Don Joseph, jazz poet /2

In part two, the troubadour trumpeter works in strip clubs with Phil Woods, goes down and out in NY in the late 40s and gives impromptu renditions of Shakespeare

Another Greenwich Village venue that Don played was the Nut Club, where Phil Woods held court with Jon Eardley, Teddy Kotick, Nick Stabulas and either George Syran or Gil Evans. It was a strip club. Phil once told me: “Don was a lovely player who was very close to Gerry Mulligan. He was a brilliant man, very articulate and very well read, into Hemingway, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. He was quite an imbiber though and mad as a hatter.” I mentioned this to Bill Crow recently who said “I wouldn’t call Don mad, just eccentric with a wicked sense of humour”.

It may surprise some readers to learn that jazz musicians like Phil Woods and Gil Evans worked in strip clubs but they were often the first port-of-call when other work was scarce. Brew Moore played in burlesque clubs in Memphis, New Orleans and Brooklyn. He once said that he was 21 before he saw a naked woman from the front. Zoot Sims too was no stranger to the scene and Dave Schildkraut worked in a strip club on New York’s 52nd Street. Herb and Lorraine Geller, Joe Maini, Lawrence Marable and Philly Joe Jones all worked regularly at the notorious Duffy’s Gaiety near Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Lenny Bruce was the M.C. and his wife Honey Harlow did the stripping.


Years ago John Williams vividly described both Tony Fruscella and Don Joseph to me:

“During world war two, when many of the good musicians were in the service, guys that could really play, like Don, were in great demand. He played with all the big bands that came to New York at places like the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The joke became that the bands would change at the Paramount but Don would still be in the same chair because he was such an excellent player all the bandleaders wanted him.

“Unfortunately he took some sort of a downhill turn at the end of the 40s possibly through drugs and he became the bad boy on the block although he could still play beautifully. He would show up at jam sessions at places like Nola’s and he would be welcome but he never had a dollar in his pocket. He always seemed to be down and out and on the take and his reputation became so bad that he couldn’t get any work with the bands. He wasn’t even allowed in our musicians’ bar, Charlie’s Tavern, because he had abused the privileges there so much that Charlie would have one of the bartenders throw him out if he tried to get in. He used to come to the front door and shout ‘Hey Charlie it’s me, Don Joseph. I’m banned from bars and I’m barred from bands!’

Jack Reilly: ‘He had an interest in literature, especially Shakespeare, and at the drop of a hat he would stand up on stage and recite long passages from memory in that deep Orson Wellsian-voice with the conviction of a seasoned Shakespearian actor. He had us spellbound and dizzy with laughter as he added his own interpretations to the Bard’

“He and Tony Fruscella were two of a kind and, needless to say, they were close friends. They used to hang out and play duets together and they would go to the same jam sessions. Anyway, the three of us were going to play at a session in Greenwich Village so we jumped in a cab and as I was the only one who had any money, and I didn’t have much, I just knew I was going to pick up the tab. What I remember most is sitting there absolutely enthralled while these two lame-brained but incredibly talented musicians sang two-part Bach fugues all the way to the Village. That was Tony Fruscella and that was Don Joseph.”

Michael Morreale told me that Don had an apartment around this time near the corner of Morton Street and 7th Avenue. Tony Fruscella helped him and his family move in although they were both, in Don’s words, “whacked out of our minds!”

Pianist Jack Reilly’s blog reveals the following:

“Don Joseph was a rare and brilliant improviser. I had the joy of knowing and playing with him at local Staten Island clubs and jam sessions in 1954 when I was paying my ‘dues’. We played shows, lounges, weddings, dances – you name it. At Crochitos on South Beach they hired comedians, dancers, strippers and singers on weekends. We were there for about six months and between the shows we played jazz. He had an interest in literature, especially Shakespeare, and at the drop of a hat he would stand up on stage and recite long passages from memory in that deep Orson Wellsian-voice with the conviction of a seasoned Shakespearian actor. He had us spellbound and dizzy with laughter as he added his own interpretations to the Bard. He became clean and healthy in the latter days of his life and was very content to live in relative seclusion with his trumpet and books on Staten Island. Don is always with me.”

Around this time Bill Crow was rehearsing with the Jerry Wald band at Nola’s for a booking at the Embers. Don Joseph had worked with Wald back in the 40s but they had parted on less than friendly terms. He came to visit the musicians during a break and when the rehearsal restarted he moved to the door and shouted “Hello Jerry. I just dropped by to say that I wouldn’t work for you again for three hundred dollars a week.” He left, then the door reopened – “Make that four hundred!”

See part one of this article
See part three of this article

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