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.