A Sax is Born: Johnny Hodges’ Early Years

On July 25, 1907, a boy named “Cornelius” was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to John H. and Katie Swan Hodges.  His last name was given as “Hodges”—not “Hodge” as some have claimed.


Johnny Hodges’ birthplace, 137 Putnam Avenue, Cambridge, Mass.

 

There are several reasons for the uncertainty as to the spelling of the boy’s last name: the father’s name appears as “John H. Hodge” in the City of Boston’s record of the couple’s 1896 marriage, and as an adult the son displayed a curious indifference to this vital statistic.  He reportedly owned a rubber stamp of the name spelled “Hodge” with which he marked his luggage, and records of American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the union that he was a member of in New York City, give the spelling as “Hodge” from 1928, when he first joined, until 1948, when it is corrected to “Hodges.”


1945 publicity photo of Hodges.

 

Most sources suggest that Cornelius Hodges had only one sister, but U.S. and Massachusetts official records confirm that John and Katie Hodges had three daughters.  The first was born February 24, 1897, also in Cambridge, and left unnamed at the time her birth was recorded, as was frequently the case in those days; she was subsequently named Claretta.  The second was born July 1, 1899, at the Boston Lying-In Hospital.  The girl was again unnamed when the record of her birth was made, but would be called Daisy B.  The third daughter was born May 18, 1902, in Cambridge, and was named Cynolia.  She would go by a name other than that which appeared on her birth certificate—Josephine.

As would her little brother.  The name “Cornelius” was soon dropped and by the time of the 1910 U.S. Census, when he was three, his family had reconsidered their christening choice; he is listed then as “John C. Hodges,” and “Johnny” is the name by which the world at large would know him.  The name “Cornelius” had peaked in popularity among Americans in the 1880s; it was often given in talismanic tribute to business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), but it was a playground burden to boys whose parents hoped his Midas-like touch would pass to their sons.  (The author, whose full name is Cornelius John Chapman, speaks from experience).


David Stone Martin cover of a Hodges EP.

 

Nicknames, unlike given names, are applied by one’s family and friends–or enemies–after our features, characters and personalities have developed a bit, and not at the baptismal fount.  As Herman Mellville put it in Bartleby, the Scrivener, nicknames imply “cherished disrespect and dislike” “under the form of merriment,” and are thus typically given (in the case of those we like) if we want to kid them a little.  Johnny Hodges went by seven in all, the most enduring being “Rabbit,” and several grounds for it have been proposed:  First, that Hodges was fast afoot, able to escape truant officers who pursued the errant student through the streets of Boston.  This was the story Hodges himself told, perhaps because it satisfied a male ideal of athleticism and a boy’s distaste for the tedium of the classroom.  “They never could catch me.  I’d go too fast,” he said.  “That’s why I’m called ‘Rabbit.’”  The second and more likely explanation, since it comes from Harry Carney, who knew Hodges growing up and who would spend most of his professional life playing with him in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, was that Hodges looked like a rabbit when he regularly nibbled on lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

For a nickname to last, it must seem apt to successions of acquaintances who are unfamiliar with its origin, however, and in Hodges’ case there was ample justification.  According to Carney, Hodges was shy and skittish like a rabbit when it came to taking a solo, and he was known to bolt from interviews, bringing them to an abrupt conclusion.  He was small, like a rabbit.  His stage demeanor was impassive, and his face was a mask that camouflaged his emotions; as Tenor sax Johnny Griffin put it, Hodges “looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.”


Eugene the Jeep

 

Then there was “Jeep,” as in some of his most popular numbers, “The Jeep is Jumpin’ and “Jeep’s Blues.”  Some have expressed puzzlement as to the source for this name, but those familiar with the cartoon character Popeye will recognize its antecedent in Eugene the Jeep, a friendly animal of indeterminate species who was introduced to the comic strip in 1936.  This nickname was given to him by Otto “Toby” Hardwick, a fellow alto in the Ellington band.  Eugene the Jeep is a dog-like creature who walks on his hind legs, says little (just the word “Jeep”), and has an oversize head and a large nose, all traits shared by Hodges, and thus the moniker satisfies the principal purpose of a nickname; an affectionate put-down that points out an individual’s flaws in a shorthand manner without rubbing them in too much.

There was also “Squatty Roo,” an invidious comment on Hodges’ short stature that he applied by a sort of creative jiu jitsu to a jaunty number he played with Ellington small groups.  The song is a solo vehicle for him, and he seems to use it to answer those who called him by that name for derisive reasons, as if to say that sticks and stones might break his bones, but you could stick that nickname in your ear.

Cat Anderson and Hodges on the band’s bus.

 

The boy was born in the family’s home, like two of his sisters, rather than a hospital.  At the time home birth was considered the safer alternative for several reasons, the primary one being the lower rate of infection for home versus hospital deliveries.  The house was located at 137 Putnam Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a residential area known as “Cambridgeport.”  The Hodges family is listed as residents of Ward 8, Precinct 13 of Cambridge in the 1910 census, when Johnny was reported to be two years old.  In 1920 when Johnny was twelve his family moved within Cambridge to 10 Clarendon Avenue, Ward 11, part of Precinct 2, in the area known as North Cambridge, and they apparently remained there until they moved to Boston around 1922.

One aspect of the 1910 census data concerning Hodges’ family is curious; all members are listed as white.  Johnny was light-colored, his skin “like coffee with a lot of cream” according to Rex Stewart, but his birth certificate lists him as black, and his parents are both listed as black in Boston marriage records.  (Hodges’ sisters are listed as black or colored on their birth certificates.)  This error, unlike the misspelling of John H. Hodges as “Hodge” in Boston marriage records, can’t definitively be chalked up to a civil servant’s negligence or indifference.  Did Katie Swan Hodges hope that, by claiming her children were white, she would give them a chance for a better life?  In any case, all family members were later listed as “B” for black in the 1920 census.  A final thought on this curious item; if Johnny’s father self-identified as black and his mother did not, it would have been illegal for them to marry in Virginia, where they were born.  Interracial marriage was barred by statute in Virginia until the United States Supreme Court struck down state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 in the coincidentally-named case Loving v. Virginia, so it is possible that the two moved north in order to consummate a marriage that would have been forbidden in the south.

Harry Carney, who grew with Hodges in Boston’s South End, Hodges, and Duke Ellington.

 

Jazz critic and Ellington biographer Stanley Dance, who knew Johnny’s mother, said that she was Mexican-Indian.  There is no evidence to support this claim although trumpeter Rex Stewart was one of several observers who saw characteristic traces of Native American physiognomy in Hodges’ appearance.  Hodges himself apparently repeated this tale of provenance, but he was known for his dry sense of humor, and may have been pulling Stanley Dance’s leg on this score.

The address where the family settled in Boston, 32 Hammond Street, was located in the city’s South End, like Cambridgeport a racially-mixed neighborhood.  The area was home to many young musicians, including Leonard Withers, a pianist; James “Buster” Tolliver, who played reeds; and Harry Carney, who lived, as Hodges recalled many years later, “about three blocks from me.”  As to why the Hodges family moved from Cambridge to the South End, the latter neighborhood had experienced a dramatic drop in real estate values—38.4%–in the thirty years from 1875 to 1905, shortly before their relocation there.  As a result of this downturn in the real estate values, the three-story houses that had been built to hold a single family were divided up into apartments, rooming houses (available by the week or month), or lodging houses (available by the night).  Thus, instead of becoming an urban refuge for the well-to-do, the South End became a place where housing was affordable to the masses; young clerks and office workers, laborers who had risen as far in life as they would go, and those who had begun to succumb to despair.  One single-room residence alluded to the latter problem by the sign on its door: “Friendly Lodging House for Sober Men, No Drunken Men Admitted.”  It is thus likely that the six-member Hodges family moved to the South End in part for reasons of economy.


Boston’s South End

 

There was also the matter of convenience; the South End was closer to hotels and restaurants where Johnny’s father could find employment as a waiter, and to the Back Bay railroad station, where he could work as a porter.  A 1913 study reported that a “large number of negro waiters, cooks and stewards, barbers, janitors, and porters” found rooms in the belt of territory that extended across the South End from the Back Bay Station to Tremont Street and the lower part of Shawmut Avenue—precisely where the family’s new home on Hammond Street was located.

In the decade before the Hodges family moved to the South End the neighborhood had taken an even further turn downwards; the Boston Elevated Street Railway from downtown to the South End was completed, which made it easier to commute to and from Boston but added to the grime and noise that already marred the neighborhood.  The two stations at either end of the railway became dock pilings to which the barnacles of urban life–saloons, theatres, pool halls—began to attach, and a “garish night life . . . ‘turned night into day.’”  Boston Brahmin poet Robert Lowell, who would write about the more proper neighborhoods he frequented, could open his windows in the Back Bay and “hear the South End/the razor’s edge/of Boston’s negro culture.”  The neighborhood thus came to resemble a sort of permanent fair that an impressionable young boy with an ear for music might appreciate, and the music he would hear in the South End would not be the genteel sort that he would have been exposed to in Cambridge.  “Johnny was into the big world,” his neighborhood pal Howard Johnson would say, “but I was still in the little world. . .He used to hang out nights, while I was more or less a home boy.”

With the South End’s increased density and poverty came an increase in crime; prostitutes, pimps and pickpockets walked the streets of the neighborhood, and the life of the roguish petty criminal must have appealed to a boy bored with school but forced to attend classes under the Massachusetts compulsory education law, the first in the nation.  “I think I was all set to be a crook, a mastermind crook,” Hodges would explain in later years, “until I came under the spell of music, music was too strong.”

From “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press).

The Last Days of Johnny Hodges

On April 25, 1970, the Duke Ellington band performed a partial version of New Orleans Suite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where it was well-received.  Promoter George Wein was moved; “It gave me a chill,” he said.  “That was Duke at his greatest.”  The performance included only five movements; four others–including a star turn for Johnny Hodges on soprano sax, “Portrait of Sidney Bechet”were still being written, and Ellington began in earnest to complete them.

                 Johnny Hodges

Three decades had passed since Hodges had last played the soprano, his first musical love, on a recording date; the tune was “That’s the Blues Old Man,” a number he composed.  Hodges had stopped playing soprano, according to Rex Stewart, when he had asked Duke for extra pay to play a second instrument.  Hodges was within his rights to do so, as the By-Laws of the New York musicians union provided that (with few exceptions) a musician who played two instruments was entitled to double pay.  As Stewart put it, “request denied, and that golden tone exited from Ellington’s band forever.”

Hodges kept the soprano sax Bechet had given him long before, but he used it so little he would say he was “about ready to make a lamp out of it.”  Every now and then he would idly suggest that he was going to take up the instrument again, but he would always renege.  Harry Carney interpreted this demurral to mean that “Johnny wouldn’t have any trouble playing it, but . . . he isn’t going to play it in public unless he can play up to the level he sets himself.”  Ellington had been thinking about how he might “persuade [Hodges] to get his soprano out once more” for the Bechet portrait; he asked his son Mercer to talk to Hodges to see if he would relent, and Hodges replied “It will cost him.”  When Mercer relayed Hodges’ response to his father, Duke said “Pay him what he wants.”


              Sidney Bechet

Hodges had not been in good health; he came down with swollen glands on the band’s September, 1968, tour of South America, missing several performances, and in April, 1969, he suffered a heart seizure and had to leave the band for two months.  A British jazz writer, interviewing Hodges during a European tour in November of that year, noted that he had opted out of ensemble playing and confined himself to solos.  He began to skip dates that didn’t appeal to him, such as a sacred music concert scheduled for December in Detroit, just one night after flying back from England.  “The band’s playing at a church next Monday,” Hodges said, “but I ain’t going.”

He had been, by his own account, lucky all his life and his good fortune had carried over to the natural shocks the flesh is heir to.  According to Mercer Ellington, Hodges had three times happened “to be near the best possible hospital” when he had heart attacks. In the case of the April, 1969 incident, he was stricken on a flight following a three-night stand at the Atkinson Hotel in Indianapolis while sitting next to an oxygen tank; there was a doctor on board, and he was rushed to a hospital as soon as the plane landed.  Norris Turney and Gregory Herbert subbed for him on alto during a period of almost two months.

On May 11, 1970, however, his luck ran out.  At the end of a long stretch of touring, both domestic and international, his strength may have been at an ebb. He was in his dentist’s office in Manhattan, got up from the chair to go to the bathroom partway through a procedure, took a few steps—and collapsed.  He did not recover, and was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital at 4:30 p.m. that day.  “I sent him to the dentist,” his widow said, “and the Lord brought him back.”

His Certificate of Death gave his name simply (and incorrectly) as “John Hodges” (the name on his birth certificate was “Cornelius,” “Johnny” was a nickname.) The cause of death listed was hypertensive cardiovascular disease—elevated blood pressure resulting in heart failure—due to cardiac hypertrophy, a thickening of the heart muscle that decreases the size of the chambers of the heart.  That organ, which we consider the seat of the emotions, had toughened on the outside just as Hodges himself had maintained his steely exterior throughout his career, while at the same time a warm core burned within it—and him.  He had poured his heart into song for four decades with Ellington, and it had finally given out on him.

Funeral arrangements were made by Russell Procope, Hodges’ colleague in the reed section.  Ellington avoided funerals, as he did any intimation of mortality, but he attended Hodges’ ceremony and comforted Hodges’ mother, the “Good Queen Bess” referred to in his genial song, who kissed her son for the last time as he lay in his casket.  “He was a good son to me,” she said to Stanley Dance, who reported that she “then turned away, upright, composed, dry-eyed.”  The death of her only son must have affected her more deeply than she revealed at the time; she survived him by only a few months.  “She got sick and lost the desire to live,” her granddaughter Lorna Hodges Mafata said.

The ceremony was arranged by Procope at the Harlem Masonic temple of which both men were members, thereby avoiding affected religious sentiment that Hodges would have scoffed at.  Ellington eulogized Hodges thusly:

Edith “Cue” Hodges, Johnny’s widow, at his funeral with Russell Procope.

 

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes–this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.

Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.

            From “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” Oxford University Press, by Con Chapman.

Let Us Now Praise Sidemen: Harold Land

Jazz musicians are by nature itinerants, and so the ties of family that bind those of us with humdrum jobs tend to lie looser on their frames.  Duke Ellington, for example, kept house with three successive women in New York over the course of nearly six decades, but he often used them less as sources of domestic bliss and more as foils to fend off the matrimonial hopes of women he’d meet in clubs and on the road.  Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s long-time alto player, spent so much time away from home he missed his daughter’s high school graduation and her wedding, a source of bitterness on her part.

So when you hear of a jazz musician who made a career-changing move because of family, it places the man in high relief against a drab background of one-night stands and endless road trips that is more typical of the profession.  Such as man was tenor saxophonist Harold Land, an interesting might-have-been whose music is hard to find but worth the search.

Land was born Harold De Vance Land in Houston in 1928, and was raised in San Diego from the age of five.  He became interested in music in high school, and acquired his first saxophone in 1945.  After graduating, Land joined the musician’s union with the aid of a bass player named Ralph Houston, with whom he played his first professional gigs.  From that launching pad he worked at San Diego’s Creole Palace with a small combo led by trumpeter Froebel Brigham.  As was typical of the time, the group played both floor shows and their native brand of jazz, a West Coast variation on the then-prevailing East Coast model.


Central Avenue, Los Angeles’ answer to Harlem.

Land then went on the road with the Liggins brothers, Jimmy, a guitarist, and Joe, a pianist and vocalist who had several big rhythm and blues hits, including “The Honey Dripper” and “Pink Champagne.”  Land would later recall his time playing what is sometimes referred to as the “chicken shack circuit” as an essential course in his musical education.

Land scuffled for awhile in Los Angeles, and then got the break that brought him to national attention; at a party at Eric Dolphy’s house, Land was heard jamming by trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach, who hired him to be part of what The New York Times called “the definitive bop group.”  The sides they recorded have never gone out of print, and several original compositions by Brown on which Land is heard (“Joy Spring” and “Daahoud”) have become part of the standard jazz repertoire.


Clifford Brown, Max Roach

On the verge of fame, or at least the small beer notoriety that is sometimes the best a jazz musician can hope for, Land quit the group and returned to Los Angeles to take care of a family member who had fallen ill.  Had he “continued to tour with name groups, there is little doubt that his reputation would have been established sooner and much more firmly,” wrote jazz critic Leonard Feather, but Land took the reversal in the tide of his affairs in stride.

“We were making progress in Los Angeles, even if nobody was aware of it,” he would say later.  “There wasn’t much money, but we were having a lot of beautiful musical moments.”

Among those with whom Land created those beautiful musical moments were the pianist Hampton Hawes; the two can be heard together on “For Real!” with bassist Scott La Faro, who would die in a car accident shortly after the album was finished.  Another was Dexter Gordon, who wrote “Landslide,” a thirty-two bar melody, as a tribute to Land.  He recorded an album with strings, “A Lazy Afternoon,” that holds up with the best of that oft-maligned category.

Land continued to play close to his home until his death in 2001 at seventy-two, an age that makes him a Methuselah by jazz standards.  If long life is any measure of one’s success, what he gave up to go home was worth every second of life foregone on the road.

Stop Singing and Write Your Damn Novel

William Faulkner was once thrown out of a speakeasy for singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

 

People think it’s easy bein’ a bouncer in a speakeasy but it ain’t.  “You never have to worry about losin’ your liquor license ’cause there ain’t no such thing as a liquor license on accounta prohibition,” they say.  Hah–whadda they know.  We gotta pay off the mayor, cops, assorted politicians, temperance goody-goodies, you name it, they got their hand through the little peephole in the door.  It’s no wonder the speakeasy failure rate is so high.

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Faulkner

 

On top of that there’s the novelists.  Sheesh, what I wouldn’t do for one night–one lousy night–without that stream o’ consciousness guy, what’s his name, Faulkner, comin’ in here and ruinin’ everybody’s evenin’.

“Let him in,” the boss says.  “It gives the place cachet.”

“Like in my wife’s underwear drawer?” sez I.

“No, that’s sachet,” he says, and rather tersely I might add.  So I’m under strict orders to admit all future Nobel Prize-winning novelists, and also Scott Fitzgerald even though if you ask me he ain’t gonna win any major prizes, not while he’s alive at least.  Maybe posthumously–dead writers make more money too.

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Sachet, not cachet.

 

I hear a rap at the door and I slide the little panel to the side to look through the aperture so’s I can see who it is.  It’s Faulkner, all right, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

“What’s the password?” I ask.

“Malcolm Cowley,” the three of them sez together.  The voices of their generation, I guess.

“All right, yer in,” I sez, but I put a hand to Faulkner’s chest to let him know I don’t want no funny business.  “You!”

Yes it was me and the me who spoke was the me who was born of the octoroon in a morganatic marriage on the plantation of my incestuous mother and father, brother and sister . . .”

“Put a sock in it,” I sez.  Hemingway has already blown past me so my chances of getting decked with a sucker punch have declined dramatically.  Fitzgerald makes a bee-line to the men’s room to compare the size of his . . . uh . . . equipment to those of the others answering nature’s call at the urinal.

Image result for hemingway drinking
Hemingway

 

What is it you want from me, I who am here not by choice but by determinism the product of fates the scion of an accursed race who . . . “

“There’s plenty of places a guy can get a drink in New York, see.  We don’t have to put up with youse.  We’re running a nice little illegal drinking establishment here and I don’t want no trouble, okay?”

He takes a puff on his pipe–he’s smokin’ some kinda fruity cherry-scented stuff, smells like a goddamn faculty lounge–and ambles over to the bar at a lazy pace, just like a Southerner.

See the source image

Fitzgerald comes outta the men’s room and heads straight for the bowl of pizza-flavored goldfish on the bar, and it’s all I can do to stop him before he grabs a handful.

“Did you wash your hands?” I ask him in the brusque tone that is standard equipment for speakeasy bouncers.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing me,” he said with an air of sadness, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

I look him up and down–also sideways.  “Get back in there–now–and wash.”

He trundles off glumly–apparently the guy can’t do anything that ain’t lyrical–and I turn my attention to the bar where Hemingway is about to get into it with Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“I burn my candle at both ends and the middle.  Also I fight the bulls,” Hemingway is saying.

Image result for edna st vincent millay
Millay:  “Would you pass me the bowl of pizza-flavored goldfish please?”

 

“You think you’re so big and tough and wonderful,” she says before kicking him in the organ of Jake Barnes that didn’t work.

“Ow,” Hemingway said in the spare, stripped-down style that came as a revelation to a generation of writers.  Not at all like William Dean Howells, who if you kicked him in the nuts would give you 500 words of baroque, rococo expletives in the genteel mode.

I started to intervene but the boss says let ’em fight, it’s good for business, just don’t let it get out of hand.

“Fine, sure,” I says, but I don’t like it.  If you want to be a bouncer you got to keep things under control.  It’s a slippery slope–guys not washing their hands after urinating, getting into fistfights with ethereal lady poets.  Next thing you know you’ll have some nut in his cups singing popular songs from Broadway shows like Blackbirds of 1928 and . . . oh no.  What’s that?

Image result for blackbirds of 1928

Hey Faulkner–out you go, you bum!  Nobody sings Diga Diga Do in my joint and gets away with it!

 

Echoes From the Funeral Parlor: The Guitar of Wes Montgomery

Back in the 1940s there was a funeral home—Willis Mortuary–on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. A piano player named Sax Kari worked there during the day, and at night he’d rehearse in front of a display casket on the funerary organ with a local guitar player.

The duo broke up after what must have been the strangest audition of all time. Chitlin’ circuit promoter Denver Ferguson, who made a living booking acts such as Christine Chatman and Her Boogie Woogie Seven into nightclubs that catered to blacks, came to hear the duo in the darkened funeral chapel one night. He liked Kari’s playing, but decided that at 17 the guitarist was too young to go on the road. He hired Kari, who is now so obscure his name doesn’t appear between Kamuca, Richie and Katz, Dick, in jazz encyclopedias. The guitar player went back to practicing in his bedroom, trying to copy solos by Charlie Christian, the first great electric guitarist.

The guitar player who wasn’t signed that night was John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, born on this day and raised in Indianapolis. At the time of his audition with Kari he was just a beginner, and it showed; he was self-taught, and played with his thumb rather than a pick, a technique that he used to practice quietly, so as not to disturb his wife’s sleep, which resulted in a rough, muffled sound.

Montgomery eventually became good enough to play with Lionel Hampton’s band from 1948 to 1950–he can be heard on a few radio broadcasts from these years–but he gave up touring and returned to Indianapolis, where he worked day jobs and played clubs at night for the better part of the 50s. He was part of a musical family—one brother was a vibraphonist and the other played electric bass—so he had a ready-made trio he could fall back onto like a living room sofa at home.

In 1959 Montgomery first appeared on a commercial recording with an organ trio, and in 1960 his debut album—titled with no false modesty The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery—made him more famous than all but a few jazz instrumentalists in the country.

From that point on, except for a brief period playing in the John Coltrane sextet, Montgomery would always be the bandleader, the front man, an important distinction in the marginally-profitable world of jazz. It meant he could make a living playing his music.

Montgomery’s work is typically divided into three periods: In his early years, he recorded traditional jazz offerings in small groups that included veteran sidemen such as Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones on piano. Then there are his orchestral dates, in which he succumbed to every jazzman’s secret longing; the desire to be swathed in strings, the music of the whorehouse wrapped in high-toned finery. Some folks like this sort of stuff, but to my ears it’s like eating a steak with a side of cotton candy. And I don’t eat with my ears.

At the end of his career he signed with A&M, the home of easy-listening jazz acts such as Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Jazz fans didn’t like the studio’s use of Montgomery–simple restatements of pop standards smothered by strings and woodwinds–but the strategy put his music on AM radio and helped introduce modern jazz to people who might not otherwise have encountered it.

The quip that Ginger Rogers was more talented that Fred Astaire because she could do anything he did backwards and in high heels applies with minor changes to Montgomery. He developed a style of soloing in octaves so that he played two notes for every one played by other guitarists. To put it another way, they always had three free fingers to play their next note, while he had none. The sound he produced was soothing, but it was hard work. I remember trying to transcribe his solo on “Road Song,” from his last album of the same name, for a college jazz course. Let’s just say I faked it, the professor knew it, and I got a B.

To a generation of young guitarist wannabes in the sixties, Montgomery was a cool breeze amidst a heat wave of rock soloists who emphasized speed over soul. He died in 1968 at the age of 45 with 39 albums to his name. In 2012 newly-discovered Montgomery tapes were released as Echoes of Indiana Avenue, live recordings from 1957-58 that predate his first album.

It seems fitting that his final recording returns our impression of Wes back to his beginnings, before all those easy-listening dates, jamming on Indiana Avenue after he wasn’t good enough to make it out of a funeral parlor.

Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France.

This article originally appeared in Punchnel’s.

Jimmy Harrison, Jack Teagarden: Trombones in Black & White

Questions of influence in jazz, like the riddle “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” are generally insoluble and an idle way to spend one’s time, but that doesn’t stop people from asking them, or confidently supplying the answers.  One that has been around almost as long as the art form itself is: Did Jack Teagarden get his style from Jimmy Harrison?


Jimmy Harrison

Harrison was born James Henry Harrison in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1900.  He spent most of his youth in Detroit and Toledo, but left the Midwest at an early age to play in a touring minstrel show and ended up on the East coast, settling for a time in Atlantic City.  He then returned to Detroit and played with Hank Duncan’s Kentucky Band and Roland Smith’s Band, then moved back to Toledo, where he played with June Clark and James P. Johnson.  From 1921 to 1923 he was with various touring shows, then moved to New York where he played with Fess Williams, Charlie Smith, and June Clark again.  He bounced around for awhile, including a brief spell with Duke Ellington, then in 1927 he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band, with whom he played until his death in 1931 with only a brief interruption.  Harrison recorded with Clarence Williams, Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson, among others, but never as a leader.  He was a jazz maverick, never settling down even when he seemed to have found a secure gig.

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Jack Teagarden

Jack Teagarden was born in 1905 in Vernon, Texas, and in the early years of his career played mainly in the Southwestern United States, beginning as a teenager around the age of 15.  Like Harrison, he was a restless artist, never staying long with any one band until his later years.  He played with Cotton Bailey in San Antonio, Terry Shand in Shreveport, toured Mexico with Marin’s Southern Trumpeters, and played in Kansas City first with a group he led, then with Willard Robison’s Deep River Boys.  He spent a long time with Doc Ross’s Jazz Bandits in intermittent stretches, frequently leaving for other gigs including several with pianist Peck Kelley, and finally made it to New York in 1926 when Ross’s band was stranded in Houston.  The group heard of a job opening up at a club in Larchmont, New York from a former member who had moved East.  With the entire band in one car, the group drove to the gig, then apparently drifted off in separate directions after it was concluded.  Teagarden cut his first records shortly thereafter with the band of pianist Johnny Johnson and one put together by one-armed trumpeter Wingy Manone.

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Wingy Manone

Teagarden outlived Harrison by thirty-three years and played with big names such as Paul Whiteman and Louis Armstrong, as well as both a sextet and a big band of his own.  He is now recognized as perhaps the greatest jazz trombonist ever, as well as one of the great vocalists of the genre, while Harrison–who died young at the age of thirty–is largely forgotten except by serious jazz fans, some of whom subscribe to the notion that Teagarden was a carbon copy in white of Harrison’s black style.

The origin of this theory may have been comments by jazz writers such as Hugues Panassie and Madeleine Gautier, who preferred Harrison to Teagarden and said the latter was “inspired” by the former, and Gunther Schuller, who said Harrison influenced Teagarden.  Others disagree, including Count Basie trombonist Leo “Snub” Mosely, who said “I don’t believe what people say about Teagarden getting his stuff from Jimmy. Teagarden’s biographers Jay Smith and Len Guttridge say Teagarden was “unaware of the affinity his musical style bore to that of the best Negro players” until he heard Harrison with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra sometime after 1926.  “Whatever they held in common,” say Smith and Guttridge, “was related to feelings and modes of expression innate to each musician long before they met.”

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Leo “Snub” Mosely.

The separate geographical areas the two men traveled in during the years when they were forming their mature styles supports this view, as the opportunities to hear musicians from a distance were more limited in the days before national radio broadcasts of jazz and widespread distribution of jazz records began in the 1920s.  Harrison didn’t record at all until 1925, and his output was spotty until he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1927.

Still, it was true that Teagarden was a great admirer of Harrison’s, especially once the two were finally both living in New York City, beginning around 1927.  “Nobody loved Jimmy Harrison more than Jack Teagarden,” Count Basie said.  “Jimmy was his main man.  Every chance he got, he came uptown to hang out with Jimmy.  He was in Harlem so much that it was like he was actually living up there.”

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Count Basie

The bottom line, if there is one, is that the art form was developing at the same pace across the country, straining against the rhythms and styles of the past.   In New Orleans the trombone had been played in what was known as the “tailgate” style, more as a novelty instrument than a blues voice.  Teagarden said he listened to Bessie Smith and other blues singers, just as Harrison undoubtedly did hundreds of miles away, and the possibility of simultaneous invention of a melismatic approach to the instrument is not unlikely.

To give Harrison his due, he has been called the first modern trombonist by no less an authority than Gunther Schuller, but Teagarden’s play stands on its own.  His affinity for the music of a race to which he wasn’t born was made clear by his oft-reported greeting to Louis Armstrong when the two men first met.  ““You a spade and I’m an ofay (a now-moribund slang term for a white person),” Teagarden said to Armstrong.  “We got the same soul.  Let’s blow.”

From “Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good,” forthcoming from Equinox Publishing in 2022.

Three Women

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I want a girl like Simone Weil.
Built Renaults, and did it with style.
Wait—I know what you’re going to say.
It’s not pronounced “while”, it rhymes with “oy vey!”
Speaking of which, while she was born Jewish–
By the end of her life she was Catholic tooish.
She cut back her rations, didn’t heed fashions
You could take her to lunch for minimal cashion.
I swear, I could sit and read her all day,
this frail philosophe, sounded see-mone vey.

women

I want a girl like Flannery O’Connor—
Drank martinis, no flies on her.
She lived with her mom when she wasn’t at school–
from the looks of her photos she was nobody’s fool.
It’s hard to say which story I like most—
if I had to pick, “The Temple of the Holy Ghost”.
She raised peacocks just for the hell of it
right in her yard, enduring the smell of it.
I read her close, but write no thesis on her—
from Millidgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor.

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I wished I had heard when I was a boy
Mary Lou Williams with the Clouds of Joy.
She made a piano a thing that could swing,
when you think about it, a difficult thing.
Not quite as well known as Edward “Duke” Ellington
but among musicians, regarded as wellington.
I had an LP with her picture upon it–
I wore the thing out from playing, doggone it.
I’m still looking round for a CD in lieu
with her deft, gentle touch–Williams, Mary Lou.

Included in the collection “The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head (and Other Wayward Women)” available in Kindle and print format on amazon.com.

Jabbo Smith at the Rent-a-Car

When Cladys “Jabbo” Smith was six his
mother gave him up as an orphan.
His father had died two years before,
and she couldn’t care for him anymore.

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He learned to play trumpet and trombone,
and by the time he was ten he was touring
with the Jenkins Orphanage Band out of
Charleston, traveling the south, seeing

the world.  After a while he figured he could
make it on his own, and he started to run away,
at one point getting as far as Florida, where he
played with Eagle Eye Shields’ Band.

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They kept tracking him down, bringing him
back, until at the age of sixteen he escaped
for good, making it to Philadelphia.  He went
on to Atlantic City, playing with Harry Marsh,

then Charlie Johnson.  At the age of nineteen
he was already a veteran trumpeter, playing with
Fats Waller and James P. Johnson’s Sugar Babes.
He was in the pit band of Keep Shufflin’, on Broadway.

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He’d made a name for himself, he was a headliner.
He formed his own band, the Rhythm Aces,
and signed a recording contract with Brunswick.
He was a musician’s musician, uncompromising.

It was his luck to be an evening star eclipsed by
The brightest object in the jazz heavens: Satchmo.
Eight years his senior, Armstrong was his idol,
but Jabbo could do everything Louis could:

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Sing, scat, invent on the fly.  There were times
when Jabbo would even surpass the master,
but there wasn’t room in the firmament for
two stars of such brilliant magnitude.

The records didn’t sell well enough, and
rather than stay in Chicago, Jabbo settled down
in Milwaukee, home base for the rest of his life,
a big frog in a smaller pond than he deserved.

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He’d make forays out into the bigger world
every now and then, join a touring show, free-lance
in Detroit.  He got back to New York with
Claude Hopkins, but returned to Milwaukee

where he’d play with local groups, or in Chicago.
It wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together,
so he worked part time at a rent-a-car company,
forgotten by all but a few jazzbos, aficionados.

Before the flame finally went out he was
re-discovered, toured Europe.  But you
wonder what he was thinking about
all those years as he washed down rental cars,

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and gassed them up, and cleaned them out:
thinking of the bright lights he missed out
on, because he was just the Second Coming.
He’d done everything right, but it wasn’t enough.