Jazz Institute of Chicago

My Time with Al Haig

My Time with Al Haig
by Kenny Fredrickson

In the early '60s Al Haig and I were working for a couple of weeks in the same Manhattan night club, playing solo piano and accompanying chick singers. One of the singers was a Mexican-American girl who spoke perfect English and sang her butt off.

One night Al was accompanying her. Everybody in the joint was listening, including a young female pianist who sat in once in a while. She and I were discussing piano players, musicians, and singers. Suddenly, she looked over at Al, then back at me, and said, "It ought to be against the law for anyone to play that much piano!"

It was a humorous remark, but there was a lot truth in it. Al always warmed up his hands by playing Chopin preludes. Listening to these warmups, I realized Al played more piano alone then he did with Bird or Diz or anyone else.

We were close and had a good understanding. Al liked my playing; one reason was that I could play like Cy Coleman if I chose. Cy was Al's favorite society pianist. I had versatile technique and could play like quite a few pianists. When competing with Al, my favorite style was to play stride with my left hand and bebop phrases with my right. I can't think of another pianist who did this at that time.

In the late '40s, I would sometime see Al and Jimmy Raney strolling down Broadway—you could tell that all was all right with their world. Yes sir, you could tell they were really tight with one another. I'd see them coming and call out, "Here are the be-bop twins who play great time together. The best time in the country."

(I worked with Raney one weekend at the Yes, Yes club on South State Street in Chicago. Sonny Stitt, at the tender age of 19 was tearing things up. He kicked off Cherokee as fast as he could to see if I was napping. Ha! His playing woke me right up and I stayed right right with him. I had a little help from the powers that be, namely Mr. 'B' and I don't mean Billy Eckstine. Although I loved playing for him.)

I was playing stride in the early '60s because I wanted to make rhythm to the music. Al didn't play stride—instead he played accents with the left hand. But my stride was subtle, not like Fats Waller or world champion Art Tatum, or Hazel Scott—that woman could play stride as fast or faster than anyone. She appeared in a picture that portrayed the life of the Gershwins, where she worked in an exclusive Parisian night club, along with Oscar Levant, who of course played—you guessed it—Rhapsody in Blue.

I like Gershwin's composing, who doesn't? Isn't it strange that other musicians interpret Kern, Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, etc. better than the composers? Improvisors can make a beautiful ballad more beautiful, provided they don't get carried away.

In the last 50 years a new breed of composer (skip the great Ellington & Co.), players, blowers, that is, have come out of the woodwork with their own compositions—Miles, Bird, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Jimmy Dorsey's, "I'm Glad there is You," Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, etc.

These new composers were almost all blowers. Jimmy Dorsey was a fantastic alto saxophonist. Bird was a great admirer of Dorsey. He told me so one night in Philly when I was working with him and his string group.

Anyway, getting back to the illustrious Mr. Haig. He was playing at Birdland backing all the jazz stars. He and Bud Powell were the real stars under the direction of Pee Wee Markette, the pint-sized MC at Birdland. Fats Navarro was playing his ass off. Al Haig was trading off with Bud Powell who called Al Haig, "the perfect pianist."

Tragedy struck Birdland when Fats Navarro died suddenly one night. He blew clear up to the end. His eyes—I'll never forget how they reminded me of two violet spotlights lighting up the room. He didn't weigh much when he died. The junk killed him. His tone and sound were awesome—it was like he was trying to tell us all something important. He blew full speed ahead right up to the end. He died that night and his wife quickly took up a collection for burial expenses.

Two weeks after the job with Al in Manhattan, I had a gig in Union City, New Jersey, working for club owner Joe Rivelli. I was playing in a beer joint for about 10 singers and needed another pianist. Al wanted to hide out for a while so he joined our gig. He told us to introduce him as Al Schwartz. A few of the singers were quite good and it was kicks playing with them. But I felt sorry for Al, who was missing recording with Bird, Diz or the other stars at Birdland. It just seemed to me Al was pulling a disappearing act. Why? What for? He never told me.

I had a ball listening to him every night. He knew the verses to most of the tunes and he would play them before bringing the chick in. Then he would take the second chorus and the singer would come back in at the bridge. Because I didn't know the verses, I would play two choruses and then let the girl come back in at the bridge and out. I always gave them an RKO ending—pianissimo or fortissamo.

One singer was a pale-skinned, beautiful Italian girl who I dubbed "the white snow leopard." One night she asked me why I called her that, and I answered, "Because you remind me of a white snow leopard that restlessly crosses and recrosses the Himalayas in search of food, love and adventure." My answer seemed to please her and she sat nearby, smiling.

Al had something going for her, but he hid it well. He did things to embarrass her. That night, after I had complimented her, he took over at the piano to accompany her. The whole set was comprised of quick repartees and whispered insults. When it was over, the Snow Leopard was furious with him, and announced, "That was Al Haig playing so nicely, however, right now we're going to bring you the wizard of the keyboard, Kenny Fredrickson." I was embarrassed, but when she said, "...the wizard of the keyboard..." there was fire in her eyes and in her voice.

She hated Al Haig. I don't know what started them off on that journey. Somehow it reminds me of that old Fats Waller tune—"Your feets too big baby, I really hates you cause your feets too big!"

Well, you got to have a sense of humor.

One night, as I was raising hell with a fast tune, Al got off his stool at the bar, walked up to me at the piano, and said "Give it a left hook, now a right cross, how about a left jab! He really broke me up."

We used to go around the corner from the Band Box where we worked to a Greek restaurant where we'd eat and talk about the great classical composers, Chopin—whom Al could play at length—Brahms, Bach, Ravel, Debussy. These are the ones who come to mind immediately. But Al's favorite living piano player was Bud Powell. He had the greatest respect for the head bebopper of them all (including Bird).

Al knew lots of people at the recording studios in downtown New York and could always talk someone into letting him use a practice room for an afternoon. Al loved playing those grand pianos.

Al told me that his career as a pianist was ruined by Bird. He didn't go into detail but I had to point out that playing with Bird made him one of the kings of the piano. If he walked into a New York record shop people would be all over him, "Oh, How are you doing, Mr. Haig?" "So good to see you, Mr. Haig." Perhaps he figured Bird ruined thousands of fledgling jazz musicians who wanted to emulate him, using shit to get off on the ground floor, anything to be near Bird.

The last time I saw Al was about one in the afternoon in Manhattan. He helped me carry a practice keyboard through the airport, but they would not allow it on the plane. I was headed for a gig in Canada. I had just paid $200 for it. I gave it to Al. I know he must have just gotten the money back on it, which didn't bug me at all. We said our goodbyes and that was it.

The last time I heard Al was on the radio, in my prison cell. He was playing a beautiful rendition of "Invitation" and had a fine trio backing him.
Kenny Fredrickson is back in Chicago after a long absence and has been gigging intermittently around town.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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