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?