Island Bebop

Setting up for the first gig on the island of St. Croix were old friend, bassist Freddy Williams and the imaginative drummer Afra Dailey. A rather sullen pianist, recommended by an island musician, arrived 10 minutes prior to our 7 PM. hit. I had engaged him by phone from Boston for my first and second engagements and suggested he provide me with a list of standards with which he felt comfortable playing from memory. He assured me of his competency, saying that if I had a chart for any unfamiliar tune he would play it to anyone’s satisfaction. Within seconds of our first tune, STELLA BY STARLIGHT, I knew this was going to be a long evening.

St. Croix is a unique third world entity. In addition to its beautiful beaches, hills and pristine surf it has more churches than any 28 mile long island on earth. Within the first half hour of our set, I knew, despite my agnosticism, that if there was indeed a God, he was watching over us.

Afra had set up on a raised bandstand bordering a latticed wall. We three were on the floor in front of the stage: piano stage right, saxophone in the middle and bass, stage left. After several amazing numbers spiced by peculiarly unswinging comping, faulty time, questionable harmonies and unspeakable piano solos,(all reflecting poorly on the pianist’s credentials as a Berklee graduate, albeit several decades removed,)God intervened! His presence was made known by a storm of such severity that the rain came through the latticed wall. Our drummer hastily moved his expensive equipment to the floor below the stand, thus positioning himself between me and the piano, making it difficult to hear the electric instrument.. The music benefited immeasurably thanks to this divine intervention. We did many trio numbers sans piano.

Freddy suggested that the pianist be given a few solo tunes in deference to his feelings. At no point was he criticized, although I did express surprise when after calling “rhythm changes” in Bb, a basic in every jazz player’s repertoire and the basis of countless tunes, I was asked “how does it go….”

The sets after the rain were successful. We had an appreciative audience and an excellent acoustic bassist sat in. Business was good. Fortified by numerous gin and tonics and Freddy and Afra’s enthusiastic support I managed to play well and enjoy the remainder of the evening. After packing our instruments, I paid the pianist, complementing him on his aforementioned solo outings and suggested that since we obviously lacked musical compatibility in the setting of the quartet, I thought it best that he not play the following night’s engagement. I offered to arrange an alternate gig for him as a leader, which I had accepted in March, and would be unable to fulfill. He responded with an extensive rant, extolling his musicianship, and disparaging our former pianist Benny Jacobs-El, who is a Juilliard graduate, a trombonist who played with numerous celebrated jazz players in New York and who upon moving to St. Croix became clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton’s pianist after Hamilton retired from The Duke Ellington Orchestra. Benny, Freddy Williams and drummer C.J. Everett from New York were in my quartet during the winters of 2004 and 5.

The most memorable items remembered from this lengthy rant were: “I am eons above Benny as a pianist….What you do is old school… it is MEDIOCRE CRAP! I haven’t decided whether to write a tune using this title or to relinquish it to be used as the name of a rock and roll band…MEDIOCRE CRAP…it does have ring to it…

Remembering Eric

Joe Harrison was a pianist from L. A. Joe had played and recorded with Roy Porter’s seminal bebop big band prior to being drafted. We met in Camp Gordon, Georgia at the beginning of my military service and the final days of Joe’s hitch. We had jammed at the service club, sat in at one of the segregated bars in Augusta, where the black musicians like Joe could only occupy a seat on the bandstand, and partied at the home of one of Joe’s lady friends, being careful to exit before daylight, lest the local redneck police observe our departure.

The Spring after Joe’s discharge, I came to L. A. on furlough from Fort Lewis, Washington, where I played in the 44th Division Army Band. I made my way to Joe’s mother’s house, a few blocks from the hub of the black jazz scene, Central Avenue.

I had been urged by my bandmates in Fort Lewis to look up a saxophone player who had preceded me in the band, one Eric Dolphy. To my delight, Joe informed me that he was starting a steady gig at a Central Avenue club that very night, and that the saxophonist was Eric Dolphy, with whom Joe had played in the Porter band. It was not only that Eric was reputed to be an exceptional player which intrigued me, but that he was absolutely loved by everyone who knew him.

My fellow musicians at Fort Lewis and I would often drive up to Seattle to hear music and to sit in at various clubs. Before returning to the base, an hour south of Tacoma, we would stop at a Chinese restaurant in the black section of town. They had a juke box, which had a two way microphone/speaker setup. You would make your request and an operator would total your bill for the desired music and ask you to deposit your coins in a slot on a device in your booth. One of us would respond to the operator’s greeting by saying : “Good evening young lady. We are friends of Eric, who sends his very best wishes.” The operator would then play discs by such favorites as Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Bud Powell, gratis, until we had finished our meal and bade her good night, promising to remember her to Eric.

Master Sergeant Sam Brown, the first sergeant of the 44th Division Band had a sextet, which played at various functions. The group featured Dolphy’s alto and included trombonist Tom Macintosh, later to become a celebrated composer/arranger, then a career army man, who we, the hipster draftees persuaded, to leave the service and apply to Juilliard. Eric, always the achiever had become a sergeant during his two year stint. He had arranged much of Sam’s book and had made an indelible impression on all who heard him play.

The Central avenue gig was a delight. Eric had absorbed Bird, but already had an individual edge to his solos. He was hot and inventive. The rhythm section, led by Joe Harrison, who had absorbed the spirit of Bud Powell was sparked by the drumming of Joe Sadik Peters and an older steady , highly respected bassist named Roger. Central Avenue was where it was happening. A young Don Cherry often sat in. Sunday afternoon sessions at The famed California club, several blocks away found Eric holding his own with the likes of Harold Land and Sonny Criss. A young disheveled and misunderstood Ornette Coleman sometimes gigged in the neighborhood. Central Avenue was cooking. The first Max Roach/Clifford Brown quintet ,with Sonny Stitt, Carl Perkins and George Bledsoe was in residence at The California Club. Hollywood received the press. Central was where it was happening.

Eric was enrolled at L.A. City College. We met one afternoon and he told me that he had auditioned for the college big band, but had been told his playing was “too stylized .” L.A. was in the midst of the cool phase, typified by the Shorty Rogers studio clique. We decided that Eric was too hot, too imbued with the spirit of Bird and too aggressive for the professor.

One was never aware of an ego with Eric, despite the confidence he radiated and the authority with which he played. He always expressed an interest in other musician’s art and life. When we discovered that we had both studied classical clarinet with Ronald Phillips, the solo clarinetist of the Seattle Symphony, he invited me to play duets in his studio located behind his parents’ home.

His subsequent rise to fame is well known: early recognition through his work with Chico Hamilton, a remarkable tenure with Mingus, his many recordings with such outstanding players as Jaki Byard, Bobby Hutcherson, Booker Little and Ornette Coleman. He was one of the few players who could stand beside Coltrane and maintain Trane’s level of intensity and creativity. George Schuller the drummer told me that his father, Gunther, described Eric as a saint. Eric would have smiled at this appellation. He was too mischievous, too imbued with a zest for life… We miss him.

Remembering Stefan

A Personal Reminiscence

Stefan Wolpe died of a heart attack at Town Hall on April 4th, 1972 during a rehearsal of an all Wolpe program by Ralph Shapey’s contemporary ensemble which was in residence at The U. of Chicago.

Shapey was a former student, with whom Stefan had had little contact in recent years. Whatever misunderstanding had clouded their relationship, Ralph was a man of I ntegrity who paid his debts.

I received a phone call that afternoon from Stefan’s student assistant, who saw in Wolpe’s calendar that I was scheduled, later in the day, to bring Gerard Schwarz, then the first trumpet with The N. Y. Philharmonic to the Wolpe’s Westbeth apartment. Gerry wanted to play Wolpe’s PIECE FOR SOLO TRUMPET for STEFAN prior to performing it. When I called Gerry with the news, he freaked, seeing it as a bad omen and quickly hung up. He phoned later to apologize.

Shapey’s concert, the next night was memorable. Ralph, an excellent composer and conductor played the music with understanding and passion. It was a moving and especially fitting tribute to a remarkable artist and human being.

The Funeral:

The eulogy was given by Elliot Carter. He spoke of Wolpe’s music and then said, “Stefan was so much smarter than the rest of us.”

The Julliard String Quartet, which had its first rehearsals in Wolpe’s apartment, played Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Jan DeGaetini sang. Carter noted Stefan’s radicalism, both in music, politics and social issues While lesser composers, including scores of his devoted students, were tenured at famous universities, Stefan, given the political climate of the time, taught at Long Island University. I never heard him complain and often heard him take pleasure in the positions attained by his students and fellow composers.

The Fire:

Stefan and his wife, the poet, Hilda Morley had moved from their West Side apartment near Columbia to Westbeth, the former Bell Telephone Laboratory adjacent to the West Side highway, which had been converted to subsidized artists apartment / studios. Stefan had been among the early tenants. My friend, the painter Tanya Milesevich had an apartment on the same floor. She and I returned from a trip to the Hamptons in the early evening to find that there had been a fire in the Wolpe apartment that afternoon. Hilda had knocked over an illuminated floor lamp which caused some clothing on the floor to catch fire. The fire department subdued the flames and threw all the potentially flammable items, which included Stefan’s scores out the window into the courtyard, which was covered with snow.

Stefan had been close friends with the New York Abstract Expressionist painters. On his walls were numerous small canvases by de kooning, Pollack, Rothko, and others. Stefan had jokingly called the collection his catastrophic health insurance. All were consumed by the flames. Their clothing was largely destroyed. Tanya, and I and their neighbor, the pianist Bennett Lerner took the Wolpes to a friend’s building a few blocks away in the West Village where they stayed until the apartment was habitable.

We informed various friends of the fire. Numerous people responded with offers of help. My father contributed several tweed suits, shirts, socks and an overcoat. Their hosts gave a party to cheer them up a few nights later. Bill de Kooning traveled down from East Hampton. Stefan, dressed in my dad’s suit courageously greeted the guests in his usual charming manner. Despite the tragic fire it was an enjoyable N.Y. party.

The morning after the fire, a group of musicians formed a rescue team to collect the manuscripts lying in the courtyard. Composer Ruth Anderson brought a contingent of her students from Hunter College. Westbeth allowed us to use their empty top floor, later to be converted into Merce Cunningham’s studio. We collected the music and laid it on the floor to dry, figuring out the order of the pages. At the end of the morning I went to the apartment where Stefan and Hilda had found refuge. It was with great pleasure that I was able to report that we had retrieved the manuscript to PIECE FOR TRUMPET AND SEVEN INSTRUMENTS, which he was composing when the fire struck. The rescue operation restored many compositions such as THE MAN FROM MIDIAN, which had not been played in many years. Although The New York Philharmonic had presented a program of Wolpe’s Symphony and pieces by Morton Feldman and John Cage, larger contemporary orchestral pieces were rarely performed and copies of these pieces were not archived in most libraries. I went to that particular concert and witnessed Cage and Feldman leaving in anger. Cage filed a complaint with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. They said that the musicians had played in a frivolous, disrespectful manner when the score indicated that they improvise in a prescribed manner. He received an apology. 20 years later I visited Cage backstage at Symphony Hall in Boston. I recalled the N.Y. fiasco and asked how the Boston Symphony musicians had played Cage’s composition, THE APARTMENT, which also called for improvisation. He said they had done a good job, but related his past summer’s experience in The Hague, where he said a goodly number of musicians had gotten drunk between the rehearsal and the concert with unfortunate results.

Personal Relationship:

I loved his music for many years prior to meeting Stefan. At Columbia University’s McMillan Theater, The Group For Contemporary Music and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Workshop presented a concert of the music of Edgard Varese. The highlight of the concert was a presentation of POEM ELECTRONIQUE, scrupulously restored and played through a battery of state of the art speakers, judiciously placed around the theatre. Almost as thrilling to me as the music was the fact that I was sitting directly in front of Varese and Wolpe, who were commenting however sparsely on aspects of the piece.

My friend , the painter Tanya Milesevich was an old friend of Stefan. She was one of the first residents of Westbeth. To celebrate the establishment of her studio, she gave a dinner party. Present were several friends who had been Wolpe students and a number of painters and sculptors, in addition to the guests of honor, Stefan and Hilda Wolpe. Tanya’s large paintings were leaning against the walls. After dinner, during which no one had seemed to notice the paintings, Stefan rose, hesitantly, since he was then in the early stage of Parkinson’s disease and approached the canvases. After perusing them, he asked Tanya to join him and complimented and discussed her work.

To my surprise Tanya had threaded a reel to reel tape of a short piece for 3 soprano saxophones I had composed and asked the guests to give it their attention. Stefan seemed pleased by it and simply said to me, “I can tell you how to take the next step”.

Thus began my relationship with Stefan Wolpe. We never had formal lessons, but he listened to my efforts, commented on them and spoke of many aspects of composition and music. As his health and his ambulatory ability diminished, I volunteered to drive him to concerts, rehearsals and recording sessions. I made copies of his compositions on my reel-to-reel tape recorders and helped him fill out the application for the Guggenheim Fellowship he was subsequently awarded. Although the Revox tape recorder we used has been replaced by more technologically advanced devices, it remains in my studio atop a cabinet, with an empty 10 inch metal reel on which the name WOLPE is written in red marker.

Wolpe, born in 1902 was a student of Busoni. He met and studied for a short period with Anton Webern. He was as skillful and creative in composing tonal music as he was in the 12 tone idiom in which he wrote his most important music. Open to all music that was sincere and individual, he spoke with pride of the jazz musicians who had been his students. Among them were the trumpet player and arranger Don Ellis, and clarinetist Tony Scott. Charlie Parker heard Wolpe’s music and asked Scott to introduce him. He wanted Mercury Records to commission a recording. Unfortunately, it never came to pass. Al Cohn, the former Woody Herman tenor saxophone star played on the first recording of QUARTET FOR TRUMPET, TENOR SAXOPHONE, PIANO AND PERCUSION. After an early 70s performance of this piece at Hunter college , conducted by Arthur Weissberg, Stefan asked me to convey to the conductor that the slow movement was an elegy to Mao and had been played too rapidly. Alas, I told it to the saxophone player, Harvey Estrin, who chose not to give the information to Arthur. The subsequent recording on Nonesuch Records contains the faulty tempo. Although sensitive to and considerate of the feelings of others, he did not mince words when it came to music. My friend, Itzak Schotten, a violist in the Boston Symphony wanted to commission a solo viola piece and asked that I arrange for him to play for Stefan. We went to Westbeth and Itzak played a transcription of a movement from a Bach Cello Suite. When the subject of a commissioned piece was broached, Stefan said, “The viola, it is like a beautiful woman who has lost her voice.”

There were numerous social occasions enlivened by Stefan’s presence. Various musicians in THE GROUP FOR CONTEMPORARY MUSIC such as the flutists Harvey and Sophie Sollberger, hosted informal parties after their concerts,where Stefan, despite his declining health enjoyed the conviviality of friends , students, musicians and aficionados of contemporary music.

His music, his critiques, his comments on music and life, and his friendship remain a source of inspiration for me.

Putnam Central

30 years after the demise of Charlie Parker, the contemporary music trio Equalis celebrated their 5th anniversary with a party in Boston’s South End. The guest of honor was the drummer/composer Max Roach, from whom the trio planned to commission a work for percussion, piano and cello. Max had been Birdís drummer in the legendary quintet which included Miles Davis. As a young man he had sparked Benny Carter’s big band,and in the middle 40s had played with Coleman Hawkins in what came to be known as the first bebop recording, a group notable for the presence of Dizzy Gillespie. Along with Kenny Clarke, Max revolutionized the art of jazz drumming, providing the impetus for the innovations of Bud Powell and other giants of the new music.

The atmosphere at the party was relaxed. I approached Max and introduced myself as a jazz musician who had enjoyed his work for many years. Saying that I imagined people often referred to having heard him with Bird or the famous quintet with Clifford Brown and Harold Land, (later) Sonny Rollins. I then told him that I had heard him at Putnam Central.

He looked at me and broke into a big smile. “You must be from Brooklyn,” he said. “I started Debut Records with Charles Mingus at Putnam Central. We used four trombones; : J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Benny Green, and who was the other guy? “Willie Dennis”, I replied. The rhythm section consisted of Max, Mingus and John Lewis. We reminisced about this remarkable place, all but forgotten by jazz historians.

Putnam Central’s building had been a Y.M.C.A. When the Y moved elsewhere, a group of people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community bought the building, installed a bandstand , chairs and tables in the former gym and built a bar in an adjoining space. The juke box in the bar stacked only the hippest of 78 records . Prez’s Blue Lester on Savoy was constantly played, as were sides by Billie Holiday, Monk, and Charlie Parker. The unofficial host in this overwhelmingly Black community center was a stocky, white, Jewish cat, who walked with the aid of crutches. He had adopted the name of Doc Pomus and was a blues shouter of the caliber of Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris. He often sat in with the players jamming in the main room, across the hall, in the company of an extraordinary guitarist named Rector Bailey. He and Doc were perennial students at Brooklyn College. In later years, Doc became on of the foremost rhythm and blues songwriters. Rector, in addition to his playing became an influential teacher, whose studio remained in the Bed-Sty community.

One of the most beloved musicians who frequented Putnam Central was the rotund alto saxophonist Pete Brown, a veteran of 52d St. in the Swing era of the late 30s and 40s, who had played and recorded with the great trumpeters Frankie Newton and Bill Coleman. Pete was an acknowledged influence on the celebrated Paul Desmond. A Brooklyn resident, he often played in the numerous small clubs in the neighborhood, including Soldier Meyer’s the short lived venue which hosted the likes of the Sonnys, Stitt and Rollins, J.J. Johnson and Lucky Thompson. Pete was a constant presence at the Monday night jam sessions at Putnam, adapting his distinct on the beat style to the innovations of the beboppers and putting the younger musicians through their paces.

On weekends, Putnam Central presented such superb combinations as the band of John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke, prior to their incarnation as The Modern Jazz Quartet, augmented, later in the evening by a young saxophonist named Sonny Rollins. Other groups included the likes of Kenny Dorham and Horace Silver. The audience was attentive, appreciative, and knowledgeable. The musicians inspired and inventive. You left a performance in the early hours of the morning filled with the wonder of what had been played.

Toward the end of the evening, Max prepared to leave the party. After getting his coat, he walked over to where I was standing, embraced me and thanked me for reminding him of the music, the camaraderie and the inspiration generated by Brooklyn’s Putnam Central.

Joel Press

St. Croix, V.I. 2/1/05

Remembering Dick

New York City…1961, a time of remarkable creative activity in the visual and performing arts…Dick Bull, who passed away at his loft on Warren Street, had come to N. Y. from Detroit some years earlier to study piano with Lennie Tristano. I had returned from a sojourn in Europe and was trying to establish myself as a saxophone player on the N.Y. scene. We met and found we shared a passion for the music of people like Warne Marsh and Don Ferrara. We often played at my apartment on E. 33d St. We listened to music and went to dance performances together. In the late 60s I became music director for the first Richard Bull Dance Co. Some of the music for his choreography was composed, some freely improvised. Dick was always encouraging of my neophyte efforts, and unlike many in the field, respectful of the integrity of the composition, never arbitrarily splicing the tape to fit his dance. Without his interest, I would in all probability not have pursued composition.

There is no question in my mind that his remarkable work in dance improvisation stemmed from his earlier invovement in jazz. His playing was passionate, quirky and always involved, as was his work in dance. His interest in this music continued until the end of his life. We exchanged tapes of performances of both the older players who had influenced us as well as the younger contemporary musicians who were carrying the music forward. Just before he became ill, I invited him to visit me in Boston, suggesting that he might enjoy sitting in with my band. He told me how pleased he was that I still thought of him “as a musical person.” I never ceased to think of him as anything but a truly musical individual… I wish we could have played a few more choruses together.