© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
I had a wonderful, hourlong conversation yesterday with Detroit pianist Charles Boles. Boles attended Northern High School with Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd and Sonny Red, and studied privately, as so many of that era did, with Barry Harris. Boles witnessed and participated in Detroit's Golden Age of Jazz. His career spans seven decades and he's still performing in Detroit. Boles has worked with a who’s who of musicians, including Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. Many thanks to Ken Kellett for setting up the FaceTime call and for participating as an amused and valuable observer. Rather than summarize my conversation, I'm going to let Charles speak for himself:
Miles at the Blue Bird in the summer of 1954:
Miles didn’t want to see Thad come in there because Thad would eat him up! . . . Miles would come to work and he would ask the owner even before he hit a note, ‘Can I get $50?’ Clarence Eddins would say, ‘Well, you gotta play at least one tune!’ So Miles would go up there and say, ‘Blues in F.’ He’d hit one note and then he’d walk off the bandstand and say, ‘Gimme $50.’ While the band was playing, [with] this guy ‘No Neck’ (who was a frightening looking guy), they would come out of the Blue Bird, go to the corner. (There was a light at the corner of Tireman and Beechwood.) They’d just be waiting for any car that would come along where the door was unlocked and they’d just get in. ‘No Neck’ would say, ‘Take us downtown.’ They’d go down to this hotel. I think it was called the Hotel Theresa then. It was right there on Adams and Hastings. They would go into this hotel to get high, and they’d come back outside of the hotel, after they got high, and they’d repeat the same scenario: Go to the corner, wait for a car to come along with an unlocked door, and they’d open the door and just get in and say, 'Take us to the Blue Bird.’
I saw him all the time. I saw him at Barry’s house. He’d be always at the World Stage but he’d be at Barry’s house a lot. It was on Russell, upstairs over a grocery store.
The Valley was only maybe two or three or four blocks long, from Hastings Street and Adams to, say, John R and Adams.
Northern High School:
Of course, we were there for band rehearsal, and to go to Choral at Fifth Hour. Claude [Black] was in the choral group with me. We all did the Messiah every year. We were very good. They had a very good music teacher there, Claire Weimer. . . . I couldn’t play in the concert band because I couldn’t read as well as Donald Byrd’s sister, Margie Byrd. She was a classical pianist. So I ended up playing bells in the concert band, and then I played piano in the dance band. They very rarely played any dances. We just played jazz tunes, and blues of course. In that band were people like Donald Byrd and Sonny Red, Paul [Chambers]. Paul and I used to eat lunch together every day. When he got to the Tenth Grade, he went to Cass. Him and Donald Byrd both.
The reason why Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd went to Northern High School the first year of high school was because Northern started in Ninth Grade. Donald Byrd was a neighbor of mine, maybe three or four blocks from me in Detroit, in the North End. Paul lived on the East Side somewhere. . . In that class at Northern was Claude Black. . . He was switching from trombone to piano, and there was Sonny Red there. He was in the band. There was Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Bobby Barnes. . . . The teacher was Orvis Lawrence, a barroom, stride piano player, if you will. A very good Teddy-Wilson-type piano player. A very good musician. He could really tell you what to do musically. He was knowledgeable. He kept a bottle in his desk drawer and he’d always go back there and get laced. The best thing about that era--and even after Donald Byrd and them left--was at the Seventh Hour there would always be people like Tommy Flanagan, Bess Bonnier, Roland Hanna. These guys showed up every day at the Seventh Hour to jam. What you didn’t know you could learn from hanging out with these guys. . . Orville Lawrence would allow you to continue to stay there and play until maybe 4 o’clock. School got out at 3 o’clock.
We would leave and go to one of two houses after school. At Bobby Barnes’ house, Roland Hanna was the piano player, Gene Taylor was the bass player, Claude Black played trombone, and Bobby Barnes played the sax. Sometimes we’d go to Bobby Barnes’ house, who lived on Russell on the North End, or we’d go to Barry Harris’ house. Sonny Red would go back and forth. . . . We would come out of Northern High School--me and Paul Chambers and Sonny Red--and we’d catch the Woodward bus (the Woodward bus ran north and south) downtown to, say, Warren, and then you’d catch the crosstown bus to Russell. And then you’d catch the Russell bus to Barry’s house. I tell you what: When we went to Barry Harris’ house, more than likely you’re gonna get slaughtered! You know what they do? They would egg you on, and do everything they could do to get you to play, and then they’d play something like Cherokee or some hard-ass tune. Of course they’d play it at some ridiculous speed but you couldn’t keep up. So you’d go home and you’d practice that all week long, and you go back and they’d play it in A or play it in some other ridiculous key that would have nothing to do with the tune at all. They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m in A. Whatever you practiced would be null and void. You could barely play in B-flat! When you get your butt kicked at Barry Harris’ house, then you’d slink on over to Bobby Barnes’ house the next two or three days. You wouldn’t dare show your face at Barry Harris’ house when you got killed already. He was a master teacher, though. I tell you what: If you continued to go there, he would help you. He would teach you how to improvise.
Legendary trumpeter Claire Rocquemore:
The great Claire Rocquemore? He could play anything. He’d wear Miles out. He’d wear anybody out. Donald didn’t want to get on the bandstand with him. He ended up being strung out. And he didn’t go anywhere. He would always be around, when he could keep it together, and kick everybody’s butt. He was at Barry’s house all the time.
He and I went to the same church together. I knew his mother and his grandmother. It was a church in Greektown called Second Baptist. The oldest black church. 200 years old.
Doug was around at Northern too. Definitely at Barry’s house. It was almost a situation where it was either Doug or Paul. They were in fierce competition.
Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris:
Nobody could be like Willie Anderson. Everybody tried to be like Barry. . . . Here are two different guys that played the same style but in a different way. My explanation of it is that Barry is a direct link from Bud whereas Tommy Flanagan is a direct link from Teddy Wilson. It’s a difference in the touch, the way they play. . . In the beginning, Barry really wanted to be like Art Tatum but he didn’t have the strength. Tatum played really light but he was fleet. . . . The competition was so fierce here. You’d be around people like Barry, you’d be around people like Tommy Flanagan. These guys were like mythical!
Roland was completely different. I went over to Bobby Barnes’ house and there was Roland. He and Gene Taylor had drank up a half a gallon of wine. Every day they would get together at 10, 11 o’clock playing classical music. I never knew where Roland went to school. Roland said to me, ‘I wanna be a classical pianist. I don’t want to play jazz.’ He could read fly shit. He was scary to be around.”
Hastings Street Scene:
I played on Hastings Street, which was a red light district. I played on that street for ten damn years. The cops came down on Hastings Street. The deal was that you either got, ‘Give me some head or give me some booty, or give me all your money.’ I saw them shoot a prostitute in the back and kill her. Her name was Charlene. I’ll never forget it. Killed her dead, right? And the people know the police did it but they got away with it because she refused to give them any money and she wasn’t going to give them booty that night. She was tired of screwing the police for free. That was in the fifties. I played on Hastings Street off and on from 48 to 58. The deal was you give up some booty or you give up some money, or else you’re going to jail.