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This interview, comprised of eleven installments, ran in Melody Maker from April to June, 1954. It is entirely Mary Lou's own words. i couldn't find the final part. If anyone knows where this exists please contact me! --ratitor
I have been tied up with music for about as long as I can remember. By the time I was four I was picking out little tunes my mother played on the reed organ in the living-room. We lived in a big, timber-framed building: what we called a shotgun house, because if you fired through the front door the shot passed through all the rooms and out into the back yard, likely ending up in the privy.
Quite a few musicians came to our house. And my ma took me to hear many more, hoping to encourage in me a love of music. But she wouldn't consent to my having music lessons, for she feared I might end up as she had done -- unable to play except from paper. Soon I was playing piano around the district, though I was so small I had to sit on someone's lap to reach the keyboard.
There were two children, me and my older sister Mamie. My father I had never seen. A year or two later, the family moved to a neighbourhood in Pittsburgh which brought me my first experience of inter-racial feeling. This entire section was `white' for five or six blocks, and for a while somebody was throwing bricks through our windows. There was nothing to do but stick it out in silence. Pretty soon the people there were tolerating us.
Then my mother married a man called Fletcher Burley. As a stepfather he was the greatest; and he loved the blues. Fletcher taught me the first blues I ever knew by singing them over and over to me.
Now it happened he was known as a professional gambler, and he sometimes took me with him at nights -- to bring him luck, he said. We had moved again, to Hamilton Boulevard in East Liberty (a suburb of Pittsburgh about six miles from the main drag), and I went with him into a variety of smoke-filled gaming rooms, most of which had an upright against one wall. The game was generally `skin' -- the Georgia skin game -- and the players would all be men, for women weren't allowed in these places. I was kind of smuggled in, and before the cards began I used to play a few things on the piano. Often I received as much as 20 dollars in tips, which my stepfather had started rolling by dropping a dollar in his hat. This `pound' had to be returned to him as soon as we got outside. Still, it was a fair deal.
We also visited Saturday hops and parties given at someone's house to raise money for rent and other bills. These functions were known as house-rent parties or chitterlin' struts. The windows were kept shut and the atmosphere was stagnant, but I was always fascinated by the boogie pianists and shuffling couples dancing on a spot. Sometimes they'd hire me at a dollar an hour for three hours. I would bring out all the blues and boogies Fletcher had taught me. Should I attempt a popular song or light classic, my step-father would ask why didn't I play some music.
I had now been attending Lincoln School for a couple of years, learning music and playing college teas and such. Outside, I had earned a local reputation as `the gigging piano gal from East Liberty'. I was playing quite a bit of jazz now, and beginning to give it my own interpretation. Of course, my playing was influenced by favourite pianists: principally by Jack Howard, Earl Hines and Jelly Roll Morton. Of all the musicians I met in my childhood, one who stands out: Jack Howard, who played boogie-woogie so forcefully that he used to break up all the pianos. For those days, he was one of the grooviest, but never made the name he deserved. Jelly Roll I dug from records, and his composition, The Pearls, was then my number one solo. Many years later I recorded it for Decca at the instigation of John Hammond.
Offers for me to play dances, society parties, even churches, were now coming in regularly. For most dates I was paid the sum of one dollar per hour, and they always tipped me at the end of the night.
And there was usually something worth hearing in town those days, even if Pittsburgh was not one of the jazz centres. One Saturday night I went to a theatre on Frankstown Avenue where all the Negro shows were booked. But I hardly noticed any part of the show, for my attention was focussed on the lady pianist who worked there. She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her swinging left! Impressed, I told myself: `Mary, you'll do that one day.' (And I did, travelling with Andy Kirk's band in the Thirties on one-nighters.)
The lady turned out to be Lovie Austin, who was working with the pit band and making all the orchestrations. It so happened that she was behind time, and hurriedly arranging a number for one of the acts further down the bill.
Another week, the fabulous Ma Rainey came into a little theatre on Wiley Avenue. Some of the older kids and I slipped down-town to hear the woman who had made blues history. Ma was loaded with real diamonds -- in her ears, around her neck, in a tiara on her head. Both hands were full of rocks, too; her hair was wild and she had gold teeth. What a sight! To me, as a kid, the whole thing looked and sounded weird. When the engagement ended, and Ma had quit the scene, rumour had it that the jewellery was bought hot and that Ma was picked up and made to disgorge -- losing all the loot she had paid for the stuff.
Of our local characters, one of the most famed was Lois Deppe, the popular baritone singer who had been around since 1918 or earlier. His band was the talk of Pennsylvania, and at that time included the great Earl Hines -- a local boy from nearby Carnegie -- and Vance Dixon on saxophone and clarinet. Wherever Deppe's band appeared, the kids from all around were sure to go -- and when Vance started to slap-tongue on that saxophone they really went wild. Numbers I remember the band doing were Milenberg Joys, Isabelle and Congaine. The last two were recorded by Deppe in the early Twenties. Isabelle I made as a solo for Columbia around 1935; I once asked Hines about it, thinking he might be the composer, but he did not remember it.
I must have been ten or eleven when I was taken to the Saturday afternoon dances at the Arcadia Ballroom where Deppe was playing. These dances ran from noon until 4 p.m., and shortly before break-up time the biggest fight would invariably commence. Half the kids in Pittsburgh could be seen running from the hall, grabbing the backs of street-cars to get away.
We had groups of kids from the different districts -- East Liberty, Soho, the downtown district, and so on -- who were considered very tough. If an East Liberty kid was caught in Soho, or downtown, he would either be assaulted or chased back to his own district.
I was at high school when my first big chance came along. Hits And Bits, a travelling TOBA show, had just hit town, and the pianist had failed to show up. `Buzzin'' Harris, the owner, was frantic for a replacement. `There's a girl in East Liberty could play your show,' he was told. He drove over to investigate, found me playing hopscotch with some kids, and thought a gag had been pulled on him. Reluctantly he agreed to hear me, and I must have proved something, because he started humming the show tunes for me. Within a few hours I had them off, was about ready to play the shows. That night I opened, and during the week Harris was over to the house to talk my mother into letting me leave home.
It was just before the summer vacation, and after a little argument my mother agreed. But she was backstage next day with the public notary, signing papers for me to go with the show for two months. My salary was to be 30 dollars a week, and mother fixed for a friend to go along with me. So I left Pittsburgh with Hits And Bits and travelled west to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati and St Louis. In the Windy City I again ran into Hines, who introduced me to Louis Armstrong. Both were working at the Vendome Theatre with Erskine Tate's orchestra. In fact, so far as the audience was concerned, they were the orchestra. Specialities were played from the pit, and I saw Louis stand up, wipe his mouth in preparation for a solo, and break up the place before he'd blown a note. That's how it was with Satchmo in Chicago then. After the show the boys took me over to the Sunset cabaret -- owned by the now famous booking agent, Joe Glaser -- to hear King Oliver. I was impressed no end by Oliver's kicking combo, and by his own expressive, tale-telling cornet.
I also looked up Lovie Austin -- by now making a name in Chicago -- at the Monogram, another house on the TOBA circuit. The initials stand for Theatre Owners' Booking Association -- or, to us who had to work it, `Tough on Black Artists'.
Next stop, St Louis: and there I met Charlie Creath, the river-boat king, who was known all over the Middle West for his crazy growl trumpet playing. Besides being a top jazz performer, Charlie was a most handsome cat.
In St Louis, our show picked up a young blues singer named Irene Scruggs (now in Paris with her daughter, dancer Baby Leazar Scruggs). Irene had not long settled in St Louis, and was starting out to become one of St Louis's finest singers.
Then on to Cleveland, where I met John Williams, later to become my husband. He was working at the theatre where we appeared, leading a five-piece combo known as John Williams and his Syncopators. John played alto, soprano and baritone saxes, also clarinet. Acknowledged to be one of the finest baritone players, he was much in demand. We named him `Bearcat', on account of him being wild on the big saxophone, and it was this nickname which led in later years to the Kirk instrumental number, Bearcat Shuffle.
The Syncopators were strong in all departments. A man called Martin, a friend and schoolmate of Coleman Hawkins from St Joseph, Missouri, played tenor. Shirley Clay, from St Louis, was already blowing good trumpet (we used to call him `Hoggy'). The drummer, Edward Temple, was a showman, but also a solid, subtle rhythm player. Then they had a banjoist whose name has got away from me. They didn't carry a brass bass. John Williams blew a slap-tongue two beats on baritone, when he wasn't taking a solo, like a bass horn would play. It eliminated the need for a tuba.
I played in the pit with this band, doubling on stage in the second half with a speciality that was slightly sensational. Spreading a sheet over the keys, I did a version of Milenberg Joys mostly with my elbows, winding up by taking a break while spinning around on the piano stool. I perpetrated this novelty until an older musician came to me one day and said he had detected something nice in my playing. He explained how ridiculous the clowning was, and there and then I decided to settle down and play seriously.
The piano had done well enough by me, but I wasn't going to be hung up with it without trying some other instruments. And at Westinghouse junior high school the opportunity existed for every pupil to study a variety of instruments. I was back at school after my eight weeks' tour with Hits And Bits, having said goodbye to comedian Buzzin' Harris and his wife Arletta, and parted from the show in Pittsburgh.
At Westinghouse we had some of the best music teachers in the world (I guess). Under their guidance, I tried out most of the instruments -- last but not least being the violin. Right after the first fiddle lesson I played Sheik Of Araby on one string. My teacher advised me to forget it and stick to piano; which I did.
In later years, both Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner attended that same school and class, receiving tuition from the master I was with. One day I pinch-hit for a tuning fork the teacher had lost, and it was discovered I possessed perfect pitch. Rumour of this oddity spread throughout the school, and pupils would drop pots, pans and other loud objects, asking: `What note, Mary?'
At this point in my career a very fine jazz orchestra came to Pittsburgh: McKinney's Cotton Pickers, with Prince Robinson on saxophone and Todd Rhodes at the piano. Todd became a friend and adviser to me, used to take me out jamming, and on one date let me sit in with the band. Some nights we jammed all the way from East Liberty down to Wylie Avenue, then a notorious section of town which was held in dread by so-called decent people. We always wound up in the Subway on Wylie, a hole in the ground to which the cream of the crop came to enjoy the finest in the way of entertainment. For me it was a paradise. Visiting musicians made straight for the place to listen to artists like beautiful Louise Mann, and Baby Hines, Earl's first wife.
Until this time I had paid little attention to singers, but the feeling in Baby's singing made the strongest impression upon me. Baby is still working, I believe, for I saw her in Jersey City in 1952: but she never received the recognition she merits. Those days, when she began a number like You're An Old Smoothie, the customers showered tips on her in appreciation -- and I've seen 50- and 100-dollar bills among them. Her torch songs brought real tears to their eyes -- as you can guess, for that kind of dough!
At this same spot I heard a lot of Prince Robinson, and have never forgotten his excellent tenor. He was one of the outstanding jazz players of the generation. Prince would refuse to jam with inadequate musicians, waiting until he could round up some other out-of-the-ordinary players to make the session inspirational or at least worthwhile.
One way and another I was having a ball -- playing gigs, jamming and listening to fine musicians. Then came a crisis at home. My stepfather fell sick, and it meant I had to support the family. Finishing up at high school, I went back to Buzzin' Harris'. John Williams still had the band, which by now included trumpet player Doc Cheatham. Doc came from a long line of medicos, was studying himself when he decided to follow the call of music. He was a very accomplished musician.
For a time the tour went well, taking us to different theatres on the TOBA and Gus Sun circuits. Suddenly we found ourselves stranded in Cincinnati -- 350 miles from home and short of gold. Just as we were feeling dragged, Fate stepped in -- in the shape of a telegram inviting us to join the celebrated dance team of Seymour and Jeanette to play the Keith-Orpheum theatres. It was practically the rags to riches routine. We were on our way to one of the top theatre circuits direct from TOBA, one of the toughest. At that time, Keith's were booking only one other Negro act besides Seymour and Jeanette (I think it was Bojangles), and we felt justified in saying `at last!'
Right away John sent to Kansas City for banjoist Joe Williams. On trumpet there was a guy called Max. Doc Cheatham's uncle, a St Louis dentist had reclaimed him for a while. On trombone we had the fabulous Sylvester Briscoe, who could and did play more horn with his foot in the slide than most cats can with their hands.
Seymour and Jeanette had previously worked with pit bands. But Seymour was now a sick man who could no longer dance flat out. He was famed for a wild strut, which he performed with a cane, and it was said that the dance had stretched his heart to the size of a saucer, which seemed likely to anyone who had seen him strutting. He needed a supporting attraction, and it was our job to accompany and provide a couple of speciality numbers.
When Seymour saw me seated at the piano at that first rehearsal, he shouted: `What's that kid doing here? Call your piano player and let's get started.'
`She is it,' replied John, smiling.
`We cannot have a child in this act,' Jeanette put in. `Especially a female child. We'll have to put pants on her, or something.'
By this time, the boys were falling out. John told the dancers not to worry but just to listen. We ran through one or two of our showiest things and we were in.
The band went over well: so well, in fact, that Seymour kept changing our spot. We thought at any moment we might lose the job because of the way the public was going for our Tiger Rag. This featured Briscoe's crazy act of playing trombone with both hands behind his back, the instrument somehow wedged between his mouth and the floor. This may sound impossible, but it is the truth. I never knew how he did it, and never saw anyone who could imitate him.
Tiger Rag was the last number, and needed to be. The applause even stopped the movie that followed us, often a Rin Tin Tin picture. After our show, the house would be blacked, then the dog appeared on the screen. Some nights they had to cut the picture for us to take another encore, and the guys would say: `Don't look like Rin Tin Tin will bark tonight.'
Seymour's death cut short this engagement, and the group was disbanded while Jeanette looked for another partner. By this time drummer Temple had gone and been replaced by a good but heavy footed Kaycee man named Abie Price. Trombonist Briscoe had also split.
My travels had not taken me to New York until now, when we played the 81st Theatre on Broadway and a few weekend gigs. To someone who lived for music, this was it. Jeanette did a stint at the old Lincoln Theatre, off Lennox Avenue, and not being able to afford five pieces, she just took me in with her. I played the entire show in the pit, then went on stage to accompany her act. That week was the most exciting of my life thus far. I was working with some of the boys from Duke Ellington's Washingtonians -- Sonny Greer, Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton among them, and never had I heard such music before. The two growlers, Bubber and Tricky were the nicest to me. Though they invariably took their jugs into the pit with them, they never got too juiced to play or to respect me. Coming downstairs for the show, I sometimes overheard Bubber warning the guys: `Be careful now, the kid's coming down.'
I stayed in New York, eyes and ears open to all the attractions Harlem had to offer. Like most other pianists I revered the amazing Fats Waller, who had lately made a splash wailing on organ at the Lincoln. When he quit New York, his admirers wouldn't let anyone follow him on organ, and those frantic kids were likely to throw most anything if you tried. Naturally it was a great day for me when some musicians took me across to Connie's Inn on 7th Avenue to meet Fats, working on a new show. The way Waller worked was anything but slavery. The OAO (one and only) sat overflowing the piano stool, a jug of whisky within easy reach. Leonard Harper, the producer, said: `Have you anything written for this number, Fats?' And Fats would reply: `Yeah, go on ahead with the dance, men.' Then he composed his number while the girls were dancing. He must have composed the whole show, with lyrics, while I was sitting there -- ears working overtime. Meanwhile, he bubbled over with so many stories and funny remarks that those girls could hardly hoof it for laughing. The girls, 35- to 40-dollar-a-week chorus beauties, were loaded with enough ice around their shapely ankles to sink a battleship, for these were generous days in New York.
After the rehearsal, one of the boys -- knowing my memory -- bet Fats I could repeat all the tunes he had just written: a bet Waller snapped up at paying odds. Falling apart with nerves at having to play before this big name, I was prodded to the piano, but managed to concentrate and play nearly everything I had heard Fats play. He was knocked out, picking me up and throwing me in the air and roaring like a crazy man.
Not long afterwards, Harper asked me how I'd like to work at Connie's Inn. I would, and I began playing intermission piano while the band was over at the Lafayette Theatre, just up the Avenue near the Tree of Hope, where musicians used to exchange stories and await work. In these later months, I ran into many great artists: luscious Florence Mills, Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, comedian Johnny Huggins and Nina Mae McKinney (then about sixteen), who wished me to accompany her.
I was glad of the chance to meet Clarence Williams and Jelly Roll Morton. I had admired Williams's compositions for some time, and I found him a kindly man who seemed to like me, and who was reassuring about the things I played him. I have never seen Clarence again, though he lives in New York to this day.
Mr Jelly Lord was a more frightening proposition. He was considered a big deal then, and he had me scared. When the guys dragged me into his office downtown we were surprised to see him playing duets with an ofay piccolo player. At a convenient break, they introduced me and told Jelly they would like for him to hear me. Indicating that I should park my hips on the stool, Jelly gave over the piano and I got started on my favourite Morton piece, The Pearls. Almost immediately I was stopped and reprimanded, told the right way to phrase it. I played it the way Jelly told me, and when I had it to his satisfaction, I slipped in one of my own tunes. This made no difference. I was soon stopped and told: `Now that passage should be phrased like this.'
Jelly Roll had a mouthful of diamond and spoke with a stammer when he got excited. He was what we call a `big mouth', and the sound of his voice had me shaking in my boots. Any minute I was expecting to get up off the floor because I had played his Pearls wrong. That's how they trained you in those days (half those chorus girls had black eyes!), and Morton had the reputation of being a demanding taskmaster. Musicians -- they really have it easy now!
My first real experience of the South came about the year 1927. In my earlier tours I had not crossed the Mason-Dixon line; now, domestic business rather than music took me there. John Williams and I decided to get married, and it meant going to Memphis, Tennessee, to meet his parents. Apparently they had saved for John to go to college and study law, and they didn't approve of his musical career. I could understand their disappointment, because I saw that education meant everything to the Southern Negro then. A teacher, lawyer or doctor was regarded almost as some kind of a god down there, while musicians were more often looked on as undesirables.
We were married very quietly, and decided to spend some time in Memphis. John set about forming a band of local musicians of whom there were a good number, though not many who could read music well. Now John was a smooth talker and a shrewd character. He soon manoeuvred the new combo into clubs and hotels that ordinarily never employed a coloured outfit, and dug up a job at the Pink Rose Ballroom, where we made quite a name. One thing I have to say for John: he knew how to talk up salaries. Memphis musicians were getting a dollar and a half or 2 dollars a night when we went there. John kept working on it, and by the time we left they were making 5 and 7 bucks, and I was making 10.
Through the neighbourhood grapevine we heard one day that a young man was in town looking for work as a teacher. We heard he was shabbily dressed, and that the 'fay' board of education were going to interview him to determine if he was capable. In no time they found out. In fact, he knew more than they did, was answering so fast he had them baffled. The scholastic young man was Jimmy Lunceford, later to take America by storm with a very hard-hitting orchestra, but then an unknown saxophone player out of Denver, Colorado. He became a close friend of John's, and they spent hours playing checkers together. Usually John won the games, but Lunceford used to say he'd get a band and beat John with that. He was forever kidding about building up a combo that would make ours look sick. Finally he started out to do it -- not an easy job because we probably had the pick of the men in Memphis then, yet they were not top class. Still, Jimmy went ahead, and we had to admire the way he taught the young musicians in his school.
Drummer James Crawford was one from the school; perhaps bassist Moses Allen was there, and others whose names I have since forgotten. To begin with, Jimmy had a small group like ours, even to the girl pianist -- talented Bobby Jones. Then, unable to get the band sounding right, Jimmy went off to Nashville and returned bragging with pianist Eddie Wilcox and saxophone player Willie Smith. By the time we left Memphis he must have had twelve pieces.
Our leaving was caused by a telegram from Terrence Holder, a bandleader in Oklahoma City, offering good money for John to go out and join him there. John went first, leaving me in charge for the rest of the dates we had contracted. This made me a bandleader at the age of seventeen. I had no alto player, so had to ask Jimmy Lunceford to play the remainder of the dates with us, which he consented to do.
Though we didn't meet too often while I was on the road with Kirk, I remained friendly with Lunceford. Later, when I lived in New York, he once came to my house at four in the morning, asking if I wanted to fly to Pittsburgh with him. I said: `What are we going to fly in?' and Jimmy said: `Didn't you know I had a pilot's licence and my own plane?' I hadn't known, but refused to go anyway, saying: `It's too foggy there.' Pittsburgh with its hundreds of steel mills makes its own fog. Not for nothing is it called the Smoky City.
To get back to Memphis, though: I worked off the outstanding engagements, then set out to join John in Oklahoma City, 700 hard miles away. He had left our Chevrolet for me to make the journey in, and with John's mother and a friend I hit the highway. The Chev wasn't much of a `short' to look at. It looked like a red bath-tub in fact, but ran like one of those streamlined trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was the craziest for wear and tear. Unfortunately, we had miles of dirt and turtle-back roads to travel, and these excuses for highways were studded with sharp stones. To top all, it was August and hot as a young girl's doojie. Every 40 or 50 miles we stopped to change tyres or clean out the carburettor. As my passengers were strictly non-drivers and non-fixers, I was in sole command. We got along somehow, and after what seemed like weeks of blow-outs and fuel trouble we fell into Oklahoma City. Considering it was surrounded by every description of oil, well, the place was a beauty spot. But the smell of gas . . . wow!
John was anxious to show me off musically, for he was proud of my ability. Though out of my mind from the journey, I went without sleep to make rehearsal the next morning. Holder's boys rehearsed two days a week, beginning 11 a.m.; and I was in the hall by nine. I don't know what Holder's band made of me, but I thought them the handsomest bunch of intellectuals I had seen so far. They looked like collegians, all had beautiful brown complexions and wore sharp beige suits to match. Going out, they sported yellow raincoats with the instrument each man played illustrated on the back. Most came from good families, and their manners were perfect. I could hardly wait to hear the music. As I suspected, it was out of the ordinary. They had a novel arrangement of Casey Jones featuring Claude Williams, who was strong on both guitar and violin. Tenorman Lawrence `Slim' Freeman supplied the show stuff by playing bass clarinet while Iying on his back. For the rest, they played jazz numbers and the better commercial things. They were all reading like mad, and I had to admit it was a good and different orchestra: smooth showmanship (minus the `Tom-ing') coupled with musical ability. No wonder Holder had held this one job for more than two years. And at high money for a no-name band.
As I shall explain, this was to be the basis of the Andy Kirk combo. Kirk was a tuba player with the band, and he also played alto and baritone saxes. Bill Dirvin doubled guitar and piano, and Harry `BigJim' Lawson was on trumpet. Holder conducted and didn't play an instrument. I guess he was the most musically ignorant one in the band, but a fast talker and a sportsman who took chances. He liked to gamble, and I was told he had more than once lost the payroll in this way. There was talk about bad management, and one day the boys got together and arranged a change. They put Andy Kirk in charge of the band, incorporated it, and renamed it Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy. I reckon the year would be 1928.
We moved to Tulsa, and I went to live over an undertaker's. Apart from natural deaths, there was a killing every other day, with weekends the best for business. I was not working, and to break the monotony I'd got permission to drive for the undertaker. In those days they had to go after work, racing to the scene as soon as a killing was reported. Whoever got there first took the body.
Apart from this, I had no way of passing the time. I couldn't see myself getting ahead in music, and the life was getting me down fast. Then a letter from home said my stepfather had passed away, and this broke me up. Inveigling the fare out of my husband, I made for Pittsburgh -- not sorry to escape from the oil fumes of Oklahoma.
While I was at home the Kirk band began to shape up nicely. An offer came for them to go into the Pla-mor Ballroom in Kansas City, Missouri. The Clouds of Joy accepted, were held over several times, and took the first stride towards the nation-wide success they won in the mid-Thirties.
I found Kansas City to be a heavenly city -- music everywhere in the Negro section of town, and fifty or more cabarets rocking on 12th and 18th Streets. Kirk's band was drawing them into the handsome Pla-mor Ballroom when my husband, John Williams, had me return to him in Kaycee. This was my first visit to Missouri's jazz metropolis, a city that was to have a big influence on my career.
With two sisters, Lucille and Louise, who knew every speak-easy in town, I began to make the rounds from `Hell's Kitchen' on 5th Avenue to a club on 18th where I met Sam Price. Sammy was playing an unusual type of blues piano which I thought could hardly be improved on. I had the luck to hear him again when we were both in New York during 1934.
One night, we ran into a place where Ben Pollack had a combo which included Jack Teagarden and, I think, Benny Goodman. The girls introduced me to the Texas trombonist, and right away we felt like friends. After work, he and a couple of the musicians asked us to go out, and we visited most of the speaks downtown. One I remember particularly, because it was decorated to resemble the inside of a penitentiary, with bars on the windows and waiters in striped uniforms like down- South convicts. In these weird surroundings, I played for the boys and Jack got up and sang some blues. I thought he was more than wonderful. While they stayed in Kaycee, Jack and some of Pollack's men came round every night, and I was very happy to see them.
Now at this time, which was still Prohibition, Kansas City was under Tom Pendergast's control. Most of the night spots were run by politicians and hoodlums, and the town was wide open for drinking, gambling and pretty much every form of vice. Naturally, work was plentiful for musicians, though some of the employers were tough people. For instance, when Kirk moved from Pla-mor, the orchestra went to work for a nationally feared gangster. He was real bad: people used to run when you just mentioned his name. At that time, Andy was playing tuba, and the band was conducted by our singer, Billy Massey. Billy was a man not easily scared, and one day at the new job he ran off his mouth to the boss. The hood concluded he was crazy (which was not far wrong), and told all the band to pack and leave -- but fast. The rest of the guys were too nice, he said, for him to think about killing Billy.
I heard that Count Basie later worked for the same dracula, and also had a slight misunderstanding. As a result, Basie had to work two weeks without pay.
So for the Clouds of Joy it was more one-nighters. After a few, short trips, we headed east to New York to open in the Roseland Ballroom, that spot made famous by Fletcher Henderson. Kirk was on his way up. By now, I had graduated to composer, arranger and first-class chauffeur for the organisation. I was not playing in the band but was doing their recordings for Brunswick, and sometimes sitting in to try things I had written.
In Kansas City, Kirk had liked my ideas, though I could not set them down on paper. He would sit up as long as 12 hours at a stretch, taking down my ideas for arrangements, and I got so sick of the method that I began putting them down myself. I hadn't studied theory, but asked Kirk about chords and the voicing register. In about 15 minutes I had memorised what I wanted. That's how I started writing. My first attempt, Messa Stomp, was beyond the range of half the instruments. But the boys gave me a chance and each time I did better, until I found myself doing five and six arrangements per week. Later on, I learned more theory from people like the great Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, Milton Orent and Will Bradley.
The Clouds of Joy had a long run at the Roseland, playing opposite a bunch named the Vagabonds, then opposite the Casa Loma Band (later led by Glen Gray). From the Roseland, they moved to the celebrated Savoy Ballroom, where they faced Chick Webb's orchestra. The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing. And Webb was acknowledged king of the Savoy. Any visiting band could depend on catching hell from little Chick, for he was a crazy drummer and shrewd to boot. The way I made it out, Chick would wait until the opposition had blown its hottest numbers and then -- during a so-so set -- would unexpectedly bring his band fresh to the stand and wham into a fine arrangement, like Benny Carter's Liza, that was hard to beat. Few visiting bands could stand up to this.
Kirk must have played a couple of months at the Savoy, during which time I often sat in, playing either Mary's Plea or Froggy Bottom, and doing quite well with the kids who liked a good beat for their dancing. From there, we toured Pennsylvania and the Eastern States, and after what seemed like a year of one-nighters, returned to Kansas City.
Kaycee was really jumping now -- so many great bands having sprung up there or moved in from over the river. I should explain that Kansas City, Missouri, wasn't too prejudiced for a Mid-western town. It was a ballin' town, and it attracted musicians from all over the South and South-west, and especially from Kansas.
Kansas City, Kansas, was right across the viaduct, just about 5 or 6 miles distant. But on the Kansas side they were much snootier. A lot of their musicians were from good families who frowned on jazz, so the musicians and kids would come across to Kaycee to blast. In Kaycee, nothing mattered.
I've known musicians so enthused about playing that they would walk all the way from the Kansas side to attend a jam session. Even bass players, caught without street-car fare, would hump their bass on their back and come running. That was how music stood in Kansas City in those years around 1930.
At the head of the bands was Bennie Moten's, led by pianist Bennie, and featuring his brother, Buster, on accordion. Then there was George E. Lee, whose sister, Julia, played piano in George's band and took care of the vocals.
From Oklahoma came Walter Page, with a terrific combo named the Blue Devils. Page, known as `Big One', was one of the very first to use the string bass as well as tuba, and he also doubled on bass saxophone. For a while he had Bill Basie on piano. Count had come to Kansas City with the Gonzele White touring show, and dropped out of it to join Page. Later, Basie returned to the roadshow, again leaving it in Kaycee to go into Moten's band on second piano.
Singing with Moten then was the lovable Jimmy Rushing, `Mr Five by Five'. Unlike the run of blues shouters, Jimmy could read music, and he could be heard ten blocks away without a microphone (they used megaphones then, anyway). Jimmy was big brother to me, and some of the other band wives. I remember him playing piano and singing wonderful ballads to us; other times he would keep us laughing with his risqué stories, getting a kick out of seeing us blush.
Yes, Kaycee was a place to be enjoyed, even if you were without funds. People would make you a loan without you asking for it, would look at you and tell if you were hungry and put things right. There was the best food to be had: the finest barbecue, crawdads and other seafood. There were the races, and swimming, and the beautiful Swope Park and zoo to amuse you. There were jam sessions all the time, and big dances such as the union dance given every year by our local. As many as ten or twelve bands participated in this event, and you were sure to hear at least eight original styles there, as well as one or two outfits trying to imitate Duke.
For private entertainment we had our hot corn club every Monday, at which the musicians and wives would drink and play bridge, `tonk' or `hearts'. At these meetings the boys drank corn whisky and home brew -- in fact, most anything with a high alcohol content -- and they got laughs out of giving me rough liquor so strong it would almost blow the top of one's head off.
One of the regulars was Herman Walder, brilliant tenor player with Moten and brother of saxophonist Woodie Walder. Herman asked me if I'd like a cool drink one night, and not knowing the taste of corn I gulped down a large glassful. The next thing I remember was people putting cold towels on my head. Being stubborn, I thought: if they can take it, so can I. So each Monday I tried to drink, with much the same result. They boys took to betting that I'd be high within ten minutes of entering -- and they always won.
It was in the winter of 1930-31 that the breaks began to happen. Andy Kirk's band had hit the road for another string of one-nighters, leaving me in Kansas City. Then came a wire, telling me to meet the band right away in Chicago. It said that Jack Kapp, the Brunswick record man, wanted to hear me play. This looked great. I knew they wouldn't send for me unless something was in the wind, so by next day I was on my way to St Louis, where I changed trains for Chicago. When I arrived I was cold and tired, but went direct to the studio and sat down and played.
I had been in the habit of making up my own things when asked to play. Out of this training, and the way I was feeling beat, came two originals titled Drag 'Em and Night Life -- the first a blues, the other a faster piece. These were the first solo records I ever made. So far as I can remember it, the session took place in 1930. I know the record was released early in '31 and I never received a recording fee nor any royalties from it, though the record sold quite well. I tried to get some loot, but was fluffed to Mayo Williams, then a kind of artists' manager and connected with some publishing house or other, who in turn fluffed me to the executives. Many years after, I threatened to sue, and stopped the sale of a record that had been reissued ever since 1931 and was even included in the Forties in an album of `barrelhouse piano'.
That record didn't make my fortune, but it made my name in a double sense. I had been born Mary Elfreda Winn, and had played as Mary Winn until I became Mary Williams. It was Jack Kapp laid the `Lou' on me. Perhaps he figured plain Mary wasn't enough for a recording artist, whereas Mary Lou was right on the beam. Anyway, Mary Lou went on the label, and Mary Lou it stayed. Until today, few people knew I wasn't born with that name.
Being still broke after the session, I moved in with Mary Kirk, Andy's wife. The Bear (as we call winter time) was in Chicago and it was very cold. Mary provided food and clothes and was the kindest to me. Once again I travelled with Kirk, and it was at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia that I joined the band full-time. Kirk had decided to use two pianos, and I was to play the second -- a small upright.
Over the two pianos Kirk had a shed-like enclosure built. On top of the shed stood the drums, now presided over by Ben Thigpen, whom we had picked up near Toledo, Ohio. It was tough going; I was used to a large piano, but our regular man, Jack, had the Steinway and I was doing my best with what seemed like a two-octaves `Tom Thumb'. And I could hear practically nothing but the thunder of drums overhead. This routine had lasted about a week when Jack failed to make the show one night. I graduated to the grand -- and solo honours -- and it seems my playing surprised everyone in the theatre, including Sam Stiefle, who owned the place. Jack later had hot words with Stiefle, ending in his taking two weeks' pay and a ticket home. I stayed on as the orchestra's pianist and arranger and must have gone around the world (or the equivalent distance) a thousand times a month on one-night dates.
These things happened in 1930, and Blanche Calloway, Cab's sister, was fronting the band at the Pearl. Blanche behaved like Cab on stage, and I heard that she was the originator of his style. Though Blanche was short on voice, she had personality to spare, and I got a kick from her versions of Let's Do It and I Need Lovin'. Stiefle secured Victor recording dates for Blanche and the band, and we cut those two songs with her, also Sugar Blues, Casey Jones and some original things. I always wondered what became of the cheque for these dates; none of it came my way, but I was getting used to that by now.
We played at the Pearl for many months with Blanche, meeting such top Negro performers as Ethel Waters, Bill Bailey and Butterbeans and Susie. Eddie Heywood, Sr, was accompanying the Butterbeans act, and he gave me plenty of constructive advice.
After parting from Blanche Calloway, we returned to Kansas City to open the Winnwood Beach Park Ballroom with a somewhat altered personnel. On trumpets we had Irving `Mouse' Randolph, a great musician from St Louis, and Harry `Big Jim' Lawson and Earl Thompson. The trombonist was Floyd `Stumpy' Brady, and the reeds were John Williams, Johnny Harrington and Slim Freeman. Andy Kirk played tuba, Ben Thigpen was on drums, myself on piano, and Bill Dirvin on guitar.
It was one of our great bands. With Randolph leading the brass, no music was difficult to read. I could pass out arrangements on the stand during the evening and they'd be read right off. Our engagement was a riot, causing the rival Fairyland Park to employ Bennie Moten in self-defence. Kansas City in the Thirties was jumping harder than ever. The `Heart of America' was at that time one of the nerve centres of jazz, and I could write about it for a month and never do justice to the half of it. Lester Young, who had worked with Walter Page and Bennie Moten, was blowing cool sounds at the Subway on 18th Street. This was a small place with only one entrance: really a fire- trap, yet groovy. The first time I heard Lester I was astounded. It took him several choruses to get started -- then, brother, what a horn!
A wild 12th Street spot we fell in regularly was the Sunset, owned by Piney Brown, who loved jazz and was very liberal with musicians. Pianist Pete Johnson worked there with bass and drums, sometimes with Baby Lovett, a New Orleans drummer who became one of Kansas City's best. Now the Sunset had a bartender named Joe Turner, and while Joe was serving drinks he would suddenly pick up a cue for a blues and sing it right where he stood, with Pete playing piano for him. I don't think I'll ever forget the thrill of listening to big Joe Turner shouting and sending everybody night after night while mixing drinks.
Pete Johnson was great on boogie, but he was by no means solely a boogie player. It was only when someone like Ben Webster, the Kaycee-born tenor man, yelled `Roll for me ... come on, roll 'em Pete, make 'em jump,' that he would play boogie for us.
In the summer Kirk's band worked only from nine to twelve at night, and afterwards we would drive by the Sunset -- John Williams and me and the five or six that rode with us. Pete might be playing something like Sweet Georgia Brown or Indiana when we got there. I'd go home to bath and change, and when I got back, ten to one Pete would still be jamming the same tune, and maybe some of the guys wailing along with him.
Hot Lips Page was the life of many a Kaycee jam session. After a soloist had blown nine or ten choruses Lips would start a riff in the background which the other horns picked up. Not many arrangers could improve on Lips when it came to backing up a soloist.
Of course, we didn't have any closing hours in these spots. We could play all morning and half through the day if we wished to, and in fact we often did. The music was so good that I seldom got to bed before midday. It was just such a late morning occasion that once had Coleman Hawkins hung up. Fletcher Henderson came to town with Hawkins on tenor, and after the dance the band cruised round until they fell into the Cherry Blossom where Count Basie worked. The date must have been early 1934, because Prohibition had been lifted and whisky was freely on sale. The Cherry Blossom was a new nightclub, richly decorated in Japanese style even to the beautiful little brown-skinned waitress.
The word went round that Hawkins was in the Cherry Blossom, and within about half an hour there were Lester Young, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Herman Walder and one or two unknown tenors piling in the club to blow. Ben didn't know the Kaycee tenormen were so terrific, and he couldn't get himself together though he played all morning. I happened to be nodding that night, and around 4 a.m. I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen. I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying: `Get up, pussycat, we're jammin' and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing. You got to come down.' Sure enough, when we got there Hawkins was in his singlet taking turns with the Kaycee men. It seems he had run into something he didn't expect.
Lester's style was light and, as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn't handle him on a cutting session. That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St Louis. I heard he'd just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenormen.
Off and on, I was with Andy Kirk right through the Thirties and up until 1942. Enough characters passed through the band in that time to fill a book. And if I could set down everything that happened, it would probably turn out a best seller. Tenormen, as I have said before, were in good supply in Kansas City. We certainly had our share of them. After Slim Freeman, we used Buddy Tate, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Dick Wilson and Don Byas.
It was when we returned to Kaycee for a summer season at Harry Duncan's Fairyland Park ballroom that Ben Webster was added. What a wild cat! I remember him first as a spoiled youngster from one of the county's most respected Negro families: a family of lawyers and other professional people. From the moment I met him I was fascinated because he was always up to something. Then, too, I liked his tenor. If he felt over-anxious, Ben would play roughly, distorting a style which was already full of vitality. It seemed to me he played best when he was either sick or tired.
Ben was really bad boy pick, always wrong. Sometimes John Williams yelled at him on the stand to stop experimenting and play. But after being around with the guys a while Ben became less boisterous, which made me like him better. We used to walk for miles together, and he always took me to jam sessions. At one place, called Val's, we ran into Art Tatum. Art had a radio programme, also a job in a dicty private club, but preferred wailing at Val's after hours. It was Val's every night then. Whenever I wasn't listening to Tatum I was playing -- Art inspired me so much. Chords he was throwing in then, the boppers are using now. And his mind was the quickest.
Art usually drank a bottle of beer while the other pianists took over, and didn't miss a thing. For instance, there was a run that Buck Washington showed me (Buck, of the Buck and Bubbles team, played a lotta piano, especially when out jamming. Everything he did was unusual). Now Art heard me play this run, which consisted of F, E flat, D flat, C; (octave up) C, B flat, A flat, G; and so on all the way to the top of the keyboard. When he sat down he played it right off. Other pianists had heard and tried, but taken time to pick it up.
I can remember only one man who sounded good following Tatum. His name was Lannie Scott, and he was the most popular pianist in Cleveland, until Tatum came to Cleveland. Then Lannie lost his popularity.
In Kaycee, though, we had a kind of counterpart of Tatum, an ear man called Sleepy who played almost as much as Art, and in the hard keys -- A natural, B natural, E natural. Another unsung piano player was Lincoln, known as a three-chord man. His harmonies were the worst, yet he was terrific with the beat. Martha Raye, then eighteen, stopped in Kansas City on her way to Califonia and got hung up listening to Lincoln's nasty beat. She stayed close on two weeks, and was down at the clubs digging the music and singing like mad night after night. Martha hated to leave, nearly missed doing her picture. That was how Kaycee would get you, for there were always places open and music to hear.
Besides the players I've mentioned, and Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Pete Johnson, Sam Price and Clyde Hart, there were three girl pianists apart from myself. One was Julia Lee, who took little part in the sessions; another I recollect only as Oceola; the third was known as Countess Margaret. Countess was a friend of Lester Young, and when I was sick for a time, Kirk sent for her to take my place for a month. The tour got her, I fear, for she died of tuberculosis before she had done very much, though I hear she was quite good.
Two other pianists I met in Kaycee during the mid-Thirties were Tadd Dameron and Thelonius Monk. I was to get to know both of them well in New York in later years. Tadd, who came from Cleveland, was just starting out playing and writing for a band from Kansas. Though very young, he had ideas even then that were `way ahead of his time. Thelonius, still in his teens, came into town with either an evangelist or a medicine show -- I forget which.
While Monk was in Kaycee he jammed every night; really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he does today. Monk plays the way he does now because he got fed up. Whatever people may tell you, I know how Monk can play. He felt that musicians should play something new, and started doing it. Most of us admire him for this. He was one of the original modernists all right, playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he's playing now. Only in those days we called it `Zombie music' and reserved it mostly for musicians after hours.
Why `Zombie music'? Because the screwy chords reminded us of music from Frankenstein or any horror film. I was one of the first with these frozen sounds, and after a night's jamming would sit and play weird harmonies (just chord progressions) with Dick Wilson, a very advanced tenor player.
But this is getting ahead of my story. Our next added attraction was Pha Terrell, a good-looking singer who helped to make Kirk's band the hot proposition it soon became, though he never got recognition for doing so. Pha was naturally lucky with females, as all of them -- from schoolgirls to schoolmarms -- drooled over his smooth, pleasing voice.
As for Ben Webster: he stayed with us two or three years -- longer than he'd stuck with anyone -- then quit to join Cab Calloway. Until he had gone I didn't realise how much I would miss him. Then I lost 251b, as I could not eat for some time.
Lester Young replaced Ben, and sensational as he was, never fitted the band like that big Webster sound had. In truth, Ben could blow more in two bars, so far as soul and `story' are concerned, than most men can in a chorus. Of course, being accustomed to the big tenor tone, I thought at first that Lester's sound was anaemic. But soon I learned to appreciate what he could do, for he was a master at improvising solos of five or fifteen choruses, never repeating.
Lester wasn't with the band too long before he left and went over to Basie, with whom he had worked previously. Basie had, some time before, quit the Moten band to form his own small group. Then along around April of 1935, Bennie died. It seems that a young intern operated on him for removal of tonsils, but something went wrong and the operation killed Bennie. So Basie drew several of Moten's men into his outfit and built the band that blew up a storm at Kaycee's Reno Club.
While the Count was getting this group together, he sent out for Jo Jones on drums. I loved to see Jo teaming with Walter Page, the bassist. Page showed Jo what to do and when to do it, and it was really something to dig these two great musicians. I have caught Basie's orchestra at times when there was no one on the stand except Page and the horns and, believe me, `Big One' swung that band on his bass without much effort.
Meanwhile, we continued our one-nighters, working our way back East to Baltimore, Maryland, where we landed in a beautiful little club called the Astoria. Joe Glaser caught our band and promised to do something about it. He had us come to New York after the engagement, securing a record date on Decca for the band. Never have I written so many things so quickly in my entire career. I must have done twenty in one week, including Cloudy, Corky and Froggy Bottom (both new arrangements), Steppin' Pretty and Walkin' And Swingin'.
For nights I could not leave my room, having my meals brought in to me. And at 7 a.m. I was up again for another session.
I had begun to think my arrangments were not worth much, as no one ever wanted to pay for them, and Andy, I knew, could not afford a proper arranger's fee. But the work paid off in the long run. Whenever musicians listened to the band they would ask who made a certain arrangement. Nearly always it was one of mine. Walkin' And Swingin' was one of those numbers musicians liked to play. I had tried out trumpet combining with saxes to make the sound of five reeds, and this was different and effective. So other bands took up the arrangement. Our band paid 3 dollars for the arrangement, Earl Hines 10, and the Casa Lomas 59; which totals 63 dollars -- wow!
We made these records in 1936, with the new and superb tenorman Dick Wilson, who had joined us before the tour. We had Booker Collins on bass (Kirk having finally decided to use string bass), and wonderful Ted Brinson on the guitar. In between band sessions, I cut my first Decca solos, including Isabelle and Overhand. We were still supposed to be incorporated, but after our first big record we were no longer that way (smile). The more I asked about it, the dumber everybody got.
Glaser put us in a Cleveland ballroom, where we broadcast nightly over a national hook-up with America's top sports commentator. What power and money can do! We stayed until the name of Kirk was ringing from coast to coast, also three of his stars -- Pha Terrell, Dick Wilson and (let's face it) Mary Lou Williams.
After our first release, Froggy Bottom, which was a fabulous seller on the juke boxes, we were booked into Harlem's Apollo Theatre. At this time I met luscious Billie Holiday, then just catching on like mad with her early records. She and Teddy Wilson's combo, with Ben Webster's crazy horn, really went together. Pha had a crush on Billie, but was too bashful to visit her alone, so I was made to go along with him. I have been fond of Billie ever since, for I have always felt tremendous warmth and kindness in her.
By now, Dick Wilson had become my special buddy; perhaps tenor players were my weakness. He was a handsome cat, and when we weren't jamming in his room it was generally full of girls. One night, scuffling around Harlem, Wilson and I fell in the Savoy. After dancing a couple of rounds, I heard a voice that sent chills up and down my spine (which I never thought could happen). I almost ran to the stand to find out who belonged to the voice, and saw a pleasant-looking brown- skinned girl standing modestly and singing the greatest. I was told her name was Ella Fitzgerald, and that Chick Webb had unearthed her from one of the Apollo's amateur hours. Later I learned that Ella never once forgot Chick for giving her the break when others turned their backs -- others who wanted her when success came.
By the time we returned to Kaycee, to Fairyland Park, all that could be heard on the juke boxes was Froggy Bottom. That particular tune was being played all over the country, and as a result our band started hitting like mad on one-nighters.
I often wonder what an agent would do if he had to travel with the band he's booking. After the release of our Decca records, in 1936, the Kirk band travelled five or six thousand miles a week on one-nighters all through the South, repeating most of the dates before coming West again. For nearly three years we toiled across Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. I shall never forget some of the beautiful stretches of country, nor the many attractions of New Orleans.
We got little chance to hear the local musicians, though, for we arrived in most places in time to play, and left right afterwards. I have gone to sleep with my fur coat on, near to freezing, and woken up in the car hours later wet from perspiration in the sub-tropics of Florida.
Our sidemen were making only eight and a half dollars a night, and paying two or three bucks for a decent room. Since they had gone through hardships to keep the band intact, I thought they deserved at least 15 dollars. I made 75 a week, with arranging, and think Pha Terrell got even less.
This didn't make me feel any too good, and I began to lose interest in the project, particularly as we repeated in so many mosquito-infested States. Sometimes I sat on the stand working crossword puzzles, only playing with my left hand. Every place we played had to turn people away, and my fans must have been disappointed with my conduct. If they were, I wasn't bothering at the time.
By now I was writing for some half-dozen bands each week. As we were making perhaps 500 miles per night, I used to write in the car by flashlight between engagements. Benny Goodman requested a blues and I did Roll 'Em and several others for him. One week I was called on for twelve arrangements, including a couple for Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and I was beginning to get telegrams from Gus Arnheim, Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and many more like them.
As a result of Benny's success with Roll 'Em (I received recognition as the composer), our band had to start featuring boogies. One I wrote was Little Joe From Chicago -- dedicated to Joe Glaser and Joe Louis -- and this turned out a big seller when we recorded it in 1938.
I guess our group and Lunceford's did more one-nighters than anyone. Jimmy's trumpet man, Paul Webster, once played with us, and bet me they had travelled more miles than we had. I'd show him either the itinerary or the speedometer and win the bet. That itinerary I have kept for when I want to look back on the impossible!
I remember jumping from St Louis to Canada: over 750 miles in one day. We played St Louis until 3 a.m., slept and left for Canada around 11 a.m., and arrived at ten at night -- one hour late for the job.
Eventually we worked our way round to Pittsburgh. As soon as I reached my home town I was told about a great young pianist just coming up. When I asked my brother-in-law who this was, he said it could only be Erroll Garner, then going to Westinghouse High School with my niece. I arranged to visit a friend's house to hear Erroll, and was surprised to find such a little guy, playing so much. And he did not even read music. The next few days were spent just listening to him. He was original then, sounding like no one in the world except Erroll Garner.
At one point I tried teaching him to read by giving him first whole notes, then halves, then quarters. I soon found he didn't want to bother, so I skipped it but tried to guide him any way I could, as others had guided me. I realised he was born with more than most musicians could accomplish in a lifetime.
Our tour took us to Oklahoma City again. Jack Teagarden had given me his family's phone number, so I called Norma Teagarden and she came to our dance. Norma talked about a remarkable guitarist named Charlie Christian, who played electric guitar and was raised in Oklahoma City. Norma is supposed to have taught Christian music, and she told us he could play everything from jazz to the classics. His favourites were In A Mist and Rhapsody In Blue.
Our guitarist, Floyd Smith (who replaced Ted Brinson), considered he could improvise with the best of them, and the guys in the band were anxious to see what he'd do after hearing Charlie. So after the dance everyone tore out to the club where Christian worked. I rode there with Pha Terrell, and when we got in the two guitarists were down with it: Floyd playing his head off for two choruses, then Charlie taking over -- very cool.
For a while it was a close call, then Charlie decided to blow. He used his head on cutting sessions, the way Chu Berry used to do, taking it easy while the other musician played everything he knew, then cutting loose to blast him off the map. Never in my life had I heard such inspired and exciting music as Christian beat out of his guitar. Poor Floyd gave it up and walked off the stand. Charlie played for us till daybreak.
I knew many leaders, including Benny Goodman, had tried to get Christian. Up to now he had refused to leave Oklahoma. But feeling that he and jazz should have a break, I asked him would he leave to join B.G. if I wired New York. Finally he said: `Okay, if you say so, Mary.' I wired John Hammond right quick, and John (who had heard Charlie previously) got together with B.G. In the summer of '39 Christian made the move, and Benny thanked me on one of his broadcasts for getting him for the band.
At this time I was feeling really dragged so far as Kirk's outfit went. I could not play or write my best for thinking about my share of the loot, and my sacrifices before we made a hit. All my piano solos I turned over to Floyd. I had gotten sick of playing the same ones long ago. Our repertoire consisted of recorded hits, and the solos had to be exactly like those on the records.
I had plenty of offers to leave, but turned them down. Though dissatisfied, I still felt loyal to the band. All the same, Pha and I caused so much annoyance through asking for raises that the `Golden System' decided to add more stars and oust us completely. Henry Wells, who played fine trombone and sang a fair ballad (though he was no Pha Terrell), joined a little later. And the next star to be added was sensational June Richmond who could break up the coldest audience. How I enjoyed her act.
Don Byas came into the band, and now we had two great tenormen -- Don and Dick Wilson. I think it was these two who kept me in the band, for I got real kicks out of jamming with them. I began to feel better.
We were booked into the Grand Terrace in Chicago, the place made famous by Earl Hines with the best band he's ever had. Omer Simeon was on clarinet, George Dixon and Walter Fuller on trumpet, Budd Johnson on tenor, Quinn Wilson (bass), and the late Alvin Burroughs on drums. Earl had gone out on the road, and we went in with twenty-five chorus girls and a big floor show. The engagement was sensational. We must have stayed there six months, and I jammed night after night, Chicago being second only to Kansas City for inspiration. Even those chorus girls swung like mad while dancing!
Going to session upon session with Dick Wilson, I became ill and was carted off to hospital. At least fifteen young interns visited me daily, and I had a radio, record machine, and so many flowers they were lined up along the corridor. I did not get much rest there. The interns offered to pay for my board and room if I stayed another week. I went home to Pittsburgh to convalesce, and after a time rejoined the band.
We must have repeated on our Southern dates about 100 times. Practically everyone was ill from travelling when we got an offer to go into the Cotton Club (on Broadway), by now operating on its last legs. Before this engagement, Harold Baker joined us on trumpet. It seemed our brass section was wilder than ever ... with Harold, Big Jim Lawson, Howard McGhee, Henry Wells and Theo Donnelly. Every section hung out together and tried to outdo the others. On the stand, the rhythm was always pushing and telling each other to get on the ball. After the date, we'd say: `We were really going, but you guys ... huh!' Of course, when a new arrangement was brought out we found time to help each other.
At the end of the Cotton Club deal, John Williams decided to stay in New York and go into the barbecue business with Mary Kirk. He made a few more dates and left the band. He and I were nearly through, anyway. Don Byas also left and was replaced by Edward Inge.
I began to notice that Dick Wilson was looking ill. Then he started disappearing upstairs during intermission. When I took him a drink, I'd find him stretched out on a divan. One night Wilson stayed home, and Harold Baker and I decided to visit him. He was in bed ill, too sick to eat. I ran across the street and got a doctor, who said he should be in hospital. When Dick heard this he wanted to get out, said it would be the end if he went into hospital. He must have known he was dying.
The band left New York shortly after for a Southern tour, and the next we heard was that Dick had been taken to hospital. In a couple of days, they said, he looked like a skeleton, and soon afterwards died. This happened towards the close of 1941, when Wilson could not have been older than thirty.
The next months were my last with Andy Kirk. For twelve years with the band I'd known swell times and bad ones, but barnstorming and the `New System' of management were bringing me down. Looking back, I can smile at our life on the road. Towards the end, though, there was no more brotherly love. I had lost so much through thefts that for a solid year I had to sleep with everything I owned. When someone broke in my trunk and took earrings, Indian-head pennies and silver dollars which I cherished, I decided to leave.
Dragging my trunk off the bus, I drove to Pittsburgh. Within two weeks, I heard from Harold Baker, who said he'd be coming through Pittsburgh and would stop by and see me. He stopped by all right. The band did not see him any more. Next thing, we both received letters from the union. I countered this move by stating that I would make it very unpleasant for the `New System' if I answered. Nothing further happened to me. Baker was fined a few pounds, I think.
So ended my long association with the Kirk orchestra. Harold and I stayed in Pittsburgh, forming a six-piece combo which had Art Blakey on drums and Orlando Wright on tenor. While rehearsing, Art told us of a terrific singer over on Wylie Avenue. I visited the club and was taken off my feet to see a guy who could sing so pretty and look so handsome. Girls were swooning all around the place, which was packed. Billy Eckstine was the handsome cat, and when I had a chance to meet him I found he lived near me out in East Liberty. It was a pleasure to talk to such a nice cool gentleman.
We rehearsed the new outfit every day, Harold Baker and myself, and through John Hammond contacted some people who were able to find us work. Our first job was in Cleveland, at Mason's Farm, and the combo went over well enough for us to be kept on from August to October -- way past the summer season.
Tadd Dameron and most of the musicians around came out to hear us. When Duke Ellington hit Cleveland, all the guys dropped by Mason's Farm. And they liked Harold so much they hired him. Later I learned why he decided to go. There had been a little dissension because he was not from Pittsburgh. It seemed my guys wanted all Pittsburghers in the combo, and had almost come to blows about it. So Harold went to Duke, and I said nothing though I thought plenty.
After he had gone. Art Blakey and the rest had me stop by Pittsburgh to pick up the greatest (they said) on trumpet. We arrived in New York with `The Greatest'. He couldn't even blow his nose! I must have auditioned every good trumpetman in NY. No one had realised the value of Harold Baker. He could play ten choruses solo and fall back into a fast-moving ensemble without splitting or missing a note. The new trumpetman would split anything. We were playing tricky arrangements that called for a bit of reading, and I could not even find a sound reader on trumpet. I felt depressed and made up my mind to join Harold as soon as I could.
Duke's band was in California. When it came to New York, Harold and I went off to Baltimore and got married. I travelled with Ellington, arranging about fifteen things for the orchestra. They included Trumpet No End, my version of Blue Skies, which I suppose was written early in '42 but not recorded until some years later.
I hope Duke always keeps a band, for he is a genius who gets the best results out of musicians. And what strange guys they were: half of them didn't speak to each other. Too many stars, I guess. When they were speaking, and felt like playing, they'd rearrange some of the band's oldies spontaneously right on the stand. Basie's is the only other band I know capable of doing this.
I moved around with Duke's orchestra until we reached Canada, and I came close to freezing. Then I caught the first train out to New York leaving Harold with the band.
Now I want to write what I know about how and why bop got started. Monk and some of the cleverest of the young musicians used to complain: `We'll never get credit for what we're doing.' they had reason to say it. In the music business the going is tough for original talent. Everybody is being exploited through paid-for publicity, and most anybody can become a great name if he can afford enough of it. In the end the public believes what it reads. So it is often difficult for the real talent to break through. Anyway, Monk said: `We are going to get a big band started. We're going to create something that they can't steal, because they can't play it.' There were more than a dozen people interested in the idea, and the band began rehearsing in a basement somewhere. Monk was writing arrangements, and Bud Powell and maybe Milt Jackson. Everyone contributed towards the arrangments, and some of them were real tough. Even those guys couldn't always get them right.
It was the usual story. The guys got hungry, so they had to go to work with different bands. Monk got himself a job at Minton's -- the house that built bop -- and after work the cats fell in to jam, and pretty soon you couldn't get in Minton's for musicians and instruments. Minton's Playhouse was not a large place, but it was nice and intimate. The bar was at the front, and the cabaret was in the back. The bandstand was situated at the rear of the back room, where the wall was covered with strange paintings depicting weird characters sitting on a brass bed, or jamming or talking to chicks.
During the day-time, people played the juke-box and danced. I used to call in often and got many laughs. It is amazing how happy those characters were -- jiving, dancing and drinking. It seemed everybody was talking at the same time: the noise was terrific. Even the kids playing out on the sidewalk danced when they heard the records.
That's how we were then -- one big family on West 118th Street. Minton's was a room next door to the Cecil Hotel and it was run by Teddy Hill, the onetime bandleader who did quite well in Europe, and who now managed for Minton. Henry Minton must have been a man about fifty who at one time played saxophone and at another owned the famous Rhythm Club where Louie, Fats, James P., Earl Hines and other big names filled the sessions. He had also been a Union official at Local 802. He believed in keeping the place up, and was constantly redecorating. And the food was good. Lindsay Steele had the kitchen at one time. He cooked wonderful meals and was a good mixer who could sing a while during intermission.
When Monk first played at Minton's there were few musicians who could run changes with him. Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Idrees Sulieman and a couple more were the only ones who could play along with Monk then. Charlie and I used to go to the basement of the hotel where I lived and play and write all night long. I still have the music of a song he started but never completed.
Sometime in 1943 I had an offer to go into Café Society Downtown. I accepted, though fearing I might be shaky on solo piano since I had been so long with Andy Kirk's band and my own combo. I immediately made some arrangements for six-pieces to accompany piano. At my opening people were standing upstairs, which I was glad to see. Georgia Gibbs, who was just starting out, was in the show with Ram Ramirez (composer of Lover Man), playing piano for her. Pearl Primus was also in the show, and Frankie Newton had the small band. I was sorry to hear of Newton's death just recently. He was a real great trumpetman, always very easy on the ear.
During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swop ideas until noon or later. Monk, Tadd Dameron, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Aaron Bridges, Billy Strayhorn, plus various disc jockeys and newspapermen, would be in and out of my place at all hours, and we'd really ball. When Monk wrote a new song he customarily played it night and day for weeks unless you stopped him. That, he said, was the only way to find out if it was going to be good. `Either it grew on or it didn't.'
I considered myself lucky having men like Monk and Bud playing me the things they had composed. And I have always upheld and had faith in the boppers, for they originated something but looked like losing credit for it. Too often have I seen people being chummy with creative musicians, then -- when the people have dug what is happening -- put down the creators and proclaim themselves king of jazz, swing or whatever. So the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the `leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.
I happened to run into Thelonius standing next door to the 802 Union building on 6th Avenue, where I was going to pay my dues. He was looking at some heavy-framed sun-glasses in a shop window, and said he was going to have a pair made similar to a pair of ladies' glasses he had seen and liked. He suggested a few improvements in the design, and I remember laughing at him. But he had them made in the Bronx, and several days later came to the house with his new glasses and, of course, a beret. He had been wearing a beret, with a small piano clip on it, for some years previous to this. Now he started wearing the glasses and beret, and the others copied him.
Out of that first big band Monk formed grew people like Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell. No one could play like Bud, not until he recorded and the guys had a chance to dig him. And even now they cannot play just like him, for I believe he is the only pianist who makes every note ring. The strength in his fingers must be unequalled. Yet I am forced to the conclusion that Monk influenced him as a kid. He idolises Monk and can interpret Monk's compositions better than anyone I know. And the two used to be inseparable. At the piano Bud still does a few things the way Monk would do them, though he has more technique.
Yes, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Idrees Sulieman were the first to play bop. Next were Parker, Gillespie, and Clyde Hart, now dead, who was sensational on piano. After them came J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Al Haig, Milt Jackson, Tadd Dameron, Leo Parker, Babs Gonzales, Max Roach, Kenny Dorham and Oscar Pettiford. Those men played the authentic bop, and anybody who heard the small combo that Dizzy kept together for so long in New York should easily be able to distinguish the music from the imitation article.
Often you hear guys blowing a lot of notes and people say: `They're bopping.' But they are not. Bop is the phrasing and accenting of the notes, as well as the harmonies used. Every other note is accented. Never in the history of jazz has the phrasing been like it is in bop. Musicians like Dave Brubeck come up with different styles which may be interesting. But they are not bop. Personally, I have always believed that bebop was here to stay. That's one reason I tried to encourage the original modernists to continue writing and experimenting.
Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the great stars of jazz. I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.
When I had been working in Café Society for a year I decided I needed a vacation, and took off July and August to do some writing. Moe Asch, the best recording man in the business, wanted me to do a session. I have always admired Asch. The poor guy never quite made it financially because he was too nice to musicians. He would pay their price even if he had to sleep in the rain. And he never told a performer how to record or what to do. If you only burped, Moe recorded it.
He thought up bright albums of children's records and all types of folk-song, as well as jazz, and hired good cover artists. The major companies used a lot of his ideas. Moe would treat the musicians he recorded to big steak dinners and drinks. Some deserved this, many did not. In fact, we ruined a couple of sessions from being too high.
I am grateful for the things that Asch did. He submitted my music to all the New York libraries, he paid me for recording musicians I had heard in Pittsburgh, and he encouraged me to record my Zodiac Suite, which sold and is still selling. Sessions for Asch brought me more royalties than I've had from any other record company, and gave me the freedom to create.
I met a very talented artist named David Stone Martin, and asked him to do a cover for one of my albums. Through this he received additional work with Asch, and people soon noticed his outstanding work. Today he is well known in the jazz world for his illustrating and record album and sleeve designs, and in the high brackets for picture sales. He has not forgotten me, and always credits me with his first step to success. We are very good friends.
Another friend from this period was Gjon Mili, the photographer who worked on the jazz short, Jammin' The Blues. Gjon tried to get a good picture of me for some while without succeeding, but finally made it with five studies -- one of which went on display in New York's Modern Art Museum. Naturally I was delighted to see so many people looking at me, amazed, no doubt, by the quality of Mili's photography.
Meanwhile, I was back at the Café; elsewhere in New York bop was really moving. Al Haig, with Ben Webster's band, was bopping nicely on piano and going to school to study more theory. Soon he was blowing with Gillespie, Parker and the rest.
About now I met Babs Gonzales, the only original singer bop produced (to my mind). Babs was wailing in his highly personal way, and wailing with the pen as well as the voice. He was writing a book about bebop, and in between bouts of writing was coining all kinds of hip expressions for a famous New York disc jockey. Unluckily for Babs, the book got away from him; stolen, he says, by a publisher.
One day I heard that Erroll Garner was opening the following week at a place on 52nd Street. I could hardly wait to hear him again, and got away between shows to catch his opening. He was playing more than ever before, yet seemed to me to have got on a Tatum kick, playing fast runs and all. I reminded Erroll of his own original manner of playing which I had admired so much when he was working in Pittsburgh. Before very long I was glad to hear him back on his old style.
In those times, Garner made a habit of going over to Inez Cavanaugh's apartment, an inspiring spot for musicians where Erroll used to play and compose all day. She told me he once sat gazing at a subdued table lamp of hers, then composed something to fit the mood, which he titled Lamplight. Often he gets ideas for his pieces from some object or scene that happens to catch his attention.
Some unpleasantness came up on the job about this time, so Erroll went out to California for two years or so. When he returned to New York he was astonished by the reception he got. He had thought of the Three Deuces as just another job, he told me later, and was surprised to see it full of people like Robert Sylvester, Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather for his opening. Garner had not realised the impact made by his bestseller, Laura, in the East. And to back this up, he had dozens of sides with small companies, all of which released his stuff at one time in an attempt to cash in while Laura was still hot. So far as jazz pianists go, I guess Erroll has become the fastest seller on records in the world. And he surely deserves this success, for he is a fine and distinctive player.
Unknown to Erroll, I often won small bets on him. You see, many people have the idea that he lacks technique and cannot execute difficult passages. I have been able to prove them wrong. Garner is modern, yet his style is different from bop. He has worked out a sound of his own, doing four beats in the left hand like a guitar. He often uses bass and drums but can play alone and still promote a terrific beat. I like his playing for several reasons, primarily because it is original and has more feeling than almost any pianist I can think of. To me he is the Billie Holiday of the piano. Some musicians put him down because he does not read music nor indulge in a lot of senseless modern progressions. But these are not the important things in jazz.
What would jazz piano have done for inspiration without Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Monk, Tatum, Garner and the older giants like Willie The Lion Smith, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller? Without these individualists, many of today's pianists wouldn't be playing anything, for they lack the power of creative thinking. Garner has been an asset and inspiration to the jazz world.
Teddy Wilson I would call a genius. He has studied a great deal, and it is reflected in his playing, but the study has not been allowed to impair his individual style. Many people forget that jazz, no matter what form it takes, must come from the heart as well as the mind. Regardless of what technique he may have, a jazzman must be able also to tell a story. I can never admire a robot pianist whose runs flow straight from his studies instead of his feelings.
For short periods I would be out of the Café, on concert tours and such, and then go back. I had become like one of the fixtures, and was treated like a member of the boss's family. On Sunday nights we had a little party, just the staff and a few musicians. Hazel Scott, Thelma Carpenter, Billy Strayhorn, Aaron Bridges and Lena Horne and friends would come by and we'd have the most enjoyable time.
The only drag in New York was the many benefit shows we were expected to do -- late shows which prevented me from running up on 52nd Street to see my favourite modernists. Sometimes Johnny Gary (the valet) and I would dig a boogie character coming to take me on a benefit. We'd tear across the street to the 18th Hole and hide real quick under a table till the danger was past.
All this time, Minton's Playhouse jumped with cool sounds. People had heard about Monk and were coming from all over town to see what was happening. Teddy Hill had named Monk the `High Priest of Beebop' (at first that spelling was often used), and this title attracted disc jockeys and newspapermen. I cannot remember who gave bebop its name, though it was explained to me that the word was derived from the sound of the modern drummer dropping bombs. Klook Clarke was one who developed the bop method of drumming, and Art Blakey was bombing away very early. Sometimes Art's moving so fast you cannot see his hands: he's a crazy drummer.
Some players, like Art and J.C. Heard, seem to have been born bopping. J.C. played so much drums when he was with Teddy Wilson's great band that they had to hold him back in order to get a good solid beat going. And Art was about the same when I met him -- we had a difficult time with him on ballads and straight dance things. He was a real eager-beaver.
Few creative artists can explain or analyse what they write or play because musical ideas come to them spontaneously while they're playing. I have heard Garner and others, listening to a play-back on a record date, say: `I didn't know I made that passage.' Jazz is created in the mind, felt in the heart and heard through the fingertips.
My reason for feeling that bop is the `next era' music is that it came about spontaneously in the same way as our blues and classic jazz, or any other music that a race of people produces. And I contend that bop is the only real modern jazz, despite the contentions of the copyists of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Schoenberg. The swing era produced smooth eighth notes which many of our theoreticians are still playing. The phrasing and timing of bop puts it in a different category altogether. The American Negro musician of today is born to this new phrasing, just as in the past he was born to the rhythm and phrasing of ragtime or boogie and naturally played those styles of music.
Bop has become a powerful and, I believe, permanent influence on our native music. The guys who originated it were as gifted as the creative musicians of the Thirties and the eras that came before. I have known older musicians discourage them, speak badly of the music. Perhaps these older players feared for themselves and their positions. If so, they were being ridiculous. If some of them were to add a few modern changes here and there in their own work, it might revive their inspiration and help them avoid the danger of artistic stagnation. The sooner the older players and fans accept the new music the better it will be for everyone concerned with jazz. It does not mean that Duke, Louis, Count, Teddy Wilson and the rest will lose out completely. Without a war in music we can all survive. For, regardless of whether the music is bop or something else, it will have to have the jazz foundation -- a beat!
For four or five years I worked at Café Society, mostly Downtown but finally graduating to the Uptown Café on 59th Street when Hazel Scott left there to marry Adam Clayton Powell. The Uptown Café was a modern-style beautiful room with the bandstand in the back faced by a cute little balcony that seated fifty people or maybe more. Mildred Bailey, Eddie South, Lena Home, Josh White, Phil Moore, Eddie Heywood, Pete Johnson, Imogene Coca and Susan Reed (with her zither) were among the artists who would work there. And for quite a while Edmond Hall had the band there, with Irving Randolph on trumpet and Jimmy Crawford on drums. They played music as good as any I ever heard in a chic club. Often I spotted Benny Goodman in the room, digging Edmond's clarinet. But for all its looks, the Uptown Café was nothing like Downtown -- though it catered for the same kind of Eastside crowd: movie stars, millionaires and the elite. Downtown was groovy, more relaxed than Uptown.
During these New York years I had an idea I would like to hear an orchestra of sixteen or so pieces play my Zodiac Suite. Barney Josephson agreed to give the concert for me at Town Hall, and I decided to use oboe, flute, horn, tenor sax, ten or twelve strings, piano, bass and drums. Ben Webster played tenor, Al Hall bass and J.C. Heard drums. The rest were from studio orchestras. The concert attracted a pack of musicians, newspapermen, disc jockeys and theatre people, and eveything went all right until we got to the special arrangement of Roll 'Em, our only jazz number. The long, drawn-out strings threw some of the other musicians: I think the conductor lost the place, and for a moment I thought we'd had it. Everyone seemed to be playing a different page, and I'll never forget Ben Webster's big eyes fixed on me. I thought I would blow a blood vessel any second. I remember yelling: `Count eight and play letter "J".' Somehow we got out of Roll 'Em.
After the concert I was sick for about a week, could not work. Then I went down to the Town Hall for the records Barney had paid to have made of the concert. For the first time in the history of the hall, the records had been stolen. I never found them, and so never heard how my music sounded. And I'd spent some 500 dollars for copying and other matters, though Barney backed the concert.
Being determined, I nevertheless tried it once again. Norman Granz had blown into town with fresh ideas on jazz presentation. He broke into Carnegie Hall and took New York by storm. I had built up a nice solid following by now, and Norman invited me to do a concert for him. When I told him what I wanted in payment he blew his top, said I wasn't worth anything to him and that he knew a town where none of my records ever sold. First I was hot, then I laughed, and since that time I have learned to like Norman better.
I couldn't get my price so I took scale and compromised with a deal by which I could perform three of the Zodiac things with the New York Philharmonic Symphony. I was determined to hear my work played by 100 paper men. Mr Rybb, who booked ali the concerts in Carnegie, immediately started on the concert details. I had only eight or nine days to work, and a hundred pieces to score for, so I got an old friend, Milton Orent, to help out. Milton was a clever bass player and arranger who wrote some things for Kirk, did Otto, Make That Riff Staccato for Duke, and wrote the lyrics of In The Land Of Oo-Bla-Dee.
The day before the big night, Milton had to leave town for his summer job. I stayed up the best part of the night working on a blues for the orchestra. I had already arranged Libra, Scorpio and Aquarius, dedicating the last to President Roosevelt. The blues was an idea that came on at the last minute. I called Milt, a hundred miles away, and asked, `What about having the symphony play a jazz piece?' His reply was: `Don't do that, Pussycat.' I took no notice.
It was 6.30 p.m. when I began this piece of craziness. Before I knew it, it was seven in the morning and I had just finished copying for the five basses. After grabbing a few hours' sleep, I made the 2 p.m. rehearsal.
Everything went down okay on the Zodiac, then Mr Rybb asked, `Anything else to rehearse?' Shakily I made preparations with the female conductor, who knew little of jazz, and anyway seemed scared of the hundred guys sitting in front of her I think this was her debut, too: at this point we were both shaking 1ike dogs with distemper.
After the intro, I had four choruses of fast boogie, then oboe and trumpet playing written solos: last, but not least, I gave the thirty-six violins two bop choruses, and I must say they tackled them bravely.
At the concert that night the performance was quite sensational. The boys in the symphony applauded louder than the audience and, to prove they meant it, carried on like mad backstage. I went home much elated, and this time I did not forget my slides (recordings). In fact, I asked Inez Cavanaugh and her husband, the Danish Baron Timme Rosenkrantz, to guard them for me.
By this time I had worked almost six years straight. Now, for a while, I'd take it easy and ball. After I left the Café I turned down work that would have paid £ 400, and was told I should be in a strait-jacket.
I decided to find out what people and conditions were like in the slums of Harlem: things I'd never had the chance to really dig before. This was a mistake. I got mixed up with the wrong characters. When someone gave me a line I swallowed it hook and sinker. The next thing, someone I considered a friend had got me in a swindle. I was having fun like a babe in the woods: lost so much money, which I regularly drew from my postal savings, that the authorities thought some goon was blackmailing me.
From Lennox to 125th Street and 8th Avenue I cruised all over Harlem. Never had I been in such a terrible but fascinating environment, among people who roamed the streets ramping for someone to devour. Truthfully, it was fascinating to watch one race of people live off each other. I wondered why the shrewd brains never ventured Downtown where the real gold was.
New York, anyhow, is no place for slow thinkers. It's a town where if you relax and act nice and normal, something happens: a town where you don't dare take a vacation. You must be on the ball or move out to the country.
After playing around awhile, I realised I must work again. I secured several record dates -- luckily getting some new sounds going, which enabled me to tour Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. As a result of disappearing for six months, it was like starting from the bottom all over again. But I began getting jobs on radio and television, and was soon kept quite busy.
When Benny Goodman came to New York I went to rehearsal, taking several arrangments along. I found that Teddy Wilson would be teaching during the summer, and was asked if I'd take his place. I joined Benny. He had Wardell Gray, Stan Hasselgaard, Red Rodney, Billy Bauer, Mel Zelnick (drums), and a wonderful bassist whose name I've forgotten. I played weekends with the sextet, which sounded fair but never quite made it except one night when Benny went home early and left us to finish. The guys blew like mad this particular night.
Unfortunately, when Benny was on the stand he often made musicians feel uneasy by the discouraging look he gave them. Perhaps he wasn't happy then.
Around this time Monty Kay had an idea to open a place on Broadway where the Hurricane used to be. The idea came off, and he named the place Bop City. No wonder: it was an enormous joint which held at least a thousand people. Later, I took my trio there to accompany Billy Eckstine. It was this same Monty Kay who afterwards ran the Downbeat Club, another cool haunt. He was the ideas man in the club business. Whenever I went there, Monty offered me three or four weeks, and I finally took him up on it. I alternated with the great Billy Taylor. He made me feel like playing, for I was raised on competition. Oscar Pettiford and Klook Clarke were the rhythm men, and when I'd played half an hour I would bring Kal Winding, Zoot Sims and Kenny Dorham on the stand. There wasn't a set with the trio when we didn't compose on the spot.
Three months passed and Oscar left to return to one of his old jobs in Snookie's, near 6th Avenue, taking Klook with him. The new section wasn't bad, perhaps, but after what I'd had it annoyed me. One night I gave up, asking Billy Taylor to play for me while I went upstairs to listen. `If they don't sound any better with him,' I told myself, `I'm cutting.' They didn't and I split, but had to return later as that was the only way I could get paid for three of four days' work done. When I got back I was given a raise.
Next thing, I received an offer to come to England. Several times I refused, then made up my mind to go, getting permision to leave my job for thirty days. That was November of 1952, and I'm in Europe yet.