Memories of Fats

Hard to believe it, but it really is that long. In the late 40s, I was at the end of my teens, entering my 20s. Back then I was still living in Chicago, finishing college at the U. of Ill, down at Champaign-Urbana, IL.

I am a pianist, and of course was running with the crowd of young Chicago beboppers, in those days. (Now, since I've lived in NYC since the mid 60s, I run with the NY beboppers!)

Now, we come to the part that I was at first hesitant to tell you, but it is so long ago that it really doesn't matter that much any more. Back in those days, I was a dope fiend (as we used to self-deprecatingly call it). Thankfully, that part of my life has been over for such a long time that I can share it when it is germane, like in this story.

In and around my college years I would come to the apple during my Christmas vacations, to immerse myself in 52nd street and all the other incredible sounds that were all over the place in those days. As an example: there was a club called The Clique - which a few weeks after one of my NY trips became the world famous Birdland. But at this particular time, The Clique had a fair-to-middlin' show that week: three acts, namely: 1) The George Shearing Quintet; 2) Sarah Vaughn; and 3) an all-star band comprised of co-leaders Miles and Fats, Bags, Lucky Thompson, Bud, Oscar Pettiford, and I can't remember who was playing drums. As I list these names, it seems to me like a dream - but I assure you it wasn't.

After a particular set, I went around the corner on 52nd to the stage entrance of the club. In a few moments, Fats appeared for a breath of fresh December air, and a smoke. I told him how he had played his ass off on that set, and he did the standard looking-down-and-shuffling-his-feet bit and said, "Aw, I didn't play shit." I'll never forget that. That's the end of that particular recollection.

This second memory - I don't remember if it happened a few days before or after the above paragraph. I am pretty sure, though, that it happened first. I had just gotten to NYC, and was rather desperate to cop some drugs. (I assume you know what was everyone's drug "of choice" -- "of necessity" would be a better phrase -- in those days.) Anyway, I remember, I was walking north, on Broadway, and somewhere in the west 50's I ran into Jimmy Raney, who I hadn't seen since he left Chicago around a year earlier for a brief gig with Woody - and then he took up residence in NYC. I told Jimmy my plight, and he told me Fats would/could score for me. I went up to Fats' place (scared the hell out of me, it was in Spanish Harlem, around 113th and Lex) - don't remember if I phoned first. I told him Raney had given me his name/address. I remember the pad was a shambles, he was laying in a totally mussed up bed, with a young white gal named Rena sitting near the side of the bed. To make a long story short, he didn't have anything to give me or sell me but he did tell me where I could go and they would sell to me.

It was a darkish alleyway, around the corner from Fats, between two buildings. A land-office street drug dealing operation was going on. I stated what I wanted, I put money into his hands; he darted into the darkness - and while I wondered would I ever see him again, he returned - in about 20 seconds!

That was around 6 p.m. That night I went to a concert by Dizzy and his big band, at Carnegie Hall.

Perhaps, at the top of this post I should have put "READER DISCRETION ADVISED". And, as I re-read it, I can't even explain why I divulged it. But I figure that anyone who would put up a Fats site can't be all bad.
Name withheld at the author's request


Leif Bo Petersen has provided the following likely dates for the above described incidents.

Concerning the date of the last incident, I think it must have been December 24, 1948, because that night The Dizzy Gillespie Bigband was playing at a concert in Carnegie Hall under the heading Stars of Modern Jazz arranged by Symphony Sid Torin, Monte Kay and Leonard Feather. The concert incidentally was recorded by the Voice of America Radio.

Concerning the Clique-story: The band, Oscar Pettiford All Stars, comprising Fats Navarro (tp), Kai Winding (tb), Lucky Thompson (ts), Milt Jackson (vib), Bud Powell (p), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Kenny Clarke (dr) played at the Clique from about December 28, 1948 until January 24, 1949. Miles Davis officially joined the band January 5 after having left Parker (he played with Parker at the Roost until December 23, which was the night he ran screaming from the stand) (K. Vail: Miles' Diary, 1996, p. 20), but he may have been sitting in the band before that date. The engagement seems to have been a rather chaotic one, because everybody in the band felt himself as a leader. The band eventually was fired because there was trouble with everybody coming back to the stand after breaks (M. Hennessey: Klook, 1990, pp. 75). The engagement is also mentioned by I. Gitler (Jazz Masters of the forties, 1966, p.115). Here he refers to an incident where Bud Powell after a solo leaves the stand loudly applauding himself.