An Interview With Jazzman Jimmy Gourley, Part One

FEATURE by Peter Broadbent & Robert Burns
(copyright 2009)

(James Pasco Gourley, Jr is credited with having introduced a smooth Lester Young-influenced style of guitar-playing to Europe, where he resided for many years, co-leading the house band at Paris Blue Note. Born in St Louis in 1926, he toured with commercial bands, then played in small groups alongside such musicians as Vido Musso, Sonny Stitt, Anita O'Day and Gene Ammonds. Gourley has been featured in many jazz festivals and can be heard on such movie soundtracks as Paris Blues. He died on Dec. 7, 2008)
GOURLEY: "I have beautiful memories of my school days; it wasn't like it is now. Everything was cool. In grammar school I was in the same class as Lou Levy. Then we went a little further north, then a little further south, and I was in another school...with Lee Konitz for one semester in Chicago. That's when I really got into playing and Lee was instrumental in that and I couldn't wait for the next rehearsal, but I spent a lot of time in the baseball lot.

"Then I got into a little band that played in bars. Most bars in those days had a big room in back where on weekends they had dancing. We played the standards, the music of the time that we're still playing today. People heard them on the radio and sang them in the street, you know. The powers that be are giving us shit now; before they gave us good music and now it's all shit. They're not giving us music at all.

"Nobody was making much money but we were all hanging out together. When I first met Bob Brookmeyer he was playing piano in a dance band and we'd go jam with them in the afternoon at a dance hall.

"Later I did a concert in the states with Kenny Clarke and then we were in a beautiful place with all kinds of studios...and the Rolling Stones were there. We were waiting to play and Mick Jagger came up--Kenny didn't know who the fuck he was; I was the only one who recognized him--and he had a bottle of wine and said, 'Hello, I'm Mick, you want a drink?' and then 'Come on over, we're rehearsing.' We went over and were snorting and all that stuff; they were doing 8 bars which took them a week, and then 16 bars which took them another week; and then they put it all together. That's the way they made records, which is not the way we did, you know. I didn't make any record that took longer than an afternoon. The record I made with Kenny took 3 days and that was the longest I ever took.

"I played drums in high school because that was the only way to get into the dance band. You had to be part of the concert band that played for the football games, so I volunteered for the bass drum. Every year we did a show with the minor girls dancing. Then we got a little band.
"My father set up the Monarch Conservatory of Music. He made a lot of money during the war and then lost it all later. During the war everybody was working, there was money all over the place, they were being paid overtime--there was too much money around. He went around canvassing the neighborhood, knocking on doors. He didn't do any teaching; he had people that did that. It was a 7-week course to see if your child had any capabilities, but he'd sell 'em a $350 accordion and he'd get the money right away. He and the other salesmen were starting 30-40 kids a week and he was selling at least 12 or 13 accordions a week, so the money was coming in like crazy.

"One time he even bought a small airplane and hired a pilot! He'd shoot down to St Louis and see the family. Then he went to northern Indiana and made a whole lot of money.
"My mother wanted me to play guitar, she wanted me to play Spanish melodies for her, and I never did. I was straight into jazz immediately. My father bought the guitar for me; my first teacher was from his school; he just taught me the cowboy stuff. But when I started playing jazz I got further into it.

"My first real professional gig was with this trumpet player who later got killed in Europe. I quit high school and went down to Oklahoma City, Charlie Christian's hometown, to play rhythm guitar. After we finished at the hotel, we'd go out jamming with these black cats. They'd take us out to these roadhouses and jammed and it was a lot of fun.

"The first records that turned me on were by Nat 'King' Cole, but I had a little radio by my bed and listened to all these bands. There was all kinds of music. I heard Charlie Christian playing 'Seven Come Eleven.'

"When I left the Navy, I came back to Chicago and I didn't play at all for two years because I didn't have a guitar. That's when I met Jimmy Raney. He was already Jimmy Raney, if you know what I mean, beautiful, and he was in Lou Levy's band. Jimmy knocked me out 'cause of his sound, the articulation and the harmonic content, and because he was so hip and could swing! He had it all. I couldn't help but be influenced by him, he had it all together, and that's the way I wanted to sound. He was making a musical statement and not just smearing over and playing a lot of notes.

"Hardly anybody was making any money at that time. Henri Renaud and Kenny Clarke saved me at that time and kept me in work. Henri has some health problems now, but he's still ok. He's the only one up there in that big Sony music building; it's full of young chicks and young guys who know nothing about anything; they keep Henri on because he keeps reissuing all these old things that are successful.

"I was with Jackie Cain and Roy Krall in 1949/50. I was in New York working in Brooklyn and one day I was walking on Broadway and a Cadillac stops and it's Bird. He says, 'Hey, man, come and see my new car" and we got in the car and went to some bar where they opened the door and said, 'Bird, c'mon in.'

"I didn't like Chicago because of the weather, but musically it was great and I got to know everybody and I played with everybody. The only person that I listen to now is Art Tatum, but that's kind of crazy because I never heard him live because he was in New York a lot of the time. For me, Tatum and Bird are the epitome of jazz improvisers."
"Everybody came through Chicago and I was up all hours of the night, out either jamming or listening to records, and I used to get home about eight in the morning. Someone said to me, 'Your eyes are all red,' and I said, 'So would yours if you'd been out till eight in the morning!'

"They had the GI Bill, you know, which gave me three years of university study because I had done two years in the navy. Tuition, $75 a month, all the paper and pencils, everything, and you could study anywhere in the world. So I worked and saved my money. The drug situation was getting very close and all my friends were using. People were getting busted here, busted there, all going to prison. Jimmy Raney was the only one who used nothing...Jimmy wouldn't smoke, he wouldn't drink, he wouldn't do anything, he was Mr Clean. He turned to alcohol after he got to New York. I never got into smoking cigarettes, the only thing I smoked was pot. In Chicago we were deep into marijuana, we had the best in the country, known as Chicago Light Green, which was coming from all over the states and it was so cheap.

"I was a single note player playing lines but I wanted to play like Pres. I ended up playing like that and I don't like to play with piano players any more."

"In 1954 I went back to Chicago. Chubby Jackson was there and liked the way I played and he had a radio show. I made a record with him, "Chubby's Back." I got a job, started saving money to get back to Paris. Just before I left Cy Touff said, 'Listen, I got a gig for you and Sandy (my tenor player) to accompany a singer at the Black orchid for six weeks, every night. Kenny Clarke was in New York then making all those records, he was more or less the A&R man at Prestige and he recorded Cannonball Adderly for the first time.

"Gene Ammonds? Junior Mance was with him and I had a gig with him and he said c'mon over and play. Those were beautiful times, man. There was a trolley that went a block from my house right into Brownsville, right outside the club. That's when we made the Lee Konitz record. He was there with the Kenton band, and it took all day."

(End of Part One; Part Two will appear in November/December issue)