We all have our influences: Duke Ellington had his Fats Waller influence, his James P. Johnson influence and he is a great admirer of Willie ‘The Lion' Smith but Sidney Bechet is tops in my book—he was my favourite! He schooled me a whole lot and I’ll say that if it hadn’t been for him, I’d probably just be playing for a hobby, not even professionally.
I met him first in Boston. He was playing with a burlesque show called Jimmy Cooper’s ’Black and White Show’ and I went backstage and asked to see him. I had a little soprano tucked under my arm, wrapped up in a cloth bag and told him I was interested in the saxophone, so he asked me to play one so I took out this old’ horn and played one. I had no idea I was going to go to New York at any time later. In the meantime I used to listen to records of his, Clarence Williams and His Blue Five; Louis Armstrong was in the band at that particular time. So I went to New York for a visit, and got a job playin' in a little ol’ cabaret at 135th Street. It was called ‘Fritz’ ... I think. I got $25.00 a week and I made about $25 to $30 a night tips.
Bechet had a club that he was going to open at 145th Street called Club Bechet and he came by one night and approached me and said he wanted me in this band right away! That was my big chance so I quit 'Fritz' and went to work for him. And it was then he used to show me different things on the soprano. We played together sometimes, but I don’t think very many people would remember that. I think it was I Found A New Baby or Everybody Loves My Baby, but I’m not quite sure which, but this was one of the things he taught me. You see, each club used to go to the Lafayette Theatre every Friday at the midnight show and advertise. Now they'd bring their whole show and, you know, the band and everything, and do a couple of acts. Fats Waller was playing organ at the time. This was all free, you didn’t get paid for this it was just all advertisement for your club. So Bechet and I did this duet, (I Found A New Baby or Everybody Loves My Baby) and that was one of the duets we played together. Before we recorded The Sheik he taught me the saxophone chorus—we spent a week in Philadelphia and he made me play it over and over, until finally we recorded it. I would like to make a record with soprano again but it is a funny instrument you know You just can’t pick it up today and put it down tomorrow and go back and play it. So I’ll have to do a little woodsheddin’ before I make this record but anyhow I intend to do it sometime sooner or later.
Back in the 20’s Carney lived about three blocks from me. I lived on Hammer Street and he lived on Connaught Street—this was in ’25 in Boston. Harry was just playing alto at that particular time. I don’t think he joined Duke’s band until he decided to play baritone. He also used to play piano, but as he says nobody else plays piano in Duke’s band!
Well, I used to go to New York for a visit, with no intention of staying and I would pick up these jobs just for the ideas, you know. It was very easy to get a job then. You'd work in a dancing school and you'd go to a jam session. They didn’t call them jam sessions then, they used to call them ‘cuttin’ contests’, and you would learn a whole lot from the different saxophone players, trumpet players, and trombone players who would come in and play all night long. You would get cut and when you got cut you went to ‘school’. So I went back to Boston and showed them what I had learned. They would all meet in my home, Harry Carney, and Charlie Holmes and some others and we would compare notes—what was new in New York and what had happened behind in Boston.
So I'd make this trip to New York every two weeks and stay over a weekend, or four or five days. Gee, there was a club on every corner in those days—there were five clubs on 134th Street. There were Small’s, Leroy’s, The Owl and Fritz’, and Connie’s—this was all in one block.
Around 1926 I joined Chick Webb, and was with him for a while. He had a terrific band.
He started with seven men and went to eight when he went to the Savoy, where after a while, I left him. He enlarged his band to ten and later on he picked up Ella Fitzgerald and that was it. I joined Duke in ’28. It was on my sister’s birthday, May 18th which is also my son’s birthday, a day to remember. I replaced Otto Hardwick; ‘Professor Booze’ they called him. He was terrific. There was no man in the world I know who could master the high notes like him.
In those days we had two different styles. Until Otto left, if you notice, during those years, I very seldom played anything slow. They were all peppy and fast tunes. As I said before. Otto Hardwick was a master of these high notes, hittin’ off them and slidin’ off them, so what happened was that Duke threw it all on me and I had to go and rehearse this thing and try to get as close to him as I possibly could. He was always first alto. As it is now, Procope and I alternate for first part. Some fit him and some fit me, so we switch back and forth like that.
I wanna do this thing soon. Four numbers on soprano and four on alto, all in one album. I want to take my time and pick out things that everybody knows. Some well known standards and probably a couple of originals. Tunes like It Don’t Mean A Thing. I used to play the verse, but I don’t think I’d be able to play it now, it has been so long. I don't think anybody in the band remembers it and we’d have a hard time findin' the music. We’ve had so many arrangements of It Don’t Mean A Thing, one for Ivy, one for Ray Nance, one for A1 Sears when he was in the band, and one for Ben Webster. It’s the same thing for Sophisticated Lady, we have so many arrangements. And so many arrangements of Main Stem and so many arrangements of Mood Indigo. The book is enormous!
When we’re playin’ a club it doesn’t matter for we have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to play. You know you’re going to play A Train. you know you’re goin’ to play Mood Indigo, you know you’re goin’ to play Sophisticated Lady, you know you’re goin’ to play Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, I Got It Bad; you know that’s all comin’. I know I’m goin’ to play All Of Me and Passion Flower, and that Duke will have to play his albums, ‘Ellington ’65', ‘Ellington ’66’. People want to hear them and he has to put them in sometime, the first show, or the second show, so you get all that up together and put it on your music stand.
I used to like picking music for my band, with Lawrence Brown, Emmett Berry, Harold Francis, Arthur Clark, Allan Walker, and Barney Richmond. I had formed the group in 1951 and kept them until ’55. Then I went to a T.V. show with Ted Steele, Cozy Cole and Jonah Jones. We only played from three ’til five, five days a week. That was nice. I used to come on at four and I got so that I used to pick out the numbers to play. I wanted to play one fast number and one slow number so it got to the point where I got some real elderly fans, these sewing circle people, you know. These women that was at home doing the sewin’, and washin’ and things like that, and these people that had club meetings. So, at four o’clock every day, I had to play some kind of a slow pretty number for these people in New Jersey.
I once listed in an article my favourite Duke Ellington records, they were Braggin’ In Brass; All Too Soon; Flamingo; Jack The Bear and Rocks In My Bed. But I’d probably add to it now. I like some of these things that Duke made with ’Ellington ’65’, ‘Ellington ’63’ and I like the ‘Marv Poppins' album very much too, I was surprised with that. We made A Little Spoonful Of Sugar that I had to play. When we made this thing, we didn’t know what we were doin’, just figurin’ we’d run two minutes of this and two minutes of that, and when it was released it sounded completely different. I like A Drum Is A Woman too.
It was a whole lot of work leading my own group and it was a whole lot of headaches too. That was my main reason to give it up because it was too much. Duke has people to worry for him, but if you have your own band you have to rush, get the tickets, get the money, go to the union and pay the tax. Then you have seven pieces and you’re supposed to start at nine o’clock and it’s five minutes to nine and there’s only five there, so you start worryin’— where’s the ther two? And here they come, two minutes to go, and then you got to worry about where you’re goin’ to work the next week—so it was too much for me. Once you get set like Duke is, you don’t have to worry, ’cause you pay someone to worry for you. But my small group recorded for Mercury and had quite a bit of success with several records. It was a lucky break. Castle Rock that was the first date and it did pretty good.
I was surprised with Japan, everybody was so nice over there, and they went for jazz so much. The Japanese musicians, they’re on the ball too. India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Beirut, all those places like that, see, they were good too. We only had to work three days a week and we had a chance to do a little socializin’ the rest of the week.
We had a chance to see the country and you know, it wasn’t hard at all. Duke Ellington was impressed with the Indian music. He wrote a suite about it, the ‘Far East Suite’. Very little escapes him. He gets his ideas from everything he sees and hears.
Jazz Journal - January 1966