Farewells: Musicians Remember Their Peers Who Passed in 2006
(5.17.32 – 3.31.06)
by Sonny Rollins
We were a group of like-minded boys, in our teens, who were aspiring musicians. Naturally, we all gravitated toward each other. The primary area was the Hill, or Sugar Hill, but we attracted people from all over Harlem who actually became part of the “inner circle.” I met Jackie as part of the inner circle. I was a little older than Jackie, so he might have thought I knew some things, but we were basically the same age.
A good friend of his that I was even closer with was Lowell Lewis. Lowell lived across the street from Jackie, and they were tight. They lived about six or seven blocks north and west from where I lived.
There was a humongous group of musicians living up there, from the most famous to the guys who were in their bands and so on. If there was anybody on the Hill that was into something noteworthy, we all knew about it. And we all shared the special bond of our musical aspirations.
The inner circle was comprised of people such as Gil Coggins, who was maybe five years older and already playing in clubs. Gilly hung out with us a lot. The older guys often had families, while we were just guys interested in music 24 hours a day.
Kenny Drew was in the inner circle, as were Lowell Lewis, myself, Arthur Taylor, Jackie and Walter Bishop, and Andy Kirk Jr., although Jackie was not in the band that we had, The Counts of Bop. As we got older, honing our skills, established musicians who were on the lookout for young talent began hiring us.
Kenny Drew was the first to get hired to work downtown. Arthur Taylor might have been the next guy. Lowell went with Thelonious Monk while we were still in high school. I began with Babs Gonzales, then Fats Navarro.
I started working with Miles first, and then Jackie and I were playing with Miles at the same time. Jackie, because of his age, came in a little later playing with Miles. That was the only situation where Jackie and I played together. Jackie was always an extraordinarily bright, gifted player. His ascendancy was assured—there was no doubt he’d be recognized sooner or later.
When Miles was coming out with a lot of the “cool” sounds, it was sort of alarming to many people in the jazz community because of the emphasis on the softer side of the music. Then, when Miles came out with Jackie and myself, we really asserted the hard-bop element, which was a relief to many in the community. So Jackie has to be remembered for his pioneering work in breaking through what was threatening to be a movement of “coolness” in jazz.
But we can’t talk about the musicians identified with the Hill without addressing “the scourge.” As everybody became addicted, each and every one of us, we ended up having something else in common. First it was music; then it became the search to satisfy our drug habits. That brought us into other spheres of hell. But in a sense it was another bond that we shared—notwithstanding its negativity, it was a shared experience. We went through drugs, fought it off, and still managed to keep our careers going.
Our professional paths diverged somewhat early on. In the late ’50s, we happened to end up living not too far apart on the Lower East Side, so we were neighbors again. As I recall, Jackie was responsible for getting Slug’s opened up and on the map. I know he was there quite a bit.
What happened then was I moved to downtown Brooklyn, and Jackie and Dollie moved to Hartford. He was still playing and recording, but I had no idea of the extent of his involvement in education. That was a big surprise to me. I did play up there for Jackie and Dollie’s Artists Collective; this must have been in the ’80s. So I knew that he was doing something up there! But I came late to the understanding of this aspect of Jackie. He did wonderful work with young musicians and helping to turn out players.
All of us came up under Charlie Parker’s wing, but as years went on Jackie was able to transcend that style. He exemplified that in his playing. He was an innovator, and he was able to easily bridge generational gaps in the music. And Jackie certainly had a distinctive sound, part of a player’s character that’s sadly in short supply today.
I spoke to Jackie not too long before his passing. I didn’t know the extent of his illness; I think they kept that kind of quiet. It was a shock when the news came, because knowing him for so long I expected him to always be there.
Jackie was a major figure. He’s got his records as his legacy and his contributions to music education. But as for how he should be remembered, he’s too close for me to say. I’ll let our esteemed critics do what they do. And I’ll miss him as a friend.
(As told to Terri Hinte)
(4.29.29 – 2.17.06)
By Bobby Sanabria
Ray was the quintessential Nuyorican. When I use that term with people who aren’t from NYC, they usually look at me with the same look I’m sure Albert Einstein got when he tried to explain black holes for the first time. Those who do get it invariably just nod their head with the same approval that a cognoscenti of the jazz tradition gives after hearing a good solo. It means they’re hip, and Ray was the epitome of hipness. How could he not be? He was a Native Nuyorican!
Ray was born in Brooklyn, moved to El Barrio (NYC’s Puerto Rican and Cuban enclave in Manhattan) and then became a resident of the borough that nurtured him, Da Bronx. This much maligned yet proud borough has an incredible history of giving birth to and/or nurturing so many artists, poets, playwrights, painters, scientists, politicians, film directors, producers and musicians that somebody should do a scientific study of the air there. It has a Walk of Fame on its own Grand Concourse that was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. There, on one of the streets of the Concourse, you will find the name Ray Barretto standing tall in all its glory.
If you wanted to get Ray going, all you had to do is to start talking about stickball. It’s a game that has bonded generations of New Yorkers for the memories it generates of youth and friendship. That word, friendship, meant a lot to Ray. In the South Bronx, there on Kelly Street, a street that Ray grew up on and produced boyhood friends like Manny Oquendo, Eddie Palmieri, Orlando Marin, Benny Bonilla, Joe Quijano and others too numerous to mention who all made a name for themselves in music, he once told me about when he was first married as a young man in the early 1950s and the day after his honeymoon. On that cold, snowy New Year’s Day, he told his then-wife that he was going downstairs to play some stickball with his “boys.”
Talking to Ray was a treat because it was always a history lesson. You would get some insight into who, what or how it happened in a particular moment of jazz or Afro-Cuban-based music history in NYC. Most people know that the “Boogie Down Bronx” is known as “El Condado de la Salsa” (“The Borough of Salsa”). But most don’t know that at one time there was a vibrant jazz scene there. Ray was known for his powerhouse salsa groups but in his heart he was a jazz man, and the Bronx had an incredible jazz history rivaling Manhattan’s, with clubs like the 845 and the Blue Morocco where Ray would perform and be just as comfortable playing bebop as if he were in a salsa club playing a son montuno.
He hated the term “Latin jazz.” His persona was like his playing—passionate, articulate and displaying an intelligence that made one proud to be in his presence. He was a symbol to young Nuyoricans like yours truly of what one could achieve and how one should be, a proud warrior for whatever one believes in. You might see Ray at a rally protesting some injustice, speaking on the radio about his love of Dizzy, Bird and Arsenio Rodriguez, or encouraging people to send in donations to publicly funded radio shows that played salsa and jazz. Or just hangin’ at a club checking somebody out because, like all jazz players and fans, he wanted to hear the music. He marveled at the technical prowess that the young players of today display, but he lamented on how many of them lacked a sense of history in their playing and persona. Raymond was not one for nostalgia, for he was always thinking forward, but he respected and honored the past and felt it was at the core of the art forms we call jazz and Latin American music.
Ray was a frustrated jazz drummer and he brought that type of creative aesthetic to his conga drumming in a salsa context, but with the utmost respect to La Clave, the rhythmic mantra of Afro-Cuban-based music. To jazz he brought a deep understanding of the genre. He could recite/sing the lyrics to standards just like Art Taylor used to do on many a session if someone wasn’t quite sure how the tune went. Many people don’t know that Ray in his youth really wanted to be a tenor player. That love of the mighty horn lives in his son Chris, a student at the Manhattan School of Music who is a promising player with a bright future. After the ceremony where Ray received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award, he got to hear Chris with the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra that I conduct and teach. I featured Chris on Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “I’ve Just Seen Her,” which was a tour de force for Paul Gonsalves in the Ellington Orchestra. The piece is a tone poem of longing, unrequited love and farewell. The tears of joy rolled down Ray’s and his wife Brandy’s faces as the final note of the arrangement resounded. Through the award, Ray finally felt accepted as the true jazz musician he had never been acknowledged as. That acknowledgement and legacy was now resounding in his son. Child is certainly father to the man. Two days later, Ray was in the hospital, never to leave. A proud child of Puerto Rican parents, jazzero, salsero, stickballer, friend, mentor and a true Son of Brooklyn (S.O.B.), El Barrio and Da Bronx—Ray Barretto, Nuyorican. ’Nuff said.
(6.22.41 – 11.9.06)
By Joel Dorn
Generally, disc jockeys who play the same kind of music and host shows opposite each other have a relationship not unlike that of a mongoose and a cobra. Fortunately, Ed Bradley and I never fell into that trap back in the ’60s when we were both jazz disc jockeys in Philly. On the contrary, we became lifelong friends.
Both of our shows ended at 1 o’clock in the morning, which gave us time to catch the last set at Pep’s or the Showboat. Back then, all the giants who worked the jazz circuit came through Philly once, sometimes twice a year. As a consequence we got to see everybody, and I do mean everybody—Monk, Miles, Trane, Mingus, Horace, Blakey, Cannon, Rahsaan, Yusef and so many more.
Sometimes after the gig, we’d grab breakfast at one of the all-night joints and have the kinda conversation jazz fans had back then: “Which of Horace’s groups do you dig more, the one with Blue and Junior or the new one with Woody and Joe?” “What’s going on with Trane?” “What do you think Clifford would be into if he were alive?” Stuff like that.
We both left Philly in ’67. I went to New York to work as a staff producer at Atlantic Records. Ed made a pit stop in Paris, but eventually wound up in New York as a reporter for WCBS radio. For no special reason, we kinda lost touch in those first post-Philly years. Nothing bad happened, just two guys chasing separate dreams. And if you’ve never done that, trust me when I tell ya that dream-chasin’ is a full-time job. Cut to a Sunday night in the early ’70s. I’m lying in bed, halfway watching the 11 o’clock news on CBS, when I hear a voice on the television say, “This is Ed Bradley reporting from Vietnam.” I bolted upright. It was Ed Bradley. My Ed Bradley. In Vietnam. What the hell was Ed Bradley doing in Vietnam? Vietnam was about bullets, bombs and booby-traps. The Ed Bradley I knew was about Basie, Bird and Blakey.
The next morning I called CBS, left my name and number with his secretary and prayed he’d come home in one piece. About six weeks later the phone rings. It’s Ed. After a quick exchange of hellos all I could think to say was, “What the hell are you doing in Vietnam?”
“I’m a war correspondent,” he said.
“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.
And as matter-of-factly as somebody says, “Gimme a ham and egg on a roll to go,” he said, “I’m terrified.”
Fools are fearless—only a truly brave man cops to his fears.
But brave was only one of the things Ed Bradley was. He was as good as it gets at what he did, whip-smart, stylish the way guys who read GQ wish they were and the dictionary definition of “cool.” It wasn’t by accident that he did for network news what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. He was the only person with enough puzzle pieces to pull it off.
Ed’s passion for music, all kinds of music, was unbounded. But for me, what separated him from all the others who do what he did was the jazz in him. He didn’t get the answers he was looking for by attacking his subjects, he got ’em by disarming them. He took people away from themselves the same way Ben Webster did every time he wrapped his heart around a ballad. At his core, Ed was a jazzman, one of the cats.
I’ve known a lotta people who made it to the top of the mountain, but I’ve never known anyone who carried his success as comfortably and as quietly as Ed did. He was as at ease in the street as he was in the boardroom. He’s probably the most complete American man I’ve ever known. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to be one of the thousands of spokes on that gigantic wheel of which he was the hub.
Another one of the cats has checked out. Another pair of shoes is gonna stay empty forever.
(5.3.33 – 12.25.06)
By Christian Mcbride
For close to half a century, James Brown represented that rare type of artist whose music created an impenetrable force around the listener. When you listened to James Brown, you felt strong, bold, almost immortal. From personal experience, I can tell you that being around James Brown was the equivalent of trying to walk on the sun. He was that powerful. He demanded to be called “Mr. Brown.” Why not? But he was quick to call everyone else “Mister” as well. With Mr. Brown—as well as all men and women from his generation—you had to earn respect. You just didn’t wake up one day and decide you should be respected.
I was first awarded an opportunity to earn Mr. Brown’s respect in 1995. Verve Records had just released my first CD, Gettin’ to It, whose title track, of course, was inspired by James Brown’s hit, “Get It Together.” In fact, I was very scared that James Brown might actually try to sue me when he heard it, because it was awfully close to “Get It Together.” However, when he heard it, he was more appreciative than anything else. He was actually somewhat surprised that so many jazz musicians enjoyed his music. Guess what, Mr. Brown? All jazz musicians enjoy your music—at least the ones who like rhythm!
I was able to spend lots of personal time with Mr. Brown in New York, and in his hometown of Augusta throughout the ’90s. Much of this time with him was centered on his love and appreciation for jazz. He was partial to “hard-hitting” jazz—Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers (specifically with Lee Morgan); John Coltrane’s classic quartet (“as long as it didn’t get too out,” he would say); Jimmy Smith and Horace Silver; and much to my surprise, he loved Chick Corea. Before he ever heard me play a note, I remember him saying to me, “You must love Ray Brown, huh?” Yes, James Brown knew his jazz.
For a moment there, Mr. Brown and I fell out of touch. It became increasingly harder for me to speak with him directly. I always had to leave messages with him through his manager. But, hey, I didn’t mind. This was James Brown, after all. All that changed in 2005, when I was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Creative Chair for Jazz. Instinctively, my first reaction was to use all of my newfound clout to work with James Brown. The person who got the ball rolling was my dear friend—the legendary trombonist Fred Wesley. I told Mr. Wesley my idea, and he put me in touch with Mr. Brown’s longtime manager, Mr. Charles Bobbit.
I told Mr. Bobbit that I wanted to put Mr. Brown at the Hollywood Bowl singing the material from the Soul on Top album (arranged by Oliver Nelson) with a big band with me playing and conducting. Mr. Bobbit gave me a chillingly long pause and said, “…well, Mr. McBride, you know how Mr. Brown is. That’s going to be a hard one. I personally think it’s a great, great idea, but…I don’t know. You know he doesn’t work with anyone else’s band, and he certainly won’t let you be the musical director, but I’ll tell you what—let me work on him.” I hung up the phone happy that I at least knew Mr. Bobbit thought it was a good idea. The following days waiting to hear back from Mr. Bobbit were long! Finally, about a week later, Mr. Bobbit called and said, “I’m still working on him. Just hang tight.” This went on for about two months! Finally, that fateful day came on Oct. 26, 2005, when Mr. Bobbit called my cell phone and left a message, saying “Hello, Mr. McBride. Well, I think I talked him into it. He wants to do it. You and him doing Soul on Top at the Hollywood Bowl next summer. Call me later.”
Man, the world stopped for about 30 seconds as I stood there in shock!
Less than a year later, on Sept. 6, 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl, my most gargantuan dreams unfolded right before my very eyes. James Brown singing the music from Soul on Top with me playing and conducting. Doesn’t get any better than that. We had so much fun. Yeah, there were a few clunkers, but he had nothing but fun. Louie Bellson came out and played “For Once in My Life” with us and did an awesome job. At 81, he’s still swinging hard. Mr. Brown and the big band continued to perform all of the tunes we rehearsed except “If I Ruled the World,” which Mr. Brown decided he didn’t want to do. In between each song, Mr. Brown did a little rapping to the audience, and would end his rap by saying stuff like, “Mr. McBride, it’s time to go to work,” or “Let’s do it, gentlemen,” or my favorite one “You got it…brother!” We ended the Soul on Top portion of the program with a funky and rousing “September Song.” During the vamp, James Brown sang, “Give the bass player some! Give the bass player some!” I wish I could have enjoyed that moment a little more, too, but I guess I had to take a solo, huh? Toward the end of my solo, JB and I got into some call and response like he used to do with Fred Wesley and Maceo. Sigh…
Then…the show was over. Just like that. I’d spent 75 minutes onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with the most influential living musician on earth, James Brown. I lived my dream. I played for him. I conducted for him. I was his musical director onstage. What do I do now? What could possibly top this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I called Mr. Bobbit the morning after the show, and he said, “Maaaaaan! You have no idea how much fun Mr. Brown had last night. He’s been talking about it all morning!” That made me feel good. I said, “Well, you tell Mr. Brown that we’re going to do it again soon.” Mr. Bobbit said, “I know he’d like to hear that!”
Sadly, we’re not going to do it again, but I can say that on one night in September I lived my dream. I shared the stage with the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown.
Thank you, Mr. Brown. You were my Superman. You were my immortal hero.
(5.4.28 – 8.23.06)
By Peter Erskine
The first two words that come to mind whenever I’ve thought about Maynard—and that has been quite often over the years since leaving his band in 1978 to join Weather Report—are “gracious” and “gentleman.” Of course, most people will conjure the sound and image of Maynard playing one of his trademark soaring trumpet lines that were miles up in the sky. But it was Maynard’s cheerful disposition and generous behavior that made the strongest impression on me. He was the best boss I ever had.
During the two years that I worked for Maynard, he was always kind and welcoming to my parents and friends. Maynard treated every player’s family or girlfriend like honored guests whenever they were brought ’round to meet him. Maynard was also incredibly generous to his sidemen in terms of sharing and shining the spotlight on them. Contrary to most other bandleaders of the time, Maynard always made sure that the guys in his band got their due. Upon hearing the tragic news of Maynard’s passing, I dug out an old videotape of a television appearance the band made in early 1978. After one of the songs we played, Maynard was being interviewed by host Mike Douglas, and he steered one of the questions to provide the opportunity for him to heap praise upon his trumpet section, and used his few seconds of TV-bully pulpit time to promote music education in schools.
One funny story took place during the making of his studio album Conquistador. Maynard’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds, due not only to all of the hard work and time he and the band put in on the road, but by the success of these increasingly “studio” studio albums. In other words, experienced studio musicians were primarily making these records. Naturally this caused some disgruntlement in the band; being on the record was the “cookie” or reward for all of those hours spent on the bus! And some guys were grumbling louder than others. Now, this was all occurring just as I had joined the band in mid-1976. But it didn’t help matters when I had coffee one morning in New York City with my old boss Stan Kenton. When he asked me what I was doing in New York, I answered that I had some time off because Maynard was busy in the studio making an album. Stan realized that Maynard’s guys were not making the album, and so he called Maynard up and gave him a bit of a hard time about it. So Maynard is starting to get sick and tired of hearing from his band, and from his old boss, about the fact that studio musicians are making the album.
A week or two later outside of New York, we finish playing this concert at a small university, and while I’m packing up my drums some fan walks up to me and asks me about the new album: “Hey, is the new record going to be you guys or some studio musicians?” I answered him honestly (but without rancor), “Oh, it’s mostly studio musicians…” and carried on packing away my drums. Apparently, this guy then found Maynard outside the bus and gave him a hard time about it. Maynard had finally had it with all the studio-musician grumbling, but he did not suspect it was me (the new guy) who had caused this latest ruckus; he thought it was one of the brass players. As the bus pulled away from the concert hall and headed toward a music fraternity reception, he got on the bus PA and asked, “Hey, who told someone that the new album is being made by studio musicians?” Innocently, I immediately raised my hand and said, “Oh, that was me, Maynar….”
Before I could finish pronouncing his name he lit into me, the language and emotional tenor almost rivaling that heard on some of the infamous Buddy Rich cassette tapes. Wow! It was intense! He eventually started backing off, probably realizing that it was me he was yelling at and not someone else. The tirade wound down meekly, and he signed off on the intercom. This was followed by total silence on the bus for the remainder of the ride to the reception. Needless to say, the party was not much fun, and I began to question whether I was in the right place; maybe I should go back to college!
A sleepless night followed, and I wondered what I should do. The next morning was going to be a day off and Maynard would sleep in until noon or so. Imagine my surprise to hear a knocking at my door at 7:30 a.m. and to see a well-dressed Maynard standing there. He began by mocking himself in a jazz-musician-caricature way, alluding to his confused state of mind, when all of a sudden he got deadly earnest and looked me right in the eye.
“Did I yell at you last night?” he asked.
I answered, “Uh, yeah,” and he stuck out his hand, saying, “I deeply apologize, and I hope that you will forgive me.” Maynard Ferguson got up at 7 o’clock in the morning on a sleep-in day so he could begin my day with an apology. I knew then that this was a good man, a great man to work for and learn from. And I enjoyed the remainder of my two-year stay with him, always revering his talent, wit, gentlemanliness and graciousness.
The album Conquistador went on to become a number #1 hit for Maynard, thanks to the success of the cover arrangement of the theme from the movie Rocky—“Gonna Fly Now.” Studio drummer Allan Schwartzberg supplied the disco beat for that song, and the band got to play on a few cuts. More importantly, the band enjoyed the ripple effect of the recording’s popularity, playing to packed concert houses and school auditoriums for many years to come. I’m gonna miss Maynard for many more years to come.
(12.12.41 – 5.10.06)
By Cecil Brooks III
Pianist John Hicks was clearly one of America’s national treasures and his extraordinary talents were prodigious and prolific. As I recall, my first encounter with John Hicks was during my sophomore year in high school in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn. I was performing with pianist Geri Allen and bassist Duane Dauphin as the opening act for a concert with Pharoah Sanders. John Hicks, drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist Ray Drummond were performing with Pharoah as sidemen on that gig. What made an indelible impression upon me that night was when Hicks took the first solo—it was powerful, majestic and mystical. I was spellbound by his propulsive, explosive lyricism, his fluency and his absolute command of the instrument. I mean this cat could flat-out swing. Hicks’ solo clearly defined for me the true artistry and genius of a musical giant. It was an experience that elevated my sensibilities and transformed me as an aspiring jazz drummer—because it was at that moment I knew I had come to the realization that I wanted to be a jazz artist and to pursue a career in music. Unbeknownst to me, several years later, I would have the opportunity to experience John Hicks up close and personal by playing in his band. Even more ironic and revealing for me was the fact that I would be blessed with the honor and privilege to produce seven of his recordings and to perform on several more recording dates with him as a sideman.
John Hicks was a goodwill ambassador and a wonderfully generous and kind person—for all of his musical achievements and majestic talent he always carried himself with great humility and dignity as a gentleman. He willingly shared his talent and experience and his wonderful sense of humor with musicians, fans and everyone he touched. Being in his presence when he played was a rare experience—an authentic musical voice and presence that truly will never be recaptured or duplicated in the world of jazz. Hicks’ influence was far-reaching. His innovative and inventive spirit as a performer and composer was cosmic—like a supernova of explosive particles of genius burst upon the vastness of the musical constellation—that will continue to shower upon us the light of creativity, integrity and musical fortitude. I hope that those who knew and played with the great John Hicks will be inspired to live up to his high standards and his extraordinary legacy of excellence—in performance, composition and “swing personified.”
(1.12.16 – 12.7.06)
By Kevin Mahogany
It was at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Clint Eastwood said that he was honored to meet the man. Eastwood said he was in awe of the man’s talent. The rest of the world might have been surprised to learn whom he was talking about, but those of us from Kansas City understood immediately. Eastwood was making these comments about the legendary piano player Jay McShann, and he was just saying out loud what many of us in Kansas City had known all along.
Jay McShann, who actually came out of Oklahoma, made his home in Kansas City and helped develop the sound that put Kansas City-style jazz on the map. He combined the blues with the swinging style of jazz and changed the face of both forms of music in America. Jay worked in Kansas City with a lot of the great local musicians and continued to travel and play as long as he could. He always had a smile on his face and greeted everyone with a kind word. It was amazing how someone could genuinely be that friendly and warm all the time.
I had the chance to hear Jay a few times, but one occasion that stands out was in Kansas City in 1997. It was the big grand re-opening of 18th and Vine. It was a huge black tie affair with Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, Tony Bennett, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, David Sanborn and others. The George Duke Orchestra was the musical background. For the finale of the show, everyone was to play and sing on the Benny Golson tune “Killer Joe.” I was standing next to Jay and I was to cue him when it was his turn to take a solo. During rehearsals everything was going good until it came time for Jay’s solo. Instead of riffing over “Killer Joe,” he started playing the blues. We stopped and told him again what we were playing, and Jay admitted he didn’t know “Killer Joe.” Well, George Duke as the music director made a quick decision that Jay McShann could do what he wanted to do and that was to play the blues. The new plan became that, when it came time for Jay’s solo, everyone stops…and Jay plays the blues. Of course, it worked great and received probably the biggest ovation of the night. Not just because it was the blues, but because it was Jay McShann. He was one of Kansas City’s last connections to the golden age of jazz. Jay McShann helped to usher in that Kansas City style and his passing truly marks the end of an era.
(6.8.26 – 10.9.06)
By Gary Giddins
Writers in many disciplines are mourning the passing of Sheldon Meyer, the Oxford University Press editor who died Oct. 9, 2006, at 80. He published more prize-winning histories than any other editor ever, single-handedly turned the world’s oldest and stodgiest press into the leading resource for American studies, and spearheaded a revolution in black studies. His influence on jazz literature is hard to overstate.
He wasn’t the type to mind a desk and wait for writers and agents to offer ideas. Sheldon generated most of his most influential books, matching writers and subjects, nurturing them to the finish line even when it meant drawing blood from a stone. His publishing reflected his enthusiasms, which were many and constant: He was an habitué of cabarets, concerts, opera, ballet, theater, movies and sporting events, and loved nothing better than to discuss them—chuckling in recollection of especially glowing moments—and find writers to memorialize them. Few readers knew his name, yet he changed the way we think, redefining the discourse on popular culture, on the interface between the aggressive American style and the conventions of high art.
A few examples: Contemporary jazz criticism found its template in Martin Williams’s The Jazz Tradition. The truisms with which we speak of the American songbook and pantheon songwriters have their genesis in Alec Wilder and James Maher’s American Popular Song. The musicological approach to jazz and art, now universally adopted in college curricula, hardly existed before Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz. The cottage industry of books about minstrelsy as a source of 20th-century tropes begins with Robert Toll’s Blacking Up. The countless investigations of slave culture as a foundation for African-American art begin with Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Reconsiderations of the Harlem Renaissance were launched by Nathan Huggins’ book of that name. The growing shelf of jazz companions has an unbeatable paradigm in Mark Tucker’s The Duke Ellington Reader. These titles scarcely crack the surface of Sheldon’s achievement (a jaw-dropping assemblage of his books fills up an entire wall of his living room), which is attested to by their continuing stature as indispensable works.
Sheldon made certain that Whitney Balliett’s profiles were promptly collected, ensured that Ira Gitler would preserve the primary value of Leonard Feather’s groundbreaking research in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, and encouraged Stanley Crouch to collect his early essays in Notes of a Hanging Judge. After decades of vainly trying to get Dan Morgenstern to stand still long enough to write a book, he took it upon himself to edit Dan’s masterly Living with Jazz for another publishing house. At a time when jazz record sales were plummeting, Oxford jazz proliferated: biographies, academic treatises, reference works, memoirs, polemics, essay collections—other publishers cringed at the latter, but Sheldon admired the essay form and recruited anthologies. As writers, we will no longer have so loyal an advocate and friend; as readers, we will always rely on books he brought to fruition.
(10.18.19 – 11.23.06)
By Cheryl Bentyne
I often feel I was born too late. Although I missed the big-band era, I made up for it by singing with my father’s band. I always felt an affinity for the big-band singer’s life, though my experiences were much milder than the rough, wild and edgy lifestyle led by one of my heroes from that era—the great Anita O’Day.
I think all of us “girl singers” today owe her a very respectful bow and a wink for where she took her craft and how she paved her own way through a male-dominated world called “The Road.” My introduction to Anita was via a swing band I took to the road with called The New Deal Rhythm Band.
At the time, I didn’t know that I was learning her licks and singing her biggest hits. Anita’s phrasing was impeccable. And her time! Only a very few can come close to her naturally swingin’ phrasing. You’re either born with it or not. With Anita, it was in her genes. I loved how I could actually hear her smiling in her music. Anita had her demons, but when she opened her mouth—stand back. Her essence lit up everything around her. I can only imagine what it was like to experience her live performance. The stage was on fire, to be sure.
Through personal tragedy then recovery, she was and remains a beacon of true jazz artistry. She was the real deal. Please, all singers: Go back and listen to her beyond the Krupa era. She was an absolute jazz legend who, in my opinion, never got her full due. Anita was one of a kind. Thank God we have her recordings.
I was very fortunate to spend a few precious moments with her last Christmas along with a good friend who invited me to her residence. She was small and quite frail but I could see the spark. Yes, I truly could. There is still much we can learn from her. She bit life in the ass and spit it out with class!
The spark has passed, but take my word for it—she’s still swingin’ up there with the boys! What a band too!
(12.1.35 – 1.6.06)
By Benny Golson
God has the unmatchable ability to do something no artist, with brush and easel, could ever do: create billions of human faces with few ever resembling another. Yes, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but no two individuals ever exactly alike. And so it was with Lou Rawls’ voice. God gave him a voice like no other. Upon hearing his very first note, one immediately knew it was Lou Rawls. With this remarkably unique voice he was able to convincingly sing gospel (from where he originally came), blues, pop, jazz and love ballads. It was this ability that slowly brought him to the attention of an international audience.
I knew Lou personally for many years beginning when Capitol Records engaged me to write the arrangements for one of his early albums. I had just moved to Los Angeles from New York City and soon, thereafter, our families became close friends. We even sent our kids to the same private school. His first wife, Lana, from Texas, was an exceptional cook and would often send me pots of tantalizing delicacies through my wife, Bobbie.
As an affable man, Lou had a host of friends from all strata of society. One weekend Bobbie and I went to his home as we so often did, and when we walked into his living room, sprawled on the floor with both hands behind his head listening to music was the actor George Kennedy, while Lou was busy in his small projection room trying to focus an image on the screen so as to prepare for the film he would later show. We spent the evening as ordinary people enjoying each other’s company as friends.
It was during these enriching times that I began to really know Lou, not only as an artist, but—on a deep, personal level—as the man within. Here was a man who acquired his roots from the streets of Chicago, from the lower rung of society, and somehow this enabled him to develop a lasting appreciation for humankind. Thus being aware of man’s frailties, he was a kind and understanding man full of compassion and generosity. I never remember him seizing an opportunity to put another artist down. In fact, he said, “Not everyone does things the same way.”
Though he had no formal musical training, Lou had an exceptional ear for the music he heard relentlessly striking the medium of the air, his ear and his psyche. If he heard something that did not meet his approval, though he couldn’t express what he heard in technical terms, he could get you to understand his disapproval in his own way with expressions like “It’s not in the pocket,” “It’s got no snap to it,” “It’s going to sleep” or “It sounds like a car without a driver.”
I first became aware of Lou at the very beginning of his career when I heard a big-band album written by an arranger named Onzy Matthews. When I heard it I thought, “I’ve never heard a voice like this guy’s. He just might go places.” And did he ever! During the course of his brilliant career he hosted television shows, appeared in TV series, appeared in movies and made many television commercials.
As it turned out, Lou’s record producer Billy Vera approached me to write what would be Lou’s last recording and our final collaboration after so many years. Though I hadn’t been steadily writing music for his CDs, I would sometimes be called in to write isolated things, which means we never lost contact or our friendship with each other. In fact, in a telephone conversation we had just months before he died, I recalled the special car he had built, which had an exceptionally long hood that was long enough for him to set up a beach chair and umbrella and get a sun tan while having a cool drink. We laughed quite heartily that afternoon about this ridiculous hyperbole—me in New York, he in Arizona…our last laugh together.
Though the enigmatic future has always had an indistinguishable face, when it revealed itself time and time again throughout Lou’s career, it, nevertheless, always found him indefatigably trying to fashion a unique face of his own making. Billy told me that as he lay in a hospital bed in Los Angeles slowly slipping away, he was graphically planning his next CD.
Lou Rawls! Will we ever have another like him? I don’t think so.
(5.17.31 – 9.2.06)
By Joe Lovano
When your idols hear you, your perception of who you are on the scene and who you are as a musician takes on a new meaning and purpose. We are always in a state of development as improvisers and constantly experiencing this multigenerational and multicultural world of music we live in. The wisdom of the elders combines with the enthusiasm and exuberance of youth in all of us and is documented in our recordings throughout our lifetimes as jazz musicians.
If you know people are listening to you, you might play a certain way so they might dig you. But if you don’t know, the pressure is off and you might be yourself, for better or for worse. In my case, the first time Dewey Redman heard me play, I didn’t know he was listening. I was having a jam session at my loft on 23rd Street in New York City. We were playing some things in a very free and open way. My friend, guitarist Michael Bocian (who later played with Dewey) looked out of the window and saw Dewey standing there listening. After awhile, he looked up and asked Michael who was on tenor. Michael told him Joe Lovano and he said, “Tell him to keep playing!” and walked away.
After we finished the piece, Michael told me about diggin’ Dewey diggin’ me. It was 1979 and I had just left the Woody Herman band and was dealing with New York and its jazz community. I loved Dewey Redman’s playing and first heard him with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian in Boston at the Jazz Workshop in the early 1970s. We hadn’t met yet, so I was very excited to know he had heard me, and through Michael was encouraging me to carry on!
I have always believed that one way to “make it” was to be heard by the masters and accepted into their world. You have to be yourself, try to survive and play your horn. Shortly after that, I went to hear Dewey’s quartet on a double bill with the Paul Motian Trio featuring Charles Brackeen at the Public Theatre in New York. That, incidentally, was when I met Paul for the first time as well as Mr. Redman. I was off into it, soon playing with Paul and standing toe-to-toe with Dewey as a member of the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra. Things happen fast when you challenge yourself and are deep into it. The Struggle continues, as I learned from Dewey. Be yourself and the truth about who you are will come through your horn and into your music.
Dewey Redman’s sound and ideas are all about the truth, and his contributions as one of the most soulful, creative and entertaining musicians of all-time will live on. But even more than that, he was a funny, compassionate, spiritual man full of love and was a thrill to be around. He lit up the room with his joyous personality and inspired everyone around him to greater heights.
He called me “Jo L” and he will never be forgotten.
(5.29.52 – 6.6.06)
By Dave Valentin
I first met Hilton before I was musical director for Tito Puente. We recorded some albums together. He played on my records and I played on his. He was one of the best not only jazz players, but Latin-jazz players I have ever known. He was magic. We used to play “We’ll Be Together Again” with just piano and flute. That’s one of the numbers I remember the most, especially now that he’s not with us.
Unfortunately something happened in New Orleans that we don’t know about. I met the mayor of New Orleans when I played a tribute for Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I talked to him about the situation and said that, on behalf of the musicians, we’d like to know what really happened to Hilton there.
It was a great loss. Hilton had such a great sense of humor. When he played it was like going to the top of the mountain. His ability to comp and support soloists was incredible. He could play in unison two octaves apart on the piano and play the same thing on the left hand and right hand. It was amazing to see and hear. He could keep the rhythm thing on the left hand and play an incredible solo on the right hand, a la Eddie Palmieri, whom he was influenced by. When we weren’t playing, we’d talk about all kinds of things. We’d talk about Tito, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and music in general. That’s what musicians do. Then we’d tell jokes.
Time goes by so quickly. During my lifetime, we have seen so many great people die. I am sure that he and Ray Barretto are in the hands of God where they belong. This weekend there was a big show up there in heaven. The promoter was God and the bouncer was Jesus Christ!
I have such fond memories of Hilton. I still think he is going to call me. Dizzy once told me, “Remember never to forget and forget never to remember.” Tito Puente said, “If you’re tired, stay home. If you can’t walk, sit down. If you can’t drive, don’t go. But if you’re gonna play, play.” And that’s what Hilton Ruiz did. He played. As far as his legacy in jazz, I think people will find Hilton to be one of the best.
I loved him very much. We were the best of friends. I really miss him. On behalf of all the musicians who ever played with him, God bless him.
(8.21.49 – 7.16.06)
By Kahil El’Zabar
Moving forward with a complete commitment to your journey is a rare feat for most people. Malachi Thompson is an extraordinary spirit who undoubtedly did this. He embraced his calling with an unrelenting conviction. I speak of my friend and comrade Malachi in the present, for there is no death in an African-centered consciousness; there is only the transition of spirit from one level to another.
Malachi Richard Thompson was a star even when we were in high school. He was two years ahead of me and I wanted to reach the same level of musicianship that he had at such a young age. Cats were talking about him and listening to him all over Chicago. He was performing with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket Band with Ari Brown and for Record Row recording sessions as well as at Von Freeman jam sessions. The cat was the talk of the town.
Malachi was hip. He dressed hip, talked hip, walked hip and played hip. By hip I’m referring to what I call “The Highly Intelligent Perspective.” Brother Thompson imbued this aura. He was a quintessential Chicago-style musician. He played in a variety of genres with a singular voice and exemplary execution. The man had a lot of style. He could express something very intellectual and give it an urban realness simultaneously.
In the early ’70s, Malachi Thompson left Chicago for New York. We heard nothing but good things about him. He formed a trumpet ensemble with Lester Bowie, Olu Dara, Wynton Marsalis and Stafford James. You had to be a bad dude to pull something like that off. He also led his Free Bop Band that included such greats as Gary Bartz, Billy Harper, Oliver Lake, Carter Jefferson, Hamiet Bluiett, Kirk Brown, Avree Ra, Nasar Abadey and Amiri Baraka. He led and composed for Africa Brass and that included such Chicago greats as Steve Berry, Bill McFarland, Bob Griffin, Corey Wilkes, Ike Jackson, Leon Joyce, Dr. Cuz, Enoch Williamson and Dee Alexander.
The last time I saw Malachi was at the Delmark recording studio. I was finishing mixing my own session and he was coming in after me. Many of his band members arrived earlier than he. We were all discussing our regrets about Malachi’s illness and we had doubts that he would be able to conduct the session because he was coming directly from chemotherapy. Brother Thompson was amazing; I will never forget that night. He was so spiritually focused and clear. He made the cats play. It was inspirational. I witnessed an example of pure love and ultimate conviction.
As a young cat Malachi showed me how to get into this music and he has now shown me the right way to take it out. I will never forget him and will always respect his example and commitment. Thanks Daddio! Job well done.
(5.13.38 – 6.30.06)
By Jack Sheldon
Ross Tompkins was one of my greatest friends in life. More than that, he was a great pianist and teacher to me. Ross knew every tune ever written, although he used to say to me, “Jack, nobody knows every tune ever written.” He was close though. He just about knew every tune and he showed me the end of “Can’t Get Started,” which I didn’t know and also he corrected me a lot with music. And I corrected him one time on Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town”; when it goes major on the last half, he didn’t know that. That’s about the only time I ever corrected Ross. But he was a fantastic piano player with a great harmonic sense and a great accompanist. I heard him one time with Sarah Vaughan. They played “If You Could See Me Now” and it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. I loved Ross.
We were both from Florida. I was born in Jacksonville and I know he lived in St. Augustine (which is real close to Jacksonville). We both had experience living in Detroit too, ’cause I went to school there. I was older than Ross, but I remember meeting him in Jacksonville and I played with him one time, and he was always immaculate. He dressed to the nines and he was just a kid then…maybe 14 or something, but he was all dressed. Ross looked good. He’d show up sometimes in a tuxedo. Very supportive of me, too. When I’d have different bands he would always be there to support me.
We’d go work anywhere. One time we worked in La Jolla. We drove down there in my little Honda, and on the way down there Ross would never say a word. We’d go all the way just listening to the radio, listening to the music. Then we’d get to the job, and work the job, just the two of us, and Ross would have a few drinks. Then on the way back he would give me a music lesson…never shut up. He talked the whole way back.
One time we went to work at the Sheraton Hotel in Vancouver and stayed there, too. And Ross was immaculate. He had the bed made up like the maid would make it up. And he had his pants folded on the hanger with the crease in them and everything. He was a very neat guy. He played that way too…very neat…very immaculate. Now I, on the other hand, was filthy and would have everything all over the room and everything; old plates from room service…I’d order fish…the meat would be gone off it, but just the fish bone would be on the plate and it would be lying on the floor. And we had a maid there, a Chinese maid, and she would go in to fix Ross’ room and she would say, “Oh beautiful, very nice, very nice.” Then she came in my room and said, “What happened here!”
Ross was a character. We called him “The Phantom.” He was known as “The Phantom” ’cause if he was at a job and he didn’t like it he would just leave. He would disappear, just the same as “The Phantom” did. Also, sometimes the next morning he’d look kind of purple. And he would never tell you anything about his life or anything. He’d never tell me anything. I’ve talked to girls that he knew though and he talked to them on the phone like five or six times a day. Now, if I called him on the phone I’d say, “How ya doin’ Ross?” He’d say, “Well, ummm…” I’d say we’re going to do this job and he’d say, “OK, good, well, see you there, good-bye.”
One time, Ross got drunk and he went to his apartment, but it was the wrong apartment. All the apartments looked the same, and he thought he’d been locked out so he broke the door down and it was the wrong apartment. He got arrested that night. And we were doing a commercial the next day and he came to the commercial. Well, his wife Annie called me and said, “He’s in jail, you gotta do something,” and I said, “OK,” but he got out on his own. And he came to the commercial and I asked, “Ross, how you doing? Is everything alright?” and he said, “Yeah, fine.” And never said a word about being in jail or breaking a door down or anything. Most of the time he never got in trouble. I don’t think he was ever arrested or anything…except for that one time. But, you know, it could have happened to anybody! I’ve certainly broken a few doors down myself.
When I was in the hospital he came every day and sat there. He’d go outside to smoke. He was a heavy smoker. He never thought of quitting. I finally quit in 1986 and I haven’t smoked since. But we worked at Hamilton’s, a cigar club, and that was just like smoking so I didn’t have to. We worked there, just the two of us. We worked a lot of jobs just the duet.
Ross was just a sensational piano player. Never made a mistake. I loved him and I’ll miss him. I miss him now.
Originally published in March 2007