Chicago-born pianist Junior Mance’s career spans seven decades and continues to prosper in the new millennium. He has worked alongside a veritable who’s who of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderly and Jimmy Cobb. In addition to being the recipient of numerous awards, including induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997, he has led his own trio since 1961 and, for the last 14 years, has been one of the marquee faculty members of the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, attracting students from all over the world to study with him.
Junior Mance began playing piano at the age of five, began formal studies at the age of eight, and started working professionally in his early teens. Arun Luthra sat down with him in December to discuss his life and career. Arun began by asking Junior about when he first came to New York from his native Evanston, Illinois…
The first time I came to New York was in 1947. At that time I was still living at home with my folks and I was performing with Gene Ammons, who was from Chicago. Every time we went on the road we always played here somewhere New York. I had decided, when I came here the first time, that one day I wanted to live here.
The first time I got here, man, I went out to every jazz club I saw or had ever heard about. Bud Powell was someone we all wanted to hear. I remember walking into the Paradise Lounge, on 110th Street and Eighth Avenue. All the musicians hung out there. I walked in and the place was quiet and packed, and I heard all this piano; I’d heard him on records you know, and I just stopped dead. I couldn’t move, with what I was hearing. I’m not going near this! I found me a dark corner and ordered me a beer and I was there all evening. I also went to Minton’s. That was sort of the end of the real Minton’s era, and all the cats – Bird, Dizzy, Hawk and all them – were playing here. It was just fantastic.
During the time I was working with Gene there was a recording strike. The record companies saw what was coming and got all of their people recording. We were in the studios with Gene’s band every day for two weeks, all day. I was enrolled at Roosevelt College in Chicago at the time, and I missed school for those two weeks. I fell so far behind there was no way to catch up. But I don’t regret one day of it – because I recorded and I was playing with the band every day, in the studios.
In 1949, when the gigs started falling off for Gene’s band, he had an offer to go to work with Woody Herman – the same day Lester Young offered me a gig in his band. I was with Lester Young nearly two years. You might say I lived in New York then, because he kept his band together and I had a room at the same hotel he was staying at, the Marden on 44th Street. It was full of musicians, Bird lived there, nothing but show people. We stayed there for almost two years, until just before I was drafted.
“CANNONBALL SAVED MY LIFE”
I was drafted into the Army in May of ’51. I couldn’t get into the band because I didn’t play a marching instrument. I was taking infantry basic training and was slated to go to Korea after that. One night I was on guard duty and my post that night was the service club. I heard this fantastic music and I said to myself, “Wow, they got some great records in there” – stuff I’d never heard before. I walked in, and there was this live big band. The leader was there playing alto. It was Cannonball Adderly! I hadn’t even been near a piano for six weeks. So I asked, “Can I sit in for a tune?” And the piano player leans down from the stage and pulls me up, and he splits. I sat down and eventually Cannonball says, “Okay, man, what do you want to play?” He didn’t think I was a musician at all, so he called something safe, a blues tune.
Cannonball pointed at me to take the first solo, and I played about four choruses and I happened to glance up and everybody in the band was looking at me, but with a different expression. Cannonball says, “Yeah, man, play some more!” So I just kept on, till my arms were about to drop. Cannonball says, “That’s great, man! Will you come into the band?” I answered “No, because I don’t play a marching instrument.” The next day I saw a jeep approaching the base, and it’s Cannonball. He hands a piece of paper to our First Sergeant and the First Sergeant says, “Mance, take off! They want to see you at headquarters.” Cannonball was a sergeant in charge of the band training unit, so he had connections and he arranged for me to audition for the band. When the audition was over the band master asked me what other instruments I played, and I had to say, “I’m sorry, I only play piano.” The band master replied, “That presents a problem. We’ll see what we can do.”
About a week after my audition the drummer in the band had gotten orders to ship out to Korea, and he was also the company clerk. So I asked Cannonball, “What do you have to do to get that gig?” Cannonball hurried to the C.O. and said, “Look, we can have an in-house piano player and he can become the company clerk.” The C.O. got me transferred to the clerk typing school, and after that I was assigned to the 36th Army Band.
The end of the story is that the company I took basic training with went to Korea as a unit and I was told that all but about five of them were killed. The company was caught in an ambush. And to this day, it’s been on my mind: would I have survived? I’d like to believe that Cannonball saved my life.
LIVING WITH SEGREGATION
Some units were integrated and others weren’t. The training unit that I was in was. At Fort Knox, our band was segregated. The army was in the process of integrating. The federal order had come down for integration, but they were very slow to implement it. But it didn’t seem to bother us too much. Music was keeping us happy. We’d always have jam sessions in the barracks with white musicians, but we never performed together. We always played for the black NCO club and the other bands played the white NCO club. I would say that mentally, or spiritually, whatever word you want to use, segregation still exists in music.
Coming from Evanston at the time I was growing up, we lived in an all-Black section. And now Evanston has a Black mayor. I did go to an all-Black elementary school, but it was only because of the area that I lived in – whatever district you were in, that was the school you went to. Evanston was a very upscale town and most Black people were either laborers or domestics, so that’s one reason they weren’t really integrated. Just a handful of Black kids went to the white elementary school – but there was only one high school and that was segregated. We had a principal from Texas who closed the swimming pool so we couldn’t swim together. We couldn’t attend their senior proms, so we had our own – and our own was so much more fun, anyway. Dig this – we had a band with Clark Terry, Jimmy Nottingham, O.C. Johnson. So that was our prom. We had a ball!
I did several tours down South with Gene Ammons and with Dinah Washington. Some of the audiences we played for with Dinah Washington were separated by a rope down the middle of the auditorium; whites were on one side and Blacks were on the other. And I was scared to death because of a previous incident in the same theatre involving Nat King Cole, when some rednecks jumped up on the stage and had beaten him.
Norman Granz is credited with having really broken that kind of thing, which I think he did, to a greater extent for that time than anyone else. Also, I know that if Gene Krupa would check the band into a hotel and they wouldn’t give Roy Eldridge a room, he’d check the whole band out until he found one that would.
HOUSE BAND AT THE BEE HIVE
In May of ’53, when I left the army, I went back to Chicago and I got this house band gig the day I got home. It was at the Bee Hive, which was one of the major jazz clubs at that time. I stayed on that gig for about a year. That first night, Coleman Hawkins was in. The Bee Hive booked mostly singles: Charlie Parker for a month, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. The last thing Charlie Parker asked me, the last night of the gig, was, “Why don’t you come to New York?”
When I would ask Charlie Parker what key he wanted to play a tune in, his answer was: “Make it easy on yourself.” Coleman Hawkins was the same way. Neither of them believed that you had to play a tune in the original key that the composer wrote. Even now I don’t – especially on piano. Sometimes some keys sound better on some tunes than what the composer originally wrote.
We worked five nights in Chicago but were paid as if there were six nights a week. Local 208, the Black musicians’ local, did that. The reason was that there were so many great musicians, and they were adamant about only working five nights; they said, at least save two nights for the guys that aren’t working.
LEAVING FOR NEW YORK
Dinah Washington, who’s also from Chicago, called me for a record date. A lot of good people were on it: Clark Terry, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Rick Henderson, Ed Thigpen. After the second tune, she offered me the gig. Singers always pay more – and I thought about the money, and the fact that we would be working out of New York. So I took the gig, although I really had mixed emotions about leaving.
I was with Dinah for almost two years, and then Cannonball called me. He says, “I think I’m ready to test the waters. Are you interested?” I said, “Yeah, count me in!” He and I were very tight in the army. Dinah was disappointed, but she understood.
It was hard back then for Cannonball’s band to get going; we’re talking about the middle fifties. We did a lot of quintet things. Verve took all the things we did on Mercury with the small group. They took four of the albums and made a double CD out of it, with the band as it was at the time they broke up. Around ’57, Miles, being in love with Cannonball’s playing, offered him a gig. I was lucky too, because at the same time Dizzy offered me a job.
I played with Dizzy almost three years – three great years. I learned more in that span of time than I learned from any teacher, and certainly more than I got out of the time I was in college. I lived maybe a 10-minute walk from Dizzy. He had a studio in his basement and he said, “Come on over any time.” We’d go down to his studio and he showed me a lot about comping, a lot about the alternate changes on things. It was like a music lesson. Most of the time it started off with some tune we were doing.
And I learned a lot just from listening to him every night on the gig. The first night in the band, playing with the great Dizzy Gillespie, I was all over the place with notes. And he just eased over to me and calmly said, “You know, the sign of a mature musician is when you learn what not to play; what to leave out.” It took me a while to do.
Dizzy loved to teach; he was a natural-born teacher. I learned a lot of little things that you wouldn’t get in a music school. The things he would show me, you’d have to practice on the gig. That’s probably what they mean when they say, on-the-job training. I don’t think you could get the full essence of some of the things he showed me just by practicing at home.
I learned a lot about programming a set from Dizzy. We wound up playing a lot of gigs that weren’t necessarily jazz clubs. But Dizzy would get the crowd right there. For instance, we had a thing called “School Days,” which was just a shuffle rhythm tune, and it would bring the house down. He said, “If you can get them, while you’ve got them they’ll accept anything you do.” And it worked. I never saw it fail. He might go into “Con Alma” after that and get the same kind of applause. Everywhere we played, we left the people on a high. Cannonball had that same knack. If you’ve got a difficult audience, once you’ve got them, then they’re going to listen to what you’re doing and maybe understand it more.
I was at Dizzy’s last gig that he played in New York before he died. He did a month at the Blue Note, and I played the last week. He was standing by the piano. Every so often he’d smile and wink. The last night of the gig I went to his dressing room. He grabs me by both arms and hugs me, and says, “You’re finally doing it.” And then he looked at me and smiled and winked, and that’s the last time I saw him.
The last record session I did with him, Dizzy gave me a featured track on it: “Willow Weep For Me.” Norman Granz was producing it, and he approached me and said, “How would you like to do your own record?” Norman said, “I just have one suggestion, if you don’t mind. It’s up to you. Do you mind using Ray Brown?” Yes, I’ll use Ray Brown! And I used Dizzy’s drummer, Lex Humphries. That was my first record date as a leader.
Norman was there, and he had been recording all day. This date was at night, and I love to record at night. And Norman told the guy, turn the lights down. He got so tired after the first three or four tunes, he says, “You guys don’t need me. Carry on. Do what you want to do.” But I had sense enough to not make any tune too long. To this day, and I’ve made 41 or 42 albums, that’s still my favorite. We recorded it in one night. We took our time; I would say three or four hours. The album was reviewed in Downbeat; it got 4½ stars out of five, the first time out. And I just started thinking about going solo. So, with Dizzy’s blessing, I did.
And I’m still out here, trying to be a leader. It’s hard at first. It was such a struggle. I didn’t even have a permanent trio till years later. Every time I had a gig, I’d have to call whoever was available. Sometimes I’d go out as a single, but I tried to do that as little as possible because you never knew what kind of musicians you were going to get. The only time I did it was when I knew I was going to have a good rhythm section.
“I STILL WISH YOU’D BEEN A DOCTOR”
The year before my mother died, I had my own trio band and we recorded my first album. We were playing at the London House, a very upscale jazz club in Chicago. My working there coincided with her birthday, so my father decided we would give her a surprise party. He told Mama, “I want to see this movie,” and they drove downtown. The London House had a marquee almost like a movie theatre. And she looked up and said, “What?” when she saw my name.
She didn’t say a word. She walked in. I had long-stemmed roses on the table, and it was the first time she’d ever seen me perform in a club. So after the night was over and I’m walking back to the car with her, I said, “Ma, did you like it, did you enjoy it?” She said, “Son, I had a great time, but I still wish you’d been a doctor.” My ego hit the floor. My father whispered in my ear, “Dummy, why didn’t you leave well enough alone?” But he told me in later years, “She was proud of you.” There’s so many times I’ve wished she could have been there – like the one this past weekend at the Kennedy Center. But I don’t regret one instant of my career. There were hard times, but I don’t regret that either.