A Conversation With Jazzman Jimmy Gourley, Part One

FEATURE by Peter Broadbent & Robert Burns
(copyright 2009)

(Part Two of a feature that began in Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Lively Arts)

Guitarist Jimmy Gourley: "I moved to Paris in April 1951 and stayed until April 1954. I started at the Conservatoire but I couldn't play piano and there were young kids that were playing concertos, so I finally dropped out. I started taking private lessons. Then school ended in June and I couldn't understand what was going on because my French wasn't very good. So I found a school during the summer in Cannes. That's where I met Henri Renaud and started gigging a little bit. The school had a private beach right next to the biggest hotel in Cannes. The school was fantastic, man. There was me and one other Italian guy and about twenty Italian chicks that came over to study French--Ha ha!

"They were there to groove, you know, and I met Bobby Jaspar and Rene Thomas and we played at the Sporting Club with Maurice Vandair. We went and jammed in Nice and I had a good time down there. It was just like the old Paris you would see in the movies, and I was still getting my (GI Bill) $75 a month. I had my ES 150 then, together with a little amp, which I bought for $75 each. Larry Coryell came into Paris once and jammed with me and he loved that amplifier.

"Most of the American cats that came over knew me and I would take them round and introduce them to people. Henri and those French musicians didn't have those Jimmy Raney records, didn't have the Stan Getz stuff, didn't have the Basie things or the Lester Young records.

" In 1961, when the film 'Paris Blues' was made, I was working at the Blue Note with Kenny Clarke and Billy Byers, who was the director doing the hiring and firing, taking care of the stuff that Duke Ellington didn't want to do. He got me the film job. They wanted me there every day, so that was great. I got paid enough to buy a little Fiat. The only one that was serious was Paul Newman, who played the Billy Byers solos but an octave down, we used to hear him in his dressing room, so when he played it looked like he was really playing.

"Duke and Billy Strayhorn were there almost every day. Louis Armstrong was in the film too. He was very low key on the set, he would mingle, he would be there but no one would approach him. I spent a lot of time talking to Strayhorn and it was great, we had a lot of conversations. Louis and Billy were fantastic gentlemen, unbelievable.

"Duke came in, with all his aura, all that he stood for at the time. Billy Byers said to him, 'They want a new scene in the movie in which the guitar player in the club starts to play alone, and then the other characters wander in and join in.' So Duke says ok and Beyers says, 'They want to record it at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning.' I said, 'Whoa, we don't finish at the Blue Note until 3.30 and I was living in St. Germain and the movie studio was in Boulonge, which was about a 40-minute trip.' So Duke says, 'I'll do something and bring it into the Blue Note.' I thought he was just being nice, you know, and didn't expect him to show up. I'm on the stand and Duke walks in and makes a sign to me. He had written it all out. It was great, nobody was too small for him. We played it the next day but it made no difference--they didn't use it in the film, but we got paid!

"Don Jetter was working with Unesco and he had been going down to the Grand Canaries and he loved it and wanted to open a club. He gave me half ownership, you know--for nothing. We found and rented a space in a hotel, installed everything, had it all decorated, bought a piano. It was a nice club but it was in the wrong place; it was loaded with tourists but nobody had any money.

"It was very cheap down there in Las Palmas. One day Zoot Sims called. He had got married in London and said, "I'll come down and play.' So we had Zoot and then Brew Moore came down--that was a mistake--and one day we were playing and in walks Dexter Gordon. I'd known him forever. He'd had pnuemonia and the doctors said go down where it's warm and rest up. He played for two weeks with us. He was all straight then and he looked beautiful and we got along real good.

"Back in Paris, I started playing at the Tabou. That's where I met my wife, she used to come in and dance. The Tabou was great, it was where people hung out. Later it turned into a night club. Juliette Greco and some top comedians performed there, but Henri Renaud and I did an hour ofjazz before and after the show. One night Clifford Brown came in; he was already well known and he was so fantastic. Henri was just starting out at Vogue and he said to them, 'Listen, we've got this great trumpet player here and we'd better record him.' That's how it happened. They recorded Clifford like crazy, big band, small band, quartets. Clifford was such a nice man and already so mature at the age of twenty-two.

"I also met Miles Davis in those days. All he said to me was, "Paaariss!"

"The real star of his band, which had cats like Coltrane, Red Garland and Paul Chambers, was Philly Joe Jones; he exuded swing like you can't imagine. I never did like Coltrane and I still don't--he turns me off.

"Lester Young, though, was something else. If Pres knew you were in his corner he was fantastic, man. On the bandstand he kept you laughing all the time. Song titles like 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' he called 'Pork Chops and Butterbeans.' One day he says, 'Justice' and we said, 'What do you mean?' And he says, 'You know, Just You, Just Me.'

"One time I played with Bud Powell for about two weeks and that was great. We were staying in the same hotel and he came over and searched my room and found a bottle of whiskey. We fought over it. He was an alcoholic, just one drink and he was out. He stumbled off the stage one night and put his foot through the speaker of my little Gibson amp. He was under sedation and would be out in the street begging money, it was ridiculous. His psychiatrist got him almost straightened out and he was getting better when he went back to New York and a few months later he was dead.

"I met Billie Holiday at the Blue Note and I was so impressed. I was afraid to talk to her, I chickened out. I was stupid, because she was such a nice lady. Chet Baker also played at the Blue Note. He was terribly strung out and kept falling asleep on the stand. I never had much to do with him.

"They based the film 'Round Midnight' on the Blue Note. The set was just right, exactly like the club. I was supposed to be in the movie but I didn't want to do it. I spent a lot of time with the producer, who asked me all that stuff about Pres and it's in the film. They finally sent me a check for $5,000.

"Speaking of films, Chan Parker made a lot of money out of the Clint Eastwood film, 'Bird.' She sold Charlie's memorabilia, most notably that plastic sax of his. The city of Kansas City bought it for $200,000 for the Charlie Parker Museum.

"Kenny Clarke died about six years ago. He kinda slowed down at the end, it was very sad to see. He changed a lot at the end, because of his wife. Dealing with money, man, he just got to be totally ridiculous. I did something I never thought I'd do--I quit! He wasn't straight with me, didn't pay me the money he had promised.

"I'm retired now and in France when you retire you are not supposed to work, but musicians can. You can still receive a pension and be working. It makes sense--you wouldn't ask Arturo Rubenstein to stop working at sixty. I broke my arm which slowed me down quite a bit and for a year and a half I was like a little bit shaky, you know.

"There are no people around any more saying anything, you know, like creating something new. But how many people can do that? In the old days, look at all the tenor players, for example, they all sounded different, you could identify them immediately. But now with Coltrane, man, they all sound like Coltrane. They sound like they are playing out of a book or something, they're playing real fast but they're playing the same thing. They go to schools and when they come out everybody sounds the same. People don't play like Charlie Parker because they can't; he was too original. Bird and Pres and Wes Montgomery, they are blues-oriented players; you can always hear the blues in what they're doing. You can hear Bird playing 'Cherokee' and it's like blues orientated but it's not the blues. It's one of the hardest idioms to play in, everybody plays the blues or like a 4-bar phrase, but to say something in the blues idiom is not easy at all, man. It's a way of life or something."