A chance encounter with Blind Willie McTell

While in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, I discovered a blind guitarist named Blind Willie McTell, who played at a drive-in near my rental apartment.

He was an interesting singer who played a 12-string guitar, the first I’d ever seen and heard. I was intrigued by this man because of many reasons. For example, how does a blind man navigate to the various cars at the drive-in to find willing customers for his vocal and guitar performance? The answer: His walking stick was metal-tipped. His tap-tap with the cane both helped him locate the parked autos and advertised his availability for hire. He would sing and play your requests for tips, a drink, or both.

So, my pattern would be to study until about 10 p.m. and then drive to the nearby Blue Lantern Tavern on Piedmont Avenue. I’d then hear Willie’s tap-tap and invite him to play and sing for me. Normally, he would stand by the car window and sing for tips. As I got to know him better and request a longer session, I’d open the rear car door so that he could sit with his feet on the pavement; this being satisfactory to accommodate him and his large 12-string guitar. For a session such as this, I’d buy him a beer in addition to the usual tip. He had an unusually large repertoire of songs. He’d composed Statesboro Blues, a lament about Statesboro, Ga., where he spent time while growing up. A favorite song of mine was Talkin’ Blues. This had been recorded by many but, as far as I can determine, not by Willie. I’d take notes when he performed this because he’d added verses I’d never heard.

I related my discovery of the blind 12-string guitarist to my uncle, Dr. Frank Norman Gibson of Thomson, Ga. He had also attended Emory Medical School in the 1930s and he had heard him in that era when he was performing at the Pig ‘n Whistle drive-in (opened in 1927 and operated continuously until the 1960s). At that time in the ‘30s, he was performing as Pig ‘n Whistle Red.

Over the two year period (’54-’56) in which I’d listen to him perform for 15 to 30 minute intervals about twice weekly, there was not much time to take a detailed “medical history” but we did talk about his travels. He had performed along the eastern seaboard and had spent a short time in New York. There was never mention that he had recorded on various occasions. In the early days of recording, equipment wasn’t so elaborate that it required a studio. Many field recordings were made by putting the equipment on a truck and going to the folk-artist instead of vice-versa.

My next revelation about Blind Willie came when I was visiting a jazz museum in New Orleans. Part of my medical training was on Tulane service at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital (’59-’61). In going through a stack of LPs, I found an album with Willie’s photo on the cover. It was astounding, because in our meetings over a two year period, no mention was ever made of his having recorded anything. Then some further research uncovered a number of recordings from the late ‘20s until 1956. So I saw him in the last good year he had. He died in 1959 of diabetes and dementia.

The last phase of research on Blind Willie came when I discovered a biography by Michael Gray entitled “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes; In Search of Blind Willie McTell.” This was published by Chicago Review Press © 2007. In that book, Gray covered areas from his birth in Happy Valley, Georgia, to his time in Statesboro, his attending blind school, two locations, including the same school attended by vocalist-pianist Ray Charles. Willie was recorded in Atlanta in the 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax.

It turns out that Willie and my mother were born just before the turn of the century—1898, she in Thomson, Georgia, and Willie in Happy Valley, a rural area near Thomson. It is unlikely that they ever met as Willie moved with his mother to Statesboro during his youth.

I wrote Gray and briefly outlined my encounters with Willie and offered to speak with him should he desire. The author called me from a vacation spot in France. He was able to fill in some of my areas of interest and, he was interested in hearing from someone who had seen and heard Willie. Gray asked about Willie’s appearance, dress and speech. His speech was articulate and more refined than the average man of his age and background. We both agreed that it was likely that this influence was from his attendance at blind schools, giving him a better education than average.

For the person who is interested further, there are a number of YouTube offerings that will give an appreciation of his vocal and guitar skills. A number of rock artists who have recorded his songs, notably the Allman Brothers Band which recorded Statesboro Blues and Bob Dylan recorded a 1983 song Blind Willie McTell. Also, one may get an overview from the Wikipedia section on Blind Willie.

Thomson, Georgia, has an annual music festival related to McTell.

Drum Roll, Please: A pat on the back and thanks for a great JazzFest 2019

Greetings friends!

Greetings Jazz Pensacola!

Well, we did it. We had a great jazz festival!

Might have been the best ever….yes, it was.

We had two great days of awesome weather. Our sales were great —merchandise, beverages!

The music was topnotch! Every act from middle school to our national jazz artist…out of the ballpark!

I want to thank all of the volunteers that help to keep this machine running. It was perfect!

As your Jazz Pensacola president, I want to, especially with much love, thank Jazz Pensacola’s fantastic board members.

Dave Schmidt…a champ! Always saves the day! Dustin Bonifay…it would not happen without you! Ali Egan…get ready, it’s getting interesting! John Link…always a savior when it counts. Tom Bell…you have the VIP Tent rocking! Or jazzing! John Eisinger…always keeping us in check. Alice Crann Good…it doesn’t run without you!

It was fun!

Now, stay tuned for more!

The Joys of Jazz Parties

Perhaps the super-bowl of jazz parties was originated by Dick Gibson, a Mobile native. Dick was a football star at the University of Alabama and a jazz enthusiast. He went to New York as a writer and got involved in the world of finance. During that time, he joined the jazz scene and sponsored a group he called “World’s Greatest Jazz Band.” Some years later business ventures caused his move to Colorado. In 1963, he and his wife Maddie missed the New York jazz scene, so they invited some musician friends to perform for a weekend house party and invited some of their Colorado friends to help them enjoy the music and share the expenses.

Urbie Green (photo by Norman Vickers

Perhaps a word or two is needed to distinguish a jazz party from a jazz festival. A jazz festival usually is a multi-stage event, frequently held outdoors and of generally lower admission costs. A festival usually has patrons who come and go as their schedules and desires dictate.

A jazz party, on the other hand, usually is a one-stage event in comfortable circumstances such as a ballroom with tables for food and bar service. Jazz party patrons are committed to the entire event and, of course, the number of attendees is smaller and the charge for the event proportionately larger.

Norman Vickers Jr., Al Laser, J.C. McAleer, Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

By the time I was privileged to be a part of that Dick Gibson Jazz Party in 1985, the Labor Day weekend event was held in a downtown Denver hotel with 60 world-class musicians performing for 600 paying guests. After reading about the Gibson jazz parties, I contacted some Mobile jazz friends and inquired about the details of getting an invitation. Gibson graciously extended me an invitation and at my first party took about half an hour to give me the details about how he managed inviting the musicians and how the guest list worked. Many members of the “Tonight Show” band were regularly invited as were Benny Carter, Milt Hinton, vocalist Joe Williams, Bob Haggart, Phil Woods and Peanuts Hucko. Some European artists were invited as well as some Americans residing in Europe.

Joe Williams (photo by Norman Vickers)

The guest list also was impressive. Jazz writers Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler always were in attendance. Jean Bach, the woman who directed and narrated the “Great Day In Harlem” video, also was a regular attendee. Jean’s late husband had collaborated with the widow of Johnny Mercer to do a book on Johnny and his compositions. When our Jazz Society was doing a program on Johnny Mercer, I needed a copy of that book, which was difficult to find. I wrote Jean and she kindly donated one to us. It, too, may be found in our jazz collection and the downtown West Florida Public Library.

Jay McShann, Plas Johnson (photo by Norman Vickers)

I attended the Gibson Labor Day weekend jazz parties annually from ’85 until it closed after 30 years in 1992. There were many happy musical memories and new acquaintances made.

This leads to our Jazz Society’s venture into sponsorship of three January Pensacola Jazz Parties, from 1989 to 1991. Things were going well with our new Jazz Society with a 1983 birthday coinciding with the beginning of Pensacola JazzFest — a cooperative effort of WUWF-FM, Pensacola Arts Council and our newly formed Jazz Society.

Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

Record producer Gus Statiras was a good friend. Gus, a native New Yorker, had married a lovely woman from Tifton, Ga., during WWII. He would organize jazz recording sessions in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or elsewhere and produce under his own label. His home base was Tifton but he’d travel wherever there was jazz. He had an extensive LP collection and as LPs were transitioning to CDs, he’d record in both formats. The Jazz Society board felt that it would be feasible for us to partner with Gus to produce our own Pensacola Jazz Party. It was held at the (then) Hilton Grand Hotel in downtown Pensacola.

Things went well with the jazz party. We had bassist/composer Bob Haggart, clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianists Dave McKenna and Ralph Sutton and drummer Gus Johnson, among many others.

Bill Watrous, Dan Barrett (photo by Norman Vickers)

Our parties were well attended by jazz fans from Maine to California; they recognized the talent and were pleased to pay the price of approximately $200 for the 2 ½-day weekend event. This was during the time of winter migration to Florida, so many of our patrons would make the stop in Pensacola to attend our event. Participation from our Pensacola friends, however, was slight. In fact, I’d have people who were not jazz fans or members of the Jazz Society stop me on the street and ask, “Norman, how can the Society charge $200 for that jazz party?” My response normally was, “That’s what it costs to produce a quality jazz party. If you can produce it for less, we’d be pleased for you to take it over!”

Our guests were interesting, too. We had Chester McClarty, M.D., who was William Faulkner’s physician among a group who came from Oxford, Miss. Having a common interest in Faulkner, we struck up a friendship and I got some interesting background information on the famous author.

Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was a drop-in guest at our third Jazz Party. I had known that Slim grew up in Pensacola (most writers succumbed to the Gaillard BS about “I was born in Cuba and my father was a ship’s captain”) but we had never crossed paths before. The family brought him and introduced him at the door. We invited him to have a seat. He looked tired, somewhat subdued; although he was well dressed, it appeared that his suit was too large for him. He told me that he was on the way to visit his son in London. A few weeks later, we read that Slim had died in London. Research by UWF public history graduate students about Slim and other famous Pensacola jazz musicians, including Gygi Gryce and Junior Cook, is available in the jazz room at our downtown West Florida Public Library.

Our third Pensacola Jazz Party coincided with the beginning of the first Gulf War and the final collapse of Eastern Air Lines. Gus had worked for Milt Gabler at the Commodore Record shop and invited him down for a press conference. Gabler was famous for making his own jazz recordings and befriending many of the jazz musicians. However, because of the beginning of the Gulf War, no reporters attended as they were all assigned to covering the changes in security at our several area military bases, Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB and Pensacola Naval Air Station. But for the jazz party audience, Gus’ interview with Milt Gabler was most informative and entertaining. And I had opportunity to interview Milt privately for a Pensacola weekly published by Pfeiffer Printing Co.

The Jazz Society board decided, after our third Jazz Party, that we needed to focus our efforts in building our own membership. And the Atlanta Jazz Party began a 20 year annual event that following year. So, the Jazz Society began an increased effort to recruit new jazz members. And this was beneficial as we “inherited” the sole responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1998 and have produced the Pensacola JazzFest annually since 1999.

Book Review: ‘Sophisticated Giant, The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,’ Maxine Gordon

SOPHISTICATED GIANT: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Maxine Gordon
University of California Press © 2018
pp. 279

This biography of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) by his wife Maxine was written after his death and was a fulfillment of a promise she made to complete his life story.

Most people will remember that Dexter was the star of a 1986 movie “Round Midnight.” This movie was about a U.S. expatriate in France a decade or so after the end of World War II. In some ways, it was also a reflection of Dexter’s life in that he lived in Copenhagen, married a Danish woman and had a son with her. In actuality, the inspiration for the movie was a pianist with mental health issues, Bud Powell, who had spent time in France and had a Frenchman as his friend and protector. There are interesting details about making of the movie. American movie director Martin Scorsese had a bit part in the movie and predicted, accurately, that Dexter would be nominated for an Academy Award. And that prediction came true. Dexter didn’t win that year, not being a Hollywood insider. But, just to be nominated, especially since he wasn’t a trained actor, was a great accomplishment.

Dexter was the son of one of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles. His childhood was comfortable and he had musical friends and went on the road in his late teens. There was a brief prison term and when the opportunity came for him to go to Europe, he seized it.

As stated, there was a period of marital stability with a Danish wife and a son born to that couple. But, when they moved back to the U.S. and his life became that of traveling bandleader, the marriage failed and his wife and child moved back to Denmark.

In the course of time, he needed an assistant who could help with the accounting and other details of travel and band personnel. That’s when he acquired the services of Maxine who became his manager/partner and, subsequently, wife. She had a common-law marriage to Woody Shaw and their young son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, came to live with Dexter and Maxine when they married.

Dexter had wanted to write the story of his life and had made some notes but never got that far along. Maxine promised that she’d make an effort to complete the work. This required additional study and effort — quite a remarkable story in itself. For more details on Maxine’s life and work see: www.maxinegordon.com.

Prediction: If you read this interesting book, likely you will have the urge, like me, to watch the movie, “Round Midnight,” again.

Roger Blows His Horn – The Squeaky “X” Syndrome

It’s Saturday morning and while doing some chores around the house I turn on the TV and select the Music Choice Jazz Station. Soon, a solo erupts from the speakers that garners the comment “oh boy, another squeaky sax solo.” Another descriptive phrase I have heard likens the sound to “strangling a goose.” Sometimes it is followed by the equally popular extended drum solo, but that’s for another article. 

Although saxophones are particularly well suited to squeaking, honking, rapid fingering maneuvers, and other discordant sounds, the idea and similar effects can be done on any instrument whether it be the piano (the forearm smash), clarinet (max blow above high C), violin (screech bowing), guitar (max distortion) or even trumpet (real high and loud). Therefore, to partially mitigate the anger and resentment of all those saxophonists out there, I will simply label it the squeaky “X” syndrome, and you can fill in the “X” with the instrument of your choice. So, how does this squeaky “X” syndrome fit into the world of jazz we all love and promote. Where did it come from? Why does it happen? What can we do about it?

First, jazz musicians did not originate the squeaky “X” syndrome. Classical musicians really got into this around 1910, continuing to the present day, with practices like increased dissonance, atonality, serial/twelve tone composition, use of not-usually-considered-musical sounds, free/spontaneous performance and many other innovative techniques. Such methods can produce a squeaky orchestra, opera, or other classical ensemble. This was good because music was art and artists were supposed to express themselves and create art and pleasing the audience became a lesser consideration. The same phenomenon happened in modern visual art and sculpture. Jazz didn’t get far out until the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time that jazz also decided to become “art” music. Jazz coincidentally also became more of a concert music rather than dancing and social music.

Another source of more strident sounds in jazz comes from some musical practices by tribal Africans, which then of course became part of the mix of ingredients to form the musical gumbo we call jazz.

Therefore, the squeaky “X” syndrome happens in jazz because, in the context of contemporary music practices and principles of music making in general, it is a justifiable tool in the performer’s arsenal – especially when it comes time to kick it up a notch. Emotional contrast or contour – excitement versus tranquility, tension versus release, storm versus calm – is what makes music interesting and captivating. Honks and squeaks can definitely increase tension and excitement. Five to ten minutes of honks and squeaks will kick it way on up there. Could it be that it comes down to considerations like how much for how long and who is listening and where.

So, in your jazz listening experience you perceive an instance of the squeaky “X” syndrome— what can you do? First, you most quickly conclude that this performance was not meant to be background or easy listening music. If you are at home or in your car and wish for background or easy listening music, you can take appropriate action, such as manipulation of the on-off switch, channel selector, or other audio control device. In a conversational club environment, legs can take you to a different place. If seated in a huge auditorium having paid big money for the tickets, keep in mind that the performer is attempting to elevate the excitement level and express emotion and produce an art jazz listening experience. I say give the performer a chance to make his musical point and then decide whether the overall show gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Remember that John Coltrane did great ballads and lots of accessible jazz in addition to his more far out renderings.

So, there you have it, a totally scientific treatise dealing with the squeaky “X” syndrome. You may now consider these thoughts on the matter as you chose your level of acceptance of the squeaky “X” syndrome in your world of jazz. See you at Jazz Jam and Jazz Gumbo.