Accompanying Ira Sullivan
by Kenny Fredrickson
The author, a pianist, is a Chicagoan who worked with many of the big names in jazz during the '50s and '60s.
Ira Sullivan, the quintessential be-bopper, burst upon the Chicago jazz scene during the late '40s like a comet from the far-off reaches of outer space.
We all—Irv Craig, Paul Jordan, Paul Miller, Marilyn Moore (who later married Al Cohn), Patti Randall (from K.C. Missouri, later busted in New Orleans), Guy Viveros (the great drummer), Lee Katzman (the fine jazz trumpeter who worked with all the bands and later made lots of bread in the Hollywood studios)—were witness to this phenom who played trumpet, tenor sax, alto sax, bari sax, (flute came later in his musical career) all equally well. Nobody ever played all those instruments with such perfection.
I played with him, off and on, for 10 years, and could never make up my mind which horn he sounded best on. The story was that when Bird came out with a new cut, Ira would listen to the record once, then play Bird's solo note for note.
On tenor sax, he was influenced by Sonny Stitt, on alto, by Stitt and Bird, on trumpet, he played like himself.
About a year before I met Ira, all the musicians were blowing at the Hi-Note, a jazz joint a little way up on North Clark Street. Anita O'Day was singing there as only she could sing. Sarah Vaughn would drop in and usually buy herself (and me) a drink—bourbons with beer chasers. Anita would buy me tequilas with salt and lemon.
I remember Stan Getz dropping in after his gigs; Miles Davis showing me the changes he played on Blue Room; and Jimmy Rowles, a great piano player from out west, sitting in. Duke Ellington came in one night but begged off playing. Hey, who's going to argue with Duke?
Ira Shulman, Lee Katzman, Irv Craig, Joe Daley, Serge Chaloff and lot of in-town and out-of-town musicians also stopped by. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral also blew there with their group. Shelly Manne walked in one night while drummer Guy Viveros was wailing on "Cherokee" and Shelly's mouth fell open. I got a hell of a kick out of that.
Anyway, one night Guy Viveros and I walked into the Hi-Note and Ira was playing tenor sax. The tune was "It had to Be You," which nobody played anymore. But it took on a new life in his hands. Guy and I looked at each other and I think that's the night Ira's career began in earnest.
The three of us started a trio. No bass—didn't need one. We worked a joint called the Character Club, empty before we started playing there, but in no time standing-room-only. People even lined up to get our autographs after the gig. Musicians from Chicago and all over the country came to hear Ira. We played the Bird and Miles tunes, plus standards and show tunes. A cranky old Italian guy named Al owned the joint.
We were at the Character Club for about a year before moving across the street to the Spotlight Club to work for Jack Rizzo, a great guy and good boss. One night his featured tenor man, Haig Chitjian, trying to emulate Illinois Jacquet, blew so hard (at the chicks in the audience) that he sustained a hernia which curtailed his career (but had no effect on his love life). We all liked Haig Chitjian, who, I believe, passed on to his better reward sometime in the '60s.
Ira was a bop genius on his horns. Playing with him was like being airborne on a subway train / with the subway stops going by in a pleasurable blurrrr! / only to be deposited minutes later, safe and sound / on the Spotlight bandstand. In the audience I remember trombonists Bobby Burgess and Frank Rosolino, Bill Russo, the big band leader and Stan Kenton alumnus, and Buddy Defranco. Some great Southside musicians came by, too.
One afternoon in the '50s we played a college campus opposite the Modern Jazz Quartet. I believe it was Northern Illinois University. We were wailing and got sustained applause and played several encores.
Guy, Ira and I later played a nice club next to the Schubert Theater. One early afternoon, even though there wasn't a soul in the club, we were playing just as hard as if the place were packed. Suddenly, the club owner walked in with his arm around José Ferrar, the actor who was married to Rosemary Clooney at the time. I believe he had just finished the film, Toulouse Lautrec, where he played the little hunchbacked, genius painter. Anyway, Ferrar started laughing with pure joy at the bop music cascading over him. I'll never, ever, forget that moment, suspended in time. Makes it all worthwhile.
The French Poodle, 1957-58
The French Poodle was another club on North Clark that was owned by "Chuck." He was a jazz impresario whom I'd played for, off and on, since 1946. He loved jazz and had been a professional stage dancer. Ira had a gig there for a couple of years. Wilbur Campbell was the drummer until he got another gig and Roger Wondershire took his place. They were both real good drummers.
One night Ira took off early. I think he had a gig at Joe Segal's. Who should come in but Ed Thigpen, Oscar Peterson's drummer, along with Ray Brown! The three of us played for over an hour and everything came up "Lollipops and Roses" for me. I mean, it was the best I can ever remember playing before or since! Come to think of it, they might have been playing with Errol Garner at that time because we played a lot of 2's, 4', 8's, etc., and Errol didn't go in for all that trading off.
The Jazz Showcase, one summer night
For awhile, I lived on the second floor above Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, near Rush Street. I played the early set by myself on an upright piano. I got respect and applause but I was just playing. Then Ira and the little giant, Johnny Griffin, came in and decided to hold a saxophone duel. Johnny was one of Ira's young friends. Hell of a horn player! That was some of the greatest playing I've ever heard. Neither one could cut the other. I would have declared it a draw. There was no rhythm section that I could recall. They were just standing side-by-side wailing, alto against alto, tenor against tenor. Believe me, that was a night for a musician to remember!
Both Ira and that little guy are famous today. They went on to make lots and lots of jazz music together. I wonder if Joe remembers that night in his club.
LOVE YOU IRA, IT"S BEEN A BLAST AND A SUPERB BALL TO HAVE PLAYED WITH YOU!
Kenny Frederickson has returned to Chicago after an extended absence. Old acquaintances who wish to contact him can write: Kenny Fredrickson, 2450 North Central Avenue #415, Chicago, Illinois 60639.
ADDENDUM—ON HAIG CHITJIAN
By Stu Katz, pianist [August 2]
The Kenny Frederickson article triggered many personal memories, especially of the era of the French Poodle, which was located on the northeast corner of Clark and Oak Streets in Chicago. I had plenty of exhilarating experiences on that postage stamp stage playing, among others, with both Ira Sullivan and Haig Chitjian, the latter being a very underrated bebop saxophonist and all-around strange but wonderful man.
Although there are certainly scores of unpublishable Haig Chitjian anecdotes, here are some that might be repeated.
Rather than face hernia surgery (which terrified him), Haig began inserting an unopened package of Marlboro cigarettes (hard box) between his belt buckle and his stomach whenever playing the saxophone. The story he told people was that it kept him from exploding during his solos.
Haig's hair was coal black and he had a very heavy beard. On many evenings, he would show up for work with his face powdered to hide his 5 o'clock shadow, resulting in his acquiring a Transylvanian countenance. On top of it, he had mastered Bela Lugosi's accent, which a number of club owners overheard and subsequently encouraged him to use in announcing his tunes. Because many of these club owners were, to put it delicately in the argot of the period, "outfit guys," Haig always complied with a smile.
Perhaps my favorite Haig Chitjian story relates to a photograph of himself which he carried in his wallet and which he spontaneously decided to show me on one occasion. It was a nude photograph and Haig was clearly aroused when it was taken. He told me that whenever he selected a woman to seduce, he would whip out the picture and show it to her. In disbelief, I asked him how it was received. He said that the great majority of the women were offended, disgusted or terrified—however, the handful that weren't made the exercise very worthwhile.
From George Ziskind, pianist [August 2]
Here's a great exchange I had with Kenny back in those days.
I was at a gig of Ira's with Kenny on piano. They did "Just The Way You Look Tonight," and it was at such a ballistic tempo I couldn't believe it. After the set I said to Kenny, "Kenny—how can you possibly stay with him when he's doing that kind of tempo?" He responded, "Well, George (pause for a few beats) you just sit there at the piano (pause for a few beats) and you play (pause for a few beats) as fast as you can humanly play."
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.