by Kirk Woodward
[Once again Kirk Woodward, my friend and a frequent contributor to ROT, comes back to the blog with a new piece of writing. Returning to one of his strongest interests, music, Kirk here writes about jazz, a form of music in which he first became interested as a young teen. This time, rather than discuss the form—probably a nearly impossible task for jazz anyway—Kirk’s reminiscing about some of the greats of the form he heard play before they passed from the scene. This piece is a personal journey, but one on which it’s worth tagging along. ~Rick]
A friend remarked once that conversations about jazz tend to consist of one person saying a name of a jazz musician, and a second person saying “Wow! Yeah! Great!” There’s some truth in that. Since I was fortunate to be able to see a number of the great figures from the first, or at least the second, generation of jazz giants – nearly all gone now – I’d like to pass on some of what I remember of them, but I’m not sure my descriptions will amount to much more than “Wow!”
I heard there was something called “jazz” in 1963, before I actually heard the music, and I felt I had some sort of responsibility to find out what it was like. Not knowing exactly in what direction to go, I bought a Ray Charles album, Yes Indeed (Atlantic Records, 1958), on June 14, 1963, when I was 15, played it continuously for weeks, and became a fan of Ray Charles forever. The liner notes mentioned some other names as well, like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, so I began to get some idea that jazz had a context.
This process was assisted, a bit later, by a collection of reviews, Such Sweet Thunder (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), by Whitney Balliett, then the jazz critic for The New Yorker. Through Balliett I came to learn about people like Earl Hines and Duke Ellington (see below) before I had heard them. This isn’t supposed to be possible, since music and the spoken word are so different, but Balliett was able to describe jazz in an intelligible way. You might not have been able to hear actual music from his descriptions, but you would not be surprised at how they played when you finally did.
RAY CHARLES (1930-2004)
My first jazz concert was, naturally enough, a Ray Charles concert – this must have been about 1964, at the Fairgrounds in Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t remember much except that I thought he was terrific. (See? “Wow!”) David “Fathead” Newman (1933-2009), whose character makes a vivid appearance in the movie Ray, was still in Charles’s band at that time, playing lead saxophone, and he played solos like the ones I’d memorized on Yes Indeed. I still think that Newman’s solo work with Charles is magnificent, and I was delighted when the two were reunited in 1977 on Saturday Night Live.
I saw Ray Charles many times after that, up to and including his last concert in New York City. Once during an intermission I talked to a trombonist in his band, Henry Coker (1919-79). I took up almost his whole break asking him questions, which didn’t delight him, and he wasn’t overwhelmed with the honor of playing for Ray either. He spent nearly all this time on the road away from his family, and he said Charles came to just the last few rehearsals before the band went on the road.
Almost every time I saw Charles, he provided some indelible moment. The very greatest was during a sensational concert at Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C., in perhaps 1970. The show had been delayed, and almost cancelled, by rain, which finally stopped – Charles said, “I’ve got connections.” Ray and the band had been in residence at Wolf Trap for nearly a week, and they were feeling at home. They played a long, improvised blues segment – filthy words and scratchy sounds; and the spoken climax on Ray’s song “Understanding” (“I’ll hit her upside the head with an axe – maybe she’ll understand that!” – different from the line on the record) hit such a peak that the audience literally screamed. “He’ll never be better than that,” my friend Steve Johnson said, and maybe Steve was right; but Ray was always remarkable.
Ray’s audience was so used to his routines that once at a sparsely attended (because poorly advertised) concert at Lincoln Center, when he finished “What’d I Say” no one applauded, because they knew, being hard core fans, that he’d be back for one more musical bit.
EARL HINES (1903-83)
My mother told me that Charles’s piano style reminded her of Earl Hines (she didn’t like Ray much otherwise; I argued for him and against Sinatra, a pointless argument if there ever was one), so I went to hear Hines at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., probably in 1968 or so. From the back of the room an old, chunky, bald man came in and walked on stage; there he is, old Earl, I thought. Then a tall young fellow with black hair strode to the piano and began to play. That was Hines, of course, the other man being Budd Johnson (1910-84), the saxophonist with whom Hines had recently reteamed. Hines would then have been about 66.
In a long couple of sets that night, I remember being especially dazzled by Hines’s multi-chorus tremolo in his famous song “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues,” which left the audience gasping (Hines had prodigious piano skills), and by Hines’s shouting, during a number written by a Russian jazz musician, “Play it to 1984!” which, as I recall, I was the only person to laugh at.
In the 1970s, in Manhattan, I was fortunate to be able to take my mother to hear Hines for the first time since she’d been a girl; we stood at the bar at Michael’s Pub while Hines played in the dining room. He walked by us later and we were able to mutter to him how much we admired him.
THELONIOUS MONK (1917-82)
I also saw Thelonious Monk at the Cellar Door in Washington. He didn’t dance during other musicians’ solos, as he was said to do (he can be seen doing it in films), but his extremely quirky sense of humor was in evidence. He opened with a discordant solo “Happy Birthday,” followed by “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .”) – both for reasons unexplained, since we didn’t know whose birthday it was, and it wasn’t Jesus’ – I mean, it wasn’t Christmas.
At the intermission at this show I talked with the drummer, an unhappy former vibraharp player who had been enlisted for this gig when Monk was short a drummer. He pointed out that playing the vibes and drums were similar skills. Still, I persisted, it must be hard to play with Monk. He replied, bravely, I thought, “It’s the same four beats to the bar.” However, he didn’t seem happy. Someone told me that a few nights later, Monk abruptly announced to the audience, “Drum solo!” and walked off the stage, leaving the poor guy to fend for himself, figuring, I suppose, that he’d had enough preparation time.
My other memory of Monk at this appearance occurred after the band was packing up to leave. My friend and I were hanging around, and we saw an old, disheveled man, who at that time we might have called a bum, talking to Monk, and Monk staring at him with his baleful sheep’s eyes, giving him his complete attention. As we left, Monk waved the man to a chair and ordered him a drink and was still concentrating intently on the old fellow as we left, never saying a word as the man talked and talked.
Later at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan I saw Monk playing (with his son on drums) in two exuberant sets. In the second, some college kids near me sat in desperate frustration trying to figure out what Monk was playing, until one of them finally shouted, “Sweet Georgia Brown!” At this same show I walked past Monk as he came out of the men’s room and I was going in. He stared at me, balefully.
MJQ (1946-1974; 1981-1994)
Back again at the Cellar Door (or maybe the Byrd’s Nest – and could that be where I heard Hines?) – it was a lovely room for jazz. The Modern Jazz Quartet (the MJQ) was known for their creative but decorous jazz; I saw them one night when they swung so hard that the crowd started screaming and stomping. The MJQ looked shocked, but couldn’t stop rockin’. I wish some people with ideas about how tame they were could have heard them that night.
COLEMAN HAWKINS (1904-69)
From Balliet’s book, and also from an unbelievable, mountainous blues solo on the album Jimmy Witherspoon at Monterey (Hi Fi Jazz, 1959), I came to admire the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and I heard him in person twice, once with Roy Eldridge (1911-89) at a jazz festival near Baltimore, in an afternoon session where he played a memorable “I Can’t Get Started,” and then in Louisville, Kentucky, six months before he died. I told my friend Bob Giammittorio that I felt I should see these people while they were still alive, and Bob drove down to Louisville from Virginia with me for the trip. The scene was a little jazz club down by the Ohio River that I think didn’t stay in business much longer.
Hawkins that night looked like an Old Testament prophet, with full beard and staring eyes. He had dropped his sax at the airport and damaged it, he said; he was obviously in failing health (and only a few months later drank himself to death), and he literally could hardly play during his first set, in addition to which he had a pickup band which somehow had never heard that he liked to play unaccompanied codas, so the leader, thinking he was smarter than this old geezer, kept cutting him off. In the second set, however, Hawkins recovered a little and played a “Yesterdays” that I treasure in memory.
Hawkins had a booming voice, a result of his talking over the noise of big bands for years. At the end of the evening, the crowd (which had never been hostile even when he was futilely blowing air through his mouthpiece) was shouting “Play ‘The Body’!’ Play ‘The Body’!” (meaning “Body and Soul,” the classic Hawkins recording of 1939). Finally Hawkins, who was leaving town after the set, shouted, “I’ll play it tomorrow night!”
I also remember, at this same Louisville date, a scene somewhat similar to the one with the old man and Monk: someone brought up to Hawkins their broken 78 l.p. recording of “Body and Soul,” and he and Hawkins just kept staring at it, shaking their heads.
DUKE ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
In 1966, over my college’s Thanksgiving vacation, I went to New York to hear Duke Ellington and a small band at the old Rainbow Grill (no longer in existence) on the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. I must have looked like an absolute rube, but the waiter gave me a table very close to the band, sitting by myself, and let me remain for the second set at no charge. I was in heaven. Since I had obviously come for the music, I suppose he took pity on me. Memories: after lots of rare tunes, a request from someone in the audience to play the Ellington standard “Mood Indigo,” and the trio that begins the song, walking up to the microphone audibly swearing and grumbling about having to play the damn thing again when the evening was going so well . . . Ellington sitting next to my table at intermission, all charm . . . Harry Carney (1910-74), the baritone saxophone player, winking at me as the band finally left – he too had spotted a fan.
I saw Ellington twice more at the Rainbow Grill, but the music was never quite as good, partly because he was playing less new and more party stuff – he always had that urge to as it were dance on the table to entertain the crowd. Better was a full-band appearance in downtown Baltimore at a city festival, when Ellington, realizing that crowd dynamics could be precarious in that situation, played piano through the intermission, getting one musician or another to play with him until the whole band came back. Even better still was an early afternoon appearance for the Newport Jazz Festival in Carnegie Hall. When we walked in, the band was still rehearsing; Ellington, in informal clothes, was working some things out, and he didn’t stop, even with the audience filtering in, until he was satisfied. Then he went offstage, changed, and came out again in his tux to start the formal part of the presentation. I got to hear Duke Ellington rehearse!
I heard the composer and pianist Eubie Blake (1887-1983) play outdoors in Exxon Park, near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, playing in the rain, and irritated when he missed notes because he was afraid people would think he was making mistakes because he was old (he was almost one hundred) and not because the keys were slippery. He had huge hands, huge fingers.
I heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the Staten Island Ferry (and could be dimly seen in a picture on the front page of the New York Times the next day) and mostly remember their antipathy toward the much requested “When The Saints Go Marching In,” which they must have heard in their sleep.
I saw the bandleader and pianist Count Basie (1904-84) only once, at a festival at night in Baltimore, where the Count played one short blues chorus that I swear was the best jazz solo I’ve ever heard; I wish I could remember it. At the same show Monk was introduced as follows: “Some of you will like this man’s music, some of you will hate it” – a Neanderthal announcer. This same festival featured Woody Herman (1913-87), Miles Davis (1926-91) (I remember his playing with his back turned to the audience), and Dizzy Gillespie (1917-93), who basically played his night club act.
I saw Diz a couple of other times, once with a large Latin band, and he always held his own. Rather unbelievably, over the years I also got to see Charles Mingus (1922-79), Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), B. B. King (1925-2015), Benny Goodman (1909-86), Jimmy Smith (1925/28–2005), Billy Eckstine (1914-93), Sarah Vaughn (1924-90), Buddy Rich (1917-87), Max Roach (1924-2007), Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), Teddy Wilson (1912-86) . . . . Of the people I could have seen and didn’t, the one I most regret missing is Louis Armstrong (1901-71). He, and almost everyone else mentioned in this piece, is no longer with us. Heaven must be a swell place to live.
[“If there’s a rock and roll heaven / Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band, band, band”! And if there’s a jazz heaven . . . well, that joint be rockin’!