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Interview: Junior Mance (Part 1)

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Pianist Junior Mance has always been a natural. While still in his teens, he played and recorded with some of the most exceptional jazz stars of the late 1940s. What jazz greats admired most about Junior was his fearless confidence and fast hands. Back then, jazz pianists had to do triple duty. They had to be able to play fast and strong. They had to be able to solo brilliantly. And they had to be able to accompany the band's leader with chord choices that were both inspiring and tasteful. Junior, at 18, could do it all.

In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Junior, 82, the pianist talks about growing up outside of Chicago, why he left college during his first year, recording with Gene Ammons and Lester Young, and the alto saxophonist who saved his life in the Army at Fort Knox:

JazzWax: How did you get your first name?
Junior Mance: I really am a junior. My dad was named Julian and so was I. To differentiate, my family called me Junior. When I started working professionally at age 10, everyone used Junior as my nickname.

JW: Did you say at age 10?
JM: Oh yes. I started fooling around on the piano when I was just 5. We had an old upright in the house in Evanston, Ill. It was there when we moved into our apartment. Before television, all homes had a piano. My father played it. I just picked things out at that age but I had a hunger for music.

JW: How did you start playing professionally?
JM: A saxophonist who lived upstairs had a gig at a roadhouse. One night his pianist got sick and he couldn't find anyone to fill in. He asked my dad if I could do the gig. My father said I could. Though I was 10 years old, the club owner was dumb about that stuff. In the late '30s, the clubs in Chicago never checked on a musician's age. Every club had the law in their pocket anyway.

JW: How did you do?
JM: The gig went well. The audience was made up mostly of truckers taking a break from the road. No one paid much attention. 

JW: What did your father do for a living?
JM: He was a clothes presser. I have one younger sister.

JW: When did you fall in love with the piano?
JM: I had heard records as a child but didn't pay much attention to them. My father liked big bands. He could have been a professional musician. He taught me to play boogie-woogie and stride.

JW: When did you first play with Gene Ammons [pictured]?
JM: In 1947, when I was 18 years old. All through my teens I had worked in Chicago clubs. I just listened to records, mostly by boogie-woogie players. They were the big money-makers. This guy upstairs taught me things, too, though he only knew one set of changes for the blues [laughs].

JW: What did your mother think of you becoming a pianist?
JM: She didn't want me to be a musician. She wanted me to be a doctor and had me taking scientific subjects in high school. By the time I reached college age, she had already picked out the university that she wanted me to attend—Northwestern. I grew up in Evanston, so the college was nearby.

JW: What did you think?
JM: I didn't want to go there. It was too close to home. My mother finally gave in and said she'd let me go to college in Chicago, which was an hour's ride on the elevated. She picked Roosevelt College. When I left for school on my first day, she said, “Be sure you sign up for the right pre-med classes."

JW: Did you?
JM: When I got to the main buildings, I looked around and saw a sign above one of the doorways. It said Roosevelt School of Music. I was drawn to it like a magnet and signed up for music classes. I didn't think about what my mom had said earlier until I was on my way home.

JW: What did you think?
JM: I thought, “What the hell did I just do?" [laughs] When I got home, my mother said, “Did you sign up for pre-med?" I said, “Yeah, mom, everything is done now." Then I changed the subject quick. When my dad came home, I told him the truth about what I had done.

JW: What did he say?
JM: He said, “I knew you were going to do that. Leave me out of it, though. This is between you and your mother." He kept my secret until the day my grades arrived in the mail. My mother opened the letter. She said to me, “What does this mean?" I said, “Mom, I didn't think I'd be a good doctor. If I had signed up, you would have seen the worst population decrease in history" [laughs].

JW: What did she say?
JM: She looked at me with a straight face. Then she said, “Just wait until your father comes home." He came home and, of course, eased everything along. I continued to attend the college's music program. But I didn't stay more than a year.

JW: Why not?
JM: There was this professor from France, a classical teacher, and we didn't get along. We had a language problem, and she hated jazz. At the time, jazz was forbidden in college. One day she caught me playing piano in one of the practice rooms and had me expelled for a week. The pianist Eddie Baker was enrolled there, too. He was caught doing the same thing and also was suspended.

JW: Had you been playing in clubs when you weren't in class?
JM: Oh yes. With Gene Ammons. So when I was suspended, Gene said, “Listen Junior, I'm going to New York. Can you go?" I said yes before I had asked my dad. When I asked him, my parents had a fight. My mother didn't want me to go. So Gene came over to the house and promised to take good care of me. My mother finally let me go. This was in the late '40s. When we arrived in New York, all the clubs on 52nd Street were shut or closing down. Gene was supposed to work there with a quintet, but we had to return to Chicago soon after we arrived in New York. There wasn't much work. I stayed with Gene and recorded my first records with him in 1947. [Photo: Sonny Stitt, left, and Gene Ammons]

JW: How did you wind up leaving Ammons to work with Lester Young in 1949?
JM: Lester came to Chicago to play some dance. But his pianist had missed the flight. Lester came by where Gene was playing after his own gig to say hi. It was a small joint on 48th and South Parkway called the Congo Lounge.

JW: What did Young do?
JM: He stayed for a few sets and liked what he heard. Lester didn't think I was permanent, so he had his manager ask if I was interested in joining him. I told Gene about the offer.

JW: Was Ammons annoyed?
JM: Not at all. He was delighted. That same day Woody Herman had asked him to replace Stan Getz [laughs]. So it all worked out. I wasn't intimidated by Lester. At that age, you take it where you can get it. You're bold. My father taught me that if you're going do something, really do it. So I did.

JW: When did you start with Young?
JM: Not right away. Gene had to give the club two weeks' notice. Gene and I made plans to regroup later on after we were finished with Lester and Woody.

JW: What was it like recording with Young for Savoy in 1949?
JM: Lester never rehearsed. We always went into the studio cold. I was a little nervous about that, but I wasn't going to show it. When you work with cats like that, you hide your feelings. When I was younger, I once made a mistake while playing something. I said, “Damn." The guys told me never to say that. They said, “Play right through it."

JW: In 1950, you backed Ammons and Sonny Stitt for Prestige. A tough pair of horns.
JM: Jazz in those days was always competitive and supportive. We didn't rehearse. What you heard on those records is what those guys came up with on the spot. We'd do the same thing on stage.

JW: In 1951, you were in the Army, yes?
JM: After I was drafted, I immediately wanted to join an Army band. But when I was sent to Fort Knox, they wouldn't let me in the band. To get in, they said, I had to play a marching instrument. I didn't know how to play the sax, trumpet, trombone or any instrument you could march with in parades. They asked if I could play the glockenspiel. I said, “What's that?" So they just put me in an infantry outfit.

JW: What happened?
JM: I was slated to do 10 weeks of training and then be sent to Korea. After a few weeks, I was taught to walk guard duty from 4 p.m. through the night. I had to walk around the service club where the guys who finished playing in the marching band hung out. One night I was walking guard duty and heard this fantastic music coming from the club. 

JW: What was it?
JM: At first I thought I was hearing records. It was that good. Now back then, you'd walk two hours and rest one. When my hour of rest came, I ran from the guard shack to the club. When I walked in, there on the stage was a big band in civilian clothes. The band didn't have to wear Army clothes when they played after training for the day. A big fat guy playing the alto was up on the stage leading the band. I realized that it was the horn I had heard while I walking outside. I looked at the guy. It wasn't Sonny Stitt. And it wasn't Charlie Parker.

JW: Who was it?
JM: Cannonball Adderley [laughs]. I blurted out, “Hey, can I sit in with y'all?" The pianist instantly reached down and pulled me up on the bandstand and then disappeared. I guess he wanted a break. Well, there I am, the only guy in the building wearing a steel helmet, fatigues and combat boots.

JW: Did Adderley approve of you sitting in?
JM: Cannonball didn't have a chance to answer. He just looked at me sitting at the piano and said, “What do you want to play." I said, “Play what's in your book." One of Cannon's eyebrows went up. He called out Splanky.

JW: How did you do?
JM: I could read the music easily. I even took a two-chorus solo. When I neared the end of my solo, Cannonball was looking at me. Cannon motioned for me to continue, to extend the solo. I hadn't even been near a piano for eight weeks.

JW: What did you do?
JM: I just stretched out. When I rolled my eyes over to the brass and sax sections, they were smiling. So I kept on playing. Then I noticed they were snapping their fingers. So I really stretched out. “Yeah, baby, go ahead, go ahead," they shouted. Cannonball was saying the same thing. Man, I was tired when my solo wound down. The band came in with last chorus.

JW: What did Adderley say when you were finished?
JM: Cannonball came over and said, “That's fantastic." He asked me my name. I told him, “Junior Mance." He said, “If you're Junior Mance, what are you doing here?" Apparently he had heard about me. I looked him in the eye and said, “What are you doing here?"

JW: What did Adderley say?
JM: There was a pause, and he just laughed. “Touché," he said. He asked if I was joining the band. I told him I couldn't because I couldn't play a marching instrument.

JW: When did you see Adderley next?
JM: The next morning. I was on a field that was watered down and muddy. Live machine-gun bullets were being shot at us for training. I was crawling through the mud on a course the length of football field. When I got to the end, this jeep roared up.

JW: Who was it?
JM: Cannon. He ran over to the sergeant, a real red neck, and handed him a sheet of paper. The sergeant looked at the paper and handed it back to Cannon. The sergeant shouted over to me, “Mance, take off. They want to see you at headquarters." As far as he was concerned, I was in trouble for something.

JW: What happened next?
JM: I jumped in Cannon's jeep. But when I started to ask Cannon what was going on, he said, “Shhh, let's get out of earshot first." When we were a distance away in the jeep, he said, “Listen carefully. These orders are phony. I want you to play for our band commander. We're going to the barracks now to audition." When we got there, I played, and the guys were yelling me on. The commander didn't know anything except marches.

JW: What did he say?
JM: He stuck his fingers in his belt and looked at everyone there. He said, “Well you must be good. What is your other instrument?" I told him the truth. He let me play with the band at night, but I couldn't stay with the rest of the guys in their barracks because I wasn't part of the marching group.

JW: Did your status change?
JM: One day I noticed that the guys in the band were all depressed. They said, “We just lost our drummer." He also was the company clerk. The clerk is the guy who sits in an office and does clerical work. Not only that, the guy was a strong player. He apparently had orders to go to Germany.

JW: What did you think?
JM: I thought, how was I going to get that company clerk job. I needed it to stay on the base. Cannon said to get the job I had to know how to type. I said I knew how, from high school. A light bulb went off over Cannon's head. He said, “For real?" I said, “I'm as serious as a heart attack." Cannon told the commanding officer, and I became the company clerk and played piano in the band. Typing saved my life. Cannon saved my life.

JW: Saved your life?
JM: One day I happened to be walking on the base. The company that I had been attached to that was taking training was sent into battle in Korea two weeks later. Of the 200 men deployed, all were wiped out except for a handful. They got caught in an ambush.

JW: Did you see any of the guys who survived?
JM: Yeah. I was walking on the base when a guy yelled out my name. It was one of the guys from the company. He was in a wheel chair with no legs. He said, “Man, they knew we were coming. They shot us down like fish in a barrel." From that day on, Cannon and I were best friends for life.

JazzWax tracks: Junior Mance with Gene Ammons in 1947 and 1949 can be found on Gene Ammons: 1947-1949, on the French Classics label. It can be found at select download sites. Junior with Ammons and Sonny Stitt is on the three-CD box Stitt's Bits here. Junior with Lester Young in 1949 can be found on Lester Young: The Complete Savoy Recordings here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Junior Mance (listed as Julian on the record label) in October 1947 on Hold That Money with Gene Ammons and Gail Brockman (trumpet), Ernest McDonald (alto sax), Gene Wright (bass), Ellis Bartee (drums) and Earl Coleman (vocal)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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