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Interview: Junior Mance (Part 2)

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Many great jazz pianists of the '40s started out as accompanists. The process of backing a singer or instrumentalist forces you to anticipate space, experiment with harmony and keep swinging time. As a young, confident, sensitive pianist, Junior Mance understood this supporting role perfectly. After he left the Army in 1953, Junior was the house pianist at the Bee Hive in Chicago and toured with Dinah Washington before joining Cannonball Adderley's group. With Washington, Junior provided the brassy singer with firm support and learned to be a provocative and creative musical partner.

In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Junior, the Chicago pianist talks about playing with Charlie Parker, what he learned from pianist Jimmy Jones, and his favorite Dinah Washington recording session:

JazzWax: I forgot to ask—you said you first began playing with Lester Young in Chicago in 1949 because his pianist missed a flight. Who was the pianist?
Junior Mance: Bud Powell [laughs]. I didn't know it until drummer Roy Haynes told me afterward. I'm glad Roy waited [laughs].

JW: When you were discharged from the Army in 1953, you became the house pianist at the Bee Hive in Chicago for some months.
JM: Yes, the day I left the Army I worked there with bassist Israel Crosby [pictured] and drummer Buddy Smith. Charlie Parker also was there that night. I had met him socially in New York when I went there originally with Gene Ammons in 1947.

JW: Did he play?
JM: Sure. Up on the stand we just winged it. He'd say, “Do you know such and such a song?" I'd say, “Yeah, we know it." I knew all of his songs and all of the standards he liked to play. I grew up with a bunch of talented guys in Chicago. We knew all those tunes. It was a nice four weeks with Bird.

JW: Did Parker demand specific keys on songs?
JM: Not at all. He could play in all of them. He'd just say, “Make it easy on yourself." He was so laid back, it was like playing with someone local. The club booked all of us for four weeks after that first night. But it wasn't the first time I had played with Bird.

JW: Really?
JM: When I played the Congo Lounge in Chicago with Gene Ammons in 1947, Bird dropped by and sat in. Whenever he'd come to town, he'd drop by. Same thing with Sonny Stitt and Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis. We worked together a lot, and I picked up on a lot of things.

JW: Like what?
JM: Like the way they approached the music. There are so many things that aren't written in the books. Chord changes, voicings, different playing styles for different musicians—things like that. I was very fortunate to play for two years with people like that. [Pictured: Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis]

JW: What did Parker say to you after the four weeks?
JM: He said, “Junior, why don't you come to New York?" I told him, “I'm trying, I'm trying." I had to save up and line up gigs. When I finally got there several months later, I ran into Parker on Broadway. He was coming out of the Turf on 50th St. Without missing a beat, he said, “Hey Junior. I see you finally made it." The guy had a mind like a trap.

JW: In 1954 you recorded with Dinah Washington and began touring with her.
JM: Yes, we made some singles in '54 along with the LPs After Hours with Miss D in New York and Dinah Jams in Los Angeles. Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Clark Terry and other great guys were on that date. In '56 we made Dinah Washington in the Land of Hi-Fi with Cannonball Adderley. During that time I toured with her as well.

JW: How did you wind up on After Hours with Miss D in 1954?
JM: She called me herself. She was from Chicago originally and had heard me play when she was back there. Wynton Kelly, her pianist, had been drafted.

JW: How did she ask you?
JM: She asked me during the day to come to make the record that night. I went in. Lockjaw, Clark Terry, Rick Henderson and other great guys were there. It was a small group. One of the first tunes we did was A Foggy Day. She really nailed it. After the session, she walked over to the piano and said, “Junior, what are you doing now?" I told her I had been working at the Bee Hive. She said, “Well you wouldn't be interested in working with me would you?" I told her I would. She said, “Well, if you're ready, I'm ready, too." That's how I came to work with her. She needed an accompanist with Wynton away.

JW: Who else had been sitting in with her in '54?
JM: Andrew Hill, but he didn't last a week.

JW: How well did you know Kelly?
JM: When I finally went to New York in '53, Wynton [pictured] was one of the first people I met. He was so nice. He threw gigs my way. I followed him in Dizzy Gillespie's band in the late '50s.

JW: What was it like working with Washington?
JM: Like accompanying an instrument. She could play the piano and had spent time in Lionel Hampton's band, so she was a highly seasoned musician. She understood the piano and how she wanted it to sound behind her.

JW: What was your biggest job accompanying her?
JM: Listening. Over the years, I've worked with a lot of  vocalists. I've always used a formula that pianist Jimmy Jones taught me. Jimmy had written some elaborate arrangements for Dinah. At the time, I wasn't a great reader. Jimmy came over and told me how to handle these things. [Photo of pianist Jimmy Jones with John Levy on bass by William P. Gottlieb]

JW: What did he say?
JM: He said, “Look, when you're working with a singer, imagine a portrait painting hanging in the museum. The singer is the subject of that portrait. What does the portrait need? A good frame. That's you."

JW: That works for anyone leading a band, doesn't it?
JM: Absolutely. Whoever you're playing with, the soloist is the subject of that painting. I'm not supposed to be getting in their way. My job is to be supportive, to signal what's coming and to provide a background that makes them feel comfortable so they can do their thing and sound great.

JW: Was Washington tough to deal with?
JM: We never had it out. Even when I left to join Cannonball Adderley in 1956, she was cool. She just went out and hired Cannonball's entire big band just to get me for Land of Hi-Fi [laughs]. All I did was listen carefully to what Dinah was doing and where she was going on songs. And I guess she was listening to me, too.

JW: Was Dinah tough on others?
JM: Not really. She wanted things her way and she usually got her way. It was a joy just to be around her. We used to go to after hours clubs a lot. She always liked to take her pianist along, in case she wanted to sing. 

JW: Was it fun going out to clubs with her?
JM: Fantastic. I never had to spend any money. She'd go to the best joints. They were so classy, and everyone knew her and respected her. She was like Art Tatum. People in the club would all be quietly saying, “The Queen's here" or “The Queen just walked in."

JW: No dust-ups?
JM: Oh, there would always be some jerk in one of those clubs who thought he knew everything and wanted to sit in with her. She'd allow it, but she'd make fast work of those guys. They'd sound so bad when she got through with them that they'd throw themselves off the stand [laughs]. Then I'd sit down and play with her. I never really saw her get mad, though. She always had top people working with her so there was no need for that.

JW: How did the jam session come about on the West Coast in '54?
JM: We were out there to record for EmArcy at Capitol Studios on Melrose Ave. [pictured on album cover]. She wanted to do something different so she had her manager or Mercury rent two studios and put them together. Then she invited about 50 of her friends. They had to be jazz fans. She had it catered with food and wine. She wanted a live feel, an audience so the jam session would be credible. You perform differently when a lot of people are watching and tape is rolling. It's like an added challenge.

JW: Which explains the applause.
JM: That applause wasn't scripted. It was for real. They couldn't help themselves. Man, you had Clifford Brown, [pictured] Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Harold Land, Herb Geller, Richie Powell, Keeter Betts, George Morrow and Max Roach [laughs]. What a group of musicians—from any coast.

JW: Was it a pure jam session?
JM: Yes, there were no rehearsals. In some places Maynard and Clifford did something where the trumpets sounded like they were reading a chart. At the end of I Get a Kick Out of You, for example.

JW: They weren't?
JM: Clifford and Maynard had gotten together minutes before we startedand decided to do a thing with harmony when Dinah did something else toward the end. It was just a twist to close out the tune.

JW: Looking back, what do you think of Jam Session?
JM: It was one of the greatest moments of my career. Everyone was cooking. It was really a party. 

JazzWax tracks: Dinah Washington's albums with Junior Mance in 1954 (After Hours with Miss D and Dinah Jams) and in 1956 (In the Land of Hi-Fi) with Cannonball Adderley are all in print and available as downloads. The download of Dinah Jams includes the tracks from Jam Session, which was mostly an instrumental showcase from the same date.

Dinah Jams is an exceptional and often-overlooked musical document featuring leading musicians from the East and West coasts who were signed to EmArcy Records at the time. Washington's phrasing is remarkably instrumental and the solos are exceptional. You'll find the album here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Washington singing I've Got You Under My Skin in 1954 from Dinah Jams. Listen as she conditions her voice for the more intimate LP era after nearly 10 years churning out three-minute singles for the jukebox. Dig Junior Mance filling in the spaces with enormous soul and swing...

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

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