Bill Crow did not stop collecting jazz anecdotes when he published Jazz Anecdotes and From Birdland to Broadway. He has a column of anecdotes every month in Allegro, the newspaper of New York’s Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. With Bill’s permission, here is one that deserves circulation beyond the 802 membership. The Rifftides staff has added links to music by the principals.
Bassist Don Payne, who now lives in Florida, was three years out of the Army in 1958. He moved into a cottage in the Hollywood hills where he and a group of local musicians that called themselves “The Jazz Messiahs” often rehearsed, trying to develop their own sound. Don Cherry, the trumpet player with the group, introduced them to Ornette Coleman, who had written some interesting originals. One day they were working on “The Blessing,” one of Ornette’s tunes. Walter Norris had worked out the harmonies, and they were playing it over and over to memorize it. Suddenly the door opened and Payne’s next door neighbor walked in. After nodding hello, he took a sheet of music paper and quickly wrote down the tune they had been playing, and added an improvement to the chords at the end of the bridge. He reached over Walter’s shoulder and put the music in front of him on the piano, bowed and smiled to the other musicians and went back out the door. Walter played what he had written and said, “This works!” He turned around to say thank you, but the man was already gone. He asked, “Who was that?” Don said, “That’s my neighbor, Johnny Mandel.”
Jazz is a small community, but I would never have imagined a connection between Ornette Coleman and Johnny Mandel.
I called Don Payne this afternoon to fill in a couple of blanks. He said that The Jazz Messiahs was Don Cherry’s group. Don Friedman was the original pianist, replaced by Walter Norris when Friedman moved to New York. James Clay was the tenor saxophonist, Billy Higgins the drummer. After Clay left to join Red Mitchell, Ornette came in on alto saxophone. The quintet’s showcase performance at a Hollywood club led to Coleman’s being offered a record deal. The band eventually went pianoless and became the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Payne left Los Angeles to join guitarist Mundell Lowe, then Ralph Sharon’s trio backing Tony Bennett.
Payne’s memories of the circumstances leading to the emergence of Ornette Coleman are at odds with conventional accounts, which he says perpetuate initial reporting errors that distort history. Eventually, we’ll have more of Payne’s recollections of that yeasty period.