JJ 04/61: In My Opinion – Lennie Felix

Sixty years ago the British pianist had a lot to say about unschooled, instinctive playing as he listened to Waller, Tatum, Hines, Garner, Mance, Bryant and others. First published in Jazz Journal April 1961

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This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Pianist Lennie Felix is certainly one of Britain’s most individualistic jazz musicians. Completely dedicated to his music, Lennie is primarily a solo piano player, for only when playing alone does he obtain the freedom necessary for the extension of his full improvising powers. He has in his time listened to most of the great jazz pianists in their own habitat for he has “played the boats” more than once between here and America. A keen critic both of his own playing and that of others, he has a penetrating insight into what jazz is really all about. – Sinclair Traill

“Hallelujah”. Fats Waller. HMV CLP 1042
Well, that’s like coming home, Sinclair! Wonderful jazz piano; one of the originators. You know, when one hears Fats and thinks of all those Harlem piano players, one wonders where it really all started. I remember Cozy Cole telling me one night in New York that he had heard James P. Johnson playing that way – stride piano – as far back as 1917. “Where did he get it from?” asked Cozy. “It must have started with someone, somewhere”.

‘These days young musicians take a music degree at some college or other, walk in some club and think themselves stars at once. With no experience they think they are tops, because they have learnt music’

You can at least say Fats got it from James P, but where did James P. get it from? It baffles me. It’s a point the jazz historians might with effect look into – where did Harlem stride piano begin? Jelly Roll was in New Orleans of course and anyway he had no connection with “stride” had he? Is it too much to suppose that James P. actually invented the style? Fats of course took the ragtime element from the style and developed it to a peak of perfection – crisp, neat, exceptionally swinging – any adjectives you like.

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Incidentally that was a strange session for Fats! It has a kind of all-alone-in-a-studio, a B.B.C. feel about it. Almost as if Fats was disinterested – extraordinary for him. In Blue Turning Grey he actually loses his way – forgets the melody. However it is almost good to see even Fats was human and could err.

“Backroom at Villa D’Este”. Earl Hines. Felsted FAJ 7002
Fabulous Hines, really at his peak. On top form. Good saxophone, sounded like Ben Webster, though I see it is some­one called Curtis Lowe. Never heard of him, but Earl is always discovering new young musicians – he always has. Drummer Earl Watkins filled in well, plenty of light and shade.

A real giant of jazz is Hines. I think before anyone dare try and play jazz piano, it is essential that he listens to both Earl and Fats – they are both on the primary list. And it is won­derful that Earl’s playing never seems to date. These days young musicians take a music degree at some college or other, walk in some club and think themselves stars at once. With no experience they think they are tops, because they have learnt music. But that’s not the way it is. Earl has experience, he has known good days and bad and learnt this fabulous piano method of his his own way, not writing exercises in school.

“Dixieland Band”. Art Tatum. Columbia 33CX 10115
Well, what can one say? That is I suppose how every pianist wants to play, but maybe it was right that there was only one Art Tatum – probably the greatest single talent jazz has yet thrown up. Certainly technically, as a master of his instrument, Tatum stood head and shoulders above any other jazz pianist. Of course maybe some of us don’t want to say quite as much as Art did. I wasn’t myself always such a keen admirer of his playing, but today I marvel at it. He had a tracery – he kind of traced his ideas in very fully. It was like a fine etching. This comes out most clearly when he is play­ing with a simple player like Ben Webster – deceptively simple that is – Ben plays a beautifully solid line and Art fills in be­hind him with rare delicacy and finesse. People (critics are people?) claim I have a little Art Tatum in my own style of playing, but I assure you it is not purposely done. I always feel I am playing at my best when I can hear Earl Hines – I still prefer the trumpet style of piano playing. Of course as far as basic beat is concerned, those tenths Art uses, that is kind of common ground to them both, but on the whole I find Hines’ piano the most exciting of them all. Incidentally, a great deal of humour on that track – Art must have been feeling jovial when he recorded that. Strange tune for him to pick. Talking about Art to Cozy Cole again, Cozy made a good remark – “That was his style!” Cozy said – meaning just for Art alone and no one else.

Of Erroll Garner: ‘His timing is fantastic; like Hines he never lets his right hand know what his left hand is doing’

“Red Top”. Erroll Garner. (Concert by the Sea). Philips BBL 7106
Well, there is an instinctive player – never took a lesson in his life – never had need to! I met him in New York’s Cafe Society some years back and rather for something to say than for any other reason, I mumbled something about piano lessons. He looked at me, bright as a bird, and said he didn’t read music – why didn’t I go to Lennie Tristano? Somehow Erroll looks beautiful when he’s playing, like a little elf; he becomes part of the piano. He’s such a natural player, no self-consciousness at all. He was lucky to come up when he did, for his style fitted perfectly the changes and chords which were fashionable at that time. He was of that era, not a product of any music college, just a night club entertainer who loves to play percussive piano. His timing is fantastic; like Hines he never lets his right hand know what his left hand is doing.

“Doug’s Jump”. Doug Suggs. (Primitive Piano). Collector JGN 1001
What do they call that these days? Barrelhouse, or boogie woogie? It’s good strong piano playing. I don’t know of Doug Suggs, but I see he’s an old-timer – in the same school as Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey and these other rent-party men. I wouldn’t like to say too much about him – he seems typical and good of his kind, limited in technique and appeal I should think.

“King Porter Stomp”. Jelly Roll Morton. (New Orleans Memories). Vogue LDE 080
That was a classic piece of playing – that ought to be heard by every aspiring jazz pianist. For anyone interested at all in this kind of music, Morton is a necessity. You can hear traces of Hines, Ellington – in fact all the great pianists. Actually, I must admit that I hadn’t heard Jelly for some time and I didn’t remember just how great he was. Neat, competent – a complete sort of player. It’s his cutting-out, his stopping himself swinging, as it were, to add tension that gets me. He was indeed a tremendous influence on all who came after.

“Weary Blues”. Duke Ellington – Johnny Hodges. (Back to Back). HMV CLP 1316
Very moving, very eloquent. Deceptively simple blues piano by Duke, and what delicate timing! What a master he is. Hodges was, as usual, superb, and that was most sympathetic trumpet playing by Sweets Edison. A very, very beautiful track … must be one of the best records ever issued, that LP. Everything Ellington puts his hands to is always full of good taste.

“Tempus Fugue-It”. Bud Powell. Columbia 33C 9016
Well, that caught Bud Powell at his very best – at the peak of his playing power. And what power! This chap has had a very fluctuating career, but he’s always been a major in­fluence on modern piano methods. It’s funny how the piano, more than any other instrument, has had so many phoney players – not really good musicians. But Bud, even at his worst, has something fresh and new to offer. He was strongly influenced by Tatum, of course, and it is possible that his debt to Art has held up his own ideas in some way. Many pianists have a kind of Art Tatum inferiority complex, and I think it shows sometimes in Bud’s playing. I don’t mean to decry him by that, for he can play, as he does here, with almost as much authority and certainly with as much power as Art himself.

‘There’s one man I just can’t take to – John Lewis. I can’t make anything of his music at all. Let’s whisper it – I haven’t dared spread it around – but I can’t stand his piano playing. He has a phoney kind of competence’

“All The Things You Are”. The Modern Jazz Quartet. Esquire 20-090
There’s one man I just can’t take to – John Lewis. I can’t make anything of his music at all. Let’s whisper it – I haven’t dared spread it around – but I can’t stand his piano playing. He has a phoney kind of competence. I’ve heard him on record with a bunch of swinging musicians and he lets the whole thing down as soon as he comes in for his solo, and it takes them another chorus to get the thing back where it was. I think that is wrong: whatever power a band is playing with, it’s the pianist’s job to be on that same level. But to try to paint your own idea of a picture during your solo, without taking heed of the others in the group, is ruinous to any ses­sion.

“Willow Weep For Me” Dizzy Gillespie with Junior Mance. HMV 7EG 8S74
Now that is an example of fine modern jazz playing. Junior Mance is really very good … a great blues man. He’s got a Kansas City roll there … a looseness. He’s obviously learned from the best blues players, I would say. That kind of piano playing stems from the guitarists. You remember Otis Spann, with Muddy Waters? Otis got all his ideas from listening to guitar players – he did things on the piano that I’ve never heard anyone else attempt to do on the piano. Junior Mance also came from Chicago, and I have no doubt had the opportunity to listen to those blues guitar players around that city. Of course, he is a much more developed musician than Otis – he’s gone further on. He’s got it all there.

“Rockin’ Chair”. Ray Bryant. Esquire 32-106
That is fine piano playing! In fact that’s one of the best records you’ve played me this afternoon. I haven’t been lucky enough to hear much of Ray Bryant, but from that example, he has everything. Good technique and produces a fine tone from the piano. Now that’s what leaves one with an impression of a musician – his tone. Although I did like that last record by Junior Mance, his tone was not too definable – it hasn’t the great authority that Ray Bryant produces. Bud Powell, now he’s got a sharp tone, sort of hostile. But Bryant’s is warm and confident.

‘It’s no use trying to start another kind of music in the so-called colleges and to call it jazz and progress. Learning to play music the correct way doesn’t mean you are going to play jazz. That’s not progress’

It is men like Bryant I think who will lead the way onward in jazz. You can’t progress from nothing – one has got to grow or progress from some roots or other. If there’s to be any future for jazz at all – apart from listening and loving the stuff we’ve listened to on records for years – it’s going to come from men like this, who have their roots deep in real jazz music. It’s no use trying to start another kind of music in the so-called colleges and to call it jazz and progress. Learning to play music the correct way doesn’t mean you are going to play jazz. That’s not progress. I’ve heard young musicians for years saying, “Oh listen we’ve got some new changes – this is real progress!” But the people who say that are just the ones who never really dig jazz music at all. Progress all you like but you mustn’t cut the music from its roots, or it at once ceases to be jazz.

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