Musicians Are Much More Than Hired Help

Over the past 70 or so years, traditional and swing jazz have been my primary jazz interests, beginning as a young listener in my early years, playing dixieland as well as in big bands through the 1950s, and then, as a listener, attending jazz events for about 20 years.

In the early ’80s, I took my first jazz DJ job and continued it until late 2017. What really opened me up to meeting more jazz musicians occurred when we began the Elkhart Jazz Festival, now in its 3lst year. I readily learned to “follow orders” while playing in the 3rd Infantry dance band. Too often, that’s what’s been expected by the folks with the checkbooks: play the gig, get paid, hit the road. That’s the “hired hand” approach.

Hot Jazz Jubile

During my 25 years as talent chair at Elkhart, I found that there’s much more to dealing with musicians, other than hiring him or her. Date availability is usually the first question and if the person’s date was available, we touched on salary, lodging, transportation, and so forth. Those are the initial steps to booking a person and/or a band. I usually made it clear that with the first call, I simply wanted to know if the person was available and interested. Then, once I talked to the talent committee, I always tried to get back to the musician if we decided otherwise. I especially enjoyed telling folks they had the gig. Once everything was clear and accepted, I also made it clear that it was a celebration of jazz, a party, and we wanted them to enjoy it as well.

Over the next 25 years, the volunteers and festival chairs changed. From the beginning of the venture, I emphasized that the musicians were more than just hired help. Many of the musicians I had met at other festivals, their regular gigs, and on jazz cruises. Bassist Milt Hinton (whom I wrote about for the June 2018 issue of The Syncopated Times) taught me how to play roulette on one cruise (he won $500!) and, when I first met Milt at the Illiana Jazz Fest, we went to his room where he pulled out his portfolio of jazz musicians he had captured with his camera. (Eventually, he put together two excellent books of his photographs, See, 1 & 2.) I believe that the majority of the musicians I’ve encountered one way or another, a good friendship soon developed. I also really enjoyed meeting their families and significant others.

I have a few more “tales” about the musicians over the past 25 years, some very brief and a few a bit longer. One of the first “shorties” involves Kenny Davern. Kenny mentioned just before the fest began that he would like to visit the plant where the U.S Selmers were built. I indicated that I knew where it was but I thought it had been torn down and moved. He wanted to go there and when we arrived, Kenny, with tears in his eyes, stood staring at the empty lot. I’ve seen that kind of passion from some of the other musicians as well. Most love their work.

UpBeat Records

Doc Cheatham worked the EJF on several occasions but the two I remember best involved some of Doc’s ability to bargain. At 83, he played very well with the Basie Tribute group at the first Elkhart Jazz Festival in 1988. On one occasion, discussing a gig for the EJF, he suggested that he would play the fest for a new Selmer trumpet. I spoke with Selmer and they didn’t want to talk money but chose to sponsor Doc for the fest. A few years later after he had turned 90, he wanted a new trumpet…yes, you guessed it…a Selmer. And Selmer obliged! Doc arrived in a wheel chair and used it for the three days, including when we shared a huge birthday cake for him. Apparently, musicians’ affinity with their horns is something very special.

One other early arrival to Elkhart, Wild Bill Davison, played the first and second EJF in ’88 and ’89. Bill became ill in the fall of ’89 and passed in November. Bill’s antics gave him his nickname and he rarely disappointed anyone keeping an eye and ear on him. Bill loved to “chat” and told me of his exploits in Chicago during the gangster days in the ’20s. Another story he confided to me concerned his first new horn. His parents had provided a used one but he wanted a new one. They put him on a train from Defiance, Ohio, to Elkhart with some cash for the horn. Once there, he quickly found a horn but wanted the bell engraved. They told him it would be ready the next morning. He had his old horn with him and managed to find a gig that night near his hotel. He told me that night he not only played his last job with his first horn but he also met a young lady. Then, he added, “In Elkhart I picked up my first case of clap.”

After William “Count” Basie passed in 1984, his band continued to tour. On one tour to Japan, I caught up with Frank Foster, the current leader, through his agent. Apparently, the band would be arriving back in Chicago from Japan on the Saturday of the EJF. When they arrived in Chicago a bus picked them up and drove them directly to the front door of the theater in Elkhart. When they pulled up, I climbed on and welcomed them and then told the bus driver to take them to the rear entrance of the theatre. That caused a huge uproar, mostly of laughter when I told them by entering through the musicians’ entrance, it would be a big help to the bassist and the drummer. The theater that night was packed. At one point, one of the reed players had trouble with his sax. I told him that it wouldn’t be a problem. Elkhart’s music industry had several people in the audience. JJ Babbitt’s Rocky Giglio, the current manager, just happened to have a repair kit in his coat pocket. When the concert ended, the fun had just begun.

Tenor player Red Holloway, bassist John Bany, pianist Eddie Higgins, and drummer Butch Miles were performing at 11 pm at the hotel near the theatre. Frank asked the band if they wanted to play with “the guys.” We took several of them back to their hotel to change clothes and then we attended the gig. Frank joined the quartet and the one-hour set turned into at least a three hour, no-break set and the band guys lined up to play with them. I did get a recording of some of it and it was very special.

Again, we’ve tried to make the Elkhart Jazz Fest “musician friendly” and, for the most part, it’s worked out well. We’ve had some bad situations pop up but very few. They knew before they came that we expected them to enjoy themselves. Too much enjoyment, by way of drugs or alcohol, could cause some big problems. I caught one well-known player injecting his favorite drug and had him in a taxi to the airport that evening. I’ve had another popular player who constantly berated his audience. Too much whiskey added to his problem. When I saw how much of a problem it had become, we ceased using him.


Now, to wrap this up, one year we had the Last of the Whorehouse Pianists: Ralph Sutton and Jay McShann. They were playing in a favorite venue, the pool area. After a fun stride piece, Ralph asked Jay to play a ballad. The crowd was enjoying it but two guys at a table decided it was time to ignore the music and show how much they were enjoying their booze. I had gone to another venue but I heard they were loud and disruptive. Ralph told them both to “shut your [expletive deleted] mouth!” At that point, one of our volunteers found me and told me Mr. Sutton used the “F” word. When I caught him at the end of their performance, he told me the two guys had been a pain through most of the set. The two guys had left in a huff.

A few days later, at an EJF committee meeting to plan for the next year, when I suggested that we bring Ralph back, one of the committee members said, “Do you know whom he insulted? They were both festival sponsors.” My response was simply, “We can get new sponsors; there’s only one Ralph Sutton.” And he did return the next year. I was never bored on that job dealing with talent.

Van Young has helped keep the Elkhart Jazz Festival a swinging proposition for the past three decades. He also hosts Patterns in Jazz, Sundays at noon (Central) at WGCS-FM 91.1, Goshen, IN. Listen online at

He is currently writing a series of short memories from his interactions with jazz folk over the years. These don't count against your monthly article limit.

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