Sunday, June 11, 2017

Detroit Groove: Al McKibbon

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I'm very pleased and genuinely excited to report that I've finished the first chapter of Pepper Adams' biography. I've been building to this moment for 34 years so for me it's very gratifying to be at long last getting my thoughts about Pepper down on paper.. Some of you might not know that I first conceptualized this project in 1984. I wanted to write a biography of a jazz musician. Somehow, really quite miraculously, Pepper became my subject. What a blessing!

Entitled "What Is It?" the twenty pages cover 1947-1951, the period of Adams' life in or transitioning to Detroit. The chapter is divided into sections in this order:

1. Adams seeing Charlie Parker live for the first time. 
2. Why Adams moved from Rochester NY to Detroit, and its many implications.
3. Taking a month of saxophone lessons in New York City with Skippy Williams.
4. The racial climate in Detroit.
5. The influence of Grinnell's Brothers Music House.
6. Mentorship with Wardell Gray, the talent show with Lionel Hampton, meeting Charles Mingus.
7. Adams goes to Wayne University, he buys his Berg Larsen mouthpiece and his first Selmer horn.
8. Gig with Little John and His Merrymen, first gig with Donald Byrd and Paul Chambers, mentorship with Beans Bowles, enlisting in the Army.

Chapter Two will be called "Inanout." It will explore Adams' early life, moving around a great deal from Detroit to rural Indiana and to various places in Upstate New York. Much of his time, from about three years old until sixteen, was spent in Rochester, New York. Rochester's history, especially its World War II climate and jazz scene, will be examined. The effect on him -- of not being grounded, of having attachment and intimacy issues -- will be discussed. 

Because I spent much of the week wrapping up Chapter 1 and then organizing 150 pages of notes for Chapter 2, there's not anything else to add. I do have some "outtakes" that I won't be using for the biography that I hope you find interesting. What follows are some notes and quotes from my 1988 interview with the great Detroit bassist Al McKibbon that likely won't make the Pepper biography. In addition are some notes from his interview for the Smithsonian.

My interview with McKibbon:
Lanny Scott was a fine pianist from Cleveland who played around Detroit. According to McKibbon, he played like Art Tatum.

"When I was 16 or 17, I worked at a place called the B&C. That was a place that had an old-time vaudeville format. They had a bunch of singers, male and female, and they would do what they called "ups." They did turns, coming up to entertain. We had a five-piece band behind them. They would play and the girls would go around to the different tables and pick up the tips, sometimes not with their hands! We played whatever were the popular tunes of the day, and blues, of course. I never played rock 'n' roll. That was never a part of it when I was a kid, never. Even before that, I played with a dance band. They had two or three or four dance bands around there. We tried to play like Basie or Jimmie Lunceford or Duke Ellington."

Cut Collins was Ocie's husband and drummer. Another band was Hal Green. Another was Gloster Current. His brother, Lester, played trumpet. He had a good band and later became known for his work with the NAACP.

Today it's thought of as a suburb but, in the 1930s, Pontiac was another town a long way away from Detroit. 

McKibbon never played Hastings Street. That's where all the "joints" were based. In McKibbon's view, they were scuzzy, rough-and-tumble places. In the twenties, Hastings Street "had a good theater over there that had vaudeville. I saw the first sound movie over there: Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer." This is where he saw Butterbeans and Susie, Ethel Waters and others.

Peers in Detroit: Saxophonist Ted Buckner, drummer Kelly Martin (who played a long time with Errol Garner). McKibbons' group at the Congo Club included Howard McGhee and Matthew Gee (trombonist; though from Newark, he was in Detroit for a long time), Kelly Martin, Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards. It was about 10 pieces--a killer band, led at first by Martin, then co-led by McGhee and another. Their guitarist, Ted Smith, went with Andy Kirk: "Good guitarist." Fantastic band. In 1940, "Lionel Hampton came through there with his first big band. Carl George, his lead trumpeter, said, 'Hey, I'll come down and play some first with you guys.' 'Oh, fine,' McKibbon related sardonically. He came in the door and Howard McGhee was hitting altissimo something. He never took his horn out! Two sets, he listened to us."

Around 1940: "The Paradise Theater used to feature New York shows. I remember one show was going to hang over there, so the chorus guys and girls came into the [Congo] club where we were playing and we had to play for them. We played for Una Mae Carlisle, Billie Holiday."

"The Cozy Corner had a five piece group in there that was really swinging! J.C. Heard played in there."

About Detroit: "There were all those people there, all playing good. They had some tenor players and piano players that used to wipe everybody out! There was one tenor player named Lorenzo Lawson. He went to audition for Basie's band. The rehearsal was late and he said, 'The hell with them,' and went home. . . Trombone Smitty. I thought he was fantastic! He used to take his horn out of pawn and play the job and put it back. There was another guy there by the name of 'Cubby' . . . He played the Cozy Corner with J.C. Heard. Bill Johnson played trumpet."

Lawson was fantastic, but likely never recorded. He played like Prez. Julius Watkins came from there. Major Holley was younger. So was "Bags."

"There used to be a guy around there, when I was really not playing too well. His name was Frank Fry. He was a hell of a trumpet player! There was another name, Buddy Lee. He used to teach a lot of trumpet players that came through there. In the thirties, yeah. Lannie, the piano player. There was Maurice King, the saxophone player. I used to be in his band.”

Smithsonian interview with Al McKibbon:
In the early 1930s, McKibbon played with Milt and Teddy Buckner (alto, originally with Lunceford), and later with drummer Freddie Bryant.

At the Graystone Ballroom, depending on the weather, they had either inside or outside dancing. Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Luis Russell (with Louis Armstrong), Ellington and Cab Calloway played there. McKibbon's older brother, Alfonso McKibbon, played guitar and banjo with McKinney's Cotton Pickers and encouraged his brother to play bass, thinking string bass would be the new thing. Ted Smith, guitarist, played like Charlie Christian. He, McKibbon, and a saxophonist had a trio. Milt Buckner, not George Shearing, invented the locked-hands style of piano, he pointed out. He played the Congo Club, then the Three Sixes with Teddy Buckner's band--Kelly Martin on drums (who played with Erskine Hawkins). Wellman Braud was McKibbon's first influence. He had a big sound and McKibbon strove for that big, strong sound. He also liked the way Walter Page walked. After them, Blanton and Pettiford were an influence on his playing.

                                   (Al McKibbon, Bud Powell's favorite bassist)

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