Whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, pop, R&B or jazz, the tenor saxophone has played an absolutely critical role in the advancement of vernacular American music. The contributions of such long-gone players as Lester Young, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins still echo through contemporary recordings, and come Sunday, two of the most important sax survivors will blow the roof off Burbank’s Joe’s Great American Bar.
The occasion, an 87th birthday celebration for Los Angeles R&B spearhead Big Jay McNeely, who will perform a set of his incendiary honking sax classics, also features an appearance by the New Orleans-bred master Plas Johnson, the prolific, cherished saxist best known for his unforgettable soloing on Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme.”
McNeely and Johnson make for a highly significant pairing, one that brings together two musicians with oddly similar backgrounds and very divergent career paths. While Johnson started as a teenager in New Orleans accompanying numerous blues and R&B stars, McNeely came up in Los Angeles a teenage journeyman whose romance with jazz and bebop seemed unquenchable.
Ultimately, though, McNeely became an early rock ‘n’ roll star whose huge, mixed-race audiences were so unacceptable to Los Angeles law enforcement agencies that a countywide ban prohibiting any performance by McNeely was instituted; Johnson, after moving to Los Angeles, made history as a session player by day who, by night, abandoned R&B to became a premier hard bop prophet.
For Johnson, now 82, the opportunity to honor McNeely was irresistible. “I’ve always really liked Big Jay and his playing, I’ve been listening to him since I was a teenager — ‘Deacon’s Hop,’ all that great stuff,” Johnson said. “I moved out here in the late ’50s but I didn’t actually meet Jay for a long time. It was probably only 15 or 20 years ago that we finally did meet. KLON had put together an R&B thing with me, Jay and Red Holloway. It was a lot of fun; I’d really like to see Jay again.”
“I’m semi-retired now. I’m still playing, got a nine-piece-band... it keeps me busy. And I’m doing some writing also, but I don’t solicit engagements — I’m getting old! I’m 82. I’ve reached a time when I want to set on the porch in my rocking chair.
“But Big Jay is 87 and he’s still hitting it and sounding good. If you’ve got the strength and the health then you should stay out there,” Johnson said. “When [promoter] Torch called and asked if I wanted to play on Sunday, I didn’t hesitate. It’s a blues house, so I will probably play some blues. I know everybody will be happy to see Big Jay, so I just want to entertain ‘em while they’re waiting for him.”
Even at 87, McNeely’s profile continues to ascend. Sunday’s celebration, also featuring a dozen high-quality local blues, swing and rock ‘n’ roll acts, will additionally serve as a by-donation fundraiser to defray expenses for McNeely’s trip to Memphis next week, where the indefatigable honker will be inducted into Tennessee’s Blues Hall of Fame (it is worth noting that the Wall Street Journal recently ran a story lamenting McNeely once again being overlooked for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
And McNeely gives no indication of slowing down. “Big Jay is durable,” Johnson said. “His career has been even longer than mine. He is an artist I’ve always admired and I’m so glad to see he is still performing.”
What: Big Jay McNeely, Plas Johnson, the Hollywood Combo, many more.
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd. Burbank
When: Sunday, May 4, 5 p.m.
Admission: Free (two drink minimum)
More info:Joe's Great American Bar & Grill: (818) 729-0805, www.danceatjoes.com.
--JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”