Click here to read Derek Coller's fascinating biography of trombonist Al Jenkins, published in a 1995 issue of The Mississippi Rag.  For Dan's own personal remembrance of hearing Al for the first time, visit the Writer's Corner page, and find Dan's article (written for the same issue of The Mississippi Rag), "The First Time I Heard Al Jenkins."
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WRITER'S CORNER

DAN SAYS:

Thanks to my parents, Ed and Dorothee Barrett, and especially my grandfather, George Kovacevich, I began reading at an early age. Though I was an avid reader through my early years, I inexplicably lost interest in recreational reading while in high school and college. Perhaps it was simply that music took precedence.

After moving to New York City in 1983, I found myself on long bus rides to gigs, and lengthy plane flights across the United States and over to Europe, Japan, and Australia. It was during these "road trips" and flights that I renewed my love of reading.

Along the way, other musicians introduced me to the seminal American "hard-boiled" mystery writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and the late Robert Parker. I was hooked. I threw my fedora into the ring, and tried a bit of writing myself.

An article about my early hero and mentor, trombonist Al Jenkins, appeared in The Mississippi Rag in the early '90s. (Sadly, with the passing of editor Leslie Johnson, the beloved Rag is now defunct).

More recently, I've been a contributor to The Frisco Cricket, the online tabloid published by the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. (www.sftradjazz.org)

On this page you will find a few of the articles I have written, and a few that I've enjoyed reading.

The Fink Street Five, Lu Watters, and Cotati Floyd

The Fink Street Five:

I was fresh out of Heinz Kaiser Intermediate School in Costa Mesa, California. I had been involved in the school band, and over the summer continued to help Mr. Ken Owen--a great band director and great man--teach the beginners who had signed up for the summer band. I liked Mr. Owen, and he was a very positive influence on me, musically and personally. I’m sorry that he left us several years ago.

That summer of 1969 was a special one. I had fun sitting in with the beginning trombonists (I was a veteran, having played four years already, starting with Mr. Owen in fifth grade). I got some kind of pre-adolescent ego fulfillment by imparting my special wisdom on the young, up-and-coming trombone players. Both of them.

The student instructors would always hang around the band room after the rehearsals ended, and joke around with Mr. Owen. One day, a high school student named Doug Bradford came in to say hi to Mr. Owen. I was putting my horn away when I overheard Mr. Owen ask Doug, who was a pianist, what he’d been working on lately. Doug replied that he had recently become interested in ragtime and early jazz.

“They call it ‘traditional jazz.’”

“You mean Dixieland?” asked Mr. Owen.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Doug replied. “Don’t EVER call it that. You can call it traditional jazz, or trad, but never Dixieland or Dixie.  The band I go to hear on weekends plays Traditional Jazz. You know—songs by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Turk Murphy.”

Those were wonderfully strange and alluring names to an eighth-grader.  Mr. Owen looked puzzled, and I found myself walking over their way.

“What band are you talking about?” I asked.

“The South Frisco Jazz Band. They play over at the “Pizza Palace” in Huntington Beach, Friday and Saturday nights.”

“Well-what’s this ‘traditional jazz’ you’re talking about? What kind of instruments do they have?” I asked. Mr. Owen was trying not to look amused at this serious exchange between two fledgling musicians.

“Well, let’s see…the leader’s name is Vince Saunders. He plays the banjo. And a guy named Robbie Rhodes plays piano, except sometimes it’s Ron Ortmann...they’re both real good…and Roy Brewer is the trombonist, and they have an eccentric old guy on cornet. Ray Ronnei..”

“Did you say cornet?” Mr. Owen inquired.  Most guys play trumpets now. “I thought cornets went out with washtubs!”

“Oh, yeah—that reminds me. They have this guy, Bob Raggio, who plays washboard. You wouldn’t believe it. He has a woodblock and cowbell attached to it, and he’s got more rhythm than ten drummers.”

By the time Doug told me about Bob Rann and his old tarnished silver tuba, and shy Mike Baird on clarinet and alto sax, I was hooked.

“That sounds kind of like the Pete Kelly’s Big Seven line-up,” I said. “My older brother has some of their records at home. “ I was trying to sound like I knew something about this stuff to this—this—high school student.

“Well, yeah—that stuff’s great, but you’ll never hear Pete Kelly’s band play Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner, or Emperor Norton’s Hunch.”

Wow-a band with a trombone player and a cornet player, and a clarinet and tuba and banjo, and upright piano, and--and a washboard, playing songs with weird titles like Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner and Emperor Norton’s Hunch.  Oh, I was hooked all right.

“Can-can anyone go to hear this band?” I wondered.

Doug looked at me kindly, and with only a trace of high school superiority. “Well sure,” he said. I’m going tomorrow night. Ask your parents if it’s OK for you to join me. You live around here, right? I can pick you up and drop you off at home after. But check with your parents.”

And I did. And we went. And it was great, and it changed my life. But this story is about the Fink Street Five.

After my indoctrination to the wonders of the “Pizza Palace,” and the great hot jazz of the South Frisco Jazz Band, and the world of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, and Lu Watters and Turk Murphy, and the guys behind the counter shouting out pizza numbers in the middle of 1919 Rag, and Bob Rann reaching up behind him at the end of the set and pulling down a movie screen and Vince Saunders wheeling out an old Bell and Howell movie projector, and flipping a switch, and us seeing Laurel and Hardy in all their silent glory on the screen, and getting to know the guys in the band, and having them spend their breaks with me, and talking about chords and harmony and rhythm, and meeting trombonist Frank Demond (who eventually replaced Roy Brewer), and cornetist Al Crowne (who alternated with Ray Ronnei, and who was a friend of Ellington cornetist Rex Stewart), and reedmen John Smith and Bill Carter (who both subbed for Mike Baird occasionally)--after all that, I eventually noticed two college-age guys who would come in almost every weekend. One night, one of them came over to my table and said,

“Hi. How ya doing?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve seen you guys here before…like, a lot. Are you musicians?”

“Yeah, we are. I’m Laurence Wright. I play sax and clarinet.”  Laurence was tall and pretty thin. He had short black hair and a thin black mustache, and black horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a plaid short sleeve shirt and black pants with red socks. He looked like he should have been off somewhere inventing the first personal computer.

The other guy, who had a handlebar mustache like Vince Saunders’s, and an open, affable face, said, “Hi. I’m Paul Woltz. I play bass sax and other instruments.”

“Wow…  Uh, my name’s Danny Barrett. I play the trombone.”

“Trombone, huh. Well, you’re not modern, are you?’ Larry asked.

“Gosh, no. I like Turk—and Big Jim Robinson—and Kid Ory.” I said.

“You do, huh.” Larry was all business now.

“Maybe was should tell Jeff about him,” Paul said to Larry.

“Yeah, yeah. I was thinking about that,” Larry replied out of the side of his mouth. “OK, uh, Danny--what are you doing next week?”

“Well, it’s summer, an’ there’s no schooI…I dunno. Nothing, I guess.”

“OK...here’s my number.  Ask your Mom and Dad if you can come with us to a rehearsal in Hollywood. A friend of ours leads a jazz band up there.”

“Rehearsal? HOLLYwood? Wow! Well—I—I’ll ask!”

There I was, minding my own business, drinking my root beer and having my pepperoni pizza, and two COLLEGE guys invite me to a rehearsal!  In HOLLYWOOD!”

“Uh, Laurence?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“What’s the name of the band?”

Laurence looked at me with a smirk that I would get to know well over the ensuing years.

“It’s a pretty hot band, kid. It’s the Fink Street Five.”

Wow.

I rode up to Hollywood, and up into Laurel Canyon, where I met the other band members. Jeff Beaumonte was the leader, and the band’s bass saxophonist. I just saw him not long ago, and was happy to find him looking well, and still active in trad jazz. When I met him, Jeff was in his early twenties—the Old Man of the band--and had a record collection that wouldn’t quit. Well, actually, it did quit. It quit at about January 1, 1930.

Steve Resnick was the pianist in the band, He now lives in New York City, and I get to see him and his wife, Dafna, whenever I get back to the Big Apple. Steve still has a laser beam where most folks store their wit. He makes Groucho Marx look asleep at the wheel.

Paul Woltz played banjo with us at that time, and Laurence, who had told me he played reeds, surprised me by pulling an old cornet out of a beat-up leather case.

“Oh, yeah—I play this, too,” he said.

“And this is Mike Arnold, our clarinetist,” said Jeff. “He gives us our band name.”

“Hi, Mike,” I said. “Oh, did you name the band? That’s a good one—Fink Street Five. It sounds, well, funny,”

The guys in the band looked at each other.

“You don’t live around here, do you Danny?” Mike said.

“Well—no. I come from Orange County.”

“That explains it,” Mike said. He turned to Jeff.

“I didn’t say Mike named the band. I said he gives us our band name. See, there’s a little side street just off Fairfax down the hill from here. Mike lives there. Fink Street.”

I didn’t believe it until I saw it. But yes, Virginia, there is a Fink Street. And there were the six of us to prove it.

The rehearsal went well enough, and Jeff started finding us little gigs here and there. My parents were pretty lenient about letting me go all the way to Hollywood or Los Angeles—even Yuma, Arizona-- to play with the band, but I guess they trusted the guys, and knew I wouldn’t get into much trouble.  We’d play Sundays at the various jazz society meetings that were thriving back then. Our two favorites were the South Bay New Orleans Jazz Club, then in El Segundo (now still active in Manhattan Beach) and the Hot Jazz Society, founded by Floyd and Lucille Levin. The Hot Jazz Society met at Larchmont Hall in Los Angeles. Both of those clubs had an almost equal number of blacks and whites who attended every month. Can you imagine being a teenage boy, just learning about jazz, seeing Sammy Lee, a very dark man originally from New Orleans, ride his shiny silver tenor saxophone like a swinging cowboy in the saddle, waving a white handkerchief, and shouting “Hi-yo! Hi-yo, Silver!,”  with a boogie-woogie band behind him? Or the former Ellington and Armstrong clarinetist Barney Bigard, and Ory and Armstrong clarinetist Joe Darensbourg, playing duets like Creole Love Call?  As if that weren’t enough, Andy and Ruth Blakeney would usually drop by.

Andy had worked with King Oliver, replacing Bob Schoffner in the Dixie Syncopators in the ‘20s in Chicago. He later worked for several years with Kid Ory’s band.  At the jazz society sessions, Andy would get out his trumpet and play a few tunes; perhaps with pianist Alton Purnell (from the George Lewis band) and Ed “Montudie” Garland. Ed Garland played bass with King Oliver, and was in Oliver’s band for an historic train trip from New Orleans to Southern California in 1922. Later, he and Andy spent time together in Kid Ory’s band at the Beverly Caverns, among many other places.

After we’d been wowed by all these greats of jazz, the Fink Street Five would climb up on to the stage, and give out with Cakewalkin’ Babies (From Home), and Jazzin’ Babies Blues, Emperor Norton’ s Hunch, and even The Nightmare, which we’d learned from the original 78-rpm record that Jeff Beaumonte had, by the New Orleans Owls. The audiences—and all the guys I just mentioned—were uniformly generous in their applause and encouragement.

It was pretty heady stuff for a high school student from Costa Mesa, California.

Little by little, I guess word got around about this group of kids (well, OK, Jeff was in his twenties) who played up a storm, and knew the old tunes and style. Turk Murphy and Lu Watters were of course two of our heroes (still are), and early in 1969, we were very surprised to hear that we’d been invited to come up to San Francisco to play for a benefit for Clancy Hayes, who was ailing with throat cancer.  The event was to be held at Turk’s club at 630 Clay Street: Earthquake McGoon’s.

            I remember the long drive up there with the Fink Street Five, with lots of joking and laughs, and much talk about who was the hotter trumpet player: Louis Armstrong or Jabbo Smith. Then one of us would always mention Bix, and we were off on another argument. After we arrived at McGoon’s, we all felt bad when we saw what kind of shape Clancy was in. He nobly played and even sang, but he had a folded handkerchief resting on his lower jaw as he performed, and looked very gaunt and pale.  Another happier memory of the day was when Turk's own band took the stage. They lit into Buddy's Habits, and they were playing it for keeps. A few of our group were sitting at one of those small cocktail tables just off stage left, over on Turk's side. In the midst of all this really hot stuff, Turk took a break that was so terrific, I crawled under the table to hide! It got a good laugh from the rest of the Fink Streeters.  With most of Turk’s band gone now, I’m heartened to know that Leon Oakley and Carl Lunsford are still giving out with their special brand of hot playing.

            By the time of our appearance at McGoon’s, the Fink Street bunch had made a few personnel changes. My Newport Harbor High School band mate, Bryan Shaw, had joined us on cornet, and Laurence began playing second cornet. (Larry plays every instrument you’ll find in a seven-piece jazz band; and several you won’t). Mike Arnold (the clarinetist who lived on Fink Street) went off to college, and was replaced by a Japanese exchange student named Hironobu “Yoshi” Yoshikawa, who—as of a couple of years ago—was still playing hot jazz back in his homeland.  The great drummer (and an ace journalist and writer) Hal Smith had also been playing with us; that is, when we weren’t playing in Hal’s own Down Home Jazz Band.  Bill Mitchell, a veteran of the southern California trad scene (also a man of letters) graciously agreed to join us on piano for the occasion. Also, by that time, Steve Resnick--our hot washboardist--had migrated to the banjo.

 

            Steve was responsible for one of the funnier lines that any of us came up with during the band's existence. There we were, teenagers on stage at Earthquake McGoon's, playing for Turk Murphy and his band, and Lu Watters, and many other heroes of ours. To quote a phrase my father used from time to time, we were as “nervous as a group of pregnant nuns.”

Well, we launched into Ory's Creole Trombone, and everything was going along fine until the "dogfight" part; that little marching band-type interlude where the trombone has the staccato breaks. We played that part through to the end, and then I had to play a four bar break before the band came back in. I guess I was feeling frisky, so I tried to play "between the beats," like Ory did on Louis's Hot Five recording. I'm not sure who the real culprit was, but I think the band just wasn't ready for my shenanigans, and everybody came in differently. We almost fell apart, and limped to the end.   We still got a generous hand, but some self-appointed critic in the house yelled out, "Why don't you play one you KNOW?!"  Steve Resnick shot back, "We're still LOOKING for one!" And that brought the house down. A sixteen-year-old kid wiping out a heckler. It was great. 

            Later that day--late afternoon as I remember it--the benefit was over, but we still felt like playing. I don't know whose idea it was, but someone walked us over to Washington Square Park, where we played for a small group from McGoon's including Lu Watters himself, who had walked over to hear more of us. He was very generous in his praise, and offered a couple of musical suggestions, as I recall; probably correcting some chord changes, and other very constructive criticism. It was kind of him.

Lu Watters and Cotati Floyd:

Not long before that memorable experience at Earthquake McGoon’s, I had ridden from Costa Mesa to Cotati with Larry Wright and a clarinetist named Tat Thomas, in Tat's tiny MG-TC two-seater. I was fourteen. Larry and Tat were both in junior college by then; probably eighteen. I remember my father having a long talk with Larry about my age, and innocence, and all that, and to look out for me, and if anything happened to me, Larry's life, as he knew it, would be over. Well, they took me anyway. It wasn’t going to be a luxury ride. The Triumph had no back seat! You wouldn't believe it to see me now, but in those days, I was slender and wiry enough to curl up in the modest luggage area behind the two seats in the car. I rode that way, hunched over in back, for the day's drive to Cotati. I think Larry and Tat let me unfold myself once at a gas station on the way up.

Ah, youth.

Lu's house was a small, rustic, stand-alone job, with no visible neighbors. The yard had fallen to weeds, and there was an old rusted-out car in the yard with more weeds around it. I remember thinking it was just like the story I’d read about Bix and Pee Wee Russell sharing a house one summer. They had a junk car that they kept out in back, just so they could use the side mirror for shaving. 

At some point in the afternoon, Lu asked us if we’d drive him into town so he could get a haircut. Now four of us were in Tat’s tiny Triumph!  Lu was in the passenger seat next to Tat. Larry and I were on the trunk, legs hanging into the backseat, holding onto the roll bar so we wouldn’t fall off. If only my folks (or the Highway Patrol) could’ve seen us.

We found the barbershop easily enough, with its red, white and blue striped pole spinning gently out in front. The barber was a ringer for “Floyd the Barber” on the old Andy Griffith show: horn-rimmed glasses and short, black, wavy, hair parted down the middle, Brylcreemed to a fine luster. He actually wore a white barber's smock, just like Floyd in the Andy Griffith Show, and the old movies I was getting to know. Cotati's Floyd, though, was a little weirder than Mayberry's.

As he cut Lu's hair, he kept eyeing me, and finally suggested, "Hey, sonny, there are some magazines and newspapers on that high shelf over there you might like."  He waved at them with his clippers.  He went back to Lu's hair, and Lu said, "Hey, hey now, why don't you leave the kid alone?"

Cotati Floyd chuckled in a lecherous way I hadn’t ever heard before, and replied, "Well, gee, Lu, the kid's gotta grow up sometime." By then I'd made it over to The Shelf, and picked a tabloid newspaper from the pile. That was my sudden introduction to Screw Magazine. Yikes! So much for the innocence that my Dad had nobly tried to protect. I guess between my eyes bulging out of my head, and my cheeks turning crimson, I looked pretty funny, because both Larry and Tat, and Lu and Cotati Floyd (and a couple of other guys watching all this unfold) started laughing out loud. To my credit, I put the paper back on the shelf. I only picked it up again a couple of times while we were there.  Honest.

We drove Lu back to his place, and he fixed chili for us. It was the four-alarm variety, and sensational. He talked a little about the Dawn Club, and what it was like, and let us ask all the questions he'd already answered over the years for so many others. Then, as our visit was winding down, he said he had something for us. He went into his bedroom, and came out with twelve old, brown, spiral-bound manuscript notebooks. He put them on the table, and said,

"OK, fellows. Here are my charts from the old Yerba Buena band. Keep them as long as you need to. Feel free to copy them. Just get them back to me someday, will you? I worked hard on ‘em."

We couldn't believe it. This was like the Holy Grail for traditional jazz musicians. I gingerly opened the top book, labeled Cornets I & II, and looked at the first page: Richard M. Jones' Blues, Lu's re-working of Jones's All Night Blues. I was beside myself. What a gift. We thanked him profusely, and finally said goodbye. He stood on his porch, and he waved to us as we drove off.

We kept the books for a while, and made early Xerox copies of the wealth they contained. They taught us a great deal about proper chord construction, bass lines, and of course enabled us to play songs we'd only hitherto dreamed about playing.  We noticed that each of his originals in the books--Sage Hen Strut, Antigua Blues, Yerba Buena Strut, Annie Street Rock, and Emperor Norton’s Hunch--had a small addition in the upper right corner of their first page: S.S. Antigua, and the date Lu composed it. He’d composed those tunes--and indeed written out all of the music in those books--while on his troop ship in World War II.  We eventually sent the books back to Lu, with a sincere note of thanks.

Thanks to Doc and Dottie Lawless and the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Society, Lu's music is of course now available to anyone who would like to have it, and I think that's a good thing.  However, nothing beats holding those original books in our hands, and feeling, for a time, a direct connection with Lu and Turk and Bob Scobey, Bob Helm and Wally Rose, Dick Lammi and Harry Mordecai and Bill Dart--those original Minstrels of Annie Street.

It’s fun to reminisce once in a while, and remember the men and women, many or most long gone now, who did so much to help a few young kids who were sincere in their desire to learn about this special music.  I wouldn't trade those days, or the ones right now for that matter, for anything (except maybe my old '66 Mustang).

Dan Barrett

Costa Mesa, CA

17 June 2004 & 4 June 2010

The First Time I Heard Al Jenkins

Click here to read a piece Dan wrote nearly twenty years ago for The Mississippi Rag.  The Rag was produced and edited by the late Leslie Johnson.  Leslie was a professional journalist and a simply terrific human being.  The Mississippi Rag was by far the finest newspaper of its kind for traditional jazz fans. Its presses stopped for good when Leslie passed away in January of 2009. 
 
Dan says: "This article is an admittedly sentimental reminiscence about the very first time I heard the legendary trombonist, Al Jenkins. Later on, I was lucky enough to get to know Al, and I performed with him many times around southern California. We recorded one CD together: Reunion With Al, on the Arbors Records label, on which I play cornet as I used to do alongside Al on those gigs around Los Angeles and Orange County, California. Al remains a huge influence upon my own playing; I still think of Al often and fondly."

I was in high school when my parents drove me to a bar in El Monte, California. Now, please understand that they weren't in the habit of contributing to the delinquency of minors; not at all!  Rather, they knew I was serious about playing jazz, and we had heard that a jazz group had just begun a steady gig there. I guess they served food, or something passing for food, in order for me to be allowed in the place. But basically, it was a middle-class, blue collar bar. I recall the name of the joint was the "Jolly Jug." I wonder if it's still there...

We found three open chairs. My parents each ordered a high ball ("whatever THAT is," I remember thinking), and I had a Coke. We'd arrived just in time: the band began their opening number!

I remember being excited at hearing cornetist John Finley's beautiful sound. It was a cross between Bobby Hackett's warm tone, and that of Hackett's original hero, Bix Beiderbecke. My own future mentor, Bill Campbell--whom I would meet at Disneyland several years later--may have been on piano that night, but I honestly can't remember.  I vaguely recall a clarinetist, and I think a trombonist from the local jazz societies, but..their names are lost to the mists of time (and many beers over the years).

Whatever that first song was, I remember it as being loose, fun, and swinging.  They followed that auspicious opener with another couple of traditional jazz standards; what Louis Armstrong called "good old good ones."  Then it was time to change the mood, and slow the tempo down.

The band launched into the Fats Waller - Andy Razaf classic, Black and Blue. Solos went all around, and then John looked over at the bassist.
"Hey, Bill!" John called quietly.
Bill brought his head up from the bass and looked over, his eyebrows raised under his horn-rimmed glasses.
"You want any of this one?" John asked. The pianist was soloing, and it was getting desperately near the end of his solo. Something would have to happen, and soon...
Bill nodded, and shot out a quick "Yeah," between beats.  The downbeat of the next chorus came a second or two later, and Bill began playing the melody of Black and Blue on his string bass. He was "singing" the song on the bass, just like a top-notch horn player can sing a song on his or her instrument. I was amazed!  Up until right then, I didn't know you could do anything but thump on a bass, or play long low notes with a bow, like the guys in the symphony orchestras. (Please remember, I was about fifteen years old).
Bill finished his solo, and received a tremendous amount of applause. The band ended the song, and played a bright tune to close the set.  I went up to the small bandstand as the guys were getting off for their break. I waited until Bill found a safe spot for his bass. He turned around and gave me a big smile.
"How you doing, young man?" he asked.
"Fine, thank you, sir," I replied. "You're Mister Hadnott, aren't you?"
"Yes, but please call me Bill!"
I told him how much I enjoyed his solo on Black and Blue, and that I'd never heard anyone play a melody on the bass before; that I thought it was terrific.

Bill thanked me, stepped over to the table to meet my parents, and with that small social exchange, we were suddenly friends. I'll never forget him. Below is a reminiscence about just one of many nights we shared. As many as there were, though, I could have used that many more.

BILL HADNOTT

Kansas City Bass

 I owe a debt I can never repay to the community of African-American musicians who had settled in the Los Angeles area years ago.  They invited me to play with them, and though I was very young and inexperienced, they treated me as a peer. Without letting me know they were doing it, they showed me how to play their special brand of jazz; a way of playing music that is, sadly, almost unknown and unheard today.

 Most were from New Orleans.  Those musicians and their families came out west in the decades after Kid Ory and King Oliver both brought bands to California in the early 1920s.  When they each finally made it back to New Orleans, the Kid and the King must have raved about the Pacific Ocean, the temperate coastal weather, and the countless fragrant orange groves.  Another lure was the bounty of work to be found both in the burgeoning film studios in and around Hollywood, and in the myriad night clubs, bars, restaurants, and dance halls springing up to cater to the new movie industry.  Not the least, the racial climate in Los Angeles and Hollywood must have been more appealing than that which blacks faced in the Deep South in those years; by 1925, the Civil War had ended only six decades before.

 A man who had a huge impact on me (both musically and personally)--whom I met during those formative years in southern California--was not a New Orleanian.  He came from one of the other towns so important to the roots of jazz: Kansas City.  His name was Bill Hadnott.  Bill was one of the best, busiest, and most-loved bassists in the swirling jazz scene that was early Kansas City.  He played with pianist Bill Basie long before the piano man was appointed a Count, and worked with just about every jazz legend you read about in the books, including pianists Basie, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann; trumpeters Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison and Buck Clayton; tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young; alto players Charlie Parker (and Parker’s mentor, Buster Smith); and the two greatest blues shouters of them all, Little Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner. 

 In 1940, Bill Hadnott recorded for RCA Victor with a ground-breaking big band from Kaycee: Harlan Leonard’s Rockets.  He later made many sides with the singing--and swinging--pianist/vocalists, Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher.  Those were terrific jazz recordings, and also quite successful commercially.  This would have been enough for any bass player’s resume, but Bill earned a place in jazz history with his witty, unexpected solo on Oh, Lady Be Good, recorded “live” with an early edition of “Jazz at the Philharmonic.”

 The first time I heard that recording, it was on my car radio.  It was late at night. I was driving home from a gig in LA, and I’d tuned in to a late–night jazz show a friend of mine hosted back then.  (Back in the day, you could actually hear jazz once in a while on the radio; even on a jazz station!)

 I’d been working regularly with Bill, and nearly drove off the road when I heard the DJ announce “Bill Hadnott” right after Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and Charlie Parker!  I didn’t know he’d played with those guys!  A few nights later, over a couple beers, I asked Bill about his solo on that historic recording.

 Bill laughed gently, and pushed up his glasses like he always did. He said,  “Bird”-- (that’s alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s nickname,  for those of you who usually listen to Shep Fields’ Rippling Rhythm)—“was late for the concert, and he walked in a little after the band began playing Lady Be Good.  He made that “dramatic” entrance (you could hear the quotation marks as Bill smilingly said it), blowing as he walked out from backstage, up to the microphone.  The audience just flipped!  Bird played two choruses. He was swinging, man!  In fact, Bird’s solo was so great that no one wanted to follow him!”

 Bill took a cautious sip of beer and continued. 

 “Well, nobody came in after Bird, see, so…I took it!  I guess that surprised everybody, ‘cause on the recording, you can hear the band and the audience laugh a little bit, and somebody says, “Yeah, Bill!” I guess it turned out all right, and I was happy to finally have a solo on a recording. In those days, the bass players—well, they rarely if ever got to play any solos!”

 Parker had a long-running fight with heroin addiction, and was in the state hospital at Camarillo when Bill married his wife Gwen. Not long after that, Parker was released. Parker’s home was in New York City, but there he was in California with no place to go. He called his old friend from Kansas City days: Bill Hadnott.

 “So, Gwen and I took him in. Poor Charlie,” Bill said, he smiled, and looked down at the floor as he shook his head. “See, we all thought he was cured. But, that smack—man, that’s a tough one to kick.  Charlie would take to spending longer and longer in our bathroom.  Gwen and me, we was just starting out.  We had just a small house back then, and only the one bathroom. Over and over again, Gwen would want to get in there, you know, and Bird would be in there. I knew what he was doing, but Gwen—she didn’t know about dope or smack. She was sweet, and kind of innocent, you know?” Bill again chuckled gently, and said, “I’d tell her the food at the Camarillo hospital had messed up Charlie’s bowels, and he’d be all right in a few days. Then when Gwen wasn’t around, I’d try to talk with Charlie about really tryin’ to kick. It didn’t do no good, though, and those sessions in the bathroom would turn into hours. A couple times, he passed out—you know, “nodded off”-- in there! It got to be too much, and when I finally tol’ Gwen what was really goin’ on, we both decided it was time for Bird to find another place to stay. I think he went back to New York soon after. I’m just sorry I couldn’t help him more, but then, nobody could. He was a real nice guy, though; real friendly, and polite; real nice guy…”

 During the year that Bill and I worked together--(three nights a week at a small club in Toluca Lake, California; the band was led by pianist Kenny Watts)--I divided the week between my parents’ home in Costa Mesa, and staying with Bill and Gwen Hadnott in Inglewood.  I’ll never forget the kindness the Hadnotts showed me during that impressionable time in his life.

 One night, at the club, Kenny was playing a solo. We were grouped around an old-fashioned “piano bar.” Kenny was seated at the low upright piano, with a naugahyde banquette around its perimeter. The bar patrons would sit at the banquette arund the piano, and rest their drinks on the built-in counter surrounding the piano. You don’t see these things too often anymore; probably because nobody can play piano anymore.

 Well, there I was with my trombone, seated just to Kenny’s right, and right in front of Bill.  I was listening to Kenny’s epigrammatic solo.  Bill was playing his bass, backing Kenny up. Then Bill says, “Hey, Danny, what ‘you doin’ after this?” I got a little edgy, because Kenny would get hacked if we talked during his solos. I just shook my head, to let Bill know I’d talk to him later. But Bill laughed, and while still playing great, swinging bass, he said, “C’mon, man, where you goin’? You got a date or anything?”  Bill laughed again.

 Kenny put his head down, and started to play a little harder. His lips were compressed. Oh, man…

 Now I had to come in for the last chorus. I remember trying to play with Bill telling me, “look, a friend of mine is playing ‘lectric piano at a surprise party for a cat over to Watts, who’s retirin’ from the POST Office, see?” I nodded, with the trombone in my mouth. Some conversation. Now, instead of being angry, Kenny started laughing; just a little bit.

 Bill continued, bent over toward me so as not to bug Kenny. Too much. “So, what say we go over there an’ sit in? He don’t have no bass player, so I said I’d play for him. C’mon, go wit’ me, man!”

 I nodded again, and played a little tag to end the tune. Kenny played a couple of chime chords and turned around and laughed at us. “You guys,’ he said. “You two cats talk more’n Heckle ‘n’ Jeckle, man, an’ they talk a whole damn lot, too!” And I hadn’t said a word!

 By this time, the little group of customers clustered around the piano bar was all laughing with us, too. “What the heck,” I said to Bill. “Sure, I’ll go.”

So, after the gig, we got into Bill’s huge yellow Chrysler Imperial.  His bass just fit in the trunk. Some trunk!  I put my horn in the backseat.  Bill reached in back, and came up with a loosely-woven, dark brown wool tam-o-shanter, with a great big fluffy yellow ball on the top. YOU might have told him he looked kind of silly in it, but I’ll be damned if I was going to.

 We drove off, and something he said caused me to start in my seat. “Hey, Bill—did you say Watts? As in, Watts where those riots were in the ‘60s?”

 Bill angled the Chrysler around a corner with not much more effort than bringing around the Ile de France. He glanced over at me, and said, “Yeah, Danny, but you don’t have to worry ‘bout none o’ that. You with me, man. Ain’t gonna be no trouble. You’ll see.” 

 We got to the block, and finally found an empty dry-dock for Bill’s car. We had a little walk up the street, but we could hear the party already.  Sounded like a good one. In the middle of the next block there were bright Christmas lights of many colors strung around the high fence of one backyard, and I could hear a pretty hip version of The Work Song being played on an electric piano. There was a good drummer, but they could use a bass. They’d be glad to see Bill, no doubt.

 Well, we walked in—this very dark, older guy wearing a goofy tam-o-shanter, carrying a string bass, and a skinny white kid with bushy black hair and a trombone case—and you’d think we were two pop stars. A crowd surrounded Bill, clapping him on the back, and wanting him to drop everything and get a few pounds of food and a keg of beer.  I too was warmly welcomed, and a dozen people offered to carry my case the nine or ten feet to the little band area.  There were perhaps fifty people in the modest backyard, many sitting at wooden benches, and others standing about, balancing paper plates and drinks. Most of the people were older. All were black, save one white couple I saw seated at a table near the middle.

 We put our instruments down, and Bill set about introducing me to everyone he could. The musicians stopped, and walked over. They couldn’t stop smiling. “Bill, Bill—man,  so good to see you. Thanks so much for coming over. Who’s your skinny little buddy, ha, ha!”

 Bill introduced me to those guys, too.  We were again encouraged to get some food, and something to drink; so we did!  I looked at my watch; it was two in the morning, and the party was just warming up! I was making my way through some awfully good barbecued ribs, and I suddenly heard spoons being clinked against glasses. Everyone quieted down.

 An elderly man in a blue Cardigan post office sweater, a plain white shirt, and dark slacks stood up. His hair was close-cropped, and mostly gray. He wore gold wire-rimmed glasses, bright against his chocolate-brown skin. He just shook his head, and looked at the ground. He’d raise his head to speak, but seemed overcome by emotion, and would just put his head back down, and shake it from side to side. His wife came up beside him, and rubbed his shoulder with one hand. He looked at her, and out at us. He cleared his throat. I can’t remember word for word what he said, but it went something like this:

 “Y’all know, this is some surprise to me. Some surprise. Some kind of surprise, all right.” He looked over at his wife, who beamed at him. You could feel her love all over him. It was tangible. Everyone was quiet now.

He said, “I been workin’ for a long time, man.”
Someone shouted, “Tha’s for sure, baby!” The crowd laughed, and murmured in agreement.

“But y’know, it ain’t—it ain’t ever seemed to me like work. Now, listen to me, please. I got this house, an’ I put my boy and girl through college…”

Murmurs of “yes you did, uh huh…”

“An’ I got a nice car, and good benefits, an’—an’ Sylvia an’ me, we been on some nice vacations…seen lots of beautiful places…” He looked over at her.

Sylvia nodded, still beaming.

“Well, I mean---at the beginning, yeah--it seemed like work. Oh, yeah!” His “Oh, yeah” was so emphatic, the crowd erupted in laughter, I was transfixed. Bill was next to me, and patted me on the shoulder.

“But then, I got to know y’all, one by one. You all were so, so kind to me…Jenny, David, Wesley, Joanne, Tyford—all of you. All of you! An’ one day, I realized I wasn’t goin’ to work anymore; I was jus’ getting’ up to go see my FRIENDS! My FRIENDS! An’ you’re all here tonight, all my FRIENDS!” He was crying now. We all were, and nobody cared.

“I’m the richest man in the world, ‘cause I got this beautiful family, and a good roof over this ol’ gray head, an’ I got all of you. Thank you so much…from the bottom of my heart I thank you…now, please, everybody, have a GOOD time, an’ ENJOY yourselves.. y’all mean so much to me…” He sat down, and put his hands over his face. Sylvia smiled at everybody, and shrugged her shoulders, to say, “you all know how he gets.” She leaned over and hugged him, and he hugged her like his life depended on it.

Somebody shouted, “We love you, Raymond!” and that chant was taken up until more applause drowned it out.

 The piano player got back behind his electric, and I saw the drummer ready to go. I quickly got my horn out, and Bill—still wearing his tam—uncovered his bass. The pianist looked at me.

“’A Train’ OK, Danny?”

I said, “Sure,” and he played the classic Duke Ellington introduction to Take the A Train. I played the melody, and felt Bill’s strong presence behind me. Bill Hadnott: one of the last of the mighty Kaycee bassists; what a thing to behold behind you! The sound, drive, strength. The pianist was comping in a very hip, positive way, and the drummer’s time also now felt much stronger with Bill anchoring the beat. The end of the chorus arrived, and in that spontaneous, Zen way that can’t be explained, everybody stopped cleanly on the same beat, and I knew I was to play a “break” into the first solo. I was ready, and tried to play something that said, “Let’s have FUN!”

 Well, I played some kind of break, and I heard shouts and even a couple of happy screams, and “Yeah, baby!” and “Blow your horn!” and “All right!” The crowd gave me a surge of excitement, and I played a couple of adrenaline-fueled choruses and got a warm round of applause.  The pianist launched into his solo, and started swinging hard. A few people got up and started dancing on the little patio in front of us. I looked back at Bill, and he was smiling down at me, digging into his bass strings, his face already shiny with sweat, his glasses slipping again and that fluffy ball bobbing on top of his head, and he wore a look that said, “You see? You see, Danny?”

 Yeah, Bill. You’re right.

 

--Dan Barrett

Costa Mesa, CA

2010


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