My phone rang on July 3. This in itself would not be unusual. But that the caller ID panel read “Ephraim Resnick” was a surprise. I had been on a quest to find the wonderful and elusive trombonist (now pianist) Ephie Resnick for a few years, and had enlisted my dear friend — also a fine trombonist — Dick Dreiwitz in the search.
I knew Ephie first as a beautiful soulful viruoso heard on live recordings from George Wein’s Storyville in 1952 — alongside Pee Wee Russell and Ruby Braff; later, I’d seen him with the New York Jazz Repertory Company in their 1972 tribute to Louis Armstrong, some of which was released on Atlantic, and then Bob Greene’s Jelly Roll Morton show in 1974, issued on RCA Victor. Perhaps eight years ago I had heard him playing piano at Arthur’s Tavern with the Grove Street Stompers. He asked me to refrain from videoing him, but he was friendly and I did buy his two recent CDs, NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE. Still more recently, a musical friend of his, Inigo Kilborn, had asked me if Ephie was still on the planet. He is. At 92, he’s a clear speaker and thinker, although his memory is “sometimes OK, sometimes not too good.”
Ephie and I made a date to talk on the morning of Monday, July 6. He doesn’t have a computer. “I live in the last century,” and when I asked if he wanted me to transcribe the interview and send it to him for corrections, he said no. So this is what he told me of his life, with my minimal editing to tie loose ends together. It’s not only the usual story of early training, gigs played, musicians encountered, but a deeper human story. If you’d never heard Ephie play, you’d think he wasn’t all that competent, given his protestations. I wonder at the gap between the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world does.
With musical examples, I present our conversation to you here.
I began with the most obvious question, “When you were a kid, did you want to be a musician?” and Ephie began his tale.
I come from a family of anger and bitterness and humiliation, and all that stuff, so I was in confusion most of the time. When I was in first grade, and this is really important, I was born left-handed, and they made me right-handed, so it really did away with my focus. I got asthma, and I started stuttering soon after that. So my life was a turmoil.
And when I was about sixteen, I guess, I hadn’t any idea of doing anything. I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything. And I heard a Louis Armstrong recording, and that really made me crazy. It showed me a way out, the way out of my turmoil. So when I went to school, they gave me a trombone. Because the guy said, “I want somebody to play the trombone,” and he pointed at me. At that point, it was difficult to breathe, it was difficult to talk, and I couldn’t get a sound out of the horn. And I didn’t understand it until just recently, when I moved to Brooklyn, after I was finished, finally. I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t breathe.
I took the trombone home from school, I tried to play it, and really couldn’t play it much. But I listened to a lot of records. I listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong then. I got as much as I could out of him. And then I started, for some reason, to go out playing. In little clubs and things. I don’t know how I could play — I didn’t practice. But I played, mostly with black people at the beginning. And there were two places, especially, where I could play. A guy named Bob Maltz had a place downtown, all the way downtown. And across the street a guy named Jack Crystal — there’s a comedian, Billy Crystal, and Jack was his father. [The Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza.] Both of these guys hired mostly black musicians from the Thirties, and I started out just sitting in, and then I started getting paid. And that was the beginning of my jazz playing.
And then I made a record [in 1947]. Irv Kratka, the guy who started Music Minus One, was in our little group. I went into — I forget what it’s called now — it was on Broadway and they had studios and rehearsal studios. I walked into one and there was Bob Wilber and his little group with Denny Strong on drums. The trumpet player turned out to be the Local 802 president years after that [John Glasel] but they gave me the names of some guys, and I got together a little group and made a record. I was just around 17 or 18, I was just playing about a year. It was OK, it was sort of nice.
Here’s Ephie with Knocky Parker, piano; Irv Kratka, drums, May 1, 1949:
I turned 18, and my mother wanted me to go to a college. And I thought, I could never do that. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t learn anything. Whatever I knew, I knew from having read myself or having heard, or something, so I got good marks in English and history. But anything I had to study and learn something, I couldn’t do it: language or science or something like that. So with all this, she wanted me to go to a college. So I applied to Juilliard, and they gave me a date for an audition. I picked a piece, and I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t play it at all. It sat there on my music stand, and once in a while I tried, but I couldn’t do it.
I should have called them up and told them I couldn’t make the audition, but I went there anyway. I played the piece perfectly. That was my life. Sometimes I played really good, sometimes I played terrible. Sometimes I played mediocre, but this time I played really good and they clapped me on the back and said, “You’ll go far, young man.” My teacher was there, Ernest Clarke, Herbert Clarke’s brother. Herbert Clarke was a trumpet virtuoso. Ernest Clarke was some sort of a name, I don’t know what he did, but he was well-known there. He was 83 then. And he opened up his book when I took my first lesson. The first page was a row of B-flats. B-flat with a hold on it, more B-flats and more B-flats. And I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t play the note. He would walk back and forth, his hands behind his back, he couldn’t figure it out. So I did that for a couple of weeks, I showed up once a week, and then after a while he turned to the second page. And there were F’s, a little higher but medium-low. And I couldn’t play that note either. And then he retired. I always say that he retired because of me.
Anyway, whatever it was, while this was happening, I was playing outside. I was sitting in and playing, going to clubs and stuff. I played a lot at the beginning with Sol Yaged. He was a clarinet player who played in the clubs where they used to have jazz and now they had strippers. So I played for the strippers with Sol Yaged. I still couldn’t get a sound on my own. When I was in the house, I couldn’t practice. I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t do anything. I fell apart. And I went to a lot of teachers. Nobody gave me anything. And when I moved to Brooklyn, I quit playing the trombone when I was here. I started to figure out, what it was was so simple — I guess I wasn’t breathing. I was tight. I never could find an embouchure, except once in a while it happened. It came in by itself, and when it happened, I could really play well. But I wasn’t practicing, I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t play anything like regular trombone players could. But I knew that.
My first year at Juilliard I got a straight A because all they did was ear stuff — ear training — and I was good at that. And piano playing, and I could do the piano. And that was it. The second year, I started getting academic subjects: science, languages and stuff, and I couldn’t do it. So I stopped going to school. And years ago, before they fixed up Forty-Second Street, it was a mess, but there was one movie theatre called The Laugh Theatre, and they had, once in a while, regular movies, but usually short subjects, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and all that stuff. So I was there, and I was laughing. My life was awful, but I was laughing. I did that for the rest of my school year, and then I got out of Juilliard. Finally. And years later I figured out that, you know, going to school would have depressed me and made me feel really awful, but being away from the school I was laughing. I felt OK. Laughing is very good for you.
Anyway, I don’t know how it was, but I got out of school, and I started working. I still couldn’t play, I still didn’t practice. So my first job was with Eddie Heywood. He was a piano player. It was an all-black band, at Cafe Society Downtown. There was also a club, Cafe Society Uptown. I was there six weeks or so, and then somebody recommended me — I don’t know how it happened — to Buddy Rich. It’s hard for me to believe. I played six weeks with Buddy Rich: Zoot Sims and Harry Edison were in the band, I forget the bass player and the piano player. So I did that, and then I came out, and that was the end of the big band era. So then I went out, maybe two or three weeks, maybe a weekend, with big bands, but they were beginning to close down. I played with a lot of them, but the only ones I could remember were Buddy Morrow, Ray McKinley, and Charlie Barnet. And with these bands, I was the jazz player.
With Charlie Barnet I also played lead, but I had one solo — that was the audition. There were about eight trombone players who auditioned for Charlie Barnet, and later on he told me that when he saw me he figured I would be the last guy to get it. But the audition was a song — I forget the name of it — [Ephie hums ESTRELLITA] — a Spanish song. It had a trombone solo, there was a high E in the middle or someplace, and I really smacked that thing. I took a chance, you know, I got it, and I was great. The other guys played that E, but they played it hesitantly, so I got the job. And that was great. I had that one solo, and I played lead, which was great for me, because I learned how to do that.
Here’s Ephie with Marty Grosz, guitar; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; Tommy Benford, drums; Hugh McKay, cornet; John Dengler, baritone saxophone; Frank Chace, clarinet. June 6, 1951: comparative listening thanks to “Davey Tough”:
And then I started to work with small bands. I don’t know how I got this work either. Dixieland bands. Wild Bill Davison, who was at Condon’s for I guess twelve years, lost that job — they closed down or something — he went on the road and I went with him, and we made a record. Then I played with Buddy Morrow, and I was the jazz player in that band. He was a great, great trombone player, but a little stiff for my taste. Then Ray McKinley, and I was the jazz player in that band. And Bill Davison, we made a record with that. And then I went with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff was in that, and I forget who else. And we made a record with him. So, so far, I made a lot of records. I got a little bit of a fan club in England because of those records. And Pee Wee — those records were in Boston, and they recorded a whole night, and they put out four ten-inchers. And then they made an lp out of it, or two lps. I don’t imagine any of these things are available now. That Pee Wee thing, it sold well, I don’t understand how, exactly. Can’t figure out those things.)
Here’s Ephie in 1952, with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff, Red Richards, John Field, Kenny John — the second part of this presentation (the first offers Johnny Windhurst, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, George Wein, John Field, and Jo Jones). For the impatient among us, Ephie’s portion begins at 16:00:
While I was working, I was still struggling. I wanted to finally learn how to play. Since I was working, I might as well learn how to play. I still couldn’t play a scale without falling apart. But in context, I could play, somehow. I saved enough money for a couple of years and went to Philadelphia and studied with a guy named Donald Reinhardt who had a system. His system was really good, but you had to figure out the system. He couldn’t, by himself, help you.
Art DePew, a marvelous trumpet player who played lead with Harry James and a few other bands, went to him and got fixed up. Kai Winding used to run there once in a while. He had problems. His mouthpiece would slip down. Sometimes he could get it back up, sometimes he couldn’t.
Reinhardt didn’t teach me anything. He couldn’t tell you what you were doing wrong or what you should be doing. He had a book and a system. He had a lot of people, and they could look at what he had to say and do it. I couldn’t do that. I had to be told what I was doing wrong. And nobody told me I wasn’t breathing. Lots of times I couldn’t get a sound out. I had no control over it. When I played well, it had nothing to do with me. It just happened. When I played badly, there was no way for me to fix it.
I spent a couple of years there in Philadelphia, and I met my wife. She was a singer, a wonderful oratorio singer. And there was a jazz club over there, and I was playing once a week. I was playing piano in strip clubs with another guy, a very strange man. He wore a toupee, but never bought one. He wore other people’s old toupees; everybody gave him their old toupee. So he just dropped them on top of his head. I spent four years there, learned nothing, and still couldn’t figure out what was happening.
I had to come back to New York, because we got married, and she had a six-and-a half-year old son. We became friends, and that was really good. I did various things, and then a contractor called me. In those days, there was a lot of money around, money flowing freely. In music, there was a shortage of musicians, and I came in at that point.
I’ve been lucky all my life, actually.
I got a job playing in various theatres around the city, short things. There was a theatre on Sixth Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street, I believe, the contractor liked me, and he had some shows coming to New York. He said I could pick one, and one of them was HELLO, DOLLY! I did that for seven years. Playing a show, especially if you’re a jazz player, is terrible. You’re doing the same thing all the time. But I took off a lot. You could take off as long as you got somebody good, and I always got somebody better than me.
I worked with Lester Lanin and played all around the world — Ireland, France, Paris, the Philippines. The guy whose wife had all those shoes [Imelda Marcos], I played their thirtieth anniversary. We went to Hawaii, to Hong Kong, and then I came back, was home for a couple of weeks. They started a group in New York, playing different types of music, so I was in that group, and then they had a small group out of that. I was picked out of that, and we went to Russia — a jazz group. We traveled all over the country, and that was really interesting. That was during the Khruschev era. When I came back, I continued to do club dates, but I couldn’t really progress, I couldn’t learn anything. When I was forty, I still couldn’t play a scale. I was making my living as a trombone player, and I couldn’t play a scale once up and down without falling apart.
Somebody introduced me to marijuana. I tried that, and it was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. It saved my life. The first thing I started to do after I started to smoke was to go downstairs to the basement every morning. We had small radios, and I hung the radio up, right next to my ear, as loud as I could. Not music, but talking. I started to play scales, and it sounded awful, because I couldn’t really hear it. I did that for a couple of years, and finally I got rid of the radio. I began a regular practice, for the first time in my life, when I was about forty.
But by that time I was sort of on the way down, in a way. And then I did a job with Lester Lanin in London, and I met a guy there — I knew him was I was nineteen or twenty. He became rich: his father died. Max, his father, was not too smart, and he couldn’t come to a decision: he didn’t know how to make a decision. So his father, who was a lawyer but a Mob lawyer, he was powerful with a lot of connections those days, so he put Max on the Supreme Court. He couldn’t make a decision. That was his life’s work. So I met this guy, and stayed at his house for a while, and then I stayed in London and made a record there. I have two left, of those records. The other stuff I don’t have any copies of.
Then I had an accident. I’m not sure of the timeline now. I was hit by a car, and broke both my legs and my pelvis. My ankles were messed up. I was in the hospital for about three months. When I came out, I couldn’t really move around, so I didn’t work for a couple of years. But I was lucky, again, because they just had passed a law in Albany, and if you had an accident, they called it “no fault insurance,” and gave you fifty thousand dollars and services. So I was in the hospital, and they would send me a check once a month to live on. So I didn’t work for a couple of years, but I was taken care of.
I came out, and I wasn’t working very much at all, so I called Marty Grosz. I knew him from years ago. We had worked together, in a bar someplace. Not in New York, someplace else. I forget where it was. And I called him, and we made a record. [THE END OF INNOCENCE.] And it got a great review from John S. Wilson, the Times music reviewer. He wrote a really good review of it, not in the paper, but in an international magazine. So I sold about a thousand records. People wrote in. One guy sent it back to me because he didn’t like it. So I sent him back his ten dollars. [I complimented Ephie on the record.] Well, thank you. But I hadn’t worked for three years before that. Again, I was lucky it came out OK. [I reminded Ephie that he and Marty had recorded before, in 1951.] Oh, those records! Those records were nice! Those were really good. I was really happy with those records. I’d forgotten about that. I don’t have any of that stuff, but somehow they turned out to be really good. Frank Chace was nice. Yes, I liked the way he played. Years before, Marty and I had a summer job together. He was just learning how to play and I was learning also. And I never paid him for that record, THE END OF INNOCENCE. He did it for nothing.
I will offer THE END OF INNOCENCE — a glorious duet — in a future posting.
I was in England for ten years, and I did a record there. [Two: NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.] Well, that was close to the end of my career. After my accident, I didn’t do too much. I hung around for a while, and everything got slowed down to nothing. My wife got sick, she got Parkinson’s. So I got a job — I was lucky again — working for Catholic Charities, playing piano for Alzheimers people, various venues, different bosses, for almost twelve years. They just closed down, in March, because of the virus. So I was lucky, I was working all this time, until right now.
So now I’m in one room, I’m hiding out, and I’ve got an electronic piano. I guess you’d say I’m an old-fashioned piano player. Pretty much old-fashioned, with a couple of things thrown in, contemporary. And a couple of months ago, in February, before the virus became widely known, I made a record with a trombone player from England, Malcolm Earle Smith. I hadn’t played in a while. My playing was — I don’t know how to describe it. Except on the last two pieces, there I kind of relaxed. I was careful — I was too careful, so I don’t know about that record. I have a couple of copies. Some people liked them, and some people I sent them to didn’t like it at all.
Ephie at the piano, briefly but evocatively:
[I also mentioned Inigo Kilborn, one of Ephie’s musical colleagues, to him.] Inigo heard me playing in a club in England, and wanted me to come down. He was living in Spain then, he went from London to Spain, he was retired. He wanted me to play in clubs, and I wasn’t working much, I still didn’t have an embouchure, and I still didn’t know how to play. I put him off and finally he gave up.
One of the people I sent the record to was a guy in Sweden. He sent me a letter, that he loved the record, and he wanted me to play all over Europe, he had contacts in clubs all over Europe. And I couldn’t do it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. Maybe I could play one day or two days, but I’d fall apart. I fell apart, here and there, when I was playing. So I didn’t answer him, and he came to New York and then he called me. He wrote me another letter, and he called me and called me, but I didn’t answer the phone. That was the end of that. I couldn’t have done it. It would have been wonderful for my future, my present, but I couldn’t do it. So that was that.
Then, little by little, I faded away, until I got this job. This job saved my life, this piano job. That’s it.
So that’s my story up till now. And here I am. I’m practicing every day, trying to play a little more contemporary, make the chords closer together. Not so old-fashioned. So I’m working on that a little bit, but I’m not working at all now.
I’m just old. And that’s my story.
Ephie at the piano, Malcolm Earle Smith, trombone:
[Ephie had delivered almost all of what you read above in a diligent narrative, and I had not wanted to interrupt him, to distract him. But now, after forty minutes, I thought I could ask some — perhaps idle — questions. I told Ephie I’d seen him onstage, at Alice Tully Hall in 1974, with Bob Greene’s “The World of Jelly Roll Morton.”]
Oh! I forgot about that. That was great. He played like Jelly Roll Morton, and he started a band, a Jelly Roll Morton band. We played all those songs, and I could really do that. I was good at that. I could really blast out. The record doesn’t show that, but we traveled all around the country, and we had standing ovations on every job except one. I don’t know exactly why that one. But that was easy for me, easy and natural. It paid well, and it was fun. Those were happy moments in my life.
I was with Kai Winding — four trombones. It was a tour. We started out someplace — I can’t remember where it was but it was a restaurant. We were above the eaters, so we couldn’t play too loud, and we were close together. And for some reason I played just great — just wonderful, all the way along. and he was talking about making a tour with just the two of us. The job ended, and we had a three-day layoff, and then went into the Little Mirror, a place in Washington. There was an echo, we were spread out, it was loud, I lost what I had in that previous gig, I never found it. I looked for that embouchure for years and years and never got it back. We made a record with Kai Winding. I made a lot of records with different people, but that one was OK. That turned out nice.
[I asked Ephie if he could tell me about people — heroes of mine — he’d encountered, from the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, on.] There was one guy, Jerry Blumberg [a Bunk Johnson protege on cornet and a pianist]. He was wonderful. He got one job someplace, and hired that famous pianist from the Thirties, James P. Johnson. I played one night with him. That was interesting. He was old, but he still played OK. I never worked with Sid Catlett, but I saw him play. I played with Frankie Newton a couple of times. He was fun to play with. Very easy to play with.
When I was in Boston, I was with Pee Wee Russell. He had his own pianist. It wasn’t Wein, and Red Richards came later. There was another guy [Teddy Roy] who I didn’t know, but had played with Pee Wee for years and years. And he had a book, with all the chords in it, which he didn’t need. Every tune that was called, he’d open up the book. He never looked at the book, but the chords were there. He was sort of tied to that.
Ruby Braff was a fantastic player. Nobody ever played like him. He didn’t play like anybody else. He had phenomenal technique, and he used it in very personal ways. A wonderful player. He had his personal problems, like we all do. Sometimes, we were playing someplace, and he didn’t feel he was playing right, or he wasn’t doing justice to what he was doing, someone would come up to him and say, “Ruby, you sounded wonderful,” he would say, “Aaahhh, what do you know?” and dismiss it, insult the guy who liked him. He felt vulnerable all the time, but a great player. And later on, he played with Benny Goodman. He couldn’t read, but Benny would put him at the end of the line of trumpets, and once in a while call upon him to play. He did that for a while.
Did you know Johnny Windhurst? I did one job with him and Ed Hubble on trombone, and I played piano, and Ed Phyfe on drums. He was a wonderful player also.
I didn’t hang out with anybody in Boston. I wasn’t a hanger-on. I went right home after the last tune we played. And I don’t want to hear any of my old stuff. The only records I have are the ones I made in England, THE STRUGGLE and NEW YORK SURVIVOR. THE STRUGGLE is a terrible record, but the other one turned out good.
I played for six-eight months with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s. He was playing trumpet then — with the mute, not ebullient, but great. Those records with Dizzy are really wonderful. At one point, I was on staff with ABC for three years, subbing for one of the jazz guys. Dick Dreiwitz is such a sweet man, and his wife Barbara, who plays tuba. For a while I was playing ball games with them — they had a Dixieland band. Between innings, we’d walk up and down the aisles and play. People used to throw stuff in the tuba — peanuts, papers, everything — so the tuba players put a pillowcase over the bell. People aren’t naturally nice, you know. Some are, some aren’t.
I’m 92, and I hope I don’t have too many years left. So far, I’m OK.
At that point, we thanked each other, and I assured Ephie he was safe from me. But in the next few days, the phone rang again, as Ephie remembered some other stories:
Ephie played about six weeks at the Cinderella Club with pianist Bross Townsend and a bassist, not Peck Morrison, whose name he didn’t remember. He thought that cornetist Hugh McKay played really well on the 1951 Marty Grosz records and wondered what happened to him. [Does anyone know?] He saw Vic Dickenson once at some uptown Manhattan gig and thought he was wonderful. When working in San Francisco with Wild Bill Davison, he found out that Jack Teagarden was playing in Los Angeles and took the bus to see him. But this was when Jack had quit drinking and Ephie thought he sounded dull.
Another postscript: an extended list of Ephie’s performance credits, which are staggering:
Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Eddie Condon, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims, Lennie Tristano, Teddy Wilson, Kai Winding and Willie the Lion Smith. He has also played with a variety of rock and pop bands including The Bee Gees, The Four Tops and Englebert Humperdink, and has worked for Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Woody Allen and Norman Mailer.
Ephie spent much of the 1990s working in London, during a period in his life when he felt trapped in New York. During that stay he met and played with a number of British musicians as well as becoming something of a mentor for many of them. He also played at a number of society parties with the world renowned orchestra headed by veteran bandleader Lester Lanin. The musicians included: Dick Morrissey, Alex Dankworth, Huw Warren, Tim Whitehead, Martin Speake, Mike Pickering, Steve Watts, Julian Siegel, Chris Gibbons, Andrew Jones, Carl Dewhurst, Dave Whitford and Jean-Victor de Boer. He recorded two albums whilst in the UK: New York Survivor and The Struggle (both released on Basho Records)
Although he stopped playing trombone in 2010, Ephie continues to lead an active musical life in back in New York, playing piano in care homes. Still an inspiration to his friends and colleagues, his passion for music is still as strong as it was decades ago.
Taken and adapted from Ephie’s profile page at Jazzcds.co.uk
Blessings and thanks to Ephie, to Dick Dreiwitz, to Inigo Kilborn, to Malcolm Earle Smith, who made this informal memoir of a fascinating man and musician possible.
May your happiness increase!