Jazz Institute of Chicago

About Jack Noren

About Jack Noren
by Joe Levinson

This is a response to Kathy Noren's letter in the Letters section
Kathy, my name is Joe Levinson and I am a bass player in Chicago. I saw your letter and your request for stories or information about Jack Noren. Well, I can certainly tell you two remembrances that I have about Jack.

Back in around 1958–59 (my memory of the exact time is vague), Jack was the drummer on the "off-nights" at the London House where he played with Eddie Higgins and Dave Poskonka, Eddie's bassist. The off-nights were Sunday and Monday, when the headliner wasn't working at the London House. Those stars were usually among the topmost jazz or pop music players and ranged from jazz stars like Oscar Peterson to pop stars like Carmen Cavallero.

You probably have read or heard about the London House: the great steaks and chops, the in-crowds, and the great music that was played there. It was on the corner of Michigan and Wacker. Sadly, it's become a Burger King or McDonalds now, I forget which.

In those days Jack was a huge man. He wasn't into his self destructive mode and only drank a little. He was clearheaded, extremely witty, and very, very funny when he wanted to be—and he wanted to be funny a lot.

One example of his wit was a trick he did when he was trading fours with Eddie and Dave, and with me when I subbed for Dave. I should point out that Dave Poskonka was a really wonderful bass player but carried his Johnson heavily: he was an alcoholic, and often was unable to play with Eddie's trio. When that happened, I was one of the substitutes Eddie called to fill in on bass for Dave.

We'd be doing an up-tempo number and Eddie, like many leaders, used the trading of fours routine near the end of the number to show off the talents of the sidemen. It's a technique that's been a jazz-essential for years and years. Trading fours (or eights or whatever number of bars selected) is ingrained in the jazz lexicon, and your dad, Jack Noren, was one of the masters of the art of trading bars.

I might add this: Jack Noren was the finest, most talented, wittiest and skillful drummer I ever played with in all my career. And here's a thing he would do as we were into trading fours: He'd be ripping off his ideas and then, with a wink, he'd take a quarter from his pocket and, when his next 4-bar turn came, he'd spin it on the snare drum! He'd absolutely stop using his sticks or brushes, stop the bass pedal, and just let that quarter spin and spin through the entire four bar break. And when the last beat of the fourth bar ended, he'd roar into the normal rhythmic pattern with piano and bass.

The effect was dynamic, witty, funny and totally unexpected by the audience. Invariably, when he pulled this stunt, they'd burst out in applause. Now, someone reading this will probably write in and tell us that they saw some other drummer doing this same trick somewhere. And someone else will write in and say that Jack stole the idea from someone else that he saw doing it earlier in his life. But all I can say is that it didn't matter!

It was the first time I'd ever seen it. I can remember breaking up right there on the stage of the London House along with the audience. Every time he pulled it, I had to laugh, it was so neat a trick and so clever. And, dammit! it worked!

Now, here's another crazy thing I remember about Jack: I was walking behind him one night, about to enter the front door of the London House. He was wearing a large black opera cape, a black top hat, black gloves and a long white scarf. It was in the winter, and it was cold.

He stopped right inside the door where the coat check girl held forth. She was one of the typical young things that usually worked the coat room and I remember the look on her face when Jack, a giant in his outfit, took off his black topper and hit it with a smack to fold it flat (they fold that way, in case you wondered). Then he slowly peeled off the back gloves and drop them into the hat, followed by a gallant folding of the white scarf, again dropped into the hat, followed by shrugging off the opera cape, which he doubled back to reveal its elegant red satin lining. This he draped across the counter of the coat room.

The girl's jaw had dropped and her eyes were wide. When Jack had divested himself of all this clothing, he looked at the girl and said in a slow, deep voice, "Mephisto has arrived" and walked away into the main room.

I was trying to keep from choking, I was so taken with this scene. But, knowing Jack's penchant for surprise and showmanship, however, I knew it was best not to mention it. He acted as though it never happened, and I just let it go that way. I have no idea where he got those clothes, or what he did with them later. But, Kathy, it was one memorable entrance to a room!

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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