Tom Wayburn, aka Tommy Wayburn, is a jazz drummer and chemical engineer from Detroit. As a young man he earned a chemical engineering degree but he preferred playing jazz. In the official jazz annals his pinnacle is playing drums on pianist Lennie Tristano’s 1956 recording Manhattan Studio. Tom was in and out of the 821 Sixth Avenue loft scene for many years, even living there after Gene Smith moved out, but he never altogether dropped science. On one of Smith’s tapes from 1960 Tom can be heard discussing his part-time work translating Russian scientific journals into English. In the late 1960s he did PhD work in math at NYU and left with an MS degree when the student strike of 1970 began. In 1979, suffering from addictions and tiring of the jazz struggle, he noticed an article in the Wall Street Journal about a shortage of petroleum engineers in America. He went to the library and noted several universities with petroleum engineering programs. He settled on the University of Utah. During his flight from New York to Utah, and the next day while walking the streets of Salt Lake City looking for housing, he went cold turkey on his drug habit. For the following three decades Tom has been teaching in universities, playing music, developing software, doing research, and writing on energy, economics, and politics. He also indulges his hobby of model railroad construction. We caught up with him in Houston in 2003 and have remained in touch. Below are some of Tom’s memories of 821 Sixth Avenue and loft resident Jimmy Stevenson whom he knew from Detroit, written this month. – Sam Stephenson.
Jimmy and Me
By Tom Wayburn
I began smoking marijuana shortly after I became the regular drummer on a few jazz scenes, including scenes like the jazz loft at 821 Sixth Avenue which was frequented by a host of drummers, most of whom were better than me. Baritone saxophonist Jay Cameron somehow arranged matters so that from 1956 into 1958 I was always living in a place where we could jam; and, I was ready and willing at all hours. I always say that the most important thing is to be there, and I was. (I had not seen the Peter Sellers movie Being There yet.)
The first such place was 49 Horatio. Jutta Hipp installed a piano in the basement of 47 Horatio. Jay, Jutta, Paul and Carla Bley, and I lived on the premises of 47 or 49 which were adjoined. Visitors included Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Paul Motian, Ira Sullivan, and many others. Stan Getz came one night, however we had all smoked grass through Jay Cameron’s gas mask and I had to be put to bed. Other places included a railroad flat on East 20th Street for which I paid $19.05 a month, and a loft at 53 West 24th Street, the same building where Charlie Parker had visited me while I was attending night school at New York City College in 1953/54. (I may have attended class in the same classroom in which I taught calculus many years later).
I left New York in 1958 and headed for Florida chasing a girl I wanted to marry. With nothing much to do once I got there, I took a job with a Ray Charles-type of band at Ken’s Airport Lounge in Hialeah. I enrolled in the University of Miami School of Music. At the end of the semester, I headed for a summer job in Fox Lake, Illinois with another student. I was fired shortly thereafter when the FBI searched my belongings for marijuana. I then joined a band at a nearby resort. It seems the young man who drove with me from Miami to Illinois had reported me to his local FBI office as soon as he got out of the car. Fortunately, I had smoked the last of my small stash before I arrived in Fox Lake. When summer ended, my first cousin Larry Tyler, an employment agent in Chicago, got me contract work at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. Midland had no jazz scene, so I traveled to Detroit every weekend. That’s when I met Jimmy Stevenson.
On the weekends, I played in jam sessions at Jimmy Stephenson’s house (no relation to Jimmy Stevenson or Sam Stephenson) and elsewhere and stayed with various musicians or with my mother who still lived in Detroit. One weekend I drove back to Midland with an ounce of pot in the trunk and enough in the front seat to get me pretty ripped. I got so nervous when I passed a state police car that my driving was affected. Suffice to say, I got busted. I lost the job in Midland. Jimmy Stevenson and a few of the others helped me move my piano from the rental house in Midland and it ended up in Jimmy’s family’s garage. Billy Steen was a busy traveling drummer and he let me stay in his apartment with his student roommate while he was out of town. Gino Biondo and I provided a rhythm section for the pianist Boo Boo Turner for a few evenings of jazz in a coffee house. I got kicked out of Billy Steen’s apartment when Boo Boo Turner and Philly Joe Jones cut an electric shaver cord to clean a hypodermic needle — for the second time in as many weeks! All of that time, I saw a lot of Jimmy Stevenson who subscribed to the idea of being there too. Some time during that period, Jimmy and I traveled to Flint with a few other musicians and played at a couple of places there.
The jazz scene in Detroit was quite circumscribed back then. There was nearly no work at all. Donn (he spells it with one N now, I believe) Preston, the piano player, had a job at the Brass Rail in downtown Detroit just a few blocks from his loft which was over a barbershop on Grand River Avenue near its intersection with Woodward Avenue. Soon, his loft became the Detroit equivalent of 821 Sixth Avenue. Practically every visiting jazz musician stopped by after hours for the all-night jam sessions. It became expedient to have a house drummer; so, I moved in with Donn, his wife Rowena, and his kid Mook. Soon, the floor was littered with musicians who had played until they dropped and slept right there, among them were two bass players, Gino Biondo and one Jimmy Stevenson. It was while I was living at Donn’s that Jimmy met Sandy. I remember that I was disappointed that she didn’t like me better (if she ever finds that out, it will be because she is reading this).
I got work playing in the pit orchestra at the Gaiety Burlesque in Detroit. It was one of the last old-fashioned burlesque theaters in the United States. Later on, I auditioned for a jazz gig at Frank’s Lounge in Downtown Detroit with Jimmy Stephenson (alto and co-leader), Stormy Nightingale (piano and alto and co-leader), Wesley Fields (trumpet), and Gino Biondo (bass). We got the job six nights a week at nine dollars per night. We may have been the only full-time working jazz band in Detroit at the time. It seems that every unemployed musician in Detroit was in the audience waiting for a chance to sit in.
Shortly after the job began, Gino got tired of the drummer’s propensity for drink and quit. Jimmy Stevenson was in the audience. He was hired on the spot. This was my first chance to play every night and it must have helped me; but, this was Detroit. New York was an entirely different matter. After a number of months playing in various venues in Detroit, chief among which was Donn Preston’s loft, Jimmy and I decided to try our luck in New York. We got in the car and hit the road.
I don’t remember a thing about the automobile trip from Detroit to New York. Probably, we took turns driving Jimmy’s 1949 Plymouth; but, it is possible that he drove all the way. It was not a difficult trip. The Pennsylvania Turnpike had been built by that time. I don’t think we had a place to stay when we got there. But, that turned out to be of secondary interest at the time. Although New York is a walking town, most New Yorkers would rather ride than walk; and, Jimmy had a car. I remember going from one playing situation to another with any number of people, many of whom I did not know from living in New York previously.
A certain type of person is fond of saying, “Nobody sticks a needle in your arm.” That’s not always true. One night shortly after arriving in New York, we were playing at a party in Greenwich Village with a large number of guests. While I was away from New York, the group of people later identified as “the amphetamine set,” a term I had not heard at the time, began hanging out together. Billy Gaton, whose last name spells “no tag” backwards, a member of the set, was at the party dispensing amphetamine gratuitously to all and sundry. A friend of mine could buy a large bottle of pharmaceutical grade amphetamine sulfate for ten dollars from Schramm Drug Store on Lower Broadway. Thus, amphetamine was essentially free. While I was playing my drums, Billy walked up behind me and without my permission he stuck his needle in my arm and injected a reasonably large dose intramuscularly. I never saw him coming, but it changed my life – not because I didn’t like it, but because I loved it.
Something similar must have happened to Jimmy Stevenson. To this day, I believe that by that one shot both of us contracted the same strain of hepatitis C. In addition, I contracted acute hepatitis B, which I will describe later.
Somehow we found places to live, initially with Larry Mortlock, the long-time trumpet player who played like Miles but only with records. Later on I stayed at bassist Peter Ind’s loft on Houston Street and Jimmy rented a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue. I do not recall how Jimmy got enough money for the rent as inexpensive as it was in those days. Perhaps his parents sent him some money or he may have had some money with him. I remember when Jimmy married Sandy at the church next to the Babel Piano Store on 23d Street. Coincidentally, I rented a small room upstairs from the piano store and next to what I remember as trombonist Clyde Cox’s loft where many of us played music. My window looked out at the side of the church where Jimmy and Sandy got married. They lived together at 821 where money was scarce and life was hard. While they were living at 821, Jimmy presided over many jam sessions, many of which I attended. Jimmy was a bass player, and bass players were always held in greater esteem than were drummers in those days. Drummers were a dime a dozen at the sessions. On the other hand, bass players who liked to play their own instrument were somewhat reluctant to carry them around New York. Drummers will play anyone’s drums most of the time. In New York in those days, it was fairly easy to find a place to play and very difficult to get paid for it. The best I ever did was play for tips in Greenwich Village coffee shops about which more in another installment.
To get money, I took a job as a free-lance editor of Russian scientific periodicals. My immediate supervisor was Len Corwin, a man who became a good friend over time. He introduced me to all his friends who played music most of whom were recent graduates of Swarthmore College. At first, I lived in the tiny room above the Babel Piano Store next to Clyde Cox’s loft. I remember playing in that room and in Clyde’s loft with my old friend Lin Halliday, a saxophonist who had lived with me briefly on 20th Street. It must have been through Lin that I became the semi-voluntary roommate of Chet Baker and Philly Joe Jones in 1958. Lin was with Virginia McEwan in those days. Gin helped me with my science journal editing chores until I contracted hepatitis B after staying awake for six or seven days trying to finish a backlog of proofreading. But, that was after I moved to larger quarters at 761 Sixth Avenue.
All of this time, I was in and out of Jimmy’s loft at 821 Sixth Avenue. Life in those days was pretty well concentrated in that neighborhood north of Greenwich Village that is sometimes referred to as Chelsea. Readers familiar with the Jazz Loft Project know that it was Manhattan’s wholesale flower district. Later on I was to play occasionally at the Blues Project Loft on 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway and at George Moshou’s loft on 26th Street. One could play every day without leaving that neighborhood.
Before I leave the episode of Jimmy and me coming to New York, I would like to relate the story behind the night that I had to awaken Jimmy and Sandy after I lost the keys to 761 Sixth Avenue. I was with trumpeter Tony Fruscella and a number of other amphetamine heads (the term “speed freak” was used much later.) We were in the hotel room of a wealthy Mexican girl named Maria who was visiting the United States specifically to get high on heroin. Our “connection” had already left with a rather large amount of Maria’s money and we were awaiting his return. Very few amphetamine heads would absolutely turn down free heroin if it was offered. In the meantime, Maria devoted her time to me and soon enough I was convinced that I was in love. The upshot is as brutal as it is simple. The connection returned and Maria overdosed. I nearly overdosed and was almost unconscious while others worked on reviving Maria. The good news is that she recovered; the bad news is that she was raped while she was unconscious. I was horrified and separated myself from that group of amphetamine heads as soon as I was able. Unfortunately, I had left my sport coat in the hotel room and my keys were in the pocket. I was in no condition to spend the night on the streets, so I aroused Jimmy and Sandy by yelling at their window from the roof of a building that shared the space behind 821 until an elderly tenant tried to bash my brains in with the bar from his police lock. Jimmy was awake by then and let me in the downstairs door which had been locked. I awoke the next morning still stoned but feeling better than I had ever felt in my life. Naturally, we began playing as soon as possible.
February 22, 2010