When I first met cornetist Jack Fine, we were both
guests at a soiree in New Orleans. As our conversation progressed, we discovered
that we shared many connections and memories of the musical scenes in both New
York City and New Orleans, albeit from different times and perspectives.
I was completely amazed as this prolific
octogenarian told me about his musical life. I immediately felt that his story
should be recorded and shared with readers of Allegro, especially when Jack
produced his Local 802 “Pioneers of Jazz” card from 1952. (The origin
of this card has been lost to history, but Jack told me that the moniker was his
idea, as he felt that not enough was being done to acknowledge the many
excellent jazz players who were active at that time.)
Jack’s professional life has spanned nearly seven
decades, and the best I can offer is the tip of the iceberg, a glimpse into the
musical vortex of a very poetic and creative soul, who played the music he loved
with all of his heart, as anyone who has ever heard his cornet will tell you.
Jack Fine was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 26, 1928.
Growing up, he loved listening to jazz on the radio. His family friend, Big John
Yeyichen, frequently brought young Jack to a local club called Bright Eyes. The
inspiration to play the cornet struck him around the age of 12, when a visiting
musician brought one to his elementary school.
Later, he joined the Air Force, and played in the
band at Bowling Field near Washington, D.C. But he found that any type of
rigidly organized playing did nothing for his spirit, and decided to concentrate
on jazz, which spoke to his soul incessantly.
After his stint in the military, he returned to New
York and began to hang out on 52nd Street, which was a hot spot for late-night
gigs with the top jazz players of the time.
A significant break came to him through Milt Gabler’s
Commodore Record Shop, when he was hired as a store clerk. The store also
functioned as a producer of recordings and promoter of live events. Jack
considers his association with Commodore Records and its family to be a
significant turning point in his professional career.
During his time there, in the 1950’s, he met
nearly everyone imaginable in the jazz world, including Danny Barker, who became
a great friend and frequent collaborator. He worked with Jack Crystal and
eventually started doing gigs at his club on Sixth Street and Second Ave.,
called the Central Plaza. There were also regular jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s
on 52nd Street, which were also started by Gabler.
As Jack’s notoriety and connections increased, so
did his desire to support more venues that would give opportunities to
up-and-coming jazz players.
He managed the Cinderella Club in the Village for a
while, and began what he describes as his “hippie years.”
Jack made the move to Paris, and fell in love with
all things French. He was also delighted to be near another artist who greatly
influenced him: the gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He also encountered
another ex-pat, Sidney Bechet, who had recently composed and recorded the ballet
“The Night is a Witch.”
This Parisian foray lasted for several years, and
was perhaps a foreshadowing of his time to come to New Orleans.
As he continued to perform, Jack’s musical
influences and outpourings remained in the traditional milieu, and he played
with an intricate, blues-flavored style that had the essential flavor of a truly
authentic New Orleans sound. He gigged with some of the best-known sidemen of
the time: Al Casey, Benny Morton, Norman Simmons, Johnny Ellis, John Booker and
Dan Gallagher. He also credits Eddie Condon and his gang as a major influence.
His move to New Orleans was not his first visit; he
had been stationed there briefly during his military days, at Camp Leroy
Johnson. Taking advantage of the very tempting opportunities offered by life in
the French Quarter, he managed to live in an apartment off-base and quickly
immersed himself in the vast musical offerings of the city.
“What an incredible experience it was, to
finally be living in the place that had provided me so much creative energy, for
so many years,” Jack remembers. “All I ever wanted to do in this life
was to play one sweet song.”
It was here that Jack started his traditional jazz
group, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, around 1998. They very quickly became a
fixture at the Spotted Cat and were a favorite of the social dance crowd, which
included countless locals, as well as jazz fans from around the world.
The crowd would typically start to gather by the
front door, drawn in by the mesmerizing rhythms and soulful sounds emanating
from within, and quickly expanded into a full-on dance party that spilled out
from the club, onto the sidewalk, and often into the street!
Of course, this is all before Hurricane Katrina,
which changed everything and everyone forever. Jack’s home was flooded during
the storm, as was his car, but still he remained in the city during the
I recently spoke to a friend who had heard Jack
playing at one of the few coffeehouses that was still in operation in the
Quarter shortly after the hurricane. She was overwhelmed by the beauty of his
tone and his soulful renditions. He was still playing his heart out, in spite of
all the sadness and tragedy that engulfed our city.
Jack is still very much a part of the current
scene. It’s difficult to find anyone in New Orleans who has not heard of the
Jazz Vipers. Jack even appeared in an episode of HBO’s “Treme,”
which takes place here.
A final postscript. As I write these words, Jack is
suffering from some health issues that have had him in and out of the hospital.
As I think about Jack, I also think about
“Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who passed away on July 8. Batiste was a very
visual symbol of our culture: always dapper, a real ladies’ man, wearing a
fine suit even in the hottest weather, seen either strolling with his walking
stick or riding his bike, or playing drums in one of the marching bands.
Jack also possesses this joie de vivre, and it is
exemplified in his still vibrant playing, and in his witty, sometimes
self-deprecating, and always entertaining outlook on life. I consider it a rare
privilege to know him and share some of his story with you.
Nanette Ledet lives in New Orleans, where she
performs and is involved in arts education. She has contributed many stories for
Allegro about New Orleans.