JOHNNY WINDHURST, MUCH MISSED

Few people today know of the cornetist Johnny Windhurst, but those who do speak of him with awe and affection. 

I first heard him on a Folkways record called JAZZ OF THE FORTIES, which contained excerpts from a concert put on by Bob Maltz in 1946.  The other participants inckuded Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, Vernon Brown, Mezz Mezzrow, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson.  Windhurst had a ballad feature on “She’s Funny That Way” that wasn’t very long — perhaps two choruses — but it was instantly memorable.  The idea of a brass player having a golden tone is and was an obvious cliche, but it applied to Johnny.  He had built his style on a synthesis of Bobby Hackett and Louis and moved on from there.  His playing had a simplicity and tenderness I haven’t heard anyone else approach.  At the time, the only Windhurst I could hear was on recordings he had made with the fine singer Barbara Lea. 

In mid-1972, when I began to go into New York City to hear live jazz (with Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg) the Sunday afternoon sessions led by bassist Red Balaban at Your Father’s Mustache were a special treat.  Balaban was not a stirring leader, bassist, banjoist, or singer, but he had good taste in guest stars.  One of them was Windhurst, who came down from Poughkeepsie, where his mother lived, to lead the band — either Dick Rath or Herb Gardner on trombone, Herb Hall on piano, either Chuck Folds or Red Richards on piano, and Marquis Foster or Buzzy Drootin on drums.

Windhurst looked much as he had ever looked — boyish, small, bespectacled, with a natty bow tie.  He seemed a little distant, a little tired, but he played beautifully.

After that Sunday, I began to ask my collector-friends for the private tapes they had.  John L. Fell, generous and erudite, shared his treasures.  Joe Boughton, a true Windhurst friend and fancier, let me hear tapes of Windhurst playing in the early Fifties at college gigs; later, I found the two lps on which he had appeared (one, a quartet session under his own name; the other, a session led by the drummer Walt Gifford).  He had recorded with Condon for Decca.  Still later, the “Jazz Nocturne” programs of 1945, where a 19-year old Windhurst stood next to Sidney Bechet and didn’t give an inch, came out on the Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and the “Doctor Jazz” broadcasts from 1952 or so, also appeared on Storyville.  I even found a semi-private recording made in Poughkeepsie at “The Last Chance Saloon,” where Johnny and his friend, trombonist Eddie Hubble, played in front of a local session.  Later, I heard broadcasts from the Savoy Cafe in Boston, where in 1947, Windhurst had run in the quickest of company: Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson,Kenny Kersey, John Field, and Jimmy Crawford.   

In all these recordings, Windhurst took risks but never faltered, and his tone never grew acrid or shrill.  But, for whatever reasons, he stayed out of the limelight.  Because he never cared to learn to read music, he had turned down gigs with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, preferring informal jamming.  He died in Poughkeepsie at 54.  The reference books I have say that he died of a heart attack, but I recall that having been mugged had something to do with his early death. 

Had he lived . . . alas.  And the recordings that have come out in the last few years — one a 1947 jazz concert where Windhurst and Jack Teagarden play beautifully alongside one another — are beautifully stirring, saying much about the musician we lost. 

These thoughts are motivated by a cyber-find: I haven’t given up on my quest for the 1946 “March of Time” clip featuring Dave Tough at Eddie Condon’s.  My quest led me to www.dailymotion.com., where trumpeter and film scholar Bob Erwig has posted excerpts from a 1958 “Jazz Party,” a television show hosted by jazz disc jockey Art Ford.  Ford’s program was simultaneously broadcast on the radio, so some diligent collectors have tapes that are as close to stereo as we shall get.  The programs tended to be informal to the point of messiness, with players ranging from Lester Young to Willie the Lion Smith to Mary Osborne and Teddy Charles.  Here is the only film footage of Windhurst, accompanied by pianist Roland Hanna, Osborne, bassist Mark Goldberg, and drummer Morey Feld (the last a particular favorite of our own Kevin Dorn).   

On this 1958 clip, an earnest Windhurst considers “Pennies From Heaven” in yearning style, reminding us of the pretty song that Bing Crosby, Hackett, and Louis explored.  In it, we see a player not afraid to take his time, to make beautiful sounds, to gently explore the melody.  It’s a lovely performance, and it doesn’t give up all its secrets on one viewing. 

Did any readers of this blog hear Johnny or play alongside him?  I would love to hear your memories.  Without them, who will remember Johnny Windhurst?

20 responses to “JOHNNY WINDHURST, MUCH MISSED

  1. Thanks for the great post – if anyone is interested to learn more about the Smithsonian Folkways recording mentioned in the post, please visit:

    http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=470

    best,

    David Horgan
    Smithsonian Folkways

  2. The regular band for “big” weekends at the Deke House at RPI in the ’50’s was the High Street Five and Johnny Windhurst was almost always the lead horn. We didn’t realize how great these guys were, only that they made great parties. The others were the above-mentioned Ed Hubble, Charlie Hoyt on piano (still active, at least a couple of years ago, in the Berkshires), Jack Fuller on clarinet and Johnny Vine on drums. In the wee small hours when all of us were on adult beverage overload, the band would allow sit-ins so I got to blow some misdirected clarinet notes and others, like Craig Johnson, now retired from the Navy and IBM, but active with the Maine Street Paraders, contributed on cornet. If it can ever be said that I matured, I finally realized in later years what a treasure we had in Johnny and that group (Max Kaminski or Herman Autrey were occasional subs that I recall) and I continue to enjoy those sounds through the Doctor Jazz CD issues.

  3. Thanks for the posting. Kenny Davern turned me on to Johnny Windhurst but intil now I’ve never seen him play. What a marvelous player!

  4. Thanks for posting this, and thanks to Bob Erwig for posting it on DailyMotion–I hadn’t seen this before. I have most or all of the released recordings of Windhurst, love his playing. I wish I’d seen him play in person, or had the chance to meet him.

  5. charliethechulo

    The Condon house band with Dave Tough can be seen on Youtube. Windhurst with the Condon band of the early 1950’s is well featured on several ‘Storyville’ (‘Dr. Jazz’ series) CDs presently available , including STCD 6040 Vol 1, STCD 6048 Vol 8 and STCD 6061 Vol 16 (on this last one he alternates with Wild Bill, making for an intersesting contrast). Thanks for reminding us of this sorely negelected trumpeter.

  6. No hablo y entiendo poco el inglés pero tratandose de jazz entiendo todo y este blog es muy bueno y los invito a ver mi página
    http://eldelfinverde.com.ar/
    un saludo cordial

  7. Muchas Gracias a usted — todo por el amor de jazz! Salud, Michael

  8. My dad Johnny Vine worked with Windhurst I went with them to so many gigs.

    Windhurst was in my wedding I have a picture of Windhurst, Condon, and yours truly on my wall.

  9. I sat in with Johnny in 1974 with Eddie Hubbell at The Last Chance in Poughkeepsie. I was 16 and he was nothing less than encouraging and kind as I clammed up the place. He has been a hero to me ever since .

  10. I met Johnny thru my first trumpet teacher and friend, Marty Blue back when I was about 17 or so. Marty played trumpet and valve trombone. Johnny used to come over from New York to play at a place called Phil Beckers in Waterbury Connecticut on Saturday nights and Marty would play valve trombone and Johnny Vine played drums. Great Band! As a teen, I also got to sit in on some gigs with Windhurst he did in Connecticut at various Yacht clubs and in town at New Haven Connecticut. As Jim Garee said above, he was very encouraging and kind, and spent a lot of time with me discussing trumpet stuff. He used to call me “Wonder Wop,” due to my Italian heritage. I even used to take the train from Connecticut and go see him in New York at Nicks or Condons and he would let me stay at his place overnight so I didn’t have to travel back late at night. I spent one evening with him and Ruby Braff and was mesmerized by them. Two of my heros and there I was hanging with them. I still have a personal letter Windhurst sent me when I was in the service and stationed in the Philippines. Great guy. Great player, and I was honored to know him. I am now 62 and an Avant Garde trumpet player and composer, yet I still get enjoyment from listening to his great trumpet playing. Miss ya Johnny!!!

  11. I recall hearing Windhurst at Jimmy Ryans on 52nd St. around 47 and 48
    and was much taken with his focused sound and lyrical lines. He always
    played within himself unencumbered by conservatory lessons and studio
    dictates. I am a clarinetist still playing at 82 – mostly long form stuff but when I can I sit in. I have a picture taken when I was 17 at Ryan’s with Dick Wellstood, pno, Charlie Traeger, valve trombone, George Baird, cornet and Denny Strong, drums. Windhurst drove a vintage Rolls Royce at the time
    which really caught my attention. Hank Duckham

  12. Paula Kirby Olsen

    My mother was roommates with John’s wife before she got married. Does anyone have any info on her?

  13. Pingback: A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY | JAZZ LIVES

  14. Dennis Olivares

    I never heard him before either– a major omission– and one of the truly GREAT services this “blog” performs, i.e., DISCOVERY. Up to now, I never heard any exponent of latter-day Hackett style, but this guy had it nailed HARD! Rest in peace… the rest is on record….

  15. There isn’t enough Windhurst on CD, but check out his work with Barbara Lea and (bootlegs) with Bechet in 1945, also on a 1947 concert on the Jazzology label. The CDs that find him at Condon’s from 1952 (“Doctor Jazz”) broadcasts on Storyville are out of print but available . . . and glorious.

  16. Thank you for reminding me of Johnny Windhurst! I saw him in New Haven, CT and NY with friends and my Grandpa, fellow trumpeter. A great, understated trumpeter “sideman”. Hey, may have run into you at My Father’s Mustache in 1974!

  17. I had the pleasure of playing in the house band at The Last Chance Saloon in Poughkeepsie from 1970 to ?. I was brought in as a sub on string bass, an instrument I’d never played. Just sixteen, I kept my mouth mostly shut and my playing simple, although that was more due to my modest instrumental skills than any reserve. Johnny was clearly the star. His rendition of St. James Infirmary never failed to inspire. A few weeks into my stint, Eddie Condon, renowned 40’s guitarist and bandleader, came to town to share the stage with us for a winter weekend. I had no idea who he was. All I knew was that everyone in the band was talking excitedly about the opportunity to play with Condon and, not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I aped their enthusiasm. When the night came, everybody was jazzed. Johnny reminded us not to fuck things up. He didn’t want to embarrass Condon or himself. He very much wanted, I can appreciate now, to show Condon that he was not wasting his time picking his feet in Poughkeepsie with a second-rate band.
    The club was notoriously cold in the winter. Guests had no need for a coat check because they never took them off. Condon arrived only minutes before showtime, followed seconds later by a tray full of drinks. Windhurst’s usual was vodka neat. Condon favored something brown but, like Johnny, eschewed ice. The chatter was deferential and focused solely on Condon who remained strangely mute throughout. I too said nothing, as nothing was exactly what I had to offer that anyone would have been at all interested in. A set list was briefly discussed and agreed to, Condon offering silent assent. We climbed the stairs and waited in the wings for our cue.
    I found myself standing next to Condon and, unable to pass up a chance to suck up to celebrity, decided to seize the moment. I told him what an honor it was to play with him. I took his lack of response as an indication that I was doing all right and an invitation to further ingratiate myself. Somewhere in the middle of my second sentence, Condon fell forward, his head striking me squarely in the sternum. The force sent me backward, both of us now headed for the floor. Behind me were cardboard trays of bar glasses, hundreds of them stacked high, and when we finally came to rest I had the distinct feeling that pieces of them were now embedded in my ass and back. The next few minutes were spent tweezering shards of tumblers from my nether regions. The mishap did little to sober Condon up. He spent the first set propped up in a chair stage left. The audience was understandably perplexed as to why the headliner never once went for his instrument. Less noticeable was the bassist who looked a whiter shade of pale and forsook the stool beside him. Johnny had a good laugh . . .

  18. That story leaves me with nothing to say except to thank you for sharing it, Brock.

  19. As a jazz-addicted college kid in the early 50’s, I saw Johnny Windhurst and heard that golden horn one night at Eddie Condon’s. I was transfixed. During a break I spotted him in a chattering throng near the bar, standing by himself in the midst of all the noise. He seemed a lonely figure, as I remember it. I summoned up the courage to talk to him, told him I loved his playing, and that he reminded me of Bobby Hackett. It’s dangerous to tell a musician that he sounds like someone else. I once told clarinetist Herb Hall that he sounded like his brother Ed, and that did not go over well. In this case, though, Windhurst was gracious and grateful, and he actually seemed pleased at the comparison. Moments to remember.
    Mark Barnett

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