It's natural, bay-bee

Jazz great J.C. Heard: A reminiscence of sorts

Aug 31, 2011 at 12:00 am

I was reading a Whitney Balliett omnibus one night (Collected Works: A Jazz Journal) when on Page 138 I ran into my old and much-missed friend J.C. Heard in 1940 drumming with Teddy Wilson's band, swinging "an exemplary mid-tempo blue" behind Lena Horne in the film short Boogie Woogie Dream. 

I wondered where else James Charles Heard might be hanging out in the pages. The index directed me to Page 176, where he was mentioned in the 1938 band of Benny Carter, apparently sharing drum duties with Max Roach. Page 611 was an indexical misdirect. But I caught up with J.C. again on Pages 652 (on the roster for 1944-1946 Blue Note sessions) and 637 (among drummers who, in rapid succession, were fired from or quit the temperamental Benny Goodman's organization). 

He last appeared on Page 819 in a discussion of the ultimate jazz group picture, Art Kane's 1958 shoot for Esquire. Balliett categorized the 57 guys who showed up, filled the stairs to a Harlem brownstone and spilled onto the sidewalk: megastars, future stars, Ellingtonians, Basieites, etc. Along with guys like Milt Hinton, Hank Jones and Stuff Smith, Heard was one of the "indispensable journeymen."

So, I put on an old VHS of A Great Day in Harlem, the award-winning 1995 film about the photo that occasioned Balliett's discussion. It played in the background while I hunted for J.C. in my library. 

In To Be or Not to Bop, Dizzy Gillespie's autobiographical collage, there's a hilarious account of Diz and Heard's overlapping time in the Cab Calloway band. Seems that when Calloway was deep in his ballads on stage, Diz and trombonist Tyree Glenn liked to pass an imaginary football from one side of the brass section to the other; accenting the catch, J.C. would "hit a little bomb on the bass drum — bomm — and the audience would crack up." A befuddled Calloway would wonder what was going on behind his back, but he could never spin 'round fast enough to catch the culprits. All this culminated in the night that Diz — falsely accused of smacking Cab from behind with a spitball during his act — would scuffle with Cab and knife him in the thigh. And, of course, Heard was there then, just as, by his account elsewhere, he was at a bar 40 years later when a well-liquored Cab dropped his drawers for a likewise juiced Diz to make the point that bygones were bygones, but that a scar was forever.


There were more index citings.

In Jazz; A History of the New York Scene, Heard is with Coleman Hawkins on the top-selling jazz album of 1946. In the memoirs of New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, Barker and Heard were among the older guys in the studio to support the upstart bop-innovator Charlie Parker on one of his first sessions. But first they killed time while their junkie genius sat around "looking into space, sweating ... waiting for the man to come with something."

There were reflections of Heard the drummer: "That fine drummer, J.C. Heard," opined scholar Guther Schuller in The Swing Era. Trumpeter Buck Clayton, in Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, called his Basie bandmate Papa Jo Jones "the perfect drummer ... [who] could execute anything heard or had in his mind." To Clayton, J.C. was "the only one who truly played like Jo. Most of the others just didn't think they could ever play like Jo Jones, so they just didn't even try."

In another book, pianist Mary Lou Williams put J.C. alongside Art Blakey as one of the players "who seem to have been born bopping. [Heard] played so much drums when he was with Teddy Wilson's great band that they had to hold him back in order to get a solid beat going."

Meanwhile, on the screen, J.C. passed through the crowd in front of the Harlem brownstone on that immortalized summer day in 1958. When Kane's shutter snapped, J.C.'s head was partially obscured by that of Roy Eldridge, who had turned his head to see Dizzy Gillespie cracking wise, laughing with his tongue unfurled like a sheep dog. Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young, Rex Stewart ... they're all standing together on the right edge of the frame.

But there was a better look at J.C. in action when I searched YouTube and found him with Calloway in scenes from the movie Stormy Weather. Sitting tall at his drums, grin stretching his face taut, he introduces the tune "Jumpin' Jive" with seven furious seconds: madly punctuated rolls on the snare, a volley of high-and-higher-velocity unison thumps on snare and floor-tom, quick splash of cymbal accompanied by a snap of the head — that cues the whole band to charge in and ride his rhythm. 


A lot of us have been thinking about J.C. of late, with this year's jazz festival featuring the first reunion of his last major project, a bebop-oriented Detroit big band of mostly young players that J.C. led for several years before his death in 1988. There'll be a tribute to J.C. in the official festival booklet by Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn; the big band's musical director Walt Szymanski, Heard's son, Eric, and Gallert will discuss J.C.'s life and career in a Jazz Talk Tent session.

All this J.C. remembrance sent me down to a basement file cabinet where I pulled out the yellowing transcript of an interview with J.C. from around 1980, the first of our many meetings. 

Realizing how green I was jazz-wise, he laid it out in brief, his story: growing up in Detroit, tap dancing as a showbiz kid at the Koppin Theater, falling in love with the drums, settling in as a young professional (though still a teen) in 1936 at a place on Hastings in Paradise Valley called the Cozy Corner.

"It was a nice joint. It had six or seven girls in the line, chorus line, and they'd come out and dance," backed by Heard in "the best little band in town."

Big names would come to town, play shows that ended at 10 p.m., then hang and the Corner until it closed at 2 a.m. "Everybody used to come by. I had them in: Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sweets, Jonah Jones." 

Also among the visitors, J.C. said, were Benny Goodman — at his King of Swing apex — and his band. And when Goodman's pianist Teddy Wilson left to start his own group in 1938, he telegraphed for J.C. to join him. (J.C. on the Wilson band: "He lost his ass off. He sounded too white. They wanted something tougher, like Lionel Hampton's band. [Wilson's band] swung, but it was nice and easy — polite swing.")

"I played with him for a little over a year or so, then I played with people like Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Cab, Basie, Duke. I got my own band when I left Cab in '46. And I made some of the first records with Dizzy Gillespie and Bird," J.C. told me. "I did Jazz at the Philharmonic and things like that."

He might have spent much of an afternoon running down the folks he'd played with on stages and in studios: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Josh White, Louis Jordan, etc., etc., etc.

He did a handful of dates as a leader, but hundreds as a sideman, before decamping in Japan at the end of a 1953 Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. There he married, became a father, toured the Far East, even played in a couple samurai flicks, before returning to the States in 1958. In the 1960s, Hiroko and young Eric would join him in Detroit, which became his base for the remainder of his life. 

In that first meeting, there was a bitter sweetness to the way he looked back at it all. He complained about what Elvis in the 1950s and, more recently, disco had wrought. 

"They pushed jazz to the background, but it'll never die," he said. "Seems like they been trying to find all kinds of things to keep ducking the good stuff. ... This country is built from the best music: jazz, Dixieland and stuff like that."

This was some of sweet: "I never did anything but show business. A lot of guys have to have day jobs because you don't get enough work. I was fortunate." 


Gallert, the other day, was at home working on PowerPoint slides for his Talk Tent presentation, tracing the Heard story in music and pictures, including obscurities such as J.C.'s nightclub scene with his trio in the noir film Kiss of Death. Gallert reminisced about the enthusiasm that J.C. showed in the 1980s as a guest on Gallert's Jazz Yesterday show on WDET. "He cut so many records, he'd forgotten half of them," Gallert recalled. But after the forgotten tunes played, he'd say with pride, "another great one." 

"You just felt you were in the presence of greatness. You felt grateful and honored that you could just talk to him as a person." 

I remembered a night when J.C. invited another young writer, a young promoter and me out to the Heards' modest Troy apartment. After dinner, he put on one of his discs with Cab Calloway's big band. We listened without speaking for a spell. Then he lurched forward interrogating each of us in turn. "How many microphones? ... How many microphones? ... How many microphones?" And before we could guess, came the answer with glee: "One, bay-bee, natch-you-rall balance!"

And there was another night when I had visited J.C. in the hospital after a bout of heart trouble preceding the final heart attack in 1988. He talked about the way big bands would face off in battles in the old days, playing from opposite ends of a dance hall. And laying there he couldn't just talk. Slapping palms on his thighs, singing sound effects, he contrasted the styles — it might have been Big Sid Catlett on the left thigh and Jo Jones, right, that he thought he was channeling, I wish I remembered for sure. But the essence in the rat-tat-ting was that pure energy that folks went to J.C. for. 

And, I might mention, that he called everybody "bay-bee." 


"He was and remains a tremendous influence both musically and socially on the human that is becoming Jeff Halsey," a bassist of J.C.'s latter years wrote me in an e-mail once. 

It's a common sentiment among those who worked closest with J.C.

Jim Fleming, of Ann Arbor's Fleming Artists, managed J.C. during the final years of his life, and adopted him as "my spiritual mentor ... we just made a connection." (A sign of the esteem: Jim's son is named James Charles, and called J.C.)

"I learned a lot from him to make me the man I am today," said tenor saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, who joined J.C. in '70 or '71 after several years working with Aretha Franklin. Now a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Gabriel took a phone call to talk about J.C. while in Chicago with the band.

Gabriel talked about energy ... charisma ... sense of time ... that J.C. carried himself "just like Ellington" ... about a great gig in Berne, Switzerland ... about the time that J.C. told off a club owner, saying it essence: It's your club, but it's my stage right now, get the fuck off. 

From J.C., he learned most importantly: "To believe in what I believe in and stand behind what I say, you know. He gave me that. He didn't back down when he knew what he wanted to do."

Szymanski, the big band musical director, now an in-demand New York musician-arranger, gives props to Marcus Belgrave and the late Herbie Williams for shaping him as a musician. "But J. was kind of my professional guru. ... He taught me all about how to run and lead a band ... how to deal with people," he said over the phone from New York the other day.

Szymanski explained how J.C. was a master at making the band feel good — like handing out the bread before the last set to get a bandstand of "happy faces" — and still demanding excellence. At the same time, J.C. could smile for the audience and yell at the band to fix a sagging tempo: "Trombones! You're playing in yesterday! Come on! Get up on it!" 

"We had really just started to hit our stride with that group. I mean, the band was killin'," Szymanski said. They'd worked with Dizzy here and looked forward to working with him outside of Detroit. They'd recorded Some of This, Some of That, a great calling-card of an indie record. They were on the verge of a local extravaganza with Diz, Max Roach, Ahmad Jamal and an all-star cast of Detroiters. When J.C. passed, the show went on as a memorial.

Szymanski said that every night, J.C. took an extended solo. And every night, he'd show something new, something unexpected: All his history, technique and imagination on one side of the musical equation would equal something new on the stage. "The whole band would go: What? What the fuck was that? Where does that come from?"

From a life of musical riches. From a guy who could emphasize the show in show business, because the artistry was a given. From a guy who traveled the world and came home to be buried with his drumsticks. From J.C, bay-bee.


The J.C. Heard Tribute Band led by Walt Szymanski plays Sunday from 4:30-5:30 at the Amphitheatre Stage. The band will also honor its late saxophonist Scott Petersen. Szymanski, Eric Heard and Jim Gallert present "J.C. Heard, Mr. Rhythm" at 6 p.m. the same day in the Jazz Talk Tent.