by Eric Myers
David Ades’ posthumous CD A Life In a Day was reviewed by John McBeath in The Australian on November 21, 2015. McBeath was obviously impressed with the CD. “This may well qualify as the jazz album of the year”, he writes.
As I write this now, I haven’t heard the CD, and will do my best to acquire it. I’m confident it will be outstanding. Dave Ades was a relatively unacknowledged giant in Australian jazz.
The following is an account of a night, many years ago, when I went to hear Dave perform in a little jazz club in Harlem, New York.
I met Dave Ades in 1980. I had recently become the inaugural jazz critic with the Sydney Morning Herald, on the recommendation of the entrepreneur Horst Liepolt, who was about to leave Sydney for New York. Also, I was about to buy (for the princely sum of $1.00) the Australian Jazz Magazine, which I published and edited for six years, until it folded in 1986.
Dave was a teenager when I met him. He already had an early bout with cancer (one testicle had been removed, at a very young age, he told me). But he seemed older, beyond his years. At the age of 19, he was already living and working in New York when my partner Margaret Sullivan and I visited that city in 1981 for the Newport Jazz Festival. (This festival had moved to NY and been renamed the Kool Jazz Festival, now sponsored by the cigarette company).
The Sydney Morning Herald was then much more interested in jazz than it is today. On July 4, 1981 it published a 1,400-word article of mine on the Kool Jazz Festival, the text of which I rang through by telephone from New York. In those days many in the jazz community agonised that jazz was marginalised in the newspapers. But considering the situation today, which is much worse, the 1980s now seem like halcyon days. Would the SMH’s current arts editor publish a 1,400-word article on any jazz subject today?
But, I digress. Shortly after our arrival in New York, we caught up with Dave. He invited us to hear him play in a club in Harlem, where he had a regular gig with some black musicians. Dave’s website has always indicated that he “sat in” regularly at this club, The Blue Book. However, my memory is that, at the time, he was actually part of the band. Other than Dave, the band was a duo: a middle-aged Hammond organist, and a very elderly woman on the drums, who also sang.
[Ed. Note: In most likelihood, the drummer/ singer in question is the legendary Della Griffin, a pioneer of the do-wop era and one of the unsung heroines of jazz, whose residency at the Blue Book lasted 14 years.]
The two guys in whose Manhattan apartment we were staying, advised us not to go to Harlem at night. “We’ll find your hearts on the pavement tomorrow morning”, I remember one said.
These two guys were both in editorial technology at Penthouse magazine. Our accommodation in Manhattan had been arranged through the Australian office of Penthouse, where I was then the jazz records reviewer in the Australian edition. I had been hired, on the basis of my work with the SMH, by the editor Phil Jarratt (a very fine journalist, now best known, I gather, for his books on surfing).
One day I brought in my copy for Phil – this was before email existed – and ran into an American guy, visiting from the Penthouse head office. When I told him I was soon off to New York, he assured me that someone in the Penthouse headquarters would have a spare room in their apartment, and this would be much cheaper and more pleasant than any hotel my partner and I could find.
It worked out, and we stayed in this Manhattan apartment for about two weeks with the two Penthouse employees. One night, a friend of theirs, a stockbroker, arrived and we saw him scraping, with some sort of blade, a mysterious small white slab. It was about the size of 250 gms of butter. What was coming off was crumbling into a white powder. I had never seen cocaine before, and had never had the opportunity to try it. This was pure cocaine, I was told, unmixed with anything else, and was therefore very expensive.
Later, Margaret and I were invited to participate and, of course, we were hot to trot. I did my best, while inhaling it up into my nose through a straw, not to sneeze a la Woody Allen. Subsequently we went out into the Manhattan night, feeling ebullient. We ate in an excellent restaurant, and went on to listen to music. It was a great high.
However, the afterglow was disconcerting. Neither of us could sleep for about two days; and we discovered that, unlike marijuana, it wasn’t very good for sex. Anyway, that was my one experience of coke, as this prestigious drug never crossed my path again. By the way, the two blokes in the apartment would sniff coke every morning after breakfast, then emerge from the building’s basement on two huge Harley-Davidsons, and roar through the streets of Manhattan to the Penthouse office.
Anyway, on the night in question we took a cab to the club in Harlem where Dave was playing. The Blue Book was shaped something like a large “T”. From the entrance there was a long corridor with a bar on the right, where patrons sat on high stools. To get to the club itself, which was a relatively small room at the end of that long corridor, one had to walk behind those sitting at the bar. It was unsettling, to say the least, to see all the black faces turn to look at us, as we tiptoed into the club. I don’t think the patrons at the bar were much used to whites coming to the club, and there was some apprehension in the air.
We soldiered on, gingerly, through to the club itself, which was more or less a restaurant, with normal tables and chairs in a rather square room. Straight ahead, opposite the entrance, was the bandstand: a small raised area, slightly above the floor level. I could see a Hammond organ, so the organist played side-on to the audience, and next to the organ, a set of drums. There was a small dance floor in front of the bandstand.
We met Dave there and he sat us down with a table of four or five of his friends. They all were, as far as I can remember, well-educated, professional black people. I clearly remember one was an architect, as we discussed Woody Allen’s habit of turning the camera onto some of the loveliest buildings in the city. I think a couple of the others were university teachers. The conversation was cultivated and intelligent, and all went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We had some nibbles and drank whatever we liked, but no-one at the table would hear of us paying for anything. Whatever we asked for, was paid for by someone else.
As for the music, I could see why Dave was welcome there. He was, from an early age, a riveting, passionate and adventurous alto saxophonist. The room, which held about 50-60 people, filled up quickly, and the audience loved the music.
The Hammond organist played beautifully, his warm foot pedal lines more than compensating for the absence of a bass player. After a few instrumentals, the elderly woman on the drums was eventually given the microphone and, while still at the drums, sang a few standards. I was astonished to hear a more or less exact replica of Billie Holiday, with the same aching vibrato, and a similar sense of the pain of life in her voice.
By this time, I was getting the feeling that this was an extraordinary night – an experience to be savoured.
During one of the breaks, we all got up and walked outside the club for a while. By then, it must have been round about midnight. The streets of Harlem were pulsating with life. Joints were produced and passed around, and it seemed as natural as anything to puff on them, and slip into a heavenly stone. I don’t think I had ever felt happier. When we went back into the club, the music was as clear as a bell. I felt I was hearing jazz for the first time.
At some point a very tall black musician came onto the stage to sit in, and played a couple of standard tunes on the tenor saxophone. I was disappointed that he and Dave didn’t play together. He was outstanding, a beautiful player of the instrument. Immediately I knew what was happening. I thought to myself, “Aaaah, there ya go… You come to a little club in New York and here is an unknown local musician playing like a virtuoso. What an amazing thing… There must be any number of beautiful musicians living here who are undiscovered …etc.” In the next break, I asked Dave if he knew the name of the tenor player. “Oh”, said Dave, “That’s Stanley Turrentine.”
About 4 am, when the club was about to close, we all went out onto the street with the munchies. We bought hot dogs off a street stand, and stood around eating, with warm feelings of love for the world. It was time to go, so we embraced all our newly found friends, hailed a cab, and sped back to the apartment. The next day I told the two guys in the apartment that Marg and I, and our friend the saxophonist, were the only white people in the club. They found it hard to believe that we made it back alive.
I have just turned 70, and now realise that, since I first ventured into a jazz club – the El Rocco in Sydney circa 1964 – I have spent over 50 years listening to jazz in various parts the world, and certainly in most of the best-known clubs internationally. But, unquestionably, this night in the tiny Blue Book was the most memorable evening I have ever spent in a jazz club, and I thank the late, great David Ades for this unforgettable experience.
[Ed. Note: David Ades’ fiery song “Blue Room Della”, is dedicated to the Harlem Jazz Club and the woman who had a 14 year residency there, offering him a place in her trio.]