HIS MAJESTY, JOEL PRESS (March 14, 1930 – November 23, 2022)

The saxophonist, teacher, and majestic figure Joel Press has left us. Joel wasn’t tall (neither am I) but he carried himself powerfully. My nickname for him — which I never told him, fearing he might be offended — was THE LITTLE LION. (Joel might have disliked being characterized as little in anything.)

Not aggressive, not arrogant, but a man who knew himself and was proud of what he knew.

I met Joel in sound before I met him in person. In 2004, I was reviewing CDs for CADENCE, the wide-ranging and deeply ethical magazine devoted to “creative improvised music,” The editor, Robert D. Rusch, a wonderful man, knew of my more traditional bent and often tossed me recordings slightly outside my known Paradise — “to make me stretch,” he said. I had not heard of Joel or his fellows, but the CD above convinced me that I had passed by a master. Here is some of what I wrote.

He is one of those musicians—and they are rarer than you might think—who has digested the history of the music and the instrumental tradition that has come before him without parading an assortment of favorite phrases from his five tenor idols. Yes, he has a purring, mellow approach reminiscent of Harold Ashby, but he is no easy-listening recreator: he knows Rollins and Lacy as well as Hawkins and Young. But Press sounds so much like himself that you cannot predict what his next phrase will be – and he is worth championing just because he does not think in four or eight-bar modules. To add to this, his melodic lines are logical, they are rhythmically intriguing, and he has a wonderful respect for songs, savoring their emotions. His version of “Lover Man,” for one example, will make it hard for me to listen to anyone else’s. And he is not harnessed by “Swing” conventions: the repertoire moves easily from classic Bebop to the much more abstract “Is What Is” (based on “What Is This Thing Called Love”). Even better—he plays soprano with fervor, accuracy, and beautiful intonation, no sourness, no intentional harshness. Although the repertoire is primarily standard material, the performances are original—not in some self-consciously radical way, but they encourage listeners to forget how well-worn they might have thought “Groovin’ High,” for instance.

Joel was pleased by the review and we began a correspondence. I no longer have my emails from 2004, but I know his were warm and gracious. And because he had “been there,” he sent me snippets of first-hand jazz history that delighted me. He had seen Sidney Catlett at Town Hall. He could tell me that the hamburgers at Julius’ in Greenwich Village were exceptional. he had seen Charlie Parker live; he had glimpsed obscure worthies: “One of my favorite musicians during the 60s was the alto saxophonist Dave Schildkraut, who played there in a small group led by Buddy Rich. Dave was the hero of all of the young New York saxophone players. Arnie Lawrence, with whom I often jammed after our gigs in the Catskill Mountains, probably switched from tenor to alto because of Dave. Schildkraut’s pianist and close friend, Bill Triglia was a mentor to Lawrence.” Joel had heard Steve Lacy sitting in at Arthur’s Tavern with Loumell Morgan at Arthur’s Tavern; he had played with Peter Ind.

He was a first-class hilarious memoirist: here is his portrait of Jo Jones.

In 1979 I played the Sunday brunch at “Lulu White’s” in Boston’s South End. The club was run by a young Ivy League fellow. Jo Jones had played there and discovered that said owner had an apartment across the street from the club. Jo made himself “guest in residence,” despite the lack of a formal invitation. On Sunday Jo would appear at lunchtime, handsome, elegant and charming. Despite our efforts to get him to sit in, he declined. Although he appeared to enjoy the group’s overall playing, we suspected that our mediocre bassist was not up to his standard.

During my  residence in New York during the 60s, several of us were in the Colony Record Shop on Broadway, opposite Birdland when Jo entered. He was elated and told us with a big smile on his face that he had, to his great delight, added a tenor saxophonist to his group who sounded like Prez. It was Paul Quinichette.

On the dark side, Jo played at Sandy’s in Beverly, Massachusetts in the 80s. The band members , including Budd Johnson, altered the band’s name from “Jo Jones and Friends” to “Jo Jones and Enemies,” each member attempting to stay as distant from the drummer as the bandstand would allow.

When Warne Marsh played at Lulu white’s on a Sunday night, Jo, without being invited, sat down at the drums and started to play, angering the equally temperamental Sal Mosca. The confrontation was thankfully verbal, but no music ensued and Jo left the stand after a few hits on the snare drum.

And here he is on Coleman Hawkins:

Those Coleman Hawkins sides on Asch have always knocked me out. He is still the King. He was our Picasso, constantly changing and showing us the way over many decades. I am so happy to have heard him in many settings…first at The Apollo, when I absented myself from afternoon high school classes to dig a matinee. The band included both Monk and Dizzy…in the 6o’s at MOMA, in the sculpture court, with Roy….at Birdland with Milt Jackson, and alongside Fats Navarro at a JATP concert in Denver. In the 60s I attended a memorable concert at The Little Theater between Broadway and 8th Avenue, with Ben Webster, the pianist Paul Neves, Major Holley, and Eddie Locke. Hawk was on fire. Ben, smiled, obviously enraptured by Coleman, and played well, but didn’t even attempt to match Hawk’s passion. As is so often the case, the best music played goes out the window, unless, of course there is a happy man present with a video camera.

We met in person when Joel moved to New York in 2010 to play: the scene was so much more lively than the one outside of Boston. By then, I had both this blog and a video camera — and I was able to see and capture the magical rapport between Joel and his friend and student, the splendid pianist Michael Kanan.

Here is a splendidly touching example of Joel and Michael, at Smalls, on October 20, 2011:

Listeners with good ears will hear the jaunty approach that comes from Jimmie Rowles. Others, even if the Rowles current is not evident, will note the mix of tenderness and playfulness, the mutual respect for melody and its possibilities. Joel was fascinated with the purr of the tenor, its ability to glide between notes and phrases: songs were his friends, his ideals.

Joel was pleased to have me in evidence, “a happy man with a video camera,” and so, between 2010 and 2016, I captured him at a goodly number of New York City gigs — with Michael, Neal Miner, Spike Wilner, Tardo Hammer, Joe Hunt, Fukushi Tainaka, and others. Were you to look Joel up on YouTube, some eighty-plus videos there are my attempts to honor him and his music in perpetuity. And they are lovely, satisfying, multi-dimensional. I hope you visit and enjoy them.

Michael Kanan speaks beautifully of Joel:

Joel used to play with my first piano teacher, Harvey Diamond: they played a lot together.  When I first heard Joel play I was probably a teenager, and I went to many gigs before I played with him.  I don’t remember my first introduction to him but everyone in Boston at some point was at Joel’s sessions in his house in Newton. He had six or seven sessions a week, where people got together and played tunes.  More experienced players were going there every week, young Berklee students – I don’t know how he would find them — young to old, sometimes his contemporaries.  It would be one group, usually a quartet. 

At some point I started going there to play.  I was very young: looking back on it now, I enjoyed it but I really didn’t deeply understand what was so great about his playing.  After I moved to New York in 1991 I lost touch with him.  When my mother was in her declining years, I was spending more time in Boston – sometimes a week at a time.  Then I went to Joel’s every day to play, and I really started understanding musically what he was doing.  The most basic things: what does it mean to have a good rhythm, what does it mean to have a swing feel – the things the older generation knew naturally.  Going to Joel’s that second time I was really stunned. Here was someone who was a great example of everything I was trying to do myself. 

He had a real appreciation for Lennie Tristano and his whole approach to music.  Initially, that’s what bonded me to Joel, because that way of playing was what I was interested in.  But there was a lot more to him than that.  He had heard Konitz and Marsh but there was also Ben and Hawk and Lester and everyone else, so when I was interested in things other than the Tristano tradition, it was a experience to talk and play with Joel, who had been at their gigs. 

It wasn’t about building a huge repertoire, it was about getting deeper with the tunes you were playing.  I appreciated that – I could play the tunes I loved over and over.  You can get in deeper if you know the terrain. 

Joel was a master of melody, he had a beautiful sound, and he also played with real fire and passion.  He always taught by example – sometimes I would ask him questions.  I asked him once how he developed his kind of rhythmic feel, and he told me when he was doing gigs as a young guy, it would be a horn, piano, and drums, and he figured out he had to play with real command because there was no bass player. 

We had a mutual feeling.  He told me once that he loved how I comped, that it must be because I had played with singers for so many years that I knew how to lay in a chord at the right moment. 

Joel loved all the masters, Pres, Hawk, Ben, Warne, all the great players.  He talked about getting to hear them in person.  He knew how to get a big sound without it being a loud harsh sound.  He had a huge sound but it wasn’t overwhelming – it was more of an inviting sound. 

I had something to do with Joel’s moving to New York in 2010.  I knew there would be players here who would get out of him what I got out of him, so I set up sessions with people just as he had done for me.  It was a homecoming.  He was so thrilled and energized by it that he moved here in his eighties – dragging that tenor saxophone on the subway to go to people’s sessions and gigs. 

He lived the way he wanted to live.  It was great to witness that.  Once we were both here he talked a lot about the history of the city and places – the gigs he had attended and ones he had played.  Joel was so enamored of the city.  He and Steve Little had done sessions in the Sixties, so I arranged a jam session for the two of them, and they looked at each other and said, “Is that YOU?  Is that YOU?”  Getting to play with the two of them it was just amazing.  And there was an excitement in the clubs when Joel played, you could feel that crackling electric atmosphere.  I’m glad he got to experience that. 

A life beautifully lived.  I want to celebrate Joel.        

The string bassist and jazz scholar Stu Zimny also learned from and played with Joel:

I was very surprised and and saddened to hear of the passing of Joel Press at age 92. Partly because I did not think he was much older than I. He was always youthful in demeanor, appearance and attitude.

I have not seen him for a long time but our association goes back to the 1980’s in the Boston area. I was an aspiring bassist and Joel would hold regular weekly sessions at his home in Newton, which was almost next door to where I lived. His was a rambling old house with many rooms. Downstairs was a spacious living room hosting a nice piano and, if I recall correctly, a drum set and amps.

Most of the attendees were skilled players so there was not the customary 27 choruses of “Donna Lee” by players who could barely carry off a single chorus with interest. Joel was also aware of “musical life outside the Berklee Real Book”. The home also served as a landing area for various touring jazz and classical players so one could be pleasantly surprised by unexpected guests. We would play for a while, retire to the kitchen for some high-octane Java, then return to playing. I suspect Joel kept going even after we left!
Joel had a gig as a musical contractor I believe, among other pursuits. He introduced me to a great classical bassist (a laid-back Midwesterner, on the BSO sub-list, with a plethora of talent) with whom I studied intermittently for a few years.

Joel himself, judging by his style and and vinyl records being spun on his coveted stereo gear, preferred the older styles. One was more likely to hear Ben Webster than Hank Mobley. That was rare in those days and I appreciated it since it aligned with my own archeological musical interests. I suspect that he also appreciated that about me. Joel’s style placed an emphasis on tone and swing rather than proffering strings of eighth and sixteenth notes. He had “chops” but governed by a great deal of discernment and seemed more interested in hearing what others might be putting out there. We also shared an interest in high-end audio and, in particular, McIntosh electronics. There was a local Mac dealership which became an audiophile watering hole of sorts for both of us.

He was a sweetheart. His passing leaves a gap in the musical firmament.

Happy travels, my friend.

Let us honor this man, both durable and playful — a model of how to live a long creative life.

Thank you, Joel. In your honor, I forego the usual closing words and pictures.

3 responses to “HIS MAJESTY, JOEL PRESS (March 14, 1930 – November 23, 2022)

  1. Beautiful music in that video. Thank you for making it and sharing it.

  2. Thanks for this fine tribute, Michael. Joel had a lot of friends in Boston.

  3. Thank you so much for writing about Joel. He was a decided influence on me. I lived on Ward St. with Joel and his daughter, Maya, for around 7 years. I wouldn’t have lasted a year in Boston without the genesis of culture and warmth that he provided. As a lover of jazz, it was life affirming to hear stories from someone whose knowledge exceeded my own. The lore and the never-ending choices of what to hear next I’ll always appreciate. You meet one Joel Press if you’re very very lucky. Love you Joel.

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