Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Joe Daley

by Larry Birnbaum (2/22/79)

I've gone through quite a few bags. I've been playing a long time, and I don't try to copy anybody. But I always try to play, rather than stagnate like people my age usually do. I'm lucky in a way that I keep on playing. I'm 60 years old and I'm blowing. I try to keep something going all the time rather than fall back.

At 60, veteran Chicago tenorman Joe Daley looks no more than 45. As ageless in spirit as he is in appearance, Daley has embraced every style from swing to new wave in a career that has taken him from the fertile spawning grounds of Detroit through a stint with the Woody Herman Herd and on to an extended round of session work and teaching in Chicago.

With a large, resonant tone reminiscent of early Sonny Rollins, Daley's style is centered around a solid and original post-bop groove that he negotiates with effortless technique and an infallible sense of swing. A frequent guest at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, Daley has worked with many touring celebrities and enjoys universal recognition among local notables. Presently Joe divides his schedule between teaching, an occasional "functional" gig (weddings, backing singers and the like) and the regular Monday night convenings of the Joe Daley Quorum at Orphan's, a Lincoln Avenue nightspot where he pursues the muse with an artistic abandon that often leaves his younger sidemen gasping in his wake.

Avoiding trendiness, Daley plays with a mastery that bespeaks his firm roots in the rich jazz tradition of the Midwest. "I was born in a little town called Salem, Ohio, 20 miles below Youngstown—nothing's happening there. My family moved to Detroit when I was a kid and I was brought up in Detroit. I'm glad I was, because Detroit is one of the best towns for blowing that I ever ran into. There are so many cats who came out of Detroit. I think the reason is that black and white musicians were always in the same union. See, a lot of towns have two separate locals but in Detroit there was always just one. I know Detroit's a little tougher now, with the political situation and the racial thing, but it was a great town and in spite of everything it still is.

"I started to blow in the late '30s and I've been blowing a long time—40 years for sure. I started when a kid across the street got a saxophone—I told my dad that if that dude could play one I could too. It was purely by accident, but I had been listening to bands. I wasn't hip, I didn't know what was going on, but I just liked jazz bands—Count Basie, Duke, Cab Calloway, even Larry Clinton, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw; I used to listen to them all. I gravitated toward blowing jazz and I did the whole route—World War II put me out of action for three and a half years, but I've always been a musician, always.

"I started on alto and then I got a tenor very early, so I played through several bags. I studied a little bit but I didn't learn much from the teachers. I was mostly self-taught, so later on, when I began teaching, I made up my mind to teach everything that I wasn't taught.

"I tried to play like the guys I liked, Coleman Hawkins and Georgie Auld in the early days, Pres later on, and when Bird came along after the war, boy, we all got hooked on Bird. The first time I heard Charlie Parker I thought this is it, listen to this guy, what have I been doing all my life, and I got completely taken. It took me three or four years to get any semblance of it going, you know, to get into that bag. After that there was Trane and Sonny Rollins—those are the players I liked.

"I played with small combos in Detroit, local bands, and then later on with some big bands. Then I went on the road with a band from New York—it was just a panic band but I got to New York that way. I hit New York City before World War II; then I went back to Detroit because the war was on and I knew I had to go in. So I was a pilot, a flier, and I played in the band too, a little bit. After the war, I came to Chicago, and I worked out of here from the late '40s on.

"I went out on tour with Woody Herman in '50, '51, it was a little after Gene Ammons was in the band. Woody always had a good band and at that time Urbie Green was playing trombone, Sonny Igoe was on drums, Red Mitchell on bass—he had some good players. I had been working on a bachelor's degree and I took a leave of absence from school to go on the road with him. After that I played with groups and made records for people. I did about 30 sides for Pat Boone on Dot—I played a lot of solos but they wouldn't let me blow. They would say, 'You're playing too good, man.' I needed the money, but I'm glad they didn't put my name on the records.

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