The Truth About Joe Maini


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If you're a careful reader of West Coast jazz-album liner notes, you've likely come across Joe Maini's name. The alto saxophonist is rather obscure today, but back in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was one of Los Angeles' busiest and most distinctive studio musicians, sitting next to Charlie Parker in Gene Roland's Band That Never Was and recording with Clifford Brown, Shelly Manne, Kenny Drew, Zoot Sims and many others. Maini also appeared on dozens of major small-group and big-band recordings throughout the decade, including the I Want to Live soundtrack, Terry Gibbs' Dream Band, and the Ray Anthony and Bill Holman big bands.

But Maini also personified the bipolar world of Southern California's music scene at the time, hurling himself into a high-risk lifestyle but remaining deeply passionate about jazz. “Joe was beyond great--he could play anything I wrote, with incredible soul and energy," Johnny Mandel told me at dinner recently.

Two weeks ago, Tina Maini [pictured], Joe's daughter, emailed me inquiring about a photo I had used of her dad in an earlier post. We struck up an e-friendship, and I asked Tina if she would be willing to write about her dad's life and the tragic events of his death. Tina agreed. Here, in Tina's words, are her reflections of her father:

“I was six years old when my father Joe Maini died in Los Angeles. For years, hurtful rumors about the tragic accident that ended his life on May 7, 1964 circulated and grew larger and more outrageous with every telling. Eventually, stories about Russian roulette, murder and other false allegations began to be treated as fact, making my father seem disturbed, irrational or worse.

“Over time, those rumors managed to diminish and overshadow my father's reputation as an outstanding musician. They also minimized his contribution to West Coast jazz. My father deserves better, which is why I agreed to share the story of his death here. [Pictured: Joe Maini seated next to Charlie Parker in Gene Roland's Band That Never Was]

“As the daughter of Joe Maini, I have been blessed over the years with lots of jazz family--including Med and Joanie Flory, Bobby and Jerrie McKenzie, Paul Horn, Kenny Drew, Jack Sheldon, Charlie Kennedy, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. And of course there was comedian Lenny Bruce [pictured], my dad's very best friend.

“The list goes on an on, and each of these friends were special characters in their own right. My father's love for his wife Sandra, my mother, was legendary in jazz circles. He also was a great, loving father--or as much of a father as he could be given his occupation and hours. [Pictured, from left: Sandra and Joe Maini with son Giuseppe]

“The late 1950s was a crazy time on the West Coast. Every musician seemed to be high, drunk or loose most of the time--except when it came to playing and recording. Despite my father's drug habit, he never missed a gig or recording session.

“Of course, his passion for jazz wasn't always in sync with family time. My father missed my birth, for instance, sending my godfather Lenny Bruce in his place so he could finish his out-of-town gig. Lenny even gave me my name. My parents were expecting a boy, and my mom was at a loss for a girl's name. My mother told me that Lenny said, “I knew this great chick named Tina!" So my mother went with Tina.

“There was always a gathering or a jam session going on at our house in West Hollywood when I was young, and my father was infamous for being the life of every party. Sadly, drugs were a major part of his downtime and certainly contributed to his judgment at the time of his death. Believe me, I know just how deeply into the drug scene he was. But drugs, most assuredly, had nothing to do with why my father was special as a musician or why he was loved and admired by so many. [Pictured: Joe and Sandra Maini]

“In the spring of 1964, my mom was trying to get clean from her own drug habit. She also was struggling to raise my brother Giuseppe and me. To create space, she and dad would separate off and on, which was hard on us. The pace and intensity of the music scene was difficult for both of them, and their temporary breaks often were mutually agreed upon, for everyone's sake. [Pictured: Joe Maini at home]

“But being apart was difficult on my parents. The week of my father's death was one of those tough times, and I'm told my parents' most recent separation had him feeling a bit down. Consequently, rumors circulated after his death that he had committed suicide--despite the fact that he was in a great mood and joking around when the gun he held in his hand went off.

“Let me set the record straight. Here are the facts concerning the night my father died, according to my mother, my dad's brother and alto saxophonist Ray Graziano, who was there:

“In 1964, Ray Graziano was one of my father's many acquaintances. At the time, Ray's girlfriend Daphne lived with him, and my father was hanging out at their place after gigs to relax and party before heading home. One night Daphne thought she saw a prowler at the window. So my father and Ray borrowed a gun so Daphne could protect herself when she was home alone.

“My father was an outrageous prankster and went to great lengths to pull off a joke. Friends called him Joe 'Mainiac' for good reason. I remember my father once told me to play dead and brought me to my mom, who freaked out. Other times, my dad went way out of his way to make us laugh. One time he used a large pipe wrench to pretend he was tightening his nose. [Pictured: Charlie Barnet conducting while Joe Maini listens]

“When my father and Ray arrived back at Ray's place with the gun, my father started playing around with it, telling jokes and clicking the trigger, imitating a cowboy.

“A few days later, late at night and after a gig, my father went back to Ray's house to get high. In the interim, Ray had purchased bullets and loaded them into the gun. Nobody knows why my father wasn't told about the gun being loaded, but when people are getting high and it's late at night...

“My father picked up the pistol and started telling a joke. He waved the gun around, and it went off accidentally. The bullet cut just under his ear and across the back of his neck through his spine. If that bullet had been just a millimeter off, he would have lived.

“Ray and Daphne rushed my father to the hospital, and he died soon after. I remember being at the hospital when Grandma Maini, Joe's grieving mom, screamed, “Murderer, murderer!" at my mother while I held my little brother crying in my arms. It was really rough. A short time later, my father's parents reached out to us, apologized and were wonderful grandparents to my brother and me. [Pictured; Joe Maini and his brother Pat shortly before Joe's death]

“I also remember my father's open-casket funeral and the horn they buried with him, one of Charlie Parker's, I was told. From what I've heard, everyone in the jazz world on the West Coast was there that day. Soon after my father's funeral, his musician friends held a 12-hour memorial concert at Shelly's Manne-Hole. Everyone contributed generous amounts of cash, which was placed into a trust fund for my brother and me. The money helped us enormously when we turned 18, and we are so grateful for that. [Pictured, from left: Unknown, Percy Heath, Joe Maini and Dizzy Gillespie]

“I have no idea what happened to Ray Graziano or Daphne in the years that followed. As for my mother, she kept us isolated from the gossip and media. She moved us to an out-of-the-way city on the East Coast. To make ends meet, my mother worked at all kinds of jobs, from construction and decorating to teaching art to young children.

“I lived with my mom off and on most of my adult life, and we had an intensely close relationship. She passed away 20 years ago, still in love with my dad and somewhat broken-hearted.

“Since my father's death, I have worked as a jazz vocalist and musician. My brother, my son and daughter as well as my grandchildren all have the talent and the music in them. My brother Giuseppe has become a painter and blues-harp player in New Hampshire. In so many good ways, he is just like his father. My son played sax like a natural and now is a sculptor in New York. My daughter has recorded in Europe. [Pictured: Tina Maini and brother Giuseppe]

“But after all these years, my family still has to endure the awful rumors about my father's death 46 years ago last week. Just recently, a new CD compilation surfaced from Spain called Joe Maini: Small Group Recordings. It comes with a sticker on the wrapping that reads, 'The jazz world was shocked in May 1964 when the newspapers announced saxophonist Joe Maini's death apparently as a consequence of playing Russian roulette at the age of 34.'

“That's not the legacy my father wanted to leave behind. Rumors may sell CDs, but they still hurt family members many years later. I hope that by writing about my father's death here, I can put an end to the untruths about what happened that night. My brother and I truly loved my father and miss him dearly." [Pictured: Tina Maini and her brother Giuseppe]

JazzWax tracks: Joe Maini is on a range of top recordings from the 1950s. The best collection of these sessions is Joe Maini: The Small Group Recordings (Lonehill), the set that Tina Maini complained about above for its bad-taste promotional sticker. You'll find the four-CD set here.

Maini also recorded with Clifford Brown on Clifford Brown All Stars (EmArcy), on the soundtrack recording of Johnny Mandel's I Want to Live and on many of Terry Gibbs' albums from the late 1950s, including More Vibes on Velvet, Terry Gibbs Big Band, Launching a New Band, One More Time, Dream Band, Flying Home, The Sundown Sessions, Swing Is Here!, Main Stem and The Big Cat.

Maini can also be found in the reed sections of Bill Holman's Great Big Band (1960) and on Anita O'Day's Incomparable! (also arranged by Bill), O'Day's Travelin' Light (arranged by Johnny Mandel), Gerald Wilson's Moment of Truth and David Allyn's In the Blue of Evening, arranged by Johnny Mandel.

More on Joe Maini here and here.

A special thanks to Tina Maini for sharing her story and providing several photographs of her father and family that are featured above.

JazzWax clip: Here's Joe Maini and Shorty Rogers in 1962 with Pete Jolly (piano), Max Bennett (bass) and Mel Lewis (drums)...

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

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