A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?” I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality. I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.
It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz. We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies. Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.
But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming. Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage. There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.
Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.
Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance. Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.
But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom. People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm. Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like. Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record. Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk. Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.
If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong. You have to get the gigs. You have to handle the money.
You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)
You have to talk on the microphone. You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs. You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.
Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks? Is that all?” “My shepherd’s pie is cold.” I hate that song. Do we have to play it?”
To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”
So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane. They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”
A brief, wholly improvised list:
Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.
And a thousand more. And certainly their living counterparts. (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated. You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)
These people don’t win polls. They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters. But where would we be without them?
May your happiness increase!