REMEMBERING SAMMY MARGOLIS (1923-1996)

Some years before I met the reedman Sammy Margolis in New York City (at the Half Note, 1971, sitting in with his friend Ruby Braff) I had heard and admired him on record: a floating player, thoughtful, incorporating Bud Freeman, Lester Young, and Pee Wee Russell into his own gentle conception. He was never loud or forceful, but a sonic watercolorist.

In the next few years, I had the good fortune to hear and record him in several gigs: at Brew’s, at the New School, on an afternoon gig in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, at the Root Cellar in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, along with Vic Dickenson, Jack Fine, Marshall Brown, Doc Cheatham, Mike Burgevin, Dick Wellstood, Dill Jones, and others. I was a shy college student, reluctant to impose myself in conversation with my heroes, although from what I know of Sam, he would have made me welcome.

This was my first aural introduction to Sammy, serene in Ruby Braff’s energized wake, thoughtfully creating songs of his own:

and Sammy’s beautiful interlude in the company of George Wein:

About a year ago, I made friends (thanks to Facebook) with his multi-talented daughter Carla, who generously shared her memories of her father. I offer her extended loving portrait to you now, with thanks.

Sammy and Louis: photograph by Jack Bradley, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

My dad had a fraternal twin brother who was also musically talented. He played piano by ear and whenever they went to the movies as kids, his brother would come home and play themes the pianist played during the showings, having somehow retained all of that musical information in his head. My Uncle Carl (for who I am named) tragically died young (I think from glomular neuphritis) after having returned home from WWII.

His father was a housepainter who died from a burst appendix when my dad was eight. His 12 year old (?) brother Mortie had to go to work as did his mother. He had two sisters as well.

I’m not even sure how he and Ruby came to be friends.  As my dad often loved to say, “Oh, yes, I’ve been friends with Ruby many times.”  My mother actually dated Ruby first.  I don’t know what happened there, but then my mother started dating my dad.

Sammy and Ruby Braff, photograph by Jack Bradley, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The recordings that you sent me, around 1974, I was surprised that Ruby was on there.  I heard so much about Ruby, but I never met him until I was a teenager.  I was under the impression that they were on the outs, and I thought maybe it was because of the relationship with my mother, but I don’t know.  They both were Boston people who came to New York, but they were really not the same people, my father and Ruby.   

On records, he was the sideman for Ruby most of the time.  But he was on a Martin Mull recording that Ruby wasn’t on.  I didn’t know that he was on fifteen recordings!  He talked about how much he hated doing studio work, that it made him very anxious.  He didn’t like recording.  And I didn’t find out until maybe two and a half years ago that he was on so many recordings.  

Ruby and my dad loved Bud Freeman and Lester Young, but he had considered jumping the fence into be-bop.  He strongly considered that, because that was what was coming, what was current.  He claimed that Ruby had talked him out of it, so they both stayed on that side of the fence.  I don’t know if he was happy about that decision or not, I don’t know how that went.  He didn’t have a great opinion about bop — I went to Indiana University and I was a jazz studies major, and he was kind of unenthusiastic about it, but then he started listening to it more . . . 

I do remember going to Brew’s and the Red Blazer with him.  I remember going to Doylestown, Pennsylvania with him, the club that had the big murals at the back of the stage, Mike Burgevin’s THE ROOT CELLAR.  He took me to the hotel once, and I remember telling him that I wouldn’t go to bed until he played SATIN DOLL.  I was about nine.

Kenny Davern, Mike Burgevin, and Sammy at Brew’s, New York City: courtesy Chuck Slate

When I was in my teens, he had me sitting in a lot, singing, when he was playing at Jimmy Ryan’s with Max Kaminsky, who was the leader.  Ernie Hackett, Bobby Hackett’s son, was playing drums.  The trombonist might have been Bobby Pratt.  One night I sat in and Roy Eldridge was in the audience, my dad introduced me to him, and I was “Yeah, okay, I don’t know who that is.”  I’m really glad I didn’t know who Roy was when I was singing!  I remember going to Eddie Condon’s with him, and he played a lot in the basement of the Empire State Building, at a restaurant called the Riverboat. 

Back row: Sammy, Ruby, Vic Dickenson, Jackie Williams, Al Hall; front: Wayne Wright, Jimmy Andrews. Brew’s, New York City. Photograph by Mike Burgevin, courtesy Chuck Slate.

A musical interlude, 1974, part one:

and part two:

He was really making a living doing these gigs.  He wasn’t doing anything else.  In the summers he would play in the Catskills, all summer.  The Italian Catskills, not the Jewish Catskills.  I went with him one time; I usually spent my summers with him because my mom and dad weren’t together.  From the time I was about eight I spent summers with him in New York.  My mother sang a little bit but I wouldn’t call her a singer although she liked to sing.  She was an actor and dancer who sang.  She came to New York for that, and my dad was impressed with her dancing but he never saw her act, which I find astonishing, because that’s what her big aspirations were, and that’s what she did, mostly.  She was a dancer at the Copacabana, and I don’t know where else.  And she studied at the Herbert Berghoff Studio.  But she later became a lawyer.  Because of them, I grew up with a lot of exposure to musical theater and to jazz.   

My father was really sweet and affectionate.  He read a lot of Krishnamurti.  He was very much into health foods and supplements, always reading up on those things.  He was into ayurvedic medicine.  He ate other things, but he wanted me to be very healthy.  He was, although culturally, ethnically and gastronomically Jewish, an atheist, but interested in Eastern philosophy. Despite his avid interest in health foods, supplements, etc., he did enjoy the occasional hamburger and jelly doughnut and Sanka with Sweet and Low. When I asked him about that he responded “Years of bad habits.”

He was also a really good athlete, very athletic, forever, up until right before he died.  He played golf and tennis.  I remember he and Ruby had done a date in Hawaii with Tony Bennett, and when they came back he and Tony played tennis often.  Once when they were playing tennis, some guy from the club asked Tony if he would play with him after he got done playing with his instructor (meaning my dad)…my mom loved telling that story.

I remember we went to Tony’s apartment one time and had lunch.  Tony had artwork there and I thought that was really cool, because my dad was also a really lovely artist as well.  He did a lot of watercolors.  I don’t know what happened to his art, whether he got rid of it when he moved to Florida in 1990 or 1991, but it disappeared and I wanted to have some of it.

Portrait of the singer Connie Greco by Sammy Margolis

In NYC, he lived in Hell’s Kitchen on 44th and 10th Avenue. At that time, one had to be rather paranoid to stay safe from crime. Of course he was diligent about locking his car and his apartment. Once he moved to Deerfield Beach, Florida, he refused to live in fear and refused to lock his apartment or his car. Whenever I visited him in Florida, he would not allow me to lock anything either, which I found hilarious. I lived in NYC at the time, and understood completely.

He had had rheumatic fever as a child, and later that caused a leaky heart valve, so some time in the late Eighties he had surgery to replace the heart valve – several surgeries, because there was an artificial heart valve that his body rejected, then there was a pig valve which worked, but he had to be very careful.  I’m not sure if he knew that he had prostate cancer before he moved to Florida.  He moved down there to relax, to be a “snowbird” with family who spent winters in Palm Springs.  There were a lot of musician friends who had retired to Florida, so he did do some gigs there – but he was basically retired when he went down there.  He was very worried that the heart problem was going to do him in, but it was the prostate cancer, and they couldn’t do surgery because of the heart problem. 

When I took my son down to Florida as a baby (I think that was the last time my dad saw him), I had to go to the laundry room in his complex, leaving him alone with my son (who could stand up but wasn’t yet talking). He played clarinet for my son to keep him amused. I only caught the tail end of it when I returned. It was so cute, my son was enthralled.

He was very funny, very outgoing, and he had hilarious stories.  He was a very good storyteller, and I loved that.  There was a story about a tiger in Bermuda, but I don’t remember how it went.  He spent some time on cruise ships going to Bermuda, and he used to bring back gifts for me and art.  There’s one statue of a woman which I have in my house now that he always had on the mantel in his living room. 

He loved taking me to museums, to art museums, oh my gosh.  He would talk to me about composition, and he loved Matisse and vibrant colors.  Did you know he studied at the Art Students’ League?  I mean, he felt it was really kind of a curse to be really good at a lot of things, but not just art.  He was an intellectual, and some things he didn’t really have to try to be good at.  Cooking and art and more.  He was a thinker, and that may have been hard for him later.  He loved Nature, and we’d go to Central Park, and he’d set up some watercolors and we’d draw, but he didn’t interfere with what I was doing, he would just let me do my thing. 

Whenever we were walking down the street in New York, and we did a lot of walking together, and he was always singing or humming.  All the time! – when we were talking or even when we were.  He was a man full of music.  There was never ever a second when it wasn’t turned on.  I should record THE MORE I SEE YOU for him, because he always wanted me to do that song.  I don’t know why it was that particular one, but he did.  And he used to sing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET all the time. 

He loved having me sing, whenever I was with him in a club.  Once I started that, he loved it.  And he would give me really, really helpful feedback.  Truly helpful.  He was not overly critical of my singing at all.  No, he was lavishing praise,  But when I wanted to be a music major in college – I started out as a French major –which was actually useless to me (what was I going to do with that?) when I was at Indiana University.  But I had friends who were musicians, I interacted with them, and they were super-surprised that I was not a music major.  “You should be a music major!” they told me.  I was terrified that I would not get in to the program.  I went and did an unofficial audition for David Baker first, and he sent me to this classical vocal teacher, then, with their blessing, I officially auditioned for the music school there.  I got it, but I didn’t tell anybody at all that I had auditioned. 

Then I called my dad to tell him I had gotten in, and he was tickled, he was beside himself with joy.  He hung up the phone, and thirty seconds later he called me back.  “Are you sure you don’t want to get a different major as a backup?  Why don’t you stick with the French?”  And I looked at the phone, and I was like, “French???  French is more useless than music.  I don’t know what the hell I would do with French.  Go somewhere and translate?”  I had no vision how that would work into my life.  It cracked me up that he was so overjoyed and then called me back and was “Wait, wait, wait . . . . “  It was the mentality he grew up with; my dad was born in 1923.  I mean, when I moved back to New York as an adult, I saw him every week, at least once a week, we had our official dinner once a week.  I had a day gig at a Japanese insurance company, because I could type.  And he would tell me, “You know, my dream for  you, my goal for you, my life-dream is for you to marry some businessman you meet around there.”  “Wow.  Really? Your dream for me?”  It didn’t work out that way.  Maybe he was right, I don’t know.  He was worried that if I became a singer I would become an alcoholic.  He was sure those two things went together.  It did not happen, but he was very, very worried about that. 

He also helped me be prepared when dealing with musicians, even on pick-up dates, sitting in, or being a leader.  He really told me, “You know, musicians are going to hate you because you’re a singer.  You really have to be super prepared so that they respect you.”  I thought that was the best piece of advice anybody could give me.  I was incredibly spoiled by all the musicians I met even when I was a little girl.  But when I was little even though I played a little piano, I didn’t know what keys I sang in.  I’d just start to sing, they would find the key, and it would be fine.  I was spoiled by that.  But things change.

I remember meeting Vic Dickenson and Doc Cheatham, Marshall Brown, Mike Burgevin, Kenny Davern, and of course Max Kaminsky.  Oh, there’s a sad thing.  I was supposed to meet Louis Armstrong, my dad really wanted to introduce me to him, but I was in Michigan and Louis died before I got back to New York, but later I did meet Lucille Armstrong.  Dill Jones was the first pianist to play for me in public.  My mom and dad were both really good friends with Jack Bradley.  My sister said – I wasn’t old enough to understand this – that Jack facilitated it so that my mother bought Louis’ cream-colored Cadillac from Louis for five hundred dollars.  I remember that car very well and I know there was some connection to Jack Bradley and Louis. 

That same evening. Photograph by Mike Burgevin.

In the Seventies, when I was in New York with him, he would go off and do gigs at night, and I wasn’t going out at night so I would stay at the apartment watching TV, but I got hold of his fakebook, and I was going through it, listening to jazz recordings that he had, and jazz radio – he listened to WNEW – teaching myself songs from that fakebook.  Even though I couldn’t really read music yet, I would listen to people singing the songs and I would follow along.  I learned a lot of tunes that way.  I wouldn’t have learned them with him around, or my mother around: that was solo contemplation.  

And on those recordings you sent, you said there were people talking at the start, and I thought, “Oh, I hope I get to hear his voice!” and he wasn’t talking, but he was in the background warming up his saxophone, and that’s why he wasn’t talking, he was on the stand already.       

There’s a story my dad liked to tell, and in my recollection I cannot do it justice because I cannot give you his facial expressions or inflections. He was at his friend’s apartment in upper Manhattan (I don’t remember whose apartment, possibly Lou Levy’s?). Dave Lambert was at the party. Jazz records were being played (of course). Someone knocked on the door and the host asked my dad to answer. He opened the door and Duke Ellington was standing there. My dad was so surprised to see one of his idols standing there. After he let him in, the host asked my dad to pick the next record for everyone to listen to. My dad was so nervous because he couldn’t believe he was picking music for Ellington to listen to. I wish I could remember what he chose. But evidently it was something Ellington liked.

Here is Ruby Braff’s elegy for his friend, Ruby’s liner note to the 1996 BEING WITH YOU (Arbors):

This album, this salute to Louis, is as much about Sam Margolis as it is about Pops!

So much of my musical thinking was formed and inspired by the musical dedication and artistic humility of Sam, my old friend and teacher. No one ever did or could pay more homage to the genius and influence that Louis had on every aspect of American music. In that sense, Sam was a great champ and winner.

On March 23, 1996 tragedy struck out group of friends and many others! Our Sammy lost his fight with cancer. To the end he went with great courage and gallantry! My thoughts were about him as we made this recording a scant few weeks later.

Every one who knew him will miss this enormously talented person of profound influence. Jack Bradley’s great picture of Sam and Pops is the way I think he’d like to be remembered.

May God grant him the eternal peace his great soul deserves.

We will never forget you, Sam . . .

I would add to those grieving words my own perception that Sammy Margolis, up close or at a distance, was a joyous individual, a remarkable man: gentle, funny, modest, multi-talented. I regret now that my shyness got in the way of a real conversation, because I feel that Sammy would have engaged my young self with kindness.

There will be more music to celebrate Sammy, and perhaps JAZZ LIVES’ readers have their own tales. He deserves to be well-remembered. And my deep thanks to Carla Margolis for her memories above.

May your happiness increase!

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