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The Mule

A.J. Albany's book about her father Joe Albany

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Has anybody read this? Can't say it sounds very appealing. Last week the book was reviewed in the LA Times and this week several angry letters to the editor followed. Kind of amazing a book such as this by the daughter of a very obscure jazz musician would ignite this much of a reaction, let alone take up this much space in the LA Times. Is anybody here familiar with the reviewer, Carolyn See?

The review:

"The legendary act of survival

Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood, A.J. Albany, Bloomsbury/Tin House: 166 pp., $23.95

By Carolyn See

Carolyn See is the author of numerous books, including "Making a Literary Life," "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" and "The Handyman: A Novel."

April 13 2003

Never just "Joe Albany," always "The Legendary Joe Albany." Why? Because Joe was reputed to be Charlie Parker's favorite pianist, although some say that they never recorded together. But there does exist an album somewhere, one of the first times Parker turned "Cherokee" into the amazing "Koko," on which Albany turned up for two days out of a five-day session, or one day out of a two-day session, and you hear Albany's tentative intro on several alternate takes, then a minute or two of Bird's saxophone, and then the word, "Cut!"

"Joe Albany was a great jazz pianist," his daughter, A.J. Albany, writes. "He was one of the first musicians instrumental in pushing jazz beyond the confines of swing, helping to create what would come to be known as bebop." He was also a full-on junkie and A.J.'s only functioning parent.

During the 1960s, she writes in her harrowing memoir, "if he wasn't in jail or rehab, we were together." Their life was like something out of Maxim Gorky's "The Lower Depths," but it is, of course, nonfiction. Horace McCoy explored Hollywood's debauched underbelly in "I Should Have Stayed Home" as did Steve Fisher in his acerbic, pitiless "Giveaway," but those books were novels; mere fiction written by well-fed, affluent, grown men. "Low Down" is the gruesome truth, the memoir of a starving child who barely survived her childhood.

Heroin was the drug of choice for musicians in the 1950s, a drug that magnifies the virtue of understatement, that valorizes sensitivity and a musical aesthetic of a zillion complex notes, absolutely effortlessly played. A drug that also turns its user into a zombie for hours or days on end. Heroin turned Chet Baker from a handsome man to a toothless geezer; it certainly contributed to tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh's untimely death in 1987 as he played "Out of Nowhere" in a San Fernando Valley nightclub, and to the demise of Joe Albany. What may have made for glamorous, cool nightclub evenings was a scourge.

A.J.'s mother, addicted to prescription drugs and anything else she could get her hands on, abandoned A.J. when she was 5. The little girl was already sorry and sickly, undeveloped, underfed. She lived sometimes with her paternal grandma but most often with her dad, who simply wasn't cut out to hold down a day job or put three squares on the table. A.J. resorted to eating toothpaste more than once in her forlorn search for calories. No one remembered to bathe her or change her clothes for days or weeks on end. Her dad took her along to club dates, stashed her on stacked coats and bundled her home at 4 in the morning. But at least, with him, she was home.

They lived in a series of awful apartments close to Hollywood and Vine, furnished rooms with pull-out sofas and Murphy Beds; their neighbors, a flock of pathetic losers of the kind Nathanael West used in "The Day of the Locust" (but, again, that was only fiction). These people were all too human, too sad, too real: "Perhaps I was a sick and devious nine year old," A.J. writes, "to be so enamored of a twenty-two-year-old morphine-addicted porno-movie dwarf," but that dwarf liked her, and she loved him. Who else was she to love? For much of the time, affable though he was, her father locked himself in the bathroom with a spoon and something to tie off his arm. A zombie.

By the time A.J. is 14, her father is off pursuing his career again. She confides in him, and he breaks that confidence, writing to her grandma: "It is my understanding that Amy is no longer a virgin. While she is certainly no academic, she is my daughter, and I suppose I must continue to advise her the best I can." Oh, the infuriatingly bogus morality of the addict! Oh, the betrayal.

It's hard to know what to make of "Low Down." On one hand, it's an authentic trip through Hollywood's lower depths. On the other, it examines the conflict between the need for drugs and the neediness of children. In presenting her father's generosity as well as his failings, A.J. Albany uses language that is both astringent and compassionate. Describing a night when her parents were drugged out of their minds, Albany recalls her own helplessness as a tiny child: "I ventured out into the Hollywood courtyard where we lived and started knocking on neighbors' doors for some assistance. Since it was midnight and I was all of five years old and half-naked, one would assume that a friendly face might emerge from behind a blank door -- but that was not the case. It was my first lesson in humanity. Terrified women peeked out from their curtains, shooing me away."

"Low Down" is, above all, about the dreadfulness of delusion. "Joe Albany was a great jazz pianist," his loyal daughter writes. He was "legendary."

But one afternoon in 1957 or 1958, after hearing those alternative takes on the Charlie Parker album, a friend and I drove two hours to hear Albany play. He was standing out behind the club, incoherent. Later, after it became clear that Marsh wouldn't be showing up, Albany went inside and attempted to play. He was ripped, so ripped he couldn't get his hands up to the keyboard. "Legendary," maybe. Destructive beyond the shadow of a doubt. Deluded, yes. That his daughter survived and wrote this may be the real legend."

The letters:

"CORRESPONDENCE

Jazz, addiction, jams and Joe Albany

May 4, 2003

Reading Carolyn See's review of A.J. Albany's "Low Down" ("The Legendary Act of Survival," April 13) left me with the uncomfortable feeling that the uniqueness and "legendary" quality of Joe Albany had been sidestepped. He was certainly no household name in that era. Most of those who knew something of the style of music being played in the late 1940s by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, had they been asked to name the pianist who was most solidly in that same league, would probably have said Bud Powell. However, to me, Joe Albany was closer to what particularly Parker and Davis were doing at the time.

He did not record much and, as the biography by his daughter suggests, there were other issues interfering. During my teenage years in San Francisco, among my favorite recordings was a set of about four 78 sides that Albany recorded with Lester Young, Red Callender, Chico Hamilton and Irving Ashby on Aladdin Records in L.A. in 1946. He made other recordings and there is to my knowledge at least one solo Joe Albany LP, but these recordings with Lester Young are memorable and I think show what it was about Albany that makes him the complement of Bird and Miles. More than the flash and fire of Bud Powell, Albany had the kind of pigeon-toed elegance that Bird and Miles were striving for in "Buzzy," "Donna-Lee" and "Thriving on a Riff."

I have listened to those four Lester Young sides countless times over the years. They had already been well engraved in my consciousness when one night in the early '50s a group of friends of mine came to my house at 3 a.m. — I had been fast asleep — to tell me that Albany was in town, San Francisco, and wanted to "jam." They had been talking big with Joe, but when it came time to play, they were too scared to play with him and came to get me. He and I played for about two hours at Jackson's Nook, a regular place for after-hours jazz sessions in those days. There was no one there but about five of us. Joe and I were the only ones playing, just piano and alto sax. I don't know what Joe thought. He didn't say much, but those two hours or so were for me among the most intellectually stimulating musical experiences of my life. He was already a legend to me, and that session only enhanced it.

Robert Garfias

Irvine

*

See's review of "Low Down," A.J. Albany's grisly portrait of her heroin-addicted father, "legendary" jazz pianist Joe Albany, does much to perpetuate the clichéd linkage in the public mind between drugs and the jazz musician and requires clarification:

First, Joe Albany, for all his gifts, remained "legendary" throughout his career since he was a minor obscurity who left few recordings behind. Second, See's statement that "heroin was the drug of choice for musicians in the 1950s" overlooks that many seminal jazz artists of that period shunned drugs entirely: Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, John Lewis, among others. Some former addicts like Gerry Mulligan and Max Roach successfully kicked the habit early. This linkage of jazz and drugs was long forwarded by a sensationalist media. Whenever the police busted an addict and found a broken harmonica in his bureau drawer, local headlines were certain to trumpet: "Musician arrested in narcotics bust."

Having taught jazz studies for many years, I often faced a recurring question among senior citizens: "Why do so many jazz musicians use drugs?" It's time to set the record straight.

Grover Sales

Belvedere

*

In discussing A.J. Albany's biography of her father, jazz pianist Joe Albany, See asserts that heroin addiction, besides being the scourge of Albany's life, "certainly contributed to tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh's untimely death in 1987."

That slippery phrase, "certainly contributed to," is unworthy of See. If she had bothered to read my biography of Marsh, she would have known that he died of a heart attack probably brought on by cocaine, not a heroin overdose.

See first declared that Marsh was a heroin addict in her memoir, "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America." Then researching Marsh's life, I called her and asked what she actually knew about Marsh and heroin. She said that of course she had never seen him shoot up, but her sister had been an addict, she knew the signs, and she had observed Marsh in clubs nodding off and barely able to function.

See is aware, I'm sure, that there is a difference between recreational use and addiction. There is no doubt that Marsh used heroin on occasion. A student of his told me that he once paid Marsh with heroin, and they both got high and canceled the lesson. But they snorted the drug. Marsh would never use a needle, and he was never jailed or even arrested for heroin possession. Although he was a daily user of marijuana and regularly took various uppers and downers, including cocaine, there is not a shred of evidence that he was ever addicted to heroin. Marsh cannot be fitted into See's heroin-as-life-destroyer obsession, and her attempt to do so while reviewing a book about Albany, a known heroin addict, is both intellectually shoddy and journalistically inappropriate. It also does a disservice to Marsh, a flawed but deeply serious artist who created some of the most thrilling music in all of jazz.

Further, See is discographically incorrect, and inexcusably vague, when she says "there does exist an album somewhere" with "alternate takes" by Charlie Parker with Joe Albany during a studio recording of Parker's "KoKo." Parker and Albany were never in a recording studio together. The studio recording of "KoKo," including, on one release, false starts such as she describes, was made in New York on Nov. 26, 1945, on Savoy, but the pianist on those false starts was Argonne Thornton, a.k.a. Sadim Hakim. Joe Albany was in Los Angeles at the time. Dizzy Gillespie played both trumpet and piano on the master take of "KoKo." The only recordings of Parker and Albany together were live recordings from their gig at the Club Finale in Los Angeles in March 1946. Albany was scheduled to join Parker for the famous Dial Records session later that month that produced "Ornithology," "Yardbird Suite," "Moose the Mooche" and "A Night in Tunisia," but they had a falling out, and the pianist on that date was Dodo Marmarosa. See views herself as an authority on Marsh and Albany because she idolized them as a fan 45 years ago, but she does not respect their music sufficiently to check out her facts in a standard discography.

One final note, of interest to admirers of Marsh and Albany, including See: She speaks of driving two hours to hear them in 1957 or 1958, only to find Marsh a no-show and Albany "so ripped he couldn't get his hands up to the keyboard." Given the time-frame and the two-hour drive, the club must have been the Galleon Room in Dana Point, where Marsh and Albany worked in the fall of 1957. An unreleased tape of a whole afternoon of that gig is now in the possession of Peter Jacobson of VSOP Records, who plans to issue it in its entirety.

Safford Chamberlain

South Pasadena

*

Carolyn See replies:

This extraordinary outpouring of interest shows what a marvelous contribution these musicians did in fact make. It was my luck not to hear Albany on a particular afternoon, but I was lucky enough to see and hear Marsh on many occasions.

Safford Chamberlain and I have had our disagreements before. Surely these petty concerns are transcended by the collective legacy that these musicians have left. Furthermore, the role that drugs played in the lives of these artists has been and will be debated for as many years as there are musicians, academicians and discographers. My feeling is: Heroin isn't good for you, but this is a free country and people must do as they choose.

As for the missing album, I am sorry Chamberlain is not familiar with it. I don't think that it includes the "definitive" recording of "KoKo" but a series of very short alternative takes, which might be best listened to as an interesting but minor footnote to jazz history. As for the afternoon in question, no music was played, so clearly any recording of it would be quite remarkable. "

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found this thread because I was searching for Argonne Thornton (aka Sadik Hakim, but I went with the search term "Argonne"... not one to get too many results I guess...)

Anyway, what's up with this KoKo session with Albany? Imagination of a fertile mind?

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first I just wanted to say that AJ's book on her dad, whom I knew well, is simply one of the best jazz books I've ever read - and according to Teddy Reig Argonne did not stick around because of the a union guy who was checking on the session, ,so Dizzy played piano. and there are no sessions like the ones she suggests.

Edited by AllenLowe

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Sad that the letter writers totally overlooked the sad, harrowing story of Albany's daughter.

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As Allen notes, somewhat overlooked in all those exchanges are A.J.'s gifts as a writer, which are considerable.

One of the more memorable literary events I attended in LA featured Albany. She read from a pack of handwritten manuscript pages that otherwise were folded and stuffed into her back-pocket. I believe this was an early draft of a work-in-progress, something of a sequel to LOW DOWN. I wonder what the status of that project is...

Edited by Joe

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it is really an amazing book, beautifully and brilliantly written, alternately sad and hilarious - as I told AJ at one point, Joe comes off as combination Ward Cleaver/degenerate junkie, likely an accurate picture. By the time I knew Joe he was off the stuff (though he always had the best pot in NYC), but still a troubled and difficult guy at times. He was generally nice to me, though he did get a bit paranoid toward the end. I think now that he was a classic manic depressive and/or bipolar type who self medicated through the years (not uncommon in those pre-diagnosis days). He could play a brilliant passage and than get suddenly lost, a problem which was related, I always figured, to things like the horse tranquilizer he told me he took with some regularity back in the '50s. But he was a funny, clever, engaging guy who told great stories and was able to laugh at himself (as the "I licked Bird's blood" story indicates).

Edited by AllenLowe

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Many years ago there was an interview with Hakim in Coda in which he talks about the Koko session.

I used to run into AJ when she worked at Dutton's Books in North Hollywood. I was once buying a book of jazz photographs and she said there was a picture of her dad in it. After she she told me it was Joe Albany I said "You mean 'The Legendary Joe Albany'". I'd seen him called that so often (and there was a record with that title ) I'd started to think it was his full name. IIRC Later I she worked in a nearby coffee house.

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Wow, this sounds like quite a book!

Thanks for the link to the interview, just read half of it (but being at work I'll just print it now... I got hooked!)

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great (though at times depressing) book (actually what kept my spirits up most of the time was that she aparently survived to write it, and even laugh about it, see the beauty in it... in a novel i doubt that would have happened...)! can be had for little money...

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