Interview: Big Jay McNeely (Part 2) - JazzWax

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July 31, 2009


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Han Schulte

Hey, it's Wardell G r a y.
Han Schulte

Ed Leimbacher

I missed Birdland--moved to Seattle after it had closed--but nobody could miss hearing Big Jay up on the bar, over the house box and the car radio, on the honkers&screamers compilations, and down from the soulster heavens. It took some Kurmudgeon's kommentary to launch this effort on your part, Marc, but sometimes life is excellently serendipitous. Honk on!

Alan Kurtz

What a crock. After you ran a photo of Big Jay honking on his back in 1951, I commented that he "was never a jazz musician. … R&B was not jazz, and to blur that distinction does a disservice to both genres." You replied that Big Jay "surely viewed himself at the time as part of jazz's avant-garde," which I challenged as "unsupported supposition." Next you interviewed McNeely. Notwithstanding your repeated attempts to lead the 82-year-old witness, this interview supports my assertions more than yours. "Why didn't you become a jazz musician?" you ask. "I started out playing jazz but I didn't have a perfect ear," Big Jay admits. "I was trying to play jazz before 'Deacon's Hop' but I just didn't have the ear. … When I started developing my own sound and adding power, it was a whole different thing. It was the complete opposite from what I had been doing." In other words, R&B was not jazz, which is exactly what I said. You even concede as much yourself: "I've always wondered how R&B split off from jazz at the end of 1948." As for Big Jay "surely" viewing himself as part of jazz's avant-garde, the closest he comes to making such an absurd claim is when he asserts: "Even when we played what was called R&B, the music was sophisticated. We changed keys and did things that were very progressive. … I'd have certain voices and a sound when I'd go to the subdominant chord or the tonic. The voicing had to be just right. … I always thought progressive." The subdominant chord or the tonic! Marc, those haven't been avant-garde since the Middle Ages. As I said in my earlier comment, jazz's avant-garde in the late 1940s and early '50s included Charlie Parker, the Miles Davis Nonet, Lennie Tristano, and the Stan Kenton Innovations Orchestra. Your revisionist attempt to include the primitivist icon Big Jay McNeely in such genuinely sophisticated company is laughable.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of 55 More Songs," "Anatomy of a Song," "Rock Concert: An Oral History" and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax has won three Jazz Journalists Association awards.
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