The 88-year-old Chicago jazz impresario and Philadelphia native says he probably won’t live long enough to pay off his current place in a former ballet studio at Dearborn Station. Opened seven years ago, with any luck it’s the last spot his fabled Jazz Showcase — graced by the likes of Count Basie, George Benson and Dizzy Gillespie — will inhabit after relocating numerous times since its informal launch at Roosevelt University in 1947. Running it hasn’t made him rich by a long shot, but it has earned him lots of respect in the national jazz community, so much so that in late June he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His honor, the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, comes with $25,000 in prize money and will be officially bestowed during a ceremony in New York next spring.
I love all good music. I used to listen to classical stuff in Philly. We used to sneak into the Robin Hood Dell [outdoor venue] when we were kids and listen to [conductor] Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
I remember I was disenchanted with “Aida” because they actually had an elephant come onstage and he got so excited he crapped on the stage and a guy with a pan and a broom [came out]. I said, “Come on. You killed the whole image.”
We had an English basement apartment. I wanted to study drums. [My mother] was afraid [the landlord] would break the lease. So she settled on trombone. And after a year I couldn’t do nothin’ with it. I couldn’t remember what went where. Forget about it.
I tried piano at Roosevelt for a year, but I couldn’t remember all that stuff.
I used to think [musicians] were magicians. I can tap out a few things on a drum. That’s fairly simple. But I can’t do all this fancy s—.
I don’t know one note from another, but I know when it’s not right.
Elevator music sounds great compared to what they’re doing now. At least it was music. It was watered down, but it wasn’t all this wishy-washy, namby-pamby stuff, using the same licks over and over.
Play it straight ahead. It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be loud.
Volume has nothing to do with energy. I can name a dozen drummers that play just with brushes and don’t even hit the cymbals that’ll swing you out into left field.
Most people that book bands into jazz clubs are not into the music, they’re into the business. Which has been my failing. I’m more into the music, and I’ve never had a business sense.
[My wife] knew what she was getting into, because we met at a nightclub. It was a place called the Argyle Show Lounge in the Argyle L stop. Then a little later on, by accident, I met her out at 63rd Street at a place called White City. I think Billy Eckstine was on the bill. How romantic, huh? And we hit it off from then.
We got along famously. She died of cancer because she smoked a lot and it got her.
We were interracial. My family’s Jewish. Now nobody thinks of it. Back then, we’d walk along the street and people would be looking and she would go over to them and say, “Would you like to buy a ticket to the show?”
I called my mother once to tell her I was married, and usually she’d say, “Nice Jewish girl?” She knew better and said, “Is she white?”
She didn’t tell anybody for a long time. I guess it really hurt her, but the grandkids turned it around.
I wasn’t home a lot of times when I had to be, when I should have been, insisting on [the kids’] schoolwork and stuff like that. When I did come home, I’d be wiped out and have to rest up for the next gig, whatever it was.
One day [at the Gate of Horn], this idiot came in. This Allen Ginsberg. It was an intermission. And he said, “Can I [go onstage]?” And I said, “OK.” So he gets up there and his first few words are — I won’t repeat them now. And I said, “Man, get the f— off the stage! What is this crap?”
Somebody told me years ago, “Man, Elvis died.” I said, “Yeah, 20 years too late.” Screwed up music forever. Not that he’s the only one.
Everywhere I go — supermarket, Walgreens, what’s the name of that little sandwich shop? — I hear that same crap going. If the music is supposed to keep you there to buy stuff, it chases me out. I just get what I want and, boom, let me outta here.
What do the kids want? They want bang on my head and play it as loud [as you can]. Why? Because they don’t want to think.
Jazz makes you think. They don’t want to think because they know there’s so much s— out there for them to cope with, and I think they’re right in that way. They figure, “There’s no tomorrow. What the hell.” What have they got to look forward to?
I’m very thankful. I was in with all the cats when they were getting blasted out and stoned. I never did that. I was too chicken. I said, “You want me to put what in my arm? Get outta here! See you at the gig. Your time is your own. Goodbye.”
I always wanted to sit down and play a set once. But I’d f— up everything, I know that.
I’m trying to write a book now. It’s sort of an autobiography, but not every little detail — who scratched their ear when.
I have a million stories to tell, some of which I can’t tell and I won’t.
I was going to write a forward to the book and say, “If the true story of jazz were ever told, we’d all go to jail. So this is not the real story.”