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Interview: Big Jay McNeely (Part 2)

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Talking to Big Jay McNeely on Wednesday gave me tremendous insight into a period of jazz that has always puzzled me: Namely, the years between bebop and hard bop. I've always wondered how r&b split off from jazz at the end of 1948, why teens loved the music so much in the early 1950s, and what role, if any, r&b and subsequently rock 'n' roll played in stealing jazz's popular thunder. Much has been made of jazz's abandonment of the dance floor during the late 1940s, and to some extent that certainly compromised the music's mass appeal into the next decade. But there's more to the story, and Big Jay was at the eye of the storm.

Talking to Big Jay was pure joy. Here you have one of the inventors of early rock 'n' roll (years before Bill Haley, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard or Fats Domino). And yet Big Jay has been overlooked by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for induction. Interestingly, Big Jay always considered himself a jazz player--a different kind of jazz player to be sure, but a jazz player just the same. Big Jay's voice is rich and warm, with a double thick roadhouse tone. It drips with hip jazz and country slang, and the way he speaks is simple, heart-felt and honest.

In Part 2 of my interview with Big Jay, the legendary saxophonist talks about the start of his theatrical stage act, getting arrested in San Diego for leading a club audience out onto the street while continuing to play, how his biggest hit There's Something on Your Mind broke in, and why r&b and early rock 'n' roll caught on:

JazzWax: When did the theatrical part of your act begin?
Big Jay McNeely: In about 1950, in Clarksville, Tenn. It was a real small town, so small you didn't need an address on an envelope, just the name of the person living there. When we played Clarksville for the first time, the audience didn't respond. They just sat there. I couldn't understand that. The music usually got people going. So on the next set I did something different. I got down on my knees to play. Then I laid down on the stage and played from there.

JW: What happened?
BJM: People went crazy. After the concert, I said to myself, “I'm going to try this again." So I did it in Texas. And again, everyone went crazy. Back in L.A., I did it, too. The kids went nuts. They loved that I was on my back blowing like that, and my energy fired up theirs.

JW: Most of the kids already knew your hit Deacon's Hop. Who helped you break in that song?
BJM: Hunter Hancock, the Los Angeles r&b DJ. He broke it in. He was the only DJ in town who played black music. The kids who listened to the station were mostly white and Spanish kids. Those were the ones who dug me the most. They were the ones I was playing for mostly.

JW: You really knew how to work up a crowd.
BJM: My manager was Chuck Landers. He lived in Hollywood and was the business partner of [concert promoter] Gene Norman. He knew that gig [performing] cold. He got me with the talent agency, G.A.C. He said I had to be more stage. Before Chuck, I used to throw my suit coat on the stage to play and then picked it up after. He said that was no good, that I had to have someone else do that. I had to look and sound like the boss, like my name. Chuck then went out and got a guy in Hollywood for me who specialized in staging.

JW: What did the guy do?
BJM: He was used to staging other kinds of acts. So he came and watched me for a whole week. He taught me how to segue from one number to another--whether I had to play five minutes or an hour. He taught me how to keep the energy going from the stage, how to present myself to get the most excitement going and to program people.

JW: What does that mean?
BJM: Reading the crowd and playing accordingly. When I'd open, I used to come down the aisle while playing. That tore the place up because if you were in the audience you didn't expect it. It also told people that I was one of them. But you have to watch people close when you do this. There are some people on the aisle wearing expensive suits, and you have to play one way when you get near them. Or if you see kids, you have to let go of other types of notes. I'd stop and play differently for different people I'd see along aisle. That's how I got audience participation. And that's the greatest thing. [Pictured: Big Jay working the audience at New York's Birdland in 1952]

JW: Alto saxophonist Earl Bostic came up around the same time, but he came out of the big bands. What did you think of him?
BJM: Earl was great. He could take any song and make a hit out of it. But he wasn't a performer. My thing was more visual. One time Earl followed me into Minneapolis. But after I cleared out, everyone was waiting for Earl to be like me, theatric and all. But he wasn't [laughs].

JW: What did it feel like to have that kind of power over teens in the early 1950s?
BJM: It felt incredible. One time it got out of control, and I got locked up.

JW: Where?
BJM: In San Diego. I didn't have a wireless microphone for my sax. So I walked up the aisle playing but then kept going straight out the door onto the sidewalk with everyone following me. I was outside the club blowing my horn the way I was inside. A cop saw this and called the station house. More cops came and arrested me. They had some law that said you couldn't play outside like that.

JW: Was your exit something new?
BJM: Nah. I had done that at Birdland in Seattle and the Band Box. But it wasn't allowed in San Diego. The funny thing was the band inside on the stage was waiting for me to come back into the club. But I was in jail. So someone in the band came running down and bailed me out so I could finish the set [laughs]. The kids went nuts.

JW: When you were playing, you thought of yourself as a jazz musician. But it wasn't like jazz, was it?
BJM: I played jazz, but I was an entertainer. Even when we played what was called r&b, the music was sophisticated. We changed keys and did things that were very progressive. It was all very soulful stuff.

JW: Give me an example.
BJM: Every time I'd go to the bridge, I'd get a lift out of the audience. So I'd use the guitar player like an organ. I'd have certain voices and a sound when I'd go to the subdominant chord or the tonic. The voicing had to be just right. Same with the voicing by the piano player. I always thought progressive.

JW: What did the jazz guys dig most about you?
BJM: The soulful thing. One time I worked with Sonny Stitt on the same bill. He loved my energy and sound. Other jazz guys respected me because they knew I was a real musician. I wasn't just honking on the horn, like some critics said. And these guys loved power. They all wanted to blow. But what made me different that these cats could hear was the soulful thing. It was from my heart. The younger jazz guys coming up at the time who didn't know better said I was just playing one note. Hey, it's an art to play one note [laughs]. Especially if you can get an audience going with it.

JW: You had your biggest hit with There's Something on Your Mind, with Little Sonny Warner on vocal in 1959.
BJM: We first recorded There's Something on Your Mind in Seattle, in 1957, in a guy's basement. I didn't have enough money to get it out. A year later I bought the record and took it to Hollywood. Still nothing. Then I put it out in San Francisco in '59. A DJ there named Rockin' Lucky played it on his midnight show on KSAN. He's the only one who had the single. After that, everything went nuts.

JW: Looking back, do you think r&b and rock 'n' roll hurt jazz?
BJM: I don't think so. Everyone's got their own thing that they like. R&b and rock captured a lot of people at a time in the early 1950s when jazz wasn't that dominant. The truth is black musicians weren't making money playing jazz.

JW: What do you mean?
BJM: It wasn't until white musicians started to play with Jazz at the Philharmonic and other things like it that money started to roll in. The kids loved what I did. They'd follow me up to my house. But I don't think what I was doing messed up jazz. Jazz had its thing. It's just that its audience was smaller. The kids liked r&b and rock more.

JW: Why?
BJM: To play jazz, you had to have gone to school to learn to play it with all those chord changes. Cultured people liked that. Then along comes a working person who doesn't know nothing about that. He just wants to hear music that makes him feel good. He wants what he likes to be basic and exciting. People who like jazz are hip and want to see how fast musicians can play and dig their technique. Other people didn't want to think that much. They just wanted excitement. [Pictured: Big Jay's band in 1958]

JW: But plenty of kids liked jazz.
BJM: Oh sure. And jazz was creative. You couldn't believe what you were hearing when guys like Bird or Wardell [Gray] played it. But it didn't have the impact on lots of people. You could dance to r&b and relate to it on a simple level. People in the audiences felt they were a part of you and what you were doing. With jazz you have to analyze what the guys are playing.

JW: Did the growing car culture play a role?
BJM: What do you mean?

JW: As more kids started to drive and could afford used cars in the early 50s, there seemed to be an emphasis on speed, excitement and a break from parents.
BJM: Oh sure. And what I played sounded great coming through a car radio [laughs].

JW: You really were one of the originators of rock 'n' roll, weren't you?
BJM: [Pause] Yes. I was the first to be called a “honker and screamer." But with a good sound. Some play stuff like I did but their sound was terrible. If I hadn't had a chance to study with a teacher who stressed volume and power, I never would have had that sound. And if that audience in Clarksville had reacted a bit more the first time, I probably never would have had to go down on the floor of the stage to get them going [laughs].

JW: Yet you haven't been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Why not?
BJM: I don't know. I guess the people who make those decisions don't realize I'm still around.

JazzWax tracks: If you want to hear one of the first recordings of There's Something on Your Mind from a Seattle performance in 1957, you'll find it on Big Jay McNeely: Live a Birdland, 1957 at Amazon here. Birdland, in this case, was a Seattle club. Another fine Big Jay album recorded in the late 1980s is AZ Bootin', which you can find as a download at iTunes.

Attention Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters: You may have overlooked Big Jay's mighty 60-year contribution. He's still around, living in California. But hurry--let's get him on next year's ballot!

JazzWax clips: Here's a clip of Big Jay at 81 years old performing Everywhere I Go in Australia last year...

And here's another one with Big Jay working a club audience back in the 1980s (be sure to dig his tag from Holiday for Strings)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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