Joe Maini – a history /1

    Chronicling the short but distinguished career of the bebop saxophonist whose inadvertent death became part of jazz lore - part 1


    During a relatively short career Joe Maini became one of the finest alto soloists and lead players of his generation, hugely admired by his fellow performers.

    He was born on 8 February 1930 in Providence, Rhode Island and by 1948 he was on the road with Johnny Bothwell. Bookings became scarce so together with fellow bandmates John Williams and Frank Isola, Maini jumped ship in Ohio. He took off for Los Angeles where he worked with Roy Porter’s orchestra, sitting in the section with Bob Gordon and Eric Dolphy, who played lead. His friend Jimmy Knepper was also in the band and by early 1950 they decided to leave the West Coast to try their luck in New York.

    Once in the big city they rented an apartment located on the corner of 136th Street and Broadway which soon became a location for all-night jam sessions. Herb Geller, who was a regular attendee, told me: “You could visit at any time and there was always music being played together with all kinds of nefarious activities going on. Everybody used to go there – Dizzy, Joe Albany, Max Roach, Miles, Mulligan, Zoot, Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. If you went to Joe’s you would meet the entire who’s-who of jazz”.

    Lenny Bruce often visited to socialise with the musicians. Don Lanphere recorded Charlie Parker there in May 1950 with John Williams, Buddy Jones and Frank Isola and the results were eventually released as The Apartment Sessions (Philology W842-2 CD). A more famous example of Lanphere’s taping (aided by Maini) occurred a few months earlier when Parker’s quintet with Red Rodney appeared at a dance gig at St. Nicholas Arena. The album was released as Bird At St. Nicks (OJC CD041-2).

    Around this time Maini was involved with a Gene Roland project that rehearsed at Nola’s Studio. It was a 25-piece band designed as a feature for Parker known as “The Band That Never Was” because it did not work. Eddie Bert was there and he took a series of photos that have been reproduced in Ken Vail’s Bird’s Diary.

    Maini already had a drug problem which led to his incarceration at The Public Health Facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Vail’s book quotes a letter Joe sent to Charlie Parker from Los Angeles dated 23 January 1953: “It felt good to get your warm letter while I was in the ‘hospital’. Jimmy Knepper and I got out on 17 November and I have become a solid citizen and good musician. No more raucous living for me. That sixteen months changed me. Jerry (sic) Mulligan is making a lot of money out here. He’s got a small group with no piano and I played with him the other night on his gig and it was a lot of fun.” Parker and Maini became very close and for a while they lived in the same apartment. Parker gave Joe a tenor which he continued to use during the 50s.

    Having been off the scene for a while Joe, like a lot of musicians, took whatever work he could find. It often included performing in strip clubs. Brew Moore, no stranger to burlesque, once said he was 21 before he saw a naked woman from the front. Geller told me about the Los Angeles bohemian under-world of the time:

    “I sometimes worked in striptease clubs because I knew Night Train and Harlem Nocturne, which I suppose qualified me. Lenny Bruce was the comic at several clubs and we got to know each other real well. Sometimes Joe Maini and I would split a job. If I had a jazz gig he would cover for me at the strip club and vice versa.”

    One of the most notorious clubs was Duffy’s Gaiety near Santa Monica Boulevard where Bruce was the M.C. and his wife Hot Honey Harlow did the stripping. Ronald Collins and David Skover in their Trials Of Lenny Bruce make it clear what the punters would find at Duffy’s: “Unemployed jazzmen gigged there, hookers cruised there, strippers grinded there, junkies scored there and Lenny thrived there.” Stars like Bob Hope, Hedy Lamarr and Ernie Kovacs were regular visitors and Gary Crosby (Bing’s son) used to date the girls. As Herb said: “Lenny was really infamous then, not quite a star yet but ‘in’ to the real hip people.” When Maini, Geller and Jack Sheldon were not actually playing they apparently had a free seat every night.

    In 1954 Maini made notable contributions to a high-profile Best Coast Jazz date for Mercury where he more than held his own in the heady company of Clifford Brown, Walter Benton, Herb Geller, Kenny Drew, Curtis Counce and Max Roach. He is heard on Coronado, You Go To My Head, Caravan and an inspired Autumn In New York where his soulful approach contrasts effectively with the suave elegance of the other alto man on the session, Herb Geller. The following year he was seen on screen with Connie Haines and the Dan Terry Orchestra in a short film titled Birth Of A Band. That year he also appeared on a relaxed Shelly Manne date with Bob Enevoldsen, Bill Holman and Jimmy Giuffre where they performed Summer Night, Spring Is Here and You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.

    When Bob Gordon died in 1955 his wife Sue wanted a band to play at his funeral. Jack Sheldon, Bob Enevoldsen, Joe Maini and Jack Montrose performed Jack’s arrangement of Good-Bye and Enevoldsen told me that it was almost impossible to perform given the circumstances. Maini was working with Kenny Drew at the time and he is featured on both alto and tenor on the pianist’s Talkin’ And Walkin’, which has a number of the pianist’s intriguing compositions together with a memorable I’m Old Fashioned. The following year he and Red Norvo recorded Concertino Da Camera with composer Jack Montrose. It has an unusual three-part baroque canon form with a series of key and tempo changes developing into an examination of the blues featuring Maini at his best.

    See part 2 of this article