Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Honk,blare, bleet, flomm. Bonk, geesh, frang, blong, ra-toot!

To Jim Haas: Looking at this picture of Big Jay McNeely ignites a flying moon traveller firecracker in my brain.  There is this place there - where a legendary rhythm & blues saxman is wailing and honking forever.  My brother Michael and I saw Jay at the Night Stage club in Cambridge in the early 1980s, and it was a gas -  A funny thing though – it was all incendiary. But I cant, when I sit down and try, remember all that much. Anyway here goes…What I remember was we won tickets to see him. I'd been studying blues like a mad monk, and had to know more and more. Had seen Cleanhead Vinson, for example, who'd recently thanks to Harry Duncan's brilliant slate making, had gigged with Sunnyland. This honking sax-oriented feverish R&B was part  of Sunnyland's area of interest – back in the days, days with JT Brown, Jump Jackson, Oiver Alcorn. Was glad to win the tickets. Also knew him as composer of I Know There Is Something on Your Mind*  – a killer track recreated by Professor Longhair on his last record. Was excited to motor over the river to Cambridge.  Had missed Longhair's last Boston gig cause I wasn’t on the ball, so was up for this -  who knows we may not pass this way again. And the story at the time was that Jay McNeely had plug shut his career down, cause things were so slow in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, and had gone to work for the Post Office. This was familiar territory! The story I heard was he retired from the U.S. Post**, and, as interest in R&B history resumed, had gone back into performing. How good would his chops be? He came on and all doubt fled. Honking in the style of the honkers which he was very foremost among. He blew away the audience which was mostly unprepared for incredible intensity.  Was it his Deacon's Jump? Honk, blare, bleet, flomm. He started into screeching. Bonk, geesh, frang, blong. He was wailing. Now he weren’t no Miles Davis with his back to the audience. He was confronting the audience, and audience into which he soon was wading. You see this picture here with him in an insane limbo pose, and playing? It was just like that, and he was an old man!. He played tenor sax but to me it looked as big as a bass sax – all in the dark of the Night Stage night club.  He was a honkin' blast – but sure enough not from the past. It was all right there. He started walking through the crowd. He walked out on the street. We were in the narrow balcony, from where that old club provided a great view, and damn if he didn’t come playing the sax up to our table there too. This all took more than a half an hour. And he was playing, blowing, honking, playing jazz all the time. And looking you in the eye too. I'd seen Albert Collins with his 100-yard long guitar chord already by then – saw him in Eureka (on night Elvis died) walk out of the club, playing, and go across the street, and maybe, light a cigarette, while playing on – but – I never saw anything like Big Jay McNeeley! The legend is he went on the street while playing at Berlin's Quasimodo club then nigh the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Honk if you like Ornette Coleman, cause the connection was there.  A whole essential part of jazz is this honk. Ask Albert Murray (who adds 'shouters' to the equation . Remember, Jack Kerouac famously described the honking fever sound in The Beginning of Bop.*** This is my homage alike here. Seeing the picture popped a synapse or two. And the news is good. Big Jay walks terra firma still. Says Wikipedia, Big Jay McNeely is 87, and has released recordings as recently as 2011. ***


*This is not typical of McNeely, but shows his great talent. He didn’t sing the ballad (Sonny Warner did) but it is just beautiful, and can be done and redone. King Curtis cut it before he passed on.

**Did he work with Bukowski?

***"Skidilibee-la-bee-you, --oo, --e bop she bam, ske too ria -- Parasakiliaoolza -- memoriastibatioyait -- oon ya koo." The Beginning of Bop.


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