Duke Ellington was one of the great musicians of the last century, and his band was one of the great bands. But the fact is, touring is rough, and there were times when his musicians looked like they were asleep on the stage. Who knows, perhaps they were.
That’s how they appeared the one time I saw Ellington live. It was at one of those sessions held by the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom on Sunday afternoons. This was probably in 1970, 71, or 72. I suppose I could set the scene for you by describing the place, but not now. Fact is, I only remember three things from that concert. Ellington dressed well and had a line of patter smooth as silk and brittle as glass. He’d been doing this a long time. The guys slumped in their chairs like they’d just gotten off an all-night flight from Timbuktu. Perhaps they had.
And Paul Gonsalves burned the place down with his tenor sax. I forget what the number was. All I remember is that Gonsalves strode out on stage to play a solo, but he didn’t step up to the microphone. He stood to one side. A helpful member of the audience moved the mike directly in front of him as he started to blow. He stopped playing for a second, grabbed the mike angrily and shoved it aside. Then he started blowing again.
He filled the ballroom with his sound. The whole ballroom, you know, the kind with the mirror ball in the ceiling, plenty of room for people to dance, though the dance floor was filled with tables and chairs and men, women, and children, a photographer going from table to table snapping pix. The whole band playing behind him, and Gonsalves soared above it all with his mighty sax.
THAT’s what it was like at the Famous back in the day. Best jazz venue I’ve ever been in. Of course I’ve got my quirks. I’m not a night person, so I don’t go to jazz clubs that often. By the time the music starts cookin’ I’m ready for bed. But those sets at the Famous started at 5 in the afternoon on Sunday. Well, they were scheduled for 5 PM, but that’s 5 PM CPT (colored people’s time), which generally translated into 5:30 PM clock time.
And that was fine. Gave us time to chat, check out the used records for sale, maybe go out to KFC around the corner and get a bucket of the Colonel’s Original. You could order something from the kitchen on the days it was open. Or maybe get some set-ups, bring out the bottle, and get loosened up. By the time the music started up, we were mellowed out and ready to drink in those delicious sounds.
Heard a lot of great music in those days, but I don’t remember most of it. Saw Mingus. Like Ellington’s men, he seemed to have booked a seat on the Sleepy Time Express. But his tenor man, George Adams, blew fire; then held the sax above his head and spun around helicopter style. Don’t know what that was about, but it was fun to see. Jimmy Heath quoted Lee Morgan quoting Ziggy Elman’s fralich riffs from “And the Angels Sing” – my grandfather, who otherwise disliked jazz, loved Al Hirt’s version of this tune; Al kept the fralich riffs too. They’re from way back in the day across the Atlantic in the old country – the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Saw Olu Dara when he was only 18. He’s Nas’s daddy – Nas the rapper, you know? Donald Byrd came in from D.C. with the Black Byrds. And Hank Levy brought his big band down from Towson State. Played damned fine music, almost forgot they were a bunch of college kids.
And then there was Maynard Ferguson. One of my first loves. The man could blow the horn, man could he blow! To the moon, threading his way through the asteroids, putting a little crisp on those green Martians, then out beyond Jupiter, rounding Saturn and then an astonishing cut-through to Venus. Don’t know how he did it. He was a crowd pleaser. Perhaps not the deepest music, nor the subtlest, but quality nonetheless.
He had a big band with him, not the full band like he had back in the Birdland days of the 50s and 60s, but 12 or 13 guys: four rhythm, three saxes, two bones, three trumpets, and himself. They played “Hey Jude” to end it. When the band got to the end of the main tune and went into the repeated tag, Maynard and the other trumpeters had gone to the four corners of the room. They started playing, back and forth, dueling and supporting, and walked through the crowd to the stage as they played.
Bright moments! Bright moments! Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I’d been introduced to his music by Larry Marshall Sams, who’d been an intern in the campus YMCA at Johns Hopkins. He tipped me to Rahsaan’s Rip, Rig, and Panic. A couple of years later I saw Rahsaan at an outdoor festival at Morgan State. He electrified the crowd, brought us to our feet with his first number.
His gig at the Famous was a bit different. It had rained earlier that day, but the sky had brightened up a bit by the time I made it to the Famous. Five-thirty rolled around, but no musicians took the stage. OK, so they’re a bit late. CPT is nothing if not flexible. Five-forty-five, no musicians. That’s stretching it a bit. Six o’clock, the rhythm section takes the stage and starts playing. That’s more like it. Rahsaan’ll be out once they get it moving. But no, six-thirty, no Rahsaan. Six-forty-five. Still no Rahsaan. Seven o’clock. By now the mood is moving into the lower reaches of ugly, just tickling it a bit.
There’s a commotion at the back of the hall. Rahsaan walks in, instrument cases in both hands and hanging from his neck, led by Joe Texidor – Rahsaan is blind. Ten minutes later Rahsaan walks out on stage. “I hear you all are pissed at me for being late. Think about me. I got up this morning, got in the car, raring to play. The rain had flooded out the expressway. There we were stuck, I wanted to play. Instead I had to wait for the water to go away. You think you’re angry! I’m angry too!”
With that he put his sax to his mouth and, you guessed it, blew the roof off – the insurance policy at the Famous must have cost a pretty penny, what with having to replace all those roofs and burned down buildings! The ugly in the room was gone. Poof! No more. Just exuberant sound. Rahsaan had us and took us for a joy ride.
But Dizzy Gillespie was the best. I play trumpet, Diz plays trumpet, and then some. He was one of my heroes. I had a bunch of his records, and a book of transcribed solos I practiced from. I don’t know whether this was the first or second time I saw him live, but probably the first. The second time was also in Baltimore, but outdoors, in a park, with ten thousand people of the sepia persuasion (that’s Old School verbal stylin’) hanging on his every note.
But this was indoors, at the Famous. Families were there. Dad all duded up, crisp white shirt, sharp tie, cuff links. Mom in a nice dress, one with a bit more flash than appropriate for church, and the kids, all of them well turned out. This was, after all, the Left Bank Jazz Society, and the Famous Ballroom, with the great John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie performing.
I don’t remember who was in the group. Probably Mike Longo on piano, and I think James Moody on sax and flute. I don’t remember the rhythm section – shame on me! I’m sure they played some of Diz’s old stuff, “Manteca”, “A Night in Tunisia”, “Con Alma”, and likely some of the newer stuff, “Portrait of Jenny” and “Olinga”. At one point Diz strapped a conga to his waist and walked out into the audience playing it.
I’d never seen that before, nor even read about Diz doing it. I new he was something of a cut-up – how do you think he got the moniker “Dizzy”? I’d read a lot about him, but not this. So I was a bit surprised. Desi “Babalu” Arnez did this, but I didn’t realize this bit of shtick was in Diz’s repertoire too.
I was enormously pleased, as was everyone. What fun.
And it got even better. When he made his way back to the stage he brought half a dozen kids with him, boys in ties and girls in crinoline. Or maybe Diz saw some kids dancing in the aisle. I don’t rightly remember. But there they were up on the stage, and they danced. They were a bit hesitant at first – the situation was not, after all, defined as a dancing situation – but then they got into it. How could they not? The best musicians in the world were playing for and with them.
So the children danced with Diz, he smiled and played his trumpet, peace love and soul filled the hall: God was in heaven and joy rained down on earth that day.