Tag Archives: Clyde Groves

ERNIE HACKETT REMEMBERS HIS JAZZ FAMILY: “DAD,” “UNCLE VIC,” “PAPA JO,” “MR. SINATRA,” and MORE (December 2020)

Bobby, listening to Vic Dickenson at Childs Paramount, October 1952

Bobby Hackett remains one of my musical heroes, and I cherish his recordings, the few times I saw him in person, and the sound of his horn in my memory, a sound I can call up at will.  In case you need a reminder of Bobby’s delicate mastery, here is his 1975 performance of SWEET LORRAINE at the Grande Parade du Jazz in July 1975.

Bobby’s son Ernie — swinging drummer and vivid individualist — has fascinated me since I encountered him on Facebook years ago.  Outspoken, tender, kind, hilarious, a man of deep perceptions and deep emotions, he’s been a remarkable presence to me.  Recently, thanks to our mutual friend Clyde Groves — who appears here and here (Clyde is Billy Butterfield’s son-in-law) — Ernie and I had a delightful long phone conversation about the people we both love, a few noted in my title, which it is my honor to share with you here.

Now . . . here’s what Ernie told me, just before Christmas 2020 — a big present for all of us.

Simplicity was Dad’s art. He loved the melody, and he knew how to play around with the melody, but he never got out of control. He didn’t like the spotlight, the glamour, and he rarely took the first chorus. What always hit me in the family, blessed as I was, was his wonderful sense of humor, his dry, witty sense of humor. He was going through Customs once, and the agent looked at the cornet case and said, “Is that a musical instrument?” Dad’s one-word reply was, “Occasionally.” Little things like that: all my life I was familiar with those little things.

He was one of nine children, in Providence, and he dropped out of school at a very early age, because he started playing gigs, I believe on violin, then ukulele in the beginning. He didn’t play horn until he was in his teens. I didn’t know many of my aunts and uncles, except Aunt Dottie was very very close with Dad, and she had the same type of humor. She and her husband used to visit us, after the family relocated to Cape Cod, because they were coming in from Providence. There’s something about a dry sense of humor with musicians to begin with. I can’t say why, but I’m sure you’ve spotted it. Dad’s favorite phrase, if anybody asked him about politics, was “When the President tells me how to play the horn, then I’ll tell him how to run the country.” Plain and simple, to the point.

When he was home, he constantly practiced in the living room. In his boxer shorts. He never played a tune in his practicing, nothing but scales. Modulating scales, up and down, that’s all he ever practiced. And if people were coming over, he might put his robe on, or a t-shirt. That’s how Billy Butterfield was also. I knew Billy to some degree, because when Dad and Billy happened to be in New York at the same time, and Billy was passing through, he would always stay with us at our house in Jackson Heights. And I’ll always remember, Billy, first thing in the morning, coming down in his shorts – at least he had a t-shirt on – hair all messed up, saying good morning to everybody. He was like a shorter, stubbier Dad.

[I’d asked Ernie about Bobby’s generous nature, which sometimes led him to be taken advantage of, and his reaction.] I’d say he shrugged his shoulders, and always moved forward. The one thing that comes to mind would be the Jackie Gleason records. He never berated Jackie Gleason for that. My mother blamed Jack Philbin, his manager at the time, who I just recently learned was Regis Philbin’s father. It was Dad’s decision. He took the ten thousand dollars, because he wanted to buy a house for the family, for us, not knowing what was going to happen in the future. He wasn’t bitter about it. Nobody in the family ever begrudged him for making that decision. He did it for us.

He got along with just about everybody.

Mom was from Fall River, Mass., and Dad was from Providence. I don’t know exactly how they met, but I do know they married on Nantucket, and I think he was with the Casa Loma band at the time. Of course, this is way before my time, so it’s all hearsay and articles that I’m remembering. [Ernie asked his niece, Michelle, and she added this wonderful story: “Grandpa had a two week gig at a posh resort on Nantucket, with full accommodations. He asked Grandma to go with him, but she said she couldn’t travel with him as a single lady. So he suggested that they get married the first day they were there, then they had a two week (all paid) honeymoon on Nantucket.”]

They were wonderful friends. It was a rocky marriage at times: we’ve all been through that. I’m sure you know that Dad was an alcoholic. We’ve always been realistic about that. It was out in the open. Dad’s loving term to refer to Mom was “The Warden.” I’m not going to say he never drank at home: he slipped a couple of times. It became ugly when that happened. My sister and I used to spend nights crying at the top of the stairs with Mom and Dad going at it, arguing. A day or two, they’d get over it and Dad would straighten up again.

Incidentally, contrary to popular belief of “Ernie Caceres” – I was named after my Mom’s older brother named Ernest – who died at an early age in a freak bus accident.

Eddie Condon was my Godfather! I always figured that my parents thought if anything should ever happen to them that Eddie would be sure to teach me how to handle alcohol!

When I was about seventeen, I dropped out of high school. I was still playing drums. From what I understand, George Wettling showed me how to hold a pair of drumsticks when I was about five years old, though I don’t remember that. I’d spent a couple of years playing electric guitar in a high school rock and roll band, but I still had a set of drums.

If I hadn’t become a jazz drummer, I probably would have become a rock drummer. Actually my first choice of music was always rock! What sort of pushed me towards jazz was my association with all the guys that worked with Dad!

Dad had a detached garage that he converted into a sound studio, outside the house. I was in there one night and Dad knocked on the door, came in, and said, “How’d you like to come out on the road with me and learn how to play drums?” I was flabbergasted – I was seventeen — and the first thing that came to my mind was “You don’t dare say no to that.” What an experience. And that’s what proceeded to happen over the next couple of years.

The first thing I realized was that when Dad was on the road, he was off the wagon. My first professional gig with Dad was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was about a two or three-week stint, and Dave McKenna was with us. And I learned how to drive because it was very rare that Dad and Dave were on the road and could drink together, because Dad had to drive back to the hotel every night. However, they learned quickly that if the kid drove them back home at night, they could have fun during the gig. And that’s how I got my license. It could be sad at times: Dad’s playing suffered quite a bit when he drank, and it was obvious. He was always apologetic to me the next day. He was embarrassed that I saw him like that. But we muddled through it.

I really learned on the job. It was a good education. One of my fortes as a drummer was keeping very good time, not dragging or rushing. And the reason I got that way was because in the beginning, if I started to drag the slightest shade, Dad would stomp his foot, on stage, to the right beat. And, boy, I probably turned beet red. That’s embarrassing! If I started rushing, he would slow me right down. He would correct me immediately. But it paid off. I talk a lot about going into parochial schooling and then into the army, and all the discipline I went through, but when you look back at it as an adult, you’re thankful for it. It taught you. Things were done the right way.

[I asked Ernie about Bobby’s dear friend and colleague (and my hero) Vic Dickenson.] Oh, boy. My uncle. He and Dad had a brotherly relationship. The thing that hit me the most is that after Dad passed, Mom and I relocated to New York City from Cape Cod. That’s when I started hanging around Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, and getting ready to make my move in that direction, and Vic just took me under his wing like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll talk about the risqué parts – the many, many breaks we spent in his Oldsmobile 98, “The Office,” for our smoke breaks.

His sense of humor was astonishing also. Subtle, so subtle. One night at Condon’s, we came out from being in his car on one of the breaks. I remember standing there – he always had the best stuff in the world – I remember getting up on the stage and saying, “How the heck am I going to get through this? My God.” Usually getting high didn’t affect my playing, at least I didn’t think so, anyway, because I was high. So, we started playing, and it was during the first chorus. Now Vic, at Eddie Condon’s, always sat right in front of the mounted tom-tom. And Connie Kay, God bless him, always left his drums for me. So we were playing, and Vic turned around to me with a big smile, and he tapped the tom-tom, and said, “Whaddaya think?” And I said, “Whoa!” and his reply was, “Wait another minute or two. Just wait.”

What a wonderful soul he was, a loving person. You could easily see the love affair between him and Dad. In fact, I was just watching the JUST JAZZ program, where they were doing JITTERBUG WALTZ. You could just see the love between the two of them. It was just amazing. It was a wonderful show. They had such mutual respect for one another – not only as musicians, but as people. It was really quite a friendship. Vic was family. There was no other way around it. We all loved Uncle Vic, and he was just a sweetheart to all of us. And he never acted drunk. He’d drink Cutty Sark all night long, a straight shot in a glass, and a back of water, but he never lost his cool, ever, no matter how much of it he drank. God bless him. He knew himself – very much so.

I have to tell you about Vic and his joints. When Vic rolled a joint, it was the most perfect joint, and the trick was you’d have to roll it quite loose, and leave some room at the end to tuck that end in with the blunt end of a wooden match. So that way the grass wouldn’t fall out of it. And it was perfectly shaped, like an English Oval cigarette. So I taught myself how to do it, so I could roll a joint just like Uncle Vic. So one night we were in his car, hanging out, and I said, “Here, Vic. Do my stick here,” and he said, “All right, OK,” and I lit it up and handed it to him, and he looked at me and said, “Did I give you this?” And I just had the biggest smile, and I said, “Nope. I made that.” He said, “Get outta here!” I said, “No, I taught myself how to roll like you!” and he just got the biggest kick out of that. What an honor!

Dad had a clique of musician friends who came to the house.  I’m told that Louis would occasionally visit our house in Jackson Heights! But I was too young to even remember.  There was Ruby Braff, and I think Sam Margolis a couple of times. He was another sweetheart. Sam subbed from time to time at Condon’s, but we also worked together with Max Kaminsky, after Max’s regular drummer, Freddie Moore, a funny gentleman, really nice guy, wanted to retire, and Max asked me if I wanted to be in the band.

I could go on about Max: we had a love-hate relationship. Max could be pretty nasty when he wanted to be. There was one gig he got for us in North Carolina, a wedding at a golf resort. It turned out to be a pain in the neck: Sam was on it with us. We had to fly down, and the gig happened, and then the next day we were supposed to play in the garden for the reception, and it became obvious that we weren’t going to get paid at the end of the gig, but at the month, like a club date, he would have our money. Well, I was living completely hand to mouth at that time, struggling to keep my studio apartment on Central Park West, and I got so mad at him, really mad. We were returning, and we were at the airport in North Carolina, at a long gateway, and I saw Max walking down from the opposite direction. I was just staring at him, because he knew I wanted my money. But sometimes you’d have to love Max, too. He took me off to the side, and he looked really nervous. He gave me a hundred-dollar bill, maybe half of what I was supposed to get, and he said, “I can’t give you the whole thing now, Ernie, but take this, I hope it helps you. Please don’t tell any of the other guys.” So I shook his hand and I kept his secret. We used to get mad at each other a lot, but we forgot about it the next day and hugged each other.

Tony Bennett wasn’t a frequent visitor to the house, but from time to time he’d pop in. Whenever Dad had these visits, everybody disappeared into the garage – are you familiar with the air freshener / deodorizer Ozium? They used to use that to cover up the marijuana.

On that subject: a few years later, before I was going in to the service, I was doing a four-week gig with Dad in New Orleans, my first opportunity to be in New Orleans, and we were at Al Hirt’s nightclub. At the time Dad had a pseudo-manager named Leo Kappos, a Greek gentleman, short little guy, likeable. Mom hated him, because she knew that he was Dad’s enabler. The funny thing was, that at that time, I’ll be honest with you, I was already a pothead. Dad used to try to smoke grass to stay away from alcohol, but it never really worked for him. So one night, I was going downstairs to the gig, in a tux, and I got in the elevator, and Leo was in there too, just Leo and me. And Leo started laughing, and he said, “Listen, I gotta get you and your Dad together, because the two of you are smoking pot all the time and not letting each other know about it. You gotta get to know each other!” I never forgot that.

Dad would try it from time to time, but his high of choice was beer. He had a very low tolerance, because he had a very slight frame, he always suffered with diabetes, which didn’t make drinking any easier. Half a Heineken and he’d almost be on the floor. It was difficult. He had quite a battle to stay away from that.

I’ll slide that around to another story that involves me introducing myself to Frank Sinatra.  [Here you can enjoy Frank and Bobby.]

Dad and I were playing at the Riverboat in New York, in the basement of the Empire State Building, 1966 or 1967. It had to be around July 4. Dad was featured, and I guess a six or seven-piece band. And one night, I noticed Tony [Bennett] came in, and he was only there for ten or fifteen minutes. He and Dad kind of disappeared. And at the next break, Dad came over to me, and said, “Listen. Tony told me that Frank’s going to be at Jilly’s tonight. He’s having a party. We’re all welcome to stop in there and join him.” My sister idolized Frank Sinatra all her life, so Dad said to me, “Call Barbara, and have her and her boyfriend meet us at Jilly’s, around 12:30 or 1 AM,” which I did. Dad and I got in a cab – I wasn’t quite driving at that time – up to Jilly’s, on 55th Street, I think it was, and we went in.

The party was in a private room at the back, and people were throwing firecrackers around the bar. It was Frank’s crew, because it was the Fourth of July and he felt like throwing firecrackers around. We went in the back room, Dad and I, and Dad started to drink, had a Heineken. My sister and her boyfriend showed up, and that was it for the family, the four of us, we’re at a table. Off to my left was a long Last Supper-type of table with Mr. Sinatra in the middle of it, with his back against the wall, and he was entertaining the people at the table. So all of a sudden, Dad said, “Ernie, I want you to go over and introduce yourself to Mr. Sinatra.” My legs almost crumpled out from under me, I almost fainted. When Dad was drinking, you didn’t dare say no. So I had to toughen up for this.

I walked behind the back of the table, and I came up right behind – I don’t like calling him Frank, he was Mr. Sinatra to me. He was in the middle of a story, a joke, whatever, and the two goons on either side of him, with their hands in their laps, were staring at me, like, “What are you doing here?” Nothing was said, but they would not take their eyes off me. I was waiting for Mr. Sinatra to end the story so I could quickly tap him on the shoulder and say, “Hi, I’m Ernie Hackett. My Dad said I had to say hi to you,” which is what happened. When I went to tap him on the shoulder, the two goons went to stand up, so right away, I blurted out, “Mr. Sinatra, I’m Ernie Hackett, Bobby Hackett’s son. He told me to come over, I should say hi.” And he was very gracious, stood up, shook my hand, gave me a big smile, said, “Thank you so much, Ernie. Very nice to meet you,” and that was that.

Now we fast-forward ten to fifteen years. Now I was playing at Eddie Condon’s. Dad had passed. Wild Bill Davison was in town, which is going to lead me into another story. I don’t know if you remember at Condon’s, the big table was the round one right in front of the bandstand, and that’s where the celebrities would sit. Sinatra came in with his wife Barbara, and a priest who always traveled with him – I think that was in case he needed the last rites – and three or four other people at the table, to enjoy Wild Bill. After the set ended, and remember, at Eddie Condon’s, the stage was about two or three feet off the ground, I got down from the drums onto the floor, and there was a table right there, and someone started chatting with me, I don’t know, about Dad or something, two or three minutes. All of a sudden I feel a tap on my shoulder, I turn around, and it’s Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t believe it. He shook my hand, and all he said was, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your playing, Ernie. It was just fantastic.” I didn’t know what to say! I just thanked him. I often wonder, with my sense of humor, if I had pulled a Don Rickles on him and said, “Hey, Frank. I’m just talking to people here. Can you wait a minute? I’ll be right with you!” but thank God I didn’t do that. He might have shot me: I don’t know.

But I always liked Frank Sinatra as a person. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, very gracious. He donated – I don’t remember the amount of money – the New Jersey Jazz Society had a benefit for Mom, and I think he donated two or three thousand dollars, which at that time was like ten thousand dollars. And he was at Condon’s one night, waiting for the rest of his entourage to come up from the rest room, and he was under the portrait at the end of the bar, just standing there, staring off into the distance. He wasn’t a very tall gentleman, if you recall. I went up to him and said, “Frank, I’m Ernie Hackett. I don’t know if you remember me,” and he just nodded his head. “I just want to thank you so much for the donation you made for Dad’s benefit,” and all he did was nod his head in acceptance. He wouldn’t talk about anything nice that he did. That was very private to him.

But the punchline is this. And I always wondered, and I would almost guarantee that he came up and tapped me on the shoulder because he remembered that’s how I introduced myself to him. I’ll bet you anything, he said to himself, “I remember that kid. He’s Bobby Hackett’s son. He tapped me on the shoulder once.”

Here’s the side story about Wild Bill. You must know about him and his background. He wasn’t the quietest of souls. Cliff Leeman, of course, was his favorite drummer. And Wild Bill would come in to Condon’s, maybe two or three times a year, for a two-week stint. He always insisted on Cliff being there. This time around, Cliff was starting to fail, and he wasn’t feeling well any longer. So he told Ed Polcer and [Red] Balaban, who ran the place, that he couldn’t make it this time around. Well, Ed and Red decided to give me a shot at it, which I was very thankful for. I get to replace Cliff? Good enough that I’m replacing Connie Kay every night!

So, Monday came, and I’m coming in again with my snare and my stick bag, because Connie always left his drums there for me. I walked in to the club, and I saw that Wild Bill and his wife Anne were sitting all the way in the back, having coffee or something. We had never met. I walked in to the club, deposited my snare drum and bag on the stage, and came up, introduced myself. I said, “Hey, Wild Bill, a pleasure to meet you. I’m Ernie Hackett and I’ll be playing drums with you for the next couple of weeks.” He stood up and shouted, “WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF?” Well, that’s a fine how-d’you-do! How do you get over that one? Well, the ending of it was a sweet story. After the first set, Wild Bill came up to me and said, “I like the way you play.” And then he insisted, going forward, that if Cliff couldn’t make it, I had to be his replacement. So I had another medal on my chest. My head got a little bit bigger at that time. But I’ll never forget WHERE THE FUCK IS CLIFF? That was typical Bill.

Another one was Papa Jo Jones. You know how cantankerous he could be. He took me under his wing, and I used to love hanging with him at the bar after the gig, with the two of us getting drunk, or high, whatever, and he would go on a real rant, a tirade about anything! And then he’d turn around with a sly little smile, and wink at me, like “What kind of reaction did I get from that one?” He was letting me in on his game. He was very much an actor. God, what a talent. He used to sit in at the drums sometimes, after the gig, and just go up there with the brushes and play the drums. And my jaw would be on the floor. Then, the honor of letting me sit next to him at the bar, in his court.

One time, Ruby Braff and I had a falling-out. I joined the club! I interrupted him, one night when he was telling a joke. Oh my God. He stopped talking to me. I tried calling him, and he wouldn’t pick up the phone. Well, he’d pick up the phone (we didn’t have Caller ID back then) and hang up on me. We parted ways. We stayed away from each other a good amount of time, maybe six-seven-eight months. And then, all of a sudden, one night the Magic White Powder parade was marching downstairs and Ruby looked at me and said, “Come on. Come with us.” We both did that. And we came downstairs, we looked at each other, and started laughing, and he gave me a hug and said, “OK. The hatchet’s buried.” I said, “Thank you. It took you long enough,” and we were fine after that.

I loved Jimmy Andrews. Jimmy and I were the closest of friends. He was very quiet, but what a sense of humor, and a gentleman. I loved Mike Burgevin. Jimmy and Mike, they were like brothers. And Mike, a quiet guy but a real gentleman of a person.

My splash on the scene was after Dad passed, and I’m kind of happy it worked like that. It allowed me to be more of myself.

So when Dad passed, we were living up on Cape Cod there, and I was doing a lot of odd gigs there – Mom had the house. Mom wanted to sell the house and move back to New York, which is what we ended up doing, and I got married to my second wife at the time. We went back from Cape Cod to New York and got an apartment there. I thought, I have my drums here, I have a car, I’ve got to start getting into the scene. I’d drive into Manhattan and start hanging out at Condon’s and Ryan’s, three-four times a week, just to hang out, and eventually to sit in, which kind of broke the ice for me, because these guys got to hear what the Hackett kid could do.

And all the Black people had such respect for Dad and everyone took me under their wing. Do you know Jackie Williams? I understand he’s still going — another wonderful friend of the family, a funny, funny guy. I played with Roy Eldridge quite a bit, a wonderful guy, but I don’t think he enjoyed my style of playing as much as Condon’s did. But that didn’t get me. I don’t expect everyone in the world to love my style of drumming. But Roy was a wonderful guy. I loved him, and he always treated me with the utmost respect. I loved Jimmy McPartland too, a great character. And his wife! We weren’t that close as friends because he wasn’t as much a hanger-outer. I think he was curbing his drinking. Marian was very polite and demure, such a lady, and a fantastic musician. The two of them took me up to Salem, Massachusetts for a one-week gig with Frank Tate – he and I were great buddies, through Dad – and we had a great time.

The hangouts after the gig were the cream of the crop at Condon’s. The gigs were great, but I had to stay sober until the end of it, so I used to ration one Heineken at a break. But then, after the last set, I started mixing shots of Johnnie Black with it, and that’s when the party would begin. It was such an honor to be exposed to all that, to get to know all these guys.

There’s a thirty-minute video on YouTube of a night at Eddie Condon’s. That’s me on drums. I’ll never forget that night. It was, I believe, a Monday night, and I was subbing for Connie. I came in and was setting up my snare drum, and a couple of college-looking kids were setting up very professional video equipment, right in front of the bandstand. And I was always a rabble-rouser. I’m not proud of it all the time, but if there was trouble to be started it was started by me. I got done setting up the drums and rearranging the stands, and then I came down the stairs and the one guy who seemed to be more in charge – as it turned out, it was Red Balaban’s cousin – I politely asked him, “What are you going to be filming this for?” “Oh, it’s just a college project. It’s nothing more than that.” But there were two very professional-looking cameras. I said, “Oh, really. Is the club planning to pay the band scale for this, for the videotaping?” And he said, “No, we’re just a couple of college students.” I said, “Oh. I have to talk to Eddie Polcer about this,” and that’s how I left it. I think I told one of the college kids, “If the red light goes on, and we’re not getting paid scale, I’m not playing,” and evidently the kid went back to Eddie and told him.

So Eddie came in, and it was getting closer to hit time, maybe 8:30, and we were supposed to be going on in ten or fifteen minutes. I went outside to have a cigarette, and Polcer always bummed cigarettes off of me – that’s another story. Eddie came outside, and said, “So, you’re not going to play if the red light goes on?” I said, “Yeah, exactly. Eddie, you know how this works. You’re going to make a video, you’ve got to pay the musicians.” We were going back and forth. He didn’t want to give in. Finally, he said to me, “Do you know how much scale is?” “No,” I said, “but we can both find out in the morning with a call to Local 802.” This is what really got under his skin. He said, “If I pay you scale, will you play?” My reply was, “If you pay the whole band scale, yes,” and he just looked at me like he wanted to kill me, and he gave in at that point, “All right. You got it. They’ll all get scale.”

Years later, he was at the Atlanta Jazz Party, and my wife and I, when she was still here, God bless her, we used to go every year and visit with the guys from New York, and Eddie and I remained close friends. We’d hug each other and reminisce. And he told me, years later, “Red Balaban went to his death never knowing that you did that, that night. If I’d ever told him, he would have banned you from the club completely.” I said, “Thank you.” I was always on the ins and the outs with Eddie Condon’s. They finally stopped using me. If you go back and look at that video, Jimmy Andrews and I were the only two they didn’t interview – because we were the rough guys!

The good old days. Just an honor! And as Vic would say, “Ding ding!”

“Just an honor!” sums it up for me.  Bless Ernie, and all our heroes above.

May your happiness increase!

BILLY BUTTERFIELD, A FEW MORE CHORUSES

Billy, at work / at play, at one of Joe Boughton’s Conneaut Lake jazz weekends.

When I was compiling yesterday’s post — a conversation with Billy Butterfield’s family that revealed him to be a sweet-natured, generous man who loved being with them — read it here — I also returned to the music he made, and there’s a proliferation of it on YouTube, showing Billy in many contexts.  (Trust me: this post will not be silent . . . )

I knew about the breadth of Billy’s working career — more than forty years of touring with big bands, small jam-session groups, concerts here and overseas, radio and studio work, club dates and gigs a-plenty — which pointed me to Tom Lord’s discography.

Recordings are only a slice of a musician’s career, a narrow reflection of what (s)he may have created, but in Billy’s case, the list of people he recorded with is astonishing in its breadth: it says so much about his professionalism and versatility, and the respect his peers afforded him.

For my own pleasure and I hope yours, here is a seriously edited list — in alphabetical order — of some of the people Billy recorded with . . . many surprises.  I did get carried away, but it was impossible to stop.

Louis Armstrong, Georgie Auld, Mildred Bailey, Pearl Bailey, Tallulah Bankhead, George Barnes, Andy Bartha, Tony Bennett, Eddie Bert, Johnny Blowers, Will Bradley, Ruby Braff, Lawrence Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Kenny Burrell, Connie Boswell, Dave Bowman, Les Brown, Vernon Brown, John Bunch, Ernie Caceres, Nick Caiazza, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Sidney Catlett, Charlie Christian, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Cozy Cole, Eddie Condon, Ray Conniff, Jimmy Crawford, Bing Crosby, Bob Crosby, Cutty Cutshall, Delta Rhythm Boys, John Dengler, Vic Dickenson, Tommy Dorsey, Buzzy Drootin, Dutch College Swing Band, Billy Eckstine, Gil Evans, Nick Fatool, Irving Fazola, Morey Feld, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Bud Freeman, Barry Gailbraith, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Brad Gowans, Teddy Grace, Freddie Green, Urbie Green, Tyree Glenn, Henry Grimes, Johnny Guarnieri, Bobby Hackett, Bob Haggart, Al Hall, Edmond Hall, Sir Roland Hanna, Coleman Hawkins, Neal Hefti, J.C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Billie Holiday, Peanuts Hucko, Eddie Hubble, Dick Hyman, Chubby Jackson, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Jerry Jerome, Taft Jordan, Gus Johnson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Roger Kellaway, Kenny Kersey, Carl Kress, Yank Lawson, Peggy Lee, Cliff Leeman, Jack Lesberg, Abe Lincoln, Jimmy Lytell, Mundell Lowe, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Matty Matlock, Jimmy Maxwell, Lou McGarity, Red McKenzie, Hal McKusick, Johnny Mercer, Eddie Miller, Miff Mole, Benny Morton, Tony Mottola, Turk Murphy, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Oscar Pettiford, Flip Phillips, Mel Powell, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Jimmy Rushing, Babe Russin, Pee Wee Russell, Doc Severinsen, Charlie Shavers, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Jess Stacy, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Bill Stegmeyer, Lou Stein, Rex Stewart, Joe Sullivan, Maxine Sullivan, Ralph Sutton, Buddy Tate, Jack Teagarden, Claude Thornhill, Martha Tilton, Dave Tough, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Ward, Earle Warren, Dick Wellstood, George Wettling, Paul Whiteman, Margaret Whiting, Bob Wilber, Joe Wilder, Lee Wiley, Roy Williams, Shadow Wilson, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Bob Zurke . . . 

This list is breathtaking.  Sure, some of the associations come from Billy’s being a Swing-Era-and-beyond big band star, sparkplug, and valued section player.  And some of the associations come from studio work.  But the whole list says so much about Billy’s marvelous combination of skills: he could play a four-chorus solo that would astonish everyone in the room, but he could also blend in and let other people take the lead.

And these associations speak to a wonderful professionalism: you could be the most luminous player in the firmament, but if you showed up late, were drunk or stoned, didn’t have your instrument ready, couldn’t sight-read the charts or transpose or take direction, your first studio date would be your last.  Clyde and Judi Groves (Billy’s son-in-law and daughter) told me that Billy’s house in Virginia had that most odd thing, a flat roof over the garage, and it was spectacularly reinforced . . . so that a helicopter could land on it, and I am sure that was to get Billy to a New York City record date quickly.  In today’s parlance, that’s “essential services,” no?   And it says how much in demand he was for his beautiful sound, his memorable improvisations, and the maturity he brought to his work.

Now, to move from words to music.  One of the video-performances I most cherish is from the December 1, 1978, Manassas Jazz Festival, featuring Billy, Spiegle Willcox, trombone; Kenny Davern, clarinet; Spencer Clark, bass saxophone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Tony Di Nicola, drums. “Fantastic!” says Marty when the second number suggested is SWEET SUE in G.  I can’t disagree:

Judi also mentioned that Billy had — under duress — essayed a vocal on one of his Capitol sides, that he disliked the result and said that the company was trying to save money.  Here’s one example, showing his gentle, amused voice . . . with a searing trumpet solo in between the vocal interludes (followed by the instrumental JALOUSIE):

You may decide to skip the next performance because there is an added echo and a debatable transfer — but Billy sings with easy conviction and plays splendidly:

There is a third vocal performance (very charming) of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ on YouTube, but the owner plays the record on a seriously ancient portable wind-up gramophone that allows very little sound to emerge, so you’ll have to find that one on your own.

For a palate-cleanser, a little of the famous Butterfield humor, from my friend Norman Vickers, a retired physician who is one of the founders of Jazz Pensacola in Florida:

My late friend, record producer Gus Statiras, would sometimes handle a tour for the group—Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield – remnants of World’s Greatest Jazz Band. There was a practicing physician in Georgia who played piano. He would sponsor the group so he could play piano with them. Of course, they would have preferred a professional pianist, but he doc was paying for the gig.  During the event, Haggart said to Butterfield, “How’d you like to have him take out your gall-bladder?”  To which Butterfield replied, “ Yeah, and I think he’s doing it RIGHT NOW!”

To return to music.  When I asked the multi-instrumentalist Herb Gardner if I had his permission to post this, he wrote back in minutes, “Fine with me.  Those guys were great fun to work with.”  That says it all.

This brief performance comes, like the one above, from the Manassas Jazz Festival, this time December 3, 1978, where Billy plays alongside Bob Wilber, clarinet, alto, soprano saxophones; Herb Gardner, trombone; John Eaton, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Dean Keenhold, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums: SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / STARDUST / a fragment of STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY — that performance does not exist on this tape although Johnson McRee issued it on an audiocassette of this set / COTTON TAIL / SINGIN’ THE BLUES:

Savor that, and help me in my quest to make sure that the great players — the great individuals — are not forgotten.  Gratitude to Clyde, Judi, and Pat (the Butterfield family), Norman Vickers, and my enthusiastic readers.  And there is more Manassas video featuring Billy, and others, to come . . .

May your happiness increase!

BILLY BUTTERFIELD, “A VERY LOVING MAN,” RECALLED BY HIS FAMILY

Facebook is good for something.  Last month, Clyde Groves, Billy Butterfield’s son-in-law, cordially reached out to me and we decided to do a profile of Billy – so respected in every context during his lifetime and less known now.  I offer the result, a delightful conversation among Clyde, Billy’s daughter Judi, and son Pat.

For reasons of space, I have not written about Billy — from my own perspective — in this post, but tomorrow’s post will add in some previously unseen video and a few lines of mine.  I also have not listed who’s playing what on the music excerpts, but can provide those details on request.

But first, some memorable music.

Pat Butterfield:  He was a very private person, definitely incredibly generous.  He would befriend anyone, which might have been one of his failings, too.  Some people took advantage of him because of that.  My father was very quiet.

He liked to read a lot.  When I knew him, he’d get up in the middle of the night, go sit in the living room and read.  Not necessarily the best-sellers, although he liked fiction, but he also would read about musicians.  Not actually music itself, but the classical people – the life of Beethoven, people that he admired.  And he listened to a lot of music in the house.  He particularly liked Ella Fitzgerald, he felt that she was probably the greatest female jazz vocalist of all time.  He listened to classical music, and, in fact, he introduced me to it.  I can remember listening to SWAN LAKE and things like that, and a lot of Beethoven.  In fact, I got the sheet music to the Moonlight Sonata.  I’d sit there and peck away at it, and he’d help me with reading some of the difficult parts of the bass clef.  He would sit down and play the piano.  The problem was his hands weren’t very big, so he did a lot of slurring.  My brother Mike had the same ability, an ear for music and a natural understanding of chord systems, but I didn’t inherit any of that.  My brother played with string bass with him several times.

Clyde Groves: I met him when I was fourteen – that’s when I met Judi and her twin sister Debbie, and her mother Dottie, who was a wonderful vocalist also.  We always thought that she sounded a lot like Ella, the vocalist she admired the most.  And Billy was fortunate enough to have recorded with Ella.

Billy was very humble.  He wasn’t one to toot his own horn, so to speak.  I would be over at their house, for instance, and he’d have just gotten back from a tour, or he’d been on the Johnny Carson show, or with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band on Mike Douglas, or by himself on Merv Griffin, and I would tell him, “Oh, Mr. Butterfield, I just saw you on Johnny Carson!” and he would go, “Yeah.  So, Clyde, how’s school?  How’re you doing in baseball?”  He would just change the subject.

Judi Groves: He was very shy.  He was a man of few words, but when he would speak, because he didn’t talk a lot, you perked up and wanted to listen to what he had to say.  It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his childhood and things that he had done, amazing things that he had done.  You know, he played for the first all-integrated audience in South Africa.  He came home and never even spoke about it.  I didn’t even know about it until years afterwards.  He told them that would be the only way he would play, that he could bring his black musicians and play for a mixed audience.  He also – and I found this kind of neat – back then, they had the Green Book: you couldn’t go to hotels with black musicians, and since they wouldn’t let them stay in the hotel with him, he would go to the black motel.  He was very loyal to his band in that way also.  He was a very loving man.

When my dad did those college tours, my mom travelled with them, and we stayed with my mom’s sister.  My cousins are more like my brothers and sisters than cousins.  My dad wanted us to move down to Virginia.  He wanted us to be with family. Once, I remember that my dad was kind of embarrassed.  We lived in Smithfield, Virginia, where the meat-packing plant is, where the hams come from.  They had asked my father to be the Grand Marshall of the parade there.  He didn’t want to turn it down, because they really wanted him to do it.  But he wasn’t about that kind of thing – that put him back in the limelight.  I think he wanted people to like him for himself rather than for what he had accomplished, which is why he didn’t want us to talk about it all the time, either.

Clyde: He liked playing ballads more than anything.  That was his favorite thing.  He looked at the trumpet as his singing voice.  And Yank and Billy, when they were with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, they could really play off each other, the harmonies they could make on their horns on BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME or BLACK AND BLUE.  Yank Lawson was an all-time great.  And I put Billy there too.  They’re being forgotten, unless it’s younger people who are playing the horn or in a jazz ensemble – most people don’t know who they were.  He played that STARDUST with Artie Shaw, and he was in the Gramercy Five.  He played with everybody.

Judi:  He liked Bix Beiderbecke, too.

Clyde:  Yes, Louis and Bix were his essentials.  Are you familiar with the album BILLY PLAYS BIX?  That’s a true joy to listen to.  There’s the album on Victor called GUS HOO – I think the musicians were all in some kind of contract disputes, so they couldn’t play under their own names.  He picked “Gus Hoo,” which was his sense of humor.

Judi: He did!  He was a funny man.

Clyde:  When I first met Judi, I was fourteen, and I had no idea who Billy Butterfield was.  I was into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.  I had never heard of him, but of course my mom and dad knew who he was.  My dad would try to get under Judi’s mom’s skin and say, “Yes, Billy’s a great cornet player,” and Dottie would correct him, “He’s a TRUMPET player.”

Billy was on the road so much when Judi and I were dating.  He was thoughtful and kind.  I used to go see him at Andy Bartha’s, and whenever he’d spot me in the audience, during the break he would come and sit with me.  Of course, then all my drinks were on the house.  All around us, people would be whispering.  You could hear them, “Oh, that must be his nephew.  He’s got to be related,” because every break Billy would come and sit with me.  There were all these people he could have sat with, and I felt really honored that he would do that.

Judi: I found a record of my dad singing, and I was kind of amazed that he had a pretty good voice.

Clyde:  It was with his big band, and Billy had commented that, back then, all the rage was that the trumpet players, the leaders of the band, would do vocals.  But Billy said that this was the record company’s way of saving money, by not hiring a vocalist, but he hated doing it.  He was pretty young then.

You know the story of how Bob Crosby discovered him?  Bob and Yank or Bob Haggart were driving to a gig, and their car broke down near Lexington, where the University of Transylvania was, so when they went to the hotel, they asked the clerk if there was any good music around in this town, and the clerk referred them to the Austin Wylie band.  As soon as they heard Billy play, they were amazed.  After they stopped playing, Bob and either Yank or Haggart went over to Billy and said, “We’d like you to join the band.  Are you interested?” Of course he said yes, and they said, “Well, we’ll send you a ticket to New York.”  Weeks went by, and Billy was, “Well, they were just pulling my leg and praising me,” which was nice, but he thought nothing would come of it.  I guess they knew there was going to be an opening, and here comes a telegram with a ticket to New York.  So that’s how he got found by Bob Crosby.  The chances of the stars aligning like that.  If the car hadn’t broken down, who knows if anyone would have heard of Billy.  That was his big start.  He was in college, and he dropped out and went to New York.  He played football.  He was on the high school and college team.

Judi:  He got cleated in the leg, and that was when penicillin first came out, because he almost lost his leg.

Pat:  Dad got out of the service in 1945, when they said that anyone who could employ twenty-five people could get out, so he immediately did that, put this band together, and went on the road.  The first year, which would have been ’45-’46, he did all right, and then in 1947, they basically went in debt.  The Big Band Era was over, so he moved to New York.  He had accrued a debt of twenty-five to maybe thirty thousand dollars, and he went to work as a staff man for ABC.  I was five or six, and we lived out in Great Neck, in a house we called “House Horrible,” a big old Victorian they rented while Dad was paying off the debt.  That period, my parents went through pretty difficult times.  My mother insisted on making sure that he cleared his debt, that they have good credit.  That entailed a few arguments.

I think Debbie and Judi were about two when they moved down to Virginia, and he left for Florida when they were about thirteen.  After my mom and dad got divorced, she moved to Florida, and eventually she lived in a place called Coral Ridge, and the house where my dad and Dottie lived was, as the crow flies, five hundred yards from my mother’s house.  It was really strange.  But in order to get to their house from my mom’s house, you had to drive four or five miles.  Five hundred yards, but they couldn’t see each other.  I stayed in touch with them, and every summer I spent about a month with them in Virginia, a little place called Carrolton.  Then, my wife and I would see them in Florida.

Clyde:  Billy and Dottie were moving from these condominiums by the ocean, in Fort Lauderdale.  They had bought a house on the water, by the Intercoastal.  I went over with a friend of mine to help them move.  Billy was built like a bulldog.  But I was 16, 17, an athlete, really strong, and my buddy was also.  We were lifting all this furniture, and there was one piece that was really heavy.  Billy went to grab one end of it, and I told him, “No, don’t do that, Mr. Butterfield, that’s really heavy!” and he looked at me and said, “Just pick it up.”  And he picked that thing up like it was a feather.  I was thinking, “All he does is play music.  He can’t be that strong,” but he just picked it up.  I was the one struggling with it.

You know, Judi and I dated all through high school, and then things happened, and we got back together twenty-five years later.  I was always in love with her.  I was married, and I loved my wife, and we had two children, but when I saw on the national news that her dad had passed away, in 1988, I wanted to get back in touch with Judi, but I didn’t know how.  But Dottie always had a public number, it wasn’t unpublished, so I called Information.  Billy had been deceased for a number of years, and I got her number and called her house.  And when Dottie answered, I said, “You’ll never guess who this is,” and she said, “Of course I do.  You want to bet?”  I said, “Yes.”  And she said, “This is Clyde.”  I said, “Dottie, how do you remember that, after all these years?” and she said, “I’ll never forget your voice.”  People didn’t have Caller ID then.  So her mom helped reunite us.

Judi: Dottie lived a long time, to 92.  She was something!  She was a lot of fun.  Daddy was very quiet, but she was very outgoing.

Clyde:  They were a perfect husband and wife in that respect.  And after Billy passed away, Dottie never wanted to remarry, because there was no man that could ever compare to him, even though she was still fairly young.  She was never interested in meeting anyone, even though she was still beautiful and men were always asking her out.  She was gorgeous and always dressed impeccably.

Judi:  When he was a kid, he first started out playing the violin.  I’m not sure about the story that he was going to become a doctor.  I know he went to the University of Transylvania.  His brother, Donald, was a doctor, and I think he was eleven years older than my father.  I’m not sure what his specialty was, whether he was a brain surgeon – I think that’s what he was – but he went in to the military in World War One and it affected him so much that he couldn’t go back into practice.  When Billy first started out, he was playing violin on a riverboat – earlier than 13, he was just a small kid, so that he could help his brother who was going through college.  Hard times back then.  His dad would drive him where he had to go, because he was too young to drive.

He was beyond talented.  Most of his recordings were done in one take.  But he didn’t talk about the music business, and he dissuaded us from ever going in to it, because he felt it was a very hard life.  He never talked about himself, and he didn’t talk about other musicians.  He would have some friends he would play with, Andy Bartha.  When Andy was playing, my dad would go and be the headliner where Andy was.  Yank Lawson was a good friend of Daddy’s.  They were good friends from Bob Crosby’s band.  You know with musicians, they all have big heads.  Daddy wasn’t about that.  I think that annoyed him a bit, because they always wanted to talk about themselves.

When he came home, he would read the paper, watch tv.  We had a boat, wherever we lived, and he loved to go out on the boat.  We always lived on or near the water, he loved that.  He loved being around family.

Clyde:  They had a pool, they’d be out there swimming, relaxing, cooking on the grill.  Even when he was at home, a lot of times he would have local gigs, so he wouldn’t get home until late at night, but he always would get up to spend family time.  He enjoyed his time at home for sure.

Judi:  And he liked to watch golf.  I can picture him in the reclining chair, watching golf on tv.  He liked to play.

Pat:  When I was small, a lot of musicians would come around.  We spent a lot of time with Felix Giobbe, Bob Haggart, and a really good friend, Andy Ferretti.  We were all members of the same country club in Brookville.  My father was apparently a terrible golfer.  He could hit it a long way, but he never knew what direction it was going in!

Judi:  But he never really kept anything he ever did.  Anything we have of his, besides the trumpets – my sister and I have all of them – he said, “I did it.  Why would I want to hear it again?” We don’t have all the records.  And pictures, we’ve had to buy off eBay.  He was totally the opposite of anyone who was famous.  Even when we were growing up, he didn’t want us to talk a lot about him.  So we didn’t.

Clyde: The only album that he had out on display was an album he made with the Dutch College Swing Band.  Out of all his recordings, that was the only one he had framed and put up on the wall.  But he loved playing.  That was his passion.  Even though you’re on the road most of the time, travelling, he wouldn’t have given that up for anything.

The reason they moved to Florida was that when Jackie Gleason moved his show down to Miami Beach, he wanted Billy to be down there, and the arrangement was he would pay him X dollars a year so that when he was available, he would play in the Sammy Spear orchestra.  When Billy wasn’t available, Jackie was fine with that.

You know, after Billy had moved down to Virginia, just so the girls could have their mother’s family around them, when he was on the road, he and Dottie were walking down Fifth Avenue in New York, and across the street, he heard, “Hey, Billy!” and he looked over and it was Dizzy.  So Billy said, “Hey, Dizzy, how’re you doing?” And Dizzy yelled back, “Hey, what’s this I hear about you moving south of the Cotton Curtain?”

Judi:  He walked around all the time with a mouthpiece in his pocket, and he would always take it out and blow in it.  He had to keep his lip up, you know.

Clyde:  He’d go out on the boat and he’d have it with him, even though he’d just played a gig.  It was part of him.  You have to keep your skills up.

Judi:  I remember he played at Nixon’s inaugural ball.  He was on the road a lot.  Especially in the late Sixties, he was in Europe a lot.  Jazz was very big in Europe.  He played over there all the time.  I got to go on a tour with him, with The Great Eight, in Germany, for three weeks.  That was really cool.  That was the first time I got to see him really play, outside of going to the Jackie Gleason Show, or the Merv Griffin Show.  But this was actually being with the guys, and even they didn’t toot their own horns.  These were gentlemen like Sam Woodyard, who had played with Duke Ellington, and Tal Farlow.  It was a wonderful trip.  I got to see how much the people really loved him.  I never got to see that when I was growing up, so for me it was a real treat, and it gave me a real appreciation for my dad.  I’ll never forget that.  It was the trip of a lifetime.  This was 1981-1982, something like that.

Clyde: Judi’s dad had his own nightclub for a time, in Fort Lauderdale, at the Escape Hotel.  Andy Bartha had a standing gig at the Moonraker, and whenever he was off the road, he would always go there to support Andy.  He got the album made with Andy, and he just liked the man personally.  He was a very giving man.  If he could help somebody out, he would.  And he never had anything bad to say about anyone, because his premise was, if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything, instead of putting somebody down.

Judi:  Yes, the only negatives we heard were from my mom (laughing), about other people, not my dad.   He was a saint!

Pat:  He was disappointed with the way the music industry went after the Fifties, but he really enjoyed the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, all the travelling they did together.  I never heard him say anything negative about them, but he wasn’t the type to complain.

Clyde:  Even now, sometimes I’ll be playing some of his music, and Judi will ask me to please turn it down, because she gets really emotional hearing her father.

Judi: STARDUST was my favorite record of his, but if I was around when he was playing, I would ask him to play MY FUNNY VALENTINE.  He always played that for me.  But my favorite album, I think, was BOBBY, BILLY, BRASIL.  I had the reel-to-reel tape and would play it all the time.  Dad wasn’t mechanical, so I was always the designated person to set up the tape recorder or the video.  And I knew exactly where to stop the tape to get it to play SUNNY or whatever.  They did really well with the harmony of that.  I really loved it.

Pat:  It’s unfortunate that he really didn’t take care of himself, and that had a big effect, that he died at what I think is a really early age, 71, and he was in pretty lousy health the last five years of his life.  And Dad definitely drank.  He functioned, though.  He tended to be more of a binge drinker.  He could go for a month and not have a drink, and then he’d drink a lot.  But those days in New York when he was a staff member, they’d all go over to Nick’s in Greenwich Village, after the job was over, and have jam sessions, and that would result in his getting home very late at night, and he often fell asleep on the Long Island Rail Road.  My mother would be there, waiting for him, and he wouldn’t get off the train because he was asleep, and he’d go all the way out to the end of the Island and come back.  He spent the night on the train quite a few times.

Clyde:  I wasn’t there, but I heard a story about their Virginia house. He had a good sense of humor.  They were having parties at that house, and they had a big pool.  And they’d all been partying, having fun, and Billy took his horn and walked down the steps of the pool, playing, and when he got underwater, the bubbles were all coming up.  He was a lot of fun to be around.

Pat:  He was a really genuine individual.  He wasn’t impressed with his own self-importance.  He enjoyed life.

I really appreciate the time and effort and kindness of Clyde Groves, Judi Butterfield Groves, and Pat Butterfield — helping me insure that no one will forget the very talented musician and very sweet man Billy Butterfield.  More about Billy tomorrow!

May your happiness increase!