Reminiscing In Tempo Dennis Munday On The Jazz Greats Part Two

Written by Dennis Munday
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Although I enjoyed working with Oscar and Norman, and dining out at restaurants where supper cost more than double my monthly mortgage payments, I couldn’t relax and be myself. I was a little out of my depth and my working class upbringing hadn’t educated me to wine and dine with the (extremely) rich and famous.

One time I was invited to supper at the exclusive [members only] White Elephant Club in Curzon Street and of the six diners, I was the only person at the table who wasn’t a millionaire. On leaving the establishment, the manager sidled up and asked; “Is sir a member?” I replied; “No,” he then informed me that if two of my companions put me up for membership it wouldn’t be a problem. I declined, as I couldn’t afford the prawn cocktail, never mind the membership fees.

No, I was more at home with musicians who came from a similar background and Part 2 features two of my favourites, Joe Pass and Zoot Sims. I became friends with both and served my drinking apprenticeship under their supervision.

Joe was a different person all together from Oscar and of all the jazz musicians I worked with, Joe became my best buddy. Our backgrounds were similar, we were both of Italian extraction, and although Joe was 22 years older, this made no difference and a friendship developed. He was a short balding man, who had a passing resemblance to the holographic doctor in the Star Trek series, Voyager.

Joe left school around the age of 16 and went on the road touring before heading to New York, a move that turned out to be a catalyst for disaster. This move not only brought him into contact with great jazz musicians, it also introduced him to hard drugs. He soon became addicted to heroin, a fate that befell many jazz musicians, including Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, Red Rodney, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper to name a few.

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Joe’s heroin addiction proved costly with one bust being extremely heavy, as he was caught scoring from some heavily ‘connected’ drug dealers and instead of going to a correctional institution, he received a punitive jail sentence and incarcerated in a prison for serious convicted felons. I spoke to him about this period and although reluctant to talk about his experiences he told me; “At first it was bad, but after a while I became a trusty and ran the prison big band. We did gigs for the inmates [laughing], you would pay a fortune in the real world to put a band together featuring so many great jazz players that were in the prison and played in my band.” Because of his addiction, the fifties were ‘lost years’ and there are very few recordings of Joe from this period.

In 1960, he commenced a long stay at the revolutionary Synanon Clinic [later discredited], a residential treatment centre for drug addicts in Santa Monica, California. Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Dederich, a charismatic alcoholic (sic), founded the institution in 1958 and it’s been said that Dederich coined the phrase, ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life’.

Having confronted his addiction, Joe left the clinic a cured man and returned to Los Angeles to re-start his career, which picked up when Oscar Peterson gave him the guitar ‘chair’ in his legendary trio and brought him to the attention of Norman Granz. Joe was one of the few jazz musicians whose technique was the equal of Oscar’s and he wasn’t frightened of him musically.

However, Joe was a loose cannon and you never knew what was going to happen. Oscar recalled an incident when he and Joe were playing a tour of concert halls in Europe; “In the middle of the gig I started playing a tune, and there was no guitar, when I looked round Joe had disappeared. I played a couple of numbers solo, and was worried, I thought he might be ill. During the next tune, the guitar came in and when I looked, Joe was on his seat. After we finished I turned to Joe, and whispered, are you ok, you’re not ill are you”? Joe replied, “No I’m fine, I had to take a piss” I can’t think of another artist who, in the middle of a concert playing with Oscar Peterson, would amble off the stage and take a leak

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With Joe it was like watching Thunderbirds-Are-Go - anything could happen in the next hour At the 1975 Montreux Festival Joe walked on stage to a huge ovation from the packed concert hall. He played superbly for about twenty minutes then without warning and to everyone’s surprise, walked off stage. To give him his due, he was having technical problems with his Polytone amplifier and throughout his set extraneous noises sporadically popped out of his amplifier. Backstage Norman was beside himself and sent Joe back out, thinking he would play another half a dozen tunes and finish the set.

However, for reasons only known to Joe, he played an extra encore, and calmly walked off and back to the dressing room. Norman was angry as he was recording the concerts for release, he only had half an album in the bag, and couldn’t send Joe back out for a third time. The next day Norman called and explained that Claude Nobs [the promoter] had kindly agreed to squeeze Joe in the next day to finish the album and then surprised me by saying; “Oh by the way, you can go with 'your man' and make sure that we get enough tunes in the can to complete the album.”  

We were waiting backstage, when he suddenly asked; “How long should I play for? I replied; “Play six numbers and an encore and that should do it.”  What he said next made my heart sink;” Dennis, what tunes do you think I should play?” At this stage, I thought he’d worked out his set list, we went into a huddle, and Joe quickly runs off a number of tunes, which sounded familiar. Suddenly I realised why, he’d reeled off the first side of his last album. I pointed this out, and said; “Choose another six and take the list on stage.”

Claude Nobs walked out on stage to introduce Joe and I thought everything was ok and everybody, including Norman would be happy. Suddenly Joe said; “I really don’t want to fuck up tonight otherwise Norman will be mad, [a slight understatement], when I’ve played enough tunes, come out and tap me on the shoulder.” I pointed out that the concerts were broadcast live on TV, and it would look stupid. He fired back; “Ok, why don’t you come out at the front of the stage with a sign saying the end, or something like that.” As it was seconds to go before he went on, I told him; “Just go out and play six numbers and an encore that will be fine.”

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Nob’s announced to the audience that Joe’s second performance was by popular demand - well, he could hardly tell them he was appearing because he’d screwed up the night before. Joe opened up the set with ‘Summertime’, which wasn’t on the list, but we got the second side in the bag and thank God, his amplifier didn’t play up.

Joe bounced off the stage and asked; “Was that all right?” I replied; “Great, you did it,” to which he calmly stated; “Good lets go eat, I’m hungry.” As far as Joe was concerned, everything was perfect and he wasn’t fazed about pissing Norman off, or making Claude Nobs re-arrange the running order of The Montreux Jazz Festival Later that evening, Norman was complimentary and thanked me for taking care of business, although he muttered a few oaths about Joe.

ennis munday montreux 1975 Another time I was watching Joe play a solo gig at Ronnie’s, when the Maître d' suddenly appeared with Oscar Peterson and Norman Granz. As soon as Joe realised they were in, he upped his performance, and it would be just a matter of time before he introduces them to the audience. However, I wasn’t ready for what happened next, Joe announced Oscar to the audience and there was a huge round of applause. I expected him to introduce Norman next, but to my astonishment, he announced my name and I received a small ripple from a much-bemused audience. My ego went up several notches until I realised they hadn’t a clue as to who the hell I was, my head shrank back to normal and I started to panic, wondering just how Joe would introduce Norman.

I waited with trepidation as Joe rambled on for some time about what a great deal of work Norman had done for him and jazz music, finally arriving at the point where he has to introduce this legendary icon of jazz. He calmly announced, “Ladies and gentleman, would you put your hands together for the best booker in the world - Norman Granz,” and having dropped that bombshell he played, ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free’ I stole a sideways glance at Norman, who was staring stonily at Joe, Oscar sat tight-lipped, desperately trying not to laugh and I had visions of the dole queue and Polydor handing me my P45 the next day.

At the end of the set, Norman disappeared to Pete King’s office to discuss some business and at last, Oscar and I could have a good laugh at Joe’s announcement. Even Oscar couldn’t believe what he’d heard, and the tune Joe had chosen to play. Later, I collared Joe and queried him about his announcement, he muttered; “I couldn’t think of anything else to say.” I then asked, of all the tunes you could have played, why an earth did you pick, 'The Best Things In Life Are Free’. He casually replied; “It was the first tune that came into my head”

Although a quiet and shy person, Joe possessed a very dry sense of humour. At a gig in America, the Maître d' announced over the PA; “Mr. Pass needs to raise money for a plane ticket back to LA, so a purchase of his new record would be much appreciated.”  Keeping away from hard drugs was a lifelong battle, which Joe fought daily and to my knowledge he never touched serious or soft drugs again. Between sets at Ronnie’s I asked; "Are you really cured of your addiction.” Joe solemnly replied; “Dennis, you’re never permanently cured. You just go from day to the day.” He then reflected; “Sometimes just the smell of marijuana gets my juices going.”

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The unfortunate thing about becoming addicted to hard drugs is even when you kick it your body never fully recovers. Many ex-addicts turned to drink and Joe was no different, and he used alcohol to mollify his cravings and the boredom between gigs. However, he was just replacing one craving with another and like heroin; alcohol can kill and has shortened many musician’s lives.

After I left the jazz scene I kept in touch with Joe and during the early nineties, we met for lunch at an Italian restaurant in James Street, London. Joe had a ‘night-club’ tan and wasn’t quite his old self. He mentioned he had touch hepatitis and would be seeing his Doctor when he returned to LA. This turned out to be our last meeting and on the 23 May 1994, at the age of 65, Joe died of a heart attack. After his death, a few of the guys in the jazz I’d kept in touch with told me Joe had cirrhosis of the liver and as he was a heavy drinker, this information came as no surprise Working with Joe was never easy, but I enjoyed his company and watching him play and I can honestly say that I liked the man immensely.

After Joe, my next best buddy was John Hayley ‘Zoot’ Sims, who was so laid back, he turned it into an art form. Zoot had a relaxed, smooth way of playing and whether it was in the studio or playing live, he seemed to have all the time in the world. It’s almost impossible to find a moderate performance on any of the records or sessions he played on, and he had the reputation of never playing an inappropriate phrase.

Zoot turned professional and went on the road at the age of 15, playing continuously up to the time of his death. His first gig was with Kenny Baker’s band and it was whilst playing with Baker that he acquired his nickname. Baker had the habit of painting a word on band member’s music stands to describe the musician, and emblazoned Zoot across Sims’s. The nickname stuck, and for the rest of his life, he was affectionately known as Zoot, with even one of the famous Muppet characters named after him.

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Zoot possessed a wicked sense of humour and many of his quips have now entered jazz folklore. Whilst touring Italy, Chet Baker introduced Zoot to Romano Mussolini, the son of the infamous Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Romano was one of Italy’s top jazz musicians, a film producer and married to Sophia Loren’s sister. Knowing Zoot all too well, Chet asked him to say something nice. Zoot shook Romano’s hand and said; "Sorry to hear about your Dad."

Like many other jazz musicians Zoot became hooked on heroin, during the forties he was a member of the famous ‘four brothers’ saxophone section with  Stan Getz, Serge Chaloff, and Herbie Steward in Woody Herman’s Second Thundering Herd. They also went under the sobriquet of 'four drug addicts and a clean man', the fifth being the ‘clean’ alto saxophonist.

Zoot eventually kicked his habit, but like so many ex-addicts his body still needed a stimulant, and he turned to alcohol, and it was his heavy boozing bought his life to a premature end. However, this rarely interfered with his playing, when asked how he managed to play with so much alcohol inside his system, he replied; “Easy, I practise drunk”  Unlike modern pop stars, whose mindless juvenile behaviour defines their character, Zoot was the real thing and his drinking never led to the kind of brainless escapades identified with these so-called ‘characters of pop’.

I recall when Zoot was playing a two-week stint at Ronnie’s and his wife had flown over for a holiday. One night we were talking and she said; “Zoot really likes you and thinks you’re swell.” Then she dropped a bombshell and asked; “Do you think you can have a word with him about his drinking, because he’s drinking far too much.”  I replied;” I’ll talk to him and do my best.” I wasn’t sure about her request, I was getting into heavy drinking myself and studying the art of boozing under Zoot and Joe Pass’s stewardship, and couldn’t imagine that Zoot would take any notice of a 24-year ‘boy’.

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In between sets, he was standing in the alley at the back of a club where he was playing in the USA, and a tramp came up begging; "I only need seventy five cents more to buy a drink." Zoot gave him the money, and after the tramp walked away, he ran after him and said, "Wait a minute. How do I know you're not going to go around the corner to buy a bowl of soup?"

In the mid-seventies, Norman Granz arranged a short JATP tour of Europe that included a concert at the London Palladium. I arrived early and headed for the dressing rooms, Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davies passed me by and said; “Your man is in the dressing room” and walked off laughing. When I entered the dressing room Zoot was lying on a couch with his tenor slung across his chest, although his face had a reddish hue and he smelled like a brewery, he seemed to be in good shape. I asked how he was doing, to which he replied with a beam; “I haven’t been to bed for two days, been having a drink or two”  

We shot the breeze for a while, then the tour manager appeared and informed Zoot; “Oscar wants to see you to discuss the tunes that you’re going to play with 'Lockjaw' tonight.”  Dragging himself off the couch, he yawned stretched his arms and said; “I’d better go, don’t want to upset the Bear”, and he trundled off to Oscar’s dressing room.

Zoot took the stage with ‘Jaws’ for their tenor battle, and during the set they played a ballad medley, where each musician plays a different song in a different key. All goes well until Zoot steps up to the mike, where he commences to play in the wrong key, Oscar and the trio seamlessly change key and everything passes off smoothly. However, the Bear is none too happy and during the interval, Zoot was summoned to report to Bear’s cave. He returned chastened, but even a roasting from Oscar didn’t seem to bother Zoot, he shrugged his shoulders and said; “Come on Den, let’s go get a drink.”

After the gig Norman treated the whole entourage to a late supper [where the liquor flowing], which went on into the early hours of the morning. The next day the musicians had to fly to Europe and instead of going to the office, I decided to see them off at the airport. On the bus I sat next to Zoot, who looked rough, he confided that he hadn’t gone to bed that night and carried on drinking until it was time to leave. During the short journey, he retrieved an orange from his coat pocket, and began to peel the fruit, as we pulled into Heathrow Airport, he still hadn’t managed to get the skin off

Towards the end of his life, Zoot tried to cut down his drinking, but never quite managed in 1984, he was diagnosed inoperable liver cancer. Even though he knew he was dying, his humour was to the fore and during his last few days he reportedly greeted his doctor with; "You're looking better today, Doc." He continued playing until six weeks before his death on 23 March 1985, seven months short of his 60th birthday, and in his own words, he stated emphatically; "I want to go out that way – I want to go out playing jazz. I don't want to do anything else."

It’s been said of my generation that everyone recalls where they were the day that President John Kennedy was assassinated. However, I am one of the few who can’t, but I do recall the moment I heard of Zoot’s death. I was driving home from a mate’s gig and turned on the radio and at the end of the news bulletin, it was announced that Zoot Sims had passed away. Although saddened by the news, it was inevitable given his predilection for hard drinking.

I have many fond memories of Zoot Sims and enjoyed his company, I admired him as a person, as well as a jazz musician, and to this day, nothing has changed. Whilst discussing sax players with an Italian jazz musician, they were surprised when I stated that Zoot was my favourite tenor player. Zoot was like a fine claret - he and his recordings just got better with age.

I enjoyed my time with Joe and Zoot, although I was relieved when they finished their tours and caught their flight back home to the USA - a little of Joe and Zoot went a long way Nonetheless, we ate a ton of pasta and drank more than the occasional skin full, and even with their peccadilloes they were quite simply, nice men.

Part 3 features Ella Fitzgerald and what it was like to be a regular at Ronnie Scott’s.

© Dennis Munday /ZANI Media

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Reminiscing In Tempo Dennis Munday on the Jazz Greats Part One

Reminiscing In Tempo Dennis Munday On The Jazz Greats Part Three

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