RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1

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

RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1

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.

“What?”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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

6 Comments

  1. Massimo de Majo Said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    Isn’t this great! Wonderfully written. Can’t wait for the sequel :-)

    thanks!

  2. Bob Said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    Jane is a fascinating genius. It’s hard to imagine someone so young making music and getting on with these heavy cats.

  3. chris Said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Couldn’t stop reading it. Well written. Jane has had a fascinating life. Looking forward to the next one.

  4. Paul Said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    Brilliant. I could not find the book on Amazon. Who is carrying it? Is there a sequel. I want more.

  5. Ed Kelly Said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Truly a great read!

  6. Dolores Petersen Said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    I want to be the President of the Jane Getz Fan Club!