Junior Mance (1928-2021)

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Junior Mance, a pianist and early proponent of church-infused soul-jazz who played and recorded with nearly all of jazz's post-war greats before beginning a leadership career in 1959, died on January 16. He was 92.

Junior's playing channeled both urban gospel and rural spirituals and hymns, resulting in a style that exuded introspective soul. Junior's brand of sensitive bop and jazz was honed under the tutelage of spectacular soloists and blues singers. Even as a trio leader in the '60s and beyond, his hallmark was a gentleness that was rare among pianists of his generation.

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 honor of Junior, here is my complete three-part interview combined from 2011:

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

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.

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. [Photo of Cannonball Adderley by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]

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.

JW: 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?

JM: 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 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.

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 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.

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. She wanted to do something different so she had her manager or Mercury rent side-by-side 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, 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 started and 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.

JW: In 1956, you became a member of Cannonball Adderley’s first organized worked band—his first civilian band, that is.

JM: [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 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 note: 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)


JazzWax clips: Here's A Smooth One from Junior...



Here's Junior live in 1960 with Dizzy Gillespie on Willow Weep for Me...



Here's Junior's first recording session, with Gene Ammons in 1947, on Concentration...



Here's Junior with Gene Ammons in 1950 on When I Dream of You...



Here's Junior with Dinah Washington on I've Got You Under My Skin in 1954...



Here's Junior with James Moody on Johnny Pate's arrangement of The Moody One (with the false start) from Last Train From Overbrook in 1958...



And here's Junior on You Are Too Beautiful in 1961...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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