The Search for Frankie Newton

On May 31, in conjunction with the second annual Highlands Jazz Festival in Abingdon, Virginia, the Historical Society of Washington County sponsored a program on “the life and music of Frankie Newton, legendary jazz artist and Washington County native.” I doubt if many residents of Washington County had ever heard of Frankie Newton. For that matter, I wonder how many readers of JazzTimes know much if anything about a trumpet player whose first recording was on Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot,” and later accompanied Billie Holiday on “Strange Fruit.” Admired by both Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, Frankie, who was a friend of mine, was matched only by Miles Davis for intimately evocative and lyrical storytelling.

There are a number of musicians who, in their time, contributed uniquely to jazz history. But except for glancing references in books on jazz, they are largely unknown to relatively new listeners and are often hazily remembered by veteran enthusiasts. For example, when was the last time you heard about Emmett Berry, Irving Fazola, Lou McGarity, Gus Johnson, Pete Brown or Brad Gowans? When Frankie Newton died, at 48, in 1954, I wrote in Down Beat of his work with Cecil Scott, Elmer Snowden, Teddy Hill, and his own combos, one of which became the John Kirby band. “He is remembered,” I added, “with special affection by the scores of children he helped introduce to music over the years during summers as a counselor in camps for underprivileged kids.”

I’d come to know Frankie Newton in Boston where he often played, and later in New York, as a man of stubborn integrity (on and off the stand), a political dissenter and an omnivorous reader, who would counsel friends to read James Joyce. In the obituary I wrote, I told of a friend of his, to whom Frankie was teaching trumpet. He insisted on paying for the lesson, and Frankie said: “Well, how much should I charge you per note? Look, if someone wants to learn how to play an instrument, if he loves music that much, there should be some way he can learn, whether he has the money to pay for it or not.”

So how did Frankie Newton come to be on a jazz festival program about his life, as well as in a monograph, “The Search for Frankie Newton,” published this year by the Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia-a study that led to his being part of the Highlands Jazz Festival? A couple of years ago, a woman from that county, Jennifer Wagner, who is white, called me. Then president of the historical society, she had seen a reference to the fact that this black jazz trumpet player had been born and grew up near her, and she wanted to find out more about him. She interviewed me over time, and I gave her leads to Roy Haynes, George Wein and other sources.

It took her a lot of time and digging because there aren’t that many writings about Newton, but she persevered and became increasingly intrigued with this fiercely independent, generous musician who, as she quotes from the July 1946 issue of The Jazz Record, “went his own way and did as he pleased. He consistently stayed out of big bands (after a while), lived his own life, preferred to scuffle with his own little group and do recording dates rather than tie himself to any schedule.” Wagner mentions a January 13, 1939, Bluebird recording by Frankie, “The Blues My Baby Gave to Me,” that I nearly wore out as a teenager. Now that RCA Victor has imaginatively regenerated the Bluebird archives, I hope that this deeply personal, and yet universal, classic illumination of jazz lovemaking will be available again. Maybe a consortium of labels for which Frankie recorded can compile a definitive Frankie Newton collection.

Wagner’s monograph begins with Frankie Newton’s birth-“in Blacksburg, a small settlement of African-Americans near Emory, Virginia. At the time of his childhood, the state of Virginia provided a segregated education through seventh grade or up to the age of 14.” She adds, “It seems unlikely that he had ever heard jazz being played before leaving Washington County.”

I also hope that others for whom jazz has become part of their life force will research and write about other musicians who have been long overlooked in the history of this indispensable music.

In Boston I spent most of my time, away from work, at the Savoy Café, where Frankie often played. I was not so much dating, as hoping to date, a singer on a gig there, and sometimes I walked her home in the black section of Boston. A black police detective, an equal-opportunity bruiser of suspects he collared, also had eyes for her, and resented my attentions to the singer. Frankie Newton, tall and athletic (he loved playing tennis), took to walking behind us when I walked the singer home after the last set at the Savoy. He knew of the black cop’s explosiveness. I appreciated his riding shotgun for us, but all Frankie would say was, “Well, you’re not hiding.”

Wagner quotes Dan Morgenstern when Frankie died: “He was no ordinary man, and the music he made was no ordinary music. He was a poet; his recorded solos have a poignant lyricism of their own.”