Music was a foundation of growing up. I remember my father building a speaker when I was quite young and then taking me to the Sea of Music record store to buy (used) records. He bought a musical for me (I think it was West Side Story) and some jazz for himself and my mother. I also remember the four of us, my parents, older brother and I, sitting on the hardwood dining room floor surrounded by boxes sorting out by genre and then alphabetizing 48s and 78s of blues, jazz, and rock and roll from some collection they had been given. As they made discoveries of some tasty piece of music one or the other would jump up and put on the record. That’s when I first remember hearing Bessie Smith and Fats Domino and Louis Jordan. Music, mostly jazz and mostly instrumentals, was almost always playing in our home. So I asked my father about his experience with music. To get the full sense of what he experienced I added links to the music he referenced. I encourage you to follow each link to hear the music.
DM: When’s the first time you remember hearing jazz and what did you think of it?
Reggie Major: I didn’t hear jazz as such, I heard music. And very early.
Okay let’s so it a different way. What was the first music you really hooked into?
“Give me a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer.” (laughter) Bessie Smith. The first, number one tune. Top. I lived at 46th W117th street. 48th and 117th was a whorehouse and they partied on the weekend and I think this record came out in 36. But that one got to me But all of the stuff was around me and it was in the 30’s. There was Ella Fitzgerald, she was with Chick Webb at the time and she shifted from Chick Webb to Louis Jordan. I got solidly laced into jazz.
1936 was the first year I went to camp and it was a disaster. I get to Minisink. I’m looking around and everything is fine but I have a fever. It turns out that I have chicken pox and they were going to send me home. I fell out. I cried, I wept. I was serious. I wasn’t unhappy at home but this was camp. They decided to put me in a room of my own and I sat there for two weeks. Close to the end my father came up, both parents, and they decided to let me stay up for the last week.
Now part of Harlem culture at that stage of the game was singing arrangements. One of the arrangements we sang was Jimmy Lunceford’s “Ain’t She Sweet.” It’s a wonderful arrangement. When I came out of the dispensary they were doing that in the dining room. We’d sing the whole arrangement. We were singing the parts.
So the next year I come up, my parents send me for five weeks, they didn’t waste any time, they just sent me for five weeks. And one of the first counselors I met was George Duvivier, a legend among bass players. He’s on so much stuff, but he played mostly studio because his old lady didn’t want him on the road. He would work with Cy Oliver’s band particularly. He would travel with Cy Oliver as far as Chicago. And he was so hip he could sit there in Chicago and sooner or later there would be a band to carry him back to New York. George Duvivier brought in people from Duke’s (Ellington) band to our camp.
Oh yes, yes! We sang all kinds of stuff. Yes! Minisink was wonderful. We sang the popular big band stuff. We sang band stuff we didn’t sing too many lyrics. We sang “ain’t she sweet. (He goes on and sings it)
When you ask about jazz that was it. And my mother she was into the drama of Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. Chick Webb adopted Ella. He was a hellified drummer but he was a hunchback. He made the mistake of submitting himself to the knife and he never was right after that. But she inherited the Chick Webb band.
Nat King Cole was just coming up. I did not know Nat King Cole as a singer. I mean he sand ballads, but I knew him as a piano player, as part of a jazz trio and he was also the vocalist.
How do you think music, the way people receive music, or the music they’re receiving has changed from when you were a teenager to teens today and what they have easy access to and what you had easy access to then?
It goes beyond teenagers. The biggest change is the lack of live music. Every time you see a decent live musician you’ve got to pay money. When I was growing up you wanted to hear good jazz you walked into a place. The last time I saw Lester Young in person was in Chicago. It was a place at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove. It was a bar that sold hot dogs. There was a hot dog window where you could just buy some food and the band sat up on the bar itself and played. I was coming from somebody and I was lit, I was hot. I bought a hot dog and looked up and said, “Damn, that’s Prez.” I ran in and heard him. And so I listened to Prez for 30 minutes on a hotdog and a bottle of beer.
Even when we were here in San Francisco we had to pay I think $10 to hear Miles at the Jazz Workshop. That’s the big difference. Now if you want to get into music you’re into it via records. Which is cool, but I just can’t see anything that can substitute for live jazz.
Live music is still readily available. One of the Bay Area based music makers who I encourage you to support is Faye Carol. Check out her coming events. For a sample of Faye Carol’s talents follow link.
Another is Avotcja and Modupúe will keep your heart beating strong. Here a clip with Jim Pepper featuring Avotcja. These are just two of the many talents near me who create music for the heart and soul. If you have artists names in your area, please add names in comments. And this week, go hear some live music.
For a what, why and when of the Journey of the Tapes as please follow link.