Monday, 20 June 2011

To Little Jazz and Spanky: Wow!

Roy Eldridge's 1937 recording of Heckler's Hop is, as every jazz fan knows, dazzling. This broadcast version captures Little Jazz & Co. at the Arcadia Ballroom in August, 1939. Zutty Singleton had been the drummer on the studio recording; by 1939 Eldridge's drummer was Panama Francis, who makes his presence vividly felt in this hard-charging air-check. It's an incomplete performance, starting in mid-bridge, but it's just long enough to capture one of my favorite spontaneous moments in live jazz recording. As Eldridge completes his stratospheric coda, the radio announcer reacts as if he'd just witnessed the repeal of the law of gravity. He totally loses both his cool and, apparently, his power of speech; all he can utter is "Wow!" Listen to the break in the voice: at this moment he's no longer the glib hepcat announcer but just another goggle-eyed fan, like the rest of us.

Thinking about Roy Eldridge, and Panama Francis, conjures more recent memories, of trumpeter and dear friend Spanky Davis. Spanky was Eldridge's protege and chosen successor as leader of the house band at Jimmy Ryan's in the early 1980s. Spanky has preserved the spirit of Roy Eldridge without imitating him, playing with his own quartet, and with Panama Francis' Savoy Sultans (in the Sultans' 1980s reincarnation), Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, and Frank Sinatra, among many others.

Brooklyn Girl and I first met Spanky in the bygone days -- not that long ago -- when this allegedly world-class city (not New York) still featured live jazz worth going out to hear. Spanky would usually play in a downtown hotel with colleagues of the calibre of Buddy Tate, Plas Johnson, Gus Johnson, and Milt Hinton, thus providing us with a lifetime's worth of "Wow!" moments. Just as indelible are the extracurricular memories of Spanky: the friendship, the jokes and the anecdotes, his hilarious impressions of Benny Goodman and Pee Wee Marquette, the emotion in his voice as he talked about Eldridge shortly after Roy's death in 1989, and those unforgettable three-and-a-half-hour meals together at our favorite Chinese restaurant.

Brooklyn Girl captured the essence of Spanky in this oil painting, which now hangs in its rightful place: Spanky-and-Rosie's house.

In this YouTube clip of I Remember Clifford, Spanky pays eloquent tribute to the memory of trumpeter Clifford Brown. But today we're remembering Little Jazz and Spanky.


  1. Nice tribute! Spanky's a great trumpeter and also a great friend to BK and BG.

  2. A beautiful post -- a tribute to music and friendship and the friendships that grow out of music. And to your attachment to that Brooklyn Girl, too. But, Kid, you have to come down to The Ear Inn. The way it spozed to be, the way it was in days gone by, is still with us. I unashamedly offer this plug for 326 Spring Street on Sunday nights. And hope to see you and BG there someday, someday. Admiringly yours!

  3. The ear has it, indeed a beautiful post, and holy cats that clip!

    I first heard Spanky Davis on Vince Giordano's "Challis Project" album when I was in high school. When I showed one of my music teachers at Murrow the liner notes, he mentioned playing with Spanky and my awe was palpable. Thanks so much for sharing the music and the memories of my home borough.