A Unique Gathering

Earlier this week at Barnes & Noble on Broadway near Lincoln Center there was a Jazz Loft Project book event.  I read, talked, and former loft resident, drummer Ronnie Free played four tunes with a young group from the New School.  Ron was more or less the house drummer in the loft 1958-1960 and is the most ubiquitous presence on Smith’s tapes, recorded on approximately 100 reels, roughly 300 hours, often to tremendous effect.

The outstanding contemporary pianist Frank Kimbrough attended the event and made this extraordinary snapshot.  L-R, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Frank Amoss, drummer Ronnie Free, drummer and owner of the Manhattan store Drummers World, Barry Greenspon.  All four are veterans of the 821 Sixth Avenue scene.

b&n event 12 09Grimes, originally from Philadelphia, and Free, from Charleston, S.C., were recorded by Smith playing together in loft jam sessions in late 1959 and early 1960 including other musicians such as Zoot Sims, Jimmy Raney, Pepper Adams, Eddie Costa, Freddie Redd, Hall Overton, and Freddy Greenwell.  They hadn’t seen each other since then.

In the summer of 1960 Free left the NYC jazz scene in the middle of the night and never returned, giving up a mercurial but promising career.  He ended up driving a taxi in San Diego and playing beach volleyball in Charleston, S.C., among other things.  Today he plays drums at the Homestead Resort in the mountains of Virginia.  The night Ron left NYC in 1960 he failed to report to a gig he had with Marian McPartland.  Thirty years later Ron and McPartland crossed paths randomly in Columbia, S.C. and the first words out of McPartland’s mouth were, “What happened to you that night?”  People thought Ron had died.

(You can listen to Sara Fishko’s moving radio piece on Ron which is a highlight of the Jazz Loft Project radio series.  I wrote an article about Ron for the Oxford American magazine in 2000 and I’ll link it here in the next day or two).

Grimes disappeared, too, but a little later than Free.  He’s recorded on some of Smith’s best recordings in the loft including Paul Bley, Roland Kirk, and Edgar Bateman in 1964, and also on a stunning television broadcast with Sonny Rollins, Bley, and Roy McCurdy, hosted by Hall Overton at the New School in 1963, which Smith recorded.  People thought Grimes had died, too, until he re-entered the music scene in the middle of this decade.  He’d been living in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles where I interviewed him for the first time in the summer of 2003.

Frank Amoss, a Baltimore native who lived in the loft for six months in the middle of 1961, hadn’t seen Grimes or Free since the loft days, either.  Frank left NYC in 1971and moved to the West Coast where he recently retired from a long, productive career as president of the musicians’ union in Orange County.  After the event Frank asked Ron, “Didn’t you have a set of blue sparkle drums?”  Ron replied affirmatively.

(For those who have read the book you’ll remember Frank as a loft resident in late September 1961 when Smith was packing for Japan.  Frank went to bed before the harrowing wee hour episode involving musicians Sonny Clark and Lin Halliday in the hallway).

The fourth member of the quartet in Kimbrough’s photo, Barry Greenspon, moved to NYC in the mid-1960′s, after studying music as a teenager in his native Raleigh, N.C. with jazz flute player Don Adcock, who coincidentally became one of the Jazz Loft Project’s most important musical consultants from the early days of the project (just a few days ago we sent 83 year-old Don a loft clip of saxophonist Booker Ervin so Don could help us identify the tune and the additional musicians).  Greenspon found his way to 821 Sixth Avenue and studied with Hall Overton.  The two men – teacher and student – became trusted friends and Barry was a pall bearer when Overton died of cirrhosis in 1972.

Free’s band that night consisted of young musicians from the New School led by a promising saxophonist Levon Henry.  Pianist Javier Santiago and bassist Brian Wilson filled out the group.  Free told me on Friday, “I love playing with those kids.  They were just great.  They inspired me.”  The tunes they played were Ellington’s Take the Coltrane, Monk’s Reflections and Green Chimneys, and the standard Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

- Sam Stephenson

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