Last Blasts of Summer
Published: August 31, 2011
I was reading a Whitney Balliett omnibus one night (Collected Works: A Jazz Journal) when on Page 138 I ran into my old and much-missed friend J.C. Heard in 1940 drumming with Teddy Wilson's band, swinging "an exemplary mid-tempo blue" behind Lena Horne in the film short Boogie Woogie Dream.
I wondered where else James Charles Heard might be hanging out in the pages. The index directed me to Page 176, where he was mentioned in the 1938 band of Benny Carter, apparently sharing drum duties with Max Roach. Page 611 was an indexical misdirect. But I caught up with J.C. again on Pages 652 (on the roster for 1944-1946 Blue Note sessions) and 637 (among drummers who, in rapid succession, were fired from or quit the temperamental Benny Goodman's organization).
He last appeared on Page 819 in a discussion of the ultimate jazz group picture, Art Kane's 1958 shoot for Esquire. Balliett categorized the 57 guys who showed up, filled the stairs to a Harlem brownstone and spilled onto the sidewalk: megastars, future stars, Ellingtonians, Basieites, etc. Along with guys like Milt Hinton, Hank Jones and Stuff Smith, Heard was one of the "indispensable journeymen."
So, I put on an old VHS of A Great Day in Harlem, the award-winning 1995 film about the photo that occasioned Balliett's discussion. It played in the background while I hunted for J.C. in my library.
In To Be or Not to Bop, Dizzy Gillespie's autobiographical collage, there's a hilarious account of Diz and Heard's overlapping time in the Cab Calloway band. Seems that when Calloway was deep in his ballads on stage, Diz and trombonist Tyree Glenn liked to pass an imaginary football from one side of the brass section to the other; accenting the catch, J.C. would "hit a little bomb on the bass drum — bomm — and the audience would crack up." A befuddled Calloway would wonder what was going on behind his back, but he could never spin 'round fast enough to catch the culprits. All this culminated in the night that Diz — falsely accused of smacking Cab from behind with a spitball during his act — would scuffle with Cab and knife him in the thigh. And, of course, Heard was there then, just as, by his account elsewhere, he was at a bar 40 years later when a well-liquored Cab dropped his drawers for a likewise juiced Diz to make the point that bygones were bygones, but that a scar was forever.
There were more index citings.
In Jazz; A History of the New York Scene, Heard is with Coleman Hawkins on the top-selling jazz album of 1946. In the memoirs of New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, Barker and Heard were among the older guys in the studio to support the upstart bop-innovator Charlie Parker on one of his first sessions. But first they killed time while their junkie genius sat around "looking into space, sweating ... waiting for the man to come with something."
There were reflections of Heard the drummer: "That fine drummer, J.C. Heard," opined scholar Guther Schuller in The Swing Era. Trumpeter Buck Clayton, in Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, called his Basie bandmate Papa Jo Jones "the perfect drummer ... [who] could execute anything heard or had in his mind." To Clayton, J.C. was "the only one who truly played like Jo. Most of the others just didn't think they could ever play like Jo Jones, so they just didn't even try."
In another book, pianist Mary Lou Williams put J.C. alongside Art Blakey as one of the players "who seem to have been born bopping. [Heard] played so much drums when he was with Teddy Wilson's great band that they had to hold him back in order to get a solid beat going."
Meanwhile, on the screen, J.C. passed through the crowd in front of the Harlem brownstone on that immortalized summer day in 1958. When Kane's shutter snapped, J.C.'s head was partially obscured by that of Roy Eldridge, who had turned his head to see Dizzy Gillespie cracking wise, laughing with his tongue unfurled like a sheep dog. Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young, Rex Stewart ... they're all standing together on the right edge of the frame.
But there was a better look at J.C. in action when I searched YouTube and found him with Calloway in scenes from the movie Stormy Weather. Sitting tall at his drums, grin stretching his face taut, he introduces the tune "Jumpin' Jive" with seven furious seconds: madly punctuated rolls on the snare, a volley of high-and-higher-velocity unison thumps on snare and floor-tom, quick splash of cymbal accompanied by a snap of the head — that cues the whole band to charge in and ride his rhythm.
A lot of us have been thinking about J.C. of late, with this year's jazz festival featuring the first reunion of his last major project, a bebop-oriented Detroit big band of mostly young players that J.C. led for several years before his death in 1988. There'll be a tribute to J.C. in the official festival booklet by Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn; the big band's musical director Walt Szymanski, Heard's son, Eric, and Gallert will discuss J.C.'s life and career in a Jazz Talk Tent session.
All this J.C. remembrance sent me down to a basement file cabinet where I pulled out the yellowing transcript of an interview with J.C. from around 1980, the first of our many meetings.
> Email W. Kim Heron