JJ 07/62: In My Opinion – Major Holley

Sixty years ago the bassist liked Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, George Wein and Bill Doggett, but jibbed at Art Taylor's 'screwy' modernism. First published in Jazz Journal July 1962

Major Holley. Photo from the JJ Archive

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. Major Quincey Holley, that bass-playing character extra­ordinary, was last here with the Hawkins-Eldridge group early this year. In addition to his duties with the rhythm section, which he fulfilled in exemplary fashion, he also took upon himself the role of whetstone for the sharpening of Hawkins’ pawky wit – a function he enjoyed to his fullest capacity. Major lived in this country from 1954 to 1956, during which time he worked on BBC TV and was the backbone of many recording sessions. He has worked with Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and toured South America with the Woody Herman band. He’s known to his friends as Mule, a soubriquet given to him by Harry “Sweets” Edison. – Sinclair Traill

‘I have always considered myself, and still do, the garbage can of all bass players. That’s true! If they can’t get anyone else, they call on me. And I don’t begrudge that, for as Ray Brown says – “that garbage can, it always stays full”’

“Chant Of The Weed”. (The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones). Mercury CMS 18031
I played with that band when they closed down. I mean the Quincy Jones big band which finished on Memorial Day at Basin Street. Quincy had a wonderful band and it was such a pity he didn’t have the necessary financial backing to keep it going – that tax man will get you if you don’t watch out! I was in the Navy with him and Milt Hinton. Milt’s a busy bass player, you must give him credit for that! He has tapered off a little in recent months, but he still works a lot. The busiest man now is George Duvivier, but I think this popularity goes the rounds. One month it’s one man and the next month it’s another. Of course I myself do my best. I have always considered myself, and still do, the garbage can of all bass players. That’s true! If they can’t get anyone else, they call on me. And I don’t begrudge that, for as Ray Brown says – “that garbage can, it always stays full.” So I don’t have to grumble. If you think Ray is the best bass player alive, then I don’t blame you. I have known him for a number of years, and he has a lot of respect for me – and I give him credit for that too! Of course I kid him a lot, for I worked with Oscar Peterson before he did.

“Ko-Ko”. Duke Ellington (At His Very Best). RCA RD 27133
At his very best, and you can say that again! Just think what that band was doing in 1940 – it was fabulous! And that rhythm . . . Now I think Duke had his best rhythm section when he used a guitar. Jimmy Blanton was, we know, exceptional, but Fred Guy helped to fill out that rhythm – it has never been the same since he left. I pride myself that I don’t talk about people unless I have something nice to say about them, so you’ll forgive me if I say I do think Duke needs an exceptionally strong bass player. All those holes to fill, with no guitar, and even sometimes no piano. I do think the man he has now, Aaron Bell, is a bit light for the band. I always wanted to play with Duke – always wanted that badly, but somehow I don’t think it will happen, but you never know. I would certainly like to try. I had a lot of big band experience with Woody Herman, and I like big band work. I also worked with Benny Carter’s big band for a time. But returning to Duke, he has always had out­standing bass players. Jimmy Blanton, if he were living today, would be considered the best, but there is one other, a musician named Dolfus Allsbrooke. He went out with Duke’s band for about a week, but it didn’t last. Yet he, in my estimation, had a greater influence on bass playing than anyone! But, he just played at it, he just played at being a musician. Sometime he’ll be a policeman, sometime something else – but he’s a real genius on bass. He works so hard at so many things. He’ll sit down and take the words off juke boxes in short-hand, I’ve seen him; he works at ju-jitsu and hand-to-hand; he passed all the tests for the police – worked really hard, stayed in the force two weeks, and then quit. He’s an idiot but he’s a hard worker and a genius. He’s a black belt in ju-jitsu and that is something! Coleman hired him and rated him the greatest, but I think he only stayed three days.

“Undecided”. George Wein (Jazz At The Modern). Parlophone OMC 1156
I like that. The tempo was just right. It’s not always so easy to get that tempo, but when you do you can work on it all night without a rest. Must confess I never heard George Wein play piano half as well as that before – it was really great. I expect he was inspired, as he’s surrounded by giants on this record. Shorty Baker almost has a legitimate sound – his solos are always so pretty and so beautifully constructed. Pee Wee, of course, has a line to himself, a real individualist. Bill Crow the bass player with Gerry Mulligan, and then followed me into the Herman band. He’s a very fine player, but I haven’t heard of him for quite some time. This is the kind of small group jazz that I like playing, tho’ you know I didn’t really start with jazz. I started up in show business, singers and dancers. I was with Rose Murphy for a long time – she’s a great pianist you know, a real fine jazz pianist who could make a name for herself.

“Swivel”. Bill Doggett (The Band With The Beat). Warner WS 8056
Doggett used to have a bunch of fellows from my home­town, Detroit. Can’t remember the name of them, excepting Clifford Scott the tenor player. That’s Carl Pruitt pictured on this sleeve, although it doesn’t say he is in the band, but it’s him alright. I used to listen to Doggett a lot when he first came out, but somehow don’t listen to him so much now. Matter of fact, he called me to do a date with him and Ella some little time ago, but I couldn’t make it, as I was just going out of town on a job. He’s a great organist – I know Ella thinks a great deal of Bill Doggett. I played with Ella for a time, when she had Don Abney as her pianist. Do you know, I haven’t heard this new fellow she’s got with her now?

Working with Bean doesn’t give one much time to do anything but listen to him. He’s always got such wonder­ful comments to make all the time. He just sits with his bottle and talks, and you have just got to listen to him, he’s such a character! I worked with him before. I had a band in Detroit, the Crystal Show Bar, and Charlie Parker and Bean came in as a single. I had Bill Davis, who has just migrated to New York, on piano, and in fact I had the first integrated band, the very first. I was knocked down for it – not physically, but people used to talk.

Detroit is a funny place. It has the best musical school curriculum of any town, but once they teach you they push you out, for there is just nowhere for you to play. Bobby Bryne’s father was in charge of the music department of the school I attended, and he taught me all I know about tuba and cello. Funnily enough, I never took a bass lesson – had my first lesson two weeks before I came over here. I wanted to prepare myself for the pit, get myself the correct techniques for blowing and enable me to read quicker, for I had visions of going back into show business. But I don’t know just what happened to that show I was going to join – I was asked but it didn’t happen. Anyway it doesn’t matter, for I joined Bean and I like his playing today even better than I did when I first heard him.

No, I don’t know why he is called Bean, and he won’t tell you; won’t even tell you his age, for that matter! He is, and always was, such an interesting player. You just know he is going to come out with something, but what? And that keeps you on edge. You know the sequence you are coming to, and you know what he did with it before, but what is he going to do with it this time? That keeps you thinking. It’s certain to be different. I have some wonderful tapes we made up in Hertford. I taped all the shows and there is some wonderful music from Bean, and some real funny raving from Roy and Hawk. Man, they talk about everything except music – and don’t they talk!

“Straight No Chaser”. Art Taylor (Taylor’s Tenors). Esquire 32-149
That’s a little modern for my taste. I think much of that music is screwy, and so many of the musicians themselves are just crucifying themselves with narcotics. You’d think with all the awful examples they’ve had put before them, they would never continue with it, but so many of them do. I’m not speaking personally about any one person, mind you, and certainly not the guys on the record. But narcotics is a problem – it so soon becomes a thing you can’t do with­out, and there are people about who won’t let you stop even if you try – the money grabbers, you know. I sometimes wond­er if they decided to make it legal and not an offence to get narcotics whether it would stop quite a lot of people wanting it. Like prohibition; when the whisky was cut off then everybody, just everybody, started to drink it – might be the same with drugs.