21 - Traditional Jazz, Vince Hickey and the Blues

Blue Notes

Vincent Hickey was a drummer. He patterned himself after a New Orleans drummer called Baby Dodds, who was the brother of Johnny Dodds, a well-known clarinetist who had played in Kid Ory’s band.

Vince was a member of a radical group I belonged to in the 60’s. Vince and I became friends because we both liked traditional jazz and, as he put it, the other members of the group were a ‘bunch of tin ears’. In other words, they didn’t get it’ when it came to music. I sort of ‘got it’, although I was green as grass. I had already started a collection of traditional jazz music with Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Kid Ory and the like.

I had a plastic slide whistle, sort of a kid’s version of a trombone, and I learned to play against those New Orleans jazz records, to improvise. That kind of music, when they’re all playing together in a session without the solo bits. There wasn’t as much soloing then as there is nowadays, they actually played counterpoint. If you separated out the different instruments, the lead instruments like clarinet and trumpet and so forth, then they each played different tunes over the same chord changes and the tunes all worked together. This really caught my imagination because I’d always loved counterpoint from listening to Johann Sebastian Bach. My Dad really played Bach a lot. Now, here was counterpoint again but it was jazz and that was absolutely terrific. In with the jazz was also that golden root – the Blues.

Vince would come over from time to time, particularly if I fed him. He showed me some things about drumming. He was quite amazing in my neophyte way of looking at it. He could play something called ‘the spoons’ which was as old-time instrumental timekeeping trick involving kitchen cutlery. He could crumple up paper and make it sound like brushes. Vince could turn just about anything into a drum kit. He was a good drummer.

He was the son-in-law of Victoria Spivey. Vince himself was half Irish and half Italian and, boy, could he make meatballs! He was married to Victoria’s adopted daughter and I got to meet the family through him. I went to the Victoria Spivey (she always pronounced it Speevey) /Lonnie Johnson Reunion at Gerdes’ Folk City. That was a stellar night I’ve covered in another podcast.

16 - Reunion of Victoria Spivey & Lonnie Johnson at Gerdes Folk City in NYC

I continued with my interest in traditional music, although what I was hearing around me was the kind of wishy-washy folk music that was popular. There were some really excellent musicians that came out of the folk music boom but a lot of it was crap. In between the cracks there, the real stuff was coming through. My ear had been trained by listening to that early jazz music so that when I heard the real thing I recognized it as being part of the root. A lot of this early jazz music was blues-based. The blues had sort of seeped into New Orleans. W.C. Handy was actually a field researcher for these early blues tunes and copyrighted everything he laid an ear to – God bless him.

I was at Washington Square Park where folksingers used to congregate around the dry, central fountain. An old coloured gentleman showed up with his guitar and a promoter. I didn’t know who he was but he was obviously a known traditional blues musician, a pioneer. When he started to play a herd of young blues wannabees clustered around him quite quickly and started playing too. I don’t think it mattered if they were in tune or even playing the same song as long as they could say afterwards, that they had played with this particular blues pioneer. I didn’t much care for that. I’d have sooner heard the old guy and what he had to sing but there you go.

Another time in Tompkins Square Park on New York’s Lower East Side they had brought in a five-part gospel group, just vocals. They were just standing on the grass and singing and it was quite, quite marvelous and what was really good about it was that I knew what they were going to sing for each line. I had learned. I had picked it up and here it was alive and standing before me, all familiar to me. The music of the black South had become, mysteriously, my music.

I also heard Canadian jazz pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, Gil Evans, in that same park and that was another good and real experience of a different kind.

I was woodshedding a lot at this time, learning to play the guitar, after my fashion. I was singing these old blues numbers over and over again. I never got tired of them. There was something new about them every time. This wasn’t like popular music at all. This music had legs, had staying power. And, of course, the blues was about real things that happened to real people. It was folk music but folk music that was still alive and still kicking!

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

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