More Than You Know: Sep 01

Irving Mills was a bandleader, agent, manager, lyricist, talent scout, record company executive, and a very shrewd businessman. He managed the ‘Hotsy Totsy Gang’ in the 1920s, a band which boasted trombonist Jack Teagarden and a 19 years old Benny Goodman in its ranks. He would buy songs for a pittance and eventually reap vast profits from them. ‘Fats’ Waller co-composed the 1929 hit musical ‘Hot Chocolates’ that had 20 songs in the show and Mills persuaded Waller to sell him the lot for $500. Not exactly a fortune when you consider that among those 20 songs were ‘Black and Blue’, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and ‘Sweet Savannah Sue’.

Mike Pointon’s comprehensive review of the Ken Burns “Jazz” series shown on BBC 2 (September ‘Just Jazz’) was an honest evaluation – I think most of us appreciate that for a series such as this to be shown at all (to a ‘minority audience’ as the BBC keep telling us) had to be aimed at the masses. I found myself listening to the music rather than the dialogue (at my age I can’t take in both at the same time) and it was annoying to hear those ‘classic’ recordings we know so well, cut to shreds. Also, many pioneering white musicians barely got a mention.

In the 1990s I was booked to play at the New Jersey Jazz Festival – an annual open-air event attracting something in the region of two to three thousand fans. Part of the Festival was a ‘Pianorama’ featuring six pianists on three Grand pianos. Solos, duos and trios were performed to the delight of the crowd. The organizers – and fans – were horrified when, on the second day of the Festival, the park was suddenly invaded by ‘aliens’ brandishing Stetsons, chaparejos and holsters. The weekend had been double-booked and the jazz fans were confronted by two thousand Country and Western devotees. Neither group took too kindly to the calamity and the following year a new site was found for the Jazz Festival. The day after the Festival I flew back home where my first gig was at the Pizza Express in Kingston, Surrey. Not a customer in sight for the first half hour. Eventually a couple showed up and sat at one of the tables – as far away from the piano as was possible. After I had played a few numbers, one of them approached me with a request – or so I thought. ‘Can you play quieter’ he said, ‘we can’t hear ourselves speak’.

During a tour of Russia, Benny Goodman, not known for his generosity, was persuaded to give some small change to a starving child. The incident was filmed by band member Victor Feldman who subsequently showed it to musicians – with the film running backwards. It appeared that Benny was taking the money.

Pianist Jess Stacy was with Goodman for five years, the high point in his career being at the now-legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 when he rattled off some ad-lib choruses in the middle of the bands’ arrangement of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The piece has gone down in jazz history as a masterpiece. Stacy never appeared in the film ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ although he could have. After arriving at the film studio he was told he would be playing one number only. One lousy number, he thought. Who needs it? He turned to Goodman, uttered the words ‘Good-bye Mr. Chips’ and heeled it.

This is Benny’s self-assessment of himself and his success: “You can call it luck if you want to. But I’d go a little further, and say that there are, and always have been, people out there who have just a little bit more than everybody else has got – in musicianship, in stamina. You can even call it a certain kind of integrity if you want to”.

Jazz fans are often blinkered in their listening habits and will only listen to particular styles of music or musicians. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes it can become obsessive. An acquaintance of mine was a Jess Stacy addict and played his records to the exclusion of every other pianist. He told me he would love to write to Jess to say how much pleasure his playing had given him over the years. I said I would try and find his address. Jess was in his 80s and I discovered he had been admitted to hospital and had been there a few months. After a few enquiries I was able to get the hospital’s address and my friend sent him a letter. No reply was forthcoming until about six months later. He opened the letter with great anticipation, only to find it contained just a few lines, with Jess bemoaning the fact that nobody had offered him any work over the last few years, except on New Years Eve!

Trumpeter Bunk Johnson was often awkward – and often drunk in later years. If he was unhappy with his supporting players, he would refer to them as ‘emergency musicians’ – implying that he wouldn’t have used them if better players had been around.

Neville Dickie September 2001