AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
It was one of our great bands. With Randolph leading the brass, no music was difficult to read. I could pass out arrangements on the stand during the evening and they'd be read right off. Our engagement was a riot, causing the rival Fairyland Park to employ Bennie Moten in self-defence. Kansas City in the Thirties was jumping harder than ever. The `Heart of America' was at that time one of the nerve centres of jazz, and I could write about it for a month and never do justice to the half of it. Lester Young, who had worked with Walter Page and Bennie Moten, was blowing cool sounds at the Subway on 18th Street. This was a small place with only one entrance: really a fire- trap, yet groovy. The first time I heard Lester I was astounded. It took him several choruses to get started -- then, brother, what a horn!
A wild 12th Street spot we fell in regularly was the Sunset, owned by Piney Brown, who loved jazz and was very liberal with musicians. Pianist Pete Johnson worked there with bass and drums, sometimes with Baby Lovett, a New Orleans drummer who became one of Kansas City's best. Now the Sunset had a bartender named Joe Turner, and while Joe was serving drinks he would suddenly pick up a cue for a blues and sing it right where he stood, with Pete playing piano for him. I don't think I'll ever forget the thrill of listening to big Joe Turner shouting and sending everybody night after night while mixing drinks.
Pete Johnson was great on boogie, but he was by no means solely a boogie player. It was only when someone like Ben Webster, the Kaycee-born tenor man, yelled `Roll for me ... come on, roll 'em Pete, make 'em jump,' that he would play boogie for us.
In the summer Kirk's band worked only from nine to twelve at night, and afterwards we would drive by the Sunset -- John Williams and me and the five or six that rode with us. Pete might be playing something like Sweet Georgia Brown or Indiana when we got there. I'd go home to bath and change, and when I got back, ten to one Pete would still be jamming the same tune, and maybe some of the guys wailing along with him.
Hot Lips Page was the life of many a Kaycee jam session. After a soloist had blown nine or ten choruses Lips would start a riff in the background which the other horns picked up. Not many arrangers could improve on Lips when it came to backing up a soloist.
Of course, we didn't have any closing hours in these spots. We could play all morning and half through the day if we wished to, and in fact we often did. The music was so good that I seldom got to bed before midday. It was just such a late morning occasion that once had Coleman Hawkins hung up. Fletcher Henderson came to town with Hawkins on tenor, and after the dance the band cruised round until they fell into the Cherry Blossom where Count Basie worked. The date must have been early 1934, because Prohibition had been lifted and whisky was freely on sale. The Cherry Blossom was a new nightclub, richly decorated in Japanese style even to the beautiful little brown-skinned waitress.
The word went round that Hawkins was in the Cherry Blossom, and within about half an hour there were Lester Young, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Herman Walder and one or two unknown tenors piling in the club to blow. Ben didn't know the Kaycee tenormen were so terrific, and he couldn't get himself together though he played all morning. I happened to be nodding that night, and around 4 a.m. I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen. I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying: `Get up, pussycat, we're jammin' and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing. You got to come down.' Sure enough, when we got there Hawkins was in his singlet taking turns with the Kaycee men. It seems he had run into something he didn't expect.
Lester's style was light and, as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn't handle him on a cutting session. That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St Louis. I heard he'd just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenormen.
Off and on, I was with Andy Kirk right through the Thirties and up until 1942. Enough characters passed through the band in that time to fill a book. And if I could set down everything that happened, it would probably turn out a best seller. Tenormen, as I have said before, were in good supply in Kansas City. We certainly had our share of them. After Slim Freeman, we used Buddy Tate, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Dick Wilson and Don Byas.
It was when we returned to Kaycee for a summer season at Harry Duncan's Fairyland Park ballroom that Ben Webster was added. What a wild cat! I remember him first as a spoiled youngster from one of the county's most respected Negro families: a family of lawyers and other professional people. From the moment I met him I was fascinated because he was always up to something. Then, too, I liked his tenor. If he felt over-anxious, Ben would play roughly, distorting a style which was already full of vitality. It seemed to me he played best when he was either sick or tired.
Ben was really bad boy pick, always wrong. Sometimes John Williams yelled at him on the stand to stop experimenting and play. But after being around with the guys a while Ben became less boisterous, which made me like him better. We used to walk for miles together, and he always took me to jam sessions. At one place, called Val's, we ran into Art Tatum. Art had a radio programme, also a job in a dicty private club, but preferred wailing at Val's after hours. It was Val's every night then. Whenever I wasn't listening to Tatum I was playing -- Art inspired me so much. Chords he was throwing in then, the boppers are using now. And his mind was the quickest.
Art usually drank a bottle of beer while the other pianists took over, and didn't miss a thing. For instance, there was a run that Buck Washington showed me (Buck, of the Buck and Bubbles team, played a lotta piano, especially when out jamming. Everything he did was unusual). Now Art heard me play this run, which consisted of F, E flat, D flat, C; (octave up) C, B flat, A flat, G; and so on all the way to the top of the keyboard. When he sat down he played it right off. Other pianists had heard and tried, but taken time to pick it up.
I can remember only one man who sounded good following Tatum. His name was Lannie Scott, and he was the most popular pianist in Cleveland, until Tatum came to Cleveland. Then Lannie lost his popularity.
In Kaycee, though, we had a kind of counterpart of Tatum, an ear man called Sleepy who played almost as much as Art, and in the hard keys -- A natural, B natural, E natural. Another unsung piano player was Lincoln, known as a three-chord man. His harmonies were the worst, yet he was terrific with the beat. Martha Raye, then eighteen, stopped in Kansas City on her way to Califonia and got hung up listening to Lincoln's nasty beat. She stayed close on two weeks, and was down at the clubs digging the music and singing like mad night after night. Martha hated to leave, nearly missed doing her picture. That was how Kaycee would get you, for there were always places open and music to hear.
Besides the players I've mentioned, and Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Pete Johnson, Sam Price and Clyde Hart, there were three girl pianists apart from myself. One was Julia Lee, who took little part in the sessions; another I recollect only as Oceola; the third was known as Countess Margaret. Countess was a friend of Lester Young, and when I was sick for a time, Kirk sent for her to take my place for a month. The tour got her, I fear, for she died of tuberculosis before she had done very much, though I hear she was quite good.
Two other pianists I met in Kaycee during the mid-Thirties were Tadd Dameron and Thelonius Monk. I was to get to know both of them well in New York in later years. Tadd, who came from Cleveland, was just starting out playing and writing for a band from Kansas. Though very young, he had ideas even then that were `way ahead of his time. Thelonius, still in his teens, came into town with either an evangelist or a medicine show -- I forget which.
While Monk was in Kaycee he jammed every night; really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he does today. Monk plays the way he does now because he got fed up. Whatever people may tell you, I know how Monk can play. He felt that musicians should play something new, and started doing it. Most of us admire him for this. He was one of the original modernists all right, playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he's playing now. Only in those days we called it `Zombie music' and reserved it mostly for musicians after hours.
Why `Zombie music'? Because the screwy chords reminded us of music from Frankenstein or any horror film. I was one of the first with these frozen sounds, and after a night's jamming would sit and play weird harmonies (just chord progressions) with Dick Wilson, a very advanced tenor player.
But this is getting ahead of my story. Our next added attraction was Pha Terrell, a good-looking singer who helped to make Kirk's band the hot proposition it soon became, though he never got recognition for doing so. Pha was naturally lucky with females, as all of them -- from schoolgirls to schoolmarms -- drooled over his smooth, pleasing voice.
As for Ben Webster: he stayed with us two or three years -- longer than he'd stuck with anyone -- then quit to join Cab Calloway. Until he had gone I didn't realise how much I would miss him. Then I lost 251b, as I could not eat for some time.
Lester Young replaced Ben, and sensational as he was, never fitted the band like that big Webster sound had. In truth, Ben could blow more in two bars, so far as soul and `story' are concerned, than most men can in a chorus. Of course, being accustomed to the big tenor tone, I thought at first that Lester's sound was anaemic. But soon I learned to appreciate what he could do, for he was a master at improvising solos of five or fifteen choruses, never repeating.
Lester wasn't with the band too long before he left and went over to Basie, with whom he had worked previously. Basie had, some time before, quit the Moten band to form his own small group. Then along around April of 1935, Bennie died. It seems that a young intern operated on him for removal of tonsils, but something went wrong and the operation killed Bennie. So Basie drew several of Moten's men into his outfit and built the band that blew up a storm at Kaycee's Reno Club.
While the Count was getting this group together, he sent out for Jo Jones on drums. I loved to see Jo teaming with Walter Page, the bassist. Page showed Jo what to do and when to do it, and it was really something to dig these two great musicians. I have caught Basie's orchestra at times when there was no one on the stand except Page and the horns and, believe me, `Big One' swung that band on his bass without much effort.
Meanwhile, we continued our one-nighters, working our way back East to Baltimore, Maryland, where we landed in a beautiful little club called the Astoria. Joe Glaser caught our band and promised to do something about it. He had us come to New York after the engagement, securing a record date on Decca for the band. Never have I written so many things so quickly in my entire career. I must have done twenty in one week, including Cloudy, Corky and Froggy Bottom (both new arrangements), Steppin' Pretty and Walkin' And Swingin'.
For nights I could not leave my room, having my meals brought in to me. And at 7 a.m. I was up again for another session.
I had begun to think my arrangments were not worth much, as no one ever wanted to pay for them, and Andy, I knew, could not afford a proper arranger's fee. But the work paid off in the long run. Whenever musicians listened to the band they would ask who made a certain arrangement. Nearly always it was one of mine. Walkin' And Swingin' was one of those numbers musicians liked to play. I had tried out trumpet combining with saxes to make the sound of five reeds, and this was different and effective. So other bands took up the arrangement. Our band paid 3 dollars for the arrangement, Earl Hines 10, and the Casa Lomas 59; which totals 63 dollars -- wow!
We made these records in 1936, with the new and superb tenorman Dick Wilson, who had joined us before the tour. We had Booker Collins on bass (Kirk having finally decided to use string bass), and wonderful Ted Brinson on the guitar. In between band sessions, I cut my first Decca solos, including Isabelle and Overhand. We were still supposed to be incorporated, but after our first big record we were no longer that way (smile). The more I asked about it, the dumber everybody got.
Glaser put us in a Cleveland ballroom, where we broadcast nightly over a national hook-up with America's top sports commentator. What power and money can do! We stayed until the name of Kirk was ringing from coast to coast, also three of his stars -- Pha Terrell, Dick Wilson and (let's face it) Mary Lou Williams.
After our first release, Froggy Bottom, which was a fabulous seller on the juke boxes, we were booked into Harlem's Apollo Theatre. At this time I met luscious Billie Holiday, then just catching on like mad with her early records. She and Teddy Wilson's combo, with Ben Webster's crazy horn, really went together. Pha had a crush on Billie, but was too bashful to visit her alone, so I was made to go along with him. I have been fond of Billie ever since, for I have always felt tremendous warmth and kindness in her.
By now, Dick Wilson had become my special buddy; perhaps tenor players were my weakness. He was a handsome cat, and when we weren't jamming in his room it was generally full of girls. One night, scuffling around Harlem, Wilson and I fell in the Savoy. After dancing a couple of rounds, I heard a voice that sent chills up and down my spine (which I never thought could happen). I almost ran to the stand to find out who belonged to the voice, and saw a pleasant-looking brown- skinned girl standing modestly and singing the greatest. I was told her name was Ella Fitzgerald, and that Chick Webb had unearthed her from one of the Apollo's amateur hours. Later I learned that Ella never once forgot Chick for giving her the break when others turned their backs -- others who wanted her when success came.
By the time we returned to Kaycee, to Fairyland Park, all that could be heard on the juke boxes was Froggy Bottom. That particular tune was being played all over the country, and as a result our band started hitting like mad on one-nighters.
I often wonder what an agent would do if he had to travel with the band he's booking. After the release of our Decca records, in 1936, the Kirk band travelled five or six thousand miles a week on one-nighters all through the South, repeating most of the dates before coming West again. For nearly three years we toiled across Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. I shall never forget some of the beautiful stretches of country, nor the many attractions of New Orleans.
We got little chance to hear the local musicians, though, for we arrived in most places in time to play, and left right afterwards. I have gone to sleep with my fur coat on, near to freezing, and woken up in the car hours later wet from perspiration in the sub-tropics of Florida.
Our sidemen were making only eight and a half dollars a night, and paying two or three bucks for a decent room. Since they had gone through hardships to keep the band intact, I thought they deserved at least 15 dollars. I made 75 a week, with arranging, and think Pha Terrell got even less.
This didn't make me feel any too good, and I began to lose interest in the project, particularly as we repeated in so many mosquito-infested States. Sometimes I sat on the stand working crossword puzzles, only playing with my left hand. Every place we played had to turn people away, and my fans must have been disappointed with my conduct. If they were, I wasn't bothering at the time.
By now I was writing for some half-dozen bands each week. As we were making perhaps 500 miles per night, I used to write in the car by flashlight between engagements. Benny Goodman requested a blues and I did Roll 'Em and several others for him. One week I was called on for twelve arrangements, including a couple for Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and I was beginning to get telegrams from Gus Arnheim, Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and many more like them.
As a result of Benny's success with Roll 'Em (I received recognition as the composer), our band had to start featuring boogies. One I wrote was Little Joe From Chicago -- dedicated to Joe Glaser and Joe Louis -- and this turned out a big seller when we recorded it in 1938.
I guess our group and Lunceford's did more one-nighters than anyone. Jimmy's trumpet man, Paul Webster, once played with us, and bet me they had travelled more miles than we had. I'd show him either the itinerary or the speedometer and win the bet. That itinerary I have kept for when I want to look back on the impossible!
I remember jumping from St Louis to Canada: over 750 miles in one day. We played St Louis until 3 a.m., slept and left for Canada around 11 a.m., and arrived at ten at night -- one hour late for the job.
Eventually we worked our way round to Pittsburgh. As soon as I reached my home town I was told about a great young pianist just coming up. When I asked my brother-in-law who this was, he said it could only be Erroll Garner, then going to Westinghouse High School with my niece. I arranged to visit a friend's house to hear Erroll, and was surprised to find such a little guy, playing so much. And he did not even read music. The next few days were spent just listening to him. He was original then, sounding like no one in the world except Erroll Garner.
At one point I tried teaching him to read by giving him first whole notes, then halves, then quarters. I soon found he didn't want to bother, so I skipped it but tried to guide him any way I could, as others had guided me. I realised he was born with more than most musicians could accomplish in a lifetime.
Our tour took us to Oklahoma City again. Jack Teagarden had given me his family's phone number, so I called Norma Teagarden and she came to our dance. Norma talked about a remarkable guitarist named Charlie Christian, who played electric guitar and was raised in Oklahoma City. Norma is supposed to have taught Christian music, and she told us he could play everything from jazz to the classics. His favourites were In A Mist and Rhapsody In Blue.
Our guitarist, Floyd Smith (who replaced Ted Brinson), considered he could improvise with the best of them, and the guys in the band were anxious to see what he'd do after hearing Charlie. So after the dance everyone tore out to the club where Christian worked. I rode there with Pha Terrell, and when we got in the two guitarists were down with it: Floyd playing his head off for two choruses, then Charlie taking over -- very cool.
For a while it was a close call, then Charlie decided to blow. He used his head on cutting sessions, the way Chu Berry used to do, taking it easy while the other musician played everything he knew, then cutting loose to blast him off the map. Never in my life had I heard such inspired and exciting music as Christian beat out of his guitar. Poor Floyd gave it up and walked off the stand. Charlie played for us till daybreak.
I knew many leaders, including Benny Goodman, had tried to get Christian. Up to now he had refused to leave Oklahoma. But feeling that he and jazz should have a break, I asked him would he leave to join B.G. if I wired New York. Finally he said: `Okay, if you say so, Mary.' I wired John Hammond right quick, and John (who had heard Charlie previously) got together with B.G. In the summer of '39 Christian made the move, and Benny thanked me on one of his broadcasts for getting him for the band.
At this time I was feeling really dragged so far as Kirk's outfit went. I could not play or write my best for thinking about my share of the loot, and my sacrifices before we made a hit. All my piano solos I turned over to Floyd. I had gotten sick of playing the same ones long ago. Our repertoire consisted of recorded hits, and the solos had to be exactly like those on the records.
I had plenty of offers to leave, but turned them down. Though dissatisfied, I still felt loyal to the band. All the same, Pha and I caused so much annoyance through asking for raises that the `Golden System' decided to add more stars and oust us completely. Henry Wells, who played fine trombone and sang a fair ballad (though he was no Pha Terrell), joined a little later. And the next star to be added was sensational June Richmond who could break up the coldest audience. How I enjoyed her act.
Don Byas came into the band, and now we had two great tenormen -- Don and Dick Wilson. I think it was these two who kept me in the band, for I got real kicks out of jamming with them. I began to feel better.
We were booked into the Grand Terrace in Chicago, the place made famous by Earl Hines with the best band he's ever had. Omer Simeon was on clarinet, George Dixon and Walter Fuller on trumpet, Budd Johnson on tenor, Quinn Wilson (bass), and the late Alvin Burroughs on drums. Earl had gone out on the road, and we went in with twenty-five chorus girls and a big floor show. The engagement was sensational. We must have stayed there six months, and I jammed night after night, Chicago being second only to Kansas City for inspiration. Even those chorus girls swung like mad while dancing!
Going to session upon session with Dick Wilson, I became ill and was carted off to hospital. At least fifteen young interns visited me daily, and I had a radio, record machine, and so many flowers they were lined up along the corridor. I did not get much rest there. The interns offered to pay for my board and room if I stayed another week. I went home to Pittsburgh to convalesce, and after a time rejoined the band.
We must have repeated on our Southern dates about 100 times. Practically everyone was ill from travelling when we got an offer to go into the Cotton Club (on Broadway), by now operating on its last legs. Before this engagement, Harold Baker joined us on trumpet. It seemed our brass section was wilder than ever ... with Harold, Big Jim Lawson, Howard McGhee, Henry Wells and Theo Donnelly. Every section hung out together and tried to outdo the others. On the stand, the rhythm was always pushing and telling each other to get on the ball. After the date, we'd say: `We were really going, but you guys ... huh!' Of course, when a new arrangement was brought out we found time to help each other.
At the end of the Cotton Club deal, John Williams decided to stay in New York and go into the barbecue business with Mary Kirk. He made a few more dates and left the band. He and I were nearly through, anyway. Don Byas also left and was replaced by Edward Inge.
I began to notice that Dick Wilson was looking ill. Then he started disappearing upstairs during intermission. When I took him a drink, I'd find him stretched out on a divan. One night Wilson stayed home, and Harold Baker and I decided to visit him. He was in bed ill, too sick to eat. I ran across the street and got a doctor, who said he should be in hospital. When Dick heard this he wanted to get out, said it would be the end if he went into hospital. He must have known he was dying.
The band left New York shortly after for a Southern tour, and the next we heard was that Dick had been taken to hospital. In a couple of days, they said, he looked like a skeleton, and soon afterwards died. This happened towards the close of 1941, when Wilson could not have been older than thirty.
The next months were my last with Andy Kirk. For twelve years with the band I'd known swell times and bad ones, but barnstorming and the `New System' of management were bringing me down. Looking back, I can smile at our life on the road. Towards the end, though, there was no more brotherly love. I had lost so much through thefts that for a solid year I had to sleep with everything I owned. When someone broke in my trunk and took earrings, Indian-head pennies and silver dollars which I cherished, I decided to leave.
Dragging my trunk off the bus, I drove to Pittsburgh. Within two weeks, I heard from Harold Baker, who said he'd be coming through Pittsburgh and would stop by and see me. He stopped by all right. The band did not see him any more. Next thing, we both received letters from the union. I countered this move by stating that I would make it very unpleasant for the `New System' if I answered. Nothing further happened to me. Baker was fined a few pounds, I think.
So ended my long association with the Kirk orchestra. Harold and I stayed in Pittsburgh, forming a six-piece combo which had Art Blakey on drums and Orlando Wright on tenor. While rehearsing, Art told us of a terrific singer over on Wylie Avenue. I visited the club and was taken off my feet to see a guy who could sing so pretty and look so handsome. Girls were swooning all around the place, which was packed. Billy Eckstine was the handsome cat, and when I had a chance to meet him I found he lived near me out in East Liberty. It was a pleasure to talk to such a nice cool gentleman.
We rehearsed the new outfit every day, Harold Baker and myself, and through John Hammond contacted some people who were able to find us work. Our first job was in Cleveland, at Mason's Farm, and the combo went over well enough for us to be kept on from August to October -- way past the summer season.
Tadd Dameron and most of the musicians around came out to hear us. When Duke Ellington hit Cleveland, all the guys dropped by Mason's Farm. And they liked Harold so much they hired him. Later I learned why he decided to go. There had been a little dissension because he was not from Pittsburgh. It seemed my guys wanted all Pittsburghers in the combo, and had almost come to blows about it. So Harold went to Duke, and I said nothing though I thought plenty.
After he had gone. Art Blakey and the rest had me stop by Pittsburgh to pick up the greatest (they said) on trumpet. We arrived in New York with `The Greatest'. He couldn't even blow his nose! I must have auditioned every good trumpetman in NY. No one had realised the value of Harold Baker. He could play ten choruses solo and fall back into a fast-moving ensemble without splitting or missing a note. The new trumpetman would split anything. We were playing tricky arrangements that called for a bit of reading, and I could not even find a sound reader on trumpet. I felt depressed and made up my mind to join Harold as soon as I could.
Duke's band was in California. When it came to New York, Harold and I went off to Baltimore and got married. I travelled with Ellington, arranging about fifteen things for the orchestra. They included Trumpet No End, my version of Blue Skies, which I suppose was written early in '42 but not recorded until some years later.
I hope Duke always keeps a band, for he is a genius who gets the best results out of musicians. And what strange guys they were: half of them didn't speak to each other. Too many stars, I guess. When they were speaking, and felt like playing, they'd rearrange some of the band's oldies spontaneously right on the stand. Basie's is the only other band I know capable of doing this.
I moved around with Duke's orchestra until we reached Canada, and I came close to freezing. Then I caught the first train out to New York leaving Harold with the band.
Now I want to write what I know about how and why bop got started. Monk and some of the cleverest of the young musicians used to complain: `We'll never get credit for what we're doing.' they had reason to say it. In the music business the going is tough for original talent. Everybody is being exploited through paid-for publicity, and most anybody can become a great name if he can afford enough of it. In the end the public believes what it reads. So it is often difficult for the real talent to break through. Anyway, Monk said: `We are going to get a big band started. We're going to create something that they can't steal, because they can't play it.' There were more than a dozen people interested in the idea, and the band began rehearsing in a basement somewhere. Monk was writing arrangements, and Bud Powell and maybe Milt Jackson. Everyone contributed towards the arrangments, and some of them were real tough. Even those guys couldn't always get them right.
It was the usual story. The guys got hungry, so they had to go to work with different bands. Monk got himself a job at Minton's -- the house that built bop -- and after work the cats fell in to jam, and pretty soon you couldn't get in Minton's for musicians and instruments. Minton's Playhouse was not a large place, but it was nice and intimate. The bar was at the front, and the cabaret was in the back. The bandstand was situated at the rear of the back room, where the wall was covered with strange paintings depicting weird characters sitting on a brass bed, or jamming or talking to chicks.
During the day-time, people played the juke-box and danced. I used to call in often and got many laughs. It is amazing how happy those characters were -- jiving, dancing and drinking. It seemed everybody was talking at the same time: the noise was terrific. Even the kids playing out on the sidewalk danced when they heard the records.
That's how we were then -- one big family on West 118th Street. Minton's was a room next door to the Cecil Hotel and it was run by Teddy Hill, the onetime bandleader who did quite well in Europe, and who now managed for Minton. Henry Minton must have been a man about fifty who at one time played saxophone and at another owned the famous Rhythm Club where Louie, Fats, James P., Earl Hines and other big names filled the sessions. He had also been a Union official at Local 802. He believed in keeping the place up, and was constantly redecorating. And the food was good. Lindsay Steele had the kitchen at one time. He cooked wonderful meals and was a good mixer who could sing a while during intermission.
When Monk first played at Minton's there were few musicians who could run changes with him. Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Idrees Sulieman and a couple more were the only ones who could play along with Monk then. Charlie and I used to go to the basement of the hotel where I lived and play and write all night long. I still have the music of a song he started but never completed.
Sometime in 1943 I had an offer to go into Café Society Downtown. I accepted, though fearing I might be shaky on solo piano since I had been so long with Andy Kirk's band and my own combo. I immediately made some arrangements for six-pieces to accompany piano. At my opening people were standing upstairs, which I was glad to see. Georgia Gibbs, who was just starting out, was in the show with Ram Ramirez (composer of Lover Man), playing piano for her. Pearl Primus was also in the show, and Frankie Newton had the small band. I was sorry to hear of Newton's death just recently. He was a real great trumpetman, always very easy on the ear.
During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swop ideas until noon or later. Monk, Tadd Dameron, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Aaron Bridges, Billy Strayhorn, plus various disc jockeys and newspapermen, would be in and out of my place at all hours, and we'd really ball. When Monk wrote a new song he customarily played it night and day for weeks unless you stopped him. That, he said, was the only way to find out if it was going to be good. `Either it grew on or it didn't.'
I considered myself lucky having men like Monk and Bud playing me the things they had composed. And I have always upheld and had faith in the boppers, for they originated something but looked like losing credit for it. Too often have I seen people being chummy with creative musicians, then -- when the people have dug what is happening -- put down the creators and proclaim themselves king of jazz, swing or whatever. So the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the `leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.
I happened to run into Thelonius standing next door to the 802 Union building on 6th Avenue, where I was going to pay my dues. He was looking at some heavy-framed sun-glasses in a shop window, and said he was going to have a pair made similar to a pair of ladies' glasses he had seen and liked. He suggested a few improvements in the design, and I remember laughing at him. But he had them made in the Bronx, and several days later came to the house with his new glasses and, of course, a beret. He had been wearing a beret, with a small piano clip on it, for some years previous to this. Now he started wearing the glasses and beret, and the others copied him.
Out of that first big band Monk formed grew people like Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell. No one could play like Bud, not until he recorded and the guys had a chance to dig him. And even now they cannot play just like him, for I believe he is the only pianist who makes every note ring. The strength in his fingers must be unequalled. Yet I am forced to the conclusion that Monk influenced him as a kid. He idolises Monk and can interpret Monk's compositions better than anyone I know. And the two used to be inseparable. At the piano Bud still does a few things the way Monk would do them, though he has more technique.
Yes, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Idrees Sulieman were the first to play bop. Next were Parker, Gillespie, and Clyde Hart, now dead, who was sensational on piano. After them came J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Al Haig, Milt Jackson, Tadd Dameron, Leo Parker, Babs Gonzales, Max Roach, Kenny Dorham and Oscar Pettiford. Those men played the authentic bop, and anybody who heard the small combo that Dizzy kept together for so long in New York should easily be able to distinguish the music from the imitation article.
Often you hear guys blowing a lot of notes and people say: `They're bopping.' But they are not. Bop is the phrasing and accenting of the notes, as well as the harmonies used. Every other note is accented. Never in the history of jazz has the phrasing been like it is in bop. Musicians like Dave Brubeck come up with different styles which may be interesting. But they are not bop. Personally, I have always believed that bebop was here to stay. That's one reason I tried to encourage the original modernists to continue writing and experimenting.
Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the great stars of jazz. I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.