MOURNING JOEL HELLENY (1956-2009)

The news of anyone’s death reminds us of how insufficient language really is.  I learned of trombonist Joel Helleny’s death last night at The Ear Inn. 

Helleny was one of those musicians I didn’t have the good fortune to hear in perfomance, which means I missed a thousand opportunities, because he performed with Dick Hyman, Buck Clayton, Randy Sandke, Frank Wess, Benny Goodman, Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Roy Eldridge, Vince Giordano, Eddy Davis, Jon-Erik Kellso, Marty Grosz, and many other luminaries.  But I heard him subliminally on the soundtrack of two Woody Allen films, and I have a good number of CDs (Arbors, Concord, Ney York Jazz, Nagel-Heyer, and others) on which he shines.  This morning I was listening to his work on Kenny Davern’s EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (Arbors) and marveled once again: he could do it all: purr, shout, cajole, sweet-talk or say the nastiest things . . . all through his horn. 

He played beutifully; he had his own sound.  And he’s gone.  

Marty Elkins knew him well, and wrote to say this:

I got the news from Murray Wall. We were both old friends of Joel’s, and we are very sad about his death. Joel was a super smart, very talented guy, at the top of his field back in the 80’s and 90’s – doing gigs with Dick Hyman, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra (where he was a featured soloist), he was a member of George Wein’s New York All Stars and played on sound tracks for Woody Allen films, among other credits. He even toured with the OJays. He was a very loyal and devoted friend, also one of the only people who talked faster than I do!

He and I were really close around the deaths of our parents in the 90’s – providing a lot of support for one another. Joel was an only child and really attached to his folks.  He leaves a lot of saddened friends and an empty space in the jazz community. He will be remembered.

 But if you never heard Joel play, all this might seem only verbal gestures.  Here’s Joel in what I believe is a 1992 television appeance with clarinetist Walt Levinsky’s “Great American Swing Band,” including trumpeters Spanky Davis, Randy Sandke, Glenn Drewes, and Bob Millikan; trombonists Eddie Bert and Paul Faulise; reedmen Mike Migliore, Chuck Wilson, Frank Wess, Ted Nash, and Sol Schlinger;  pianist Marty Napoleon, bassist Murray Wall; drummer Butch Miles. 

Joel Helleny will be remembered. 

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40 responses to “MOURNING JOEL HELLENY (1956-2009)

  1. Gonna miss him.

  2. Doug POMEROY

    I believe he was a troubled person.
    And a fabulous musician.
    What did he die of?

  3. Joel was an astoundingly expressive trombone player. I had the good fortune to play a lot of gigs with him when I was just embarking on my career, and he was always very supportive of my efforts. Much better to be on his good side than not. There will never be another Helleny.

  4. I met Joel when I was subbing in Ed Palermo’s big band in ’81. He was always friendly to me whenever I would see him and, as all of you know, a wonderful musician.

  5. I had the pleasure of hearing Joel many times with my Dad’s band. I can’t believe that he’s gone.

  6. Joel was a truly great trombonist and an extremely creative and melodic jazz musician. A great loss.

  7. Joel was a jazz musician of the highest order, a complete original. He’s one of those players who I believe I could recognize upon hearing 3 or 4 notes in a blindfold test. I’m very grateful that I got to know him and play with him and hear him as much as I did, it enriched my life in ways I cannot describe. Joel was and is a great inspiration.
    Hell was a dear friend, and I will miss him terribly.
    And yeah, Jeremy, I’m very glad I was on his good side!
    I’ll miss his voice on the phone, usually in the wee hours of the night, “Hey Kell, this is Hell….”

  8. Gordon Daily

    Joel WAS troubled. He had gotten involved in drugs, gave up playing, and moved back to his home town of Herrin, Illinois.

    A doctor friend of Joel’s and myself are both amateur trombonists who live in Herrin and have always been amazed at his talents. The doctor told me his feelings on Joel’s passing were a mixture of being sad and pissed off. “What a waste”, he said, meaning both of his talent and his life.

    I remember going to a show he did here in his hometown with the Chicago Jazz Quartet, back when he was at the height of his career. I listened with awe (and envy) to Joel as he made music and sounds that I had never heard come from a trombone before. It is a shame that those sounds are silenced and that he has passed.

  9. Brian Sanders

    Joel was an amazing player while still in his teens, coming from a little town in southern Illinois. I didn’t have much of a chance to hear him after he moved to New York years ago, but will forever cherish the many notes he put out into the space as a Memphis Nighthawk. Gotta find those cassettes.

  10. I’m really heartbroken to hear of Joel’s passing. He was a true original on and off the bandstand. I remember once when we were playing at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum and Joel brought along a middle-eastern head scarf to pose for photos for his Line of Death Orchestra. Once again, and sadly for the last time, Joel has crossed the line.

  11. Bill Overton

    Joel and I worked, hung and laughed together for a lot of years in NY, so I am very sad about the whole thing. He suffered a lot because he had, as Chuck Wilson used to say, “the trickiest face in town”, but he never got the opportunities that would have befitted his awesome talent. I put him in the rarest echelon of creative artists. Every time he played, it was totally new, astounding and delightful. There was no room or time for cliches. You are not forgotten, my friend.

  12. I am shocked and saddened to hear of Joel’s death.I knew him from way back;1969 to be specific.I first met him at Illinois Summer Youth Music sponsored by the University of Illinois.I later had the privilege of playing with him in several jazz ensembles there.He was a great trombonist and musician and will be immensely missed by those who knew him personally as well as artistically.

  13. Kelly Gifford Anderson

    The Joel I knew was my family and my friend. He would always refer to himself as my “Uncle Hell”. Our family in Texas is small, every member dearly loved. We had no illusions about his lifestyle, but troubled and a waste he was not. He was an addict, introduced to heroin by some of the very “friends” who mourn him today. His life was precious to me. Precious. In my memory I will always be the little girl who danced in the isle for dimes at his performances (back when he looked like Cat Stevens)! He will haunt me for saying that! I miss you Uncle Hell. Love, Kelly

  14. Don & Georgia Boyer

    My husband and I didn’t see Joel in later years. We did watch the movie credits, record and CD notes and continue to hear his flat-out superior talent. We remember him fondly from his U of I days and his move to Chicago. He was a guest in our home during the Memphis Nighthawks years as our house meant homecooked food!
    Joel was polite and appreciated our support of the band. We often told him that we could tell that his parents did a good job of raising him. Both the late Steve Jensen and Ron DeWar considered Joel beyond gifted.
    We are so sad to hear of his passing. We hope and pray that he has found peace.

  15. Kelly Gifford Anderson

    The Joel I knew was my family and my friend, always referring to himself as my “Uncle Hell”. Our family in Texas is small, each member dearly loved. We had no illusions about Joel’s lifestyle, but troubled and a waste he was not. His life was precious to me…to us. Joel was an addict, introduced to heroin by some of the very “friends” who mourn him now.
    The best of Joel was not his musical talent or his incredible wit. It was his sweetness. Joel taught his mother-in-law to talk again after a stroke, placing her hand on his vocal chords while he spoke to her day after day. Joel saved the life of his friend, refusing to let him hurt himself in his grief. This was our Joel.
    In my memory I will always be the little girl who danced in the aisles of his performances for dimes (back when he looked like Cat Stevens). He will haunt me forever for saying that! Ha! I miss you Uncle Hell.

    Love,
    Kelly

  16. Joey Helleny

    There will be a memorial service for Joel Helleny at 2 pm Sunday June 28 at the First Presbyterian Church, 421 North 14th Street in Herrin.

  17. Frank Gualtieri

    If God came down to earth and picked up a trombone, it would sound like Joel. He had the most vivid musical imagination I’ve ever heard, connected to some creative essence that to me seemed beyond human, and he had the ability to make whatever he thought of come out of his horn. A long time ago we were roomates at Illinois Summer Youth Music, and later, I spent many Saturday nights glued to his performances with the Memphis Nighthawks as they played at the Ground Round in Champagne, IL. This was in the mid-70’s and he was great even back then. I didn’t talk with him much after he moved to NY, but I’ve spent my entire musical career trying to emulate him (without much success, I have to add. How did he make those sounds?!). I’m shocked and very sad to hear he’s gone. He lived on the edge.

  18. I hung with Joel in the mid to late 70’s. We’d run into each other at night sometimes and walk and talk. Lost contact with him after he moved to NYC. I liked Joel and admired his talent. He was not just a bone player, he was an artist and artists live on the edge.
    It is a very sad day.

  19. David Feinman

    I just got the sad news. Condolences to his family.

    I played thousands of hours with Joel in the Memphis Nighthawks. Was Joel a little moody?(He once threatened to quit because I couldn’t stop stamping my left foot). Guess what…we were all quirky. The bottom line is that Joel played his ass off every night and we had the time of our lives!!!

    Ironically, I’m in the very act of editing a
    dvd performance of the Memphis Nighthawks for placement on Youtube. I’ll leave a comment when it’s up.

    Love to all my old pals and all family and friends of Joel.

  20. I went to high school in Herrin, Illinois in the same era as Joel. He was a funny, perceptive human and a genius with a slide trombone. Joel rather resembled Cat Stevens in his youth and Billy Joel in middle age, but nobody sounded like him on the horn. Wish I could be there at the memorial but I just found out about this tragedy a few moments ago and can’t make it to Herrin that fast from California.

  21. I just heard the news today from Bob McCready. I can’t believe it. Joel was an original member of my big band back in 1978-1979. He was also a neighbor and very close friend. We had a weekly poker game at his loft, in fact.
    He was one of the most gifted, creative and technically proficient trombonists I’ve ever heard. To this day! Listen to his playing on that Walt Levinsky clip. That shows you everything you need to know about Joel. Deeply steeped in traditional jazz but can totally take it out without sounding out of context. How many people can do that?
    Joel used to tell me he didn’t really like be-bop. He was more of a traditional player, but his imagination was so great, that he could just come up with amazing lines.
    I could go on and on, but will end with the story of his quitting my band. He was unhappy with some of the songs I was arranging, most notably Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart”. Joel told me, “If I’m going to have to play Bacharach’s music, I want to be paid show scale”.
    Classic Joel Helleny. We lost one of the true greats!

  22. Eric Schneider

    I have many fond memories of traveling with Joel. Regardless of the obstacles (less than ideal rhythm sections, bad hotels, inept booking agents, etc. ), we perservered and triumphed— and had a good time. Too bad no recordings exist.

    Hell took up golf (!) in Canada. Not surprisngly, he was a quick learner. We did three weeks at a hotel in Switzerland and took many day trips. He spoke just enough French to keep us out of trouble. That was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him. His brilliance, wit, humor and lack of stress were manifested in his playing.

  23. Ken Peplowski

    I remember a “blue-fishing” excursion with Joel in Sheepshead Bay years ago in extremely rocky waters. Joel was the only one of our group tough enough to both fish and throw up at the same time (the rest of us had to settle for one or the other, mostly the latter). Sadly, he wasn’t tough enough to survive all of his demons. He was a complicated guy with a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a sensitive soul who masked his sensitivity with anger at times, other times with humor. He was also one of the most brilliant trombonists I’ve ever heard or played with. Despite an earlier post by someone else, many of his “friends” did offer help and advice with his illness, but, speaking from personal experience, you have to take those first steps by your own will, and Joel didn’t seem ready for that. He was a gambler in many good ways, but, in this case, tragically, he gambled and lost. I’ll miss him and will choose to remember the musical high-wire artist who danced so beautifully over a tune. Oh, and one more thing about the fishing trip – he also managed to keep a lit cigarette in his mouth through the entire five-hour fishing and puking exhibition!

  24. jan and lida sandtke

    we met joel a few times in germany, where he was playing with randy sandke a.o. he was a great musician and a fine guy. he will be missed by us. jan and lida sandtke, the netherlands.

  25. Campbell called me to give me the news last Monday, as he was my only link to Joel in recent decades other than the sound tracks and occasionally checking in to online listening. in all my times in NY I never had a reason to look him up, and wasn’t ever in town when one of the party scenes at the pad were going on to just casually drop in, perhaps with Campbell, to keep it from being too much of a shock after so many years. (I can only guess whether Campbell was filling him in on me as he did with me re Joel over the years.)

    Greatly saddened by the news, it’s a shocker, as I did not know about the ongoing addictions. What I write here is meant with all due respect and fondness, even as I share some things I know some of you will relate to or even remember (i.e. Brian, Bill, Dave, Morgan, Eric).

    He was a truly unique individual, genius material for sure and with the eccentric personality that often goes with it (yes quite a few of us here also have that latter quirky thing big time too).

    I was around him in the Urbana years (75-79 when he split for NY), and dated him during that time for a semester (after Marni left), so I got a glimpse of the inner workings of the soul.

    Yes what’s said above is all so true–though I think very few realized just how extremely sensitive and vulnerable he was, he was good at showing that only so far, even to ‘the guys’ he was closest to. And yes you wanted to be on his good side. Those together are the Scorpio mix, and he was the iconic Scorp, right down to the vulnerability to depression and the addictions that were very present unfortunately back then, from rising each morning until his head hit the pillow at night. (I am not sure how much others were aware of that at the time, though perhaps Bendel was, since he was in the same apartment building.) I am said to hear that it got the better of him.

    What is not said above by others is that, at least in those years before he seemingly abandoned it for good, he was also brilliant in more modern jazz musical contexts too. (I personally had a hard time with him having walked away from that by 78ish, but that is probably my own projection since I have mostly been on the free/avant side of the jazz world since my teens).

    In the time we dated, the first thing he did in the morning was to put on a favorite side, Jaki Byard solo piano, the one with the head photo. That’s how he chose to wake up–with a butt hanging out of his mouth. Jaki’s version of “What It Means to Miss New Orleans) was his favorite cut. That was often followed shortly with a mug of cuban style mud thick joe and him messing around at the upright piano for a few minutes before hitting the shower.

    That was also my first introduction to Jaki, which turned out to be a significant influence in my musical life in much later decades when I came back to jazz after being in the classical world for a few decades. So I have to thank him for that intro to Jaki–and a really interesting way to wake up in the mornings, that’s for sure!!!!!!!

    He adored Jaki then, he was a significant inspiration for Joel, and in retrospect, the looseness in Jaki’s playing I think was probably what he loved most about it, amongst many other things of course as many of us admire in it–because that extreme freedom was such a priority in Joel’s own mind.

    Having been much farther around the block since then, I see now that that goal is not necessarily one shared by many peers in the industry, that extreme level of plugged-in-ness is not always reached or even apparently a goal. So I bow to that in Joel and anyone else that keeps that foremost in their work, whatever style they play.

    My blessings to his spirit….

    Would love to hear from any of you guys above from Urbana days too.

    I assume cuz Burr has commented above that someone has told Mac??? I assume Morgan has let Jim Staley know???–I know they played together in Urbana days, but not sure about their NY days if they had any contact. Bob Gale who’s in Philly, was in sections with Joel also (I’m not in touch with Bob though, but he’s on the web with the colleges he teaches at there & in Jersey I think). I let Jim Masters know already, who sat in bone sections with him over the years in NY in the 70s until early 90s when Jim went back to Ohio (who I grew up with in St. Charles IL and have been in touch with recent years)….Will let Don Crevie know also, he was in Garvey band sections with Joel too, I’ve been in contact with him in the last 6 months. I can’t remember if Bill Stanley sat in bone sections with him in Urbana days, but he is here in Boulder too, where I am, so will shoot him an email.

    Everyone else–good health, long life, happiness and lots of creative juice!

  26. Joey Helleny

    We had a very nice memorial service for Joel here in Herrin today…including just sitting and listening to a cut from Lip Service. Thank you all for your kind words.

  27. I knew Joel and hung out with him plenty of times over at another friends place named Jay Andersen.

    Joel was unique ,quick thinking, opinionated,obviously very smart and super creative on his horn.

    What a drag that it ends like this especially when it involves maybe one of the very best trombonist to come down the pike in a long long while.

  28. One more thing—I used to get a kick out of Joel putting ice cubes in his 16 oz Budweiser can beer.
    And Taking long drags on his cigarette. What a gas!!!

  29. Back in the late 70’s I put together a band for a few concerts for a South New Jersey Jazz Society. Having played with him a few times in New York…hell yeah..I wanted Joel! And got him! Funny thing was…there was a trombone player down there who was a very good player….but a total ass of a person. Practiced 6 hours a day, even on days he had a gig. And he loved to cut any other trombone player he saw…most of the time..he did. He came to a concert I had with Joel…I could see steam coming from his ears…ha! So we brought him up and he tried to cut Joel!! Not only did Joel slice and dice this guy’s butt…but the ease that he did it with amazed us all. Like a kitten with a ball, he batted this guy all over the stage, not with technique, which he had more than enough of, but with taste and humor. And THAT is the essence of good jazz…and that was the essence of Joel. Many of us from those days battled demons that got the best of us. Most of us pulled it together…some didn’t. In spite of that…as we all know..there will never be another Joel. He left us with alot of great sounds..listen to them….his personalitiy shines through every time. I think of Joel and I smile…what can be better than that?

  30. I remember interviewing Joel’s wife, about 30 years ago. She said he was “really good” and that I should hire him to play in the Galvanized Jazz Band. I took a chance and hired him, and I struck gold! One of the finest ever! We did some great Galvanized Jazz Band gigs together, and I enjoyed every note Joel played. Some of his genius was captured on a 1988 CD with reed man Sammy Rimington and pianist David Paquette. A 1986 two trombone session with Craig Grant, Les Paul, Wayne Wright, and Gary Mazzaroppi was only issued in cassette format. Joel Helleny will be missed. A great loss for Jazz.

  31. Regina Newsome

    The day news of Joel’s death came to me will be one of the saddest days of my life as he was connected to my soul. AND I’m most grateful to have known and loved him for so many years. Also, for all the love he gave me. I met Joel on the Walt Levinsky Japan tour in 1988 and we dated for a few years until I left NYC. I’m so glad I rarely gave up a chance to hear him play. Joel Helleny was without a doubt one of the most wonderful, kind, sensitive, talented, loving, giving men I’ve ever known. A wicked sense of humor to go along with all that romance. Yes, Joel was a pure romantic and you can hear it in his playing….
    We spoke almost monthly for the last 16 years. There were plenty of good times and laughs. So don’t think just because he had demons, he didn’t have some joy as well.
    The brain tumor that claimed his mother’s life was the reason he got separated from NYC and the music he loved. He did not leave because of demons as someone posted. He did have them as we all do and sometimes the weight was evident.
    How many of us would give up riding our wave of success, after years of paying dues to go home to Mom when she’s ill? Think about it! Joel was getting film and recording work. Playing with and getting calls from people he respected and he was enjoying it. I was there. When Sarah got ill, he went Texas over and over until he just stayed while she died a slow and painful death. He also went back to move his Father home to Herrin Ill. as his age became an issue. He also stayed with Dad and took care of him until he died.
    I’m proud to have been in his life and he enriched mine greatly.
    Joel, I will never forget you and will forever miss the amazing sound, not only of your trombone but of your sweet voice.
    So glad we once again got to say to each other “I Love You” on June 18th.
    I will always love you Joel.
    I will always remember you playing “Echoes of Harlem”
    Joel Edward Helleny was a true treasure and a great loss to us all.

  32. David Feinman

    Delmark Records has released the Memphis Nighthawks “Jazz Lips” for the first time on CD. You can find it at Amazon. Previously unissued cuts have been added. In re-editing the material at Delmark’s request, Ron Dewar said he was knocked out by Joel’s playing. This is a great way to hear Joel as he is one fifth (sometimes sixth ) of this freeewheeling group. He’s featured on many stunning solos and and brilliant ensemble work. Regards to all…enjoy the music.

  33. Charlie Ter Bush

    When I was a law student at the U of I in the late 70s, Joel and the Memphis Nighthawks almost made law school bearable (or at least escapable for a few hours). I’m an amateur trombonist, and Joel was one of the most amazingly fluid, fluent and original soloists around. Sad never to hear that sound again.

  34. Joel obviously touched everyone, even those who never got to speak to him. Did you know, Charlie, that the Delmark recordings of the Nighthawks have been reissued with about a half-dozen previously unissued tracks? Shouting small-band Twenties swing: I plan to post about this. Cheers, Michael

  35. I just picked up the Memphis Nighthawks (not to be confused with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, who Joel also played with) CD, and have been enjoying it immensely. Fun to hear the young Hell tearing it up.

  36. I have posted ten videos on Youtube of the Memphis Nighthawks from a televised concert circa 1975. Hear and see the young Joel as a fully formed outstanding musician!

  37. This is woefully late in finding out and commenting, but learning of Joel’s passing came to my attention by the circuitous route of seeing Ramsey Lewis & Joe Pizzarelli tonight at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival, prompting me to start looking up the whereabouts of stars I had the honor of playing with in the 1970s-period jazz band at the University of Illinois; Ron Dewar, Art Davis, Kelly Sill, Joel Spenser, Jim McNealy, Brian Sanders, …and Joel. I’m sorry, Joel, for not knowing until now.

    Joel and I didn’t know each other all that well, but got to hear and play with him some in college. I was a trombone major, so I saw Joel through those eyes. He was humble, gracious and friendly person to me, with a definite whimsical side.

    My most memorable recollection of Joel was after a Monday night gig at the Treno’s restaurant. I remember sitting next to him by one of those gigantic black booths near the stage. He had a big black beard back then and he on the table slab of the booth, knees bend and feet resting on a chair.

    Joel was just noodling around, a musical engine in perpetual motion. His right hand always floating the slide in rhythm to his tempo, even when he wasn’t producing a tone. His arm loose and ready to receive the next genius musical notion from his head.

    And what came out of the bell was astonishing. He was playing 16th note passages effortless on an instrument where that is awkward at best, disastrous for many of us.

    So much for technique. The ideas and musical threads coming out of his horn were one-time gifts created by someone whose head was obviously soaring at a different altitude of creativity. I remember thinking, “Where in the hell did you that from!” I sensed that he was coiled to spring out of Champaign and make a splash. And he did.

    I am so grateful to have had that experience during that stage of his life. Thank you, Joel, for enriching my life. And so good to see comments by Brian, Morgan and Bill.

  38. Thanks for the memories Brian.
    Morgan

  39. Chris Thompson

    I just learned of Joel Helleny passing away after a random search on the web for album credits and was curious about where he might be… very saddened by the news I got. I knew Joel from a tour to South Korea in 1979 with Bobby Rydell. I have never forgotten his beautiful tone and seemingly effortless technique and ability to execute ideas. Somewhere in my analog photograph archive is a photo with Joel in Korea at a Buddhist temple we visited.

  40. Chris, in this case it’s not a cliche: I am sorry for your loss. And for ours.

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