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Email from England: A Tune Named ‘Ronnie Free’

Drummer Ronnie Free.  Photo by W. Eugene Smith.  Circa 1959.

Drummer Ronnie Free in 821 Sixth Avenue. Photo by W. Eugene Smith. Circa 1959.

Over the weekend we received the email below from bass player Greg Cordez.  We asked him if it was okay to publish his email here.  He said, no problem, as long as readers knew it was a casual note drafted during a breakfast of coffee and toast. – Sam Stephenson

Dear Mr. Stephenson,

My name is Greg Cordez and I’m a musician based in the UK/Europe. I’ve recently withdrawn from the freelance session world to study for a Masters degree in Jazz.  I play upright bass.

A couple of months ago I was working in Athens, Georgia, recording with the wonderful Jim White, and I stumbled across your Jazz Loft Project book on Jim’s bookshelf. The book literally fell open to the story of Ronnie Free. I was enraptured by his story and your telling of it.  It left an impression on me.

Anyway, as part of the Masters program I have to compose original music.  This has been my Achilles heel so far in my career.  It is my greatest fear.  I play bass in the band.  I’m not normally exposing myself through my compositions.  Part of the reason to take on the Masters was to run head-on into these types of problems.

I spent yesterday trying to compose, and trying to get something out.  Then I was reminded of the Ronnie Free story.  Somehow, a tune, my first one in 10 years of trying, emerged. I was quite excited about this and I scored it to play with on a quartet gig last night.  The gig was at quite a decent jazz club in Bristol.  I should have felt nervous about debuting a tune written hours before the show.  My tune was buried in the first set amongst some standards and the other musicians’ compositions.  People were still eating, etc. during the first set and it’s a safe time to try out new tunes. We played my tune and it got quite a surprising reaction from the audience.  It was requested that we play it again and we closed the final set with it.  This was the most pleasant surprise of my playing career.  I now hope to continue composing.  My aim is to play my compositions now and hope that my reticence and fear doesn’t get the better of me.

The tune is tentatively called ‘Ronnie Free.’  It is about the most respectful gesture I could come up with for Ronnie and yourself.  People came up to me after the gig and inquired about Ronnie Free.  They asked me who he is.  I told everyone to go home and google his name, and to look out for your book as well to get the full story.

I am going out on a limb here.  But I’m (really, really) hoping that you could help me contact Mr. Free.  His playing, his life, and your telling off it has been such a wonderful discovery and it helped finally get a tune out of me. It would mean a lot if somehow Mr. Free and yourself could hear it.  Or I could send the score.  It will probably be tweaked over time, but it would mean the world to me if Ronnie could hear it.

Would it be possible to get an email address to send it as an attachment? Or a postal address so I can send a CD recording to him?

If you are reluctant to give out any contact details, could you perhaps at least forward this email on to him.  I hope that I got the tone of this email right and that my sincerity somehow gets across.  My discovery of Ronnie and your writing has been a highlight of an already very good year for me.  I very hope that you can help me in this matter.

I look forward to any kind of response from you.


Greg Cordez

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By Jane Getz

This is part three of a three part series featuring excerpts from pianist Jane Getz’s in-progress memoir. For an introduction and to read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1, click here. To read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 2 click here.


Pony Poindexter was in New Orleans attending someone’s funeral. He said he’d probably be back in a couple of weeks, but you never knew with Pony.  A couple of weeks could turn into a couple of months with all his skirt chasing and imbibing of that weird green aromatic plant he liked to smoke.

Though Pony had been my main source of gigs for a while now, I couldn’t depend on his largesse in the near future. It was time to call some other cats in town, check out some different prospects. I needed some bread—and bad—because I had spent most of my savings (less than a hundred bucks) on a used dresser and couch. Though the dresser was fairly cheap, the Salvation Army couch was a little pricey because, as the saleslady explained, it was almost new. It was also kind of space age or, more accurately, what someone in the 1930′s would have considered “modern.” Added on to that, it was huge, measuring nearly seven feet in length with gull wing armrests and a back that curved outward like a turned up collar. I couldn’t pinpoint what style it was, but it didn’t matter. My new acquisition would serve the purpose of furthering my musical agenda. Now I could invite some of the cats over, like Carmel Jones, George Braith, or Joe Chambers, a young drummer who I had a secret crush on. These were some of the new happening cats in town that were starting a buzz. I wanted to connect. After those guys saw my new furniture, they would stop thinking of me as just some unsophisticated naive kid. I was making all my own money and supporting myself, wasn’t I? And now I not only had a new chest of drawers in the bedroom, I had a couch to boot. How much more adult could you get than that?

I gazed fondly at my new purchase, then went and plopped down on it. I also brought a pad of paper and a pencil with me so I could compile a list of piano players who might throw a few gigs my way. I’d just written down Horace Parlan’s name when I had a flash. I ran over to my phone book and looked up Chick Corea’s number. Now that cat had gigs coming out of his ears. He also had called me a few times when I’d been busy, so I knew he considered me good “sub” material. I dialed Chick’s number. Ring, ring ring. Shit, c’mon. I was ready to hang up when someone picked up the line.

“Hello?” Chick was out of breath.

“Hi, Chick? Hey man, this is Jane Getz. So ah, what’s happening?”

“Jane! Oh man, I just walked in the door. Can I call you back in five? I’ve got some macrobiotic takeout I gotta put in the fridge.”

“Sure.” I hung up the phone and plunked down on my new couch to wait. Uh, oh. Did I feel a lump? I started to run my hands over the tightly woven, scratchy upholstery when the phone rang.

“Hey baby, Chick here. Listen, are you still working with Pony?”

“Man, the cat’s out of town. He kinda checked out on me for a minute. What’s shakin’?” I was trying to sound confident while at the same time conveying a feeling that I was musically up for anything.

“I’m thinkin’ of going on the road with Joe Henderson, but I have to get a sub for this gig with Herbie Mann. Fact, I’m working with Herbie today over at the Apollo. It would be cool if you could come by, play a few numbers with the cat and let him hear you. The bread’s not bad either.”

“Thanks man, just give me the address and time. I’m already there.”

A few hours later I arrived at the Apollo Theater. A big old, boxy building comprised of huge slabs of sandy colored stone. Following Chick’s directive, I went around back and walked up some clangy steel steps. The guard, a strapping young dude with that Malcolm X bowtie getup, stood by the backstage entrance. The brother asked me my name, looked me up and down a few times, then checked my name off a rather short list.

I walked in and adjusted my eyes to the dim half light. Wow! The place was jam-packed. The audience was having a grand old time screaming and laughing at some rotund funny-man who was strutting around the stage, talking about all the edible parts of a pig. I stood there digging the scene for a, minute, then went to search for Chick.

I nosed around backstage until I finally spotted him sitting in the wings near the food table, reading a book on Macrobiotics. He was checking out the Number 7 diet—a very strict regimen. Damn. Chick was wafer-thin now. After a few bars of conversation, I followed him to a small dressing room to see Herbie Mann. Herbie was sorting out some music as we entered the room. He didn’t even bother to look up. I knew the game. I’d seen other Big Dogs do this. I stood there trying to be unobtrusive while at the same time checking the dude out. I could see by the way Herbie handled the music, that every move he made was deliberate. He was a planner. A guy with a road map who had memorized the route. Even the space around him was organized. The dressing room chairs were all perfectly lined up, the bottled water had cups neatly stacked next to it, and his toiletry kit was open and ready—every clipper, tweezer, and nail file in its proper slot.

Oh yeah, this cat was all business. Much too neat for my taste with his closely cropped, thinning brown hair, neatly trimmed goatee, and manicured nails. Nothing happenstance or spontaneous about him. He looked like some Upper East Side decorator had turned him out. His freshly ironed navy blue shirt was perfectly coordinated with his beige slacks. Casual tan suede shoes matched the soft leather belt he had on. Mr. Mann was one stiff dude. After Herbie finished what he was doing, he finally looked up and greeted us.

“Jane Getz,” Herbie said nonchalantly. “I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about you. I hope you’ll play a few tunes with us.”

“Thanks man, I’d like to,” I said, trying to get that team player sound in my voice. “I hear the band is smokin’. Yeah, you got some bad cats.”  I was talking about Dave Pike, the young vibes player, Bruno Carr, the drummer, and Potato Valdez, the little badass from Cuba who played congas. The three of us stood there rapping for a few minutes until Herbie excused himself, scurrying out of the room to round up the rest of the band.  After we exited, Chick and I walked around to the stage entrance and waited while the Master of Ceremonies made some lame jokes about fat chicks. About ten minutes later he finally got around to announcing the band.

“Ladies, and Gentlemen…put your hands together and give a grand Apollo welcome to the inimitable Herbie Mann and his….”

Herbie sprinted on stage with the band in tow and immediately gave the downbeat. Dave Pike played a little vibe cadenza, and then Herbie motioned to Potato. The little cat hit the conga a few times. The rhythm started to engulf us. You could see the streets of Cuba, alive with chattering, animated Cubanos: gentlemen in white suits and panama hats regally strolling down the lane puffing on cigars, and high spirited senoritas parading around in their pastel finery, strutting their stuff. The sounds were chili pepper hot. By the time Herbie came in with his flute, the mood was established. Oh yeah, and I also noticed that Chick had a hip way of playing the claves. I made a mental note to have Chick show me some of that real legit Latin stuff.

Impressed though I was with Herbie’s onstage entourage I was apprehensive as I stood in the wings. I not only wanted Herbie to think I was bad, I also wanted to impress Chick. By the time the maestro introduced me; my anxiety had given me a slight edge. I was on top of it now. I sat down at the piano. The audience, already fired up by the first couple of tunes, was about as enthusiastic as any audience could get. At the mere mention of my name (someone they had never even heard of), they started stamping their feet, clapping, and whistling. Cool. This was a win-win situation. Predictably, after I took my first solo on a tune called “Walkin’,” they went bonkers. Herbie started nodding his head when he saw the audience’s reaction. All right! I had just become another added attraction in the cat’s musical sideshow.

“Yeah baby, that was some nice work,” Herbie said as we walked back to the dressing room. “If you wanna do the gig at the Gate tomorrow, you got it! In fact, if you’re up for it, just meet me in front of my building at seven o’clock tomorrow. I can show you the book while we’re riding downtown.”

“Cool man,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Ah, where do you live?”

As I walked out of the theater I looked at the slip of paper with Herbie’s address on it. I knew approximately where it was. I decided to catch a cab back from the Apollo so I would pinpoint the exact street and building. As I suspected, Herbie lived a scant block from me, but that block—given this was New York City—was an entire universe away. The cat lived in the lap of luxury. I knew his building. It was a swank impenetrable fortress with a twenty-four hour a day doorman, a message service at the front desk, and a huge, sweeping, ambient green roof garden. Herbie lived on Central Park West and Ninety-First Street, where the rich and getting richer were domiciled. I simply lived on Ninety-First Street between Central Park West and Amsterdam, where the working stiffs, scrapers, and starving artists hung. Motoring by, I wondered if I’d ever live in such sumptuous surroundings or have anything to show for my mystical moments of creativity. What did it really take to get there? But it was just a fleeting thought. Fuck it. Who needed a jungle on their roof anyway? I had more important things to do. I was going to study my Slonimsky book later and see if I could lift a few hot licks from it. This was a book with strange repetitive intervals and offbeat sound patterns. A book Shoenberg might have glanced at. I’d even heard that Coltrane found a lot of shit in that book. Tonight I was going to pour over the pages and see if I could uncover some of the musical secrets some of the Big Dogs seemed to have accessed.

The next day I prepared for the gig by practicing a little, and lounging on my couch. The damn thing seemed to have petrified. It was as hard as a rock, with a few little marble sized bumps to make you even more uncomfortable.  As the sun went down, I got dressed, and then visited the bodega around the corner where I got a quick sandwich. After scarfing down a few dry slices of turkey on stale wheat bread, I sprinted down the block to Herbie’s crib. As I got there I saw the doorman was holding the door. Herbie waved to me, then proceeded to introduce me to a woman—presumably his wife—who had exited the building with him.

“Jane, this is my wife Ruth. Ruth—meet Jane Getz, my new pi-a-nist.”

Ruth smiled listlessly, making a feeble attempt to nod. She was fashionably turned out, the same ultra-straight way a secretary might be. Her knee-length royal blue mohair suit was expensive, but boring. Her auburn hair was smartly cut. But she was wearing so much Spray Net that her hair looked like a helmet. And why was she wearing those button earrings? The chick had no fashion sense. Nada. Zip. I glanced at Ruth’s shoes. I was just about to critique her footwear when some cat who looked like an officer in Napoleon’s Army ran into the street and hailed a cab. Why did doormen need military uniforms?

I hastily climbed in, and then watched as Herbie and Ruth maneuvered their way in. They positioned themselves so as not to touch or brush up against one another. The signs were clear. They didn’t like each other. I instantly came to the conclusion that there was some kind of weird “arrangement” between them. I didn’t know the specifics, but I knew it was there. Traveling downtown with Herbie and Ruth was creepy. It was more than just uncomfortable with all the bad vibes they were generating. And where were all the charts Herbie was going to show me? I sat there rigidly, looking straight ahead until the vehicle came to a halt. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the sign that said Village Gate.

Then I saw the marquee.

Wow! Miles Davis was headlining. One of my heroes. A Big Dog Supreme. For a moment I couldn’t catch my breath. To think! I was in a band playing opposite the great Miles! Now I was pumped up. I floated out onto the curb in front of this huge stone edifice while Herbie and Ruth wordlessly separated. I walked a little behind Herbie into the lobby. We were silently milling about until two girls, who looked to be in their mid-teens, walked up to the maestro and linked arms with him. Herbie smiled. He was expecting them. At that point I became extraneous. Just so much baggage until he needed me.

I strolled to the other side of the room and found a big, double door on the far end of the lobby that opened into the main room, a big barnlike drafty space with hundreds of little tables all scrunched together. A few customers who had arrived early were sitting around drinking and regaling their fellow jazz lovers with little-known anecdotes about some of the jazz greats.

“Hey didja hear what Miles said to Cannonball when he…”

I scurried past the enclave of noisy tables, smiled at a waiter who happened to be walking by, then found another door and wandered down a long dimly lit hallway. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like loud laughter and horn players warming up. I entered the band room and stood there for a second. Potato Valdez walked over and greeted me, graciously extending his hand. He had calloused green little fingers with swollen knuckles. The tiny Cuban (he was about 5’2″) gripped my hand, ceremoniously pumping my arm like a game show host. After giving me what he considered a sufficient welcome, Potato turned to Dave Pike and grinning broadly, said, “She an eenius.” Naturally, being called an “eenius” by the esteemed Potato gave me a jolt of self-confidence, not to mention credibility with the band. I was on a roll, chatting and joking around with the cats. I felt a certain amount of camaraderie with the band as we all exited the dressing room and walked down the dark corridor toward the stage. The vibe was cool.

The first set was pretty smooth. So far, the only thing that was bugging me was that everyone in the band except Herbie was relegated to taking two- or three-chorus solos. You couldn’t stretch out, get a fire going, or come to any kind of musical climax when you were allotted that amount of solo time. Hell no! Personally, I liked to take at least fifteen choruses. So what if I bored everyone silly? I was an artist and entitled to take liberties. Still, this was my first night on the gig, too soon to make waves or even do a little body surfing.

During the first break I grabbed a seat in the audience so I could listen to the headliner. Oh yeah, I wasn’t going to miss a note of Miles’s band. Listening to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Miles sent me into the stratosphere. Herbie was playing unique little counter rhythms to Tony’s innovations. The rhythm section sounded like a Fourth of July fireworks show with little, constantly exploding surprises. Miles weaved in and out of the mix, like a Martian tap-dancer strutting on some lunar bayou. You had no idea where he was coming from, but still, it was familiar, like an old folk melody that was just out of earshot. The band was burnin’. I noticed that when someone in that aggregation took a solo, they could play as long as they damn pleased. I was both euphoric and jealous.

The next set with Herbie was even more frustrating. How could anyone who could improvise well take just two or three choruses? There were so many great players in the band but nobody was getting to play. I needed some space. During the next break I decided to go outside the club to get some air. The West Village had some cute little shops that were open far into the night, so I thought I’d stroll down the street and do some window-shopping. Walking down the steps of the Gate, a low, raspy unmistakable voice said, “Hi Jane.”

Was it? No way. It couldn’t be. But as he stepped out of the shadows of the old stone building, I saw his face. Miles Davis, the Musical Maestro Supreme, had acknowledged me. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. A million thoughts flipped through my mind. I wondered if he’d been listening to me during the last set? How did he know my name? And should I say “Hi Miles?” Or, “Hello Mr. Davis?” Or should I simply turn around and try to strike up a conversation? Not knowing what to do I stiffly nodded my head, and looking straight ahead, kept right on walking.

As I continued down the block I started to feel weak, like I was going to throw up. I could have kicked myself. What kind of idiot keeps right on walking when Miles Davis says hello? Oh man, I had blown it. I walked back on the bandstand half an hour later depressed as hell. To make matters worse, Herbie repeated some dopey show tune from the The Smell of the Grease Paint, Roar Of The crowd. A tune where he furiously gyrated his hips while spurting out an endless barrage of high notes. I abstractedly took my requisite two choruses. I really wasn’t into it. All I could think of was that Miles had said hello to me. Being on this gig was like being a musical civil servant. Punch the clock. Collect your bread. This was the low end of the Jazz food chain.

Next tune was a minor blues by Oliver Nelson. I yawned, looked at my watch, then glanced around the room in a one-eighty. Oh, God! I couldn’t believe it. Yep, there he was. Miles was sitting right behind me. No doubt about it. He was checking me out. Knowing I’d spotted him, he looked up and almost imperceptibly nodded. It felt like there was some kind of radiant heat coming from his direction. My back actually started to feel hot. Miles was emanating! Now it was a whole new ballgame.

When Herbie counted off the next tune I was already in high gear, hyper alert and conscious of every lick, chord, and rhythmic pattern I was playing. Now Herbie was out of the picture. I was only concerned about what the guy who was burning a hole in my back was thinking. The tune was slow getting under way, but by the time Dave Pike took his solo, there was a nice groove happening. After Dave’s mandatory two choruses, Herbie pointed to the trombone player, Mark Weinstein. Mark stood up and sailed along on the groove until his time was up. Then Herbie looked at me and nodded. Okay pal, my turn.

By the time I had gotten midway through the second chorus, I was on fire. My fingers were literally flying over the keys. But unfortunately, it was time for the band to come in. Herbie raised his arms in a big flourish, giving the signal for the band to enter. No, wait…I wasn’t finished yet. I vehemently shook my head, signaling the aggregation not to come in. They followed my lead. I could see Herbie out of the corner of my eye getting uptight. His loyal subjects had defied him. He was looking like, “What the fuck?”

When my next chorus was over Herbie again tried to bring the band in. Sorry. I had more to say. Now I was doing a very difficult run in the upper register, something I hadn’t been able to execute before. The great Trumpet god was giving me power. The heat penetrating my back started to percolate through my whole body like a hot oil massage. Was this osmosis?

For the second time I gave a “no go” sign to the band. Herbie’s face had become scarlet red. The poor guy looked like he had gotten too much sun on his roof garden. For a minute I felt completely weightless. My fingers were faster than the speed of light. I took two more choruses, then stood up and ceremoniously waved the band in. I looked over at Herbie. His face was frozen. The only thing moving was his jaw, which was traveling up and down in a kind of mandibular Hokey Pokey.

On the brighter side, the rest of the cats were beaming. Potato surreptitiously stuck his little green thumb up. I had a cheering section. Unfortunately, Herbie was not in that crowd. When the set was over, he asked me to meet him in the lobby. My stomach started to knot up. I had a slew of emotions. Sure, I had just bucked the system, challenged the status quo and all that crap. But now what? I glanced around to check out the table In back of me. Shit! It was empty. Miles had split.

I thought about what had transpired. I did something every cat in the band had wanted to do but didn’t have the guts to. On the other hand I had also screwed myself. Yeah, after Herbie fired my ass, who did I think was going to pay my rent, phone bill, gas, electric, etc? This month I was perilously close to being out on the street. Now I might be forced to do the one thing that I dreaded most—call my mother. What if she tried to coerce me or even worse, force me to come home? She’d have been well within her rights. I wasn’t even eighteen yet. If that happened what would become of my apartment, my friends, my gigs, my whole fucking life? Come to think of it, what about my new couch and dresser? As I was contemplating the sheer and utter stupidity of my actions, Herbie entered the lobby. He stood for a minute in silence, narrowing his eyes and squinting at me—then out it came.

“You’re fired!”

He turned on his heels, then inexplicably spun around. “Didn’t you see me trying to wave the band in?” Herbie was hissing in a kind of controlled whisper. “Couldn’t you see I was frantically trying to get your attention?”

He wasn’t done yet.

“You, my-friend, who’s only played with this band a few short hours, are a finagler. You’re the kind of person that tries to make every situation work to your advantage. Well, that’s not going to happen, baby! I don’t know what you did with Mingus, but with me you toe the line!”

As he was engaged in his little object lesson, a few tears started to fall down my cheeks. Was I sorry? Not really. Was I stupid? Yes. Maybe those were tears of contrition for my own stupidity. Who knows? In any event, when Herbie saw those little rivulets of water trickling down, he softened up.

“Okay, look, I want you to make me a promise,” Herbie said dampening his tone a bit. In the corner of my eye I could see one of the young honeys Herbie had previously hooked up with in the corner waiting for him. The cat was in a hurry. “l want you to promise never ever to do that again.”

I dramatically raised my hand, palm up like I was swearing on a stack of bibles or becoming a boy scout. “I promise.”

“Okay my friend. I’ll see you tomorrow night, seven sharp in front of my building.” With that Herbie disappeared into a dark corner of the lobby and whisked away the little blond chick. I guess Mrs. Mann had split earlier that evening. In any event, I knew if I hung with the band for a while I’d get the scoop. I’d already heard a few rumors of shady little escapades that purportedly went on inside the Mann’s marriage. Rumors usually traveled faster than the speed of light. Soon I would know all.

Later that night as I was trying to find a comfortable position on my couch, I started thinking about how lucky I was. Oh yeah, I did an uncool thing as far as Herbie was concerned, but I really didn’t have to pay very much penance. Well, maybe a few seconds of feeling uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, having Miles Davis notice me was worth all the bullshit I put myself through. I was inspired, not only by him and his band but by the possibility that someday, somehow, I could play some real music. Some live floating-through-space, muse whispering in your inner ear kind of stuff.

On the other hand, perhaps I should have been thinking about my long-term welfare. What if Herbie had lowered the boom. My rent was due next week. And there was a waiting list a mile long of people who wanted to move into my building. I could be out in the streets in two seconds flat. Feeling destitute and penniless was not something I relished. Maybe I should open a savings account. Then I could pick and choose my gigs as long as I had enough money in the bank. Of course that meant that I would have to stop my impulse buying, which I dug. What about that fringe jacket I had my eye on? I quickly discarded that option. What if I had a boyfriend, like my mom had who paid all the bills and was always forking over cash? Damn! Where did I come up with that one? How disgusting. Anyway who’d want a chick that was always studying Stravinsky scores, notating Bird solos, and was too preoccupied to shave under her arms? That one went into the trash.

What about a roommate? I thought about that one for a long time. I couldn’t see any immediate disadvantages. If both of us kept to our separate rooms and shared in the expenses, it could be cool. You could almost go out on Amsterdam Avenue with a begging bowl and come up with the amount of money it took to live in New York, at least in my neighborhood, if you had a roommate. That was it! Now I had a plan. My new roomie could watch the apartment while I was on the road, pick up my mail and keep things in order until I got back. Maybe she’d even like housework! I had made a decision. Suddenly my depression lifted. Wow, this was so cool. Time to lay back, relax, think of other things, do some of that ol’ California mind surfing.

After spacing out for a while, I found myself thinking about the upcoming gig Herbie had at some university. What was it called? Bernard? Barnyard? Whatever…

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By Jane Getz

This is part two of a three part series featuring excerpts from pianist Jane Getz’s in-progress memoir. For an introduction and to read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, (PART 1, click here, PART 3, here)


When I got to Mingus’s crib, his door was partially open. He was barking orders to his wife, a sweet looking young woman who Charlie told me was a nurse. In those days there were quite a few musicians married to nurses. I wondered what significance this had; did all these Big Dogs need around the clock care? Or more practically did their wives, as working professionals, guarantee a steady cash flow?

A few minutes later the rest of the band straggled in. I met Clifford Jordan (all business) and Danny Richmond who seemed warm and friendly. Danny was looking quite dapper for a guy who had a heavy rep as a junkie. Yeah, this cat was wearing the hippest threads I’d ever seen. Damn, maybe he was a conscientious junkie. In fact, Danny was the first one to see the limo pull up. Before I could grab my suitcase—which was over packed, bulky and unwieldy—Danny grabbed it. In a show of courtliness he put it in the trunk of the limo.

The rest of the guys loaded up and we zoomed out to La Guardia, checked our bags and boarded the big, wide TWA bird. Not having flown such a long distance before, I was pretty nervous. Mingus, noticing my anxiety, motioned me over to sit by him. The dude could be quite intuitive. I sat on the aisle, Mingus sat in the middle and another friend/employee of his (who was there to take care of all Charlie’s needs) sat next to the window. When Charlie barked, this dude rolled over. After take-off, Mingus, who did not like to be restrained in any manner, quickly unbuckled his seat belt. The Big Dog seemed to be in an affable mood.

About two hours into the trip, Mingus showed me something amazing. After asking his dude-in-waiting to hand him his briefcase—kind of a brown leather dossier—he casually opened it. The case contained hundreds of small bottles, each one filled with a different prescription drug. These vials weren’t rattling around randomly. No sir, each bottle was held in place by a taut elastic band stretched horizontally across the length of the briefcase and attached at the sides. Charlie’s Little Helpers were all labeled and completely accessible. I’d never seen anyone with such an organized addiction. Mingus requested a glass of water from the stewardess and in one gulp downed about fifteen little yellow pills. Then he ordered a rare filet mignon. After the bloody repast came, he proceeded, between mouthfuls, to espouse the merits of being a vegetarian. I was trying to look hip and take it all in stride when, for no reason at all, he stopped talking, leaned back in his seat and fell asleep. In five minutes, Mingus was snoring, one satisfied customer.

The plane landed about an hour into Charlie’s nap. After collecting his precious briefcase and saying a few words to Danny, he deplaned. Apparently, he was in a big rush to connect with some lady in Mill Valley. Along with the rest of the band, I went to a second-rate hotel in North Beach. I checked into my room then called my mother in L.A. She had promised me she would fly up to Frisco if circumstances permitted. Of course, what that really meant was if her boyfriend permitted. He was this rich dude who called all the shots and kept her on a short leash. She must have negotiated some kind of deal with the guy, because fifteen minutes later she called back to tell me she’d be up in a couple of hours. I was happy. Having mom here would be a trip.

I glanced around the room. The joint was nothing to crow about. Dirty white walls, narrow twin beds, schlock art, yellowing lace curtains. The dresser and night table were made of cheap particleboard. Of course mom would probably say it was quaint in order to spare my feelings. I lay down to catch a few winks. A few minutes into Dreamland the phone rang.

“Hey, this is Danny. You all right?” I got it.  Danny had assumed the role of my protector and caretaker. “Me and Clifford are going to Carmines for pizza later. I’ll knock on your door, baby. O.K.?”

“Yeah man. Oh…My mom will probably be in town by then. Can I bring her?”

“Sure baby. If she’s your mom, I know she’s cool.”

A few hours later Mom called up from the front desk. She walked in the room looking very nouveau. She was suited up in all black with hoop earrings and a little black lid on her head. She must have been reading the Bohemian handbook again. She almost looked hip, but of course she was still my mom.

“Hey man, what’s shakin’?” I said to her as I opened the door.  At first she looked confused. She eyed me suspiciously.

“Are you on drugs?” Mom demanded.

“I’m high on life.” I said trying to remember what some loopy flute player had once said to me.

She set her suitcase down on one of the beds and opened it.

“Here, I got you something.”

It was a crocheted maroon top with tiny holes in strategic places. I kinda liked it, but I wasn’t into looking femme. Hell, I wanted the cats to forget I was a chick.

“Thanks, man.” I said as I hurriedly put it on the night table.

At dinner Danny won my mom over. Polite and intelligent, he actually seemed concerned about her well-being. Danny might have been a bad boy at times, but he was quite functional in polite society. He had an amazing talent for smoothing things out. When mom complained about her soup being too cold, Danny silently motioned to the waiter and took care of the problem without a lot of hoopla. Voila! Steaming clam chowder—so hot you had to blow on it.

By eight thirty, we had all socialized and eaten. After some quibbling over who would pay the tab, Danny gallantly picked up the check. It was almost gig time.

The Jazz Workshop was a big barnlike place with rows of chairs in the front and middle of the room and tables in back. At the time, it was considered an important jazz venue. I made sure mom got a good seat, then I went over to the piano to try it out. A Steinway B. Far out. After running a few scales, I walked over to talk to Danny who was setting up his drums. We were rapping when Mingus exploded through the door in a dramatic flurry. He walked over to the piano, plunked his charts down and started tuning his bass, all in one grandiose motion. I started to say “hey,” then I decided perhaps it would be better to speak only when spoken to. The cat seemed preoccupied.

Finally, he acknowledged me. “Do you remember that seven/four tune, Meditations?”

I nodded.

He grunted. You never really knew where you stood with this dude.

Mingus futzed with the mikes and tinkered with the knobs on the mixing board. Finally, we were ready to hit.

The first tune was easy. I thought I was handily holding my part down until I looked up and saw Mingus scowling, then setting his bass down. Clifford Jordan was burnin’ and Danny Richmond was taking care of business, but Mingus had something on his mind. He was heading toward the piano yelling something at me. He leaned in close.

“Man those aren’t the right voicings. Think Duke Ellington. Ellington baby.” He stood in back of me shouting orders, then reached over my shoulders to demonstrate. I could feel the Big Dog’s hot, alcohol-laced breath on my neck as he pounded out what he thought were the definitive chord voicings. I glanced up at Danny. He averted my gaze. A few bars later, Mingus walked back, picked up his bass and started playing again. I was all bent out of shape. The next few tunes he looked at me and yelled again. Mercifully he didn’t bother to put down his bass. Shit, my mom was in the audience.

Then we came to Meditations. It was one of those esoteric jazz suites with different movements, weird time signatures, and numerous key and tempo changes—a show dog’s centerpiece. When we came to the piano/bass solo, Mingus put his bass down again. This time, instead of just reaching over my shoulders, he forcibly nudged me off the piano bench with his hip.  I felt really stupid as he demonstrated what I should have been playing. I just passively stood there, feeling dumb, arms dangling at my sides, wishing I were invisible.

On the break, I went over to talk to mom, pretending nothing had happened.

We played one more set, Mingus gesticulating and yelling at me. Then, mercifully, the evening was over. I was too depressed to even say goodnight to the guys. I collected mom and we headed back to the hotel.

“You know dolly,” mom said on the ride back, “why don’t we go and listen to some Duke Ellington records tomorrow. Don’t be so damn stubborn. You might get some ideas.”

I held my tongue. Why couldn’t I play the stuff like I wanted to play it? I had kind of a Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner spin on it. What was wrong with that? I was in a complete state of angst as I turned off the light. The hard-assed bed wasn’t helping either. I was longing for my old Salvation Army mattress.

Next morning mom was buzzing around the room full of good cheer. She had that stupid chirping sound in her voice that set my teeth on edge.

“I think we’ll go out and find a cute little breakfast place…” She artfully paused, “Then we’ll stop by–I wonder if they have anything like Wallach’s Music City up here?”

Mom had made up her mind that I was going to listen to the Duke today. Soon we were in some big record store sampling a bunch of Duke Ellington LPs. After digging the sounds for a few hours, I got the idea. Lots of flat fives and nines. Groovy.

Mom and I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. Her financier, the dude on the other end of the leash, had given her some extra bread for the trip, so she bought me a far out pair of high lace-up boots. Over coffee I tried to paint a picture of the hip new life I was leading in the Big Apple. I described my apartment, explaining that the lack of furniture was simply due to my non-attachment to material things. As far as my friends, they all were hipper (and sometimes higher) than God. As for the job opportunities—well check it out; wasn’t I playing with one of the greats? I was hoping I’d gotten through to her. We sat there a few minutes in the silence until mom finally spoke. “You sure you’re not on drugs?”

I played a lot of Ellington voicings that night. Mingus looked up and nodded a few times. I was also more familiar with the tunes, so I decided to take a few more liberties. It was the middle of the second set. Mingus seemed like he was digging my playing more, when all of a sudden he put the bass down and stormed into the dressing room. It was directly in back of the bandstand, so even though the rest of the band was still playing I could hear the him crashing around in there. Danny looked up and rolled his eyes. Clifford Jordan finished his solo as if nothing unusual had happened. I guess in Mingus’s band the unusual was ordinary. When it came to my solo, which was sans bass, I faintly heard what I thought were tearing sounds coming from the dressing room. What the hell was going on?

I tried to ignore the distraction coming from the dressing room but it was hard to tune out all the thumping and ripping. What was the guy doing? Despite the distraction, I wrapped up my solo. Then Danny launched into a long drum cadenza due to the fact that there was no bass, and therefore no bass solo. Toward the end of the drum solo, Mingus emerged from the dressing room carrying what looked like long strips of terrycloth. Mingus had torn up a towel. For what? He stepped up on the bandstand heading for me, long terrycloth strips draped over his arm. Wordlessly, he made his move.

“What the…?” Shit, Once again, Mingus pushed me off the piano bench, but this time it was for the purpose of getting under the piano. He wanted access to the pedals. Good God! The Big Dog was fucking tying up my pedals! He was draping the terrycloth strips around all three pedals, tying them together so tightly that I wouldn’t be able to depress them. Finishing the job, he tested them a few times with his hands. Satisfied that the pedals were completely unusable, he strode back to his bass. Before picking it up he leveled his eyes at me.

“You use the pedal too much.” Mingus seethed, mopping his brow with a spare piece of scavenged terrycloth. “It doesn’t make you blow any better, man. Chicks use too damn much pedal anyway. I don’t want to hear my stuff with all that fucking pedal!”

Now I was really humiliated. Bummer. I tried to sit down on the piano bench, but my body wouldn’t obey me. I turned toward the Big Dog. The next thing that came out of my mouth surprised even me, “Fuck you man,” I whispered, animatedly mouthing the words, “You can’t treat me that way.”

Then I did something really weird. I got off the bandstand and went and sat in the audience, staring at him. Wow, I’d done some outside things before, but I had never tried to roll a Big Dog. In my heart, I knew I was just a pup. But I guess I was so pumped up full of adrenalin that I was ready to scrap, even if my opponent was ten times bigger than me. Mingus gave me an icy stare, and went back to playing his axe. Since the incident happened on the second to last tune of the night, I continued to sit in the audience until the gig ended. Mingus ignored me as he packed up, but Danny motioned me over as he covered his drums.

“Man, that cat’s out.” Danny said. “Listen, get your mom and we’ll go out for some coffee. I got something I want you to check out.”

Mom was all bent out of shape over my scrap with Mingus, so she decided to cab it back to the hotel. Danny and I wandered around until we found an all-night coffee shop in North Beach. “Listen, baby,” Danny said as we put down our menus. “I don’t know if you’re gonna dig this or not, but I know how you can change the vibe. I know this lady, a spiritualist. She’s real good people, and she can do some work on this situation. I mean I’ve seen her completely turn things around. She’s heavy man. I’d be happy to call her. I’m sure she’d love to see you…” Danny paused. “Wanna check it out?”

The guy was offering me hope. Hell, what could I lose? I mean, I most definitely believed that there was some great cosmic force motivating things.

“I won’t leave my room ’til you call.”

For the next few hours, I drank about five cups of coffee as Danny proceeded to regale me with tales about Mingus. Listening to the Mingus Chronicles gave me an entirely different perspective. Yeah, it wasn’t me, the cat was just wigged out of his fucking skull. Danny called and gave me his friends phone number. Her name was Rose. She lived in Sausalito. I called and made an appointment with her. I was all frazzled when I got there. Besides arguing with Mom about the advisability of seeing this lady, Rose’s place was hell to find. She lived on the very top of a hill in a small cottage, hidden in back of a big house. As I knocked on her door, I could hear wind chimes faintly in the background. In fact, everything seemed to be tinkling, like there were a hundred invisible, barely audible bells quietly chiming in my inner ear. This was a magical place.

When she opened the door I knew that the vibe was right. This was no ordinary place and Rose was no ordinary woman. Though she was physically tiny, her essence seemed to fill the entire space. And when she looked at you, you felt she was looking deep inside. From the lines in her face I figured she was probably in her mid-sixties, but there was something about her that was neither young nor old. Danny was right, this lady was authentic; the real thing, baby.

Rose sat me down on her couch (an off-white overstuffed job) and went to fetch some herb tea. I looked around the room. It was filled with religious artifacts. I recognized a statue of the Goddess Kali, the six-armed destroyer, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I liked that stuff. I was trying to read some of the titles from her bookcase across the room when she came back with my tea.

“I hope you like clover honey,” Rose said setting the steaming hot beverage down, “’cause that’s all I’ve got today. I hear from Danny that you’re a very talented young lady.” She smiled, the lines in her face deepening. “He told me a little bit about your situation, but I need to ask you a few things.”

I began at the beginning and ended at the point where I told Mingus to fuck himself. “I wonder,” I asked, “If you tell someone to fuck themselves does that mean you’re automatically fired, or does it mean you’re just pissed off?”

Rose smiled. “Jane, I think you’re jumping to conclusions. You’re not fired ’til you’re fired. Know what I mean?”

I thought for a second. I did have a habit of picturing outcomes and filling in the blanks for other people.

“The first thing I’m going to have you do,” Rose said, “is close your eyes. Then, I want you to visualize the person you’re having problems with. When you have a good image of him in your mind, I want you to put a white light around him and see him as well, happy, peaceful, and calm. When you’ve accomplished that, then visualize him as doing the right thing as far as your particular situation is concerned. Don’t tell him what to do, just know he’s going to do the right thing.”

As she was speaking, I could see her going into a trance-like state herself. Her eyes half-mast. My first thought was, “How could this possibly work?” But I ignored it, closed my eyes and proceeded to follow her instructions. As I started to picture Mingus getting calm, I found myself cooling out as well. A wave of peace started to roll over me. The wind chimes seemed to be getting louder. I wasn’t sure if the sounds were external or internal.

I don’t know how long Rose and I sat there, but when I opened my eyes, I felt clarity about things. Rose smiled at me like she knew. The vibe was so cool I wanted to hang out all afternoon. But it was time to get back to the hotel so I thanked her, gave her twenty-five beans and split.

Back in my room, the message light on my phone was blinking.

“A Mr. Mingus called three times,” the desk clerk informed me, “But he didn’t leave a number. He just said to meet him at the gig.”

Ordinarily, I would have been freaked out, needing to know what he wanted, and if I was still on the gig. But today I put down the phone. Whatever happens is going to happen when it happens. I looked out the window and watched a few fluffy white clouds roll by and read. That afternoon, mom checked out. The fat cat was tugging on her chain.  I decided to lay down for about an hour then get dressed for the gig. I was in such a peaceful state I can’t really say whether I fell asleep or not. All I know is I was feeling confident that whatever happened musically or otherwise would be in my best interest.

I floated through dinner, which was at another pizza joint, then cabbed it to the gig. I arrived about fifteen minutes before we hit and spotted Mingus on the bandstand. As I walked toward the bandstand, Mingus looked up, smiled, then motioned me over. Yes sir, the Big Dog was beckoning me. By the time I had reached the bandstand his smile had turned into a huge grin. He reached inside a shopping bag and handed me a smaller brown paper bag.

“These are for you,” he said.

Inside the bag were two boxes of strawberries, a bright red lipstick and one pair of panty hose, size small.

Huh? Far out.

“Well thank you,” I said.

“We’re recording tonight,” Mingus boomed, “and I want you on the record.”

I went to the dressing room to hang up my coat and stash the Big Dog’s peace offering. The vibe had indeed changed; Danny was right. But the most amazing thing about the whole episode was I wasn’t trying to control anything anymore. Whatever the outcome was would have been all right with me. The rest of the night just rolled along. John Handy came in from Oakland to fill in some of the horn parts. He was burning. Danny and Clifford were kickin’ ass as usual and I was playing like I always played. But Mingus seemed to dig it. He still put his bass down and ran to the piano to play certain passages, but it didn’t bother me.  Mingus was being Mingus.

That night, I went back to my room, put on the red lipstick and ate the strawberries. As for the pantyhose, well that was another matter. Wearing pantyhose has always been a scary concept to me so I pretty much left them alone. It’s the thought that counts.

Mingus and I were on good terms when we returned to New York. I knew I’d probably work with him again in the future when his regular piano player Jaki Byard couldn’t make it. But in the meantime, I still had rent to pay.  I could see, just from the short time I was in the Big Apple, that the name of the game was hustling; calling people, making yourself known. All the cats had short memories, so you’d better show your face or give them a holler once in a while. Time to get on the stick. Ring up Booker, Carmel, Pony…Oh yeah, that cat had a lot of shit happening.


Read another excerpt from Jane Getz’s memoir here next week.

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Circuit of Lofts

Recently JLP received an email from saxophonist Wendell Harrison of Detroit.  He was one of the surviving participants in the 821 Sixth Avenue scene that we hadn’t tracked down and interviewed, yet (there’s still plenty of work to be done), so we were very happy to hear from him.  Last week I caught up with Wendell by telephone.  Below is an excerpt from his comments and memories.  Go HERE to read about Wendell’s work in Detroit today. – Sam Stephenson


Wendell Harrison:  “A writer from Detroit, W. Kim Heron, called me and said I was listed as part of your Jazz Loft Project.  I was delighted to know about it.  I remember that loft scene well.  In fact, the loft you are talking about was part of a circuit of lofts back in those days.  I got all my gigs at those lofts – with Grant Green, Hank Crawford, Sun Ra – it all came from the lofts.

“I’m sixty-eight years old now, so I was one of the youngest cats in the lofts when I moved to New York from Detroit.  I was in my late teens when I moved there around 1961.  I was in awe of guys in their 30’s – Miles, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane – who were already so highly developed musically.  But I was able to get some footing on the scene in the lofts.

Jimmy Stevenson in your loft was somebody I knew growing up in Detroit.  There were musicians from Detroit all over New York.  In fact, when we were in high school we all knew we were going to New York when we graduated.  We all started jam sessions back in Detroit at places like the Unstables and the Minor Key or at somebody’s house.  We’d play and get high.  We smoked plenty of herb back in the day (chuckles).

“The McKinney brothers from Detroit were all in New York and they were a big part of the loft scene.  They were legends in Detroit.  In fact there’s a street in Detroit named McKinney’s Way in tribute to the late great Harold McKinney, pianist, composer and producer. His brother Ray McKinney was a bassist who had a loft on 6th Avenue across the street from your loft and his brother Earl McKinney was a drummer.  I remember walking out of one loft and across 6th into the other loft. It was up around 32nd or 33rd steet.

“I also lived in Bernard McKinney’s loft down on 89 East Broadway, below Canal Street near the Manhattan Bridge.  He was a trombonist and changed his name to Kiane Zawadi and he got into Hindu traditions and vegetarian food.  He encouraged a lot of us to eat meat less.  He baked his own bread, wheat and rye, and made a lot of salads; beans, soy beans.  He got up early in the morning.

“The same crew went from loft to loft in those days.  Bennie Maupin, Henry Grimes, Wilbur Ware, Lex Humphries, Clifford Jarvis, Donald Green and Charles Green, Roger Blank, Thaddeus Griffin, Arthur Hopper, Reggie Workman, Charles Tolliver, John Hicks, Joe Henderson.  There were many more.  You can’t name them all.  Gary Bartz, Archie Shepp, Oliver Beaner, Ali Jackson, John Gilmore, Pharoah Sanders, Edgar Bateman.  Ah, Edgar Bateman, do you know about him?  He was an unbelievable musician who never really made it big.

“The lofts were an essential part of the scene.  It was kind of the bottom of the industry.  The lofts had a lot of musicians who wanted to hone their crafts and become proficient.  It was a referral service. If you were good enough you could get gigs out of those lofts and make it.

“We liked to go back to the lofts after gigs.  We’d get high and really open up.  In the clubs you had to deal with cover charges and pressures, and they said they don’t want us to bother anybody.  Sometimes we weren’t even free to walk around the club.  There were more people who were really into the music in the lofts.  If they weren’t really into the music they wouldn’t know about the lofts so they wouldn’t be there.

“There were some crazy things that happened.  At 89 East Broadway we had a rooftop and sometimes we’d jam on the roof.  One night my step-brother James Lockett, saxophonist, was on the roof and the phone rang down stairs.  He went down to pick up the phone and when he returned to the roof somebody had walked off with his sax.  He was depressed.  Sonny Rollins went up to him and said, “Hey, James, don’t worry about it.”  Then Sonny went out and returned with a brand new Selmer saxophone and gave it to James as a gift!

Rollins released an album in 1966 called “East Broadway Run Down,” perhaps a reference to the loft Wendell is talking about.

Wendell continues:  “One time Dave Garroway from TV (Garroway was the original host of NBC’s Today Show) came over to 89 East Broadway and he said he was going to come back with Steve Allen and they were going to film a TV show on the loft scene.  But it never happened. Some of the guys were paranoid about it.  They thought Garroway was from the FBI.  If they’d come back and filmed the sessions the loft scene might have become more famous.”

Over the telephone, I played Wendell a few tracks from Gene Smith’s tapes on which he appears.  The sessions were from August 1963 and musicians included were Wendell, trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Paul Plummer, Earl McKinney, and others.  Cherry can be heard leading the musicians through several tunes, including “Solar” by Miles Davis.  Wendell listened and responded:

“Man, this is great listening to this.  That’s Jimmy Stevenson on bass, or at other times it sounds like Ray McKinney.  That’s Earl on drums.  He’s playing some hip stuff.  He’s in a nursing home now here in Detroit.  I could hear my voice talking at one point.  This is how we learned tunes.  Don is trying to pull it together.  He’s trying out the changes, experimenting, and getting us to follow along.  There was constant experimentation like this.  Everybody was trying to get away from the status quo.”

I asked Wendell to name some of the musicians from the loft circuit who stood out in his memory, perhaps some musicians who were obscure to most people.  He immediately became excited talking about Edgar Bateman.

“Aw, man, Edgar Bateman was incredible.  He was my favorite drummer.  He played his entire drum kit backward.  It was a mirror image of how everybody else set up the kit.  He played the bass drum with his left foot and the hi-hat with his right.  He had the whole kit turned around.

“Edgar had a hump back, and he wore a cape and top hat all the time.  We called him Bat Man. He was a very, very creative artist.  He was ultra-hip, slick, very witty.  He refused to play traditional music.  He had his own style that was highly developed and thought out, always surprising.  Sometimes musicians who are that good – you’d rather listen to them than play with them.  Roy Haynes is another one.  He’s an incredible artist, but he’s always doing something you don’t expect, so sometimes you’d rather just sit and listen to him and enjoy him, rather than play with him.

“Not everybody liked Edgar because he was hard to get along with. He wouldn’t talk sometimes.  That’s why he never made it big.  He was a natural introvert and very dedicated to his style.  He wouldn’t compromise.  Sometimes it came off as arrogant.

“You see, in order to make it big you have to have the right politics and your politics have to jibe with your music.  Somebody has got to like what you are doing.  It’s just the way it is.  Edgar never had that.  He was as good as Elvin Jones, but he never had Coltrane like Elvin did.  He was as good as Tony Williams, but he never had Miles like Tony did.

“Edgar was the Thelonious Monk of drums.  He had Monk’s stubborn, quiet demeanor and Monk’s commitment to his own style. But sometimes the people who are the most creative need the most help. Monk had the Baroness and his wife.  They understood him and allowed him to do what he did, even if it meant not getting any gigs sometimes.  I don’t think Edgar ever had that kind of support.”

After Wendell and I said goodbye and hung up, I had a new version of a pleasant thought that’s recurred over the years:  If Gene Smith hadn’t made all those tapes, I wouldn’t have met Wendell Harrison. – S.S.


For more on Edgar Bateman on the JLP site, click HERE.  From there you can also link to Ethan Iverson’s tribute to Bateman.

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Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part Two

By Anna Mazhirov

(Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part One can be read here)

Having read all of the reviews of Mexicana seven decades later, I’m left wondering, as many critics did in 1939, whether the Mexican government’s endeavor to produce the show was naïve or wise.

What was wise is obvious. The production was a means to stir warm sentiments in the hearts of Americans towards their southern neighbors. Celestino Gorostiza, who oversaw Mexicana as the director of Mexico’s Department of Fine Arts, said in an interview that the Mexican government produced the show as a “gesture of friendship, sympathy, and good will.”  Thomas Dash of the Daily News Record, among other reviewers, noted this aspect of the show’s ambitions. I wonder, though, if this sincere effort was heavy handed.  Looking back at all the evidence today, I cannot say.

Gene Smith strove to tell something honest of people, something that transcended the political context. This was likewise the aim of Mexicana. Brooks Atkinson celebrated the show’s mission in the New York Times, “For this is World’s Fair time, when interest in foreign nations extends beyond armies, navies, and trade to the native arts which tell the real truth about human beings.” Mexicana must have told Smith some truth, powerful and constant, for him to see it sixty-three times in a row.

What might have been naïve was expecting New Yorkers (and I admit to sometimes fitting into this category of the jaded) not to see kitsch in an overabundance of childlike candor. Many critics complained about the revue’s length and repetitiveness. Because of the variety of acts, singing, dancing, and pantomime, some unfairly labeled the production as vaudeville.

The representation of the many sides of Mexican culture might have bordered on tedium. The opening scene, “Ecos de Ayer” (Echoes of Yesterday), tracks the development of Mexican music from ancient to modern in a sequence of dances: Primitive Dance, Dance of the Reindeer, War Dance, “Areito” (a dance of the Aztec nobles), and War Dance between Aztecs and Spaniards. Other scenes try to cover the scope of Mexican folklore. “Yunuen” relates the tale of the fisherman who defeats the lake monster, saves the village, and wins the belle. The popular legend, “La Mulata de Cordoba,” tells of the beautiful girl who, being able to vanish from the men she teases, gets condemned to be burned at the stake as a witch and then uses magic to escape on a painted caravel. “Un Velorio” (The Wake)* attempts to account for the pagan and the Christian in Mexican ceremony, showing the fiesta following someone’s death and the supernatural guests from heaven and hell who vie for the deceased’s soul. Other scenes include, “Patio de Vecindad” (In the Tenement House), “A Wedding in Tehuantepec,” caricatures of a baseball player and Ghandi, and “La Cucarachita.”

But perhaps this mélange, this straightforward effort to tell all, is what upheld the Mexican government’s mission for the show. Michael Mok of the New York Post wrote that Mexicana was, “one of the most disarmingly naïve entertainments ever presented on a Broadway surfeited with professional artifice.” John Anderson wrote in the New York Journal-American that, “At the 46th Street Theater are to be found Mexicans in their true color, without falsification or hokum. These people love art. And they mean “Mexicana” to be art, not mere merchandise.” I can imagine that the production’s hot paints, primordial vigor, and naturalness could have been jolting to Americans (even New Yorkers) of 1939.

I’d venture to say that this raw sincerity appealed to Smith and yet the piece that left the biggest impact on him was the clean, highly technical, traditional Spanish dancing of Marissa Flores and her partner, Jose Fernandez.

Most of the reviews praise the show only within the category of kitsch. Few saw anything elevated about it as a whole, but only single out individual talent. Sidney Whipple of the World-Telegram noted that “by far the most artistic performance of the production, however, was given by Jose Fernandez and Marissa Flores dancing on their heels to the rhythm of castanets.”

Marissa and Jose danced two dances in their “Spanish Suite.” The first was a Bulerias to the guitar playing of Vincente Gomez, who New Yorkers already knew and loved. It is an upbeat dance, requiring speed and skill to maintain the complex rhythm, often played at 240 beats per minute. Because a Bulerias requires elaborate tapping of the toe, heel, and ball of the foot, one reviewer recognized it as a sort of Mexican tap dance. The second dance was an arrangement of the intermezzo of Granados’s “Goyescas,” using two-voiced castanets. Usually, the higher pitched hembra pair is held in the right hand, while the larger macho pair is held in the left. One fragment of a news clipping I found stated that the “Goyescas” dance, “for grace and reticence and subdued eloquence is a masterpiece.”

We cannot know if it was with the wisdom or the naiveté of Mexicana, or both, that Smith fell in love with. But it seems this production had much to offer the steadfast, open-hearted viewer. As one spokesman said, “In Mexicana, we have tried to present Mexican bewitchment in a kaleidoscope of color and grace, of legend and mystery.”

* One of Smith’s most famous photographs was The Wake from his classic 1951 photo-essay, “Spanish Village.”

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At age sixteen in late 1964 the pianist Jane Getz was the youngest musician known to participate in sessions at 821 Sixth Avenue.  Her name comes up on two chaotic tapes in Smith’s collection from that period.  Pianist Paul Bley, saxophonists Clarence Sharpe and Jay Cameron, and drummer Vinnie Ruggiero are the other musicians confirmed on these sessions.  We can discern these additional first names from the dialogues:  Richie, Bruce, Bob, Jerry, John, Freddie, and Ricky.

Jane told me she was five-foot-two and under a hundred pounds at that time, as now.  In the JLP book I quoted her this way:

“I just went up to the front of the line and said, ‘I’m here.  Can I sit in?’  I thought I was as good as anybody in the room, and I kind of projected that.  People were taken off balance, but I knew what I was doing.”

Jane told us she was working on a memoir; we were tantalized, so she shared a draft.  Although she has few particular memories of 821 Sixth Avenue, much of her story overlaps with various JLP angles and topics.

Over the next three weeks we will present three excerpts from Jane’s memoir, selected and edited by JLP Coordinator Lauren Hart with Jane’s approval.  The first installment, below, serves as an introduction.  The second and third installments will be longer (Part 2 here, Part 3 here). – Sam Stephenson


By Jane Getz

Jane Getz

Jane Getz in Los Angeles, 2010

The noonday sun was starting to turn the city into a furnace as I boarded the Greyhound. It was San Francisco in the mid-sixties. I was sixteen, carrying a fake I.D., five hundred bucks and a mother lode of hope. I saw no reason to wait. I knew what I wanted to do. For that I didn’t need a high school diploma or an education.

Back then I had only one desire, one goal: to be a legit player on the jazz scene. I’d paid enough dues playing piano around L.A and San Francisco, so I was taking the big leap. New York. It was time to test the waters.

Approximately three days after motoring across the Bay Bridge the Greyhound glided through the Holland Tunnel. I looked out of the window as it headed for Port Authority. Wow! A place I never dreamed existed.

The old ivy covered brownstones—many of which had steps leading down to tiny basement apartments were connected. Everything was touching everything else. Even the people—who were scrambling like little ants—were elbowing, jostling, and sideswiping each other. And the smell; there was a sweet, fruity, kind of rubbery odor, with just a hint of smoke wafting through the city.

As the bus bounced over the potholes, I could feel the kinetic energy engulfing me. Damn. This was it! The Big Apple. The jazz Mecca. New York, New York. So fucking hip they had to name it twice!

Disembarking from the huge, smoking, sputtering Greyhound, it hit me. I was here—bag and baggage. I took a deep breath, walked out of Port Authority and hailed a cab. I directed the driver to a residence that was infamous on the jazz scene, the Alvin Hotel. An old dilapidated building full of whirring fans and junkies, where drug deals were going down twenty-four seven.

The first night at the Alvin it was hard to sleep with all the loud whispering going on outside my door. But I finally tuned it out. I was in New York for one purpose and one purpose only—to run with the Big Dogs. And of course, to do that I’d have to become a mid-sized dog myself.

The third day after my arrival I hit pay dirt. Walking through the lobby of the Alvin, I happened to glance into a phone booth near the front desk. Inside the enclosure was an alto player I’d once jammed with in San Francisco. His name was Pony Poindexter. He was just starting to dial a number. I rapped on the glass.

“Pony! Hey man, it’s me Jane.”

He hung up the phone and opened the creaky glass door to give me a big hug.

“Wow baby, I was just callin’ Cedar Walton.” As he looked me over, a light went on in his eyes. “Hey, maybe you can make this gig with me.”

I had scored! Open Sesame. This was an opportunity and I was going to jump on that sucker full force. The gig didn’t pay much bread, but at that point I didn’t care. Maybe Pony wasn’t Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter, but the cat could play, and better yet, he was always working.

A few days later I found myself in Pittsburgh, on stage with the Pony Poindexter quartet. A week later the four of us hit Boston. Then we headed for New Bedford—a town full of fishermen, souped up cars, and people who spoke Portuguese. A curious place.

In order to save money Pony decided he’d drive us to our gigs in this old wood paneled station wagon that he’d borrowed from a buddy. There we were, four of us and our gear, crammed like rats inside this ancient gas-guzzler tooling up and down the East coast. It was amazing that no one freaked out or had a major temper tantrum, but there was an unspoken agreement that the music was more important than our little creature comforts. Almost…

Pony Poindexter was another trip. He either blabbed non-stop about the sorry state of his finances or, for a change of pace, maiming or killing all the ofays (white folks) in the world. At first I was very uncomfortable, not only about the subject matter, but about what stance I should take. I mean, if I was a bona fide member of his band, was I still an ofay or was I truly one of the brothers? Then I had a flash. I hadn’t really seen Pony maim or kill anyone personally, so what the hell, he was probably just mouthing off. Beside that, I knew his whole book now; I had all the tunes memorized so it would be a hassle for him to get another piano player closer to his specifications. After awhile, I knew Pony’s little routine wasn’t personal, so when the cat got into his rap, I spaced out or read a magazine until I fell asleep.

After New Bedford, the band had a few weeks off so I went apartment hunting. I’d been to a couple of cribs uptown I liked, so I chose the Upper West Side as my designated search area. After inspecting a bunch of hole-in-the-wall apartments with fallen plaster, chipped paint, rusted pipes, and ancient, yellow-crusted tubs and toilets, I finally found one that was halfway decent. Yeah, I had to pay a few bucks more, but Pony assured me he had a lot of prime gigs coming up. I was taking it on faith.

I now had a three-room crib on Ninety-first Street between Amsterdam and Central Park West—Spanish Harlem.

I bought a piano and a day bed from the Salvation Army. Then I found an old castoff, threadbare, Persian rug rolled up on the curb waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. I carted it up to my crib.

Soon, I discovered I had an upstairs neighbor by the name of Jerome Richardson who, besides being one of the heavies on the jazz scene, did lots of studio work. One day Jerome invited me up to his crib. I was completely floored. I stood there in awe. Jerome had what I considered to be just about the hippest thing ever: adult furniture.  I didn’t know anybody that owned a couch, let alone a couch that didn’t have the stuffing coming out of it.  Even cooler, Jerome had real pots and pans, matching silverware, and carpeting throughout. I thought of my floors all splintery and scuffed up. Now this cat had his shit together.

Sometimes I would run into Jerome sitting on the front stoop. He would always smile and ask, if I was getting enough gigs, then promise he’d keep me in mind if anything came up. I thought he was just jiving me, so I was surprised when he actually came through.

“Guess what?” He said one day, inviting himself in and sitting down on my Salvation Army bed that doubled as my couch.


“I think I just got you the gig with Charlie Mingus. I just talked to the cat on the phone and he’ll be calling you in a couple of minutes. Don’t go anywhere, baby.”

Before I could even give him some show of thanks, he was in the wind. As he bounded up the stairs to his crib, a giant wave of fear rolled over me. I felt like a deer, frozen in the headlights.

Charlie Mingus. Damn! That cat was one huge dog. Then I started to wonder; was I burnin’ enough for that gig?  Maybe I thought I was better than I actually was. Maybe I was a musical imposter. I felt like a beautifully made-up ugly chick who knows how to look at herself in the mirror from just the right angle. Someone adept at the art of self-delusion, whose cover was about to be blown.

I sat there in a state of anxiety for about forty minutes. Then the phone rang.

“Hello.” I answered.

“Hi is this Jane?”

It was the Big Dog.


“Well this is Charles Mingus. Jerome Richardson gave me your number. I’ve got a gig in San Francisco tomorrow night. Can you make it? I got about twenty tunes to show you. Yeah, Come over in maybe say…an hour?”

The next moment, Mingus was rattling off his address to me.

I looked at my watch. It would be tight but I could do it. Damn, It was one thirty now. I could make it from Ninetieth to Twentieth by two thirty. I was already lacing up my boots as the conversation ended.

“I’ll be there,” I said cementing the deal.

“Later.” The supernova at the other end hung up.

I put down the phone, ran over to my old upright piano and reeled off a few frantic scales. Then I went into the kitchen, grabbed a banana and bounded out the door to the subway station.

I felt hot and clammy as I rode down to Mingus’s pad. When the train stopped at Twenty-first Street, I bolted up the subway stairs and sprinted the three blocks to Mingus’s crib. It was a well-kept, white, three-story building with trees in front. Cool pad. I pushed the buzzer.

Mingus buzzed me in and I took the elevator to the second floor. I’d tried to meditate during the subway ride but it didn’t help. I was scared.

I stepped out of the claustrophobic little box trying to orient myself. Then I saw him standing in a doorway. Mingus was a few feet away from the elevator, waving. I looked, then I looked again. Wow!

The word that came to mind was BOOMING. This cat was booming. His voice, his essence, his appearance, his entire being! Yeah, this was one hell of a Big Dog. Barely acknowledging my presence, Mingus ushered me in and sat me down at his piano. Then without further ado, he got out his music. Oh yeah, he was beyond any social amenities.

I quickly realized the music itself wasn’t all that hard; it was the interpretation of his music that was difficult.

“Play it like the Duke,” Mingus ordered.

Being a musical child of the sixties, I didn’t I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I was into Trane, Sonny, Wayne, Miles…the cats. Not wanting to seem musically illiterate I nodded, trying to imitate the knowing look I’d once seen Miles gives to Red Garland. After running through his book, Mingus abruptly dismissed me, giving me my marching orders. I was to meet him in front of his crib tomorrow morning, eleven o’clock sharp, bags packed, ready to go.

I tried to sleep that night, but my brain was spinning with snatches of melodies and chord patterns. I finally fell asleep from sheer mental exhaustion, only to be awakened a few hours later. Hearing the familiar buzzing sound, I flung the covers back, jumped in the shower, fed my face, did a cursory check of my bags, and ran out the door.

As I went down to the subway station, I said a silent prayer asking for God’s help and protection. I mean, you never really know when you’re going to need some roadside emergency service from the Biggest Dog ever.


Running With the Big Dogs, Part 2

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