Veteran jazzmen played with the greats
Jim Beckerman , Staff Writer@jimbeckerman1 9:02 a.m. ET Feb. 13, 2017
Video: The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in Fort Lee
Video: The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in ...
The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band is composed of jazz veterans rehearsing for the upcoming regular gig in Fort Lee Marko Georgiev/NorthJersey.com
(Photo: Marko Georgiev/NorthJersey.com)
Know jazz? Then you know "Take the 'A' Train."
The classic Billy Strayhorn tune, which the Harlem Blues & Jazz Band is now swatting around like a badminton birdie, from tenor sax to trumpet to keyboards to bass, is as basic to the jazz repertoire as Beethoven's Fifth is to a symphony orchestra.
Only difference: No one in your local symphony orchestra ever hung out with Beethoven.
"Billy Strayhorn and I were in high school together, graduated the same year, 1933, in Pittsburgh," says sax man Fred Staton, who will be celebrating his 102nd birthday on Tuesday.
He's the oldest member of The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band – which was taking the " 'A' Train" out of the railroad yard for a trial run last week at the Holiday Inn GW Bridge in Fort Lee.
"One, two ... " trumpeter Joey Morant counts. The next moment, they're off – chugging their way merrily along to 125th Street.
This ensemble of veteran sidemen – the youngest is in his 70s – have performed with some of the greatest names in music: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, among others. The band, put together 44 years ago by Dr. Albert Vollmer, a Westchester orthodontist and jazz enthusiast, launches a regular weekly gig Saturday at the Holiday Inn on Route 4 – a belated Valentine's Day celebration that will also be a belated birthday party for Staton. They'll be in residence every Saturday thereafter.
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"This is a part of American musical history," says Vollmer, 87. "This is the only real art form that has come out of America. Possibly quilting. Maybe bluegrass. But certainly jazz."
You can hear about jazz from a lot of people. But these gentlemen are – so to speak – the horses' mouths.
They lived the jazz history that the rest of us know from liner notes and Ken Burns documentaries. They are the last living links to a time when Duke Ellington ruled the Cotton Club and Chick Webb bossed the Savoy Ballroom, when Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong were live acts rather than tracks on an album, when ladies went to Harlem in ermine and pearls (so the song "Lady Is a Tramp" tells us) to catch musicians jamming after hours at clubs like Small's Paradise and Connie's Inn. They hung out on 52nd Street when a strange new music – bebop – was dividing the jazz world into "moldy figs" who preferred the old sounds and cool cats like Charlie Parker and Gillespie who were playing what detractors called "Chinese notes."
When these guys pass into history, so will an era.
What they have to say
"We're just players that were fortunate enough to be around at this time," says Reynolds "Zeke" Mullins, 91, keyboards (he was a member of Hampton's band). "But after us, the music will move on to younger players."
So go ahead. Ask drummer Jackie Williams (he played with Earl "Fatha" Hines, Teddy Wilson, Doc Cheatham and Illinois Jacquet) about Charlie Parker.
"I used to see him a lot of times, when I would go to the barber," says Williams (he's in his 80s). "He went to the same barber in Harlem. He wasn't one of those persons who goes, 'Hey man, how are you doing?' He seemed a bit of a recluse type. He was very intellectual, very serious, always had a newspaper, a magazine, the Times."
But could he blow a horn. "I couldn't believe it," says Williams, who saw Parker be- and bop many a time. "How could this man do it? He was so fantastic. It was captivating to me, just to hear him."
Or ask trumpeter Morant about Count Basie. Not that Morant, in his 70s, didn't play with lots of other jazz and R&B greats: Henry “Red” Allen, Hampton, Ray Charles, Gillespie, Lloyd Price, James Brown and B.B. King, among others. But Basie was a standout. "I remember the left hand: Thooom thoom thoom," Morant says. "Strong left hand that set the pace for the band. He sat on the edge of the chair."
Or get bassist Michael Max Fleming to tell about the career advice proffered by piano great Mary Lou Williams. "She was my musical mother, very concerned about my life," says Fleming, in his early 70s, who also played with Billy Eckstine, Jimmy Witherspoon and Chet Baker. "Two things she used to say to me: 'Keep your mind on the music' and 'Use your ears.' That was what she was trying to instill in me. Not running after girls, or getting into the political end of the music – it was very political then."
But wait – we were talking about Billy Strayhorn. The legendary composer of "Take the 'A' Train," "Lush Life" and "Chelsea Bridge," Ellington's right-hand man was – as noted – a high school classmate of Staton, The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band's 102-year-old birthday boy.
"He was virtually on another wavelength other than us," Staton recalls.
Born in 1915, Staton's life neatly coincides not only with Strayhorn's (born the same year), but with the whole timeline of jazz. He came into the world just three years after an 11-year-old Louis Armstrong tootled his first cornet notes at the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans – and two years before the first commercial jazz 78, "Livery Stable Blues," became the first popular music record to sell a million copies. Moreover, his hometown Pittsburgh has an honored place in jazz history: It produced not just Strayhorn, but also Art Blakey, Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Williams, Lena Horne and his own younger sister, the well-known vocalist Dakota Staton. But even in such surroundings, Strayhorn was a man apart, Staton recalls.
"He was gay," Staton says. "We didn't know it. I didn't know it. All we knew was he was into some music. While he was writing music, we were chasing chicks."
Strayhorn had the last laugh, though, when Ellington blew through town. "Billy brought some of his music to Duke, to show him what he could do," Staton recalls. "And Duke was so impressed, he said, 'You're gonna hear from me.' So Duke came back to New York, and he sent for [Strayhorn]. And when he got on the train from Pittsburgh to come to New York he got off the train here and asked someone, 'How do you get to Harlem?' And they said, 'Take the A Train.' So he took the A Train, and while he was on the A train, the tune came to him. That's how that song came about."
The band's founder
The fact that these guys can tell such firsthand, one-degree-of-separation stories is just one of the reasons Vollmer, creator of the band, finds them – and their world – endlessly fascinating. Born in London, raised in Sweden, Vollmer got the jazz bug in his teens and was a full-out hepcat when he came to America at age 17, seeking the greats he had heard only on record. As soon as he became a successful enough orthodontist, by the late 1960s, he filled his large Tudor house on Long Island Sound full of jazz players. "We had incredible parties," he says.
The natural next step, in 1973, was to form a band of veteran sidemen. A combo not unlike the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, created 10 years earlier (though that didn't inspire him, Vollmer says), but with a distinctly Harlem flavor: Less Louis Armstrong, more Duke Ellington. "Harlem had an incredible input into jazz music and literature," he says. "Harlem set the tone for a lot of things. I want people to know we have a Harlem sound. It's not a New Orleans sound."
The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band, from left: Reynolds "Zeke" Mullins, Fred Staton, Michael Max Fleming, Joey Morant, Jackie Williams. (Photo: Marko Georgiev/NorthJersey.com)
Through the years, the band, which has recorded and toured Europe, has had the cream of New York sidemen cycle in and out – saxman George James, bassist Johnny Williams, guitarist Al Casey, drummer Tommy Benford and trombonist Eddie Durham among many others. As older ones left, or passed, new ones came onboard.
"The basic people who have passed through this organization have been the top sidemen," Vollmer says. "At one point, I had a total orchestra where everybody had played the Savoy Ballroom, but that's gone."
And when these guys hang up their hats ...?
There are some who will tell you that's it – these men and women are the last generation of jazz. It was a specific thing, they'll argue, that was born when Buddy Bolden blasted his first cornet note on the docks of New Orleans in the 1890s, and died – let's say – when Miles Davis recorded a Cyndi Lauper tune.
These veterans don't buy it. "It evolves," Morant says. "It doesn't have to be now what it is later. Aretha Franklin ain't Dinah Washington. Dinah Washington ain't Lady Day. Lady Day ain't Bessie Smith. They all get their individual credit."
You might say that jazz is like a tree, Williams says. And trees have been known to live a long, long time. "When you have roots to a tree, the tree keeps on growing, but it changes branches, right?" he says. "Well that's the way I feel about jazz."