Art's moving so fast you cannot see his hands: he's a crazy drummer.
Some players, like Art and J.C. Heard, seem to have been born bopping. J.C. played so much drums when he was with Teddy Wilson's great band that they had to hold him back in order to get a good solid beat going. And Art was about the same when I met him -- we had a difficult time with him on ballads and straight dance things. He was a real eager-beaver.
Few creative artists can explain or analyse what they write or play because musical ideas come to them spontaneously while they're playing. I have heard Garner and others, listening to a play-back on a record date, say: `I didn't know I made that passage.' Jazz is created in the mind, felt in the heart and heard through the fingertips.
My reason for feeling that bop is the `next era' music is that it came about spontaneously in the same way as our blues and classic jazz, or any other music that a race of people produces. And I contend that bop is the only real modern jazz, despite the contentions of the copyists of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Schoenberg. The swing era produced smooth eighth notes which many of our theoreticians are still playing. The phrasing and timing of bop puts it in a different category altogether. The American Negro musician of today is born to this new phrasing, just as in the past he was born to the rhythm and phrasing of ragtime or boogie and naturally played those styles of music.
Bop has become a powerful and, I believe, permanent influence on our native music. The guys who originated it were as gifted as the creative musicians of the Thirties and the eras that came before. I have known older musicians discourage them, speak badly of the music. Perhaps these older players feared for themselves and their positions. If so, they were being ridiculous. If some of them were to add a few modern changes here and there in their own work, it might revive their inspiration and help them avoid the danger of artistic stagnation. The sooner the older players and fans accept the new music the better it will be for everyone concerned with jazz. It does not mean that Duke, Louis, Count, Teddy Wilson and the rest will lose out completely. Without a war in music we can all survive. For, regardless of whether the music is bop or something else, it will have to have the jazz foundation -- a beat!
For four or five years I worked at Café Society, mostly Downtown but finally graduating to the Uptown Café on 59th Street when Hazel Scott left there to marry Adam Clayton Powell. The Uptown Café was a modern-style beautiful room with the bandstand in the back faced by a cute little balcony that seated fifty people or maybe more. Mildred Bailey, Eddie South, Lena Home, Josh White, Phil Moore, Eddie Heywood, Pete Johnson, Imogene Coca and Susan Reed (with her zither) were among the artists who would work there. And for quite a while Edmond Hall had the band there, with Irving Randolph on trumpet and Jimmy Crawford on drums. They played music as good as any I ever heard in a chic club. Often I spotted Benny Goodman in the room, digging Edmond's clarinet. But for all its looks, the Uptown Café was nothing like Downtown -- though it catered for the same kind of Eastside crowd: movie stars, millionaires and the elite. Downtown was groovy, more relaxed than Uptown.
During these New York years I had an idea I would like to hear an orchestra of sixteen or so pieces play my Zodiac Suite. Barney Josephson agreed to give the concert for me at Town Hall, and I decided to use oboe, flute, horn, tenor sax, ten or twelve strings, piano, bass and drums. Ben Webster played tenor, Al Hall bass and J.C. Heard drums. The rest were from studio orchestras. The concert attracted a pack of musicians, newspapermen, disc jockeys and theatre people, and eveything went all right until we got to the special arrangement of Roll 'Em, our only jazz number. The long, drawn-out strings threw some of the other musicians: I think the conductor lost the place, and for a moment I thought we'd had it. Everyone seemed to be playing a different page, and I'll never forget Ben Webster's big eyes fixed on me. I thought I would blow a blood vessel any second. I remember yelling: `Count eight and play letter "J".' Somehow we got out of Roll 'Em.
After the concert I was sick for about a week, could not work. Then I went down to the Town Hall for the records Barney had paid to have made of the concert. For the first time in the history of the hall, the records had been stolen. I never found them, and so never heard how my music sounded. And I'd spent some 500 dollars for copying and other matters, though Barney backed the concert.
Being determined, I nevertheless tried it once again. Norman Granz had blown into town with fresh ideas on jazz presentation. He broke into Carnegie Hall and took New York by storm. I had built up a nice solid following by now, and Norman invited me to do a concert for him. When I told him what I wanted in payment he blew his top, said I wasn't worth anything to him and that he knew a town where none of my records ever sold. First I was hot, then I laughed, and since that time I have learned to like Norman better.
I couldn't get my price so I took scale and compromised with a deal by which I could perform three of the Zodiac things with the New York Philharmonic Symphony. I was determined to hear my work played by 100 paper men. Mr Rybb, who booked ali the concerts in Carnegie, immediately started on the concert details. I had only eight or nine days to work, and a hundred pieces to score for, so I got an old friend, Milton Orent, to help out. Milton was a clever bass player and arranger who wrote some things for Kirk, did Otto, Make That Riff Staccato for Duke, and wrote the lyrics of In The Land Of Oo-Bla-Dee.
The day before the big night, Milton had to leave town for his summer job. I stayed up the best part of the night working on a blues for the orchestra. I had already arranged Libra, Scorpio and Aquarius, dedicating the last to President Roosevelt. The blues was an idea that came on at the last minute. I called Milt, a hundred miles away, and asked, `What about having the symphony play a jazz piece?' His reply was: `Don't do that, Pussycat.' I took no notice.
It was 6.30 p.m. when I began this piece of craziness. Before I knew it, it was seven in the morning and I had just finished copying for the five basses. After grabbing a few hours' sleep, I made the 2 p.m. rehearsal.
Everything went down okay on the Zodiac, then Mr Rybb asked, `Anything else to rehearse?' Shakily I made preparations with the female conductor, who knew little of jazz, and anyway seemed scared of the hundred guys sitting in front of her I think this was her debut, too: at this point we were both shaking 1ike dogs with distemper.
After the intro, I had four choruses of fast boogie, then oboe and trumpet playing written solos: last, but not least, I gave the thirty-six violins two bop choruses, and I must say they tackled them bravely.
At the concert that night the performance was quite sensational. The boys in the symphony applauded louder than the audience and, to prove they meant it, carried on like mad backstage. I went home much elated, and this time I did not forget my slides (recordings). In fact, I asked Inez Cavanaugh and her husband, the Danish Baron Timme Rosenkrantz, to guard them for me.
By this time I had worked almost six years straight. Now, for a while, I'd take it easy and ball. After I left the Café I turned down work that would have paid £ 400, and was told I should be in a strait-jacket.
I decided to find out what people and conditions were like in the slums of Harlem: things I'd never had the chance to really dig before. This was a mistake. I got mixed up with the wrong characters. When someone gave me a line I swallowed it hook and sinker. The next thing, someone I considered a friend had got me in a swindle. I was having fun like a babe in the woods: lost so much money, which I regularly drew from my postal savings, that the authorities thought some goon was blackmailing me.
From Lennox to 125th Street and 8th Avenue I cruised all over Harlem. Never had I been in such a terrible but fascinating environment, among people who roamed the streets ramping for someone to devour. Truthfully, it was fascinating to watch one race of people live off each other. I wondered why the shrewd brains never ventured Downtown where the real gold was.
New York, anyhow, is no place for slow thinkers. It's a town where if you relax and act nice and normal, something happens: a town where you don't dare take a vacation. You must be on the ball or move out to the country.
After playing around awhile, I realised I must work again. I secured several record dates -- luckily getting some new sounds going, which enabled me to tour Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. As a result of disappearing for six months, it was like starting from the bottom all over again. But I began getting jobs on radio and television, and was soon kept quite busy.
When Benny Goodman came to New York I went to rehearsal, taking several arrangments along. I found that Teddy Wilson would be teaching during the summer, and was asked if I'd take his place. I joined Benny. He had Wardell Gray, Stan Hasselgaard, Red Rodney, Billy Bauer, Mel Zelnick (drums), and a wonderful bassist whose name I've forgotten. I played weekends with the sextet, which sounded fair but never quite made it except one night when Benny went home early and left us to finish. The guys blew like mad this particular night.
Unfortunately, when Benny was on the stand he often made musicians feel uneasy by the discouraging look he gave them. Perhaps he wasn't happy then.
Around this time Monty Kay had an idea to open a place on Broadway where the Hurricane used to be. The idea came off, and he named the place Bop City. No wonder: it was an enormous joint which held at least a thousand people. Later, I took my trio there to accompany Billy Eckstine. It was this same Monty Kay who afterwards ran the Downbeat Club, another cool haunt. He was the ideas man in the club business. Whenever I went there, Monty offered me three or four weeks, and I finally took him up on it. I alternated with the great Billy Taylor. He made me feel like playing, for I was raised on competition. Oscar Pettiford and Klook Clarke were the rhythm men, and when I'd played half an hour I would bring Kal Winding, Zoot Sims and Kenny Dorham on the stand. There wasn't a set with the trio when we didn't compose on the spot.
Three months passed and Oscar left to return to one of his old jobs in Snookie's, near 6th Avenue, taking Klook with him. The new section wasn't bad, perhaps, but after what I'd had it annoyed me. One night I gave up, asking Billy Taylor to play for me while I went upstairs to listen. `If they don't sound any better with him,' I told myself, `I'm cutting.' They didn't and I split, but had to return later as that was the only way I could get paid for three of four days' work done. When I got back I was given a raise.
Next thing, I received an offer to come to England. Several times I refused, then made up my mind to go, getting permision to leave my job for thirty days. That was November of 1952, and I'm in Europe yet.