JJ 09/70: Lockjaw Davis – a musician who matters

Fifty years ago the renowned saxophonist talked to John Shaw of his beginnings in Harlem, of Charlie Parker, of Basie and of his fear that the public won't pay 'to hear a guy wearing a sheet go rootle tootle, rootle tootle, up and down the scale'. First published in Jazz Journal, September 1970

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Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis at Snape Maltings in 1968. Photo Roy Mathers/JJ Archive

“Jaws”, known conventionally as Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, taught himself the tenor saxophone and played his first jobs for one dollar-fifty a night. Now he is a mainstay of that jazz institution the Count Basie Orchestra, here recently on tour with supporting singers Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett at concerts in London. ‘Jaws’ was well featured. His music is intuitive and effortless, part of an overall impression he conveys of ease and complete relaxation. His body seems to be made of springs, loosely coiled. He is warm, outgoing; a fine musician and a highly articulate conversationalist. Under these circumstances, the reporter becomes merely a typist. This is the story.

‘My real influences were Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Don Byas. I’d listen to these guys – really listen. They had a number of attractions; they all seemed to me to really play the instrument, they had a full command and the confidence to be different’

“I really became a musician because my kid brother was a bouncer at the Savoy Ballroom up in Harlem. I was just a kid then and he used to let me in for free. I used to take it all in y’know; the lights, the noise, the music. This was the big band era and the biggest guys there were the musicians. They got the awe, the girls and all the admiration. I thought straight off, that’s for you man. In the big bands, the big guys were usually the drummer and the saxophone player. The drums were a bit cum­bersome but I could manage a horn so I settled for the saxophone. That’s how it was, really.

“I guess that would be around the late thirties, maybe the beginning of the war. I would be around 17 or 18. I was born in New York and started working with a little group around the small clubs of New York City. Remember this was going on in to wartime and guys were scarce so we got quite a few jobs. We played mainly popular songs, show tunes, that kind of thing for carbarets. One thing led to another and we finally wound up in a place called the Club Caravan.

“One night Cootie Williams came in to the Club. He had a listen and then hired me, Bud Powell, who was on piano, and a guy called Sylvester Payne, who played the drums, for his big band. That was in 1942. Nobody played bop then. That began in sessions after hours where guys could jam; it happened mostly in clubs that opened at 12 midnight and stayed open ’til 8 am. The bands played for dancers and the music was legitimate. Everybody played that way, even people who became experimental later like Bud.

“At first it was arduous. I’d listen around, but my real influences were Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Don Byas. I’d listen to these guys – really listen. They had a number of attractions; they all seemed to me to really play the instrument, they had a full command and the confidence to be different, they all seemed to have a definite style and they were all pioneers. They played the horn; it didn’t play them. I didn’t find it difficult to learn to play, but I picked up some bad habits getting there; bad finger positions, incorrect breathing, things like that. All of this wastes time, ’cos you gotta unlearn it later. Anybody who wants to learn an instrument properly should get professional guidance. You do it faster in the long run.

“From Cootie I did spells with Lucky Millinder and Louis Armstrong and also played generally around New York. You met all the guys that way, people who were then unknown like, for instance, Dizzy and Charlie. I’d heard Charlie when he was with Jay McShann at the Savoy. At the time his sound was very strange. Y’see the big band at the Savoy then was an outfit called Al Cooper and His Savoy Sultans. They had a fellow on alto called Rudy Williams. He was it. He had a different approach and so when Charlie came along nobody knew what to make of a new guy like him coming from KC. They didn’t know, so they all watched Rudy. If he was impressed, okay. The guy must have something. Rudy reacted favourably and so the new fellow was fine. In a sense it was like an old leader making way for a new. Eventually Charlie made a real impact on people in the Earl Hines Band and then with Billy Eckstine’s Band.

“Charlie played tenor at one time, but he gave it up. He said it was too sluggish for the kind of things he heard and the sounds he wanted. He was very loose and kinda irresponsible. Like all he wanted to do was to play, y’know. He’d wear anything and he didn’t care too much for convention. That was fine. For him. He could look smart and be responsible when he wanted, but his general attitude affected other guys who wanted to play like him. They aped all he did and his various characteristics in the hope that by doing this it would help them to play the alto like Charlie Parker. Of course it didn’t. He was a genius in a way. He turned the alto right round as an instru­ment. His lessons are there for everybody now. But that was Charlie. His disciples, all these aspirants who imitated him, took his ways to such lengths that I think they helped to kill bebop as a musical style. It was too advanced for the public at that time, but if it had been handled in a proper way commercially and if the musicians had helped the public a little, then people would have understood. Part of that is presentation.

“This is one of the big problems in jazz today. When you dress up and go out you want to see that they’ve taken some trouble to do the same on the bandstand. But you look up there and see one guy in a football jersey, another guy in somethin’ like a dress and you wonder what the hell it’s all about. Do musicians wear jackets any more? The other night I went into Ronnie’s. One guy was in shirtsleeves, another was in robes and the only person in the group who wore a shirt, tie and jacket was Charlie Shavers.

“People pay good money to see Basie. They see a presentable band and we hope they hear good music. What would they say if we came on the stand in flower shirts, sweaters and looked as if we were just going bowling? Would they come again? Look at it this way; you wouldn’t much fancy layin’ out money for a steak on a cardboard plate now, but present it right on good china with a sprig of parsley and all the trimmings and you’ll pay a couple of pounds. Presentation, the right atmosphere, these things are important to a guy who goes out maybe once a week. Clubs are not the cheapest places in town and if he stays away the club owner is soon going to turn over to rock and roll or discotheque like they have in the States.

“A musician needs clubs as places to play, practise and listen to other musicians. I remember in the early war years a lot of musicians who, as I said earlier, wanted to jam, going to a place called the Heatwave Club. This was where the guys were sorted out. They had a jam session in the week and battles on Sundays. They would have two instrumentalists as an attraction and everyone would go along to see the result. It was like Dizzy versus some other trumpet player of the time, or say, Charlie Parker v. Earl Bostic. People would listen, watch and the place would be full of guys. I remember seein’ Bud, Ike Quebec, Dexter Gordon. People saw who was who and this got to be popular. They took it up at other places around like the Sudan Club in Harlem, the 845 in the Bronx, The Spotlite and The Three Deuces. Then I went into Minton’s. I was there from 1947-48 for eight years through to 1952. [He may have gone two years before, in early 1945, as he joined Basie first in ’52 – JS].

“I had a real good arrangement with the owner who let me have breaks of three or four weeks at a time for other things. That went on for eight years. It was unforgettable. That place was a schoolroom. People who are now famous came there as unknowns to listen and learn music: Al Haig, Miles Davis, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Stan Levy, Duke Jordan and so many others who were around New York. I remember Leonard Feather brought George Shearing along one night after he came over from England. One of the ventures I did at that time was a tenor and organ record. This was in 1951. I wanted to do it with Wild Bill Davis who was working on a single then, but he had a contract with another record company so I used Bill Doggett who had been a pianist with Ella Fitzgerald. On bass we had Oscar Pettiford and the drummer was Shadow Wilson. This was the first tenor and organ album. It came out on Royal Roost Records and sold very well in the States. I made some more afterwards with Doc Bagby for King, and then did about 17 albums with Shirley Scott for Prestige about 1958. Some of the best sellers were the ‘Cook­book’ volumes.

“The big thing about these records was the organ volume. We kept it under control. If you are an organist it is very easy to drown the others in the band with the tremendous sound you can get with an organ, and I think we managed to do this control thing pretty well. You could hear all the instruments in the band and the listeners must have liked it or the records wouldn’t have sold. I enjoyed it, but as time went by it got overdone. The thing was, when we began, they didn’t recognise the organ as a legitimate jazz instrument. Within a few years the shops were full of tenor and organ records. The year after I did that first session with Bill Doggett I went with Basie. He was looking for a replacement for one of the guys and I asked for the position. I was interested – but not in the money. I had enough of that and left about a year later – yeah, I remember it was after a battle of the bands with Duke Ellington at the Bandbox Club in the July of 1953. The Band­box was adjacent to Minton’s. After the organ thing I had a two-tenor group with Johnny Griffin. We started in 1960. This instrumental approach was not new. It had been done by people like Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. We got it together and it was very profitable. We made some good records. We had a lawyer and an accountant and it was all done properly, but after a couple of years the accountant looked at the books and said you boys are slowly going going out of business financially. That was when Johnny decided to come to Europe. I next became a booker with Shaw Artists Corporation, but a couple of years was enough and I rejoined Basie. I enjoy working with the band. There’s no static around. It’s easy and its professional and I can take time off if I need. The musicians make this band and believe me these guys are good. Basie himself has said: ‘I’m just the piano player’.

‘I’m concerned with the survival of jazz. What is going to happen? You can keep this freedom music. Who is going to pay a second time to hear a guy wearing a sheet go rootle tootle, rootle tootle, up and down the scale? It is just like hearing exercises. I’m tellin’ you I’m a musician and I don’t know what these guys are doin”

“But the business as a whole is sick just now, and I’m concerned with the survival of jazz. What is going to happen? You can keep this freedom music. Who is going to pay a second time to hear a guy wearing a sheet go rootle tootle, rootle tootle, up and down the scale? It is just like hearing exercises. I’m tellin’ you I’m a musician and I don’t know what these guys are doin’. People will stop at home and that will be the end of clubs. Musicians will have to take day jobs and who needs that? When people go out they want to hear a premium unit, not just some glued up band. People want some kind of entertainment. Don’t go overboard about it, but don’t, when the bands break down because they can’t play together, tell the audience to use their imagina­tion. Who pays good money to think up their own music? Be yourself sure, but have some responsibility to the public.”