Remembering Billy Mitchell
Joe Avella remembers Billy
I guess it was around nineteen sixty-five. I could hardly contain my excitement when as an undergraduate at the Hillcrest Campus of St. John’s University I read the flyer that the Student Council was sponsoring a live jazz concert featuring the incomparable Doc Severinsen. I had been a Doc Severinsen fan since his days as a sideman on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.” Paar, who had heard Doc play “Granada” in rehearsal, was so impressed that he asked him to perform it on that night’s show. It was the first time I ever heard Doc and I knew that I, too, would some day play the trumpet. I always loved the sound of the instrument but it was Doc who would set me on the road to becoming a trumpet player—or so I thought at the time.
Yes, Doc started me on my journey to jazz…or what I thought was jazz. It was from listening to Doc’s recordings that I began my appreciation of big band jazz. Actually, swing would have been more exact, and from my enjoyment of his albums I began to listen to other big bands and to other trumpet players, trumpet players whose recordings were more grounded in jazz than Doc’s more commercial recordings. Not to knock Doc because I heard him play jazz and he played it beautifully, but my journey to jazz had commenced, and I was at that point in every college student’s life where I realized that if I were to grow intellectually and spiritually, I would have to sample new experiences and this concert would be my first exposure to live jazz.
Disappointment at St. John’s
Eager to hear Doc and perhaps speak to him in person for a few minutes, I was the third person to arrive at the Brooklyn Campus on Boerum Place. I was preceded by a gentleman in a tuxedo and his son who was about twelve years old at the time. “Hi,” he said, extending his hand to shake mine, “I’m Chubby Jackson and this is my son Macduff.” I had seen Chubby on television but did not recognize him at first because he was no longer really “chubby”. He mentioned he was waiting for the other “guys” to show up and asked me how long I had been listening to jazz. I explained that I was new to the music and that I wanted to learn more about it because I enjoyed what I had been listening to on records. Chubby, like almost every jazz musician I have met since that night, seemed genuinely happy that his music was reaching a new audience. We spoke for quite a while and he explained what he and the other musicians were hoping to do which was really to introduce their young audience to different styles of jazz featuring some truly outstanding players.
It was at this point that I told Chubby about how enthusiastically I was looking forward to hearing Doc Severinsen, mentioning that he was my favorite trumpet player. “Well,” intoned Chubby somewhat sympathetically, “ unfortunately, Doc is unable to make the gig tonight but we’re going to have a tenor sax player who will knock your socks off…one of the best you’ll ever hear.”
I was crushed but good manners prevented me from showing my true feelings. “What a rip-off!” I said to myself. “Like I came all the way over here to hear a saxophone player. I hate the saxophone.” I was already planning how I would make my gracious but hasty exit after the first set. I came to hear Doc Severinsen and now I’m going to hear of couple of trumpet players nobody ever heard of…Johnny Glasel and Dud Bascomb. Big deal.”
My ears were opened
Well these “stiffs” were only into the first few measures of the first selection in their first set when three separate realities set in: First, I was not going anyplace until the last note of the last selection of the last set was played; second, these men were anything but “stiffs”; lastly, and most importantly, I didn’t know “diddly” about superb musicianship and artistry and that I had better step down off my high horse and stop judging people based upon the vast knowledge I had accumulated in my trivial nineteen years of existence. Suddenly, I began getting curious about this tenor sax player that Chubby was hyping so much.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, at this point I would like to introduce a musician who has played with Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie and is one of the greatest exponents of the tenor saxophone playing today. You are truly in for a treat because he is a phenomenal artist. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Billy Mitchell.”
Billy walks on
He strode upon the stage a Black Adonis in a midnight blue tuxedo. Tall, lean, proud, self-assured, almost aloof, a golden saxophone in his hands, and as he began to pour out the most magical lines I knew in that moment in spite of my immature nineteen year-old mind that had dismissed him as “just another sax player” I was in the presence of genius.
I sat in amazement at the incredible mastery of his instrument and the wedding of musicianship, taste, and the inner soul of the man who stood before us and transfixed all of us, his fellow musicians included as he continued to work his special magic.
I never did become another Doc Severinsen. I played the horn for my own enjoyment on and off for many years and I would not see Billy Mitchell perform live for more than thirty years.
Life has its own mysteries and takes us down some curious pathways. I graduated from St. John’s University and became a high school teacher spending just short of twenty years teaching English as a second language at John Jay High School in Brooklyn. During that time, I would fall in love, marry, have two children and move to Oceanside, Long Island.
Never did I know that Billy Mitchell lived a few minutes away. Nor did I know that he had a regular gig at a magical kingdom called “Sonny’s Place” on Merrick Road in Seaford. I had other things to occupy my mind. I had decided to change careers and was trying to find a way to study law at night, teach during the day and be a husband and father in between the two.
I would eventually earn my law degree, pass the Bar exam, leave teaching and begin my new career as a practicing attorney. Eventually I would go into partnership with an esteemed colleague, Victor John Yannacone Jr. one of the nation’s best-known litigators.
Victor, as those who know him will attest, is the true Renaissance man. Possessed of incredible intellect and a voracious appetite for knowledge, he is also an accomplished musician. In fact, Victor helped pay his way through college and law school as a working musician. Although Victor will be the first to admit he can’t improvise worth a dime as a baritone saxophonist; but as an attorney, he is quite adept at the art, and he can read any chart that has been written and is an excellent section man. Good enough to have been invited to play with Billy Mitchell and the Basie Alumni All Stars. In fact, it is as a saxophonist that his friendship with Billy took root. He also became Billy’s attorney. Oh, yes…Vic also worked another job in college…as a recording engineer.
And so it was many years later in my life when my new law partner, who was aware of my love of music, asked me if I liked jazz. When I answered affirmatively, he asked me if I wanted to join him at “Sonny’s Place” because he was going, as he did every Wednesday, to record his friend. “Who?” I asked. “Billy Mitchell,” he answered. “Billy Mitchell as in Billy Mitchell the Tenor Sax Billy Mitchell?” Victor smiled his famous “Poppa Smurf” smile. “The one and only,” he laughed. “You know Billy Mitchell?” I asked incredulously. “Only about thirty-five years. How do you know him?” asked Victor. “I guess you can say that Billy is my jazz “godfather” I exclaimed with a devilish gleam in my eye. “Splain!” countered Vic in his best Ricky Ricardo Spanglish. “Tonight, when I meet Billy!” I retorted.
Catching up with Billy
Later that evening I entered the hallowed monument to live jazz on Long Island that was “Sonny’s Place” and after being overwhelmed by the living museum atmosphere, I was further overwhelmed by one of Mother Nature’s other natural phenomena: Bobbie, the irrepressible waitress-al-factotum and grande dame par excellence of jazz pubs.
I was helping Vic with the placement of the microphones when a couple entered. “Hey, Tubby” growled a tall, lean handsome black man with gleaming white hair. “Mr. Mitchell” answered Victor as the man walked over to the far table, opened up his case, put together his horn and began to warm up.
“Marge, this is my new partner, Joe Avella. Joe, this is Marge Mitchell.” It only took a couple of seconds to know that Marge and I would be friends forever. Then again, special people like Marge Mitchell have that capacity. “And this is the legendary Billy Mitchell. Billy, this is my new law partner, Joe.”
“Hey, Giuseppe, pleased to meet you,” he said in his inimitable gravel voice as he extended his hand and conferred what would be my new appellation in his lexicon. Sonny was always “Goldberg”, my partner Victor was always “Tubby”, bald saxophonist Bobby Ragona was always “Curly” and, when I wasn’t “Joe”, I would be “Giuseppe”.
I shook Billy’s hand and then said, “Actually we met a long time ago…when we both had black hair.” While I couldn’t rival Billy for musical talent, I could give him competition for the brightness of our locks. So could my partner Vic which is why, one night while standing under a street light outside of “Sonny’s Place” with our white hair glowing and resplendant in our blue pinstripe suits, (and being, then, on the portly side shall we say) Billy felt constrained to make the observation that we looked like “two bales of cotton with the middle band missing!”
Recalling that night at St. John’s
Anyway, what I had said sparked B’s curiosity. “You were the special guest soloist at the very first live jazz concert I ever heard. I guess you can say that you kind of baptized me… sort of my jazz godfather.”
I then explained about the circumstances of the jazz concert at St. John’s University and as soon as I mentioned Chubby Jackson’s name, Billy said something that touched my soul forever and taught me the true worth of the man and the artist.
For me, my first jazz concert was something that would naturally stand out in my mind. For Billy Mitchell, it had to be one of thousands of gigs he had played in sixty years as a professional musician. “I remember that gig. It was the only time I had played with Chubby although I’ve played quite a few with his son Duffy. That was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever had. The guys played magnificently: Marty Napoleon, Dud Bascomb, Denzell Best…”
I couldn’t believe it. This concert was over thirty years earlier. How could he have remembered this one night when he had played so many others? It was then that I understood Billy’s love for his art, for his music and that these fellow musicians, the musicians that my immature mind was ready to dismiss because of what I later realized was my own ignorance had earned his respect for the greatness of their playing.
My love for Billy Mitchell’s artistry was born the very first night I heard him play at the St. John’s Concert. It was renewed that night at “Sonny’s Place” when I heard him playing live again for the first time in three decades.
Billy the man
My love for Billy Mitchell the man was born that night. Billy Mitchell, that man who seemed so aloof, so distant, almost defiant conferred upon me that night one of the most treasured gifts I have known in my fifty-seven years of life: the honor of his friendship.
Over the years I would see that what I thought of in my youth as aloofness, distance, defiance was simply Billy focusing on one of the great loves of his life, music.
As our friendship endured and so did my musical education. How lucky was I to listen to one of the great musicians of our time on a weekly basis teaching me about jazz appreciation through his incredible artistry and the artistry of some of the greats players who came to his gigs so they could commune. Artists like Frank Wess, Bill Easley, Wes Belkamp, Joe Ascione; the list goes on and on. After about three months of recording Billy, I took my trumpet out of the case and started to play it.
Later, during one of the breaks, when Billy was alone, I mentioned that he had inspired me to pick up the horn again. I asked him if he could recommend someone who could teach me, and introduced me to Dave Burns, one of the greatest jazz trumpet players ever to blow a horn. “Dave will teach you to play, and he’ll teach you to play jazz.”
Every once in a while he would inquire as to how I was doing and when I was going to bring the horn down to “Sonny’s” to play. I told him in “about a hundred years but by then I’ll be ready.”
Billy the teacher
I remember one time asking him about practicing and he gave me two rules. Later, when I decided to leave the practice of law to return to my first love, which was teaching, I would incorporate what I called “The Billy Rules” into my lessons.
Billy’s first rule: When you pick up your exercise book, before you play a single note, ask yourself what is the exercise designed to do. If you don’t understand the basic concept of why you are doing the drill, just doing it was wasting your time.
Billy’s second rule: If you can play the exercise real fast, go back again and play it real slow because chances are, you f——-d it up!” Naturally, I cleaned the rules up a little bit for my students. This was one of “B’s” favorite expressions.
Once when Vic was occupied with an important legal matter, he asked me to tape Billy. Usually Vic would place the microphones and do the actual recording while I listed the song titles, personnel and timings. This night I had to do it on my own. When I told Billy that his fate that night was in my hands, he observed my anxiety, and to put me at ease, told me “Don’t worry, Giuseppe, I have every confidence (and as my chest expanded with pride, his smile increased in equal proportion) that you will F—k it up!” at which point he exploded in laughter. When I saw him the following week, I informed him that the recording turned out very well; he smiled and said, “I never doubted it!”
Billy had that way about him. With young musicians he was a stern taskmaster but they knew that they were learning from a master.
Billy the professional
He was ever the consummate professional. His gig started at 8pm sharp. He had a dress code. He also had a responsibility to his audience. I saw him play more than once to an audience of one or two people because they showed up in the snow or at holiday time.
The audience never remained at one or two because he consistently filled the room on the strength of his playing. He was a strong believer in protocol. You just didn’t come up to the stage and play. You had to pay your dues. If you were young, you had to sit and wait. In the end, however, if you went along with the program, you were invited to play. Nothing gave him greater joy than to see young musicians grow and he always gave them an opportunity to shine.
He had great fondness for his “sons”— great young players like Andy Farber, Carl Fisher, Talib Kibwe, Andrew Williams, Sherman Irby, Ehud Guy, Dennis Wilson, and a long list of others.
These were wonderful times, these nights of musical titans, young lions and old lions coming together to talk to each other both musically and verbally. Yes, talking to each other. This was Billy’s basic tenet of jazz. Jazz was a conversation.
He once remarked that he spent half of his musical life “learning to play all the notes and the other half learning which notes to leave out.” He taught me that excess is not important, “Saying something is. Even a cat can run across the piano and hit all the keys. Listen to Wes [Belkamp] when he plays…he’s always saying something.”
Another time he advised me that “technical perfection is much less important than feeling. You are an artist and the instrument is like your palette. You mix the colors and put your feeling into creating something worthwhile. To do that, you have to feel something.”
Yes, they were great times. I still recall walking into “Sonny’s” usually carrying some kind of food…pizza, cold cuts…whatever the muse inspired and hearing “B” intone after his solo, “I smell food…Giuseppe must have walked in!”
Actually, I finally did gain some fame at “Sonny’s Place”. The last year of its existence, Victor and I supplied the 6’ hero sandwiches and salads to celebrate Sonny’s birthday and Billy’s as well. I was the guy who sliced the salami! I even got a round of applause… even sultry songstress Susan Turner complemented me on my surgical expertise! Susan was another of the “Sonny’s Place” legends of which there were many. She can sing the hell out of anything.
The last days at Sonny’s Place
But good times cannot last forever. Sonny Meyerowitz, the founder of “Sonny’s Place” was diagnosed with cancer. Faced with a poor prognosis and struggling to keep Long Island’s last oasis of pure jazz afloat he fought the good fight, as did Billy.
It was Sonny, Billy and Dave Burns who pretty much established the club, first at the “Steer Inn” in Roosevelt and then later, in Seaford with the name that became the epitome of live jazz.
Marge always drove Billy to his gig because of his failing eyesight. When she could no longer drive him, I would take him to the club. He never failed to perform his best but it was obvious that he knew this way of life that he loved was coming to an end. Sonny was dying, Marge was dying. Efforts to keep the club viable were unsuccessful and Billy himself was in declining health.
Musical tastes had changed and the economics necessary to the survival of their dream could not be achieved. Not too long after the club closed its doors for the last time, Billy’s other great love in life, his adored Margie passed away from cancer.
Plagued by diabetic neuropathy, he could no longer command his hands to span the keys necessary for certain fingerings. Hobbled by the loss of a toe as a result of a bee sting by a killer bee many years earlier in Italy (“I sent that motherf——-r back to our ancestors in Africa!”) and advancing arthritis and loss of balance which seems to accompany old age Billy knew his playing days were at an end. He simply was too fine a musician and was too proud of his reputation to play second-rate saxophone. He confided in me that “I spent 60 years of my life playing with the greatest musicians and singers who ever lived. That’s good enough for me.”
Billy and I grew closer on those trips back to his house after the gigs. Usually I would have a CD or a tape playing in the car and he loved the Arturo Sandoval’s send-up to Clifford Brown. He had met Arturo and was very fond of him as an artist and as a man. He attended one of Sandoval’s performances when Arturo introduced him to the audience. “You know when a fellow musician is playing to you,” he reminisced fondly, “it’s the highest form of respect.”
When the selection “I Remember Clifford” played, he recounted to me how he was standing next to Benny Golson when they both heard of the fatal accident and how Golson composed the piece that very night. He would ask about my trumpet playing. “I’m having fun but I’m not ready for Sonny’s Place yet.” He laughed. “You’d better start woodsheddin’ real fast, paisano.”
Billy, my friend
Yet it was Billy who lifted my spirits the only time he heard me play. It was the tenth anniversary of my father’s passing. I had asked a friend of mine, a magnificent heldentenor, Robert Donaldson, to perform a memorial concert in honor of my dad. Billy and Marge were among the audience and had honored my family with their presence, as did Dave Burns.
I had wanted to play something for my father and to open the program I performed the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo et Eurydice. Unfortunately, the emotion of seeing so many people in the church honoring my father’s memory was too much and not being a professional musician trained to play before a large audience did not help.
When I tried to firm my diaphragm, it shook. When I placed the mouthpiece on my lips, my cheeks were shaking. Without the ability to control my embouchure, the solo was disastrous. Luckily, the church was filled with relatives and friends and I explained that it had been a while since I played the horn but that it was important to me to perform for my dad. They gave me a charitable round of applause for effort. Thank goodness for Robert Donaldson’s magnificent voice, which made them all forget my performance, but deep down, I was saddened too, because for once I wanted to play for Billy.
After the concert when Billy and Marge came to say goodbye, I turned to Billy and said, “Sorry, B, I wanted to play for you for a change, but I was just too nervous and I blew it!” Billy, the great Billy Mitchell, put his arm around me, smiled and said, “Giuseppe, we all have those days!”
Sonny’s Place eventually closed. Billy played the last gig. When he and Marge left, I put my arms around him, kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for the gift of his music. It was the last time he ever played the saxophone.
The last months
Some time later, Billy lost his beloved Marge and shortly after that his daughter was killed in an automobile accident. I tried to visit him as much as I could, which was never enough but he always thanked me for the visit just as he always thanked me for bringing him back and forth to the club. “I really appreciate it, Giuseppe.” “Well, I guess you must be important, because it isn’t every saxophonist who has an attorney for a chauffeur!” It was always good to hear that rumbling “Heh heh heh”.
Marge’s death took a great deal from Billy’s life in a way I too would come to understand. Not too long after Marge passed on, I was sitting in the kitchen in the new home my wife and I had just moved into a few days earlier. I opened up the newspaper and read that Sonny Meyerowitz had died. I called Billy and Dave Burns and we commiserated with each other.
In less than two weeks time I would lose my own wife. I would hear from Billy. He tried to pull me through this unexpected tragedy. I would visit Billy from time to time and on one of my last visits, we talked about our losses. He asked about how my children were doing. My son Doug used to love to answer the phone when B called, “Hey, young Blood, is that white-haired relic of an old man of yours home?”
Billy shared my pain and said, “Do you know what the worst part is? It’s when someone says something or you see something on TV and you want to turn to your wife and say, ‘Do you believe that?’ only to realize that the one you always turned to even for the most insignificant things doesn’t answer.” B hit it on the head, it is not simply the loneliness, it is the immensity of the loneliness of being half of what was once a loving couple.
The final days
In March of 2002, Dave Burns called me with the tragic news that Billy had lung cancer and was expected to live only a few more weeks. I called Vic Yannacone to see if there was anything we needed to do for him but Vic had already taken care of everything.
I drove over to see Billy for what would be the last time. We spoke briefly. He was frightened and didn’t want to suffer the way Marge had. Our eyes spoke the words our voices couldn’t enunciate. I took Billy’s face in my hands. We kissed each other. “ I love you, ‘B’”, I said, fighting back tears that had come too often to my eyes that past year and a half. He held my hands. His voice broke as he said, “I love you too, Giuseppe!”
Billy left us on April 18, 2002. Vic and I helped plan a memorial concert featuring the many great artists who played with this jazz giant. I will not be one of them. I haven’t picked up the horn but one time since my great loss and I am still a hundred years from playing in such exhalted company. But I will pick up my horn and I will play the trumpet again. And, one day, it may be on the banks of the Delaware where I love to go fly fishing, or on the balcony of my home in Puerto Rico, but one day I am going to play one for Billy. I’m going to play one and I’m going to improvise…with feeling. I know he’ll hear it and I know he’ll be pleased. That’s a promise, B. And you know Giuseppe always keeps his promises.