Last Blasts of Summer
It's natural, bay-bee
Jazz great J.C. Heard: A reminiscence of sorts
Published: August 31, 2011
Realizing how green I was jazz-wise, he laid it out in brief, his story: growing up in Detroit, tap dancing as a showbiz kid at the Koppin Theater, falling in love with the drums, settling in as a young professional (though still a teen) in 1936 at a place on Hastings in Paradise Valley called the Cozy Corner.
"It was a nice joint. It had six or seven girls in the line, chorus line, and they'd come out and dance," backed by Heard in "the best little band in town."
Big names would come to town, play shows that ended at 10 p.m., then hang and the Corner until it closed at 2 a.m. "Everybody used to come by. I had them in: Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sweets, Jonah Jones."
Also among the visitors, J.C. said, were Benny Goodman — at his King of Swing apex — and his band. And when Goodman's pianist Teddy Wilson left to start his own group in 1938, he telegraphed for J.C. to join him. (J.C. on the Wilson band: "He lost his ass off. He sounded too white. They wanted something tougher, like Lionel Hampton's band. [Wilson's band] swung, but it was nice and easy — polite swing.")
"I played with him for a little over a year or so, then I played with people like Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Cab, Basie, Duke. I got my own band when I left Cab in '46. And I made some of the first records with Dizzy Gillespie and Bird," J.C. told me. "I did Jazz at the Philharmonic and things like that."
He might have spent much of an afternoon running down the folks he'd played with on stages and in studios: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Josh White, Louis Jordan, etc., etc., etc.
He did a handful of dates as a leader, but hundreds as a sideman, before decamping in Japan at the end of a 1953 Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. There he married, became a father, toured the Far East, even played in a couple samurai flicks, before returning to the States in 1958. In the 1960s, Hiroko and young Eric would join him in Detroit, which became his base for the remainder of his life.
In that first meeting, there was a bitter sweetness to the way he looked back at it all. He complained about what Elvis in the 1950s and, more recently, disco had wrought.
"They pushed jazz to the background, but it'll never die," he said. "Seems like they been trying to find all kinds of things to keep ducking the good stuff. ... This country is built from the best music: jazz, Dixieland and stuff like that."
This was some of sweet: "I never did anything but show business. A lot of guys have to have day jobs because you don't get enough work. I was fortunate."
Gallert, the other day, was at home working on PowerPoint slides for his Talk Tent presentation, tracing the Heard story in music and pictures, including obscurities such as J.C.'s nightclub scene with his trio in the noir film Kiss of Death. Gallert reminisced about the enthusiasm that J.C. showed in the 1980s as a guest on Gallert's Jazz Yesterday show on WDET. "He cut so many records, he'd forgotten half of them," Gallert recalled. But after the forgotten tunes played, he'd say with pride, "another great one."
"You just felt you were in the presence of greatness. You felt grateful and honored that you could just talk to him as a person."
I remembered a night when J.C. invited another young writer, a young promoter and me out to the Heards' modest Troy apartment. After dinner, he put on one of his discs with Cab Calloway's big band. We listened without speaking for a spell. Then he lurched forward interrogating each of us in turn. "How many microphones? ... How many microphones? ... How many microphones?" And before we could guess, came the answer with glee: "One, bay-bee, natch-you-rall balance!"
And there was another night when I had visited J.C. in the hospital after a bout of heart trouble preceding the final heart attack in 1988. He talked about the way big bands would face off in battles in the old days, playing from opposite ends of a dance hall. And laying there he couldn't just talk. Slapping palms on his thighs, singing sound effects, he contrasted the styles — it might have been Big Sid Catlett on the left thigh and Jo Jones, right, that he thought he was channeling, I wish I remembered for sure. But the essence in the rat-tat-ting was that pure energy that folks went to J.C. for.
And, I might mention, that he called everybody "bay-bee."
"He was and remains a tremendous influence both musically and socially on the human that is becoming Jeff Halsey," a bassist of J.C.'s latter years wrote me in an e-mail once.
It's a common sentiment among those who worked closest with J.C.
Jim Fleming, of Ann Arbor's Fleming Artists, managed J.C. during the final years of his life, and adopted him as "my spiritual mentor ... we just made a connection." (A sign of the esteem: Jim's son is named James Charles, and called J.C.)
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