Tag Archives: Jimmy Smith

“A CLASSICALLY BIG-TONED TENOR PLAYER”: THE MANY KINGDOMS OF PERCY FRANCE, thanks to DANIEL GOULD

If you already know Percy France, don’t spend another moment reading what I’ve written. Go immediately to www.percyfrance.info — where you can hear him play, read about him (tributes by people who loved him), and learn more.

But if he’s only a name to you . . .

Perhaps because it is often mistaken for simple entertainment, jazz is oddly distinguished from other art forms by a powerful Star System. There is too much of “the greatest of all time,” which negates the broader accomplishments of many beautiful artists. But those who listen deeply know that alongside — not behind — Louis, there are Ray Nance and Bill Coleman; alongside Art Tatum there are Ellis Larkins and Jimmie Rowles, and so on, creative men and women ignored in the speeding-train chronicles of Important Artists.

With that in mind, and the joy of discovering someone “new,” here is tenor saxophonist Percy France. He may be little-known or even unknown to many. I did hear him on the radio (broadcasts by WKCR-FM, Columbia University’s station, from the West End Cafe in New York, presided over by Phil Schaap), but I never saw him in person.

But before you assume that Percy’s semi-obscurity is the result of a diluted talent, let me point out that this summer when Sonny Rollins was asked about him, his response was as enthusiastic as it could be. The excerpt that caught my eye is simple: I never could beat him. We were good friends, and I think of him as my brother.

Let that sink in.

And since you might be saying, “All right . . . praised by Sonny. What did he sound like?” here are three samples, thanks to Daniel Gould, about whom I will have more to say.

Here’s Percy, fluid, melodic, cheerfully making the over-familiar come alive:

and a different kind of groove, quietly lyrical:

France plays Fats, light-hearted and witty:

I admire honest deep research unashamedly, since often what’s passed off as information is made of cardboard. So I present to you Daniel Gould’s wonderful Percy France site — solid and ever-growing — his energetic tribute to a musician who should be cherished as more than a name in a discography: www.percyfrance.info will take you there.

Daniel has done and continues to do the great hard work of the reverent researcher: he proceeds without ideological distortion, for his sole purpose is to ensure that Percy and his music (as if one could separate the two) are not going to be forgotten. And, also quietly and without fanfare, he wants us to honor Percy as an individualist, someone “with his own voice,” not simply another “tough tenor” following well-worn paths.

To the site. What will you find there? First a biography (audio as well as print) documenting his too-brief life (1928-1992) his musical development, his associations with Sonny Rollins, Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Roach, Sir Charles Thompson. Charlie Parker and Count Basie make cameo appearances as well. Then, even more beautiful, remembrances by Doggett, Bill Easley, Allen Lowe, Mike LeDonne, Sascha Feinstein, Michael Hashim, Sammy Price, Randy Sandke, Chris Flory, Scott Hamilton and others — all testifying to Percy’s qualities as musician and gentleman.

Then the treasure-box opens, revealing hours of unknown enlightenment and pleasure: a session by session listing, complete with newspaper clippings, photographs, record labels — first, Percy’s King and Blue Note record dates of 1949-1962.

The sessions continue — 1977-81, live dates featuring Percy alongside Doc Cheatham, Sammy Price, Chris Flory, Loren Schoenberg, Randy Sandke, Allen Lowe, Dick Katz, and others . . . and here Daniel has provided selections from these wonderful and wonderfully rare performances.

Finally, and most expansively, the period 1982-1990, is documented through the Leonard Gaskin Papers held at the Smithsonian — and it contains seventy-five percent of Percy’s recorded work . . . with Gaskin, Cliff Smalls, Oliver Jackson, Budd Johnson, Buddy Tate, Lance Hayward, Bill Pemberton, Major Holley, Bob Neloms, Bill Berry, Wild Bill Davis, Big John Patton, Doug Lawrence, and others. And there’s MUSIC . . . my goodness, how much music there is. I abandoned my chores for the better part of the day to listen, and I still have more to hear.

A few more words about Daniel Gould and his site. He is a clear fluent writer; his site is a pleasure to visit, and the treasures overflow. And he has a purpose: that Percy France, one of the lovely creators now no longer on the planet, shall be remembered with the attention and affection he deserves. I delight in Percy and in Daniel’s efforts.

May your happiness increase!

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.

JAZZ MERITOCRACY. GONE?

No, it’s not a Jimmie Lunceford original.  But I just read a newspaper profile by Rachel Swan devoted to the drummer Donald Bailey (whose work I know from recordings he made with Jimmie Rowles) where he spoke about being a young player in Philadelphia.  These words leaped out at me (italics mine):

Bailey started playing drums as a preteen by practicing along with his brother’s records. His timing couldn’t have been better: Be-bop had become the avant-garde, and Philly was a veritable hotbed of it. John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, Buster Williams, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker all lived in Philly at some point in their careers — and that’s only a partial list. Unknowns like Bailey would hobnob with these elder statesmen at places like the Blue Note Club and get whatever they could get. At that time, the scene was more of a meritocracy, said Bailey. “Nowadays, anybody can get up on the bandstand and play. We couldn’t do that when I was coming up,” the drummer said. “You just couldn’t do it. You would either be too embarrassed or they would embarrass you. They would take you by your pants and throw you out the door.”

Consider that, dear readers.  The full piece can be found here:

http://www.eastbayexpress.com/music/an_old_blueprint_made_new/Content?oid=1228901