Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass

I owe a debt I can never repay to the community of African-American musicians who had settled in the Los Angeles area years ago. They invited me to play with them, and though I was very young and inexperienced, they treated me as a peer. Without letting me know they were doing it, they were showing me how to play their special brand of jazz; a way of playing music that is, sadly, largely unknown and seldom heard today.

Most were from New Orleans and its environs. Those musicians and their families came out west in the decades after Kid Ory and King Oliver both brought bands to California in the early 1920s. When they each finally made it back to New Orleans, the Kid and the King must have raved about the Pacific Ocean, the temperate coastal weather, and the countless fragrant orange groves that were in abundance back then.

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
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Another lure was the bounty of work to be found both in the burgeoning film studios in and around Hollywood, and in the myriad night clubs, bars, restaurants, and dance halls springing up to cater to those working in the fledgling movie industry. Not the least, the racial climate in Los Angeles and Hollywood, while still unjust, must have been more appealing than that which blacks faced in the Deep South in those years; by 1925, the Civil War had ended only six decades before.

A man who had a huge impact on me both musically and personally— whom I met during those formative years in southern California—was, however, not a New Orleanian. He was born in Port Arthur, Texas on November 30, 1914, and before his passing in Los Angeles on December 1, 1999, he but came to be associated with one of the other towns so important to the roots of jazz: Kansas City. His name was Bill Hadnott.

Bill was one of the best, busiest, and most-loved bassists in the swirling jazz scene that was early Kansas City. He played with pianist Bill Basie long before that piano man became a Count, and worked with just about every jazz legend you ever heard about, including: pianists Basie, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann; trumpeters Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison and Buck Clayton; tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young; the bebop legend, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (and Parker’s early mentor, Buster Smith); and the two greatest blues shouters of them all, Little Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner.

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
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In 1940, Bill Hadnott recorded for RCA Victor with a ground-breaking big band from Kaycee: Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. He later made many sides with the singing—and swinging—pianists/vocalists, Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher. He also worked and recorded with Louis Jordan. Those were all terrific jazz recordings, and also quite successful commercially. This would have been enough for any respectable bass player’s resume, but Bill earned a place in jazz history with his witty, unexpected solo on “Oh, Lady Be Good,” recorded “live” with an early edition of “Jazz at the Philharmonic.”

The first time I heard that recording, it was late at night, on the radio in my long-gone ’66 Mustang. I was driving home from a gig in LA, and I’d tuned in to a late–night jazz show a friend of mine hosted back then. (Back in the day, you could actually hear real jazz once in a while on the radio; even on jazz shows!)

I’d been working regularly with Bill, and nearly drove off the road when I heard the DJ announce “Billy Hadnott” right after Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and Charlie Parker! I didn’t know he’d played with those guys! A few nights later, over a couple beers, I asked Bill about his solo on that historic recording.

Bill laughed gently, and pushed up his glasses like he always did. He said, “Bird”—(that’s alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s nickname, for all you fans of Shep Fields’ Rippling Rhythm)—“was late for the ‘Jazz at the Phil’ concert, and he walked in a little after the band began playing “Lady Be Good.” He made that famous “dramatic” entrance (you could hear the quotation marks as Bill said it), blowing as he walked out from backstage, up to the microphone. The audience just flipped! Bird played two choruses. He was swinging, man! In fact, Bird’s solo was so great that no one wanted to follow him!”

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
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Bill took a cautious sip of beer and continued.

“Well, nobody came in after Bird, see, so…I took it! I guess that surprised everybody, ‘cause on the recording, you can hear the band and the audience laugh a little bit, and somebody says, ‘Yeah, Bill!’ I guess it turned out all right, and I was happy to finally have a solo on a recording. In those days, the bass players—well, man, they hardly ever got to play any solos!”

Parker fought heroin addiction for most of his too-brief adult life, and was in the state hospital at Camarillo trying to straighten out when Bill married a special woman named Gwen. Not long after that, Parker was released. Parker’s home was in New York City, but there he was in southern California, with no place to go. He called his old friend from his Kansas City days: Bill Hadnott.

“So, Gwen and I took him in. Poor Charlie,” Bill said, he smiled, and looked down at the floor as he shook his head. “See, we all thought he was cured. But, that ‘smack’—man, that’s a tough thing to kick! Charlie would take to spending longer and longer in our bathroom. Gwen and me, we were just starting out. We had just a small house back then, and only the one bathroom. Over and over again, Gwen would want to get in there, you know, and Bird would be camped out in there. I knew what he was doing, but Gwen—she didn’t know about dope or smack or any of that. She was sweet, and kind of innocent, you know?”

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
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Bill again chuckled gently, and said, “I’d tell her the food at the Camarillo hospital had messed up Charlie’s bowels, and he’d be all right in a few days. Then when Gwen wasn’t around, I’d try to talk with Charlie about really tryin’ to kick the habit again. It didn’t do no good, though, and those sessions in the bathroom would turn into hours. A couple times, he passed out—you know, ‘nodded off’—in there! It got to be too much, and when I finally tol’ Gwen what was really goin’ on, we both decided it was time for Bird to find another place to stay. I think he went back to New York soon after. I’m just sorry I couldn’t help him more, but then, nobody could. He was a real nice guy, though; real friendly, and polite; real nice guy, and ooh-wee! What a player!”

Back in the mid-’70s, Bill and I worked together for quite a while, three nights a week at a small club in Toluca Lake, California. The place was owned by an affable French named Paul, and it was known as “Paul’s Le Petit Montmartre.” The trio was led by pianist Kenny Watts, who was on the scene in New York City in the 1940s, and recorded back then with a small group he led whose name I’ve always loved: “Kenny Watts and the Kilowatts.”

Paul’s place served good food and drinks, and was right in the neighborhood of the major motion picture studios. Bona fide celebrities would often come in for dinner and/or drinks. I recall James Garner quietly having drinks with a friend, listening to the music. The great composer and arranger Neal Hefti would drop in, and stand at the bar in the adjoining room in an ultra-loud Madras plaid sports jacket, sipping something cold. The great big band vocalist Bea Wain—who had sung and recorded with Larry Clinton’s band—came in one night, and sang a few tunes with us. She looked and sounded just beautiful, and was very gracious.

One time Benny Goodman was in town, and stopped in. After staying for a couple of sets, he was kind enough to compliment the twenty-four-year-old trombone player on his way out. Neither of us had any idea the young trombonist would be playing in his last band about ten years later.

Le Petit Montmartre featured what was known as a “piano bar.” The club’s regular long bar was in one room, staffed by a couple of bartenders. Bill, Kenny, and I performed in the adjacent room, at the piano bar. Kenny was seated at a low-profile upright piano–facing the customers–with Bill and I seated just behind and to the right of him, respectively. Bill plucked his bass as he perched on a bar stool in the corner, and I sat in a low chair beside Kenny’s right hand.

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
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The narrow “piano bar” was wrapped around three sides of the piano, with padded Naugahyde around its edge for all those bent elbows. Several lucky bar patrons would get to sit there, lean on the bar’s padded Naugahyde border, and sip their drinks. They would exchange wisecracks with Kenny, and occasionally drop a fiver or a ten-spot into the giant brandy snifter—which served as our “kitty”—resting atop the piano. You don’t see piano bars too often anymore. That kind of intimate musical performance is all but lost. It would seem people now prefer their music performed on a giant stage with the musicians dancing around, and lots of amplification. Sigh.

Well, there I was with my trombone, seated just to Kenny’s right, and in front of Bill. I was listening to one of Kenny’s epigrammatic solos. Bill was playing his bass, backing Kenny up. Then Bill suddenly said, “Hey, Danny!”
I turned to look up at him. Kenny bore down harder into his solo.

“You drivin’ home tonight?” Bill asked me.

Kenny looked around. Bill’s talking was obviously bothering him. Bill didn’t seem to care.
I just nodded to Bill.

“How long’s it take you to drive that far?” Bill was still swinging; hadn’t missed a note. Kenny rolled his eyes up at the ceiling.

I said, very softly, “About an hour and twenty minutes, door to door.”

“Well, when we take a break—if we EVER take a break—” Bill directed this at Kenny’s back, and I saw Kenny actually flinch—“you call your parents an’ tell ’em you’re coming home with me. I’ll let Gwen know. You can stay in our son’s room. He’s away to college.”

All this time, the bar patrons seated at Kenny’s upholstered piano bar seemed oblivious to Bill’s monologue. They were all digging Kenny’s solo!

We finished the tune, and Kenny jumped up, smiled at his groupies, and hurried toward the long bar in the adjoining room. I went to the pay phone (remember those?), dug out some coins, and called my parents. I told them Bill had invited me to stay with him that night and the following night, and that I would be home after the gig on Saturday night. They said to tell Bill “Hi,” and to thank him and his wife. I did.

During that halcyon summer, I divided the week between my parents’ home in Costa Mesa, and staying with Bill and Gwen Hadnott in Inglewood. On Thursday nights, I’d drive up from Costa Mesa to Paul’s Le Petit Montmartre. Thursdays and Fridays, I’d leave my Mustang in the restaurant parking lot, and ride home with Bill. I’d drive home Saturday nights, after the gig.

I’ll never forget the kindness the Hadnotts showed me during that impressionable time in my life. I remember their living room furniture, covered in custom-made, transparent plastic protectors. I remember the two large framed and matted black and white photos, prominently displayed on one wall. They were of the same size, and were of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, displayed side by side.

I remember their son’s spotless bedroom, and how nice and comfortable it was. I also remember a fun afternoon sitting on the couch with Bill in front of his old color TV set, watching the World Series game in which rookie Dodgers pitcher Bob Welch struck out veteran Reggie Jackson, who was playing for the Oakland A’s. Bottom of the ninth; two out. Bases loaded. Classic! Welch struck Jackson out, and won the game for the Dodgers. Very dramatic! We both had on our baseball caps, sipped cold beer, and had a great time.

Another night, back at the club, Kenny was playing yet another swinging solo. I’m sure I was smiling as I listened to Kenny, with Bill’s big Kansas City-styled bass swinging so solidly under him.

Then Bill says, “Hey, Danny, what ’you doin’ after this?” I got a little edgy. We already knew Kenny usually got hacked if we talked during his solos. I just shook my head, to let Bill know I’d talk to him later. But Bill laughed, and while still playing great, swinging bass, he said, “C’mon, man, where you goin’ tonight? You got a date or anything?” Bill laughed again.

Kenny put his head down, and started to play a little harder. His lips were compressed. Oh, man…

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
Dan Barrett, Big Joe Turner, and Bill Hadnott

Now I had to come in, to play the last chorus. I remember trying to play, with Bill telling me, as though we’re back on his couch having a beer, “Look, a friend of mine is playing ’lectric piano at a surprise party for a cat over to Watts, who’s retirin’ from the POST Office, see?” I nodded, with the trombone in my mouth. The slide wiggled up and down. This was some conversation! Now, instead of being angry, Kenny started laughing, but just a little bit.

Bill continued, bent over toward me so as to bug Kenny just a little less. “So, what say we go over there an’ sit in? He don’t have a bass player, so I said I’d play for him. C’mon, go wit’ me, man!” Bill straightened up and began laying into the bass.

I nodded again, and played a little tag to end the tune. Kenny played a couple of chime chords and turned around and laughed at us. “You guys,” he said. “You two cats talk more’n Heckle ’n’ Jeckle, man, an’ they talk a whole damn lot, too!”

And I hadn’t said a word!

By this time, the little group of customers clustered around the piano bar was all laughing with us, too. “What the heck,” I said to Bill. “Sure, I’ll go!”

So, after the gig, we got into Bill’s huge yellow Chrysler Imperial. His bass just fit in the trunk. That was some trunk! I put my trombone case on the backseat. Bill reached in back, and came up with a loosely-woven, dark brown wool tam-o’-shanter, with a great big fluffy yellow ball on the top. YOU might have told him he looked kind of silly in it, but I’ll be damned if I was going to.

We drove off, and something he said caused me to start in my seat. “Hey, Bill—did you say Watts? As in, Watts where those riots were back in the ’60s?”

Bill angled the Chrysler around a corner with not much more effort than bringing around the Ile de France. He glanced over at me, and said, “Yeah, Danny, but you don’t have to worry ’bout none o’ that. You with me, man. Ain’t gonna be no trouble. Nothin’ but good people. You’ll see…”

We found the house, passed it, and finally found an empty dry-dock for Bill’s car. We had a little walk back up the street, but we could already hear the party. It sounded like a good one. Lots of loud chatter and laughter. There were bright Christmas lights of many colors strung around the high fence around the backyard, and I could hear a pretty hip version of “The Work Song” being played on an electric piano. There was a good drummer, but they could use a bass. They’d be glad to see Bill, no doubt.

Well, we walked in—this very dark, older guy wearing a goofy tam-o’-shanter, carrying a string bass, and a skinny white kid with bushy black hair, aviator-styled glasses, gripping a trombone case—and you’d think we were two pop stars. A crowd surrounded Bill, clapping him on the back, and wanting him to drop everything and get a few pounds of food and a keg of beer. I too was warmly welcomed, and a dozen people offered to carry my case the nine or ten feet to the little band area. There were perhaps fifty people in the modest backyard, many sitting at wooden benches, and others standing about, balancing paper plates and drinks. Most of the people were older. All were black, save one white couple I saw seated at a table near the middle.

Bill Hadnott: Kansas City Bass
Bill Hadnot

We put our instruments down, and Bill set about introducing me to everyone he could. The musicians stopped, and walked over. They couldn’t stop smiling. “Bill, Bill—man, so good to see you, baby! Thanks so much for coming over tonight. Who’s your skinny little buddy, ha, ha!”

Bill introduced me to those guys, too. We were again encouraged to get some food, and something to drink; so we did! I looked at my watch; it was two in the morning, and the party was just warming up! I was making my way through some awfully good barbecued ribs, and I suddenly heard spoons being clinked gently against glasses.

Everyone quieted down.

An elderly man in a blue Cardigan post office sweater, a plain white shirt, and dark slacks stood up. His hair was close-cropped, and mostly gray. He wore gold wire-rimmed glasses, bright against his chocolate-brown skin. He just shook his head, and looked at the ground. He’d raise his head to speak, but seemed overcome by emotion, and would just put his head back down, and shake it from side to side. His wife came up beside him, and rubbed his shoulder with one hand. He looked at her, and out at us. He cleared his throat. I can’t remember word for word what he said, but it went something like this:

“Y’all know, this is some surprise to me. Some surprise. Some kind of surprise, all right.” He looked over at his wife, who beamed at him. You could feel her love all over him. It was tangible. Everyone was quiet now.

He looked out at the tableau of his closest friends, some seated in front of him, and others standing to the side, and said, “I been workin’ for a long time, man.”

Someone shouted, “Tha’s for sure, baby!” The crowd laughed, and murmured in agreement.
“But y’know, it ain’t—it ain’t ever seemed to me like work. Now, listen to me, please. I got this house, an’ I put my boy and girl through college…”

Murmurs of “yes you did, uh-huh…”

“An’ I got a nice car, and good benefits, an’—an’ Sylvia an’ me, we been on some nice vacations…seen lots of beautiful places…” He looked over at her.

Sylvia nodded, still beaming.

“Well, I mean—at the beginning, yeah—it seemed like ‘work.’ Oh, yeah!” His “Oh, yeah” was so emphatic, the crowd erupted in laughter. I was standing off to one side. Bill was next to me, and patted me on the shoulder.

“But then, I got to know y’all, one by one. You all were so, so kind to me…” He nodded to several friends. “Jenny, David, Wesley, Joanne, Tyrone—all of you. All of you! An’ one day, I realized I wasn’t goin’ to work anymore; I was jus’ getting’ up to go see my FRIENDS! My FRIENDS! An’ you’re all here tonight, all my…my FRIENDS!” He was crying now. We all were, and nobody cared.

“I’m the richest man in the world, ’cause I got this beautiful family, and we got a good roof over our heads, an’ I got all of you. Thank you so much…from the bottom of my heart I thank you…what a wonderful surprise…now, please, everybody, have a GOOD time, an’ ENJOY yourselves.. y’all mean so much to me…” He sat down, and put his hands over his face. Sylvia smiled at everybody, and shrugged her shoulders, to say, “you all know how he gets.” She leaned over and hugged him, and he hugged her like his life depended on it.

Somebody shouted, “We love you, Raymond!” and that chant was taken up until more applause and cheering drowned it out.

The piano player got back behind his electric, and I saw the drummer ready to go. I quickly got my horn out, and Bill—still wearing his knitted tam—uncovered his bass. The pianist looked at me.

“‘A Train’ OK, Danny? Key of C?”

I said, “Sure,” and he played the classic Duke Ellington introduction to “Take the A Train.” I played the melody, and felt Bill’s strong presence behind me. Bill Hadnott: one of the last of the mighty Kaycee bassists; what a thing to behold behind you! The sound, drive, strength. The pianist was comping in a very hip, positive way, and the drummer’s time also now felt much stronger with Bill anchoring the beat. The end of the chorus arrived, and in that spontaneous, Zen way that can’t be explained, everybody stopped cleanly on the same beat, and I knew I was to play a “break” into the first solo. I was ready, and tried to play something that said, “Let’s all have FUN!”

Well, I played some kind of two-bar break, and I heard shouts and even a couple of happy screams, and “Yeah, baby!” and “Blow you’ horn!” and “All right!” The crowd gave me a surge of excitement, and I played a couple of adrenaline-fueled choruses and got a warm round of applause. The pianist launched into his solo, and started swinging hard. A few people got up and started dancing on the little patio in front of us. I looked back at Bill, and he was smiling down at me, digging into his bass strings, his face already shiny with sweat on that warm summer night.

His glasses were slipping down his nose again and that fluffy yellow ball bobbed happily on top of his tam, and he wore a look that said, “You see? You see, Danny?”

Yeah, Bill. You’re right.

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