Last Blasts of Summer
It's natural, bay-bee
Jazz great J.C. Heard: A reminiscence of sorts
Published: August 31, 2011
"I learned a lot from him to make me the man I am today," said tenor saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, who joined J.C. in '70 or '71 after several years working with Aretha Franklin. Now a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Gabriel took a phone call to talk about J.C. while in Chicago with the band.
Gabriel talked about energy ... charisma ... sense of time ... that J.C. carried himself "just like Ellington" ... about a great gig in Berne, Switzerland ... about the time that J.C. told off a club owner, saying it essence: It's your club, but it's my stage right now, get the fuck off.
From J.C., he learned most importantly: "To believe in what I believe in and stand behind what I say, you know. He gave me that. He didn't back down when he knew what he wanted to do."
Szymanski, the big band musical director, now an in-demand New York musician-arranger, gives props to Marcus Belgrave and the late Herbie Williams for shaping him as a musician. "But J. was kind of my professional guru. ... He taught me all about how to run and lead a band ... how to deal with people," he said over the phone from New York the other day.
Szymanski explained how J.C. was a master at making the band feel good — like handing out the bread before the last set to get a bandstand of "happy faces" — and still demanding excellence. At the same time, J.C. could smile for the audience and yell at the band to fix a sagging tempo: "Trombones! You're playing in yesterday! Come on! Get up on it!"
"We had really just started to hit our stride with that group. I mean, the band was killin'," Szymanski said. They'd worked with Dizzy here and looked forward to working with him outside of Detroit. They'd recorded Some of This, Some of That, a great calling-card of an indie record. They were on the verge of a local extravaganza with Diz, Max Roach, Ahmad Jamal and an all-star cast of Detroiters. When J.C. passed, the show went on as a memorial.
Szymanski said that every night, J.C. took an extended solo. And every night, he'd show something new, something unexpected: All his history, technique and imagination on one side of the musical equation would equal something new on the stage. "The whole band would go: What? What the fuck was that? Where does that come from?"
From a life of musical riches. From a guy who could emphasize the show in show business, because the artistry was a given. From a guy who traveled the world and came home to be buried with his drumsticks. From J.C, bay-bee.
The J.C. Heard Tribute Band led by Walt Szymanski plays Sunday from 4:30-5:30 at the Amphitheatre Stage. The band will also honor its late saxophonist Scott Petersen. Szymanski, Eric Heard and Jim Gallert present "J.C. Heard, Mr. Rhythm" at 6 p.m. the same day in the Jazz Talk Tent.
> Email W. Kim Heron