Jazz, addiction, jams and Joe Albany
Reading Carolyn See’s review of A.J. Albany’s “Low Down” (“The Legendary Act of Survival,” April 13) left me with the uncomfortable feeling that the uniqueness and “legendary” quality of Joe Albany had been sidestepped. He was certainly no household name in that era. Most of those who knew something of the style of music being played in the late 1940s by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, had they been asked to name the pianist who was most solidly in that same league, would probably have said Bud Powell. However, to me, Joe Albany was closer to what particularly Parker and Davis were doing at the time.
He did not record much and, as the biography by his daughter suggests, there were other issues interfering. During my teenage years in San Francisco, among my favorite recordings was a set of about four 78 sides that Albany recorded with Lester Young, Red Callender, Chico Hamilton and Irving Ashby on Aladdin Records in L.A. in 1946. He made other recordings and there is to my knowledge at least one solo Joe Albany LP, but these recordings with Lester Young are memorable and I think show what it was about Albany that makes him the complement of Bird and Miles. More than the flash and fire of Bud Powell, Albany had the kind of pigeon-toed elegance that Bird and Miles were striving for in “Buzzy,” “Donna-Lee” and “Thriving on a Riff.”
I have listened to those four Lester Young sides countless times over the years. They had already been well engraved in my consciousness when one night in the early ‘50s a group of friends of mine came to my house at 3 a.m. -- I had been fast asleep -- to tell me that Albany was in town, San Francisco, and wanted to “jam.” They had been talking big with Joe, but when it came time to play, they were too scared to play with him and came to get me. He and I played for about two hours at Jackson’s Nook, a regular place for after-hours jazz sessions in those days. There was no one there but about five of us. Joe and I were the only ones playing, just piano and alto sax. I don’t know what Joe thought. He didn’t say much, but those two hours or so were for me among the most intellectually stimulating musical experiences of my life. He was already a legend to me, and that session only enhanced it.
See’s review of “Low Down,” A.J. Albany’s grisly portrait of her heroin-addicted father, “legendary” jazz pianist Joe Albany, does much to perpetuate the cliched linkage in the public mind between drugs and the jazz musician and requires clarification:
First, Joe Albany, for all his gifts, remained “legendary” throughout his career since he was a minor obscurity who left few recordings behind. Second, See’s statement that “heroin was the drug of choice for musicians in the 1950s” overlooks that many seminal jazz artists of that period shunned drugs entirely: Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, John Lewis, among others. Some former addicts like Gerry Mulligan and Max Roach successfully kicked the habit early. This linkage of jazz and drugs was long forwarded by a sensationalist media. Whenever the police busted an addict and found a broken harmonica in his bureau drawer, local headlines were certain to trumpet: “Musician arrested in narcotics bust.”
Having taught jazz studies for many years, I often faced a recurring question among senior citizens: “Why do so many jazz musicians use drugs?” It’s time to set the record straight.
In discussing A.J. Albany’s biography of her father, jazz pianist Joe Albany, See asserts that heroin addiction, besides being the scourge of Albany’s life, “certainly contributed to tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh’s untimely death in 1987.”
That slippery phrase, “certainly contributed to,” is unworthy of See. If she had bothered to read my biography of Marsh, she would have known that he died of a heart attack probably brought on by cocaine, not a heroin overdose.
See first declared that Marsh was a heroin addict in her memoir, “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” Then researching Marsh’s life, I called her and asked what she actually knew about Marsh and heroin. She said that of course she had never seen him shoot up, but her sister had been an addict, she knew the signs, and she had observed Marsh in clubs nodding off and barely able to function.
See is aware, I’m sure, that there is a difference between recreational use and addiction. There is no doubt that Marsh used heroin on occasion. A student of his told me that he once paid Marsh with heroin, and they both got high and canceled the lesson. But they snorted the drug. Marsh would never use a needle, and he was never jailed or even arrested for heroin possession. Although he was a daily user of marijuana and regularly took various uppers and downers, including cocaine, there is not a shred of evidence that he was ever addicted to heroin. Marsh cannot be fitted into See’s heroin-as-life-destroyer obsession, and her attempt to do so while reviewing a book about Albany, a known heroin addict, is both intellectually shoddy and journalistically inappropriate. It also does a disservice to Marsh, a flawed but deeply serious artist who created some of the most thrilling music in all of jazz.
Further, See is discographically incorrect, and inexcusably vague, when she says “there does exist an album somewhere” with “alternate takes” by Charlie Parker with Joe Albany during a studio recording of Parker’s “KoKo.” Parker and Albany were never in a recording studio together. The studio recording of “KoKo,” including, on one release, false starts such as she describes, was made in New York on Nov. 26, 1945, on Savoy, but the pianist on those false starts was Argonne Thornton, a.k.a. Sadim Hakim. Joe Albany was in Los Angeles at the time. Dizzy Gillespie played both trumpet and piano on the master take of “KoKo.” The only recordings of Parker and Albany together were live recordings from their gig at the Club Finale in Los Angeles in March 1946. Albany was scheduled to join Parker for the famous Dial Records session later that month that produced “Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Moose the Mooche” and “A Night in Tunisia,” but they had a falling out, and the pianist on that date was Dodo Marmarosa. See views herself as an authority on Marsh and Albany because she idolized them as a fan 45 years ago, but she does not respect their music sufficiently to check out her facts in a standard discography.
One final note, of interest to admirers of Marsh and Albany, including See: She speaks of driving two hours to hear them in 1957 or 1958, only to find Marsh a no-show and Albany “so ripped he couldn’t get his hands up to the keyboard.” Given the time-frame and the two-hour drive, the club must have been the Galleon Room in Dana Point, where Marsh and Albany worked in the fall of 1957. An unreleased tape of a whole afternoon of that gig is now in the possession of Peter Jacobson of VSOP Records, who plans to issue it in its entirety.
Carolyn See replies:
This extraordinary outpouring of interest shows what a marvelous contribution these musicians did in fact make. It was my luck not to hear Albany on a particular afternoon, but I was lucky enough to see and hear Marsh on many occasions.
Safford Chamberlain and I have had our disagreements before. Surely these petty concerns are transcended by the collective legacy that these musicians have left. Furthermore, the role that drugs played in the lives of these artists has been and will be debated for as many years as there are musicians, academicians and discographers. My feeling is: Heroin isn’t good for you, but this is a free country and people must do as they choose.
As for the missing album, I am sorry Chamberlain is not familiar with it. I don’t think that it includes the “definitive” recording of “KoKo” but a series of very short alternative takes, which might be best listened to as an interesting but minor footnote to jazz history. As for the afternoon in question, no music was played, so clearly any recording of it would be quite remarkable.