by Joey DeFrancesco
Jimmy Smith was a visionary who possessed the foresight and creative mind to take an unconventional instrument and place it in the mainstream. His musical skills were far more advanced than those of any other jazz organist who came before or after. There was the blues-drenched tradition and his innate groove and sense of swing, of course, but what Jimmy had above all was a keen harmonic sense.
Jimmy’s playing was so advanced that he was playing like Coltrane before Coltrane. In fact, in 1955, Trane was in Jimmy’s band, and I’m positive he copped many of his things from Jimmy. Other cats were credited with the newer style of jazz, and in most cases rightfully so, but Jimmy should be right there with all of them. Miles called him the eighth wonder of the world.
He played with some of our greatest and most legendary jazz figures: Billy Hart, Kenny Burrell, George Benson, James Moody, George Coleman, etc. He kept cats working for years. When the music scene abandoned the Hammond B3, Jimmy was still out there humpin’ and breaking his ass. His body of recorded works is overwhelming. He’s right up there with the genius of Ray Charles, Miles, Trane, Bird–all of them.
My Pop introduced me to Jimmy when I was a baby, and I had the opportunity to meet and sit in with him when I was 7. Our paths would cross over the years, including when we did the two recordings together. I was very fortunate to spend so much time with him in his last year. He was my mentor and my friend. I loved him.
by Sam Yahel
It was circa 1991, and I was a young music student in New York City. A friend of mine had turned me on to an incredible Jimmy Smith record called Organ Grinder Swing, which I then proceeded to wear out. And so it was with great anticipation and excitement that I went down to Fat Tuesdays to hear Jimmy play live for the first time. I got there early, picked out a seat in front of the stage and ordered my drink. I thought I was ready for what was about to come–but there’s no way I could have been ready. Jimmy started playing, and all of a sudden the whole room became enveloped by the sound of the Hammond. I’m not talking about volume. His sound came out and just gave everybody in the club a warm bear hug. Soulful would not even begin to describe it. It was many things. It was bluesy. It was spiritual. It was sexual. The way he was playing the pedals, the lyricism of his lines, his groove, it was all too much. My jaw kind of dropped, and I just got this stupefied expression on my face. I know this because Jimmy saw me and started imitating my expressions in a teasing, mocking kind of way. And between tunes he would wink, or make some little comment, something to the effect of, “You like that? Now check this out.”
Every once in a while a musician comes along who seems to defy explanation; guys like these are the innovators, the giants of the music. Art Tatum comes to mind. So does Bird. Often they arrive on the scene with their conception seemingly fully formed, as if spontaneously appearing out of nowhere. Surely they must be influenced by what came before, but it’s hard to follow the genealogy of their development, because usually their conception involves busting open all preconceived limitations of their instrument. Jimmy Smith was one such giant. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that literally every organ player who came after him was in some way or another influenced by him.
I was determined to get a lesson from the great master while he was in town. Mustering up my courage, I went up to him after the show and asked, “Would it be possible?” I had an organ at my apartment. I lived less than 15 blocks from the club. I would pay him whatever he needed. “Come back tomorrow,” he said, “and we’ll talk about it.”
Meanwhile, he asked me if I played the pedals. “No,” I said. “Why not?” Jimmy said. “You paid for them, didn’t you?” Touche.
I ended going back to the club every night that week. I never did get him to come over, but I did learn some important lessons anyway. Mainly I learned that in the right hands, the organ has the ability to touch people like no other instrument. And I learned that when Jimmy Smith sat down to play, you knew you were in for a transcendent experience. He will be missed.
by Dianne Reeves
I remember the first time I saw Ms. Horn perform. It was in the early ’90s at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles. I had heard her on the records but I had never seen her perform. I just remember she could hold people in suspended animation. I had never felt like that.
On a record, you only hear a song one way. But jazz is something different every night. Just hearing her passion that night and being able to be right there, hearing the sound and closing my eyes and being caught up with it. That was amazing.
The first Shirley Horn record I heard was an album called Loads of Love (Mercury, 1963). It was something she did a long time ago. Someone made me a cassette of the record. I think it’s an album that she didn’t even play the piano on. She was just singing.
The first Shirley Horn recording that I bought was Here’s to Life (Verve, 1991). Oh, my god, it’s my favorite record of all time. I still remember the first time I heard it and the power I felt from it. She just speaks of a life in volumes on that record. It just has so many seasons, dealing with all different aspects of love. To this day, I still listen to it. In fact, I always put it on during the first snow of the year.
Ms. Horn inspired me to really take my time. She also inspired me to really connect the harmonies with the melody so that it creates a whole different kind of feeling. Like being able to make the harmonies address the melody. But more than anything, she taught me to tell my story and take my time while I’m telling it.
In the true tradition of great jazz singers, Ms. Horn has left so much music for so many people to go through and see a life and feel a life. She sang so many songs about having a better life and looking at life more closely. She is truly one of those singers a young person goes to in order to discover a special treasure. There’s so much music for young people to really come to an understanding of an amazing musical life.
I will remember her in the spaces, in that time that it takes to get from one phrase to another. She had this ability with time. She made you want to hear the next breath, the next word or how the story was going to unfold.
When I was a a young singer, it was the spaces in the music that scared me more than anything. And she took that time and made it into an art form.
by Donald Fagen
The “Nightfly” character wasn’t supposed to be a stand-in for any particular jazz DJ or even any particular person. But there were a few actual radio personalities of the time that went into the mix. In the early ’60s, Manhattan’s powerful stations were blasting hard bop throughout the metropolitan area. Out in the Jersey ‘burbs, I could get “Symphony Sid” Torin (later pegged as the “jazz traitor” for switching to a mostly Latin and Afro-Cuban playlist). In the afternoon, I rushed home from school to hear Riverside Radio’s fabulously erudite Ed Beach. I remember Dan Morgenstern’s show and a guy named R.D. Harlan on WNCN. But my favorite–along with monologist Jean Shepherd–was WEVD’s all-night man, Mort Fega, who died January 21, 2005, at the age of 84.
Unlike Symphony Sid, whose growling hepcat routine was getting old (“No, dahling, I’m not goin’a play Etta Jones tonight”), Mort had no jive persona to sell. He was laid-back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you’d had. I looked forward to Mort’s between-track commentary as much as to the music itself. With Red Garland’s “Mort’s Report” playing softly in the background, Mort, with the grace and enthusiasm that reveals itself only in the most bona-fide jazz lover, would carefully list every soloist and sideman.
In those days, as they say, giants walked the earth. They also recorded quite frequently for labels like Prestige, Blue Note, Columbia and Impulse, and Mort played them all–Miles, Monk, Rollins, Mingus, Coltrane, Bill Evans and so on. But he also had his own, somewhat lesser-known personal favorites. One was Oliver Nelson, whose exquisite Blues and the Abstract Truth album he helped to popularize. I recall multiple playings of Kenny Dorham’s “Sao Paulo” with Joe Henderson on tenor. And it was on Mort’s show that I first heard the exhilarating jive tales of His Royal Hipness, Lord Buckley.
Mort also had his salty side. My partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker, also a huge fan, told me that he once heard Mort express his disdain for avant-gardist Albert Ayler by playing a minute of a cut and then halting it with needle-scraping finality. If Ayler’s saxophonic rage seemed more understandable to my 18-year-old self in 1966, I can also recall the urge to scrape something across my roommate’s face when he cranked up Ayler’s “Ghosts” at one o’clock in the morning.
Not so long ago, Walter and I had a gig in Palm Beach, Fla., where Mort and his wife, Muriel, settled in 1986. To our astonishment, he came to the gig and gave us a nice write-up in his Palm Beach Post column. Afterward, we hooked up. He was just as cool and steady as he sounded all those years ago when he rode WEVD’s signal through the swirling, bitter northeastern night. Using the hoary but handy language of jazz (Pops/Pres/Bird and Diz/Yiddish/British), he said that, if we had “eyes to get together,” we should just give him “a schrei.”
by Ray Drummond
He was a musician-bassist extraordinaire, a husband, a father, a brother and an inspiration to younger aspiring bassists like me. I told myself years ago when I decided to pursue a career in jazz music that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.
My first introduction to that big sound of his was from my record collection. Remember some of those wonderful gems from the 1950s that demonstrate many of his contributions to jazz from this early part of his career? Check out the hookup between Mr. Heath and Kenny Clarke on some of those nuggets as an example of that universal jazz standard–swing. It was obvious to everyone during this period that Percy Heath could swing you into “bad health.” The consistency of performance at the highest level, the strength of his pulse in the rhythm section and the purity of his tone, let alone the length of his notes, all demonstrated inspirational traits that would serve as a role model for succeeding generations of bassists.
I first heard him performing live in a concert by that seminally unique organization, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Everything that the MJQ played involved presenting music at the highest level of musicianship in venues of the highest class in a most dignified manner. The group’s impeccable style was perfectly suited to his artistic personality. I remember hearing one of their concerts at Stanford University in the late 1960s and being truly impressed by the classy musical presentation of these four gentlemen known as the MJQ. The dynamics of their performance were astonishing; I could hear every note from each of the instruments, including the bass fiddle, and they did it with only two talk microphones. (Yes, there was no bass amplifier and there were no stage monitors; if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it).
Since then I was lucky enough to hear the MJQ live in various venues around this planet. Every concert had the same characteristics as the Stanford concert, as four very distinguished gentlemen would perform American classical music with great dignity. Mr. Percy Heath was one of those gentlemen.
Have I said anything about his involvement in community affairs, especially out in the Eastern end of Long Island, where he settled with his family in the early 1960s? Everywhere I go out there, everybody (or so it seems) knows Percy. I swear he had to be the unofficial mayor of Montauk. One of his passions, in fact, one of the main reasons that he went out there: fishing. I think every time I was out there and I called his home, he was out fishing, usually out there in his boat.
To show how small the world really is, several years ago a friend of mine, who is a postal-service employee who works at a substation near my home, told me about a fishing vacation he had recently had out in Montauk. He told me a story about a “gentleman” (his exact word) he had met while fishing from the shore. Both of them became entranced that day because the fish were running in massive schools along the shore and were practically flopping out onto the sand on their own. And, of course, it turned out that the gentleman was Percy, and he remembered that day and my postal-service friend. Of course, we had something else to talk about when, several years later, Percy’s photo showed up in a fishing magazine with a rather large fish he had caught. One can’t make this stuff up.
And the yearly art-society gatherings and shows out there at the Eastern end of Long Island? Did I mention anything about that?
Let me not forget the “band of brothers” that I was also fortunate to hear over these last 30 or so years. I remember hearing the Heath Brothers live for the first time at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the 1970s. At that concert I heard Jimmy, Percy, Tootie and Stanley Cowell play Percy’s composition “The Watergate Blues” live. This was one of the tunes that was on what was their then current (and first) recording on Strata-East called Marchin’ On! (That was the first edition of the Heath Brothers band that continues on today. I warned you about that record collection of mine.) On it Percy plays an instrument that was called the baby bass. In later years he would call it a cello. He always played that cello with the same big sound and infectious great feel and spirit that he had when he played the bass.
“Quelle inspiration!” So the French say. His artistry has been a continuing source of inspiration for me for a long time. God bless Mr. Percy Heath.
by Brad Mehldau
Arnie Lawrence was a truly giving person, and I’m not just saying that because that’s the sort of thing you say about someone when he passes on. When I first came to New York in 1988, Arnie was always making opportunities for young musicians to play, and I got to play with him then. He would find a restaurant or bar and set up a gig there, and maybe it would pay almost nothing, but he’d be there with us, playing his heart out, giving us our first opportunities to play jazz for a public in New York City. He was a player, but he was also a teacher, and the way he taught was directly through the music, by playing with you. And he taught with love. There were a lot of other places he could have been on a lot of those Sunday afternoons that he spent with us, playing the brunch gig to an apathetic handful of people.
Arnie was a true jazz musician. He had a deep, husky sound on his alto, sat way back in the back of his beat with his phrases and always had a feeling of the blues in whatever he played. But he was completely open to any musical experience; he would bring his horn and his mysterious hipster vibe along just about anywhere, like when he would play a set with the pioneering jam band Blues Traveler, whose members included some of his students.
The biggest thing I got from Arnie was something I got a little later from another alto player, Lee Konitz, and that was patience. The first few times I played with Arnie, I thought I was doing something wrong, because he would stop playing for a stretch and just lie waiting. I learned that he was waiting for an idea to arise, and if it wasn’t there, he just wouldn’t play. To me, that was incredibly brave as a musician, but it also meant that he trusted us, the people he was playing with, to let him have that space in the music. So while he was generous and giving as a musician, he wasn’t holding our pants up on the bandstand–anything but. And he helped us grow that way.
I didn’t keep in touch with Arnie when he moved to Israel and continued teaching there, but I spoke to several young musicians from there who told me about the positive impact that he had on their lives. I think that Arnie thought of music as a healing force. He spread a lot of good energy around the world during the time that he was with us, and I’ll always be glad that I knew him.
Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen
by Oscar Peterson
From the first night that my dear friend Audrey Genovese of Chicago played a Dexter Gordon record that featured Niels Pedersen on bass, I realized that this musical giant and I might someday have the pleasure and occasion of not just meeting but also playing together.
After hearing this phenomenal talent on bass, I realized that somehow, someday we should meet, thereby giving me the opportunity to also play with him. This vision and thought took place in the early 1970s, when I was fortunate enough to be able to invite him to join my then trio. This came about due to the fact that the bassist I was using at that time could not return to his home country in Europe because he was worried that he would be detained by the Soviet Union, due to his behavior at some embassy function. Norman Granz entered the picture and, with his usual directional thinking, simply said, “Why don’t you use Niels Pedersen?” for an upcoming concert that my group had in one of the then Iron Curtain countries.
Norman contacted Niels and reached an agreement for him to do that one particular concert behind the Curtain, thereby alleviating any chance of political upheaval. I vividly remember Niels stepping in without any fanfare (or rehearsal) for that particular concert. This turned out to be a totally impromptu performance. I selected tunes that I had obtained an OK from Niels about, and believe it or not, we managed to have a wonderful performance that evening, filled with exciting spontaneity and musical searching into each other’s jazz thinking.
After the concert, I immediately thanked Niels and told him how much I enjoyed playing with him, even considering the unexpected spontaneity that we had to work through. The audience seemed to have really enjoyed the evening. The following day I called Norman and apparently was overly excited about the immediate cohesion that took place between Niels and myself the evening before. With his usual ad lib and spontaneous reaction, Norman said, “If it was that good to play with him, why don’t you use him as your regular bassist?” Needless to say, I am happy that this took place, and Niels has remained in my group until his recent unfortunate passing.
Allow me to express my reaction to his playing this way: First and foremost, he never got in my way–but he also had such a great musical perception of what I was trying to do that he served to greatly inspire me from a spontaneous aspect. I came off walking on Cloud 3000 that evening because of Niels’ musical contribution. He had the most phenomenal technique, coupled with incredible harmonic perception, along with impeccable time. I shall never forget that evening.
Almost from that evening on, we became very close friends, not just musically but most certainly personally, for I developed a great admiration for the depth of Niels’ political, geographical and personal understandings. He was a man who had an almost unbelievable wealth of historic cognizance pertaining to European history. He also had a very kindred spirit as a human being, always able to easily make good friends, should he care to do so.
People in general who got to know Niels the man grew to love him apart from his unbelievable musical talent and dexterity on his instrument. I think I can afford to make this kind of evaluation of him, for I have had the good fortune to have played with some of the other great bassists in jazz over time: Sam Jones, Major Holley and, of course, Ray Brown. I used to marvel at the respect and love (and almost musical fear) that I saw in some of jazz’s best bassists whenever they were around Niels.
Niels and Ray became fast friends and had a great love and respect for each other. This may seem odd in that they were basically both operating in the same musical medium. I can now say, though I have been asked numerous times before, which of the two I preferred. I would have been equally happy for whichever of the two were part of my group at the time. I see no reason to go into some of the musical idiosyncrasies of either of these great players, but I can say that individually they have left an indestructible path and indelible guidelines for all of the future bassists of jazz.
One point that I must make here that perhaps is not known by many people, is that Niels could also play the piano (many times sitting in for me in the preconcert sound checks). I know he had a great love for the piano, which we saw when, on a visit to the Bosendorfer piano showroom, he was lovingly impressed with the Bosendorfer grand that I eventually picked out as my own choice.
Over time, I dubbed him (and announced him as) the Viking. He seemed to enjoy this title, and for some reason it stuck to him.
Niels-Henning was a player of unbelievable talent and dexterity, but selfishly speaking, personally, he became my closest friend and brother, and I shall never forget him or his talent. God bless you, Niels, and may you brighten up the musical world in Heaven as you have done on this earth.
by Lynn Seaton
Bassist Jimmy Woode was one of the great team players in jazz history. He participated in many recordings and performances with a long list of luminaries including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Clark Terry, Clarke-Boland Big Band and numerous other European artists.
My introduction to the bass playing of Jimmy was via the classic recording Ellington at Newport, famous for the Paul Gonsalves extended tenor solo. The strength of that Ellington rhythm section with Jimmy and Sam Woodyard propels Gonsalves all the way through with relentless swing. Everyone talks about that fantastic solo of Paul’s (which it most certainly is!), but without the humble support and driving bass lines of Jimmy Woode, would it have been the same? It is a great lesson in humility.
I was fortunate to be in the company of Jimmy Woode on several occasions while I was touring Europe with different groups. Jimmy was always going out to hear music, whether it was a night off or after his own gig. He loved to be a part of the jazz scene and supported it every way he could. I can still picture him listening with rapt attention in the room. He loved to hang out and talk on the breaks, offering his support and sharing stories from his illustrious career. What a career it was. Thank you, Jimmy, for leaving such a legacy.
By Chuck Redd
Arranger/pianist Bill Potts was born with an individual musical voice and a sense of purpose. He didn’t have to “learn to swing.” In fact, he was incapable of playing or writing anything that didn’t feel inevitable. It’s also been said by many musicians that Bill’s charts “play themselves” as the writing is so natural. His writing was also sophisticated, elegant, sometimes unpredictable and always full of heart.
A native of Arlington, Va., Bill spent close to 12 years in New York bookended by periods of prominence on the Washington, D.C., area scene. In the mid-’50s he cut his teeth arranging for the Orchestra, a nationally recognized, D.C.-based big band that was presented by Voice of America’s Willis Conover. Potts’ sense of uplifting, lyrical swing was already in evidence on those early efforts. The band hosted a series of special guests, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was also a weeklong gig in 1956 leading a local trio backing up Lester Young that was recorded and released on a series of Pablo recordings beginning in 1980.
Potts’ artistic vision is vivid and palpable on his remarkable 1959 big-band recording The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess. The band on Jazz Soul consisted of many of the top players of the day, and Bill wrote in a way that let them all shine. Phil Woods’ “Bess, You Is My Woman,” Sweets Edison and Zoot Sims on a surprisingly uptempo “Summertime” and Bill Evans on “I Loves You, Porgy” are highlights. I find the arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now” very moving as well. Bill struck a balance between reverence for Gershwin’s music, roaring swing and a melancholy tinge without ever loosing his own identity. The Potts recording was in contrast to the Gil Evans/Miles Davis landmark rendition of Porgy and Bess that commercially overshadowed it. The differences were merely in the arrangers’ taste and personality. The two recordings were equal artistically.
From the late 1950s into the ’60s, Bill was also busily writing for numerous record dates in New York, including memorable arrangements and compositions for the Quincy Jones Big Band, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Phil Woods and Gene Quill and the Buddy Rich Big Band. He became Paul Anka’s musical director from 1964 through 1969. Potts loomed large on the scene in New York, earning the respect and admiration of colleagues who included Manny Albam, Ernie Wilkins and Clark Terry.
After his late-’50s and ’60s New York triumphs, Bill returned to the D.C. area, where he accepted a teaching job at Montgomery College in Maryland. Bill made no real distinction between the academic and professional worlds. He would often thrust his hand through his mountain of white hair and shout to students who played without conviction, “Swing or I’ll kill you!” The day he asked me to play drums with his ensemble at school, my life changed.
That “gig” led to many exciting experiences. He took me New York, where he arranged for me to sit in with Al Cohn at the Half Note; he hired me to play an evening with Herb Ellis and he recommended me to Charlie Byrd. Shortly after that I joined Charlie’s trio and worked with him for 19 years. Bill took other students under his wing, notably my brother, pianist Robert Redd, saxophonist Leigh Pilzer and bassist Paul Langosch. We were all members of the powerful big band that he led from 1979 until the early ’90s.
Bill was a generous, loving mentor who taught by example and wanted more than anything to see his students succeed artistically and professionally. He also had a difficult time recognizing his own talent. Ironically, that might be why he was so good. One needs only to listen to a Bill Potts arrangement for a lesson in pure, unselfconscious finger-snapping swing. I will always love Bill Potts and be grateful for how he enriched my life.
by Don Byron
I first encountered Artie Shaw’s playing as a teenager. At that time, the local New York TV stations would play old movies until sign-off, usually the same dozen old movies. In the regular rotation of filler stuff was a film called Second Chorus. Seeing the movie later in life, I realized that it was a grandiose excuse to publicize Shaw and his band, a feature-film length video, a prehistoric A Hard Day’s Night. Unlike the Beatles film, it featured some of the biggest stars of the era, Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith, both playing struggling musicians whose goal in life was to get in Shaw’s band and schtupp the singer.
In the period when I first saw the film, I was studying classical clarinet and was programmed, as many students of clarinet were (and are), to completely diss jazz-clarinet players. I was not as bad as some, as I’d grown up hearing calypso-clarinet players who were undeniably great. Nonetheless, I was still prepared to dismiss him, yet I couldn’t. I remember the clarity of his tone, a harder, edgier, and more modern tone than Benny Goodman’s. He could play stuff that made harmonic sense way up high, and where Goodman’s playing seemed both triadic and ornamental, Shaw’s note choices seemed to foreshadow the discipline that would become bebop.
But what I also remember is Shaw’s mood. In A Hard Day’s Night, the Fab Four can hardly keep themselves from smiling, thinking about how much money they might make. Shaw, in the same scenario, looks completely pissed off, as if he can’t wait to go home and read a book or something. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he wasn’t acting pissed–he was pissed. Here’s a guy who referred to some of his most rabid fans, the “bobby soxers,” as morons. He was artistically a cut above his swing-era clarinet/bandleader competitors in every way, and I think his real artistic competitors were clarinetists like Jimmy Hamilton, Buster Bailey and Barney Bigard, but as black musicians none of them was in a position to compete with him business-wise.
Goodman had lots of classical things written for him (including major pieces by Copland, Bernstein and Bartok); Shaw wrote his own. The Goodman band’s theme song was “Let’s Dance,” a big, peppy hit; the Shaw band was identified with a tune called “Nightmare,” a fairly dissonant piece that could have been the soundtrack to a jazzy horror film. Goodman integrated his band with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, nice players; Shaw integrated his band with Billie Holliday and Roy Eldridge, arguably two of the most important figures in black culture at the time.
When given the same artistic privilege as Goodman, Shaw consistently made darker, edgier and more personal choices–choices that many of his fans were not in a position to appreciate. If I were him, would I have reacted differently? Maybe, maybe not. If I’d gotten a chance to sleep with Ava Gardner, would I have done it? Sure. But quitting music altogether is not a choice that I would make. Perhaps he never really felt appreciated for the things he appreciated about himself and his band, and was actually in a position where he could afford to leave the field.
Since Artie Shaw stopped playing clarinet, lots of developments have occurred in the music that must have interested him. He even led groups and got other clarinetists to play his own part, for the most part guys who couldn’t touch him. I just wish he could have played longer, and I wonder what his impact would have been. He was a clearly a “third stream” thinker, and while projects of a more adventurous nature might have been beyond his swing-era fans (making them less lucrative for himself and his label), he was in a position to get more of them done than almost anyone else. I think fame and commercial success were more important to him than he ever really wanted to admit. He was like a boxer who preferred to retire on top. Did he fear his own commercial decline?
by John Pizzarelli
Bobby Short was clearly one of a kind. He was a quintessential New York figure who adhered to social standards and practices that no longer exist in a T-shirt-and-blazer world. His music presented itself the way he presented himself, with grace and dignity. He was a musician and musicologist of the highest order. His palette was the Great American Songbook. His canvas was the Cafe Carlyle. It seemed as though he knew all the songs and the verses. I heard him trade wits with Jonathan Schwartz on a radio program in New York City one evening in the mid-’80s. Jonathan, the son of composer Arthur Schwartz, was asking for a particular song, and Bobby said he didn’t think he knew it. Without hesitating, though, he then played a seldom-heard verse to the tune and then the chorus. “Very sly of you, Mr. Short,” said the host. You could sense Bobby’s satisfaction through the speakers.
Mr. Short is why the tuxedo was invented. When boys go to rent tuxes for the prom, they should be shown a picture of Bobby in a tux, to see its promise. It would be like showing a movie of Babe Ruth to a singles hitter or a Monet to someone purchasing acrylics.
I have sat back with friends, discussed his passing and wondered, “Will we ever see the likes of someone like him again?” The answer is hard to figure, but I will tell you this: For whatever musical excellence you are wishing to achieve in your lifetime, there could be no better role model than Bobby Short.
In these rather tasteless and vulgar times, his class and virtuosity will be sorely missed.
by John Clayton
It’s so easy for sidemen to go unnoticed by so many. Keter Betts’ contribution to the music of many jazz notables, including Dinah Washington, Stan Getz and Ella Fitzgerald, makes it impossible for him to go on unnoticed. His groove was energetic, his walking bass-line note choices were reminiscent of Blanton and Pettiford and his solo style was his own. He was incredibly witty, and that wit transferred through to his music. I would often hear him quoting songs, using excerpts in his solos to make me smile (or so I would like to think). Off the bandstand, he would make me smile as well. In fact, I don’t think that I can remember an encounter with Keter that didn’t have me smiling. Along with many jazz melodies, he wrote lyrics. One of his monologues is a tune called “The Walking Bass.” I recorded it and people would always ask if I wrote it. “No, it’s by Keter Betts.”
Keter did much for the bass but, even bigger, he did so much for this music that I love. As time went on, more and more people learned about Keter. Thank goodness he was a musician whom more and more people noticed and adored. What a great friend.
Oscar Brown Jr.
by Sheila Jordan
The first time I heard Oscar Brown Jr. was an LP called Sin & Soul. I just liked the name, and I had sort of heard about it. It was very, very popular, and rightly so, because it was a great, great record. What I loved about the record is that the message was so strong. There were so many social issues going on. All of these songs were so ahead of their time, and I was used to hearing and singing the Cole Porters–which are great tunes, don’t get me wrong–but Oscar Brown Jr. came out with this stuff and it was just mind-blowing to me. I said, “Oh, my God, this man is a genius.”
What I loved about Oscar is that he never, ever sold out in any way. I think a long time ago, when that record first came out, [the industry] could have pushed him into another area or into another category because he was so good.
Around 1960, when Sin & Soul came out, I started to do “Dat Dere,” which featured lyrics that Oscar wrote for his son; I had a daughter who was around the same age and was asking all the same questions. I first recorded “Dat Dere” for Blue Note in 1962, and to this very present day I perform it because it reminds me of my daughter when she was little.
I think Oscar Brown Jr. is one of the unsung heroes of music–of any kind of music. I’m just regretful that I didn’t get to see more of him performing, but with my schedule and what was happening, all of sudden you get to be in your 70s. And the 1960s were just so busy, trying to make a living and raise my kids. But I tell you, that’s one of my biggest disappointments in life, that I didn’t get to meet Oscar and tell him what a major influence he had on me. He taught me that when you feel something, you have to be honest about how you feel; it’s not whether you’re going to make money or whether you are going to sell records. I got that from listening to Oscar Brown Jr. all those many years ago on Sin & Soul.
by Branford Marsalis
Lucky Thompson was the bridge between swing and bebop. Lucky, Dexter Gordon and Don Byas were among the ones who showed up in New York at the time when the transition had to be made. Lucky had the brains, which was why Bird and others included him on their sessions. He wasn’t the most technically proficient guy, on the level of a Bird or a Sonny Rollins, but he had the brains to overcome his technical limitations. And, like all of the musicians who decide to put in the work of a craftsman and learn the music from the ground up, he had his own sound. You don’t have to look at any one aspect of his playing; Lucky was just his own person.
I was fortunate enough to meet Lucky in 2002. A guy named Philip Cody and his wife, Evie, had gotten to know Lucky and were going to visit him in the nursing home where he lived in Seattle. Phil emailed me and asked if I wanted to meet Lucky Thompson, so I just picked myself up and went along with my dad, who was also with me on the West Coast. I had heard that Lucky didn’t talk, but he talked to us. I think music meant more to him than he let on, but it had disappointed him so much. He had that distant look on his face, but he asked me my name, and we talked–about music, not about him. He picked up my tenor and just popped the keys and said, “This horn has a sound,” just popping the keys and looking at me. Then he asked me to play tunes, a lot of which were things from the ’30s that I didn’t know. I wish I had written them down and learned them. Then he asked me to play like Charlie Parker and like Sonny, and he liked that. He claimed that he didn’t remember any of his music, but I had brought some of his records with me, and when I played Lucky Strikes he froze. Then he started telling stories about the musicians on the date.
People should get the stuff he did with Bird–“Moose the Mooche” and “Ornithology” and those tracks. His albums from the ’60s, Lucky Strikes and Happy Days Are Here Again, are killers, too. He just had this really interesting way of playing.
by Bud Shank
Stan Levey was truly a renaissance man. From modest beginnings, he became a drumming star on 52nd Street with Bird and Diz while still a teenager, went on to be a professional boxer, then to a guy in his 20s searching for answers to life and living, then to a return to music and a new life in Los Angeles. After this came a career as a professional photographer, and being a successful businessman who put both of his sons through med school. This is not only a renaissance man–this is a real man! Every time adversity reared its ugly head, Stan gave it a left hook, flattened it and went straight ahead. Our art form needs more people with the talent and courage that Stan Levey personified.
I worked with him for three years at the Lighthouse. He was a marvelous person and a hell of a musician. He was an all-around good guy. He came out of a hard world, being a boxer and some of the other adventures that he had been involved in. He was actually a big teddy bear–but don’t get him mad ’cause he’ll kill you, and he could. He was a marvelous musician and he was a very gentle guy.
I most certainly will remember him as one of my most favorite drummers. We were both in Stan Kenton’s band, but at different times. All the guys who were with Stan Levey in Stan Kenton’s band, other guys I talked with, thought he was the best big-band drummer there was.
by Bucky Pizzarelli
I first met Skitch Henderson in 1947 when he was a guest in the Vaughn Monroe Camel Caravan Show for radio and I was a member of Vaughn’s orchestra. Skitch’s basic training was in Hollywood. He started as a rehearsal pianist for the movie stars before they made soundtracks. Victor Young advised him to take conducting lessons, and he became a great interpreter of Young’s music.
From them on, we met in different settings. He was on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen. As conductor of the NBC Tonight Show Orchestra, Skitch assembled many of the best jazzmen in the business from some of the best jazz bands and orchestras of that time, including: Snooky Young (from Jimmie Lunceford), Clark Terry (Duke Ellington), Al Klink (Glenn Miller), Hymie Schertzer (Benny Goodman), Jimmy Maxwell (Benny Goodman) and Bob Haggart (Bob Crosby). That orchestra really was a good cross-section of jazz bands.
Recently, he was working on a project for Arbors Records, recording Paul Whiteman’s original orchestrations of the “Swinging Strings” with four violins, two guitars, a piano and bass. He was very exacting, very emphatic. When you came to him with a situation that you wanted to do, he would only say one thing: “Done!” And that was what we did. There was no squabbling or nothing.
He covered a lot of ground. He did classical music, he had a dance band and he played beautiful piano, commercially. He did almost everything everyone could want to be able to do, and I always admired Skitch for that. When I played a couple of jobs over in Madison, N.J., a place called Shanghai Jazz, he would say, “You’re playing?” And I’d say, “Yeah.” He’d say, “I’m coming over tomorrow night,” and he’d come over and he’d sit in and play with us. He’d have the audience in the palm of his hand. He never used a microphone to make an announcement. Everybody just shut up, even though they were eating. You could hear a pin drop. That’s pretty good.
I like to be associated with guys like that. I’ve played with a lot of different bandleaders, and when you see a bandleader in action, they all have the same trait: They all get to where they want to go in a different way. Skitch got there in his own nice little way, and it was always good for the orchestra, it was good for everybody. He was a great salesman, besides being a great musician. There’s a big difference. A lot of musicians don’t know how to sell themselves. He knew exactly what to do, how to act, what to play at the right time. He had it all covered.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Dom Um Romao
Additional reporting by Katherine Silkaitis and Michael Kabran