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Interview: Junior Mance (Part 3)

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Pianist Junior Mance has a lot of church in his playing. But it's not purely the church of stomping gospel or frenzied revivals. Rather, Junior's playing channels both urban gospel and rural spirituals and hymns. What interesting about his quiet soul is that it garners both a physical reaction in listeners as well as self-reflection. Junior's more sensitive funk was honed under the tutelage of singers and soloists. Ever since, Junior's goal has been never to eclipse but to enhance and envelop. Even as a trio leader in the '60s and beyond, you hear a gentleness that is rare among church-influenced pianists of his generation. [Photo by Judy Kirtley]

In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Junior, the pianist talks about Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Ornette Coleman:

JazzWax: In 1956, you became a member of Cannonball Adderley's first organized worked band—his first civilian band, that is.
Junior Mance: [Laughs] Yes, I spent two years with Cannon after the Army. I loved that band—Cannon on alto sax, his brother Nat on trumpet and cornet, me on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. In college Cannon had signed up for the ROTC with his sights set on the Navy. The deal was that when he graduated, he would have to serve at sea. He had a four-year obligation waiting at the end of school. Toward the end of college, he decided to enlist in the Army instead for three years. When I asked what the difference was, Cannon said, “One year" [laughs]. That's how Cannon thought.

JW: You recorded with bassist Wilbur Ware on dates with Johnny Griffin. What was Ware like?
JM: Wilbur was a genius. He grew up in Chicago around the same time as Johnny and me. Wilbur [pictured] had a lot of personal problems, though. He got involved with drugs early. He came to New York after Johnny and I did. When he got there, he was trying to kick his habit. He went through a lot of trouble and turmoil. Which is a shame. He was the nicest cat in the world. He amazed everyone.

JW: Did you avoid the drug scene?
JM: Completely. I never got involved with that. I had looked at enough of these guys from Chicago who messed up. They were only fooling themselves. Lester Young smoked pot, but he wasn't outrageous with it.

JW: Did you try it?
JM: I smoked a joint on one record date early on and played worse than I ever did. I never was in my right mind. I never touched it again.

JW: Was Charlie Parker difficult in this regard?
JM: So much about Bird was exaggerated over the years. He never enticed anyone to use drugs. But users and pushers were constantly on him.

JW: How so?
JM: When we were working at the Bee Hive in '53, two guys came by the club. They were worshipers of Bird's. After a set Bird and I were in the dressing room talking. These two guys came in, and the first thing they did was take out their works—needle, spoon, everything. Bird said, “Hey, hey, hey, what are you guys doing?"

JW: What did they say?
JM: They said, “We have enough for you, Bird, don't worry. We want to get high and play like you." Man, Bird read them the riot act. Bird said, “I can't help myself now. I'm trying to quit." He spoke to them like a preacher: “You're not doing anything but ruining yourselves. Look, don't do as I do. Do as I say." When he was done letting them have it, they seemed so small.

JW: What did the two guys do?
JM: Nothing. They just wrapped up the drugs and split.

JW: What happened to them?
JM: They both died less than a year later. Bird never looked kindly on people who did drugs. He never suggested I use, and I never saw him use on the job. [Pause] Then again I guess he might have been already high.

JW: Playing with so many alto saxophonists, were they all influenced by Charlie Parker?
JM: Sonny Stitt on alto had a different sound than Bird.  Cannon sounded like Bird, but he didn't play the same stuff Bird did. Stitt worshiped Bird. Dizzy used to say that when Sonny was playing in his band, there were times Sonny would be on fire. He said, “In my mind, it was Charlie Parker playing next to me until I opened my eyes." Both Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt had pictures of Parker in their sax cases.

JW: How did you get the job with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1958?
JM: I followed Wynton Kelly in that band. Wynton called me to ask if I could sub for him. Before I took the job, I saw Dizzy on Broadway near the Turf. Dizzy said, “How's Cannonball's band doing?" I said, “It just broke up." Dizzy said, “Oh yeah?" Dizzy's next words were, “Rehearsal at 2 p.m. at my house next week" [laughs].

JW: Did you show up?
JM: Oh yeah. I was there along with Les Spann, Sam Jones and Lex Humphries. That was a great quintet.

JW: Speaking of Gillespie, you were the pianist when Gillespie and Louis Armstrong made a rare appearance together on NBC in January 1959.
JM: That's right: Umbrella Man. During rehearsal, I had recalled that James Moody in Dizzy's big band in the mid-'50s used to sing out off-key on purpose. So I did it because I thought that would fit. Dizzy was surprised and gave me a puzzled look. He dug it and said, “Now you're the straight man. Leave that in on the show. That's your line now." It gave him a chance to look at me like I was nuts, but it was classic Dizzy. He loved cutting up, acting silly, and then lifting that trumpet up and wiping away everyone's smile with his amazing ability.

JW: Were Gillespie and Armstrong still feuding at the time?
JM: [Laughs] They never were. It was all exaggerated. They loved each other. Before the TV appearance, they were hanging out backstage. They were doing comedy routines back there that continued onto the set. When Dizzy turns to Louis and sings about his parasol, Louis says, “Your parasol is juicy, boy" wiping his face as though Dizzy had accidentally spit on him. [Roaring laughter]. That's how they were together.

JW: How can you be sure that Gillespie and Armstrong really got along well?
JM: I lived in their neighborhood in Queens. They were always hanging out together. Dizzy lived a street over from Louis in Corona. They may not have talked about music all the time, but they loved getting together.

JW: In April 1959, you recorded your first trio album, Junior.
JM: We had just finished doing one of Dizzy's dates when I looked over and saw Dizzy and Norman Granz off to the side talking. They kept looking at me. I wondered, “Did I screw up or something?" All of sudden Norman walked over and said, “How would you like to do your own record date?"

JW: What did you say?
JM: I stammered and said, “Yeah." I had been working in Dizzy's group with bassist Sam Jones. Norman said, “Would you mind using Ray Brown?" I stammered again, “Yeah, I guess so." Later I was fixing to apologize to Sam but when I did, Sam said, “What—are you kidding? When you can play with Ray, you don't ask questions."

JW: Did you enjoy recording that session?
JM: Yes, the whole sound was beautiful. Lex was just 22 years old, and Dizzy loved him. But they had their moments. I remember Lex and Dizzy were arguing about something that wasn't important. Lex was glaring, but Dizzy didn't lose his cool. Dizzy could see something was wrong. He called Lex's family later. Lex had had slight mental problems before. 

JW: Was Dizzy a good chess player?
JM: First rate. The first time I went to Europe with him, he played all the time. Even back here on tour. Once when we were playing in San Francisco, a couple of Dizzy's friends who had been in San Quentin for minor offenses came by where we were staying. Dizzy had three or four chessboards set up to play multiple people at once.

JW: What happened?
JM: Dizzy was talking with his two friends while he was beating us. Then these guys asked if they could play, so Dizzy said fine. Dizzy just managed to beat one of them while the other played Dizzy to a draw. After they left, this cat who was there told both of us: “Never play someone who has done time. All they do all day is play chess and learn from each other."

JW: Dizzy was an aggressive player?
JM: Absolutely. He was aggressive with everything related to chess. One day we were walking down the street in Pittsburgh. We passed this firehouse where firemen were sitting outside playing chess. Dizzy went over to watch their moves. Each time they made a bad move, Dizzy made a face. One of the firemen recognized him and asked, “Do you play?" Dizzy said he did. So the fireman asked Dizzy to sit down.

JW: What happened?
JM: Dizzy beat the fireman and came back the next day and wiped them all out [laughs].

JW: You also played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, yes?
JM: The first time I played with Hawk was in Chicago in May 1954. He was in town to record for Parrot Records, a label run by a disc jockey named Al Benson. When he played the Bee Hive, he needed a pianist so I was called for the gig. Hawk and I did eight weeks there together. Man, he knew more tunes. I learned more songs playing with him than with anyone else. I'd ask him what key he wanted to play a song in, and Hawk would say, “Wherever you want to put it. Just play the intro and I'll figure out where we're at." When you've been playing as long as that guy, things come automatically.

JW: With the rise of free jazz in the early '60s, did you and other traditionalists freeze out guys like Ornette Coleman?
JM: No, no, not at all. I was on a record date with Benny Carter in New York in 1965 for a film. The movie date was for A Man Called Adam, with Sammy Davis, Jr. When we finished recording, Benny said, “I'm going to stay in town. I want to see Ornette."

JW: Did you go with him?
JM: Yes, we went down to the Five Spot and took a table in the corner. I sat with Benny for a while and then went over to the bar to hang out with some of the guys.

JW: What happened?
JM: A writer came up to Benny on one of Ornette's breaks and said, “Hey, Benny, what are you doing here?" Benny said, “Look man, I want to know what's going on. It doesn't mean I'm trying to play like this. I just like to hear new things." That was a lesson that stuck with me. I began listening to everybody, too.

JW: How long did you and Benny remain at the club?
JM: Through all three sets.

JazzWax tracks: Junior Mance's albums with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet include Sophisticated Swing, Cannonball Enroute, At Newport and Cannonball's Sharpshooters. Perhaps his best-known album with Dizzy Gillespie is Have Trumpet Will Excite (1959).

Junior's albums as a leader are many. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Junior (1959)
  • Junior Mance at the Village Vanguard (1961) 
  • Jazz Soul of Hollywood (1961)
  • Get Ready, Set, Jump! (1964)
  • That Lovin' Feelin' (late '60s)
  • Opus de Funk (with Frank Foster) (1991)
  • Mance (1998)

Junior's Jazz Soul of Hollywood (an orchestral date with Melba Liston arrangements) and That Lovin' Feelin' are available on a single download at Concord's site here.

Junior's latest album is Out South (JunGlo). He's joined by Ryan Anselmi (tenor sax), Andrew Hadro (baritone sax), Hidé Tanaka (bass) and Jackie Williams (drums). You'll find Out South here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Junior Mance playing Whisper Not, infusing Benny Golson's standard with a rousing gospel spirit...

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

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