Hit Me, FRED Recollections of a Sideman
By FRED WESLEY JR.
Duke University Press Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 0822329093
Chapter One A Musical Upbringing
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I was born into a musical family. My father was director of music at Mobile County Training School. Later, when Central High School was formed, he was part of the contingency selected to seed the new faculty. This was in 1948, so both schools were black.
As music director at Central, my father developed the most dynamic high school choirs in the state of Alabama. Now that I have traveled and had the opportunity to hear many good choirs, I'm convinced that the Central High School Concert Choir was probably the best high-school choir in the world. It performed everything from the "Hallelujah Chorus" to Charles Wesley's "I've Been 'Buked and I've been Scorned." The choir took on his personality, which has been described as swaggering, intense, cool, sporty, and sensual. You would have to have actually been in his presence to understand the kind of overwhelming and devastating person he was. I've seen Bernstein, Mehta, Mitch Miller, and many other great conductors, and not one of them was as dynamic, inspiring, and entertaining as Fred Wesley Sr. To this day, I encounter his former students around the world who attest to the positive effect he had on their lives.
His mother, Mrs. Janie Panting,is a little easier to describe. She was a no-nonsense piano teacher. Her method was simple. First, learn the basics. Then, the classics. Hymns and gospel. She never mentioned blues and jazz. I don't know if she disapproved or approved. She had to know about it. My father had a big band that rehearsed in her living room at least once a week. By age three even I knew who Duke Ellington and Count Basle were. I think my grandmother felt that by not pointing it out she could delay students from jumping headlong into what was then the popular music, giving them more time to develop basic skills. I know now that once you get bitten by the jazz or blues or any popular music bug, you tend to stop practicing scales and such.
I never knew where my grandmother got her training, but she was an accomplished pianist and organist. She was organist and director of the Metropolitan AME Church Choir. She was also on call for weddings, parties, and other social functions around town. I remember hearing her say, "Saturday evening I'm playing for a tea" or "I'm playing for Mrs. So-and-so's daughter's wedding." She took great pride in doing these events. It made her a part of an affluent society that she was not financially privy to.
Her forte, however, was teaching. She was a very efficient person, and her day was arranged around her teaching schedule. She would do her cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other chores in the mornings and afternoons. An excellent seamstress, she made most of her own clothes, since fitting herself off the rack was almost an impossibility-she was not much over four feet tall, and she was very narrow up top with a very, very wide bottom.
She was also a great cook. I especially remember her gumbo, pecan pies, and fruitcakes. Her ancestors were from New Orleans, so all her food had sort of a Creole flavor with some straight-up Alabama country thrown in.
She was very particular about everything she did and was therefore very particular about what you did for her. To say that she was hard to please would be understating how hard it was to live with her. And we did live with her for a couple of years when my father first brought us from Georgia. He had met and married my mother while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia.
When we moved to Mobile, the piano lessons for my sister and me started immediately. As far back as I can remember, I was hearing such commands as "practice your lesson," "mop the hall," "go to the store." It seemed as if I couldn't do any of these things right. I was always mopping the hall again or taking something back to the store or spending hours at the piano trying to get something that seemed impossible right. It was real miserable for a little kid. I guess it made me appreciate the value of doing things right. My kids say it made me mean. I know it made me hate the piano.
My sister, Janice, my brother, Ronald, and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because my mother and father worked two jobs apiece during the early years in order for us to get our own house. The good thing was that by about age five, I had a very good understanding of the basics of music. And, although she was a severe taskmaster, I'm still approached regularly by her former students who remember her not only for cracking their knuckles when they played a wrong key but also for instilling in them a sense that hard work leads to excellence.
My father, between teaching school, working at Brookley Air Force Base, and playing for his church choir, still found time to have a big band. The highlight of my week was-I think it was Wednesday night-when the big band rehearsed. Right after my grandmother's last student, I would start moving furniture, setting up music stands, and putting out ashtrays, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the cats.
Charles Lott was usually the first to show up. He was a small man, dressed very well but relaxed. He was always business-like but still hip and regular. He worked full time at the Air Force base and was married to a schoolteacher. He also booked bands and shows on the side. I guess you could consider him upper middle class in Mobile black society. Drove a Cadillac. Lived in a nice house. Playing saxophone was mainly a hobby, although he loved it very much. Mr. Lott, as I still refer to him, has been a lifelong friend.
Eugene Fortune was the alto soloist. He had a raspy voice and a cheerful way of talking. He could be jovial, as was the case most of the time, but when explaining something he could suddenly speak very tutorially. He was a great soloist, unlike anyone I've ever heard before or since. Being mainly self-taught, he was not bound by any musical or technical rules. Thus, his style was very original. It seemed like he squeezed and twisted notes out of the horn. Fast or slow. He was funky and bluesy but could fly at you with a flurry like any good be-bopper. He often brought tears to my and everybody else's eyes with his interpretations of ballads like "The Nearness of You," "Moonlight in Vermont," and "September Song." It's a shame Fortune was never recorded. I don't remember what his real job was, probably something manual. He never wore a suit except on the gig. He had a wife and family. Drove a slick Pontiac. Drank Scotch but didn't get drunk. Smoked cigarettes and didn't cough. He always took time to help me when I was trying to learn to ad lib. Although it was impossible to teach the way he played, I'm sure that just listening to him and watching him and being in his company tremendously influenced the way I play.
The other alto sax player was Hubert "Hawk" Stanfield, a very good lead alto sax player, with a sound much like Bobby Plater or Marshall Royal. I later found out that he played as much piano as he did sax and was a great arranger. He, too, was a family man, and he earned his living as a mail carrier. Although he was a great musician, his demeanor was calm and unassuming, modest even. Just a great, solid, steady, confident, dependable human being.
Somewhere in the sax section was Hubert's brother, Edwin. I don't think he was really a musician. I don't remember anything about his playing. He might have been a lawyer or something, as he was always in a suit and spoke authoritatively. Everybody seemed to treat him a little different, like he wasn't one of the boys, yet he was all right. Anyway, he moved away while I was still young.
The tenor soloist in the band was Joe Morris. Joe was smooth. His manner and his playing were cool. He was an all-around soloist, who could honk on the blues like Red Prysock or Clifford Scott and could bebop like Stan Getz or David "Fathead" Newman, all in his own laidback way. He wasn't great, but he was adequate and very entertaining. An extremely good-looking guy, very popular with the ladies, he always dressed in the latest styles, as his day job was salesman at Top Men's Store, a local haberdashery. He befriended me right away-I think because he saw potential he could use in his own small group. He was good at putting together bands of young musicians who had yet to be recognized as professional. He gave many of us our first combo and nightclub gigs. To this day, he has a good young band working around the Mobile area.
The lead trumpet player was Melza "Chappie" Williams. I didn't know too much about Chappie, except that he, too, was a daytime mailman. He was also president of the Musician's Union. He was definitely from the Dixieland school. His claim to fame was that he actually knew Cootie Williams personally, maybe even was related. He always counseled me about the importance of education.
James Seals played second trumpet. A good trumpet player with a beautiful tone and a sufficient range, he also was a great sight reader and a fairly decent be-bopper. His day job was bandmaster at the aforementioned Mobile County Training School. It was he who introduced me to Miles Davis. I remember him pointing out to me that Miles "played a lot of shit" within the middle register of the instrument (which is a musician's way of saying that he ad libbed expertly on the changes without resorting to too many high notes). I was really impressed by the way Seals attacked his solos-he was never hesitant or timid. His professionalism would have made him a great studio musician. I learned a lot about good musicianship just watching him in rehearsals.
In the early '50s everything was segregated, including bands. It was rare to see a racially mixed band, but there was a white trumpet player in my father's band. His name was Al Bogosh. He was from New York or Chicago or someplace. Somehow I know he sold jewelry. He was a gregarious type of person who seemed to like everybody, and everybody seemed to like him. He drove a big, fancy Lincoln and dressed real flashy. I don't remember too much about his playing-I probably was too busy looking at a white man among all those black people. His playing must have been all right; because the band as a whole always sounded good to me. I never got to know him well, but he was a real oddity to me.
When I first saw a trombone, it didn't for a second occur to me to play one. Sure, it intrigued me with the way it looked. It was gold like a trumpet or a saxophone, but it had nothing to press or mash down to make notes. Pressing valves and mashing keys to make different notes was fascinating enough, but a slide, with no marks or frets, made no sense to me. And look at the guys who were playing this crazy instrument.
First there was Mr. Robert Petty, who always had something profound to say, usually about sex. He knew how to shock a young man and would talk as long as you would listen. He was, however, a good trombonist. Sweet, smooth tone and obviously very well trained, in the Army, I think. He played sort of a Dixieland bebop, but lead trombone was his strong suit.
The other trombone player was Henry Freeman-a true wild-and-crazy guy. The first story I heard about Freeman was that the first Father's Day he was married he had no children, but the next Father's Day he had three children. It happened that his new wife gave birth to their first child soon after Father's Day, then gave birth to twins less than a year later. His baby-making prowess continued through the years. Last count I know was twelve. I can't remember what his day job was, but it must have been rough trying to raise all those kids on whatever salary he had. He was always in good spirits, though, and made all the rehearsals fun for everyone. He had tremendous energy and his solos reflected this energy. He was every bone player from Tyree Glenn to J.J. Johnson, but not really. If you took his solos apart technically, most of the notes would be wrong, but his energy made it sound like and feel like he was the baddest player ever. He was the spark of the band. Everyone, in the audiences and in the band, eagerly awaited Freeman's solos. I can't say for sure, but watching Freeman rear and buck and thrill people may have helped my decision to play the trombone.
The rhythm section consisted of Billy Holmes on bass, Daddy on piano, and, they tell me, Harold Broadus on drums. For some reason I do not remember Harold Broadus at all. I have heard Harold Broadus stories that include people I know very well, but I can't for the life of me put a face to the name, although the name does ring a small bell.
Billy Holmes, on the other hand, I remember very well. He was a quiet, well-mannered man who didn't drink or smoke or talk dirty or fool around in any way. All he did was play the hell out of the acoustic bass. If any musician was world-class in Mobile, it was Billy Holmes. Always in tune, always on time, in the right key, knew the changes. You got the feeling that he already knew the songs, even the originals. You felt like he was always waiting for everyone else to learn their parts. A true professional who, like everyone else in this band, earned his living doing something else. He was also a fine tailor who worked both for individuals and for the best men's stores in Mobile.
And, of course, there was Daddy on piano. His forte was boogie-woogie and stride, but he also played a little jazz and blues à la Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He interpreted ballads beautifully and played vibes every now and then.
It was a good band with a good name-the Rhythmic Sensations. Daddy would copy records of Basie, Ellington, Buddy Johnson, and others. I think his favorite was Louis Jordan. The first songs I remember the band playing were "Open the Door, Richard" and "Caldonia." I was the band boy when I got big enough to set up stands, pass out music, load and unload the car for the gigs, empty ashtrays, and so on. The only time I got to go to a gig was if it were in the daytime. The band members wouldn't let me go to nightclubs or cabarets or any place where liquor was served. I longed for the day when I'd be old enough and big enough to play in the band.
All through elementary school I watched as the band played on. I continued my piano lessons, working through the blue book, the red book, and various solo pieces as I prepared for my grandmother's annual recitals. These were very good programs, and I dreaded them as much as my grandmother and her other students looked forward to them. All the other students were girls. Maybe that's why I wanted to play a horn so much. All the good piano players I knew of were girls or like a girl, except Daddy. He didn't play like a girl. He must have learned by himself, because my grandmother wasn't teaching me to play like he played. When I asked him to show me how he played, he'd tell me to learn the basics and the jazz would come later. I was sure that what he did was due to a special gift that only he had. Whatever he played was unique. Even when he played classical or gospel, it had a different thing to it.
I knew I could never play piano like he did, so I wanted a horn. Any horn. I kept asking him to get me a horn. There was a piano, an organ, and a xylophone in the house-but no horn. He would say, "Master the piano first, and then if you still want a horn I'll get you one." Now what did that mean? Master the piano? To what extent? I actually tried to get into the piano for a while. Really tried. But in the back of my mind I saw myself turning into Gwen Howard or Vivian Sheffield (students of my grandmother), playing stuff like "The Minute Waltz" or "Claire De Lune." I didn't see my training leading to "Blues After Hours." I managed to get through Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Minor," then hit a mental block. I simply could not go any further. I just didn't want to be Gwen Howard, who played the hell out of the piece at the last recital. I wanted to be Freeman and play the shit out of the trombone solo in Duke Ellington's arrangement of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be."
At some point, my grandmother, Daddy, and everyone else finally recognized that I was not ever going to play the piano. Daddy then started saying "If you can't learn the piano, what makes you think you can learn a horn?" I kept insisting I could.
Excerpted from Hit Me, FRED by FRED WESLEY JR. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.