For every tenor saxophonist you know, there are a dozens you don't know because they never made it or didn't record enough to be remembered. That's the beauty of jazz. There was so much talent in the 1940s and '50s there simply wasn't enough recording opportunities for some artists. For others, financial pressures, family issues and relocations kept them hidden. Case in point: John Hardee.
Hardee was born in Coricana, Texas in 1918. His family was musical, and he started on the piano. At 13, he took up the saxophone and several years later began playing in local bands. In the late 1930s, after hearing records by Cab Calloway, he found himself attracted to the deep, dragging style of Chu Berry, who had replaced Ben Webster in Calloway's band. [Pictured above, from left, Trummy Young, John Hardee and Tiny Grimes]
After performing in a college orchestra, Hardee toured with Don Albert's (above) band for six months. He finished college when he returned and then went into the service. Stationed near New York, he jammed often in the city while on leave.
After his discharge, Hardee moved to Harlem and played with guitarist Tiny Grimes in 1946 and 47, recording with Grimes in '46. In the late 1940s, there were sessions with Earl Bostic (above), Billy Kyle, Dwight "Gatemouth" Moore and Lucky Millinder, among others. Then in 1950, Hardee's discography went cold. Unable to find well-paying gigs, Hardee returned to Texas with his wife and worked as the director of a local high school band.
In 1974, Hardee was offered a recording session in France but declined because of his high school job. A year later, he appeared at the Nice Jazz Festival in France with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. A year later, he recorded his last album, a live performance in Antibes and then quit playing after returning home to Texas.
Unlike many little-known artists who didn't have that something special, Hardee was a beautiful player with a warm tone. He could lay down lovely sheets of improvised lines. When you listen to his recordings from the 1940s, you hear a thoughtful player on swingers and ballads. And he was still remarkable in 1975, on the live recording from France. [Photo above, from left, John Hardee, Sid Catlett, John Simmons, Sammy Benskin, and Tiny Grimes during John Hardee’s Swingtet session, WOR Studios NYC, January 28 1946, by Francis Wolff]
Hardee died in 1984.
JazzWax tracks: Virtually all of John Hardee's recordings can be found on two releases: John Hardee: 1946-48 (French Classics) here and John Hardee: A Little Blue, The Definitive Black & Blue Sessions here, recorded in Antibes, France, in 1975.
JazzWax clips: Here's Baby Watch That Stuff, from Nov. 1947, with Hardee (ts/v), Billy Kyle (p), John Simmons (b) and Cozy Cole (d)...
Here's Bobbin' in B Flat in Nov. 1948, featuring Hardee (ts), Al Haig (p), Clyde Lombardi (b) and Tiny Kahn (d).
Here's Man With a Horn, from the same session as above.
And here's the entire 1975 album at YouTube, featuring Gene "Mighty Flea" Connors (tb), John Hardee (ts), Gerald Wiggins (p), Bill Pemberton (b) and Oliver Jackson (d)...
A special thanks to David Perrine.