When I first met Joe, he was a burly two-fisted Scotsman, with very little patience for nonsense.
He also had one of the gentlest approaches to the baritone sax that I had ever heard.
As with many a musician, his personality and his music were at odds with each other.
After a few years of friendship, I introduced him to beautiful Laurie, and it was love at first sight.
They’ve been together now some 20 years, and through the magic of a good marriage, he’s become a lot more like the music he plays.
Joe is an honor member of 802 and has been a member since 1966.
He was born in Cowdenbeath (county of Fife), Scotland, a small town whose only industry involved digging coal from the earth.
Joe’s dad was the only male in the family who escaped the drudgery and danger of the mines by becoming a bus driver.
As was the custom in those days, women didn’t work, and taking care of the home and family was their responsibility.
There were practically no utilities available, and the endless labor involved in a mother’s day took its toll in health and life expectancy.
Joe remembers vividly his mother doing the family wash, boiling the tubs of water, and scrubbing away at dirty garments for hours at a time, then hanging them over the clothes lines strung in the back yard.
These were the depression years, and the pinch was being felt all over the Western world.
Joe’s mom, though, was truly hardy, and defied the odds by living well into her 90’s.
Joe’s only brother Bob bought him an alto sax when Joe was 14, and Joe studied privately for about six months, then continued woodshedding on his own, while working in a butcher shop.
His talent was quickly obvious, and he began working dates with local musicians during these years.
An interesting fact that Joe told me was that while in the early years of public school, all the pupils studied solfege.
Joe says it stuck with him all the years until he began to play, at which time he devised using a “moveable ‘do’.”
It made it much easier to play in all the keys without the usual intimidation of seeing all those sharps or flats.
The thought immediately struck me that it’s a shame music isn’t taught in that fashion here as it is in so many other countries.
(I had a trumpet-playing friend from Italy who told me he wasn’t allowed to touch his horn for a year until his teacher was satisfied with his progress in solfege.)
At the present time, Joe teaches sax and bass clarinet at both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, and has achieved excellent results utilizing this method.
After his three years of butchering (hopefully, not the music) and gigging locally, Joe was faced with the prospect of having to do his compulsory military service. The only alternative was to become a “Bevin Boy,” which was the name given to those who would agree to work the coal mines for three years in lieu of joining the armed forces. Joe accepted this alternative, but during the training period hardly attended any classes at all as he was playing in a local band, and had a doctor friend who kept writing him excuses for various ailments. Also, at this time, a man who called himself “Melody Maker Mac” sponsored a big band competition in Glasgow that his local band entered. During the performance, Joe, who by now had switched to tenor sax, impressed the band from Glasgow so much, that he was asked to rehearse with them every Sunday for the “Melody Maker Mac” finals, which they won.
A STRING OF ADVENTURES
Joe’s reputation was growing rapidly, and he was asked to join a quintet in Glasgow for a steady gig that ended up lasting two years.
Finally, the powers that be had enough, and sent him his induction notice. Determined not to serve at any cost, the evening before his physical, he stayed up all night drinking pots of coffee and smoking. When he showed up the next morning, he was ravaged enough to display symptoms of having a duodenal ulcer and was rejected. Joe says that he was so paranoid at this point, that he didn’t know whether he really was sick or not. He wasn’t.
During Joe’s two-year stay at the Glascow nightclub, he was befriended and mentored by two of the musicians, Jim Morgan on trumpet and Bobby Thompson on sax. He studied with Thompson, a great jazz tenor player, and feels these were truly his most important learning years. Thompson is still alive, and Joe stays in touch.
His next gig was with Tommy Sampson’s band from London at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow. This group was considered one of the best in Scotland, and when they returned to London, Joe was asked to stay with them. Joe mentioned that about half of the musicians in this band went on to become the nucleus of the Ted Heath orchestra. Next was the Harry Parry sextet, where Joe befriended pianist Dill Jones, who migrated to the States before Joe. Leader Larry Parry was heavy into the vodka, and Joe says “one bottle made him a genius, and the second turned him into a raving lunatic.”
Then came the Joe Loss big band, which in 1950 was considered the number one dance band in the Isles.
Next was Jack Parnell’s big band, and Joe took over for Ronnie Scott, who later opened the most famous jazz club in London. When Joe left, his chair was filled by tenor player Tubby Hayes, soon to become a world class jazz star.
His next adventure was with the Humphrey Lytellton jazz octet, considered the best jazz band outside the U.S. Joe was subbing for the tenor player who was on sick leave, and when he returned, Joe was offered the baritone chair, an instrument he’d never played. Thanks once again to solfege, along with great ears, Joe mastered both the book and the instrument, and he stayed with the octet for nine years.
In 1959, the group took a tour of the states along with stars Cannonball Adderly, George Shearing and the Velvet Brass, Lennie Tristano, with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and vocalist Anita O’Day. After visiting New York, and digging the action, Joe knew this was where he had to be. It took him until 1959 to finally migrate over, and, with his green card good for six months, he stayed at the Bryant hotel, worked various day gigs while working on getting his citizenship, and played whenever and wherever he could.
Finally, with the help of old friends Nat Pierce and Jake Hanna, he was hired for the baritone chair of the Woody Herman Herd, and his reputation was made.
LIFE IN NEW YORK
Joe played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band for three years, plus stints with Clark Terry, Duke Pearson, and Joe Henderson, just to name a few, but his real love was for the music of Duke Ellington, and the playing of baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who Joe befriended. When Harry died just six months after Duke’s demise, Joe played his tribute at Reverend John Gensel’s jazz church.
Mercer Ellington had taken over his dad’s band, and he asked Joe to take Harry’s chair. It was a dream come true for the Scotsman from the dirt-poor coal-mining town. Joe stayed with the band off and on for the next ten years, which also included doing the Broadway show “Sophisticated Ladies.”
As we all know, Joe has played for the last 17 years with Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which is undoubtedly the best jazz gig in the world. He was brought to Wynton’s attention by arranger-leader David Berger, and subsequently has become a close personal friend of Wynton’s. When I asked Joe about “Wynton, the man” as opposed to “Wynton, the master musician,” it became quickly obvious that he truly both respects and loves the guy, and will tolerate nothing negative said about him while in his presence. Fair warning. He’s still the burly two-fisted Scotsman.
Joe feels quite blessed with the way his life has turned out, and has dedicated time, money and effort, to sponsoring a children’s big band workshop in Fife, and returns whenever he can to help with the teaching. Of all the successes he told me about in his career, he seemed to feel the proudest about this particular undertaking. It’s payback — “good for the soul,” says Joe.
Leo Ball plays flugelhorn, directs Local 802’s payroll service, and is a frequent contributor of interviews for Allegro.