My hometown produced many jazz greats. I have always lived for the music. All my life, music was all around me. I was born in a house on Orleans Street in 1935, soon after our family moved to Goddard Street. Sundays we attended the Sanctified Church, where my grandfather played cymbals and my mother played the tambourine. Another member played the big bass drum, and it was quite impressive when their playing got the congregation’s call-and-response thing going. “Have you got your religion?” they’d shout. “Yeah, Lord.”
Back in the forties after church on Sundays our family went to Eastern Market. We all looked forward to going there. One thing, however, reminded us of the racial situation of the day. Every time we entered the market area we’d see a billboard depicting a wide-eyed black child eating a watermelon. My dad hated that sign. “That’s a goddamn shame,” he’d say. I don’t know when, but it finally was removed.
Racism was a fact of life. Our family was at Belle Isle on June 22, 1943, when the Detroit Riot started. We saw a white motorcycle cop who had a black guy hand cuffed to his motorcycle. To keep up, the guy was running behind the motorcycle. Another black guy, who had big cigar in his mouth, spoke out, “Hey, what ya doin’ to that boy?” ‘Get out of my way, nigger,” the cop commanded as he continued pulling this guy along. The guy with the cigar knocked the cop off the motorcycle. Then we heard people telling us that a black woman and her baby had been thrown off the Belle Isle Bridge. Hearing this, my father finally decided to get us off the island. We had to get back to the Davison and Dequindre area, and my father drove down Hastings Street, where the violent stage of the riot had already began. Stores had been broken into and I’ll never forget the metallic sounds of the alarms all along the street. Dad got off Hastings and went up Brush Street to get home. The riot was more or less contained to the South East side, around Hastings and Woodward. Our mixed racial neighborhood experienced no trouble.
On the radio Gabriel Heater said that the riot was a shame, that we Americans were fighting a war against the Axis powers overseas and that we shouldn’t be fighting among ourselves. This incident did not pass without acrimony. After the smoke cleared people had to go back to work. My father worked six and seven days a week as inspector at Chrysler Highland Park, and he had enough influence through the union to get my mother a job there too. All my aunts were employed in the auto factories as well.
In 1947 when I was about twelve, we moved from Detroit to the projects in Ferndale. We arrived at our new place on October 31, Halloween day. East of Wyoming had single family houses, quiet, nice small places. The projects where were we lived, west of Wyoming, were made up of various buildings. The back section had two-story places; the front section had one-story buildings, some with nice clapboard-sided construction. But I hated the idea of living in housing units strung together like little boxes.
My father worked in the Dodge Main foundry during World War II. Before I was born he lived in Hamtramck and attended Copernicus school that boasted among its students the movie actor John Hodiak. Short and stocky, dad was quite a boxer who earned the nickname “The Hamtramck Haymaker.” Back then the Big Three—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—as well as Hudson and Packard, had their own boxing teams. He boxed on the Dodge Main team and fought bouts on the weekends. Sometimes the team had out-of-town fights; he fought up until 1939.
Luckily my father fell in with a clique of friendly Polish people. They related to him being a boxer, and my father taught boxing lessons in our backyard everyday until he started working a lot of overtime. One of my father’s star pupils, Tommy Yaros, eventually fought Kid Gavalon in 1949. Ever since we lived on Orleans Street my father had a backyard boxing ring. At our Orleans Street house the car was never parked in the garage because my father had a training center set up there with punching bags and a ring. Every place we moved he’d set up a new operation. I didn’t like boxing much back then because every time my father taught a kid about my size he made me put the gloves on and go rounds with them. It’s probably why my nose has not been quite right since. I saw my father hit a guy and knock him to the ground. My father had a mean left hook, and I know that for a fact because one time when I got into trouble he let me feel it. My father liked jazz. He had records by Chu Berry and the lead alto saxophonist Tab Smith, who replaced Earl Warren in the Count Basie Band. Our family record collection also had Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller.
Later, around 1946, my mother’s brother, Uncle Smitty, turned me on to bebop. When I got old enough he gave me his old suits, and my dad would have them tailored to my size. At the time he went into the army in ‘42, Uncle Smitty had a 1941 four-door Oldsmobile, a hydromatic, and he taught me how to drive in that car. My father had hit the numbers and bought a 1941 Plymouth. So when Smitty was away in the service, we kept his car at our place. I caught hell from other kids because we had two fine automobiles parked at our home. “You think you’re rich ‘cause you’ve got two cars,” they’d tell me. It made me become a bit mean, because I went to school dressed nice—in argyle socks and a little aviator cap--and was proud that my family was making its way in life. Kids would try to throw mud on my clothes. I tried to suppress my anger, and it all came out later when I started boxing.
Uncle Smitty worked at the Highland Park Chrysler plant. Next door to the plant was a playground where the Communist party often set up beer tents and invited workers to dance and drink with them. My uncle, who had no interest in left-wing subversive politics, would go over there and drink and dance with the thick-legged Polish women. For a black man living in a segregated society that was something, but after awhile his boss at the plant warned him to stay away from the Communist goings-on next door. With his factory pay, Uncle Smitty bought all the new bebop records. He bought them from one of the four white-owned record shops around the Davison area. The fronts of these shops were usually divided by two large windows. On the right side were advertisements for classical music, and in the left window were posters for the latest jazz recordings. From these advertisements and posters I knew what all the leading jazzmen looked like. Uncle Smitty played me “Southern Scandal with Stan Kenton.” Its Hollywood screaming brass kind of sound blew me away. He continued my musical education by taking me to the Broadway Capitol Theatre to hear the Stan Kenton Band. That started my life-long obsession with Stan and the many talented musicians who came through his band.
My grandfather lived in the Orleans-Davison area, six or seven houses down from the Evans family. Their musician son, William Evans, had changed his name to Yusef Lateef while with the Dizzy Gillespie big band. We were on the porch one day when William passed by carrying a saxophone case and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Grandfather asked him, “Hey, what’s that on your face?” William responded, “It’s a goatee; I’m playing with Dizzy’s band.” I knew about Dizzy Gillespie because I had seen him in the 1946 film Jivin’ in Bebop that was successful in the “colored” theater circuit.
Dizzy’s film featured a number, “I Waited For You,” by jazz vocalist Kenny “Poncho” Hagood. Poncho also lived in the Orleans-Davison area. Like some other black guys, he took a Hispanic nickname, to be “cool” or different. He was no threat to Billy Eckstine, because Billy didn’t want to sing bebop, and he encouraged Poncho to sing like the beboppers played their horns. Poncho lived on or near Fleming Street. He owned a brand new 1941 Ford, blue with a white convertible top. That was a popular car during the war years, and if you had one in ’41 you were on top of the world. At this time of racial tension, Poncho drove with the top down, having a good time wheeling around the neighborhood and not afraid to show off his white female passengers. When the cops spotted Poncho openly cavorting with white women, they routinely stopped him. But when these same officers got to know him, they left him alone--let him do his thing.
From the time I was sixteen I worked six days a week, and I never had a girlfriend until I was about twenty. Music, movies, and boxing were my passions. I had a black music teacher at Carver School, Miss Doctor. She looked like a bespectacled old maid, but very smart. She was instrumental in inviting Mary McLeod Bethune to come to our school. When Miss Bethune came onstage in the auditorium, some little girls in the back started to laugh and call this short, dark-skinned woman “ugly.” Miss Bethune heard them. “You can laugh at me, and I am ugly as far as you’re concerned,” she admonished. “But I have been told that I’m beautiful, too. I am a very educated woman, and I’ve had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. Can anybody out there say they’ve done such a thing? You have a lot to learn.” She put them in their place, and I was proud of her. I used to sell Miss Doctor weekly papers. She knew I liked the big bands, and finally invited me to her house on a Saturday so that I could hear the music that influenced jazz composition and harmony. She played records by Mozart, Beethoven, and a number of other great composers. She explained how indebted jazz was to this music.
I read the latest issues of Down Beat, Metronome, and the jazz news in Esquire. I listened to Bob Murphy’s radio jazz program from seven to twelve. He played not only bebop--Bird and Dizzy--but movie score recordings. He’d introduce a number by saying, “Here’s a film score soundtrack by Mikolas Rozsa from his 1946 movie The Killers.” Starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, it is till one of my favorite of the film noir genre.
Movie stars and jazz musicians influenced my sense of fashion. Before I emulated the jazzmen, my favorite dresser was actor Walter Pigeon. I loved his tweed sport coats with the patches on the elbows, nice little hats, and turtlenecks. I also tried to dress like George Raft with a slick trench coat. Back in the 1940s the black jazz musicians in Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands dressed super slick, and the white jazz guys were cool too. Bandleaders typically wore white jackets and had their hair combed back like Allan Ladd. My dad took me to the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue to see the great drummer/bandleader Buddy Rich. Eventually my models for fashion were the bebop cats. I acquired a long green overcoat--a cape-like raglan-style coat. To complete my outfit, I went into a little shop and bought a green beret.
The Paradise Theater, which is Orchestra Hall today, had a band and show, a Western picture, usually one featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, or Wild Bill Elliot. The audience was mixed, about half black and half white.
In 1949 I moved to New York with my aunt. My aunt never had any children, and she often asked my mother, “You have so many children why don’t you let me have one of them?” So mother suggested I could stay with her for a while. I took the train from downtown Detroit to New York. I lived with my aunt in Harlem near 125 th Street, around the corner from the Apollo Theater. I thought that Detroit was a fast-moving place, but it was nothing in comparison to New York. Radios and jukeboxes were always blasting from doorways and windows.
My aunt worked at the Dakota Hotel, and at another hotel that accommodated the people who were on talk shows like I’ve Got a Secret. She met numerous celebrities and television people. The large hotels gave her, as they did most of the help, leftovers from their kitchens, so my aunt brought home turkey, prime rib, Virginia ham, and bagels and locks for us to eat.
Though at the time I wanted to play the trumpet, I got into boxing instead. While I was staying with my aunt, I got bored. With her permission I started boxing at a gym down the street. One of the last vestiges of the Harlem Renaissance’s social uplift programs, the gym was operated by the Police Athletic League. I started fighting as a one-hundred-and-sixteen-pound bantamweight. My boxing name Tiger came to me by way of Tiger Jack Fox, and in January 1949, I first fought in the Golden Gloves. To keep in shape I walked everywhere. One time I even walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It took nearly all day, but I made my way across.
From that time on, I went to school in New York starting in January. During the summers, I came back to Detroit and made money caddying at Rackham Golf Course, and training at various boxing gyms. I went back to New York every January because that’s when the Golden Gloves started there. I kept that schedule in ’49 until ’52, when I participated in the eliminations for the U.S. Olympic Team in Toledo, Ohio.
For a music lover like me, New York was dazzling. I saw lots of jazz bands at the Apollo--great singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Humes, and Carmen McCrae. Mostly white bands performed at Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall, like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and I went there to see them. Radio City must have had fifty ushers to see you to your seats. Thanks to my aunt I was able to afford to go there. At fourteen I was the spoiled little nephew. To check out the white female singers with the Stan Kenton Band, mostly blondes and from the Midwest like June Christie and Chris Connor, I had to go to Radio City or to the newly opened Birdland on Broadway.
Back in Detroit that same year, I came upon an idea as to how I could meet Charlie Parker and my trumpet hero Theodore “Fats” Navarro. They were playing at the El Sino club in Paradise Valley, right across the street from a greasy spoon. At that time I was selling copies of the Pittsburgh Courier and Ebony Magazine, and I asked my dad if I could spend the night with my uncle, explaining to him that I wanted to meet Bird and Fats when they came out of the El Sino. At eleven o’clock they finally stepped outside. To impress them, I grabbed a cigarette and leaned up against the building. Fats nodded at me, and I said, “Hey Bird, how ya doin’?” He answered in deep polite-sounding voice, “Hi there, young fella.” I told Fats that he was my favorite trumpet player. In his squeaky voice he inquired, “Do you play trumpet?”
“No, sir,” I informed him.
“Then god damn it why don’t you?” Bird laughed, and then they went back into the club. I found out from some older guys that if I had said that I was studying the trumpet, a guy like Fats might have put his arm around me, maybe showed me some things. But there I was, half-tongue-tied, telling him that I “liked his music.”
Before I was old enough to get into nightclubs, Sunday was my special day. I would go to a movie during the day and then go to the Madison Ballroom. Unlike bars and nightclubs, the ballrooms did not serve liquor. So being underage I could see my favorite big bands that played for the dancers. Detroit’s three main ballrooms for jazz were the Graystone, Arcadia, and the Madison. The Graystone was the largest; next in size was the Madison. At the Madison there was a large dance floor and some chairs set out around the edges of the room. The dancers were something. I’d dance once in a while, but mostly I came to listen. The Madison’s Sunday shows featured big bands and small groups. I saw Stan Getz there in 1951. Stan had pianist Horace Silver, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Roy Haynes. That group was joy to hear because, unlike their recordings, they took long solos, making it very interesting. Even back then Horace comped his ass off. Horace aggressive attack came by way of his imitating Monk. When I heard Horace, I told people that he sounded like the sanctified woman pianist, Sister Jeanie Johnson. She played a block chord style powerfully, pounding out the melodies on the keys. So when I heard Horace, I heard her type of music in another form.
Mondays all of us young jazz fans went to the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward Avenue. Even when I was put in another shift at the plant, I’d take off Monday afternoon and go the Graystone. Sometimes the Graystone had two bands in a “battle of the bands.” It might be the Count Basie Band and the Stan Kenton Band, or the Duke Ellington Orchestra. One hot day in the summer of 1955 the Count Basie and Stan Kenton bands flipped a coin to see who would play outdoors on the terrace. It was preferable for a band to play outside in the summer because the Graystone did not have air-conditioning.
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When our family moved out to the Dexter-Puritan area in 1953, some fine Detroit musicians lived across Six Mile Road. The McKinney brothers lived there—Bernard, Harold, and Ray who played bass. In Ferndale I knew the Carter family, whose son became the great bassist Ron Carter. Mr. Carter was a mailman, and I liked Ron’s sister, Wanda. I went over to the Carters’ house to see Wanda when I was fifteen. I sat there about ten minutes when some older guys came into the room. They asked me nicely to leave and I did. At that time, Ron was a musical prodigy who played violin and cello. He went to Lincoln High School at Nine Mile and Livernois.
Our house was near the back of the University of Detroit campus. It was a mixed Detroit neighborhood with about a fifteen percent black population. There were so many Jewish people and Jewish stores that black folks called it “little Jerusalem.” I never disliked white people, nor was I afraid of them, so for me it was quite an experience. When several rabbis passed on the street, they’d give me a friendly “Hello there, son,” greeting. I had a Jewish friend named Jerry. He drove a Buick. I learned one thing back then about Jewish folks: because of old man Ford’s anti-Semitism, they didn’t drive Ford cars. Even Hollywood barred Ford automobiles. You didn’t see any Ford cars in Louis B. Mayer’s movies.
Back then I sold newspapers to the owner of Uncle Tom’s Plantation on Eight Mile Road. Uncle Tom’s was Ferndale’s equivalent to the Flame Show Bar on John R. The Flame Show Bar had mostly review shows with some jazz groups on the bill. The Flame had Todd Rhodes’ band from Detroit. That band had a hell of a sound. On several occasions, The Flame booked Count Basie’s small ensemble with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, trumpeter Clark Terry, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, bassist Jimmy Lewis, and drummer Shadow Wilson.
At the Plantation, they had female impersonators, and the Todd Rhodes Band played there frequently. I stood outside to hear Bull Moose Jackson. Bull Moose had a tune with the lyrics “I love you, yes I do. You know, you know, it’s true.” Among his four saxophonists was Benny Golson, and he had the great pianist/arranger Tadd Dameron. Listening to bands like this sharpened my ear for understanding more complex horn lines.
Another Mecca for music in our area was the Duke Theater on Eight Mile. The building is still there. At the Duke I saw James Moody. Fortunately, I had learned from my music teacher Mr. Walter Stevenson that Moody was going to rehearse fore the show at the Carver School auditorium. Mr. Stevenson had played tenor saxophone in the army with Moody. After school he invited me to Moody’s rehearsal. At the time, Eddie Jefferson was the road manager, and the band’s singer was Babs Gonzales. I was told that King Pleasure had been with the band, but when the song “Moody’s Mood for Love” came out, King wanted more money so he left. Babs, who replaced King Pleasure, had a real rough voice, and his signature song had the refrain, “There I go, There I go, There I go.” I met trumpeter Johnny Coles, baritone saxophonist Lee Moore, and trombonist William Sheperd. These musicians had played with Dizzy’s big band. Moody’s band was popular with a lot of arrangers at the time, and having four horns it brought a lot flesh to the sound. That’s why a lot guys liked to write for Moody’s band. He had the last band that captured Dizzy’s big band sound. The next evening after the rehearsal, dressed in a nice blazer, I went to see Moody’s band at the Duke, and fell in love with its sound.
Around this time, I got into a dispute with my father over money. I was working at the plant and my parents wanted me to pay a certain amount for living at home. I thought the amount they asked was too much, so I went and stayed with my Uncle who lived near Garfield and Hastings Street. For me Hastings Street lived up to its legend --its sidewalk never seemed to roll up, day or night. My uncle’s Hastings Street after hours joint sold corn liquor and rented rooms to the prostitutes. He owned two Dodge Hornets and a ’51 Buick. The street walkers ranged from fine-looking to rough around the edges. But there was a beautiful one called Tony, she was fine. On Hastings I went to Berry Gordy’s 3d Record Mart. Gordy opened the store around 1953. It was a jazz emporium of bebop records, and the employees played them while you shopped. The store had great array of photos on the wall—Bird with the plastic white saxophone, and four or five pictures of trombonist Charles Greenlea, who had played with Dizzy’s big band. But if you didn’t plan to buy anything they gave you “the eye.”
But Detroit’s leading record store was Al’s Record Mart, right next door to the Broadway Capitol Theater on Broadway. That’s where I met the first white guys who struck me as hip in Detroit: the great baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and drummer Rudy Tucich. And when I mean hip, it wasn’t so much in the way they dressed—their horned-rimmed glasses with brushed-back hair that made them look collegiate—but in their devotion to the music, they way they talked and the way they treated me like a kindred spirit. Later in 1956 I went over to Windsor for an Emancipation Day dance and saw Art when he played with Stan Getz.
At the shop Pepper and Rudy were always recommending new music, and they were all right on the money as far as taste and talent. I bought the entire 78 series of Miles’ Birth of the Cool from them. I said, Hey man, that’s my man Pancho Hagood on “Darn That Dream.” Rudy sold me the first “Cuban Fire” by Stan Getz.
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I was working at a Jewish-owned supermarket, when I guy I knew came in and cashed a four hundred dollar paycheck. I was surprised to learn that Pontiac Motor paid that kind of money. He was going to up to Pontiac that day, and he suggested I come up with him to get a job at the plant. I asked my boss if I could get off for a couple of hours. I told him I was going to Pontiac Motor and put in an application. Hearing this, my boss fired me and gave me my pay. So I went with my friend. I wore a nice U.S. Olympic Boxing Team jacket, new shirt, and a cap. I was standing in line when a big white says, “Hey you, come here. Come up here with me.” I followed him. “You a fighter?” he asked. “Yeah, I fought in the Olympic trials. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “my uncle used to box. Come in the office.” I told him that I was eighteen, and he accepted my affidavit. I was hired, and told he’d look out for me. Then he asked where I wanted to work in the plant. ‘I don’t want to work in the foundry, because my uncle worked there and he’s always spitting up blood.” So he sent me to the plant where the front and rear ends of the cars were assembled. I got hired on Friday and started that Monday.
Gainfully employed, I had less time to see music but more money to spend when I got a chance to attend the shows. In 1953 Stan Kenton’s band played in Detroit. Kenton had the great “New Concepts” band. The great Bill Holman was the arranger, and the reed section had Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz. I went back stage. Following Lee up the stairs, I told him that I was a member of the Lee Konitz fan club. He politely said that he was “touched” to learn of my admiration for his music. Despite the symphonic influences on the Kenton Band, all the solos sounded like 52 nd Street, especially when one listens to Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano, Frank Rosolino, and a host of bad cats.
I’ve been criticized for liking a lot of white musicians. But I always responded by saying, “We’re talking about jazz.” There were jazz fans who only listened to black jazz musicians. I’d see a group playing somewhere, playing advanced or way out-sounding things, and I’d tell guys in the audience that what the musicians were doing was cool, but that many white musicians had been playing that way since the 1940s—guys like Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz,. and Warne Marsh. They might know about Stan Getz but they wouldn’t know about Art Pepper. And I tell them to check out some of these white players because they were bad-ass musicians, too.
In 1954 I saw the newly formed Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet at the Madison. The band had matching uniforms, nice black shoes; they dressed different every night. Clifford and Max’s quintet featured the great Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone. I noticed that Sonny was a bit hesitant in his playing, and I believe as a result he established that behind-the-beat feel that would influence numerous saxophonists like Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, and Junior Cook at one time, and so many others.
But if ever met an angelic person in my life it was Clifford Brown. His horn shined. His shoes shined brighter and his shirt seemed whiter than all the rest of the band. Clifford had a warm, subtle smile. When he played he would smile approvingly at Sonny as if saying, “All right man, you’re playing some fine things.” And after Sonny was through soloing, he would comment on the microphone, “Man, I’ve no business being up here with you.”
I approached Clifford. Being a nice young guy, Clifford told me he was going to have hotdog. He asked if I would like one. Trying to be cool, at first I refused his offer. Then I said “sure, why not.” He asked me if I was a musician, and I told him that I wasn’t, but that jazz musicians were my heroes—that since I dressed like them people often take me for one.
That same year, Charlie Parker came to the Graystone Ballroom. On trumpet was a local guy named Willie Wells. I’ll never forget that night how Bird left a fifty cent piece as a tip on the bumper of a cab. The driver grabbed the money. But I felt, he or I should have saved it as a remembrance.
This was at the time I began taking trumpet lessons with Ernest Wilson. Numerous jazzmen coming through Detroit stopped in to see Ernest—Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, even horn players from the Stan Kenton band. I had seen guitarist Kenny Burrell at Ernest’s place. Ernest told me about a jazz society that held concerts. In 1954 Burrell had joined other musicians, including trumpeter Donald Byrd, in forming a musical collective--the New World Music Society. When they first formed the society they performed at the Kronk Building in a little space that looked like a convention room. That was before they moved into the upstairs room, The New World Stage, on Woodward and Davison. Through the Society I met Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, who had hair at the time, very warm but quietly stand-offish, and Kenny Burrell’s brother, Billy, the electric bass player.
In that same area, near Wayne University, I went to a place that had jazz. There I met Donald Byrd, who had just come home from the Air Force; he and saxophonist Sonny Red played “Parker’s Mood” and a lot of Miles’ repertoire, like “Walkin.’” Sonny Red played alto and sounded a lot like Sonny Stitt. On some numbers he’d solo on alto and tenor.
Detroit had numerous other spots to hear the latest jazz sounds. On Hastings Street I went to the Red Rooster, near Brewster Center, to hear recordings of bebop and modern jazz. The owner had a nice sound system and he played LPs, nothing but jazz. The bartender wore a patch over his eye. For every different outfit he wore he had matching eye patch.
At this time, comedian Soupy Sales hosted his Detroit television show. Usually a jazz musician played solo on the show. Sometimes Soupy would slap out some rhythm. On the night Clifford Brown played on the show, Soupy introduced him as “Cliff Brown.” In fact, there is an old black-and-white television clip from Soupy’s show featured in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz. In this short segment, Clifford Brown is introduced as playing a week engagement at the Rouge Lounge. But the television show to watch for jazz was hosted by Ed McKenzie. Ed’s show aired on channel seven from the Maccabee’s Building. Almost every notable jazz musician who came through town played on his show. Charlie Parker was featured once. Clifford and Max appeared on the show, as did Miles and John Coltrane playing “Max Making Wax.”
For after hours live music, the West End Hotel on Clark Street held jam sessions and breakfast dances. Its performance room had small tables and a stage. A non-alcohol venue the West End served good food--barbeque, fish, and fried chicken. When I first went there Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams and Clare Rockamore were playing, and pianists like Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, and Hugh Lawson.
Like most jazz followers, I went to the Rouge Lounge outside of Detroit. A nice little club, the Rouge Lounge featured local and national talents. When I turned twenty, I went to see jazz singer Chris Conner at the Rouge Lounge. After the show my friend and I gave her a ride to a house out near Joy road.
At Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in 1956 I saw the George Shearing Quintet with Cal Tjader on vibes, Toots Thielemans on guitar and harmonica, and Denzil Best on drums. I enjoyed George Shearing. In fact, one of the first records I bought was Shearing’s MGM disc, “Roses of Picardy,” with the flip side tune “Quintessence.” It was on all the jukeboxes. I loved going to Baker’s, but back then I could feel some prejudice about the place. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge featured black pianist Pat Flowers, who played a café society repertoire. I sold Pat Flowers newspapers at his Ferndale home (his uncle was 1925 middle weight boxing champion Tiger Flowers). One night while trying to get into Baker’s, the guy at the door tried to give me a hard time. A friend had told me to take along several pieces of identification because they had hassled him in getting in the place. I brought my voter registration card and my driver’s license. They guy looked at us both and said, “Yeah, yeah, go on in.” Only two other couples at the show were black. As soon as Baker’s booked black bands, around 1958, I never encountered this kind of attitude again.
My first wife and I went to shows every weekend. My brothers and sisters were usually free to babysit, so we’d drop them off at their house and go out to the clubs. My wife was originally from Memphis, knowing of such musicians as Booker Little and the Little family, Charles Lloyd, and George Coleman. Her sister married a guy whose father owned a mom-and-pop store that these musicians often frequented. It was cool when we went to see Max Roach at the Sutherland Hotel in Chicago, he’d say, “Hey girl, what are you doin’ here?” Max would give her a hug, and it didn’t bother me.
Not long after Clifford Brown died in June 1956, Max Roach hired Donald Byrd to take Brownie’s place. Max came to the Madison Ballroom with this new trumpeter, and I heard guys in the audience shouting out, “Blow, Clifford!” I and my friends knew all about Clifford’s tragic death. But these guys’ rude comments finally compelled Max to get on the microphone and announce: “Ladies and gentleman, I don’t know if you know or not, but Clifford died in a car accident about a month ago. We are respectively trying to keep the band going. This young man is from Detroit--this is Donald Byrd.”
At this time I went Klein’s Show Bar nearly every weekend. Klein’s was on Twelfth Street. In ’58 or ‘59 I saw drummer Chico Hamilton’s band there. His group had Ron Carter on bass, the West Coast white guitarist Dick Katz, and the great Eric Dolphy. I went over and met Eric. He was such a nice cat. At that time I thought he sounded a bit like Cannonball Adderley on alto. But when he took out the bass clarinet, he’d make all sorts of wild sounds, low grunts and groans.
Saxophonist/flutist Yusef Lateef led the house band at Klein’s. When Max Roach came to the Rouge Lounge in 1958 with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, Yusef stepped on stage and “locked horns” in a battle with Sonny. This was on a Monday, a typical off night, so it turned into a kind of jam session. That evening Yusef out-played Sonny. Trombonist Frank Rosolino performed at Klein’s with Sonny Red and Art Mardigan on drums. Frank had been with the Stan Kenton Band. Klein’s also featured Detroit drummer Frank Isola, who had been with Stan Getz. In 1958 I went to the Graystone’s last show featuring the Stan Kenton Band. After Stan’s show the Graystone closed its doors.
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My favorite Detroit drummer Louis Hayes eventually played with Cannonball Adderley. Before that he had played in Yusef Lateef’s band with trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist Hugh Lawson; the drummer was Alice Coltrane’s brother. Louis was influenced by Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones, and that was a hell of an achievement to fuse successfully the styles of these drummers. All of us Detroit jazz fans were so proud when Louis came to the Rouge Lounge as a member of Horace Silver’s band. At the time Horace had recruited Hank Mobley and the great Detroit trumpeter Donald Byrd.
Horace lured, or some would say “stole,” Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd from the Jazz Messengers led by my closest friend in jazz, Art Blakey. I first saw Art play with the Billy Eckstine band in 1944. My father took me to the Eckstine band at the Paradise Theater (Orchestra Hall) on Woodward Avenue. When Art came into Eckstine’s band--replacing drummer Joe Harris--it didn’t take him long to catch fire with that lineup of young, up-and-coming musicians. The band’s best soloist was saxophonist Gene Ammons. But the Eckstine band was a little rough around the edges, perhaps because the musicians were over-emphasizing their bebop influences and many of the young players were just getting started. The band made few recordings, and the ones I heard sounded lousy. But Art’s talent shined. At the concert I heard cats say, “Hey, that drummer’s something.”
I was finally introduced to Art in 1952. He had heard that I’d fought in the Tri-Sate boxing tournament that included New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. My trainer at the time was Charley Burley. Many people thought, as I did, that Burley was a better fighter than Sugar Ray Robinson. Charley, who weighed about 140 or 150 pounds, was such a tough opponent that he was lined up to fight heavyweights. The promoters were so embarrassed that they wouldn’t allow him to be weighed in at the same time as his opponents.
Like a lot of jazz musicians, Art liked boxing. Sonny Rollins saw a relationship between boxing and the playing of jazz. As he put it, every set and every solo is like a boxing round. And every round for a fighter has its solos. The first round might start out sluggish, until the fighters eventually shuffle and move around each other. Just as musicians dip into their repertoire for building up their solos, fighters count on their bag of tricks to defeat opponents.
Because of his love for boxing and knowing I was good friends with Charley Burley, Art took to me. I know he’d been born in Pittsburgh and had a wife and child as a teenager and that before joining Billy Eckstine’s Band, he had played in Lucky Millinder’s big band and with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Art’s two favorite drummers were Chick Webb and Big Sid Catlett. When he first starting playing drums, he told me that he drank liquor onstage through a straw from a pint bottle he hid in his front coat pocket. Being quite young at the time, he thought drinking on the bandstand was cool. But drummer Sid Catlett saw him doing this. One of the important stylistic precursors of bebop, Sid was a big guy, an impeccable dresser, and he asked, yelling at Art: “What the hell do ya think you’re doin’? You think that’s slick?” Sid roughed him up, too. Art always said that in this day and age he could have sued Sid. But Art never drank on stage again.
However, Art faced worse things on the road. Down in Albany, Georgia, in 1939, when Art was with the Fletcher Henderson band, some white guys messed with him, and after arresting him the cops roughed him up so bad that he had to have a plate put in his head. He never said much about that incident. But he told me about more amusing events while traveling on the road. He said that once while with the Eckstine band, traveling on the band bus, the great trumpeter Fats Navarro carried a pistol. To add some excitement to the miles between jobs, Fats tried to hit the telephone lines by shooting his pistol out the window. One time while Fats was firing away, everybody on the bus could hardly believe it when he actually hit one, sending sparks everywhere as it fell.
Gregarious, Art would greet people with a smile and a “Hey, hi ya doin’” introduction and then burst into a hearty “Ha, ha, ha” kind of laugh. Apart from his big appetite for music and women, Art loved food. He’d sit down and just devour a meal. Art was a down home guy--Max Roach’s opposite. Max never had a hair out of place and was always physically fit, and while Max had a quiet, stately manner, Art was a talker. I’d be asleep traveling with him on a plane, and he’d wake me up to tell me some wild tale, like the time he was down in Texas when Dizzy wrote “Night in Tunisia” on the back of a garbage-can lid, and about how gangsters took Art Taylor’s drums and how he went right up to the door and got them back.
A jazz musician who lived most of his life on the road, Art lived by the rules of the road. He was married four or five times. He liked women. When he was down South he’d meet a woman, and to impress her he’d take her to the local clothing store. At the time, black people down South weren’t allowed to try on the clothes and that meant no alterations. So Art would put money, maybe three hundred dollars, down on some items, and then, when he was about to leave town, he’d get the money back. It was an old jazz musician’s trick, and it worked for Art.
When Art played on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, he appeared on a date in Washington D.C. On this particular tour of JATP was saxophonist Lester Young. Attending the show, President Harry S. Truman came backstage to meet the man people referred to as the “President of the tenor saxophone.” Back then followers of Lester referred to each other as either a “Lestorian” or a Prez-beterian.” Art, who was in the room at the time, told me that a secret serviceman knocked on Lester’s dressing room door, informing that President Truman would like to meet him. Truman came in and asked, “Are you Lester Young?”
“Yes I am.”
”Well, I’m Harry Truman, president of the United States.” President Truman stuck out his hand to greet Lester. But Lester backed away nice and slow. Astounded at this reaction, President Truman looked around as if to say, “What the hell’s the matter with this guy, and left the dressing room. Art said, “Hey Prez, that was the president of the United States.”
“I don’t care Lady Blakey,” said Lester in his idiosyncratic way of speaking. “The President is ivy jivey.”
“What do ya mean?” asked Art.
“Well, he banned Billie Holiday’s records and sent me to the army.”
Never one to mix politics and music, Art was all about the art. At this time he was close friends with Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. In fact, Art was one of the few drummers who could play with Monk, keep up with his angular melodies and odd inflections. Art recorded on Monk’s first Blue Note sides in 1947-1952. Art told me that Monk had profound influence on his playing, that without Monk he would not have become a great drummer. Art, Monk, and Bud went to clubs together, and each would get up on the bandstand and run off the other musicians. Art believed that Monk first started out just acting crazy; then he did it so much that it caught up to him. Bud had troubles and was truly mentally ill. But Monk, according to Art, brought the madness upon himself.
I saw Bud Powell when he came to the Rouge Lounge in 1954. He had a traveling guardian who looked out for him. He always seemed to be chewing gum or chewing on something, but there was nothing in his mouth. And he had a habit of constantly looking at his hands, like his looking at a wristwatch that wasn’t there. But Bud played wonderfully.
Bud and Monk, as it is well known in the jazz world, benefited from the patronage of Baroness Pannonica “Nica”de Koenigswarter. The baroness helped out Art as she did Bird and a number of other jazzmen. The baroness spent money like she was on a wild spree and devoured everything in life. In 1955 she and Art had a ring-side seat at the Archie More-Rocky Marciano fight. I heard her say in that English-accented-cigarette-choked voice, “When Bird died they kicked me out of the Stanhope Hotel.” That’s when she moved into the Bolivar Hotel, before she bought her house in New Jersey on the Hudson River. If she had looked younger I might have hit on her myself.
* * *
Art produced more leaders than any other bandleader in modern jazz. Art had always told me that if he lived to be hundred years old, he’s still have young cats in his band. The Jazz Messengers served as a musical finishing school; we called it--Bhu U, in reference to Art’s Muslim name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. But like many other black jazz musicians who adopted Muslim names so they could check into hotels and enter “white only places” under the assumption they were not African-American, Art took up the religion. Yet he did so on his own terms. I was with him when Muslim imams would come over to his place, and they would pray and talk, then a few hours later I would go with him to a restaurant where Art would have a drink and order some ribs.
Art was the kind of drummer who tested a musician’s mettle, made ‘em sweat by playing press rolls, rim shots, doubling the time, putting in ideas that kept everybody on their feet. He’d run guys off the stand. As Johnny Griffin said, playing with Art was “sitting on an atom bomb.” Art couldn’t read music, but had a tremendous mind. The band would rehearse, and he’d sit back with a woman or have a taste, all the time listening to the arrangements. When he sat down at the drums that night with the band, it was like he owned the tune. Sonny Clark, one of my favorite pianists at that time, once said that when he used Art on a recording date, he had in his mind the way his music was to sound. But when Art began to play, it didn’t sound anything like Sonny had first conceived it. Yet in the end it became a great musical sound.
As I stated before, I met Art in 1952. During the last year with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1953 he came to Detroit. But I had to work, and I didn’t get a chance to see him at the club. 1954 was Art’s year; he became the leader on one the most exciting albums Blue Note ever recorded, the two volumes of A Night at Birdland (1954). On this Birdland date was the Stan Kenton Band, and Art had great respect for Stan and his musicians, especially the trumpet players. Conversely, Stan’s trumpet players were wild about Art’s new trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was about twenty-three or twenty-four. Backstage at Birdland the Kenton horn players hung out with Clifford and asked questions about his technique.
Art met up with Clifford when he and tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec were scheduled to play a club in Philadelphia. Art lived in the same apartment building as Charlie “Bird” Parker. Bird saw Art lugging his drums into his car. Art told Bird, “I’m about to play a club in Philly, and I’m trying to find Kenny Dorham.” Bird urged, “Why don’t you look up Clifford Brown. This cat is bad. I played with him earlier in the year. Don’t contact anyone else.”
When they got to the club in Philly, Clifford was sitting in the dressing room with a long black coat, goulashes, and a big white beaver hat, which he took off to reveal his hair slicked back and covered with a little stocking cap. Art looked over at Clifford and asked, “Who are you?”
He politely answered, “Sir, I’m Clifford Brown.”
Ike Quebec said, “He’s the guy we’re supposed to be playing with.”
“Let me hear you warm up,” demanded Art. “Do you know how to read music?”
“Yes, sir,” dutifully answered Clifford.
So Clifford took his coat off and warmed up a little bit. Typically Art started with a fire-breathing, finger-busting tune--Sonny Rollins’ composition “We Dot.” Following a bap! on the snare and a searing press roll, the band launched into the number. Art couldn’t believe the music coming out of Clifford’s horn. The band’s weekend gig was extended for two weeks. The word about Clifford got around, and musicians from New York showed up to hear him. Night after night the front row of the audience was filled with trumpet players--Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, and Donald Byrd, who was on furlough from the Air Force. Older trumpeters from the Count Basie Band came to the club, players like Harry “Sweets” Edison, Cat Anderson, and Clark Terry. To look down and see fifteen great trumpeters had to be frightening. Clifford was a little nervous,but he made it seem as if nothing bothered him.
What kept Clifford on his toes night after night was keeping up with Art’s ride cymbal and having the great Horace Silver in the band. Clifford was dealing with a two-edged sword—Horace’s loud rhythmic piano comping that was often as loud as Art’s drums. But Clifford proved himself in their company.
Like scores of musicians around the country, black and white, Art wanted his band to capture the sound of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet, especially the front-line sound of Sonny Rollins and Clifford. It took him a long time to get it, and he got it when finally got Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter on his front line. Of course, the Messengers did not, and did not want, to copy the Quintet verbatim. The Clifford-Max Sound was “the sound,” the ideal model at the time. Art and the Jazz Messengers looked very sharp. The started wearing dark suits with light-blue shirts and light-gray ties, and boots instead of lace-up shoes. It made them look very sporty. Your shoes had to be shined, shirts starched.
In 1954 Art and the Messengers performed on the Steve Allen Show. Steve talked Art into sitting in with the band on piano. Art complied, but he laid it on Steve, playing extra hard.
I next saw the Messengers when they came to the Rouge Lounge in 1955. The band was real nice. I already knew the Messenger’s bassist from Detroit, Doug Watkins. The band’s tenor saxophonist, Hank Mobley, is still my favorite on the instrument. Hank was from New Jersey, came to New York around 1951, and played with Max Roach a short length of time. I think either Horace or Kenny Dorham brought Hank into the Messengers as an upcoming tenor player. Hank had a great sound and Art liked him. Everybody seemed to like Hank because he had no hang-ups or attitudes about other players as long as they could play. Hank was the band’s ambassador. He recommended many new players to Art, and welcomed out-of-town guys into the band. I played so much Hank Mobley at the house my kids referred to him as “Uncle Hank.” Hank loved to talk to me. Hank was a timid cat, and unfortunately many people in the drug world took advantage of him. Once he said he’d like to have me as a bodyguard because so many cats gave him a hard time. I never heard Hank use profanity. He was a sensitive, soft-spoken guy, and you can hear that in his music. He had great behind-the-beat sound.
It was during the time of the Messenger’s Rouge Lounge engagement that Art and I really became good friends. When Art and the other members of his band learned that some other musicians were coming through Detroit, they told them to look for a slick-dressed cat that looked like a musician. So luckily I met many fine musicians through Art’s connections. I met McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman—a list that could fill pages.
* * *
Production on the line at Pontiac Motor plant was a bit slow in 1957. So I started boxing again on the weekends and going to hear music. That same year, The Messengers’ Night in Tunisia was released. That group--with trumpeter Bill Hardman, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean alto, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin tenor, pianist Sam Dockery, and bassist Spanky DeBrest--we called the “all-star junkie band.”
Drugs were prevalent in the jazz scene. Before bebop came along booze, reefer, and women were the jazz world’s staple habits; then came the trend of hard dope. Jazzmen saw heroin as the high octane starter fuel. Drug peddlers approached me at shows. “Hey man, you interested.” I emphatically told them that I wanted nothing to do with the stuff, and they couldn’t believe that someone who hung out with all these guys had no interest in drugs. Sometimes I think I got pigeon-holed—“guilt by association”--and cats might think, “I know Tiger’s using, but he never shows it.” That’s when I learned as a young man not to care what people said about me. I knew who I was, and who I was not. To me heroin was a destructive force. I never touched drugs. But it was a supposed “requirement” in being so-called hip. Art looked after me. When someone asked if I wanted to do a line, Art said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t mess with that stuff. We’re jazz musicians; we have different lives. He’s got a good job at General Motors. This dude is a boxer, he don’t mess with the shit, right?” “That’s right.” I answered, proud of being my own man.
In 1958 I saw Miles Davis at the Blue Bird Inn with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. I could tell John Coltrane was using. After Trane would take a solo he’d sit down on the side of the bandstand, his hand on his chin, and fall asleep. When it was time to take his solo he would jump up and play it, then sit back down until they played the closer. In the audience cats would say, “Hey man, Trane’s usin.’” The so-called hip cats referred to using as having a “b on.” “He’s got a b on, man,” they’d say. Many in the scene thought junkies were cool. I resented the dealers and, as for the musicians, I thought it was a sad and self-destructive path for such talented individuals.
The average club owner hated the Hardman-McLean-Griffin incarnation of the Messengers. They said it was skeletal, loud and bashing, without slick beautiful tunes. I loved that band. The guys were lean and strong players. Jackie McLean was becoming a fine player in his own right. One time I was walking down the St. Christopher Street in New York, and I saw Jackie. I had my boxing gloves and bag, and he was carrying his horn. He nodded in recognition of my sport and said, “Good luck, man.” Some guys who saw Jackie on record covers thought he was white. They’d say, ‘That guy’s white.’ I’d snap back, “No he’s not!”
In New York it seemed anything could happen. Art once told me a story, which he swore was true, about how he was walking down the street in New York and came upon a Salvation Army band. He was carrying some charts written by Ray Draper for the Hardman-McLean lineup and stopped and asked the old timers in the blue uniforms if they could read music. The band said they were about to take a break and would try to play the charts he presented them. They put the music on a stand and on the music clip on the trombone and attempted to play it. One band member said it was too intricate. The women blowing the trombone, according to Art, about fell over dead trying to keep up with the notation.
In the fall of 1958, Art formed the third edition of the Jazz Messengers with saxophonist Benny Golson, who had been with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Benny brought to the band his much-needed skills of writing and arranging. Art had a requirement for the all musicians who sought to join his band. He’d say ‘If you don’t write for the band you’re wrong for the band.’ Before Benny joined the band some critics thought the Messengers were fast becoming “a pick-up group,” or a “jam band.” With Benny came new material, and though the band kept its standard vamps, a new dimension was added and with it came numerous calls for booking dates.
This new Messenger lineup came to Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn. When I walked in, the band was playing a tune that I first heard on a 1956 Lee Morgan recording, Lee Morgan Volume Two. Minutes after I got into the club Lee took a solo on muted trumpet; it was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. After the set I asked Benny, who I had met around ’52 or ’53, about the tune, and he said it was “Whisper Not.” He told me that he dedicated the tune to his wife, in the spirit that “when you’re making love, you have to holler in the chick’s ear, ‘I love you baby.” I had first heard Benny’s arrangements in James Moody’s band back in 1953.
* * *
Another great Detroit club that started booking national talent in the late 1950s was the Drome on Lesley and Dexter, just the other side of the Davison. From where I was staying on Dexter and Puritan, I walked four blocks to the Drome. The Drome’s bar was nice; it had a lot of chairs and tables and a bandstand in the back. I saw Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins there. Those horn players were enamored with Detroit pianists, the subtle ways they accompanied soloists. Over the years Art also played the Drome.
With the money I saved fighting professionally, I bought a house in Detroit on Burwood. Near Eight Mile this was the area that had been racially separated by “The Wall.” I purchased one of the last new houses available in the neighborhood and I moved in the house just before Thanksgiving 1959.
This was around the time that Art hired a new manager, a great guy named Jack Whittimore. Earlier Art had been under the management of Monte Kay, who handled the Modern Jazz Quarter. But Jack was an ambitious promoter and got Art more engagements overseas and made sure the band had good transportation, and got to various musical venues in comfort. Before Jack died around 1979, he bought Art a brand new El Dorado. If Art needed any drum equipment, he’d go into a music store and charge it to Jack. I took him out to a store in Grosse Pointe once. He wanted to buy a new snare and a seat. The music store owner said, “You still have a bill for the last things.” Art defiantly replied, “I do not. I’m buying this stuff in the name of jazz.” And the guy let him take the items.
Jack gave Art the option to travel by car caravan or the like. Art would tell him that I was his bodyguard. At times I would take vacations with the Jazz Messengers, and Jack would pay my fare back home from New York or wherever the band happened to be playing. Even some of the New York or Chicago club owners, convinced I was a business partner of the band, would provide me with air fare back to Detroit.
At this time, Art made an effort to make the band look sharp, modeling it after the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. Art paid his band four or five hundred dollars a week and was the cat you had to watch when it came to money. Art flew first class and he made the other guys sit in coach. He enjoyed listening to them bad mouthing him: “Art don’t play shit, man. I’m gonna join another band.” He got a kick out of hearing them complain. He believed that anger made them play better on the bandstand. But he was a likeable guy and the guy you wanted to play with because you would get valuable exposure.
Art rarely worked with singers. Once in a while a gangster would or club owner would present a daughter, saying how she aspired to be a singer. Art would invite them onstage. They might sing some ballad, maybe “Lover Man,” in a half-ass voice, and Art would get bored and start playing some fierce press rolls.
One time, the Messengers were coming back from playing a date in Connecticut, and they stopped out in the country to stretch their legs. At a graveyard there some white people, country-looking farm folks, were attending a funeral. The band walked up and heard the preacher ask if anyone had anything to say about the deceased. No one said a word. The preacher asked again, and when no one answered Art stepped up to say: “If no one has anything to say about him. I would like to say something about jazz music.” And Art went on to expound on how jazz was the only true American art form and how it influenced the world.
Whenever I came to New York to visit Art, I stayed at his apartment on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village not far from Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard, which I believe was Art’s favorite club. Though Art had a separate bed in his apartment for guests, it was hard to get to sleep at his place. People came and went all hours of the night, and I don’t think he slept more than two or three hours at a time. The apartment had a good-sized record collection. A lot of the records were still sealed, and Art had a big box of tapes, audition and demo tapes that had been given to him by young musicians who wanted to join his band. These unopened packages of tapes still had the addresses on them. Out of respect he never threw them out. Like Miles, at home he listened mostly to modern European music of the European concert hall variety, and he enjoyed listening to the tympani drums. He was prolific on the mallets—or what jazzmen called “snow balls.”
A lot of musicians lived in Greenwich Village. Woody Shaw lived nearby. I’d walk down the street with Art, walking his miniature schnauzer. Art was kind of short, his hair was going gray, and the dog’s fur was grey, so my friend made quite an impression on passersby. In 1957 I went with Art to visit Monk, who lived in the projects in Brooklyn. Monk never took his hat off, not even at home. Art and Monk talked about music and musicians who couldn’t play. But Monk said very little to me. I knew enough about these musicians, especially Monk, not to get in the way. I liked just to be there, listening. Monk told about how, when he started playing, some musicians would make fun of him. Later these same guys would come up to him and ask to be in his band. I’ll never forget how Monk said he got back at them by blatantly asking, “Doin’ what?” Monk’s wife Nellie was nice, but she never sat down. She was always attending to he husband or their son Monk Jr. and daughter Barbara, whom they called “Boo Boo.”
I went with Art to see musicians perform, guys like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. They’d ask him to sit in and play, but he preferred to relax from his own schedule of playing and just listen. Once when he was asked to sit in, he told the audience that his band was called a university for a reason. It was intended to create new jazz bandleaders who he could visit and check up on their progress in carrying on a great musical tradition. So he bowed out gracefully from having to play.
During these years, under Jack Whittimore’s management, Art faired well economically, at least for a serious jazz musician. In 1960 Art bought a silver stingray Corvette with the bullet back. He drove that car across the country. This was the first of four or five more that he acquired over the years until Jack bought him that El Dorado. When he was on the road he’d drive his Corvette, and one of the road managers transported his drums in another vehicle. Sometimes his son, Art Jr., would ride with him in the Corvette.
October 1961 I went with the Messengers to Japan. When the band got off the plane in Tokyo, the Japanese dignitaries arranged to have a Japanese band play some of the Messenger’s music. The group first cut into “Moanin.” I know they were well intentioned, but the musicians played a pretty sorry excuse for jazz. Afterward, the Messengers went to a studio where they were filmed for a three-hour recording session. I wish I had a copy of that today.
While we were in Japan staying at the Tokyo Hilton, director Billy Wilder had just completed shooting his film, My Geisha, featuring Edward G. Robinson, Robert Cummings, and Shirley MacLaine. I was a great fan of Billy and Edward G. When I got into the elevator, to my surprise there stood Billy Wilder himself, wearing a little hat. “You’re Billy Wilder,” I said half-astonished. He responded with a German-accented, “Ya.” I told him I was a big fan, and he shook my hand. Billy was cool. I just wish I could have met Edward G. We then went on to Osaka and then Kyoto, one of the most beautiful cities I had ever seen. It looked as if made all of paper and sticks, delicate, almost doll house-like.
Some nights in Japan I’d listen to the band for a while, then go off to some interesting place and meet people. Among these crowds of strangers, people would ask me if I was in the band. I’d tell them I was the road manager. I’d hang out with mixed couples, many of them Japanese and black. I met the Japanese bantamweight champ, Masahiko “Fighting” Harada. Art loved Japan, and I think it was his favorite foreign country. He finally married a Japanese woman, as did Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan. That was the thing back then to have a Japanese wife. Art thought I was cool because my first wife was half-black and half-Japanese, and he was crazy about her. Art liked foreign films, and his favorite was Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
* * *
I observed a lot of changes in the Messengers’ lineup. Wayne Shorter came into the band in 1959 and served as Art’s musical director until 1964. The Big Beat—with Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt--was Wayne’s first exposure on the Blue Note label. Before that the band had recorded a session featuring some of Wayne’s compositions, unusual in their use of chords. One of these was “Lester’s Left Town.” Pres had died, and Wayne wanted to record his tribute to him. Club owners’ hated that song. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf thought the number had too many chords and didn’t want to record it. In the studio Art threw down his drum sticks and cussed at them, threatening to walk out. Because he was Blue Note’s house drummer Art had a lot of clout. Alfred and Francis gave in and let them record it. But the number wasn’t released until it appeared on the 1980 Blue Note LP Africaine.
In March 1960 Art and the Jazz Messengers played Detroit’s Ford Auditorium, with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Walter Davis, and Jymie Merritt. The band came back to the city in July to play the Minor Key at 11541 Dexter. The Minor Key’s large hall could accommodate a big band. It opened in 1959 and closed in 1963; the last band to perform there was the Duke Ellington Orchestra. For three dollars admission on Friday and Saturday nights, bands would play from nine in the evening to five in the morning, and you could stay the entire time. The sets were continuous--forty minutes on the bandstand and twenty minutes off. I saw John Coltrane there, and he would say hello, because he knew me from the jam sessions at alto saxophonist Joe Bazil’s house in Conant Gardens. There will never be another club like the Minor Key in the city again.
I believe Art’s favorite trumpet player was Lee Morgan. He used to say that “Lee’s cute, he can play, and he can bang women.” Though he was probably Art’s favorite Messenger, Lee tried to be funny onstage sometimes. At the Minor Key, I heard him announce that he was going to perform the popular number, “Days of Swine and Noses”; and then if that didn’t irritate Art enough, he went on to say he would like to be featured on a tune called, “Break My Hand, I’m a Strangler in Paradise.” Art didn’t find this a bit funny. Lee was an abundance of nervous energy, a fidgety guy, always moving around the bandstand. Watching the Messengers one night I saw Lee moving around the stage calling out to a soloing Timmons, “Get it Bobby!” Then when Wayne soloed Lee yelled out, “Hey Art, off-time!” Hearing Lee’s request, Art put Wayne through various rhythmic change-ups, making Wayne really dig in.
But after awhile, Art got tired of Lee and pianist Bobby Timmons being late or not showing up at all. Bad habits were getting in the way of the band’s professionalism. If they didn’t show up, Art would do as he always did in a pinch: he’d look out in the audience for players, or if a union guy was in the room he’d have him call for a replacement.
* * *
Critics at this time were predominately obsessed with drummer Elvin Jones, the star of John Coltrane’s new stellar lineup. Art loved Elvin Jones’ playing. One time Art played a drum summit with Philly Joe Jones and Elvin. Elvin got drunk, and when Art carried him to his hotel room, Elvin threw up in his pocket. The critics, most of whom never had much to say about drummers, had always said favorable things about Art, even Leonard Feather. Art read his own interviews. But he was a modest cat, and a woman friend of his kept a comprehensive scrapbook of his career.
Whereas Max Roach used interviews to voice his political views, Art tended to stay quiet in the press about race and politics. He felt that if he started revealing his true feelings on such subjects he would end up shooting himself in the foot as far as his career was concerned. As he told Art Taylor, he believed that his job was to play jazz not campaign about politics. I remember one time when Art played Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, and some black guy in the audience kept shouting, “Hey Art, take me back to Africa!” Tired of this guy’s request, Art shouted back, “God damn it, excuse my expression, but Africa ain’t got a damn thing to do with jazz!” Art had been to Africa twice and greatly admired its musical traditions, especially those of the Ibo. But he believed that jazz was a product of America.
At this time, Max and his wife, singer Abbie Lincoln, after making several politically oriented recordings raised some dust in the jazz community. The owner of the Drome, Mr. Hillman, told them that if they were to play his club they better not perform their protest music. “People don’t want to hear that,” he told them. “They want you to swing.” But this was happening at a time when things were heating up in the civil rights movement, and music like Max’s was reflecting the times.
Art had great respect for Elvin Jones. Through my first boxing trainer, Rufus D. Crumb—called Dee Dee by friends--I hung out one night with Elvin in 1962. Had it not have been for problems with his hands, Rufus would have become a world champion welterweight. Later Dee Dee worked at Ford and was a union rep. Dee Dee loved jazz, and he taught me to differentiate the sound of Bird and Sonny Stitt, and Fats and Diz, and so on.
After Elvin and McCoy Tyner finished their show with Coltrane that night, Dee Dee asked Elvin if he wanted to go and get some ribs. Elvin got all excited by the idea and said, “Oh yea. Let’s get them ribs, man.” McCoy was with us, and being a clean-cut, polite young man, a Muslim who didn’t eat pork, he asked, “Are you gentlemen going to eat that swine?” Dee Dee told him in a matter of fact way, “Yeah. I eat the pig, everything from his the rooter to the tooter.”
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In 1961 Art brought trumpeter Freddie Hubbard into the band, the same year I went with the Messengers to Paris, where they played at the Olympia Theatre. We were there for four days. I fell in love with the older French women with the thick ankles, the kind you’d see on the street or in the market. Later that same year, I went with Art and the Messengers to California. Art was good friends with drummer Shelley Mann. They had great respect for each other. Shelley would pick up ideas from any drummer who came though his club. But he always remained a unique interpreter. We went to see Shelley. I first saw Shelley with Stan Kenton. Shelley was in the movie The Man With the Golden Arm, and other movies. He played for the TV show Check Mate. He lived in the San Fernando Valley and raised Palomino horses. Down the street from him lived the cowboy film star, Rocky Lane. Shelley’s wife was a great cook.
I traveled to Germany with the Messengers in 1962--with the Golson-Morgan-Timmons line-up. We landed in Frankfurt and went to Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. The band was well received playing auditorium dates. We stayed in nice private guest houses and a chalet belonging to a German jazz bandleader who led a Kenton-style big band. Art didn’t particularly like the food, but would drink cheap-ass cognac. We ate more sausage than anything. Being such a likeable character, Art spoke a smattering of German, which sounded like 1939 Warner Brother’s movie-sounding German, and got away with it. Art had a valet/road manager, Goldie, who set his drums, and got the clothes from the cleaners. Goldie was a hard worker and had to be because I told Art, “I’ll go on the road with you, but I’m not working for you.”
In 1962 I met Miles Davis at the Minor Key. Miles had been one of my first jazz heroes, a well-dressed dark-skinned bad ass trumpet player who didn’t take guff from anybody. When Miles stayed in Detroit in 1953, I often drove by the Blue Bird to catch a glimpse of him when he came outside the club. Then I saw Miles when he played the Greystone in 1954, using local musicians like Barry Harris. That night at the Minor Key, wearing a brown tweed suit, I nearly got soaking wet waiting in line outside the club. When I got into the club it was packed to capacity, and I had to wait for people to leave to get inside. In Miles’ band at the time were Hank Mobley, J.J. Johnson, Wynton Kelly, “Philly” Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. Philly played so loud that I could hear him about two blocks away. Art had always admired Philly. Years earlier whenever Art visited Philadelphia, he tried to convince Philly to come to New York. Philly had a wife, an education, and a good job driving a streetcar. Whenever Art visited he rode the streetcar urging Philly, as did other drummers like Art Taylor, to make the move to “the Big Apple.” It was Miles who finally convinced Philly to make his move during the 1950s. Whenever Philly came to town I would be as cool with him as I was with Art.
While I was at the Minor Key that evening my friend Hank Mobley took me back to the dressing room to see Miles. I had sparred with Miles’ boxer friend, Tony Anthony back in 1957 and copped a lot of boxing technique from him. In that rough voice of his, Miles told me, “Man, you must be better a fighter than I first thought you were. Tony’s a tough dog.” That was when Tony came to Detroit to fight Jack Spicer in April, and I went back to see him about ten days later. His manager liked me and gave me some money. That year production was slow at Pontiac Motor so I took fights on the weekends. I was surprised when I read Miles’ autobiography that he didn’t mention Tony. They even appeared together in a picture in Ebony, in an article written by jazz writer Barbara Gardner. Something must have happened between them, because at one time Tony and Miles were tight. Miles said to me, “All the Detroit mother fuckers look sharp,” and then we did a little shadow boxing together.
In the dressing room somebody brought Miles four bottles of Nature Boy, cheap-ass wine that sold for seventy-nine cents a bottle. Everybody in the band had a cup of wine. Miles said, “I love wine, man.” Then he asked me if I wanted some. You’d think the great Miles Davis would want to drink some Bordeaux or champagne. But no, he was drinking that cheap-ass stuff like it was priceless. Then Miles started telling me stories about Lester Young in Paris—how he was over there with him, and whenever Prez would feel racism in the room, he’d say, “There’s a draft in here.” Miles said he sat in with Prez’s band, and after the performance they all bowed except for Miles. Prez grabbed Miles’ arm and said, “Take a bow, motherfucker,” and Miles did. Miles said that Prez always kept him laughing.
Miles was a funny guy when he wanted to be. That same night, Miles told us about a chick he met who was an orange freak. She came to his room with a bag of oranges. “I’m gonna take my clothes off, and I want you to hit me with these oranges.” Miles said, “Okay, cool.” He threw them as hard as he could, hitting this chick, and when she was about to have a climax, Miles would hold back, and she’d plead with him, “Oh Miles, please throw another.” The whole room exploded in laughter. I asked if he had had sex with her, and he told me, “I didn’t have to, man.”
Later that evening, Miles and I started shadow-boxing in the lobby of the Minor Key. After that bit of show, a lot of people wanted to know who I was, because I seemed so at ease with their trumpet hero.
Miles’ man in Detroit was a guy named Fillmore. I had met Fillmore around 1953 when I was staying with my uncle on Hastings Street. I was coming down Hastings one night wearing a boxing jersey, and he asked me if I was a good fighter. I told him I was decent in the ring. We started shadow boxing and got to be tight after that. Fillmore was a street guy, friendly with the prostitutes. But he wasn’t a thug or a bully. When I went to a blind pig he looked out for me. He was a cool individual, and I can see what Miles saw in him. When Miles wanted something, Fillmore would make sure it was what he ordered. No one cheated Miles, because Fillmore was a knock-out artist.
When Art came to Detroit in 1963, he told me about the time he was taking a break between sets at Birdland. He was standing out front of the club when Miles Davis came out escorting a white woman to her car. This was after 1959, when he got hit in the head by a policeman after seeing a pretty white woman to a cab. The incident made the headlines of the New York papers. So when Art was standing out front, two policemen were walking by, one of them saying to Miles: “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Miles looked over at Art and said, “Art, you better come over here and see to these guys, because I might just have to kick their asses.” Art didn’t move. The other policeman said, “Hey, that’s Miles Davis.” His partner said, “I don’t give a damn who he is.” As typical of Miles, he kept up his defiance and informed the policeman that he had already one lawsuit for being beaten by the cops and that “ New York City pays off quite well. Go ahead,” he urged them. “Kick my ass.” The one cop must have cooled the other officer off because they didn’t touch Miles.
I had intended seeing Miles at the Crystal Show Bar in the winter of 1965. But he never appeared because of a snowstorm that hit the Detroit area. Finally, in March or April 1965, I saw Miles at the Crystal. The Crystal Show Bar was on Grand River, a block or two down from Olympia Stadium. When I got to the club Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Reggie Workman were there waiting for Miles, who was late. I was told that Miles had had knee surgery, and he took the stage using a cane; some guy in the audience shouted, “Hey Miles. Every time I come see you, you’re always late.” Miles snapped back, “Well, so what, man. If you don’t like it leave.” The guy looked like he was going to grab Miles. Miles dropped his cane and punched him—took the cat out. Two bodyguards took the guy out of the place. Afterward, while he was playing, like when he played “Round Midnight,” I saw him take his hand off the trumpet, and shake it, saying “damn” because he hurt his hand punching this guy.
That same night, Reggie told me he hoped he could keep playing with Miles. He said: “I don’t have any idea what these cats are playing. I haven’t rehearsed with them, and these are playing some weird shit. Miles told me ‘to jump in there somewhere.’” John Coltrane had let Reggie go to bring in Jimmy Garrison, and on that night Reggie seemed to be out of his realm.
Miles did a lot to promote Detroit jazzmen. After sitting with some musicians in Detroit, he’d go back to New York and recommend them to other players. When I was in New York, people would say, “ Detroit has some bad jazz cats.” But they also felt that way about musicians from Philadelphia. At first it was kind of difficult for the Detroit players to get in with the New York jazz scene because at first they had an attitude that many of out hometown jazzmen were imitators, like Sonny Stitt and Sonny Red were imitators of Bird, and Donald Byrd was an imitator of Clifford Brown, and Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan imitators of Bud Powell. This was true of their opinion of many others of our native sons heading for New York, until prominent bandleaders began to hire them and when they got record dates on Savoy and Prestige. When Miles hired Detroiter Paul Chambers, he established “Mr. PC” as “the bassist,” the young upcoming player who came after Oscar Pettiford, Al McKibbon, and Percy Heath. Then everybody wanted Paul on their concert and recoding dates.
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1964 was the last time that the Messengers featured the front-line of Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman. That same year, Art hired saxophonist John Gilmore. Every time Art recruited a new musician, he asked me, “Hey, Jerry, how do ya like this guy?” I guess he valued my opinion. John Gilmore was good, but he did not write like Wayne. John played with the Messengers with the understanding that he would eventually return to Sun Ra because everyone knew that Gilmore was a fixture of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
In New York Art caught hell for hiring Keith Jarrett in 1966. Keith couldn’t keep still, and in avant-garde fashion he played the strings inside the piano. Art also recruited Chuck Mangione through Dizzy’s urging. Dizzy knew about Chuck is because Chuck’s father made great spaghetti. Every time Dizzy and other jazzmen came through the Mangione’s hometown of Philadelphia, the old man would have them over and feed them spaghetti. His sons Gaspari and Chuck were aspiring musicians. When Freddie Hubbard left the Messengers, Dizzy told Art to check out Chuck. This was at a time when there was a shortage of great trumpet players, and Art was out to find a strong replacement for Freddy. It would take him a while to fill that gap. By this time, the great trumpeter Booker Little had died. Anyway, as Booker told me, he never wanted to play with the Messengers because he really wasn’t interested in playing that soul funk that was the band’s cornerstone sound. He loved playing with Max Roach. And then he played with Eric Dolphy and drummer Ed Blackwell, and that was an outstanding group.
In May 1967 the Messengers came to the Drome. Art’s line-up was saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Bill Hardman, trombonist Slide Hampton, and pianist McCoy Tyner. I think Herbie Lewis was on bass. It was a hell of a band. In the following year, they played Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.
That same year Miles played Ford Auditorium. He was playing new material from Nefertiti. Miles never introduced numbers and he tended to them play much faster than he had on the album. So when he launched into the music without introductions, some guy next to me finally asked, “What’s that tune?” I told him it was Nefertiti. He told me he could barely recognize it. He wanted to argue, but I told him I came to listen not to talk.
This was at the time when Miles was on the verge of “going electric,” incorporating electronic instruments. Art did not look favorably upon this trend. He believed electronic instruments would “destroy the music.” He believed if musicians formally studied the piano since they were five years old and then suddenly started playing an electric keyboard it would be a case of compromising their talent. Suffice to say, Art never “went electric.”
Late in life Art started going deaf. At first he wore one hearing-aid, and then he resorted to wearing two of them. He had to rely on vibrations on the floor for hearing the music. I sadly remember when I found out that he had diabetes. But he never let people know that he had diabetes. I went to his hotel room and saw all this medical stuff on the table, and he told me it was for his condition. Whenever Art came to Detroit I made sure to have a fruit basket sent to him. That was the least I could do for someone who had spent a lot of money on me.
There was a period when Art had a lull in bookings. That all changed with the coming of Wynton Marsalis. As I said, Art’s featured trumpeters were good players, and it wasn’t until he recruited Wynton that he found “a young lion.” Wynton’s wearing sharp-looking suits influenced the young jazzmen to dress fashionably again, and by his being a clean-living cat proved that jazzmen didn’t need to use drugs to play well. As a new member of the Messengers, Wynton came to Detroit with the band Labor Day weekend in 1980. That Monday the band came to my house in Pontiac. Jack had bought Art a brand new white El Dorado, and Wynton washed it in my driveway. Wynton came into the house and looked through my record collection. He and my boys were on the floor checking out my records, when Wynton, said, “Hey, you’ve got Fats Navarro.”
Whenever a Messenger left Art’s band he would typically recommend, or line up, a replacement. When Wynton left the band he recommended Terence Blanchard, and when Terence left he recommended Wallace Roney.
Art’s last Detroit dates were at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, and when I could, I’d go off to Chicago to see him perform at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. At the time, Joe Segal’s place was in the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Joe brought in a lot of white West Coast guys, like Shorty Rogers. Early 1990 my wife and I went up to Art’s room at the Black Stone, and I attended one of Art’s rehearsals in one of hotel’s empty suites. I was at Joe’s when they announced, “Art Blakey will be here, depending upon his health.” When they made the announcement, I got a bad feeling.
In 1989 my wife and I visited Art in his hotel room. He told us, “I’ve got some real bad news. Art Junior has died.” This left him very sad. Last time I saw Art alive was at Joe Segal’s. Art fell ill and was admitted to St. Vincent’s hospital, where he died of lung cancer on his birthday, October 11, 1990.
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I miss Art and so many other musicians who I’ve met in this long life, and I hope that what I’ve recounted is of use to a younger generation celebrating a great American art form. When I leave this earth I want to be remembered as a man who helped keep alive a great jazz legacy, not as an ex-pug. I always have felt that boxing is a young man’s sport. I saw a lot of ex-fighters carry an attitude, picking fights and looking like they’d been in a hatchet fight and forgot to bring a hatchet. But it’s been the music, along with my family, that has been a steady love of my life. I was lucky enough to go backstage and meet many of my music heroes, black and white. Their kindness to me brightened my life, made me feel part of something I loved. To keep jazz from becoming museum music, I’ve been dee-jaying jazz since 1967, trying to get young people exposed to its great tradition. It was at these engagements that I met a lot of good people and loyal fans like John Cohassey, who saw the importance in what I had to say and saw to it that my reminiscences made it to the printed page.