Joe Maini – a history / 2

    Chronicling the short but distinguished career of the bebop saxophonist whose inadvertent death became part of jazz lore - part 2

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    Joe Maini. Photo Dave Pell © Fresh Sound Archives

    Joe Maini, a consummate sight-reader, was part of the large studio orchestra on Johnny Mandel’s 1958 I Want To Live film soundtrack. Years later Mandel told Marc Myers: “Joe was beyond great. He could play anything I wrote with incredible soul and energy.” Everyone who knew Maini had similar views about his musicality. Bill Perkins, who played with him in Terry Gibbs’s band, told me: “He was one of my all-time favourite musicians . . . those who played with him will never forget him. Along with Lanny Morgan he was the greatest, most dynamic jazz-oriented lead alto I ever played with.”

    When Pete Christlieb was about 16 he played in a Saturday morning rehearsal band. He told me: “Occasionally somebody good would sit-in to show us how the charts should really sound. The great Joe Maini once visited and played the lead alto chair and he was so good it was frightening. He more or less said: ‘You follow me kid and try to stick close to my ass because we’re going down the road and we’re going fast!’ Man what authority. It was fantastic to play in the section with him.”

    Herb Geller once told me an amusing story concerning Maini and Art Pepper. (This anecdote, about events which occurred in the late 50s, also appears in Pepper’s Straight Life but with a slightly different ending.) Herb said: “There was never any love lost between Art and Joe, or Art and anyone else for that matter because nobody liked him personally. They had both been in jail and there were rumours that Art had named names. The word for that is a fink and that is what people were calling Art. Anyway there was an after-hours club on Hollywood Boulevard where Bill Holman had the group with my wife Lorraine on piano and musicians would go there after their gigs to jam. Joe and I would usually go together and one night we met Art in the parking lot getting ready to go in. We greeted each other and Art’s wife Diane said: ‘How can you be so friendly when you know that you all hate each other?’ Art said to Joe: ‘Yeah, you’ve been going around telling everyone I’m a fink and that’s not true.’ Joe said: ‘Listen, I was in the joint too and I would never call anyone a fink unless I really knew for sure. I didn’t call you a fink, all I said was that you couldn’t blow shit man! I’ve been telling everyone that.’ They were going to start fighting but Herb and Diane held them both back. Pepper’s friend bass player Hersh Hamel provides a different ending in Art’s autobiography: “They got into a fist-fight and were rolling around on the concrete hitting each other.”

    In 1959 Maini became a founder-member of Terry Gibbs’ dynamic and well-named Dream Band, recording eight albums with them until Gibbs disbanded in 1962. Apart from the leader the band was packed with top-draw soloists such as Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca. Maini had features on No Heat, Evil Eyes, Flying Home, The Big Cat, Opus One and many others.

    In a recent telephone conversation Gibbs had this to say about Maini’s lead alto: “Joe could memorise a chart after playing it just twice – he wouldn’t have to look at it again. The only other musician I knew who could do that was Stan Getz. He was a great sight-reader able to play anything that was put in front of him. He had a drug problem but he was always reliable, showing up on time and taking care of business. Buddy Clark once brought in an arrangement of Parker’s Just Friends. The saxes (Med Flory, Maini, Kamuca, Perkins and Bill Hood) used to play it at the end of the night and that was really the beginning of Supersax. I announced them as ‘Joe Maini and the Maniacs!'”

    More fine examples of Maini’s big-band work can be heard on Louis Bellson’s 1962 Live From The Summit album. Bellson said that on Cool from West Side Story “Joe reached a peak of down-home swing”. One of Maini’s last bookings was with the band at Shelly’s Manne-Hole in March 1964.

    Joe Maini died 8 May 1964 and Downbeat’s obituary gave the cause of death as “a bizarre accidental shooting”. Over the years reference books such as The New Grove and The Feather/Gitler Jazz Encyclopaedia have claimed he was playing Russian roulette and this has become an accepted part of jazz folk-lore.

    However, in June 2010 Marc Myers’s excellent JazzWax site provided a platform for Maini’s daughter Tina to put the record straight with information she received from Joe’s friend Ray Graziano: “Late at night after a gig my father went back to Ray’s house to get high. He picked up the pistol and started telling a joke. He waived the gun around and it went off accidentally.” After the funeral there was a memorial concert at Shelly’s Manne-Hole and the money raised was put into a trust-fund for Maini’s two children.

    Selected discography
    As leader
    Joe Maini – Memorial (Fresh Sound FSR-409 LP)
    Joe Maini – The Small Group Recordings (Lonehill Jazz LHJ 10322)
    As sideman
    Clifford Brown All Stars – Best Coast Jazz (Emarcy 838306-2CD)
    Terry Gibbs Dream Band – The Sundown Sessions (Contemporary CCD 7652-2)
    Terry Gibbs Dream Band – The Big Cat (Contemporary CCD 7657-2)
    Terry Gibbs Dream Band – Main Stem (Contemporary CCD 7656-2)
    Louis Bellson – Big Band Jazz At The Summit (Fresh Sound Records FSRCD 783)

    I would like to acknowledge the help received from both Bob Weir and the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt, Germany while researching this article.

    See part 1 of this article

    1 comment

    1. Good to see these articles about an underrated player. A few years ago the Joe Maini Memorial came out on LP by Fresh Sounds (FSR409), with tracks by his Quintet/Sextet (Richie Kamuca, Victor Feldman, Lou Levy, etc). It was also included in the Lonehill Jazz set mentioned above. Terrific music and recommended to anyone interested in hearing Maini at his best. Thanks, Gordon, for reminding me; had me getting it off the shelf and listening to it again.