JJ 11/62: In My Opinion – Junior Mance

Sixty years ago the Chicago pianist noted for dousing everything in the blues enjoyed Yancey, James P, Hines, Wilson, Tatum and Powell. First published in Jazz Journal November 1962

Junior Mance on the cover of Jazz Journal, November 1962

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 judgement 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.

Julian Clifford ‘Junior’ Mance is one of the best of the so-called modern school of pianists. Born in Chicago, he has been listening to the blues since he was a tiny tot, a fact that shows very strongly in his music. Whatever he plays, ballads, pop songs or any run-of-the-mill jazz tune, just about every­thing comes out steeped in the blues tradition. An interest­ing fact about Junior is that he is that rara avis amongst musicians – a genuine record collector. Anything good, from any period interests him. Thus, the somewhat unusual tunes he sometimes puts on record. This interview was taped on his birthday, 10th November – Many Happy Returns, Junior, and come back to Britain soon. – Sinclair Traill

“Sweet Patootie”. Jimmy Yancey. Vogue EPV 1203
I never had the luck to hear Yancey in person, but I love just about everything he did – particularly that one hit he had, Yancey Special. I was very young when that came up, but it went really big round Chicago in those days – in fact it was one of the very first jazz tunes I learnt to play. That and Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie. But I like Yancey very much, his blues playing is so natural, without trotting out those usual blues clichés. It’s so natural you can see the absence of any formal training – it just rolls out from the heart. I get the impression that when he sat down to play, he didn’t worry over much about what key he was in, or anything like that, he just played what was in him to play at that moment. In other words, that is just the real blues.

“Carolina Balmoral”. James P. Johnson. Blue Note 7011
Well, that was the father of stride piano – and he had a most melodic stride. In other words, he changes his notes. Instead of the usual ompah, ompah, he changes his chords, it’s really melodic. I’ve heard Oscar Peterson talk about James P. Johnson. We were both playing Basin Street East a few weeks back and Oscar he was playing that thing of John Lewis’s, The Golden Striker. Well there is a stride bit he plays at the end of that, and he plays it in just the same way as James P. would have done. Also you’ll notice Oscar sometimes plays a tremolo which he increases in volume. I’ve borrowed that, and I told him one day that I’d borrowed his roll. “Not mine,” said Oscar, “that came from James P. Johnson.” So we are both guilty of thievery, in that instance.

It was unfortunate that I never got to hear too much of James P. He wasn’t really popular round Chicago, not in the same way as were Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, or Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, those were the ones I remember as a kid. Of course there was a difference between the Chicago men and the New York pianists, and the Midwest, they had something different going as well at that time. James P. Johnson also must have been something of a musician. I heard he composed a jazz opera at one time. And that was a fine tune on that record, Carolina Balmoral. Where in the earth did he get that title?

“Piano Man” and “Ooh”. Earl Hines. HMV DEP 1132 & Felsted
Earl Hines, he was one of my first favourites. My father used to play the piano a bit, just by ear you know, and Earl was also his favourite. He and Teddy Wilson were the first two I really got listening to. As far as Earl Hines is concerned, harmonically at least he was the one that got closest to Art Tatum – and even more so now. The last time I heard him, three or four years back, I was with Dizzy and one night Earl came and sat in with us, and he just got a wonderful sound. Everything he does now is so polished. He is the complete master – anything he wants to do, he just does it!

Of Earl Hines: ‘ He has that stride going in a different way. He has perfected it harmonically. Like what I said about James P., Earl also changes the notes and chords in his own manner’

That big band he had at the Grand Terrace! I used to beg my parents to let me stay up at night so that I could hear them on the radio. They used to broadcast every night, but it didn’t come on until 11.30 and I was supposed to be in bed. But I got slick. I had a birthday and I asked them to give me a little radio. So then I stopped arguing with them, for after they had put me to bed I just used to get my head and that radio under the pillow and I would listen to that band every night. It was a wonderful band, and didn’t some giants come out of it, too? Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, Shadow Wilson, Bud Johnson, and Sarah Vaughan even – she played piano then you know.

I think Earl Hines has always been one of the most lyrical piano players, he plays the prettiest things; but he can also play the blues when he wants. I remember that time I spoke of, when I was with Dizzy, I had a piano feature – Willow Weep For Me I think it was, and Earl came on over when I was finished and he paid me the nicest compliment. He asked me if I’d come on over to his house and teach him to play the blues. ’Course he must have been kidding – ridiculous! And didn’t he play that night, whee . . .

He has the most perfect co-ordination, he must be still the greatest real two-handed piano player alive. There aren’t too many around today. And again he has that stride going in a different way. He has perfected it harmonically. Like what I said about James P., Earl also changes the notes and chords in his own manner. His touch too, it’s like crystal glass. There is always one bit of Earl I shall never forget, and that is those 12 bars he plays before the vocal on Billy Eckstine’s Jelly, Jelly. Classic!

“Tell Me More”. Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday. CBS BPG 62039
And he’s another one with a . . . well, what can you say? He does a lot of things like Earl, but he’s got a more flowing style. Earl tells his stories in a shorter, snappier manner, Teddy spins his out more. And Teddy can be one of the fastest piano players you’ve ever heard. Last time I heard him was on a concert benefit for Booker Little and he did a tremendously fast King Porter Stomp with some stride and every­thing. He also is the possessor of a very beautiful touch. Like Hank Jones, Teddy concentrates on getting the best sound possible from a piano. Of course he also has a technique, but it’s the sound he concentrates on; beautiful and crisp.

‘Fats Waller, Horace Silver and Monk all wrote good jazz tunes. Horace’s, they’re hard, they’re different, but they’re good – they were three good jazz writers, Horace and Monk perhaps better writers than pianists – and that’s without playing them down at all’

“Jitterbug Waltz”. Art Tatum. Ember EMB 3326
Well, I suppose you heard the old saying they had in the States – when Tatum walked in a place, they’d say, “God is in the house!” He was that. And he was so far ahead of his time – you know, harmonically and chord changes and what we call “finding the other changes”. He was doing that so many years ago – and it’s only today that many cats are now finding those changes that Tatum found all that time ago. And his technique, that was something! Ray Bryant carries a lot of Tatum’s changes in his playing – I mean his chord progressions, you know. In fact the two pianists who get nearer to Tatum outside of Earl – harmonically, that is – are Ray Bryant and Oscar Peterson.

Ray used to be a neighbour of mine and some afternoons we used to sit around for hours, just listen­ing to Tatum records. I never heard him but once in person and that was when I was a kid in Chicago. I was hanging around the backdoor of the place where he was playing and one of the relief musicians took pity on me and smuggled me in through the musician’s entrance. I didn’t hear as much as I wanted but I did hear something. Those tenths he played, man they were like a whole saxophone section! You imagine a bass player walking those tenths, playing the rhythm of the tune. Well, I heard Tatum do just that – it sounds impossible but it’s true.

Anyway, all I can say is that he was just the greatest, and I don’t suppose there will ever be another like him. I understand that he was very much admired by Horowitz. I believe that at one time when Horowitz played a concert at Carnegie Hall, they had planned a big party for him, but when they came to collect him after the concert he had disappeared – nobody could find him anywhere. Finally through a friend of his they ran him to earth in a little after-hours joint, where he had been all night sitting and listening to Tatum.

That was a lovely tune. Fats Waller, Horace Silver and Monk all wrote good jazz tunes. Horace’s, they’re hard, they’re different, but they’re good – they were three good jazz writers, Horace and Monk perhaps better writers than pianists – and that’s without playing them down at all.

Incidentally, do you realise that Tatum and Erroll Garner are the only two piano players who you’ve got to listen to to hear if they are using rhythm or not. They both kept that rhythm going so strongly that you really have to listen to see if there’s bass and drums in there.

“Embraceable You”. Bud Powell. Vogue EPV 1030
I shall never forget the first time I came to New York I couldn’t hear enough of Bud Powell. I had heard such a lot of his records in Chicago I couldn’t wait to hear him in person, so I went down to a place they called the Royal Roost. Bud was in the middle of a tune when I walked in and I shall never forget it, it was Indiana. You could have heard a pin drop in there and Bud was just flying through the thing, and I stood there dumbfounded, I couldn’t believe what I heard.

You know, he was one of the first pianists who played a melodic line just like a horn. At that time he was the freshest thing, the newest thing soundwise – and he has always got quite a different sound to any other pianist – crisp, sparkling, but quite different. You can say that he sounds just like Charlie Parker on the piano – if you can imagine Bird playing the piano, well that’s exactly what it would sound like! Whereas in the past Earl played piano like a trumpet, then Bud he plays piano more like a saxo­phone.

Before I forget, you asked me where I found Atlanta Blues. I’m glad you liked that, ’cause my wife does too. Well, I got it from Don Ewell. I dropped in to hear him with Jack Teagarden one night, and he played that old Handy song as his feature tune. I told him how much I liked it, and he sent me over the music the next day.