I had never seen this photograph before — Lee Wiley, after her “retirement” from music, at the Grandview Inn in Columbus, Ohio, on September 21, 1959. The candid shot was taken by the late Ed Lawless. More of his jazz photographs appear at the website of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California — http://www.nojcnc.org/nojcphotos.html.
I also have to say a few words about the only time I saw Miss Wiley perform — at her last public appearance, during the two “Newport in New York” concerts in summer 1972 devoted to the music of Eddie Condon and his remaining friends — called EDDIE AND THE GANG. The Gang included Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Barney Bigard, Dick Hyman, Joe Thomas, J.C. Higginbotham, Max Kaminsky, and others. For those with copies of Hank O’Neal’s EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, a photograph of the closing “Impromptu Ensemble” ornaments the back inner cover. The first half of the concert, if I am correct, was a set devoted to the World’s Greatest Jazz Band — all of its members with solid Condon associations: Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Vic Dickenson, Eddie Hubble, Bob Wilber, Bud Freeman, Ralph Sutton, Bob Haggart, Gus Johnson, who played their familiar repertoire expertly. Much of the instrumental music that followed was a reminder of how many years it had been since the Town Hall concerts and the glory days of the Fifties . . . as older musicians went through their paces, backed by an over-miked piano that tinkled and rattled. Thomas and Hackett played beautifully, but they weren’t asked to do much; the others roared and circled.
Miss Wiley had one set to herself — where, happily, she was backed by Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Bucky Pizzarelli, George Duvivier, and Don Lamond (if I recall). She seemed rather nervous at the 5 PM concert but everything was in place — her unmistakable timbre, warmth, and vibrato — for the second concert at 9 PM. I don’t recall how she was dressed, except that she, too, had changed somewhat since her glamorous portraits of the Thirties and Forties. But her voice, although more husky, was still beautiful, as you can hear on the Jazzology CD that captures her short set.
But Miss Wiley did something unforgettable. Stu Zimny and I were in the first or second row, way off to the side, surrounded by men and women who seemed to have been Condon fans in the Forties and Fifties. I had my concealed cassette recorder, and was perhaps (in retrospect) so concerned with tape-recording the music that someone without such concerns might have enjoyed it more. And my tape of the 5 PM session fell apart and vanished, as objects tend to do. But during Miss Wiley’s WHEN I FALL IN LOVE, I closed my eyes for a moment, a hopeless romantic even then. I knew, in some rational way, that I was another anonymous face — if she cared to look down and see me — at best. Performers at Carnegie, I would guess, don’t see people in the audience all that well. But, with my eyes closed, basking in the lovely warmth of her sound, I could imagine that she was singing directly to me. I knew it was an illusion then and know it is one now. But that’s the effect Miss Wiley had on people who heard her . . . and it comes through the recordings. Bless her.